Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Wednesday 27th April 2011

Inevitably New Orleans satisfied the live music needs that weren't quite met in that Austin bar. We stayed in the Faubourg Marigny area, and having spotted Frenchman's Street during one of those protracted drives necessitated by American cities' extensive one-way systems, we visited it that night. "No Cover" said the sign above the door of the Spotted Cat, while swing music assaulted us through the windows. So we went in, and listened to the Smokin' Time Jazz Club, an ensemble of around ten musicians crammed into the corner, singing, blowing, sawing, thumping away, to great effect. Subequently, we heard a lot of music in New Orleans, but I enjoyed this the most. When the hat came around for tips, George and I both produced enough that combined would have got us one of the band's CDs, so we did that instead.

Over in the French Quarter there are even more musicians, and kids bumble along the street carrying trumpets and French Horns. I don't think you'd see that anywhere else. There are also a number of young tramps pretending to be musicians, making dreadful sounds at street corners with banjos or guitars. At least, I think they're tramps. It is possible that my transition to grumpy old man is complete, and this is how the musical youth of today choose to dress. And smell.

Talking of smell, flowers spill between the buildings and over balconies. Consequently, over the traffic and air conditioning and cigarettes, you catch their scent in the air, especially around the Marigny area, particularly the heavily treed Esplanade Avenue that forms the border with the French Quarter. This is a pleasant antedote to the stink of Bourbon Street, which is a garish bastardisation of drink, sex and voodoo. At night it is smelly and seedy, and not in a good way. Of course this meant that, after dark, we trawled the whole length of it, watching dozens of trumpeters parp up a storm at one end before sampling several bars, plastic cup of beer in hand as we watched band after band. One bar had karaoke - an utterly cliched nerd took to the stage, pudding bowl hair, thick thick specs, too small green t-shirt, dreadful skin, to the announcement that he was a karaoke virgin. His look was so like that of a sterotyped Hollywood loser, that I expected it to be revealed that we were unwitting extras in a movie, and he would sing with the voice of an angel. Alas, no. His tone-deaf drone not only murdered the song, it also dismembered it and made a lamp shade out of the skin.

We didn't spend much time in New Orleans, but in the small area we visited, you see the same individuals wandering around all the time. Aforementioned tramps, for example, or the extremely aged British gentleman, stooping, dragging three unhealthy looking dogs behind him, and complaining every time I saw him about the number of people around, in a melancholy estuary drawl. I suppose he's an incredibly famous old jazz musician of whom I'm meant to be in awe.

Outside New Orleans, we took a Louisiana swamp tour, cruising up and down the bayous and channels that I excitedly hoped were the same ones on which Roger Moore had caused such havoc in Live and Let Die. I was too shy to ask Nolan, our boat's captain, the question. So George did it for me. No, they weren't - but the location was nearby. George actually spent much of the swamp tour a bit glum because it looked increasingly likely that we weren't going to see any alligators. As we floated through under the willows and cypresses, garlanded with Spanish moss, hearing Cap'n Nolan's stories of smuggling moonshine from and ridiculing another tourist on the boat who exclaimed that she had seen a monkey (it was a squirrel) we all peered desperately into the undergrowth, only slightly placated with some snakes. Finally the alligators came, a couple of them swimming up to the boat, and leaping from the water to take the marshmallows and frankfurters on sticks proffered by Nolan (in fact, the swamps are blighted by floasting marshmallows). George brightened up, only for a bit of a dampener to be put on proceedings when we saw 'gator roadkill on the way back to New Orleans.

DSC01964

156 - posted at 16:57:22
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Sunday 24th April 2011

From New Mexico into Texas, and past signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers as there were penal institutions in the area. i had wanted to visit the Big Bend National Park in South West Texas, but I was stupidly careless in putting a town name into the Sat Nav. As a result i thought that the desired destination was hours further away than it actually was, and we headed instead for the rather bizarre town of Fredericksburg.

