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....


No comments:

Post a Comment