Friday, 29 October 2010

Baja California

Feels like I've been around the world - looks like I've hardly started.

Tijuana – what a piece of cake, Honestly I don't know what all the fuss is about. The crossing was easy and I picked up all the paperwork necessary to get into Mexico proper. (You can take a vehicle into Baja without any paperwork but not on the ferry over to Mexico. Some people rush through the border at Tijuana and wait until they are in southern Baja to get the necessary documents. Being somewhat anal I didn't.) Later that day I heard on the news that the day we crossed the border 13 people in a drug rehab. centre in Tijuana had been shot dead – All part of the drug smuggling business.

At the immigration office I met Jim (Canadian KLR 650) and we rode together down Baja. 

And , wow, what a change. It was wonderful to be in Latin American again. I just love it here. What can I say? We've spent three days riding down Baja, enjoying the scenery of cacti and desert and the sudden increase in temperature.Mexican food, dogs in the street, happy people, it's all great.

Baja cacti grow big

900 miles to La Paz

Two thirds of the way down Baja we stopped at Loreto and bumped into two more Canadians on BMWs. Looks like I'm back on the gringo trail again. Quite nice having been riding solo for two months. On the fourth day I made it down to La Paz the capital of Baja and 900 miles from Tijuana. Jim and I found an excellent little Pension. Only £10 a night and, most importantly, off road parking for the bikes.

Perfect accomodation

Dom actually cleaning his bike

Having been on the move every day since Las Vegas, and in no particular rush as I have until Sunday to get to Todos Santos, I decided to stop in La Paz for a couple of days. As a tourist destination it doesn't have much to offer except lovely weather and some nice beaches but both Hiedi and I needed a little rest and, Heidi at least, a good clean. So the next day was spent washing the bike and getting my clothes washed as well. I also realised that I still have a slip of paper in my passport that should have been handed in to US customs when I left America. There was absolutely no one at Tijuana to hand it in to but if I don't return it they will blacklist me from returning to the US. I checked on the internet and I have to post it to the immigration office with a cover letter explaining why I didn't hand it over when I left and photocopies of EVERY page of my passport. And I thought getting IN to America was hard!

Those sharp bends can really catch you out - if you're asleep or drunk

250 miles to next petrol station - hence a gallon of fuel as pillion

That's what you call a self service petrol station

This made me laugh.

Jim left on the boat Thursday night and then Friday morning two more overland bikers turned up at my little pension.Baja seems full of off-road bikers.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

I want to live in Los Angeles*

Unfortunately the southern Californian coast was shrouded in fog when I hit “Big Sur” the much talked about “awesome” coast road south of San Francisco.

Northern Elephant seals, Californain coast

I parked here first and when I came back I could hardly get on the bike.

I'm sure it's lovely but I couldn't see much of it. I stopped off for the night camping near Irish Mountain and was joined by a very inquisitive Bobcat.

A cat called Bob

Later that evening, whilst sitting at my picnic table I heard a noise, turned my headtorch to the bushes and saw two Raccoons sniffing about.

Friday I road into Los Angeles. Not something I had been looking forward too but I had a date with a BMW dealer and anyway it wasn't as busy as I thought it might be. Now you know with drill with BMW dealers. I go in for a small job and come out at least $2000 poorer. So wait for it....

I got a new rear tire, a few bits and pieces for the bike ( I can actually take the spark plugs out now) and they confirmed that the front wheel rim is a little warped. I already knew this and as it would cost well over $1000 to get a new one it's just something I'm going to have to live with. It shouldn't be dangerous – (I've been on enough twisty roads already), just something to be aware of and perhaps if/when I get to South Africa it's something I'll need to address before hitting the less tarmacked African roads.

So, as I prepare to leave the good old US of A. Here are a few facts. I've been here for 48 days and covered about 8500 miles. I've been impressed with the people, the roads and the countryside. I've been less impressed with the food, cost and campsites. Let me explain.

Everyone I've met has been friendly and helpful. Lots of people have come up to speak to me about the trip and are good fun to talk with. Some of the roads have been the very best I've ever ridden on, and even the boring ones have been easy, well maintained and relatively free of traffic. What traffic there is obeys the road rules and gives me space. And the countryside? The National Parks are, of course, fantastic. I love the hugeness of it all. And the variety. Just a great place to travel.

