Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our "Honeymoon" Travelling Around California In A Cheapa Campa Motorhome

I am one of those unfortunate Australians who was born in the middle of winter. Believe me, this is a sad thing. While my siblings had pool parties that stretched into never-ending dusk on their birthdays, I got inside party games and nice knitted jumpers for presents. I've always felt a bit ripped off by the date of my birthday. It's cold, there's too few daylight hours and the options for fun seem a little limited.

I decided 2012 would be different. I was going to turn 39 in the sunshine, baby, and that meant going on a dream holiday to the USA, where July means summer, swimming, long days and good times. And I decided the best way to do it was in a motorhome with my husband Luke, tooling our way around California, known for its reliable sunny weather.

A motorhome meant we didn't have to plan our trip too closely and would have the freedom to stop wherever and whenever we liked without having to pack and unpack constantly. And by combining car hire and accommodation we saved money. It was an exciting idea.

The plane trip over was a little harrowing. It was in a barely-held-together Qantas 747 that lost all power on the runway at Los Angeles and was apparently decommissioned immediately afterwards. Nothing like starting a holiday with the glad knowledge that yes, you are still alive. Thankfully it was all good from there.

We picked up our shiny, new 10 cylinder Ford motorhome from the Cheapa Campa/Apollo office in LA and felt a little overwhelmed by how huge it was. They make them wide in the US, which means lots of lovely room in the back. Thankfully the roads and parking spaces in the US are also wider. It didn't take Luke very long to get used to driving on the right side and we thus braved the endless LA freeways, heading west. First stop, Las Vegas. We had an appointment to keep.

We didn't go to Vegas for the gambling. I suspect that's the least interesting part about it. And we didn't go so we could quote Hunter S. Thompson and giggle about bat country, although a fair bit of that did go on. Nope, we went to laugh at the pure American excess that Vegas offers in abundance. There are machine gun shooting ranges, roller coasters on top of 30 storey buildings, helicopter rides, giant wave pools, topless clubs and non-stop buffets. The place is like a never-ending circus and really has to be seen to be believed.

Ultimately we figured the best way to do Vegas was to get married by Elvis while dressed as pirates.

Didn't matter that we were already married or that it wasn't our anniversary. You can't go to Las Vegas and not get married. Hence, we forked out an obscene amount of cash to hire some impressive pirate outfits and organise the ceremony. At 4.15pm on June 13 we were whisked into the tiny confines of the Graceland Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard for an intimate vow renewal service with a delightful Elvis impersonator. Luke promised to be a hunka hunka burning love and I promised to stay off of his blue suede shoes and amid it all, we got a little emotional. Because, in the end, we were getting married again and it suddenly felt very special.

Fifteen minutes later we were out on the street clutching a fake wedding certificate and a DVD of the event, to cherish forever. It was moving, it really was.

We spent our wedding evening wandering the streets of downtown Vegas in our pirate outfits. People kept wanting to have their photos taken with us and we were constantly being invited for drinks upstairs with the "industry people".

We stayed at the Golden Nugget hotel for our honeymoon night and spent the next day sliding down their clear plastic waterslide that goes through a giant aquarium full of sharks. Like you do.

After that we drove the motorhome into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon for a couple of days. Waking up at dawn, we rode our extra cheap just-purchased Las Vegas Walmart bikes along the rim as the sun rose. It's difficult to describe the astonishing sensation of sheer size that the Grand Canyon gives you. It really is... grand. Looking down at rocks that are over 4 billion years old is a humbling experience. 

We hiked down to "Ooh Ah Point" where I developed a sudden fear of heights and said "ooh ah" far too much. We went back up and by 10.30am had retired to the comfort of the motorhome for a well deserved nap. Drinks at sunset looking over the canyon was equally fabulous.

We travelled back east along Route 66 for a while, admiring the old diners and service stations at some of the lesser-frequented old towns on the road before getting back to the busy interstate. We had a long way to go and a short time to get there and we started wishing for some kind of banjo getaway music to help create the right atmosphere.

Our next destination was Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. The winding trip up the hill to 6000ft was a little nerve wracking but the motorhome handled it fine. Happily ensconced in the campground, we unpacked all of our weird American food into one of the special lockers designed to prevent bears from breaking in. Part of us wanted to leave a bit out for them in the hope of spotting one. Alas, it wasn't to be and we didn't see a single bear on our entire trip.

The sequoia trees are breathtaking, living behemoths that grow so fat they are the largest living tree by volume. They're also pretty tall, growing up to 85 metres, although they're topped by the Giant Redwoods of Northern California. We visited the General Grant tree, the second largest tree in the world and spent about an hour just sitting on a park bench admiring it, watching the squirrels and chipmunks playing around the trunk. We also did a bit of surreptitious tree hugging in the surrounding grove.

The area is considered a National Monument because the trees are so large and so old; the General Grant is around 1650 years old. The hills surrounding the grove were logged in the 1890s and the General Grant itself was scheduled to be logged before the government announced its protected status.

Back at the campground we built a large campfire, drank a few beers and cooked up some pasta in the motorhome before bed, relaxed and happy in the surrounds of the beautiful forest.

We stayed at San Francisco for a couple of days and suffered a bit of a shock when the fog rolled in of an evening. Suffice to say, the bayside souvenir sellers make a killing from fleecy tops and scarves. On the Saturday we attended the Pride festival and were treated to the sight of thousands of partying revellers at Dolores Park before watching the Dykes on Bikes kick off the lesbian parade. Good fun.

We headed north and checked out some of the wineries in the Sonoma region. Naturally I was keen to visit Kaz winery and buy a bottle of my namesake wine. There we discussed the vexing issue of why American wines still use corks - a source of distress to us Aussies who are now used to the ease of screwcaps. Seems they still think it's better for aging purposes, despite the fact that the majority of wines are sold as "drink now" items. We enjoyed our visit to the wineries but had to restrain ourselves and not buy too many bottles lest we be unable to drink them all before we got on our next plane.

Travelling north the next day we entered into the land of the redwoods, winding our way into the Avenue of the Giants, site of the tallest trees in the world. The area is a gorgeous lush rainforest split by a crystal clear river and it's dotted with picnic areas and campgrounds. 

We opted for a flash new RV park which made a nice base for exploring this natural wonderland. We did our fair share of tree hugging in the redwood forest as well, not to mention Return of the Jedi re-enactments. 

Perhaps the best part of our day was travelling out to the Giant Tree, the tallest in the world, and eating a hastily-grabbed picnic of cheese, crackers, sausage and wine in the carpark by the creek, surrounded by huge trees. It was very peaceful. Lots of people said they were jealous of our motorhome and the freedom it gave us.

We got as far north as Eureka, where we rode our bikes along the long beach and felt vaguely threatened by the signs that told us we were in a tsunami zone. Then we turned the motorhome west again, heading across the mountains with the intention of slowly heading back to LA.

Halfway along the incredibly mountainous and windy Route 299 we encountered a
tiny village called Big Bar with a sign that said "Try White Water Rafting!" The weather had turned warm and we were suddenly hit by the urge to take this sign up on its offer. Neither Luke or I had ever white water rafted before and we're not known as the most adventurous people but it suddenly seemed like the best thing ever. And why not? It's not like we had to be anywhere that night.

