Guns

This awful killing in Orlando appears to have cracked another chasm into the porous crust that is American society.  Back with the Columbine shooting it was bullying, films and computer games that made them do it.  The Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook massacres brought to light mental health issues and the lack of support vulnerable individuals received.  The San Bernardino shooting raised the issue of Islamist extremism, as did the atrocity at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  Then we have the shooting in Killeen, Texas in 1991 when George Jo Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 27 others, because he hated women.  What about Binghampton in 2007, where 13 people died at the trigger fingers of Jiverly Antares Wong, whose motives included being degraded for his poor English skills.  Dylann Roof killed 9 people in a Charleston church last year because he was trying to incite a race war.  The Orlando shooting was a hate crime too, this time solely aimed at the LGBT community.

It appears that with every awful incident, a new discussion is dredged up.  Homophobia, Islamophobia, Xenophobia to name a few.  The motives change, the discussion changes, but the results remain the same.  Large-scale death in a country that is A) largely at peace and B) the wealthiest nation on Earth.  I’m not a scientist but it would appear fruitful to attempt to dilute the emotion that quite expectedly pervades these post-massacre discussions and try to distill some common factors on all these mass-shootings.  What is quite obvious is that motive is largely irrelevant.

When your country has had 133 mass shooting incidents THIS YEAR (as of only June 13th),  it’s time to approach the problem not case by case but as an overall trend.  What is the common factor in all these massacres?  It’s not terrorism.  It’s not religion.  It’s not race.  No, nearly all the massacres are committed by men and every single massacre is undertaken with a gun.

Why is it nearly always a male?  Testosterone?  Societal pressures to be macho?  Late development of impulse control and the awareness of consequences?  Probably these and loads more.  But 98% of all mass-killings in America are committed by males.  Not sure how even Trump would succeed in justifying a ban on all men in America, so this may be the trickier side of the coin to address.

The gun issue is surely the most straight forward.  Right?  RIGHT?  Here is the gun that was used in the Orlando killing spree:

Not sure it’s what the founding fathers had in mind when they scribbled down every citizen’s right to bear arms.  This was the gun of choice in 1777:

On average, it fired 3 rounds a minute. The AR-15 Assault Rifle on the other hand (the first picture if you’re wondering)…..

Its firing speed is dependent on how quick your trigger finger is, but it’s capable of firing 800 rounds a minute.  So 13.3 bullets A SECOND!  Seeing as the magazine only has 30 bullets, this greatly reduces the number of shots you’ll get, especially considering you could finish off a magazine in under three seconds.   It seems peculiar to have a gun on the market that can fire more bullets than you can humanly carry in less time than Usain Bolt takes to run a lap.  I mean how many quail are you trying to kill when you’re out hunting with Hank and the boys?

The AR-15 Assault Rifle was the gun of choice to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook.  James Holmes used it as his predominant firearm when shooting up the cinema in Aurora, killing 12 and injuring 58 (motive largely accepted as insanity).  It was one of the guns used in the San Bernardino atrocity.  The Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, bought the rifle legally one week before his rampage.

Now, politicians in the US seem stricken by some sort of NRA-funded paralysis on the issue so it seems like it’s down to the citizens of America, those who the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment for in the first place, to stand up, have a word and get the most bleeding obvious factor to gun crime off their streets.  Namely, guns.  And if we have to start somewhere, specifically automatic assault rifles like the AR-15.

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Melbourne Identity

My old chum Marlon Williams has released a self-titled album and it’s superb. All at once haunting and chipper and mournful and hopeful, I listened to it on the shuttle bus to LAX, concrete and tarmac whizzing by the window while I came across an odd thought. Here I was reminiscing about Lyttelton where I’d met Marlon in 2008-2010, after a morning of hanging out with my old friend Erin from two summers of Camp America (2005-06)

 and a previous evening of eating BBQ food with Danny – a guy I worked with in Shanghai (2010 – 11). A whole bunch of previous adventures to call upon, yet here I was sitting next to Catriona facing down the barrel of a whole new escapade – Australia in 2015. It was like a massive “Previously on 24…” but instead of Jack Bauer with his gun it’s me looking puzzled at a Lonely Planet. Of course, it’s taken us a bit longer than 24 hours to get to Australia, quite a lot longer indeed…

On the 21st April, we caught our first flight from Managua, the hodge-podge capital of Nicaragua after 3 blissful days at a hostel called the Surfing Turtle on the Pacific coast. The waves were so ridiculous here it should have really been called the Drowning Turtle, or the Turtle in the Washing Machine.

