travels to California with Ed

Travels and Tribulations - in the USA (2)

Including Calico, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Solvang, Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Big Sur and San Francisco

Czech & Slovak Republics
Great Britain & Ireland:
Other cities
Irish Republic
Greece: Crete
Lake Garda & Dolomites
Portugal: Madeira
Nevada & Arizona

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Start of this segment!

After Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon my trip took me across the desert of Death Valley to California. The latter used to stick in my mind as the hottest place on earth, the place where they tested out my car polish to prove it was the toughest. Now it will stick in my mind as the place where the interstate highway is peppered with glass. Come on, guys, haven't you heard about recycling in America? I noticed on this trip that most of the drinks on sale were in heavy glass bottles. So, to get rid of those on the hot desert crossing, people apparently fling them into the central reservation. Now the glass might glint attractively in the sun, and you might even argue that one day, millions of years hence, it will turn back into sand! But what about the wild creatures that find circumnavigating the glass more dangerous than the traffic? Please take the glass home, guys, and keep your desert clean!

Having said this, I must add that, on this particular trip, I did find the standard of cleanliness on the city streets very good. So credit where credit is due. But it is asking a lot for a clean-up service in the desert.

So, on to sunny California, product of the gold-rush and missionaries. More of the former in a moment, but firstly to cover the latter, since you cannot get away from it on the Californian coast.

In answer to England's domination across the norther part of the New World, in 1763, as a result of the 'French and Indian War' (or 'Seven Year's War' as it was known in Europe), a worried Spain decided to send a military and religious expedition to settle and establish a Spanish Catholic presence in what is now known as California. The unlikely alliance of religious and military might was represented by Fanciscan friar Fra Junípero Serra and Gasper de Portola, respectively. They were to create Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first European outpost, in 1769. They tried in vain to find Monterey Bay but instead discovered San Francisco Bay. They took this land from the native American inhabitants with no trouble at all, they were so peace-loving. Serra, the 'Apostle of California', then succeeded in his aim of setting up missions at around 20-mile intervals along the coast - friar walking distance in a day - along 'El Camion Real' (the Royal Road).

Many of the 'Indians' - so-called because when explorer Sir Francis Drake first arrived in the New World in 1579 he thought he was in an Old World, namely India - died from the diseases introduced by the white man, and they were easily persuaded to believe that only acceptance of the white-man's God could save them from such death. So grew the congregations, the spread of the missions, and the mission-centred townships of California. (That's what's known as a 'potted history'. Why are history books so long?)

This background has led to many beautiful mission Catholic churches, and these were the centres of the new townships that grew up in California - and the reason why Spanish architecture gives some places such a Mediterranean feel.

My trip took me north from Palm Springs to San Francisco, before jetting back to the UK. And as I sit now, languishing under the forces of jet-lag due to the 8-hour time difference, plus another hour since we immediately had to change back from Summer Time, I wearily recount this latter part of the trip.


Click to enlarge!The route from Las Vegas to Palm Springs took us conveniently close to one of the ghost towns left over from the gold-rush days. In the case of Calico, however, it was more of a silver-rush. The Calico Mining District became one of the richest in the state. Founded in March 1881, Calico really did enjoy boom-town status, producing $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax. In 1887 the town had a population of 1,200, and had no less than 22 saloons, a China Town and a red light district. (Well times were tough, and diversions were necessary in this hot, desert location.) There were over 500 mines on the go at this time. Like most towns of the early west, when the price of silver dropped from $1.31 an ounce to $.63, Calico became a ghost of its former self.

Calico is one of the few remaining original mining towns of the western United States

Today, Calico is one of the few remaining original mining towns of the western United States. Now operating as a County Regional Park, just minutes north of Barstow, it is alive and well! But if you feel like staying there, forget it unless you plan to camp; the 1999 population is 10, so they're not well placed to give you good service - except in the gift shops! There are, however, camp sites in the narrow canyons below the town, plus six camping cabins and a large bunkhouse for groups. You pay an admission to get into Calico, but this is included in campsite charges. Townsite hours are 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Expect to see some of the inhabitants wandering round in suitable western attire. Oh yes, there are regular gun fights at the top of town when tourists drop litter or bottles, so if you hear a few gunshots, pardner, tread carefully!

