Yosemite Slam

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It takes a long time to get into Yosemite, but what a beautiful place that valley is. You do have to take some lengthy twisty roads with terrifying drops down into deep gorges just one swerve away, and then when you finally reach the environs of the park and the rocks start changing from a dusty ochre to a stern granite grey you see the line of cars going in at geological speed and start wondering about Fast Passes like at theme parks, and then you realize the drop to the valley floor, that is the Fast Pass. We arrived in the afternoon on a holiday weekend, therefore specifically requesting trouble on the form. You need a reservation to get into Yosemite these days to, ahem, stem the crowds. We had one, as we were staying at the Lodge in the middle of the park. You could see cars going the other direction and you just know they had shown up without one. It took the best part of two hours to get in, and it was hot. When we got in, we had planned to do the Mist Trail hike first and then go to the Lodge, but you couldn’t park anywhere near the Mist Trail. We found a spot about two miles or so away and then walked in, backpacks with hydration packs on, stopping to take photos of the amazing views, admire the immense rock walls of the valley, and also to question What The Hell. It was packed. It was hot. By the time we finally reached the start of the trail we were hiked out. The trail itself was fairly steep and a bit narrow, but mostly just jam-packed with people. I know why they call it the Mist Trail, it’s not the spray from the waterfalls but the clouds of other peoples’ sweat you have to walk through. I made it as far as the first bridge by a waterfall and we headed back. Massive headache. On the way back though, we saw a bear cub! I’ve never seen a bear in the wild. Not that I wanted to get too close to one, it was on the other side of the road, just minding its own business, I think it was in the collecting food business. Then I heard a very loud whistle. It wasn’t mama bear because they can’t whistle. It was some tall American dude in shorts and a big stupid hat, getting out of his big stupid car and approaching the bear like it owed him money, or honey, whatever. He was whistling to get its attention, while also exclaiming “do you see the bear!” to passers by. “Yeah leave it be, mate” I said. The bear disappeared into the bushes. The man looked like he was going to follow it in to try to get a photo on his phone up close. I mean, I don’t wish anyone’s face to be eaten by a bear for being stupid, but seriously, you don’t follow a bear into the bushes. Big Stupid Man in Hat then turned round and went back to his big stupid car still exclaiming “did you see the bear” to everyone who had been distracted by his ridiculous whistling. I’m pretty sure you can be fined a lot of honey for approaching the wild animals in Yosemite like that, at the very least his picnic basket should have been confiscated. Anyway now I had something to write about on my postcards, we got back to the Lodge. Our room smelled as if someone had been smoking in it, which was pretty unbearable (I see what you did there), so we opened up the windows and ran all the fans. I did insist we close the windows at night though Because Bears. They love to sniff out the food, they famously break into cars, I saw a documentary about it, Gone In 60 Seconds I think it was. Or maybe the Fast and the Furriest. Anyway, well fed and showered, and well rested, and safe from bears, I got up very early next day and headed out into the park before the heat, while the family still slept, and sketched the magnificent Yosemite Falls, above. It was not super busy yet, and this was the start of the trails leading up to the Lower Falls. Stunning sight though, and the absolute drama of the scenery is hard to describe, and not easy to draw either.

     

