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Published: April 13th 2009
Made in the shade
Me, M, Tony and Mars outside the shop
Hi folks. As you'll recall, our last blog ended with us leaving the Audubon nature reserve in central California and driving back down south to Palm Springs, about 90 miles east of LA. And so it was we drove the same roads we had previously driven a couple of weeks earlier, when Nic was in tow, heading back towards Lake Arrowhead and the dreaded fog! However, this time we reached our destination without a hitch - swingin' Palm Springs, home of the original Rat Pack and where Marilyn, Elvis and Liberace all had swanky homes. The reason for this jaunt was to visit an old friend of mine whom I worked with nearly 10 years ago in the Argos Factory. Since then, Tony has moved on to bigger and better things and now lives in America with his wife Marcia, running their own business making and selling leather belts and goods in their shop called 'Made in the Shade'.
As soon as we got into town I tried to contact Tony, a real geezer from Sa'fend, to let him know we'd arrived. Apparently there was a big storm in town that day, huge gusts of wind (we experienced this on the
M outside San Diego's Padres stadium
drive down), so they had shut up shop early. However, the number I dialled using the public telephone reached an answerphone, with an American voice, but I left a rambling message anyway thinking Tone had picked up the accent rather quickly. After waiting a while, with no sign of him arriving to meet us or return our call, I tried the number again, only for it to be answered by a bloke from San Diego who had just listened to the message I left half an hour ago! However, he was very helpful and between us we figured out the correct way to dial the number and at last I got in contact with Tony, who was wondering where we had gotten to. It was great to finally see him again after all these years, looking (and sounding) pretty much the same, and meet his wife Mars. When we worked in Argos together we were both uni students doing temporary summer jobs, and although the job was dull like any factory job, we got on well and had a laugh, somehow keeping in touch after all this time. Both our situations are now very different and it was great to
Swimming in the pool in Palm Springs
see his swish apartment within a complex that had tennis courts and swimming pools - how very different from fish 'n' chips and Peter Pan's Playground! The plan was to stay for one or two nights but we enjoyed staying with them so much we stayed four instead. We would visit the town and shops during the day, visit Tony and Mars in their shop and have coffee in the courtyard gardens nearby (by this time the sun had returned to near 80 degrees), chill by the pool or play a game of 'tennis' in the afternoon and then have dinner together in the evening - this was starting to feel like a vacation at last! Palm Springs is a nice town lined with palm trees (what else?) in a desert valley surrounded by mountains, and with its celebrity connections it's quite ritzy. It was hot when we visited (except on the day of the storm) and in peak tourist season; in the summer it gets far too hot, well over 100F daily, and shops even close up as fewer tourists around (inc Tony and Mars, who do summer festivals elsewhere instead). One night we felt an earthquake tremor at
A slice of England
The fab motel we found in Three Rivers, complete with friendly cat
about 5am in the morning, which felt very odd - I woke up to feel the bed shaking, Mars thought it was someone outside rattling the windows, Tone guessed it was a quake and M didn't wake up at all (turned out to be about 4 on the Richter scale - I never woke up in '87 when my sister's window blew out in the big storm - M). M and I also decided to take advantage of our location and take a day trip to San Diego, only 16 miles from the border of Mexico and about 2-3 hours south of P Springs. Taking the scenic route there through the mountains was pretty cool, especially now the wildflowers were coming out, and we also found the best radio station on this trip, which played not one but two
songs back-to-back by great bands such as System of a Down, Depeche Mode and Nirvana. Up til now it's usually been classic rock (cue Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC), country (okay if you're in the mood) or mainstream pop (nuff said). Needless to say I was very happy rockin' out in the car and for once being stuck in traffic wasn't so
Can you spot me?
Beside General Sherman
bad! San Diego is a nice and compact city with a historic area called the Gaslamp District and a pretty seafront harbour. The airport is also unusual in that it's right next to the city and planes coming in to land have to fly between the skyscrapers to reach the strip. We also saw the city's baseball stadium (The Padres) also in the heart of the city centre, which is unusual. Considering its proximity to Mexico, San Diego is a more American town than you might think, in its architecture, people and shopping (though this is probably due to the high presence of Border Patrols in the city). After visiting the nearby beaches and seeing another glorious Pacific sunset, we made the long drive back.
