Friday, 20 December 2013

Jeep jiggling

            “Look, we’re travelling on water, reason for another blog,” proclaimed the Captain from the rear of Joe’s yellow jeep.

            We had made a return trip into the Anza-Borrego Desert
and were on the first of two days exploration of the region with Joe of California Overland Desert Tours.
            It was Tuesday 10th DecemberIn the desert, travelling on water?  Well, this was a drive up Coyote Canyon, heading for Sheep Canyon. There’s not much water in a desert but here we were fording a river in the open-sided yellow jeep.

Last year air temperatures had been comfortable in the 70s Fahrenheit (20s Centigrade). This year it was about ten days later in the season and Southern California had been experiencing an extended cold snap. Before leaving San Marcos, on Cal Mom’s recommendation, there had been another trip into that vast emporium, Bed, Bath and Beyond. ”Ask for thermal leggings,” she had said. “They are supposed to be very good.” And so they were, a comfortable extra layer under trousers, welcome when dashing along a paved highway at 55mph in an open-sided vehicle.
               Once off-road, and the jeep converted to its four-wheel drive mode, headway was much slower.  On dirt tracks, over rocks and boulders, bouncing at wild angles along rutted tracks, with internal organs being given an involuntary workout, the yellow jeep made its way up towards Sheep Canyon. The sky was an unbroken blue, the surrounding mountains breathtakingly rugged and the plant life astonishing. There were a few trumpet-like blooms on an ocotillo tree.
There was a clump of verbena in bloom. Occasionally plump barrel cacti
and agave plants with huge spikes twenty feet up into the air were seen. But it was the close encounter with a cholla cactus
that caused some consternation.
              The jeep had stopped. “”We’ll try a hike up there,” Joe had said, indicating some sycamore trees higher up the mountainside.  Just twenty yards into the hike Boatwif found herself under attack:  spines from a “teddy-bear cactus” clashed with the lower leg, working their way through her top trousers – and through the thick thermal leggings. From his emergency pack Joe produced an antiseptic wash and made an assurance that the plant contained no toxins. Then on the expedition went.
              A quaint pair we may have looked – fleece tops, sunhats, boots and walking poles. Billed as a hike progress was via boulder hopping, rock scrambling,
crevice clambering, slot squeezing, stream fording... Further up we clambered and squeezed, Joe helping to haul one or both up the really steep sections. Hints were dropped: “if you’re OK we could go a bit further, it’s worth looking at.” The sycamores and palm trees
were reached, compressed into a hanging valley high above our starting point. Water trickled by and several pools had formed. “My fiancĂ©e and I come up here for overnight camping,” was Joe’s next hint. On went the scrambling, the lurching from rock to boulder to soft beds of fallen leaves.
              And then we reached it, a shower of waterfall tumbling off the mountainside into a large pool.
How Joe grinned: “You did great, guys,” he praised. “Hardly any of my customers ever get this far.” Eight hundred feet we had climbed above the yellow jeep – and it was an eight hundred feet scramble back down to the jeep for a picnic lunch in the deep silence of the desert.
              We jiggled our way back to the paved road. There was another treat in store. On various sites around Borrego Springs are huge metalwork sculptures,
created by Ricardo Breceda whose work is supported by a generous benefactor.
Wednesday 11th December.
               This day trip was a foray into the south east of the Anza-Borrego Desert. There was quite a distance on paved road. Joe was zipped into his padded jacket, the Captain and Boatwif were wearing their extra layers and sporting their other emergency purchases, fleece-lined caps. Ex-army blankets were wedged around passenger legs. Steadily the jeep climbed from the desert floor, gaining about three thousand feet in altitude. Then the jeep was swung off the road and onto a sandy trail. “Look at that gap there,” said Joe, indicating a narrow shoulder between steep hillsides. “Foot and Walker, it was where the stagecoach passengers had to get off the coach and Walk on Foot!” This terrain is tough, what determination those stagecoach travellers must have had to embark on a 22 day trip from St Louis across this vast country to San Francisco.
              We had arrived in Blair Valley,
at a site used as a seasonal camp by Native Americans until about 120 years ago. Here a trail led to a village settlement. High boulders defined the area. As you get closer you see that many of the rocks or boulders have circular indentations in them,
made by pounding into the surface, perhaps where seeds and desert plants were pounded into edible foodstuffs.  There were deeper cavities too, (morteros) though fewer of them; perhaps these were a sort of pestle and mortar.
               It is in this area that pictographs are found,
strange markings on boulders,
the meaning of which can only be guessed at.
              On to Oriflamme Canyon for a late lunch picnic in a cottonwood and sycamore oasis.
The reddening leaves shivered overhead and a dirt creek indicated an occasional water source. In a place so large, so empty of human intrusion, it was a concrete floor,
all that remained of a 1930s road workers’ mess hall that was a truly unexpected sighting.
Time ticks on - and darkness comes quickly at this latitude.

