Claifornia soul

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
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26
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Trip End Aug 20, 2007


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Flag of United States  , California
Monday, June 4, 2007

Arriving ten hours before I'd left Fiji, it was high time to have my Sunday again. On the final descent into Los Angeles the smog that blanketed the city was easily visible against the backdrop of the mountains. Unable to escape due to a combination of the surrounding mountains and various different layers of air, pollution was often trapped there for a good couple of weeks. It gets much worse later on in the summer, but on he ground there was still a noticeable haze dampening the sun. LA itself is massive - a sprwaling concrete megalopolis with no discearnable centre, it spreads out along freeway arterys, often at least six lanes in each direction. Though there are buses and a nominal metro network, you really need a car to get around anywhere at a decent speed. After a day spent in Santa Monica (the decent, beach-front, European style part of the city) and the exploring the main areas of the city (Hollywood, the old Los Angeles square, etc) I hopped in a rental car and made a bee-line out of the place. My original intention had been to drop the car off in San Francisco, but it worked out several hundred dollars cheaper to just do a round trip to LA, then fly up.

Unless you're going to be on a bike, one of the only ways to see America is by car. Public transport just doesn't go to many places, and as car hire and petrol is so cheap (despite their protestations to the contrary), it makes for quite a reasonable way to get around. The cheapest car I'd managed to find was through Enterprise at LAX. It all got a lot better when I went to pick it up though. Supersize me for relative peanuts? Now that's just a dumb question. For about $8 more over the entire time I had the car, I upgraded from a relatively small PT Cruiser (hot-rod looking thing) to a massive Chrysler 300. With a turning circle about the size of Wales and the acceleration of a jet-fighter, it was an absolute beauty to drive. Bit of a baptism of fire with the whole back to front driving lark though, as after about 10 seconds on a back-road by the depot, it was out onto the freeway. Six lanes of chaos in each direction. I say chaos, as you can overtake from either side, at pretty much whatever speed you want, cop presence permitting. It does keep you on your toes though, as you never know what's going to happen next. Negotiating my way out of LA, it was soon onto the open road, doing my bit for the Californian environment in my beast of a car. To be fair to the car, it was pretty economical at around 40mpg on the long roads.

The main reason I'd got the car was to cruise up and around the famed national parks of California, notably Sequoia, Yosemite and Death Valley. Cruising up to Sequoia, the first stop on my route round California, the signs warning of the possibility of attacks by bears grew ever more frequent. Lock all food in the bins provided, etc, was the general gist. Especially pertinent at the moment seeing as they only recently came out of hiding, and have been known to break into cars. Though it has fantastic alpine scenery, surrounded by mountains on pretty much all sides, what Sequoia is famed for are the giant redwoods - Sequoiadendron giganteum. Posessing the largest living organism (by volume) anywhere on the planet, itself surrounded by other giants of similar stature, it is truely a sight to behold. Along with the General Sherman tree, the one of famed volume size, there are others that have been modified to keep the tourists amused. Most involve something to do with a car (drive your car through the fallen tree, drive it onto the fallen tree, etc) though there are ones that have just been left on the ground with the crushed remains of a cabin  that had the misfortune to be in the way resting underneath.

As there were no cheap lodges for a good 50 miles (the cheapest was a room at around $200. Er, no) I ended up bunking down in the car at one of the campsites. Currently without a tent, it was a case of how far the front seat would go back. As I hadn't organised any of my stuff before my bike trip across the country, I still had my camping gear from NZ. Managing to get my mits onto a couple of freeze-dried meals, all was well. Rather disappointed that a bear didn't come-a-knocking in the night, I woke to the crisp air of early summer, mingled with smouldering remains of someone's fire and pine. As I only had a relatively short time with the car, I didn't do any major hikes (tops a couple of hours) on this trip, but being America, roads have been built pretty much right up to most of the cool points, meaning you don't have to get your fat ass out of the car and waddle too far/have a heart attack. Aside from a brief foray into King's Canyon NP (an equally impressive landscape, not because of the trees but because of the sheer scale of the cliffs on either side of the road, and the aird environment that was in complete contrast to that of Sequoia) I headed straight for Yosemite.

Perhaps one of the USA's most famous and visited parks, after a bit of driving, it was not difficult to see why. From up at a lookout called 'Glacier Point' the whole of the valley system's laid out before you. Formed by glaciers, huge granite domes rise above the forested valley below to one side, whilst on the other cliffs of granite up to a mile high sit next to waterfalls falling, in various stages, down to the river. The serenity of the place was only mildly spoilt by the sheer volume of people there - and this wasn't even the height of summer. The easy way to remedy this and to get a proper feel of Yosemite was to do something that required a bit of exercise. Sure enough, after about a mile walk, I came to a fantastic granite dome lookout, with the park in its entirity spread out below. With only half a dozen other people there, it was as close as you could get to the real Yosmite without a major trek into the wilderness. Warned by a couple of a bear on the track that led back to the car, I was rather disappointed not to see it. Without even managing to catch a glimpse of one that night, i had to wait until the next day before one would rock up.

It was on the road that would eventually lead out of the park that I noticed a few people standing by the road, looking at the clearing with binoculars. Pulling over to see what they were on about, a huge black bear soon emerged from the shadows, happily munching away on the lush vegetation in the meadow. Before too long, pretty much every car going through had stopped. The cars weren't really a problem, but when you get several RVs (motor homes) pulling over, then chaos ensues. As RVs are generally about the size of a house/large horse box with a car hitched onto the back, they are beasts to move. They are incredibly popular though, and there is rarely a small one in sight (I don't think they even sell small ones over here). Driving through the rest of Yosemite was really spectacular, with amazing views around pretty much every corner. The final pass out of the park was at such an altitude that snow still blanketed much of the land around the road.

Heading down towards Death Valley, something cropped up that I remembered seeing in a documentary several years ago at home - the ancient Bristlecone pine forest with the famed Metheuselah tree. From what I remember it was voiced by someone like Tilda Swinton, should anyone else remember seeing it. Purported to be the oldest trees in the world, some over 4,500 years old, the pines only live in a few areas around California, all at quite high altitude. Because they get so little water and relatively little of anything else, they've made some considerable adaptations in order to survive. Able to kill off any part of their system that they're not able to support, they take two years to produce seed, replace needles only every eight years or so, and do lots of other cool things. With warning signs not to touch the chipmunks due to the likelihood of catching the bubonic plague, I set off through the pines. The only person there, it was quite an eerie site once away from the car and in the thick of the trees. With no sounds of birds or other animals, all that you could hear was the wind whistling through the trees and the gentle creaking of branches.

With not much between these and Death Valley, I headed off. After checking out the situation at Stovepipe Wells (the first sign of civilisation when entering the valley) I decided it was way too hot to sleep down there. Getting out of the car, you were hit by a rush of hot air at least in the mid 30s. Not a still air either, it was if air was being pumped down the valley by huge bellows from a furnace further up the hill. So it was back up to 2000 feet, where it was only in the 20s, to a deserted campsite. Spotting numerous desert animals in the headlights on the way up (some sort of giant eared hare and fox), there were also really random noises that kept happening in the night, like something gurgling and munching not too far away. In the light of the blue moon, the mountains were lit up as clear as in the day, though bathed in a pale white light. At first light I was up, keen to make the most of the day before the temperature rocketed up. Just from the names of the places, you could tell that the place was less than hospitable. Devil's Cornfied and Devil's Golfcourse are two prime examples, as both look as though they could be promising from a distance, but up close they are completely the reverse. The cornfield looks like stacks of corn, waiting to be picked up and put in a barn, until up close they reveal themselves to be tufts of grass. As for the golfcourse, well, there's no way you're going to play golf on that. The salt crystals form a treacherous, pinnacled layer that is difficult at the best of times to walk on. The main claim to fame of Death Valley is that it is the lowest and hottest place on the continental United States, and at 282ft below sea level at its lowest point, with regular temperatures in the day over 110f, I wasn't going to argue with that. Something I had wanted to see, but which I neither had the time or car for, was the so-called 'Racecourse'. On it, huge chunks of granite seem to have glided effortlessly across the salt, leaving tracks in their wake. There are numerous explanations for how it could all happen, ranging from wind to aliens, but as no one's ever seen them move, your guess is as good as mine.

Successfully dropping the car off in LA, it wasn't too long before my flight up to San Francisco. To say it is a fog-bound, cold city would be correct, and after the heat of the past few days, it was out with the fleece and trousers. I was only there for a couple of days before I flew up to Seattle, but I managed to have quite a good time none the less. A city of immense juxtapositions, it's also an extremely easy, almost European place to get around. The cable-cars/trams are always good fun, hanging on the outside as you egg the driver on to let go of the brakes down the steepest hills around. Even more fun when the car loses the cable running underneath half way up a hill (why do you think I stood on the outside - it's an extremely quick exit point!). One of the most famous juxtapositions in the city is that of Alcatraz Island. Sitting a ten minute boat ride from downtown, it might as well be a world away. The icy water of the bay, coupled with currents, meant that there was not a single known successful escape attempt. Though several people broke out and are unaccounted for, it's likely they drowned in their attempt at swimming the mile to shore. Only one person is known to have reached land from the island, but they were so overcome with hypothermia that they had no energy to pull themselves out and were promptly taken back to the island. The most famous resident of the island has to be Al Capone, though many of the others were just as notorious in their own right. I spent a good part of a day over there, and it's easy to see how the proximity to the city played with the minds of the inmates. It was close enough to hear, even smell, but too far to reach.

I managed to survive the nightly gauntlet run back to the hostel, through the hoards of homeless, gangs, hookers, pimps and crack dens that ran down the street between the CBD and the front door. Always a good laugh when you don't know whether you'll get back in one piece. San Francisco was a good laugh, though it could do with not being so damn fog-bound. More often than not the tops of the buildings and the famed golden gate bridge were covered in a thick grey soup, yet no more than a few miles out of the city it could well be blazing sunlight. After a couple of days, I caught my next and final flight before my final one back home from Boston, this time to Seattle. It was a tough call between a 20 hour bus ride and $20 more for a flight. The plan's to spend a couple of weeks up in Seattle, getting everything ready before the off.

photo links:

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