Holidays in Arizona: Living the American cliche

Arizona is one place that I always really fancied going to. But for one reason and another, I’d never actually made it, even when living in California at the turn of the Millennium.

But seeing as it was my 50th birthday this year, it fell to me to choose our holiday destination and so I wanted to go somewhere that felt at least vaguely meaningful. After tossing up and rejecting places like Sri Lanka, which I’d love to go to but have no emotional connection with, inspiration hit. Arizona with its red cliffs and mesas rising out of the desert floor was the only place that would do.

As I’d not returned to the US since leaving there 16 years ago, however, I didn’t want just any old vacation. It was the full American cliché or nothing: a road trip in an RV (recreational vehicle) a la Jack Kerouac – or not quite, but you know what I mean. A burst of hedonism in Vegas, Nevada, where my Beloved and I got engaged. A dash of kitsch in the stunning New Age mecca of Sedona, renowned for its energy vortexes and UFO tours. All topped off with stacks of natural wonderment at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the scene of so many old cowboy movies in the north of the Navajo Nation reservation.

Sedona
Sedona

And what do you know – the US was just as I remembered it. Big and brash and beautiful – subtlety isn’t generally the word that springs to mind for this fascinating country.

But sadly, one thing that had changed was simply the cost of the place – in fact, it was eye-wateringly expensive. In my day, eating out and going out and clothing yourself in fine raiment was a relatively cheap activity, especially when compared to the UK.

But no more. The whole sterling-crashing-through-the-floor thing since the Brexit referendum decision undoubtedly hasn’t helped, but the US is bloody pricey for a Brit these days. The country’s average median wage of $55,775 (£45,336) has shot ahead of the UK’s £27,600 and it’s reflected in the everyday cost of living.

Even in Vegas, which we initially flew into and where at one time food and drink was as cheap as chips in order to keep everyone in the casinos and in or around the gaming tables, prices were exorbitant. The most cost-effective meal we could find, for example, was an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Wicked Spoon restaurant in the Cosmopolitan casino and hotel, where we were staying, for $27 (£22) per head.

Which incidentally served truly excellent fare and meant that we didn’t have to eat again that day – just waddle back to the astounding so-called “wrap-around suite” with bedroom, living room, kitchen, two huge bathrooms and an immense balcony surrounding it (hence wrap-around, I guess) that my Beloved had cleverly managed to blag with tales of our Vegas engagement and the fact it was my 50th.

Anyway, the reason for the hike in Sin City’s food bills is, it seems, linked to hotel occupancy rates. Oversupply and dwindling demand means that they’re now hovering at around 50% so it’s all about making up the shortfall elsewhere – and that’s despite the fact that the average punter budgets to spend a huge $530 (£433) on gambling during their stay – according to the local freebie guidebook, ‘Vegas2Go’ that is anyway.

Another world

For our obligatory night of hedonism though, we decided to abandon the Strip altogether, which is uptown, and follow our taxi-driver-from-the-airport’s advice to go downtown – to Fremont Street, which is in fact the original Vegas and where it all started in the first place. And what a great decision it was.

Despite having visited for years, it was our first time there. And it was fab – just like the Vegas of old. Tacky and glitzy and over-the-top – and a fraction of the price of the now largely sanitised Strip.

The Strip, Las Vegas
The Strip, Las Vegas

One old cliché that I was pleased to see hadn’t gone bye-the-bye though was the vast quantity of food still dished up in restaurants and diners. So huge are the meals, in fact, that the only ones we didn’t share were the entrée-sized starters, and we didn’t eat many of them really – we were in an motorhome remember, which meant barbecuing most nights in one of the excellent fire pits provided in RV parks dotted around Arizona.

Incidentally so common is the whole RV experience in the state that even regular parking lots have huge spaces marked out to cater for them, which given their massive bulk is a real godsend.

And that leads me on to the life of the RVer, which it must be said is another world. A lifestyle pursued by many so-called snowbirds or retirees who sell their worldly goods to buy motorhomes and move south to warmer climes for the winter, it has a language all its own.

There are “full hook-ups”, which mean you can connect to the RV site’s water and electricity supply rather than use your own. There are dumps, which as you might suspect are special holes in the ground in which to pump your “black” (toilet residue) and “grey (washing up and shower water) waste” into the cesspit lurking beneath.

And then there are “pull-throughs”, which is shorthand for saying that on leaving, you can drive your vehicle straight through your assigned plot on the RV park rather than have to manoeuvre the damn thing to get out. Which is no mean feat.

