Monday, May 29, 2006

It never rains in Southern California - it pours

Hey, it does rain in Southern California! The day dawned wet and grey. On other LA mornings I had looked out the window and felt I had woken up in a Californian oranges advertising clip.

My neck ached as a result of all the wild rides at Disneyland. I was also pre-menstrual, which meant feeling bloated, headachy and slightly emotional. (All right, I admit PMT can sometimes make you feel like a chain saw murderer, rather than only slightly irrational). But, the others also seemed edgy, including the two men. So what was eating them? Probably some apprehension about starting off again. We all seemed a bit tired and no one really wanted to get going. We dawdled over breakfast.

I thought that once we started on the road, things would be better. They weren’t.

F1 and F2 suddenly decided that they had to find a camping store to replace the glass on their lantern lamp (the one that had broken that night just outside of Yosemite National Park). I couldn’t believe it. After just mucking about seeing the sights for the last three days, they left it until now to do this. We waited over an hour before they got back.

We had planned to start this leg of the trip where Route 66 almost splashes into the Pacific Ocean. But, F2 thought we had delayed enough and complained about time wasting. I gave her some straight answers about that, including that TH had spent hours planning the route in advance which included his dream of driving on Route 66. A path that she had agreed to, when we planned the expedition back home in New Zealand.

Steve and Nancy happily drove on ahead of us to show us the way. There was very little parking available when we arrived at Santa Monica Boulevard and TH could only shoot off some quick photos, almost grabbed out the window of the Land Rover. It wasn’t the highlight that we had hoped for.

We finally left LA at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A crazy time to set off. Steve and Nancy suggested we should start afresh the next morning and invited us to stay another night. We probably should have. But, no, we stuck doggedly to our decision to leave that day.

We were caught up in a traffic jam on the Interstate freeway until 4 pm, due to a car accident. The drizzle continued to ooze down.

Finally, the last of the suburbs straggled past and we were out on the open road once more. Signs on the Interstate periodically showed the various exits to Route 66. At each one, F1 and F2, who were in front, just drove straight on. TH got angrier and angrier. He flashed his headlights, the agreed warning sign to stop, but this signal was either ignored or was not seen.

TH was really pissed off. This expedition had been years in the planning. He was our route master and he had spent days, weeks even, preparing for this moment. He shouted and ranted. I could understand his huge disappointment, but it was only the start of Route 66. It did stretch across at least eight states. We would be in the lead the next day, and we could then dive off as many times as we liked to explore the remaining bits of “the mother road”.

But, that wasn’t good enough. He railed and stormed, each time yet another exit was driven past.

Anyone who has suffered from PMT will know what was likely to happen next. It’s like some huge big pressure. It builds so your head feels like a pumpkin, your body a tight balloon. Everything is stretched to breaking, including emotions. It can be managed in calmer circumstances. But, not if stress levels are pushed to the max. I hadn’t felt this bad before - like dynamite under a laser beam.

The “pumpkin” burst and the seeds rocketed out in equal doses of rage and tears. This is the reaction men find so inexplicable. Screeching and crying all mixed up together. I ranted that he was over-reacting and behaving like a spoilt brat. I howled that he probably wanted us all dead, including me, so he could just do what he liked, when he liked. I could see him happily trotting along Route 66, contented and serene. All was right in his world and nary a thought for his dead wife, lying mouldering and unlamented in her cold grave. (Did I say earlier in this blog that I was just SLIGHTLY irrational?)

Rage only lasts so long. The adrenaline runs out, leaving exhaustion and a feeling of hopelessness behind. TH and I retreated into our own bubbles of misery. We weren’t speaking to each other and definitely not to F1 and F2 when we stopped at our motel for the night.

The ground slid sharply away from the car park next to our unit. While removing our bags from the Land Rover TH slipped on the greasy tarmac . His digital camera slid out of his grasp. Making a grab for the camera, both he and it skated over the car park edge and down the embankment. I rushed over, fearing the worst.

