Doing battle with daily dragons

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Tales from the West

As I discovered, to my chagrin, that it wasn't possible to make Blogger postings from a PDA, I now include here, for your reading pleasure, or perhaps extreme boredom, a blog on the move.

June 23

Long ago, when my German forefathers set sail for the new world, along the way, one of them angered the Travel Gods. Perhaps they took a wizz through the wrong porthole during the full midsummer's moon. Whatever the misdemeanour, I feel certain that we're still paying for it to this day. Our vacations have always had the element of divine retribution about them. In 1983, while trying to get to Sioux City, Iowa, we made a wrong turn and didn't discover our mistake until we crossed the border into Missouri. That was the first time I ever heard my dad use the s-word. In 1991, after a long flight home from Seattle, we discovered that we'd left the headlights on in long-term parking. In a fierce downpour, my mother and I had to push the car across the lot while dad tried to get it started. There are too many other nightmare airline delays, food poisoning incidents and acts of God to name so it should really have come as no surprise when the following events occurred this morning:

- We neglected, upon leaving the long-term parking lot at 4am, to lock the car, but we would not discover this until a little later.

- Upon exiting the airport shuttle, we noticed we had left one of our bags on the luggage shelf necessitating my father to run after the rapidly departing bus like a wild howler monkey.

- The realisation that we had neglected to lock the car forces my father to catch the same shuttle bus back to the parking lot. "I think I would have just taken my chances," my mother remarked, "It’s a pretty old car." My parent's alignments are lawful good and chaotic good, respectively, but have the tendency to flip-flop depending on the issue.

- Our arrival in Dallas was auspiciously early. However, we got burnt by the age old "no jet ways to fit the particular plane you happen to be sitting in" tomfoolery and ended up sitting on the tarmac for a good 35 minutes waiting to be given a berth.

Now on board our flight to LA, I have little to do but wait to see what happens next.

June 25

Sitting safely in a hotel room 200 miles away from the madness, I've got a chance to have a bit of a blog. Utah is a good place for reflection. Lots of big red rocks and quiet highways. No bibles in the hotel drawers, either. Only the Book of Mormon.

Here's the thing about Las Vegas. The attraction that it has the most in common with is Disneyland. A Disneyland that’s spent a few years inside, become disillusioned and bitter and pledged the rest if its days to the selfish pursuit of hedonism. A Disneyland for sinners.

Vegas is a town on a grand scale; who can build the fastest, the highest, the brightest, the gaudiest monstrosity on the Strip. We stayed in The Stratosphere, notable for its Space Needle-style tower visible in the cut-away shots of CSI: Las Vegas.

Having arrived fairly late in the day and being slightly overwhelmed by the 102 degree heat haze hanging around outside, The Rock Star and I did what any self respecting Vegas tourists on their first evening in town would do: lost some cash, had some drinks, went up a huge tower and got on a roller coaster.

Due to an absurd number of places to be during our Western excursion, we had only one full day in the city that has more Hummers per square inch than The Governator's garage to get into trouble which we tried to use to the full. In true Vegas style, we began the day with a gut-busting breakfast buffet at The Tropicana. I think it was definitely the first time I've ever included both fried shrimp AND Jell-o in my first meal of the day.

Following breakfast, we all waddled down to the exhibition hall to take in the Titanic exhibit. While I found it very interesting, I've always been a little mystified as to the level of public interest in Titanic, especially so many years later. I'm not sure if it's our morbid interest in tragedy or the fact that Titanic represents the ultimate in hubris; man's challenge to the elements and the element's utter triumph. At any rate, the exhibition of artefacts was tastefully done. I hope, however, that there is no further salvage work done on the wreck to pad out these sorts of displays. It smacks somewhat of grave robbing.

As far as the rest of Vegas, I had a hard time deciding if I was appalled or in love. From the second you enter a hotel whether it's the Bellagio or The Sahara, you are subjected to sensory overload in a major key. (An interesting bit of casino psychology that Papapotamus noticed; although you are surrounded by an unspeakable cacophony, none of it is actually discordant.) The gambling floors are vast, designed to bewilder and entice even someone who's just popped in to use the bathroom to put JUST ONE quarter in the slots. The Rock Star and I were not immune; we made a point to try to lose money in every possible venue.