 We discovered a whole new extreme sport of just trying to survive in the sea, as great walls of water threw us back on to the beach like aggressive bouncers to a particularly wet nightclub. Despite the tempest we were very well relaxed and had the chance to reconvene with Catriona’s sister Ellen, who is still marching southwards towards Panama and we made some new pals in the form of Anya (Canada), Tom (England), Minako (Japan) and Damon (USA). Damon had the endearing trait of including Spanish phrases into his English sentences, such as – “how long you been aqui?” And – “Are we going ahorita?” It speaks volumes on the calming effects of travelling that I actually found this affliction quite charming. To add some tenuous symmetry to the trip, Tom and Anya were a couple based in Whitehorse in the Yukon, which was where G and I had accidentally stolen a Korean girl’s backpack back in October. They were also awesome. Relaxation over, we took the aforementioned flight from Managua to Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

 With an 18-hour layover until our next plane we decided to jump on the bus into town and see what Fort Laudes had to offer. Ah the bus. Public transport in America. What a laugh. After a long wait we spotted one of these rare elongated beasts and hailed it confidently. I slipped a $20 bill into the machine next to the driver. He looked at me incredulously. “Did you just put $20 in the machine?” I nodded sagely, awaiting two tickets and $16.50 of change to appear any second. “That doesn’t give any change!” He had adopted a look you save for old people using their mobility scooters on the motorway. We took our now very expensive bus to downtown and happened upon a great art gallery doing a Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera retrospective. Even more symmetry to the trip considering our previous trips to both their houses in Mexico. Fort Lauderdale was eerily quiet on the pedestrian front, with only homeless people populating the sidewalks. Quite the contrast from any town or city south of the border. We caught the next flight to LA for another showcase in sidewalk aversion.

With Gina, back in 2014, we had circumnavigated LA, but now with 2 days until our next cheap flight, we found ourselves on Sunset Boulevard, filled with tramps dressed as Spiderman and people selling tours to see where celebrities died. We walked to Paramount Studios and managed to bag the last spots on a tour.

 We saw props from Interstellar and Transformers, sets being built (and partially destroyed for a fire scene) and loads of extras milling about. Our guide Richard was a bit of an idiot though. With some of the greatest movies ever made at his fingertips (minus Transformers) he opted to ask us if there were any castles in Scotland and if he could wear a crown when he visited. He then asked the couple from New York if they were ‘there’ on 9/11. Hey Richard, how about you talk about the Godfather and leave the questions for the people who HAVE PAID FOR THIS TOUR.

Our brief sojourn to the States confirmed a few suspicions I had on the last tour – life is tough here. Nowhere I’ve been to has had a sense of community (apart from perhaps Portland) and there seems to be an undercurrent of not just dissatisfaction, but tangible rage at the way things are going. On the surreally empty underground train in LA, a girl slumped down on her chair and declared loudly, “Fuck! Is it Friday yet?” On another bus a lady ranted at us passengers about the inequality of America. As we alighted at our stop with our bags she said, “Welcome to California, enjoy spring break, trust no-one.”

Our next flight was to Fiji, which took a while. I watched ‘Kingsman’ which was enjoyable rubbish and ‘American Sniper’ which was enjoyable Bradley Cooper time. We only had a paltry 8 hours in Fiji but managed to squeeze in a trip to the beach, the pool, the bar and a stir-fry place. Very brief but I can conclude – Fiji is nice.

 It was finally time for the final flight, taking us to Melbourne on the 26th April, concluding our 6-day wander west. Catriona’s already spent the best part of a year here already so her excitement levels were high despite the mammoth jet-lag. I’d been here back in 2008 and remembered quite a high propensity for hipsters and gentrifying old industrial spaces into coffee houses and vintage denim shops. We made our way to her mate’s Steve’s place, who very kindly agreed to put us up for a week. His apartment is in a converted chocolate factory. It resembles something out of an Audi advert. However, like the rest of Melbourne, it is incredible. The city is somewhere between the best of an American city (leafy avenues, groovy shops) and a British city (you know, public transport, people not in cars). It’s so nice that we’ve booked flights to Alice Springs for next week to get bar work for a few months. Go figure.

As a final bit of symmetry, I met up with Alicia the other night, the seventh Camp America reunion I’ve had in the past seven months. As with the whole trip it’s been people that have made it so memorable and enjoyable. There’s been too many highlights to speak of but I’ll give it a go shortly and do a bunch of ‘Top 5’s.’ However, my motto at his juncture would be, “trust everyone and everything. Unless it’s a ticket machine on a bus.”   Here’s a list I kept up of the whole trip:

        PS – you can listen to Marlon Williams’ album on spotify or buy the thing in a shop!

