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STEP IT UP! USA Travelogue 2005 - Parts 7-11

  • Submitted by: Steve Roach, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 26th May 2006


7 - Snowmobiling
8 - VIA Rail Part Two, Vancouver
9 - Washington, Oregon, California
10 - San Francisco
11 - Big Sur
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7 - SNOWMOBILING
We dress up with thermal underwear and our big coats, and wait for our pickup. The tv weather report says British Colombia is experiencing floods and a mudslide.
British Colombia is where we are headed.
We get picked up by Big Al, driving a people-carrier with about four or five other strangers in there. He takes us all to a clothes shop to rent some winter waterproofs, and then we hit the very icy road heading west. Pretty soon, we’re going up and down the treacherous mountain roads. Al’s choice of music - some Canadian Country and Western by the sound of it - was appalling, but we we‘re stuck with it.

Ralph is an old guy, probably only about fifty-five, who comes out to greet us. He speaks exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I almost asked him to say something like “My name is not Quaid!” or “You blew my cover! I’ll kill you all!” but stopped myself just in time. He takes our group into a warm portakabin office and goes over our kit. He’s not too happy about our choice of clothing, and isn‘t afraid to let Big Al know. Some of us have the wrong type of boots, or gloves, or whatever. For a moment I think he’s not going to let us go on the tour, but he gives us all helmets and starts up the safety talk.

To get used to the machines, we do a few figure eights around the nearby field. Steph and I are on a double, with me driving, and the others are all on singles. We’re shown how to distribute our weight when turning, and shown some basic hand signals - slow down, stopping, everything is OK, and so on.
It’s rather like a combination of go-karting and motorcycling. Being so low to the ground, snowmobiles have a way of making you feel you’re going a lot faster than you actually are. It’s ace. Our big double sled is surprisingly easy to tip over, so I’m glad of this time to get used to it a little bit.
Just as I start to get bored, we’re off. We shoot towards the woods and start picking up speed. These machines are amazing. We’re travelling over a rough track, littered with all kinds of unseen forest detritus covered in a layer of snow, and the skidoos roar along quite happily, never protesting even when things get really bumpy. They accelerate with enough force to push you right back in your seat, and within seconds you can be tearing along at a heck of a speed.
I managed to get the skidoo up to forty mph on a few brief bursts, and we we‘re both laughing until our heads we‘re about to fall off. Mostly though, I’d guess we kept to a steady twenty-five or so, slowing right down for the sharper corners, or when we needed to pass between markers with more precision. With all this concentrating and shifting and leaning into corners, it’s quite a physical day.

We see wolf tracks. Ralph and a couple of the others actually see a wolf chasing two deer through the forest, but we missed them. We often find ourselves at a halt, alone in the woods on a mountain. I start to wonder if a snowmobile can outrun a bear.

For two hours, everything is just great. Then, the coat and waterproof trousers defence starts failing. The constant rain has worked it’s way through, and now the whole thing becomes more like hard work. We’re both soaked and starving. On the frequent stops, we get seriously cold. We halt at about 2000ft and Ralph points up, to the next mountain.
“We’re going derr,” he says.
We head on up and the track gets a lot tougher - tight bends and high drops, some only a couple of feet away in places. As we tear along, the track sometimes causes the skidoo to slide a bit too close to a sheer drop, and that was always a fun moment.
We hit a patch of slushy ice and that’s where the trouble starts. People get stuck. We all manage to get a bit further and then the ice starts to clog up some of the skidoos. Ralph calls a halt and starts fiddling with the first machine to break down, turning it on its back to start clearing the inner workings of slush.
He’s a lovely man, and a great guide, but he handles this situation all wrong. The rest hut isn’t too far away from here, and instead of organising our immediate relocation, he keeps us all standing in the ice and snow, soaking and shivering with the cold, whilst he fucks about with this one skidoo. By now we are literally drenched, and Steph is quietly crying because she’s so cold.
We are there for over half an hour. As Ralph fucks about, the other snowmobiles start conking out, one by one. I start muttering a few choice words, not understanding why he needs everybody to stay out here when there’s shelter about five minutes away. And now he has more than one machine to sort out, and he starts going from one to the other, starting them up and then waiting so long to get going that they start conking out again.
Eventually, he’s happy and we all get going, straight to that hut. It’s a lot smaller than I expected, and nobody had been there for days so there were huge drifts of snow to negotiate.
Inside, it’s not much warmer. Ralph gets a fire going pretty quickly and we all start stripping off our wet gear. Before long, garments are hanging off the backs of chairs and wall pegs, all of them steaming as they begin the long process of drying out. My ass is soaked. Pants, thermals, jeans and waterproof trousers makes four layers of ass-wringing wetness. Despite my best efforts, and plenty of time in rotation with the others in front of the fire, my clothes stay wet.
We are 6200ft up, so we’ve done pretty well. The rain has turned to snow again, so at least something is going right. We eat our packed lunches and only then do we start to chat and relax a little bit.
The group is a nice mix. There’s a young guy from the UK who has been travelling the world, a Brazilian guy who we later meet again in Vancouver, and a German couple who are somewhat reserved and yet authoritative at the same time. Then there’s Big Al, who recommends we go all the way down to Baja, California just to try some hamburger joint. We ask if we can smoke in the hut, and everyone is okay with that, which was a relief.
I’m amazed when Ralph tells us we’ve already travelled over twenty miles to get here.
An hour later, about 4pm by now, we put our damp clothes back on and set off on the trip back down the mountain. We’re already cold and wet so we can only accept that we’re going to get colder and wetter with a kind of miserable defeatism. I was just hoping we made it back before it got dark, mainly because of the drops, because I no longer gave a shit about the wolves or the bears.
The trip back is pretty fast and workmanlike, and the descent speed allows us to get through the soggy ice patches without any problems. Now we can really push the speed on some of the flat stretches, and the pace generally gets faster the further we descend. Back at the office, I have a go on a single seater machine, just to see what it feels like.

