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Sleepless in Seattle

After our twelve day road trip had come to and end, Marina left for three weeks galavanting across Europe, leaving Alex, Billy and me with her car to use as we pleased. I knew, as did they, that we were already booked to spend time in San Francisco, leaving only one major city on the west coast untouched.

We drove to Seattle in a little over two hours, arriving at 11am. We had drawn up a list of sights to see and attractions to visit. The first was the Fremont Troll, which is aptly located underneath the north end of the George Washington Memorial Bridge. The troll, made of concrete, with a hubcap for an eye, clutches a real Volkswagen Beetle as if it has just swiped it from the road above.

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Standing astride the character inspired by Asbjørnsen’s & Moe’s “Three Billy Goats Gruff”

The sun had come out, so we headed on to Alki Beach, located next to the marina, to stretch our legs in the pebble-ridden sand and dip our toes into the freezing Pacific. One ice cream later and we drove on to the campus of the University of Washington, where I cheekily parked up in a loading bay (because it was free) and spent the next half hour wandering around the beautiful campus.

With the first semester about to start, there was a lot of activity at the university. New students were undergoing orientation in the quad, returning students were studying in the Suzzallo library and professors and lecturers were walking briskly, heads bowed with multiple lever arch files buried under their arms.

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One of many sculptures in the grounds of the University of Washington

By about 4pm, we had gotten half way down our list of “must-sees” and, with the next being to watch sunset over downtown, we had a few hours to kill. While looking for places to eat cheaply, we came across a hidden gem and headed there straight away. Kate’s Bar is located close to campus and offers a happy hour menu to rival all others.

I ordered a burger complete with tomato, mushrooms, bacon, Swiss cheese, relish, guacamole, lettuce, avocado and a fried egg with French fries for $6. It was so good I was tempted to order another, but I held back. I’ve regretted that decision every day since.

We drove on to Kerry Park, a small patch of greenery that is elevated enough to give a spectacular view over the city. The sun was setting behind us, casting an orange glow over the skyscrapers and the famous Space Needle. Along with a hundred other tourists, we snapped pictures from all angles and when satisfied, left for downtown itself.

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Downtown soaking up the last of another day

I had bought a ticket for the Space Needle earlier that day, knowing I would have kicked myself later if I didn’t do it, so at 9pm, Alex and Billy dropped me off at the base, I got in the elevator and started the 41 second ascent up the tower to a height of 518 feet. We were told on the way up that 20,000 people a day visit the Needle; at $17 a ticket, it would take all of three days to garner a million dollar revenue from ticket sales alone.

Out of the windows of the glass elevator, I experienced a reverse sunset; looking out over the park we had just come from, the sun came more into view the higher we were whisked, the sky changing from black to red to orange. It was slightly surreal and very beautiful.

Once at the top, it took all of ten minutes for the sky to become as black as it had looked from the ground and, making my way around the outside walkway of the observation deck, downtown was revealed in all its illuminated glory.

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My first attempt at a sans-tripod long exposure. It could’ve been worse…

We spent the rest of the evening and most of the early hours of the next morning on Capitol Hill. There are some very quirky bars in the area and I grew particularly fond of “Unicorn”, a two-tiered bar with good music and cheap drinks.

The night was fun, but by 3am I was falling asleep, so we drove ten minutes into a residential area with no street lamps and pulled up to sleep. Billy and I reclined the front seats and Alex lowered the back seats, stretching out into the trunk. It was a sleepless night for all and by 8am I was ready to get moving.

Our first stop was the Olympic Sculpture Park. Completed in early 2007, it hosts permanent and visiting exhibitions and offers incredible views over the Puget Sound and Fay Bainbridge State Park.

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Admiring the view from the top of one of the sculptures

Next up was Pike Place Market, where one can essentially get breakfast for free by walking down its length, accruing samples of salmon, orange yoghurt covered peanuts and blackberry jam. The fish, especially, is brilliantly fresh and tastes better than any I’ve eaten before and since.

Our last stop in Seattle was the Market Theatre Gum Wall. Situated just a two minute walk from the market, the wall, as the name suggests, is covered in hundreds of thousands of people’s chewed gum. Patrons of the theatre started the tradition in 1993 and the workers scraped it clean twice before giving up. The gum is now several inches thick, stretching fifteen feet high and fifty feet long.

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Billy, Alex and I in front of a chiclephobe’s worst nightmare

Alex had a meeting that afternoon in Portland, so we said our farewells to the amazing city and started the drive home.

I can honestly say I would move to Seattle in a heartbeat. I am typically drawn to smaller cities, more the size of Portland than LA, and Seattle is the perfect example of a picturesque city that one can’t really get lost in. I really do look forward to returning one day.

I had one final week in Portland before moving on to my last US city on this leg of my journey: San Francisco…

Road Trip USA – Los Angeles

Compared to the other driving stretches we had undertaken, the 125 miles to Los Angeles was a relatively easy journey and we arrived on Friday afternoon at Moonpad Hostel, our residence for the next three nights. It was technically full, so we were offered a beanbags and a couch for a cheaper price, which we accepted without complaint.

The hostel was located around a ten minute drive from downtown and had an amazing view over the skyscrapers that mark the financial district of the city. The evening was spent driving down Sunset Boulevard, seeking out a couple of bars to get a feel for the area’s nightlife, before heading into the hills and negotiating the length of Mulholland Highway to find a spot to see downtown by night.

