And just before we lose this lovely room with its net access, a few little things we've noticed about the USA but Las Vegas especially.
It's all about the money. That is, convincing you something is good value while hitting you for extras: a ticket to last night's Ani Di Franco concert at the House of Blues, bought online, would attract sales tax, a booking fee, and a convenience fee.
It's also all about the marketing. Telling you how great the meal you're about to order is, though it will taste the same as every other burger chain, loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Yesterday, we saw a couple wearing matching badges: "Ask me about my recent marriage".
It's big. Everything's big. Distances are actually pretty quick to cover, certainly compared to the UK.
So, the closing word from Nic: "It's all about delusional self-gratification." And so it proves to be. Still, there's some great scenery out there, and we're going to find some more.
Sorry for the delay in getting this out, it's very late (now 1am) and we haven't had any access. We've got too much video and too many photos, but we'll whittle and edit and show something worthwhile. In the meantime, this is a utilitarien description at best, out of order or in order depending on how you read it. And I haven't even mentioned much about San Francisco yet. Bugger.
OK, here we go.
SF. Arrived. Got in to town. Intantly felt like we weren't in Wisconsin any more. To be blunt, the social welfare system is so far up shit creek in SF that in downtown there are not just multiple people begging on each block, but you can find women sniffing lighter fluid and men approaching you on street corners trying to sell an empty wallet ($2) or saying "hello white people, I'll be your comedian this evening".
This is the kind of thing that puts you off a place. It's not that you feel physically unsafe, just constantly hassled and aware that you've got it a whole lot better than a great many people around you.
So San Fran was Not as much fun as we'd expected, though the Polyphonic Spree were excellent, a bike ride around the bay was great, and an unplanned meeting an old friend was really fun. Oh, and we bought our new tent - lots of prepping for camping.
I must sleep now. We'll be going to a number of rocky national parks next, and again will have limited net time, so more apologies. Hope you're all well.
We have less than a month to go. Wheeeeeee!
More backtracking while it's still in the head somewhere, because we'll never see all the photos and video.
Yosemite, in brief and in order:
21 July: Pick up the car in SF, long drive to Yosemite, via Target and other large American stores for supplies. Arrive in Yosemite Valley, set up, sleep. Bears about.
22 July: Move our tent within the same campground, go exploring around the Valley. Nice falls, nice meadows, nice swim in the Merced River looking at Half Dome at sunset. Showers aren't free or convenient, so rivers are handy. Bears again, sleeping issues.
23 July: Move out of the crowded valley to crowded Crane Flat, via a great view at Glacier Point. Giant Sequoia grove, another swim. Missing soap terribly.
24 July: Move on again to the north-east corner of the park, Tuolomne Meadows, for three nights here. Lovely spot by a new river. Great swimming, still no showers available. Getting grotty. Wandered to Soda Springs and around; friendlier, prettier and higher than the valley, and recommended.
25 July: Feeling altitude sickness (8500 feet or so up). At least when we try to hike up Lembert Dome via Dog Lake. Eventually make it to Dog Lake; nice, but flies make eating tricky. Eventually after that, make it to Lembert Dome summit, which is stunning. Back via Tuolomne Lodge (canvas cabins with a nearby restaurant) to another swim. Very cool.
26 July: Last day without a shower, and a perfect day in every way. We haven't seen rain since we left New York, but this was just a great day in every way. By Tenaya Lake for a while, then wandering slowly up the river, finding our own private granite beach.
27 July: To Lone Pine, a motel, and a shower. And there the story continues...
OK, trying again. This crappy system just ate two paragraphs.
Pre-vegas, we passed through Death Valley. Unbelievable heat - 40 degress C in the shade at 10am, and hotter after that. The air was a struggle to breathe, as in a dry hammam. A real sense of impending doom as our bodies just failed to deal with heat on this scale; we drank three litres of water each.
Utter silence in the still heat.
Before that, a motel in Lone Pine, a pool with a nice view of the Sierras, and a fine hand-tossed pizza from across the way. And before that, Yosemite. More next, ie. further up the page. I hope you're all reading backwards.
Wow. Vegas is a strange place. Typing this on a crappy, blurry internet system on our TV in a nice, cheap room in the Las Vegas Hilton. Just visited as many casinos as we feasibly could to check them out for weirdness, and found it.
Each casino has its own theme, tackiness rating, and modesty rating for the waitresses' uniforms. Some are classier, some tackier, but most share the same basic games and a desire to take your money. No clocks, few signs to exits, and buffets for dining. It's the end of civilisation.
