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Headliners ‘The Do’ bring the euro-pop and the red jumpsuit to close the festival.

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A lazy summer afternoon on the lawn behind St John’s College.

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Emilie Simon serenades the masses under a hot Sydney sun.

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It’s not all about the music.

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The six-piece “Californian surf band via Paris”, La Femme, see the sun down. 

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Dinner – crepes from a caravan.

The National

Live at the Sydney Opera House forecourt
Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Last night was a love-in for a group of fans – a secret society – enraptured, by the world’s best unknown band, the Ohio via Brooklyn-based quintet, The National. They feel like a secret shared only among a privileged few, even though that is slowly becoming a lie. They have a sound that is totally unique and yet there’s nothing particular about it that stands out as especially signature. There’s a formula, but it’s not patented, traceable or tired. All up, The National are so wonderfully special, because there is nothing about them that actually seems remarkable. Their music is a sneak attack on your soul and a siren song for you mind. They will lift you up and/or destroy you depending on the order of the play list.

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Their music comes at you from the inside of a darkened bar of drab wallpaper, bad lighting and scant oxygen, tumbler of scotch in hand – no ice! Maybe listened to from a leather lounge chair or fainting couch. Perhaps from a beat-up hire car driving a grey highway with the sun trying to break through rain clouds. Or walking a cold city street, basking in the faint afterglow of a night on the town. There are no primary colours here. They are both in love with the darkness and yet drawn to hope, and yet they never feel clichéd about either.

The National have surely never troubled the tabloid society pages or hit any Top 50 lists of sexiest celebrities. They have mystique, and yet it is not addictive or cloying. What they do have is rolling waves of music – a cocktail of blues, rock, pop, folk and jazz that slowly possesses you. And that is what they did last night.

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Their set was extensive and largely unsurprising in song selection, save the inclusion of relative obscurities such, About Today – a break-up song to ruin you if you let it in – as a feature towards the end of the main set. But they did a wonderful job of taking us somewhere else – slightly ironic given this music was granted us within one of the most beautiful settings it could be. The set was dominated by tracks from most recent albums Trouble Will Find Me, High Violet and Boxer with stand-outs being the rib-cage-trembling one-two-three of Bloodbuzz Ohio, Demons and Sea of Love, the primal Squalor Victoria and the epic ode to rain, loss and being separated from a departed love by an ocean: England.

Banter with the crowd was sparse, with snapshots of droll, witty observations and dedications…but again, it was sparse, and that seems as it should be. It’s difficult for this band to seem flippant, even when they try. Matt Berninger – at times an awkward, Kevin Klineseque elder poet in a suit at the mike stand, at others a prowling, deranged animal circling the stage or screaming as if tortured – took to the crowd for much of the last few songs, at times becoming lost in an ocean of waving arms and glowing camera phones. Songs towards the end of the set were ragged yet intimate, like the music was actually coming from us. After just over two hours, they were gone.

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

With distance, the experience seems almost ethereal, and yet I woke up the following morning singing “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe,
I never thought about love when I thought about home …”

Lucky you, they recorded it for the world to see on YouTube.

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

Photo by Chris Walters, Saturday 8 February 2014

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

For five weeks Cassie, Jeff, Mum, Dad and I were “Temporary Americans”…

The Temporary Americans: Home

Los Angeles – Las Vegas – Grand Canyon – Canyon de Chelly – Monument Valley – Mesa Verde – Chaco Canyon – Santa Fe – Alamosa – Frisco – Cheyenne – Devils Tower – Cody – Yellowstone – Bozeman – Missoula – Glacier National Park – Seattle – Portland – Mount St Helens – Crater Lake – Eureka – San Francisco – Hollywood

6,500 miles, 11 states, three cars, four trains, 40 days …

This is how we did it:

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

The morning after Amtrak’s Coast Starlight delivered us into a Los Angeles deep within the throes of a hot and dry twilight, I found myself on Hollywood Boulevard among flocks of tourists and local ‘performers’ dressed — rather cheaply it must be said — in all manner of film star costume.

It was all very bright, summer and surreal. There was a Spider-man eating what I assume was a Burrito (no one should have to see that!), a Darth Vader who appeared quite prepared to whack anyone with his light saber if they dared take his photo without tipping first, and a Chewbacca who’s coat was anything but healthy and shiny. I later encountered Chewie with his mask off in a nearby supermarket choosing salad makings, I assumed to go with the Gundark Goulash for tea that night. It must be tough being a Wookie in a new age grocery store.

I caught the Red Line into Union Station, and then a Metrolink San Bernardino-bound train out to Pomona North. This deposited me in middle of a very quiet Sunday in suburban Pomona where lawns were being mown, cars being washed and an endless parade of hot rods were rolling up and down the Arrow Highway.

Consulting maps that I had downloaded onto my phone, I worked my way south through side streets and alleys to the sprawling Fairplex Center. Here I completed a pre-arranged rendezvous with local railroad museum caretaker Steve Pearson, who was very kindly going to show me through the small but fascinating Rail Giants Museum occupying a tiny corner of Fairplex.

Steve seemed genuinely surprised that I’d persevered with walking down from the Metrolink station (25 minutes), further supporting the theory that many Americans (or perhaps, Los Angelinos) just plain and simply didn’t consider walking a valid form of transport. That I had to cut across drains and car parks to reach Fairplex, because there was no footpath along some of the streets, only leant weight to this theory.

The Rail Giants museum is home to some of the world’s largest and most well known railway locomotives, including the enormous ‘Centennial’ 6915 (a sister to 6936 at Cheyenne), ‘Big Boy’ 4014 (an example of the world’s largest steam locomotive class) and Union Pacific 9000, the only surviving 4-12-2 — a steam engine with more wheels than a Chrysler factory. At the time of my visit, the museum was in the middle of negotiations with Union Pacific who were seeking to buy-back the ‘Big Boy’ for restoration to mainline running. As Steve walked me through the collection, his enthusiasm and knowledge was infectious, and it was clear that he wanted to see the behemoth 4014 rise again, as much as he was determined to make sure that the museum would be able to compensate for the loss of its big-name exhibit. Somehow this obstacle must have been resolved, for 7 weeks later Union Pacific issued a press release that electrified the rail fan world when it announced that not only had a deal been struck for the purchase of 4014, but that they expected to have it running on US mainlines within 6 years. To put this in perspective, this was the reformation of ABBA for US train lovers. Okay, that might not be the best analogy.

