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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.



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


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


The problem with travelling around the Pacific Northwest, at any time of year, is the range of gear you need to have on hand ‘just in case’. October especially is the most transformational of months, where one summer day can cling on with a happy warmth and calm, only to be usurped the following dawn by the approach of tempestuous rain fronts delivering the first mountain snows. Shorts and sunhats become wellies and waterproofs.

The joy of travelling around the Pacific Northwest, at any time of year, is the range of weather and landscapes you can enjoy. There appear a seemingly endless combination of elements to experience, even in a compacted space and time. There may be clear calm days on the placid sounds around the San Juan Islands, only a distant whale shattering the glassy surface of water. Further down the coast, chilling winds and squally storms may be thrashing at the sweeping Oregon beaches, delivering driftwood with the salty foam, and sandblasting stooped figures that mingle amongst the shores. Rainforests are shrouded in misty cloud, soaking up like a sponge the contents of the Pacific Ocean, while woodlands of toilet fresh pine offer up sunny glades of grazing deer and dappled riverbanks. Rising up, alpine lakes and meadows of flowers glow in the sun, shadowed by the sky-scraping volcanic peaks of the Cascades, whose heights can quickly draw clouds like a magnet and absorb massive dumps of snow. Beyond their reach, barren desert lands carved with rocky canyons and dusty plateaus stretch away into the east.

E_pumpkinIt was rain that was on the cards one early October morning in Sammamish, a pleasant surburban satellite town east of Seattle. Thoughts of Halloween were emerging, as pumpkins peppered manicured gardens and witches brooms disturbed the wholesome air. The previous day’s joyously warm sunshine was rapidly fading and indoor activity was sensible, hence I headed towards Paine Field, where some of man’s achievements can be marvelled at in the Boeing factory [1]. Here, colossal sheds and colossal gift shops house incredible components and machines and plastic cups with curly straws. Huge underground service channels burrow their way through the complex, sheltered from the fickle elements that are a part of life in Washington State.

A short plane ride or, in my case, a circuitous journey west of here lies the Olympic Peninsula. If Paine Field provides an impressive depiction of what can be done by humans, the Olympic Peninsula is a reminder that nature is equally as showy. At its southerly end, the state capital Olympia has that gracious, fading air of autumn. Grey clouds hover but rain abates; instead leaves fall from the sky like paper planes zigzagging silently on the breeze, congregating into quivering puddles of red, green and yellow. Trench coats and trilbies are not out of place around the parliament, a domed building so reminiscent of capitol hills across the land. Despite being the capital of Washington, it feels like a town on the fringes, out of the way and barely featuring on the national consciousness. An outpost from Seattle and a staging post for the wilderness to the north.

Daylight seems to have barely greeted us as it disappears in the evening, and a night stop close to Lake Quinault beckons. A composite of faded green shades cloaked in mist, raindrops rippling on the water, people and animals in temporary hibernation. A pleasant riverside motel appears somewhat more foreboding in this atmosphere, but it is a refuge in which to shelter under blankets and be thankful that you have a roof over your head and pizza around the corner. A roof that amplifies every raindrop that sweeps in throughout the night, thrown around by the wind and launched onto surfaces with incessant force.

The next day begins no better, as water continues to permeate deep dark spruce forests and transform walking tracks into haphazardly sculpted rivulets. The car now is the refuge, pushing through one final heavy squall on its way to the coast. Here, things are clearer, the wind whipping clouds at great speed away from the sun. But dampness remains the theme, mighty waves of the Pacific driving up the sand and coating endless piles of driftwood with a tidal surge. My feet, caught up between a rock and a hard place, are not escapable from the water at Second Beach, but the sun is now warming and consoling, and a change of shoes is but a short trek away. The end of the world feel at La Push is now contradicted by the bright and breezy elements around.


Back inland, the light fades and mists once more mingle in between trees. The Hoh Rainforest is a rainforest by name and a rainy forest by nature. I did not see any Hohs. I would imagine it would feel unnatural here on a dry and sunny day. Sponges of moss stifle trees and grow bloated with water. Beards hang down from their branches, and the trees take on a life of their own, like some terrifying monster from a Scooby Doo cartoon [2]. The air has an edge of intimidation to it, a slight feeling that you are trespassing on a very ancient, primeval world. You should take a few photos and leave things be. Otherwise the trees may come and get you.