At only 22 feet, our motorhome was just a baby known as a “Minnie Winnie” (Winnebago). I never actually quite got up the courage to drive her though, being somewhat put off by the fact that, even though my Beloved is a very experienced motorist, he spent the first couple of days racked in terror trying to handle her huge dimensions.

In fact, every time we took off across one of the vast, open plains that seemed to link many of our destinations, his arms were nearly ripped out of their sockets trying to keep her in a straight line as her massive surface area led to us being buffeted about by the wind. By the end of our trip though, it should be noted that my Beloved had developed serious RV-envy and was unable to let even one of the immense bus-size creations lumber by without obsessive online searching so he could sigh over their vital statistics.

Other great clichés

Another great cliché lived and experienced, meanwhile was getting to travel on Route 66. In fact, this most famous of US roads also known as the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road” kept popping up all over the place, and not necessarily where you’d expect either.

One of the country’s first highways connecting Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica in California and romanticised in song, we first picked it up on our initial stopover after Vegas in a non-descript town called Kingman – which nonetheless makes the most of its meagre assets by pushing itself as “The Heart of Historic Route 66”, complete with nostalgia-inspired motels and diners for tourists.

We then ran into it again passing through a similar town called Seligman. And somewhat surprisingly once again going up to the Painted Desert in the north of the Petrified Forest National Park, with its ancient trees that have turned to multi-coloured stone and crystal as a result of water containing minerals seeping through the mud, sand and volcanic ash in which they were buried and filling up the decaying wood.

But that’s Arizona for you – just full of amazing natural beauty. In fact, much as I love California, which is definitely more diverse, I would have to say that Arizona has the edge in terms of sheer, unadulterated drama – not least because it’s amazing mesas and buttes are, in the main, a breathtaking red.

And despite being a shameless tourist trap, the reddest piece de resistance of all is, of course, Monument Valley  (which is actually on the border with the state of Utah) in the 16 million acre Navajo Nation, by far the largest native American reservation in the US. Full of astounding sandstone shapes towering out of the ochre desert floor, you might well have seen it in one of director John Ford’s old cowboy movies with John Wayne as the main man.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

As to how Monument Valley came to have this starring role though, that was thanks to a white couple, Harry Goulding and the wife he nicknamed “Mike”. They had come to the area in the 1920s and established a trading post there for the Navajo tribe to exchange their livestock and handmade goods for foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

By the 1930s, however, the Great Depression had hit and people on the reservation began to starve. But Goulding had heard that a movie production company was scouting for film locations in the area and so set out with Mike for Hollywood with their last $60 in their pockets to round up interest.

A combination of luck and perseverance led to them meeting Ford, who on seeing photos of Monument Valley was sold. And the rest is history, as they say – although the plight of many native Americans in their own country is, sadly, still marred by the same poverty that afflicted them in the 1930s and the same racism that weaves through the very fabric of those old-fashioned westerns.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that, with only one or two exceptions, the Americans we met of all colours and creeds were as friendly and as positive and as welcoming as I remembered them. And I really can’t think of a better cliché to live up to than that.

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British railways: The march of the machines

When I was a kid, I always loved a nice jaunt from my then home-town of Durham in the North East of England to nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train.

Although only a short 20-minute journey away, it was one filled with anticipation and excitement as it always preceded an adventure of some kind in the big city. And no matter how many times I passed it, it always gave me a thrill to see the iconic Tyne Bridge, which was built by the same guys from Middlesbrough as the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and to a very similar design – essentially that of Hell Gate Bridge in New York City on which they were both modelled.

 

Tyne Bridge
Tyne Bridge

After living in London and the South East and undertaking hellish commutes and other assorted nightmare trips for years though, I can quite honestly say that the novelty of train travel has quite worn off. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not interested in what happens to the railways, which, even in this age of the autocratic automobile, remain an important means of getting both people and goods around the country in a relatively environmentally-friendly way.

So it was with some curiosity that I learned from my dad, who knows about such things, of a huge change going on in how our railways are managed and run. In what is being billed as the biggest shift since steam trains were abolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Network Rail, the entity responsible for looking after the UK’s rail infrastructure, is going to centralise and automate the country’s signalling operations, axing thousands of jobs and saving millions of pounds in the process.

