Intermission 11: What I did on my Vacation


After that brief Brexit rant, back to SCENERY!! Our journey took us onwards South West, past such sights as Mono Lake, which is a destination in itself. The excellent information centre, which we visited on the way back, told me that it’s a saline lake with a unique ecosystem based on brine shrimp native to the lake which provide food for thousands of migratory birds, and indeed it is. More germane as we drove past it were the formations of limestone tufa caused by mineral deposits from underwater springs. These are basically organically formed statues of water fountains, and they’re visible thanks to the City of Los Angeles diverting water from the lake’s inflow rivers in the second half of the last century, which caused the water level to drop and left white deposits around the shoreline and numerous tufa towers on show. This ain’t great for the ecosystem, so they stopped doing it and the lake is gradually recovering, but in the meantime you could take a picture of it and put it straight on the cover of a sci-fi novel about a far-off planet. It’s that extraordinary looking.

Not my pic – it’s from Wikimedia Commons

And yet even that paled into insignificance as we headed sharp right along the Great Sierra Wagon Road (even the roads have scenic names). This was built in the nineteenth century to access a silver mine which promptly went bust, and was subsequently gifted to the Parks Service as an approach to Yosemite. This gifting was not actually as generous as it seems, since it doesn’t really go anywhere but Yosemite, but then it doesn’t really need to, partly because, Yosemite!, but also, OMG TOTALLY AMAZEBALLS ROAD!!!

It climbs up and up through the Tioga Pass looping up the valley sides and providing incredible, vertiginous views until it finally tops out at just below 10,000 feet. Aspens flared bright gold in the valley bottom, by contrast with the white rock and grey scree of the mountainsides. And these were mountains – real, proper, Middle-Earth stylee mountains. Cars on the road below us were tiny as toys and we could look back down the pass to the plain we had left, 4,000 feet below. And then on we went across the Sierra, past Ellery Lake and Saddlebag Lake, Mine Creek, Nunatak Trailhead and Glacier Canyon, until finally! We got to Yosemite!

More tomorrow….

Intermission 10: What I did on my Vacation


And then, suitably snacked-up, we headed on Southwards towards more SCENERY!!! But first, because life is like that, we came to some roadworks, which provided yet another example of how America is entertainingly different from Britain. In Britain, if half of the road needs to be closed, the construction crew puts up a set of automated traffic lights and the traffic obeys them (mostly….). In the States, or at least this part of it, where, as Leslie explained, they have two seasons, snow and construction, the construction crew provides a human being with a red/green Stop/Go sign of the type you see in model railways (but bigger, obviously), and you follow a guide car through the contraflow when it’s your turn. I guess this is partly to stop cars jumping the lights, since the closures can be long and it takes a while to get through them, but it’s also nice to get a smile and a cheery wave from the Stop/Go person as you go through. In fact, most of the Stop/Go operatives were women, which Leslie explained was pretty usual. On the one hand, Yayyy! for women in construction crews – way to GO, America! On the other hand, Hello, sexism, my old friend, since why shouldn’t the women be operating the mechanical digger or the tarmac spreader instead? Still, at least they were there.

And after that word from our sponsor, Ho! for Lake Tahoe, which definitely counts as SCENERY!!! It opened out before us between appropriately picturesque green mountains, cyrstalline blue in the sunshine, dotted with tiny boats, supermodel stunning and, unlike most supermodels, absolutely massive. For Lake Tahoe is a big, big lake. 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, to be exact, which means you could fit Windermere into it exactly 22 times and it would take me nine hours to swim across it and seventeen hours to swim end to end, should I ever want to. Extraordinary! Whilst pondering this, you might also like to ponder the answer to the question “How many lakes are there in the Lake District”?*

Sadly, we had no time to ponder Lake Tahoe or to swim in its glorious waters. We headed onwards, across plains where the snow lies feet deep in winter, past tiny towns with movie-set motels and general stores decked with signs for ice and moccasins, ducking in and out of Nevada across the state line. The transit wasn’t signalled, as in Europe, by your phone binging every time you cross a border to introduce you to your new service provider, but by a large roadside casino every time we entered the silver state. Which reminds me that part of the fun of the trip for me was in sighting the car licence plates to see where they’d come from. The Golden State. The Grand Canyon State. Land of Enchantment. Life Elevated. Forever West. They were tiny bits of poetry embodying tantalising hints of far-off, exotic places….

