High Desert: Palm Springs, USA

Make sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this road trip

 

The first morning in Palm Springs, I knew in my bones I was somewhere else. The light was so different, a hazy glow, that even going through everyday routines felt foreign. Even on the stroll for breakfast and the first coffee of the day, the street seemed to be covered by a halo. Breakfast was from Koffi, an egg-ham-cheese bagel for him, and a fruit parfait for her. Even in late December, the weather was mild enough for a t-shirt.

Koffi coffee

Houses on E. Canyon Drive

Tiredness from the previous day’s mammoth drive, we stayed local and ran some errands. Ed enjoyed the laundromat, the waiting room peppered with heckles from locals aimed at the political coverage on the small television.

At the laundromat

That night we ate at King’s Highway, the restaurant at Ace Hotel. We ate real-deal tacos, and had fabulous cocktails (including a spicy chilli margarita).

King’s Highway at Ace Hotel

Holiday season in the desert

The following day, we ventured south-east towards the Salton Sea. First stop, Shields Date Garden for a famous date shake. I would recommend sharing one with at least one other person, it is huge, thick and heavenly.

The route to the Painted Canyon

Shields Date Garden

At midday, we headed further south-east through citrus grove after citrus grove, the fresh sweet scent lingering in the air. It amazed me to see such vibrant life erupting suddenly from the bone-dry ground. Around two kilometres of dirt road led to the mouth of the Painted Canyon, in the Painted Hills. It wasn’t hard to find the Ladder Canyon, a picturesque slot canyon waving and weaving through the ochre-red rock, following the carving force of water years before. I walked, slow as a trickle of water, running my hand along the curve of the canyon.

The mouth of the canyon trail

Slot canyon path

The namesake ladder

After navigating our way safely through the canyon (someone else was not as lucky and was being airlifted out with a broken leg), we ate pre-packed Reuben sandwiches from Vons supermarket and drove to a destination beyond the scope of our satnav: Salvation Mountain. We reached the nearest town, Niland, barely a one-horse town, and had to just drive into the desert, hoping we could find our destination. And find it, we did.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain

The view from Salvation Mountain

 

Cirrus clouds flecked the sky, the sun sat low in its winter position in the sky. Looking around from where I stood, all I could see was complete desolation. It was a fantastic feeling. We continued along a dirt road through Slab City, an off-grid community of activists and anarchists, to East Jesus. As the sun slowly lowered in the sky, shadows brought all the sculptures to life in a completely different way. The sound of gunshots peppered the air and, not sure if they were a threat or not, the vibe felt well and truly wild. My imagination ran wild thinking of what life was like here, hidden deep in the desert, free of legal and social convention. On the drive home, the haze-covered, malodorous Salton Sea lay to our left and a mile-long cargo train racing us to our right. Phone batteries dead, we turned on the local radio station; Alice in Chains, Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath blaring out the windows as we drove into the fading sun.

All above: East Jesus

 

On our final day, slightly margarita-hungover and dreading the impending end of our trip, we spent time in the Moorten Botanical Garden admiring the cacti under a heavy grey sky. Hummingbirds darted through the air, jumping from leaf to leaf. An empty semi-circular arrangement of chairs lined a lonely glade under a giant aloe, and I thought about whose wedding it might be arranged for.

Top and bottom, Moorten Botanical Garden

 

 

Check out my follow-on spotlights on Yucca Valley/Joshua Tree and Los Angeles, the finale of out trip.

Where Snow Meets Desert: Lake Tahoe to Death Valley, USA.

Part two of my USA retrospective, find part one here.

After our last photo stop, we took the route 50 perpendicular to the lake that wound through the mountains. The contrast between the thick pine forest, streams and snow of the lake basin with the desert beyond Lake Tahoe’s surrounding peaks was astounding. It somehow felt like we were either returning, or going into outer space. I couldn’t quite work out which.

In Carson City, NV, we took the route 395 headed almost due south. Anticipation and trepidation filled the air gaps in the car between us and our suitcases. As we left the relative comfort of Tahoe, we knew we would head far south, beyond our comfort zone.

The route

Where snow meets desert, Mono County.

 

The road followed California’s backbone, the Sierra Nevada mountains. We watched the landscape slowly change from snow, to the moon-like desert as traversed Mono County. I’d found another brewery for us to stop at for lunch on our journey. We turned off for June Lake, the sleepy little sister to Big Mammoth further south. June Lake Brewing was hidden deep in the little town, seemingly the only place people existed here. We ate Hawaiian Tacos at Ohanas food truck parked in the brewery lot.

June Lake Brewing against a crystal clear sky

 

Messy Hawaiian taco-eating

 

The tacos were messy but delicious, and we enjoyed a small beer in the brewery enjoying the heavy metal echoing throughout the building. We bought a few large bottles of porter, and rejoined route 395 to resume our journey.

”With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert”

The small towns of Mono then Inyo county passed by, empty motels with ‘Vacancy’ signs blowing in the wind. Luck would have us find a Starbucks in Bishop,Ca. The town was otherwise a more local affair. Towns got smaller and smaller the further we drove, and our last tough with civilisation was Lone Pine, CA where we stocked up on gasoline and water.

From Lone Pine, we forked left towards Death Valley National Park. With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert.

A glowing Sierra sunset

 

We survived multiple hairpin turns and arrived at Panamint Springs Resort, on the edge of the park – our home for the night. We foolishly had no camping supplies, and the shop had run out of sleeping bags for hire, so we donned our ski gear and sat on the picnic bench outside the tent to have one of our June Lake beers.

