I should mention while we were on the west coast of the US we also stopped in to the lovely Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
We stayed the night simply to use the famous hot tub that looks out over the ocean. Be prepared for an additional charge for this, not included in the hostel room.
We got it for free (because half my blood is Irish and fortune often follows me), but at 5pm we mostly baked in the sun and had to bail before we overheated. It would have been great naked at midnight.
Later that evening a wicked wind picked up and battered the foreshore. We stood with all our clothes whipping us and watched seals (or sea lions? Hard to tell from that distance) playing.
That night I stayed up late writing, savouring having a space as big as the common room to myself.
Not for long.
The strange ‘artist’ who had shown us his not-that-good paintings, and was living partly in the hostel and partly in a van came out of his room.
After getting himself two loooooong glasses of water he struck up a poor conversation.
“My friend sent me this thing on Facebook that’s MRI scans of vegetables. It’s pretty cool.”
One thing you have to do when travelling is be mean to weirdos so they get the point. I’m usually not very good at this. In the beginning I would smile at anyone I made eye contact with, out of habit. I learnt pretty quickly that can get you in trouble.
This guy was just a strange loner. Though I suppose they’re the ones you should watch out for.
“Oh yeah? That doesn’t seem to have much purpose,” I said.
The air was thick with tension and annoyance.
I kept typing.
Undeterred, he poured another glass of water and took up the stance of a poet surveying the brooding sea for inspiration.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” he said mystically.
“Do you want to come and check out some rock pools?”
Nah mate. I prefer my neck non-strangled. Thanks.
After many long minutes and conversation shut downs he went to look at his rock pools alone.
Thank god for separate dorms.
I put a plastic spoon and a hiking boot within grasp that night just in case.
The Dutch couple were up early the next morning. Full of life and rosy-cheeked after seeing a pod of whales. They were older, but still grabbing life by the balls in that Dutch way!
We needed some green above our heads so we embarked on a forest hunt.
The Beach Boys crooned “Little surfer, little one. Make my heart come all undone.”
“Do I love you, do I surfer girl?”
Harmonious music for a group reported to have fought like rich kids over a will.
Boots on. That invincible feeling. We took the 8km trail to combat all the sitting of a road trip.
The towering redwoods of Butano State Park looked down, ancient and hushing.
“Be quiet,” they whispered, “and listen to us breathe.”
“For we were first here. And we understand it all.”
I walked tiny beneath them. My legs stretching as far as they could on the steep paths. My heart beating out its pathetic, tiny rhythm. No more than a bug worrying the undergrowth to these red and green giants.
I felt like I was learning from them. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
There was a splash of bright yellow and we found a huge banana slug. Looking like something out of Avatar, is slurped slowly across its log.
We discovered with glee this fellow is the mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now who could defeat a team with a slug as its masthead!
At the top of the trail our Californian redwoods dissolved and the sun beat down on us. This is what Burke and Wills must have felt like….almost.
I looked over the tops of trees for kilometres and felt like I could see the world. Pretty much every time I find myself at the best end of a great view I feel I could drop dead – then and there –and die a happy woman.
Later we wound through the trails of Año Nuevo State Park. A marshy, grassy area that led to the beach. Across the water a decrepit house stood, and in front of it lounged hordes of sea lions.
The point was actually a viewing platform for the local elephant seal colony, but the house was far creepier and more interesting. A ranger told us sea lions were found in the bathtub on the second floor, and regularly climb up and down the stairs.
We ran over dunes and spotted blue-bellied lizards too quick to catch. I tried.
And that was about the last of our Cali-coast adventures.
It was cold as we caught the ferry over, the wind whipped my short hair into my eyes and the ocean slewed below us. Ominous and freezing.
Alcatraz sat ahead, stony and unforgiving. The very sight of it chilled me and set my imagination racing.
An escape! Months and months of planning. A rush of adrenalin. A race against time, against being discovered. Holding you breath and plunging into that icy water, knowing you would rather die of hypothermia than go back to that six-foot concrete cage.
Holy crap I was excited.
