Friday, 31 October 2014

San Francisco

Don't know what he is, but he's very pretty!

From Estes Park to San Fran and now about to head off across the Pacific to Hanoi in Vietnam through our longest ever night and all in two and a half days!

Our last day at Roger and Jane's was a strange old day, we had to stay at home all day waiting for our bag of climbing gear and warm clothes to be collected by DHL for shipping back to the UK. Collected between 9am and 6pm they said, phone call at 5pm said, yes should be with you by 6pm, if not call back. Called back at 6.07pm to be told its too late and won't be collected until 28th! After getting more and more insistent and not taking 'no' for an answer, I went through his manager and then on to the branch manager, all of them saying it won't happen tonight. After 40 minutes on the phone and my total insistence, I finally got a result! Collection tonight by a third party at 9pm which did actually happen. Let's hope it gets delivered now!

San Frans Bay bridge by night
This is Jack, he has trouble controlling his muscles
In the intervening time we all sat down to ABC's 'Dancing With The Stars', the US version of our BBC 'Strictly Come Dancing'. Two of our UK judges were on the panel, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, even Alan Dedicoat asking for the scores and the format was so similar we could have been sitting in the UK.

Early on Tuesday we were up to say a fond farewell to Roger and Jane, a 2 hour drive to Denver airport, dropped the car off and caught our 2 hour flight to San Fran. arriving at our airbnb by 3pm (we gained 1 hour as we put out watches back 1 hour to Pacific time). 
Blind Kit, who doesn't let it hold her back
The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) train from the airport worked well, followed by a 10 minute walk to the house and Jackie was in cat heaven with three very friendly cats to fuss, two of which are disabled. Kit is blind, Jack can't control his muscles very well, walks very strangely sideways and up and down with head bobbing about and falls over when jumping on and off the bed, and only Siouxsie is normal. They are all loveable, happy and great to be with, but the house is more like a hostel than a house. Cassandra lives there, but doesn't ever seem to go out. She doesn't work and seems to live off renting her rooms out and playing computer games online all night. She seems nice enough but the house is full of people, there's only one bathroom and it all feels a bit odd!

and 'normal' Siouxsie with her plastic pink nail covers!
The State Building, with big screen set up for the Giants vs Kansas City 'World Series' baseball match final. Kansas were the underdogs having last won in 1985, but the Giants won 4-3, to the jubilation of the locals - fireworks, shouting, horns blowing, the lot. Strange for a little game we play in the UK only for fun and call 'Rounders'!
A cable car being turned round at its terminus
The location Is good though and the transportation system in San Fran is excellent. We bought a three day pass for the MUNI system which, at $23 each, allows us unlimited travel on the Metro (which goes underground and along roads by lifting and lowering the entrance/exit steps to convert from one to the other), the bus system and the very old cable cars, which are now an historic moving landmark. There are now only 4 cable car lines, one travelling up and down California Street, which is the very steep hill with flat bits where roads cross, that has been made famous is several films (one starring Steve McQueen if I’m not mistaken Bullitt?) 
In the cable car going down the famous California Street hill. Bizzarely they stop in the middle of the road and you get out into the middle of traffic, negotiating your way through cars to get to the pavement (sidewalk). Health and Safety?!?
Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point underneath
We visited the Cable Car museum, which is actually the power house for the four lines, each being driven by a 510hp motor and turning a huge pulley that pulls, at 9.5mph, a two mile long continuous cable that lays below the road surface on the cable car tracks. Each cable car has a clamp that grips the cable by operation of a lever and propels the car along, either fully locked or partially clamped to ‘slip’ at a lower speed. Braking is by wooden blocks which are forced down onto the rails by operation of a lever. It’s hard work for the operator and it’s expensive – the wooden blocks have to be replaced every two days and the cables last only about 200 days. 
The powerhouse. 510hp motors and big reduction gearboxes drive the four lines marked 'Hyde', 'California', 'Mason' and 'Powell'
The apartment block used for Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'
It’s archaic, but as it’s an historic landmark it cannot be changed in any way, but it’s massively expensive to run, it’s old and rickety, not very comfy, but hugely popular and every one seems full. The ‘Steetcars’ and trolley busses are comfier and go to the same places, but they are not as popular as the cable cars. We travelled on them, of course and it was great fun, some of the operators and conductors being characters that had us laughing throughout the whole trip.

