My latest holiday post is split into two separate parts. This is the first one and the reason it has the number in English is because I visited the US of A and the last time I checked, they speak English over there (although they can’t spell properly, bless them).
Our arrival into the land of the free was not auspicious. Having previously experienced the mind-numbingly long waits at US Immigration even in relatively calm times, ISIS has happened since then and we’d mentally prepared ourselves for a queue. To make things worse, we’d flown on 11 September so security was at Defcon 1. The queue actually moved reasonably quickly at first and we thought we might make it out of the airport before Christmas. Sadly, our hopes were dashed by a planeload of visitors from Dubai who’d managed to make it into the queue ahead of our flight. Each passenger seemed to be weighed down by a ream of paperwork and the queue ground to a halt as they were extensively questioned. Just at the 1.5 hour mark, a security guard casually ambled over and smilingly informed us that he was closing the booth we were waiting at because the immigration officer had completed his working day.
I started to go into meltdown at that point. Look, I was tired after a long flight, we’d been queuing for an hour and a fucking half, and I really wanted a fag. Those are the only reasons I would choose to pick a quarrel with an armed security guard in an airport in one of the most paranoid nations on the planet. Thankfully, my fellow queuees backed me up and faced with the prospect of a British person actually complaining rather than just muttering crossly, he steered us to the front of another queue.
By that time, we’d been waiting so long, our bags had been taken off the carousel and stacked to the side. As I waited, a sniffer dog darted between the suitcases, tail wagging. It zoomed towards my hand luggage. Oh god. It had obviously sniffed out the kilo of cocaine I was bringing in*.
‘Ma’am (I love it when they call me ma’am), do you have any food in your bag?’
‘I’ve got some salad left over from lunch, I meant to throw it in a bin.’
‘Give me the salad, please.’
I’d bought one of those Plane Food picnic things at Heathrow and not eaten the salad, shoved the bag into my carry-on, intending to dispose of it once off the plane. Obviously, I’d forgotten and was now being accused of importing illegal salad or something. The guard confiscated my salad and made a mark on my landing card. It turned out this mark meant I was now suspected of bringing food in and had to go and stand in another queue for all my stuff to be x-rayed in case there was a lettuce in my case.
So anyway, we finally got out of the airport and met the lovely relatives who’d very kindly driven about three hours to come and pick us up as well as helping us organise the holiday. On the way back to their house, we realised that the countryside was looking awfully dry. It turns out that California is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record, and is actually in a state of emergency. As we got further outside of San Francisco, the landscape became more and more arid, yellow grass and brown earth baking in the heat. And boy, was it hot. Stepping outside of air-conditioned interiors was like opening the door of an oven, the relentless heat blasting you.
Really big trees
Because our time in California was fairly limited before we flew on to Hawaii (the subject of the next part), we hadn’t planned much to do for the duration. So the next day we went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which does exactly what it says on the tin and is full of massive trees. I was particularly interested because having read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent – Travels in Small Town America, where he talks about visiting a forest with a tree you can drive through. So I was also very excited at the prospect of seeing a tree big enough to fit a car through.
Big Trees is unexpectedly gorgeous, awe-inspiring and tranquil. It’s exactly the sort of place where you could go and shed the stresses of life. So how big are the big trees? Well, apparently Sierra Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth and can grow up to 325 feet high. And they really are red. The park is also home to the stump of the Discovery Tree, which measured 24 feet in diameter at its base, was 363 feet tall, and was determined by ring count to be 1,244 years old. Why do I say ‘was’? Because in 1853, settlers came across the tree and were astonished at its size. So what’s the first thing you’d do when you came across such a wonder of nature? Why, chop it down, obviously. If that wasn’t senseless enough, they planned to strip off the bark and exhibit it around the world, except the bark only made it to New York before being destroyed by fire. It took three weeks to chop the tree down. You can see from my picture how big the stump is.
There are a number of walks you can do through the forest of varying lengths. We did the North Grove hike which is about a mile and a half. The scenery is breathtaking – even the fallen trees are magnificent, their roots clawing the air almost like flames. There was a fallen tree which had been hollowed out so you could walk through it and it’s so huge that I barely needed to bend my head.
