The Lights and Delights of Las Vegas

June 11, 2009

Las Vegas is a very strange place. From a distance the skyline resembles any American city – an expanse of low suburbia with a cluster of high-rise buildings in the middle. Once you get in, however, its nothing like. The downtown area, which is at the northern end of Las Vegas Blvd, or “The Strip” as it is usually known, is fairly like any city – banks, offices, shops, and the original casinos, which do have lots of lights and big logos but they seem more or less what you would expect to see from a place where large scale gambling establishments are allowed. There is one street, which is actually called “The Fremont Street Experience,” where they have built a huge metal awning over a several block long stretch of it, generating a sort of indoor mall full of weird shops, street entertainers and loud music. It was their attempt to compete with the larger attractions being built along the Strip to the south in the 90s.

View down the Strip

View down the Strip

When I arrived, the first thing I did was drive along the strip from the north to the southern end, passing all the major casinos. That eerie sense of familiarity you get from going to a place you’ve never been to, but have seen from some angles many times, was strong as I passed Caesar’s Palace, Paris, the Bellagio, and the MGM Grand at the northern end. It was a lot to take in just driving down (even though the traffic was atrocious and I spent most of the time not moving) and in fact I spent most of the next day just walking down the Strip and exploring all, or at least most of the casino-hotels.

The first thing that became apparent is that despite its reputation for gambling the casinos are relatively small in comparison to the size of the hotels. That’s not to say the casinos are in any way not huge, because they are, it’s just that there is actually more other stuff that there is casino in all of them. This is why the owners usually term the bigger ones as megaresorts rather than casinos, and the smaller ones general as at least a hotel-casino. The exception is perhaps Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon, which did have a hotel above it, but it really was just a casino downstairs.

Fountains at Caesar's Palace

Fountains at Caesar's Palace

The rest, however, of the more famous ones, were huge hotels above a massive complex of restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, spas, pools, artwork, gardens, fountains, etc, etc, etc. The casinos were a crucial part of each one and obviously their main source of revenue, so they were always centrally located and taking up much of the ground floor at the main entrances of every hotel. The casinos themselves were much as you’d expect – banks of a dizzying array of slot machines taking up the majority of the floor space, with a healthy mix of bright eyed tourists and ashen-faced blobs repeatedly mashing the button to spin the reels. I spent about 30 minutes playing slots in all the time I’ve been here, I just lose interest too fast to sit there for hours as some people seem to. If you were in to that kind of thing you would never get bored, there are so many variations that it’d probably take days to try them all.

Gardens outside Wynn

Gardens outside Wynn

The table games were also surprisingly varied, with many tables of the casino staples blackjack, roulette and craps, but also plenty for other games such as Spanish 21, Pai Gow Poker, Let It Ride and Baccarat among others. I couldn’t try all the table games because the lowest minimum bet at most tables here seems to be $10 per hand most of the time – trying them all would have rapidly annihilated my bankroll. I did play in a large poker tournament at the Venetian casino with a field of around 300 players (and a top prize of over $10000) which had plenty of clearly very good players in it. I finished in the top 100, but sadly outside the money. I also spent a bit of time at blackjack and roulette tables (though not that long at those prices) but to be honest the greatest way to spend time I found was wandering around town and taking in the various free and not free entertainments on offer.

Bellagio presiding over its lake.

Bellagio presiding over its lake.

Strolling down the strip at either day or night you are bombarded with sights and sounds in an experience which is probably unlike anything else on the planet. The first thing you notice is the many people at various places along the street who are handing out (or trying to) adverts for strippers to any and all passers by who will take them. They fortunately never actually bother anyone and they have this odd way of flicking the card stack making a very distinctive sound, so you can normally hear them before you can see them. This is, however, the first and last seedy thing about the place (that and the fact that the newspaper boxes at the sides of the road hold indexes of strippers etc instead of papers) and in fact I would say it’s a pretty family friendly town. Indeed, there were a surprising number of families with children everywhere, and all the hotels had, on a different level to the gambling areas, a vast arcade full of games, stands and all manner of entertainments designed to part children of guests with their pocket money.

The Volcano at Mirage

The Volcano at Mirage

Along the Strip is, as expected, a succession of large hotel-casinos, each with some defining features to make it stand out. In between them in some places are separate bars and small shops, such as the Harley-Davidson store and restaurant which had a huge front end of a motorcycle sticking out the front. It would take ages to describe everything so I’ll stike to the highlights and general impressions. The street is always heaving with people, some in a hurry, some gawking at the sights and others just dawdling irritatingly in front of you when you’re trying to get somewhere. On top of that, you can always hear at least one type of music: In front of the hotels every bush, wall, fountain and statue will have a speaker hidden in it playing some kind of inoffensive popular pop/rock/hiphop giving the entire street a general party atmosphere. Combined with the fact that at any hour of the day a lot of the people you see will be holding an alcoholic drink (though surprisingly few are lurching or poorly behaved drunks) and you have a general festive and jovial atmosphere.

The Doge's Palace

The Doge's Palace

Indeed, I was a little surprised by the jollity of the place – I was expecting a bit more to see people just out for their own and I was expecting to see more crime, but in fact it was more like a festival in that everyone is out for a good time and seems to want everyone around them to have a good time. There are your standard array of street sellers and hawkers but they are generally happier to take “No thanks” as an answer than these kind of people often are in other places. On top of that, there are a lot of people along the strip selling ice cold bottled water, and it is, stunningly enough, not a ripoff. These people, who must be centrally organised, sell it for just a dollar a bottle which seems entirely reasonable in the middle of the burning desert and in a town where drinks are normally a lot more expensive.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

The other rather neat thing about this place is the way that they’re doing away with the pedestrian crossing, which is probably fortunate since people here, particularly taxi drivers, drive more insanely and agressively than Los Angelinos, and that’s saying something. In just three days I’ve seen two rather nasty looking fender-benders. At some intersections there are still those crazy, old fashioned pelican crossings, but a great deal have bridges instead. And who needs stairs? No, here there are lifts and escalators to get up them. The idea of an outdoor escalator is one that pleases me greatly, something that we could never have at home since it would get rusted to a halt within a week with all the rain.

