THE GRAND TETONS, another range of mountains, grand as their name says but IMHO not a patch on Yellowstone. However, getting there was probably the most exciting and breath-taking part of the experience. It involved going through Wyoming, the Cowboy State. I LOVE that name, and all that it connotes - wide open skies, high mountains, clean air, etcetc - thanks to the various books I've read, but main thanks owed to Louis l'Amour and his always-honourable, brave, 6'2"-in-their-socks heroes with strong manly names like Logan, Callahan, Flint and not to mention the Sacketts. (But I digress - unlike the strong, manly, short-on-words-but-long-on-action cowboys mentioned!)
Anyway, getting to Jackson Hole (the last frontier of the true Wild West) which is situated in a valley surrounded by hugely high mountains, was quite an adventure in itself. Radha was driving and although she is a very good, very confident driver, the twisting, turning mountain roads that seemed to rise to terrifying heights really quickly, taxed even her driving skills. The size of the RV was probably the biggest difficulty, as I'm sure she could have managed a smaller vehicle quite comfortably.
At the highest point of the pass, there was a big clearing where vehicles could park and people could look down into the valley - and man, it was dizzying to see just how far down Jackson Hole really was. There were also warnings to check the brakes on the vehicles, as the drive down had extremely steep gradients. So Pete took over driving the RV at that point.
Jackson Hole is probably THE place for skiers of all kinds, and as a town I found it extremely picturesque and pretty, with lovely wooden buildings. It had atmosphere and character - or maybe I was just seeing it through Louis l'Amour eyes. (It really was a pretty town, though.) We didnt stop there, though, except to fuel up and take much needed loo breaks. Once the RV had been fed, we drove through the town towards the Grand Tetons. The mountains were jagged and snow-covered, but somehow they we found them lacking in the majesty of the Yellowstone Mountains. We'd probably have appreciated the Grand Tetons more if we'd seen them first!
Not to be disparaging about these mountains, though... no doubt about it, they were beautiful too. But I guess it was their setting that was lacking a little something - flat boring plains. We did stop by a lake called Lake Jenny - another picture-perfect, large, placid lake that faithfully reflected the surrounding mountains in its waters. There wasnt much of a shore to this lake, just rocks and stones. We went down to the water scrambled about the stones for a bit, taking photos. (I threw a few stones into the water, just so as to give them something to exist for. Thanks to me, they could now spend the next few hundred years making their way back to shore. It HAD to be done, see?)
We took in the sights of Jackson Hole Reservoir on the way out - nothing spectacular about the reservoir because it was the usual mirror-still huge lake (yawn) bordered by picturesque snow-covered mountains (yawwwwn) rising high into the clear blue sky (yaaaawwwwwwwn). How much of a good thing can you take in, after all? Even spectacular views become boring when you get them all the time, wherever you go. (OXYGEN_DEPLETING YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWN).... I'm KIDDING, of course! It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. What CAN get boring for readers, though, is coming across the description "beautiful" all the time...
The next stop was Idaho Falls, in Idaho (duh). The drive there took about 4 hours or so, and Kumar did the honours this time. Back up through the pass, through lots of flat country (with the mountains tantalisingly surrounding us) and some more mountains, we reached the RV camp where we stayed the night. This wasnt as cosy and small as the one near Yellowstone Park, but it served its purpose. All you can really ask for at camps like this are clean toilets and shower areas - and this park provided both.
The next morning, we were back on the road to Salt Lake City, to return the RV and take a taxi to the airport. Our next destination was
SAN FRANCISCO, via Las Vegas airport. I think I disliked the airport on sight, not the least because it was unpleasantly warm inside. I dont even want to think about how hot it was outside! Plus there were slot machines EVERYWHERE! Ok, Vegas is a gambler's paradise, but does it have to start right at the airport? Honestly, after we had walked what seemed like miles inside the airport, trying to get to the terminal to get our connecting flight, and going through yet another security check, I was quite certain that the airport was secondary to the slot machines and casinos. It's like they built the airport as an afterthought around the gambling areas. My friend assures me that Vegas is worth a trip, just for a day, just to see how amazing the casinos are... well, I dunno about that. Maybe one day, when I have time and money to spare. But until then it's gonna be un-tacky, worthwhile travelling!