After a long and mind-meltingly hot day on the Strip, the 'rents, The Rock Star and I took in a Blue Man Group show at the Luxor. For anyone not acquainted with them, their show is a mix of surreal comedy, percussion, (who knew you could play Freebird on PVC piping?) and an awful lot of toilet paper. Tremendously enjoyable and highly recommended to anyone whose experience of the group is limited to their rather unusual Intel commercials.

Mama and Papapotamus were pretty beat and after taking in the famous fountain show at The Bellagio, returned to the Stratosphere to lose a few more quarters in the slots before retiring. (Actually, Papapotamus's biggest win came from a payout on an escalator where he found 50 bucks.)

The Rock Star and I remained out and discovered how much it costs to buy two drinks in a fancypants casino on a Friday night, (24 dollars!) that roulette is easier to win at than blackjack (The Rock Star came out 5 dollars ahead at roulette and was made to grab his ankles at the blackjack table) and most conclusively, that the house always wins.

We departed in the morning around noon, but not before giving our luck one more try: The Rock Star made $100 at the tables and my dad and I roughly $20 each at the slots.

Heading east, we had a relatively short 4 hour drive to Kanab, Utah, our stopping off point on the way to The Grand Canyon. Distance is relative in the US; in the Southwest in particular. In the UK, a 4 hour drive is an interminable slog up the M1, complete with groaning and heavy sighs. In the Southwest, 4 hours is as far as some people drive to get their groceries.

The Basin and Range country has a terrifyingly empty beauty. One can only imagine the despair the first pioneers felt when their covered wagons crested the ridge and looked down on the barren, rocky plains, littered with towering buttes and mesas. It's a wonder that anyone ever made it to the south coast. But from the comfort of our air conditioned Chevy Malibu, the landscape was pure eye candy.

Papapotamus decided on a route that would take us through the heart of Zion National Park in the heart of red rock country. Zion, like all of the dramatic scenery of this area, owes its existence to the pre-historic oceans that carved out its magnificent red spires. I'll let the picture speak for itself.

So that brings us here to our Holiday Inn Express in Kanab, Utah where the frozen lemonade at the drive-in is "cool", the employee of the month at the McDonalds is Ronny and the crickets sing ceaselessly all through the night.



June 26

Theodore Roosevelt, who was largely responsible for the creation of The National Park system (Mainly because he wanted to preserve plenty of land on which he'd be free to shoot things) called The Grand Canyon "...something every American must see."

I'm not sure when I developed vertigo. Last year, when my parents visited the UK and we went to tour St. Paul's, I discovered I could go no further on the dome climb than The Whispering Gallery. It's a feeling that starts in my legs and spreads to upward to my butt and downward through the soles of my feet and physically prevents me from moving. The feeling isn't so strong when man-made objects aren't involved, (I had an attack of the screaming abber-jabbers on the top of The Eiffel Tower WHICH MOVES, by the way.) but as we made our way out along a narrow trail to Bright Angel Point, I thought of Theodore Roosevelt and made up my mind that the Grand Canyon was "...something that every American must see...from a safe distance."

Vertigo aside, the Canyon is certainly one of the wonders of the natural world. Although, like many of the most beautiful places on earth, it is slightly marred by people. Being one of the top 5 most visited National Parks in the country, it is FULL of people, many of whom have made the mistake of bringing their children in the hope that they will be so over-awed by the majesty of the experience, that they might stop pouring Mountain Dew on each other long enough to appreciate it. In this they are mistaken. To children, it is a large hole in the ground and an opportunity to explore many different ways to in which to a) frustrate their parents and b) plummet to their deaths.

One child called Bryce seemed mightily adept at both. We learned his name due to the number of times we heard it echoing through the canyon.

"BRYCE! GET DOWN FROM THERE!"

"BRYCE! WHAT DID I JUST TELL YOU?"

"GODDAMMIT BRYCE, DON’T MAKE ME COME UP THERE!"

All of us, at separate occasions throughout the day contemplated giving Bryce a little help in his quest to get to the Canyon floor as quickly as possible.

