Thursday, November 19, 2009

SLO train returns

Bakersfield is synonymous (for me) with country music as imagined by the Rolling Stones (“girl with faraway eyes”) and memorable for both of us the place we consummated our marriage. This time round it appeared to have grown exponentially and as a result finding anything at all in the town, least of all a motel, proved difficult to say the least. Eventually we found the always reliable America’s Best Value Inn and headed off to a pizza parlour. The latter turned out to be a cross between a sports bar and a working class social club: the sort of place that in the UK would probably make me wince but which in the US having a wife and a pleasant disposition (and an enthusiasm for beer and pizza) made effortless. The next day we were in San Louis Obispo (SLO), more our kind of town: surrounded by mountains yet warm most of the year, inland but a short distance from the Californian coast, and possessed of very cool vinyl and book stores virtually next door to each other (Boo Boo Records and Phoenix Books). We stayed in the same motel on California as our last visit. Painted in adobe style, the Los Padres Motel is well located, being a short stroll up from the aforementioned stores and a selection of bars around California and Higuera streets. However its walls are paper thin and an afternoon’s siesta was to be rudely interrupted by the arrival of Randy and Barbara, or whoever, whom we could hear fart, let alone cough or copulate. SLO still proved a winner however, and a new discovery was in fact the oldest record store in town, “Cheap Thrills”, launched in 1971 when its album title appropriation would perhaps have been more obvious. It lives up to its name, and not in the negative, UK, sense, with LPs from $3 and some great and often very clean rarer items. Weighed down with another fix we retired early before hitting Boo Boo the next day which is a cooler store but which has a lot less vinyl. I still managed to score however, finding a (cheap) thrill reminiscent of three decades back as I tested a period copy of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn is Dead” on one of their many decks. Can you imagine being handed a cartridge and invited to cue up a second hand album in an equivalent UK store? The riverside bar and restaurant in Higuera once again proved a winner, as dining outdoors in mid November proved irresistible. We eased off our beer intake by strolling around the mission building to the sound of “Another Brick in the Wall (part 3)” pumping out of a bar and I felt a degree of patriotic fervour well up inside me. On being invited to enjoy a Stella with a drunken Brit in a bar over the road from the restaurant, I felt rather less affinity for my country. Leaving SLO was sad, but before long we were on Route 101 and hugging the Californian coast, reaching Big Sur where we discovered the delights of Gorda, essentially a small motel and collection of cabins/a restaurant and a shop. Our hotel room had a view of the Pacific a few hundred feet away, which helped offset the painful bed and an invasive external light. Up in Ripplewood, the log cabin collective run by Anglo women and worked by Mexicans, the breakfasts are still phenomenal. Priced out of the market we stayed for the first time at Fernwood where we were within walking distance of the bar and restaurant which still excites but the food service was never its strongest point. That day we revisited Pfeiffer-Big Sur, where we had spent hours watching a beached golden sea lion back in 2000 and which has meant so much to us since we first started coming to California in 1997. This time round it didn’t disappoint – rugged rocks and wild waves enhanced the sunset, after we had spent time watching a heron on an afternoon fishing expedition. We spent a couple of nights up the coast in Monterey where we prepared for a repeat whale watching expedition that, despite an attack of nausea, was a welcome escape from land that included a hump back as well as some dolphins. Coming into San Fran for the final leg proved easier than expected, although the city seemed sadly dead even for the time of year. While tourists are fairly thin on the ground in late November, it seems odd to see bars and shops closing up by 9. Tosca’s bar on Market and Columbus has a juke box with mostly opera and walls adorned with depictions from operatic scenes. Its dark red ambience is normally conducive to drinking but this virtually empty bar seemed a little sad, even though we were celebrating with a bottle of local champagne. We got to chatting with a banker about this and that and the time passed pleasantly before we moved on to red wine and steaks at Sears restaurant near our hotel – Grants on Bush in the renowned Nob Hill area (where an all male cabaret and a stimulant shop helps the area to (unwittingly) live up to its name). After such an evening our final full day in the US was a touch subdued, before the 2 days of flying back to the UK. It has however been a wonderful trip, one on which I have learned a lot and wished that I had known a hell of a lot more before I came. The divisions that one superficially witnesses are not just north and south, red and blue, but struck me the most as coastal versus interior: the cosmopolitan over the more traditional. Much of the time, however, we didn’t talk politics with those who for the most part were serving us rather than accompanying us. We enjoyed the hospitality and the polite lack of questioning or the polite disinterest in those with “funny accents”. The US has probably lost some of the lustre for me as the familiarity has grown, even in the limited experience I have of it. However I still want to know more, and to experience more, of this place, and will no doubt be back before that long.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Viva Las Vegas