It was almost morbid. But everyone has seen the movie, and it is one of the greatest escape stories of all time.
Digging out a tunnel over many nights with (allegedly) a spoon. Making fake heads to fool the wardens on their check, complete with painted faces and real hair from each escaped prisoner.
Docking on the rock it was clear what a tough swim it would be for anyone trying to reach freedom. They told us you’d have around one hour in the water before hypothermia set in. A good swimmer could make the distance in 50 minutes if the tide was right.
The night the three escapees made their dash the tide was not in their favour.
The first thing you see at Alcatraz is “Indians welcome” scrawled across the front of a building. The little known history of the place is that it is traditional American Indian land, and was in fact on of the first protest occupations that spurned the Red Power Movement.
Beginning in 1969, the Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months and was a rally of all tribes of American Indian people to fight for self-governance and better equality in America’s treatment of them. It triggered 36 other occupations and won American Indians important ground and social rights.
In her poem Alcatraz Reunion, Jewelle Gomez (Wampanoag, Iowan, Cape Verdean), expresses gentle contempt for the tourists who flock to the famous rock. There on a trip with her mother, to reconnect with their own land and each other, she writes:
It’s a cold ride and perverse
to be among those eager to
peer through prison bars and
glimpse long dead misery,
the ghosts of anger pacing and fear
huddled in darkness
so close to the city lights
As I read it I realise I fall into that exact category. But it is so damn interesting to think of the human spirit broken behind bars, of a life lived out, year by endless year, in small cement corridors and rooms.
It fascinates me because I believe I have grit. I could survive it. I could make it. An easy claim from someone living their life free as a bird I suppose.
The Alcatraz tour comes with a fantastic audio experience. The voices of former inmates and wardens accompany you down the corridors. Sound effects of clanking keys, prisoners yelling out and the daily sounds of caged life transport you there, as though you were walking past the cells for the first time as a new prisoner. Exactly what you don’t want to be in a place like Alcatraz….a fresh face.
In the solitary confinement cell I sat in the corner and shut my eyes. Someone came past and took a photo of me. That will make for a weird on in their holiday snaps.
The slow, weather voice of an inmate travelled down my headphones. To get through the hours of pitch-black solitary confinement he would rip off a button and flick it behind him in the dark.
“Then I’d get down on my hands and knees and search for that button until I found it.”
“Then I’d get up and do it again.”
How it would mess with your head. He was smart; he knew how to keep his brain active.
The showers were scary. The mess hall was big and had guard posts on ceiling level. The bleachers in the exercise yard made me sad for all the wasted lives of so many men. Reading about some of their crimes though…kidnap for example, my pity evaporated.
I walked a little further and looked into the face of Bernard Coy, staring back from his photograph with big ears and a drawn face.
His story was an interesting one. Turning to crime in The Great Depression, Coy earned himself 25 years for bank robbery.
He coordinated an escape while working in the library, a job that allowed him access to a lot of the prison. After spotting a weakness in the bars above the gun gallery he fashioned a homemade bar-spreader and managed to overthrow the guard in the galley.
He starved himself to squeeze through the bars.
It resulted in a bloody two-day siege where Coy himself was shot, along with two prison guards and two of his co-conspirators.
Seeing the cells of the three successful escapees however was the clear highlight.
They had left it all as it was found on the morning after the escape.
The fake heads were tucked on their pillows, the grill was removed to reveal the secret tunnel, and you could even see where the three men had climbed –in between the cells – to reach freedom.
The trio had been learning Spanish for months before their escape, and one warden believes they lived out their days in South America.
They were never seen again.
Succinctly, the day is US $30 very well spent.
I’m goooooooooing to Saaaaaan Fraaaaaan-cisco!
We were sick of using the GPS, so we simply aimed for the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh so famous, oh so pretty.
I had grown up hearing a lot about San Fran; streets that went on in ribbons to the horizon, hills skateboarders dream of and liberal people living their blessedly aware lives.
The home of gay politician and general social mover-and-shaker Harvey Milk, architecture akin to Paris or Portugal and everywhere trendy motherfu*#ers drinking coffee, walking dogs, lounging in parks or striding to work.
