Monterey, a town immortalised by John Steinbeck

It’s hard to make the mental shift between the Monterey of John Steinbeck’s novels, full of Depression-era desperation, and the prosperous modern town that welcomes coach loads of tourists. Today’s brightly painted streets around Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row are a far cry from the streets, and the communities that lived on them, that I remember reading about.

The sardine canneries that were the backbone of the town’s economy, and which Steinbeck describes so evocatively, are long gone. The street Steinbeck so memorably called “…a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”, has been transformed. The buildings now house restaurants, shops and hotels, all catering to the tourist industry.

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Monterey, California, United States

Cannery Row was known to Steinbeck as Ocean View Avenue. The town changed the name to cash in on the fame of the eponymous novel, and judging by the number of visitors it was an inspired name change. The sardine factories all closed in the 30 years after World War Two, as the sardine population collapsed due to over-fishing. Until then it had been one of the most productive fisheries in the world.

Today, the town’s connection to the sea and its aquatic life is just as strong, but based more on scientific research and conservation. Monterey is home to one of the finest aquariums in the world, and there is a thriving industry of whale watching and dolphin spotting out in the magnificent Monterey Bay.

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

We arrived early and had a walk around the town before heading out on a whale watching boat. The waters around Monterey are home to passing Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Grey Whales, Orcas and a variety of dolphins. We felt confident that we’d spot some whales on the four-hour boat trip. Worryingly, the person selling us the tickets made a point of saying we’d get a free trip if we failed to see any whales.

As we slowly made our way out of the harbour, we passed sea lions soaking up the sun and a few sea otters lounging around in the water. The weather was calm and sunny, perfect for a boat ride, but would it be perfect for whale watching? We soon spotted a handful of Common Dolphins but an hour into our trip there hadn’t been a whale sighting.

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

An on-board marine biologist describing how extraordinarily abundant in wildlife this bit of ocean was, and told us all about the giant sea creatures that so far eluded us. Suddenly, the boat changed course. The captain had spotted something and a ripple of excitement ran through the passengers. It wasn’t a whale, but something I thought as impressive, a pod of Risso’s Dolphins.

I’d never seen one before and they aren’t as frequently spotted as other dolphins. They don’t look much like dolphins I’ve seen before either, missing the typical ‘beak’. Their grey bodies are covered in unusual markings. These are caused by their  main prey, squid, making them look suspiciously like they’ve all been tattooed.

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso's Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

Risso’s Dolphins, Monterey Bay, California, United States

We followed them for a while before a message was received that something else had been spotted in the distance. The boat set off and we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a vast group of Common Dolphins, which were racing through the water at high-speed. Our marine biologist estimated there were around a thousand dolphins in the group. Everywhere you looked there seemed to be dolphins. It was very exciting.

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Monterey Bay, California, United States

Soon enough our time was up and we headed back to Monterey without spotting a whale. We were given free tickets to go back another time, but to be honest I was quite thrilled by what we had seen.

We headed to Fisherman’s Wharf for some lunch and then went to the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium…

Bixby Bridge and Big Sur beachcombing

It’s not difficult to see why Big Sur regularly appears on lists of top destinations to visit. Magnificent mountain scenery, towering redwood forests, wildlife encounters, and a beautiful wild coastline along the mighty Pacific Ocean, make it a treat for the senses. It was a warning on the State Park website that most appealed to me though. Big Sur is a place where getting a mobile phone signal is almost impossible.

Here, just a few hours drive from the tech hub of San Francisco, you can leave the digital world behind. We decided to embrace this idea and headed to the coast for a day of low tech beachcombing … nearby Pfeiffer Beach was the perfect place to start our explorations, even if there’s a $10 fee to visit. Maybe that was why no one else was on the beach.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Pfeiffer Beach is a wonderful crescent-shaped arc of sand, backed by cliffs and hills. Famous for many reasons, it’s mostly known for two huge rocks sitting in the cove. These both have holes in them that look a little like caves. As the Pacific Ocean waves pound into the rocks the water is channeled through the holes and spews out white, foamy spray.

