Friday, 12 July 2013

Catching Up: Part 2 - Yosemite

Hey guys,

So. Yosemite. This was my favourite part of the entire trip so far. I'm not in New York City until tomorrow, so we'll see if it stays that way, but the more I think back on it, the more I fortify it in my head as this incredible place. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen. I was there in summer, but I really hope to go back in winter or spring sometime when there's snow. It's gorgeous enough as it is in summer, but in winter it's meant to be like magic.


It took about six hours to drive from Pacifica to Yosemite. We'd stayed at Allison's friend Alex's house for a couple of nights, so we left from there, went over the Bay Bridge because I hadn't been across it yet, and left San Francisco, feeling as excited and happy as I look in this photo:

The trip itself was pretty uneventful. It was cool to watch the scenery change from city, to suburbs, to grassland, to mountains, and to feel the temperature rising from the low 20's to the mid 30's the further inland we got. At one point, we took a detour off the highway in search of cheap petrol for the car, and we noticed we were driving towards this big column of smoke, which was unusual because all around us were different suburban neighbourhoods. The petrol station happened to be a bit further up the road, so we drove right past it, and it was this house that was totally engulfed in flames, completely on fire. Three firetrucks passed us, and on the way back past I got this photo, after the roof of the house had caved in and the firetrucks had started doing their thing.

The roads started getting mountainous and windy, and it began to get pretty damn hot. I wasn't used to the heat after coming from a Melbourne winter to Fog City, and as we made our way into the valley, I certainly wasn't ready for the reality of Yosemite.

I'd been wanting to go to Yosemite for years, but I didn't know all that much about it. I'd seen a documentary about it as a kid and decided I needed to go there. In my head it was a valley, and you had to hike for hours to see all the cool stuff. Not the case. When you get into Yosemite, half of the main attractions are right there, surrounding you and towering over you. It's breathtaking. Driving towards the campsites and Curry Village, you're greeted by this sight to your left:

                                                             And this to your right:

Photos don't bring justice to just how enormous these structures are. I think that's what struck me the most. They're huge. The first picture is of El Capitan. It's the largest granite monolith in the world, so you can imagine it's pretty damn big.

The campsite we stayed at was pretty enough to just hang around in all day. Not that we did, because that would have been a waste of time, but that's how pretty everything was. Allison and I had our own separate campsite, but we spent our breakfasts and dinners at the campsite of a group of lovely Christian Scientist friends of Allison. It was a good system, we were each rostered on to cook different meals and do the dishes, and most of the food was kept in a u-haul truck. Allison and I had brought a heap of food but we kept the majority of it in the bear box at our campsite. We also kept our toothpaste, toiletries, lip balm, makeup, and medicine in there, because Californian bears are crafty and think that basically everything with a scent is food. Unfortunately, I didn't see a bear. Looks like I'll have to go back, what a shame.


Because we didn't arrive until about 7pm, we just ate tea and set all our stuff up before it got dark, and went to sleep in our tent the first day. Day 2 was my favourite. Got up in the morning and had breakfast with this happy camper, and caught a shuttle bus to the path to Lower Yosemite Falls.

 On the along the path, we passed over a river with impossibly clear water from the waterfalls up ahead. It was about 36 degrees out, even though it was only 10am, and the sunlight was shining through the water and it made the pebbles shine pretty colours.

The view of the falls as you approach along the trail was stupidly pretty.

Even the paths themselves were beautiful, I mean, this wasn't even an attraction, but it just looked so good. I couldn't stop imagining this part of the park completely still, everything covered in thick blankets of pure white snow.

We decided to veer off the path because everything around us was just too stupidly pretty to walk by and not explore. Spotting a pile of boulders, we went up to them and found a hole between and underneath a few of them, and discovered a cave. Allison was dead set keen to go right inside this pitch black thing, and I was hesitant because I couldn't stop imagining the boulders collapsing and crushing us both to death, but I figured I'd regret it if I didn't go inside so I followed her into the dark and the cool. We scrambled over and between rocks and tight spaces, and discovered that the cave let out at the back, so we crawled through to a clearing with even larger boulders to climb. The thin black hunk in the middle of this photo between the rocks and boulders is the exit to the cave. It was a tight fit.