To recover from our afternoon we headed back to our way-station for the night, several miles outside the park in the Kaibab State Forest. The Kaibab Lodge was not so much a lodge as a collection of tiny, comfortable cabins in the middle of a picturesque meadow surrounded by tall, Ponderosa pines.

After a nap, mom suggested that we return to the Canyon for a twilight hike back out to Bright Angel Point to watch what would certainly be a most spectacular star-rise.

One thing that I learned about vertigo; you don't necessarily have to be able to SEE an almighty drop to know that it's there. Cringing like the enormous coward that I am, I hung on to the solid rock outcroppings for dear life as we made our way along the trail, which, by day, had been cause for a mild case of wobbly legs, but by night was a long march to certain doom. As luck would have it, I didn't end up as Canyon pizza and we settled on a rock to await our celestial lightshow.

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox is taken to Frogstar to be fed into the Total Perspective Vortex; a box into which a human being is bundled into only to find the entire rest of the universe in the box with them, rendering them totally insane. This is rather like the experience of sitting on the edge of The Grand Canyon at dusk and watching the whole of the night sky unfold before you in a way you've never witnessed before. Utterly humbling.

Although the Rock Star and I know how to lower the tone of any spiritually enriching experience:

Me: I spy with my little eye something beginning with "D".

The Rock Star: Dark?

Me: In one.

On our walk back up the trail, we encountered a group of hikers being led by a park ranger WITHOUT the benefit of flashlights. We flattened ourselves against the rocks to let them pass, but in the process, rendered ourselves completely invisible to the hapless wanders prompting several cries of, "AAA! There's a GUY over here!"

And so I close to prepare myself for a long day on the road. Our eta at Mt. Witney tomorrow is about 10 hours from when we depart. Oh, the huge manatees.

June 27

I write today from the heart of UFO country, not far from Area 51. This is a real get abducted off the highway, get an anal probe and get dumped naked in a field in Nebraska territory.

It's bleak out here and we've been driving since 7 am. The Rock Star is taking a turn at the wheel and is looking like he's thinking of different ways to kill himself.

4 pm

At the bottom of Death Valley. Anyone for a weenie roast? Just jam them on a stick and crank open the window, ladies and gentleman, it's 114 outside.

7 pm

Settled into the Gunga Din suite here at the Best Western in Lone Pine, California. Most likely, every cowboy film you've ever seen was filmed here. With the spectacular Sierra Mountains and their foothills as a backdrop, there was never a better bit of country for American folk heroes.

Not only that, but it seems like it would be a nice place to be from. A place where people sit out on the porch at night and invite the neighbours over for pie and coffee. Where the local pizza joint has a sandwich named after the local sheriff. (The "Officer Pino" special; ham, peppers, onions, olives and Jack cheese on a white sub roll. Seriously.) A place where you have to make your own fun. I love small town America.

June 28

I know that everyone out there has a "happy place" that they transport themselves to while looking out the window at work, staring at your computer or listening to your buddy Mike recounting for the 50th time the story of how he almost scored with that hot girl from the office but threw up on her at the last minute. Without a doubt, my happy place is Yosemite National Park.

We entered the park via the Tioga Pass, which, up until about 3 months ago, was impassable due to snowfall. A very hairy trip up a steep mountain pass ensued, replete with plenty of sheer drop offs and rather magnificent vistas including waterfalls and snowfields. During a quick rest stop, The Rock Star and Papapotamus ganged up on me in a snow battle which resulted in me spending several minutes digging bits of slushball out of the pockets of my shorts and sweatshirt. Traitorous swine.

We meant to spend a good deal of the day on the Valley floor, but due to the spectacular scenery on the way down and my father's addiction to boulder fields, (he taught Earth science for the best part of 30 years and has a serious thing for rocks) we spent most of it sitting on the edge of precipices and going "wow."

Yosemite, like the Grand Canyon, is one of the most popular National Parks in the country, so when we finally arrived on the Valley floor, we found half the population of Northern California there as well. The Yosemite Valley, however, is designed as an organised, small village and lacked the chaos of the Canyon. Not only that, but the tall pine trees give more of a sense of solitude by separating you, at least visually, from your fellow men, women, children and large pets.