Backtracking. The week in Star Prairie has blurred, and will remain blurry since no notes were taken. Let's recap some of the key events.
Picked up, generously, from Madison after a generous lift there was given.
A good mexican meal with a "large beer".
A swim in a lake, of which much will be made.
Power-boating on a different lake, at what felt like higher speeds.
Visiting a foal less than a week old.
A walk in Interstate Park.
A trip to the Mall of America, a large place. There's a whole theme park (Snoopy Camp) in the middle. And a wedding chapel.
Hanging out with my new step-siblings. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call them Brae and Shady. Much fun with Super Smash Bros Melee and Frisbee French Cricket. Meeting the extended family and friends.
Mowing a huge lawn with a ride-on mower.
The "Get The Foreigners Drunk" party, though thankfully no surfacing of "that" drinking game. Drunken hill-rolling, though. Tacos too. Much local beer, margaritas.
A first drive in the USA, on the wrong side.
Hanging out with my father for the last time in a while.
Getting to know his new wife, the friendly stepmother.
Homemade curry with homemade naan bread.
A mosquito-infested walk at Saratoga Springs.
Peace and quiet; it's a small place.
Heat burning down from the blue, blue skies.
Now, we're off to Yosemite and many other national parks; we may be unable to blog or call for a little while. Advanced apologies, and have a nice day!
There's a whole pile of stuff to say about Star Prairie, visiting family, but I can't say that stuff now. I'll write it longhand and come back to type it in. There's also stuff to say about San Francisco. But right now, I have to go on a bit about the excellent band that we just saw, here at the Apple Store San Francisco, where this message is being sent from. See, The Polyphonic Spree just played, and they were fantastic. Huge amounts of energy, sweat pouring off bodies, jumping, dancing, a theremin, a harp, loads of good vibes, happy people.
And I got the whole thing on my camcorder. Sure, it's probably distorted off the scale, but it could be good. And also, we've got their album (now signed by about 15 of them) on our iPod and will be cranking it up this evening.
Good live music in an Apple Store, second row seat (of two rows) and a fab time.
(After a fab day, riding around the bay's edge. But that's another story, and will be told another time.)
Yeah, people can now read it again. Some kind of routine maintenance on the site brought it down at 4am UK time. But now it's back and I'm talking about how it was down temporarily, instead of telling you about the USA.
This is Chicago, a city in which I once worked for six weeks, after being sent here to help set up the US office of [A Company], my Australian employer. Many CEOs and managerial shakeups later (and a ton of politics under the bridge) the company folded in the US and survived back in Australia. But that's another sorry tale.
Here, now, it's sunny, not under a foot of snow, and I'm here with my lovely wife instead of separated by thousands of miles. It's not my birthday, and instead of sleeping in a small, dodgy hotel room with a pull-down bed, we're staying with my new step-uncle in his fabbo loft apartment, typing this on a wireless keyboard plugged into a computer driving a huge plasma screen TV.
This is more fun than last time.
The trip so far? NYC was a blast, and I don't know how we'd have topped that. Chicago deep dish pizza is one way, and we finally got our own last night, from Gino's East down the road. An enormous, thick, fresh topless pizza pie, loaded with tomato, undercut with cheese, plus crumbled sausage and other things, but if I go on I'll have to reach over to the fridge for a slice, and then the keyboard would get sticky and make nobody happy. It's not even as bad for you as you'd think.
Many other things, however, are. Servings are huge, as are a number of Chicagoans. New York seems to have a greater number of fitness/fashion freaks, and more people drive here, so the average weight of the locals increases. The cars, though, are actually smaller. I guess New Yorkers don't actually need to drive often, so those who do buy cars get them as status symbols. Here it's a little more real. Cars are pushier, drivers less considerate to pedestrians. Spaces between interesting things are larger, and so walking is discouraged. Oh, the staff - certainly the security staff - at the Chicago Art Institute are just unfriendly, and the place closes early, at 4.30 sharp, with galleries 15 minutes before that. Example: it's getting near closing time so we're rushing a little. We ask a security guard where the restroom (that's loo, toilet or bog to you) is, and she says in a bored manner, with a lingering undercurrent of distaste, that they're down those stairs, if they haven't been locked yet. (They lock the toilets a few minutes before they close.)
It's also probably the only place I've been that forces you to check your bag, then charges for the privilege. So take advantage of their "pay as you wish" policy and pay them less; they're mean and they don't deserve it. Some nice impressionist works, though.
