California Screamin’

‘He’s going to win’, I said to Emma as I switched the television off. It was 10.30 at night and we were holed up in a fairly standard looking hotel room in Anaheim California where we had been watching the US election coverage. And now we live in a world where Donald Trump is President elect of the USA.

Watching in disbelief…

Fortunately, we were on our way to Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. Where better to forget about politics and the future of the planet. Amy and Oliver were excited. It was visible. They walked the kilometre and a half from our hotel to Mouse Land with an extra spring in their step. Which is curious considering we have been such neglectful parents that they don’t know all that many Disney characters. We pulled up a few old cartoons on YouTube earlier that evening as introduction to Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale and the rest of the gang.

Were it not for the fact that they have been such troopers hiking here, there and everywhere this year I don’t think Disneyland would have featured on our itinerary. They are troopers though and we figured it was now or never. So now it was. We arrived about forty minutes before the gates opened, queued to get through security and then queued again to get through the gates.

About to join the queues

So much queueing and that was just to get in! There are very few things in life worth queuing for as far as I’m concerned and this had me wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Three days in queues? Is that what we paid for? Fortunately, once we were inside, the parks seemed to soak up the people. With thanks to a few helpful tips from a couple we met at our hotel the night before we headed straight for the most popular attractions and managed to get them done with only 20 minutes in a line.

Later in the day those same rides had queues up to two hours long. Two hours! In a queue! For a three-minute ride! Who does that? I felt the urge to go and start interviewing people about what compelled them. The longest queue we would sign up for was thirty minutes. Judicious use of Disney’s ‘fast pass’ system meant we didn’t miss anything we didn’t choose to miss (like the Tower of Terror).

Splash mountain selfie
The iconic Disney castle
Up close with Goofy
Old fashioned swing ride

My favourite ride was ‘Star Tours’, a simulator which put you aboard a shuttle and whisked you off into the world of Star Wars. It was so good I really felt I was in the movie, whizzing through space shooting Tye Fighters, evading Darth Vader, dodging trees on Endor and soaring through Naboo. So we did it again after which I lobbied the family to do it again and again, but I was overruled in favour of another turn around the Matterhorn.

Oliver’s favourite ride was the biggest of the big rollercoasters, ‘California Screamin’, complete with loop de loop. We had to coax Amy to come along the first time with a healthy dose of parental pressure. We told her she’d love it and were relieved when she didn’t hate it. She and I rode together. She didn’t open her eyes. Not once. The look on her face just said please let this be over. She was however happy to go again and then another two times after that. She even watched where she was going on all but the loop, where the additional gravity must have forced them shut.

That is the roller coaster in the back
Before the first ride on the loop de loop

Amy’s favourite ride was the ‘Grizzly River Run’; a Disneyesque recreation of the Californian Sierra Nevada mountains complete with white water rafting. Fortunately, it was hot, so we didn’t mind getting soaked. In fact, we went back seven more times just to get soaked.

Emma initially told me she didn’t know what her favourite ride was but then decided it was the big coaster just like Oliver. Each time we went she urged us to remember to smile and put our hands in the air on the bend with the photo machine, also known as a camera. We only got it right on the final spin.


Better than the rides though, in my opinion anyway, became the pursuit of hat selfies. The Disney merchandising department has outdone themselves when it comes to hats. You’re probably familiar with the traditional black mouse cap and ears, but now there’s more. Oh so much more. While Amy and Emma were off perusing some other form of merch, Oliver and I spotted a Goofy hat we thought was funny so we put it on and took a selfie. Next to the Goofy hat was a Chewbacca hat, so we put that one on as well and took another.

Pluto’s with reindeer ears and bells!

After that we were on a hat hunt. Between rides we moved from store to store looking for new hats, eventually snapping selfies in more than sixty different variants, and we didn’t get them all. We kept spotting new ones on people wandering amongst the crowds and wondering where they got them? Well I did at least. There is a chance I was a little more into this sport than Oliver. I even contemplated stopping people and asking where they procured their most excellent headdresses, but that seemed a little overzealous.

