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Western United States, Christmas 2008

I'm transcribing this narrative 10 years after the trip itself, and I find my diary is lacking in places. Sometimes I can fill in the details from memory - either straight away or prompted by the photographs we took at the time, but some days are plain blank or recorded in just a few sketchy words. The bits that are non-grammatical will eventually be fixed; the gaps in my memory … not so much.


Friday, 19 December 2008

We figured that, by waiting until Bex was 8 before undertaking a long trip, she’d appreciate it better, be able to remember it well in later life, and would be easier to travel with.

In the event, she’s handled getting here better than I did.

The only downside is that, when things are going wrong and you’re rattled, answering a kid’s naive questions doesn’t help calm the mind. But, here we are, Bex, red hair and all, still happy – if a bit tired – Jo down for the count with a headache, and me only just recovering my composure after a day of trials. For once the New Zealand leg of the trip was fine. We arrived in Vancouver in relatively good humour and without difficulty. But then we made our First Big Mistake. Our intention was to transfer straight through Vancouver airport to Seattle; we’d only come to Vancouver at all, because there was no direct flight to Seattle. We’d checked our luggage right through and had boarding passes issued. So, upon emerging from our flight, we followed the sign which read “Transfer to U.S.”

What were we thinking?

Anyway, by the time we’d established that “Transfer to U.S.” only applied to certain flights, that ours wasn’t one of them, that we were expected to clear Canadian customs and immigration, then immediately re-enter the concourse again to go through U.S. customs and immigration before boarding our next flight, we were lost in the composite queue from several flights. Whereas we had been peeved at the thought of having to kill two hours in a transfer lounge, now we were anxious about whether we’d even make it through in time. The line inched forward at about the same speed as the clock. All the time, we had no idea whether we’d make the transfer or not. Eventually we reached the counter, and got ushered through fairly quickly.

Finding ourselves in the concourse, we noted the next little thing ... no signs. Well, they wouldn’t want to make life too easy, would they? So, we asked at an information desk, and were directed upstairs. So, there’s this escalator in the middle of the floor – great ... so far – with several closely spaced steel pillars arranged around it, to prevent you from taking bags up it. Of course. But by now I was angry with the perversity and downright fucking ineptitude of the whole arrangement, so, with the able assistance of Mr Adrenalin, I easily hoisted everything over the top of the pillars, and we went up anyway. (Now that my anger has subsided, I can see that the pillars must actually be set there to force fat people to take the stairs.)

At the top, we found the entrance to security. The woman at the counter was flummoxed to be confronted by people with luggage. (“They should have handled them for you at Customs.” “Well, they didn’t. They just kicked us out onto the concourse.” “Well, ok then. Take ’em through.”) Then we were given three pea-green visa waiver declaration forms to fill out, before we’d be let through the next set of doors. But of course. And was there a desk or anything to write on? No, there was not. It was my happy lot to kneel on the floor – less easy, these days, than once it was – and use one of our bags as a writing surface. Date of passport issue. Honestly, it is like one of those computer games where you have to solve puzzles to get to the next level. I think the Vancouver Airport Authority needs the services of a decent business process engineer, very urgently.

And all the time I was desperately scribbling out these bloody forms, I was conscious that the last few minutes were ticking by before our plane left for Seattle....

Well, that’s enough about that. We did make it, and arrived into a steadily thickening snowfall which soon closed the airport and paralysed the entire city.


Saturday, 20 December 2008

At first we had no inkling of how the wintery conditions would affect us. All I wrote in my diary was that it was snowy and we had donuts for breakfast. I knew that Seattle does not always have snow at Christmas time, which was one reason why we were planning to continue north afterwards, but I little knew how unprepared the city would be for a snow-dump of this magnitude. Not only did the airport shut down, but the steep, icy streets were unnavigable by buses or, indeed, any vehicle lacking chains, so there was no public transport and little other activity either.

We walked downtown for some shopping. Macy’s was more or less empty when we first walked in; the few shoppers were certainly out-numbered by staff, although a little bit more life appeared later on. The recession is really biting here ... or is it the snow?

At some stage we quit the freezing streets and went into Barnes and Noble, for a poke around the books and to sit down in their café for a break. One coffee and the headache I’d been carrying for the past day or so magically disappeared. I’ve found this quite often, when I take a break from work. After a couple of days without coffee I get a headache, presumably due to caffeine withdrawal. However, one more cup clears it up, and then I’m done with it. The headache doesn’t come back, even if I have no more coffee for a few weeks.

Something unexpected was a carousel set up in some small public space in the middle of town, to raise money for some charity. I’ve forgotten what it was, now. Anyway, it was certainly novel and well patronised, with Bex adding to the gaity on a number of occasions over the next day or three.

Bex made her first ever snow-angel on the way back to the hotel. That almost sounds kind of odd, now that I write it. But although we’d visited various snowy parts of New Zealand prior to this, we’re not part of the skiing set – the beautiful people – and the opportunity had never really arisen before.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

This morning was very snowy. We went into the city early, but found it was almost deserted.

Breakfast was at Subway, possibly due to a lack of choice although Rebecca and I quite enjoy the occasional sub, so we may well have wanted to go, or even sought it out. My diary notes “20 questions” with apparent alarm. Of course I’d have known from previous experience that there are always lots of options to be negotiated in a Subway, so for me to have made such an observation this particular experience must surely have been over the top!

