Sunday Feb 21 – Monterey Aquarium, Big Sur and San Simeon

Our highest priority today was to visit the Monterey Aquarium. Bryan had been raving about this place for days (weeks?), and he’s spot on – it’s spectacular. Huge displays of all sorts of fish, jellyfish, rays, sharks – anything that’s living in the water outside, really. Some are displayed en masse, one species to a tank, making amazing ever-moving abstract displays. Others are huge communities of dozens of species in enormous tanks, including a multi-storey tank of live kelp that I could have sat and looked at all day – and in fact we kept going back to it, mesmerised by the movement of the kelp and the huge variety of fish.

This aquarium is the only one that’s succeeded in creating a live kelp exhibition – and they do it by pumping in unfiltered water from Monterey Bay every night to ensure the kelp gets all the nutrients it needs, keeping the tank open to the elements at the top and creating a wave motion in the tank to ensure the kelp gets equal access to nutrients. Apparently the access to that water is critical – other aquaria have tried and failed because they don’t have access to a good source of water. The kelp can grow up to 2ft (60cm) per day, so divers are sent into the tank daily to trim their underwater garden.

After we’d seen our fill in the aquarium, we headed on down the coast, through Big Sur to San Simeon. Again, gorgeous, beautiful – I’m definitely running out of superlatives. Big Sur is stunningly beautiful with deep misty fir forests and gorgeous coastlines. In lots of ways this part of the coast reminds me of the NSW coast – cliffs, lots of inlets, and headland after headland. But it’s subtly different. At home the cliffs are sheer down into the sea, with big sandy beaches between each headland, mostly spaced quite far apart. Here, they’re more steep hills than cliffs, with often only tiny ravines between one and the next, and lots of rocks and tiny islands out in the ocean. The water is much shallower than at home, and the geology is much younger.

The road is mostly one lane each way, with a collection of switchbacks, to accommodate all those ravines, with bridge after bridge to make it easier. It was beautiful, but I was glad I wasn’t driving, although I can imagine it’d be fun. There were a few scary bits where the road was partially washed away by all the rain they’ve had here recently – not good for someone with vertigo sitting on the edge of a cliff in a car! I just kept telling myself “it’s OK, it’s settled all it’s going to, it’s not going to fall away further right now!”

We stopped for the night at San Simeon – just by Hearst Castle. Great hotel room overlooking the beach – nothing like falling asleep with the sound of the ocean!  Apparently the hotel had poached the chef when the best restaurant in town shut down recently. Good move on their part – the food was excellent, and we enjoyed my bottle of red from the winery with it.

Saturday Feb 20 – Monterey, Point Lobos, Carmel and Cannery Row

We spent most of today exploring the coast south of Monterey, with Bryan showing me a lot of his favourite places. We drove 17 Mile Drive, including Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pebble Beach Golf Course, Carmel and Point Lobos – gorgeous scenery, really beautiful. And lots of wildlife! We saw sea otters in the surf, and seals covering a rock out in the bay in one place, and covering the beach in another. I know we have seals in NSW, but I’ve never seen them, and I’m pretty sure they’re in much more remote locations than this – those seals on the beach were directly below a row of houses!

We then drove to Point Lobos. Another beautiful place – and I even had enough energy to have a walk around for the second time today- my health is doing well. I don’t know whether it’s being on holidays, lack of stress or some physical change in the environment (maybe I’m reacting to something back in Sydney?), but my health’s been much better this last few weeks than is has been for months at home – I’m doing more, but I’ve got no pain and much less exhaustion.

We drove through Carmel (of Clint Eastwood as mayor fame) but didn’t really stop. Cute little place, but seemed like it was very upper-class-touristy and shopping, without much soul. Cannery row, however, has much more spirit to it, even though it’s also very tourist-oriented. Funny how they can be so similar to describe, and yet so different in actuality.

Maybe it’s just my descriptions that are a bit lacking! Honestly, I’m running out of words. There’s only so many ways you can describe all this – and it’s all so stunningly beautiful I feel like I’m getting repetitive. But still, you’ll just have to put up with it…

During the afternoon we stopped in to do some wine tasting. They had a bunch of great reds – very different to those in Australia, despite using many of the same (or very similar) grape varietals. We got talking to the staff, discussing how the soil and climate can really change the taste of the wine. It seems that over the years I’ve developed a palate that isn’t half bad – thank you, Vincent! Eventually an older member of staff appeared from out the back, apparently attracted by the talk of Australia and the accent. He explained how he’d been living in Kings Cross in Sydney (for the non-Aussie readers, Kings Cross is the red light district) not long after WWII, and had fond memories of the old diggers (ex-soldiers) who’d taken him home to meet their 18yo daughters. In appreciation of those diggers, he gave me a bottle of wine free of charge!

