Almost on my way!

So I’m almost off on a new adventure! Long Service Leave, and another USA road trip – taking in about 10 states this time, from LA to the Pacific Northwest, up to the Canadian border at Glacier National Park, then down via Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and the spectacular desert country in Utah and Arizona to San Diego. A week in the office there, then back up to LA and home. This is roughly my route going north, and this is what I’m planning on my way south.  I’ll be all on my own most of the way – so please keep me company, I’d love to hear from you either in the comments here or by email.

Thurs Mar 5 – Home again

So, that’s it – If you’re not bored stupid yet, I’m planning to put some more photos up at in the next few days.

The flight home was OK, and I guess it’s good to be back, although it’s going to be hard to get back into the swing of normal life – the travel bug has bitten again, and hard! It’s been truly spectacular. So many different places and sights, and unbelievably gorgeous scenery. And lots of good company on the way, and the many very friendly, helpful and generous people I met.

Thank you to all of you for your interest, and to those who’ve kept in touch, especially the last week when I was on my own. And especially to Ria, Ruth, Rob and Paul who’ve all been helping me adjust back to real life since I landed – your offers and suggestions have been duly noted, I’ll let you know if I decide to take you up on any of them!

Then there’s a very special thank you to the Colemans for having us for a week in Annapolis, when I know you’re doing it tough yourselves at the moment – I hope we managed to help more than hinder, and that you get home safe and well in the next few months – looking forward to catching up with you then.

And last but in no way least, thanks to Bryan for a fantastic week touring CA – for your company, conversation, laughter, dinners, wine, photography, and of course the tour-guiding. It’s been fun, let’s do it again some time!

Tuesday Mar 2 – the Getty and LAX

I drove the rest of the way down into LA today, and went to the Getty Center before heading to the airport. It sits in a spectacular location with views over the entire LA basin and out to Catalina Island – and as you can see from the above (click on the picture to enlarge), I managed to catch it on a very clear day – which is another way of saying there’s a strong cold wind blowing today.Bryan and I had discussed going there last week, but it was closed both times we went past. Well, not today. A truly spectacular place and a great way to end my trip. A photography exhibition, impressionist paintings (including Monet and Van Gogh), a massive view over the LA basin, and fantastic architecture for me to make abstract photos, all with a sunny day and clear blue sky to give good backgrounds and interesting contrasts with the white buildings and all the shadows. And both Ruth and Bryan keeping me company via email. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I hung around so long that it got a bit late – my flight was at 8pm, and I wanted to be at the airport in plenty of time, but didn’t leave the Getty till after 4pm. And then, of course, I had to deal with LA peak hour traffic, and there was an accident on the interstate which slowed everything down to a crawl. I got to the airport – and then had to work out where the petrol station was! Well, Google’s been great but it let me down on that one. Wherever it thought that Chevron station was, I couldn’t find it. I did THREE laps of the airport, before finally venturing further out, finding a different one, and returning the car to Avis and heading to the check in.

VAustralia feels a bit like they’re camping out here, but their service is great, all very friendly staff, and they let me gate-check Bertha, which means I had her with me all the way to the door of the plane – and they returned her to me at the plane door at the Sydney end. The alternative is checking her with the suitcases, and one of their staff wheelchairs me to the gate, and from the gate to baggage claim, which is what happened coming over. That’s all good and well, but if you’re waiting for a flight for a couple of hours, it’s much better to be independently mobile and be able to wander around, have something to eat, etc, without inconveniencing someone else.

Monday March 1st – Heading for LA

I decided to take time in Vegas to do a bit of last-minute shopping (some ziplock bags to make sure nothing leaks on the way home, and another present or two), rather than try to negotiate all that in LA, and, again, I took it slowly and with a late start to save some spoons, so didn’t get much done today.

Not that I’ve been particularly unwell – in fact, I’ve been far better this entire month than I normally am in Sydney. I’m going to have to hassle the doctor to work out why. No idea whether it’s stress at home, that I’ve got some low level allergic reaction to something in the house, the Sydney climate, or what. But if I can be this well when I’m traveling, doing far more than average, and generally out of my element, why can’t I reproduce that when I’m largely in control of my environment at home? I’ve worked out that I’ve driven over 1200 mi (2000km) this week. Back home, just the drive to Canberra (300km, 190mi) is enough to put me in bed for two days. Why the big difference?