I just loved Calico. You really get the feel of the old west there, although the town is obviously much smaller than its finest hours. Original buildings include Lil's Saloon, the Calico Park Office, Lucy Lane's House, Zenda Mining Company, and the fantastically atmospheric Lane's General Store. You can smell the history in there! There are a number of attractions such as the Maggie Mine Tour - watch your head in this poorly lit mine, for I saw one guy give his a fair old crack - gold panning (you could walk away with a little gold - yes, 'gold', not 'silver'), a shooting gallery, riding stables, and a cemetery (although the elements have left little trace of the original inscriptions).

Palm Springs

CLick to enlarge!I've got to confess that I'm more than a little pleased with this picture - and it does prove that I can get up early! It was around 6:00 am when I took this picture from outside my hotel in Palm Springs, so far as I can recall at that kind of unearthly hour, and it does capture the spirit of the place: a place where there are two palm trees for every resident and a swimming pool for every three. Both are valuable assets in a place where summer temperatures hover around 100ºF: the former for shade and the latter for cooling. Coming from that humid land of Britain, I must say that the dry heat is much more preferable for a given temperature - it was 95ºF while I waited for a very late bus link, and this in October. Dry heat is certainly more comfortable than having it hot and humid. Some establishments with outside tables use a water vaporization method to squirt a fine mist of water into the air, and this reduces the temperature by around ten degrees apparently. It was certainly most welcome when sitting with a coffee outside Starbucks.

Click to enlarge!There are mountains all around, but to those who only think of Switzerland as containing real mountains - and I'm one of those - these are mere heaps of gravel. (Can't I be cruel?) They are grey by day, not particularly attractive, but when the sun is low in the morning they are a glorious pinky red; I liked them then! Dust is the natural by-product of such a desert area, of course, and the sweeps of green grass that you seen in Palm Springs are lovingly created with two different types of grass twice a year. Believe me: they actually tear up existing grass and replant twice a year to maintain this verdant image. And don't think the plants are any easier! If you have time to look at Desert Springs Marriott Resort and Spa you can see all this taken to the ultimate degree! The many golf courses call for similar treatment. No wonder golfing is expensive hereabouts!

Special features when in Palm Springs include tours of the homes of the stars, the beautiful 'Living Desert' (like a zoo in natural desert surroundings), various desert trips, golf and tennis, and a cable-car ride up the mountain.

It's also a good place to explore the San Andreas Fault: if you like the thrill of living dangerously - without any real risk!

Click to enlarge!If you like heat, golf, the desert climate, gawping at celebrity homes (mostly from the past), then this is definitely the place for you. It's also a good place to explore the San Andreas Fault: if you like the thrill of living dangerously - without any real risk! There is an 'Earth in Motion Eco-Adventure Tour' to concentrate on just that. I chose the 'Covered Wagon Tour' starting near to Thousand Palms. A good choice, I think. Imagine riding in a mule-pulled wagon driven by someone looking like Wild Bill Hickock, with a suntanned guide in hotpants looking like Bo from The Dukes of Hazard, and you get some way towards visualizing my experience. 'Bo', however, was an expert on the desert and she made for a fascinating evening's entertainment and education as the wagons rolled (another followed behind at a discrete distance), the sun set, and the coyotes howled (yes, really). Passing by a palm oasis, we set out on a dusty track towards the San Andreas Fault (which had shivered the timbers of the residents of Palm Springs quite considerably only the week before). Interestingly, though palms were few and far between in the open desert, there was a distinct line of them at the bottom of the ridge: in the very location of the fault; moisture gets trapped their and helps them to flourish. We were educated into the considerable flora and fauna of this particular desert (far more than the plain sand you might expect), tasked a couple of cactus fruits - everything had a use for the native inhabitants, we were told - and after a memorable pause in the evening quite of the desert, we returned for a cowboy cookout, chicken and beans, complete with a singalong to country music. Magical memories!

