Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair


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Published: March 6th 2011
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3 March 2011

Our last road tripping morning of this trip. The plan for today, to make it from San Luis Obispe to San Francisco, The Foggy city.

Opposite the Travelodge (which looked, from the outside, just like the motels that you see in movies. I was slightly concerned that the bad guys were going to burst in with guns at any moment but the town was a little sleepy for that and, in any event, we had left Hollywood far behind) was a garage and it was time to fill up. This isn't an event that would usually justify entry in the blog but today was different. All petrol stations in the US seem to be pre-pay which caused us considerable confusion, particularly since the pump wouldn't accept a british card as payment. Eventually, Gregg went inside to pay, where they take a swipe of your card for a maximum amount and then charge that, or any lower amount that is actually dispensed. I suspect that, before that long, we will see this method of payment in the UK.

We had been hearing in LA that petrol prices in California are at an all time high and that there have almost been riots about it. The prices are, undoubtedly, higher than when they were in Florida in 2008 but filling up this 2.2 litre compact economy (the size of a Hyundai Accent - so not really compact) cost about the same in USD as my 1.9 litre Golf used to cost to fill up in Great British Pounds - i.e. fuel is still a third cheaper than we pay in the UK.

The sun was making an effort in San Luis Obispe but, not long after we hit Highway 101, the mist descended and it stayed that way for the best part of this world renowned drive along Highway 1. I think that, at points, we were actually travelling through the clouds because, having climbed high enough, we emerged above them. Even though we couldn't see down to the sea below, the clouds made for a spectacular view.

Part of this coast is home to literally thousands of Elephant seals and, seeing people snapping at something in the sea, we stopped to be rewarded with seriously close up views of these enormous seals. They looked quite placid because they were sleeping but, apparently, they can move quite quickly and weigh the equivalent of the car we were driving (about 2.2 tonnes Gregg says) and I wouldn't have liked to get into a fight with one.

Eventually, after the sun came out, we arrived in San Francisco and were pleased to discover that the City was not living up to its 'Fog City' reputation. With the help of the Sat Nav lady, we found our hostel, dropped off the bags and then headed to the airport to drop off the car. In truth, the process was somewhat more stressful than that but I shan't bore you with it.

We are staying just outside of the main shopping area in San Francisco in The Adelaide Hostel, it is a really friendly, homely place and is making me look forward to putting this travelling life on a shelf for a while. We have treated ourselves to a private room again, figuring that we are going to get little or no sleep on the Trans-Atlantic flight home, so we may as well top up before then. The room is compact but looks more like a hotel room than a bland hostel.

By the time we had orientated ourselves, we were hungry and it was dark so we headed out in search of dinner and found ourselves in a diner. We sort of developed a bit of a penchant for diners last time with were in the US and I was sold when I saw homemade turkey on the menu. Having missed out on Christmas I had eyes for nothing else. Obviously, this was US style turkey and not Christmas Dinner - hopefully we'll have that when we get home. I have to say that it was, perhaps, some of the best turkey I have ever tasted as was the gravy. I'll quite happily come back for Thanksgiving if anyone's offering.

4 February 2011

Alcatraz.

Just that one word conjures up all kinds of imagery and today was the day for us to find out exactly what it was all about. Having visited British prisons in the course of my work, I felt a little apprehensive about making the trip to this one but needn't have been. Empty of inmates and with doors flung wide open, Alcatraz did not feet at all restrictive.

In order to get to the Island, which is now a National Park, we had to take a ferry from Pier 33 at the dock which was where we also had to collect our tickets. We had read that they can sell out quickly (and, if we had been here in the summer, we would probably have been a week too late) so we had booked online before setting out. Upon collecting our tickets at the wharf we were offered seats on the earlier ferry which we accepted happily - why wait around for an extra half an hour if you don't need to?

