By the time you read this, the grand trip will be over. It was... 4997 miles driven by us in the USA, more as we were driven, more on trains, more in the UK. Of course many more miles flown. This trip has been an orgy of energy use, consumer activity, pay-before-pumping gasoline purchases, scouting out motels and campgrounds, gazing at amazing things, and movement of all kinds.
As another travelling friend has recently written, travel broadens the mind, makes you a better person, and gives you plenty of stories to bore people with at dinner parties. I've been a fish out of water for so long that I've nearly forgotten how to have a conversation that somehow doesn't lead to a discourse on the different ways people in different countries interact, how weird this country's food is or how bad this other country's weather is. I'd like to be in a place (mentally and physically) where I can just shoot the breeze and talk about simple things like how good this beer or that movie is or was.
This message is being written in an appropriate place to assist: I'm sitting against a pillar in LAX, gate 25, with the Mac plugged in and Nic sitting across from me. A gentle American voice is warning us to maintain visual contact with our personal property at all times, a girl is mouthing along to a song on her iPod mini. There's a mobile phone call or two, a few empty water bottles scattered, and two other laptop users sitting at a pillar nearby. They may be writing something insightful, balancing their chequebooks, or playing chess; I don't know.
Most travellers here have that resigned look that you get waiting in airports. We all know we have an hour until boarding, and then another fourteen hours just for this flight. We have another three and a half hours of flying to reach Brisbane. This flight is an interesting one; you're meant to sleep. Takeoff is at 11.30pm, and arrival at 7.15am, but there's six hours time difference, and if you can sleep that long, good luck to you. And maybe we'll be woken up stopping in Honolulu in the middle of the night.
None of that really matters. Flying is like a fast bus journey with increased security. OK, it's very much faster, but it's not as fashionable as you might expect. Lots of sitting about waiting. The end product, though, is that you get to go around the world, passing through timezones like a hot knife through soft cheese, and return home in a flash. In less than twenty four hours, in fact very likely before this message is posted, we'll have finally seen, for the first time, the house we bought about a year ago. (Ask me if you don't know the story.)
That's a big, big thing. We've been counting down for what seems like months and has, in fact, been that long. Now, we get to see it, and my mother, and my parents-in-law, and Bianca the cat, and other friends, and all the Brisbane stuff I've lost touch with. Here's a handy comparison chart from a couple of days ago which you can try yourself: fire up weather.com and check out the ten-day forecasts for "London, United Kingdom" and "Brisbane, Australia". London was rain or showers every day, though warmish (11-25°), Brisbane was slightly cooler (9-24°) but sunny daily. Don't do this if you want to stay in London, it'll only depress you further. Do it if you need encouragement to leave.
Actually, the weather in LA's been great. We've spent the last day and a half hanging out with Amy and Cam, two Aussie expats spending a few years away from home. Amy showed us around the nice bits of LA (Venice beach, Santa Monica, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood) and took us to nice restaurants and cafes. We swam in the Pacific, in pools and jacuzzis, drank beer. Hung out at their place, talked about TiVo, politics and music. An entirely pleasant way to leave the country, and the only way to enjoy LA. It's worth a visit if you have a guide, as you need to know where to go and a car.
But that's LA, and though we're still here, an airport doesn't count, it's anonymous, international ground. The same overpriced food, magazines and duty-free liquor, the same symbols and the same blank looks. Nobody wants to be at an airport, unless, like Singapore, there's a game show and a massage to be had. Here, they make you pay for internet access and trolleys, so we're simply leaving.
This post, though, isn't the last post, simply the last for a while. There are people to see, jetlag to defeat, parties to go to and family and friends to hug. More emails to write, new connections to forge and old ones to strengthen. A knitting book to design, websites to maintain, DVDs to plan, meetings to attend. Colours to pick out, contractors to hire, cars and bikes to buy, consumer advice magazines to read closely. There's a long trail to follow, and I'm sure I'll be waylaid. We'll be more stationary, but hopefully not less interesting.
I'll let you know.