The beach is also famous for having purple-coloured sand, caused by manganese garnet being washed down from the surrounding hills when it rains. We didn’t see the purple sand, but this is a fantastic beach no matter what colour the sand.

Big Sur, California, United States

Big Sur, California, United States

Big Sur, California, United States

Big Sur, California, United States

Point Sur, Big Sur, California, United States

Point Sur, Big Sur, California, United States

We were driving towards Carmel-by-the-Sea and, after a refreshing walk along Pfeiffer Beach, we headed north towards Andrew Molera State Beach. This is where the Big Sur River meets the Pacific Ocean, and is all windswept natural beauty. It has to be one of the most beautiful beaches along this coast. It was also, surprisingly, deserted

We strolled in grand isolation with just the sound of the wind and ocean for company. It’s a short walk to the beach from a nearby carpark. The walk entails wading through the Big Sur River, the water isn’t very deep and the beach definitely makes getting a little wet worthwhile. The short trail passes through a picturesque meadow where, on our return, we came across some deer.

Walk to Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Walk to Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Deer near Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Deer near Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Deer near Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

Deer near Molera Beach, Big Sur, California, United States

We carried on north, soon passing over the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. The bridge ranks up there as being (almost) as well known as the Golden Gate, but that’s just about where the comparisons end. Built in 1932, just a few years before the Golden Gate, it carries less than 5,000 cars per day. The single concrete arch has a timeless quality, and is dramatically set into the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

It’s well worth stopping to admire the views from one of several roadside parking spots, but for Jack Kerouac fans this is virtually a place of pilgrimage. It was here, while drunkenly marauding around like a madman, that he wrote the novel Big Sur and the poem Sea.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California, United States

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California, United States

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California, United States

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California, United States

Big Sur, California, United States

Big Sur, California, United States

We decided to stay in the wine region of the Carmel Valley, a short drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea, but stopped briefly to visit the famous Carmel Mission. Our real reason for coming here was to hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. It’s a beautiful place with an abundance of wildlife. The scenery is magnificent, but we also saw several sea otters, seals and sea lions.

This really is a beautiful area, criss-crossed with walking trails with only a handful of people on them. It was the perfect end to a day of Californian beachcombing, made all the more satisfying in the knowledge that we could sample some Carmel Valley wines at the end of our drive.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Sea Otter, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Sea Otter, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Sea lions, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Sea lions, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Seal, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Seal, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, United States

California’s rugged Pacific coast, Morro Bay to Big Sur

Waking early, just as the sun was rising, we headed down to the shoreline of Morro Bay where it overlooks the harbour and the town’s stand out sight, the 576-foot Morro Rock. The waters were as calm as the town was quiet. Boats bobbed gently in the harbour, sea birds wheeled overhead, and groups of pelicans hurtled past on important fishing missions. It was the definition of tranquil.

Morro Rock, Morro Bay, California, United States

Morro Rock, Morro Bay, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

We went for a walk along the water front in the refreshingly cool early morning air. There were a few dog walkers but, as we left the streets behind, we saw no one else. Illuminated by the sun on the other side of the bay were rolling sand dunes, part of a protected area and wildlife haven. You often get sea otters here. Not this morning sadly, but we would have plenty of spotting opportunities further up the coast.

Morro Bay looked like a lovely town, and with nearby beaches we could easily have spent a couple of days relaxing here. That wasn’t to be. We had just enough time to have coffee and some breakfast before setting off up the rugged Pacific Coast, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres north of here.

Morro Rock, Morro Bay, California, United States

Morro Rock, Morro Bay, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Morro Bay, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Our destination for the day was a ‘rustic’ wooden cabin amongst some trees in the Big Sur State Park. It looked cosily picturesque on the website, the sort of place you’d enjoy arriving after a day on the road. Looks can be deceiving apparently. ‘Rustic’ translated as ‘the world’s least comfortable bed’. I had the worst nights’ sleep of our entire trip.

Leaving Morro Bay behind, we were soon on State Route 1 passing along the broad sweep of Estero Bay. We decided this looked too tempting and stopped to take a walk on the near-deserted beach. It was beautiful in the soft morning sunlight.