He was muddy and the camera was damaged. He blamed his shoes. He was wearing his dressy leather ones. But, their leather shoes weren’t good in wet weather.
I screamed, “why the hell aren’t you wearing your desert boots?”
“The have holes in the soles!”
“You were supposed to get new ones before we left home.”
“I ran out of time. I had all these things to do.”

Bloody TH. He always had an excuse. If only he said, even just once, that he had stuffed up. But, not this time. The excuse was that there were too many other things to do. As if I wasn’t busy at the same time? I was the only one who had to work at my job right up to the end before we left, just to make sure there was enough money.

And, that was another thing – money. Because of the colder than expected weather, we had needed to use more motels than campsites. Because of F2’s inability to share with us, the costs were starting to mount up. Things were very tight and here we were in another motel and we would also have the expense of buying new shoes as well.

It was the last straw of an extremely frustrating day. I hurled myself onto the bed in the motel and sobbed into my pillow. TH is more used to me being “Wonder Woman” and couldn’t understand why his action woman had stopped being wonderful. I didn’t know why, either. I burrowed under the duvet and just hoped the end of the world would come.

Once the sobs had settled to soft hiccuping snivels, TH was able to lure me out with some tasty food he had prepared. I was always very food motivated. The end of the world could wait until I had, at least, one last meal.

We said we were sorry for upsetting each other. I tried to explain how I felt. I wasn’t used to behaving like that. We had invested so much time into this big trip and the whole thing was getting spoiled.

And, I was really concerned at F2’s continuing tense behaviour and her complete unwillingness to be part of the team. She only seemed to co-operate if she was forced or bullied into it. It was easy to say, “if that’s what it takes, then I’ll do it.” But, I was very uncomfortable with that, and worried what the long-term effects would be – on her, as well as me.

I talked to TH about the day I’d had the huge shouting match with F2.

I described to him how disturbed I was that I got so much stimulation when I changed from “Jekyll” into “Ms Hyde”. I felt I could turn into someone I wasn’t. What if “this thing that I wasn’t”, was the only way to subdue F2’s tantrums and demands. Was there another way to continue on a team expedition, without that?

And, what about TH’s hopes and dreams for driving Route 66? Why should he have to give up on all that because F2 thought she could suddenly decide differently. There didn’t seem to be any easy answers. One thing was clear, neither TH nor I wanted to compromise our marriage.

We agreed we’d find a way forward and went to sleep in each others’ arms.

© Eventful Woman, 2006

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Motoring into Big LA

"LA is a great big freeway" droned in a loop in my head. We would hit the "big smoke" later in the day. Each Land Rover team was armed with maps and written instructions on how to get to our accommodation that night. TH and I were in front. The Series One hugged closely behind.

The countryside was lacklustre, dusty and flat, made even more ugly by the numerous oil wells. The pumping machines toiled all day, every day, like giant grey seesaws, sucking the land dry. Huge highway advertising signs further blighted the landscape. Most were dull with the exception of one for a pest control firm – "Zero Return on Infestment".

The San Fernando Valley yielded a few welcome spots of colour with the last of the Californian wildflowers before we hit Interstate Highway 5 into Los Angeles. Up onto the onramp and suddenly we were sucked into eight lanes of traffic. It seemed we were in a maelstrom, a tidal wave of metal hurtling us forward. Our engine was screaming at full revs to stay afloat in the tide. The smaller engine Series One bobbed uncertainly in our wake and was lost behind.

We couldn’t stop or slow down and all I could do is hope that the maps and training I had provided F2 would be enough.

The highway signs were easy to follow and, long in advance, I spotted the signs for Highway 405. We whizzed ourselves through a gap in the traffic to position ourselves into the correct lane and zipped off onto Highway 405. Later, the Venice Boulevard exit was also well marked and we slid down the off ramp with sighs of relief. While we were waiting at the traffic lights, the Series One came hurtling down the exit ramp to pull in behind us. We all grinned at each other, as we were justifiably proud of ourselves.

A few more turns brought us to the home of Steve and Nancy. Like Mark and Anne (in Klamath Falls) TH had "met" Steve on Rovernet, a website "chat room" for Rover and Land Rover fans. Again, like Mark and Anne, he had offered us accommodation in his home, even though we were complete unknowns. Steve owned a Land Rover Defender 90.

