The Dragon – Finale

Unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed and wearing Red Hot Chili Peppers

Unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed and wearing Red Hot Chili Peppers

For some reason I’d made for Highway 5 further west, when both it and the 99 that Merced sat upon led directly north to Sacramento. I think it had something to do with my closest entrance to the 99 being closed for road works. Indeed most of Merced’s roads looked like they’d not been maintained since the 1950s. From there I planned on hitting the Coast Highway north to Oregon via a left-turn at Santa Rosa, just above San Francisco. It turned out to be just as complicated as it reads. After driving through dry cotton and citrus fields to stop for some Macca’s breakfast at Gustine, just off the 5, I started to feel better, but there was one problem left: I was still in California and felt the further away I was from the state, if not entirely out of the country, the better. This led me to drive 12 hours-straight with only four short stops, on about five hours sleep, and still didn’t make it out of the Golden State. Naturally, I missed the exit needed to gain passage west within Sacramento’s hellish tangle of choked freeway interchanges, so kept burning up the 5 at a maximum of 75 miles per hour – which I guessed to be about 120 kilometres per hour. Have I mentioned the Dragon’s speedometer was in Canada’s kilometres, not ‘Merica’s miles? Redding lay about another 250 k’s up the 5 and seemed the best prospect for which to make it to the coast and then cross into Oregon within view of the Pacific. Its Highway 299 was one of very few crossing the enormous Trinity and Mendocino National Forests to the 101 coast road, which first met the water at fishing and probably former gold rush town Eureka. So the appropriately named and located town became my goal. The sun sets early in mountainous parts of northern California during November. It sets even earlier when you find yourself at Weaverville, about a third of the way between Redding and Eureka, and realise by 5.30pm that your watch stopped about two hours ago. Anxious recollections of sheriff’s patrol vehicles quite conspicuously circling and staking out the Dragon at the town’s supermarket were quickly dispelled by the prospect of driving a large Chevrolet van on wet, winding roads through the hills during a dark as death night. But, hey, like little else this far into the odyssey, things turned out ok and I rumbled into Eureka by about 8pm – without flipping the car or having a yokel from the sheriff’s office creep up on and screw me to the full extent of hick law.

Color (sic) TV!  The future is here!

Color (sic) TV! The future is here!

An uneventful night at the cheapest motel I could find – at which for some reason down and out locals seemed to be living – followed. In the morning I felt I’d turned a corner, so to speak, and things would just keep getting better, as I busied myself for a prompt departure. Then I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Tried again. Absolutely, nothing. The Dragon had done died, to use the local dialect. Sighing audibly, I got out of the car and asked the friendly Filipino motelier to call me a tow truck. Of course, it took about four hours, during which time she and her husband tried to jump me with their weak as water station wagon and power hungry pickup. Neither succeeded so I lingered in wait. The tow truck driver brought the beast to life again and said it almost certainly just needed a new battery – the alternator, which allows the battery to charge while the engine roars, would not permit a jump start if it too needed replacing, he said. The Highway 101 splits north and south either side of a city block running the length of Eureka, and I was parked on the south-bound side. When I rolled out of the motel car park the van struggled to maintain power and then, when I approached the left turn to make for the northbound highway, it stalled again and rolled to the corner of the side street and the 101. “Fuck!” I thought. “If the local cops get here before the towie I could be in a world of shit”, as the van’s arse was poking out into the busy road. I bolted without locking it back to the motel, and all but yelled to the Filipino: “It died again! Could you please call the tow truck back!?” then quickly returned to the van which was indeed attended by the same truck driver only seconds before the cops. Whom he waved to. I couldn’t, and didn’t. It was dragged to the town’s one mechanic open Saturdays, where I cursed my misfortune. I was consoled there by old boiler female reception staff who said in regard to my voice and accent they “could listen to me speak all day”. I later sat in yet another motel room smoking and drinking Southern Comfort, while the Dragon lay at the mechanic awaiting its changes. I pondered mine. I thought specifically of the tumultuous events at Yosemite National Park. It is written I can’t remember where that men tend not to complete adolescence until about the age of 27 (while for women it it is apparently 21). My 28th birthday would take place only weeks later in New York, at a time in which I would meet yet another of the many beautiful and intelligent women who have graced my life. I realised, for all the mental anguish, shame and financial discomfort that that unfortunate event had caused me, I had learned the last great lesson of my childhood. And had become a man. I took another sip of the brown liquor, and inhaled another half-inch of Marlboro Light. Then prepared to head to the local speakeasy to drink soothing whisky, listen to better jazz than I’d heard even in San Francisco and salvage some kind of Friday night out, on the road.