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This was our third National Park this year (after Arches and Canyonlands). The colour scheme was quite different; before the Utah trip I did actually do lots of practice sketching so that I knew how I would like to draw once I got there, what colour palette I would use, even what style of sketching would work best for quickest effect. I didn’t do that this time; I wish I had in a way, but then the greens and blues are always tricky bedfellows in my paint set. The Yosemite light is overwhelming, like I felt there was no way to capture the sheer epic-ness of it, but even on the hot day I stopped and gave it a go. The one above was very quick and done with pencil and watercolour, and I was pleased with it. As we walked through Yosemite Village I happened upon a familiar face, Robert Dvorak, a Sacramento artist and art teacher who has joined us many times on our sketchcrawls in Davis. I hadn’t seen him since a sketchcrawl just before  the pandemic, but I recognized his distinctive hat, he was teaching a small workshop on sketching. He was surprised to see me, and showed his students my sketchbook. I left and got the Yosemite National Park stamps in my sketchbook, and we continued exploring. The sketch below was drawn while standing on the Swinging Bridge (it didn’t swing, but I guess there were lots of 1960s British hip fashion-followers there at some point. I wanted to catch the colour of the Merced River and the silent giants behind it; I did the paint first and then pen over the top, which I never really like doing, and I can tell as it feels a bit awkward from about the riverbanks up. My green paints feel a bit dry as well. Still as a quick sketch drawn while balanced on a bridge with people passing by behind me, hoping not to accidentally drop my sketchbook and paints into the river, I still like it. It was a hot day, we explored the non-uphill parts of the valley, took a lot of photos, and headed back to the car for a drive up to Glacier Point. 

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Glacier Point (where I did the sketch below) is about an hour’s drive uphill from the Yosemite Valley floor. It is an overlook with a phenomenal view of the whole valley. The way up was a little depressing, as much of the landscape had been affected by big fires in recent years. In anticipation of this unusually hot holiday weekend there had been a controlled burn on the valley floor, we had passed the smouldering logs on the way in, but this was more of a sad beaten wasteland. Still, despite the fact that the past few years have been worse than anyone here has ever known, exacerbated by the rise in global temperatures, in the California wilderness fire is the way of things, nature’s way of renewing the forests. Still, it’s hard to see. It was another twisting rollercoaster of a road up. We have been to Glacier Point before; when we married in 2004 we came to Yosemite for our honeymoon, and we have photos of us looking much younger looking out at the view which is dominated by the otherworldly Half Dome, which resembles the cowl of a massive stone ghost. We could just about make out people on the top, tiny atoms in colourful hiking gear. It’s a dizzying view. There were a good number of people up there, but not as packed as the Mist Trail. I took a little time to do a quick sketch of the scene, but this one I did not fill in the gaps later at home, I just left it as it was. At this time of year the waterfalls are gushing and plentiful; in the western US we are in the midst of a potentially catastrophic drought though, so I expect that by the middle of the summer those will be trickles, if even that. When we were here in September 2004 Bridalveil Falls was not even running; this time that bride was running like she had just discovered her new in-laws were all death eaters or Hannity fans or something. It would be nice to come back slightly earlier in the year when it’s not already so hot, and the rivers are still booming, but even just a fortnight before there had been snow around here so it’s hard to predict. Maybe just when there are fewer people, not on a holiday weekend, it might be more fun to hike the trails. It just takes so long to get here. It’s worth it though, this Yosemite scenery is some of the best on the planet. We took a lot of photos of amazing backdrops, and the light always seemed to be just perfect.  

Glacier Point panorama I didn’t draw El Capitan, and it’s not in this panorama, but that was another geological marvel we passed by in awe. El Capitan is really massive. When we got home we watched the documentary film Free Solo, about the bloke who likes to climb up rocks with no ropes or harnesses or anything. They call that “free soloing”. “Freeing Solo” is when you dress up as a masked bounty hunter with a thermal detonator and sneak around Jabba’s palace at night looking for your carbonite-imprisoned boyfriend, just so you can ask him “what do you mean “I know”?” (Seriously Leia, when Han asked “Who are you” you should have said “Someone who knows you” and slapped him one.). So the Free Solo guy (Alex Honnold) was pretty bloody amazing. The movie was so good, and it detailed his journey to becoming the first – and so far only – person to scale the sheer face of El Capitan free solo, bottom to top, no ropes or nothing. Incredible film I recommend you watch it. (I also recommend the Return of the Jedi “Leia Says I Know First” special edition cut). It made me think, we all have goals, some people’s goals might be something huge like climbing a gigantic cliff with your bare hands, others it might be just drawing a picture of those cliffs and it turning out alright, but it’s an inspiration to see someone work on their goal, have setbacks here and there, but not give up, to really do it. No matter how big or small your goal, go for it. The only thing I didn’t like about the movie was the song that played over the end credits, which had a chorus that went ‘Gravity’s a Fragile Thing”. I mean, it’s literally not. Gravity is definitely the thing you can rely on not breaking. It will break you. Those lyrics were a pretty fragile thing. Still, the film reminded me of when I went rock climbing when I was 17, I went about 25 or 30 feet maybe, with ropes, and was absolutely terrified. I felt that Gravity pulling me down, and I was myself a very fragile thing at the time weighing about half a stone dripping wet, so it juts blows my mind to see someone achieve a feat like that. Mind Blown. 

