Trip 9 - California Dreamin'

On this trip we set out to immerse ourselves in the culture and the nature of California. To discover its textures and see some of its natural wonders. We discover that California is very big. It is not a state that you can just pass through, it is, more than any other place we have visited, more like another country. It is a land dominated by mountains, the spaces between and like nowhere else, water.
Our start in the heavily populated area to the East of Los Angeles, known as the Inland Empire, is crowded into the lowlands surrounded by magnificent mountains. The feeling is of a cauldron which is trying to boil over the mountains to the fresh air of the rest of the state.
To the South is a band of Desert, which is the buffer to Mexico, which we did not explore on this trip.
We travelled North through the mountains (everywhere in California you can see mountains) to the desert, and on again to the huge Central Valley, mile after mile of intensive agriculture. Culture here is dominated by food, flatness, low income and trying to impact on the 'sameness' of the flat lands through music and festival. It is the communication and administrative corridor that links all other areas of California.
To the East is the huge mountain chain of the Sierra Nevada which clearly demonstrates the magnificence of the natural world, both in its geology and nature, reflected in the pysche and pride of most Californians. It is Eldorado, dominated by Gold!
To the West of the Central Valley are the coastal mountains, San Francisco and the magnificent coast. More isolated cultures, from mixed resources, communities seperated by mountains.
To the North of the Central Valley more mountains and a culture which looks more North towards Oregon than South to Sacremento.
This blog details our journey through California, where we pick and choose, or just scratch the surface, of this diverse and beautiful state.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Spring 2012 - Fun In The Sun

To read about our next trip either go to our 'Home Base' blog
or go directly to the blog page:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

End Game

At San Bernardino RV Park we fell in amongst some really nice people. We have been able to negotiate to leave our trailer on a site for the month we are going to be back home, thus making our exit and re-entry that much easier as we do not have to move the trailer.
Having prepared the TT and T as best we could we entered our 'exit plan phase'.
Sunday Afternoon:
Drive to Ontario airport on Take Off (T) minus 25 hours, to pick up rental car (RC) for 24 hour period.
Return with both vehicles to Base (RTB).
Check In Online.
Encountered first hurdle - They had changed the flight time, but didn't tell us! T would now be 19.15, not 18.00. Ramification being that landing would be at 14.10, not 12.35, making the connection for the 16.00 train at Kings Cross (KX) would be very difficult. We phone Customer Service, who apologise and suggest that we apply for any extra costs which they will possibly reimburse. Our choices are: rebook a later train (now a minumum of an additional £91, to get a train three hours later after the rush hour), go with the plan and hope that we can get to KX by 16.00. Customer Services suggest that the flight will land up to an hour early, so we go with the original plan.
Go for final meal out, as all surfaces and crockery are now clean - We choose Outback Prime Rib for me and Steak and Shrimp for Sally.
Pack car, move trailer to a storage site.
T-7: Drive to LAX
T-4: Return rental car, shuttle to LAX
T-3.45: Bag Drop at Virgin, relax
T-3.30: Return to shuttle to retrieve Sally's Back rest, fortunately
T-0.75 Board plane
T-0: Take off on time!
T+9: Land 1 hour early (L): 1.00p.m. local time
L+45: Whizzed through Heathrow by Assistance, catch 1.48 Heathrow Express (15 min)
L+1: Arrive Paddington St.
L+1.30 Taxi to St Pancreas(SP) (20 min) (close to KX, but so much cleaner and better food, where you can sit civilized)
L+2.15: After relaxing in SP we stroll to KX and get Rail Assist to board East Coast Express (ECX) early.
L+3: ECX leaves on time at 4.00 p.m. local time: (2.22 min)
L+5.30: train 8 minutes late to Darlington. Surprisingly Assist is there to make sure we get connection: One man to get us off East Coast Express and push to other platform, 2 men waiting to board us on local train.
L+5.33: Local train to Middlesbrough (20 mins)
L+ 6:
Helen and Stu meet us at Middlesbrough
L+6.10: Stop for Chinese Takeaway (CTA).
L+6.20: Reach home, relax. eat CTA and sleep.
Total journey time 22.5 hours.
We were so thankful that the plane managed to land an hour early, The Assistance was excellent and worked on every segment of the journey. It made it so much easier. We actually had an hour and a half extra to relax in St Pancras Station.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Back to Los Angeles

