Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fog City Primer: Alcatraz

That scourge of modern society, international terrorism, had almost defeated us, but we were actually here in San Francisco, Fog City. Friends had recommended the major sights, and many hours of research in guides and on the internet had slimmed down the wealth of visitor attractions to those that the whole family could enjoy.

Our first destination was Alcatraz. What a better way to start a holiday than in jail, but what a location! That was the cruel irony of the place when it was a fully functioning hotel for felons: its proximity to the mainland. The inmates could sense the city and all of its charms, but it was tantalisingly out of reach across a narrow straight of water in San Francisco Bay.

We crossed that divide by Blue and Gold ferry, booked in advance thankfully to avoid the August queues. The terminal on Pier 39 was already thronged with people at 10am in the major tourist district of Fisherman's Wharf, with all of its souvenir shops and Clam Chowder stands. It was a bright morning although cool, as the trademark fog had yet to fully disappear. Alcatraz island appeared smaller than I expected, but its eerie mystery pervaded the air nevertheless as the boat neared the dock after the 20 minute ride.

With such a relatively small island and everyone arriving in batches, organising the vistors was key and you were marshalled up to an area where one of the national park rangers explained the rules and what there was to see. After this short introduction, we journeyed up the hill to an exhibition hall where we saw a film giving an insight into the history of the place, and some of its more famous residents. Then it was time to make the final ascent to the jailhouse perched on top of the rock.

The cells were claustrophobic and primitive - this was surely no luxury place. After all, what designer apartments have a 'gun gallery' at the end of the block? The security of the whole place rested on this separate area at the end of the main hall, where the armed guards patrolled with a full sight of the prisoners below. Consequently, when one of the inmates managed to use a home made bar spreader, he quickly overpowered one, grabbed his gun and then used the cell keys to lock up his former captors, with one of the more psychotic residents shooting them in cold blood for good measure.

These stories from the past, and the rows of stark, dank cells, brought a real chill to the spine. As it is such recent history, it felt very real, very tangible and the horror of the place felt ingrained in the fabric of the building.

If you like your history raw and relevant, go there.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Being proud of your area is a good thing, and the folks who live in Northern Mono County, home to Topaz, Coleville and Walker have a lot to be proud of. We had the privilege of travelling down US395, through the Walker valley en route from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite and happened upon a tiny microcosm of American life, high in the Sierra Nevada.

It was August this year, and the California sun was shining, as it had done constantly after we had left mostly fog-bound San Francisco. We had just crossed back from Nevada by the beautiful Topaz lake, and felt like stopping. We looked out for a likely place, but we had moved from the mostly urban travelling of our first days in the States, to more sparsely populated regions. Still, it seems that even the tiniest places, and Walker was certainly that, have their own set of facilities. No, it wasn't exactly a strip: a straight highway packed with neon and garish signs, but it did support a motel and its very own burger joint, the eponymous Walker Burger.

It looked like a small chalet, a simple building with an awning to shield the happy customers from the sun, and a couple of grilles located above a narrow counter. At the first grille, which dutifully slid open when you approached, you ordered your food and beverages, and the second was where it all appeared a few minutes later. To announce its arrival, the staff simply piped up "Order number 42" or whatever your receipt said over the PA system. It was a devilishly simple system, and ensured that there was no messing about taking names or getting orders muddled if they contained similar items.

When you got your refreshments there was a shady garden with tables off to the side in which to enjoy them away from the glare of the sun. We didn't eat there, simply slaking our thirst with Cokes and Iced Tea, but it was doing very good business from the passing trade, and with all the care that they put into the place, I am sure that the food would have been delicious.
Looking at the website for the area, it is the epicentre of some spectacular country and wildlife. Although we didn't stay, opposite was even the West Walker Motel, which would have formed a good base to explore the lakes, Topaz and Mono, the mountains and the river itself. As I said, even the smallest community puts its heart and soul into making you feel welcome and selling you the attractions of the place.

Perhaps it is time to start promoting West Berks as a destination. It is too easy to think that there isn't anything to attract visitors, but sometimes all it takes is some long hard looks at your natural resources and a bit of imagination. We were glad that the residents of Walker love their environment, and were prepared to share it. All for a few dollars, of course.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sheer Vertical Wonder

Yosemite. I had seen pictures of it before of course, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of seeing in the wild. If ever a piece of the Earth's meagre crust could be described as awesome, then surely this was it. This was the Being that created our planet, having fun with the biggest building blocks in his cupboard, before he got to create us mere mortals. The scale of the place is its greatest asset and this is what drives our view of it as one of the most spectacular pieces of scenery in the world.

It hides its wonder well, and we only get glimpses of what we are soon to see on the way down from Yosemite's high country, where we enter the park via the Tioga Pass. The rarified atmosphere of 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada range is only a starter compared with the main course of the Yosemite Valley. We arrive in the park in early afternoon, with the bright August sun tempered by the chill of the altitude. The pass itself is lush and green and lakes are plentiful as you first make your way down to Tuolumne Meadows. In winter, this part of the National Park would be impassable, but here in summer we are treated to views of mountain peaks fringed with snow, surrounded by forest and flower.

We stop at the Meadows visitor centre, now only a mere 8600 feet above sea level but still with the same feel to it as at the top of the pass. The log cabin has lots of information and souvenirs, but nothing can tempt us and we carry on along Highway 120, which crosses the park from East to West. Cloud's Rest, one of the highest peaks in the range, catches our eye and we stop for this photo opportunity. We simply have to capture our experiences, as this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that prove you are alive and you need to re-live.

