RIVER DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH
I’m driving out of Las Vegas in a white-hot Elise S2 in blistering 110° sunshine, and the radio’s playing homegrown band The Killers’When You Were Young–“we’re burning down that highway skyline…!” Nothing wrong with a good cliché, and that’s what the Mohave mecca is about: gambling and entertainment and home to every fantasy you ever had. Just as you pictured it, only bigger and more in your face: Viva Las Vegas, Swingers and Ocean’s 11, Elvis, Sinatra, Britney; you want it, you got it! The architectural icons crowd in - Luxor’s Pyramid,New York-New York’s Manhattan skyline, Excalibur’s Camelot, the Bellagio’s fountains and Romanesque Caesar’s Palace, muscling for attention along the palm-lined Strip. Night and day, herds of small-time gamblers,hen-nighters, showboaters and newlyweds drift from one attraction to another in search of the new high. Celine Dion is playing Caesar’s, with Elton next in: we are hedonists in bed with Mammon for the week.
I’ve picked up the Lotus from the Vegas main dealer,Norm Baker. An Esprit V8 vies with Cobra and GT 40 replicas in his showroom, while all manner of American muscle cars stand head to head with Porsches and Lotuses on the suburban forecourt. With photographer Jason and editor Caroline in pursuit in their Laredo, I head out of Vegas on US Interstate 93. Wherever we stop there is a buzz around the Elise:‘that’s a real pretty car you got there. A Loadus? From England? What’ll it do?’ Incredulity is matched with respect and, inevitably, people want to know not just how fast it’ll go, but how fast I’ve actually been in it. The answer never disappoints.
The anticipated four hour run to our Grand Canyon destination takes a hit when we arrive at the Hoover Dam, the man-made wonder 30-miles south east of Vegas. Security issues (post 9/11) mean every vehicle is scrutinised at a roadblock before driving the 400-yards that spans the rim, so there’s a long tailback. Although the water level’s depleted, Lake Mead is still a vast body of water, stretching 110-erratic miles behind the dam, and massive speedboats abound.The Colorado River that emerges at the base of the Dam is minuscule by comparison, but another 50-miles and it will be further dwarfed to insignificance by the enormity of the Grand Canyon. Now, terracotta cliffs meet grey concrete,and vertigo sufferers had best avoid glancing over the edge. The gigantic bowl of the Hoover (aka Boulder) Dam and its Art Deco hydroelectric buildings is 720ft high, a monument to the navvies who built it (114 died) between 1931 and 1934.Imagine dangling on a rope, inserting dynamite into the rock, and timing it right to swing clear and avoid the explosion! Still, they only poured concrete a few inches at a time, so no one got buried alive.Allegedly there is sufficient material (4.36 million cubic yards) to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York, and it is still curing even now.
Signs in the Lake Mead recreational area warn of rampant deer, the 65mph speed limit, and that littering the roadside will cost you $500. As before it’s straight-as-an-arrow dual-carriageway across rocky desert, with cacti and sagebrush and far-distant mountains.On the radio America play ‘Horse With No Name’ – “in the desert you can’t remember your name…” How apt. There are occasional truckstops, ranches, shanties, scrapyards, some by the roadside and some deep in the desert.Here is yet another iteration of rocky outcrop - the flattop chubby fingers.The sky grows ominously dark.Visibility plummets, and the anticipation of the oncoming meteorological phenomenon carries a frisson.It’s a sandstorm.Grains rattle on the windscreen, and the lightweight car rocks with the turbulence.The dust clears after a few minutes, but forked lightning splits the livid purple sky ahead, silhouetting the hills, and we enter a sudden squall. Best drop to the proscribed maximum to preclude aquaplaning.By coincidence there’s a crossroad sign saying Big Wash Road.
The sun is shining again and, as the speed signs reduce in quick succession to 35mph, we arrive at Kingman and make a left onto White Cliff Road - the I-40 - towards Flagstaff and Phoenix. There’s still 166 miles to the Grand Canyon.TheElise judders on the rutted concrete.Someone’s been taking good care of the golf course though - verdant emerald in an arid waste.The recent rain’s taken the parched edge offthe prairie, though that’s khaki rather than green.There’s a new development of timber-frame and MDF bungalows and low-rise supermarkets, an unappealing prospect in an inhospitable environment.
