Pretty old stones

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Mexico has a wealth of ruins – be they Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec or ‘eck! I’ve forgotten the others. Vital stop-offs on the backpacker tour, their current native population is generally made up of guys hawking masks and jewellery or kids hidden behind ancient palisades smoking spliffs. They all cost, for some inexplicable reason, 51.00 pesos to enter, and they’re scattered with little information points whose descriptions belie an absolute mastery of the art of saying nothing at all in lots of words. There’s usually a Spanish bit, an English bit and a local language bit, and they give us such insight as: ‘it appears that mound Q formed a central part in pre-hispanic ritual’ or ‘archaeologists have uncovered significant evidence that people lived here’. There’s a sense of real remove from these places, of a loss of knowledge.

But they still inspire. The hilltop city of Monte Albán, a Zapotec site perched high above the sprawl of Oaxaca, was founded over 2,000 years ago. Its mountain was levelled off by a people without metal tools. They built temples and palaces, observatories and an I-shaped ‘pelota’ field for playing ‘the ball game’. Today, the remains of these structures are scattered around a huge, grassy square where the clouds float enourmously overhead. It’s a world away from the buzz of the city, a majestic site to contemplate the brown hills to the south and the sky overhead. It feels like an in-between place on the ladder to another world. As can be seen at the site of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, here we have bases of wide stairways, with parts sloping and a parts straight, decorated with the recurring pattern of half-squares forming a snake-like motif around the edifice. These high steps, which call for a bit of a puff in each ascension often reach to empty bases, with weeds, where temples would have been. On some bases there are lines of huge half-pillars, which the European mind is apt to reconstruct in a classical pediment, though you doubt that was the case. One of the hardest thing to get your head round, especially in the atmosphere of peace, is that a lot of these places were covered top to bottom in red stucco. Some of this survives.

Monte Albán‘s symetery is interrupted quite dramatically by a tower of stone at the southern end of the square whose bow-like front points off at 45 degrees to the cloud forests. Positioned to watch the constellation of Orion in the night sky, apparently. Around the base of this observatory are deftly carved images of decorated warrior heads, upside-down: a shout of triumph for conquered cities.

It’s a magic place, and I reckon it’d be superb to do a stealth camp here and see the sun rise beside the South Platform.



Yesterday I went to see another Zapotec-Mixtec site from a lot later, about 200-300 years before the Spanish conquest (1519). Mitla is on the valley floor, built of lighter, sandier stone. It features some high-priests’ palaces and ceremonial plazas, decorated in beautiful bands of carved pattern representing the sky, the earth and the worshipped feathered serpent. These sharp walls of design sort of took me back to Southern Spain and the Islamic tiles of Al-Andaluz in their mystery. Well, Mitla would have been concurrent with the Alhambra and Al-Zahira but I don’t think any exchange took place!

Some of these sunken plazas are in a pretty sorry state and have been heavily ransacked. It’s amazing to see the domes of the towns’ Church of St Paul rising from in and around the palace rubble, above the crumbling mosiac and the almost-gone codex pictures in red, built of destruction. I went inside the church and felt a bit angry at the hanging Christ and the vast, empty white ceiling. A couple of boys were doing some work in a back corner. When I went over, they mumbled something about 20 pesos for  children against drugs and one pulled a grubby ID card out of his sweater. I gave them the money and they gave me a packet of biscuits, before stalking away round the back of the church. Outside, other boys were smoking among the cacti. More like the drug-fund, I thought.

On the front side of one of the best-preserved parts, the Patio of Mosiacs, is a carved stone warning against looting and graffiti, crimes against the nation, dating from 1902. It’s a message from a guy called Leopoldo Bartres who was the big archeological cheese of his time. I imagine him as a kind of French Indiana Jones though it appears he was actually Mexican (have to verify that). Either way, his name has a habit of popping up at these ruins. He seems to have been on pretty good terms with Porfirio Diaz, the ruthless moderniser who brought Mexico kicking and screaming (literally) into the 20th Century. This was the tyrant who brought the railway to Oaxaca and with it a new idea of time, a closeness to central government. It seems he was bit of a Francophile, introudcing Napoleonic-style military uniform. He actually died in exile in Paris in 1915. The Franco-Mexican links don’t end there: for some reason there’s a disproportionate amount of French travellers here; this week I have met some lovely people from Carcasonne, Reims, Bordeaux, Lyon. Aside from the above historical links and an ailing economy, I can’t quite work out what’s bringing them all here … Answers on a postcard please.




