As if we hadn't done enough mindblowing things this trip, we were taken out flying by Drew in an airplane! A trip from Oakland over the Napa Valley into Petaluma and then down the coast to Half Moon Bay. Daniel even got to fly the plane! And take some terrific pictures of course. Need I say more...
So the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series (a hilarious name for a competition that doesn't get more worldly than Canada), making them the shiznit of the moment as it is opening week here. And who was lucky enough to watch them play the Cardinals? Yup, you guessed right. And so Daniel experienced his first Star Spangled Banner and sang along with the stadion during seventh inning stretch. I've decided this is my sport: garlic fries, hotdog, buttery popcorn, beer, and a batter they call the Panda who releases 'pandamonium' when he bats (and who's fans wear panda hats). Bring on the World Series 2011, it's ON!
With just a week to go before we go home, we're cramming as much goodness into our systems as we possibly can before the money runs out. Over the last month we've spent our time justbeing- the Bay Area has accepted us and we have built some sort of a life here. We've been photographing, developing, printing, basking, sauntering, cooking, cleaning, washing, sketching, printing, sewing, cutting, drawing, visiting, socializing. Oh, and eating- lots of that. And subsequently gaining. And fantasizing about losing. But amid all activities was one we had missed on our road trip, and we still desperately wanted to achieve: Yosemite, the Mother of All National Parks. As luck would have it, we have an exceptionally kind uncle who lent us his car (again) with a trunkload of camping gear. Daniel feverishly checked the weather report every hour on the hour before we left, confirming that the spring sun would be shining down on us at incredible temperatures for the time of year. We were set! A few hours, a small glitch in the map-reading, some light arguing and an In-n-Out burger later, we were driving through Yosemite with our windows rolled down, 25 degrees blowing in and Sublime on the stereo. Bliss!
We cruised up to Camp Curry and traversed the snow to the reception in our flip flops. We checked in, and then asked about bears. According to exceptionally kind uncle above, the bears would still be hibernating. We mentioned this to Receptionist, who looked at us like we were slightly mad, exclaimed "Oh no, they're VERY active", and proceeded to give us a lecture about bear safety and ample handouts (possibly known as the "European Pile") with various summaries of the lecture, also in pictures for us special folk. Obviously we didn't look very "Bear Aware". Part of being the latter was keeping anything even remotely edible in a bear locker at all times in Camp Curry (CC). This involved putting oneself in a bear's shoes, who apparently also thinks sanitary pads and deodorant are delicious. "But where are we supposed to cook?", we spluttered. Receptionist looked at us in disbelief. There was a place we could go to by car, on the other side of the valley. Right. She attempted to thwart our cooking plans by giving us yet another handout with "Dining Options" in the park, which we waved off- we are purists after all. So after we settled ourselves in our lovely non-heated canvas lodgings, we headed out to the picnic area to cook some dinner. We initially drove past it thinking it was just a trail head, but after a dead end further on we realized that the desolate bit of park we'd just seen was indeed where we needed to be. Not another soul was there, and it was freezing cold and starting to get dark. We purists opted for the $15 buffet in the end. God punishes: we were lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of teenage boys in heat and the blood curdling screams of the girls they were trying to impress, and about 600 other excited children of all ages on the first night of a school trip. We also understood the banks of snow around us as we lay there freezing our little butts off under the three wool blankets we initially thought would keep us toasty. With little separating us from sub zero temperatures than a canvas wall, we piled on the thermal underwear, socks and hats and jumped in our sleeping bags under a pile of blankets. I think I cried at some point. We woke up to find bear paw prints outside our tent and locker, which was slightly unnerving. It caused light sleeping in any case.
We took a GORGEOUS hike up towards Vernal Falls the next day (unfortunately the last bit of the trail was closed, we found out at the top), and also saw Mirror Lake which reflected Half Dome beautifully. When we hit the cooking grounds that night the tables were full and thebarbecues were smoking. Karma rewarded us with a relatively quiet but definitely much warmer night's sleep. The next morning we drove down to Mariposa Grove to see the giant sequoias which were absolutely amazing. It was crystal clear and VERY snowy- we were standing on top of 2 meters of snow (the grove had had 3,5 in total this year!) looking down on the information posts that we usually looked up at. The bathrooms had been snowed in completely, as had any other form of housing. That and the trees being abnormally large made for a pretty bizarre but very beautiful scene to walk through. There is also something about walking on a plowed road with a wall of snow on either side, or on top of a thick blanket of snow, wearing a tank top and/or shorts that makes life pretty fabulous. 'Nuff said.