Thursday 12th December
              Just a two hour drive back to San Diego – but through what scenic variety - from flat desert valley bottom, up hillsides, through mountain passes, above the tree line, round hairpin bends, down through forestry, past lakes, into orchard country, past horse pastures and single storey dwellings, into larger developments, along freeways, drawn towards the city and its stunning skyline, to its cultural heart, where the cool colonnades of Balboa Park’s magnificent buildings
are just a stroll from the colours and crafts in Spanish Village...


            It was all a fine farewell to a small corner of the vastness that is Southern California. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Night life in Borrego Springs

            It takes about two hours to drive from San Marcos, through Escondido, inland, uphill, up about four thousand feet, to crest the mountains and then descend down, down, down to a small, flat settlement.
           Borrego Springs isn’t “at the end of the world but it is AT the end of the road”.  So writes the President of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.  This tiny town (regular population 3,000) is down on the flat desert plain (in deep South California) surrounded by towering mountain ranges to the south, north and west, and to the east some twenty odd dead flat miles away is the vast inland Salton Sea.
           For three successive evenings the Captain and Boatwif ate at Carlee’s on Palm Canyon Drive. There is a fair range of places to eat in Borrego Springs but each night Carlee’s drew us in. It is easy to park right outside the premises, situated as it is towards Christmas Circle (think over-sized roundabout) at the end of the broad main street.  Any global traveller (or viewer of international television) would immediately recognise this place as being in America. The entry door swings outwards and first view inside is of the large three-sided bar. The counter top is broad and right around the bar are high-backed bar stools.  A series of low-hanging light shades keeps the lighting level relatively dim while ceiling fans whirl quietly to keep the air moving.
            Locals, usually men on their own, tend to opt for the bar seats.  Those not making a beeline for the bar stools will be seated by a greeter. On the right of the doorway are five deep dining booths, the seats and high seat backs furnished in rich red leather.  To the left are tables of differing sizes, some small enough for intimate groups and some big enough for party groups.
          High in the corner of this side of the room is a TV set. On Monday night the set displayed American football. The Chicago Bears were playing the Dallas Cowboys. At the bar, dressed in the black and white colours of the Dallas Bears, was a lady who was probably in her late middle years.  She was engaged in the match, urging on her side, cheering at their successes, whole-heartedly supporting their cause...
            Tuesday night is College basketball night. Boise College trailed behind rivals Kentucky. In their defence, claimed a commentator, the players had endured a 7.5 hour bus ride from Idaho to their match, their flight having been cancelled by the bad weather.  These long-limbed basketball players pounded the floor with grace and aggression, the play interrupted only by advert breaks and the interjections of a grim-faced, grey-suited coach. The match ended and Carlee’s began to empty. There was some shouting from a bar stool – a demand for the Great American Channel. The barmaid (is that word allowed?) struggled with the technology but after much thumb work on a remote control fulfilled the request. Live from Las Vegas was being beamed Rodeo.  On the mark straight from two starting pens would gallop twin horse riders. Simultaneously a young steer would be released from a pen between them. Lassoes swirled overhead – rider on the right catches the animal by the neck, rider on the left lassoes a rear hoof. It’s fast, it’s competitive - and the winners were those who downed their steer in the fastest time.  That contest over, the next started: Bronco Bash.  Why would anyone want to ride an unbroken horse, knowing that the best that can occur is that it will take a longer rather than a shorter time before you are battered, bruised and tasting sawdust as you lie squirming, flat on the ground...
             Booth seating on Wednesday night meant the TV was hidden from view but as we strolled back to the swing door the screen was showing American football again. 
              What about the other eaters in this classic American restaurant?  Well, apart from the solo men and the other snowbirds (winter visitors) there’s been a courting couple, a group of check shirted men who left abruptly after the basketball, a family celebrating a late teen’s birthday and a trio of Spanish speaking Hispanics. There are snippets of conversations that you overhear, of course:  “Well I watch Downton Abbey,” (staff member), “Vacation area down in the south of Vietnam,” (guy at the bar) and the anecdotes told by the staff “ Well I once flew six freshly caught and cooked crab from the East Coast to Las Vegas and all the passengers were salivating...”
            Diagonally opposite Carlee’s is a pizzeria: a couple of dozen teenage students, all with pizza boxes under their arms, were emerging on Wednesday night, heading for the yellow school bus.  That was Borrego Spring’s night life... before 9pm the Christmas lights outside the plant nursery had been switched off – and all that there is to look at in this Dark-Sky town is the sky.  And in this special place not even tonight’s thin cloud or waxing moon can disguise the presence of hundreds of sharp distinct pinpricks of light far, far above a darkened desert..
.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Out and about in San Diego County