And that was Yosemite. It was a long and winding drive back to Davis, and when we got home we decided against long road journeys for a while. We had 17 years between visits to Yosemite, and this was the first time since we moved to America. It’s a pretty long way, but it’s worth it.

Spring Break in Surf City

Huntington Beach view from hotel
“Yes, yes I think that will do.” Those were my first thoughts on seeing this very nice view from our hotel balcony in Huntington Beach, aka ‘Surf City’, on our trip there during Spring Break. Palm trees, orange rooftops, a deep blue ocean, blue sky with a bit of fog, very sandy sand, big waves and even the view of Highway 1, which (along with Highway 101) runs along the whole Pacific coast of America (as the ‘Pacific Coast Highway’). Yeah, I can’t really go wrong with a view like that. My wife certainly knows how to pick the hotels with the good views. We had expected rain – in northern California, huge whopping storms were beating down while I splashed about in the pool, getting out to read my travel stories book and sip a refreshing mango beer. Yes, mango beer, that’s right, it was from a local brewer, the poolside barstaff told me. I like mango flavoured things. Oh is it raining in Davis? Well never mind. We had glorious sunshine, and we used it wisely, at the beach and at the pool. It’s at times like this when I think, yeah, actually it was a good idea to leave London and live in California.
Huntington Beach Naugles
I did a little bit of sketching. The building above is Naugles, some sort of eatery by the beach. It wasn’t open, though the building next door was renting those surreys and bikes to people. I think I imagined Spring Break to be a bit more Spring Break-like, if you know what I mean, Florida style, but warm as it was, it’s still too cold in California for that sort of thing. For which I was very grateful, I do love places without big crowds. I even went into the ocean myself (which was fairly freezing), my son and his friend out there splashing about in the waves. I can’t surf, but we had one of those boogy-boards and so I floated about on that, on my belly, riding the waves like a dead whale. I’m not sure if dead whales ride the waves, but ‘dead whale’ was the only thing that came to my mind when the tides flopped me back onto the shore. I was a dead whale enjoying myself though. We even built sandcastles and dug tunnels. These sketches though were done while they were back at the hotel pool, which was heated and had water slides. Below is one of the many lifeguard lookouts that stand along the beach like the watchers on the wall. At this point it’s obligatory to mention ‘Baywatch’, but I never watched that show, so I wont. The beach was clean, and well trimmed like a suburban lawn. There are firepits for people to use when barbecuing in the warm summer evenings (like in pretty much every teen LA-based movie or TV show), but there’s a curfew on this beach, nobody is allowed after 10pm. In the distance, Huntington Beach pier, and further behind still are off-shore oil rigs, which maybe adjust the perfection of the view a bit (but offer something a bit different to look at). The waves get pretty big; you can see a surfer making their way in. Huntington Beach is nicknamed Surf City: there is a statue of Duke Kahanamoku, legendary Hawaiian surfer and olympic sportsman, standing outside one of the big surf shops downtown. I popped in, and discovered that surfboards cost a lot more than I though they did. There goes that dream!
Huntington Beach Lifeguard Hut
Speaking of ‘The Duke’, we had a very filling and quite delicious dinner at Duke’s restaurant, on the beach next to the pier. We went to the Duke’s restaurant in Waikiki a couple of years ago, and had our very first Lava Flow drinks. They were delicious. The ones we had here were just as nice, but served in those great tiki glasses. I only had the one – they are pretty filling! So are the enormous Hula Pies. We got one to share between the four of us, and I’m glad – we barely finished it. I bought a Hula Pie plate as a souvenir. I did get to tell a great pun when the waiter was giving us the list of specials. My wife wondered if she should have the fish special, and I said, “why not, just for the halibut!” The waiter didn’t get it though. I thought it was good. One of the fish specials was halibut. Now I have to engineer some other situation where I can use the “just for the halibut” line.
Lava Flow at Duke's
It was a long walk back to the hotel, but since I had eaten so much I was rolled along the seafront like one of those massive snowballs. I was still basking in the glory of my “just for the halibut” line. It was not yet ten o’clock, so the beach was dotted with the glow of numerous firepits. In the parking lots, travelers were sat outside immense RVs enjoying the spring evening’s cool ocean breeze.
Ruby's Choc Mint Shake

