Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Computer Says No

20th August

We left our hotel  just before 6am for the short drive to LAX.  When we got there about ten minutes later, we were directed to the car drop which was another 15 minutes further away. Despite this the actual drop was quick and the shuttle was there to take us back to the airport terminal straight away.  We arrived an hour before our flight was due to take off and having checked in the night before, only had to drop our bags........

The queue for bag drop was enormous.  I checked with staff who confirmed it was the correct queue despite the people at the front having to re check in (this turned out to be an opportunity to sell upgrades).  

There was also a sign saying "Bag drop closes 45 minutes before flight."  I started to worry slightly when I realised a) we weren't going to get to the front of the queue in 15 minutes and b) there was no staff so we would be up against a machine; ones and zeros.   

Sure enough when I swiped my boarding card twenty two minutes later, I got a big fat zero and the screen informed me that  bag check in had closed for our flight.  I asked the nearest staff member could they please override this and take our bags.  He told us he couldn't, he only took the bags and when I asked whom I could talk to he pointed to a queue twice as long as ours.  "You'll have to rebook your flight."   
It was a disaster.  We had a 2.5 hour connection in New York to catch our flight home.    Even if I wanted to slap a credit card down and demand "Two seats on the next goddamn flight to New York",  I couldn't, there was no counter to slap anything down onto, no desk, seemingly no one in charge. 
We had less than 40 minutes before the plane took off.  I briefly considered leaving the luggage in LA, maybe repacking our hand luggage to include any precious items (Hot Tamales?).    I saw another member of staff and I approached him with our predicament and need to catch a connecting flight. He was sympathetic and suggested that we might like to "Try the guys outside with the hats" 

Whatever this meant I didn't know but I thanked him and ran outside. There were indeed guys with hats there, taking luggage from vehicles arriving at the kerb.  I went straight up to one and told him I'd been told he was the guy who could help me.  He asked me if he would get a good tip.  I said of course, I wanted us both to benefit.  He then asked me how much.  

Now, normally like most people I'm sure, I go to the airport with just a little leftover currency for drink, food emergencies etc.  but I happened to have three hundred dollars.  I knew missing our flight was likely to cost us between £1500-2000 and I was hoping he didn't know this.  I also didn't want to offer everything at once because not surprisingly I was in unfamiliar territory here.

My opening gambit was "I don't know, how about fifty dollars?"

"Ok, fine" he said.  "Follow me and let me have your passports"

I ran back into Jo to get the passports and gave them to the hat guy.  He returned shortly after with our boarding passes and then took our bags. Again he came back and gave us the luggage receipt.  I was confident now that whatever happened, we would get our luggage back - someday.

He disappeared again and I took the opportunity to tip and thank the original member of staff who told us about the 'hat guys'.

The Hat guy returned and again asks us to follow him, this time down a corridor and up a fire escape where I gladly gave him the fifty dollars.  We emerged to a small security area and were told to wait behind a sign which said 'Government Officials Only'.  In the meantime the original staff member whom I had just tipped appeared.  Jo and I were both visibly shaken by the experience and he comforted Jo as we walked past assuring us that there was nothing more to worry about and we were going to make our flight.

We did.  It was pretty scary and frustrating but we sat down relieved and still a little in shock I think.  We arrived in New York and whilst waiting at check in for our Virgin flight home, an attendant was asking our small queue of people if anyone was on the next flight (the one before ours) so they could get them to the front of the queue for bag drop.  Thank you Virgin for knowing how to organise things properly.

We boarded the plane for the final leg of our journey.  We had been away for a whole month and something that started as just a flight last year evolved into a trip of a lifetime to celebrate Jo's up and coming 40th birthday.   

We couldn't help but talk of best moments and favourite places.  For us both the scenery and wildlife of Grand Teton & Yellowstone was the definite highlight.  Also, we hadn't imagined the independence we would feel travelling around such a popular attraction in high season, encountering as  we did very few people for most of the time.

After so many tries around the world, to finally see whales up close, and blue whales no less.  That's definitely one removed from the bucket list.

The biggest surprise for me was Death Valley and it's definitely somewhere I would return to spend more time.  I really enjoyed the stillness, how remote it was and the extremes of temperature and geology.  I liked the slightly overwhelming effect it had in being able to see such vast distances but hearing nothing other than your own pulse.

We had driven through thunderstorms and fires. Walked through forests, meadows, canyons, ghost towns, deserts, rivers and mountains.  We'd been to 13000ft above sea level and 282ft below, and driven over 4000 miles.

We'd seen bears, buffalos, bats, moose, coyotes and whales among many other animals.  Everything we hoped we may see, we did see.  With the small exception of wolves, but there's another adventure for another day and besides, our annual national parks pass is valid until August 2012.....


I'm also so glad I documented our trip here as it will serve as a much welcome aide memoire for the future; which in my case is around 24hours after the event.  I hope to continue my writing, and even if I'm not entirely sure what my subject will be yet, you may find something interesting at

Thanks for dropping by.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Out to Sea

8th August

For our final day in Yosemite we headed to the south and the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove.   Whilst these trees are not the tallest or oldest in the world, they are the largest species of tree by volume and it was claimed, the largest living thing on the planet.