This Texas Hill Country town is dominated by a long and colourful main street, lined with Victorian town houses containing shops and cafes. Unfortunately, the main street is also 4 lanes wide and roars with traffic, and the shops are exclusively fully of twee nick-nacks and Texas kitsch aimed at the "seniors" who appear to flock into the town at weekends to spend their dollars. But I wasn't looking for fragrant bathtime products, bumper stickers stating "If you're lucky enough to be born in Texas you're lucky enough", beads, dream catchers, Sarah Palin action figures, Coca Cola memorabilia or Stetsons. A local bar and restaurant was good though, and typically Texan. George listened in muted horror as our waiter told her about the gazelle he'd shot and had stuffed (there are taxidermists everywhere).

I was keen not to spend too long in the town (George was more relaxed) but weekends are the enemy of the traveller, who, not really having much sense of what day of the week it is, will clumsily try to find somewhere to stay in a city at the last moment, only to find the place is full. So it was with Austin - we couldn't get in on the Saturday night, so we spent another day in Fredericksburg before packing up and driving to the Texan state capital.

Once in Austin we stayed in a pretty and peaceful suburb called Hyde Park, full of large wooden houses with porches and shady lawns. Downtown was about an hour's walk through the University of Texas campus and past the Capitol. We spent a day walking the streets. First in South Congress: George browsed the vintage clothes stores while I had my head shorn in a very old-school barber's. Then along the river spotting the tiny turtles bobbing by. We found the "museum of the weird", a freak show on 6th street containing cows with two heads and yellowing posters for 19th Century side shows, and drank mojitos in the wood paneled bar of the Driskell Hotel. By mid afternoon the heat had grown unbearable, and we sought shelter in an independent book store, an independent record store and the original and huge Wholefoods, spending about 40 minutes in each, simply to keep out of the sun. Whilst cowering in Wholefoods, we bought a little picnic, and then, when the heat became a bit more forgiving we walked to the little park underneath Congress Avenue Bridge and waited for the bats - for about 2 hours.

It was almost dark when the famous 1.5 million bats finally decided to leave their home under the bridge and go and find something to eat. By that time, we'd decided that the best place to view them would actually be on top of, rather than under the bridge. This proved to be good decision, and we looked down, trying in vain to get a half decent photo, as they swarmed out over the river, chirruping away. I then decided that since we were in Austin we had to see some love music and dragged George to a deserted 6th Street (it was a Monday evening) where we found a band playing loud rock covers underneath a big screen showing the basketball. About four people looked on disinterestedly. We joined them, before walking all the way back to Hyde Park in the dark. It was a bit creepy wandering past all those silent lawns and hedges, especially since we got a bit lost (thank god for the grid system).

The Capitol By Night

155 - posted at 17:56:55
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Wednesday 20th April 2011

We made one final stop before leaving Vegas - the Hertz desk, in order to sort out that pesky dashboard message. The nicest woman in the world (genuinely) helped us out. Thankfully we didn't have to switch to a third car, but our gold chariot's filter did need changing. This was done in 30 minutes, and with 35 dollars knocked off our bill we got back on the road, leading to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Flagstaff is great, a small laid back town, surrounded by pine forests and bisected by rail tracks. If you're planning to get somewhere in town, you have to add 10 minutes to the time you would ordinarily expect it to take - over 100 freight trains a day rumble through Flagstaff, and they're all about a mile long. We did a lot of waiting at the level crossing, with the warning bells clanging away.

We drove to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. We didn't have enough time to hike down into the canyon (or the right shoes, or clothes, or energy) and instead spent a few hours walking along the South Rim, every now and again staring across the abyss, trying to work out exactly how it had been formed and how old various parts were. George, with her superior understanding of science and geology eventually worked it out and patiently explained it to me, but any member of the National Geograpic society listening to our conversations leading up to that point would have been tearing their hair out at our ignorance. I was more interested in winding up George than learning about the planet, particularly as she had developed a bad case of nerves on our walk along the rim, perhaps understandably given the huge panorama of red cliffs (some with snow unexpectedly clinging to them) and sheer drops (it's about a mile down) in front of us. I cruelly exploited her fear by leaping onto overhanging rocks and insisting she take photos of me with my legs dangling over the edge of the hole. But I got what I deserved, sitting on and breaking the sunglasses I had bought in Le Cumbre in the process.

