I have nothing to envy except envy itself: Five Cheers for Embattled America.

#adventure, #alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, America, Britain, British Isles, California, conservation, England, environment, ethics, global, globalisation, Great Britain, Happiness, history, land ownership, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, National Parks, natural world, nature, Reflections, social attitudes, social issues, Society, success, thoughts, Travel, travelogue, United States, Wilderness, Wildlife

Today, I was reading a comment posted on Quora. The leading question was: What Do Britons Envy Most About the US? To which – and I am sorry to resort to the social media art of backbiting – this particular member of Quora’s burgeoning commentariat decided to put down his Daily Mail for a moment to consider the question. If i may add, with a degree of ignorance I have long suspected in my fellow countryman, but hitherto have been unable to prove. This one’s a game changer.

His answer – hardly surprising coming from a reader of a newspaper with a long and illustrious history of jingoism, xenophobia, and acute insular-mindedness – left me wondering two things :

Firstly, whether this man had actually ever travelled anywhere beyond the house he so proudly owns; and secondly, what is it I envy most about America.

Returning momentarily to the Quora contributor, he went about answering the question of envy by singularly failing to address the meaning of what was being asked. So what does the average Briton envy most about America? Well, it helps to know the place by means other than what is daily reported in his favourite Little Britain news rag. His answer? To paraphrase: I’ve just had a full English breakfast and now I’m resting contentedly with coffee and tabloid in hand, admiring the four walls of the house I own outright (as if Americans don’t own homes). Then, for good measure, he throws in a little mockingly-good dose of British sarcasm about how he wished he’d had all that American Free-Dumb (as if Britons own sarcasm).

Upon reading this, I bristle with uncustomary outrage, as i am not an American. However, I think a little part of me might be. My mind is busy thinking, just because a man can enjoy digesting an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, and fried tomatoes, accompanied by 100 pages of right-wing tabloid bile, and all within the comfort of one’s own home, does in no way negate America’s dizzying roadside attractions. 

Comparisons are dangerous when you have little idea what it is you are comparing. In the case of UK-US country comparisons, chalk and cheese.

Does he know that the US is not so much a country as it is a continent? If he cared to step out of his zone de comfort and board a plane to the four far flung corners of the continental United States – Anchorage to the Florida Keys, San Diego to Cape Cod – he might tone down his prejudices a bit.  

Ach! Why should I care what others think? Their loss, my gain. The more of them remain at home admiring the wallpaper, the more of America I’ve got all to myself. So, back to the matter in hand: what do i envy most about the United States of America? That is to say, what do they have that we don’t? That I don’t possess?

Well, turns out, a lot.

For format’s sake, here’s my top five:

  1. World-class National Parks, some the size of English counties. These are designated wild places. Mother nature’s property portfolio. They contain wilderness that belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. See Yosemite valley and weep, just as the great Scots-American pioneer, John Muir, did. And that’s just one of many parks that range across thousands of miles from Denali NP in Alaska to the Big Bend in Texas, from Sequoia NP in California to Acadia NP in Maine. Although the designation ‘National Park’ has been awarded to 63 sites across the US, there are literally hundreds more state parks, national monuments, national forests, and so on and so forth. One could spend the multi-millennial lifetime of a redwood tree exploring them, and probably still not reach the end. America’s national parks are some of the greatest entities ever created, and humanity didn’t have to create a damn thing doing so.
  2. It would be naive to state that the US is a classless society, but it would also be a gross overstatement to say that it’s anywhere near as class-conscious as England. There is a proud tradition of meritocracy in the US, which harks back to the days of huddled, squalid masses pouring off the Atlantic liners in search of a better life in a new world. In the US, aristocracy is a term loosely applied to old New England families, and Hollywood film stars. In Britain, aristocracy is real and to this day responsible for walling off vast swathes of land for personal gain. A land grab and power consolidation that has gone on for centuries. This deference to the landed gentry shows no sign of abating, even in the face of 20th century political progress. America’s anti-monarchical revolution of 1776 had its origins in English dissident, radical liberalism. It was then joined by a republican France to become a place where, if you were white and Northern European, the average person was thrust centre stage, and the inalienable right of kings tossed out. Suddenly, we were all kings in a savage land.
  3. Abundant sunlight that mottles a stunning geographical diversity. They used to rhapsodise about the sun never setting on the British empire, as the empire stretched across all time zones. Well, if it’s mizzle in Maine, you can bet Texas will be toasted by UV. If clouds reign over Kalamazoo, rest assured, winter sunlight will dazzle downtown Denver. Fog in Philly? Photons in ‘Frisco. You see the alliteration? Dazzling, isn’t it? Maybe, but it don’t dazzle like downtown Daytona. Who loves the sun? Not just the Velvet Underground.
  4. On the Road right through American popular culture. The tradition of hitting the road, Jack, and not coming back no more, is enshrined not only in American literary culture, but in real life, too. I have a friend from New Jersey. One day, he decided to follow his doctor sister to Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 miles away. Hopped into a car, and headed west. Stopped here and there along the way, but kept going. Within a week he had gone from icy winter to a hot desert where he picked up work as a wilderness guide, in no time. Americans, unlike Brexit Brits, have choices. And believe me, many – through restlessness or desperation – pack up their bindlestiffs and seek emigration within their own nation. They can quit some insufferable place and start again somewhere utterly different, which really just nourishes the soul, and keeps that wonderful literary tradition going strong (see the award-winner Nomadland for a case in point).
  5. Wilderness. Unashamedly, I keep coming back to it. America’s untouched places, which I have seen in the flesh, and continue to see shining in my mind’s eye, are truly a thing of wonder. The Pacific Crest Trail alone runs for 2,650 miles from an iconic bridge on the Washington/British Columbia border, to the Mexican border. The trail bisects some of the greatest wilderness on Earth. Americans, seeking spiritual solutions for materialist problems, set out on the trail. 5 months later they emerge changed forever and for the better, having read the signs that nature put before them. Meanwhile, where do we Brits go for a spot of soul-washing? Wherever it is, we can be sure of encountering signs of a different kind along the way: Private/No Entry/Keep Out/No Trespassing….you get the idea. Envy might be a deadly sin, but nowhere near as deadly as that old assassin, ignorance.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, #romance, America, California, Life, love, San Francisco, Travel

Part VII

Love is a Gambler

Muggy Hong Kong nights had by now turned to weeks yet her visage held fast in my mind’s eye. She was the high front that hung in the air, which felt like salvation when the actual skies over Hong Kong are notoriously leaden during summer. Hers was a face that brought belief to a notorious non-believer. In spite of having the novelty of a new idol to light nightly votive candles to, that didn’t change the awkward fact that I found myself 6,000 miles away, and that big old ocean wasn’t getting any narrower.