San Diego…or San Diago…Founded by the Germans, it means Whale’s….

A fat guy called Stanley sat opposite me in a campsite hot tub back up in Oregon. “The best resource for people,” he proclaimed, “is other people.” Stanley, it appears, was on the button. Even earlier in our wee trip, we had got talking to a bearded chap by the name of Steve, propping up a bar in Seward, Alaska. Steve had given us his number and told us if we ever got to Santa Barbara, (he seemed more sceptical than even us that we’d make it) we could call him and he’d have us stay in a bus in his driveway down there. Skip forward 2 months, and there we were, cooped up in a converted school bus (it had beds and everything), basking in the Californian sunshine and swapping stories with Steve, his family and his next door neighbours. We ended up staying for 4 nights.

This was partly because Steve’s driveway was being resurfaced and he needed some extra hands to fill holes with dirt and transfer piles of bricks to other piles of bricks. We’re not sure if he’d just been waiting for us to arrive to get this done but we were happy to get our hands dirty for a change.   Cheap labour aside, Steve also took us out on his flat-bottomed speed boat, which whizzed along at a fair pace and hit each swell with such severity my tail bone was crushed into a fine powder. G got a shot at driving the thing while I dived in and swam with some dolphins that were performing a cheeky fly-by. They whooshed right under me and headed off to eat some fish – none of this playing malarkey unfortunately – but I was pretty giddy.

Steve’s next door neighbour also left an impression. His name was Court and he was a mystic of some sort (and also a very accomplished skate-board artist, who used to design Tony Hawk’s decks), who declared immediately that both G and I were “Level 3 Old Souls” and most intriguingly, “twin souls.” Twin souls have spent numerous past lives together and it appears that G and I have had a few adventures in the past, including one occasion where I was Issac Newton and 17th Century Cambridge G managed to secure me some funding. I informed Court that in this life I actually failed maths, (not to mention G would more likely give me a kick than any money)but that was irrelevant. Court was one of the most fascinating people either of us have ever met. We just sat in his house, listening to his birds chirp in the background, while he smoked endlessly and proffered musings and poems on our previous lives. It was a very surreal few days.

Now we’re in San Diego and tomorrow we head south to Mexico, with a new recruit in the shape of Karen, an English lady who dives for a living and knows Spanish. A rather useful trait as our Spanish learning has been a little slower than anticipated. By slower, I mean pretty close to non-existent. San Diego is sunny, filled with hippies, $1 fish tacos and waves that gobble your surf board like a Hungry Hippo. The hostel is good fun though, although a fat bloke in our room snored so loudly last night (and thrashed around like the girl in the Exorcist) that none of us slept. It was like trying to sleep through a thunder storm. I genuinely could not shout as loud as he was snoring. So we moved rooms. I reckon he’ll get the hint when he beds down tonight and he’s all alone – saying that we’ll probably still hear his dying walrus impressions from the other side of the hostel. Ridiculous.

I forgot to mention in a previous post that we went to Napa Valley. We got lots of vouchers and drank all the wine. The End.

Land of the Free-Loaders

Approaching Santa Barbara today, avoiding the chill of the rest of the continent like we planned it.  There’s a thin envelope of sunshine following us down the coast so we’re not deviating.  I’ve been going down memory lane since San Francisco, revisiting all my old stomping grounds from when I worked in summer camp back in ’05 and ’06.  The camp was in the rather well-heeled Carmel Valley (I say “was” as it’s closed down now sadly), which is all yellow grass, assorted trees and quirky mansions.  We located the Cachagua General Store, which opens as a restaurant on only Monday night and Sunday brunch.  This operation is run by mate Dylan’s dad, Mike.  Mike runs a pretty smooth operation out there in the woods.  We rocked up in the dark to find a buzzing little shack, all fairy lights and live music, and went on to eat what was quite easily the best meal of the trip so far, and will take some topping.  Lamb shank, rabbit, crab cakes, washed down with great wine and an atmosphere not seen since I worked in the Volcano back in Lyttelton.  The couple on the table next to us had got married two days previously, and the newly wed husband had demanded their first stop on their honeymoon be the Monday Night Restaurant as he hadn’t been in four years and he still remembered the rabbit.  High acclaim indeed!  Mike regaled us with war stories and let us sleep on the floor that night, even leaving a little breakfast out for us in the morning.  Tremendous.

