Whitburn in Autumn

Whitburn in Autumn

Just a few weeks after we’d returned from our rather epic road trip to the southwestern desert, we embarked on a much more British adventure up to the North-East to visit Kas’s family.

I think there was the motive that Kas needed to go and spend time with her sister planning stuff for her wedding, which was (as is always the case in Britain) on the very demanding schedule of being only a year away. This meant Kas spent a big chunk of the weekend looking at or trying on dresses, while I spent much of it driving around taking photos of things.

While we were there we had an evening taking photos on the beach at Whitburn, followed by a Saturday where I dropped Kas off in Newcastle and then drove back to Sunderland to take a few more photos, then back past the Angel of the North and into central Newcastle again to fetch Kas back.

On the Sunday morning Kas and I went down to the beach in Whitburn again to take a few photos on what turned out to be a beautiful autumn morning.

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The Final Leg

The Final Leg

And so came the day that comes at the end of all good holidays – the one where you have most of a day to kill before your flight home, and no particular enthusiasm for doing anything. The one where you talk a lot about what you’ve been doing instead of actually having another day of doing. The one where it hits you. The end-of-holiday blues were beginning to settle in.

VanessaCarlton.jpgWe had decided if we set off early enough we could have time to scoot into central San Francisco and do a bit of final shopping and have a nice breakfast.  Our flight wasn’t until early evening, so we weren’t in any great hurry to get to the airport.  We got up fairly early and headed off.  After a brief stop in Monterey for fuel and coffee we headed up the main road towards San Francisco.  It proved an interesting drive as there was some early morning mist rolling in off the Pacific.

I remember turning on the car radio and listening to an America’s Top Ten with Casey Kasem, or something similar.  One song really stuck in my mind, “1000 miles” by Vanessa Carlton, I guess because it’s a bit sad and very American, and it kind of summed up the mood I was in at the time.  To this day I can’t hear the song without thinking of the holiday, and specifically that Sunday morning drive. It didn’t seem to be very long before we were in the southern suburbs of the Bay Area and heading up the freeway towards the airport.  It was early so we passed straight by the airport and headed for downtown San Francisco.  We parked up under Union Square and went for a walk around.

To end with a sense of completeness we went back to the café where we’d had breakfast twice at the start of the holiday, and had another fine bowl of homemade granola, double chocolate muffin with extra chocolate and some traditional American coffee.

UnionSquare.jpgWe then went to the shop where Kevin had bought his new wide-angle zoom lens at the start of the holiday.  It had not been functioning properly, and I think the internal software was not compatible with the new camera body I was using.  This meant I had been unable to use any of the manual programme settings on the camera and had ended up with most of the photos taken with this lens looking a bit washed out.  I could probably have sent the lens off to Sigma when I got home, but I felt more inclined just to change the lens.  Thankfully the man in the shop was very nice and agreed to take the lens back and swap it for a more expensive Canon branded one.  He didn’t really have to do this because I had been in possession of the thing for 3 weeks ( and it was looking a bit grimy ) but anyway he took it back and I just paid him the difference in price between the Sigma and the Canon.  The Canon lens worked perfectly straight away, and although I had paid him in total the same amount of money I would have paid for this lens in the UK, I at least got a good quality functioning lens, so I left feeling that I had got a reasonable deal.

And so back to the car again.  It was still only a little after lunchtime, but we had really run out of enthusiasm by now and just wanted to get on our way.  We got up to the airport in no time and found the car rental return quickly.  They were perfectly happy to accept the car as it was, despite the fact it had changed colour from white to desert red.  This was probably because we’d paid for all the upgrade insurances, so we could have just deposited a pile of twisted metal and it would have been covered.  Anyway, they got us bussed up to the terminal quickly and we checked in.

SF_Airport.jpgWe were very, very early and had about 3 hours to kill in the airport.  San Francisco isn’t the largest terminal I’ve been to and the shopping didn’t last long, so after walking to one end and having a coffee, we walked halfway back and bought a couple of souvenirs for our friends James & Emma who had been looking after the house for us. We then settled down in one of the hotel bars and began to work our way through our few remaining cash dollars.  We had enough for a couple of beers and a couple of cokes each, and plenty of time to drink through them.

The bar is one of the ones which shows sports on big screens, so that the punters have something to do and something to talk about.  It stops you getting depressed while waiting for your plane.  On this day, we got the twin delights of watching a San Francisco Giants game on one screen, and an English Premiership game from the previous afternoon on another. We can’t remember who the Giants were playing, but the Premiership game was Liverpool vs Newcastle Utd.

Anfield.jpgWe’d never watched English football with an American commentary before ( or since ) and it was a little weird.  The commentator had the strange opinion that the English season on his channel didn’t really start until they’d been to their first game at Anfield.  This is a strange notion for we English ( unless you’re a Liverpool fan ), because Liverpool haven’t been the best team in England for many years.  Nevertheless, it proved to be the typical Liverpool / Newcastle encounter with lots of enthusiast tackling.

And that was it. The flight home was uninteresting and uneventful in the way that a 10 hour flight should be.  The car was where we had left it 23 days before, and it started first time.  The drive home was uneventful and when we got home we had a massive pile of laundry to do, and a bucket load of films to get developed. You have been looking at some of the photos as you’ve been ploughing through this diary.

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Our final full day in the USA, and we had decided that it would be a good day for doing as little as possible, we were just going to look around Monterey and do lots of eating, drinking and relaxing. We started with breakfast at a local family run place on the main street through Pacific Grove.  We can’t remember the name, but it was pretty average, so not much more to say really.

