Our Lonely Planet California Trips (Regional Travel Guide) has a serious case of coastal bias: out of 68 itineraries, less then a quarter venture inland. And needless to say it doesn’t contain a trip focused on avoiding crowds in California national parks without spending a fortune. Once again we are left to create our own trip: national parks, cheap motels and fresh fruit pit stops. Time: 7 - 10 days. Distance: 1000 miles. Best time to go: April - October. Start: Palm Springs. End: Folsom.
The Grand Canyon is a huge attraction. Literally and - of course - figuratively. It makes various lists of seven wonders of the world. No wonder almost 5 million people a year fulfill a desire to visit. We were in the area and could not resist its pull. The only question was what’s the best way to experience it. The scale is overwhelming, playing tricks with one’s depth perception. Maybe we should fly over in a helicopter? Catch a glimpse from a commercial jet? From space? Alas, tourists are not allowed on space shuttle and won’t be as American space program is drawing to an end. Plus you really need to work on the approach angle to truly appreciate its depth.
Our guidebook calls Biltmore Estate the must-see destination that put Asheville on the map. Clearly we disagree. We decided to visit Asheville and skip the estate. To tell the truth we did make a halfhearted attempt to get a glimpse from the outside, but turned around at the end of a mile long line of cars at the ticket booth. We did not even get close enough to check if you can see anything without paying. Probably not, since attractions priced at $64 per person are usually closely fenced off. Regardless of the admission charge, the privilege of wandering around the biggest house in America doesn’t sound particularly appealing, suggested itineraries and curious crowds notwithstanding.
I have had it with gold bugs. Historical precedent notwithstanding there is nothing special about gold. Any commodity can serve a role of store of value. I get that people are scared of economy declining but that’s no excuse to blow the gold bubble. Haven’t we just learned how that story ends? Once society progresses past barter there is a need for money as a medium of exchange. The reason to use gold as money, the only reason really is lack of quick and cheap long distance communication. If you can instantaneously confirm that a person will be able to settle the bill at some point then you can hand them the goods in exchange for a promise. But if you cannot do that you need to collect something that has inherent value. And is small enough that you can easily handle it. And doesn’t expire. And isn’t easy to forge. And exists in sufficient quantities: not too much, not too little. Enter gold.
If you happen to feel any attachment to the idea of traditional Christmas you should stay as far away from Frankenmuth, MI as you can manage. And you should probably stop reading now. I have precious few Christmas illusions left and I still feel that the place consumed a piece of my soul. Christmas is of course important. Very important. For the economy. If not for all the presents that need to be bought and returned in December and January respectively, we would have to close most of the retail outlets. And I like the shops. Not so much shopping but just the idea that there are people willing to engage in this sport. They make for a nice background to otherwise dreary December days. Also, I don’t mind fancy lighting. So if you have any warm feelings associated with Christmas it would be in my best interest, if you found something else to read just about now.
United States hold a dubious distinction of establishing the most unfair healthcare system among the nations of the developed world. Unfair as in marked by injustice, partiality, or deception. And unfair as in not equitable in business dealings. It has been hard not to think about the healthcare lately. It was a hot topic in the most recent election despite its overhaul enacted just this year by Democrats. Republicans’ promise to ‘defund’ the bill may have been one of the factors that brought them the House majority.
What’s in Toronto?, the Canadian custom officer is either really curious or just wants to catch us off guard: preferably lost in an elaborate lie involving some mischief towards Her Majesty Queen of Canada Elisabeth II. I am tempted to say that I don’t know and that’s why we are going there. But the Canadian border cerberus clearly learned obnoxiousness from his American counterpart and I am not sure my sense of humor is appreciated here. For better or worse Canadians try to compete with their southern neighbors in everything. So I try to explain that nothing in particular and that we just want to do some sightseeing. Our hotel is there, I add to make sure he knows we are going to spent some of hard earned American dollars north of 45 parallel. You have a hotel in Toronto?, he seems to be honestly surprised. Reserved, I rush to explain. We have reserved a hotel room.
