Friday 30 July 2010

A bridge too far

There were times during the long drive down the coast towards San Francisco when my resolve would falter momentarily. The monotony of driving having a weary, metronomic effect. It was always the same image I conjured to repel the encroaching gloom: driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. Sun blazing, roof down.

Alas, it was not to be. Mother nature, in spite of all the nice things I've said about her on the last couple of weeks, had draped a drab grey sky over proceedings. The roof stayed up, the song remained the same.

The bridge is one of the most immediately recognisable structures in the world. And so it sits there, spanning the Golden Gate, serving two purposes: getting people from Marin County to San Francisco, and being photographed. By everyone. The gauntlet is laid - in my few days in San Francisco, I must bag just one decent photo to hang over the fireplace.

Before crossing it, I scouted around and took a few snaps. It was a crap day; the sky was flat, white and lifeless. From Horseshoe Bay I get this one, which is okay. Not that many people make the trek down here so it's a bit different.

Most people are up on Marin Head taking their pictures. I go up there a total of three times in all - here are three similar pictures taken at different times on different days. I like the boat in the first one, and probably prefer the narrower angle. Only in the evening when the twilight hits the steel do you get the true colours. Passing by at the wrong time of day, or on the wrong day, and you're walking away with a shit photo.

Still awake? Boring aren't they. Millions and millions of people have the exact same pictures, though perhaps with a few family members posing moronically or 'crazy' friends striking hilarious poses.

On the south side at twilight there are throngs of photographers packing serious gear. I don't really like any of the pictures I take, except for this one looking up. Looking back I seriously regret not walking across the bloody thing to get a different perspective. Many of the qualities that help produce a good photograph; like time, patience, perseverance and perspective, serve you pretty well in life too. I have plenty of the former, less of the middle two and I'm getting more of the latter.

I think I was obsessed with getting a big shot of the whole bridge; something conveying its size and grandeur. I even scaled my way down the side of a pretty precarious cliff in the hope of a different elevation, only to discover that at the furthest point, the span completely obscured the cityscape and the pictures were rubbish. Back up at the top, I was just about to leave when I spotted something - a very small hole in the chain link fence that borders the viewpoint. Just big enough to shove a camera through, and with my wide angle, maybe I can get the picture I've been hoping for. The bridge on its own will never be enough.

I won't pretend I thought about it as I made my way over to the little hole in the fence but every picture tells a story. This one features two great triumphs of design and engineering, both fashioned out of steel. The more famous and photographed one was built to enhance man's ability to move freely about the earth; the other to curtail it.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Welcome to The Rock

Surely the only thing worse than being imprisoned on a small rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay would be waking up at 6.30am to stand in the rain for an hour and a half in desperate hope of a standby Alcatraz ticket only to discover, when you finally step up to the window, that they just sold the last one. That's what the guy behind me in the queue had to go through this morning, the poor bastard.

My knowledge of Alcatraz before today was limited to that provided by Escape from Alcatraz and The Rock. Escape is based on a true story of course, though the movie suggests they actually escaped, they almost certainly drowned. The Rock is preposterously fictitious but brilliantly entertaining. Sean Connery (looking remarkably like Billy Connolly) having escaped years earlier, breaks back into Alcatraz the way he broke out by negotiating a series of death defying fire jets and rotating blades, before opening a DOOR and letting thirty odd soldiers in, begging the audience to wonder why he didn't just escape through it in the first place.

The real thing is a little different. I was dreading the usual tourist crap, but they have an audio tour, voiced by former inmates and guards, that is genuinely brilliant. You get to wander about the old cellblock as you please, with these haunting stories and descriptions ringing in your ears. The strange thing is that, because of the movies and popular culture, you feel like you already know the place. It takes a little while of walking around before you realise that this is not a film set but the real thing. The ghosts of the people that lived here, dead or alive, are quite tangible.

They ham it up with the tales of the escape attempts, and they're what capture the imagination, and certainly Hollywood's imagination, but what really gets you about this place is the sense of desperation. The only thing worse than a prison; a prison that is quite literally isolated from the rest of society yet close enough to be within earshot. Knowing you are not free is one thing, knowing you might never be free, another.

The prisoners named corridors and areas after places on the outside. There's a Broadway and a Times Square. One cluster of cells enjoyed a lot of sunlight, and were the most coveted. Looking up through the windows, an inmate tells you how, on New Year's Eve, if the wind were blowing in the right direction, they could hear the party at the yacht club. The sound of women's laughter would drift in between the bars.

