Monday, 21 August 2017

Meet me in St Louis

Road Trip: Day Eight. Miles travelled: 2799
States visited: 9. Time zones covered: 3

We woke up in Tulsa this morning in another dreadful motel. I've been looking for stamps for some time, and asked the man behind the counter if he sold any. He looked at me like I'd asked him to supply me with a whore! Actually, in the motel we were in, this would probably have been more acceptable than asking for a stamp!

As usual, we were on the road by 8am, tearing, yet again, along the Historic Route 66, which has accompanied us for a surprising amount of this journey.

First stop, at Cartoosa, just outside Tulsa, was the Blue Whale, a hugely beloved landmark on the road. It's made out of fibre glass, and is probably about 60 feet long. He sits, merrily, in a dirty little pond, which is full of turtles. He's got a big smiley face and a jaunty little cap, and you can walk through his mouth and stand on his back. He was apparently made as part of an animal themed park in the 1970s which almost immediately fell into disrepair. The whale was recently restored by the family of the man who'd made it. It's a really charming little spot, which is surrounded by painted concrete picnic benches with legs which have been shaped to resemble little whales.

It's free to enter but they ask for donations. It's their dream to restore the giant wooden arc next door, which was also part of the original attraction. I sincerely hope they manage to do so.

Further along Route 66, at a place called Foyil, is a hugely eccentric totem pole garden which was created by a retired violin maker and folk artist called Ed Galloway. There are all sorts of wonderful, colourful, wooden structures, the tallest of which stands at more than 90 feet. It's such a peaceful, atmospheric spot. The only sounds you can hear are the whistling of birds and the distant rattle of freight trains. At both the Blue Whale and the totem pole garden, I was thrilled to hear my first ever American-style train whistle. It's such a haunting, eerie sound which instantly made me think of On The Road.

We passed from Oklahoma into Missouri on the interstate at 10.18am: our eighth state on this road trip. Today was a day where we needed to hoover up the miles, so we've had our heads down and our feet on the accelerator. We stopped at Springfield, Missouri, which is another Route 66 town. Sam had read about a diner called Steak 'n Shake. It's a chain restaurant, but the one in Springfield had retained a great deal of its 1960s fixtures and fittings in a way which simply wouldn't have happened in the UK, where places like that are routinely, blandly and cheaply refitted every five or so years.

There must be more Springfields in the US than any other town name. Maybe the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield to represent everyman.

On the Interstate out of Springfield we saw the type of sickening, right-wing billboard I'm seeing all too often on this road trip: "I'm proud to be American. If you're not, leave." Not being proud of where you're from is certainly not a reason to leave ones country. I used to be terribly proud to be British until we voted Brexit, when I became utterly ashamed of my nationality and every single person who voted for it. Furthermore, I believe that Brexit was a contributing factor in Trump's victory, and this makes me doubly embarrassed. Patriotism isn't something which can be demanded. It is not unpatriotic to have issues with your government. In my view, patriotism is sticking around to fight until the lunatics are either thrown out or see sense. Just to compound my issues with USA citizens, we then pulled into a service station and came face to face with the "Jesus Barn and Grill Restaurant." The word Jesus was written on the restaurant roof in 10-foot high lettering.

The next stop on our journey was at Rolla, where they apparently have a half-sized replica of Stone Henge, made in 1984 to showcase the capabilities of the local university's High Pressure Water Jet Lab. I was expecting an exact replica of the landmark. Something excitingly realistic. It turns out that Rolla's Stone Henge is no such thing. It's really just a heap of evenly-cut granite blocks arranged in a circle, in a science park, by the side of a busy road! It is, in short, wildly disappointing. But amusingly so!

Missouri is full of flattened armadillos by be side of the road. Either there are countless armadilli in the state, or Missouri armadilli are particularly stupid. I was trying to find a portmanteau which would be appropriate for the massacre of innocent armadillos, but the best I could come up with was Arma-geddon!

We rolled into St Louis at about 3pm. I think all of us were keen to see the place. It's a fairy iconic American city which has played a considerable roll in shaping the country. For some time it was considered an outpost of civilisation: the gateway to the Wild West. In recent years it's fallen on hard times. In the 1950s it had way over 800,000 citizens. Fewer than half of that number live there now.

The freeways go right into the centre of the town, so we didn't get an opportunity to see the varying neighbourhoods. My gut instinct is that it's a very mixed place. There's a lot of graffiti in the riverside district that we were in, and some decaying art nouveau buildings, which, in the London, would have been turned into fancy apartments. Here, they're just falling down.

We parked up and headed down to the banks of the Mississippi River. I don't know what it is about that particular river which has gripped me throughout my life. It has a sort of mystique. A hint of the Deep South and an entirely "other" way of life. One of the first American TV shows I regularly watched and enjoyed was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It just seemed so exotic and exciting.

We paddled in the river. It was a somewhat eccentric thing to do because I'm sure the river is incredibly dirty. I'd never go down to one of the beaches on Thames and have a paddle there, but I think Nathan and I both had a sense of wanting to be at one with the river somehow. Nathan was singing Old Man River softly to himself.

There are many bridges over the Mississippi in St Louis, which vary in style and age. None stand out massively, but all are attractive in their own way. Paddle steamers packed full of tourists glide up and down. One is called Tom Sawyer, as you might expect. They play Dixie jazz and I'm sure it's a lovely way to see the city. They also emit the most incredible noises in the form of a deep, evocative, horn-like sound, which echoes across the Mississippi. They run helicopter rides over the city which take off from moorings by the river, so there's a fair amount of chugging as they pass, daringly low, over head.

Of course the big draw in St Louis is the Gateway Arch, which, at 630 feet, and made of gleaming stainless steel, towers above the city, glinting like an exploding angel. It is deeply impressive, particularly when it starts to reflect the sky. I could have sat for hour looking up at it but the temperatures were so high, I got into a bit of a panic. I was squinting just to avoid looking at the light coloured pavements around the structure which were blazing in the sunlight.

The state border in St Louis is actually the Mississippi, so as we crossed the river to leave the town, we entered our ninth State in this incredible journey. Illinois. Because everything feels so rooted in the Deep South here, it's quite difficult to comprehend that we're in the same state as Chicago.

We drove south to a place called Carbondale as the sun set. This part of the country is full of maize fields. The drive was charming. The sun was strobing through the trees and lighting up the paddocks and glades in lime green. Red wooden barns with mansard roofs rubbed shoulders with clapperboard houses wrapped in little white verandas. Every so often, we'd pull up to a railway crossing and see the tracks heading west. It's all rather lovely and affluent - dare I say twee - but I'm not sure it would be the best place to be gay! I have seldom seen so much evidence of religion.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Get your kicks on Route 66

Road Trip: Day Seven. Miles travelled: 2300. States visited: 7. Time zones covered: 3.

When you do a road trip like this, all the hotels start to blend into one. I often find myself walking to the wrong spot in the wrong, bland corridor and trying to force myself into the wrong room.

Last night's hotel in Amarillo will stand out as being a particularly bad one. It's not so much that it was cheap and cheerful, there was just no love or pride coming from the staff. Everything was broken and tatty.

That aside, the Texans certainly seem to feel a great deal of pride for their homeland. The waffles we had for breakfast this morning were Texas-shaped, and all the steak houses and eateries have Texas in their names.

Everything in Texas suddenly feels expansive. It's a massive state, and it knows it. Buildings seem larger. Space around the buildings seems larger. It would be impossible to walk around Amarillo. You have to drive.

We went to Bar 212 last night, which is Amarillo's premier gay bar. What is a trip to Texas if it doesn't include some Texan drag? The whole evening was an education. The first thing we noticed was quite how much smoking goes on in Texan bars. It's been a long time since I've sat in a bar, choking on other people's cigarette smoke. There were three drag queens. I'd name them if I'd have been able to hear anything at all through the dodgy sound system. In the States, the drag tradition is built on fierce, glamorous and highly feminine performers who lip-synch like daemons to classic pop and country tunes sung by women. The British drag queens, by contrast, do comedy and sing live, but often look like the proverbial cock in a frock...

So these girls WOULD have spent the night lip-synching... had the sound system not packed up half way through the third number! With the absence of music, they were forced to wander about in the crowd, inanely chatting, whilst trying to crack jokes which got increasingly desperate. One went up to every man in the audience asking if they were rich and then walking away in disgust when they said no! This somewhat mortifying scene did, however, give us a chance to find out who watches drag in the States. The audience turned out to be largely straight with lots of people on date nights, which felt somewhat curious. One woman had brought her teenaged daughter to the club for her eighteenth birthday. The Mum was a hard-faced, sallow-cheeked woman who must have been considerably younger than me. The drag queen got chatting to her and asked why they were there, "well it's her eighteenth birthday" said the Mum in a deep Texan drawl, "so we've taken her to get her first tattoo, had her nipples done, and now she's good to go!" I instantly imagined my Mum taking me to a drag club at the age of 18 and saying something similar! Only in the States! I guess at least she was taking her daughter to a gay bar and expanding her mind a little!

Drag queens here are tipped as they mime. People stand up, walk to the performance area, and hand the girls a dollar, which usually gets them a little peck on the cheek. It was a bit gross to watch the old, creepy men standing waiting for their kisses. Their lips quivering and salivating. Their palms sweating with excitement.

Oh yes... and the vast majority of Texans are obese!

The Panhandle of Texas, where we were passing through, is deadly flat. You can look out over vast expanses of plain with only a distant factory or a wind farm to break the monotony. It's the first area of the States we've encountered where there's been evidence of large-scale farming.

We set off at 8am and fairly rapidly turned off the I-40 at Groom, which is famous in the area for its 200-foot high, white, stainless steel cross which you can see for miles. There's a curious juxtaposition going on in the area because the cross is now surrounded by a wind farm, so there are tall white structures jostling for attention as far as the eye can see! As Nathan said, "I think these wind turbines are graceful and elegant and a great force for good, whereas this cross seems to me to be just graceful and elegant."

At the foot of the cross is a deeply uncomfortable and rather nauseating statue of Jesus weeping whilst holding a foetus. A stone plaque reads: "dedicated to the sanctity of life. In loving memory of the innocent victims of abortion." There are times when I simply despise Christianity!