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The popular Laguna Beach between San Diego & Los Angeles

2am saw our return to the hostel and an uncomfortable night for me on a cylindrical leopard skin beanbag under the stairs. Like a camp Harry Potter.

Saturday arrived and the afternoon was given over to Hollywood; the glitz, glamour, upmarket shops, tourist spots and the hills that the rich and famous call their home. After a bit of research, I found that the best place to see the Hollywood sign from is at one end of Mullholland Highway (6108 Mulholland Highway if you’re typing it into Google Maps). Here, we were right below the landmark and managed to get some great photos.

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The majestic Hollywood sign – smaller in person that one would imagine

Next was the Hollywood Walk of Fame leading up to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I found it particularly pleasing that musicians such as Duke Ellington and Isaac Stern are given pride of place amongst the Cruises and Schwarzeneggers of the movie world. Perhaps even more pleasing is the fact that I have the same size hands as Tom Hanks; determined, of course, by the indentations in the concrete outside the theatre. By the same measure, I was filled with glee that JC’s hands were the same size as Julie Andrews’.

A leisurely late afternoon drive saw us exploring Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, the settings of the famous Pretty Woman, before heading to our hostel to catch sunset over the city and an early night.

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Another day ending over downtown LA

Sunday was to be our relaxation day. Arriving at Venice Beach at midday, we strolled down the boardwalk, drinking in the obscurity; rollerbladers, cyclists, tattoo and piercing parlours, open-air gyms, bikini contests and more “medical” marijuana shops that one can shake a stick at all fighting for space on the narrow stretch of concrete.

We sat on the beach, played frisbee and football, ate Martin’s freshly-cooked spaghetti bolognese and laughed all afternoon. As we were getting up to leave, sirens descended over the area, wailing louder and louder as no fewer than fifteen LAPD police cars and quad bikes raced down the beach. We would find out later that a man had driven his car at full throttle down the boardwalk, killing a woman and injuring eight other pedestrians. A lucky escape for us, I guess.

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Venice Beach wasn’t all bad…

I drove up to the Hollywood Bowl Overlook that evening as the sun was setting. There was a concert happening right below at the Bowl which I would have given my right arm to be at: Gustavo Dudamel conducting Verdi’s Aïda.

A minute later, however, I wasn’t too fussed, as Ron Howard, director of one of my favourite films, A Beautiful Mind, came down from his house above the Overlook and greeted the gathered tourists. I shook his hand and thanked him for directing the film I find so humbling, and he replied, “I made it for you.”

What a dude.

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Our happy group at Venice Beach

The next morning marked the end of our adventure in the most daunting way: a 1,000 mile drive back to Portland, Oregon.

In all honesty, Los Angeles hadn’t blown me away. Out of everywhere we had stopped and spent time exploring, it would be the last on my list to revisit. I feel that tourists go to Los Angeles to look at other tourists and it took for me to witness it first hand to understand that.

I wonder what would happen if, one day, no tourists were in Los Angeles. Would all the attractions go bankrupt? All the streets be empty? Probably not, but Rodeo Drive would get a maximum of three customers and the residents of Mulholland Highway would notice the huge decrease in traffic…

Road Trip USA – San Diego

The drive to San Diego was…well, if I’m being completely honest, a bit dull. 280 of the 327 mile journey is through desert, with the road stretching as far into the distance as the eye can see. Not that it’s not beautiful, but it starts to look a little “samey” after four hours.

We found our hostel at 5pm and met soon after with the five guys we had befriended in Vegas. The afternoon was spent catching up on lost sleep before heading to the famous Gaslamp Quarter for dinner. Because San Diego is so close to the Mexican border, it seemed that one in every three restaurants served their neighbour’s signature dishes.

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Three shrimp, chicken and beef tortillas for $5? Oh, go on then.

A few drinks at the busiest bar in town later and we were all ready for some much-needed sleep. We had parked on the street outside the hostel and the meters would become active again the following morning, so with an alarm set, I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

8am came far too quickly and I stumbled out of the hostel to feed the meter. Morning shocks are never pleasant, whatever form they come in, but that morning was particularly horrid; neither of our cars were where we had left them. Had we forgotten to lock them and become victims of theft? In short, no.

We had fallen victim to our own carelessness. The towing company had removed our cars because that particular section of the road becomes a commuter lane from 6:30am onwards. The morning was spent frantically making phone calls and pooling cash to pay the fines of $400 per car. To sprinkle a little salt on the wounds, the police had issued each car $100 worth of parking tickets for the same reason the cars had been towed.

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A ridiculously photogenic surf boarder on the lookout for the perfect wave

With our pockets feeling lighter, we put our heads together to think of free activities and came up with the obvious answer: the beach. Ocean Beach, to be exact. It was overcast, so we walked the length of the pier (the longest on the west coast at nearly 2,000 feet) and ate lunch at a small café perched perilously over the water. It was here that I was cheered up immensely by the offer of unlimited maple syrup pancakes for $6. Challenge accepted.

The clouds still hadn’t parted by the time we were finished, so we drove five miles north to Pacific Beach, where the water was calmer and the conditions were acceptable enough to don our trunks, swim and play frisbee.

