10 June 2007

American Diary Part 14 San Francisco

June 9th Arrived San Francisco around 10am after a brief photo stop to see the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin County side. I've been to SF a few times with work so know it pretty well, but good to come back again. We got dropped at our Hostel on Ellis and Larkin streets in the dodgy area of Tenderloin! Said goodbye to Paul and Maraijke (glad to see the back of them!) and dan our leader, then it was just Me, Nicole, Chris and Nick. (Min the Korean also left us). I offered to be a tour guide for the day and took us on a fun packed day around the city: Union Square, Coit Tower, Lombard Street, Fishermans's wharf, Boat trip to the bridge and Alcatraz, then back to Union Square for Burger before bedtime! The major highlight was a surprise meeting with Dave Prowse (Darth Vadar in Star Wars) who was doing a signing at a store on Pier 39. I bought a poster which he signed for me and we talked about Bristol and the Green Cross Code Man! He was great! He's 73, walks with a stick, is over 6ft 8" and still quite an imposing chap. It's 30 years since Star Wars - how time flies! I slept in a dorm with 3 other girls, and had a brilliant night's sleep - first in many weeks. June 10th 8am we met the group for our next leg of the GO WEST tour. There are 13 of us, all girls except for Chris and Nick who look like they've gone to heaven... they are both 19 year old german boys, both really sweet and for the next 7 days will be in the company of 10 au pairs all under 23 and from diverse countries - lucky them! I get to be the token spinster over 35! So we head off to the South West and Arizona today. Will update the blog when I get chance! BFN

American Diary part 13 Yosemite & Sacremento

June 7th Left Reno and headed into California and Yosemite Park. On the way we stopped at MONO Lake. Another geo thermal salty lake with wierd 'Tufas' or mineral towers rising from the water. There is an abundance of life here and a moonlike scenery - no trees, volcanic rocks, mountains in the distance. We walked the lakeside then around the crater of a volcano which erupted only 650 years ago and is still active. A fascinating place. Leaving the heat of the Great Basin we climbed the TIOGA pass up to 10,000 ft and into another snow storm entering the park. The Sierra Nevada is the backbone of California and Yosemite sits within the Sierras. A granite park with massive cliffs eroded by glaciers leaving a wide valley with steep and impossibly sheer sides which climbers love and a bunch of activities for anyone wanting to get outdoors. We camped just oustide the park on a steep site - bears here too. With just one day here we had to choose what to do. I declined the Upper falls walk which is not only 6 hours of steep walking, but is a sheer precipice of gravel. Instead, I perused the visitor centre, museums, posted a package home to lighten my bag, then walked to the lower falls with Nicole. It's so scenic and everywhere is a photo. The highlights are El Capitan - a sheer granite cliff, and Half Dome. The river Merced flows through the valley and so Nicole and I hired an inflatable raft and meandered down stream taking in the scenery and paddling. A very pleasant day... and no bears. Not much wild life at all really. The snow was light this past winter so the waterfalls and lakes were very dry, but the scenery was still incredible. I visited the Ansell Adams gallery and bought some postcards to frame at home. We are spending more time here next week on the next leg of the trip. June 8th Leaving the park, we drove down and down with the scenery changing rapidly from pine forest to peach coloured sun dried hills dotted with dark green trees. Mediterranean climate of the Western Sierras. Almost immediately it felt like a different climate. Very hispanic, ranches, sweeping hills, hot sun. For lunch we stopped at the state capital - Sacremento. This Old town is a restored trading post with wooden sidewalks, an old railstation, museum and touristt shops along the River which once provided a lifeline to this land locked city. Going solo I wandered the shops and tired of crappy ham sandwiches I chose a smart riverside restaurant for a caesar salad and ice water overlooking the bridge and felt a bit civilised. It was a moment of self indulgence (cheesecake pudding for afters). Back at the van we motored on to reach our overnight camp just outside San Francisco at a place called Petaluma. This is home to suntrek so Dan had friends to talk to. I did more laundry, then swam in the excellent pool and hot tub. For most of the trip we'vce used KOA sites to camp and they have all been great. After supper at a local Mexican place we said our farewells before bedtime. The group changes in San Francisco, our next stop.

American Diary Part 12 Utah into Nevada

June 4th Had a morning in Jackson Hole. This small and vibrant town is more like a true cowboy place than anything so far. Wooden sidewalks and saloons mix with up market boutiques, galleries, clothing shops and the ski-ing facilities which keep the town going in the winter. I really liked it here. After lunch we carried on towards UTAH and Salt Lake City. Wyoming is a great state with lots to offer and my favourite so far. The drive to Salt Lake was long and a bit dull. The scenery changed from hills to flatter wide valleys and it got warmer. By the time we arrived at Salt Lake City it was 90 degrees. A brief tour of the Temple Square allowed us to see the Mormon church but no-one really wanted more than that. At camp it was stifling hot but too late to use the pool. I cooked chilli, then some of us went with Dam to the local drive in movie and saw Pirates of the Caribean III from the roof of the van - excellent! We got back at 1am. June 5th Salt Lake ahs little to offer - but it was good to see the mountains from a distance where the 2002 winter olympics took place. The Mormon thing is a turn off, I'll admit. The next phase of our journey was a real contrast to Salt Lake City but first we drove an hour south and stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats. This dried out lake of perfectly flat slat deposits is ideal for land speed testing and the location for the world records - another good film to see 'The Fastest Indian'. We took some photos here and wondered at the wierdness of it with salt clogging our shoes. Then more driving across the Dull, Dull Great Basin of NEVADA. Actually I thought it was interesting as storm clouds gathered over the hills and I saw so many typical American stuff that I hoped to see - derelict homesteads, rusting tow trucks, gas stations, tumbleweed! hotrods, horses.... Anyway, we arrived eventually in RENO. Nevada still has gambling and prostitution, so there is not much else to do here. Those of us not into either pursuits (most of us) chose to go to an all you can eat buffet at a nearby casino (our hotel was a casino but not good food). Properly filled up on all kinds of cuisine and puddings I then thought it would be a good idea to jump around in the amusement arcade! so Nicole and I played air hockey, on the dance machine, basketball and felt a bit sick! It was fun though and we got the chance to sleep in a hotel with a proper bed!.

American Diary part 11 Yellowstone

June 1st We entered Yellostone park from Cody and wound our way up the mountains, through pine trees and up and up to the middle. The park is one giant super volcano with mutliple thermal areas where the earth's core has a direct route to the surface. Mud pools, thermal gases, hot springs all erupt here constantly and it smelles of sulfur almost everywhere. In addition to the geology is a bunch of wildlife including Black Bears, Girzzly (brown) bears, elk, Deer, Wolves, Coyote, chipmunks, Marmots, Big horn sheep.... etc etc etc. I admit to being nervous about camping in *tents* in the middle of bear country. I was looking out all the time for signs of bear! Our first day (before camp) included a visit to Dragon Mouth Cave. A hole in a hillside where thermal gases escape into a pool of hot mineral water creating a 'booming' steam cloud which looks and sounds exactly like you would imagine a dragon's breath to be. After that we stopped at some hot springs with mineral deposits giving amazing colours to the small ponds - turqouise, orange, yellow. We hiked to a waterfall (forgot the name) which was incredible - so much better than Niagara. The vally it had carved was all colours of orange, yellow, brown, red from the minerals. At camp, we pitched tents and everywhere there were signs about Bears! All our food got stored in metal boxes and all our toiletries had to be kept there too. It was a bit freaky. I slept OK though, but it was freeeeeeeeezing! At higher altitude it was cold. June 2nd This full day in the park was fab! It's a vast area, and our camp was at MAdison - on the rim of the 'crater' from the last eruption. The whole area could blow at any time, and if it did, it would wipe out most of North America and have serious consequences for the global climate. But it didn't happen when we were there! Driving around the park, we stopped at the Old Faithfull geyser - I got soaked! On our way to a hiking location, we spotted some activity - lots of cars parked. It was a BEAR!!!!! A black bear was sunbathing in a meadow near some dead trees. We watched for a while from the car, then drove half a mile. Again we stopped - amazingly we saw a grizzly about 100 m from the road, walking through some woods. He was being sent away by the rangers who try to discourage bears from hanging around roadways and peopled areas. He walked for several minutes as a convoy of cars followed him and we parked and got out on foot (blimey!). \It was fine. We were able to watch both bears from our hilly vantage point. The grizz had made the black nervous and he ambled away, leaving Grizz on his own. I got some great footage and shots, but it didn't make me feel relaxed about camping! After that we took a hike up to the summit of Mount Washburn. A 10,000 ft peak with snow along the trail but stunning views across the park, Lake Yellowstone, the crater rim and you could see the thermal activity. I was exhausted but it was worth it. Coming down I spotted bear tracks in the mud and walked a bit quicker! I could write for days about Yellowstone, but the other highlights were seeing a Coyote swim across a stream, loads of chipmunks up close, birdsong, Mammoth Hot springs, Elk, Deer... fabulous mountain scenery... and HOT weather! We actually had sun. June 3rd Leaving Yellowstone we stopped for an afternoon at the Teton National Park. This is a small range of mountains rising 13000 ft with a collection of lakes and forested walking trails. A small group of us climbed a trail to the canyon falls to see a huge waterfall and also discovered some Moose. Feeling tired I took the boat across the lake back to the parking area and shared a pot of ice cream with Nicole. We would have liked to hire a canoe but ran out of time. The photos from here are amazing, crystal clear Jenny Lake, Grand Teton and blue sky! We drove to camp at Jackson Hole pitching tents in the setting sun alongside a small river, ducks, and yellow headed blackbirds providing birdsong. I did more laundry (the true american experience - all human life) and then went with Dan and Min (only us over 21) t0 the Cowboy Saloon Bar in Jackson. Sitting on actual saddles at the bar we drank beers and watched the basbeball on TV, I then lost 2-1 in a game of pool with Dan (who never loses) at least I got one game off him!

American Diary part 10 Wyoming

WYOMING May 30th Left South Dakota and entered WYOMING - the symbol for this state is a rodeo horse and cowboy, which about sums it up. A rugged landscape of ranches, hills, grazing land and... DEVIL's TOWER! A volcanic column of granite forced up as magma inside a volcano which has long since eroded away to leave this wierd shape visible from miles away. Famous from the film 'Close Encounters of the third Kind' (see it NOW if you haven't already). It is a truly spectacular place. Surrounded by trees at the base, there is a walk of around 2 miles giving different perspectives and changing light. You can see climbers making the ascent, and birds circling at the top - apparently there are snakes nesting on top too. Another Priarie Dog town covers a large meadow at the base near where we camped, and I had the BEST view of the tower from my tent. It was 'awesome'. I didn't see any UFO's though, Shame. To get into the cowboy mood, Dan turned the van into a cinema and we watched 'Unforgiven' on his laptop. Clilnt Eastwood at his best. Great. May 31st Leaving Devil's Tower we stopped for lunch at DEADWOOD. This town was at the heart of the Black Hills gold Rush in the 19th century and home to people such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hikock who was shot here during a poker game in Saloon #10 - we saw a very cheesy performance of this by some third rate actors whilst we ate fries and rank coke in the very same poker saloon. There is not much here, gambling is about it. There is a good museum though, and fascinating artefacts from the gold rush, the fires which have hit the valley and destroyed the town more than once, and stories of the outlaws who lived there. Moving on, we drove high up and over the BIGHORN mountains. Spectacular, and covered in snow, we drove through a mild blizzard and I realised I had the wrond clothes for this weather! Arriving at our muddy and wet campsite mid afternoon, my hiking shoes began to leak and my socks were soaking wet. I was going to need new boots. We drove the short distance into CODY - a larger town established my Buffalo Bill Cody, famous for his wild west shows (See the movie Hidalgo. More modern that you would like, it has a wide street and shops selling cowboy clothing and not much else. At the top end of the street are 5 museums, more disney than wild west so I gave it a miss, but i DID find an outdoors shop and picked up some leather hiking boots for $40! Bargain! We stopped in Cody for dinner (too wet to cook at camp) and had pizza for $5 each. Back at the tents, I did some much needed laundry and chatted to some fellow campers - both American with intriguing life stories! It really was muddy, cold and miserable. Not a highlight. June 1st Wet tents got packed away and we left the site - I ceremonially dumped my old and soggy Ariat boots in the trash - useless, despite waterproofing them before I left home. Shame on you Ariat! In the distance we could see the start of Yellowstone Park and it was here we would spend the next 3 days.

American diary part 9 South Dakota

Well - it's been over a week since my last blog and I'm now in San Francisco! There's too much to write about in one hour (which is about all the time I have) so I'll try to cover the highlights since Chicago.... May 26th We left Chicago on a grey day (we had the best weather) and headed west again skirtin Lake Michigan which we couldn't see. This was a long day of driving for Dan and hours of sitting on the van reading books, ipod listening, sleeping, or staring out at the scenery. To be honest there wasn't much to see! We crossed 2 state lines: Minnesota (home to the movie FARGO and very scandinavian) and Wisconsin where we stopped in Milwaukeee for lunch. a city known for 4 things 1) Beer (lots of breweries) 2) socialism 3) German based culture 4) The tv show Happy Days (I may have got that last one wrong). It was raining hard so we stayed inside a covered market and had some lunch, then back on the van. More driving took us to the Mississipi river where we camped for one brief night - I cooked on the ground (no table) and in the dark (no lights)but it turned out OK! May 27th The Great American Prairie covers a number of mid western states including Idaho, which we crossed for a short while before entering South Dakota and many hours of endless grassy plains. I found this scenery fascinatin - old style farms with grain silos and wooden barns, white picket fences, small copsed trees. It was not unlike parts of the south of England. Other states further south in the great plains are more bleak and known as The Corn Belt for the endless acres of corn which grows there. Anyway, our destination in South Dakota was the Badlands. This region of rocky hills rises out of the plains as a result of geological happenings millions of years ago, so called by the French and Indians because it was bad to cross through. Once a sea bed, it contains fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures, and has coloured stripes within the rock giving it a strange appearance. We spent 3 hours in the heart of the rocks to walk several trails and view out across the plains where many of the indian wars took place, and Dances with Wolves was filmed. A highlight here was to see herds of wild buffalo roaming the plains. Before the white man came there were millions, which were hunted almost to nothing. Reintroduced last century they are making a comeback. We also saw several huge 'towns' where Prairie dogs live in burrows and pop their heads up to see what's going on! Our camp that night was incredible at the Badlands Ranch and Resort. A storm was brewing and we were offered the use of a cabin with 24 beds for just $10 each. Of course we took it! It was home to a ranching couple who live there in the winter and hire it out in summer as part of the camp services. It was filled with wacky photos, stuffed animals, trinkets and wierd furniture, but it was comfy and dry! Before sunset we took a ride on horses along the white river and saw the den of a Mountain Lion and the Badlands as the sun went down. Magic. We then had a massive storm, lightening, thunder, rain which lit up the plains. The early pioneers who settled here must have been tough! May 28th Leaving the Badlands we stopped at Waldrug - a shop famous for having over 500 adverts along the I90 interstate and built up over 60 years. It's just a tacky souvenir stop. South Dakota has a lot to offer. We visited the famous Mount Rushmore monument to see the 4 US presidents carved into the granite, each head 20ft high. the mountain itself is stunning, granite peaks covered with pine forest. The monument seems smaller than expected but is still impressive. A short film told us about how they used dynamite and 17 years of smoothing the rock to arrive at the final images. This attracts Americans from all over and I can see why it generates national pride. However, it was not at all tacky and the visitor experience was very dignified. The weather again turned bad and we had rain and cloud. Arriving at our campsite, we realised that there was a long, long walk to the loos and showers and with SNOW on the ground we decided to hire a cabin and share the cost between all of us. So, like The Waltons, we all slept in a log cabin in a meadow for the night! It was my turn to cook, so I warmed everyone up with a sausage casserole - a Grant family favourite!!! May 29th Close to Mount Rushmore is Thunderhead Mountain. The Native American Indians wanted a memoral to show that their culture had great heroes too, so in 1941 they invited the same sculptor to create a statue to Crazy Horse, a warrior who led many battles including Little Big Horn - Custer's last stand. This is HUGE. His head is the only part completed after 60 years, since they are relying on donations and will not accept money from the government who broke so many treaties with the Indians. All 4 heads from Rushmore would fit into Crazy Horse's head! It will take them a long time to finish this and the original sculptor has long since died, his family are continuing. It's still a good place to visit. After both monuments, we visited Custer State Park. This is not the site of his last stand, but a park named after General Custer from his prescence here to scope the land and look for gold, whilst controlling the indians. We did a nice walk around a lake, and saw an original stockade. The park also has plentiful wildlife, including more Buffalo! Our next stop was something I had looked forward to ever since booking the trip..... Devil's Tower, Wyoming.