Lighting up the dark

What were once, many month ago, memorable firsts are now becoming cherished lasts. Pasties. Cream teas. Crossings of the Tamar. Episodes of The Apprentice. Fleeting appearances of the sun. A sudden realisation that I’ll be in Australia in a couple of weeks has triggered a desperate clamour for final foodstuffs and must-do jaunts. Mostly foodstuffs…but there are minimum requisites to properly bid adieu – again – to this comely corner of the world.

Crossing the Tamar into Cornwall is one of them. Having wallowed in some tremendous sections of the county over the past few months, I decided to sign off in style. Winter may have brought miserable mild drabness, but it has blessed us with quiet roads which make the far, far west more readily amenable to a day trip. And open for a taste of genuine Christmas charm.

xcorn1Driving through squalls on the best weather day for a while, I first paused next to the surging Atlantic in Portreath. Brisk winds had parted the clouds more generously than I had hoped, and the uplifting sea air was matched by a decent coffee and indecent chocolate salted caramel slice. Another cafe stop to store in the archives for future reference.

xcorn2Westward from Portreath the coast road skirts booming cliffs and precipitous drama. At Godrevy, the massive expanse of St Ives Bay sweeps into the golden sands and stoic dunes of the coastline. Today the bay is lively, stoked by an unending blast of brisk southwesterlies and intemperate swell. The surge sounds incessant, thrusting and thrashing, cursing and crashing at England’s door.

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Seals shelter in deep coves while humans embrace the sunshine seldom seen. One member of the species slips on an innocuous patch of grass and is caked in mud for the rest of the day. The last time I hit the ground around here it was done with glee, jumping into the giant sand pits as a nine-year-old.  Other distant Gwithian memories include stinging nettles, six ounces of American hardgums from the old dear in the post office, and several jolly circuits on a campground in an orange Reliant Robin. Plus scenes of the lighthouse, steadfast on its island. Today as vivid as any a memory.

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More memories can be made with a proper job pasty experience, vital for the Cornish farewell. I have had a few. However, in a radical departure from the norm I planned my attack for Marazion, vaguely recalling a tiny bakery here serving delicious bundles of scrumptiousness. And there, on a corner of the higgledy-piggledy high street, it stood. Closed. Still, consolation came from the vista across Mounts Bay and the ever-photogenic St Michael’s Mount.

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Luckily there is a little place I know back up the road in St. Ives, known as Plan P. It has served me well in the past. Today, on the Sunday before Christmas, the miracles of St. Ives included finding some free on-street parking, dodging a nasty-looking shower, and feeling grateful that one of the few bakeries open was open. A few lingering seagulls paced around opportunistically, but they didn’t stand a chance.

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Ragged cliff walks, booming seas, sweeping sands, plump pasties…all classic Cornishness ticked off in a few hours. This year’s farewell comes with a difference though, being deep in the depths of December. Thus far I have struggled to rediscover the delights of a northern hemisphere Christmas – the build up seems a needlessly drawn out affair and the climate has been pitifully non-Dickensian. I was hoping Mousehole might change that.

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xcorn8Tucked away along the coast from the Penzance-Newlyn conglomeration, Mousehole is fairly unremarkable in being yet another remarkably quaint and cosy fishing village perched upon the Cornish coast. Dinky cottages meander along narrow streets and nestle in its hillsides. Small boats rest ashore upon stony harbour walls. Briny smells and hollering seagulls pervade the air. A pub tempts, and tea shops too. It could easily be Mevagissey or Port Isaac or Portloe or Polperro. But it is Mousehole, and it is Christmas.

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Sure, the weather hardly evokes a Christmas card scene, but the harbour lights delight. Lanterns line the sea wall and crisscross their way above the busily constricted streets. Festive shapes twinkle and shimmer off the water. The pub is jammed with bonhomie and drooling lines spill out of Janners chippy. While a brass band wouldn’t have gone amiss, it is as close to the unrealistic Dickensian vision of a Cornish Christmas I had yearned for. And today it is the icing and marzipan on a special goodbye cake. Avv an ansom krissmus one and all.

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Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography USA & Canada

A rival for affection

Initially I wasn’t too fussed about spending time in Vancouver, my appetite instead skewed towards the forests and mountains, inlets and meadows of super natural British Columbia. This feeling was elevated as a week travelling in such environments was drawing to a close, a trip that I could have quite happily continued. But as the final greyhound drew into the quite uninspiring Vancouver terminus, I resigned myself to a couple of days in a big city.

Happily, Vancouver has a magical gift that justifies its frequent position in all those different lists of the best cities in the world to live. It is often vying for the title alongside places like Melbourne, Sydney, Copenhagen, and even a little country town called Canberra. Indeed, I sensed a bit of a Melbourne vibe, a touch of Sydney waterfront, the smell of Danish-like bacon, and, err, a backdrop of rugged, open ranges.

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Thus, in the space of a laundry washing and drying cycle, I had managed to readjust to the idea of being in a city, and embracing everything that entailed. Things like pedestrian crossings, in which the Canadian version appears to involve the traffic light receiving a flurry of tweets. @RobsonandGranville #crossnowhumans #tensecondsleft. The emergence of coffee shops, many of them dire, many of them Starbucks, on every street corner, though luckily the outside temperate was conducive to far more favourable iced coffee options. And something I embraced more wholeheartedly was the plethora of good quality, low cost, always welcoming Asian eateries, all too conscious that such choices will practically disappear in Europe.

van02Probably a good reason I ended up loving Vancouver so – apart from the chicken karaage and spicy udon ramen – was the sumptuous weather. Crucially there was no smoke accompanying an ambient temperature somewhere around the mid twenties. What this means is a happy, healthy, blissed out and mostly beautiful populace, invariably strolling, cycling, rollerblading, or volleyballing their way into the light evenings beside the waterside paths and parks of False Creek.

Such spirit is infectious, and the next day I joined the many hiring a bike near Yaletown dock. The freedom and joy of two wheels again, made all the easier by Vancouver’s generous allotment of cycling paths and priority lanes. Here, it became clear the city rivals Canberra, and it was quite possible to cycle something heading towards forty kilometres without jostling with vehicles.

The first task was to head up False Creek and into Stanley Park. This is essentially where everyone on a bike goes and you can see why. A rounded peninsula of spruce, cedars, firs and totem poles, occasional ponds and meadows, cafes and beaches, all encased within a sea wall. It is the sea wall that provides a thoroughfare for the bikes, so that there are eternal city, mountain, harbour and ocean views with every pedal. The parade of bikes is incessant, sometimes requiring adept manoeuvring, but it is simple to stop and go for a stroll in an empty forest.

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van03The park easily filled a morning, meaning that I handily reached Granville Island around lunchtime. This spot is cluttered with wooden shacks selling handmade jewellery and boating slacks and things like paperweights and incense sticks. But mostly there is food, centred around the Public Market and coming in a variety of forms. Fresh and healthy, processed and gluttonous, and everything in between.

