Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Curse of Bodie

7th August

I first visited Yosemite in November 2006, and whilst I planned to leave the park east via the Tioga Pass, it was closed to traffic for the winter just the night before I was due to leave.

It was for this reason that I was excited to be finally travelling the Tioga Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into Yosemite.  The entrance was just 12 miles from our accommodation in Lee Vining which overlooked Mono lake. 

The Tioga Pass wound through the mountains and into the park which we immediately noticed was far busier than any of the parks we had visited. The roads seemed slightly narrower and this was exacerbated by the forest edge being directly beside the road.  This meant that clearings or larger open spaces often appeared very quickly with little time to make a decision on whether to stop or not.   The pace here was very different, not helped by a fast 45mph speed limit, and the obvious dangers of near visibility and speed was horribly illustrated to us when moments later, we passed two rangers bending over a Black Bear which had just been hit and killed by a car.    We were suddenly very aware of our own presence in these beautiful and wild places and found ourselves questioning what impact we were actually making.   The rangers place a “Speed Kills Bears” sign where bears have been killed and we saw at least half a dozen others during our visit.  Apparently around 15 are killed every year.   I understand the need to keep traffic moving through the park, but with the much larger Yellowstone having a speed limit of 35mph and only 10% fewer visitors, I feel there is argument to cut the current 45mph speed limit.

Despite this sad start, we enjoyed the rest of our day in the park.  From several miles along the valley we saw climbers on Half Dome, just tiny dots in the distance. We also hiked to Vernal Falls, a steep and rocky trail up to a waterfall.  Again tragically, we saw signs for three missing people whom had last been seen “going over” the falls.  This was no theme park and danger seemingly hid around every corner.  Despite this, we stayed safe and Jo enjoyed looking for bodies along the river banks.

8th August
We started today visiting Mono lake, a million year old body of water within a volcanic landscape.  The lake has dropped several metres in the last 70 years since water was diverted to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles.  This drop has revealed giant tufa towers originally formed underwater and they emerge quite eerily from the motionless lake.

It was a reasonably short drive to our next destination, the ghost town of Bodie.  The town grew up from a small mining camp in 1859 to a large settlement of between 5-7,000 inhabitants.  Other booms in nearby towns drew people away and the town began to decline, first being labelled a ‘ghost town’ in 1915.
After driving down a small side road which eventually became unpaved, we arrived at Bodie.  The town boasts nearly 150 existing buildings which are described as being kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’.

Looking through the windows, we saw evidence of previous occupants in the shape of old shoes, clothes, bottles, and peeling wallpaper.  The town remained significantly occupied until the 1940s.

As we wandered around Jo spotted a small piece of pottery on the ground which she picked up.  We debated taking it home for a souvenir  but knew it was wrong, so decided to put it back on the ground where we found it   Later we  visited the small museum and visitors centre and I came across a large, a very large folder of letters written by people who had taken artefacts from Bodie and were returning them with unrelenting tales of misfortune.  These ranged from twisted ankles to the sudden death of close relatives.  Jo and I looked at eachother and imagined we'd just had a very lucky escape.

10 minutes later we couldn’t decide whether we were lucky or unlucky as after three hours walking around Bodie we returned to our car to find both offside doors wide open.  On the back seat was Jo’s handbag where she left it with her purse almost comically poking out of the top.  My wallet was on an open shelf on the dashboard.  All our other possessions were dotted around include two full suitcases in the boot.  Nothing was missing but we wondered if this was just a warning.  

A little shaken we headed out and back along the Tioga Pass to Yosemite.  We had a picnic at Tuolumne Meadows, and headed up to Glacier Point for an incredible view across the valley as the sun began to set. 

The road up was slow and winding, so we left before sunset to beat the rush.   On the way back as it slowly began to get dark, Jo had a strong feeling about us seeing a bear. 

Less than one minute later, I spotted something in a clearing as we drove past.  I turned the car around as soon as I could to return to the clearing, and to our delight, there was a Black bear, alive and well and in clear view.   We jumped out of the car and were immediately set upon by mosquitoes but it didn’t matter because here was a real life wild Black bear.  It didn’t stay around long but again this was a fantastic end to the day and we headed out the western entrance and our next motel in El Portal.  Our accommodation was a double room with spa, which we assumed was the spa attached to the hotel.  Oddly, it turned out to be a giant whirlpool hot tub in the middle of our bedroom.  