The diary further notes, somewhat morosely, “Pacific Science Centre closed. Most everything seems to be.”

I recall we found a few stores open, and that Rebecca was able to secure numerous items, including a couple of greatly prized Hannah Montana tops, at ridiculously low prices. On the one hand, we benefitted from these bargains, and were grateful to do so, but Jo and I also found it highly alarming. The New Zealand economy passed through the GFC under Finance Minister Bill English’s steady hand, pretty much unscathed. I do not think many of my countrymen have even the remotest clue what it was like elsewhere. These places, some huge, with many many staff, were facing the abyss. When the store you’re working for is clearly going bust at 90 miles per hour, and there is no prospect of any other employment once they do, what do you feel?

We took the waterfront back to the acquarium. That was still open. We need to feed the fish, explained one of the staff. We enjoyed a few hours there; we were just about the only visitors.

Finally, we walked back to our hotel via town; it was snowing quite hard.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Bexy had a bad night for some reason, so we started out late. In any case, we were a bit preoccupied with our onward travel arrangements to Bellingham. How would we get there? We slithered and slid along icy footpaths into town, to the Amex Travel Centre which was ... Closed. But of course.

Our map showed the Gray Line as running a pick-up from the Sheraton, so we went in there to ask for a timetable and contact number. A helpful staffer there gave us that information, though not for the Gray Line – a different outfit called BellAir Charters. Comforted that we at least had something, we got ripped off for breakfast at some dump, visited a few stores, eventually making our way to the Westlake Centre and catching the monorail to the Seattle Centre. There we found the fair ground, Kid’s Museum, and Pacific Science Centre ... all closed due to (according to signs on the doors) “extreme” weather. Well, by this time, it was extremely sunny, but never mind that. Actually, the Kid’s Museum sign claimed they were open until 3, but arriving at 2:30 and finding the door firmly locked suggested to me the staff had scarpered.

Clearly, the pioneering spirit which founded Seattle has long since gone west. Into the sea, most likely. I’ve never struck a place which fell so completely to pieces with a little bad weather; what a bunch of nancies.

We came back via the Best Western, and picked up a brochure for another option to Bellingham – the Quick Shuttle. Upon returning to the Ramada, I got on to the Quick Shuttle web site and tried to book. But, apparently, Quick Shuttle “specialises” in border crossings and wouldn’t accept a booking from Seattle to Bellingham, so scratch them. Wankers.

Next I tried BellAir, and apparently succeeded in making a booking. But their’s is not a real time system: they would have to forward a confirmation – within 24 hours – to my email account. Ok, fine; I gave my office email address.

About 5 we pottered back into the Pacific Place food court for something to eat. Afterwards, I checked my email. Nothing. By chance, I’d also cleared my student email account, and forwarded one of the messages to the office. That wasn’t there, either. So I sent some test messages and, wouldn’t you know it?, the office inbound server was down.

I paged the boss....

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

I checked the office mail again ... more test messages ... down again (or still). Sent shirty note to boss. Sent message from student account to Quick Shuttle to give them an alternate address. Tried to ring them – for the umpteenth time. Didn’t even get queued this time; just a busy tone. E-commerce really is just complete shite when it’s done badly.

Ok, maybe we were going to get to spend Christmas and New Year in Seattle. Where little would be open, because half the natives are quivering under their blankets, afraid to venture out in a little snow. We went to Barnes and Noble for breakfast and a poke around. I asked at the information desk of the Westlake Centre if they could direct me to a travel agent. “A what?” Nobody in this city seems to know anything about their own town! It’s amazing. Anyway, after a session with the Yellow Pages and Google Maps, I was given directions to the intersection of Bell and Western. It was a long way, so I left the girls and went alone. Probably just as well, as it turned out. There was no travel agent, but there was a city mission and a lot of people lining up for a meal. As I shuffled down a very steep, very icy, Bell Street, several people urged me to hold railings or step in that soft patch, to avoid slipping. Looking out for each other, and looking out for me, too.

I had no hope, but I asked in a deli anyway. A man in there took me over the road to the Mission. I got no useful directions, but these folks who had so little really tried to help. I left a small donation, and walked back to the girls. As it happened, I returned via the Ramada, talked to one of the guys on the desk, and made an arrangement for him to take us to Bellingham in his 4x4 for a modest consideration. I think – I hope – we both felt we got a good deal.

Returning in search of the girls, I relocated them just as Jo was preparing to throttle Rebecca to death. I let her escape for some time to recover her composure, by herself, while I took the vexatious child to get sushi for lunch (brilliant wasabi! nearly blew my brains out). After another ride on the carousel, we met Jo back outside Victoria’s Secret. We killed a few more minutes, took Bex to see a movie (Despereaux), had dinner in the food court – same as last night – and walked back to the hotel.

I’ve subsequently acquired a Lonely Planet: Bellair could have taken us. We could even have booked it from home, but our travel agent had failed to complete this leg of the trip. Maybe travel agents have their uses for booking flights and tours, but do everything else yourself is my advice. They’re pretty useless, by and large.




Wednesday, 24 December 2008

We stopped off on the way into town for a coffee and donut. It was far and away the best cup of coffee I’d had since arriving (Americans delude themselves if they think they make decent coffee; it’s nearly always crap) and I soon found out why. The barrista was a New Zealander: born in the deep south – Franz Joseph, no less – and trained at Astoria in Wellington. Not my favourite Wellington cafe, but that has more to do with the lack of ambience than the coffee.