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Even with his dislocated shoulder in a sling, Alex is annoyingly good at firsbee

The rest of the afternoon was spent the same way, and at around 7pm, as the sun was gradually heading out of our day to give someone else theirs, Martin and I jumped in the car and set off for La Jolla, where a free classical music festival was starting that evening, presented by the La Jolla Music Society.

As a huge fan of classical music, this appealed to me very much and upon hearing the programme, I could hardly contain myself. On the agenda was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a Vivaldi Concerto for two violins and the real excitement, Octavio Brunetti and guests playing tango works by Piazzolla, including my favourite of his pieces: Adiós Nonino.

A video of Piazzolla playing this piece with commentary can be found here.

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Octavio Brunetti and guests lighting up the stage

The evening also gave way to yet another stunning sunset over the ocean, similar to that at Shi Shi Beach in Washington a month previously. (Blog post here).

And that was San Diego; a brief stop in a beautiful city full of life, sports fans, Mexican food, cops with nothing better to do and a whole lot of culture. I could have spent a lot longer than a couple of days there, but we still had to see one more west coast city before making the long drive back to Portland.

I’m referring, of course, to the city of angels: Los Angeles…

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Ciao, San Diego

Road Trip USA – Las Vegas

After a bad night’s sleep, a trek up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and a 165 mile drive to Vegas, arriving at 8pm, I was more tired than I thought possible. After consuming a rancid ready meal from the nearest 7-Eleven and sorting check-ins at our accommodation, Marina was ready to go out and I was ready for bed.

We were staying at a superb little hostel on Las Vegas Boulevard, Hostel Cat. With a huge courtyard surrounded by six-bed dorms and a common kitchen-cum-lounge area, it had a great vibe to it. Fair warning, however, I’d recommend it to the younger generation…the party in the courtyard often runs into the early hours.

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Vegas Vic

On Sunday morning, I woke up early and wandered down the boulevard in the direction of the Fremont Street Experience, happening upon the famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop used in TV’s Pawn Stars along the way.

Fremont Street is home to casinos (such as the Golden Nugget), neon lights aplenty and the famous Vegas Vic cowboy, used in numerous movies and TV shows prior to the popularisation of the more modern Vegas Strip.

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Don McLean’s “American Pie” accompanies one of the light shows

When the Fremont Street Experience was added, a huge barrel vault light canopy was constructed, 90 feet high and four blocks in length. After a recent upgrade, the canopy houses 12 million LED bulbs, giving the light shows a more high-definition look. These shows, of course, only run at night.

Once back at the hostel, we relaxed in the courtyard and sat out a flash flood warning. We had met two Danes and three twenty-somethings from Miami, Alan, Martin, Alex, Billy and JC, the previous evening and the decision was quickly made to head to Stratosphere to rid ourselves of our gambling virginities.

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The Stratosphere marks the start of the modern Strip

$20 wasted and a rather unexciting visit to the Mandalay Bay “beach” later and we returned to freshen up before leaving for the Strip to see the last couple of water shows at the Bellagio Fountains. 11.30pm brought with it Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” and fifteen minutes later, the slightly grating “Overture & All that Jazz” from the musical Chicago.

The fountains are incredibly majestic and I was unaware how high the 1,200 jets shoot into the sky. At the finale of each performance, the “extreme jets” propel columns of water 460ft/140m upwards; quite a spectacle.

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Towering water at the Bellagio Fountains

At 1am, we arrived back at the Fremont Street Experience, where we ate horrible pizza and gambled in two of the casinos until 4am. After being $120 up at the blackjack table and subsequently losing it all, including my original $20 bet, I learnt a valuable lesson: if you’re up more than double what you originally placed down, walk away.

The next morning was a late one, but at midday we left the hostel parking lot for the Hoover Dam, situated on the Nevada-Arizona state border. Completed in 1936 and claiming over 100 lives throughout its five-year construction, it stands at over 700ft high and as a result, creates Lake Mead.

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The Arizona/Nevada border

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The Hoover Dam is quite difficult to photograph if not in a helicopter…

We carried on driving for another hour until we arrived at Lake Mohave, the 26,500 acre body of water between the Hoover Dam and the Davis Dam. This is a spot famed for its water sports, including scuba diving and kiteboarding. We were there, however, to cliff jump.

The jumps range in height from 40 to 75 feet, and with enough horizontal propulsion, can be free from the danger that rocks jutting from the cliff face present.

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Flipping into Lake Mohave

All was going very well, until, during the last photo opportunity of the excursion, Alex dislocated his shoulder upon entry into the water. He had undergone surgery on the area before and had mistakenly kept his arm aloft at the moment of impact, snapping it up and out of its socket.

Alex had a painful hike back to the bay, where I had gone ahead and asked a kind stranger if he wouldn’t mind driving us back to our car. He had readily agreed – just another example of how people in the States go out of their way to help with no hesitation.

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Smiles in the back of a kind stranger’s truck

When back at our cars, our new friends started their drive to San Diego, where we would be joining them the next afternoon, and we made our way back into the heart of Vegas. Donning our best garb, we drove to the Bellagio and had Marina’s car valet parked.

We caught the last two fountain shows – a revelation for me, as I heard a beautiful piece of music for the first time: Ayshe’s Awakening & Dance, the third movement of Khachaturian’s “Gayaneh Suite No. 1”. A video (not mine) of this particular show can be found by clicking here.

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Part of the modern Las Vegas Strip

We gambled in The Bellagio for roughly an hour before wandering around Caesar’s Palace, Flamingo and the other highlights of the strip. At 4am, we called it a night and hit the hay.

