Monthly Archives: May 2012

In praise of several US National Parks.

I suppose I should point out straight away that we were in the country for National Park Week where entry to the ‘Parks was free.

My working-class wiring pre-disposes me to a bargain. Thus I fear that a bias has crept in somewhere, nay everywhere to this piece. Not that it matters, this is not a class on creating a balanced argument now is it?

Alright, alright. Since we didn’t visit them ALL, how about I just praise a few eh? Happier now? [Jeez.]

And no photos neither. My snaps are no match for the professionals and even before that, actually being there.

Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i

On the Big Island – the one actually called Hawai’i – there is a huge chunk of land dedicated to volcanicity. Indeed, it’s not just a chunk, it’s a boiling, creeping, growing mass of land. The volcanoes make new land here. How about that?Several acres per annum a freshly minted. Around the south of the island it becomes pretty obvious that you are on a volcano. The black, pumice-like scenes you drive by are pretty clear evidence. You are 2,000 miles from a proper land mass, stood at the foot of a mountain. How many clues do you want? Of course when you stand back far enough – Google Earth stylee – you can see that the whole bally shooting match is a volcano.

I found this all very exciting and was soon commenting about the myriad of other-worldly rocks surrounding us. Not a thrilling subject for all apparently. “Ooohing” and “Ahhing” at rock is not the same, nor as appropriate as doing so at a firework display I’m told. Gets very boring very quickly they say. Each to their own I s’pose.

When we arrive at the visitor centre – there’s always a visitor centre, there’s always a gift shop – we are just in time to catch a hour walking tour. A free one. (Woop, woop: quietly this time by way of inner monologue.) In the event we are the only tourists interested enough to be told things by a Ranger, so tis effectively a private tour. Our Ranger – Travis, a native (albeit a very white one) – takes us though the undergrowth to the rim of the Kiluea crater which steams like a vast cauldron. He tells us all kinds of biological factoids and local stories about the ecology of the island. The flora and fauna care not that they live on an active volcano, they just get on with it. The introduced species are edging out the locals in many categories because the locals have not had any competition till man carelessly loosed new plants and animals on the islands.

Beyond the biology, beyond the volcanoes there’s a highlight to the tour. Nose flute. No, not a typo, a nose flute. Travis plays, we are transfixed. Simultaneously I am convulsing with stifled laughter at the surreal element. It was like being an unwitting part of a (particularly out there) Vic & Bob skit with the story of goddess Pele who lives in a pit of fire. The lad Morgan loved it.

The Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

In the press this week there is uproar for a proposed development at the small (500 soul) town of Tusayan a couple of klicks south of the Grand Canyon National Park. The developers want to “edutain” visitors and make a fat pile of cash. The Grand canyon is the Daddy. It has such a draw and doesn’t limit its appeal to outdoorsy nature lovers. In other words, eejits and chavs visit this park too. This is evidenced when you take the 30 second walk from the car park to the South Rim and – BAM! – there it is. There’s much nature to gawp at: the mile deep drop, the churning Colorado River, the majestic swooping Californian Condors, the prat in urban camo’ who has vaulted the safety fence to stand millimetres from the precipice for a “look at me Momma” photo.

Natural selection is a strong force here. The day before our visit, someone died from having too much enthusiasm for going near the edge.

Stoopidity = 1, Looking Cool = Nil.

Darwinism = 1, Sympathy = Nil.

When you walk further from the tourist hub, the safety fences peter out and it’s just you, high plateaux and the distinct chance of certain death by falling. Being eight, the (Bart Simpson-esque) boy fakes tripping/stumbling/fainting/slipping and – being a Mum – Gilly freaks’n’shrieks every time. This is funny for longer than you would imagine, but maternal sense of humour loss eventually requires he be sensible. The unhindered drop to our side is dizzying, monumental and barren. It’d take days to find the body. Then there’d be all that paperwork… we tell him to refrain (like proper serious grown-up parents).

I shall refrain from describing the ‘Canyon further. You really do have to be there.

Joshua Tree National Park, California.

This desert park is peaceful and under a big sky. Again by good fortune we enter by the less travelled route and drive for mile after mile alone – top down – through the bleak Mojave terrain. If your motah coughed its last here, it would not be good. When we arrive at the entrance the only real surprise is that there is an air quality gauge: here, in the middle (800,000 acres) of nowhere. It’s a saddening reality that the megalopolis of LA, San Diego and SoCal are prevailed upon by westerlies and that smog travels many, many miles inland blighting otherwise pristine areas.

