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Friday, September 30, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 16: The Grand Canyon

I got up after not quite enough sleep to give myself lots of quality Grand Canyon time. While eating breakfast I got talking to some of the other people at the hostel. There was a nice couple from Israel who were trying to get a ride out to the canyon so I offered to take them. After packing everything up we went out to the car and spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to open the boot to put their bags in. Eventually I gave up and consulted the manual.

The weird thing about the Prius is that there's no actual key, it's all wireless. After pressing the unlock button on the remote to no avail, I found in the manual that I had to press another unlock button in the car door. Finally we loaded in the bags and set off. The next challenge was to buy some petrol. At some (most?) petrol stations in America you have to pre-buy petrol to stop people doing a gas and dash. So that took some figuring out.

Finally we left Flagstaff and made the hour-and-a-half drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. By an amazing stroke of luck, entry to the Grand Canyon National Park was free that day (usually $25 for a car) because of National Public Lands Day, so that saved a bit of cash. We found a parking spot and I said goodbye to my passengers, who were planning to stay for the night in one of the hotels near the canyon. I hope they managed to find something.

The Grand Canyon really is a breathtaking sight. It's not something that can be fully conveyed by photos. Although, it's so staggeringly huge that your eyes can't really get any depth perception on most of it so it ends up looking a bit like a giant painting.

There was a few good lookout spots near the carpark and a trail which led along the rim of the canyon. I walked along the trail for a while getting some good photos, but trying to walk any appreciable distance along the Grand Canyon is like trying to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble so I ended up going back to the car to drive to some other viewing spots. Desert View Road runs through the trees near the rim, and goes by various viewing areas, each of which give a slightly different view of the canyon.

Yaki Point is on this road. Back in the day people used to take a 12-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff to Yaki Point to see the Grand Canyon and stay in the hotel there, which is gone now. It was near there that there used to be a silver mine. It's still possible to go into the canyon and walk right into the mines, although it's not safe. There are hiking tracks that go from Yaki Point down into the canyon, which would have been great to do but I wasn't really prepared for hiking and didn't have the time. I did go down one track just for a few minutes which gave a pretty great view, and by the time I got back up the steep trail I was already sweating and thirsty.

The last stop along the road before you leave the park is Desert View, which is home to a watchtower decorated with Native American paintings and doubling as a gift shop, and another store selling food, drinks and more souvenirs. The watchtower doesn't really give a much better view - the canyon's so big that going up by ten metres means approximately nothing.

By about four in the afternoon I'd seen what I wanted to, and figured I should get back to Vegas to return the car and catch my flight to Austin. I hit the road and kept going for four hours, which is unusual for me as I tend to stop every couple of hours for drinks and stuff. But I was in the zone. I set the air conditioning just right, found a good radio station, figured out how to use the cruise control and just sat on the speed limit the whole time. With the straight roads, the cruise control and the automatic transmission I barely had to do anything except overtake the occasional truck and turn on the windscreen wipers at one point when it started to rain a bit. Before I knew it I was driving through Boulder City, Nevada, and getting hungry. I pulled into Taco Bell and got some weird thing called a crunchwrap. That was pretty good. Then I pressed on to Vegas, filled the petrol tank and let the GPS guide me back to the rental agency.

After dropping off the car I caught the shuttle from the Rent-A-Car Center to the main part of the airport and checked in for my 1 am flight to Austin. I went through the TSA security theatre stuff, which was a bit of an ordeal as I'd been led to believe, but only took five minutes or so. When you go into that pornoscanner thing, you have to raise your hands above your head like you're being arrested. I'm not convinced that is entirely necessary. I also had to throw away some perfectly good shampoo and conditioner, but I was expecting that. After all, shampoo is a crucial ingredient in all sorts of explosive devices. After this was done and they were convinced that the empty water bottle in my bag was not, in fact, a threat to national security, I caught the tram that goes to the terminal.

Where the inner sanctum (as I like to call it) of the Sydney airport was a giant shopping centre, the inner sanctum of the Las Vegas airport is just another bloody casino. Row after row of poker machines stretch the length of the terminal. I shoved a dollar in one for old time's sake and after a few spins I hit one of the mystical combinations of cherries or whatever, and my credit went up to $2.14. I printed a ticket and took it to the cashier to claim my newly acquired fortune.

After an hour or so it was time to board. I was going to take my backpack as carry-on, but they were concerned about running out of overhead storage space so they offered to check bags for free, which usually costs $25. I hurried over to the desk and gave them my enormous bag. That's twice in one day I saved $25! Plus the couple I gave a ride to the Grand Canyon gave me $20 for petrol, so that's $70 made/saved in one day, just by sheer luck. No, wait. $71.14. Good old poker machines. Who says you can't get lucky in Vegas?


Middlerun Does America, Day 15: Hoover Dam and Flagstaff

On Friday morning I went to the Rent-A-Car Center at the airport to pick up a car to drive to the Grand Canyon. The process of renting the car opened my eyes to a whole new world of mathematics, as I watched $33.49 per day turn into $280 for two days, as various fees, taxes and insurance were added up. The guy at the rental agency convinced me to get a Prius for an extra ten dollars a day on the pretense that I would save more than that much in fuel. It later occurred to met that this was bullshit, as Priuses only really save fuel during stop-start city driving and are about the same as any economy car on the highway.

I was worried about adapting to driving on the right-hand side of the road and sitting on the left-hand side of the car, but this turned out to be easy. The real difficulty was adapting to the Prius's weird controls. The GPS was also a bit unreliable, and failed to tell me when to turn off to visit the Hoover Dam.

The Hoover Dam is one of the highlights of the trip so far. Marking the border between Nevada and Arizona, you can drive right across the top of the dam wall, which is in fact what people had to do to cross the lake before they put in the new bridge last year. After parking the car and stepping out into the billion degree heat, I quickly realised that my choice of long pants was a foolish wardrobe decision and quickly changed into a pair shorts in the car, before drenching myself with sunscreen.