What we did yesterday: watched the sun set over the ocean from the table at our campsite. Drove down the Big Sur, which is a pretty bit of coastline, if inaccessible and unswimmable. We also witnessed price gouging on a massive scale, in a shop in Lucia on the coast. $4.50 for four crappy rolls? $2.75 for a take away beer? I don't think so.
Today, we saw more of the coast and experienced even heavier price gouging. There's a place in Gordo which wanted $3.59/gallon for regular petrol; this in a country where the price has varied from $1.80 to $2.24. What an utter bastard. The next place down the road wanted $3.30, and we needed a safety net, so we bought $3 from that guy. Actually, the Big Sur was one of the least friendly (no trespassing! private road!) and most expensive areas that we've visited in the whole of the US. Very pretty, but the people who run the shops are not our favourites.
Right now, Monday night, we're in Santa Barbara, which is a lot like Noosa with larger roads. Fun shopping, friendly vibe, beaches you can swim at. This is our last independent night, as we're hooking up with friends in LA for our last night in the country, Tuesday night. (As it's past 1am, does that mean it's tonight?) There will be a grand summary post soon, so keep your eyes peeled. Tiredness means no more writing for now, but we'll see some of you soon. Write to the rest of you soon too.
What we did today. Since we're staying in Silicon Valley, our first two-nighter for a while, we had to explore the computery things around. A geek pilgrimage was made to 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino: the home of Apple. (As a contrast, Microsoft's HQ is at One Microsoft Way.)
Nasa was next up, and we visited what we could of the NASA Ames Research Center, which is not a whole lot. No more tours of the facility (much has been decommissioned anyway) and unfortunately the immersive theatre was closed. So a few interesting exhibits and rovers to play with, but that was all.
The Computer History Museum was pretty fantastic, though. They have an Enigma machine(!), part of ENIAC, several CRAYs, many Macs, Commodores, ancient hard drives, tape drives, the world's first RAID (Frankenraid) and so much more. Just north of the 101, west of the NASA Ames campus. Very knowledgeable guides show off all the cool gear, and it's heavily recommended.
Oh, then shopping. Dungeon Siege, we'll see how it goes; bought mostly to turn it into a reborn Ultima V. Enjoyed Neverwinter Nights already.
Hidden in the mazes of freeways and expressways just south of San Francisco are many restaurants, motels, hotels, university campuses, computer giants and upstarts. It's an interesting place to spend a couple of days, to rediscover what a city has to offer after a long time away. Portland was cool, but you could walk around... familiar, easy. You drive here, fast, and it's a different thing altogether. It's like a very, very big suburb, with the interesting things you'd expect in a city. Because it is a city, squashed and stretched, run through with arteries carrying their precious cars.
Time is now rapidly running away from us and we have just a few more nights after this one. The best part about the flight home is the seats we've requested: the two at the back of the plane with no third person adjacent. More room, more privacy. Making a sixteen-odd hour flight bearable.
Hopefully more from the road, otherwise from the other side.
Something should be said about the food in America. In some ways it's like the food anywhere: when you're not cooking your own, you're stuck with sandwiches, fast food and restaurants. But the art of producing the most food for the least input has been honed fine here. Too many diets, too many "treats". Too much salt! The fine art of making food sound new and different when in fact it's very much the same (ie. marketing) is very well developed. So many drive thrus, so many chains, so little true variety.
The major problem is that much food here is far removed from reality. There are a great many additives "to preserve flavor" or to make life convenient for producers or retailers. Many ways to remove some part of the food while trying (and failing) to preserve the original taste. Of course the whole western world does this, but nobody else chases the impossible dream of the taste without the sugar/calories/fat/refrigeration requirements with the zeal shown here. You couldn't fill warehouses with food if you couldn't stack the products as long as you needed to.
Coffee creamer? What? It's ubiquitous, accepted. Partially hydrogenated palm oil? Why? Bread? What bread? There's no such thing as proper bread from a supermarket here, it's all terrible, sweet, plastic airy crap. And bakeries here are mostly delis, so you have to really search to find someone who actually knows what a loaf of bread should look, feel or taste like. Of course, Atkins and its sugar/carb counting will probably kill them off now as well. Weirdly, there's not much actual "sugar" in food here. There's a lot of corn produced, so "high fructose corn syrup" is the major sugar source. (An enormous percentage of American calories now come from corn syrup.)
Perhaps the worst example of food abuse is in dairy products - for starters, it's nearly impossible to find whole milk yoghurt. Semi skimmed milk is common, as is fat-free milk (like water with chalk). Full cream milk wouldn't sell called that, so it's called Vitamin D milk and has added Vitamin D. (Similarly, all orange juice sold anywhere has added Vitamin C to keep up the fiction that oranges are especially high in the stuff.) But for coffee, some people do prefer fresh milk. Actually, they'd prefer richer than that, but cream would be a bit too indulgent, so you can buy "half and half" which is half milk, half cream. Never the real food, just processed to either extreme.
Cheese is pretty funny too. Yellow is the colour cheese is expected to be, so yellow it is. If you want it in slices, you can purchase "Imitation Process Cheese Food" or Cheez Wizz, which is squeezable. Even worse, you can buy spray-on cheese, and that's really wrong. Heard of Twinkies? Small sponge cakes with cream inside, except: it's the worst, stalest sponge ever, the worst imitation cream, with a distinct aftertaste of old grease. Once, I worked on advertising for a product that coated the insides of pipes to protect them. Their slogan was "so safe, it's in stuff you eat". Twinkies was one of the products featured as containing this miracle pipe coating.
Hamburgers are the easiest meal to find, but all chains taste the same, are terrible for you, and leave you feeling like you've eaten something that should never have been made. Subway's better, as is Blimpie (a similar chain) but they're not terribly variable. Most "ethnic" foods are pretty pale imitations, though you can get lucky. Wraps and salads are the burgers of the new low-carb world, but as people still want all manner of dressings without the carbohydrate content, they're covered in artificial imitation crap. It's like people don't want to eat anything at all. Read the Daily Value percentages on the side of a packet of anything, choose the one with the smallest numbers. Then buy three.
Health food stores are like little oases where you can buy nuts in bulk, or traditional grain cereals that make you fart. And a million different kinds of vitamins. It is a costly privilege to eat real food in the land where if it can legally be produced cheaper, it already has been. People would like to eat real food, but fast food's cheaper and available now. With cheese. With salt. With 33% more. Here's an interesting diet idea: no food with more than five ingredients. Fine cuisine may demand many ingredients, but butter shouldn't. And don't get me started on the sugary water, I'll just become a grumpy old man.
OK, more now. That was quick, wasn't it?
Newport was followed by a great campground at Cape Perpetua. Near the beach but in the forest, by a burbling stream, campsite 14 offered privacy and quiet. Yachats down the road is a perfect small beachside town, and had a net connection we could borrow plus a fish and chip shop that sold the food we needed.
Nearby, fascinating tidal pools were at their most exposed, and we went a bit mad photographing starfish, barnacles, mussels, abalone and weeds. There's nothing unusual in us going a bit mad photographing things, but it was good to have a stationary, photogenic subject.
Cape Perpetua itself has an incredible view. We drove to the top, wandered off to the viewpoint, and looked west. We're gazing over the same ocean seen from Brisbane, but the sun crosses its horizon at sunset, not sunrise. That's a far more civilised time of day, especially without daylight saving to even the playing field. The event itself was unusual, just a small patch of neon pink in the centre, with a gradual fade over the rest of the sky.
Next, onward via the Sea Lion Caves, where we descended to one of the largest sea caves in the world, observed sea lions flopping about doing their thing and guillemots doing theirs. Outside on the rookery, many more sea lions relaxed in the sun or moved out of a bull's way. Not the most appealing animals in the world, and pretty smelly, but the distances were sufficient that we felt we could point and stare without fear or hankies.
From there, we came here, which means I've caught up, and the next time I feel the need to type for a couple of hours I'll have to delve into memory and relive some of those past glorious moments. But right now, we're enjoying the Oregon coast. It's beachside, which means it's nice, and it's familiar. There are some houses near us, just up on the point, which belong near Byron Bay. Modern wood housing surrounded by plenty of space is a definite novelty.
The coastline is varied and mostly beautiful: State Park is followed by Federal Park, is followed by Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, is followed by industrial drive-by (North Bend/Coos Bay) which is followed by Wildlife Refuge. Lots of nice stretches of beach, but more predictable now as we've left most of the rocks and bends behind us and straight sand mostly remains.
Just a few more quick notes. It's pretty late here as I type and we need to sleep.
Portland was pretty cool. Bits of it felt very familiar; it was the right temperature in the evening, there was a food festival on, people were friendly and open, and of course Oregon has no sales tax, so for once the price on the sticker is what you actually pay. (A good place to buy a computer, you might think.) The festival had live music (we missed They Might Be Giants by a night) and a good vibe by the river. A paddlesteamer went past and the scene felt like a Brisbane summer evening at Southbank.
Our motel was a bit scungy, but for many dollars more you essentially get slightly nicer linen and a longer queue (well, a queue in the first place) at check in. Shame the HI was booked out, because it looked good. Either way, the laptop purchase blew any savings out of the water and Nic hit the Columbia store the next day and took care of any spare bills still floating about.
Post-Portland, we drove to the coast and began the final stage of our journey south. To Newport, and another slightly scummy motel. Here, a few dollars more would have got us a little closer to the fog banks rolling in from the ocean. Odd that this stretch of the coast is set up just like any Australian beach town, but this one is a) too cold to swim and b) foggy if it's hot inland. So if you live inland and think "Wow, what a nice day - I think I'll head to the beach" you're almost guaranteed a cold, miserable spell indoors.
On the way to Newport, in Lincoln City, we proved the practical use of our internet "borrowing" plan. It goes something like this: write emails on laptop away from internet, park outside hotel offerering free wireless internet, open laptop up, wait five seconds, send and receive emails, close laptop, leave. Assuming we've pulled the same trick today, that's how you're reading this blog entry. Sneaky, underhanded, but a victimless crime. (Note, this message is late because this trick hasn't worked. Oh well.)
More soon on and from the Oregon coast.
Let's knock this down in a few stages so it's not so scary.
Grand Teton National Park. Just south of Yellowstone, this small park feels almost alpine; majestic peaks reflected in a string of blue lakes. Perhaps worth more time than the short shrift we paid it; the main problem here is the unreservable, very popular campgrounds. Arrive in the morning, grab a site fast, and you're OK. Arrive late and you're stuck in the open site by the entrance, or out of the park entirely. Alpine weather, of course, is changeable. The lovely morning was too hot for kicking back in a boat, and the wind had picked up by the afternoon, but we did manage a pleasant day of not very much. Building cairns of balanced rocks on the beach, and so on.
Onward, ever onward, to Craters of the Moon National Monument, and possibly the best damn campsite (site 13) in the best damn campground ever. Where? The whole area is black volcanic rock of different types and flows. It's an alien environment, very different from the other places we've visited and definitely worth a stopover. Also off the beaten track; we saw few other visitors or campers. This day we explored the park, walked up a cinder cone, peered into spatter cones (one with snow inside, at the base that never sees sun), gazed into a crater, and clambered around caves. (Not, alas, the main caves, which were all closed. Bummer.) Our site this night is enclosed, invisible from the main road, single file access past enormous boulders. Anyway, we finish the day with some wine, some food that wasn't as bad as expected, and glorious stars shot through with a meteor shower.
On the way to CotM we dropped in on ERB-1, the world's first successful prototype nuclear reactor. You have to wear shoes to enter to absorb the minor residual radiation from the floor. (I really like the idea of safe free energy. Shame about the waste that lasts for millions of years and risks of a serious accident. Maybe fusion will be worked out soonish.) Regardless of mixed feelings today about nuclear power, back then it was a brave technological leap, and it's an exciting place to visit, like the place that first broadcast television or seeing the first Gutenberg bible.
The really cool thing about the place, though, is the fantastic 50s industrial industrial design (you know what I mean) and the fact that you can touch pretty much everything that's not radioactive. All the switches and buttons are touchable, including a satisfying one labelled "REACTOR SHUTDOWN". And they've set up manipulator hands to play with, so you can pretend you're moving dangerous substances from vial to beaker.
So. After CotM we flew through the pretty Sawtooth National Recreation Area (goodbye Idaho) and an extremely scenic river on our way to Ontario, Oregon. A small town with lots of motels and not much else. A cheap sleep, our first night in a bed in over a week. Long driving, so we needed a rest. Unclassy Asian takeaway with beer and some astoundingly bad TV. I taped some of a rotating-hair-dryer-brush informerical that must be seen to be believed.
On again, driving a long long way, we made it to the so-retro-it's-almost-hip-but-not-quite Econo Inn (nee Scandian Motor Lodge) which had seen better days but at least had beds available. It was in Cascade Locks, along the Columbia river, which is a long way, but moving through was what we needed. Portland beckoned. This was where we watched the Olympic opening ceremony, a long and boring event which sorely lacked Roy and HG's natter. Sydney was better, wasn't it?
Anyway, Portland can wait, it's bedtime. We're in a tent by a splashing stream in a National Forest on the Oregon coast, a few days since Portland, and less than ten days until we fly. This message should go up tomorrow, which should give you time to digest the last two postings. Sorry about that, and more soon.
Accommodation in the US is an odd thing. Price is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, and often a cheaper option is actually more suited to our needs.
This has been a cheap holiday by most people's standards. We've stayed with family for a couple of weeks, and camped about half the remaining time. Camping is great when the weather's fine (it's been perfect) so long as you're not moving every day. Setting up and taking down a tent/mattress daily is draining, and it's been cold at altitude near Yellowstone. Also, most of the best places to camp are the worst for facilities.
Nicer campsites are run by the National Parks Service or the National Forests. In fact, the National Forests usually provide nicer sites because they aren't trying to preserve the environment in the same way. Because they can, they put pretty campsites right on the banks of rivers and so forth, where the NPS would leave it clear for everyone.
Either way, these National bodies have campsites in scenic locations, but usually without showers, perhaps with running water, and perhaps pit toilets instead of regular toilets. We carry water, can deal with pits, but showers do actually keep you clean. Yellowstone at least has three campsites with pay showers, which you do need by the fourth or fifth day without. It's not so much the smell as the caked dirt on your feet.
At this point, you probably want a room in a hotel or motel, so you can have a very long shower and wander around naked gazing blankly at American TV. (How can they have another ad break now? What did they just say? But they're obviously actors!) The differences are many, and some are subtle.
The obvious one is that you can usually drive right up to your door in a motel. Not great for security or privacy, but terrific for hauling crap out of a two door car and throwing it into a room. Many more modern motels have two floors, negating this bonus. Certainly a number of the chain motels are simply miniature hotels with carparks, but the older independent motels stay true to their roots.
Another obvious one is location. Most motels are in terrible locations for, say, visiting a city, because they're near the interstate highway exits. But if you're driving a lot and just want a bed for the night (like us) then that's perfect. And most of the places we've visited have been small, so motels are within easy distance of any pubs and restaurants.
Motels are usually cheaper ($30-80), but the lines get pretty blurry between low-end hotels and nicer motels, especially as they don't specify in their names: Econo Lodge, Quinta Inn. If you can't drive up to the door, you'll pay more. If there's local competition, you'll pay less. Facilities are luck. You will have a TV and your own private bathroom in any motel, but not in the very cheapest hotel. You might have one or all of a fridge, microwave, coffeepot, modem ports, wired internet, wireless internet, TV remote control (!), air conditioning, and extra channels on the TV like ad-free HBO.
Chain motels and other options (condominiums, B&Bs, real hotels) maintain better standards all round, but charge for the privilege and are often full. Usually it's a case of how fussy you are about your furnishings, and we're not that fussy. We're far more discerning about internet access, but it's not really worth paying $20 a night just for that. Like so much in the US, it's all down to competition, and the owners are quite used to customers looking at rooms all around town.
Ideally, though, we'd like to stay in a place like the Las Vegas Hilton every night, for the $64 that cost us each night. Huge bed, high standards, staff making up your bed each day, a huge pool and spa, and views of the most American place on earth. Of course, we wouldn't want to wake up in Vegas every day, and you can't see as many stars from there. Camping is actually fun on the new inflatable mattress we bought, and we'd like to do more.
