Tuesday, 20 July 2010

They're Petrified And They're Ancient

I'm writing this in a coffee house at the top of the campus of the prestigious University of California at Berkley, surrounded by other individuals all beavering away furiously on their laptops. Man do I feel studenty! I also am trying to suppress mixed urges to yell out at the top of my voice about sociopolitical issues that irk me, exercising my rights to freedom of speech (do those rights apply to me as I am, technically, an 'alien' - cool!) while at the same time wanting to slap every hippy-esque student 'right-on' type for displays of outrageous hypocrisy. We passed a street vendor selling car bumper stickers. Among the obvious ones promoting sentiments like 'Give Peace A Chance' and 'No Blood For Oil' were some other more worrying ones, like 'Fu*k Israel'. Now I don't want to stir up a political storm here, but surely that is blatant racism? It is almost akin to spouting off that "there are two things in life you hate, racism and Jews" I thought these hippies/lefties etc were all about equality, free love, fair trade and such like? Ummm, interesting discussion point... Well, ideologies aside and back to the next installment of our little road trip.

With temperatures soaring it was deemed necessary to make a break for cooler climes. Not least because coupled with our own inability to regulate body temperature, Barry was experiencing difficulties chilling out too, resulting in her throwing the occasional hiss-y fit (every glorious and unashamedly cringe-worthy pun intended) and spitting close-to-boiling coolant onto the road. In an effort to chill everyone out some altitude was sought which came in the form of a visit to the Grand Canyon National Park. A small detour en route meant we took in the slightly mythical and mysterious Petrified Forest. Forest is stretching the imagination somewhat; desert would be a tad more appropriate. And were we as scared of this 'forest' (more superb punnage!)? Certainly not! Well, apart from Tim keeping his ever-vigilant eye out for rattle snakes, which Phil and I continued to remind him were all over the place. And out to get him. Disdain over location descriptions aside, the petrified wood we encountered was oddly intriguing. These ancient, fallen tree trunks had indeed been transformed into stone. As ever, there is a logical explanation as to why. Go google it. Brownie points were lost slightly when, on our way back to the car, we spotted a sign pointing out petrified sand dunes. Really. Come on, isn't that simply average, common or garden sandstone? Well, perhaps there are those out there who were absent from school the day the geography teacher enlightened their charges on different types of rock. Or am I just being cynical?

This side-show over, we pressed on and arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Wow. Simple as that. A bit like Argentinean steak, one should believe the hype when it comes to praise being proffered over this simply jaw-dropping spectacle. A big hole in the ground it may be, but some hole! Perched on the edge of the world it seemed, as we gazed over a mile down into the gorge cut by the Colorado river over the past few millennia. Granted, the world and his wife were there to gawp too, but there was enough of a vista spread out before us that the hordes of chattering RV vacationers melted into the background.

Not wanting to be caught up in a snap-happy tourist stampede we rose at some undogly hour in the morning to be one of the first to venture down a trail and into the canyon itself. Therefore following a sneaky spot of camping, coupled with an illicit bbq (the hyper-safety-concious park rangers deeming it too great a fire risk to allow city slickers to play with fire; us on the other hand deemed ourselves all but one step away from a Ray Meers level of ability to hack it in the wilderness and responsibly cook our catch al fresco), we joined a small handful of like-minded hikers and stomped off at 4.30 am down the trail. Not only was the temperature on our side, but the lack of the Jones' Big Family Grand Canyon Reunion 2010 (yes, we did spot a horde of such individuals, all sporting matching t-shirts emblazoned with the aforementioned slogan; we are in the States after all) and other such types meant that the sunrise we experienced alone, 3 miles in, was breathtaking. For me this vast abyss now holds pride of place at the top of my top-most-amazing-things-I've-seen-on-this-trip-so-far list. The only downside of walking an effective upside-down mountain was the 3-mile hike back up the way we'd come. By this time, the sun had not only got his hat on, but had well and truly come out to play. Phil decided to turn this return leg into an impromptu 'phis' session and stomped his way up as fast as his spindly legs could carry him. Tim also tried to stomp up as fast as his not-so-spindly legs could carry him, but it was the ginger wizard who hit the top of the rim first, looking, annoyingly, too fresh-faced for my liking. Tim redressed the fresh-faceness balance when he appeared. Although, to be honest, I was just glad to have got to the top myself. It didn't stop any of us, however from suppressing chuckles as we watched plenty more fat happy campers step off, knowing what would lie ahead. Snigger.

