Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Stairway to Heaven

Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of the oldest cities in the United States. A rather pretty little place, its traditional adobe houses, galleries, churches, artists and museums lure the tourists in their droves. There is a singular air about the place; it is distinctly New Mexican. Red chiles hang from every doorway.

Hot chile peppers in the blistering sun

Perhaps the most intriguing attraction is the Loretta Chapel. The story goes something like this: the chapel was built with no means of getting up to the choir loft. The Sisters of Loretta didn't want to haul their habits up some rickety old ladder, so they prayed to St Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, for a solution. Lo and behold, on the final day of their Novena, a mysterious man appeared at the chapel door offering his services. A few months later, he disappeared without a trace, but not before he'd knocked up a neat spiral staircase that turns through 720º without any obvious means of support. It was proclaimed a miracle (though not an official one).

Can you feel it?

I'm not an overly religious person, but I like places of worship and the thoughtful reflection they quietly imbue. So I was rather looking forward to a few peaceful moments looking at this wondrous bit of carpentry and pondering the message behind its mysterious creation. Never mind. The voice booming out of the speakers repeated the story every five minutes over a backtrack of moving choral singing. The only place it moved me was the exit, which is reached via a gift shop selling all manner of borderline blasphemous tat. Luckily the beautiful St Francis Cathedral Basilica a few blocks away offered some respite, with only a modest souvenir shop wedged in the vestibule.

The clear implication is that the mysterious old man was in fact some incarnation of Joseph himself (not me, I'm hopeless with a jigsaw). Because the staircase has no central support, it was considered to be held up by some divine force. This too is nonsense - the innermost piece of wood is coiled so tight that it acts as a support. It's an extremely accomplished piece of carpentry, achieved with very basic tools, and by soaking the wood in tubs of hot water. All that glitters is not gold.

But the staircase has 33 steps! They cry. Jesus's age when he died. Oh come on! The staircase has 33 steps - exactly equal to the number of apostles (not including Judas) multiplied by the number of people in the Holy Trinity? Or the very same 33 that you get if you subtract the number of days God took to create the world (including Sunday, even though he had his feet up) from the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness? Hmmm.

I am exacerbating my cynicism, not just for comic effect, but because the packaging of this beautiful chapel invites little else. Of course all these tales are complete bunk, but at least let them speak for themselves and don't turn them into a shameless money spinner.

The rest of Santa Fe is nice, but I can't help but thinking it doesn't suffer from a similar malaise. It is a beautiful place to wander about, but bloody expensive. There are galleries everywhere. Some are good, others less so. Some, it seems, assume that just being in Santa Fe validates their art and justifies the lofty price tags.

Restaurants too. Hype and style over substance, in the two I put to the test. And punitively expensive. It seems a shame that in a place special enough to not really need any selling, everyone seems determined to do just that.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Moving Home

Some time in the 6th century AD, Native American Indians came to live on Mesa Verde in the south west corner of Colorado. They farmed and hunted on the mesa top, where the land was fertile enough, but prone to long periods of drought. They built homes, initially simple pit houses, but later sophisticated stone masonry villages. Then, around 1200 AD, they began to build homes on ridges and alcoves in the cliff faces below the mesa top. The greatest examples, like Cliff Palace have survived to this day.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

There are some 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. Cliff Palace is the largest of them with 150 rooms, and was probably a kind of community centre. With the harsh conditions, the Ancestral Puebloans had to pool their resources to survive. Of the 150 rooms at Cliff Palace, many were for storing crops and meat. 23 of them were Kivas, round, sunken rooms used for ceremonial purposes.

Kivas in Cliff Palace

Around 100 years later, the people that built these communities upped and left, never to return. Although there were severe droughts around this time, they'd survived plenty worse. It may have been that after some 700 years of tilling the same land, it could no longer support their burgeoning population. They spread south into Arizona and New Mexico and settled among their kin. No matter how sophisticated a race or people, once the natural resources of its land are exhausted, the options are either to move on, as the Puebloans did, or die out.

A hundred and fifty odd miles away, to the south and east, near the town of Taos, New Mexico, another group of people have assimilated their homes into the landscape: Hippies. And they call their homes Earthships. (Cue anti-hippy shudder and contempt. But I decide to check it out anyway).

An Earthship is a sustainable home made entirely of recycled materials that generates its own power and recycles its own waste. It is half buried in the ground to conserve heat, and has solar panels and wind turbines on the roof. Rainwater is harvested and treated then fed into a traditional plumbing system. Grey waste is used to water plants, then to flush toilets. Black waste goes into your standard septic tank. The walls are made of used car tires, packed with earth and filled out with old drink cans and bottles.

Another Brick in The Wall

Now the people who build and live in these things in hippy communes in the middle of a large field in New Mexico might strike you as being a little strange. They are. But at the same time, they would appear to be onto something. Is it so absurd to think that if you are building a new home, you should harness as much of the energy it will need from the wind and the sun? Or that using as many recycled materials as possible will reduce its impact upon the environment and cost you less money?

Not sure of the name of this one. Er, Tire Palace?