Later that day, I wandered around Union Station in L.A., marveling at how even here I was on a film set: The Dark Night Rises, Blade Runner and Lethal Weapon 2 were all shot in and around the terminal. It was Blade Runner in particular that prompted me to set off into the city in search of the famed Bradbury Building, a work of architectural art that, due to its fairly humble exterior, is bypassed daily by thousands who never realize they are but a few feet from a design masterpiece.

The Bradbury is an 1893-built apartment building who’s stunning lobby and interior courtyard evokes something of a mix of 19th Century Oriental and European styles. The building, or at least the courtyard area on the ground floor, is open to the touring public and has featured in dozens of films and television shows, most famously of course Blade Runner, in which it was the home of the J. F. Sebastian character, and setting for most of the third act of the film, including the climax on the roof. The Bradbury has also featured more recently in both The Artist and 500 Days of Summer. I easily and without a shred of regret tossed away over 20 minutes standing silently in the foyer, taking photographs and craning my neck to gape up at the ornate lattice work and delicate symmetry in the stairwells and exposed lift shafts. The Bradbury is at 304 South Broadway in Downtown, and if you’re in that neck of the woods, you really should pop your head in.

Two days later I found myself back Downtown with Jeff, enjoying a noodle lunch at the China Cafe in the Grand Central Market. The market is a classic old part of the city across from the quaint Angel Flight Railway (itself a historic curio worth a peek), roughly where the old part of town meets the glass, steel and concrete canyons of modern Downtown L.A. I’d discovered it through it’s appearance in the classic 1988 comedy-action flick Midnight Run, a film that is revered within our family to the point where whole conversations can be had without veering (too much) from the script.

But whimsy was not on the cards this morning, for we’d just witnessed a woman having her cell phone stolen. Well actually, we’d popped up from the Red Line Perishing Square subway station just as she futilely chased her assailant up Hill Street. Broad daylight, with hundreds of people around; ‘brazen’ is the word you’re looking for. After weeks traveling around America, it was a rude shock to be suddenly reminded that there were many elements to life here that could be quite hostile and not so idyllic.

We caught an Expo Line Metro train (another Lethal Weapon 2 film set!) out to the Exposition Center along a railway that had once run all the way to Santa Monica, and by all accounts will again quite soon. Our destination was the California Science Center, and in particular an opportunity to get up close and personal with the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The shuttle and its history alone were quite compelling, certainly more than enough reason to make the effort, but the story of Endeavour’s last ‘mission’ from the east coast to L.A. was an epic in its own right that truly caught our imagination. After having buzzed many of the sites of San Francisco and L.A. on the back of a 747 transporter, the shuttle had been delivered to LAX, unloaded and then prepped for a three-day road journey through the streets of Inglewood and suburban L.A. to the Science Center. The elaborate, snail-like trek through the ‘burbs attracted millions of locals and sightseers, young and old, affluent and less so.

For three days in October 2012, the city seemed to become a level playing field for just a few moments in time. The fantastic exhibition documenting the journey was almost as much a highlight as seeing the shuttle itself, and I was left truly wishing I could have been on the streets of L.A. that week! Meanwhile, the Endeavour itself was now housed within a temporary wing off the main building, and given the crowds that we encountered, the new addition was proving quite the draw card — which could prove handy, since I understand the Center had to cover the full $10 million cost for the transport and delivery of the Endeavour all the way from Florida!

We’d long planned a day in Disneyland, but our dalliance in Universal Studios was definitely impromptu; I guess this was just one of many reasons why our experiences of the two were almost diametrically varied. “They” say you really need at least two days to “do” whichever of the two Disneyland theme parks you take on. What “they” (i.e. the Disney brochures) don’t tell you is that such an investment is required because of the queues that keep you from seeing the park at your leisure.

Cassie, Jeff and I arrived on a tour bus at around 10:30am and had until almost 7pm to play, during which time we enjoyed Future World and its hall of displays (including ‘Asimo’ the Robot), Star Tours (a thrilling 3D simulator ride that was fantastic, but all too brief), Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, the Disneyland Railroad and a general saunter around the park. The day went by in a flash, and quite simply we ran out of time well before any of us felt we’d gained full enjoyment from the visit. Which is not to say it wasn’t fun, just not as fun as I imagined it could be.

Disneyland seemed almost a microcosm of the United States itself, I felt. It attempts to be all things to all people (or at least, all Americans) and so much of it has entered the popular western consciousness that I almost felt I’d been there before. Every corner is a splash of color and sound, and just about all of it turns a profit. I suspect that at least 2 out of every 3 staff onsite that day were there to sell food, drinks and souvenirs, rather than serve the rides, displays and shows. One statistic that I’d be very interested in knowing was just how many T-Shirts were on sale in the Disneyland Park on any given day. I would not be surprised at all to learn that they could cloth the nation in gaudy Ts and still have some shirts left over.

             Conversely Universal Studios — while easily as saturated in dollars and day-glow as Disneyland — was far easier on the patience. I suspect our ‘luck’ here was at least partly to do with arriving well after the morning rush, and our willingness to invest in the “Front of the Line Passes” rather than ‘mere’ general admission.

The three of us were only on site for perhaps three hours, and yet I feel we saw and experienced a comparable level of entertainment to the 8 hours plus we’d spent at Disneyland, if not more. It certainly felt more satisfying, but that might have been a value-for-money thing rather than a straight comparison (I can be a bit of a tight arse with time and money).

