North America

The Big Sur, literally meaning “Big South” in Spanglish, is the coastal area a couple of hours drive south of San Francisco. A couple of people had told us it was worth a visit, so instead of hanging out in expensive hotels and hostels in San Fran, we got ourselves another rental for three days and drove south. Our first night we stayed near San Jose with a Couchersurfer named Kathleen at vert short notice. She is one of those amazing couchsurfers who will just take in anyone at a moments notice and we had a super evening there watching an old surfing movie with her and her friends.

The next couple of days we spent driving down the coast and then up again. As we’d been told, the coastline there is really beautiful with mountains coming down steeply into a rugged rocky coastline. On the whole though I was a bit disappointed with it as it was almost impossible to explore the area as you are constrained to the road most of the time. All of the land seems to be privately owened and vigourously defended with “no trespassing” signs. Even the very few State beaches where you can actually get down charge you a fee and I found it really annoying. It was a bit more relaxed north of the “Big Sur” area, where the coast was still nice but you were actually allowed to use it.

I would definitely drive along the coast if I was are going through that area, but as a destination in itself I wasn’t impressed. We were back in San Fran three nights later, with half a day to explore the city by car before our flight out of America.

After spending so many nights sleeping in the car, we treated ourselves to a night at an actual hotel. Sophie was still feeling very tender from the accident and needed some rest, so she didn’t get out much that first day.

My first impression of San Francisco was not a great one. I was sent on a mission to get our now very smelly laundry done. That took me into what must have been a very dodgy area of the city, as there seemed to be bums and hobos everywhere! These are not your third world type homeless people who sit on the street meekly shaking a tin of coins at you. These were the first world, mad/druggie, big, standing types, who stare at you with crazy eyes, randomly shouting incoherent sentences at you. In most cities you can at least walk across to the other side of the road, but here there was no good side of the road, there where a few on every corner. Never have I felt so uneasy in a city. However, I tried to look as tough and menacing as I could and managed to successfully complete my mission. We did not return to that particular area.

The next day Soph was feeling a bit better and we were able to get out and about, visiting some more touristy areas of the city. Our walk took us through Chinatown, which had endless shops filled with all kinds of interesting Chinese baubles. Even better were all the dodgy Chinese restaurants, my favourite type. We then took a very short ride on a San Fran Cable car. It was short because the conductor was nice enough to warn us that the fare was 5 bucks each and we’d only be travelling a couple of blocks, “you could get lunch with that!”.

That took us to Fishermans Wharf, a place bustling with busy stalls selling fresh seafood that made us wish we hadn’t stuffed ourselves with Chinese steam buns. Nonetheless, we managed to stuff down a sourdough bowl full of clam chowder, the local specialty. It was yum. Nearby was an arcade full of hundreds of ancient coin operated games and things that was really interesting.

That night we got another rental car and set off to see the Big Sur, which I’ve covered in a different post. When we returned, we had half a day with the car to explore a bit more. We arrived back in the early morning and set up our camping stove on a bench in the middle of the Golden Gate park, a vast rectangle of the city. We were amongst trees and by a big dam with ducks and swans, you just wouldn’t know you’re in a huge city. However, we got a couple of odd looks from joggers as we cooked up our morning porridge.

The rest of our time took us round the edge of the city along the coast where there are more nice parks including views of the famous Golden Gate Bridge and some seriously fancy neighbourhoods. We ended up in Castro, where we were meeting a couch surfer to pick up some film that I’d had developed. Castro is possibly the most gay suburb in the world, with rainbow banners on every streetlamp. Of course it had some nice cafes and restaurants.

From there it was a stressful drive to the airport to return our car in time. Of course the last moment we were diverted onto the wrong offramp and had to spend 20 minutes getting back to the airport but we managed to get there in the end. I got another great American farewell when the computer flagged my passport again, getting a personal escort through security after which I got a full luggage search and a good frisking. Bye bye America. Next stop Auckland.

Yosemite Valley is a most amazing place. The main valley, where most people visit, is only 10 or so miles long, but it is so jam packed with spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, beautiful meadows, streams and forests, it’s like God himself personally took charge with its creation. The place has additional significance to me as it was the hangout of Ansel Adams, a great photographer and personal icon of mine.

Though it was a beautiful visit, more than any of the other places, it was tragic that we only had one day to spend there. The very very well visited part of the park is only a tiny fraction of the total area and the surrounding forest parks. I would have loved to do some longer walks and could have easily have spent a few weeks there. I guess there is always next time.

