Howdy y’all

Yes, Texans really do say this, but it sounds quite melodious and somehow genuine when they say it, mainly because they’re pretty nice people. Until they get behind the wheel of a car, then all bets are off. I’m very glad I don’t have to commute around Houston and San Antonio for two reasons;

  1. With all the high speed lane cutting that goes on, it’s like a cross between NASCAR and Wacky races
  2. The minimalist road signage requires split second timing and the luck of being in the right lane for your turnoff.

Which at speeds over sixty to seventy plus in high density traffic can make for some quite lively driving, let me tell you. I’m no novice driver, having survived the rush hour M25 many times without a scratch, but there were quite a few brown trouser moments and missed turns requiring much back tracking, many U-turns (Which the city fathers of both San Antonio and Houston make ample provision for), and several heated arguments between driver and navigator about whose fault it was we missed our exit.

At first some of the antics of my fellow motorists left my chief circulatory organ wedged firmly between my teeth until I started picking up the various clues from other drivers and failing to let them faze me. In the end I just left two and a half car lengths between my front end and the vehicle in fronts arse and let everyone else do what the hell they pleased. With or without signalling. I could have flashed my lights and sounded my horn, but would it have made any difference? No. So we’ve learned to just give the crazy ones the road and keep our distance from everyone else. Now give me a week and I’d be carving up and swerving across three lanes just like the rest of them.

Yesterday’s little hiatus and wander round San Antonio’s river walk gave us time to catch our breath and chill out a bit after the previous days series of panic attacks on the cities maze of overpasses, underpasses and quantum shifting side roads that tend to dump the unwary precisely one block from their destination, being taken in the wrong direction by a Byzantine one way system. Fortunately, due in part to one piece of inspired guesswork on my part (“Don’t you mean jammy?” Says Mrs S), we actually found our way to where we needed to be. On this driver’s day off we’d elected to take the Transit (Bus) downtown so we could have a drink or two after visiting the famous Alamo.

The Alamo itself is an interesting place, despite a relative paucity of exhibits. All there was on display were a number of flags, a lot of display boards, a couple of antique rifles, various documents, a model of the besieged mission complex, a few scraps of fabric and leather and many notices bearing imprecations not to touch the walls. What really impressed me was the sense of tranquillity we encountered in the well-tended mission gardens. It was so peaceful that the heavy grumbling noise from a running truck engine from behind one wall took several minutes to register on our senses. A feeling I’ve only experienced in the inner sanctum of various churches and temples. That air of inner stillness which is so hard to find, except in such places of reverence and awe.

En route to Houston today we had an interesting stop at a rural service station just outside San Antonio; firstly the whole anti-smoking thing seems to have had a limited effect down here. You don’t have to select your inhalant of choice by guesswork, there are whole walls full of cigarettes, cigarillo’s and eCigs on show for everyone to see, and in the case of cigars, in a special humidor room (I estimated ten feet by ten feet) to keep the tobacco in perfect smoking condition. I was almost overcome by a sense of nostalgia. A member of the anti-smoking righteous would probably have a terminal coughing fit. Secondly there was the ammunition. Under glass of course. $6.99 for 20 rounds of NATO 5.56 or .223, hunting and full jacketed. Spare magazines and enough hunting paraphernalia to give a virulent vegan activist several heart attacks before even reaching the counter.

Anyway, we’re all safe and sound, trying to find old movies on the hotel TV in amongst dozens of TV channels dedicated to talking head political op-eds denouncing this Trump fellow as one of the many “ist’s”. They call themselves ‘news’, but that’s so far from what these broadcasts actually are. Which is regurgitated dramatised drek for the gullible. Mrs S, genius with the remote she is, has located an old James Bond classic ‘Dr No’. Which we’re currently enjoying, even though she still forbids me to do my Sean Connery impersonation. Not sure what we’re doing tomorrow, so watch this space.

Bye for now.