We then got the pleasure of taking Highway 1 south, which Gina enjoyed almost as much as us, until we took a wee detour that Mike had suggested – along the old highway that existed before all the concrete bridges were erected in the 30s.  This stretch of “road” was ten miles of pot holes that took over an hour to navigate.  At one point we had to give Gina a rest at the crest of a hill, her engine melting like a T1000.  The road to Mordor was better maintained. We got to Big Sur and climbed up the river gorge, which due to years of drought was a fair bit shallower than when I used to go there last decade.

The number of hitchhikers has gone up though, and we’ve had 5 in the car since entering CA.  A mixed bag to be fair, the first guy had clearly wet himself and we had to fumigate Gina after he’d gone.  The third guy immediately asked us for money, which was bloody cheeky and the final two we dropped off yesterday, one of whom was called Brodie and fought fires in the summer and hunted for jade during the other months.  I’m not sure who jade is but I hope she’s ok.

We’ve been very guilty of free-loading ourselves of course, kindly letting Griffin host us in San Francisco.  I used to work with Griffin back at camp and apart from his super mario moustache he hasn’t changed a bit, which is all at once refreshing and deeply, deeply disturbing.  He took us out for BBQ and burritos and spent the rest of the time insulting me, which I could see he had sorely missed doing.  We took Gina over the Golden Gate Bridge, somehow avoiding the tolls by driving through the wrong check-point and paid a visit to Arhoolie Records, which featured in a movie we watched back in Homer, Alaska.  The store features stuff recorded by the owner from the past 5o years, all over America and Mexico, all out in the open or at gigs and all reassuringly bluesy, jazzy or folksy.  Imagine the shop in High Fidelity staffed by ZZ Top and you’re getting there.

Final shout out to the Santa Cruz Warriors, a D-League basketball team we caught by chance, playing some other team from somewhere else that produces 8 foot monsters.  The most amazing thing about the match was that even during a 20 second time-out there was entertainment lined up to fill the gaps.  “Oh look everybody, Alan McClusky from Row 12, Seat 5 is going to kick a ball through the mascot’s legs for FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS!!”  I genuinely enjoyed these parts more.  When they ran out of games the mascot just did a break dance in the centre circle.

So by our clock, we’ll be in Mexico in a week or less.  Those drive-time Spanish CDs will be on repeat!

Dead Good Redwoods

Interesting times on the road since we left Corvalles. First up, a hidden collection of hot springs we uncovered, populated by a naked guy who looked like John Hurt and a naked guy who looked like Tony Soprano. Second up, a bar near Diamond Lake where we got talking to three young guys who were working on some ant-infested campground toilets nearby. They said we could camp next to their caravan and they’d ply us with beer and breakfast – that sounds creepy but it honestly wasn’t. They let me hold their hunting rifles while they regaled us with various carpentry anecdotes from around the Midwest.

The next day we attempted to climb the notorious Mount Thielsin, a 3000 metre monster with an almost vertical spindle on top that resembled ET’s finger. A bloke from Alaska had recommended the climb back in Portland, describing the ascent as “unequivocal.” Unsure what he actually meant by this but convinced by the conviction in which he said it, we set off through the trees under a cloudless blue sky. Above the trees it was a different story. Thick clouds rushed in rapidly and within minutes we were down to “shower door after a particularly hot shower” levels of visibility. We carried on gamely but soon it became apparent that the clouds were darkening and the wind was starting to make that whistling noise usually associated with disaster and suffering. So we made the rather mature decision to descend. Enjoying a warming coffee in a nearby café, the manager informed us he knew of a group of guys who have returned to summit Thielsen for the past 6 years without success, so that softened the blow of our first proper mission failure.

Since then however, it’s been a merry succession of successes. California greeted us with sunshine and we made haste for the giant redwoods on the coast. These trees are simply ridiculous. Gathered together like enormous statesmen from another world, they seem to inspire the same reaction (and neck pain) in every human – silent upward-facing gawping. Some of these trees are 370 feet tall. Saint Paul’s cathedral is 365 feet tall. They make the trees in Dunnottar Woods look like water cress. After camping on the beach we made our way along the misty shore, headed inland along the base of a canyon lined with fern (or a fern gully if you will) and then back through the redwoods. Pretty insane contrast there.

We’re now in an extremely shady motel in the odd town of Arcada. It’s basically the town from Back to the Future but populated entirely by hippies and hobos. Our next door neighbour just opened his door as we walked past stark naked with a spliff the size of a pine cone in his mouth. Some hippies in the square offered us vegetable soup and bread for free because “people should feed people,” which was a lovely sentiment and far lovelier than the soup in question as my stomach cramps will attest to. We spent the money we’d saved on watching Interstellar at the ‘Minor Theatre’ (America’s oldest purpose built cinema apparently) which was stark raving bananas but we loved it.