We have now arrived back in the Los Angeles area, after a three day drive which has taken us from the coast, on Route 101, through a vine growing region, to Paso Robles. At Paso Robles we stopped at the Fairground, we were the only people there and it was very quiet, though quite exposed as it is really a converted car park. In the evening we went out for a meal to McLintocks, which was just off the rather nice/quaint town square, where we had a plate of the daily special - Tuesday Chicken, a roasted half chicken with 'fixin's', we had one meal between us and an extra salad, which the divided into two plates. We were both full at the end of it. a great meal.
On Wednesday we drove down to the I5 from Paso Robles and then across to Lancaster. The scenery and weather now changed, approaching the I5 the ground became drier and as we rose higher the clouds started to close in. Once on the I5 we started to climb further and became enclosed in quite thick fog. When we headed East to Lancaster we cleared the fog and on looking back we could see that the road through the mountains was indeed covered with cloud. We now travelled through desert on a very straight road, in bright sunshine, but now the wind was increasing and becoming quite gusty, blowing the tumble weed and sand across the road.
In Lancaster we stayed at the Antelope Valley Fairground. Another converted car park with hookups, but OK. Lancaster is quite strange in that it seems to be huge, but with very few houses, as though someone laid out the infrastructure for a large city and no one moved there. Appearances can be deceptive, because the town is laid out on such a grand scale the several thousand people are spread quite thinly. Interesting place.
On Thursday we set out on the third part of our drive, through what I assume is the South Western part of the Mojave Desert, to reach I15 at Victorville and then drop down into San Bernardino, where we had booked a camp site for the weekend so that we can clean and make ready our rig for storage prior to flying home on Monday.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Monteray Bay Life

Click here to see Full Screen
Well we didn't get to the Aquarium but we had a look at the wildlife in the bay, what a lot there is to see!.
On Saturday our first outing was to the Old Fisherman's Wharfe, where we saw surfers on the beach and seals in the the harbour, as well as lots of diving birds, pelicans and gulls, it was great fun. This is where we had a very pleasant cuppa.
On Sunday we ventured past the Aquarium to the Headland. What a beautiful beach, with great Pacific rollers crashing onto the rocky shoreline. We pulled to several of the beachside car parks and could just sit in the van and watch the sea. Close to the beach you could see the tops of the Kelp Forest. Many of the kelp plants have little air sacs at their tips and the often sit at, or even float on, the surface. It is these kelp forests that provide a rich habitat for fish and where fish are you find bigger fish, birds and sea mammals. We were able to watch many diving and wading birds, then about 100 yards offshore we saw a Sea Otter! Sally got a great view of it using the binocculars, but I was disappointed with my photos of them, still we were able to sit and watch it swimming around.
On Monday we set out again to specifically find Sea Otters. We again cruised slowly round the headland, stopping at car parks that were close to the Kelp Forest. The second place we stopped we saw Sea Otters way out on the kelp. This time Sally. using the binocculars, counted four of them. However, as I could not see them very well I was keeping an eye on the rocky shoreline and sure enough an otter swimming along, on its back, with a half eaten crab in its paws, it swum within a few feet of where we were watching from. When it finished that crab it dived down and looked for more food, though it seemed quite content to just gently float round in the quite strong surf. apparently without a care in the world. When that otter had swum away we agian saw otters further out. This was an exciting afternoon which we enjoyed very much.
Tomorrow we leave, but we are planning to return to Monteray to finally visit the Aquarium we were unable to visis this time, but we were very pleased that we had found sea otters in the wild.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monteray Bay: Monday