Tony and Mars were so easygoing and accommodating that we could've easily outstayed our welcome by one or two weeks but alas other places beckoned, so it was with reluctance that we said goodbye (esp as it was so sunny and warm and we were heading north again!). Though we did leave feeling very inspired by their creative business and way of life - proving that you don't have to work for someone else to
earn a living (and thanks for the belts guys!). So north we drove, back through central California and towards the land of the Giant Sequoias - the biggest living things on the planet. On arriving later that day, we almost stayed in a dreary sprawl-town 30 miles from the National Park, but when the only cheap motel room left was a smoking one, we took the risk of possibly higher prices and drove on to the village of Three Rivers, much closer to the Park. It was one of my (no mine! - M) best decisions on this trip as the first place we came to was a ranch-cum-motel set in lush green hills, trees and a nearby river, complete with a small farm. To top it off, it was cheaper than the other motel by the freeway in the sprawl-town that we could've stayed at only 30 minutes ago! As soon as we checked in we couldn't believe our luck as we walked down to the river amidst wildflower meadows and the sun setting on the hills and mountains - it was just too perfect, and another little slice of the English countryside. We later learned that it doesn't
Waterfall with rainbow, and no people in sight!
stay like this for long and by summer everything has turned brown due to the heat. It was here we also tasted the best oranges we have ever had - homegrown in the garden and left on the tree til deliciously ripe, sweet and juicy with a bright orange colour, definitely not like the anaemic and harder to peel balls we get at home. The next day it was time to come face to face with the giants of the tree world and visit Sequoia National Park. When you enter the park, you start at a lower elevation (foothills) where wildflowers and lush green foliage abounds, but to see the giants you have to drive ever steeper up the mountains, where the pines start growing and the snow is thick! We soon found ourselves in the Giant Forest, where the largest concentration of these massive trees occur. Giant Sequoias are not the tallest (that goes to the Redwoods) or the oldest (Bristlecones) but they are the biggest trees on Earth in terms of volume - their trunks can be up to 30-40 feet in diameter and 29 stories high, so you sure do crane your neck looking up at them!
They really are huge, though to really appreciate the scale of their size you could do with a normal British tree like an oak or elm growing alongside one, or perhaps one on its own standing tall over everything else. As it was we were in a forest of Giant Sequioas, but we knew how insignificant we were in comparison. We attempted to take a hike through the forest but the snow was thick, my shoes got soaked and we also got lost so we went back to the car and drove to see the most famous tree of all - General Sherman. With the biggest mass of any other living thing it's the true giant of the living world, and pretty old too at about 2000 years. It also made a nice change to be awe-inspired by something other than rocks. From there we also drove through Kings Canyon NP to see more distant wilderness from the comfort of the car and the General Grant sequoia, which has the biggest trunk diameter of any tree at 40 feet.
