Magical Giants and a massive chocolate cake

20141126-183513.jpg

Even from a sweaty position in a back seat in a low-slung hire car, being driven by two trail mix-loving Swiss chaps, the views driving up the steep valley of Sequoia National Park were beautiful to behold. A six hour drive from Vegas, it’s getting hard to define a favourite National Park from the many I have been privileged to visit over the last five months, but as we continue to scale up the winding tarmac, the trees are like no others I have ever seen. They’re from a different world.

Regal, majestic, massive, old and strangely characterful towers, you travel under them as they look over on the rest of fledgling forest like they are the wise guardians of a nursery of infants. Like any wonderful, magical, and grandfatherly wizard with unfathomable powers, they too love a practical joke…

20141126-182535.jpg
Each trunk is an epic display of titanic proportion, suspending belief for a moment as it’s a little difficult to comprehend that these gigantums are real. It is their forest, and thinking anything else would be like sitting on the side of a live volcano and assuming you control it. They are impressive, and they are passively huge and unhindered, like light-fingered giants making friends with pixies.

20141126-181817.jpg
Exploring Sequoia was like walking to Mordor, only with a few less Orks. The majesty of the valley and the wizardry of the forest, the views are lung-emptying in both the effort it takes to find them, and the humbled breathlessness that they leave you in.

20141126-182022.jpg
Getting lost amongst these hills is one of the most memorable, natural experiences I have had, and as one of the hikes was over twelve miles across rocky valley and sun-drenched forest, it was the longest day walk I have completed within a national park. It was also one of the most tiring (they’re starting to add up!) and most rewarding. I was glad I had youthful and enthusiastic company.

20141126-195621.jpg
The views were some of the most spectacular. Green-treed canyons, boulders, granite cliffs, creeks and lakes all flowed under our footsteps as we neared this weeks bath time, and swimming in the melt water of Pear Lake at 9000ft was nothing but freezing. I did however enjoy mocking one of my Swiss friends for finding it much colder than me (probably due to a little weight gained in Texas and Las Vegas).

A couple of days sat behind my new Swiss friends, and Dani and Urs’s English was rapidly improving. Mainly due to confidence, and that we shared a similar sense of humour, we quickly found it easy to negotiate tricky conditions, navigate correctly, share the duties of carrying our back pack, and remembering where they parked the car! I could also finally share some empathy, as by this time on my trip, my feet had taken such a battering, such constant pounding, that foot care was now a shared priority, and not just my own. Even though I had gotten used to a few aches and pains, a shared understanding was welcome, and we all had a fire in our shoes.

20141126-182342.jpg
Urs turned 26 while in Sequoia, and to celebrate, we hiked almost 10 miles to see 25 of the largest sequoia trees on earth. Our feet on fire again, and no shower to clean ourselves, Dani and I forgot our worries, and spoilt Urs with the biggest chocolate cake we could find!

California was proving to be hotter than expected, even at altitude in Sequoia. It isn’t hard to notice while travelling through its rural farming towns and along its winding hillside roads, that the entire landscape is dying of thirst. The once green pastures and lush agricultural farm lands are now brown and grey. Horses and cattle swish their tales to keep cool, and dust flies around them in the dry air. Water sources seem pitiful, crops seem desperate, and any wealth that agricultural farming may have experienced in this part of the country, seems to be drying up too. I saw the Colorado river in its infancy while travelling through it’s origin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It is 1,450-miles long, it supplies water for 30 million people, it is one of the most famous, utilised, built-upon, diverted, damned and controlled rivers on Earth (most notably at the famous Hoover Dam in Nevada). It faces problems associated with increasing population, declining ecosystems, drought, and climate change. It would normally grow larger as it nears the coast, however it is drained of its flow through multiple American states, and is a baron, empty trickle – failing to deposit even a sorry offering into the Sea (of Cortez) as nature would desire since the 1960’s. It continues to cause huge controversy.

Although not without its beauty spots, its busy and expensive west coast cities, as well as its attempts at progressiveness, California is on its last legs as a fruitful state – and many Americans are migrating north towards Oregon and elsewhere. Like an ageing mans hairline, the desert-forehead is slowly expanding towards the coast, only it doesn’t appear to be ageing with much sophistication, or hydrated beauty.

Checking out America’s vast countryside, even the Midwest, is always eye-opening. It’s educational, inspiring, curious to get off the beaten track and intriguing to see how life is, away from tourist hoards. However, as lovely as it is, it’s always more enjoyable to reach a checkpoint. As this is my last before the coast, as well as the second most famous national park in the country; Yosemite evokes possibly the most emotional reaction in me yet – more so for what it means to reach, rather than the spectacle of arriving (because I only have one place to go after this – the coast). Sadly, the entrance to Yosemite is more like queuing for a drive through movie, rather than being confronted with the imagined oasis in the hills which might be expected. There is a silver lining however, to my dark entrance…

20141126-194234.jpg

Posted in couchsurf, http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An erection, leading to half an hour under a hotel

Back in the cake-loving, bohemian, neighbourly company of Bryce Canyon, under some growling and rather volatile grey skies, I watched two young men in their colourful board shorts, puffing away, agitatingly on their cigarettes as they attempted to erect a new tarpaulin between a few trees. Amusing as it was, and although they appeared to be constructing something on the same magnitude as a second Golden Gate Bridge, they managed to do a fairly decent job – and then proceeded to not use it, sitting back next to the fire and simply admiring it from a few yards away.
Unable to pin point their language, my sidekick Amanda and I gambled on where they were from. I guessed it was a extremely rural dialect of German, and as educated as she is, Amanda’s strong point is not language; she guessed some sort of Arabic. We approached with smiles and complimented them on their attempts at an erection.
They were Swiss, and although it was insulting them (like someone asking me if I am “from cockney!” – Yes, that happened), I was clearly much closer geographically than Amanda. I mean, Arabic! One of them was simply bearded and tanned!

20141123-104855.jpg
The two gentlemen were friendly company, and we used our best, pigeon English to all communicate. It turned out that shortly after Bryce Canyon, they were driving to Las Vegas and then into California. My sheepish (cheeky), “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” approach kicked in, and they said they had enough room on the back seat, should I meet them somewhere near Vegas.

20141123-105031.jpg
Never taking anything for granted, and often as I attempted to plan my travels on the hoof, I contacted the Swiss gents to see where they might be after my first 48hours in Vegas. I didn’t have a back up plan to leave, when I reached the city, but not only was my host so generous in offering her spare sponge mattress in her single roomed apartment, but she also wouldn’t allow me to leave town on foot across the desert. Although I am grateful for her stubbornness towards my health and safety, hiking a thousand miles in desperate temperatures was also not something I was looking forward to. Moreover, I am constantly aware that to outstay my welcome anywhere, is the last thing I want to be guilty of, and often on my trip, it has played on my mind. Constantly being on the move is a much healthier alternative (for all concerned), than upsetting a host – even if they aren’t comfortable with me just hiking out of town when there’s a break in the weather.
My Swiss friends and I didn’t spend time together in Las Vegas (they were having a much more expensive, indulgent time on the strip, compared to my varied shinanigans), but luckily they agreed to meet me when they were leaving town, and the offer to ride in the back seat was still open.

20141123-103838.jpg
Well known for their mountain range, their chocolate, their cheese, their clock-making and goats, not forgetting Heidi, the Swiss can also boast one of the most expensive cities on the planet – Zurich, and as a small, land-locked country, a fence-sitting neutrality throughout modern history, which only seems to have led to their surprising wealth. What they cannot currently boast of, is an impressive, short term memory. Even as a collective, my two new chums can’t recollect much of the last few days, which on reflection, I suspect happens a lot in Vegas. However, after parking their car beneath their hotel just three days earlier, four of us spent thirty minutes searching, and pressing the unlock button on the key-fob to try and find it. I did wonder what kind of company I had chosen to keep, while travelling into California…

20141123-104746.jpg
I picked her up and hugged her like a small bear in the parking lot, as an unsuspecting Laurianne and I avoided a teary goodbye. Grateful and astounded again of hospitality from not only one person, but half a dozen in a city that I really didn’t expect to be so neighbourly; I left Las Vegas (which surprised me like the not so obviously-attractive girl at school that nobody fancies, but secretly I now have a crush on) in a slightly sad mood.

Into California, and even though there is a plethora of people-made places as well as natural wonders which I could spend months exploring, I only have one more official checkpoint before the coast – Yogi Bear’s home – Yosemite. However I also managed to see this magnificent waterfall urinal on route, and as he sign says – Enjoy!

