A Travellerspoint blog

LA Is My Lady

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...or so said Frank Sinatra. If that is true, his girlfriend was fat, smelly and weird.

The last time I visited Los Angeles in 2003 I concluded that it was over-rated - too big, too celebrity-obsessed, too polluted and full of nutters. I wasn't expecting things to be different this time, and so it proved - but I'm going to describe what happened anyway.

Minus the car now in San Diego, I had to get the Greyhound to LA. Not that I minded too much as this at least meant I didn't have to glance at Google Maps every five minutes to check I hadn't gone wrong, and I could still listen to my Richard Herring podcasts.

This time, my hostel dorm was an 8-bed all-male affair with some interesting characters - a Swiss bloke who thought he was too cool for school, a Russian angry that his new iPhone wasn't working, a lazy Aussie who spent more time in his bed than out of it, an American who tried to sell me a hat, an English bloke who thought it acceptable behaviour to answer his phone at 5.30 in the morning and an oddball of unknown origin who talked to himself.

The hostel itself was a couple of minutes' walk from Hollywood Boulevard (the one with all the stars on it) on one side and Sunset Boulevard on the other. Pedestrians on Hollywood Boulevard fall into one of three categories: beggars, out of work actors dressed up as cartoon characters and tourists not looking where they are going. I try not to be drawn into anything to do with 'celebrities' but I quickly found myself joining category 3 by walking along gazing at the floor wondering who the next star belonged to.

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The hostel put on a free bus to Santa Monica, famous for its sandy beach and the people-watching (i.e. weirdo-watching) at nearby Venice Beach. I get bored of beaches very quickly and I don't like sand, but I made an effort here and took my shoes & socks off and had a paddle for a few seconds. This did mean that my feet got covered in sand but at least I could say I'd been in the sea. I was later kept amused in a restaurant by a woman's bag that periodically shook and made growling noises.

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Due to the atrocious traffic it took over two hours on the bus to get back, most of which I spent sat next to a smelly gentleman who was only wearing one shoe.

That night I popped out to a nearby English pub for a quick pint. I noticed they were doing a quiz so I entered - and came comfortably last due to my lack of knowledge of American toys, breakfast cereals and television (amongst other things). However I did win the bonus round, guessing nearest to the number of stars on Hollywood Boulevard (there are 2,534 after Matthew McConaughey got his earlier in the day). This won me a pitcher of beer, so one pint became five.

I escaped the madness for a while by walking up the Hollywood Hills in Runyon Canyon Park. This gave great views of the city, although you could see a distinct band of smog covering it. Later that night a barman complimented me on my T-shirt, and then firmed up his position by stating "anyone that doesn't like your shirt is an asshole".

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For some reason, Americans seem confused about my accent. I have often been accused of being Australian, one girl in San Diego even saying she thought I sounded like Crocodile Dundee. A girl working in a Mexican fast food joint here thought I spoke Spanish due to the "perfect accent" (her words) I deployed whilst ordering my taco. Outside the place, the crowds were gathering as the nearby premiere of the much-anticipated (by no-one) sequel to Horrible Bosses - "Horrible Bosses 2" - was about to take place. I went back to the hostel.

The next day I was very pleased with myself as I managed to accomplish two tasks I detest - buying shoes and getting my hair cut. Nothing interesting there you might think, and you'd be right.

However, the chap who cut my hair was quite a character. As I walked in I noticed he'd clearly had far too much plastic surgery - you could even see the stitch marks under his jawline. His name is Steve Erhardt and he brands himself "a beauty consultant for the elite rich and ultra famous", and it turns out he used to do the hair of Michael Jackson ("when he looked good") amongst others. He claimed to hold the world record for the most cosmetic surgeries (over 50 separate operations!) and has featured on several TV programmes including Richard & Judy and a Louis Theroux documentary. Louis Theroux was "obnoxious" apparently so Steve didn't like him. I hope they didn't stitch him up.