Hoh rainforest     E_hoh1

Contrast elevates the small town of Port Angeles to a thriving metropolis. Traffic lights and a small city block, supermarkets and docks, a place to feel comfortable for the night. And awaken to a dry start where the sun rises from the east, illuminating Vancouver Island across the Strait. The rising sun does not take long to be swallowed up by a leaden sky, and rainbows form somewhere between the US and Canada, like some symbolic hand-holding hippy statement of peace and free trade. Mountains behind me reach into the clouds, their height cannot be fathomed as they vanish into the sky. But there is a road you can follow that will take you there to find out.

On days of dubious looking weather, Hurricane Ridge does not sound the most appealing place in the world by name alone. But rising from sea level to 5000 feet certainly offers an uplifting experience and one in which you finally come head to head with the elements that have been your friend and foe on the peninsula. Of course, the change in altitude also brings change in vegetation and landscape; mildly undulating pine valleys become steeper and barer, clinging to rocky cliff tops and giving way to alpine meadows. Just after 4000 feet, as life becomes sparser and bleaker, so too does the weather and it is not long, as you climb at a steady gradient, before the car roof kisses the bottom of cloud, and then disappears into it altogether. One less Toyota Prius on view to the world.

I imagine the views from here are tremendous, the ecosystem rare and unique and blessed, a pinnacle within a peninsula so raggedly variedly beautiful. But the elements have indeed been fickle and today, as days deepen into October, there is one final affront: snow. A whiteout of gentle proportions that is at least recompense for the murky vista. A scene from Christmas come two months early, dusted icing covering fir trees, icicles forming at their edges, the satisfying crunch of virgin snow underfoot.


A visitor’s centre offers shelter from the cold and all the amusement that a 3D contour map and short video film can provide. Which is, for me, actually quite a lot of amusement. The map a chance to at least imagine what it might look like outside, and which peaks lie in which direction. The film a chance to see what it looks like outside, on a far superior summer’s day, where marmots prance amongst the flowers and lucky tourists come to admire the peaks in all directions. But today no magical transformation upon leaving the small cinema, a transformation that had happened a couple of weeks earlier in similar circumstances around Mount St Helens, when the landscape emerged out of the clouds as the curtains wound back to reveal a ravaged peak. Here still nothing.

It did not take long to descend to be in the clear again, but the very tops of mountains stubbornly refused to separate themselves from the layer of cloud. With typically grudging optimism I gave it one more shot, ascended again, and was amazed that things had improved. You could now see about 20 metres into the distance rather than 10. But this was an improvement, and a trend was setting in. Suddenly you could sense cloud formation and movement rather than a uniform whiteness. Elements were changing again. And while the vista did not exactly become cinematographic, gaps formed and meadows appeared, snow started to fade and drip from trees, peaks became visible through the windows of clarity. It was enough to send you off back to Seattle content, pleased that the elements had at least offered up some compromise.

Of course the next day was beautifully sunny again and, from downtown Seattle, across Puget Sound, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula shone bright. This was not the first dalliance with mountain sightings that had come back to taunt me the next day: Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and, now, Mount Olympus all giving up little in my presence but shining out from further afield. There was warmth back in the air and the need to discard of a sweater. The elements were once again dictating the terms in this corner of the world. Setting moods and scenes and sartorial choices. Making every hour of every day different. Shaping the variation, colouring the land, enriching the environment. And continuing to make packing a conundrum for those who have the good fortune to visit it.

[1] Where some of the first Dreamliners were coming towards the end of the production line. I had nothing to do with it.


Olympic Peninsula Info: http://www.olympicpeninsula.org/

Olympic National Park: http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm

Hoh Rainforest: http://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visiting-the-hoh.htm

Quiluete Nation La Push: http://www.quileutenation.org/

Hurricane Ridge webcam: http://www.nps.gov/olym/photosmultimedia/hurricane-ridge-webcam.htm

Specific Pacific Northwest Blogfest:


A to Z Driving Photography USA & Canada Walking


Well what a jolly upbeat place to start, no doubt setting the scene for the boundless enthusiasm that lies ahead. So, in order to put an immediate dampener on things, let me tell you some problems with this word and its application in the world of travel.  For far too long, far too many people, myself included, have liberally used a simple ‘awesome’ to reflect or describe an experience which, while probably very good, perhaps exhilarating, maybe fun depending on company, was technically not inspiring of our awe. Akin to Australian misogynists trolling their way through the hate media in 2012, overuse has diluted its impact. Awesome is no longer quite as awesome.

