Friday, July 20, 2012

July 17, Crescent City, California.

Redwood forests, or their remnants, have stood since the time of the dinosaurs. The oldest trees on the north west coast of the USA were already large saplings when Christ was born. Even the fallen trees that litter the forest floor have lain where they are today for many centuries. One we saw some years back in Yosemite National Park was used as a stable by troops during the Civil War, and it looked like it had many years yet before it rotted away. A great thrill for us was to drive through a Redwood. It was yet another of the 'World Famous' attractions that dot the US.

Even the foggy and cool weather couldn't diminish the grandeur of these ancient forests. The windy roads through this area of northern California were pleasantly quiet today as we wound our way through this spectacular part of the US. With the exception of some large elk with enormous antlers, the wildlife was extremely scarce.

We had planned on driving the whole of the coast road, Highway CA 1 and Highway CA 101, but it is extremely slow going and we are, sadly, getting near the end of our trip, and we have Oregon and Washington yet to conquer.

July 19, The Dalles, Oregon.

Sitting in a lovely rest area today, with lush green grass and enormous Douglas fir trees all around, the roar of the heavy trucks on the road, just a few hundred metres away, should have been an annoyance, but it was more like a reminder that the pulse of industry is never far away in the more densely populated parts of the US. Most of this trip we have been wandering the byways of the Alaskan wilderness, the Canadian Yukon and the rich prairie farmland states and provinces of both the US and Canada. Here in the Pacific North West we are back in the US's industrial heartland, or one of them.

You don't have to be an Einstein to know that North America is a big place, but you really need to experience all facets of this incredible part of the world to truly understand its grandeur. In the 1940s Woody Guthrie, that great American lyricist, captured some of what we mean when he penned the words for what many today believe should be the USA's national anthem, 'This Land Is Your Land'. In a few verses he captured the soul of the US. Here's just a sample.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Woody's last verse in particular seems to capture the essence of America today.
Here in Oregon, almost 20% of people are surviving on food stamps, a government welfare food program. Along the highways we have travelled, thousands of businesses have closed down, factories rust and some small towns and cities are becoming ghost towns. On the other hand, as the throb of the trucks on the Interstate reminds us, there is still a lot of spark left in the US, and as we pack up our lunch makings and head back out on the road, we recall a scene from that World War II classic movie, The Battle of the Bulge. A senior German officer walks into a staff meeting and puts a package on the table. Vas ist das? (excuse pidgin German), says a junior officer. “That is why we will never defeat the Americans,” is the response. It was a Christmas cake, and the officer's point was that if the delivery of cakes to the troops on the front line was a priority to the Americans, and they could manage to do it, then Germany stood no chance against such a determined and capable enemy. That spirit is still out there, so don't give up on the 'old girl' just yet, Woody.

July 20, 2012, Tacoma, Washington.

This morning at around 15 minutes after midnight, a 24 year old man threw a tear gas cylinder into a movie theatre in suburban Denver. Seconds later, wearing a gas mask and body armour, he began shooting into the crowd. He was armed with a civilian version of the semi-automatic M16 rifle, fitted with a 100 shot magazine, a shotgun and two Glock pistols.

At the latest count, there were seventy-one victims. Twelve were killed, including a six year old child. Several of the wounded are in a critical condition.

The weapons were all purchased legally in the past 6 months.

God save America and her precious second amendment - the right to bear arms.

Monday, July 16, 2012

July 13, Carson City, Nevada.

The past few days have taken us through some of the high desert areas of Idaho, Nevada and Northern California. As you might expect, it has been hot! This year has been unusually hot right across the US. Many of the areas we have been travelling through have been well above the old century, 100F, or above 38C in the new currency. Travelling through desert areas, the high temperatures are not too difficult when you spend your day in an air-conditioned car, but when you step outside, you know it!