I walked back from the carpark to the dam, past the Arizona spillway, one of two spillways which protect the dam from damage by letting excess water spill safely to the river below. The Nevada spillway is on the other side.

Snapping a few photos of the dam wall, intake towers and electrical stuff, I made my way to the visitor centre to do the tour. There are two tours, an $11, half hour tour of the power plant, and a $30 hour-long tour which also takes you right into the tunnels in the dam wall. Needless to say, I did the full tour.

The Hoover Dam is really a thing of beauty, and deliberately so. One of the things they explained on the tour was that when the dam was being designed, they wanted it to be not only functional, but an example of human achievement to inspire future generations. To this end the dam is full of intricate terrazzo tiling, brass doors and fixtures, statues and so on. One copper door had been polished every day since the dam was built, to the point where the finish had worn through to the base metal in one spot. Maybe at that point it's time to re-evaluate the polishing policy?

The tour started with a trip down a giant lift which took us all the way from the top of the dam to one of the diversion tunnels, which were built to divert the river while the dam was being built. The tour guide gave a talk about the diversion tunnels and how they started building the dam. From there we rode the lift back up to one of the power plants. The tour guide explained about how the water is drawn from the intake towers and drives the turbines, creating electricity which is mostly used in LA. Then the tightwads who didn't spring for the full tour had to leave, and the elite few of us continued on into the tunnels of the dam wall.

After walking through some tunnels and the tour guide explaining some things, we got another lift up to the tunnels about halfway up the dam wall. Eventually we came to a ventilation tunnel which ended at a grate at the surface of the dam. It was possible to stick a hand out through this grate and take a photo of the dam from below. The results were pretty cool. We also saw some steep stairs which led up and down to different levels, which the tour guide referred to at the Stairway to Heaven and the Stairway to Hell. In some spots on the tunnel walls there were crayon marks with numbers. The tour guide explained that these markings indicated cracks that had been found. She pointed out one that was marked in 1948. It was so thin I couldn't even see it. That's how meticulous they are.

Finally we got another lift back up to the top of the dam. After the tour I went and saw the large model of the Colorado River that is there, including a model of the dam. By then I was starving so I went to get lunch. Pro tip: if you're visiting the Hoover Dam, bring your own lunch. I paid $9 plus tax for what amounted to a Big Mac. I guess they need to make as much money as they can since the new visitor centre apparently cost more than the dam itself (though I'm pretty sure that's not adjusted for inflation).

Then it was time to hit the road again and I set off down the I-93. The plan was to drive to Flagstaff, Arizona, spend the night there, and see the Grand Canyon in the morning. Over the next few hours the landscape gradually changed from barren desert to a much more green, tree covered affair, which was a nice change. I kept seeing signs along the highway indicating turnoffs to parts of the famous Route 66 but I didn't really feel like changing my course to drive on it, even for the bragging rights. Though it turned out that driving into Flagstaff takes you along Route 66, so I did get to drive on it after all.

The GPS unit dutifully led me to the hostel in Flagstaff, a nice wooden building across the road from some lively looking pubs. I checked in, dumped my bags and had a look around the hostel. It was pretty reasonable except for not having any basins in the bathrooms to wash your hands, just a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Eww. After settling in a bit I got ready to go downtown for some dinner and a few beers. The main downtown area of Flagstaff was only a couple of blocks away which was a nice change from the epic bus treks in LA and Vegas.

I didn't know what to expect from Flagstaff but it's actually really cool. Flagstaff has cool looking bars full of college students like Las Vegas has casinos full of poker machines. I found a decent looking restaurant and ordered the most vegetable-filled thing I could find in a vain attempt to compensate for two weeks of burgers and pizza. After that I found an Irish bar, had a couple of beers and observed the American college students. The stereotypes are true. I felt like David Attenborough.

Before long I figured it was time to get some sleep since it was going to be a long day tomorrow. I finished my beer, went outside, chatted with a few people for a while then went back to the hostel and went to bed. Anyway, it turns out that on a Friday night when thousands of students all leave bars at the same time, things get kind of noisy. Who knew?


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Days 12-14: Las Vegas

On my last day in Los Angeles I was pretty exhausted by the trip so far so I took a holiday from my holiday and didn't do much. I went to a nice Moroccan barber shop on Venice Boulevard and got a much needed haircut, then went back to the boardwalk for another look around. It wasn't nearly as busy this time.

I also went to see the Venice canals, an imitation of the other Venice canals which spans something like eight blocks. I walked along the canals for a while taking photos with my phone. A lot of the houses have little jetties with small boats tied to them. Some boats were better-kept than others.

That night I spent hours trying to organize my trip to the Grand Canyon, which would happen after I spent a couple of night in Las Vegas. After considering dozens of possible permutations of bus trips, car rentals, flights and accommodation, I finally settled on a plan to rent a car from Vegas, drive to Flagstaff and spend the night there, then drive to the Grand Canyon the next day, spend most of the day there and then drive back to Vegas that night to return the car and catch a flight at 1 am to Austin.

I checked out of the hostel early to give myself lots of time to get to the Greyhound station for my bus to Las Vegas. I got there in plenty of time, and eventually the bus boarded and we set off. The trip was as pleasant as the last one, and I got a good view of the scenery as it turned gradually more rocky and deserty.

On the way there we stopped for lunch at some random town in the middle of nowhere. The place we pulled into had a few fast food options and fake train cars you could sit in and pretend to be in a dining car while you had lunch. There were a bunch of gift shops with various Las Vegas and Route 66-related souvenirs, plus some pretty realistic Airsoft guns. When it was time to get back on the bus I forgot which one was mine, but found the right one after an anxious few minutes.

Eventually the bus arrived in Las Vegas. Immediately I was hit with a wave of hot air. Being in the middle of a desert, Vegas is incredibly hot, but it's a dry heat which makes it much more tolerable. Public transport in Vegas mainly just runs up and down the Strip (aka Las Vegas Boulevard, where the main casinos are), so I was forced to get a cab to my hotel, the Riviera. The first taste of an expensive city.