I'm not completely buying into all of this of course. I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to live in a house that looks like something out of Mad Max 2, or call my children things like "Rainbow" or "Snowflake". Hell, I'm a pure bred capitalist ex-bookie for God's sake. But the principles that underly what they're doing here must eventually be assimilated into mainstream society. The smartest architects are already designing and building homes that work in harmony with their immediate environment, not against it.

Ask the Ancestral Puebloans. A hundred years after building the most incredible homes and communities, they were gone. There's a limit to what the land can give us, and unless we're quick enough to devise new ways to enhance our return from what we've already taken, we'll be faced with the same two options as them. But there are 6.7 billion of us and counting, so repatriation could prove a bit more complicated...

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Tears in the rain

This blog can be a real fucker sometimes. You want to write fresh, first hand. You want to capture the spirit of a place, cut right to its core; swiftly, deftly and with devastating effect. But you can't. You can't write - the words won't flow. They feel vapid or laboured. Or maybe you're busy actually living your days rather than writing about them retrospectively. Or you're drunk, tired, driving, bored or distracted.

Sometimes it's more serious than that. Ideas or themes present themselves to you, but they're not ready. They need time; they need to incubate. They need people, places, landscapes or experiences to bring them to life. So you drag them around with you, waiting for the right time to weave them into the narrative.

There are other things too of course. Right now, I am shuffling ever nearer to the closing of a chapter. In ten days I will be leaving the States, and I don't feel ready. The grains of sand are hurrying themselves before the neck of the timer. A conclusion will need to be written when the experiment is far from over.

Today I felt a little weary. I tried to restore myself with a good meal but it had the opposite effect. When I left the restaurant, it hit me, or rather I hit it. A clear, crisp lightness in the air. It hardly felt like rain; no effort was expended to make it fall. It was barely falling at all in fact, more like the drops of moisture were hanging from the sky, and I merely trespassing amongst them.

They ran down my face none the less, and wet the dry lips that hid a narrow smile.

Romance in Durango

I've rolled in and out of enough small towns by now, but still never quite know what to expect. The speed limit shifts down, and you either find yourself trundling along a dusty main street or squeezed between a sudden epidemic of chain motels, fast food joints and gas stations, praying for a sign to Downtown.

Restored by the wonderful drive from Silverton, I wind my way into Durango, Colorado. Sure enough the speed limit falls, but by the time the Travelodge, KFC and Taco Bell are behind me, I've already raised a smile to the "Serious Texas Bar-B-Q" and the motel whose sign reads "Free Rooms. Only Kidding." This place was always going to be different.

The best things about Durango aren't exactly unrelated. It sits at around 7,000 feet in the Animas River valley on the edge of the San Juan mountains. Right now it is lush and green. In winter, it is white, buried deep in snow. In contrast to the dusty red of Utah, this feels like a place where people were meant to live; the heavens irrigate the land that provides for them. And provide it does.

With all that rain and arable land, comes good food. The town's 20,000 or so inhabitants are either extremely demanding or incredibly lucky. Bakeries, like Bread. Coffee shops, like Steaming Bean or Durango Coffee Co. Restaurants like Cosmo. A Farmers' Market Saturdays and Wednesdays. Incredible vegetables, biodynamic farming, organic ranches. It's as though the Earth pours forth the very best of everything into one tiny town. And with this, of course, come the comfort and contentedness that accompany all my favourite places.

Most people visit Durango for its abundant outdoor pursuits. Skiing and snowboarding in the winter, mountain biking, climbing and hiking the rest of the time. I sharpen my poles and take off round Animas mountain. There's nothing worse than trekking uphill for an hour and a half only to be confronted by a rubbish view.

Further north I take another hike, this time much higher up, around Andrews Lake, through a meadow littered with ponds and back into the trees. I don't have time to get beyond the tree line, but in the two and a half hours I'm up there, I don't see another living soul. (Thankfully that includes Mountain Lions and Black Bears). Somehow the tranquility feels like an extension of the town, and not an escape from it.

But all the nice views and good coffee in the world don't amount to a whole hill of beans without good people to shepherd you through them. With Erin's mom, Terry, looking after me I can relax and enjoy everything that this amazing little place has to offer. It's far too late now to start the world from scratch, but if you were thinking about it, there'd be plenty worse places to begin than here. I might even go so far as to say I love it...

Terry and I

Friday, 27 August 2010


Now let me ask you a question, you bein’ from England an’ all. Don’t feel like you have to answer, but, now how can I put this? I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Scotland, or France or nothin’. England. En-g-land. You have Sha-ria Law in En-g-land?

No? No? You will have. [Ted's fingers run spider-like across the wall]. Creepin' ya see...

You know where Obama was born?

Hawaii? Ha! He were raised a muslim. At college, he said he weren’t born in the United States, now he says he was. He's a muslim. An' the constitution, says he gotta have a cab'net, but he ain’t got no cab’net. Just them Tsars. Tsars! Why? Why he got them Tsars? Creepin' ya see...

All them little towns across the Midwest. You know, they used to be minin’ an’ loggin’ towns, but there ain’t no mines there no more. Now them loggin’ companies, they’re all up in Can’da, and them little towns, there ain’t nothin’ there. Why? Why? All that land, and nothin’ on it. Who’s gonna end up ownin’ that land? Who? The gov’ment. The go-v-ment.