It was a city very much alive with its population and I felt instantly at home in it.
High on the hill, looking out at the famous bridge. There was a sports car with giant teddy bears parked nearby, all wearing Giants baseball jerseys.
People were going nuts getting selfies beside them…but then the Giants did win the World Series last year, so I guess a selfie with a giant Giants bear was normal.
Looking across the water at Alcatraz it was impossible not to feel a slight chill as I imagined the desperate escapees plunging into the freezing water.
We stayed up high, as one should in a big city, and ate strawberries above the throbbing centre of 4th Street.
Walking around in this city was spectacular. The buildings were gorgeous and on every turn you were confronted with people rocking great shoes, cool jackets or fantastic hair. It was a very trendy place.
I decided to step it up a bit and wear Sketchers (purchased of course from a great Toowoomba op-shop) instead of Havaianas!
We meandered over to China Town, where the fruit and veg was cheap – ideal for hostel cooking. There was also good food for around $10 a meal.
A truck was parked outside the fish shop, a man pulling flapping catfish from its inside with a huge net. The whiskered things flopped madly in their captivity, probably sensing the end was near.
Inside turtles lay on their back, futilely pawing the air. A lady handed over $4 and three catfish said goodbye to the world via three efficient bashes from a lump of wood. Wham, bam thank you mam. Pleasure doing business. The frogs looked on aghast.
We walked on and soon hit a bottleneck of people at the top of a fantastic hill.
We were deep in the Nob Hill district, known as snob hill we later found out. Mercs were casually parked outside staggering houses.
The hill looked down onto the bay below, great ships turned museums waiting patiently for their long-dead captains.
But there was an even more impressive view. The skaters were here. On strange skinny boards that bent like planks they made their way down the corkscrew hill.
I watched as one guy waited for the cars to go, but losing his patience went anyway, GoPro on his helmet, pants low and hipness high.
Reaching the first bend he executed a neat 360 jump and was quickly at the back tyres of the black Chrysler driving slowly ahead of him. Dragging his foot as a break he gave a simple kick, a twist of his hips and was around it, speeding into the magnificent view at the bottom.
Skaters: Go to the corner of Lombard and Hyde Streets to test your skills.
We walked for so long in this city but never got bored, so good were the sights, the people watching and the weather.
At the bay we watched gobsmacked as people cut laps in the freezing water. A man was drying his ears on the bleachers, his wetsuit stripped back from his torso.
“Looks a bit nippy out there,” I said. “How long were you swimming for?”
“Around 50 minutes, it’s ok as long as you keep your hands moving, your face gets used to it after a while.”
“What about the people without wetsuits!? Are they sane?”
“Actually there’s a swimming club up there which you can’t be in unless you swim without one.”
One way of keeping the whingers out I guess.
Anyone who’s been to San Fran will probably tell you in their first breath what a cool city it is and in their second how bad the homelessness is.
Homeless people seem to be everywhere. Everybody in San Fran wears good, closed in shoes because there is undoubtedly a lot of grottyness at foot level.
I was waiting for a bus on Market St when the lady approached me. She had an old jacket on for when the sun drops and the wind shrieks through the CBD’s buildings. It was early in the morning. She had a face that looked like it had poured a lot out for other people over the years; been the comforter.
“Excuse me, I’m just trying to get something to eat, can you help me? I just wanna get two dollas for a…..for a hotdog or somethin’,” she said.
Everyone ignored her or looked away. It was around 9am.
Homeless people at the bus stop is like salt on chips.
She held out two silver tokens.
“I wouldn’t cheat you,” she said, looking at me with two brown eyes.
“You just put each one of these tokens in the slot machine when the bus pulls up and they get you a two dolla ride.”
I agreed to try it once the bus pulled up and hand the money back to her if it worked.
I didn’t ask her name, but she had been living on the streets for five months. She had slender fingers, which clutched her tokens, and she repeated her request often.
“The shelter kicks you out at 8am each morning and you can go back in at 12.”