Friday afternoon - Eureka, northern California, November 2012

Friday afternoon – Eureka, northern California, November 2012

The Dragon – Part Seven

Escape from Yosemite National Park

Escape from Yosemite National Park

Post traumatic stress of the magnitude I was experiencing is difficult to describe. It’s a kind of severe anxiety exacerbated by only recently or still experiencing conditions responsible for the mental turmoil. In this case: still driving a highly not incognito and potentially offensive Wicked Camper through rural United States of America. I felt more like curling into a ball and disappearing than driving for a couple of hours in a rolling police bullseye through the sort of country where horror movies begin. I also still hadn’t paid the fine, which meant as I aimed the Dragon due west toward a tiny shit heap of a town called Merced sitting on California’s Highway 99, I was still under probation and if served with so much as a parking fine would be hauled back before Yosemite’s judge to face a larger fine and possibly jail time. Every police vehicle I passed inspired terror, while I white-knuckled the steering wheel as perfectly within the right lane as I could. The fact the road west was dead straight for the last 20 miles agitated me to no end. To those driving past I would appear placid; within my mind whirled innumerable crises. It might also have been a smart move not to have been suffering ridiculously in the wake of the previous night’s pre-trial hard liquor binge. I didn’t trust the Latino motelier one little bit, but paid for one night beside the highway service road anyway. I don’t know why I didn’t get anything done that day, even though I arrived in Merced early in the afternoon. I remember feeling a paralysing sense of anxiety, paranoia and pure if largely unfounded fear. The town didn’t help. As I walked around it after reluctantly leaving my room in search of food, it screamed rape, murder and gun crime. After drinking a few Budweisers and watching some television – which included one awful pro-Republican advertisement in which a wealthy immigrant seemed to support a political party that would certainly make it more difficult for others of his background to achieve a fraction of his ‘American Dream’ – I gladly went to sleep.

"Hiding out from the law" - Merced, California, October-November 2012

“Hiding out from the law” – Merced, California, October-November 2012

I felt better, purposeful and not completely wracked by fear and loathing the next morning, which happened to be Halloween, actually. But I hadn’t reckoned with the potentially sadistic motelier.
“Are you here to see something?” he asked, slightly shocked, after I requested another night’s lodging.
“No, I’m just keen for some breakfast,” I inadequately replied, still shaking off some of yesterday’s residual stress. I would register the suspicion on his face only in hindsight. Obviously anyone would wonder why a man in his late-20s, with an obvious penchant for booze, driving a wildly painted and irreverently aligned Wicked Camper van, or RV (recreational vehicle) as the Americans call them, would stay longer in Merced than a time period needed to eat, buy some gas and spit contemptuously on the pavement like all the locals did anyway. The bastard even put a couple who had loud sex from 1 to 5am directly above my room that night. For all I know it was him and his wife – or a prostitute. But I had bigger fish to fry. There were two reasons I’d asked for another night at the shithole motel within the greater toilet of that large highway straddling town. First, I frustratingly couldn’t pay my fine online and had only a basic idea of how to pay it by post. My Fresno attorney said I needed to acquire a money order. Second, I knew that the payment would not be received, and my probation concurrently ended, until a couple of days after it had been dropped into a blue US Post Office box. This was risk management of a type I’d never done, in a place I’d never been and would never visit again, several thousand kilometres from home. This was Goddamn torture. In my addled state I’d chosen accommodation an hour’s walk from downtown and was still too tender to risk driving. Naturally, the post office could not do a money order using my foreign credit cards and the local bank couldn’t help non-customers. I guess this is where my looks and charm finally came into play. When I first found out the bank couldn’t assist me I was ‘served’ by a middle-aged, surly woman. On the second attempt I was well received by a clearly homosexual young Latino with enough grease in his hair to dislodge a fat man trapped down a well. He even suggested we could go out for dinner or a drink after he’d finished work, “if I was still in town”. Unfortunately I would be, but he didn’t need to know that. I thanked him for his help and fled the scene. The fine was finally away.

An evil bastard dwelt in that there yonder motel reception - Merced, California, October-November 2012

An evil bastard dwelt in that there yonder motel reception – Merced, California, October-November 2012

I agitated to buy some lollies in case the worst case scenario occurred after I failed to provide diminutive ghosts, ghouls and goblins with loot, and they took their revenge upon the Dragon with toilet paper, eggs or worse. Thank God none ever darkened my doorstep. I used the gummy bears later on in the road trip for sugar rushes during moments of fatigue. Despite my avoidance of pre-teen diabetes risks, the night was not uneventful. I’ve already mentioned the motelier’s suspicion of me, and well-documented events in Yosemite. Well, while at my Merced motel hovel every time I wanted a cigarette with my crappy American beer I’d sit on the back of the Dragon to abuse my lungs. This Halloween 2012, about the time I was drinking my fifth – and sixth – beer, I noticed a cop car sitting on the corner of road the motel occupied. Considering what I’d been through and the fact I was still most definitely under probation, this sent my paranoia into overdrive. I was sure the cop would pin some heinous crime on me then drag me kicking and screaming back before the Yosemite District Court. I was convinced the only other person staying at the motel in the room beside mine was engaged in some sort of organised crime and I would become caught up in an exchange of semi-automatic weapons fire or even hostage drama. I tried to reason that it was Halloween night and the officer was most reasonably simply maintaining a watchful presence in the area by way of protecting families wandering around collecting sugar. But I was not in a reasonable state, and none of the arguments within my skull could be settled. So I finished the cigarette, turned back to my room while trying to avoid glancing at the patrol car and eventually fell asleep in the foetal position. I handed back the keys in the morning without saying so much as thanks to my bastard of a host.