After three days we were done. We’d ridden everything we wanted to ride, worked out which Disney characters were most like us in the Disney equivalent of the Myer Briggs personality testing, been to two Disney character drawing workshops and even ‘talked turtle with Crush’ from finding Nemo.

Talking turtle with Crush was surprisingly fun. He came swimming up inside the animated version of a huge aquarium, with us as part of the audience looking into his world on the other side, before taking questions from ‘all the little dudes’. Crush held a 30-minute Q and A which was hilarious and worked so well I had to remind myself he was just a drawing.

Eeyore by Emma
Emma got Tinkerbell
Crush answering questions

Then we emerged back into the real world where Donald Trump was and still is I suppose, President elect.

Before our adventures in Disney we spent a week just hanging out back in Las Vegas. We had given ourselves an extra week in the US after dropping the motorhome off to take in a few more National Parks. On our ‘to see’ list were places like Monument Valley, Arches and several other national parks, but by the time we had finished touring around in the motorhome our desire to hit the road again was oh so low.

Instead we rented a house in the suburbs and did… not much. Emma and I went running. We sat around reading books which Amy and Oliver interspersed with watching episodes of Britain’s Got Talent on YouTube. Oliver and I often just sat on the floor in the lounge room and belted this big blue ball he and Amy had found somewhere back and forward between us – you know playing, like the ten-year-old he is and I used to be.

Indoor sports?

The suburbs of Las Vegas are a far cry from the Las Vegas you may have visited and no doubt would have seen or heard about. It is quiet and clean, with huge freeways that seemed to have ample room for the abundant cars. Our house was inside a gated community, surrounded by other gated communities, but I’m really not sure why they bothered. If you wanted to get in you only had to wait two minutes for someone to pull up and then follow them through, but the whole place felt safe as houses really.

Las Vegas suburbs

We did go out. We took two trips down to the Strip for a look around and we sought out all the free entertainment on offer by the various hotels and casinos. The dancing fountain show at the Bellagio, all choreographed to music, was impressive. The animatronic battle between gods at Caesar’s Palace was underwhelming, but the exploding volcano at the Mirage was worth a stop. I didn’t know what to make of the life size canal running through the Venetian with gondolas plying the waters to transport guests around the hotel which was so big we got a bit lost.

The Gods at Caesar’s Palace
The Mirage’s volcano
Inside the Venetian…

We did enjoy the four floors of M&M World for a while and the hallways of Caesar’s Palace had some cool artwork which we may have bought if Emma was better at roulette. Actually she didn’t even play and neither did I. That just wasn’t going to happen.

We shopped too

Crazy place the Strip. It was bright (stunning insight I know) and it was dazzling (another knockout observation) but I didn’t get the buzz I got when I visited during my university days. The gambling areas through which we were obliged to trek in search of the sights stunk of smoke and we couldn’t get out of them fast enough.

Some of the bright lights on the Strip

We also took a couple of trips out to the nearby Red Rock Canyon where we scrambled up and down rocks which was much more our thing. It was fun, and a pretty piece of desert with an awesome band of uplifted red rock. I was also having fun, much to everyone else’s chagrin, with the nippy little Chevy we were upgraded to because the car rental mob ran out of compacts.

Red Rock Canyon
Playing on the rocks
Rock hopping

Despite the lights, the volcanos and the canyons Las Vegas marked something of a turning point for us in this trip. Maybe it was the abundance of spare time that comes with sitting still rather than being on the move, but Emma and I found ourselves thinking increasingly of home. My feet felt less itchy and Emma seemed more engaged in investigating options for where to get a new puppy when we get home than seeing the sights.

We packed up after a leisurely week and headed for the airport. Slot machines in the baggage claim and departure lounges differentiated the Las Vegas airport. Slot machines crop up in some strange places, like service stations, supermarkets and even pharmacies. You’re never more than five minutes from a slot machine in Nevada.

Finally something to do while you wait!