Our last National Park to visit in California (and possibly on this trip) was mighty ol' Yosemite, something we'd been especially
Pacific Coast Highway
looking forward to. This park has it all - rocks, sequoias, mountains, canyons, waterfalls and meadows. It also had snow. And lots of people. This made for an unhealthy combination as most of the roads and hiking trails were closed off due to elf 'n' safety, so that what did remain open had a long convey of traffic going from viewpoint to viewpoint. I do like people, honestly I do, but when a truly spectacular area of natural beauty feels more like Disneyland it kinda ruins the whole wilderness concept and 'being at one with nature' vibe. Sure the waterfalls were spectacular, especially when rainbows formed next to them too, and we got some great views, but I do feel that having hotels, stores, garages and even chapels in the centre of it all somehow ruins the desired effect. We asked a ranger where we could go to get off the beaten track and he just smiled and said impossible! And this was supposed to be the 'off' season! Turns out that summertime, even though there's even more hoardes of people, is also when everything is open, so at least you get the chance to escape into the more distant
reaches of the park. Still, we did enjoy our time at Yosemite, but a day was enough, so out of the Park we drove (observing on the way a previous rockslide that covered the opposite road - neat) and due west towards the coast again. We arrived in Monterey, famous for it's world-class aquarium and Cannery Row, an old sardine-packing district and the title of the book by America's famous author John Steinbeck (they don't can sardines there anymore - overfished and the industry collapsed - so all the buildings are now souvenir shops). Before settling there for the night we took a jaunt south along the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, passing lots of beautiful coastal scenery and tall Redwoods. It was a bit nippy to go down to the beaches but this road must get packed in the summer, everything was just stunning and little development along the way (though we did find a funky library-cum-museum for Henry Miller set in the woods - M). Back in Monterey, we decided we needed to eat a good meal (cheap pizzas and Subway sandwiches have been our mainstay), and so didn't need much persuasion to enter the Britannia public
house and order bangers 'n' mash and steak pie for dinner - boy were they tasty meals with creamy mash, fresh veggies and lots of gravy - you don't realise how these simple meals are hard to come by! We also saw out first sea otter swimming about in the harbour, which was pretty cute. Next stop was Santa Cruz, a little further north and a surfing hotspot. As we were walking along the cliffs towards the pier we had great views of birds in a fish-feeding frenzy, a sea otter with cub and lots of seals rollicking about in the shallow waters. By now it was the eve before we had to return the car to San Francisco so we drove to the outskirts of the city and stayed near the airport so we had plenty of time to pack our things up and return the car on time. We haven't amassed lots of stuff on our travels but it's amazing how you get used to having all the space in the car to spread out and then having to squeeze it all back into suitcases! In the morning before we dropped the car off we had time for
In the city of San Fran no less
one last drive - and what a finale it was as we drove over the Golden Gate bridge and back again for spectacular views of the bay.
After saying goodbye to the car we had time to kill before our next destination, so hung around with the hobo's in the City Hall gardens and library. M had disappeared to find the Greyhound station to enquire about tickets to Canada, leaving me sitting on a bench with all the bags. He was gone for some time and I was beginning to wonder where he'd gotten to. A gentleman came out of his office and smiled at me, to which I smiled back. He walked past and a couple of minutes later came back towards me. To my astonishment he handed me a dollar and said 'I hope this helps'! I was so speechless I couldn't utter anything let alone the fact that I'm a tourist and totally undeserving of his money! I knew I didn't look like a glamour queen but really, did I look THAT bad?!! I then felt really ashamed about taking his money under false pretenses, even if it was only a dollar. Luckily for me, whilst still
Yum yum sushi
With Marisa and Albert forsaking their ballroom dancing class
in a guilt trip, he returned to his office so I walked up and explained the situation. He said he likes to help people out and I was sitting there all alone with my bags; I guess he thought I'd run away from home or something. I assured him I would've passed it on to someone more deserving if I hadn't seen him again, to which he let me keep the dollar and told me to pass it on. M arrived about five minutes later and I was explaining the story to him and a stranger who seemed quite amused, and all M could say was: only a dollar?!
We then struggled across San Francisco with our bags using good ol' public transport to stay with some more people we didn't know. Whilst volunteering at the Audubon reserve we met the site manager's partner whose daughter lives in San Fran with her boyfriend. The mother was adamant her daughter would love to meet up with us and hear about our travels so we duly contacted her and sure enough she offered us a place to stay. Marisa and Albert live in a cosy flat in a nice suburb of San
Overlooking San Fran
With cute Frankie dawg
Fran, not too far from Golden Gate park (bigger than NYC's Central Park) and the ocean. They also have a really cute sausage dog called Frankie, who reminded me lots of Rosie (she almost ended up in our bag - M). We had nachos and beer that night, and M and I went to bed feeling pleased we had met some more great people who were so kind to put us up (and put up with us!). The following morning me, M and Albert took Frankie for a walk in Golden Gate park, which included stables for police horses and a bison paddock. We walked all the way to the blustery beach, where Frankie ran free chasing the birds, and back again. Me and M continued to the other half of the park where there was a Japanese tea garden and lots of cherry blossoms in full bloom and a Parisian-style park, where we sat on a bench in the warm sunshine listening to a nearby cello being played (it dawned on us that soon this would all be over and we'd be back in Bas - M). We walked back through the botanical gardens to see lots of different
plants and flowers, as well as another beautiful hummingbird. I also managed to pass my dollar on to help save the rainforest, or at least help someone who was petitioning to save the rainforest. Although I was pretty spoilt for choice in San Fran as we were regularly approached for dosh.
