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A Grand Tour of the American West
I could see the end of my road trip, on the other side of the deserts of the American Southwest, the sun-parched stretch of near nothingness that conceals some of the country's greatest natural wonders. So after leaving Spaceport America in New Mexico, I prepared for a ironman push to the West Coast, my ultimate destination Los Angeles. Along the way, I'd stop at the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and probably some dusty, God-forsaken gas station in the middle of a field of rock and scrub and little else. It was going to be a long drive but, weirdly, I was excited.
I found the Four Corners, the intersection of Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and Utah, down a short dusty road on Navajo land just outside Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. It is, inarguably, one of the most touristy places I'd seen on the entire trip: There's next to nothing here but for some trinket stands and a photo op, standing or sitting a paved circular monument to geographic coincidence, the only place in the country where visitors can touch four states at once.
Which isn't to say people weren't enjoying it. A group of Italians were riding on each others' shoulders, getting unique angles for their pictures. A couple was visiting with her parents, each standing in a different state. Young kids were by turns bashful and brash, forced into photos their parents will one day look back on fondly only to be disappointed when the then-teenagers deny any recollection of the time the family went to the Four Corners.
As I walked back to the car, another group of Italians was having a loud conversation when one woman's cell phone rang. "Pronto?" she asked as she answered, taking a call from the homeland as she photographed her friends standing on the spot we all came to see.
At the Grand Canyon, I worried that I'd find more of the same, a promise of greatness tempered by an ultimately disappointing monument. How wrong I was: Seeing the striated canyon formed by the Colorado river was a multi-layered pleasure, unfolding as I took in the views from the South Rim, stopping at turnouts along the road to take panoramas while standing on the roof of my SUV. One woman asked me to snap a photo for her, as long as I was up there.
The canyon changed not just in space but in time too, as I watched the sunset turn the rocks deeper and deeper hues of orange. As the shadows lengthened, the gorges in the distance turned purple and blue and finally black. Cameras lined the canyon rim, but I was happy to simply enjoy the sunset, trying to mentally catalog all the colors rather than capture them with my SLR. After nine weeks on the road, furiously photographing my trip, it was a luxury to simply enjoy the view.
In the morning, after the haze had burned off, I struck camp and set out for Las Vegas, the final waypoint before the end of my journey. But I was more interested in a nearby sight than any neon magic on The Strip: The Hoover Dam, a man-made wonder from an era of economic uncertainty financed by massive public spending. The art deco masterpiece is less than an hour from the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, but it's also a four-hour haul through the Arizona desert.
There's little to see until you speed across the Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, when the canyon walls fall away and reveal the concrete monolith. Though walking across the top of the dam is quite pleasant, I prefer the view from the bridge, opened in October 2010 as a traffic bypass. A pedestrian-friendly walkway along its north edge provides a fantastic platform for photography--and contemplation of what extraordinary taxpayer spending and sacrifice can accomplish.
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