Tucson, Chiricahua and Willcox
I'd been to the US before, but only for a matter of hours between flights to and from Latin America. I got an opportunity to go back for slightly longer, to go to a conference in Tucson. This trip would be more than just hours, but not much more - three days was my limit thanks to commitments before and after.
I flew with American Airlines. I didn't particularly want to: I'd flown back from Quito with them and suffered a 12 hour delay leaving Ecuador, which meant an 18 hour layover in Miami. I didn't like getting delayed, and I didn't like Miami, but at least by flying to Arizona with them now, I'd accrue enough air miles to get a free flight out of them.
We left London and flew west over Ireland.
I got into trouble at immigration. I thought I might do - my passport has been through some rough times and is battered and fraying. But that was fine. The problem came when the immigration officer asked me what the purpose of my visit was. I wasn't exactly sure what to say - I'd come for a conference but that was only one day, and then I would have two days free. On the green form I put 'tourism'. "What is the purpose of your visit?" asked the officer. I began to explain my situation. I was tired and I rambled. He cut me short. "What. Is the purpose. Of your visit. Sir?", he said, angrily. "Work", I said, and he looked at me with disgust, crossed out what I'd written on the card, stamped my passport and waved me through.
I got a train into the centre of Chicago, and wandered around aimlessly. I'd seen ice in Lake Huron as we flew in, but Lake Michigan was ice-free and it wasn't cold. I found my way to Millennium Park and Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate'.
I headed for the Sears Tower. There were almost no queues, but still it took me a long time to get to the top. There was a forced viewing of some promotional video, and then they tried to take a photo of me to superimpose on some cheesy view. This happens in all sorts of places, and I can never really believe that anyone would actually buy the photos. I waved the photographer aside and strode through to the lift.
It was an overcast, dull day and Chicago looked huge. There were not many people on the viewing platform. I got into a conversation with someone, who asked me whether I knew what a particular building was. I didn't, and presumed he was not from around here. He turned out to be a DJ from Texas and we talked about music for a while. He asked me if I was from around here, which surprised me a lot. I thought my English accent was a dead giveaway.
The DJ gave me his card, and I wandered on. The clouds seemed to be breaking up a bit, but I didn't have too much time before my flight on to Tucson, so I headed back down the tower. I got back on the metro, and as we clanked out towards O'Hare, the Sun suddenly broke out, and by the time I got to the airport the skies were completely clear.
After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. You can't do much there without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He'd just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert.
Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. It was a little bit cooler in the hills there than it had been back in Tucson. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular.
After a few hours we reached a turnoff for 'Inspiration Point'. I was initially not too fussed, as we'd already covered a lot of ground and seen some pretty inspiring things. Luckily we decided to check it out, and soon reached the most impressive viewpoint of the day.
Heading back from Chiricahua to Tucson, we passed through the tiny town of Willcox. As we crossed the railway tracks, we saw a restaurant in an old dining carriage, and on a whim we stopped. The town felt remote, and the railway reminded me of 'Bad day at Black Rock'.
The restaurant was a fantastic place. There was not much on offer for vegetarians, so I just had a starter. This was small town America where portions are vast and grease is good, and long before I'd finished it I was disgustingly full.