On the second evening in Huntington Beach, after an incredibly fresh tasting dinner at a place called Lemonade (which as you might expect made delicious multi-flavoured hand-made lemonades – I had ‘Cucumber Mint’. So refreshing. Everyone was tired, and so the rest of the family went back to the hotel, but I still wanted to walk to the end of that long pier, so I talked my sore feet into making the trek up over the boardwalk into the Pacific Ocean. There are lots of people fishing from that pier. It’s not full of amusements like Santa Monica or Walton-on-the-Naze, but right at the very end in the red-roofed building is one of my favourite places in California, Ruby’s Diner. I have a lot of favourite places in California, I can’t really choose; ok this is in the top 100. It’s a classic American diner at the end of a pier, there’s a great classic American atmosphere, and when I say classic American I mean ‘like in the movies’, probably. It doesn’t feel themed or kitschy though. There is a tiki bar upstairs, which I passed through to use the bathrooms, that was a distinctive change of look. All I wanted was a milkshake. A bit of history here, the very first time I came to the United States was in 2002, to visit my still-new Californian girlfriend whom I had met while living in France, and she took me on a road trip down California and to the Grand Canyon. Oh by the way my then-new Californian girlfriend is now my Californian wife of course! Back then though America was completely new to me, I was a fresh-faced twenty-something, and on this road trip we visited our friend Erin (whom we had met in France; actually it was Erin who introduced us to each other) and she lived in Huntington Beach. She took us to Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier, and I had what up to that point in my life was perhaps the best milkshake I had ever tasted. It was a butterfinger milkshake, it was huge, it made every milkshake I grew up with seem like Nesquik. By the way every milkshake I ever grew up with was Nesquik. I’ll never forget the taste of Nesquik gone BAD. Never leave banana Nesquik in a flask out of the fridge for a couple of days in summer and then try to drink it. I was six. Anyway, all I had on my mind was coming back to Ruby’s and having a milkshake, and I was not disappointed. They had the same menu of shakes, but they were also doing a special Mint Chocolate shake made with Girl Scout Cookies. It was delicious. The long walk down the pier and the long walk back to the hotel were good exercise, and I’m now still dieting to get over all the big foods I had on that trip, but it was worth it. Huntington Beach is cool. And below, for those who really need a gumball, they have them in a gas pump. Classic American.
Ruby's Candy Pump

Ok after Huntington Beach we went to Great Wolf Lodge for one night, which had some fun water slides but overall was a bit of a disappointment after Huntington Beach, and so we ended up going to see Captain Marvel instead (loved it!). We got back to Davis to hear that there had been even more heavy rain (this is the rainiest I’ve ever known Davis, except maybe that first winter here).