The grove includes the famous California tunnel tree, which was carved out in 1895 to allow horse drawn carriages to drive through.

We left the park and headed west to the Monterey.  Whilst there was a fairly simple route we entered the destination into our sat nav and were slightly nervous when it instructed us to take smaller side roads.  However as we were going in the right direction, we were pleased to be off the main highway and found ourselves driving through acres and acres of mainly pistachio tree fields.

A few further side roads and we approached a bank of cloud and dropped down into Monterey and the familiar Victorian Inn in Foam Street.

9th August

We first came here in December 2006, primarily to go whale watching and it was for the same reason we were returning now.   In 2006, we hadn't seen any whales and were given rain checks.  These were honored today as we headed out again in search of Humpback.  The fairly small boat was thrown around a bit and after two hours we did see in the mid distance a couple of humpback whales.  However, we were disappointed as we were in a ring of boats and the experience was not quite as we had anticipated.  Moreover, the blue whales had left, apparently heading south.   Whilst we were also heading that way in a day or so, it was looking increasingly unlikely that we would see them.

Later that evening we came across a fantastic sushi restaurant called Crystal Fish where Jo proclaimed the tempura California roll was the one of the best things she'd ever eaten in her life, ever.

10th August

From Monterey, we headed south on Highway 1 via 17 mile drive which winds along the coast past many famous golf courses.  It was strange to actually see Pebble Beach where Jo had beaten me so many times on Tiger Woods Golf PGA Tour for the PS3.  As I took photographs Jo was hurriedly noting down wind speed and direction on the 8th Hole.

We drove south hugging the coast along Highway 1 and reversing the journey we had taken in 2006.   We arrived in Santa Barbara and our apartment for the next 8 days.

11th - 18th August

Lazy days in Santa Barbara.  Our apartment came with bicycles which we used every day.  The early morning fog here, known locally as the June Gloom, seemed to have overstayed its welcome and persisted for the majority of our stay.  The weather forecasters didn't have a clue what was going on so planning beach trips was a bit difficult.   It was normally all gone in the afternoon to reveal beautiful blue skies.    

We decided to go on another whale trip, this time on a modern catamaran which glided across the water at three time the speed of our previous vessel.  This meant we could get out to sea quicker and further.   

We expected to see dolphins and my previous experience was the odd one or two alongside one boat or another on holiday.  It really is something quite different when pods of hundreds appear in the distance distorting the ocean  at the horizon and when we caught up with them, the speed at which they darted around the boat was thrilling.   

The captain estimated we saw around three thousand all together.  As we went further out to sea, we began to see the tell tale spouts and before long were beside half a dozen humpback whales swimming, trumpeting and diving around the boat. 

We were the only boat, the engine was off, and everyone was respectfully quiet.  It was just us and the Humpbacks and it was finally what we tried so hard to achieve for many years.    

Of course, we didn't know then that it was about to get a whole lot better.  

Because there were so many humpbacks; a further six showed up, and there were taking an interest  in us, we stayed in the one spot for quite a while.  However, the captain did take us out further, and we had a small idea what he may be looking for.   

When we saw the Blue whales, the most striking thing was actually just how blue they were.   Despite the grey overcast day, their skin was like deeply glazed ceramic.  We were lucky enough to encounter a mother and calf and whilst our time was limited, it was such a privilege to see what is the largest known animal to have ever existed.

Our final glimpse was of them diving, flukes out of the water.  As they often stay under for up to an hour, we finally headed back.  

We visited Ventura,  a laid back surfing town just south of Santa Barbara for an afternoon on the beach and the first and only time we really got into the ocean, like head under in. 

A 25 mile bike ride led us through the Santa Barbara University campus and around vineyards and  residential areas which allowed us an interesting perspective we would not have got in our car. There are cycle lanes everywhere in Santa Barbara which made it really safe and fun to get around, though some of the hills were a little challenging on a single speed bike.  

It was in Santa Barbara that I discovered the Cold Stone Creamery, and ice cream shop where they mix up artery clogging concoctions which are simply and literally to die for.    
Even having to ask for 'The Pie Who Loved Me'  or  'Dough't You Want Some' couldn't embarrass me out drooling these names to staff who promptly mixed a series of nice things on a 'Cold' marble slab, deposited them into a semi-giant tub and gave it all to me.

I returned several times.

19th August 

We left Santa Barbara and headed for our final destination of Venice beach.  On the way we drove around Beverly Hills to the ubiquitous sound of leaf blowers and other gardening equipment. 
Our final hotel was the Venice on the Beach, a really nice place at the quiet end of Venice Beach away from the freaks a few blocks north.   

We took a stroll along the boardwalk to muscle beach and beyond to watch skateboarders.  

As the sun began to go down, we headed back and sat on the beach watching the final sunset of our trip.   

Whilst we were looking forward to going home,  it was sad that this fantastic trip we had spent so long looking forward to, was soon to be in the past.  Everything had gone exactly as planned, and as I voiced this  Jo warned me that I may have jinxed us. 

I didn't believe her until the next day when we were refused boarding to our flight. Several bouts of shock, running, bribing, crying and nausea later, found us escorted through a special government security screening to finally board our plane wondering what the hell had just happened. 

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