From Las Vegas we flew to Los Angeles to go to Mouse Land, but we’ve already covered that…


Hope and action

We have seen some amazing and inspiring things over the last 10 months, but since visiting Bryce Canyon in the last week I have been feeling haunted. At Bryce Canyon, Amy and Oliver once again checked in at the National Parks Visitor Centre where they picked up yet another junior ranger program booklet – their sixth in the last five weeks.

That evening, tucked up in a quiet, unofficial campsite on a dirt side road just outside the boundaries of the National Park and with nothing else in particular to do Amy, Oliver and I started working our way through the booklet. Of all the junior ranger books they have tackled this was the most engaging with a range of exercises that required some real effort. One such exercise involved the completion of a series of tables to help estimate their carbon footprint over an average year.

We jumped in and by multiplying the carbon associated with various food, travel and other lifestyle choices with the amount consumed we calculated that they produce 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and that this would require the planting of around 105 trees each to offset. Much discussion on climate change ensued. This was not the first time it has come up as a serious topic of conversation this year, but it was the first time our personal contributions to the problem were thrown into the mix.

Environmental pressures on our planet have been apparent throughout our travels, although their presence has tended to niggle uncomfortably away in the background rather than sitting firmly front and centre. Dams on the Mekong, choking view denying smog in Nepal, shrivelled glaciers in Iceland and Europe, bark beetles killing millions of trees in Yosemite because the winters are no longer cold enough. I could go on.

None of this, I should say, was concerning me the week before when Emma and I took a walk (Amy and Oliver opted to stay behind with Granny) up to the Angels Landing in Zion National Park. The Angels Landing sits atop a thin rocky monolith supported by 500-metre-high vertical cliffs. It looks down over the ‘big bend’ in the Virgin River and across to the rim of the Zion Canyon in all directions.

Degradation of the environment couldn’t have been further from our minds as we made our way across the ridge of rock, a fin as some describe it, no more than a metre wide and dropping hundreds of metres almost straight down on either side. It was stomach churning in places and I like hanging off cliffs! My predominant thought that day was how wonderful it is that the National Park Service still has the appetite to allow visitors to take on a little personal risk – despite the six people that have fallen to their death.

A cool trail – the most popular walk in the park
That river is a long way down
Aptly named ‘Big Bend’
See that skinny little ridge we walked?
Don’t look down
Looking to the summit – the trail goes all the way up the ridge
Holding tight to that chain

We weren’t thinking of environmental degradation the day beforehand either when the four of us walked for kilometres, knee deep in the waters of the Virgin River, up through the Narrows of the Zion Canyon. Ice-cream headaches in our feet made it unpleasant for the first 10 minutes after which they went numb and we were freed up to enjoy the canyon and the sense of adventure.

Almost yellow trees
Tall canyon walls
Obligatory family self timer
Surprisingly no one fell in
Was he really not thinking of environmental degradation?
Beautiful river walking
Junior ranger work in Zion National Park
An old Cottonwood tree at Zion Lodge
Awesome leaves everywhere

Back in Bryce Canyon and even after completing the carbon calculations, thoughts of climate change still took a back seat to more immediate considerations. Like the fact that Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all. It’s an eroding plateau which forms part of the upper heights of the much larger Colorado Plateau – a most unusual geologic feature.

Bryce Canyon

The Colorado Plateau spans four states across 362,600 square kilometres. It is also known as the ‘Grand Staircase’, a series of plateaus spanning the geologic ages and climbing ever higher from sea level down near Death Valley to more than 2900 metres around Bryce Canyon. It is through the Colorado Plateau that the Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon.

At the altitude where the Bryce Canyon occurs the weather tends to oscillate just under and just over freezing for about 180 days every year. The continuous freezing and thawing has a most unusual impact on the sandstone rocks. Water seeps into cracks, freezes and prises them apart before thawing out and doing it all over again. The result is the visually spectacular ‘hoodoos’ upon which we gazed and through which we walked.

What a scene!
Wandering through the hoodoos
In amongst the hoodoos

The hoodoos are just cool. ‘Some are short, some are tall, but one day all the hoodoos will fall.’ So wrote some poetic junior ranger in a passage now quoted by the resident senior ranger geologist. Amy and Oliver didn’t come up with anything quite so poetic. In fact, they skipped over that exercise in favour of the carbon calculations.