Oregon of the species

(written on 5th November)

Ahoy there from the leather-bound cockpit of Lady Gina. Today’s voyage is taking a definite southern turn as we leave the wholesome town of Corvalles and our grand host Colin behind and make haste for Crater Lake. There are only two of us in the jeep now, the lowest number since day one in Anchorage, as we finally cast Zie German off in Portland. Goodbyes are horrible at the best of times. This one was the worst of times. It certainly feels like stage one of our trip has been completed with the Age of Zabrina clearly denoted in our minds as that wonderful 6 week period between Alaska and Portland. She and her ridiculous laugh will be sorely missed! Portland was the perfect spot to say goodbye however, as it is quite simply one of the greatest cities we’ve ever been to.

I use city in the loosest term, not that Portland isn’t city-sized, we’re not talking Brechin City shenanigans here, it just didn’t feel much like any city I know. We were aware of the high potential for hipsters, but all these folks seemed to have relocated to Vancouver. Portland has gone full hipster circle. Guys don’t get trendy hair cuts here, they just don’t get haircuts. Buskers don’t play to empty street corners, they play to crowds of dreadlocked vegans all high on life amongst other things. It all sounds very pretentious but it happens to be so relaxed and informal and just nice. G and I went on a morning jog (no lie) in a nearby park and the bums wished us a good day and a happy run. There’s a bookstore in the downtown called Powells that is the size of a city block. I mean to say that it actually is a city block. It seemingly has every item that has ever gone to print in history. It’s like the Great Library of Alexandria with way more denim. On Hallowe’en (in our thrift store costumes of a zombie nurse and Connor Macleod from Highlander) we went to a bar that was stacked full with retro arcades (Asteroids, Pac-Man, Donkey-Kong) and while all the patrons slugged quarters into the machines in their various fancy dresses, a DJ dressed as Thriller Michael Jackson, played Prince remixes. If this wasn’t heavenly enough, the beer on sale was just ridiculously good. 7% IPAs that tasted like someone milked an angel. The city seems to run entirely on coffee and beer – both of which they have raised to an art form. It’s weird too. We went to some underground club courtesy of a great bloke we met called Enon who looked a bit like Spike Lee and danced a lot like Bruce Lee. I found myself upstairs from there in a drag-queen cabaret show whereupon I was invited on stage to perform in a dance competition. My rival immediately stripped off and started daubing his body in neon paint. My booty-shaking robot routine was blown out the water. By the time I’d managed to summon up the courage to remove my shirt the victor was declared and I was left to do up my buttons solemnly in the corner while G and Zabrina creased themselves.

So that was Portland. I would advise you visit in the summer where it may not rain quite as much (we’re talking rival to Glasgow here) and that you perhaps cleanse your liver beforehand. Our faith in cities restored, we’re back on the road heading to greener pastures. The pastures were decidedly less green on the way to Portland – the Colombia river snaked through an undulating yellow expanse that added a definite Mad Max feel to proceedings. However, these quickly evolved into a thick canyon of forest that secluded such a number of towering waterfalls that to chase them all would take TLC levels of commitment. The only thing we’re chasing now is summer, heading south after escaping winter in Canada, autumn in Washington and the monsoon season in Portland. It might be time to see if Gina’s air con is up to scratch…

Zee Germans Are Coming!

Hi there from Leavenworth (or as some locals unfairly say ‘Worth Leaving), which took us by surprise somewhat in that here, 100 miles or so east from Seattle, is a town completely made up to look Bavarian. I’m not talking a couple of token goat herder hats either, I’m talking ornate wooden houses, farming scenes painted on walls, bratwurst for lunch and Erdinger for dinner kind of Bavaria. It’s very surreal, especially as the surrounding scenery is most definitely not Bavaria. It’s orange trees and craggy rocks Washington. A woman we met hiking today told us that after the lumber trade died back in the 1920s and the railway line got redirected after one too many deadly avalanches, the place had become a ghost town. Then some bright sparks decided to dolly up their new shack to look like a ski chalet. It made the Seattle press and people came from all around to visit it. The Leavenworth locals took notice, a vote was held (“Do you want your town to look like The Sound of Music?”), the town said yes and the rest as they say in Bavaria, ist Geschichte.

Bavaria apparently

Bavaria apparently

Zie German Hitchhiker was very happy indeed. (We were meant to say goodbye to her in Vancouver but it appears that has been postponed until Portland). That is until she ordered her favourite Bavarian dish Kaesespaetzle and they didn’t put any onions in it, which according to her was like omitting cheese from a cheeseburger. The bloke in lederhosen playing the accordion next to us cheered her up, even if he did look a bit like an S & M Jeffrey Archer.