So I headed down towards LA. Again, a beautiful drive (mostly), but taking it pretty slow. I stopped in Victorville, about an hour and a half from LAX, found a hotel, wrote some more blog entries (which will get to you all eventually, I promise – I’m sorry they’ve been so delayed) and attempted to get everything packed into my bag. Not so easy – I’ve done too much shopping, even since I sent so much back with the boys. And because I need to negotiate the airports in Bertha, on my own, with suitcases and handluggage, I’m restricted in exactly what and how I can pack, how big the suitcase can be, etc. I got it all in there eventually, but my suitcase has gained 6kg in the last 2 weeks!

Sunday Feb 28 – Route 66, Hoover Dam and Vegas

I checked in at 3pm yesterday, and spent the rest of the day, and till midday today, in bed, mostly online, starting to get the blog caught up, and talking to Ria and Nikki (thank you both!). Once they kicked me out (after some confusion about checkout times because I was living in California time, but was actually in Arizona, an hour ahead) I headed off, aiming for some food, and then to drive a piece of Route 66.

Food proved to be difficult – Seligman is clearly suffering from the economy, and of course it’s still winter. Many places were closed – hard to say whether it’s permanent or just for the winter. Many houses on the main street were also either for sale or simply falling down – this place definitely isn’t prospering.

A bit further along I finally found a couple of places that were open – and hit a touristy, kitchy part of Route 66 – I hope it’s enough business to keep the town kicking along. I found the Roadkill Cafe that had just re-opened for the season, and had a beef and bean burrito for breakfast. It kept me going for most of the day, augmented by the never-ending supply of M&Ms and trailmix!

Back on the road the poverty continued – similar to some isolated parts of Australia, I guess. Lots of very run-down houses in tiny towns, especially on the Indian reservation that I drove through. But, once more, it was mixed in with gorgeous scenery, great light, lovely mountains and plains. And I had to dodge (or drive over) actual tumbleweeds! Especially after the kitch in Seligman, it made me feel like I was really in the Old West.

I’ve still got 3 days left (including today) and am not quite sure what to do with them. I didn’t do much planning for this week because I wasn’t sure what my body was going to be able to cope with – it seemed like after 3 busy weeks I might end up having to sit still in a motel somewhere, resting up. But I’ve been lucky and been able to do much more than I ever imagined.

Bryan suggested going to Catalina Island off the coast of LA for a day, but in the end on a whim I turned right and followed the signs to the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas. The dam was pretty spectacular – I guess I’ve got some engineering blood in me somewhere that makes me fascinated by all these big construction works, I had the same reaction to the Deltawerken in Holland. The security was pretty tight – there were checkpoints and police all over the place, and trucks, buses etc aren’t allowed to drive over the dam. I guess it’s a prime terrorism target.

According to Wikipedia all the current construction work you can see in the background is to build a bypass bridge over the Colorado River, which is due for completion later this year. When it’s opened, you won’t be able to drive over the dam any longer, but you will be able to see it from the lower side (which as far as I know you can’t do currently).

And then, once I’d passed the dam, the views over Lake Meade, and the light on the hills was spectacular, although my photos don’t seem to have captured it very well 🙁

The drive down into Vegas took longer than I thought – it’s a much bigger city than I imagined. I drove up and down the strip while attempting to work out where I was going to sleep, park the car, find a hotel and check in, etc. That also took much longer – from the time I got off the freeway at the end of the strip, until I actually got into my room took a good couple of hours. As I said to a couple of you – the hustle and bustle of the city (or this city) isn’t really for me. I’m feeling very much like a country mouse in the big smoke!

I ended up in the Excalibur Casino on the strip (for less than $100 per night, this was the view from my room, and yes, that moon and clouds is actually real!) and rested up in my room for a couple of hours – even the casino itself is big enough to give me pause. I just looked it up – it has 4000 rooms and 10,000 sqm of casino floor – and there are dozens the same size or bigger all the way along the strip. Mind boggling that there’s enough business to support all that. But new development isn’t doing so well – I drove past Jamie Packer’s project that he lost a bundle on, it’s still a building site with nothing happening.