Los Angeles

Oh what a vehicle-centred, oft-polluted, ever-moving, frenetically-activated urban sprawl! Los Angeles was the very next destination after that wagon ride in the desert, and what a contrast! I tell not a lie that as we approached the outskirts of this city - if indeed city is the correct name for such a conglomeration of separate townships - I could smell, see and feel (in my eyes) the pollution. (Perhaps I'm very sensitive, since I live near to clean, sea air.) Not a good start! I almost felt I'd like to give it a miss - but I'm glad I didn't, although there was this constant dustiness in air and on the buildings in the outskirts as we approached via a multi-laned freeway. Of course they know all about this problem, and in a city where there are more cars than people (truly), they have attempted to get people to share - but who wants to share when they've one or more cars that need driving? They've got special lanes on which only those vehicles containing two or more passengers are supposed to ride - else suffer a substantial fine - and these lanes do move more quickly. (There are plenty of cars with single occupants that defy the risk of fine for that extra turn of speed.) Then there are lanes which you need a special box of tricks in your car to use: the box allowing them to bill you according to your usage; these lanes go even more quickly. Don't get into the wrong lane, guys! There may be no return! Freeways curl and twist all around this city which pays homage to the motor car better than anywhere else on the globe. Good luck to you if you don't quite know where you are going: you could end up just about anywhere!

I had a brief and strange conversation with an inebriated lady from Canada who insisted on shaking hands and introducing herself, and who warned me not to bathe on the beaches

Click to enlarge!Having said all that about the pollution I noticed while entering L.A., it is only fair to mention that I was not particularly aware of it when I was on foot in the city. (Or had I just acclimatized?) It was nice to see that our Queen Mary has found itself such a pleasant berth off Long Beach: as an hotel and tourist attraction. Free shuttle buses run you around the area of Long Beach, which is excellent given that walking is not a normal thing hereabouts. I asked directions, intending to walk to the walk to the waterfront buildings visible in the distance, mainly concerned about how to most efficiently negotiate street, building and landscaped obstacles, and the cop warned it was a "long ways to walk" and stared in disbelief when he realized that still was my intention.

It was 'winter' when I got my first glimpse of Long Beach, and so only a few hardy children were exposing themselves to the sun's weak rays - it could not have been more than 87ºF after all - so no beach babes, unfortunately. (Is this the only picture of Long Beach without babes? Still, this does show what it looks like underneath all those bodies.) Or were there no beach babes because of the oily rim on the line that divided sand and Pacific? (There is an unmentionable oil island just off shore. Any connection, I wonder?) No, I guess it was just too freezing cold for them!

I had a brief and strange conversation with an inebriated lady from Canada who insisted on shaking hands and introducing herself, and who warned me not to bathe on the beaches. So taking her at her word, we headed off for Hollywood. I didn't fancy a dip anyway.

Click to enlarge!While it was rather too cold for many to dabble their toes into the Pacific, rather more were fitting their feet into the footsteps of the stars outside Graumann's Chinese Theater. This was all part of a Hollywood Tour. Did you know that the famous sign originally said 'Hollywoodland' and was put there to temporarily advertise land by a real estate company in 1923? It became such a landmark that when they had finished with it, the 'land' bit was taken off so that the 'Hollywood' landmark might remain - complete with its own caretaker to replace bulbs and living behind one of the giant L's. (An 'L' of a life. Well, it had to be said!) The original wooden structure has long since been replaced, with individual letters sponsored by stars.

The Holywood tour included the famous Sunset Strip wherein lie the famous night joints of Comedy Store, the Viper Room, the Whisky A GoGo and the Roxy (frankly all rather disappointing 'in-the-brick'). We rode down Rodeo Drive, where the rich and famous do their shopping (complete with 'bucks' if not 'broncos'), past a hire-lot where you can rent ex Hollywood film cars (you too can be James Bond), and ended up for a snack lunch at the Farmer's Market. This proved a little more exciting, and made it touch-and-go as to whether you were to see any of these pictures. As I sat at the table munching a sandwich with Hazel, a guy appeared from nowhere and grabbed my camera, his hand shooting out like a snake. I had, in fact, moments before moved my camera much closer to me from its original resting place on the outside café table having suspected some risk. Quick-acting as ever, my hand shot out like a faster snake and grabbed the remaining third of my camera. The guy let go, put on a pained expression, took a pace backwards, then said, reproachfully: "Whoa, whoa! Jest wanted to take your picture, man!" He was not impressed with the idea of me taking his picture instead, and he rapidly melted into the crowds. Was I hard on him, guys?

Whatever, I felt considerably more street-wise after that!

