Hello from the USA! We're now well into the next big leg of our trip, covering the west coast of the US, all the way down from the Canadian border to Las Vegas in 3 weeks. There's already been a lot to see and do, so we thought it might be best to make this blog a two parter (Mark has also warned me that my blogs may at times be a bit text heavy, apologies!).
So our journey started in Seattle. Seattle isn't far from the Canadian border and has a bit of a reputation for being left wing and liberal so in many ways we were expecting an American Vancouver... we could not have been more wrong. Yes it's a liberal city - the smell of pot which is legal here hits you the moment you arrive and doesn't leave until you're well beyond the state border - but no it's not Vancouver. There's a reason Seattle gave birth to the grunge scene. It's a rough city, it's not pretty and homelessness and poverty are high here. Juxtaposed with this though is the fact that it is also the birth place and home of Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, 3 of the richest and most corporate companies in the western world causing a social and economic friction in the city that you can really feel when you get there. It's these conditions though which have given the city it's edginess and you definitely still get the sense of a community that wants to be defiant, break the norm and challenge everything that Starbucks and Amazon represent.
The definite highlight of Seattle for us was the EMP museum, which is about as cool as museums get, with exhibitions on Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, fantasy fiction, horror movies and video games. It also had a whole floor dedicated to playing instruments, which in our case involved Mark having a 20 minute jam on a full sized drum kit whilst I used the kids 'teach yourself to play drums' mini drum kit. I genuinely think we had equal amounts of fun. Another surprisingly interesting find was the Bill Gates Foundation centre. To date the foundation has invested $40 billion into charitable causes, many of them focused on improving opportunities for Seattle's own impoverished communities. Now you might say that Bill Gates has a lot of money to spare, but that is an incredible investment and its a whole lot more than Starbucks and Amazon are doing!
Moving on from Seattle we headed to Portland, just over the Oregon state border and what a lovely city it is. If you ever wanted to know where all the flower power, Earth loving hippies of the 70s went, I would guess Portland. Even as we drove into the city we caught glimpses of old ladies with long white hair, dressed in bright clothing, floating down the street with glazed and very possibly drug induced smiles on their faces. As we discovered more of the city we found that whilst not everyone was quite that dazed, the hippy vibe was most definitely still there. Organic food was almost easier to find than non-organic, sustainable living was near compulsory, and yes marijuana is legal though perhaps not as present as it had been in Seattle. It was also the most un-city like city we've ever been to, with most areas feeling more like small rural towns, full of colourful wooden houses, independent cafes/ shops and lots of parkland - a great place to take a step back, relax and let the world pass you by for a little while.
Sadly it poured with torrential rain the whole time we were there so mooching time was limited but we were able to fit in two pretty cool events. The first was discovering by chance that John Grant, a favourite singer-songwriter of mine and Mark's, was playing a small venue in Portland the night we arrived. It was a fantastic intimate gig and as John Grant is a bit of a gay icon, it was also probably the danciest, smiliest and beardiest (Mark didn't get a look in) gig we've been to in a long while. By chance his support act happened to also come from the Welsh valleys, which was pretty funny. Then on our second night we were able to catch an NBA basketball game, which was a show in itself full of flashing lights, big money giveaways and lots of scantily dressed cheerleaders.
We couldn't help but feel our 2 day jaunt in Portland was over far too quickly but we had a big journey ahead of us. We'd given ourselves 2 days to get to San Francisco, approximately 600 miles south. Not only this, but we'd decided to take the coastal route, highway 101, rather than the interstate adding another 200 miles onto our journey. You might wonder why we did this, and the answer is simple, highway 101 is breathtakingly beautiful. We'd heard that it was a wonderful drive but nothing could prepare us for how beautiful it really is. Hugging the Oregon coastline, right from its Washington border to its Californian border, it takes in hundreds and hundreds of miles of rugged, beautiful and, best of all, untouched coastline. It's not a land of pristine white beaches, but rather high cliffs and rocky outcrops, interspersed with deserted but accessible coves. Every corner opened up a new and spectacular view, which never failed to cause an involuntary gasp of admiration. The only downer was that we'd given ourselves so little time to see it. If we could come again to spend a week on this coastline we undoubtedly would.
Day 2 of our drive took us over the Californian border on a route which was equally as impressive but for a different reason - trees, or more specifically giant redwood trees. These are the trees you see pictures of people driving cars through, and yes they are enormous. The tallest one is 378 ft and they can reach 22 ft wide at the base. Perhaps the most impressive thing about them for us though is that some of them are around 2000 years old! There's something really awe inspiring about walking through a forest and knowing that 2000 years ago people were walking around in almost the exact same scenery. It really feels like it too. These trees are so big you very quickly feel like you could be hundreds of miles from civilisation.
So after 2 long days, and 837 miles of driving (massive kudos to Mark), we reached San Francisco, entering via the Golden Gate Bridge, which is an awesome way to enter the city. There's no gradual urban build up when you enter this way, you simply exit a tunnel and then suddenly there it is, the iconic bridge and city skyline right in front of you. Definitely another 'wow' moment.
We'd allowed ourselves 3 days to see San Francisco, having high expectations for our time there and I'm glad to say it really didn't disappoint. It's hard to say exactly what it is that's so cool about San Francisco but it is. Visually it's a really beautiful and unique city with few of the metallic shiny skyscrapers you associate with most American cities. Instead you can really see the Spanish/ Mexican influence with most buildings built in soft Mediterranean colours. It's really protected its heritage, preserving its various cultural quarters and continuing to use the old cable cars from the 50's and 70's which really adds to its appeal. Then there's the landscape. The hills are ridiculously steep but it makes for some spectacular views. Plus there are the coastal lines which take up 3 sides of the city and provide beautiful beaches and great views out to its enormous bridges and Alcatraz. Finally, it simply has a good feel about it, the weather is wonderful and you get the feeling that the San Franciscans know their home is a great one and are happy to be there. The only bad point - it's expensive, really expensive.
In San Francisco, we also had one of our trip highlights, seeing Alcatraz. Tickets to get to the island are limited because it's a protected national park (another example of San Francisco having the foresight to protect its history), but as we were visiting out of season, we were lucky enough to get some. Park Ranger Steve greeted us, happily filling every cliche you might have about jolly, bespectacled park rangers and then we were free to explore this island which has been a military fort, a Native American political holding in the 70s, a nature reserve and of course a high security prison. It truly is a fascinating place. Little has changed since it ceased to be a prison in the 1960s so you really get a sense of what it was like, seeing the entirety of the prison quarters and the surprisingly serene areas that the prison officers and their families lived year round. They've also integrated a really excellent audio tour narrated by the men who actually lived there (both prisoners and guards) which really immerses you in the place. Best of all, it's not at all tacky or over commercialised. Big thumps up San Francisco!
On our last morning, we had another completely unexpected highlight, 2 hummingbirds came and hovered in front of us right by the seafront. Sparkling green, and hovering so still you could see every detail, they were absolutely stunning! And right in the city centre too. Mad.
I'll leave it there for now, but before I go it's time to quickly introduce you to Drew our camper-van for 2 weeks (not named by us I hasten to add!) . He'll be taking us on part 2 of our west coast trip, from San Fran to Vegas. We've been travelling in it for a few days now and so far so good, although last night we did get a midnight tap on the window from the police informing us that we were camping illegally. Let's hope it's the last!