Out Now!

Friday, 31 December 2010

The Petrified Spirit

Thursday 29th

What’s worse, the dead mind or the jaded spirit? I all but found out on the 29th of July. We’d set off for Albuquerque where, enroute, we saw a petrified forest, followed by a ‘painted desert’…and I was bored.

Did Roman emperors ever reach this unhappy state? Here was I, still surfeit after the Grand Canyon, now presented with fresh wonders and no emetic to make room for them.

Given the chance I would have enjoyed camping the night there, wandering around, perhaps toying with the possibility of ‘getting lost’. Instead, other than a very short stop we drove on by, and staring out through the window, I might as well have been watching TV. Grumble over. I had no reason or excuse to be bored. A character flaw.

As we approached Albuquerque we saw a few balloons – maybe practising for the festival later in the year. Albuquerque however I can’t really remember. Serves it right for not being one hundred percent sure of who or what it is named after.

Was it named after a past provincial governor Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva who also held the title of Duke of Alburquerque – a small Spanish town? But then where did Alburquerque come from? It’s enough to drive a man mad. Some argue it is rooted in Arabic for ‘land of the cork’ - ‘Abu al-Qurq’ (but don’t let the Taliban in on the secret).

Others hold the conviction that it is based on the latin for ‘white oak’ or ‘Alba querqus’ because the wood of the cork oak is white after the bark has been stripped. These scholars flaunt the seal of the original Spanish village which is that of a white oak, framed by a shield, and topped by a crown. Conclusive you might say – Oh God yes – please say yes.

But no. Etymologists are a perverse bunch. Some go back to the blessed Arabs again, suggesting the word is derived from the Arabic for ‘plum’ ie ‘Al-Barquq’ and its derivative ‘Albaricoque’ which is Galician for Apricot. They don’t have a seal to prove it, just a nice story: The settlement of La Ciudad de Albaricoque was established near an apricot tree. Frontiersmen, unable to speak Spanish with any degree of fluency, pronounced it as Albuquerque. As I said it’s enough to drive a man mad, which is probably better than being bored.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Yogi Bear and the Grand Canyon

These three pictures show the sun rising over the Grand Canyon and then the Grand Canyon itself.

Wednesday 28th

Roland and I woke at 4.30 am and staggered along the path, just in time to catch the sun rising over the canyon. Then it was back to the bus for the journey to the start of Angel Trail. We took our first steps into the canyon at 6 am.

It was deceptively easy walking down – like a gigantic and never ending sand-stone staircase, spiralling ever deeper in time. . . the old, old west, and then earlier still. The canyon, I believe, is a mile deep, but the spiralling path is something in the region of ten miles. It wasn’t exactly a broad highway to Hell, but the thought crossed my mind later in the day, when it was time to climb out the damn place.

Walking down was magical, a little like bouncing along the yellow brick road, only here we were surrounded by vibrant ochre, intense heat and silence, the vegetation a strange, bluish green.

It took just under three hours to reach the bottom, where we paddled in a very green Colorado river. The temperature was rising fast, and it wasn’t even midday. Time to get out. I remember craning my neck, looking up at a distant rim, the thread of a path winding its way up the now glowing rock.

I started off alone with a water bottle, (I realised the hard way) was far too small. Mind you, one fool in group had no water-bottle at all and was in a very bad way – re-hydrating barely in time at each of the three water-stops.

The first water stop was at Indian Gardens, five miles up. It was lakin to being trapped in a red, radio-active oven – a 100 degrees and rising. The sparse vegetation was chuckling, though I may have been hallucinating. I was dehydrating fast, sweating dropping off me in a small monsoon.

The worst thing about sweating is not the smell, but the loss of something you never really think about - minerals. I was aware of my joints seizing up, like an engine losing its lubricant.

Then just before mid-day, I reached Indian Gardens and drank, and drank, and drank. Just five miles to go and two more water stops to look forward to.

About a mile from the top I witnessed a ‘Yogi Bear’ moment. Bear in mind, I’d never seen real ‘park rangers’ before and this one looked just like Park Ranger Smith in Yogi Bear, right down to the hat he was wearing. Only instead of Yogi Bear he was addressing a very fat woman in a bright, floral dress. She was wearing high heels and was slumped over a very large boulder.



despite some very urgent prodding from Park Ranger Smith. “You can do it, ma’am. It really isn’t far.” Every so often he looked upwards, as though the crest of the canyon might be lowered by a mustard grain of faith. She wasn’t persuaded and I left them there where they remain forever in my memory.