J-Tree (I am so hip) has some cool rocks. Really. You find these immense jumbles of very gneiss rocks. [Look Mum, I did a geology funny, just then, did you see it? Gniess/Nice. Awwww.] Regardless of their scientific merit, they are top for scrambling and messing around on. We bimble about on foot, soaking up the isolation, imagining being lost in the desert. Skull Rock is aptly named (from a certain angle) but it’s the Joshua Trees that captivate with their uplifted “arms”. If I was a Dublin based rock band, I’d have named a whole album after it in the late 80s. (But I wouldn’t have made a whole website about it like some have.)

Zion National Park, Utah.

The bottom left bit of Utah has a rash of parkage with Zion being particularly popular. Named by the Mormon settlers, it’s a place of immense, glorious sandstone cliffs, petrified sand-dunes, hanging valleys and testament to momma natures powers of erosion. By happy accident we are lodging at the quieter north-east end of things and enjoy the unfolding dramatic vistas in peace. Less natural but dashed impressive are the tunnels that toiling engineers cut into the hillsides.: Highway 9 is a blast. The park took a wise decision some years back to ban cars from the main section and offer free busus. Genius. We take a shuttle, alight and skip off onto one of the many “trails”. It’s hot, sunny and still. The blue skies, sparse greenery and red stone make a riot of colour. The young Beers are captivated by teeny caves that they squeeze into causing minor panic from Mum.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

I didn’t know what a hoodoo was but I do-do now. Bryce’ is up higher – north and altitude – thus taking a bit more effort. How so? Well, to get into it you have to walk, er, into it. We park up and head on down, and down, and… Until we are amongst outrageous naturally carved pinnacles known as hoodoos. The good folk of the ‘Park Service have crafted reinforcements to the trails so that the many visitors don’t totally erode what they came to see. (A whole career of study in itself there I fear: tourism vs preservation.) Of course this doesn’t stop groups of Orientals scrambling to the very peak of one feature. If they weren’t being so obviously dumb, I’d have worried for their safety. Even J&M are aghast that people can be quite so idiotic and  – simultaneously – disrespectful: it doesn’t need keep off signage.

We prescribe a loop and try to imagine why the locals named the rocks. “Ooh look there’s Queen Victoria.”

They didn’t have telly in those days to be fair.

National Park Service

For Americans, the Parks are a masterpiece of restraint. You can only buy the minimum of supplies: no gas stations, malls nor food courts. They’ve made them accessible but not ruined the attraction. You have to work at it. The only OTT aspects are the parks themselves,they rightly remain the stars of the show.

What a triumph of vision and – doubtless – lobbying. To see the value in preserving nature back in the day shows a kind of long sighted nobility that is sadly absent in our modern times.

They are also a triumph of preservation over exploitation. You don’t have to be much of a bloodhund to spot the pressures on resources. For instance, there is a fascinating, painful back story about Uranium mining and the local tribes in Grand Canyon. One can only imagine the constant battles in DC to keep big business’ mucky paws of the wilderness. The parks resist such “progress” from constant attack.

For me US National Parks are the antidote to the homogenised nation that they are in. Variety, timelessness, history, science, nature: all are to be found in spades. Compare this to malls, drive thrus and all the other accompaniments to consumerism. Indeed, leaving Zion we headed to Las Vegas to fly home. Now there is an exercise in contextualising National Parks…

Mission Statement

“The mission of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is to conserve the scenery, the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife in United States’ national parks, and to provide for the public’s enjoyment of these features in a manner that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The Beers salute you.

We salute you US National Parks

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LA story

June Gloom in LA. Not a dusky country singer appearing at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s the fog that clouds the coastal regions of the City of Angels. Not just in June either. It’s pretty gloomy here and now in April. If this reads like a complaint, then I’m using the wrong tone of voice. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and – comfortingly – slightly British in giving the air a hint of chill. Too much blue sky and blazing sun just wouldn’t be cricket would it? Plus, we’ve the desert states to look forward to: mustn’t OD on rays.

On “our” boat of course we are snug of an evening wrapped up in blankets watching movies on a cinema size telly. Marina Del Ray is our location, a couple of blocks inland and south of Venice. There are hundreds of boats here and on the weekend surprisingly few slip their moorings to sample the delights of Santa Monica bay. (My belief about the loaded being toy rich and indulgence time poor gains another data point.) It’s so very tranquil here compared to the rest of LA. Sure you can hear the jets at nearby LAX, but they melt away after a while.

The climate that brings folk to LA is more apparent in “the valley” when we spend the day at Universal Studios. It’s a bright, cloudless, late 20s centigrade day. Josie & I sample the new Transformer ride before its public opening – a technical rehearsal. It blends 3D with roller coaster and with some cleverly integrated 4D effects – heat/water spray – to fool your senses. Brilliant. The Mummy ‘coaster takes a couple of rides as does the Jurassic Park watersplash. The backlot tour scares the bejeezsus out of young Master Beer. Especially the biiig King Kong 3D show. House of Horrors? It terrified Josie May. It’s a weekday so that we avoid some of the crowds. We walk straight on to several rides after the longest queue of the day: to purchase admission tickets.