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Wild beach, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Back on Highway 1, we passed through several small towns that are dotted along the coast. We skipped going on a guided tour of Hearst Castle in favour of a pit stop to see one of the natural wonders of this coast: the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. In the peak season, there are as many as 17,000 seals that call this stretch of coast home and the beaches become packed with blubber.

The day we arrived at a boardwalk viewing point with information boards, there were a few hundred seals wallowing in the sand and soaking up the sun. They are enormous creatures that spend most of their lives in the ocean, and they don’t exactly look comfortable on land, although they can still move faster on the sand than humans.

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Seals, Pacific Coast, California, United States

The road north of Piedras Blancas hugs the precipitous coastline and is one of the most celebrated routes in the US. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful roads you’re ever likely to drive. The closer you get to Big Sur the more mountainous the route becomes. At some points the mountains plunge into the ocean and the road begins to twist and turn, dramatically revealing fabulous vistas over the Pacific Ocean.

The route from Morro Bay to Carmel-be-the-Sea is only around 200 kilometres, and we weren’t even going that far, but this is not a road to drive too quickly. There are too many glorious views to be had, and too many hairpin corners to negotiate for that. We took most of the day to make the trip, arriving at our cabin as the sun was setting. We bought some provisions and settled down for a night under the stars in Big Sur.

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Pacific Coast, California, United States

Home for the night, Pacific Coast, California, United States

Home for the night, Pacific Coast, California, United States

The serene desert, Mojave National Preserve

An unexpected delay in Vegas due to illness left us a day short on our Californian road trip. We had to make the difficult decision not to spend a night in the Mojave, instead just driving through en route to the coast. It was going to be a long day of driving, through blighted landscapes and under a hot sun, before we finally arrived exhausted in the middle of the night at Morrow Bay.

Rarely have I been happier to see a bed, but tiredness couldn’t take away from a great day exploring the Mojave National Preserve. On the surface, this is just a vast expanse of scrubby desert, seemingly hostile and unforgiving to humanity. Drive through its centre though and it becomes ever more fascinating.

Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Tree, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Tree, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Trees, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Trees, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Railroad crossing, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Railroad crossing, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Forests of Joshua Trees stretch off towards distant mountains; sun and wind battered human settlements cling to an improbable existence; long, slow freight trains trundle through the blasted landscape like something out of a movie; and the magnificent Kelso Dunes soar above the desert floor to offer extraordinary views over this enigmatic place.

We weren’t exactly unhappy to leave Las Vegas behind, and shortly after crossing the Nevada/California State Line we stopped to get gas. A visit to the ‘restroom’ brought a surprise: a ‘waterfall urinal’. Judging by the sign on the wall, it was the pride and joy of the establishment. I can only imagine this was an idea hatched late at night after several drinks. Possibly tequila.

En route to Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

En route to Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Waterfall urinal, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Waterfall urinal, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Waterfall urinal, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Waterfall urinal, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Turning off Freeway 15 onto the Cima Road, we were plunged into a different world. For the next few hours we barely saw another human being, and the isolation of this place became only too apparent. It’s hard to imagine humans surviving here, but before Europeans arrived with smallpox, guns and air conditioning, a flourishing culture of Mojave tribal peoples carved out a successful society in the desert.

We headed towards Kelso, where the cultural and natural history of the Mojave is told in the National Preserve’s main information centre. This is situated inside the old railway station which, it’s fair to say, strikes an odd note in the otherwise functional surroundings of Kelso. There was nobody around, not even a car in the car park. It was a little spooky.

Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Trees, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Joshua Trees, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Freight train, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Freight train, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Although still morning, the temperature was rising as we headed off to one of the most extraordinary sights in Mojave, the Kelso Dunes. We could see the dunes glowing golden as we drove down the unpaved road. From a distance they don’t look so big, but when you reach the base and start the 200m climb to the top, their size becomes painfully apparent.

Reaching the summit was worth every step though. The view over the dunes stretching towards the mountains in the distance is spectacular, made all the more wondrous by the knowledge that you’re standing on dunes that are around 25,000 years old. What’s more amazing is that this spot is only a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, and yet there was only one other car in the car park – we didn’t see any actual people.