In this part of the world, we love to hunt out 'ghost towns'. Some, like Garnet, Idaho and Bodie, California are a bit off the beaten track, and that is a good thing as the summer holidays get into full swing and roads become choked with families on road trips (how dare they!). Both Garnet and Bodie were old mining towns that struggled on into the early years of the 20th century.

Their isolation allowed some of the character buildings of the old towns to survive the end of the mining boom and the enormous growth that swept across the US throughout the 20th century. Both have been preserved rather than restored, so they look much as they did when the last residents walked away from the dying towns. On the other hand, the Nevada mining town of Virginia City, outside Reno, has become a bit of a tourist theme park. Nevertheless, Virginia City does retain some charm and it leaves one with a feeling of what a rip-roaring gold mining town might have looked like.

And oh yes, Nevada does have casinos, and yes we did play and yes, for once, we DID win.

July 16, Fort Bragg, California.

Down to the Pacific coast today after a couple of days with family in Sacramento. Our timing was fairly good. The week prior to our arrival, the Sacramento area had a string of days well over 100F (around 40C). Things had moderated to the low 30sC for our stay.

Our route today took us through the wine area of the Napa Valley just north of San Francisco and the beginnings of the Redwood forests of the coastal ranges.

Shivering in the motel tonight with temperatures down to the mid teens Celsius.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

July 7, Deer Lodge, Montana.

Montana markets itself variously as 'Big Sky Country', and the place to 'Get Lost' in, but to us it should be 'It Just Grows on You'. In merely a week or so, we have driven right across this 41st State of the Union. Small towns are still quaintly country, folk are extremely friendly, the few cities are just big country towns and the scenery is varied; in many places, totally breath-taking. It has been hot this week, many places experiencing 100F plus. The heat has bought the 'good ole boys' out in force, their boats in tow, heading for the many lakes to ski, fish or just zoom about. It is like California around the lakes, but without the crowds. When you realise how cold and miserable the long winters can be this far north, you start to understand why the good folk of Montana throw themselves so enthusiastically into summer activities in the few short summer months.

One of the many things that attracted us to driving from east to west across Montana was Glacier National Park on the western side of the state. In short, it was ok. Now before we go down in flames, if everything was equally great, nobody would value our opinions on the many places we visit. So let's look at it this way. If Australians visited the New Zealand Alps, then mountain areas of Tasmania then finally the Australian Alps, the Aussie Alps would be a bit 'ho hum'. But, done the other way around, each area would probably be seen in its own right. What we probably should have done this trip was Montana first, then the Canadian Rockies followed by Alaska. Put simply, we have been spoilt by doing it all the other way around. So for those considering a visit to the Glacier National Park, it is fantastic, as is the rest of Montana.

We are well and truly in 'road trip' mode now. Six weeks on the road, 6000 kms under our wheels and more than 30 motels. Our little Chevy HHR sits outside the Budget Motel here in Deer Lodge, filthy with a fresh coat of dust from today's little adventure, a drive through the Montana backwoods on rough dirt roads to the ghost town of Garnet. It's an old story, find gold, boom, then steady decline. For some reason though, some towns remain much as they were when the last die-hard departed. In Garnet's case, that was 1947, when the last store owner died and the souvenir hunters/looters moved in. To be fair, many of the original buildings were already derelict by that time and those standing today still have old beds, cupboards and other original artefacts lying about. Maybe it was just the isolation that saved what is left of this early 20th century town.

July 9, Twin Falls, Idaho.

Due to our philosophy of seeking out the cheapest motel in town, we are 'holed up' in the fabulous Monterey Motel. The first room we had came complete with a 1950s bathroom and the smell of strong disinfectant, probably used to hide the smell of smoke in a non-smoking room. Lucky for us the key stuck in the door and we had to move to a slightly better room with a renovated bathroom, circa 1990. The room doesn't matter much to us as long as it is clean and we can get a good night's sleep. So the good old Monterey will do us just fine.