Steve and Nancy were lovely and very welcoming. They were in their early to mid thirties, but looked in their 20’s. Steve was dark and good looking, with a zest for life that was infectious. Nancy was tall and more serious, but very charming. We were lucky to have such generous hosts, particularly as downstairs part of their house was being seriously renovated. All the floorboards were up and we had to pick our way over the wooden crossbeams. It was like an enormous cattle grid. The kitchen downstairs was intact and this led off to a den/TV room. Upstairs were the bedrooms and bathroom. TH and I were given the guestroom, with a very inviting, huge queen sized bed. F1 and F2 brought up their air mattress for the spare room.

Back in the kitchen Steve was making us coffee. I heard a strange, snorting noise coming from the den. At my raised eyebrows, Steve said that he must introduce me to Pricilla and Peepers. I thought perhaps they might be two dogs, but that was a very unusual sound for a dog. Something was butting against the door into the kitchen, accompanied by more odd snuffles and snorts. Goats, maybe? Steve grabbed a handful of pellet shaped nibbles from a dish and moved towards the den door. He called out over his shoulder, "stand back". I didn’t know whether to brace myself or leap up onto the bench.

Fortunately, the den had a barn door arrangement and Steve opened just the top part. There was raucous squealing, determined rat-a-tat drumming of hooves on the door and I was halfway up on the bench before Steve could throw the pellets out into the den. Steve tossed the pellets, there was a slight pause as I saw them arc into the air, before pattering onto the floor. Instantly, there were screams, squeals and a lot of crashing and banging. What the hell was in there???

"Have a look", said Steve. I inched my way towards to door and peered over. Two, pot bellied, Vietnamese pigs were storming around the room, knocking over the furniture, snuffling up the pellets and squealing in delight.
Wow, this was my sort of house. I just LOVED pigs. Seeing my delighted face, Steve said that he had been worried I wouldn’t like them.

He opened the bottom part of the door and they stampeded over. They were the size of half-grown piglets but with that energy, they could easily knock over a human adult. Steve gave them each a pile of pellets and they settled down to graze, while I admired them. They had black, almost hairless bodies, twirly tails and neat little claws. Peepers was the smallest. He had his eyes closed, and he chewed on his food in a contented way, emitting the odd satisfied grunt. Pricilla kept an eye on Steve and I while she ate. Her bright eyes constantly flicked to Steve’s hands, to check out if he had more food. She was definitely more opportunistic of the two.

The den opened up into the garden.
"Come and meet Fido and Fluffy", Steve said.
"Hmmmm", I thought, "after those pigs I bet these are not going to be cats or dogs."
And, they weren’t.

They were two desert tortoises (turtles), each about the size of a large, kitchen mixing bowl. They had three babies, as yet unnamed. Fido and Fluffy didn’t make any noises at our approach, and barely noticed us. Much quieter sort of pets.

We stayed with Steve and Nancy for three happy days.

The day after our arrival, F1 and F2 visited Universal Studios. TH and I had been there on a previous visit to LA, so we had a rest day. Well, sort of a rest day. I wrote another article for the Land Rover magazine that we were on assignment to, while TH caught up on maintenance chores on our Series 2A Land Rover.

I sat in the den with my laptop and worked all day. Every time I needed a break, I would put my computer safety out of the way, and then throw pellets to Peepers and Pricilla. I don’t know who had the most fun – the pigs or myself. Occasionally, I would go out in the garden to see Fido and Fluffy. Sometimes they would look up at me, inscrutable, while chewing slowly on whatever they had in their mouths. Dull maybe, but I had never seen turtles up close before, so I was still fascinated.

On our second day in LA, the Local Land Rover parts dealer, "British Pacific", treated us to Disneyland. He was also called Steve.

Steve Hedke was a Disney junkie from way back. His parents brought him to Disneyland at aged two, when the park opened in 1955. He has been a "Gold Pass" member since then.

He met us when the gates opened at 10am, used his Gold Pass to secure free entry for us, and headed us straight for the Indiana Jones "Land Rover" ride. There was a long queue but we chatted Land Rovers and compared adventures. Soon we were at the head of the queue and in the front row of this exciting, jungle ride. We lurched up and down, sometimes in darkness, with flashing explosions, gunshots, rolling boulders, poisonous darts, and the best part for me, squishing "rats" under the wheels, before zooming out into the light.

Steve H paid for our lunch and gave us British Pacific hats and tee shirts. He had to get back to work in the afternoon and he made sure we had Disneyland maps for the rest of the day. He, Steve and Nancy, Mark and Anne were some of the many people in America, and the rest of the world, who’s generosity and kindness made our expedition special and memorable.

After a big and happy day, we staggered back to Steve and Nancy’s home. We had pizza for dinner, with the voracious Pigzilla (our nickname for Pricilla) trying to grab it off our plates.

Tomorrow we would have to hit the road again.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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Sunday, May 14, 2006

How not to be eaten by a mountain lion

Photo: The General Grant Sequoia Tree. Eventful Woman is the
small figure to the far right of the photo.

If seeing bear proof lockers again was scary, then my heart really thumped when I read the signs about what to do when meeting cougars (mountain lions).

Don’t run
Don’t crouch down, try to appear as large as possible
Hold your ground, move away slowly while facing the lion
Pick up little children
(and throw them at the lion - only kidding)
If lion behaves aggressively, wave hands, shout, throw sticks and stones
If attacked, fight back
!! (yeah, right)

We were standing in the snow at Sequoia National Park.

Most of the roads were closed because of heavy snowfalls and we had decided to take the short walk to see the large General Grant sequoia. I had been enjoying myself scrunching along in the white stuff. And, then I saw the cougar warning sign. Eeeeeek!

My palpitations were just settling down when I spotted another, slightly smaller sign warning of other dangers in the park - rivers, lightning, plague, ticks, poison oak, carbon monoxide, giardia in the water, rattle snakes and hypothermia. It was a wonder that I didn’t turn tail and bolt to the safety of the Land Rover.

Instead, TH and I continued to plod along in the snow, puffing ourselves up to look bigger, while looking out for handy children to use as missiles. There were not a lot of people around and I hoped the cougars were not hungry.

We finally paused in front of the General Grant tree, named in honour of Ulysses S. Grant. Used to our own gigantic Kauri trees at home, we did not fall into a hushed silence as the promotional material suggested. The Americans claim this to be the world’s third largest living tree, but that probably means America’s third largest. However, it was pretty impressive. The height was 267 feet (81.5 metres) and the circumference was 107 feet (32.8 metres) at ground level. It’s estimated age is 1800 – 2000 years.

I fingered the bark, which was soft and spongy, but splintered under my touch. It was quite dainty and fragile for such a big tree.

Back in the Land Rover I read over some of the Park’s promotional bumph, while TH brewed up a cup of tea. The Park Rangers write a regular newsletter called "The Sequoia Bark" (very clever). I enjoyed reading the winter notes of Ranger Mary Anne Carlton:
"The Douglas squirrels go from tree to tree for safety. Sometimes you find a little midden where one sat and ate the fleshy scales of a sequoia cone. You can tell coyote tracks from domestic dog tracks because they travel in almost a straight line. Coyotes don’t lollygag around, they’re saving energy by going the shortest distance they can to survive."

The warning sign I had seen didn’t mention coyotes. I checked Ranger Carlton’s notes about cougars. She said that there was more chance of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion. Hey, didn’t the warning sign mention lightning as well? It was time we stopped "lolly-gagging" around and got out of here. With almost all the park roads closed, there wasn’t much more we could see anyway.

The countryside flattened as we drove further south towards LA. We tossed off our jackets, hats and scarves as the day warmed and we motored though acres of the orange and olive groves. The whole landscape had changed quickly from the start of the day and was now dry and flat, with clumps of cacti and Phoenix palms. The buildings took on a distinctly Spanish look. And, there were lots more people around.

Coming from the wide-open (and deserted) spaces, the increasing numbers of people and traffic, made me suddenly feel unsure and apprehensive, like a nervous country girl about to hit town. I had become "city shy". Take me back to the cougars and coyotes.