Monday, 22 August 2011

Fahrenheit 112

5th August

There’s something about wide open spaces that really does it for me.  Mountains do the same if I’m honest but they have to be very big, or craggy, and more than a bit showy.  Actually I think they have to be awesome and I mean that in the truest sense of the word and not the watered down misused version often seen on Youtube to describe say, a cat wearing socks or a stupid person with three snooker balls in their mouth.

For me, some of the spaces in Death Valley were quite awesome.  Of course Death Valley is most famous for its temparature and interestingly as we approached the entrance to the park, this began to fall from the low 100s we’d been experiencing since the drive from Las Vegas to around 88 o at 6pm. We were obviously disappointed but soon realised we had climbed to around 5000ft.   Our destination at Stovepipe Wells however was just 5ft above sea level and at 9pm that evening we sat stargazing in a not so disappointing 110o. 

Death Valley seemed to be a very popular place for Harley drivers, and there was a constant punctuation of small groups passing throughout the night.  We thought that this may be the only time leather clad bikers could make it through without melting.  

Our accommodation was a little rough around the edges, which wasn’t a problem.  It was the dead cockroaches around the edges that was.   I have no problem with live cockroaches because of course this is their home, but if a motel is going to charge $200 a night then they should at least get their flipping broom out and sweep the dead ones up.  This approach would also have saved us from our nightmares as we wondered what disgusting creature could possibly moult such gigantic fist fulls of pubic hair onto the bathroom floor and.....I can’t even say it, sorry.

6th August

Of course the location is astounding.  Nearby were the Mesquite Flat sand dunes which we explored in the morning.  The sand which is blown in from the canyons is trapped here by the surrounding mountains.  They are not the tallest dunes in Death Valley, but still impressive to witness.  

We were also lucky enough to spot some recent nocturnal activity which was not, as I initially suspected, a BMX nearly running over a frog. 

From here we headed down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282ft at below sea level.  

Here the temperature hit 112o and we walked out onto the salt flats with a couple of bottles of water.   There is a small spring fed pool here but the salts make it undrinkable, hence the name ‘Badwater’.

Whilst we didn’t see any direct evidence of the former mining activities, official figures indicate that there could be at least 10,000 and up to 50,000 abandoned mines in Death Valley. 

The Californian gold rush of 1848 saw small boom towns spring up mining gold, silver, copper, as well as evaporates such as salt, talc and borax.  The combination of harsh environment and low yields (with the exception of the evaporates, which were much easier to collect) meant that the towns and mining activity was relatively short lived.

Our next stop was Zabriskie Point, made famous by the film of the same name and because various people in the 1970’s choose it as a location to drop acid. (Possibly listening to Pink Floyd whom also did the soundtrack for the film). 

From here we drove west on Highway 190 which passes rather spectacularly through Panamint Valley, another vast and ‘awesome’ wide open space.   

Against the distant mountains, we saw another small gathering of sand dunes which perfectly illustrated the processes at work, trapping the sand and allowing it only to continually reshape itself.

As we approached Highway 395 to take us north to Lee Vining, and the ancient Mono Lake, the ghostly Sierra Nevada mountains began to appear through the distant haze and we saw our first glimpse of this massive range which at its northern extent shaped our next destination; Yosemite National Park.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

What Happens In Vegas....

1st – 5th August

Ah, Las Vegas.

Glittering jewel in the desert or dark black canker on the earth fed by humanity’s greed, egotism and desire for something eternally just out of reach.

When you’ve decided, let me know.  You’ll find me by the pool sipping a Strawberry Daiquiri.

There really is something about Las Vegas, which is probably why I’ve returned so many times.  Many see it as a fake town and in some respects it is, but no more than say the whole premise of Disneyworld.  Hey kids, that’s not really Cinderella’s castle but you’re still going to puke with excitement.