I had been slightly concerned that the hype for Las Vegas was over-justified, but I needn’t have worried. It is legitimately an amazing place and I would very happily return and do it all over again.

But for the time being, it was time to get some sleep before the five hour drive to San Diego…

Road Trip USA – Arches & Zion

After an early start from Salt Lake City it was a three hour drive to our first major sightseeing stop: Arches National Park, just outside the city of Moab. The park houses over 2,000 naturally formed arches, with numerous trails branching vein-like from the 20 mile road that runs through the centre to reach those a little further afield.

Upon our arrival, we scouted the campground for somewhere to sleep that night, but with no availability, decided to park up, explore and find somewhere to sleep in Moab later in the day. The nearest attraction to the campground is Skyline Arch, only 100 metres away, and we used this as our first photo opportunity of the day.

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Climbing into the void…

A short hike down the petrified dunes later and we were able to complete a two mile loop back to the car, in which we drove to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead. The trail leads hikers to multiple structures, including the Tunnel Arch, Dark Angel and the rock fins. We decided to hike the four miles to the two most impressive sculptures: Landscape Arch and Double-O Arch.

Landscape Arch is extraordinary due to its physics-defying nature alone. It is nearly 100 metres long, and with sections collapsing from the thinnest part in the middle, the park has closed the path that used to run beneath it.

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The ever-diminishing Landscape Arch

Another hike, another arch. The Double-O arch is fairly self explanatory; it consists of two arches, one atop another. It is an awesome sight, sitting sheltered in a cove surrounded by taller rock formations. I decided to climb into the higher arch, which required a certain amount of balance and an army crawl underneath a huge boulder sitting on a steep incline.

Once up, I had my photo taken and was delighted with the view. The problem, however, came when I had to get down. I couldn’t crawl back through the same space between the rocks due to the drop on the other side and my claustrophobia taking hold, nor could I jump for the height of the arch.

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If you look closely, you can see the weedy kid stuck up on the higher level

A half-hour later, a Dutch family made an appearance and, with the help of a Swiss teen, helped me down the steep face of the rock. I was starting to worry and am very grateful to all of them for their assistance. Not my proudest moment, and I can’t help but look back at pictures of the arch without a certain resistentialism.

A quick hike back to the car and a short drive later and we arrived at Balanced Rock; again, self-explanatory by name and impressive by sight. The rock that sits on the column is the size of three American school buses and used to have a smaller sibling “Chip Off the Old Block”, until 1975 when it collapsed.

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Precarious much?

The plan had been to watch sunset through Delicate Arch, but with matters not going to plan at Double-O, we were somewhat behind schedule, so opted to watch the sun go down from one of the highest points on the road. I count myself lucky to have travelled as much as I have, but it would seem that sunsets in the States outdo any others I’ve seen in the past.

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A rather stunning spectacle

We slept in a small, privately owned campsite in Moab that night, our first and last use of the tent, mostly because the air mattress I had brought along was a kingsize and filled all bar three cubic feet of the available space; a slight miscalculation on my part.

The next day was all about travel. We left early from Moab and completed the 350 miles to Zion National Park in a little over seven hours. The weather had gotten steadily worse along the way, even treating us to a lightning show as we entered Springdale, the town nearest the park.

We spent an uncomfortable night in the car which I had parked in a somewhat creepy parking lot with very little light. We were probably the only people for a mile in every direction, so when I was awoken at 3am by the sound of a footstep outside the window, I automatically assumed the worst, but, slowly lifting my head up to window level, I was stunned to see a huge stag standing mere feet from the car, illuminated fully by my headlamp.

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After arriving in Springdale in the dark, it was quite a surprise to wake up to this!

A follower on Twitter had recommended we attempt the Angel’s Landing hike at Zion, but had warned us that it was dangerous, with constant 1,500 foot drops only two feet from the pathway for the last half-hour of the trek. Heights don’t phase me, nor Marina, so we decided to go for it.

We were dropped off at the Grotto at 11am and made our way along the sandy path that soon becomes paved as the incline steepens. The views all the way up are spectacular, but are suddenly hidden once the path disappears between Angel’s Landing and Zion Canyon. Walter’s Wiggles are a series of 21 steep switchbacks, after which one arrives at Scout’s Lookout.

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The view from Scout’s Lookout

This is where most people turn around, as it is the next half-mile to the summit that it very treacherous. Marina changed into climbing shoes and we ploughed on, holding the chains in one hand and our cameras in the other.

The drop-offs are incredibly daunting, even to someone who isn’t scared of heights, and with at least five deaths on this trail alone in the last year, we were being extra cautious. It is a strenuous climb, but there is nothing more rewarding than the view one can appreciate from the top. There is no cynosure, because quite literally everything one lays eyes on is stunning.

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View from the top, 1,500ft from the canyon floor below

We stayed for roughly thirty minutes enjoying the view and taking on some water before making our way back down the chains to Scout’s Lookout. From there, we used the opportunity to run the two miles back to the Grotto, covering the distance in just over twenty minutes.

Given more time, I would have loved to have seen Bryce Canyon National Park, but no matter, that definitely isn’t the last time I will be visiting Utah. It is one of the most scenically stunning places I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Once back at the car, it was time to continue onwards to the main attraction: Las Vegas!