Given I veered towards the gluttonous I was happy to pedal all the way to Point Grey and the University of British Columbia. Passing several beaches – Kitsilano, Jericho, and Spanish Banks – the views back to the city and its mountainous backdrop progressively opened up. Climbing up a long, steady hill – the kind that seems like an impressive feat only when you come back down – the university campus strikes you as a quite magnificent place to study. The challenge though would be to concentrate on a lecture, rather than stare out of the window all of the time.

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van05I came here to visit the Museum of Anthropology and while this contains numerous worldly artefacts, the predominant focus is on that of the First Nations. A huge hall houses an array of impressive totems, canoes, boxes, archways, tools, and utensils. Displays tell of the meaning, the stories, the legends, and the inevitable intrusion of the white man. Outside, a Haida village is recreated in the Vancouver sun, and the cafe next door sells Nanaimo bars. Two cakes in one day but I am, I think, working it off.

van06Back downhill, I paused numerous times beside the beaches to take in the view, as the westerly sun incrementally illuminates the city skyline and the mountains stretching north. The beaches are no Broulee or even Bondi, but it is warm and the city folk are a-flocking. I reflect on what has been a truly magnificent day, one which continues with still another ten kilometres back to the bike shop. Ten kilometres to join the healthy and happy populace, continuing to elevate their endorphin levels. A fabulous day, inevitably topped off with Asian food for dinner.

I had such a good time with a bike I almost considered doing it again the next day – my last in Vancouver. In the end I took the public transport option, crossing by ferry to North Vancouver and trundling by bus through the leafy suburbs climbing up to the base of Grouse Mountain. From here a far more expensive gondola transports you up to a world of mountain meadows and pines, fancy restaurants, ziplines and kitsch lumberjack shows. There are few longer trails on which to escape, but the views are there to be had. I can see the United States of America, most prominently in the form of Mount Baker, and my proximity to a previous travel adventure hits home. Meanwhile to the north and west, the mountains roll on, a reminder of the sparseness of this land, while the city of Vancouver shimmers many hundreds of metres below behind my back.

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van10This is bear country, and it so happened that I came face to face with a grizzly up here. Mercifully, two of them who were orphaned and are now cared for in captivity. No doubt softened by a life being pampered, they are nonetheless fearsome and overwhelmingly gargantuan. Despite being orphaned and this being the best option for them (the other likely being death as cubs), I cannot help but feel that I should be seeing such an incredible beast out in the wild, ruling its pristine domain. But, looking at the force and scale of such a creature, I am mostly glad I am not.

van11After Grouse Mountain, I should have headed back, rested, and readied myself for a staggered transatlantic voyage. But I was starting to not want to leave this city. My final trundle on a bus therefore took me to Lynn Canyon, where a suspension bridge offers a little bit of wow amongst the beautiful forests and riverside pools, increasingly populated by youngsters and families seeking a cool down towards the end of the day.

While others settled in this utopia for the evening, I had to drag myself away and – annoyingly – transport myself and belongings from the place I was staying to an airport hotel. There was, however, a good prompt to do so. One Direction were performing in BC Place, literally across the road from my hotel. This explains why they had no vacancy for my last night there and also why I seem to find myself having to increasingly negotiate a pathway through gawky teenage legs.

As adolescent screams echoed through the warm evening sky, I lamentably turned my back on Vancouver. But after gliding twenty minutes by train and dragging a suitcase along the concrete sidewalk of a grimy highway, Vancouver said goodbye to me from an upper floor of a Travelodge. A sky as fiery as the flame in my heart and the chilli in my laksa. A final, luminous ocean of evidence that the lists are not wrong, and this truly is one of the best cities in the world.

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Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography USA & Canada Walking

British Columbian

One week…one week of finishing work, packing up a white flat, jamming in flat whites, lingering in the bush and avoiding the fog. A week successfully navigated, with the generous bonus of a grating cough and snotty nose from the city of Canberra to see me on my way. Something to make an interminable fourteen hour flight even cheerier. But one week and fourteen hours later, I descended through a cloud of smoke and a sinus of pain into the city of Vancouver, and then beyond, out into the grizzly wilds…

In Whistler while you work

Skipping through Vancouver I had decided to head straight to the hills, for some post-journey restitution and mountain air. What sounded good on paper was challenged in practice, as huge forest fires courtesy of a severe drought had enshrouded most of BC in a layer of smoke. Whistler, it seems, was quite probably the worst place to be, with an air quality rating akin to bad days in Beijing. Oh to live in Beijing.

bc01There was little for it than to venture out in short bursts, around the shops and maze of pedestrian streets that make navigating Canberra suburbs seem a breeze. Oh for a breeze, to lift this constant eau-de-campfire. It came eventually, and there was minor visibility later in the day. Enough to see a red sun above the pines, encounter a moose, and stumble across a black bear.

The black bear sighting was a definitive highlight of the day, even more for the fact that I had probably already passed it once without noticing. Just munching on some berries beside a shared cycle and walking path, possibly waiting for some hapless campers with a picnic basket. Or people like me lost and doing an about turn. I passed, I saw, I lingered for a few seconds to weigh up the pros of making the most of a picture opportunity and the cons of being eaten. I carried on and the bear carried on regardless.

So one day in and I had already ticked off a few Canadian clichés. The next day I had a Canadian coffee, which was still relatively awful despite it being called a flat white and despite at least one Australian working in the coffee shop at the time. Never fear, British coffee awaits! Oh wait. On the plus side, while there was still a distinctive campfire smell, the smoke haze had lifted a little, meaning some bigger lumps of terrain could be spotted, down which numerous mountain bikers hurtled themselves faithfully like lemmings off a cliff.

bc03What goes down must go up and there is a generous lift system in Whistler for the intrepid explorer. This includes the Peak to Peak, a seemingly endless high wire linking Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, its small red cabins dangling over a gigantic precipice in between. Turns out the Swiss don’t have a monopoly on gravity defiance after all. Thanks to such engineering feats I was able to walk in a high alpine environment, and while the views were naturally hazy and the going a challenge (think jetlag, chest infection, altitude, smoke, heat, bad coffee) I made it to a small tarn on the Blackcomb side of the world.

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The trails stretch on to glacial views and craggy ridges and summit peaks and hidden valleys and – in another time, in other conditions – I could have gone on and on. But Whistler proved hard work and there was some relief at coming down from the mountains, away from the smoke and into brief Vancouver sea-level summertime ambience.

Clearer and coola

Not that there was much time for recovery. Early Friday and I was off to the airport to hop on a twelve-seater to the Bella Coola Valley. Where I hear you ask? Exactly. I am not sure myself how I first found out about this place and how I came to be here. But, after an hour flying over an astonishing wilderness of glacial river valleys, high ridges and gigantic icefields, I emerged in clear blue skies, uplifted to arrive in a momentously attractive spot.