D Block was the maximum security wing, with prisoners kept in their cells for 24 hours a day. Six were hole cells, admitting no natural light. An inmate would rip a button from his prison tunic, drop it on the floor and spin round a few times, then look for it in the pitch black. When he found it, he'd do it again. It was the only way to while away the hours in the darkness.

The impact of light and dark is not unlike that which you find in the forests. The sunlight rations itself; those in darkness strive for light, and those lucky enough to glimpse it, reap the harvest. One can only imagine, and even then be tortured by, the desperation that must have accompanied those hours spent waiting and praying for the merest ray of light.

Release from this was something most were hopelessly unprepared for. The tour ends with the words of one of the lags, in a thick Italian American accent that I have transcribed without the apostrpohes that would otherwise have adorned every word:

I remember when they released me, I'd been locked up fifteen years, and during all this time I never had no visits, no letters, nothing, and I'm watching cars whizzing by and the people walking. Everything was moving too fast and I didn't know how to move with it. And then I remember how envious I was of these people, because they all had a destination. They were all going some place, and I didn't know where I was going.
And I was scared to death.

Six years after it was shut down as a Federal Penitentiary, Alcatraz was invaded by an unlikely alliance of Native American Indians. To them, it symbolised their plight, and the absurdity of the notion of men possessing land. With public sympathy, they remained for over a year and a half, before the harsh realities of life on a small rock that had forced the prison to close, made them vulnerable to a small but forceful nudge. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this phase of the Rock's history is a quote from Richard Oakes, a Mohawk who led the occupation:

Alcatraz is not an island...Alcatrz is an inspiration, it is the idea that you can control your own destiny, and self-determine your own future

I would chance that there are at least fifteen hundred men, most of them probably dead by now, who would tend to disagree with his enlightened words.

Personality goes a long way

It's simple really. When it comes to dogs, I'm a cat person. It's not that I hate dogs, though I hate many dogs, I just don't understand the fascination with them.

Part of, no the only price, of staying at Carrie's apartment in San Francisco, is walking her flatmate's dog each morning. I don't wish to sound ungrateful for the hospitality, because I am not, nor for the great company (human not canine), but when I rang the doorbell for the first time and heard barking, my heart sank.

Cora (her full name is Corredor, Spanish for runner) is beautiful, I'll give her that. She is a pure bred Weimaraner, and her silvery grey coat has a stunning sheen that is somehow both green and blue and every shade in between. She has those big pathetic eyes that make dog lovers swoon and go aaah. And, after some introductory ball sniffing (her not me), she seems to assent to my presence.

In the morning I take her for a walk. It is the first time in my life that I have walked a dog. She has absolutely no concept of road safety, so I spend the first ten minutes or so explaining the rudiments of the green cross code to her. In one floppy ear, out the other. I am struggling to see the point of the whole dog walking thing though. Surely it is exactly the same as her walking backwards and forwards in the flat, just with more things to sniff.

When I say more things, I mean, specifically, the urine and faeces of other dogs, which seem to rouse considerable interest in her. I find this disgusting and discourage it by tugging sharply at the leash. This is nothing compared to the disgust I feel when I have to pick up her own shit in a small bag of course. She must sense my foreboding, and so defecates in a sort of chain of small craps, each considerably moister than the last, which I then have to hunt down through the long grass like an eager bloodhound. I don't talk to her for the rest of the morning.

Unbeknown to me, Weimaraners have been immortalised in the photography of a guy named William Wegman. He shot his own dogs in strangely human poses, far more unsettling than your standard dogs playing snooker/cards pictures that your gran has on the wall. She is clearly not of the same lineage, since every time I break the camera out to take a picture of her, she (not literally, thank God) shits herself and cowers under the nearest table. How Wegman got them to pose is a mystery to me. Of the hundreds of frames I shoot of her, a couple make it before she turns and fleas, sorry, flees.

So yes, she is beautiful. But walking her about, picking up her shit, I really don't see what I'm getting out of it. She has personality, yes. So do cats, and humans, and any other animal you domesticate thoroughly enough. When you tell a dog lover you're a cat lover, they always try and trump you with the old loyalty card. Sure, cats whore themselves around the neighbourhood, getting fed and petted wherever they can. But it's only human nature, and you can't blame them for that.

