For Late Comers

Anyone stumbling across this old blog now might (but probably wont) be interested in my new project over at Bad Conscience.


No Direction Home

As I mentioned in my previous post(s), my debit card got blocked by the bank, and so I ended up in a bit of a tight-spot in San Francisco. Basically this is because a) there are very few hostels relative to the size and fame of San Francisco and a music festival in Golden Gate park made availability worse than usual (as previously noted there is no Youth Hostel culture in the USA, at least not compared to say Europe) b) virtually no hostels take American Express c) although i fortunatelyhave a card connected to my Mum’s account, it is an American Express account, d) the budget hotels and motels in San Francisco are devious, in that they advertise a rate of $60 a night plus tax, but this is per person…and all rooms are double, meaning every room is $120 a night plus tax. Faced with four nights at $120+ each, things were looking grim.

I emailed local Balliol hosts, but unfortunately almost everyone was away or unable to accommodate me. In the end I got lucky and Alex Blasdel, who was a couple of years above me in Balliol, and who lived in the same JowettWalk flat as I did for a year, came to my rescue and gave me couch to sleep on. Alex was pretty busy with work and previous arrangement, so I didn’t see all that much of him, but none the less he helped me out a lot, for which I’m grateful. Alex was something of a – how to put it? – party animal during his time in Balliol, but he seems to have settled down a bit, and he’s one of those people who just always lands on his feet. Here’s the view from his apartment. In the afternoon:

In the morning (see what I mean about the San Francisco fog?)

And at night:

Indeed, Alex was particularly tolerant of me, as not only did I somehow manage to make the master-remote for his TV stop working (I still don’t know how), but I also managed to have a good go at destroying his kitchen. After he’d gone out on my first day I thought I’d make coffee before heading into San Francisco. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a kettle so that rulled out the caffetiere, and I didn’t want to risk breaking the espresso machine – so that left the stove-top coffee maker. I’d never used one of these before, so i got some instructions off the internet. Clearly something went wrong along the line – perhaps I put in too much coffee? Didn’t open the pressure valve? – because when I went in to check if it was ready the whole thing blew up in my face. Literally. After a few moments I was relieved that the hot water hadn’t been hot enough to do any actual damage to my skin, though I had lots of coffee in my eyes. After washing them out, I turned around and the sight was quite impressive. A whole kitchen covered in coffee. A whole kitchen painted white covered in coffee. I got to work and luckily coffee comes off pretty easy, so about an hour later I thought I’d got most of it done. Although I missed a few spots, Alex was very understanding and I escaped with both my face and my life.

I’d decided before setting out that I was going to spend a while in the Bay Area, as after two months I’d be sick of moving around and it’d be good to really get a feel for a place. So for my last few days in the USA I have just wandered around the SF area and generally not done all that much. First I went to the Haight-Ashbury district, which is a little like Camden in London, full of cool record shops, stores selling drug paraphernalia, little cafes etc. The next day I went down to the Castro, which is the famous gay quarter of San Francisco, where in the 70s and 80s gay, lesbian and bisexual people moved from across America and even the world so that they could live how they wanted.

Chris Brooke recommended I go, and said he thought there was probably no other place in the world like the Castro, and I think he’s right. Somewhere like Soho in London is pretty sleazy and you can feel the tabboo in the air; it’s all porn shops and dodgy bastards lurking about. The Castro however is quite different. It’s an area for gay people by gay people. Sure there are shops selling adult entertainment, but there’s cafes, bakeries, cinemas, pharmacies and so forth. There are gay bookshops, as well as a gay music store (seriously, and somewhat stereotypically they did only sell music from musicals, ‘divas’, techno and so forth). Basically, the Castro is what other parts of the world might be like if it weren’t institutionally homophobic. Apparently it was far more vibrant in the 1970s and 80s – a lot of gentrification has taken place over the last 15 years – and the area was hit very hard by the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 80s (there’s a lot of AIDS-awareness posters about the place nowadays).

Indeed, talking of institutionalised homophobia it was interesting to do some self-analysis as I walked around. As much as I like to think of, and present, myself as liberal and open minded, the life-long conditioning of a society institutionally homophobic except for some superficial rhetorical gestures kicked in, and I noticed myself systematically wondering about the sexuality of every person I walked past, staring involuntarily at posters of gay men advertising various products, and wondering if I would be propositioned by a gay person if I went in the ‘wrong’ store. Indeed, that latter response didn’t actually surprise me, but did make me sad with myself. It’s a typical stereotype of gay men that they want to sleep with all men, and is frequently insinuated that they will rape if turned down (at least, those are prejudices i’ve frequently encountered and heard before), and I was saddened that such idiotic ideas had planted themselves, in some way and at some level, in me. Given that somebody who professes to be as liberal and tolerant as I do has those kinds of reactions, I guess it kind of shows just how far society needs to go. Anyway, here’s a couple of pictures:

Later I walked down to the Bay-front where there is an interesting memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of volunteers from the USA who went to Spain during the civil war to fight fascism:

There are various quotes from labour organisers on the memorial, including Harry Bridges:

Which made me think of the song by Rancid:

Bloody Thursday was July 5th
The pigs killed 3 workers harry bridges grabbed the mic
The city shut down July 5th the workers outrage it was a general strike
The media claimed that the commies were taking over
And some believed it was true
3 uncompromising strikes was paved the way
Minn Sf and ToledoOver and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

Eddie worked for general motors and he swore
That he’d never lose his job again
A union man who owned his own home
In beautiful flint Michigan

Eddie lost his job and Eddie lost his wife
So Eddie lost his self esteem
The last time i saw Eddie
He was living in the trailer park again

Over and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

I believe Eddie forgave too much too soon
I got a letter from Eddie and it was bad news

Over and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

Later I went up the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. It cost me $4.50 to get up to the top, it was full of smelly, queue-jumping and shove-you-in-the-back Europeans, and they’d put up glass windows where people had wiped their greasy little paws, thus ruining photo opportunities. Yet another reason why all tourist attractions should be owned exclusively by me.