Realising we still had a full day in hand, the decision was made to push on north to Moab. We zipped through Monument Valley, gawping at the huge stacks of rock standing like giant needles rammed into the ground and trying to fathom just how they could possibly have been created. Tim corrected my mistake when I confidently pointed out the stack I was sure was the one that my namesake, all-round-good-guy and scientology-eschewing weirdo, Mr Cruise majestically free-climbed in the opening sequence of Mission Impossible. (It was actually shot at Dead Horse Point, for all you geeky film buffs out there.)

Now, I can understand why many of you dear readers out there would be wondering why on earth go to a place in Utah. That's Mormon-country, that is! But fear not, we are not now abound with multiple wives and spouting quite frankly ludicrous claims of the Risen Christ holidaying in America. Happily I can inform you that not only is the little town of Moab the gateway to the Arches National Park (more on that in a bit), it's also a bit of a Mecca for those who count hurtling up and down the sides of mountains on two wheels one of their primary pastimes. I am one such fellow, and a roadtrip to the States would not be complete without visiting the place us mountain-bikers in the UK talk about with wistful longing. While Phil decided that his man-suit needed a wash, the ever plucky Tim gamely joined me on what proved to be the most epic, adrenaline-fueled and bone-jarringly awesome rides I've ever done. Thirty five miles of mostly downhill, on bikes worth more that your average car that we'd rented from one of the many shops in town, left us exhausted, bruised, bloody but grinning from ear to ear. Moab, I salute you (in an gnarly, radicle, x-treme kinda way). (Which is more meaningful, I think.)

The Arches NP was as confusing and as spectacular as Monument Valley. Phil got all snap-happy and we scuttled around the place gazing in wonder at these natural stone bridges, giant rock fins and massive boulders balanced precariously upon the weakest looking plinths. Truly a geological marvel.

And then on to another of the States' marvels: Las Vegas, Nevada. When I say marvel, I do mean in a complete polar opposite to that of this country's national parks. A marvel Las Vegas certainly is. Marvelous it certainly is not. WIth Tim a Sin City veteran and Phil and I kinda ambivalent to spending any great length of time there, we decided to hit the Strip for One Night Only. We had driven through the night from Moab to get to the city that really never sleeps by the early morning. We checked ourselves into the Stratosphere hotel (the big, tall spacey looking one) and went for a stroll, trying to find a sports bar that would be showing the World Cup final. Blondies Bar proved suitable, and with a $20 cover charge affording us unlimited beer, we settled down for the big match. Happily the bar was also crammed with Dutch and Spanish supporters and everyone had a jolly raucous time. Which is where the raucousness ended as we miraculously transformed into lethargic old farts upon returning to our hotel room to freshen up, ready for this much-hyped big night out. We watched movies instead. Ahem. We are usually more rock'n'roll than that. We were just tired, y'know? A long night drive, and all that, right?? Who am I kidding. We wussed out in spectacular fashion. However, we were not that miffed. After exploring the Strip during the day, I think I can say with a degree of authority that Vegas is a decidedly odd and very tacky place, geared exclusively to relieve you of money at every opportunity and in every way possible. Casinos, bars, water, food, breathing; this all costs a lot if money. Now, I'm sure if you went with a big group of mates, with a wad of well-earned cash you had put aside and were happy to blow on a big weekend, and all dressed in dapper attire, then Vegas could be super fun. To three cash-strapped and slightly scruffy travelers, more akin to the great outdoors, the allure of this one-of-a-kind city simply didn't click. Definitely pleased to say I went but in no hurry to go back. Maybe some other time with a crowd, but not for now. Well, unless someone wants to change my mind. Which, being a sucker for a guided night out and happy to rescind all previous comments, I will gladly accept. Departing Vegas we nipped over to visit the Hoover Dam. Must say I was slightly disappointed to find it not constructed from leading-brand vacuum cleaners. A couple more hours on the road, and feeling peckish, we stopped off for a bite to eat in the town of Parhump. Yes it does rhyme with dump. And for a very good reason. There were more billboards advertising legal brothels (only in Nevada!) than could conceivably be contained on one place. One even promoted itself as an art museum too. Well I never!