Alcatraz is only 1 1/2 miles from the mainland and the journey there takes 10-15 minutes. Upon arrival at the wharf, you are faced with a large derelict apartment building across part of which is daubed 'Indians Welcome'. This confused me until we watched a welcome film in the basement of the apartment buildings. The film explained that Alcatraz has had a fairly varied history. First having been used as a naval prison then, from 1934 to 1963 as a federal prison. The prison was finally closed in 1963 because it had fallen into disrepair and the bill for fixing it made doing so untenable.

Between 1964 and 1971 Native American Indians occupied the island three times in the course of campaigning for self determination and the return of their land (they had probably also occupied the island many centuries previously). The occupation is now seen as having ultimately brought about an end to the government policy of termination of Indian tribes and the beginning of the policy of Indian self-determination.

What you really want to know about is the prison that was once home to the notorious gangster, Al Capaone and The Bird Man of Alcatraz. My first impression was that it was not as big as I expected it to be. One building within which were four rows of cells. At one end were cells that were never actually occupied when it was in use as a federal prison. The reason for this is that the doors were not upgraded to be operated from a central panel and instead each would have had to have been opened separately. That was too high a risk for the guards and, hence, Alcatraz Federal Petitentiary was never actually full.

At the other end was D Block - home to the worst of the worst and also four solitary confinement cells - windowless and bleak.

As for the balance of the cells, they are very small 5ftx9ftx7ft and house a bed, sink, toilet, some shelving, wall mounted stool and table and a later addition of a radio box which the inmates could plug their own headphones into. Each row of is about 40 cells long and 3 cells high. Just like you see in Hollywood Block Busters, there is no privacy the cell doors are, in fact, bars.

Visitors to D Block are permitted to enter one of the solitary confinement cells where the door is closed for a few moments and they are plunged into darkness. It may not surprise youto read that only one of took up that offer - and it wasn't me. Gregg said that it was very dark and cold. Official policy required lights to remain on when these cells were occupied, but very often they were not. There is nothing in these cells other than a toilet. The prisoners were given a mattress and a blanket at night, but it was taken away during the day. The floor is made of cold metal and they therefore had to come up with ways to keep warm - sitting on the floor was not a good idea.

Apparently, one of the things that the prisoners of Alcatraz found most difficult to cope with was the proximity to San Francisco, which could be seen from the exercise yard - little wonder that, despite the theory that it was impossible to escape from Alcatraz, 36 men sought to escape in 14 separate attempts.

The water of San Francisco harbour is said to be extremely cold and inhospitable and subject to very strong currents. Only one man is known to have made the swim (to be re-captured shortly afterwards) and three, who escaped together, have never been accounted for. Officially, therefore, nobody is known to have successfully escaped from the Rock.

Aside from its very well known history, there is another side to Alcatraz, that is its natural history. Much of the island was, in fact, closed to visitors today because it is nesting season and the there was a very long list of the breeds that we might have been lucky enough to see. We saw hundreds of nesting gulls and some other birds that we couldn't identify. In addition to this the islands gardens are quite splendid. Apparently, most of the flora is non-native but it is beautiful. Volunteers tend to the island gardens and some of them were hard at work whilst we wondered round.

Lots of flowers meant lots of opportunities for close up shots for me, at which point I rather lost interest in the history of the island and spent quite some time happily snapping pretty things.

Back on the mainland, we took the opportunity to wonder around the shops and, on our return to the hostel, booked ourselves in for $5 hostel dinner, great value, big plates but slightly sweet for our palates.

An old school friend of mine, Jeremy, now lives in San Francisco and we had arranged to meet him and his fiancee at a wine bar just around the corner. We spent a lovely few hours catching up before saying goodbye, for another goodness knows how many years. At this wine bar they do tasting wine menus (called 'comparisons' if you picked two half glasses, or 'flights' if you prefered three tasters) this is a brilliant idea and one that I think we could do to see more of in the UK.

Tomorrow is our last full day in the US, and of this trip and I think we are both beginning to feel quite sad now. A trip of this length coming to an end is a strange feeling - there is so much to look forward to on returning home but there is also a heck of a lot to miss about being on the road.



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And here he is againAnd here he is again
And here he is again

I think he was trying to look like a fed up convict - convincing!


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