But there are only about 10 nights to go and the olympics are in full swing. Just one more night in a motel?
Wow, this all seems a long time ago. Sorry for the delay - it's a lot easier to get this stuff down from a new Mac laptop. More about that later. Anyway, here are the details from the last week or so.
Zion National Park: a case study in what happens when too many people visit. Shuttle buses herd you in, then vast groups of foreign tourists (like us, but with designer clothes) take over the few paths. An expensive nearby campground puts far too many people in a small space. The whole thing is simply unenjoyable for casual hikers like us.
Because of this unpleasant experience, we edited Bryce Canyon from our future plans, which was perhaps a mistake. Maybe not - every photo we've seen of the place since has been from the same angle - but the route passing by it is reputed to be one of the most scenic in the country. Yet if we'd done that, we'd have missed out on others, so I'll leave it there.
The Grand Canyon (North Rim) was next up, a drive of several hours on, past several areas frequented by deer. These pronged animals are all well and good except that they're profoundly thick, and like to eat near the road. They walk slowly.
But get past them, and you're faced with one of the great natural wonders of the planet. Never have you seen such a big hole, so resembling a matte painting. It's indescribably colossal, awesome in scale and depth. Lightning strikes attack the other side of the canyon, but our side remains dry. We drive for an hour for a different perspective at sunset; somewhat spoiled by the twits who've jumped past the fence to "get the best shot" but still incredible. Yeah, I'd recommend the Grand Canyon, and the North Rim is pretty tourist-free.
Onward around on a variation on the Grand Circle, and to Monument Valley. The Valley proper is part of an Native American reservation, and the best time to see it is sunrise. Clouds help neither sunset nor rise; neither do the stomach problems I had. The monuments are huge stands of rocks (mesas, buttes) poking out of the desert as in a road runner cartoon. Only very limited hiking is allowed, but a scenic drive reveals more odd formations. It's a special part of the world, and the campsite's pretty great. Give it a shot if you can.
Traditional ownership has meant that the area is not a theme park, and should be there for you and your grandchildren to see. Navajo locals sell inexpensive jewellery, expensive weavings and some pottery by the side of the road from chipboard huts. Actually some nice stuff, turquoise aplenty, often unique, and not all from the same factory as you might expect.
Onward, to Natural Bridges National Park on the way north. It's small and interesting, but the drive there, by the Valley of the Gods, was better. Then, Moab, an oasis of nearly cool in the conservative, religious state of Utah.
(Joe Smith wanted more than one wife back in the 1800s, so he has a vision of John the Baptist making him into a latter-day saint. Bingo: Mormons.)
Utah's like Norway for alcohol control: state-owned shops for anything over 3%. Good microbrews in town, though, good steak, and a good motel, so a fine time was had. Plus we'd been camping for a few nights, and expanded private space was very welcome.
A day trip: Arches National Park is one of the more enjoyable, accessible parks we've ever been to. Huge stone arches, old, new and unfinished, near and far from cars. (Motor vehicles, the blessing and curse. You don't want too many people, but we're not serious hikers. Middle ground is good.) Clambering around many of the arches is possible and fun - Double Arch was great; Landscape Arch spectacular from a distance. Like Death Valley, it was very hot and dry here, which seriously limits the hiking you can do. There's little shade, and we tend to cleverly time our arrival for lunchtime. We do OK.
Canyonlands National Park is less well-known, and far less visited; a grand landscape kept at arm's length. Enormous stretches of canyons within canyons can only be seen up close with a 4WD - the best reason we can think of to get one. The exception in this park is Mesa Arch, an arch atop a cliff framing a deep, immediate valley of stone and dust. An arch better than any in Arches.
North for just a stop, long driving until we couldn't. I think this was the day we expected motels in smaller towns and found only tumbleweeds in hamlets. The motel we found was just like every other motel, but clean, under $60 including breakfast and near a cinema. Perfect.