The Transformers Ride in particular was a highlight. A ‘fully immersive 3D experience’ akin to, but far more advanced than Disneyland’s Star Tours ride, it was not at all clear to me just how my senses were being deceived and manipulated, and yet it threw us around and thrilled us in a manner that was so much damned fun that it was almost unbearable. The ride culminated in a terrifying climax of being tipped off the top of a skyscraper and plummeting to the ground. So convincingly real did it all seem, that I’m not entirely sure how we “got out of that one”. Of course we went back and rode it a second time. It was just so lush!

The ‘famed’ Studio Tour was at turns fascinating, lame, plastic and witty with a knowing wink, while the Jurassic Park ride was comparatively ‘old school’, and even quaint in its own way — aside from the 80-foot river plunge at the end that I’m sure elicited a squeal of barely restrained delight while simultaneously terrifying me to my soul. I was regressing to a grinning teenager here, and loving it. In some ways that’s the overarching affect America had on me for those six weeks. I regressed to a moody teenager: giddy, gleeful, greedy and excited, as well as solemn, melodramatic and even lonely at times.

That night was marked by melancholy, for tomorrow we were to be heading home.  The three of us would take a taxi to LAX, meet up with Mum and Dad again, and then fly off into the night. By this stage of a long trip I was usually quite ready to turn homewards, and even looking forward to it. To be sure I did miss my little apartment and was looking forward to slumping in a heap on that lounge with my girl, an episode of Parks and Recreation on the television and a bowl of homemade spaghetti bolognaise in my hands, but more than that, I wanted to hire another car and set out into the desert all over again. Another circuit. Different roads, different sights and new adventures. In short I was not ready for this to end. This surprised me.

Even the moments of heartache had become important to me, for if nothing else they served to remind me that I was alive and kicking. I’d bonded with my family in a way that had been missing from my life for a good decade, maybe two. Beyond that, there were so many moments of such joy and fun, that I fully anticipated that these past few weeks will eventually form one of the richest times in my life, spilling memories that would take me a lifetime to absorb. From standing on the flank of Blanca Peak and watching storms clash and collide, to the ongoing tally of Dad’s immortal proclamations and catchphrases. From standing on the edge of the Grand Prismatic Spring to getting ever more soused in a cabin made from a locomotive on the edge of a wilderness. And from plunging down a 3D skyscraper to the romantic rendezvous with Cassie in Seattle. This journey was a hinge, and my life was turning. May it never stop.

~ The End ~

Yesterday: Yosemite

Tomorrow: The Map!

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

On our second morning in San Francisco, Jeff, Mum, Dad and I arose before the sun to join a small day-return tour group heading out to Yosemite National Park, around 190 miles distant. After weighing up the pros — we were all quite sick of driving and desired as relaxed a day-trip as possible — and the cons — a tour means someone else’s itinerary — we all agreed that the tour option was best. I have not a single regret in making that decision.

Our friendly hosts Don and Dwight picked us up at about a quarter to six, and after swinging by the Fisherman’s Wharf precinct to pick up a couple of travelers from Hong Kong, we set off across the Bay Bridge just as the day’s first salvo of sunlight began to strike the water. As the morning matured from blue to red and through orange to yellow, our merry band drove east, over the wind generator “treed” slopes of Altamont Pass and through the mega-orchids of the Central Valley. My earlier preoccupation with how the hands of humanity had shaped cities began to return as we (as in me, who alone among the passengers couldn’t sleep) gazed out upon mile after mile of the vast valley. Once beyond Altamont, there were no real mountains to see — this “fruit bowl of America” was so vast that we were essentially taking it for granted that this was in fact a valley. Throughout this landscape there seemed not a single square yard that had not been altered, ploughed, planted, paved, built upon or at least had a sprinkler draped over it. And it was an ocean on land — the evidence stretched to all horizons.

And then there’s Yosemite, a valley of such visual splendor and perfection, that it hardly seems real. Standing among the privileged at the classic Tunnel View lookout — surely one of the most gorgeous landscape views on the planet! — with granite monoliths such as El Capitan and Half Dome competing with the wispy Bridal Veil Falls and a carpet of pines, when confronted with a vista so beautiful, and preserved as such, I found myself asking, How can something like this be? That said, although great efforts have been made to keep the visiting hordes to specific roads, areas and paths, it was also very clear to me — as if Yellowstone two weeks prior had not already silenced all doubt — that “spending time in your national parks” was definitely a US cultural past time of mass-appeal. Here we were in the middle of the work week during what was ostensibly a shoulder season, and just about every car park was full.

At Yosemite Village, a full-sized supermarket had ‘arisen’ near the visitor center, clad in all the timber you can imagine and stocked with all the modern fixins’ you’re whole family could desire. And here we were in the heart of a national park, you’ll recall. A national park that was at least two hours drive from the nearest large town.

But it would be very, very remiss of me to dwell any longer on these trappings and fake plastic trees, for the valley of Yosemite is … well, it could well be the Garden of Eden for all I know. Even though I was privately exhausted by the mix of trees, rocks, water and sky that our five-week journey through the American West had shown us, I could not help but stare at the sights, and how the landscape ebbed and flowed.

The waterfalls were wisps of such beauty, that cameras really could not do them justice, while the granite icons — household names in this country, I should add — were almost as frightening to stand in the shadow of as they were spectacular to gaze at. Half Dome particularly, struck me as a sculpture of nature, like porcelain taken to the ultimate expression of grandeur.

Discussion amongst our group centered around the origins of the valley, be they intrusions of volcanic activity or glacial movement. Or both. Gazing upon Half Dome, I had no trouble at all in accepting that its formation was a thing of utter complexity.