The tokens worked and I handed back the $2, her face looking up at me like I’d just given her a house. I knew she was going to buy the hotdog she’d talked about.
I guessed they got the tokens at the shelter, but I also guessed they got meals there too. Who knows.
The city of San Francisco estimates the homeless population at around 7,350, based on a 2013 count. Of that, 1,902 were unaccompanied children or youth under 25.
One of many safe havens offered by the city is ‘A Woman’s Place’ shelter: an ironic salute to the domestic violence problem that underlies many homeless women’s situations.
An excellent article which explores the dehumanisation of the city’s homeless can be read here: http://www.sfbg.com/2014/03/25/san-franciscos-untouchables
The part about the kids with the video camera is particularly sad. In an affluent city like San Fran the homeless seem to be viewed as a pain, not a social issue.
In the 2013 Point-In-Time Count of homeless persons in the city, 59% were found to be unsheltered.
Anyway, it was Saturday night and Aussie band Big Scary were playing at Mission, the land of cool bars and understated venues. They were good too.
We caught a bus most of the way and then walked through some dodgy parts, past some dodgy people. And it was here I had my first encounter with a crack head.
We stood at the bus stop. I was wearing red lipstick, a backpacker’s secret weapon for looking good with limited space and money.
A homeless man dropped a coin onto the road and stepped down after it.
“Watch out dude, car coming,” I yelled out as a taxi ht the breaks.
Instantly he came over to us. Godammit I thought. Wild eyed and rambling he got right up in my face asking for money in a garbled gremlin speak. I could barely understand him. Coming from Australia personal space is a given.
Without thinking I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him gently to the side, saying, “you can go up there, it’s better near the bus.”
Boom. Crack head went nuts. He spoke in gremlin again, animated and fast. I only caught “bitch.”
It boiled down to nothing and he went away. Luckily.
Lesson learned….never touch a crack head.
San Francisco however, was one of my favourite cities to date.
Our ride was pimpin’, but it was a fuel guzzler! The wide grill of our Chrysler grinned at the bitumen as we hugged the Californian west coast, making our way north towards San Francisco.
After leaving the parallel universe of Venice Beach behind, and glimpsing an uncanny Bruce Willis lookalike refuelling his convertible, we left the clogged outer beach suburbs of LA and headed towards the windswept coast.
The land started to plump out, urban and beach sprawl giving way to grassed hills.
I hung my head out the window and delighted in the air. And then I saw them…….a herd of zebras calmly chewing on their grassy knoll, like it was just another day on the Serengeti plains.
We threw up dust as we peeled to a stop. And I thought I’d have to go to Africa to set eyes on disco donkeys! Each animal has a different set of stripes, which work as a strobe light to throw out the vision of predators as the plump behinds run for their lives.
I waited, but alas no lions.
It was too early for anyone to sell us coffee so we pulled in to a beach, my toes greeted by the freezing water of the (WHAT OCEAN?). I discovered I could still skim a stone like a demon.
After paying a small fortune for coffee, due to the café’s great viewpoint of whale migration, we headed towards what was a highlight of the trip.
Near the small town of San Simeon, flubbering in all their glory, were hundreds of elephant seals.
These were even better than the cavorting sea lions of La Jolla, though not nearly as active.
They sprawled in grotesque fatness up and down the shoreline, their huge girths begging to be slapped like a sack of goon.
Regularly one would decided to take a dip, and move in heaving caterpillar thrusts towards the water, needing to rest every five metres from the exertion of it all.
I laughed like a child. How fantastic someone had made this world.
It was moulting season for these gargantuan beasts, so unfortunately the big bucks were away on a different island and it was the females and adolescent males who claimed the sand.
The young males, between marinating in their own fat, would practise fighting, for when they joined macho island down the track.
Leaning back on the base of their stomachs/tails until their back wrinkled up in huge grey corrugations, they would lunge at each other. Most of it contained little gusto, but they would smack against each other in the way I imagined two pieces of steak might fight.
They bared their teeth, whiskers back, and mouths agape to show the bright pink cavities inside.