in the warm california sun

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More from our Labor Day weekend away: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a hive of happy holidaymakers on a Saturday afternoon. It was warm and sunny, right by the Pacific Ocean, and we had spent the morning up on the cliffs watching surfers and out on the pier (or wharf) enjoying some very yummy ice cream and very tasty clam chowder. I do like to be beside the seaside. After the rest of the family headed back for a nap, I pottered down to the funfair on the Boardwalk and found (after some searching) a place in the shade to sketch. It was pretty busy, and that famous old rollercoaster rattled and screamed. It’s funny, staying in Santa Cruz you regularly hear the sound of girls screaming ringing through the night but in a wierdly normal (and clockwork) way, knowing it’s probably the rolloercoaster of that big thing that shoots people into the air and then drops them suddenly (why anyone would go on such an unholy contraption is beyond me). Perhaps it’s all the vampires. Below is a nice (and quickly sketched while waiting for pizza) view of the Boardwalk from the end of the street where we stayed. I liked this motel sign (that’s not where we stayed, we rented a small house).
Santa Cruz Motel Sign

a cute little house

pacific grove little housepacific grove little house

pacific grove little house

We took a few days family time away in a cute little house in Monterey – Pacific Grove, to be precise, down on the California coast. After the non-stop sketchathon of Portland it was just what I needed – not that I stopped sketching, of course.

It really was a cute little house, but just right for us. the beach was a shortish walk away, and playing on the sand was so relaxing. Having spent so much time around architects, I took a slightly more technical apprach to building sandcastles, and constructed irrigation channels beside them so that the incoming tide would just wash around them like a moat. Yeah, that didn’t last long; King Canute I am not. I hadn’t built sandcastles in years.

This cute little house did have a strict ‘no sand’ policy, though – even though they charge quite hefty cleaning fees per stay, they still wanted to see no evidence of beach activity whatsoever. Perhaps it clogs up their vacuum cleaners. Yet I couldn’t exactly strip off outside. I was quite paranoid having to tiptoe to the bathroom with sand in the toes and sand on my clothes. I can never clean it off at the beach itself. I always make the same mistake of using the sea to wash off the sand. That never works, folks.

rural sketching

ponies in medford

It’s good to get away, for a few days. We (and family) drove up I-5 to Medford, Oregon, for the fourth of July weekend. There were ponies there, in the field opposite my wife’s grandma’s house. I’ve never drawn ponies, or any sort of horse before, so I grabbed a bic and quickly sketched them while they munched on the grass.

mount shasta

The long road up to southern Oregon takes you right up the hot, flat Central Valley, paasing places such as Redding (where Merle Haggard lives), Weed (where they sell a lot of tacky souvenirs based on the fact they have an amusing name), and the magnificent and perfect Mount Shasta. If you said to someone, draw a mountain, just a typical moutain, from imagination, it would look just like Shasta. It looms lonely on the horizon, still crowned with snow, and then you pass its feet from across a broad meadow, and even though it’s right in front of you it still it doesn’t look quite real. I’ve never really seen a mountain like it, not even Mont St.Victoire in Aix. I drew it on the way home, quickly from the window of the moving car.

“spare the air”? what air?

smoggy davis

smoggy davis

The first summer I spent in Davis was like no other I had ever experienced. Growing up in England meant bright sunny June days with cut grass in the park, orange ice lollies and bumblebees, followed by grey rainy June days with damp mud in the park, heinz tomato soup and wasps. It did not ever mean endless desert like weather coupled with the feeling that it may never be cool ever again anywhere in the world. That is what summer in the Central Valley is like, and that’s what it’s like now – only much worse.

We haven’t had rain here since, I don’t know, early February. Now I know I’ll have little sympathy from you rain-sodden English folk, but it’s pretty serious – it’s dryer than ever, which means a perfect recipe for fire – and boy are we on fire. There have been over a thousand fires raging across the state for the past couple of weeks now, most caused by dry lightning strikes, and since then the huge baking Central Valley has been blanketed with thick, nasty hazy smoke, that is going nowhere fast. You can feel it in your lungs, you can see it everywhere, the sunlight has a dull orange tint to it, the sunsets are spectacularly frightening. And now the temperatures are reaching those nasty July heights again, hitting 110 degrees Fahrenheit today (that’s about a million degrees Centigrade, or it feels like it anyway). It’s really quite unfriendly outside.