On which note, I can’t help thinking that Europe has missed a trick here, with its utilitarian initials, literally A, B, CH, D**, etc. Maybe once Britain has proudly exited the EU we can follow the American Way and have our own license plate slogan. The F*cking Stupid Cuntstry, perhaps. On which note, OMG, Dominic Raab! Can anybody tell me what exactly is the point of having a government stuffed with posh boys who all went to the same “top” school if apparently NONE OF THEM HAVE EVER LOOKED AT A MAP OF EUROPE? Even the most cursory glance would reveal the importance of the Calais-Dover link to British trade. To help them I reproduce my own map below. See how obvious?

*The answer is, one lake, Bassenthwaite. All the others are either Waters or meres. So the name “Lake District” is literally correct. Ho ho.

**Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany

More shortly!

Intermission 9: What I did on my Vacation


One of the great things about America is that it’s a foreign country. Well, durr! Of course it is – yet when I travel there I never fail to be surprised and delighted by its foreignness. I think it’s partly because I watch so many American TV series and films that it feels familiar – and then I get there and realise that although I’ve seen lots of scenes in which a character goes into a gas station, I still don’t know what an American gas station is really like. And the answer is – very similar to a British petrol station, except… different….

We stopped in Truckee for gas and snacks, and on getting inside the gas station shop, seriously, I just COULD NOT BELIEVE the number and variety of the snacks on offer. It was like an Aladdin’s cave of snacks – snack attack! In Britain it would be the work of a moment to grab a couple of bags of something and head off; here, I wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by choice. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what half of the things were – Reese’s Pieces, for instance? Hershey’s Kisses? And seriously, what the hell is a Twinkie? It also took me about five minutes to check that they didn’t have anything which could equate to a toffee, which slightly baffled me – how could you have this many snacks and no toffees? Major FAIL, America! Whatever, I eventually got over both myself and my variety-induced befuddlement and we headed on our way, fortified by Jelly Babies and Hershey’s Kisses (which are individually wrapped chocolates, by the way. I still don’t know what a Twinkie is).

On a side note (and I should add here that it isn’t really a side note. Readers wondering why I’m pretty much recounting this trip in real time may be puzzled by my inclusion of a small treatise on American gas station snacks. The reason is that I write this blog pretty much for myself (although it’s also lovely when other people read it) and I’m writing this particular series to remember the trip. And in my weird, screwed up little mind, in many ways that gas station is as important as the Donner Pass and El Capitan (although admittedly less scenic) because in years to come, I’ll come back and read that paragraph and remember exactly what it was like to be there on that morning, with my friends in the sunshine at the beginning of our trip, puzzling over snacks. See?)

So, on a side note, there were so many other things about America that are weird and wonderful to a British person. For instance, we stopped at a Subway to pick up some lunch. Now, I’m no expert, because I’m not a patron of Subway at home, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have the extraordinary choice that you had in this totally ordinary fast food joint on a US highway. Choose your bread! Choose your meat! Choose your cheese! (Limburger? What’s Limburger? It was on the cheese list, so presumably not a burger made out of Lim.) Choose your salad! Choose your dressing! Do you want it hot? Is that to go?

Agggghhhh, what? It was deeply confusing for someone brought up in an era when you could have cheese on white sliced bread or ham on white sliced bread, but not both unless you bought one of each and combined them, whilst any request for a condiment other than pickle or mustard would be met with deep suspicion, largely because in those days there were no condiments other than pickle or mustard, unless you count mint or apple sauce, and what person in their right mind would put either lamb or pork in a sandwich? Brown sauce, by the way was not a condiment but an exotic substance found only in transport cafés, which we did not frequent.

I stood there somewhat overwhelmed, wondering what would happen if I requested a mozzarella, avocado and tomato panini. Fortunately the staff were very nice and gamely tolerated both my indecision and my failure to understand their accents: “Tergo?” “I’m sorry?” “Chew want that tergo?” “I’m really sorry, I didn’t…” “Chew want yuh sanwich ter GO, honey?” “Oh! To go! Takeaway! Yes, please, to go.” I ended up with a sandwich which was also very nice and only slightly smaller than my head.

More (somewhat less food-obsessed) excitement tomorrow!

Intermission 8: What I did on my Vacation

Morning! And the official start of the holiday – how exciting! The day was sunny and bright, a good omen. We breakfasted with Leslie, properly met her family, wife Adeline and the two furbabies, and then, by 11 am, the three of us, Leslie, Patty, and I, were off en route to Yosemite. Road trip!!