What could generously be described as our hotel was about 35 miles outside of the park in a town called Mariposa. (Spanish for "butterfly") We've gone fairly budget on this trip in the accommodation stakes and don't get me wrong, that's fine with me. As long as there are no bugs, bad smells, soiled linen or obvious blood stains on the walls, I'm cool. Norman Bates could be working the desk, but as long as there are clean pillowcases, I'm all over the place. Here are the things that kept this particular way station from meeting my rather low standards.

-Overflowing trash bins a-la frat house; pizza boxes and beer cans.

-An elevator whose floor notification noise sounded like an ailing Speak-n-Spell experiencing a climactic moment with a pocket calculator.

-Curtains that had obviously been put through the dryer on too high a setting so that the backing had melted, letting random blotches of light into the room.

-A drywall job done by trained chimpanzees.

-A maid that stole our old towels and neglected to replace them forcing The Rock Star and I to dry ourselves with hand towels.

Although we are missing the used needles and dead hooker under the bed (anyone who hasn't seen Four Rooms should be ashamed and should stop whatever they're doing to go out and do so.) we're still regretting having to spend two nights in this little way-station.

June 29

Our second day in Yosemite begins with my Quote of the Week.

One of the best features of the National Parks is the Wildlife. In previous visits, I've managed to get up close and personal with antelope, moose, ground squirrels and Stellar jays, but the gold medal wildlife spotting trophy goes only to those who have seen the Hairy Grail...a bear. Which is exactly what we encountered soon after we entered the park.

There is always much excitement and stupidity surrounding a bear sighting. (Why the first thing that many people think to do upon seeing a wild bear seems to be getting out of their car and creeping closer is beyond me.) We pulled into the lay-by with our fellow bear spotters and were enjoying the sight of a small brown bear foraging peacefully in the meadow when we overheard this exchange between two 9 year old children sitting in the bed of the truck parked next to us.



Child 1:
Wow! Cool! A bear!

Child 2: Aw, he's so cute! I wanna ride him.

Child 1: You wanna ride the bear? You're gay.

I'm pretty sure that I saw even my mother, who spends a couple of hours a year reprimanding her students for name-calling, crack a smile.

After the bear got tired of being paparazzied and wandered back into the woods, we began a 30 mile drive to the opposite end of the park to take in the Big Trees.

At the end of a long, twisting, climbing, nausea inducing road, we came to the Mariposa Sequoia Grove. These guys are the granddaddies of living things; the oldest among them having been a mere twig over 2000 years ago. It's good for the soul to see them and had they not proved to provide such inferior lumber in the days when logging began in the west, perhaps we would not be so lucky, but they still stand, majestic and silent. (Note to any present deity who may allow re-incarnation- you've got my vote in.)

On the way back from the Trees, we stopped out on Glacier Point for the most breathtaking view of the whole Valley including Half Dome. Although we have evidence of glaciers at home, (The Chilterns were made from the debris left over after the glacier that flattened the Aylesbury Vale melted) there's nothing quite as spectacular as the broad U carved of the granite in Yosemite.

I hate to keep harping on about people spoiling the surroundings, but I can't help wishing that I had asked the raucously loud Jewish family from New York to kindly shut their pie holes. Glacier Point is a place people go to reflect on the magnificence of creation and not to hear how Morty's prostate is fairing.

Our last stop of the day was a short trail through the woods in the Valley to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Due to a tremendously wet winter, the falls were even more magnificent that usual and we stood at the base enjoying the spray for a good long time.

Tomorrow we say farewell to my happy place and truck on to San Francisco, land of fog and rainbow flags.

June 30

I would like to add to my description of San Francisco as "the land of fog and rainbow flags." I would like to add that this city is also completely chocked with lunatics.

However, before I move on to toon town, we stopped off along the way to visit Muir Woods, a grove of Coastal Redwoods nearby. Redwoods don't quite have the incredible girth of Sequoias, but they grow taller and with more grace. The Rock Star found it impossible to resist the temptation to make Ewok noises and voice disappointment that there were no speeders available for photo ops.

After spending a few hours communing with giants, we headed into San Francisco via the famous Golden Gate Bridge and into the Heart of Darkness that is downtown.

