From San Francisco to Pismo Beach

On day 6 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana we awoke in San Francisco.  From there we would continue down the coast to our stop for the night at Pismo Beach –  a  small city between San Francisco and LA.  We started the day by not going to Lombard Street.   I had seen it, and Ted was now a local, leaving only Nick wanting to drive on the crookedest street in the world.   When quizzed Nick on how he keen he was to go, given the traffic was likely to be heavy, he seemed a little diffident, so we skipped it.  As Nick started to complain about this omission, not visiting Lombard Street become one of the highlights of the trip for Ted and I.

After a brief visit to see Ted’s home and family in leafy Palo Alto, Ted took us to the best coffee shop in the area, the ZombieRunner Cafe & Running Store on South California Ave, just off El Camino Real.  Close by was the dive bar he typically visits on a Friday night – Antonio’s Nut House.  For afficionados of dive bars, this is the real deal, and the last of its kind in the affluent city.  In one corner is an animated ape in a cage, which Ted claimed never to have noticed before, despite his many visits.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

From Palo Alto we headed to Santa Cruz to pick up Highway 1, and in an hour from there we were in Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsular. It is a beautiful town, and much loved by artists.  There are around 100 galleries in Carmel, many of which can be found along one road – Ocean Avenue.

Our first stop was the Mission Ranch.  This nineteenth century ranch was restored by the former Mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood, and is now a hotel and restaurant.  We had planned to have lunch there, but finding the restaurant closed we headed to the old Spanish Mission of San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo.  

The Mission

Carmel Mission Pismo BeachCarmel Mission was founded in 1770 and is one of the oldest of California’s 21 missions.   These are all located on or near El Camino Real, a road named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which provided the finance for expeditions to California.  It is also the only Spanish mission in California that has its original bell and bell tower.

It has been carefully restored and today it is both an active parish church and a museum.  I was pleased to find a small statue and two paintings so beautifully lit in chiaroscuro fashion it would surely have found favour with Caravaggio, the orignal master of darkness and light.  I took the shot shown here with my Leica Q, and was glad of its fast f1.7 lens, which operated in the gloom at only ISO 1,600 with the aperture wide open.

Being hungry by that time, we searched for somewhere to eat and were fortunate to come across to Tree House Cafe.  Here you can dine on a combination of  dishes from the Mediterranean, Greece and Thailand on a beautiful rooftop veranda. 

Detour on Route 1

After lunch we got back onto route 1, eager to see Big Sur and to enjoy the views of the coast down to Pismo Beach. We stopped at the spectacular Bixby Canyon Bridge for me to take a few shots, though sadly the light was not great.

Just south of the bridge we found the road was closed  due to a landslide.  It was only then that we remembered that our friend James had mentioned landslides back in Portland,   Sure enough, when we examined our much annotated map, James had routed us inland to avoid exactly what we were going to do next – drive all the way back up the Monterey Peninsular before taking Route 101 to avoid the landslide.

Unwilling to give up, Ted scoured the map for another route, and eventually came up with a small dotted line that crossed the mountains that separated coastal Route 1 from inland Route 101.   Nick was skeptical of our Chevy Suburban’s off-road abilities, and we debated it for a while.  I settled the matter by declaring the dotted line a goat track, and quite impassible.  With the matter settled and no other options, we turned around and headed north.  ‘Did I mention we need to be in Mexico by Friday?’ asked Ted once again.

On to Pismo Beach

With the detour it was dark when we arrived at Pismo Beach, once famed for an abundance of clams.   Back in 1957 in an episode of Bugs Bunny, the eponymous rabbit  and traveling companion Daffy Duck emerge from a tunnel,  into what Bugs believed to be Pismo Beach with ‘all the clams we can eat.’  The clams are much diminished in numbers now, but there is still an annual festival in their honour, and the city claims to be the clam chowder capital of the world.  A large clam statue at the southern end of Price Street ensures no visitor can miss the association.

The Pismo Beach disaster

Soon after I returned to the UK from the trip I was watching the US crime drama Ray Donovan, when I was startled to hear Bunchy, Ray’s brother exclaim ‘Jesus,  I moved my fucking family back from Pismo Beach for you, Ray!’   It’s also been mentioned in Futurama, Robot Chicken and the movie Clueless, which references the fictional Pismo Beach Disaster.

At night the back streets reminded me somewhat of Brighton in the UK – my second favourite seaside town after Deal, in Kent.   We checked in at the very pleasant Inn by the Pier, and stopped for a quick pre dinner sharpener at the bar.  Asking about the local hotspots our charming barmaid, Bobby, told us that wherever we went sooner or later we would end up at Harry’s.  Everyone did.  It sounded like destiny.

Dinner before destiny

Not wishing to meet our destiny on an empty stomach we went for dinner at the nearby Oyster Loft at which we made a second enquiry about where we go for drinks afterwards.  We were curious to be directed to the city of  San Luis Obispo, some 20 minutes drive away.  The courteous and professional staff there at the Oyster Loft also advised us that on no account should we visit Harry’s, which was 5 minutes walk away in Pismo Beach.  I took a look at our options online; San Luis Obispo’s best known landmark appeared to be bubble gum alley – a narrow walkway with walls coated in used gum.  In local news a female resident had just been sentenced to 8 years in jail for slashing her boyfriend’s throat with a box cutter.  By way of contrast Harry’s Beach Bar and Night Club looked innocuous enough.  We decided to go to Harry’s.   