The move will result in more than 800 Victorian-era and still surprisingly mechanical, trackside signal boxes – 89 of which have listed status in England alone – being consolidated into 12 modern-day, high tech Rail Operating Centres (ROC) in places as far-flung as Cardiff, York, Edinburgh and Romford by 2029.

The move forms part of Network Rail’s so-called National Operating Strategy, which is intended to try and improve both the capacity and performance of our railways while at the same time cutting the costs of running them – by an estimated £1.6 billion, in fact, once the Strategy is fully implemented and which one can only vainly hope will be translated into cheaper ticket prices.

But according to Michael Rhodes, author of “Resignalling Britain”, a recent supplement from Mortons Media Group, which publishes the Railway Magazine, it is these very hopes of cost reduction that are actually top of the agenda rather than any real desire to enhance the passenger experience by making things run more smoothly.

And the easiest way to achieve such goals, of course, is for Network Rail to try and automate all of its many troubles away. Which in this instance means introducing a European Railway Traffic Management System based on two components.

Impact of automisation

The first is a European Train Control System (ETCS), which will enable each vehicle to know exactly where it is on the network and to send that data back to its local ROC on a continuous basis. The ETCS will also enable in-cab signalling – and it is this particular little innovation that will make trackside signal boxes surplus to requirements.

All of this information will then be fed into a new Traffic Management System, which will help operators both optimise network capacity and the movement of trains around that network, particularly if trouble strikes anywhere. The aim here is to minimise delays by an anticipated 20% and improve the accuracy of passenger information at the same time.

“It is this Traffic Management System that looks certain to bring the biggest savings,” Rhodes says. “As train operating companies levy heavy penalties for delays, Network Rail can potentially reduce these fines substantially using TMS.”

But as ever with these things, there will be human casualties as part of the shift too, with the number of signalmen employed across the UK likely to fall from 5,000 to 500 over the coming years.

As Rhodes points out, “the driving force behind the ROC strategy is, of course, the savings on salaries”, otherwise known as cutting operational expenditure. He estimates that if 4,500 jobs with an average salary of £30,000 a year are axed, it adds up to a substantial “potential saving of £135 million per annum”.

Other hefty savings will also emerge from no longer having to repair and renovate ageing signal boxes, which when taken together with staff wage bills had become an unwanted expense amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Signal box
Signal box

But the move in more human terms will, sadly, lead to the disappearance of a way of life that goes back over 100 years along with its traditional paraphernalia of manual crossing gates, paraffin lamps in the signals and such like – a heritage that many who grew up loving the railways will feel an inevitable nostalgia for.

On the other hand, confirmed materialists may be wondering just what all of the fuss is about – why worry about a few thousand jobs going over the next few decades when one in six UK steel workers are losing their livelihoods now and the demise of the British steel industry is widely feared to be imminent?

The rise of AI

But the move is an interesting one, not least for what it points to in terms of future employment trends. According to a report by Oxford University and management consultancy Deloitte, a massive 35% of existing UK jobs will be wiped over the next two decades due to computerisation and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines.

AI is a particularly clever kind of software, often referred to as a robot, that can learn what to do based on patterns found in data – in a similar way that a person might learn to play music by ear. So it can be trained to provide particular responses based on the information that it reads – for example, it could be programmed to monitor and deduce whether you are likely to have a heart attack by studying your vital signs over a given period of time.

This means that in some areas, AI-based systems are simply more effective and efficient – and cheaper, of course – at performing labour-intensive, mundane admin tasks than humans. Such activities might include sifting through CVs based on pre-defined parameters for recruitment purposes, or even answering call centre queries and advising remote workers in the field – as is the case with an avatar called Amelia who is currently being trialled at a handful of big corporations such as NTT Group, Shell Oil and Accenture.

 

Robot
Robot

But the implication of all this is that, in the same way that computer automation did for lots of blue-collar jobs in the past, so AI-based automation will hammer white-collar employment.

Some commentators have even claimed that the technology will spark off another Industrial Revolution, with all of the dislocation and social upheaval that this implies.

But others are more sanguine. They believe that AI systems will simply supplant particular roles and tasks that are widespread today, with low-skilled workers, as ever, bearing the brunt.

On the bright side though, other previously unthought-of, higher skilled jobs will inevitably emerge from the ashes to save at least some people’s day. Who would have thought such positions as digital marketer or data scientist would have existed only a few years ago, for example?

And so the march of progress continues, it seems. Which is fine – as long as we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course.