Monterey Pebble Beach.jpgWe then took the car back to the motel and decided we were going to walk along the coast down into central Monterey, if we could manage that far, so we headed through a couple of blocks of houses until we reached the coast, and turned east towards Monterrey.  The weather was bright and sunny but there was a distinct chill in the air.  I don’t know whether this is usual for Monterey in early September, but it was quite refreshing after weeks of scorching temperatures.

The walk was quite varied, with some stretches where you are right on the sea side, and others where you cut inland a little to walk through shops and round waterfront buildings. I believe this is a part of the famous 17-mile drive.  It was well paved, flat and easy going, so we just ambled along and watched the folks going by and coming the other way, everyone just doing everyday things.

Monterey Lavender.jpgWe eventually found the centre of Monterey by cutting inland slightly, and were fairly unimpressed.  It is the centre of a moderate sized town, and has what you would expect, a few hotels, a few shops, and a few cafes.  We stopped in one place which was both bookshop and café, and had a quick latte and read the local newspapers. When we left here, we immediately got caught up in a bit of a crowd milling around on the street, and we heard the sound of marching bands approaching.  So we decided to stay put and see what was going on.  I’m still not sure what the event was, but it had a selection of floats, marching bands, the local police and fire departments, and lots of local people dressed in a variety of costumes. I’m sure there must have been some greater purpose to the whole thing, but we weren’t aware of it – not that we really cared, it passed the time for a while.

By this time, we were both getting hungry again and decided some lunch was in order.  We ended up in a small bar which had outside seating and which brewed their own beer.  The beer was definitely cold and wet.  By the time we’d had a nibble and a couple of beers we were feeling distinctly drunk, and also distinctly relaxed.

Monterey Square.jpgWe decided to return the same way we came, except this time we a) needed more restrooms and b) kept stopping on the way for a rest.  We stopped at a small beach for 10 minutes and watched the locals relaxing.  We stopped in a small shop selling general novelty items and tourist tat.  We searched in vain for someone selling ice creams.  Eventually, we were back near home so we skipped the ice creams and crashed in the motel for a while.

We then got up, cleaned up, and walked down into Pacific Grove for our final dinner in the US. We spent a good half hour wandering up and down the centre of Pacific Grove trying to decide on what we wanted.  Kev then suggested one final Mexican to finish the holiday, and we spent another half hour or so wandering around trying to find a Mexican restaurant.  Pacific Grove must be the only place we went to in the US that doesn’t have Mexican restaurants on every corner.

Pacific Grove Mexicali.jpgWe eventually found one, though.  It was pretty close to, but just off Lighthouse Avenue, and so I think it must have been Peppers Mexicali Café at 170 Forest Avenue.  It was an absolute gem.  We had to wait a few minutes to get a table, but this didn’t stop us from getting a beer, and once we did get to sit down the food was terrific.  We had lots of chips and beer and then some main courses which proved to be both substantial and very tasty.  This was probably the best Mexican food we had eaten all holiday, and that is saying a lot.  So all in all this was the perfect culinary experience for us and we whiled away the evening talking about all the great places we had been, and which ones we’d like to go back to some day.

I think it was during this meal that we both finally were hit with the fact that the holiday was over, and all that remained was to drive back to San Francisco and fly home.  This caused the expected amount of sorrow, and we felt obliged to drown the sorrow with some more beer, as you do.

We made our final walk along Lighthouse Avenue up to the motel and fell into bed, having already sorted out most of what we needed to be handy for the following day.

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Highway 1

Highway 1

Mission_Santa_Barbara.jpgThe breakfast at the Bella Maggiore was extremely good, so we left in a good mood and with full stomachs.  We hadn’t really decided where to go or what to do on this day, so the whole thing was a bit hit-and-miss.  We started by driving into Santa Barbara.  After some time of getting lost on one-way streets we eventually arrived at a big open plaza which is alongside the old mission from which the town gets its name.  We didn’t have any loose change to pay for parking so we didn’t stop.  Instead, we drove up a hill behind the mission and visited some botanical gardens instead.  This had a fairly interesting selection of native and non-native plants, and the walk round kept us occupied for a couple of hours.  However, our hearts weren’t really with it, so we had a quick lunch and headed further north, to see how far we could get towards Monterrey.

The drive north of Santa Barbara was a bit dull.  You leave the coast and pass by a number of unremarkable towns, each of which seemingly has its own bizarre claim to fame.  San Luis Obispo was home to the first ever motel.  Gilroy is the world’s garlic capital ( and you can smell it as you drive past ).  San Simeon is home to the Hearst Castle ( www.hearstcastle.com ), which is apparently California’s second busiest tourist attraction.

Hearst_Castle.jpgWe stopped at Hearst Castle for a little look around, but once we saw the entry prices we decided not to bother.  It’s quite expensive to get into, and I don’t think either of us was that interested anyway.  So we just had a very expensive cup of bad coffee in the main visitor centre, and then returned to the car.

From San Simeon, the road north towards Monterey is the famous part of California State Route 1.  This is famed for being the most beautiful piece of coastline in the world.  I’m not sure about that, but it is pretty dramatic.  The road really does stick to the coastline pretty much all the way for the 80-100 mile journey, apart from a brief trip inland to go through Big Sur.  As the coastline is an alternating series of headlands and valleys, and is quite steep sided, you are constantly turning and going up or down.  This was the only part of the holiday where I decided I didn’t like the RAV4.  The suspension just seemed a bit dodgy and after an hour or so I was starting to get distinctly sick. We made a couple stops at likely looking pull offs and took a few photos.  The road was quiet and the weather was very good, so we weren’t in any particular hurry to finish the drive.