We were visiting San Francisco mainly (possibly only) because I'd so wanted to go there. I had a few reasons for this (in no particular order): One, I'd been wanting to visit the city, having heard so much about it. Two, I wanted to meet up with an old school friend, a very good pal whom I hadnt seen in years, and his wife as well. And three, we also wanted to catch up with a cousin of ours who's settled there.
It was quite late at night by the time we got out of the airport, thanks to the flying time + the time difference. (It was either an hour ahead or an hour behind Vegas.) Anyway, Bhanu's husband Shiv came to pick us up, along with their 9-year-old daughter Janani, who was wildly excited about our arrival. Luckily their house is quite close to the airport - just a 15-minute drive or so - as Shiv had to go back to the airport a short while later to pick up Bhanu, who was coming back from Boston after a conference! She would have arrived at more or less the same time as us, except that her flight was delayed by a few hours.
Bhanu and Shivakumar live in the most gorgeous house I've ever seen. And their hospitality was even more heart-warming. Shiv had actually cooked a four-course meal for us, catering to all our various dietary and medical requirements (makes us sound like a bunch of octogenarians, I know) - it was absolutely delicious and absolutely welcome. Nothing like home-made food cooked and served with so much care!
Weather-wise, San Francisco is probably the best sort of place in which to live. Not too hot, not too cold - just right (said Baby Bear). The advantage of that being that jasmines, lemon trees, orange trees, curry leaf plants etc, all grow without trouble. Would that I could grow curry leaves here...
The next day, (after a rather heavenly breakfast of idlis), Shiv dropped us off at the railway station, so that we could get the train into the city. It was not the most pleasant of experiences, the train being really crowded. If it had been India, there would have been footboarders for sure. But it wasnt India, so the would-be footboarders were all crushed in with us less intrepid travellers when the doors closed. I guess it's safer that way, but it's also not comfortable!
We got off the train at the other end, wondering: 1. How to get to where we wanted to go and 2. Where we wanted to go. We had of course asked Bhanu and Shiv what to see and where to go. But, as usually happens, we segued practically seamlessly from floundering in a pool of ignorance to drowning in an ocean of information. "Depends on what you want to do", they'd say, and then reel off a list of things that ALL sounded like we wanted to do, and rightaway! Of course, we'd have needed a few days of relentless touring to do it all.
Finally the decision was made when we saw a bus come past that mentioned "Fisherman's Wharf". Since it was a name that had been mentioned, we all got onto the bus. It was probably the best decision because as it meandered its way all around town, we got to see quite a lot of what was covered on the official open-top or pseudo-tram tours. (But of course we didnt realise that until we'd got onto a pseudo-tram for their one-hour hop-on hop-off trip, and discovered that we'd already been to most of their halts!)
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. We got off at Fisherman's Wharf and stood around for a bit, looking out at the sea and wondering in a vague sort of way what to do next. I took a few photographs of seagulls with Radha's camera, just to have something to do. The pseudo-car (looked like the authentic cable car but wasnt because it ran on tyres) tour seemed a good idea, so we opted for the one-hour one. And then, since we had some time on our hands before the tour started, we went to look at a genuine WWII submarine moored at Pier 45, the USS Pampanito, that had seen action and was open for tourists. Actually "seen action" doesnt quite do it justice, because she sank 6 Japanese ships and damaged 4 others, AND rescued some 85 odd seamen whose ship had been sunk (by the Japanese, presumably).
It was a very interesting tour because we got to see for ourselves how cramped the space was for 79-odd men to live in for days, underwater, with a steadily diminishing quality of air to make things even more difficult. And then to think that they rescued some 85 other seamen - it simply boggled the mind. How DID 150-plus human beings manage to survive in that cramped, minimalist space with probably minimum food as well, without killing each other or themselves??
I have to admit here that I was probably conned by a streetside trickster. There was this guy who had three cups and a coin, moving them around rapidly and asking people to guess under which cup the coin was. There were a few other guys around him, giving him money ($60 a pop!!!) and guessing right (or wrong). I was watching in idle fascination and guessed correctly a couple of times. But of course the "magician" said I couldnt win unless I parted with my money. I wouldnt have done it except that Pete encouraged me! And just like that, in the blink of an eye (and a wrong guess), I'd lost sixty dollars!