Bryan has been promising me a good steak dinner since before I left Australia, as we’d had a few good steaks when he was in Sydney in 2008. Well, tonight was our chance. We found a good restaurant inland from Carmel (recommended by the winery) and had a terrific steak. And they even cooked it blue for me!

We headed back to Monterey for the night, and stopped in Cannery Row to take a few photos and have a look at the place at night. Bryan very politely put up with me reading all the signs and plaques, trying to remember the relevant bits of a book I haven’t read in at least 2 decades. We found an alleyway leading down to the ocean between the (current) Intercontinental hotel (converted from one of the old canneries) and the old Western Biological Institute (which features in the book). Right there you’ve got the huge contrast in this place – swanky 5-star hotel right next to a run-down old building that’s been preserved because it was mentioned in a book. But fascinating all around. When we got back to the hotel, I crawled into bed and read some more, trying to refresh my memory. Two minutes later, I was chortling to myself at a bunch of the descriptions – the next page I read was set in that very same alleyway! Strange feeling to be reading that only minutes after being there – yet another version of that feeling I’ve had all these weeks of walking into my TV set, movies, or in this case, a book.

Friday Feb 19, Yosemite, Gilroy and Monterey

This morning we went to Mirror Lake towards the Eastern end of Yosemite Valley – thanks to my disabled parking permit we have access to a lot of roads that are normally for pedestrians only. The National Parks Service here is very good at maximising the access available to the disabled.

That meant we could see a lot more than I could have coped with otherwise – the walk out to Mirror Lake would have been impossible, and I doubt Bertha would have coped with the distance, slope, mud, and snow. Mirror Lake was gorgeous (what’s new? It’s part of Yosemite after all) – perfectly still, great reflections, and overlooked by Half Dome on one side and North Dome on the other. And yes, Bryan, I looked it up, that was Half Dome, or the base of it, at least – I don’t think we could see the dome itself from the lake. As you were saying, it’s amazing that people have climbed it – even getting up to the base would be a huge challenge!

I’ve spent the last 3 days gazing out the car window and sunroof – to the point where I’ve managed to get sunburnt on days I’ve hardly been out of the car! Not bad going since we’ve had quite a bit of cloudy weather, and it must have boosted my Vitamin D levels – my doctor will be pleased! Bryan keeps telling me to “Look!” in pretty much every direction because he has to keep his eyes on the road. I suspect I’m going to have the same problem next week when I’ll be driving myself – wanting to look in all directions but also needing to stay alive in the traffic!

At one point today I was standing on a bridge over the river, and realised that from that one spot, I had at least 4 picture postcard photos within my view – Yosemite is really that breathtaking. After a final look around, and taking some photos of the Ahwahnee Hotel which we neglected to do while we were staying there, we headed off towards the coast and Monterey. Again, beautiful drive, lots of views, and continuing changes in elevation. It really brings it home to you that this place is tectonically active – the earth’s buckled and bumped up all over the place.

On the way we stopped briefly in Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. They sell garlic ice-cream (and everything else), and host a garlic festival each year. Driving through, you can actually smell the garlic growing in the fields. Bryan is a huge garlic fan, and had also taken various orders for garlic products from friends at work, so we were determined to stop and do a little shopping. Only problem was it was pretty late, and the stores we were after were all closed. Luckily it’s not far from Monterey, so we’ll come back in the next day or two.

We’re staying at the “Cannery Row Inn” – yep, this is the place of John Steinbeck fame. We’ve got a view over the bay, and are just two blocks from Cannery Row itself. It’s become pretty commercialised and touristy, but despite that it’s got a lot of good atmosphere. And there are plaques, signs, and posters relating to the book everywhere. I’d been meaning to re-read it before the trip – and of course hadn’t got around to more than a few pages. But it’s been lurking in the corner of my suitcase, so I might yet get to it.

Thus Feb 18 – Yosemite

First up this morning we bought some munchies, in an attempt to at least make sure lack of food doesn’t make me keel over, even if exhaustion does! Trailmix (nuts, seeds and sultanas) together with the 56oz (1.5kg) bag of M&Ms that Scott bought in Annapolis, and some long life chocolate milk should hopefully keep me going. At home I’m pretty good at matching the food intake to the energy output – not so much here. I’m a LOT more active than usual, and it seems to be throwing my blood sugar levels out of kilter very easily. Surprising, given how stable they’ve been since I’ve been taking the Mg, but I guess my body’s making good use of the fuel I’m giving it!