I eventually headed out with Bertha to have a look at the strip. Loud, colourful, in your face, bright – what else is there to say? Even McDonalds gets in on the act with sparkling signage! And, of course, the fountains at the Bellagio were beautiful.

But I left it a bit late in the day to go exploring – when I first went out there were still plenty of families around but by the time I headed back it was feeling a lot more sleazy and menacing – mainly drunken young guys, no kids and few women. It’s really the first time I haven’t felt totally safe during the entire trip – even late nights on the streets of New York weren’t this nervous-making, and I was glad to get back to my room.

And all those elevators! Vegas has largely taken the pedestrians away from the traffic by building a series of sky bridges across the side roads along one side of the strip. It’s a good idea, but it meant I was forever having to find the elevator (often in an obscure corner), wait, go up, across and down again. And since elevators are always awkward in Bertha, it was tricky (especially the one that made my heart stop by closing on me when I was half in and half out, and for a moment not letting go!)

I got around OK and nowhere was impossible to reach, but they obviously didn’t consider disability issues properly when they last re-did this place. All the footpaths have huge dips between the slabs of concrete and large patterned texturing, and have a considerable sideways slope – fine for pedestrians, but I was pretty much rattled out of my socks by the time I got back, and was worried Bertha was going to tip over several times – good thing I’m agile enough to save myself should it happen, lots of other scooter users wouldn’t be. And the lips on the kerbs leave a lot to be desired. There always was one – but many are right ON the corner, so to get on and off the footpath I had to venture out into the (moving) traffic each time. Hair raising!

Oh, and apparently I’m seriously not a gambler – I just don’t understand why people bother. Am I the only person to go to Vegas and not drink, not gamble, AND not see a show?

Saturday Feb 27 – Sun on the Canyon!

Well, I went out for sunset last night (and sunrise this morning). Got some reasonable photos, although the light was pretty ordinary. Had pizza and a glass of wine for dinner, and went to bed. I’m out of here soon, and planning to get back down off the plateau and into better weather, and then stop and take it easy for a day or so. I’m doing fine with getting back to LA in time for my flight, and need to slow down and get some spoons back. But it’s been spectacular!

(Later) OK, that didn’t quite go according to plan. I was heading out of the park when the sun started to break through the clouds, so I turned around and headed back to the rim. Another couple of hours, lots more photos (much better with better light), then in the early afternoon down to a little town called Seligman, where I stayed at the Stagecoach Inn – which the owner apologetically explained hadn’t been renovated since the 1950s. They laughed at me when I told them I needed a room with internet, but that a shower was a much lower priority. So I got internet, a bed, an original ’50s pink bathroom, and a heater that kept me warm after some coaxing from the owner, for the princely sum of $45. What more does a body need?

Friday Feb 26 – To the Grand Canyon

Well, the drive to the Canyon was almost as spectacular as yesterday’s driving. The only drawback was that most of it was along freeways, so there weren’t many opportunities to stop and take photos. Heading into Phoenix I drove through a huge flat valley, with mountains all around, cacti, you name it – and speed traps every few miles. I don’t know whether they had some special campaign going or whether this is normal for Arizona, but there was an unbelievable number of them. Hopefully I won’t have too many speeding tickets arriving in the mail the next few weeks!

But first I had a problem to solve. Last night I realised I’d miscalculated my Magnesium doses and wasn’t going to have enough to get me home. So job one this morning was to sort that out. How? Well, I pulled over into a rest area along the interstate with good phone signal. I Googled naturopaths in Phoenix, found one that had a pharmacy built in, and told Google maps to give me directions. I pulled up in front of their door and they sold me enough Mg to last me till I get home. It probably added a 20min detour to my day all up. Easy. Without the phone, I reckon it would have taken the best part of a day before I had it sorted out. As Nikki said, the phone just paid for itself!