^ Mr General Porfiro Diaz: probably not a person you’d have wanted to have a coffee with


^ priestly patterns at Mitla



And some other sights from Oxaca last week:

^ afternoon on Calle Alcalá, a big tourist street with lots of craft shops


^ Restaurants called comedores inside the 20th November market


^ Buying local chocolate in the 20th November market


^ Fried crickets, anyone?: chapulines for sale in the central market


^ fruit seller outside the Mercado Central


^ Here I am sharing a collectivo taxi with a great family from Queretaro, over the bumpy track up to Hierve El Agua


^ the beautiful lines of a petrified waterfall at the remote town of Hierve El Agua, high in the valleys



I’m off eastwards to the Chiapas region, and San Cristóbal de las Casas on the 1st-class bus tonight (there wasn’t a 2nd-class option, otherwise I’d have been straight in there). I believe it’s a up in the mountains, on the edge of where the jungle starts. So expect some deep green pictures soon. And more stones.

* have added a couple of pics to the Central Valleys bit below.


Hiking in the Central Valleys


Just got back to the hostel in Oaxaca after my trek through the Pueblos Mancommunados and their vast reaches of high-altitude forest. With dense groves of pine, oak, aile (eagle-wood?) and madroño almost seeming to froth over the nebulous hills, it’s about as far from a sterotypical Mexican landscape of pronged cacti and scrub as you might get. In fact, as I camped out at a remote little pine-fringed clearing on my first night, it felt like being back by the American Pacific – perhaps in some little misty wood cabin town of fisherman and pick-up trucks. For the afternoon, I had the company of a couple of local trout-farmers who busied around a wooden shack and a few fenced-off ponds as I dozed. Jesus brought me a barbecued fish, enchipotlada, with lime and tomatoes as an early dinner. A delicious meal out there in the crisp air – though he then tried to charge me 80 pesos for said fish! As a gringo going about my crazy walking around the hills for the fun of it, and as part of a pretty steady stream of visitors to the area through the Expediciones de Sierra Norte ecotourism project, I was definitely fair game for a con or two. Jesus giggled, then slung his bag over his shoulder and set off for the village, leaving me alone with a scraggly dog with a bleeding neck and the last of the afternoon’s sun, there in that woodcutter’s idyll. Soon enough a total dark came on, and imaginary pumas lurking on the edges of the field. Good old Lonely Planet had informed me that all seven of Mexico’s recognised wildcats called the Sierra Norte home. Great! I managed to get a fire going after a bit of effort, by heaping huge amounts of pine needles onto some half-dry twigs.

Walking from the town of Cuajimoloyas via Benito Juarez and La Neveria to the lower, northerly villages of Latuvi and Amatlan I was able to see the enormous harvest of the area.  Everywhere there were maize fields cut out of the woodlands, in the valley depths and sliding around the hills in squares and triangles. Most were just flocks of brown stalks, drooping like burnt paper, the husks having recently been picked to make tortillas, tamales, elote. At least for the first day, the trail was framed by maguey plants, whose spiky fins are used in the making of tequila and its sister, mezcal. The strange sillhouettes of quiote trees with their curved branches and bright-red bulbs of fruit waited next to the more familiar shapes of pine. At La Neveria, there were large beds of watercress (berro) sitting in flooded paddies; that night I had some for dinner in my tortitas.  At the lower and warmer reaches, more fruit. Huge watermelon-like spheres called chilacoyota hung from tree branches. Oranges, apples, peaches and avocados were growing around Latuvi and Amatlan. Beans, too, I established – talking to my succession of local guides. Black beans certainly featured heavily at  the village comedores where I got some meals.

I was required to have a guide for each stage of the walk, something carefully enforced by the office in Oxaca and each of the prim-looking tourism offices in the villages. Their faux-log facades and newly tiled terraces certainly stood out from most of the other buildings of breeze block and corrigated iron – as did the tourist cabañas. Ferried from one enclave to the next with a succession of different people and their walkie-talkies, I did come to feel a strange sensation of being a kind of  prisoner to ecotourism. That, or jealously-guarded gringo gold. My second guide, Giovanni, said he was twenty years old, which I doubted.  He skipped up and down the trail occasionaly taking a sip of Coke from a bottle in his backpack, telling me about the Benito Juarez basketball team. Basket and bandas, I made out, were the hobbies of the Sierra Norte mountain youth.