Far quirkier and more interesting is the Leaning Water Tower of Groom. The water towers here are more like water butts: large canisters elevated from the ground by metal structures. Groom's water tower leans at a preposterous and perilous angle. Two of the metal structure's legs are actually off the ground, suggesting the water tower is just one heavy wind away from toppling down.

Further down Historic Route 66 is McClean, which is about as evocative and charming an old town you're likely to find. Yet again, the I-40 has done for this town and very few businesses remain. The high street - Route 66 itself - is filled with the usual assortment of garages with trees growing though them, and sad-looking, boarded-over diners. But the locals have obviously started to realise there's money to be made from Route 66 tourism. The town feels legitimated entirely unchanged since the 1950s. You can walk down the middle of the empty street and let your imagination soar. It's entirely silent but for the sound of signposts creaking in the wind. What dramas, comedies and tragedies were played out on this tarmac when this town was in its heyday? Did it witness the pitiful scene of countless refugees escaping the dust bowl in Oklahoma migrating to California?

The only place open in the town, apart from a lone garage, was the Barbed Wire Museum. Again, only in America - and probably only on Route 66! It houses the most peculiar selection of objects. There were collections of sad irons, cruet sets, nautical knots and thimbles. There were photos of the dust bowl, of huge clouds of dust as high as a three storey building engulfing people, cars and homes. I realised today how little I know about this period of American history and immediately bought a book from the museum to educate myself.

The back section of the museum was dedicated to barbed wire, and there were samples of every known type of the stuff displayed in case after case. Who knew there was so much to learn about barbed wire? Dotted about the museum were sculptures made of the stuff. Rabbits, armadillos, a scorpion, a cowboy, a little urban scene... it was charmingly eccentric, and I was a little sad to see that its total number of visitors last month was just 658. How on earth does a place like that survive? It's apparently been there for 27 years, however, so it's doing something right. The lovely lady behind the counter tells me the museum is the product of 12 different barbed wire nuts pooling their individual collections. The building it's housed in used to be a bra factory. One type of under-wiring to another!

40 or so miles out of McClean, we left Texas and entered Oklahoma, our seventh state on this journey. Our first mini-stop was in the ghost town of Texola, which sits on a very charming section of the Old Route 66. Texola has an official population of just 36, who live in the few buildings which aren't blowing away into the prairie. We sat, for some time, outside a ruined gas station. There was an old rocking chair which we positioned in front of a rusty truck. Nathan did some knitting whilst he rocked.

From Texola, we drove along Route 66 to a town called Erick, where we visited Sandhill's Curiosity Shop, which is not actually a shop. People go to the place to meet a rather wonderful eccentric called Harley, who is a sort of modern-day troubadour who lives within an assortment of Route 66 ephemera which he collected with his wife over a 30 year period. His wife, Annabelle, is sadly no longer with us. Harley is utterly warm-hearted and wears his red neck status as a true badge of honour. Anyone who comes into his shop is invited to look around, sit down and listen to his pearls of wisdom. He's a hill-billy guru. If you're lucky he'll treat you to a little performance. After gargling a huge swig of Jack Daniels, he sang "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" and "Crazy" for us. He's an amazing guitarist, a true showman and he performs with an astounding amount of feeling. I was really quite touched by his version of Crazy.

He took to calling me "Baby Boy Benjy" and went on at length to Nathan about his lovely speaking voice, "you're such a sweet boy. I could make a hellava woman out of you!"

We asked him at one point what his favourite item was in his collection. He responded that it was actually the people who came to visit him. What a legend!

In Oklahoma, the countryside becomes greener and more rolling. The sky feels rather wide, and the earth is bright orange, but, if you don't look too carefully, you could trick yourself into thinking you were in the UK. Until, that is, you see some of the billboards by the side of the road, the most hideous of which simply said "Christ" on one side, and, on the other, the words "right to bear arms." Desperate. Road kill is the other thing which separates this area from the UK. There seem to be a plethora of dead armadillos, raccoons and skunks. It's worth pointing out that the smell of a dead skunk is almost identical to the smell of the drug skunk. A little research reveals that this is actually the reason the drug is called skunk.

We stopped off at Oklahoma City in the late afternoon for lunch in the (locally) feted Bricktown, which seems to be a set of Victorian warehouses sitting on an old canal, whose water is bright green. We ate in a lovely little restaurant called Jazzmos.

As usual for this part of the world, there was almost nothing for vegetarians on the menu, but I did ascertain that the Caesar Salad didn't have an anchovy dressing, so it was somewhat blissful to finally have a plate of food which felt healthy.

We stopped off at the memorial park to the 168 people killed when the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19th 1995. The monument is very well thought through, incredibly dignified and really very moving. The most poignant part is almost certainly the Field of Empty Chairs, set out in nine rows to represent where each of the victims was located in the nine floors of the building when the bomb went off. 19 of the chairs are half-sized to represent the children killed in the blast, the large majority of whom were in the building's day care centre, which, by the situation of the chairs , had to be on the second floor.

They have kept a small section of the original building's wall, upon which a list of survivors is printed. I was rather touched by the inclusion of the names of survivors, whom I think are fairly often overlooked.

It's a beautifully calming spot. Bells from the church opposite echo on one of the monument's gates, creating an intriguing sonic wash.

The fact that such a huge amount of attention was poured into the sight gives an indication of quite how shocking this kind of act of terrorism was for Americans in those (all too recent) days. I'm sure no one could ever have imagined what was to come...

We drove back onto Historic Route 66 to visit Arcadia and a garage-cum-diner called Pops, which has a 66-foot-tall pop bottle-shaped sign outside. The garage sells over 500 different types of soda, so we bought a variety for a taste test which we sampled sitting by a red, round barn which has, apparently, always been an iconic pit-stop for those riding the Free Road, as it's know around here. All of the drinks were disgusting. I don't believe a single real piece of fruit made its way into anything we drank.

We drove Route 66 to Tulsa as the sun sank in the sky. Oklahoma is such a green state, and the coppery light on the trees was magical against the blue sky. I never thought I'd travel to America and find that it was Oklahoma which reminded me so thoroughly of home. What with the pinky-red earth, the rolling vistas covered in oak woods, the deep green pastures and glorious tree tunnels, I could have been back in Warwickshire, to the extent that I started to feel a little homesick. Funnily enough, five miles down the road, we entered a town called Warwick. I wonder if the person who named it also felt the place was reminiscent of Shakespeare's County?

As the shadows started to lengthen, we drove through the delightful town of Chandler - probably one of the most beautiful, and best-preserved towns on the old Route 66. It's literally like stepping out of a car into the 1950s. I should have worn my suit and two-coloured brogues today! Towns like Chandler and Stroud, further up the road, feel like they've really embraced, and are maximising on the tourist potential of Route 66. I think perhaps this area of Oklahoma is more opulent than New Mexico and Texas, and is therefore in more of a position for money to breed money. And just as I was beginning to fall in love with Oklahoma, we rounded a corner, and there, painted in huge letters all over a stunning Victorian building, "Trump: Make America Great Again." Bleughhh.

I got chatting to a line of very oddly-shaped people in a gas station in a place called Sapulpa, where petrol only costed $1.94 per gallon. I think they were intrigued by my accent and wanted to know if I was "doing 66." We had a lovely chat and they introduced me to a newspaper on the counter called "Just Busted," which is filled with the mug shots of people who have recently been arrested in the state. It seemed to be hugely popular with the people I was chatting to. They really enjoy looking at the pictures of nut-jobs and hearing about the crimes they've committed. Yet again... only in America!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Is this the way to Amarillo?

Road Trip: Day Five. Miles travelled: 1838

States visited: 6. Time zones covered: 3

I was up at 7am this morning. Our hotel room last night was a palatial suite with a bed the size of a van. I didn't sleep very well, however. I had a dry, tickly cough and the black out curtains in the room disorientated me. Today's journey took us from Santa Fe to Amarillo along Historic Route 66. We'd designated it as a day of Americana and quirkiness, and decided to soak in as many of those old-school roadside attractions as we could possibly find.

We set off through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where we experienced a few drops of rain. Our first on the trip. The aroma of rain in the desert was one of the most pungent and alluring smells I've ever experienced. We passed through a highly charming village called Madrid which bills itself as having "ten unique shops." All the buildings in the town are ramshackle and wood-built. The shops are filled to the rafters with bric-a-brac and curios. It felt a shame to be passing through without stopping, but we had Tinkertown to visit!

Tinkertown sits in a secluded, green and tranquil spot in the hills somewhere above Route 66. The wooden buildings are lined with glass bottles which glow in the sunlight. It was set up by a married couple, Carla and Ross Ward. Ross was an artist who specialised in painting carnival rides and attractions. He died of Alzheimer's a few years ago, but his wife continues to look after their legacy.

And what a legacy! Tinkertown is an exploration into all things tiny! It started its life as a Wild West exhibit which they toured, in a trailer, as a portable attraction. The Wild West exhibit is about ten metres long and features a street of houses - a saloon, a photographer's gallery, a shop selling ice cream, a blacksmiths - filled with carefully carved wooden figurines dressed in nineteenth century garb. Some of it is automated. Couples dance. A steam train rolls forward. Mary Poppins flies out of the roof of the ice cream shop. (So random!) Everything is utterly whacky and anachronistic, but that is its point.

And you go from room to room seeing circus scenes, automated fortune tellers, photographs of freak shows from the early 20th Century... It's part penny arcade, part art gallery. It feels like the life's work of two eccentric artists, with an eye for the bizarre, rescuing quirky objects from skips, fair backlots and hotel clearances. It's an earthier, more shambolic version of Small Small World at DisneyLand.

Everywhere you go, little painted inspirational quotes fill the walls: "Invention consists of imagination and a scrap heap" - Thomas Edison.

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" - - Albert Einstein

"You don't stop playing because you grow old... You grow old because you stop playing. " And so it goes on.

My favourite part was a small collection of white, inch-long porcelain children wrapped in blankets, which were apparently known as "Frozen Charlotte Dolls," based on a Victorian ballad of a young girl who died in a Christmas blizzard!

Otto's fabulously tuneless One Man Band was also a highlight.

