Twins, Brewers and Cubs

Minneapolis was the first major city we’d visited since leaving Salt Lake City over a week earlier. Armed with a list of recommendations from a few midwestern friends, we headed to Psycho Suzi’s bar in the north of the city. From the front, it looked like a Baptist church and inside it looked like a generic wine bar. The back patio, though, was themed like a Hawaiian tiki bar, facing out over the Mississippi.

We ordered a Pu Pu platter. In hindsight, we could’ve inferred from its name that it wouldn’t be the nicest of meals. One of the items was ‘Minnesotan sushi’, which was a pickle wrapped in a bit of ham.

From Psycho Suzi’s we headed to a speakeasy in the uptown district. Speakeasies in post-21st amendment America are just hipster-filled bars that don’t put a sign up outside. This particular bar involved going down a sketchy back alley and finding a doorway with a red light over it. The door was locked, so we knocked and were led to a booth table in the basement.

A fake fireplace occasionally opened to allow waiters into and out of the kitchen, but it wasn’t clear how to order a drink. Then, without warning, a mirror on the wall in our booth opened and a man’s face appeared to take our cocktail order. This happened several times through the evening, and did not get any less alarming.

***

In the morning, we headed east across Minnesota and Wisconsin, taking a detour via Green Bay because I thought it might be nice to drive down Lake Michigan. In reality, the interstate was as dull as ever and didn’t even pass that close to the lake. In search of something interesting, we drove past Mannitowac county jail, famous for being at the centre of Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’ documentary. It was, unsurprisingly, not interesting either.

We spent the night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a pleasant city on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was pouring with rain, so we took an Uber to a downtown bar for dinner. Every time I order a meal in the US, I am accompanied by an anxiety about ever finishing it. I hate to leave good food on a plate, but the portion sizes are almost always ridiculous. A couple of nights later we would share a Chicago deep pan pizza that, even in its smallest size, could happily feed three people and even then they would probably stagger out, clutching their bellies.

***

Our final day of driving was also our shortest: under 100 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago, but we had some important business to attend to first. Six Flags Great America is a theme park and water park with something like 14 different roller coasters. We rode some of them, paid $10 extra to go into the water park (followed by $15 for a towel and $14 to rent a locker) and then rode some water slides too.

Chicago is the first US city I ever visited, back in 2007. It remains one of my favourites because it just looks like an American city should, with skyscraper-lined streets, cast iron fire escapes and ornate wooden train platforms overhead. It is architecturally far more interesting than New York City, it is compact and flat, and it has some excellent blues.

On the way into the city we drove by the Home Alone house, slowly enough that I could snap some photos, then parked up at the same hostel that I’d stayed in last summer and headed out to a nearby blues bar. It was indescribably good.

Over the next couple of days, we went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, ate an excessive amount of deep-pan pizza (see above), spent hours in the air conditioned Art Institute to escape the absurdly hot and humid weather outside, then watched the Chicago Cubs play baseball.

I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced weather as humid as Friday in Chicago. After a dinner of too much barbecue meat, we took an Uber back to the hostel. The car was covered in stars ‘n’ stripes streamers, banners and hats, and the driver gave us an unusual safety briefing at the start of the journey, before then talking non-stop for the 12 minute journey. When I stepped from the air conditioned car, my glasses instantly steamed up.

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Too much meat

***

I type this from JFK airport in New York, from where I will take my final flight home in a few hours. In the two years I have lived in the USA (plus a previous trip 11 years ago), I have visited 42 states + DC, visited 24 of America’s 59 national parks (and countless national monuments, historic sites and landmarks). I escaped the UK just after the Brexit vote and inadvertently found myself in a country flirting with fascism (although I tried to do my bit to prevent it).

In August 2016, I travelled to the other side of the world to a city where I knew nobody, and then I made some friends. I taught some amazing students and had the privilege of taking them on trips to India and Thailand, as well as to Oregon to observe a total solar eclipse.

I learned pretty quickly that we Brits culturally probably have more in common with our European neighbours than with our former North American colonies. I also learned that saying my own name in my own accent causes confusion to American ears: “Rope?” “Romain?” “Ropp?”

San Francisco is a beautiful city. Having visited most of the others, I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful city in the USA. On a sunny day, I will never get bored of seeing the Golden Gate bridge peeping over the horizon, but it is the less expected sights that win it for me. Walk 10 minutes in any direction in San Francisco and you will stumble upon a magnificent old church, or a colourful house, or a surprise view of Alcatraz.

SF (never “San Fran” or “Frisco”) is welcoming, friendly and very liberal, but one of my earliest memories is of a strong smell of urine. Homelessness, frequently linked to serious untreated mental illness, pervades this city, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Somehow a city so progressive is unable to figure out how to humanely help these people. Meanwhile, the booming tech sector’s six-figure-earning millennials have pushed rents for those of us who aren’t homeless to eye-watering levels.