Other guides recited little bits about the trees, the birds or the stone walls we passed. Alfredo was the oldest and my favourite. He was a mine of information about all the forest flowers and the tangle of shrubbery. He pointed out the madroño with it’s shedding, deep-red bark like the outer layer of a peanut. He showed me some of the distinctive features of these pine-oak forests, like the bromelias hanging in the trees and the musgo, a kind of lichen which dangled and swayed all over the place, like angel hair on christmas trees, ghostly curtains reaching almost to the ground which spoke of some tropical passage.

Alvino huffed and puffed, he’d certainly had his fair share of tortillas. He told me about other mountains – seeing the snow-capped Rockies in ’92, when he was working in a Chinese restaurant in Montana. Getting into the USA used to be much easier, twenty years ago. Now you have to pay a coyote thousands of dollars just to arrange a very tricky hike across the desert. More money to cross at a more populous point. Why would anyone want to leave these peaceful, plentiful hills, I thought.

The town of Santa Martha Latuvi was perched high above a lush river valley where buzzards sailed noiselessly, turning left and right with little flicks, showing the black and white diagonals on their bellys. Small, hand-painted boards stood at the edges of the gravel tracks, informing things in scrawled imperatives. Plan a family. A smaller family works better. Recycle- divide your rubbish into organic and non-organic. Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations . go to a health centre. Don’t tolerate violence against women.

I had a great breakfast at a little comedor in Cuajimoloyas on my first morning – servings of black beans, a soft local cheese in tomato sauce, chopped green beans with egg, and some meaty paste called picadillo. Served with a big, warm maize tortilla and a helping of bread – an offering for the tourists, I think. Washed down with bowls of watery, sugary coffee which was just great after a night in a cold tent. Walking around town, I saw numerous rounds of that local cheese strung up in the tiendas (shops, but really more like houses with a Pepsi poster on an outside wall). I asked Alvino, “what is the name of this cheese?”. “Cheese” he replied, with a blank look.



^ about to set off for Latuvi with Alfredo


^ street in the village of  Latuvi


^ hilltop cemetary, Latuvi


^ view south from near the Yaa Cuetzi lookout, Cuajimoloyas


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I’ve been in he southern city of Oaxaca for a couple of days soaking up a new vibe. Lots of Mexican artists hail from here, and the place is chock full of craft markets and shops (and gringos). Hippies of the world, place your orders for zig-zag print shirts and stripey beach trousers now. It’s a lovely colourful place with views down cobbled streets and over colonial spires to lush, cloud-hung hills. Quite beckoning those hills, so I’ve decided to do a little tour of the ‘Pueblos Mancommunados’, seven co-operatively managed Zapotec villages up there in the high forests. The whole idea rang a bit too much of that wonderful walk in the Alpujarran villages of Southern Spain earlier this year to pass up, I think. Although I’ll miss my hiking friends. Off tomorrow if I can get myself up for the 7am bus, and I’ve a list of a succession of guides who are going to lead me along the trails between the pueblos. Hopefully have the opportunity to see some interesting birdlife and perhaps a wildcat?  Watch this space for a trip report.

The two central markets here are amazing. Like I’ve seen in Mazatlan, Guadalajara and Guanajuato here is the marketplace as the focus of a community, a maze of alleyways and lean-tos quite incomprehensible to the outsider. Shouts of ¿que le damos, joven? and ¿que va a comprar? follow me as I weave between crouched campesinos and their heaps of produce. Here in Oaxaca we have local chocolate, which is used in the making of the famous local mole sauce, which in turn has its part in tamales, mashed corn dough with various fillings  and sauces wrapped in a leaf – usually from corn or a banana plant. There are also a lot of people hawking huge tortillas the size of pizza bases which are folded over with fillings to make a kind of local calzone pizza known as tlayudas. Stumbling around on my first night here somewhere near the central plaza (the Zocalo) I came upon a great street scene of everyone standing around a barbecue sliding these huge things into their mouths, filled with what I made out in the dark to be mashed beans, cheese and pieces of steak. It’s often a bit intimidating working your way into these gatherings, but I’ve managed to work out a little of the etiquette. Order from ‘mum’ over the heads of the priveledged seated, who’s chucking freshly-wrapped tlayudas across to the coals. This is often quite a blunt exchange. Well, coming from Madrid we’re used to those. Wait until your order is shouted down the street, then pick yourself a drink out of the huge cooling tub on the floor, somewhere amongst the crates. Payment at the end to some hovering accountant who is often a bit difficult to locate, and then we’ll put our bottle back in the crate, plate in the washing up bowl.