When we left the building, we came across a couple of elderly photographers who were patiently sitting in front of a humming bird feeder, attempting to get the perfect image of a broadtail humming bird. And they were spoilt for choice really. The birds were everywhere, dive-bombing the feeders, dive-bombing each other, hovering inexplicably in mid-air as they fed. The rushing, flapping sound they make as they sail past your face is quite extraordinary. The male birds are particularly attractive: green with bright red spot on their chests. It was really quite magical.

Next up was Santa Rosa, City of Natural Lakes, largely famous for its Blue Hole, but, for Nathan and me, also the name of a very early ABBA song... so early, in fact, that it predates the arrival in the group of Agnetha and Frida!

We left Interstate 40 and took the historic Route 66 into Santa Rosa where we caught our first glimpse of the road side America I'd been so desperate to see: the bright, tatty signs, often neon lit, stretching ever higher into the sky in an attempt to attract passing drivers. Some of the signs are broken. Some of the letters are missing. Former garages and diners collapse and rust into scrubland. A truck load of water melons is parked by the side of the road...

The Blue Hole itself is magnificent. It's situated in a completely unremarkable area on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. It's actually a natural spring which has probably been a quarry at some point and it is a wonderful spot for a natural swim. The "hole" is 60 feet in diameter and 81 feet deep. The water is freezing cold, crystal clear and bluer than robins eggs. The sunlight dances on the surface and creates beautiful lined patterns, like bright yellow lasers, deep into the watery depths. It's massively popular with SCUBA divers. You see little groups of them disappearing into the blue and then reemerging twenty minutes later, having, no doubt explored a series of underground caves.

We took the I40 to Tucumcari, which is known locally as "the town that's two blocks wide and two miles long." It was a major stopping-off spot for travellers on the Mother Road and once boasted 2000 motel rooms. The locals are doing their absolute best to re-invent the town as a Historic Route 66 tourist destination, but they have a heck of a long way to go. Most of the motels along the stretch of Route 66 are either boarded over, falling down, or in great need of repair. When the I40 was built, the bottom dropped out of the town. A lot of the fabulous old signs still exist, and, I've read that all the neon looks quite cool at night, but there's a whiff of desperation about things. One of the motels has a huge sign which reads "Clint Eastwood stayed here!"

We stopped off at an empty little souvenir shop which sold Route 66 memorabilia and were served by a charming old lady with a somewhat fragile perm which I wouldn't have wanted to put near a naked flame. She suggested we have our lunch in a motel called Del's, where the waiter was so dry and deadpan, we felt quite scared!

For the next 50 miles we drove along the old Route 66 which runs parallel to the I40. There wasn't a car on the road with us, so we ended up travelling faster than vehicles on the Interstate... until we hit an un-paved, dirt-track section of the road, at which point we slowed to 30mph. Everything along that stretch of road was utterly devastated. Burned-out garages, bashed-up trailers, fabulous ancient signs turning to dust and fading into the plains. Painted onto the side of a semi-dilapidated building, in proud large letters, were the words "modern restrooms."

We stopped off on an entirely empty section of the old road, where a motel was slowly returning to the earth. The noise of crickets was utterly deafening. It was like no sound I've ever heard before. If you approached an area of grass, hundreds of the little critters hopped and flew in the opposite direction. We explored the ruined motel, wandering into some of the bedrooms to see mattresses rotting on threadbare carpets and various magazines and books scattered on the bedside tables. The one I picked up came from 1978. It was a truly eerie experience. A snapshot from the past. 28 Weeks Later. The now defunct Mother Road stretched out into the distance.

And then suddenly we realised we were in

Texas. Texas! How on earth did I ever end up in Texas! To prove we were in a huge American State, the first thing we saw was a wind farm which stretched for what had to be twenty miles.

On the outskirts of Amarillo we visited the Cadillac Ranch, which is another one of those somewhat quirky "attractions" you only get in America. The ranch dates back to 1974 and features 10 whole Cadillac cars, half-buried in mud in the middle of a field. The cars date from 1949 to 1974 and demonstrate the design changes of that particular make over that period of time. It was done by an artists' collective from San Francisco. Of late it's become a popular pastime for people to spray graffiti on the cars, and they are literally thick with layers of paint. The ground around is scattered with cans. Nathan was quite keen to add our initials somewhere and found a half-used can of red paint. We proudly added our initials over the top of a crude picture of a pink penis. We stepped back to admire our work, at which point, someone stepped in, and sprayed a pink penis over our initials! Charming!

Every sign on the outskirts of Amarillo advertises a steak house. Amarillo is the home of the cattle industry in America, so I suppose it's hardly surprising. Our hotel is a bit dire. But we'll sleep well tonight.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Santa Fe

Road Trip: Day Five. Miles travelled: 1548

States visited: 5. Time zones covered: 2.

We left Kayenta at 8am this morning and hit the road to Santa Fe. Kayenta is a funny old place. The juxtaposition of its down-at-heelness with the curious mounds of Monument Valley piled up in the background, looking like a Disney ride, is a hugely curious sight.

Petrol here is mercifully cheap for a group of slightly hard-up men going on a road trip. It's usually in the region of $2.28 per gallon, which is a third of the cost of petrol in the UK.

A few miles out of Kayenta, we crossed another state line, which takes the total number of states visited so far to five. California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah (for about five minutes) and, now, New Mexico.

Crossing into New Mexico was rather special for me. As a twelve-year old lad I became obsessed with the idea of visiting this particular state, I'm ashamed to say as a result of watching an episode of Murder She Wrote where Jessica Fletcher goes to an archeological dig which is being haunted by the apparition of a Native American who chants on a hillside, cursing the dig and all those who dig in it! I was really drawn in by the intriguing desert-like landscape, which, when I think about it, was probably more likely to have been filmed somewhere near LA! I was somewhat disappointed to learn recently that Jessica's home in Cabot Cove, Maine, was actually filmed in up-state California!

On the way to Santa Fe you pass through nothing but Indian reservations. The Hopi Reservation. The Navajo Nation Reservation... It turns out that you can tell an area of reservation by the miles and miles of fence which run along the sides of the long, entirely straight highways. My assumption is that the major roads have remained state owned and controlled. You Indians can have the land... except the bits we want!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, what seems to be lacking from the Indian Reservations are the sorts of roadside diners I expected to find in abundance on this road trip. Perhaps it was the dreamer in me who expected to happen upon a plethora of over-friendly, family-run cafes by the side of the road specialising in Mama-made apple pie. If I'm honest I haven't found the native Indian people particularly friendly or warm. That's probably based on years of justifiable mistrust of the white man. My sense is that there's an inward-lookingness within the community. Take Kayenta, for example, which is right on the edge of one of the great wonders of the natural world, and yet nothing there is geared towards tourism. There are no native art centres, or homely-looking diners, or museums about Navajo life. It strikes me that they're just not that fussed about having outsiders to stay, which seems odd when you consider how much wealth tourism is likely to bring into an area which seems so poor. Every town we've passed through seems to have at least six pawn shops.

Everywhere you go in the US, billboards claim that shops and diners are "world-famous." What on earth constitutes world famous?

We passed "Something Sexy - the adult couple's megastore." It strikes me that the shop's name is fairly indicative of a society which can only justify advertising sex shops by making them for "couples only." A quick look at an online gay chat app last night revealed that the nearest gay person to Kayanda using the app was 90 km away! In San Francisco, there were forty seven people within a kilometre!

We had lunch in a little town called Cuba, where we finally found a road side diner approaching the kind I was hoping for. It was called "Bobby and Margie's Cuban Cafe" and it had a huge retro 1960s neon sign with an arrow. The walls of the diner were lined with shelves which were filled with toy trucks of all sizes.

The omelettes came with a choice of toast or something they called "biscuit and gravy." It turns out biscuit and gravy is a plain scone with a dipping sauce which our waitress described as "white and peppery." It was plainly a little bit bacony as well. One sniff of it told me that. I'd also hazard a guess that my hash browns had been cooked in bacon fat. I'm not sure the mountainous regions of the States are going to cater that well for vegetarians!

As we drove on the freeway towards Santa Fe, we started to see some worryingly backward billboards. One advertised creationism. The famous image of a series of apes slowly straightening themselves and becoming man had a red diagonal line painted through it. Another billboard said, "abortion stops a beating heart." Those kind of images don't exactly warm a wet liberal to a place...

Santa Fe itself is nice enough. Most of the houses are adobe-walled, or faux adobe walled, which gives everything a soft, somewhat Spanish quality. The houses are often washed in terracotta and dusty pinks, and many have sky blue windows and doors, which look really rather pretty. If I'm brutally honest, I'm not sure I entirely got along with the place. Everything was clean and tidy and terribly neat, but I tend to like a place with a bit of grit. Santa Fe feels like it's "doing" cute. It is, however, known as a very liberal place, and there's a wonderful classical music scene here. There's a chamber music festival on at the moment.

I think it's probably a great place to visit if you've got a bit of money in your back pocket for some nice jewellery or a charming painting in vivid colours. For me, however, almost every shop sold the same thing - and almost everything was geared towards women. Women outnumber men on the streets by two to one. It's all artsy-crafty, flowing bohemian garb, massive statement necklaces made from turquoise, healing crystals and non-specific ethnic plates and pottery served up at hugely-inflated prices. Many of the items claim to have Native American authenticity, but scratch the surface and most of what you're looking at is made in China and India. The streets were literally humming with the sorts of women the shops were aimed at. The sorts of women who marry wealthy businessmen and take up pottery and painting in their middle age because they're bored. They try ever so hard to present themselves as bohemian, but the idea of living as penniless artists would be utterly unacceptable for them. Their husbands humour them. There's one shop specifically for men which is full of the types of clothes that certain type of woman would buy her certain type of male husband to make him look "really trendy and colourful." He dutifully buys them, wears them... and feels like a tit!

I think I expected it to be filled with vintage shops and thrift stores and be a little rough around the edges. It really wasn't for me. It felt like a theme park.

We went to the San Miguel mission, which, built in 1610, is the oldest church in the US. A church built in 1610 is never going to overwhelm a Brit. Neither would the oldest house in the US, which, built in 1646, is probably about the age of my parents house in Thaxted! Said house has become a museum. It's tiny. We went in. I instantly got claustrophobic and ran outside again. I think I've been spoilt by all these glorious open spaces we've been visiting.