After dossing around in cafes all day I went back to Alex’s. We watched TV for a while then hit the sack, for the next day I left early before his flat-mate got back. I’d decided to fork out for a room in a “cheap” hotel on Lombard Street up near the Presidio area, at a mere $109 plus tax. Apparently I was getting a bargain. Perhaps this was to do with the fact the main light didn’t work, there was no bin, the cable TV was all fuzzy, I was right next to the road so every time anything bigger than a bicycle went by the whole room shook, and I was right next to the main lift so every time somebody came out of that they kindly slammed the safety door behind them. In any case, I was only there a night and I suppose it was tolerable, plus they let me put my pack in the luggage room the next day when I bummed around SF.

Anyways, after checking in to the hotel I did a chunk of the coastal trail around the Presidio, taking my past the Golden Gate bridge:

Lost of pelicans in the bay area. I think they are rather wonderful:

Round the other side of the bridge the trail is less crowded and there are some awesome views:

The beach I took this photo from turned out to really be a gay nude beach (i’d ignored the earlier writing on the steps down, dismissing it as infantile graffiti). I felt a little awkward at first, but then realised it wasn’t really something worth caring about, though I confess I kept my clothes on. There weren’t all that many nudes about, gay or otherwise, but I did enjoy watching a seal dive for fish in the massive waves. Sitting on this beach and looking out over the Pacific, I felt really content in a way i’mnot sure I ever have before. Just watching the waves come in, with nowhere to go or be just felt right.

For the rest of my time in San Francisco I basically just bummed around and took advantage of the exchange rate.

I fly out of San Francisco International tomorrow morning, and barring any aviation disasters should be back in the UK on Friday morning. I’d just like to say a big thank-you to all the people who hosted me, everyone who read the blog, those who took the time to comment or otherwise, my Mum, my Dad and my Uncle for helping me make this trip finanically viable, and especially Balliol College for making this possible. It’s been the trip of a life-time, so thanks for sharing it with me.


Previous post extra

For those who were interested in the post “Thunder Road Part 2” about my meeting with various groups at a road-side vigil regarding American troops and Iraq, i’ve recently been contacted by Airlee, one of the organisers of the Support the Troops vigil. The internet being what it is, a number of people present at the vigil seem to have read the blog, which is good. But to give as fair and accurate a picture as possible I asked Airlee if it was OK to reproduce some of his email here, to which he agreed:

I would like to point out that there has been an attempt at discussion of our different points of view but we each are so polarized in our belief system that there is little hope of coming to a common agreement. In fact, at one point in time, I felt that perhaps we had all made our point and I approached one of the Veterans for Peace and told him that if he would talk to his people and call off the Friday night vigils I would approach my people and do the same. I never got a response from him.

Food for thought.

Further, if you go to the comments section on the original post, you will see that Jim, one of the guys I spoke to back at the vigil in Oregon has left a reply. Readers who found the original post interesting may want to read.

Over and out.

Journey to the End of the East Bay

The next day Beth was scheduled to fly back to the UK before heading out to Kenya, of all places. We were stopped at a motel which advertised shuttle bus service to the airport and reasoned that as Beth’s flight was an early one, we wouldn’t need to get the bus before 6am. So, rising at the ungodly hour of 5.57am, I accompanied her to get the bus so as to catch her 8.05 American Airways flight.

Regular readers may recall that i’ve been, shall we say, less than impressed with American Airways in the past. Once again they failed miserably to endear themselves to me (or Beth). Firstly things got a little stressful when we realised that the shuttle bus was not going direct to the airport as we assumed – rather it was going via pick-up at 5 other motels first. As we realised that we really should have been on the 5.30 bus, this was making things a little tight. Fortunately however the bus driver consented to my request that we go to the American Airways terminal first – and the rest of the bus kindly agreed, and so we saved a little time there. Still, we were running well behind the advice of arriving two hours before scheduled departure.

The sight we witnessed at the American Airways check-in area was not a pretty one. There must have been 200+ people divided between two queues. One queue was waiting to be checked-in by an actual human being – but as it was only one actual human being things weren’t moving very fast at all. The rest were forming a bigger queue to get to the electronic “self service check-in” computers. Now I can see why companies like American Airways like self-service check-in: machines don’t need to be paid wages and they don’t unionise. Here, however, is a list of reasons why self-service check in for airlines is a bad idea.