By the way, for anyone interested to get a bit of a flavour of that Mexican market place I’d recommend checking out a German-made film called ‘El Elefante Blanco’ which is a kind of documentary surrounding the lives of some people at the huge covered market in Cuernavaca, Morelos province. It’s a very independent effort and often has a bit of a confusing flow, but it just full of some really memorable characters.

PS. Mezcal + barefoot Canadian blues-busker friend = good fun.

Traffic and taco stands

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The ‘D.F.’ (proounced dayeffay), El Distrito Federal – or as it’s known to English speakers, Mexico City. ‘Tis a strange one. ‘Tis a big one. Words like crowded, busy, noisy: whilst accurate, they don’t really get at the incredible sway of the place, the interminable processions, brush of bodies, the loiterers clasping filled tortillas in beaked hands at a thousand outdoor frying counters. I’ve been staying with my English-teacher friend and erstwhile Madrid flatmate Clive in the (relatively) central suburb of La Condesa which is a little bit of a refuge from the madness with its European-style cafes and smart sushi restaurants, its Starbucks and expensive delicatessens, the hint of a breeze in the Parque de Mexico. Here, where well-dressed ex-pats and office types go for their evening jog, commuters stride down the pavements to gated terraces, students whirl past on city rental bikes looking a bit like those Barcelona ones, yoga mats dangling off a shoulder. It still bears the marks of its city, though – most notably in the multiple lanes of traffic roaring through the grid of streets and on both sides of the tree-lined walkways on Amsterdam street. You can never let your guard down with the drivers – they zoom around pretty fast. So, despite its European aspirations, no quiet cobblestone reverie to your morning breakfast here I’m afraid.

I’ve been rushing around following the recommendations from my Lonely Planet Mexico 2004 to help me with the sheer weight of museums. I like to think my second-hand LP was published at a time before the series reached its most obnoxious and overbearing, though in reality it’s still packed with some pretty cliche stuff. I can’t find any examples at the moment, but it’s there. Like, Mexico City, a seething megalopolis to love and loathe …  Having said that, I probably have to call myself on banality. According to Clive, when quizzed about anything, I’ve been constantly replying, with a thoughtful stroke of the beard “it’s a land of contradictions” – a statement he thinks could be applied to any city, anty country around the world!

Last week, at various locations, I managed to see a number of these famous murals, from the Mexican tradition of public wall-painting that goes back to the 1920s post-revolution government. It was amazing to see such stirring and risque art decorating the courtyard of an old jesuit college in the centre of the city, and in the Palace of Fine Arts, an impressive art nouveau pile dominating one end of the Alameda, the central park. Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller of the Universe of 1934 is a sprawling, seething testimony to a  crossroads of ideologies. The piece is divided into an American capitalist part of decadance, squabbling, poverty and legions of tanks massing, and a socialist part of dialogue, equality and solidarity amongst the crowds. Meanwhile an astronaut-like figure at the centre seems to be piloting the world, surrounded by grotesque factory machinery. He’s part in control, part beholden to the mechanics: with a look of pure nausea, tiredness and anxiety. Projecting out from him, two crossed elipses fugure a huge elemental tension with moons and planetary swirls, and an organic gloop of cells. Along an adjacent wall up there on the second floor, David Siqueiros’ Liberty features an anguished goddess figure epicly struggling to break her binds.

My favourite piece, alongide that was Humanity Frees Itself by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena which also images a breaking free. It’s divided into sections of the human being as a slave, the breaking of the shackles, and the free person. It’s imbued with a great mysticism, in the strange hooded figure and hyroglyphic tattoos on the slave which call to mind pre-hispanic cultures. This, also in the harmony of body, flow of energy and kind of transcendence dispalyed in the freedom part. The colours are great – with the huge pink monster throwing off his ropes sided by splintering wood beams of cerulean. It’s almost like a Mexican Incredible Hulk.

I spent a Sunday down in the southern barrio of Coyoacan which was a fine thing to do. This part of town has more of an enclosed, communal feel and a couple of buzzing village-style plazas leading off the Paroquia de San Juan Bautista. I think this would be the area to live if I was planning to live here, which I ain’t! There’s a heaving craft market where people are painting, making cards and jewellery, kids are getting tattoos and buying hevay metal t-shirts and pipas, tourists are browsing the garish patterns of carpets and ponchos, wallets and floral shirts.  In the morning, I found the southern encampment of Occupy Mexico City down here, a bit bigger than the group outside the stock exchange with maybe 20-30 tents. After being in Madrid for the start of the 15-M movement this year, and seeing first-hand the placards, the parties, the forums and the meditation tent at Occupy LA, it’s interesting to see how the movement is interpreted in different places. There was a lot of art here, and some great poetry too.