New York New York skyline

New York New York skyline

Highlights of the hotels include the Statue of Liberty and hotel towers designed to look like the New York skyline of New York New York, the great pyramid of Luxor, which is quite simply a stunningly vast open space inside with everything fairly dark, The Eiffel Tower of Paris, and the exterior of the Venetian which features the Rialto Bridge, the Campanile from St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. The great, golden coloured towers of Mandalay Bay and Wynn are very pleasing to look at, and everything about the Bellagio is just outstanding. The main hotel is a graceful curve with dark windows above a large lake that has around it low, mediterranean-looking buildings that house bars and restaurants.

Mandalay Bay

Mandalay Bay

It is incredibly impressive just how high quality everything here is. I always expected it to be a littly tacky and kiss-me-quick, but it is far from it. The casinos generate enough wealth that they can afford to build genuine luxury rather than just the appearance of it, and as such the high class ones really are fantastic pieces of architecture and design. Inside Mandalay Bay the Polynesian theme is carried off tastefully with plenty of exotic looking plants and water features (indeed water features are fairly ubiquitous, perhaps as they represent extra luxury in the desert), and the hallways you walk down to pass the bars and restaurants are massively big and well decorated with polished floors, artwork on the walls and expensive light fittings everywhere. The same is true inside Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, the Venetian, and all the other higher-class ones.

Lights of the strip

Lights of the strip

At night everything looks very different. The lights are on, and if anything there is even more of a party atmosphere. Plus, some of the Strips main highlights really come in to their own. The Mirage has outside it a large water feature designed to look like a volcano, and at night, every hour, the volcano erupts in a short show of gas fires, water bursts cleverly lit to look like lava, and dramatic drumming. It’s a little over the top but very entertaining. The real cherry on the cake though is the fountains at Bellagio. They put on their impressive synchronised show every half an hour in daytime, but at night they go every 15 minutes and with underwater lights as part of the display as well. The fountains synchronise to whatever piece of music has be chosen for that show and create weaving patterns, sweeping lines, and dramatic bursts of water, reaching an impressive height at the climax. They really are mesmerisingly beautiful and by far the most impressive fountains I’ve ever seen.

The fountains of Bellagio

The fountains of Bellagio

Other entertainments I’ve enjoyed have been the roller coaster at New York New York, which I rode late at night and got a great view of the city lights from above, the Shark Reef aquarium at mandalay bay which has an impressive collection of predatory sea dwellers including a piranha tank, giant turtles and some impressively large sharks in a particularly huge exhibit. Also, I caught a short but surprisingly hard to figure out magic act at Circus-Circus, spent some time watching the lions in the MGM Grand, and also took a peek at the flamingos and other birds and fish at the enclosure in the Flamingo. I haven’t taken in any of the Cirque du Soleil shows as they are rather expensive but a lot of the casinos run one, and there are a huge number of other shows and exhibitions of every kind from natural history to burlesque striptease available across all the hotels.

I could go on for a while but to be honest this place is just something you have to see to understand. Two other very cool things happened: I had a conversation at a bar with a serious poker pro who was in town for the World Series of Poker which is running at the moment, and has even played on TV before. We talked various subjects related to Vegas, poker and general gambling and he has a lot of good advice about where to game and what to look out for, and was all round a very interesting character. Besides this, I visited an indoor shooting range where they have all sorts of automatic weapons, and paid to hire and shoot an M9 pistol, an M4 Carbine assault rifle and an M249 machine gun, which was incredibly powerful. It was a lot of fun and we don’t have guns at home but they are so prevalent in entertainment I thought it would be an interesting experience.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam

On a totally different tack, today I took a bit of a day excursion to the nearby Hoover Dam. It was definitely every bit as impressive as expected, and there was also an unexpected addition which is that they are building a bridge to bypass the dam as a road river crossing just a little downstream. This huge, incomplete, concrete arch was a little strange to look at, but is definitely needed – traffic across the dam was appaling, and there is a legitimate security concern about letting vehicles on to such an important structure in this age of terrorist threats.

A short tour took in some of the huge, 30ft across pipes that carry the water through it, and one of the banks of turbines in the power plant at the base of the dam. A series of presentations also detailed the other dams along the Colorado River, and showed the entire drainage area that feeds it, and showed how controlling the river helped the entire Southwest. There were exhibits on the engineering required to build it as well, and it certainly was an extraordinary feat at the time. You could also walk across the dam on foot, which means I have now visited five states on this trip. Lake Mead, above the dam, was a strange looking thing. The water level was low, after several years of drought, but it seems that the water cleans the rocks of their reddish tinge – all the rocks below the highest the water reaches are white, and above they are red-brown.

I’m now just about to go out and hit the town for one last time, and probably gamble away what’s left of my money after six weeks out here. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and end up paying for the whole thing!


In to the Valley of Death

June 8, 2009

On Friday I went skydiving. I did a tandem jump from 12,500 feet at Perris near LA. The first thing you have to do on arrival is sign and initial many, many, many places on a multiple page document that basically says even if they don’t even give you a parachute and kick you out of a plane you have no legal right to complain, and under no circumstances will you ever sue anyone involved with the skydiving centre for anything, on penalty of being thrown to the lions. With this slightly unnerving formality out of the way it was a question of waiting for the weather. Unfortunately as you might be aware if you’ve been reading this the weather in California has been unseasonably awful the last couple of weeks, and it was again with large clouds blocking most of the sky and making jumping impossible.

The plane I fell out of.

The plane I fell out of.

After a couple of hours of waiting they called my in and said they had seen an opening so they were going to do a flight up and have a look, and jump if possible. I got suited up in a bright blue jump suit and got in to the harness that would be strapped to the instructor. The instructor was a friendly guy called John who obviously enjoys this kind of thing a lot. He explained, very briefly, what would happen and what I would have to do on the plane, for leaving the plane and for landing. The plane was a very small prop plane with a nice blue paint job, which they rammed full of as many people as would fit, so it was quite crowded. It took around 15 minutes to climb to 12,500 feet, during part of which the instructor tightened my harness (it was incredibly tight) and also hooked me up to him, so I had to spend half the time effectively sitting on his lap. We then circled and waited about another 10 minutes at altitude, and were just about to give up and go back down when the clouds opening enough to go through.

The jumping out part was surprisingly easy and in many ways not that scary, and there isn’t really any sensation of falling either, just of an incredibly strong wind, so strong it pushes your arms back behind you. After around 45 seconds of freefall I deployed the parachute as instructed at 5,000 feet which filled properly instantly, saving us both from certain death. Under the parachute we descended slowly and the instructor pointed out the many things that we could see – the view, as you might imagine was quite fantastic. He did a few safety checks then let me steer, as well as demonstrating the impressively tight turns and sharp dives you can do, surprisingly easily, which felt like the rack up more g-force than you get on any rollercoaster. As we got closer to the ground he took control back from me and steered us expertly in to a small grassy landing area where we slid in softly.