The drive back is dreadful. If I thought hurtling along an icy mountain was dangerous, that’s nothing to what we went through getting back to Jasper. We knew the road was about to be closed down for the night because of the appalling conditions, which had seriously deteriorated into a maelstrom of sleet and rain. The police are literally putting up the ‘Road Closed’ signs as we pass through. Big Al drives exceptionally well, handling more than a few hairy moments with reassuring competence. A couple of times the ice sends us slewing towards the barrier, but he manages to keep us on the road, more or less, and after two crazy hours we are back in Jasper.
We strip our gear off and drape it over the fixtures and fittings to dry. Despite all the hardship, it was a great day, and it would become my favourite time of the entire trip. I remember thinking at one point about the people back home. With an eight hour time difference here, they were probably eating their dinners by the tv. We were snowmobiling through the Rocky Mountains. It’s moments like that that make you realise that you’re doing something really special.




8 - VIA RAIL PART TWO and VANCOUVER

The next morning we get a lift in the hotel shuttle bus to the launderette. I say launderette, but it also doubled as an internet café, so you can drink a latte and surf the web as your washing gets done. What a great idea. After a few hours, washing and drying and packing our bags back down, we went to the train station and checked in the luggage. The train, due at 2pm, is at least an hour late. There’s a shocker.
We go and have a late breakfast at a place next to the Whistler Inn. It’s cheap, and enormous, and lovely. Steph has what appears to be a burger with all the trimmings, but the burger itself was the cap of a gigantic Portobello mushroom. That’s another great idea, but it’s a pity they have to happen in the middle of nowhere.

The train arrives, then spends an age fucking about attaching another three carriages. Back and forth, back and forth, they seem to be doing it one coach at a time. The trains may be comfortable, and clean, and everything you’d ever want in a train, but the dawdling is a killer.
When we eventually board, it’s nice to dump the coats and settle in, but it’s not the same feeling as the first time. The VIA Rail hymen has been broken. There are a lot of rowdy old folk here, and most of them seem to be Brits. The kind of loud, sixty-something pisshead types who usually winter in the Costa del Sol. We get away from the noise by heading for the Observation Car, but that’s packed full of forty-something pisshead Brit fuckers. Probably the kids.
There are too many people on the train this time around. It’s dark at six, so we see virtually nothing of the mountains again. We think we can get to the Obs Car early tomorrow morning, and catch the last few peaks in daylight, and make plans to rise early.
The VIA Rail staff look at us for that extra half second as we walk the length of the Silver and Blue Class back to our seats. It’s the hair, it has to be. At dinner, sitting with an elderly pleasant Brit couple (abstainers, I think), I catch sight of my reflection in the window. What the fuck have I done?

It’s a long night. The train kept getting delayed for God-only-knows what reasons, and we arrive at Kamloops something like an hour and a half later than we should have. Close to the front of the train, we sit in the Bingo carriage and wait patiently. I watch the GPS count down the last few miles to the station. An elderly couple come and join us, and the conversation veers around to cigarettes and smoking, and then thankfully to travelling. This guy seems to have been all over. He talks and talks and talks. When we chip in with something, he seems to ignore it and then rejoins his own monologue. His wife looks patiently on, not saying much at all. Maybe it’s just his way of dealing with the wait.
The guard says he’s only going to open the one door, which happens to be at the other end of the Coach Class section. We bustle our way through sleeping plebs, sprawled out anywhere they can get comfortable, and trip over bags and legs and anything else left lying around. Outside, it’s freezing, but we bravely stick it out long enough for two cigarettes. After hours of not smoking, and then suddenly smoking two in a row, we feel pretty vile.

