Sunday, December 12, 2010

Frisky in 'Frisco

Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley as we left our hearts in San Francisco.
The northern California city, offering up so many familiar song phrases or views from television shows and movies, lived up to that reputation and then some — the impossibly steep street for the car chase in the movie Bullit. Alcatraz out on the island. People hanging off the sides of cable cars as they chug uphill, blocking the flat intersection at the top as new riders clamber aboard.
But Ian managed to refrain from tucking a flower into his hair for the day.
Once again, we rode a Grayline tour bus, at this time of year nearly empty of tourists ready to listen to Ken Washington give his history of the city he calls home, a spiel he has given for 30 years now. But the bus looked familiar, causing Vicki to get that confused look on her face, until Ian said, “It’s the same bus as runs from Victoria to Sooke.” So it is.
The 3 1/2-hour tour takes in everything from city parks to the Golden Gate Bridge, with a brief summary of its suicide count. It’s somewhere over 1,700 so far, although speculation is a couple of hundred more have died by jumping off its railings but their bodies have never been found. Washington chuckles as he relates how police foiled one attempt when an officer brandished his weapon and told the would-be jumper, “If you jump, I’m going to shoot you.” She climbed down.
The city’s neighbourhoods are intriguing in their similarities and differences, all at the same time. A lawn mower in San Francisco must belong to the city because homeowners have no need. Houses reach to the sidewalk front and back, with grass nearly non-existent and dogs looking perturbed as they walk at the end of a leash.
The houses built since the fire following the 1906 earthquake appear to be joined structures until our guide points out the mandatory one-inch gap as a fire guard between structures. Should fire break out in one home, firefighters first aim the water to the roof, where it will run down and fill the gap between the homes, thereby protecting the neighbours.
Neighbourhoods have been settled by Chinese, Japanese, German and Russian newcomers, all bringing a little of their own architecture to the row houses, giving each neighbourhood a flavour all its own, even though each covers a small area. All feature a large, central park since that is where people spend their outdoor leisure time.
Golden Gate Park, home to an aquarium and art gallery, is the premier showpiece, particularly since its half-mile by three-mile area was carved out of sand dunes. What grows there is a marvel of gardeners’ knowledge and effort.
To sit atop Twin Peaks and see the neighbourhoods below stretching to the sea beyond is to marvel at architecture in both homes and standout public buildings, as well as understand the perseverance necessary to carve a city out of steep hills.
It is populated with a people proud of their ability to deal with adverse weather. With a high of 65 degrees F on this day, many are bundled in puffy down-like jackets, with toques and scarves wrapped around their heads. Our guide points out that all are outside enjoying the sunshine.
This year the famous fog rolled into the harbour and blanketed the city in July.
It didn’t leave until mid-October. Wine lovers groaned to hear, as a result, there hasn’t been much of grape crop this season.
Then it’s off the bus, back on the cable car and home for a glass of wine. Australian.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The oven is toast

The toaster oven committed suicide sometime yesterday.
We were rolling down the road, oblivious to her pain, when she must have jumped off the countertop and plunged that long drop to the floor of the trailer.
We didn’t hear a thing, just kept motoring down the highway and not until our lunch stop, when we opened the door to find her in pieces, did we realize what she had done.
We knew she had been suffering, since after a couple of earlier mishaps when we found her on the floor, somewhat mangled. She no longer toasted, only roasted, because her selection dial had taken a pounding some kilometres down the road, and just the other night we had to wait and wait and wait for her to produce enough heat to cook our bacon.
But we have to accept responsibility here as well. She counted on us to lift her gently off the counter and place her in a safe location on the floor, a chore we sometimes forgot as we packed up to hit the road.
The toaster oven isn’t the only thing to have taken a 25,000-kilometre pounding. Harley, hanging on to the back of the truck for all that distance, is showing some signs of wear and tear. Ian popped both the front and back windows out of the trailer back in Florida, then lined the cavities with a sort of plumbers putty before putting the windows back in place, all in an effort to keep us dry inside.
That was quite some time ago and leaks hadn’t been an issue. Of course, we hadn’t experienced more than a few showers either, that is until a day’s drive through Northern California plagued by downpours.
The front window, taking the force of the rain, had the nerve to leak, just a little, onto the couch cushions.
That window is now on Ian’s Pender honey-do list.
We’ll also pay some needed attention to the truck when we get home, primarily the windshield. A stone was thrown into it somewhere in the Fraser canyon on our first day out, straight into the front window, leaving the telltale mark. Not until Savannah, Ga. did the horizontal crack straight across Vicki’s passenger view start to appear.
There are other stone chips, too many to count now, eager to horn in on the action so a windshield replacement is also on Ian’s list.
Then, of course, there’s the dream list of what we’d like to do with Harley before our next outing. A sliding shelf, perhaps, for that new toaster oven on the wish list. Stronger fasteners for the hanging shoe bag we put inside the front door just last week.
All in all, there isn’t much that needs to be taken care of before the next trip. But we’ll sit around on rainy evenings at home, with a fire roaring in the stove, planning and scheming on when and how we can get away. And through it all, we’ll have more than a million memories to fuel our plans.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Attrack-tive campgrounds