The next morning it was FREEZING cold and snowing! We had timed our visit perfectly. We left Yosemite in a flurry of thick snowflakes, unable to see any of its glory above tree level. It was one of the most breathtaking scenes either of us have ever seen.
We were leaving Soledad with coffee in our drink holders and Mexican norteño blasting out of our speakers, the windows rolled down and the sun beaming in when we learned of Japan. It was suddenly not such a beautiful day. First Christchurch, now Japan- we did not visit the area that was hit worst, but even stories from Tokyo sent chills down our spine. It is absolutely crazy to hear these stories and see these pictures of disasters unfolding in familiar territory. It was also a rude awakening to the fact that we had been traveling the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, and were still in it- this is, as far as seismic activity goes, the créme-de-la-créme of notable zones. Top notch, this is. So when we started to hear the tsunami warnings on the radio and see all of the beaches and coastal rest stops on Highway 1 were closed and guarded by police, we started wondering how real the threat was. I mean, we had lived in a complete bubble as far as the West Coast was concerned for three weeks and we were in no way capable of gaging "normal" coastal activity. We are bloody Dutchies for godssake. However, having been in the States for long enough to know that if anyone likes to create hysteria, it's the American, we figured we were probably safe to continue. Logic told us that if it was life-threatening, the highway would most likely be closed.
We were on our way to go ride the roller coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk to end our trip and I was excited. I had been trying to go on a roller coaster throughout the trip, but it seemed like the gods were against me. The one in Vegas didn't work out, we passed one on our way over the border of Nevada and California but it was only open on weekends. This one was last chance saloon. It was supposedly a really rickety wooden one that had been built in the 1930s- extra thrill! We entered Santa Cruz, and everything seemed to be going well- we were even able to synchronize our map reading and driving skills to get us there! However, the closer we got to the boardwalk, the worse the traffic seemed to be getting. There were six choppers circling above us. This is perhaps the point where you are all wondering why we didn't put one and one together and assume the boardwalk, a wooden construction built in the sea, might be closed due to the possibility of a tsunami in that very same sea. Well, it was shortly after we saw the choppers that it started to dawn on us, and we flipped the radio on only to hear that Santa Cruz harbor had been hit by the tsunami, albeit a very much watered down version, and had caused quite some damage. Three people had gone missing (because they sneaked down to the beach to take pictures, NOT because they were minding their own business and carrying on as per usual), but I think all of them were found later.
No rollercoaster. No Santa Cruz. But lots of detours and polite but stern policemen waving traffic on. And lots of blocked off streets. The entire coastal area of Santa Cruz was closed. We never even saw it was on the ocean. It makes a great bar story though.
Now we're back in Berkeley, pet-sitting for Frances and Chris while they are away in Ireland. Our family comprises of Rua the cat, and Leda and Hera the chickens. Daniel is attempting to make a lap cat out of Rua, which seems to working. He has in any case figured out where we live and that if he miauws at our door long enough he will get fed in the morning, or get attention in the evening. One of our cats does that at home, so it's almost comforting. Almost. The chickens (or the ladies as everyone calls them) are absolutely the most entertaining animals I have ever seen. I could watch them all day. It's also really neat to eat eggs that come from chickens you know personally. Going to look and see if they have laid makes me feel like a kid again, it's exciting. They lay a lot- Daniel worked out that they lay around 10 eggs a week! That's a lotta egg for two people. We have started bringing them to people's houses as gifts now.
It's hard to believe our last month here has started.