Salt Lake City is just weird. At the centre is Temple Square. There's a church, a tabernacle, a conference centre and more. An assembly line of newlyweds pop out of a long corridor, grooms with long tailcoats and brides in (surely) virginal white. They do their thing, come out of the door, then their photo is taken in a series of locations around the church, without ever having entered.
The funniest photo we saw was of a couple with arms raised, pointing toward the church spire. And this is all because a slightly nutty guy called Joe Smith got a bit randy and had a convenient vision. Wa-hey. (A real sighting? Imagination? I know which way Occam's Razor cuts.)
So we look about. There's a funeral on for a recently departed Elder, so the usual organ recital's off and most buildings are closed. Only the rear of the tabernacle, the soundproofed (speaker-powered) section, is open to casual viewers. We saw the choir through glass, and heard them through the din of restless children.
We left, for Antelope Island, the largest island on the Great Salt Lake. Not just a salt flat, but a proper, salty lake you can sit and float in. Shame that big bits of it stink. Further shame that the water's so far out that you have to walk for 10 minutes to get to it, through alternate soft sand and stony ground. The punchline is true; you really do float, and it's like I imagine weightlessness.
Alas, the post-swim walk is long, dry and salt-encrusted. Free outdoor showers (just like home!) are helpful but insufficient. An earlier drive had shown us one bison nearby and a herd in the distance, hiding from the people in the cars, out of reach past the end of the road. Herds of theoretical bison.
That night, I got furious. We pulled up to one of the shaded tables near the water just as a couple was leaving, hauled our food from the car and began to eat. Then the couple came back and sat next to us to complete their diaries, write postcards, and finalise their taxes. Bastards. No more privacy, and the sun sets. A night from hell to follow: thunderstorms move past and bring us howling winds. Tenting about's worst time.
North again to Alpine weather, hot blazing sun, cold shade. Clouds, if any, appear swiftly after lunch. Targhee National Forest presents itself at the right time, when we simply have to stop driving and settle down to eat and bed. At this point, we would have liked a motel, but they're far between and few; those that are are pricey. So camping again. (Great site across the road from us, as mentioned in the last quick email.)
So, finally, to Yellowstone. The first national park in the world and one of the best known. For me, Yosemite was more recognisable, thanks to Ansel Adams' body of work there. Yellowstone was that place with the geysers that Yogi didn't come from. We plan a few nights, mostly to look at the geothermal features, and a night to relax.
First day, to Mammoth Hot Springs, where morons leave the trail past the clear signage to destroy the fragile environment and risk scalding by superheated water. (Ground can be deceptively thin near thermal features.) Elk spotting's easy: drive around the main roads, look for cars stopped or slowing and cameras leading people too close to wild animals.
Next day, to Old Faithful and a full day of geyser chasing. The best known geyser in the world is impressive, predictable within 10 minutes, and worth seeing early. The crowds of tourists sitting waiting when there's at least an hour until it pops are a source of amusement; there's plenty more to see in the immediate neighbourhood. One of those is Grand geyser, which goes off only every several hours - just once in convenient viewing time. We settle in on the benches, and soon involuntarily eavesdrop on two groups of geyser nerds who've settled in for a long wait. One grandmother behind us, who's been watching this geyser "play" since she was a child, is full of information imparted to her grandchildren, who aren't patient.
"The small geyser is called Turban. Grand won't play until Turban plays." But there's more to it than that. The pool's got to be full, and Grand's got to be ready when Turban plays, or Grand won't play. Turban goes (bubbles and churns for a few minutes) every 10-20 minutes, so if Grand doesn't go then, there's a longer wait to be had.
The other group of nerds is a family of geyser watchers; they've spent up to six hours waiting for a geyser to go off, take pages of notes and walkie talkies connected to other people watching other geysers. The fate of these kids is sealed, but Grandma's kids seem content not to know the details. Grandma, on arrival, reckons a good hour before Grand goes off, and so it proves. We waited for an hour and a half with the geyser nerds to see it happen, and it was absolutely worth it.