As we drove away from Bryce Canyon my mind drifted back to carbon and climate change. I comforted myself (although deluded may be a better word) that at least our drive back to Las Vegas was relatively carbon friendly, descending as it does from over 9000 feet all the way back down to 2000 feet. Gravity powered almost all the way.

It was a drive down the Grand Staircase. Along the way we spent a night in a very scenic canyon along the Virgin River filled with Joshua Trees and cactus before pulling up at the Sam’s Town RV park in Las Vegas – filled once again with RVs which were for the most part personal bus size vehicles. My heart warmed to the one tiny little caravan, parked next to our motorhome. It was only three metres long.

Our last campsite in the desert
Cacti everywhere
Standard bus-like RV with slide outs
A rare sight – our neighbour

The next morning, we returned the RV, bid a fond farewell to my mum at the airport and moved into an Airbnb townhouse in the suburbs. A quick note in relation to my mum before I move on. She is most excellent. Over the last few years in particular she seems to have developed a most inspiring outlook on life.

It’s mellow and it’s accepting and it’s non-judgemental and yet it is not in denial. Live and let go. Care, but don’t be weighed down by what you cannot change or control. These are my impressions of my mum. We hope you had a good trip home Granny. It was a pleasure having you along for part of the ride.

Farewell Granny

Yesterday, still in Las Vegas and enjoying some down time from running hither and thither, and perhaps because our consciousness had been piqued by Amy and Oliver’s junior ranger work, Emma and I sat down to watch the National Geographic presentation ‘Before the Flood‘ about where the world was at when it came to climate change in the lead up to last year’s Paris Climate Change Conference. It was terrifying. Half way through I wanted to turn it off but felt compelled to watch to the end. It’s not easy viewing, but I hope you will take a look.

As if this was not enough I was also reminded of news headlines I have come across over the last few weeks raising the cheery prospect of imminent mass extinctions and the prediction that by 2050 the weight of plastic in the oceans will match the weight of marine life. Even the Las Vegas weather forecast last night chimed in with presenters marvelling at unseasonably warm weather. It’s about ten degrees warmer here than it should be right now. I know that is not directly attributable to climate change, but can it be dismissed?

What are we supposed to do with all that information? How do we reconcile the fact that living the way we do is part of the problem, with the fact that so much of the lifestyle we lead is or was determined by the world into which we were born and our kids were born?

And… how does any individual influence change in a world of nearly 9 billion people dominated by the competing interests of over 200 national governments, institutional bureaucracies, multibillion dollar global corporations and countless competing vested interests and lobby groups?

These things I ponder when all is quiet in the backseat, occasionally disappearing into fits of silent despair. Fortunately, a little of mum’s wisdom managed to help drag me back to the surface. What will be, will be, and what is important is to do what we can. This at least brings the locus of influence, if not the locus of concern, back under control.

In follow-up to our carbon counting exercises and ruminations, the four of us found ourselves brainstorming the kind of things that we could actually do that would be in support of the kind of world we would like to live in. Number one on the list was to calculate the carbon footprint of our flights this year. Oliver and Emma tackled the task as part of morning school work. By the time we get home we will have flown 57,749 kilometres producing (between the four of us) 19.428 tonnes of carbon.

Oliver’s work

The next step is to find a credible offset program through which to reduce our impact. Offsets are not ideal perhaps but the best available option given the choices we have already made.

Back to the brainstorming, Oliver wants to invent a device that will generate power and charge a mobile phone as you peddle your bike. We will get out there and plant those 105 trees each with Greening Australia or some such similar organisation when we get home. We will continue in our efforts to eat less meat, particularly beef, (a little research on the greenhouse contribution of beef is informative) and we will opt for one car rather than two when we get home with a corresponding increase in public transport and pedal power.