The western United States in general, but particularly California, has the most incredible countryside. On my first drive down the coastal road to Santa Cruz, I caught myself grinning in disbelief that I could live somewhere so stunning. The national parks of Utah and Arizona are like alien landscapes, with colours and distances that my little English brain could not comprehend. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton: every one of these parks is utterly beautiful in totally different ways.

I leave the USA delighted by how much I’ve had the privilege to see and do over the last couple of years. I look forward to family, friends, British food, British TV and not paying nearly $2000/month in rent for a tiny studio in the suburbs. But I will miss my San Franciscan friends, the Californian weather and the great American road trips. Will I return? I think there’s too much that annoys me about American life for it ever to be my permanent home, but enough to draw me back to this diverse land from time to time.

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The 49 Mile Scoot

In preparation for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the San Francisco Downtown Association plotted out a 49 mile driving route that took in as many of the city’s best views as possible. Today, a slightly updated version of the route is marked out by a discontinuous string of blue signs featuring an aloof seagull.

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Map courtesy of SFToDo http://www.sftodo.com/scenic-49-mile-drive.html

According to Wikipedia, neither tourists or locals are much bothered by it, due to “its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city”. These are all fair points. 49 miles is a long way, especially with a significant chunk of the route snaking backwards and forwards through the busy downtown streets. Even if you tried to drive it all, many parts (especially those in the centre of the city) would be impossible to properly take in due to a lack of parking spaces.

It would be much better to walk or cycle, but again 49 miles is a long way. I am not walking or cycling 49 miles around the city, especially the ascent up to Twin Peaks. Enter stage left: Scoot.

Scoot is a San Francisco startup that has hundreds of red electric scooters dotted around the city. Within certain areas, you can pretty much pick them up and drop them off wherever you want. Like everything else in this city, they are controlled by a smartphone app (there’s no dashboard other than a phone dock). They can be ridden on a normal US drivers’ licence (which I now have), have a maximum speed of 30mph and the battery lasts up to 20 miles.

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My steed

Now, those of you with GCSE Maths will have spotted a problem. The 49 mile scenic route is 49 miles long (actually, the modern route is closer to 47 miles). The battery lasts 20 miles. I am going to need multiple Scoots, so a little planning will be required to make sure the neighbourhoods covered by Scoot (especially those with charging stations, where I’m more likely to find a bike with a longer range left on the battery) are roughly in the places where I anticipate needing to change bikes. There’s a very long stretch from the Presidio, down to Lake Merced and back up to the Golden Gate Park that is not covered by Scoot, so I’ll need to leave the Presidio with plenty of ions in the electrolyte, so to speak.

Also, the 30mph limit means I’m not allowed to ride it on highways. Annoyingly, the scenic route briefly takes I-280 in the east of the city, but there’s a normal street that runs parallel to it (and is presumably marginally more scenic than an interstate highway anyway).

With these logistical hurdles in mind, I ate a sandwich, grabbed my camera and sought out the nearest Scoot with a decent amount of charge: it was a five minute walk from my apartment. The scenic route is supposed to be followed anti-clockwise (to do otherwise would cause no end of one-way hassle downtown), but can be picked up from anywhere along its length. The closest starting point for me is the Golden Gate Park’s 19th Avenue entrance, so that is where I began.

I’ve been to the Golden Gate Park lots of times: it’s only three blocks from home and I cycle through it most days to get to work. However, it’s so big (20% larger than New York’s Central Park) that there are vast swathes that I’ve never visited. The first new area on my 49 Mile Scoot was the pleasant Stow Lake, tucked away off Martin Luther King Jr Drive.

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From the park, I followed the scenic route south. For large stretches of the route, there are no seagull signs. Where the seagull signs do appear, they tend to just confirm that you are on the correct road by pointing straight ahead, but fail to reappear at a junction where you might actually need one. Thankfully, a combination of a printout map and the GPS from my docked phone made navigating the route mostly straightforward.

Eventually, I turned onto Twin Peaks Boulevard, a winding road that strongly resembled those in the video game GTA San Andreas.

When the road could take me no further, I abandoned my Scoot and climbed the final few metres up both of the Twin Peaks on foot. The 360º vista from the top captured the whole Bay Area: the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin to the north; downtown SF and Oakland to the east; and the peninsula to the south.

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The Golden Gate from Twin Peaks

It was one of those views that’s hard to let go of, but 49 is a lot of miles and I’d only done about five of them so far. I rolled back down the other side into the Castro and to Mission Dolores.

Mission San Francisco de Asis, to give its full name, is the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to June 1776. In Britain, that would be considered contemporary architecture, but Mission Dolores is about two weeks older than the United States (of which California did not become a member for another 75 years anyway), so on the American scale this is *ancient*.

The big stone basilica that I spent most of my time photographing turns out not to be the original Mission Dolores at all. I later learnt that it was only built in 1915, making it younger than three of my grandparents. Credit where it’s due, though, there’s some very impressive carving gone into it.

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The big fancy one built in 1915

The actually old building is a more frugal church next door, which I serendipitously photographed because it had one of the seagull signs in front of it.