All that said, we did sit in a hugely charming cafe-cum-bookshop called Iconik, where I bought a book about Route 66 and we sat, drinking tea whilst watching the good folk of Santa Fe doing their thing. One man, with cool hair, talked obsessively on the phone about gravlax and another was writing letters on huge pieces of hand-made paper with a quill and ink pot!

Adobe bricks, I learned today, are made of straw, mud and cow manure. Fact.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The monuments - and a load of dinosaurs

Road Trip: Day Four. Miles travelled: 1195

States visited: 4. Time zones covered: 2.

The stars were so bright last night. We stood outside our hotel, staring up at them in awe. The Milky Way was stretching in a giant arc, from horizon to horizon. I have never seen it looking so bright. In these parts, it's known as the "river in the sky." It's so prevalent that it has a name! Just before turning in for the night, I saw a shooting star. It finished the day off rather spectacularly...

We got up at 5am this morning so that we could watch the sun rising over the Grand Canyon. It was a deeply magical experience. We'd chosen our spot last night, some way away from the over-crowded viewing platforms where we'd jostled to watch the sunset last night.

It was still dark when we arrived at the canyon rim, but within a few minutes, an orange light had started glowing in the East. I feel rather smug to announce that for the entire two hours we spent in our special little spot, we weren't disturbed by anyone. It literally felt like the place was ours.

As the sun appeared over the rim of the canyon, both Nathan and Sam cried. It's places like this that you get such a clear sense of the power and absolute beauty of nature. I always feel like a sunrise is nature giving us all another chance. Less than 24 hours ago, we'd been in the plastic shimmer of Las Vegas, which pales into deep insignificance by comparison. We watched as the sun started to catch the columns of rock on the north side of the canyon. Two deer casually strode past. A blue jay hopped about. A rock squirrel appeared and ate a nutter butter biscuit out of my hand before posing with it for a series of photographs. 

A group of girls sat and watched the sun rising from a perilously thin ledge jutting out over the canyon with a mile's drop underneath them. One of them looked a bit like a dolphin. At one stage she started dangling her legs off the edge. My testicles ascended. It slightly spoilt my enjoyment of the moment, and I spent some time wondering how many foolhardy, yet clumsy tourists fall to their deaths each year. What a way to go, eh?

We stopped off at various points along the rim of the Grand Canyon throughout the morning. Each viewing platform's vista is subtly different from the last. It's such an enormous land mark - nearly 280 miles long and with an average width of ten miles - that you can drive for ages and find yourselves back on the rim with a whole new backdrop. Helicopters from Las Vegas fly at speed over head, no doubt giving their passengers the ultimate Grand Canyon Experience.

Our last stop at the Grand Canyon was at the Desert Point Watch Tower, a somewhat curious, ancient-looking building, designed in the 1930s by Mary Colter. The tower, which is four-storeys high, is filled with wall paintings inspired by Native American symbols and has commanding views over the canyon. It's also close to the spot where, on June 30th, 1956, two passenger airplanes collided mid-air and crashed into the canyon killing all on board. The area where the planes fell has been designated a National Historic Landmark to protect any artefacts from the crash which remain on the ground. To this day, keys, cigarette lighters and other personal effects are being discovered.

A pair of Native American crafters had a stall within the tower which sold jewellery. Nathan bought a ring which was covered in Native American symbols (to match the tattoos on his arm) and Matt bought a charming wooden bracelet.

Tiny little stalls selling Native American produce - dream catchers, delicate necklaces made of seeds, and lengths of fabric - line the roads which lead away from the canyon. Some are sold from shacks, some are nothing but trestle tables underneath tatty umbrellas for shade. Flags flutter in the wind to lure the passers by.

We passed through an area of land where the hills were literally every conceivable colour. Reds, pinks, yellows, creams, browns, blacks - all in stripes. Eat your heart out Alum Bay! Moments later, the ground turned bright red and we started to see stacks of flat boulders of ever-growing size by the side of the road. It was like we were in some sort of brick yard. Dust everywhere. A true desert.

We stopped off at a place called Dinosaur Tracks, where a Navaho Indian lad called Tyler showed us what he claimed to be the footprints, eggs and fossils of dinosaurs, mostly belonging to dilophosauruses. He walked around with bottle, squirting water onto the outlines of the footprints so that we could see them more clearly in the rock hard red mud. I wasn't sure I entirely believed what I was being shown, or told. Tyler was keen to point out that he did it for tips only, but proceeded to name an amount he felt appropriate for the tour! He was highly engaging, however, and, even if the whole thing is a tourist scam, if that's how he makes his money, all power to him!

Later down the road we came upon the flashing lights of four police cars which had pulled up by the side of the road and were gingerly approaching a car on its roof in the scrubland by the side of the road. One hopes it wasn't a recent crash, and that the driver of the car managed to get out alive.

We arrived in a town called Kayenta in the mid afternoon and realised we'd been in an Indian reservation since leaving the Grand Canyon some three hours earlier. The town was plainly dirt poor. Feral dogs. Corrugated tin roofs. Caravans. The works. Almost everyone living there appeared either to be utterly obese or totally under-nourished! The streets didn't have pavements or even pedestrian crossings. Everything seemed completely run down. Churches of every denomination lined the roads. Baptist. Jehovahs Witness. Seventh Day Adventist. The Living Word Assembly of God. Lamb of God Church. You can't make this shit up! I wasn't really surprised. This is America, after all, and abject poverty often goes hand-in-hand with religion.

We decided to get some food. The woman in the hotel couldn't think of anywhere to recommend, so we went to the cafe across the road, which Sam and Matt instantly vetoed! It certainly looked like it would have offered us an experience, but we may not have left with our guts intact!

We ate instead in a pizza place opposite a dialysis centre, whilst outside, a man, wearing a Stetson hat, cleaned cars with a jet spray.

Kayenta is the home of Monument Valley, which has been top of my bucket list for many, many years. It's the place I've most been looking forward to seeing on this trip. It also turns out that it's the least well-signposted major attraction in the US! The only sign for it in Kenyenta has been torn in half!

Drivers, when they finally find the place, spend some time skirting around the edge of the site, before a badly-signposted right hand turn takes them into the park itself. This one belongs to the Navajo people, so if you buy a pass for all the US National Parks, this one won't be included. That said, it's only $5 dollars per person, and it turns out to be the best fiver I've ever spent.

Forget The Grand Canyon. Monument Valley is king of American parks. It sits on the border of Arizona and Utah and I suspect I shall never forget that bright orange earth glowing like Tizer in the early evening light. You'd think the entire park was a film set made of fibre glass and lit with heavy-duty, old-school studio lamps.

Cars are permitted to travel along a dusty single-track road, which weaves its way through all the "monuments," which are essentially huge rocks sticking out of the desert in the most extreme shapes. The first looks like a cloche hat. The next is a Manhattan sky line. Then there's a hand, flipping a bird. Then Stone Henge. Then an Egyptian mausoleum. A Disney Castle. An elephant... They all have names, of course. The ones which look like hands are imaginatively called East and West Mitten. Many of the rocks are said to have deep significance for the Navajo people, but the names are plainly too modern to have been named by them. One is called The Three Sisters, which is a load of old Catholic crud, and many are named after film stars.

The names don't matter. The joy is their shape and their colour and the hugely mystical nature of the experience of seeing them one by one. Cars on the road throw up huge spumes of dust which are back lit magically by the sun. The orange, orange earth glows against the bluest, bluest sky. Today was my turn to get highly emotional. I genuinely felt at one with nature.

My abiding memory will be standing, staring at a rock formation called Merrick, whilst a Navajo tour guide sang traditional songs to a group of the luckiest people in the world. As the sun sets, the monuments turn into pieces of molten lava which look like islands rising out of the plains. Oh. My. God.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Vegas, Route 66 and a certain Canyon...

Road Trip: Day Three. Miles travelled: 985

Today started on a pair of rocking chairs on our hotel balcony eating Bran Flakes with ever-so-slightly off milk! I'm aware that I'm slightly staving off a cold. My throat feels a little hot and tickly. We're not acknowledging it...

We were in the car just after seven, and, within a few minutes had driven to a place in Death Valley called Zabriskie Point. The temperature was already 90 degrees, but it felt refreshing compared to the furnace of yesterday night! Zabriskie Point is where you get to see what Death Valley is all about. A little winding footpath takes you up a small hill to a vantage point with 360 degree views of rocks which have been shaped into mounds, ripples and ridges of magnificent colour over millions of years. It's a staggering sight. Imagine being one centimetre tall and looking out across the different tubs of ice cream in a proper Italian Gelateria. It's like that, except the rocks aren't in tubs. They merely flow in and out of each other. All the flavours are there: chocolate, coffee, vanilla, pistachio, lemon sorbet, even a small scoop of raspberry ripple. The earth is genuinely that many colours - deep umbers, yellows, browns, russets. And the domes and folds stretch as far as the eye can see. All against a deep blue sky. Not a tree, bush or tuft of careworn grass can be seen. It's truly staggering. The most inhospitable yet beautiful place I've ever visited.

I forgot to mention yesterday that the dreadful garage we visited in Beattie (pronounced Batey, by the way) was called Eddie Land. The enormous sign which told us this fact was accompanied by a circular, somewhat creepy, faded photograph of an eight-year old boy. It was the sort of thing you sometimes find on gravestones. My assumption is that Eddie off of Eddie Land was a child who'd died. All very strange. And all rather American.

Speaking of which, on the outskirts of Death Valley, we passed through a town called Pahrump. Imagine living in a town named after the noise a trombone makes?! I can't tell you much about Pahrump, but I can tell you that it sprawls over a large area, that it has a strip mall and an enormous fireworks warehouse and that cannabis is legal there. I know this because a huge billboard informed me of this fact! The same billboard suggested that cannabis should be kept out of the reach of children! The Americans in these parts seem to put anything on a billboard: "Thank you for your service, Deputy Becht." "Who cares? I care! Internationally recognised psychiatrist Ron Zedek." "" Endlessly fascinating reading...