A little further up, two other members of our party emerged like lizards from the shade of a rock. Sharon and Dorita who, with a better sense of their capabilities than the woman in her floral dress, had walked until they felt hot, and then slept in the shade, waiting for it to cool again before beginning their ascent - little over half a mile.

Gary, our driver, and the rest of the group staggered out around 6pm. Gary was in pretty bad shape but incredibly cheerful having achieved what he wanted. As I remember, Laura, having taken the New York advice to heart, never went down.

The day began quietly. It ended with a bang. We ate dinner in a storm.

This picture is the same as the first one above but turned upside down, because I'm a simple soul, and to me it resembles an alien landscape

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Hoover Dam, not without its warts

Tuesday 27th

We set off early for the Hoover Dam, about 25 miles from Vegas. I didn’t know what to expect, and to be frank, was looking forward more to our ultimate destination, the Grand Canyon.

In the scraps that constituted what I optimistically called a diary, I apparently ‘learned’ that the dam, far from being a public works scheme, was largely built by convict labour.

Who told me that, and where he got his information from remains a puzzle. But all the records seem to suggest otherwise. Mind you, in terms of wages, work conditions and the total lack of concern for worker's safety, they might as well have been convicts. Other than explosions and similar mishaps, tunnels were often filled with carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust. Truck drivers came down with CO poisoning and many died. The contractors, however, paid off the doctors to attribute death to other causes in order to avoid compensation...a salutary thought as you stare at the gleaming white concrete and magical, turquoise water.

That morning I was bombarded with figures and facts:

Its reserve of water, Lake Mead is the largest man made lake in the world and the Arizona Nevada border runs across it. The dam blocks the Colorado River in Black Canyon and it remains the largest dam in the western hemisphere:
660 ft thick base, and 45 ft crest, it stretches 1244 ft across the canyon. The water stored in Lake Mead irrigates three quarters of a million acres across the USA and half a million acres in Mexico.

And to this day I wonder why I bothered to write them all down. I mean, who cares? It’s hardly likely to set fire to a party; hardly likely to set fire to this blog.

But there is, perhaps, a darker side to the dam.

As the name suggests, the project was conceived and began under Hoover’s presidency, though Roosevelt largely gets the credit for it.* And whilst there, we accepted its visual and statistical triumphalism. The dam is, without doubt, a wonderful piece of engineering. What none of us knew then was its environmental cost.

The Colorado River no longer runs to the sea, but Las Vegas* exists, and against the whole grain of the surrounding ecology, a desert has been temporarily transformed into a tropical paradise – if Real Estate brochures are to be believed.

But for how long? Lake Mead’s level is falling fast as Vegas and other conurbations feed from its water, and all those various needs from competing interests that have arisen ever since the dam was built can only lead to future ‘water-wars’. Already, after a ten year drought, another $700 million has been spent on installing an additional pipeline lower into the diminishing lake, but what happens after that?

I like this picture. I remember falling asleep immediately after. The Hoover ones are 'borrowed' until my slides have been converted into scan-able prints.

We lunched on the outskirts of Klingman, Arizona- a garage, diner and motel in the wilderness. (Which makes us sound like omnivorous monsters.) It was dry and hot, with no sign of life. And then, much later, we reached the Grand Canyon and went to bed early, ready for the descent the following day.

Two things delayed sleep: the arrival of a bunch of irritating New Yorkers who earnestly assured us that only the supremely fit should consider walking down to its base, and that we were fool-hardy to try; and, even more irritating, Laura nodding her head and agreeing with them.

* In May 1931 the then Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes tried to modify history in a thoroughly Stalinist measure, by renaming the Hoover dam - ‘Boulder dam’ a queasily partisan attempt to erase anything that might suggest that it wasn’t only Roosevelt who appreciated the merit of public works.

*Vegas extracts 90% of its water from Lake Meade

Friday, 3 December 2010

From Calico to Vegas

Monday 26th

Destination – Vegas! The desert was bleak and evocative. We stopped at an old mining town called Calico. It was desolate, breathtakingly primitive, its huts made from rocks or protruding from caves. The land was a dull orange and grey, the sky washed in cloud and rain. An hour or two later a flash-flood swept across the great Nevada desert, a land where our tour guide solemnly told us it ‘it never rained’.

From one ghost town to another. In Vegas we stayed in a fairly plush hotel with a Jacuzzi, and a pool where we played blind man’s bluff. It was a good way to prepare ourselves for the evening to come

We walked to the centre of Vegas and there exhorted to take pictures - the selling point being that the lights were so vivid and intense we wouldn’t need flash. I took my obligatory pictures of virulent greens and pinks and blues. It didn’t take long, and then we were off to our first casino. I thought Reno was the Devil’s Playground. It was merely his porch. This place redefined hedonism.