Road to Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Road to Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Back in the car after an invigorating climb under a hot sun, we set off through the desert towards Barstow and Bakersfield. After night fell we drove over one final mountain range, the last barrier between us and the coast at Morrow Bay. It was midnight and we’d have to wait until sunrise to see the town but, after days in California’s deserts, the smell of the ocean was refreshingly unmistakable.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California, United States

Las Vegas, the impossible city

Read some accounts of Las Vegas and you’ll get the impression that Sin City is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. The town has done much to clean up its reputation, and make it more family friendly, but there’s definitely a sleazy side to it. Some friends who recently visited were approached by a man who handed them his business card. It said he was a ‘Chick Wrangler’, able to arrange female company on demand. Old habits die hard in Las Vegas.

Girls who want to meet you, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Girls that want to meet you, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

I was 18 years-old, and fresh out of school, when I first visited Las Vegas with a friend. Not exactly high-rollers, we arrived on a Greyhound bus and slept in a cheap motel. Hearing our accents, the driver decided to give us advice for surviving ‘Vegas’. Arrive in the afternoon, we were told, check in and relax poolside. Hit the casinos and bars in the evening and don’t stop partying until the early hours of the morning. Sleep late the next day and then get the hell out of town.

This sage advice came to mind as we walked through the casino floor of The Venetian at 8am. An unshaved, un-showered man wearing little more than his underwear was slumped in a chair robotically pushing money into a slot machine. He was still there several hours later when we next passed through, on our way to the ridiculously large and sumptuous suite that we’d been upgraded to upon arrival.

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Slot machines, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Slot machines, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

The Venetian itself is everything you need to know about Las Vegas. It’s the most grandiose, over-the-top extravagant place I’ve ever stayed. This is a hotel, after all, that incorporates replicas of major Venice landmarks, including the Palazzo Ducale, Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. It even has a Grand Canal complete with gondoliers that punt half a million people around each year. The ceilings transform themselves into a night sky complete with stars.

It’s a seriously bizarre experience, but exactly what you might expect of a preposterous city constructed in a desert. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge were alive today, Las Vegas would definitely be the Xanadu of his poem, Kubla Khan. Although, even an opium-ingesting Coleridge might struggle to comprehend the scale of the shimmering vision that has been constructed in Nevada.

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Slot machines, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Slot machines, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Visiting Las Vegas took us a long way out of our way, but experiencing all its weirdness after a gap of two and a half decades was fascinating. This really is one of the most ridiculous places on earth. Its true north located somewhere between a theme park and a drug induced hallucination of dystopian urban planning. It’s in a desert and everyone has a swimming pool…

The full spectrum of humanity is found on Vegas’ streets. A Hen Night from Liverpool, Rolls Royce driving Vegas ‘royalty’, drunks, homeless people, name tag wearing conference people, families catching a show. An extraordinary mix, possible only in this impossible city. We didn’t have plans to break the bank, so spent our time people watching and occasionally dabbling at the casino tables.

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Margaritaville, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

Margaritaville, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

One night we sat at a bar in the Venetian and ordered some cocktails. The barman had a very familiar accent, from the English Midlands. It was quiet at the bar, and as we drank and chatted his story unfolded. He’d come to the US  following his heart. When his marriage broke down, he left the East Coast town he’d called home and moved to Vegas for a ‘fresh start’.

There, in that one story, was the very soul of Vegas, perhaps of the Western United States. This was a town of new beginnings, where someone’s past could be left at the city limits and a new future carved out. At least that’s how the fantasy goes. We tipped heavily and headed for the roulette table to see if we could win the gas money back to California.

The lowest and the hottest, Death Valley

You have to drag yourself out of bed early, and wait in the pre-dawn cold for the sun to chase away the darkness, but sunrise at Zabriskie Point is a defining Death Valley experience. Watching the skies and landscape transform as the sun slowly rises is magical. The sky becomes pink, distant mountains turn a vivid red, and the rock formations of Zabriskie Point become yellow and golden.

