I’ve got a strange relationship with America – like many, I imagine. I suppose fascination is the best word – in the more common meaning of the word in terms of its size, scenery and symbolism, but a more morbid fascination with some of the crazier aspects of its politics; people who insist on teaching creationism as science, the obsession with guns and opposition to universal healthcare. So having gone a quarter of my life without venturing across the proverbial pond, I thought it was about time I changed this state of affairs…
My first port (literally) of call was Seattle, set in a mesmerising mish-mash of bays, lakes, greenery, mountains and skyscrapers. Culturally, it seems brilliantly at ease with being a big American city, replete with multinational banks, skycrapers and a fair bit of international renown, and also having a bit of counter-cultural edge; it is, understandably, very proud of Hendrix, Cobain and others having roots there. There’s a great place called the Experience Music Project featuring a lot of their memorabilia, along with a sci-fi exhibit.
Maybe a local’s view would be different, but Seattle seemed to me to accommodate both the grit and the great remarkably well. And it recently became the first place in America for the Socialist Alternative party to be represented at council level – Kshama Sawant having been elected to council in November, on a platform which included a pledge for a controversial $15 dollar minimum wage. Sawant seems the kind of character whose ethics would stop her glorifying in the architecture built by and for huge wealth. But I’m not, so I enjoyed marvelling at this menagerie of megaliths, open-jawed up from the street. And down at them from the highest of them all, the Columbia Centre, which has the Skyview Observatory on its 73rd floor, three from its 284m summit (the bigger skyscrapers in London measure a relatively piffling 200m or so – the Shard 306m). It also gave rather pretty views around the rest of Seattle like this…
On one side you have the Puget Sound, stretching out to Olympic Mountains in the distance with the sun shimmering on the water. On the other, the Rockies presiding over Lakes Washington and Sammamish with bits of Seattle’s suburbs squashed in between. And in between this, you have the narrow strip of downtown Seattle, with Mount Rainier in the distance, majestic for its size (it stands a mere 10m lower than the tallest Rocky mountain) and because it stands apart from the rest of the Rockies. Seattle also looks pretty spectacular as its from the Puget Sound as it lights up, as it was when I returned from Bremerton on the ferry.
Looking the other way from Seattle, over the Olympic National Park
The next stop was Portland, a place which, despite it’s two million odd inhabitants, still manages to have a quaint, quirky feel. I’m sure it would annoy some – including quite possibly me if I lived there – for being ‘self-righteous’ and self-consciously twee, with all its organic quinoa, retro bookshops and yogic apucunture (I made that last one up – I think – but you get the idea). But, from my experience at least, it’s far less full on than Brighton or Shoreditch, which are probably the closest well-known British equivalents. The small town Totnes, Devon, is the closest I know in terms of the feel of the place. I lived in Brighton for a year and quite enjoyed it, but I did get annoyed about its in-your-face self-righteousness; lecturing you on how to live, what you can laugh at and when you’re allowed to find someone attractive. The good thing about Portland is it’s far more laid back with its lefty weirdness – more concerned with creating its own weird little world than harassing everyone one to change theirs; more let’s do this than let’s tax this, protest that, regulate this. In fact, Portland has no sales tax – as Oregon is one of the five states not to implement the tax. (I don’t really have a problem with sales tax – hospitals, roads and schools need to be paid for. But, to get into a Mark Corrigan-esque rant for a second, it’s annoying, as a Brit at least, that American retailers generally don’t include tax in stated prices. There you are, ready to pay for your burger with the correct change, sometimes meticulously counted in the alien currency – and the bloke behind the counter gives some stupid price like $5.57 and you just end up giving ten dollars.) I must add, however, that this might just be because I haven’t lived there, and don’t know about more mundane issues like parking or – as happened in Brighton – a couple of hippies climbing up to occupy a tree to stop roundabout changes which would have meant cutting it down.
Perfectly fitting this weird, wacky atmosphere, Portland has what has to be one of the greatest bars in the world, Ground Kontrol. It’s an absolute mecca for gaming – 70-odd old skool arcade games including Donkey Kong, Tetris, Tekken and, of course, Pac-Man. And all for free on the night me and a Kiwi I met went. (Wednesday was ‘free play’ night.) If you don’t enjoy it, there’s good chance you either have no soul or are a female – though, in a heartening sign of times, there were a fair few women there, and some rather good at the games too. One girl beat me at Pac-Man Battle Royale (not to say I’m an pro). Probably best of all, all the arcade games have beer holders on top or in between, allowing players refreshment in between gaming (it’s tough work, you know). Or even during gaming, as some games are basic enough to be able to operated with one hand. But these games’ simplicity – and of course, novelty – is their beauty. Thinking about it, since my first games console, a Playstation, I gain no more enjoyment as games improve technically; a feeling I think is shared by many people my age. Call it pretentious, but I think there’s some life lesson on treasuring what you have in that.
And just up the road, there’s a mecca for bibliophiles – Powell’s Books, which claims to be the ‘largest independent new and used bookstore’ in the world. I can’t claim much authority on this, but I can say it is BIG. It even has t-shirts and stuff to say you were there…in a book shop! The store’s continued existence is a great testament to the success of the whole ethos of Portland, in the face the direct competition of online sellers like Amazon and the indirect competition on people’s time from increasingly tough jobs, box sets, sports and stuff.
There’s also a few natural wonders in the area. It’s only about 20 miles west of the spendlour of the Cascade Mountains, including, near Portland, the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood. I half-tried to get to the gorge by rented bike but it turned out the only real route up there after a while was a big motorway. Maybe I should have rented a car, but there was some decent scenery anyway. There’s also a great view over Portland to Mount Hood from the Japanese Gardens, a beautiful, ornamental space of bonsai trees, little bridges and traditional Japanese huts and little waterfalls (not usually my cup of tea, but the Kiwi wanted to go and I really enjoyed it). The gardens rest at the tip of Forest Park, a wooded, hilly area which stretches out in a thin strip about 10 miles northwest of Portland. There were trails following little streams and waterfalls, and trees large and numerous enough to silence the city noise and make you think you’re miles away from civilisation, when in fact you’re usually less than a mile away.
Portland from the Japanese Gardens
One more thing, if you’re ever there check out Salt & Straw ice-cream store. The first time I went there, a weekday evening around 8pm, people were queuing well out the door – just for ice-creams! Having gone back the next day, I can safely say there’s good reason why. It’s probably something like what an ice-cream joint would be like if run by Heston Blumenthal; containing as it does a frankly baffling array of flavours and combinations, including goat cheese marionberry habanero, black raspberries & smoked ham, Granda Malek’s almond brittle with salted ganache and pear with blue cheese (sensibly, they let you try before try). Yet if those are anything like what I had, one scoop of woodchip chocolate sorbet and one of honey & lavender, they will be INCREDIBLE – a strong rival to Joe’s, a Swansea landmark, for the coveted title of Joel Durston’s Favouritest Ice-cream Ever.