Standing in line is a bit of thing for the Americans. Immigration, tickets, the loo. They do seem to submit and comply rather. Unexpectedly so. That and signage. No Parking, No waiting, No right turn, No diving, No I can’t go for that, etcetera. Warning/rules signage everywhere.

Perhaps they enjoy rules? They moan but are secretly  comforted by a bit of bureaucracy? Of course, they will sue their own Grandma sue if there is an absence of disclaimer in neon at the roadside.

Land of the free, home of the brave?  Tsk.  Pah.  Ng.

Not from where I’ve been sitting.

And we think us Brits are the very zenith of queuing. 

Venice, California.

So called due to a small network of canals a block or two in from the Pacific. Nowadays these canals are lined with funky “homes” of varying architectural coolness, from shabby chic to sub-zero brutalist statements. Get nearer to the sea for it to become more bo-ho – murals and such – with the crescendo of eclectic on the boardwalk.

Not that there are any boards. It’s a concrete promenade on the beachside now. A weekend stroll along Venice Beach is a living encyclopedia of the bizarre. Thousands stroll the path to soak up the atmosphere. Small Beers eyes and mouthes are wide open. Without apparent irony, yet heaps of chutzpah, they even have a Venice Beach Freakshow – “$5 per person, see the two headed pig!” – amongst all the freaks you can see for free. Of course there are people here who are genuinely fascinating alternative types. Really alternative. Then there are skaters, bikers, joggers, artists, musicians, sculptors, “marijuana therapists”, tattooists, masseuse, body-builders and pan-handlers.

The latter is a bit of an eye-opener. On an early morning jog, I see more homeless in 2 miles than we did in 10 days in India. Later in the day I get pestered for change more than anywhere outside of Madurai. Bentleys and beggars on the same street. Welcome to LA. Then, there are the “pet adoption” folk who have very sorry looking doggies in cages trying to tempt would be owners into signing up for a lifetime partnership. Really? Adopt a dog on a Saturday afternoon stroll? Again, welcome to LA. Pumping iron outdoors at muscle beach seems ordinary by comparison.

Amongst the druggies, idiots, wasters and nutters are some really talented folk. At the skatepark, some radical moves are being pulled by the achingly cool skaters. None cooler than a boy of no more than 8 who shows everyone the way to get air. On the street stalls, some art is well crafted. Frankly, some of it is comically pap.

Santa Monica

North sees the more affluent town of Santa Monica. Shopping heaven, if that’s your thing, with its “heritage” all wood pier thronging with weekend visitors. City-wide wifi for all. How civilised. We wander the town as chic Angelenos mix with tourists watching the performers on the 3rd Street Promenade. When we were last here in 1997 we stayed in Santa Monica and ate a memorable all American breakfast at the Broadway Deli. Disappointingly it’s closed and given way to a fashion store. An ex-Pat we meet tells us it was an institution, always busy. Perhaps the economics of the rag trade trump the numbers for independent cafe. Shame.

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LA is nicer than we remember. Maybe it’s because we’re longer in the tooth? Maybe times have changed. We’ve seen a lot more movies and being “on set” casts a spell. A cleaner and more chipper city I feel. We eat way too well, walk miles, drive (west on) Sunset (to the sea) with the top down and the kids love every minute of it. Living on a boat and driving a Mustang appeal to kids of all ages.

Ah, the boat. The Waterhouse is a 47′ motor cruiser that whilst most definitely afloat isn’t really seaworthy these days. It is dead cool, very spacious, well-appointed and properly comfy. At £140 a night it’s not bad value considering where we are.

I’m with Randy Newman: I love LA.

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In search of the perfect cup of coffee by Gilly

Yes folks, during our trip, this has been my quest! Let us begin from the beginning:

India – not much hope here, so black tea was my drink of choice. I ordered a coffee once and it was very milky and very, very sweet, much like the ‘chai’ the locals drink.

Borneo – had my hopes up here as they produce the stuff but after trying the local brew decided to stick to black tea.

Australia – my first great cup of coffee! Skinny flat white, delicious!

New Zealand – coffee heaven. Every cup I had, was fantastic.

America – home of the coffee drinkers. Yuk! Nasty stuff, how do they drink so much? Even tried the iced coffee hoping this may be their speciality but just got horrible black coffee with ice cubes.

Now I have to wait until I return to Marlborough and visit Levi at “The Armadillo” to have one of their delicious cappuccinos……

Skinny Flat white for mummy please.

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