We returned for what was scheduled to be a one night gig, 9 years on from when we came here to get married. Once again the Hard Rock Café chain provided what for some might be a surprisingly tasteful hotel option. Tasteful in terms of room décor and in terms of its museum like arrangement of rock memorabilia and photos, but, yes, also tasteful in terms of Vegas, which really shouldn’t be judged by conventional notions of taste at all. More important than these average musings is the fact that as soon as we found the check in desk (not easy) and duly checked in, we returned to the Pink Taco. Not a gay Mexican food chain but a bar that made you feel very happy and provided very good food. The bar itself, like many bars in Vegas, has gambling machines indented in its very surface. This though didn’t detract us. The margaritas, however, did, and provided an exciting stimulant at 2 in the afternoon, which a light tapas-style mex lunch didn’t interfere with too much. That night we checked out Caesar’s Palace, not the concert hall, where Frank was performing with Sammy again but for the first time was united with Barbara, but the gambling area were we settled in for another margarita and watched the world go by. Hunger pains sent us out and about on the strip before we chanced upon a hitherto unknown venue (to us). “Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville”. Having a liking for some of his material (see London revue in my July blog), having a good friend who is totally devoted to the man, and a penchant for margaritas, we couldn’t resist a chance to, well, drink more margaritas to the accompaniment of the man who has created a margarita musical culture all of his own. Of course Jimmy wasn’t there in person, but his endorsement and his music, and the general ambience of parrots, pacific isle chic and, eh, margaritas, made for an attractive option. We were seated at the end and could witness “parrotheads” dining en masse and a newlywed couple dining out in style. The African American groom - unembarrassed by his “parrothead” balloon adornment – was, like his white wife, dressed in what, by Vegas standards, was very smart, almost conservative, wedding garb. Our waiter kept us well oiled, allowed us to acquire for our friend a souvenir menu, and generally made our time there a breeze. Next stop was, to be honest, a disappointment. Our Afghani cab driver seemed sure that there would be live music (why would you seek advice on this matter from an Afghani?), but nine years on "The Voodoo Lounge", where previously we had hung out after our wedding, is no longer a music venue. In truth it’s an average disco whose sampling of dance classics pumped out to a largely middle aged crowd seemed somehow pointless. It was great though to see the place again – its several levels of roof top drinking spaces and impressive inner bar makes for an attractive venue. As the DJ weaved in a few seconds of Curtis Mayfield we wondered aloud how much more conducive to dancing for this (or possibly any) crowd the playing of the real thing would actually have been. Our taxi driver regaled us with the evils of the public health option and dismissed my drunken attempts at postulating the virtues of market regulation, before blessing our Queen and conceding that this was an issue best left to us to debate. Back at the Hard Rock the earlier conversion to gin was no longer proving smooth. The benefit however of the next morning’s ill health was an unplanned second day at the hotel which was very conducive to my health indeed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hiking in a different world (nearly)