It was probably here in this neutron star of a city-state – still under benign British rule – that my life tag of misfit really became me. I didn’t fit into colonial life. I struggled to get a foothold on the whirligig. All of Britain’s far-flung colonies it was Hong Kong that came closest to ant colony. Standing tall amidst a crowd or peering out of a tenth-floor window the world at street level was a restless mass. Throngs of black-haired people assumed the awesome choreography of a super-organism. They all seemed to follow a pheromone trail to and from the work shift, which apparently never really knew a time for clocking in and clocking out. The gaps between shoulders were scarcely broad enough to slot a sheet of paper in between. You stole your breath then plunged into the streets there. You didn’t amble along the pavement; rather you were swept away by a human current, one stirred into eddies and froth by seven million deadlines and seven million appointments all simultaneously happening. The streets of Kowloon were tributaries of a larger river of humanity, but that river was not the type to empty lazily into the sea. It was frenetic. It was breathless. But it wasn’t me. Nor for me. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the place. All it served to do was remind me of how attractive the San Francisco lifestyle was by comparison.

After a month or so, I received a reply to my card, a greetings card which i addressed, for want of any other address, to the Traveller’s Hostel, Market Street, San Francisco. That opening gambit – the picture card scribbled with a bit of frivolity underlain with real intent – was a crucial one, because naturally you don’t know how a person who was wrapped around you koala-fashion not six weeks before might react now that time zones have intervened. People are funny in that regard. Playing it cool, of course, I merely threw out a suggestion that I, well you know, come back for a long overdue, erm, reunion. Her reply was a bit scattergun. In it she sounded the warning bells. In fact, reading it, I thought her one-page letter so frantically paced that you’d think she was writing it while on the lam with the cops breathing down her neck. In reality, that’s exactly what was happening in her mind. She was spooked that the feds were homing in on the ‘plantation’ she was tending up in that Jerusalem for monotheistic growers: Humboldt County, Northern California. It was ’94 and Reagan’s War on Drugs in this era was not a Philadelphia-based music band, but a real Dr Strangelove effort to rid America of its fave dessert: narcotics. Federal agencies were in balls deep infiltrating growers in the Northern part of the Golden State where a superabundance of conifers (and even the odd redwood) proved the perfect camouflage for a field of glistening kind bud. Helicopters carrying DEA enforcers swooped low over fields, aggravating freedom-loving planters who responded in kind firing off peppershot from pump-action shotguns. This covert war on America by America was deadly serious and, it would appear, she was in the thick of it. Or, if not a kingpin, then certainly on the fringes clipping top-quality bud and housesitting a motormouth of an African Grey parrot right there in a woodland warzone. As for the letter she sent, I couldn’t make head nor tail of its true intentions, so I left it suspended while I went back to work on Hong Kong Island, clearing half-empty beer glasses from tables full of pantomime characters all of whom had recently rolled into town in fine fettle only to end up rolling out of our madhouse of a cocktail bar the worse for wear.

I think I wrote again toward the end of summer. I was still determined. Undeterred I pressed ahead with my plans to finish up in Hong Kong early November and from there spend a month backpacking around Sumatra before catching the long hau back east across the North Pacific. I must have heard from her one more time as I distinctly recall her saying she was checking out on a one-way ticket in the second week of December. Her dalliance with the USA was coming to an end before she could succumb to more mischief in the pines of Northern California. I had a wafer-thin window in which to act. So I booked Sumatra from the 4th November to the 4th December before catching an onward flight via Seoul on the 6th December, arriving in San Francisco on the same day. She had not a clue of my flight path, but hey ho! the best reunions are often through disbelieving eyes. And anyway, I couldn’t face a Dear John from across the ocean. I hate being dissuaded from acting on impulse by a sensible girl who is emotionally-engineered to dampen the wanton ardour that burns in the male of the species. Sometimes you gotta go out on a limb for the things worth grabbing.

It was cold when I arrived on America’s West Coast. The sky was its cobalt self, but the air was dry and the chill wind sucked from the snowcaps of the Sierras off to the East. All those months in the sub-tropics had ill-equipped both wardrobe and bones to take the brunt of the chill far less a rebuttal from a girl whose affections I must’ve craved.

In a rerun of a film I featured in not six months ago, I stepped back into that Hostel foyer to be greeted by the same barefooted lady who ran the show back in summer. ‘I remember you’, she said. ‘Is xxxxx staying here?’ I enquired. This she affirmed, adding that that i had come a very long way to see someone who was hours away from a one-way ticket home.

I asked where my girl might be at this hour. ‘Probably next door at the bar,’ the barefooted lady answered.

That she was still on this continent, in this town, camped under this roof, was good enough for me. I dumped my bags in my dorm and headed for the bar, for what I’d hoped would be a pleasant shock, a reunion worthy of a Hollywood ending. I was only partly right.

She was there, unlike any other just as I remembered her, like the lady at the desk said she would be. Her recognition of me was slightly more delayed. But when the penny finally did drop, it was as if a ghost had sashayed into the bar, sat down next to her, and said in a recognisable voice, ‘Yeah, I know I look off-colour. I don’t need reminding. So, remember the you of six months ago? I do. In fact I liked the taste so much I came back for seconds. So, remember the feeling we, um, shared? Well I’ve ghosted in here, gatecrashed your life, if you like, to invite you back into that moment.

Well, what d’ya say? ‘

She kept probing me, asking me: ‘Did you really fly 6,000 miles after all this time, on the off-chance that you would find me? Did you really fly all that way just for me?’ Yes, and yes. It all sounded promising. And then the tingle of broken glass. Kshhhh! ‘I didn’t think you would come back.’

I didn’t think you would come back? As in you weren’t meant to come back? Who in their right mind does that? To the outsider a phrase like that reverberates the sound of ‘you went away and so (by the laws of average) I met someone else.

‘I met someone else during summer,’ she shrugged. ‘I mean, people say things in the heat of the moment, don’t they? When you said let’s meet again I didn’t take it literally.’

Well, me for one. I was keen. I had vowed to see her again. It was a covenant I made with myself, and I tried hard not to break covenants, least of all with self. Sitting next to her you could almost hear this internal dialogue she was having. It could have been a convocation of voices all furiously debating in her mind how to respond to a disruptive, if by no means unpleasant, element suddenly busting in on a settled plan of existence. My reappearance on the scene was evidently provoking something deep in her psyche. She was about to close this chapter when who should turn up but the plot twist.

Past is future and future past. You can get a fleeting mention in one chapter, a more fleshed out role in later ones. You can trump all odds and win the girl. Or you can end up a lousy loser in love.

‘I have a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s in the Israeli army.’