Washington has been very kind to us so far though. When you’re on the road for a while, there are definite peaks and troughs, and moods can be deeply affected by what hindsight might call “trifling matters.” Vancouver, with its expensive hostels, expensive bars, expensive transport, expensive parking and expansive range of homeless folk presented our collective mood with a few challenges. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clearly a great city, with a wealth of stuff to do, trendy people, good music (battle of the bands and Seth Troxler were huge highlights), it perhaps dawned on us that with the freedom we’d previously had with Gina on the open road, we perhaps weren’t quite ready or appreciative of The Big City. It was great to catch up with some old buddies (hello Hugh and Doug!) and the Grouse Grind was a grand achievement (go up Grouse mountain as quick as you can – scores on the doors: Zabrina – 59 minutes, G – 53 mins, Alex ‘Mobot’ Thurlow – 49 mins) but with wallets draining and a mechanic informing us Gina needed a new tail-pipe (exhaust) and muffler (muffler), we didn’t really leave Canada in the highest of spirits. So it was with great relief that we whizzed south to Washington’s vast open spaces, farmsteads out of Smallville, drive-thru espresso stands and most importantly CHEAP BEER.

Furry firs in washington

Furry firs in washington

A bit higher

A bit higher

We halted in Everett for the night (depleted of our garlic cloves and cumin seeds courtesy of US customs – go figure) and happened upon a WHL hockey match between the local side (the Silvertips) and their bitter rivals from Seattle. What followed was a dramatic winner in overtime, pandemonium in the stands and more waving neon sticks than a jedi orgy.

Pink tips for the Silvertips

Pink tips for the Silvertips

The next day we visited the Boeing factory, which proudly proclaims to be The Biggest Building In The World (by volume). We saw the gigantic production lines they ripped off Henry Ford and magnified a few hundred times, the new Dreamliner crafts with flexing albatross wings and even one of their four Dreamlifter aircraft, which transport various jumbo fuselages to the plant. The Dreamlifters look pretty cumbersome and oversized if you ask me – like an anaconda that’s tried to digest a hippo.

DSCF5362
Next stop – who knows! We’re playing a game of Washington Word of Mouth, where we ask a local in the morning where we should go and take it from there. All roads lead to Portland right?

Tok the Tok

Ah karma, you cruel little mistress you! In my last post I dared to laugh in the face of the Alaskan winter.  Silly.  Upon waking up in Glenallen (calling it a one horse town would be of great disservice to the horse) to a blanket of snow that was growing to duvet-levels under the perennial downfall, I realised how lucky we’d been over the past 2 weeks. Sunshine! In Alaska! In October! It was indeed a fluke. G took command of Gina like a great polar explorer though. The studded tyres we bought by complete accident proved their worth on the unpisted highway and we crunched confidently eastwards towards Tok. It was a long drive. Alaska is big. In the back, the Germans read out Spanish numbers from our Dorling Kinglsey phrase book and we repeated them, surely putting us in good stead for Mexico and beyond. The scenery had altered from the dramatic mountains and confident firs and pines of Kennai, to timid little saplings poking out of the snow, praying humbly for more sunshine. It was not to be. Tok sits on the last major junction before the border, go north to certain hyperthermia or go east to the land of maple syrup. Gina had had enough (she’s an old bird) so we pulled into a motel for the night. Tok made Glenallen look like Las Vegas. It was a one shrew town. Maybe a one vole town. We found the one open diner called Fast Eddie’s and ate a pile of pizza that should have fed us for a week. Even after we’d all been silenced into submission by the cheese influx there was comfortably enough left over for a doggy bag that kept us going the whole next day. You’d comfort eat too if you lived in Tok.

The next day’s weather was warmer and we strode buoyantly into Canada and the fabled Yukon territory, where Jack London camped out and saw enough to write ‘Call of the Wild’ among others. The border guard seemed more interested in our journey south rather than our passports and we continued on to Haines Junction. The plan was to get to Whitehorse but Gina had other ideas. It turns out she doesn’t enjoy being thrashed through gravel pot holes for a number of hours and let us know this with the ‘Check Engine’ beacon flickering desperately as I veered her up another hill. So we let her cool down for an hour, threw stones into an impossibly blue lake and nursed her to the nearest hub of civilisation. She’s doing well all things considering. Sure, the windscreen has a decorative full-width crack, the boot has to be held open with a stick (nicknamed the trunk tree) and her petrol cap is kept shut with a well-placed stone in the hinge, but the girl has guts. We’re quietly confident she’ll make California. Very quietly mind.