Zabriskie Point is only a short distance from Furnace Creek, where we’d spent a strange night in the company of a motorbike gang. When we arrived at the viewing area there were already quite a few people gathered for the spectacle – mainly people with camera tripods – mutely observing the wondrous rock formations and the valley beyond. You could feel the anticipation in the air.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

As the sun made its way over the ridge of the mountains behind us, the world was transformed and a couple of dozen camera shutters clicked away rhythmically. The colour and texture of the rocks were dramatically illuminated in a way that only the sun can conjure. As the sun rose, the temperature started to head upwards as well. Time to head to our next destination, Dante’s View.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Sitting on a natural terrace at around 5,500 feet in altitude, on the ridge of the Black Mountains, Dante’s View offers vistas that are spectacular. The panorama across Badwater Basin is breathtaking, the white salt flats that stretch across the valley floor sparkle brightly in the intense early morning sun. The shape of salt formations in the valley look like giant pieces of art, a sort of salty Nazca Lines.

You’d normally have to work hard to get a view like this, trekking and climbing in the pre-dawn to reach the summit before sunrise. Happily, this being California, there’s a paved road, a parking area and even picnic tables. We watched as the sun illuminated more of the mountains and, as more and more visitors arrived, we headed all the way down to Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

A -282 feet (-85.5 metres) Badwater Basin is the lowest place in North America, and the contrast between it and the surrounding mountains is a dramatic one. Walking out into the middle of the salt flat is an incredible experience, like being in a gigantic white ampitheatre in the middle of the mountains. Most of the white stuff is sodium chloride, better known as table salt, but there are other minerals as well.

They say that Badwater gets its name from a traveller who tried to water his mule here. The mule refused to drink and the name Badwater was born. This gives a clue to how all this salt arrived in the valley. Occasionally this vast dried up lake is flooded in salt rich waters, when it evaporates a salt crust is formed. It was near here that the world’s hottest ever temperature was recorded in 1913, a whopping 134 °F or 56.7 °C.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

A short 10 minute drive from Badwater, along a dirt road, was our final destination of our time in Death Valley, a Natural Rock Bridge.  We parked the car and immediately were confronted with a truly alarmist warning sign. It only take 15 minutes to walk to the bridge, but apparently even this was likely to put our lives at risk without a gallon of water each.

After reading the sign, I was more concerned about the snakes and deadly spiders which would pounce on you from their hiding spot under stones. We decided we’d risk the stroll with only a half litre of now warm water. The arch is a larger than it looks, but the whole thing is a bit underwhelming. Worth a 15 minute walk in the sun? Just about.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Hiking advice near rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Hiking advice near rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Trail to rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Trail to rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Finally, our Death Valley adventure at an end, we headed towards Nevada and the bright lights of Las Vegas. The contrast between the natural beauty of Death Valley and the trashy man-made neon of Vegas is, in my experience, unrivalled anywhere on earth. The transition is a strange one, but after the heat and the dust of Death Valley we were owed a night of fake opulence.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

En route to Las Vegas, United States

En route to Las Vegas, United States

A land of extremes, Death Valley

The size and scale of Death Valley National Park is almost beyond comprehension. It’s vast 3.3 million acre size includes soaring peaks, including the 11,043 feet (3,366m) Telescope Peak, and salt pans that reach 282 feet (86m) below sea level. In between there are sand dunes, multicoloured rock formations, old gold mines, resort hotels, and even unexpected wildlife sightings.

From snow-capped peaks to the lowest, driest and hottest place in the United States, it’s a true land of extremes. Only when you reach its high places, or its low places, do you really get a sense of this extraordinary place.

Coyote, Death Valley, California, United States

Coyote, Death Valley, California, United States

The size of Death Valley makes it hard to decide what to see and do when you only have a couple of days. Even a conservative itinerary requires a lot of driving. We made a last minute decision to go to Las Vegas, so planned to spend our second night at Furnace Creek before driving into Nevada. In the meantime, we set off to see a few things west of Stovepipe Wells. First stop, the 6,433 feet high Aguereberry Point.

