Through Gates Pass on the Road to Old Tucson Studios

impairedRight, so we are out past Little Italy – built under a truce so that elderly mobsters from rival families could retire to an exclusive desert community and live side-by-side in peace – but even so, I don’t think martini drinkers are the problem.

Out here, it’s much more a drive-your-pickup-offroad-and-drink-a-sixpack-in-the-setting-sun-while-taking-potshots-at-cacti-and-signage kind of country.


snakesAnd anyway, the major threat to human wellbeing seems to be neither drunk drivers nor stray shotgun pellets, but giant arrow-headed snakes that can move faster than you can run.


rocksOh, and rocks.


Geoglyphs, Central Arizona Plateau

Today we rented a small plane – the smallest and scariest I have ever been in – from a private airstrip north of Tucson. Fortunately, the pilot stubbornly refused to comply with any of the appropriate stereotypes – not a slightly nutty veteran or a UFO abductee or an alcoholic, neither a barnstormer nor a cropsprayer. Indeed, Celeste bore no resemblance whatsoever to Randy Quaid. Just paying off her student loans as best she could. She was very calm, very professional, all business. She gave us a strict talking to about the differences between big-ass passenger jets and single props, and as soon as she realised we were not really interested in all the other tourist stuff, she flew us low and fast to the escarpment, and then climbed steeply up and over the Central Arizona Plateau. She know exactly what we wanted to see – something that can only be seen from the air.

plateau 1
Triple Cross geoglyph

These highlands are believed to have been occupied by a people the Navajo call Anaasází, which means ‘ancestors of our enemies’ but is now taken to mean ‘ancient people’ or ‘ancient ones’. The Anaasází date back to the 12th century BCE. The immense geoglyphs that adorn the Plateau are older even than that. There is no consensus among archaeologists about their age, other than that they predate Peru’s much better known Nazca lines by at least a millennium (that is, to the time of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom); but they may be far older than that.

They were discoveredby a geologist called William Dyer during the Great Depression while he was testing equipment – aeroplanes and cold weather gear – for an Antarctic expedition, but little else is known about his subsequent career. He is said to have been sceptical about the patterns his pilot discerned –  the designs are generally abstract, and there are certainly no zoomorphic or phytomorphic designs like those found in Peru – until he observed the regularity of the lines in the Triple Cross formation. Later expeditions, funded through Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, mapped some four dozen geoglyphs; excavation of several sites showed the figures, some of which cover several kilometres, to have been formed by digging shallow trenches into the surface rock so as to reveal darker rock below. To date, though, archaeologists have found few traces of the people who created the geoglyphs. Anaasází oral tradition offers no real clues, either.

We could only afford our pilot and plane for a few hours, so reluctantly we turned back in the early afternoon. I will post a full gallery of photos on Facebook when I get a chance, but here are a few more that we took.

plateauplateau 7plateau 6plateau 4plateau 3

1 Pueblo Indians claim always to have known of the geoglyphs, and there is no reason to doubt them. Although the forms are said only to be visible from the air, many of them can in fact be made out from the upper slopes of the Barrier Mountains at the north and east of the Plateau.

Hospitals 2014; or, the dreary mid-90s again

Last year I got to spend time being treated in three different hospitals.*

First up, King’s College Hospital after Clapham – as a reminder of the extent to which I should despise that particular part of Lambeth  – tried to kill me. Having collapsed in the street and stopping breathing for a while, I can remember nothing of the next hour or two, other than a brief moment of lucidity in which I threw up copiously but with great precision in the back of an ambulance. A shift change at the hospital, and the desire not to diagnose me with something that would require me to stay in overnight, saw me discharged with no clear idea as to what had happened: food poisoning from an overpriced Clapham brunch seemed unlikely, but the symptoms did fit poisoning by strychnine or a particular kind of mushroom, so perhaps the food had been contaminated; or maybe it was brain seizure.

Second, six months later, Bristol Royal Infirmary, and a neurologist pissed off at the unconscionable delay in me getting an appointment to see him, amused by the suggestion of food poisoning, not entirely sceptical of the food contaminant possibilities, but pretty certain it was a tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure.

A few weeks later, Southmead Hospital for an MRI scan. Everyone says the MRI is claustrophobic, but looking at the machine I could not see why. MRIHowever, lying down and sliding into it – with my head in a brace to restrict motion, headphones cutting off the sound and a Hannibal Lecter-ish mask over my face to keep me from smashing my nose to a pulp if I panicked and sat up suddenly – I started to be convinced. I moved the panic button from my right hand to my left so that I would not press it unless I really did need to get out of there. The headphones allow the people in the control room to speak to you, but their real purpose is to protect you from the noise. MRIs are really really noisy. Even with the headphones on, you can hear enough clanking and grinding, humming and screeching, to picture giant lumps of magnet whirling around at a deadly pace just inches from your head (I am pretty certain this is not how the machine actually works).

It was a lot like the mid-90s, trying to sleep in a too-small pup tent a couple of fields over from the worst ever rave.

I resolved to close my eyes and count off the minutes – one Mississippi, two Mississippi – but you cannot keep up even that kind of minimal focus. And after about ten or twelve oddly drowsy minutes without hearing from the control room, you begin to wonder whether they have all been killed by zombies. And just how long should you stay in the machine before scrambling out  to go and check?