Next, Klamath Falls, a smallish town in southern Oregon I booked to go for a day, partly to space out the trip and avoid an 18-hour-plus single journey to San Francisco and partly because of the apparent splendour of Crater Lake, a huge lake in what is basically the lower half of a volcano, created by an explosion in Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. Alas, I can only speak of it from pictures, because the tourist bus wasn’t in season and it was too far (70 odd miles) to bike or taxi.
The train got in at 10.30pm and, on first sight of the town in colour – or lack of it – I thought it might have been a mistake to come here. (The evening before I was chatting to some Americans – the Coast Starlight does this cool communal dining thing – who knew the West Coast pretty well and mentioned that I was going to Klamath Falls. One said: “Oh…….Why?!” I was now thinking this reaction might have been telling.) Half-ruined buildings, empty roads, grassy wasteland, boarded up shops, derelict and anonymous warehouses – I was fully expecting some tumbleweed to roll by any moment.
…Instead, minutes later, up rolled half a dozen police cars trailed by a huge procession – it was still going after about five minutes – of vehicles, floats and people, many of whom costumed, including an awesome dancing bear. Turns out it was Cinco de Mayo, a festival held annually on May 5 across Mexico and the States to celebrate Mexico’s improbable victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on the same date in 1862. I followed the procession to a park, where there was some Mexican dancing and stuff, which was diverting enough for a quarter of an hour but not something a person with precisely zero Mexican blood in them could be too interested in for anything longer.
In the meantime, I’d rented a bike, planning to cycle up the west side of Upper Klamath lake and just see where I got to. The scenery was pretty cool, hugging the shore of the lake for two stretches, but the best part was the ride. The ‘open road’ is oft mythologised as a classic piece of Americana, but I found, here and elsewhere, that the idea suits two wheels very well too. More Americans should try it. (This isn’t really some eco, Guardian-reading self-righteousness. To be honest, I cycle in London more for the practicality and the pure enjoyment of it as much as environmental reasons, which are kind of a bonus for me. And I didn’t rent a car because I just thought it wasn’t worth the hassle and expense.) Most of the times on the highways, equivalent to Britain’s B roads or lesser A roads, you get these huge, open hard shoulders, which I treated as my own personal bike lane. Far easier than England’s small country roads. On a lot of roads there are hardly any cars anyway. Oregon may not be a state that stands out, because it does not have a huge city or an INCREDIBLE national park like Grand Canyon or Yosemite. But much of it is very scenic, filled as it is with hills, forests, lakes (like this ride), mountains and beaches.
That night, I took the Coast Starlight overnight to San Francisco. The Coast Starlight doesn’t stop in San Francisco proper due its being the far side of the bay – instead stopping at Oakland, San Fran’s uglier, less popular sibling some would say. Practically, that was slightly annoying, but visually there is probably no better way to enter The City by the Bay than by boat across San Francisco Bay. The bay is almost a huge (70km by 20km) lake, joined to the Pacific only by the narrow Golden Gate strait, a three mile-long, mile-wide channel beneath the legendary bridge. Oakland lies to the east side of the bay and San Francisco on the west, reaching up to the tip of a strip of land between the Bay and the Pacific. Sailing across to it all the stunning skyscrapers loom large, then as you get closer the city’s little details reveal themselves along the long straight roads which reach up the city’s infamous hills.
You can also see the Bay’s islands and peninsulas, including Alcatraz, though I was off there a few hours later anyway. The personal audio guide with interviews, narration and recreated scenes from the island’s days as a prison gives it a fittingly spooky atmosphere. I won’t spoil it too much but the only escape involves some ingenious papier mache, spoons, some emergency drainpipe and a waterproof mac.
San Francisco itself is an immensely cool city, an intoxicating mix of history, scenery and romanticism which has exerted a magnetic pull on all sorts for decades. It is ‘what’s left of America’, according to a writer called Jerry Kamstra (Rich Hall mentioned him on his superb documentary California Stars) – a description that could apply on a general, political and geographical level.
The city has been destroyed a staggering number of times, notably by a 1851 fire and 1906 earthquake hitting 7.8 on the richter scale. Every time, it was rebuilt with a pace and passion, leading to its name ‘the instant city’. And this is what I love about San Francisco – it is such a huge, global city, and therefore inevitably is expensive, but retains an overarching feel of optimism, alternative cool and edginess. Sure, there are pockets of a similar thing in other big cities – Shoreditch in London, Venice Beach in LA – but it’s not like that is the raison d’etre of those cities. In the 50s, the city became the beating heart of the Beat Generation. Hippies, notably Hendrix, flocked to Haight Ashbury, culminating in the Summer of Love in 1967. And a little after it became pivotal for gay activism, with the election of Harvey Milk to the city’s Board of Supervisors, making him the state’s first gay person in public office. As Scott McKenzie sings: “If you’re going to San Franciscooo/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair/ If you’re going to San Franciscoooo/ You’re gonna meet some gentle people there.”
However, this quite literally flowery image does mask social problems. Homelessness is a huge issue, with approximately 1 in 100 people in San Francisco homeless, many drawn to the city for the combination of temperate climate, wealth and image. There has been some ethically dubious behaviour from some tech giants and their employees. And property is very expensive – about twice the price of the average property price for California, in itself the third most expensive state in the US – which unsurprisingly causes tension about ‘uprooted communities’.
The homelessness is certainly evident in Tenderloin. (The name has various explanations, The one I find most believable is that, so dangerous was – and to some extent still is – the area, the policemen who used to work there were given ‘hazard pay’, which allowed them to buy a more choice cut of meat…if they stayed alive.) A staggering 46% or so of people there are homeless. This area starts a mere block or two from Union Square – the beating heart of San Francisco, with its Macy’s and Tiffany’s and Hilton and Grand Hyatt hotels – which serves as a sharp reminder that the American dream comes at the expense of a fair few nightmares. I don’t to be smug and self-righteous, because I know that England, London in particular, has issues with inequality, but not to the same extent or starkness as San Francisco.
I took a tourist bus around the civic centre, the pier area and the upscale Russian Hill and Pacific Heights, up to Golden Gate Bridge, one of the seven Wonders of the Modern World. It offers a view of the Pacific one side and a spectacular panorama of San Francisco and the bay to the South. It’s especially impressive given it was built all the way back in the 1930s, in just six years. The casualty toll attests to the mammoth nature of the construction. Eleven were killed and a further 19 were saved only by some pioneering movable netting beneath construction areas (ten of the eleven were killed when the netting failed under the weight of the scaffolding). These 19 lucky/unlucky souls are now part of the ‘Half Way to Hell Club’, formed, with commendably dark humour, by four of the early fallers in hospital together. Those that paint the bridge must have to retain a similarly strange sense of self, given their job’s Sisyphean nature. To keep its distinctive ‘international orange’ colour (actually more a browny red), the painting of the 2,737m-long bridge must start again in the other direction as soon as the end is reached.
