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Stateside: Travel Special - True Grit

Stateside With Rosalea - Travel Special

True Grit

I heard the good tidings last Sunday afternoon sitting in the Flagstaff Amtrak station watching the TV news - the Emmies would not be going ahead that night. It wasn't really until the next morning when the train arrived in LA and I took the Metrolink to Burbank that the full significance of that news sank in. Rather than put award winners in a position, before an audience of billions, to have to endorse/not endorse Bush's decision to bomb Afghanistan (before an audience of billions), the organisers had pulled the plug on the whole show.

WOW! That's one big dog that refused to be wagged! And since the city of Burbank - where the networks have their West Coast studios - was the most flag-ridden place I saw on my travels that weekend it wasn't like they had made a light decision. Hats off to the heroes who made that call - they showed true grit. And hats off to Coolio for donating money from sales of one of his singles to those who have suffered financial hardship as a result of 911. Not just families of the victims who died or were injured, but the many, many people whose incomes have been slashed or disappeared altogether because jobs have gone, or even just because they lost several days' pay and couldn't make their rent or other payments.

So. While I was gadding about Gallup taking photos, George 2.43 was up to his father's old tricks, eh! But enough about them; this is a travel log of the trip I made just especially to see what travel is like these days in the US. Much the same. I had to show my ID and ticket on a couple more occasions than I did before. My backpack was searched when I checked it kerbside at Oakland - somewhat making a mockery of Southwest's little luggage label that says "Thank you for not being a bin hog". Maybe they prefer to have their overhead luggage bin laden. (No offence meant to Southwest Airlines or anyone else - I just cannot resist a bad pun.)

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At Albuquerque the airport building had a lot of flags and there were police and national guardspeople at the security checks for boarding passengers. It was one of the first airports to get national guards because there is a big airforce base nearby - that'd be the one that survived an H-bomb being accidentally dropped on it by one of its own pilots in 1957. The conventional explosives went off, creating a sizable crater, but failed to trigger the intended one-megaton thermonuclear blast, according to the 'Rough Guide to Southwest USA'.

My flight was completely full but nobody went troppo as we flew over the ruggedy red of the Grand Canyon and the knobbedy brown then flat-out brown of New Mexico, so I had time to quietly read my guide and mark up the many attractions I figured I had time to see that afternoon before taking the twilight Amtrak Southwest Chief to Gallup. Well, I guess it's my own fault I didn't see any of them - I shouldn't get SO apoplectic about having to hang around more than an hour at the airport for a city bus that never came that I leave my handbag in the cab I eventually resort to.

Top marks to the honest people and Yellow Cabs of Albuquerque though, that I was hardly on the phone to the cab company when the driver was already on his way back to the station, his next passenger having found my handbag on the floor. Reunited with my photo ID - THE most valuable possession you have in the USA, even before 911 - I was free to get irate a second time. Way back east, some dipstick in a truck had decided to play chicken with the Chief and it was running 5 hours late. Since it would be well after dark by the time it arrived, there'd be no chance to view the landscape and hear the commentary given by the Navajo guide who comes on board just for that section of the trip.

Discombobulated by my discontent, I wandered idly up Central Ave (part of Route 66) desultorily admiring the "Pueblo Deco" KiMo Theatre and the mural at the back of an empty lot being used for a car park. The mural included a newspaper with the headline "Moronic officials destroy historic landmarks". Like that's news! I took a city transport bus out near the Sandia Mountains in the hope of seeing the first race of that week's international balloon fiesta, but the weather had turned turbulent up aloft so the race was cancelled. Back at the station I dined on the pizza Amtrak provided, and was told by someone waiting to meet the train that he and his business partner from Kalamazoo Michigan were attending a conference in town, so one had flown out and the other had taken the train. If one died in an accident the other could still keep the business going.