Downside – The food. It's far too easy to eat poorly in the US. Portions are ridiculously big - especially drinks and you soon get fed up with burgers or pizza. And although America is cheaper than Canada, some things are still a little expensive. Especially camping. As, I think, I've said before, campsites charge per site so I'm paying $15-25 for a site even though it's just me. And many of the campsite don't tailer themselves for tents so the pitches aren't flat, are gravel rather than grass and there is nowhere to wash up your dishes up.

Favourite State – Oregon (for the coast)
Favourite place – Possibly Zion National Park or Moab or Redwoods
Favourite place to stay – Augusta Montana
Biggest disappointment – Not been stopped by the state troopers

I have really enjoyed my time here. The America that I have witnessed was friendly, helpful, organised and awesome. Don't get me wrong. I'm very aware that I only witnessed one version of America and there are hundreds. Much of America still scares and worries me. The aggressive nature of the police worries me; the fact that 15 people thought the oldest rocks in Grand Canyon would be found at the top worries me; the support for the “Tea Party” worries me; the fact that the Republican candidate for Governor of Colorado may win worries me (He thinks Obama is a Marxists and has argued that America should bomb Mecca); the drive thu culture worries me; the size of food portions worries me....I could go on but you get the picture.

My last real pit stop in America was in L.A. I spent Friday night with Andrea and Scot. Andrea had been a student of mine in Colombia 10 years ago. She had found me on facebook a while ago and offered to put me up for the night if I was passing through Los Angeles. It was a little bizarre(in a good way!) to catch up with someone who I had last seen as a fifteen year old student. It made me feel really old! But we had a good night out, and Scot showed me his impressive garage full of motorbikes.

Scott's garage. I think there are eight bikes in here.

Scott and Andrea - thanks guys.

I left them on Saturday to head down to the border.

I'm very excited about entering a new country. Two months is a long time to travel in one country and I'm ready for the challenges of moving into a new one. Mexico – bring it on.. por favor

* I want to live in Los Angeles - Frank Black.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Leaving Las Vegas

The ride from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas could have been a simple 250 mile jaunt through the desert. However, that would have been too easy. I extended the ride with a trip down memory lane and a date with a bridge.

Although I have certainly not had a life long desire to ride Route 66 I couldn't miss the chance to experience a little of it. It just so happens that a 130 mile stretch of the original route lies west of the Grand Canyon. I rode it, stopped at a few 1950s memorabilia tourist traps, bought the all important sticker for the bike and carried on. (Can you tell that I wasn't overly impressed with the experience?)

1950s diner on Rote 66

Dam - no Unleaded!

Route 66 was OK but the next bit was the fulfilment of a 25 year dream (well, sort of). I distinctly remember my History teacher at school telling us about this millionaire American buying up London Bridge, dismantling it, transporting it to the Arizona desert and re assembling it – only to discover that what he had bought was the London Bridge when he thought the London Bridge was Tower Bridge. What that had to do with Robert Peels Corn Laws, Garibaldi and the Unification of Italy or Lord Palmerstones gunboat diplomacy – the only other things I remember Mr. Waters teaching me - I have no idea. But I have always remembered the story of London Bridge being in the Arizona desert, so I just had to detour a couple of hundred miles to see it. 

Now THIS really is History. London bridge was built in 1831 but by the 1960 it was sinking (due to all the traffic). Robert McCulloch bought it (as a propaganda stunt to develop Lake Havasu City) for $2.5 million. It was dismantled, shipped over and rebuilt at a total cost of over $5 million. The purchase also included the cast iron bridge lampposts, moulded from French cannons captured during the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Having been on the road for nearly three months and having juts racked up 14,000 miles it was very strange to come across something “British” in the middle of the Arizona desert. It almost made me feel homesick and patriotic. Almost....
This could be London - but it's Arizona

Las Vegas. Hum, what can I say. I think the best I can do is quote from David and Jills blog. (I met David and Jill at the adventure bike meeting in Canada two months ago. I've been following their blog and they are now just a day or so ahead of me. They left Vegas on Friday morning.