San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge
San Luis Obispo
As I’m sure you’ll know, California has all manner of natural wonders. But a good load of it is actually very dull. If you cut California at all sides by and made it about half the size, all that you would be left with, the San Joaquin Valley basically, is dull as ditchwater. I know because this journey to San Luis Obispo took in about seven hours of its semi-desert. The three-stop journey is meant to be about six hours, which sets the train a pretty unambitious average speed of about 40mph. Still, it struggles to match that. It didn’t overly bother me – a tourist just needing to get to my destination sometime before nightfall – but it was (is) undeniably shit, and I feel for those who have to put up it with regularly. Wisely, most Americans don’t seem to use trains as a commuter/principal means of transport. Part of the difference in service and train usage, it must be said, is down to America’s sheer size.
They have this communal seating idea they practice on the Coast Starlight – a nice way to meet fellow travellers who you know will be willing to chat. I got on really well with the family the day before (the ones who warned me off Klamath Falls). He had an interesting life story and I enjoyed playing devil’s advocate to his mad, if well-meaning, ‘all you need is love’, hippy world views. He got his guitar out to play in the lounge after. That kind of guy. Anyway, the lot this time – three elderly people, who were nice but I didn’t get on as well with – were moaning about train issues and telling me about the long-troubled plans for a high-speed train between LA. Like HS2, it’s going ahead – or at least seems to be – but slowly and amid much controversy. They and others revealed – and it’s true, not just a passenger whine – that the vast majority of track that Amtrak runs on belongs to freight rail companies, who naturally get to throw their weight (freight) around. Four out of six of the trains I took were half-an-hour or more late in leaving and/or arriving – and the other two probably late at some point in my journey before catching up. So, not that the UK service is perfect, but let’s be grateful for what we have, eh. Or at least accept that it’s not as bad as the Yanks‘.
The journey improved in the last hour, as the train crossed into the northern reaches of Los Padres National Forest – up a few hills then winding down to reveal San Luis Obispo at the bottom of valley reminiscent of Napa Valley. Napa Valley is actually about 40 miles north of San Francisco – but apparently this area is also very good for wine, if that’s your thing. I like wine, but can’t tell much difference between different types beyond red and white. More of a means to an end for me, tbh.
Anyway, the next day, my only full day in San Luis, I had my heart set on the Pacific Highway 1, one of the roads that’s a regular fixture in those ‘top 10 best driving roads in the world’ lists. And a road even Jeremy Clarkson is happy to do 35 behind a caravan on (That’s a link to a Clarkson article. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Top Gear driving the road, but there’s loads of others.) I wanted to drive the most beautiful stretch of it, from Monterrey in the north to Morro Bay (5 miles from San Luis Obispo) in the South, but it just wasn’t practical in terms of money and being a lone driver – and one who hasn’t actually driven since passing about three years ago.
Still, I could cycle some of it. That’s one of the beauties of cycling – wherever you are in the world, you can just rent a bike and be off in five minutes. No licence, no insurance, no fuel, no instructions – no hassle. And in America, you can even put bikes on some buses – on these neat fold-out things at the front. So I did that as far north as the public buses go, Hearst Castle, a bizarre complex big enough to house a whole community; a pastiche of architectural styles its owner, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, had seen on his travels around Europe. Just to make it more bizarre, it was filled with his enormous collection of antiques which he wished to keep out of warehouses, leading to incongruities such as a private cinema lined with shelves of rare books. In all, it has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens and pools (including the famous Roman-style Neptune Pool), tennis courts, cinema, the world’s largest private zoo and even an airfield.
In hindsight, I regret not going. But armed with a very basic bike, I wanted to make haste on the near 40 miles or so back to San Luis Obispo (SLO). It actually turned out to be a doddle and the miles sped by, with mostly flat roads, a surprisingly solid pair of wheels and a huge ocean breeze on my back. I probably looked a bit odd cycling on the hard shoulder of a state highway on a low-riding kids/mountain bike, singing and air-drumming – handlebars as ersatz drums – along to some Americana/feel-good road-trip tunes (Kings of Leon, Black Keys’ El Camino, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac etc). But I don’t care – it was fucking bliss.
Basically a whole lane all to myself!
And the stretch I did is not even the best part of the legendary coastline. That’s Big Sur, with its infamous Bixby Bridge – you may recognise an imitation from the new GTA – where the road meets the upper reaches of the Los Padres National Forest and is banked up on steep cliffs, presenting stunning views of the forest on one side and magnificent rocky bays and golden-sand beaches and the other (just google image or street view it…now). Back at Morro Bay, 13 miles or so from SLO, with more time on my hands than I’d expected, I had a look around to see what it had going for it. It’s got a big rock. It stands about 180m high on its beach and is the result of some sort of volcanic activity. It’s quite impressive, but still, it’s a rock.
I asked the bloke in the tourist info centre about surfing but he said the best place was Pismo Beach 25 miles away down the coast. (It looked about five miles on the map – as a rule of thumb for a Brit in the States, presume everything is at least twice as far away as it looks). So I’ll cycled then bussed that distance. Turned out to be a pretty pointless trip, because the surf shop was closing about 30 mins after I got there and the place didn’t seem to be that impressive or exciting, at least relatively speaking, so I was regretting not cycling further up Pacific Highway 1 before turning back. But there you go. I guess I’ll just have to wait for Dave Brailsford’s call up for the Tour of California…
The next day, after the home comfort of some Premiership action (City 4, Villa 0) with a Brit I’d met at the hostel – the restaurant owner looked confused when we asked for it but generously and gamely found it – I got on the Pacific Surfliner to Santa Barbara. It’s a stunning journey where the train gets so close to the golden beaches it feels it could cause enough wind to upset a few picnics. If it travelled at any kind of speed, that is. But so lovely is the journey that you don’t mind the time; it just pleasantly drifts by. With the ocean, an endless source of symbolism, stretching out before you, it’s a journey apt for a spot of soul-searching; the type of journey you expect to be taken by some ruminative character in a Sofia Coppola movie, while mulling over a struggling relationship. Well, you don’t mind when you’re not stuck staring at bushes for half an hour while the train gives way to a train carrying a load of oil, that is (I exaggerate for effect, but only a little).
If you close your eyes and think of California, I’ll bet the image you’ll have will be something very much like Santa Barbara – a long stretch of white sand, flanked by wide tall palm trees on a wide boulevard, filled with beautiful BMWs driven by beautiful people. (Are they even people? Or some kind of super-breed created by Abercrombie & Fitch in a malevolent ploy to boost their brand and, eventually, take over the world? I have my suspicions.) The kind of place, basically, which you can fall in love and loathing with simultaneously. When it calls itself the ‘American Riviera’, it does so with far more realistic pretensions to la dolce vita than the ‘English Riviera’ – Torquay.