We climbed around on these rocks (well, Allison did, I took photos), and found another cave under the rock she is standing on in the below picture. So of course we went though that one too.

It was so dark I had to use my camera flash to see what was inside.

All the while we were jumping over these rocks, Allison was explaining things about them, because she is a rock nerd and loves them and finds the different kinds fascinating. I'm pretty sure she was explaining something about quartz veins in this picture. She's got her descriptive poet hands going.

We climbed on some more boulders, making our way towards the sound of the waterfall. The sunlight was streaming through the trees, and the shadows they cast gave everything this dappled kind of look. 

If you stayed on the path, you could view the waterfall from a distance. We wanted to get right up close, so we walked and jumped over rocks that were increasingly slippery because of the spray, and got right up in front of Lower Yosemite Falls.

I couldn't get over how clear the water was. We were really hot, and there were a bunch of people swimming in the river to cool off. The water was so cool and refreshing, it was perfect.

The view from our vantage point near the base of the Falls. See how stupid this place is? Nothing should be this majestic. It's ridiculous. 

Just observing the beauty after the water fight Allison and I had.

 I've felt the extremes of emotions on this trip, but I think I was the happiest I've been so far in this photo. I was so happy, with everything I had inside of me, just to be there. We could have gone home right then and I would have been content and grateful just to have been there for ten minutes.

 And yet, in this photo, I'm clearly too cool to care about everything around me.

We took another path back down to the shuttle stop, passing scenery such as this along the way, and we headed to the shop to pass some time while we waited for a shuttle bus to take us to a pretty hiking trail to get to Mirror Lake.


Unfortunately, on the way inside the shop, a bug flew into my eye. It felt pretty large, and it hurt about as much as you'd expect your eye to hurt after having a bug fly into it. I felt like it was still in my eye so I rubbed it, but I couldn't find anything. My eye started watering, and I figured that was pretty normal. But then it started burning, and hurting a lot more than it should have. I rubbed it a bit more because I was sure the bug was still in there, but when I got Allison to look at it she said there was nothing there. After about five minutes, my eye started to swell. I could feel it, and it hurt so much. It got more and more swollen and painful as the minutes passed, and I kept asking Allison if it was swelling and if it looked okay, and her expression got more and more concerned each time I asked. We were still in the shop when it swelled to the point where I could hardly open it anymore. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a clear plastic stand, and it looked terrible. I started stressing and we decided that we should head back to the campsite, and if it hadn't started to go down in half an hour.

I really wanted Allison to take a photo of it for me so I could see it, but she wouldn't let me, and she had my camera in her backpack so I couldn't get to it. In the shop, and on the shuttle back to our campsite, I could see people staring at me. That didn't inspire confidence, but I could also feel the swelling start to go down a bit, and Allison looked less worried. I asked her how it looked right before we got off at our stop, and she said, "It looks so much better. Your whole eyelid was literally purple before."

I went to the bathroom when we got back to camp so I could have a proper look at myself in the mirror, and it looked both better and worse than I expected. Better in that the eyelids weren't purple anymore, but worse in that my actual eyeball had blistered and was bright red, and watering uncontrollably, even though there was nothing inside it anymore. It was pretty swollen. After lunch, I took this photo of myself. I was still in a lot of pain from it, and I look miserable, and that whole top side of my face looks swollen (because it was), but this picture makes me laugh every time I see it. Please click on it for full size and laugh at my pain. The swelling didn't go down completely till the next morning, but I could almost open my eye fully by 10pm that night.

After lunch, and the eye incident, we decided to not do the long trail, and instead took a shorter one to Mirror Lake. Scenery such as this awaited us.

My sunnies came very much in handy in hiding my eye from the general public. 

Mirror Lake used to be this massive lake that reflected the granite giants surrounding it, but it's more of a shallow river these days. It was still beautiful, and I'm really glad we went there.

I still couldn't get over how fricking huge everything was. 

On the way back to camp (we were on dinner duty that night), we came across a smallish rattlesnake crossing the path in front of us. He was moving pretty slowly, and we all kept our distance. That was the 4th snake I'd seen since I got here. He was pretty chill, he just crossed the road and all the hikers and bikers waited patiently for him, and then he slithered off into the brush. 