Texas blowout

Well wasn’t that an adventure young Bill? Well, sort of. Possibly. Maybe and probably not. Today we were heading down one of the lesser trafficked routes from Abilene to San Antonio, Mrs S at the wheel, when a horribly familiar blap-blap-blap sound suddenly assailed our ears. “Pull over, Hon.” I said.
Er Bill, I think we’ve got a flat.” Mrs S replied.
I think you’re right. Pull in over there.” I gestured at the first possible widening of the highway and we ground to an uneven halt. Swinging out before we’d actually come to a full stop, I waltzed around the back of the car to be greeted by the following sight;Texas blowout It was pretty plain we were not going to fix this one with our instant puncture repair kit. The outside of our rear left tyre was as you can see, pretty much shredded.

Out came all our luggage from the boot (Oh all right, the trunk) and I pulled out the skinny spare while Mrs S watched my back. Wind up the jack, keeping an weather eye out for anything that might convert Ma Sticker’s youngest into roadkill, I swapped the thoroughly trashed rear tyre for the spare. “You drive.” Mrs S said. I gave her a terse nod. As family guard dog my job is the tricky stuff, and we were a hundred miles from the nearest known dealer. Also, Mrs S was feeling a little nervous about driving on the skinny and perhaps a bit upset from having a tyre trashed beneath her. It’s the sort of thing that can put a crimp in anyone’s day.

Fortunately we were only a mile from a small settlement, and after asking for directions at one of the local spares stores (They even understood my accent) we arrived at a small tyre dealership. After about ten minutes checking, the owner showed us the quarter inch hole that had started the trouble and told us that he had no tyres of the type we required. He could probably get one by tomorrow perchance? We declined as we wanted to make San Antonio for this evening and were directed to a Tyre retailer forty miles down the road. Driving fifteen miles an hour under the limit, pulling on to the hard shoulder whenever faster traffic came barrelling up my tailpipes, we made it to the specified retailer, whose advertising proclaimed that he stocked tyres of the make we required. A few phone calls later, he regretfully announced that there were no tyres of the type we needed within forty miles. So off we went again, driving like Miss Daisy, and after being buffeted by the backwash of what felt like a couple of hundred big rigs passing at speed, we tracked down a main dealership for our little Subaru just short of San Antonio. The rest was a bite into our credit limit and a little time to drink coffee and reflect that it could have been a whole lot worse.

Now tucked up all safe and sound in our San Antonio hotel, we’re stopping for a full day tomorrow to let Mrs S hit the shops and me to wander around the museums. As an aside; we’ve been in the so-called gun happy USA for almost two weeks, and the only firearms we’ve come across have been in historical brochures and shown on television. Must be all those concealed carry permits, I thought, they’re so good you can’t see the guns.

Challenging my preconceptions

Tonight we’re well into central Texas (Abilene no less) and it’s raining. Again. Worse than Manchester on a wet day. And lightning. No risk of Tornadoes today in our neighbourhood as they don’t form this far south and west (Allegedly).

Anyway, How do I describe northern Texas? Flat. Currently wet. Prone to flooding. Full of Wind Turbines. If my British reader thinks East Anglia or Lincolnshire is flat, sorry, the fenlands are comparatively lumpy compared with the country between Amarillo and Lubbock. I have honestly never seen a land horizon so straight. Which incidentally makes for seriously dull driving, even at Texas’ generous 75 MPH speed limit. Mrs S, in the co-pilots seat for this leg of the journey, was chafing at me well before we’d even gone a hundred and fifty miles, but once she’d taken over at the wheel after a placatory Ice Cream, equanimity was restored.

As far as the scenery is concerned, once you get past Lubbock it’s not so linear. As you pass through the oilfields, the landscape is peppered with Nodding Donkey a.k.a. “Pumpjack” engines and the periodic smell of warm oil straight out of the ground. Further south, yet more wind turbines pepper the landscape and brood over the tops of the Mesas. More are going up all the time. We saw a trainload of turbine blades and passed three tower base units on their way south and east on Highway 84.

In my idle moments I’ve been experimenting with collective nouns for huge expanses of Wind Turbines. Front runners are ‘blight’ or perhaps ‘obscenity’, as they sure as hell ruin the view for precious little return. The relative lack of visible transmission lines and some Amarillo folklore also tweaked my bullshit antenna. Apparently the local power grids in Amarillo and Abilene do not get any power from these massive whirligigs. Instead, all the electrickery they produce goes direct to Houston, some five hundred and fifty miles distant. If you understand anything about power grids and transmission, that’s whole a lot of conductivity losses and no mistake. Even at 110kv. Two hundred miles, okay. That’s not too bad, but over five hundred and fifty miles? Ouch. Something is missing from this story.

And if any F4-F5 Tornadoes touch down only twenty or thirty miles west of their usual track, as they have been known to do, there is a risk of serious damage to these big wind farms. While F1-F3 Tornadoes won’t hurt most wind turbines, a big F4-F5 tracking through a wind farm would be a different matter. How often do the big ones occur in this neck of the woods? Not that often, but I wouldn’t underwrite the insurance risk. I guess time will tell, and there will be much wailing, gnashing of teeth and pointing of fingers when it does.

Anyway, at the moment all the downpours mean everything is green and fecund. Even in the desert areas. Whatever happened to General Philip Sheridan’s famous “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell” Civil War quotation?

Then there’s the food. Specifically the steaks and pork ribs. The Texans do meat very, very well. Perhaps even better than that. I’ve taken to tucking into a 6-8oz slab of beef and salad every other day. By comparison, last year we resided in Paris for a month and on several occasions were treated to a splendid plate of ‘Steak Frites’. But the Texan version is better. Much better. Sorry mes amis, but the Texans win the Bill sticker award for serious steaks. Even in relatively average roadside eateries.

So. Do I like Texas? Well so far yes and occasionally no, but it certainly is challenging my preconceptions of the state as a dry and dusty wilderness. We’ll see what San Antonio brings.

Time travel for beginners

Bit of a breezy drive today, and a few bursts of rain as we were clearing the Eastbound pass out of Albuquerque. Which saved me getting the car washed. Lots of crosswind as we drove along I-40, which made keeping our ever-steady little SUV on track a bit awkward, and we appear to have made it from rough desert and prairie into farmland. One of the issues we’ve come up against on the Eastbound leg of this epic trip has been time zones. We’re currently two, or is it three, hours adrift of our usual Pacific Standard Time. Time travel diagramNo, I’ve just checked and it’s definitely two. At present we’re on Central Time. What threw a spanner in the works of the normally efficient Sticker travel machine was Arizona, which has not adopted Daylight Savings Time, and thus thrown our calculations off by an hour.

So tonight we’re overnighting in Amarillo, catching up with the laundry and resetting our clocks before scooting off to Abilene. Mrs S has elected to take on the washing tonight as she says I never do it properly. Which suits me just fine. Sometimes being an ‘unreconstructed male’ as she is wont to describe me, has it’s advantages.

So we’re in Texas for the next week. Yee-haw! Mrs S has decided that we’re making an early start for Abilene in the morning so she can hit the Malls. Ah. Bugger. Was that a Tornado warning for just north and east of town? I think I just saw a pillar of cloud pass by in that direction and the girl on hotel reception says to head for ground floor if the warning sirens go off. Ooo-er.

Grand vistas

If you see one sight to fill your life with awe, the Grand Canyon can do it. Well it certainly made my vertigo wake up and say; “Ey oop young Bill. This is why you never chose mountaineering as a career option.”Grand Canyon sunset 3 It really is something. Especially at sunset or dawn, which are the two times to see this gaping chasm at it’s most awesome. Well worth the one and a half hour scoot up from Flagstaff.

Incidentally, the picture above was taken just as we getting ready to leave, having used our ‘America the Beautiful‘ National Parks pass for the very first time. As entrance to the park is thirty bucks per carload, another two National Parks like this and our eighty buck pass will have paid for itself. Super.

A note about US National Parks, you can sometimes drive straight in and out without having to pay. So long as you don’t stop. Entrance fees cover parking and camping in most National Parks.

The other grand vista during our two night stay in Flagstaff was a trip to the Lowell Observatory. Yes, that Percival Lowell, the Martian Canal guy who also predicted the approximate position of ‘Planet X’ later named Pluto and stripped of it’s planetary status in 2006 by the IAU, which annoyed a lot of astronomers, some of whom have pointed out that if Pluto is not a planet, by the IAU’s rules, neither are Saturn or Earth. Which might come as a bit of a shock to all the carbon based life forms currently inhabiting our third rock from the sun.

The actual discovery was done by a Kansas farm boy working his way to getting an astronomy degree by the name of Clyde Tombaugh, who was not a proper astronomer because he hadn’t got a degree. At the time he discovered Pluto, he was the Lowell Observatories Grounds keeper and mailman. Afterwards he completed a distance learning degree. Which is one of the great things about science. It doesn’t matter what you are, if you discover something significant and enough academics pronounce your work sound and reproduceable, bingo! You just did proper science. As opposed to the kind of science where the data is warped to support a theory. Which isn’t scientific at all.

Elsewhere the lamestream news media is full of commentary from both right and left wing media pundits on why they don’t like Donald Trump. Who in turn has stated the bleedin’ obvious that the US Presidential election is rigged. Well of course it is. All you need is a working pair of Mark One eyeballs to see that simple fact for yourself. The Colorado non-primary where the Republican vote was cancelled and thirty delegates ‘awarded’ to the parties preferred candidate was one proof. Anyway, that’s all rather academic as far as I’m concerned. Just another sad indication that the globalist sponsors behind Clinton and Cruz don’t give a shit about what the average US citizen wants. It’s a closed contest, which only allows people with the ‘right’ views and supporters to get the top job.

Anyway. We’ve arrived in Albuquerque safe and sound, waiting for the hotel bar to open at five. Off to Amarillo tomorrow, thence Abilene, San Antonio and Houston to see what the Texans are really like.

TTFN

Loathing and leaving Las Vegas

Within five minutes of arrival at our Las Vegas hotel, I vouchsafed to Mrs S “I already loathe this place.” My other half was not pleased, I could see it in her face. But then that’s me. I’ve always shied away from the bright lights, preferring a more cerebral path.

Maybe I was too hot and bothered after a long day crossing the desert and having to lug thirty kilo’s of baggage almost a kilometre to our room. No trolleys, and nowhere to offload at the entrance because Mrs S refused to let me shift our car into the multi-storey car park. All those extra services are for the ‘high rollers’ who have come to burn their dollars. Sorry, but we have five more weeks of road trip and a budget to keep to.

Vegas is a real gilded sewer of a town that airs its vices openly from the big buildings, like Caesars Palace casino to the prostitutes or street level beggars. To the eye Vegas dazzles, glitzes, and sparkles, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re still knee deep in shit. It’s literally a town full of losers where only the Casino’s win. Some come for the weekend to have a little fun, blow a few thousand dollars, catch a sexually transmitted disease in a desperate effort to forget whatever drove them here.

Then there are the others, striving to find their road to glorious unearned wealth, and the ones who didn’t know when to quit and bet even their self respect. Lost to the madness of circular reasoning, where just one last big bet or high will bring them all the glitz and riches they originally aspired to. Just one. Slaves to the myth that anyone can make it big, but blind to the truth that so few will. Forgetting the one big truth of gambling; the odds are always loaded in the houses favour. Reduced to begging for a stake, trying to scam tourists, especially Canadians, who they seem to feel are a ready mark for a halfway convincing sob story. Well, until we came along, a-totin’ our cynicism like loaded six guns thar pardner. One guy tried it with us, his big ‘tell’ being deliberately checking out our cars British Columbian numberplate before approaching us to beg a loan. I told him I’d just spent my last cash on gas. So I lied, who cares? Vegas is a place that rapidly puts a patina on the soul, a varnish of disbelief which is sometimes the only thing between the scammers and the contents of your wallet.

That evening Mrs S and I took a wander out for beer and a sandwich. Just to see the lights in the evening and wonder at what all the fuss was about. Over the famous strip there are four magnificently built bridges with escalators up and down either side. Which is where I took this shot from. Las Vegas Flamingo So, camera in hand, bags zippered firmly shut, credit cards in anti-rfid wallets, we took a wander up the escalators Mrs S hanging onto me because she didn’t want to touch anything. Why? Beautiful though these bridges look, they need a serious daily power wash down with some weapons grade antiseptic. In short, they stink. They reek of the hopeless and homeless. Of the drunken antics of visitors who can’t be bothered with what the North Americans tweely refer to as a ‘rest room’. Of dropped garbage and non-existent personal hygiene. Escalator rails, sticky to the touch made me wish I was wearing surgical gloves.

Fortunately the first place we stopped for a beer offered us some gel hand wash before we sat down. At a second bar we stopped to eat and listen to a bearded guy playing his keyboard in the street and belting out numbers like Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis‘. I threw a few bucks his way and we sat outside listening. Which eased my heat and glitz abraded soul, and with the help of a beer and sandwich saw us back to our hotel room for a nights repose only disturbed by the loud party four doors down and their subsequent eviction by security around 1 AM. Fortunately even that didn’t bother us much. These Vegas hotels have good soundproofing. Well they’d have to, wouldn’t they?

I think Vegas was on our bucket list because it’s one of those places you really have to see for yourself. Some people might call it home, but for me, the best thing about it was the I-40 Eastbound past the Boulder (Hoover) dam (which you can’t see from the main highway, you have to go to the visitor centre), to Flagstaff, Arizona (Despite the often lumpy road surface).

Which is where we are now, checking out the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory. But that’s something for tomorrow’s post.

Just deserts

I’m late posting this, as the Interweb access in our Vegas hotel was decidedly ropey. Anyway, on the days I’m writing about, we crossed out of California into Nevada through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley. What can I say? Mile after mile after mile of complete bugger all apart from painted mountains, sagebrush and Joshua Trees every fifty metres or so. Then we ran out of road. Literally. On the run up from Ridgecrest, some bugger had scraped up the road surface and left about four or five miles of gravel. It certainly caught us off guard, but to safeguard our paintwork we took to the sand on the side of the road. For around five miles. Then the asphalt was back through the wasteland, and it is a wasteland. It’s like the surface of Mars with sagebrush.
End of the road in Death Valley Seriously, this is what Highway 178 looks like at the moment for around four miles. The main road up from Ridgecrest literally disappears. Gone. Vanished. Like one of the Las Vegas big magic acts had been practising making things vanish before your very eyes.

Once we had doglegged off the 178 onto the 190, when we came to the park entrance proper at Stovepipe Wells, a huge convoy of over twenty asphalt carrying trucks were resurfacing miles of highway 190, and I mean miles. After that some stunning geology and incredible vistas with valleys you could drop the entire inside of the M25 into with room to spare. Temperatures in the mid-30’s Celsius. Near-endless roads. Rocks and brush, Canyons, dry washes as wide as the Thames. Salt pans the size of cities. Oh yes, and the Area 51 diner which has had a bit of a makeover since it got a mention in the movie “Paul“. Then more Buttes, Gulches and Arroyo’s, not to mention the occasional canyon on our way South and East into Lost Wages.

Which is another story altogether.

Portion sizes and associated matters

Shortish run out of Sacramento this morning so we doglegged out from Fresno up into the mountains. And doglegged. Then switchbacked and hairpinned up to the Grand Sequoia National Park and all the way back on a road that swerved and curved like a rattlesnake with a migraine all the way back down again.Five thousand feet and climbing

Mrs S, in the passenger seat for this leg of the trip, kept telling me to slow down because all the sidewards motion was inducing travel sickness. So for the sake of a quiet life I lifted my foot off the gas, keeping it hovering over the brake pedal instead, returning us safe and sound to the broad sandy valleys of Southern California.