^ a famous street leading off the Zocalo, Mexico City’s enormous central plaza. Madrid colours but not a Madrid noise!

^ Graffiti-covered street in Colonia Roma (district next to Condesa), with kids playing arcade machines and guys playing cards

^ typical pictures at your corner news-stand in the D.F.  There’s a legion of sensationalist papers like this, often featuring a knicker-clad woman on one half of the page, slumped bodies on the other.  The headline reads they murder four!

^ the indignados of Coyoacán

^ artwork at the Why Occupy? encampent in Coyoacán

^ poem from the same, it reads:

to die is to wake up from a dream

after day comes night

after life, death

we’re part of the essence of the past, the future and the present.

Dying is being reborn, it’s living in the minds and hearts of the people who have loved us

^ Sunday dancing at the art market opposte the Mercado Central  in Coyoacán

^ Sunday afternoon on the Plaza del Centenario, Coyoacán

^ Market stall at the craft market in Coyoacán

^ A general warning to the residents of Mexico City: your English tuition is in the hands of these men.

Los Guanajuateses vienen a bailar…

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I’ve been in Mexico for a little over two weeks now, finding anew my gringo feet on the cracked, smoky pavements where people glare. Learning a whole new vocabulary of food and expletives, trying to relax that Spanish lisp and the hissing ‘s’ of Castille. Less grathias, more grasius. Sitting self-consciously at little taco booths in that familiar and much-loved throb of the latin market place, so far removed from those American main streets: the swarm of crowds and traffic together, the stands of a hundred sweets and cups of fruit – flies buzzing on watermelon freshly cut, the rind heaped nearby. Huge sacks of garishly coloured crisps dangling. Walls of copied DVD movies and CD compilations. The thump of cumbia, reggaton, electronica, pop and the hiss of grills in front of stained stucco in green vermillion, red, yellow and orange.

My last stop was the pretty old mining town of Guanajuato, whose callejones (narrow alleys) clamber steeply up both sides of a dry river bed, making for some lovely views of the clustered, coloured blocks all over the hillsides above colonial spires. The vast areas on both sides of the River Lerma and its tributaries, the Bajio, was known to the Spanish conquerers as the breadbasket of New Spain. More significantly, the hills of Guanajuato yielded enormous amounts of gold and silver, at their peak more even than the fabled mines of Potosí, and formed an important part of the Camino Real de Tierradentro, a mining trail that connected places as far flung as Santa Fe (in the US state of New Mexico) with the mints in Mexico City.

I went to visit the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, an imposing, fortress-like granary building constructed in 1798. It was originally built to store up food supplies in response to some lean harvests, but now it’s a museum and an art gallery. In it I started to learn a bit about the Mexican war of independence of 1810, a pretty complex old beast of various stages and shifting bands of players (that’ll be my way out of that one, then). It was originallly led by the criollos, people born in Mexico of Spanish parents who resented the power and status of newly-arrived peninsulares from Iberia. This was an Iberia that was in the process of disintegration, let us remember, after Napolean’s 1808 invasion of Spain which threatened changes in America. That cue got me reading a lot of wikipedia articles about that Peninsular war, the start of so much strife, division and ignominy for Spain of the 19th century. The war that took me back to that Madrid plaza called Dos de Mayo, and those grim and bloody Goya paintings in the Prado museum. A war I like to imagine caused all the blunt and clipped retorts of a legion of Madrid barmen, in my perverse history.

One night there was a free movie screening on a quaint little plaza called Mexiamora. A number of us sat on the edge of the pavement in the evening chill, where a few teenagers in tight jeans giggled and hurried for nights out. The film was called Morirse en Domingo, a black comic tale set in the D.F. (Mexico City). A young man’s uncle dies, and his father puts him in charge of paying for the cremation. Unfortunately the bent funeral director sells the body on, and gives the poor family an urn full of the ashes of a street dog he’s just done in. But! the deception is uncovered, for as luck would have it, a friend of our young protagonist is studying at medical school, where the old uncle’s body is wheeled out for the students to practice on… All in all, a good laugh, and an interesting look at this country’s fixation with death just a few days after the Dia de los Muertos festival. It also proved to be a good window on the language of the streets. As the lad is desperately driving around the capital with his decaying uncle in a zipped-up body bag, we’re treated to an onslaught of pendejos (I believe this is something akin to a******) and cabrones (big goat, stubborn goat) as well as the following useful expressions:

chingado – fuck! (used in place of our old Spanish friend joder)

un chingo de = un monton de (Spain) – lots of

¿Qué pedo, guey?¿Qué pasa, tio? – what’s happening, mate?