Then Miles drove us to Bellingham: a long drive (about 300 km, I think) through a near blizzard. We were certainly glad his car was a big 4WD; the conditions were appalling. We had been expecting Bellingham to be a small community, and perhaps it is in some sense, though not in size: it sprawls for miles. We were grateful to the little GPS unit, guiding us straight to the Best Western, where we alighted, thanked Miles profusely, gathered our bags, and went in. But this was not our hotel. Evidently there are two Best Westerns in Bellingham – maybe more for all I know – and we were at the wrong one. Never mind; one of the helpful staff got a vehicle, and drove us across to the other one.

Eventually we got ensconced and trooped across the road to the Bellingham Mall where, again, we observed this peculiar phenomenon of local ignorance. In this case, Jo was looking for a pharmacy, and asked after one in the clothes shop she happened to be in. The girl behind the counter denied any knowledge of such a thing yet, when we left the shop and continued on ambling through the mall, we found one three doors along! How can you work in a store and not know the handful of places on either side? It just plain dumbfounded us.

Maybe it was on account of Christmas Eve, or maybe it is just the local tradition, but everything closed early. We thought for a time we might end up going hungry that night, when we stumbled upon a Thai restaurant just as it was closing. Mercifully they were happy to knock us up some quick take-out before closing the door, and heading off into the snow.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Free breakfast ... with Santa, yet. Then some calls home.

Jo was quite unwell, so Bex and I went out hunting for lunch on our own. There was not a lot moving. From afar, even McDonalds looked closed, but we traipsed through the slush, over the highway, and then through more slush to establish that, yes, indeed: it was really closed. I’m not sure that Rebecca had ever seen a closed McDonalds before: it must have shaken her worldview.

The only place which appeared to be open was a Denny’s. We went in, with some trepidation in my case, but, really, we didn’t fare too badly: Bex had a couple of mini hotdog things, and I ate a burger. Too much onion but, basically, non-toxic.

Dinner was an altogether different story, alas. Driven by hunger, Jo roused herself from her deathbed – I don’t think she was actually feeling any better – and we slipped and slid over icy patches, around the corner to Denny’s again. Bex was the wisest of the lot of us. She wasn’t particularly hungry so she focused her attention exclusively on some sweet carbonated liquid called an Island Fizz, which she enjoyed. Jo’s turkey dinner was revolting (“possibly the worst meal I’ve ever eaten”) and looked it, too. My Sampler Basket was enormous (being still bloated from lunch, I had opted for the menu item which sounded the smallest) and was full of various stodgey items, including great lumps of tasteless over-processed cheese (mozzarella, my arse), deep fried. These things were not just battered; they were positively armoured – entombed! – in greasy casings of deep fried batter. My god. I didn’t dare eat any.


Friday, 26 December 2008

Breakfast and laundry, then one last quick trip to the mall where we bought a pair of pink boots for Rebecca. The slush on the roadside was frozen solid, so our feet stayed dry. I can’t now remember why, but the note in my diary says that Bex was becoming a “total brat” – oh, dear.

We checked out and took a taxi to the ferry terminal. It was very far. Passing through the downtown area, we thought it looked very nice though, in reality, there was probably less to see and do – ok; buy – there than there was at the mall across the road from where we stayed. We were quite early, so I browsed the brochures. A couple had timetables in them for exotic parts; along the Aleutian chain; much further than we’d be going these holidays. Alas. Sometimes, at my desk at work, I just wish ... But there’s no future in going on about that.

At boarding, we were required to show identification as well as our tickets. Well, that’s sad. If there’s any part of the world you’d hope wouldn’t cower to the threat of extremist mental-cases, it would be out here. I would have to abandon my romantic view of the Pacific northwest being a place you can leave your name behind.


Our cabin was very cozy. The fried dinner, alas, was repulsive. After Denny’s, it was ... too soon....

We cruised past the gift shop which, I noted, offered “Item’s for sale” (which of ... oh, never mind) and was staffed by a somewhat strange apparition with a bouffant hairdo and a disinterested air (later corroborated by her manner).

Rebecca found it hard to get off to sleep. Perhaps she was a bit nervous about sleeping on a boat, rocking at sea. This would have been her first experience of it. Eventually she claimed a “sore tummy” and exchanged her pole position on the top bunk to be downstairs (and nearer Mum).

Clutching my pillow under my arm, I took to the ladder.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Situation normal. Rebecca woke up early, and wasn’t content until she’d woken both of us up as well. I struggled back to ground level and tried to straighten myself out….

Breakfast was ok, but a repeat trip to the gift shop engendered a particularly unattractive bout of “I want, I want” in Rebecca. We made a brief promenade around the deck with my camera for a few pictures, but Jo wasn’t feeling very well so we soon returned inside to our cabin, to warm up. Jo retired to her bunk as we crossed Queen Charlotte Sound. It was quite choppy, and the handwriting in my diary is notably wobbly.

In the end, we all had a sleep. Jo looked much better afterwards. The sea was very calm again; I took some more photos. We headed to the cafeteria for lunch, only to see some dolphins beside the ship. But by the time I’d got back out on deck they were too far astern: I took a shot but, unless I’d written down the frame number, even I couldn’t pick it now. You can just make out a line of perhaps a dozen splashes as the animals porpoised, but each is only about three pixels worth. Bex’s behaviour was initially better, but later, sitting in the cafeteria playing cards after lunch, she proved just as smart-mouthed and disobedient as ever. Jo took her back to the cabin before I killed her.