Once checked into my hostel, I went for a wander, to check out Santa Barbara at sunset. It was nice, but just nice; I realised the sun wasn’t really setting over Santa Barbara, as it’s on a little stretch of the coast which faces south, not west. Western Santa Barbara was bathed in this amazing golden glow coming from over the hills from Lompoc/Santa Maria way. It was kind of teasing you that you weren’t there, but there were amazing sunsets I’d already seen and was yet to see.
The next day, I checked out the centre of Santa Barbara, with its stylish Mexican feel which originates from Spanish missionaries setting up base in the area in 1782. 30 years later, the Mission and the rest of the town was destroyed by a 7.1 earthquake and accompanying tsunami. After this, the mission fathers chose to rebuild the city in a grander manner. They didn’t really get to enjoy the fruits of their labours as the Spanish period ended ten years later with the end of the Mexican War of Independence which terminated 300 years of colonial rule. But the styles of the time remain to the day, at least in the centre of Santa Barbara. Most notably, the town hall/county courthouse. From the top of it, you get a great view of all the city and the Pacific on one side and the hills of Los Padres National Park on the other. And the day I was there, there were also some rather nice views on the bottom, as the courtyard was playing host to what must have been some kind of Hispanic Miss Santa Barbara or Miss California.
It was nice, but I’ll be honest I didn’t feel I was missing out too much by only being there for a day. It’s the kind of place to be, rather than do.
The train – typically late – followed the Pacific Highway 1 scenically for around 20 miles, before taking leave of it in Oxnard and taking a route north of the Santa Monica Mountains into the suburbs of LA, where I began to appreciate just how fucking huge the LA area is. You can draw two straight lines of unbroken urban development for about 80 miles, which would be like London stretching from Dartford to Oxford and Romford to Winchester – as well as out in other directions. I knew it was big, but didn’t know it was this big. What you may consider areas of LA, like Beverley Hills and Santa Monica and Long Beach, are in fact cities in themselves. In fact, probably little of what you think of as ‘LA’ is downtown LA, which is a mostly functional business and shopping district.
Hollywood, where I was staying, is pretty central, though – about 5/6 miles out. It’s actually surprisingly normal…in a way. A fair chunk of Hollywood Boulevard is filled with glamourous sights like the Dolby Theatre, the Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre, but turn right from Hollywood Vine metro stop instead of left and within 30 seconds you’re looking at a standard Toyota dealership a few (it seemed) unexceptional nightclubs, some cheap burger joints and the hostel I was staying at, the oddly named (and just slightly odd) Banana Bungalow. It was good, though. It was obviously converted from a motel as it had that stereotypical look and feel about it, but it had this big courtyard in the middle with a basketball net, table tennis (beer pong!) table, and a kind of living room area with big screen TV and pool and table football tables. I went down there with a couple of people, ignorantly watching a big basketball playoff game and – a matter of national pride this – schooling some Yanks and Aussies at table football (in fairness, one game I only won on the last ball). Funnily enough, I’d met the Aussies a few days before in San Luis Obispo. Small world.
In the drinks in the Hummer, there was a twenty-something American bloke who called himself Chase. I just found him on Facebook, where Chase is his middle name and his first nam is John. You can probably get a fairly good picture of him just from that. But if not – he had a pony-tail, had been in LA for six months (doing, or trying, various creative things) and would say things like: “I’m here with some amazing new friends”, “let’s make it a night to remember” and “thank you for sharing your story with us, Joel”. In fairness to him, I just checked out some of his music (Soundcloud ‘Chase; of the Jungle), which is surprisingly good, and he was a nice guy – if a bit too nice. The others were cool, though – an American who couldn’t have been more different to Mr Chase, down-to-earth with a quite British dark sense of humour; an Australian pair with similar taste in music, comedy and stuff; and two Argentinian lads, whose English was minimal but we could speak the universal language of football (“Argentina for the World Cup?” *hands shaking to say no*, “Messi, Aguero” *thumbs up* “Argentina” *thumbs fairly down from both*). Chase had given the impression he knew some people and could get us into this and that club, but he couldn’t – the ratio of girls to guys of 1:6 wasn’t in our favour to be fair – so we went to this shisha bar which was good.
The next day I and a Brit from the hostel walked to the Griffith Observatory, which sits on the hill overlooking basically the whole sprawl of LA. Because of the location and the great views, it’s naturally been the location in many films and TV shows – Rebel Without a Cause, Charlie’s Angels Transformers, 24 and Mission Impossible among others. It’s the kind of place that lends itself to dramatic contemplation and grand gestures – or shooting a plane down with a sniper rifle, as you do in GTA 5.
The Griffith Observatory
Hollywood sign up there on the right
Then I went into central LA, which is impressive but maybe not as much as you’d expect, overshadowed by other parts of the sprawling city (or cities). The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was a fine building; an oak-coloured modernist structure of different angles and shapes which, impressive as old cathedrals are, seems to represent an attempt from the Catholic Church to move into the 21st century. (It would be nice if their moral teachings would follow suit…) I then went to Exposition Park, an museum area recommended by a girl on the train to LA. Unfortunately, the Natural History Museum, and I guess the others, was closed when I got there at about half 5. But it, and the USC campus opposite, looked very nice at least.
The next day I went on one of those sightseeing bus tours (the normal sightseeing ones, not the Starline celebrity ones). You may consider these a bit naff, but it’s definitely worth taking in LA, just because, again, it’s so fucking big. Seattle, Portland and to some extent San Francisco one can saunter in an afternoon and see most of the main sights. Not LA. I got on at Hollywood Boulevard, by Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where the bus took in the sights of Hollywood and Beverley Hills, which it turns out are actually pretty distinct; Hollywood a bawdy whirl of activity and surprisingly not that glitzy, and Beverley Hills, a separate city, the playground of the super-rich you picture when you think of Hollywood. The radio commentary was a bit cheesy and sycophantic, but I suppose this is to be expected on a tourist bus. God knows what the Starline tours would be like; probably guides and punters alike fainting in paroxysms of joy at seeing a Kardashian taking out the trash. It did give some interesting and amusing tidbits of information, like noting the corner outside an El Pollo Loco where Brad Pitt found fame – promoting said store dressed as a big chicken.
Just Captain Jack Sparrow chatting to Darth Vader, as you do
Beverley Hills is simultaneously one of the most impressive and sickening places on earth. On the one hand, it’s full of beautiful, talented people – and the epitome of the American dream. On the other hand, there is just no fucking need for clothes that cost as much as a small house, as some there do, and the level narcissism and vanity is probably even greater than you would imagine. On Rodeo Drive, there was a yellow and black supercar, which I thought would have probably been driven once – to its spot. Turns out it’s a Bugatti Veyron, which belonged to Bijan Pakzad, in his own words “the most expensive clothing designer in the world”, who owned the House of Bijan the car sits in front of. He died of a stroke in April 2011 and the car has been parked there ever since in his memory. So admittedly, it’s not completely a tale of naked narcissism, but there are not many places where the people could afford a $1.7 million car, let alone afford to not drive. (Jeremy Clarkson-types would probably think it’s some kind of minor travesty that car capable of 253mph sits undriven). Anyone with vengeful tendencies on such a culture will be pleased to know GTA V features a very thinly-disguised Beverley Hills as ‘Rockford Hills’, and Rodeo Drive as ‘Portola Drive’. You can make a black guy from the hood rob what is presumably meant to be Beverley Hills Jewelry Buyers in the Jewel Store Job mission, and maybe even feel there’s some kind of Robin Hood sense of social justice to proceedings, (at least if you don’t choose the ‘smash the whole place up’ approach).
The next bus went on to Santa Monica, with its palm-fringed seafront and golden sand. I bought a quesadilla and wandered down the famous pier. They had this huge communal yoga thing going on, as part of Wanderlust festival. I wasn’t tempted; mine is not really a yoga body in England, let among LA’s personal-training, kale-eating, juice-dieting female fitness freak types. Also, I can’t help put feel subconscious posing like some kind of deformed tree and I’m far too rational/boring in my beliefs to go in for all that eastern spirituality that goes with yoga. That said, I did go once and, judging by the pain I was in, I’m fully prepared to believe all of physical benefits proselytised by yoga’s witnesses.
The assorted yoga-ers (‘yogees’?) were being addressed by some ‘change the world’ woman making the case about how politics and yoga are intrinsically connected. Turns out it was a woman called Marianne Williamson (I think). Judging by her website, she’s one of these self-help gurus/cod philosophers that are ten a penny in the States; the type who thinks All You Need is Love amounts to a serious, workable political doctrine, rather than just a good pop song. I’ve got mixed thoughts on these type of people. On the one hand, they’re usually very nice and decent people, and they can help people seeking peace, wisdom and comfort. On the other, so much of what they say is pretty vapid if not absolutely horseshit. For example, these two blog posts on the threat posed by ISIS, in which she calls on people to “use the power of prayer and visualization to lift [ISIS] above the pathology that drives them. We need to do this on a massive scale. Use the power of your mind, your religion, your spirituality, your meditations and your prayers to spiritually quarantine and heal these people, to call their souls back to sanity and love. […] Now, we need a miracle.”
In fairness, she doesn’t completely ignore or oppose the idea of military action, or excuse ISIS’ horror, like some do. But calling on people to pray and meditate for ISIS, however well meaning, is at best useless, at worst actually counter-productive. Can you really imagine some murderous, tyrannical scumbag in Syria reading about a peace vigil in the LA Times and thinking aahh, that’s nice, I think I’ll pass on persecuting those Yazidis today. Still, I couldn’t complain about the view of a couple hundred fit young women in yoga pants contorting themselves into ridiculous positions. (I wonder if Ms Williamson would see this as ‘an expression of deeply held desire to connect with spiritually beautiful beings’ or just misogynistic perving…)
The views were just as aesthetically pleasing along the mile or so stretch of beach and promenade to Venice Beach, which is a bizarre cornucopia of wonder and shit. On the beach-side you have stalls with people trying to hawk their wares – art, clothes, music, books, tattoos etc – and further on the famed basketball courts and Muscle Beach. You may know the former from White Men Can’t Jump. Due to the setting, the tournaments and the many pros who have honed their skills there, it’s got place in basketball folklore. The nearest British equivalent is probably Hackney Marshes – the Mecca of Sunday league football, with 88 full-size pitches.
There’s also Muscle Beach – a throbbing mass of pectorals and narcissism. Those in Venice Beach not wanting to get pumped up to the eyeballs on testosterone can go for less legal high of weed. I say less legal because it is legal ‘medicinally’, but obviously this is a big grey area, ruthlessly exploited here by the ‘Green Doctors’. Outside the two branches, there are these big green sandwich boards advertising ‘medical marijuana legislation – $40’, placards stating that ‘the Dr is in’ and shady looking characters in bright green jumpsuits (think what Guantanamo Bay prisoners in lime green), who shout at those taking pictures of the place. If looking at all that you think this is a reputable establishment and that said ‘doctor’ had any kind of decent scientific or pharmaceutical qualifications, chances are you’re either a naïve teenager or a fucking moron. But according to its customer review page on Yelp – where 38 out of 40 give it one-star, and the other two only one – it’s not just a bit shady but an outright scam, with people expecting to pay just the stated $40 or a little bit more but ending up paying sometimes $200 or $300. Needless to say, no one, at least it seems, is deemed ineligible for medically marijuana. Funny that. I’m not a puritan – I have got/get high now and then and I’m not really against cannabis legalisation – but California’s ‘medically acceptable’ drug law/culture does appear a bit of an awkward halfway house; if you’re liberal on drugs, just be proud of that and legalise it, like Uruguay.
The ‘Doctor’s’ surgery
I went to watch an LA dodgers match that evening; not because I’m a big fan of baseball, just because I’m intrigued by the way Americans do live sport. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that, being a weekend game, it was at midday (which made me look a bit stupid when I asked a person about directions to the ground). Still, I wandered round Chinatown, which was pretty interesting, and up the hill for a fine view of LA skyline by night.
On the subway on the way back, there was a fella rapping along to his Mp3. Instead of the scoffs and evil eyes that would, I’m sure, be directed his way on the tube, no one seemed to mind much and one bloke – a white 40-something bloke no less – even said “that was good, man” as he left the train. I think that, and all the aforementioned positivity and self-help culture, says something quite profound about the differences in culture between us and our transatlantic cousins, particularly LA. I’m sure the novelty of people rapping on the tube would wear off if commonplace, but I do think we – with a well established culture of irreverence, irony and cynicism – could learn a thing or two from Americans’ almost relentlessly sunny outlook on life.
I think this positivity is a big paradox given its politics, which is so often characterised by nastiness, insularity and self-interest. Just look how Barack Obama is often described as an “un-American Muslim socialist” – and more. Obama brilliantly skewered the former with his Lion King gag and my friend has a good riposte to the “socialist” jibe: “well if he’s a socialist, he must be a lousy one because Wall Street profits have reached all-time highs under his government”. Yet that’s how is it – I think all Americans I saw or talked to seemed nicer than the indifferent you may get in the UK, and many were extraordinarily welcoming, friendly and helpful; it has been found to be the most philanthropic country in the world. Also, contrary to the stereotype, a lot of them get irony and self-deprecation too. I actually didn’t come across a true nutter when I was over there, which, frankly, disappointed me.