Fleeing Merced, toilet of the world

Fleeing Merced, toilet of the world

The Dragon – Part Six

By the Squamish River - cold but happy and blissfully alone

By the Squamish River – cold but happy and blissfully alone

From inside and out the Yosemite District Court looked like a ski-cabin, just as every other building in the valley did. There are probably not many houses of justice in the States or anywhere else in the world around which deer frequently graze. I arrived early, sleep deprived and quite savagely hungover. Before I detail proceedings it’s interesting to note the clear division in the personalities or perhaps dispositions toward me of the courthouse’s meagre staff: the bailiff, or master-at-arms or whatever, seemed hostile, especially after I wandered to the rear of the building to sit down and he growled at me that I wasn’t allowed there; the court clerk was an attractive, very friendly woman in her 40s who smiled in my direction while I charmed the court and especially her with a lucid yet resigned to defeat defence; the guy who sat at the front desk was a sympathetic, grandfatherly type who warmly said to me when the time came to enter the court, “Now pretend that you’re ready”; and the judge was the stern but benevolent and I must say quite reasonable fatherly type. The male and female prosecutors were largely ignorant of me, but I didn’t mind. When they first walked in the building I was worried they were local media. Can’t speak much about my court appointed attorney, as he was present only as a voice via telephone from Fresno, more than two hours south. But he was ok in dealing with the simple issue.

Canada, north of Vancouver, during happier times to come

Canada, north of Vancouver, during happier times to come

The highlights of a minor legal matter are as follows: the prosecution had offered me a deal, which I accepted, to plead guilty to a “wet reckless” instead of drunk driving, pay a $1000US fine, and be put on probation for six months or until the fine had been paid; the judge did not have to accept this deal and could have potentially put me in jail for more than six months or forced me to pay more than $20,000 for all of the four charges laid upon me; and in closing he said he was concerned I would be back before him after committing a similar offence while on probation, but accepted the deal, ruled accordingly and even allowed me to continue driving. But not before the kicker, which was when he asked me “Have you had anything to drink during the past 24 hours?”
“I should lie,” I thought, but hastened under oath to say: “I drank a half bottle of Southern Comfort last night, Your Honour.”
After brief sniggering from everyone in the court except me subsided, he asked if I “thought alcohol was a problem for you?”
“Possibly, Your Honour,” I replied, “but I think it’s circumstantial, Your Honour, as I’m alone here, a long way from home and it’s very cold, Your Honour.” This seemed to satisfy him. I resisted adding that facing an unfortunate court appearance was a factor in my drinking. I was served with a fine, left the court, walked back to the Dragon, and got the hell out of there as fast as I dared while suffering immediate and almost paralysing post traumatic stress.

On the road

Mountains shrouded in mist lined the Squamish River’s west bank northward as far as the eye could see. Frigid fast moving waters separated them from the campground which I’d essentially booked out for myself that evening. The cabin girl walked her dogs past as I was setting up a fire and mentioned there were eagles in the hills.
“Bald eagles?” I asked.
“No, we don’t do bald eagles here.”
“Well that’s not good enough – I’m leaving,” I grinned sardonically.
She smiled and we chatted a little more, before she continued on to disappear among the trees with her animals. Although I’ve always been quite agnostic about religion, I spoke to God that night. Still conscious of my isolation, sitting in the dark penetrated only by a roaring cold-shattering fire, it was about the time of my ninth cheap local can of beer. I didn’t pray. I didn’t swear. I didn’t even complain. I instead made the Big Man promise I’d sooner or later have something important to do with my life. He didn’t answer. The fire may have cinematically flared. A bird may have called to the night. I can’t be sure. I went to bed and stayed in a motel the following night because rain – not snow, damn it all – set in. The next morning I drove the Dragon back to Vancouver, vacuumed and washed it, and sadly handed over the keys at the Wicked depot. Then I caught a cab to the airport to make the San Francisco connecting flight to Las Vegas.

So long Vegas, baby

So long Vegas, baby

The Dragon – Part Five

Vancouver

Vancouver

Nick (not his real name) was an early-30s Aussie possessing a face that looked like it had been repeatedly bashed in by a shovel and a surplus of cash saved up through a decade and a half of blue collar employment. Steve (not his real name) was a prematurely greying but not un-kissed by handsomeness late-30s Yank with a PhD in some kind of science field, who’d worked and lived in Vancouver over the previous three months – during which time he’d nurtured a growing hatred for it. He felt as I did about its physical appearance: stunning, surrounded immediately by crystalline waters and in the distance by leafy, well-moneyed neighbourhoods and snow-capped mountains. I would meet a Canadian much later who explained the problem with the city: too many cashed-up foreigners moving in and driving the property prices up, and the locals away. Steve, perhaps by virtue of his education or the fact he was more sober than Nick by about 10 drinks, also felt as I did about Vancouver’s culture: pretentious. I’d met this original odd-couple in the Irish pub across the road from my hostel, while the Dragon languished in an overpriced garage not far off. The misfit trio I’d unwittingly created went to a very fancy strip of restaurant-bars where Nick, in a doomed display, proceeded to chat up every single woman in the place while Steve and I watched with amusement. After playing pool with a couple of locals we ditched my working class countryman and ended up at a strip joint he’d mentioned. Where he later turned up at. You couldn’t touch the strippers at all during lap dances; the drinks were expensive; Steve described it as the “worst strip club he’d ever seen”; I agreed; we successfully ditched Nick; and went back to the original bar where the American tried to locate a credit card he’d just realised he lost. This was where I unceremoniously parted ways with the miserable bastard, when he emerged angrily and credit card-less before vanishing into the night. Although wandering the city during the day had been enjoyable, it was a terrible Saturday night. But at least it finished the way it started: with me sitting alone at the Irish pub being occasionally entranced by its bottle-redheaded barmaid.