I can’t get to sleep. I put my headphones on, play some music and spend a long time looking out of the window from the lower bunk. From my dark womb, I see a world of silvers and blues, of ice and still bodies of frozen water, and a world of plunging chasms. I see the realm of wolves and bears. I see the icy, methane slush of Titan. It’s all beautiful, in a vicious way. The realm of some fairytale Ice Queen. I consider waking Steph up but don’t, thinking she’d have preferred the sleep, but it’s a decision I now regret. For the things we see on the trip, this hour of icy wonder is one of the things that leaves a strong impression.

The morning call for breakfast is about six am. We try to sleep through people being really noisy as they pass by to the dining car. Steph wakes me an hour or so later and we go and join the only other couple in the car, directed to their table by an over-zealous waiter.
Sometimes, you just want to be on your own.
Afterwards, we go to the Obs Car but it’s full. People were sleeping in there last night. Now, the train smells. I’m so glad we had the experience of a half-empty train from Toronto to Jasper. It’s just a totally different experience. I wanted to return one day, to do a Summer trip, a world of greens and blue lakes instead of all the ice and snow, but all these people give me doubts.

We reach the edge of Vancouver. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this pretty little city. I forget who told us that. Whoever it was, they were wrong, at least for the approach. For half an hour, we are treated to a vignette of industrialised wasteland, graffiti, dirty concrete, ugly back yards and litter infested embankments.
We change the last of the traveller cheques and I enquire about trains to Seattle. There aren’t any. There have been mudslides in the Vancouver area and there are no trains to Seattle for two days whilst they clear the tracks. So the roads are out in Jasper, the trains are out here - this is turning into quite an adventure.
Get a cab to the hotel, through the downtown area and across the Lions Gate Bridge. It‘s foggy here, but there’s a hint of mountains. I get an inkling why, on a sunny day, Vancouver could be quite a scenic little part of the world. But not today.
We get to the hotel and they don’t want us to check in until 3pm, four long hours away. We’re dog tired and ready to drop. The hotel accept our bags and we look around the attached shopping mall.
At a newsagents, Steph passes me ‘Glutes’ and I wonder what I’m looking at until I spot ‘For men who like women’s asses’ on the cover. I didn’t spot it immediately as I was too busy looking at the woman’s ass. Inside, it’s like a porno magazine but the women keep their clothes on. I’m not sure what the point is. Canada can sometimes be a bit too weird.
At Starbucks we look at a few leaflets and decide to go see the Capilano Suspension Bridge. We take a cab straight there and like what we find. There’s an open area full of huge, brightly coloured totem poles. Canada has a solid Native Indian history, something I wasn’t expecting. Their legacy lives on in tat shops and places like this.
The bridge itself stretches across a deep gorge, and is indeed ‘suitably wobbly’, a description found on the leaflet. We cross it a couple of times, and look around the smaller bridges and lookout posts on the far side. One section has small bridges that take you through the canopy of some huge trees, like a little Ewok hideaway.
After a relaxing couple of hours, we head back to the hotel and get directed to a non-smoking room. The mix-up is quickly sorted out and we get led to a room at the far end of the hotel. When we walk through the door, we’re left standing with our jaws hanging. The room is enormous, more like a suite, and one whole end forms a bay of windows that look right out across the bay.
‘Wow’ just isn’t good enough.
There’s a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, so Steph jumps in whilst I flop on the bed and fall asleep.
Later, we go out for a curry. Steph has been missing her Indian food. We get a cab to a restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist, and Steph is drooling by the time we sit down. It’s something of a downer when she then finds a bit of chicken in her prawn curry, a no-no freebie for a vegetarian (who eats prawns). I have no problem complaining and she’s soon brought a new meal, but she’s rightly suspicious of any further culinary fuck-ups.
Back at the hotel, we walk around the bay area for a while before heading up to the room.
Vancouver is the first place since New York that isn’t covered in snow. There’s nothing but rain here, but it’s much too warm for the heavy boots and parka coat. The thing about this kind of gear is that it doesn’t fold down too well, so too much luggage becomes a problem again.
We leave Canada tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed it so far, but I’d like to come back one day, perhaps further north. Maybe go on an icebreaker, head up and see the Northern Lights. And see the East, Nova Scotia and that area.




9 - WASHINGTON, OREGON and CALIFORNIA

The reason the reasonably inexpensive hotel room was so priced became apparent by eleven pm, became a pain by 12am, then a fucking out and out annoyance at 1pm. Loud, crap techno pop music was blasting out from the bar right beneath our room, and didn’t stop until gone 2am.
And then it was another early morning start, up at six-forty-five am after a minimum amount of sleep. We quickly pack up and leave, catching a cab to the main train station and catching a Thruway Bus to Seattle.
The customs people are really friendly on the way back into the States, and we’re through in a couple of minutes. We have a smoke as the rest of the party comes through. Back on board, I fall asleep immediately, and am woken by the driver’s voice announcing our arrival in Seattle.
Seeing as we’re there, we decide to look around Seattle for a while and pick up the new hire car later. We have a quick coffee and snack at a café, and then walk downhill into the main shopping district.
We buy some cheap clothes from an Old Navy store, and can’t resist the temptation to buy some books from Barnes and Noble. It’s hard to resist when you can get a bag of books for literally half the price it costs back home. There’s not much else we want to do here, so we pick up the car and head South, all the way through Washington state into Oregon. In no particular order, we see:
Road. Trees. Rain. Repeat until Portland.
That’s Washington for you.
However, we did see one amazing thing - a huge poster by the side of the road, where an Uncle Sam figure angrily says: WELCOME TO AMERICA - NOW SPEAK ENGLISH! We spend a few miles wondering what to make of it. In a country full of people who do everything they can to avoid political incorrectness, this billboard seemed to have been beamed down from outer space, but it’s just a sharp reminder that America is not the place we think it will be. From the UK, our view of this place is very stereotyped and simple. It turns out that a lot of what we know, or think we know, is wrong.

We passed by Portland just as it was getting dark. It looked really nice but we don’t stop, carrying on across the border into Oregon. As we were in Canada this morning, and in Oregon now, that means we covered the entire state of Washington today, even after stopping for a few hours in Seattle. And who said America was a big place?
Mind, we haven’t stopped to eat today. We check into a Comfort Inn at a place called Tualatin, and I immediately go to bed to catch up on missed sleep. It’s no good. We get dressed and go out. I don’t take the GPS, not knowing what the local mugger population is like, and we wander around what seems to be an industrial estate, lightly sprinkled with shops and restaurants. We see a Chinese but Steph doesn’t want one, so we carry on walking, trying not to get lost, waiting for ages to cross dark streets and junctions. We find pretty much nothing until the familiar read glow of a Pizza Hut logo, and go there immediately.
We came a long way today. The trade off is that we didn’t do much. That will be the equation for the whole trip. Obvious really, but our route will cover thirty of the fifty states in the next three months, and such a timescale will inevitably be a trade of interesting things against distance covered. There’s nothing we can do about it but make sure we have a good time when we do stop somewhere.
On the way back, we stop at a video store and buy 4 videos for twenty dollars. We noticed the room tonight came with a VCR and assume other motels will too. However, when we get back, Steph decides she wants to watch a tv movie instead - ‘Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’.
Fucking hell.

Steph wakes me up at nine-thirty the next morning. I am knackered. We go down for a self-service breakfast and find a make-your-own waffle machine. The mix is already done, in polystyrene cups, and you just have to pour it into the griddle and turn it over after thirty seconds. Instant waffle. They aren’t bad.
Newport is our first stop. Before we go down to the Bay area, where numerous brightly coloured ‘Ripleys Believe it or Not!’ billboards over the last fifty miles or so have enticed us to visit at any cost, we go into a Dollar Tree store as the gravitational pull is too much to resist. Wow. The entire store is full of absolute crap. I love it. We spend about twelve dollars in here, just caught up in the delirium of buying all this stuff we don’t need but can’t turn down because it’s so cheap. I am a consumerist robot, and the dollar shops short my circuits and send me crazy. Afterwards, like always, I emerge from the shop and the haze clears from my mind and I’m left holding two carrier bags and thinking “What the fuck did I buy this lot for?”
We head down to the Bay. It’s a working fish port, which means it stinks. We see the Ripleys, and it’s on the main drag with a few other attractions, so we decide to do the tourist thing and stay here for a few hours.
First we go to the waxworks place. A collection of fairly indistinguishable wax dummies have been dressed to look like famous people. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t. On to Ripleys! It was full of really old, really bad exhibits. What a disappointment. I’d been looking forward to seeing a Ripleys since I first knew about them, and now we’re here it seems like a bad joke. I hope the other ones are better, because this one SUCKS.
The underwater marine place, the third of the trilogy of big attractions around here, that was pretty dire as well. It’s basically an aquarium, and you can see a number of marine exhibits swimming around ignoring you, and the whole thing is rather dull. The experience is momentarily brightened when a diver appears and holds up various exhibits as an employee narrates. As the talk is scripted, the diver sometimes has to go off searching for a certain fishy critter, and ended up playing chase a few times.

We drive along the Oregon coast for a while. It’s beautiful, long open stretches of grassy coastline, sandy beaches, and panoramic views from the cliff tops. Every now and then we pass blue signs - TSUNAMI HAZARD ZONE - which have a little extra impact because the Indonesian disaster happened right before we left England.
We stop at a motel in Florence. There’s no VCR, but the guy in the office kindly lends us his from the office and rigs it up in the room. After a brief sleep, we wake up and watch ‘Dodgeball’, one of the videos we picked up at Tualatin.
The motel is just like the ones we’ve seen on tv. Park right outside the door. Basic rooms. Thin walls - you can hear the person next door when they cough.

We’re still at the stage of the trip when rising early is the natural thing to do. Get up, get out, hit the highways.
This part of the Pacific Highway is gorgeous, and we glide along for about five hours straight. Great to drive, boring to explain. There were some beautiful properties around these parts, the kind you dream about when you cash in that winning lottery ticket.
We stop at a combination KFC/Taco Bell for lunch. The KFC portion is generous, and they seem to have bigger chickens than we do back in the UK. It’s the first time I haven’t been able to polish off one of their meals, there’s just too much. And, keeping up with the generosity, Steph even gets a free piece of plastic bag inside her Taco veggie wrap. She doesn’t finish hers, either.
We soon drive over the border into California, and stop at the State sign for a photo. It’s the beginning of a small side-Odyssey, whereby we manage to build a collection of photos beneath most of the State signs we stop by. Some happen to be pretty cool, some hardly seem worth the bother, but it keeps us entertained.
Not much further along, we have to stop because a huge stag wants to cross the road. There’s time enough for it to take a leisurely stroll as I rummage around for the camera, and then a big truck comes belting over the horizon and startles it into a run. That’s the moment I take the picture - a stag in flight. It’s a great shot, the kind you’d see in National Geographic. The beautiful thing about America is that these picture opportunities crop up everywhere.

We stop at the Redwood Info Centre and get some free maps. Another great thing about America is the sheer amount of free information you can get if you’re a tourist. Each State has a Tourist Information Centre, usually about a mile over the border on a main highway, and they have accommodation leaflets, discount motel magazines full of vouchers, and State road maps. We have GPS, but it’s nice to unfold a huge piece of paper and see the true scale of what you’re getting into.
We couldn’t get to the giant Redwoods because a tree had fallen and blocked the road in. Instead, we drive the Avenue of the Giants, a long stretch of road lined with enormous trees on either side. About twenty miles in, we notice with horror that the gas tank is almost empty. The GPS says the nearest gas station is 18m away and we have a tense quarter of an hour getting there.
We make it, fill up, then carry onto a place called Garberville. We’ve done a lot of miles today, nearly three hundred and fifty, and we’re both tired. There are four or five motels here, and we check out which is the cheapest and stop there. Big mistake. It’s a shithole. The proprietor is Indian (not the Native American kind) and the reception stinks of curry. That’s fine, we kind of miss the smell. But the room is pokey, and the neighbours must have been rounded up from local farms and asylums. Next door, we hear three or four people arguing loudly, and one guy shouts “BOOM!” and there’s talk of gunfire.
Jesus.
‘Meet The Fockers’ is on the local cinema at seven-thirty and we’re forced to leave our gear in the room whilst we go. I spend half the film worrying about getting burgled. When we emerge, back out into the darkness, there are no restaurants open. We get the car, relieved to find it still there, and drive to nearby Redwood, a small town also with no open restaurants. There’s a supermarket open, so we nip in for a few snacks, including a packet of crisps made from apples and flavoured with cinnamon. We saw a Subway back in Garberville, and head back. This nationwide sandwich store will become a last resort in many places, but not here. It closed at ten. When you can’t even get a Subway sandwich, you know you’re in trouble. We end up going to a market next to the motel, just for some bread and cheese to make our own damn sandwiches, but that was closed as well.
Defeated, we go back to our room. Now it’s dark, there’s a real shitty vibe about the place, even worse than before. I kind of wanted to experience a rough motel, it’s just one of the things you’d expect to do out here, but now we’re in one the attraction has lost it’s flavour. I don’t have any qualms about our personal safety, and until we get into trouble in Georgia that kind of thing is never a problem, it’s more the inconvenience of leaving our stuff if we go anywhere and wondering if it will still be there when we get back.
We eat some apple crisps. At least we saved some money on restaurant bills.
The tv says the worst storm of fifty years has hit the Northeast - Rhode Island, New Jersey and Massachussetts have all declared states of emergency! The screen shows deep snowdrifts and people stranded in all sorts of dire circumstances. Twelve people have died so far. It all seems so inconceivable - we were there just over a week ago - but we soon learn that there’s always a meteorological disaster occurring somewhere on the continent, and thankfully it’s always somewhere we’re not getting to for a while or somewhere we’ve just been.

10 - SAN FRANCISCO

We pack up and get the fuck out of there early. A small cat was hanging around last night, and Steph left a small bowl of milk out in a rush of pity. It’s still there, peering out from under someone’s car. The milk’s gone, but with our neighbours there’s no telling that the cat got to drink it.
We have about 200m to drive today, to San Francisco. Luckily, we’re happily driving along with a few miles under our belts by ten o’clock. We do a hundred or so miles through rich green land covered in forest and cut with rivers and cliffs. It’s beautiful. Then it gets a bit more built up, and gradually more lanes are added to the highway and soon it’s concrete all the way.

We get excited about the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re in America, we’re still alive and doing OK, and we’re about to drive over a landmark recognisable the world over. The actuality of the crossing was pretty dull.
We drive around SF for a while, getting a feel for the place. We decide to get a hotel near the centre, and spend an interminable 90mins criss-crossing the city trying to find something reasonably priced that allows smoking. In the end, we’re back by the Bay, and Steph spots an Internet Café and we pull over. Within ten minutes of logging on, we have booked a cheap hotel and are all set. Unfortunately, this lesson was one that didn’t sink in. We should have taken note, rushed straight out and bought a cheap laptop, because finding an Internet ready pc becomes a huge problem all over America.
We find the hotel, a Best Western, and park up. With all our gear lugged over to the check-in, we’re told that it’s the wrong hotel. The street is so long that there are two Best Westerns, and so we put everything back in the car and drive across town. There’s no parking. On top of the $111 for the room, they want us to give the valet $28 to park the car. I say no offence but I’ll park it myself, for free. Inside, the reception guy - who obviously takes his holidays in Provincetown - tells me the parking is across town and it’s $15 once you get there. I’m forced to eat shit and get the valet to park for me, I don’t want to mess about.
We dump our bags in the room, which is positively opulent after the Garberville motel, and head out into San Francisco. We stop at a nice restaurant and Steph has a pasta dish whilst I plump for a chicken, bacon and avacado salad. It’s our first proper meal in days.

We decide to stay another day, but not at this hotel. The Fisherman’s Wharf area sounds nice. We wake up at ten, pack up and check out.
The new weather reports are quite worrying. The Sierra Nevada is expecting a deluge of eight inches of snow. Boston’s $7m snow budget for the year is almost gone already. Last weekend alone, they had seven inches of snow. If it snows today, all records will be broken. Cape Cod is expecting another ten inches. Due to it’s proximity to Boston, I guess those records are going to be rewritten.
Mount St. Helens’ dome is growing upward by 33 feet PER DAY! Scientists are ‘concerned’.
On a non-weather note, an SUV has strayed onto a line and caused a rail crash in California. The driver is to be charged with ten counts of murder.

After checking into the new hotel, we dump our stuff and go straight down to the Bay front and Fisherman’s Wharf area. It’s very nice, a bit like Blackpool I guess. We mooch around the shops for a while. Mostly, like we’ll find in many places we visit, the shops are full of the same old shit, just with different place names on it. And most of this junk - some of which is fantastic, by the way - seems to have been made in China.
You can see Alcatraz Island clearly from the Bay, and also from pretty much any high vantage point on this side of the city. The last tour went at 2:30pm, so we book one for 9:30am the following morning. It takes two hours and you get to walk around the prison. It doesn’t look that far out, so I guess the currents between us and it must be pretty damn strong if no one reportedly escaped and lived.
We go to Pier 39, and there’s a ton of tourist shops and restaurants there, more so than the other piers. Hundreds of sea lions bask and bark and stink the place out from dozens of floating jettys, appropriately enough, right outside the ‘Sea Lion Restaurant/Café’.
The first shop we go into sells sweets, loads of different kinds, many of them in fantastic packaging. There are guitar shaped tins with Elvis on the front, full of mints. There are glasses-case sized metal containers stamped with various San Francisco graphics, full of chocolate drops, which turn out to be some of the finest chocolate America has to offer.
The other shops are worth a couple of hours of our time. There’s a movie paraphernalia store, for some reason complete with a life size cardboard cutout of George Bush Jr. in the doorway, which is good for a photo.
We find a Magic Carpet Ride, and act like twats on a carpeted pedestal whilst a computer fills in a background to make us look like we’re flying and interacting with people on the film. The guy tells us to do this and that - “Duck now!” or “Lean to the Left!”, and so on. The result makes us laugh so we get a copy on dvd for the rather expensive sum of $45, but, like they say, you’re only here once.