Of course dogs are more loyal than cats - they need you. They need you to feed them, walk them and pick up their shit. Cats can survive without us, dogs can't. Yet in a display of loyalty far greater than anything the canine world has ever produced, a cat will always shit in someone else's back yard, and never its own. In my estimation, that kind of personality goes a long, long way.

Wednesday 28 July 2010


Travelling on your own, you meet people all the time. People from all over the world. Sometimes you meet people who live in places that are on your route, and they say things like "Yeah, drop me an email and we'll catch up" or "You have to eat at [insert name] or do [blah blah]".

Whilst picking my way through some excellent tapas in Vancouver, I got chatting to two girls who were also propping up the bar. One of them, Carrie, did a round the world trip on her own a few years ago, and now lives in San Francisco. I emailed her on my way down the coast to catch up, and she replied:

Don't hetitate to ask if you need a place to crash for a night or two. My place has always been open to crazy foreigners as I have been one myself more than once.

And so here I am, enjoying some American hospitality in a beautiful apartment overlooking the bay. I am even spared the couch as her flatmate is away. On my first night here, as Carrie handed me the keys to her flat, it occurred to me that it was incredibly trusting of her. Whilst it's nice to know I don't have serial killer discreetly etched on my forehead, it's even nicer to know that there are people in the world who trust themselves enough to give the keys of their house to someone they don't really know.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

The Lost Coast

The first hundred miles or so of California are dominated by the Redwoods. Once you are past Crescent City, which sort of feels like it's there because there has to be a town somewhere, there are just a few little clusters of buildings masquerading as villages along the way.

Most people are here for the trees. Those that aren't camping or in their RVs head for Trees of Mystery, a kind of forest theme park, somewhat unmissable form the highway by virtue of a 50-foot high statue of mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. I skip the ride through the forest but stop to marvel at the statue. In what is surely one of the world's most interesting jobs, some guy is employed as the voice of the giant, exchanging pleasantries and engaging in idle chit-chat with the assembled masses in the parking lot.

A little further on, and after a restorative breakfast of Biscuits and Gravy in the smattering of buildings and a gas station that calls itself Klamath, I hit the town of Arcata. It feels, well, Californian. An eclectic mix of students and old hippies are milling around the main town square where a band is playing (it is Thursday lunchtime after all). People are wearing tie dye shirts, and some of the older ones look like they didn't bother getting changed after Woodstock. There are a few Victorian buildings but the coolest is the art deco cinema. (Showing The Thing! Awesome).

South of Arcata is the equally cool town of Eureka, with its historic district and quaint little bookshops and cafes. I press on west, away from 101, and with all the campsites booked up, crash in a real bed in the strange little enclave of Ferndale. It's an old dairy town, that has preserved an extremely antiquated feel, presumably for touristic reasons, since it sells itself as a "Victorian Village" and hands you a souvenir "ye olde newspaper" when you check in. Hmmm.

The region west and south of Ferndale is known as the Lost Coast. It's a wild, desolate, bleak but beautiful place, completely undeveloped. With just a few small hamlets, inhospitable terrain and a thick sea fret that hardly ever relents, there are no highways, and no reason for them. Inside the mist, the colours only seem to penetrate the foreground, and the rest of the world beyond is just a palette of grey.

The road twists and turns through stunning scenery, occasionally climbing high enough to afford a vista over the low lying cloud, when Grassy green pine forests give way to brambles and coarse, mustard yellow scrubs, while the roads are lined with bright azaleas and a glorious clear blue sky lets the sun warm you. Descend into the mist once more, the sun gives up the ghost and the colours fade. In the fog, a stag bounded out of a hedgerow in front of me, but instead of cutting in front of my braking car, he skipped alongside me for quite some distance before acknowledging me, or so it seemed, with a doff of the antlers, and disappearing into the trees once more.

Edging away from the coast, the fret clears, and the road finally, after so many ups and downs, sheer drops and hairpin turns, rolls me right into the Humboldt State Park, where I drive another thirty miles or so in and out of the biggest Redwoods in California. South of the Avenue of the Giants, the stretch of road that runs through the forest, I take Highway 1 back out to the coast. It's yet more twists and turns, and I'm beginning to feel like I'm playing an arcade game rather than actually driving. When I finally hit the ocean, after four hours behind the wheel, I manage to stop in a mist free patch and enjoy my first proper glimpse of the Lost Coast that I've spent the whole bloody morning looking for.