It happened on our way down from Sequoia National Park. I don’t really have any good excuses, although I think tiredness, in combination with having to drive on the wrong (right) side of the road played a big part. We were happily driving along, coming up to a T-junction, when I noticed a stand on the left hand side of the road selling avos and fresh fruit. Thinking only of how happy Soph would be if we stopped there I decided to pull over.

I looked back to check my blind spot, started turning, and turned around to see a huge black pickup oncoming. As I’d started turning there was nothing I could do other than continue the turn and hope for a near miss. Smash, bang, airbags exploding everywhere, and suddenly we were on the side of the road half way through a fence and facing a completely different direction.

It took me a while to grasp the shocking reality of what happens when cars actually hit each each other. We spend so many hours in cars passing by within mere metres of each other, but here we were, in shock after finding ourselves on the wrong side of that white line. Soon after, thoughts about the sheer amount of damage that had just been inflicted on our poor innocent Kia Forte began hitting me, and more scarily, how much it would cost us. That ends the worst part of our ordeal. From then on, the situation resolved itself in the most amazing, dreamlike series of events.

I was almost completely unharmed, Sophie likewise, although later on she had a very sore and stiff neck. I got out to check the other car. It was not nearly as smashed as ours, and the occupants were fine. With the weight of that beast I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even feel the hit. The driver, a middle aged woman, was just the nicest person you could ever want to crash into you. It was amazing, especially given the fact that I had just turned in front of her, her husband and little daughter completely out of the blue. “Just promise me this won’t stop you enjoying your holiday one bit” she said to a teary Sophie with a big motherly hug.

We had no phone, but the avocado guy very quickly flagged someone down and used their phone to call the highway patrol, who arrived in a few minutes. They too were completely understanding, just asking for a description of what happened and our details. Before I knew it our car was being towed away and one of the cops was lending me his phone to call Dollar Rent-A-Car.

The rental guy got our details and said we could pick up another car at the Fresno Airport. Then I was in a police cruiser, chatting to a police officer, sitting next to his M16 and pump action shotgun. He drove us and all of our huge piles of luggage to the rental desk at the Fresno airport. We gave them all the info for the accident, they said they were sorry we’d had such a bad experience then, and this is the craziest part, they gave us another car! Just like that. Apparently a zero liability insurance policy had found it way onto the rental agreement although I have no idea how it got there. Normally there is no way I’d pay extra for insurance for an accident that was so unlikely to happen. But there it was, on the rental agreement, zero liability, no worries, here’s a new car.

So miraculously, less than two hours after the initial incident, after most probably writing off at least one car, there we were, on our way again in a new car, with a full tank of fuel to boot. Never again will I whinge about paying extra for car insurance. On the other hand, I probably will, after all, what are the chances of that happening again?

You are probably looking for all the photos of the carnage. Well there aren’t any. I can’t believe I didn’t take any, but there you go. I was so preoccupied with the repercussions of what had just happened, and dismay that we were now standing by the road in the middle of nowhere with just a huge pile of luggage and a car wreck, I didn’t take a single one.

The drive took us into California and along some really nice roads, one in particular took us down a valley alongside a really pretty river, with the grassy hills on either side covered with purple flowers.

We arrived very early in the morning, after sleeping somewhere along the way. It was cold, there was snow on the ground and we could see the gigantic trees standing immoveably in the early morning mist. We did a couple of beautiful walks around the park, visiting some of the landmark trees such as the General Sherman Tree, said to be the largest tree in the world (by volume).

On one of the walks we had a fairly close encounter with a mamma bear and her two cubs. Sophie went very quickly from, “Dean! Bears! Get a photo!”, to “Eeeek! Dean get Back!”. They seem to be fairly common, we had to lock up our food in special bear boxes everytime we left the car.

Eager to get to Yosemite, we left in the afternoon to drove down the mountains. It was a couple of hours on, possibly driving a little tired after a few nights in the car, that I managed to turn our car in front of an oncoming pickup. That is another story altogether and I’ll write about that in another post. The amazing thing was, due to the wonders of car insurance, we were in another car and on our way again in less than a couple of hours.

