- 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
- 02. A Public Service
- 03. The 22% Solution
- 04. On The Campaign Trail
- 05. Athens of America
- 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
- 07. My Canadian Family
- 08. Edmonton? Why?
- 09. Prairie Singers
- 10. Deconstructing Calgary
- 11. My Kelowna
- 12. Wine Whine
- 13. Fire Mountain
- 14. A Stopover and a Popover
- 15. Inspiring Victoria
- 16. Planet Rosehip
- 17. Carry On Grunge
- 18. Street People
- 19. The Curse of Portland
- 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
- 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
- 22. Managing Yosemite
- 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
- 24. Parched
- 25. Brave New San Fran
- 26. Over The Hill
- 27. Greatest Again
Sometimes it can be difficult to avoid renting a car. This is particularly true in California, the birthplace of the freeway traffic jam. It is ironic that one cannot access the natural splendors of the American West without driving a carbon-spouting fossil fuel guzzler through a few hundred miles of former natural splendor on ribbons of asphalt surrounded by fields of shopping malls.
It is no secret that I am not fond of driving. It goes back to a genuine and deep-rooted hatred of cars, which I consider to be the foremost culprit in the demise of civilization. Despite this, my first job in Australia was with a company that serviced automotive manufacturers – mostly Ford. What can I say? I needed a job.
After two years, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and quit. The CFO called me from Detroit to talk me out of it. I gave him all the usual “It’s not you, it’s me” reasons. He chewed up and spit back every excuse. Finally I said “Listen Fred, the truth is, I don’t like cars. I don’t like people who like cars. I’m not even very fond of people who like people who like cars.”
“Oh” said Fred. There was a pregnant pause. “Maybe its best that you quit then.”
I do give some credit to the people of the auto manufacturing industry, because they certainly aren’t in it for the money. It is a grubby, penny-pinching business. The mind-boggling reality is that a lot of them are in it because they LOVE cars.
The same cannot be said of the car rental business. I had a sister who spent a few months managing a car rental agency, giving me some insight into the business. She explained there are bad car rental companies, and there are worse. Most of the folks behind car rental agency counters are counting the minutes until they get off work so they can return to their true love, pulling the wings off of flies. That sister is dead now, a circumstance preferable to car rental agency management, I imagine.
There was a day when I would give a rental car little more than a passing glance to see if there was any damage. Then I got a bill for $2,500 to fix a dent the size of a pinky nail, a dent that I didn’t cause. After two months of screaming bloody murder at the rental people, my credit card company and the Consumer Protection Agency, I got back all but seventy-five dollars of it, but the lesson was learnt. Now I spend twenty minutes documenting and photographing every scratch before so much as starting the engine. Then I have another chat with the agent, who invariably says “Don’t worry about it”, often adding something like “We don’t charge for anything under an inch” or “That’s just normal wear and tear.” Fool me once, shame on you.
This car was to take us to Yosemite National Park, a four hour drive. For the next two nights we’d be staying in a rustic cabin we had booked a year earlier for a gazillion dollars. Such foresight and financing is necessary if one wants to stay within the boundaries of an American national park.
As we left Sacramento, we stopped to stock up at a supermarket. It is always time-consuming to visit a strange supermarket, but it is an expedition in itself to take on a full-sized American supermarket. Just crossing the parking lot took ten minutes. The building was bigger than most city blocks. Frank and I wandered apart to fulfill our lengthy list of basic foodstuffs. The number of choices is utterly overwhelming; mind-boggling. Rather than compare prices, or sizes, or contents, or nutritional information, or flavours, or use-by dates, or packaging, I found myself in something of a dazed state, grabbing anything that vaguely resembled my target.
Even that took over an hour. I wondered how Americans managed to stay fat given the amount of walking necessary to buy food. Then a fat lady whizzed by on one of those electric courtesy scooters the store provided. Oh.
I spent another ten minutes trying to find Frank. Exasperated, I texted Frank “Where are you?”
“In the cereal aisle” he replied. I was standing next to thirty flavors of Cap’n Crunch – but no Frank in sight. What was going on? Did this store house a parallel universe?
“So am I” I sent back, befuddled.
“There must be two cereal aisles” Frank deduced.
“Stay put, I will find you.” Sure enough, I found Frank in the organic, all-natural, everything free universe. I had been in the factory-produced, extra sugar added, preservative enhanced universe. The store had two aisles for everything, one in each universe.