The Riviera is a pretty nice hotel, especially considering how cheap it was. The prices at Vegas hotels plummet during the week in a bid to get as many people gambling as possible. (Unfortunately for them, the tiny amount of gambling I did was at other, nicer casinos.) The room was nice and clean and somehow actually looked bigger than the one in the photo.

That night I set off down the Strip to explore. The Strip is an amazing place. The thing that struck me more than anything else was just how huge everything is there. Each casino is so gigantic, it can take ten minutes just to walk from one to the next. For this reason some of the casinos have trams which run between them along elevated tracks.

Another weird thing is that on most intersections on the Strip, the only way to cross the road is by using big footbridges. An intersection will often have four of these footbridges, each with up and down escalators and a lift on both sides. That's sixteen escalators and eight lifts, for one intersection. They do have rivers in Las Vegas, but instead of water they contain money.

By far the most annoying thing about Vegas is the multitude of people who hand out flyers for (presumably) prostitution agencies. They all where the same style of T-shirt: solid colour with simple printed text along the lines of "Girls straight to you in 40 minutes! [phone number]". As you walk past, these clowns will try to hand you a flyer. I don't think I ever saw anybody take one. At first I said "no thanks" to each one, but very soon that was reduced to shaking my head, and shortly after that I gave up and just walked straight past them.

There's lots of cool things to see on the Strip without even entering a casino. Every fifteen minutes in the evenings, there's a fountain show on the huge lake in front of the Bellagio. Fountain nozzles rise up out of the water, and tilt and spray water in sync with music that plays through speakers along the footpath. The nozzles are so powerful that when they shoot at full force they sound like fireworks.

Also on the Strip is a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and a 2/3 scale Arc de Triomphe at the Paris Las Vegas casino, replica canals of Venice at the Venetian casino complete with rideable gondolas, replicas of all sorts of New York landmarks at the New York New York casino, the Excelsior casino which is a giant castle, the Luxor casino which is a giant pyramid, and all sorts of other cool stuff. And neon. So, so much neon.

I ended up at the Nine Fine Irishmen, an Irish pub at the New York New York, which had a real Irish band and a fun, unpretentious vibe. After hanging out there for a couple of hours and spending far too much money on Guinness, the night was getting on a bit so I thought I should set off to find another bar. I ended up at Caesar's Palace, drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the presence of big marble statues.

On my way back to the hotel, someone on a footbridge tried to sell me cocaine. That was pretty funny.

The next morning I had breakfast at the hotel buffet, which was pretty decent. Then I got the bus down the Strip to do a bit more looking around. One highlight was the Flamingo casino, which has a wildlife area at the back with live flamingos, other birds, big koi fish, a tortoise and other animals wandering about.

Next on the agenda was to go back to the New York New York to ride the rollercoaster (visible here). That was loads of fun, with a fast loop and a corkscrew, and gave a great aerial view of the Strip. As the rollercoaster car slowly climbed the giant initial hill, someone ahead of me called out, "how do you feel, Las Vegas?". "Terrified!" I called back. That got a few laughs.

I checked out a few more casinos I hadn't seen the night before, rode a couple of inter-casino trams, then went to get a better look at the Venetian. The canals at the Venetian aren't just outside - the large indoor shopping area has a long canal stretching almost its entire length and does a reasonable job of looking like a real, outdoor part of Venice. There was a shop here selling packs of cards which were used in actual play in various casinos. I bought a pack used by the Bellagio for two dollars.

That afternoon I tried out the pool at the hotel, which was pretty nice. Another fun activity was playing with the insanely fast hotel lifts. They're so quick that you can jump into the air as the lift accelerates downwards and you kind of float in the air for a moment like you're on the moon.

Later I went to the New York New York and rode the rollercoaster again. It was even more fun at night. I had a few more beers and explored a few more casinos, and eventually it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. While waiting for the bus I met Mike from Boston.

Mike was a slightly creepy old guy who started talking to me about how he had just lost six thousand dollars gambling. He then told me he had been given a free ticket by the casino for Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio on Saturday that he couldn't use and offered to give it to me. I cautiously said sure, and he called the Bellagio to have the ticket transferred to me. I got the feeling this was leading up to some sort of scam, and when he asked me for money for a taxi I pretty much knew he was full of shit, so I told him I didn't have any cash, and couldn't afford to go to the ATM to get some. He took some convincing.

Of course, the next day I called the Bellagio to confirm the ticket and, of course, there was no ticket. In fact the guy I spoke to on the phone asked if the guy who offered me the ticket was from Boston, which he was. He knew who I was talking about. So I guess that sort of thing happens a lot.

The thing I find most obnoxious about this scam attempt is that Mike was convincing me to alter my travel plans in order to be in Vegas on Saturday night for the show. Since I was going to be visiting the Grand Canyon on Saturday, I would have had to leave there earlier than I wanted to to get back to Vegas in time for the show. I would have had to get over to the Bellagio, find out there was no ticket, and get back to the airport, wasting lots of time and money. And for all this bullshit I would have had to go through, how much did Mike try to scam me for? One cab fare. Like twenty dollars. What a fucking jerk. If you're going to try to screw up my travel plans, at last have some goddamn ambition. Look at Bernie Madoff - he may be a grade-A arsehole, but at least he has cojones.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 11

I got up early Monday morning to catch the shuttle to Universal Studios, which is essentially a movie-based theme park but also includes a tour of the actual studios and various outdoor movie sets. As always in Los Angeles it took a while to get there. We took the highway that was shut down for a day a couple of months ago in what was dubbed Carmageddon, which sadly had nothing to do with the computer game by that name. On the bus I met another Australian guy, whose name I've forgotten, and we got talking about LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas and other stuff.

Universal Studios is really huge. In fact it's located in what they call Universal City, and as we drove in I could see why. The bus parked and we got out, taking a few photos of the giant Universal globe sculpture outside the park, then went through the turnstiles into the park.