Whitehorse was our final destination and we dropped Petra off at the airport so she could fly home. We’re now down to one German. Upon dropping her off we picked up all her luggage (or so we thought) from the hostel and afterwards did some WalMart supplies shopping (the place sold guns, knives and kayaks but no fruit or veg) and moseyed around the town, which falls somewhere between an old gold-rush settlement and a washed-up tourist trap. We got back to the hostel to plot our onward trip only to find the owner and a bunch of backpackers in near hysteria. Someone had stolen a Korean girl’s backpack with all her travel documents and other worldly possessions and she was due to catch a flight in two hours! Crime in Whitehorse! The Korean girl was in full panic-mode. How would she get home? The owner was busy phoning embassies across Canada to aid her.   I casually checked Gina’s boot (safely implementing the trunk tree first of course) and plucked a strange red bag from her innards. “Who’s is this?” I enquired innocently. We were then subjected to a tirade of abuse and guilt as the Korean girl snatched it off us jubilantly and the hostel owner berated us for taking other people’s stuff without checking. It appeared we’d taken one bag too many for Petra’s departure. A free lift to the airport for the relieved Korean and some apology beers for all other aggrieved parties later, we all agreed that hindsight was a wonderful thing, ate some of G’s “wonder dish” veggie curry and are now planning to walk into the hills at midnight to catch the Northern Lights. We just need those snow clouds to clear…. Next stop, Walton Lake and hot springs!

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

DSCF4852  first off – here’s Gina – what an absolute babe.

The generosity of Americans towards travelers is well documented but when you experience it first hand it’s still like being in your own Disney film. We hit up the Seward music festival, which took place in a giant hall on the quayside in between piles of coal and fish factories. All the locals were penned in the ‘beer garden’ to the side of the stage, where a bunch of hairy people played folk and rock music. Those that had escaped the pen were dancing like Thunderbirds with their strings cut. It was brilliant. The beer on offer, indeed the beer we’ve drunk all over the state has been pretty exceptional – microbreweries are everywhere, with the most popular drink being a ‘Scottish Red,’ which bares no resemblance to anything I’ve consumed in Scotland but goes down like a well-greased otter. At the festival we got talking to a couple of teachers called Marc and Letty Swanson. Marc obviously liked the cut of our jib and promptly invited us and the Germans round their place for breakfast the next day. We’re not sure how much of a say Letty had in the matter but first thing the next morning we were puling up their drive on Lancelot Lane (all the streets in Seward were King Arthur orientated) and tucking into freshly caught salmon and pancakes. Before we could dab our mouths clean, Marc announced that he was going to take us on a little hike. And so up to Exit Glacier we went, scrambling above the huge mass of ice and up to the Harding Ice Field from where it spilled from. By this point, Marc, with top off, bandana and shades on and becoming more and more like Alaska’s answer to Rambo, exclaimed his astonishment at how much the glacier had receded in just a year. “Global warming?” I proffered. “Ya, but this baby’s been going backwards for over a century, however now there’s not even any fresh snow up here, it’s gonna do well to last another ten years!” Feeling a little lucky to see such a phenomenon in it’s final throes, we traipsed back to the Swanson pad for salmon and beef burgers, beer and more stories from Marc and Letty, who are pretty typical Alaskans in that they have seemingly done everything ever and faced certain death several times. We left in high spirits but feeling a little guilty; this guy had just given up his whole day to feed and entertain us! All we could offer in return was a promise we’d look after them if they ever visited Scotland. Seeing as Alaska is basically a massive, more stunning Scotland I’m not sure how likely this is.  Here was the view and here’s the family:

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So onwards to Homer we went, where a wee documentary film festival was kicking off. The whole village seemed to be into it so we obliged and checked out a couple of flicks, one on a bloke who travelled round the States recording street musicians and the other about the last days in Saigon in 1975. I would happily grant both of them 4 stars. The worst thing about the cinema experience was seeing what they do to their popcorn over here. I asked about flavours and the guy said their “Yeast Extract Flavouring was unbelievable!” Yes it was unbelievable. It tasted like rotten soap. Each colonel was coated in this stuff, which was clearly overspill from a redundant bakery. The popcorn would have tasted better with road grit.

Things are definitely closing down for winter now. The only hostel in Homer had shut up shop so we stayed in the Heritage Hotel, which felt a bit like staying in a closed down leisure centre. With the sun still beating down from a cloudless sky (I laugh in the face of the ‘Alaskan Winter!) we took the very long walk along the Homer Spit, which juts out for miles into a vast bay ringed with mountains.