Land. Gov'ment. Sha-ria Law. Muslims. O-ba-ma. Creepin’, ya see. Cree-e-pin'...

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Home turf

It was only really when a familiar smell wafted in through the aircon that I noticed the change. Even then it took a second to register. It made me look out the window, and I saw green. I saw fields, trees; I saw the Rocky Mountains lining the horizon, and I saw the freshly cut grass. Colorado. I could be on another continent.

I take on one more canyon for good measure - the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The climb up to the rim is through corn fields and arable land; water sprinklers and ranches. Looking back, I could almost be in the South Downs (minus the Rockies). The canyon itself is more what I had expected to begin with - narrow, steep and rugged. With the extra moisture and foliage comes an abundance of wildlife in addition to the ubiquitous squirrels and lizards.

It's getting late and I have some miles to make up. The San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains looms ever larger as I heave the horizon towards me. Although the red rock, dust and sandstone of Utah and Arizona are gone, they still manage to have a Red Mountain Pass that I need to negotiate, and above the treeline orange rock shines down on me. The rain and the sheer drops make for slow going, but the scenery is incredible.

It all seems a long way from the barren, hostile landscapes of the last week or so. I no longer feel like I've wandered onto the set of Star Wars, but back in Europe. Ouros, that I pass on my way, could be anywhere in Switzerland. By the time I reach the old Victorian mining town of Silverton I'm ravenously hungry and tired of driving. Any sense of being closer to home quickly evaporates - the backdrop may be Alpine, but I'm back on a film set and this time it is pure wild west. I have an Elk burger for dinner, drink a few beers and manage not to get shot at on my way back to the motel.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Underneath the arches

Southern Utah is almost back to back National Parks. I don't have time to see them all sadly, so work my way up the east side of the state and tick a few off the list. I'm still slap bang in the middle of the Colorado Plateau, so things don't change too much. Rather than stark contrasts, this is a place of subtle differences. Bridges and arches, land shaped by rivers and streams, or wind and rain.

This, in case you didn't know, is a natural bridge:

Owachomo Natural Bridge, Utah

It was formed, a bloody long time ago, by a meandering river, like the San Juan, photographed below. As the spring melt flooded, the water would crash into the walls of the river's tight bends. Over time, this impact smashes a hole, and the river changes its course, shortcutting the bend. As more water flows through, the hole widens and widens, until a natural bridge is formed. This one's pretty old - the river has long gone and it's looking a bit fragile.

Goosenecks State Park, Utah

A hundred odd miles to the north, I learn the crucial difference between an arch and a bridge, at the appropriately named Arches National Park. This place is very different. Although it is now high desert, 300 million years ago, it was a sea, which evaporated, leaving 5000 foot deep salt deposits that were eventually covered in sand particles and turned to rock. The rock cracked, water got in and the salt finally dissolved. The wind and rain drive down the through the cracks, leaving huge fins, like flat pebbles standing on end. Some of these fins have weak spots, and over just a few thousand years, they crack and open into arches. There are 2000 of them in this park, at various stages of their evolution.

Delicate Arch

Double O Arch

Landscape Arch

In 1991, a 60 foot section of Landscape Arch crashed to the ground as a result of the combined, painstaking efforts of wind, water, and gravity. You can see the thin section from where it fell above. The rest could come crashing down at any minute. In August 2008, the nearby Wall Arch collapsed overnight. All that remains now are the two opposing ends that once supported the pile of rocks that lie prone between them.

The remains of Wall Arch

You can see similar shapes all over the park, and one day all the arches will go the same way, just as new ones will evolve from solid fins. This all happens relatively quickly here, over just a few thousand years. Hiking and climbing through, over and among them you can see and feel the sense of gradual change. It's another gentle reminder that our lives barely last a heartbeat in the life of the planet.

Just a few miles away, another park, Canyonlands, and a completely different topography. We're back to canyons again - at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. It might not be as famous as the Grand Canyon, but it lacks something that makes it superior in my eyes; hoards of tourists. Even hiking the Grand View Trail, I only see a handful of other people. Sitting at the end, admiring the endless view, a raven swoops past, and I actually hear his wings whistling through the wind.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Bluff, Utah

When I left Antelope Canyon, I left without my friends from cooking school. Erin had come up from Phoenix with Jon and Marco, over from Italy, and they all headed west to Vegas as I drove east, back towards the four corners.

The loneliest moments when travelling by yourself come immediately after you've had company. It feels even more acute this time because we've shared some incredible experiences. The last few days remind me that no matter how many amazing things you see in the world, nothing beats sharing them with people you love.

Marco, Jon, Erin, Me

We say our goodbyes. I don't fancy camping or sleeping in the car, so give the Frommers a quick once over, book myself a motel room in Bluff, Utah, and start chalking off the 170 miles between here and there.

I've said before that impressions of a place are largely governed by state of mind, but maybe it's not so true. After mile upon mile of stunning landscape, Bluff reveals itself one building at a time, nestled in the shadows of the red rock ridges and, well, bluffs. A coffee shop, steakhouse, a few motels. A gas station. I check myself in, and immediately extend my stay to two nights. My spirits, low for the last two and a half hours, are completely lifted. It is just so peaceful here, and the people so warm.