Monday 26 July 2010

Standing in the shadows of giants

When I’m struggling to describe something, I take pictures. Apparently they speak a thousand words. But taking photographs in a giant redwood forest is hard, so I will have to forage for the words, if they exist, to do it justice.

Redwoods are not like any other tree. They’re unfeasibly tall and straight, but thick, and with twisted, gnarly trunks that look like wrung out fabric or huge cables. They’re grouped together pretty tightly, forcing you to weave in amongst them, stepping past their fallen friends. Never plan to walk through one of these places if you’re in a hurry - it is impossible not to stop at every turn, staring up as they disappear into the sky, and gasping in wonder.

Now I know how Gulliver must have felt in Brobdingnag. Very, very small indeed. It puts your lifespan into perspective too; some of them are well over a thousand years old. For the first couple of centuries of their lives, they're competing for light, and focus all their energy on growing up and out of the darkness. Once they’re clear, they start adding girth - the biggest are up to twenty feet in diameter.

One of the reasons it is so hard to take pictures here, is that the sun doesn't make it through the leaves too often. The smallest shaft of light, if it manages to fight its way through the thick canopy and the huge trunks, has a profound effect wherever it falls. In the darkness, the trees impress with their size and scale. In the light, their colours, their redness, come to life, and the greens of the ferns leap from the floor to complement them. I am drawn to these little enclaves where the sun bathes you in its golden light.

The redwood forests cover vast areas of Northern California. You can camp in them, hike through them, drive through them. (They even have drive through trees, from a slightly less environmentally sensitive age). Driving through the parks, the blacktop or the gravel winds precariously between the trees, and you get the added perspective of the size, not just of the trees and the trunks but of the forests themselves. No lens can convey their breadth. They are never ending, magical, enchanting places, that seem almost other worldly.

Most of the time though, I'm happy just to stand in the shadows of the giants. They possess a majesty and a permanence that humbles, impresses and defies description, in any number of words.

Sunday 25 July 2010

The Cape Crusader

Up in Washington, Highway 101 keeps a fairly respectful distance from the ocean in most places. In Oregon it comes much closer, and tangential offshoots and loop roads take you right up to its edge.

The shore line ducks in and out of little coves and harbours. Huge promontories venture out into the surf, overlooking the sea stacks that litter the coast. You can trace the outline of what would once have been land by these last outposts. In places they are reduced to tiny fragments of islands, and shelter sealions from the waves. A string of old lighthouses warn of their presence, and provide shelter for the tourists, among whom I must unfortunately number myself.

The last headland on the cleverly named Three Capes Scenic Drive is Cape Kiwanda. It comes as something of a welcome surprise to me, since it is neither green nor light-housed. It is a rocky cliff banked with steep sand, falling towards a long, wide beach with a huge sea stack sat defiantly among the waves. It's a wonderful spot - surfers and kayakers tackle the waves, everyone else tackles the dune. Climbing it is a struggle, running back down a lot more fun. At the top, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view (not that you have any left), and an old tree lies prostate, as though it had just made the climb itself and needed to put its feet up for a while.

Saturday 24 July 2010


Now I know I've only been camping for just over a week, so I don't want to sound like I know it all quite yet, but I've learnt a few things in that time. And there is one piece of equipment that you simply CANNOT, as I discovered this evening, go camping without. A tent.

It was the standard procedure; pop the trunk of the car, open a beer, find the right spot to pitch. Get out the..... Bollocks. An image immediately appeared in my mind. An image of a neatly packed tent, in its little bag, lying on top an old redwood log. About two hundred and fifty miles north of where I was standing. I closed the trunk and finished my beer.

I think I'll stay in a motel tonight.

Friday 23 July 2010

Killer instinct

Good news! I am no longer in Cougar Country. The bad news is, having reached California, I’m now in Lion and Bear Country. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The Rangers dispense an advisory leaflet with the following opening gambit;

Mountain lions are large, seldom seen inhabitants of these parks. Like any wild animal, they can be dangerous. No attacks on humans have occurred within the parks.

