Here’s part two of our incredible voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of the United States of America.
Literally out of this world! That’s the only way I can describe parts of Colorado and Arizona – almost extra-terrestrial. I feel like I need to include a disclaimer here – unlike Matt Damon, I haven’t been to Mars, and so I can only imagine that the red planet vaguely resembles this part of the United States. Words literally fall short when trying to describe how absolutely stunning this landscape is. You begin to believe in a higher power when you see this kind of natural beauty. Carved by time, and the forces of nature, the land looks ethereal and very different from what we would normally associate with natural beauty. Stark, serene and spellbinding – this is countryside made up of earth and rock, with little vegetation. And there’s vivid drama at every turn, and beyond every horizon.
As we drove through Kansas and approached the border with Colorado, the topography began to change. It had been changing with every few hundred miles already, but there was something different starting to set in. Forms and shapes began to appear out of the rock. This land seemed to have a spirit – a soul. I had heard about it, but seeing it reveal itself as we sped on was something else. Colorado is a state known for its abundance of nature’s goodness. Mountains, canyons, rivers and lakes – it’s got it all. From the snowy ski slopes of Aspen, to the unbelievable red landscape of Denver, not to mention the Native American reservations and even Pikes Peak – Colorado really has a lot to offer.
Our first destination was Colorado Springs – which sits at the base of Pikes Peak – the highest mountain (4,302 metres) in the Front Range of the Rockies. Azure skies, cotton-candy clouds, and that crisp rejuvenating mountain air – now if that doesn’t get you going, nothing will! We had arrived in Colorado Springs in the dead of night, and after we checked into our hotel it was time for some much-needed sleep. But I was still up bright and early, and boy was I glad to be. It allowed me to step out for a run, and start to take in some of what I’ve described to you. As the oxygen reaches the lungs, and your heart rate goes up, your body releases endorphins. The whole experience is perfect when the senses also light up to the surroundings. You can hear the sound of the birds and the breeze rustle the fall leaves. You can smell the pine and amber hints of the forest. You can see the dazzling white of the fresh snow on the peaks around you. There’s nothing quite like it. Once I was back with the group, and ready for the day, we began our drive to Pikes Peak.
The road section begins at the Ute pass, and has a strong automotive connect – with enthusiasts, motorsport professionals and automobile manufacturers using its twisty ascent to prove their credentials in a competitive world. We stopped at the Crystal Reservoir at the base of the mountain for some pictures, and I was just happy to be there. Then we began the climb ourselves. It’s a pleasant and picturesque drive, and if you love to drive the road will make you very happy indeed. It turns and twists perfectly as it snakes its way up.
Given the snow on the peak itself, a weather advisory had forced the authorities to close the top third of the road. This meant that we could only drive 13 of the total 19 miles. As disappointing as that was, we weren’t about to question the decision of the professionals whose responsibility it was to care for the mountain, and the people on it. We got to the point where the cars had to turn back, and it was our first brush with snow on this entire journey. There was bright sunshine and blue skies, yet the occasional snow flurries got all of us very excited to see the white stuff! It was cold too, with the wind-chill contributing further – and Dhruv’s arctic outfit was testimony to that. I, on the other hand, was happy to be in a full-sleeved t-shirt – maybe those endorphins had messed with my brain! Thinking about it, after all these days, as I write this is giving me chills now. And what a view – the whole experience was sheer magic.
The next morning, we began our long drive to Durango. Once again, I was astounded by the sheer beauty that we saw as we drove. At one point, we came upon a view of the flat valley below us – and it was like in the movies. Brown and unchanging for miles with a straight road extending into the horizon, like a little ribbon against the stark countryside – and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. I was totally blown away by it, as were the others. Durango was the last stop for us in Colorado, but I didn’t despair because I know that I’ll be back one day…
The Grand Canyon has to be seen to be experienced – it simply can’t be described in words or pictures. This is what I had heard about this natural wonder. And it is indeed true. The Grand Canyon is something that we’ve all heard of, something we’ve seen pictures of, and even seen captured in documentaries, television shows or Hollywood’s big canvas. So it’s a known entity. The Colorado River cut through the rock and formed a gorge that extends for miles. The area is desert-like, and the rock is red, and so what you get is a magnificent canyon – yup, I knew all that. But when you drive up to its rim and see it for the first time – it takes your breath away. You literally forget who you are, why you’re on this planet, and who put you here. Everything else fades away when you’re confronted with the magnitude of what lies before you. If nature did that, then nature is so much bigger than anything you could ever imagine.