            Preferred option for travel for Boatwif and the Captain is by boat (and that is the sole reference to boating in this post). Getting around here is done mainly by car or by train.
            Travellers from the UK intending to drive face certain challenges. Rental (hire) cars are inevitably automatics rather than having manual gearboxes. Driving is done from the left hand side of the car but on the right hand side of the road. Local roads are frequently two or more lanes wide and freeways can get up to five or more lanes in width. It helps to have a sense of direction (sun sets in the west, keep the Ocean on the right heading south, on the left heading north). But not every journey clings to the coast... hence the value of a satnav (US GPS)...
            The Captain is fond of satnavs: he has been a loyal TomTom supporter for several years but has found the cost of downloading updated maps exorbitant.  Hence, in Autumn 2012, a new satnav was bought, shipped directly from China, with maps of North America already installed. Scottish Sis borrowed it in the summer and it performed beautifully in Switzerland for her. Why then so much frustration over it during this trip...  Could a suitable place be found to mount it on the dashboard of the rented Jeep? Would the instrument remain attached to its mounting and not slide off?  How long would it be before the satnav overheated and its screen blanked out? Frustration after frustration... When the mounting had been made secure on a weighted saucer-like structure still the thing over-heated.
Only as its position has been moved further from the radiant heat on the windscreen, the outside air temperature has plummeted and the power socket is shared with another device has that problem been overcome.  However, an overall solution lurked nearby: Techno Son-in-law, determined to drag the Cleddau crew into the digital era, had upgraded his iPhone and donated his previous one to the boaters. Despite intensive pre-flight training the Captain reached a state of high frustration.
             “Give me the phone, man!” called Cal Mom one morning. “Let me see to it.” And quick as a flash she downloaded a free, simple to operate, satnav app. Wow, a Techno Mom was on hand...
               Picture the scene: twice the number of gadgets and wires now guide the driver about.  Off the car set on an excursion to a local shopping mall. Would both voices agree the route? Medium light “Chinese” voice chipped in first. “In three hundred feet turn left,” stipulated the instruction, in her very crisp delivery. The junction appeared.
              “Tuuurn left,” drawled the earthy tones of the iPhone voice.  And for a while the gadgets agreed. Chinese voice always spoke first, and at length, while the iPhone voice gave instructions later, in a succinct but slightly sexy tone. Then there was a falling out:
               “In two hundred feet turn left,” ordered the Chinese voice.
               “Turn right,” coaxed Miss Californian voice.  EEEK! That was why the Cleddau Jeep ended up driving into the rear entrance of the San Marcos Recycling Center.
               Within sight was the destination, a store named Bed, Bath and Beyond. “It’s OK,” soothed the driver as he wove his way onwards past industrial units and silos and disposal tanks... and, to be fair, in due course the destination was indeed reached.
               Over these last five or so days it’s as if there’s been quite a crowd in the car, one a rather officious being (“You are OVER the speed limit,” is her favourite complaint) while the other presence is a fun lover, confident in her ability to issue the right instruction at the right moment, always in a very encouraging way...
                So where have these Ladies guided us to? Furthest afield to date was an old favourite, Torrey Pines State Reserve,