Firstly, if you put 150 ordinary people on computers, they do stupid things. This is just a fact about mixing people with technology. Secondly, computers are prone to break, go wrong and generally delay processes even when manipulated by experts – things get worse when you put Joe Public in charge. Thirdly, self service check-in for airlines is a really pointless idea when you realise that the machine prints out the special bar-coded label for your luggage which is supposed to stop your bags getting lost…on the other side to where you are allowed to stand. So you have to wait for the lone human being behind the machines to come over and give you the sticky label, meaning the process thus becomes drastically slower than having say a couple of people checking-in everyone the old fashioned way.

So having turned up late and witnessing this state of affairs, Beth and I started to get rather stressed as to whether she was going to make her flight. She got in line for the computers (which seemed to be moving a little faster), and I went to find somebody to talk to. Of course there was nobody around, and when I eventually found somebody from American Airlines to ask if Beth would make her flight standing in line, or whether she needed express check-in, they yawned in my face and gave my some vague reassurances, which I’m fairly sure I would have gotten if I’d asked whether we were on time for the next space bubble bound for the chocolate-encrusted planet of Epsilon Twelve.  In the end Beth got to the front of the self-service que, and with a little mild frustration from the machine, which may have been programmed-in by American Airways to remind you that flying AA is the equivalent of paying to be dragged face-first through pig excrement, we were all set…to wait 20 minutes for the man behind the counter to bother to come over to our end and hand Beth her bar-coded sticky label. When Beth asked him if she would need to re-check her luggage at JFK, she received some vague bovine-like mumblings which may have indicated confirmation or otherwise somewhere in the universe, but meant nothing to mere humans at San Francisco International.

By this point it was getting kind of late, but Beth rushed off through security and made her plane ok, no thanks to American Airways, and is now in Kenya hopefully alive and well and not eaten by lions. I’ve noticed a couple of times after writing about companies or places on this blog I end up getting little comments and messages from the PR people paid to sit on Google all day, track-down discontented blog posts and send out platitudes. So if you are working for American Airways and reading this, don’t bother leaving some inane comment apologising or promising better unless you are offering to replace my Delta flight to London Heathrow out of San Francisco this coming Thursday at 9am with an upgrade to American Airways business class. If not, please take your comments elsewhere. As for everyone else, do yourself a favour and never ever fly American Airways.

After getting all that drama out of the way I was keen to go back and sleep at the motel until check-out at 11am. But the morning’s fun wasn’t over yet. At the courtesy shuttle bay I had to wait 90 minutes until the bus people bothered to come and get me, possibly because nobody was inclined to pick up the telephone on twelve thousand times I called to request a bus. In the end I made it back and slept for a couple of hours, then checked out and took the shuttle bus to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station – but not before I had successfully failed to make waffles on the waffle machine, creating a terrible mess and fleeing before anybody could notice. I didn’t do it on purpose, but short of licking waffle batter out of the waffle-maker which was now, at last, heating up I had little choice.

That evening I was scheduled to stay with an old Balliol Tutor, Mr Kinch Hoekstra, so I thought I’d spend the day chilling out in San Francisco. Unfortunately I didn’t get much chilling done. Although I read a book for a while over coffee until lunchtime, which was nice, when I tried to buy a salad and my debit card was refused, I started to get a little worried – this was at least the fourth time the card had failed to work in two days, so I decided to get on-line and find out what was up. Loath to pay for anything I decided to trek to the San Francisco public library, figuring there would be free internet available. This was quite a walk from Union Square, and took me through some of the rougher parts of San Francisco, just to the edge of the Tenderloin area. Actually, the Bay Area holds a special sort of significance for me because a lot of the punk bands I grew up listening  to (Rancid, Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, AFI etc) are from round here and sing about various geographical locations (e.g. the East Bay itself, Tenderloin) or features (the number 60 Bus, Daly City Train), so kind of just walking around San Francisco -even through bad areas – is cool for me because I can put sights to words I grew up listening to back in Southport, of all places.

Yet despite this it was a muggy day and the walk to the library was long – only to find out that the only internet access was for 15 minutes at a time, and there were about 30 people waiting to get on-line. The wait didn’t seem worth it, so I set off back towards the area where the BART stations live and happened across an internet cafe. There I was able to read an email from my mum explaining that my bank had stopped my card because of suspected fraudulent transactions – hence of course my card wasn’t working, and not just in salad bars and motels, but anywhere. Naturally this stressed me out especially when I logged on to internet banking and found that there was no evidence of fraud, which made me angry with Alliance and Leicester. Being stressed I decided it would be a good idea to drink loads of coffee, and did that until the evening.

Feeling thoroughly wired I took the BART over to Berkeley on the East Bay to get to Kinch’s house, where he lives with his partner Heather. I got there on time and with no mishaps – unique for the day – and it was really good to make it. Kinch taught me in both my first and second years at Balliol, and was a great influence. He was one of the tutors that really helped me calm down generally and slow down intellectually, and encouraged me to think much more clearly and precisely, kind of like a proper philosopher. I owe him a lot both for the eventual degree classification I earned, but more importantly for the way my intellect was trained, sharpened and developed – something I honestly believe I would not have received at any other college, let alone another university.