We passed through Vegas again on the way west, stopping just long enough to have yet another meal from our favourite Thai restaurant, where we were now known by name. From there it was just a couple of hours drive till we were in Death Valley National Park. It covers a huge area, a huge arid valley with mountains of bare rock on either side and in the middle a big salt lake, which is the lowest point in the United States at 80m below sea level. Our path through the park took us over 200 miles. We stopped at photographers mecca, Zabriske point, and after a much warmer night in the car, were up at Dante’s view for sunrise, huge panoramic view of the park.

We stopped by the visitor’s centre on the way out, where the parks guy cheerily informed us that all the passes to Yosemite, our next destination, were still closed. I was expecting a couple of hours drive to Yosemite, which was already very optimistic. We were now looking at over 700km to get to Yosemite the long way around. The good news was that the shortest path now took us past Sequoia National Park. So we made that our next destination and set off on the long drive there, glad at least that fuel is so cheap in the States.

Being the Grand Canyon and all we couldn’t really pass within a couple of hours drive without paying a visit. So from Bryce we drove south from Utah and into Arizona. Nearing the canyon we started passing through areas of snow. At one stage we had to stop the car to have a couple of slides down a snow covered hill and the mandatory snowball fight. The novelty still hasn’t worn off.

We visited the north rim of the park, and as expected the view was amazing. “Grand” describes it pretty well. The canyon stretches for miles and miles, and on the far side you can see the prefectly flat rim and mountain ranges far beyond. Its really impressive just having such a huge open space in front of you.

We were a bit pressed for time at that stage, so were only able to fit in a short walk through the snow covered forest along the rim. So we ticked that box, didn’t get the t-shirt and left again after a beautiful sundown, sleeping at a nice little park somewhere between Grand Canyon and Vegas.

The next park was Bryce Canyon. Although not originally on our route, we had seen so many amazing images of this place in the various Parks offices and visitors offices that we just had to visitt. It’s only a couple hours from Zion and before we’d even got there we’d been wowed by driving through the amazing red and orange landscape of the small Red Canyon Park. We got there as the clouds were breaking and the view from the first lookout we arrived at was breathtaking.

Bryce is all about hoodoos. Thousands of improbably tall and knobbly columns of rich coloured sandstone, sculpted by the wind and rain. It is such and unusual and alien looking landscape, it really is amazing.

We had been warned by a couple of people that “it might be a bit cooler” up at Bryce, but we’d taken it in the Australian sense. It was freezing! Actually freezing! It was Spring, but in the evening and morning when I was taking photos it was cold enough to really make my fingers hurt and it was below zero during the night. We’d had some really cold temperatures in South America especially combined with wind, but it was not often below zero. This was a big surprise. We had a very chilly night in our tent.

The first half of the trip was a loop taking in three amazing parks to the East of Vegas. The first, about 3 hours drive away, was Zion National Park. We arrived in the dark, and were quickly shooed away by a police officer, who to our surprise was really nice and actually gave us directions to a place were we could camp for free.

After our first of many nights in the car, we arrived at the gate at first light. We had to fork out $80 for the National Parks card to get entry. Although quite a sting to the budget, it is valid for all National Parks for a whole year, and looking back at how well the parks are maintained and the services provided, it’s great value, even for just the 8 days we could use it.

Zion itself was beautiful. A river valley between towering cliffs of amazing white, orange and yellow sandstone cliffs. To these cling gnarled trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, due to high water levels we weren’t able to do the Narrows Walk, which follows the river far into the canyon where it narrows to a water carved slot canyon. We did do several short walks, and the free shuttle bus really made it easy to see a lot of the park.

On the drive out the next morning we could see even more of the park as the road would through the arid but amazingly colourful rocky “slickrock” landscape.

After Las Vegas it was really good to have the freedom of the car. You really can’t do much in Vegas without a vehicle. With our new found freedom we drove straight out of town and into the desert on one of America’s huge smooth highways. It was to be the start of an eight day, 1600 mile tour of all the nearby (relatively) National Parks that would end with us on the coast in San Francisco. The natural beauty of those parks was absolutely amazing. In the following posts I will give a relatively brief summary of each and let the photos do most of the talking.

As well as the amazing parks, there were several very interesting stops in the small towns along the way. In particular, I think we stopped at just about every second hand and antique shop we saw. They were always inhabited by very friendly people, only too keen to have a chat and help us out with any info they could. We also scored some mean bargains, like a super retro, mini thermos flask, actually made by thermos, for a stunning 25c!

It was quite sad when we arrived in San Francisco and had to relinquish our beloved second rental car.

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