But I didn’t get much time out. Soon they were hammering at the cafeteria window for me to come outside. They’d seen more dolphins from the cabin window. But we couldn’t relocate them from the deck.

Just then, freezing on deck in the coming dark of the afternoon, we passed Bella Bella. I wasn’t sure (and still aren’t) whether it was the largish community to port, or the very small one to starboard, or both. I took a few snaps: the light was fading quickly, but they turned out better than I’d have expected from emulsion. Perhaps digital is better, after all. (I should mention that I was a digital sceptic for a long time, and had grudgingly bought a digital camera only a couple of months before this trip. It’s a Canon 450D and it’s converted me. I now wish I’d switched years ago.)

By 1700 it was pitch dark outside. I seem to recall making the same observation on our previous trip, 10 years ago.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Joanne’s birthday today. I didn’t say so, but what a way to see out another year: waking up in your cabin, on the leg in to Ketchikan, in a snow-storm, in the dead of winter. I suppose this sounds quite unappealing to some people, but, for me, this is what life is for. If you understand, then you won’t need me to say any more; if you don’t then you never will.

We arrived in “Ketchy” bang on time, at 0930, but a bit of to-ing and fro-ing meant we didn’t actually debark until about 10. We rang the hotel just before setting off, but cabs were at something of a premium. Unlike Seattle, Ketchikan does not fall to pieces whenever they get a dump of snow but, even so, the snowfall was uncharacteristically heavy, many of the residents’ cars were buried up to the windows, and the town’s few taxis were in hot demand. Just before 11, one of the AMHS staff at the terminal told us a cab was on the way, and shortly after we were heaving our gear into the trunk.

We passed a couple of road graders on the way into town, piling the snow into a metre-high heap between the lanes. Soon we were heading up Stedman Street, past famous Creek Street, and getting ourselves established at the historic (built in 1924) NY Hotel. Our room was wonderfully cosy. I set up the fold-out camp-cot at the foot of our bed for Bex, while the girls peered out through lace curtains at the swirling snow-storm obscuring the marina across the road.

Lunch at the downstairs cafe was a fairly minimalist affair, it would have to be said, and the coffee was indifferent; usually the case in America, as I’ve noted. The power went off for half an hour or so.

Afterwards, we walked through the deep drifts and still heavily falling snow to the museum. Unfortunately, this institution was closed, due to the snow, and would not open tomorrow, regardless of the weather, either, on account of it being Monday. Sigh. On the way there and back, we passed Creek Street and a small public space of some sort (it was impossible to say what, in the conditions) with a couple of totem poles.

Creek Street itself was a minor surprise – it is quite lovely – which we explored a little on the way back to our hotel, although nothing was open. Back on the corner with Stedman, Bex and I heaved a few snowballs back and forth, then we all repaired to the IGA for supplies before returning to the hotel for an afternoon of pining away in front of the telly. This sounds very unadventurous although, in our defence, it was not because we were put off by trudging through knee-deep snow. That was actually kind of fun. There just didn’t seem to be anywhere interesting to go, or the prospect of anything being open when we got there. (If it sounds like I’m dissing Ketchikan, I don’t mean to. We had a blast and I’d repeat the experience tomorrow if I could.)

The Sci-Fi channel (shades of our entombment in Whitehorse!) was playing The Lost World (yawn) so we put up with several hours of a Phineas and Ferb marathon on Disney. Although it had cleared for a little while in the afternoon, and the sun had even broken through for a few minutes around 3ish, it was still snowing lightly when we turned in.

Monday, 29 December 2008

It had more or less stopped snowing by morning, so I gathered the troops and carted the camera up Creek Street, past the totem poles and the (closed) museum, then back again. As we passed “our” corner on the way out, we built a little snowman, with pennies for eyes and nose. A little later, upon our return, we were delighted to note that some thoughtful local had supplied him with a fetching smile, built from a row of macaroni!

We made a virtue of doing not much, again, until midday when it was time to prepare for our departure via the ferry terminal to the M/V Kennicott, a slightly bigger-looking boat, I think, to the previous one. We were originally slated for a cabin on the port side, but the purser swapped us across to starboard quite cheerfully when we asked. Our cabin had fold-away beds on one side, which made it feel slightly more roomy than that on our last ferry, though whether it really was I can’t say. Then out with the books, again. I had finished Predictably Irrational and was now dividing my reading between The Subtle Knife and John Muir’s somewhat florid Travels in Alaska, neither of which was really doing it for me. It was snowing quite heavily again by 1620, and virtually pitch dark outside….

We unwittingly committed a heinous crime at dinner time, by eating in the wrong part of the dining room, and got told off. Even though this was between Christmas and New Year, and there were hardly any other passengers aboard the whole damn boat, there was none of the family atmosphere that Jo and I had experienced aboard the Taku or the Le Conte a decade ago. With the exception of the friendly purser, the crew we interacted with were cold, humourless wretches who appeared not to give a damn.

Still, all of the flip up, swing down bits in our room worked, and we all slept snugly enough. Some time overnight, it stopped snowing.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Most of this day we stayed in our cabin, where we read, dozed, played charades and draughts, and more charades. Although we all ventured out on deck once or twice, it was very windy for the most part, bitterly cold, and treacherously icy underfoot, so I took a few photographs then retreated back inside after only a minute or two.