We then headed to the Ansel Adams gallery – I bought a print of this and Bryan bought a more classic view of the valley (having been to his place since I can see why he chose it, apart from the obvious of it being a beautiful photo – it’ll fit in well with all his other black and white prints), and we wandered through the visitor center before going back outside and being wowed by all the scenery. Yosemite is much busier than Sequoia, and this is the quiet season! I doubt I’d enjoy it as much in the summer, even though more parts are accessible (many roads are closed by snow right now), it must be an absolute zoo when the weather is a little warmer.

There are many very tame deer here – and they look like kangaroos! Every now and again I do a double take because they seem to be built all wrong in the back, while their faces are very familiar. The exact opposite reaction to what the early explorers of Australia must have thought.

Today we were determined to leave the car behind as much as possible, so both of us get a chance to have a good look around – no fair me hogging all the good views while Bryan drives! But after I overdid it yesterday, Bryan suggested we play it safe and we unpacked Bertha, who’s been riding in the back of Bryan’s truck (ute for the Aussies).

We walked and wheeled on a boardwalk through a meadow right in the middle of the valley (lots of great views and photos, of course) and then along the path to lower Yosemite falls. It was fantastic, beautiful, and very peaceful going through the sequoia woods, past the streams consisting of water that had only just come down from freshly melted snow at the top of the cliffs – and then you suddenly come out at the bottom of the cliff right by the waterfall itself – noisy and spectacular, a huge contrast.

Bertha just about made the distance, but her battery conked out just as I got out of the woods. Bryan kindly walked back and got the car and came back to fetch me – it would have been a long walk back having to wheel her instead of her wheeling me!

Look up from wherever you are in Yosemite and there are endless gorgeous cliffs, trees and waterfalls. We were both totally overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of the place, everywhere you look there’s another gorgeous scene to be gawped at (or photographed).

It got ridiculous – I’d be taking photos and Bryan’d tap me on the shoulder and point in another direction – with yet more stupendous views. It was never-ending. We’ve both got a very similar eye for what makes a good photo, and ended up taking many almost identical photos. Bryan, I think those I’ve posted here are mine, but I know you took some photos with my camera, so if I’m claiming ownership of any of yours, I’m sorry!

I could happily spend the rest of my life there, taking photos every day – I can see why so many photographers have chosen to do so.

We went back up to tunnel view at the entrance to the valley tonight, to try to catch the sunset a bit earlier than we managed yesterday. It wasn’t a great sunset, but there were a few minutes of nice late sun on El Capitan. I’m hoping some of the photos will print up well when I get home – we’ll have to wait and see, but I suspect the living room will be plastered with photos of Yosemite in the near future!

Thanks to Bryan’s insistence on Bertha I actually managed to stay conscious into the evening, so we went out to have some dinner (and wine, of course!) in the local bar. Great company, a good meal and a good glass of wine – a fantastic way to end a great day!

Here’s a few photos:

Weds Feb 17 Sequoias and to Yosemite

We drove up into the mountains to Sequoia national forest today – consistently beautiful views, and a changing landscape. I really wanted to see the Sequoia trees in the snow – and the few groves in Yosemite aren’t accessible at this time of year (or at least, not accessible without a 2-3 mile hike through snow in each direction – not something I’m capable of at the moment! So we found Grant’s Grove in Kings Canyon National Park – a reasonably easy drive from the valley. A beautiful drive in itself, constantly going up and down mountains – we’ve gone from sea level to ~5,000 feet at least twice today – once to the Sequoias, then back down to the valley, and back up to Yosemite.

The trees were amazingly huge, and the place overall was just magical. Very quiet and still because of the snow, and very few people. I can imagine it gets to be a bit of a zoo in the summer, but at this time of year we almost had it to ourselves. Photos really don’t do it justice – those trees are just unimaginably huge and amazing – some of them have been growing here over 1500 years. The tiny people at the bottom of this picture should give you some idea.

The visitor centre was just about totally buried in snow – as you can see in the photos they’ve dug out a passage to the front door, and there are a few gaps between the snow slowly sliding off the roof, and the snow on the ground.

We caught the last of the sunset in Yosemite just as we arrived through the tunnel – the first sight you get is of El Capitan and Half Dome across the valley from each other. To see it for the first time just as the sun had gone down was amazing.