A short boat ride took me across to the ever-photogenic and sublimely blissful Tallheo Cannery. Here stand the remnants of a once bustling enterprise, in which the plentiful salmon – sockeye, pink, and the highly prized spring – were netted, off-loaded, canned and shipped away to Vancouver and beyond. Nowadays, it is preserved in a ramshackle kind of way by a young family who have taken on with passion and gusto the task of maintaining and sharing this magical place with those lucky enough to find their way here.

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Making landfall again upon the small jetty I knew I had stumbled across what would be the undoubted highlight of my time in Canada. A pathway meandered through a small pocket of forest towards a rocky beach, next to which the remains of the cannery building protruded upon a series of weathered stilts, stained by the constant ebb and flow of the tide. Elsewhere, various other wooden structures – the old general store, bunkhouse, outhouse, and two or three more buildings for the important people – offered testament to the thriving place this once was, with up to 300 souls living and working here during peak seasons. Throughout, there are enough trinkets and relics – from fishing nets and boats to paperwork for credit accounts and old cans of soda – to keep anyone with curiosity and a camera happy for several hours.

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In what must be a labour of love, more and more bits and pieces appear to be unearthed in cupboards and drawers on an almost daily basis, while any inclement spell can reveal a new leak, another piece of rotting timber, an additional piece of roof sheeting down. But you can likely forgive all these quirks – embrace them even – given the setting, best appreciated from the veranda or, better still, the hammock of the bunkhouse, which is now a charming guest house for people like me.

It was a house I ended up having all to myself, though I was thankful for the company of the owners in a building nearby and their dogs who were accomplished at keeping the bears and wolves at bay. There was little to do here other than relax in that hammock, broken by occasional wanderings onto the beach or out to a point to sight eagles and gaze at the changing light on the mountains, or head over behind the buildings to explore the clear waters of the back creek into which salmon spawn. Not a bad way to pass the remainder of the day, not bad at all.

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bc10After the best night’s sleep so far, a new day emerged in which the weather gradually turned and cast a new mood upon the scene. Because even I could not potter around taking pictures of the same things over and over again, I caught a lift by boat into the township of Bella Coola and explored its buzzing downtown metropolis, something which took all of twenty minutes. The town is a mixed settlement, with vital services and stores, more ramshackle wooden houses, and a significant First Nations population, the local Nuxalk people, whose land provides several totem pole and traditional craft viewing opportunities.

After a lunch here involving a quite delicious burger with a Poutine topping (yes, a meat patty topped with chips, gravy and cheese!) the greying skies finally delivered some rain. This was marvellous news for the locals, who had endured weeks on end of uncharacteristic searing dry heat; however, tourists like me were somewhat less enthused. Nonetheless, the smell of fresh rain on dry earth, the droplets forming upon ferns and pine needles, the mists and grey clouds hovering upon mountainsides, offered a new perspective, a new angle, a new opportunity to potter about the cannery and soak up its serene, wood-soaked ambience.

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It was an ‘ambience’ that was to persist into the next day, shrouding scenery alongside the pristine inlets and channels of the Great Bear Rainforest as the journey moved on…

A damp inside passage   

If there was one day in Canada that I was hoping would be clear and calm this was it. Bella Coola to Port Hardy, via the fjord-like waters of the Dean Channel, Inside Passage and Queen Charlotte Sound. As it turned out, it was the wettest day of my whole trip but when you are going via a place called Ocean Falls which prides itself on receiving 173 inches of rain in an average year, I guess it’s to be expected. I was, alas, viewing the area in its natural state, rather than this surreal drought of the past month.

bc12In the end, the scheduled stop at the place where half the Ocean Falls was cancelled due to the late departure of the BC ferry from Bella Coola. The harbour was positively buzzing as cars, motorbikes and the odd foot passenger crammed onto a boat a third of the size of the Torpoint ferry. Oh, and there was a coach as well, transporting a delightful assortment of seniors on something called an Ageless tour. A coach that became stuck half on and half off the ferry for a good hour, grounded due to the incline. It was a fascinating drama for passengers and locals alike, whose intense gaze upon crew armed with a plethora of jacks and ramps and pulleys and increasing exasperation was only made all the better by the friendly advice shouted down from above.

Thankfully once again the Americans saved the day. Some smartass from Colorado with a monumental RV possessing incredible torque and a gas-guzzling capacity the size of Texas managed to use his diamond reinforced tow rope to budge the bus a few inches, getting it off the ground and on to the ferry. The whole episode meant that the Ageless people had aged a few more years and I feared some of them might not make the trip. But almost two hours late, we sailed out of port and passed the red maple leaf flying above the Tallheo Cannery, bound for Bella Bella.

bc13The delay at least meant that the rain had stopped and there was a sense that the cloud might even lift. Every time the odd ray of sunshine filtered through, the outside decks became laden by a hubbub of grey hair and long lenses. However, the weather worsened as we approached the area of Ocean Falls, where the people were no doubt dancing with joy in the rain and wondering where on earth the ferry had got to.

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So, around eight hours after leaving port, the boat arrived in Bella Bella, having failed to encounter any whales or bears or much of note at all along the way. But at least the Ageless posse were invariably entertaining, and the glimpses of scenery were serenely beautiful. Indeed, the change of boats at Bella Bella was a little sad, the intimacy and camaraderie lost with the transfer to a much larger vessel sailing the main Inside Passage between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.

bc15With every dark cloud there is a silver lining, and the bigger ferry was far more luxurious – padded and reclining seats, cafes, even an all-you-can-eat buffet that proved ferry tempting but one I avoided in anticipation of what might happen in the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. The dark clouds outside also yielded silver, in the form of a marriage equality rainbow (now featuring everywhere but Australia), as the sun lowered through the heavy clouds and shimmered off a gently rolling tin foil sea.

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The long day finally turned dark and the lights of Port Hardy twinkled as if some New York City in a sea of nothingness. Everyone from Ageless and the coach had made it, something that was not always inevitable. And I stepped off with many more foot passengers who had come down the entire passage, dumped onto land towards a school bus onwards to the hotels and motels of town.

The islands

bc18Port Hardy – from what I saw during a couple of early morning hours – appeared a charming, even cosmopolitan place. It’s all relative I suppose, from the isolation of the cannery and the minimalism of Bella Coola to at least three cafes and possibly even a shopping mall. While there remains enough in the way of grizzled looking locals smelling of fish and sufficient remoteness to offer a frontier feel, the continuous transit of ferry passengers has also fostered an air of gentility and rustic comfort. Bears may still invade the campgrounds and giant trucks may still trawl the streets, but you can also buy an almond croissant and city-style substandard coffee.