All well and good except that, in a stroke of brilliance, the word No at the start of that last sentence has been stamped over with the word Few. Fortunately, they tell you what to do if you’re not lucky enough to be one of the many:

1. Do not run!
2. Do not crouch or bend over
3. Remain calm, give the animal a chance to leave the area
4. Be aware of the animal’s location and slowly back away
5. If the animal approaches, yell loudly, wave arms and throw objects
6. If the animal attacks, fight back aggressively

They don’t place enough emphasis on the Do Not Run! given that this would presumably be the prime instinct of any sane person. They may as well tell you not to shit yourself with fear too. Do not crouch or bend over. My next move, after deciding not to leg it and failing to control my bodily functions would not be to crouch or bend over. (Unless the crouching and the shitting yourself with fear were connected). And bend over? You’re faced with a Mountain Lion and you’re gonna be wiggling your butt and pulling dragon faces? I doubt it.

They break it to you gently with all that other advice, but ultimately, as with the Cougars, if push comes to shove, you’re going to have to fight the f**ker. Aggressively. As opposed to passively? "Reason with the Cougar/Mountain Lion. Assure it that, even if it strikes first, you won’t hit it back". If I go out to one of these creatures, it won’t be for lack of aggression, that's for sure. I’ll have given it everything I’ve got.

I’m hiking through the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, a giant forest, of giant redwoods. I’ve done the short loops down by the Smith River, and now I’m hiking up the Little Bald Spot Trail (!). I’ve been going about twenty minutes without seeing another living soul. As you walk, you think. And eventually, like it or not, you start thinking about what you would do if a Mountain Lion did come sauntering out of the bushes.

The problem is that, besides my bare hands, everything I’ve got is a small Swiss army knife that hitherto has been utilised solely for the opening of beer bottles. How’s that going to help? The blades don’t lock, so they’re no use. The tweezers and toothpick won’t do much damage, but they are detachable, so I could feasibly use one of them in my left hand. In my right? I guess it has to be the corkscrew. But given it can’t even trouble the synthetic stopper on a five buck bottle of Safeway’s merlot, what good’s it going to be against a frickin’ lion?

At this point, the image of me doing the old jungle dance with a Mountain Lion, trying to uncork its eyeball with a Swiss army knife in one hand whilst deftly attempting to pluck it’s whiskers with the other, convinces me it’s time to head back to camp. Seen one forest you’ve seen them all, right?

There’s one other thing I can’t quite get my head around though; they don’t tell you what to do if you meet a Bear. Maybe, if you do, it’s just a foregone conclusion. They don’t even give you a picture or anything. They’re Black Bears round here, so I’m assuming they look the exact opposite of Polar Bears. I guess I’ll know if I find one sniffing around my tent in the middle of the night. They do provide a Bear Locker, but I wouldn’t fancy my chances of coaxing one into that little thing in the middle of the night.


This morning I bought a myself a hatchet, ostensibly for chopping wood, but you never know when it might come in handy...

Thursday 22 July 2010

Sand in my shoes

After miles of driftwood beaches, coves and headlands, the Oregon coast changes dramatically south of a town called Florence. It is a fifty mile dunescape, scattered with coastal pine forests.I pull up and hike half a mile through the conifers, the sand dunes hidden beneath them. We emerge from the trees at the same time.

There are a few people knocking about, but none of them seem to want to take on the two mile trek to the beach. These are the biggest dunes in the state, and I climb the nearest one and head off for some solitude. In places the sand is so soft you go in ankle deep, and your footprints disappear immediately. Elsewhere it is like a road, and you hardly make any impression. I can see the footprints of other people, already covering over, and if you turn back you can see your own disappearing into the mire.

The wind blows relentlessly, and the landscape is in constant flux. The dunes climb gently on the windward side, and fall away steeply on the lee. The soft lines and curves have sharp edges, every last one sculpted by the wind. The weight of all that sand, all those tiny particles, ground down over thousands of years, move as one.

Far below the dunes, the vegetation that first caused the build up of the microscopic grains lies buried. There are small patches of grass and reed, and the odd puddle of water, but on the whole the place is parched. Maybe that's why, when I spot the smallest shoot of green emerging from the seemingly endless wilderness, against all probabilities, it strikes me as a thing of considerable beauty.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

The wood, the trees

Trekking around the coastal forests of Washington and Oregon, one thing is abundantly clear; that the forest itself is a living, breathing thing. The trees, animals, fungi all exist as organs in one body. And that body, like ours, is fuelled by air and water.

The forest is in a state of constant flux - wind, rain and occasionally fire see to that. For the thousands of species that thrive here, it is the trees, of course, that make it what it is. Some may live to be hundreds of years old, others will be cut short in their prime - the wind accounting for 80% of all felled trees.

Life flourishes around the death of a tree. Some die, quite literally on their feet. Standing dead trees, or snags, provide habitat for many other living creatures. Woodpeckers, beetles, ants, salamanders, not to mention fungi, thrive around the curious standing skeletons. A 200 foot pine, after death, will take two centuries to finally reduce to a stump.

Fallen trees hold water like a sponge, so become a refuge for the parched inhabitants of the forest. Known as nursery logs, they provide the launchpad for the life of new trees. As the new trees grow over the felled, in time the nursery log decomposes beneath them - its death the catalyst for new life. In the forest you can see the trees that sprouted from such beginnings, the shape of the nursery log still visible in their roots, as though they were standing on stilts.

The rainforests of Washington State are incredibly damp. Moss grows on every single branch, draped over everything, as though some eager child had hung spiderwebs throughout the house one hallowe'en. It is an eerie sight. With the moisture too, come the fungi, every shape and size, on the forest floor, and clinging to the great trees themselves like limpets.

There are lessons to be learned in the dark depths of the forest. That so many species, great and small can coexist in such incredible, symbiotic harmony. And that the phenomenal power of nature restores and creates whenever it destroys: that life grows out of death. The reason for all this; the wind that brings the trees to the ground, and the water that feeds them.

In this great scheme, man lingers among the ants and the fungi that live in the shade of the mighty trees, whose giant shadows consume our own. Far greater than us are the tiny droplets of water that form on the fungus that clings to the tree; they truly are the giver of life.

Monday 19 July 2010

Portland, Oregon

I'll put my hands up here and say I didn't even know where Portland was a year ago. Well, it's in Oregon (didn't know where that was either) and it's a slight, but extremely worthwhile diversion from Route 101. And you can't talk about it without talking about food.

Natalie, a friend from cooking school works in one of the best restaurants in town. She's off Friday and Saturday but catering for a party of 65. I offer to donate my skills on Friday to help prep, so for the first time in a long time, I get to spend a day in the kitchen. Even the mundane things, like chopping pounds of tomatoes for pico de gallo brings joy to my soul.

In the evening we eat in her restaurant, Veritable Quandary. The starters steal the show - a cheeseboard with summer berries, nuts and the best bread yet, toasted and brushed with olive oil. The best cheese of all is a cremeux that has the consistency of soft butter. Spread on the sourdough with a deep fried marcona almond for company, it is divine. We also have the dates; from the inside out, marcona almond, goat's cheese, date, panceta. Say no more. Mains are good, I wish I'd ordered Nat's scallops rather than the lamb, but since I've not eaten any red meat for what seems like weeks, I won't go on about it. The kitchen treat us to desserts, a berry crisp (American for crumble) and chocolate truffles that are too good.

Ken's Artisan Bakery - probably the best bread yet

Feeling like I needed to burn off last night's meal, I opted for my new favourite thing when you only have a day or two in a new city, and hired a bike on Saturday morning. I used it to ride directly to Ken's Artisan Bakery, producer of last night's bread, to buy myself a loaf. Whilst there I grab a Stumptown Coffee, the best in Oregon, and probably a few other states as well. I spent the rest of the day riding around town, then out of town. I didn't take that many pictures, since I wasn't really feeling it. It's not an especially photogenic place; it's the food that makes it special.

Kids in a fountain on the riverside, Portland

If I'd been in town longer, I'd have eaten so much more. There are food carts scattered all over the city, selling every conceivable cuisine. There's a doughnut shop, Voodoo Doughnuts, that has a permanent queue stretching to the next block. An abundance of small cafes and bakeries sell local, organic food, and are packed to the rafters. If some infection were to strike me down in Portland, as in Vancouver and forcibly extend my stay, I probably wouldn't complain.

But the Road beckons once more. I checked out on Sunday, went to the gym for the first time in who knows how long, and headed for the river beach north of town to put my feet up for a couple of hours. Before skipping town I had breakfast in Bijou Cafe, where I took this photo. The line on the mirror reads "Good conversation is the perfect accompaniment for a good meal."

Talking to yourself: the only way to be assured of intelligent conversation

Sunday 18 July 2010

Columbian Cafe

Having traversed the four-mile bridge over the Columbia that links Washington and Oregon, and suddenly encountered a string of assholes on the road, I pulled over for a restorative breakfast at the Columbian Cafe, which everyone says good things about.

They're not wrong. House baked toasted sourdough is very good, and comes with a plate of three jellies (en; jams): garlic, jalapeno and cayenne. They absolutely kick ass. It's exactly this kind of inspiration I'm looking for on my travels. The rest of the breakfast is good enough - beans are great, spuds are less so. But the bacon is wonderful. They cure and smoke it themselves, with brown sugar and maple. There's nothing worse than over sweet pork products, but this just hints at it, the pigginess winning the day.

The grill man is a girl. She used to be a cook, she said, then she went away and trained as a massage therapist and did that for a few years, and now she's back. I can't be sure that she did the right thing without having her stick her elbows in my back, but she's a natural on the grill. In a brief lull between orders she looked genuinely agitated. People shift, she told me. They want different things, go away and do them. But the universe shifts too, she said, and best of all is when they shift together.

Amen to that, with garlic jam on top.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Washington State

When I first flew over Washington on my way into Seattle three or four weeks ago, I was amazed at how green it was. My Road Trip (sorry) through the state was cut short - condensed into three days by an eye infection, lack of planning and a propensity to leave mobile phones on toilet roll holders when using public conveniences.

It takes a bit of adjusting to the practicalities of a Road Trip (somehow capitalising it makes me feel less culpable). Obviously, the first job is to actually get somewhere. This prohibits stopping every time you see something you want to take a photo of, taking excessive detours just to tick off boxes, or pulling up in every town you drive through. I have a small guide book which I'm stealing ideas from (well, they cost me $14.99) and the rest is just intuition really.

Washington was fairly easy because I didn't drive through that many towns. Port Angeles? No thanks. Forks? Knives more like. Aberdeen? Ha ha ha. Just keep driving and admire the view. I had a target too - Portland by Thursday, so I knew I couldn't waste too much time. Consequently I aimed to reach the south-westernmost tip of the state by Wednesday night; the quite brilliantly named Cape Disappointment. (So called because the guy who first arrived there incorrectly assumed there wasn't a river there, as promised. There was - the bloody massive Columbia River that requires a four mile long bridge to cross it. Must have been foggy that day).

I stop in a few places along the way, to eat or photograph the local curiosities, like this statue of a running fish (?) in Sekiu, or the world's largest frying pan in Long Beach:

In a small town called Westport, I stop at Brady's Oysters, which is meant to kick ass. I somehow manage to spunk forty bucks on wild smoked chinook salmon that is out of this world, smoked ling (good), a few oysters, some crab and a couple of pounds of pickled herrings that are a particular weakness of mine. I grab a polystyrene eski, fill it with ice, add a six pack of beer and now have a travel fridge in the trunk of the 'stang.

But really, the whole thrill of the RT (abbreviating it makes me feel even less culpable) is what you see behind the wheel. It's not knowing exactly what is round the next corner, bar two yellow lines and some breathtaking views. And it's getting used to the fact that you have to drive past so many places where you really want to stop, and stop at some where you don't. I try and pull over for the viewpoints, but they're normally crap for photos. The only exception so far being this spot on Lake Crescent, where the sun shone through the trees, round about the time that some honest guy was pulling his pants down back in Port Townsend...

Friday 16 July 2010

You are in Cougar Country

Cougars are seldom seen inhabitants of the Olympic wilderness. Attacks on humans are rare. Few people will ever see a cougar, but if you do see one, the following suggestions can increase your chances of a safe experience.

Don't hike or jog alone. Keep children within sight and close to you. Avoid dead animals.
Keep a clean camp. Leave pets at home.
Be alert to your surroundngs. Use a walking stick.

Don't run, it may trigger a cougar's attack instinct. Stand and face the cougar.
Appear large: wave your arms or a jacket above your head.
Pick up small children. Do not approach, back away slowly.
Keep eye contact.

Don't turn your back. Remain standing. Don't take your eyes off the cougar.
Throw things. Shout Loudly. Fight back aggressively.

Thursday 15 July 2010


For the next three or four weeks, bar a few brief inland sorties, I will be hugging the coast of the Pacific Ocean. My first glimpse of it since I left Lima back in May came at Ruby Beach on the Washington coast, and it looked very different.

You have to walk through a forest of coastal firs to get to the beach itself, which is littered with driftwood. It's the same story all along the coast as I make my way down to Oregon. Every stretch of beach is piled with dead trees, brought to the ocean by the rain and the rivers, tossed about and eventually left on the shore to bake in the sun.The same trees that stand proudly between sea and land lie broken in their own shadows. So tall and uniform in life, they take on all manner of aspects in their almost petrified death. I wander around looking for the strangest, tossing aside those logs that are strewn in my path like a young Geoff Capes.