Death in Tijuana

Harry’s was not the worst bar I’ve ever been to by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t recommend it.  It was large and noisy and filled with older crowd whose careworn features and less than pristine dress gave the appearance that they had endured what we call in the UK ‘a hard paper round’.  The charm that any good dive bar has was completely absent.

It was my round and I approached the bar. The woman next to me had drunk herself to the point of insensibility.  She muttered to herself and swayed alarmingly on her stool so I moved to avoid a collision.  A tall man to her right steadied her and started to take control of the situation, enquiring how she was going to get home and whether he could help her into a taxi.  He seemed genuinely concerned and helpful.  Surrounded by people who seemed likely to be considerably less noble than this, I silently gave thanks for his good citizenship.

I brought the round of beers to where Nick and Ted were standing.  They had fallen in with a group that appeared less villainous that the rest of Harry’s guests and were discussing our forthcoming trip to Tijuana.  ‘Don’t don’t do it man’, offered the largest person in the party, who was an ex US Marine.  ‘Don’t go to Tijuana.  I was there recently and I saw a man get kicked almost to death by school children’.

This alarming anecdote from an ex military type was only sightly worse than what we had heard all week.  From Vancouver to Pismo Beach we were told that a trip to Tijuana meant we would almost certainly be robbed and were likely to encounter much worse – in this case a violent end at the hands of school children.  This was to be the case until we reached San Diego and got some more balanced, first hand advice.  Ted was phlegmatic about it.  ‘As long as we remember the Spanish for help, we’ll be fine’ was his assessment.

Though the Redwoods to San Francisco

This was day 5 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana and our longest drive.  We had to cover some 400 miles, mostly on twisting two lane highways, from our lodge near Gold Beach on the Oregon coast  to San Francisco, a journey which would take more than 7 hours – if we didn’t stop.  This was also to be our day amongst the Giant Redwoods.  Initially, our progress was slow as we were constantly distracted by the views from the coast road.  Most of the time we were able to pull over in a layby, but to view Arch Rock, a massive rock formation along one of the most rugged sections of the Oregon coast, we needed to park up and walk a short trail.

Avenue of the Giants, San Francisco CaliforniaFirst Sight of The Redwoods

Stopping at the mysteriously named Trees of Mystery, located at Klamath, California, we were greeted by a very kitsch 49 foot tall Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack of American folklore, and his proportionally large Blue Ox, Babe.   Whilst these are really very large statues (most visitors would not reach Babe’s knee), they did not prepare us for the sheer scale of the Giant Redwoods we saw as we walked the trails.  Whilst they are the world’s largest single trees, they are also both the largest and oldest living things on Earth.  These incredible trees can also be viewed from the top of the forest via a gondola ride, though personally I found their majesty was best appreciated at ground level.

Taking the opportunity for brunch, we visited the Forest Cafe just across the road.  Unsurprisingly, it was forest themed and even more kitsch than the statues.   One of the specialities there is local dish called a Monte Cristo, which we sampled .  This is an XXL French toast sandwich, filled with ham and Swiss cheese, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with side of hash browns.   I think of it as the Mr Creosote of Croque-monsieurs.

The Avenue of the Giants

The next waypoint on our trip had the advantage of being one we could see without stopping – in theory at least.  This was the Avenue of the Giants, actually State Highway 254, which we entered from the northern end a few miles south of the town of Fortuna, and is pictured here.  The road was once was part of Route 101 until it was bypassed in the 1960s.  It was an incredible driving experience; the highway is lined with magnificent Coast Redwoods and runs parallel to a small and picturesque river.

Coast Redwoods (aka California redwoods) are also astonishingly large.   Curiously, the height these redwoods can attain is related to the availability of fog.  This is because transporting water to such great heights by conventional means is extremely difficult and the upper leaves supplement their water supply by extracting it from fog.

Shrine Tree Chevy Suburban California RedwoodsAlong the route there is a drive-through Redwood, and it seemed unreasonable not to sample it, especially as, unlike other examples, the opening in the trunk is natural.  As we paid for our $8 ticket (the tree is privately owned), we were told that our Chevy Suburban was the very largest vehicle the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree could accommodate.  Nick drove, I assisted from the passenger side and Ted took photos of the unlikely sight of a huge SUV passing through a tree.  At points there was barely an inch to spare either side, but the paint was still all on the car as we exited.

Shoreline Highway

From the Avenue of the Giants it is just 30 miles or so to California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the inspiration for our trip.  North to South, it runs 750 miles inland from Leggett, in northern Mendocino, along the coast to Capistrano Beach, which is about 50 miles South of Long Beach.   The stretch we were on passes through Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties and is known officially Shoreline Highway until it reaches the Golden Gate Bridge at Sausalito.

The Shoreline Highway is a beautiful but slow, windy stretch of two-lane blacktop that hugs the coast.  it is not what most people think of as the PCH, which is the section that runs between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, passing through Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey.  I read online that the drive between Leggett and Sausalito could be done in a day, ‘but it would be a tiring one’.  This amused me somewhat as we were already 5 hours into our drive at Leggett.