It’s not much in the scheme of things and it won’t change the world but hope and action is a whole lot more pleasant place to reside than inaction and despair. It also places us amongst the swelling ranks of those who are doing something and who would really like to see a whole lot more. This may well be more important than all of the former. Government’s after all tend to follow the electorate far more than they lead. Change on a global scale is only going to occur when we stop looking to others and when enough people line up and demand that is what they want.

So do you gamble?

First guy: So do you gamble?
Second guy: Yeah
First guy: What do you play?
Second guy: Blackjack.
First guy: Ahh. The thinking man’s game.

You know you’re in Nevada, or very nearby, when you overhear conversations like this. Emma overheard this one at Badwater in Death Valley, just a stone throw away from the Nevada border, a border we crossed a short while later on route to the Grand Canyon.

We stopped that night in the mighty metropolis of Pahrump, a rough and tumble kind of place where the wealthiest of American’s do not reside. It’s a town that looks like it has been plonked down in the middle of the desert without rhyme or reason, but it had an RV park with a pool and happened to be where we were when driving no longer seemed like a good idea.

The RV park, it turned out, was right next door to at least two casinos and was very near full of the biggest RVs and caravans we’ve seen. Most guests at the Pahrump RV park didn’t travel in caravans, they travel in their own personal busses. RVs the size of coaches disappeared in row after row right back toward the pool.

The caravans that were there (more commonly known in North America as travel trailers) were equally huge. I paced out the length of the one next door to us. It was half as long again as our 28-foot behemoth and as tall as a semi-trailer. I’m not making that up, I saw another one parked next to a semi and they were the same height. To make the point I will quote the fuddling old man at the front gate who looked out his window at our RV while checking us in and said, ‘ahh you’re not that big’.

One of the travel trailers en-route

I got in trouble from the park residents after that for driving too fast. ‘Slow down’, they called in a morally superior manner but steadfastly avoiding eye contact as we hunted for our spot. I should have read the helpful tome of rules I had been handed at the gate which instruct you to ‘put your vehicle in a low gear as you enter the gate. That should help slow the vehicle to the 5 mph limit.’ I think I was doing 6 mph. But I didn’t do it again.

Fortunately for us, Pahrump was just a stopover between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. I suspect most of our fellow travellers were in Pahrump for the long haul owing to a strong affiliation with ‘the thinking man’s game’ or maybe a slot machine. That’s just speculation of course, but there is circumstantial evidence to support the case.

Across from the RV park

Death Valley was fun. It was like nowhere else we have been, but how many times have I made that observation in the last 10 months? It’s spectacularly hot. It’s so hot that just two weeks earlier the conditions of use attached to our motorhome would have prevented our passing through. It’s so hot the average temperature on a summer day is 47 degrees Celsius in the shade. It’s so hot that for five straight days in 1913 the temperature peaked at over 54 degrees with one day setting a world record high of 57 degrees.

It’s mountainous too with road passes climbing to 1510 metres near Panamint Springs in the west before dropping on downhill drives that seemed to go on forever and crossing expansive valley floors. Badwater Basin, a salt encrusted dry-as-a-bone inland sea, is 85 metres below sea level. Even on a mild October day heat shimmers across the plain and a non-strenuous stroll of no more than 30 minutes was enough to send my urine a deeper shade of yellow.

Driving into Death Valley
At an overlook above Death Valley
Driving into Death Valley
Not a scrap of vegetation
Badwater Basin
Strolling was the only feasible speed 
More strolling

There is barely a shred of vegetation on those parched plains and rocky slopes and little sign of life, although, as with other arid zones there is more there than meets the eye. Interpretive signs at the Mesquite Flat sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells warned of sidewinders, a particular breed of rattlesnake. We however were not so lucky as to stumble across one. The dunes were quite striking though. We didn’t linger as long as I would have liked. It was too hot. On the whole Death Valley seems to me a desert to make other deserts seem like a rainforest.

Mesquite Flat dunes
Big dunes

I think the heat must get to people. What other rationale could there be for the behaviour of the guy we spotted feeding a coyote by hand from the door of his RV? It’s beyond me how anyone can fail to comprehend the abundant signs saying ‘Don’t feed the wildlife’. How hard is that? Which part is not clear? By what belief system can anyone discern that such directives do not apply to them? Where is my soap box? I feel a lecture coming on…

You can even photograph them without feeding them!

