27 Jun 2023 USA
On reflection, I should have done this trip ten years ago, yet I simply didn’t want to go to the USA, and even now, I had no wish to travel there other than to see some of its legendary wild places. But with time running out and United Airlines having recently introduced a non-stop service between San Francisco and Brisbane, I set aside my aversion to the USA’s crazy politics, gun violence and tipping as a cynical excuse for not paying people properly, and, with muted enthusiasm, booked my journey. I departed on June 9 and returned on June 27. I became apprehensive about whether I would manage the hiking tour and how much money I would need for tips, so much so that on the morning of my departure, I acquired a severe pain in my left hip which made ascending the stairs difficult and unpleasant. My immediate thought was whether I would have to abandon the trip before it began. My next thought was to wonder if the pain was muscular or skeletal. Fortunately, it abated as the day wore on, which encouraged me to undertake the overnight flight.
My ambivalence about travelling to America had the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy, starting with the pain in my hip, followed by the bizarre sequence of events which bedevilled my brief stay in San Francisco and arrival in Las Vegas. There was no driver holding a card with my name on it, to take me to my hotel. After waiting in vain, I ended up sharing a car with the kind acquiescence of the person who had booked it, having approached her driver, to tell him of my predicament.
Buying a simcard for my phone was a priority. The concierge directed me to a shop in nearby China Town. I was informed that because my Nokia phone couldn’t take an American simcard, I would have to buy a phone in San Francisco. My quest led me to the city centre Target store, where a young man sold me another Nokia for US$20 and an AT&T simcard with a month’s unlimited domestic use, for US$36. I was booked on a tour the following day, taking in the coastal redwoods at Muir Woods, but the 7.30 start time was a step too far, after my long flight. The concierge connected me to the tour company’s office and I was relieved to be able to change to a later tour departing at 11 am. I was advised to get to the pick-up point at 10.30, as the bus would depart from there at 10.40. Walking to and in, the city centre, one could not help but be concerned at the inordinately large number of street people on the move, sitting or lying on the ground and even gathered at the entrance to Target.
My feeling of triumph was short lived because my phone ceased to work. Mindful of my forthcoming tour, I reached the Target store at 9 am, to be told that the person who sold the mobile phones only arrived at work at 10 am. Fortunately he was on time. All I could do was to tell him what had happened and that I would return next morning, as my flight to Las Vegas departed after 2 pm. I calculated that it would take me 15 minutes to walk to the pick-up point. When I arrived, I asked a passer-by the time. It was 10.34. There was no waiting bus and none appeared during the 20 futile minutes I wasted there. On the plus side, I could now return to Target and buy a replacement phone, which I did. The driver who had rescued me from the airport had given me his card. I phoned him to ask if he could take me to Muir Woods and later on, booked him to take me to the airport for my flight to Las Vegas next day, from where the adventure tour departed. He put me onto a colleague who agreed to drive me Muir Woods at a cost of $200. These drivers have smart, roomy, black cars. The new driver was Iranian and fixated on money. He met me in the city centre and a bit over half an hour later, dropped me at the entrance to Muir Woods. We arranged to meet in three quarters of an hour. I would have loved to have spent more neck-cricking time among the redwoods. A bonus of the journey was a return crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Thankful that I didn’t have to trouble-shoot, I took a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood of the hotel and returned in good time to be collected for the drive to the airport. I sat in the lobby, checking the arriving cars. The clock ticked past the appointed time. After about twenty minutes, I phoned the driver who feigned surprise that I had booked him for today. He was in a church nearby and said he would be at the hotel in ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled up in the forecourt. Thankfully, the traffic was light and he made good time to the domestic terminal, but he was still half an hour late. I rushed to the check-in. I could board the flight, but it was unlikely that my suitcase would join me.
And, so it proved. I went to the United Airlines baggage office to ask about my luggage, and was told that it hadn’t made the flight and, because the next flight from San Francisco was fully booked, my suitcase would be on the flight after that, arriving at 6.30. The airline offered to deliver it to the hotel, but within a six hour time-frame. I declined the offer. I had also booked a car to meet me at Las Vegas Airport. There was no waiting driver in the arrival hall. I phoned the company and was told that the driver could not use the limousine spaces in front of the terminal and that I would have to go to where he had parked, which I utterly refused to do. I insisted that he at least collect me from the arrival hall. I was sitting next to a smartly dressed, older driver who was waiting for a passenger. He shook his head in disbelief when I told him what the car company had said. He could see that I didn’t have any luggage with me. I asked him if he would be prepared to collect me from my hotel and drive to the airport and back. He gave me his card and warned me that it would cost $100. My driver, a young Japanese man complete with a scruffy sign with my name on it, appeared, and we rushed to the multi-storey car park where he had parked his car, as opulent-looking as all the others. He would have had no problem using the limousine spaces.