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A good representation of the drop-offs…

Road Trip USA – Idaho & Northern Utah

It has been on my bucket list for many years to partake in a road trip across at least some of the USA. I didn’t, however, think it would happen this early on, until, as outlined in my last post, the opportunity arose, and a very rough plan was thrown together and a route sketched in Google Maps.

This inevitably changed as the days leading up to the trip wore on. We realised we were being a bit ambitious trying to get all the way up to Yellowstone National Park in Montana given the time constraints, so the decision was made to head east out of Oregon, south east through Idaho and enter Utah from the north west after a brief couple of hours in northern Nevada.

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The first 859 miles of our trip

The Tuesday we were due to leave was plagued with problems, including bad traffic, wrong turns and a car breakdown. I am eternally grateful to the pickup driver who stopped to jump us out of that particular tricky spot.

At 5pm we finally departed Portland and onto the open road with the nice lady in my phone satnav declaring we “continue on Interstate 84 for 564 miles.” Unlucky as we had been that day, we were struck by some good fortune when we reached the highest point of our trip (30 miles west of La Grande) just as the sun was setting.

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Sunset from the mountains

As darkness fell, we continued east towards Boise, the state capital of Idaho. Glancing over at Marina and seeing that she was out for the count in the passenger seat, I decided to drive another ninety miles before pulling over in a rest stop area in Bliss at 3am.

(Just as a side note, don’t let the name “Bliss” fool you. It’s utter crap.)

Five hours later and I was up and driving again to what would be our first real stop: Twin Falls, Idaho. I had been told by so many people that Idaho had absolutely nothing going for it, but we had stumbled across its redeeming feature. The landscape is stunning, with the sole 150-metre-high Perrine Bridge crossing the thousand-mile Snake River.

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The Snake River Canyon

Twin Falls appeals to those who seek thrills. It always has. This is the place where, in 1974, Evil Knievel attempted his doomed canyon jump in a makeshift rocket; the mound of dirt used as a ramp is still on the canyon’s side. A local, who was there for the launch, recounted how the parachute had already deployed before take-off, calling the daredevil “nothing but a chicken-shit showman!”

Nowadays, the city holds the name of BASE jumping capital of the world. For those who don’t know, BASE jumping is the art of throwing oneself off an inanimate object and opening your parachute before you hit the ground. It is skydiving’s more extreme sibling. In Twin Falls’ case, the inanimate object comes in the form of the bridge.

In the two hours we spent there, we saw at least twenty jumpers make the leap of faith. After watching longingly, but not wanting to dip my hand in my pocket and spend $400, I settled for taking some pictures from the bridge. This should give you an idea of the view one has on their way down…

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BASE jumpers generally shout “See ya!” before plummeting to earth

As the morning came to an end, we drove on through Idaho, northeast Nevada and into Utah, marvelling at some of the so-called cities we passed through along the way. A personal favourite of mine was Jackpot, sitting a hundred miles from nowhere, comprising of approximately three casinos, one hotel and a smattering of houses. It is the kind of place that is impossible to ever leave if one is unlucky enough to be born there.

Our first stop in Utah was a surprise to Marina. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, ever since watching “The World’s Fastest Indian” in fact. As we pulled off the freeway, one hundred miles from Salt Lake City, and crossed over the bridge, there they were, laid out in front of us. I am of course writing of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

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Panorama of the Bonneville Salt Flats

Used for the last 99 years to break land speed records and, more recently, host events for motoring enthusiasts to push their cars to their limits, the flats offer ten miles of uninterrupted smooth surfaces, framed to the north by mountains and to the south by the freeway.

It is a public area, and visitors are permitted to drive on the salt. We decided against it, however, seeing as we had brought a Honda and didn’t want to pay for a car wash. So instead, we went for a run and took photos of each other doing silly jumps. It was amazing fun, and I am so glad I have managed to do it before the potash plant nearby decreases the flats’ size further.

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An amateur photographer’s dream come true

As darkness fell, we drove onward to Salt Lake City. By another stroke of luck, we had arrived on Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday celebrated on July 24th to mark the entry of the first Mormon settlers on the same day in 1847. We were treated to firework displays as we drove into the city and automatically assumed they must have known we were coming.

We parked up and realised fairly quickly that absolutely nothing was open due to the festivities, so we instead used the time to explore. We walked from the main shopping district to the Mormon Church, where we unashamedly waited for a security guard to pass by before stripping off and taking a free bath in the local fountain.

The night was warm, allowing us to dry off as we walked up to Capitol Hill, where it felt like we were suddenly transported to Washington, D.C. The 101-year-old Utah State Capitol is majestic, to say the least. It sits upon a grassy mound overlooking the city, and provided quite a view at 11pm; fireworks could be seen in every direction and there were close to fifty people on the steps enjoying the spectacle with us.

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Utah’s State Capitol building

A half hour later and we were walking back into town to attempt to find food. Dairy Queens, McDonald’s, Taco Bells and Starbucks, most of which normally open late into the night, were all closed for the occasion.

At last, we found an urban coffee shop that was open until 1am and settled down with some food and a book. For the second night in a row, we found a quiet spot in a cul de sac in the hills that possessed no streetlights and, with our seats reclined as far as they would go, slept a solid seven hours.

At 8am, we were up and ready to keep driving to our first full-day stop on the trip: Arches National Park.