Is the Elise a fun car in this landscape?You bet!It may not be tasked to deliver of its best,but a Lotus is a Lotus, and hang the comfort, you’d rather be in this gem than a soul-less MPV.There’s always its fluent handling to appreciate,though all we’re really doing is changing lanes.Whenever I hit a crap road surface with lots of joins in the blacktop there is a pronounced bonk, but I can live with that.Welcome as it is, the air-con saps the power, so even revving to 6,000rpm it’s not giving brilliant acceleration up a longhill.But the car is progressively loosening up now we’re cruising closer to the ton.Some welcome curves come up through a gorge; boulders heaped like potatoes, and “Mind the Elk” signs at the edge.The oncoming carriageway is perhaps a mile away to my left, and I’m hardly aware of it. Arizona is more verdant than Nevada, though the comparison is relative.Scattered trees become a virtual forest, though they’re stunted by heat.A plain stretches ahead to the mountains. Signs say 99-miles to Flagstaff, and I peel off for gas. Abruptly the I-40 becomes the old Route 66, and the action comes alive with small settlements that haven’t changed since the halcyon 1950s.Mostly single-storey timber clad shops garages diners and motels that saw better days between the ’30s and ’50s, though hardly prosperous. Average vehicle age and quality drops a couple of notches out here, too. I dimly recollect Monte Hellmann’s “Two Lane Blacktop” celluloid paean to this legendary highway. The equally symbolic Santa Fé Railroad is just behind Seligman’s main street, long freight trains running frequently by. We buy some munchies at the general store and get a coffee at the Roadkill café. The products are modern but they’re displayed in time-honoured fashion stacked on old shelving and hanging from beams. Next door there is the jailhouse, gun shop, and livery stables. At the gas station - pay before you fill - the proprietor tells us that they buried most of Route 66 under Interstate-40. Arizona, he reckons, has more stretches left of the original road than any other state.Travelling them entails detours, so for now we decide we’ll stick with the more direct I -40, and make as much of the return run as we can on 66.
Fifty miles of winding dual carriageway from the canyon, and vegetation has changed to dense pine forest. A sign proclaims “Altitude 1 mile above sea level”. As dusk falls we turn off the I-40 onto the US-64 at Williams, the real thing, unswerving two-lane blacktop in a vast wilderness dotted with blob trees.“On a dark desert highway,” sing the Eagles,“cool wind in my hair.” The only cool wind I can perceive is coming from the air-con, as outside it’s still asearing 96°. Still, live the dream, eh!
I’m cruising at a steady 80, but a sixth sense tells me to slow as a pair of headlights is catching up in the mirror. I drop to the mandatory 45 passing through a settlement, and spot the red, white and blue lights atop the SUV that’s now close behind. Now I’m in for a citation for sure. But praise be, come the derestriction sign, the County Sheriff is past and on his way at well over the limit.
Tall conifers and scrub oaks read the approach to the Canyon and signs proclaim entry to the Kalibab National Forest. Suddenly we’ve reached our Tusayan stopover and we pull into the Holiday Inn. A bunch of quasi-ethnic restaurants beckon, and we opt for the busy log-cabin-style yippee-aye-yay steakhouse.Surlysombrero’d Mexicans serve up Coronas and Margaritas and, as a dare, Jason and I choose rattlesnake for starters. The batter’s nice, but it’s more texture than taste, and the gigantic slabs of beef that follow are an improvement. “Eat an 85oz steak in an hour and get dinner for free,” challenges the menu. I’ll take the quarter pounder and pay as normal, thanks.
