Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 7, 2010

San Francisco, California

“ARE you going to San Francisco?”
WELL yes actually, just not for bloody long enough.

Not that any time we spent there would have been long enough to explore this mesmerising city, although it’s not a place built for walking around.

We had around 36 hours from rolling in to rolling out, complete with change of bus and a fresh pair of drivers, and between us we only scratched the surface of the city in the bay.

We weren’t helped by arriving on the shores of San Francisco bay in not exactly the best state of health, courtesy of the short, but intense, celebrations of my 40th birthday the night before.

Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge. It’s there somewhere. Honest.

My head was shrouded in a fog similar to that which enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge as we woke to what should have been one of the iconic views of the whole trip.

And things were not helped by Mike’s decision to climb off the Green Tortoise and head back to Wales where he can enjoy some more mist-obscured views on a regular basis.

Why he opted to head back two weeks from the end of the line is down to Mike, but his absence has been felt, particularly by those at the back of the bus.

Mason Street
Down The Slope – The hill back down to our hostel in San Francisco

With Mike’s final decision still hanging in the air and fortified by a proper American diner breakfast, a group of us set off to explore the city – straight up a bloody big hill.

You would have thought that our decision to head for the water might have meant a downhill walk to sea level, but San Francisco has water on three sides and one huge crest in the middle.

Eventually, having hauled ourselves up the hill and down the slope, our select little band found ourselves down by Fishermen’s Wharf and Pier 39, both Class A tourist traps.

Despite that, and sizeable crowds on a blisteringly hot Sunday, they are not oppressive or too tacky and there is plenty to catch the eye.

Sea Lions, Pier 39
The sea lions do a passable imitation of the back of the bus at Pier 39

Phoebe was like a kid in a candy store. Quite literally as she stumbled across The Candy Baron store and, added to the slurpee she had just downed, went on a bit of a sugar rush.

Not that you need any form of artificial stimulant to enjoy the sea lions who have made their home on the pontoons alongside the pier.

They are hugely entertaining and you can watch on for ages as they climb over each other to find the best place to sleep.

They reminded me of travelling on the bus as they are smelly, noisy, spend hours sprawled out asleep and one of them was the spitting image of Phil when he heads back to the sleeping area on the bus and crashes out among our feet. He makes a similar noise as well.

Golden Gate Bridge
The Bay Bridge – albeit from a distance on the boat to Alcatraz

Sad to say, the exertions of the previous couple of days had caught up with some of us and having let a streetcar take the strain for part of the return journey, we made maximum use of the hostel to catch up on some kip – and showers – before bidding farewell to Mike with a couple of quiet beers.

Refreshed and with final farewells said, we headed out (via the flatter outside route) into an even hotter day on the bay to visit Alcatraz, military fort turned infamous prison turned Hollywood setting (via another trip to the Candy Baron, where Nick took on the role of Pied Piper with an array of sweets).

And a mighty interesting trip it was too.

If it wasn’t for its less than salubrious history, Alcatraz would probably now be a coveted plot of land with spectacular views in the middle of San Francisco Bay, albeit reached via a treacherous mile and a half of water.

Welcome to Alcatraz
Welcome to Alcatraz

But for more than three decades up to 1963, this was the most notorious prison in the States, housing the likes of Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, who for all his

kindness to birds – albeit, never during his time on The Rock – was a bit of a bastard to human beings.

He had a tendency to kill them, while even his winged friends were largely a cover for an illicit

Cell at Alcatraz
Cell at Alcatraz

still he was running in his cell before being transferred to Alcatraz.

Our brief introductory talk from Ranger Al debunked his myth and several others – including the tale which inspired the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz, although the three-man breakout did happen with none of the bodies/escapees ever found.

San Francisco from Alcatraz
Tormenting view – San Francisco seen from Alcatraz

You get to see the cells occupied and tunnelled out of by the three men, plus other infamous and bloody spots throughout the prison on a fascinating audio tour, voiced by former wardens and inmates.

Not sure the stabbings and prison riots need to sound quite so realistic, but well worth the admission fee it all is.