We stayed in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. I was so tired I had trouble stringing sentences together, and it was the first place we came across. More expensive than we intended, but it’s an amazing place. It’s been there almost since the park was declared a national park. I overdid things a bit with all the walking around the sequoia trees – Bryan had to put up with a not very coherent me this evening, and I passed out pretty much as soon as I hit my bed, having been unable to work out how to upload my photos from the camera to the laptop! Thank you Bryan for copying them all over for me – I’m almost totally filling up my memory cards each day, so it can’t be postponed.

Tuesday Feb 16 – back to LA

The boys and I flew back to LA today. We left Annapolis early, finding this amazing icicle growing outside the garage this morning, and to more snow – including astounding quantities piled up everywhere at Baltimore airport. They’ve closed one of the carparks and piled the snow a couple of stories high – to clear the runways. And the great news – Alex found the camera! It had fallen out of my pocket and wedged in an obscure spot under my seat. Jacqui had looked there Sunday, but it was only visible once we removed some a couple of seats to make space for the luggage.

We flew via Atlanta, and we didn’t have much time to get from one flight to the other. I’d booked on Delta’s website, and presumed that if they offered the connecting flight to LA, it’d be plenty of time to get from one plane to the other. But not so much, Atlanta is one of the biggest airports in the country and the next flight was in a different terminal building!

But the mobility assistance guy who arrived to push my wheelchair was terrific. He got us from one terminal to another (via a dedicated subway that’s entirely within the security zone), and to the gate with 5 mins to spare. I’m so glad we had him along – even if I’d been able to walk that fast, I doubt we could have even FOUND the gate for our second flight in time. I’ve had assistance at each airport – someone meets me at the plane door with a wheelchair and pushes me to the luggage pickup where I’m reunited with Bertha. Without exception, they’ve all been very friendly and helpful. Come to that, everyone here is. Customer service people are obviously hoping for better tips or sales, but even your average person on the street is unfailingly polite and helpful.

Flying over Texas and Arizona you could see the economic issues from the sky – at least in the housing industry. Large slabs of land had been partially prepared for development – and then abandoned. Half built houses, large numbers of new subdivisions with streets and kerbs, but not a single house built or started.

I also saw a huge meteor crater flying over Arizona – after a bit of googling, I think it’s “Meteor Crater” outside Flagstaff as listed in Wikipedia. Huge, perfectly shaped, amazing to see from the air.

My friend Bryan from work met us at LAX – he’s joining me for a road trip to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Monterey, and then down the Californian coast to San Diego this week. We got the boys all checked in for their flight to Sydney – and succeeded in getting them exit row seats to give them some more leg room. We tried but failed to get some dinner in the space saucer restaurant – it’s only open part time due to renovations, and we missed them by a half hour. Oh well. After some debate we left the boys to their own devices and Bryan and I set off – we were keen to get as far north as possible to allow for plenty of sightseeing tomorrow! We got as far as Fresno (360 km north of LA). The roads here are generally much better than in Australia – not as well maintained, but built to allow for much more (and faster) traffic.

Driving to Fresno it looked like Holland, except for the occasional hills and mountains on the very distant horizon. Totally flat, and agricultural. A freaky feeling when it’s interspersed with very American strip malls, motels, etc along the road – like they’ve somehow put two continents into a blender, and this is the result.

Monday Feb 15, Annapolis

Mostly another quiet day at home (well, our Coleman-Annapolis home, anyway – thank you to Nikki, Steve, Hannah and Jacqui for making us feel so welcome). Nikki, Hannah and I are all running a bit short on spoons and need the rest, so a quiet day was good. Nikki especially has been pushing herself a bit too hard – with her medication changes and our visit, I think she’s overdone it – but then, that’s not exactly new. Nikki, I hope by the time I manage to post this you’ve had a chance to recover a bit.

Nikki took me to Annapolis downtown late in the afternoon so I could take some photos. Lots of pretty, old style shops and lots of snow (what’s new?). Steve took Hannah, Jacqui, Alex and Scott to the comic book store again – the boys were elated to discover that the owner is knowledgeable, helpful, and happy to post whatever they like to Australia – at very reasonable rates. They’ve had a lot of trouble finding what they want in Australia, and even when they do, it’s two or three times as expensive (even including postage). So I’m guessing quite a bit of their future income is going towards graphic novels.