We departed for the return drive to San Francisco during the late afternoon, and by this time I was just about done in. The eyes were flashing “auto pilot” and most words out of my mouth were “okay”, “thank you” and “squirrel”. After reading for a while, I dozed off at the back of the bus, finally awaking as we pulled into a town whose name I never learnt. I stumbled into a nearby coffee shop for stimulation, and while awaiting my brew was approached by a man with an iPad and asked “Are you Arnold?”. I looked at him, blinked and smiled that vacant smile that says “yes thank you, my lobotomy went fine, and I’ll take three boxes of dog biscuits and an umbrella cake”. That it took me a good few moments to muster a half-intelligent verbal answer tells you how utterly tired I was. I look back now and shudder to think how I would have coped if we had driven out there and back ourselves.

That night was my only decent, fitful sleep during our five-night stay in San Francisco and I have 400 miles, Yosemite and a man named Don to thank for it.

Yesterday: San Francisco

Tomorrow: Los Angeles and Hollywood

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

 Our party of five hit town fairly latish on Memorial Day, off a non-stop drive from Fort Bragg and Mendocino via a twisting Highway 128 and a brisk scoot down a rainy Interstate 101. We almost missed seeing anything at all of the Golden Gate on account of thick mist, and on arrival at the hotel, found our hire car was too tall to fit within their basement car park. After vomiting luggage upon the pavement Jeff and I set off in an ever widening spiral searching for a spot to park the car. Within minutes we were forced to relent, back track, and splurge $40 to park the car in a garage overnight. The message was clear: this was not a city around which travelling by car was likely to be convenient or cheap.

Sure enough, a subsequent drive through Haight Ashbury compelled me to return for a closer look, if not to attempt it again by car. I was certain that somewhere within this city of the world there were indeed parking spots, but clearly they required a more cunning investigation and elaborate investment in planning than I was capable of mustering.

Haight Ashbury is where San Francisco’s curios, psychedelia and remnants of the Summer of Love mix with rows and neighborhoods of stately ‘Painted Lady’ Victorian and Georgian homes to create a small sea of calm in the city’s southwest. I found myself on those streets alone at dawn one morning with only dog walkers and garbage trucks for company, and it was all so … calming. This part of town seemed to rise a little later than the rest of San Francisco, or was that just me?

Golden Gate Park proved easier in which to park a car, and so a saunter through the multicoloured vines, ferns, orchids, and butterflies of the Conservatory of Flowers proved diverting, where again a different world opened up before us. I’m trying to avoid ‘clichéing’ my way through a “stop and smell the flowers” analogy, truly, but here was only peaceful beauty and a lot of warm, moist air. And butterflies. From the park we headed back north across the Golden Gate, which only revealed itself from yet another wave of rolling fog as we motored across its almost 9,000 foot decking.

The lookout just off the freeway on the Sausalito side of the bridge was boiling and bubbling with tourists and cyclists, most of whom seemed oblivious to car traffic and each other. The jostling for vantage points was quite the reveal of in-transient human behavior. “I don’t know you. Will likely never see you again. So why should I give a shit that I just stepped into your shot”. No one actually said that, but I’m sure it was on someone’s cue card somewhere.

Disheartened by travelling humanity’s self-loathing, we sought the loftier, airier and less crowded views of Conzelman Road spiralling up the headland of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From here we could appreciate the blanket of fog rolling in off the Pacific and attacking the bridge span, and it was astounding. At the top of the road, we were above the cloud, with a view akin to that enjoyed from the window of an aircraft. It was enveloping the seaward side of the peninsula, ebbing in over our heads from the far side of the headland. Battling variances in air temperature and pressure, it was dissipating before hitting the city itself, putting the northern side of the bridge and the eastern side of the peninsula in brilliant sunlight while places like the Presidio were simply invisible. How remarkable!

On returning to town, I finally dumped the hire car and felt a wave of relief at the prospect that I would never again have to drive American streets, especially in a city where there are as many steel wheels as rubber.

Over ensuing days we together and alone strolled the streets of San Francisco morning, noon and night. Clung to its cable cars, squeezed onto its Streetcars and scaled its hills. There was also some laundry to attend to, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear!

Across the street from our hotel on Bush Street, Cybelleas Pizza — through the window of which Barbra Streisand watched a chef tossing pizza dough in 1972’s What’s Up Doc — became a convenient and appreciated source of sustenance.

Other places such as The Grand Cafe, Roxanne’s and the Market Bar down at the Ferry Building also put up with us, granting much yearned for alternatives to anything deep fried or grilled. During one sunny afternoon, Cassie and I strolled the architectural and artistic delights of Market Street, Yerba Buena Gardens and the Downtown precinct, of which there were many.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was offering free admission ahead of a prolonged closure for renovations, and although the collection seemed a little limited, I did enjoy the early photographic exhibition. The nearby Cartoon Museum probably offered a little more interest it must be said, pound for pound. Here I took great delight in a special exhibition of Superman comic art.

Cassie and I eventually found ourselves by the water at dusk, watching shimmering lights gradually overtaking the western spans of the Bay Bridge, and we dwelled for much longer than intended, just soaking it all up. Somewhat bludgeoning the romance a little later, most of the Fishermans Wharf tourist population had folded itself into a dense, vaguely human shaped mass and squashed itself into the streetcar we inadvertently chose to take us back into the city center, and so the mercifully short journey became an experience in “Guess that Biological Origin”.

Before taking a last ride up to California Street on a Hyde cable car the following day, I spent a while in the cool breeze of the bay being entertained by at turns cranky and playful sea lions at Pier 39, among the timbered tourist traps of the corner of town that really feels most plastic.

To be honest I’d found it difficult to sleep in San Francisco. I felt a strong affinity with the place, and sensed its character as something of an American city tinged by Europe and poplar thinking that is perhaps warmer, looser, messier and younger than cities I’d encountered further east. But it was hot, and like Seattle, plagued by an underclass of sad, horribly shunned destitute; perhaps not as “in your face” as Seattle’s but just as, if not more insistent in making their plight known. How can such societies host the wealth and riches they do, and yet such stricken, desperate people? What are we doing wrong? How is there room for both? Who has let who down?