Yosemite jet streams 2

A giddy feeling overtook me while driving the Glacier Point road straddling the Yosemite Valley’s south. Snow, which I’d never seen before, began surrounding the asphalt about halfway up. I stood at the summit and thought to myself, “Yep, pretty impressive”, of the valley below. A man named John Muir who’d basically discovered the place about a hundred and fifty years back described it as something like the greatest “shrine” to nature he’d ever seen. I was in total agreement, and this almost had me forgetting about the impending court case. It was a simple yet enjoyable few days of hiking and anxious anticipation of a probable future setback to my finances, mobility and chances of ever gaining a US work visa. In fact it seemed a bizarre cross between a Disney and Quentin Tarantino film: sitting and walking below crisp blue skies, sullied only by jet streams, seen from under imposing pine trees as cute furry tailed creatures scurried hither and thither; while drinking Southern Comfort and water in order to defeat the cold and awaiting punishment for misdemeanour offences. I’d already let my best mate and Joseph Goebbels (marketing manager) of Wicked Campers, Mr Dudgeon, know that I’d disgraced myself and the worst case scenario was I’d have my licence torn up and a tow truck would be needed to drag the Dragon the few hours back to Sacramento. He said he would have done the same thing. Which was almost certainly true.
Yosem Jail
I had a good Middle-American experience at the park’s version of a cut-price hotel, the Yosemite Lodge. I was just there to use their WiFi. A couple was checking in there, where they’d married, on their first wedding anniversary, which I overheard during their conversation with a receptionist. The attractive wife looked over his shoulder to me and joked “It’s like a marathon”. Another overweight woman was asking a million questions loudly of the staff. Then she started boasting of her skiing endeavours, but got no response. Somewhere in her tiny brain she finally realised she was being ignored, and left. Another guy was having his photo taken by his partner in front of a tree, when he asked the classy question: “Pants on or off?” Later on, when paying for my campsite for the night, I was given a bear safety flyer by a guy who said to put it on my dashboard “so the bears will know to move on to the next site”. Glad I at least managed a smile in feigned appreciation of the poor old bastard’s well-worn joke. I returned to the scene of the crime (the Ahwahnee) for three scotch and Cokes on the Sunday night, but walked this time. The full moon hanging over my shoulder, dark pines shifting with the wind and small, star-like lights of climbers actually camping upon the sheer cliffs surrounding me, created dreamlike imagery. I shouted “Coooooeeeee” into the night on the way back, and hoped it wouldn’t come up in court. Suddenly it was Monday night, and D-Day would follow at 9am the next morning. I remember putting $4 in the Yosemite Visitors Center (sic) donation box for karma. I drank a half-empty (I was feeling pessimistic) bottle of Southern Comfort and slept badly.

I have no idea what this thing is, but it's sickeningly cute

I have no idea what this thing is, but it’s sickeningly cute

Seeing a man wearing a life jacket and carrying a paddle through downtown Vancouver was about the most interesting thing I experienced there. After driving through the city’s ridiculously opulent north shore on Monday, Horseshoe Bay on its north-west opened up to reveal enormous misty mountains defining the coast further north. The typical but by no means ordinary Canada I’d expected to see had finally arrived. The aptly named Sea-to-Sky Highway took the Dragon across the ankles of these rock behemoths, within view of their siblings across the water. At the tip of this waterway lay the small but picturesquely located town of Squamish, whose river continued due north. When I left the Sea-to-Sky and turned on to the north-west bearing Squamish Valley Road, on the advice of a local information centre staff member, civilisation abruptly disappeared. Recent snows beside the road gave me doomed hope I would see a fall that night and well-founded fear the Dragon would career off the road into a tree. I’d bought snow chains and passed many ‘chain-up’ road signs, but assumed unless there was actually snow on the road that chains would simply make the icy tarmac more slick. There was only one other person occupying the large campground I eventually found. She was in her late 20s, rented a cabin next to the owner’s house and was clearly lonely based on her invitation for me to visit her “if there was anything I needed”. But I unfortunately found her unattractive so left her to the company of her three dogs. I drove the Dragon through muddy tracks surrounded by lifeless trees until I came to the river, and all but slammed on the brakes.