Most of the rides in the park are of the simulated rollercoaster variety, with moving chairs and often 3D screens. They are also remarkably fond of water effects; nearly all the rides will lightly spray you with water a couple of times when something wet happens on the screen. This is pretty fun, especially the first time when you're not expecting it.

The first thing I did was go through the house of horrors, which unlike every other house of horrors I've been in, is genuinely fucking terrifying. It's quite long, very dark most of the way, and and sets have extremely high production values which make it feel just like a horror film. At many points someone in a horrific costume will suddenly jump out at you, often accompanied by a flash of lightning and/or loud noise, which probably makes a lot of people shit their pants. Often I got an advance warning when they jumped at someone ahead of me, but the other Aussie, who had a front-of-the-line pass, was ahead of everybody so he got every single scare with no warning.

The front-of-the-line pass is an interesting thing. It costs an extra fifty dollars or so, and every ride has two lines: a tiny one for people with passes and a long one for us plebs. In the end though, I didn't spend much more time queueing up for rides than the other guy, so I'm not sure it's worth it, at least during the week as the park wasn't too crowded. On weekends when there's a million people, the front-of-the-line pass is probably worth every penny.

After the house of horrors I went to the Terminator 2 3D show. This was really awesome. It's a mix of live-action and on-screen 3D stuff, and they blend the two with amazing expertise. The live actors used what I'm pretty sure were real guns firing blanks, which was really cool. At the end there was an on-screen explosion, augmented with real smoke machines, a thump of the seats and water spray. Pretty much the closest you can get to a real explosion without needing a pyrotechnics license.

Next was Shrek 3D which was OK, but didn't really compare to the Terminator. Then there was the Simpsons ride, which was good fun. They also had a Simpsons gift shop with facades on each side resembling the Quick-E-Mart, the Android's Dungeon and Moe's Tavern. I bought a Duff Beer stubby holder. After that I grabbed an overpriced hotdog for lunch and set off to the lower half of the park for the Jurassic Park and The Mummy rides.

The Jurassic Park ride was definitely my favourite ride of the park. The line-up was really short and it was brilliant fun. It's a bit like the old Snowy River Rampage ride at Wonderland back home. You get in a boat which runs through a little river surrounded by various animatronic dinosaurs which spray you with water. Then you veer off into a "behind the scenes" bit of Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs have escaped and are smashing everything up. There's crashed boats and radio static, broken electric fences with actual arcs of electricity, a jeep which falls off a ledge into the water and various other carnage. Then you get pulled up through a tunnel which looks really long due to some clever forced perspective. You go through another tunnel which has two fantastic huge T-rexes which snap at you through the ceiling. Then finally you blast down an incredibly steep drop, crashing into the water. I got soaked. It was amazing.

After drying off a bit using a nearby bathroom hand-dryer, next up was The Mummy. This is a pretty fast indoor rollercoaster surrounded by various supernatural imagery. It was fun and intense but sadly pretty short.

After those, I went to do the studio tour. The line up was really long but eventually we got on the tram and set off towards the front lot of the studios. We went past various soundstages surrounded by dozens of golf carts, trucks and trailers. The tour guide pointed out a cabin that Alfred Hitchcock stayed in, and then we went through a huge outdoor set built to resemble New York, in which they shoot all sorts of movies. The facades are all made of painted styrofoam and stuff, but they look incredibly realistic.

While we were doing that I was taking photos, and at this point the most annoying thing possible happened: my camera crapped out. It kept giving me memory card errors and freezing up. I had to switch to taking photos with my lacklustre phone camera. Even worse, when I checked the camera later, all the photos I took that morning were gone.

After the New York set we went into a tunnel, which turned out to be part of a 3D King Kong show. The tram shook violently while simulated dinosaurs attacked us from a giant 360 degree 3D screen, and were fought off by King Kong. Next we drove into what looked like an ordinary soundstage, made up to look like a BART station in San Francisco. Then an earthquake hit! The tram shook around, the fake ceiling fell in and a giant fake semi-trailer fell towards us and burst into real flame. The doors of a substation burst open and arcs of electricity shot out from it. A flood of real water came gushing down a staircase. Finally a train came shooting out of a tunnel, crashing into the fallen truck. Movie magic!

Next we went to another outdoor set made to look like a European village. They could make it look like different European countries by changing the language of the various signs. Then there was a wild west set that they called Eight Points, Texas, because they could film in eight different parts of it at the same time.

Various other sets included Whoville, Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives, War of the Worlds, Jaws (with moving shark and fire effects), the original Norman Bates house and two different lakes where they can film water scenes. One of the lakes had an enormous bluescreen behind it that must have been four stories tall, and four times as wide.

I really wanted to see the Waterworld show, which is apparently really great, but by the time I finished the tour I'd missed the last show. Instead I went on the Jurassic Park ride again, then caught most of the live-action Blues Brothers show. Once that finished, it was time to get back on the shuttle bus and leave.

Overall it was an awesome day. I rate it five out of five robotic dinosaurs.


Middlerun Does America, Day 10

On Sunday I got the bus up to Hollywood. Getting anywhere in LA is a real ordeal if you don't have a car, so it took forever to get there and I still ended up having to walk the last six block or so. On the way up there I came by an In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard. I've heard of In-N-Out Burger a bunch of times, so I decided to try it out.

In-N-Out Burger is like something out of a 50's high school movie. Unlike most of their competitors, their menu is very simple; there must have only been about five or six things on there. They even wear those paper hats you see in movies. I ordered their famous Double-Double (double beef, double cheese), and a root beer. The Double-Double was pretty epic. I'd never had root beer before, but it's pretty nice. After those 670 calories of deliciousness, I set off towards Hollywood Boulevard.