The Fairmont Hotel, with 'Giants' flags flying ready for the match
We’ve done most of the sights, going to the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point (the point of departure for the military who went off to the Pacific war in WWII), Fisherman’s Wharf with a view of Alcatraz out in SF Bay, went on a guided walk round Nob Hill, where we learned about the four men who built the western railway, the great earthquake and fire of 1906 that destroyed two thirds of the city, the ‘Top of the Mark’ bar on the top floor of the Hopkins Hotel, where military men and their wives went to drink before setting off to the Pacific War, the block of apartments used in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ film, 
With our guide on the Fairmont roof garden
the Grace Cathedral, the front of which is a copy of the Notre Dame and finished with a tour of the very luxurious Fairmont Hotel, where most Presidents have stayed and Tony Bennett has used and sung there for many years, first performing his song ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ there many years ago. ‘How much would it cost to stay here’ someone asked. Our guide suggested a minimum of $1500 per night, upwards! Apparently you can rent Tony Bennetts room when he’s not using it and apparently JFK stayed here many times and it is believed Marilyn Monroe flew in here by helicopter for a secret liaison with JFK, but of course no-one will say for sure! We finished the tour mutilating the song, despite the songsheets handed out by our guide!

All in all, a very entertaining place to visit, fairly expensive and two days is enough! It’s very cosmopolitan with lots of different languages being spoken and foods of every nation on sale from reasonable prices to ridiculous! Although we are still in the US it feels a world away from Colorado and we’ve felt we had already left the US. We’ve also been shocked by the number of homeless people and beggars on the streets, some of which are at least honest, as their cardboard signs say, “why lie, I want it for pot”! It’s legal here as well as Colorado, but even so!

One of many signs on the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a 'popular' place to end it all apparently
The city's 'wiggliest' street. I'm sure that's been used in films as well
Tonight though we are leaving, I’m writing this at the airport waiting for our 1:05am flight out to Taipei in Taiwan and then on to Hanoi in Vietnam. 14 hours of flying and all at night, arriving in Hanoi at 9:30am on 1st November, virtually missing out 31st October. We’ll go from being behind everyone else in time to being in front of most after crossing the International Date Line somewhere in the middle of our flight. See you on the other side…
The 'attack of the seagulls' - she had food! A sign said 'you can feed the pigeons but the seagulls will just take what they want!'

Monday, 27 October 2014

Back full circle to Estes Park

Jackie at the top of a 5.7 climb in Red Rocks

Joseph didn’t reappear before hunger got the better of us, so we went out without him and sadly didn’t see him again that evening, he did put a very sweet note under our door which we found the next morning, thanking us for the welcome and conversation as he’d really appreciated the normality and family feel. Turns out his Granddad has died since he’s been on his road trip, so it’s been very hard for him.

The same climb but from a distance away
Abseiling (or Rappelling) down the 5.7
Also didn’t see much more of Andrea, she had a difficult dinner meeting (though not as bad as she’d been expecting) and then her boss was round in the morning talking things over. I told her I was jealous as I’d wanted her to share breakfast! She left us a lovely review on airbnb, so fortunately she enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed hers!

Jackie at the top of the 5.10a
Our last stop before Estes Park was at Colorado Springs – a last chance to climb at Red Rocks Park again, so we pottered off, arriving in time to go to the tourist information where we met a lovely lady, who knows she is losing her memory, so thanked us profusely for waiting while she answered all our questions! She’d answered them and they hadn’t been the standard tourist questions either, “where can we get Brian’s watch fixed?” “Where can I find a barber (not a hairdresser) to cut my hair?” and “where is REI (the outdoor shop of choice)?” We did forget to ask where the post office was, but the watchmender (who had replaced the bent pin for $1) could tell us that. He also said I could try the barber we’d noticed just back down the road!

An evening walk round Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs
Only one guy waiting (and he really had very little hair anyway) so I thought I’d wait and B could go to the post office to ask them about shipping our holdall of climbing gear and un-required clothes home. Have to say it is a good haircut, and it was an enjoyable experience, but he was the worlds slowest barber. It turns out though that he’s 83, been barbering for 20 yrs and did ladies hair for 32 yrs before that! I’d have put him at 60ish, but 83?

I liked the shadow in this one
She just can't resist climbing things!
Put the address for this airbnb into the sat nav which said turn round and go 2 blocks! We were that close! Arrived just after Tonya and met O Yeo the cat, with scary opposable thumbs and were welcomed into a tiny apartment. That is half the fun of airbnb, you never know what you are going to get, and it was clean, and she was sweet, reminded me a lot of me when my first marriage split up, we were about the same age, she’s taken up Argentine Tango and bouldering, and I took up Ceroc and climbing. Although we’d been to Colorado Springs before, last time we were way out in a very nice suburb, this time we were walking distance to downtown, such a different experience. We walked out both nights to very pleasant restaurants full of the after work crowd. Made such a change to be able to walk out, no one walks anywhere here, so there are few sidewalks so you don’t either!