And we had a whole night.

In one casino – The Lucky Wagon – a fountain gushed out champagne that you drank from paper cups. It wasn’t first class champagne but it was profligate and free and never-ending. Have you ever seen those women near chocolate fountains, they lurk, suck strawberries, fake conversation all the time pouncing with the remorseless rhythm of the metronome. Trapped by chocolate. With me it was champagne. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe hell wasn’t so bad after all.

And then at 1a.m it trickled to a stop

As one we sighed, those brave few topers who’d stayed.

And then the devil had mercy. At 1.15 it gushed forth once more – this time Bloody Marys. It didn’t go with champagne, but we persevered.

At two am I was feeling peckish and located a casino that offered thirty course dinners for three dollars. By this time the pattern was clear. Casinos didn’t really want their customers to go anywhere else or notice the transition from night to day. No Casino we saw had windows, but many had crèches for kiddies so father and mother could gamble with blithe conscience. These crèches also offered unlimited food, along with small toddler-sized fruit machines to start them off young.
In short there was never any trouble in getting into a casino, the problem was mustering the will to get out.

Daphne and I were walking the sidewalk when suddenly she glided from me, caught on an escalator that was easing her off to fresh temptation: Caesars Palace. I followed, bemused by marbled Roman dignitaries, staring at all and sundry in blank disapproval. Behind them gardens glowed in green and pink. And then we were inside, a vast and gaudy space, surprisingly empty.

Even more interesting inside. We had nothing like this in Wales

Every motel has an ‘admag’ advertising call-girls in graphic and colourful detail, price, appearance and ‘what they do’ are all included. It made for good reading which in itself made for safe sex, I suppose, but where were these creatures of the night?

It was Dana who found out. Walking back from the casino and losing her way she was mistaken for a call girl, not by a punter but by those already in situ. She was rounded on and vigorously warned off from ‘occupied territory’. I don’t know what mortified her most, the ‘verbal’ or being mistaken for significant competition.

We left the motel early evening. The transition from lurid to desert was dramatic. The sun was setting behind distant mountains that fringed the desert. The effect was holographic, the mountains a radio-active pink and almost transparent.

Sodom, Gomorrah and Vegas. Great for two days, maybe three; just don’t be there when retribution strikes. It was horrible and glamorous, and a little unreal. One day it would be like Calico

debris from vegas

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bored in Los Angeles

Sunday 25th

On that day we toured L.A – a dirty and tedious city. It was accompanied by a verbose and lack-lustre commentary. A proud and civic minded los Angelino might take exception, much as I would by anyone who had the temerity to malign Liverpool, but then we each interpret what we see, and what I saw was Universal Studios and downtown LA.

At Universal studios I had a shark jump out at me, saw stuntmen re-enacting Wild West gun-fights, observed Dracula haunting his castle and then it was over.

Angel Pavement left me similarly under-whelmed. I checked out Roy Rogers, and saw the star of ‘Lefty Frizzell' – who I’d never heard of. I think it should be somewhere in the contract that only people known to Mike Keyton should have their star and hand-prints imprinted in concrete. To be honest, it seemed a sad little honour. Is that all life has to offer, a hand-print in concrete in a sleazy street?
Guess so.

Credit & Copyright: Dave Jurasevich who kindly gave permission to show another side of Los Angeles. Earth or sky, the choice is yours

In the evening we went up to Mount Wilson Observatory and looked down on the lights of L.A. The soulless streets had been transformed - a master-class in illusion trumping reality. Then we politely queued to look at the moon through a telescope.

Even now I remember the tedium of that day. It was the first time ever, in America, I’d been bored.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Disney smile

Saturday 24th

Despite the Popov vodka, Saturday meant an early start. We had to get out money’s worth from Disney. I began the day jogging, and nearly tripped over Kim’s head. It was sticking out from her tent. ‘I wanted an early call,’ she explained.
Disney land called for discipline and determination, more so because of the omnipresent subliminal message to just slow down and enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself? Were they mad? We had:

Space Mountain
Inner Space
Thunder Mountain
America Sings
Bear Jamboree
Kon Tiki
A canoe ride with Davy Crocket (be still my beating heart)
Ghost House
Pirates of the Caribean,
Jungle Cruise
Mission to Mars
The People Mover -

- To get through. Never mind the automaton of Abraham Lincoln that was spookily real. I’d have voted for him. Maybe the Republicans should drag him out for the next election – despite what he said, you might not fool ‘all the people’ but you can probably fool enough people to win an election today. An automaton of Abe Lincoln making home movies in Alaska and staring at Russia should do the trick.