As the saying goes “what happens in vegas stays in vegas" so we won't talk about the obesity, the greed, the extravagance, the waste, the hardworn looking people or our depression about seeing it all.

I found Vegas quite hard to cope with. After 3 months in the wilderness ANY big city was going to be an assault on the senses. But Vegas takes the biscuit. I went into MGM Casino on the Friday night. The casino is the size of FOUR football pitches. And in one corner they have a glass cage with lions in it! (When I took the photo there were no lions but they are there every day from 11-7 p.m.) I found the whole experience quite sad and depressing.

I arrived on The Strip at 4:30 p.m. on Friday after a 400 miles ride through the hot desert. Way to go Dom, good plan!

Can you see the fear in my eyes?

I know it's not clear but it's the Harley Davidson bar. USA flag made out of chains.

Lion cage on right in the casino. Made me speechless.

Sunday 8 a.m. I was out of there. I hit the road for Death Valley. Stopping at a nondescript town to fill up with petrol I saw a familiar motorbike parked outside a Motel. It was Patrick! I'd hooked up with Partick way back in the Yukon and we'd travelled for four or five days down Canada. I last saw him the day Tracy arrived in Banff. Again, I'd been in touch with him – he's the one who told me about the salt flats speed week – but I hadn't actually caught up with him anywhere. Well, here he was. The first familiar face I'd seen since leaving Trents a month ago. It was great to see someone I knew and we had a good long chat comparing notes on the places we'd been to and the whole experience of being on a three month motorbike trip.

Pat's Africa Twin

Sea Level and heading down...

Death Valley - 200 feet below

Death Valley itself was quite cool. It actually rained on me for 5 minutes on my way into the valley (first time in 10 years someone said) and riding below sea level was weird but not in the same way as riding at altitude. It's not as if you really notice anything about being 200 feet below the sea. Patrick and I had slightly different agenda, and although we may well meet up in Mexico I said goodbye at Furnace Creek in Death Valley and rode in the valley of the shadow of death all on my own-some. I'm so brave...
Not much out there

Next day – next National Park. But before I could get into Yosemite I had to climb up to 9,000 feet. That meant I heading into the first snows of the winter. What a bizarre feeling. 24 hours earlier I had been 200 feet below sea level in 30+ degrees C. Now I was at nearly 10,000 and it was snowing. No two days in the office are ever the same in this job.

Welcome to Yosemite

I'd rather be on sand

You don't say

Yosemite was very pretty, very well organised and very busy. I managed to find the walk-in campground (all RV type campgrounds are booked up months ahead – even for a monday in late October). But the walk-in campground wasn't full and was only $5. It was busy though and I seem to have stumbled across some sort of rock climbing convention. Yosemite has some 3000 feet shear granite cliffs and it draws climbers from all over the world. I heard more French than English being spoken and lots of skinny young people carry ropes.

Yosemite is also quite famous for its Black Bears (here we go again). The statistic I saw said that in 1998 1,100 cars were broken in to by bears in Yosemite. When I was checking into the campground I was told to leave absolutely nothing in my car or tent – I was to put it all in the bear lockers. I did as I was told, and went to bed that night with my trusted old pepper spray.

Next morning (Tuesday 19th) I was just about to leave and I saw yet another familiar bike. This time it belonged to David and Jill. I had finally caught up with them. I went over and found them and we had a good long chat. 

David abd Jill - on Nancy a 1982 BMW R80

To cut a long story short we spent most of the day together riding through Yosemite stopping at Mariposa Gorge to see the world largest (by volume) living organism EVER on this planet. The Sequoia tree. Not quite as tall as the Redwoods the sequiou and hugely wide. Up to 12 metres in basal diameter, and they can live for well over 2,000 years, perhaps even 3,000.

That's big

David and Jill were heading for San Fransisco and I was going a little south of there so we said our goodbyes, hoping perhaps to meet up again in Mexico or beyond. It's been really quite odd to have been on my own for so long and then to bump into three people I knew within two days. But now it's just me and Heidi again as we head for the California coast. I've got the bike booked in for a tyre change in L.A. On Friday and plan to cross into Baja California Sunday morning. Another phase of this trip seems to be coming to a close and I'm going to try to savour all the things I have enjoyed of travelling through the US in the next three or four days. Once I hit Mexico lots of things are going to change.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Four corners region of USA

More rocks and really old ones at that again I'm afraid. I camped out in Moab for a few days and had a great time. As they say - Moab rocks! It seems to be the centre of the world for mountain bikers and although it's just a little town in the middle of a huge desert it's well equipped to keep a motorbiker happy for a while. I managed to find a “walk in only” campground. Which means no Rvs, nice friendly people, and even somewhere to wash your dishes. Situated just outside Moab we have two excellent National Parks and one State one.