Palm Springs/Laughlin/Route 66 places
For the last week of my tour I’d signed up for a tour, going to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite and a few other places in between. So I was up early for that the next morning for that, doing the hellos to the others one the tour who seemed sound (turned out they were great). There was about 20 of us who had signed up as punters, hailing from all over the English-speaking world – seven Aussies, two Kiwis, two Fijian-born brothers living in New Zealand and Australia, a Swede, two Swiss, someone from Dubai, and me and two other Brits. And there was also the Irish boss of Top Deck, the tour company, and about ten North Americans in training/observation to be tour leaders, but it was kind of a holiday for them too.
The coach wound through the endless eastern suburbs of LA to our first stop, Palm Springs, a funny old place. Kind of like a big resort in the middle of desert, where a lot of old people go to retire or just for some winter sun, because it gets 350 days of sun annually (wouldn’t you get bored of the sun?). But it’s not completely your stereotypical old/rich/Republican’s playground as 7.2% of households belong to a same-sex couple (compared to a 1% American average), and Mayor Rod Oden, himself gay, estimated that around a third of the city is homosexual. As Urban dictionary rather crudely puts it: ‘Like golf, old people, heat and faggots?…Welcome to Palm Springs.’
We wondered around, had a margarita – why the fuck not? – and half-watched City celebrate winning the title, which I was impressed the Americans (and Aussies, Kiwis etc) had – just about – some knowledge of.
After that we drove on through the desert – past Joshua Tree National Park, but without really seeing it – to a place called Needles, the most easterly point in California, for Walmart and another break. The fact that there was actually a piece of tumbleweed blowing in the car park was pretty appropriate.
Then we stopped at a ‘ghost town’, this bizarre, tiny place called Oatman. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was hugely influential in the gold rush. But the US government shut down the mines in 1941 to produce other materials needed in the war effort. It struggled on for a while after, buoyed by travellers from US Route 66, but this was decommissioned in 1953 to make way for Interstate 40, and it was all but abandoned by the 60s. Over the years, other sections of US Route 66 were replaced until its eventual decommissioning in 1985. However – partly due to a yearning for the loss of the iconic east-west American highway and partly due to more prosaic concerns like paying the bills – people have come together to revive the road. Largely thanks to the work of Route 66 associations, buildings have been restored, the symbolic signage has been promoted and many sections have earned landmark status, all contributing to increased popularity and the survival of a big part of American culture and folklore.
So good for those involved. But it’s still weird. If you imagine the cheesy knock-off Wild West feel you’d get at a travelling fair or an amusement arcade, it’s basically that in a real place (‘bull-a-tin bored’ etc), with scattered properties housing about 128 people (figures from the 2000 census) and probably more wild donkeys. The donkeys casually roam the main street, fed by all the tourists, and a few them were, let’s say, pleased to see us. It was interesting for about half-an-hour, but god knows what it would be like to live there. We stopped a few other places similar, but not quite as strange, places, including Williams, Arizona, on which the movie Cars was based – and they had a couple of Cars cars there.
Then it was onto Laughlin (‘loff-lin’), described as a ‘mini Vegas’. It originated in the 1940s as the South Pointe – the southernmost tip of Nevada – as a motel and bar for the silver miners and construction workers building the Davis Dam a mile or so upriver. In the 50s the workers left and the town all but disappeared. But in 1964 an entrepreneurial fellow called Don Laughlin, who owned Vegas’ 101 club, saw potential in there and a few years later built a small hotel and casino. After a few years, it was heaving so more hotels and casinos followed in the 70s and 80s, and the neighbouring Bullhead City emerged as a place where many of the workers could live. Also – not that it’s got much relevance but it impressed me because I thought this stuff only happened in films – in April 2002 it played host to a deadly fight between rival California gangs, the Hells Angels and Mongols, in which three died and six were arrested.
We took a water taxi a bit up the river from our hotel to another, which was pretty cool as at night the hotels have these big, brilliant/awful neon displays on the riverfront. We went to this karaoke place where I think we were the youngest there by a good 20 years. Judging by their song choices – obscure country stuff – it might have been 30. One bloke sang a song called ‘Show Them to Me’ – ‘them’ being ‘titties’. (Sample lyrics: “All the world will live in harmony/ It’ll do you good, it’ll give me wood, we’ll make history/ If you love your country, I’m gonna say it one more time/ I said if you love your country yea/ Then stand your ass up and show them big old titties to me”.) Having looked up the original singer and seen it’s a country-singer-cum-comedian, who has also a written a song called ‘Letter To My Penis’, I’m pretty sure it’s meant at least somewhat satirically. But judging by this bloke’s dead-eyed glare, he looked like he meant every word from the heart – or penis. I sang Ring of Fire with two others. But it was a good laugh, especially seeing one of the guys semi-harassed by a cougarish 50+-year-old (I think) when duetting on the “dirty version” of a Sheryl Crow song. He politely declined her offer to come back to her hotel and…“play cards”, I think it was.
The next day – the Grand Canyon! I’ve tried to, like my favourite travel writer Bill Bryson, balance praise for an amazing country without becoming bowled over in arguably cliched, pretentious adulation. But you’ll have to excuse me for the Grand Canyon and Yosemite because they are just such breathtaking places.
I used to be very cynical about America’s often very stubborn belief in god, but I kind of understand it now I’ve seen some – just some – of the landscapes there. They’re so vast and beautiful that it’s arguably a bit miserly and killjoy to think of their existence as the arbitrary endpoint of perfectly explicable scientific process. Or maybe, like many atheists say, we should delight in the sheer fortuitous improbability of it all, including our own existence (winning the race against all those other sperm for a start), and gain wonder from that. I’m not entirely sure. My point is that I appreciate the strong instinctive, emotional pull the argument from nature has.
The drive to the South Rim takes you through the Kaibab national forest, a large plateau which makes the Grand Canyon all the more arresting. It’s the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen – a vast expanse detailing almost two billion years of the earth’s existence, painted in the vivid reds and oranges of the rock formations. You just don’t have anything that epic in the UK. It’s about the size of Wales (far longer but thinner).
After a while savouring the views, some of us got on the bus to the helicopter centre, Maverick Helicopters, for a flight over the canyon. I don’t know if the name was intended as a Top Gun reference, but I appreciated it.
We took off – with Ground Control to Major Tom in our ears, a great touch – and flew for about five miles over the flat Kaibab before the Grand Canyon came into view. When near it, you fly low over the trees and suddenly the ground just disappears beneath you, revealing the wonder below. As the pilot said, in a very pilot-y deep, husky voice, “welcome to the Grand Canyon…” Someone said afterwards it felt like her jaw dropped to the bottom of the canyon – and there was another 40 minutes or so of jaw-dropping views. Someone has done a good ten-minute edited video of a similar ride, and you can also Google Street view much of the Grand Canyon (and Yosemite), including hiking trails and all of the Colorado River through the canyon. But obviously there’s no substitute for the real thing, so I’d suggest not looking at too much as it would take away some of the mystique from going there.