San Francisco Golden Gate BridgeGolden Gate Bridge

After about 3 hours we arrived at Sausalito, cheering in unison as we caught sight of San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, resplendent in International Orange.  Ted knew of some places with good views up in the Marin headlands just north of bridge, so we headed under the 101 and up a narrow winding road, which you can see in the photo.

Whilst there are many places to shoot the bridge from this is actually one of the best vantage points in the late afternoon or early evening. Parking, however, at one of the few designated areas, is really difficult.   Once parked up we enjoyed a great view of this truly amazing piece of engineering.  It was constructed in the 1930s and had to overcome wind, fog, deep water, tides and vested interests opposed to its construction to span the Golden Gate strait.  At that time, at 746 high the towers were taller than any building in the city of San Francisco.

J Town, San Francisco

I love Japan, so I was excited to be staying at the Hotel Kabuki in the J Town (aka Japantown and Nihonmachi) part of San Francisco that evening.  This affection for all things Japanese had only become stronger since my 10 day roadtrip across the country the previous year.   There are far fewer Japan Towns than China Towns in the USA, with just 3 versus around 50.    San Francisco’s is both the largest, and oldest.

J Town covers 6-blocks and has many Japanese restaurants and shops mostly along Post Street, between Fillmore and Laguna Street.  Next to our hotel in Post Street is the Peace Plaza, which contains a 5-story pagoda, a gift from the city in Osaka in the 1960s.   We were really pleased with the recently renovated boutique Kabuki, which mixes Japanese and western influences to great effect.    We strolled the few blocks of the area and ate dinner at Izakaya Kou.  Izakaya are Japanese gastro pubs that developed from sake shops which allowed customers to consume the drink on the premises, and typically serve tapas style dishes.  The food was delicious and beautifully presented.

Back at the bar of the Kabuki we reflected that our trip was rapidly coming to an end; we had only our penultimate stop at Pismo Beach before our final night’s stay in San Diego.  The day’s drive had been an epic one of more than 400 twisting miles from our lodge in the Oregon wilderness. At a mere 254 miles the road to Pismo Beach was going to be a breeze in comparison. 

The Magnificent Oregon Coast

US-26 To the Coast

Camp 18 Logging Museum Oregon CoastIt was day four of our epic roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana, and time to hit the Oregon coast.  Over the past three days, of the 1,823 miles we would eventually travel between Mexico and Canada we had covered just over 300.  We were also now heading slightly northward so that I could shoot Cannon Beach.  Nick and Ted were impatient to head South, but 60 miles from Portland on US-26 we saw an incredible assortment of rusting and antiquated machinery, and decided to stop.  Barring our short visit to Gas Works Park, Seattle, the trip had not been a photographic success so far.  Heavy cloud in Vancouver, heavy rain in Seattle and heavy drinking in Portland had all got in the way.

We had pulled over at Camp 18 Logging Museum, so called because early logging operations always numbered their camps and the museum is located at mile post 18 on Highway 26, 18 miles from the coast.  There is a great collection of old logging machinery outside in the car park, including steam engines, giant mechanical saws. tractors and the battered old logging truck shown left.

Logging is central to Oregon’s history.  Kick -started by California’s gold-rush and boosted hugely by WWII, the demand for lumber grew and Oregon became a central national and international timber producer with thousands of logging operations.  Today natural resources are a much smaller part of Oregon’s economy, which has shifted to manufacturing, services, and high tech industries.

It was too early for lunch but the restaurant made for interesting viewing – the massive doors are opened with axe handles and the dining room room is held up by an enormous log some 85 foot high and weighing many tons.   There are also several very large wooden statues of the local cryptid Big Foot.  In the gift shop Ted enquired if the shop assistant had ever seen one of the giant wilderness-dwelling bipeds, expecting a dismissive reply.  “You wouldn’t be able to see one if it were stood right next to you”, was her surprising response.  Inspired by this, Nick downloaded an app to track sightings of cryptids in the US and kept us informed of the latest in our vicinity throughout the rest of the trip.   It turns out that cryptid hunting and crypto zoological groups are quite popular in the US.  Big Foot has plenty of legendary company as this map shows.

Cannon Beach Haystack RockCannon Beach

Ever more mindful of the distance we still had to cover, we got back in the Chav Wagon and headed for the coast.  We arrived at Cannon Beach, named after a ship’s cannon that washed ashore in 1846, around noon.  The beach each is famous for the 235 ft high monolith Haystack Rock, which is flanked by the Needles – a pair of tall companion rocks.  It is one of the largest sea stacks on the Pacific Coast and is home to a colony of Puffins.  Canon Beach is probably the best known beach on the Oregon coast, certainly to photographers – but there are several others to explore, which are well described in this article on the best beaches in Oregon.

I carefully set up my tripod from a couple of different angles, watched with a mixture of mirth and frustration by my travelling companions, who were both feeling the chill on the windswept beach.  Focused on my photography I barely noticed the cold, or that the odd hour or two that had passed.