At checkout, our total came to $90.01. For some reason in my scatter-brained state I paid in cash with a hundred dollar bill. Instead of handing a ten back to me, the cashier dutifully doled out $9.99 change, including four pennies. Pennies! After loading the groceries I the car, I went to dump the coins in the toll-change holder, only to find it was already full – of pennies! Pennies!
My twentieth campaign pledge: Are you kidding me? What a horrible waste of time, energy, zinc, and money. The Smiling Kodiak administration will eliminate pennies.
The drive took us through parched farmland, over dry river beds,
and around near-empty reservoirs before rising up, up, up into forested mountains only a spark away from a massive conflagration. The forest resembled a neighbourhood where nobody ever tossed out their Christmas trees.
Once inside the park entrance, the roads got curvy and narrow. At the first scenic vista I pulled over, crossing in front of oncoming traffic that suddenly appeared around a blind corner, almost killing us and a family of five. This got my adrenaline going, but I do not recommend it. It was stark reminder that reasonable people can do incredibly stupid things.
Later, on a particularly steep and narrow stretch of road carved into the mountainside, I had to slam the brakes when, rounding a bend, an otherwise reasonable-looking man stood in the middle of the road, waving madly. A bit further ‘round the bend we saw his Winnebago had kissed the cliffs and now lay mangled, blocking half the road. Further on still, a woman, presumably the wife, stood in the middle of road warning the oncoming traffic. I wondered how they were going to get themselves out of this predicament, feeling guilty for not stopping. But there was nowhere to stop without exacerbating the kafuffle. Truth is, I probably wouldn’t have stopped if there was. I wanted to get out of these damned mountains before I started cliff kissing myself.
Down, down, down we coasted into Yosemite Valley. Wow. I will not recount all the wondrous natural attractions of the place, but I knew at once it was worth the trip. Wow.
The most popular attractions of Yosemite, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, are accessed from the floor of the valley. The one kilometer wide Merced River bed is lined on each side by cliffs towering hundreds of meters above. For about eight kilometers this narrow floor provides the infrastructure servicing legions of tourists: parking lots, lodges, cabins, tents, camp grounds, restaurants, picnic grounds, and so on.
With traffic from three or four park entrances converging on the valley floor, I got a glimpse of the number of people here to do the same thing I was doing: many thousands. It was like the biggest Brady Bunch episode ever made. This was to be expected in August, peak season. My first impression was that the park management, the corporate giant Delaware North, was well-prepared for the onslaught.
We stopped at Bridalveil Fall, which is singular in its non-pluralness (not falls, just one fall). If you are not in the middle of a drought, Bridalveil Fall is supposed to be singularly beautiful. Today, towering 200 meters overhead, the fall was barely a wisp, bearing no resemblance to the postcards. By contrast a roaring stream of humanity joined us on the ten minute walk from the car park to the viewing area, making the experience more like a theme park line than a wilderness hike. Still, the ledge was awe-inspiring, the wisp betraying the existence of high mountain rivers and more beyond.
Our cabin lodging was at Curry Village, where we arrived about 4 pm. The management enforces a strict 5 pm check-in time, so we wandered about the village, which offered everything one might need for a few days in the wilderness: a pizza parlour, a burger joint, a bar, a cafeteria, a Wi-Fi lounge, and a general store.
Curry Village also includes acres of parking, dozens of cabins, hundreds of quasi-permanent tents, and several fields of campgrounds that resembled refugee camps. All of these were completely full. Everywhere there were dozens, if not hundreds of people, on their way to or from somewhere. And yet, aside from the occasional crying infant or family squabble, everybody seemed to be in a pretty good mood, enjoying themselves. Somehow, it worked.
Until check-in, anyway. We returned to reception to discover a lengthy queue ahead of us, filled with tired parents, grumpy children, and snarky teenagers. I dropped a note in the suggestion box that they might want to consider a 3 pm check-in to preserve everyone’s sanity – even if it meant an earlier check-out.
We got to our cabin about six, knackered. The cabins were virtually identical to those we’d stayed in at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, just twenty years older. They’re quite basic, with no cooking facilities, but reasonably clean and comfortable. No bargain at US$260 a night, mind you, but probably the best deal inside the park. Delaware North is privately owned, by the way – you can’t buy shares. I checked.