Well, life has slowed down a little for us, we have stopped as planned in Monteray Bay, but have taken a few days rest before we travel on to store our trailer in San Bernardino. The weather has been great, apart from a storm on Thursday Morning. We have been out for a couple of trips round Monteray Bay, yesterday we sat and watched Sea Otters playing in the Kelp Beds,they are fascinating creatures.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Golden Gate Park

Today is to be our last visit to SFbefore we move on to Monteray. We drove straight through the main part of the city and took Fell St towards the Golden Gate Park but made a short detour along Ashbury to Haight St, to see (but to us quite normal) Haight-Ashbury, made famous by strange myths from the Flower Power Days of the the sixties. Now it is just a row of eclectic (which I now know means either expensive or touristy) shops.
We entered the park and drove through for quite some time before finding the Japanese Tea Garden (JTG), which we had come specifically for, or somewhere to park as there were so many people there. It is a very large park, we passed a number of formal gardens, the Rose Garden, the big amphitheatre and the De Young Art Gallery, where we stopped for a morning drink, before getting to the JTG. The gardens themselves were beautiful with lots of twisty little paths, hills, valleys and ponds which gave lots of different views in a very small space. We laughed a lot when a man taking a photo stepped backwards off the small bridge and fell straight into the water. He must have got so cold as it was quite a chilly day. We wandered through for an hour or so then stopped for a cup of Japanese tea and a Japanese snack, very interesting.
After our visit to the JTG we had a picnic in the park then drove on down to the coast and to Lands End for another lovely view of The Golden Gate Bridge, before coming home through some abysmal traffic, via 2628 Steiner St, the home of Mrs Doubtfires family.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Twin Peaks Tour

On Monday we set out to do part of the '49 Mile Drive', a tour which includes many of SF's best places, this time Debra came with us, which was great. We started this tour with a look at the views of SF from Alamo Sq, which is famous for it's pretty Victorian houses, then is was time for lunch and we found The Cafe Flore, a very pleasant wayside restaurant on Market and 16th.
After lunch we moved about half a mile down 16th St to the Dolores Mission, the oldest building still standing in SF and one of the early Missions in California. It was a very beautiful oasis of tranquility in the middle of SF, with the old Mission and the much newer Basilica which was built when the old one was demolished after the 1906 earthquake. The cemetary is also famous as the location of Kim Novaks Grandmothers grave in Vertigo. It seems slightly bizarre that the main attraction of the cemetary is for a non-existant grave of a person who is not buried there. The film set headstone was actually left there, but removed many years ago.
We returned to Market St to find our last stop - Twin Peaks. Market St winds its way round the hills that are the backdrop to SF, but eventually we turned into Twin Peaks Blvd and reached the car park at the summit. It is from here that there is the most amazing 360 degree view of SF, from the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Downtown SF, you can look straight down Market St right to the Ferry Terminal Clock Tower, the Bay Bridge, Oakland and south. Although it was slightly hazy we had an awesome view of the whole area. Although we had other things planned for the day it seemed about right to call a halt there and get ourselves back home again, through the drive time traffic. After Debra cooked a great meal of curried rice and pork we went out for another ice cream Sundae, how decadent but what fun.

Golden Gate Bridge - Saturday

Thursday and Friday we took as rest days, though Sally did do the washing and we were invited to a Thanksgiving meal at Rich and Debra's church, which was great fun and a real celebration of giving thanks in their church.
On Saturday the sun shone again and we spent more time sightseeing in SF, this time we went to the Northern end of the city, to the Golden Gate Bridge, a wonderful monument to American engineering in the 30's. We did not cross it this time, but parked at the end and joined many other tourists in the gardens which overlook the bridge. Following that we got back in the car and drove down to the ground level below the bridge, to an old fort called Fort Point, built at the same time as the fort on Alcatraz, in defence of the Bay area. It was fascinating to see the huge fort completely dwarfed by the bridge crossing above it. At the water's edge is the spot where Kim Novak attempts suicide in the film Vertigo. The sea there is quite peculiar in that waves will sweep around the point and concentrate and break on a tiny beach inside the Bay, so that what appears to be flat calm elsewhere will suddenly build into 10ft waves. The place has now become a very popular surfing spot. Not just because the surf is great, but also because it has great access for people to watch. You can keep dry and see the surfers no more than 20 yards away riding 10 ft waves, great fun.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