The next day, we were going to hike the Panoramic Trail, which is about an 11 mile hike that takes you all around the place, past about three waterfalls. But it was stinking hot, and we had to help the main group move their campsites which took a few hours more than expected, so instead we drove up to Sentinel Dome and hiked to Glacier Point to see Half Dome. This picture of the mountain ranges was taken from the top of Sentinel Dome.

Our walking buddies. Gabe was super cool, he drove us up there. We wouldn't have been able to hike it if it wasn't for him, he's a champ.

There was this one squirrel chilling about on the top of this massive granite dome, he seemed way too far up. There weren't any trees on the Dome so I'm not sure what he was doing up there, but he was cute.

This is a tree that another hiker told me was famous, that the rangers had apparently been trying to save for years. They obviously didn't manage to save it, but it looks so beautiful even in death. 

This is Half Dome. Three guesses why it's called that.

 Feeling like a god. The valley behind me is where our campsite was.

 It was still about 32 degrees out, even with the cool wind up that high. That apple was delicious.

The only bad bit about Sentinel Dome was that there was hardly any shade and I could feel myself getting sunburned. Allison and I found the only bit of shade on the whole thing, it was swell.

The hike to Glacier Point was mostly downhill from Sentinel Dome, and it was so pretty.

I was constantly on the lookout for bears between the trees, because it was our last day there and I was so hoping to see one in the wild. From a distance. No luck.

The trees there were so tall that when ones fell over that covered the path, they just chainsawed a section out of it so people could still get through. 

This is the bark of the Ponderosa tree. It smells like food, seriously, it smells like Baileys and honey and caramel and sugar and toffee and syrup, but in a nature way. It's amazing, new favourite tree. None of us could quite place the smell, but it was so good, I strongly recommend hugging one of these guys.

Everything. Equals. Beauty.

We reached Glacier Point without any dramas. The view of Half Dome and the valley was pretty spectacular. As you can see, I was pretty impressed with it.

The chipmunk! This seems a little invalid because I saw about seven of these guys today alone, but they are so small and cute, and this was the first one I'd seen up close, so it was exciting.

After that, Gabe drove us back to camp, and we pretty much grabbed some food, said our goodbyes to everyone, and left. I was so exhausted. I was meant to stay awake and keep Allison alert for the drive home, because we wouldn't arrive back till about 11:30pm, but I closed my eyes for what felt like five minutes and was completely out for about two hours. I slept so well that night.


Yosemite was an incredible experience. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was about 100 times better. Everything was so ridiculously stunning it made my heart ache. I didn't want to leave, and I wish we'd gotten longer there. I needed at least a week and we only got two and a half days, but now I have an excuse to go back there and explore a lot more. If anyone is in California for any reason, you should go completely out of your way to get to Yosemite for a few days if you can. It's spectacular, and I feel so lucky that I got to fit it into this trip, and stay with such a lovely group of people.

That's about all from me on the California front guys. My next post will be about the many marvelous museums Allegra and I visited during my time in Philly, it'll be up soon.

Love you all, miss you lots,

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Catching Up: Part 1 - Alcatraz

Hey guys!

I'm sorry I haven't posted anything for a while, I haven't had access to the internet from my laptop for a couple of weeks. There was some unforeseen drama in San Francisco during my last week there which meant that I didn't have a lot of time to post anything, but I'm here now, and I'm excited to share with you my two favourite destinations of the trip so far - Alcatraz, and Yosemite National Park. I have a feeling I'm going to get carried away with Alcatraz, so I'm going to do this in a two-part thing over two days. I'll make it worth the wait. I'll reward you with both education AND tales of me getting into stupid situations.


* A deadly rattlesnake (And three other snakes)
* A chipmunk (Not really a highlight but I totally saw one and it was cute)
* The Morgue Incident (We got locked in a morgue, you'll want to stick around for that story)
* Scenery of such incredible beauty that it starts to come off as obnoxious (Yosemite is ridiculous)
* That one time I almost lost my left eyeball to an insect (Just embarrassing, but the photos are funny)

But, before we get to that story, gotta do Alcatraz.