The Squamish River camp site

The Squamish River camp site

The Dragon – Part Four

Including this ascent, many things about Yosemite were challenging

Including this ascent, many things about Yosemite were challenging

I was doing my best to remove every alcoholic molecule from the tainted breath entering their accursed little machine. The officer showed the reading to his contemporary, who immediately moved toward one of the patrol vehicles.
“Do you mind if I ask what the reading was?” I asked.
“Point one,” he answered. I slumped onto the van’s rear step and hung my head while the law busied itself around me. Eventually I was forced with my hands and legs spread against the van for a pat down and, then, with my head resting against its rear windows, my jacket, second jacket and belt were removed. After which my hands were cuffed and I was lowered into the back of the patrol car for relocation to the station. I wasn’t exactly afraid, as I knew when the dust settled a reasonably (to them) exorbitant (in my victimised opinion) fine and frustrating loss of licence would probably result. I didn’t even feel resentment as, in many ways, this was turning into a very unique Yosemite traveller experience. I was simply pissed off that this really wasn’t what I had planned for the night. Of course I’ve already mentioned I’d barely planned any of the trip anyway. I really grew to loathe the arresting man of the law back at the station. Not because he was an arsehole, which he wasn’t; because he was so Goddamned by the book. One of his colleagues tried to give me a glass of water I’d requested before the follow-up breath test, which he put a quick stop to. It read .09, and I knew I was screwed. They fingerprinted me the old fashioned way because their computer wasn’t working. Pity the breathalyser wasn’t also feeling poorly. Then they sent me into the shower room with a bag for all my clothes, some prison issue blue slippers and an orange jump suit with Yosemite Jail written on the back. After watching the bars roll shut in front of me, I turned to survey my cell then laid down for a warm night’s sleep with a toilet uncomfortably closer to my nostrils than I was used to. At least in some ways it was better than a hostel dorm room, though I suspected it would prove far more expensive.

Camano Island State Park

Camano Island State Park

I was somewhere between giddy and insane but definitely about two hours from Mount Baker after leaving Bellingham, just south of the US-Canada border. Before leaving Camano Island I overheard a group of young men at Macca’s talking about snowboarding and, after a barrage of questions, while a little unhinged, road weary, unshaven and smelling of smoke, booze and sweat, had obtained my next destination. I’d never seen snowfields before, and was looking forward to (learning) snowboarding as the Dragon rolled away black tarmac laid between leaf carpets, dead mossy trees and an increasingly frozen whiteness. Impressive as it was, it was also deserted – ski-season had not begun. When I got to the First Bar (Last Bar on the way up) at the mountain’s foot, the barman confirmed a decent snowfall would not occur for a week or two. I got lost for only the second time during the trip, back in Bellingham, while looking for Larrabee State Park – the second last coastal state park of the US Pacific north-west, and my last American campground. I arrived late, lit a fire, drank a few beers and went to bed. In the morning it was Friday and with a planned weekend in Vancouver not an hour away I burned the last of my firewood, read the USA Today “Obama Triumphs” edition and contemplated the trip so far. An imminent assault on the Canadian border was also on my mind. It certainly felt like a less than peaceful endeavour, as I’d been told in Yosemite a crossing could be difficult as a result of events so far but not completely relayed. Despite earnest questioning, in which the border guard seemed reassured – yet for some reason confused as to why I was driving a British Columbian vehicle into Canada – I would only be there for a few days, I was granted passage. It was time for a weekend in beautiful Vancouver, a brief sampling of its wilderness, then a sad goodbye to the Dragon the following Wednesday. Hump day in a very unusual sense of the word.

Mount Baker

Mount Baker

The thoughts and dreams swirling through my consciousness that night remain dreamlike, beyond recall and, simply based on their residual atmosphere, would not be relayed if I could remember them. In reality it was a fitful sleep, full of constant reminders that I was, inescapably, lying within a jail cell. Every time I woke I could hardly believe my misfortune. But it was warm, as mentioned previously, and I wasn’t sharing it with a fellow criminal. Come morning I was given a not too bad breakfast of microwaved bacon and eggs, dressed, read a bit of a May 2011 Time Magazine, then while the officers were distracted managed to take a couple of photos of my jumpsuit and cell. After all: I was a traveller, and knew I’d pay dearly for this particular attraction, so figured I’d make the most of it. I’d only planned on staying in Yosemite long enough to hike a couple of trails and avoid being eaten by bears building their weight for winter hibernation, but my court date was set the following Tuesday; about four days away. After paying 80 bucks to get the Dragon out of impound, and taking note that the van had been searched, I fled. Not solely because of my recent time in the clink, but because accommodation within the valley was booked out over the weekend. Wowona is a tiny village still within the park, about 40 minutes further south. I was to stay there the Friday night and then return to Yosemite to gamble for local lodging on a waiting list. It is there some of the largest trees I’d ever seen are and have been for hundreds of years located, often in small groups, towering toward the sky above and among younger breeds. It is also there I heard some fantastic American humour. “Pretty cool, really neat,” I heard this man behind me say, before this gem: “That’s some serious wood.” After setting up camp I visited the local hotel where I found the bar wouldn’t open for an hour. I bought a beer at the adjacent and most beautiful golf club I’d ever seen and, not wanting to risk making another mistake so soon after what I had in the village, returned to the campsite. Once there I played music much too loud for Carl from Fresno, the site’s only other inhabitant, but went to sleep before the grey-haired grumpy bastard anyway.