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The old one, build in 1776, with a seagull sign in front

I headed along Cesar Chavez to make my first scooter swap at one of the Scoot charging stations. A fresh battery under my bum, I zoomed east, determinedly avoiding the I-280, but accidentally joining US-101 for a few hundred metres instead. I reached the Embarcadero at precisely the same time as a Giants game was starting, meaning lots of gridlocked traffic for me to carefully wobble my scooter through.

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AT&T Park

AT&T Park is a great example of a sports stadium designed to make the most of its location. It is open on two sides to allow a view across the bay (although this also makes it so cold that the fans often wear ski jackets). Despite the Giants having a dreadful start to 2017, the stadium sells out night after night, which is particularly impressive given the small population of San Francisco.

Continuing along the Embarcadero, I passed under the Bay Bridge (a structure that would surely be more famous if it wasn’t living in the shadow of its showy red friend to the north), turning left at the ferry building and into downtown San Francisco.

The scenic route takes weird meanders along lots of pretty nondescript urban avenues. I can’t help wondering if this might have been done to make up the length to 49 miles, due to the significance of this number (1849 was the gold rush, the city is supposedly 49 square miles – it’s actually 47 – and it’s represented in the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers, though they actually play their games in San Jose these days).

Anyway, there’s not much to note for a while apart from the big dome of city hall and a slight feeling of unease while stopped in the Tenderloin traffic.

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City hall

I emerge in Japantown. Like many things Japanese, it is relatively compact: not more than a few blocks of Japanese restaurants and this concrete pagoda.

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Japantown

Japantown is dwarfed by its Asian neighbour to the east. Chinatown is one of four Chinatowns in San Francisco, and is the largest outside of Asia.

After passing through Chinatown’s Gateway Arch, the Scooter crawls up the steep slopes, past Coit Tower before freewheeling down to the piers of the Marina. I was hungry and needed a pee, so decided to say goodbye to Scoot #2. I ate a lobster roll and did the next part of the route, along to Fort Mason, on foot.

Scoot #3 had 16 miles in the tank/battery, and I had no idea whether this would be enough to cover the aforementioned Scoot desert. I headed west into the Presidio, once a military fort and now a park, most famous for having the Golden Gate Bridge sticking out of its northern edge.

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The Golden Gate from Fort Mason

 

 

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Palace of Fine Arts

One of my favourite things about San Francisco is its ability to catch you by surprise with a spectacular view in an unexpected place. Because of the steep hills to the north of the downtown area, there are lots of streets that have spectacular views across the bay to Marin. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge can sneak up when you least expect it. On a clear day, five footsteps from my front door will give you a view of the tops of the towers, but there are plenty of better vantage points in the Sunset (which is too far away to be expected to have such good views of the bridge).

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The Golden Gate from Fort Mason

The only bit of the 49 mile scenic route that is non-circuitous is when it sends you down to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate’s south tower, but it’s well worth the diversion.

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Fort Point

If you look away from the Golden Gate for a moment, you trip over other unexpected views. Like this one:

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From the Presidio, I rode west past Lands End to Ocean Beach, which is where I took my final photo:

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Ocean Beach, taken from the Cliff House. To the left are the windmills in the Golden Gate Park

The route then goes directly south along the Great Highway, which unexpectedly turned into a 50mph road that wasn’t strictly Scootable, around Lake Merced and back up Sunset Boulevard. I had an eye on the battery level (presented in the app as a countdown of the number of remaining miles) while I played a game of estimating how many miles it might be to 22nd and Kirkham, the nearest ‘blue zone’ (where Scoots can be parked).

As the battery level got lower, I realised there was no way I could complete the remaining journey up Sunset Boulevard to the GG Park with this scooter, so I instead aimed for a charging station on 12th and Judah (I figured it would be poor etiquette to park an almost empty Scoot on the street). The battery indicator dropped again… 3 miles… 2 miles… 1 mile. 0 miles. Would I have to push the scooter the rest of the way?

No, I put on my best physics hat and took advantage of the downhills to freewheel most of the way to the charging station. At this point, it would’ve been much easier to just go home (which was tempting, as I’d been going all day), but I would not let the 49 mile scenic route defeat me.

I picked up Scoot #4 and rode back to Sunset Boulevard (albeit at a more northerly point than where I left it – don’t tell) and into the western part of the Golden Gate Park, before exiting on 19th Avenue where I’d begun seven hours and four scooters earlier.

Was it worth it? Mostly, yes. I visited a number of places I haven’t been to in the nine months I’ve lived here, and Twin Peaks was a particular highlight.

Would I do the whole route again? Nope. There are easier ways of seeing San Francisco’s highlights than by riding a series of electric scooters along the 49 Mile Scenic Route.

