Californication

My perception of California has been, up until now, pretty one sided. California in my mind was Hollywood, Santa Monica Beach, Napa Valley and the Golden-Gate Bridge; in other words; beautiful cities and beautiful people.

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But, after being in the state for a few days, it became clear that The Golden State is one of the USA’s most diverse.

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Within 24 hours, we were at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley (-282 ft), and trekking up through the 48 States’ highest point, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft). They are less than 50 miles away from each other.

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Death Valley – it is easy to see how it earned its name. Just getting up and down the hills to arrive into the valley, our car almost overheated several times; we had to stop every few minutes on the intense climbs at extreme heats just to cool it off!

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Once we were back on the flat, driving along with the windows down, the heat and wind combination was like someone blowing a hair-dryer into our faces. Chapped lips, dry eyes… we were drinking at least a litre of water per hour…

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In our water-guzzling, sun-screen lathering state, I am always amazed at the resourcefulness of animals and plants that have adapted to survive in these incredibly harsh climates. But, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the landscapes are parched and bare, and the few creatures that do manage to survive here are quiet and still beneath the scorching sun.

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The next morning, we woke in the foothills of Mount Whitney, in the southern Sierra-Nevada, where waterfalls gush from rocky crags, dense, lush vegetation fills every inch of fertile ground, bears, big cats, deer and myriads of birds all live and thrive. What an amazing contrast!

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It became clear pretty quickly that we were not prepared to summit the mountain, and so we took a fantastic hike up to one of the mountain’s many lakes.

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Following the mountains north, we found ourselves in the Sequoia Forest with the most majestic trees I have ever seen. It is interesting that scientists are still only just figuring out the life cycle and optimal living conditions for these trees: they actually never die naturally! They are sometimes toppled in storms, but most often forest fires weaken and eventually eat away at the trunks until they die.

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So in an attempt to protect them, the park stopped all fires; both natural and man-made. But soon, they saw a decline in the number of young trees. Eventually, they realised that small forest fires are the only way the seedpods will dry and be opened, releasing their seeds… So the fires are back… but under the careful watch of Ranger Rick ☺

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Yosemite National Park is breathtaking – literally, when you hike up the hill for hours :). We did one of the most challenging hikes we have attempted – the famous Half Dome.

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Scaling an, at times, 80 degree wall after four hours of steep ascent, was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting moments on our trip so far.

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And the views from the top were just beautiful!

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But as we headed back West, down from the Sierra Nevada range, the effects of the drought that we had been hearing about became devastatingly clear. Empty cattle barns, fields parched gold, dried up lakes…

The only green fields that seemed to be worth the investment were, quite ironically, vineyards.

Now in its fourth year, this catastrophic drought is forcing farmers to either pay water usage fines or leave their fields unplanted. State agriculturalists are getting desperate, and even considering doing a mass move of California crops to Arkansas…

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But one very clear way that we see California’s environment truly benefitting its residents is the countless wind farms across the state. Driving through turbine forests along the highway was quite something!

And, one more thing about California… the traffic… As we drove north, headed up into Portland, it took us five hours to get out of San Francisco onto the freeway… but the Golden Gate Bridge was worth it… just about!

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Now that we only have seven states left to visit, we are starting to be able to pick our favourites. And, with its absolutely incredible diversity, beauty and amazing national parks, California is definitely high on the list.

Wild West

Louise’s 2nd July Concert to kick off the 4th July weekend seemed a little ironic – a Brit wishing Texans Happy Independence Day?

But, music is a universal language and the concert connected superbly with the audience. And since we had given ourselves one week to get to Los Angeles from Austin, as soon as the gig was over, we packed up the car and headed into the night.

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West. Wild West, truly!

We had seen some pretty remote parts of the states; the Badlands in the Dakotas, tiny little towns in Minnesota, never-ending fields of farmland in Missouri and Kansas.

But the vast expanses of desert in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were something even more incredible.

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The Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas and New Mexico border were our introduction to the rugged, wild terrain that continues across the south of the USA. Rich rocks filled with quartz, mountains lions, cacti and forest, snakes and deer – the mountains held a diversity of life thanks to their abundant water supply.

But as we headed further into the desert, the numbers of species fell and soon we were alone with lizards, birds, and bugs. There is nothing like the quiet, the darkness, the heat, the expanse of the desert.

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In towering sand dunes or vast canyons, with the unforgiving sun and no sign of water, it is easy to see how lost and helpless we are under the forces of nature.

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As we approached one of the world’s most stunning features, the great crack in its crust formed by a formidable earthquake, Grand Canyon, we wanted to have a different experience than we had had before – something more than taking that same photo that everyone has.

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So we started hiking down into the canyon. As soon as you start to descend, you start to understand the sheer size of the place. We walked for hours, and had not even got close to the bottom. One can not easily conquer these wild places.

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One of the most fascinating features of the Wild West is the number of abandoned, or almost-abandoned towns that are scattered across the landscape. We came across several mining towns that had fallen into ruin, with their run-down buildings, scrap cars in yards, and mine shafts – some still with undetonated explosives!

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It is amazing to let your imagination create the stories of those who lived here; why they came, how life was, what finally forced them to leave. And for those who have stayed, how do they possibly survive when there is no-one for miles and nothing to build a life around?

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Amazingly, the post office and the railroads are the veins that keep the life blood flowing; connecting and crisscrossing and keeping these tiny towns alive. In the most remote of towns, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, post boxes line the roads and are a welcome sign of life.

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Perhaps the creepiest place that we came across was while we were off-roading in the Mojave desert. We had turned onto tiny dirt tracks, when we crested a hill and found an old trailer; the windows were gone, and it was covered in plastic sheeting.

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Bullet casings and shotgun shells were strewn everywhere, and our minds immediately jumped to Walter White and Breaking Bad! It was a great hideout… shielded from view and protected from the rear by mountains. So either someone there had a score to settle with the coyotes, or the King of the Hill had something else going on…

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But that night, we found a perfect camp of our own. In the middle of nowhere, peaceful, with the brightest stars we have ever seen. It is easy to see why our ancestors worshiped the moon and the stars; these bright oracles bring light in the midst of darkness, and their beauty is astounding!

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As night fell, the howl of coyotes greeted our ears. We made sure the door was firmly locked that night!

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While the days are hot and bright, the nights are usually dark and cool and peaceful. But when storms come, the lightning is awe-inspiring. Driving towards Las Vegas, the air was thick with the smell of electric charge – it looked like “Sin City” was under attack with fierce vengeance! With lightning all around us, in every direction, piercing through the night sky with great cracks of light, once again we felt the force of nature – knowing we were at its mercy and have no power to stop it.

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It is an amazing feeling to be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty and wildness of our world. It can be uncomfortable, daunting, truly scary. But it is always an enriching, humbling and inspiring experience.