Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Travel Maps

Now that I'm back I've had time to properly photograph some of my map booklets. There were 7 in total and were an invaluable, if expensive resource for the road trip.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


There is no other choice but to submit to the all-out total metropolis of Los Angeles. It’s not surprising that countless artists, photographers and directors have treated LA not as a typical city but as a secondary artificial landscape. The folded up, spray-can-paint splattered concrete canvas of the urban terrain is a fertile playground of opportunity for people to investigate and exploit. The stretches of empty grey sidewalks and gridlocked 9-lane freeways are a test bed for architectural and artistic experiments; there seems to be free reign and an endless supply of blank wall or vacant lots to be used as proving grounds for any manner of creative undertaking.

The highlights and lowlights of this experimentation include the well-documented Case Study House program. Most are off limits to the public but fortunately the most successful one, #8 by Charles and Ray Eames, is easily accessible through appointment. The anomaly known as the Watts Towers which seem to twist up and tear through the concrete bedrock of the city are pretty much the only site worth visiting in most of South Central LA. Visiting the Bradbury Building and Ennis House shows how well Ridley Scott can use a bit of smoke and mirrors to create the post apocalyptic feel of Bladerunner

Past all the repetitive and over-used pop street art of East Los Angeles and up in the hills not too far from the Hollywood Sign is the sprawling Getty Centre, designed by Richard Meier. Whilst being efficient at holding and displaying its collection of 19th Century art, its white sterile design feels more like an industrial scale euthanasia clinic, very calming. Over in Downtown, The Caltrans HQ designed by Morphosis wins the “Worst Building of the Road Trip” award. The oversized street number doesn’t redeem the hideousness of its oppressive cliff like steel walls that bear down on pedestrians and makes Gehry’s Disney concert hall almost bearable.

Other urban peculiarities that inevitably occur in a city of 18 million people include the LA River, made famous by the race scene in Grease as well as many other movies, this wide concrete channel tears through the city and creates a very dystopic post industrial landscape. There is an abandoned zoo up in the hills with animal cages and habitats still intact that satisfied my hunger for derelict attractions. The refurbished Queen Mary sits uncomfortably between the oil refineries of Long Beach, the reason exactly why it’s here or why anyone would want to stay inside eludes me. Floating above the Staples Centre is the iconic Goodyear blimp filled with low-pressure helium so that it doesn’t deflate despite being shot at 50 times a day.

4 days is nowhere near enough time to do this mammoth city justice but our plane is waiting. So after 8652 miles, 21 States and about 45 cities, I’m sitting in the departure lounge of LAX writing this epilogue. I can’t say I’m particularly keen to leave the USA and its infectious opportunistic, ambitious mindset, its amiable people and the free Diet Coke refills, but I can’t imagine it’ll be very long before I’m back.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Following our midnight drive through Death Valley, we awoke in the town of Lone Pine and found ourselves surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain range including Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. At the base of this mountain range lies the Alabama hills, a collection of ochre coloured Moore-esque rock formations that contrast with the snow peaked landscape backdrop.

We made our way up the valley, stopping off at the Owens Valley Radio Telescope facility. Similar to the VLA back in New Mexico, the facility consists of many moveable dishes that can be configured in several ways. The cover provided by the mountains on either side reduces wave interference from the nearby cities.  Further on is Yosemite, where kilometre high walls of rock rise from the valleys and waterfalls cascade from the mountaintops. A patina of sun-weathered stone has built up on the surface of the rock face, where the age and the history of the landscape can be read so easily.

After picking up our first speeding ticket we drove up past lake Tahoe and stopped off in Reno to visit the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada museum of Art. The show includes a mechanical landscape representing the hydrological cycle and speculative proposals for bird sanctuaries sited on permafrost. We then crossed California to the large metropolitan area built around San Francisco Bay. A patina has formed on the clean grid structure of San Francisco as well. Areas of rich character such as Castro and China Town have been built up over many years and turn the city into a colourful hub that is a welcome break from the monotony of the cities of the Southwest. Highlights included seeing the skyline appear out of the fog as we arrived by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and the de Young museum designed by Herzog de Meuron was another example of the cultural investment made by the city.