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My approximate route

Following through on a Trump

I wasn’t going to blog about the election result; plenty of people with better informed views have already written thousands of words about President-elect Trump. However, the last 24 hours have been quite troubling and, if nothing else, I’d like to clarify my own thoughts by writing them down. This year, the world – in particular both my own country and the country I’m currently calling home – has embraced right-wing populism in a way that reminds me too closely of my GCSE History topic about Germany between the wars.

This evening, my usual cycle route home was blocked by a long protest march along Market Street. Thousands of mainly young people – probably many of my students – marched noisily, angrily and peacefully against the president that their country had elected, but that more than 90% of this city had rejected.

Their protest against a duly-elected leader of a democracy is obviously futile. But it wasn’t about achieving anything, it was merely a faucet of emotion, releasing the anger and upset that had been simmering all day. It was also the first time I’ve ever seen a protest which hasn’t been hijacked by the Socialist Workers’ Party, so that’s something.

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This morning, while waiting at a pedestrian crossing, a woman turned to me and said, “Nobody is happy today”. I made my way into school to find that a lesson had been cancelled and replaced by an assembly. One-by-one, students and staff took to the microphone to talk about how the news made them feel.

One or two cried, some were angry, a few spoke hopefully of how this result might spur young people into becoming more engaged in politics. Students from sexual, ethnic and religious minorities spoke of their fears for their safety, especially if they leave the liberal bubble of San Francisco to go to college in another state.

Watching these inspirational young people was a timely reminder that Trump, no matter the damage he may seek to inflict, does not represent the future of America. His politics were rejected by the young and by the growing non-white populations. This is an interlude, not a coda.

I woke up this morning with the same sick feeling I’d felt twice before in the last 18 months: first after the surprise Tory majority in May 2015, then after reading about Brexit in a Glastonbury tent. Much has been made about how both Trump and Brexit – and the abandonment of the centre ground by both the Conservatives and Labour – are signs of the death of liberalism. This is, of course, nonsense.

48% of Britons voted to remain a part of the EU. More people voted for Clinton than Trump (let’s shout this loud and clear: Trump was right about the system being rigged). These were not landslides. Liberalism isn’t dead, it’s just met its match.

Those of us on the liberal-left, who would now be called the elite by billionaires and stockbrokers, have a fight to both deal with the economic root causes of the rise of right-wing populism and also to firmly reject the bigotry that rides on its coat tails.

Millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic are legitimately pissed off. Their jobs have gone and will mostly never come back. Some have gone abroad, some are no longer needed. Last night, as I took an Uber home from a depressing party organised by the Democrats, I reflected on the likelihood that the car would be driven by a robot within five years.

There are 37,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco alone (a city 10 times smaller than London). What are these guys going to do when the computer takes over? Is anybody’s job safe? Who says every classroom will need a teacher in 30 years time? According to a US government report, those earning under $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their job to a machine eventually.

Maybe, like the Luddites, we should smash the looms. Ban Uber, stop the march of the robots and AI. But here’s where the divided nation comes in. I’m a middle class professional with disposable income and I like this stuff. I like that I can get home from the city at night for under $5 by sharing my Uber with two strangers that an algorithm has determined are going in the same direction. I’d like it even more if it cost me $2 because I’m paying for a computer to push the pedals and turn the steering wheel.

There’s a robot vacuum cleaner buzzing around me right now. People like me love this stuff. It makes life easier, often more affordable and lets me use my leisure time more productively.

So, both Brexit and Trump were about half of a country reasserting itself and pointing that things aren’t going quite so well for them. Leaving the European Union will do little to address this, and Trump’s trickle-down economics certainly won’t. But that doesn’t matter: both campaigns, for the first time in decades, spoke to the concerns of these populations.

There’s no obvious solution beyond better education, to ensure that future generations are prepared for the world that’s coming, not the one that’s been. Maybe a guaranteed basic income can help those left behind.

Taking a leaf from national socialism, both these campaigns harnessed the power of scapegoats: Romanians, Muslims, Mexicans. I suppose it’s far easier to blame these outsiders for your problems than it is to make the more complex arguments about globalisation.

Sure, there are legitimate concerns about immigration, not just about the economic impacts, but also the cultural effects on local communities. However, it’s very easy for these debates to become racially charged, especially when Farage, Trump and Le Pen speak so frequently at the pitch of a dog whistle. And guess what? When you start being racist, when your campaign is supported by the BNP or the KKK, liberals like me will walk away and ignore you again.

My biggest short term fear about Trump is that those American racists who have felt compelled by political correctness (a.k.a. being polite) to keep their mouths shut, have now been given a permission slip to let all this pent up bigotry out. Racist incidents spiked after Brexit, and a French-speaking colleague has already been abused on public transport, shortly before the election.

Well, that’s nearly the end of this stream of consciousness. As today went on, despair and anger gave way to the hope that actually Trump was saying most of the really awful stuff for effect, like the childish troll he is. Or maybe the saner Republicans in Congress will rein him in. Or perhaps he’ll be impeached, except that would put Mike Pence in charge: a less odious human, but a politician with some quite repulsive views.