After four months, you’d think we know what to look for when shopping for a place to spend the night.
Notice we didn’t say campground, because by now, we’ve learned the difference between a campground and a RV park. Mostly, it’s asphalt, lots of it.
We have found that in U.S. state parks, they are fond of paving both the roadways and the campsites, but leaving the rest with plenty of grass and trees. Exceptions, of course, occur in the desert states where gravel and/or sand rule. Vegetation is little if any so a cactus gets to be pretty important feature.
When it comes to choosing a park, whether it’s a campground or an RV parkade, we try to keep in mind where we are. In Arizona, we didn’t expect much on the desert and just outside Phoenix, in an RV park in Buckeye, that’s exactly what we got. You pay to be able to park safely, use the washrooms, pool and laundry, and hook up water, electricity and maybe sewer. The park operators have put their money into contouring the existing sand/gravel and not much else.
In contrast, a similar setting in Bakersfield, Calif. at the Bakersfield Palms RV Resort offered up a paved parking area, patio stones just outside our door, a palmetto planted next to our site and a groomed gravel setting, plus pool, laundry and hot tub. Of course, we didn’t spend a moment longer than necessary outdoors in Bakersfield, or in Bakersfield at all for that matter.
Los Angeles air travels a long, long way. Bakersfield folk couldn’t understand why we thought there was an issue with the air. “It’s always like this,” they said, as our eyes watered and throats ached.
We had driven around Bakersfield because the place we had chosen from the Woodalls camping guide turned out to be about three metres from a four-lane highway. We, after four months on the road, were sure we could do better and found the Palms Resort way down the road. Surely it would be much quieter.
Didn’t even notice all those railway tracks. Luckily, we weren’t near a crossing so didn’t have to listen to whistles as we rocked and bucked with every train that passed.
Live and learn.
After that experience, we thought we’d go on the fibreglass RV web site to gather information about San Francisco-area campgrounds from those who know about travelling in tiny trailers. We received a handful of suggestions and ended up in the San Francisco RV Resort. As is typical of RV places, the pool, laundry and washrooms are very nice and there are miles of asphalt.
BUT the view out our bedroom window makes up for a lot of things. For one, we don’t hear the four-lane highway because it is drowned out by the roar of the surf. And the nice ladies at the front counter, pronouncing our little rig as very cute, decided we’d get their favourite spot backing onto the beach, even though we hadn’t paid the premium rate.
It doesn’t hurt to be cute.
So here we sit, surf roaring as we plan a day in San Francisco. From here, we’re able to take mass transit in to the big city, not worry about traffic or parking.
We’re happy with this spot, but we wouldn’t call it camping.
That’s for another night, somewhere else on our trip.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Shock rock

When it comes to campgrounds, this one rocks.
It’s not lush or green or sparkling with water or any of the other things we look for in a campground, but City of Rocks in New Mexico is absolutely stunning.
The state campground is about 50 kilometers north of Deming, in the south central part of the state and after a day of wandering through the scrub brush wasteland of Texas and New Mexico, we weren’t sure what to expect.
What we got was a shock, a sprawling expanse of rocks standing on end, in strange formations, like an army of misshapen Mr. Potato Heads on the march. Wandering through the people-unfriendly yucca plants were dozens of jack-rabbits, long ears twitching and longer legs propelling them this way and that, much to the stunned amazement of a spellbound Sidney.
Just after pulling in we watched the setting sun kiss the rocks goodnight and next morning saw the sunrise show them in all their martial glory. While we settled for a conventional, serviced site, there are a score or more unserviced sites nestled in the rocks themselves, offering a unique camping experience for the traveller bored with the unreeling miles of desert scrub.
Freezing nights, even here, a stone’s throw from the border with Mexico, kept us in the southern part of the state, so we missed some of the state’s larger centres, such as Taos and Santa Fe, and the northern areas, which would have pushed us to the higher and potentially more treacherous I-40 as a conduit west to California.
But unless they are radically different from the southern regions, there is little to see, scenery wise, in this border state. Prisons, state and federal, pop up along the Interstate more often than rest areas, and highway signs counsel drivers not to pick up hitchhikers in those areas. Duh.
There seemed little in the way of agriculture or irrigation, and the sparse vegetation will only support a few cows, or occasionally sheep, per acre. The only thing that seemed in abundance was poverty and maybe state border patrol guards.
We encountered a blockade where guards, and patrol dogs, checked vehicles for unwanted passengers from Mexico, with the wall-less border, much to George W. Bush’s dismay, on the south side of the highway for much of our drive.
And the other abundant crop — rocks. But none like the City of Rocks.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It takes all kins

