Writing Portfolio


The Grand Canyon

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), explorer, soldier, hunter-turned-conservationist and 26th President of the United States of America, went to see the Grand Canyon. This is what he had to say:

“The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison – beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world ... Let this great wonder of nature remain as it is now. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity or loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

Kept it has been, and 110 years later many of the United States, from Illinois to New Jersey to New Mexico to Oregon to Alabama, were represented by the car registration-plates Allison and I spotted in car park number three at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

From there, we and a rather large cross-section of modern-day America (there are five million annual visitors) wandered out to Mather Point to behold one of the true wonders of the natural world, a place that at first sight is too mind-boggling, too vast, too damned big to sum up in mere words.

Now, ‘awesome’ is a word I seldom use as I feel it is a rather cheapened word, but on first sight of the Grand Canyon I, like the late former President Roosevelt, was filled with awe. And I was not the only person standing, jaw agape, at the immense sight before my eyes.

For a minute or two, it seemed so unreal, as if the opposite plateau was so far away as to be other worldly; after I blinked a couple of times, it looked so close I could almost touch it. The Grand Canyon is a place that, by its very size, can play tricks on your sense of perspective.

Or, as someone within earshot of me said: “Oh my God, holy crap”. It is impressive to the point of being beyond description.

I have seen some amazing natural wonders of this planet in my 34 years – the view from the top of Snowdon on a clear day, the sweeping vista of the Maasai Mara, the Canadian Shield along the north shore of Lake Superior, the sunset over Santorini, the waterfalls that go by the names of Blue Nile, Victoria and Niagara. The Grand Canyon is up there with the best of them.

Down on one of the ridges that sank into the bowels of the canyon (where, at some point mostly unseen from our eyrie, the Colorado River winds its course), I saw what looked like a group of people following one of the Canyon’s many trails. But I couldn’t be completely sure that this was a party of hikers, as they were so dwarfed by the surrounding scenery as to be almost imperceptible.

At a closer angle, I got a touch of vertigo just by looking down from the safety of being behind a barrier.

To get away from the numbers, Allison and I drove out along the Desert View Drive, parked the rental car and walked the mile-long trail to Shoshone Point. Walking this, we got out of breath just by talking and could not work out why until we realised that we were at an altitude of just over 7,000 feet.

Shoshone Point has picnic tables but no barriers. Bereft of its onlookers, the Canyon still seemed unreal.

We got chatting to a passing warden who told us that the North Rim was a mere 15 miles away but could only be reached by a 200-mile drive. He also said that photography was futile; “No photograph can do this place justice. You can take a thousand photographs and it just won’t be as good as being here.”

Looking at photos I took, I can tell you that he’s right. So not only am I unable to adequately describe the Grand Canyon, but the pictures I provide cannot convey the sheer magnitude and impressiveness – oh, to hell with it, the awesomeness – of it.

Truly, the only way to appreciate the marvel of nature that is the Grand Canyon is to go and see it for yourself.


At the rodeo

A sign outside the Buffalo Chip bar in Cave Creek, Arizona says that anyone under the age of 21 must be accompanied by an adult, and that no weapons can be taken inside. Although firearm ownership is very much a fact of life in these parts, everyone accepts that guns and alcohol do not mix. I spotted a couple of guys at the bar wearing empty holsters on their belts, but for the most part evidence of this had been left in the car, or at home.

The many people at the Buffalo Chip were not just here for the beer, although it must be said that the beer is very good, Arizona being the home of several decent breweries (the beers of the Four Peaks Brewery are on tap in this particular establishment). Out back is not a beer garden but a rodeo ring, and two nights a week it’s rodeo night at the Buffalo Chip. On Wednesdays it’s amateur night, when anyone can have a go, and on Fridays it’s the turn of the professionals.

After dusk on rodeo night, the crowds gathered on the stands surrounding the ring. There were several hundred people – friends meeting up for the evening, families on a night out, folks up from Phoenix for the show. Appropriately enough, many of them sported cowboy hats. By way of a warm-up, a combination of rock and country music played over the PA.