I pushed my irrational thoughts aside and told myself that these folks were just going about their usual life and work. The farmer ploughing his fields, the kid happily skateboarding, the people in the Ute (pick up) with their crop of vegetables piled high in the back were all just that, and not about to suddenly whip out their machine guns, as in the movie of my fevered imagination. I saw a cow shaped letterbox outside one house. "See", I told my pathetic, nervous inner self, "they have novelty letterboxes just like we do."

A funny sign lifted my spirits. It advertised the benefits of "gusto" wind machines, which are used during cold weather to stir the air, and protect the orange and olive groves from frost – "Cure for the common cold – gusto wind machinery"

I had finally settled into some sort of inner calm, when a large, battered Chevrolet, circa 1970’s, pulled close alongside of us. The driver was gesticulating wildly, hooting his horn and skimming dangerously close. After veering in and out alongside of us for a few metres, he zoomed ahead and cut across us, slamming on his brakes. There was no choice but to screech to a halt. As the dust settled I saw F1 and F2, who were navigating as front vehicle that day, continue on ahead as if nothing had happened.

The man in the Chevrolet flung open his door, and walked quickly back towards us. He was quite short, middle aged to elderly and didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons. Even so, we were on high alert. I couldn’t see his face, which was in shadow from his baseball hat. We decided to remain in the Land Rover, which would have a distinct height advantage over him. TH kept the Land Rover in gear, ready to steam forwards and push the Chevrolet out of the way, if necessary.

The man whipped off his baseball hat. He was grinning all over his dial as he shouted out, "Say, are you my long lost cousins from Noo Zeeee-land?" We stared at him in shock. Of all things, this was not what we had expected. By now he was alongside the Land Rover, peering up at TH with joy and amazement on his face.

"Cousins?", repeated TH.

"I sure hope so. The name is Gay Lucas. Put it there", the man said, thrusting his hand up into the Land Rover cab.

The penny dropped. Our sponsorship logos, which included the Lucas brand, were emblazoned all over the sides of both Land Rovers. The words "New Zealand" were also in very bold letters. Gay Lucas had been driving on the other side of the highway. He had seen the Land Rovers, then the logos, had whizzed around in a U turn and started chase. He’d recently studied his ancestry and had read that a branch of his family had immigrated to New Zealand.

And now here he was, clinging to the side of our Land Rover like an over-excited kid on his birthday. He was very disappointed that we weren’t his cousins, or that there wasn’t a rich Mr Lucas, back in New Zealand, who had sponsored us. He was keen to stay on and talk about how we might help him find his cousins in NZ. We were not keen at all. He seemed mad eyed and over-zealous. High on something, perhaps?

I looked up the road to see what had happened to F1 and F2. They had stopped a distant 200 metres away. Obviously, they were not going to act as the cavalry on this occasion. We extracted ourselves as gently as we could from Mr X and scooted onwards.

We stopped alongside F1 and F2. I shoved open my sliding window, "Why didn’t you come back?"
"We thought you had just stopped to talk", replied F1
"Didn’t you see we were forced off the road?"
"No, I didn’t notice."
"What about all the horns and shouting?"

Again, he hadn’t noticed. I remembered the incident back in the motel room several days ago, when F2 and I had been shouting at each other while F1 was on the telephone. He didn’t notice that either. Maybe he was one of these people that could isolate themselves into their own little bubble.

My eyes flicked across to F2. She was staring straight ahead. I wondered if she had noticed the incident. If she had, she wasn’t saying. Or, maybe she still hadn’t made the teamwork connection."

I sighed. I felt I shouldn’t have to spell this sort of stuff out. But, we were still new together as a team. What was obvious to me may not be that clear to others. Our leg though America was, in part, training for later, when we would be driving through wilder countries on the homeward leg.

So I just said, "keep your eyes open behind you, as well as in front. Remember, there is safety in numbers. If you are the lead vehicle and we stop for more than a few seconds, especially if we are forced off the road, then you need to come back."

They nodded and we moved on down the road.