It was an amazing experience in general and something I’ll probably do again. I wouldn’t mind learning to do it solo when I’m a little richer – the cost of it is eye-watering. After having a drink and watching another load of jumpers come in to land (the weather was clearing significantly by now) I got back on the road and headed up toward Death Valley. After 3 hours of driving I got to a town called Ridgecrest in the middle of the desert where I stopped for the night, more or less the nearest place to the National Park, around 40 miles out.

A rather bumpy shortcut I took

A rather bumpy shortcut I took

Driving in to Death Valley the next day was similar to a lot of the other desert driving I’ve been doing, though this did involve going up and over some mountains and a large valley before I got there, which had a dried out lake bed and some chemical factories around a very small desert town, that seemed partly abandoned. The vistas in this valley were all sweeping, with clear desert air meaning that you could see for miles in all directions. In fact it gets quite hard to really assess distance to the far away scenery which appears as an almost unmoving backdrop. In the mountains near to Death Valley itself I found a turnoff toward an abandoned old west gold mine. Ten minutes down an incredibly bumpy gravel road I reached the mine, which you could still enter, and the ruined mill next to it. Both were in surprisingly good condition for their age, though I couldn’t explore the mine due to lack of a torch.

Strata in the mountains

Strata in the mountains

Getting back to the main road I began the descent down in to the valley. It had been quite cool in the moutains, perhaps around 20C, and the temperature held fairly steady for a long while as I headed down the relatively steep grade. Suddenly I obviously passed through a layer of air and it began to climb rapidly, but never reached the searing heats that the area is famous for. In fact, all day it never got above the low-30s (in the shade – the direct sun was utterly relentless in its gaze). I reached the crossroads town of Stovepipe Wells, at sea-level, which had a general store, ranger station, and a few other random buildings before heading in to the park. Immediately I could see some more huge sand dunes similar to those I’d found in the Mojave, and I quickly came up on a vast salt flat expanse. I was stopping regularly along the road to take pictures of all these things, and also to walk out to places to have a look at them. Fortunately the main highway that goes down the valley is good and has gravel shoulders on both sides where you can pull over at any time.

Salt flats near Stovepipe Wells

Salt flats near Stovepipe Wells

Near to Stovepipe Wells I also stopped briefly at the “Devil’s Cornfield,” an area of strange tussocky plants sticking out of the flat, baked earth. Around here there were more dune-like shapes though these were more golden in colour and seemed to be made of fairly fine gravelly stones rather than sand. There were a lot more of these kind of formations around the valley during the day. Going on from here I stopped next at an old abandoned borax works. Apparently digging up and refining borax from these deserts was profitable business in the 19th century, and because of the cost of moving things from here to civilisation they actually built the refineries out in the desert. There was a short trail around the area with little signs explaining the various features.

Artist's Pallette

Artist's Pallette

Next I stopped at a little trail called Golden Canyon. Toward the eastern edge of the valley this was a deep, narrow canyon cut in to the mountains by water whenever it rushes down, and made for a very interesting, though hot, walk. You could see clearly all along the sides the various strata of rock and how dramatically they had been folded up and cracked over time, with the lines running close to vertical in a few places. There were also several different colours of rock all over the place, something that I was to see even more of at my next destination. A several mile one-way loop road had been built through the rocky bottoms of the mountains to see this particularly stunning place. Called Artist’s Drive, it led passed a few good places to stop and have a look, through some deep dips and narrow ravines and also went passed a place called Artist’s Palette, the reason for its construction. This was a stunning part of mountainside where reds, greens, blacks, yellows and pinks were all visible in the rocks in a small area, certainly living up to its name.

Badwater Pools

Badwater Pools

My final destination in Death Valley was Badwater, the salt flats that are the lowest point in the continental USA at -282ft. Interestingly they are right at the base of some very steep mountains, on which some wag cleverly installed a “sea level” sign to give you an idea of just how far underwater you are, and it is certainly quite high up. The salt flats themselves here were not as pristine white as the others I saw, possibly a result of years of tourists and possibly just that their geography means the surface collects more dust and erosion runoff – who knows. Interestingly, there was some surface water here, which was hard to understand considering how shallow it was, but it apparently persists – being the lowest point it just about collects enough water to stay there all the time, and give the place its name – some dude couldn’t get his mule (he he he… mule) to drink here and so marked it “Bad Water” on his map.

Patterned mountains.

Patterned mountains.

The salt flats were, predictably, very flat, and the heat mirages they generated where quite impressive. It was also clearly quite a popular tourist spot with far more people here than anywhere else (the valley wasn’t dead quiet anywhere, being a saturday) and indeed a huge tour bus pulling up while I was there. After spending a while walking out in to the flats I headed back to the car and undertook the long drive out of the valley. Frankly it seems to be something of a misnomer – I saw plenty of life in the form of plants and lizards, and apparently it is home to dozens of endemic species. It also was a staggeringly beautiful place, I don’t think anywhere else in the deserts matched the vastness of the flats and the colours of rocks. On top of that you can easily see why geologists love it so much. The amount of interesting rock-related stuff on display was quite incredible.

I left the valley to the northeast and crossed the state line in to Nevada. I stopped for the night at a tiny town at a mountain crossroads from where I would have to head south to Las Vegas called Beatty. It really was a proper old west town, with a large, atmospheric saloon bar which actually had people dressed like cowboys and quite a few people carrying pistols, the first I’ve seen on this trip. I ate chili and beer for dinner from a small shack next to the saloon that was full of more old west type people and had numerous awards from chili cookoffs (they weren’t missing the cookoff it seems). It deserved the awards, being both yummy and affordable.

Today I drove the long distance to Las Vegas along some very straight highways through the mountains. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking down the Strip  (which is longer than I imagined) and seeing all the various sights, before stopping for a couple of cheap beers and some food. I will explore more thoroughly tomorrow and try my hand at some table games and poker, and write an entry about my experiences over the next couple of days.