And who should we blame for such degradation of our language? Well, as every reasoned, fact-based opinion piece would purport, young people and social media of course! I suppose while we are thinking along such lines then we might also point the finger at any combination of immigrants, foreigners, boatpeople, sandpeople, wookies, orcs and trolls. Bloggers, who may fit in any or all of the above categories, are no doubt entirely culpable.

Of course, this is all assuming that we have to blame someone or something, which tends to be the way these days, rather than accept that things change for better or worse and that language is merely an extension of our natural evolution. Besides, I also think we could rule out young people in the blame game, simply because “awesome” sounds so 1990s. A bit like “cool’. Which naturally brings me on to New Zealand.

Nowhere, simply nowhere, have I heard the word “awesome” used to describe so many mundane things…

How were your fish and chips? Awesome, thanks. Cool [1]

How did you sleep last night? Not bad thanks. Awesome

What do you think of the Hobbit movie? Yeah absolutely awesome Peter Jacksons a legend bro

It may be because New Zealanders – who I truly believe are one of the nicest, warmest peoples on this planet – are naturally happy and optimistic souls (the counterargument, typically from boorish Aussies, would be that they are easily pleased). The irony of this is that New Zealand probably contains the most genuinely awesome sights and experiences per capita of anywhere in the world. Yes, experiencing a silent, dawn reflection on the glass water of Milford Sound probably is awesome; the extent to which your lamb chop is seasoned really shouldn’t be.

I am willing to cede that awesomeness is entirely subjective. Perhaps, indeed, a well seasoned lamb chop (which is important) could be awesome when one finds oneself ravenously craving salty meatiness. Thus in travel we will all come across different things that we find awesome. Not just incredible sights but experiences and emotions that pop up in the right place at the right time. The combination of physical place and emotional connection is often the most magical. One can trigger the other. For me, a physicality that is almost impossible to fathom and epic in scale is usually awesome [2]. It is something that is rightly awe-inspiring and as such generates an emotional reaction. Emotions ranging from bewilderment to wonderment. A sense of one’s own time and place in a grander narrative.

Awesome travel experiences should be impossible to fully convey through words and pictures. Which, with a sense of inevitability, I shall now attempt to do, reflecting on two very different environments. One is man-made, the other crafted by the hand of nature.


A_New York

When it comes to epic environments of a man-made scale I’d argue it would be hard to look beyond New York City and the landscape of Manhattan Island in particular. Everyone should visit and everyone should easily find an awesome moment. There is incredulity attached to the place, simply in how a muddy island has evolved over little more than two centuries to become, and I plagiarise, one hell of a town. A testament to human survival, endeavour, ingenuity and skill. A reflection too on human frailty, failings and fears. This may be how far we, as humanity, have come, both in good and bad ways.

Even from atop the very highest buildings the city is impossible to fathom (remember this being a key requisite of my definition of awesomeness). At my time of visit (2011), the Empire State Building represented the highest point in the city and the experience from the 86th floor around dusk was incredible. Each city block a melding of concrete, steel and glass, bubbling upwards like the most majestic capitalist stalagmites. Each block ringed by a dotted artwork of moving yellow taxis, police cars, black and white suits, turning to streams of candescent red and yellow as darkness falls. This scene replicated and nuanced many times over, forming a feast for the eyes of gargantuan proportions.

There is more to this experience than the visual epic. The sound is at one singular and plural; a constant background hum punctuated by sirens wailing, drills whirring, concrete blocks piling, delivery vans unloading. For all I can make out, the mutterings of individual conversations and transactions rise up – “Get me a bagel schmuck”, “Siphon residual profits into offshore hedge fund now”, “Aw gee, that’s so awesome” – and meld together to form an indistinct, indecipherable story. Yet it is also a soundtrack that is – comparative to the streets below – soft and mellow, calming and reassuring, like a doctor with a good bedside manner, telling you it’s only a cold and will go away in a couple of days.

Without wishing to sound entirely blasphemous or indeed egotistical, it is possibly the closest you can physically feel to playing God. Here I am, overlooking the chaotic order the ant like humans have made. They seem to have done pretty well, but I’m not quite so sure where they are heading with all of this. Still, if it mostly keeps them out of trouble then I’ll let them get on with it, for now. I do wonder if their structures and movements and lights flickering on as darkness approaches are a brazen act of defiance to the nature I have created. But I’ll just make sure the sun goes down and comes up again, throw in some random weather and inevitable seasons. And let them see what they can do about that – ha!