Lying awake one night — and having just read about the 1906 Earthquake — perhaps here more than anywhere else, I was suddenly struck by just how much sculpting by human hands goes into a city. And here was a city that had to be almost completely rebuilt following that quake and subsequent fires.

Think about it. Every brick, every square of concrete, lick of paint, every length of fabric and sheet of metal. All of it, every single piece of it required some measure of choice and decision making followed by varying levels of exertion. Now look out upon whatever city or town you’re sitting in, and think about every choice and movement of a hand that went into it. It does not seem possible does it? There doesn’t seem enough hands and minds at work to change the world that much, but apparently there is.

Yesterday: Northern California

Tomorrow: Yosemite

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

The thing about Arcata is, well I do not think we saw much of it at all. Our hotel was situated within in a precinct of other hotels, a shopping center and tract housing essentially cordoned off by freeways from everything else. Of that, Dad saw even less, for it was here that he caught his cold, and in the hotel he stayed for the duration of our visit.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for to get there we came south through redwood country along a coast road plainly besotted with the ocean it flirted with quite spectacularly. The drive actually became quite leisurely … until we began to encounter redwoods. You really can’t prepare yourself for your first glimpse of giant redwoods, especially when they start to line the road and you find yourself whizzing by them with a gap of only a few feet separating you from what appears to be a cliff formed of wood.

As we made our way through the various forests and national and state parks along the route, we could not help but stop and gape. This was a highway that was to prove murder on necks, and hustle to reach destinations was hopeless. We must have stopped around a dozen times to walk among giants, along open forest floors that felt only the barest essence of sunlight.

At Leggett we encountered the Chandelier Tree, the famous ‘drive thru’ redwood made famous in old postcards and tourist posters. Its sheer bulk easily overcame the tourist trap feel of the little park in which it lived, even though it rendered me the most shameless, gushing tourist for the brief time I stood in its shadow. Like I said, you can’t prepare for the sight of them.

Although we struggled to see much of Arcata beyond our hotel rooms, nearby Eureka proved an adventure. We had chanced upon the area during the Kinetic Grand Championship, a bizarre land/water event that finds entrants fielding what can only be described as “pedal-powered race contraptions of surreal and silly art”.

Actually “race” is probably the wrong word, for there seemed no rhyme or reason to the procession. Put simply, it appeared that each entry sculptures of wildly varying creative merit and eccentricity) was unleashed from a starting location and then they would make a bash of trying to follow a prescribed route to a finish line.

The route appeared somewhat loose, at least in interpretation. In short, the Kinetic Sculpture Race was genius! Brilliant! Such gleeful oddness and creativity should be championed! I could have spent all day following the race, even though at times it felt like it was stalking us (“Did a giant fire ant just pull out of that parking lot and start tailing us?”)

Eureka was also home to an impressive collection of mining and “butter baron” mansions, mostly famously the Carter Mansion, an ‘epically’ emerald green dollhouse of a home that is now a private club, but which can still be gawked at from the curb.

The old town has been kept and restored to its former fishing village glory, and is home to galleries, cafes and shops, in one of which I found a David Plowden book of photographs for ten bucks!

The rusting remnants of the former North Western Pacific Railroad also pass through the town, including five abandoned 1950s diesel locomotives stored along Railroad Avenue. The five derelict hulks could not have contrasted more with the Kinetic Sculpture racers peddling by only a few yards away, yet they seemed to fit right in.

Heading south on Memorial Day, we detoured off the Interstate to tour the back roads south of Eureka in hopes of finding the Kinetic Sculpture racers on their last leg south to Ferndale, but came up empty. They must have known we were hunting them. Instead we found ourselves literally trapped on Main Street as the local Memorial Day parade began. Pausing with our coffees and cameras, I felt extremely privileged to see this side of small town America on show. First came the veterans, followed by the local fire brigade and representatives of the armed forces. As rain began to fall, along came the town Dairy Princess and the flag bearers before the Sheriff reopened the street and we were able to head on south en route to San Francisco. We never did catch up with those whacky racers again. Even now I wonder if one or two are still out there somewhere, peddling giant ants and dragons along a nameless back road trying to get cell phone coverage or take a bearing off the stars.

Yesterday: Crater Lake

Tomorrow: San Francisco

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

Our journey south through Oregon and down into California was, for the most part, a thing of necessity. There were many, many miles to cover, and not really a great many available days to put them behind us. In the middle of this trek was Crater Lake, one of North America’s lesser-known splendors and as stupendous example as any, of the volatile beauty of the Cascades. The present day lake was actually the destroyed relic of a former stratovolcano that was once of similar size and drama as Mount Hood further north. Around 7,700 years ago Mount Mazama (a name given ‘posthumously’) imploded. During a series of eruptions, the mountain collapsed in on itself, leaving behind only a ruined crater and the occasional bubbling of magma and slowly growing cinder cones. I have no doubt that the sight would have been as spectacular and surely as deadly as the landslide and eruption of Mount St Helens May 18th 1980. From a distance.

Over the ensuing centuries, the crater slowly, gradually filled with ice and water to form the lake that was now so famously blue. With no feeder or drainage systems entering this apparently “closed reservoir”, snow and rainfall precipitation were the only methods by which the body of water here could be replenished. Unsurprisingly, the water here is regarded as amongst the purest in the nation. Additionally, with a maximum depth measured at 1,959 feet (594 meters), Crater Lake is the deepest in the United States.

