Intermission 19: What I did on my Vacation

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Tommy Caldwell’s story is one of those which you just wouldn’t believe if it were presented to you as a piece of fiction. As a child, he was small and shy. His father, a bodybuilder and expert climber, decided that the best way to deal with this was to toughen him up. In fiction this would be the cue for an abusive childhood over which Tommy would triumph in adulthood, but IRL Caldwell senior took his son out, threw him at various rock faces and helped him to stick. Now we need a montage to Tommy’s teens, by which time he was an experienced climber.

In 1995 when Tommy was 17 he and his father went to Snowbird in Utah to watch an outdoor sports contest, which included an invitation sport climbing contest, a sort of World Championship of climbing in which twelve of the world’s greatest sport climbers would compete. The day before the real competition there was an amateur event. Tommy and his father were there as fans, not competitors, but Tommy entered the amateur competition for fun and won it. The organisers invited him to take part in the real competition next day. He won that too, convincingly. (See what I mean about this being totally unbelievable? If anyone pitched this as fiction you’d laugh them out of the room.)

So there Tommy was, a shy and retiring young man, more at home on a rock wall than on the ground, suddenly catapulted to fame in the world he loved. He found the sudden exposure difficult but adapted, became a professional climber, and then the inevitable happened. He met a girl. He and she became a couple, climbing together. He was happier than he had ever believed he could be. In 2000 he and Beth accepted an invitation to climb in Krygyzstan with two other climbers. And guess what? All four were captured by anti-government rebels and held hostage. Nooo!! But yes. After various travails, in fear for their lives, they were marched into the mountains, where Caldwell had to take the difficult decision to push one of their captors off a cliff to his death. Despite the fact that this saved him and his friends and resulted in their freedom, it left him traumatised (hardly surprising, under the circumstances).

Nevertheless, he and Beth survived the experience and married. They set records climbing together. And then (what now?) Tommy managed to lose the top two joints of the first finger of his left hand whilst renovating the house they had bought in Colorado. In big wall climbing terms this is game over, because where you only have tiny edges in the rock to hang onto, you do so by “crimping”; grabbing onto the rock with fingers bent at the middle knuckle so that your finger tips are in contact with the rock, and wrapping your thumb over the index finger so that you can pull yourself up. The climbing world was agreed – without the first two joints of his index finger, there was no way Tommy would be able to carry out any more serious climbs.

Except, of course, this is nutso reality, not fiction, and so…. he taught himself to climb again, without a finger. Beth supported him the whole time. He became as good as he had ever been, climbing with Beth and living the dream. Until (of course) things went wrong again. His relationship with Beth had survived the kidnapping, their subsequent trauma, the loss of his finger, and his recovery, but sadly, it didn’t stand the test of time. In 2010, they divorced, and Caldwell lost not just his life partner but his climbing partner as well. As he put it, he felt as though the only thing left to him was…..dun dun DUNNNN! (dramatic pause) El Capitan.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 18: What I did on my Vacation

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As Andy has pointed out, Pratchett’s Law has operated on El Capitan to the point where Alex Honnold’s latest example of extreme Darwinism was to basically run up El Capitan without any form of safety equipment at all. Bonkers. However, before we get to that particular feat, let’s look at an earlier climb. This took place with full safety equipment in place, but was nevertheless just as extraordinary. It’s Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen’s 2015 free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, which is, Wikipedia laconically notes, “one of the hardest climbs in the world”. Well, no shit, Sherlock.

To understand just how absolutely unbelievable this feat was, first you have to know what free climbing is. Free climbing is what most people think of as climbing; the sort of climbing you do on a climbing wall. It contrasts with “aid climbing” in which climbers use aids attached to the rock in various ways to pull themselves up and support themselves as they climb. In free climbing, climbers only use the natural features of the rock while climbing. Mechanical aids are used as anchors to attach safety ropes which catch you if you fall, but the only thing holding you onto the rock face as you climb is you.