And, finally, a week or so later, back to the BRI for an EEG. Twenty-four electrodes glued to your head, and another fifteen minutes of lying still, not exactly falling asleep. eegThis included three minutes of continuous willed hyperventilation, which is not easy and leaves you giddy and a bit nauseous, and a couple of minutes of having an extremely bright light positioned inches from your eyes flickering at increasingly rapid bps to see if it triggers another seizure. Mid-fucking-90s again, again.

Some time in early 2015, I guess I will be back there again to find out for certain that they haven’t found out for certain what it was all about.  Ho hum.

*In the whole rest of my life, I have only ever been treated in hospital three other times.** Once at Derriford A&E on Christmas morning when muggers left me unconscious in an alley (the subsequent generosity of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board enabled me to buy my first ever computer, but it was an Amstrad, which was a lot like being mugged all over again). Then Wycombe General, every other Friday for eight months when I was having chemotherapy. And the BRI a couple of years ago when I slipped on ice and dislocated my shoulder, an injury I blame on gentrification – nipping to the shops to buy garlic and olive oil rather than making do with an onion and some lard.

** Actually, thinking about it, this is not true. There have been a couple of others, but mentioning them would kind of ruin the effect.

Kartchner Caverns (the Big Room)

kartchner-gen1Travel south and east out of Tucson, past adverts on bus-stop benches for the advertising spaces on bus-stop benches, a bikini-topped brunette urging you to EXPOSE YOURSELF DAILY.

Past banners for the upcoming gun fair, now in its fortieth year.

Through the Boneyard and down the Technology Corridor and across the creosote flats.

DRIVE HAMMERED GET NAILED, say the electronic signs spanning the 10.

Then down the 90. Behind you, the Sonoran desert – you’ve not seen a saguaro in miles – and ahead, that stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert that reaches up into Arizona.

On your left, Cochise Stronghold, where the Chiricahua Apache leader defeated and then was defeated by Confederate soldiers, and where, years later, he was buried.

On your right, Cochise Terrace RV Park.

In the distance, over the Huachuca Mountains, hovers a black speck, a remotely-operated dirigible sprouting sensor arrays. The border with Mexico is not far away. (Last time we were out this way, looping back from Tombstone and Bisbee, we got stopped at a Border Patrol roadblock. Fortunately, I am white, speak English and, by chance, had my passport on me.)

Into the misnamed Whetstone Mountains.

The visitor centre is informative, but not dangerously so. There is a short film about the spelunkers discovering the caverns and the fourteen years in which the existence of this network of caves and tunnels and grottoes was kept a secret so as to keep them safe. For some reason, it is scored like a Harry Potter film.

The temperature and humidity hit you the moment you step through the first of six doors and into the first of five airlocks. Outside, it is dry and sunny but chilly in the breeze and cold in the shade; inside, it is warm and wet.

Inside, it is a speleological phantasmagoria.

Stalagmites and stalactites. Soda straws and sodamites [stet]. Vermiform eruptions of gravity-confounding helictites. Like curly fries, or crazy clumpy cartoon wigs caught in a strong wind and instantaneously frozen in their disarray. Dripstone chandeliers. Flowstone like sheets of bacon, like giant Frazzles encased in glossy resin so people will believe my tales of British cuisine in the 1970s. Brushite moonmilk. Totem poles to ancient gods, blurry now. Fried eggs. Popcorn. The colour of strawberries. Anaemic root vegetables. Rust carrots. Ectoplasmic figures as convincing as the luminous muslins extruded by hoodwinking table-rappers must have seemed a century ago. A scarecrow sack-face. Delicate white chocolate confections. Precise one centimetre crenellations. Schools of jellyfish and contorted cephalopods. Rock anemones. A scurrying Nazca spider composed of smudges and folds and cracks. Scallops, their size dependent on the speed and constancy of the flood that swept through and scooped them from the rockface. Candles: some like you find in bistros, the wax overrunning the bottles that hold them; others, stubby and squat, in barely tidy twos and threes as if around an erotic thriller’s bubble bath (you half expect to see a glass of white wine, or some vanilla paraphernalia). A Dimetrodon grandis, turning onto its back as it slowly sink through the rock, breaches this unsuspected world’s stony sky, but all that is left after 270 million years are its spines, fossilised. Around the corner, Dagon towers, distorted, melting, screaming in agony; from its back, a xenomorph’s jaws tear into the air. Near the end, Miss Havisham’s wedding cake opens out like a Rorschach blot, dazzling white, reaching up to the highest point of the Big Room. The female bats give birth there. It is the warmest part of the cave, and it gives newborns their best chance to learn to fly on the one long drop they get. Three hundred thousand years old, they think the caves are, and the bats – no bigger than your thumb – have roosted there every summer for a sixth of that. The oil from their bodies blackens patches of the roof. Their guano, covered in fungus and home to a dozen kinds of troglophile and troglobite, lies in mounds: cavern caviar.

And then it is done. Only three doors and two airlocks, the first of which is musty, like grandma’s fruit cellar, the ranger suggests, but it is more like old books.

It is odd to emerge from darkness into light, to pass from the warm to the cold.

96-03Kartchner_18_Cave-dripping-wall_fullframeKACA_01Kartchner, Tombstone, Coronado N.F 023kartchnerbacon