To top it off, we went back to Yahavai Point to have pizza while watching the sun set over the canyon, lighting it up in the most brilliant shades of red and orange. Earlier, we’d all been encouraged to put our names in a hat to be the bride or groom for a Vegas wedding (I did) and the bloke secretly chosen selected this as the spot to ‘propose’. If the groom gets a real proposal anywhere near as good as that, she’ll be a lucky girl.
After a night in Flagstaff – near where Walt and Jesse rob the train, for any Breaking Bad fans – it was off to Vegas. It really is like nowhere else on earth; simultaneously a testament to the limits of human ingenuity and stupidity. Rivers in a hotel?! We can do that. A rollercoaster going in and out of a building?! AWESOME. Massive water consumption with water shows and pool parties in the middle of the desert, highest suicide rate in America and most people in Gamblers Anonymous?! FUCK YEAH…..oh, errrmmmm….. When visiting Vegas, it’s a good idea to check your brain in at the door. (In fact, I learnt that what you will probably know as Las Vegas is actually ‘Paradise City’ – an unincorporated city, as all the tycoons joined up to rename it for tax reasons and to stop Las Vegas officials annexing the strip. Las Vegas itself is, I can only assume, a semi-normal, functioning city alongside to Paradise City. But for sake of ease, I’ll just call Paradise City ‘Vegas’.)
Just being in Vegas, walking around, is exhausting. The author Tom Wolfe once wrote: “one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as five years.” Having never been, I can’t comment on the truth of that, but I do think the polar opposite is true of Vegas. There’s sights and noises everywhere and people offering you leaftets, vouchers or telling you do this and that every other second; Transformers, Elvises, Buzz Lightyears, blokes promoting their mixtapes, musicians, beggars, blokes promoting strippers and lap dances…to name but a few. It’s like an assault on all senses – including common sense (that one is my line, and I’m not going to lie, I’m quite proud of it). It is great, though – in small doses at least. I was there for two days and I – along with most others on the tour I think – couldn’t have handled much more. The sketch halfway through this episode of The Revolution Will Be Televised sums it perfectly.
Everyone thinks you spend so much in Vegas, and you certainly can. But you can see so much for free, just walking along the strip and around hotels. ‘Around’ is the right word, because they’re big enough to get lost in – intentionally, so you spend money. The best I saw were the MGM Grand, The Venetian, with renaissance architecture and a Venice-replicating canal system, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a two-thirds size Arc De Triomphe and a half size (165m) Eiffel Tower growing out of the main lobby. A few of the maddest I didn’t see properly were Caesar’s Palace and, perhaps the most spectacular/insane, the Luxor Las Vegas. It’s a huge dark bronze pyramid, with “inclinator” lifts scaling the sides, topped by a spotlight beaming a light into the night sky, thought to be brightest in the world. Apparently, they wanted the hotel to be even taller than 36 stories but couldn’t due to the beam’s light, which is said to be visible from LA 275 miles away, obscuring vision for pilots landing at nearby McCarran International. It also has a 43m-high obelisk and a replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza which is actually taller than the real thing!
I knew it would be mad – it was madder – but what impressed me was how good everything was. I thought this kind of stuff would seem like cheap knock-offs, but it really didn’t. Of course, they’re importing culture artificially, mostly in service off getting you drunk and penniless – which you could convincingly argue represents the nadir of civilisation. But the least you can say is that the architects of that downfall are geniuses, in their own unique way, and that if the road to hell is paved with, if not good intentions, then at least a fuckload of fun.
…Not least shooting an AK-47. There is absolutely no reason why a white-middle class person with an office job from southeast England needs to shoot an AK-47. But I did, and, after some nervousness, it’s a fucking awesome feeling. We walked into this place, Discount Firearms & Ammo, and were met by seemingly every gun under the sun. If you’ve ever had the dubious fortune to be in a Sports World store, it’s about as packed full of stuff as that is – just with guns instead of cheap sports gear.
The guy teaching us was this eccentric 50-something Republican (that was fairly clear) gun nut. Nice guy, but a bit odd. He’d go from saying the most serious point about safety to light-hearted banter in a second, even when you were actually shooting. It wasn’t that I had any big doubts about the place’s attitude to safety, but seeing – and hearing, because it’s bloody loud – half a dozen people shoot lethal weapons didn’t really prepare for me jokes, about violent places in the UK for example (“you got Shottingham…”). Apparently, I was “a pretty good shot for a quiet guy”.
Guns, guns, guns! Guns galore!
The best way to describe the feeling is just POWER, which could bring out the excitable, infantile 10-year-old kid in most people I reckon. Certainly did for me. But, with at least some hypocrisy, I do find American gun laws and culture ridiculous. One of the girls in our group shot a gun, but, because she was not yet 21 (20), couldn’t drink or gamble in Vegas. (Although a good point someone made was that America’s drinking age is higher largely to stop drinking-and-driving which is more likely in America due to its geography – longer distances tempting youngsters to take the wheel when they shouldn’t.)
Just four days after I was back, Elliot Rodger – a mentally troubled young man with a vendetta against the world, or at least the women of it – went on a killing spree and killed six people. And later, a nine-year-old girl in a shooting range like I was at shot and killed the instructor because she could not handle the recoil from the uzi she was handling. Which begs the question: WHAT THE FUCK IS A NINE-YEAR-OLD GIRL DOING SHOOTING AN UZI?! The National Rifle Association Women Twitter account chose to focus on other things. Less than two days later it tweeted a link to an article entitled ‘7 ways children can have fun at the shooting range’, which would be morally dubious at the best of times. And this was not the best of times. Although, in truth, the case wasn’t unusual – an Everytown for Gun Safety report found over a child a week died in a firearms accident in America between 2007 and 2011.
Anyway, on a lighter note – the Vegas nightlife. The first night one of those stretch Hummer party bus things had been booked, which was pretty darn sweet. It took us various places including the infamous Vegas sign and a wedding chapel, for the “wedding” after the Grand Canyon proposal, which was great fun. The Elvis taking the ceremony packed in all the puns – “do you promise to love her tender, be a big hunk of love and never lead her to Heartbreak Hotel or have suspicious minds?” etc. etc. etc., and it all ended ten minutes later with everyone breaking into dance. Before, we’d chatted briefly to some locals who were getting properly married there, so for all I know the bride and groom, both Aussies, may now be legally wed in Nevada, America.