We were sad about leaving Denver. Our path out through the slowly evaporating snow was smooth, but re-entering motel city proved a difficult adjustment. Furthermore, the weather remained bitterly cold in south-west Colorado en route to Utah. Our first stop was the town of Eagle and specifically the Eagle Grand, a misnomer at least at this time of year. The setting was fantastic, with mountains encircling us, and the motel was low rise and run by a genial host. However with temperatures outside below freezing, it was darned hard to get warm. Dinner helped, and right next door was The Grand Restaurant where we ate good food in front of a roaring fire. The next night we stopped in Green River where a functional motel (the heater worked) at a bargain rate and a cheap and no hassle town sat well with us. It was Halloween so Ray’s Tavern was not, we were told, as busy as it would normally be on what was a Saturday night. After good burgers and draught beer there we went over to another bar where the clientele patently weren’t engaged in trick and treating with little Johnny and Annie. A drunk vamp (sic) with what I think were false Dracula style teeth and a variety of werewolves caroused up and down the bar as we nursed our buds and listened to the skinniest trucker I’ve ever seen engage in monologues about his living arrangements. Nice guy though. We left the revellers to it, fancying that we were intruding a tad on a (mostly) locals’ party. The next night we upgraded, stopping after a thrilling ride at dusk through Utah’s incredible landscape of limestone rock. Caverns loomed large as we were the only people on the long ride to Hankville. We had to phone for a room from a Bentley-driving owner of the only store in town. Supping beers and drawing on rollies, we made the most of such a comfortable stop. Perfect silence and a full moon made for a transcendent experience in the chill of the evening as my wife did her blog.
In Boulder (Utah that is) there is little except a couple of motels and three restaurants (largely catering to the hiking crowd en route to Bryce. However the Circle Cliffs Motel (three rooms, cash preferred) was a delightful place with rooms where the lady of the house had plainly made an effort to make it as comfortable as possible. The next day we entered the Bryce complex, taking in modest trails still overpopulated with tourists for what, after all, is a few weeks shy of Thanksgiving. That night we avoided the corporate style motel/restaurant set up at the entrance to the national park and took a room a few miles down the road in Tropic. If you are ever in Tropic do not eat at Clark’s Restaurant. Hope that the pizza place is open. Clark’s ageing food did not go down well. However their draught porter did. I recommend a pitcher of porter and well done hamburger.
The next day we took one of the longest trails in Bryce – Fairyland. While the name conjures up a venue frequented by those of broad sexual orientation, the trail itself is a wondrous spectacle of orange limestone canyons and sheer rock faces populated by spruce and fir. The incredible sight at times makes one think of Wadi Rum, Jordan with a touch of the jurassic as (often) dead, gnarled tree trunks reminded me of twisted human life or animal forms. The “hoodoos” – tall limestone rocks partly eroded by freezing and thawing – can easily make you imagine that the old Indian legend is true and that the bad people were turned to stone. Faces peer out across the phenomenal landscape – gay dogs, Karl Marx, conferring elders, a witch’s cat, and, more generally, images akin to Abu Simbel or the Valley of the Kings, with a touch of Mayan or Inca rock carvings, came to mind. Half way through this eight mile hike I transcended for the first time on this trip, other than when in bars or restaurants or driving to the accompaniment of great tunes. At the incredible frozen stream and waterfall near "The Tower of London" rock face this feeling was, sadly, knocked back by the first presence in 4 miles of other humanoid life forms, especially when one of them turned out to by a post sell-by date hippie hiker with no apparent state or national address other than the “world”. We hiked back the same way, struggling up the final stretch, but bowled over by the same scenery from a different perspective as the rocks and trees were cast in, literally, a different light.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Things to do in Denver before you're dead

Having caught the cable car up to the top of Sandia mountain in ABQ, we hiked a little amidst the snowfall in near freezing temperatures, an amazing contrast with the weather on terra firma. We spent our final night in ABQ with 2 new friends we had met earlier on a trail near the Sandia mountain who kindly let us stay a night with them. They advised us to take Route 285 to Denver, our next destination. As a result we saw amazing snow-topped scenery en route north to Colorado rather than the monotony of the interstate. The next night we stayed in Salida, a very pleasant if all too darn nice artsy stopover, with great diners and numerous studios and galleries. We met an interesting sculptor who has entered his 50s finally doing what he wanted all his life after his marriage broke up and too many years in regular work. More interesting than Salida, however, was Antonitas, a sleepy New Mexican town which, after driving through damp and snow exiting ABQ, provided a welcome stopover. Here there were no tourists (except us). This laid back settlement town has been peopled by those of Indian and Mexican origin for 500 years. We ate well and cheaply in the local diner among an interesting clientele that included the local sheriff and some local officials who effortlessly switched their conversation from English to Spanish, a vision of the American future perhaps. I nearly got busted by a genial local policeman for parking the wrong way, but the timely intervention of a town elder prevented the People of New Mexico from facing me in the county court in 7 days time.

Suffice it to say that we drove into the capital of Colorado in upbeat mode, keen to see a very old friend of my wife’s who has lived in the US for more than 25 years. We were all nervous about how it would turn out. So much water under the bridge since they had worked together in London, so hard to know how much they would have in common now, and how I would get on with him. Within minutes of entering his apartment we both felt right at home, however. His spacious flat is crammed with framed movie and album posters and there is a hi fi in both the living room and his bedroom, each with a turntable. How cool is that? Conversations ranged widely but music was the constant theme. A major snow storm over the city on the first night ensured that we rested and appreciated our friend and his cool pad all the more. We ventured out to an Anglo style pub and on the the third day the amazing vinyl and poster delights of "Twist and Shout" on Colefax, the main street, saw us splurge once more