Thus we found ourselves sporting life jackets, wetsuits, helmets and paddles as our happy-go-lucky guide Peter ushered us into the raft, accompanied by his "wifey". The river winds its way through heavily wooded steep mountainsides and features delightful calm sections of water between a variety of rapids. Our course was a 3 - not too scary but a little bit challenging. We were a little bit disconcerted to discover that we were supposed to help paddle our way through the rapids, not just hang on and swear.

This was pretty scary to begin with but before long we were paddling like pros and yelling our defiance at the freezing white water like crazed vikings. I'm pleased to say we even survived the "Hellhole" rapids without being thrown into the water, something which is apparently quite common. I was shivering by that point and was doubly pleased to make it through with only half of me wet. After half an hour we stopped on the bank in the sun and ate corn chips with home made salsa. As we chatted, a mink popped up on the river bank and abruptly disappeared when it saw us. We spotted another one further downstream - a rarity according to Peter - as well as a bald eagle.

Having made it back to Big Bar, I made a beeline for the motorhome where I was able to stop shivering and put on some warm clothes. Summer... yay! After that we settled into the RV park across the road, parking our motorhome right beside the river and enjoying a few well-earned wines by the rapids while deer frolicked on the far bank.

Once more we descended to the floor of the San Joaquin Valley before heading up the Sierras again, into Mount Lassen National Park. This is the site of the second most-recent volcanic eruption after Mount St Helens. Lassen Peak blew its top in 1915 and continued to erupt for several years after. It was one of the first volcanos to be photographed during an eruption. After a walk through a lava tube we set up at the Lake Manzanita campground and hiked around the picture perfect body of water at dusk, taking endless photos of the snow-capped mountain reflected in the water. We also came face-to-face with a not-so-shy deer, who opted to just walk around us rather than run away.

The next day we drove our way through the park, stopping to do short hikes and admire the astonishing beauty of the area. The road took us steadily higher until we passed 8000ft and were driving through large patches of snow. So much for summer!

We figured we were mentally and physically unprepared to climb Mount Lassen (a 4km return climb) so instead we hiked into Bumpass Hell, a collection of hot sulphur pools and steam vents about 3km from the main road. It turns out we were unprepared for this hike as well since half the trail was covered in snow and some of it traversed rather terrifying heights. Wearing jeans and sneakers seemed like a good idea when we left but we were fairly damp around the edges when we returned. It was worth it though; the pools were impressive, if horribly smelly.

We finished our day with a change of clothes and a calming drink inside the motorhome, looking out the window across the impressive panorama that stretched from the down into the valley below. Bliss.

The afternoon of the next day we were back in San Francisco. Luke wanted to ride his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Never mind that it was foggy, freezing and blowing a gale. We parked on the northern side and put on every piece of warm clothing we owned and then set off, making our way along the specially reserved cycleway on the right hand side. It was quite an experience to stand on the bridge with the foghorn vibrating the massive steel girders beneath our feet. Tankers and freighters travelled below, one accompanied by a tugboat called the Millenium Falcon. We rode across and then along the bay foreshore to Chrissy Park. Thankfully the fog blew away for a while, allowing us to enjoy the sunset on our return journey.

After camping for free in a Walmart on the outskirts of San Francisco, we made a snap decision to head for the coast and look at Santa Cruz. I had no idea what we'd find there but the lady at the local information office said that they were feeding sea lions down at the wharf. Finding a good park a few blocks away, we rode down to the beach and into one of the best days of our tour. In the bright sunshine we wandered onto the large wharf stretching out into Monterey Bay, the sparkling blue ocean stretching into the distance. The sea lions lay about on floating pontoons and were very amusing, as were the giant seagulls and pelicans.

We settled in for a seafood lunch and Luke tasted his first clam chowder. After a couple of drinks we lazily made our way over to the Boardwalk on the beach. This is a huge fun park full of rides including a 100 year old carousel and the roller coaster that featured in the film The Lost Boys. By luck they were having a promotion where all rides only cost $1 after 5pm on a Monday. So I dragged Luke onto the roller coaster and we did a fair bit of screaming. After that I was left to go on the rides by myself, which I did eagerly, grinning like a fool and feeling like a kid all over again.

We set off south the next day and spent a couple of days at Monterey, riding our bikes and admiring the seals and sea otters. On the Fourth of July holiday we booked a berth on a whale watching boat. Despite seeing four blue whales, a dozen humpbacks and an albatross, the trip wasn't a huge success, mainly due to Luke losing his lunch over the side in the unstable conditions.

I did get to have another childhood wish fulfilled that evening thanks to the availability of fireworks in the US on the Fourth of July. I bought myself a couple of "Purple Rain" crackers at one of the roadside stands and was stupidly excited at the idea of being able to light them without being arrested.  At dusk we found ourselves in a carpark just over the county border (where it was legal) with dozens of other people, all letting off bags full of fireworks. By the time it was dark there were explosions all around us and large numbers of excited kids were happily wielding vials of gunpowder like little demons. I'm pleased to report there were no injuries. It was fantastic and I truly wish we could still do it in Australia.

After another couple of days travelling down the coast we finally handed our motorhome back to the Cheapa Campa rental place. It was a very simple process and the staff were helpful and friendly. We then rode our Walmart bikes 20km to the beach at Marina Del Rey where our hotel was booked.

The next day was my birthday and we spent it riding our bikes to Santa Monica and back. I'm sad to say that I didn't get the summery birthday I'd planned. The rest of the continental US was having heatwaves but California stubbornly stayed cold, with temperatures hanging around 20 degrees celsius. It would have been warmer at home in Queensland. So I didn't swim, despite my best intentions. Indeed, our trip taught me that summer in California may be sunny but that doesn't mean it's warm. And there's no place like home.

Still, I did have the experience of a lifetime and saw so many amazing and beautiful things over there. America is abundant in natural wonders and our four week trip only allowed us to scratch the surface. There's still so many things I can't wait to see and I'm keen to hire a motorhome and do it again one day.

And if you're thinking of doing it, I can only say: go. Take the plunge. You'll love every minute and you'll have memories to last a lifetime.

And if you go, try Cheapa Campa. They were great.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aerosmith in Philadelphia!

21st July 2012

Woke up in Washington. Got a bit lost, missed the turn, ended up in Crystal City near the airport. But a long course correction saw us smack bang in the middle of a traffic jam that didn't really end until we got to Philadelphia.

Drove on tollways through green countryside. Would have been nice to check it out but there was no time. Went to Chipotle for lunch, it really is great food. Then we ended up in Walmart again and Luke bought a new bag. We figured we'd just pay extra baggage rather than try and stuff everything into our existing bags.

Wandered around Costco as well, went in the out door. This meant we were greeted cheerfully as we left by a large black guy asking us how we were doing. It wasn't quite “Hi welcome to Costco, I love you” but it was close. Inside there was a woman demonstrating a vacuum cleaner by running it endlessly over a small rug. I think the welcome guy has it good.