We got to see the Canyon from our cars, on foot, and by air – as we also took a chopper ride over the south rim. The Grand Canyon extends 446-kilometers in length, is 18-kilometres wide at its widest point, and the deepest it goes to is 1.8 kilometres. Its extremities are shared with Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, but most of it – including the best parts – lie in Arizona.
As you walk down the slopes and head out onto the farthest rock that extends into the chasm below, your head starts spinning. As you gingerly make your way to the ledge – as far as your heart will brave – you have to stop and appreciate the one fact that you knew all along; that you’re so much smaller than all this. That you’re a tiny grain in the larger picture that is this universe. Yes, a visit to the Grand Canyon will make you philosophical. It’ll likely make you spiritual and emotional too!
Rubbing is Racing
There’s a phrase in America, ‘Rubbing is Racing.’ And it’s a mantra that NASCAR holds very close to its heart. Unless, they’re trading paint, they’re not really racing. It’s elbows out, engines revving, and hearts pounding. It’s all quite primal actually!
And that’s what Siddharth and I were set to experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway – well, part of it anyway – just a few miles away from the bright lights of the strip. Richard Petty is a 7-time NASCAR champion. He’s raced in a thousand races, and he’s won 20% of them – which adds up to 200 races no less. So, he knows a thing or two about driving a NASCAR. Well, he also knows a little bit about helping others experience what it’s like to drive one of these monstrous race cars. His racing school has helped over a million ordinary folks jump into the cockpit and experience the sheer thrill of piloting one of these mean machines.
The car appears (and sounds) quite intimidating at first. It looks as though you’d need 15-inch biceps to steer it around the 20-degree banking of the Las Vegas Speedway. The wheels are small, but the slick tyres are massive. The cars themselves are quite large. Essentially, they’re tubular space-frames clothed in familiar shapes – made to resemble Toyotas, Fords and Chevys that you can buy at your nearest dealership. Their old-school pushrod V8s put out about 600 horses – all of which are transmitted though a four-speed manual transmission with long throws to the rear wheels.
The GLA Adventure production crew was kind enough to enrol us in the 8-lap experience. We started off with a short classroom session of do’s and don’ts. There were 20 of us on that Sunday morning, and we would share four cars between us. The first challenge was actually getting into the car to begin with. Since the body is merely a shell, there are no doors. So we were to get in through the windows like the NASCAR regulars would. That means first swinging both legs in through the driver-side window, and then squeezing your upper body in through the tight opening – which isn’t the easiest thing in the world when you’re wearing a helmet and HANS device that holds your neck firmly in place.
Next, the steering wheel goes on. And its good thing it’s fitted after you’re firmly in your seat because it’s nothing short of huge. It forces you to sit back, with your arms wide, and recline in the racing seat that you’re so tightly strapped into.
The instructor plugs in the radio, so you can hear him or her clearly throughout. The instructions are quite simple really. The racing line is marked out in paint, so all you really have to do is look out for the cones that indicate the turn-in point and then stay within the gates that have been painted on the track to keep you on the ideal line. As we exit the pit lane, we go through the gears – first, second, third, and then fourth – before we even get out on the track. The first thing you notice is the immense torque of the V8 motor. Even at slow speeds in fourth gear, the engine pulls cleanly and with a definite sense of urgency. The second thing you notice is just how light the steering actually is. The third thing that takes you by surprise is just how natural it feels riding the 20-degree banking – whether it’s on the straights or in the corners. We start off slow, and then begin to build the speed. There are cones at the corner exit that tell you when to apply the power. We stay in fourth throughout, flat on the power on the straights, coast through the two tight bends at both ends of the oval (we don’t touch the brakes at all) and then back on the power at the exit. After about three laps I start to really feel comfortable in the car, and become far more aggressive with the throttle. It just feels completely planted at all times.
The car is designed to turn left, so it’s most comfortable through the corners. On the straights, it wants to pull to the left – so you have to hold the wheel at a slight angle and really force it to stay up high on the banking to give you the right line in the next bend.
The instructor has a dial through which she can adjust the amount of horsepower I have under my right foot based on how I’m behaving. It all finishes so quickly that I forget to ask her if she allowed me access to the full 600. We only really got six full laps. The first one is an out lap, and the final one is a cooling down lap. And six laps of about 45-seconds each finish in a flash – especially when you’re learning a new track and a new car for the first time.
On the final lap, we averaged 125mph (200km/h) and hit a top-speed of 140mph (225km/h) – which isn’t spectacular, but enough to give me a sense of what these cars are like to drive. I was nowhere close to the limit, but managed to push enough to get a sense of just how capable – and surprisingly easy to drive – these cars really are. Battling with 30 other cars, sometimes with four-wide going through a corner, is another thing altogether though!