4th July Weekend (Sans Fireworks)

Independence Day: a federal holiday celebrating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from the UK 237 years ago. It’s a huge deal in the US, with firework displays in every town and city, patriotic songs warbled by voices bearing too much vibrato and, rather awkwardly, the odd confederate flag fluttering here and there.

We decided to give all that pomp and circumstance a miss, however, and go camping. So at 8am on Fourth of July, with the car loaded to the brim with rucksacks, tents, sleeping bag and an unnecessary air mattress for the posher camper (not me), we set off for the Olympic Peninsula and my first venture into Washington State.

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My first sighting of the Pacific Ocean

Our first stop was to be the Hoh Rainforest, situated in the Olympic National Park, a five hour drive from Portland. This is one of the largest rainforests in the US and runs along the Hoh River, which was sculpted by glaciers thousands of years ago. We started hiking at 2pm, and trekked along the Hoh River Trail for around three miles before turning back for the car.

We had completed a sixth of the full 18 mile hike to get to the glacier, where visitors camp overnight before walking back. The river is stunning, running milky blue and forcing its way roughly through and around trees that have long before fallen across the water.

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The Hoh River with the Olympic Mountains in the background

If you are reading this and you are a die-hard Twilight fan, you will of course know that we would have to drive through Forks, the city used in Meyer’s horrible novels and their equally revolting film adaptations, to get to our destination. However much one dislikes this particular franchise, though, there is something satisfying about chuckling at every shop name (“Twilight Haircuts”, “Twilight Supermarket”, “Twilight Lighting” – you get the point) and having a picture under the famous sign to post on Facebook with a sarcy caption…

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Damn vampires…

That afternoon we arrived at the Shi Shi Trail, a two-mile route that would bring us to one of the top ten ranked beaches on our planet. Shi Shi Beach is absolutely stunning; there is simply no other word for it. Driftwood lines the volcanic sand left by the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, rocks jut out of the sea at either end, hosting their own vegetation and smoke from the camp fires drifts up through the trees sitting on the steeply sloping bank.

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Shi Shi Beach at dusk

With our tents up, sleeping bags unrolled and fire lit (with a magnesium strip and flint, I might add), we settled down with s’mores and the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The sun looked huge as it sunk through the clouds and sat on the ocean’s surface; the whole scene was indistinguishable from an oil painting.

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The most magnificent sunset imaginable

With the aid of ear plugs, I slept well that night. Nearly ten hours in fact. I felt so good in the morning that I did something I haven’t done in many years: went for a five mile run on the beach. The air was so clean and invigorating that it would have been a waste not to.

We hiked back to the car and after scoffing some strawberry cream cheese bagels (that’s right, strawberry cream cheese. ‘Murica) we set off once more for Cape Flattery, the most northwesterly point in America save Alaska.

Everywhere I’ve seen in the US so far has been obscenely picturesque, and if you look past the fact that Joaquin is trying to throw me from the precipice, you’ll see that nothing makes for better scenery than bright blue water, a lovely sky and a lighthouse sitting on a quaint little island.

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Something I said?

Another two hour drive and a camp set up at Klahowya later, and we arrived at Sol Duc, the suspiciously Vietnamese-sounding name for a collection of trails, waterfalls and the 78-mile river stemming from the Olympic Mountains. We hiked here for nearly three hours until close to darkness, making time for daring but beautiful photo opportunities and drinking from the mountain springs.

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Sitting atop a quadruple waterfall

When it reached 9pm, we made the short drive back to our campsite and bedded down for the night.

It would turn out to be the most uncomfortable night’s sleep of my life to date. I hadn’t brought a sleeping mat with me; in hindsight a mistake, considering the number of pine cones scattering the forest floor. By 7.30am we were up and about to make the long car journey back to Portland.

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“God rays” breaking through the trees at Klahowya

Along the way, we had one more place to visit: Lake Crescent, which has water as clear as the Caribbean Sea and a landscape as luscious and green as anywhere I’ve seen. We swam that day, not only because it looked so appealing, but because we hadn’t showered in three days and wanted the car to smell a little less like humanity

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Kayaker on Lake Crescent

The weekend was amazing fun, and the lack of fireworks didn’t bother me at all. Why would it when you have a sunset like that to look at?

Portland: Week One

Before I start, there are three points I feel I should make.

  1. Portland is the nicest, friendliest city I’ve ever been to.
  2. In a gridded city like Portland/San Francisco/New York, it’s impossible to get lost; the avenues run from 1st upwards and, in Northwest Portland at least, the streets run in alphabetical order (Burnside…Flanders…Lovejoy…Quimby… Are you starting to see where Matt Groening got his inspiration for Simpsons characters yet?)
  3. This is going to be quite a long post. I thought about splitting it into two parts, but overruled the idea. You’ve been warned!
Even businesses are friendly

Even businesses are friendly

Monday

After a long weekend with the ratio of being awake to sleeping soundly standing at 10:1, it was time to start exploring Portland. I’m a little ashamed to say that I was a bit nervous being in a new city and I hadn’t quite understood the street numbering/lettering system yet, so my excursion twenty feet down the road to the Co-op to buy some milk was a nerve-wracking but rewarding one.

After consulting Google and contemplating just how far to venture, I settled for Forest Park, a 5,100 acre expanse of pure beauty, a haven of greenery and nature that cuts off all sound from the city that lies no more than a mile away.