You can see Las Vegas across the desert from at least twenty miles away. Its tall buildings loom on the horizon in the form of misty, light grey shapes. It's all rather beautiful.

As you get closer, however, the true horror of the city begins. First you see the billboards advertising Britney, Cher, Rod Stewart, Calvin Harris... Then you start to see the hotels. The first looks like a Disney Castle. The next is a giant pyramid and then there's a mini Chrysler Building, a fake Eiffel Tower and so it goes on. Each, of course, has a casino attached. The pièce de résistance, which told me that this was a city I was destined to loathe, was a giant, gold-plated Trump Tower. Literally. No. Words.

You witness everything, like an unfolding horror scene, from the freeway. A rather silly woman whom we bumped into at the Ghost Town yesterday told us the place to visit was Fremont Street, which actually bills itself as the "Fremont Street Experience." In my view this tells you about all you need to know. It strikes me that everything in Vegas needs to be billed as an experience before anyone will deign to enjoy it!

The first two shops we saw there aptly demonstrated the inherent contradiction of the American Dream. First up was a restaurant called Heart Attack Grill. ("Over
350lb eats free!") Next up was the Oxygen Bar, where, one assumes, stupid healthy people go to suck in air for extortionate prices. Actually, I'd rather like to give it a whirl. Anything for a quick high!

Fremont Street is covered in a huge, domed roof which doubles as "the world's largest Instagram screen." Thrill seekers can ride a zip wire along a cable which runs the length of the street. It is, in a word, hideous. We popped into a casino to use a loo. A battered-faced woman, holding a fag, bumped into me before blustering away. All of the slot machines have ashtrays. A man walked past wearing Elvis-style sunglasses with a pair of side burns attached to arms. He genuinely seemed to be wearing them with no sense of irony, or shame. At the back of the casino, next to the discount clothing racks, there's an area where old and broken slot machines have been rounded up and left to die.

Perhaps it picks up at night, when all the lights start flashing and all the hen parties start screaming, but, as far as we were concerned, Fremont Street was a bum steer!

We drove to the famous Strip, which I think is actually called Las Vegas Boulevard, and parked up. It's like Disney Land. Fake. Fake. Fake. Shopping centres with roofs which have projected clouds floating about on them. A reproduction St Mark's Square in Venice where the gondolas are powered by propellers. Everything is plainly terribly expensive whilst managing to look really cheap. Casinos blast lovely smells and cool air into the street to entice people in. Tatty, vapid showgirls with soggy arses stand on street corners, their sole purpose, apparently, to be objectified by men on stag dos. "Ooh, you're in there" shouted one particularly gross man as he photographed his mate. A bloke came up to us in the street; "you guys wanna party with sluts?" "No!" I said, horrified!

There are escalators taking people up and over bridges because the obese Americans can't be bothered to climb up stairs. A fat slob of a ten-year old girl gurned at me. She was wearing a T-shirt which said "I want it all." No love. You ATE it all.

Las Vegas, to me, can be entirely summed up by the only purchases we made whilst there. Two brownies. Nathan's was all frosting and no substance. Mine looked nice but was entirely burned!

We ran for the hills. Las Vegas "done" in two hours flat. I doubt I shall ever return.

Sam and Matt ate snickerdoodles, which is a sort of cinnamon biscuit and another example of Americans infantilising the sweet things they eat. "Cookies," "twinkies," "candies."

There was a gun store with an indoor range on the outskirts of the city. I'm sure there were hundreds. But I noticed this one. It made me feel almost as nauseated as the billboards celebrating Jesus.

Next up was, predictably, the Hoover Dam. It's very much on the tourist trail from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, and, well, why not? It's a spectacular example of 1930s engineering and architecture. It gleams in the bright sunlight - it was 101 degrees for the record - in absolute Art Deco splendour. High above the valley, a road and foot bridge oversees everything, but we didn't have the time to go up there today, having wasted an hour in the hell zone of Fremont Street.

We decided instead to walk across the dam and peer gingery over the edge to the jade-coloured river snaking along the valley 1000 feet below. Clinging to the side of the cliffs on either side are all manner of pylons, metal objects, curious cables and wires, which are plainly there to harness the hydro-electricity generated by the dam. I can't tell you a great deal more about it, having not had the time to trawl around the visitors centre. It was built in 1931, and dedicated to James Herbert Hoover and not, as I'd thought, J Edgar Hoover. I'm not altogether sure I know who either of these Hoovers are. We had a very interesting and highly ill-informed discussion about this very subject. It's fascinating the conversations you suddenly start having when you no longer have the ability to immediately google answers to the questions for which you don't have answers!

We left the dam via Route 93, and instantly crossed over from Nevada into Arizona, which becomes our third state on this road trip.

Along the 93, we encountered our first little truck stops and souvenir stores. Very much the sorts of things you might expect to find on Historic Route 66. The most tragic was almost certainly "This is it! Santa's Land!" Which had closed down and was now turning to dust in the Arizona desert. Theme park it was not. I assume it was a little road side store which sold Christmas decorations. Seeing anything boarded over like that is heartbreaking. It implies a dream which turned sour...

We turned onto Interstate 40 at Kingman and, for some time, found ourselves driving along the Historic Route 66 - or at least one of the roads which replaced that great American icon. The road is big news for tourism in these parts and many of the inns and roadside attractions bear the road's logo on their advertising hoardings.

We randomly came off the 40 at a place called Seligman which refers to itself as the birthplace of Route 66. A preserved section of the "Mother Road" exists in the town, lined by ancient general stores, a cafe called "Road Kill" and a 19th Century Jail house. This is exactly the sort of place I was hoping to find. The little general store was obviously a bit of a Mecca for travellers in the 60s. It had some totem poles, a few dusty wigwams which children would have probably played in, and a long-gone, yet still signposted pets' corner. There was everything inside from paints and hardware, through to trinkets, souvenirs and weird food stuff. We were able to buy glass bottles of Fanta in strawberry and pineapple flavour!

We chased the sunlight on our way to the Grand Canyon. There was a terrible panic that we wouldn't make it there before the sun set, which would have been catastrophic. To add insult to injury, the cars on the single carriageway road leading up to the national park seemed to be taking their own sweet time. I kept wanting to shout "haven't you got a date with a sunset?" We were plainly all heading to the same place!

It took about ten minutes to get through the barriers into the actual park, and we could feel the sun setting as we parked the car. The four of us literally jumped out of the car and sprinted across the car park and through a series of tree-lined walkways following signs for the "rim trail." It genuinely felt like an episode of Treasure Hunt.

The joy about the Grand Canyon is that you don't see it coming from a mile off. You pass through a line of trees and then suddenly, there it is. And it's bigger, wider, deeper, more colourful, more astounding, than you could possibly ever imagine. It literally takes your breath away. Nathan and I both swore as we saw it for the first time. Sam gasped. As the sun set, the colours of the canyon got more and more intense. Oranges. Reds. Mauves. Yellows. Deeper and deeper. Fading to purple as the light finally went.

For the next hour we took photos, found better spots to observe different views, dared ourselves to peer down into the abyss and gave ourselves the collywobbles. I played it safe. I hate heights. Nathan was the bravest of us all and took himself out onto a tiny little outcrop of rock where he sat with his legs dangling over the edge. The closer he got to the edge, the further I took myself away from the rim of the canyon. By the end I was standing in the trees about twenty metres away! It was truly terrifying and utterly toe-curling. Nathan reappeared with a flushed face, shaking with adrenaline and excitement. His joy was absolutely worth my pain!

My last view of the Grand Canyon was a dark purple silhouette against a thin strip of the brightest orange sunset.

I am astounded by the quality of days we're having, and the amazing things we're managing to pack in. San Francisco seems like a dream. London seems like a lifetime ago!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A ghost town and a dead valley

Road Trip: Day Two. Total miles travelled: 633

The motel we stayed in last night was like something from Psycho. It was functional, yet slightly grubby, and deeply eccentric in a somewhat 1970s way, right down to the coffee machine in the bathroom! We sat out on the balcony outside our room for half an hour last night, but, if the truth be known, we're falling asleep almost as soon as it gets dark at the moment. This is largely due to the fact that we're tending to get up at dawn. This morning I was up at 6. The sky was full of streaky red clouds and it seemed to take an age for the sun to appear over the tops of the mountains.

We drove back into Yosemite National Park. The ranger who waved us through was delightfully charming and complimented Nathan on the tattoos on his arms, "they match your eyes" he said, flirtatiously!

Yosemite at dawn is one of the most magical places I've ever visited. The air was thick with a mist which smelt strongly of smoke. We later discovered that it was actually smoke. Lightning causes fires to break out all the time in the park and the wardens also carry out controlled fires. Fires are actually very good for nature. They create highly fertile soil and allow shoots of new life a chance to take hold. The places where fires have raged are often hugely verdant. We passed one such area. The pine trees which had been destroyed in the blaze looked liked giant pointy porcupine quills sticking out of the hillside.

We didn't actually see a fire, but in some areas the fog was really rather intense, its deep and sometimes acrid stench entirely catching the backs of our throats. The smoke nevertheless gave everything a deeply nostalgic quality. I think we all felt as though we were in a dream.

Our journey took us up into the mountains and we stopped briefly to look down into the misty abyss. The river snaking its way along the bottom of the valley was glinting in the sun in a way which made it look like a long, snaking pit of orange fire. It was genuinely one of the most breathtaking sights that I've ever witnessed. As we stood and watched, another area of the river started to glow orange through the brown mist. I doubt I shall ever forget that sight.

The road took us higher and higher. Signs told us we'd reached 5000, 6000, 8000 feet. Surely higher than I've ever been outside an aeroplane? The landscape changes somewhat restlessly. At first you're driving through lush forest, with the odd small, enticing-looking lake, and then giant granite rock forms start to crowd the sides of the roads. Some resemble huge, gently tilting platforms, others ascend into the air vertically like primitive art. One vista will be entirely purple and mauve. The next might be shades of deep green. Then everything you drive past will suddenly be monochrome. And, when the sun tries to inch its way through the smokey fog, things start to turn the colour of apricots.