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Meandering south and east, a half empty greyhound bus trundled leisurely beside the forests and lakes of Vancouver Island, with fleeting glances of gentle mountains and occasional snatches of the Johnstone Strait. The sun became more familiar and was amply bathing the wharf three hours down the road in Campbell River. Fish and chips for lunch proved a good use of time while waiting for another ferry, though this one just the fifteen minutes, across to Quadra Island.

bc19Like Bella Coola, I had no strong idea of what this place would be like or exactly what I would do here – the main reason for stopping being its position as an approximate halfway point between Port Hardy and Vancouver. A sunny, moderately-sized holiday island, with rocky shores, forests and a penchant for ageing hippies who have done far too many drugs in their lifetime. I did not know this before, but it became patently clear at any visit to the local shopping area.

bc21The tie-dyed highlight here was a day with a bike, which allowed me to truly explore the flatter, southern half of the island. I say flatter, but there were a few, sustained uphill workouts made all the more arduous by a lack of gears. Who would have thought getting high here would have been so difficult? But I loved being on a bike again, exploring the thin stretch of Rebecca Spit, meandering through a forest trail, cycling and then hiking down to the water, and resting up for an afternoon doze in the sun.

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Departing from Quadra and onto Vancouver meant another two ferry journeys. First it was the short hop back across to Campbell River, where I feasted on a delicious breakfast wrap before getting back on another half empty greyhound. And then, there was the longer crossing from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay, back on the mainland. A final chance to look for elusive whales which – if this was a perfectly crafted travel story – would have launched into the sky off starboard in a climatic ecstatic finale.

bc22Alas, this is clearly not a perfectly crafted travel story but there is a happy ending of sorts. My first and best Nanaimo bar, a gooey, creamy, chocolaty concoction from this incredibly beautiful part of the world. Like this jaunt, a touch earthy and rustic but providing a heady buzz. Smoke free, devoid of whales (I assume no whales were used in the making of this bar), and useful to temper the bitterness of the local coffee. Indeed it seems to me life here is like a local bar of chocolate. Deliciously sweet.

Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography USA & Canada

Yurt

It was like wakening in a miniature circus tent, though with just the one clown stirring from an overnight slumber. Through a plastic window daylight was seeping into the octagonal space, the hard wooden floor radiating sunshine upwards into the plastic dome, like flame rising into a hot air balloon. Through the plastic glare the gentle sheen of the sea glimmered out in the distance, a view broken by dark pine forest and rounded headlands. One or two female deer lazily munched on the green grass in the foreground, as I set to joining them for breakfast.

It is hard to say if this was exactly what I was expecting when I came across an entry for this place in a guidebook many months before. Certainly what transpired captured the atmospheric appeal that came to my imagination back then. It was moving towards winter in Australia and times were spent in windowless offices and pointless meetings as I trudged slowly towards the date when I finally left my job. The sound of a place tucked away on an island in the pristine Pacific Northwest of the US where you could sleep in a yurt had instant allure. It seemed I had become what I never wanted to become and seeking clichéd escapes from ‘executive stress’.

And so, several months later, after visiting Hong Kong and Europe and New York City on my big time out, I landed in Seattle. Initial experiences were far from chilled. By time I had picked up a hire car it was rush hour on the I-5 and there I was in an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place on an unfamiliar side of the road. Sweeping through the heart of downtown Seattle I was able to avert my gaze from the weaving cars and merging lanes for just the briefest of moments. To my left, the Space Needle pierced the low cloud, affirming that I was heading in the right direction, north through the fading suburbs and fading light to a place where you can breathe again.

I slept that night under solid roof in one of those steady, unspectacular motels that permeate the highways and byways of the United States. They have beige carpets and brick walls and sturdy wooden sideboards with built in radio alarm clocks and light switches [1]. They have an included breakfast with a choice of three types of cereal dispensed from what were pretty revolutionary cereal dispensers back in the 60s. A choice of crushed cornflake, soggy rice puffs or the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. Alternatively, you can have some undercooked toast with impossible to spread butter.

They have a laundry with tokens and powder available from the front desk, so that you can put your world-weary clothes through an expensive and time-consuming process in which they become sodden as Bangladesh during the monsoon and then undergo ten minute stints in a huge dryer and eventually come out with only a very incremental change in cleanliness and a lingering damp dog smell. Still, you put one of the clean-ish jumpers on and head out into the fresh air with the hope that at least this one will dry out in the next few hours.

The huge consolation is that Bellingham seems to possess its fair share of fresh, laundry-drying air. Beside the steely waters of Puget Sound, a pleasing boardwalk leads to a pleasing place for coffee with a pleasing-on-the-eye person making it. Elsewhere in town, the occasional deer grazes on someone’s perfectly coloured Y_whatcomprecision cut front lawn. Other deer poke their heads out of the undergrowth in Whatcom Park – named after the dotcom boom which failed to materialise this far north. Maybe. Amazingly, this is like a national park in the middle of the town, with some pretty waterfalls disturbing the peace of the forest.

Close to the border, the vibe feels more Canadian than anywhere else in America, which is a good thing for any executive stress you may have. Actually, Bellingham reminds me more than anywhere of Cypress Creek, the fictional town in The Simpsons acting as the secret base for the fantastical megalomaniac Hank Scorpio. I admit to failing to spot Put-Your-Butt-There on third in the hammock complex in the hammock district. But other than that – mountains and pine forests, chipmunks, lakeside houses and picket fences, secret underground missiles armed and aimed at France – Bellingham ticked all the boxes [2].

Another night under a solid roof led to another included breakfast, though this time with the surprise bonus of slightly stale miniature croissants. They must have been leftover from the annual general meeting of the American-Franco Dwarf Association of Washington State that took place in the conference room the previous evening. Still, I pocketed a few for the journey on what was a sublimely sunny day, warm and clear heading down to Anacortes for a ferry ride.

I can imagine, in this weather-laden extremity of America, that the ferry ride across to Orcas Island is rarely as serene as it was on this particular day. Slicing through high definition crystal calm, the ferry’s wake rippled the reflections of the many pine topped isles scattered upon the sound. Secluded bays hosted the occasional rustic dwelling, where the kayak appeared to be vehicle of choice. Between island views the mainland drifted away, but all the while the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Baker gleamed, a blinding white cone penetrating the upper atmosphere.

Disembarkation was a low key affair on Orcas Island, which is the largest of the many San Juan Islands peppering Puget Sound. Given some land mass to play with, the island offers a patchwork of working farmland and wild forest, a contoured landscape of hills and lakes, punctuated by a handful of small but serviceable towns. There is one main road linking the ferry drop off and the towns, with a few side diversions of note. So, after tucking into a pulled pork sandwich at the biggest town, Eastsound, the car took me up and up on a detour to the island’s highest point.