Sadly, we got to see very little of the rest of San Fran, just managing to get back to the hostel, pick up our gear and cram an all-you-can-eat-for-just-a-few-dollars Indian buffet down our throats before being collected by the new bus for the next leg of the trip.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls

The new wheels come complete with a fresh two-man driving team, Matty being replaced by Lucas and Charlie, who had actually climbed aboard in Seattle and had his eyes well and truly opened by the chaos of Arcata.

It also witnessed another change of pace from our whirlwind tour of the west coast’s city sights to the grandiose settings of the big American National Parks.

And we started with a biggie, waking up the next morning on the banks of a swollen river in Yosemite Valley.

What followed was a glorious day sweltering under a roasting sun and walking the miles of trails around the valley in the shadow of great granite buttresses which rise vertically around you – rather like walking around a huge, open-air cathedral, only with more running water.

One of many stunning views around the Yosemite Valley

Eschewing some of the more ridiculous sounding trails (“keep going up the hill for four hours…”), my more sedate day’s walking opened up with the short trip to Yosemite Falls which are quite spectacular.

From there it was a quick trip to the visitors’ centre (where Pam had to prod me awake during their film on the park) and a walk up to Mirror Lake for lunch before branching out on my own for the three-mile yomp back along the valley to the bus (via a swimming pool and its much-needed showers).

The Yellow Brick Road
Follow the Yellow Brick Road – The plan for the final leg of the trip

It was no surprise that we turned in early that night, partly because the bus was already on the road, but not before enjoying the spectacular route out of the park and a quick bout of the new obsession sweeping the group – cribbage.

It’s a far cry from my days learning how to play in the cutthroat sessions at family gatherings, which have helped establish a bit of a reputation as a shark.

Long may it continue…


Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Original posted on London to New York, June 6, 2010

Arcata, California

IT has always been a mystery why scriptwriters insist on using people’s birthday recollections as ways to introduce important plot details about their past.

Countless films or television series use a major character revealing something that happened to him on their 13th birthday which has shaped the way he feels about God/clowns/Battenburg cake or the early works of Simon and Garfunkel.

Apart from the fact that it is a lazy piece of writing, it is difficult to identify with if you struggle to actually remember past birthdays.

Yes, there was the one (my 10th?) when large chunk of my front tooth was smashed out while climbing out of a swimming pool.

Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday from Phebes

And my 18th, sandwiched on the day between my sister’s wedding and my first A Level, sticks in the mind.

But very few others – even my 21st is a bit of a blur, think we might have had a barbecue in the unfinished extension – remain distinct, although  several of them (dependent on age) were definitely spent in The Brunswick or Dr Fosters in Gloucester or The City Arms or O’Neills in Cardiff.

My 40th, however, might just stick in my mind a bit longer (once various details have become clear due to pictures and the testimonies of eye witnesses).

It began sedately enough, curled up on the back of the bus in Seattle, listening to Nirvana. Yes, it is obvious, but hey, when in Rome. Or Seattle.

But let’s rewind to find out how we got from a campsite in Banff to snuggled under my sleeping bag in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle, listening to Kurt Cobain tear his voice to shreds.

The view down the mountain-ringed Main Street in Banff – First time I have seen it without piles of snow

Having experienced a couple of bitingly cold winters in Banff (contact lenses frozen to shades, anyone?), it has always been a place on the list to go backto  in the peak summer season and after a couple of hours wandering the familiar main streets, it certainly comes with a very different vibe.

It remains a very pretty little town, but the tourist trap feeling kept slightly in the background during the ski season comes right to the fore and smacks you in the face.

Want anything practical, or even something cold to drink without going in an expensive bar, and you are out of luck. Want a T-shirt, a cuddly moose or expensive trinket with Banff plastered all over it, your luck is in.

The Fudge Shop also needs better signing, judging by the amount of Americans who wandered along shouting “where’s the fudge shop?” to their compatriots across the street.

Via a brief stop in the ski town of Revelstoke, we hit our pre-night drive stop Kelowna, which holds more of the vibe from those previous trips to Banff, more real people in real, relaxed surroundings.

Waiting for a bus in Kelowna

They do, however, need to brush up on their comedy after our meal was interrupted by a comedy night which consisted of a bunch of students swapping tales which must have seemed hilarious late at night after a few ‘cigarettes’.