We stopped off at the most delightful, ice-cold lake called Tenaya which Sam assured us his sister had recommended after honeymooning in the park twelve or so years ago. He says she described the water as being like angel tears, although he is subsequently trying to deny this particular fact, based on the likelihood of Katie actually reading this blog! It turns out that angel tears is a perfectly decent description of that soft, cool, delicate water. We all had a swim, staring, misty-eyed, at the mountains rising up from the water, which, when we arrived, was reflecting the sun like diamanté-encrusted cowboy boots!

I bought myself some Raisin Bran for breakfast, which I ate in a plastic bowl by the side of the lake. Heavenly. A fish jumped out of the water and back in again.

As we swam, the smokey fog descended on the lake, and everything turned an eerie shade of blue.

Further up the mountains, we found ourselves travelling through giant meadows, where babbling brooks carried snow water down into the valley. At times we found ourselves above the tree line in eerie lunar landscapes. At above 9000 feet I got a little light headed and started giggling uncontrollably.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the day was discovering a snowy field high up in the mountains. And yes! I said field of snow! Whether it was a glacier or destined to melt by the end of the summer I'm not sure, but it was deeply surreal to have a snowball fight in 90 degree heat in the height of August.

The mountains got higher and higher. Every new vista generated another gasp until we were almost all gasped out. A veritable embarrassment of nature's riches!

As we drove out of the park, we were confronted by a long, winding road which snaked its way somewhat perilously down the most enormous slope of scree I've ever seen. I should think it was 2000 feet tall, and the ridge where the road was, was exactly half way down, with no barriers. I have seldom felt so sick. I found myself tensing every muscle of my body as we slowly made our way down. Never again!

The landscape changes constantly as you head towards Nevada. There are huge grassy plains and then suddenly you're in desert landscape. Salt lakes. Stacks of slate. Weird cactus-like trees. Yellow earth. Brightly-coloured grasses. Red tails ride the thermals in the air above. The sky is bright blue. Telegraph poles stretch in V shapes to the horizon. The roads are like twisting rollercoasters in mountainous areas and then, suddenly, when you hit the plains again, they turn into single carriageways, stretching out for miles in front of you in dead straight lines, the white lines at the side of the roads and the bright yellow stripes in the middle creating the most curious optical illusions. And then, of course, come the mirages. The glowing, watery apparitions on the road which you never quite manage to reach. Temperatures were always high in the nineties, although it's an incredibly dry heat, so you never really find yourself getting sweaty. I think the sweat dries immediately.

You ought to be able to drive like the wind on those roads, but they send people up in aeroplanes to do speed checks. Seriously!

As we passed from California into Nevada we saw our first tumble weeds and then scores of dust devils dancing around and over the roads. There's a long stretch towards Beatty where vehicles are told to drive with their lights on during the daylight hours because dust storms are so prevalent in those parts.

Beatty itself is a horrible place. It took an age to buy petrol. Our foreign debit cards sent the system into meltdown and, in the end, we were forced to guess how much petrol we were going to need and pay up front. When we couldn't get that much petrol into our car, we were refunded. But there was a queue of massively fat people buying sweets to contend with every time we went into the shop. We wanted to stop for food and walked into a diner full of rather threatening-looking, bemulleted people, but it smelt of dead dog, mops and dirty flip flops, so we skipped lunch.

We went instead to Rhyolite, a ghost town which, for a brief period, from 1901 to 1913 had a population of 7500. In 1919, the Post Office closed. In 1920, the population had dropped to 14. There was gold in them there hills for that all too brief period and the place had shops, community centres, a bank and three railway depots. I'm told the bank had electric lights, steam heat and a marble floor, so someone in the town was doing alright out of the gold rush!

These days it's an incredibly eerie and highly atmospheric spot. There's not much left of it, and most of the buildings are too unsafe to go inside, but it nestles in a series of hills made of extraordinary coloured rocks. Reds, oranges, yellows, mauves...

There are some wonderful shells of buildings: a few shop fronts, a railway station. You wander from ruin to ruin wondering, making up stories, trying to build a picture of the place in its heyday. These days it's often struck by lightening. One of its best preserved buildings recently burned down as a result. The site is full of rattle snakes, chipmunks and hares. We saw a lot of hares. They're odd looking, very skinny creatures with enormous ears.

As we walked around, the sun got lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened. The whole experience became more and more magical.

Our hotel is in Death Valley, which we avoided like the plague on our way down, knowing it very regularly poles the hottest temperatures on the planet. We arrived as the sun was setting. It's a bleak, post-apocalyptic-looking place full of salt deposits and rocky soil. The mountains on the two sides of the valley were glowing in shades of lavender and it looked very similar to the area around the Dead Sea in Israel. Despite it being almost dark, we were astounded to discover that the temperature was 109 degrees! It's actually at an elevation of -190 feet, so somewhere between Yosemite and here, we've dropped like a stone! We parked the car and piled out onto the barren rocks. None of us had ever been anywhere so hot! Sleeping might be an issue tonight! Wind literally whipping us with oven-like hot air, which actually made me panic. That said, the sunset was quite spectacular!

Monday, 14 August 2017

The road trip begins

Road trip: Day One. Miles travelled: 234.

We woke up in San Francisco this morning and instantly made our way down Market Street to the hire car place. After collecting the car (with surprisingly little fuss) we took ourselves to Safeway to buy snacks and things for lunch on the road. A man was being pushed around the shop in wheelchair. He was wearing a crash helmet and carrying a small broom whilst shouting "I'm a witch" at his carer.

A homeless man at the tills asked if he could have a dollar. I obliged. I wished I hadn't. He was spending it on beer. "God bless you." He said. "I'm not interested in God's blessing" I said, a little tersely.

The streets of the city were like an apocalyptic scene from 28 Weeks Later. Everywhere I looked, another person was rocking, shaking, shouting, running or wailing. Something absolutely has to be done to help these people.

We drove out of the city via the Bay Bridge and instantly found ourselves in another world. Temperatures soared by 20 degrees. The fields were bone dry, and primrose yellow. The sky was powder blue. It was like looking at a washed-out Swedish flag! Eagles sailed through the sky. Wind turbines spun against the horizon. This particular scrubland is lined with horrible urbanisations. I can't imagine how awful it must be to live there. Your children go out to play on miles and miles of dry stubby grass which resembles a freshly harvested field. "Remember not to play on the freeway, honey..."

Urbanisations became depressing towns with names like Delhi and Tracy, full of Drive Thru' Starbucks and huge Walmart stores. Everything is gigantic out here. Massive advertising hoardings advertise realtors called things like Cristal Philips. Their enormous white teeth glow like beacons across the countryside. The trucks are huge, the cars are huge, the motorways are huge. And yet the gardens are tiny! 

Some of the billboards are hysterical. A chair maker advertises himself with the slogan "come and check our stool samples." Other billboards inform us that "real Christians obey Jesus's teaching." Religion is everywhere in the States.

Trucks heaped with tomatoes fly along the freeways. They're not covered over. They're just piled up. Thousands of tomatoes, heading to Italian restaurants in San Francisco...

We came off the Freeway and enjoyed seeing little stalls by the roads selling avocados and strawberries. We also ran alongside one of those goods trains you think only happen in the movies. We wished we'd counted the carriages. There must have been two hundred. We imagined the frustration of waiting for that to pass by at a level crossing.

As we got higher, the scenery changed from tinderbox dry fields, to sweetcorn and apricot crops, to alpine trees. The colour of the earth changed as well. Smears of pink and red from heaven knows what processes of oxidisation cut through the brown earth. And then, suddenly, we were in an area of complete desolation, where some kind of catastrophic forest fire had plainly raged. The earth was charred. The ground was a mixture of black charcoal and pure white ashes. Fences had turned into twisted, melted piles of metal, and, as we went further into the area, we came across whole houses which had been engulfed by the inferno. Their owners had moved into trailers in the gardens. One of the burned houses had a for sale sign in cinders out front.

We passed through a town. Signs everywhere read, "thank you first responders, thank you fire fighters." We learned then that the fire had a name: "The Detwiler Fire." It happened in mid July and 70,000 acres of land burned.

We suddenly found ourselves in the Yosemite National Park. It is, in a word, stunning. White and light grey granite rock forms of increasing size look like elephants clinging to mountain tops. A clear, fresh river runs through the valley. People swim and paddle in the rapids.

You enter the park itself through a natural rock arch, and from that point in, the views become breathtaking.

First up is El Capitan, a stately old man of a mountain, which has thwarted rock climbers and abseilers for many years, but the main draw is the Half Dome, a mountain which is shaped like a loaf of bread which has had a run-in with a cheese grater. They considered it utterly unclimbable, but the summit was reached by an intrepid fella called George Anderson in 1875.

Waterfalls tumble down the mountains like wisps of smoke. There's a milky light. The shadows are blue. The trees are jade green. Cars dawdle along the single road which cuts through the valley. On a weekend day in the summer time there can be frustrating tail backs. I got into a bit of a panic as I felt the few precious hours we had there ebbing away into an air conditioned car.

We parked up after deciding to walk to the Yosemite Falls. At 740 metres, it's the tallest waterfall in the US and the 5th tallest in the world. It is fed entirely by melting snow, and, in the late summer, it entirely runs dry. Fortunately it was still putting on a show today.

The waterfall is divided into two: the upper falls and the lower falls. Both are accessible, but the upper falls take a couple of hours to reach, which was time we didn't have. On another day I would almost certainly have hiked up there as I'm told there are beautiful natural pools on the cliff edge.

That said, the shortish hike to the lower falls feels in no way a compromise. The paths run through lovely woodland. The squirrels in these parts are a subspecies. They have tortoiseshell markings and white necks. The bins are all bear-proof and mountain lions run about freely. Fortunately we didn't see any!

You can clamber off the path and up the rocks by the side of the stream which runs away from the falls. Signs encourage you not to go off the paths, with pictures of X-rays of people with broken skulls and things. But everyone does. The trouble with the Americans is that they're so litigious, they feel the need to put these silly posters up everywhere, but that means the posters entirely lose their impact!

The nearer you get to the falls, the more you feel their spray, and hear the roar of the water echoing on a nearby cliff. And suddenly the most magical view opens up. There's an ice-cold plunge pool at the base of the waterfall, and if you climb even higher, you're rewarded by the Half Dome which suddenly appears as a back drop. The later in the day it gets, the more the mountain seems to glow. Almost as though it's burning from within like something in a Sci Fi fantasy. It was, without question, the most stunning view I've ever witnessed. It made Nathan cry. The four of us sat and stared at it for an hour whilst a rock climber free-climbed his way up a nearby sheer rock face to the gasps of everyone watching.