Hollywood Boulevard is a strange place. There's a couple of blocks of glitz and glamour, surrounded by hundreds of run-down souvenir shops, smoke shops and other low-rent crap. It's amazing how much things can change in the space of one block. It was the same in San Francisco: in one place you've got a flashy shopping district, and then a couple of blocks over you've got a decaying slum full of homeless people. I can't figure out what keeps these neighbourhoods so localised.

I took a few photos of the big theatres, trying to skirt the crowds as much as I could, and then went to check out Grauman's Chinese Theater, where celebrities make handprints in the cement slabs. Of course, the place was crawling with people, which made it hard to take photos of any of the prints. I did manage to get a good photo of the slab where the Harry Potter stars made their impressions, but I later found out that the photo got corrupted by the camera. (It does that sometimes, I think the memory card is faulty.) I was really annoyed when I realised the photo was ruined because I had a great title in mind for when I put the photo on Flickr: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prints.

After that, I slowly forced my way through the sea of people to the shopping centre on Hollywood and Highland, which has a platform designed to give a good view of the Hollywood sign. After taking a few completely unnecessary photos, I continued on to the Hollywood Wax Museum. It was pretty much what you'd expect, but still fun, and included entry to the Guinness World of Records which was good too.

After seeing as much of Hollywood as I felt I needed to I got the bus back to Santa Monica and another one over to Venice Beach. Being Sunday the place was alive with hundreds of people walking along the Venice boardwalk (which isn't even really a boardwalk) and almost as many stalls selling assorted T-shirts, jewelry, arts, crafts and other stuff. Especially sunglasses. There were more sunglasses than a worldwide blindness convention.There's also a huge number of medicinal marijuana recommendation places there. And of course equally many smoke shops providing the relevant equipment.

The boardwalk has all sorts of weird and crazy people. One common sight was guys trying to hand out CDs and asking people to put on a pair of headphones and give their music a listen. They seemed quite convinced that thrusting headphones at passersby is an important step on the path to musical success.

Another fun thing along the boardwalk is the Venice Beach Freak Show. There's a good post about the Freak Show over at Boing Boing, so it would be a bit redundant to go into much detail, but suffice it to say that it's a fun place to visit if you like seeing animals with more than the usual number of things. Which I do.

I got to Venice late in the afternoon, so after one pass of the boardwalk it started getting dark. I watched the skateboarders for a few minutes and then got a nice wholesome chili-dog for dinner.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 9: Los Angeles

I kicked off my first full day in Los Angeles with a walking tour of downtown LA. The tour group met in the lobby of the hostel, the tour guide introduced himself and we all set off to get a bus downtown. Since Los Angeles covers an area approximately equal to that of Russia, the bus took forever to get there which gave the group plenty of time to introduce ourselves. Out of six people I was the only guy. I'm not sure what that means.

Eventually we got there, and the tour guide led us around a bunch of interesting places. Here's the rundown:

  • Bunker Hill. This was originally a wealthy area with nice big Victorian houses. Then after WWII they built the Pasadena Freeway to bring shoppers to downtown LA, but instead everyone moved away and Bunker Hill became a slum. Some nice town planning, there. More recently it has been revitalised and is now full of offices and stuff.
  • U.S. Bank Tower. The tallest building west of the Mississippi River, and tenth tallest in America.
  • Los Angeles Public Library. This is a huge library with some pretty cool things to see, including four large murals depicting the history of California and an elevator shaft lined from top to bottom with old index cards.
  • Biltmore Hotel. A beautiful old luxury hotel, which apparently these days is only like $150 a night because nobody really wants to stay in downtown LA.
  • Million Dollar Theater.
  • Bradbury Building. This building has been used in a bunch of movies, most notably Blade Runner as J. F. Sebastian's apartment building.
  • Grand Central Market. This is a jam packed food market. I got a burrito here that was so big, I could have hollowed it out and used it as a sleeping bag.
  • Angel's Flight. This is the world's shortest railway, and will take you to the top of Bunker Hill for a quarter. The basically built it so that lazy rich people wouldn't have to walk up a few stairs.
  • Walt Disney Concert Hall.
  • The Department of Water and Power office building. This wouldn't normally be particularly interesting, but they used the building in Inception. There was another place we went to nearby that was used in Inception too.
  • Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. A huge, modern cathedral which we walked through.
  • Los Angeles City Hall. The City Hall was modified to sit on rollers which protect it from earthquakes.
  • El Pueblo de Los Angeles. A historic Spanish/Mexican district which houses LA's oldest house, the Avila Adobe, which was built in 1818 and is now a small museum. The Pueblo also contains dozens of stalls selling Mexican wrestler masks, sombreros and other knickknacks.
  • Union Station. This huge art-deco building is the only proper train station in LA and has been used in a bunch of movies, including Blade Runner.
When the tour was over and we were coming back into Santa Monica, the conversation turned to Santa Monica nightlife, and the tour guide recommended to me a bar called Harvelle's, a couple of blocks from the hostel. Harvelle's is known for its live blues and jazz, and is pretty much the coolest bar I've ever been to. It's a little expensive, but the atmosphere is really cool. I spent a happy couple of hours drinking Anchor Steam beer while listening to the band and chatting with a local guy about the relative merits of LA, San Francisco and Sydney, among other things.

Maybe it's just because I've hardly been listening to any music since I got to America, but the band playing at Harvelle's blew my mind. I wish I could remember what they were called. The guitarist in particular was amazing, a guy probably in his 60's who wore a suit in the stifling heat and played like a man possessed. The ridiculous faces he made during his solos were a sight to behold, and when he swung his head around, sweat sprayed off onto the other band members and nearby dancers. The keyboardist was great too. When they finished their set, everyone was howling for more.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Days 6-8

I don't really have time to write full blog posts about the other stuff I got up to in San Francisco so here are the Cliffs notes:

Went to Fisherman's Wharf. There's some pretty cool stuff there, most notably a place with tons of antique arcade machines, which still work. I also got some distant photos of Alcatraz. Sadly I couldn't go to Alcatraz because it was booked out for the next four days. Went out for another drink with Simon and Chris at a pretty cool bar called the Ambassador, which is packed some nights but was a ghost town when we were there.