In the morning I walk down to Comb Ridge Coffee where I'm glad to get my hands on a decent americano. I don't really fancy much for breakfast. I'm sort of over the whole pancakes thing, but I've not had blue corn pancakes yet, so I settle for them. When I pay my check, I tell the guy behind the counter two things, both of them true: "Those were the best pancakes I have eaten in America," and "I'll see you tomorrow."

Who'd have thought that a couple of pancakes amidst a tiny cluster of buildings and delightful people on a long empty highway could do so much to restore the soul? I drive off with a happy heart. I'm not going to post any photographs of Bluff - there'd be no point. The thing that makes it special can't be seen - just felt. If you're ever passing through these parts, be sure to stay a night. Or two.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Antelope Canyon

It begins as a tiny hairline crack in the surface of the sandstone. In time, droplets of water find their way into the crack. As they run its length they carry away particles of the rock and the crack widens and deepens. Where the strength of the sandstone is uneven, or the force of the water irregular, the crack widens in dips and swirls. Add the wind, flash floods and a few million years, and you have a slot canyon.

Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona is the most famous and photographed in the world. Towards the entrance is a plaque dedicated to the memory of eleven tourists who perished inside when a flash flood hit in August 1997. I steal a quick glance toward the clear blue sky, and descend into the Lower Canyon through an opening that must surely preclude very fat people from enjoying the natural wonders within.

Slot canyons are apparently a magnet for serious photographers. I take my crappy tripod down with me in case I need it, but I don't. It's almost midday and there's plenty of light. You can't photograph the top of the canyon because of the huge range between the light and dark. Well you can, but it looks like this:

I can't seem to escape the haunting thought of what it must have been like to be trapped in here when the water broke. The floods that cut a canyon out of solid rock to lure those people in, then crushed their bodies against the delicate walls before carrying them off without a trace.

We manage to drift off the end of the group and take our time to marvel at the intricate patterns on the sandstone walls, and the huge curves and spirals that make you feel like you've climbed inside a sea shell. As the sunlight filters down and bounces off the sand, delicate pastel colours seem to soften the walls. Occasionally the curves form edges, and up close resemble something surely man made.

Water may seem free in its movements but it follows the same rules as the rest of us. It might have started with a trickle, but each subsequent drop followed the same path. Eventually the trickle became a torrent, eroding and sculpting the rock into the most elegant twists and curves as if a ballet dancer pirouetting through the air had carved the stone with her shadow. Yet despite these free flowing strokes, the walls retain so many patterns, with such structure and regularity, it seems impossible that they were created by chance, and not by meticulous adherence to some great design.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Monument Valley

If you've ever watched a Western, chances are you've seen Monument Valley. John Ford and Sergio Leone both used it to great effect - the iconic sandstone buttes completely encapsulate the essence of the wild west. I couldn't have imagined quite how special they would be in the flesh.

As we neared the park, the thunderstorm we had been watching from a distance gathered before us. We stopped before a long straight road, and watched the weather cross. Before long the wind was howling around us as the lightning came down in the valley. As we approached, the buttes appeared on the horizon. The iconic, finger like rocks, and the larger mesas.

There is a seventeen mile dirt road that loops around the valley. The first couple of miles of this are torturous. I'm seriously worried that I'm going to pop a tyre, and that we're having to drive so slow it will soon be dark. When we eventually get clear of the bumps and pull over, the low sun emerges from behind the dense clouds and bathes the whole valley in wonder. I forget about the car, the world and all its worries, and gaze in silent awe.

I can't quite put my finger on what makes it so special. Somehow the bright green desert grass and the dark grey clouds frame the rocks, and allow their redness to glow like hot coals. Whilst the thin clusters of stones are the most iconic, the bigger mesas seem the most impressive when clenched like this between earth and sky.

There is something deeply spiritual about Monument Valley. What an extraordinary coincidence that the great monoliths should bear such resemblance in their striking shapes to both ancient temples and modern cathedrals. The thinner, statuesque buttes punctuate this landscape, like giant chess pieces. Something tangible flits between and around them all, as if they are talking with one another.

As the sun disappears, beams of light seem to be emanating from somewhere on the horizon, as though its rays are being bounced back from some giant mirror. With the final setting of the sun the great rocks cease to glow, leaving just their eerie silhouettes to haunt us as we quietly leave in the darkness.

There is no question among us that we are somewhere quite remarkable. A spirituality both natural and human separates Monument Valley from the other wonders of the west. As the eons scraped away the hundred million year old plateau and left just these strange beacons standing, it is as though they lowered us a little closer to the Heart of the World.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Large Canyon

Repetition of superlatives only serves to lessen their impact. Take the word Grand. It's used all the time (in Ireland, in every sentence, to denote that something is tolerable). Occasionally it gets bumped up a rung or two; a grand old house, a grand staircase, grand piano. The Grand Canyon? Well, it'll be nice enough, and bigger than your average canyon, to be sure.

It's big all right - 277 miles long, with an average depth of 4,000 feet and 15 miles across at its widest point, way beyond the span of any word I can think of. As I approach and gain a first glimpse I am truly taken aback.

