Saturday, November 15, 2008

Big spaces and big hills

This is part 3 of Wonderful Western Wanderings featuring 2 Boring Random Guys. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, but not here. Photos here. Hear here.

As we left LA behind it began to become clear that the USA is pretty big. We were just driving up a little strip on the far left, but the distances between places was getting pretty large. So far we had restricted ourselves to LA, San Diego and west of them: equivalent to a whistle-stop trip round Scotland but nothing crazy. Driving up from LA to Fresno we basically passed through a bunch of farming towns on our way to a farming town. Even in the emptiest parts of the UK, it would be pretty difficult to drive 200 miles without passing a single place of note. Sorry Bakersfield: you are not a stopping-point on road trips by international visitors. The valley was wide, the road was quiet, and Simon got into a groove and flew up the highway.

So to Fresno. Ahh, lovely Fresno. We saw many different faces of California, and this was a new one. A palpable air of depression hung around this place: it looked like any other large American town, but it just felt down. From what we could gather, there is no major industry or employer left there, so everyone is struggling to make a living in this hot, flat place that seemed cut off from the rest of California. Although cut off is hardly the word when you consider that our motel was right next to what could have been the busiest set of railway tracks in America. Here's a sample of my less-than-restful night: horn! horn! (quiet for a short time) horn! horn! horn! (quiet) HORN!!!! Repeat for 7 hours or so. Anyway, we headed out for dinner. Fresno didn't seem to have an overabundance of eateries, but how could you not make a bee-line for somewhere called the "Chicken Pie Shop"? This meal summed up Fresno neatly: not actively bad, but not actively good either; a big pile of average for a reasonable price. We wandered down the street for a pleasant pint in the Sequoia Brewing Company. In the taxi trip back to the hotel, we found another thing that everywhere in the world has in common: right-wing taxi drivers. This guy decided to do a rant on "that black guy Obama", highlighting how he and the Democrats would take money off decent people and literally hand it out to druggies and foreigners. An interesting journey...

Next morning, we got up early (again, 8, but that doesn't sound very early) to head for the hills. Leaving Fresno behind, the road wound its way up towards one of the true highlights of our trip. The hills were rolling, not steep, so it was a surprise when we were suddenly at the entrance to Yosemite National Park. We took a snap decision to head up to Glacier Point before heading to Yosemite Valley itself, and what a good decision. The road went uphill through fairly dense forest, which blocked out much of the view of the surrounding area. Little snatches of panorama showed that we were getting higher, and the hills around us steeper. After a couple of stops we burst out at the Glacier Point viewpoint, almost 7,500 feet above sea level. There's no real way to put this spot into words: I'm struggling to think of having seen a more beautiful vista in my life. Seeing the skyline of Hong Kong for the first time is one, Torridon in Scotland is another, as are some of the views that I have had from airplane windows. Either way, the view here is like a punch to the guts: you seem to be on top of the world, with a wild and empty mountain range spreading as far as the eye can see. Yosemite Valley is immediately in front of (and below) you, and really steals the show. Improbable rock formations create impossibly-steep valley walls, which drop seemingly vertically away to the valley floor 3,500 feet below. That's right: cliffs 3,500 feet high. This place forced me to re-appraise my home country sligtly. Yosemite is like every other mountainous place but on drugs, drugs which make you go psychotic, muscly, and insane. We were around a mile from Yosemite Village, which we could pretty much touch from our vantage point in the heavens, but the steepness of the cliffs meant that it was a drive back all the way that we came, around an hour, to get there. Simon enjoyed these roads, me not so much. I'm not a complete pussy (OK, I am) but barrier-free roads + gigantic drops + Simon seeing how fast he can drive + a fairly powerful car = white knuckles for Justin. Don't get me wrong, Simon's driving was never (OK, almost never) dangerous, but I was always glad to be back on the flatter stuff after a twisty bit during the holiday. I will say that America knows how to make mountain roads, though.

We made it to Yosemite Valley and Village in one piece, and what from above was a peaceful and spectacular vista turned into an almost threatening valley floor surrounded by monsters. The cliffs, which looked normal-sized from above, loomed above at such a steep angle that they would surely pounce down and crush us all. The valley floor was crowded with little human insects crawling all over Yosemite Village, which to be honest was a little busy and not the nicest corner of the park. A longer trip would have allowed us to explore a little away from the tourists, and I have the feeling that there are many magical spots out there. We couldn't stop long in the village, as we were on a tight schedule and I had just typed a wonderful address into the GPS: 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA.

Emerging from Yosemite, we headed in the direction of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. The country on the way was completely different from Yosemite: here in gold rush country everything was barren, with yellow and the dark green of scrubby bushes the defining colours. Again, so close to a major population centre it was a different world: big, empty, hot, and slow paced. We raced through it, with the GPS woman constantly telling us that we were struggling to reach my target in time.

I have no problem admitting that I'm a sad geek, so when your route takes you past the headquarters of your cult, you have to drop by. I'm fully indoctrinated into Apple, so the chance to see the mothership was too good to pass up. The time deadline was caused by the shop: this is the only Apple store which sells merchandise, such as cult handbooks, holy Jobs water, and Apple smocks. We made it in with a few minutes to spare, and I managed to not go mad and limit myself to a few Apple knick-knacks. We took a wander round the campus and unfortunately did not spot Jobs himself. Satisfied, it was off to our destination for the night: Santa Cruz.

Apart from the wonderful Fatboy Slim song, I knew very little about the place. We were staying with Simon's Couchsurfing friend Michelle and her welcoming housemates, who showed us round a pleasant small city. This was clearly liberal/hippy territory, with a lovely laid-back vibe and nice setting on the Pacific. After a meal at a vegetarian diner (very Santa Cruz, apparently) with an outrageously-large sundae for dessert, we had a couple of pints before collapsing to sleep after a pretty major days activity. The next morning we went out for breakfast: I played it safe with pain perdu, but Simon went for it with something that I had never heard of: the truly terrifying breakfast burrito. This was a startlingly-large tortilla packed full of breakfast ingredients such as scrambled eggs, bacon, and goodness only knows what else. In the short time we had left (in Santa Cruz, not in life; to spoil the end: we don't die) Michelle took us on a whistle-stop tour of the hippy university, and then down the coast which was the cradle of surfing in California. The air was pleasant, the surfers surfed, but we had to move on.

Next up was, for me, the peak of the trip: San Francisco. Next time it will be tales of towers, prison, and some rust-coloured bridge.


Blogger Jenny said...

What trinkets did you get from the Apple Store?

1:29 am  
Blogger swishfish said...

T-shirt X2 ("hello, I'm a Mac" and "I visited the mothership"), keyring, mug, pen, mousemat. Much more restrained than I thought I would be...

5:39 pm  

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