Against this urge to sample everything – some things twice – was the psychic trip-wire of the dreaded Disney muzak. There were hidden speakers everywhere pumping out acoustic syrup and the frightening thing was – it worked. The Nazis wouldn’t have invaded Poland if Disney had been in charge of the music. They’d still be ambling in Bavaria with happy smiles under impossibly blue skies.

I found myself ambling, unaccountably content. It was weird, unsettling – there were still rides to get through.

Eventually it was time for lunch – a late lunch – somewhere around 5 pm; and I joined Gary, Caroline, Kim, Sharon, Roland and Pam in a hired car. We went to a Pizza parlour, ate and bought a box of beer. We were back in time to see the fire-works – but then something frightening happened in the car-park.

Fear with a smile, so to speak.

The Disney ‘police’ emerged from nowhere. I mean from nowhere – even before we had time to take our ‘illegal’ beer from the car. How did they know? Had that bloody automaton followed us or could these guys just smell beer? Are they working on the Mexican frontier even now?

All these questions however were academic against the over-whelming smile. It’s hard to disobey a smile. Put it back in the car they said. And we did.

Just as well probably. We enjoyed the very last ride on Space Mountain which went three times faster than normal. It was a case of clinging on for dear life. A few beers down and we’d have been doing more than gasping. It would have quite ruined the Disney Parade, or at least added more colour.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Intelligent Design

Friday 23rd

We set off for Santa Barbara and saw the old Spanish Mission and some beautiful suburban houses. I walked with Laura, an attractive, strong-minded Canadian, but with some irritating mannerisms. I know they were irritating. It says so in the scraps of paper that made up my diary, but it doesn’t say in what way and I can’t remember how. Samuel Pepys, I wasn't.

We wandered about, her with those irritating mannerisms, me with my scraps of paper, and looked at some Mandolins – none of which I could afford. So instead I bought a pulp novel called ‘Aztec’ in readiness for New Mexico.

Later we settled on a beach in Santa Monica, and drank more free wine from a nearby winery. Afterwards I practised the mouth organ beneath a palm tree and, in need of some activity, played with Gary’s kite in a cloudless blue sky. (Though not at the same time)

As you can see it was an action packed, purposeful kind of day. But things were about to hot up!

In the late afternoon we drove to Little Venice, a famous Californian beach that reeked of body oil and pagan hedonism. We spent some time outside a compound. Inside the compound body-builders posed and worked out, watched by groupies of both sexes and some I couldn’t make out, who watched and drooled, and spoke in intense whispers. Here the body is worshipped – and I was out of place.

The pagan theme was reinforced by a spectacular Grecian sunset, and I understood what a ‘wine-dark’ sea meant at last.

The day ended with a barbecue and Dana got drunk as a skunk. We drank what was left of the home made grog, the surplus rum, and back in the Disney campsite I was persuaded to drink the remains of Kim’s Popov Vodka.

The Disney campsite verged on the unreal – and I’m only talking about the grass. It was so green and dense and lush. It was designer grass, each blade graded within an inch of its life and trimmed by Vidal Sassoon. Elton John would have paid a fortune for a transplant like it, and he could probably carry off – Green.

The site was about one and half miles from Disney-land. It was packed, like the grass, and like the grass, very well-ordered. Two Australians, Brett, and Mark Binks, joined us later that night, their plane having been delayed. Unable to sleep, I drifted on the moon-lit grass and stared at stars that shone with Disney magic. I wondered if the Franchise had designed them too, like the grass.

It was probably the Popov Vodka.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Monterey Bay

Thursday 22nd

The Tudor Hotel

Getting up wasn’t easy. We left San Francisco at 8am. There were more farewells, more group hugs in the street outside the Tudor Hotel, and then we were off.

On the bus I considered the ‘group hug’. From a culture where a handshake is measured and infrequently given I found the concept alien. But something was happening to me. I was slowly morphing into a ‘hugger’ and I wasn’t sure that I liked it, nor whether I’d continue to give great roaring hugs back in England. Bonding-bubbles are weird things, I decided. And now there was more bonding to come as those we had left were replaced by others who were taking the trip from San Francisco.

The new ‘Tour leader’ was blonde, repetitious and unconsciously patronising. The replacement cook ‘Sandy’ seemed earnest and a little unsure of herself. In retrospect this was just arrogance on my part and, as a teacher, I should have known better. Our new tour leader was trying to ‘establish’ herself in an ‘established group’ but it was a bit tiresome having to play ‘word-games’ with the relatively few ‘new-comers’ when we could have just talked. When the word-games ended, we passed around the beer.