As we’re walking down the main drag, popping into the cheap t-shirt shops to get a few souvenirs, Steph approaches a bush next to a litter bin and it suddenly moves. Holding a large branch of foliage in each hand, a crazy looking black beggar roars and springs out, giving Steph the shock of her life. He immediately starts laughing, and says that because he ‘got’ her, we should hand over a dollar. Compared to the beggar we spotted earlier, a dishevelled young guy who looked like he’d about given up on the world, this guy was a hoot. I say we’ll give him a couple of dollars if we can get a photo, and he cosies up next to Steph and I get the picture.
We get an ice cream and walk back to the hotel. Steph now wants to go to Haight Ashbury, a stretch on the other side of town that’s supposed to be the hangout of cool bohemians. We dump all our new shit on the bed and get the car, crossing town as it gets dark.
We pass through a ghetto on the way, and I’m glad we didn’t think of walking. Even in happy San Francisco, there are areas where you don’t want to go as a tourist. We get to Haite St., and disembark. The main road is full of lights and shops and looks promising.
Turns out that Haite St, and Ashbury, are the remnants of hippy heaven a few decades down the line. Here is the shit side of the hippy counterculture. I thought the main part of town had numerous beggars, but here it seems every other person wants something from you. Here’s what you get when Peace and Love have long gone.
We stood in a shop doorway, finishing off our smokes, and the listless teenaged female cashier asks us to move as she doesn’t want to breathe our smoke. We were technically on the street but I don’t tell her to get fucked like I should have, and we move a few feet to one side. Once done, we go in the store, though I wasn’t happy about this, just out of general principle. It’s full of t-shirts, the usual Hendrix, Joplin and Grateful Dead shit you’d expect. Tye-dyes and ‘Peace’ stickers, and ‘Fuck War!’ stickers, all nicely printed and piled up, little shitspots of corporate hippydom sucked up and paid for by idiot tourists.
I hated the place. Steph wasn‘t so cynical.
I was offered some ‘nuggets’ by a teenaged drug dealer as we stopped to cross the road. We saw a young bag lady walking along with a kitten surfing across her shoulders. She was greeted by a goth prostitute. It felt like everyone walking around could have been an actor, in aon a big fat tourist joke. Unfortunately, that‘s not the case. These junkies, winos and whores are real enough, and they gave off a quiet, desperate vibe, like they knew they were always going to be stuck here.
I’ve had enough. The shops are starting to close up and we get the car and drop it back off at the hotel, and then carry on by foot back to the bay for a meal within the Ghiradelli Square complex. Steph had spotted an Indian place earlier in the day. Quite what they were thinking when they came up with the name ’Gaylord Indian Restaurant’ is anyone’s guess.
It’s a lovely place, and seems to be the only thing open in that part of the complex. It’s open plan, roomy and sumptuous. It’s also empty. We get a seat right by the big windows looking out onto the Bay, and everything is just about perfect. Except, of course, the food. It was nice enough, but could have done being served hot instead of just warm.

Next morning, we get up early and go down for breakfast. Sausage, bacon, eggs, hash browns, coffee, juice and toast. You could go back and fill up on anything as much as you liked. Big, well done pieces of bacon, as much as you can eat!
None of this is true, of course. Flaccid toast with cream cheese, that’s yer lot. Where are these fabled American feasts we were expecting?
We walk down to the Bay area for our Alcatraz tour. It only takes a few minutes for the boat to chug it’s way over to the island, or ‘The Rock’ as the t-shirts and souvenirs call it. That’s pretty much what it is, a big rock with some huge, imposing buildings on top.
There’s a big zig-zag hill to get to the prison, and once there you get given a set of headphones for an audio guide. It’s really well put together and guides you through the history, inmates, escape attempts, the harsh routines of daily life here, and the physical aspects of the prison itself.
We get to go into the cells, into a solitary confinement cell, the dining area, recreation yard etc. Pretty much all over, except the upper levels of cells and balconies and a few fenced off areas that are either dangerous or private. They have a plaque for Al Capone’s cell, but the literature says no-one quite knows which cell exactly he was in. He was there for five years, so it’s quite a thing to forget.