Joaquin, who is hosting me, lives in the Northwest quadrant of Portland, and the Forest Park trail starts at the end of the road he lives on, so, with a mental picture of the map of Portland in my head, I left the house, turned right and walked for a mile before I realised I should have turned left.

Tuesday

Portland has the highest number of strip clubs per capita than any other city in the USA

Portland has the highest number of strip clubs per capita than any other city in the USA

Secretly annoyed with myself for being such a dim clot, I was determined to make a go of it on Tuesday. I visited Trip Advisor and head out the door into the drizzle of not-quite-summery PDX. First stop: Lan Su Chinese Garden. Speed turned on heel when I saw the admission price: moderate to quick.

I walked from 3rd & Everett to 9th & Burnside, where I excitedly sifted through numerous classical LPs in the famed Jackpot Records. Although I came across a rather lovely copy of Massenet’s “Le Cid” performed by none other than The CBSO (whose Chief Conductor has just been appointed Music Director of The BSO – congratulations Andris!), I understand that 12′ vinyls aren’t the easiest of objects to backpack with…

My next stop was one block up, at the magical Powell’s City of Books. Occupying a whole city block (nearly 68,000 square feet) and buying, on average, 3,000 used books every day, it essentially gives the finger to every eReader company on the market. Upon entering, I was actually provided with a map of the store, as too many people had complained of getting lost. In an ideal world, I’d set up camp on the second floor and make my way through the shelves, but I fear the staff would have something to say about that.

Wednesday

This was a particularly busy day, as I had decided to advance into the Southwest quadrant of Portland; this area is more built up and business-like than Northwest, hosting taller buildings, coffee shops every ten metres and, like in any city, a diverse range of people either high on life or something more illegal.

David Cotter sculpture in Couch Park

David Cotter sculpture in Couch Park

Within the first five minutes I’d witnessed a suited woman skateboarding down the middle of the road, a man stood on the corner dressed as a Smurf, another man rocking out in the middle of the street on a child’s plastic guitar toy and a chap running into the middle of the highway, picking up some moss, continuing to the other side (oblivious of horns blaring) and proceeding to plant the moss into the grass, all the while shouting, “I’ll save you!”

Farmer's Market on SW Park Avenue

Farmer’s Market on SW Park Avenue

Keeping my gaze glued firmly ahead of me, I visited the Farmer’s Market, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (unfortunately closed at the time of day I went, but I hope to get a look inside before I leave Portland) and the Pioneer Courthouse.

I decided on my way back to visit Washington Park, home of Oregon Zoo, the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Gardens. On the way, I was shown fully the kindness of Oregonians. I had stopped on the sidewalk to take a picture of a tram that was rapidly approaching, when I realised there was a car that would be between me and it at the crucial moment. I lowered my camera, knowing that I could get the shot at a hundred other points in time. The car, however, actually slowed down and the driver indicated to me to take my photo.

Gobsmacked, I lifted my camera and took the picture, marvelling at the graciousness this complete stranger had shown me. Of course, when I got home, I discovered the picture was blurred, but that’s neither here nor there.

International Rose Test Garden

International Rose Test Garden

I never expected to have fun in a garden full of roses; the same roses my father insists on showing me in his garden every time we Skype, but the IRTG was exceptionally beautiful. Flowers in colours I didn’t know existed, a pleasing Shakespeare Garden with his memorable quote etched in stone under an arch, and the cutest little Asian girl you ever did see picking at petals before attempting to put them back.

Definition of cute?

Definition of cute?

With another rapid heel turn after seeing the price of Oregon Zoo, I made my way down Stern’s trail and back to the house to ready myself for my first outing with the North Portland Run Club. Meeting at Bar Bar on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland every week, they offer a 5k or 10k run, perfect for me, running for the first time after ripping every tendon in my ankle to shreds whilst tumbling in gymnastics two months previously.

24 minutes later, I drank three successive glasses of water. By 10pm, I was home. By five past, I had passed out. A brilliant day.

Thursday

Still aching and limping a little from the night before, how better to spend the afternoon than with a four mile hike through a different trail in Forest Park?

Forest Park

Hiking through Forest Park

The scenery was, as always, beautiful, with quirky touches all through the forest, including this lovely quote carved into a tree trunk:

“Running has given me the courage to start, the determination to keep trying, and the childlike spirit to have fun along the way. Run often and run long, but never outrun your joy of running.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the sun before heading out to Last Thursday, a street party in North Portland that takes place on the last Thursday of every month. Bands sing and play, bars heave and everyone smiles. All of life can be found at Last Thursday, from folk groups to dancers to food vendors to people jousting on bicycles to completely naked women who have had their bodies painted in many themes and styles.

Folk band playing at Last Thursday

Folk band playing at Last Thursday

Before the night was over, I made my first real cultural mistake: ordering a two-scoop cone ice cream. Forgetting I was in the US of A, I handed over my money and in return was handed a snack almost the size of my head. An hour later I finished it. My stomach didn’t thank me for it.

Friday

Still slightly achy from running and walking, but not wanting to sit at home all day, I called a friend and we set off into Forest Park once more, taking yet another trail; one that would lead us to Pittock Mansion, a sandstone, French Renaissance-style château situated in the West Hills, offering incredible panoramic views of Downtown Portland.

Built just over 100 years ago, it was home to Henry Pittock, the publisher of The Oregonian, Portland’s major daily newspaper.