And like Las Vegas, Disneyworld is designed to make us want to stay, to see what’s just around the corner.  So that Italian marble bathroom in my hotel room bigger than my lounge at home, is there to make me feel good, and it does.   The electronic drapes and the giant bed with Egyptian linen is there to make me want to stay, and it does.   But if this is what I can find in my room, what wonders await me outside, just around the corner, along the corridor and down the elevators which glide to the casino floor with such speed that your ears pop.  

One could easily spend a whole week in Las Vegas and not really gamble at all.  It’s just one massive resort and you would probably need all that time just to visit every hotel.  At Treasure Island you will see two full sized pirate ships battle it out with cannons each night on the hour, culminating in one sinking below the surface of the lake.  At The Mirage, a giant volcano will seemingly spew hot molten lava into the air and into the lake below.  The Luxor hotel is a giant glass pyramid for goodness sake.  These are fantastic Disneyesq spectacles. 

Back at our hotel, the food is incredible.   You can eat cheaply in Vegas, but for just a little more you can have excellent food which you will remember.   If you are gambling, either at a penny slot machine or $100 blackjack, your drinks will be gratis.  If this were the UK, I have no doubt my Merlot would be poured from a chemical toilet cleaner bottle that someone had drawn a grape on.  Here, it’s the real deal from the Californian vineyards just over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Our time was spent lazing around the pool in the day, having dinner and mooching between casinos in the evening.  We didn’t see a show this time, as in summer headline acts are a bit thin unless you like watching a guy with his hand up a puppet for two hours; and we’ve pretty much seen all the Cirque Du Soleil shows.  Having said that I could watch ‘O’ on a continual loop.

For the first time on this trip, we weren’t travelling and could really relax into lazy mornings and late nights.  Also, we both really noticed the lack of jet lag which seemed to make our time here last even longer.  

We didn’t break the bank of Las Vegas, but old hands like us know a few tricks and Mr Wynn was happy to pay for our accommodation. 

This place really does have a hold on me, and it would please my dear old Mum so much to know just how many times we’ve all been able to visit her since we placed her ashes here on a family trip in 2006.  She loved the place too, and my fondest memories are of seeing her sitting at a 5cent slot machine swinging her legs for the sheer fun of it.  That memory alone will keep me coming back until like her I am on my own final adventure.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Big Chief Coffee with Long Life

Saturday 30th July

Travelling in America is easy.  On some roads you do have to keep an eye on your fuel gauge, as gas stations can be sparse.  The desert heat and dry air also means that one should consume at least four litres of water a day.  Restrooms are available pretty much everywhere and for the most part so is food.   The type and quality can vary enormously.  The concept of a sandwich without cheese is not known here, which for a pescatarian like myself sounds like great news.

However, these same sandwiches must by law also contain meat of some description which on our travels has ranged from chicken to buffalo.    In the desert, several hundred miles from the sea, the safest bet has been Subway where you can build your own sandwich.  Also, you can do the sandwich building thing in Safeway supermarkets here, which seem to be the UK Waitrose equivalent.   One we visited outside Denver also made sushi to order.  The guy doing this was a more than a bit deaf and we felt it would be safer to get have him make us sandwiches which he did very well, and very slowly.

Of course, what you really can get everywhere is coffee.  American filter coffee; and in the larger towns you may find a coffee shop or two, serving Italian/Seattle style.  The one in Gardiner, Montana has already featured. 

As we checked out of the Hat Rock Inn in Mexican Hat, I asked the receptionist if there was such a coffee shop nearby.  She said there was a hotel that had a ‘real’ coffee machine down the road.  It did have a real coffee ‘pod’ type machine and they made lattes with UHT milk.  It took a very long time and I put this down to the fact that they had to individually open those little cartons found it motels and UK B&Bs everywhere,  until they had enough to make one medium and one large latte.  That’s a lot of work right there.

We continued on down the US 163 back through monument valley and onto the US160 and then north on the US98 (Indian Route 22) which passes through part of the Navajo Indian Reservation.  At Page we stopped for lunch and a view of the dam at the western end of the extraordinarily massive Lake Powell.   