Sean Avis, left, in Hubbards, N.S. and his Uncle Jerry in Summerdale, Ala.

We’re 22,000 kilometres into this trip, counting down the days we have left and finding out just how insignificant all this area traversed really is sometimes.
Our chief enjoyment on our travels has been the people we have met along the way. We’ve seen many sights, been stunned by the beauty and power of nature and marvelled at men’s imaginations in what they’ve constructed.
But the people ... they make the memories.
And now we have one more to add to the list, proving that the size of Canada and the mass of the United States doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans.
Way back in the early days of the trip, we wrote about the wonderful musical bunch of people we met in Hubbards, N.S. Since then we’ve told just about everyone we’ve met how much we enjoyed our sojourn there.
But we didn’t tell Jerry Avis, the consummate wanderer we met at Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, Ala. about those folks in Nova Scotia. Don’t know why we didn’t, particularly when Jerry said Nova Scotia was his home base in world travelling.
And two old journalists, to our shame, didn’t make connections on names. Granted, we’ve done most of this trip operating on first names but when we wrote about Hubbards, we went all the way back to that early journalism training and asked everyone for their full names.
So of course we knew the fellow who drew us so well into that group was named Sean Avis.
Got it yet?
When we posted that item on Jerry’s world voyaging, Sean saw it. So he e-mailed Uncle Jerry to comment on the amazing coincidence that he and his uncle had met the same travellers — us.
So, at 22,000 kilometres, Avis really does try harder, and it’s a small world after all.

A big, big, big disappointment

Does size really matter?
Apparently it does in West Texas. Everything is big — big sky with not a cloud in it, but marked with white tailings from every jumbo jet cruising by; big highways with semis playing truck tag all day, often forgetting that little rigs are politely trying to share the pavement in the Canadian way; big cities in the eastern part of the state, leaving the west laid bare to the world, but for El Paso, big only in its sprawl of low-rise structures.
And bare it is. Little vegetation in all that high desert, few houses, small towns that add new meaning to the word poverty. Some towns are burdened with a name simply because there are two gas stations, one on either side of the interstate, the kind of place that when you stop, you thank the powers that be it isn’t your job to pump the gas nor your fate to live there for all your days.
It’s big prairie, as flat as any on the Canadian side of the border, with cattle occasionally coming into focus. The drivers know they’re out there somewhere because the highway is lined with relatively low fencing.
What is small is the vegetation. Few trees but scrub brush everywhere. In another time, it likely reduced soil erosion caused by a relentless wind. Now branches’ sole purpose seems to be to catch the ubiquitous white plastic grocery bags as they sail by. Canadians accustomed to recycling nearly everything are shocked when a restaurant meal is delivered on a plastic plate, with plastic cutlery for famed Texas barbecue. The drink cups are Styrofoam. Bring on the garbage bags. Why wash when you can throw it out?
And as an aside, famed Texas barbecue doesn’t deliver. Moe’s Original Bar B Que in North Carolina, following Alabama protocol, and a Louisiana version at Jason’s Diner in Port Allen, knock Texas on its ribs.
But west Texas has come across with a delightful state park jutting out of prairie. Balmorhea State Park, just outside the small town of the same name, promises an oasis and delivers. The pools formed by mineral springs appear as conventional swimming pools filled with water at a year-round 72-degree water (about 21C). Signs lining the pools explain how the springs form deep beneath the earth and how that water is captured for human use. They mention the man-made pool has a bottom that is a hard surface in some areas but is all natural in others. Developed during the Depression by the Work Progress Administration, the pools’ outflow forms a cienega, the Spanish term for a natural marsh.
Ian, who will flail his way out of any waterway when the suggestion is made of marine life swimming beneath him, is stunned to see a half-dozen large catfish making for his lily white toes as he sits on the pool’s steps.
He can swim quite fast.
As much as San Antonio captured our imagination in a big way, with the exception of one park, West Texas lost it.