Who knows what will happen? America (or at least slightly under half of the slightly over half who voted) has just rejected the most qualified candidate ever in favour of the least experienced candidate ever, a man whose record of abuse would exclude him from most jobs. We live in interesting times.

Portland to San Francisco

I headed south east from Portland along route 26, bypassing the exciting sounding town of Boring and into the Mount Hood National Forest. I passed briefly through the unappealing sounding Government Camp, which actually turned out to be a twee Alpine ski resort, featuring such hilariously-named establishments as the Huckleberry Inn.

Once the trees finished, the landscape opened into a broad expanse of flat-topped hills and yellow grassland. I was entering central Oregon and it felt like the mountains and redwood forests of the Pacific coast had given way to the old west. Route 26 carried on through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation: an area of federal land, independent of Oregon and governed by the Warm Springs tribes.

The first town after the Indian reservation is, amusingly, called Madras (yes, yes, different Indians). Continuing south on the 97 took me through a string of run-down towns of various sizes. One of these towns, Chemult, was to provide my bed for the night. I had opted for the $50 per night Budget Inn over the $100 per night Eagle Crater Lake Inn. This decision was entirely justified; not because the Budget Inn was nice – it wasn’t, it was a dump – but because the Eagle Crater Lake Inn looked equally bad.

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The Budget Inn was a row of about a dozen rooms in a wooden building so flimsy that slamming the door in one room caused all of the others to shake. It reminded me immediately of my all-time worst motel experience in Flint, Michigan, but it was clean. The only dining option in town was a Subway attached to the gas station that the motel backed onto. I ate, watched TV for a while and slept.

I awoke to pouring rain, which didn’t bode well for the visibility at Crater Lake National Park, which was the reason why I’d taken this eastern detour of hundreds of miles. My rental car displayed the temperature in Fahrenheit, a scale I have no intention of ever being familiar with. I know that water freezes at 32F and boils at 212F; the lower of these two values was of most relevance to me, as I wondered whether the torrential rain would give way to snow as I ascended.

Sure enough, as I drove up the road to Crater Lake, the temperature ticked steadily downwards. When it reached 35F the rain became noticeably sleety. 34F… 33F… 32F… bang on queue, the downpour was replaced by big gentle snow flakes and the road began to cover over. By the time I reached Rim Village, the snow was deep and visibility was minimal. This meant that I could see nothing of the allegedly spectacular lake that I’d travelled so far to see.

Remarkably, the cafe and gift shop was open. I ordered a cheeseburger, much to the excitement of the staff who told me it was their first cheeseburger of the year.

“In October?” I asked
“We get a new menu each season. Cheeseburger is on the winter menu.”
“And when did the winter menu start?”
“Today”

So what they were really excited about was that I was the first person that day to order their cheeseburger. While three people set about cooking it, a chatted to the server. He had a peculiarly slow way of saying anything, so the only advice I got from him was that I should one day go and visit the Integratron near Los Angeles. He kept talking about energy in a way that made the physics teacher inside me scream in anguish, and was just getting onto the topic of UFO sightings when my cheeseburger arrived. Sitting lonely in the middle of a large plate, it met the minimum requirements of being a cheeseburger: bread, a thin grey patty and a slice of cheese.

I drove back down the other side of the mountain, heading west. I guess the altitude stayed higher for longer than on the other side, as I travelled much further before leaving the snow. While still inside the national park I saw a car being hauled out of a snowdrift by a park ranger’s pickup truck. This made me feel pretty smug about hiring a 4×4, although even my Jeep lost grip a few times.

A couple of miles west of the national park exit, I came across a large pickup truck stranded at the side of the road. I pulled over to see if there was anything I could do to help. As there was no mobile phone reception, he asked me to check there was a tow truck on its way when I next reached civilisation.

I drove for another 30 minutes or so and was well below the snow line before I eventually found a forest ranger station, where I dropped in to tell them about the stranded driver. Hopefully someone did actually go and rescue him…

I headed west, through dense redwood forests, until I reached Crescent City on the Pacific coast in northern California. My motel was pleasant (certainly compared to the Budget Inn) as were the coastal views. Crescent City itself, however, appeared to be nothing but a sprawl of semi-derelict motels and fast food chains, desperately competing with each other for a handful of late October visitors. One motel was even offering a free cheese pizza in return for custom (their generosity did not stretch to any toppings).

The following morning – the last day of my trip – I headed to the Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction a few miles down the US-101. It is to forests what Ripley’s Believe It or Not is to museums; in fact, some of the strangely-shaped trees are apparently replicated at Ripley’s. These included the Elephant Tree (it had a branch that looked like an elephant’s trunk) and the Cathedral (several trees squashed together to form a natural chapel shape).

There was also a pointless cable car ride to the top of a hill. You are advised to only walk back down if you are an advanced hiker in proper shoes, so naturally I attempted it in a pair of Converse. It was only a mile long, though a little steep and slippy in places.

