What I did on my holdiay

2: "Next Stop The Abyss


The English make jokes about Japanese tourists and American tourists—although, for some reason, never about German or French tourists. Americans have cameras and "do" Europe in three days flat; Japanese pour out of coaches and all dress identically. I once heard an American lady talking to her camera in Wells, Somerset. "No, dear, this isn't Westminster Abbey; that's where we were yesterday." I was delighted: the stereotype made flesh. A friend of mine was once approached by two Japanese people in the Shambles in York and asked if he could possibly direct them to the Minster.

"Well, it could be that ***ing big church over there" he politely replied.

One wonders if the Americans make similar jokes about English tourists. I imagine they poke fun at our confusion about scale. Most of us never get to grips with just how big America is. We picture ourselves booking into a nice little bed-and-breakfast near the White House, and hopping on a 107 bus for an afternoon at Disneyland, a couple of hours in Texas and home in time for tea. I myself have never got my East Coast disentangled from my West Coast and was mildly surprised to discover that in order to get from San Diego to the Grand Canyon, you have to drive for "a couple of days". If you tried to drive for a couple of days in England, you would fall off the end of Scotland.

The tour which Kevin had planned took in Sequoia park, Yosemite, a brief look at Las Vegas and a day at the Grand Canyon—a mere 1000 miles and three states. I don't drive, so Kevin spent up to eight hours a day behind the wheel. I rationed myself to saying "Are we nearly there yet?" every 50 miles or so, and he coped fairly well.

These whacky English, huh?

We stopped in a gas station to visit the rest-room (see, I got the hang of the quaint foreign dialect) and buy some sandwiches. I also bought a packet of Twinkies.

I'd by now got over the excitement of having actual "dimes" in my pocket, but Twinkies were still a sacramental experience. You may possibly recall that throughout the 1970s, every American comic carried an advert in which a Marvel Superhero would have an adventure tangentially connected with Hostess Twinkies. Spiderman would foil an attempt to hijack a truck which just happened to be loaded with Twinkies; Thor would distract a dragon by feeding it a Twinkie. If so, you will presumably understand why it was vitally important for me to find out what a Twinkie actually is.

Answer: an over-sweetened pre-packaged sponge cake, with rather too much fake cream in the middle.

I can see why they had to advertise them so much.

As well as being surprised by the size of America, I was surprised by the size of the individual bits of it. I somehow took "national park" to mean "large nature reserve", as opposed to "uninhabited wilderness or forest the size of Surrey".

We'd intended to drive all day Saturday and spend Sunday at Yosemite Park, but we made better than expected time and decided to detour and spend a few hours in Sequoia, in order to see the famous giant Sequoia trees.

Kevin parked by the information lodge, where a park warden was explaining to a camper how to stop bears from eating his food by hanging it from a tree. (The food, not the bear.) We obtained a map and I asked whether it would be a long walk to the famous giant Sequoia trees.

Kevin gave me one of those "Oh what a noble mind is here o'rethrown" looks, and explained that it is an an hour's drive to the famous giant Sequoia trees.

We drive up a long and winding road with green stuff on both sides, when suddenly the car stops working. A totally dead, non-functional engine. Kevin jiggles the key about a couple of times and freewheels it to the side of the road. The car remains resolutely deceased. A helpful man out with his family pulls over and asks if we are in trouble. Kevin opens the bonnet, or possibly the hood, and we all gaze into it, none of us having the faintest idea what goes on inside a car. A policeman, with a hat, gun, walkie-talkie and moustache joins us, and also looks into the engine. We come to the collective decision that we have broken down.

The policeman radios Avis who do some computer jiggery pokery and tell us they'll have a replacement car out in three hours or so. (Given how far away we were from civilisation, this is actually not bad going.) So we have nothing to do but walk up the road, looking at deer, rocks and mountains, and then walking down again. We got absolutely nowhere near any famous giant Sequoia trees.