After Pahrump and Death Valley we skirted the edges of Las Vegas, dropped in for a brief stopover at the Hoover Dam and pushed on for the long haul to the Grand Canyon. We camped one night for free in the hills surrounding the town of Chloride – population around 50 I think – but it did have a cool re-creation of the old wild west.

Visiting the undertaker in Chloride

Another day’s drive and we made it to the Grand Canyon. I expected big things from the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those places with a reputation as large as itself to live up to. Places with grand reputations can have a tough time impressing. Our expectations play a big role in our impression of places.

The Grand Canyon however struck me as a canyon worthy of the name. Sixteen hundred metres deep, sixteen kilometres across and more than 400 kilometres long. Colourful, gaping, ravines and plateaus lie exposed, presenting billions of years of geologic deposition, uplift, and erosion – as Ranger Marker explained during her ‘geology glimpse’ lecture.

Most people, us included, can’t help but stand in front of the Grand Canyon with arms held high, or sit far closer to the edge of precipitous cliffs than is good for them in order to get a photo with that huge airy background behind them. The canyon moves you almost involuntarily to do these things. I found it fascinating and after shooting my fill of photos of the canyon, I started shooting my fill of photos of other people shooting their fill of photos of the canyon.

A popular park this one
Photo madness

Still, here, like the coyote feeding fellow in Death Valley, people struggle with simple, self-evidently sensible suggestions on appropriate behaviour. ‘Stay back from the edge’ and ‘Don’t feed the wildlife’ being the most ambiguous rules to comprehend. Three people a year (on average) die by slipping over the edge accidentally and we watched multiple people feeding squirrels, sometimes within metres of signs saying it is illegal, they carry the plague, and they bite.

One woman we watched used food to entice a squirrel to sit upon her bosom in fits of hysterical laughter. After it jumped off she lured it back again! Ten people a day are treated for blood pouring forth from fingers that a squirrel thought was a carrot. I need that soap box again. I feel another lecture coming on.

We hired bikes at the Grand Canyon South Rim and cycled for two hours along its edge stopping at short intervals to stare out over the edge, watch flocks of ravens dance around the cliffs, avoid hairy tarantulas that crossed our path (very cool) and so that Amy and Oliver could track down information to complete yet another junior ranger program. Amy has gotten so into the junior ranger thing Granny bought her and Oliver very stylish junior ranger vests to keep all their badges on.

Cycling Grand Canyon style
Viewpoints everywhere 
Great shot by Granny
Junior ranger at work
Found this furry guy on the bike path

Junior rangering also saw us staring at the stars with a couple of hundred of our closest American friends on the rim of the Canyon one night and one morning listening to tales of famous Grand Canyon mules as presented by the resident rangers. The star talk was good and the milky way resplendent but we couldn’t really hear because we had too many friends. So we left early to gaze at the stars ourselves from our free camp in the forest all on our own. The mule talk was just weird. I learnt that the mules that carry people into the Canyon all stop in the same spot each and every time to do their business. It was an enriching talk, and we did stay ‘til the end.

Awesome colours as the sun goes down
The shadow comes across as the sun goes down
Almost no sun left

The four of us, minus Granny, also walked two hours down the South Kaibab Trail as it descended very steeply and then just steeply below the rim along a thin plunging ridge line. Six hundred metres below the rim of the canyon we sat upon some rocks and absorbed the silence while squirrels scurried, western scrub jays flitted and tarantula wasps busily buzzed.

In the dark on the way down
Aptly named stop on the way
Posing again
Kicking back with a pretty good view
Only a little frightening
Like ants – a few of our friends head below the rim

And that, in a nut shell, was that. We drove out of the Grand Canyon via the groovy Desert Watch Tower and stopped for lunch in the carpark of a very non-scenic Chevron. Zion National Park is next, followed by Bryce Canyon before we head back to Vegas. I’m a thinking man. You’ll find me at the Blackjack table.

A good view of the Colorado River