First I went to Canyonlands. Positioned on top of a 6000ft high flat top mountain (called a mesa in these parts) this National Park has the most stunning and never ending views. In fact, as with stars, I think I could see so far I was looking back in time – or something like that. The geology of this area is mind blowing and I sat spellbound by a talk given by one of the rangers at one of the view points. 250 million years worth of deposition, uplift and erosion has gone into creating this scenery. Photos will never do it justice but I had a go.

Oh, and there was even a really cool arch at Canyonlands. 

Mesa Arch

I managed to walk half way along - honest

Next to Canyonlands is Dead Horse Point state park. As it's right next to Canyonlands it's actually very similar but the tourist trap with Dead Horse is the view form the end – 2000 feet down to the winding Colorado river, up to the La Sal mountains 12,700 feet peaks and out 100 miles (however many feet that is) across Canyonlands. Oh and the fact that the final scene in “Thelma and Louise” is played out here. I rode to the end but as I didn't think “Dom and Heidi” sounded as good I slammed on the brakes and just looked over the edge.

Dead Hoese Point

Next day I headed for Arches National Park.

Looks like two eyes. If you zoom in you can see two people in the right eye.

Double arch

Now it's quite clear what Arches is going to have but I wasn't quite prepared for how stunning they would be. Especially “delicate Arch” This is the one which is plastered all over Utah tourist literature and even their car number plates. What is so stunning about delicate Arch is how it stand on its own in the middle of nowhere. Its quite hard to grasp the fact that these arches are crated by sandstone which is millions and millions of years of compressed desert sand . The dunes here were probably over a mile high. But how all this compressed sand which turned to stone then eroded to create delicate arch surpasses my comprehension. Simple breathtaking.
Delicate arch - notice the shadow it's casting

Me giving it some scale

Just as I took this this woman posed for her friends

It was an hours hike over rocky desert to get here - good shoe choice!

She was hilarious - getting in other peoples photos without even noticing

Now, having spent the best part of a week in some fantastic national parks looking at lots of very old stones, I decided it was time to find some human history. So I set off for Mesa Verde National park in south west Colorado. Native Americans – or Ancestral Puebloans as they are called here – have been living in this part of the world for at least 1500 years. Initially living on the flat mountain top these people farmed the land and, seemingly, prospered. Eventually they built elaborate settlements in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls and this is what I had come to see.

The settlements that you now see were actually only resided in for around 100 years (in the 13th Century ) before the population mysteriously disappeared. But what they have left behind is quite unique and wonderful. And there are over 600 of them (Although you can only see a handful in the park). And the best thing was that to get to them you had to walk down some steep steps and climb some ladders. In fact the first 5 minutes of the rangers tour was explaining how hard it was going to be and that some people shouldn't do it, and how they have to medi-vac at least one person a week.

100-150 people lived here

What I found most interesting was these round rooms – called Kiva's. Originally roofed these underground rooms served (they assume) as a sort of meeting room. A hole in the middle of the roof was both the entrance and the chimney. Beyond that it's all conjecture. They left no written record and just seemed to disappear from the area in the early 14th Century, giving the whole place a spooky feel.

The next day was going to be a big one. I'd always wanted to come to this part of the States, and although the rest of my trip has been wonderful there is something about the desert.... Today I was heading for the Grand Canyon but first I had a date with a valley and a corner.

Right out in the middle of nowhere four of Americas states meet. Now to you and me that might not mean much but to many Americans it certainly does. It seems like some sort of middle life right of passage to spread yourself down on the floor with one limb in each state. (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah). I giggled, took a picture and moved on. Oh, just before I left, whilst perusing the gift shops I heard a shopkeeper say that most of their stuff was made in China. A woman next to me said, “Oh, it's disgusting.” For a moment I thought she was commenting on the slave labour used in China – right on! But no, she added, “We should be making all our stuff here. Not foreigners making American souvenirs.” I said “ Well, that Global Capitalism for you.” and walked away. 