Mount Constitution sounds like somewhere that belongs in the United States, like Capitol Hill and Liberty City and Freedom Fries and Gun-toting Redneck Hill. The name feels solid and a little serious, denoting something which is of grand importance albeit a little dour in the detail. I don’t think any major pieces of legislature would have been signed up here, but I did spot a few written etchings professing Randy’s love for Mary-Jane.

It turns out the peak was in fact named after the USS Constitution which I am assuming plied the waters far down below in the distant past. The waters today are becalmed, a smooth sapphire sheet dotted with emerald islands, lapping at the shores of the mainland, where mammoth mountains rise to form snowy domes suspended in the sky. I can see Canada. I can see the entire Cascade Range sweeping down Washington and even into Oregon. I can see the Olympic Peninsula and its equally lofty heights, perhaps hiding Japan over its lumpy bulk. Above, the sky is as blue as blue sky strategic thinking gets, and far more credible.

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And so, from such gargantuan immensity I end up in a little yurt on the shores of Doe Bay, on the eastern side of the island. I may well be staying in some place that has the word ‘retreat’ in its name. One or two of the staff have longish hair, and I think they are serving vegetarian food in the cafe. There may be a spiritual yoga class tomorrow morning. But there is no pressure to non-conform. Simply do as you will. Meander the land and come across other yurts or cabins or swags set amongst the trees and cosy glades. Take a book and sit on a rundown bench under a fragrant pine branch, the sound of gently lapping water occasionally pierced by seals or other marine life or a guitar being strummed on some other bench over the bay. Potter about in such a complete carefree daze that you lock yourself out of your yurt and have to call out someone to help you after hours who looks very pregnant and was probably in the middle of eating their dinner but is still absolutely delighted to be of assistance.

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Wake up on your birthday in the middle of a structure resembling a giant birthday cake, scattering opened envelopes on the radiant wood floor. Say good morning to the deer munching away on the green grass, shading your eyes from the morning sea glare. Hear the sound of soothing humming coming from the yoga shack. And revel in an absolutely delicious vegetarian breakfast burrito served with approachable charm and humour. The milestone of another year reached and, strangely, I feel ten years younger.


[1] There is always a switch which never seems to operate anything. (Meanwhile, across town, the lights at the ballpark flicker on and off as an unassuming tourist twiddles with knobs in a beige motel).

[2] Unfamiliar to your far too cultured brain? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Move_Twice

Links

Scorpio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QEsjd1WZuY

Cypress Creek…I mean…Bellingham, WA: http://www.bellingham.org/

The San Juans: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/

Doe Bay Resort and, yes, Retreat: http://doebay.com/

Specifically, pacifically, northwest: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/specific-pacific-northwest-blogfest.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Waterfalls

It was always going to be hard for me to steer clear of a road named The Waterfall Way. Linking the tablelands of Australia’s New England to the mid north coast of New South Wales,the twist and turns down to the ocean are regularly punctuated with a chocolate box selection of falls. The stops from west to east are a story in climate and geography. Commencing in a parched landscape of wild gorges and dry bushland, thin strips of silver white water spill off cliff edges and into unseen creeks. High plateaus offer wild flowers and cool forests through which rivers gather speed and depth to forge their way down steps into deep gullies. Moisture picks up closer to the coast, where rainforests form to offer crystal cascades and lush fern pools, and the water speeds into the coastal plain before mellowing broadly to the sea.

With such excess there is a danger of waterfall fatigue: parking up, strolling to a lookout, taking a picture and hopping back in the car for a short journey to the next stop. In fact, the waterfalls continue north in pockets of rainforest tucked amongst ancient volcanic plateaus all the way up into Queensland. In the wonderful natural surroundings of Springbrook National Park it is as if there is one final grand culmination before water sweeps over the Great Dividing Range and into the horror of a Gold Coast horizon. Plunging pristine water toppling over the edge before being becalmed in a complex of gaudy cashed up retirement waterways.

Tucked away before the Gold Coast looms, in the quieter western side of the park, another waterfall tantalises the traveller who crosses the border by the back way. Nestled within a beautiful green valley is the once more imaginatively named Natural Arch, replete with shady pool and shimmering cascade plunging through a tunnel of rock. It’s midway round a processional loop walk through the rainforest, where sun rays filter hazily through the tree ferns and parrots chirp away in the canopy. On a humid summer morning, the cool shade of the forest and continuous thrash of crystal water is the perfect gin ‘n tonic.

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What is it about waterfalls that are of such appeal that we seek to recreate them in garden features the world over? On balance they are usually very pretty, from elegant slivers to bubbling tiers and tormented torrents of foaming fury. They are, as much as anything, a break from the ordinary…where a placid river or lake suddenly comes to an abrupt halt and decides to throw itself over a cliff. There is an unparalleled feeling of freshness and purity and, often, invigoration from getting close to gallons and gallons of tumbling water. It can make you feel alive. It can make you want to pee.

The power of waterfalls is compelling and is why they are often best viewed after rain, or sustained snowmelt. Yosemite in May is very different to Yosemite in October. Postcards of massive gushing falls in northern Australia can tell a lie for the trickle that often dwindles in the dry season. In the UK, the weather is usually more reliably conducive to year round falls, with new ones springing up across high streets during supposedly exceptional but all too regular winter storms.

W_wales2013 was one of the better British summers and I felt slightly aggrieved to catch only the tail end of it. Nonetheless it was a balmy 20 degrees or so when I found myself in South Wales towards the end of August, on a different kind of waterfall way. Situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park, this literal tour de force was completed on foot along the Four Waterfalls Walk. For pronunciation lovers out there I can make your day by telling you that this commenced near Ystradfellte and took in a wonderful meander to view (brace yourselves) Sgwd Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr [1] and Sgwd yr Eira [2].

It sounds like a trite cliché (hey, who doesn’t love a trite cliché), but each fall (or, I assume, sgwd) had its own style and character. Each one builds to the next and the final stop on the itinerary offers the ultimate white water thrill for not especially adrenaline seeking junkies. For, at the curtain falls of Sgwd y Eira, it is quite possible to walk behind the voluminous mass of water plummeting down, and – for some – to take your dog reluctantly along for the ride too. Inevitably there is plenty of spray and you will get wet, but – well – you are in Wales and you will get wet in Wales sooner rather than later. Why not make it here and take the chance to really appreciate the forcefulness of nature. Why not take your ear drums to the brink, pleading for mercy from the explosive, monumental thrash of the gigalitres of water that descend before your eyes? Amazing.

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Like Wales, Oregon is pretty familiar with rain, confronted as it is with a moist pacific airstream and climatic battle between deserts and mountains. One early October day in Portland is restricted to bookstore meanderings and coffee shop escapes, ducking out between downpours to make it to the next warming hipster refuge. Traversing wet sidewalks through a tangle of black umbrellas and beige raincoats, the city seems enveloped in the cinematic monochrome of a film noir. There is oppressiveness to the rain, something which is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by its citizens but causes frustration to time-limited visitors like me. There are only so many lattes to sup and bookshelves to roam.