Our hotel, from outward appearances, looked like a place you might suspect of charging by the hour, but once we got the useless key-cards to admit us to our rooms, we discovered rooms far superior to the rat holes we'd left in Mariposa. However, what waited for us just yards outside its walls was much different.

San Francisco has a massive homeless population, partly due to its mild climate and partly due to the liberal attitude and extensive services offered by the city itself. A good many of these rough sleepers are products of the clear out of state mental facilities in the 70's, so you are left with the impression of a city populated by the living dead, muttering to themselves and
lurching alarmingly around the sidewalks, in search of human brains. It's depressing that the mental health system is in such as state of disrepair that those whose lives could be transformed by the right treatment are forced instead to live on the streets in an impenetrable mind fog.

My parents, my husband and I clung to each other in a box formation to cover all avenues of attack as we ventured out to find dinner and played "Spot the Sane" which proved considerably more difficult than "Spot the Psycho".

We settled on Mel's Diner; a charming 50's throwback place complete with acres of stainless steel and mightily good tuna melt on rye. The Rock Star has turned out to be pretty good little photo journalist and took these rather moody monochrome shots of the place.

Having survived the loony gauntlet, The Rock Star and I have retired and are availing ourselves of American television which seems to be broadcasting The Simpsons on one channel or another at just about any hour. I don't care what the international community says. If this country isn't civilized, I don't know what is.

July 1

Today we visited the parts of San Francisco that make people want to visit San Francisco. After a short hike through the sections of town I described yesterday (only slightly less frightening in the light of day) we arrived at Market Street to catch the trolley car down to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'm sure native San Franciscans do not look on the trolley cars with the same degree of fondness as visitors to the city. Especially those who have the misfortune of living along its track. The Rock Star and I, as we were riding along, speculated that certainly the cable cars didn't run through the night due to the cacophonous rattling, squealing and piercing bells. However, we discovered that they only stopped running after midnight. I suppose it's no different that living next to any source of noise; it soon becomes white noise. After living next to 3 train tracks and under the flight path of a major international airport, I can understand being able to drown out just about anything.

Fisherman's Wharf is far cry from the squalor of downtown. It has the feel of the boardwalk and the smell of the sea mixed with sourdough bread. Over the rooftops of the tacky t-shirt shops, we could see the mast of a tall ship that we made for to get a closer look.

It turned out that there were 3 ships in the port, and better yet, all three were free for exploration. The tall ship, The Balclutha, a tug called Hercules and Excalibur, a steam ferry. We headed at once to the tall ship, all secretly wanting to have a Russell Crowe Master and Commander moment off of the side. No one can tell me that they didn't want to be a sailor after seeing that film. Even watching Paul Bettany dig a bullet out of his own gut probably didn't do much to dampen your enthusiasm.

Before too long, the smell of sourdough bread got to be too much and we wandered off in search of its source. We were rewarded in our quest by the appearance of a Boudin's café. Boudin is only the maker of the best sourdough on the planet and we were pleased to sample it. I'm a carb junky anyhow and I could eat bread all day long, but this stuff is pure ambrosia. If we didn't have 3 more days on the road and another two recuperating in Maryland, I'd leave all my clothes behind and fill my suitcases with it, because, tragically, while they DO deliver to US locations, they won't ship overseas. Trust me, I've checked.

As if the bread weren't bad enough, Ghirardelli Square was only a few feet away. Ghirardelli is perhaps the only US chocolate manufacturer who's product doesn't taste like watered down, sugary bum. Yes, we bought chocolate. Yes, we bought ice cream. And yes, The Rock Star and I have vowed to live on celery when we return to the UK.

After the obligatory visit to the serpentine Lombard Street, we returned to the hotel and grabbed some food along the way to avoid having to venture forth later armed with hammers and stakes. We will undoubtedly retire shortly. Just after The Simpsons.

July 2

Scenic drives are always pleasant as opposed to non-scenic drives. However, after 2 hours on Route 1, the coastal highway, all of us were remembering the long, flat roads of the Mojave Desert with fondness.

It was chock full, however, of redeeming features including lots of lovely beaches and flowers, but the biggest treat of the day was running across a wild colony of elephant seals, basking in the sand. The stupidity factor as far as onlookers went was far less than it seemed to be in the National Parks; at least no one tried to approach the seals due to their size and disagreeable noises. (I also have a theory that no one particularly wanted to pet them because no one has ever been read a story in childhood about a cuddly elephant seal who goes on a picnic in the woods with all of his friends) As for the noises, The Rock Star compared them to an evening out with The Mis-spelled Band.

