BC Wildfires and the cast of a Jim Jarmusch film…

You may be wondering why the strange title for this post, well it’s been a strange couple of days…

On Sunday 9th July I left Vancouver with the intention of driving to Prince George, British Columbia.  However, my limited access to the news and the quickly evolving events in BC meant that I was unprepared for the chaos I was driving into.  High temperatures, arid landscapes, lightening storms and high winds had led to extensive outbreaks of wildfires across BC and lots of displaced people.  Unlike myself though, most of those on holiday managed not drive themselves into the centre of the worst affected areas.  In my defence this was due to no phone signal, limited information availlable and unclear road closure signs.  As a result I ended up slightly stuck at  Ashcroft,   a small town next to one of the worst fires, and just over from Cachecreek, from where everyone had been evacuated.  Due to the road being closed behind and ahead of me, my only other option would have been to take the one remaining open road west, but having already driven for 8 hours I didn’t like the idea of a night time drive, low on petrol, with wildfires all around.

So, I stopped.  And that’s where it all got more and more surreal.  Firstly there was the apocalyptic setting – dark skies and an orange setting sun caused by smoke clouds, ash in the air, no internet connections meaning that no card or cash machines were working, and no access to petrol as deliveries could not get through. At least this was better than the day before however when apparently all the power had been out as well.

Secondly, was the awful reality of the situation for many of those at the small hotel I ended up staying at – those unable to return to their homes in Cachecreek and wondering if the fire would reach the town leaving them with nothing to return to, as well as those from the nearby reservation who had already lost their homes to the fire.

Thirdly, was the fact that I had apparently wandered into some arthouse movie, a cross between Northern Exposure and a Jim Jarmusch film, populated by the most eccentric and eclectic cast of characters.

As I sat outside trying to get a signal for my phone I noticed the hotel maid wandering by, around 60 years old, decked out in cowboy boots, a mini dress, bright blue eyeshadow and a huge cowboy hat with feathers in it. We struck up a conversation in which she informed me that I could in fact play the guitar depsite me believing I couldn’t (I really can’t!).  She went on to suggest that together we could probably form a band and give ‘Little Big Town’ a run for their money.  She also mentioned our resemblance to the female duo in the band – here’s a quick photo below for those of you wondering…

I’m guessing I’m the blonde…

Next on scene was a young woman wearing thigh length boots and what appeared to be some kind of matching fluffy bra and shorts set.  I later learned she was a prostiute working from the hotel, the bit I never figured out though was where the cat she was carrying with her came into it…

To pass some time I also found myself playing a game of horseshoe – which basically involves throwing horseshoes at a stick to see how near you can get them.  My competitors were a young boy, who had fled his previous home with his mother so they could start a new life, only to be caught in the wildfires and stranded at the hotel; and a man evacuated from his home and anxiously awaiting news of which way the fires were spreading.

All these encounters set the tone for the evening, and as I watched the smoke clouds spread further across the night sky, I heard stories of infidelity, fear, despair, loss, and illness, as well as beautiful acts of kindness. I went to bed astounded at the tapestry of the human race, and priveliged to have yet again met so many interesting people. That being said I did also make sure to lock my door…

The next day, the sadness of the situation struck me once again as the day started under a thick layer of smoke and those without any place to go sat outside watching to see which way the wind may blow the fires.  I was struck again by people’s capacity for kindness when a woman, who just days before had lost her entire home, helped me to plan a route of the town to try and reach a petrol station and figure out if I could head further north.  I offered to stay and help if I could, but for those left it was now just a waiting game as they had nowhere else to go.  She seemed more concerned that I reach safety and drove ahead of me for a time to make sure I reached the right intersection.  As I left I drove for hours through the awful smog of the fires, thinking about those I had met and hoping that soon some kind of end will be in sight for them soon.

 

 

From the US to Canada – Portland and Vancouver

Portland – 5th to 7th July, 2017

Throughout my journey I have decided almost from day-to-day how long I would stay in a place and where I would go next.  I have had only one lovely ‘deadline’ throughout, which is to be in Anchorage on 16th July to pick up my friends Sarah and Anna who are joining me for the last part of my adventure in Alaska. WIth this date in mind I realised I needed to get moving North and decided that in doing so I would call in and see two cities I have always wanted to visit – Portland and Vancouver.

Throughout this trip I have tended to take the same approach when visiting cities, with the exception of San Francisco where I was lucky enough to have someone to show me around.  This approach involves booking an Airbnb somewhere on the outskirts, to both save money but also have the chance to see areas where locals live and get some tips from them on where to visit away from the tourist traps.   I normally try and pick somewhere that is also a good location to be able to run in the mornings.  My choice in Portland proved to perfect in all these respects.  Situated next to the Arboretum and Forest Park, I stayed in the beautiful home of David (and his dog Buddy), a really interesting Airbnb host – a writer, musician and linguist.  As well as having lived for a while in France, he was also the first American I had met on my trip who not only knew where Newcastle, England was, but had actually been there!  He was a great host and even left coffee and fruit outside my room in the morning.