All in all, it was great fun – even though it was over much too soon. And like driving any other race car for the first time, it was a case of tasting blood. And now that I have a taste for it, of course I want more… much more!
Having seen the colours of the fall season on the east coast, the vast grasslands of the midlands, then crossing the Rocky Mountains, and traversing along the greatest canyon in the world, we’ve now reached the deserts of Nevada. We’ve been under cloudy skies for a couple of days, but as we enter Nevada and make our way to Sin City, the clouds cleared, and the greatest light show of our trip began.
As we drive on the highway, we’re immersed in the darkness of the desert – but above us is the shimmering of trillions of stars and galaxies that has us captivated. We decided to take the next exit onto a narrow, deserted road, which we continued down till there wasn’t a vehicle or building in sight. We parked the cars and got out for a better look. It takes just a couple of minutes for the eyes to adjust to the complete darkness – and, then, as you continue to look up, the trail of the Milky Way becomes increasingly brighter. We stood and stared in amazement, as shooting stars became a common occurrence.
We tried to capture some night shots, and experimented with different techniques to get the best shot. But, then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a bright light began to shine on us from one of the mountains in the distance. Initially, we truly had no idea what to make of it. It wasn’t until it got higher in the sky that we realized that it was actually the moon making an appearance over the horizon. It was bright and full, and it appeared out of nowhere to transform the starlit sky into a bright void. Only a few stars were now visible, and so we decided to get back on track.
After just another hour of driving, we encountered our second light show of the night. Just over the next set of hills there seemed to be a yellow glow, or haze even – but this time we already knew what it was. Past the next bend, the highway began to descend and right in front of us lay the city of Las Vegas – which, to Dhruv and my amazement, was bigger than we remembered. What was once just a handful of lights that welcomed visitors was now stretched across the entire valley into a massive city. We made our way through the city and checked into the Luxor Hotel, which was to be our home for the next two nights. So, after spending the last couple of nights in tiny mountain towns we were now staying in Las Vegas, and that too, on one of the most maddening and mischievous nights of the year – Halloween!
The next day, somehow, we managed to wake up at a decent hour – despite spending some time at the tables on the casino floor the previous night. We had planned a day-trip to the Hoover Dam, and so we grabbed a quick breakfast and went on our way. The Hoover Dam was built on the Colorado River in the Black Canyon, and is situated right on the border of Arizona and Nevada just 40 miles south of Vegas. Construction of the concrete gravity arch damn began in 1931, and took 5 years to complete with over 100 workers losing their lives during construction. The large lake formed behind the damn is known as Lake Mead, and it’s the largest water reservoir in the United States by volume. The dam’s generators provide enough power for public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona, and California. It’s also one of the greatest architectural and engineering marvels in the country. After admiring the dam, we made our way back to Las Vegas to get ready for a night of debauchery. After all, we were in Sin City. But, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
The next day, we had a long, straight drive through the vast and uninhabited desert to Lake Tahoe. Essentially, there were long stretches with nothing in sight for miles. We drove well into the night, and finally entered Reno – another gambling hotspot, but nothing compared to Vegas. As we drove further, the casinos suddenly disappeared and we knew we had entered California. We reached late once again, and got a good nights’ sleep. The next morning, however, we were in for a huge surprise. When we awoke, everything was covered in snow. Yes, it does snow in California too.
Lake Tahoe is situated at a height of 6,225 feet, and it’s one of the most beautiful destinations in the country. The multiple shades of blue and turquoise on this massive lake, with the high snow covered mountains and pine forests surrounding it are absolutely stunning. Lake Tahoe was definitely one of the highlights of this leg of the trip. So, if you’re ever in this part of the world definitely do take some time out to visit this magical place.
It’s only fitting that the US leg of the GLA Adventure should finish in San Francisco. I’ve had the chance to live in the Bay Area for a couple of years, and I can tell you that the sheer beauty of this part of the world doesn’t wear off one bit – no matter how jaded you may become. The golden gate; the glimmering pacific; the beautiful skyline of San Francisco, and the hills along the coast – none of it gets old! And so it was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to our three-pointed steeds and boarded the plane heading East. All of us were happy to be heading home to our families of course, but the journey had left such an impression and had created so many lifelong memories that getting back to the daily grind once again was difficult to say the least. But that’s why we travel, isn’t it – to get away from it all, to meet new people, and to widen our horizons? Well, the GLA Adventure has done that, and quite a bit more, for all of us fortunate enough to be part of this incredible journey. We hope we’ve been successful, via the magazine and the TV show, in taking you along for the ride. So stay tuned, but be patient – you may have to wait a couple of issues before we can bring you the South American leg of this epic adventure…