Our drive down to the lake from Portland was somewhat drawn out and marked by a lack of stops. The weather was ordinary, there was not really that much to see along the way, and we were all pretty keen to put the distance behind us as quickly as we could. Thanks to the lingering, late winter storms that we’d already encountered elsewhere, the north entrance to the Crater Lake National Park was still closed due to snow drifts covering the roads, thus necessitating a detour further south than any of us would have preferred. Adding to the chore, this was not without disagreement over which was the best route to travel — after we left Interstate 5 at Canyonville, our GPS (“Nigel”) insisted we perform a u-turn, and then follow-that with another u-turn creating either a redundant detour or infinite loop, depending on how silly you feel like getting. I still imagine that somewhere out there, in a parallel universe, our “alternate” selves are still in Canyonville arguing about whether we should stop for ice creams before returning to the Interstate, or risk kicking on to Shady Cove to see if the road really was open. But, it was all to prove worthwhile, for Crater Lake had been a sight I’d longed to see for many years, and it did not disappoint. The lake, especially the morning following our arrival when it was bathed in clear sunshine, radiated such a pure distinct blue that if you squinted, you could almost convince yourself that the crater was in fact a great, gorgeous bowl of sky.

We stayed at the Lodge, which, despite this now being “late May”, was still surrounded by snow packs several feet thick. The rooms were small, but very clean and comfortable, if perhaps a little ‘over warmed’ — this actually was a trend we’d noticed in many of the hotels we stayed right throughout the six-week journey. It seemed the Americans preferred the thermostat set too high, at least for this party of traveling Australians. That being the case, this pair of crazy quacks from Down Under slept with the room window open to the icy elements. The Lodge restaurant put on a dinner menu that was to die for, even if it did cost a couple of camels and a goat (a currency notoriously difficult to split five ways). The five of us also stopped off at the park visitor’s center the following morning, and sat through a short film on Crater Lake and the formation of is national park that veered from informative to waffle and back again. But then, the National Park Service is not the most generously funded branch of the Federal Government, so I felt compelled to forgive them their waffle.

Later, we made the best of an impromptu lunch in a car park at Caves Junction (the Clam Bisque from the local supermarket was surprisingly good!), before again turning off the interstate, this time at Grants Pass to head south-west, down into Redwood country. The joke quickly became “Grants Shall Not Pass”, for on this particular day the town was in the grip of Memorial Weekend fervor (something to do with crowds, stuff, some more stuff and then more crowds). And so from the interstate off-ramp through to the opposite end of town — a distance of perhaps three miles — the drive took us around 45 minutes. I’ve spent less time baking a cake!

As we neared the coast, giant Redwoods began to loom alongside the road, captivating and frightening in near equal measure. Some edged right up to the edge of the road (and then some). At Crescent City the Pacific revealed itself to us for the first time since that first evening four weeks (yes, FOUR weeks!!) earlier in Santa Monica. The last leg of the drive down to Arcata took us along winding coast roads and through groves of giant redwoods, each one as compelling as the last. But the sight of the Pacific was a constant reminder to me that we were now on the last leg of this ‘once in a life time’ journey, and I don’t think I was able to quite shake that for the remainder of the trip.

Yesterday: Pacific North-west

Tomorrow: Northern California

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

The shuttle bus was dead on time that morning, and the driver, well he was keen to elaborate on the story of how the Sonics had buggered off to Oklahoma City. I find that kind of thing remarkable, no matter how often I hear tell of sports teams relocating. It just does not seem right to me … I forget how it came up in conversation actually.

Seattle’s King Street station was a welcome respite from the gloom and drizzle the morning had laid on, but I managed to irk Amtrak when I was caught taking photos of the trains and station architecture from the main platform. Apparently passengers are not allowed out onto the platforms unless boarding a train — we are a silly lot, as likely to stagger absently in front of moving trains as we are likely to need our bot bots wiped because, well, we’re just not capable on our own. Whatever the reason for this nanny state rule, I could see not a single sign or disclaimer communicating the restriction. Not — One.

There were no locked doors or fences preventing access, and at least three other staff had seen me (one waved!) and said not a peep! Had I been in a more stubborn mode, I may have pressed this issue, but I was tired, had taken enough photographs anyway, and at least that particular civil freedom was not being contested on this occasion. At any rate, the Amtrak woman was polite enough about it, it just seemed silly to me to have such a rule, and in particular to seemingly do absolutely nothing to communicate it.

Check in and boarding of the 501 southbound Cascades was fairly painless, and as we rocketed south along Puget Sound, I started to enjoy the journey. Outside the rivers, highways, forests and lakes belted along, grey all the way. Due to the sky falling, the train’s namesake mountains, and in particular Mount Rainier, were nowhere to be seen. If there was a failing of this otherwise extremely pleasant trip, it’s that Dad made the mistake of getting two hot dogs from the buffet car, when he only needed one to prove they were inedible.

We were a lady beetle’s wing early into Portland and shortly after spilling of the train, I quickly dashed off in a taxi to pick up our next hire car as the rest of the crew got to know Portland’s Union Station. After checking into the hotel, we all strolled out into the drizzle seeking sustenance of the tum at the Thai Peacock and then sustenance for the soul at Powell’s City of Books. With Cassie, Mum and Dad happy to wander the stacks at Powell’s, Jeff and I returned to the streets and zigzagged our way across town seeking sights and sounds.

The dream of the 90s is certainly alive in Portland, although it was taking on a slightly different look in the rain to what Portlandia would have us believe. Food Carts, mimes, coffeehouses, breweries, street art, street cars and street people all coalesced before us into a impressionistic Portlandacopia, but eventually the weather just became too damn yuck to ensure any longer, and we absconded back to the shelter of the hotel on Oak Street. It was a very pretty city though.

The following morning, all of us bar a very wise Cassandra bundled into the Pathfinder for a drive north to Mount St Helens. Mount St Helens is responsible for the single most destructive volcanic eruption in US history. That occurred on May 18th 1980, not that long ago really. In fact I am old enough to recall it quite well. Given that it was captured from all sides by TV and film crews, the repeated showings of its sound and fury has certainly assisted in raising its notoriety to that near a household name. The mountain today is essentially a decimated crater of its former self, but it continues to fascinate and attract the curious. But here’s the thing — it’s not dormant by any means, not by a long shot!