Welcome to the Motel California

June 5, 2009
Coast at La Jolla

Coast at La Jolla

After briefly visiting La Holla, an impressively upmarket seaside suburb with a pretty seafront covered with small mammals and birds, and rockpools, I headed out of San Diego to the east, toward the desert. The ascent up the coastal mountains quickly yielded much higher temperatures than down at the coast, and the plant life got steadily scrubbier and browner as I went inland. I passed through a string of small towns, before turning off the interstate and on to the highway, winding through and up the hills, past fairly green valleys and burnt out forests. I reached a viewpoint from which I could see a long way down to the northeast, and in to the desert in the distance. There was a road through the valley, which it turned out would be my route after a windy roundabout route up to another small town where there was an intersection.

Anza-Borrego Desert

Anza-Borrego Desert

Finally, I descended down into the arid lowlands of the Anza-Borrego Desert. These were dusty open plains – not quite flat – with quite a lot of tough desert plants and grasses just clinging to existance, and a distant backdrop of large, rocky, grey or brown mountains. It was hot down here, with the temperature up at 100F. I decided to do a pointless experiment in masochism and not use my car’s air conditioning, using just a breeze from an open window to cool down.  Whenever I stopped to get out briefly to look at the scenery or take a picture, the breeze was baking hot and incredibly dry, as you might expect, but feeling it was quite something. I drove along the highway and turned off to head to a small place called Borrego Springs, in the centre of this area of desert. It was pretty much just one main drag with a few small run down shops and a gas station (which I needed), surrounded by a sprawl of small homes out into the desert, and with a couple of lush, palmy country clubs thrown in.

Impressive backdrops

Impressive backdrops

Continuing on I rejoined the highway a bit further to the east, for a long, long, dead straight stretch of road all the way to a main dual carriageway out to the east of the Anza-Borrego desert, near a large lake. It was along here that temperatures peaked, up at around 110F. I took this route north, up to the I-10 and a developed area that encompassed a few moderate sized resort towns, composed of stone buildings and lush country clubs, surrounded by vast expanses of dry desert and backed by some towering mountains, which were peaked by some dark, dramatic storm clouds – the kind that you just don’t see at home. Of course, they were never actually going to get over the mountains and unleash their fury in the desert, but I did hear a couple of distant rumbles of thunder.

The next morning I set out again to the north on small highways, up and around the Joshua Tree National Park. This is a slightly higher altitude area of the desert, and as such is slightly cooler than the places I had been in the day before – though that isn’t really say much with the temperatures still well up in the mid nineties. I was using my car’s air conditioning today as well so in general the driving conditions were much more pleasant. I passed through again a string of small towns – these ones probably smaller and poorer than the ones from yesterday – that were nothing more than a couple of strips along the highway in the middle of vast expanses of open desert. Also, the roads were generally a lot straighter than the day before, though otherwise the scenery was in fact similar, but with perhaps yellower, sandier ground and more spiky trees and bushes along the road, including many of the Joshua Trees for which the area is named.

Flat, barren valley near Amboy

Flat, barren valley near Amboy

I turned north from the highway and away from the area to make my way toward my main goal for the day, the Mojave National Preserve, a vast area of desert wilderness that lies at the heart of the Mojave Desert that stretches down half the length of the state’s eastern side. As I got away from civilisation the road passed dozens of spread out, old, abandoned houses that stretched out in to the desert in all directions from the towns, and a few that were obviously still used. After a seemingly interminable straight line across flat ground the route started climbing again up in to some rocky mountains, passing completely barren brown and grey crags that seemed in many ways to be little more than huge piles of extremely jagged boulders.

Volcanic Cone in the valley

Volcanic Cone in the valley

Suddenly the mountains gave way and there was a short, steady descent down in to the bottom of an incredibly vast, mirror flat, and totally dead valley. It was, except for some earth works around some kind of chemical plant some way across, a bare plane(sic) of cracked yellow-white earth. The mountains as usual provided a backdrop, but there was also one other feature that was instantly recognisable in the middle distance: a huge old volcanic cinder cone looming out of the valley surrounded by an ancient lava flow. The earthworks for the factory were slightly amusing as well, with long lines of pyramids of the sandy earth spread across the valley. After another long, straight stretch across this I reached a tiny ghost town called Amboy which was just a few abandoned buildings around a highway junction, and turned on to a stretch of what was old route 66.

Rock formations in the Mojave

Rock formations in the Mojave

This soon took my to my next road, a turning again off to the north, which led under the I-40 and straight into the Mojave National Preserve. I instantly knew I was in for a treat with the scenery here as the rock formations became even more impressive by the sides of the road as it climbed briefly up and over another ridge before going down in to the park. The desert was again similar to previous ones, vast expanses of sandy earth with mountainous backgrounds and a sprinkly of hardy greenery, but here the backgrounds were definitely more impressive. The road exceptionally straight once it got past the ridge and I could see my first destination from a long way off. Colossal sand dunes, looming out of the desert over 600ft high were reflecting bright yellow sunshine in the distance. The Kelso Dunes, named for a tiny crossroads ghost town in the centre of the preserve a few miles from their location, are a huge sandy area generated by the winds that blow through the valley and hit the mountains, which causes them to swing up and back around before depositing any grains they are carrying on the ground.

Kelso Dunes

Kelso Dunes

Eventually I reached the turn off to get to the dunes, and it was a 3 mile unpaved straight road through the desert. Surprisingly wide (that’s America for you) it was made up pretty well with stones so a reasonable speed was possible, but it had obviously been ground down by something that corrugated it slightly, which made holding the steering wheel while going down it something akin to operating a pneumatic drill. I reached the small parking area, which was a fair ways from the dunes, and decided to walk over to them and climb up. It was a quite awesome (in the true meaning of the word) experience, it didn’t take long from the parking area (which was little more than a gravel space where the plants had been cleared) to feel completely isolated in the middle of this vast, unlivable expanse.

Ascending the Dunes

Ascending the Dunes

The trail quickly became sandy and, well, not really a trail. It didn’t really matter since I could see dunes so I knew which direction to go, and wherever I walked was just sand so I simply tried to pick a path of least resistance. There were a few other footprints here and there, proving that there had been other people here relatively recently, but they got a lot more sporadic once I got on to sandy ground, since the wind can erase them in no time. It was very hot, and very tiring work walking up the slopes, but I was making gradual progress toward the main, large peaks. As it got sandier the plant life gave way to simple clumps or lone blades of grass, which had this neat way of tracing semicircles around themselves in the sand if the wind blew them over far enough. The only other life was small, yellow lizards that skittered across the loose sand with impressive speed, far too quickly for me to get a picture of one.