The views over Death Valley are little short of spectacular, and at this altitude it’s also a little breathtaking. On a good day you can see for 30 miles or more, and can easily see Dante’s Peak 20 miles away across the valley floor. We drank in the views and returned down the dirt road to the abandoned mine we’d seen. As we did something moved in the scrub, there, in front of us, was a coyote.

Human for scale, Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Aguereberry Point was named after one of Death Valley’s many extraordinary characters, Jean Pierre “Pete” Aguereberry. A Frenchman from the Basque country, Aguereberry came to America in 1890 aged 16 to seek his fortune hunting for gold. After almost dying trying to cross Death Valley on foot in 1905, he eventually struck lucky at a small, inauspicious hill in the middle of nowhere.

He named the hill Providence Ridge, filed his claim and soon there were 300 people living in what was optimistically called Harrisburg, after Aguereberry’s partner, Shorty Harris. The mine Aguereberry dug was known as the Eureka Mine, and he worked it alone from 1907 to 1930, extracting around $175,000 of gold from it. He died in 1945 in the appropriately named Lone Pine.

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

1947 Buick Roadmaster, Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

1947 Buick Roadmaster, Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Some of the old Harrisburg buildings can still be seen from the Eureka mine, slowly crumbling, and off in the distance is a rusting 1947 Buick Roadmaster. Who it belonged to seems to have been lost in the dust. The wooden ruins on the hillside are of Cashier Mill, used to crush the ore before mercury and cyanide were used to extract the gold. The whole scene is like a movie set.

Further along the road is another former gold mining settlement, Skidoo. Gold was discovered here in 1906, and once news got out a small town of around 700 people grew up around the site. It’s remarkable that in this desolate place once stood a bank, stores, saloons, homes and a post office. There was even a telephone service installed. None of the town is left, only remnants of the mine and mill remain.

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo is famous as the site of the only hanging in Death Valley. The murder of Jim Arnold, the Skidoo general store owner, by a violent drunkard, Joe Simpson, in April 1908, resulted in the lynching and extrajudicial hanging of Simpson. It’s rumoured that Simpson was hung twice, the second time so that newspaper photographers could get a picture of the doubly-dead man.

Like nearby Harrisburg, Skidoo’s existence was short lived. By 1917 the gold and profits were drying up, people were leaving the town and all the energy and enterprise that had put Skidoo on the map petered out. The mine closed in September 1917, the death knell for the town. It’s an evocative place to wander around, although pay attention to the signs warning of hidden mine shafts and other dangers.

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Into the Valley of Death*

The American West is littered with literal place names. Big Rock, Black Rock, Lone Pine, Big Pine, Topaz Lake, Big Bear Lake, and a thousand others. All describe the most distinctive feature of each place, and a lack of imagination of the person naming them. It has to be assumed that Death Valley got its name for similar reasons. Having visited, it’s easy to see why. This is not a place to take lightly, even today.

The legend is that in 1849 two groups with around a hundred wagons, heading to the California Gold Rush, took a wrong turn into Death Valley. Unable to find a route out after weeks of stumbling around, they were forced to kill their oxen and burn some of their wagons to cook the meat. All their wagons gone, they eventually walked out of the valley. It was then that a woman in the party is alleged to have looked back and said, “Goodbye Death Valley”.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The name stuck and was popularised in a book written by one of the survivors. To underline the dangers of the place, inside Death Valley names are also synonymous with the suffering and struggles of the first Europeans to see it: Badwater, Furnace Creek, Saline Valley, Burned Wagons Camp. It’s a ferociously inhospitable place, where the highest temperature on earth was recorded, a mere 134 °F or 56.7 °C.

We had a small slice of our own Death Valley misery driving from Eureka Dunes on a rough gravel road that had formed a washboard surface. Forty miles of Death Valley Road washboarding, and near permanent bone rattling, mind numbing misery.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

Crankshaft Junction, Death Valley Road, California, United States

Crankshaft Junction, Death Valley Road, California, United States

IMG_9300

It’s a pretty amazing journey regardless, passing through some incredible scenery without seeing another vehicle. Dotting the landscape are the signs and sites of former mines, and occasionally you’ll see bits of machinery and buildings on hillsides. At one point we reached a real landmark on the road, Crankshaft Junction. Here you can turn left to Gold Point or right to Death Valley.