What is special about the Monterey and its location is that it is on the 'wrong side of the tracks'. Twin Falls is a town of about 45,000 people and, on the whole, it is fairly presentable, even flash in some parts, but the strip of motels on Highway 93 is well away from the modern chain lodgings on the other side of town. Here, motels offer weekly rates. So it is here that the working poor of America tend to live as they travel the country, picking up what ever work is going. At $ 150 - $160 a week, living in a run-down motel is about all these poor folk can afford (a bit like us really).

Avid readers will be familiar with the classic work of John Steinbeck, 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Set in the Depression era, Steinbeck traces the plight of one family as they move west from Oklahoma to California, looking for work. They travel in a beat-up old pick-up, camping by the side of the road and living a very basic subsistence lifestyle as they struggle to survive during the Great Depression.

Today, life is not as difficult for the working poor, but struggle they do. The cars lined up outside the very basic rooms of the Monterey are mostly older models, and those usually sold off on the cheap in the US, old Lincoln Town cars, worse for wear F250 trucks and the odd, well-used, Japanese or Korean sedan. In the 1930's, poor families hunted rabbits and scrounged food wherever they could. Here in the Monterey, the 'hunt' is simply a quick trip to McDonalds or some other chain fast food outlet. The young family next door to us returned from their 'hunting trip' with a couple of burgers and slurpies. Not sure what the 5-6 month old baby will get to eat tonight.

Company pick-ups drive in every now and then, dropping off single men who have obviously been working hard for their dollars. Even in the more up market motels we have been frequenting, this is a common sight. Moving about to get whatever work is available is a common way of life for the working poor of 21st century USA. At home in Australia, workers move about following the dollar as well, but the pay is far more lucrative, and the conditions vastly superior.

Just noticed a platinum blond in a short skirt and high heels arriving in the room next door. Well, some things never change!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

June 28, Strathmore, Alberta.

Leaving Calgary today, we headed south east towards the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, but much more about that later.

Calgary lies on the very edge of the Great Plains, the Canadian Prairies. As we crested the last hill heading onto the vast plains, we were treated to a view somewhat reminiscent of the 'Cape Flats' just outside Cape Town, South Africa. Laid out before us were kilometres of densely-packed houses which looked much the same from our vantage point. The difference here was that the housing was middle class suburbia, as opposed to township slums. Alberta is oil rich and Calgary is expanding rapidly, so this 'Truman Show' like world is growing at a great pace on the edge of the city.

Off to the west, the Rocky Mountains stood out clearly, just as they must have done to those hearty souls who trekked west across the northern plains in the early 19th century. It was even a little refreshing to drive through the wheat fields and experience the openness of the plains after weeks of mountainous territory through the Yukon, British Colombia and Alaska. We are fairly sure the novelty will soon wear off as we will be spending the next couple of weeks driving through the plains.

But back to “Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump”. The North American plains were once home to enormous herds of Buffalo/Bison. Descriptions of their numbers are just mind-boggling today. In the early 19th century, tens of millions were said to roam the still-virgin grasslands of the Great Plains of the USA and Canada. For thousands of years, the Indians of the plains had survived by hunting the buffalo, which gave them almost all they needed to survive.

Contrary to popular belief, the Plains Indians had no horses until the late 18th century, when they were introduced by the Europeans. The story of the horse in North America is worth a brief digression. Archaeologists believe that the horse actually originated in North America, but became extinct during an Ice Age. However, a few of these rather small beasts escaped extinction by walking across the ice bridge of the Bering Sea into northern Asia. After many thousands of years, these survivors evolved into the modern horse of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The circle was completed when the Conquistadores landed in South America, along with their horses.

To the plains Indian of more ancient times, the main beast of burden was the dog. As sturdy as they may have been, the Indian pooch was not up to carrying an Indian hunter in chase after a buffalo. Hunting was therefore done on foot. Now we, at last, come to “Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump”. For many thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Indians hunted single beasts on foot, or killed large numbers of buffalo by driving them over cliffs. “Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump” is just one of the many hundreds of sites on the plains where this method was practised.