After exiting via the gift shop, I hit the road for a very long drive back to San Francisco. It was about 330 miles and I had originally planned to split it across two days, but decided to finish a day early instead. I only got a few miles before I was distracted again, this time by a drive thru tree.

Much of my interest in American road trips comes from reading Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, in which he does two large loops around the east and west of the USA to recreate the holidays of his youth. During the western loop he recalls a 1950s postcard from some relatives who visited a drive thru tree and longs to go there himself. Sadly, he never got close enough to the large coastal redwoods to fulfil this, so in his honour I made sure that I didn’t pass on the opportunity.

I dropped $5 into the honesty box and waited in line behind the tree while a family from Texas took photos of themselves driving through it. When it was my turn, I drove through slowly, sparing only a couple of cm on either side. This particular hole-in-a-tree clearly predates the American penchant for SUVs; anything larger than my relatively modest Jeep would’ve got stuck.

My final journey back to San Francisco was uneventful, apart from my stupid decision to leave US-101 and take the nice coastal road along California-1 instead. This added two hours to my journey and involved a lot of twisty roads through forests in the dark, and one emergency stop to save the life of a deer.

Seattle to Portland

After a delightful weekend in Seattle visiting my friends Tim and Jen and their newborn Jack (joined also by Tim’s parents, over from London and meeting their grandson for the first time), I hit the highway in a rented Jeep. My road trip back to SF is to snake along the west coast of the US, through Washington, Oregon and northern California. I will visit the Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Redwood national parks, as well as the city of Portland.

Mount Rainier’s white peak is visible from Seattle, 100 miles to the north-west. Rain was forecast and, since my experience with a snowy interstate on the Donner Pass the previous weekend, I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a blizzard. This is my excuse for renting a 4×4, although nostalgia also played a role.

I entered the national park from the north-east, heading first towards the visitor centre at Sunrise. However, being late October, the road to it was closed, so I made my way around the south side of Mt Rainier to Paradise. Paradise was exactly as the name would suggest: cold, windswept and deserted. Large heaps of snow had been pushed to the edges of a car park surrounded by wooden structures – hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, ranger stations – all of them with signs that basically said “We’ll be back in the spring.” Still, there were some excellent views across the mountains, even if Rainier itself was enveloped in cloud.

This lack of any open facilities was of increasing concern. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, apart from half a bag of chocolate M&Ms and the free mini pretzels from my flight north on Friday. I was heading west to leave the park in search of sustinence, when around a forested bend I saw an oasis: an open inn. 

30 minutes later, satiated by a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, I left the inn. As I did so, I overheard the advice given to another traveller to be careful driving at twilight, as this is when the deer come out. Sure enough, around the very first bend I encountered a gang of deer scattered across the road. Apart from a chipmunk that I may or may not have hit with my car earlier that day, this was my only encounter with wildlife in Mount Rainier.

As I made my way to the western exit, the park began to live up to its name, as the weather got rainier and rainier. This was my second visit to a US national park; Mount Rainier didn’t live up to the expectations set by my August visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While Lassen had weird geology and sulfurous discharges, Rainier was just a little barren. This was at least partly due to the season and partly to the weather, I guess. One cool feature I did find was Narada Falls, where I did what every other visitor with a camera did and took a slightly long exposure photo.

I spent the night in a Relax Inn near Interstate-5, before heading west on the Washington-6 towards the Pacific coast. Nine years ago, on the east coast, I had lamented the death of small towns. Every town centre was dead, with the only viable businesses being located in the strip malls of chain stores, motels and fast food at either end of the town. Along this particular stretch of western highway, however, small town America was alive and well. I passed through towns with names like Pe Ell, Pluvius and Menlo, each one sporting a general store, a small post office (sometimes just a portakabin) and a gas station with prices 50% higher than normal. Not a chain to be seen, apart from the old fashioned Pepsi signs outside the general stores. I looked around my car to check for a flux capacitor.

Even the people sitting on their porches watching the traffic go by looked like they could be from the 1950s. In one town, a window was draped with the confederate flag. Considering the western states were never a part of the confederacy, I think we can conclude that this was just one guy wanting to make clear to passing motorists that he is a racist asshole. This at least made for some variety from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard signs that are usually used to convey this message. (The exclamation point at the end of that slogan tells you everything you need to know about Donald J Trump and his Comic Sans campaign.)

The three contiguous Pacific states are all solidly Democratic, but I have seen a total of zero signs for Clinton since beginning this trip. Even in liberal Seattle, there were plenty of Trump posters – and even a handful for the Libertarian Gary Johnson – but none for Clinton. In rural areas there are, however, thousands of signs for the election of local sheriffs, commissioners, fire chiefs and judges. If there’s one thing Brexit has taught me that it’s not necessarily a good idea to hold a popular vote for a fire chief, as an arsonist is likely to win.