As a visual spectacle it is quite simply awesome. It is so big, colourful, and wonderfully sculpted. Cloud shadows dance across its peaks and troughs, and the sun teases it with bursts of life and colour. Old trees line the rim, some living, some long dead. There's a lot of dust and pollution sadly, but rainclouds clear the air and gather threateningly overhead. It's too late for me - I'm already halfway down.

I hiked down the South Kaibab trail for an hour, and it took about one and a half to get back up, by which time it was mercifully pissing with rain and I took a well earned nap in the car. When I woke it was still raining, so I took advantage of the trepidation of the United Nations of tourists to stride out along the rim and enjoy a little solitude.

Sadly the fat tourist laden shuttle buses whizz by, but the clouds are beginning to abate. I've hiked for a few hours now, so the initial visual impact has diffused and I've kind of got used to the place. But before long a glorious twilight is filling the canyon. Suddenly it's magic comes alive again, and I spend a long time just staring over the edge, completely mesmerised by its loneliness and beauty.

But perhaps most impressive of all, it is just so unimaginably old. Experts agree that it's somewhere between 6 and 17 million years (experts, pah!) since the Colorado River first began gorging out a canyon as the land around it lifted. But the rocks had been forming for almost half the life of the Earth. The water cut through the geological history of our planet, like an arborist boring into an old tree, and left the results, in all their splendour, free for all to see.

You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it

- Theodore Roosevelt

Monday, 16 August 2010

Raising Arizona

I'm driving across the barren expanses of Arizona when the city of Phoenix rises from the dust. It feels contrived - who in their right mind would build a town in the absolute middle of nowhere? I have a little drive around downtown looking for someone to pose this question to, but it's completely deserted. I drive around uptown, and that's deserted too. I pull over, open the car door but quickly slam it shut. I have just discovered why there are no people in Phoenix - it's because it is hotter than the sun.

I also discover that I actually need to be in Scottsdale, not Phoenix. When I get there, a couple of wonderful things happen. Firstly, I check into a Holiday Inn Express, where I am given a surprisingly nice suite of rooms for $69, and told that they are dispensing unlimited free beer. And then I walk a few blocks in the 110º heat to an unpromising parade of shops set back from the main road, and have dinner at Atlas Bistro.

I start with veal sweetbreads, which are exceptional. For my main, I order the special. Taking a small pig, they have made their own coarse sausagemeat seasoned with fennel. Then they have detached the eye of the loin and rolled it, together with the sausage, in the belly. They cooked it for five hours or so, and served it with wild mushrooms and pea shoots. It sounds almost certain to be too much, but isn't. It is actually an incredible expression of everything piggy - the different textures encased in the soft but crisp skin, and with nothing on the plate to detract from them. It is a brilliantly conceived dish, perfectly executed.

Which is good news for my friend Erin, because she is working in the kitchen here for the next couple of months, learning from the two chefs, Keenan and Joshua. I meet them all after dinner and they've invited me in for a day when I'm passing back through town, an offer I cannot refuse.

Since you can't actually go outside in Phoenix, we head a few hours up the road to the picturesque little town of Sedona. It's much cooler at just 90º (it was still 100º in Phoenix at two in the morning), and a lot more interesting. The town nestles in among stunning red rock formations that shimmer in the twilight.

Things get even more interesting as the sun sets, but the photographs don't do it justice. People are clicking away merrily, myself included, but there is something inherently boring about the results. Looking towards the disappearing sun though, the sky takes on an unusual bluey-grey hue, and there are some interesting silhouettes in the foreground. Everyone else's cameras are pointing the other way and I can't help but think that they're missing the best bit.

The good food theme from Phoenix continues up here too. The Cowboy Club turns out a decent bit of buffalo and appetizers that include snake brochettes. We drink a good local blend, and are treated to an incredible lightning show as a heavy storm rolls across the night sky. I was desperate to take photos but some things you just have to enjoy in the moment. After a long hike the next morning, and an incredible lunch in surely the most unlikely located Korean cafe in the world, we head back to Phoenix and leave the interesting landscape behind us for a few days.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

10.55 to Yuma

My day begins in San Diego and needs to end in Phoenix. That means a fair bit of driving - 360 odd miles of it in fact. And all of them on freeways, which are tedious and tiresome.

My plan is to get on with it - an early start (well, before check out anyway), foot down, knock off some miles quickly, and stop for lunch in Yuma, just inside Arizona. I download some Metallica to get me on my way, and am headbanging my way along the Interstate when Wherever I May Roam comes on. You don't need me to describe the scene inside the Camaro:

And the road becomes my bride
I have stripped of all but pride
So in her I do confide
And she keeps me satisfied
Gives me all I need

And with dust in throat I crave
Only knowledge will I save
To the game you stay a slave

Roamer, wanderer
Nomad, vagabond
Call me what you will

But I'll take my time anywhere
Free to speak my mind anywhere
And I'll redefine anywhere

Anywhere I roam
Where I lay my head is home

And the earth becomes my throne
I adapt to the unknown
Under wandering stars I've grown
By myself but not alone
I ask no one

And my ties are severed clean
Less I have the more I gain
Off the beaten path I reign

Round about this time, I spot a black and white car in the rear view mirror, bearing down upon me with notable urgency. The red and blue lights on its roof are flashing frantically. Fucking Metallica.