So where did the 'Head-Smashed-in” bit come from? Indian legend has it that a young warrior who wanted to watch the buffalo cascade over the cliffs at this site, hid in the rocks below the cliff face. Sadly for him, this particular jump was extremely successful and, as the buffalo fell in great numbers, the young brave was squashed .

It is believed that the site of “Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump”, was last used in the mid 19th century, by which time, the re-introduction of the horse and the use of guns, traded from the Europeans, made the Indians partly responsible for almost destroying the buffalo, along with the white man.

June 29, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

It is hard to be surprised by Canada. That's not a negative reflection, just a reality. It is everything we have come to expect. Everything works, roads are excellent, people are friendly and there is a feeling of success, progress and, let's face it, good times, in the air.

All is going well for Canada. Like Australia, it dodged the bullet of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2009. It has enormous resource wealth. It produces valuable food surpluses and it is energy rich. Not only that, it has never suffered from the paranoia about socialism that is so prevalent in its powerful southern neighbour. Consequently, it has good health care, a reasonable pension system and, without duplicating the nanny state excesses of Scandinavia and, to some degree, Australia and New Zealand, it has a fair, diverse, and equitable society. The down side of all this, for the traveller, is the high cost of living compared with the US. Never mind, nobody minds paying a little extra when they know they will get what they pay for.

Cruising down National Highway 1 today, all the obvious signs of the healthy state of Canada were on display. Endless, rolling plains of new wheat, pastures full of fat cattle, the stench of enormous feed lots and the ever-visible nodding heads of small oil pumps are there. South, in Montana and Wyoming they have used the phrase 'Big Sky Country' to promote their region. Maybe Alberta was a bit slow getting in on the deal, but the sky sure is big here!

July 3, Glasgow, Montana.

Back in The USA!

Storms chased us into town this afternoon. It had been windy most of the afternoon, with the ripening wheat and the grasses on the open plains performing the Mexican wave. It is easy to imagine covered wagons, the 'Prairie Schooners', moving across the plains, riding the 'waves' as they plotted their relentless paths west.

Our trip today was from Regina, in Saskatchewan, south into Montana. We had spent the past few days visiting Janita's cousin, Tim and his wife, Judy. It was a long weekend in Canada for Canada Day and we were treated to beautiful weather and a couple of days and nights of pleasant company and guided tours of the city and surrounding areas. Regina is an extremely pleasant little city, set among beautiful parklands. Every tree in the city has been hand-planted.

The prairies continue to amaze us. Surprisingly, there is much more variety in the scenery than we had expected. Rolling hills are as common in the northern plains as the perfectly flat areas. Open range is mingled with vast wheat and canola fields. The latter are currently in flower, spreading blankets of bright yellow amongst the brilliant green of the rapidly ripening wheat.

On the trail of yet more variety, we took a detour through the 'Badlands' of Southern Saskatchewan, to Castle Butte. Sadly the badlands could have been better described as 'naughty lands', t a patch on those further north in the province or those we have seen in South Dakota. On route, we managed to get a little lost on gravel back-country roads. A little low on fuel, we had some anxious moments until we finally found a sealed road that led to a small town with petrol. Mind you, it was petrol at European prices rather than Canadian prices, over $2 per litre!

A visit to the local supermarket in Glasgow this afternoon quickly reminded us just what good value the US is! Beer at half Canadian prices and petrol at less than $1 per litre is a great start! It is good to be 'Back in the USA'!

July 4, Havre, Montana.