I reached the US-101 road, which runs from northern Washington, through Oregon and all the way down to Los Angeles (entering San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge). I followed the road for about an hour before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon over the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge. Astoria was the first US settlement on the Pacific coast, and is now a charming (but not self-consciously so) seaside town with a boardwalk and (seasonal) boardwalk streetcar. I dropped into a colourfully-painted and empty cafe to eat a hearty bowl of clam chowder, with a side of garlic bread in which the garlic appeared to have been substituted for salt. It was lunchtime and I was the only customer, yet the chowder was good and the whole bill came to only $9.

After lunch I strolled along the boardwalk, soundtracked by the mysterious animal noises coming from a warehouse I passed. I’m pretty sure a flock of geese was using the warehouse to host an illegal bare knuckle fight between a pig and a sea lion, but it may just have been an abattoir.

I headed east along the Columbia to Portland, a city I know nothing about other than from watching Portlandia on Netflix. I was disappointed not to find any feminist bookstores, although I did find the huge statue on the Portland Building after which the show is named. The most Portlandia thing I did come across was a designated route through the city for skateboarders.

I would’ve finished this blog post last night, but I stumbled across the American answer to the Great British Bake Off. Called ‘Forged in Fire’, it pits four men and women against each other to forge knives against the clock. When their knives are finished they are tested against various criteria, including ‘killability’. As I prepare to head south towards Crater Lake I will leave you with this inspirational quote from a contestant who had suffered a minor setback while attaching the handle to his knife:

“Thor himself punched me in the chest and said ‘You can do this’.”

All The Way To Reno

According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com – which is the gospel on such matters – California has a greater than 99.9% chance of sending its 55 electoral votes to elect Hillary Clinton. To put it another way: both of California’s candidates for the Senate are Democrats. It’s about as blue a state as there is.

This makes campaigning here, especially in San Francisco (83% Democrat), a waste of time for both parties. The only campaigning I saw at a recent free music festival was by the Greens, a party most famous for providing the self-righteous with a way of electing George W Bush back in 2000.

That is why I spent this weekend in Reno, Nevada on a campaign trip organised by the Democratic Party. Nevada is a much closer race, with Clinton narrowly leading in the polls. The Senate race here is a dead-heat.

The weekend began at 5.15am on Saturday as I was picked up as part of a three-person car share organised by the California Democrats. By 9am, we’d crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada and, after stopping to let me pee in a roadside bush, we arrived at a volunteer’s house in Reno. These volunteers, mainly retirees and students, have been working almost thanklessly for well over a year, right through the primaries and the general campaign. They really are the unsung heroes of a democracy that is often perceived as dominated by big-money advertising, large set-piece rallies and televised debates.

We were provided with a list of addresses and jumped back in the car to go and meet the voters on the doorstep. This is a “get out the (early) vote” operation, so all of the voters are supposedly supporters of Hillary Clinton and our job was to remind them of that fact and highlight the availability of early voting in Nevada, which allows citizens to vote in any one of a few dozen public places at any time between next weekend and election day a few weeks later. These face-to-face meetings are also a good opportunity to push the “down ticket” Senate and House races to ensure that Hillary supporters would also help elect Democrats to Congress.

I’d already received a little bit of training in how to pronounce Nevada correctly (Nev-AH-da, not Nev-AR-da). This wasn’t because I am British, but because Californians get this wrong too. As it was, I only used the N-word on the doorstep once, which may explain how not a single voter batted an eyelid at the British guy telling them how to vote. Either that or they’ve finally gotten over colonialism.

The one time I said “Nevada” was in the context of the saddest conversation I had all weekend. A Clinton supporter – a Latina woman – told me she probably wouldn’t be voting because “the people higher up will vote on who wins”. Her friend hovering in the background was furious with her for this combination of disenchantment and ignorance. I broke cover and confessed that I didn’t have a vote, but that she – as a swing state voter – had the opportunity to have a real impact on the outcome of this election. She didn’t want Trump to win, yet she was unconvinced that there was any point voting to help stop it.

There was little evidence of Trump or his supporters around, save for the Trump sign I found in a dumpster and the two cartoonish Trump supporters who shouted “Vote Trump” at us from across the street. Little did they know that I was actually an immigrant who could do no such thing.

After a day of canvassing in the affluent suburbs of north-west Reno, I checked into my hotel in the Circus Circus casino. This had been recommended to me by the campaign, giving a small discount. And I can heartily recommend it to you, if you’re a fan of paying $100 for any of the following:

  • A bed without breakfast
  • A hard mattress topped with a blanket and sheets
  • Easy access to a casino with free circus shows (unavailable until November 2016)
  • Low-grade toilet paper

I’m being unfair. Yes, I could’ve stayed more cheaply at a nearby motel, but then I wouldn’t have received a booklet packed with money-off vouchers for Circus Circus and the two near-identical casinos down the road. It was with this in my back pocket that I stepped out into the pouring rain to seek out my 2-for-1 beer. I drank my two pints of Coors Light (a homeopathic version of lager) in a dingy casino bar while listening to a hen party argue about Donald Trump and Secret Santas.