To say it was a wet day would be akin to saying that a grand piano dropped from a great height was likely to end badly. Interstate 5 north to the Mount St Helens exit at Castle Rock never really felt quite right to me, as if the tires were recoiling from the road. It was a relief to be off it frankly, although the weather did little to improve as we ascended up into the Cascades through Toutle on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway 504. Signs at the Mount St Helens Forest and Learning Center were advising drivers to rethink continuing on up to the mountain on account of snowfall. Initially we relented, but then we saw other cars coming and going, and Jeff particularly felt that to come all this way, and turn back on account of a blizzard — without at least seeing how bad the weather was going to get — would just be a terrible pity. So after driving back down the Humboldt Ridge for lunch, we summed up some nerve, and headed back into the “blast zone” (no kidding, there were signs!).

Just above the learning center the treetops were dusted with white, and as we climbed onwards the rain turned into snow. As Highway 504 wound higher and higher, it was clear that plowing had been going on throughout the day, and that the snow drifts either side of the road were growing deeper. Unfortunately, Mount St Helens itself, growing tantalizingly closer and closer, simply would not reveal itself. Even at Johnston’s Ridge Observatory (the location at which volcanologist David A Johnston was killed by the blast in 1980), with its renowned view of the volcano, the mountain was still almost completely veiled by a late winter. The snowfall here was horizontal, and although fissures and creeks in the side of the volcano could be glimpsed, after around 40 minutes, it became clear to us that Mount St Helens was not going to cooperate this particular day.

The following morning Cassie and I took a turn around Portland. Walking the sleepy streets of the Pearl District. Art Supplies stores, cafes, parks and quite plush looking apartment living. The Willamette River curves around the western end of the city here, and so that perimeter is a forest of bridges of all shapes and sizes. And yet, in the middle of all of this “cosmopolitaness”, the Naito Parkway on the waterfront leading up to the busy Fremont Bridge was host to some suitably downtrodden warehouses and factories in full view of the Pearl District residences. Portland was an odd town. I liked it!

Later on I worked my way up Burnside to the Japanese Gardens, a pretty little enclave in a gorge just west of the city center, such that you can still very faintly hear train whistles down in the town. Every shade of green is here competing for your attention. Delicately reaching out to lift your chin and catch your eye. Although it was not raining when I visited, a gentle mist wrapped itself around the gorge and entwined itself around the trees and leaves.

Trickling brooks and waterfalls ran up and down (mostly down) the hillsides, working in mysterious ways to entrance any who lingered and watched. For such a revered and popular garden, there were so many corners in which to lose one’s self, and the closed conditions just sucked sound right out of the air. That is not a bad thing.

That afternoon, Jeff and I ventured out into the Columbia River Gorge via a brief visit to the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. This was a relative new, although very small museum on the east bank of the Willamette, tucked away down the end of Water Street. The museum is home to three steam locomotives (including Southern Pacific 4449 of “Freedom Train” fame and film star status) and three diesel locomotives (including Nickel Plate 190, one of only five surviving ‘ALCo PA4’ machines — famously regarded as the most beautiful American diesel ever). Although small, and easily taken in by a 20-minute stroll and visit, the museum is very cool. Bright, airy and authentic, with some locomotives displayed in pristine condition, others are opened up for restoration and rebuilding, it’s kind of like peering into the inner workings of a giant clock. Kind of.

Heading out of the city, we indulged in a leisurely drive out to the spectacular Multnomah Falls and then onto the township of Hood River. We found the weather a little less hostile than that encountered at Mount St Helens, but gazing upon Multnomah Falls is simply not possible without coping a bit of spray from the cascade. The Columbia River Gorge itself is truly spectacular, particularly in scale. The river cuts an almighty swathe through the landscape for mile after mile, and on both banks are freeways and railroads, while river barges ply the waters in both directions, and everywhere you look, there is an indicator of how important this waterway is to the Pacific North-west, now and in times gone by. Cascade Locks used to step eastbound river traffic down about 20 feet elevation before the locks were flooded following the construction of Bonneville Dam. Nearby is the enormous Bridge of the Gods, built more or less on the site for a former landslide of the same name that once dammed the river. And yet all of this is so utterly dwarfed by the landscape itself.

As we returned west along Highway 84, the weather deteriorated again, and the low cloud scraping its talons through the treetops along the river promised and delivered fierce rain. By Portland, it was again a bearable trickle, and so I stopped to stand and stare for a few minutes at the iconic White Stag Sign on the bank of the Willamette. I’m not sure why. I think I must be part moth.

Yesterday: Seattle

Tomorrow: Crater Lake

The Temporary Americans: Home

A completely and utterly true account of four (sometimes five) Australians on an excellent and totally epic five-week road and rail adventure around the great west of the United States.

My bunk was a coffin, essentially, save the presence of cadaver. The wall on my left curved over me to form a roof that sat perhaps two feet (maybe!) above my nose as I lay down. On my right was a curtain screening our little compartment from the carriage corridor on the other side of a glass window. The mattress had all the layered comfort of a couple of a newspapers draped over an ironing board, and as such I only managed perhaps three or four hours sleep, but better that than none at all.

To avoid disturbing Dad who was still sleeping on the bunk below, I crept out of the compartment like a really badly dressed and half-awake ninja and made my way to the dining car. I was in line for the 5am breakfast sitting, more out of a need to find a place to park myself than any genuine desire for food. I shared the table with a couple from Minnesota who seemed nice enough, except for their contempt for the people of New Orleans flooded out by Hurricane Katrina. Actually, I’m not at all sure how that came up. What is it with ignorant people? Are they out to offend or do they just assume that whomever they are speaking to has the time and inclination to endure their verbal diarrhea? I get it all the time from idiots who think aboriginal jokes make for fine and dandy conversation with complete strangers. So is it up to me to tell them that I have indigenous family and friends? Let’s consider…

“Oops, hmmm, maybe this guy is from New Orleans, I mean how would I know?”

(pause)

“So maybe, just in case, I should not give in to this compulsion to belch completely ill-informed claptrap all over these people, whom I know nothing about?”