ALCATRAZ - Wednesday

Today was Alcatraz day. We have been looking forward to visiting the rock ever since we took a boat tour round it in 1997. We planned our day and because of the difficulties of parking we thought about taking the ferry from Oakland to Pier 41, then the tour from Pier 33, but in the end thought this to be too complicated and just drove the van into SF, across the Bay bridge that joins Oakland to SF. The weather in San Leandro was sunny, as we approached the Bay Bridge we could see fog ahead. In fact the bridge just disappeared into a fog bank, so in a foggy SF we turned down to the waterfront to find that there was actually plenty of parking available. We were more than hour early for our ticketed tour boat, so we snuck in on an earlier boat. We got a great view of the Bay, well for about 50 yards, but this made it all the more atmospheric for our visit. As the boat approached the island is slowly began to take shape, first a darkening in the fog, then the island loomed above us. We disembarked and began our tour with an official 'orientation', suggesting we do not make extra work for them by throwing ourselves off the cliffs, over walls, or swim in the Bay, all of which we had no trouble complying with.
The island is really in three sections: The Dock, the Cell block area and other bits, like the Agave Garden, which is a walk round part of the base of the island. The Dock and the Cell block are joined by a switchback road with a number of other buildings, such as the Officers club, the prison officers housing, the Wardens house, the electrical shop, laundry and power plant.
On our way up from the dock, we joined a tour entitled 'Escapes' which outlined the efforts of 34 people to escape and included the 14 who actually were able to carry it through, pointing out that only 2 people were unaccounted for and 0 were known to have made it clear (but if you were one of the 2 would you want to tell anyone?).
The escapes included the guy who carefully watched the coming and going of soldiers who had their laundry done on the island, then over ten years he stole items of laundry until he had a complete uniform. He then casually joined in with the soldiers when they returned to SF, only to find that boat he had got on was going to Angel Island, where he was easily recaptured after a head count.
The island itself was originally a fortress to defend the approaches to SF and the Bay area, though it never saw action. It was also used to house POW's from the Civil War, which then became its main function. It would have fallen into disuse but was revived almost as a publicity ploy to deter gangsters in the prohibition era, when it housed many of the famous criminals of the time, including Al Capone.
Once we had arrived at the top of the island, we were able to tour the Cell block, this was excellently supported by an audio tour, spoken by officers and inmates, with some realistic sounds as you passed through the cells. The facilities are indeed very spartan. Prisoners had the right to food, clothes, shelter, health care and nothing else. Everything else was a privilege to be earned. So much of the story of Alcatraz is about the supplying of those basics, the need for security and how prisoners were able to accommodate to the place through privileges. We were able to see and walk across the recreation yard, the library, the dining hall, the administrative offices as well as the whole ground floor of the cell blocks.
We had another fascinating and memorable day, by the time we had finished our tour the fog had lifted, so we could now see SF and most of the Golden Gate Bridge. After we landed back at Pier 33 we took a walk along the waterfront and had dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, which had been recommended to us by Rich. Now this is an amazing and unashamedly tourist place to eat. It is dark, with lots of accented lighting. It is full of jungle, jungle animatronics and big tanks of tropical fish, complete with jungle music and animal noises. This was another dining experience that was great fun and the food was good as well. After this we fought our way back to San Leandro through the Drive Time Traffic across the Bay Bridge. Oh what a great day.