View from the top

View from the top

As I neared the summit the climbing got steeper and the sand looser, and it became a case of two steps forward, one step back, simply from sliding down whenever i put a foot into the ground. Reaching the top, it was virtually impossible to get right up to the edge as the sand was so loose that you sank to over the ankle with every footstep, but I did manage it, and was rewarded with breathtaking views of the dunes, plains, and mountains in all directions. I also got to hear the “booming” that these dunes can produce – apparently some of the only ones in the world that do it – a low, droning sound, caused by loose sand running down the surface and vibrating the sand underneath. Additionally I got nicely sandblasted by some of the stronger gusts, but it wasn’t too bad really.

Many Volcanoes

Many Volcanoes

After taking it all in for a while I headed back down, which was far too much fun really. It’s entirely impossible to resist the urge to run down the steep slopes at full pelt. The sliding down helps you go even faster and even if you were to fall you’d just end up rolling down soft sand. The only downside is that your shoes get completely filled, but it’s a minor inconvenience. Two hours and four shoe-fulls after leaving I got back to my car and continued on my way north through the area. Further north it got a little cooler and the plants became more plentiful, and also more spiky, with more trees sprouting as well. The long, straight (see the theme) road passed some more dramatic mountains and then through the Cinder Cones National Monument, so called because there is a cluster of several large old volcanic cones all in a relatively small space. These, combined with the lava flows that were around some of them made for quite impressive scenery and gave some idea of just how violent the formation of this part of the world must have been.

Finally the road got back to some semblance of civilisation, reaching the I-15 at a small town called Baker, that was really little more than a truck stop on the route from LA to Las Vegas. I drove along the I-15 for a while to get to a bigger place and found accomodation. The last two days in the desert really have been quite stunning – somehow not as famous for natural beauty as many of the other places I’ve been to, the deserts have this incredible desolate quality, with powerful landscapes and utterly unforgiving conditions. The ability to drive in a dead straight line, for miles, without seeing anything hinting civilisation besides a strip of tarmac and often a power line that runs along it is quite humbling in a way. My short jaunt across the burning sands in the middle of nowhere also gave me a small taste of how it must have been to live and work in this area in the early days, with everything a constant struggle. How those pioneers found enough water to survive is beyond me.

PS: I managed to resist the urge to title this entry “Just deserts.”

PPS: I didn’t resist the urge to name the photo album that 😦

The long and lonesome road

The long and lonesome road


You Stay Classy, San Diego

June 3, 2009
A panda making short work of bamboo

A panda making short work of bamboo

Having arrived in the San Diego area the night before, I was ready to get stuck in straight away on Sunday. My first port of call was the world famous San Diego Zoo, which turned out to be so big, and so interesting, that it took up pretty much the entire day. The vast area had pretty much every kind of animal you can imagine, and the habitats were carefully crafted to replicate the correct conditions in many cases, so it ended up being a fantastic botanical garden as well. Also on display was a dizzying array of badly behaved American children, but you can’t win them all. Highlights were probably the tigers, the monkeys, and the pandas, but really there were lots of great collections. I won’t go in to massive detail here but I did take a lot of photos of the things I could, some coming out better than others.

Gardens at Balboa Park

Gardens at Balboa Park

After finishing in the Zoo I spent the rest of the evening exploring the rest of the park the Zoo is situated in, called Balboa Park. It contains what is essentially San Diego’s cultural centre, with a whole host of great looking old spanish style buildings containing various museums and concert halls, as well as a replica of the Globe Theatre and attractive gardens and fountains. Outside this area is just a load of massive open spaces including all manner of playing fields and golf courses – it is all in all a fairly impressive sized open space to have so close to downtown. I ended the day by finding a very reasonably priced and convenient motel in the heart of the city, perfect for the next day’s excursions.

My second day in San Diego was long, but quite excellent. I began by walking down to an area known as the Gaslamp District, which is a somewhat historic area with generally nice brick architecture that is nightlife central for the city. Indeed, virtually everything was either a bar, restaurant or café. I got a coffee and light breakfast in this area before quickly checking out the nearby Horton Plaza shopping centre. This is a truly bizarre building, with everything at jaunty angles, curves opposing straight lines, and a complete mash up of colours and patterns on the different surfaces and areas. The angles are probably the weirdest thing, sometimes making it feel a lot like an M.C. Escher drawing. From here I walked back up north through a bunch of office buildings to another cultural district called Little Italy. This is essentially just a couple of blocks where Italian immigrants originally settled, and now it is a pleasant street with a lot of outdoor seating and plenty of small trattorias.

Cargo Ship Star of India

Cargo Ship Star of India

From here I was very close to one of the key attractions of the downtown area, the Maritime Museum. This was a collection of historic ships including a large three-masted freighter, a soviet cold-war era diesel submarine, a large old steamer ferry, and H.M.S Surprise – a replica frigate that was the vessel used in Master and Commander. All of these ships were done up nicely and had a wide range of museum exhibits inside about fishing, trade, exploration and naval warfare. Especially interesting was being able to compare the Soviet submarine to the one I’d been on in San Francisco – the American submarine seemed far better made and probably slightly less crowded, despite being around 20 years older.

An A-4 Skyhawk on Midway's Flight Deck

An A-4 Skyhawk on Midway's Flight Deck

Next to this area of museum was the colossal aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway, which was also now docked and open to the public as a museum. I spent just over 2 hours exploring the ship with the accompanying audio tour which explained the various areas and had lots of first hand testimony from old crew and pilots. More or less the entire ship was open, and you got to see virtually every area including mess halls, ready rooms, engineering, galleys, the brig, the bridge, various levels of crew quarters, the sick bay, and even the laundry and the barber shop. The indoor hangar that all the planes would have been stored in was a gigantic open space underneath the decks and served as a foyer for the tour, and then on the flight deck on top there was a large range of military aircraft, planes and helicopters, ranging from the end of the second world war to modern – a cross section of all the kinds of aircraft that landed on the Midway at some point during her active service. This collection could have been an aviation museum in its own right, with electronic warfare jets, radar planes, attack bombers, training fighters, assault helicopters – you name it they pretty much had one, all very interesting to see.

San Diego skyline

San Diego skyline

Today was more of a bitty day, just taking in a few of the other random places around the city I hadn’t yet seen. I first went to the Coronado, a long, narrow peninsula that encloses San Diego Bay and has a small island at the end, half of which is a naval base and the other half a pretty little resort town where I found a very nice waterside park and walk from which I got some good views of the city skyline. The town also contained a massive and apparently quite famous hotel also called Coronado, which was a wooden building with a red roof and all sorts of turrets and odd shaped constructions on it.