Independence Day is, of course, a big day in the USA. Country Montana is probably as close to the 'heart-land' as you can get. As we cruised along Highway 2 west towards our next major stop, Glacier National Park, we passed through a small plains township every 50 kms or so. Some are little more than a shell of their past as increased mobility favours the larger towns. Around mid-morning we stopped in Hinsdale, an average town with a single, short, main street block. Normally these towns are fairly much deserted. Today there were white plastic chairs lining the street and a few dozen people milling about. A parade!

We bought a coffee and joined the rapidly growing crowd waiting for the 4th of July Parade. Fantastic experience. Small town USA in full holiday mode, it was Mayberry all over, poignant with the death of Andy Griffith. Far from slick, but so typically small town, there were kids on bikes, girls on the backs of trucks, farm machinery, vintage cars and cowboys and cowgirls on horses. All that was missing was the marching band. As we left to continue our journey, the friendly folk of Hinsdale were wandering down to the tree-shaded Veterans Park for a family picnic. We even scored a small flag, retrieved from the street by a kid as he scavenged for the candy thrown out by the folk on the passing floats.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June 26, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

After the long haul from Alaska to the Canadian Rockies, it has been great to have some time to look about, rather than drive hammer and tong every day. Yet again it has been the scenery that has enthralled us over the past few days. Even with the patchy weather we have had, Jasper and Banff National Parks have kept us gasping for the last couple of days. The blue-green lakes are absolutely stunning, especially with the mountain backdrops. The wildlife has been accommodating, posing obligingly by the side of the road for us. On the other hand, the much-vaunted towns of Jasper and Banff left us a bit cold. Admittedly, that is probably our dislike of T-shirt shops, ice-cream parlours and over-priced art galleries. When tourist traps and the scenery are combined, as they are in Lake Louise, then the experience can be extremely positive. We were able to hire a canoe at a reasonable price and paddle off towards the glacier at the end of the Lake, with the famous Fairmont Chateau as a distant backdrop. We made the round trip in record time, weight for age!

Previous experience has taught us to avoid hotels within National Parks like Jasper and Banff, where the price of accommodation is way beyond our budget. Instead, we stayed in the towns of Canmore and Hinton just outside the parks. Both were average North American strip mall settlements, but without the press of tourists. As a bonus, Hinton is situated in an extremely scenic spot, with high ranges towering above the town.

Today we had an easy drive to Calgary, just 100 km down the highway from Hinton. With another rainy day threatening, we took a bit of a punt and headed for the Calgary Heritage Park Historical Village. What a find! We have seen a few of these outdoor museum complexes around the world and this is well up there with the best of them. It has a fantastic auto museum, steam train ride throughout the park, historical village, authentic original buildings, re-located to the site and friendly and well-informed staff at every location, most of whom had been to Australia at some stage and were keen to chat with us about their experiences and explain the features of the museum. All for a reasonable $20. The only drawback was the hordes of school kids screaming and yelling all about us. A small price to pay.

June 27, Calgary, Alberta.

Calgary turned on a much better day for us today. By mid-morning the sun was out and the temperature was approaching something like a summer's day - for the Northern Hemisphere. Our motel is fairly close to the city centre, so we elected to take the light rail downtown for a bit of exploration. This was the same light rail that rumbled past our door every ten minutes for most of the night. At least it was a short walk to the station.

Calgary is a city of about 1 million and, like most North American cities, it has tended to sprawl out. Having said this, it doesn't seem all that large in comparison to other cities we have visited that are about the same size. The light rail is not a large network, just two lines, but it seems well used and it worked well for us.

A city is generally a city to us and Calgary is probably just that, another city. Downtown could be almost anywhere in the western world, but without the cowboys and cowgirls we had expected. roaming the streets in big hats, big belts and high-heeled boots that we might have expected this close to Stampede time. There was, however, an excellent museum. The Glenbow, is a combination art gallery and museum, with a strong focus on western development and Indian culture. It was extremely well-presented and when we visited, not at all crowded.