Went to the Exploratorium. This was really awesome. The Exploratorium has hundreds of interactive doohickeys which demonstrate scientific principles, and pretty much all of them are really fun and interesting. A few examples:

  • A device for taking a photo of a drop of water as it falls
  • A machine that calculates square roots using a projectile steel ball
  • A square wheel with a specially shaped track that lets it roll smoothly
  • A machine for making smoke rings
  • An infinite slinky track using an upwards conveyor belt
  • Lots of cool electricity demonstrations
I really, really wish I'd had the chance to go there when I was a kid. If you're in San Francisco with kids and you don't take them to the Exploratorium, you are a bad parent.

After they closed, I got the bus down to Haight-Ashbury, where I saw so many bong shops, I think half the glass that is produced in the world must end up on a shelf on Haight St. in the form of a bong, a pipe, or some other smoking apparatus I've never even heard of. There were also some cool clothes shops, I guess.

I checked out of the hostel at about 8 am, and legged it across town to the Greyhound station to catch a bus down to LA. I was aiming to catch the 10 am bus, but I got there so early that I was just in time for the one before that (8:30 or something), so I got on that one instead. The trip was fairly enjoyable, especially since there was nobody in the seat next to me. There wasn't much to look out the window at, except for miles and miles of farms, though I did see some pumpjacks, which was kind of cool.

It was cloudy and a bit foggy when we arrived in LA. As the bus made its way along a freeway to the terminal, I caught a far-off glimpse of the Hollywood sign but it was hard to see due to the fog. Finally we arrived at the terminal, and I grabbed my bags and set about trying to figure out how to get to my hostel in Santa Monica. The directions on the website had said to catch the #60 bus to downtown LA and then get the #33 to Santa Monica, but it was only about 1 1/2 km from the terminal to downtown, so I decided it would be a bit more interesting to walk there. This turned out to take me through a pretty rundown area full of homeless people, which really I'd gotten enough of in San Francisco, so if I was to do it again I'd probably just catch the #60.

After reaching downtown with most of my spare change left, I proceeded to wait for the #33 bus, which upon arrival turned out to not be quite the right bus anyway - I needed the #733. Eventually this came, after probably a 45 minute total wait. Unfortunately it did not stop at the stop I was waiting at, so I had to sprint a block down the street to the next stop, carrying all my luggage. I made it just in time.

The world's slowest bus then proceeded to take me to Santa Monica. By the time I got there it was about 9 pm. I found my hostel and checked in. It's a lot nicer than the one I was at in San Francisco, and costs only slightly more. I went out and grabbed a couple of huge slices of pizza, then walked to the beach, which is a stone's throw away from the hostel.

Also close to the hostel is Santa Monica Pier, which I wasn't particularly aware of but is apparently kind of a big deal. The pier has its own little amusement park with a bunch of rides, so after walking the length of the pier and taking a few photos, I got a ticket for the rollercoaster. It turned out to be a little tame, but I haven't been on a rollercoaster in years so it was still fun.

After seeing the sights offered by the pier, I went back up to the Santa Monica downtown area and looked at some of the shops, making a mental note of a few places to check out when they were open. Santa Monica looks like a pretty nice place, though my impression was somewhat sullied by a group of people spreading anti-Islamic and anti-atheist propaganda in the street, and the crowd of people paying attention to these arseholes.

After looking around for a bit it was getting late, so I went back to the hostel and went to bed.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 5

On Tuesday I decided it would be nice to make a trip somewhere outside of San Francisco so I caught the BART up to Berkeley. The BART line that goes to Berkeley also goes through West Oakland, which seems to consist mainly of shipping containers as far as the eye can see.

The trip also served to use up some of the value on my BART card. To use the BART trains you buy a prepaid card which you can load as much value onto as you like. I'd assumed I'd be using the BART quite a bit so I got a $20 card, but as I write this, the night before I leave San Francisco, the card still has $9.15 on it.

After reaching downtown Berkeley I grabbed a map from the visitor's centre and wandered around a bit looking for a good place to have lunch. I found a place that looked a bit interesting and had a burger and some chips and a Budweiser.

(Contrary to popular belief, Budweiser isn't really that bad. Admittedly it's not entirely dissimilar to having sex in a canoe*, but it's cheap and drinkable and sure beats the hell out of VB.)

After lunch I decided it might be interesting to have a look around the campus of UC Berkeley, but after walking some of the way into the campus and seeing mostly grass and trees and a few far off buildings I figured it was too big to see on foot without hours to spend walking around looking at a map, and headed back to the main shops area.

Looking around the shops for a while, I came across a place called Halloween City, which from the looks of things springs into existence every September (or perhaps August...) to sell costumes, masks, fake gravestones, giant spiders and the like. The place was huge and full of awesome stuff. It's a shame I'm leaving America before Halloween because it looks like a lot of fun, and Halloween is all but non-existent in Australia except for a few half-hearted parties and kids in shitty homemade costumes trick-or-treating with their parents. Australia kind of sucks in some ways.

I couldn't find many other interesting looking shops or anything and I was pretty exhausted from the last few days so I decided to unwind by stopping into a nearby cinema and seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The theatre was pretty empty; I think there was only one other person in there besides me. It turned out that I'd chosen the right movie to see, since it was set in San Francisco and had a lot of nice shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Redwood trees at Muir Woods.

After the movie I went up to North Berkeley where there's some more shops. I stopped into a local supermarket to grab a few supplies, and spent a bit of time marvelling at how American supermarkets have beer and liquor just sitting on the shelves like any other product. Such enlightenment! I reflected again on the nanny state I call home, where alcohol is relegated to a separate shop and costs three times as much.

While at the supermarket I picked up a few lollies you can't really get in Australia, like Reese's Pieces and Altoids. (Altoids are technically available in Sydney, but only from one shop that I know of and they cost about three times as much as they do in America.) After buying most of what I needed I made my way to the North Berkeley BART station and went back to San Francisco.