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By the time we arrived in Carmel, the afternoon was starting to look very much like evening.  We liked the sound of a couple of the motels in Pacific Grove, so we picked our way through the various little towns of Carmel and Monterey until we got onto another traditional American main street in Pacific Grove.  At the end of this were the motels we were interested in.  The first place we tried was the Butterfly Grove Inn.  This looked best from the Moon Guide.  The rooms they had available were very good, but were also much more expensive than the book hinted.  The cheapest they had free was around $150 a night, which seemed a bit lavish. So we went straight over the road to another motel.  We can’t remember the name, but it may well have been the Seabreeze Inn.  Anyway, the rooms looked OK and we were getting too tired to argue, so we checked in for our last two night in the US.  We were both getting a bit hungry as well, so we had a quick shower and got ready to go out for the evening.  The one quirk of the motel room was that we couldn’t get the shower to switch off.  The tap was very stiff, and despite our best efforts we just couldn’t get the flow to stop completely.  So it’s just as well that the noise of running water couldn’t be heard from inside the room because of the air conditioning.  We did report this to the reception desk, but they never did fix it while we were there.We decided to walk down into Pacific Grove rather than take the car.  This was partly because we had been in the car for most of the day, so we wanted to stretch our legs, and partly because it was only a mile or so, so we decided we could safely both have a couple of drinks and walk home rather than risking a drive whilst under the influence.

Pacific Grove.jpgWe got down into Pacific Grove to discover there was some sort of convention of 1950’s/60’s cars.  There were loads of very well turned out examples belonging to a wide variety of people.  I won’t try to list the various models because I don’t know my American cars at all, but most were very much from the days when cars were big and showy, with massive engines and various sticky-out fins and other bits.

We ended up eating in an Italian restaurant on the main street.  The food was good and the restaurant was very civilised but we got ripped off over the house wine, which was considerably more expensive than many of the bottles on the menu. In Europe, house wine is normally a euphemism for the stuff you put in your car engine to stop it freezing up in winter, so you expect it to be considerably cheaper than anything which arrives in a proper bottle.

Never mind, you live and learn.

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Freeway Frenzy

Freeway Frenzy

So far, we hadn’t really been thinking too much about the timings of anything, but this morning we got conscious of the fact that we now had just three nights left, and we had to get all the way from the south-east side of Los Angeles to San Francisco, and neither of us fancied trying to do this in a short time. Anyway, we had the whole of the California coast to travel along.  However, I think we had both decided now that we would spend the whole of the remaining time traveling back, rather than trying to do any more exploration into National Parks or other scenic areas.  So we spent some time at breakfast confirming our plans, and setting targets.

We agreed that our objective for this day was to set ourselves a base for spending that last two days going up the California coast on the way home.  So we targeted Ventura as an overnight stay.

I-10 Los Angeles.jpgNow, to those of you who have been to Los Angeles and like it, this may seem as if we were skipping through one of the best parts of America, if not the best.  Doubtless Los Angeles does have plenty to offer, but we decided that we a) didn’t have enough time to do it justice and b) weren’t that interested in the tinseltown and theme park aspects of the city.  Once you take away those parts, it’s just a big city, so we decided to limit ourselves to driving through the place.

We headed off from Twentynine Palms and followed Highway 62 west all the way round to where it joins I-10.  We got out the Rand McNally detail map of Los Angeles and Orange County, and tried to identify the best freeway route through the city up to Ventura.  It was the middle of the morning, so we were hoping that the traffic wasn’t going to be too heavy.

So our experience of Los Angeles was roughly as follows.  Firstly, if you include all the suburbs and satellites, it is very, very big.  Probably a hundred or so miles from the eastern satellites along I-10 to the western satellites like Thousand Oaks.  It took a long time to drive through, even though we were moving at a reasonable speed the whole time.  Secondly, there are a lot of people there, and most of these seem to be trying to get somewhere else.  Even though it was mid-morning, we were trolling along a complex series of 3, 4 and even 5 lane highways and the whole time I would describe the traffic as busy.  Not heavy, but sufficient that you had to check the mirrors on both sides whenever you want to change lanes.  There was no time on the whole drive through where a lane change didn’t involve negotiation. Someone else always has to slow down or speed up to create a gap big enough for you to get in.  Thirdly, a lot of the famous bits are signposted, and sometimes visible, from the freeways as you pass through, such as the Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood Boulevard, the Downtown area, and so on.  Convenient arrangement – you could almost feel as if you’ve been there without having to stop. However, we did have to stop when we found a particularly packed stretch of freeway through downtown, which had roadworks compounding the already heavy traffic.

Hollywood Bowl.JPGAnd finally, the roads themselves.  Angelinos have named all of their freeways, but the names don’t always tell you where the road is going.  Some of the names also don’t follow the route numbers, so the “Donald Duck Freeway” might be I-10 at one point, and California-15 a few miles up.  And many of the numbered routes merge with each other and then split up further on.  The names go in pretty much straight lines, but if you want to follow a route number you can find yourself trying to pick up numbers from the signs and making right or left turns at major junctions.  I’m glad that we had the Rand McNally Atlas, and that there were two of us.  One could watch the signs and shout out lane changes and turns to the other.  I think Kas was driving on this stretch, and she did very well to stick to the chosen route, continue at a fair speed and not hit anyone.  I really wouldn’t have wanted to do that on my own.

We eventually emerged into slightly lighter traffic and decided it was lunchtime.  We needed both a fuel stop, and a drink.  We pulled off into a shopping mall in Thousand Oaks, I think, and bought hot coffees from a local shop to accompany the sandwiches and Pringles that we had brought ( left over from the Joshua Tree hotel fridge ).  Getting back on to the freeway in the correct direction proved challenging, but we got there eventually, and so we progressed on towards Ventura.