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Sea otters drifted by like furry lilos (seriously they just float on their backs all day) and we grabbed some elk meatloaf at the Land’s End Restaurant. Well G and Zabrina did. G said it was one of the best meals he’d ever had. I took the advice of the waitress and went for the buffalo chicken burger, which tasted like every other chicken burger I’ve ever had. Minimum tip for her! That night the bar we were in closed down temporarily so everyone could rush outside and see the Northern Lights. Just a flicker this time but we’ve been promised the real deal in Tok, which is where we’re heading for now, via Anchorage. Incidentally, another guy we met at the Seward music festival is putting us up in Anchorage – this generosity thing’s a good gig!

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The Land of Cliches

My advice to anyone planning a trip to Alaska is to go in September. Firstly, the locals aren’t expecting you. This weekend in Seward for instance, which is where we are at the moment, there’s a big arts and music festival on. In Homer, where we’re going tomorrow, there’s a film festival. Tourist season is over and Alaskans are celebrating before they have to hibernate next to their log burners. In addition, and rather more specific to this particular September, the weather has been surprisingly good. Even the locals can’t believe it. I actually got sunburn, although not necessarily that amazing as I have the pigmentation of a mini milk. Our first journey in Gina was to Flat Top Mountain – the most climbed mountain in Alaska. As I was navigating we went the wrong way and hiked to Rabbit Lake instead.  It turned out to be a hugely successful mistake however, as the lake in question was beautiful, flanked by huge Mordor-esque mountains.  G decided to impress the two German girls we’ve picked up (Zabrina and Petra – crazy but great fun) and went swimming in it.  He was incredulous that a lake could be so cold.  Silly, silly man.  As he slowly regained his pulse we bumped into another girl called Lesley, who’s job was to fly around Alaska and tend to people who have been mauled by either farming machinary or bears.  I asked her about the bears.  Apparently, the trick is to act dead if a grizzly bear attacks you although you are allowed to fight back a bit if it actually starts eating you.  Think the gate is getting locked after the horse has bolted but we nodded at her sage advice.  She also asked if we were carrying guns or bear-spray on any of our hikes. We realised the wilderness out here is actually rather wild.

None more so than in Hope, a tiny gold rush hamlet on the Kennai Peninsula and the scene of not one but two brushes with death that we had.  Firstly, a moose charged at us.  It was eating apples off a tree and we stopped to take photos of it.  Next thing I knew it was lurching pretty ungainly in our direction and I was running and screaming.  To avoid death by moose you’re supposed to run in zig zags.  I challenge anyone to remember this when a huge brown death monster is  rampaging after them.  You just try and outrun your mates and not cry.  Secondly, there was a bloody earthquake!  6.2 on the old richter scale.  Having survived one in Nepal, G an I obviously took this in our stride and didn’t panic at all.  The locals were pretty cool about it too – they survived the 9.2 one in 1964 and that sunk Hope by 8 feet so this one was just a light ruffle of the feathers.

We actually missed Hope it was so small.  G reckoned it was a joke on the map but on second glimpse we found a tiny turn-off and located the collection of sheds that constituted the DownTown Precinct.  By this time it was bloody freezing and there was no danger we were camping.  Luckily we sourced a wooden cabin in the forest with four beds, owned by a lady with a broken leg called Barbara.  She let the four of us stay in it for a couple of nights so we could climb Hope Point and go to the local Music Jam.  The hike up Hope Point was strenuous but stupidly beautiful.  Like the opening credits of The Raccoons mixed with New Zealand.  At the top we could see Anchorage and the whole Seward Highway snaking through the mountains in between.  G also saw a black bear, which was another box ticked.  At least he claimed he saw a black bear – the photo he took of it would indicate that he saw he a dark bush about 500 metres away.

Other boxes were ticked today as well!  We saw Orcas in the wild!  Sea otters!  Sea lions!  And most impressively, a vast tidewater glacier, calving huge lumps of itself into the sea.  The whole mountain seemed to be groaning under the strain, thundering it’s disapproval. G likened it to a giant 2p machine at the amusements, sliding icy coppers in to the torrent below.  He’s a poet I tell you!

So tonight it’s off to the Seward music festival.  We were there last night and it was pretty wild.  I fought a four-year old kid in Spartan armour who kept referring to himself as Leonidis, drank too much local cider and danced to a reggae band from Gambia.  Next stop is Homer, then back north and onwards…to Canada!  A least that’s the plan…don’t let us down Gina!