The next day shows marginal improvement – overcast but dry – and seems as good as it will get for an escape into the wilds. Passing the quite possibly interesting town of Boring, there are no views of Mount Hood to be had, rising Fuji-like out of the farmland and forests of the horizon as depicted so tantalisingly in the Lonely Planet picture. Brief glimpses are snatched beside Mirror Lake, with little reflection other than that internalised in relation to being potential early morning bear fodder. Further sneak peeks appear in the rain shadow of the mountain to the east and, here, the sun returns for a while to transform the colours of the fading autumnal forests.

With Mount Hood now somewhere behind, the road ends at the huge barrier of the Columbia River, carving a broad swathe through the Cascade Mountains and splitting Oregon and Washington States. The river has created a mammoth gorge lined with cliffs north and south. And so, with a large river system, significant rainfall, and high cliffs, there is a certainty of a quite spectacular run of waterfalls.

This particular waterfall way is undoubtedly a more developed road than that back in New South Wales, as dual lane sweeping curves follow the river in what is a dream to drive. Of the frequent cascades, it is Multnomah Falls that offers the most iconic sight. For once it seems a human element, an unnatural structure, has enhanced a natural spectacle. Splitting the precipitous double-decker descents of white water is a pedestrian arch bridge, where humans can run from bears and so effectively offer a sense of scale and perspective. Indeed, even the bears would look small opposed to the streaks of water tumbling from somewhere unfathomably high up in the sky.

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Finishing a convenient circumnavigation of the globe here I am now back in Canberra. There are few falls here, other than watery concrete features around the angular constructs of the parliamentary triangle. But in a couple of days I will be going up to Sydney and, with time on my hands, I will make it scenic, detouring to Fitzroy Falls in the Southern Highlands. An old reliable favourite, fed by a reservoir and plunging off sandstone into a gum tree valley. A lyrebird may well be imitating the sounds of crashing water and a strong minty eucalyptus scent will pervade the senses. Again, it will be splendid. Because waterfalls are always splendid. But for now, I must come to a halt and stop this gushing about gurgling water and thrashing torrents, soaked in a spray of swirling liquid currents and dramatic downpours. Because now I really, really need to pee.


[1] For anyone with a customised 2014 calendar Christmas present…this one is the front cover!

A to Z Activities Australia Driving Great Britain Photography Places USA & Canada Walking

Trek

It is pleasing to know that there is a minibus to transport you around on a Trek America tour. I guess this means Trek America is a bit of a misnomer, given that technically it does not involve complete self propulsion across the continental United States. Despite this, there is still plenty of opportunity for much walking, in between long country drives and Twinkie rest stops.  For me I shall always be thankful, because Trek America trips opened up the vast spectacle of the Western US, and fed early cravings of reasonably civilised first world exploration.

The trips were like all the best parts of an 18-35 holiday – a naive adventure meeting youthful peers from across the globe – without the inflatable doll tequila sessions of a lobster fleshed Magaluf pool. Entertainment was the great outdoors and sharing this with a group of like minds. Yeah you could have beers, yeah there could be frolics, and yeah you could hit the bright lights of, say, downtown Jackson, Wyoming. But the next day, it would be onwards and out there, in the van playing cards, falling asleep, listening to music and reaching another momentous national park for another great trek.

The tours were usually called something like Western Wondrousness Walkabout or Awesome Toursome Adventure, commencing in some B grade airport motel and only getting better from there. The first day would be the time to break ice, to suss out the driver, to acclimatise to a diet of ham salad lunches, to catch up on jetlagged sleep. And then, at some point, the first walk out into the wilds would take place and, outside of the confines of the van, conversation would sparkle and you would all be best mates by the end. Just in time for the campfire cook up, which could be a chilled or fraught occasion depending on your duty. There was always a vegetarian and a fussy eater who couldn’t stand any flavour whatsoever. Toast was always a good backup.

But all was forgotten the next day when out on the road and amongst the mountains and the forests, the canyons and the falls. There would be more rest stops and scenic lookouts, ham salad sandwiches and mix tapes [1]. There would be geysers and moose and mega slick coaches housing mega large Americans touring their super-sized country. Just occasionally, like ships that pass in the night, another Trek America van would criss-cross yours, containing an identical but just slightly different set of characters: a cliquey English couple, a couple of rosy-faced Germans, a leggy tanned female who was the token hottie in the group, one solo Japanese traveller with a big camera, and perhaps one or two people like me, whatever that means. They were the same, but clearly not having as much fun as us. Because nobody could be having as much fun as us.

T_platptThat’s because we were out there, in the great outdoors, walking away, trekking at least for a little while, doing what it says on the tin. We were plunging down into the Grand Canyon, zigzagging alongside rocky red cliffs, passing mules and fools in flip flops and vests. We were stretching out along the trail, in small clumps of two or three. Some were looking to set world records; others were looking like they might get lost. We were incrementally arriving at Plateau Point, to eat our premade ham salad sandwich and overlook the mighty Colorado River. We were in awe of the sound, from still a couple of thousand metres below, raging up the slots and chasms, making you feel as though you were riding the water yourself, with a ham salad sandwich in place of a paddle.

We were looking back up at the rim of the canyon and suddenly not having as much fun. Thousands of metres of switchbacks and torment, up and up to the baking hot sky. We would need more than a ham salad sandwich to have the energy for that, but most people brought Twinkies or wiggly jelly worms or peanut butter cookies or perhaps even an apple, but that was less likely. And we all made it, in dribs and drabs, for a sense of achievement that exacerbates contentment over a sunset and beer.

And all would not be forgotten the next day, because you would remember such experiences for a long, long time. Even when you had walked other walks and trekked other treks and dragged out the farewells with extra nights and extra food and extraordinary ludicrousness in Las Vegas. The landscape would linger, the moments would magnify, the experience would play over and over again on the plane home, and you could hear that rushing river rising up in rage once more…

…You hear it again a few years later and you are back in the US. It’s cool and grey and winter is very much just around the corner. Soon, Yellowstone will enter hibernation and be encased in a deep freeze. Steam from geysers sprout up along the valley, a natural sauna in contrast to this chill, windswept ridge. The sound of water is somewhere through the dark pine forests below, carving some other chasm in this country of monumental valleys.

This time you are with another bunch of buddies getting to know one another in tandem with the landscape. The walk down and through the forest passes quickly with chatter, a level of hubbub which will safely keep the bears at bay. For once there are no ham salad sandwiches for the bears to intercept. The day is nearing its end and the sound of water disappears for a little in the stillness of the woods. Suddenly it emerges again as quickly as the forest parts, and the sight of Yellowstone Falls plunging into a gorge of yellowish rocks [2] caps off another memorable and pleasingly circular trek.