Los AngelesLove it or hat it! That's what the say about L.A. What do you think I did? I'm not going to tell you: except to say that I was glad to visit. While I was there I resisted the temptation to visit Disneyland - which was not too difficult, since I'm not over-keen or large-eared mice, but Universal Studios did tempt me for an afternoon visit. (I like to know how things work, you see.) I must take off my cap to them - I did, and lost it there, so now I've got a 'Universal' baseball cap instead - they have certainly packed some punch into their acres there. 'Backdraft' will stay in the memory (as they put it, "feel 10,000 degrees of excitement as a firestorm explodes around you"). I wonder if it would even be allowed in some countries, for it did look extremely dangerous, if controlled - and 'Animal Actors', though completely free from technical creativity, did have a more natural appeal. It was the 'Backlot Tram Tour' which was the best value, however: best to start with this because of queues and the time it takes. This does, as it implies, take you through the backlot of the film studios, impressing you as to how much filming is going on here, and it shows you lots of external sets, where houses from different films nestle together in the Californian sunshine, clamoring for recognition. Any boredom is relieved by the tram shooting into studios here and there for some effect - like the collapsing subway station. There are lots of other rides, demonstrations of how film effects are achieved, western shoot-outs, and enough to keep anyone going for a day, never mind an afternoon!

Santa Barbara

Click to enlarge!What beautiful peace there was to be found in Santa Barbara after the frenetics of L.A! What a jewel this place is, with its perfect micro-climate - never too hot and never too cold - much missed green grass, a beautiful ocean bay with the obligatory deserted 'winter' beach, great location between the Pacific and the Santa Ynez mountains, and palm-clad Mediterranean style shopping streets housing some of the best shops you could hope to find with a fat wallet. This place has style, boy! If I chose to live in the U.S. then here's where I would head ... if I could afford it. Some Hollywood stars have decided the same, and they, I believe, have taste ... and the necessary funds! (Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas have estates nearby.) The Spanish mission architecture is what impresses most, for it is carried through with such great panache!

What beautiful peace there was to be found in Santa Barbara after the frenetics of L.A!

An excellent example of this architecture is to be found in the County Courthouse. You can wander around the grounds and passageways of this fine building to admire it, and take the elevator to the tower for a fine view of the entire city. I found the court room itself particularly inspiring: it was like entering a fine church - complete with atmosphere.


Click to enlarge!Unique in the United States is Solvang: in that it conjures up an image of Denmark. This settlement was founded by immigrants from ... the Mid-west! Being Danish, they built Danish, and the entire town is styled Danish. Thankfully, this includes the pastries. Never were Danish pastries so light and fluffy. This is the real stuff, guys. Mmmm! Apparently, even the trinkets in the gift shops are the real stuff as well - although, sceptic as I am, I find this hard to believe. Another theme I detected was Indian, with some gift shops specializing in this.

Complete with windmill and clapboard architecture, Solvang is a tourist hang-out. Native dance, dress and theater is spotlighted during the Danish Days held in September. Apparently Solvang is also a conference location, so if this is of interest, here is a venue that offers something different. With the local specialization of wine growing, this might also give you some grape ideas. (Don't groan like that. I'm not usually that terrible, now am I? Who said I'm getting worse!)

Big Sur

'Big Sur' is where I got to walk on the 'wild side'! Along the edge, where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, runs American 'Highway One', declared as the country's first 'scenic drive' by Lady Bird Johnson in 1966; although it was completed in 1937, it took a little time for the Presidency to discover it. It includes 1,000-foot drops and scenery to die for: any many have, driving over the edge as they admired it.

This area has remained unspoiled - and unbuilt - throughout its history. Only redwood timber cutters have made this area any sort of a home - mainly during the 1870s and 1880s - but this was treacherous stuff requiring supplies to be brought in by ship. It was for this reason that Point Sur Lighthouse Station was built. The Bixby Creek Bridge is the main engineering construction in this area, extending 714 feet across the Bixby Canyon for the sake of Highway One.

Unfortunately it was mainly misty when we navigated the Big Sur coastline, defying good photography. I cannot, therefore, show you how picturesque the area is. Instead, a rare picture of me shows you how picturesque I was while on the Big Sur. (I'm the one of the right. On the left is an Agave plant, from which the Mexican spirit called tequila is made. We're both picturesque really, aren't we? Or would be, after a tequila or two!) Behind us both is the Pacific. Trust me!