Officer Hernandez is actually very nice. He clocked me doing 95 from the other side of the freeway, and had been hooning it for the last ten minutes in an effort to track me down. He writes me out a ticket for Travelling in excess of 70mph and advises me to slow down a little.

I Watch as all the cars I have passed in the last half hour tootle on past. Eventually I resume my journey, and reluctantly engage the cruise control at a seemingly pedestrian 79mph. This is intolerably boring, until I observe something interesting to the south. A thin black ribbon is meandering across the desert. It's the fence - the one that separates the USA from Mexico. And it is heavily patrolled.

The freeway is barely a hundred yards from the frontier at some points. And so they have roadblocks, to check that you don't have a stray Mexicano clinging to your rear axle, or small children hidden in the footwell. A combination of the car and my accent encourage a little further research:
-You rented a Camaro? Awesome. V6 or V8?
-V6, not that it matters since I can't do more than 80.
-Bro, you can drive as fast as you like in that thing; just don't get caught.
Wise words, but a little too late in the day. I stick Simon and Garfunkel back on the stereo, adjust the cruise control up to within five of the limit and carry on where I left off. You know it's Sad but True...

Saturday, 14 August 2010

San Diego

For reasons that elude me, I've thought for a good few years that San Diego would be my kind of place. So it is even more disappointing that I roll into town feeling in a slight state of limbo. And I am beginning to reconcile myself to the fact that cities are much lonelier to be on your own in than the countryside.

Don't get me wrong; I am more than comfortable travelling alone and rarely feel genuinely lonely. Seeing friendly faces along the way helps, of course. But whilst I can gleefully whittle away the hours in front of the campfire, or hike in blissful solitude, I'm getting a little tired of traipsing around downtowns on my own and sleeping in third rate hotels.

The America's Best Value Inn I'm staying at seems very reasonably priced - it's close to the Gaslamp Quarter and Balboa Park. Five minutes after check in, I'm pretty sure that's because it is directly under the flight path for the nearby airport. The transport infrastructure really pinches San Diego - the shadows of the incoming planes are almost permanent, and the freeways snake around town so you never really feel like you've escaped them.

I wander round the Gaslamp Quarter on my first night looking for somewhere appetising to dine. My choices are endless, but nowhere really appeals. I finally opt for Urban Bar and Grill, a decision I soon regret. I'm enjoying a great shrimp cocktail appetizer when a gormless waiter brings my entree. Farcical exchanges ensue. The next night I decide it's high time I graced Hooters with my patronage: Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined.

In the morning I hired a bike and set off around town. I like it. But I can't help but feel myself being drawn forward, to the next part of my trip. This is something I've tried to avoid all year - never plan or think too far ahead, because it robs you of the only thing you truly have - the present. But I can't help it. I even bought a guide book for Japan the other day.

Just to prove that my mind really isn't on the job, I get home and upload my photos, only to discover that I haven't actually taken any. Well, there are a few, but absolutely nothing to convey any sense of the place, or my experience of it.

Whilst I think this is a nice picture, it's a pretty poor indictment of a city that I actually rather like. I guess I'll just have to come back another day.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Halfway House

Today is the 12th August. Which is exactly six months to the day since I left England. It is also one month to the day since I left Seattle, and thus a suitable time to arrive at the end of my Pacific coast road trip and roll quietly into San Diego.

I genuinely feel that I have just enjoyed the most significant and rewarding month of my life so far. It has been a revelation, thanks mainly to the constantly evolving but persistently stunning landscape. I've watched it change gradually from the rainforests of Washington State to the parched coastal bluffs of Torrey Pines that I hiked this morning.

Torrey Pines feels like another country completely. (It almost is - Mexico is just down the road). In the northwest the droplets of moisture gathered on every branch. Here the whole land is crying out for water. The trees are sparse and barren, a million miles from the bunched giant redwoods of northern California or the pine forests of Oregon.

In between these extremes I've walked along a seemingly endless driftwood beach and gazed from the capes at scattered sea stacks clinging on from a long lost past. I've seen mountains tailing off into the ocean; trekked up and over golden sand dunes; peered through hazy sunsets and across misty mornings. I've walked great cities; Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. I've stared into campfires and gazed at the stars. I lost myself in the splendour of Yosemite; a constellation etched into the timeless land. I've watched the marine layer slowly burn away and reveal the golden beaches of paradise. And my only real regret is that I can't go straight back to where I began, and do the whole thing over again.

I've realised something in the last month, that I hadn't really seen coming. Writing this blog contributes greatly to it, but I can see now how much joy I get out of discovering new things, photographing them and writing about them. This year may have begun as a food odyssey, but I feel it slowly contorting into something else. I said, in Yosemite, that it felt like the Heart of the World. Seeking out that Heart and being close enough to feel it beat, are all that really matter now.

To delineate and categorise is a human trait. I've reached the end of one stretch, and another awaits. In a day or two I will move away from the coast; to the depths of the south west, and the natural wonders concealed therein. It feels like a sea change but of course it's not. Just another gentle leaning from one thing to another, and in time they will all blend together, and it will become impossible to say which was which.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Surf 'n' Turf

It's not the only reason I stopped here, but it is one of them: Del Mar has a famous racetrack.

Some of you may not know, but up until a couple of years ago I lived and breathed horse racing: a bookmaker by trade, and a gambler. Since I quit (quitting while you're ahead is not the same as quitting) I've had one proper bet on a horse, and been racing once. I still like it, and I'll always love going, but if you want to bet the ponies and make money, it has to be all or nothing. It was all for long enough, so now it's nothing.

Never one to let an old habit slip, I miss the first race. And the second actually, thanks to some vague directions from an old lady with a German accent who I really should have known to ignore. I apply some trusted logic to the third, but it doesn't quite pay off. The horse I backed bursts out of the gate, leads at a ridiculous pace, and fades in the straight. Not off a yard (ie not trying). A great gambler once said that the secret to making money was knowing something no-one else knows. A truer word was never spoken.

The people around me seem to know an awful lot though. Their in race commentaries and excited urgings are hilarious. Come on you asshole. Don't get boxed in. Use your stick. Come off the rail. I watch them cheer for horses that can't possibly win, and keep cheering for the leader as he gets mopped up half a furlong out. I shouldn't speak too detrimentally of these people - I made a lot of money out of them over the years. But they are idiots.

I was hanging around the parade ring taking pictures when two little kids took up position next to me with their grandad. The boy looked at me and said "We just won some money." I congratulated him. His sister, probably about six years old, told him "We should have bet more. Five bucks isn't bad, but we could have won a hundred." Then she turned to her grandad and added "Yelling really does work though." She's not wrong, I definitely called a few home in my time. I listen out for what she's backing in the next and follow her in.

It's more relaxed and informal here than in England. There are less drunks and more kids. It is also more sterile. Del Mar claim to be "Where the Turf meets the Surf" but most of the races are run on the Polytrack and the rest of the place is concrete. And I can't see the beach. I'd take an afternoon at York, Chester or Goodwood over this place any day of the week. They have managed to replicate a few British practices though; a bottle of water costs four bucks.

Having done my money in the first couple of heats I revert to the modus operandi of every clueless punter and back Victory Joe. They should have called him something else. I'm sixty bucks down at this point, and I realise that in three races I have lost about one twentieth of what would have been a decent bet for me in the past, and my heart rate was still cranked up a dozen notches or so.

No wonder I used to shout so much. Good job I quit while I was ahead.

Surf City USA

Travelling on your own is great; meeting new people is great. But every now and then, you can't beat seeing a familiar face. I've been staying with my mate Blom and his girlfriend Rachael. I've felt at home, and among friends, and what a great feeling that is. I even hit it off with their dog, Jackson:

Maybe it's because he's named after a Johnny Cash song. Or maybe it's because he has a dog door that he saunters in and out of with proud independence. Or it could just be that I'd like anyone who licks the sand off my feet when I get back from the beach.

And that beach, of course, is Huntington Beach, where the sun shines and the girls are unspeakably pretty. I was only going to stay two nights but it ended up being four. To be honest, I'd think about staying here for the rest of my life if I could.

It must be the sun that makes people smile, makes them warm and friendly. As Blom said, every day feels like you're on holiday. As soon as you're not at work, you're down the beach. Once the half million or so extra people who hit town for the US Open at the weekend have cleared out, things revert to their usual, laid back selves. It's busy, but not crowded.

Huntington Beach is the home of mainland surfing in the States. The town has trademarked "Surf City USA" to market themselves, having originally brought Hawaiians over to demonstrate the sport back in the early twentieth century. Most legendary among them was Duke Kahanamoku. In between winning Olympic Golds for swimming, he introduced surfing to Australia and California, on a 16 foot board he made himself from local koa wood. It weighed 114 pounds.

How would you like to stand like a god before the crest of a monster billow, always rushing to the bottom of a hill and never reaching its base, and to come rushing in for a half a mile at express speed, in graceful attitude, of course, until you reach the beach and step easily from the wave to the strand?

Questions like this only have one answer, so yesterday afternoon I decanted myself into a wetsuit and headed out onto the waves for a lesson. My teacher, Big Rich, is a Hawaiian who probably started surfing in the womb. He is passionate, intelligent and a great teacher. But he couldn't possibly have gauged the enormity of the challenge that laid before him yesterday as we strode across the sand with our boards.

We begin on the beach. No getting to the knees here, it's straight up. Fingers on the deck until your feet are set. I practice popping up a few times, and surprise myself by how comfortably I seem to be doing it. We head out into the water. "Surfing is 90% paddling", he tells me. That's a problem right there: I can barely swim. Utilising muscles that evaded my long lost gym sessions, I struggle against the wind chopped waves. Arching my neck up to avoid getting a constant faceful of surf is excruciating, and I'm getting out of breath. "You're having a few stamina issues", Rich helpfully observes.