Crankshaft Junction marks a remarkable stretch of the road, it travels straight as an arrow for perhaps 15km. It’s an extraordinary experience, although the washboard road was a killer. A small lifetime later the washboard finally gave way to a smooth paved road when we joined the Ubehebe Crater Road.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California, United States

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California, United States

We’d been on the road for a long time, and the sun was beginning to set as we reached Highway 190 and drove into Stovepipe Wells. We were hot, dusty and shaken not stirred, but some air conditioning and a cold beer in the hotel bar quickly revived us. We had dinner and did some star gazing before getting an early night. We had plans for the morning.

Having missed the sight of sunset over the fabled Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes the evening before, I clambered out of bed before sunrise and headed the short distance down Highway 190 to where you can walk into the dunes. Watching the sun rise over the dunes and illuminate the mountains behind was magical. The highest of the dunes is only around 100 metres, but they extend over a huge area.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Walking through and up the dunes reveals their true nature. Wide half moon shapes curve magically up into the air. As the sun rises, their colour changes from reds to oranges and then to a silvery white. It was brilliant but, with the sun risen, the temperature also rises, and being stuck in the middle of some sand dunes is no place to be. I headed back to Stovepipe Wells ready to explore some more of Death Valley…

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

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* The line comes from The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Native American Petroglyphs and California’s highest sandunes

We arrived into the nondescript town of Bishop at night after a long day of driving. The entire town seemed to be strung out along a long main street lined with motels, fast food restaurants and gas stations. To say it was uninspiring is an understatement, but we were happy to find a bed for the night and a good restaurant for dinner. The morning brought a stunning revelation, Bishop is surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Somewhere I’d read about an area near Bishop which contains a treasure trove of Native American art, rock-carved petroglyphs scattered amidst this vast region of plains and mountains. This forbidding landscape lies in the Owens Valley, a once lush agricultural area that supported a sizeable Native American population. Hundreds of petroglyphs, all that remain of that civilisation, are scattered around the area.

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Restaurant near Bishop, California, United States

Restaurant near Bishop, California, United States

Owens River near Bishop, California, United States

Owens River near Bishop, California, United States

Finding them, however, is an entirely different matter. To protect them from vandalism and theft, and in 2012 someone actually stole four sets of petroglyphs, their location remains obscured. The road is barely sign-posted and even if you do find it, the sites of the petroglyphs are no longer marked. I tried to find some accurate information in Bishop, but drew a blank.

Undeterred, I headed into the vastness hoping to find something, anything of these artworks. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are millions of rocks and all of them may hide a petroglyph. I spent a couple of hours driving around and eventually got lucky, but I know I missed out on seeing the most famous petroglyphs. If that’s the price of preventing theft, so be it.

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Back in Bishop we packed the car and bought provisions for the next part of our journey, a drive to Big Pine and then miles of unpaved roads towards Death Valley. It was going to be an adventure taking several hours, including a picnic lunch at a truly unbelievable place: the Eureka Dunes. Once we left the main highway we barely saw another person until arriving at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

California’s highest sand dunes are an extraordinary sight, reached along a dozen miles of dirt road branching off the Death Valley Road. Set against a backdrop of the Last Chance Mountains, the white sand stands out like a floating, surreal beacon amidst the brown landscape. At around 700 feet (210m) high, these are the highest dunes in the state, some say in the United States, but that isn’t their real claim to fame: these are singing dunes.

Sign near Bishop, California, United States

Sign near Bishop, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Under the right weather conditions, when the sand avalanches down the dune it makes a deep droning noise. We didn’t hear it, but just walking amongst the dunes was reward enough for making the journey to these 10,000 year-old piles of sand. There is a dry camp (no water or flush toilets) near the base of the dunes, and the (very smelly) toilet has to be one of the remotest I’ve come across.

