So, where were we? Oh, yeah, on the Blues Train in Durango.
I had actual work to do after that, a couple of days in Albuquerque, visiting the set of “Breaking Bad” for a New York Times piece and, in the process, ingesting more smoke than a Jamaican firefighter.
It was from those massive wildfires in eastern Arizona, blowing in from 200 miles west of town, usually around sunset, combined with the twilight winds and dust storms that often plague Albuquerque in the spring and summer. That’s why all the highways in New Mexico have those, “Dust Storms May Exist” signs, which always seemed more like an agnostic observation than an actual warning.
But, unlike a reason for ever watching one of those Twilight movies, they DO exist! Coming south from Durango on U.S. 550, which loops through the mind-blowing sandstone mesas and ancient cliff-dwellings (visible from the highway) of Chaco Canyon, I hit the first dust storms just outside Corrales, a northwest Albuquerque suburb. By the time I got into Albuquerque, I could barely see the road. And that was before the smoke kicked in.
I was hanging out in the parking lot of Sadie’s Dining Room when I first noticed the smell. I thought maybe there was a fire in the neighborhood. But there were no sirens or signs of flame. It took me a while to realize that the whole sky was changing color, the sunset pinks and reds filtered and amplified by the smoke. It got to be pretty apocalyptic there for a while, the sun all red, the sky all gray. Luckily, Sadie’s has giant, potent margaritas. And fine air conditioning. So, let this be a lesson to you. When faced with the imminent end of the world, find yourself a bar. Drink a lot and then, when the zombies arrive, you won’t feel a thing. You’re welcome.
The next morning, on the “Breaking Bad” set in downtown Albuquerque, you could still smell the smoke, but it wasn’t intolerable. What was intolerable was that they were shooting on top of a roof (the four-story “Gizmo” building), a tar-and-pigeon shit laden hell pit, accessible only by climbing the four flights of stairs and worming through an abandoned workroom that might as well have been an asbestos immersion chamber. And, goddammit, I forgot to wear a hat.
Bryan Cranston, who has won 3 Emmys in a row as the star of the show, had been up there for hours by the time I got there. Yes, he did have someone holding an umbrella over his shaved head most of the time. But, still, it was impressive. The scene called for him to crawl around on the roof and sneak a peek at a parking garage across the way. Which he did, over and over again.
When he was done,, we walked together through a weirdly-deserted downtown plaza to the garage, where the rest of the scene would be filmed. The few people who were around didn’t seem to recognize him, even though he was in costume, had a bandage over his nose and some pretty impressive fake bruises on his face. In Hollywood, there’d have been a lot of pointing and whispering and, eventually, a gaggle of autograph seekers. In Albuquerque, no one seemed to care.
Which he likes. We talked for quite a while, mostly about stuff that didn’t make it into the New York Times piece. What he likes most about Albuquerque – and he likes it a lot – is that it isn’t L.A. No one talks about show business here. No one interrupts his breakfast at the local coffee shop to show him the screenplay they just finished. People, generally speaking, don’t seem to be full of shit. This, for an actor, is a welcome change of pace.
So, if you’d like to bother him, here’s where he hangs out: The Flying Star coffee house for breakfast. He likes the El Pinto restaurant, which has a big patio, and a place called the Church Street Cafe, where he enjoys the wine margaritas. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as close to actual useful travel information as these dispatches are likely to get. Don’t get used to it.
The smoke came back that night and because I had the means to escape, I did. I hauled ass for Flagstaff, north of the fire. I had to get 100 miles west of Albuquerque before I could see clear sky, but the smell was still in the air. To the south of me, the smoke from the fire looked like a giant fog bank, a slow billowing beast. I was glad to be out of its way.
Also, this seemed a perfect opportunity to make up for a huge gap in my “Been Everywhere in America” bragging rights. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. (Or Yellowstone, or Mt. Rushmore. Or, come to think of it, Spokane. I know. Shameful.)
I’ve flown over it, of course, en route from Los Angeles to New York or some place that wasn’t Omaha. I’ve seen “Grand Canyon” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and all the Road Runner cartoons (that’s the Grand Canyon, right?). But my motorizing has never taken me that direction. It’s one of those places that, unless you’re trying to go there, you won’t get there.
The drive up from Flagstaff to the south rim of the Canyon is only 80 miles, but it’s a great drive up U.S. 180, past Humphrey’s Peak (at 12,637 feet, the highest point in Arizona. Seriously, I’m like a fucking encyclopedia.) through the Ponderosa Pines just north of town and then, finally onto, the jagged terrain of the Colorado plateau, all scrub brush and copper-tinged rock. You hit Tusayan just before the National Park, a cluster of cheap motels and low-rent souvenir shops. I prefer the “We Used To Be A Proud People” shot glasses and playing cards. You may go with earrings made from burro shit. I do not judge.