M continues - San Fran is famous for its steep hills that make up part of the city and let me tell you our knees and feet can confirm that they are STEEP! As usual for us, we like to explore as much by foot as possible, so we knackered ourselves out hiking up and down the various mounds to get some great views of the city. Just up the street from Albert and Marisa's place you can see views of the ocean and The Golden Gate Bridge. There is a huge Oriental population in San Fran and whilst we were there we managed to sample the delights of Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines. Fiona's new favourite food is sushi, which M + A treated us to when they should have been at dance class! For the weekend, M + A were going away and we wanted to stay downtown,
so we found a cool little hotel/hostel near Union Square and Chinatown. The manager was really nice, even offering us free nights, and the place had old-style lifts where you pull the gate across. We decided to take a hike to the Latino Mission district (it was in the book) and the gay mecca of Castro (if you've seen the film 'Milk' you'll know what I mean), before heading back to drink cocktails in a rock bar!
Saturday was glorious and perfect to ride across the bay and get banged up on Alcatraz. This island has a varied history. Once a Civil War fort it was turned into a notorious prison where the likes of Al' Capone enjoyed the views, before being taken over by Indians and then turned into a tourist must-do. Today was a Civil War day, so there were plenty of people dressed in period costume, which included a band. Walking around the prison, listening to the voices of those who were imprisoned there, it certainly seemed like a grim place to be sent. There were certainly none of these modern 'luxuries' that prisoners get. Three prisoners famously escaped (see the Clint Eastwood film) and have never
Another steep hill
With Alcatraz and cable car
been found, for which there is several million dollars of reward available, so we've been keeping our eyes peeled for dodgy looking characters (personally if they have survived I think they would have visited the place for a laugh). On the way back from the harbour, we climbed yet another ridiculously steep hill to view the winding Lombard Street, jostling with the other tourists to get the best picture. In the evening we relaxed with a nice Italian meal and some cool jazz.
As you all know, Lonely Planet is the gospel, which our adventure revolves around, and F was determined to search the streets of San Fran to find the right place to have brunch on Sunday. Of course, all the places recommended in said book had long queues outside, but to make her happy we decided to plug for Dotties' True Blue Cafe and we duly waited our turn (Subway wasn't an option this time). The wait was worth it as we were treated (for a price) to the 'best' pancakes F has tasted so far on this trip, and let me tell you she has tried a fair few. After, we got to see some funky artwork
First one on this trip from the first ever store in Seattle
by Andy Warhol and Philippe Bertho that was up for auction (a bit out of our range) and soaked up some more rays whilst we had the chance. Being so near to a large Chinatown, we went in search of some real Chinese food for dinner, not the Westernised versions we get. Down in some back alley we duly found the perfect place, few tourists, menus in Chinese and it was selling shark fin soup (tut tut - I wanted to boycott it - F). I had a beef stew which contained parts of a cow I couldn't identify (nor want to know. I think I saw a valve!!). F chose minced pork and cuttle fish clay pot (best selling dish apparently). Well as she put it, her first thought on the presentation was that it looked like dried dog sick and it tasted only slightly better. But we duly tucked into our meals, smiling at the Chinese locals who seemed happy we were there and agreed that provisions would be needed if we ever ventured to the Far East.