When I arrived in Gallup after midnight it was raining - a gentle drizzle of big drops making the air smell so good the desk clerk at the motel where I was to stay the night was hanging out the window of the lobby taking in lungfuls of it. Actually it smelled to me like malt, so maybe there was a brewery nearby and the rain had nothing to do with it. The famous El Rancho was my stop for the night. Built in 1937 by the brother of the movie mogul D.W. Griffith it has many autographed photos of the stars who've stayed there, many of them working on the Westerns and "Arabian desert" love stories that were filmed around the area. Word of warning - don't put a dollar in the lobby's player piano at 8 in the morning even if YOU'VE been up an hour and had breakfast already. There's a whole blues band, complete with sultry singer, in there and it's loud!

>From Gallup I took the midday Greyhound to Flagstaff, Arizona and at last saw the desert landscape I'd missed the night before. The Greyhound, too, was full but I don't think that was because people had chosen it over flying for safety reasons. Bus travel is the cheapest option, and it was comfortable enough, if you didn't have long legs, for a couple of hours travel. This one had come from the East Coast and was bound for LA. My seatmate was a young African American from Wilmington Delaware, lamenting how cold the people are back home and heading for the West Coast for some friendliness and a new life. It was his third day on the bus, but he and his friends were all still cheerful. Especially when the "Far Side bus driver", as one called him, pretended to drive off from the lunch stop leaving one of their group behind.

Flagstaff, Arizona is a university town of 50,000 people, but on a Sunday night it might just as well be Stratford, Taranaki. In fact, I think the picture theatre is still open on Sunday nights in Stratford, which puts it ahead in the entertainment stakes. I had the late afternoon and early evening in Flagstaff and liked the place immensely - not the least because there was a little mountain range with some snow on the highest peak not far away so the air was clear and cool. I had dinner at the 'Down Under' restaurant, which is owned by Kiwis who've operated it for the last 7 years. There are prints from the Alexander Turnbull Library on the wall and the cocktail menu proffers such delights as Queenstown Quencher and White Island Pina Colada. On Sunday nights the menu includes fish and chips, and, excited that I might actually get f'n'c cooked by someone who knows what they're supposed to be like, I made the mistake of ordering them. The owners were out of town, so I got the usual great big slab of cod, raw in the middle, with crisped-to-a-frazz batter on the outside. Pity, because everything else I saw being brought out to the crowded tables that night looked delicious and I heard no complaints.

If you ever get the chance to save a night's accommodation by going coach on one of Amtrak's great overnight trains, don't hesitate. The seats are far apart and they tilt back so you're almost in a prone position and have a shin rest and foot rest as well. And so it was that I travelled from Flagstaff to LA's glorious Union Station on Columbus Day Monday. Because federal employees had a holiday that day (and maybe state employees too) the freeways we passed on the way in from the San Bernadino Valley in the morning were crowded but not jammed. According to my 'Berlitz California Pocket Guide', there are 2,413 kms of freeways in LA and 25 percent of the urban land area is occupied by car parks.

Which is as good an excuse as I need to fulminate against the terrible, terrible damage that car culture has done to this nation and - because of the demands that have to be met to sustain it - the whole world. Just on the most local scale, neighbourhoods have been replaced by malls that you HAVE to drive to, for example, ripping the guts out of communities and community life. And we can watch the global effects in the reports from the "war rooms" of the tv networks. Yes, I know that I'm a beneficiary in the sense that all the travel I did was fossil-fuel powered and was cheap ($220) because of the scale of the market for travel here in the US and the hidden subsidies. But with greater use of public transit and car pooling and a restoration of neighbourhoods a significant reduction in the need for a resource that has to be fought for could be made. I don't think I'm alone in saying I'd not travel rather than have it paid for by people's lives. There are probably millions of people in the world who would "Carpool For Peace", if only someone else started organising it.

And while on the subject of "war rooms": forgive me, dear news producers - those pale comparisons to their true-grit entertainment equivalents - but it was such a relief, after the flight back from Burbank Airport, to get on a BART train and see a worker with a sticker on his toolkit that read: "Skepticism is a virtue".

Lea Barker
Saturday, 13 October 2001

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