Road Trip to Phoenix

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It started on the SR 190 from California. The road through Death Valley was everything I hoped it would be – beautiful, barren and often unsettling! I drove through deserted villages with only religious radio stations for company and felt the scorching heat at Furnace Creek. It was eerily silent – probably too hot for any birds to sing. I then found myself in the middle of a jaw dropping landscape.

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Zabriskie Point is one of the places where I’d stopped to stretch my legs. It was surreal. I felt like I’d stumbled onto a movie set by mistake.

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I was a bit cautious about driving through one of the hottest places on earth – it was only April, but all the blogs tell you to take litres of water and hire a white car to deflect the heat. I did both those things, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting was the wind. At certain points, I could hardly open the door. Once I joined the SR 160 there were tumbleweeds blowing across the road front of me. This was Nevada alright. I then saw the neon lights of Las Vegas.

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I always thought I’d hate it, but when I walked down The Strip I suddenly got it – where else can you dress up to the nines and be treated like a celebrity, without having to spend too much money?

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I checked out Caesars Palace (yes, there was a scantily clad centurion outside) and mingled with all the tuxedos and tank tops on the casino floor. Elton John dominated this part of The Strip. He was in residence at the Palace and the water fountains outside the Bellagio were dancing along to one of his tunes. They were watched by hundreds of people. Little did they know they were doomed…

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Preachers with placards were warning anybody who cared to listen that if they were drunk, gay, or gamblers, they’d all go to hell. I wondered what might happen if they were all three.

The next day I set my sights on the Grand Canyon but I wasn’t expecting such dramatic scenery along the way. I took a quick detour to see the Hoover Dam.

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I’ve never really been afraid of heights, but I got pins and needles standing here. An amazing accomplishment, but one hundred people lost their lives working on this.

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I then drove down Route 66 and onto the I-40. The scenery had changed again. It had gradually dropped from 75f to 34f and as I approached Devil Dog Road, I found myself in a snow storm. I was starting to worry. I didn’t want my Grand Canyon pilgrimage to be in vain.

It wasn’t.

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The mind-blowing scale of it and the colours, contours and crevices make it the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s as simple as that. From the Visitor Centre on the South Rim, I drove east along Desert View Drive to Grandview Point. It took me about an hour and a half to take in the views along the way – and that was just a tiny part of it. The entrance fee was $25 for 1-7 days. I could easily have spent a week there.

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The next day was a very red day. I’d stayed in Flagstaff overnight (an old railroad town with great bars and outdoor shops) and made my way down the hair pin bends of the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon and into the Red Rock town of Sedona. I’m so used to associating beauty with greenery, that I never imagined I’d be so overwhelmed by rocky landscapes, like the ones on this trip.

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On day four, I’d arrived at Pheonix Airport. As I dropped off the car, I realised I’d driven over 1300 miles and had only spent about £80 on fuel. I’d also spent hours and hours on the road, but it only seemed like minutes.

Time for a break. Next stop – Miami.

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I Love San Francisco

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I was already excited at the Golden Gate Bridge. As I was coming in from Sonoma I asked my friend about the island on the left hand side. Yes, it was Alcatraz, she assured me. I made a mental note.

Later, I met up with another friend. We spent the day walking around North Beach to soak up the background to the Beat movement and visited the City Lights Bookstore. We then headed towards the cafes and bars around Columbus and had a killer cocktail at Calzone. Dinner was at The Stinking Rose. As the name suggests, it’s not a place for people who don’t like garlic. The booths were great – all curtains and chandeliers.

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The next day we walked up to Coit Tower to take in the views of the bay and admire the Art Deco homes nearby. We then went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and got another extraordinary view.

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We were ambushed by a group of male cyclists shouting, “Naked bike ride – woo hoo!” So that’s how they get an all-over tan…

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The walk from From Pier 39 with its pod of Sea Lions all the way down to the Ferry Building is lovely. Inside, there are lots of great food merchants like the Cowgirl Creamery. There’s an outdoor market there on a Saturday.

Another favourite place was the Foreign Cinema in the Mission area. You can have dinner in the courtyard at sunset and watch a movie projected onto the wall. The Redwood Room at the Clift hotel was also a good place for a nightcap, complete with DJ and digital artwork.