Before going back to my hostel I stopped into the Cartoon Art Museum on Mission St. They had lots of original inks of classic comic strips illustrating the history of the medium, an exhibition of Archie and Green Lantern pages, a selection of 9/11-anniversary cartoons plus a TV showing some classic animations. They showed some old Bugs Bunny cartoons which are as funny now as they always were.

That evening some new people moved into the hostel room I was in. A couple of English guys called Simon and Chris. We got talking and decided to have some beers. We hung out in the hostel basement for a while, where there was a game of Pictionary going on, drinking enormous 24 fl.oz. (710 mL) cans of Budweiser. Once that was over we headed out to find a good bar and ended up at a small place with a pool table and one great song after another coming out of the jukebox.

Having someone cool to hang out with did wonders for my morale. The first few days I'd been feeling a bit crap, partly due to culture shock and the strangeness of suddenly being out in the world on my own, and partly because I didn't really have anyone to talk to. My roommates for the first three nights were three annoying Spanish girls who didn't seem to know how to stop talking. Just squawking away constantly like demented birds. When they told me they were checking out I was overjoyed, though I tried not to make it too obvious.

* Fucking close to water.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 4

On Monday I went for a wander towards Chinatown. I stopped off at a McDonald's in the financial district for a late breakfast and/or early lunch in the hope of observing some interesting differences from Australian McDonald'ses, but it was pretty much the same with the exception of Spanish parts of the menu.

After eating I went up to Chinatown and wandered down the main street, stopping in a few interesting looking shops. One place had full-size wooden swords for four dollars, and all sorts of tacky San Francisco and Chinatown-specific souvenirs. Another had bobbleheads of hundreds of characters from Star Wars, Star Trek and various non-star-related movies, TV shows, etc.

After seeing the sights of Chinatown I got on a bus to go see the Golden Gate Bridge. The number 28 Muni bus dumps you at a carpark near the bridge, with a snack stand and gift shop. I went to the viewing platform, snapped a few photos, then set off walking the footpath along the side of the bridge. I'd originally planned to walk all the way across and back, but when I got there and realised just how long the thing is, I changed my mind and just walked to the first tower. I figure the second tower looks much like the first so really it would be redundant to go more than halfway.

After walking back to land, I set off for the other, lesser known attraction in the area, Fort Point. Fort Point was built before the Civil War to defend the bay (from zombies, I believe), and sits right below the bridge. Originally they were going to knock it down to build the bridge, but upon visiting the fort, the engineers were so charmed by it that they changed the design of the bridge to preserve the historic site. So now there's a little arch which goes over the fort before the main suspension part of the bridge begins (visible here).

The path down to Fort Point was very long and a bit difficult to navigate, but eventually I got there. I wandered about, snapping a few photos and reading about the history and living conditions of the fort. There were a few old cannons hanging around, but sadly I couldn't find any gunpowder to try them out with. By the time I got to the top of the fort a strong, cold wind had picked up and I foolishly neglected to bring a jumper so I took a few photos and went back to the carpark.

Before I left I checked out the gift shop, which as expected was full of tacky stuff, all of which will someday end up in boxes in people's attics. Though I was amused by some mugs in the gift shop which were semicircular, and said on the side "San Francisco was so expensive, I could only afford half a mug."

I hopped on the next bus to head back into the city. Unfortunately I didn't realise until I got to Golden Gate Park that I'd caught the bus going in the wrong direction. Luckily I was able to easily transfer onto another bus heading back the right way. The route went through Haight-Ashbury, which looked pretty interesting, and I made a mental note to check it out later.

At one point there was a removal truck stopped in the street, which the bus driver attempted to drive around. The thing about the Muni buses is, they're electric, but they don't run on batteries. Every Muni bus has two long stalks which jut out from the roof and connect to overhead wires which run everywhere the buses go. The stalks can swivel and tilt quite a lot which gives the bus lots of freedom of movement, but it's still a significant restriction compared to a normal petrol bus. When the bus driver tried to go around the truck, the stalks ended up hitting the truck and disconnecting from the overhead wires, causing the bus to stop and the lights to go out. I guess there was an emergency battery, because very slowly we drove past the truck and pulled over. The driver then got out like it was no big deal, walked around to the back of the bus and presumably climbed up onto the roof to manually reconnect the power connectors. The lights came back on, the driver got back in and we were on our way.

Looking at my map I realised the bus route would take me pretty close to the Castro, San Francisco's legendary gay district, so I figured I might as well have a look. I got out at Divisadero Street, which turns into Castro Street if you go south, walked down it and wandered through the Castro a bit. It was pretty gay. Satisfied with this, I walked up 16th Street to catch the BART back towards the hostel.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 3

On Sunday I was pretty hung over, but nevertheless I ventured out into the blinding light and visited Golden Gate Park, a huge thousand-acre park on the west side of the city. This also meant figuring out how to use the Muni public transport network which consists mostly of buses, plus the cable cars and a few train lines which operate alongside the BART system. I wasn't really prepared for just how big the park was, and my plan to walk its length didn't quite come to fruition.

After walking through various leafy areas I found the conservatory of flowers. Flowers aren't really my thing so I bought a Pepsi at a nearby stand and continued on in search of the California Academy of Sciences, which also resides within the park. After some wandering I found it, and sat outside for a moment finishing my drink. While I sat outside I heard someone yelling. Someone had just stolen his bike. The thief rode away before anyone could do anything.

The California Academy of Sciences has all sorts of cool things such as an aquarium, a large simulated rainforest, a planetarium, a hall of taxidermied African animals with a colony of live penguins, and various other cool things. In the aquarium I was particularly impressed by the beautiful leafy seadragon. I got to the penguins just in time for the penguin feeding. After seeing most of the things I wanted to, I was starving and went to the cafe. I finally found out exactly what a quesadilla is by ordering one and attempting to consume it; unfortunately my hangover was still affecting me and I barely managed to eat half of it.