From Phoenix I headed to Flagstaff – again, on freeways. I hadn’t researched it very much, and it turns out Flagstaff is at a lot higher elevation than Phoenix, so I was back climbing mountains. Bryan, thanks for encouraging me to get the more powerful car – it’s made a big difference. Again, a beautiful drive – with the classic Wiley Coyote and Road Runner cacti everywhere. They’re everywhere – but only on the south side of each hill, they obviously need the sun. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to stop and take photos because there was nowhere to pull off the interstate – but it was spectacular. In Flagstaff there was snow everywhere – I’m back in cold weather, which was a bit unexpected. I just kept moving, following signs to the Canyon – which took me up a back road that was just stunning. Over mountains with snow and trees – thankfully the road was dry and cleared, but the snow everywhere was very pretty.

I reached the Canyon about 2pm. Like on the drive up, there’s lots of snow on the ground, but the roads are clear and dry. It’s very overcast, and they’re forecasting rain and snow the next couple of days, so I’ll head off tomorrow, I don’t want to get stuck or have to drive through terrible weather. I bought some postcards, and took my first look at the canyon itself. Despite the weather, it’s still spectacular. Quite a bit of snow on the edges, and the air is very clear so you can see a very long way. Not much colour, though, which is a shame – but I guess with the overcast weather I can’t expect much more. You can walk for miles along the rim, great paths, depending on snow it’d be easy to take Bertha for huge distances. But I’ve pretty much just been driving to lookouts, walking a little way, and getting back in the car, because it’s hovering around freezing – Bertha might survive a serious hike bit I doubt I’d last ver long – and many of the paths are only partially cleared of snow which would make it hard going.

I got a room with a view of the Canyon (only $10 more than one without). The only drawback is that I’ve AGAIN not got internet – so I’m writing blog entries but can’t post them. I’m going to have to make sure I get a hotel with internet tomorrow so I can actually get this stuff out to you all!

Thursday Feb 25 – On the Road Again

I left San Diego today to continue traveling. After a couple of stops for maps and munchies for in the car, I also succeeded in getting a car charger for my phone. I discovered yesterday that its battery dies fast when it’s trying to access GPS and continuously download maps – I didn’t even have enough battery to navigate around San Diego for a few hours.

So now I’m all set – indefinite amounts of music, GPS and Google maps – as long as I have mobile phone tower connection! A few times I’ve had GPS but no mobile coverage – which gives me a blank grid, neatly notating my location (moving according to what I’m doing) but no map, so no info about useful things like roads and intersections. Not much use that way! Having said that, I managed to get lost today, despite having both maps and GPS, but more about that later.

I headed inland from San Diego, aiming for a town called Julian that several people had recommended, on the way to Joshua Tree National Park. Heading to Julian from the coast (literally, Bryan’s place is about 1 min from the ocean) the terrain slowly got more and more mountainous (well, big hills, anyway) and drier and drier. Parts of it reminded me of inland NSW, but much scrubbier. It was fascinating how it got rockier, drier, and more desert-like as I went along (there’s the geologist in me emerging again!)

Julian is an old gold-mining town, and has a small local museum detailing the history. The mining was a bit different here to most old gold-mining in Australia – they mined for a couple of years, then the miners had a legal dispute with the local land-owner (which the miners won after 3 years) and resumed mining. But the gold didn’t last long, and the town diversified to ranching and agriculture (largely apple growing). In Australia when they struck gold there was generally a lot of it and there was huge mining in a large-ish area for quite some time, bringing considerable wealth.

I got chatting to the volunteer running the museum, who was a retired policeman who had fond memories on working with Aussie cops on anti-drug-smuggling in LA before he retired – apparently the Aussies really knew how to party! He refused to accept my donation entrance fee to the museum. There seem to be a lot of people here with fond memories of Australians, who are keen to relive them when another Aussie happens along. Lots of these memories seem to involve how well Aussies can party/drink/know how to have a good time!

Over lunch I did some research and planning – and decided to aim for the Grand Canyon after all. I originally thought I wasn’t going to have enough time or spoons to get there, especially after spending an extra day in San Diego. But considering how well I’m feeling, the condition of the roads, and the amount of ground I covered this morning in just a couple of hours, I’m going to go for it. The only issue is that there’s snow predicted for the Canyon Saturday and Sunday, so I’m going to have to do it NOW, and hopefully get off the canyon plateau before the weather really sets in. I figure if I get close, I can always catch the train from Williams (near the Canyon outside the national park).

