On my way out of SF in the hire car, I head across the mist-covered Golden Gate Bridge (scuppered photo opp), in the direction of Muir Woods State Park in Marin County
. Towering Coastal Redwoods and forest trails around mountain streams make this small park a natural wonder, and I spend a couple of hours ambling round straining my neck looking upwards. Although there's none of the giant Sequioas here, the Redwoods are still pretty magnificent. Sequioas are in the same family and are much wider than Redwoods, but the Redwoods grow taller. I set the Sat Nav to take me to Yosemite, 4 hours away across the golden plains and get there just before sundown. Again, it's a magical place on the same scale as Yellowstone, and I lament the fact that I only have a day to spend here. Some of the surrounding gateway towns of Midpines, Oakhurst, Groveland and Mariposa are very picturesque, with a few touristy hotels, small restaurants and bars; everything here is on a much smaller scale and some of the bars remind me of bars that Yosemite Sam might have frequented and are now just full of tourists passing through.
After finding out that everywhere I try to bed down for the night is fully booked (it's high season and you need to book weeks in advance), I find a couple of 'budget' availabilities at around $280 for a single room for night, this is the best I'll be able to do. But eventually find a night in the cheapest hotel - my car. I recline the seats, pull over a towel and drift off under a tree outside some random bar/restaurant in the knowledge that this is California and they apparently don't like you doing this. However, I'm not disturbed and set off at 6am the following morning.
Yosemite is thankfully covered in trees, so I get to see rocks and trees. A quick hike up to Mirror Lake gives great views and reflections of the near-perfectly hemi-spherical 'Half-dome' mountain. The day also takes me past several high falls, the majestic El Capitan mountain with near-vertical cliffs which draws rock climbers from around the world; more walking and driving, and a few knee complaints from my bandaged leg due to the 18mile trek in Zion a week or so before
. I leave the park at around 2pm in order to get to Santa Cruz before sunset, and to give me plenty of time to deal with the erratic and slightly schizophrenic Sat Nav that seems to like to give me last-minute changes to the plan and takes me through random tiny towns off the beaten track.
Golden rolling hills of grassland start to dominate the scenery once out of mountain/forest country, slowly changing to flat farming plains and seemingly infinite straight roads. I'm starting to really like California, and it's nothing and everything that I imagined. So far none of the summer-drenched, cosmetic surgery driven hedonistic lifestyles I was imagining from films or whatever. None of the roller-blading down palm-lined beachfront - I guess that is all to come once I get to LA.
I pull into Santa Cruz about 7 - finally see my first sight of the Pacific from US soils. It's a nice small town and everyone I talk to in the hostel is just passing through, just like me. There's a chilled Bohemian feel about the place, with a little jaded, once-shiny-and-new beachfront promenade and amusement park. It's reasonably well stocked wih students from the Santa Cruz University which helps it to stay young and free.
Big Sur and Highway-1 beckons the following morning as I have just enough time to spend a few hours doing the magical drive before returning the hire car back in San Fran later in the day. So by 8.30am, I'm leaving the city and approaching the cliff-hugging rugged road of Highway-1 which runs from north California all the way down to LA and possibly beyond, but it's the section between San Fran and LA which is the most talked about, and specifically around the sleepy relaxed Big Sur
. The Mexican influences are noticeable everywhere, and if I had to guess up to 40% of the population speak Spanish, and that number is rising fast. It's somewhat predictable when you think that California belonged to Mexico before the USA took it for themselves to complete their monopoly of states spanning from the East to the West. The coastline is pretty and rugged, and most of the time covered in coastal mist; apparently winter is the better time to visit as it's generally much clearer then A quick stop at Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park takes me on a brief 1.5 hour hike before returning to San Fran where I sort out a few chores and take a few more snaps of the city seeing as the sun has decided to come out for the last few days. I end up bumping into an old friend I met in a bar in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia a couple of months back and we catch up briefly - we're both going to the same place in Hollywood in a day of so, so we'll catch up more then.
On the way out of SF, and on the way back in, I'm reminded of the impressive array of top-notch research institutes in the San Francisco Bay Area, including some NASA divisions, Berkley Uni, Stanford Uni, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and many more. Also, with Silicon Valley and Mountain View just on the doorstep, all the spin-off tech companies litter the place. Additionally, with CalTech just down the road in LA, I'd be proud to work for any of these institutions and it provides me with a hit-list of places to apply to when I get back home. Check out the huge number of recognisable companies headquartered here: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_companies_headquartered_in_San_Francisco
I reflect a little proudly that in 4 short weeks I've set foot in 15 different states in the USA - that's 29.4% of the 51 states visited (some tenuously at best), leaving much more yet to be discovered, even including the places I've stayed for a while
. Or rather, I should say 14 states and 1 Federal District. This place is BIG. And I've enjoyed my time here but glad in a funny kind of way that I'm approaching the final city here, in part due to the fact that I don't have to endure the freakshow and circus that is The Greyhound Bus service. When I first got to the US, and for the first couple of weeks, I didn't really 'get' America and Americans. If asked to explain what I mean, I would have difficulty articulating myself, but something didn't quite fit or seemed somewhat 'out-of-phase' with what I was used to. But things started falling into place when I hit the mid-west and started to see mountain country and the wide open spaces. People say that you don't really 'know' the US until you see the great outdoors. And I'm starting to appreciate and understand what they mean; America has some truly world-class national treasures and city life is only a small fraction of what the country has to offer. Like most places, if only you could come here without having to deal with the annoying inhabitants...
This is what I love about solo-travelling: the opportunites to change plans on the fly, setting off in a car or whatever without any plans for the day and not knowing which city you'll spend the night in, and the colourful and eventful journey that takes you there. Coupled with the fact that travelling gives you a sense of confidence to pick out a point on the map within 500 miles and say "I want to go there today", and just doing it, it gets quite addictive. After finishing off in Muir Woods, I do about 5mins research in the LP and have a change of plans: I'm not going to drive 6 hours up the coast to Redwood National Park after lunch, I'm going to go to Yosemite National Park instead 3 hours in the opposite direction. I similarly pick a town at random after leaving Yosemite and decide to head to Santa Cruz to check out Big Sur and parts of Highway-1, and end up being very glad that I did.