It costs $25 to get into the Park (yes, even for the Traipsemobile) but that gets you as many visits as you want within a week. Most people take advantage of the Information Centers, the guided tours, the hikes, the opportunity to learn about the archaeological history, the millions of years it took for the Colorado River to carve out this massive gorge. I just wanted to drive along the South Rim until I got away from everybody else and then light a cigar. Not quite Clark Griswold, but very very close.
I’m not going to bother describing the Canyon, because you too have seen the Road Runner cartoons. But it’s every bit as awe-inspiring as you’d hope it to be and I know enough about history to recall the words of first Native Americans to encounter this giant gaping tear in the world. The rough translation, I believe, is “What the Fuck!” Followed immediately by, “I guess we’re gonna have to go around.”
I drove, stopping often, the length of the South Rim road, from the South Entrance of the Park, to the East Entrance, which opens up into the Painted Desert (this is where you have to be careful, because what you think is a tunnel may turn out to just be painted on. Goddam Road Runner!).
After another couple of nights drinking beer in Flagstaff (you have to keep your strength up and for this I highly recommend the Monte Vista Lounge, which on this particular Saturday night was full of locals dressed up and drunk for the annual Adult Prom. I swear.) I decided to make one more run at the Grand Canyon, this time going to the recently-open Skywalk on the west end, part of the Hualapai Reservation and accessible only by going over 25 miles of gravel road. I already had a crack in my windshield. So, why not?
Here’s why not: There are giant tour buses taking the same route, mostly filled with Asian tourists, who I at first assumed to be Japanese, but that was before I noticed a high percentage of men picking their noses as if there were prizes inside. Second knuckle. So, based on my extensive knowledge of overseas stereotypes, I decided they were Chinese. Also I’ve been to China and Japan. I never saw anyone picking their nose in Japan. In China, I never saw anyone who wasn’t. Unless they were taking a break to spit on the sidewalk. The authorities are attempting to end this tradition, which has led to hilarious warning signs with illustrations of people horking out spitwads, with a big red line through it.
But I digress.
The Skywalk is on the Hualapai land, so the tribe controls all the access and have decided to charge lots of money for it. This is fine by me, but there is a little sticker shock after you’ve driven through all those arroyos and dodged all that gravel to realize that, if you want to go on the Skywalk, you’ll have to fork over $40 to get into the park and then another $30 to actually get on the Skywalk. Which I did.
Because, according to the brochures, and the breathless news coverage when it opened in 2007, The Skywalk is an experience unlike anything else on the Grand Canyon, a chance to walk out on this glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped ramp, 100 yards over the Canyon, an experience that feels as if you’re floating in mid-air looking down on the gorge below.
This is bullshit. That they were able to build a deck over the Grand Canyon, a 100-foot glass balcony that can handle the winds and the crowds and not go tumbling off the cliff is an impressive technical achievement and I can see how it cost $31 million. There’s a lot of steel and glass.
But it’s a deck, people. A nice deck. A glass deck that requires you to wear little footies so you won’t scratch or smear things up. And it’s a fine view. But not substantially better than any of the other views along the canyon, including on either side of the Skywalk. And, when there’s that much steel and scaffolding it does not feel like you’re suspended in air. In fact, the average Hyatt Regency elevator does a better job of that.
Nonetheless, there was a long line of tourists (me included) climbing off the bus (the only way you can get access to the Skyway, you have to park your own vehicle back at the entrance) and getting in line. They make a big point of taking away your cel phone and/or camera before you go on the Skyway, allegedly because it’s a safety hazard. But then, waiting on the Skyway, are grinning Skyway-employee photographers, who will gladly take your picture and then you can buy a copy as you exit through the gift shop.
Their favorite gimmick is to encourage people (especially the non-English-speaking Asians) to lay down on the glass and pretend they’re falling through mid-air. They make a big show of getting just the right special-effects angle and urging people (mostly through pantomime) to scream as if they’re about to die. What they get, of course, is a picture of themselves looking like idiots on a pane of glass.
In fairness, I should point out that for your $50 (or whatever coupon price you can negotiate) you also get a coupon for a lunch (sandwich, green beans, mashed potatoes, soda pop) and regularly-scheduled tribal dances, in which young Hualapai people put out their cigarettes and hop around for your amusement. Their costumes are brightly-colored.
But my favorite thing – and I mean this – is the Smoking Corral. There’s a pen, an actual pen, about 100 yards from the Skyway, which is the only area on the grounds where cigarette smoking is allowed (unless you’re a dancer). There is no shade. There are bench seats. And it is the most simultaneously hilarious-pitiful thing I have ever seen. These poor bastards, jonesing for a butt, forced to sit in their Corral of Shame, zoo animals on display.
I took pictures. But I didn’t give them any food. Not when I just paid $50 for a sandwich coupoun and a walk on a balcony. Plus, I’d seen them picking their noses.