¡Qué padre! – that’s awesome!

These are all used a lot. I’m working on a food glossary in my notebook, ‘cos there sure are un chingo of new words.

Yosemite and the Owens Valley

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No man ever followed his genius ’till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no-one can say the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality … The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden




At a fantastic place in downtown Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore, amongst some lively blocks of Mexican cafeterias, little shops piled with electronics and Latinos shouting to buy gold, I recently came across  a copy of Jon Krauker’s Into the Wild. Chances are you’ve heard of Sean Penn’s  movie of the same name. As the author describes the young Chris McCandless’ adventuring and pursuit of a deliberate, true existence away from the distractions of modern society the question seems to be – mad idealist or mystic? The motivations behind McCandless’ disappearance and his adopted lifestyle are pursued with a lot more depth than in the movie, and the whole thing is full of some really inspiring quotes and ideas. Heartily recommended for anyone of a wandering disposition.

I was on the look out for the book as it had just been recommended to me by my travelling buddy of 10 days, Peter McClean. We’d just finished our own, albeit miniature escape from society into the  Sierra Nevada and the Owens Valley, California. With the help of a rental car we named Victoria I was finally able to make it out and see something of that fabled wilderness which had so far been a little out of reach on this American tramp. I’m sorry to say that where Chris McCandless’ took a mere 10 pounds of rice into the Alaskan backcountry for his long exile, Peter and I were a little more indulgent. We crammed our standard-issue bear canisters with all the good stuff: garlic, bottle of olive oil, honey, peanut butter, a selection of veg including bean sprouts, oats, ramen noodles, tomato paste, chilis, cinammon … the list goes on. Not the kit-list of renunciates, but we managed to cook some very tasty meals up there on the hills.

After securing some wilderness passes in Yosemite Village, we embarked on a four-day hike from Wawona, in the south-west part of Yosemite National Park. Our trail took us up a steep gorge to the Chilanaula falls, from where we crested ridges to set up camp at Crescent Lake, as a base to explore the area, and push on with only day packs to the higher Royal Arch and Buena Vista lakes. After encountering a few hikers descending from the falls on the first day, we didn’t see another person for the next three. Whilst I was definitely glad to have a companion up there in those deep and endless pine groves, the eerie stillness of hidden mountain lions and black bears, that absence of more humanity was lovely. As we climbed steadily the landscape was full of surprises; one moment we strode through wet evergreen woods marked with the wreckage of recent snow-fall, the next the hard crust of that snow as it lingered around icy streams. Imposing, ancient granite walls became visible through the trees, and then we were upon their smooth humpbacks  as squirrels chattered and fled. The higher lakes were majestic in their own, very different ways: Royal Arch with it’s seclusion, tucked underneath the immense specter of a curving granite hill, impossibly slashed with erosion and wedges of blackened rock. Buena Vista with it’s majestic cliffs, covered in snow and riven with small caves, while the idyllic pine-fringes below stood in colourful groves beside the crystal of the water. As Peter said, plugging one of our frequent dumstruck moments: “it’s like one of those deodorant ads”.

After that first adventure, there were more to come. More flirtations with the great freedom of the American expanses, and more lessons in the peculiar geography of this part of world. We drove west and out of the park through the Tioga pass, where the mountains are craggier and higher, and an old mining road cuts precariously down one side of a gorge whose volcanic grey is dotted with pines, yellow aspens and golden-coloured thickets of grass. Even here, the change from the alpine depths of Yosemite is marked, but a mere 12 miles further on the sierra suddenly gives way to the desert. At the little motel strip of Lee Vining, I found myself looking back east over a waning salt lake and a dry expanse of scrub. That night, we camped on a little ridge of sagebrush on the edge of a huge shining flat, where coyotes wailed as we slept. This tract of land outside of the ski town of Mammoth Lakes belongs to the Bureau for Land Management, in effect meaning that people are free to come and camp there for up to 28 days. We spotted a few little shelters on the plains, and met some of our neighbours when we went for a night-time soak in the nearby hot springs. There was a regular BLM dweller rolling joints, throwing out a lethargic commentary of the economic crisis. There was an Irish born San Fransiscan with memories of the Summer of Love and his two nephews (some mechanics from, of all places, Guildford). There was a diehard ‘spring chaser from San Diego, trailing round after different hot pools in her little Mini. How strange, I thought, these midnight encounters of disembodied voices over the steam, party-goers sipping Buds, everybody naked, looking up at the huge needle-pricked sky and the fuzz of the Milky Way rolling over itself.