I will say this, the mountain routes are a stunning drive in good weather, not so much when the clouds close in, and no fun at all when the snows hit. Fortunately we didn’t have to cope with any traffic, and all threat of projectile dashboard decoration was avoided.

We were rewarded by a drive down long roads lined with tens of miles of Orange and Olive groves. Yes, tens of miles, not kilometres or yards. Mile after mile of trees laden with oranges, dozens of windfalls dotting the sandy soil around each trunk. Incredible. Our route also took us through a working oilfield. Hundreds of nodding donkey oil pumps pulling black gold out of the ground and into pipelines and storage tanks, which my copilot totally failed to photograph. Sorry.

After booking in at our hotel, we stopped for a takeaway chicken and salad supper, forgetting the American generosity with foodstuffs. Two of us couldn’t even eat half of what we were served with, so now the leftovers, enough to make a substantial lunch tomorrow while we pootle through Death Valley into Lost Wages, have taken pride of place in our hotel room fridge. “Do you want Dessert?” Asked our baseball capped server before we’d seen the amount of chicken we were served with. Just as well we declined. There is no way we’d have even nibbled at the edges. Seriously, either our appetites are shrinking or the portion sizes are growing. There’s simply too much to eat. So we put it aside for an alfresco luncheon tomorrow.

Note to self; lesson learned. One US portion equals two Canadian. Do not forget.

A grand day out

I don’t want to upset anyone. Well, yes I do, I just love annoying knuckledragging totalitarians with all the intellect of crushed cockroaches, but not today. Apart from to say we breakfasted in the elegant saloon of a restored 1800’s paddle steamer, rode the rails in a restored 1950’s first class rail carriage and generally had an affable time wandering around Sacramento’s Old town. Hell, the sun even came out this afternoon as the promise of rain receded. We’ve had a very nice day, and are now playing catch up with work related tasks.
A heavenly stairway
That’s it. I wish I had some tale of scurrilous sarcasm or pertinent put down to relate, but no, ’tis not to be. Well apart from noting (Yet again) that the Republican Party establishment is so dead set on losing the next US Presidential election, it’s been reduced to cancelling votes which might go the way of the people’s choice. Maybe they’re taking the same dollar as that backing the next Democrat (Cough, cough, Hilary Clinton) candidate? Sorry chaps, the Presidency (as usual) will go to the biggest vote of all; Wall Street.

No matter, the next leg of our epic road trip awaits. Onwards and up, upwards, into the mountains.

Caught Napa-ing

Well almost.  Not quite napping but certainly pleasantly surprised despite the rain.  And considering we were in California, there certainly has been quite a lot of it.  Took a hike out to Napa and had a quick meander round the Oxbow Farmers Market.  Lots of fancy stuff, and believe you me, if I had the money and lived in the neighbourhood, this would certainly be one of my favourite food shopping stops.  Or so I thought.  On an impulse we took Highway 29 North of town up into the vinyard area and visited some of the gift shops.  Ever heard of the movie ‘Bottleshock’?

Well we went to the vinyard behind the story. Now I’m not a fan of Chardonnay, I usually find it too oily and sweet. However, these guys are the real deal, and you can visit the place where the ascendancy of Californian wine really began. Oh yes, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, check out these little rail cars which people ride up and down the rail road paralleling the highway. Cute as all fuck or what?
Railcars in the Napa Valley

Now there’s an idea that might make railways really work. Little automated rail car sized units parked up at stations like a row of shopping trolleys. Passenger gets in, punches in destination from list, swipes credit card. Rides direct to destination with no waiting on draughty platforms for trains that take forever to arrive for whatever reason. Only sharing their carriage with those they wish to share personal space with. What’s not to like?

Expatriate expostulations from Canada; a.k.a. A Sarcastic man abroad

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