And pretty unhealthy, which is why we’ve been having Spare the Air days here. On those days, people are encouraged not to use their cars and add to the pollution, but use public transport or simply stay at home. Buses are free, though it means waiting in the thick smoggy heat for one to come. When will it end, I wonder? Well, it won’t rain until, I don’t know, November, and we currently have a drought which means water is scarce for fighting wildfires (though it doesn’t seem to affect those three-times-a-day lawn sprinklers in our apartment complex, the ones that spray even when it does rain), and the state budget is already shot to pieces. Thank goodness for air-conditioning; though if the rolling black-outs start up again, we might not even have that. California, here we come.

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Ok, time for the now-expected pun-based gag. Britain have something similar to Spare the Air days: they’re called Spare the Heir, and on those days tabloids and glossy mags are encouraged not to write anything about Prince William. Especially not Heat.

Poor, I know. But it’s 110 degrees, so I have an excuse.

(By the way, this is my 50th post on this new blog!)

Week Fifty: All Along the Foggy Coast

We hit the road again, this time for a trip down the romantic Californian coast; we were celebrating two years since our wedding. We left the hazy Davis sunlight behind and stepped into the whispering fog of Monterey Bay. We queued up beside excitable children with their excitable parents for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, possibly the most well-known collection of marine life in the world (other than the actual Ocean, of course). We saw a great white shark, several hammerheads, a couple of giant octopuses, and some really ugly eels. We really enjoyed the playful antics of the sea otters; before we knew it, we’d been there almost four hours.

We dined at the Jack London pub in the pretty town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the clean and chain-store-free town where Clint Eastwood was formerly mayor. We ate until we were full, and I had a local Carmel wheat beer (it’s important to go local). We fell asleep early, and woke up to bright sunshine, whihc turned into intermittent grey patches of fog as we drove along the 17-mile drive down to the golf course at Pebble Beach, passing the much-photographed ‘lone cypress’ tree that has perched at the Ocean’s edge for three-hundred years. We stopped by the Carmel Mission, on the centuries-old Camino Real (King’s Highway, along Route 101), a glowing reminder that quite a lot of California’s European settlement began way before the Gold Rush, and that more than just Spanish names remain. We came across a large group of cyclists, who had gathered en masse to take the spectacularly Californian road that we were about to embark upon: Highway 1, along Big Sur.

We were not disappointed; Big Sur rises high above the Pacific, and drops to crashing waves below. We drove through patches of fog that swept in like an army of ghosts (though I noticed that at times it looked more like a fake special effect than real fog), and through incredibly colourful sunshine, as the wild crags threatened to push us off the edge and out of America. We ate wraps and grapes on the beach at Pfeiffer, watching dogs play in tide pools and waves thunder against giant rocks, producing great cinematic displays of power. We saw Pelicans and Cormorants, large Gulls and sleeping Elephant Seals, lying among the ruins of driftwood and seaweed. We reached Cambria by late afternoon, and had a romantic meal at the Brambles, beneath a painting of Venice, the city where we got engaged.

We left the Ocean the next day, but not before visiting Hearst Castle, the unbelievably opulent former home of William Randolph Hearst. We were guided through immense, grand rooms filled with Hearst’s massive collection of European art, mostly dating from the medieval and renaissance periods, mostly from the Mediterranean. We weren’t allowed to touch the marble pillars by the Neptune pool, which features original sculptures dating back to Imperial Rome; there is even a statue from ancient Egypt, far from home, watching the Californian sunset. We drove inland to Paso Robles, stopping at a winery for a little local tasting, before making the long journey back home. We didn’t want to come back to the Valley; the lure of the Sea is too strong for us. We uploaded our photos, and reluctantly got back to our real and busy lives.