We arrived in our half way to Los Angeles stopping point; a town called Atascadero, which means, incidentally, “a place you get stuck”. The distinguishing feature for us was a wickedly good Chinese restaurant with a buffet that was so big, it should have been illegal. Again, the resolution about the celery sticks.

July 3

The Rock Star was excited about our destination for today from the moment I told him about it back in January, but it could not match his excitement when the place itself hoved into view. Early this afternoon, we finally arrived at The Queen Mary.

Moot and PPD met aboard the ship in 1967 where she served as a nurse and he as an electrical engineer. From all of the stories they've told, it's a wonder that they remember their time at sea at all, but The Rock Star has grown up listening to these tales of the grand old ship and was hugely excited to see her at her permanent mooring in Long Beach, where she's now a hotel and tourist attraction. As a special treat, Mama and Papapotamus arranged for us to stay the night aboard, which has thrilled The Rock Star to no end. In fact, it's nearly midnight and he's still out exploring; no doubt wandering through any open doorway he can find. At least the LAST thing he need fear is ghosts.

As a way of making some extra cash, the QM offers a "special effects" ghost tour which turned out to be slightly less terrifying than a man in a white sheet with slightly crooked eye holes jumping out from behind a post and shouting "boo". Any self respecting ghost that MIGHT have once inhabited this great ocean liner has long since buggered off in a huff after workman barged in to install stage foggers, smart lights, projectors and a sound system that can probably be heard as far east as Utah. Add in one hugely unenthusiastic guide and you have the makings of a tour whose lameness borders on legendary. Even the small children in the party seemed wholly unmoved.

The day was redeemed however by a sumptuous dinner and self-guided tour which The Rock Star is still indulging in. If he does meet any spirits, perhaps he can make an apology to them on behalf of the living for making an undignified spectacle of their non-living state. As for me, I'm sleeping easy.

July 4

As we rose this morning, it seemed The Mary wasn't quite done with us. Although the hospital Moot served in no longer exists, PPD's engine room is still open to the public and The Rock Star practically danced with excitement when we finally managed to find it. I suppose it's always strange when an abstract, yet ever-present concept in your life suddenly becomes real. I imagine that's how my husband felt looking at the very wheels, knobs and levers that his father manipulated before the idea of him even entered into being. I'm glad he got to see it.

After bidding adieu to the great Queen, we realized, with a mixture of sadness and relief that our vacation was at an end. We had no other plans save for a stay at an airport hotel prior to our departure tomorrow, so we decided that, since we were a mere 25 miles from Hollywood, it would be a shame to have been in the neighbourhood and not dropped in to say hello.

Advice to anyone making a special trip to California just to see the city of motion pictures: don't. While all four of us were pleased to have seen The famous Chinese Theatre complete with it's famous hand and footprints as well as the rather more modern famous Kodak Theatre where the Oscars are held, the rest of the city is distinctly an unfamous dump covered in movie posters. The best that can be said for the place is that The Rock Star met a guy dressed like Jimi Hendrix in the toilet.

The hotel we booked into near the airport had a severe lack of comestibles in the vicinity so our Fourth of July feast came straight from the shelves of the local 7-11 where The Rock Star discovered the joys of both Twinkies and huge cans of Fosters. Mmm, balanced meal.

We did, however, get to see some patriotic fireworks. The fact that we were in a heavily built-up area did not stop people from launching what looked like heavy artillery shells from their backyards. Buying large fireworks for private use is illegal in most states, but California seems to be okay with industrial strength explosive devices in the hands of the public.

And now to sleep. If I can.

July 5

This is where our tale ends; sitting in the John Wayne/Orange County airport enjoying some frozen yogurt and waiting for a seriously overdue plane. I’m so pleased that The Rock Star has gotten to see some of the awesome sights that I remember from my childhood and that all four of us got to see some new ones together. Although I now feel like I need a holiday to recover from this one, it is a happy exhaustion.

I shall petition the Travel Gods for a safe return.