Apart from the view - which was to be glimpsed from time to time - a memory I will take from this part of the trip was of humming birds. (I managed to get a picture, but they are so small, and picture definition is so poor for web pictures that, once again, you'll have to trust me. Such beautiful little birds these, flitting to and from with great speed, drinking their nectar and - I feel - images of us humans. One stopped a little way off from me - almost touching distance - and there it hovered in a fluttering of feathers, absolutely stationary, rotating this way and that after sharp angular adjustments like a miniature, fly-by-wire aircraft. It seemed like this was to show me just what it was like in different elevations, but perhaps it was trying to see what I was like from different elevations. Then it just flitted away. Just like me. Don't know where it went. I went to Monterey!

Monterey & 17-Mile Drive

Cannery Row, in Monterey, is one of America's most famous streets, thanks to novelist John Steinbeck. This fame is its main asset - apart from being located on a beautiful bay, adjacent to the famous 17-Mile Drive.

Cannery Row is a great place to visit: if you like rusting corrugated iron, tacky roads, tacky gifts, or John Steinbeck. If you don't like any of these you might choose to give it a miss. Since Steinbeck made this just about the most famous street in America, however, you might feel duty-bound to make this a port of call. Steinbeck wrote of it: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses." Written in 1945 when the book Cannery Row was published, Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf landed a quarter million tons of sardines in that year alone. All that ended in 1972, and since then they've just been landing tourists and maintaining the tin, iron, rust and weedy lots and junk heaps, thereby ensuring its continuing character. (Whether they still maintain the whore houses, laboratories and flophouses I'll leave for you to find out!) I don't know what to make of this place. It all seems a bit fishy to me. Even more than L.A, I guess you'll either love it or hate it. Me: I hate it! But I don't hate its surroundings!

17-Mile Drive, with its expensive mansions in the woods, world-class golf resorts, and Pebble Beach, are right next-door to Monteray. See this - but you need to pay an entrance fee. Who does it go to? Rumour has it that this area and Pebble Beach are now owned by Clint Eastwood's corporation. (Well, I'm not goin' to argue with that, pardner!) Whoever owns it, it sure is pretty! World-class golf courses mingle with world-class mansions in the woods. You drive between the beach and such a golf course, with deer grazing on the greens. We're talking about some exclusive stuff here, especially in the mansions. These, however, are mainly owned by rich people - as opposed to rich stars.

Other survivors are the cute little sea-otters. Once hunted to virtual extinction, a few survived in these waters and can still be seen frolicking here. (I even saw some near Cannery Row, which was a great plus for Cannery Row. Great these no longer end up in a cannery!)BigSurtree.jpg

17-Mile Drive is a twisting, turning road encompassing natural and man-made beauty of the southwestern Monterey Peninsula. It is famous for its breathtaking panoramas: from sheer rock to seals; deer to birds; sandpipers; wind-gnarled cypress trees; breaking waves and foam. These trees, known as the Monterey cypress, belong to a species peculiar to the area. Robert Louis Stevenson called them "ghosts fleeing before the wind." The so-called 'Lone Cypress' is the most famous example of these, and is a famous landmark on the 17-Mile Drive. A local kid set fire to it for a lark, in a constructive effort to change the local scenery, but it 'survived good'. So did the boy, thanks to the influence of his rich parents living hereabouts. Not too far away is the splendid town called Carmel.


Carmel is a unique and refined township carved out of the forest near the Santa Lucia mountains. Two claims to fame are that Clint Eastwood is a past mayor, and nearby Point Lobos, called "the greatest meeting of land and water in the word" by artist Francis McComas, inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to use it as the topography for Treasure Island. I have to say that this is a charming place, with many interesting things to see. It is unusual in that it combines all this with really superb (and expensive) shopping. (I say this although I am not a shopper at heart! So this must tell you something, ladies.) What else do you think would be called for when many local residents - apart from Clint - are stars? What a beautiful place to let their hair down!

It's a dream town to wander around -
and to shop in

Originally a township with houses built in their own particular styles by artists, Carmel was always different. The inhabitants shunned the intrusion of modern devices and, although such intrusive things as electricity and telephone communications are now common in the town, they make sure that nothing unsightly is to be seen. It's a dream town to wander around - and to shop in, some might say - and every where you look you see the original pines. It seems that not an unnecessary tree was felled when they built Carmel.