The mountains were very beautiful but I have no intention of describing them. I don't do scenery. Primary school teachers always told me that scenery, with lots of adjectives, was meritorious, which seems a good reason to avoid it. The Sequoia mountains brought me out in one of my intermittent desires to be an oil painter. Writing is such a tedious skill to have: everyone, including me, deep down believes that there's nothing clever in it and anyone could do it. If I could sing, or compose, or stick plastic model kits together so they didn't look awful, or throw my voice without moving my lips, then I'd believe I actually had a talent. If it was painting, I'd be able to convince you that Sequoia was worth seeing. The hills and the deer would not have been enhanced by me saying "gottle of geer" at them.

We had a pleasantish stroll and got back to the car with time to spare. We both got out our books. By this point it was dark and we discovered that the light in the car switched off 10 seconds after we shut the door. We tried leaving the door open, but the light went out anyway. We tried to find some mutually agreeable music to listen to on the radio; we were hoping for something classical but settled on a man explaining his self-help book instead. According to him, many people are not working at peak efficiency because they spend all day slightly tired. The solution to is to go to bed an hour earlier each night. Well, I never.

The man from Avis arrived with an identical car, except that this one worked. We continued with our drive. The nearest thing to a classical music channel was one playing nothing but German plainsong. We found a motel. I had T-bone steak for dinner in a restaurant on the grounds that I was allowed to.

On Sunday morning we arrived at Yosemite.

I had sublime feelings about it.

Yosemite valley is very pretty. Although the valley was pretty packed with tourists, for some reason the short walk to Mirror Lake—probably the most spectacular part of the lanscape—was relatively uncrowded and there were only half a dozen or so around the lake itself. So, although we were only half a mile from hundreds of other day trippers, I had a sense of being secluded and alone.

I really do apologise for being a writer rather than an oil painter. You'll just have to take my word that Yosemite is like nothing you've seen before: lake; forest; mountain; waterfall—snow still on the ground, although the air is take-your-coat-off warm. I expressed my intention to stay here forever: I felt sure I could work efficiently with a laptop in a tent, e-mailing my work back to my boss each evening.

Kevin suggested that it might get cold in the winter. I resolved instead to someday come back and spend a week camping here instead.

There is a location near Yosemite valley called "Sequoia Grove". Kevin asked the guide if the road to it was open; the guide said no, it was still snowed up—but there was another location on an open road where famous giant Sequoia trees could also be seen. Having missed the trees at Sequoia, and since giant trees are a sight which one rarely sees in Stokes Croft, we decide to take a detour this way.

We drove out of the park up more vertiginous mountain roads, and eventually reached a snowy parking spot with a sign pointing to the Sequoia grove. Kevin bounded off down the snowy path.

I took one step after him, and proceeded to sink into the snow, roughly down to my knees.

I said, oo, clumsy me, pulled it out and carried on walking. I promptly disappeared again.

Kevin said not to worry, it would improve further along, but to be careful around the trees people had been known to sink up to their necks in place like that.

I said I wouldn't worry, took a couple more steps, and sunk again. This time I was stuck, but Kevin gave me his arm and pulled me our.

We decided that snow shoes would have been better, or, failing that, coming back in the summer.

So: waterfalls, mountains, forest, orange groves, mountain paths, rangers in hats....but positively no giant Sequoia trees.

It is my opinion that if we had had snow shoes, we would have found at the end of the path a bonsai and note saying "Ha. Fooled you there."

American towns don't have high streets or corner shops; they have shopping malls. We have shopping malls in England too: unpleasant indoor buildings with fountains and Marks and Spencers and truants. The American shopping mall is more like a small out of town shopping centre: a couple of supermarkets and a clothes shop and a record shop and 16 fast food outlets and quite likely a motel surrounding a small car park. They are separate and distinct from any residential area around it—you drive from your apartment to the mall. Bristol gives you the impression that several Anglo Saxons once settled here, set up half a dozen mud huts, and laid out a rough street plan which people have more or less stuck to ever since. La Jolla gives you the impression that a large flying saucer passed over it last August and said "I know: let's dump some shops here, more or less at random. That'll confuse the natives."