I spent a lot of the day packing, working out what goes with me for the next 2 weeks in California, and what goes back to Australia with the boys. Hopefully I’ve got it right and won’t be lugging around too much extraneous stuff the next fortnight. I’ve been a bit worried I’ll lumber myself with more luggage than I can manage (knowing I’m not the best at packing light, ROFL). We’ll see how I cope, but I’ve managed to reduce it to about 15kg in a duffel bag I can carry on Bertha – plus Bertha, her charger and all her parts, plus about 7kg of hand luggage (mostly laptop, cameras and lenses – what else would you expect???)

Sunday Feb 14, Washington DC

We drove into DC today. As everywhere else, the roads are partly blocked by snow, and the traffic was worse than we’ve seen anywhere else (including NY).

As we approached the city, we saw Marine One leaving, presumably with the President on board, since there were two additional helicopters flying in formation. Again, like with New York, it was a bit eerie seeing sights that are so familiar, yet not. Weird feeling, like you’ve walked into your TV somehow.

Alex has become very interested in taking photos this trip, which has mostly been great – except when we both want the camera at once, LOL! Sadly, we lost the second camera today – the one I bought in Times Square last week. Somewhere between the National Museum of American History and the car it went missing. Hopefully someone handed it in in the museum – we’ll give them a ring next week.

The museum was fascinating, we saw the original star spangled banner, a display on slavery and a 200 year old house which has been relocated from near Boston, showing various stages in its occupation. Alex was thrilled to see C3PO in the “flesh”.

We were pretty limited in what we could do by a combination of snow and the number of spoons all of us had, so we drove around a bit and saw some of the sights from the car, including the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Amazing how they’ve built temples to all these old Presidents – a very different attitude to past leaders than we have in Australia, or even than the British have to their royalty.

We stopped at the Lincoln memorial, got out and took a bit of a walk (or in my case, wheel) around. The reflecting pool (which runs between the Lincoln and the Capitol, and is over 600m long) was frozen over, with tourists walking on it. Apparently someone fell through the ice a few days ago, and had to be rescued (it’s less than waist deep, but the ice made it hard to get out). That doesn’t seem to be stopping everyone else, though.

In various ways it’s clear that America is still struggling economically. Homeless people outside the Whitehouse, no money for plowing or salting the roads, many roads aren’t being repaired properly, and there are potholes everywhere. And this year the kids have missed a lot of school due to the snow. Normally, that means they extend the school year by a week to make up the days. But this year, they won’t, since there’s not enough money to pay the extra wages (teachers don’t get paid during vacations here, so it’s a big expense). Unfortunately, there is still plenty of cash to fund two wars 🙁

Alex, Scott, Jacqui and I walked to the front of the Whitehouse, as Alex was keen to take a few pictures.

Friday 12 and Saturday 13 – Shopping, sleeping and not much else

OK, I’m cheating and doing two days in one. But honestly, we’ve done very little. We’ve caught up on our sleep – which I badly needed. My health’s doing well, but this week of relaxing and doing not too much has been badly needed.

We’ve spent plenty of time catching up and hanging out – we’ve all missed each other while the Colemans have been here. Steve, Scott and Alex have been playing Magic and a bunch of other card games, and we’ve all been watching the Olympics.

We’ve also been to the shops – as if we hadn’t done enough shopping in NY! Scott and Alex now have enough clothes to last them for a good few years (and can stop wearing the jeans I bought them when I was last in the US in 2006, we’ve now re-stocked). My bankruptcy will be announced shortly.

The snow is endless – they’ve been busy plowing and salting, but there’s literally nowhere to put it. In some locations they’re carting it away in trucks and dumping it in remote locations.

This photo of the carpark at the local Westfield (yep, they’ve got ’em here too) gives you some idea – this is what it looks like pretty much everywhere – snow stacked several metres high wherever you look, blocking access, parking spaces, whatever. Footpaths are all non-existent, and most roads are only partially plowed. I don’t have any issues driving on the wrong side or with different road rules, but I’m really glad I’m not trying to drive around here.

To add to the problems, there’s a shortage of salt and plowing equipment (because of the extreme conditions) and because of the economy many cities and states just don’t have the money to pay for sufficient or timely plowing – after the last storm they delayed for a day because they couldn’t afford to pay the Sunday overtime.

Thurs Feb 11 – After the snow

We woke up to sunshine today – with lots of icicles and snow everywhere. The boys got to learn how to dig out a car:

We dug out the car to go grocery shopping – apart from that (which is always fascinating in a foreign country), we did not much. I wandered around and took a few more photos: