Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Fall in Glacier

Autumn colours

There was a real chill in the air as we stepped off the plane in Missoula, Montana in mid-September. It was our first taste of fall and quite a contrast to the warm coastal breeze we'd left behind in California. We were travelling to Glacier National Park, where the Rockies cross the Canadian border, forming the Continental Divide and watershed of the USA. Glacier was to be our final hiking destination in the states, and we had about 10 days to explore this compact but impressive group of mountains.

Missoula's leafy suburbs
Before we disappeared into the hills we spent a day in Missoula, a very neat college town with manicured lawns, picket fences and large white clapboard houses. A rocking chair on the veranda, usually dwarfed by a huge american flag flying over a perfectly striped lawn finished the suburban picture.
After lunch at a pavement cafe, we set off around the town on bicycles. We'd longed to cycle in the USA but rental is usually $35-40, so for two it works out as more than hiring a car and was definitely out of our budget. Thanks to a council scheme, here in Missoula bikes were free to rent, and it was the perfect town for cycling. We followed a route along the rock-strewn river, lined with birch trees on the turn from pale greens to autumn yellows. The University of Montana campus felt familiar from dozens of films, with students sitting on the lawns or cycling by with a textbook under one arm. 

Supporting the Ospreys
It was a quintessentially American day in small-town USA and we finished it off with a baseball game- the Ospreys vs the Raptors. It was our first ball game and a really fun experience. The players lined up on the pitch and we all stood to sing the national anthem, before the home team's mascot, Ozzie Osprey, ran on to dance around the pitch. We were lucky enough to be seated next to a friendly Missoulan who had written the sports column for the local paper for many years, and was the perfect coach to explain the rules of the game to us. To me, it seemed basically like rounders, but with comically padded outfits. It was freezing huddled up watching the game, and gave us a taste of what camping up here this late in the season would be like. In fact, the next morning we woke to a layer of frost on the tent.

We had partly chosen to visit Glacier as we could get there by public transport- a real rarity in the states. Well, almost get there. After a bus to Whitefish we were tantalisingly close, and rather than wait in town for a day for the next train (Glacier is on the Chicago-Seattle line) we took our chance hitch hiking, despite it's dubious reputation in this country. Our first lift was with a very friendly but slightly manic character who took his eyes off the road to turn around and talk to us a bit too much. With a sigh of relief, we were back on the side of the road at a junction, where 200 cars passed by before we got a very windy ride in the back of a pick up. Finally, we made it to the entrance of Glacier in a retired local's car, with his hairy springer spaniel slobbering all over me in the back, bemused but happy to have her seat                                                                          taken up by rucksacks and new friends.

That afternoon was spent in the wilderness ranger's office trying to come up with a plan for our hike. Unlike in the Sierra Nevada, here we would have to camp in a set backcountry campsite each night, with very limited spaces which had to be prebooked and are often full- the idea being to preserve the wilderness experience, but at the cost of any flexibility for the hiker. The advantage of rocking up so late in the season was that we could put together an itinerary without too many 'computer says no' moments. It was frustrating to later find out from other hikers that the computer system is completely out of tune with the real situation in the park, with many 'full' campsites actually being empty.

Route planning!

After a pre-dawn and freezing cold wait for the office to open to get our permits, we were happy to have any sort of a route, let alone a very promising 90 mile circuit through the centre of the park. 
On the trail in Glacier
First though, we had a 2 hour hitch to reach our starting point, and a 15 mile hike to our first campsite! It was a lot easier to get lifts within the park, and we were kindly deposited along the spectacular 'Going to the Sun' road to begin our 9 day route into the heart of Glacier. That first afternoon's walk over Ptarmigan Pass was a great introduction, with clear streams falling into pools and the purple tinted cliffs of the mountains interspersed with patches of snow, above dark valleys thick with pine forest. It was a wonderful time of year to be out walking- cold mornings but crisp, clear autumnal days. The blueberry, huckleberry and raspberry bushes that carpeted the forest floor were dyed deep red and yellow and the contrast with the green of the pine forest was gorgeous.

Crossing Gunsight Pass
After all our time on trail in the Sierras, it was ridiculously easy to get back into the swing of hiking and camping. The route had a fair amount of ascent and descent but never felt difficult, the hardest parts being some longer stretches through forest where we would get frustrated at the lack of any view. The high stretches and climbs made up for it with some classic vistas; small glaciers clinging to mountainsides, an impressive cirque with waterfalls cascading down the cliffs and extensive mountain panoramas across the valleys.

Backcountry camp facilities!
Walking all day felt entirely normal and setting up our tent and cooking our usual trail food was second nature. The set campsites weren't as special as our wild camps on the John Muir Trail, but they made the experience a lot more social, sitting around the cooking area chatting to fellow hikers each evening. Everyone was american, and most had been visiting the park for many years.
Bears were a common subject for discussion as we sat around the campfire. Glacier is home to quite a number of grizzlies as well as black and brown bears, so bear safety is a serious consideration here. Everyone carries a can of pepper spray, at the ready in case of attack (some of the more paranoid walk with it in their hand at all times!). Cooking areas are kept separate from camping areas, food must be stored high on ropes suspended between trees and you are advised to make a lot of noise while you're hiking. Bears don't like surprises and most attacks are defensive, as a result of a bear feeling cornered on a trail.

That would be for our campground then...
We walked along clapping and calling 'HEEEY BEEAAR', and always had one eye scanning for something large and furry, especially when we stopped to pick blueberries to supplement our oatmeal breakfasts. After a week of these precautions we were actually very pleased to have a bear sighting, happily from a safe distance. A ranger had warned us that a large grizzly was on our trail, and probably about 10 minutes ahead of us. So we proceeded cautiously, with a lot of singing and clapping. We saw the bear about 100 metres ahead, and she hadn't seen us, so we could sit and enjoy watching her pause to effortlessly turn over small boulders as she ambled along our path. We felt very privileged to view such a huge, beautiful and clearly very wild animal in its natural surroundings. Other wildlife we saw included a curious baby pine marten, an owl, big horn sheep and my favourite- mountain goats. Straight out of Narnia, these guys are so perfectly designed for their environment- strong and sure footed, with a very cosy snow-white coat and curved black horns. The kids are extremely cute, following behind their mothers and staring at us with their big black eyes.

Super fluffy mountain goat family

Last sunset in the mountains
Our 9 days in Glacier went extremely fast, and before we knew it we were enjoying sunset from a high camp on our last night with a group of new friends.
After almost 3 months, our time in the mountains and national parks of the USA had come to an end. Finishing with a memorable swim in Lake Mcdonald on an unseasonally hot day, we headed to the station for the 'Empire Builder' train to Seattle.

After a day in the pleasant town of Whitefish, where we drank popular microbrewery beers at a rooftop bar with some lovely Montanans, we boarded our overnight train with another great guy, whiling the evening away over a glass of wine in the train lounge. Rail travel is very pleasant in the states (unlike Greyhound buses) and there was a holiday atmosphere on board. Practically every other passenger was heading to Seattle for a big American football game- the Seattle Seahawks were playing the Green Bay Packers, something to do with Monday night football, and apparently it was a big deal.

The original Starbucks in Seattle
So, onto Seattle- home of the space needle, Starbucks, and the Seahawks- but known to me mostly from years of watching Frasier. Our first impression was that Frasier would have his work cut out- the city streets were yet again filled with homeless people, a high proportion of whom clearly had psychiatric issues. Some of the downtown streets were literally lined with cardboard. Trying to ignore this was hard, but we stayed in a nice hostel and enjoyed visiting some of the arty, eclectic suburbs and city markets. We ascended a skyscraper to a Starbucks with a view (Starbucks began here, with the original coffee shop in Pike Place market still going strong), and I tried to get over the shock of having my hair cut off by an exuberant and distracted hairdresser while chatting about her wedding plans.

The city, like San Francisco, had some nice parts but didn't really live up to our expectations. It's the mountains, national parks and wide open spaces of the USA that left a great impression on us. The people as well, and particularly the chance to get to know the american side of the Stewart family. Karl's uncle Fred and his wife Joyce provided a home from home for us, and really made our 'American Summer'. We will always be grateful to have had a chance to get to know them, and the day we had to pack up and say goodbye felt like leaving home all over again.


Saying goodbye to Fred and Joyce

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A land of deserts and canyons

Our home for the next fortnight
After the setback of realising that our planned rental car for a fortnight would not just stretch our budget but completely obliterate it, Karl's Uncle Fred came to the rescue. He agreed to lend us their second car, a 20 year old Ford Lincoln Town Car, on the proviso that it might break down and leave us stranded in the desert. For the freedom it gave us, that was a risk we were well prepared to take. Excitedly, we set to work preparing the car for an expedition, filling the huge trunk with a tent, tarp, old maps Fred dug out for us, crates of supplies and gallons of water.