a state park down on the coast. Mid-height cloud hung over the area, but there have been some winter rains and the terrain had lost its usual bleached appearance. The sandstone bluffs are carved dramatically by the winds. 300 feet below down on the beach thick bands of sedimentary rock are very apparent. The sand 's colour is grey-black,
 
the shade of the lowest rock layer...

               The Ladies (aided by Cal Guy Snr) got us to the Regal Cinema in Escondido (there was an audience of a dozen for a late afternoon showing of Frozen). There was a drive out to Oceanside, just to walk out along the pier, to see the pelicans
and to watch the surfers,
as well as various shopping missions.
               It was one particular shopping mission that got Boatwif labelled as a Seriously Dumb Woman. Bed, Bath and Beyond is a truly enormous home store, specialising in textiles, cookware and bathroom accessories. Boatwif was in search of a practical souvenir: at home a couple of months ago the Captain had applied ugly bodge tape to the split plastic of the clothes peg bag. Ha, get a replacement when out in America, she had thought. A first circuit of the store proved futile. Help was sought from an assistant.
               “A what?” (Puzzlement.) “ A peg bag? What’s it used for?” was the response, and he summonsed his supervisor.
              The purpose of the item sought was explained again. A faraway, dreamy look crossed the supervisor’s features.  At last he realised what was wanted. “Ah for clothes pins...! Now I do remember my old mom used to have something like that - but no, I don’t know where you’d get that.” Pause for thought. “I don’t even know where you’d get clothes pins...”
              In the land of sunshine no-one, just no-one it seems, hangs clothes outside to dry.
             “When did you ever see clothes hanging outside in California? People don’t do that here,” Cal Mom tactfully explained.
             Not beaten yet a few days later Boatwif scoured Target, a chain store similar to an old UK Woolworth store. And there, in the bath section was just one of these
– a bath tidy, ripe for adaptation back at home.
             Out and about there are ducks to be fed,
signs to be comprehended
(at a TK MAX store) and roadside and neighbourhood flowers to be marvelled at.
At 11am on Saturday there was a bit of a novelty: “Come on outside,” shouted Cal Guy Snr, “ and feel the English rain...!”  It was wet standing in line an hour later at Oceanside waiting for the Santa train – but it was a great trip to Sorrento Valley and back on a train festooned with garlands  and Christmas lights. Also travelling on the train were the Grinch, Santa
and Mrs Claus...
              Santa had a busy day. Early evening he arrived in San Marcos on the Quint (a San Marcos fire truck). Lights, horns and sirens announced the truck’s arrival. Truck stabilisers secured, the huge fire ladder was turned and raised, and Santa climbed right to the very top to turn on the lights of the Christmas tree.
One little boy was mightily impressed...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Afloat amid routines