Kinch left Balliol in my third year to come to the University of Berkeley, but he was still up to speed with many Balliol happenings and it was good to chat about the place. Actually, I hadn’t realised just how great my enthusiasm for the college has become until I heard enthusing endlessly to Kinch. But furthermore it was really good to be in the presence of a true master in the field; conversation would quickly and periodically turn to philosophical matters, and I must confess I’d forgotten just how unbelievably sharp and quick Kinch’s mind is. It was actually pretty fun to find myself working really hard to keep up and stay in conversation, as well as trying to keep track of my own arguments in order to avoid the philosophers’ bete noir of self-contradiction  – both with Kinch and Heather, who is no dull edge herself – especially as it’s now been several months since I’ve had that sort of intellectually intense (and usually tutorial-based) interaction with a fellow philosopher. Especially fun was the last night of my stay when Kinch and I talked at length about Hobbes (a personal favourite of mine) and Plato, as well as other areas in political philosophy and intellectual history generally.

One thing, however, which I felt a little sad about was the fact that Kinch appears to be as over-worked as ever. When I was at Balliol he was Senior Tutor, and the role clearly took its toll on him, leaving him with less time for intellectual pursuits than I think he would have liked. Though I don’t know his exact duties at Berkeley, i’m worried that he hasn’t escaped the drudgery of administrative work leaving him with less time for research and writing than would be ideal both for himself and for those who read his work. What I’m coming to see though is that this is a problem faced by many people in academia; it’s not all reading  Leviathan and discussing Nietzsche after all, i guess.

Anyway, during my time in Berkeley I spent the first day in doors avoiding daylight and updating the blog after nearly two weeks of neglect – except to call up my bank who confirmed that there really had been fraud on my card that they’d detected, and so yes the card really did need t stay blocked. This was kind of shitty, though Kinch helped me out by lending my some cash and in the evening Heather introduced me to the TV show Arrested Development which I highly recommend, as well as the video section of The Onion, which is also well worth a visit. The next day I finished my self-appointed internet duties, and then headed out into Berkeley to see the campus, as well as to meet Kinch and Heather for an afternoon chat and then dinner at a really good salad bar (with the biggest portions I have yet seen in America, which is actually saying something).

The Berkeley Campus is really cool; it’s kind of similar to Harvard but on a smaller, more humane scale so that it doesn’t feel overly grand and imposing, and the surrounding town is very vibrant and alive – hence it doesn’t suffer from Princeton-syndrome (developing a thousand-yard stare at the mere thought of spending more than half a day in the place, let alone years).

(I’m on a Mac, so for some reason the photos are all coming out really tiny and I haven’t the energy to solve it…)

Of all the campuses i’ve seen in the US, Berkeley is the only one that has really struck me as being a place I could see myself studying but also living in and around. The whole Bay Area has a great feel, and Berkeley has the academic reputation to supplement the really-cool-place-to-live factor. I may be chucking an application this way in a couple of weeks.

You’ll have noticed there are a lot of trees on campus. Indeed, just behind the main campus there are some old oak trees that there is some controversy about. Basically the Universtiy wants to cut them down, and the so-called “tree-sitters” have moved in to try and stop them. From what I can tell original sympathy as degenerated into almost everyone being pissed-off and fed-up with the tree sitters. Unfortunately when I went for a look around the tree sitters were just sitting around (but not in trees, at least not any that I could see) and looking dirty. I didn’t see anything fun happen, though some TV crews were assembling up the road so perhaps it all got exciting later.

After a very pleasant three nights in Berkeley I headed back over the bay to stay with Balliol host Emily Merriman, who lives over in the west of San Francisco, between the Golden Gate park and the Presidio (big de-militarised park thing). Her house looks like this:

And just around the corner is a Russian Orthodox Church:

Actually, these photos are really misleading, because Emily took them not me. Right now the entire neighborhood is almost permanently encased in fog, so the chances of a blue sky are virtually zero. During the summer months heat from the deserts inland in California sucks in cold air off the Pacific (that’s convection at work – see GCSE physics taught me something) and that drags in the fog. The result is that September and October are warmer than July and August in this part of town…but if you drive 5 miles east the you leave behind the fog and it’s blazing California sunshine. It’s because of this that Americans joke by saying “I took a summer vacation to San Francisco and it was the coldest winter I ever spent”. It’s all very odd for a non-local and hard to get used to as the lack of sunshine can make for quite a depressing feel – indeed Emily tells me that she spends much of her summer in Boston to escape the fog, and I don’t blame her at all.

On my first day staying with Emily I took a walk down to the Golden Gate park and then on to the Pacific Shore. I was hoping to get some pictures of the resident park bison, but clearly someone had failed to inform them that I was coming as they were being rather unobliging:

The shoreline was more spectacular, with some really massive waves hitting the cliff areas and the fog giving it all a kind of eerie feel:

Below is a shot of the ocean rushing into a sort of hollowed-out sea cave. The photo isn’t great but you get the idea:

After wandering around the shore line I returned to Emily’s apartment. We chatted for a while before she went out for the evening, and I stayed in with her two house-cats, Loki and Jasper, who I liked very much:

(Despite what it looks like I am actually just stroking Loki. Or perhaps I just stroke them funny…)

That evening began the stress of San Francisco accommodation. Basically I cannot be bothered to tell the whole long and boring story, but a combination of having my debit card blocked, having access to my Mum’s American Express card – the card which virtually no youth hostel in the world takes -, there being a big music festival on in SF this week, and that all the hotels in San Francisco appear to charge around $110 plus tax and up, meant that finding accommodation was proving to be virtually impossible. I got stressed for a while, sent out a lot of emails, and then quit for the night. Luckily I need not have worried as Alex Blasdel, former Balliol classicist and fellow Jowett Walk inmate during my 2006-7 incarceration has returned to his native Bay Area and came through with a couch for me to sleep on for a couple of nights.

