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Yikes, looks like I’ve been doing too much travelig and not enough blogging. Ok, I didn’t undertake the trip to blog, but I do want to keep you folks updated. So here goes, week 2, Yosemite Valley and San Francisco.

Yosemite

Ansel Adams wrote that Yosemite Valley is “always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Between quotes like that and so many iconic images of the place, I wasn’t, however, expecting to be surprised when I arrived. Indeed, having visited so many beatific superlatives in the USA, I was worried that ennui would set in with a tell-tale shrug of ‘who cares?’

However, as I seem to discover time and time again in this country, I needn’t have worried. At the ‘Tunnel View’ viewpoint, where you stop to first set eyes on Yosemite Valley – and, trust me, you will stop – you look out at a picture you will have seen thousands of times, but still feel like you’re the first to stumble on this natural paradise. Even surrounded by crowds of equally stunned visitors, you’ll feel like the only one there.

Awesome peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome – which provide rock climbers with a vertical slice of heaven – wowed us, albeit from a comfortable distance (there’s no way I’m scaling those sheer faces). The spring snowmelt ensured the waterfalls showed their gushing best – Bridal Falls, for instance, shimmered sublimely in the sunshine, so I clicked away on the camera till my finger hurt.

We donned our crampons – cunningly kept from our Grand Canyon excursion, and beat a path up into the snowline of the hills and far, far away from the hustle and bustle of our pre-holiday lives. The only thing disturbing the calm were the thunder of distant avalanches and ominous signs that black bears were on the loose after hibernation. With a backpack full of ursine goodies like berries, fruit and chocolate, I had turned myself into bear bait.

Needn’t have worried too much though – the nearest we see to a black bear is, by the roadside, an overfed Alsatian which we nickname (unimaginatively) “Bear Dog”. However, we do see a bobcat stalking prey at dusk. Now, its name seems cute enough – a cat named ‘bob’. Don’t be fooled – these things are bigger than Dobermans and much more feral. They look like proper ‘big cats’ – and as I creep closer with my camera, it stares me out without flinching an inch. Spooked, I backed off and made my way back to the car. Aye, Yosemite is wild alright, but thankfully not dangerous. Just wild and beautiful.

San Francisco

What a city! I want to live here, now! Entering San Francisco for about four days, we’re blown away by how much untamed countryside surrounds it. In London, you can drive an hour and a half without seeing a single field, but not here. With giant redwood forests to the north, huge Pacific waves to the west, mountain ranges to the east, and rolling, green hills to the south, rugged nature is never too far. Like sexy-looking Sydney in Oz, San Fran’s vast harbour area leading out to the Pacific makes this town look good. But it’s not the wildlife we’re here for – it’s an uncut shot in the arm of pure urban fix.

That said, we can’t resist a trip to Half Moon Bay to kind of transition from wilderness to city. About 20 drive from the financial district, this is the home to the infamous Mavericks wave, the biggest surfable break in the US. Adrenalin junkies risk life and limb paddling through frigid, shark-infested waters, to reach 20 foot monster waves, while we sip hot chocolates from the cosy confines of our car.

Next is must-see feat of engineering that is the groovy Golden Gate bridge, whose 2.5 miles or so round-trip we make on foot. We later discover that it’s a far better to rent bikes from the harbour and ride the whole way to Sausalito (in Marin county) for cocktails at sunset. We had sound advice from a local girl I know about the cocktails part, but not about the bikes. We blew it there – we enjoy the walk out, but it’s a blister-fest on the return leg.

Every city has its clichés – but you can’t be a snob, you have to see them. Preferably with child-like eyes, but without their lack of sensitivity to locals. So of course we check out the other tourist trails hot spots like Haight Ashbury, the far out epicentre of the hippy movement. Sure, the place is crawling with teens trying to ‘be authntic’ by being street urchins, and we overhear one such alt kid kid boast that his, like, dog had, like, taken LSD, man. Yet there are many human remains from the era, and we chat to mellow hobos who haven’t left the place since its hippy heyday – still living the dream, bearded and weirded but older. Most have hilariously honest begging signs such as “Let’s face it, I need a beer” and witty ones like “Father killed by ninjas, need money for karate lessons.” The place has a humour and civility about it. Colour bursts from every surface – I loved checking out the old and new street art from the 60s to present day on house, shop and street walls. We ate in lower Haight, at Burger Grill, which offers a burger “you must eat before you die,” according to Oprah Winfrey, of all people.

Locals loathe Pier 39, apparently, but we can’t resist this tacky tourist trap. The main reason was the shellfish bounty on offer here – Dungeness crab and clam chowder are must-eats in this seaside city sprawl. So we eat our fill, getting hands-on with crab and garlic fries – and pretty much reek of garlic for days afterwards.

San Fran also offers us a good ‘civilisation’ stop where we can sort a few things out. Same day opticians replace a lost pair of prescription sunglasses fast, a mobile phone store give me a new charger for free (San Franciscans are so nice, helpful and friendly), and we’re able to burn memory cards to disc to send back home for protection. We end up sorting so many things that we almost forget we’re on holiday. So we take advantage of the city’s excellent public transport system and visit other wonderful neighbourhoods such as Mission and Castro, sampling the excellent nightlife on offer. This would be a great city to live in, and it’s a fantastic one to visit. Next stop, the South Pacific!

Peace and love, 2010.

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Strange rumblings in San Clemente yesterday.

Stalked by hunger, we stopped in the marina area of this town for lunch. Little did we know how, having sauntered casually in, we would be rattled frantically out.

1.30-3.25
The big yellow disc hangs high and goes about its business of sending hot rays to the California coast. We crank up the AC as we roll through the OC – Orange County – so are cool in our car, a cherry red bombshell nicknamed Cherry d’Amour.

Strong hunger pangs pierce the calm of our Easter Sunday transfer from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We steer off the freeway onto the coastal route, scouring the streets for scran. Yet the wealth-on-their-sleeves beach towns of Huntington, Laguna et al are hopping with Easter fever, there’s nowhere to easily stop, no simple parking spaces, so we roll on and on and out of options.

Two bellies groan and whinge and rumble. 6 miles under the freeway, south-so-east in Baja, rumbles of a very different kind, at least their rumours, start.

3.25pm.
We pull into the marina at San Clemente, and hungrily duck into a tacky eaterie that serves food and isn’t a MacDonalds, Wendy’s or Denny’s. A buxom, tattooed waitress tells us they start serving dinner at 3.30pm. Dinner? Hey ho. So we order dinner for lunch.

3.35pm.
The rumbles have grown intense. We try to appease them with offers of the just-arrived bread basket and unlimited soda refills. As they calm, a major fault in the Earth rumbles and registers an earthquake at 7.2 on the Richter scale, a huge one, a shallower, more dangerours one than Chile.

3.40pm.
The restaurant starts swaying. Immediately I’m on alert. We’re on the marina but are we on stilts? I thought we were on terra firma. We are on terra firma. But it’s swaying. Our waitress stops before she reaches our table, her eyes wide and frozen in a shocked, fearful impression. And it doesn’t stop. It’s an earthquake.

The table of dinner-at-3.30pm-eating Californians next to us excitedly confirms it to each other. Disdfainfuly, they exclaim how exciting it is. But it’s not exciting for us. We’ve never been in an earthquake before and don’t know what to do when one hits. And, being British, we certainly don’t want to show any emotion about it, or communicate with strangers about for fear of not being able to leave the conversation so we sit there numbly, waiting and watching patiently for things to happen.

Light fittings start swinging violently back and forth – rythmically at first, then with increasing violence. The whole place and everything in it is swinging back and forth. I’m thinking, if I was in the band I wouldn’t be playing on – I’m ready to dive into the drink.

Nothing else happens. After and extremely long 45 seconds, it stops. And measures about 6.4 in the Richter Scale in the San Diego area. One of the biggest in for years.

3.45pm
Our dinner lunch arrives. There is more of my soup outside of the bowl than in it. But that’s ok. My stomach isn’t rumbling any more, and neither is the Earth (until now one of the most stable things I’ve ever known). Unlike hunger, earthquakes are unpredictable. Even when the impact is limited to a weird shaking and swaying – albeit of ‘everything’ – they can be pretty scary.

Hard to imagine how much more terrifying what it was like near the epicentre in Baja (eerily, our next destination), or the horror of the recent quakes in Chile and of course, Haiti. We are powerless to control these trememdous forces of nature.

Yet it’s life-affirming and exciting to come out of it unscathed. And it’s far more interesting than a run around Dulwich park on a gloomy spring morning in London. I just hope it’s the last one we experience this trip.

Leaving Flagstaff
If you look out my hotel window this evening in Flagstaff, you’ll see snow drifts getting higher, above 5 foot. However, all I see is tomorrow’s 172 mile journey to Monument Valley being in jeopardy. Overnight, a further 17 inches fell in this mountain town which averages over 100 inches per year – placing it amongst the US’s snowiest cities.

Amazingly, we wake to clear skies. The snow plough teams have been out and seem to have summoned the sun to keep the roads clear and hot for us. We seize our window and high tail it to Monument Valley before the next big storm blows in from the Pacific.

Monument Valley

Wind whips up dust devils in mesmerising red whirls as we approach Monument Valley. We pull over to get out and perch at the rim of the rocky canyon, almost waiting for a message from the valley to let us enter these mysterious, sacred tribal lands. As the powdery clouds disperse, a Navajo guide emerges from the dust storm to welcome us, and show us the mysterious, alien landscape that emerges from below.

It being winter, we practically have the place to ourselves. As such, though we’re in one of the most recognisable Western movie landscapes on the planet, it feels like we might as well be on Mars, or the set of a sci-fi film. For a start, absolutely everything is red – a deep, intense umber that shifts shades as the sun arcs. And then there are those weird shapes that the valley is famous for. Flat-topped mountains – or sandstone buttes, as the geologists call them – rise out of the rust-coloured, rocky ground. They seem proud, magnificent – the stories they could tell! Since rocks can’t speak, someone else explains to us the area’s rich history.

The Navajo Nation manage these lands and our guide is a native American from that tribe. guide – these are Navajo nation lands – explains how you can literally see about 70 million year’s of Earth’s history written into the rock face. More interestingly, what turns out to be the best ’camp fire story’ we have heard to date, he tells us bewitching stories of the Navajo’s history in this area.

We leave awe-stricken, not just by the landscape, but also with a better understanding and a profound respect for the native people that thrived in this unforgiving, yet visually incredible area. Next stop, Colorado, and Puebloan Indian cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde!

Mesa Verde

We leave the geological jaw dropper that is Monument Valley, and head through the ‘Four Corners’ – the only place in the US where four states meet on one point (Arizona, Utah, Colorado & New Mexico) – to reach Mesa Verde, where we’ll see how America’s Puebloan ancestors used to live.

Situated in Colorado, Mesa Verde park protects over 4,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings from people who lived there from A.D. 600 to 1300. Seeing the improbably-situated cliff dwellings is the key reason we have come here. You kind of expect them to be a wee bit of shelter where people huddled under with a few rugs – and then you see them and see just how wrong you were There are entire villages built into cliffs – with buildings including 3 story apartment blocks with balconies – and that’s from A.D. 1200. Some British councils can barely get such accommodation right today! People farmed on the ‘mesa’ or land above the canyon above, and brought rocks up from the valley. How they did this I have no idea. I have enough trouble clambering over a seven foot wall to get into my flat when I’m locked out, let alone climb 500 foot up or down a sheer cliff laden with this week’s shopping or the spoils of an IKEA spree.

The best part of Mesa Verde however, wasn’t just looking at the long abandoned cliff dwellings – it was visualising them as living, breathing communities with the help of our native American guide, park ranger Jose Castillo. In Puebloan times, storytelling was hugely important: it was the key source of entertainment so storytellers were the rock stars of their day. Charismatic Jose has clearly inherited the best of those storytelling skills, and transforms our Mesa Verde visit. He vividly brings life circa A.D. 1200 to life and makes this trip so much more memorable for it. If you visit this amazing place, be sure to look this great guy up. As for us, our next stop is about 700 miles away – Death Valley. Best not overnight in dry state Utah – we’ll need a few cold ones before attempting that monster drive tomorrow!

Death Valley

Having ploughed through freezing snow storms and clambered around native American ruins at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, we’re off to somewhere completely different: the hottest place on earth at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere: Death Valley, California. So it’s off with the long johns and on with the Speedos (ok, cargo shorts); out with the porridge and in with the ice cream.

The only place that has recorded a higher temperature than Death Valley (134 degrees Fahrenheit, July 10th, 1913) is Libya with 136 degrees Fahrenheit on September 13th 1922. It regularly average above 120 degrees. It’s almost always sunny and, with salt pans, sand and mountains reflecting the burning solar rays in every direction, it’s a perfect place for making my milk-white Scottish skin crispier than KFC.

In the park, we stay at one of two hotels in Furnace Creek. Being in the park itself, the hotel can – and does – make up whatever price it likes. They’re milking us like the cash cows we are as we’re too knackered from the ten hour drive to find somewhere else – the closest is 40 miles in either direction. The great thing, however, is the location. We enjoy unparalleled views of clear skies glittering with millions of stars, as well as the best bit – close proximity and fast access to south Death Valley’s premiere sites.

Using the location to the maximum, we spring out of bed like exited bunnies in the morning and hop to Zabriskie point. We catch the one of the most amazing sunrises that we have witnessed, seeing that big yellow smile in the sky light up the mountain range which, in response, yawns and flushes with colour.

Then it’s off to Badwater basin, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, about 260 feet below sea level, off the top of my head. This giant salt pan is not only great for stocking up your larder on the cheap, it’s also the starting point for the gruelling, 100 mile Badwater ultra marathon – the ultimate endurance race for gazelle-legged masochists. None of that nonsense for us, we hop back in the car and roll on through the multicoloured geological landscape that is Mosaic canyon.

Camera battery suitably drained, we suddenly decide to drain our physical energy after all, by embarking on a sweaty, 5 mile, hike to the ‘cathedral‘, a giant red mountain set against a stark, sand-coloured range. Flippin’ ‘eck, it’s barely lunchtime and we feel like we’ve done an exhilarating few days worth of stuff – something we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in the park. Time to slow down though.

In the afternoon, H and I seriously take the foot off the pedal. We do one big thing after lunch – we visit the sand dunes in the desert within the park. Suitably exhausted, we finish the day with two relaxing tubs – a tub of ice cream as big as my head and a soak in one of the several, cool mineral water tubs featuring ‘magical’ Death Valley waters. Rub a dub dub!

Sequoia National Park

Next stop, land of the living US giants. And on this stop, I’m going to be an all-out tree hugger, getting up close and personal with the world’s biggest branched beings – the giant sequoias and giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park.

I’m particularly excited about this one as Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’s bike chase sequence was shot here – a movie I loved as a kid. Our base is the sleepy, beautiful Three Rivers – a village founded in the late 1800s as an idealist community that aimed to live life on its own terms. Today, a friendly blend of artists, teachers, retired actors, healers, farmers and outdoors people keep the vibe alive.

Three Rivers’ welcome for us couldn’t have been better – the rolling hills exploded into colour. As far as you could see, a riot of oranges, whites and purples carpeted the countryside – the wildflowers had sprung into life early.

Arriving at Sequoia national park, it seems we hadn’t figured on its altitude and Alpine climate. Indeed, the park’s elevation starts at 6,000 feet, and it‘s snow-covered – beautifully so. The ranger tells us we have to rent snow chains to enter the park, so we do, and I get covered head to toe in muddy slush putting them on – but it’s all part of the fun. In fact, I feel all the more manly for it!

As soon as we enter the park, it feels like we have been shrunk to a 100th of our normal size – it’s brilliant. Everything is just so huge. No wonder ’Jedi was shot here, it really does look like a forest from another planet. The biggest living thing on Earth lives here, a giant sequoia named General Sherman – the ‘Force’ is certainly strong in that one.

Really appreciating the sheer size of these trees is difficult, however – the surrounding sequoias have an average size of a 26 story building. Even the giant redwoods are tall – taller in most cases, than the sequoias, if not as thickly-girthed. And the pines are massive, too – just outside the park, in the Sierra Nevada range, you’ll find the world’s biggest pine tree. I scramble around trying to find a horse chestnut tree to see if I can find cannonball-sized conkers, for my nephews, to no avail.

Since it’s winter, the park is quiet – in terms of traffic and noise – so we feel like we have it to ourselves. We spend the day hiking around the park in rented snowshoes, occasionally running into friendly Americans, and from time to time exchanging camera tips with fellow DSLR snappers.

Otherwise, it‘s about the most silent silence I have ever experienced – a wonderful antidote to London’s constant big city drone. And save for the sporadic sound of snow falling off of laden branches, perfectly peaceful. With our appetite suitably worked up, we head back down to Three Rivers for steaming hot bowls of chilli filling enough for any wannabee Jedi master.

A great way to end our second week!

Aloha from Kailua-Kona.

Volcanoes created Big Island in Hawaii, and I love Big Island. So going to the source of this creation yesterday (22nd March) was a huge buzz.

Earth made here - just add rock

As a sea lover, I’m often exposed to – and acutely aware of – the powerfully elemental and unpredictable forces of nature. That said, I’ve never visited anything on quite this scale – earth’s most active volcano, Kilauea.

Seeing Earth’s cauldron at work, melting rock into molten lava – at +2000 degrees – easier than we can boil the kettle for tea, provokes a deeply visceral reaction. Seeing land being made in front of your very eyes certainly changes your perception of the world – and your place in it. It makes you at once feel insignificant, pathetic really;in another way, it gives you a sense of place in the greater order of planetary things – a quite stellar, intergalactic feeling.

Hawaiian goddess and all-round Earth-mama, Pele

Just as we watch steam plumes seethe out of ground, smoke belch out of a lava lake 2 miles below the surface of the crater, and melting Earth crust generate toasty-looking glow, under the water to the south a new volcano is rising out of the ocean to grow Big Island yet further. The arrival is hardly imminent, by human standards – estimates range from 5,000 to 100,000 years. What will Earth be like then? Will tourists still be standing at the crater rim saluting the great goddess, Pele, like the ancient islanders did, by shouting “Aloha Pele! “? Will the machines have turned against us or will be ruled by lizard people from another dimension? We we still be here to see any of these awesome, natural forces at work?

Smoke belches out of the Kilauea Caldera

I hope so, and I hope my kids (if they ever materialise) and future generations get to witness this truly stunning spectacle. And I hope you do, too.

Mahalo!

Wind whips up dust devils in mesmerising red whirls as we approach Monument Valley. The sacred place seems to summon the rust-coloured powder to coat our once-white car in tribal markings. We pull over to get out and perch at the rim of the rocky canyon, almost waiting for a message from the valley to let us enter. The dust clouds disperse slowly, letting us witness a mysterious, alien landscape emerge from below – so we move in, and fin it seems the two of us are alone.

Though we’re in one of the most recognisable landscapes on the planet (Monday, 8th March) , it feels like we might as well be on Mars, or the set of a sci-fi film. Confusingly, seeing – in this case – is un-believing: none of what we’re witnessing seems real.

Red and proud of it

Mountains of Mars - or Monument Valley?

For a start, absolutely everything is red – a deep, intense umber that shifts shades as the sun arcs. And then there are those weird shapes that the valley is famous for.

Wise, flat-topped mountains – stratified buttes – rise out of the rust-coloured, rocky ground. Proud monoliths stand firm throughout the arid canyon. Yet there’s something beyond the sheer geological marvel – there’s an aura here.

It’s not just a place where you can literally see millions of years of Earth’s history written into the rock face; this place, sacred to the aboriginal people, has countless secrets, myths and legends bound into its dna. We keep stopping the car and, between bouts of picture taking, imagine what those stories might be.

Cowboy dues


"Get off your horse and drink your milk" - the backdrop for so many Westerns

Though it looks and feels like science fiction to us, it’s another movie genre that made the place a tourist hot spot – the Western. The vast park gave so many spur-janglin’ cowboy movies an iconic backdrop – of course most of the heroics were at the expense of the native Americans. Dues have since, of course, been paid – more than two thirds of Arizona is now native-owned – and the Navajo Nation manages this particular park.

Risking being stranded in our puny poseur-mobile – due to heavy snows and rains, the track that doubles as the road around the park has become barely usable in places – we turn down the offer of a full-on tour for budget reasons.

We’re doing so many miles that car gas bills are mounting up! So we lose out on access to spots that are out of bounds to independent travelling, as well as Navajo insights passed down from one generation to the next. However, we have done our own homework, and decide to revel in the park at our own pace.

Through the wormhole

It being winter, we practically have the place to ourselves which is the best of all possible worlds. It adds to the feeling of other-worldliness. Indeed, since we strongly suspect that we have somehow driven our car through a wormhole to another dimension, when do we do spot another car (after two hours) I almost flag them down and ask them to breed in order to populate this new, red planet of ours.

Smoking ritual

As we near the end of our trip in Monument Valley, I recall an old native American ritual. They say that native men made a pilgrimage to this sacred valley in winter, just as we are doing. Only, they would climb these ancient mountains in order to excavate the unique red clay with which to fashion their own pipe for the impor

tant smoking ritual. After making the three hour route around this arid, practically uninhabited park, I would love nothing more than to smoke a pipe with an ancient who could reveal even some of its many secrets of its fascinating past. For now, I’ll have to make do with my own, unforgettable experience and imagine what that conversation could be like.

Find out more:

Monument Valley Tribal Park

Monument Valley View Hotel

Monument Valley Geology

Navajo Nation