Originally unable to drag ourselves away from the car crash in front of us, we eventually found ourselves a comedy free pub, albeit plagued by the concoction that is Clamato Juice (yes, that really is tomato juice with added clam) poured into lager.

Phoebe’s weirdo magnet, whichattracts the more bizarre clientele of any bar over to us, kicked in again as Donald – who appeared to have been taking his cigarettes a bit too strong – explained his theories on life, the universe and coffee.

We finally crawled back onto the bus to hit the road and begin a whistle-stop tour of major west coast cities – Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco – inside five days.

That itinerary has prompted some disquiet in the group as we were in and out of three major ports of call so quickly in favour of more time spent out in the American wilderness.

Vancouver Exchange
Not quite sure how the Scottish pound is at a different exchange rate in Vancouver

There are reasons – the sheer logistics of getting across the States for starters – and the National Parks are simply stunning and do justify the time spent there, but as we have rolled out of each city, the overwhelming feeling has been that we have not come close to seeing all it has to offer.

That was certainly the case in Vancouver where our first hostel since Anchorage provided a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some laundry.

Instead of exploring what appears to be a vibrant, fun-loving city without too many airs and graces, much of the afternoon was spent fighting for a place in the queue for the washing machines – although Nick, Mike and I did manage to get out on foot to explore Gastown (think a scruffier Greenwich Village in New York) and get lost in a shopping arcade.

We did at least get a proper night out in the city and a group of us headed out to have the curry we had promised ourselves for some time.

Let off the leash for the first time in a few nights in Vancouver. Chaos inevitable.

Not sure it was worth the wait, but a fun evening was had in a local bar amid the randoms.

But far too soon, certainly far too early, the next morning we were back on the road to Seattle and our final major border crossing.

Remarkably, most of our border crossings have gone very smoothly and this was no great delay, but there was a slight anxious moment as the border guard asked for a few documents not to hand (return flight details for starters) and being the only one on the bus with a full US visa became a handicap.

It wasn’t a major problem, in the end she got fed up and waved me through, but if anyone from US Immigration does stumble across this, perhaps your different offices should get their heads together.

What they said at the US Embassy in London was at odds with what they came up with when on arrival at Whittier (when they were convinced the visa in my passport was specifically for preachers), which was all completely different from what they wanted heading into the Lower 48.

USA Border
Welcome to America – The not altogether welcoming border at Seattle

There’s no return flight because there’s no return date. There’s no return date because, until actually in the US, there’s no way of knowing 100 per cent how long they would allow in the country, whatever it said on the visa. London, and all guidebooks and expert advice, said one thing. At the border into Washington, they said another.

Having reached Seattle, we parked up under the Space Needle, caught the monorail into town and wandered around Pike Street Market, which even a confirmed non-shopper like me could have wasted hours in.

But the high spot of the last day of my 40th year was our evening trip to Safeco Stadium for baseball.

It was, to be honest, a pretty awful match. Seattle Mariners are fairly dreadful and the LA Angels are not, waltzing away with a 7-1 win which was never really in doubt.

The starting line-up at the baseball in Seattle – Guy in front less than happy at beer spillage over his son

But a good time was had by all as the cold descended, including confirmed non-sports fan Phoebe who was less than impressed that her giant bag of popcorn was sweet and not salted.

And so my 40th year came to an end, back on the bus listening to Nirvana – my actual birthday managing to span three states as we crossed out of Washington overnight, breakfasted in Oregon and careered into California and the Redwood National Park.

Having trekked into the trees in the afternoon and spent much of the day chilling out, we headed into the town of Arcata in Humboldt County – the acknowledged pot capital of the USA – for birthday shenanigans.

After a bit of a false start via the only quietish pub in town, we stumbled into a rammed dive bar off the town square and it all began to get a bit hazy.

Space Needle
Space Needle, Seattle

There was Guinness, tequila, Jager-bombs and other alcoholic delights passed my way. They were downed. After that, details are hazy.

As with the previous birthday party on this trip, there were repercussions, but more of that next time, when we’ve worked out exactly what happened.


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