Accordingly, I planned my route and set off, thinking I could get at least half way there this afternoon and tonight. Well, that was until I took a major detour. Most of the roads around here go through and around national parks, and aren’t well marked. And, of course, being national parks, mobile phone towers are few and far between. So, guess what? I took a wrong turn somewhere, and it took me over an hour to notice, although I was wondering about the sun not being in the direction I expected!

Apparently I zigged when I should have zagged, and headed southeast instead of northeast. By the time I got back on track I think I did about an extra 150 miles, and unexpectedly hit the 8 interstate freeway again (the one I started out on near Bryan’s place this morning), and narrowly avoided crossing into Mexico by mistake – but it was totally worth it. The countryside I traveled through was just amazing. Hilly, mountainous, flat, beautiful – and repeatedly going from high elevations of about 4000 feet to sea level. Again, amazing how vertical this country is – much more so than Australia.

I found beautiful backlit cacti (I think they were cacti – in any case, gorgeous). Landscapes that continues to get drier and rockier. And then sand dunes, just as the sun was starting to set!

I also got stopped by a border patrol – they’re set up all over, often 100 miles or more inside the border. They were very polite, asked a few questions, and let me go. I must have seemed genuine – they asked my nationality and if I had my passport, but didn’t want to see it!

Tonight I’ve stopped at a motel in a town called Quartzsite. It’s just over the Arizona border from California, and is actually a collection of on-site vans. Fine by me, I’ve got a bed, and in any case I’m planning to be out early tomorrow to keep driving. I decided I’d rather stop early, sleep, and drive early, in an attempt to not drive through darkness too much. Safer that way (especially with the bigger car, and the wrong side of the road). Also, I miss too much beautiful scenery if I drive at night. Tomorrow, presuming I don’t get lost again (!) I should be at the Grand Canyon about lunchtime. That’ll give me plenty of time to find a room, go and oggle at the canyon for as long as I want, including sunset and (if I can wake up early enough) sunrise, and then get out of town before the snow gets too bad – although it’d be cool to see it with some snow on it. Here’s hoping the plan works!

Weds Feb 24 – San Diego Zoo

I got to have a good sleep in this morning 🙂 Once I was up and around (at almost lunch time!) I headed off to San Diego Zoo, which I hadn’t got to on my last visit and had been keen to see.

It was a lot of fun, but even steeper than Taronga Zoo in Sydney (which is saying something). Their paths are divided into “wheelchair accessible” and not, but somehow I managed to get off the accessible paths so getting back up to the zoo gates proved to be a challenge for poor Bertha. She’s got quite a bit of power, but steep slopes, with me on board, just wasn’t going to work. So there were a number of sections where I had to hop off, walk her up the next steep bit, and then get back on again. No matter, I still had a good time, and managed to see a bunch of animals, including the pandas (only the backs of their heads, they weren’t in a particularly outgoing mood).

Bryan and I were heading out to go and see Avatar tonight (since I hadn’t seen it yet and he was keen to see it again), so after the zoo I headed out to Mira Mesa and hung out in the bookshop until he’d finished at work. Several books later I emerged (I should have known it’d be dangerous!), and went to buy an aux audio cable for the car so I can listen to music while I’m driving this next week. I struck out on a charger, though – it’ll be interesting to see how long the phone lasts playing music without being able to recharge.

Tuesday Feb 23 – Happy Birthday to me in San Diego

My second birthday for 2010 (is it like the hobbits and their second breakfast?) Yesterday in Australia, today here. The morning catching up on emails and the internet in general. Bryan, you did a good job of hiding from me that you were supposed to be working from home today – you should have just told me, I’d have been fine to keep myself entertained!

In the afternoon I rented a car and then went in to the office for a little while. It seemed a little surreal to go into the office (a) during my vacation, and (b) on my birthday, but it was the only way to fit in a quick meeting with Grace, the intern who’s just started working on a project with me, and Arun, who’s running the project. Working with her the next few months will be a lot easier now that we’ve had a chance to meet and brainstorm a few ideas.

Then out to dinner – surf and turf right on the beach – yet another great meal with great company, despite the fact that the IT guys from work piked out on us. I’m seeing a pattern here – last year the Sydney office piked on Thanksgiving, and this year San Diego IT piked on my birthday.