Sunday, 14 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 8







Despite leaving Vesuvio at a relatively early hour, we spent some time socialising with the traveller types back at the Green Tortoise, and it left us feeling a little bit dazed and confused. In the morning, Charlie and I took refuge in the common room – with coffee, Gatorade and crisps – while Max and Nathan went to pick up the car.
            It was Sunday and Nathan and I would be returning on the following Friday via an as yet undetermined means of transportation. For Max and Charlie, there would be no coming back – Los Angeles would be their next destination, before they crossed from west to east for a final fling in New York City.

Max and Nathan pull up outside of the Green Tortoise in a silver Chrysler Sebring convertible. What vehicle is this? Not only could our contact at the car-hire plant be counted on for our erroneous exchange-rate based discount, but for a mere $100 in cash, he’s somehow allowed us to upgrade. The car that we were supposed to be hiring hadn’t really done it for Nathan and Max, but they were resigned to it anyway. Max had then observed the Chrysler being cleaned after being returned by its previous hirer and asked how much extra it would cost to charter this formidable beast. $100 apparently, which must be some sort of mistake – or a deal done on the side perhaps? Who cares, we've got just the thing in which to drive to Las Vegas.
            Our Chrysler Sebring – here on in referred to as ‘The Beast’ – has an external ambient temperature gauge, and it tells us it’s touching 30°C outside. Not that we notice: we've got the roof down, and the back-draft is keeping us cool.
            Within less than a mile of crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and we've taken a wrong turn – suddenly we’re in Oakland itself. The surrounding buildings are low-rise in aspect, which suggests we might be in some kind of down-town scenario. The sound of gospel music emanating from various churches also gives this impression. To the less religiously inclined denizens of Oakland, I fear we might look out of place – white skinned, driving a silver convertible with the sounds of the sixties blaring from its speakers. We think we know in which general direction we need to be travelling but we’re not presently driving in it. To rectify this we elect to take a U-turn in the nearest parking lot – the one occupied by a division of Afro-American youths in typical ‘street’ attire. Traffic lights then dictate we pause at its exit.
One of these youths saunters over. Is he armed, I think? Probably. What’s his gun of choice: a revolver, a shotgun, or something semi-automatic? I don’t mean to stereotype but my teenage years spent incessantly listening to Hip Hop has primed me for this.
            Sensing that we might be lost, the gentleman asks us if we need guidance. We tell him that we want to get back on Highway 580 and he duly obliges with directions. His council is both accurate and charmingly delivered, and the occupants of the shiny Sebring feel a mixture of relief and guilt; relief that we haven’t been mugged – or worse – and guilt for ever thinking that it might have been the case.
Oakland comfortably behind us and the topography starts to level out (around Tracy, possibly). To ensure an early start we skipped breakfast and are now in dire need of sustenance. We pull into a roadside Kentucky Fried Chicken and reaffirm with its employees that we’re heading in the right direction – the direction of Yosemite National Park. We are, and any residual uncertainty is obliterated by the military-like precision the proprietor of Kentucky brings to bear in sketching out the best route on our roadmap of California.
Contrary to global opinion, Americans are not as overbearingly arrogant as we sometimes perceive them to be. Indeed, they are a friendly people who like nothing more than to engage with those who have made the effort to come and wonder at their fair and pleasant land. They are proud of their country and appreciate its natural charm. As far as they’re concerned they’re simply telling it like it is. When an American says to you that Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth it’s not out of hubris, it’s because they genuinely believe this to be the case (even if they have never set a foot outside their own country).
When lunch is finished we visit the garage next door and stock up on much beer. This turns out to be a bizarre experience. The petrol station is run by a family who emigrated here from the UK. That in itself is not overly surprising (although, given the remoteness of our location, it is slightly). What really strikes us as weird is the fact that they’re from Hounslow. Nathan hails from Feltham, just down the road, and he, Max and I have all spent varying amounts of time renting accommodation in Hounslow itself. Nathan and I currently live in Isleworth, in fact, not 15 minutes walk from Hounslow Town Centre.
You’d have thought somebody had died. On being told of our residential circumstance, these economic migrants, who moved here for the sake of their children, so they tell us, are plunged into well of wistful nostalgia for the old country. They want to know everything current that’s going on in Hounslow and would probably be very willing to take us in for the night to hear all about it. “We’d love to stop and chat but we really must get a move on.” They make us promise to stop by on our return from Yosemite, and we don’t have the heart to tell them that we don’t yet know whether or not we’ll be coming back this way, and that the chances are we won’t. It’s scene of almost hysterical bathos.






As is the way with such things, when we finally start gaining some altitude the temperature begins to fall, so much so that we’re inclined to pull over to the side of the road and put the roof up on our air-conditioned beast.
Meanwhile, Nathan has asked us to keep an eye on the petrol gauge. We've been warned that refuelling facilities in Yosemite are scarce, and the journey is covering more ground than we anticipated. A sign is passed that states ominously ‘Last Chance for Gas’, but peering over at the gauge it looks like there's still a good half tank of petrol left. We can also sense it’s starting to get a bit dark and would like to reach our destination before nightfall.
But Nathan is concerned and wonders why none of us are similarly anxious. It finally dawns on him that Max, Charlie and I have erroneously been taking our fuel readings from the temperature gauge. We don’t quite run out of gas but it is dark when we arrive, and we’re lucky to find accommodation too. Indeed, we will all have to share a room, and within that room will have to share double beds.
There is a bus that makes the short journey to Yosemite Lodge – the only facility currently open where we can settle down for a meal and drink a few beers. It’s like a Wetherspoon pub on a Tuesday afternoon, but with a wider demographic. There’s no time to make a night of it and we’d rather be outside anyhow. We decide to walk back to Curry Village, where our lodgings are, to take in the serene delight of unadulterated night sky.
Depending on who you ask, bears are either not a threat at all or are very much a present danger and should be guarded against at all times. Such conflicting advice makes for just the right level of trepidation when walking back through Yosemite at 11:00 at night. We pause for a while in the woods to gain a fuller appreciation of our physical isolation. When we've had enough of that, Charlie and Nathan prepare for bed, while Max and I decide to drink another beer out on our veranda and wonder at a silence only occasionally disrupted by a distant thunder-like sound. We ponder this mysterious sonance for a while and theorise that it can only be the reverberations of huge slabs of winter ice crashing down scree ridden slopes. It is spring and the ice is melting.


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