The first thing to strike me about the ocean itself is its force. Sea stacks testify to its power - the remnants of promontories eroded away by the relentless pounding of the surf. Rocky land tunnelled through then completely isolated from the land over thousands of years. No reason nor purpose to the destruction, just the inevitable result of a seemingly irresistible force meeting an apparently, but apparently not indestructible object.

The isolation of the rock is brought about solely by the movement of water. And yet when they first meet, when the huge body of water strikes the land and dissipates into thousands of imperceptibly tiny droplets, it would seem as though the rock won. Only in the fullness of time, and with the cumulation of that relentless impact, does its true power manifest itself. A few feet from where the surf crashes into the rocks, that same water, pooled around the pebbles it has smoothed away over the centuries, lies perfectly, harmlessly still.

The sea never sleeps. On Tuesday night, by Lake Quinault, I thought I could hear the ocean in the distance, as though a tiny shell were pressed to my ear. Last night, on the Long Beach Peninsula, I camped barely a hundred yards from its edge and the sound was deafening, all night long. The spray hammered down on my little canvas house. It is almost frightening, and certainly humbling, to feel Mother Nature so close, and with nothing but a two hundred dollar tent to protect me from her irresistible force.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

A kind of magic

Having brought the car situation firmly under control, I took care of accommodation worries for the next eight weeks before I left Seattle. I dropped into the local REI and bought myself a tent, sleeping bag, floor mat and a couple of pillows. May a canopy of stars be my majestical roof.

I never went camping as a child, so it doesn't really hold any magic for me. The kind of magic you need to make sleeping in an area the size of Alec Guinness's 'cooler' in Bridge on the River Kwai seem like a good idea. To make you wilfully, gleefully even, subject yourself to being bitten, pissed on and generally set about by a host of God's tiny creatures you didn't even know existed, and do so in the absence of every convenience, modern or otherwise, that man has ever deigned to create. But hey, you've got to start somewhere.

I make it as far as Quinault Lake in the Olympic National Park, Washington, where I'm planning to bed down for the night. Driving through the forest, I'm thinking Deliverance, laced with a bit of Carry On Camping for comic effect. I quickly come to my senses and pull up at the Rain Forest Lodge and enquire into the availability of rooms. Then I man up, tell them where to stick their $130 and find myself a pitch down by the lake. Fifteen head scratching minutes later and the tent is up, with only a few minor complications.

The campground itself is tiny - just five plots, a car park and a hole in the ground. But each one is nicely secluded and right on the edge of the lake. I crack open a beer and sit back to watch the sunset. A family camped down the end set off in a canoe to paddle around the perfectly still waters as the sun, already slipped from sight, casts its last rays into the nascent night sky. In that brief moment, I can't honestly think of anywhere in the world I would rather be.

As darkness finally envelops us, I retire for the night. Later on I make a mental note not to drink more than three beers when camping, since getting up for a piss involves clothing oneself in an extremely confined space before negotiating a series of obstacles only slightly less challenging than the Krypton Factor assault course. Nonetheless, and to my lasting surprise, I actually sleep extremely well. All to be heard are the sounds of nature: the tweeting of the birds as they too drift off to sleep, the croaking of frogs and the occasional call of a desperate cougar. I can hear the calm lake lapping gently at the shore, and in the distance, I am certain, the faint sound of the Pacific Ocean as it pounds the coast.

I wake twice in the night, in contrasting circumstances. First up, my neighbour Richard and his son, Richard III (I shit you not*), are having raccoon trouble. They attempt to rectify this by whisper-shouting to one another - "F**king 'coons dad" - and then throwing large heavy objects, presumably logs, wherever they think the little blighters might be. Strangely, since I am only ten feet away, they seem to be leaving me alone (the raccoons, not the pair of Dicks).

The next time I wake it is to the sound of dawn slowly breaking in the temperate rainforest around me. As the animals stir themselves into life, it is as though their combined calls are beckoning the sun forth from its daily hiatus. It's a unique experience, and quite wondrous for me by virtue of the fact that having enjoyed it for five minutes, I stick some earplugs in and miraculously fall asleep for another five hours. And that, in itself, is a kind of Magic.

* In Seattle I heard a woman calling out to her two sons Hudson and Beckham. Good job Danny Shittu didn't marry a Spice Girl and move to LA, I thought.