So while here, we've done some shopping - I must be up to about 30 shirts in my wardrobe by now, including the ones shipped home - been to the zoo, seen some tall buildings, some large open spaces, a highly reflective silver sculpture near a Gehry-designed roof (neither open yet, part of the unfinished Millenium Park, just a tad late) and been out to dinner with my new step-uncle, some new and interesting beers and a pizza pot pie - similar to a deep dish but kind of different. Very nice, though the hot cheese on top (after the table-based upturning ceremony) does tend to remind you what your arteries will look like after you've finished. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Last night held some drinks with some of my step-uncle's friends, the aforementioned Chicago pizza and Ferris Bueller's Day Off - which is a Chicago movie. A proper Chicago evening.
Today holds a peace fair and a folk festival, then a beer in the bar at the top of the John Hancock Building, if they let us in. Sure, the beers are expensive, but the view's priceless, and the alternative is to pay to access the observation deck a floor above. So I'll pay for the beer instead.
More from the next stop, Star Prairie, where I meet my new step-siblings, the other 500+ residents of the town, and hang out with my dad and new stepmother. She's not wicked at all. Well, maybe a little. I'll post from the coal cellar and tell you all about it.
Did this work? Is the site down? Can anyone read this?
The big New York City post. Hopefully I can backtrack to some of the UK stuff, but right now that's a little patchy. Here's NYC so far:
DAY BY DAY
Wednesday 30 Jun: arrive, midtown, out for body clock adjustment, wrap + panini.
Thursday 1 July: Empire State Building for orientation, shopping to/from, midtown, Times Square.
Friday 2: Guggenheim, not The Met, Central Park, Upper East Side, Spider-Man 2 (not great).
Saturday 3: move hotels to East Village Bed and Coffee (recommended), look about, head out to Soho Apple Store via everything else in the way, including a good knish. World Trade Center site (no I'm not buying your postcards you vulture) and Century 21, Battery Park, eventually Staten Island Ferry at sunset, then a bus back. Buses are good!
Sunday 4: cycle to J&R downtown to buy new camera (Canon A80), out to Central Park, listening to Imagine and some Beatles by buskers in Strawberry Fields, a little Upper West Side wandering.
Monday 5: Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn Bridge at sunset.
Tuesday 6: Drop off washing for $5, out to Natural History Museum - fantastic, didn't even get to see the dinosaurs, all the newly redone exhibits are just great, Central Park once more, bus, more good food.
- A woman in the Guggenheim reading room who was turning pages with her feet - she had no arms.
- The sound of midtown Manhattan by night, up high, is wild, as are the views.
- A storm breaking the back of a humid heatwave; the guy outside instantly selling umbrellas.
- Taxidermy done well (as opposed to creepy and Victorian) at the Natural History Museum. Awe-inspiring displays of biodiversity, geology and cosmology, and a scale model of the Mars rovers.
- St Mark's Place (8th Ave) for the best selection of casual eating anywhere ever.
- Discovering that manual controls on a digital camera really make a world of difference (the Canon A80 is a bargain).
- The metro and the buses are air conditioned!
- The ale house in Brooklyn Heights serving a wider selection of draft beers than even a great English pub. And they aren't all lagers.
- New Yorkers are friendly, and everywhere feels safe. Really. You can even cross the road without fear.
- Some places include the tax in listed prices, but most don't. And tipping everywhere means that you never really know just how much something will cost you. At a 99c store, each item will be $1.08.
- Prices listed in guidebooks are way out of date, because when prices go up, they jump in large amounts. A cab from the airport is now $45 + tolls + tip. But the exchange rate means that if you're spending pounds, that's still about £30.
- Bagels, bagels, bagels. And iced coffee. And smoothies. All good. In fact, we haven't had bad food here, not like bad food in London. Not an Full English Breakfast to be seen.
- Central Park is great, the lungs of this city.
- Even though this is one of the least metric countries on Earth, some drinks are still sold as 16.9 fl oz (ie. 500ml). And the Natural History Museum uses metric first.
- Tons of anti-Bush t-shirts, slogan, logos and feeling.
- Oh, it's not all good. Legal guns mean that people get shot. Not many in such a large city, but four on the subway in the last month is cause for concern.
So yeah, visit New York. Last time I was here, in 1997, I was on a AUS$50/day budget, and still had a good time. Now, we can afford meals, and we're having a blast. Not sure how the rest of the country will be in comparison, but we'll find out.