The next day I decided to go to the big San Francisco tattoo convention held down in Daly City, kind of an unusual pathfinder activity but I have a special interest. However it was totally boring – i’m not sure why i expected anything else from a big room full of people getting tattooed – and apart from managing to get confused and stressed about the buses home, it was a fairly un-noteworthy day.

In the evening Emily took me to a fantastic Thai restaurant just a couple of blocks from her flat (she lives in a predominantly Asian area with dozens of Asian restaurants to choose from). The food was really great and the experience was enchanced by our having to remove our shoes and sitting on low-benches in a traditional Thai style. I really enjoyed talking with Emily, who has a relatively similar background to me as regards her life before Balliol, and who is now an assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University. Our conversation ranged over Balliol past and present, the importance of keeping cats, American politics, the extent to which nobody really understands Heidegger and is pretending when they say they do, and much more besides. Further, Emily gave me some really helpful advice regarding American grad schools and applications, both from the perspective of an academic and that of somebody who did her post-grad studies in the US after leaving Balliol. After the meal we returned to the apartment to feed the cats and get some sleep

Thunder Road (part 4)

I’m still playing catch-up with posts, so you may want to scroll down and read older entries first. I’d especially like people to read Thunder Road (part 2), as it’s probably the only genuinely interesting thing i’ve written on here.

Sadly our last day with the car was not a good one. We planned to follow route 1 rather than 101 for much of the way so as to be off the freeway and in the nicer areas. Unfortunately we had bought a fairly rubbish road map, and despite Beth’s best efforts – she is a good map reader, significantly better than me as she likes to ensure i don’t forget – we somehow ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was at this point that we learned that Americans don’t believe in road signs. I swear we must have driven 20 miles in and around a major settlement without seeing a single helpful road-sign. Eventually I consented to the emasculating act of pulling over and asking for directions, and we were soon on the right track. That, however, was only part 1 of the days road-related stresses.

As we approached San Francisco the road became more congested, whilst becoming visibly worse in terms of surface quality. Great gaping cracks and potholes became more and more frequent, and intermittent semi-abandoned road work projects would suddenly jut out from the hard shoulder with little to no warning. I read a piece in the Economist about a week before flying out about the lack of infrastructure investment by successive administrations (but especially the ‘let’s cut taxes for the ultra-rich and not bother spending’ one of the last 8 years) and how it is bearing rotten fruit now. Well I can confirm that the main road leading into San Francisco from the north over the Golden Gate bridge is indeed literally falling apart – which as you can imagine makes driving no fun, especially when you’re in a hire car and simply cannot afford for anything to happen to it.

Anyway, despite sitting in a traffic jam for the best part of an hour we entered the Bay Area from the north, and Beth took these pictures as we came across the Golden Gate:

After crossing the Golden Gate we had to navigate North San Francisco. This was my first time driving in a big city on the incorrect side of the road, and it wasn’t much fun. San Francisco is really hilly, and even on a Sunday afternoon the traffic was heavy. However we crawled through and decided to head over to the East Bay where there were some beaches, because the West Bay area was under thick fog.

Unfortunately, although the East Bay was sunny it was unbelievably windy, so we spent half an hour or so wandering on the beach before admitting it was too cold to be out and so, defeated, we retreated back to the car. Given that it was still only mid to late afternoon, we decided to drive back over to the coast and drive south to see what the sites were like. Thus I embarked upon the worst motoring experience I have ever had.

Coming back over the bay we used to the Oakland bridge and drove on the freeway, I think it was route 280. Now Americans and cars are a strange combination. On ordinary roads Americans actually drive quite slowly and responsible – frequently I would look in my rear mirror after pulling off at a light and worry that I had jumped a red, so far behind me would the other cars be. Yet for some reason as soon as you mix Americans in cars with the freeway, they become raving lunatics. Never have I been so stressed and scared as I was that day.

First, Americans have no concept of under- versus over- taking or using the appropriate lanes. People will sit in the inside (aka “fast”) lane going 45, or race down the outside lane doing 80 (the speed limit is officially 65). They do not indicate before changing lanes, and pay no attention as to whether you are indicating. Cars will frequently veer in an out of all four lanes just to get ahead, and when over-taking they are apt to pass your left or right right light by a matter of half an inch. A favourite trick is to race up to within two inches of your rear bumber, over-take and come in two inches infront of your other bumber, then beep you for good measure. People were tail-gaiting in a way i’ve never seen before. In the UK on a motorway if the traffic gets heavy then people instinctively drop their speed to keep a greater distance. In the USA, it appears that when people are on the freeway they are damned well going to drive fast be there too many cars to make that sensible or otherwise. In fact looking back I think I made things worse because my instinct was to slow down in heavy traffic – I would have been safer driving faster like all the lunatics around me; by slowing down I was simply encouraging people to race up my backside and then try and over-take me when it wasn’t safe to do so.

In the end it became so stressful that I simply had to pull off at an available exit, stop to take a breath and get a drink. Beth was as shook up as I was, as she was watching the mayhem in the mirrors too. I think perhaps the traffic was especially bad because people were on their way home from a day out and all in a rush (indeed when I went back on the freeway a few hours later it was slightly calmer), but whatever the cause i’ve never felt closer to death in a car.

After an hour or so we drove out onto some quieter roads and stopped a little way south of San Francisco to watch some surfers doing their stuff.

I also managed to get a photo of one of these:

These Tsunami Warning Signs can be found right the way down the Oregon and California coasts, and have been put up following the 2001 Tsunami that hit South East Asia. Basically if an earth quake takes place off the West Coast there will be a massive Tsunami. Geologists say one can be expected around every 400 years. And the last one happened around 400 years ago. After 2001 Americans are taking few precautions, and there are now siren warning systems in place, and many people will receive a text message if a quake occurs warning them to get to high ground. Indeed it was Michele in Portland who warned Beth and I that if we hear sirens in the night, it’s probably best not to just try and sleep through them – and if there’s an earthquake we must not run outside, but rather should stand in a doorway (the strongest part of a structure, apparently).

We braved the freeway once more to try and find a motel within striking distance of the airport. By this time we were both pretty fed up of driving and stress, and so things only got worse as it was becoming clear we were in serious danger of running out of “gas” on the freeway. I pulled off to what looked like a petrol station…only to realise it was “green fuel” for city public transport and taxis. As things were starting to get critical we luckily spied a petrol station and the disaster was averted. Next we had the joy being lied to by all the motels close to the airport, who were trying to flog rooms at $100 a night and told us there were no other motels in the area. We didn’t believe them and set off to try and find some, and when it looked like we were lost we miraculously found a place at a reasonable rate, and just collapsed there for the night.

Our plan was to spend two nights at the motel, using a shuttle bus service to get to the airport for free and then take public transport into San Francisco so Beth could spend a day there before flying back to London the norning after. This plan basically worked out, and we dropped off the hire car a day early, saving me some much needed cash. I’ve got to be honest I was pretty relieved to return the car safe and sound with not a mark on it. Although driving the coast was totally worth it, I periodically suffered nightmare hallucinations of the consequences of scratching the thing – or even worse, fully crashing it into some American who would then sue me up to the eyeballs.

After a much needed night’s sleep and dropping of the car, Beth and I went into San Francisco for the day, which was lovely and allowed me to take some nice pictures:

This is Lombard Street the “most crooked street in the world”.


That island in the distance is “Treasure Island”, which sits in the middle of the Bay and which the Oakland bridge crosses.

Hooters is a horrible restaurant in my opinion, the whole premise is stupid, facile and pathetic. Furthermore, they are unable to find artists to paint their murals with the ability to depict human noses.

The thing which I most enjoyed in San Francisco was going down to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Warf and watching the amazing spectacle of the sea lions. Fisherman’s Wharf is tacky and cheap – kind of like Blackpool on the edge of San Francisco – but the Sea Lions are amazing. There are rather a lot of them:

The big fat one is a Male Stella sea lion. He is quite a rare sight in the summer apparently. He is like the Will Sharp of the sea lion world.

Finally before grabbing some really good food in Little Italy at a bargain price, we took some commemorative photos of the mighty route 101, upon which (more or less) we managed to clock over 1000 miles, driving all the way from Astoria to San Francisco. Now that is a road trip.

Thunder Road (part 3)

I’m playing catch-up with entries, so scroll down if you want things in chronological order – i’d especially like people to read Thunder Road part 2, as it describes one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen on this trip.

Beth dragged me out of bed kicking and screaming at the ungodly hour of 8am with the albeit justified reasoning that if we wanted to see things and get to San Francisco on time, we would have to get up earlier. She was right, of course, but I still loathe getting out of bed in the mornings, especially when it’s foggy and cold.

After driving for 30 minutes we crossed over into California, and made our way towards the Redwood National Park. Some people had advised us to visit “Trees of Mystery”, which is basically a theme park amidst the Redwoods. I sort of fancied it, until Beth pointed out that we could just go further south to the Redwood National Park and see big trees for free, which was of course a much better idea, so we did that. The previous post had massive written entries, so here you can just enjoy photos of us next to massive trees.

After the redwoods we drove further into California, deviating from route 101 briefly onto route 1 so as to stick closer to the coast. Along the way we saw signs for something incredible. Everyone knows that in America they love drive-thru food. I’d already noticed that in America you can get drive-thur Starbucks, as well as drive-thru pharmacies and drive-thru banks. Yet before our eyes was a sign for the “World Famous Drive-Thru Tree”. well we just had to go for it, $5 or otherwise. Obvsiously it was silly and not worth $5, but it ammused us for a while. Americans are especially keen on labeling things as “WORLD FAMOUS!!!!!!” when this is almost always a blatant lie. The Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is not world-famous, but apparently Americans won’t go unless they get told that something is either world famous, or was “seen on TV”, that other favourite crowd-pulling device.

After driving through a tree we headed yet further south and looked for a motel as it was getting dark. Having learned from previous nights that the first rate you get offered at a motel is never the best rate you can get, we got $10 knocked off nothing less than  Wild West Themed Motel. I’m serious. We were given the “hotel” themed room, though personally I thought it looked more like a whore’s boudoir:

Thunder Road (part 2)


The next day we got up at a reasonable hour, gorged ourselves upon the free “continental” breakfast (which in America basically means donoughts, danish pastries, muffins and waffles) before heading south. The fog was really thick, and so the sights were not as great as they might have been although the waves rolling in off the Pacific looked really amazing. We stopped in the early afternoon to find a place to eat and get online, and then headed south again.

As we were driving through the small town of Bandon I saw what looked like a road-side vigil with a group of men and women standing at the road-side waving large white flags. Then as we rounded the bend there appeared another group, slightly greater in number, waving the stars and stripes. Intruiged, I decided to pull over to go and find out what was happening on the corners of this four-way junction in small-town America.

I approached the group waving white flags first, and was able to see that each flag carried the logo “Veterans for Peace” and a picture of a dove complete with olive branch in beak. I walked over to an elderly couple and introduced myself, explaining that I was on vacation from the UK and asking what was going on. The gentleman was very affable and happy to explain. Apparently everything had begun when the so-called “Women in Black”, a group emulating the movement begun in Israel-Palestine, started a road-side vigil on Friday evenings. As it was only 4.45, the women in black hadn’t get arrived. What – I asked – where these Veterans For Peace doing? The answer, i was told, was to show solidarity with the women in black in opposition to “those guys over there”, pointing to the group waving the stars and stripes. And who are they? I asked. “Well”, came the answer, “we’re the veterans for peace, and so I guess they’re the veterans for war”. I asked what he thought of the war, and the obvious answer from both him and the lady he was with was one of condemnation – but a special kind of condemnation. “We’re veterans, you see, and we believe this war is not doing any good to any body. We want our men and women brought home safely as soon as possible – that’s why we’re the Veterans for Peace”.

This intrigued me, so I asked if it was OK to take a few pictures, to which the Veterans for Peace agreed, and then said that as I wanted to get both sides of the story I thought I should go and see what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say for themselves.

I must admit, I was expecting the worst. As I walked over I mentally prepared myself by repeatin to myself that I wasn’t in Oxford anymore, and that it was no good getting into a fight with anybody out here because after all nobody is converted at the roadside (well except Saul, but that’s a somewhat special case). And anyway, I told myself, it would be far more productive to simply listen to what these people had to say, not matter how strongly I disagreed with their politics or how unpleasant I might find them. Yet what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say surprised me.

The first guy I spoke to – who must have seen me speaking to the Veterans for Peace a few moment earlier –  was friendly and affable, greeting me with a warm grin and a firm handshake. I asked him what was going on and he told me the following. He said their protest was meant purely as a show of support for American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – and stressed that it was about the soldiers. Indeed he was keen to say straight away that “we don’t necessarily support the President or the war: what we want is the best for our boys, and by being here we are showing that we support them, and that they are not forgotten”.

Further intrigued, I moved down the line and was introduced to a man named Airlee Owens (the only person, I must confess, whose name I know for sure, because not being a professional journalist I foolishly failed to take notes). Airlee is a great bear of a man, large in stature as well as in heart from what I could tell. Again he shook my hand firmly and greeted my kindly, keen to answer any questions I might have. He told me that although he didn’t start the vigil, he seems to have become the spokesman for the group. “We didn’t start this to support the war necessarily” he said, “we started this because we are all veterans, most of us from Vietnam, and we don’t want the boys in Iraq to suffer the way many people did when they came back from Vietnam. You see, that was an unpopular war, and when the troops came home they were treated very badly: people would spit on them in the street, and the government basically abandoned them. Iraq is an unpopular war, and we don’t want the same thing to happen to the boys out there when they come home. So when we saw the women in black, we knew we had to do something in response. This isn’t – you gotta see – a political protest. It’s about supporting the troops for as long as they are out there”.

I found this fascinating, and asked whether you could really have a non political protest when one side is flying the stars and stripes, and the other flying white flags with doves on them. Airlee’s answer came quickly: “Sure you can. The flag isn’t supposed to be political – it should be a symbol of unity. Don’t get me wront, we are all patriots – we love our country – but we fly the flag because we think it should be used to united all Americans together. It’s a positivel symbol, and one shown by the troops out there as well as by us back home”. This was surprising to hear: there was no branding of the other side as traitors or accusations of being unpatriotic (a charge of great seriousness in the USA) because they weren’t flying the flag – though clearly Airlee must have found it strange that they weren’t.

I noticed that the Women in Black were beginning to assemble on the other side of the road from the so-called – and apparently ill-described – “Veterans for War”. However there was another lone figure, occupying the final side at the four-way junction, standing proudly holding his own flag with signs proudly declaring that “Defeatism Support Al Qaeda” and “Help Prevent A Nuclear 9/11”. OK – I thought to myself – surely this guy is going to be a jingoistic nut-case who I’m going to struggle to remain civil with – but again I was disappointed, albeit much to my relief. I confess I can’t remember for sure,  butI think his name was Jim, and like everyone else I’d spoken to so far he was friendly and approachable. I asked why he was standing all alone, and the simple answer was that if the Women in Black and the Veterans for Peace occupied two corners of the function, it seemed right that those supporting the troops ought to have two as well. We chatted briefly about Winston Churchill – Jim being keen to stress his admiration for a man who did not appease the forces of terror (and not leaving the perceived analogy with Iraq to the imagination) – and I got up the courage to propose something to him.