Jet streams if anything made the constantly crisp blue skies even more beautiful

Jet streams if anything made the constantly crisp blue skies even more beautiful

The Dragon – Part Three

Potlatch State Park, November 2013

Potlatch State Park, November 2013

Coming across sheer mountains rising from Lake Crescent, while driving the good old Highway 101 from Forks to Port Angeles atop the Olympic Peninsula, made me feel like I was experiencing a slice of Canada. This made sense because it was, at this location, only a short ferry ride away. The feeling didn’t last long, though. Port Angeles felt a lot like Cobain’s Aberdeen, minus the claim to fame and plus the suicidal atmosphere. This had been and would continue for some time to be pickup truck country; where the locals were as friendly as they were subtly suspicious. Everywhere there were political signs urging residents to vote for less national and state parks and “more working forests for working families”. Which whether directly or not meant a vote for doomed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Of course as we now know he shot himself in the foot by insinuating half his country’s population were cheats and welfare bludgers in that leaked video. The conservative prick. Desperately needing prolonged warmth, I lingered in the ironically named Port of Angels long enough to take a swim in its public pool and struggle to resist joining greying and extra wrinkled women enjoying aqua-yoga. Not an hour north of Olympia, Washington’s capitol, and several hours south-east of Port Angeles, Potlatch State Park seemed an insignificant smudge on the map next to the enormous Olympic National Park dominating the peninsula’s interior. Until I saw it with my own eyes. Late autumn leaves snowed down upon the deserted campground to form a thick carpet of reds, browns and yellows. Mossy trees hung over the scene like enormous bell boys at an upper class hotel. A small yet full stream trickled past my fire as I drank cheap beer and descended deeper into solitude inspired temporary insanity. My Converses stayed wet for full weeks from the moment I drunkenly stumbled into the stream to fill up a jug of water with which to douse the fire. It was, on its own, a very intoxicating place. Of course copious amounts of Captain Morgan rum only made it more so.

Preparing for disaster, Yosemite National Park, late-October, 2013

Preparing for disaster, Yosemite National Park, late-October, 2013

Everyone’s different. But when driving in Australia I’m used to, obviously, sitting in the left lane but sticking to its right-hand-side. I was still newly driving in America by the time I’d reached Yosemite, so this meant I’d regularly and occasionally dangerously move outside of the white line road border. Which I’d discover were called fog lines. Plus, during this particular trip back to my campsite, I unhappily rolled through one of the deserted tourist trap’s stop signs. These factors conspired to have flashing lights flare up in my rear-view mirror when I was almost literally within spitting distance of my campsite. I pulled over.
“You rolled through a stop sign back there,” the officer said.
“Did I?”
“And you almost went off the road at one point, too.”
I explained my relative inexperience on US roads.
“Have you been drinking tonight?”
I answered in the affirmative, so he asked me to please step out of the car. The first sobriety test was to stand on one leg and count until this respectful but frustratingly diligent cop told me to stop, at about 17. It was about this time another two patrol cars arrived as ‘backup’ to probably the biggest bust in Yosemite’s recent history.
“Don’t mind them,” Robocop said. “They’re here for my protection.”
“Jesus,” I thought, “just how dangerous do I appear in a leather jacket, ripped jeans and black, fingerless gloves while driving an outrageously painted Chrysler van?”
Then I had to maintain my gaze on his finger moving slowly but erratically in front of my field of vision, without moving my head. Thirdly I had to walk a straight line while keeping my heel against the preceding foot’s toes with each step. Fear and adrenalin kicked in to have me swaying and stumbling well beyond the blame of any amount of actual intoxication. I’d find out later that, according to my test performance, I was as pissed as a parrot. As a coup de grace the dreaded breathalyser was introduced by the officer, who said I could use it presently or back at the station. I took a moment to consider my depressingly limited options.

Afternoon Yosemite pines seen from the ground

Afternoon Yosemite pines seen from the ground

I stood inexplicably weeping in the presence of Olympia’s Capitol Mall Korean War Memorial. I think it had something to do with the fact I learned the war against the Communist north had involved the largest coalition of nations ever formed before or since in order to safeguard the very freedoms I’d indulged in to be standing there. As the capitol was only a short distance south of the Potlatch campground, which I left early accompanied by a perfect sun rising somewhere over Seattle, I had a couple of hours to explore. The 1800s built Legislative Building was, naturally, as it imposed its Grecian presence over the whole area, a highlight. I wandered its marble splendour with delirious astonishment for an hour. One suited smiling sir asked me if I “needed help finding anything,” as he headed for an elevator.
“No,” I replied, mirroring his smile and looking around, “I’m just. . . .”
“Having a look around?” he interrupted, knowingly.
“Yeah. It’s amazing.”
“It’s certainly a neat place to come to work every day,” he concluded, and entered the elevator. Americans love the word “neat”. From there I wandered to the extreme southern tip of Puget Sound, which separates the Olympic Peninsula from every part of the state east of it, to take a mental and actual photo. Then I headed back to the Dragon, put the not to expire for an hour ticket back in the machine – for karma – and headed in Seattle’s direction, after driving through the capitol’s underwhelming yet bohemian port-side downtown. It was time for what I thought would be my final time camping within those United States, at beautiful but in no way convenient Camano Island. I danced, drunk, around the fire and attempted to commune directly with its departing wood spirits that night. I asked “Where are you going?” to which they replied, predictably: “Wherever the wind takes us.”