Ventura is a moderate sized town in between LA and Santa Barbara.  We decided to stay here partly to see whether there was any quick way to get to the nearby Channel Islands National Park ( www.nps.gov/chis/ ).  However, although Ventura is home to the visitor centre, there isn’t much you can do unless you pre-book transport, so we didn’t bother.  I doubt we would have had the time to visit anyway, because we were only staying for the one night, and it was already 2pm when we arrived.

Ventura Downtown.jpgHowever, we had decided on the Bella Maggiore Inn as a stop-over for the night based on the write-up in the Moon Guide.  This is an old Spanish colonial mansion built around a central courtyard.  It was an excellent place, full of character.  We got a smallish double room facing in towards the ( now covered ) central courtyard.  The room had a balcony view over the courtyard.

We decided to have an afternoon of doing very little, so we went up to the local shopping mall and wandered around for a bit.  Once you’ve been to one indoor mall you’ve been to them all.  It’s a building full of chain stores and little boutiques.  It could have been anywhere.  Kev got a new watch strap in Sears, but that was about it.  Not a very exciting afternoon.

When we got back to the Inn we parked up and went for a stroll up the old main street in Ventura to try to identify somewhere for dinner, and to get a nice coffee.  It is like my mental picture of a small town America main street, with a selection of 2-3 storey buildings containing a mix of family run shops and restaurants.  It’s worth a walk up and down here.  We decided that if we ever win the lottery and don’t have to work any more, we might consider Ventura as a place to relocate.

For dinner, we decided on a place which did half Thai and half Peruvian.  Sounds like a bit of a funny mixture, and so it proved to be.  The food was fine, but the atmosphere was a bit strange and it proved to be the first place we’d visited which wouldn’t accept a traveller’s cheque in payment.  Every other place we’d tried this was more than happy to treat an Amex Traveller’s Cheque as if it was cash.

So we ended up having to pay on a credit card, which left us feeling a bit peeved.

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More Joshua Trees

More Joshua Trees

A new day dawned, and another whole day in Joshua Tree was in the offing.  We began with the now customary free breakfast courtesy of Best Western, and then drove to the nearby mall for lunch items and more water. Always more water. And Pringles. It’s the two things most essential on any trip to the desert – fluid and salt replacement. So technically they’re probably somewhere between health food and a survival kit.

We were feeling suitably refreshed and keen to attempt another walk, so we plumped for the nearby Fortynine Palms Oasis.  The entrance to this area is just to the west of our hotel, so it was pretty quick to get to.  We parked in a lot containing two other cars, and set off on our way over a hill, not knowing really what to expect or how long it would take.  The walk proved to be one of the most rewarding of the holiday, not because of the drama, or the sweeping views, but because of the little things.  It was a walk through what we English would describe as “rolling” hills – little ups and downs, nooks and crannies, small valleys and climbs.  We were surrounded all the way by much the same.  It was a quiet time too.  I think we passed two families coming back ( those whose cars were in the park when we arrived, presumably ) but then no one else for probably 2-3 hours.  The really interesting thing about this walk was the nature.  There aren’t big rocks, but there are a wide variety of plants that you pass by, and it is interesting ( as an English couple ) to see different types nestling in their little habitats.  The most striking were a variety of cactus which looks like a spiky red ball.  At first we didn’t really realize what these were until we passed one quite close to the path.  From then onwards we noticed them everywhere.

We eventually rounded one corner on the path and saw some trees up against a hillside in the distance.  These were the only trees we saw on the walk, and they looked like palms, so we put two and two together and guessed this was the oasis.  It took a bit more time to walk to them, but we were right.  I’m not sure what I expected at the oasis, probably some open water and an encampment of Bedouin, or something, but there were basically a few trees which had obviously found some water fairly close to the surface.  There was no water visible anywhere.  We didn’t count the palms, so we took it on trust that there were 49 of them, but you do wonder what would happen if one died, or another started growing.  Would the NPS engage in planting ( or removal ) to keep the number right, or would they change the name to Fortyeight Palms, or Fiftypalms Oasis, or would they just leave it as is, for the confusion of passing tourists ?  There is a danger in naming things after a number of trees, as the English town of Sevenoaks discovered in a particularly violent storm in the late 80s, when six of them fell over.  Meanwhile, back at the plot, the oasis did have some good photo opportunities, especially for use of the recently purchased wide angle zoom lens – these were quite large trees, and we were standing right amongst them.

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The walk back to the car was fairly uneventful, and was very lonely.  We got back to the car to find an otherwise empty car park.  Hmm, must be getting too hot for anyone other than the English to be outside.

So next we took a very short drive round to the Indian Cove campsite, mainly because the books said there were a couple of short hikes from the car park.  We ended up just driving around the empty campsite and decided that nothing looked very entertaining, and anyway, it was rapidly approaching mid afternoon and we felt lunch and a siesta coming on.  Back to the hotel for us, then.

IndianCove.jpgLater in the afternoon we were feeling a bit more lively and so headed off out again.  This time we entered the park via the entrance station in Joshua Tree and sped round to the car park at Hidden Valley.  This was apparently a popular place in the good old days of cattle rustling, so there was some history to the place.  There is a reasonable length hike on a fairly good and flat pathway through the valley.  It has an interpretive trail which covers some of the history but also the flora and fauna, so it’s worth doing.

Next we went round to Barker Dam for a bit more history.  Again, there is a short interpretive trail and hike on level ground here, and it is good for passing half an hour or so.