The Oregon Coast Highway

We had coffee at Sleepy Monks near the beach and then joined the Oregon Coast Highway, which would be our companion for the rest of the day.  Its a spectacular piece of two lane blacktop, but subject to landslides, which require a diversion across the coastal range of mountains we had just crossed.  Google Maps showed a distance of 285 miles and a journey time of 6 hours 28 minutes to our next destination, which was Gold Beach.   We paused at Neahkahnie Viewpoint, near Manzanita to admire the view of the apparently endless curve of the beach and numerous other scenic spots along the coast before stopping for lunch at Gracie’s Sea Hag in Depoe Bay, which claims the world’s smallest harbour.  

In addition to the coast views we were much taken by the many fine bridges we crossed, such as the Siuslaw River Bridge at Florence.  They were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s and the product of one man’s vision.  This was Conde B. McCullough, the Oregon state bridge engineer from 1919 to 1935 who combined  Gothic Art Deco and Art Moderne sources to great effect.

The Road To the Lodge

After lunch we made a few more stops for photography, most notably at Humbug Mountain, which we considered to be the perfect habitat for American Hobbits.  By the time we got to Gold Beach it was about 8PM, and we were feeling tired and hungry again.  Gold Beach (originally Ellensburg and renamed after gold was found on a nearby beach), is not the most prepossessing of seaside towns – its known for its jet boat rides on the Rogue River and little else.   The only reason we were stopping there was that we had found an interesting place to stay which conveniently broke our journey.  This was  the Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge, located some miles outside town on the Rogue River.   The road to the lodge was impenetrably dark, somewhat narrow and fearsomely winding.  On our right hand side there appeared to be some precipitous drops into we knew not what.  This combination did not suit vast bulk of our Chevy Suburban particularly well.   To increase our peril, every mile or so a deer would leap out into the road in front of us, seemingly tired of life.  We were relieved to arrive at the lodge safely but found it to be extremely quiet; the main building was locked and deserted.  Our keys were in envelopes outside.  We inspected our rooms which were cabin style found them to be very well appointed with a good sized wood fire.  A wood fire was all very well, but our thoughts at this point were on dinner.

Gold Beach

Oregon Coastal HighwayI remembered that there was a small shop some miles back towards Gold Beach, so we set off towards the town.  After a few more close calls with deer we came to the Rogue River Grocery and Tavern in the apparently invisible community of Agness.  As we entered the grocery, lit with an eerie yellow light quite possibly not of this earth, I noticed a large and rather disreputable looking stuffed turkey in one corner.  The head had been removed at some point and glued back on, with a visible white join.   The tavern was out back and in near darkness; a lone drinker sat motionless in the dark.  Reviewing our our choice of ingredients for dinner we found them be be rather limited and settled on a couple of tins of spam, some burger rolls and a copious amount of assorted beer.  With the certainty of eating established, albeit not very well, we quizzed the store keeper about what dining options there might be in Gold Beach.   He shook his head disapprovingly.  “You won’t get anything in town at this time of night.  It’s all shut up now.”   He spoke to us as if we had rolled in at midnight expecting dinner, but actually it was only 8.30 in the evening.

Unsure that this assessment was sound, we headed into town and found the Sea Star to be open.  The Sea Star was a local’s place, but friendly enough, though I was a little wary of the man who paced up and down the bar the entire time we were there.  We some ordered bar snacks, but as they turned out to be rather insubstantial, we finished our drinks and headed back to the lodge.  We lit the fire in my room and Nick cooked spam over the wood fire, which we ate in the burger rolls as we tucked into the beer.  Surprisingly, this turned out to be a better supper than we had expected.

The next morning we awoke to the full glory of being out in the Oregon wilderness.  The Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge really is in a beautiful location.  It’s primary disadvantage for us is that it really is a very long way from Mexico.  This was to be the big mileage day; we had to be cover the 408 miles to San Francisco, which Roadtrippers estimated at 7 hours 15 minutes.  Somehow we also had to find time to stop at least a couple of times to see the giant Redwoods of Northern California.  As soon as we hit the coast road we saw a succession of beautiful beaches.  The beaches of the Oregon coast are long and wild.  The forests come down close to the shoreline, and the shore is decorated with bleached white driftwood.  Offshore, there are large rocks and sea stacks.  In the soft early morning light they were quite breathtaking.   Road tripping on the Oregon coast is often shaded by neighbouring California, but having travelled the length of the US West Coast I can honestly say that it was Oregon that impressed me most.

The Fine City of Portland

Fire Hydrant outside Loyal Legion Portland
Fire Hydrant outside the Loyal Legion

On the third day of our epic roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana, we took the I5 Interstate from Seattle to Portland.  It is the main and most direct North-South route in Washington State and the drive takes less than three hours if the traffic is good.  Given a few days to spare, there are mountains, islands and lakes to explore, but there isn’t a lot to see from the interstate.    Arriving at the boutique HiLo Hotel, we dropped our bags and set out to get to know Portland a little better.  Within five minutes of our hotel we stumbled across Jake’s Famous Crawfish, which has been in business since 1892.  Being unfamiliar with both Jake and his renowned Crawfish we stopped there for lunch and found the both the food and beverages to be excellent.