           A trip to Southern California to stay with the Cal Clan involves routines:  there are the domestic routines of family life, seasonal routines and the routines that the Californian Three remember and anticipate.
          At this point of the trip (a Monday morning) domestic routines dominate. It’s a ‘back to school’ day after the Thanksgiving break. Bodies out of beds at 0700; don’t dawdle over breakfast; get dressed, clean teeth, find shoes... just as in millions of school age homes world-wide. The difference here, of course, is in the detail. Whereas the Cheshire One always dresses in grey skirt, white polo shirt and red jumper for her Macclesfield community school, here Cal Guy Snr and Cal Gal choose any clothes for school.  Here car pool arrangements between neighbours (US: neighbors) get the children to their 920 student elementary school a couple of miles away and the only yellow school bus to be seen is for special school students. (Severe budget cuts got rid of school transport a number of years ago.)  Out Cal Guy Snr and Cal Gal lumbered at 8am, huge backpacks on their shoulders. Except for Wednesdays the school day will finish at 3.10, on Wednesdays it is an hour earlier... Today, Monday, there will be a swift turnaround after school before all three are driven to swimming lessons in Carlsbad. Other routines in the school week involve Cal Guy Snr’s band practice on Wednesdays and his after school Safety Patrol duty on Fridays.
           Then there are the seasonal routines: Fall was marked by leafy bunting in supermarkets, mock scarecrows outside houses
and pumpkins galore. On the day before Thanksgiving Cal Guy Jnr, with a neighbour,  made a turkey from a pine cone and coloured feathers for the doorstep.  Now, after Thanksgiving, it’s spend, spend, spend for the holiday season.  50% of the US population, it was reported, partook in the Black Friday sales frenzy last Friday. Mid-Friday afternoon, after a routine trip to San Diego’s Science Museum and Railroad Museum,
this family rolled into the much-loved Barnes and Noble bookstore (another regular routine) in Escondido.  Placards and banners shrieked about Black Friday Weekend discounts and staff were hard-pressed to answer queries and attend to sales. Sound adverts on the local news radio channel proclaim “ultimate discounts” while throughout the weekend shopping mall car parks have been crammed full with cars.

           Another post-Thanksgiving seasonal routine is house illumination. On Saturday morning three adults and Cal Gal went to a local DIY store to top up the stock of Christmas (sorry, US: “holiday”) lights. Greeters at the door smiled, offered vouchers and pointed out a table where there was free coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts. In all stores staff offer help at the earliest opportunity and take great pleasure, it would seem, in guiding a customer to the location of even the most inexpensive item.  Ranging from absurd
to tasteful the holiday decorations were, like many things American, just downright bigger than British equivalents.  Cal Gal, mindful of her older brother’s interests, spotted a Yoda...
It probably took a dozen or more hours to sort, test, suspend and arrange the illuminations
but the effect is pretty dramatic.

            December 1st: “Freddie’s arrived – look!” someone called.
Overnight a tiny elf had taken his place high up on the mantelpiece. From there he watches and listens, reporting back to Santa every night on who’s been good and who’s been naughty, then reappearing next morning in a different place. He is magic, must not be touched – and Santa will collect him on the night of December 24th. So that’s another seasonal routine...
            When it comes to routines that occur with the Cal Three, well there are places to be revisited (specific museums, the Boomers small theme park and Crazy Golf course, the bookstore, a short trip on the local Sprinter commuter train), games to be played (Connect 4, Chutes and Ladders, Headbanz, charades, story-telling, chess), jigsaws to be done
 
and experiences to be shared (swimming lessons,
doing tricks on the park play equipment).

For sanity’s sake after the first morning a rule was made: no board games before 8am. Could you play Snakes (sorry, Chutes) and Ladders before 8 o’clock in the morning?!