As a man dressed as a cowboy but carrying nothing more lethal than a microphone entered the ring, silence descended. This man was our host, and after welcoming everyone and reading out ‘a message from our sponsor’ (the town dentist), he handed the microphone to a man in cowboy boots, jeans, plaid shirt and Stetson who turned out to be the minister of a local church. He led the audience in a prayer for the well-being of the participants of this evening’s entertainment. This was followed by a man on horseback parading around the ring carrying the US flag while The Star Spangled Banner was played over the PA. For both of these, the audience stood, hats off and hands over hearts. This foreigner was left in no doubt that God and the flag are taken very seriously in these parts.

 Formalities observed, the rodeo could begin.
This rodeo works like you might imagine any rodeo would. A bull is brought into a cage adjoining the ring, where a rider – dressed as a cowboy but clad in a helmet that looks like the sort worn by a baseball back catcher – is lowered onto its back. Some of the riders are local, while others – and this is particularly true of the professionals – are from neighbouring states. When the rider is ready, the cage is opened up, releasing bull and rider into the ring.
The rider must only hold on with one hand while trying to stay on top of the bull, which kicks and bucks in an effort to dislodge its passenger. According to the host, lasting eight seconds before hitting the dust (quite literally) is regarded as very good indeed. Most riders, especially on amateur night, don’t even last for one. The best of the pros, a man called Troy who apparently comes from California, managed ten seconds and was given a standing ovation.

Also in the ring are two men in colourful garb who are nicknamed ‘cowboy clowns’, although they’re anything but clowns. Their job is to help the rider to safety once he’s fallen off, and herd the bull to the exit gate. Sometimes this takes a while longer than the rider has managed to stay on. It’s at this point that the bull, flush from having divested himself of his unwanted human cargo, tosses his head and paws the ground in a manner that can only be described as menacing. I did not envy the clowns’ job.

As a spectacle, it’s exhilarating stuff, a portrayal of man’s struggle to master nature. This struggle was very much a part of the story of how the West was won, so on another level the rodeo is perhaps a lesson in the history of this region, a reminder of the days when cowboys roamed the ranches herding cattle along the trails. The last part of the continental USA to become a state, Arizona in the late nineteenth century was frontier country, full of settlers, miners, gunslingers and cattle-rustlers. As well as fine entertainment, going to the rodeo provided me with a glimpse, however fleeting, of the Old West – something that is as much a part of the heritage of rodeo-goers as showing respect for the Stars and Stripes. For a second or so, I could have been forgiven for thinking that John Wayne was at the gate, sheriff’s badge on his chest, making sure everyone handed over their guns before walking in.

This reverie, which may or may not have been aided by a few pints of Four Peaks Kilt Lifter beer and a tequila shot purchased from a roving cowgirl-waitress, came to an abrupt halt when the host announced that it was time for the ‘sheep riding’. Had I heard correctly? I had. This was a sort of junior rodeo, with the bulls getting replaced by sheep and the riders being about seven and not looking all that keen on what was about to happen. The sheep had a different idea from the bulls as far as dislodging their riders was concerned – they just ran straight at the fence, and the force of ramming into it was sufficient. The kid who cried the most got a medal for being the best young rider.

Since witnessing the sheep riding last week, I have described it to several people who at first did not believe me. I told them to head on down to Cave Creek to see it for themselves!


Hockey night on Route 66

Our travels have taken us to Arizona, where the sky is blue, the sun is hot and my forearms have turned an interesting shade of pink.

On our way to the Grand Canyon on Sunday afternoon, we stopped off at Williams, a small town off the Interstate 40. We were looking for somewhere to have a bite to eat and watch the hockey game.

Let me explain. I am a late convert to what I still refer to as ice hockey, and being married to a Toronto girl makes me a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Leafs are a big team (Toronto is as hockey-mad a city as anywhere in Canada) but they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. Being a fan of a football team that has never won a major trophy, I sympathise.

Anyway, as this was the first time in nine years that they’d made the play-offs, Allison wanted to watch a game if we possibly could. Sunday was the day of game six (of seven) in the Leafs’ semi-final clash with the Boston Bruins.

Our destination that day was a place called Tusayan, which is not to be confused with Tucson and is located just south of the Grand Canyon National Park. Knowing that by the time we got to Tusayan the game would be over, we decided to stop at Williams to see if we could find a sports bar.