We went to the 10 a.m. “movie” and when it hadn’t started by 10:15 to the purser’s office to remind them to put it on. The movie turned out to be a video, screened on a smallish TV not much bigger than the one in our lounge at home, and we almost packed it in at that point, but ultimately stayed on to the end. Spiderwick Chronicles.

When the movie was over we found ourselves pulling into the state capital, Juneau. Again we ducked outside for a look but it was too cold to stay. The ferry terminal is about 15 miles from downtown: too far for a walk and with little expectation that anything would be open, I didn’t feel like forking over $40 or more for the round trip in a cab. It’s pretty kitchy, anyway. There appeared to be much less snow lying about the place than in Ketchikan.

At Juneau we picked up some next-door neighbours to our cabin, with a noisy infant. Other things, too, I daresay, then back out to sea.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

I roused the girls at 0800 with some difficulty. Bex had had a difficult night, which Jo had had to deal with more or less on her own, because I was perched aloft in one of the bunks. They were upright just in time to get dressed and bolt down some breakfast before we docked in Yakutat. At these latitudes, and this time of year, 0800 is still before sunrise; it was quite light but the sun was below the horizon. Fortunately, the sky was quite clear and there was no wind, but it was bitterly cold for all that. We got kitted out in just about everything we could wear and went ashore, where we distastefully picked our way between all the little yellow holes and deep-frozen turds left by the dog-owners who’d gone before us.

After walking no more than a kilometre or so, Bex began to really suffer from the cold and wanted to go back to the boat. How would she get by in Anchorage, I wondered.

We warmed up with some hot drinks back on the boat and went forward, ready for departure. For some reason the boat left an hour late but, in the interim, we’d had the good fortune to spot two bald eagles in the trees, ashore, perhaps a half kilometre away. Although both birds took wing before we sailed, neither came close enough to see very well. Curiously, Bex showed little interest in the enormous birds, though she’d seemed fascinated by a mere rook in the docks earlier that morning, and had insisted I photograph it.

Our luck held as we left the Yakutat harbour inlet, too: the sky remained completely cloudless as we sailed past the spectacular Mt St Elias, pyramid-shaped behind the vast Matanuska Glacier. We were told it is quite rare to see the whole mountain as clearly as we did that day. But by the mid afternoon, as we sailed up the coast past the western extent of the ranges, the clouds came down making a flat tableland of the jagged peaks.

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was a bit of a disaster. For a start, it was quite popular so there were about 20 folks crowded around the 26” television, many on the floor. And then there was Rebecca, fidgeting and fussing and wanting a drink and to go to the toilet. To be honest, I think she was possibly a bit frightened by the movie, and all her restlessness was just displacement activity. We left just before the end though Jo did get to see the finish, when she went back for her wrap….


Thursday, 1 January 2009

Whittier. We arose, dressed, breakfasted, packed and got togged up to go ashore. I think Bex thought we were being unnecessarily parental because we insisted she wore just about every item of clothing she had – well, a singlet and two coats, anyway – and she grizzled about being too hot and wanting to shed a layer or two all the way down to the vehicle deck. She was still carrying on right up until the instant she stepped from the lee of the hold into the black teeth of a savage, sub-zero wind carrying ice particles from the docks. From one step to the next, from relative warmth to being ice-blasted, her complaining ceased instantly and her eyes grew huge and round like saucers. I’m sure she was thinking, where the hell have you brought me to?

As I transcribe my diary, a decade later, we still tease her about that moment today.

Bearing our luggage, and with our now silent daughter in tow, we struggled through that perishing wind, across the uneven, icy docks (shallow drifts of snow, partly thawed and then refrozen) to the terminal building. And, yes, I have to confess, I, too, was beginning to wonder where the hell I had brought us to. But everything seemed magically better as soon as we entered the calm of the terminal.

About 8:45, Dave from Alaska Transportation arrived to take us back to Anchorage. It was just beginning to get light and we could begin to make out looming white mountains all around us.

We didn’t have to wait too long to go through the tunnel. It opened a few minutes early, at about 9:05, and we drove through. It is about 3 miles long, undressed (i.e., the rough rock walls are not coated with a smooth layer on concrete), and has 8 “safe houses” along its length which will reputedly stand up to a tunnel fire – not that there has ever been one.

The drive into Anchorage was beautiful, in a bleak grandeur sort of manner. The frozen waterfalls beside the road left a particular impression on me, that I recall vividly to this day.

We had another couple of hilarious moments at the hotel. First up, as we dragged our bags up the front path, was Rebecca’s comment that “This place looks a bit too posh for us.” But the master-stroke was Joanne’s interpretation of the sign in the lift (elevator) which read “Ice on third floor.” We were staying on the third floor, and she was seized with apprehension that we might have to negotiate some sort of ice cave to get to our room. Of course the sign merely referred to the perfectly ordinary and innocuous ice machine provided for the convenience of the hotel’s guests. Am I a bad person for teasing her about that to this day, too?

Rebecca and I indulged in some snow angels in what might have been some kind of park across the road. (It was hard to tell, under all the snow.) But the temperature was well below zero; we did not frolick for long.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Anchorage. We started the day with breakfast downstairs in the hotel. (“We inaugurate the evening” – look it up if you don’t know it.) Afterwards, we returned to our room to get togged up in all our coats etc., and head off to the Imaginarium Science Discovery Centre.