20141123-103219.jpg
The Swiss chaps and I are heading in that direction, but first, after about a six hour drive, I’m ecstatic to report from the back seat, we’re heading to Sequoia National Park…

20141123-105223.jpg

Posted in couchsurf, http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moths, Wild Horses, Desert secrets and a Wookie

I assumed it would be like any other large city – diverse, busy, loud, fast paced, ignorant of the issues beyond its boundaries, and typically isolating even when surrounded by people.
The tourist brochures, the posters, the movies, the gossip and the stories that Vegas conjures and gregariously flaunts are all accurate – it’s an indulgence Mecca unlike anywhere else – and it’s extreme in its extravagance. I thought I would detest Las Vegas for all the credit its lavish, overspent reputation gives it. However, my opinion has rapidly been changed.
20141116-181249.jpg

I try to avoid highly populated cities as being instantly welcomed into a busy hive without knowing anyone is often a rare occurrence. You may think that it’s easy to stroll into a bar, be friendly, talk the talk and make friends – and it is for someone who is gregarious and able to overcome their innate introversion. However, add to the list of challenges of needing somewhere to sleep that same night, having less money than it costs to buy one beer, and carrying everything you own on your back, and the task is infinitely more difficult. The pressure is high, and the likelihood of sleeping on the street is almost a sure one. I’d rather take my tent to a remote field, behind a billboard or farmers barn on a rural back road, than to the streets of a sleep-depriving, noisy city, with plenty of authorities or unsavoury characters, seemingly unhappy or too interested in my presence.
Too often in a city, people operate at such a pace, that trust and hospitality are not priorities. Assumed money tends to be the first detail that people react to, and unless you fit the criteria of looking and sounding like someone who is going to pay for a welcome, it is hard to base an opinion on a city. I find comments and actions of relaxing locals are the best clue, but on the Vegas Strip, they’re hard to find: Tourists “relax” and locals work.
A few miles from the famous strip, locals find me, and the way they behave and treat a stranger (through this blog and a rather loose introduction) is like they are in a much smaller town than a city of two million people. With the feeling that the strip is a million miles away, hospitality, generosity, and the sense of community upon arrival is noticeable – which is absent in other large cities.

One thing I quickly learnt about Las Vegas, is that NOBODY here, is from here. With the large majority of its citizens working in the tourism, restaurant, gambling, hotel or nightclub sector, its unsurprising that so many people in Las Vegas are living in some kind of transient state: job to job, house to house, city to city. Nobody seems to have roots in the here, and everything moves at a rapid pace.

Everyone is either a tourist, a worker that never escaped, someone who’s life was a little too much to handle and somehow, Vegas provided a safe haven, or they came like a moth just to see the bright lights, and are still here forty five years later, fluttering around the place, a little unsure as to why.

20141116-183214.jpg
There is one exception who found me. Her father is a committed, life-long Vegas stage hand; her mother’s whereabouts are unknown after she found the bottle during an arguably successful dancing career in Vegas. Her relationship with her father is strong, constant and happy; the other, without being over dramatic, is virtually extinct. I don’t think I could have been welcomed by anyone “more Vegas”. Typically streetwise and more knowledgable about the city’s extremes, smart about its indulgences, conservative over its extravagance, lenient towards its liberalism, and more loving of its qualities, Deadre has Vegas in her beautiful, infectious soul.

20141116-192104.jpg
I told Deadre that I prefer to see a raw Vegas, a version that tourists don’t get to see, one that doesn’t involve losing my $6 a day fortune and the one that she loves, or hates, to be home. I really didn’t have to wait long before the desert city threw down a few surprises.

20141116-182719.jpg
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…apparently. So I won’t go into too much detail about time spent amongst the bright lights, the strippers, the extravagance, the hedonism, the flash cars, the fast women, the fancy dress, the gambling, the lightning-storm during a roof-top pool party, the excessive drinking and drugs at a free saki tasting night, the impulsive shopping, questionable outfits, setting fire to myself, waking up in my clothes with “chicken” written across my chest, swimming in the Bellagio fountain, being taken go-carting, being thrown out of the rainforest café, being propositioned by two men, being poked in the eye by a wookie, finding the secret pizza bar, bottom tattoos, or being forced to drink a hot chocolate and watch a terrible episode of True Blood. Some (or all) of those items may be true…

20141116-183507.jpg
Here is a little taster of what Las Vegas is not so famous for, and what I definitely did (or did not) enjoy while galavanting through with less than $6 a day.

20141116-192004.jpg
There are ski resorts less than 15 minutes from Vegas. In the desert! The natural landscape around Las Vegas isn’t sandy desert to the horizon – there are ranges of vast, drastic hills and mountains, creating and effecting the weather all year round.

20141116-191615.jpg
I was taken out of the furnace and in to the washing machine. It was raining, and amongst the grumbling skies, it is eerie, foggy and cold. While being drenched in a storm as if I was standing on a hillside in West Yorkshire, I could see Vegas gleam in sunshine less than a dozen miles away. Not all the resorts have ski centres, but the hotels operate all year round, and I’m told all the lovers (adulterers) go here to escape the city. The ranches, restaurants, canyons and hillsides are all soaking wet, muddy and some wait for snow, but the hiking, camping and outdoor “pursuits” in the area are stunning.

20141116-185126.jpg
Wandering around the warm hillsides and small, wealthy towns on the outskirts of Vegas are wild horses and burros. There is argument (with prehistoric fossil examples) that wild horses did exist prior to western settlement, and that American horses were eradicated to stop native tribes leaving U.S. government land. Fitting with history, there is no evidence that supports this eradication, but it isn’t too difficult to believe that some horses could have travelled west and survived the ice age. Technically the horses and burros that roam now are ferrel animals, but called wild by anyone who needs to advertise that they are there. They were used by the conquistadors, and over time either escaped or were cut loose.

20141116-184239.jpg
Roaming the desert and indulging on lush areas of human-watered grassy spots, the burros are a rather rustic bit of history that nobody holidaying on the strip would even hear of. As well as the Equidae roaming around Vegas, there are desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep, a multitude of desert reptiles, humming birds, and burrowing owls.

20141116-184944.jpg

20141116-185641.jpg
I have found it impossible to understand places, cities and rural towns without local knowledge, and as I desperately wanted to learn about American culture and people on my trip, the only way I could really get to love or hate Vegas was to see it from my new friend’s eyes. Deadre is somewhat of an awesome foodie, knowing every back door and secret food spot in the city. With her, every meal is a treat, and as Vegas is open 24/7, it doesn’t matter if you get peckish at 3am. Surprisingly, both of us did on a few occasions and for me, it’s rather odd to see how many people around town eat in the middle of the night! Deadre also knows where and when every happy hour is, where her friends are who DJ in strip bars on “free-pizza-Sunday”, and where the best bar managers are, who she may have worked with; I really didn’t spend much on extravagant plates of food.

20141116-182354.jpg
Deadre wasn’t the only foodie I met in Vegas, and it’s never a shame to say that when you meet a food lover, and they wish to share their hospitality, it ALWAYS means a fine feed. I was treated to a meal by Claudia, the first non-Caucasian American I had received hospitality from since the week I arrived in the country. For a more in depth chat about my experience of race and culture in North America, see my recent post “Diversity and Division”. Claudia is Mexican/Italian, so if I pay attention to any sweeping statements on racial stereotypes; the fiercest, most passionate, most argumentative and volatile woman on earth! Indeed, if all those things are focused on food, she takes no prisoners, and picks out the best ocean chowder in town before I’m “forced” to drink a pineapple cider and attend a free saki-tasting evening… I have to put my best shorts on for the occasion!

20141116-181200.jpg
My feet might be well used and in need of some time on a podiatrists table, but in Vegas, my belly is in fine fettle. I didn’t think I would be on the verge of gout on this trip, but when on such a tight budget and when people offer food, I’m only eating a few meals a day, and then again on a whim at 3am because I assume I’ll need the energy. It’s also rude to turn down any offering – and when they lead to lifelong friendships, all are welcome!

20141116-185927.jpg
There is no absence of hiking in Vegas as trekking from one end of the strip and back again, via a plethora of colourful, mind boggling and overindulgent sights is no stroll in the park. It takes hours and has just as many ups and downs (if you take the stairs to the many shopping floors) as any hike in the hills, only with a few more, easily accessible water sources. However, don’t assume I’m enjoying the strip. On $6 a day, it really is just a sightseeing hike, and it’s a long and loud one. I prefer my indulgent trips to the hills, and not because I have experienced any of the affairs that the locals do…

20141116-190652.jpg
One experience which can’t go unspoken about however, was the vision of the Bellagio fountain. It’s a Vegas must-see. While all the tourists stood, all taking their photos from the usual walkway, I enjoyed it in a secret spot, where there are no tourists, hidden from view and with a true “Lass Vegan”. No other details needed – I’m not sharing Deadre’s Vegas secrets, and if I indulged everyone, hotel security may want a word…

20141116-192551.jpg
On my last night in Vegas, I find myself in a country club. Not the type you might imagine, with the average age over 70, a stock of Bentleys in the parking lot and everyone with a sweater draped around their shoulders, but a country club – a nightclub, playing only country music. I have never been to a country-nightclub before, at least one where they take their country dancing so seriously – all night! It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced and to say the dancing is impressive would be an understatement. EVERYONE knows the dance moves, and EVERYONE can dance with a partner. Ok, so some are more impressive than others, but it’s a little daunting going anywhere near the dance floor. Normally I’m flying there after a few beers, but not on this occasion as it’s too hypnotic, and rather than ruin it with my two left feet, I’m sat in awe. In an odd way, amongst the usual nightclub vibe; alcohol, bad outfits, men’s “elevator eyes” wandering up and down as their girlfriends react: its all very entertaining, but I find it completely romantic. I wish I could dance like the country dudes as I’m completely envious…but not of the ones being beaten by their cowgirls.