Somewhere around here we bumped into an English couple in a car who appeared to be totally lost.  They seemed to be driving around the park without any maps or guides trying to find the “good” bits.  Hmm, the maps and brochures are free guys, just pop to the Visitor Centre…….

After this we decided we had probably done enough walking for one day, so we drove back through the park for one final glimpse and a few photos of Joshua Trees before leaving by the east entrance at Twentynine Palms.

BarkerDam.jpgWe returned to our hotel to discover that the power was off.  Great news – no electricity means no light in the interior bathroom, so we had to shower and clean up by the light reflecting in through the window – just as well it was a bit earlier than other nights and there still was some light.  It also meant no air conditioning, which isn’t good.

It proved that the power cut was pretty localized, because we headed off towards the centre of Twentynine Palms and discovered lights on everywhere.  We ended up going into a Chinese restaurant, for a change, and it was pretty good.  It also had a few other people in ( not many, but a few ) and this was the first real sign that anyone else was actually in Twentynine Palms.  We almost had to wait for a table.

The power was still off at the Best Western when we got home, which meant trying to use the loo in complete darkness, but it magically came back on at some unknown point in the middle of the night, so that was OK then. We were beginning to think we were jinxed.  We’d spent a couple of weeks out in the desert and had been rained on, nearly hit by lightening, hailed on and encountered two power cuts.  I thought deserts were supposed to be dry, hot and sunny all the time.  Obviously not.

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Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is one of those places you must go to if you’re a fan of U2, just because they named an album after it.  The album doesn’t have any songs about Joshua Trees themselves, but there is a photo of one with the band on the album sleeve. The Joshua Tree featured on the album sleeve is apparently miles away in the Mojave Desert near Darwin, California.

joshuatree.jpgOn a previous trip to the US some of my friends recounted how they had visited the square in central San Francisco where they did a performance of “All Along the Watchtower” on the back of a truck which later got included on the Rattle & Hum album.  I usurped this by going to the Red Rocks arena near Denver in 1994 – the place where the Under a Blood Red Sky album was recorded.  So going to Joshua Tree was a bit of a spiritual journey really.  It’s just one of those things you have to do, just so you can see what U2 were going on about.

The Best Western in Twentynine Palms treated us to a free breakfast of pastries, cereals & coffee and we were off on our way to see what there was to see.  The first thing to see, as ever in a National Park, is the main Visitor Centre.  We picked up the usual collection of free papers, brochures, and snippets of useful information.  The most useful piece of information here came from one of the Rangers.  He told us that we would be well advised to plan to leave the park in mid afternoon and return in early evening, because we would find the temperature too hot to bear.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’d been to some hot places on this trip, so we didn’t really believe the guy, but we proceeded into the park with some caution nevertheless.  From the Visitor Centre you basically drive straight up a long straight road until you pass the fee station, and then you are into some mountains, so the road starts to wind a little.  You start seeing the tree themselves at around this point.  We failed our initial park orientation because we initially couldn’t tell the difference between the Joshua Trees and the Mojave Yuccas.  We just thought the Mojave Yuccas were baby Joshua Trees.  However, when you get up close the difference is more apparent.

First stop in the park was right over on the southern entrance at Cottonwood Springs.  There is a moderately strenuous hike leading over towards the Lost Palms Oasis, which leads you through an excellent desert landscape of low hills with exposed rocks,  sparse ( and spikey ) vegetation and not enough water.  I think the Oasis is aptly named, because we seemed to walk for ages, but couldn’t find any palms.   We eventually had to turn back for more water, as the normal allowance of 6 litres between us was running down quickly.  It was hot there, and there’s no shade at all.

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Having trudged back and swallowed loads more water we then drove back over the paved road towards the north entrance again.  The hike had taken us around 3 hours, and lunchtime was approaching.  We drove past the Ocotillo Patch turnoff, because Ocotillos don’t look that interesting from a distance, and then stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden, slightly further north.  Chollas are quite interesting.  They are alternately know as “Teddy Bear” Cacti.  They do, from a distance, look quite soft and fluffy, sort of like a plant  made out of pipe cleaners and cotton wool.  However, when you get close to them, you can tell that you really wouldn’t want to try cuddling them.  The barbs on the ends seem to be able to jump onto your clothes, or any other part that brushes against them.  This is how they propagate, I think.  They don’t seed much, and normally when you see a stand of them they are, in fact, a set of clones from a single specimen. Anyway, the slightest little brush against anything results in a whole crop of little barbs embedding themselves.  Wear gloves, long trousers, long sleeves, and so on, and don’t take children close to them.  They are very good for photography though.  There is a short interpretive trail around this area explaining the plants and there roles in the local ecosystem.  Quite interesting stuff.

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Having seen the Chollas we decided that the ranger was right, and that we really would like to go and lie down in a cold room for a couple of hours, so we shot off back to the hotel and had our lunch.

Suitably refreshed, we set off again at about 4pm to have a look at some other parts.  We went to the same entrance station and drove up the same road to look around some of the other stop offs we had seen on the way past in the morning.

We seem to remember a number of little stop-offs but can’t remember where they all were.  Most were probably from the parks at White Tank, Jumbo Rocks or Ryan.  At one, there is a rock formation called Arch Rock, which looks just like an elephant’s head.  The was also Split Rock, err, which has a split in it.  Another stop off resulted in us nestling under the bottom of a rock which also had a split in it.  Somewhere near Jumbo Rocks there is a rock formation right by the roadside that looks like a skull ( I think it is called Skull Rock ).  All of these were interesting and very photogenic.  If you can’t find anywhere good for a walk here, you can also just pull up by the roadside and take in a few sweeping vistas across a wide plain covered in the main event – the Joshua Trees themselves.