Olympia Capitol Mall

Olympia Capitol Mall

The Dragon – Part One

Taste of what's to come (took me several months and a handful of emails to be mailed this, well, mug shot).

Taste of what’s to come (took me several months and a handful of emails to be snail-mailed this, well, mug shot).

SHE stood soaked by Eureka, northern California’s winter rain, watching the dislocated Australian trying to use an instrument handed to him by a Negro jazz man. Upon being whirled around, it was meant to sound similar to an Aboriginal didgeridoo. I mentioned to her and her friend Aboriginal custom dictated women could not play the didgeridoo, but that they could play it till their lips were sore, for all I cared. She maintained her gaze as the cold wet came relentlessly down. After managing a sound, if not a tune, I discovered her name was Sarah and resolved to offer her a drink. That thing led to those other things and several hours and drinks later I woke miles away north in Arcata, at a biology student share house resplendent with pet bugs, worm-filled jars in the kitchen and ducks in the backyard. Events could and were meant to have turned out vastly different. Had my Wicked Camper hire-van decided to move that morning instead of ending up overnight in a mechanic’s shop open Saturdays, I could by then have been in Oregon, or even Washington, within the United States of America’s edgy, wet, freezing Pacific north-west. Innumerable similar events altered the journey’s course in weird and wonderful ways control freaks will never come to know the pleasure of. At the very least, I could have had a much less enjoyable Friday night.

The unexpected is often the most enjoyable

The unexpected is often the most enjoyable

“Could you please do me a favour?” I breathlessly asked the tired insurance company receptionist, somewhere south-east of the Las Vegas Strip, beside the airport’s impenetrable razor wire fences.
“Depends what it is,” she replied.
“Could you please call me a cab?”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” she acquiesced, which left me sitting, hungover, outside a building cab drivers apparently “found hard to find”, waiting for one I wasn’t sure would arrive in time for my flight. The lesson is: under few circumstances walk to Las Vegas’ airport from its northern side, and never from its south. As I took to the air in the direction of New Orleans, Louisiana, I realised since I’d arrived at Yosemite National Park in a wildly painted Chevrolet camper van, about a month earlier, how much things – not to mention I – had changed. After my own drug-free and largely solo, but alcohol and gambling compensated, version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was certainly a few hundred dollars and brain cells lighter, if nothing else.

New York New York, Las Vegas

New York New York, Las Vegas

Wicked’s Sacramento (California’s odd capitol (sic)) depot manager handed me the keys to the Dragon, and said he’d expected me there sooner than about 3pm. I instantly realised catching a coach from San Francisco then taxi to the city’s outskirts in one day was ill-advised compared to staying locally overnight. But of course it was immediately too late. And it had also been achingly difficult to depart San Fran’s timeless physical and cultural beauty. The van was so-named because it was painted with a Chinese dragon and tiger menacing each other from either side of a yin and yang symbol on one side, and another larger lone dragon on the other. Typical of Wicked vans, an irreverent quote on its rear in this case read “Don’t fly Virgin Atlantic, they never go all the way”. The mission was simple: get it to Vancouver, British Columbia, within two weeks – a timeframe that was extended not least because of the unexpectedly long stay in Eureka, a town rarely given much attention by international travellers. The Dragon simply needed a bashed in door-handle repaired in its native Canada, where its BC plates indicated it was from. Nothing went to plan; which is fine, because there never really was one.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

The Dragon – Part Two

On my way out of northern California

On my way out of northern California

Sarah drove me to my motel that morning, we kissed, and afterward through a gradual yet dramatic change of scenery I’d quite unceremoniously found the Oregon coast. Severe stone cliffs descending into harsh bleak sands pounded by frigid swells reminded me of Victoria, Australia’s Great Ocean Road on a particularly overcast, cold and foggy day. Within 1000 miles of the journey so far wind ravaged grassland had turned to green-topped redwoods and then into moss-infested almost everything. A local told me even cars tended to get mossy. It seems less to be constantly raining in the north-west than it is always inundated by moisture flung in every direction by low-hanging cloud. Forested headlands stood sentinel amid mist disturbing the thin black line between rock and a heaving Pacific, as the Dragon made its way north navigating by moss-covered road signs. I could live in Oregon. There’s just something so, for lack of a better word, cool about it. And its capitol Portland is reportedly one of the most progressive cities in the US. Sadly, I missed it in favour of savouring its famous coast. The state’s nil sales-tax and attendant-pumped petrol were enjoyed for only one night in a state park and another in Astoria, known as a mini-San Fran, overlooking the Steel Bridge to Washington state. After a second splendid Oregon morning watching cargo ships inch past hotel roof wall art depicting identical scenes, the next stop was teenage vampire country, in Forks, via the aptly austere port town of Kurt Cobain’s upbringing: Aberdeen. I drove quickly through it after stopping only for a Jack in the Box burger and to check out a strange little Star Wars-Nirvana museum, lest I should find and put a shotgun to my own head at 27 years of age.