            “Afloat” in the title...  It was on Sunday afternoon that a last pre-return to school treat occurred. The satnav was programmed (satnavs /electronics, that’s another story) for Boomers, which is west on Freeway 78, out towards Oceanside. The goal was to play mini golf and ride on the water boats.  Last year the golf was on the Pirates course, this year on the Fairyland course. All went well,
three players at some point managed a hole in one, and only thanks to Cal Gal’s lithe twisting and poking was a lost ball recovered from a pipe.
           Then to the boats. What fun it had looked last year. “Are you serious? Do you really want to go on them?” the Captain had questioned. Well – yes! But being able to steer a 60 foot narrow boat is of no advantage when it comes to steering a plastic circle operated by a push /pull /turn steering mechanism. Then when/if that is mastered, there is the water squirt button.
             “Granny, we won’t squirt each other, just other people,” Cal Guy Snr had suggested conspiratorially.
He didn’t keep his word, and all the other boaters were pretty accurate squirters too.
              So that’s how, as the sun went down on Sunday, Boatwif was once more afloat on a boat – and pretty wet too!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Sensory overload

           The Cal Clan’s home is about 30 miles north east of San Diego. Many times there has been a landing well after dusk, a shuffle through Immigration, Baggage Reclaim and Customs, followed by a courtesy bus trip to a car rental company and delays while paperwork and car allocation is made... This year the agony of fatigue and driving an unfamiliar vehicle at night was avoided.
          “Eleventh floor,” said the hotel receptionist. “Your room overlooks the city but there’s water both sides.”
From the room’s tiny balcony pinpricks of light could be seen arcing over the water across the Coronado Bridge. The sound of water cascading filled the air, feature fountains playing far below. As the balcony door was closed the haunting sound of a train’s air horn pulsed across to the water front from the train line that runs south from Los Angeles to Mexico.
           Sleep came quickly that night – though did not last long. The body clock dictates – and the body found itself vertical all too soon. It was nearly 6am and the city was stirring. Traffic hummed – and the sky was a blaze of deep oranges and yellows.
Could anyone not be moved by the sheer drama of daybreak
over a skyline like this?
           Full sun came – the city was properly awake. Aircraft engines roared as movement resumed over at the airport. Then a single bugle call floated up from across the harbour: Reveille. It was start of day for the Marine Corps; a brass band played The Stars and Stripes and more bugles replied. From the lighthouse out on the Ocean’s edge came the long low blast of a foghorn, its note deep enough to rattle your ribcage.
            And on TV, with tales of Thanksgiving holiday traffic being disrupted because of bad weather and of One Direction's Central Park show was Good Morning, America. With the sun warm on the skin, with bushes and shrubs still showing blooms in vibrant colours, it was indeed Good Morning America.
            A recent chance encounter with a Lists book played on the mind. ‘See the top ten attractions in San Diego’ had shouted the page in a glossy coffee table book on display at a garden centre. Balboa Park? TICK. Coronado Island? TICK. Gaslamp Quarter? TICK. Old Town? TICK... But there was one place not yet encountered. So, before heading north to see the Cal Clan, there was a diversion to the San Diego Mission.
Here in 1774 the first of the 21 Catholic Missions in California was established. There is a museum to the mission’s history,
a church still in active use, a large area of land for vineyards, orchards and gardens, and a Native American shelter.

            Then to head north. After stints on several freeways, an unplanned excursion through suburbia, the security of the familiar was reached, Highway 101. There was a caffeine boost at the old railway halt, the Pannikin,
a sniff of Pacific Ocean salt air
overflown by a pair of pelicans, some mountain shots from Double Peak viewpoint
– and then the best sensory assault of all. Arrived in the Cal Clan’s neighbourhood – where Cal Guy Jnr tore down the street, leapt in the arms, gave a hug and a squeeze, wriggled free, then sang Twinkle twinkle little star all the way through, while simultaneously doing paired feet jumps up and down on the sidewalk!  Such glee... Sight, sound, hearing, touch – what a great welcome from  America, from California and from family all in a few short hours...