Trying to pet the sniffer dog was my first mistake. The second was joking with the security at Atlanta International Airport, “wow, I clearly smell great, your dog must love Chanel No. 5!” So it was that I found myself spending my thirty minute layover attempting to convince the TSA that I wasn’t a. planning to marry my American boyfriend and get a green-card, b. carrying any form of drugs stronger than paracetamol, c. making jokes because I was nervous and trying to hide something, or d. all of the above.
Lesson Number 1: you aren’t as funny as you think you are, these guys have guns.
I was half way through a 20 hour journey from Manchester to San Francisco, via Atlanta and LA, to make the most of an offer to stay at my boyfriend’s house in Berkeley and spend four weeks traveling around Northern California. Although I’ve travelled extensively around the east coast of America, I’d never been further west than Ohio, and thought I’d see if the claim “west coast, best coast” by a few Californian friends was really true.
The first port of call on my trip was San Francisco, specifically Union Square, Haight-Ashbury, Mission Street, Pier 39, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. Wanting to have enough time to squeeze all this into a day, I jumped on the BART (think the Tube but with friendlier people) at 8 A.M. Though perhaps ‘jumped’ is too strong a word; I sidled my way in to the sea of suits, muttering all manner of British staples as “excuse me…so sorry…pardon me…sorry”.
Lesson Number 2: don’t travel at commute times unless you like being pressed against a stranger’s armpit.
Stepping out of the BART station at Powell Street, I found myself wobblingly swept along like Bambi on ice in the tide of workers and tourists heading to Union Square. San Francisco was teeming with life; rainbow flags fluttered high above the street, cafes selling the latest trend in organic food were on each corner, and everywhere the sound of cable car bells rang through the air. The time I spent wandering around the city – ignoring my maps and seeing where I ended up – was exhausting and exhilarating. It left me with the sense that there was so much more to San Francisco than would be discoverable as a tourist. I have no doubt that I will be back.
The real reason, however, for my visit to California lay four hours to the west of San Francisco. Images of Yosemite National Park had been seared into my imagination ever since I’d seen the iconic image of the valley in a geography textbook in primary school. But no amount of guidebooks and pictures prepared me for driving into the valley to see the sun break over impossibly huge granite monoliths, which rose in a seemingly endless height from the lush meadows at the valley’s bottom. Yosemite’s cliffs are a playground for climbers, and that was why we were there: to climb whatever we could on perhaps the parks most iconic wall, El Capitan. Standing at the base of the wall made me feel like a spider on the world’s tallest building, except I don’t have 8 legs and can’t make my own safety line. Craning my neck as far back as possible, El Cap’s lofty summit seemed to spin off infinitely into the piercing blue sky, as far away as the moon – and perhaps harder to get to.
Lesson Number 3: it’s not just the burgers that are bigger in America.
Spending the days climbing, the evenings cooling off in the glacier-fed Merced River, and the nights drinking wine on the porch of our wood cabin was the perfect end to an amazing four weeks. West certainly did seem like best.
Photo credit: Lucy Stanfield