The lake stores 30km3 of water when full and is 186miles long.  Whilst Lake Mead to the west is larger in volume, Lake Powell has nearly 3.5 times more shoreline, some 1900miles.

From Page, we headed to the eastern entrance of Zion National Park where the landscape once again changed to sandstone canyons and towers, with rivers and waterfalls.

We drove through the park and exited at Springdale and our next motel, the Desert Pearl inn.   We had a fantastic room with a terrace where we sat and watched a thunderstorm roll in.

Sunday 31st July

Up at 530am for our day in Zion National Park.  Vehicles are only allowed a half a mile or so into the park where trailheads are served by a shuttle bus system.  Our first hike was to Emerald Pools a series of three small ponds at increasing elevations above the canyon floor, which brimmed with insect and amphibian life.  Our hike was made all the more pleasant by the fact we were enjoying it without anyone else around.

All around were the ubiquitous Rock Squirrels, a stockier, meaner looking version of our own Grey Squirrel.   
We took the shuttle bus to the northern most stop called the Temple of Sinawava where the Narrows trail follows the Virgin River through Zion Canyon for some 16 miles.   We went as far as we could which for me meant chest high in the river and a slightly stupid feeling as I emerged with my shorts rolled up.  

We found a rock overhanging a white water part of the river further south and had a picnic.  Shortly after, it started to rain really heavily and we got soaked but it was fun and we got back onto the shuttle to tour the rest of the park whilst we dried out.   Flash flooding is common across the western united states and we heard many radio warnings and local newspaper items detailing the dangers.   

We left the park via Springdale again and to our next destination, Las Vegas.  It helped that we were still slightly damp as we knew five nights of luxury awaited us, and where most probably if you were ever given a UHT Latte, the perpetrator would be taken out into the desert late at night, and shot.

Our journey was straight down the Interstate 15 and we gained a hour as we drove across the Nevada State Boundary and onto Pacific Time.   It was cloudy as we approached Las Vegas and we didn’t quite have the vista we had planned on driving in, though by the time we actually got to the Wynn Encore, the clouds had magically disappeared as if it had all been pre arranged.   

We got a room high on the 59th Floor with a view of the golf course and north Las Vegas and were able to actually unpack for the first time on our trip and later that evening ate dinner not wearing shorts.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Hot Rocks

Thursday 28th July

Up early for breakfast in the hotel and then a short drive north of Moab to Arches National Park.  Despite the name, it isn’t all arches here.   Many fin shapes, towers and balancing rocks were formed when salt remaining from ancient evaporated seas pushed up overlying sediment which became Entrada sandstone.  The salt was eventually dissolved by groundwater and subsequent erosion, freezing and thawing created the interesting rock formations seen here.

We drove north through the park heading for our first planned hike at Devil’s Garden on what is known as the Primitive Trail.  It was 7.5 miles through some pretty tricky terrain.  In some places, a wrong footing would have meant a slide several metres down a rock face.  It certainly made for a much more exhilarating hike. 

The temperature was around 92 degrees and we were carrying around 5 litres of water which we got through pretty quickly.  We saw several arches on the route and some impressive geological structures.   

After some further driving, our next hike was to Delicate arch, the most famous arch in the park.  The temperature was now 95% degrees and we could feel our hearts beating in our ears.    The reward was an amazing free standing 52ft arch on the edge of a large bowl formation.

A long and tiring day for us ended back in Moab with a great meal and a bottle of wine.  Interestingly, the state of Utah alcohol laws means that you are not allowed to be offered alcohol in a restaurant, you have to ask for it.  Also, you can only have one drink in front of you at a time. 

Later, when I tried to remove my contact lenses, they hung onto my eyeball and I feared they had melted on. There was an audible sucking and popping noise like flipping the inside of an inflated cheek with one’s wet finger.

Friday 29th July

We planned another early start but got chatting to a guy from New Hampshire at breakfast.  He was just as interested in our culture as we were in his and we exchanged candid views.

Today was our day in Canyonlands National Park.    We would spend it mostly on the road systems as it is an enormous place, with the drive from the main road to the park gate taking over an hour each way.   Our first stop was in the north of the park in an area called the Islands in the Sky district, where we were looking down into the canyons.   