So, Alcatraz. I'm sure I don't have to explain what Alcatraz is. But in case you don't know, it's this old thing:

I've wanted to go there since I was about six years old, because apparently my only interests as a young child were dinosaurs, dogs, and maximum security Federal island prisons in North America. That's a normal interest for little girls, right?
I remember seeing a show on an escape from Alcatraz when I was young, and it fascinated me. I went through a phase when I was about twelve where I read a whole heap of books on the subject, and then when I was a teenager, Mythbusters did an episode where they tested the myth of the June 1962 escape - not whether or not the three men (Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin) escaped the island, because there is no doubt that they did, but whether they survived the freezing cold water and dangerous tides and made it to the mainland. They found it plausible, which I thought/think is the coolest thing ever.

When I decided I was going to go to San Francisco, Alcatraz was the first place I thought of that I HAD to visit. It just happened to be my luck that I met this badass a couple of months into planning the trip.
Of all the friends Kelly met on exchange who could have come to Australia to visit her, I became friends with the one who works on Alcatraz and loves me enough to give me a personal tour, plus access into all of the cool, out-of-bounds areas of the prison. How lucky can you get? What would I do without this girl?
Putting it out there now, Allison is the best tour guide ever. In general, just around San Francisco and all the places she took me, she was pretty good. But on Alcatraz, she was in her element. She knows her stuff. And by "her stuff", I mean almost anything you could possibly want to know about the island, and many, many things you wouldn't have ever known had she not enthusiastically explained them to you in great detail. I loved it.

Allison works the night tour, so we didn't catch the ferry out to the island till about 4pm, but it was a gorgeous day and the view of the city from the water was so pretty. We arrived on the island and put our stuff away in the office that the volunteers and rangers and such use, and Allison took me around to a bunch of roped off areas and into a whole bunch of buildings that the other tourists didn't get to go into, explaining what every building was and pointing out little details of things. I'd educate you too, but I'm scared of getting my facts wrong, so instead here's a bunch of photos of cool things I saw, with tiny descriptions of what I remember. Sorry, Allison, if I get stuff wrong:

Almost everything metal on the island is rusted. Probably because the prison is on an island in the middle of a salt water bay. I'm no scientist, but I'd bet that's the reason. The rust made everything look super awesome and run down, such as this door.
Alcatraz is known best for the years it was a Federal Prison, but it has gone through a whole bunch of different stages of occupation and use, none of which I knew before Allison told me.This particular building was around when Alcatraz was being used as a fortress during the Civil War. It used to have a drawbridge in it, which is pretty cool. 
 This obviously run down area used to be used by the guards who worked on the island. The guards and their families, including children, lived on Alcatraz in housing about fifty meters from the prison itself. I like it because it looks like something that Ezio could run across in Assassins Creed (Playstation/Xbox people will understand).
 Another phase that Alcatraz went through (the most recent one before it came under the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy) was an Indian Occupation, where Native Americans occupied the island between 1969 and 1971. This graffiti on the water tank is from that time.
This is the drainage table inside the morgue we almost got locked in. The dead body would be placed on the table, and the blood from it would run into the indented lines and drain through the hole in the middle into a bucket underneath the table. 
 We managed to get locked in that morgue. For about ten seconds, but still. It was locked up so that regular tourists couldn't get inside it, but they could look in through a clear door. Allison, however, had the master key, so she let us both inside to have a look around. Some random tourist saw her going in, and even though Allison was wearing her uniform and closed the door behind her, he decided that he wanted to come inside too. Allison made him go back out, and as he did he closed the door and the bolt that locked it slid into place. He started walking off and Allison had to call him back and get him to unlock it, and it was a tiny bit awkward and hilarious. The above photo was taken right outside the morgue, after we were safely back outside.
 This is what a typical cell looks like. They're really small and gross looking, as you'd expect.
 These particular cells were the original ones used, on the third floor. Bit of a design flaw - the flat bars are structurally weak, and prisoners could literally break out of them with a shoestring, if they looped them around the bars and got up enough friction.
 See that hole in the roof? That's where the 1962 prison escape occurred. The three prisoners who escaped, Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin, stood exactly where I stood up there. History! So cool! They climbed up the pipes in the back of their cells to get up there.
 This is one of the cells that the men escaped from. They dug around the edge of the ventilation shafts in their cells with spoons for about a year to get them large enough to fit through. They covered up the damage with cardboard covers painted green to match the walls, like the one in this photo. They also made dummy heads out of soap, toilet paper, and real hair to make it look like they were still in their beds while they escaped.