The view from Hotel Elliott, Astoria

The view from Hotel Elliott, Astoria

I was initially confused by American use of the word “gas”, which is short of course for “gasoline”, because I thought it was actually a lighter than petrol (petroleum) substance that probably shouldn’t be fed to the Dragon. Then there was the Highway 99 heading south and resembling something out of the first Mad Max film, even in the early afternoon. Either way it was impossible to make Yosemite that first day, so the Dragon rested north-west of it at picturesque, lake surrounding Stanislaus State Park while its rider guarded himself against the frigid cold with a bottle of cheap “Italian Swiss Colony American” port wine, obtained at the nearby one horse town. How a wine “vinted and bottled in Naples” can still be American, is beyond me. On Thursday the scenery cycled quickly from burned-out, undulating wasteland to pine-straddling granite cliffs rising impossibly vertically and marching east to herald the Yosemite Valley’s entrance. I remember how impassive, almost contemptuous, the cliffs stood, and feeling that the entire valley’s population could descend into an orgy of mass-murder and those cliffs would still be there millions of years later – the scandal long forgotten. I longed to magically be on top of their ancient, frigid summits. They made me feel as if I was encased within some cold yet paradoxically sun surrounded womb. Dawn was late and dusk early in Yosemite. With enough time for awe to be well and truly inspired, I set up camp by simply parking the van, drank a quarter bottle of port and set in for a badly needed two hour nap at about 4pm.

Yosemite

Forks, in the north-west of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is home to the Twilight movie and book franchise, and approached by misty woods indeed evocative of the teenage angst and immortal love-bite-laden vampire and werewolf fable. The town itself was evocative of pretty much nothing. Except perhaps inbreeding. I had two encounters with its locals. One with a middle-aged man wearing combat fatigues, accompanied by a young boy and a pit bull named Guess. Apparently “his father, his father and his father before him” named their dogs “Guess”. Think he might have been joking. He spoke often of the dog and then said something like “I would never hit a child around it”. Still not sure if he was joking about that. The second involved a car load of junk food raised teenage girls, one of whom pointed to a burned down building to my rear, while I was taking a photo of the Dragon in front of a Twilight-themed shop, and asked “What do you think happened here?”
I replied: “Some kind of bad fire,” which sent them howling with laughter in the direction of La Push, fictional werewolf territory, on pretty much the extreme north-west of America’s west coast. The community marked an area off-limits to blood suckers in the popular series it was famous for, and indeed felt different to Forks, further inland, least of all because it seemed more of a tourist destination, and mostly because it was definitively Native American in flavour. Several monolithic islands rose from just offshore to provide natural attractions, and you got the feeling it wouldn’t be too hard to find some good salmon there. In fact a pair of fellow travellers from Wisconsin asked me where they could find some. I replied it was a fishing town but I was less of a local than them so was sure they’d find some if they cared to look. I drove back through Forks without being chased by flaming torch and pitchfork wielding Bible bashers, then camped on its south side in a creepy yet beautiful state park. I paid my libations to the fire gods for the first time that night, by pouring beer on the burning wood. I had drunkenly come to believe they departed with the smoke while it drifted Heavenward, and would continue this ritual for the rest of the journey. I believed their spirits neither ascended to Heaven nor descended to Hell, for they are immortal, but went where they wished. I did so that the gods should feel appreciated and perhaps safeguard my journey into the continued unknown. I was insane through intoxication, insomnia and isolation. Back to fucking reality. . . .

La Push

La Push

I woke a little dazed and cold from the nap, then drove to the Ahwahnee Hotel; the only bar open during Yosemite’s off-season. I found it ironic the Americans had taken Native American land, built a hotel in native style on it, but designed it above the means for enjoyment most natives possessed. Like a bear, I could tell from its restaurant’s smell, look and atmosphere I was not welcome there. And although conflicted by both the small amount of liquor I’d drunk earlier in the afternoon and knowledge that the blood alcohol limit in the US was .3 higher than in Australia, I ordered a scotch and coke, martini and a glass of port at the bar. This excessively classy stone and pine building even had a resident piano man entertaining its bar guests. I tipped the pianist two dollars to play Nat King Cole and George Shearing’s Fly Me To The Moon, so he of course played the Sinatra version extremely quickly. Should’ve tipped him five. Oblivious to why the bartender insisted on serving me water with each drink, I swaggered to the Dragon and headed for my campsite not 10 minutes’ drive away. Even by Australia’s fascist standards I was sure my blood alcohol level was legal. The short journey took me via the village store for a newspaper to rekindle my fire with, where I tried to take photos of a racoon who simply would not stay still. Although to all appearances alone, I was being watched by more than just local wildlife.

Yosemite base camp

Yosemite base camp