Finally got into Philadelphia at about 5pm. The city seemed quite pleasant after the freeways. We had to pay $25 for parking which was disappointing. Doubletree by Hilton was all very swish. At reception I asked: “This has breakfast included, right?” The woman then went off and came back with a voucher for free breakfast. Win.

Lots of people were in the hotel for the concert. Also lots were dressed up for weddings and classical music concerts across the road. After a small nap we found the metro and headed off to the Wells Fargo Stadium. The guard who sold us the tokens was exasper-wrousy but he knew where we were going. Only Aerosmith fans on the train. We ended up chatting with a couple who had been to see them in the early 80s. Not so many young fans. Oh, I feel old.

At the metro station we paid $15 for a bootleg t-shirt, just because it was funny. The name was spelled right but I'm sure the quality won't be great.

Got there at about 7.45 so by the time we got food and drinks Cheap Trick had well and truly started. We paid $10 for a philly cheesesteak and it was really awful. Had to add a lot of pickles to make it worth eating. This is meant to be the prize dish of Philadelphia? I think they need a new one.

Cheap Trick played a lot of songs I didn't know but they did do The Flame, I Want You To Want Me and the Dream Police. Didn't do If You Want My Love or That 70s Song. Guitarist came out with a 4 necked guitar which was pretty amusing.

Thanks to wine I got to queue for the ladies about 4 times and made some friends in the process. People in Philly are very talkative. Once back in the stadium I ended up chatting to the guy next to me. He was a returned soldier, had been in Afghanistan in 2010. We talked politics a bit, I said that I think the US needs to take care of their soldiers better. He said “Yeah, but you have to help yourself as well.” He said he was currently on a disability pension and that he was being well looked after. This contrasts with the various negative things we've seen about veterans all over the US.

And then it was time and Aerosmith came on. Had this moment of “Oh my god, it's really them!” when Steven Tyler and Joe Perry came out. Both were looking fairly agile although Tyler is 64 and hobbles a bit.

They played their newer 80s-90s songs first but then did brand new stuff and also older 70s hits so I didn't know all of their songs. Also a couple of covers. Still great. Danced to Rag Doll but spent most of the concert sitting down. Luke had a sore knee.

After two hours it was all over, only one encore. I wanted more but that was it. We hung back hoping to find leftover merchandise then wandered over to the train. Easy peasy, hardly anyone on it. Got back to the hotel and I was completely wired, partly due to the concert but also because I'd stupidly had a coffee at 6pm before we went. So had a hot chocolate which had aspartame in it. Even more wired. Finally turned out the lights at 1.30am but was up again at 3am thanks to the hideously uncomfortable bed. Had the worst. Night. Ever. Woke up with severe neck and back pain. Mentioned the crap bed to the reception, they didn't care, told me the beds were new but “I'll mention it to housekeeping.” So free breakfast but no sleep. Not so good.

Now... back to NY.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Air and Space Museum, Washington

18th July 2012

Washington: Hilton Garden Inn. Good night's sleep for me but Luke was still exhausted. Attempted to make coffee for breakfast but all the water fell straight throught the machine. We told reception, the guy who was 7 foot tall gave us a free breakfast each. NICE.

After much indecision as to whether we should stay another night we set off into the blistering heat (38 degrees) and took the Metro to the National Air and Space museum. Lots of food trucks lined up nearby but not many customers, too hot.

The museum is free and fabulous. You walk into the foyer and there it is, the Apollo 11 command module (capsule), the real thing that splashed back to earth after they landed on the moon. The museum is chockers with amazing space relics like the lunar module, space suits, satellites, a replica of the Hubble Telescope, Sputnick, nuclear missiles plus the Spirit of St Louis and the original Wright Brothers aircraft.

An army band gave a free concert at midday so we had the pleasure at looking at the Hubble and its images to glorious string classical music. Looked at the docked Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft while they played on.

Also saw a moon buggy and all the various bits and pieces that went on the Apollo missions including Old Spice!

I just adored the whole thing. I felt like that little kid who saw pictures of Mars in 1977 and became entranced with space. And I kept thinking of this, which used to play on the ABC as a filler before the Goodies:

We were both pretty exhausted when we left and headed off to the Natural History museum. There was lightning and thunder in the distance. Went through a sculpture garden before it started to rain. Got into the museum just as the storm broke. Looked at dinosaurs, stuffed things, the Hope Diamond, lots of gems and an exhibited on the Titanoboa, largest snake ever.

After that we dragged ourselves up a few blocks until we found a nice French restaurant, had a kir, foie gras, French Onion soup, Luke had some really nice lamb brains with lemon caper butter. Mmm.

Got back to the hotel, Luke went straight to sleep. I've been on the PC, uploading pics and trying to get us a room for Friday.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

At The Met

11 July 2012

Still a bit LA jetlagged.

We planned to do the Statue of Liberty today but it said the weather would be cloudy so instead we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another ticket in the Citypass booklet.

It was still a warm day and it was a pleasant enough walk to the museum through Central Park. Chased a couple of squirrels and didn't get too lost, except when we walked along an extra block.

Once inside I headed to an exhibition on nudes in photography which was rather fascinating. A lot of the original nude photos were "figure studies" for painters - it was cheaper to have a photo of a model in a single pose than to have her coming into the studio all the time. Still, the small collection showcased censorship in all its myriad forms.

Spent a fair bit of time in the 19th century galleries, enjoying the impressionists, especially the pastels of Degas and of course Monet's bridge and lilies (no frogs). Pissaro's images of France looked just like our cycling trip. We also clocked up another couple of Van Gogh's including a gorgeous sunflower painting and the Field one. Took a photo of the self portrait with rabbit ears.

We had hot dogs for lunch from the stands out the front, operated as a kind of charity for wounded American soldiers. We can't believe the US treats its veterans so badly, especially when they spend so much on wars and people drive around with "support our troops" magnet ribbons on their cars. What crap. Hot dog was nice, though. Luke made the mistake of ordering extra "chili" and was given mince meat with hot chili flavour on top of the frankfurter. Ew.

After a coffee we perused the American paintings (Washington Crossing The Delaware is heading in the wrong direction) and then looked at the guns, swords and armory. Very Highlander. Luke said it's the only museum we've been to with guns on display.

Also checked out the ancient instruments and then did a quick runner through the European masters gallery, clocked up a few more Rembrandts and Vermeers. We had 15 minutes to find the Salvador Dali's and didn't really get to enjoy the Surrealism stuff before the rude security guards herded us out. We nearly walked out with the audio guide, perhaps we should have kept it.

5.30pm saw us walking back through central park, tipping a saxophone playing busker and being horrified at the GIANT turtle in the boat lake (along with a whole herd of smaller turtles). Then it was up the hill to Strawberry fields, where the John Lennon "Imagine" memorial mosaic is. Lots of people having photos taken but also a very pleasant, quiet and relaxed vibe. Luke admired a silly dog for a while and I had a Strawberry Shortcake ice cream, like a weird Gaytime.