Our journey went on to Bishop and Lone Pine, the White and Inyo mountains to the East squeezing the valley into a narrow band. The Sierra Nevada was getting higher, inaccesable with it’s snow-covered ribbon of spikes. Down in the arid bottom, along a dirt track we saw a number of rocky bluffs with petroglyphs: strange motifs and pattern carved into the rock. Venturing into that other, eastern range we could look down on the edge of the Great Basin, and see those bare, soot-like ribs of land stretching almost all the way to Death Valley. Another kind of desert. The mountains themselves had a completely different character from the ones we had just left: lonelier, tougher even though not as high. As the Sierra Nevada takes the majority of the rainfall from Pacific storms, this is a pretty dry place. Up there, wedged in the dolomite are the stiff coils and bony fingers of Bristelcone Pine trees. With an estimated age of between 4000 and 5000 years old, they’re the oldest trees in the world. Perseverance embodied, with their incredible contortions and layering of dead and growing sections.

That difficult sophomore effort …

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I’ve decided I should make a go of this blog, so here is post number two, arriving just over 12 weeks into the trip! Better late than never, eh? I’ve crossed the United States, by means of buses, rideshares, the odd train (indeed, just two) and a bit of the old magic hitching. My route has turned out something like this:

There are plenty of stories to tell, but I’d like to begin with a couple of episodes that stick out:

1. The Desert Hippies of Powell-a-Palooza

I’d been couchsurfing with a really beautiful family of people – William, Camille and their little girl Sophia in Austin, Texas. This is a town which Americans refer to as ‘the live music capital of the world’ – whether a slogan born of true naivety or crashing arrogance I was never quite able to work out. Austin does have a quite phenomenal amount of artists coming through and a couple of world famous festivals to boot – South by South West in March, a city-wide celebration of film and music and ‘Austin City Limits’, a bit of a who’s who of the US indie-rock scene. I was in town for the later, and the whole place was buzzing from Zilker Park on one side of the River Colorado to the strip on East 6th street: bands tuning up in dive joints everywhere in the desert evening. After catching a couple of the ‘aftershows’ – Bon Iver and his new nine-piece band during the week, and Bright Eyes and Iron and Wine, on consecutive nights (just another weekend in Austin, folks- it makes you sick sometimes) at a great dusty yard on Waller Creek known as Stubbs’, I was off  west again.

I’d managed to find a rideshare on the Craigslist website with a bloke called Glen. That’s about all I knew. So up he rolls in front of William and Camille’s little porch on Monday afternoon, five hours late. He’s in a pickup, pulling this horsebox with the legend ‘elegant and spritual shelters from Asheville, North Carolina’. He darts out and madly starts shaking hands, ruffling heads. Soon we’re off in a blast of aircon and he’s gabbling – “got to get back to the warehouse, pack the rig… We should get on the road by two, big drive ahead. I could get you to Albuquerque man, sure, but I’d have to go a little out of my way, maybe five hours or so”. He’s heading to Page, Arizona – to join his ‘tribe’, do some work for his lighting business, throw up that tent in the back. There’s a small music festival going on right on the shores of Lake Powell: “You heard of Slightly Stoopid…?  They’re playing, and Yonder Moutain String Band… it’s not too big, the rocks are beautiful out there. You should come and meet the team man, I’ll get you a free pass, it’ll be a blast”.