Jackie, Roger and Jane on our walk up to Balanced Rock
We had a great morning climbing, till the sun came round and it got too hot! It’s the end of October, we are at 6000’ and it’s too hot? So back to the ‘belief school of climbing’ there are few handholds and footholds, but amazing friction, so you just have to believe and you can walk up it! We peaked on a 5.10a, though it really wasn’t, we are claiming it as the pinnacle of our US climbing! We did a 5.7, a 5.8, a 5.9 and then this one, and they all felt about the same!

A section of Rogers 'Off Piste!'
Four likely looking suspects!
Off to REI for climbing chalk (apparently it is white gold in Vietnam – you can hire a chalk bag, but it will probably have flour in!) and a US adaptor for the tablet. Great chat with the manager who the sales assistant called over, as he spent 2 months in Vietnam and loved it. Trip to Starbucks to use their wifi, before another wander around Garden of the Gods!

And the view back down into Estes Park
This rock is called Paul Bunyan's Boot. Apparently Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack in American folklore and there are many tall tales of his superhuman labours. There have been literary compositions , musical pieces and theatrical productions about him
Looking down on the others from 'The Boot'
It seemed like a long journey back up to Estes Park, mostly due to a ‘prang’ on the freeway which really slowed everything down, but it was lovely to arrive back with Jane and Roger, welcomed back with big hugs and lots of talking. We were off to a party for the evening, friends of J&R who had moved down to a lovely house in Boulder. They had one fierce scaredy cat and one adorable cat, so another cat fix, always good. What was not so good was having had a nice plate of food and half a glass of wine, I came over all unnecessary, suddenly felt sick and hot before crumpling to the floor! 
Didn’t actually faint, and was right as rain within 15 minutes! What was that all about?

Peering through the hole in Paul Bunyans boot
We had planned to hike on the Sunday and pack etc on Monday, but with the baggage people we’ve found we had to be packed and ready at 0900 Monday morning, and they will collect, sometime before 18.00. So here we sit WAITING (actually B is outside, in the snow with Roger, what they are doing we don’t quite know, but there’s lots of hammering and stuff going on!) We did manage to get a hike in yesterday afternoon which was great, it was a bit windy, but fine in the trees, one layer of clothing and Rog was in shorts! 

Balanced Rock. We didn't know those people climbing on it
What a change from when we came through with Mum (sleet) and today (snow)! So packing is done, all went in very easily (thanks for taking that stuff though Mum, really helped) and the rucksacks don’t feel too bad (but that’s putting them on for a second and walking nowhere!)

Went out for a yummy Indian last night, to satisfy the 'biryani craving' I wonder when I'll get my next fix?

The route down wasn't so good, very steep, very rocky and skiddy bits of sand in between. Jane and I stayed at the back and grumbled! Jackie chatted with Roger on the way down without a grumble - had I been leading this route down I have no doubt she would have grumbled the whole way!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Santa Fe, Los Alamos (the town that didn’t exist) and Taos

The start of the Kasha-Katuwe walk

A few more days and a few more experiences, but our time in the US is getting very short. This time next week we should be in Hanoi, Vietnam, grappling with a new culture and jet-lag.

I don't know what she's doing. I told her it looked like a toadstood, so maybe she thinks she's a fairy!
The start of the slot canyon
We are now in Taos, New Mexico, which is about a two hour drive from Santa Fe, where we spent four days in ‘Americas Best Value Inn’ which was actually a very pleasant experience. The rooms were pretty good and it had a good complimentary breakfast, an indoor pool and Jacuzzi plus a games and fitness room, all for less than $60 per night (for both of us).

Santa Fe is the last town on the old Route 66 we’ll be visiting on this trip and it’s a grand old town, the oldest and highest state capital in the US. We visited, on Sunday, the little known Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument after being tipped off to it by Carrie-Ann at our Albuquerque airbnb stay. It’s a slot canyon, carved in old volcanic rock and hardened ash that has fabulous layers of different coloured rocks that weaves a narrow (very narrow in places) course through high sided walls, eventually leading up on to the top, giving expansive views around. People we met on the way were mainly locals who were surprised we knew about it, so it pays to stay at airbnb places as you find out local stuff!