Joshua tree cacti in Mojave
This time we were headed away from the Pacific coast, to a land of desert and canyons. We traced out a route on the map through California to Nevada, Utah and Arizona, initially crossing a network of graded roads (trying to avoid the dotted ones) that would take us through the heart of the Mojave desert. That was where we spent our first night, having driven along a dirt track into the darkness to sleep out on our tarp in the warmth of a still, perfectly clear, starry desert night. We woke at dawn to find ourselves lying beside prickly pears and spiky yuccas in a landscape of scrub covered sand. Having driven  further into the Mojave, between place-names like Hole in the Wall and Devil's Playground, we walked between cacti the shape and size of barrels and cliffs puckered like swiss cheese, to ascend a small and easy canyon. The desert was devoid of people- summer is very much low season here- but flora and fauna were surprisingly abundant, with delicate flowers, lizards scuttling off the path and birds hopping between cacti, oblivious to their thorns.

We quickly realised that the Lincoln did not cope well with the drifts of sand that had piled up on the unmaintained tracks. It was far too early in the trip to risk being stranded in the desert, especially with the car dashboard displaying 106'F (41'C) so after a nerve wracking 6 or 8 point turn on the sand covered road (the Lincoln is a very long car and it was a narrow road!) we returned to the safety of the interstate to Nevada, signed to Las Vegas.

The Fremont Street experience
We'd read that there was no point visiting Vegas unless you had money burning a hole in your pocket, but we were determined to disprove this and have fun on a budget. Granted, this meant spectating rather than getting involved, and the shows and exhibitions were definitely out of our reach, but there were frozen margueritas in the casino bars for $1 (a barely alcoholic but tasty slush puppy), lots of free stuff to watch, and the bizarre, fantastical architecture to marvel at. Best of all, we had a $10 deal in a motel with a pool, wifi and heart-attack inducing breakfast included. Walking The Strip was fascinating, each casino trying to outdo the last with ridiculous facades of castles, fake volcanoes, moats, statues and waterfalls. Amongst many others, there was the trendy, plush Cosmopolitan, the interior modelled on the inside of a chandelier, with a roof-top pool bar where we were turned away as Karl had no collar. Next door was the skyline of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty at the casino 'New York, New York'. A volcano erupted hourly over the lake at Mirage, and replica pirate ships lay in a moat before Treasure Island. Here we joined crowds to watch a free show involving sequinned dancers, crude innuendos, cannonballs firing real flames, and concluding with the sinking of a life sized pirate ship as dancers somersaulted into the water from the rigging! I was most impressed by the dancing fountains of Bellagio, cannons of water shooting high into the sky or swirling in circles of mist, set to music in a light and water show more impressive than any firework display. Then there was the digital overhead light show of the Fremont Street experience, where waves of fluorescent colours spread across the ceiling, pulsating to a rock soundtrack like a giant screen-saver gone mad. It's all pretty garish, but you can't help being mesmerised.

How did we end up in Venice?!
We didn't gamble, neither of us has a clue how, but watched the blackjack tables, peering into the 'high limit' rooms and wondering at how much money was changing hands between the suited, poker faced, Chinese businessmen and women. Finally, at 2am on our last night there, we had the surreal experience of wandering along the Grand Canal of Venice and sitting in St Marco's Square under a soft dawn sky- the swimming pool-turquoise of the canal the only obvious sign of pretence.Vegas clearly wasn't our scene, but it was unmissable. After 2 days, it was with some relief we left the traffic of the city and drove to where the desert rises into mountains, folded into striped layers of toffee coloured rock, entering Utah under darkening skies.

Swimming in The Subway
Zion National Park initially looked like a sunburned version of Yosemite, striking red cliffs rising above the green valley. For 2 days we explored water filled canyons, narrowing and deepening as they twist through the rock. The 'Subway', so named because of it's fantastically rounded shape in one section where it almost tunnels through the rock, made for a brilliant day. Starting off in a relatively wide valley with a picturesque river running through it, the canyon became more and more dramatic as we climbed over waterfalls and eventually entered a log jammed slot canyon, ducking under chock stones and swimming through dark brown plunge pools. All the time these huge red cliffs tower above, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely while in other places it streams through to fall as a shaft on the sandy floor. We couldn't stop grinning as we scrambled up as far as we could, fully clothed but soaking wet, experiencing swimming in hiking boots for the first time. The Narrows, the following day, is a much more well known day trip but still spectacular. This route involves wading or swimming in the river almost all day long and is surprisingly popular, given that most people visiting national parks don't seem to like to get their feet wet. Initially people start off trying to stay on the banks of the river, but by the end everyone is swimming.

The Narrows get narrow

Hoodoos of Bryce at sunrise
From Zion a dramatic drive took us out of the red mountains and to the unique environment of Bryce Canyon. Here, pine trees fall away to cliffs eroded into turreted pinnacles called hoodoos, dropping to the bottom of the escarpment. The hoodoos' orange tips fade to pinks and whites in stripes across the landscape. The effect is otherworldly - these huge pinnacles like giant stalacmites resemble well dribbled candles, sometimes joined together into fairy tale castles. The contrast of the dark green pines against the candied tones of the rock is quite beautiful, especially after rain when it's bright, fresh and gleaming. The view from the rim is bewitching, but better still is to walk along the paths that wind between the towers. In our travels, we've never seen anywhere quite like it.

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado river
Leaving Bryce, our plan at this stage was to spend a while exploring the slot canyons of Southern Utah. This is what had originally drawn me to the area, after seeing pictures in magazines of impossibly carved canyons and striped rocks curving in waves, but especially after watching the film '127 hours'. Unfortunately, a series of severe flash floods had wiped out most of the roads and filled many canyons with debris. Without a high clearance, four wheel drive car (the Lincoln didn't quite fit the bill) there was very little we could do here. Somewhere to come back to another year, with another vehicle. After walking in just one canyon, slipping in the slick layer of mud left by the most recent flood, we left for Arizona.

Wild camping doesn't get much better than this
The Grand Canyon comes with so much hype you feel like you already know exactly what it's going to be like. We were keen to find a way to experience it without the crowds, and had a tip off about a wonderfully isolated spot on the North Rim, far from the viewpoints and visitor centres of the much more frequented South Rim. So we drove along 30 miles of a forestry track through pinderosa pines to reach Crazy Jug Point. Outside the national park and in national forest 'free camping' is not only allowed but encouraged by the helpful rangers who will point out good spots on the map, very handy for cheapskates like us who don't want to stay in serviced camp sites. It was an unbeatable place to spend a night, literally on the lip of the canyon. We had the view entirely to ourselves, watching both sunset and sunrise, and the storms that passed over the landscape miles away. A very memorable and highly recommended place to experience this awe inspiring landscape.

Down into the canyon
We wanted to spend a night inside the canyon as well, and for this we needed a permit and to drive the 4 hours or so to the South Rim (it's only about 12 miles across but 220 miles around!). Here, we headed down into a different climate- from the cool of the forested North Rim at about 23'C, the canyon bottom was at a boiling 41'C. We set off down the South Kaibab trail after the heat of the day had passed, and all the other walkers had left. It was a spectacular walk, zigzagging around cliffs glowing in tones of orange, red and purple in the late afternoon light, down to the Colorado river. We arrived at the Bright Angel campsite just as night fell, and with the air still at 30'C, we lay on the pebbly bottom of a nearby stream, getting pushed around by the current, cooling off in the hot and humid night. There was no need for a tent here so we slept out on the sandy ground, and the next day ascended 1500 metres back up the rim. Joining the many others who stepped out of their cars to gather at a viewpoint for sunset that evening we were hot, sweaty and exhausted, but felt like we'd experienced the Grand Canyon from the best possible perspectives.

A classic canyon view
The next day we began our return journey to Orange County, stopping to slide down natural water chutes at Slide Rock state park, a busy but really fun picnic spot, and to window-shop for cowboy boots and hats in Prescott, Arizona. Our last day was spent in Joshua Tree national park, scrambling up boulders and walking through cactus gardens. It had been a very busy and extremely varied taster of the South West, and had only fuelled a desire to see more of this landscape, so different from the mountains where we normally spend our time. The Lincoln had survived, and once the sand and mud had been power-hosed away you'd never know the adventures it had been on, ready to return to the life as a 'town car' that it was intended for.

