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. 

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.


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