My quest is at an end!

So, I’ve been busy. This blog post has been sitting, half-written, in my drafts for over a month now. I guess I’d better get it out!

I’m back home after an incredible trip around North America. My last port of call was in Vancouver, where I was on business. Don’t worry, I had plenty of time for pleasure as well.

What can I say about Vancouver? I’d been looking forward to arriving at this final stop on my West Coast adventure, and was not disappointed. There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re into outdoor sports, nightlife or relaxing at the park or beach. Vancouver has it all, and doesn’t compromise on anything.

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I arrived at an appropriate time. As Americans were gearing up for their 4th of July celebrations, their usually more reserved neighbours to the north were already in party mode. The first of July is Canada day, and I was welcomed into the country by a parade, fireworks, and more maple leaves than I could count.

The waterfront was thronging with people of all race, age, and colour to celebrate the nation’s birthday. The parade highlighted the diversity of the country, with many different cultures represented.

Vancouver is a beautiful city bordered to the north by mountains, which I managed to catch an occasional glimpse of through the clouds. But of course, I wasn’t content to observe them from afar, I had to get up there in the clouded peaks!

Fortunately, I had a friend in town with a Landrover and a passion for hiking, and he took us on a day hike along the Howe Sound Crest Trail, passing through St. Marks Summit. The trail was steep and muddy, and in a fairly poor state higher up. We met some park rangers on the way back who told us how the trail’s popularity meant was causing it to deteriorate faster than they could repair with their limited resources. I could see why the trail was so popular, once the mists had cleared at the summit, revealing a vista to remember.

I was staying in an apartment right downtown, not too far from one of Vancouver’s best features: Stanley Park. This huge urban park is an oasis of nature just a short walk from downtown, and I spent many hours hiking, running and cycling along its seawall and through its inland trails. Most of the coastline of Vancouver is picturesque, with beautiful beaches and serene parks.

Of course, I was here at the best time of year. I’m sure it’s different in the winter, but then on the other hand, with so many ski resorts a short drive away, maybe winter here isn’t be so bad. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing those mountains capped with snow.

My last night was spent in the best way possible: with an epic bike ride around the city, sampling the local beer and returning home after midnight. My three weeks here weren’t enough. I will definitely return.

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Crazy, but in a good way: Welcome to Portland!

I’ve done things in Portland I never thought I’d ever do. Maybe it’s something about this place – the blend of bohemianism and hedonism that gives the city it’s reputation for being, well, a little bit weird. Whatever it is, I’ve been drinking it all in. The younger crowd here skews hipster, and the colourful Pearl district is rammed with trendy themed bars and way-too-hoppy beers. One place I kept returning to was Powell’s, a labyrinthine bookstore worth visiting just for its café. It’s hard to pin down the city’s weirdness by just listing examples, but it seems like everything has to be a bit different here. As one person on the train put it: Portland, Oregon is ‘crazy, but in a good way.”

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I became a proper Couchsurfer here by staying with my first host. It was an awesome experience to meet up with some strangers in a bar and later go back to their house to stay as if we were old friends. Couchsurfing has really changed the way I travel; I used to rely on hostels to meet people, but they can be very hit and miss. When you’re staying at someone’s house, then not only have you already met someone, but they’re a local who knows a bit about the area. My hosts had another guest, a traveller like me, so it was a very sociable experience. We stayed up late drinking beer by the back yard fire, and they took as to some great brunch spots in their leafy neighbourhood.

It was far to warm for museums, but I passed the Portland Maritime Museum and couldn’t resist: it’s on a boat! The Portland is an old steam tug boat that’s still operational, and a volunteer tour guide led me and some German tourists around the boat to see how things used to operate in the days of steam. One thing I learnt is: even the backups have backups!

For an American city, Portland is surprisingly cycle-friendly. At no time of year is this more apparent than the annual World Naked Bike Ride, a global phenomenon that Portland has very much taken to heart. Every year, thousands of cyclists gather in the park with their bikes, take off as much clothing as they are willing (the dress code is ‘as bare as you dare’), and take to the streets en masse to protest the global fossil fuel industry. It just so happened that this year’s ride coincided with my visit to Portland.