Cypress Inn, CarmelCypress Inn is just one of the many luxurious hotels in which you might care to rest your wallet. Here it is seen flying the flag. "Each room is delightfully different with its own distinctive and tasteful character. Today's amenities - private baths, telephones and color televisions - are made more special by our additional touches ... daily newspapers, a decanter of sherry and, most important of all, a staff ready to provide the warmth and personal service only a small hotel can offer." So says the brochure, reflecting the fact that modern amenities are still not to be taken for granted hereabouts. (This hotel is owned by someone famous, by the way, but you'll have to find out who for yourself. She doesn't advertise the fact.) This is just one of the places to live it up in Carmel.

Yes, Carmel is a star's hide-away too. You might even see Clint strolling around its streets if you're lucky, although he's finished with that Mayor thing. Yet the homes are quite small and many are far from ostentatious. Carmel goes for a quiet, understated dignity, you'll understand.

What I liked most about Carmel was the fact that the shops are so different and have so much character. There are many charming alleyways leading to new delights, and it is almost fairy-tale, like the way they seem to all be part of the woods. Yet I don't imagine there is a wicked witch anywhere. Carmel seems just too nice - and classy! If you go, plan to spend some time wandering round at leisure ... and possibly some money. Enjoy: whichever you spend!

San Francisco

Click to enlarge!The inhabitants tell you this is probably the most beautiful city in the world. I guess they might be biased. True, its setting, surrounded on nearly all sides by water, makes it pretty unique. True, its bridges are pretty impressive. True, its characteristic hills add plenty of interest. Yet, as Fog City, the beauty was mainly lost to me on me on my short visit - except during a bay trip - and this was not entirely due to fog. It seemed like most other cities to me - except for the hills and cable cars. Although ... perhaps Fisherman's Wharf does add a good measure of character - and seals! (Yes, those are sunbathing seals in the picture, not tourists! Thankfully, too, this wharf is rather more likeable than its namesake in Monterey - just! (I guess I'm just not into wharves!) What really adds charactr to the city is the cable cars, of course. Come to think of it, so do the down-and-outs.

Before going to San Francisco, I always imagined a city built on a hill. A hill with dips in it, if the films set in San Francisco were anything to go by. What I did not realize is that it is really quite a lot of hills, and so following a street through may require some very large ups and downs. In fact, if you look at a map of the city and plot what looks like the easiest route, it may well turn out to be the most difficult: because you just cannot predict these hills!

Here is a relatively flat walk from north to south: from Fisherman's Wharf to Market Street

Because of this problem, here is a little bit of inside knowledge I'd like to pass on. Here is a relatively flat walk from north to south: from Fisherman's Wharf to Market Street. Take Mason Street from the Wharf area until it joins the uniquely-angled Columbus Avenue (breaking the rules of the grid structure) - or just take Columbus itself from near the cable car terminus - and follow this to the intersection with Grant Avenue. Take Grant through Chinatown to St. Francis, and there you are in the famous Union Square, where the major shops are to be found. Head for the Powell Street cable car terminus to the south and you link with Market Street, the other major angled street - but this angled the other way! Most other streets, except those parallel to Market Street to the south, are on the usual unbroken grid. Now you begin to see why Columbus Avenue was permitted to bisect the centre of the city at an angle: it is FLAT! (Mark this route on your map to save yourself great energy if you want to walk the city. Send me your thanks later, when you appreciated what a gift this knowledge is!)

Click to enlarge!Now I want to tell you about the cable cars. H says I am a bore about these, but I know loads of you will want to know this stuff. They are, for sure, the very spirit of Frisco, and how they work and how they came about is very interesting. They are unique in all the world. Invented by a Scot, Andrew Hallidie, as a result of having seen a terrible accident resulting from a horse and carriage roll backwards on a steep cobblestone city street, the cable cars are now a National Historic Landmark, and no one goes to San Francisco without making sure they take a ride. (Clang, clang, it should be compulsory!) When I was there I heard a gentleman, recently arrived, insisting that the cable cars hung on wires - he was sure he had seen a picture of them - and he would listen to no one telling him they went on rails. Well, here's the truth. They are quite unlike the cable cars you find elsewhere - which do hang on cables - because the San Francisco cables are buried deep beneath a central rail in the street, with two outer rails guiding the car just like a tram. Originally there were 600 operating cars but the earthquake put paid to most of these, and there are now only three routes running 37 cars on 17 miles of track: more than enough for you to get a long ride! The cost is a fixed $2 a trip: these guys have got enough to do without messing around with variable fares and change.