Next morning we pass the Tusayan Ranger Station, and two wooden sheds with columns the size of telegraph poles form the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park. Each car pays a $25 toll to go along essentially the same road as they arrive on, two-lane asphalt with robust vegetation, aloe, agave and prickly pear abound.In some places the road surfaces are warped due to climate change. It’s only 7.30am, but already busy with sightseers.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale and spectacle of the Canyon: the red orange and grey blue strata, innumerable erratic zigzags, buttes and pinnacles, close by and as far as the eye can see; it’s vast, majestic, unfathomable, making us tourists perching on the perimeter seem utterly insignificant.However long you gaze in bewilderment, there’s too much to take in. Perhaps as an antidote, almost as many people take pictures of the Lotus and of themselves standing by it as they do all the natural wonder they’ve turned their back on.
I’m on the South Rim, around 1,000 feet lower than the northern one because of the tilt of the plateau, but still a mile above the Colorado River that’s been mainly responsible for the erosion over the last 5-million years, snaking way below and mostly out of sight. It’s along here, ironically, in view of the major geographical distraction over to the left, that I have the most fun with the Elise. The trail follows the rocky defiles, sweeping up and down, and it’s good asphalt. I drop a call and boot it, instantly whizzing down into a sharpish left-hander that winds back into an uphill right. The Yokos stick like glue, and without lifting off I place the car exactly where it needs to go for maximum thrill. There are a few of these entertaining rollercoasters, but I can’t behave like this for very long: too many rangers about.
There are several designated viewing places attended by small car parks, and a handful of villages. Angel Lodge is a wild-west CenterParc, with log cabins, railhead and mule farm for intrepid souls who want to take the Bright Angel Trail. We pause at Moran Point and Grand View, where Canyon tourism started in the late 19th century with pioneers making the 11-hour stagecoach ride up from Flagstaff. That, and the Last Chance mine, was quickly seen off by the railroad that opened up the Pacific coast. Centrepiece is a crudely built watchtower close to the general store and trading post with souvenirs and the ubiquitous rest rooms. Having covered 25 of the Canyon’s 270-mile length, there’s nothing but the welcome sign facing oncoming traffic to tell us we’ve emerged from the park. We aim for Cameron on the US-89, which will take us south to Flagstaff. We are in the Navaho Indian reservation, and Lotus and Jeep stop at a roadside stall to look at their craftwork, trinkets and irresistible jewellery.
It’s high, limestone country dottedwith blob trees. I scan a vast plain stretching out to my left. It looks deceptively flat but it’s bisected by an abrupt chasm– the Little Colorado River gorge. Passing straggling Indian settlements, tin shacks and ad-hoc trailer parks, there is blue sky and cotton-wool clouds, but rain sheets are draped over the mountains– right where we’re headed. Soon enough we’re in the cloudburst, rain cascading off the shale in rivulets. A pair of dishevelled Harley riders have no option but to pitch into the downpour. Electra Glide in Blue? Forget it! These guys are drowned rats. Pretty soon it’s sunny again, and I’m among pines in Cocanino National Forest and the San Francisco peaks, and driving fast dual carriageway, singing my head off to The Proclaimers’“1,000 Miles” that’s on the radio as I enter Flagstaff, Arizona.
I’m motoring west on Route 66, “the highway that’s the best,” as the song goes. The motels, drive-ins, car and bike dealerships on the outskirts of Flagstaff are redolent of how it was 40, 50 years ago, although the road must be twice the width it was back then. It wasn’t fully paved along its entire length until 1938, but from inauguration in 1926 to 1985 when it was decommissioned, the configuration was frequently altered according to local traffic priorities, bypassing more and more towns. Traversing 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, the 66 provided migrating settlers with a route west to California during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, and since much of it was over flat terrain it became popular with trucks. Read Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ to catch the flavour of the blacktop dream on the Mother Road in The Depression. Family-run businesses sprang up along the Route, and the 66 quickly became a sinuous microcosm of American society and, eventually, a national emblem. The downturn came in 1956 with the inauguration of the Interstate Highway act, pushed through by President Eisenhower who was keen to replicate the German Autobahn system he’d seen in action during World War II. Despite the 66’s demise, by 1990,Route associations were springing up to preserve and promote surviving sections, such as those on which the Elise and I are now getting our kicks.