The view from the summit
A plaque on an ordinary building in Santa Fe. This is where people 'disappeared'
Los Alamos is the other local place I wanted to visit. Classed as the ‘Town that Didn’t Exist’ in WWII, it was the place that boffins of the US, UK and clever people who had fled Germany to avoid persecution went to and ‘disappeared off the map and records’ to develop the atom bomb. It was one of about 10 sites around the US that developed discreet parts of ‘The Bomb’, but Los Alamos was the place where they all came together under the code name ‘The Manhattan Project’ or, as it was originally named ‘The Manhattan Engineering District’. 
Santa Fe town
It all started following a letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklyn Roosevelt warning him that German engineers were working on the bomb and it was imperative for the US to get there first.

The Plaza Santa Fe
Los Alamos is a quite large town built on the top of a Mesa surrounded by canyons, on the slope of an extinct volcano and is in an isolated and hidden place, just the ideal location for such an operation. It’s still a major employer in the field of nuclear and environmental physics at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, so we could only visit the museum, which not only details the history of the bomb development and the thought process President Truman went through to justify using it rather than risking hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides from a ground invasion of Japan, but it goes into nuclear theory and its development over the years to date. Fascinating!

Santa Fe central square
More Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe is also a great place to eat and it was all on our doorstep, but mostly across the very busy, three lane each way dual carriageway that is Route 66. Best to use the crossing, but even when all the cars stopped and we commenced a brisk walk across eight lanes (two extra one’s for left turning traffic at the lights) plus the central reservation, we only just made it in time before the lights went green and eight lanes of traffic started accelerating! 
The Santa Fe Express
How do disabled people get on!? We tried the Vietnamese restaurant, just to get an idea for our forthcoming trip and the Jackie wanted to try the ‘Souper Salad’ restaurant. All you can eat salad buffet – salad!? I wasn’t keen, but they had Mexican stuff as well, plenty of chillis to add to the salad, plenty of cake, custard, jelly, cream and an ice cream machine, so I was well pleased and very, very full!

I didn't mention that we went climbing, but we did on our way to Los Alamos. This was the route to the climbing crag. 'Park by house 719 in Meadow Lane, White Rock and walk down the path between 719 and 721. Walk to the edge of the cliff and scramble down, then follow the path down below the first set of crags to some below' we read on the internet. This was the bottom of the scramble down, where now?
This was the topo map we got off the internet, the only info we had other than vague directions of where it was
We scrambled around from crag to crag until we found this and decided this looked like the topo photo above. we did 4 routes, numbers 12, 7, 11 and 10 in the table below. The red crosses on the routes are the position of the bolts we clip into, but you can't see them on our photo
Here's an enlarged part of the topo photo above
This was the view we had from the crag
Entering the Taos Pueblo
Our drive to Taos was along ‘the High Road’ which, along with ‘The Low Road’ are supposed to be very scenic drives. The High Road was quite scenic and we’re glad we took it rather than the Highway, but it was nothing that special. As we had plenty of time, we went on to the Taos Pueblo, which is a settlement of dwellings and ceremonial buildings of Pueblo Indians and has been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years. 

The 150 year old church
With our guide outside the bread ovens
The Adobe buildings are constructed of earth, straw and water mixed together and baked in the sun in a construction of mud bricks and a final mud covering (Adobe is the Spanish word for ‘mud brick’). A couple of the buildings were described by our guide as being more than 1000 years old, but as they require annual recovering and major maintenance, we wonder just how much of the original remains! 
The church is catholic and, although the present one is only 150 years old, there was an original built by the Spanish in the 1600’s in order to convert the natives to Christianity. It was burnt down in protest some years later, rebuilt with the natives consent, blown up again by the US military and rebuilt again in its present form!

Interesting story here. You see that guy on his phone, sitting outside his Adobe shop? Inside he had, among Native Indian artifacts, a book by Helen Mirren. When we asked him about it he said he and her dated for a while and became lovers. He said he was in a play 20 years ago with Helen Mirren, who was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and he got to know her. Many years later she came and found him and presented him with the book.
The Rio Grand Gorge bridge
Still early, we drove out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge as Fred had told us how impressive it is. We drove across flat, semi desert land wondering just where it was. The signpost said only a mile, but it was flat land with apparently nothing to see. Reduced speed notices and a flashing sign warning of congestion told us we must be near and then the only sign we could see was what appeared to be a barrier either side of the road ahead. As we got to it there was a huge gash in the land and, as we went over the bridge we looked down nearly 800ft to the Rio Grande river below, quite amazing! 