After that, Pure at Caesar’s Palace. (At least I think it was. Vegas is baffling enough sober, let alone fairly drunk…). It was good, if not as spectacular as I’d expected. Much better, apparently, was Light at Mandalay Bay. I say apparently because I wimped out tired and so just heard the stories, of blokes rocking up with $1,000 dollars folded up, standing on a raised platform and ‘making it rain’ on people below. Proper hip-hop video shit. Apparently, these guys are a regular fixture. Some of the girls got about $60 or $70 dollars. Not bad.
I also went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Ka (partly why I was so knackered – it was tiring just trying to work out what was going on). I went along with others thinking it would be alright but ‘just a load of blokes prancing about in tights’. There were quite a few tights, but it was absolutely incredible – people swinging 50m across the stage from balcony to balcony; using pegs to run up this twisting, sometimes vertical stage; running in and atop kind of hamster balls on the end of an axis, being rotated 360 degrees and about 50 feet in the air; ballet-like fighting; and colourful costumes. And all without fucking up even once or slightly, to my eye at least. It’s hard to describe, but by all means watch this video – or even better just go. They’re coming to the Royal Albert Hall with Kazoo from January.
Yosemite and leaving via San Francisco
So as I said, Vegas is great, but just two days there and you’ll probably feel in need of some kind of spiritual cleansing. So it was good to be off to Yosemite – like the Grand Canyon, a place of nature so magnificent it leaves you grasping for superlatives. (Word to wise, it’s “Yo – sem – it – ee”, not “Yose – might” as a few people think.)
Most of the drive there, though, was very dull, frankly – desert with some far away hills. It’s true this can give off a nostalgic draw of the Wild West and a romantic sense of freedom; the ‘open road’. Or it can offer space to look out of the window, contemplate and think about life, as characters in indie films often do. But this appeal faded for me after about an hour, and it just went back to boring.
Tioga Pass, the road right through Yosemite, is stunning, though – a mix of dense forest, snowy mountains, stunning valley vistas, waterfalls, running rivers and crystal clear lakes (one is so clear that it mirrors the landscape – Mirror Lake, appropriately). With such scenery it’s easy to see how it’s inspired almost religious devotion in many. A man called Galen Clark was one of the first to lobby to protect it due to its beauty. With the help of Senator John Conness and President Abraham Lincoln, he succeeded in making it the first land set aside specifically “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation” – a state park managed by California. (It’s the first protected environment in the world, but not officially the first national park because Yellowstone was granted protection in 1872 but had no state government to manage it.)
Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, founder of the environmental group Sierra Club and “father of the national parks”, was also instrumental in its history. Believing the park was mismanaged under state control, he lobbied government for it to be under federal control, even taking President Theodore Roosevelt to hike and camp in the backwoods to convince him of its beauty in 1903. It obviously worked, as Roosevelt said: “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of the man.” And three years later Muir’s wishes were granted. Ansel Adams also merits a mention in the earlier preservation efforts, for his campaigning and stunning black-and-white photography of the park.
Thankfully, Yosemite – and the Grand Canyon too – seems to have stayed true to this ethos to this day, and does not absolutely teem with tourists. (Granted I was only there for a day, but this judgement comes more from speaking to an American on the tour who had worked there as a park ranger.) So it’s justifiably celebrating 150 years of preservation this year.
We went all the through the park to Mariposa, a small town a few miles out of Yosemite in its western foothills, had (a very nice) dinner at a restaurant and got to bed early to get up early for Yosemite the next day. The road from the west snakes into the park scenically along a river and then into Yosemite Valley, the bit where most visitors go, with well-known spots including the spectacular Yosemite Falls, rock climbers’ mecca El Capitan and Half Dome. I chose to do the Mist Trail, which climbs first Vernal Fall then Nevada Fall, snaking side to side on the Merced River. It’s so named because, sometimes, the water from Vernal Fall crashes against the rocks below and creates this mist even at the steps 10/20 metres above the plunge pool. And if you’re really lucky in there being a good amount of water in the river and it being a sunny day, as we were, the combination creates a majestic rainbow across the waterfall. Not only that but the mist, which felt like rain in parts, was quite refreshing and dried off quickly in the 25 degree heat.
The summit of Nevada Fall has a jaw-dropping view – mighty granite rising hundreds of metres near vertically out of the ground, the Merced River and towering pine trees below and, to the right, Liberty Cap rock rising a further 300m – 2,160m above sea level. (Don’t get too close to the edge, though. There’s a half-refreshing, half-alarming lax attitude to safety, as most of the edge is unfenced. Unfortunately, there have been several deaths because of this, and people getting caught swimming in the river at the top.) If the world was created by God – which I doubt but concede is possible – He was obviously in a good mood when he made Yosemite.
That night we had we had a neon/Irish/80s night (chosen theme to vote on, and we just ended up picking the ‘all of the above’ option) – which went down surprisingly well in the small town of Mariposa. Granted, about a third were American anyway and it’s a small town in liberal-, Democrat-leaning California – not Texas – but still I think it fits into what I was saying about Americans’ welcoming nature. I don’t know if you’d get a similarly warm reaction in a lot of rural places in Britain to a load of drunk tourists. I’d like to think so, but Ukip’s rising popularity might suggest otherwise.
The next day it was on to San Francisco for the end of the tour, and all the farewells – sentimental but with good reason because they were all cool people, and far from the awful gap yah stereotype. (I don’t think these types are very common but they do exist – they probably tend towards Southeast Asia and Africa for ‘spiritual enlightenment’). And all of the in-training North Americans got the job, which was good. That evening, I went for a BBQ on the Ocean Beach with one of the North Americans who lived – kind of – in San Francisco. There was beer, burgers, good company, miles of clean sand and a golden bright sunset over the Pacific; the type of atmosphere that makes one fall in love with a place. If I had my pick of cities to live in in the States, it would probably be San Fran.
I began the long flight began the next day, where it actually rained after three full weeks of glorious sun and hot-but-not-too-hot 25 degree temperatures. I’m sure there was pathetic fallacy in that. But I wasn’t really depressed to be going home; three weeks had been long enough to see some amazing places and meet some amazing people. And – partly because I try to think this way – travelling has made appreciate things about the UK with the eyes of a tourist, rather than someone who has just got used to a place or someone stressed and rushing to get to work.
If anything, having been to America only served to make the country seem like more of a mystery. Indeed, it doesn’t feel like that much of a country at all – kind of like 50 countries. Even in the quarter of the country I went there were vast differences – the chilled out cosmopolitanism of Seattle; the hippy mecca of Portland; the small town wilderness of Klamath Falls; the eccentricity and diversity of San Francisco and Los Angeles and the Vegasness of Vegas. One thing I can be reasonably sure of, though, is that you will not be disappointed if you visit America (West Coast at least).
It’s both of one of the greatest and worst places in the world. Mostly one of the greatest, though. They’ve been telling us that for long enough, haven’t they…