From there I drove up through town to the heart of old San Diego, where the spanish first settled the town. Similarly to Columbia, that I visited a few weeks ago, a small area had been preserved as a state park with either original or replica buildings and a lot of history exhibits. After spending some time walking around the old bank, courthouse, school and stablehouse I stopped to get a late Mexican lunch before heading off toward the beach. I first went to a place called Ocean Beach, which was a fairly ordinary seaside town with a decent strip of golden sand, and also stopped off a little south of the main drag at a viewpoint called Sunset Cliffs which gave a nice view of the Pacific and of the red earth that clearly forms much of the nearby coast.

Sunset Cliffs

Sunset Cliffs

I then drove on to two more seaside towns, which were both also fairly standard, though quite pleasant, beach towns, with the standard array of slightly weather beaten buildings, souvenir and beach clothing shops, and general revelry. The first one, Mission Beach, had a small amusement park similar to the one at Santa Cruz though somewhat smaller, and in fact was probably the beach most like Sandbanks beach in Bournemouth out of all the ones I’ve been to so far – similar width, similar coloured sand, similar waves, and a fairly similar promenade along the front. Finally I went up to Pacific Beach, which had a long pier that had been converted in to a hotel (strangely). This beach had slightly bigger waves, and a whole bunch of people out on the water trying to surf (a few of whom were actually being fairly successful impressively). I finished by finding a nearby motel so that tomorrow I can see the final thing in the San Diego area, La Jolla – a more upmarket beach town further to the north, before heading out to explore the deserts to the east.


In and out of the Concrete Jungle

May 31, 2009
Bet you've never seen this.

Bet you've never seen this.

I spent all of thursday at Universal Studios, enjoy the various attractions on offer. Besides the theme park (which I won’t go in to detail about, there’s enough of that on the internet) there is also the Citywalk, which is the area leading up to the park, where Universal have built a complex dedicated completely to entertainment, with restaurants, shops and cinemas. It was a lot of fun, and not your ordinary theme park with the emphasis being on special effects shows rather than high-adrenaline rides. I finished the day by taking in the new Star Trek movie, which I felt was a good fun space romp, but slightly disappointing in terms of plot and the level of attention to scientific detail that I’d come to expect from Star Trek classics of the past.

The next couple of days have been pretty bitty affairs, without any really major sights or places that really need talking about. I spent friday exploring downtown LA, beginning in the very heart of the original city – El Pueblo de Los Angeles. This was a small pedestrianised Mexican area just across from the famous Union Square train station with pleasant square and a couple of streets of adobe shops and tat stalls. It had been kept in its original state, and included the oldest surviving house in Los Angeles, the Casa Avila, which was a small adobe dwelling that had been converted into a tiny museum and gave an interesting insight in to how the original settlers lived.

This got blown up.

This got blown up.

Downtown LA also has a Japanese area and a Chinese area, which I walked through, but both of these failed to inspire me, seeming to be rather grey centres of culture rather than vibrant ones. I then walked up towards the high-rise area, going past the towering City Hall which has been destroyed in several films, and was used as the Daily Planet in the Superman TV series, before reaching Grand Ave which bisects the main financial district and also houses a couple of art galleries and the Walt Disney concert hall – an impressive piece of architecture.

Strolling through the financial district from here was much as you would expect, except for the slightly odd sense of familiarity that being raised on American films gives. The skyline has appeared in so many movies that I couldn’t help instantly recognising it, especially the U.S Bank tower chosen for spectacular annihilation by the aliens in Independence Day. I also spotted a big tower witha huge KPMG logo on it; clearly they are bigger here than in London! From the financial district I walked down through a small park called Pershing square before heading back toward where I’d parked via the Grand Central Market, which seemed a bit like the Borough Market in London just less historic and not under a rail bridge, and also past the Bradbury Building which I recognised from the ending of Blade Runner.

So did most of this.

So did most of this.

I then drove up to Pasadena in the north of the urban sprawl that is the area, but it was a fairly ordinary looking business town. It was fairly pleasant, just rather uninteresting, so I soon headed back south through the city’s maze of freeways toward the southern end of town. I reached the sea at San Pedro, the heart of the commercial port, which must be one of the largest ports in the country if not the world. I’ve seen my share of cargo ports but nothing really matches up to the sheer number of cranes, cargo containers, rail lines, industrial factories and ships that were spread over a massive section of waterfront. I also drove briefly around the marinas just outside the industrial port but these were bog standard yacht and motor boat harbours.

The day ended with me in a motel somewhere between San Pedro and Long Beach, setting up the next nicely. It was another cloudy day, weather more fitting for the east coast of England than the west coast of America but there we go – at least I’m used to it. I started by going in to Long Beach proper, which was a nice part of town, with some good green parks and a wide beach with interesting views of the port area and some clearly man-made islands that I couldn’t decipher the purpose of – possibly oil wells but I’m still not sure. The pier was crowded with people fishing; they were so close together that in a brief stroll I witnessed one line tangle and one person catching a large sand shark. The only problem with the area was that the black on the sand nearer to the waterline suggested to me that proximity to the port was having some negative effects on the water quality.

Lots of sand.

Lots of sand.

From there I drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway (which seems to disappear through the busiest bits of LA but reappears south of the port) out of Los Angeles and in to Orange County. This was pretty much a succession of beach towns, with barely any space between, each becoming seemingly more affluent than the last. Seal Beach you could have mistaken for still being part of Los Angeles, as it pretty much continued the urban theme. Next up was Huntingdon beach, with is apparently the place where surfing was first brought to the USA, and you could tell. The town itself was a long stretch of pretty boring monotone houses, but the beach was long and excellent with a mind-boggling number of RVs parked along it, with sporadic circles of seats with surf types sitting around chatting. It might be 2009 but at least something of that spirit does still exist, watered down by wifi networks and health and safety regulations.

Next up was Newport Beach, which was every bit as affluent as its reputation suggests. The town was actually very nice, with a long peninsula protecting the harbour, along which there is a great beach (the only one that I would say was really particularly busy – mostly families) that had some excellent waves and various small restaurants, shops and general funfair type attractions. I grabbed a (very) late lunch here before getting back on the road and driving down to Laguna Beach, which was largely more of the same affluent seaside fun. The Pacific Coast Highway then ended at a place called Dana Point and merged with the I-5 which I followed to San Diego. I actually stopped just south of the city, which I will be exploring tomorrow, since driving for 15 minutes more seems to save $20 on the cost of a motel room on a saturday night, and have just enjoyed a big steak and a well mixed margarita at a nearby bar.