The Loyal Legion

We spent much of the meal debating whether to go on the bike-bar tour of Portland that Ted had booked.  Billed as ‘Beer, Bike and The Portland Way’, it was a 2 hour, 3 stop pub-crawl on a pedal powered bar.  In good weather this would have been quite compelling, but the cold weather, combined with our inherent fear of exertion put us off.  After some debate, which required a few more rounds of drinks to settle, we cancelled the tour.  We had reached out to a friend in Portland, James, before the trip and whilst chez Jake we firmed up our arrangements.  The plan was that we would meet at the Loyal Legion, an establishment whose sole purpose is to celebrate the Oregon Craft Brewing tradition.   Re-orienting our sole purpose to the same, we took a taxi across the Willamette River.

None of us were in particularly good shape when we arrived at the Loyal Legion, as we had been slightly over served at lunch and all felt tired and somewhat listless.  As we stood outside the bar, taking in the bracing air, Ted noticed a man pacing manically back and forth between two posts on the other side of the road.  He remarked that the pacer had the right sort of idea, a comment that refers to his habit of pacing away a hangover.  This was a technique he had used extensively at Nick’s house one particularly painful New Year’s Day, and became known as ‘Ted’s Turkish prison walk’ after a scene from the film Midnight Express.

1,000 Years of Silence

Starting to feel the cold, as none of us had brought adequate cold weather clothing, we ventured inside the Loyal Legion.   Portland has more breweries per capita than any other city in the world, and the Loyal Legion has a fine selection of their beers: 99 in fact.  Looking at the extensive menu I was most taken by a stout called 1,000 Years of Silence from the Fort George Brewery, which I duly ordered.   Nick chastised me for not reading the small print, as the beer is rated at a startling 10.5% ABV.  It was a magnificent brew, but not one you could drink a lot of and remain concious.  James arrived shortly afterwards and we had a great evening with him.  After a good spell in the Loyal Legion we had dinner at the Trifecta Tavern next door and then headed to James’ cigar bar: McMenamins Greater Trumps, where he gave us each a fine cigar.  We participated in the pub quiz and I helpfully illustrated each of our answers, which later proved to be popular with the quiz markers.

Mexico By Friday

Ted had invested in a large scale map of the West Coast, which we pored over with James during the evening, carefully recording his advice on the map.  Our inattention to one of his carefully inked annotations – about landslides – would cost us a great deal of time later in the trip.

The next morning we loaded the Chav Wagon early and were about to set out when a homeless person set about us.  ‘God has a plan for you!’ she screamed, spitting at us with rage.  Sympathetic to the poor woman’s plight but not particularly keen to hear more about God’s plans for us, we set off.  We were headed for Cannon Beach, a renowned beauty spot on the coast.  Getting there meant taking Highway 26 across a small mountain range – and heading slightly North.  ‘You do realise we have to be in Mexico on Friday?’ Ted remarked pointedly as we headed back the way we had come.  This became a frequently used phrase on the rest of the trip – particularly whenever I was setting up my tripod.

From Vancouver to Tijuana

Vancouver Library RoadtripAt the end of April 2018, I embarked on a week long roadtrip from Vancouver to Tijuana with two old friends.  Our planning was limited to some banter on WhatsApp and covered just the start point, the end point, and the hotels we would stay in.  All other details could be determined en route.  We excluded Alaska from the scope of the trip – albeit with some regret, as it added another 40 hours of driving.  The hotels, which were my responsibility, were rather unequally distributed, but that was where the way points fell on this trip: Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are all quite close together.

Misplaced Confidence

We were confident we could easily do the trip in a week – after all, we had covered 2,332 miles in 10 days on a Route 66 trip that took in Monument Valley (something  most experienced travellers will tell you is inadvisable) and this was somewhat shorter.  As we found out later, there is a world of difference between driving on the arrow straight roads of the South West and the winding Pacific Coast Highway.  We had also not factored in getting through the vast, traffic logged urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

We had established a high mileage rhythm on the previous roadtrip – we rolled in a 5,600 lb. beast of a vehicle, shared the driving and were untroubled by long periods of time on the road.  For us, that is what defines a roadtrip and gave us our misplaced confidence that the trip would be a breeze.

We saw so much in a week that a single post would never do our West Coast trip justice.  Instead I will break it up into sections and give selected highlights their own posts, such as Seattle’s excellent Gas Works Park.  As this post describes the start of the journey, our itinerary is below.  The mileages and time estimates come from the app Roadtrippers – which is really quite useful.  For those planning a trip like this, bear in mind that these are most direct routes, not necessarily the most scenic; our actual mileage, as you can see below, was rather higher as a result.

The Itinerary (with Link to Posts)

  • Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Seattle, Washington (141 miles, 2 hours 28 minutes)
  • Portland, Oregon (173 miles, 2 hours 47 minutes)
  • Gold Beach, Oregon (301 miles, 5 hours 31 minutes)
  • San Francisco, California (408 miles, 7 hours 15 minutes)
  • Pismo Beach, California (246 miles, 3 hours 55 minutes)
  • San Diego, California (249 miles, 4 hours 55 minutes)
  • Tijuana, Baja California (20 miles, 27 minutes)

Estimated roadtrip Total: 1,589 miles, 27 hours 20 minutes
Actual roadtrip Total: 1,823 miles, approximately 36 hours

Vancouver

My friend Nick and I flew from London Heathrow and were met by Ted, who now lives in Palo Alto, in a wine bar in Vancouver airport.  He was clutching a glass of red wine and a welcome sign that had us in stitches.   We headed to our hotel – the Fairmont, which turned out not to be the one Ted had recommended.  It turned out that there are two Fairmont Hotels in Vancouver.  Our very poor planning was already starting to show.