The adventure tour started from the Golden Nugget hotel, located in the now passé Downtown area. After checking in, I explored the environs and was pleased to see that they had lost none of the crass glitziness immortalized over fifty years ago, in the car chase with Sean Connery as James Bond being pursued by the police through the neon-lit streets, in Diamonds are Forever. After an exchange of phone calls, the driver who had agreed to help me retrieve my luggage, picked me up at my hotel and we made the return trip in less than an hour, for which he charged me $90, but, mindful of the tipping culture, I gave him an extra $20.
By now, it was getting late. I paid for the worst restaurant meal I have eaten, with my debit card and retired to my room. At breakfast, in the same restaurant, I ordered the smallest and most palatable meal I could find. To my horror, when I went to pay, I could not find my card. I was on the point of asking the cashier if I could check to see whether it was in my room, when I caught sight of the card in a bill holder by her side. With the aid of my driver licence, I convinced her that the card was indeed mine, and, much relieved, paid. I didn’t realise that it had been hidden under the receipt for my meal the night before. The tour group gathered at the entrance to the restaurant at 2 pm. There were nine women and four men, plus the tour leader, from Canada, the UK, Australia, Mexico, Germany and the USA. Given the limited time I had spent walking in Las Vegas, I saw too many street people.
This trip was immensely rewarding. It was also more gruelling than any of my other journeys. The tour demanded early starts and too much rush at the end of the day. However, it gave me access to some of the sublime wild places in the American West which I have long wanted to visit, most notably Yosemite, Monument Valley and Zion National Park. The tour was for hikers, whereas I am a walker, thus, I was compelled to hike and extend myself, which is no bad thing. On the Rhine cruise I was in the able-bodied group on the walking tours of towns we visited. Until we returned to Las Vegas, I was among the halt and the lame, left far in the wake of the inveterate hikers, all much younger than me. Throughout the tour there were times when my hip was somewhat painful, whether climbing steps on the path or when my room was upstairs, so that I was grateful whenever it wasn’t. The people I encountered on the trip were as friendly and as helpful as one could wish.
Even before we arrived at Zion National Park, we drove through the dramatic Virgin River Gorge, the same river which flows through Zion. Unlike driving in the outback, all the streams and water courses we traversed had water in them. Another strong contrast was the absence of road kill, and of bull bars on the SUVs and utes. In Zion we were in the valley floor, surrounded by up to 2,800 feet of multi-coloured rocky slopes, cliffs, crags and stacks, graced by a rich variety of vegetation. I saw more plants and creatures than in any comparable place I have visited in daylight, notably grasses, flowering plants, including a cactus, two species of lizard, a small tarantula sunning itself on a rock, chipmunks, squirrels, mule deer, an eagle high in the sky, a falcon or hawk gliding over the river, a humming bird and a beautiful swallow-tailed butterfly. The first full day of the tour started with a steep climb to a look out, of which I managed about 1,000’ of the 1,500’ gain in elevation, continued with an hour’s walk on the river bank and concluded with an hour and a half early evening hike on uneven ground, to another look out. When I took my socks off that night, I discovered a large broken blister on the ball of my right foot and an unbroken blister on the ball of my left foot. The big plasters I had packed to cover bleeding from bumps to my legs, were put to immediate use for an injury which I hadn’t anticipated prior to departure.
The National Parks of America are a great glory of the country, protected by the federal government and much loved by the people, who visit them in huge numbers. The parks I visited appeared to be well-resourced.
Bryce Canyon could not have been more of a contrast. Here, we were on the rim, looking in. Its rock formations defy easy description. The shuttle bus dropped us near the highest lookout, some 8,400’ above sea level. Whereas the intrepid souls who walked into the canyon immersed themselves in its presence, the rim-walking party of two, supervised by the tour leader, was able to intimately encounter two bristlecone pines (a species renowned as amongst the oldest living things on the planet), savouring the texture and aroma of the bark and leaves. On the way to Bryce we drove through the Red Canyon which was stupendous, the equivalent in rock of the red sand dunes near Birdsville and Windorah.
From Bryce we went to Monument Valley in Arizona, a place which perhaps more than any other, epitomises the landscape of the American West, thanks to John Ford, for whom it was a favourite location. He shot several of his westerns there from the late 1930s to the 1950s. We were given a lengthy and detailed tour by a Navaho guide. The valley is huge and includes enclosed areas on a mighty scale as well as the panorama of isolated mesas, buttes, stacks and columns seen in silhouette against the sky and the grassy plain beyond.