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The day before I left, it was time to tap into those historic headlines and movie moments and visit Alcatraz. One of the first things you see when you step off the boat is this graffiti:

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It’s from 1969 when the Native American activists occupied the island for nineteen months. I like the fact that it’s still there. Inside the prison, everybody’s given a set of headphones for an audio tour. The narrators are a former prison warden and some inmates. They tell you what happened in each block – like the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946 and the actual escape in 1962.

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Can you believe they dug those holes in the wall with a metal spoon?

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It’s such a beautiful view from such a bleak place. It must have added to the prisoners’ torment. I love this city. I’d like to go back.

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What is a WWOOFer?

You’re a what?” That’s a question I was asked a lot in Napa and Sonoma. The other was, “Does it have anything to do with dogs?”

Sadly not. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers help out on the land, learn about farming and support the organic movement. In return, the host family provides food and accomodation.

I looked for a vineyard in California and found Random Ridge Winery. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Imagine getting up every morning and walking out to this:

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My main task was suckering. The vines were very lively after a warm winter, so trunk after trunk, row after row, I gently brushed off the unwanted buds and cut off the extra shoots at the bottom. It was a bit like Bonsai on a ten acre scale.

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Random Ridge doesn’t use herbicides. It’s all down to tilling and mowing and using rock phosphate instead. All the wine is bottled without using fining agents too. On this part of the trip, I’ve tasted about fifty different wines. When it’s organic, you can tell the difference. I like to believe it’s because the vines get a lot of care and attention. That’s why after the first week, I was excited to see this:

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Clusters were forming on the Sangiovese. It emphasised the fact that everything I did would affect the way the vines grew the following year.

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Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed driving the truck around. This was another job at the vineyard – going up and down the rows so that we could clear away the dead wood. I’d almost got away with it until I heard, “Stop feathering the clutch.”

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As for the winemaking itself, I’ve learned that there are so many variables that can affect the way it tastes – from the rocks beneath the vine roots to the way the grapes are picked. Do you use wood barrels, if so, are they toasted? Is it Californian oak or French? Is it fermented in a stainless steel tank instead, or a giant concrete egg? Do you use a cork, silicone or screw top? I will never sip wine in the same way again. I’ve also made friends for life.

 

Portland – in Pictures

They say Portland, Oregon is where “young people go to retire.”
It’s tempting.

image Food carts – a difficult choice. Different cuisine from different countries all on one street.

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I went to Georgia. Khachapuri, lobiani, badrijani rolls and some mushroom khinkali – $8.

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A wonderful book store. Too many, too little time, too small a rucksack.

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Welcome to Voodoo Doughnuts. They come in all shapes and sizes. You can even have maple syrup and bacon.

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I chose chocolate and peanut butter. Is that better?

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Vintage clothes stores. If I was “young and retired” I’d probably wear this too.

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I’d also drink more. Here’s a microdistillery I came across on the Lower-East side. A group of thirty-somethings are making local, handcrafted whiskey and will soon be exporting to Japan.

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The Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Beautiful. Quiet. A place to relax in the autumn years of your young life.

Seattle Spirit

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“They’re not friendly, they’re nice“- that was the advice given to me on one of my first nights in Seattle. Apparently, it’s called the ‘Seattle Freeze.’ People are polite, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m not convinced.

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image Take Pike Place Market – one of the oldest public farmers’ markets in the USA. In the 1960s there were plans to demolish it, until campaigners like Betty Bowen and Victor Steinbrueck won their fight for it to become an historic preservation zone.

image Its charitable arm, the Pike Place Market Foundation, receives hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations each year. Some of the donors’ names are on the trotter prints on the pavement outside. (The market’s mascot is a pig named Rachel and you can put money inside her at the entrance). Cash raised goes towards projects like the Pike Market Medical Clinic, the Downtown Food Bank, and low-income housing.

The city’s Underground Tour was also set up after preservationists prevented the historic Pioneer Square from being demolished.

image It’s the area where the Emerald City Supporters gather on match days. They stand separately from the club’s official rally just metres away. The soccer fans want to preserve the ‘Sounders’ name and invite other supporters to join their March To The Match.

Local people here care about their community. They can’t be that cold, surely?