Having checked into the wrong Fairmont we took an enjoyable evening stroll in Gas Town, taking in the famous Steam Clock.  We finished the evening with dinner at the excellent Pourhouse and a night cap in the hotel bar.

In the morning we were up early and took a bracing walk from our hotel along the seawall to Stanley Park, stopping to admire Douglas Coupland’s superb Digital Orca and the many seaplanes in the harbour on the way.  From there we took a taxi to the iconic Capilano suspension bridge and enjoyed a walk amongst the old growth Douglas fir trees.   We took a taxi back into the city and took in Vancouver’s striking Central Library (shown here), the design of which is based loosely on the Colosseum. After that we visited Earls in Yale Town for a late lunch and then it was time to hit the road.  We couldn’t hire a car from Vancouver to San Diego (we didn’t plan to drive in Mexico), so we had arranged to pick up the hire car in Seattle.  As the train times didn’t line up with our chosen departure time we booked a car service to get us there.

An Old White Stretch

Ted took care of this and a slightly seedy looking white stretch limo duly appeared, with a Russian driver who looked like an unreformed alcoholic.  He made it plain that whilst having alcohol in the car was against the rules, he wouldn’t be checking up on us.  We loaded the car, including some local beverages, amongst which was a promising sounding beer called 33 Acres of Darkness, and set off.  The sound system in the ageing stretch was temperamental but eventually we got our play lists loaded.  We crossed the border into the USA, narrowly getting ahead of a coach load of excitable school children.  Our driver was severly chastised by US customs for bringing an alien orange with him, and was required to leave it in Canada.  Otherwise our border crossing was unremarkable.  We took the most direct route and so we didn’t see much in the way in scenery, which later reading revealed to be a mistake, but it was a fun and relaxing leg of the journey.

Seattle

Seattle was cold and overcast when we arrived and it soon started to rain heavily.  I am sure Seattle is a great city, but it wasn’t at its best for us on this trip.  Nick and I were tired from the flight, the section of bars we took in missed the mark, and whilst we had an excellent dinner at Canon, the waitress made it quite clear that we were incompetent diners who were quite incapable of ordering either food or drink without close supervision.   Between bar and restaurant the rain turned to hail.  As we passed a bedraggled line of Millennials, queuing to watch comic JP Sears and vainly trying to shelter from hail stones the size of marbles, I was glad we would soon be heading South and into better weather.

At breakfast in the W Hotel  we debated where to go in Seattle before we headed for Portland.  Naturally we all wanted to see the Space Needle.  I had read that the best place to view of it from, as part of the Seattle skyline, was from Kerry Park – so we duly headed there.  Mercifully it was dry but somewhat misty.  When we arrived I also found the sun to be entirely in the wrong place to get a good shot of the skyline.   Nevertheless I set up my tripod and did my best with the light I had.  Nick and Ted, meanwhile, started chatting with a drone photographer who was operating next to me, humorously comparing my DSLR, cable release and tripod setup very unfavourably with the agile 4K equipped aerial device.

Determined to get at least one good shot of Seattle, we headed for Gas Works Park, which was a revelation – the link will take you to my blog about it as a one of the photographic highlights of the trip.  Though it was still bitterly cold, it was bright and sunny by the time we arrived.  We were incredibly impressed by the rusting collection of industrial era technology, partly overgrown and daubed with graffiti, that forms the unlikely centre piece for the park.  There were also great views of the city skyline over Lake Union.  We spent quite a while at GWP and then went to collect our vehicle.

Getting our Wheels

Unless you are renting an exotic of some description, it is impossible to specify the exact make and model of vehicle you would like.  Our hope was for another Chevy Suburban, but aside from knowing that it would be a large SUV, we had no idea what we would get.  We were pleased to find Hertz had a Suburban for us, though it looked a little bit of a chav wagon in white compared to our preferred US Government black; Suburbans, albeit in HD form, are used extensively by the FBI.   The 2017 Chevy Suburban is 18.5 feet long, can carry nine passengers and will tow a handy 8,300 pounds.   Whilst that might sound excessive, when you are in a vehicle for up to 10 hours a day a bit of space makes a lot of difference.   With its ladder frame chassis and soft suspension it is no driver’s vehicle, but it has huge presence and the big 5.3L V8 makes for effortless mileage.   Content that we we had a proven set of wheels under us, we loaded up and headed for Portland, Oregon, with little idea what we would find when we got there.

The Industrial Beauty of Gas Works Park

Gas Works ParkOn the north shore of Lake Union, overlooking the skyline of downtown Seattle, a rusting collection of industrial era technology, partly overgrown and daubed with graffiti, forms the unlikely centre piece for Gas Works Park.  I found myself there on a stop on an epic road trip from Vancouver to Tijuana with a small group of friends.