That’s all it takes and I’m on board. New Mexico and Colorado plans abandoned ( was intending to follow the Rockies north to meet the Interstate 70, swoop down on San Fransisco a la ‘On The Road’). We stop at Glen’s storage space and I watch as he clambers frantically over lighting equipment, hefts boxes, forces amplifiers and subs and chains inside the little clapboard trailer. He’s a climber – that you can tell. He also appears to be on some kind of uppers, maybe just lots of Red Bull. In goes sleeping stuff, cooler, a bag of snacks. The huge tent poles seem like they’re going to break through the sides of the trailer – this ain’t no little Quechua pop-up. We drive through the Texas hill country in early evening, sun dimming over the scraggly live oaks as wild deer skip on those cowboy folds of land. Somewhere after joining the I10, there’s a mad hitch-hiker in the semi-darkness, right in the middle of the carriageway on the empty scrubland. We stop to pick them up – it’s a pretty young girl from the North West,  her car has broken down on the way to San Antonio. She tells her story, voice quivering, she’s off to set-up some coffee franchise in San Antone whose main concept seems to be bikini-clad baristas. But it’s all gone wrong, she’s lost, the road trip’s over. Glen drives her into the next town and drops her at the gas station where Mexicans are grinning half-drunk in cowboy hats and a kindly old ranchman offers to tow the car.

Somewhere past Fort Stockton we pull of the main road and grab bedding from the trailer. Roll out mats and bags in the warm desert night on some kind of concrete platform. I awoke to a sky ready to burn, the splayed-wire sculpture of a cactus, a dusty landscape flecked with green and home-made fences. We were still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes as the great ashen wastelands came on, the ridiculous sweep of the road through an empty  horizon of toy-sized, then ant-sized trucks working against the miles. Out of this came El Paso’s strip bars and waffle houses and novelty ‘frontier stores’, sparkly bunting fluttering in the old sea of hoardings and car-salesman despair. I’m straining to see Mexico, over there through those rusty passes they must speak Spanish, hey? And suddenly it’s all too clear: around a corner we look down on a steel line, where the outcrops make a gorge. A trickle of a stream somewhere, far below and the sad sight of a heaving mound of squat oblongs, all colours, blank squares for windows, right there opposite McDonalds.

Pressing on into New Mexico we left the interstate near Silver City. From here to Holbrook the landscape came alive with so many new colours and plants. Streams rushed by little ranches with creaking and proud parairie windmills, fascinating old homesteads deep in the sway of some trees I can’t name. I want to say Poplars, because they stood lush around creek beds like that. Hidden projects and rusty sculptures visible behind hand-carved welcomes and entrance ways. Behind these little valleys, the canyons grew up imperceptibly ’til they were deep and mysterious and full of old Indian eagle-head significance. Further north, the road bent through great swathes of pine and still lakes where you could imagine Lassie bounding home to the wood-choppers evening. Next, a tyre blowout on the trailer but we’ve got a spare, and a friendly local cop guides us into town telling me about his sister who worked as a baptist missionary ‘over there’ in Leeds. We get some dinner, green burritos and Mexican beer, at a kitsch diner on ‘Old Route 66’ (not actually a single road anymore, but a patched-together route combining various bits of State highway and Interstate).

Anyway! Eventually we reached the festi in Page when night had come. We found Glen’s friends amidst all the trailers and lorries and carnival campers, in that great quiet buzz of night before the party. Lots of hugging goes on, and lighting of pipes, and padding round the sand, where the ‘Jenkstars’ (that’s the name of the tribe) are still busy setting up their performance space under spotlight. It’s not ready yet, but it already looks great: the basic idea of the stage is of a pirate ship crashing through a wild-west saloon. DJs will perform alternate sets on the deck of the ship, or inside the ‘solar saucer’, which is an 10ft high crash-landed UFO, covered in a mosaic of dials and buttons and ‘jenk’: that is to say, both these installations are constructed almost entirely of found and recycled objects. The ‘saucer’s decks and samplers and DJ kit run off solar. Things become clearer to me the next day as Scotty, the leader of the gang, holds a discussion to go over the day’s plan. He’s like a Robinson Crusoe mystic with his simple cotton shirt, feather dangling from an ear as he makes blithe pronouncements, tosses out ideas and amends a makerboard list which has scrawled: attach sails. put up mast. mermaid? 

The others: Tanner, Prescott and the rest were someone’s lost boys, perhaps Scotty’s, and no less inspiring. Stage hands with torn costumes and indian tribe-meets-Mad Max adornments. They were carpenters and creators, salvagers, hunters and mechanics all rolled into one; climbing frames and awnings like crabs, home-made swords dangling from their belts, sipping PBR’s from the Sol-Lun cooler as they worked, chasing down ‘pieces’ to pack and dancing across the sand barefoot showing painted toes. As we worked together in the heavy Arizona heat, heaving the three-tiered mast up at the back of the stage, I couldn’t help but be in awe.