‘Oh, I see.’ lousy loser it is then. I’ll get my coat, shall I?

‘He’s downstairs at the moment. Thing is, he doesn’t like the British.’

‘We’ll get along then.’

Pinned onto the horns of a dilemma, that’s where she was. I offered to leave, disguising well my impending heartache. Sang-froid can protect a man whose blood runs too hot for too long for the wrong girl. I told her it was worth the 10,000 mile detour just to share a drink with her. She stopped me. Don’t leave! I need to work this through in my mind.

The following day was her last after years in California. We spent some down time together during the day, but the evening was not ours to get all entwined about. She said she owed it to him to spend a final night together. I didn’t overreact. And anyway, she said, this is my final night with him, and you’ll be seeing more of me in future.

I sat outside my room in the corridor that evening. Diagonally down the hall was her dorm. I could hear them from behind the door. He couldn’t have been savvy about this interloper who had re-entered her life. I felt disconsolate. Many months and thousands and thousands of miles for this: to have her tantalisingly within my grasp only to be separated by this fucking dingy corridor, his blissful ignorance of my existence, and her doing the honourable thing. But what was this olive branch she extended, saying tonight would be the last night he would ever spend with her?

I must have sat in that corridor all night alone eavesdropping on the laughter and mirth going on behind her door. My head sagged; a tear or two shed. Solitude is the handmaiden of self-pity, I’ll tell you. My instinct was that love was a gamble and my gamble had not paid off. I don’t know why anyone would compound their state of unrequited love by doing a Romeo and cowering under the proverbial balcony while just above Juliet gets jiggy with another fella. Then again, she had said she needed that time with him as it would be her farewell to him (and I don’t mean Juliet) . Was my presence a trigger for that? I couldn’t begin to second guess a woman of such complexity as this one. At that age without much prior experience, I probably couldn’t second guess a woman with straw between her ears far less a smart one.

The following morning as she was readying to leave on journey that would signify the end of her American period, she knocked on my door. My reaction to seeing her was stilted. I still felt bruised that she had chosen to burn the candle with him the night before while I languished in the corridor alone, my mind imagining what they were up to. She said that she was leaving, but that she had made a choice. What choice? I wondered.

‘I choose you..’

Me?

She was going to write to him and tell him it would never have worked between them. Once that was over, we would once again be free to continue where we had started off in that summer of ’94.

‘I’m going back to Argentina now. But there will be a next time for us. I’ll meet you in England in the summertime.’

And lo! She did. Six months later I pulled up outside York railway station and there she was rested up against her blue backpack, book in hand. Six months of pure South American sunlight had coppered her skin. Hair dark as night and fringed and nothing like the English girls whose hair was all too mousy brown. It had been a year since that first encounter, and there would be many more to savour in the coming years. Having myself left on my big trip from practically there one year before, seeing her there outside York Railway Station completed a beautiful circle made of endless corners.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, adventure, advneture, America, backpacking, California, love, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, travelogue, United States

Pt V

Headed For the ‘Frisco Bay

You see it there in the distance for the first time as you head over the Bay Bridge from Oakland side. Atop a hill on the bay peninsular, San Francisco’s architecture heaps tightly together like the sweepings from some colossal brush. It could be the Emerald City and California the land of Oz. Me, the Tin Man and my travelling companion the Lion. We’re both finding courage on this the first big trip of our lives. To do so, we’ll both need hearts. Mine is to give away but no takers there have been. At the ripe old age of twenty-two years and twenty-two days I’m not giving up quite yet. And in a funny way, I’ve had this weird premonition for some years now that my true love I would find there in San Francisco, at the end of the rainbow. Owning a heart big enough to burst is easy to know when it is pulsating under your ribcage night and day. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz I had not come in search of a heart to feel with. I had come, rather, to give it away to the right donor. Then again, maybe this flood of emotion was brought on by the sight of the Emerald City on the hill. After three and a half thousand miles we had reached the end of the rainbow and I could not decide whether the emotional prize was elation for having done it, or disappointment that we would never again be able to embark on this roadtrip for the first time.

It was ’94 and the World Cup was in full flow. England were strangely absent. My beloved Scotland banished to the Gulag of footballing hurt. Every neutral’s favourites, Brazil, were camped, gloriously yellow, in Pasadena, while their arch rivals, the Argentinians, were kicking up a fuss on the other side of the country not a million miles from where we started our long transcontinental drive. On the first night in ‘Frisco, once checked in to the Travellers’ Hostel on Market St we decided to hit the bar next door. Argentina were live on air against a resurgent Romania with captain Hagi spearheading the boys from Bucharest. This Mundial was Maradona’s swansong and the little Talisman from the dirt poor villas of Buenos Aires wasn’t leaving the pitch without being made to. He was absent, mired in cocaine-dusted shame, but in that baron that street in San Francisco I could see that his replacement looked very promising. She was far better looking than him for starters. Wearing the famous albiceleste shirt of pale blue and white stripes, I saw her at the bar crowded by men who it seemed also rated her passing skills. When the final whistle blew, her team had been dumped out of the World Cup. A national humiliation, beaten by the upstarts from Eastern Europe. A man seated at the bar smiled, enchanted, as she stormed past and out the door. Even with a face like thunder I could tell that this one had the allure to raise a thousand ships. She was like nothing i had ever seen. She was part feral, part Bond-girl, part-Hippie. The hair reached to the small of her back It was cut (but not by a stylist) into a thick, raven-coloured fringe. She was tall-ish. Her eyebrows were black and perfect as if painted on. She was slim. Her body’s curvatures were exactly what my primitive mind had identified as Level 5: Near Perfection. Yet there was something tomboyish about her, too. As she took her leave with dramatic flourish, I stood and stared at this incredible specimen and thought, this girl’s got fire inside.

And so the story of love goes…The following day, her ire mellowed very possibly by whatever was responsible for the aromatic fragrance lingering in the air and in her chocolate brown eyes, she clocked my presence. Even to a debutante like me, I sensed the pull exerted by her eyes on mine. Is this attraction? It couldn’t be. Exotic creatures, universally considered as objects of desire, did not desire me. I was lanky, stuck physiologically at age fifteen. I was no Lothario. And most of all, i had absolutely zero confidence in my abilities to hook any fish, far less the big ones. I wasn’t attractive to girls, in my occluded mind. I had no idea how to exit the friend zone; how to make them want me. In the days that followed, a great lesson was delivered on the doorstep of my manhood: that you don’t need to do a damned thing other than be yourself. Love the skin you are in. Don’t try too hard, nor not at all. Stay in the game, but whatever you do, do not be desperate to stay come what may. Let the lady lead, and know that a million years of evolution gave women the executive role in the game of courtship. They decide if the flirting proceeds further; not us men. We are, it turns out, rather incidental in all this. Keep up the witty repartee. Put skin in the game, but don’t flay yourself alive for the lure of a kiss.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, Travel, United States

Pt IV

California, I’m Coming Home.

