Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween in the Castro, San Francisco

Halloween in the Castro district of San Francisco has been a tradition for a number of years! Everyone dresses up and its more like a people watching parade as opposed to a street party. However, the shear number of people attending this event in recent years has grown beyond the venue. I thought it would be fun and with approximately 100,000 other revelers it was certainly a very different night out (see photo). Halloween costumes in the US vary from the traditional spooky vampires and monsters to the more unusual - elvis, wizard of oz characters, gangsters, comic book characters and over the top period dress with full make up. Due to the huge responsibility of representing the UK I thought it would most appropriate to go dressed as a Chav. I believe I was the only one, which wasn't that difficult since no-one knew what a Chav was!

This years event is likely to be one of the last as a result of an incident where around 10 people were shot, though fortunately both none were fatal and nowhere near were I was. It was a crazy night and it would be a shame if it is canceled next year.



Yosemite National Park

Last weekend, I took Rosie to probably the most internationally famous National Park in California - Yosemite. Being so infamous does have its down sides though with campsites filling up several months in advance during the summer. I booked very late (2 weeks ago) and was really lucky to book the last available campsite in the Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately for us the site was in the Upper Pines area which allows recreational vehicles (RV’s), that’s camper vans to you and me, so it wasn’t quite the serene escape to the wilderness that you might have expected. Our tent was overshadowed by 3 huge RV’s (photo 1; they're so large that I could only get two in the picture) and they’re not exactly small – more like tour buses than camper vans. The peaceful tranquillity frequently punctuated with the sound of their diesel generators - how lovely!

Yosemite NP is a five hour drive East of Berkeley, half of the drive is 4 lane freeway driving and the remainder on more normal sized roads. The quicker part being on those smaller roads as a result of the horrific traffic leaving the bay area on a Friday night. By the time we had arrived at the campsite it was dark. It wasn’t long after finishing dinner that we had our first BEAR (these are brown bears not the grizzly variety) encounter and this one was pretty cheeky – not being scared away by shouting and pot banging. It came right up close, to a few feet, and even with me banging a pot a few feet from the end of its nose and Rosie shouting, it stood up on the table to get a better look at what to eat – and very quickly the kettle chips and the bear were gone. Later on we heard that the same bear had taken a sausage straight off someone else’s BBQ while they were cooking – madness! Sad to say but this cheeky bears days are numbered.

Having visited Yosemite some 6 years ago as part of organised trip I had an idea of what the best hikes to do were. However, the time hasn’t been to kind on my memory so the idea was more a distant one, hence it took a little bit of explaining to the ranger in the visitor centre before he was able to point us the right direction for a monster hike up and around the rim of the Valley. Starting at 11am for a 13 mile hike with close to 3000 feet of ascending was potentially fool hardy but what the hell we could always run if the sun started to set. The route we took ascended close to Vernal (photo 2 from the top of the falls) and Nevada Falls before following the panorama trail to glacier point, were we were rewarded with great views of Half Dome (photos 3 and 4) and descending the four mile trail back to the Valley floor. It’s a great hike, although tiring, with fantastic views of both the waterfalls, the Valley, El Capitan and Half Dome (photo 4). We just made it down before sunset and even had time to watch the changing colours of the granite from the Valley as the sun set before finding the free shuttle bus back to the campsite. No bears today.

As the snow was still to arrive we were able to drive up the Tioga Pass road to the Tuolumne Meadows (an alpine meadow at ~8000 feet). Due to the lateness in the season it was not the lush green meadow you might imagine but was more burnt brown grass. Still surprising beautiful. We hiked out to the Cathedral Lakes on the John Muir trail (the Yosemite version of the Pennine Way in the UK). The views here were spectacular especially away from the tourist crowds of the Valley (photo 5 with Cathedral peak in the backdrop). Another close bear encounter this evening, although fortunately for us this bear was far less cheeky and was scared off when Rosie shouted "boo" at it! I of course enjoying another exercise in pot banging to scare it a little further away from our camp.

On the last day, still clearly winding down from the first days hiking, we picked all the shortest hikes: (i) the 1 mile hike to inspiration point with views of the entire Valley (photo 6); El Capitan on the left, Sentential Rock on the right and Half Dome in the centre, and (ii) the 2 mile hike to the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoia trees. These trees are huge and the largest ones in this grove were on the order of a few thousand years old. They're pretty hardy surviving fires and diseases as a result of their very thick bark, up to 2 foot thick in some cases.

And what weekend in Yosemite would be complete without a stop in Tracy (a strip mall full of fast food) on the return leg - I convinced Rosie we needed a 24 inch pizza. We both agreed afterwards that actually we didn't! We could barely even get the box in the car.



Wine Country - Sonoma Valley

My old housemate Rosie (from Norwich) arrived last week after a conference in Hawaii (ah the tough life of a Ph.D. student) and with our impeccable taste (not?!) in fine wines we spent the weekend in the Sonoma Valley, an hour or so drive north of Berkeley. Sonoma Valley boasts over 200 of the worlds most award wining wineries and runs parallel to the larger and more famous Napa Valley but is equally beautiful in its own right. On the first day we visited Loxton (photo 1), one of the smallest wineries in the Valley, and were treated to several fantastic Syrah and Shiraz wines (photo 2). The pride and joy of the winery being a 2004 Syrah and at $24 a bottle who could resist. A picnic lunch followed and the $18 Shiraz was enjoyably consumed. We camped at the northern most end of the Valley in the Sugarloaf State Park and the weather was pretty much perfect - it has not rained here since May. In the evening, the space observatory in the Park was open to the public so we got to hang out with some astrology geeks for the night! Jokes aside there were some sweet images from the hubble space telescope being shown in a slide show , which was neat.

The next day, after a swift hike up Bald Mountain, with views of both the Napa and Sonoma Valleys (photo 3), we visited one of the largest wineries in Sonoma, the Cline Cellars (photo 4). We joined a coach party on a tour of the winery - strangely we did not seeing any of the actually wine making - clearly winery tour must have a different meaning in US english! Several wine tastes and minius $40 later we headed back to Berkeley with a couple of really cheeky bottles of red. That evening, my friend Colette threw a belated Canadian thanksgiving dinner. I never turn down free food, especially a good roast - and it was very good, thanks Colette! Whats good wine if not to share so we soon dispatched the last of the Sonoma wine. I have never spent that much money on wine before and probably wont again for a while until my wallet recovers and my pallet can no longer take the "2 buck chuck" that my current housemates insist on drinking!