The Imaginarium is well-named. It is loaded with lots of activities for young people – Rebecca was about the right age, or possibly just a fraction on the young side to appreciate it – with a science flavour. I’ve seen similar places, of course, but this place seemed to happily combine the best of them. The big soap bubbles were a particular hit with Bex, though my own favourite was the sound canon.

Along the way we stopped at the town square. Here, the most amazing ice sculptures were arranged around the perimater of the ice skating rink. Rebecca was beside herself with joy; she was in a real McCoy winter wonderland, and she had it virtually to herself.

We moved off again, heading towards our destination but could not resist the appeal of a “warm-up stop” at Starbucks. Joanne noted that she had “never been so pleased to go into a Starbucks in my life.”

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Anchorage. On this morning, I was picked up by Dave Goodman, a palynologist whom I had met only once or twice, very briefly, many years before. He took me to his favourite coffee spot, and we spent a happy hour or so talking over this and that. Memory fails me now, but I had either just submitted, or was just about to submit my thesis, so even though I was not working in the field at the time, I was up with the play. I imagine we focussed primarily on the genus called Phthanoperidinium which was, and still is, in need of comprehensive revision. Sarah Palin may have gotten a look-in, too.

Meanwhile, the girls had discovered the hotel pool, and were thrashing around in that. It is possible they even enticed me in, briefly, after I’d returned from chatting with Dave.

After that, the note in my diary provides the single word, “shops”.

Come evening, and it was time to tog up and gravitate towards Rebecca’s ice rink and the surrounding buildings for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the great state of Alaska. There were concerts: I remember enjoying a jazz fusion sextet called, I think, Stray Dogma, and the headline act, a band called Bearfoot. The latter were very capable musicians and the girls had lovely harmonies … but … bluegrass?! Really? It’s a good thing I didn’t laugh out loud, though. The audience loved them!

We discretely slipped out the back and found ourselves across the road at “50 years of song and dance”, ending with the Underground Dance Company and a high-school ballroom dance group which had just bussed in from Fairbanks, where it was minus 20. That’s Farenheit, of course, so about -30° C in real units. Mind you, it was -15° C or so in Anchorage, an observation which impressed itself upon us when we went outside for the fireworks.

The prelude to this event had us, and a few thousand Alaskans, milling around the centre of town (we were on the edges of the ice rink) for quite some time before the rockets went off. Long enough, indeed, for a small child to go missing from its mother’s side, be reported over the PA, for several thousand people to unite in an immediate and serious search for this kid (people, especially small children, die quickly in such cold temperatures), be found and reunited with their mum, and the crowd to be stood down. Then the sky lit up….

We went to bed late, tired, and happy early the following morning.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Travelling all day, today. My diary is a bit sparse: The only two observations I made about our departure were the temperature – -20° C – and “no waiting”.

We arrived at Los Angeles and waited for a resort bus. A shuttle would have been quicker and much less expensive (we were offered the trip for $30) but Jo was apprehensive about the lack of any explicit signage of the “this bus goes to XXX” variety, and the “timing”. I’m not quite sure what I meant by that, though I do recall it was getting on towards evening and was already dark.

As we arrived in Anaheim, we could see fireworks above Disneyland. One of my ears had gone funny on the descent into LAX, and still felt uncomfortable.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Disneyland. What’s to say?

For reasons we couldn’t figure out at the time, and will never know now, Rebecca was unaccountably wussy about any of the rides with loud noises or “scarey” elements – wicked witches and whatnot – which she would ordinarily have taken in her stride. However, she was not in the least hesitant about the things which spin around or go up and down, so Jo and I had to take firm control of our lunch and suffer the various indignities on offer there.

The staff at our hotel were unable to advise us how best to visit the Getty. They’d never heard of it, apparently.

What’s to say?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Apparently my ear was still feeling funny from the flight down from Alaska … or maybe I’d caught an infection. However, there is no further mention of it in my diary, so I guess whatever it was went away.

We were still in Anaheim and, although I was “themed out” from the beginning, the girls were keen to return to Disneyland. I noted that there was “still no luck organising travel to the Getty” but I have to wonder how hard I was trying. Probably I gave up upon discovering that we were not going to get any useful information from the congenital fuckwits at the hotel counter, but surely even they could have ordered us a cab? I can’t remember now.

So, anyway, we returned to the park which I’ve enjoyed on a couple of previous occasions but today I just found it a trial. Rebecca was apparently being “difficult”, I struggled to comprehend the strange matter of the hand stamp (why do you need it going in?), and for some reason I was peeved that the “happiest place on Earth” failed to acknowledge that the fairy stories were already old before Walt was even born. We had a filthy breakfast at the bakery again (even my diary asks “why?”) including a cinnamon roll entirely devoid of flavour (e.g., of cinnamon) and lacking in moisture despite almost floating in some sticky sweet goo. I appear to have been incensed by some rip-off of The Wiggles, too, though I’m not sure why: I despised that show, having been obliged to watch it numerous times when Bex was little.

Not the best day, it seems.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Downtown Disney is a place where the plundering of your wallet ramps up to an industrial scale. However, I wasn’t aware of that initially, and my first contact with the place was a bookshop, which I noted as being surprisingly good “considering its size and location” … so perhaps I did have an inkling, after all.

On the recommendation of the lovely young woman who occasionally “sat” Rebecca for Jo and me, usually during school holidays, we went to this place where one builds a teddy bear from various fluffy bits and pieces. It was all very twee, embarrassingly so, really, but Rebecca was 8 years old and loved it, so we indulged her. At the end of it, we’d killed an hour, Bex had a new teddy bear, and I had a bill for nearly NZ$100. Thanks, Aimee!