Mono Lake lies far from the major urban centres of America’s most powerful and populous state, California. Economists reckon that standing alone on the world stage California would be nudging Britain for the fifth spot in the league of wealthiest nations. But unlike Britain with its Lake District, Mono Lake is no Lake Windermere. It’s mono, and not stereo lake, for a reason. Unlike the collegiate system of lakes dotting England’s northern Lake District, this ancient body of water is geology’s orphan. Isolated in a parched landscape, with no outlet for water to either drain and replenish, the lake long ago turned to bicarbonate of soda. What would the Lake District’s very own poet-laureate, William Wordsworth, have made of Mono Lake had he been there during a lifetime that coincided with one of the greatest movements of humanity in search of treasure without the traditional mayhem, piracy, plunder and pillage: the California Gold Rush of 1849? I’ll tell you what he would’ve done. He would have wandered lonely as a cloud, imitating the desert sky above, until standing there on the lake’s edge he would have muttered to himself – and I mean himself for there would have been no one around for miles and miles – what in God’s name is this i see before me? For once, words fail me.

Once Wordsworth had beheld these alien surroundings he would have shifted his emphasis. From aghast to agog, he would have repeated the sentiment that living in England’s Lake District had instilled in him: that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. But it’s hard to love nature’s jagged edges. Romantic love of nature here is forsaken. Here on Highway 395, Eastern California, nature is elemental. Here the planet is as troubled as a teenager. Lifted, folded, exposed, hidden, the geology of Mono Lake is akin to that little blister on the skin of the Earth that, to heal itself, seeps clear serum from deep in the interior. Up from the deep interior superheated water fills the lake, changing the water chemistry and that of the rocks on which the lake rests. Not unlike what you see in the Apennines of Italy, cracks in the mantle let groundwater settle down deep before being pressurised by geothermal heat and pushed up to the surface where it does something to the limestone, spewing out carbonates that form towers of tufa in the centre of the lake. You’d think you were on top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mud volcano in East Africa. To look at it, you’d think Mono Lake was a volcanic caldera with whiteish scabrous deposits revealing its true Hadean nature broiling away beneath waters that above it appear so innocuous.

It is here we decide to remain for a couple of days. Finding a hostel not too far away, we sense magic in the air. Dave, the guy who lives in an annexe beside the hostel, quickly establishes his credentials as the most sardonic Californian you’ve never met. I’m thinking he’s learned the ropes from spending too much time in Northern pubs until he tells us he’s never been to Britain. Why then the phlegmatic humour? What comes out your mouth is too dark, too barbed, to be Californian with all that floodlit optimism that doesn’t lend itself well to cynicism. The enigma, which is Dave, then decides to take us to the lake for a hot bath.

Once there in nature’s open-air spa we form a circle of cynics. Dave says bathers have been scalded to death by moving all of 6-feet into what they thought was a harmless wet and warm zone when in fact the lake had undetectable hotspots where the water gushes up at over 70 degrees celsius, very possibly higher. I stay rooted to the spot afraid of turning my already burned skin into a whole new level of heat damage. Never before have i bathed in geothermal springs. The experience is unforgettable as it is unforgivable. The sun comes on like a thousand-watt bulb in a cubby hole. The sky is deeply blue. Not a single cloud wanders by high over. Never before have I felt nature burning me from beneath as from above. I have found home away from a home that failed to feel like a home. As my life will one day end, I know for a fact I’m going to like California. Sitting there in an open-air jacuzzi ringed by mountains the thought hits me: I feel good here. After waiting a lifetime to visit, the reality exceeds the expectations. And that doesn’t happen with everywhere we dream of travelling to. This state might just be golden, after all.

With the soda rinsed off our radiant bodies it’s time to move ever west to the world’s best-situated city, San Francisco. But not before climbing up and over America’s last barrier of rock and permafrost: the Sierra Nevadas. ‘Frisco is a Mecca for the godless. It’s where Steve McQueen just about drove his 1968 Ford Mustang off the brow of a hill and into the stratosphere. It’s where Dirty Harry cleaned the mean streets of limping serial killers. It’s where the Age of Aquarius was first entered. In short, it’s where the West ends and new promises begin. And for that reason alone it was worth the pilgrimage.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, environment, Travel

Pt III

United Across the Great Divide.

All the way to Reno……

…….I was looking to segue from the last instalment into this one after a hefty hiatus of eighteen months. Once the mothballs had settled I should have known that life lays down markers everywhere only to let the individual decide to see them for what they are or else ignore them for what they’re not. This ‘gift’ came wrapped in an R.E.M. song title. How does one get from Denver to San Francisco in a story without travelling a thousand rugged miles in words? Answer: one cheats by picking a song title which says it all. Hey now, all the way to Reno. If you’re old enough or urbane enough to be listening to REM, you’ll know the number.

All that my memories will reveal to me about the long bitumen from Colorado to beautiful California was that the I25 in Denver led due north to Cheyenne, the state capital of Wyoming. We must have doubled back from our pioneer hut in the Rockies to Denver knowing that to reach central California expeditiously we would be better suited to heading north to Cheyenne before taking a sharp left onto the I80 through the prairie lands of southern Wyoming. The car delivery operator gave us only fourteen days to cross the continent. Adding that failure to present ourselves and their car at our destination in Sacramento might result in an FBI warrant being issued in our names, was enough to keep us from digressing too much en route. No sacrilege on the road to the Sacrament, that was the mantra.

Southern Wyoming, I remember chiefly as being the gateway to the world’s oldest designated National Park. We even spotted roadsigns denoting so. For Yellowstone turn north. But turn we did not, in spite of temptation that Jesus could have empathised with. The detour would have added days to the trip, and quite possibly – in our callow minds – brought us into the FBI’s ambit alongside Colombian cartel lords, the Unibomber, and a splendid array of serial killers.

West we drove through a sea of yellowing grass stuck to hills filed down by the Earth’s master carpenter, time. Through Rawlins, Rock Springs and Evanston, and onward we hardly stopped even after crossing state lines into Utah. At Salt Lake City on the southeast shores of the Great Salt Lake we kept on the I80. The city of the Latter-Day Saints sat there piously wedged between a mountain ridges running north-south. I thought it was befitting of a religious colony of New World Christian non-conformists that they found their new Nazareth in a place so far removed by distance from the Holy land yet so near in terms of the harsh semi-desert terrain upon which Christ built his broad church. They choose one helluva place to settle into unorthodoxy. The Wasatch to the east and north; the Oquirrh to the west, both ranges rising from the valley floor, pushed up until their ridges cut the arid air. In the midst of untrammelled wilderness emerged over time a city as different from any other in the Continental United States that anyone could imagine. So improbable it would end up cemented there but that was the pioneer spirit of the brutal nineteenth century. Those religious zealots with the pioneer spirit welling up in their eyes, they must’ve marched in unison over forest, river prairie and mountain until stopping there with the Rockies towering either side of them they said, this is far enough.