I think it’s this realisation that you are both atop a pinnacle of human endeavour yet still at the mercy of the world around you that makes the top of the Empire State Building genuinely awesome. Coming at dusk accentuates this feeling, the changing colours reminding you that not even humankind can change the revolution of our planet and relationship to other bodies within the solar system (yet!). Despite what we have achieved, parading in such an obvious fashion below you, we cannot completely change the world. And that is a merciful thought. It adds to the relief at being so high, up away from the city, taking a breather from the millions below, yet remaining connected to them. And, gee, it’s a tonic for a great view.



Great views abound in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia. Before I go any further here I should reiterate the guide book lines: they are not actually mountains and they are not really blue, unless Bernard Manning has been resurrected in the wattle to yell out random profanities. Don’t expect high alpine drama of ragged granite shards and snow-capped peaks here. And, despite its very real wilderness, don’t be thinking you’ll be entirely escaping the clutches of mankind, given the most common way to see the place is along the not-so-Great Western Highway, with typically nondescript towns and Sydney style traffic. However, what is really awesome is the fact that you can walk down the streets of several of these towns and come to a rather abrupt halt. Or you could, should you really want to, carry on and topple many hundreds of metres down to join millions of Eucalyptus trees sweeping their way through valleys, tucking up like broccoli textured blankets against sheer sandstone cliffs, sheltering crazy birds and possums and snakes and spiders. A world before we were here.

Even though it may seem about as far away from New York City as the former planet Pluto, there are parallels between the two, conveniently suggesting common threads exist in my take on awesomeness. Sandstone pinnacles thrust upwards like the Empire State Building. Down below, a tree-filled pattern of regular irregularity. Sounds drift up, only, this time, the sirens are the echoes of bellbirds and the cackles of kookaburras and cockatoos. You are once more God-like, and with a sense of befuddlement at the sheer comprehension of what is set out below.

Out there remains wilderness, all still remarkably close to a sprawling city of over four million people. The ‘mountains’ remain an effective barrier to the seemingly endless sprawl, with shoots of Sydney forced south and north to new suburbs promising ample land and countryside but without really being in Sydney at all. The suburbs are unwittingly following the route of a few cows that escaped around 200 years earlier in search of pasture; cows that eventually found their way around the mountains, unlike the intrepid explorers who thought they could just head west in a straight line, endlessly naming everything that got in their way after themselves. Can we deduce that cows are smarter than many 18th century British colonial dandies? Surely not.

From the small towns that emerged once the explorers had stumbled across the mountains (only with the essential assistance of the local Aborigines) there are many vantage points to peer out into the void of the Grose Valley (to the north) and Jamison Valley (to the south) [3]. Some of these lookouts are grand, glamorous affairs, with safety rails and public toilets, information placards and tame rosellas. Echo Point in Katoomba is the most obvious yet still it offers a dramatically photogenic vista. You may find it awesome.

For the record, I find Sublime Point, further along to the east offers greater potential for an awesome experience. It’s harder to reach and thus you are more likely to experience it on your own, just you and the world for company. You are especially likely to have it to yourself at 6am in June, the wind piercing the bones and shaping bleary-eyed hallucinations of the valley mist into a soft, warming duvet. It is elemental, timeless and boundless. And as the first laser beams of sun hit the sandstone and the birdsong strikes upwards from within the mist, it is sublime, it is awesome.

[1] Everything that is awesome is also cool. Some things that are cool may not be awesome.

[2] Perhaps “epic” is in fact the modern day “awesome”, particularly since it requires fewer characters in a tweet.

[3] Further west there is the Megalong Valley, since tamed and given over to farming shortly after someone came up with its inspired choice of name.


Speak like a New Zealander: http://www.statravel.com.au/new-zealand-language.htm

The Empire State Building: http://www.esbnyc.com/

Me and NYC: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/spreading-news.html

Bernard John Manning: http://www.bernardmanning.com/

Destination NSW – Blue Mountains: http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/blue-mountains?gclid=CMzA4_uUmbQCFcohpQodCiYA-g

Crossing the Mountains: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/exploration/blue_mountains/index.html

Sublime times: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/sublime-points.html

A to Z Australia Photography Society & Culture USA & Canada

Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

Australia Europe Galleries Photography USA & Canada