Having clambered through Arches National Park (wow) and Canyonlands NP (wow wow) in breathtakingly gorgeous weather we were starting to get cocky. Jupiter, Thor, Mother Nature- they were all on our side, clearing the skies and allowing for sunny, albeit chilly weather. We scampered around in our sweatshirts, admiring some of Utah's most gorgeous sights and sounds, climbing up into stone arches formed by millions of years of erosion and wandering canyon rims peering into vast landscapes of unearthly shapes and colors. So when we left our nifty little motel in Moab, espresso goodness in our spoiled little hands, and headed up into the mountains over Capitol Reef NP, we were expecting the beautiful drive into Bryce Canyon NP the Lonely Planet (LP) had described on Highway 12.
Capitol Reef was an added bonus as far as driving scenery was concerned, as we were dwarfed by huge sandstone cliffs on small roads winding through. It had started raining slightly at this point, but this did nothing but enliven what we were driving past- the desert and its counterparts tend to become even more intense when wet. By the time we hit Dixie National Forest, it had started to sleet, and then finally, snow. The scenery changed dramatically from wet but visible earth to a white blanket with dainty little snowflakes flouncing around. I suppose at this point it would be fair to mention that I had expressed a small desire to see snow that very morning, and so when it started falling I initially got really excited (Daniel seceretly did too). The inner children in us, oh-so-hard-to-find, ahem, forced us out of the car numerous times to play around in the snow and pelt each other and other things with snowballs, so much fun! We climbed and climbed up into the mountains, hardly noticing the slightly menacing color the sky was starting to turn in our rearview mirror. Up and up, and the roads were getting whiter and whiter. The snowdrifts and piles on the side of the road were starting to become higher than us, and it was starting to snow more heavily. Not another soul was on the road, but in Utah that doesn't necessarily mean anything. When we did see another car we decided to stop it and ask for advice on driving in the weather- we are but Dutchies, used to driving on flat, well-salted roads after all, and had no snow chains. The guy told us that as long as we didn't slip, we would be OK. By 9000 ft. (2750 m), our visibility was down to about half a meter, the roads were covered in icy snow and we were slipping like nobody's business. After a long think, we decided to head back- we had no idea how far away the town we were headed for was, and it was even higher so the chances of more snow were certain. A bit of a hairy drive later, we arrived back in the town (that would be street), and stopped to ask for advice and directions in a gas station. Turns out we made the right decision- there was a big storm heading over the pass we had tried to take, and it was even making the interstates hard to use as we later found out. So we ended up staying in Utah's most stunning shithole, Beaver, and watched as the snow came down mercilessly, hoping we weren't going to have to stay there. By the next morning it was back to blue skies and sun, and the icicles were melting off of the car as we pondered our next move. We ended up driving to Zion, which we saw in a meter of snow and ice in the North, and then in beaming spring sun and warmth in the South. This place makes no sense.
No rest for the wicked! After a few days in Vegas one needs some wide open space to detox, so we cruised on down to the Grand Canyon to see one of the seven wonders of the world. It had snowed a foot the night before so it was pretty damn spectacular, not at all what you expect when you think of the desert in Arizona!
We did part of the Rim Trail along the South Rim and took the shuttle bus up to Pima Point to see the sunset. Even though it is impossible to comprehend what you are looking at, it is one of the single most impossible views you will ever see in your lifetime. 'Nuff said.