Outside of SLC a vast salt flat shimmers on the horizon. The I80 slices through it, a gesture of unflappable self-confidence by American civil engineers of the mid-20th century. Then again, what else could they have done? Reroute the highway around the imposing site of a salt desert? Nah. Signs offering fuel and food warn of shortages ahead. No fuel beyond here for 100 miles. You get the idea. The heat was phenomenal, yet you wouldn’t have known it, so dry was the atmosphere. The skin burned without telling so. A gasp of air was all it took to singe whatever lines the windpipe. This is mirage country. The flats, where water once abounded, were now desiccated. Salt crystals is all that withstood the heat until turning the world white this bed of minerals reflected the sunlight back but the sunlight wouldn’t bounce back in a straight line. It swayed and wobbled instead, hence the hazy reality of looking through and beyond a salt desert. The trucks ahead looked for all the world as if shimmering through a wormhole, all pulled and stretched out of their normal dimensions, somehow levitating over a roiling sea of salt. The gum i had been chewing on melted onto the windscreen after a failed attempt at flicking out the gobbet of gum going at 60mph. That’s what i recall most: the sight of chewing gum turning to liquid on the outside windscreen, dripping down until realising it would take an ice storm to remove that careless blemish from this car.

And so the road went on. Straight as an arrow it cut through the dazzling flats until leaving them the mountains once again took us into their fold. But by then we had left one state and entered yet another, this time Nevada. Meaning ‘snowy’ in Spanish, Nevada was too baked by this ferocious summer to offer up snowflakes. But it mattered not. By now we had crossed the Great Diving Range and now could say confidently of ourselves, we have made it to the West, to Pacific Time. I don’t remember crossing Nevada on the I80 to Reno, the state capital. It was up and down, though that’s for sure. And because of plate tectonics, the ridges formed N-S, therefore when travelling west you go over every last buckle in the Earth’s crust. On the outskirts of Reno I sensed California was close. Roadsigns affirming such were all the evidence I needed to back my claims. The town itself looked like so many others en route: a pitstop; a temporary settlement in the most unlikely of places that found permanent status on account of the fact that wave after wave after wave of new world hopefuls had kept passing through on their way to the promised land of California only to get waylaid for long enough to put down some odd manner of roots.

It was at Reno we turned off the I80. Knowing we had time before the FBI were called in, we decided to take the back roads into California. Unbeknownst to us, this deviation into the magnificent unknown would meanaling delightful acquaintance with one of America’s truly great roads: Highway 395. Forget Route 66 or even Highway 61, this was the road that would leave an indelible mark on me, so much so that twenty-three years later i would return alone to do the whole thing again. This road had fable written all over it. Had a young a precocious Bob Dylan driven it before making Highway 61 Revisited, we would never have had Highway 61 Revisited.

Highway 395, if you didn’t already know, runs from Carson City near Lake Tahoe all the way to San Bernardino, east of L.A. It runs parallel with the backside of the Sierra Nevadas where grows the Giant Sequoia tree and in between there and the White Mountains where grows the ancient Bristlecone Pine. Between them are vast geographical features that battle the heat and the cold and the light and the dark. The heavens make Wagnerian cloud operas over this gap between two mountain ranges, such is the drama nature cooks up. It’s no coincidence that Edwards Airforce Base lies amid all this scale and all this splendour. Neither is it a surprise that Edwards Airforce Base is where the space shuttle would come into land. To slow from 17,500 mph to 200 you need acres of space to land, you need light to sight the shuttle as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and you need high pressure, and lots of it, to mellow the bumps. Highway 395 and its back yard had it all. And smack bang in the midst of that lay Mono Lake, whose chemistry was most unusual, whose size was monumental, whose ambience was strange and beguiling.

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?

 

 

 

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

#adventure, America, California, Landscapes, mountains, philosophy, Reflections, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Part II

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

At Baltimore you are good to go. You are in fact as good as gone, for lying at the edge of Maryland’s biggest town is the east end of the I-70, one of America’s five 2,000 mile-plus interstate arteries. Hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more. Whether Ray Charles ever found himself in Fort Cove, Utah, at the west terminus of this mind-boggling belt of bitumen, I cannot say. What I can assert with the certainty of shared memories is that it took us sweeping past its exit signs, diners, and moving landscapes all of a quarter century ago, though for all the imprinting my optical nerve did, it might as well have been last week. It’s true, we each remember events in different ways: some episodic like your 8th birthday gift of a puppy but not your 9th; others by associating that pilgrimage to Varanasi with pungent odours of incense and burning flesh on charcoal; and me, it’s majorly in Kodachrome and sometimes Ilford B&W that I sense a past with me in it. My memories can be 35mm or medium format. Sometimes the ISO is low and the pictures of bygone years well defined, while other times the light was low, the ISO high and the memory grainy.

I’m not deluded enough to think that this was the definitive road trip. Yeah, it certainly followed in the tyre tracks of beatniks and explorers who did it the long, slow spiritual way. Still, there are more logistically challenging transcontinental road trips out there. Mine was by no means the first – for the Romans were doing road trips 2,000 years ago on surfaces they had laid expressly for that purpose – nor the best – for London to Kathmandu or the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego overlander on the Pan-American Highway takes a lot of beating. That said, by whichever means (and there are many highways connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) the Trans-America is travel’s answer to a pair of Levi 501s – original and stone-washed.

The road undulates at first, cutting a swathe past tasteless roadside attractions (like tufts of commercial hoarding growing high for the sunlight of your attention) and past tasteful wooded landscape lying peacefully beyond those pesky pit-stops and hoardings that much of the world now sees fit to emulate. The knolls of this eastern route are made of spruce and oak, hemlock and hickory. What I was saying about that photographic memory doesn’t apply to eastern America’s partially cloaked surfaces. When you cannot see the wood for the trees, identifying a hickory from a hemlock takes on a vertical challenge. But I know that, unlike the island of my birth, the American continent knows its fair share of trees extending away into yesterday. That much I do remember from my first great road trip all of nearly a quarter century ago.

The houses you see abutting the highway are not predominantly brick like ours. The residential architecture comes in different shapes and sizes, but I do think there’s more than a bit of Dutch and German influence in those lateral clapboards. Old world, but not English in influence as the structures of New England attest to.