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None of the Joshua Trees by the roadside are the one from the U2 album sleeve, which is probably just as well, because if that one was here and signposted it would probably have been trampled to death by now.  But there are some pretty good specimens around, and if you want to do a reasonable copy of the sleeve photo you don’t really need the “actual” Joshua Tree, just one that look similar.  If you wait until sunset you could probably convince yourself that any one of them was the “actual” one.  No two Joshua Trees look alike ( or even vaguely similar ), but they are all pretty weird and they all make good photos.

We finished off the evening activity by driving up to the Keys View viewpoint.  From here you can get a tremendous view down across the lower desert valley towards Palm Springs, and the mountains behind.  You can also see the Salton Sea, and, if you know where to look, the San Andreas Fault, and one of the main canals taking Colorado River water across into LA.  The whole effect is great, especially if you arrive just before sunset, as we did.  As the sun decends in the west you get some great colour transitions, from the yellows and whites of day into softer yellows and oranges and then finally into reds and purples, before eventually there is just black with a few pinpoints of yellow street lights.  The whole effect is well worth sitting through, and we weren’t the only ones doing so, even though the park had been quiet all day.


When it was suitably dark, we returned to our trusty RAV4 and headed back home.  There was still time for a swift dip in the pool before getting ready to eat.  This evening we chose a small family run restaurant on the main road through Twentynine Palms ( name unknown ) which majored on serving substantial portions of typical American stuff – large steaks, salads, sandwiches, that sort of thing.

As usual, the food was good and the beer was cold and wet.

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Too Much Driving

Too Much Driving

The long and dull day started with free breakfast courtesy of Best Western and then a brief jaunt into the local mall to get more shampoo from Safeway and lunch from Subway again.

The reason why this was going to be a dull day was because it was going to mainly involve driving.  We set ourselves the target of getting to Joshua Tree National Park for the following day, which meant we had to cross all of Arizona and half of California to get there.  For those not familiar with the scale of American geography, that’s a long way.  It’s about 420 miles, and in England, 420 miles puts you into another country.  Or in the sea. If you live in the south you can maybe spend 420 miles getting to Scotland but firstly most people wouldn’t try to drive it in one day and secondly, Scotland is another country anyway.

Meteor Crater.jpgSo you obviously can’t drive that far without planning a few stops on the way.  First up was the Meteor Crater ( www.meteorcrater.com ).  It’s not very far from Winslow in the context of the day, but it was somewhere that Kas was keen on having a look at.  Kev had been before, but it was 8 years previously, so why not go again ?

After a little while it became obvious why not going again would have been preferable.  Firstly, Meteor Crater is privately owned.  That means that it has to be funded privately.  Although the owners claim they maintain the best interests of the site there isn’t actually a great deal there.  You can walk up to a viewing platform with various levels, from which you can peer into a hole.  OK, it’s a big hole, but when you are half a day from Grand Canyon, there are better holes nearby.  They have some of those telescope things which cost a quarter to use for a couple of minutes, but they don’t magnify enough for you to be able to tell what you’re looking at.  Then there is a large RV park, full of large RVs, which you probably have to pay for too.  And finally there is a visitor centre. For some reason, it seems to focus on space exploration.  Maybe because there’s only so much you can do in trying to describe a hole.  We didn’t bother with the film shows because we had already lost enthusiasm for the place.  There was also a café with a fairly limited selection of unappetizing looking snacks.  And to enjoy this tremendously underwhelming experience you have to pay $12 each.  Just as well we didn’t have a family in tow, we wouldn’t want to spend $50 for a place that kept us busy for a little over 30 minutes.  Anyway, we bought ourselves the first ( but not the last ) big bucket of coke and hot footed it back to the car to make as speedy an exit as we could possibly manage.  I guess it’s not that it’s a particularly bad place, it’s just that compared to some of the NPS run sites we’d been to, this seemed like it was just a conglomeration of various mediocre and unrelated attractions at a price which was fairly high.  You also feel that the money was just disappearing into the expansion of the mediocre attractions instead of being used to preserve, develop and foster understanding of the monument itself.

I-40 Flagstaff.jpgSo next time I’m driving on I-40 through Arizona, and the kids want to go see the meteor crater, we’ll both just tell them to shut up, and drive straight past the place.

Once you get past Meteor Crater, you are approaching Flagstaff again, and whilst I said that the drive east on I-40 is a bit dull because there’s nothing to look at, the drive west is quite entertaining because there are these enormous extinct volcanic mountains just to the north of Flagstaff and you don’t realize quite how big they are because when you first see them you are a very long way away.  You gradually approach them and they get bigger and bigger until you realize they are massive.  At this point you drive through a comparatively busy bit of freeway through Flagstaff, before heading back out into the countryside.  As you pass Flagstaff you also change from dead flat, treeless desert to a few miles of what looks like high alpine scenery.  There are a few hills in the road and it is suddenly surrounded by pine woodlands which block off the view. Eventually, you descend out of this bit and get back to more of the big wide flat desert, before reaching Kingman.

Kingman.jpgNow, just over a week or so previously, when we did our Saturday afternoon drive through Las Vegas, we had promised to go back to Vegas over the Hoover Dam and spend a night there properly, and this would be where we would need to get off the freeway and head north to make this trip.  In Winslow, however, we had decided we weren’t really that bothered, because going to Vegas would reduce the amount of time we would get to spend in Joshua Tree, as well as adding another 800 or so miles to the round trip.  So all we did in Kingman was to pull on to the forecourt of a gas station, where we ate lunch, let out the Coke we had bought at Meteor Crater and then filled with fuel and bought more Coke.  Enough of that, we’re probably not even half way there yet.