Well, I couldn’t not, could I?

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My new friend and I rode to the park in the early evening filled with trepidation. Neither of us had done anything like this before. At first it was extremely awkward, with just a few nudists confidently striding around the park, but gradually more riders began to arrive. As the park filled the atmosphere turned to that of a festival, with loudspeakers blaring and revellers dancing. Eventually a critical mass was reached and the shy among us shed our inhibitions and our clothes and joined the fray.

The ride began at 9pm but there were so many thousands of riders it took a good half an hour to get out of the park. At the exit the street was lined with people watching and cheering on the participants. Surprisingly, I felt no embarrassment, just adrenaline and eagerness to set off. Once we were on the road it was a great feeling. People waved and whooped from their houses and the roadside, I high-fived a few people as I soared past, a guy on a skateboard boldly rode the sidewalk waving at passers-by, loudspeakers towed behind bikes gave us an ever-changing soundtrack as we progressed. There were cyclists, skaters and runners in various states of undress, some with body paint, some in costume; but the one thing we all had in common was that every single person was having the time of their life. The ride was over far to quickly as we arrived at an undisclosed location, chaotically converging on another park in the darkness.

So why did I do this? Three reasons. I believe in the ride’s cause protesting the dominance of fossil fuels and gas-hungry cars; I used to be extremely self-conscious and have been trying to change that for many years; and most importantly, I thought it would be a great laugh. And I was right – this was one of the highlights of the trip. I would urge anyone to give it a try at least once, remember it’s ‘as bare as you dare’ – you don’t have to go completely nude if you don’t want to. So I’m sure you’re all wondering if I bared all, or retained some modesty? Well, I’ll just have to leave that up to your imagination!

Even without that excitement, Portland left an impression on me. I love it’s laid-back atmosphere and it’s quirky charm, and I want to go back some time. Maybe I’ll do the bike ride again next year. Who wants to join me?

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Exploring the Oregon coast

IMG_5640.JPGI had wanted to visit some smaller towns on my US trip, and the northern coast of Oregon seemed like a good place to do just that. Getting there without a car might have been difficult – though buses do exist – but fortunately I had a travel buddy so we rented a car for a few days, loaded up on supplies, and took off west from Portland.

We began in the small town of Tillamook, just off the coast, and camped nearby only to be rained on the next day. Tillamook has kind of a one-horse town feel, with most of the shops and cafe’s lining a single main street, with a cute cinema thrown in for good measure.

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Despite the weather, we headed north following the coastal road, encountering many more small towns and villages with a similar feel, including Garibaldi, where an old steam train still operates up and down the coast. Oregon in general feels like a very laid-back state, and the wet weather lends it a lush environment. Some of the views we encountered were beautiful, tarnished only slightly by the showers, which seemed to follow us as we moved north.

My favourite spot was probably Rockaway Beach, which had the perfect blend of small-town charm and scenic shoreline.

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We ended up in Astoria, a larger city though still much smaller than Portland. Again, the place had a good vibe and we had dinner here in a cosy diner cafe, where I tucked into some very good grilled mac and cheese, American-style. I’m glad I got to the chance to experience this quieter side of Oregonian life.

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An impromptu adventure to Yosemite

America sure has some beautiful countryside. I was hoping to get the chance to visit some national parks on my visit, but wasn’t sure how I was going to make it without a car. Fortunately, I found this guy on Couchsurfing. He’s travelling from Alaska to Argentina, hitchhiking much of the way, and I was able to join him on part of his journey, along with three others. That’s how five strangers happened to rent a car together and drive out of San Francisco to visit the Muir Woods and journey to Yosemite National Park, camping over the weekend.

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We began by meeting up at a coffee shop on Friday evening to plan, with me arriving late because I only decided to join at the last minute. Organisation was difficult, as we all had different itineraries. Our hitchhiking host wanted to visit all the national parks from Yosemite down to Death Valley, and not everyone wanted to join for the whole trip, myself included.