What we found when we turned off the Interstate was a piece of history – a relic of motoring in a bygone age. By coming off the I-40, we’d turned onto Route 66.

Built in the 1920s, Route 66 ran through eight states, linking Chicago with Los Angeles via a series of small towns and country byways. It became notorious during the Great Depression, when economic migrants used it to head west (it was during this time that John Steinbeck came up with the nickname ‘The Mother Road’). A couple of decades later, Route 66 became synonymous with the freedom of the open road, and many motels and diners with neon signs sprang up on its length as people came to the Mother Road to get their kicks.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The coming of the Interstate highway system – the motorway to us Brits – bypassed the towns. Route 66 passed into legend as it was replaced by the I-40 (although there are stretches in western Arizona where the Interstate passes to the south of the old road, meaning that some parts of Route 66 are still intact). In 1984, Williams was the last of the Mother Road towns to be bypassed.

Williams still has several motels with neon signs, and these days its economy centres on tourists looking for a piece of Route 66, usually while on their way to see the Grand Canyon. There are gift shops advertising that you can ‘get your gifts on 66’, diners that look like they used to be gas stations, a shop advertising that it has the world’s largest metal Route 66 sign and even a waxwork model of Elvis. There is also a microbrewery. Lots of these have sprung up in Arizona in recent years, their presence and evident success giving the lie to the stereotype that American beer begins and ends with Coors and Bud Light. As well as a Route 66 fridge magnet, I bought a six-pack of the Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s Sunset Amber Ale and was ID’d for the first time in 15 years.
All we really wanted, though, was a bar where we could watch the hockey while getting something to eat. We succeeded on both counts with the superb World Famous Sultana Bar.
Located on Route 66 itself (the Mother Road being the main street of the towns it passed through), this is the oldest bar in town, and it remained open as a speakeasy during Prohibition. “Today you can guzzle your brew legally, play pool, meet colorful locals and keep an eye on the stuffed mountain lion,” proclaimed our guidebook.

As we walked past, a woman who turned out to be the barmaid was having a cigarette outside. She greeted us with a friendly “Hi, come on in” (all the bar staff in this country are friendly, as indeed is every representative of the service industry we’ve encountered so far) and when asked if there was a TV showing the hockey, her response was: “I’ll put it on anything you like.”

As we walked in, I noticed a ‘no firearms’ sign. We took our seats at the bar and ordered drinks. A sign behind the bar proclaimed that minors could only come into the bar if accompanied by a ‘parent, guardian or spouse’ – a reminder that the legal drinking age here is 21. As well as the stuffed mountain lion, they had a stuffed bear and an elk’s head over the door. What with these and the wood panelling, the oldest bar in town had a well-worn, old-fashioned air to it.

As it happened, the TV was already showing the NBC feed for the CBC coverage of the Leafs-Bruins game (we could tell it was the CBC coverage because they showed the Hockey Night in Canada logo). We settled down for some hockey action and said hello to some of the locals, who included a man with a blue beard and an old couple who’d just been to a Beach Boys concert in nearby Flagstaff.

The World Famous Sultana Bar is located next to a restaurant called the Singing Pig, and when we asked for food the proprietor of both the bar and the restaurant came over and introduced herself as Kathi. When asked what she would recommend, she unhesitatingly chose the pulled pork fries with a side of chilli sauce. Kevin, she informed us, cooks the pork for 14 hours. Kevin, it turned out, is her husband as well as the cook. He was the man with the blue beard we’d seen earlier.
Well, what can I say? The food was great, and the Leafs won. We couldn’t have asked for more of our visit to Route 66.

Before we left Williams, though, Kathi had some final advice and it was to Allison, who would be the navigator for the drive up to Tusayan, which it turned out I had been mispronouncing: “You’re the lookout. There’s elk on the road at dusk. Elk can do a similar amount of damage to a car as moose, which is to say a lot. Luckily, we did not encounter any!

The following evening, we found ourselves in Flagstaff, another old Route 66 town, and watched game seven in a bar called Brews & Cues. There, I got to try meatloaf for the first time while sampling some of the next-door Beaver Street Brewery’s beer, and the Leafs somehow managed to lose after being 4-1 up at one stage. Let’s just say that the food and the drink were better than the game.