From Flagstaff we set off for New Mexico and another epic drive of around 8 hours. Gallons more gas pumped, herds of beef jerky gobbled down, thousands of insects smashed on the windshield, cop cars hiding behind bushes on the central reservation, memorial highways, orange suited convicts clearing litter - somehow the hours and miles pass. But turning off a main highway onto another road in New Mexico and they began to pass more slowly. The road was the loneliest in the world: either side, endless, treeless land, barely any other cars, the occasional tumbleweed or red dust storm forcing us to slow down to a crawl. The monotony was broken a couple of times by small desolate towns, all fading paint and peeling rust, not a soul in sight. At least Patagonia had all the rheas and llamas.

We finally got to Roswell. We had been speeding along in order to get to the UFO museum before it closed at 5pm and George was wearing her Battlestar Galactica t-shirt especially. Having unwittingly crossed into a different time zone during the drive we only had about 40 minutes at the museum, but that was long enough to appreciate the place, the surrounding themed gift shops and the bulbous alien headed street lamps along the road. Otherwise, like so many American towns, the commercial centre consists of gas stations, motels and fast food restaurants that are clustered along the highway running through the centre of town. We stayed in one of those motels and at at one of the food joints, a colourful themed bar/restaurant called Farleys, full of superhero and alien memorabilia and huge food portions.


Grand Canyon

154 - posted at 19:36:52
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Monday 18th April 2011

And so to Las Vegas - or Vegas ('no-one calls it Las Vegas Rob' (Charlie)). Rooting around on-line I'd found a fairly good deal for a couple of nights at the Hard Rock Hotel. It is off the strip, but given we were only to have one full day in Vegas, I figured that this wouldn't be a problem, and it wasn't.

Thanks to the amazing Sat Nav (I don't know how anyone ever managed to drive into unfamiliar cities without getting lost before) we battled through the mental mess of freeways leading into the city, found the hotel, parked up, registered, and settled into our lovely room: 2 queen size beds, huge bathroom, huge tv, good view, all for (much) less money than the hostel in SF or hotel in a sketchy part of Venice. That evening we spent in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, wandering around gawping at the blackjack, craps and roulette tables, trying to work out how to play the slot machines, being underwhelmed by various tatty outfits in glass cases (Kurt Cobain's shirt, the drummer from Blink 192's jeans, Christina Aguilera's thong) and feeding dollar bills into the electronic poker and blackjack games at the bars in return for free drinks.

The next morning we started an epic trawl of the strip, through Paris, Venice and New York (over which we rode the roller coaster), past all kinds of hawkers selling cut-price entry into clubs, shows and prostitutes. We dipped in to various casinos, occasionally eating, or losing a little bit of money or watching acrobatics (as in Circus Circus), and we window-shopped, specifically seeking out the "Miracle Mile" of shops (what it says - a mile of shops in a mall. It struck me that Oxford Street is over a mile long and full of shops. Maybe it wasn't such a miracle.)

As the overwhelming lights of the city came on, we found ourselves in Bond bar in the Cosmopolitan. Seating ourselves at the bar, we attacked the video machines, feeding in $5 bills, high-rollers that we are. Free apply martinis kept coming, and then it happened - George hit the jackpot. She won $4 on Jacks or Better poker. To celebrate this immense win (she thinks she came out $1 up) we headed back to New York New York and found the Coyote Ugly bar. Inside girls in tightly fitted jeans and the briefest of tops shouted at the patrons through a microphone, occasionally stopping to abuse a male drinker or pour spirit down the throat of a female. The crowd was a grotesque smorgasbord of Vegas caricatures - the fat, the hideous, us. At one point one of the hostesses brayed, asking who had come from furthest away. A couple shouted "UK". I looked around and noticed appalled that they were the very couple that I had considered the worst, fattest and ugliest of the lot. A few vodka and tonics later, and various women had been encouraged to dance on the stage with the hostesses. We meanwhile had started chatting to a couple of fun women from Minnesota. Suddenly they had disappeared on the stage too, and dragged (with my help) George up with them. They kept calling her "Kate Middleton". And so the evening progressed. Later, and I only remember snatches of this, we didn't get into a club because I wasn't wearing a collar (Vegas is a lot like Croydon in this respect). Drunkenly bickering with George, I clambered upset into a cab, and we went back to the hotel where George passed out. It was lucky we didn't go to the club. Again I found myself driving out of a city with a nasty hangover, while George, suffering even worse, swore off drink for days.