Statue Beethoven Does Not Approve.

Statue Beethoven Does Not Approve.

All in all Los Angeles in the surrounding area is a very strange urban sprawl, a massive labyrinth of freeways, one way streets, three lane alleyways and skyscrapers without any real sense of location or direction. It really does, especially having driven around it, feel like several different cities that have just spread and merged with each other, like different flavoured cookies baked too close together on the tray. Despite being so big, it actually doesn’t have that much to it for a visitor – the tourist attractions are well defined and localised, and between them is a great deal of nothing – too big to see on foot but too busy to see by car. It’s a city that would be a lot of fun to live in, or stay in for a while with some friends, but actually from a tourist point of view besides the key and hugely famous attractions, and perhaps the beaches, there isn’t a whole lot to it.


The City of Angels

May 28, 2009

Yesterday, after a pleasant and relaxing day in the Santa Barbara wine country, I drove the rest of the Pacific Coast Highway and arrived in Los Angeles. The route left Santa Barbara, passing through several upmarket suburbs and then through the larger city of Santa Buenaventura (normally just called Ventura, even on maps) before getting back to the coast. Once again reaching rugged, mountainous terrain, this time of the Santa Monica mountains, the road this time was far less winding or hilly, and much wider. You could definitely already tell I was getting toward a major built up area by the level of traffic as well, a lot more than I would have normally expected from this type of highway. Soon the road reached Malibu, a city for which the sign stated a population of 13,000, so you might expect something small. However, it was a long, sprawling area of contiguous housing – massive hillside mansions with impressive landscape gardens that must have stretched more than 20 miles along the coast.

Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica Beach

Finally I reached Los Angeles itself, entering the city from the northwest straight in to Santa Monica. I decided I might as well see this part since I was there, so drove down toward the beach to park. The Santa Monica area itself didn’t seem to have a whole lot to it besides the beach area which had a pier with amusements on it, in many ways feeling like the smaller brother of the boardwalk at Santa Cruz. I decide to take a walk along the beach, which was a massively wide strip of golden sand all the way along the coast, dotted with Baywatch-esque lifeguard stations and also equipped with volleyball nets and an array of gymnastics equipment.

After some time walking, I found myself suddenly at Venice Beach, the next one along from Santa Monica. This place turned out to be very cool indeed – a highly alternative area, crammed with hippie stalls selling art, incense, clothing and so on, a lot of street musicians playing whatever they wanted, and generally weird-looking people walking along the promenade. The frontage behind the beach itself looked in a way run down, but there was no mistaking the vibrant spirit of the place. After a little while wandering along the stalls and people watching, I headed back to my car – my 2 hour parking time was going to run out!

Walk of Fame

Walk of Fame

From Santa Monica I decided my next stop would be Hollywood, and so I consulted my map to work out how best to get there. I planned out a route, and noted it was a few miles away, then set off. I immediately came to pretty heavy traffic, and found that pretty much the entire route was a series of intersections, every one of which had a queue and a red light. This is something of a theme for LA it turns out – if your route doesn’t go along one of the freeways (and even if it does at certain times of the day), it will take you a looooooooong time to get anywere. Combine this with the fact that a lot of drivers here seem to be nuts and have no concept of  lane discipline and you have an interesting driving experience, I would say at least as bad as London at the worst of times. Eventually I did get to Hollywood and managed to check in to a motel just a block from the main attractions.

Kodak Theatre

Kodak Theatre

It was toward the end of the afternoon by this point, but I still had time to stroll along the Walk of Fame and check out all the stars (there were more than I expected) and see the most famous theatres along Hollywood Blvd, such as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with its space out the front where many famous actors from the last 70 years have left imprints of their hands and feet in the cement (Emma Watson has tiny feet, Will Smith has very big feet), and the Kodak Theatre, current home of the Academy Awards. The Kodak Theatre also had, behind/next to it, a nice mall with a few shops, bars and restaurants, that was at the same time quite pleasantly designed, and slightly Hollywood-ridiculous with a massive triumphal arch at the back framing views of the Hollywood Sign in the distance.

I began today by returning to Hollywood Blvd in the morning and going to the Hollywood Museum, which is located in the old Max Factor building, which is in itself something of a historical landmark in this area. Inside the museum was a large collection of sets, props, costumes, and makeup from a wide range of films over the whole history of American movies. They had Indiana Jones’ jacket from The Temple of Doom, an ape costume from Planet of the Apes, dancer costumes from Moulin Rouge, and, rather chillingly, the whole set of the corridor and cells that contained Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, among many other things. It was quite fun to see it all, a lot of general costumes and props from films I like, as well as many many exhibits about some of the most famous films in history.

La Brea Tar Lake

La Brea Tar Lake

From there I drove south a few blocks to the La Brea Tar Pits. These very bizarre pits have been the site of asphalt bubbling up from below the earth for at least 40,000 years, and have yielded some incredible fossils. The pits themselves are still active dig sites, and you could have a good look at one (unfortunately noone was digging while I was there), and the large tar lake was still bubbling away in a slow but strange way, with the faint smell of creosote hanging in the air. There were also small holes in the ground in a few places with fresh liquid tar on the surface, which was a really quite odd thing to see. Next to the pits is the Page Museum, which houses most of the fossils found and it did have some amazing specimens. Most impressive were probably the very intricate and well preserved bird skeletons of various now extinct species of bird of prey, and the wall of over 400 wolf skulls – researchers believe entire packs of wolves will have been trapped at the same time all trying to attack an animal already stuck and sinking itself.

Next, I drove back north a couple of blocks to the famous Sunset Blvd, which I then drove all the way down, through the most famous night spots and hotels. It would have been nice to see it on foot, but really in this city of autos quite impractical. Things are so far apart that walking is really a nightmare, and while parking is actually pretty cheap when you find it, there seem to be many car parks in some places, then a large gap before the next one, sort of like London buses. I did get a pretty good view at the place which in daytime appeared pretty drab really, though the many neon signs must improve it at night. Soon the nightclubs gave way to Beverley Hills, which is every bit as attractive and mansion-filled as all the stereotypes suggest. I didn’t actually go down any side streets and seek out any particular stars’ homes as I thought that would be pretty sad, but I did get a good look at a few mansions.