Remarkably, I was able to have all of this fun, inhale an all-you-can-eat bbq rib dinner and stare at some people playing roulette, and still be in bed by 9.30pm.

Day two of campaigning was a somewhat less pleasant experience. The stormy weather of the previous night had not abated and we were sent to a more challenging neighbourhood. After variously being frightened by loose pitbulls; followed incessantly by a cute (but unrelenting) Bolognese dog; shouted at by a man who didn’t believe a woman should be president; lectured by a self-confessed felon who thinks that Clinton will take his guns away; and coughed at by a sick woman who spoke no English, we finished up and headed home.

The rain made for a slow journey, that got even slower when it turned to snow over the Donner Pass. Thanks to my mum for pointing out that an expedition stuck in snow here in 1846 resorted to cannibalism. I assume this is why the donner kebab is so-called.

For the benefit of those who’d like to know what else I’ve been up to in the two months I’ve been in San Francisco but haven’t bothered blogging about, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • A road trip to Santa Cruz, via the coastal road on the way down and the Redwood State Park on the way back
  • A road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • A gourmet ice cream tasting evening with a group of other people who are new to the city
  • A drinks evening for Brits in San Francisco
  • Occasional games of football (soccer) in Presidio
  • Watching baseball at the Giants’ stadium with work friends
  • A pub quiz on a Monday night that wasn’t as good as the Monday Night Quiz
  • Presenting Mega Seating Plan at the Bay App Festival, following a back-to-school period which saw my app reach 5000 registered users
  • Watching the second presidential debate with the Hillary campaign
  • Learning French in evening classes at my school
  • Attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring Cyndi Lawper and a guy from The Eagles
  • Watching some free comedy in Golden Gate Park
  • Writing a bit of comedy, but not getting around to actually trying it out on the San Francisco open mic circuit yet
  • Watching the US equivalent of the Red Arrows – the Blue Angels – pull stunts over and around the Golden Gate Bridge

And so on… I’ve been busy.

Next weekend I’m flying up to see Tim and Jen (and meet Jack for the first time) in Seattle and returning via a long road trip down the west coast. I intend to blog.

Yes on Prop 49er

Yesterday I played football (soccer) for the first time in years, if by “played football” you mean “ran around breathlessly for an hour hoping nobody would pass to me in case I messed up”. Today I walk like a 90 year old, and this is my excuse for doing nothing more energetic this evening than trying to get my head around the sport that the natives call football and you probably call American football.

It is the first game of the football season and something of a local derby for the San Francisco 49ers, if you consider the 400 miles to Los Angeles to be local. It’s a particularly big deal because this is the first time the LA Rams have played an NFL match in 21 years, as the Rams franchise moved to St Louis in 1995, leaving LA without a football team. This year they’re back in LA, but I have no idea whether their fanbase is wholly new, made up of people who just took 21 years out of the sport or includes diehards who’ve made the 2000 mile journey from St Louis.

Refreshingly, this big national sports event is on free-to-air TV here. I assume this is because 25% of a typical three hour broadcast is adverts (only 8% is live play, 11% is *replays* of the live play; most of the rest is categorised as “standing around”).

This being election season, many of the adverts are political. California is such a solid part of the Democrats’ blue wall that neither presidential candidate wastes any money actually trying to campaign here. San Francisco only gets involved when Clinton needs to top up her donations from Silicon Valley. No, the political adverts saturating my airwaves are for a variety of local and statewide propositions.

Direct democracy has lost a few fans in the UK recently, but over here if it’s the question to every problem. There are 18 measures on the ballot this year, including those relating to marijuana, pornography and either repealing or slightly changing the death penalty. The amount of airtime each one gets is based entirely on how wealthy the proponents and opponents are (one of the least-funded propositions is actually a measure to oppose this plutocratic absurdity).

This means wall-to-wall coverage for supporters of Prop 52, a noble-sounding bipartisan healthcare funding measure, which just happens to be supported by the deep-pocketed health insurance lobby. Less positively, an advert featuring a young mother concerned about what percentage of a new tobacco tax would go towards actually helping people stop smoking (why she is concerned about this detail is never explained) is funded by… the tobacco industry.

My favourite is a citywide measure to put a small soda tax on sales of sugary drinks. Looking at the literature pushed through my door every other day, I’ve been led to believe that this “grocery tax” is going to push small store owners out of business and cause all of my groceries to cost more. I’m so grateful for the manufacturers of sugary drinks for generously funding the campaign to bring this to my attention.

 

These leaflets and TV adverts are wasted on my anyway: I don’t have a vote. There’s an actual real-life fascist, backed by the KKK, on the presidential ballot and I’m forced to trust that the legal citizens of this country don’t do something very stupid indeed. I had similar hopes about the UK a few months ago and look how that turned out…

Anyway, I’ve been half-heartedly tapping away at this blog post for two hours now. In that time, the hour-long football match on my TV has managed to get to the start of its fourth quarter. The 49ers are winning 14-0.

Yes to the 49ers, Yes to 62, No to Trump.