The I-25 runs west out of Pennsylvania and that swirling nexus of a turnpike is the point of origin. West she blows, crumbling ever more through Maryland near to where the old Mason-Dixie line forms a Caesarian scar under all that concrete and vegetation.

That modern America had a traumatic birth is no exaggeration. The embryo grew subdivided in the womb of the New World. The two fetuses, one Union and the other Confederate, grew too large to either share the same womb or to be born by natural birth. Battles (such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) were staged around these parts for the soul of a young nation chosen by the Almighty to dwell in a land where Native American spirits were everywhere and old. This nation of epic roads might think it has matured beyond the attrition of civil war, that it has healed its deep rifts, but the divided states of America is kidding itself if it really believes it has.

Maryland is a slip of a state. We leave her as we found her: ambling past at 55 mph. On the road to somewhere, some places are merely waypoints while others are curiosities worthy of scrutiny. The industrial east, dotted with its established settlements of Europeans who made the Atlantic crossing, for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is all well and fine and handsomely endowed in many a place, but when San Francisco is the endgame of a short game, this is one quarter you don’t want to go into overtime.

Did we even stop in Indiana? As I remember it, I blinked in the passenger seat and there it was in a scene from Never the Mark Twain Shall Meet: the bridge on the River Mississippi. Jesse James and his band of brigands roamed the heartlands, earning sympathy as they robbed and plundered their way to ignominy, and him a bullet in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford.

The state in July is hot and swampy and full of biting insects. The man at the trailer park, the owner most likely, warmed to us in that ‘hands across the water’ fashion. It was said by the man himself beaming with pride that he visited England in the age of B&W while serving as a G.I. in Germany (but probably not sharing a bunk with Elvis, who was there too). Though it was many years ago, he remembered old Albion fondly. The guy, by now he must have been sixty at a pinch, flew back across the pond (as anglophile Americans and Amerophile Englanders like affectionately to call that gargantuan body of thrashing, grey water that’s anything but pond-like) in a rickety old DC-8, which in all fairness was probably fresh off the production line in 1960-sum when he flew in it. We’re talking about the early days of transatlantic air travel as an alternative to second-class on ocean liners for the common folk. This commercial aircraft, so ballerina-light compared with the later Boeing 747, was kicked around like an old tin can somewhere high over Greenland he said. How did he know he was over Greenland? Well, That plane was shunted around so much by that old devil turbulence that it almost ended up on its side. It was then, face pressed against the porthole he was able to get a good view of the white world beneath.

Paralysed by fear, he reckoned none of those two hundred-odd passengers aboard thought they’d make it home at all far less in time for dinner. They’d come to land alright, he was sure, but not in the manner that airline passengers have become accustomed to, and nor in the manner that any self-respecting mortal would ever hope for. That’s the thing about the trauma of near-death experience. Like your faithful hound it’ll never leave your side no matter what. Keep feeding that long, long time ago event with tidbits of vivid recollection and Rex the long-haired ‘I almost died’ will keep lying forever at the feet of the survivor.

The Mississippi cuts the nation in half vertically as the Mason-Dixie line cuts her longways across her abdomen and then sideways politically-speaking. Although the river meanders under way more than one, perhaps the most visible bridge in St Louis is not one at all. Rather, it’s an arch, high as it is symbolic of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Put there to bridge two nations – one almost an eagle and the other a puny fledgling – the Gateway Arch in St Louis is a fitting reminder that for bridges to be built and formidable barriers to be spanned, first the far side has to be conquered. And to do that, the first peoples, such as the Dakota tribe, had to be pushed back until they could be pushed no more for there was no corner to push them into other than a lousy reservation. By crossing that river whose tongue-tying spelling was recited, never to be forgotten, by generations of Scottish schoolchildren, the St Louis bridge over the mighty M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i spans two rather distinct hemispheres: one, the long-settled East; the other, the endless plains, mountains, deserts, canyons, badlands, and forests of the West.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would turn in their fictional graves to know that these whirlpool waters of the Mississippi no longer add up to a whole lot of natural barrier. Gone is the obligatory river boat crossing with its tillerman, a nineteenth century Charon who’d take you across the Styx to the underworld that was the little-known Frontier, and for only nickels and dimes that dead men wore to cover their eyes to the dazzling light of western settlement. But the world is lost to the mystique that once shrouded it. Modern transport has made a mockery of distance, shrinking everything but itself.

On the great plains the sky weighs down the land and lays down the land. A gap-fill of blue ether over green corn, restless air over restful earth. The cornfields of Kansas open up before us. Black clouds gather overhead, chasing us west across the interstate highway that crosses the plains. Cumulo-thunderheads the size of English counties send bolts of lightning down to strike indiscriminately at hapless heads of wheat, barley and corn that sway hypnotically, and when it gusts, frenziedly, in that sea of ripening ears. At time like these, the sky hates the earth, wanting only to show who is boss.

We skirt the peripheries of Kansas City where man-size droplets of rain finally catch up with the traffic. Day turns to night. The downpour is torrential. I’ve seen this kind of rain in the tropics and where el Niño was to blame, not expecting it here. When the whole world awaits you for the first time, who’s to say what to expect?

The land is a sea of wheat and soya, barley and rape seed. To call these agricultural lands a patchwork of ‘fields’ can be misleading. When does a field become to large in area to remain a field? The highways, in another sense, are shipping lanes. You can tell from the way they all run through the unbroken expanse, unlike old England and France where roads and lanes enclose fields, forming boundaries at the limit of where some farmer Joe’s smallholding meets some other farmer’s.

Many folks are mistaken to think that the state of Colorado, lying due west of Kansas, is all ski resorts and Aspen trees bedecked with virgin snow. Much of the east of the state, and we are talking a fair dollop of land, is essentially a flat extension of the great plains of Kansas whence we came. Some way short of alpine, farmed to fuck and featureless, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cloud bank you see on the far side of the flatlands at the limit of a distant horizon is actually a bank of clouds and not the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which it turns out in fact to be.

You want natural barriers of the kind no longer afforded you by the mighty Mississippi and the plains of Kansas? Then look no further than the fake mirage at the end of the visible horizon. Like the Himalaya when you’re gazing north from the Indian Terai, the Rockies loom higher and harder as the traveller approaches along Interstate 70.

Never bowled over by annual membership of the mile-high club, I always fancied myself taking a day pass for the mile-high city, Denver. What they don’t see is that the height and elegance of youth all too often succumbs to the flabby girth of age. Viz. Denver was a mile high from the moment it was born, but these days, being that bit older, with a metropolitan population of about three million, it has to be more than a mile wide, too. Keep the day pass, around the waistline we go. That’s the trouble with road tripping: stopping for anytime can be a drag. What lies beyond has got to be better than what lies near. Isn’t that the whole point of monotheism?