The miracle of engineering is that they run on a continuously running cable. The Cable Car Barn at Washington and Mason Streets is where the cable is wound; this is also a cable car museum. The 'gripman' at the front of the car works hard with several levers, and one, when pulled backwards, allows a mechanism within the car to fasten a pincer-like hold onto the cable which then propels the car at a steady 9½ miles an hour. Now you get to realize the importance of the bell that the gripman rings to warn other road uses that the car is coming. He cannot slow down for an obstacle: the cars either go, at 9½ mph, or the grip is released and the car coasts to a stop. Thankfully there is also a 'brakeman' at the rear who ensures that this coasting can be controlled or that the car can be locked on the rails when at a halt. So controlling these cars is quite an art. While we were waiting for a cable car at Fisherman's Wharf, one was towed away for repairs because of a failed brake. "Guess you guys are pleased you weren't on that one," twinkled the repairman. Thinking about the hills, I was quite pleased. These hills look to be about 45° at places!

I took the Powell & Hyde Street cable car route at night and found it most entertaining. Firstly we rode from the terminus near Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf then, after a stroll and some entertainment by rather good street players, quick to recognize a captive audience - quite a queue here - the same trip back again. You could take it one way in combination with the suggested 'flat' walk. (I did the walk another day.) When you realize the steepness of some of the streets that these cars run on, and marvel at the fact that a route such as that described changes from uphill to downhill frequently, not to mention direction via the cross-streets link between Powell and Hyde Streets, and consider how the car must switch between different cables, the whole operation is all the more amazing.

Click to enlarge!Click to enlarge!Are you still with me after that 'boring' stuff? I hope so. Otherwise you won't read my recommendation to take a bay trip from Pier 39 and see both the Golden Gate Bridge at close quarters and Alcatraz. Or, if you're really into prisons, take a trip and land on Alcatraz itself. Though not in use as a federal penitentiary since 1963, the name still sends a chill down many a spine: inmates or their mates alike! Alcatraz became a maximum security prison in 1934 at the height of the gangster era and housed the gangster elite, people like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and, or course, the 'Birdman of Alcatraz'. Protesting Indians took over the island in 1969, but left in 1971. Not a lot of people saw their protest! These were perhaps the only inmates to stay there voluntarily.

Lombard StreetThese grey sea pictures are great - their file sizes are so small because of the similar colours - so I can squeeze in a final picture of what I consider to be the craziest bit of Frisco: Lombard Street! How did this come about, I wonder? I like to think that the neighbours, tired of drab city streets, clubbed together to create this winding road carefully landscaped with flowers. Apart from the eccentricity of the landscaping down the centre of the street, and the winding 'crookedest street in the world', as it is known, above shrub-level it is a typical, hilly Frisco street. It is one-way, and there are steps at either side for the safe passage of pedestrians. All I can say is that it's a good job that American cars are getting smaller!

If you plan to visit San Francisco, then do be prepared for the weather. Which means behaving like you were in Britain: be prepared for anything. Frisco is also Windy City. So expect wind, fog once or twice a day, with it being unpredictable how long this takes to burn-off in the morning, and expect it to be generally cooler than you would otherwise expect in sunny California.

San Francisco marked the end of this American trip. It was most enjoyable and memorable. Looking back on it I am prompted to say to fellow Britains that, despite the fact that we share a common language and so much else with the Americans, there is almost a greater culture shock visiting America than there is in visiting another country in Europe speaking another language. The money is more confusing with its nicknames: dimes, bucks, nickels, etc, with the added confusion that the smallest and most insignificant coins are worth the most. (I always find Austrian money the easiest with its straightforward Schillings.) There is a large gulf between our eating habits and theirs: portions aside - typically a portion can be divided by two plates and still leave a decent meal - fast-food has it here; it proved difficult to find places that didn't major on the same combinations of eggs, bacon, hash-browns and pancakes; the main variety seems to be how to have your eggs. Yet the friendly service, in the main, makes up a lot for this, and I liked the ever-coming free coffee top-ups; the fact that many of the eateries were open 24 hours-a-day also helped when you had to fit in so much. I never had so many early starts as in the States! Nor so many eggs!
End of this segment!


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