T_yellowstone

Campfire nights pass with fussy eating and cold beers. Days blend into a haze of hours on the road, ham salad sandwiches, stops in random towns, turn outs for vistas and walks on rocky trails to stretch the legs. Random memories pertaining to potatoes are retained about the state of Idaho, and there is a stop for Dairy Queen. Finally, the weather is warming up and winter is still a long way from touching the barren, desert lands of Nevada. The sound of icy water would be welcome again, to splash over your face and arms and legs, to wash out the dirt from another sublime walk.

Water sounds and sublime walks are a dominant feature of Yosemite National Park, now in California and nearing the San Francisco end of this particular journey of Western Wondrousness. However, it is October and the gushing falls of June are mostly reduced to a trickle, as if a shower where the tap has not been turned off tightly enough. Nonetheless, we are all again experiencing the most fun ever, having enjoyed a couple of weeks together that now seem the natural way of life. Wake up, make breakfast, pack up, hit the road, stop for a sandwich, make camp, go for a walk. Prepare dinner, eat dinner, have a beer, sleep in a tent and pray that no bears get a whiff of the toothpaste in your mouth.

T_yosemite_smallIn Yosemite there is a break to the routine of sorts, and a day to go off and do whatever the hell we like. Such is the bond instead of going our separate ways many stick together and embark on a trip to Glacier Point and back down to the valley. The going up part is the easiest, transported by shuttle bus and delivered to a spot for the most colossal views of the Sierra Nevada. Looking toy-like thousands of metres below is Yosemite Valley. With binoculars you may be able to spot the bear entering your tent to steal a picnic basket. But you would need very strong binoculars. I just have an old camera with little to no zoom and a lack of technical capability that can do the scene justice.

It is, then, a long way down and every single metre of it is covered on foot. At first things are easy going, following the ridge with breathtaking views out to the east. Half Dome is clear and most suitably named. The landscape is of such grand magnificence that you feel as though it is almost too close, assaulting your senses and about to topple over onto your body. As you descend, the surroundings become more intimate, and trickles of leftover waterfalls scatter into shallow pools and chasms. Such shady, cool spots are more benign and perfect for a ham salad sandwich.

Steps, steps and more steps. Some well maintained like a gentle stairway to the Gallery of Soft Fluffy Cushions, others a rocky rubble leading to the School of Armageddon. Bone-jarring, shin-splitting, ankle-crunching steps. There are thousands of them and towards the end they are incredibly annoying. You can sense this in the stringing out of the group and the reduction in general chatter. Now the focus is on the job at hand: getting this over with and being able to put your feet up with a cold beer in camp.

Finally, when you do get back to camp and put your feet up, you notice legs caked in dust, in stark contrast to the glowing white clean flesh below the sock line. Like a spray on tan that has gone horribly wrong. These brown and white legs ache but the beer is sweet. And you are very happy and perhaps this is because you know this moment on this day will stick with you for a long time. As for all those steps, as for that lengthy walk…well, you can’t complain. It isn’t called Trek America for nothing.


[1] In fact, this was the brief era of the minidisc, which seemed to be enduringly popular in the vans of western US tour groups

[2] From whence came the name Yellowstone

Links

Drive round and walk a bit: http://www.trekamerica.com/

Grand Canyon National Park: http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Beware bears: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDg7PaSEq2E

Yosemite National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm

Some of the best from the west: http://www.anseladams.com/

A to Z Activities Driving USA & Canada Walking

Petrol

The ball-breaking torque combined with the twin thrust turbo delivers an astonishing rear wheeled hardon that isn’t good. It’s absolutely MASSIVE!” So says Clarkson on almost every episode of Top Gear ever.

Like most of the world, I enjoy Top Gear and the overblown ridiculousness of it all. But I have never really reached the point where the noise of a car gives me an erection. It seems I am in the sensible fuel-efficient compact car school of thought, so mocked by humorous middle aged men with pube hair and jeans and blazer combos. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy driving, now.

I had an inauspicious start to driving, passing my test in the flattest, quietest town in Britain and then becoming flummoxed with hills and traffic elsewhere. I didn’t particularly enjoy it and practically went out of my way to avoid driving anywhere. It wasn’t until Australia, and a solo work trip where driving was virtually impossible to avoid, that I got behind the wheel again. And since that point things have changed, I feel comfortable and confident [1] and, more than anything, relish the freedom that comes with wheels.

Having a car transformed my relationship with Australia, starting in my home town of Canberra. It says a lot for Canberra’s design that people couldn’t believe I didn’t have a car for a year there. Further, I could make trips down to the beautiful South Coast, or up to Sydney, or into the high country. My love for road trips reignited, and I ended up driving up to Brisbane one Christmas, traversing Tasmania over Easter, then up-scaling to New Zealand which was a mere road test for doing the biggest traverse of all, from one ocean to the other.

For all the wonderful petrol-driven experiences in Australia it’s fair to say that road trips are synonymous with the USA. Kicks on Route 66, fun on Highway 1. Turnpikes and Freeways, Roads to Nowhere. Gas stops and Twinkies, neon signs and drive thru diners. Signs imploring you to get in touch with God, others urging you to get in touch with Hooters. In this great land, Life is a Highway, and you may end up riding it all night long.

Having only driven once in the USA – a series of amazing meanders around the Pacific Northwest – my road trip experiences here are built on shared journeys, chauffeured around by some willing participant in the process. On more than one occasion this has been my Dad, and on one of these particular occasions we were heading down the length of Florida to its very tip, with my brother making up the family triumvirate. A trip powered by sweetly abrasive gas station coffee and a George Foreman grill.

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Florida is the kind of place that can simultaneously be brilliantly amazing and desperately awful. Beyond the Mickey Mouse and McMansions, the summer humidity, the searing oppression of gun-infested sprawls of urban mess, and the inevitable queues for waiting rooms to move on into the afterlife, there is an outdoorsy, pioneering and almost cultural side to Florida. Spanish heritage and space exploration compete with sweeping beaches and a tangle of waterways created by what is one large swamp jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. And if this gets a little much, there is always a KFC all-you-can-eat buffet in which to convalesce.

Starting somewhere in the outer suburbs of Jacksonville, the state capitol, it’s another gorgeous sunny morning to hit the open road. I say open road, but the freeways and interstates here seem to be continuously cluttered, with tailgating the norm and veering across lanes a requirement for anyone in an oversized SUV. The land is flat and really quite uninteresting, the roads keeping far enough from the coast to enable you to see very little of it. Wal-Mart is passed and I stay conscious. Keeping us going is that sweetened coffee and delicacies from Krispy Kreme. It seems totally in keeping; hopefully there is no illegal sugar driving limit.