After eating what I could I left to wander the park some more. After miles of trees I found a path that would lead me back to the road. While wandering down it I found some squirrels. One in particular got pretty close and I took some good photos.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 2

After emerging from my epic sleep on Saturday morning, just in time for breakfast, I left the hostel and wandered down to Market Street. I went down to the Powell St. BART station, got a ticket and hopped on a train to the Embarcadero, a long stretch of waterfront with plenty of shops and stuff.

After wandering around the market stalls that were set up near the station I grabbed a coffee and sat down to relax and take a few photos of the partially visible Bay Bridge. I wandered down the street past the piers, not really looking for anything in particular. Eventually I got to the east end of Lombard St., famously crooked but only in one small section. I started walking down Lombard St. in search of the crooked bit of road, which I eventually found after walking down and then up a number of exhausting hills.

It was surrounded by tourists and covered in cars driving down it. I climbed the steps along its side, taking a few photos along the way. At the top there were dozens of cars lining up to drive down it like it was some kind of amusement park ride. I took a couple more photos and then walked down another street, one with cable car tracks. When I got to the bottom I found myself at a cable car stop so I figured I might as well ride it back to Market St.

The line was huge. I didn't realise how long the line was until I was already lining up, and it ended up taking nearly an hour. Luckily a nice woman and her Mexican husband started talking to me, which helped pass the time and they gave me plenty of tips for things to see around the city. And I didn't even have to pay for the cable car because while I was lining up a guy came past offering a free 1-day pass which he didn't need anymore. Finally I got on, and rode back into town.

One funny thing I noticed as I walked the streets was that Americans have a tendancy to walk on the right-hand side of the footpath, just like they drive on the right-hand side of the road. Often I'd find myself instinctively walking on the left, and someone would come towards me wanting to walk where I was walking and one of us would have to move aside. It's surprisingly difficult to break that habit.

That night after dinner I went on a pub crawl with a bunch of other hostel people. There were a couple of other Australians and I spent a while chatting with a cool Polish guy, and trying some local beers. The first bar near the hostel had $3 beers which is pretty damn cheap by Australian standards, even if you factor in a tip. The bartender recommended one called Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which tastes strikingly similar to James Squire Golden Ale. The Polish guy, Sebastian, was appalled when I described to him the pathetic state of the Australian drinking landscape, where $7 schooners are common, a six pack is often $17 and you get kicked out of bars for looking at the bouncer the wrong way.

From there we went to another bar in a slightly grungier part of town, hung out there for a while, and then went down Mission Street, gawked at some of the cars parked there, and went to a nightclub. I'd write more, but the night gets a little fuzzy from this point.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 1: San Francisco

As I've mentioned on Twitter recently, I'm going backpacking through America for the next six weeks. This is the first time I've been out of Australia.

After getting to the airport and checking in I was told it would take about an hour to get through security. This turned out to be a bit pessimistic and I was through in about 20 minutes. I've joked before about the airport having an "inner sanctum" which only travellers get to see; this turned out to be a giant shopping centre. Being lunch time, I went to get some lunch in the form of a burger, completely forgetting that they were serving lunch on the plane. So I had two lunches. That was nice.

I ended up getting stuck with the worst possible seat on the plane, in the middle of the middle row, and most of the in-flight entertainment sucked, although they did show a movie Midnight in Paris which was pretty good despite needing way more explosions.

After this flight I will never again complain about having to take an eight hour train ride. I finally understand expressions like "cattle class", "I hate flying" and "I will eat my own intestines to be anywhere but here right now". Didn't sleep a wink.

After one billion hours the plane landed at San Francisco airport. Expecting hours of lining up followed by TSA body scans and groping, instead I was subjected to a few minutes of casual questions by a customs guy, most of which seemed more like friendly conversation than interrogation, and then I collected my bag and was released into the wild. Onward to the next challenge.

I made my way to the BART station, double checked my map and figured out I needed to go to Union Square. There were only ticket machines so I walked up to one and was presented with numerous confusing options, none of which said "Union Square". I shoved five dollars into the machine, but that didn't help much. I cancelled it, walked up to an information desk and asked what to do. "Eight dollars ten cents in the machine", came the reply. Wondering how exactly one would figure that out alone, I went back to the machine, put in some money and got a ticket. I went to the turnstile, put in the ticket and it didn't work. I tried the next turnstile, still nothing. I stood like an idiot for a moment before noticing that they were both out of order. So I went to another turnstile, put in the ticket... and the turnstile next to me opened. I hurried through and got on the train.

What I failed to realise when I looked at the map is that there is no station actually called "Union Square". I started to suspect I had missed my stop when I got to Embarcadero. I checked my map and bolted out the door just in time. A few more seconds and I would have ended up on the other side of the bay. I hopped on a train going back the other way and went to Powell St. and walked to my hostel from there.

After checking in, the hostel staff explained how to use the lift, which appears to have been built some time during the seventeenth century. On the way up to my room, I hope that my death isn't the one that gets the lift replaced by something that can take more than three people at a time. So far I've taken the stairs more than I've taken the lift, despite my room being on the 8th floor.

The room is pretty much what I expected. Four bunks. A TV, a fridge and a microwave, and not enough powerpoints within reach to plug them all in at the same time. Smelly little bathroom with no ventilation. I'm not sure if the hostel is near a fire station or what, but a siren seems to go past every five minutes.

After unloading my bags, meeting my roommates and having a shower I ventured out into the city. I wandered aimlessly for an hour or so, then bought a camera and an American SIM card for my phone. I went to a food court at a shopping centre and got a sub and a Pepsi. The sub came in an actual ceramic bowl and an the Pepsi in an actual glass. In a shopping centre food court. You sure as hell don't see that in Australia.

By the time I had lunch it was about 4:30 and it was getting cold so I went back to the hostel to get a jumper. I got on the Internet for a little while and then slept for about 15 hours.