She may be extravagant, over indulgent, ludicrous to the point of being sickly sugar coated with “forced good times”. She may be an expensive date to the usual traveller, gambler or shopaholic, but Las Vegas showed me some true colours of what a city can be, away from her hypnotic and horrendous façade.

20141116-192357.jpg
In my last post, I mentioned that it appears that the sustainability of the Las Vegas is almost at a crucial point, but for this “prefers rural” tourist, I am overwhelmed with the sense of community and hospitality from the real people of Las Vegas. I’m not one for a bold, loud, tactless and tacky flirt, but under her guise, she’s converted me.

20141116-192855.jpg

Posted in couchsurf, http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An epic Bust in Vegas

“left to enjoy a peaceful morning with humming birds, a flask of warm water, dry granola, and my map with no drawn line west of where I am. I’m dreaming of reaching Vegas soon, and can only wish that it is not just Hope that will get me there…”

20141113-102050.jpg
It was no coincidence that my last post ended with Hope by the side of the road, as I was picked up by a couple of bikers (in a car) aptly named Mcgiyver (real name, Hope) and Runway. I have already mentioned that travelling and meeting different people, repeatedly reminds to not judge books by their covers, and a couple of tattooed, leather clad, alternative bikers, were the epitome of gentile humanity. Runway – named because he works at Vegas airport – is softly spoken, and possibly the calmest, most placid and relaxed biker you could imagine; maybe not what his beard and rugged exterior personify. Hope, is rather matter of fact about life, and humorously approaches any subject raised in conversation. I asked her “why Mcgiyver?” and without hesitation she told me, “Because I can fix anything with duck tape and a tube sock” – I wish I could! It would lighten my backpack! She is a lover of old country music, biker lifestyle (obviously), intriguing, slightly bizarre, and adventurous personalities, she’s a karaoke fan and a sci-fi expert – writing tv scripts and reviewing such things in her freelance career. When we reach Vegas, I find out that “slightly bizarre” is just the ticket.
20141113-101734.jpg

After only knowing Hope and Runway for a few hours in the car, I am instructed to make myself at home after a shower, meet the family , some rather large dogs, be coerced into contributing – with my artistic flair – to a world-wide scavenger hunt, be taken to a local karaoke evening on my first night in Vegas, and I am also to fulfil my “life-long dream” of constructing a bust of John Barrowman’s head out of duct tape. I may now die happy.
20141113-101557.jpg20141113-101610.jpg
During some excellent (and some really not so excellent) karaoke, I meet a hoard of Hope’s friends, and I’m introduced to Laurianne – who offers me a floor space to sleep on while I am in town – something I am always a little concerned about bagging, before going to a bar. Judgement call though, Hope assured me it is fine.

Bars, nightclubs and pubs are not places I have frequented on this journey; a combination of budget, needing a safe place to sleep, and that it is difficult to ascertain what is drunk banter, and what is true hospitality late at night in a crowded or possibly volatile environment. It’s reason enough to stay off the sauce – unless encouraged. I think I have done a good job of assuming a sober status while travelling…at least that’s what people have assumed.

20141113-103934.jpg
A drink here and there doesn’t seem like a lot, and often one is offered just to hear a story. However, I am repeatedly amazed at how much people give, especially when people have so little. Wyith a little help from supportive friends, Laurianne is succeeding to find her feet and design a healthier life for herself in Vegas after too many abusive experiences. I’m also often surprised with how much people have shared with me about their personal life on my journey. Maybe it’s an American openness that us British lack, maybe it’s my unshifty demeanour, maybe I attract nut jobs that need to share everything that’s in their head, or maybe I’m a Nosy Parker and I ask too many questions…I’ll let you judge.

Laurianne seems to have more reason than anyone to be nervous, shy or apprehensive about letting a stranger into her life and her home, yet all I have received from my smart, gregarious and quick witted friend, is hospitality, happiness, trust, support and liberal amounts of generosity. She told me that nothing comes back to you the way you need it to, unless you give it yourself. I haven’t felt more humbled, grateful, or wealthy, than when I have been given someone’s heartfelt friendship and generosity – and those who have surprisingly, repeatedly and consistently given more, have tended to be the people who have less to give.
I thought I would quickly detest Vegas for the same reasons I avoid all large cities, and for all the things it is famous for (apart from Elvis, the Rat Pack and a little gambling, I like those). Except in less than 24hours in the city, I am astounded by the sense of community which I have found.

20141113-103708.jpg
Las Vegas is famous for its legal gambling (and legal prostitution outside of the city), its 24/7 operation of indulgence, its extravagant buildings, hotels, restaurants, light shows, water features, replicas of famous monuments around the globe, its glamour, its lavishness, its ability to make or break your fortune, its long, famous list of synonymous entertainers, and even ones that never made it out alive.

20141113-102432.jpg
People will likely expect wild tales of hedonism, never ending parties, gambling, and hangover-induced anecdotes, but even though I was indulged and shown what Vegas is famous for by some friendly locals, if you want those tales a) maybe I’ll put them in the book, and b) I’m sure you can imagine the strippers, sleepless nights, memory failure, estranged tattoos, gambling faux pas, loud outfits, over indulgence and Elvis…it’s Vegas! Outrageousness has taken place before me, and more will follow.

20141113-102914.jpg
Las Vegas is home to two million people, and despite its extravagant exterior, it is deeply troubled. It’s no secret that the city’s lifestyle is not sustainable as it’s simply running out of water. Lake Mead’s levels are dropping and the Colorado River is dying – agriculture twinned with a harsher, natural desert being created, the south west of America is simply drying up. With seemingly little desire for the city to reduce its indulgence on top of a 14year drought as its population continues to grow, Vegas is aware that a critical point is imminent.

20141113-103014.jpg
Aside from tourists being ignorant of the issues, or worse – disregarding them to satisfy their vices, “saving the planet” or “hugging a tree” (which you won’t want to do in Vegas, as they’re mostly Joshua’s), is something that the people of Vegas need to embrace. As well as the environmental concerns, the city has many attractions which I’m sure 99% of tourists on the strip, and most of its residents, are unaware of.

20141113-103331.jpg
While you’re trying to imagine my experience of Vegas on $6 a day to be full of debauchery and hedonism, extravagance and indulgence, in the next instalment, I’ll delve a little into my experience of Las Vegas, and why it is – and I hope the locals will appreciate this – more than just its strip, and the stories which it is famous for (even though they are all true)…

20141113-103640.jpg

Posted in Travel & Charity, http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, usa, couchsurf | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cake delivery, an Angel, & Size isn’t everything…

20141109-153626.jpg

The drive seems long, yet it is only four hours west of Moab and well within the boundaries of Utah. I can see a hot haze all the way to the horizon and an ever changing landscape unfolds every few minutes; mountain backdrops roll down to green hill sides, bright grass meadows and sage bush “Jackson Pollock” the valleys which are scattered with ageing farmsteads, and every one has at least one rusting vehicle in their yard. The populated areas are no more than a village gas station, the odd grocery store and a sprinkling of dilapidated houses. Although slightly cooler at higher altitude, lonely cattle carefully swish their tales to cool themselves amongst short, prickly, stubborn trees; birds circle the cliff tops of the rocky out crops that shoot up from the ground like angry, clumps of red liquorice and mini canyons hide the streams that cut through the low levels of the fields, providing just enough water for a few small wooded areas to shoot up. It is hard not to imagine the agricultural, tough times in Utah. There is very little evidence of lavish lifestyle, abundant wealth or luxury spending – even though the farms are still very much operational, there is little respite from long seasons of desert heat, volatile weather and an unyielding ground. It is however – experiencing southern as a wandering transient – peaceful, calm, hot, and very rural.

20141109-153524.jpg
Not originally on my definite route, but severely instructed by my Gran that I was “not allowed to miss it”, Bryce Canyon is my next stop. She visited it thirty years ago and simply stated over a cup of tea, (although somehow I knew that I was not allowed to forget), that I should let her know “how it’s getting along”.

20141109-153742.jpg
To put my Gran’s mind at rest, Bryce Canyon is still spectacular. I experienced a busy National Park with quite a few tourist bottlenecks, probably something my Gran had less trouble with. The fatal cliffs soaked in fragile, red dirt, form trails which seem to defy the corrosive forces that batter them all year round, and compared to the previous Parks in Utah (see most recent post), no clay-wielding child, angry adult, creative god, flying space rock, or sickly dinosaur could have possible created Bryce Canyon. Large in her appearance, regal in her stature, intricate in her detail and unique in her attraction, only Mother Nature, with her limitless ability to conjure such colossal splendour and magnificence could have constructed or fashioned Bryce’s landscape with such tenacity and flair…and she wears it well. I see “Bryce” to be the big bottomed, female neighbour who often brings cakes round for your mum, and even though you’re not normally a lover of the larger ladies, this sassy woman’s appeal is in her style, the way she boldly shows off her homemade-buns, her sugary, rich toppings, and the way she’s always dresses so casually-chic; accessorised with big rocks, cleverly-placed bangles and a few dense gems hanging around her unashamed, bohemian presence. Her unusually-rugged lines cut a curious vibe around her peaceful aura, and she’s completely intriguing to be around.