We were much taken by the Industrial Age monument, with its giant tanks, labrythine pipework and tall smokestacks, which now sits in green parkland.  From a distance it looked to me like Howl’s Moving Castle.  Closer, and out of its original context it has the air of a giant art installation.  It is incredibly photogenic.  I shot the accompanying picture with my Nikon Df using a circular polarising filter.  The sun was just at the right angle to bring out a lot of contrast, and the clouds help give it a steam punk vibe. 

Concrete train trestles greeted us at the park entrance. Part of the original 1906 gas plant, they apparently mark where the train tracks ended and coal was delivered, though as we had no idea what function they served at the time, they appeared completely abstract to us.

Reading up on the park after our visit, I was surprised to learn that during its productive life this was one of 1,400 coal gasification plants in the USA, converting superheated coal and crude oil into synthetic gas.  Like a static Dr Who, it is now the sole survivor of its kind.  It is also one of the earliest post-industrial sites to be transformed for public use through reclamation.   Gas production ceased back in 1956 and the 19-acre site was acquired by the City in 1965, opening to the public 10 years later.

The story of its Gas Works Park usage starts with the arrival in Seattle of visionary landscape architect Richard Haag in 1958.  An unsuccessful but well regarded finalist for another landscape project, he was subsequently awarded Gas Works.   The idea of industrial buildings being preserved in parkland was unheard of in the 1950s.  Unsurprisingly, there was considerable public debate about the site and its usage, but park supporters carried the day.

In addition to the Gas Works, the park features an artificial kite-flying hill created from on-site spoil.  On the summit there is giant sundial constructed from glass, ceramics, and stone, where you can put your shadow to good use in telling the time.

As I mentioned earlier, my visit to Gas Works Park was on a stop on a West Coast road trip. Seattle’s weather was, as it is all too often, extremely wet.  As the trip was at the beginning of April we were also subject to hail.  Our one respite from bad weather there was the morning we visited the park – it was bright and sunny, though bitterly cold.  We concluded that our trip to the park had been the highlight of our brief stop in Seattle.  It is well worth a visit.

Encounters with Japanese Dragons

Encounters with Dragons screenThe r

“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

A long history

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

In Kyoto

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

A water spirit

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.

Route 66 & Monument Valley Road Trip

Route 66 Ranch House CafeThe typical advice you will find on the web about combining Route 66 and Monument Valley on a trip is ‘don’t’, and I will admit that we (myself and two old friends) cranked out some substantial mileage in 8 days to accomplish this (2,232 miles in all, taking in Antelope Canyon and Death Valley for good measure).  It was well worth it.  Taking a large vehicle like a Chevy Suburban (in FBI black) helped.  My gallery for the Route 66 shots is here.  Our planning was sketchy, but here’s our itinerary:

  • London to Dallas/Fort Forth
  • Margaritas and dinner at Javier’s, Dallas, which is a fine establishment.
  • Morning in Dallas, visited the 6th Floor Museum, which is sombre but well worth the visit.  None of us give much credence to conspiracy theories but all agreed something wasn’t right with the conventional story.  18 witnesses disappeared… Our taxi driver, Charlie Ratcliff, of Cowboy Cars (+1 214 284 9919) was a witness who didn’t disappear.  He saw the shooting as a boy and can be seen in the Zapruder footage with his father.  He gives tours of the city, though we were pressed for time and could not take him up on his offer.
  • Drove to Amarillo, Texas.  Passed the leaning water tower at Groom, Texas (this is 1 of 2 things to see or do in Groom according to Trip Advisor).  We had dinner at the Big Texan, a well known Route 66 waypoint.  Kitsch does not do it justice, though the steak was a little disappointing given the hype.  We were taken to and from our hotel in a battered town car with steer’s horns on the front.  We avoided the 72 ounce steak challenge.
  • Headed back onto Route 66 and stopped at Tucumcari, New Mexico to take some shots and have a coffee at the Circa Espresso Bar.
  • Drove to Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Our route took us through Gallup and stopped to see the El Rancho Hotel, another Route 66 waypoint.  On arriving at the beautiful city of Santa Fe we sampled the fine beer and pizza on the balcony at the Draft Station with a view of the plaza.  We stayed at the La Posada de Sante Fe, which is highly recommended.  It is haunted though, apparently…
  • Drove to Monument Valley – we were all blown away by it.  Breathtaking is an overused word but it is fair in this case.  We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge, which nestles under the cliffs and has an old world charm. It is one of only two hotels in the valley.  We enjoyed the local Navajo bread as part of dinner, but missed a beer as the reservation is dry.
  • Took a tour of the Loop Road, Monument Valley and saw the breathtaking John Ford’s Point – complete with a Navajo man on a horse on the point.  He had been hired by a Japanese photography group.  The shot is on the home page a couple of images in.
  • Drove to Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon near Page and took a photographic tour with Adventurous Tours.  The canyon is absolutely stunning, though difficult to photograph because of the intense light and shade.  Our guide was very knowledgable and this helped a great deal.  Interestingly he had been into the canyon with Peter Lik, who shot the world’s most expensive photograph, The Phantom, there.
  • Drove to Flagstaff Arizona, which is great base to explore the Arizona section of Route 66 from.  We stayed at the Little America Hotel and played Pool and Shuffleboard at Uptown Billiards before dinner at a good noodle bar, Sosoba.
  • The following morning we walked the Ponderosa Pine trail at the back of the hotel and saw – in addition to quite a lot of pine trees, various kinds of ‘critters’, none of which we could identify.
  • Headed to Williams, Arizona – my favourite town on Route 66.  Stopped at the ridiculously named ‘Bearzonia’ on the way.  The bears and wolves most impressive – especially an evil looking wolf we nicknamed ‘Evil Dick’.  We met some great characters in the two Western outfitters in Williams and had a burger at the Cruiser Cafe.
  • Spectacular drive along Route 66 through the Black Mountains (listed on dangerous roads) to the Ghost Town of Oatman, where 100 or so people hang on in a place barely changed since the 1920s and wild burros wander the streets.  We had a beer at Judy’s Saloon and wandered through the town – it is quite something to behold.
  • Drove to Las Vegas, Nevada.  It’s not my favourite place, but it was on the way and we had a good dinner at Sushi Samba.
  • Visited the impressive Titanic Artefact Museum in the rather oppressive Luxor.
  • Headed out to Death Valley equipped with very little in the way of a plan or provisions – which is not advisable.  Stopped at Furnace Creek and Zabriskie Point.  We were all surprised by how beautiful the scenery was.
  • Arrived late at night in LA having skipped both lunch and dinner in the name of mileage.
  • A final breakfast of Eggs Benedict and saw a little more of old Route 66 on the way to LAX airport.