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Seems an appropriate enough phrase to describe our next little sojourn into one of the hottest places on the planet: The infamous (and reassuringly named) Death Valley. Duh duh derrrrr!!!! One again I can hear you all wondering why, given our aversion to all things scorchio, are we venturing into a place that Beelzebub would probably consider as a real-world summer retreat? Honestly, I don't know. In order to combat our clearly poor route planning, we again decided that the coolness of night would be our only chance to make it out the other side alive. This turned into us entering onto the valley floor by car (the real reason we were going was because the road from Vegas to the Yosemite transited through Death Valley) in the wee hours, 'camping' by the side of the road (Phil in the car, Tim and I on a park bench each and me in only my underpants it was that frickin hot) for a few restless hours before setting off at dawn. To be honest, the temperature was just about bearable, but one would be forgiven for thinking it was the middle of the day on a windswept desert outcrop. In the middle of summer. As the sun crept up, we found ourselves at the lowest point on the American continent, Badwater (a salt flat), some 235 feet below sea level. Cool! Well, not, but you get what I mean. We were not, however, alone. As part of our compulsory background information lessons to the area, Phil had informed us of this ludicrous-sounding ultra-marathon, starting at Badwater and going for 100 miles up out of the valley. The runners, at the hottest point of the day, have to run on the white road markings to stop their trainers melting on the black asphalt. Nuts. Well, turns out that we'd hit Death Valley bang on time, as we were soon passing these crazy individuals (and their support cars). The Badwater Ultra was in full swing! Seriously, you have to be slightly unhinged to want to do ultra marathons anyway, let alone ones set here. You could see Phil getting ideas in his head...

Safely out of the Valley of Death, altitude and latitude began increasing, resulting in temperature and testiness decreasing. Joy! Next and final stop on our detour off the Pan-Am was Yosemite National Park. Perched high up in the Rocky Mountains, this massive area of protected land really is something to behold. If you ever wondered where they did those Timote shampoo adverts, you know the ones, with the girl dipping her hair into some picturesque alpine mountain stream then flicking it back dreamily, while a fawn dear grazes nearby and a colourful butterfly flutters past, then this is the location for that shoot. The park rangers obviously do a fine job in managing the mass of visitors this place gets, as it almost looked too good to be true. But that is the amazing thing; this is exactly as it is supposed to look, as it always has done, way before humans deemed the outside to be reduced to a welcome distraction from built up suburbia. Managing to secure one of the last pitches on a campsite on the eastern edge of the park, an area known as Tolume Meadows, we got a well-earned night's sleep before striking camp and hiking a 7-mile round trip up to Cathedral Lake. This should actually be renamed Mosquito The Size Of Water Melon Heaven, for no sooner had we dipped our toes in the crystal blue mountain waters, our tranquility was shattered as these huge mozzies registered our presence and zeroed in. Tim actually struggled to do his laces back up as he was attacked from all angles by these flying parasites. No amount of DEET could suppress the sheer numbers, so giving it big legs, and with flailing arms like a bunch of hysterical schoolgirls, we dashed away from the lake shore and back into the relative safety of the forest. We regained our composure before we encountered the next pair of hikers coming up. Exchanging a brief hello as we passed each other, we nonchalantly warned them that 'there may be the odd mozzie up there, just to let you know'. Always ready to do a good deed to a fellow walker, us. We were soon back at the car and proceeded to drive the 50 or so miles across the park and back out the other side, stopping every now and again to gawp at the simply stunning scenery. Yosemite is now definitely well in my Top 5.