F2 had been doing well with the navigating that day. But, she became more anxious as the day wore on. I guess the busier roads were having an effect on her too. There was no sign of any campsites and we decided on a motel. After F1 and F2 drove past several in a row, we ended up outside a "Best Western" that was expensive at $US65 per night (remember this was 1998). I suggested we go back to the motels we had just seen. But, F2 had had enough. She informed me that she was tired and she wasn’t going to stay in a dump.

We decided it was best to split up for the night to give everyone some space. The big argument we’d had in the last motel was still fresh in my mind and, while F2 had demonstrated a more even temper since then, she had been very tense at times.

TH and I returned to the cosy "Sundance Inn" down the road. At $US32 per night it was clean and comfortable and it was great to be alone with just each other.

© Eventful Woman, 2006

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Monday, May 08, 2006

My name is Sue. How do you do?

"I’d never sell the house to do this trip", I muttered to TH as we drove on from meeting fellow Kiwis on the road.
"Maybe it’s the only choice they had", replied TH.
"There’s always another way to skin a cat", I replied.

We had stopped at a viewing area for one last look at Yosemite National Park and had instantly spotted a kiwi sticker on one of the campervans (American’s call them RV’s) also parked there. The owners looked about our age and, when in New Zealand, they lived in Waitakere City. They were touring USA for 12 months.

This trip was a life goal fulfilled for them and they had sold the house to make the trip. It was a tempting prospect – a year in one country, when compared with one year to drive around the whole world like we were doing. Imagine staying in Yosemite for a week or more, instead of just a night? Wow. But, I’d never sell the house to do it. TH and I had taken the sponsorship/photojournalism route. (Refer blog entry for 18 July 2005 )

We sadly drove out of Yosemite and trundled along the back roads, aiming in the general direction of Fresno and LA. The paddocks were full of spring flowers in the lush, long grass. Orange poppies, the California State flower, swayed tall and bright amid the other white, yellow and purple flowers. With a warm wind riffling the grass the scene looked like a movie version of a Monet painting.

Later in the afternoon we stopped at dot of a place called Piedra. We were on the hunt for information about nearby accommodation or campsites. The place looked as sleepy and quiet as the old dog dozing in the spring sunshine outside the Post Office.

I was standing looking very lost, clutching my map, in the middle of the road , when a big woman in a uniform appeared from behind the building. She looked military and business-like as she bustled towards me. It could have been a scene from one of those films where a stranger asks for directions and then is swallowed up by aliens, the FBI, or something, and is never heard of again. However, I noted she had a kindly face and she smiled as she asked "Could I help you?"

For a deserted spot, she was the best person we could have bumped into. Her name was Sue and she was part of the US Corp of Army Engineers. They manage dams (among other things) and have developed campsites for the public on the lakeshores of these dams, all over America. Later in our trip we stayed at many of the US Corp of Army Engineers' campsites and always thanked ourselves that we had discovered them via our guardian angel Sue.

Sue told us there was a camp only 10 miles away. It was called Pine Flat Lake, was cheap and had hot showers. On arrival, we pitched our tents by the water’s edge. Dinner was a "fry-up" of sausages, eggs, potatoes and peas. Slouching with full bellies in our campchairs after dinner, we noted a number of fishermen’s camps dotted along the lakeside. They didn’t seem to be the partying sort of fishermen. We gratefully retired to our tent and sunk into a happy slumber.

At 5:45 am there was a great roar of outboard motors, as scores of fisherman roared off in their boats at dawn. Mercifully the dam was huge and the scream of the engines faded to a dull thump as they rode further away. Favourite fishing holes were found, the engines were finally cut and peace settled back into the still morning air. Our sleeping bags, which were lovely and cosy at Yosemite had been too hot last night. I had been restless in the heat, but in the cool (and now quiet) of the morning, I nodded off once more.

The fishermen were still all out there, doing their "male bonding", "fishing ritual" thing when we left at 9am to get on the road again.

As we drove along in USA I loved finding amusing and funny signs. Not far along the way that morning was one advertising a cafĂ© near Piedra – "The Best Food by a Dam Site".

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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