We head up into the mountains near Arapaho, where the carpet reeks of pine needles dying to be let out by water that hasn’t seeped through since winter’s end, where the sloping roof peaks punch little holes in a sky of ice blue, where Native Americans are sadly gone leaving the victorious cowboys to ride on steeds whose clop-clopping rings throughout the cloaked valleys. The air is thinner up here. Sound travels faster and further than its maker could ever hope for. It’s pretty up here, a first gulp of the great West as I imagined the West to be from old Hollywood films I used to watch with my Scottish grandfather.

In a cabin in the woods (how much more quintessentially North American can you get?) we meet a father and son from Houston, Texas. The old guy sports the tapered beard ripped off Custer’s chin as a spoil of war after Crazy Horse got him at Little Bighorn in 1876. He wears boots fit for a regal cowboy. He slings those long blue denim legs over the balustrade of the cabin’s verandah as leisurely as a saddle on a hitching post. Cuban heels perched on the beam, toes pointing at the Dog star on a Rocky Mountain night spangling with American stars. He speaks of things you don’t normally associate with boot-heeled Texans, like his love for yachting and the storm in the Gulf of Mexico that near as damn buried him, boots n all, in Davy Jones’ Locker. The rest of the conversation is gone to seed, not surprisingly, as our encounter happened twenty-five years ago, and the old guy himself, unlike his impressive outline in my mind, is likely dead and gone, too.

The I-70 keeps on West from Denver through a series of national forests, then Grand Junction that might not be so grand but indubitably is a junction. Thenceforth the road runs onward to Utah where it runs out of itself around Fishlake National Forest. From Baltimore at its inception to its death (or maybe its rebirth) in Western Utah, the I-70 blazes a trail about that of the distance between Edinburgh and Istanbul. Woe betide the crew charged with the maintenance upkeep on that stretch of tarmac! It is in Denver, however, we bid it fare-thee-well. It’s time to hitch a ride on another highway north then west to California.

On the Redwood Trail

ancient life, botany, California, Documentary Photography, earth, Eighth Wonder of the World, forest, giant trees, Landscape Photography, natural history, nature, Photography, Professional Photography, redwoods, San Francisco, Travel, Travel Photography, trees, Trekking, Uncategorized, United States, Wildlife

Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

There’s something about coming from a small island whose primordial forest – more traditionally known as the ‘wildwood’ – is recalled nowadays in history books, folklore, and wherever you see a pub named The Green Man. The forest that once covered practically all the Isles might be long gone, yet it lives on for some of us within our very selves. If you are painted wood green on the inside but on the outside see only postmodern shades of grey, you’ll know.

Everywhere fields of green grass, nibbled to the stubs by livestock. Dry stone walls, hedges and sleepy villages. Trunk roads and roundabouts, all converging on town after town, some charming and others in dire need of. In my reckoning, that just about characterizes wilderness-shy Britain. But none of this urban, agricultural planning can deny our hearts, hearts overgrown with thick foliage enmeshing the ventricles. Before neolithic farmers penetrated deep with their axeheads, there was once an impenetrable forest of oak and elm, of rowan and pine. You could argue it was in the ancient wildwood where the creation mythology of our now pastoral land was born. Looking on these trimmed enclosures today I’m hallucinating forest stretching away. Missing from a body it should be attached to, Britain and its absent forest is comparable to scratching an amputated leg. Or rather, it’s the ghost of the old green man I’m seeing. Picture modern humans disappearing – the crunch following the big bang – and it won’t take many seasons before a wilderness of trees will again claim its ancient realm. Bear dens in Piccadilly. Wolves stalking prey where Old Trafford used to be. There is a certain cruel romance in our eventual demise.

Family surrounded by three giants

Redwoods

While the wait goes on, while twenty-first century human development, having long ago taken the cream of the landscape, can only take the crumbs of what’s left, turning floodplains into bland, uninsurable housing estates, the forest empire will have to remain no more than a seed of a thought. Which is not to say, we islanders cannot fly off to taste a bit of that wild-wooded wilderness elsewhere in the world where someone had the good grace to conserve a swathe of it. My attitude is no matter how hard we try to exterminate what was once intimate, we’ll be gone before it’s gone. Ipso facto, see it before you die.

The dull thud of the axe and the bloody screech of the saw might be heard now more than ever worldwide, but that is not to say that the loser now will not later to win and that the forests will have the final, rustling laugh. I reaffirm. So go on, ye mighty and despair! Keep bulldozing Indonesia’s tropical hardwoods for a quick buck in your greasy palm oil hand. Keep on colluding with corrupt government officials to slash and burn your way into a little Amazonian homestead in exchange for votes. Keep eking away at the fringes, bringing home the charcoal that kindles an exploding African population. Keep on keeping on, because environmental bitching is not the ultimate goal of this long read. No. The aim is to describe an experience in a very magical realm of nature not many Europeans ever see. So I invite you to persevere.
When it comes to trees, but not any old trees, to epic trees, I reckon if you’re going to see them as they were, as they will be until the end of time, you need to hit the Redwood Trail. That means heading north from San Francisco, hugging the foggy Pacific coast as you venture into a magical realm.

Sandwiched, Jedediah Smith State Park

To preface: the coastal Redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirens, are some of the biggest and oldest living things on the Earth. Aside from their fatter cousins, the sequoias of California’s central Sierra Nevada mountains, they are. Before the American West was opened up to the gold-rushing ’49ers followed by wagon trains bringing the whites with their inveterate ways, there were millions upon millions of giant redwoods in what is now northern California. Liking the moisture from the perennial fog, the coastal redwoods grew pretty much from the north Pacific coastline to ridges many miles inland in a line unbroken for hundred of miles north to south. Scattered tribes such as the Yurok and Sinkyone, lacking either hard tools or malevolent willpower to chop chop chop, had lived ‘in timeless harmony’ (a phrase that guilt-ridden white revisionists like myself like to trot out) amid the giants. The first white settlers to San Francisco, most of whom came from the east where trees were smaller, must have gazed disbelievingly at groves of these conifers that could grow so high and so wide. By the mid-19th century California had been wrested from Hispanic rule by Americans of north European descent who sensed there was gold in them hills. With that entrepreneurial mindset, compounded by the belief in God’s providence – that natural resources were both divinely given and limitless – it wasn’t long before the lumber barons followed. Where they prospered the forests grew poorer in number day by day. The biggest and the best were the first to fall. The axe then the crosscut saw picked off the giants of the giants. Creaking as they fell one after the next, by the tail end of the 19th century an epoch in natural history was coming to end with silent screams and tremendous thuds onto forest floor.

young girl backs into a giant, Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

These living sentinels, there to watch through the ages, stood no chance against the demands of capital and where time had stood still in the 250 million years since they evolved in the primordial forests of the mesozoic, a little thing called progress soon shunted along a real possibility of their extinction from forests.