Then, next horror up the street, there was the Häagen-Dazs icecream rip-off. If you’ve had any previous experience with the little-known Danish mafia, you won’t need me to tell you they were criminally over-priced – “Well, that’s going to have to be lunch!” – and if you haven’t then I’d advise avoiding them like the plague. (In fact, that great repository of all western culture, Wikipedia, informs me that Häagen-Dazs arose from some Black Lagoon in New York, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Denmark other than some early and misguided marketing strategy. Sorry, Danes.)

Soon we were wrung dry of any and all remaining pecuniary resources, and were permitted to leave the Hotel California. So off we went to our most bizarre experience to date: a ghost mall.

My diary just calls the place “Anaheim/OC”, presumably standing for Orange County, but I think it may be the one they call “GardenWalk”. The place was deserted. Only once we were up the steps and past the first handful of doors did we see other human beings. Creepy.

This may have been our very first exposure to Wetzel’s Pretzels, however. Now Wetzel was the family name of two brothers, Otto and Walter, who were big in the marine palynology business back in the 1930s and 40s, not something everybody cares about, but it made an immediate impression on me. And, once we’d tried them, on the girls as well! But I’m trotting out a decade old memory, here. Maybe I’ve got the wrong mall.

We returned via the hotel, where Bex had a swim, to DTD. I bought the book I’d been eyeing up earlier that morning, and after that we went to the Rainforest Café for dinner. This was our first decent meal of the trip, by which I mean the first one that was really nice, as opposed to simply being very large and coated in grease. I had Tuscan chicken and an Eccio-something pinot grigio which I’m sure I’ve had at home before, followed by a mother of a cheesecake. A good night for a family.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Today was slated for travelling to San Diego. I’ve noted that the bus arrived 20 minutes early. Did it also leave 20 minutes early? If it did, then I guess we were lucky to be on it. I cannot recall any other occasion when our family was actually ready ahead of the prescribed time.

We took the I-5, got some glimpses of the Pacific, then the bus broke down. However early we’d left, we did not arrive early.

We wanted to go to the wild animal park the next day, but it is half way (north; back the way we had come) to Carlsbad, so we needed to book on a Gray Line bus. Then the girls discovered the Fashion Valley Mall, and that was all she wrote. Even JC Penny was too rich for my blood. Jo went in for a gawk around Jimmy Choo….

Friday, 9 January 2009

We had something called a “3-in-1 voucher” from the travel agent which would allegedly grant us access to San Diego Zoo, Seaworld, and the Wild Animal Park. It was nominally made out to one of these establishments, which would issue us with actual tickets for all three places upon presentation. (Who thinks up these things? Why do they have to be so fucking complicated?) Anyway, the thing was that our voucher was made out to Seaworld, whereas we wanted to go to the Wild Animal Park first. (I can’t remember why, now. Perhaps we changed our plans when we got to San Diego for some logistical reason, or perhaps it was simply made out incorrectly. An acid comment in my diary suggests the latter, but I cannot be certain after all these years.)

In the event, however, it was not a problem: The WAP honoured the voucher, even though it was made out to Seaworld. (To be maximally charitable, perhaps our travel agent knew this all along. Nah – just kidding.)

The Wild Animal Park (I believe it has since been renamed to San Diego Safari Park) began as an overflow and breeding facility for the Zoo (I understand both places are run by the San Diego Zoological Society), but it has long since taken on a life of its own. The park features mostly large mammals, which are given plenty of room to roam around in the large ~750 ha facility.

For the most part, the “enclosures” are too large to walk, and too dangerous in parts, of course. Instead, tourists are shuttled around in various vehicles. Apparently there was once a monorail, but it was retired from service a couple of years before our trip. [Nor do I remember it from my first trip to San Diego, in the late 1970s. Maybe it hadn’t been built then.]

In any event, we enjoyed our fill of trundling around the savannah areas, roaming around the parts where we could walk – mostly aviaries and a few smaller enclosures – and a small facility which functioned as a petting zoo for a few docile animals, mostly deer. There was also a gorgeous baby rhinoceros in a neighbouring paddock, though obviously only staff were allowed in there.

Ok, of course the park is nothing like the African plains, and you might even call it twee if you are in an uncharitable frame of mind. But for many people, probably most, probably including us, this is the closest to seeing these animals in a natural(ish) environment they’re ever going to see. And I don’t think that requires any apology.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

We spent today at San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo is certainly one of the finest zoos in the world, by any measure, and – assessed overall – it is the best I have ever visited. But even if it were not, it would still hold a special place in my memories because, outrageously, it is the first place I ever saw a kiwi. Oh, yes, of course I had been to any number of nocturnal houses around New Zealand – you know the things – where the light is so low you can’t even be sure if you’re looking in the right direction, let alone see your hand in front of your face, and maybe there’s a bird-shaped shadow all the way back, over there, behind that other shadow – is it a fern or a tree-stump or something? Or maybe not. (For god’s sake people, kiwis can’t see in the dark either! They’re nocturnal; they’re not bloody blind.) But on my first visit to SDZ, all those years ago when I was in my early twenties (Late Cretaceous Period or thereabouts), there were a couple of these wonderful birds prancing back and forth right behind the glass without a care in the world.