In the climbing world, climbs are graded according to difficulty. On the sweetly named Yosemite Decimal System, climbs of around 3 are a serious scramble (‘falls could easily be fatal’ – Wikipedia again), climbs above 5 are graded ‘advanced’, and climbs graded above 5.13 mean ‘Don’t even think about it’. The Dawn Wall route that Caldwell and Jorgensen took has around 30 pitches from bottom to top (a pitch being the section of a route you can do in one go, basically the length of a piece of rope), and every pitch is 5.13 or above. The Dawn Wall had never been free climbed before, largely because it was impossible; there was no route where it was humanly possible to stay continuously on the rock face without some form of mechanical aid.

The Dawn Wall is thus romantically named because it’s the first place that the sun hits as it comes over the rim of Yosemite valley, and because it’s a wall. Literally. It’s smooth granite from bottom to top with remarkably few of the cracks, crevices, indentations, lumps and bumps that enable climbers to make progress. Anyone who had climbed it before had done it with the help of aids to hang onto over the bits which didn’t lend themselves to being climbed. Tommy Caldwell was the first climber to decide to free climb it, and he spent a total of seven years working out a potential route. I say ‘potential’ advisedly. It was potential in that it included one pitch, Pitch 15, which was theoretically possible to climb but which no-one, including Caldwell himself, had ever completed, and a further spot, known as The Dyno, which was unclimbable. The only way to get across this gap was to leap eight feet sideways along the rock and catch onto a “ledge”; that is, a slight downward sloping bulge in the rock about the width of a finger. Like Pitch 15, although it was “theoretically” possible, nobody had ever done it.

To free climb the Dawn Wall, Caldwell would need a partner. He himself was (and is) one of the world’s preeminent big wall free climbers, so of course as a partner he chose another of the climbing world’s most technically skilled big wall experts. Nope. Not least because none of them volunteered. His chosen partner was Kevin Jorgensen, who was famous for being brilliant at bouldering, a type of climbing which requires no safety equipment at all because you never get far enough off the ground to need it. Kevin had never done any big wall climbing, and Caldwell decided that the two of them would free climb one of the most difficult big wall routes in the world. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up, and if you did, people would tell you you were talking rubbish.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 17: What I did on my Vacation

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El Capitan! The Captain, a climbers’ icon in the same way that the English Channel is a swimmer’s icon, and hung about with similar stories of incredible heroism and ridiculous achievement. For a start, it’s half a mile high – that’s half a mile straight up, taller than the world’s tallest building. It has dozens of routes criss-crossing it, with superb romantic names like the Dawn Wall, Iron Hawk, Zodiac, Sea of Dreams. Like the Channel, it’s only relatively recently that it’s been conquered*, and sportswomen and men are pushing back its boundaries all the time. And, like the Channel, it’s pleasingly conveniently situated in a spot where pretty well anyone can visit it, which definitely helps from a publicity angle.

Climbers’ lights on the face of El Capitan. Photo from Wikimedia.

*Possibly because prior to the 19th century the vast majority of people were too busy simply surviving to put themselves in jeopardy for no practical reason whatsoever. Possibly also because challenges such as El Capitan and the Channel started to become popular at the point when the vast majority of the globe had been pretty well mapped and therefore individuals who wanted to challenge themselves by doing something uniquely bonkers could no longer do so by seeking the source of the Amazon or the treasures of the Incas or the South Pole or whatever, and therefore had to find some other way to demonstrate extreme Darwinism.

El Capitan is also, and this doubtless also contributes to its popularity, a pretty good looking formation as formations go. It’s the Colin Firth of cliff faces, being not just technically excellent but also good looking and highly photogenic. Also like Colin Firth it has two profiles and a nose; between the Southwest and Southeast buttresses is a large chunk of rock which sticks out at the top of the cliff like the prow of a ship and up which is a climbing route called The Nose. The Nose was first climbed in 1958 by three climbers using “siege tactics”, which means they carried out an eighteen month project to climb El Capitan. As they climbed, they fixed manila ropes the whole length of the route, establishing camps along the way. The climb took forty seven days, over the eighteen months; each time they climbed they ascended a bit higher and fixed the ropes higher, until they finally climbed from the bottom right to the top in one session of nine days. Remember that number.

The second ascent of The Nose took place two years later when four climbers including Royal Robbins** climbed the route in a continuous climb over seven days. Remember that number too, and note that we are seeing here a fine example of Pratchett’s Law, which states that no matter how tough, daunting, and technically difficult any particular feat of human skill, fitness and endurance may be, once it’s been achieved for the first time, usually by one or more extremely fit young men operating at the limits of their abilities, it becomes progressively easier, and it’s then only a matter of time before it becomes a Sunday stroll for families complete with Grandma, kids in flip-flops and a baby in a buggy.

**Did you know that Royal Robbins was a climber before he was a clothing line? I didn’t.

Intermission 16: What I did on my Vacation

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Right. SCENERY!!! And here, for your delectation, a picture, taken by me, of a lot of SCENERY!!! with a crazy bloke in front of it.

This is the view from Glacier Point, and of course there is a wall around it to dissuade people from self-selecting themselves out of the evolutionary process, but it’s a very small one. (Sadly, people do fall from viewpoints every year, whilst taking selfies and posing for pictures. What a waste.) In this case the young man was nobody I knew, but he was presumably somebody’s loved one, and I guess I shouldn’t have taken a picture at all, since it’s the ubiquitous camera phone and the publicity it affords that persuades people to pull this sort of stunt a lot more often than they used to. To be honest I only took a couple and then I had to stop looking, because seeing him there on the edge was giving me the willies. Fortunately he survived to twit another day.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about Glacier Point, except that it’s called Glacier Point because it was under glaciers during the last Ice Age, when Yosemite was formed, as we know from the fact that there are a lot of those errant boulders around. Wow, that was some deep ice. It would be nice if it were called Glacier Point because it’s near one of Yosemite’s two current glaciers, but it’s not. Why, yes, California does have glaciers, quite a lot of them, and two of them are in Yosemite. Bet you didn’t know that! But enough about them, because we didn’t see either Lyell Glacier or Maclure Glacier, who sound like the heroes of a Great American Novel (“Lyell Glacier wakes soaked, fetally entombed in the clammy blackness of dread, specifically dread of his uncle Maclure, whose tiny soft pink hands and creepy old-man pouchiness fill him with a vague and nameless disgust.” Ewwww).

What I am going to talk about now is El Capitan, because it’s entirely fascinating, to me, anyway. This is one of the things I love about going on holiday to places you’ve never been before – you come across things which you know very little about, like a mahoosive monolithic granite cliff face, say, to take an example entirely at random, and then, because for a few days they bulk very large in your life (literally so, in the case of El Capitan), you become a mini expert on them and on subjects related to them, and find yourself gripped by areas of relatively esoteric knowledge into which otherwise you would never have delved, in this instance, rock climbing. And at this point I need to make a confession to avoid contributing to the current avalanche of FAKE NEWS – we didn’t stop at El Capitan on that particular day. We stopped there the next day and the last morning when we were on our way home, and that was when we gazed at the rock face picking out climbers and took photographs. But I happen to fancy writing about El Capitan right now and that’s what I’m going to do, so there!

More (about El Capitan) tomorrow.

Intermission 15: What I did on my Vacation

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Right! Back again. And SCENERY!!!! For our afternoon jaunt was to take us up to Glacier Point, which is one of the viewiest viewpoints in the whole viewfest that is Yosemite. Leslie kindly offered to drive, since she is unfazed by windy* roads with a sheer drop off to one side from which one is separated by not very much. This was a wonderful thing, as it allowed Terry, Patty and I to gaze out as we drove higher and higher up the valley wall, ascending in great loops that opened new and astounding vistas at every turn.

Half Dome from Washburn Point. Photo by me!

*As in, they wind about, rather than they get a lot of wind, although I suspect that being mountain roads they can also be windy in the gusty sense of the word.

En route we passed El Capitan, and this was astonishing to me as well. I had of course heard of El Cap, that iconic climbing wall, and I had seen lots of pictures of it. The first time I came across it was in Boston, on holiday with my sister during one of the wettest autumn days I have ever experienced, when we passed the time by visiting an exhibition of Ansel Adams’ work at the Museum of Fine Arts. Not only were there extraordinary photographs of El Cap looking craggier than Hemingway, there was also a lot of explanatory text about how, to get his photographs, Adams had to hike into Yosemite with his heavy equipment and carry it up the mountains on his back etc, from which I gained the impression that to reach El Capitan you had to hike a long way into untracked wilderness. In fact, what you actually have to do is to have a nice lunch in Yosemite village, get into your car, drive literally five minutes down the road, park, get out, look up, and go “Crikey!” Like most celebrities, that is the effect that El Capitan tends to have on one, although unlike most celebrities one does not then say “Actually it’s smaller than I thought”.

For El Capitan is totally, humungously, gob-smackingly massive. Like the Grand Canyon, photographs in no way do it justice. It absolutely is really, really, REALLY big. And just in case you’re in any doubt about how jaw-droppingly huge it actually is, as you gaze at it you gradually become aware that the teeny tiny miniscule specks of dust scattered across its face are human beings, reduced by its monstrous scale to vanishingly small and unimportant creatures many, many times smaller than ants. They were so small, even though we were pretty much at the base of the rock face, that it was hard to be sure that they were indeed humans – you had to stare to see them moving, or if you could see a hint of unnatural red or orange, or if they were arranged in a way that suggested climbers moving as a team.

There were climbers in this amazing shot by Leslie, because I saw them through Terry’s camera lens, but no way in the world could you pick them out on this photo of El Cap

More tomorrow!

Intermission 14: What I did on my Vacation

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So… Apologies for that short break, due to a weekend and an attack of dreaded lurgy intervening. Meh. Back now, and ready for Lakes! Mountains! Coyotes! Oh, yeah!

Our first morning at Yosemite saw the tips of the valley walls bathed in glorious autumnal sunshine, the sky above them bluer than a very very blue thing, and at Leslie’s suggestion we set off on a hike to Mirror Lake. This was recommended as a sort of starter hike, hiking 101, being just about a mile each way along a flat trail, and it would give those of us not acclimated to the elevation a chance to check how we were getting on with the thinner air. It was also a gentle introduction to Yosemite and SCENERY!!! up close and personal.

Mirror Lake is interesting in that it is not strictly speaking a lake and therefore mirrors nothing. Wikipedia informs me that it is a small seasonal lake located on Tenaya Creek in Yosemite National Park, and who am I to argue? At the right time of year, in spring when the snows melt, it is still a lake, and mirrors the mountains around it beautifully. In earlier years the creek was dammed to keep water in the lake all year round and it was, I am informed, a popular swimming spot. In even earlier years, just after the last Ice Age to be exact, it was part of a much larger glacial lake which filled Yosemite Valley and must have been a sight to behold.

Beeyootiful Yosemite creek

Now, however, it’s just a valley with a sandy floor and excellent views of Half Dome and North Dome. The hike there was beautiful, through unspoiled woodland spotted with red and gold where deciduous trees were changing colour amongst the ubiquitous conifers, past fallen trunks covered in emerald moss and over creeks as brown as beer where the sunlight turned the water to amber. In the distance the same sunlight stroked the valley walls like the computerised brushes of graphic artists bent on creating the best kind of fantasy mountains for their heroes to quest through. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to quest too far before we arrived at Mirror Lake, spread out like an urban beach of golden sand rippled in memory of the water that was nowhere to be seen. We contented ourselves with taking pictures and admiring the scenery in that order, good little modern tourists that we were, and were just thinking about heading back to Yosemite village for lunch when…. Oooooohhhh!

I was standing next to Patty on one side of the valley, looking over towards Leslie and Terry who were still taking pictures further across towards the woods on the other side when I became aware that people around us were murmuring and pointing. The object of their interest was a coyote who had trotted out from the woods across the valley and paused at the edge of the sand, surveying us. She stood there looking around for all the world like a teacher surveying an unruly classroom, and then, once she was sure we had all settled down and were paying attention, she flung back her head and howled exactly like the star of every wildlife documentary you’ve ever seen. She could have gone on as a supporting player in any werewolf movie ever made without rehearsal. It was awesome.

As was what happened next, when a whole crazy burst of barking, yowling, yipping and general coyote stylee hoo-ha broke out in the woods behind her. Clearly she had howled something along the lines of “Guys! Where ARE you?” and her pack had replied “Charlene*! We’re here, babe! Over here, Charlie! Get your ass back here, Charlie-girl!”

*I don’t actually know that the coyote in question was called Charlene. It could have been Maude, or Isabelle, or even Brian or Buster (currently a very popular name amongst young coyotes of both sexes**)

** Not really.

In the middle of the yipping, yowling and howling Charlene turned around and trotted calmly back into the woods, where she organised the pack into an orderly line which went around the lake and passed our party whilst queueing for the toilets*** headed South West, perhaps back to the village for lunch, to where we followed them, gobs suitably struck.

***Us, not the coyotes. I assume the coyotes go in the woods, possibly next to the bears.

More tomorrow. SCENERY!!! Bigly.

Props to Leslie for the AWESOME pictures and video of Charlene and the gang.

Intermission 13: What I did on my Vacation

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I will pass over the remaining drive around Yosemite valley, our arrival at the hotel, meeting our friends and having supper (we need a montage) – actually, no, I won’t, because I have to talk some more about American food. You want to hear more about American food, don’t you? Well, tough. It’s my blog. So – the dining hall! This is where I was introduced to the peculiarly American dish which is biscuits and gravy. Now, before we go any further, I need to call upon Mr Spock to explain to our British readers that it’s biscuits and gravy Jim, but not as we know it. Which is to say that it is not, of course, biscuits and gravy, because that would be yuck.

What it is, is basically unsweetened scones and white sauce. I’m aware that there are lots of people who would regard this combination with horror. I actually quite liked it, as I have a fondness for carb-heavy bland food without much flavour or texture, so much so that whilst I was at university my go-to quick, cheap and easy comfort supper was boiled white rice slathered in packet white sauce. How I didn’t die of malnutrition is anyone’s guess. At any rate, the biscuits and gravy at Yosemite were accompanied by many other tasty and nutritious items, so much so that the calorie counts for the various dishes helpfully displayed next to the prices were sufficient to make me reel back in horror, as I seemed likely to imitate a bear preparing to hibernate by putting on my own body weight in fat whilst I was there. (Fortunately my friends showed me that the sensible thing to do was to share dishes, and thus my waist line was saved.)

And now we move on to our next exciting instalment, which will be about….. mountains! Nope. Waterfalls! Nope. Climbing! Nope. Actually it’s about…..carparks! Yay!! And, since we were in Yosemite, bears. Woot! Bears FTW! At Yosemite, every single carpark (and there are many) has lots and lots of signs telling you DO NOT LEAVE FOOD IN YOUR CAR. This is because bears like food, and one does not want to give an animal which can peel back the door of an SUV as easily as you or I would peel back the lid of a tin of tuna, and with much the same intent, the idea that cars contain food. Being good citizens and also guided by Leslie we emptied our car of everything edible including the dog treats that Leslie and Adels keep in the glove compartment for walkies.

After we’d settled into our hotel room and I, the inveterately British member of the party, was working out how to make the in-room coffee maker produce tea instead, Leslie went downstairs to call Adels in private. She came back and announced “I just saw a bear!” “Where?” “There in the carpark!” “Where in the carpark?” “Out there in the carpark in the dark!” (Ha! I made it rhyme. Bet you thought I couldn’t*.) And indeed she had. The rooms in the hotel are arranged in small blocks of a dozen or so around central parking areas, and as Leslie was standing outside our building she looked across at a neighbouring building and saw a large, dark, furry shape moving along the path from light to light. It was Mrs Bruin cruising the parking lot rather as we’d cruised the aisles of the garage in Truckee, looking for snacks. Sadly, it was the only bear we saw that week, unless you count this one:

Actually that was probably quite good for the bears, as Yosemite also has signs everywhere telling visitors not to approach bears or encourage bears with food to approach you, as bears which become acclimated to humans are a danger to tourists and sometimes have to be shot, which is very sad. And to be frank, a diet of half-eaten Subway sandwiches and Hershey’s Kisses is probably about as healthy for bears as my university diet was for me. But remember the bear, for she will be relevant later.

And that’s it for today. But stay tuned, Yosemite fans, because tomorrow – mountains! Lakes! Coyotes! SCENERY!!!! bigly. Oh, yeah!

*Actually, Leslie, being American, may have said “parking lot”, but I couldn’t make ‘parking lot’ rhyme. 😁

Intermission 12: What I did on my Vacation

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My first sight of Yosemite was, it has to be said, not that different to the previous scenery, and the only sign we were entering the park was a small ticket booth in the centre of the road. This entry point is cutely called, according to Google Maps, ‘Tioga Lake Toll Plaza’, and all I can say is, if America thinks that is a toll plaza, then I am here to put them right! The last toll plaza I had the “pleasure” to frequent was at the Dartford River Crossing on the M25, London’s orbital motorway, and it looks like this:

Dartford Toll Plaza. Not very scenic at all.

Now that’s a toll plaza! In fairness, though, the Tioga toll plaza was much nicer, being small, made out of wood which merged nicely with its surroundings, manned by a very smiley and friendly Parks warden, requiring no queuing whatsoever, and leading to Yosemite! rather than Essex (sorry, Essex). And, also in fairness, it was the last thing in Yosemite which was either small or unassuming, up to and including the raccoon who hung out around the dining hall at our hotel and looked to be doing very well for himself indeed.

And then we came to Yosemite. At first, as I say, it wasn’t that different to the previous road across the Sierra. There were impressive pine forests (many of them sadly affected by wild fires, and in fact we passed some managed burns where the Parks Service deliberately lights fires to burn off dead wood and underbrush when it’s safe to do so, thus making major fires less likely). There were gorgeous sunlit meadows, and pretty little lakes (or ponds, as Americans would say). And there were lots of Parks signs for trailheads: Murphy Creek Trailhead. Sunrise Lakes Trailhead. But nothing which would cause anyone to say “Oh my actual god, would you look at that, that is UNBELIEVABLE”, which I’d kind of been expecting.

Foolishly, I wondered if Yosemite was going to be like Snowdonia, which is absolutely lovely but does not, as a general rule, cause one to genuflect speechlessly at the sheer wonder of nature in the raw. Nature must have been having a bit of a laugh at me at this point, because the next thing which happened was that Leslie kindly stopped at Olmsted Point so that we could look at the view. I got out of the car and basically went “Oh my actual god, would you look at that, that is UNBELIEVABLE”, and Yosemite allowed itself a slight titter.

“Oh my actual god, would you look at that, that is UNBELIEVABLE”

From Olmsted Point you can look South West from an elevation of 8,400 feet to Cloud’s Rest, Tenaya Lake and Half Dome. Cloud’s Rest, despite the wonderful name, is not that picturesque, the ugly friend to Half Dome’s gorgeous prom queen, mainly because it is not, in fact, a mountain at all – it’s an arête, a ridge between two glacial valleys. These can look A-maz-ING (Striding Edge in the Lake District, I’m looking at you) but their good angle tends to be from above so that you can fully appreciate the knife-edge cheekbones that lie behind their unprepossessing features, and since we had neither a helicopter nor permission to fly it over Yosemite (and were unlikely to get either) we had to content ourselves with merely admiring Cloud’s Rest as part of a stunning view.

Half Dome

Half Dome lurked in the middle distance resembling nothing so much as a cowled monk, and nature had kindly provided a lot of erratic boulders in the foreground to entertain us. I have to say, incidentally, that erratic boulders are not that erratic – I watched one for at least ten minutes and it never did anything in the least surprising, ho ho. Nah – joking! Obviously. Erratic boulders are so called from the Latin word errare, to wander, because they are made of a different rock to their surroundings, having been dropped in their final locations by glaciers thousands of years ago, in this case about 20,000, when the whole area which would become Yosemite was covered hundreds of feet deep in ice. Well, slap my bum and call me Mildred if I was not totally g-o-b smacked. And I was. One-nil to Yosemite!

Erratic boulders being unerratic

More tomorrow.

The gorgeous pictures are by Leslie Wood. (Not the one of Dartford Toll Plaza because that is not gorgeous at all, and as far as I know Leslie has never been there. Lucky her.)

Intermission 11: What I did on my Vacation

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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

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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 Crushthepatriarchy.com, 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!