Tucson, Arizona is a hot desert town, perhaps most notable for its huge university population. We enjoyed some well-deserved non-camping R&R, and were taken out for a great night out by some friends of friends who call Tucson home. Either side of the city lays the Saguaro National Park, home to a particular type of cactus. There are some breathtaking drives over the mountain pass that leads out of the city to the west, and through the desert, with these odd cactus plants, almost humanoid in size and features, spread out in front of you as far as the eye can see.
Tucson is also home to the brilliant Pima Air & Space Museum, where there are wonderful hangers full of things like SR71 Blackbirds, Huey Cobras and B17 WWII bombers, plus outside acres filled with examples of every kind of aircraft you can imagine. And then there is ‘The Boneyard’… The Boneyard is the place where US military aviation hardware comes to be mothballed, broken down for spare parts, or destroyed. There are literally thousands of planes lined up over acres of desert floor – billions of dollars worth of the highest tech equipment. Our fantastic tour was led by an ex-F16 pilot, and it was tremendously informative and full of anecdotes. The whole place was both awe-inspiring, to see all that clever expensive stuff, and also a bit depressing – I left thinking wouldn’t it be great if all that investment in money and ingenuity could be put to better use. (For example, some of the aircraft had literally come straight from the production line to the Boneyard to be mothballed and eventually destroyed after their program was cancelled.)
After Tucson we had a brief stop in Phoenix, one of the largest cities in the south-west. Phoenix is really an amalgam of cities, but the downtown area was interesting enough. The State Capitol building and the surrounding public parkland (complete with every possible variation of military remembrance statue you can imagine) were quite pleasant.
After Phoenix we were heading for Las Vegas, but we thought it would be fun to go via Lake Havasu City. We drove across some fairly uninspiring terrain until we hit the Colorado River, down stream from Vegas. Here things got more interesting as the river winds through some small canyons and mountains, leaving a green streak of vegetation across the otherwise brown land. Following the river upstream brought us out to Lake Havasu, an immensely popular playground for those into their water sports. At one end of the lake sits Lake Havasu City, which is famous for pretty much one thing only – it is the site of London Bridge, shipped over in the 1960’s and rebuild brick by brick. The bridge became the drawing card for the new city, and in its hayday was surrounded by a faux-English village of ‘ye olde shoppes’ and such like. Some of this remains, though it all looks a bit tired and sad these days.
After Havasu there was one last stop before we hit Nevada and Vegas – we actually camped the night just over the Arizona-California border in a town called Needles. Now this would not have been worth commenting on, except that Needles sits on Route 66, and it was our first brief taste of that infamous American highway. As you probably know, the old Route 66 has been bypassed by the Federal Interstate Freeway system, and many of the old towns are shadows of their former glories. Needles has certainly seen better days, but still had some character clinging on.
By coincidence the characters in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic tale of the emigration of one family from the dustbowl of Oklahoma in the 1930s to the promise of a better life in California, (who are of course on Route 66) hit Needles the same day we did – at least, as I was plodding through the book…
‘…”We’re there – we’re in California!” They looked dully at the broken rock glaring under the sun, and across the river the terrible ramparts of Arizona….The road runs parallel to the river, and it was well into the morning when the burning motors came to Needles, where he river runs swiftly among the reeds…’