Around Mid-day we stopped at a winery in Monterey where a guy told me, with evident enjoyment, that the wine they sold to English supermarkets -‘Paul Masson’- was basically ‘plonk’ and that their best wines went elsewhere. He did himself a disservice. I’ve never bought Californian wine since.

Then however, I drank a lot. It was free. We ate lunch on the cliffs of Monterey, and later I paddled and pissed in the sea. Not my finest hour, nor so fine a moment as when Balboa marched into that same Pacific ocean and claimed it for Spain. But then he hadn’t drank the wines of Monterey.

Really, I was taking revenge for Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

Staring across the bay I’d just affronted I thought of this man, born in the late medieval period of very poor parents. As a conquistador he rose to fame and fortune on the fringes of a strange new world, and still this wasn’t good enough. Like everyone of his generation he was after a short-cut to the east and thought he’d find it by exploring America’s Pacific coast to where he thought it joined Asia, not so very far away.

Struggling against storms and bad weather he sheltered in Monterey bay before sailing to Santa Catalina Island to winter. Faced with attack on shore, Cabrillo organized a relief party and rowed to rescue his men. In the records: “As he began to jump out the boat, one foot struck a rocky ledge, and he splintered a shinbone.”

I cringe as I read this. Cringe even more when I calculate how long it took him to die. He splintered it in November 1542 but under the ministrations of his surgeon it became gangrenous, and he died on January 3rd 1543.

He left no settlements, had found no passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific, had discovered no new route to China. He never even got a sniff of the fabled seven cities of Cibola and failed to sight San Francisco Bay which remained undiscovered until 1769.

Interesting how life turns out. I toasted his memory.

Maps like these that showed Asia and America joined, and not too far away, lured many explorers who always thought that just beyond the next wave they might find it.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A strange dream in San Francisco

That night I had a strange dream. A tall Canadian woman stared at me from a snowy wilderness. “My name is Renee Miller,” she said.

I tried to drag myself away, wondering whether it was a dodgy Dim Sum, or an excess of beer.

“And you’re tagged.” She laughed, causing a small avalanche.

Was that the same as ‘branded’? “What do you mean, tagged?” I said, struggling to wake and finding I couldn’t.

Her voice was remorseless. “But in exchange……You will be granted an award…”

Dollar Bills, lots of them, flashed before my eyes.

“…The kickass, awesome, most impressive, shiny, blog award.”

"I don’t have a blog,” I said it like I knew what one was.

“But you will.” Her voice was becoming impatient and the thought of what this Canadian Amazon might do if made angry, alarmed me greatly.

“Okay,” I said, admitting defeat. “What do you want from me?”

Her voice at once became soothing. “Just answer ten questions, Mike, and you’ll never see me again.”

“And I get this ‘Kickass, awesome, most impressive, shiny, blog award?'"

“You have my word.”

The questions came from nowhere and a voice other than mine answered:

1. If you blog anonymously are you happy doing it that way; if you are not anonymous do you wish you had started out anonymously so you could be anonymous now?

I can’t blog anonymously. The whole point of Record of a Baffled Spirit is in creating a family and historical record. Even if I changed the family surname to Anon such a timid foray into cyberspace would be a little strange.

2. Describe one incident that shows your inner stubborn side:
Doing my O levels and A levels (essential university entrance exams) in two years rather than the normal four years – because I realised I could.

3. What do you see when you really look at yourself in the mirror?

Strange eyebrows

4. What is your favourite summer cold drink?

Beer, cold white wine, grapefruit juice chilled. But in very hot weather – water, lots of it.

5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do?

Write, read, swim, walk, listen to radio, drink unobserved in country pubs

6. Is there something you still want to accomplish in your life? What is it?

Success as a writer, and a hopeful death

7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person, or always ditching?

Undoubtedly shy. Behind a hardened carapace the fear of others is still there, muttering blindly to itself…Shut up; are you mad? Get away from there. Don’t say anything. These people are dangerous!

8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment of your life what would you see?

My parents’ death. You don’t miss them till they’re gone

9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people or events?

No, I’m happy with myself. Not smug but accepting what I am and what I’m not

10. If you had the choice to sit down and read or talk on the phone, which would you do and why?

Read. I hate talking on phones.