I’ve since seen kiwis on numerous occassions, most memorably at Ocean Beach, on Stewart Island, where they come to forage among the washed up heaps of kelp for small amphipods. But we weren’t going to see any today, the kiwi house was closed for renovation!

Never mind: we saw plenty else. From the famous flamingo lagoon to the hummingbird aviary (both of which I also remembered vividly from 30 years previously), the snakes, the pandas, the tigers, polar bears and elephants, viewed from the ground or from the overhead gondolas, we had a blast.

I like zoos, and generally go to visit them whenever I am in a new place. Often I discover something that has been done really well and which really leaves a positive impression, even if the particular zoo is quite modest overall. For my money, SDZ is impressive simply in terms of scale – it is large and comprehensive – but they have not rested on that huge advantage alone. Almost every part of the park displays careful detail, imagination, and the skilful blending of the need to entertain the visitors who pay for it all, with the needs of the animals. I’m sure I’ll be back again one day. Hopefully the kiwi house will be open again then.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Seaworld, today, and it was a bit of a disaster, quite frankly. Rebecca was whining and “wanting stuff” and, perhaps worse, wanting to squander our limited time here – two more days – doing stuff she could do back home, any day she wanted to, such as messing around in the childrens’ play area. I was so frustrated I was incapable of seeing the day through her eyes. I just wanted to tell her “no” and move on, whereas Jo took a more conciliatory line. As a result, Jo and I ended up bickering with one another as well. In the end, we wasted most of our time changing our minds about what to do next, lurching back and forth across the park, and we saw less than half of it.

Of course there were good things, too. The quality of the park shone through most of our self-inflicted misery: the close encounters with dolphins and the huge bat rays were high points for Rebecca, and I was delighted to see “moon jellies” (Aurelia) in the aquarium. Less usual animals like these tend to be what makes a facility memorable, at least to me. And, of course, the orca show was spectacular, although even there, for some inexplicable reason, Rebecca insisted upon sitting near the back where we wouldn’t get splashed. She’s never been worried about a little water before or since.

To cap off a less-than-optimal day, our arranged pick-up failed to materialise, so we had to scrounge a lift home on the Best Western shuttle.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Hmm, the crap-fest continues. The art museum, our main reason for coming to Balboa Park today, is closed on Mondays. And everything else, except the Botanical House, was exhorbitantly expensive. Even little Wellington – our home town – can manage to keep a museum open 7 days, with free entry.

I had the fondest memories of San Diego, from centuries ago when I was 20 or so and arrived here on a Greyhound at 4 a.m. one morning. I went to the same places – the zoo, wild animal park, and Seaworld – and had a blast. But this trip had been a trial (I wrote “string of disappointments” in my diary, but that’s ridiculous) despite each of the places we visited being much the same as it had 30 years previously. What had changed? Was it me?

Before we left, however, Jo and I were privy to one of those remarkable, heart-warming things which happen all the time when you have kids. There was another little girl of about Rebecca’s age climbing on some jungle gym contraption in a playground. Without any compunction at all, Bex trotted off, said hello, and the two of them had a ball together for an hour or more. I have the feeling that Bex would have happily traded away almost anything we’d done up until then just to buy another hour of daylight with her new “friend”, for that’s what they’d become in less time than I can write it. At what age do we lose that?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

San Francisco. The hotel-whose-staff-have-never-heard-of-the-Getty didn’t offer a courtesy service to the airport, so we had to book a shuttle. Unfortunately, Jo had some tummy pain when we came to leave our hotel. She disappeared into the loo and by the time she’d re-emerged we were a few minutes late – no more than two or three – for the shuttle. It left while we were right there in the lobby, checking out. Bastards. So we had to pay another $25 to get another shuttle stopping by.

A note, here, for the benefit of those who imagine that service is better in countries where tipping is ubiquitous – like England or the United States. I call bullshit on that; it just isn’t. Something like that would almost never happen in Australia or New Zealand and on the rare occasions when it might, there would be universal outrage in the lobby. Here, in California, nobody twitched an eyebrow. B. A. U.

Despite the vexed logistics, we were early to the airport, and were offered an earlier flight, which we took. We shouldn’t have, because it was a commuter run, but we didn’t know any better. (Commuters don’t check their bags; they bring everything in carry-on so all the overhead lockers were full. Bastards.)

Events took a turn for the better when we arrived in San Francisco, however. We caught the BART into town, to discover our station was only one block from the hotel – an easy stroll, despite pulling along all our cases and whatnot – and there was an acceptable mall right across the road, where we hung out for the rest of the day. I can’t remember exactly, now, but I imagine many of the mall’s women’s wear retailers had an excellent afternoon, too.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

San Francisco. Nothing much to report today. We bought day-trippers and spent the day exploring via the cable cars. At home in Wellington we have something we call a “cable car”, too, but it is just a novelty. It takes students from downtown to the university, and tourists one stop further, to the botanic gardens or, more commonly, to the café for a brief glance over the city and a coffee, before returning to the CBD with the minimal expenditure of energy. It’s a thing you do. But in San Francisco, the cable cars are a form of transport.

Anyway, we went out to Fisherman’s Wharf, had lunch at another Rainforest Café, and generally mucked around. A good way to spend the day, but providing nothing much to write about.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

San Francisco. Asian Art Museum. No notes in diary but I kept some brochures. Maybe something interesting in there.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Coming home. I can’t even remember the route, now. Presumably via Sydney or Auckland.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Arrived home.


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