Tuesday - All quiet

Today we had a quiet day, doing a bit of organising and resting. I had the chance to make a meal for Rich and Debra, in the evening we experienced another AMerican Institution - the Ice Cream Parlour. Rich and Debra took their Grandson Kyle for an ice cream and invited us along as well. So after a bit of a drive we ended up in a local town ice cream parlour, where we were forced to eat huge ice cream sundaes, which were really yummy, sweet, fruity, chocolately and toffeeish. Sally even managed to find a combination that was allowed (?) on here diet and Kyle got his face painted as well, so we had a great and special time.

Chinatown - Monday

We are now on a roll with these walking tours, so today we want to explore Chinatown in SF. We carefully leave early enough to find a parking sport (another 45 minutes) and get a cup of tea before the walk.
The tour starts in Portsmouth Sq, one of the oldest parts of SF. It is an amazing place, although it is right on the edge of Chinatown it is quite noisy and full of Chinese people. They are in little groups all over the place, very few sitting alone. They are playing cards, or checkers (did not see majong, though I guess it was played as well), often for money. Most games had little, or large, groups standing watching with various degrees on animation. Across the square what looked like a tai che class, with people standing very still in various poses. We later learned that this was a demonstration (though I have no idea what they were demonstrating about).
We met our guide, who pointed out that because the normal homes were still single rooms with shared facilities then people would meet friends and socialise at places like Portsmouth Sq. Also popular meeting places would be barber shops and beauty salons, so we would see a disproportionately large number of them on our walk (which indeed we did).
For the next two hours we were whizzed round the fascinating streets of SF's Chinatown. We visited Grant St, which is the tourist street of CT, lots of the back alleys, which are the province of the Tongs and mutual benefit societies. We ventured into a Buddhist/Taoist temple and saw the visually fabulous shrines and statues. We visited a Fortune Cookie factory and the barber shop that was frequented by (amongst others) Frank Sinatra. We emerged on to Stockton St, which is the supermarket of CT, Often a shop would be split into an arcade, with a narrow access to every stall, these very crowded shops each held a variety of produce, maybe filled with live fish, live frogs and live seafood in a variety of different tank sizes. You choose your fish and they will beat it to death in front of you. Also meat and vegetable stalls with an amazing variety of produce, all at below Walmart prices.
We were shown some of the architecture, which is all post 1906, as CT burned down in the fire that followed the earthquake. We also learned some of the history of Chinese people in North America, how they were often persecuted and discriminated against both in law and through society.
Our guide pointed out the Utopia Restaurant on Waverley St, so that's where we ate after the tour.
Although the guide tried to get an awful lot in to the two hours, there didn't seem to be the same narrative thread running through (like the Hitchcock Tour), so it was more difficult to remember all that was said. But we had great fun and visited places we would not have dreamed of going on our own.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Our first trip into San Francisco

I have made a discovery on the Internet. There is a group of volunteers who take free guided walks round San Francisco. There is quite a choice, they run at different times of the day during the week.
Although we know very Little of SF we looked at the list and chose 'The Hitchcock Trail'. This started on Nob Hill and ended in Union Square, so it looked like it would show us some interesting sites.
SF has a reputation as being difficult to find parking. It is well justified. We left with plenty of time to spare, so that we could find parking. On a Sunday the parking is free, so once you have a spot - you keep it.
We drove to the rendezvous point, Huntington Square, and then drove round in ever increasing circles looking for a parking spot, we eventually found one about 4 blocks away, fortunately close to a diner, where we could get a good T&C (tea for Sally , coffee for me). Then on to the Tour.
Alfred Hitchcock was English, from London, he directed films in England until about 1937, when he came to California. He very much liked SF and set up home about 60 miles to the South, visiting SF frequently. He also made films in SF. The film most closely linked to SF is Vertigo, a film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. It is a dark film which ends badly for all, however it uses many of SF's landmarks and institutions and many say that the film is about SF itself.