Now, I should clarify here that a US road trip is not the same as a British Road trip, especially when you take the “scenic route”.
In Britain the scenic route generally means you go through a couple of pretty villages, maybe with a thatched cottage or two, and along some valleys with a few nice woods, a couple of streams, some sheep and maybe a picturesque medieval church. America, it’s true, doesn’t have many medieval churches, at least not Christian ones, and whilst it may have sheep they were not much in evidence. What America does have in spades is SCENERY!!!!, for in America scenery comes in capitals, bold, with exclamation marks…..

The first piece of scenery we encountered was the local lakes, known as Serene Lakes, which are basically at the bottom of Leslie’s road. They’re pretty enough for Mark Twain to have named them and we drove round them as a taster en route to the highway. I was thinking, as I always do when I see a decent body of water “I could swim in that”, and indeed I could, as you will find out. But the lakes were, in SCENERY!!!! terms, merely the amuse-bouche in a gastronomic five course banquet.

The first course was Leslie’s local beauty spot, literally a couple of miles from her house, the Donner Pass. The Donner pass is famous, and indeed, named, for the ill-fated Donner Party wagon train which got stranded just below the pass en route to San Francisco and had to spend months snowed in with limited supplies and predictable results. We stopped at the top of the pass at a viewpoint, conveniently sited to allow one to park and take pictures. The US authorities kindly provide these where there are awesome views, presumably because it’s cheaper than dealing with the consequences of people driving off the road whilst gawping.

The view was it has to be said, well worth gawping at. We were at seven thousand feet, right on the Pacific Trail, and the view West took in miles and miles of mountains, plus Donner Lake, which is so big and so beautiful that in Britain it would be justly famous but here was merely a local amenity, outshone by Tahoe further to the West. And this was within fifteen minutes drive of Leslie’s own home. It was hard to believe that there were sights ahead that could top that, but there were, oh, there were….

Intermission 7: What I did on my Vacation


In spite of my fears, Patty and I only encountered one small setback on our journey, when we arrived at Leslie’s to find a steep driveway and neither of us could work out how to put on the parking brake on the rented car. We looked for a lever. No lever. We looked for a button. No button. No switch, knob, or handle, either. We both sat there, flummoxed, until Leslie came out and rescued us – apparently you had to push down twice on the clutch, or some such. Well, obviously.

On which note, I’m absolutely convinced that car manufacturers vie with each other to find the most obscure way of doing things which used to be entirely straightforward and simple. (I’m equally convinced they’ll blame it on ‘security’, rather as banks blame ‘security’ on their habit of requiring one to remember the third, fifth and eighth letter of an acronym of one’s first primary teacher’s eldest child’s goldfish’s name before they’ll tell you over the phone how much money you owe them.) I can imagine the conversations at Renault headquarters now: “Right, so they have to push the key right in sharply twice before it’ll turn. Then what?” “Well, we could require them to turn it the wrong way before it’ll turn the right way?” “Brilliant, Tom. What else?” “Well, we could make them push down on the brake the whole time?” “Well, obviously. Come on, people, I want IDEAS!”. “How about we have a microphone in the car which can detect voices and if it doesn’t detect the right voice the car won’t turn on?” “Like it, like it! What else”. “Maybe it only turns on if they’re singing the Marseillaise?” “Oh, come on, Kevin, that’s going too far….. Or is it? No, damnit, it’s not! We’ll teach them to criticise our designs. Make that frustrating ignition protocol happen! Yeah, baby! Aux armes!”

But I digress. Back in the real world, Leslie and Adeline, plus Bodhi and Chewy (canine hospitality section) greeted us warmly and pointed us in the direction of a wonderful little guest cabin. In mere minutes I was where I very much needed to be after being up for twenty four hours and travelling for eighteen of them – in a deep, warm bed. I turned out the light. The darkness of the mountain was absolute. It felt exciting and strange, a million miles from home. I slept….

More soon .

Intermission 6: What I did on my Vacation


On arrival in the States, two of my initial fears immediately failed to come true (well, three, actually – I’m always slightly nervous that I’ll be seized at security and deported immediately for rudeness to El Presidente…..). My flight landed late and I had thought that Patty would have to wait for me until nearly midnight as I went through immigration, but in fact immigration and customs happened at my changeover in Phoenix*. At Reno I simply picked up my bag, the matter of a moment, and found Patty at the Enterprise car desk exactly as she had suggested. As I normally fly between countries, with all the accompanying bureaucracy, the idea that you could walk off an aeroplane as easily as you walk off a train was pleasingly novel. And Patty and I recognised each other just fine. I would go so far as to say that she hadn’t changed a bit, and she didn’t actually reel back in horror on seeing me, so I guess I must have looked reasonably familiar as well, despite my having been up for approximately twenty four hours at that point and feeling slightly peeled.