My photography abilities should again be questioned, but no amount of coverage could do the views from the canyon justice. When the light catches her unique shapes, it’s like Nature gives us a wink, and reminds us how to be truly romantic.

20141109-153908.jpg
On the second day of camping in the canyon, even in the spitting rain under the growling grey skies, the views over Bryce stand alone as some of the most uniquely different, unexpected and astonishingly rugged landscapes which I have come across on my challenge so far. So Gran, thanks for being insistent!

Although I’m sure my Gran visited Zion National Park after Bryce, I always had Zion on my lust list, so maybe that’s why she wasn’t so vocal in instructing me to visit. If she had been, I would have been just as grateful.

20141109-154452.jpg
It is impossible not to be in awe of the smooth sandy structures that swirl around the skyline and tower above the road after entering Zion. Named by biblical settlers who, as per usual, forced the natives from their lands, then found it impossible to farm themselves due to flooding, landslides, natural fires, persistent storms and Zion in general being a volatile valley; it was too difficult for them to make it home. Eventually Zion was made a national park (it wasn’t offered back to native tribes, or seemingly, could used for anything else).

20141109-152336.jpg
Through the mile long tunnel in the giant cliffs, what awaits you on the other side is a completely different rock world. The rough jagged edges contrast to those in the east of the park and the rocks turn from titanic, sandy, walnut-whips (reference for the British), to humongous, straight-cut-slabs of sheer cliffs. They must be some of the largest in the world as they jut straight up from the winding valley and tower mercilessly over head, casting shadows over the minuscule world that I now feel part of.

20141109-152155.jpg
Zion is unique; the town of Springdown is virtually inside the park, with a literal passport barrier at its boundary. Park visitors can come as go and they please on foot, able to indulge immediately in amenities that all other parks lack (with the exception of maybe commercial Yellowstone).
Although busy, the lodge and the valley in Zion are an integral and engrained part of the park’s history. I find it sadly amusing how many times the road has been rebuilt, how many times the buildings have been damaged or washed away and how many times tourists have been stranded in the valley due to storms and landslides. Zion reminds us constantly what the wild is, yet repeatedly we fail to learn that no matter how much the cost, or how resilient we might think we are in a volatile landscape, we still attempt to overcome nature.

20141109-152446.jpg
Angels Landing is a hike that features high on any adrenaline hikers list. In fact it had been recommended by friends I had met in Bryce Canyon (more of them later), and it was even suggested that I might not survive! Fortunately, I did.

20141109-152653.jpg
I think it is definitely the first time I have hiked, let me correct myself, “climbed and clung” onto a trail with defiant and precise concentration: one foot wrong, and it’s a half mile drop that your hiking partner won’t have the pleasure of seeing you at the end of. A trek to remember, but not wish to take your young children on; Angels Landing is the most daunting hike I have done so far in a National Park, and even though the five mile trip up and down is spectacular, I’m glad I don’t suffer terrible vertigo. I also wore the right underwear!

20141109-152844.jpg

20141109-161550.jpg
It is becoming clear that my pilot in Utah is encourageable and maybe a little over-enthusiastic. Following Angels Landing, Amanda decided it was a great idea to hike The Narrows in the same day, yet a handful of miles in and out of the canyon was enough. Our bones ache, and it was a cool wash in an otherwise showerless week.

20141109-153153.jpg

20141109-153256.jpg
Camping seems to be growing on Amanda, and I’m beginning to see the adventurer in her blossom. She has a new calmness, a respect for backcountry and although I think a lot has to do with wanting to know and learn so she can impress her new man, Jon, it is not without thorough enjoyment in her own soul. I could not have a better sparing partner; considerate, caring, respectful, with a positive spirit that I think may have been sadly, a little contained – saturated with city life. Although mentioning her man every third sentence, her mind and humour is constantly in the gutter, so we get along like two nattering neighbours that share food gifts and mornings with gin – although sadly, we lack both.

20141109-153010.jpg
This might conjure some controversy, but in terms of intense colour, my experiences of North American sunsets and sunrises have been bland. Maybe it’s the time of year I have ventured across certain areas, or that I have been considerably unlucky, but they just haven’t come close to the jaw dropping skies I have witnessed in the subcontinent (Australia and Southern Africa), or in the deserts of United Arab Emirates. However, on many occasions this year, the stars at night have been astonishing
On the night before my visit to the a Grand Canyon, it is hot enough to sleep without the roof of my tent, and I can see the stars through the bug net. Deafeningly silent (with my ear plugs in), and beautifully dark, it is 2am, I have been lying here for half an hour unable to sleep thinking about the days my friends are experiencing back home in the UK, and that at this precise moment, no one at home can see what I am looking at. It’s lonely, it’s emotional, I feel like I am sleeplessly-roasting myself in the desert, and it’s sad that I’m uncomfortable by myself. It also reminds me that although I have made only a few mistakes on my trip in terms of timing the weather, it is now raining. Brilliant.

20141109-161159.jpg
With an hour and a half drive from Utah to the north rim, dawn was not all that enjoyable after a wet dream – literally, the roof was off, remember! Now in Arizona, with an extra hour on the clock, the sunrise over the Grand Canyon from Point Imperial is a little hazy, and cold! The canyon is simply too big to comprehend – or photograph from the ground. A scar in the earth visible from space, it is ten miles across and seeing the other side even on a clear day is fairly difficult. The road around the north rim is more than a dozen miles long, and getting to the south rim is more than a few hours drive around the canyon – somewhere which I never intended to visit on this trip. The landscape is quite different to the arid desert which I imagined it would be, and hiking a few miles through the cool pine forests for a view over the eastern end of the canyon was unexpected. An impressive structure on the edge of the canyon, with possibly one of the most iconic views in the world is the the very grand, Grand Canyon Lodge.

20141109-154625.jpg
No matter how massive the national treasure is, seeing the Grand Canyon confirmed to me that size most definitely is not everything…humour me..

20141109-154801.jpg
After seeing (but not comparing) five other national parks in Utah, each with their own outstanding, majestic and unique beauty, the Grand Canyon seems as though lacks something. Maybe it is my apprehension to embrace size as a valued aspect of beauty, or maybe it is because I can’t grasp it in its entirety (or explore down into the canyon because it’s a requirement to camp overnight in the summer months), but the Grand Canyon emphasises its grandeur by showing off its massiveness. I think I just prefer the more intricate details and discreet flirtatious winks of the other smaller parks, rather than the large spank in the face that the Grand Canyon offers as its pick-up line. The other parks make up for their lack of vastness, simply by working such precise perfection with what they have, and for me, that mirrors a more important life lesson. I do understand however, that the “American stereo-type” is proud of canyons like they are proud of their food portions…

20141109-154858.jpg
The Grand Canyon is not lacking attention to detail, far from it. The wildlife is abundant; snakes, bison, rabbits, elk, deer, chipmunks, birdlife and rare white tailed and large eared squirrels (living only on the north rim and nowhere else on the planet) were everywhere if you looked hard enough. Wild flowers are delicately poised to amaze; flashing pinks, purples, reds, oranges and yellows are, at this time of year, on every sun-kissed patch of ground – and there is a lot of sunshine. The roads are long but understated, and apart from the lodge, the north rim is virtually empty – a surprise considering it is peak season. I was later told that only 10% of the Grand Canyon’s tourists visit the north rim, the rest prefer the commercialised, built up south rim for their holidays, somewhere which I and all the other hikers I met on the north rim (seven), were happy to avoid.

20141109-161955.jpg
Amanda and I woke up early after our Grand Canyon visit. This is where she leaves me by the kerb – although not for looking shifty! We just packed Amanda’s tent, and sadly, she hit the road before 7am. I’m left to enjoy a peaceful morning with humming birds, a flask of warm water, dry granola, and my map with no drawn line west of where I am. I’m dreaming of reaching Vegas soon, and can only wish that it is not just Hope that will get me there…

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Child’s play and A wanderer in the Desert

Although on a well travelled tourist route through Utah, finding a few backroads and a scenic drive is not difficult. Leaving “colourful” Colorado into Utah, the landscape drastically changes from lush, tree-covered mountains, into a brown and rocky desert, sporadically-splattered with clumps of pea-green-grass, and it’s unpopulated all the way to the jagged horizon.

20141105-155147.jpg
My pilot and I were making good time and we arrived in Moab in the late afternoon. It should be the summer season, but the streets, and the campsites are relatively quiet.

20141105-155347.jpg
Arches was the first National Park on our itinerary in Utah. More colourful than I expected, the soil itself in places, is green!
I can’t help but picture in my mind, that Arches looks like a giant toddler had fun with clay in their alfresco, sun-soaked nursery; stacking the rusty-coloured mud haphazardly on top of the sand, cutting a few lines through everything with a plastic sword, making a few, fun tunnels and dragging himself on his diaper-covered arse past all the clay stumps to creat a rather hazy, rough-looking but MASSIVE valley. Some of the clay cliffs, arches and rocky outcrops are so far removed from what is the main, natural play-area, they look like they could have only been left by a messy child after play time.

20141105-155857.jpg
The giant baby did a magnificent job however. The clay set hard in the sun, which you can now hike over, the arches themselves are varied and unique, the red swathes stretch to the horizon and the rocks range from reds, to greys, to yellows, with dark striations in the cracks and over the smooth curves; where the toddler had obviously chewed on his crayons and dragged the rough edges around the clay pit. Am I doing the construction of the national park justice?

20141105-155744.jpg
The wind obviously has a large part to play, and even with my unfazed, stiff upper-lipped British reactions, I really am hugely impressed.

20141105-155240.jpg
Canyonlands National Park is spectacular from the moment you leave highway 191, and on entering the park you’re immediately gifted with the reason why it is aptly named Canyonlands. It’s a titanic land of various canyons and as usual, is impossible to capture it all at once in one photograph. The emphasis on this site being wild is evident, with virtually no hand rails, barriers, signs or developed pathways. Coming to close to the edge is definitely a humbling experience, and there is very little off-road access for wheelchairs or the disabled.

I described Upheaval Dome (the possible crater) as a dinosaur’s sick bowl. However, if Arches was built by a clay-loving toddler, Canyonlands is the result of angry parents, stamping their feet in frustration over the muddy mess, resulting in gigantic cracks on the nursery’s alfresco floor. The entire landscape is amassed with deep, jaggedy, multi-layered crevices at various heights. Colourful soils fill the gaps and spike-covered shrubs alongside determined pine trees cling to life on the dry rocks. The crumbly, minuscule mud structures hold vital, microscopic organisms for plants to germinate and giant boulders balance precariously to fatal-looking, red cliff faces which surround an ancient, dry, sandy and scarred sea bed.

20141105-160242.jpg
On the afternoon following some exploration in Canyonlands, Amanda and I spotted a young guy by the side of the road with his thumb hanging out. Carrying a skateboard, with a dirty backpack on the ground and looking a little more dishevelled than me, his stature resembles that of a tall, 21 year old Californian surfer in the early 80’s – and his long, sun-bleached, dusty hair paints the same stereotype. He looks like your typical hitchhiker that has possibly run away from home…and been on it for a few a months. Knowing we couldn’t take him very far, we decided to offer him a ride in the morning – meaning he would have to enjoy the luxuries of our dry campsite for the night, and have a meal on us.

20141105-155558.jpg
We shared a few stories, ideas, ideals and swapped advice with the young “hobo” who is hitchhiking around the country with no real plans other than to visit every state. His perspective and choices are refreshing, honest and simple; his family are (apparently) distantly aware that he is ok, and he is also open with us about being a recovering heroine addict (amongst other things). It is clear that he has had a troubled youth, and also clear that he is still growing out of it.

20141105-155024.jpg
To the most of you, it may seem inconceivable that he chooses to live this way; on the road, day to day, no taxes, no fixed job, only a few items of clothing, no home, no family around him, only a few possessions, and only the long term plan of seeing parts of his country on considerably less than a shoestring. He has no long term commitments, no insurances, no money for possible accidents and no troubles beyond finding somewhere semi-comfortable to sleep and some food. He doesn’t have a passport, yet has travelled between his childhood home in Alaska and the congruent USA multiple times by land (illegally, if you know your geography). He talks about train hopping, (which as a tourist, I avoided), he says he has received meals in restaurants in return for a night’s dishwashing, and he says he meets mostly friendly and hospitable people – except those closed-minded enough that tell him to hastily “move along”. He mentions that it would be tough to see the state of Hawaii…so he is at least, a realist.

It was enlightening and a joy to share experiences with him, although as much as I could empathise with his choice of lifestyle, I couldn’t help but sympathise with its limitations.

20141105-161508.jpg
Many people have said to me that “it is not the arrival, but the journey that you learn from”. I would agree, but my new hobo friend seems to have forgotten what his journey is for, and the which direction his lifestyle is driving him towards. Losing sight of why you might disappear into the wild, or why you might amble around your country, away from “home” without the responsibilities of what “normal” society might thrust upon you, is dangerous. I think it’s vital to always have a reason – even if the reason is to simply “keep moving” or NOT carry on doing something that makes you, the people or the environment around you, stagnant. It’s important to be clear about what you’re giving up, or leaving behind (I made sure I wasn’t running from anything), even if the end goal is not quite clear. My troubled friend is on an important journey, but he doesn’t seem to have an opinion as to why he travels. Not knowing is ok, but no short term acknowledgement of what he is accomplishing, to me seems rather unproductive (that’s the thirty one year old in me, speaking to the twenty year old, and I realise that).

20141105-160935.jpg
When I began my trip, I had some very fixed, but mostly vague goals of what I thought I wanted to achieve. It may not have been obvious when leaving Boston, but one of my main objections was (and still is) to design a future goal through living the current one.
I felt very stationary, and very isolated in my options while I was working in London; so as much as backpacking across one of the most expensive continents on $6 a day might have seemed extreme, I knew it was better than remaining stationary.

20141105-161341.jpg
Through meeting a range of people, including those who I think I have nothing in common, no reason to be social with and possibly that I think might be undesirable, I am quickly realising why I am travelling, and how I want to approach future adventures – and there will be more adventures!
As for understanding my objectives, internally I believe I will have accomplished something bigger than having just visited places in America like a tourist. As for designing future goals beyond this challenge (but not avoiding unfortunate euphemisms), I am definitely getting closer to having sampled enough of the chutneys, to know which ones I want on my cheeseboard.

20141105-161042.jpg
As a side note: If you’re thinking if coming to the USA to amble around, or hitchhike from state to state, you may want to check what your visa allows (time frame etc). The legalities of hitchhiking state to state aren’t always clear, and neither are the roads or towns it is legal on or in. The last thing I need on my challenge is to be deported, simply because I accidentally walked and caught a ride on the wrong slipway. You also wont be allowed in the country without: an exit flight, a reason to leave, an itinerary, or (to my understanding) an amount of money which border control believe each tourist should spend while they are visiting. I was lucky enough to enter the US to undertake my challenge because of the backing of, and the funds which I had already raised for World Land Trust. There was a point on landing in the US, after being detained for two and half hours, when I had my head in my hands and was being asked to leave within three months of beginning my trip. Not to mention how strange it looks when a relatively educated Caucasian chap in his thirties, turns up with nothing but a back pack full of survival and camping gear, saying he’s going to travel across the continent on $6 a day. I began to understand how that might have looked to any patient, or impatient border officials…

In the morning after coffee, we drove the young, deshevilled gun to a gas station (familiar territory) on Interstate 70, and I found that it was just as inspiring, interesting and rewarding to give the hospitality, than to receive it.

Amanda and I are now heading further west, to explore more of the uniquely-special landmarks across Utah.

20141105-161744.jpg

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A shifty flamingo & being Cupid – all for a free meal

I was informed that the journey between New Orleans and Austin would be different from all others which I had experienced across the USA. For miles and miles there is nothing but mangroves, marshes, large swathes of water that appear to have flooded over the southern banks of the center of the country. The unique highway seems to be a constant bridge. To the south, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the wet lands are American ports, and in places stretching north, there are electricity pylons and cables that disappear as far as the eye can see to the northern, watery horizon. Appearing morbid, it seems like the area is in constant flood. However as I rode west, back towards Texas, I did spot a lone flamingo flirtatiously flapping its way in the opposite direction to me; something which I had never dreamt of seeing.

20141103-115123.jpg
Arriving back in Austin after the nine hour drive, I slept like a hibernating bear, but following the lavish and stupendous hospitality of the south, I needed to jumpstart my plans to get back onto my original route and checkpoints. Nothing prepares you for the extent of how kind the human spirit can be, and in order to get from Austin TX to Denver CO, it is approximately a 16 hour drive (over 30hours round trip). Despite some words of caution, my super-generous host decided it was best to hire a car and drive me to Denver. I struggled to comprehend this act of kindness, and I think I had problems expressing just how grateful I was.

20141103-111855.jpg
I have often been welcomed with creative and selfless gestures, but for my personality to accept the gift of a thirty hour car journey was a somewhat overwhelming. It was time to head west again, but this time…across the desert.

20141103-115345.jpg
I was contacted by a young woman who had seen my plans to travel to a few National Parks between Colorado and Nevada. I received an email asking whether I was looking for a companion to travel with (well if one had a car, I wouldn’t say no!), and asking me two more questions:
1) Could I be trusted (umm, no?!) ?
2) Could I help her with her first camping experience?

Both of these questions seemed a little strange. I find it odd to ask a stranger outright, whether they can be trusted over an email, but then most things I find on the Internet nowadays never fail to seem strange – I understand anyone’s concern. I also found it odd that my new pen friend wanted to go camping with a complete stranger to more than a few national parks – for her very first camping adventure.

When I met Amanda, we instantly became friends – although she did mention that if I was in anyway a little shifty, she would have locked her car doors and driven away, leaving me on the kerb. Grateful for not looking shifty, and for not being stranded in a city on a budget that would barely buy me a sandwich, I think Amanda and I had “an understanding”, and then she then boldly treated me to fish and chips. I say boldly, because as a Brit I can’t help but harshly judge every fish and chip meal that I come across in a foreign country, and rate it against the good old “wrapped up in newspaper” variety that I was brought up on. Amanda went up in my estimations as an American, for she knows a good fish and chips when she has one.

20141103-111457.jpg
I also understood very quickly the possible reason why I was asked to help her on her first expedition. Her new boyfriend Jon, is an accomplished back-country camper; so to spare Jon the lash of any frustration which Amanda may feel on her first trip, it was up to me to shoulder that burden. It’s my job, to keep their honeymoon period, friction free (so to speak)!
I feel I “Guinea Pigged” the introduction pretty well. Imagine March.com, only with a beard – “helping your outdoor relationship get off to a stress-free start”. I guess we’ll have to see how their future camping trips go, and hopefully, if Amanda and I can survive, so will they. I am obviously expecting an invite to their wedding…where I have been assured there will be a free meal and more importantly, an open bar…

20141103-112030.jpg
Denver, aka, the mile high city was surprisingly enjoyable – even on a tight budget. There is definitely a wealthy and a poorer side to town, an eclectic few neighbourhoods where the middle-class hipsters live on their porches in the summer, spending time smoking pot and ambling around from cool bar to tasty restaurant. The skyline isn’t all that impressive, with the State Capitol building and the Coors baseball stadium taking centre stage. I enjoyed a day wondering around the city art gallery and another afternoon in the peaceful botanical gardens. It was even hot enough to enjoy an ice lolly (that’s popsicle for you guys stateside)!

20141103-112125.jpg
After a couple of interesting days in Denver, mainly planning the menu for our budgeted expedition and Amanda borrowing, and begging the equipment she needed to be comfortable (and to survive), we set out west over the Rockies, across the Colorado border and into Utah. Amanda understood my budget, my time frame, and although she provided the fuel, I was going to introduce her to a rather basic way of living. My time of indulgence was over, and a journey via five National Parks, across an uncomfortably-hot, beautifully-arid desert, was between me and, well, some more desert.

20141103-114510.jpg
Route I70 is a popular one for tourists on their way to any of the dozens of locations of natural wonderments in Utah. Amanda knew I had my checkpoints to hit for World Land Trust and that I would continue to head west after our final stop (where she would turn around to come home, and leave me somewhere by the roadside).

20141103-113058.jpg
So, for her first camping experience, Amanda left her new boyfriend behind, hit the road with a strange British guy who mentioned he could pitch a tent and keep her alive (I’m resourceful and not shifty remember), and we fixed the plan to explore the following:

1) Arches National Park
2) Canyonlands National Park
3) Bryce Canyon National Park
4) Zion National Park
and although not in Utah..
5) Grand Canyon National Park

It is also becoming clear that my new friend is pretty encouragable, and it’s a good reminder to know that there are some people in the world that are willing to take a a few risks just like me.

20141103-115530.jpg

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Snakes, Zombie farms and rather a lot about Voodoo

In New Orleans, I added my cultured yet extremely un-mingled racial profile into the hot pot of muddled human history. Choctaw and Houmas were the main Native American Indian tribes, until the French and Spanish colonial periods, and African slaves were shipped here in the 18th century. Even following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (when America bought the land from the French), and as settlers continued to move west, it is fair to say that New Orleans was always far removed from Anglo-Saxon New England. Now, as a flavourful stock pot of French, Cajun, Creole, Spanish, Native American, African, Mexican, multi-religious and tourist-rich influences which make up the unique American city, it remains uniquely removed in many ways.

One uniqueness that conjures up myth, misunderstanding, fantasy and spiritual intrigue, is Voodoo. Prominently referenced in a multitude of ways, it can be seen as a religion, cultural tradition, as an exploited, commercialised money maker, a tediously-linked yet fascinating (for some) section of the modern entertainment industry, as a lifestyle, and in art. Running through the pulsing veins of New Orleans, it is still practiced in sections of communities, and Voodoo traditions run deep into the legacy of the American south.
20141031-104212.jpg

All over the world and throughout history, Christians have spread the word of their god through missionary work, and expected the people they invaded, exploited or enslaved to adopt their faith. The French colony of Louisiana was no different, and Africans were not only forced into slavery, but forbidden from worshipping in the ways they had done for centuries. Voodoo priests began incorporating their own gods alongside Catholic saints, and although appearing to be practicing Catholicism, Africans often turned to the familiar spirits of their ancestors to help them during their enslavement. Performing rituals using the items and imagery of the Catholic Church was confusing, and as with many historic, religious responses to lifestyles and spiritual practices which are foreign to their society’s norm, Voodoo quickly gained an unpleasant reputation.

20141031-102137.jpg
White settlers came to associate Voodoo with the violence of slave uprisings, as well as embrace many unfounded rumours which demonised the spiritual religion. It became known for devil worship, animal sacrifice, torture, cannibalism and malevolent magic. Violence in places such as Haiti was extreme, and although Haitian slavery ended in the early 1800s, “Voodooists” were often persecuted by authorities. Eradicating native races was not the only thing on the agenda of many white settlers; foreign religion which arrived with African slaves was on that list too. Another tick in the box for the westernised freedom of American culture, racial equality, and for the forgiving/understanding nature of Christianity.

20141031-101906.jpg
Although enslaved, persecuted, humiliated and misconstrued, Voodoo practitioners consider themselves Catholics, and some see the saints and spirits to be one and the same. However some use the Catholic accoutrements primarily for appearance, and keeping up appearances can often paint a vague picture. Although there are similarities, Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with Haitian Voodoo or southern Hoodoo: it differs in its emphasis upon Li Grand Zombi (snake deity), as well as things such as Gris-gris, voodoo queens, and the use of Hoodoo occult paraphernalia. It was through Louisiana Voodoo that Voodoo dolls were introduced to America, and due to the commercialisation and the association with all things sinister, these have misrepresented the faith ever since they appeared.

20141031-102025.jpg
Most practitioners of Voodoo typically do not use pins or knives in Voodoo dolls and when they are used, they focus on positive ways of healing symptoms such as depression, stress, anxiety and loneliness. Voodoo is not a form of the Black Arts, and incorporates a karma system; using dolls to hex your disliked acquaintances is inadvisable and would have unpleasant karmic repercussions.

Voodoo is believed to originate from West Africa. Benin still has about four million adherents and it is also practiced in the Caribbean and South America. Sadly, with the extremely volatile end to the slave trade, negative propaganda linked Voodoo to the violence. It also vilified race-hatred, and in turn conjured up the sinister associations of bloody animal sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins, and naked dancers wrapped in snakes, shaking their possessed shapes in the shadows to the rhythm of African drums. I do wonder what African tribes would have thought of Christian hymns, had they stumbled into a church while trying to kidnap a country’s population to enslave them back on an African cassava farm.

20141031-182803.jpg
Reputations are often deserved however – rhythm and dance are some of the many ways used to communicate with the Voodoo spirits. Africans obviously thought spirits responded better to funky, animal-involved, barefoot dancing to drum and bass, whereas Anglo-Saxons assumed singing relatively melancholy hymns accompanied by a large organ was often more appropriate. Unsurprisingly, with a Snake as Voodoo’s main deity, they feature in spiritual rituals, and as snakes are often seen as a deceitful symbols in other religions, it isn’t hard to understand how conclusions over Voodoo rituals were so easily misconceived.

20141031-103818.jpg
Voodoo likely evolved from ancient ancestor worship and animism, and although some rituals involve animal sacrifices, this is hardly unique – bloodletting is historically documented in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism.

20141031-101748.jpg
Voodoo is a guiding force in the communities where it is practiced and Priests are prominent and respected figures as they have strong connections with the spirits. They are expected to perform many social functions, and through music, dance, readings, prayer, spiritual baths, devised diets, and personal ceremony, spirits are called on to provide practical solutions to life’s problems – heal the sick, feed the hungry, help the needy, cure anxiety, addiction, depression, loneliness, and other ailments. Much like every other religion in the history of mankind.

The core beliefs of Louisiana Voodoo include the recognition of one God who does not interfere in people’s daily lives. Spiritual forces and the dead can be kind or mischievous, and are able to shape the daily lives of followers…much like your conscience. The Voodoo serpent represents “healing knowledge and the connection between Heaven and Earth”…which, in every faith, gives meaning to life. The main focus of Louisiana Voodoo today is to serve others and influence the outcome of life events through the connection with nature, spirits, and ancestors…much like tribal or Native American Indian beliefs.

20141031-102244.jpg
The global phenomenon of zombies and the Voodoo element of animal sacrifice, are the more sensational aspects of Voodoo which are fine examples of how a religious element can be taken out of context.
Countless television shows and films have always succeeded to paint Voodoo as sinister and “dark”. Original zombies were not villains but victims, and were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) by magical priests called bokors. The word Zombi simply described a human form after the soul had left the body. Zombification was used to strike fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death, however I think even this was taken out of context as I read that zombies were even used as slave labor on farms. As much as I’m sure that some plantation owners would have wanted human forms, lacking self-awareness, intelligence or a soul working out in the fields, it is odd that I found no concrete evidence (in historic texts, or in person across America) of this actually happening!

Stripping sacred objects and rituals out of their original context for commercial exploitation is nothing new: Native American dream catchers made in China for sale at gas stations, or mass-produced African art or weapons sold online as “genuine imitations”. Unsurprisingly, Voodoo has also become a prominent part of the capitalising tourism industry in New Orleans.

20141031-103512.jpg
The commercialised, “Hollywood” Voodoo has again, misrepresented the faith and many fundamentalist Christians (and other religions) still regard Voodoo with suspicion; associating it with the occult, black magic and Satanism. Voodoo is often used as an adjective to describe something that is unknown, mysterious, and sinister, and in 1980 even George Bush famously disparaged Ronald Reagan’s monetary policies as “voodoo economics”. I imagine Reagan gained a few followers…

Voodoo has a largely undeserved, sinister reputation, and it is both ironic and unsurprising that it is best-known for its most sensational features. Although they have been rather tediously popularised, they have little to do with Voodoo practices or its belief system. The aspects of Voodoo which are so prominent in pop culture, are indeed extreme, but they are predominantly misconceived inventions to a) strike fear into non-followers (mainly the Christians who believed their faith should be followed by the people they enslaved) and b) stimulate “Hollywood” fantasy stories. I also find it ironic, that most Voodoo practitioners consider themselves (albeit not orthodox) Catholic.

20141031-103234.jpg
Next time you see a naked woman dancing in the dark by a fire cradling a snake above her head, you may want to pause (note that you’re not at the Burning Man festival), and think about her starving family or depressed husband, before assuming she’s lost her marbles and is about to jam scissors into the doll you think she acquired at the dollar store.

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa, Voodoo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Diversity and Division

To avoid any ambiguity, below, I will say “race-specific”, and I mean Black and Hispanic Americans. There are a multitude of varying and mingled races in North America, non of which are any more or less important than the next. Even though I am putting more than one race under the ‘race-specific’ umbrella, the slightest similarity between races is no reason to paint anyone with the same brush. Any manufactured or true statistical evidence of any racial commentary on the United States has not been sourced. This is my experience.

20141024-114236.jpg
Although nobody would like to admit the stark reality of what the result of most natural disasters around the world are: the wealthy recover, and the poor get poorer. Even in the democratic land of the free, this is clearly evident, and New Orleans is no exception. Relative to the rest of the country, throughout a recovering city community, it is impossible not to recognise large scale, race-specific poverty.

The hurricanes that the south of the country are susceptible to are not the sole reason for any noticeable, rich/poor divide. However, it is fair to say that, as well as in some other areas in the US, which are also susceptible to extreme weather (e.g. the tornado-riddled mid-west and seasonal, frozen areas in the north), weather can play a major part in the development of an economy and ultimately, a community’s wealth.
Although climate, and as a result, farming and slave trade history contributed to the popularised south region, weather does not directly account for todays evident concentration of race-specific American poverty, however it does play a part in the life, or rather death, of the people that live there.

20141024-114120.jpg
Nowhere else in the country does a city bury their deceased above ground. Due to the water levels that New Orleans must respect, burying under ground would cause huge problems should flooding occur. When Katrina hit, graves were destroyed by the storm, the peaceful dead were no longer at peace, and coffins floated disturbingly in the water. As uncomfortable as death may be for many, and due to regular flooding, the city has some rather unique and beautiful graveyards.

20141024-114158.jpg
Other parts of the country were reminded of the horrors in New Orleans which Katrina left in her wake. I met people in Texas that welcomed evacuees into their home; people housed strangers who had everything destroyed in the storm, including their place of work, and colleges not only had to find space for pupils to study after their education centres were destroyed, but double the amount of people sleeping in their dorm rooms.

Of course, every city has rich and poor, every city across the world has different cultures, races, classes, political views, differing lifestyles, and these to some degree, can all be broadly attributed to their climate and geography (normally the reason why people chose to settle somewhere). However, apart from snippets in Texas, I have visited less than a handful of cities in the US in nineteen states – $6 a day isn’t a very comfortable budget in any city.

20141024-123146.jpg
Concentrated, race-specific poverty in the south is mainly rooted to the slave trade. It shackled people to the US and enslaved them into some of the most unimaginable conditions and despicable human treatment in modern history. Located in the southern (slave) states of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina (and all the slave states before 1860 which included Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas), cotton was the main product of forced labour. The southern states were also where the American civil war was mainly fought, over secession from the northern states, which were anti-slavery and wanted to stop the spread of “slave farms” into the mid-west.

20141024-123256.jpg
Little mercy was offered while squeezing as much profit as possible out of slave labour and the world trade it allowed. Nearly every map of America’s races on the web depicts an image (using census data) of southern America saturated with the Black race. The centre of all cities are where the majority of race-specific people live, and the southern states of the US are also rurally home to a large black race population.

20141024-114300.jpg
Slavery officially ended in 1865 and since then, the USA has moved as far forward as to elect a black President.
Not one based on factual statistics or referenced information which may or may not have been manipulated to benefit the debate; my experience has arguably proved how the USA has failed to eradicate racial poverty or racial segregation from its demographic landscape, even though it projects such intermingled, racial equality, and a united front to the rest of the world.

20141024-123045.jpg
From Boston to Austin, (via nineteen states), I have seen less than ten black people on my travels, and only a couple of dozen Hispanics – most of whom were students in New England. The USA is known worldwide for its multi-culture, its racial kaleidoscope of mingled heritage, and its diverse social map. However outside of American cities (unless in the south eastern states – of which I visited a minuscule section of), the rural population is noticeably, made up racially of an extreme mono-colour – it is white. I only have to look at my list of hosts, and people which I have received hospitality and communication from to notice that every single person is a relatively educated Caucasian. I don’t believe that the Caucasian race is any more welcoming – in fact in my experience, it is warier than other races of being even slightly hospitable to “unknowns”. Before my trip, I did not expect to be so distanced from the many different races in America, mainly because the world press, popular American tv shows, and more so now the American political system; reference black and other races (alongside sexual equality) so heavily, as if it is racially, a United Nation. On my rural travels, I found it almost impossible to meet anyone who was not Caucasian.

I have observed and experienced two things:
1) the majority of poverty in the US is in the south of the country and is obviously home to a huge proportion of America’s Black and Hispanic people
2) if not in the south, finding American citizens outside of a city who are not Caucasian, is near impossible.
It is also impossible to be ignorant over the fact that even with our defiant opinion that equality exists, the Black and Hispanic citizens are easily recognisable as economically, the poorer sections of society in North American cities, as well as rural areas in the south. In regards to the word “sections”, that is exactly what the USA appears to be divided in to – not just by state or city lines, but by religion, race, cultural beliefs, political opinion, class, climate, terrain, and sadly still, wealth and skin colour. I did meet one black man and his white wife travelling in Vermont, having an indulgent weekend in the state capitol, in the chill of Spring. Anomalies are always welcome, but it also wasn’t strange to realise that this couple was doing very well financially.

20141024-123357.jpg
I have also come to learn and witness that the USA has separate laws on Native American Indian lands – all across the country – setting aside large reserves for their populations, their business, taxes, education, historical traditions and lifestyles. Important as it may be to recognise races and cultures; segregated populations with independent law and various enforcement operating from area to area does rather alienate communities from the notion of unity. When you visit so much of the USA (I feel like I have covered a fair bit so far), it is extremely obvious just how diverse, yet also how divided this country is. I think it is fair to say that the United States struggles with modern race and culture-related politics just as much as any other country, if not more. It almost celebrates its differences instead of uniting them, but more importantly, it struggles to diplomatically unite its people under any “united” laws. This is relevant to all people in different states and regions, and irrelevant of people’s race or culture; where the federal government is working to legislate an entire country, American states oppose and contradictorily enforce laws they disagree with. For a traveller, it has been a minefield of variable laws and sometimes uncommon enforcement, and it is no wonder that any united culture is effectively segregated and divided.

20141024-123448.jpg
Worldwide, the majority of the white race is privileged compared to that of other races. In modern history, it has typically always been economically wealthier, and unfortunately is still revered, in many countries to be more acceptable and welcome in the hierarchy of society. America is no different from many other countries around the world, with race-specific issues which have been present since the spread of ancient empires and indoctrinating religions. The history of what brings us to today is unpleasant, and even though equality may be implicated in the land of the free, it is far from in place. Race-specific communities remain economically less desirable the world over, and in the poorer communities in the south of the USA, including the limited areas which I visited in Louisiana, it is impossible to be ignorant of its extreme existence.

I admit to having a big knot in my stomach over a country which is supposed to be so racially diverse, free, educated, and united; because in the nineteen states on my route between Massachusetts and Texas, in over twenty national and state parks, in rural locations of importance and beauty, and in these hubs for environmental tourism, I have seen only one Black man. Every other visitor has been Caucasian from European or an antipodean nation, or an East Asian tourist. This raises many questions about cultural, economic, educational, and race related environmental priorities. Whether this is painted by Americans themselves, or by a world press, my experience so far is of a sectioned country, painting a pretty picture that everyone lives, diversely and harmoniously together. Races and cultures live very much apart.

When you see so much of the USA, from rural community to over an populated city, from lake shores to deserts, mountains to vast agricultural plains, dense forests to swathes of grasslands, highways to back roads; I can’t help but question where the equality and unity is, when a democratic nation’s racial and economic divide is so black and white.

20141024-123127.jpg

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Hurricane, a flirtatious Miss Havisham, and some drenched, French lingerie

20141011-133809.jpg
On $6 a day, and with plans to hit my environmental checkpoints on time, I had no intention of reaching Texas, let alone New Orleans.
I have seen and met a few people around the globe travelling on tight budgets, across continents on unicycles, paddling a thousand miles in a kayak, kicking a soccer ball thousands of miles to get to the World Cup, hiking across countries and many other variable challenges, for all kinds of different reasons. One thing has struck me; from every adventurers tales, in every country, amongst every walk of life, whatever the challenge: Every individual has received unprecedented, extraordinary, selfless, and often (while living on such basic means) indulgent hospitality. Often surprised, and as humbled as I am, I am no exception.
I was taken to New Orleans, and was liberally treated beyond what I could imagine.

20141011-133521.jpg
There are only a few cities around the globe which have instantly, like a teenage crush, bolted into my loins and said “Hey, you with the emotionless look on your face – Forget holding hands, come cuddle with me naked (“cuddle” NEVER means cuddle)!” and with that, they are in my new urban cuddle puddle. I’ve been naked with my favourite cities; Prague, Paris, Edinburgh, and I’ve gotten away with it – and now, like a teenage lover, the hedonistic New Orleans has covertly yawned, and put an outstretched arm around my lonesome shoulders. She’s a sly one.

20141011-133243.jpg
Even though my arrival into the city was rain-drenched, I could still feel the enigmatic streets oozing with charisma, with colourful, cultural history, with a cajun flavour, a high-hat of positivity and a beat that hummed under the harmonious, humid streets. It’s soul that I just hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the country.

20141011-133103.jpg
The city was relatively quiet because of the downpour. Porches were empty, only a few characters were mulling around on damp, street corners, restaurants and cafés were closed in the suburbs in the afternoon heat, buses and street cars were almost empty and the foliage that clinged to the streets in the sweaty, southern air was still and silent.

20141011-132925.jpg
Yet it wasn’t eery, it isn’t a sad place, and like so many cities when it rains, it didn’t welcome me with a greyish, sympathetic, limp-handshake. I could sense, that from the base of the dirty gutters up to the tops of the elaborate and chic, French-style buildings downtown, there was a hum-drum of infectious, heart-warming vibes. Even the trees, with their bark covered in vibrant green moss and climbers, seeped a hot happiness that suggested they could, at any moment, drop a few outrageous dance moves to this city’s groove.

20141011-132835.jpg
It isn’t hard to see why New Orleans is so attractive. She’s suave, sophisticated, and shows off a renaissance-number of curves with flashes of lacy lingerie. She’s passionate, poetic, bohemian and chic; encompassing the influence of French and southern American history into her library of debauched, effortlessly stylish, antique book cases. She clearly drinks a neat bourbon (legally, and without care while waltzing down the artisan streets) to keep her spirits high, and has a cabinet of cocktail ingredients that every high class Madame would have in the corner of their loft space over looking a city which, although maybe full of floozies, (and charcoal/callous-fingered artists and musicians), she is a resolute and flirtatious Miss Havisham.

20141011-133559.jpg
My first evening, in possibly the most unique city the USA has to offer was like stepping into a sauna of smooth jazz; sweaty, moist, beat-infectious and awesome. Leftover remnants of mardi gras hung around the buildings and from the trees; signs of colourful, alfresco hedonism were draped over the bohemian edges that framed the shabby-antique city.

20141011-133850.jpg
I was taken to Tujagues – documented as the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. The traditional French-creole/Cajun cuisine was possibly the best food I have eaten since arriving in the country – which arguably isn’t hard to beat when living on $6 a day. However, the style in which it was delivered, the love and attention to the ingredients, the detail on each plate, and the relaxed yet appreciative atmosphere in Tujagues transcended me to the traditional and impressive French kitchen which I grew up above, as a five year old. The chef clearly knew what he was doing, and although I have missed being somewhat of a foodie and a semi-ok cook on this journey, enjoying some edible delights from a professional kitchen was completely appreciated.

20141011-135643.jpg
I was treated to a five course extravaganza, each dish accompanied by a traditional cocktail. As I used to be a cook, and a cocktail barman in an previous decade, I set high standards…and they delivered. However, one thing I can’t quite get my taste or texture buds around, is corn bread. It’s sweet! Yet Americans seem to think it goes well with everything savoury, and it crumbles like a dry lemon drizzle cake, turning to corn flour in your mouth. After tasting an oyster and shrimp bisque, some spicy swordfish, and some perfectly roasted lamb, I think I enjoyed the best ever banana pudding and caramel sauce that I have ever tasted – and I’m not a huge banana fan. No puns or jokes in this text; I grew up in France, maybe taking for granted some of the best cuisine in the world: The food in New Orleans was impressive, and not just at Tujagues.

20141011-134029.jpg
The city known as The Big Easy is a melting pot of cool, smooth culture, spanktastic food, soulful and infectious good-time music, eclectic and varied art, beautifully chic antiques, plenty of dowdy and dusty artefacts, colourful and quite morbid history, stunning French/Spanish, and (in the suburbs) southern American architecture, devout religion, and voodoo influence (more in part II). All the city’s cultures were brought together in the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and since 2005 New Orleans has been a recovering city.

As well as being a gigantic tropical storm, Katrina is sixth on the list of most powerful Atlantic hurricanes. Even though Katrina registered as a level five hurricane (that’s pretty damn knarly), with winds up to 175mph at its strongest over the Gulf of Mexico, when it reached land, it dropped to a level three, and winds were between 100mph and 130mph.

20141011-140846.jpg
The reason Katrina was so destructive, was because the Federal levee system failed. The result was the worst civil engineering disaster in American history, or as one Doctor at the University of California stated, “the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl”.
Floodwalls and levees constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications, and 80% of the city flooded. Emptying New Orleans was relatively successful after the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. However, tens of thousands of residents who remained, will be forever remembered on the news as those suffering and barely surviving in the giant Louisiana Superdome or the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. More than 1,500 people were recorded dead in Louisiana, most in New Orleans, and others are still unaccounted for.

20141011-140733.jpg
Even though it was a massive storm, I have mentioned before that we continue to house ourselves poorly (both geographically and by design), in the path of these natural, spectacular gigantums.
I may sound unsympathetic, but on the contrary. New Orleans was intelligently, originally built above flood levels and it is almost impossible to expect the city to move. The rebuild process was commendable and charity completely needed. However flood levels have risen, and nature repeatedly shows its capabilities against our unfortunate, unnatural, modern engineering.
Seeing the city now, and witnessing how proud and resilient its residents are, it is a heart warming experience. It is practically alive with positivity after the disaster. It is also noticeable however, how much of the older part of the city seems to be unaffected by flood damage. Strategically positioned, original cityscapes are commonly built to last, compared to our “developed”, expanding, and modern approach.

20141011-133333.jpg
To not just have a one dimensional view of New Orleans, I didn’t just spend time seeing the old French quarter of downtown. A very short ferry trip, across the river takes you to another world, onto a century old, flat, historic battle ground that was once boggy grasslands. Now filled with industrial housing for the not so rich, working class, it also has at its epicentre, the first domestic sugar refinery to process one million tons in a single year: Domino Sugar’s Chalmette refinery. Although hit hard by Katrina, it reopened just 98 days after the disaster, and still processes about 60 percent of the raw sugar produced by Louisiana’s sugar cane farmers, and about 19 percent of the country’s cane sugar. I couldn’t tour it, but it appears future tours and public access is being developed.

The view of the industrial river bank was stark, in comparison to the romantic, chic and bohemian glory of the colourful old town. It appeared monotone, drab, and grey against the grey skyscrape. The bridges over the Mississippi are tough, old iron erections, and the streets around downtown, in suburbia are poorer, unkept, dowdy – although houses were elaborately detailed compared to many across Texas – they were run down, fractured, and in need of some love and restoration.

20141011-133206.jpg
Such is the flirtatious, carefree intrigue of New Orleans. She seems to wear a kaftan and a sun hat, but under its wide brim, in her dark shadowed eyes, she holds many secrets, many taboos, hedonism beyond dreams, and is culturally in bed with all kinds of miss-fits. She isn’t afraid to be seen in every neighbourhood, throwing a wry smile at the tourists that might think they can tame her.

20141011-133741.jpg
Rather poignantly, much of the interest in her colourful past, and now sadly in her present (following Katrina), is around suffering, misguided and misrepresented religious practices, and death…

20141011-133709.jpg

Posted in http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider, Travel & Charity, usa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment