California trip Aug 09 #1 – Stopover in Calgary
Calgary. An unexpected stopover. Hadn’t noticed in my itinerary that I’d be stopping overnight in Calgary on the way to San Francisco. Didn’t realise til the Air Canada desk at Heathrow spelt it out for me. Heathrow was a nightmare. I followed the signs for ‘Flight Connections’, after disembarking from my comfy BMI flight down from Manchester, only to find, when I finally asked someone where I was, that ‘they should have taken those signs down’, and that I was now a long way from where I ought to be, and landside. The woman at the Air Canada desk was very understanding and helpful. I went through security again, and sat at the gate tapping away at my iPhone, found a gay B&B in Calgary, and booked a room, before boarding my transatlantic flight. (Well I wasn’t going to stay in some faceless Holiday Inn, after all!) We landed 20mins early, but the luggage took 90mins to get to the conveyor belt, so it was 9pm before I was being shown my very comfy room in the very welcoming and friendly Westways B&B. A very retro, 1910 building with everything Victorian they could lay their hands on, Westways was old (in Canadian terms) and lovely. The sky-scrapers of central Calgary rose around it, overshadowing it, in quite an eerie way. Canada’s 3rd city is split into four districts with a grid of streets and avenues, and has a No. 216, 25th Avenue, in the NW, the NE, the SE, and – where Westways is – the SW. Probably the most interesting thing about Calgary, that I could gleen, in my very brief, unexpected stopover. Montreal was SO much more interesting! I hear tell that Vancouver is too. I should visit.
Why the critique? Well, I suppose when it boils down to it, as an Englishman, I am so in love with the rich and ancient human history that piles up layer after layer in the landscape of the British Isles, that the great expanses of North America, where the remnants of human history are sparse and hard to find (save for the recent thin crust of 20th century habitation) lack much appeal for me – on that score, at least. The natural history, on the other hand – the main focus of my holiday, once the work is done – is breathtaking, and I eagerly await it!
California trip #2 – Warming my Heart in San Francisco
Well, I have fallen in love with San Francisco. It only took 24hours. Conference done and dusted – and a successful one, too, with two good connections and good feedback for my presentation – on Saturday evening I at last was able to ‘kick back’ and begin to relax. The evening began with the conference reception at the Asian Art Museum, where we were treated to lovely Californian wine and an enormous spread of sushi, which I tucked into with gusto. The Samurai exhibit was small but very interesting. However by far the most impressive of all the exhibits was a 12th century wooden statue of the Boddhisatva Avalokitesvara, (male aspect of the female Boddhisatva, Tara) which still carried with the power and presence of a deity, and made quite an impression on me. It was quite humbling and quite an honour to stand before it.
The evening then continued with a visit to San Francisco’s gay district, on Castro. I have to say that I found this much more appealing than Manchester’s Canal Street gay district, which has very much lost its shine since the 1990s. As well as a number of bars and clubs, Castro includes restaurants, and a whole range of different
shops, catering to the gay community. The Twin Peaks bar, moreover, caters to everyone. Quite in contrast to Manchester’s Canal Street, this bar was full over men over 30 – some indeed quite elderly – as well as younger men, and women of a similar range of ages. This was SO refreshing, and I immediately liked the bar, its atmosphere, and fell to talking with people at the bar, and had a thoroughly good night! People in this town are so friendly!
The following morning, I got a lift with one of the new friends I had made in Twin Peaks bar – a retired Judge – in his Lexus, around the town and over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito, where he dropped me off before heading off further north. Sausalito is a lovely little place, and I had a delicious Calm Chowder at one of the pier restaurants, and wandered up and down the sea front until finally getting the ferry back across the bay to the Ferry Building at San Francisco. There was a couple on the boat, too, who took my photo for
Back in the City, I of course then had to take a ride on the Cable Car, before finally returning to the hotel, tired but beaming after a truly delightful twenty four hours in friendly, welcoming San Francisco!
California trip #3 – Yosemite National Park pt1
For just a short, brief moment – maybe two or three minutes – today, I tasted solitude in the ancient wilderness. I was alone, for a few minutes, on the trail, and stopped. All I could hear was the rustle of the pine needles, and the scuffling of a tiny squirrel nearby. Its mate stood upright, watching me intently. A black-headed green bird pecked at the ground. And the giant sequoias around me rose up, up, up into
the sky, majestic, silent, brittle, in the dry, dry heat. It was a sweet moment, and I will cherish it.
The rest of the day was filled with people, cars, the busy to-ing and fro-ing of Californian life and of the immense tourist machine that is Yosemite National Park. The drive was reasonably easy – initial nerves some nine months since I last drove on the right-hand side of the road, in Portugal last November, were quickly overcome, and the automatic hire car was very easy to drive, and I was, of course in no hurry, happy to
keep within the low speed limits of North America. Wamona Hotel, in South Yosemite, is a lovely old place, and a welcome respite from the heat, though I have to say my bathroom-less, window-less room is grossly
overpriced at $150 per night, though I’m not sure I wish I’d spent the $220 on a room with a bathroom and window. After four nights at $225 per night in the luxury of the San Francisco Marriott, it’s perhaps no
bad thing to be spending a little less.
Mariposa Grove, and the Grizzly Giant, the Bachelor and the Three Graces – the largest of the trees here in the South of the Park, were all sights worth seeing, despite the crowds around them, made all the more
worthwhile by my moment’s solitude with smaller trees and the wildlife, on the way up the hill. Sitting on the veranda of the old wooden hotel building, in the cool of the evening, full with good homely fare from the hotel restaurant, I am content with a day well spent, experiencing the natural wonders of California, a landscape filled with beauty, if not with much in the way of human history – certainly none that the tourist machine tells of, beyond the early 19th century.
California trip #4 – Yosemite National Park pt2
A whole day discovering more of Yosemite, after leaving Wawona in a bit of a huff – woken at 5.30am by hoovers downstairs, let alone the couple nextdoor pee-ing all night in their bathroom which was next to my room, through a door in my room that was locked. Don’t get me wrong – the Wawona is ok, for £40 a night. For £100 a night, it is a rip-off, and this rather spoilt my stay. Never mind – away promptly at 8am, I drove first up to Glacier Point. One often comes across hyperbole on tourist info boards – especially perhaps in the insular-minded USA. But I have to agree, at Glacier Point one is indeed treated to one of “the most spectacular views on earth”.
From there I went down to the Yosemite valley floor, got some grub from the Village Store, and drove back to Cathedral Beach, to enjoy a picnic by the river. This was as idyllic as you could ask for!
Finally, then, I headed out, and stopped off to take a look at the Sequoias in Tuolumne Grove. They were smaller than the ones in Mariposa Grove, but there were less people, and it was a better experience. And
then, in just a few moments, the entire trip to Yosemite changed. On the way back up. At a corner, already a little out of breath, I was again alone.
I saw, in passing, in the corner as the path wound up the hill, was a dead tree, barely taller than me, but in the classic shape of a cactus, tall straight trunk up to the middle, then a U-bend of two curving branches reaching up to left and right, the one on the left about two-thirds the height of the one on the right. In the middle, just below the split, was a very small protruding branch, broken off, gnarled. Suddenly I realised that the little broken off branch looked like a face – the face of a wise old man of the forest, standing proud, arms upstretched. I stopped, surrounded by the silence, transfixed by the old man of the forest. My hands felt tingly, heavy and electric, and the forest around me almost crackled with life in the silence of the wood, as my feet felt suddenly rooted deep, deep into the forest floor. I lifted my right hand to my solar plexus and breathed a deep sigh of contentment, a huge smile spread across my face. It felt as if for a moment I had touched the Mind that had made this amazing land, long before the arrival of Man.
I spoke aloud, thanking this Great Spirit for this moment when it seemed he had revealed himself to me. A cricket chirruped loudly in response, and a large butterfly appeared, circled around me, and disappeared off into the wood. There was a rustle and all of a sudden one of those little striped squirrels came running out of the forest straight toward me, skirting around me just in time to dash across the trail and disappear into the forest above. It was sheer magic. You couldn’t ask for better. I breathed another huge sigh of contentment,
and began to tread the trail again, up the hill, as the voices of excited Dutch children ahead began to bring the 21st century back into focus.
California trip #5 – Humboldts National Park
I stopped overnight, some two hours north of Tuoloumne Grove and the Yoesemite National Park, at the Hanford House Inn, in Sutter Creek. This was a lovely guest house – plush luxury for two-thirds the price of Wawona – about the same standard as the Marriot in San Francisco, for half the price. Sutter Creek is one of several old Gold towns on Route 49 north from Yosemite, but its tourist industry has preserved much of the charm of the old west town better than most. Well worth a visit, though I didn’t have time to go down the Gold Mine that looked curiously inviting!
Driving up the Gold trail today I discovered that the heat of northern California in August really is bigger down in the valleys than it is up in the high peaks of Yosemite. Past Sacramento and on up to Clear Lake I followed the suggestion of one of the tourist magazines to stop for lunch at Lakeport. This, however, proved very disappointing – much more run down than Sutter Creek, and the only lakeside eatery I could see was part of a Motel that didn’t look very inviting for casual drop-in guests. I skipped lunch and drove on, choosing instead to take the scenic route further on Route 20 west to the coast, in order to take the old Route 1 north to the Humboldts National Park. I’m glad I did. A late picnic lunch at a little campsite in the heart of the Jackson
Demonstration National Forest proved very peaceful – indeed the whole forest was cool and peaceful, on the road west, and when I finally reached Route 1 the scenic views of the Pacific were well worth it.
Arriving in Redwood country in the early evening, the first tourist trap to greet one is the Legett drive through tree, which was frankly exploitative, and clearly hacked with a chainsaw – and that not so long ago. But soon after the Avenue of the Giants proper begins, and the magnificence, the majesty of these enormous trees, proves truly awe inspiring. My room at the Myers Inn in Myers Flat was comfortable, the hostess fabulously enthusiastic, informative and helpful, and after a rather stodgy meal at the only restaurant for 10miles, I spent an hour simply wandering among the trees, in the cool of the evening, thankfully all to myself. It was quiet, peaceful, like a cathedral closed to the public, cool, and yet very, very much alive, albeit in a slow,
ponderous, very slowly pulsing way. These Sequoia trees – the ones in Yosemite, these clinging to the northern Californian coast, and a third group in the wilds of China – are all that is left, according to the
fossil record, of a Redwood forest that once covered almost the entire planet.
California trip #6 – Redwood Country
The visitor centre at Humboldts National Park includes an exhibit on the Lolangkok Sinkyone tribe who lived here before the coming of the white man. There is no history. This is pre-history, with utensils, tools, beads etc. The difference from any other exhibit of Neolithic life is that this exhibit includes photographs – 19th century ones, but photographs nonetheless – of the people themselves. As someone used to seeing such exhibits all over Europe, where there is, it must be said, much more information, much more detail, much more understanding of peoples several thousand years dead, this exhibit was quite eerie, quite odd – more like a tour of Auschwitz with all the shoes and spectacles and human hair. “Here lie the remains of a people decimated by genocide,” was the information plaque I would like to have put on this exhibit. It is sad, but there really does seem to be two Americas. The one I met in San Francisco was warm, open, friendly, liberal. The other – all too often the tourist kind we in Europe have learnt to hate – is simply ignorant, arrogant, and loud. There were several of the latter in the Visitors’ Centre, and I was glad to leave sooner rather than later.
The hostess at the Myers Inn, however, told me a wonderful story of how the logging company wanted to take out a whole part of the forest, and all the womens’ clubs and institutes in the region got together to protest, and raise the cash to buy this part of the forest, and grant it to the National Park. This area is now called the Womens’ Grove, and includes the mysterious Albino Tree, which, according to my hostess, was known by the ‘Indians’ as the ‘Spirit of the Forest’. I love this other America. I can’t say I got much spiritual communication from this genetic deformity, however – it was simply a very unusual brilliant white fir tree – an natural oddity.
Further up the Avenue of the Giants there are indeed some really big trees – the Tall Tree, at 360ft apparently something like the ninth tallest living thing on Earth (the others are in Redwood National Forest, to the north, and in China, where the other remaining Redwoods live.) Walking alone in this part of the forest one really gets a sense of the ancient woods of the world – something almost pre-mammalian, let alone pre-human, ancient, almost other-worldly.
At last, on the very border with Oregon, I came to my last stop – the oceanfront guest house, Casa Rubio, where I had a delightful room, with my own door out onto the beautiful garden, my own deckchairs from which to catch the late afternoon sun, and my own view of the rolling white chargers of the Pacific. This was a truly special place to end my holiday, walking along the beach collecting pebbles and driftwood, sunning myself in my little part of the garden above the beach, strolling down the beach later to enjoy a really excellent dinner at the Nautical Inn, with a fine bottle of Russian River Chardonnay from the Napa Valley, and enjoy the sunset from my table.