On a whim walking off we bought a few bottles of cider, went back to the benches and had a drink with John Lennon. Very nice. there was an old couple there just enjoying the vibe - except the lady absolutely barked at someone who was riding their bike through the area: "you get off that bike right now!!" We also saw someone walk over the top of the flower-strewn memorial - everyone was suitably horrified but no lynchings took place.

After our drinks we walked north to the Indian restaurant on Amsterdam st for dinner. Not too bad although the waiter poured the water like he was Riff Raff. Worse were the two American women right near us talking at the top of their voices about the most inane stuff, interspersed with a lot of "like I said, like, you know, like..." In the end they were the only ones talking in the whole restaurant, the rest of us suffered in silence. Finally they went away. Phew.

Tonight was Manhattanhenge, when the sun lines up with the east-west grid streets. We didn't get the full experience because there were a few too many trees but we got the idea.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


10th July 2012

Had a very slow first morning in New York. After being awake at 3am trying to deal with the noisy window air conditioner we slept in, partly due to jet lag. NY is 3 hours ahead of LA.

Our breakfast was sugary granola bars and coffee, supplied gratis by the hotel which is nice. After a bit of trip planning and facebooking, we finally got organised to leave by about 12.

To make life easy, we opted to go to the Natural History Museum, which is about 4 blocks walk away. After our first NY hotdog (you can live on it... but it tastes like shit) we stood in line for half an hour before discovering we were in the wrong line. The full experience. Second line was at least shorter. We have bought a NY City Pass for $89 each, gives us entry into 6 different things. It means our days are planned, at least.

The museum is in a rather old building and oddly set out. This means we missed quite a few of the exhibits, having got lost a few times. We started by perusing the stuffed American mammal gallery. This is the closest we've come to seeing bears, mountain lions and beavers and raccoons... and skunks. I discovered that the USA isn't rife with prowling big cats as I'd previously thought. Cougars, pumas, panthers and mountain lions are all the same animal. There ARE jaguars, although they're more in Mexico.

Took some amusing photos patting the larger stuffed animals.

Part of our city pass included a showing of the "Journey to the Stars" movie. We were a bit skeptical about what this was and expected it to be pretty dumbed down but it was a pleasant surprised. You sit facing up to a 180 degree white dome and they project a fab 3D movie about the history of the universe onto it. A bit like Monty Python's "Galaxy Song" but without the live liver transplants. Whoopi Goldberg narrated it which naturally caused us to quote Ghost ("Damn woman! What'd you do to your hair?"). The 3D thing was a bit sickening at times and resembled what it feels like when I'm having a vertigo attack.

After the movie we had a delayed lunch in the cafeteria and then hurried up to our original destination - the dinosaur bones on the top floor. The NY Museum is the number one place to see dinosaur fossils and it didn't disappoint. There were so many it was rather crowded. Got to see all the favourites - the stegosaur, triceratops, brontosaurus and of couse the Tyrannosaurus. It's the only actual fossil skeleton of a T-rex on display in the world. 20 years ago they rebuilt the skeleton so that it was no longer standing upright in that old-fashioned classic t-rex pose. They now think it stood in a more horizontal fashion with it's tail off the ground. The whole thing is marvellously impressive, as is the giant Brontosaurus - which has another official name that I can't remember. They also rebuilt it to make sure the tail was off the ground.

There were lots of other lovely beasts - Chasosaurus (Kazosaurus) has a lot of horns which I rather liked. And the raptor was posed in a rather hilarious fashion.

The museum closed at 5.45 before we'd seen everything. We then went for a wander through the streets of the Upper West Side, went down to see the Dakota Building where John Lennon was shot. There's no memorial or marker there, just security guards making sure you don't stand in the driveway. Walked back up Broadway and strolled along Amsterdam looking at restaurants. Opted for Thai before coming back to the hotel. We're both feeling a bit spacey and pre-flu. We may have picked up something on the plane yesterday. I guess tomorrow we'll see if it's just a passing illness or something more serious.

Monday, July 9, 2012

From LA To New York

9th Jul 2012

Terrible night at the Radisson. We were sweaty and sticky and the air conditioner kept turning itself on and off regularly. The "sleep number" beds weren't that comfy either. You can pump them up to be hard to let them down to be soft but mine went about halfway and thus I slept on an angle. Managed about 5 hours sleep all up.

Dragged ourselves up at 5.30am and made it into the transfer bus, jam packed in with a bunch of others. Thankfully it got us there by 6.20 or so. Then we entered Delta Hell. Problem one: can't check in with the computer kiosk because it insists we buy extra luggage and then rejects our credit card. We solve this by heading to talk to a real person. She helpfully fixes the problem (I'd already paid the $25 per bag fee) and then tells us to check our bags. Without thinking, I send mine off first, forgetting it's unlocked. Then, as it's tootling off down the conveyor belt, Luke weighs his.

Nope, she says. That's 14 pounds overweight. It's 50 pounds per bag.

But hang on, we say. My bag was 14 pounds lighter.

Nope, she says. It's on a per-bag basis, you can't net weigh them.

Cue the swearing.

Well, bring back Karen's bag, Luke says.

Nope, she shrugs. It's gone. That'll be $90 for the overweight bag.

Thankfully she lets us repack the bag. We've accumulated a lot of extra weight while in the RV including bottles of wine, kitchen utensils, bike locks and food. We throw away a tin of Milo and shampoo and conditioner. We stuff dirty clothes and other items into our carryons. We get frustrated and sweaty but eventually it's all out of Luke's bag and it tips the scales at 50 pounds.

Problem solved. We hope.

Off we go to Gate 68B, way down the end of a long hallway and line up for our little bit of US security theatre. Shoes off, belts off, jackets off, everything in the trays, then it's backscatter x-ray time. Both of us opt out, preferring the pleasant idea of a feeling-up to the uncertainty of backscatter radiation. Except the female feel-up-person doesn't arrive. I wait and I wait and my stuff is piling up unattended at the end of the conveyor built. In the meantime Luke has a pleasant enough interaction with a feel-up person with no hard feelings. He didn't even tell them to not touch his junk.

Eventually I gave up and just put myself through the scanner. Here's hoping they don't find out a single dose causes major damage.

We squashed onto the plane along with a tour load of Japanese kids who were rather badly behaved. Took off and headed east. I'd planned to sleep but the view out the window kept me awake - acres of desert, Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains... glorious stuff. I couldn't help but feel amazed that people would keep their blinds down as we flew over it. But then it got cloudy so I took a nap.

We changed planes at Cincinatti after a sideways landing. Hi. I'm in cincinatti. Piled immediately onto a much nicer plane with less people and wider seats. This time we flew over farmland and constantly populated countryside.

The landing into La Guardia was fairly hairy, full of sharp drops, steep turns and sudden touchdown on a runway that was only just there. Had a few heebie jeebie moments, imagining what it was like for those people on the 9/11 planes.

Once landed we collected our bags and arranged a shuttle bus. Shared it was a family from Iowa who were in to see the big city. Luke made them laugh by promising not to molest the large truck driver who was forced to sit next to him. They were an amusing cliche, the teenage daughter hating every moment, the little girl laughing at horses and not shutting up. Good fun.