He also claimed that his eyebrow trims had changed people's lives so I let him loose on mine. I will let you know if I experience any life-changing eyebrow-related events.

After 4 days I'd had enough of LA and was looking forward to moving on. Fortunately for me, I was moving on - and into Mexico. I had been in the US for 88 of my allotted 90 days and enjoyed it immensely. It may have cost me a fortune but it was well worth it - it really is a beautiful country, under-rated as a holiday destination in my view. Admittedly it is hard to find a healthy meal, you have to add tax to prices and tip heavily, their television consists more of adverts than actual television programmes, most of them thought I was Australian and they are a bit on the fat side, but almost without exception everyone I met was friendly, polite and happy to chat whenever I felt like it - and when I didn't.

The time between setting off for my bus to the airport and getting into bed the next morning would prove to be by some distance the lowest point of the trip so far. I'm sure there must have been a good reason why I'd booked a flight at 00.30am but it escapes me currently. The journey fell into 6 distinct phases:

1) Walk to bus stop
Someone had sneaked a couple of breeze blocks into my backpack.
2) Bus to airport
Another passenger had said he was late so the driver took this as a challenge to get there as fast as humanly possible. He suddenly thought he was Lewis Hamilton driving the bus from Speed that wasn't allowed to go under 70mph. I was so anxious I couldn't concentrate on my podcast.
3) Flight to Mexico City
No legroom whatsoever - I could hardly get my feet under the seat in front of me and my knees rested against the hard edge of the seat pocket.
4) Mexico City airport
By this time it was 6am. After disembarking the plane and learning to stand upright again, I approached the queue at immigration to find around 200 other people there in front of me. It took over an hour to get through. I was now so exhausted that I went through customs and out the airport before realising I had forgotten to collect my backpack. So I had to go through a load more faffing about to get back in and out again.
5) Taxi to hostel
The hostel blurb said it would be about 150 pesos, the driver wanted 300, I haggled down to 250. He didn't know where the hostel was and I couldn't get a phone signal to bring up a map. I had to get out the car while they filled up with petrol so thought he was going to drive off with my bags.
6) The hostel
It seemed to be in a run-down area but all I cared about was getting to bed. It was 8am - I checked in, carried my stuff up 3 flights of stairs and clambered into the top bunk of a small dorm. The hostel bloke had forgotten to give me any bedding but I was past caring. I managed around 2 hours' sleep before the others woke me up. One of my room-mates spilt Coke all over the floor and buggered off without wiping it up.

Add into all this that I had a cold so was feeling awful anyway. So, an inauspicious beginning to my Mexican adventure but at least things can only improve.

Well, I've had a bit of a grumble so hopefully this satisfies those of you that have been clamouring for an upturn in the amount of whingeing. Buenas noches!

Posted by LordGibil 07:18 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Phoenix Nights

Phoenix, San Diego


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I really didn't do much this week so hopefully for all concerned this will be a short post. Phoenix and San Diego weren't expected to be highlights on this trip but they were both interesting in their own way.

The Wikipedia paragraph:
Whereas Flagstaff 140 miles to the north is the 5th snowiest city in the US, Phoenix is an altogether different beast - 330 days of sunshine a year, temperature over 100 °F a hundred days a year and only 7 inches of rain. In other words, it's hot hot hot. It's also the 6th biggest city in the US in terms of population.

However, it doesn't have a busy city centre. I was in the 'downtown' area on Monday lunchtime and there was hardly anyone around, just a handful of office workers fetching their lunch and some college students lazing around. It is a very spread out city but there just isn't that much going on, in the centre at least - including a distinct lack of shops.

The Arizona Diamondbacks' baseball stadium is not far from the centre, but I was more interested in a 'kinetic ball' display outside the stadium. I'm easily amused at times and this was no exception as I stood there for nearly half an hour mesmerised by dozens of balls flying around inside the contraption.

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I'm not normally a fan of zoos as the animals always look fed up but I'd heard Phoenix's wasn't too bad on that front so went to see for myself. Three hours later I emerged ready for a lie down after listening to the constant squawking of excitable children and eating the biggest bag of popcorn known to man. I'd seen some interesting animals, including a mum & baby orang-utan frolicking on the grass while the dad showed off on his climbing frame. Most the animals seemed happy enough in their reasonably-sized enclosures but the reptiles, as usual, had a bad deal as they lay curled up looking miserable in cages far too small for them.

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After Phoenix I had one night in Yuma, right next to the Mexican border. Border control guards are commonplace in this area and I had to go through a couple of checkpoints. Yuma is even hotter and drier than Phoenix, and in fact is the sunniest place in the world. It is in the Sonoran Desert and I couldn't resist stopping off on the way and going looking for rattlesnakes. No snakes but plenty of cactuses.

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Once in San Diego it was finally time to give up the car. Over the previous 44 days it had been a faithful servant and not let me down once. In return I plastered it with dead insects and damaged it 3 times in car parks with ridiculous kerbs low enough that you can't see them but high enough that they scrape the bumper. In total I did just over 3000 miles and got stopped by the police once, here in San Diego when I apparently drove over a pedestrian crossing that wasn't marked. Never my fault of course. Anyway, he let me off when I pretended to be a dozy English person.

I was staying in the Gaslamp Quarter, the centre of the city's nightlife. As busy as it was in the evening, it was quiet during the day. Similar to downtown San Francisco, Gaslamp was lined with restaurants & shops, the difference being there were actually some bars to go to and there were a lot fewer people, and for these reasons alone I preferred it to San Fran. The hostel was a bit lively too and, as usual, there was not enough space in the dorm. A feat of gymnastic ability more suited to a contortionist was required to weave between various obstacles and get into bed.

Just outside the Gaslamp Quarter:
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I had a heavy night the first night as I embarked on what turned out to be a pub crawl with a Belgian lad called Kristiaan. Most of the bars feature some form of entertainment - either a band, scantily-clad dancing girls or in one case a bucking bronco. In the morning (and afternoon) I dwelled on how much stronger American IPAs were than their English counterparts.

A skinny girl with one tattooed arm and two enormous breasts asked me to dance in one place, but as I was taking my jacket off her mate steamed in and beat me to it. There was no-one else dancing and a bar full of people watching so I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I did laugh later on as this girl threw a napkin up in the air for some reason and it landed squarely on the head of someone a couple of tables down.

As well as drinking beer and looking at girls I managed a game of football with some of the guys from the hostel (an activity I was still feeling the effects of four days later) and a curry, meaning if it was the 1990s I would have earned a whole host of lad points in San Diego. The curry house gave me a CD of Indian music, which will reside neatly at the bottom of my bag alongside the one Tex from Arkansas gave me in Portland.

I also spent an afternoon in the so-called Old Town, which appeared to me to be more of a tourist trap full of Mexican restaurants. It was pleasant enough though.

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That'll do for now. LA is next, and in the next blog you'll discover which TV personality I met (you won't have heard of him).

Posted by LordGibil 17:06 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Cowboys & Indians

Monument Valley, Petrified Forest, Flagstaff, Sedona

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Even though it was just what I needed, after a couple of days in Page spent doing not very much I was starting to feel guilty - it was time to move on.

Much like the person after whom it was named, Monument Valley was mightily impressive and extremely photogenic. All the main rock formations (buttes and mesas, to give them their proper name) are visible from a 17-mile-long sandy loop road so I was able to take the lazy option rather than having to go on a long hike. They are all named after animals or objects that they very loosely resemble (e.g. Camel Butte and Thunderbird Mesa). No sign of any cowboys but there was the odd reference to John Wayne and The Searchers in the signage and in the gift shop.