*If you’re going to change planes in the South Western US, can I strongly suggest you do it in Phoenix if possible? Everyone I encountered there is lovely, the airport is efficient and designed by human beings, and, best bit, it’s full of wonderful purple-shirted seniors who are employed to help and guide people around the airport. If you have any worries, just approach one of them, and they’ll give you full instructions and virtually walk you to your destination. Plus they have dog conveniences. Dog conveniences! How wonderful is that? I saw my first one next to the human conveniences, with a smart terrier exiting it, and, not able to quite believe my eyes, asked his human whether it really was a dog toilet. Yes, indeed, she confirmed. And what’s inside it? A patch of grass and a fire hydrant. A patch of grass and a fire hydrant!! What could be better? I was so overcome with admiration I was very tempted to take a picture, but given that I was inside an airport and didn’t want to be arrested, I refrained.**

**Other US airports have dog conveniences too, but Phoenix is still my favourite. US airports also have plentiful drinking fountains (for humans) with special taps to allow you to fill water bottles. Way to go, America!! So much better than our airports, where you’d find a free bar with complimentary Belgian chocolates before you’d find a place you can fill a water bottle. Yes, Stansted, I am looking at you.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 5: What I did on my Vacation


As well as letting me back into Leslie’s life, and, of course, letting her back into mine, Facebook also connected me with other Adventure Women from that original trip. Over the next couple of years I nurtured vague fantasies, more in hope than expectation, of travelling to the States to see them all. And then, in March a new little group popped up one day on Facebook Messenger – Adventure Women! It seemed I wasn’t the only one who’d been thinking about a reunion.

Over the next few months we hatched a plan. Terry and her wife Elaine were planning a trip to Yosemite and the rest of us would join them there for three nights. Not everyone could make it, so the original group whittled down to five – Terry and Elaine, Leslie, Patty, and me. Patty and I would fly into Reno and drive down to Yosemite with Leslie, and I’d stay on at Leslie’s for the weekend to meet her wife Adeline. Dates were settled, hotel rooms and flights booked. I was actually going. Oooh err!

At this point I have to confess to a certain amount of pre-trip nerves. These were people I hadn’t seen in years – would we still get on? Would we even recognise each other? What would it be like? I had no real conception about any of it other than a vague mental montage which went bears_slotmachines_waterfalls_dogs_mountains_snow. Despite having seen many many photographs by Ansel Adams I had no idea what Yosemite would be like, other than “Bears” (turns out I was confusing it with Yellowstone, the home of Yogi, although Yosemite also has bears, oh yes). If I had arrived and found bears freeclimbing El Capitan I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

It didn’t help, or maybe in hindsight it did, that the month or so running up to the trip was ridiculously busy, both at home and at work. I bearly (do you see what I did there? 😉) had time to think about the trip, never mind worry about it. I was encouraged by the fact that anyone who found out that I was going to Yosemite responded with insane enthusiasm – Yosemite was apparently “Stunning” “Amazing” “Wonderful”. Privately I was dubious (I’ve been to the Lake District a number of times, it takes quite a bit of mountain to impress me), but I kept my mouth shut. Equally, I reminded myself on numerous occasions that it’s my habit to privately dread holidays, convinced that I won’t enjoy myself, only to be bowled over by the actual experience and to have the time of my life. Perhaps this holiday would be the same. Nevertheless, it was with, as they say, some trepidation that I boarded BA Flight AA6198 on 8th October, bound for Phoenix en route to Reno and my fellow Adventure Women…..

More soon.

Intermission 4: What I did on my Vacation


So, Facebook (this series isn’t actually going to be all about Facebook, although it will feature from time to time). I could write a lot about Facebook, but actually, what I really want to say now is how good it is at keeping one in touch with people who are distant from one, by the bounds of either geography or time.

It’s a particular boon for people like me who are not terribly keen on using the telephone (there are approximately two people in the world I’m completely happy to speak to on the phone, namely my brother and sister – with everyone else I have to give myself a little mental shake and a prod and remind myself to relax, it’s only a phonecall. No, I have no idea either, although I’m sure my therapist could hazard a guess. I expect it’s something to do with boundaries.) The bewitching Facebook combination of being at once extremely personal and extremely impersonal makes it very easy for me to keep up with people I would quickly lose touch with otherwise, simply because the time and mental effort required to write a letter or make a phonecall is not required for Facebook – simply swipe up and start scrolling and liking. No muss, no fuss! Hooray!

The other wonderful thing about Facebook is that it allows photos. You can actually SEE what’s happening in people’s lives. And yes, whilst the window through which one peeps may be a rose-tinted one, it can nevertheless show some beautiful scenes. In Leslie’s case, this is literally so – she is a highly talented amateur photographer, and lives in an exceptionally beautiful spot. Moreover, she is on a lovely mission to improve the world one Facebook post at a time. Her feed is full of gorgeous views of her home in an extraordinarily beautiful part of California, her dogs, her partner, her house, often accompanied by thoughtful and uplifting quotations.

In the time of Trump and Brexit her posts were balm to my soul. The life she showed seemed to me exotic in the extreme – sofas and open fires in front of picture windows looking onto deep woods, hikes on summit trails, changing seasons, snow to the first floor windows, bears on the porch. Bears on the porch! I don’t have bears in Tooting (the odd fox, maybe). I don’t even have a porch. The wonder of it, that someone could live like that! It was like reading a novel written about someone you know.

More soon.

Intermission 3: What I did on my Vacation


So…. Facebook!! I finally got with the programme in about 2013, and over the next few years Facebook did one of the things it does best – it invaded my privacy, big time. Now is not the time for a discussion on this point, nor for my views on it – all we need to know here is that Facebook’s little worms wriggled their way all over my emails and my address book and my internet search history to see what they could find out (they found out I like cats, swimming and socialism, which led to some pretty weird suggested posts, let me tell you 😜).

Amongst things they dug up was that a few years before I’d been in touch with a Leslie Wood who was also on Facebook, and they duly suggested to me that I might like to Friend her. (At least, I assume they did. Either that or Mark Zuckerberg is stalking me and about two billion other people on the planet, which feels unlikely, not least because it would make his diary uncomfortably full). Leslie! I friended her. She friended me back. Not only that, but when she found out that I was in a Channel relay (you were wondering where that came in, weren’t you?) she weighed in big time, sharing my charity appeal and calling on her friends to support me. Yayyy! I was delighted and very touched by her support. Sparkly heart emoji!! We were back in touch, and I was very happy.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 2: What I did on my Vacation


Apologies for the break in service. I generally blog on the tube on the way into work, but I spent yesterday’s journey standing up with my face pressed into another commuter’s armpit. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, etc… Anyhoo. Onwards to the next exciting installment!

In early 2015 two things happened which had a profound effect on my American friendships. Firstly, I got coopted into a relay team to swim the Channel. And secondly, I got Facebooked.

Ah, Facebook, that Marmite of applications, the fluffy-kitten festooned juggernaut we love to hate. For years I was a Facebook refusenik, proudly citing privacy concerns as my reason for not joining my friends in their lemming-like charge over the social media cliff. This lasted until I got tired of missing out on stuff because “It was on Facebook” and finally succumbed to the pressure to surrender my online self to Mark Zuckerberg’s evil clutches.

My determination to use Facebook only when strictly necessary and to conceal my private self behind a virtual balaclava lasted only as long as it took me to discover Cole and Marmalade, Love Meow, Did You Swim Today, and likes. Ah, likes!! Little thumbs up of approbation which ping onto your feed to say that someone out there, however fleetingly, approves of one.

I like making people laugh. I posted funny stuff on Facebook. People laughed. I like cats. I liked cat stuff on Facebook. Facebook supplied me with more cats. I like swimming. Facebook put me in front of millions of other people who also like swimming. I decided I didn’t like balaclavas. Who needs them, anyway? Uncomfortable, scratchy things! Away with balaclavas! Likes, cats, and swimming FTW! Every time Facebook asked me if it could access my location, my contacts, my photos in order to supply me with cats, swimming, swimming cats, I eagerly agreed. I didn’t quite sign up to give Mr Zuckerberg my soul plus a complimentary kidney in return for another video of a cat dressed as a shark riding a Roomba, but I came pretty close*.

More tomorrow!

*My thoughts about privacy in the modern era have pretty much gone 180° in the intervening four years since I signed up to Facebook. Maybe I’ll post about them one day.