Enroute to the Grand Canyon, we stopped to gaze upon Horse Shoe Bend, a 1,000’ sandstone cleft created by the Colorado River. Our next stop was Antelope Canyon, some 600’ long and 120’ deep. Much of it is only a few feet wide.
The Grand Canyon was the only place which wasn’t on my list of must-see sights. It is big. As usual, we arrived in the afternoon. I had earmarked an 11 am talk by a park ranger about local fauna at the visitor centre. The ranger directed her audience to an outdoor arena nearby. A charming delight was that enthusiastic and knowledgeable children outnumbered the adults. The ranger asked the children, most of whom were of primary school age, what their favourite animals were, and I was surprised by how many chose snakes. This was just as well, because her pet fauna species was the Grand Canyon rattlesnake. On our second night we attended a Star Party. A range of telescopes had been set up by amateur astronomers. Most notably, for the first time in my life, I saw Mars and Venus at significant magnification.
From the Grand Canyon we returned to Las Vegas, concluding the first part of our tour. The scale of the terrain is vast. The upland plain from 4,000’ to 7,000’ plus in elevation extends for hundreds of miles and comprises snow peaks, rocky ranges and outcrops, and canyons vast and modest. It is dotted with small communities.
After shedding ten people and picking up five in Las Vegas – a couple from the UK who were older than me, an Irish couple in their late fifties and a young Swiss woman – we made our way to Sequoia National Park. We overnighted at Bakersfield, still two or three hours short of the park, because of the time we spent in Death Valley which I regarded as no more than an interval between destinations. Some interval. It is 282’ below sea level, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere and one of the most hostile places on the planet with its other-worldly formations and colours. The Dead Sea looks positively benign in comparison. The thermometer outside the visitor centre showed 41° C, 107° Fahrenheit, a relatively cool Summer’s day. I welcomed the heat. We got out at the lowest point in the desert and walked a short distance on a salt pan, almost blown off our feet by a fierce wind.
The Valley’s bleakness extended to Trona, a malign mining community producing 1.75 million tons of borax, soda ash and salt a year, about half way to Bakersfield. Another amazing sight, some 40 miles from the city, was the biggest wind farm in the US with thousands of turbines.
We had to go the long way round to enter Sequoia National Park because snow melt had closed the usual access road. We had to wait until the morrow to reach the sequoia groves, having to content ourselves in the interim with a hike to a waterfall. The path was increasingly water-logged and eventually I found it impassable. Shortly before we passed the entrance kiosk to the park next day, we pulled up behind a car with its emergency lights flashing and saw two black bears sitting a few yards away, one was foraging with its claws in a splintered branch. As we drove on, there were patches of snow on either side of the road. Other kinds of fir tree grew in the sequoia grove. The General Sherman tree, the biggest and oldest sequoia of all, stood in splendid isolation so that one could see its enormity without having to crane one’s neck. Nearby, a sequoia had fallen to the ground. Roughly two thirds of the distance from its root ball to its broken crown, a passage had been hewn in the trunk, tall enough for a person to walk through.
Yosemite had been on my list of places I dreamed of visiting for decades. The access road reached an elevation of 6,000’. The final stretch was a long tunnel opening onto the stupendous and famed view of the valley with El Capitan in the near distance on the left and Bridal Veil Falls in full and closer view on the right. Half Dome, capped by some snow, was towards the head of the valley on the right. Our first hike was to the lower cascade of Yosemite Falls, with the immense drop of the upper falls thundering above it. The combined height of the cascades is 2,425’. The following day I walked in the valley, absorbing its being, marvelling at its myriad rock pinnacles and cliffs, the abundant snow melt producing waterfalls where usually none appear.
On the way from Yosemite to San Francisco, we saw a coyote in a field of long grass being grazed by beef cattle who seemed unalarmed by its proximity. I found San Francisco in Summer colder than Tasmania which, in my experience, is never reliably warm.
The toilets in the accommodation were unusually low to the ground compared with those in Australia, Europe and all other parts of the world I have visited. I consider this a gratuitous imposition on less agile people.
The tour company had a strong conservationist ethos, but its concern for the planet did not appear to extend to our treasure of a tour guide (and by extension to her passengers). She worked extra hours to keep us fed and watered and did all the driving and guiding with a full bus for the Las Vegas round trip. After she dropped us off in San Francisco, she had to drive back to Las Vegas the next day and repeat the 13 day tour without a break.
PS The pain in my hip completely disappeared within a short while of my return.