We dropped them at Times Square and headed to the Upper West Side where Hotel Belleclaire is. The hotel is undergoing renovation, hence the cheap rooms. It's an old building but the rooms are swish, nice beds, hardwood floors, renovated bathrooms, though a bit small. Only problem is the in-window air-conditioner. Loud enough to wake the dead. Here's hoping the heatwaves stay away.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Riding Across The Golden Gate Bridge

1st July 2012

Took our time at the Mineral RV Park, especially because we decided to do the washing and two of the dryers were broken. Luke passed the time by getting involved in his first romance novel. He liked it so much he decided to “borrow” it.

The Mineral RV Park was a winner, nice quiet place with shady trees and a cute little single toilet and shower in the bathroom – with shower door. We were still in the mountains and it obviously snows a lot as the laudromat has a sign warning of avalanches coming off the roof.

We left at 12.30 and headed towards the main freeway that runs down California. Once out of the mountains we were back to brown dry grass and warm weather. At Red Bluff we went looking for lunch and a coffee. Starbucks provided the latter and we thought we'd try a Mexican fast food place called Burrito Bandito for the food. I had a “kid's size” bean burrito which was just as huge as an adult size one. Only difference, not much flavour. It only had beans and cheese. Luke discovered the joy of quesadillas.

I think I've decided that Mexican food here is often just kebabs wrapped differently.

We got on Interstate 5 and headed for Monterey. Except that as we approached San Francisco again we made a flash decision to head into Marin County and attempt the ride over the Golden Gate Bridge again. It was 6pm.

Girl in background outdoes my 'laugh with a turn' pose
It was nice and sunny... until within about 1km of the bridge. Then: massive fog, a gale and freezing cold temperatures. We managed to find a park on the right hand side of the Northern section, rugged up in our thermals and raincoats and set off. It wasn't what you would call a pleasant bike ride but it was still brilliant. The views from the bridge are impressive, even with fog. The bridge was sounding it's foghorn which made the whole structure vibrate. We were on the bike-only footpath which meant we were sharing the space with a lot of lycra warriors, some of whom I annoyed by pulling out in front of them without looking. Ah well. The bridge has intermittent emergency telephones that will connect you to suicide prevention counselors  It also has lots of spots of red paint on the concrete. You could feel it swaying in the wind. The cables are HUGE and the traffic is really close to the edge.

On the other side we took some obligatory photos and then headed off for a ride along the foreshore to Chrissy Field. I need to look up the history on this. It seemed to be privately owned until the couple gave it up to the public for enjoyment. We didn't bother to put our hands in the water... I knew it would be cold. Pleasant enough ride, although we had a headwind going back and a lot of it was uphill. The mountain bike gears helped a lot. The beachside path was busy despite the weather and late hour. Lots of people jogging and one guy flying a paua kite.

The ride back over the bridge didn't seem as windy and the foghorns weren't going. We watched a huge cargo ship go under the bridge, accompanied by a tug called the Millenium Falcon. Delusions of grandeur.

Back in the RV (and warming up) we decided to just head over the bridge, pay the $6 toll and brave it through the middle of SF to go south. Turned out to be easier and quicker than expected. I guess Sunday night traffic isn't too bad. We managed to find a park in a suburb south of Strawberry Fields and had Indian/Pakistani for dinner. Nice food but no alcohol served. I guess they were Muslims. It may explain why there were no other diners there, just lots of takeaway orders. Although maybe that was because it was late.

Dinner done we hurtled off down the freeway to see how far we could get. Tired, we decided to go to the Walmart at Palo Alto which was actually a lot further east than expected. But we had a good night's sleep and were left alone.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lassen National Park

30 June 2012

Another wonderful day has been had. Woke up relatively early to a cold morning and headed out of the crowded campground to the official museum. Watched a 20 minute movie full of stock photos of vulcanism but it made a few interesting points. One of the quotes talked about how national parks are silent and invoke deep thought. Uh, yeah.

The museum was originally built by Mr Loomis, the photographer who captured the 1915 eruption. He and his wife had the same name and their only daughter died in the flu epidemic. Their impressive series of 6 photos took 20 minutes to take. We figured he didn't look at the back of the camera to see how the pic went.

While we were there a young girl was officially inducted into the Junior Ranger program, given a little lecture by the info booth attendant and it was all very solemn. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or rather creepy.

We drove off on our highway trip but before long we'd stopped to take photos at the Chaos Jumbles, a massive rockpile leftover from a rockslide 350 years ago. The trees are only just growing back.

We also visited the Devastated Area where mudslides and pyroclastic flows had ruined a huge amount of the hillside in 1915. Lots of boulders and old photos but it didn't look as devastated as we thought. I guess 100 years makes a difference.

The highway wound upwards. We stopped at the Hat Creek Meadow and wondered if the buildup of sticks was evidence of beavers or floods. The meadows are gorgeous, very Keats, although rather boggy. Luke waded in the stream but not for long.

We stopped on the side of the road when we hit the first snowline and Luke decided to jump around on the slushy pile without shoes on. It gave him an icecream headache in his feet.

Further on we contemplated walking to Kings Falls but it was a 4km round trip so we thought we'd save it for Bumpass Hell. We DID walk up Mt Lassen, two switchbacks worth. Very beautiful. Who'd have thought we'd be in snow in summer? The trail is being improved so it is only open for a few days this year. Today was the first of those days so the carpark was full and it was very busy.

Down the hill was a frozen lake, still thawing and then around the corner was the carpark for Bumpass Hell. This is the walk to the thermal areas, 5km round trip. Carpark was also full, had to squeeze the RV into a spot but it was OK.

The very start of the walk involved sliding down a builtup bit of snow. One rather large lady chickened out at that point. Luke nearly fell over immediately. We set off very carefully after that.

The walk was beautiful, went past lots of impressive vistas, uphill for a fair way and crossing patches of snow. The further we went, the more snow there was. Some bits were very tricky and you had to concentrate so as not to fall over (or off a cliff). We were wishing we'd had hiking shoes. My sneakers started to get pretty wet and my jeans were snow filled.

¾ of the way along we encountered a family where a little girl was having a hugely loud tantrum. “NO! I'm cold, I don't wanna, I'm not walking anymore, I hate this!” We laughed for a while but the parents looked so frazzled and she had wet feet so we felt a bit of sympathy. Also saw a family with two teenage girls. “I wish I was at the beach,” whined one. “We wish you were at the beach too,” said the dad.

Finally made it after some seriously slippery and scary bits. The thermal area smells like sulphur so Luke took the opportunity to do a lot of farting. There's a huge fumerole – steam vent – that's been getting larger over the last century. Made lots of boiling noises. The mud pots weren't very muddy, more watery, which was a bit disappointing. There was a boiling pool with iron pyrite floating on it. Amazing.

We were beaten to the pools by a family with two small boys, one of them carried in a backpack. The Dad had ended up carrying them both most of the way. Family of the year. Except the elder kid was called Trevor.

I put my finger into one of the streams... it was very warm but didn't burn me. Felt acidic though.

We finally turned and headed back. The return trip was a lot easier, mainly because we were climbing up the snow rather than trying not to fall down it.

Got back to the carpark and enjoyed a drink while looking at the gorgeous view. It was 6pm by then and very cold but a number of people were heading off on the track at that stage. Brave, I think.

We wound our way back down the mountain and decided to stop at Volcano Country RV Park in Mineral, very simple but nice place off the road, $25.

Right now it's 1st July and I'm waiting for Luke to do the washing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fascinating Detours

McKinley and Trinity River at Big Bar 
28th June 2012

Sleeping at Safeway wasn't perfect due to trucks delivering stuff all night but a pair of earplugs helped a lot. Nobody stole our bikes. A homeless guy slept in his TINY Toyota Hilux nearby and Luke says he saw a couple pull up after 11pm and smoke a joint having suspiciously pulled the stash out of their gas tank.

We headed off with the full intention of striking off East on Highway 299 but the tourist info book said there was a good biking trail at McKinley, just north of Eureka. The Hammond Trail is about 10 miles long and runs along the coast, often on a paved ex-railway line. After giving up on one parking spot because a shifty guy wearing only socks was hanging around, we put the RV in a very upright, clean street with basketball hoops on the edges of the gutters. This suburb was very high class, thank you, right near the beach, with two story wooden houses right out of The Birds.

We released the bikes and headed off on a very pleasant, if rather mundane, 10km bike ride along the shore. It was mostly beside the highway but we got to see some new flowers, birds and homeless people on the way. We pushed our bikes across the endless dunes (in single file, to hide our numbers) until we got to the beach. The Pacific on this side is pretty murky looking and the sand is almost black, with a quick-sandish feel to it. Nonetheless, people were in their swimmers and kids were happily building castles. We tootled along the tideline on our bikes, avoiding giant seagulls, but it was cold and the beach was endless so we turned around and headed back.

Made it up the gravel hill... just.

It was a nice ride and we decided not to do the full thing, intending to fill the rest of our day with driving the arduous mountain track that is 299.

Off we went through countryside that resembles Bli Bli... like all ex-forested land, I suspect. Then it was into the windy stuff, miles and miles of endless mountain curves, interspersed with campsites and old mining towns.

The road tracked with the Trinity River throughout all this spectacular scenery and as we went I started taking photos out the side window, admiring the pure green clear water and all of its rapids. Eventually I said “I think it would be nice to raft on this river.”

Within a few miles we'd happened on Big Bar, where two white water rafting companies were operating. It was 3pm and I didn't think we'd be able to do it but we pulled in to ask. The Trinity Rafting Co was a laid back office with a bunch of hippies in residence. We expressed concern about the cold water and so they threw in a free wetsuit for me with the $69 experience ($65 plus RIVER tax... plus tip). We were feeling adventurous so decided to go ahead.

After kitting out in swimmers, wetsuit, life jacket and helmet I looked pretty silly but never mind that... I was about to do some level 3 rapids. Which sounded fairly scary – especially when our guide (who'd recently been to Australia) told us what to do when the boat flipped over.

Still, we steeled ourselves, survived the van trip upstream and soaked up every bit of safety info Pete had to give us. Luckily his new bride of 2 years came long for the ride so we figured he wouldn't risk her too much.

We hopped in the small inflatable raft, gripped our oars and set off. The initial set of rapids were piss easy, giving us a false sense of security, I suspect. Pete pointed out scenery and we talked travelling. The first big rapid saw me get fairly wet so I was glad of the wetsuit. We coped well, paddling our way through the major waves and dips. Then came the Hellhole. It was pretty scary. I nearly fell out, Luke fell into the middle of the boat but we didn't get dunked. Thank goodness. The water was freezing.

After that we felt fairly brave and survived the next few big Level 3 rapids. Stopped and had beer and chips and salsa on a little beach. We also saw two minks, a rare sight. They look like tiny brown otters. And a bald eagle, although we couldn't give him much attention since the rapids were approaching.

We made it through without drowning, although by the end I was very wet and cold. But it was fantastic. The river is gorgeous.

Having tipped our guide heavily we set off because Luke thought he might like to get the rest of the drive done. I suggested we check out the Pigeon Point campground. It wasn't what we needed but by then I'd opened the chardonnay... so we headed back to the RV park near Trinity rafting. This dusty tiny strip by the road is also right on the river so we can't even hear the traffic. We have spent the evening drinking by the rapids. We probably should have cooked dinner but who cares when there's the most gorgeous river RIGHT THERE.

I wonder if we'll sleep OK with this rapids noise right there.

All up, a wonderful day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ancient Redwoods

27th June 2012

I may have had a tiny hangover at the Ancient Redwoods RV Park but never mind that. We had a slow morning mucking about on the internet before finally getting moving at midday, having finally dried the washing.

We retraced our steps south on the Avenue of the Giants and came to the Women's Groups of America heartstone. These ladies knew the value of a campfire. This is a four-sided outdoor fireplace, with four hearths under shelting eaves, great for a bit of singing. The grove is a big day use area for picnickers and swimming. The river was being owned by four screaming teenage girls, although we noticed a gaggle of teen boys on the far bank, huddled around what looked like an iphone. Porn, I guess. The river had a temporary bridge over it which we crossed just for fun (“What is your favourite colour?” "What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"). The Eel River is floody in winter but relaxed in summer with wide gravel banks on either side of the water. Lots of skimming fun.

After we left there we headed up the hill to the Rockefeller forest which has the really big trees. Got to the carpark and promptly set up a pleasant picnic in the shade, French Lunch under the redwoods. Then we did a small hike, about 4km, to the official campground and back. Sites there cost $35 with no hookups and some people had a cage full of yappy dogs so we decided against that. After that we went and admired the Giant Tree, the largest tree in the world by height. It was big. A little tired we headed off and decided we'd seen our share of redwoods.

We drove to Eureka which is actually a bit dingy. Had fairly boring Mexican food for tea and retired to the Safeway supermarket carpark for the night. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stuffing Around Sonoma

25th June 2012

Woke up late. Discovered Sugarloaf was supposed to be alcohol free. Hah. Hung about but it was REALLY COLD so we just had to leave.

Lots of stuffing around. Driving north, went to look at Lake Sonoma, too hilly, dry and dusty campground. Also wasted time driving to KOA which was $55 a night and still offered a shitty dry and dusty campground. Went to Fritz winery which has underground cellars. Couldn't see them on a Monday. Great wines though.

Finally gave up and headed north, ate dinner in a parking lot in Ukiah before driving on to Willits (what chu talkin' 'bout?) and by chance parking in a nice quiet spot at the Fairgrounds.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Screw You, San Francisco

24th June 2012 - Sonoma Wine Country

Screw you, San Francisco. Tired of the ripped off feeling from $82 a night Candlestick park and feeling disinclined towards braving the million-strong crowds at Pride on the Sunday, we bailed. I thought we MIGHT try Alcatraz but learned it was all booked out except for a Monday 9.30am tour. 

So we thought we'd high tail it to the Golden Gate Bridge and ride our bikes across it. Except it was really cold and windy and the parking lot was jammed. Luke said we could have parked at another place at the bottom of the hill but by then I was over it.

I felt really upset that it had all gone so badly and also that we should have done the bike thing. But jeez, this is supposed to be a holiday, not work. So to hell with it.

After a bit of driving we stopped at Petaluma for supplies then went on to Sonoma. The area is very pleasant and we finally felt relaxed for the first time in a couple of days.

Lonely Planet book guided us to Kaz Winery which is a tiny place that offers weird varieties. The owner was an interesting guy. Bought a hat and a strange wine. 

Also went to Loxton which is run by an Aussie, their wines were nicer. Feeling very pleasant we took the advice of the Loxton wine laides and climbed the hill to Sugarloaf rec area which was nearly empty, windswept, cold and beautiful. Drank a lot of wine while eating dill pickled flavoured chips. Love them! Enjoyed dinner parked by the creek, slept well.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Crowded Mandalay Bay

17th June 2012 Las Vegas again

The aircon in the RV is very LOUD so you can be cool and deaf or hot and calm. We survived the night, checked out of the Lake Mead park and headed into Vegas, 50km away.

We turned up at the Atomic Testing Museum only to discover that it didn't open until midday, as did many other things. Sunday. The churches were full, the roads were quieter. It's American Father's Day as well, so Happy Father's Day Dad.

Instead of the museum we opted for Walmart to find more supplies (tongs! A potato masher! Why aren't these considered standard kitchen items anywhere?) and wasted more time wandering the massive warehouse shelves.

Finally got to Mandalay Bay hotel and put the RV in the massive convention centre carpark. I hope it's still there. Very hot 300m walk to the hotel. There was a long queue to check in and that set the scene for the rest of the day. We are on level 17 at the end of a long corridor that looks disarmingly like it belonged in The Shining. Nice big room and bathroom, nuclear powered toilet (this thing creates a vacuum of air when you flush it).

Had a late lunch, I went back up to the room while Luke bought coffee and got caught in a 100-person queue for the elevators. Then finally made it down to the pools.

What a nightmare.

The place was absolutely teeming with people. The hotel has a “beach” complex with 5 pools including a wave pool and a “river” which is essentially a loop with a self-sustaining whirlpool (whirlpool! Whirlpool!) Brilliant fun except that it was chock full of bodies, screaming kids keen to kick you and fat adults clinging to inflatable donuts. Zealous lifeguards blew whistles, thumping music blared, the concrete was too hot to walk on and the heat was almost unbearable out of the water. I'd had this foolish idea that I could spend an afternoon lazing by the pool here but it was utterly out of the question. Every single lounge chair (of which there were thousands) was taken. All of them were in full sun anyway. It was loud and crowded and unpleasant and it made me squint.

We had a go in the wave pool, did four laps of the lazy river and gave up. In theory we could have gone into the topless pool as I got it free with the room but the ads in the lift suggested it was a great place for guys to perve on women... not the vibe we wanted.

So we bailed.

By then it was 5pm and time to find a happy hour drink. Ended up at the House Of Blues which was neither house-y or blues-y. More just boring bar-y, with sport on the television and an uninspired booze list.

After a few drinks we went through to the Luxor which is a giant hollow pyramid hotel (very impressive architecture) and went into the Bodies exhibition. This is where they have preserved real human bodies with chemicals and plastic so you can look at bones, nerves, muscles and arteries. Amazing stuff. All the specimens were from China and they all had black lungs, either from smoking or from the smog over there.

We had planned to ride our bikes up and down the strip but got too lazy and opted for a late dinner and then some net surfing. And now it's midnight and time to sleep.

Route 66 and Lake Mead

16th June 2012
Why yes, the sun DOES shine out of it

The sun was up at 5am and so was I. The question was: did I want to get up and enjoy the Grand Canyon again since I'd only be here once in my life... or did I want to stay in bed?

Bed won.

We didn't get up until 8am and then we made the decision to just head off without doing anymore sightseeing. Wasteful, perhaps, but we had such a good day yesterday that it wasn't a big deal.

Headed back the way we came, arriving at Williams around 11am. We thought we'd stroll around the place and see what it had to offer. In essence, it's a Route 66 tourist dive with a lot of souvenir shops and a traffic jam (not helped by 4 way stop sign intersections which are very confusing and worse if you're a pedestrian). There were a couple of old servos that had been turned into restaurants and they looked nice. Luke had a quick coffee, we visited the tourist info centre and headed off, thinking we'd do a bit of Route 66 instead of the interstate.

We turned into Seligman which is the start of the longest unbroken section of old Route 66 left. The town is dusty, one street long and features several diners and souvenir stores. The Snowcap looked too full so we went to the Roadkill cafe, where the slogan is “You Kill It, We Grill It.” The menu was amusing, all the items were called things like “Racoon Roast” and "Squashed Skunk Special". But it was just basic road food. Luke had a buffalo meat hamburger and I had onion rings.
Today's lesson: don't have the onion rings

Was very average food. In fact, half an hour later, I felt pretty sick. Thankfully a beer, obtained from the RV fridge while hurtling along the interstate, made me feel better.

We were back on the interstate because we decided that we'd had enough of Route 66 after the Road Kill Diner. That was probably all we needed to see.

Got along much better than the trip out, mainly because we weren't going 90 or uphill. Before long we were at Hoover Dam and back in 40 degree temperatures. The new bridge across the canyon is impressive and we walked onto that happily and took all the Dam photos we liked.

Then we drove across the dam, discovered that RV parking was $7 and drove back the way we'd come. Took a few Dam photos. The Hoover dam is huge, impressive and amazing but not worth leaving the AC for.
Not long after we turned into Lake Mead recreation area and secured a nice $38 spot in the RV park. We rode our bikes down 1km to the lake shore at about 6pm in searing heat and gratefully went in for a swim. The “beach” is just an accessible stretch of dust on the lake shore with soaring desert mountains in the distance. Nothing grows in this area, even with a dammed lake just there. There were heaps of people swimming, we thought it looked a bit like that scene from Jaws. Thankfully no sharks in this freshwater lake. Smelled just like Keepit.

We swam, opened a beer (I drank chardy from a water bottle) and sat in the shallows, balancing our bums on a couple of old thongs that had been thrown away. Watched the sun set on the mountains, glorious orange and pink panoramas. Very fabulous. Also drank too much wine.

The ride back to the Rv was hard, it was instantly hot and we were going up a hill. Cool shower in order, followed by pasta. It's still about 34 degrees and it's 10pm. This is why we're paying for the RV park: electricity and air conditioning so we can sleep. It seems to take a long time to cool down here in the desert – even with a massive artificial lake nearby.

Tomorrow we go to the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. There have been reports of bedbugs there but i'm going to quiz them  on that. I just want to relax by their pools.

Grand Canyon

15th June 2012

Woke up with first light at 4.30am and dragged our sleepy arses out of bed and onto our new pushbikes. Determined to see the sun rise, we threw a few things into backpacks and headed off. Unfortunately the Grand Canyon park people haven't grasped the idea of providing good bike signage so we got a little lost and didn't quite make it to the rim in time. Still, we saw the sun just as it topped the ridge and got to watch the canyon filling with colour.

It is rather grand.

You can't really describe the sense of immensity, the distance is so great that your eyes tend to flatten out the perspective. It's pretty freaky looking down, though, especially near some of the unfenced steep drops. I had a few attacks of the heebie geebies in places.

We stood on Mather Point, the most popular lookout here, and watched the sun come up, along with a swarm of japanese tourists. They went away after a while so we had a bit more space, were able to do the obligatory National Lampoon's Vacation “look”.

After that we decided to ride to the Kaibob Trailhead and hike down a short way. We didn't have a big water bottle or sunscreen but we had muesli bars and the sun wasn't very high anyway because it was about 5.30am. Also, they provide water at the trailhead, which is nice.

Our new bikes from Walmart were fairly rickety and I had to put up with the horrible narrow seat that came with it (could only put one cheek on it at a time) but they did well enough. The ride along the rim is quite spectacular and all paved so lots of fun.

The altitude here is pretty high – 2100m above sea level. As we discovered, you get puffed really quickly and it's harder to ride or walk. So we took it relatively easy.

Halfway along we came upon a small flock of deer. They weren't shy and didn't flinch when we hurtled up to them. Took some video, carried on. Also saw numerous tiny squirrels. And one very angry Swedish woman who was berating her partner as they walked along the track.

Got to the trailhead, drank far too much water and started down into the canyon. The trail had a lot of switchbacks at the start and was gravelly in places so you had to watch your footing. Also had a lot of mule poo. The view was spectacular and got better once we got to Ooh Aah Point, our destination. Took lots of photos, watched a squirrel, got a bit of vertigo and generally enoyed it. We headed back up when the number of people walking down increased. Wasn't too bad a climb, got back at about 9.15am. Cycled back to the RV with a short stop at the visitor centre. The whole place is very spread out and built up, able to cater to the millions of people that come here. Shuttle buses drive you around the place, lots of parking, shops and restaurants. Just outside the park there's a major town with McDonalds and Imax theatres.

Mather Campground where we're staying is fairly dusty with a lot of pine trees but rather pleasant. Very busy, of course and you are camping right next to people. We had to move the truck from one spot to the next because I couldn't get a consecutive booking. No problem though.

Luke did the washing, I went to bed and had a very large nap during the heat of the day.

We lazed around in the afternoon and decided to have dinner before heading off to look at the sunset. This was probably a mistake as we were a bit late in getting away and naturally became instantly lost on the non-marked bike tracks. We had intended to ride out to Hopi Point but the road involved a massive hill that was pretty hard going in the high altitude.  By the time we made it to a viewpoint the sun was almost gone. Very pretty, of course. We were looking down on Bright Angel Trail, the first path into the canyon, originally forged by the Indians. In the 1920s it was privately owned until the National Parks wrestled it off the bloke who was charging $1 per visitor. The trail runs along a major fault line that bisects the valley.

We both agreed that we'd like to try the hike down to the river. But you have to book a year in advance and be well prepared for it. One day.

Shark Tank Waterslide

14th June 2012

Golden Nugget hotel: Woke early, psyched for the shark tank. Alas, it didn't open until 10am. We consoled ourselves with a breakfast in the smokey cafe and went out to look at the shark tank. The pool deck is massive, covered with recliners and even has several gambling tables. I noticed a brochure at the side of one that said “When the fun is over”. Curious, I went over to read what it had to say, only vaguely aware of an incredibly nasal voice saying “Maam! Maam! Maam!” Turns out the duck-voiced staff member guarding the pool didn't want me near the closed tables. Or -more likely - the casino will go to great lengths to stop you from reading info about not gambling.

Chastised, we went back to our room to do a bit of Facebooking and report on our wedding. Unfortunately intenet was $12 at the hotel so we thought we'd use our unlocked Telstra modem.

We got as far as opening FB before suddenly we went offline. Luke checked things and noticed that we had $0 credit. He rang Telstra and discovered that they charged $15 a mb (not what the Telstra shop people in Gympie had said) and the bill was now $128 for 8mb. I think I managed to get one George Takai pic for that.

Thankfully they agreed to waive the bill and we now know not to use our Australian Telstra modem here.

After that little disaster it was time to go swimming.

Went straight up to the top of the slide and swung into the tube. The waterslide descends 3 stories and a clear section shoots straight through the middle of the massive aquarium, filled with tuna, groper and several massive sharks. We were keen to see the sharks as we went through. Unfortunately, the laws of physics conspired against us. The larger the mass, the faster we went down the slide. The sharks were just a bluey grey blur lasting half a second before we were spat out into the pull with a wedgie and a nose full of pool water.


We did the slide four times, would have probably repeated the experience more but the queue was getting  bigger each time we climbed the stairs and I'd forgotten to put sunscreen on. It was so hot we were almost dry by the time we got to the slide again.

Luke managed to sit up on the last go and slow himself down with his feet so he got a look. We also made friends with a little girl who was having her first go, her grandpa was very nervous about her doing it. We let her cut in front... and so she promptly threw herself in straight after another kid, even though the lifeguard normally makes you wait until the person in front is in the pool (checking via a video camera). She survived with a big grin to show for it.

We only had an hour and a half in the pool, then it was time to leave. The Golden Nugget was pretty crass (awful piped music, smoke, no Rv parking, dreadful d├ęcor and less-than-friendly staff) but the pool made it all worthwhile.

We did the hot, slow walk back to Main Street Station where we'd parked, took our pirate costumes back (after giving some serious consideration to just keeping them) and then headed east. A bit of grocery shopping delayed us, though, as we stopped at Walmart to find more supplies. American food is rather perplexing. All the cheese is orange (there's no camembert!!), the “cereal” aisle consists entirely of Froot Loop clones and everything has high fructose corn syrup in it.

Finally set off. Headed over the Hoover Dam bridge despite strong advisories against high profile vehicles using it due to strong winds. I panicked but Luke was fine.

The trip to the Grand Canyon was 450km or so, a long drive. We travelled across Arizona, steadily climbing the whole way. The landscape went from creosote desert like the mojave to greener uplands, still pretty arid. Saw some flat topped mesas although we're not quite in the right area for that. It was fairly scenic but didn't change much. Looked like Armidale country.

We didn't stop except to rescue the fridge which swung open. We took one small detour into Williams, the town before the Grand Canyon. It is a tourist mecca, lots of restaurants and hotels. Thanks to getting a bit lost, we ended up on Route 66 – for one block. We had to turn around because it was closed off due to a horse festival or something.

The sun was setting as we turned north and travelled the last 80km to the Canyon. Unfortunately we were too late for the sunset so our first look at it was in the near-dark. Not much to see, I admit. Also, cold! Bit of a shock after the 40 degree heat of vegas.

Had French lunch for dinner, very pleasant, and then collapsed into bed.

*Note: I didn't take the above image (it's from here). Our photos from this part of the trip were wiped by the dodgy 65gig card :(