After a few days in SF we set off south on the final leg of our journey, down the Pacific Coastal Highway or route 1. 6 weeks after leaving the Atlantic and 8000 miles later, we finally set our eyes on the Pacific Ocean. Sites along the way include the Jamesburg Earth Station, the Vandenburg Air Force Base, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant and lots of oil fields. After dipping in the ocean for a quick paddle we drove on, stopping for dinner in the very Californian city of Santa Barbara, before preparing to immerse ourselves in the urban endlessness of Los Angeles.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Las Vegas

As the skyline of the city rises up out of the horizon I feel a shot of excitement of a kind that I haven’t felt since we landed at JFK and saw Manhattan for the first time. You can’t go to Vegas if you’re going to try and take it seriously. It’s a city that is founded on people’s ignorance or reluctance to accept the inevitable (myself included). So don’t laugh too long at the tackiness of the midget Elvis’ or the fountains that dance to Celine Dion, because in the end they’ll have the last laugh. Your only real choice is to take a deep breath of the oxygen rich air that the casinos pump out in order to relax you, hit the strip and go with the flow. That way you might just get lucky, or if not, someone else will and then they’ll throw 100 $1 bills into the air outside the Venetian. (I got 3 dollars this way)

There’s not much point in trying to chronologically describe what we did, it’s just a blur of video poker, slots, roulette, blackjack, poker, all you can eat buffets and complimentary alcohol. Most of this occurred whilst sauntering from one climate controlled space to another, I don’t remember seeing the sun. Our base of operations was the Luxor, a giant hollowed out glass pyramid, which boasts both the brightest light in the world and the largest atrium. At $40 a night on a weekday, it’s cheaper to get a room here than at a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Cleveland. It’s a short walk from our room, down the Nesquik smelling corridor into the casino floor and then onto the strip.

The strip is composed from a framework of floor slab towers that have the most economical hotel room plan. Draped over this is an easily detachable themed fa├žade system and illuminated signage that can be removed and replaced in order to keep up to date with the ever-changing identity of Las Vegas. Below all these towers are the bunker-like labyrinthine casinos where, with no natural light or clocks, all perception of time is lost. To maximise foot traffic, an elaborate circulation system has been created linking everything together. Bridges, tunnels, trams, monorails, and travelators suck people from one den of iniquity and funnel them into the next. You can even take a rollercoaster, an inclinator (a diagonal elevator) or my personal favourite; the mythical spiral escalator in Caesars.

The constant cycle of construction and implosion in Vegas is crystallized in the Neon Graveyard Museum, a collection of old unwanted signs that once illuminated the strip. The now abandoned Sahara Casino, which is accessible through it’s liquidation sales program, is another legacy of a by-gone era. The no-longer illuminated palm tree park in front of the casino creates a very surreal experience, as though the desert has already begun to reclaim the land.

The fun can’t last forever; it’s time to go. But not before exchanging our beloved Prius at the Mccarran International Hertz, its wheels were getting dangerously worn. I wonder how far a forensic team could get at working out where we had driven, studying only the car and it’s contents. Trace amounts of cream cheese from a New York bagel; a ticket stub from a drive-in movie in Detroit; paintwork slightly damaged by the salty air from New Orleans; orange dust from monument valley found in the foot-wells. So now I’m writing this as we drive through Death Valley in our new Mitsubishi Spyder with the top down in the middle of the night. So I guess I won in the end, kind of.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Wild West

New Mexico and Arizona feel in many ways like America’s backyard. The backyard of an eccentric amateur scientist whose half cooked experiments lie scattered around in the false hope of one day finishing them. The endless voids that make up most of this area are perfect for cordoning off and creating proving grounds for weapons testing or building giant interstellar radio-telescope facilities. Nestling between all of this is the greatest collection of natural phenomena that I can think of; we see just a snapshot of a constantly evolving landscape blistered and cut up by the processes of nature.

We spent the first night in Las Cruces, which, despite being New Mexico’s second City, was more just a collection of strip malls with fast food drive-thrus and Motels. Next-door is the White Sands Missile Range, which sits between two mountain spans and takes up a large central portion of New Mexico. As well as being the location of the first nuclear explosion, it also contains the White Sands National Monument, a small desert area of pure white sand dunes, set off by the deep blue skies.

We made a detour east so we could check out some of the oil fields near the town of Artesia. More impressive from Google Earth than from the ground, the autonomous oil pumpjacks majestically rock back and forth, gradually bringing oil to the surface whilst gas flares ignite and extinguish in the distant background. Driving through darkness further north and past the town of Roswell we came to the city of Albuquerque where we stayed for one night before we set off west again the next day.

Out in a large plateau in central western New Mexico sits the Very Large Array; a series of giant radio telescope dishes that crawl across the landscape and photograph distant celestial formations. When we visited the dishes had been deployed across a 9km stretch and so the impressive scale of the facility was somewhat diminished as they merged into the horizon. However, it was still fascinating that these structures can rip out ancient strands of radio waves from the ether and construct them into images of the universe.

We drove across the Apache Mountain range at sunset, not daring to take the dirt path up to the ghost town of Mogollon, and down toward the next stop, the incredible Pima Air & Space Museum over in Tucson, Arizona. An enormous collection of aircraft of all varieties is laid out from the SR 71 Blackbird to the Super Guppy. But if that isn’t enough, across the road is AMARG or as it’s more commonly known, the Boneyard. Billions of dollars worth of out of date military aircraft sit across thousands of acres of desert, held on to for safe keeping as a hoarder may keep newspapers that he knows he’ll never read. The highlight of the Boneyard is the 300 B-52s currently being broken up and cannibalised for parts to maintain those still in commission. The AMARG is a testament to the USA’s pioneering aviation legacy and serves as a relic to the excessive arms race fuelled by the Cold War.

Along the freeway sits Phoenix, the 6th largest city in the states, which spills out in every direction until it hits the mountains that surround it. The temperature hit a balmy 112 whilst we were there, enough to burn a hole in my iPod screen as it sat in the car. With little time to spend here, I spent most of it finding a Canon 70-200mm f4.0 USM Non-IS L Lens in preparation for the unique collection of natural wonders that sat to the north of us. As we drove up through Arizona the terrain quickly changed from a cactus strewn desert into canyons of fiery red rock. The old highway 89 winds up through the valleys, passing the ghost town of Jerome and up into the town of Sedona, a tourist resort city nestling in sunburnt red mesas. Further up the road is Grasshopper point, a freezing cold swimming hole that sits just near the Slide Rock state park.

Bypassing Flagstaff, the road led us to Meteor Crater, the site of a giant impact event that has been the source of much of our understanding about the collisions between planets and meteors. However, the extortionate entry price, lack lustre museum and lack of access to the actual crater somewhat detracted from the experience. Further north, we crossed the giant mesas of the Hopi reservation up into the Navajo Nation near Four Corners and over into Utah.

The entire Colorado plateau has been worn down by the gradual trickling of water and the effects of weathering until the landscape is strewn with unique formations of rock, sand and water. The sun picks out every hue in the dirt; blood reds, crimsons, deep oranges and scarlet; we’re basically on Mars. There is Ship Rock, a giant towering structure surrounded by nothing but plains. Valley of the Gods, a basin with a dirt loop you can drive around, allows you to become completely surrounded by giant cliffs and sit in an undulating surface of mesas and canyons.

Scenic Route 163 winds its way south before straightening out and off into the distance, beyond that stand the towering buttes of Monument valley. The image of the giant stacks of rock that shoot up from the desert floor is perhaps the most iconic of the Western American landscape. It’s strange to think that for millions of years this city of stone towers was just another part of the world’s surface, it’s exceptional nature ignored until the Native Americans first discovered it and settled here. Heading west once more there was just enough time to catch the sunset at a place called the Grand Canyon; it defines the act of being left speechless. After spending the best part of the next day looking around the Grand Canyon, one of the greatest natural phenomena in the world, we eventually left for Nevada, where perhaps one of the greatest man-made phenomena sits.

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