Despite these problems, I keep fighting. I won't quit, though I would really like to. I catch a wave, and in attempting to pop to my feet immediately forget everything I have just been taught. Since every time I come off I have to paddle back out, this is unbelievably frustrating and I castigate myself with a few choice words. I am getting stressed. There is no harmony between me and the waves. Maybe I need to watch Point Break to brush up on the spiritual side.

I won't lie and say I rode a wave, but I did manage to get to my feet, for about a second, until a combination of an innate lack of balance and the sheer surprise at being there led me to ditch into the surf. It would have been easier in the morning before the wind picked up, and I'd have loved a few more sessions with Rich, who's a great coach, but it's time to skip town. I learnt enough to keep me going though, and I'll be back out there sooner or later - to bite more waves and practice a few cuss words.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Muscle car arm wrestle

Four weeks in the Mustang and it's time for a change of ve-hicle. Which means it's time for two muscle cars to have an arm wrestle, as I give them the Clarkson treatment:

Dodge Challenger SE

Some cars are built to turn heads. Long, wide and with all the poise and menace of a coiled cobra, the Dodge Challenger SE is definitely one of them. It looks mean. Bad Ass, according to the first of many passing comments. Unfortunately, it seems they spent so long worrying about how it looks that they forgot to actually put a car inside.

It's 3.5 litre V6 accelerates like a shopping laden octogenarian, taking 8.1 seconds to drag itself up to 60mph. I stopped counting because, thanks to the gelatin injected suspension, I bounced around the seat so much that I knocked myself unconscious on the ceiling. The accelerator feels like a wedge of brie glued to the driver's foot well, and responds like one when pressed.

The interior is exactly the same as the mid-range Dodge Avenger I drove in Texas, and shares all its shortcomings. There's no excuse for windows that don't have closure or auto open on modern cars. It handles like the Avenger too - like a large sailing vessel. The similarity betrays my original suspicion. They took a turd, spent a long time polishing it, and only succeeded in making it look like something it isn't.

Dodge Challenger SE (2009) ★★☆☆☆ Mutton dressed as extremely well dressed lamb

Chevrolet Camaro

The Dodge looks good and isn't. The Chevy looks good and is.

The Camaro's angles are pure muscle: hard, angular and tight. It's lower, shorter and narrower. It feels more like a sports car and less like a jacked up New York taxicab. The interior is minimalist and different. Once you've worked out where everything is, it all makes sense. And the accelerator is a pedal, not a piece of cheese. And when you depress it with your foot, something special happens.

The adrenalin rushes through the car as much as the driver. The suspension twitches and stiffens as the 3.6 litre V6 takes off. Six seconds later you're at 60, and after 8.1 seconds when you're doing 75, you're looking in the rear view wondering where that mean looking black blob you passed a hundred yards back got to.

Anyone can make a car to go fast, but even in America, they have corners too. And the Camaro takes them in its stride. You can point it into them, like a real car. The brakes feel a little spongy, presumably because the last guy to rent it ragged it to pieces.

On the downside, the visibility is appalling, and the trunk opening is the size of a letterbox. But who cares? After five minutes behind the wheel, I knew it was time to take to the open road once again. Four stars for the next four weeks, because they're gonna be a lot of fun. I'd give it four and a half if I knew how to.

Chevy Camaro V6 (2010) ★★★★☆ Sylvester Stallone in 'Over The Top'

Monday, 9 August 2010

Huntington Beach

I was pretty sure the drive from Santa Barbara down to Los Angeles would have been a bit like playing Out Run. In places, like Malibu, it was. But I don't remember Out Run having traffic lights, or quite so many other cars on the road.

I actually skipped my way along the Pacific Coast Highway and left the City of the Angels in my wake. I'll come back to it before I leave. But I've spent the last few days just south of the city in Huntington Beach, Orange County. And I love it.

The US Open of Surfing is on, so it is insanely busy. Luckily I have the top down when I roll into town and crawl among the traffic along the beach. With all that flesh on display it's a wonder the guy in front's bumper remains intact. Santa Barbara was a mere whiff of the real Southern California. This place is it, and more. You'll need a good pair of sunglasses.

Like everywhere else along the coast, the mornings are murky. I have now discovered this is a Marine Layer and that it lingers until the heat of the sun burns it off around midday. We watched some surfing heats on Saturday morning, along with a good few thousand other people. Never in my life have I seen such an assortment of massive digital cameras and absurd zoom lenses.

I don't carry a zoom, so taking pictures of surfers is out for me. And looking at everyone with all their gear, I wonder what the bloody point is anyway. Splash out about three grand, get up early enough for a spot on the pier, shoot your way through a couple of batteries, and you WILL get good pictures of guys surfing. A couple of hours on photoshop and your friends, and the flickr community, will be swooning over your genius. Where's the fun in that? Does it make you a good photographer? No.

Shark bait

The place is swarming with flesh. Guys who presumably spend their entire life in the gym are stalking about purposefully flexing their bare chests. The girls don't need to flex theirs, are wearing diminutive bikinis and their sun sizzled skin is everywhere you turn. All of which means the disappointment of the following sentence will be considerable: I don't have any photographs from Huntington Beach.

I will have though. A few days ago I bought myself an old Nikon D2000 and loaded it with black and white film. You, like me, will just have to wait.