I suggested that after having spoken to people from both sides, I had to admit that it seemed to me like they disagreed about far less than perhaps they thought. I pointed out that both sides supported the troops – indeed, that both sides were composed of veterans and their wives –  that neither side was necessarily expressing support for either the war in Iraq or for the Bush administration, and that all of them seemed to want the same thing: the best for ordinary Americans sent to wars in foreign lands. Yet as soon as I said this the shutters came down. Though Jim remained affable to me, his mood visibly changed: “no I don’t think so” he said, “those guys over their are quitters, they want to quit”. I tried to point out that while that was arguably true, in the grand scheme of things it seemed like only one wave of contention amidst a sea of agreement existed; both sides might disagree about how long the troops should be out there, but all professed a desire to support them for as long as they were there. I suggested that maybe a stronger protest could be made by both sides if they perhaps exchanged just one flag each – but Jim found the idea unappealing.

I decided it would be worth paying one last visit to the Veterans for Peace before heading on my way. I approached the couple I had spoken to earlier, and put the same proposition to them about the idea that perhaps both sides had more in common than they supposed. The reaction was basically the same: the shutters came down straight away. When I pointed out that the so-called “Veterans for War” told me that they supported the troops but not necessarily the war or the president, the reply I received was that a poll of troops in Iraq showed them 6-to-1 for Obama not McCain – which was hardly a reply to the suggestion I’d voiced. I tried to point out what Airlee had said to me – that the vigil was about supporting the troops themselves to prevent a repeat of the post-Vietnam experience, to which it was replied dismissively that “the Republican Right has grossly exaggerated the treatement of Vietnam veterans”- a surprising response from somebody who was himself a Veteran. When I voiced my suggesion that the two sides make a stronger protest by exchanging just one flag each I was again met by scepticism. I hadn’t the heart to point out that flying only white flags along the road from a group flying the stars and stripes could hardly be helping the cause of the Veterans for Peace in a country where so much is invested in the flag, and where so many conotations and assumptions are made when either the flag is or is not flown.

Yet what I realised was that here I was seeing a microcosm of American society and politics. These were ordinary men and women standing at the road-side, exercising their political rights with pride. Neither side suggested – despite their clear distaste for the opposition -that only they should be allowed to keep a vigil, and when I said I wanted to talk to all sides this was met with approval and encouragement by all. Which makes the following seem even stranger: neither side talks to the other. They simly don’t know what the other side thinks, because they haven’t asked. They’ve seen the white flags, or the stars and stripes, or the black clothes, and have assumed they know exactly what their opposition thinks and feels. Here at the roadside I saw two groups of veterans, men and their wives with a shared common background, who all professed to want the best for ordinary young men in Iraq, yet who would not even talk to each other. The one difference about whether support for the troops is best shown by calling for immediate withdrawal, or whether that is a decision of politicians and generals whilst hoping to raise public support for ordinary men and women in the meantime, was enough to put these groups on different worlds when standing only 30 meters apart. And they’ve been on different worlds for a long time: this September will mark the 3rd Anniversary of the Friday evening vigils.

I say this is a microcosm of American politics, and I sincerely believe it to be so. I’ve been in the USA nearly two months now, and so many aspects of American politics are manifested at this protest in little Bandon. Both sides sincerely believe in the value of free speech, and of the importance that one can hear both sides of the argument – yet they themselves are happy to hear only their own. The other side is ignored and demonised, yet despite being so close not just physically, but in terms of background and outlook, they will not talk. Rather than hearing what the other side has to say, each would rather go on subscribing to their established pre-conceptions of why they are wholly right and the others are not only wholly wrong, but not even worth trying to engage with. Of course, it is possible that if they talked they would find they perhaps agree or disagree with each each other far more than my brief experience of the two sides was able to reveal. But they won’t talk, and so I cannot say anything more. What I can say is that this reluctance to engage with the opposition appears to be as defining and characteristic a feature of America as the commitment to freedom of speech and political liberty which these ordinary men and women on the roadside expressed to me that day.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democratic regimes, and America in particular, appeared to be inherently paradoxical: that for example while democratic peoples are themselves igorant and elect fools, somewhow democracies manage to have and uphold the laws which best serve their peoples (even if said laws are themselves poorly conceived, written and ennacted). I’m sure that the paradox of a population deeply and sincerely committed to freedom of speech, yet equally reluctant to use that freedom in order to engage with others who likewise posses it, would not have surprised Tocqueville at all.

As I was leaving the Women in Black assembled, as you see above. I perhaps should have spoken to them, but I felt like I had enough to think about, so a picture sufficed.

These two pictures are of a special commeorative medal Airlee gave to me:

You can also check out Airlee’s websites, one dedicated to photography (and he’s got some really good pictures), the other to his friends in the Air Force:

Anyway, after all that I went back to the car where i’d left Beth sleeping/reading, and we got some coffee before heading further south, just shy of the California border. I grabbed a couple of nice shots of the sunset after visiting yet another 10-mile long deserted beach, and then we went and ate really cheap but really good steak and got a bit drunk.

An interesting day, all in all.