Courtyard at the Getty Centre

Courtyard at the Getty Centre

More heavy traffic later I got to the edge of town and, passing under the freeway, reached the Getty Centre. This billion-dollar construction of white stone, glass, fountains and gardens sits on the top of a hill overlooking the city and houses a large collection of art of all kinds. I spent some time going around the galleries, and then a little while enjoying the views of the city and admiring the gardens. It’s quite remarkable but the entire place is free to enter (though parking does cost $10), and is even an automated tram ride from the car park.

It was now getting late and the centre was closing, so I departed and headed back in to town. Before going back for some dinner I headed briefly up the hills north of Hollywood (after ages stuck in rush hour traffic) to the park and climbed to the top of the hill for a decent view of the Hollywood Sign in the sunset, after which I dropped my car off at the motel and found a bar to grab some food and a drink in the heart of Tinseltown.

Hollywood Sign

Hollywood Sign at sunset


Freeways, Fauna, Flora, Fires

May 25, 2009
Elephant Seals

Elephant Seals

The new day brought sunshine to San Simeon, and, leaving my motel, I got on the road heading back north. My goal was not to see all the stuff from the day before again, though that was a possibility, it was to see a colony of elephant seals that has taken up residence on a beach just north of where I was staying. Once critically endangered, these huge two-tonne seals have been making a comeback in the last couple of decades, and this beach is the first place on the mainland they decided to land. Conveniently right next to the highway, there were a couple of car parks from which you could view them along the bay. They were a lot like the sea lions that I’ve seen further north, just bigger and louder. After watching them interact for a while I considered going further north to see if the weather was better, but it looked as though the low cloud that had been there the day before had lingered overnight, with a large bank of it visible not far to the north. I turned around an continued south.

Almost the entire rest of the day was spent driving down route one, at times along the coast and at times it wound a few miles inland to small towns. I stopped at one place for lunch, the larger San Luis Ibispo, which turned out to be a very pleasant and clearly fairly affluent town. The road suddenly went away from the sea for several hours, though clearly not that far as at one point some massive sand dunes were clearly visible in the distance, and passed through various terrain types from towering volcanic formations to flat farmland to dusty bowls with endless mobile home parks. I then skirted around the vast Vandenberg Air Force Base, the place that a great number of commercial rockets for satellites are launched, before finally getting back to the sea. Here the road and been supplanted by a railway at the thing closest to the sea, but finally I was nearing my destination: Santa Barbara.

The Coast Railroad

The Coast Railroad

Reaching the town, it quickly became clear that all the motels were totally sold out. It is Memorial Day weekend here, one of the USA’s many bank holidays, and clearly everyone decided on a long weekend away somewhere. I was recommended by the guy at a Motel 6 to try another one a few miles further down the freeway that had 17 rooms it would be cancelling at 6pm as they were unconfirmed reservations. This didn’t give me long to get there, but it was my best shot – it was also likely to be somewhat cheaper than the eye-watering rates the motels closer to town were all charging. I did in the end manage to get a room from the cancellations, though it wasn’t very soundproof and about 30 metres from the freeway, so I could barely hear myself think.

After an unsurprisingly bad night I got up and headed in to Santa Barbara itself. Fortunately the city had ample (free) parking very close to the main areas of downtown. I wandered in and grabbed some breakfast in a café and then walked up the main street, called State Street to get a feel for the place. It is a very pretty town, with a quite mediterranean feel. All the buildings were white or yellow adobe with bright red clay roof tiles, as you’d expect in the south of Spain or Italy. It turns out that after an earthquake devastated much of the town in the early 20th century, they implemented strict planning laws to enforce this look for downtown, which are still in place. Also included in the laws was that no commercial building could be over 4 stories high, which means Santa Barbara is surprisingly low rise for an American City of its size.

Santa Barbara Courthouse

Santa Barbara Courthouse

My first stop was in the city’s small local history museum, which was in a nice old looking adobe complex. It had exhibits on the towns history all the way from when the area was inhabited by natives up to more or less now, and was quite interesting, giving a good timeline of Spanish conquest, Mexican independence, American conquest and then statehood. From there I went to the County Courthouse, which was in a huge, imposing adobe structure that was completely open to the public and has a nice bell tower you could climb up. The architecture inside was nice as well, with lots of arches and stained glass.

The city itself is very tidily kept and definitely has an air of wealth. It’s far enough south that the wide streets are beginning to be lined with palm trees instead of regular trees, but the truly striking thing was the smell. There were many flowers down a lot of the side streets and on the main roads, and you could really smell them, especially when walking across an intersection so the fragrance could waft across you on the breeze. It might just be the nicest smelling town in California, we’ll have to see. It was getting on in to the afternoon now, and I spent a little while walking on the beach after having a sandwich for lunch. The beaches are flat, wide and excellent here, and so big that they didn’t feel at all busy despite having a fair few people on.

Fire Damage

Fire Damage

After my walk I got back in the car and drove out to the north to visit the Botanical Gardens, which my guide book said were excellent. It turned out, when I got there, that they had been largely destroyed by the fires which ravaged the surrounding areas just a couple of weeks ago. I decided to go in anyway, to see the things that remained, by the fire damage was clear to see everywhere. Charred trees, burnt out patches in the ground, blackened fencing, and stretching out in every direction the forests reduced to brown. You could even still smell the faint aroma of wood smoke in the air everywhere. It also really drives home just how dangerous the wildfires here can be – the Botanical Gardens can’t be more than half a mile from the dense residential areas on the outskirts of the city. What remained of the gardens was attractive though many of the best sounding exhibits were gone, such as redwoods and orchids. A large collection of desert plants from various types of desert was probably the highlight, though, morbidly, I probably found the fire damage more interesting.

A pretty scene in the Botanical Gardens

A pretty scene in the Botanical Gardens

From the gardens I headed out of the city to the northwest and toward the county’s wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. To get there I took the route 154 over the mountains, and it went through the areas that were really annihilated by the fires – forests and scrubland reduced to little more than black sticks in the ground, and the earth just a scorched grey-black of ash and charcoal. Getting up in to the mountains, and out of the fire damaged area, I got some great views in the setting sun. The route passed through a small town called Solvang, which seemed to be transplanted from Denmark, but I couldn’t stop because I had to get to the Motel 6 in the next town for 6pm – it was going to be the only way I’d get a room again. I’ll definitely be going back to check it out properly tomorrow.

Note in the photo above the brown trees behind the meadow – that’s what the fire did to about 70% of the gardens 😦