Huge quantities of boiling water and steam erupted into the air for several minutes, spurting and gasping repeatedly; when you think it's over it yawns, sucks back and explodes again. The awesome, beautiful power of nature unleashed, far rarer and more impressive than Old Faithful. Of course, the nerds went a bit crazy: hooping, hollering and cheering. Shouting encouragement for the second eruption, then clapping at the end. Just like a football match or a blockbuster movie.
On cue at the close of Grand's play, the doomed teenage geyser chaser got a call on his walkie talkie, "Beehive's indicator's going off!" and gathered his things together quickly. We followed the family to Beehive, an unpredictable geyser with an indicator that erupts about 20 minutes before the main show. One of the most powerful natural jets of water in the world, the wind shifted during its eruption and soaked many spectators. Given the warnings about boiling water, many ran for cover, but needlessly; the water goes up hot but comes down as cold rain. We saw other geysers, pools and springs this day, but none as impressive as these two.
Grand Prismatic Spring is notable for the coloured steam boiling from its surface, but isn't as striking as in Yann-Arthus Bertrand's Earth From the Air picture. You can't get any height from the viewing boardwalk, and it's named for the differently coloured thermophilic bacteria that live at different depths within the pool. Still very pretty.
After this day, mostly chores. Buying this and that, posting the other. Pizza, walking by the lake, part of a walk led by Ranger Tori around West Thumb's thermal features. And another night camping. Too much camping by now, but at least Grant Village has showers. (Pay showers, but not time-limited, and of near-infinite value after about five nights without. Are you familiar with the Wet Ones cleansing process?)
Onward south... no, bugger it. If it's too much for me to write, I can't expect it to be read. More about Grand Teton National Park, the ERB-1, Craters of the Moon, Sawtooth NRA, Ontario (ID), Portland and the Oregon coast to say just yet. We're sitting in a cheap motel in Newport, on Oregon's coast, where the fog rolled in sometime today and never left. The classiness of the room is unimportant; the Olympics are on and it's the size of the TV that matters. Shame it's not the widescreen hi-def multichannel that the UK and Australia are enjoying now. I don't see how we can camp while Australia's still competing in the pool, and we miss Roy and HG's commentary.
My watch is currently between dates; that means the flight is almost another day closer, when this all ends and we both discover our new lives and new home back in Brisbane. It's exciting to travel, but to return home to a whole new life and the potential it holds is a joy that's rarely experienced. To see, for the first time, the house we now own. To find new lives that don't run on 9 to 5 lines. To reconnect with friends. Every trip away is great, but temporary. Our lives at home are the real deal, full of happy promise and, of course, more travel.
See you or talk to you soon.
Too little time, too few internet outlets. I promise once we get to Portland and start our trip down the coast, there will be more updates, especially as we can scab free wireless internet by hanging outside motels. Hopefully.
Anyway, a quick, quick summary of where we've been. More when there's more time.
Zion NP (National Park). Cool, too many people. Shuttle buses and mega groups.
Grand Canyon. Amazing. Jaws dropped. Incredible desert/rock scenery through this whole region.
Monument Valley. Fab. Grand. Sunrise is too early.
Moab, near Arches and Canyonlands NPs. Both superb in their own way; Arches very accessible to the non-hiker and short walker, Canyonlands less so but much larger in scale and more dramatic.
Salt Lake City. Mormons are wacky. So many weddings.
Antelope Island. Full of theoretical bison, on the lake. Yes, you float without paddling.
Spanish Fork. Motel stop in the middle of nowhere. Room had a TV, nearby strip mall had a multiplex. Win-win.
Targhee National Forest. Very pleasant campground, by a fab lake. Spot A16, next to ours, is possibly the best camp site we've ever seen.
Now we're in Yellowstone, where there are too many stupid people walking on delicate/dangerous areas off-trail, or driving at half the speed limit. But we're having a good time, even if we haven't showered enough.
After a few days here, we're off to Grand Teton NP, then Craters of the Moon, Sawtooth Nat. Rec. Area, then West, Portland, and along the coast for a week before hooking up with Cam and Amy (hi!) the day before we fly out.
In under three weeks.
OK - if I haven't expanded on this in a week, email me. Hell, let me know you're reading anyway. See you in Brisbane soon, or talk to you later.