"My calling card," she said, before disappearing. A white card fluttered on to the pillow. It looked like snow and melted as I read:


It didn't make sense and I slept, determined on pondering these things in the morning.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dim sums and beer

Wednesday July 21st

The following day we wasted much of the morning haunting the lobby and indulging in small talk, saying goodbyes. I went for a drink with a deflated Doug who was lamenting the fact that for him the adventure was over. Then it was off to the bus-station to see off Daghmar Baron and Kay. Daghmar was homesick and was cutting her holiday short to see her boy-friend back home. That was beyond me. I’m not that romantic and have never been homesick. It’s always there, sometime or other. But Daghmar was beautiful and the boy friend was immensely lucky – unless she took another look at him and realised what she had just given up.

After they’d gone we decided to clear our heads from the night before and walk the Golden Gate Bridge. The sky was a soft blue, the air crisp and we hiked twelve miles along the coastline checking out the mansions.

It was thirsty work and we fantasised on our big farewell meal later that evening - down to the very last noodle. China town was going to be good.

But, as John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens to you while your busy making other plans.” When I got back to the hotel there was a note from my cousin Kathy. She and the family were driving down from Seattle for another, perhaps final re-union.

It was an immensely generous thing for her to do, but also, for me, a Frasier moment, when two sacred moments over-lapped. Much neurotic pacing followed as I worked out the options:

Not seeing Kathy and family – unthinkable.

Not attending the final farewell dinner – almost unthinkable.

I watched the group leave the hotel en-route to China-town and the Far East Café. I'd come up with a plan. The two celebrations could converge and an extra table was booked.

Life is what happens etc. Kathy was unavoidably late. Worse than that they’d already eaten and had no room for anything more. Their ‘can do’ attitude resulted in them finding a table in the adjoining bar whilst I went to the other end of the room to booths reserved for the Aventours trip.

The evening was spent with me flitting from one emotional centre to the other – my cousins who likely I wouldn’t see again - and the group I’d travelled halfway across America with. It meant twice the drinking as the tears, farewells and toasts became more intense in the booths, and the beers continued to pile up on Kathy and Rick’s table. Between Dim Sum and beer I didn’t know whether I was coming or going or what I said or did or how I got home. At last the evening ended and, nursed by a hundred angels, I eventually found my bed

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Problem solving in San Francisco

Tuesday July 20th

Some days later I was attempting ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on a mouth-organ, bought in San Francisco. It had been driving the coach mad, and I’d been relegated to a palm tree in Santa Barbara to practice one final time.

It had started off so innocently on our second day in San Francisco. Veronique, Marjian, Roland and myself had just finished breakfast at a neighbouring diner. There were things to do that day, not many but enough to fill a hot blue morning. I had to locate a tax office to sort out my departure papers. Roland accompanied me because he had the vague idea he wanted to buy a bag, and en-route, I was suddenly struck with a burning desire to buy a mouth-organ – two mouth-organs in A and D.

I found San Francisco an easy city to navigate and we were helped by the shopkeeper who showed us a short-cut, which involved a detour down Turk Street. It was a street of beautiful houses but I was feeling more irritable than aesthetically attuned. Roland was beginning to wear me down, his tendency to take charge whenever he could. This was probably imaginary, resentment fuelled by being one of too many people cooped up on a bus for a little too long. Bonding has its downsides – which is why alcohol has its uses.

An American attitude is ‘if there’s a problem – solve it.’ The British attitude veers more to ‘if there’s a problem live with it’. My attitude then was ‘if there’s a problem drink it away’. All three attitudes have their merits. Not all problems can be solved and alcohol makes the second option more bearable. Roland was of a like mind and so we went looking for a bar – in this case an’ English Pub’ called The Rosebud.

The problem here was that it was too English to be authentic. Every conceivable variant of the pastiche was crammed into its walls. Still, it sold Guinness, and the problem evaporated in an agreeable blur.

Suitably refreshed and friends once more we walked to the Hyatt Regency which looked like something from Babylon…well, after a Guinness or six. Its interior was a sensory feast and made us feel like two camel herders come straight from the desert.
The evening ended in another party in Gary’s room, one even wilder because too many of us didn’t want the party to end.

Note. No blog for short time. Computer in for repair.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Hearts left in San Francisco

Monday July 19th

Golden Gate refers to Golden Gate Strait—a name that originated around 1846.
The actual Bridge was completed after more than four years of construction at a cost of $35 million. It was opened on May 28, 1937 at twelve o'clock noon when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House announcing the event. I guess it was part of Roosevelt's huge job creation schemes that helped get America out of the depression. Perhaps they thought bolder in those days.