Later in the south of the park, we were driving through the canyons and rock formations which we had seen from the north.    Due to its size and expanse, this was definitely a park for driving around.  There is a 100mile long road called the White Rim Trail which takes several days to complete in a 4WD vehicle.  For the time we had, we did see everything we could on the normal park roads, and managed to get down a couple of dirt roads.

From Canyonlands, we headed south to Mexican Hat, name due to a rock formation which looks guessed it.    We had timed this part of the trip so that we would arrive an hour before sunset.  This was so we could check in and then straight away drive the 20 miles further west to  Monument Valley.  

Despite all the amazing geological structures we had seen so far, and our familiarity with the vistas of Monument Valley, it was still quite breathtaking to see this huge monoliths in the desert.   

Whilst our timing was perfect for the setting sun, unfortunately some low clouds meant the sunset light was short lived.  We had dinner at the View hotel.  We had originally tried to stay here for the amazing view, but found it fully booked. Judging by the quality of the food and service in the restaurant, I think we dodged a bullet. 

It was dark when we finished dinner and a storm has started across the valley.  We sat outside with bats flying around us and watched as sheet and forked lightning lit up the sky behind the monuments. 
A great end to another long day and we headed back to our motel.  The next day was another long drive and our sixth national park which would almost turn to catastophe when I was given a latte made with UHT milk.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Storms & Swarms

Tuesday 26th July

A lazy morning as our flight from Riverton to Denver was at 135pm, and the airport was just an hour away.
We arrived at the familiar small airport building and checked in.  Security here was unusually strict.  Two stern officials seemed to be checking everyone’s luggage in deep and intimate detail.  We were both asked to put our cases in the interrogation table where they were opened and the contents initially swabbed.  I suddenly remembered my Hot Tamales and wondered whether the mass spectrometer would detect them, and more worryingly brand me as some kind of Cinnamon Terrorist.

In Denver we picked up our Jeep, which we would keep until the end of our trip in LA.  We were slightly panicked when we couldn’t find the outside temperature gauge, a prerequisite for any holiday driving trip, but it appeared suddenly after a few random button presses.

Our Iphone sat nav got us around Denver from the airport and onto the 285 to Poncha Springs.  The bus driver at the airport has asked us where we were heading and when we said Poncha Springs, he told us it was over 400 miles away and we wouldn’t get there for at least 5-6 hours.  We politely disagreed and said perhaps it was a different Poncha Springs. He was adamant, and more than a little annoying, and 250 miles out.   

As it turned out we didn’t arrive until 9pm, but that’s because we got caught in the most intense thunderstorm we had ever encountered and certainly ever driven through.  Jo was at the wheel and all I could do was try and see through the rain hammered windscreen as the lightning hit the ground around us.

We climbed up through the mountains, near Breckenridge and Aspen ski resorts.  The storm was soon behind and we stopped for supplies and food.  On the final leg we had a 360 degree view of mountains and the sun setting below them in the west.

Wednesday 27th July

This was our big drive day. 

We planned nearly 400 miles with a lunch stop at the Colorado National Monument just west of Grand Junction, Colorado.  Our journey took us along a rim drive of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  

We explored Colorado National Monument for a couple of hours.  It is a red rock canyon with towering spires formed from the eroding rock.  The first of many we would see on this trip.

From here, we drove along Highway 141 as we’d heard it was a really picturesque route.  It was, and it twisted through the canyons.  Halfway, we came across a strange resort seemingly in the middle of nowhere in a town called Gateway.  We stopped for coffee and spoke to a guy called John who was a big fan of early Genesis.  He told us that the ‘Gateway Canyons Resort’ was built by John Hendricks, the CEO of the Discovery Channel.  

From here to Moab, our home for the next two days.  Outside of town, we noticed what looked like mini tornados on either side of the road up ahead. It was an extraordinary sight, and one which filled us with dread when we realised they were in fact swarms of mosquitoes.  As we drove through them they hit the car like the sound of rain.

It was late when we arrived at the hotel and we had not eaten.  We were also so tired that we used our binoculars to see what food was available inside a shop opposite, before making any kind of commitment to walk over there.

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