By the dawn of the 20th century a crisis had ensued. Tough times call for great men, and one duly emerged all the way first from Dunbar, Scotland, via Missouri. His name was John Muir and thanks to his monumental efforts and those of the Sierra Club of conservationists the 5% of giant redwoods remaining today might well have been 0%.

I saw my first redwood off Highway 199 coming in from Gasquet, a settlement on the northern frontiers of California where it touches southern Oregon. Seeing a road that might lead to camp, I turned off Redwood Highway and into deep forest a few miles beyond the town. The South Fork Road led over a bridge and past the turning that led to some of the biggest remaining stands of redwood anywhere. The road wend its way ever further into thick forest, away from any trappings of civilisation. Following a tributary of the Smith River the road had to perform switchback after switchback to keep with the sinews of the river. The hills were high and cloaked with firs. The sky was bruised, of a intense blue you only really see in northern California. Sundown was coming.

There it was, roadside. I slowed to a stop. The tree was of a stout base that flattened the earth like a giant elephant’s foot. It was unlike any growing nearby. The trunk was rust red and the furrows deep and shadowed into bark that I later felt to be soft and none too reluctant to offer up a slither of its thick epidermis to the exotic bark trophy hunter. The bark itself was of a rare quality as trees go, cracking as the inner tree fought to expand. In places the trunk oozed deep russet tannins. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn blood was trickling down a woolly mammoth’s gargantuan leg.

Relative Sizes, Jedediah Smith State Park

At a beautiful place called the Big Flat, a campground so remote as to be fifteen miles from the highway on neglected backroads that went from smooth blacktop to grainy hardcourt and eventually to dirt, I made camp. Unable to shake the image of that one solitary redwood on the road down I doubled back, judging there still to be time in the day. Back close to the Redwood Highway, I took the rear entrance into Jedediah Smith State Park, where some of the most impressive redwoods still call a grove a home (often and elsewhere they cut lonely figures surrounded by little conifer companions). There I parked. Everyone had gone home. Along what was probably once a timber truck road, I walked, craning my neck ever up. Being human had never felt less remarkable. Now the close of day, twilight filled the spaces between redwood after redwood after redwood, each varying in size, from gigantic to galactic. To my surprise, being two-hundred feet and shallow rooted didn’t prevent them thriving on steep hillsides. It was intuitive to think that the loftier a thing rises the deeper it send its roots. Yet, everything about these ancient evergreens ran counter-intuitive. Nothing ought to be that tall nor nothing that old. Nothing that tall should grow on a gradient. As for their roots The reason redwoods reached for the sky was, I read, because the morning fog is where they tapped the moisture needed to grow the flaky bark that insulates them so well against the ravages of fire (fire which they periodically need to reproduce). They knew not to find the millions of tonnes of water needed for their capillaries in the soil, soil which was often parched and nutrient-depleted. So the root system grew shallow and outward, coiling above and below ground around whatever happened to be there.

kids strolling amid the tall trees, JS State Park

Instantly, it became clear that what I was seeing was wondrous. A man regresses to boyhood when his eyes behold a thing of wonder. He asks how something can be, just as he did ad nauseam to himself and his puzzled parents when he was five-years old. With full moons for eyeballs he asks the tree how it came to be like nothing else he’s ever seen. He knows his kind built towers larger than nature constructed trees. Still, on this road to Stout Grove, with nothing but silent giants for company, he dismisses the mile-high towers because engineering can explain them. Much as they strive to fire human imagination, not the sky-piercing needle of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa nor the art deco finesse of Manhattan”s Chrysler Building can qualify as an eighth wonder of the world in the manner these mysterious objects can.

Any adult lucky to be a small boy when the Star Wars Trilogy hit the screens in the late 1970s and early 80s will remember Endor. Dizzying pursuits on hover-bikes through the forest of Endor left an indelible mark on mine and many a schoolboy’s imagination. Of course, all of it was conceived in the mind of George Lucas. It was his brainchild. Or so we presumed. For years I harboured that belief. Lucas could visualise worlds few others were privy to. Little did I know then that George Lucas was a native of California and likely familiar with the tall trees of Northern California. The realisation that Endor was nature’s brainchild and not his, that his inspiration was mine to share, was a consolation.

Kids measuring tree girth, Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

I knew there and then that evening as I glided along that timber road in a dream-like state some things were worth the effort of living for, if only to see repeatedly for the first time. Why the coastal redwoods can stake a claim – not that they care to – to being a bona fide wonder of the natural world was borne witness the following morn when in the hallowed light of a California day I looked upon those trunks again for the first time. When I thought that was merely coincidence, i stayed again at Jedediah Smith state park and this time paid a king’s ransom to pitch up inches from the base of a young redwood. On the third morning since first laying eyes on the world’s gentle giants, crawling out of that tent I gazed again in the same resplendent light and once again craned my neck to breaking point, jaw slacked both in incredulity and paralyzed joy, only to see the mighty redwood again for the first time.

Street Life in Cookie Central.

California, Cities, counter-culture, Hippies, homelessness, Indigence, Life, Lifestyle, People, Photography, Portraits, Poverty, San Francisco, Street Photography, Street Scenes, streetlife, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized, United States

San Francisco bay has long been a draw for the weird, the wonderful and the downright down and out.

Attracted by boundless Pacific sunlight and a tolerance bordering on the UV intense, today the city continues to watch America’s misfits pour in from all quarters. Some are drawn to an alternative lifestyle while others are not so deliberate in where they choose to hang out. The plain fact is that San Francisco, particularly around west Market Street up to Haight Ashbury, provides a kind of sanctuary to many sorry men and women whose psychiatric troubles would be better treated in a more centralised asylum. Instead, the old lady of the bay, San Francisco, IS the asylum. Except, this asylum is growing pricier by the day while its homeless population grows more prevalent but not more equipped to meet the economic (and dare i say psychological) bare necessities of existing in one of the world’s cutting edge metropoles.

In spite of the sometimes vexatious experience of walking San Francisco’s colourful and crazy streets, there’s yet so much life in the place, so much occasion to both weep and whoop at the state of the world.

San Francisco is one of those rare entities: a refuge where both the botched and bungled and the bold and beautiful have an equal share of its pitched paving stones. A screwed-up symbiosis, sure, but a symbiosis of tech and counter culture nonetheless.

Not to speak of its architectural beauty in a blessed natural setting. That is a whole other story.