The next day we were due back at M + A's for a final meal before heading north, but we
And very grey clouds overhead!
still found time to hike more hills to complete F's list of things to see. It was great to meet and spend time with Albert and Marisa again, as it has been to stay with all those we have met (Couchsurfing, Wwoofing, etc). The kindness and warmth that has been showered on us by complete strangers is truly overwhelming and a side of America that you don't expect. It makes me wonder and hope that we can be so friendly back home.
Alas it was time to leave San Fran, leave the sunshine, leave Frankie and endure a 20-hour coach trip north to Seattle. Spending the night on a bus is never fun, particularly when everyone is crammed in, even more so when some kind woman gives rowdy hitchhikers the fare so they can board to Oregon. The Greyhound is certainly an insight into US society and it's problems. Drug taking wannabe hippies and new age slackers mix with illegals and cheapskate tourists. As the night passed and we saw stop after lonely stop, how we wished we had another car (how spoiled are we?).
Seattle is the last major city you come to before you hit the Canadian border
A small gathering of people who care in Seattle
(a bit like Carlisle, same weather only bigger). Surrounded by hills and greenery, it certainly does remind us of home, especially the grey wet weather (its nickname is rain city). We're staying with another couple Nancy and Doug in a lovely suburb called Ballard, who have made us feel really at home with good food and hospitality. The city has a lot to offer - good food, the home of Grunge music, Starbucks and the famous fish markets. They even have a Major League soccer team, who have Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller playing for them. Seattle supporters are very fickle though; when the team is winning the stadium is full (no tickets for me) but as soon as they start losing, locals say they won't watch it. We also visited the Pike's Place Fish Market, where when someone purchases a fish, they throw it across the stalls and all the tourists take pictures. On Friday we had something called HonkFest come into Ballard, where a group of marching bands block the streets and infuse people with some cool rhythms. Through the darkness someone shoved a leaflet into my hand; there was going to be a protest in the city
Something unusual in the West
the next day against all the bank bailouts. Now Seattle is famous for a protest against the WTO in the 90's that got a bit out of hand, so I got up early on Saturday expecting for more of the same but alas this protest was a little bit more subdued with only 100 people or so. It is scary that no one really seems to know what is going on, or how to solve it, but one thing is for sure: our generation is going to be paying for this mess for a long time (so we better get interested). After the 'protest' I stayed in the city and saw a wide variety of weirdly dressed people - not unusual for a city - but these kids were dressed as characters from video games. There was an 'Anime' convention in town, displaying new games and charging kids/parents a fortune to get in. Browsing around I happened to find another group protesting against the financial mess, only they had a different culprit in mind - The British (or the British Empire to be precise). According to the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, all the world's problems can be traced back to
Easter Sunday meal
We're so lucky to be well fed and hosted on our travels, like home from home! With Nancy and Doug in Ballard
us Brits and the East India Company. Through World Wars and assassinations of Presidents to Iraq and Wall Street, it was all part of our plot to take over the world. So you can imagine their surprise when they came across me, who has worked for The Queen and in Parliament. Debating with them was pretty fun, though the one thing we both agreed on is that we couldn't be blamed for Bush!
Today is Easter Sunday and just like back home, the heavens opened and it stayed that way for most of the day. Fiona has been pestering me for days about chocolate and I have been winding her up saying that she should think more about the events behind the weekend, not the pagan gluttony that she craves. Anyway, F got more than her fair share today as, despite the rain, we headed to nearby Freemont to see the farmers market and ended up visiting a mini chocolate factory, which had an array of free samples on offer. So whilst I sat on the sofa trying to resist temptation, F proceeded to try everything in the shop, which meant a walk home in the rain was in order.
It has been really cool staying in Seattle, our last American city. For this is basically the end of our USA Roadtrip, as there ain't much road left. Tomorrow, we head to the border and hope to meet friends in Canada. Barring any problems with immigration, we should be there for a month, before heading back to San Fran to catch our flight. So in a time-honoured political/business tradition, we are re-branding. Tune in next time for the next installment of our North American RoadTrip!
PS - we arrive home on Thursday 14 May at Heathrow, and we are now accepting applications for offers of lifts home, apply here pronto!
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