Friday, 5 August 2016
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
We arrived in Atlanta at 2030 and proceeded to queue. Atlanta is a vast airport with five runways and the amount of people coupled with the lengthy immigration process meant it took an hour to clear passport control. We then had to get out to the hire car centre which meant another queue and lengthy bus ride. By the time we got to bed, and we were sleeping at an airport hotel, it was nearly 2330.
Saturday, 6 August 2016
Savannah, Georgia, USA
We had wanted to start our journey from the Atlantic and had decided that Savannah would make a good starting point. This meant a three and a bit hour drive. We had breakfast at a diner just a bit outside Atlanta where Anna got to try grits for the first time. Then we set off.
We had hired a Mustang convertible to add to the Americanness of our adventure. It was a fairly large beast of a car so Anna had a bit of work to adjust to it. The interstate was initially busy with a large amount of trucks. However after Macon a lot of the traffic leaves South to go to Florida and you are left on a much more manageable two lane highway to Savannah. We got to Savannah just after 1400 and headed off towards the coast.
Beyond Savannah the terrain is a series of wetlands and islands. The last of these is Tybee Island which is Savannah's beach. With a bit of difficulty we parked the car and then headed over the dunes on a wooden boardwalk to the beach. Tybee has miles of white sand and was quite busy, we were just there to put our feet in. Duty done we headed inland back towards Savannah. On the way back we took a fortunate wrong turn and found ourselves near Bonaventure cemetery. Having watched the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to aclimatise ourselves to Savannah we had to stop and have a brief walk amongst the graves, only brief as the afternoon was warming up and I was only just adjusting.
Back at Savannah we checked in and had a much needed shower before dressing for dinner and taking a walk through the squares. Savannah is organised on a grid system with 22 squares for greenery. Each square has old trees draped with Spanish moss and most either have a statue of some local figure or a fountain at their centre. We walked all the way to Forsyth park following one set and then back through another before heading to The Grey for dinner. Set in the former Greyhound bus terminal I can thoroughly recommend it.
On heading back to drop off my camera at the hotel we found it surrounded by ghost hunters. Savannah has a lot of old houses several of which are rumoured to be haunted, the most haunted apparently being the Sorrel-Weed House. Our hotel the Kehoe house was also one of them. The story was that the family had a lot of children including two twin boys who accidentally fell down one of the chimneys whilst playing games. Apparently guests in room 203 have been awoken in the middle of the night by the sensation of small children's hands stroking their cheeks.
It being Saturday we felt duty bound to enjoy Savannah's vibrant party scene. I had heard of a speakeasy called Mata Hari's down on the river front. For anyone that has not been River St is an endless series of bars and clubs which everyone spends most of the weekend staggering between. We got down via some old stone cobbled steps, most of the buildings being not much changed from its founding as a colony in 1733. Mata Hari's was fairly difficult to find and when we got there the doorman required a password. We looked at him dolefully and explained we were tourists and had no idea what the password is. After a bit more persuasion he let us in. Apart from the queues at the bar it was a great little den, when we came in a large coloured lady was belting out some classics. Then they opened a back door to let people go and watch what proved to be a fairly unusual burlesque show. We got home a bit worse for wear.
No ghosts sighted.
Sunday, 7 August 2016
Montgomery, Alabama, USA
For some crazy reason we had organised breakfast in the courtyard of the Kehoe house at 0800. We struggled through this, checked out and went for one last walk round Savannah. We had hired a convertible and were finding our regular sun hats not up to the job so bought some baseball caps. We then set off on the first proper leg of our journey west, to Montgomery, Alabama.
Our ultimate destination was New Orleans but it was too far to go in a single day so we needed to break it up. We had not found it easy choosing between going along the Florida gulf coast or going inland. In the end we decided we wanted to see a bit more of the South's forests. And forest we indeed saw, endless miles of trees skirt Americas highways. We cut across country from Macon to Columbus and this gave us the opportunity to see a bit more of the countryside. We also got stuck in a torrential tropical storm not far from Geneva.
Crossing the border into Alabama we were greeted by a sign saying Sweet Home Alabama at which point we put the Lynyrd Skynyrd song of the same name on. This was a bit conspicuous in an open top car but nevertheless fun. Before rejoining the interstate we pulled in dangerously close to a trailer park to put the top back up. We reached Montgomery around 1800 only by virtue of having crossed out of eastern standard time.
Montgomery has a few sights worth seeing including Scott F Fitzgerald's house and a museum devoted to Rosa Parks. However it was too late to visit any so we just changed and went for a sunset walk along the Alabama river and then to dinner.
Monday, 8 August 2016
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
We had elected to try Waffle House for breakfast. It was an interesting slice of life watching regular Montgomery citizens enjoy breakfast. We had the good old boy with his pick up emblazoned with the confederate flag and the guys driving the cash delivery van who flouted the rules about carrying guns into the restaurant.
The drive to the coast was fairly uneventful, the usual tree lined interstate. But a bit after Mobile we turned off the main road and onto a parallel gulf coast hugging road. Soon after the turning we found a Gator Ranch which did airboat tours and jumped out. The gator enclosure was fairly zoo like, but it at least enabled me to get some good photos. Then we jumped on the airboat and the guide gave us a spin round their local swamp. This was a fairly strange mix of feeding gators with marshmallows and performing high speed airboat manoeuvres. Airboats have flat bottoms so can go over small reed banks, temporarily taking to land and then bumping off into the water. After half an hour we were thoroughly entertained and only a bit wet so returned to the ranch.
The coast road then went through a series of seaside towns. We got out at Ocean Springs to put our feet in the Gulf of Mexico but did not go swimming as it was very much like a shallow coastal lagoon. We then drove through Biloxi which was full of casino resorts and huge mansions. The white sand beach at Biloxi stretched for miles but surprisingly few people were using it. Finally we swung inland and found the swamp of the Mississippi and crossed the border into Louisiana. We then rejoined the interstate and crossed a huge raised bridge from the top of which we got an amazing view of the skyline of New Orleans.
Arriving in New Orleans checked into our hotel, the very comfortable Le Marais, we then went out to explore the nightlife of the Big Easy. We had been concerned that being a Monday there would not be much going on. We need not have worried on that score as Bourbon St was its usual riot of bands, drunks and strippers. We had dinner round the corner on Royal St starting with half a dozen Louisiana oysters which were the highlight. We then walked all the way up Bourbon St to Frenchman St, enthralled by the atmosphere of all the small wooden houses and exterior gas lights. On Frenchman St we checked out all the Jazz bars and found one where Meschiya Lake was performing. It was pretty good but she had an enormous amount of tattoos. We got to bed relatively early.
Tuesday, 9 August 2016
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
We woke up late and went for a walk round town. I had to buy a memory card for my camera which I knew would be a lot cheaper in the US. We then headed towards the Mississippi which at around 40 degrees was baking hot so we jumped on a tram to the French Market. This set the pattern for the rest of the day which was spent pottering around the shops. One thing that is good about the French Quarter are the iron verandas which provide sufficient shade to keep you cool during the day.
During our travels we visited the slightly odd voodoo museum. It is a couple of rooms out of the back of a shop selling voodoo dolls. It explains the history of voodoo, the gods and characters such as Madame Leaveau. Some of the artifacts were slightly creepy but the only point at which I was faintly scared was when one of the owners brushed past me with a snake draped around her neck. After a bit more shopping and watching a busking big band in the central square we went back to the hotel for a swim.
That night we had a bit of a treat planned, we had booked to go to Toups Meatery, a great Cajun restaurant. We had the most amazing meat board with boudin, cracklin and several types of pate. I made the mistake of having a double pork chop without realising that double referred to the size. We then took the tram back to the French Quarter and got in line for the Preservation hall, an old building which seemed not to have been repaired since the twenties where three times a night the Preservation All Stars play big band jazz. This was rather entertaining as the All Stars are very seasoned musicians and share a variety of jokes between them. Even queuing was entertaining as a rather entrepreneurial street artist came along offering insults for a dollar. Someone took him up on this and she was visibly shocked by what he said. All in all it was a great night.
Wednesday, 10 August 2016
Lafayette, Louisiana, USA
We checked out fairly early and headed South of New Orleans to Jean Lafitte National Park . Just half an hour South and the other side of the flood defences the park has a two mile long board walk through the bayoux. The wildlife was pretty amazing, apart from the usual dragonflies we saw a tree frog, two snakes, a Least Bittern and two alligators. The gators were the scariest, at one point I was taking a picture of a large frog and one came on land and started shambling towards me, presumably it was after the frog as we had been reassured that alligators do not eat humans.
After that we drove on a long loop through the bayoux to Breaux Bridge , the world capital of crawfish to have lunch at the Cafe des Amis. Sadly they had run out of crawfish pie but the ettoufle was the best we had and the starter of alligator was stunning. We got to Lafayette at 1630 and found the house we had rented for the night.
That evening after an average dinner we went to the Blue Moon Saloon, an old wooden hotel with a stage on its back porch. It was Cajun amateurs night and we were a bit dubious when we arrived as there was only one guy tuning a steel guitar. He got chatting to us about where we were heading and advised us in no uncertain terms not to get out of the car at Shreveport. However as the evening wore on one musician after another turned up and they started playing. At first it was mainly fiddle players but eventually, about an hour after the advertised time, an accordion player/singer turned up and he really completed the Cajun sound. We also amused ourselves watching an old timer who worked his way round the room dancing with every woman he could find.
Thursday, 11 August 2016
Dallas, Texas, USA
We had a long drive to Dallas but as we did not have a lot to do there we decided to have a leisurely breakfast at the French Press in Lafayette. This was my favourite Cajun meal, I had Cajun Eggs Benedict - black pudding instead of ham and swimming in what was the best roux I had in Louisiana.
The drive was arduous first a long haul up the interstate to Shreveport, and then across the border to Texas and to Dallas . The hot swamps and storms of Louisiana gave way to open prairie. One thing that was surprising to me was how green it was around Dallas, I had expected Texas to be mostly desert and cacti.
Without stopping anywhere we managed to get there at 1630 and then had a quick turnaround to get ready for dinner. We were keen to try and sample good steak in Texas so had looked at an article on the best restaurants. We plumped for Nick and Sam's. This was wonderfully overboard, at one point we saw a $600 Alaskan king crab being hauled out to a table. The wagyu beef was organised by areas of Japan. The desserts featured a cloud of candy floss which was delivered to the table with blue flashing lights making it look like a thunder cloud. The only disappointment was the steak, when I asked where it was from I was told Chicago! We finished the night off with a beer in Deep Ellum.
Friday, 12 August 2016
Amarillo, Texas, USA
Clearly in Dallas you have to visit the sixth floor of the book depository which has been turned into a museum. However we started the morning with a swim in the rooftop infinity pool of our hotel NYLO. We then went to try and find breakfast in downtown Dallas but sadly most places opened at ten so we went straight to the museum.
The museum was fascinating. They manage to pack together a lot of information about the election and presidency of Kennedy, the assassination, the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald and the subsequent investigations into the murder. I picked up a couple of interesting facts. Firstly afraid that Lyndon Johnson was also going to be assassinated they wanted to fly him out of Dallas immediately, but he would not go without Jackie Kennedy who in turn would not go without JFKs body. So they all got out of Dallas within two hours of the shooting with no autopsy conducted on the body. Since the crime was considered to be state rather than federal the investigators had no real jurisdiction over the people most closely associated with the assassination. It took many commissions many years to draw conclusions after which the law was finally changed to make presidential assassinations a federal offence.
The second fact was that whilst JFK promised a lot his actual term in office did not deliver. It was only after his assassination when his Vice President Lyndon B Johnson used his legacy to pass a lot of bills such as such as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, that a lot of his rhetoric became reality. It is almost as if only through death did he achieve what he set out to do.
We made it back to the hotel rather late and set off for Amarillo. In Irving on the outskirts of Dallas we stopped for lunch at an amazing retro diner. Then we started ploughing through the North of Texas. I would like to describe how interesting the trip was but really it was a bit repetitive. The relatively verdant scenery around Dallas gradually gave way to flat rolling plains. At one point we drove through an oil field, nodding donkeys and gas vents. At another we drove through a small village which had erected crosses fashioned from steel pipes every 50m along the road. Close to Amarillo we drove off the highway to take some pictures of the endless country roads.
We got to Amarillo and checked into our hotel at around 2000 and then headed out for dinner at what was a fairly decent steakhouse. As always the portions were huge, we had to share one steak between the two of us.
Saturday, 13 August 2016
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
We had no plans to visit sites in Amarillo so after a swim in the hotel's pool and breakfast we went shopping. We were due to go to a rodeo in a few days and felt that Texas was the place to buy a hat. We found an amazing country outfitter with hundreds of hats from $20 up to $900, we selected a couple at the lower end of the range.
We then set off for Santa Fe, East of Amarillo is where the scenery finally got interesting. We were finally on the iconic Route 66. Anna was keen to do a couple of stops to see attractions so we stopped first at Tucumcari . This turned out to be disappointing, a gift shop shaped like a teepee full of junk. After this we pulled into Santa Rosa to see a swimming hole which was predictably too full of people to be actually worth going into.
We then turned off the interstate to head for Las Vegas, New Mexico which apparently has been used in a lot of films. This involved quite an ascent into the mountains along a very scenic road. When we got there we found that indeed a lot of the buildings on the high street were very old. We sadly did not find the cafe used in No Country for Old Men and instead had a bagel in the cafe of the University.
We then drove through the mountains and driving rain to Santa Fe . We had arranged to meet up with some friends of ours for three days and had rented a house not too far from the centre. We all turned up around 1600 and got settled in. We then headed out for dinner, a pretty uneventful affair apart from the fact that the dinner table had a piece of paper on it and we were given crayons to draw on it.
Sunday, 14 August 2016
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
We had intended to go walking in preparation for our Grand Canyon trek. But as we drove up into the mountains we noticed the weather change and the threat of a thunder storm sent us scurrying back to the house. So instead we set off for Taos, an artistic town in the mountains North of Santa Fe. The drive was through some very scenic badlands with a stop to see El Sanctuario de Chimayo . This was interesting because they still preserved some of their original beliefs and the church still featured a "holy dirt hole" where people would spread dust on lame legs. The number of abandoned crutches hanging up around it bore testament to the fact that it worked.
We then went to a Pueblo but failed to find anything to look round so headed straight to Taos . Here we ran out of time, we had intended to have a barbecue that night and had to buy the food so we did this in Taos. However this took a while so we did not have the chance to walk around the town or its pueblo, which was sad. On the way back we did however get a chance to drive over one of the highest bridges on a gorge of the Rio Grande. This was spectacular, as with the Grand Canyon the river had cut a very deep channel in the sediment of what was an old sea bed.
That night we had a barbecue at the house we had rented. It was warm enough to sit outside well after dark.
Monday, 15 August 2016
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
We woke up relatively early and started out for the Santa Fe mountains again. This time it was a nice sunny day and we parked up at the ski centre and searched around for the trail head. It started at around 3000m and climbed up to 4000m so was adequate practice for the Grand Canyon.
Given the altitude it was a fairly exhausting climb up along Ravens Ridge to the tree line. We were then a little unsure of where to go. Our guidebook said there was a path down the ski slope but we could not find it so ended up doubling back. It was a beautiful trail with many sweeping views.
After walking we split up. Anna wanted to go to a museum about Georgia O'Keeffe who lived in Santa Fe. Greg, Fiona and I instead went to a super market to stock up for our impending Grand Canyon trek. We met again at the Coyote Club Cantina which served a good selection of cocktails as well as a nice range of Mexican food. When we got back to the house we stayed up looking at the stars, which were numerous.
Tuesday, 16 August 2016
Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, USA
We set off for the Grand Canyon. We first had a long drive across New Mexico which we did in one long haul. Our first stop was at the Petrified Forest National Park near Holbrook. This was an amazing but lengthy detour through the painted desert and several sites where trees had sunk to the bottom of muddy estuaries and had been turned to stone only to be uncovered thousands of years later. The colours of the trees were amazing and we also encountered several collared lizards which struggled to match colours with the trees they were climbing on.
After Holbrook we had also considered stopping at Winslow Arizona but we were running out of time so left Greg and Fiona to explore the famous "corner". Instead we stopped at the Barringer meteor crater just after Winslow. This was truly amazing, in the middle of a flat plain an iron meteor had carved a 100m crater the ground. Since it is on private land it is fairly pricey to access but with the money they have built several viewing platforms and a museum in which you can see fragments of the meteor itself. There is a sobering exhibit where they depict how all of downtown LA could fit inside the crater which indicates just how vulnerable you are to meteor strikes.
Greg and Fiona were ahead of us and had picked up another friend of ours, Matt, at Flagstaff. So we bypassed the centre of Flagstaff going through the outskirts to pick up a road to the Grand Canyon. By this point the vegetation had changed completely from arid scrub to the lush alpine Kaibab forest. We were a lot higher up than the plains of New Mexico. We sped through the forest in an attempt to arrive by sunset.
Somehow we missed the turning for Grand Canyon village and instead ended up at Mather Point one of the viewing points for the canyon. We watched sunset and tried to get a photo despite the crowds. It was the second best sunset we got when we were there. We then headed back to our hotel for a very average dinner.
Wednesday, 17 August 2016
Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
We were being picked up by our guide Chelsea at a very unreasonable 0515. We got all our rucksacks packed and then caught a bus to the South Kaibab trail head. The first day was always going to be the hardest, a 1300 metre descent in 30-35 degree temperatures. The South Kaibab snakes its way down to the canyon floor with at least four sets of switch backs. It is hard to explain but the geology of the canyon is such that layers of hard rock are interspersed with softer sediments, which means a fairly steep descent, then a walk over an eroded softly sloping shelf followed by another descent etc. As you would expect the canyon gets narrower the further you go down, but it is not a constant gradient, it is more like steps.
The trekking company was fairly insistent on over feeding us so had packed a huge bag of snacks into our rucksacks. On the way down we raided these at "big shade" a break after the "red and white staircase" where a rock overhang provided welcome relief from the sun's rays. From there we carried on our descent to the bottom of the canyon.
We hit the bottom near Phantom Ranch where a small tunnel through the rock takes you to a suspension bridge over the Colorado to a campsite. Since it looked like it was going to rain we put our tents up straight away and then headed to the ranch itself to drink a few beers before the bar shut at 1600. It was much needed and totally refreshing.
After we got back from the ranch we all decided to jump into Bright Angel Creek. We paddled around, at some points lying flat out on the creek bed. After a while our tour guide came to tell us dinner was almost ready and I jumped out first. At the top of the river bank I turned around and saw the event unroll in slow motion. It had been raining heavily further upstream and just as we were getting ready to leave the flash flood hit Bright Angel. I could see the head of it just round the corner and yelled at everyone to leave. They all got to the river bank before the full force of it hit. Matt had to yell at Anna to leave one of her flip flops which she lost to the river. Thankfully the flip flop was the only casualty.
That night we had an excellent meal of dehydrated pasta with sausage. We then went to a ranger talk on the Californian Condor, however by some miracle everyone was too tired at 2030 to go back to the ranch for more drinks so we had a ridiculously early night.
Thursday, 18 August 2016
Indian Garden, Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
We set off not too early at around 0800. This was to be the easiest day of our trek, which started with a walk along the Colorado to Pipe Beach. Here we generally hung out and watched a rafting expedition pass by. We were entertained by the tale of Glen and Bessie Hyde who set out on a descent of the rapids for their honeymoon in 1928 never to reappear.
We then continued walking up Pipe Creek, so named because a lot of Grand Canyon Village's water is pumped up from a well through a pipe which runs parallel to the river. Near the top of a set of switchbacks known as the Devil's Corkscrew we had our second incident, the sole of one of Greg's walking shoes parted company with the rest of it. Fortunately Chelsea was well versed in the art of fixing boots and managed to duct tape it together. We then limped to the top and stopped for lunch under a huge rock overhang. Here we did a bit of exploring and discovered on the opposite side of the valley an Indian settlement with small ovens hewn into the overhanging rocks.
Finally we had a fairly nice walk slowly ascending the upper reaches of pipe creek to Indian Garden at 1160m. Here there was an incredible point where we were walking along what appeared to be a natural stone ledge in a cliff above the pipe creek canyon. We got to Indian Garden around 1300 and all dropped our packs and sat down. Suddenly the weather started to change and the wind picked up so we put up our tents just in time as the rain kicked in.
And this was the story for the rest of the afternoon, if it was not raining it was windy. We were meant to do a side hike to an outcrop called Plateau Point for sunset but every so often there would be a crack of thunder which would render the trip unsafe. Instead we found a pack of cards in the library of Indian Garden and proceeded to try to recreate card games from our memory: a version of hearts and a slightly out of hand version of cheat. We took a break for dinner and finally turned in around 2030 when other hikers started to go to sleep.
Friday, 19 August 2016
Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, USA
Unbelievably we got up at 0345, in an effort to avoid ascending 930m in the heat of the day. We did not need an alarm as most groups were making an early start up the final stretch of the Bright Angel Trail and the noise of the guides making breakfast was enough to wake everyone up. We had breakfast in the dark and then set off with our head torches. We did not need these for long, the light of dawn was soon strong enough to walk by.
After the first set of switchbacks and 280m we reached the three mile rest house. Here we rested, took photos from a viewpoint and generally strove to avoid the very tenacious squirrels who continually try to steal food from your backpack. Following this was another 300m of switchbacks to get to the one and a half mile rest house where we started to really encounter other groups.
Here it is worth talking about hiking etiquette, a key rule of which is hikers going downhill should yield to those going uphill. On the Bright Angel Trail this would seem of critical importance as the ascent is so lengthy and the drop to the side of the trail typically fairly scary. In the Grand Canyon however you get a lot of day hikers who attempt to get as far down the trail as they can and back. They typically do not abide by the rules so you end up having frequent run-ins with them. We tried a variety of techniques from talking to them to staring at them but they did not seen to understand why we were getting so cross.
The final set of switchbacks is perhaps the hardest mentally. As you approach the canyon rim the walls become more vertical and the length of each leg longer. Finally you walk through a tunnel cut through a spur of rock and you find yourself very much back in civilisation, on the last broad leg of the trail which is for many people the furthest they venture down the canyon. We were up at the top at around 1000, our guide made some very early lunch for us and we said goodbye to her.
One problem of finishing so early is that hotels typically do not let you check in until 1500 or later. We solved this through a combination of having a couple of celebratory beers at the hotel bar and begging the hotel to get our rooms ready earlier. Finally around 1700 everyone had checked in and managed to take a shower. In our case we even managed to look around an exhibition of the Kolb Brothers, who made a living in the early twentieth century taking thousands of pictures of parties of mule riders descending the canyon.
We then reassembled to try and get a last sunset shot of the Canyon. We took the free bus out to the Hermit point and then took another back to Mojave point and took a short walk along the rim to Hopi point. The majority of the edge of the rim is not protected by guard rails and we found ourselves startled by drops more extreme than those we had seen on our walk. It was cloudy and we mistimed our arrival at Hopi and missed what looked like a classic sunset shot of the Canyon by tens of seconds.
After sunset everyone was slightly worried about getting back into town as there were hordes of tourists swarming at the various points. Fortunately the park is well organised and we did not have to wait long before a bus arrived to take us directly back to the village. There we had a dinner of beer and pizza before finally getting some much needed sleep.
Saturday, 20 August 2016
Payson, Arizona, USA
Having been used to getting up at first light we did not have a lot of luck sleeping in so got up and went to take pictures of sunrise. We then met up with Matt and set off for our next destination Payson. We were due to pick up Rachel, Matt's wife, in Camp Verde on the way. However we were very early so decided to stop at a Route 66 diner in Williams for some brunch. It was pretty good but the star of the show was a sign on the door "Guns Are Welcome on the Premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such case judicious marksmanship appreciated", only in America.
The drive to Camp Verde was punctuated by a tragic event, a blow out on the interstate 17 had caused a car to loose control and swerve across the median into the oncoming traffic. We were going the opposite direction but it closed the road until 1600. Having spent many hours staring at them I found American median strips, as opposed to barriers in the UK fairly odd. They require a lot of mowing and there are several hundred "crossover" accidents every year yet only two states mandate the installation of median barriers.
We met Rachel and then headed to Payson. The cross country drive was very scenic climbing up through the mountains and forests. We had planned to stop for lunch in a town called Pine, however when we saw a guy driving a quad bike with a dead deer strapped to the back of it come out of the restaurant car park we decided it was a bit too local and headed to Payson instead. Here we had a very nice lunch but got rather worried when the weather changed and the sky turned almost purple.
We were worried because we were due to go to an open air rodeo that night. Unperturbed Anna and I headed out to get kitted out. We already had our hats but I did not feel complete without a full on country belt. Anna also found a leather bolo necktie to complete the ensemble. Suitably dressed we rounded up the posse and headed for the arena.
The Payson Doin Rodeo is apparently the oldest continuous rodeo in the US. However it had a surprisingly local feel. We had a bit of trouble following what people were doing but they seemed fairly fast at roping up steers and racing around barrels on horses. The only surprise was that the bit of the rodeo everyone recognises, the bronco riding, was so short. A bronco rider only has to stay on for eight seconds but very few of them make it. With only a handful of riders this most entertaining section of the rodeo sadly does not last long. After the rodeo we headed to the after rodeo party at a local bar. It was certainly an eye opener, but everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves.
Sunday, 21 August 2016
Sedona, Arizona, USA
With the previous night's excitement it took a while for everyone to get breakfast and packed up but we were soon on our way to Sedona. The scenery around Sedona is spectacular, red butte's rise all around it and in between the wooded canyon of Oak Creek winds its way from Flagstaff towards Phoenix. We were keen to go for a walk so stopped at Red Rock State Park and took the Eagle's Nest trail to enjoy the views. As well as the views the flora of the park is quite lush and varied.
We then went to the centre of town for lunch after which we split up, with the girls going shopping for jewellery and the boys going to the supermarket to get supplies for a barbeque. We then headed to the house we had rented for the night, which even was further North up the canyon. It was a beautiful drive (apparently one of the top scenic drives in the US) and most of the road is raised above the level of the trees so often you are looking down on top of the oaks that line the canyon. We found the house, a log cabin nestled in the trees with the high valley walls rising above it.
We had an interesting evening as a number of things went wrong at the house. Firstly the barbeque did not get up to a high enough temperature to grill steaks which meant cooking them in the house. Then I attempted to switch some outside lights on and the hot tub (!) stopped working. Nevertheless we persevered and a lot of beer was drunk that night.
Monday, 22 August 2016
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Some people had sore heads the next day so we struggled to get out at 1100. The remainder of the ride up the Oak Creek Canyon was scenic and pretty soon we were zipping along the interstate towards the West of Arizona. We met up with the others at Seligman and then again at Kingman where we had lunch in a small but excellent sandwich shop. Following that we cut across country on the 93 towards Lake Mead. The scenery had gradually transformed from lush alpine forest at Flagstaff, through plains to desert. It was not a sandy desert but a barren moonscape.
Anna and I stopped at the Hoover Dam to have a look around. We parked in the multi-story car park next to the visitors centre, then walked over the dam and back again. It is incredibly impressive, 220m high and 200m thick at its base, but what I liked most was the art deco styling. Most public works are very utilitarian in style but the Hoover Dam has a bit of character to it with highly stylised intake towers, art deco clocks showing the times in Nevada and Arizona and decorated brass doors on access points. We did not take the tour of the inside as there was not enough time but we enjoyed it nevertheless.
As you approach Las Vegas the terrain becomes even more moon like, you then go through Railroad Pass and see the whole of the town set out in front of you. As you approach the centre of Las Vegas the oddness of the place becomes apparent. I did not really take a shine to it, I thought it had all the charm of a huge themed shopping centre. Granted each of the main hotels is individually impressive. We were staying in the Palazzo part of the Venetian which attempts to recreate Venice. There are gondolas going up and down canals inside the hotel's mall. There is a reconstruction of the Rialto Bridge (with travalators). Not too far from us was Paris Las Vegas with a half size Eiffel tower and an Arc de Triumphe. However driving down the strip they are far too crammed together, a few more open spaces and trees would have made it much more pleasant.
We checked into the Palazzo and I left Anna to get her hair done while I went for a look around Vegas with the rest of the guys. One thing that is impressive is the recreation of St Marks Square in the Venetian. Elsewhere the trompe L'oeil skies fail to fool but something about the lighting in the square makes it seem like early evening on a nice day in the Mediterranean. We stopped at a couple of bars for drinks, unintentionally explored the Flamingo and Bellagio and then rejoined the girls for a drink at the Cosmopolitan.
After drinks we had Anna's birthday dinner back at a steak restaurant in the Palazzo and then hit the tables. As I expected we could not get a private table so were put on a poker table with a few other people. The trick I thought was to treat it as entertainment and have a figure you were prepared to loose and quit then. It was successful as having a croupier and a few unknown characters added to the drama. At one point a guy with a cowboy hat, dark glasses and a cigar joined the table. I thought he was going to clean up but he seemed quite content to enjoy the low stakes. In the end Anna and I left with slightly lighter wallets but Matt finished up on the deal. We finished the night with a drink at the Stratosphere, which has a 360 view of the lights of Vegas.
Tuesday, 23 August 2016
Solvang, California, USA
We had said goodbye to the others the night before in the hope of getting away early. In the end we did manage to pull ourselves out of bed at a reasonable time. Opening the blinds by remote control rewarded us with an early morning view over Las Vegas, with only the gold clad Trump hotel marring it. However we then lost some ground going for breakfast at another retro diner just off the strip. We then got on the road and made a beeline for Los Angeles.
On the way through the Mojave desert to Los Angeles we got a great view of the Ivanpah Thermal Plant . It is an imposing site, a huge field of mirrors concentrate light on three boilers which drive steam turbines. It shows the promise of alternative energy sources but sadly is marred with controversy as it only achieved 40% of its predicted capacity and the gas needed to jump start the system in the morning means it is far from clean.
Instead of risking the Los Angeles traffic we decided to cut West at Victorville, going behind the Los Angeles forest to come out at Palmdale. By now the desert had become less barren, with hordes of Joshua trees lining the roads. Then it was a case of a short trip along the I-5 with its insane double carpool lanes and then down the 126 to finally emerge at the Pacific at the Emma Wood State Beach near Ventura.
Clearly it was always going to be emotional completing the 2,846 mile journey from Tybee island at the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. We had crossed 9 states and 4 time zones. However the biggest impact was finally seeing the sea. Apart from a brief glimpse at Biloxi we had travelled all of this distance inland. To finally break through the mountains at coast was a huge revelation. Added to that Emma Wood is a huge strip of sand which is only lightly used, and the smoke from the Rey Forest fire had caused the sun to turn orange. So it was as if we had emerged onto a wilderness beach at sunset, when in fact it was more like 1700. We dipped our feet in and then chatted for a while with a guy from Ventura.
The drive up the coast to Solvang was beautiful. Santa Barbara was very tempting but we did not have time to explore. We then went inland up to Cachuma Lake where we stopped to take photos in the setting sun. Sadly California was in a six year drought and the lake had mostly become a marsh. According to locals it was a mere 10% of its usual size. We found a local view point and took some pictures of the Santa Ynez valley in the setting sun.
We arrived at our hotel in the village of Solvang at around 1900. It was constructed by Danish emigres in 1911 and has a lot of Danish architecture, bakeries and shops. We dumped our bags at the hotel, showered and caught a taxi to Buellton as we had dinner booked at the Hitching Post II for 2000. If you have never heard of it you need to see the movie Sideways a classic comedy set around the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. Several scenes are set in the restaurant but more importantly it serves great food and makes its own wine. It was fantastic, we had a bit too much wine and went to bed completely full.
Wednesday, 24 August 2016
Big Sur, California, USA
We got up fairly late but still persisted with our plan to do a small tour of the vineyards ala Sideways. We put the top down and cruised up the Santa Ynez road to Buttonwood Farm vineyard. Tasting is fairly generous in comparison with what we were told the Napa valley was like with somewhere between 6-10 healthy pours for $10-$15 and refunds if you buy enough bottles. We sadly did not have enough room in our cases to buy lots of wine so we just accepted paying for the experience. At Buttonwood the wine I liked the most was their signature Sauvignon Blanc so we bought a bottle.
After Buttonwood we went to Blackjack Ranch we did feature, briefly, in Sideways. I can recommend it to anyone as it is a gorgeous property and they have a lot of wines to show off so it is one of the best value tastings. As a result we bought a couple of bottles including a Merlot! Finally we popped into Los Olivos where there are about thirty tasting rooms which you can stager around without the aid of a car. Here we popped into Carhartt which is owned by a different branch of the family to the clothing label. This was a very relaxed tasting in a small courtyard, where we chatted to yet another friendly Californian couple.
Leaving the tasting room we had our last big drive in front of us, from Solvang all the way to the Big Sur, a section of the coast south of San Francisco. We were determined to stay on Highway 1 for as much of the trip but we first had to cut across country to Pismo Beach. Just past here we stopped for a few hours in the sun at a small cove near Avila Beach . We first had to go and buy some beach towels and some lunch in town after which we parked on a small bluff and walked down to the beach. It was very relaxing and despite the Pacific being ridiculously cold we were just about able to immerse ourselves.
We had left it really far too late to go to the beach and so ended up having to zip up highway one by dusk. We could not really stop for any pictures for fear of missing dinner. This was a real shame as it is so varied and dramatic. Around Cambria and San Simeon for example the coast resembles that of Wales, soft rolling hills covered in bracken with little tree cover. This is where Randolph Hearst created his version of Xanadu. Around the corner at Ragged Point the mountains plunge into the sea and the highway hangs onto the cliff for dear life.
We got to our hotel Deetjen's Bug Sur Inn at around 2030 just before they stopped serving dinner. Built in the 1930's by Helmuth Deetjen an emigre from Norway using wood reclaimed from Monterrey canneries what is now the restaurant played host to visiting hikers and was slowly extended to become the current inn. It is uniquely charming, a set of rustic cabins in the woods which despite a handful of other buildings along the high way still retains a feeling of remoteness. We had a good dinner and then were shown to the "Fireplace" room where we were to stay a couple of nights.
But that was not the end of our night. We had read about a new age retreat fifteen minutes down the road called the Esalen Institute which sits on some hot springs and has built a bath house half way down a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We had no intention of staying there but they open the springs to the public every night at 0100. Getting in is very unusual, at 0045 you meet at a car park outside the grounds, where you find a bunch of other people waiting in their cars in the dark. Then someone from the institute pops out and leads you through the institute to the bath house where you are told all the rules, no drinking, keep quiet etc. However once you are past the cultish initiation the experience is incredible, sitting in piping hot springs with nothing but the sound of the waves lapping below you. We stayed to around 0230 and then went back. On the return journey we stopped because there was a stag in the road, caught in the gleam of our headlights.
Thursday, 25 August 2016
Big Sur, California, USA
We woke up late being not quite sure what to do. The Sobranes Forest Fire had started just to the North of Deetjen's in July and at one point Highway One had been closed and it looked like we would have to re-route our journey. Although the core of the fire had now moved further South we had been told all of the state parks and beaches had been closed. So we thought we may have to drive quite a bit to find something to look at. To be sure we went to the ranger station at Big Sur park and were rewarded for our efforts. We were told that some trails west of highway one had re-opened just that morning.
We wanted to start with some exercise so the best option was the Buzzard's Roost trail at 2.5 miles. The re-opening looked rather unofficial as there was still tape closing the trail head, but we took the ranger at his word and walked round it and started ascending the hill. Interestingly the impact of a previous forest fire on this actual ridge in December 2013 was very visible on the trail. A lot of the big redwoods that line the trail are blackened at the base and at a few points there are charred remains of trees. However the forest was by no means dead, in fact there were a lot of green shoots and signs it was prospering.
After this we went back along the road to the turning for Pfeiffer Beach. This is an almost picture perfect beach with a natural rock arch and miles of golden sand. We avoided the crowds by going to a second beach where we sun bathed. The ocean was so rough we did not want to go in it but we did find a way around a rocky promontory to a third beach which had no one on. However not knowing when high tide exactly was we did not stay there. We stayed quite late in the afternoon but since we did not have any books with us decided to sacrifice whatever sunset there would have been for some time back at our cabin.
We really enjoyed the rest of the afternoon. The "Fireplace" room has its own private balcony overlooking highway one and the woods. We sat in the sun, reading and enjoying a bottle of wine. We probably should have explored more of the local restaurants but frankly were happy where we were so at 1930 popped down, had dinner and then came back to the room. We had intended to read a bit more but we fell asleep almost immediately.
Friday, 26 August 2016
San Francisco, California, USA
Having fallen asleep at 2130 the previous night we got up really early the next morning and had packed and gone by 0800. Since we had not managed to catch a sunset on the Big Sur I wanted to see if early morning could yield any results. The coast beyond Deetjen's is very dramatic with sweeping white beaches and a couple of rocky headlands with very photogenic lighthouses. In addition you have Bixby bridge which features on large numbers of photos. Sadly there was no mist shrouding it and we just had overcast weather.
After the Big Sur we drove through Carmel and stopped at Monterey for some brunch. We had toyed with the idea of visiting its amazing aquarium but did not have half a day free so just contented ourselves with walking around Cannery Row soaking up the atmosphere. Monterey used to be the centre of sardine fishing until they literally caught the last one in the fifties and then had to find something else to do with all the empty canning factories. It was an interesting diversion and we were hard pressed to leave it.
We then drove up our last stretch of Highway one to the Golden Gate bridge. The coast south of San Francisco was very surprising as, in contrast to the Bay Area further inland, there is very little in the way of development. We drove all the way to the outskirts of town then through the Presidio onto the Golden Gate Bridge. We had little reason to be on the bridge other than to mark the end of our journey. We stopped the other side, took some photos and then headed back over to drop off the car. On the way to do this we made sure we drove down Lombard street, the most crooked street in the world.
After saying goodbye to the Mustang we checked in to our hotel and then headed out to explore. We had intended to get on one of the famous tram lines but crazily there was a half hour long queue, so we instead walked to Chinatown. Here we just looked around before heading downhill through the financial district towards the ferry terminal. Then we caught a ferry to Sausalito . On the ferry we got chatting to a local who gave us a recommendation for dinner. He also explained to us why the weather had been so bad since we arrived. Apparently in the summer the inland areas heat up to such a degree that they suck in air from the sea and given the mountains San Francisco is the only gap through which to funnel the air. Consequently this is where the cool sea air hits the hot inland air and so it is shrouded in cloud and a very cool 15 degrees for most of the summer despite being a degree further south than Athens.
On the ferry we enjoyed sailing close to Alcatraz, we then docked at Causality and headed to the restaurant which was close to the ferry terminal and enjoyed sunset views of San Francisco. After dinner we hopped in an Uber, which was ridiculously cheap, and then one last time crossed the Golden Gate bridge back to our hotel.
Saturday, 27 August 2016
San Francisco, California, USA
Sadly it was the last day of our trip. We jumped on one of the cities non tourist trams which was entertaining enough as they have a fleet of reconditioned trams from all over the world and this was a model from fifties Chicago. We then headed to City Hall where we got out and walked up towards the famous painted ladies in Alamo Square. One thing that I am not going to dwell on is the amount of homeless people in the park outside City Hall. It really does highlight how unaffordable the town is.
I was not really able to get the classic photo of the painted ladies perched on a hill high above the town because the park was being renovated but the view was nice anyway. From here we walked to the Castro, the city's famous gay district. It was fun walking around and there are some pretty unusual shops. We then leapt on an old wooden Milanese tram and went down the hill to the financial district for lunch.
Here we had booked in for lunch at Yank Sing, a famous institution known for its amazing dim sum. It is quite a place, trolleys full of steamers are pushed past you, you stop one and pick a few dishes and then wait for the next pass. Again we got chatting to a local who helped us find some of the specialities.
And that was it, we jumped in a cab, picked up our luggage and headed to the airport. We were sorry to be leaving the US but we had achieved our goal of crossing the continent in three weeks and it was time to head home!