Natural wonders seem to abound in California. Over the past two days we have visited three of the most famous of the US National Parks, Sequoia, King’s Canyon and Yosemite. Two glorious days enhanced the experience with clear blue skies and mild temperatures. Some of the roads in the parks were heavily iced and snow tyres or chains were required. Apparently! – we have snow tyres on our Buick. A lucky circumstance as some of the steep climbs and descents were a little challenging to us as ‘tropical country drivers’.
Sequoia, Kings and Yosemite are everything and more that you might expect of these National Parks: amazing trees with bases up to 40 feet in diameter and branches 8 feet thick!: a granite monolith that is the largest in the world at 3593 feet, incredible waterfalls, amazing views of valleys and mountains, snowscapes – did we mention that it was amazing?
The rigours of the roads in the National Parks were not as life-threatening as one might imagine. Despite this, the heavy duty SUVs were out in their glory. Don’t know what an
SUV is? It took us a while to figure it out as well. (Sports Utility Vehicle.) Essentially a 4x4 in Australian terms, here they also include the millions of pick-up trucks that seem to make up half the vehicles on the road. In all, SUVs probably at least equal the numbers of normal sedans roaming the highways.
An interesting twist on the SUVs is the push by a congressman to discourage the expansion of this phenomenon on the grounds that their owners are supporting terrorism. Lost? Well, the good congressman believes that ‘gas guzzlers’ like SUVs are putting dollars into the hands of Middle Eastern exponents of terrorism. We kid you not. This was a serious news item discussed in full on all the reputable networks.
Some of the areas we drove through over the last couple of days reminded us of home. It was partly the ever present Gum Trees, but eventually we remembered that this part of California was the heart of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. Miners coming to Australia from the goldfields of California reportedly homed-in on gold deposits in Australia because they recognised that the country and its geology was very much like California.
A final point. The valleys of southern California are the food bowl, not just of the USA, but to some extent also of much of the world. The scale of agricultural industry here is staggering. Hundreds of miles of orchards, vineyards and intensive vegetable cropping dominate every square inch that hasn’t fallen under the scar of urban sprawl.
Roseville is a newly developed city within greater Sacramento, California. There must be thousands of suburban areas like this throughout the USA where many millions of Americans live. Life here is good. Good schools, good roads, great neighborhoods and nice houses. Kids play basketball, ride bikes and roller-skate in the safe streets. Our cousin Michael, his wife Courtney, their three children, Caitlyn, Padderson and Rileigh and Courtney’s parents, Jim and Fran, live in this particularly pleasant part of America.
The city of Sacramento is within striking distance of the ski fields of Lake Tahoe and the ‘high desert’ of Nevada and California. The past couple of days have been spent exploring some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world in the company of Mike, his family, another visiting cousin, Oliver, and his friend, Carl. Yet again the weather has been kind to us, sunny and warm with temperatures so mild that sweatshirts were all that we needed even at 8000 ft.
Lake Tahoe straddles the California and Nevada state line. On the Nevada side the focus is just as you might imagine, casino after casino. Reno is probably the best known of the string of ‘poor man’s’ Las Vegas clones that line the lake. On the California side, a solid line of holiday homes and small villages is broken by a few state parks that have preserved the most spectacular portions of the lake front for the public.
Snow had closed most access roads to the lake shore, but the higher vista points gave us enough breathtaking views and photo opportunities to thrill us all.
On our second day with Mike, we struck out early to visit the well-preserved ghost town of Bodie, a five hour drive each way. Virtually every turn on the whole journey had us pulling over to savour the wonders of the high desert in winter. After five hours of driving, the fact that our original destination was inaccessible was only a minor setback, given the unforgettable beauty of the high desert.
Today, we spent the afternoon in San Francisco. The city was at its best. No fog, clear skies and almost hot! Comparisons are often made between Sydney and San Francisco. On a day like this, it’s easy to see why. The bay setting, thousands of boats and an attractive skyline are common to both cities.
City ordinances in San Francisco are favourable to those seeking welfare payments. As a result, the city hosts one of the largest populations of homeless people in the US. Shopping cart ‘caravans’ that serve as homes to the poor, are parked at almost every street corner, at least in the less hilly parts of the city.
Having just passed a relaxing few days in Roseville with Mike et al, in such a great American family environment, the contrast between the America that this family lives in and the ‘other’ Americas that we have come across over the past couple of months, is staggering.
Roseville is a long way from the dilapidated trailer parks, re-locatable home villages and shopping trolley hovels that the ‘other Americans’ live in.
Car is definitely king in California. Even in a large city like San Francisco, most people prefer to drive rather than take public transport. Consequently, every square inch of street space in the city has a car sitting on it! Parking is expensive, but that does little to deter the good citizens of San Francisco.
Our car is sitting under our motel and will do for the next couple of days. With so many options in this city, we have taken to the streets, rails and waters armed with a daily pass. San Francisco has streetcars (trams), trolley buses, cable cars, a subway and ordinary buses. Our goal while here is to master them all!
Alcatraz and a walk on the beach at the Presidio filled in most of our day. The old prison closed in 1969. Today, much of it is in ruins, but the main cellblock is much as it was in the 1930/40s. Most of the cells are set up as they were , including prisoners’ personal items and bedding. We took an audio tour which focused on some of the better known characters like Al Capone and the ‘bird man’ – Robert Stroud. Interestingly, Mr Stroud never had birds during his time in Alcatraz. He was just a major behaviour problem who spent most of his time in solitary confinement.
This tour dispelled a number of popular misconceptions. There were successful escapes. Sharks in the Bay are not man-eaters. They are fairly small sand sharks. The currents are not unmanageable for a good swimmer. All this was evidenced by the three prisoners who escaped in 1962 by expanding the vents in their cells, with smuggled drills and chisels. Once in the service tunnel behind their cells they climbed out of the block and used raincoats as flotation devices to escape the island.
Back on the mainland, a crab sandwich was our lunch. A small roll jam-packed with crab was nice, but reminded us that Qld mud crabs must be the best in the world. The Wells Fargo museum chronicled the history of Wells Fargo and the Pony Express. God, but these people were tough!!!!! One look at the 100 year old coach which took 18 people – nine inside and nine on top – and we will never complain about airline seats again!!
Late this afternoon, we jumped a trolley bus out to the Presidio to see the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Through the residual haze, the bright sunlight turned the bridge red. As we walked back towards the city, hundreds of windows reflected the last glow of the setting sun. Beautiful!