And there's the view looking straight down!
Parked the car and walked back onto the bridge for a vertigo inducing (if you’re that way inclined) experience of looking straight down to the river churning into rapids so far below. A white-water rafting experience of that river looks like it might be fun! Back in the car and onto Earthship, a community of off-the-grid houses built to be as eco-friendly as possible, using only renewable sources. On the drive back along the flat road Jackie suddenly said ‘What’s that in the road?’ I hadn’t spotted anything, but stopped, turned the car round and went back. 

The Earthship community
The best picture I got of the tarantula
Jackie jumped out of the car and ran back to see the male tarantula spider I’d unwittingly run over! Oh well, back round again and off we went again until she again shouted. I stopped and we both ran back to see another male tarantula spider walking across the road. It’s not going to live long in the middle of this busy road, but I’m not going to move it! I got close with the camera and took a few photos, but as it was moving they were all a bit blurred, this is the best I got, being a male it is much smaller than the big female, but he’s still pretty impressive!

Today's walk up through the ski resort to Williams Lake
Finally we arrived at our next airbnb home stay at Andrea’s in Taos. She lives on her own and has a great house in Taos, renting out her two spare bedrooms through the airbnb site. She was originally from Sweden, grew up skiing near Stockholm and came here as a student twenty odd years ago. Although Taos is in New Mexico and in semi desert it stands at 7000ft, rising to about 10,000ft a few miles away at the Taos Valley Ski Area. 
Through a light dusting of snow
This appears to be not your average beginners resort but an area for intermediate, advanced and ‘off your head’ skiers! Andrea seems to fit into the latter type as she coaches children in, not just off piste skiing, but wilderness skiing where you hike up hill with your skis (you’re not allowed to ski tour with skins in the resort apparently) and then ski down in the most extreme way over rugged terrain, making as many leaps off craggy edges as possible, some with drops of up to 10m apparently! 
That's quite a big cat paw print!
She coaches school teams that compete around the US and the world, so she has been to many top class ski destinations around the world. In the summer, she hangs up her skis and takes people out white water rafting and, yes, she regularly takes rafting trips down the Rio Grande Gorge and under that bridge we looked over earlier. Wow!

Today we took a walk (hike) up a track from the Taos ski area up to Williams Lake, a 2 mile, 900ft ascent hike up to an altitude of 11,040ft (3365m). Not too far, but at that altitude the lungs are really sucking in as much air with 25% reduced pressure as possible and, although the ski area is not open yet, it won’t be long as a light covering of snow was on the ground and the temperature was only 5 or 6 degrees C. 
At Williams Lake with spectacular scenery
As we walked past the ski lifts we could see the reputation this area has, steep interesting slopes – we want to come back here in the winter and ski, but probably not to Andreas standards! Further up we saw a few chipmunks and squirrels hopping about and a few small cat tracks in the snow, but then we saw some very big cat tracks, someone had been walking on this very recently and it was big! We followed the tracks for a while and then they went off our track and across uphill into the trees, were there two big eyes watching us from the woods we wondered. We decided it would be a Cougar or Mountain Lion and I would have loved to have got a photo of it, but probably not to get too close!

We were told this was a type of Jay
At the lake
Last night after we arrived at Andreas we sat chatting for ages as we got on so well. Just before we arrived she had cooked a big plateful of cookies (biscuits to us) and, my favourite: apple crumble and custard! Unbelievable, what a host, so we sat down to tea, cookies and apple crumble and just chatted, us finally going out to eat and Andrea going out to meet her friend for the evening. We got back to an empty house and I thought I’d sit down, sort out the photos and write this blog. Just then there was a knock at the door and Joseph, the other house guest arrived and what a great bloke he is. 
An interesting sculpture of George Washington in Taos Plaza
He’s mid-thirties, originally from California, but resident in New York for a few years now to complete his master’s degree in (I think) sociology and then working to rehabilitate prisoners. Fed up with life in New York he’s moving back to California to live and is doing a road trip via Canada and here on the way (it’s a long trip!). He was so interested in what we had done and started taking notes of where to go on his way, then interested in our experiences in Nepal as his girlfriend is Nepali and he’s considering going to Kathmandu to live (yikes!) that time went on. Andrea returned home, we all carried on talking and now it’s 10pm. No photos done, no blog written, but worst of all Joseph hadn’t eaten, hadn’t even bought his stuff in or seen his room. Most restaurants were now closed for the night, but we had all had a great night! He’s apparently stopping tonight as well, but Andrea is out, so we may go out for a meal with Joseph and find out a bit more about his life. Stopping at airbnb houses is fabulous, you just wouldn’t see this sort of life in Motels!
Another sculpture and a painting in Taos Plaza. The whole area is filled with galleries, how do they all survive? They are all excellent works of art, but are there enough buyers to support them all?