Shellshocked wouldnt begin to describe my state - okay, $60 is not exactly a huge amount but it was the speed with which it happened that was the shock. Now that I think of it, I'm sure that at least two of the guys who were "playing" were probably in the pay of the trickster to lure dimwits like me! Boy did I ever learn a lesson - and quicker than a wink, too. I'm not cut out for gambling, me. Losing money for no reason other than greed is just not my style. (Although losing money because of stupidity apparently is.)
Anyway, by the time we had dawdled our way to the faux tram tour, there were only 5 places left - just right for us! Had we come even a few seconds later, we would have missed that tour! Our driver/guide was a nice enough guy, obligingly explaining everything about each place of interest... but I'm afraid I wasnt a particularly good listener. American history just seems so insular and not connected with "history" as I understand it (as in affecting the rest of the world). But the ride was good for some lovely views of San Francisco.
We didnt get off at any of the stops - one, because we would have had to wait an hour for the next car and two, because there were no guarantees of getting a seat anyway. It was amazingly chilly because of the wind (it was an open car, as in no windows) even though the sun was shining. Especially in the shade. Brrr. So we missed out on the Ghirardelli Icecream and Chocolate Shop, the Boudin bread museum (which I was sorry about because I LOVE sourdough bread and would have loved to have visited the museum/bakery where it all started), the Union Square and sundry other places of tourist interest - and didnt care one bit, I might add!
It's been documented before, but my god, this is a city full of steep, steep roads. At some points, from the top of a road, the view was like that obtained from the top of really high rollercoasters. Despite knowing that the trams would NOT be reaching any kind of thrilling speed (in fact they were a few hundred mph short of it), I still couldnt help feeling a little rush of adrenalin, looking down at the drop. But the trams were very sedate and the illusion of a roller-coaster was very quickly shattered.
After the tour, we decided we'd walk to the "crookedest street in the world" - Lombard Street. It's actually NOT the crookedest street in the world, or even in San Francisco, or actually even the steepest, but hey, why be accurate about anything, right? It turned out to be quite a long walk from Fisherman's Wharf to Lombard Street, and poor amma was suffering a bit from a painful knee. It was a fairly steep rise to even get to the bottom of Lombard Street - we did it in stages. The steepest roads are usually "broken" by flat areas of roads perpendicular to the vertical rise, so they provide convenient rest areas of sorts. I dont know about the others, but I motivated myself by thinking of the lovely flat area where I would not be walking or standing at a 60-degree angle.
There was a bit of hesitation when we came to the bottom of Lombard Street... should we climb up that or not? In the event the hesitation was only minor - it would have been pretty darned stupid NOT to walk up to the top after having come such a long way up. But first we stood and watched all the cars zig-zag their way slowly down - quite a sight. There's no zig-zagging up this street because it's strictly one-way.
Once at the top of Lombard Street, we hopped on to the first cable car that came along - and this time it was the authentic kind, with people actually allowed to stand on the footboard. It was crowded but fun. We hadnt the least idea where it was going but when we realised that it was going to stop at Chinatown, we hopped off. First thing to do was get some icecream and cold drinks, so we did, at a little Indian sell-everything-under-the-sun corner shop. Then we walked down the little streets in Chinatown - it was like being in Singapore, except a lot more vertical.
The next thing on the agenda was, of course, the famous San Francisco bridge - the Golden Gate. Nothing to do but go and look at it. We could see it from where we were, so we just started walking in its general direction, hoping to get down eventually to some Pier or other and thence see our way there. What we didnt know at this point was that was NOT the Golden Gate, but the Bay Bridge. Not that we ever got there - we were far too tired by then to bother. The map we had didnt seem to make sense as far as tram or bus stops were concerned, and finally we just hailed a taxi that had stopped conveniently near us to disgorge its passengers.
That was the best decision we'd made yet, as the taxi driver was a very friendly, very amiable chap who set us right on the bridge we thought was the Golden Gate and cheerfully drove us to the Golden Gate entrance area. He turned out to be an excellent guide as well, pointing out the various things he thought we should be interested in, and explaining their history. He was happy to wait for us while we walked across the Golden Gate but the thought of a minimum two-mile walk across and back simply did not appeal to any of us. So we just took a few photographs of the bridge - which by the way is not golden, but red, and was also wreathed in mist because it was not a clear day - and asked the taxi driver to drop us back at the railway station. The total fare was a lot less than I'd expected and would have been cheap at twice the price. The taxi driver got a nice fat tip - again, well worth every penny. Or cent.