We started right on the top of Nob Hill, at Huntington Sq, tucked in between the Grace Cathedral and the Pacific Union Club, from there we moved along Sacramento St to the intersection with Mason St, where we could see the Brocklebank Apartments, The Fairmont Hotel, the location where Scotty gets out of his De Soto and you can see the Grace Cathedral in the background. Beyond the Fairmont is the Mark Hopkins Hotel, with it's roof top bar 'The Top
of the Mark'. From there we walked down Mason and back along California, past the front of the Pacific Union Club, and the Grace Cathedral, where incidentally the 'Writ Handing' scene in Bullit takes place. All the while the excellent guide was explaining about Hitchcock's relationship with SF and how this is shown in the film. We continued the tour, walking down the very steep Taylor St and we looked at the bookshop, the flower shop, the original site of the beauty salon and the hauteur couture dress shop which were used, or had sets modelled on them in the film. This was a quite fascinating exploration of this area of SF and the film Vertigo. We ended up in the Union Square which featured in the opening shots of The Birds. This was a great way to spend a couple of hours exploring SF.

San Francisco

On Friday we took the short drive from Santa Rosa to San Leandro, where we are staying with our bluegrass and gospel friends Debra and Rich. They have very kindly offered to put us on their front drive for a while so that we can explore The Bay Area.
San Leandro is on the East Side of the Bay and includes Oakland and Berkley as well, while San Francisco is on a peninsular on the West side, the two areas are linked by several bridges and ferries. The San Andreas Fault lies in between, along the bay.
On Friday evening Rich had organised a bluegrass jam at his house for us, that was great fun, but a little intimidating as Rich , Debra and Ron (his friend) are so much better than us
On Saturday they took us to a 'Harvest Craft Fair'. It was a huge affair on a fairground in Silicon Valley (though you wouldn't know it), on the West side of the Bay. We drove across the San Mateus Bridge to get there.
Sally and Debra had a wonderful time, moving from stall to stall looking at all the lovely different craft items for sale. Rich and I had a good wander and watched the entertainment on the stage.
I am quite disappointed that we have not felt an earthquake yet, but not too disappointed.
When we got back we all tucked into a big beef stew that Debra had crockpotted for us.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Putting Ourselves in the Picture

The sun shone again today and we rose early, with a certain amount of anticipation, as today we were going to visit Petaluma.
Petaluma is the town that was used as a backdrop for the film American Graffiti, the quintiessential narrative of the American Dream that was released just before Sally and I were married. It embodies much of the romantic era of Americana. High School Graduation, hot rod cruisin', hangin' out at the fast food joint. I think that it was one of the things in our life which led us to do what we are doing now - see the United States for ourselves. Well today we would step into that world of Amercian culture, we would walk and drive the streets that George Lucas used to tell his story of youthful life in upstate California. Although, as I have said elsewhere in this blog, the film is intended to be Modesto, which is about 100 miles to the east. We have spoken to some residents of Modesto (for those who know, 'Shut Up John' is from Modesto, and lives very close to Paradise Road) and the film does indeed reflect the life of the town, even to Graffiti Night, which still takes place on the first Saturday after High School Graduation.
It is only a short drive to Petaluma, so we packed a picnic and drove down. We found a coffee shop on Bst and 11th, then walked along Petaluma Boulevard to Washington East. Passing and posing in several of the locations featured in the film. (See a map of the locations) The Mystic Cinema, the vacant car lot where the police car was ripped apart (now called the 'Stand By For Justice' scene), we went into the music store, where Laurie changes cars, The main drag, The junction where Toad reverses into another car. Although the buildings are still there the street furniture has changed, there are many trees planted now, the parking meters have been removed, many shop fronts have changed so that other scenes were not recognisable, however we were very happy to be able to be in the places where the famous film was made. Our finale was to drive out to Frates Road, which was used for the final drag race on Paradise Road. We both found it fun to immerse ourselves into nostalgia. We returned home via the normal shop in Walmart and Safeways and are now ready to move south tomorrow and tackle San Francisco.