As the evening drew in, the mountains turned purple and grey. All, of course, except for the Half Dome, which stayed lit up like a tart by direct sunlight a great deal later than any of his friends.

We drove back to our motel on a bat-infested road. As Nathan observed, it was like the opening of Scooby Doo. The motel has an open air pool. It was so lovely to do a few refreshing lengths before bed. Stretch out that car-battered back!

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Male knitters

We woke up a little later than yesterday and walked along Market Street in the misty, early morning San Francisco light. As so often in this city, a nutter was screaming at an invisible person in front of him at the tram stop. It was a rage of complete insanity, and it was a little scary. If that man had had a gun, there'd have been a massacre. Further down the street, we stumbled upon someone wearing a neck brace. He was dancing. Tubes from his recent tracheotomy were dragging along on the tarmac behind him!

There are so many mentally ill people in this city. I think a lot of the problems are caused by drugs. The stench of dope hangs over the streets of this city like fronds of seaweed discarded on a rock at low tide. A large number of homeless people are attracted by San Francisco's mild all-year-round climate. It rarely gets too hot or too cold, so living in the open air is a genuine option. But it can't be good for ones mental health.

The locals are obsessed with the notion that the city is actually really quite cold, and will happily quote Mark Twain, who said words to the effect of "the coldest winter I ever experience was a summer in San Francisco."

The fire engines here are singular creatures. Their design plainly hasn't changed since the 1920s. The giant bell on the front is probably for ceremonies and decoration only, because the sound the vehicle emits is like nothing on earth. It's like a mournful, desperate wail. Like a child with no energy in her tiny, weak, Tubercular body, screaming "help me"

Americans have no idea how to make a proper cup of tea. You see them taking a deep breath when an English person comes to the front of a queue and asks for a pot of English Breakfast tea... WITH COLD MILK! A piss-weak, highly-fragranced liquid then gets handed over, which has been topped up with a substance that tastes like pus. I'm not sure there's any diary in American milk.

Nathan had been invited to attend a brunch with a group of male knitters at a little bakery called Thorough Bread. The San Franciscans love a good pun in their shop names. In the Castro, filthy puns are king. There's a launderette called "Sit and Spin", a nail bar called "Hand Job" and a juice bar called "Slurp." Sometimes, they drop the pun altogether and just go with filth. "Rock Hard," "Knobs." I'd continue if I weren't blushing like a prude!

Nathan's new male knitting friends were delightful, and it was great to meet a group of men so flagrantly set on breaking down the gender stereotype. The group has over 100 members and 20 or 30 male knitters regularly turn up to their bi-weekly meetings. Obviously, as San Franciscans, they wear their eccentricity on their knitted sleeves. One of them specialises in crocheting gimp masks!

All knitters are charming, of course, regardless of gender, and some arrived with presents for Nathan. Another told me all about the Castro in the 60s and 70s, talking about how trans women in those days were only allowed, by law, to wear three subtle items of women's clothing. If they presented as women, they would instantly be arrested. Hallowe'en, however, was their best friend because, for one magical night, anything went, and drag queens felt safe. Hallowe'en in the Castro, as a result, has always been a massive party.

Many of the men we met today have got into the "knitted knockers" movement. They carefully, lovingly and really quite movingly knit fake breasts for women who have had mastectomies. In the early days after an operation, these fake breasts are, apparently, a hugely popular alternative to silicone products which tend to be too heavy and cumbersome for tender skin.

Later on, after most people had left, a middle-aged man entered the cafe and sheepishly pulled some knitting out of a bag. I nudged the organiser of the group: "is he one of yours?" Apparently he wasn't. The fact that he was knitting (and a man) was a complete coincidence. The three of us instantly went over and introduced ourselves and the man was invited to join the knitting group. He seemed delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he cast off the hat that he was knitting and presented it as a gift to Nathan. "What's knitting for if you can't give it away?"

Lunch happened in a cafe called Little Orphan Andy's (another pun) on the corner of Market and Castro. A violinist outside busked jazz music, playing nothing but relentless quavers, which was initially rather impressive, but eventually utterly irritating. Around the corner, a young black man was playing unaccompanied Bach on a bashed-up orange box of a Chinese 'cello.

The bar next to Orphan Andy's is called Twin Peaks. It has huge glass windows so passers by can look in and see the bar's clientele. It's known as a bit of an old man haunt and has developed the nickname "the glass coffin."

Sam and Matt met up with us after lunch. They'd been to Japan Town and a meditation forum. We walked back up to the Haight and spent a few hours window shopping. I was looking for cufflinks and walked into a Tibetan jewellery-cum-trinkety shop and asked if she could help me. "Cuplinks?" She said, confused. "No, cufflinks" I said, doing up the cuffs on an imaginary shirt. "Ah yes!" she said, her face lighting up, "no, we don't have. Next door. Mentals. They have lots of lovely cuplinks." I went outside to discover that "Mentals" was actually called "Mendels." Who'd have thought a charming Tibetan lady could be so anti-Semitic! I went into the shop with high expectations and immediately realised that Mendels sold stationery, not cufflinks. I wondered if she thought I meant paper clips!

I eventually found a pair of glorious cufflinks in a vintage store. They're lime green and made out of a really cool 60s plastic resin. $18. Bargain!

We drifted up to Golden Gate Park and attempted to find "hippy hill" where the be-ins happened during the Summer of Love. The guide book which I found in my camera bag informed me that it "has been a gathering spot for freeform improvisational drumming circles for years." I've always found the idea of non-drummers drumming in a circle fairly horrifying. You hand someone a drum and they instantly think they're an expert. Particularly if they're also smoking a joint.

We returned to Cafe Cole where I'd got in something of a hangry tizzy two days before, so it was rather lovely to exorcise that particular demon. I was doubly thrilled when they started playing ABBA. We sang along keenly. A girl across the cafe was similarly excited to hear the music. She knew every word.

On the way back down Haight Street, we happened upon the charming Mr Brandy, who sits at a "real" piano in the back of a grotty transit van, playing for tips. It's a deeply eccentric sight. We popped a few dollars in his pot and he obligingly played Space Odyssey for us. The piano was delightfully honky tonk. The moment became one of our favourites from the trip so far. We should have sung to show our gratitude.

When did they stop calling San Francisco Frisco? The shortened form is very definitely San Fran these days. I remember them making quite a big deal about it being uncool to call it Frisco back in 2000 when Fiona and I visited.

We walked over the top of the dramatic Buena Vista Park and stumbled upon a group of young people at the summit staring at a glorious view of the city. They were listening to sweary gangsta rap on a stereo which slightly put my back up, although one of the young lads slightly won me over by dancing to it in a somewhat abandoned and utterly unthreatening manner. A few seconds later, he stopped the rap music and shuffled his iPod, selecting Mozart instead. The juxtaposition was extreme and rather poetic. The Mozart suited the view a great deal better! We suddenly realised that we were below the mist which was rolling over our heads like dry ice.

The daylight of our last day in San Fran ended in Delores Park, where all the young, cool kids sit listening to music and playing games. A group of middle-aged Latin blokes were dancing like demons to the Lambada.

An old Chinese woman walked from group to group brazenly steeling food from picnics. People were astounded by her chutzpah. We watched her making off with a bottle of pop and an entire kitchen roll!

We walked back up to Market Street via Church Street, where we stumbled upon a fabulous drag queen, in a blue hat and a pink sash, wheeling a portable karaoke machine along the pavement on a little truck, almost like a hospital patient might wheel around a drip! She was singing into a mic as she walked. It was a gloriously sincere dance tune about saving the world: "All the animals are out of light," she sang... Again and again. She didn't give a shite that no one was listening!

We had soup for tea back at Chow and then ended the night at Martuni, a piano bar - and therefore another pun. Nathan sang My Funny Valentine. Brilliantly. The crowd went wild. Another bloke sang I Left my Heart in San Francisco, which became a curiously moving experience, and made me want to sing a song about London, but I couldn't think of a decent one. Are there any decent London songs, apart from London Town by Bucks Fizz?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Golden Gates

We breakfasted this morning in a little diner called Sam's which is opposite our hotel. It wasn't quite as classy as yesterday's fodder up in the North Beach, but it filled our stomachs us up for a busy day of trudging around this majestic and very special city. 

It was incredibly murky this morning, so we jumped into an uber and demanded it take us to Golden Gate Park where Sam was particularly keen to visit the Japanese Tea Gardens. It was rather exciting to enter Golden Gate Park with mist shrouding the tops of all the trees. This is the park which became profoundly synonymous with the Summer of Love, which, I realised today, was exactly 50 years ago. It carries an almost mythical significance.

The Tea Gardens are utterly magical. They are so beautifully kept, and are built around waterways which are filled with giant coy carp and made accessible by a series of little paths and stepping stones. Your ears can't escape the soothing sound of trickling water. There's an almost vertical wooden bridge over one little section. To scale it is a test of nerve and endurance. It's almost like climbing a ladder. Pagodas and ornately carved gates watch over the garden whilst stretching up into the mist.

Sam is something of a Japanophile, so it was a treat to be with him, explaining the thinking behind a zen garden and encouraging us to try mochi for the first time, which is a Japanese sweet not dissimilar to Turkish Delight but made from ground down rice. For the record, the best flavour was strawberry. 

From the tea garden, we went to the wonderful AIDS Memorial, which has to be one of the most special places in the city. Rock and stone-lined winding walkways lead people through a verdant gully to a giant spiral of names of San Franciscans who have been effected by or killed by the disease. Many of the men were listed as couples, which I found somewhat heartbreaking.

As we stood and stared at the names, a family arrived. They were Latino. There was a mother and a father, two teenaged children and a pair of grandparents. They carefully laid two roses on two names in the circle and then wandered off, as a family, to walk, in contemplation around the rest of the memorial. I think it was that which set Sam off. But the experience felt incredibly powerful in general. AIDS affected all gay men, really. Even my generation were forced to endure Thatcher's brutal Section 28 because gay men were considered to be so dangerous. I could spit blood when I see the pathetic and illogical fringe feminist lesbian agenda which attempts to remove the G from LGBT because we're just too successful these days. We're successful because we fought tooth and nail for our rights to be recognised as human beings and we will not let that be forgotten. As you walk out of the memorial, you're left with one phrase, carved into stone blocks in the floor: "Walker within this circle pause. Although they all died of one cause remember how their lives were dense with fine compacted difference." Thom Gunn, 1986.

The next part of our journey took us down towards Ocean Beach through a somewhat dull part of town where there were no busses, no trams and no coffee shops. In the end we called an Uber just to escape.

Question: What's the main difference between American and English people? Answer: Americans think 100 years is a long time whilst Brits think 100 miles is a long way!

We reached Ocean Beach at about mid day. It's the part of San Francisco which sits on the Pacific Ocean, and, because our adventure revolves around traveling coast to coast in this huge county, paddling in that distant, alluring ocean felt important, despite it being freezing cold! Packs of pelicans kept passing overhead. They're such peculiar-looking birds: prehistoric like pterodactyls!

Surfers surfed in the misty waves as we walked up to the Cliff House, which looks down at an area of Beach where a huge Victorian swimming pool once stood. We learned today that it burned down in the 1960s. We dissed the Cliff House itself as an over-priced foodery, and chose instead to eat at Louis', slightly further along the cliff, which prides itself on well-made, reasonably-priced food. It's one of those 1960s, slightly grotty-looking diners with booths and friendly waiters and views across the sea to die for.

The uber driver who took us to the Golden Gate Bridge had lived in San Francisco all of his life. He'd been in a commune in Haight Ashbury during the Summer of Love and explained that all the self-respecting hippies had moved out when they turned Haight Street one way so that bus loads of tourists could come in and gawp at the hullabaloo.

Golden Gate Bridge looked extraordinary when we arrived. The tops of its famous uprights were shrouded in fog but a feint sun was making the whole thing glow like the dying embers of a fire. It's how I always wanted to see the bridge, but every time I've visited in the past, it's been overcast and a little disappointing. I tried, for the third time, to make it across, and, for the third time, failed miserably. I get on that bridge and immediately think a huge blast of wind is going to take everything I'm holding over the edge and into the deep, turbulent waters below. Sam and Matt were a great deal more successful and had a wonderful time taking photographs from the middle of the bridge, where, in Sam's words, it's "much scarier." I can't imagine anything I'm less likely to do!

Another fascinating Uber driver took us from the bridge back to the Castro and explained, as we passed it, that the Italianate Palace of Fine Arts was once made of papier-mâché as part of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. The flim-flam structure proved so popular that locals demanded it be rebuilt in stone. It's therefore really nothing but an eccentric and highly decadent folly.

The cab took us through the Presidio, a vast area of the city which used to belong to the military. These days it's the site of scores of stunningly beautiful eucalyptus trees imported from Australia. The trees are controversial. They've spread out of control and are considered a invasive alien species. They're apparently also rather quick to fall down, and have caused a number of deaths.

Castro was bathed in beautiful late afternoon light. Sam, Matt and I went to a post office to buy stamps for postcards. There's a really cool set of internal postage stamps which have just been released which celebrate the eclipse in two weeks' time. If you hold you finger over the stamp, the sun depicted turns from a sun in eclipse to a sun shining normally.

Nathan was running a "meet and greet" at a local knitting shop, and I went along to find a little cluster of male knitters, all of whom follow his podcast, sitting in a circle knitting everything from socks to cowls. A lone girl knitter was working on her first ever double knitting pattern - inspired, of course, by Nathan.
We ate our tea in the Castro again, in the same restaurant as last night. At one stage, three elderly gay vicars came in, two of whom were holding hands. It was a curiously moving sight.

As we walked home, we stumbled upon a group of people desperately trying to keep a faulty public loo door open whilst some poor woman inside was trying to pee! Only in San Francisco.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Day two of the adventure

I woke up ludicrously early this morning. Jet lag is a funny old thing. Despite being awake for something like 24 hours straight yesterday, my body decided I needed to wake up at 5.45am, and there was very little arguing with it.

We decided to have breakfast at North Beach and walked up there from Market Street through China Town. For the longest time I convinced myself that the shops were all closed due to some sort of public holiday, but then I realised it was about 8am!

San Fransisco's China Town has to be the largest of its type outside China. It occupies street after street, and, unlike its namesake in London, it feels like the heart of a genuine community.

Breakfast was at Cafe Puccini up towards Washington Square (where the parakeets roam and the old Chinese ladies do Tai Chi.) We had an American speciality breakfast of omelettes with roasted potatoes and toast with jam. 

We took Sam to the City Lights Bookshop, famous the world over as the hang out of Beat poets. Sam loves bookshops and the closer we got the more shallow his breathing became! We were probably there for an hour. I bought a postcard. Sam and Nathan both bought books. Sam might have bought more than one... I spent some time standing outside the shop, photographing an old lady who'd emptied a massive bag of plastic bottles onto the pavement which she spent the longest time carefully crushing. It was an eccentric display to say the least.

From City Lights we walked up impossibly steep hills to the gloriously Art Deco Coit Tower, which is probably most famous as one of the locations from Hitchcock's Vertigo. Legend has it that it was designed to look like the nozzle of a fireman's hose. It sits, like an elegant white beacon, on the top of one of the city's tallest hills.

The inside is lined with glorious murals, painted in 1930 by 24 artists to reflect the Great Depression. Most of the pictures depict local workers: dockers, Orange farmers, female munitions workers and so on. All are painted in a naive style in a somewhat sepia colour palette, with surprisingly little depth of field. One wonders if all the artists were commissioned to paint in the same style, or if they were all there, working on their individual panels, at the same time, and decided to make them match.
We took the lift up to the top of the building which has commanding and very exciting 360 degree views across the city. A chipper and charming lady works in the building who sometimes decides to sing instead of speaking. She encountered a group of us queuing for the lift. "Please move to the sides of the corridors," she chirped in a bird-like soprano voice, "the middle lane needs to be open, open, open." Sam whispered in my ear that she sounded like she was singing a 19th Century Scandinavian folk melody! He wasn't wrong!

We walked down from Coit Tower via another one of San Francisco's famous stairways, where little wooden houses cling to the sides of such steep hills that they're only accessible via steps. How on earth do people move into these buildings? How do you get a washing machine, or a piano up 200 wooden steps?!

Next up was Lombard Street. The street on the edge of Russian Hill which is so steep that the road is forced to zig-zag. It's one of the views of the city which makes its way onto postcards. A steady flow of cars crawl down the road, bumper-to-bumper. One assumes the drivers are all tourists, very much enjoying the surreal diagonal experience! I don't know why a local would opt to take that particular route. It would add a good ten minutes to any journey.

We ate ice cream dipped in melted chocolate before heading off to Macondray Street, another one of those glorious little pedestrianised lanes. This one's special however, as it's the street which Armistead Maupin used as the inspiration for Barbary Lane, home of the beloved Mrs Madrigal in the seminal "Tales of the City." It's such a magical place. Peaceful. Full of flowers, blackberries and wind chimes. We found the house we all agreed was the one from the book. Wooden staircases on the outside of the property linked a series of independent flats on different floors of the building. The top floors would almost certainly have had glorious views of both Alcatraz and Coit Tower.

We jumped in an uber and headed for Haight Ashbury, the hippy part of town, which literally exploded in the 1960s, and almost ate itself in the process. People moved out in droves when the drugs started to engulf the residents. It still stinks of dope and wears its colourful history on its sleeve with rows of second hand clothing shops, and places selling Buddhas and joss sticks and the sorts of things that Steam Punks wear at their curious conventions. I bought a purple polka dotted bow tie. Nathan bought two pairs of trousers. Sam bought a singing bowl. Matt bought incense. It was a veritable shopping fest!

We ate delicious bagels for lunch at the lovely Cafe Cole before taking ourselves through Bella Vista Park with its towering views over the city and scores of homeless people lying in heaps on grassy slopes. As we entered the park, one of them ran up to us to high five us in turn.

We walked down to the Mission to a thrift shop which Matt had read about on line. It was a curiously eccentric warehouse of a space, chockablock with tat that I couldn't imagine anyone actually wanting. A strange miniature dog basket with a porcelain labrador inside. A funny globe with a map of Israel on it. A glittery, tinselly table decoration for a 50th birthday which looked like a cheap firework. I stumbled upon a tiny warped clay pot which had obviously been made by a small child in a school. I laughed a lot and then suddenly felt incredibly sad. The pot had obviously been found in some house clearance. The beloved relative who it had been presented to had plainly died.

We headed back to the Castro via a lovely yarn shop where Nathan and Sam spent more money. Both are determined to cast on a piece of knitting in this city which they hope to finish in New York.

The Castro was buzzing. A homeless man sat on the corner of 14th Street holding a sign which said "too ugly to prostitute." We ate in a diner after I vetoed eating in one of those places where everything is a super food and no one gets to eat carbs! We sat in the window and watched a man on the street outside, loopy Lou on drugs, having his own private rave. He was having a wonderful time!

We went to the Castro Theatre this evening, which is the extraordinarily beautiful cinema in the middle of the Castro district. Its enormous brightly lit up sign is the area's most distinctive landmark. Visiting the cinema is an treat. The original 1920s Art Deco furnishings and decorations remain in a state of somewhat faded glory. A giant popcorn maker in the foyer churns out vast quantities of treat-like goodness, the popcorn rising from the depths of the machine and spewing out into a huge glass case like the porridge pot in the story which couldn't stop producing porridge.

Before the showings, a huge Wurlitzer rises from the floor with a man playing songs from the shows gloriously orchestrated in over the top shades of easy listening; major sixths and sevenths dripping adeptly from his old-school fingertips.

We saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I'd forgotten what an artistic and brave film that is. It's so unlike most film versions of stage musicals. Nathan was in his element, having alternated the role of Hedwig in its all-too-brief West End run. By the end of the film we were utterly exhausted. We took the bus along Market Street, and were back in our hotel by 11.30... just as most of our London friends, one assumes, were waking up!