One huge female, propped on her side like the woman I had seen under the lifeguard stand at Venice Beach, looked right at me. Her black eyes seemed to laugh and I was sure she knew I would rather be on the beach than getting back in the car.
They also partook in sand bathing, their flippers flicking sand up like a slow motion fountain across their thunderous forms.
A squirrel, nose twitching, climbed down from its hideout in the dunes and made its way towards the big bopper. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I thought. Sniffing, it jumped back as big mama lunged towards the water, her blubber propelling her through its sheer waves of momentum.
One young male was really coming in to his own, his snout developing into a respectable elephant shnoz that would one day win him a portly bride.
Buoyed as always by nature we got back in the fuel guzzler.
Then began a spectacular piece of coastline that I will see forever in my mind. The Big Sur coastal drive. Go and get a pen, get your list out of the bucket, and write it down.
The hills loomed huge and our red car sped between them like a spec of polish. There was blonde savannah grass and more dense, dark green shrubbery. But best of all, it was all windswept; full of space and romance.
Craggy cliffs dropped right off to an ocean below, where greens, deep blues, teals, azures and aquas shone beside the frothing white caps of waves. This is probably where Taubman and Pank came when they needed to think up a new name for a wanky shade of suburban paint.
“Just don’t go back to Big Sur. Baby, baby please don’t go,” begged The Thrills from the iPhone propped on the dash.
“So much for city lights. They’re never gonna guide you home.”
We wound our way beside the vision splendid, up high, our eyes glued to the windows.
After growing mighty hungry the cliffs finally subsided long enough for someone to build a town with beach access, and it was here we stumbled upon the little gem of Carmel.
The usual lunch of tuna, totillas, tomato and avo. We sat propped above the beach under the lazy shade of a tree, looking down at the cold, winking water. It was bliss. ‘Maybe I’ll never go back to employment,’ I thought as I ran down the sand hill in huge lolloping strides, my toes digging deep into the white grains.
The water was so cold it stung, and I emerged fresh and feeling very alive.
A throng of camera brandishing people had gathered and to my surprise I looked up to find a small seal on the beach.
It was very stunned looking. A dog ran up and sniffed it. An angry woman drew a circle in the sand around it and yelled at the man to leash his dog. People started taking selfies with the seal in the background. It looked like a lost pup.
Eventually marine services came and caught it in a travel cage. I wondered how many times that day it would appear on Facebook and Instagram.
On the way out of town I realised Carmel was a good place to drop some cash – with a sprawling golf course and clubhouse and stores like Tiffany in the main street.
That day we were pulled up by state troopers, none of whom said “meow” to my grave disappointment. The Tour California bike race was on and the leading peloton was due past any minute.
This was a pretty good cycling event we discovered, as we gathered on the side of the road with the other commuters.
A ‘pump up car’ came by to rev up the crowd.
“Who here is a cycling fan?” the guy yelled through his loudspeaker out the window.
Us three alone stuck our hands up. “This might help,” he yelled, flinging candy out the window. Most of it landed at the feet of the state trooper who didn’t share.
Then they were there. Packed in tight like a school of fish, legs pumping like pistons, their teardrop helmets bent low to their handlebars. There was a fantastic, quiet whir of speed as a pack of tyres sped past. You could feel the competitiveness like a raw energy, all those brains bending their wills against the pain, bidding their legs pedal and ignore the burning kilometres of hills ahead.
An instant and they were gone, motoring towards the actual fans dotted along the coastline with their chairs and signs.
Wiggens was in the lead! This tour was a good one apparently. Our Aussie Cadel Evans’ team was hanging tight in 11th place.
The support vehicles were a fantastic array of carbon frames, spare tyres and excessive personnel.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bikes on those roof racks,” the security guard told me.
I’d have to tell my kiwi cyclist friend how close I got to the stars!
We found a cheap hotel for the night and I let the steaming hot water run down my back, wondering how many showers I’d get in South America.
I turned the tap as hot as I could bear and thought with a grin about zebras, elephant seals and cliffs.