San Francisco was where many of us were going to say our goodbyes. It was the halfway mark of the tour. I and a few others were carrying on for the second leg, and periodically I pinched myself unable to believe my good fortune.

We left Yosemite late because some serious stocktaking had to be done, and then, at last, the bus rolled off. I might offend many who live in the area but as we approached San Francisco, I found the scenery pleasant but bland: rolling yellow grass hills, a soft blue sky. It reminded me a little of a children’s picture book. Unthreatening. Uninteresting. Hmm…what does that say about me? I find the threatening, interesting? I blame it on my childhood.

The Golden Gate Bridge (The reddish brown gate bridge doesn’t really cut it I guess) came into view, and as we watched it evaporated in mist. In the distance we saw the Hyatt Regency hotel, which resembled something from Babylon or Krypton.

The ‘Team’ treated us all to pizza and beer in an over the top Pizza Parlour and now I’m searching my mind.

What exactly did that mean ‘over the top’? Note to self. Be specific in diaries. You see, somewhere on this trip we went to a place that had ‘One Million Years BC toilets. As you peed, pterodactyls would swoop over you; dinosaurs lower an avuncular head to see whether what you were holding was worth their interest. It was most distracting; certainly enough to inhibit a reasonable flow. But worse, much worse than that - we were essentially doing our business in a tourist attraction. It was the devil’s own job to pretend not to notice crocodile lines of mixed sex tours walking by…and pausing.

But though the memory is clear, my diaries don’t record where it was. Maybe someone out there can help me.

At four pm we hit our hotel, an interesting place, just on the right side of seediness. At six pm we met in the lobby and took a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf to eat king crab. The mood was sombre, for the crabs especially so. There were people leaving soon that we would never see again. An intense bonding was falling apart. There was only one answer. The obvious one: A drinks party in Gary’s room that over-spilled into the corridor outside. So many group hugs, so little time.

Friday, 1 October 2010

They are killers

Sunday 18th July

Yosemite is breathtaking, its history less so. The valley was named by L H Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion in 1851. He named it in honor of the tribe they were about to dispossess and remove.

“I could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for
American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon. That it would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one; that the name of the tribe who had occupied it, would be more appropriate than any I had heard suggested.” I then proposed “that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.”
. . . .

I love the distancing in that last sentence, as if somehow this tribe was leaving paradise from their own free will.

Officialdom says that the Ahwahneechee of Yosemite became extinct in the C19th. The awkward fact remains that since 1851 the Federal Government has evicted Yosemite tribes from the park in 1906, 1929, and 1969. Never mind. There is a reconstructed ‘Indian Village’ now located behind the Yosemite Museum, inhabited by tourists.

Yosemite is full of irony, even its name. When L H Bunnell named it, he got it wrong. Bunnell thought Yosemite meant ‘Grizzly Bear’ which it doesn’t. The confusion arose from the Miwok word ïsümat.i, which does mean “grizzly bear.” However the tribe that lived in the valley of Yosemite were the Ahwahneechee. Their neighbours though, had a different name for them. The Southern Miwok referred to them as the ‘yohhemeti’ and the Central Miwok called them the Yossemeti. Both words mean the same – ‘They are killers’. Nice.

Now it is just a very clean park with a free bus service taking you wherever you wanted to go in a designated ‘wilderness’. It is a small fragment of paradise and as such, private cars are discouraged as indeed are ‘down-and-outs’ from San Francisco. I was told that they were a bigger menace than adventurous bears, lured by the promise of the 5 cent deposits on any cans and bottles they collect. I didn’t get the logic of the criticism implied.

Mirror Lake
Note bottom left hand corner, a bare-bottom, nose or thumb

That afternoon we swam and cavorted in Mirror Lake, which, we were told, would end up as a water-meadow in twenty years time through a build up of silt. (I wonder if it ever did). Then however it was crystal clear and reflected a Disney blue sky.
We saw the designated Sequoia and duly posed. These are truly wonderful time-machines standing patiently for over 3,500 years just so Keyton could one day bounce in a cavity, his arms extended in triumph. In line with the triviality of the moment, we had Chicken Italienne for dinner, followed by Schnapps in the adjoining bar and later a disco.

A tree

Keyton in a tree, stern

Keyton in a tree bouncing.

In this valley of ‘They who kill’ we spent the night drenching a blindfolded Gary, Greg, and Barbara in spaghetti, shaving foam, and buckets of water. It was one way of thanking them. Then again we may have simply been possessed by the spirit of the Ahwahneechee, in which case things could have been worse.

And now a bed time story. The Ahwahneechee people of Yosemite Valley called the waterfall "Cholock" and believed that the plunge pool at its base was inhabited by the spirits of several witches, called the Poloti. An Ahwaneechee folktale describes a woman going to fetch a pail of water from the pool, and drawing it out full of snakes. Later that night, after the woman had trespassed into their territory, the spirits caused the woman's house to be sucked into the pool by a powerful wind, taking the woman and her newborn baby with her.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Crossing the Sierras

We drove over the Sierras to Yosemite: A very bald statement and rightly so. The Sierras are beyond my descriptive powers. Some say man’s brain is reaching the point beyond which science can go no further. Our mammalian brain, evolved from millennia on the African plains, will no longer be able to conceive the questions to be asked as our limits approach. And without questions there'll be answers beyond us. Across the Sierras my mammalian brain was reduced to a trancelike state absorbing image after image, each more powerful than the rest and none of it remembered.

We rendezvoused with another Aventours group at Lake Mono. Their tour guide was a friend of Gregs. It was also his birthday, so buckets of water and shaving foam seemed almost obligatory. This was what our mammalian brains, evolved from millennia on the African plains, were designed for, and we went for it like a bunch of chimps on speed.

Walking round Lake Mono

Afterwards I had one of those leisurely talks with Karen and Sheri Roberts – the kind that signify nothing and evaporate in the brain. It was a very hot day.

We reached Yosemite at night and had to put up our tents in the dark. No problem. We were a well oiled machine. Later that night I talked to Candy, a vibrant, bustling secretary, originally from Yorkshire but working in Stockholm. I was intrigued. No one’s called Candy in Yorkshire. Maybe that’s why she went to Stockholm.

Later still I spent a happy fifteen dollars on whiskey sours, talking men’s talk with Ron Tillet, a cheerful Australian. He’d tried to lure Kim and Sharon out for a drink with us, but with no success, and as the evening progressed he became increasingly annoyed over his non relationship with Kim. Such is life in a small enclosed bubble with too much to drink and too many hours to think, and Kim Haslinger was beautiful.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

True Believers

That night I had a dream. It was Pink Lady again, brandishing a book. True Believers.

"What the hell is this?" I snarled.

"Right back at yer, pal," she snarled back. Her ruby lips parted baring bright and feral teeth. “I’m just telling you this is probably the best goddamned book you’re gonna read this side of the great divide. Me and my friends all like it, pal, so you better read it, see.” She stomped a stiletto on my chest just to emphasise the point, and then disappeared.

I glanced at the cover. The book looked hot but wouldn’t be out until 2010. I still had time

The Devil's Playground

July 15th-18th

Would you believe it? There was war in the camp: hostility over dishwashing. I took refuge in the swimming pool, skirted the continuing arguments to eat four barbequed ribs, and, as tensions settled, played pool. Other than the great dish-washing war and possibly because of it, I missed – according to Roland – the definitive western sunset. Compensation was sought and found in a giant tub of banana daiquiri made by Roland whilst, presumably watching the sunset. Another large tub sat alongside, in reserve. There would be little sleep in the hours to come.

At ten pm we set off, travelling through Nevada by night, drinking and Casino-hopping until dawn. We stopped off at five casinos in all and the night became progressively more wild. Not only did we have an almost endless supply of Daiquiri, each casino we visited gave us a small book of five vouchers allowing us two free drinks and three vouchers to use on a small city of fruit machines.

The whole thing demanded constitutions of iron, but somebody had to do it. By dawn exhaustion over-took us all and I collapsed in blissful sleep across two seats belonging to a Elisabeth and her friend. These were two beautiful medical students from Paris. I liked Elisabeth. She called me ‘Fuzzy-face’ because of my unshaven appearance. I imagine she called me other names that night.

We breakfasted in Reno at a Casino called the Circus. It offered thirty six course breakfasts and as much as you could eat for less than two dollars. On each table were bingo cards so you could gamble whilst you ate, and, placed discreetly between the condiments, was another message reminding you that there were starving people in the world, and exhorting you to eat sensibly.


I was dining in the devil’s playground.

I left feeling exhausted, bloated and morally confused. Much like a reader of Petronius’s ‘Satyricon’, I trudged back to the coach, resolute on staying in camp that night, go no where, and eat no more food. Ever.

Camp was in a pine forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe. We swam, slept and sunbathed, allowing our bodies to recover, our minds to catch up. Greg, our tour guide tried to organise a group dinner in Reno that night, but my stomach rebelled. Instead I stayed in camp, took photo’s of the lake and observed how friendly the woodpeckers and chipmunks were, before going to sleep. Fuzzy-face had left the building.