Just out of Flagstaff the 66 becomes the duelled Interstate-40, flanked by smart modern housing estates set among mature conifers. Brief snatches of 66 recur, at Bellemont, almost a ghost town and, at 7,000ft, allegedly the highest altitude on the 66– the Pine Breeze Inn was a location in Easy Rider. Soon enough, we turn off to Crooktown (where the bandits lived?) to follow the longest stretch of the 66, a down-to-earth two-laner, uphill-and-down-dale, as-the-crow-flies across fenced moorland with mountains in the distance. Homespun homilies sponsored by Burmah Shave sprout periodically from the verge: “it would be more fun to go by air, if we could put these signs up there,” split into four or five separate hoardings. Or, how about:“the one who drives when he’s been drinking depends on you to do his thinking.” Other, more official commemorative plaques proclaim, “This stretch of highway is sponsored by the family of Cyrus B. Hornblower,” or whoever. At Ash Fork, the DeSoto Beauty-and-Barber shop is unmissable, mainly due to the DeSoto car parked on the roof.Kerbside at the Rusty Bolt café in Seligman there is an immaculate Edsel, and amongst the banners and bunting there are plenty of motels too.
At 65mph, the rate of progress is good enough on patched surfaces. If time is not of the essence it’s more relaxed than the Interstate, and you can revel in the detail; little ranches out of the Waltons, cattle grazing on sparse pasture, roadside flowers, rock formations, the omnipresent Santa Férailroad. Between Seligman and Peach Springs there’s a broad plain, and the highway goes and does the direct-to-the-horizon on me, calling for a rethink of the velocity. Now I’m on a mission. For a moment out there in the desert I am Raoul Duke in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, Dean Moriarty in ‘On the Road’ – maybe not ‘Thelma and Louise’, but definitely Jimmy Kowalski in ‘Vanishing Point’. I switch off the air-con and go for it, scanning any side roads for blundering trucks. I’m running at 120 with a bit more to go, and still the Route disappears unwavering into perspective. Eventually small-townPeach Springs approaches and I lift off.
The Grand Canyon is still visible over to the right, and the only access to the valley floor is from here, 19 miles down Diamond Creek Road. It’s also the site of the Skywalk glass-bottomed viewing platform that juts 65ftout into thin air, 4,000 vertiginous feet above the Canyon.
At Truxton, another comfort stop, a refill in a scenario from the ’60s, stores and garage plucked from the haze of the childhood memory bank. The Elise gets through four tanks-full on this tour. Each one costs around $25 for 91-octane– the highest unleaded rating you can get. The mileometer read 2,376 miles when I picked it up, and it’ll be 800 more when I drop it off.
For a mile or so I pass through another rain shower at abated speed. There is more majestic mountain scenery between Truxton and Hackberry - where the gas station and general store brims with mementos - giving way to prairie plants, such as those Joshua Tree yuccas that look like crazy people frozen in time. After Kingman I’m back on the Interstate, though the only tangible difference with the 66 is that it’s dualled. As the sun goes down, the hills seem to slump and take on a deeper colour, contours revealed in sharper focus by the shadows. The Eliserolls into a lonely truck-stop. The big rigs outside the diner, Kenworth, Freightliner and Peterbilt semi-trucks, all have conventional bonnets; I don’t see a single cab-over model except an International in a junkyard. No escaping the icons, though. I play Little Feat’s trucking anthem ‘Willin…’ on the jukebox: “…driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made, driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed…” It requires a different mind-set, a stoicism, and not a few stimulants according to the song, to do these kinds of distances. A trip that’s four or five hours in Europe can easily be double that in the States, such are the distances. the run from Hoover Dam to Vegas on the I-93 is wearisome because of the high set beams of following SUV is in the Elise’s mirrors, but it’s swiftly done with. As I crest a rise above the city, the plain below is an electric carpet of shimmering light. I wouldn’t mind betting we’ll get some interest on the Strip tonight, me and the Elise.