We had our lunch under a ferociously hot sun admiring our surroundings with only the sound of the wind for company. We repacked the car, took one last look at the dunes and headed back the way we came, bracing ourselves for 50 miles of bone-rattling washboard dirt roads as we headed to Death Valley.

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Toilet, Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Toilet, Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Bodie, a Gold Rush ghost town

Drive across the Sierra Nevada today and it’s an endless gallery of exquisite vistas and monumental views, showcasing the beauty of Yosemite National Park. This though is a brutal land of snow and wind. Even today it’s filled with dangers for the unwary, and inaccessible for months at a time. A hundred and fifty years ago though, thousands of people made this epic and dangerous journey on foot or horse, all for one reason: to reach the gold mining town of Bodie.

A “sea of sin, lashed by tempests of lust and passion”. So said the Reverend F.M. Warrington of Bodie in 1881. A Methodist Minister at the peak of the town’s prosperity, Warrington must have felt like a man trying to hold back a tidal wave of immorality. Bodie’s ‘anything goes provided you can pay’ reputation was legend and, while the hills surrounding the town had gold in them, money wasn’t a problem.

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Methodist chapel, Bodie, California, United States

Methodist chapel, Bodie, California, United States

The Standard Mill, Bodie, California, United States

The Standard Mill, Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie gives little hint of its former infamy, but make no doubt about it, this was once a town of unsurpassed iniquity and violence. Over sixty saloons and dance halls, as well as numerous brothels, opium houses and gambling dens, fed the desires of the ten thousand or so men and women who briefly called Bodie home. The town was virtually lawless, the gun held sway and a simple dispute would likely end in death.

It’s an extraordinarily evocative and atmospheric place, that transports you back a century and a half as you walk its dusty, once crowded streets. We arrived late in the afternoon, the sun low in the sky, and in this bleached landscape the town was hard to spot. As we drove down the rough, 13 miles of unpaved road, the wooden buildings and old mine workings magically started to emerge amongst the hills. It was quite exciting.

It’s hard to imagine that in this windswept landscape there was once a thriving town. Bodie only boomed for a short time though and once the gold ran out people abandoned it en mass. There are dozens of buildings left, quite literally frozen in time. People seem to have just walked away from their former homes and workplaces, leaving behind many of their belongings.

Look through house windows and there are cups and plates on tables, pots and pans on oven tops. In a bar, bottles sit waiting for their owners to return, balls and cues lay on a dusty billiard table. Canned goods sit on the shelves in stores. School books lay on desks in the old school house. Outside the area is littered with the remains of mining equipment and daily life, several cars slowly rust. It’s an incredible place.

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Although small amounts of gold had been found in Bodie as early as 1859, it attracted little attention. Situated on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada this area only started to be exploited after opportunities started to dry up further west. Perhaps as few as twenty miners lived there in 1861, their lives hard and uncompromising. The town’s founder, one W.S. Body, froze to death bringing supplies across the mountains.

This all changed in 1875, when a rich vein of gold was found transforming Bodies’ fortunes and attracting thousands seeking their own fortunes. Most people would leave with little more than they arrived with, but the prospect of striking it big was a powerful lure. Early finds in Bodie were so impressive that they sent shockwaves through the country, and sparked a huge investment bonanza.

Mainstreet, Bodie, California, United States

Main street, Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

Bodie, California, United States

The influx of people was matched only by the influx of state-of-the-art steam powered equipment, much of which still remains scattered around the town. A 32-mile railway line was constructed. Bodies’ wealth though had been hugely overestimated, as quickly as the boom started it ended. By 1882, many of the thirty mines were closing and people were draining away. Without gold, Bodie was nothing.

What remains preserved today is less than 10% of Bodie’s original size. Much of the town was burned to the ground in 1932, legend has it by a two-year old playing with matches. That was almost the final death knell for Bodie, but a handful of people continued to squeeze a small living from the rock until the Second World War. After which it was completely abandoned, becoming a State Park in 1962.

Despite his despair at people’s morals, the Reverend Warrington has left a legacy here. His Methodist chapel survived the fire and remains standing today.

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A good history of Bodie, including busting some myths, can be found at www.bodiehistory.com