Hours in the car – around 40, photographic keepers about 30, fun – almost unlimited.

The Cuban Jungle in a ’55 Chevy

Chevy Bel Air Column ChangeAbout a year ago I was in Old Havana, Cuba. I had been shooting with professional photographer Ramses Batista for several days in when it occurred to me we should take a trip out of the city into the jungle in one of the old American 50s cars that still do service as taxis in that city.  Over a beer we discussed this and Ramses, who is something of a fixer, knew a driver with an immaculate ’55 Chevy Bel Air.  He suggested we took this out to Soroa, where there is a picturesque waterfall.  En route we would stop at a former coffee plantation and later take in an abandoned villa out in the jungle.  The next day our driver, Joe, pulled up outside my hotel with his gleaming wheels. It was immaculate and had been modified to hot-rod specification complete with a chrome skull on the end of the column change.

I declared it perfect. We set out and drove to abandoned coffee plantation.  We parked the gleaming Chevy and set off on foot.  Vulcher like birds circled above us as we took in the views of the valleys below us.  As we walked I could hear the sound of distant drums and enquired where they might be coming from.  Ramses pointed out some buildings far below us ‘It’s a kind of community’ he said.  Voodoo, I thought, unreasonably.  To be fair, my overactive imagination had been fueled by a couple on incidents during the trip.

The first had been a few day’s previously on a quest to shoot angels at Havana’s fine old cemetery (Cemetario de Colon).  On the way out the boot of the car was searched by the man at the gate.  ‘What is he looking for?’ I asked Ramses.  ‘Human bones’ he replied. ‘There are old religions in Cuba, and some need special ingredients like animal blood and human bones.  He’s just checking we didn’t take bones with us.’  A little bit of web research introduced me to read about Palo Monte, one of the darker of Cuba’s syncretic religions which uses these ingredients to enlist the help of deceased ancestors.  The second was when I saw a tethered goat in the street in Old Havana.  When I commented on it Ramses told me it was most likely a sacrificial animal.  Given these two recent experiences I suppose it wasn’t entirely surprising the distant sound of drums in the jungle prompted me to think of voodoo.

As we walked Ramses pointed out some jungle fruit and explained how to eat it without ingesting any germs from the outer shell.  I was skeptical but it proved to be delicious.  Returning to the car we drove on towards Soroa and parked up near a jungle restaurant.  The scene, was pretty bleak; a man sat in the remains of a house near an abandoned ’50s car.  Walking away from us were two men wearing filthy vests and carrying machetes.  ‘Don’t point your camera at anyone unless I tell you it’s OK’ said Ramses.  I nodded, feeling that this was an entirely reasonable request.  Lunch was better than I expected, and after we had eaten we walked down a flight of twisting stone steps to see the waterfall. I had to bring tripod with me, so I couldn’t blur the water the way I like to, but it was still very picturesque. We journeyed on to the abandoned villa, which looked to be of relatively recent construction, though it was quickly falling into disrepair. The entrance proved to be a good spot to shoot the Chevy, though the cloud cover was becoming an unfavourably uniform white by that time of the afternoon.

Our last stop was a bar, a place so remote I was surprised it would ever attract custom.  There was a little podium near the bar with the holy trinity of Cuban cocktails on it: the Mojito; the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre.  Given the heat and humidity we opted for cold beers, which were very welcome.  We returned late in afternoon and followed our normal ritual of a review of my shots over another beer with a commentary from Ramses, which I always found helpful.

Cuba is an incredibly vibrant country, but when I visited I did feel an almost post-apocalyptic vibe about the place.  Scarity has created a culture of ingenious and almost endless recycling, particularly with vehicles, that, with the benefit of replacement engines and transmission, go on almost indefinately.  Things are changing now in Cuba, and hopefully for the better, but I am keen to get back before it loses that extraordinary look that is the result of all that ingenious recycling.