On the downside, a long trip to the outer suburbs to visit the Aero Space Museum, was a serious disappointment. Sure the planes they had were in extremely well restored, but we have seem more, better-presented aircraft museums in smaller cities like Darwin. Perhaps we were a little jaded by the long wait for the connecting bus once we had left the light rail?

Next week is the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. We are sure the place will be jumping for this internationally renowned event, but today, it was a bit like 'Saturday night in Toledo Ohio' downtown. You could have shot a cannon off. Just on peak though as we returned home, the good folk of Calgary streamed out of their office blocks and filled the stations for the quick commute home.

Friday, June 22, 2012

June 22 Dawson Creek, British Columbia

Our fifth day on the road from Anchorage, Alaska to Jasper in Alberta, just two days to go!

Starting out.
In the middle

Towards the end.

Just join the dots!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

June 20, Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Still driving through the endless beauty of the northern wilderness, 450 kms of forest and lakes today, with the odd snow-capped mountain to complete the scene. It might sound boring, but the day actually passes rather quickly, as there is a chocolate box scene around every corner.

We did some calculations today, just to get a bit of a fix on how long it will take us to drive from here to Regina in Saskatchewan, our furthest point east on this trip. We have been driving for three solid days now since we left Anchorage and we have just under 3000 kms to go, not accounting for side trips. If we drove and did nothing else, it would take us another 5 days to get to Regina. Lucky for us we have 9 days until we are expected. And lucky that we love the road!

This lull in the usual hectic pace of our travels is probably a good time to explore some of the travel philosophies that allow us to continue to roam the world, seemingly at will. We are often asked, “How can you afford to go on so many long overseas trips?” We suspect that underlying this question is some suspicion that we have robbed a bank or are much wealthier than we appear. Neither of these are of course true. So here is the secret.......

Firstly, be retired. Having the flexibility to grab a travel bargain is paramount. For example, we have jumped on the web and grabbed specials like, return flights to Kuala Lumpur for $198 or Tokyo for $250 return. Perhaps our favourite is the $15 (all inclusive) flight, KL to Saigon.

Secondly, pay and book major expenses, such as flights and vehicle hire, well ahead AND shop around. This spreads the cost over time. It might just be psychological, but if you can cover these sorts of expenses out of your normal month to month living expenses, you don't really notice any big hit from these costs.

Thirdly, do it yourself as much as you can. The internet allows us to get the best prices but, if needs be, approach travel agents and see if they can price match. Companies like Flight Centre don't make enormous profits by being charitable to travellers, but they can often get good rates if they are pushed by travellers who know the market prices.

We believe that once the major expenses of flights and vehicle hire or other land transport costs are covered, it costs less to travel than it does to stay at home. This is easily demonstrated in Asia where living costs are a fraction of those at home, but it is also true of developed countries like Europe and the USA. In Asia we eat out, drink in bars and spend like drunken sailors. In Europe (when the euro is strong) we hire a mobilehome, buy food and booze in supermarkets and cook and drink in the van and free camp wherever it is safe to do so. In the US, we hire a small car, stay in cheap chain motels, buy a mobile kitchen that allows us to cook in motel rooms, buy food and drink in supermarkets. We eat out from time to time and very rarely go to bars.

We feel confident that, after a total of almost three years 'on-the-road' travelling in countries and areas as diverse as Morocco, Scandinavia, South East Asia, Japan, Canada, USA, South Africa, Swaziland, Turkey, Western and Eastern Europe, the UK and Australia, just to mention a few, we have enough experience of this lifestyle to say that it is all possible on a very modest budget.

While travelling in this way can be isolating, it hasn't stopped us from enjoying new acquaintances, friends and experiences, encountered and enjoyed in all sorts of weird and wonderful places.

June 21, Fort Nelson, British Columbia

Just another day at the office, Just some of what we saw today on the 500km trip from Watson Lake to Fort Nelson.

A couple of early morning highway encounters.

Heavy Traffic!

Lake Munchho. Nice!

Keep Canada clean!