So, there we were, eating our free, hot breakfast (out of the cardboard danish, rubber beef patty, so-called french toast and gutter water coffee with absolutely NO kick, the instant oatmeal was the best- need we say more?) in Boulder City, Nevada in our "high-end" motel with a 24 hour pool, marvelling at what luxury we had managed for ourselves. It wasn't great, but it wasn't a fleapit. Had we known that we would be in the decadent heart of being king-for-a-day just a few hours later, we would have laughed at ourselves. The only thing the two places had in common was the menu of themed rooms with ceiling mirrors and jacuzzis. We hit Vegas at 10 am. Perhaps not the most likely time to wander around the City of the Night, but it is apparently never to early to shoot a gun and so we hit the shooting range after the coffee drive-thru. Daniel had read about it and decided that if any time was going to be the time, it was now (he hates 'em, but just really wanted to know what it was like to shoot 'em). I went along for the ride. We were greeted by a girl who signed Daniel in. What gun did he want to shoot? (Girl produces gun menu) Did he want a package? (I believe that for $400 you could shoot every gun they had in the place, and that's including semi-automatic machine guns) Daniel proceeded to explain he only wanted to shoot a handgun (the Dirty Harry, a Magnum .44), which coerced the girl's possibly most impressive sales technique ever out of her: "But you're a gun virgin! Losing your virginity to a handgun is like losing your virginity to a crack whore! Why not start with the supermodel? (eg. the machine guns)" Maybe it was our wide-eyed, stunned silence at this colorful metaphor, maybe we looked too European for the big 'uns, but she let is be after one more word of advice: "Don't be afraid of the kickback guys. 12 year olds come in here and do it all the time!" (I'm not really sure how this was reassuring) Once inside Daniel picked a target (when in America, be an American! Bin Laden was the obvious choice) and went off to shoot. I was going to be his side-kick photographer for you folks at home, but the gun man wouldn't let me come in (because apparently I was going to be a hazard, not the 10-odd people toting large firearms) and he took really awful pictures. So you'll have to take our word for this one. Moving on, we found the pinball hall of fame, and since that is only Daniel absolutely most favorite thing to do in the whole wide world (are we sensing a Daniel-themed morning here?), we spent a good hour or so there playing all sorts of retro video games and choosing from over 200 pinball machines. Even I thought it was pretty cool. Next up was ultimate kitsch at the Liberace museum (Heather's choice...), and although the outside looked totally promising it was, unfortunately, closed. Damn! So.. Moving on again, it was time to check into our hotel! We had managed to book ourselves into Downtown's finest, the Golden Nugget. This may have been the point where we realized the difference between motel and hotel. If only because around the corner from the lobby was the largest single nugget of gold (aha!) in the world. So having valet parked our car and settled into our room (which inevitably involves me rearranging the contents of my bag across the room floor), we primped and preened and made ourselves beautiful and hit town. My aunt Lisbet happened to be celebrating her 50th birthday the same weekend and so we were invited to go and see a show on the Strip. We ate chez Denny's (a real classy joint, you could compare to van der Valk for the Dutchies) and then wandered over to the Mirage where we saw LOVE (Cirque du Soleil's take on the Beatles). WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW. Oh my God. So NOW I want to be a set designer and acrobat when I grow up obviously. We saw the Bellagio's fountain show (fantabulous), various poker rooms (again, a Daniel-themed day- and Lisbet is big poker momma so they got on FINE), Paris, Venice and finally downtown again where we hit the final poker room where Daniel took a stand and lost $100 in about 2 minutes (it was a REALLY unfortunate call. Even I as a non-poker player saw that one...). Time to call it a NIGHT. The next morning we felt the consequences of learning how to get $1 drinks at penny slots. We had a breakfast date however and so off we went to the Aria for brunch (we ate enough to feed small armies), and then we walked pretty much the entire Strip on both sides, taking in each casino separtely until we could see no more. For those who have never been to Sin City, all your preconceptions are true. It is absolute mayhem, time is completely irrelevant, the place reeks of "What happens in Vegas..." with all the bachelor(ette) parties screaming their drunken way down the Strip, and absolutely everything is about money, whether it's the bills fed into slot machines or the mandatory tipping for anything from getting into a cab to buying a drink. It is a place where everyone is king for a day- no matter how much money is in your bank account, you are treated like a million dollars (obviously I don't know what it's like to be a high roller) and you can indulge yourself in whatever level of luxury befits you. For us this meant soaking in the hotel jacuzzi in the setting sun with drinks in our hands, swimming in the hotel pool which had a 200,000 gallon (760,000 liter) shark tank embedded in it (and a waterslide going through the shark tank...eek!), or being able to get champagne "on the house" because we were sitting at a slot machine, getting our car valet parked, and having a constant stack of dollar bills in our pockets (which inevitably became tips, but hey).
We spent our second evening at the 'Fremont Street Experience', where a 500m super screen above our heads gave a lightshow every hour and amongst all walks of life sauntering around one could see Kiss members having serious conversations with Spongebob Squarepants while waving at Spiderman and a group of showgirls accross the street. We gave up around 9, when the depressing gamblers started to hit us and everyone seemed suddenly to be hideously obese. Enough is enough already.