Our route to Joshua Tree involved ducking off the freeway just before the California border and driving down through Lake Havasu City, before crossing over the Colorado at Parker Dam and following the one road across to the north side of Joshua Tree.

Lake Havasu City is home to an old incarnation of London Bridge.  According to the book, the guy who bought it thought he was getting Tower Bridge.  Sounds like a bit of a Sunday League error, so I’m not sure I believe it, but anyway, you have to stop and look at something like that.  So we drove through apparently endless suburbs until we reached the centre and followed signs for the lake and bridge.  We parked up and went for what proved to be quite a short walk.  The bridge now spans a short stretch of lake between mainland and an artificial island ( well, it would be, because the lake is artificial as well ) which seemed to have a bunch of posh hotels.  Having spent all day driving across a desert, it was strange to stop in a place with lots of greenery and people windsurfing.

Lake Havasu.jpgHowever, the problem with all that water is that it evaporates quite a lot, which means that the air humidity here is much higher than the surrounding desert, especially if you are very close to the lake.  This basically means that your sensation of the ambient heat changes from warm air dryer to sauna.  You go from hot but dry to roasting/melting/cooking.  This is quite a shock after a day sitting in the air conditioned car, and down on the lake shore under the bridge it was truly hot.  We elected not to stay for a drink or anything, it was just too hot for comfort.  So we piled back into the air conditioned cocoon and pulled into the first available gas station for a 40oz bucket of Coke each and a tube of Pringles, before heading off south again.

The road south from Lake Havasu City was much more heavily populated than I expected.  It follows the river down for most of the way, and there seems to be a lot of new building work going on.  Maybe this is a favourite retirement area, where the weather is consistently dry and warm to hot.  Whatever the reason, there isn’t a lot of wilderness between Lake Havasu City and Parker.

At Parker we cut west and over the river, and so back into [California]].  The road to Joshua Tree from here is basically dead straight for most of the way, and leads you across some proper desert again.  It was quite busy by now, because this seemed to be a favourite route home for some of the Labor Day traffic going back to LA and other large cities in coastal California.  So progress was moderate at best.  The road which looks dead straight on the map also has a lot of ups and downs in it, so although there are no curves, you can’t see far enough to overtake anyone, because there is always another hill crest coming up.  The drive was also made more fun by the presence of a thunderstorm.

ParkerDam.jpgAt Rice we stopped briefly to dispose of the 40oz Cokes and we then progressed on towards our chosen stop for the night – Twentynine Palms.  We arrived about 30 minutes too late to get into the National Park Visitor Centre, but at least their toilets were accessible, so some more of the 40oz Coke was disposed of before trying to find a hotel.  I don’t think we had any particular plan, but we had developed a liking for the Best Western chain, and there was a conveniently sited one near the western end of the town on the main highway, so that’s where we chose.

They had plenty of rooms, free breakfast and a pool, so we didn’t think about it for very long.  In we go.  We used the pool for a bit of relaxation just after we got there, and then headed off to find dinner.  We both had numb minds after all that driving and Coke so we just pulled into the local Pizza Hut.  I think we caught them on a bad night.  It was getting quite late when we arrived ( around 8:30 ) and it was a public holiday, so it was not the normal standard of jolly service we expected.  They had run out of quite a few things on the menu, mainly the healthy options like salads, so we ended up with old faithful – pizzas and garlic bread.  While we were having this, we got the distinct impression that the staff would like us to leave.  They weren’t actively obnoxious, they just didn’t seem interested in our custom.  So the meal was a rather fast and unpleasurable affair.

Still, no bother, because we both just wanted to get to sleep anyway.

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Petrified Trees

Petrified Trees

Next day we were in need of a leisurely pace, especially seeing as it was a Sunday, so we decided to lie in for a while.  As there was no breakfast room at the hotel, we ended up in a small mall out on the old Route 66, where we had Starbucks for breakfast, and then bought Subway for lunch.  The attendants in Subway were confused by our accents, what with us obviously not being American.  Surprisingly enough, Starbucks was Starbucks, and Subway was Subway.

Our next objective for the day was the fairly dull drive east along I-40 to Holbrook to visit the Petrified Forest National Park ( www.nps.gov/pefo/ ).  It takes a couple of hours or so, and there isn’t much to look at as the landscape is flat heading in this direction.

Petrified Forest is not full of trees that are frightened, it is full of trees which have been turned into rock, by some wondrous and very time consuming chemical and geological process.  We entered the park by the south entrance and drove straight on the main Visitor Centre for orientation and free brochures.  The park ranger we spoke to at the desk was British, which was a surprise, and he warned us that whilst the walk around the Rainbow Forest loop trail behind the Visitor Centre was a good introduction to petrified trees, it was also currently packed with a bus load of Japanese tourists on a photography excursion, so there were plenty of obstructions around the pathways.  This loop trail is the most accessible and best signposted & documented in the park, and it is literally right at the back of the Visitor Centre.  It is therefore the one which has the heaviest concentration of visitors.  However, it is good, because the pathways are easily negotiable, and they lead you through some excellent, and very photogenic, bits of petrified tree.  It’s also handy for the toilets…….

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After this loop trail it was time for lunch, so we sat in the car at the Visitor Centre and devoured our jolly nice Subway specials ( and more Pringles ).  And so on to the rest of the park. The nearby Agate House was inaccessible, because the NPS had commissioned a group of navvies to resurface the road, so we proceeded further north towards the Crystal Forest.  This was more spread out than the Rainbow Forest, and so was much harder going, especially because it was mid-afternoon, and getting rather warm.