11 - BIG SUR

South of San Francisco, there’s about fifty miles of freeway and industrialised mess before the road thins out and we turn off towards Monterey and Carmel. The ride from Carmel to Big Sur is spectacular. It’s a car journey of some beauty, a stretch of tarmac that should be elevated about mere road into something approaching a national monument. High, green mountains rear up on our left, and on the right is a drop where the roaring breakers of the Pacific smash themselves onto rocky outcrops. Through the middle, this thin grey ribbon of road winds it’s way around bends, cliffs, bays and inlets, crossing over bridges and gulleys. We see the road in the distance, and I think ‘there’s no way it’s going up there!’, but it does, and the views just keep getting better. I pull over half a dozen times just to take photos.
There is trouble in Paradise, however. We can’t seem to find Big Sur itself. When we’re about 5m away, I zoom out on the GPS and look for any hotels. There doesn’t appear to be much around here.
We park by the ‘River Inn at Big Sur’, and I go in and ask where the town is hiding. Turns out that Big Sur is the stretch of coast around here, and not a specific town as such. I ask about a room - $125 with dinner and breakfast included. Can we smoke? No. We ask if the room has a tv. It doesn’t. They don’t get tv at Big Sur.
Finding this a little hard to swallow (America, no tv?!?), we check out a couple of other places in the area and they confirm that it is indeed true. One woman says, in a disdainful manner, that you don’t need a tv because you can play cards, read books, have conversations etc. This is all well and good if you aren’t looking forward to a slothful evening watching stupid American tv.
The River Inn proves to be the best deal, so we drive back and check in. The rooms are in a long wooden building on a separate lot across the other side of the road. Our room is small but has a veranda out front, with a table and chairs, so we can go out there for a sit down and a smoke. We go across the road for our dinner. It has started raining, and soon comes down in buckets.
Dinner is lovely but the extras, coffee and dessert and a tip, see us cleaned out of another $35.
There are no coffee making facilities in the room. No tv. No phone. The restaurant and bar shut at 9, the staff all go home at 11. The barman said that there was a mudslide nearby not so long ago. The ground is still saturated. He says that it would be a very silly idea to drive anywhere in this kind of weather. Boulders happen to roll down from the hills and stop in the road. Those cliffs are real easy to drive off in the dark.
So, we’re in a cabin, in the middle of nowhere, mudslide country in continuous torrential rain. The staff have all fucked off by 11, there’s no communication equipment and you can’t drive anywhere.
Looks like we’ve spent the day driving from one prison to another.
The rain pisses down all night. Steph drops off to sleep and I’m left alone with the darkness and the weird noises. It’s a most inconvenient time to remember the fact that at any given moment there are fourteen serial killers roaming North America.

Breakfast is all the things I joked about not having yesterday, and it’s lovely. We’re all set by half past nine, and belt back along the stretch towards Carmel, where we then turn and begin to head inland.
The road negotiates low, mountainous foothills of the most luminous green grass I’ve ever seen. The general area reminded me very much of the Scottish Highlands, but with a much better road and climate.
We stop at a post office in Casterville, a.k.a. ‘The Artichoke Centre of the World’. I love the way Americans are proud of even the most ludicrous of things.
There’s a distinct Latin flavour here, meaning the post office girl speaks terrible English and we can barely understand each other. We manage to send off a box filled with all kinds of junk we don’t need right now but want to keep, leaflets and booklets etc.
Continue to Shitsville, or Phartknocker, or some other grimy hole, and go into WalMart. I’m disappointed because I thought they sold guns here. I had visions of getting a handgun, just so we could feel a little more secure in some of the dodgier motels, maybe stopping somewhere down the road and shooting up a couple of road signs.
We print off a few photos. They have the Kodak machines in WalMarts right across the country, and it’s as easy as putting the card from the camera into the machine and choosing your prints. At 39cents each, they’re a bargain.
Back on the road, we drive into more mountainous terrain and it starts raining heavily. There’s a single, enormous flash of lightning and a terrible clap of thunder, right above us.
We stop at Mariposa, about four in the afternoon. We decide not to carry on to Yosemite today, even though it’s just thirty miles away. We won’t see anything in the dark and there’ll be nowhere to stay. By staying put now, we’ll get a whole day in Yosemite tomorrow.
The room is nice, quite a bargain at $60, and there’s a big old tv in the corner.

I’m in the mood for reading a movie magazine. I’d like to know what’s on out here, what’s coming out. We go out and mooch around the local stores, but there are no magazines. We end up in a little market and find pretty much any magazine available except for a film orientated one. Steph sniffs out a crate of Rolling Rock beer for $3.99. With tax, that’s about £2.50. It’s like buying a bottle of beer in the UK and getting the other eleven for free.
I pay and think about letting the cashier girl keep the change, so she can put it towards a lobotomy reversal.
Later, we go back out for a takeaway pizza. The woman cleaning up chats to us as we wait. She is genuinely excited for us when we tell her about the trip we’re doing, and she tells us how she’s lived here for about ten years and has only been to the National Park once. In a moment of thoughtful silence, we can almost feel the regret.
The pizza itself if fucking horrible. I force down two slices, decide that’s enough to keep me alive until the next meal, and dump the pizza box in the furthest corner of the room.
Watch a bit of tv, have a late bath.
Most of our clothes need laundering.