I am dirty and wet. I am lying in a puddle of cold dark water and trying to catch my breath. I am exhausted. My body hurts. I cannot really see what’s going on. Our guide’s boots are in front of my face. Natalia and the rest of the group follows but in some places I cannot even look back. I cannot stand up - there is 300 feet of rock above me. My submerged knees are in a damp slick mud and they keep sliding. There is no turning back. I can only keep crawling. Pull my protesting body forward using my fingers and my toes. I start laughing: I actually paid to have it done to me. I find a relatively dry spot. Get a short rest and press on. I am in a passage called Cheese Grater. During Wild Cave Tour. In Mammoth Cave National Park.
It’s only about 150 miles from Thomasville to Birmingham. But I feel like we’ve travelled from Mars back to Earth. We spend one night in Sunset Inn in Thomasville and the next in Hotel Highland in Five Points district of Birmingham. In Thomasville we can’t find a place to get a decent coffee (google map suggests a place only 20 miles away). In Birmingham we stay in a designer hotel, have dinner in a stainless steel and polished concrete restaurant named Twenty Six and conclude the evening listening to Glen and Libba in the hotel bar. They play in Highland every Monday and if you are in the area don’t miss it: Libba’s voice and Glen’s guitar are quietly explosive combination. The entire neighborhood looks like Cambridge and we feel at home. The price tag is probably around half of what we would pay in Boston. We don’t even mind the temperature that refuses to fall even long after the sunset. I can’t believe it’s the same Alabama which is last in the nation by any measure (Glen’s words, not mine).
You don’t choose your family. Well - by extension - you sort of choose your spouse’s family, but with all the hoopla associated with tying the knot screening the aunts and uncles is probably not high on the priority list. It should be though. Having your relatives conveniently scattered around the world helps should you decide to spend some time traveling. We take full advantage of that in Jacksonville. It’s the first time I meet this particular branch of Damian’s family (and let me tell you, his family has more branches that he can remember), but we hit it off rather well. They live in a well established suburban community that is close to everything: not that far from the beach, and acceptable distance from the downtown. One day, on their recommendation, we decide to ride our bikes 5 miles to the beach. It is really close on the local scale: covering 874 square miles (2,264 square kilometers) Jacksonville is the largest city area-wise in continuous US and the second largest in America. Anchorage, Alaska occupies over twice as much land, but something tells me biking options might be a bit limited there. Also, last time we checked, no relatives in Alaska (we are open to the idea of adopted family - volunteers welcomed).
We start hearing Spanish. It’s Florida. It’s also St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on land that is now continental US. The settlers happened to be Spanish and promptly built a Spanish city. Which Americans turned into cheesy attraction some 400 year later, after a brief stint as a Spanish-inspired winter resort for the wealthy. Before that the city changed hands couple of times passing from Spanish to British, then back to Spanish and finally to American hands. This is a serious history that can impress even old Europe. And it seems pretty normal to us. Cities that were not conquered, burned and rebuilt at least couple of times still feel a bit fake.
Grandfather Mountain trails are marked permit required on the map. I thought: finally, someone protects over billion years old (one of the oldest on the planet) mountain from destruction. It turns out it’s only profit that’s protected. The mountain is privately owned and, as such ventures do, offers numerous attractions including road access to the summit, swinging bridge over a gorge and local animals’ habitats. Seemingly in transition toward a more discerning public as selling food to people to feed bears begging for it is being replaced by educational programs called enrichments. It’s not clear who’s being enriched as the entry fee leaves you undeniably $15 poorer while animals, with the exception of overfed bears, don’t look particularly happy.
Ever traveled the countryside and wondered what farmers hide in those huge silos by the barn? Now we know: the world’s largest kaleidoscope. Well, they can’t all be the largest… You lie on your back, gaze up for 10 minutes watching American History show and let me tell you: nothing reinforces patriotic feelings toward this great country like swirling presidents’ heads set to dramatic music. Interspersed with floral patterns and marijuana leaves.