Cactus gardens of Joshua Tree


Saturday, 6 October 2012

OC Style

After a month in the mountains on the John Muir Trail, anything was going to be a culture shock. Even tiny Lone Pine, where we entered a building and slept in a bed for the first time in about 6 weeks, and were overwhelmed by an array of food choice- a supermarket, mexican restaurants, pizzerias and cafes serving ice creams and muffins. It was almost too much. The setting was such a contrast to the mountain cool we'd become accustomed too- here we were close to Death Valley, the hottest place in the world, and in the midst of a wide, flat desert scattered with piles of massive orange boulders evocative of 'The Flintstones'.

Bucket of lard? Karl was tempted..
We had absolutely no plans at this stage, apart from to start eating and possibly never stop. One thing we knew was that public transport wasn't much of an option, and so we were going to have to get a lift off somebody going somewhere. We contemplated standing by the road with a cardboard sign saying 'anywhere', but it didn't come to that. We quickly procured 3 offers of lifts to the LA region, as well as an invitation to a very welcome breakfast gathering where we got to sample such American morning treats as biscuits and gravy, and pancakes drowned in maple syrup.

The lift we wound up taking was with a guy called Bill with some very interesting stories. Bill had recently turned 70, but that certainly wasn't stopping him. He was in Lone Pine to climb Mount Whitney in a day- quite a feat in itself. Bill only started to climb after retirement, and since then has become the only person over 60 in the world to climb the 7 summits (the highest mountain in each continent), and the oldest American to climb Everest. He had recently returned from another record breaking Everest attempt which hadn't succeeded, but that's no big deal- he'll just return next year. Quite a guy- and he was kind enough to go out of his way to deliver us door to door to Karl's uncle Fred and wife Joyce in Orange County.

Karl with his new-found cousins
Karl had only the vaguest memories of meeting his uncle as a child, so this was a fantastic opportunity to get to know Fred and Joyce. They welcomed us into their home and proceeded to defy all our perceptions of how a couple in their mid 80s live. We struggled to keep up- they are phenomenal. With a whirlwind social schedule their time is packed to the brim with square dancing, yoga, martini club, potlucks, parties, barbecues, church functions...they never stop! Spending time with them really redefined our idea of old age. It was brilliant for us to have a break from backpacking and enjoy Joyce's cooking and Fred's stories. Joyce gathered together a collection of their combined families (totalling 9 children and 19 grandchildren), and over a barbecue on the balcony Karl got to meet 3 of his cousins for the first time. It was really nice to feel welcomed into the American side of the Stewart family and get to know each other over a big, relaxed family gathering.

The Orange County lifestyle is seductive- the beach practically on the doorstep, drinks on the balcony, oranges growing in the garden, barbecues never rained off and the door always open.
It was at thursday evening martini club with Fred and Joyce that we sat next to a couple called John and Penny. Demonstrating the generosity of so many Americans we met, within minutes they had offered to lend us a car so we could explore California. The next day we had the keys to a VW Passat and plans to head up the coast.

A church in Santa Barbara
So our first American road trip began- up the Pacific Coast Highway with the blues playing. Our first stop was Newport, setting of 'The OC' TV series, with a wide, sandy beach backed with beach volleyball courts, condos and crab shacks. The sun was out, of course, and the surf was looking good (as were the surfers), but we continued north past LA's Venice and Redondo beaches, Malibu beach (some of the most valuable real estate in the world but nothing special) and Santa Monica to reach the town of Santa Barbara. This was a really cool, arty spot. We wandered around market stalls selling garish oil paintings, along the wooden pier where pelicans perched on the railings and lobster was served with champagne in restaurants over the water. We splashed out on a wine tasting in a funky little bar and took in the atmosphere. The Spanish style architecture was very appealing- whitewashed, red roofed haciendas with fountains and flower beds, and restaurants and bars spilling out onto the pavement.

Solvang village
The next day, after our first night back under canvas, we left Highway 1 to take a smaller, scenic road through Santa Barbara's wine country, setting for the film 'Sideways'. Green vines drooped under the weight of their plump Californian grapes before a scene of yellow grasses and rolling hills. We stopped for a coffee break at the Danish settlers' village of Solvang. It was picture perfect, like stepping into a life-size model village, complete with a windmill, pretty flower lined streets and pastry cafes.

Back on the coast began a series of marine mammal sightings that would continue over the next 24 hours. Stopping to view an offshore rock covered with rowdy pelicans, a photographer informed us a humpback whale had just been sighted a little further along the coast. We jumped in our car and drove to a point where a small group of binocular wielding people were gathered on the cliffs. Joining them, it took a moment to establish what we were looking at. Some sort of feeding frenzy was going on- the surface of the water was alive and the sky was swarming with sea birds, splashes all around as pelicans dived and fishes jumped. Small pods of dolphins moved through the slick of birds, and as we watched a humpback whale surfaced in the midst of it all.

Spot the humpback whale

There were actually two whales, but they kept us guessing as to their entire size as we'd only get a view of one body part at a time- sometimes a humped back- mist spraying from its blowhole,occasionally a tail and, most impressively, an open mouth erupting through the surface, no doubt full of fish, sending birds flying, before slamming closed and disappearing below once more. It was a beautiful evening to sit on the cliffs bathed in soft light as we watched for the whales' next appearance.

Elephant seal on the beach
The following morning, at Morro Bay a litte further up the coast, brought sightings of playful sea lions in the harbour, darting under pontoons and surfacing with a huff, hard to follow and even harder to capture on camera. Then, stopping to check the surf, we spotted some lumps amongst a raft of seaweed just offshore. Sure enough, a group of sea otters were floating on their backs, a strand of kelp wrapped over each one to keep it in place as it snoozed. Some drier furry lumps that were balanced on their bellies turned out to be babies relaxing on the raft formed by their parents' bodies. We watched for a while, the otters unperturbed by tourists and cameras, unlike their much shyer British relatives. Finally, later that morning we got a close up view of elephant seals, hauled up on a beach and signed from the road as 'Elephant Seal viewpoint'. Unsurprisingly busy, people outnumbering seals, it was nevertheless very cool to see these ugly yet strangely beautiful animals and watch them half bury each other with sand as they tried to keep cool, occasionally heaving their massive bodies down to the water.

Big Sur rises out of the fog
We continued up the coast as the road disappeared into fog, winding between ghostly eucalyptus trees with peeling bark and clumps of lichen hanging from their branches. After spending a night camping in the cloud in the Montana de Oro coastal park we reached our destination- Big Sur. This is a wild stretch of Californian coast with a big reputation. Herb and flower covered slopes rise above the fog that hugs the coastal hills. Highway One twists around the headlands and the indents of rocky coves, the misty scene reminiscent of the west coast of Ireland.

Big Sur coastal scenery makes for spectacular driving

Heating up in Sykes hot springs
Behind this are the hills and Redwood forests that make up the Ventana wilderness. It's here that the hiking trails lead, and after a full week without any walking, it was time to hit the trail again! We chose a 20 mile round trip to some hot springs, and set off in the evening with light packs, zigzagging up a grassy hill, golden in the evening light, amongst wild fennel and dry flowers. I got as close as I would ever want to a rattlesnake- initially mistaking the rattle for an especially loud cricket before I saw the snake before me and we both jumped out of our skins. He wasn't happy about being disturbed, but noisily disappeared into some bushes. Soon we were in steep pine forest, redwoods that began life well below us on the hillside reached far into the sky above. After a night camping by a stream in the forest we continued through more of the same to reach the conclusion of the trail at Sykes hot springs. These natural springs beside a beautiful clear river have been channelled into a series of pools each just big enough for two. It was a lovely setting to relax in the hot water in the shade of the forest, taking dips in the river to cool off.  We could have stayed all day if we didn't have a 10 mile trek back to the car. But it was time to start the drive 'home' to Orange County, to return our car to its rightful owners, enjoy some more time with Fred and Joyce and try to work out what to do next.

Becoming carless in California almost floored us. There was no way we could afford rental rates, realising after a false start that the internet 'total price' is more than doubled when you add on taxes and compulsory insurance. Yet there seemed to be nothing we could do without a car. Nearly all the national parks and wild areas we'd read about were entirely inaccessible. We'd hoped to visit places like the Grand Canyon, but this was a pipe dream without private transport. A real downside of America is its lack of a public transport network. The only places we could get to were cities- and we neither desired nor could afford to spend our time city hopping by greyhound bus. We were really stuck, and were actually contemplating leaving the country.
Luckily, yet another act of kindness would save the day and get us back on the road....