 The pockmarks in the floor in this photo are from hand grenades thrown into the prison by guards and Marines during The Battle Of Alcatraz, which was the result of a failed prison escape. Several prisoners assaulted guards, stole their keys, and released about a dozen other prisoners, only to find that they couldn't actually escape the cell block because the lock for the door to get outside was jammed. The prisoners took guards hostage, shot several, killed one, and held their own against guards and Marines for two days, before the ringleaders were shot and killed. 

 This is the hospital on Alcatraz. Prisoners never went to the mainland to receive medical treatment. Operations were carried out on the island, as were x-rays. Prisoners could recover in the hospital cells.
 This is just pretty.
 So is this.
  And this.
 This is the exercise yard looking back towards the cell block. They had a baseball field and everything.
 Casual gorgeous view of the city at twilight. This is getting less and less educational.
 This is the cell block building, it's located right in the middle of the island. Apparently you could hear the prisoners from the officer's housing.
 The Natives were really pissed off during the occupation, and they broke a lot of stuff on the island. There's a lot of damage to buildings, particularly to windows such as these, from the occupation. There's also a fair amount of graffiti from the occupation too. It just makes the place look extra cool, with broken windows all over the place.
 Alcatraz had its own personal fire engine, and it lives in a building they use for storage. I don't think it was ever used to fight an actual fire. It's gorgeous, I think it should be on display for everyone. But then again, if it was, I probably wouldn't have been able to sit in it like I did. Once again, thanks Allison for showing it to me.
 The master keys! They jangled on Allison's belt and she looked so official with them. She let me lock and unlock doors all around the place. Fun fact - They sell replica keys at the gift shop, that obviously aren't a match for the real keys. That wasn't always the case though. When they were first selling them, for about $10 mind you, they were exact replicas. So they were selling random members of the public working prison keys for $10. That wouldn't cause that much damage on a closed down prison, but it turns out other prisons that were still operating were using the same keys. 'Merica. Logic? There is none.
 This is a solitary confinement cell. Allison closed me in this one for 30 seconds. You can't see anything, even when your eyes adjust to the darkness. All you can hear is your own footsteps. I had to use my hands to guide me against the wall so I could move around the room. Prisoners had to sit on the floor all day, not being able to see or do anything. Their beds were taken out of the cell until it was time to sleep, so they couldn't even be comfortable while doing it. One prisoner said that he used to unpin a button and throw it around the room, listening to it clatter and then finding it again, just to pass the time. It wasn't scary to be in there, but I can tell how after a few days you'd learn to hate the place.
 This is, once again, a pretty view. But, it's a pretty view from the top of the lighthouse, another area closed off to the public. It was probably my favourite part of the whole experience - the view from up there was incredible. It was so windy but the world was gorgeous, and watching the sunset from the highest point on the island was brilliant. 
Look at the joy on my face. Best tour guide ever, best lighthouse ever.
 This is the sign that greets you as you arrive on the island. It looks creepiest at night, when we left.

So, that was Alcatraz. If you're a history nerd like I am, it is well worth the trip. And if you're not a history nerd, it's still a great place to visit if you're ever in San Francisco. Just make sure that you get an actual tour to the Island - there is only one company that has the rights to land there, so there are several other companies that just take you out on a ferry and circle the island at a distance.

I'm so lucky I had Allison to take me to all the cool areas she did. I highly recommend doing the audio tour of the prison too. I didn't get to finish mine or do it in order because Allison kidnapped me halfway through to take me to see a photo with all of the officers that a prisoner had snuck into the background of (photo bombing before it was cool), but it's really well done with voice actors and a planned route to take you around the cell block and the yard.

I'm not actually in California anymore, I've been living in Philadelphia with Allegra for a week now. That's how far behind I am. I'll get right onto writing about Yosemite tomorrow, and it'll be swell.

I leave you with this photo from Alcatraz.
Miss you all, love you lots,