I mention this because it is quite clear that Las Vegas is an extremely large, extremely expensive, extremely out-of-the-way shopping mall. Granted, its in the middle of the desert, granted, it has a life sized pyramids and a pirate ship—but a shopping mall it quite clearly is. The same higgledy piggeldyness; the same large signs trying to get you to come into this supermarket rather than that one and offering ridiculous special offers the same lack of periphery.

After a day in Yosemite, I wanted to stay for a month; after an hour in Las Vegas, I wanted to say for an hour and twenty minutes.

We queued up to go in the Star Trek exhibition, which turned out to be one of those simulator-fairground rides where you sit in chairs and get jiggled around by hydraulics while a wrap-around film of Klingon Battle Crusiers shoot at you; jolly impressive. I put four quarters in a one-armed bandit, and one five quarters on the last go. It would make a good story to say "And so I left Las Vegas 25 cents up", but actually, I put the five quarters back in and left.

We also stopped off to have a look at Hoover Dam, which is certainly very...big: a massive metal wall across a canyon, damming the water that irrigates the desert and (in passing) generates hydro electric power to light Las Vegas. I had no real inclination to do an oil painting of it.

There's a massive memorial to the people who built it, complete with bald eagle crest, flag, and inspiring text about the Americans who dreamed of making the desert bloom. What is it about America? You could go a week and travel a thousand miles in England and never see a Union Jack. I sometimes walk from Bristol out to Clifton Suspension Bridge; still an impossibly impressive piece of engineering and the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Is there a Union Jack on it?

None of this should be interpreted as a Tebbitist call for the English to Teach Their Children to Be Proud of Their Nation. If we tried to important patriotism to England, we'd mess it up. All the school kids would end up swearing allegience to Princess Diana.

Driving towards Nevada via Mojave was my first sight of a desert. With all due respect to Mohavians, I was disappointed by it. Don't ask me what I was expecting; giant cacti and water towers; sand-storms; Arab harems and oasis. Somehow, with the spread out low-level shrubs and intermittent Joshua trees and yucca, the whole thing was greener than I imagined. Desolate and monotonous and certainly very hot, but not romantic.

Leaving Hoover damn and heading into Arizona we drove through an area which Kevin assured me was an example of what would in the Olden Days have been called the "bad-lands". Now, this did impress me; miles and miles of threatening greyness, with a speckle of green spiky bits, and cunningly placed hillock ridges which would have made it effectively impossible to cross on a horse, or indeed anything else. Almost an alien landscape. You can see why they built a shrine to the people who irrigated it.

The Grand Canyon is, not to put to fine a point on it, very big. It's so big that it doesn't seem real: it's like looking at a painting or an enormous stage set; there is too much Thing beyond the edge of the cliff for you to really believe that it actually exists, and that you are near it.

Kevin had an idea that we would walk down Bright Angel Trail as far as "Three Mile Point" which was said to be a feasible days hike. Regrettably, there was snow on the ground. I don't know what skill there is in walking confidently and firmly on narrowish slippery paths, but I didn't have it. People in less sensible footwear than I seemed to skip merrily along without difficulty. I picked my way bravely for a hundred yards or so, but after an incident in which my backside came more forcibly into contact with the ground than I had intended, I decided the descent was NOT a good plan—good story though being picked up by mountain rescue would have undoubtedly made.

So we got the tour bus along the ridge, as far as Hermit's Point, which is to say the point where the road stops and only mountaineers in sensible footwear can proceed. There are various craggy viewing points along the way, all offering different perspectives on the enormous canyon. One of the most impressive was called simply "The Abyss."

"Next stop, the Abyss" said the bus driver.

I fear that even now a subsequent Avis customer is finding an uneaten Twinkie in the glove compartment of his hire car.