No I didn't get my picture taken doing this.

100 miles or so from four corners is Monument Valley. It doesn't matter where you are from you've probably seen pictures of Monument Valley. Malboro man? Western films? It's the iconic picture of desert America. All this land sits on the Navajo reservation and they have developed a 17 mile loop around the valley. The guidebook says it will be dusty and bumpy. I was prepared for that – what I wasn't prepared for was all the sand. Now I know I'm a big girls blouse when it comes to off road riding but I was determined to give this my best shot – so these photos were taking at some price. I know the manta – in sand speed is your friend – but it takes a little courage to speed up rather than slow down or, fatally, slam on the front break, when you're confronted with a sandy slope. This 17 mile circuit was more challenging than anything I'd done in Alaska, but it was well worth it. Look at these photos and tell me otherwise. And in the car park I saw three shiny PARKED hogs. Perhaps I'm not such a big girls blouse after all!

Monument valley and the sandy road

Steep and sandy - Oh what fun...

Someone kindly offered to take my photo

I TOLD him to put me to the right and the rocks to the left - the rule of thirds. This could have been an excellent shot.

Finally I made it all the way to the Grand Canyon. First the facts. Its a mile deep, 10 miles wide and 277 miles long. Yes, it is indeed grand. It's so big it's almost impossible to comprehend as you stare into it. That is then compounded by the knowledge that it's so old. I won't bore you with the details but I went to a Geology talk – it's old. I stayed two nights and had a great full day walking the trails and going down a little way into the canyon. Mind you – it is busy here. And not only that, I'm afraid to report that I've started to find the, shall we say, less friendly, larger and louder American tourist.

It's big - the Colorado river at the bottom is 90 metres wide.


Following morning - same place

Rock timeline with examples of the rocks.

Proof I walked down the canyon a little bit

During the geology talk the ranger started by asking us to raise our hands and say whether we thought the oldest rocks in the Grand Canyon would be found at the bottom or at the top of the canyon. 18 of us said the bottom. 15 (yes, that's FIFETEEN) said at the top. 15 people who could ally be bothered to travel to the Grand Canyon AND get up early to go to a 9 a.m. talk on geology actually thought the oldest rocks would be at the top of the canyon! How the hell did they think they got there!!!!!!!!!! Also, I was a little disappointed at the end of the talk. I asked the ranger about plate tectonics. We've only known about them since the 1960s and they are crucial to understanding the uplift of the Colorado Plateau which in essence is the cause of all the national parks I've been visiting. So my question was, how did rangers explain all this before we knew about plate tectonics? Her disappointing answer was that she didn't know.

So, Grand Canyon – tick. Been there done that. Actually I was more impressed than I thought I would be. It's often the case that when I go so somewhere that is well know it's a little disappointing. After all, it looks like I thought it would. And I'm often much more impressed with lesser known places. I expected the Grand Canyon to be a little too familiar but I was impressed. Yes there are a lot of people here but it's easy to get away from the crowds (walk 100 metres past a restroom or gift shop), it's well set up and the campground is good. Oh I must mention the starts – absolutely fantastic in this part of the world.

So that's four major National Parks covered in the last week or so. My favourite would have to be Zion but none of them were anything other that stunning and mind-boggling. So with the rocks dating back millions and millions of years, showing us how insignificant we are on earth and the stars shining so bright showing us how insignificant we are in space and what with me being on my own for so long now, I'm beginning to feel the existential angst well up inside. It's time I got a grip on reality - I'm off to Las Vegas...

P.S. I've got rid of the google map at the top of the blog. Well, at least I've removed it from the blog. It's still around and if you want to see it there is a link at the top right of the blog just above my photo.
PPS It's taken me two hours just to load the photos into this blog. I'm not going write such long blogs in the future. Mind you, what else is there to do at 7 a.m. on a saturday morning in Las Vegas. I arrived last night and am in shock. After three months without going anywhere near a city Vegas hits you hard. I'm depressed and saddended by what I see. I'll blog about it later, once I've survived my full day here.