The annoying part thereafter - we could actually SEE the train that we should have been in time for, but we were a minute too late to catch it. All we could do was watch helplessly as it pulled away, nice and empty. Bah. We had a 40-minute wait for the next one, and it seemed like a good idea to Pete to find the nearest Starbucks and have a coffee (Have I said he's a Starbucks fan?). Unfortunately the nearest Starbucks was closed. Double bah. We mooched along the road until I saw a Borders, which perked us all up considerably. Pete thought I would end up getting every book I saw, but I gamely restrained myself because I was already having visions of being over the luggage limit for the flight back home. In the event it was Pete who loaded up with a good dozen computer books, all about a thousand pages fat, because they were cheaper than in the UK. All I got was one cookbook book - and even that was a present from Radha!
The next day Pete and I were supposed to be picked up for around 9.30am by my friend Rags and his wife Vasavi (isnt that just the most beautiful name?), to go to a winery in Napa Valley. But they discovered that the winery only opened at noon, so our departure was postponed slightly. Just as well, because then we could say goodbye to Kumar, who was flying back to Erie that morning. We would be flying back to Seattle the next day, early. The holiday was coming to an end.
But before that we had the day to spend at the winery. The drive was about an hour or so, and the day got steadily hotter as we reached the Napa Valley area. The change in temperature was nothing short of amazing - in San Francisco, it was bright and sunny but not unduly hot... but in Napa Valley, my god, it felt like Hyderabad. Not humid but very, very hot! It was quite crowded at that winery, mainly because the tasting was free of charge. The picnic areas outside were full of people with hampers of food and bottles of wine. We didnt waste any time in finding a wine that we all liked, got a couple of bottles, and went outside to find a bit of shade in which to sit. Vasavi, being designated driver, did not have very much wine. Me, not being much of a drinker, didnt have half as much as Pete and Rags put away. But it was a time of lots of talk, laughter and reminiscing about school days (for Rags and me, that is) and old friends and places in Chennai, and setting the world to rights.
We stayed at the winery till we were nearly kicked out, then went back with Rags and Vasavi to their lovely new home for more wine, martinis and chatter. (Rags makes the most sensational martinis - his specialty. I dunno if they were stirred or shaken, but the martinis were just wow.) The hours flew by and before we knew it, it was 1 in the morning. We just HAD to get back home, as our flight was at 6am (or some such godawful early hour) and we hadnt even packed. Vasavi and Rags drove us back to Bhanu's place, where we had to say our reluctant goodbyes. If only we'd had more time to spend in San Francisco...
Back in Seattle, we had only a day before we flew back to the UK. That was spent pretty much in last-minute shopping and packing.
But even the drive to the airport wasnt without its share of drama. Radha had to borrow her friend's car (as it was bigger and more powerful than hers) to take us and our luggage. Halfway there, the electrics in the car began to act up. It was a bit of touch and go whether we would actually get to the airport before a breakdown occurred, but we made it. (As it happened, the car DID break down when amma and Radha were on their way back home!)
We were good and early at the airport, but finally we had to say our goodbyes and check in, with heavy hearts. I really didnt want to go, but all holidays have to come to an end - unfortunately. Pete and I sat around at the airport until our flights were called. And then we discovered that the terminal we should have been at was a train trip away! We could see the terminal out of the window, but it was a separate building, only connected by a shuttle.
We had not known this until then, so after that it was a frantic run to the train shuttle station , which seemed like a few miles away inside the airport. We had to wait two minutes for the train to arrive, and believe me, the four-minute ride to the correct terminal seemed endless. We were 10 minutes over the final security call for boarding, and it seemed certain that we had missed our flight. It would have been an extreme irony had we missed it, considering how early we'd arrived at the airport - but luckily the flight had been delayed 10 minutes and the passengers had only just begun to board. Phew! Made it by the skin of our teeth.
All the way back, all we could talk about was how much fun it had been. Pete had started the trip not really wanting to go to the States, but even he had to admit that it was well worth making a return trip - or trips. That's a promise I have in hand.