Eventually we turn back eastward as we near the junction of Highway 140 and we can see the valley itself, but the main attractions are still invisible to us, hidden by the twists and turns of the glacier cut walls. It is late in the day, so we head for our hotel, the Yosemite View Lodge at El Portal, which turns out to be a complex of motel like rooms, stacked three storeys high with some central facilities, but in the most spectacular location, hunkered down, cheek by jowl with the rocky Merced River. Our elevation now is a mere 2000 feet, and boy is it warm, even at 6pm. The rooms are spacious, and feature a kitchenette and a small balcony overlooking the scenery. The place is packed, as you would expect in August, and we grab a pizza in their fast food restaurant, too tired from our travels to really explore that evening.

The food at the Yosemite View was one of the few negatives, along with the look of the place, which appeared to have been thrown together cheaply, in concrete and steel with no regard to the beauty of the valley in which it sat. The best you can say was that in its drab brown coloured render it didn't stand out, but neither did it enhance its location. The food was the same, either in the restaurant, or the pizza place, it wasn't a high point, but was reasonable fuel for the day. Breakfast was a bit of a lottery, as the dining room was small for the number of rooms, and the first morning we had to buy food at the shop and prepare it in the kitchenette, to avoid a lengthy wait, but we rose earlier the next couple of mornings to ensure that we could sample the full hotel experience.

The first full day, we explored the valley floor, and it wasn't long before we were face to face with El Capitan, a huge slab of sheer sided granite that forms part of the Northern wall of the valley. It made you feel totally insignificant as it towered over you. We captured it on camera and moved on to the centre of the park. There seemed to be plenty of room for visitors in this place. Although this was August, there weren't infinite queues of cars, like there might be in Britain. Instead the National Park Service have provided a set of eco friendly buses to ferry people to all of the major destinations. We set off for Yosemite Falls, the fifth largest in the world counting all three tiers and this was a short walk partly under trees, which kept us cool in the heat of the summer. The waterfalls are more impressive in the Spring melt, but were still a sight to behold as they fell from the hanging valley created by the glacier to where we stood.

After catching lunch at Degnan's Deli, we headed via the bus for the walk to Mirror Lake, where the children especially were delighted to find a sign warning that we were entering Mountain Lion territory. Admittedly there was only a small chance, but we were now officially dicing with death as we strolled out on the mile long trail to discover the bend in the Tenaya Creek, where you could see the bisected Half Dome reflected in the tranquil pool. It was our first view of the smooth granite peak that the glacier has robbed of half its mass. It was an iconic view, but we were to experience a different angle on it the next day. It was that sort of holiday, once you had seen something great, which you though you couldn't top, you saw something better.

Having avoided being a Mountain Lion's late lunch, we went back to the cafe, where even Yosemite has internet access, and grabbed a drink before returning to the hotel. We had been amazed at this singular landscape, quite unlike the scale of anything we had seen before, but the next day was set to reveal the valley in all its glory again, but this time viewed from above, at Glacier Point. This was accessible via road in summer, which was our chosen route as we had our children with us, who probably wouldn't have made the hike from the valley floor, 7,200 feet up to the point itself.

This time, a huge expanse of mountain-backed country was revealed, with views of the Vernal and Nevada falls on the Merced River in the foreground. Further to the North was Half Dome, and now we could see it in all its glory. It is possible to hike to the top a mere 8,800 feet up via the falls, and using a set of cables to traverse the smooth final ascent on the dome itself. This must be a truly unique experience, but outside our bounds of possibility with the family in tow. Still, we were soon to see something that we all though could not have been possible. Before this we overlooked the central part of the valley, with Yosemite Falls across the other side at a similar altitude. There in front of us was the overhanging rock that I had seen in my youth in photos in 'A Book of Marvels' by Richard Halliburton. Now I was seeing those same marvels with my own eyes and it was absolutely stunning.

When we emerged from the cafe, a man had taken up residence atop a small rocky outcrop and was summoning the spirits by playing an enormous digeridoo-like horn. This mystical experience was soon followed by the jaw dropping moment of the whole holiday. My wife spotted something moving in the undergrowth above the path back to the car park. She said "Is that a... ...bear?" and sure enough we saw a sub-adult black bear shoot across the path a hundred yards ahead, no doubt startled by the hordes of summer visitors that it had stumbled upon. It quickly sought refuge in the trees on the downhill side, but long enough for a small crowd of people to train their viewfinders on it and catch a shot of it in the shadows. We were knocked out by this - you simply don't expect to see a bear so close and our next thoughts were where was the mother? You don't come between mother bear and her precious offspring. We didn't find her, so we set off back down to the valley floor.

In the late afternoon we looked at the Indian Village, where you get an idea about how some of the native inhabitants used to live and then moved on the the Nature Centre at Happy Isles, where we reassuringly found out that the towering cliff had shed some of its massive bulk some years before and crushed the building we were now standing in. Now re-built, it provided some useful background information on the animals in the park, including our friends the Mountain Lion and the Black Bear. A short walk around the isles themselves and we were ready to conclude our visit.

The next morning we were due to head out to our next destination, but we sat on the balcony that night and stared at the clearest view of the Milky Way I have seen since a camping trip on Dartmoor, when I was 18. Now in my more advanced years, we looked up and occasionly managed to see the odd meteor, part of the Perseid shower, but it didn't really seem to be at its peak. We checked out after a night's sleep with the sound of the river as background music. We set off for the Southern exit to the park, as Highway 140 was shut after El Portal, due to a rock slide. We had decided to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. We didn't have a huge amount of time, but still managed to see the Giant Grizzly, a huge tree with scar in its side and the California Tunnel tree, which has had some licensed vandalism performed on it to cut a passageway in its base, so that you can walk through. This type of thing wouldn't be done these days, but it was one of those sights you had to see.

Overall the sequoia grove didn't live up the spectacular sights in the valley, but gave us a last none too lingering stop in the park, before we headed for the coastal portion of our stay.