Next we stopped off at the Agate Bridge.  It’s a bit of a con really, because a previous generation of preservationists put a large concrete lintel underneath to stop it collapsing.  I’m sure this was a very laudable action at the time, but now it just looks silly – why did someone put that petrified log on top of that concrete block over that little creek.  The NPS are more enlightened now and would probably just let nature takes its course rather than trying to prop up bits just because they look funny.

Next up was the Blue Mesa.  This is a very worthwhile part of the park to stop at.  There is a loop drive around the top of the mesa and a couple of hikes.  The biggest one goes into some badlands composed of rounded hills in the Chinle rock formation.  The best feature of the Chinle is the variety of colours you get from the various minerals and substances in the clays, iron for reds, organic matter for greys and gypsum for white.  This is the official description from the books.  What the books don’t say is that the colours seem to change as the light moves around, and red, grey and white doesn’t begin to describe all the hues you get.  The loop trail off the top of Blue Mesa takes you down off the mesa itself so you can see the sides, and other hills.  Very little will grow in ground because it is impervious to water ( amongst other things ) so the effect is a bit of a moonscape – all coloured rocks and no plants.  Around this landscape are scattered chunks of petrified wood, in various colourful hues depending on the minerals in the water which caused the petrification.  It’s obvious therefore that these rocks were able to support vegetation at some point, in fact quite a lot of it if these enormous trees could grow in there.  More likely this was to do with the amount of rainfall at the time rather than the soil.  Apparently the rainforests of Amazonia stand on what would be very poor soil, because most of the goodness is caught up in the vegetation.  I guess the prehistoric forest of Arizona were probably the same, so when it all gets dried and buried and squished up the result is petrified trees containing all the goodness, and dried up impervious clay containing nothing of any use at all.  And now because it’s a desert there isn’t enough growing in it to improve the soil at all.  We have clay soil at home, but ours is rich because it is normally wet ( or at least damp ).  So once plants in our garden get roots more than an inch deep they are into a permanent water supply.  Northern Arizona doesn’t have the water, so no plants, so nothing to improve the soil, so nothing to break the soil and make it take more water, and so on.  And petrified trees aren’t biodegradable, so they don’t help much either.

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We were a bit kippered after this walk, because it was still pretty warm.  We drove further north over the railroad and over I-40 up to the Painted Desert section of the park.  There are a few stop offs here where you can get some wide views of the desert, with its varied colours.  On the day we were there, we also got the “big sky” effect.  There were a few high level clouds on the day and these seemed to group up into patterns which made the expanse look bigger.  Don’t know why, the sky just seemed big.  It may have been something to do with fairly flat horizon too.

After this lot it was definitely time for some retail therapy, so we dived into the main Park HQ and stores, which can be accessed just from I-40.  There is a fairly good souvenir shop in which you can acquire various bits of cack, plus a good selection of pieces of petrified wood.  These have been officially collected from sources external to the park.  One of the best aspects of the federal protection granted by the NPS ( apart from the ranger service, the good maps, the cheap entry prices and the clean toilets ) is that the protected land really is protected.  American National Parks are different to those in the UK.  In the UK, the National Park Authority is essentially a planning organization, whose main role is to define what type of stone you can use for building.  In the US, the government actually owns the majority of the land and stops any form of development except that mentioned above, for the purpose of making the protected areas accessible.  It is illegal to remove things from American national parks.  Don’t be tempted to steal bits of petrified wood because you can get nicked.  In fact, don’t drag your feet through the dust too much either because deliberately moving things around is illegal too.  This is a fine system.  It’s probably difficult to police, but it is a brilliant idea.  The idea of federal protection is that it should protect.  So any bit of petrified wood you buy must be certified as having not come from the park, but come from various privately owned sources nearby.  If somebody tells you the lump they are selling you came from the park then they are either lying or they have committed a federal offence.

We purchased a chunk about 10cm square and 3 cm thick which contains some nice yellow, red, brown and purple shades, and it now takes pride of place on our mantelpiece.

As well as the lump of rock we grabbed some ice creams before jumping back in the car.  As time was definitely marching on, we decided we would head for Winslow to stay the night.  We didn’t do this for the tourist traps, but more because it was in the right place and was likely to be cheap.  And cheap was pretty much how it proved to be.  Not in a bad way though. We stayed at the Best Western Motel just off I-40, and got a remarkably cheap deal for a good quality room.  The motel itself had good facilities, including an excellent indoor pool which we took great pleasure in using for half an hour or so.  When we arrived there were a couple of other families in the pool, but after a few minutes they left and we had the pool to ourselves.  Excellent.

Winslow.jpgWinslow is also home to maybe the strangest public park I’ve heard of. The Standin’ on the Corner Park is dedicated to the Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song famously recorded by The Eagles. We didn’t go to it though. It strikes me as a place you’d go for 5 minutes and then scoot off feeling slightly underwhelmed. So we didn’t bother.

A quick clean up was then required in preparation for dinner.  We didn’t really read up on what is available in Winslow, and neither of us fancied driving, so we enquired at the reception desk and they suggested we just try walking under the freeway to a truck stop on the westbound exit.  I’m not sure what I expected, but it turned out to be pretty good.  It was Mexican ( again ) but we were both getting pretty accustomed to Mexican and it wasn’t a problem.  The food arrived quickly, and was substantial, tasty and not expensive.  American truckers obviously have reasonable taste.

The walk back to the motel seemed more noisy than the walk out, and I’m sure it was further as well, but we got back safely and headed for bed, preparing ourselves for a long and fairly dull day to come.

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