On my first morning, after a great run (in which I got completely lost on the labyrinth of trails available), I headed into downtown Portland using the MAX light rail.  I always try not to drive in cities as find it more relaxing to use public transport  and it also gives me a better sense of orientation.  Once downtown I normally set off on foot as find this is the best way to get to know and explore a city.  So far it has served me well and I often stumble across unexpected places this way – nice cafes, little galleries etc.   Portland was no exception and I happened upon a great cafe where I indulged in a delicious high cal and high carb brunch of fried apple fritter filled with egg, cheese and spinach :-). Feeling replete, I then headed to Powell’s City of Books, which takes up a whole city block and claims to be the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world.  As a book lover, I was probably slightly overly excited at the prospect but was certainly not disappointed.  I spent at least an hour browsing and going through a lengthy internal struggle in order to finally decide on what to buy, given my self imposed limit of two books.

 

I then headed down to the waterfront for a stroll in the sun, before parking myself on a bench overlooking the river and getting started on the first of the books.

After this brief I rest, I continued my walk around the city, soaking up the atmosphere and the streets.

As the evening arrived, I ended up at the Armory which, as part of Portland’s ‘first Thursday’ (of the month), was offering a photography exhibition, beer, nibbles and some live music – all for free!  I don’t even particularly like beer but felt it would be rude not to have at least one while enjoying the music…

Portland is quite well known for its food carts which are all over the city, so on my way home I stopped at one of these  to pick up an absolutely delicious tofu and avocado Thai curry for less than eight dollars! At that price I figured that for a change I could get dinner for two, and gave the second one to a young guy obviously having a difficult time in his life (just to clarify I didn’t force him to eat tofu – he chose chicken!).  He was just one of many homeless people very visible wherever you go in Portland, probably more than any other place I have visited here (perhaps with the exception of Santa Cruz).  As always this made me think about how lucky I am to have had the opportunities and support that I have had throughout my life, and how easily it could all be so different for any of us.

Vancouver – 7th to 9th July, 2017

The drive to Vancouver proved to be something of a nightmare as I got caught in Friday afternoon traffic on the outskirts of Seattle.  This turned what should have been a five hour journey into nine hours!

I crossed the border into Canada in the early evening, with lots of questions from border agents about my intentions. Satisfied eventually that I did intend to leave  again at some point (they must have heard about my extended stay in California), they finally let me through.  I was greeted by a huge sign saying ‘Welcome to British Columbia, Canada – the best place on earth’! A rather bold statement I thought, and here’s me thinking Canadians were more understated than Americans…

Vancouver however did certainly live up to the hype and, similar to the way in which I had explored Portland, I spent my brief visit roaming the streets.  This of course included a nice stop for brunch in a lovely place called Wildebeest, recommended to me by a random local man I got talking to while queuing.  Whilst eating lunch at the bar, I also got chatting to the barman who it turned out was from Leicester in England, despite the fact that I had mistakenly guessed he was from Australia (in my defence he had lived there for four years).

I was a little concerned however when I saw this sign in a restroom and wondered if the people of Vancouver often contemplate drinking water out of the toilet…

 

I also suffered some disappointment when I found out that the false advertising below did not mean I could buy myself a mountie to accompany me on the rest of my trip…

Continue reading “From the US to Canada – Portland and Vancouver”

The road less travelled

Nearly six weeks into my trip and having covered around 4500 miles and six states, I found myself in need of a slightly slower pace and took some time to take it a little easier in San Francisco and around the Californian Coast. While here, I have had chance to reflect on my trip so far and realised that much of its beauty and pleasure has come from the journey itself, a side of the travelling that is harder to document than the specific places I spend time in. It is the sense of being on the road, of movement, of the incredible scenery you see as you drive, the small road side diners, the incidental encounters and brief conversations, the glimpses into the hearts of the small towns you pass through.

All of the above is so difficult to capture in words and to share with others. As I think about this I remember the young waiter obsessed with the evolution of language and accents, who gave me a state by state example of the differences in accents across the US (thankfully the other customers were in no rush) ; the Vietnam Veteran who told me of the irreversible and devastating impact on him of the horrors he saw at the age of 19, and his unusual transition to a career as a ballet dancer and choreographer ; the hitchhiker on the road for 32 years and running from something he wasn’t quite able to tell me.

And of course there are those I got to know a little better, the people sharing the wonders of their home towns and cities, others living far from home, and those travelling themselves. In among these, those solo travellers, many of whom were on trips that were about so much more than the sights that they were seeing.

People are sometimes surprised or concerned by my choice to travel alone, but I see it as a real privilege, as there is something about travelling alone that allows you to fully absorb everything around you. Having time and space, allows you to give this to other people, and what you get back is unquantifiable.

Then of course there is the country itself, the small towns just outside the tourist areas, struggling to keep afloat and economically barren ; the stunning vistas of a long road ; the richness of the wildlife, the elks grazing in the mist, or the birds of prey soaring in front of your car as you drive.

These are just a few of the things I will always remember and that remind me constantly of how lucky I am.

It is not easy to capture the above in pictures, but for a little flavour, here are just a few snapshots I have taken along the way.