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Monument Valley is situated in Navajo country and several of the tribe live in and around the area selling jewellery and such like. The region of northeast Arizona (including Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon) and northwest New Mexico is a semi-autonomous territory known as Navajo Nation, where they run their own law enforcement, judiciary and social services.

Capitalism hasn't infiltrated Navajo country to any great degree - a good thing in my view, but it did mean that there was a dearth of accommodation options in the area. In fact I had to stay 25 miles away in a town called Bluff - and pay $99 for the privilege. No apparent reason why it should be so expensive (motels have typically ranged from $40 to $70 per night so far) but it was either that or sleep in the car. Bluff was only a small town with one open restaurant and not a great deal else, but I was determined to spend as much time as possible in my room anyway to ensure value for money. For once the wifi was pretty good so there was at least some benefit.

Bluff restaurant:
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My journey from the Valley to Bluff took me through the splendidly-named town of Mexican Hat. No idea why it was called that, but here's a photo of some rocks on the outskirts:
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I also stopped off at Goosenecks State Park - a poor man's version of Horseshoe Bend, but still well worth the $2 I paid to see it. This time, the drop was not as steep so I got a half-decent picture:
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My next stop was a town called Holbrook, 200 miles south of Bluff. There were a few dinosaurs around Holbrook, presumably a reference to the prevalence of fossils in the area.

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I was there for two days, the first of which was spent at the Petrified Forest National Park, a forest containing no trees - not living ones, at least. Scattered throughout are trees and tree sections that fell around 225 million years ago and have since literally turned to stone. There is a geological explanation for this, along the lines of silica from volcanic ash forming quartz crystals which infiltrate and eventually somehow replace the organic matter. Iron and manganese get involved and cause the various shades of orange and blue found in the stone.

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After Holbrook I took Route 66 to Flagstaff. As a lapsed astronomy enthusiast I took the opportunity to stop off at the Barringer Crater which was on the way. This is an impact crater that was created by a meteorite strike around 50,000 years ago, which they brag as being "the best-preserved crater in the world".

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Flagstaff is a base for visitors to the Grand Canyon, but I'd been there before and quite frankly I'd had enough of amazing canyons so decided to give it a miss. Instead I did very little over the next four days, which is good news for everyone (myself included) as I don't have to describe it in this blog.

Despite not doing a great deal, I did like Flagstaff. It is a university city which meant there were a lot of pubs around, and Thursday to Saturday nights out on the town were very lively. Microbreweries are popular here and the Hops on Birch pub was one of the best I've been to since I've been away, despite me being the oldest person there by some distance. There was also a wide selection of psychics, palm-readers and the like should you wish to pay to listen to a load of old nonsense for half an hour.

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The nearby town of Sedona is renowned for its orange sandstone scenery - similar to a lot of places I'd already been, but I was still keen to take a look. It has also been the location for several film shoots, mainly from the 1940s-60s and mainly westerns. There were references to various films throughout the town from photographs to hand imprints. I am proud to say that my hands are bigger than those of Ernest Borgnine.

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I did find time for a cheeky hike in Sedona. I had been warned that the route was teeming with wildlife, but the only creatures I saw were crickets. There were so many of them that I was accompanied whilst walking the trail by the constant sound of them landing on fallen leaves as they jumped around, presumably listening to House Of Pain on their iPod Minis. Sedona itself is very touristy and expensive so I stayed in Flagstaff again overnight.

A couple of firsts for me in Flagstaff: I tried sake (it was disgusting) and I saw a matte car (I liked it).

Well that was a somewhat condensed version of those 8 days. Only 6 days behind now so I'm gradually catching up. Up next time - Phoenix and San Diego.

Posted by LordGibil 22:47 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Page Boy

Page, Arizona

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Having sped around Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion and Bryce I had pretty much had enough of canyons and valleys. However, a quick glance at my plan for the next few days revealed... two canyons and a valley.

The drive from Panguitch to my next destination, Page, took me past the town of Mount Carmel and a great restaurant called Thunderbird. It is hard to miss as outside stands a scantily-clad buxom wench (not a real one, sadly) holding a pie beneath the slogan "Ho-Made Pies". Now I don't know if the staff moonlight in 'other professions' but they certainly make a man-sized meal, even if I was eating a rather less-than-manly salad.

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Page was just over the border into Arizona and close to Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir on the Colorado River. According to Wikipedia, it attracts 3 million visitors a year - a figure I find very hard to believe as this is more than Zion and twice as many as Bryce Canyon, and it's nowhere near as interesting. One thing that is true about Page is that there are an awful lot of churches, one after the other at one end of the main road. Its population is only 7000-odd so where these 3 million people stay I'm not too sure but they're not short of places to worship.

Most of the things I wanted to do around Page I crossed off on my first full day. The Lake Powell area is popular with boaty people, but as it was right at the end of the season it wasn't too busy. In fact, when I went down to the lake at Antelope Point, there wasn't a single person there, a state of affairs I was glad about once I discovered the toilet block was closed.

I had seen a striking picture of Horseshoe Bend on the screen saver of my hotel's computer and was keen to take a look at the real thing. As the name suggests, it is a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River that has cut its way through the surrounding sandstone. The only problem (for me, at least) was that it cut its way so effectively that there was a 1000 foot sheer drop from the edge of the viewing area - with no barrier. Without describing my cowardice in detail, let's just say that my photos weren't quite as striking as the one on the screen saver.

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I rounded off my sightseeing with a trip to Lower Antelope Canyon (there is an Upper one, but I gave that a miss). Unlike the other canyons I had visited, this could only be seen by a guided walking tour lasting 1 hour. The Antelope Canyons are slot canyons, meaning they are very narrow and only accessible by descending steep ladders bolted to the rock. The canyon floor was only about half a mile long but traversing it involved squeezing through tight passageways and going up and down more ladders.

Now, I'm fast running out of synonyms for 'spectacular' after all I've seen so far, but one I don't believe I've used is 'wondrous' - so that'll do to describe this canyon, as the below photos (and the ones in the gallery) hopefully demonstrate. The smooth swirling nature of the rocks is caused by flash floods cutting through the soft sandstone over long periods of time. Our Navajo guide knew his onions and had clearly identified a number of stopping-off points, usually being rocks that marginally resembled an animal of some sort.

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Because of the canyon's nature, it is a very dangerous place to be whenever there's rain nearby as flash floods can fill it very quickly. No such problems today, but 11 people died in the canyon due to a flash flood in 1997.

On a few occasions over the past couple of weeks I had caught some baseball on the telly and had not only begun to understand what was going on but actually enjoyed watching it. It was on in what seemed to be the most popular bar in Page, the Dam Bar, and before I knew it I had been watching for 3 hours. For the last 2½ hours of that, no-one had scored a single rounder but it was still strangely compelling. San Francisco were playing Kansas City and I had watched it all that time not realising it was the final game of the so-called World Series. San Francisco won 4-3 and the hero of the day was the pitcher, a chap with a mullet and a superb name - Madison Bumgarner.

The following day was Halloween. Now I knew Americans like to make a fuss over Halloween but I was still taken aback by what confronted me when I hit the town that night. From the first bar where I encountered a group of grotesque harridans (fancy dress... I think) shrieking their way raucously through a game of ten-pin bowling to the last when I was turfed out of a nightclub at 2am, virtually everyone was dressed up, including all waitresses and bar staff. Not necessarily in Halloween-related outifts either - I saw pirates, Princess Leia, a Where's Wally and a green-haired man with a flowerpot on his head (he introduced himself as 'Pothead'). I was the one getting funny looks for dressing normally. There was costume competitions going on (won by a breakdancing mummy), themed drinks, decorations - a lot of effort had clearly been made. I had an hour more in the bars than anticipated as I found out that evening that for two days I had been thinking it was an hour later than it was as my phone hadn't picked up the time difference correctly.

Page's 2014 Balloon Regatta was going on over the weekend so I decided to stay an extra couple of nights. I needn't have bothered as I saw a grand total of no balloons as they were grounded due to windy weather. Still, it was good to have a bit of a break and put my feet up for a while.

OK, I am the requisite week behind so time to stop. I'm off to Phoenix later today where it will be 31 degrees - hope you're all wrapping up warm back in the UK and enjoying the slew of Christmas adverts that I gather have already begun.

Posted by LordGibil 09:28 Archived in USA Comments (3)

The Rover's Return & The Queen Vic

Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon

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One benefit of visiting Las Vegas was that it was a handy stop-off point between two areas I especially wanted to see - Death Valley to the west and Zion National Park to the northeast. Despite walking an awful long way in Vegas it had been a few days since I'd done any proper roving and I planned on rectifying that in Zion.

My base for a couple of nights beforehand was a town called St George in the southwestern corner of Utah, about 120 miles from Vegas. A lovely place as it turns out - quiet, clean and full of extremely polite friendly people. The streets were adorned with a variety of works of art such as an enormous guitar made out of scrap metal situated in the middle of a roundabout.

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Just on the outskirts is Pioneer Park, part of the Red Cliffs Conservation Area, consisting of orangey-brown sandstone rocks on which visitors are encouraged to climb.

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It would be possible to spend a few days in Zion to see all it had to offer and walk the various trails but I opted to get through the main Zion Canyon bit in a day. I got lucky as it was the first day they had allowed car owners to drive through after the summer season; up to that point a shuttle bus had been in operation.

Zion was just as spectacular as Yosemite, with orange/white Navajo Sandstone peaks mixed in with green/yellow trees and blue skies making for some fantastic photos. One of the most popular activities within the canyon was to walk up Angel's Landing, but due to a warning along the lines of 'not for those without a head for heights' I had looked it up on YouTube and chickened out. I had no desire to climb up a mountain where it was necessary to hold on to a chain embedded in the rock to avoid falling off into the canyon below (as five previous visitors had done).

I did manage to do a few short trails, where I was less likely to die, and here are a few of the best pics & vids:

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View from Canyon Overlook Trail:

View from one of the Emerald Pools Trails:

Whilst in the canyon I also witnessed a couple of extremely slow-moving rock climbers ascending one of the vertical cliff faces, and encountered an aptly-named Bighorn Sheep strolling about by the side of the road.

I had also been recommended Bryce Canyon, and spent the best part of the following day traipsing around that. Like Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion and 56 other sites throughout the US, Bryce had been granted National Park status by the government, guaranteeing the continuation of maintenance and conservation efforts.

Whereas generally in Zion you are in the canyon looking up, in Bryce you are on the canyon rim looking down. In fact, it is not technically a canyon, it is what's known as a 'natural amphitheatre', effectively meaning it would be a great place to build one due to its sound qualities.

Bryce is distinctive from Zion and other parks due the high concentration of 'hoodoos', thin spires of rock that protrude upwards from the amphitheatre basin. These hoodoos typically consist of layers of stone of varying density that erode at different rates, causing their bizarre shape. I hiked a few miles' worth of trails, taking in sights with such names as Queen Victoria, Thor's Hammer, Wall Street and the Peek-A-Boo Trail.

As Bryce is 8000 feet above sea level, the skies were noticeably bluer which made for scenery if anything even more breathtaking than at Zion. It was also considerably colder in the evenings, as I later discovered in my motel in nearby Panguitch, a remarkably non-descript town considering it sat between two such beautiful parks.

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Two clips looking down into the Bryce Amphitheatre:

That's the end of this instalment. Nine more days until I give up the car and 16 before I give up the US. Currently in Flagstaff - here's the map:

Posted by LordGibil 11:53 Archived in USA Comments (4)

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