New York, New York

153 - posted at 23:43:32
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Sunday 17th April 2011

The first thing to note about Yosemite, and this is not sniping, just, as usual, an impartial reporting of the facts, is that George, however much she tried, could not say it. Andrea will testify to this. It was like Pinot Grigio all over again. Luckily, by the time we were on the road towards Midpines, the village outside the National Park in which we'd chosen to stay, she had developed a method of learning how to pronounce it: "It's just like 'semi'".

The drive from San Francisco to Midpines took us through beautiful Californian valleys, filled with orange groves, then up into the hills, through forests of oaks and conifers, and alarmingly, a flash snow storm. We'd started the day in sunny San Francisco. We got out of the car at the Yosemite Bug lodging in gloomy dampness. Rain hung in the air as we hauled the rucksacks towards our cabin. From the outside the prefab portacabin looked unpromising, like one of those awful huts that served as classrooms at my primary school. But on turning the key we found inside a cosy, large and brightly decorated hotel room, all done out in an incongruous '60s theme - crazy pictures and cushions with bead curtains on the window from which hung amorphous plastic shapes. All that was missing was a lava lamp.

We drove into the park the next day. To be trite, it is beautiful. The sheer rock faces rise out of the forests to polished (and often snow-covered) domes, from which waterfalls crash, while down at ground level, one can wander through miles of gentle woodland, looking for elusive cougars. Unfortunately, one cannot necessarily do this alone. As it is the beginning of spring, and we visited on a weekend, the park was bustling with visitors. We drove slowly along the road towards Yosemite village looking for a likely spot to park and head off on a trail. Spotting a sign to a waterfall we pulled in and started up the deserted path. We were just congratulating ourselves on our find, when we turned a corner and realised where everyone was. Leading up to the fall was a steep and narrow path. It was completely iced over, the trees surrounding it blanketed in snow. Thirty or so people were heading both up and down the path - except they weren't. They were scrabbling and sliding and falling and slipping, and whooping and screaming, and mostly getting nowhere. At one point an elderly man stopped and said with delight, "What an adventure!". Of course we joined in, got to the top, admired the scenery and slid all the way back to the car.

Further along we parked up again and set off on a 7 mile walk through the woods, where we encountered a fewer people. Unfortunately, over the course of the hike we had to dash across streams from waterfalls and huge puddles from snow-melt. George was fine in her hardy fake all-stars (6 pounds in Buenos Aires), whereas the water started gushing into my ratty old trainers immediately, and during the drive back to our '60s boudouir, my socks and shoes sat under the air-conditioning vents. As I'm sure you can appreciate, it smelt wonderful.

The following day brought our first epic drive. Yosemite to Las Vegas, via Death Valley. We started very early, and were rewarded with the sight of deer munching by the curb as we headed south. Not far into the journey, the dashboard lit up "Change Engine Oil Soon". We obediently pulled into a garage, bought the correct oil, topped up the car, and got back on the highway. The message disappeared.

As we headed down past Bakersfield, turning towards the east, the landscape started to change, gentle hills gave way to big chunks of red rocks, trees to scrubland. We headed up over mountains and were rewarded with epic views of the Death Valley wilderness below, the distant road cutting through the centre of the white parched ground. Dropping down onto the desert floor, we pulled to the side of the road, took some snaps, wondered at the silence, and then headed on through similar landscape, past glittering weird rocks and sudden sand dunes. As we were driving through Stovepipe Village, the oil message flashed up again on the dashboard, despite the car being full of the stuff. This was not the best place in the States for the car to start developing mechanical problems. We pressed on, hoping not to get stranded in the wilderness. Thankfully, a few hours later, Las Vegas rose out of the desert, like a big pus filled pimple on a dry and craggy face.

Yosemite Valley

152 - posted at 14:51:16
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