We soon found ourselves back by the familiar ocean as we rejoined the Pan-Am, or more accurately Pacific Coast Highway 1. This stretch of road that runs right up through California is a road-tripper's dream. A stop-over in the Cambria Palms Motel in the village of Cambria (funnily enough) was enhanced by the incredibly enthusiastic proprietor, Troy, who kept saying things like, "man, you guys are doing a sweet trip,' or 'man, I love your car,' which was all rather nice as we felt like minor celebrities, especial as we overheard him proudly talking about us and the car to other guests at the motel! Back on PCH1, we stopped by a certain Mr William Randolph Hearst's former coastal retreat, appropriately named Hearst Castle. A medieval castle it isn't; a magnificent example of European architectural fusion it is, housing priceless antiques; a real tasteful testimony to New World opulence. We toured the buildings, trying to conjure up images of what it must have been like to be one of Mr Hearst's esteemed guests. We also came away feeling rather poor. The road continued north past Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey, before we wound up at the self-proclaimed surfing capital of the world (presumably not counting Hawaii), Santa Cruz. Not really much to say about this place, especially as there was no surf to speak of what so ever. Ah well, never mind, we had a party invitation in San Jose anyway. A former (American) flatmate of Tim was visiting her younger brother who was celebrating his birthday. We checked into a very cheap and dingy motel nearby and partied with Jenny, her Yorkshireman boyfriend Brett (at last, another British accent!), Jenny's brothers Tristan and Gareth and Gareth's flatmate Eric. Muchos tequila was drunk. 'Nuff said. Eric happened to manage one of downtown San Jose's best pizza restraunts and gave us a free lunch the following day. Good work, fella! And so it was with fuzzy heads we left San Jose for San Francisco.

The City is a very cool place. Metaphorically and literally. As we arrived at the hostel at Fort Mason it was as if someone had decided we were missing England too much so turned off the hot and brought in a fresh supply of foggy coldness. Now I know we'd been stifling hot before, but this was ridiculous! At least it is far easier to get warmer than get cooler. Jeans, jumpers and hats were soon donned as we tramped up and down the City's streets. Tim was not on his best behavior, so was packed off to Alcatraz (Phil and I having done time on the Rock on a previous visit two years ago) and came back ashtounded that the Rock had become a tourisht atracshon (yeah, thanks Connery). Time was also spent hanging out with one of my friends and SF resident, Cameron; she was lovely and even cooked us supper one night. Setting off her apartment block fire alarm in the process then suffering the mortal embarrassment of explaining to the two fire-trucks that raced over, sirens wailing, that it was a pork loin that had got a tad smokey. The other residents huddled outside on the sidewalk weren't that impressed either. How we laughed! Time was also spent checking out places like SoMa, Haight Ashbury, Union Square and the iconic Golden Gate bridge. We also paid a visit to the Buena Vista Cafe, birthplace of the Irish coffee - one of those 11 am kick-starts that other beverages simply can't match. Not sure Tim was too convinced, though...

We have pencilled in a 'wine and cheese' day for tomorrow; we're off to Napa Valley and home to California's vineyards. I'm off to get some joss sticks. Till next time, peace and love, man.


Anonymous said...

So glad that you experienced the sublimity of the Grand Canyon and that your journey is progressing on schedule. Bergen seems to miss you guys, at least the cookies you generously fed her. Great to have you as house guests. We had a good vacation to New England. Pam, Joel, Mark, Bergen and Zeus in Phoenix

Anonymous said...

A good friend of mine Paul Garner, a geologist, has been trekking through the same areas as you doing some research and comments on these amazing stacks which you have wondered about. Look him up on http://thenewcreationism.wordpress.com Father Baz

chris said...

Still managing to make work seem like a life long prison sentence, you bast**ds!! Have fun!! Cj

Greg said...

Yo fellas, amazing pics (esp. the arches np - crazy stuff), really enjoyed your descriptions of Petrified Forest and GC! Very funny! Nice blogging. Have fun in Canada & Alaska! Take care, G

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