So when a tree weighing an estimated 2,600 tons falls over, you’d know about it, right? In 1965, one of the larger trees in North Grove came down in heavy winds, and the impact was such that people living nearby thought there had been an earthquake. According to the handy leaflet we picked up along the hike, the redwoods are actually more or less indestructible (over-excited 19th century settlers notwithstanding) and not much short of erosion or fungus which weakens the roots can cause them to topple. Sadly, the tree Bill Bryson talks about in his book has also suffered from human intervention. It turns out that the reason a car can be driven through it is because in the 1880s, in a bid to win back tourists from Yosemite, a tunnel was cut through one of the giant redwoods so a car could be driven through the gap. As a result, the tree’s growth has been severely stunted. Thankfully, the California Department of Parks & Recreation are considerably more keen on conservation these days.
On the way back from Big Trees, we stopped for a late lunch at the Snowshoe Brewing Company, a local brewery and restaurant. As you’d expect from an American eatery, the portions are generous and there’s a lot of meat. I went for a crab and shrimp melt sandwich which was good, but absolutely smothered in what they describe as cheddar but is actually processed cheese. In all the restaurants we visited, there’s a booklet on the table with the nutritional content of your meal but we found that it’s best not to look at them. In one diner, my husband had some sort of breaded fried seafood dish and made the mistake of checking the calories – it was a whopping 1,600 for one meal. Yikes. They aren’t awfully big on vegetarian dishes in California either. I expect it’s different in the cities, but when you visit a diner in a small town, you’re limited to salad or a garden burger, which is basically vegetables mashed together and served in a bun. At Snowshoes, you can also take home your own beer in a container called a growler, which made us snigger inappropriately, but the beer was wonderful. My favourite was a pale ale called Thompson.
We also visited a small town nearby called Murphys. It’s a former gold rush town which was established in 1848 when two brothers, John and Daniel Murphy, built a trading post and gold mining operation. The brothers apparently took $2m in gold ore in one year, which made them millionaires before they were 25. Murphys was one of California’s richest gold towns and during one winter, gold worth $5m was found in one four acre area. Nearby Columbia has been preserved as a living gold rush town which is also worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood. We’d been before so we didn’t go this time.
Our hosts told us that Gordon Ramsay had done an episode of Hotel Hell there in the centrally-located Murphys Hotel. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of Murphys, having forgotten my camera that day, but it’s gorgeous. The main street is packed full of quirky shops, galleries and cafes which Shoreditch would be proud of. There’s also a cupcake shop, Lila and Sage, which is owned by the 2012 winner of a TV show called Cupcake Wars. Obviously, I couldn’t sample all the cakes, but the red velvet one was vair nice. Wine tasting is also big in Murphys so because we’re very interested in drinking wine wine production we visited the Ironstone Vineyard. It’s actually a rather amazing place to look around, with a gigantic shop/cafe/winery, a gold rush museum which houses a 44lb gold nugget (yes, there’s lots of security) and a really really lovely selection of period furniture dotted around the place.
Poverty and drought
It seems that the recession hasn’t quite finished with some areas of California. Our hosts showed us around a housing development built near their house in which a number of houses are empty. There is also a town square which looks amazing, but on closer inspection proves to have just a fraction of occupied shops. The only people we see are two women having coffee but Ed Sheeran’s music plays from speakers arranged around the square. It’s all a bit eerie, as though the apocalypse has happened which in a way I suppose it has. Much like London, most of the work is in San Jose and San Francisco, but house and rental prices there are so prohibitive that younger people are forced to live some distance outside and commute. Public transport is negligible, so everyone drives and as a consequence, the freeway is jammed morning and evening. We heard that people even live in places like Stockton and commute, which is apparently a two-hour drive each way through horrendous traffic. Our hosts told us that their town is mostly a retirement community, but there’s still poverty. Food banks (called food pantries there) are run by the local church and say they serve 50-60 families per month.
As on a previous visit to California, we found overwhelmingly that people were friendly and keen to chat. Our accents marked us out and we got a lot of ‘Hey! Are you guys Briddish?’ The fact we are from London sparked even more interest and we often found ourselves being asked about random stuff from Boris Johnson to the tube. It was all rather lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed it. If you visit California, be prepared to do a LOT of driving. The last time we went, we drove from San Jose to Las Vegas and back again via Los Angeles and the coastal route and it’s many many miles of driving. We visited Monterey, which is lovely and has an aquarium, pier and the best clam chowder (at the Fish Hopper), is a must-visit.
So a few mornings later, we got back in the car and drove to Sacramento airport. Next stop, Hawaii…
You can see more photos here.
* This is clearly a joke. It was actually crystal meth.