(another pause)

“Naaah!”

In cases like this I’m going to assume a) they don’t know or care, or b) they are quite happy, even perhaps eager to offend. Yeah, so maybe they weren’t “nice enough” after all. Anyway, also joining our table was a local woman from Washington who remarked that the western flanks of the Cascades seemed a little drier than they should be, and related what it had been like to grow up here. She was returning home to Washington State on an annual pilgrimage to visit family, and by comparison to the bumpkins sitting across the table, she was a true lady.

The Empire Builder slowed to a stop alongside Seattle’s King Street 45 minutes early that morning, and in our rush to secure two taxis to shuttle our traveling circus up to the hotel, “one of us” managed to leave Mum’s suitcase sitting on the sidewalk. A quick dash back down from the hotel to King Street by Jeff found the suitcase right where we left it, and so he didn’t even have to hail another cab. Meanwhile, the hotel staff checked us all in early and thus automatically qualified for my “you can stay” rewards program, which will kick in once my New World Order is up and running … it’s coming people, continue wearing bike pants at your peril!

As the others set off in search of coffee, I made my way down to the Westlake light rail station to meet Cassie and enact a shamefully public rendezvous. It’d been three weeks! No one should be without their Cassie for three bloody weeks!! Later the two of us made our way into the city for a stroll, a Mexican lunch and a few margaritas before taking a taxi up to the Experience Music Project Museum for an hour or two.

The museum houses a primary set of exhibits celebrating music of the Pacific North-west, with special attention paid to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, while other galleries host genre icons of the horror, sci-fi and fantasy TV and film genres. I lingered mostly in the wing devoted to Nirvana, feeling a little out-of-sorts that a music movement that had for me been formative was being paid tribute to within a museum. A lot of the story I knew already, but it was intriguing nonetheless, and in particular I was quite taken by letters written by Kurt Cobain, and especially his handwritten lyrics for Beeswax that, while not an especially important Nirvana song, still struck me with enormity.

The other wings of the museum proved diverting but not quite as compelling, except for the Sky Church with its giant video screen, light effects and music, which was enthralling. I’d stopped to poke my head in and stayed for about 20 minutes.

We bounced back into the city center along the old Seattle monorail, but after that the rigors of overnight travel caught up with us and so feet were put up and wine was enjoyed.

The following morning found Mum conspiring to gather us all together for a belated Mother’s Day breakfast, and so we trickled on down to Pikes Place Market for a morning munch. A quiet non-descript little cafe off from the main shopping and tourist thoroughfares actually yielded a really tasty meal. It was one of those places that does not look much from the outside, but actually serves up some really tasty grub. I think it was chose purely to bypass another half an hour of indecision, but whoever it was who put the foot down must be a genius. Whoever he may be.

Beyond that, we separated and wandered the market in packs. There’s no two ways about it the place is pretty dynamic. Perhaps also a little intimidating, as the fishmongers (which are many and varied) like to perform for their audiences (also many and varied), and encourage patrons to come and say “hi” and be involved. Being a traveler, here was not much that the farmers market had to offer me that would not likely go off within a couple of days, although I did find some vintage posters — which I probably shouldn’t have bought on account of my increasing grouchiness regarding luggage obligations.

Reunited under the famous ‘Pikes Place Market’ neon sign, we fair five set off for Pioneer Square only to find Seattle’s epidemic homeless and destitute problem even more confronting here than back towards the city center. Truly, I’ve been to many, many cities, but Seattle’s problem seems the most out of control. Most seemed harmless enough, although every now and then you’d strike someone willing to outright intimidate passers-by. There was no real danger evident, but it became difficult to walk these streets without being confronted with sights and sounds that made you ache with pity or — if you happen to be somewhat less sympathetic — revulsion.

At Pioneer Square we did not linger long and instead turned ‘inland’ in search of the Seattle Public Library. It really must be said, that if all city libraries were as beautiful, I wonder if there would still be such as beast as illiteracy.

The building is a marvel, a glass and steel — I’m not really sure what to call it … It vaguely recalls a diamond, but it is not that showy. It is crystalline in its own way, but see that really doesn’t do it justice either. Just know that it is spectacular, graceful space filled with sunlight and lots of people reading. Tellingly, almost every seat and bench was occupied.

Not content with gaping in wonder at the steel and glass masterpiece, we paused for a drink and some chocolates (yes, the kiosk sold handmade chocolates), although I’m sorry to say that not much reading was had on our part. Here we split up again, and now traveling alone, I headed out to the Seattle Center to visit the Space Needle and the Chiluly Glass and Garden Gallery. The view from the Space Needle is of course fantastic, and while photos of Mount Rainier from here are all over the Internet, I could not help but find myself awed by the sight of it — it’s lower flanks wreathed in mist, looming behind and over the city.

Although the wreak of art gone wildly commercial was never far from my nostrils walking through the Chiluly Gallery, there was no denying the bloke’s designs and works are objects of sheer, aching beauty. Considering the craft behind them, the glassworks on show here seemed almost miraculous. In the garden outside the main gallery a trio of women was singing jazz tunes to a piano accompanist in the glass-adorned atrium beneath the Space Needle, and this would have to be the prettiest spot in which I’ve ever seen music performed.

From the Seattle Center I set out to walk back into the city. I did not really intend to thrash my feet the way I did, and in truth I was eyeing off passing buses most of the way, but on I trudged. Within the Queen Anne district I found an element of the city that was a little more ‘Frasier Crane’ than the awkward mix of commercialism, tourism and poverty of the city center. And yet as I returned along the waterfront and hit Pike Place Market, the destitute rose to greet me once more. This was not the Seattle I’d expected, and although two days is not enough time in which for formulate a true impression of a city — in fact as respectable timeframes go, it’s quite rude — Seattle still seemed to me a little bruised.

I was beginning to look forward to Portland.

Yesterday: Essex and Glacier National Park

Tomorrow: Pacific North-west

The Temporary Americans: Home