A constant on the horizon are the signs for Miami, intermingling with Tampa and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale and other retirement holiday ventures along the way. Lacking the same sense of razzamatazz as signs encountered for San Francisco and Los Angeles on previous trips, there’s still a glamour associated with the concept of Miami – Miami Beach in particular. Thoughts of swanky high rises, neon signs, and art deco beachfronts crawling with souped up Cadillacs and beautiful people. And while this may (or may not) exist, the interstate, as is so typical of US cities, slices its way through a dense fringe of suburban decay, fear, and loathing.

Arriving in a large city after a lazy cruise down a highway is all part of the US road trip experience. Sometimes the cityscape may loom large and you hit its downtown rather abruptly, swept upon a snaking interstate raised above the streets and weaving through glassy skyscrapers. More often than not it’s an elongated process, regularly punctuated by a series of exits with names like Franklin Boulevard, Northwest Latrobe Drive, and George Bush Senior Expressway. Four way intersections become the norm, at each one a drive through cookie dough express and branch of Subs ‘n Shooters to pass the time while you wait for the lights to change.

There usually comes a very crucial point where you need to take an exit to make it on to the road that takes you back out of dodge. This comes with warning five miles out but after that no signs emerge until the very exit, and you have to cross eight lanes to get to it, with no gaps at all in between the SUVs loaded with automatic rocket launchers. The exit is locally known as Slit-throat Alley and you need to fill up on fuel somewhere here, plus you are busting for a pee because you had an oversized Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. Is it just me, or are US cities incredibly daunting, often intimidating? I have never felt that secure in them with the exception being – you may be surprised – New York City [2].

Anyway, such tests are sent to test us. I seem to remember we made our crucial interchange in Miami, albeit with a distinct tension in the air, relieved as the city faded away in the rear view mirror. Now there were few roads to get lost on and the road trip transformed into a proper old-fashioned one, with single lane byways and scenic turn offs and stupid attractions like Aunt Maisie’s Coral and Humbug Umbrella Shoppe. The coastline also emerged more frequently, inevitable given we were now on the line of islands and cays making up the Florida Keys. Here we could camp and make a fat-reduced dinner with Mr George Foreman, the waterside setting of John Pennekamp State Park a long way metaphorically from Miami.

After a sojourn upon the water, the road trip continued the next day down to Key West, celebrated for being the end of the road and a corporately hippified haunt, out of reach and proudly out of touch with the rest of America. It feels the kind of place where eccentrics and misfits and millionaire investment bankers with a fresh Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt for each day end up. Every third person walking down the street sports a Hemingwayesque beard, obscuring their Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt. This is still clearly America, but with a cruisey Caribbean undercurrent.

The sun sets famously off Key West and this is the end of a one-way street, turning back is the only option [3]. Travelling on the other side of the road gives chance to see what was missed on the way down, like the Big Fuck Off Fishing and Boat Shed, the Uppitsarse Links Golf and Country Club, and Fishface Bucket O’Clams Pelican Feeding Centre. Pleasingly there remain extensive reaches of wide open water, shallow and sapphire, clusters of palm trees sprouting up from sandy bays, all within easy reach of the road and encouraging frequent stops.

A mainland of sorts returns after the last span of what is an 100 mile? elongated bridge is crossed north. Distinguishing the mainland is a challenge, since swamps, reeds, pools and channels intersect with a placid shallow sea. This is a sponge of a country, where a wrong turn or a wrong foot will swallow you whole. This is primeval and timeless, and seems to be untainted compared with much of Florida. This is the Everglades.

If Key West was the figurative end of the road, this was the high point. So close to Miami you should be able to hear the gunshots, the Everglades feels peaceful and serene, wrapped in a blanket of tall grass and smothered with mangroves. And far from being a lifeless swamp, the changing levels of water, the changing salinity, and the changing ecosystems thrive with a concentration of life as densely packed as Miami. Here, the Alligators rule the ghetto.

Road tripping really comes alive in national parks, particularly in the US which are typically generous with their access and facilities. In the most popular spots you can drive up and park and sit in your car and eat a cheese biscuit with a spray of cheese in a can on the side and look at the view. Fortunately there are plenty of trails that fewer people take, loops of an hour or two to get away from the car and discover views and animals and rocks and plants. In the Everglades, these loops offer an array of animal life, of birds and butterflies, lizards and dragonflies, and of course the perennial alligator. I was, quite frankly, amazed by it all.

P_FLeverglades

And only now, reflecting, I think of the hypocrisy of marvelling at wonders of nature such as this having burned thousands of tonnes of carbon to get there. I do this all the time, without really thinking about it. To make matters worse, I burn a dollop of extra energy trying to write something about them on a coal-fired laptop.

Still, at least I don’t tend to drive to the shops just round the corner, and I do tend to put my empty plastic bottles into a green bin for someone to do something with, and I definitely don’t waste food or anything like that. Besides, now I can take my lead from the Australian Prime Minister, whose advanced thinking tells us that carbon is an invisible substance of no importance whatsoever and what’s science ever done for us anyway? It’s thinking that probably would not be out of place in southern Florida, where I can thoroughly enjoy the hoon around in a guided propeller boat trip in the swamps bordering the Everglades.

Being hooked on travel, being hooked on road trips means I am even more hooked on petrol. It is the blessing and curse of our times [4]. It enabled me to experience the diversity of Florida, relatively cheaply compared to other countries in the world. It has also propelled me around the more incredible terrain of the Western US. My experience of Australia has transformed with every guzzle from a Coles Express petrol station, and I have spent a small fortune on it. I miss it, despite the best efforts of public transport in Europe. Like Clarkson and Hammond and May, like George W, like him and her and you and that bloke over there, I am addicted.


[1] OK, so comfortable and confident in an automatic. I feel gear changing and clutch control on hills has passed me by.

[2] Why did NYC feel safe? I think several things – it’s more familiar to an outsider thanks to its screen presence, it’s easy to get around and people actually walk on the sidewalks rather than drive everywhere. Plus there are lots of people, many tourists, and there’s safety in numbers. Plus I didn’t get mugged, neither did some hoodlum come up to me and draw a pitiful excuse for a knife, depriving me of the chance to emulate Crocodile Dundee.

[3] Unless you wish to go against the flow and swim to Cuba

[4] Though possibly soon to be usurped by the possession of an Apple product which will lock you into a tortuous love-hate relationship for life.

Links

Powerrrrrrrr: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpDdQaS73eM

Sweet home Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8St7jj1iFw

Florida Keys tourism: http://www.fla-keys.com/

The Everglades: http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm

Now that’s magic: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/a-socalled-market-in-invisible-stuff-the-meaning-of-tony-abbotts-carbon-rhetoric-20130715-2q00e.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink USA & Canada Walking