View from Pittock Mansion

View from Pittock Mansion

Six miles later and we were back home, showered and ready to head to Brew Fest, a festival marking the importance of Portland’s many breweries. Being a non-drinker, I socialised with new people, watched the simply awesome folk band play on the stage and took photos as the sun set over the beer tents.

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Someone threw a small child in the air, so I took a picture!

After a Mexican dinner at Matadors, it was once again time to rest up for the next day’s activities…

Saturday

After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Silverton, a city in Marion County, south of Portland. Silver Falls was to be our hiking destination; a five mile trek encountering some of the most beautiful naturally occurring waterfalls in the States. Also, a chance for me to cross off an item on my bucket list: “Stand behind a waterfall.”

Waterfall

The first waterfall on the Silver Falls hike

We hiked as a group for just over a mile, before the majority decided to turn back and head for their cars. The weather had improved dramatically over the course of the week, and Saturday was the first day it had peaked at over 30°C. Joaquin, Gunnar, Gandhi and I decided to carry on, and five miles later, huffing and puffing, we were back at the car. A good workout in those conditions!

Jen had put on an incredible barbecue, and I stuffed my face with chicken/seafood skewers, homemade salsa dip, bratwursts and ice cream for the next hour. Again, my stomach definitely didn’t thank me.

Sunday

Today was due to be hot. The hottest yet, in fact. As the temperature hit 34°C, Joaquin and I were running errands; picking up paint for his other house and supplies for the 4th July camping trip we’re due to be taking.

The afternoon and evening was spent taping and painting the house, with good company, good music, good pizza and a happy heart.

I love Portland, and I’m one very happy camper.

Standing behind waterfall

Stand behind a waterfall: check

Portland, OR – Settling In

After four relaxing days in Portugal with family, I had one night at home in the Essex countryside before embarking on the adventure I’d been so looking forward to since the idea was conceived in April. From now, I’ll be travelling for over two years through multiple countries, from the USA, to Canada, the Bahamas, Australia, New Zealand and through to Southwest Asia.

The whole trip nearly ended before it had even begun, as at Heathrow Airport in London, I wasn’t allowed to board without a return ticket to the EU within three months of my departure. After some frantic head scratching, telephone calls and a hurried cigarette, a solution was found: buy the most expensive, fully refundable ticket you can and cancel it as soon as you get to the USA. Crisis averted.

Sunset in Portugal

Sunset in Portugal

After some gorgeous weather in Portugal, I was glad to board the flight bound for sunnier climbs when the conditions in London were so dreary. I was flying with Air New Zealand (incidentally, the best airline I’ve ever flown with – you could start using the in-flight entertainment system as soon as you were seated before takeoff – it’s the little things…) for the 12 hour flight to Los Angeles, where, upon arrival, I would have to sleep overnight in the terminal building for my 7am flight the next day to Portland.

Travel tip: if you’re ever stuck in LAX overnight, head for the Tom Brady International Departures building; comfiest seats in the whole airport.

Without a wink of sleep, I boarded my flight to Portland with Virgin America (hmm…) and was picked up by Joaquin, who I met travelling through Southeast Asia 7 months ago. We were driving straight from the airport to Lake Billy Chinook in The Cove Palisades State Park, three hours East. Joaquin’s friend Cristie had rented a “party barge” and two jet skis for the eleven of us, and the next 5 hours were spent soaking up the sun and speeding across the length of the lake at 50 miles per hour.

Joaquin & Rona tearing it up on Lake Billy Chinook

Joaquin & Rona tearing it up on Lake Billy Chinook

By 6pm, with a fuel refill and some swimming, drinking and sunburn under our belts, it was time to take the barge and jet skis back to the marina and head for the campsite.

Party Barge

Party Barge

With tents pitched, sleeping bags unravelled and fire lit, Rick and Tats got the cooking underway, barbecuing chicken and beef skewers. For dessert? S’mores. Two Graham crackers filled with melted marshmallow and chocolate; one of the messiest and tastiest snacks I’ve ever eaten. We happened to be camping the night of the super moon, the largest perceived moon that can be seen from Earth, and just before I turned in for the night for my first wink of sleep in 50 hours, it rose and perched on the canyon top above us.

Supermoon

Supermoon

After a good night’s sleep, the tents were packed away and, after a breakfast of bacon, egg and bratwurst, we started the drive to Smith Rock State Park, an area near Terrebonne famed for its many miles of hiking trails and tuff/basalt rock formations that hold over a thousand climbing routes for beginners and experts.

Climbers at Smith Rock

Climbers at Smith Rock

We started the four mile hike in moderate sunshine, walking up the zigzagging Misery Ridge trail to the peak, where we were welcomed by the intensely beautiful views this stunning area has to offer. Continuing in light drizzle, we arrived at Monkey Face, a ~200 foot rock with a very distinctive profile. In pouring rain, we finished the hike and ran for our respective cars before heading to the nearest food joint for my first American burger. I learnt two things over the course of the meal: it’s only acceptable to eat with your hands in the US, and if none of the filling falls out, one is deemed to have failed at life.

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park

One very tasty burger consumed and we were back on the road to Portland. I experienced another first along the way, when Joaquin announced he was tired and I was tasked with controlling an automatic, left hand drive car on the wrong side of the road in torrential rain. Only slightly nerve-wracking, honest…

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