After a brief stop to see the redwoods of Muir Woods (and my first ever glimpse of chipmunks!), we headed out east in the direction of Yosemite. Time was getting on, so we needed to find a place to stay, but had no luck finding a campsite that wasn’t full. Desperately, we decided to spend the night in an equestrian campsite. Not knowing if this was allowed or not, we nervously looked out for rangers as we set up our tents. No-one bothered us, however, and we left the morning without incident.

Yosemite was certainly a sight for sore eyes, after a three-hour delay getting into the park. I wasn’t expecting traffic in the middle of a national park, but it turns out Barack Obama himself was to blame, as he had visited the park that morning and security had been tightened. Thanks, Obama! Sadly, we were too late to see the man himself, but it was weird to think that he was there just before we were.

As it was, we didn’t get to see as much of the park as we’d have liked. We managed to take in one of the graceful waterfalls, albeit amid thronging crowds, and two of us were able to sneak in a short hike to Mirror Lake, a shallow pond beautifully reflecting the surrounding rocky mountains Yosemite is known for.

Later on, we were lucky enough to find a free camping ground in the woods, and tucked in to a makeshift but cosy dinner over the stove (no campfire for us, we didn’t have a permit). The next day we made our way to Fresno where two of us set off back to San Francisco. Sadly, the rest of the trip fell apart from there, but I think we did pretty well considering none of us had met since three days prior.

Yosemite was undoubtedly stunning, but it was the quieter moments camping in the woods and strolling among the redwoods that made this trip worthwhile for me. That, and I have a new travelling companion who’s going to be with me for the rest of my trip up to Vancouver! I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to Yosemite, but if I do it would have to be off-peak and for a longer period, travelling deeper into the park and taking the time to truly enjoy it. For the brief time I had though, I’m satisfied.

 

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More photos of San Francisco

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I’ve got a blog post brewing about Yosemite, but I’m tired and don’t have a lot of time, so here’s some more shots of the very photogenic San Francisco.

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Across the Golden Gate

I’ve been doing a lot of walking around San Francisco. The city is so different from Los Angeles, it’s hard to believe I’m in the same state. LA’s wide streets, barren terrain and urban sprawl have been replaced with cosy cafés, lush parks and tramways, making it feel much more like a European city. Despite how famously hilly it is, it’s surprising cycle-friendly. I hired a bike and rode over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most iconic landmark.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

 

San Francisco’s numerous hills provide ample vista opportunities, and it’s not hard to come across stunning views across the city. The most spectacular has to be from the dual summits of Twin Peaks, which I hiked up from the colourful Castro district, following many steep streets and stairs. It was so windy up top I could barely stand upright.

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The view of downtown from Twin Peaks

I haven’t felt any earthquakes, and I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed about that. Apart from the ever-present threat of the next big quake, I could see myself living here.

My camera’s had plenty of use – I took about a million photos of the bridge, and other areas like the Embercadero and the Golden Gate Park are highly photogenic.

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Travelling to San Francisco in style

I was supposed to be getting a lift up to San Francisco from someone on Couchsurfing but I never heard from them, so I took the train instead. I’m glad I did – though the drive would have been great, the train goes places the road doesn’t. They call it the Coast Starlight, and it runs all the way from LA to Seattle. My leg of the journey took 11 hours, but the time flew by. I’ve always loved train travel, but none I have taken has felt quite as sophisticated as this. This was LA to San Francisco in style.

The route took us right along the coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, and I was lucky enough to catch a guided tour along this section, narrated by volunteers from Trails and Rails. This is program co-sponsored by Amtrak and the National Park Service educating rail passengers about the natural heritage of the area. I learnt all about the local fauna and history of the area.

We followed Highway 101 for much of the way – the route I would have taken by car – but then the routes diverged and we entered Vandenburg Air Force Base – where the road is not allowed. How come the train is allowed? Because it was here first! It costs a lot of money to relocate a train route, and evidently the US military wasn’t willing to foot the bill. Trains are stopped during missile tests, but there were none scheduled for this day. The base is home to multiple NASA launch sites, and also SpaceX, Elon Musk’s commercial space programme.

After San Luis Obispo, the tour guides departed and we descended into the mountains. Later that evening, dinner was served in the dining car and I was sat with fellow solo travellers, each with a unique story to tell. It was a good day considering I spent the entire time travelling.

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