 

Home for the night

 

Death Valley National Park is a recognised dark sky area, and I never fully grasped how much I could see without air pollution and high-rise buildings obscuring the view. The milky way looked close enough to touch, every single star glowing as bright as the moon, and shooting stars framed our view. Road-weary, we went to bed and endured the coldest night of our lives.

An unbelievable Panamint sunrise

Before dawn the next morning, feeling fragile and ready to flee our campsite, we waited for the gas station to open for coffee and gas before hastily retreating deeper into the park. The elevation dropped and dropped with every mile driven, giving fantastic views for miles.

Waiting for the only gas station for miles to open

 

Panamint Springs general store

 

The road into the park at dawn

The descent into the heart of Death Valley

Mesquite Dunes

 

Palms outside the Furnace Creek Resort

 

We drove through the park, stopping to add our footprints to the Mesquite Dunes and later the Furnace Creek resort for a slightly bizarre and hasty breakfast. The palms outside the resort signalled that we were getting closer to our final desert destination. Leaving the heart of Death Valley behind, we headed to the deserted south. Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North America. That was a bucket-list item ticked off.

At Badwater Basin

With the end of the national park, we entered the Mojave desert. Food options were a bit grim roadside in Barstow, CA, so we bought Jerkey and Reese’s cups and pushed through exhaustion for the last of the day-long journey.

Arrival into Palm Springs

 

The tell-tale windfarm heralded our arrival into chic Palm Springs, welcome civilisation after what felt like an eternity in the vast and lonely expanse of the desert. Our hotel, a 60s-themed tiki establishment (definitely what I would consider a niche market!) had a plush king-size bed and on-site restaurant, everything one needed after a frightening frozen desert night the night before.

Death Valley made me feel small, it is so hostile that surviving there for only one day feels like an accomplishment. Watching the snow turn to sand as we covered only inches of the map of California felt like a small rebirth. Seeing the small roadside towns, the forgotten ones like Independence and Baker, CA gave me a glimpse into the victims of the American dream. The orphans left behind their glitzier cousins, where faded pitch and putt greens sat unused, and teenagers’ best prospects may be to depart for somewhere bigger.

This is the real US, no In-n-Out or flat white coffees, no Whole Foods or kale. Just real people, scratching out a living in the middle of nowhere, wathing the odd tourist pass by on the way to somewhere else.

Part 3 | Palm Springs coming soon!

Lake Tahoe, USA

I thought I would go back over our honeymoon trip of a lifetime back over Christmas 2016 in a 3 part series including: Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and Palm Springs.

I knew I was never going to be the same after our trip to a small part of the Wild West. We decided to take our honeymoon to the US over our first married Christmas, to put off the ‘whose family will we spend it with’ for another year. I could easily orientate myself on the flight route from San Francisco, CA to Reno, NV. I knew the wide expanse with no lights to my right to be Lake Tahoe, a deeper than black hole in the night, followed by the festive glimmer of Reno in the distance. To get to our condo, we had to drive over Mount Rose pass, which winds treacherously over its namesake mountain.

Flying over Reno, Nevada
Our condo was in Incline Village, right on the shores of the beautiful lake Tahoe.
During the days, we snowboarded at Homewood Mountain Resort, where we had a great 3-day beginners package deal. The mountain had excellent choice of terrain, and everytime you turned your back to the mountain you would be rewarded with the jewel-like lake. I literally felt like a different person when staring at the peaks lining the Tahoe bowl, and never thought I would have the chance to see such an iconic, all-American horizon in person. The base restaurant at Homewood served up the enormous plates of chilli/burgers/pulled pork required to keep us going all day.


The courtyard at our condo


The view from our window

Jet-lagged early mornings gave us a chance to watch the first snowfall out our window before any of our neighbours even stirred. Cup after cup of filter coffee passed the time from 4am twilight to fully-fledged day. I could just imagine a mama bear and two cubs trundling by, paws crunching the new snow.


The view from the lower Homewood slopes

A secret find of mine to surprise my beer-loving partner was Alibi Ale Works, where locals serve and drink fantastic brews. We tried the Rubus Nocturne, a barrel-aged dark raspberry sour, a pale ale, and Boysenberry Berlinerweisser. The porter was rich and deep giving us a warm glow to carry on our walk home. We panic-bought a couple of growlers of that to keep us going over the Christmas period when shops would not be open.


Alibi Ale Works, Incline Village, NV.

We didn’t eat out much in the evenings, jet lag and hours being flung down slopes rendered us useless past 6pm. Homemade margaritas, blue corn tortilla chips and pasta were generally all we could muster up the energy to put together.


Homemade margaritas

One of the first days, we visited Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows resort while we had a rest from mountain activities, ate delicious football-sized burgers fireside at the Plumpjack Inn, and strolled through the faux-alpine ski village. There was such a peaceful calm about the place. Due to the altitude, we could feel the sun beating down overhead in contrast to the ice cracking below our feet.


Squaw Valley, Ca.

We spent Christmas Day at Lone Eagle Grille, literally on the Incline Village lake shore. The Christmas meal was a buffet, not my usual choice, however it proved handy this time when we went back for the pork belly canap├ęs too many times to count! We tried razor clams, crab, and had lamb that melted in the mouth. Cocktails were at the fire pit afterwards, all wrapped up and ruddy-faced from a bottle of rioja. I had a spiked hot chocolate that seemed made for this moment. It was this evening I fully caught the splendor of a Tahoe sunset, as previous evenings had seen snowstorms.


Top to bottom: spiked hot chocolate, sunset, fire pit

On our last morning, as we started heading south to our next destination, we had to stop multiple times for me to take pictures. The Lake really pulled out all the stops, almost as if sensing and regretting our impending departure. On these last few looks back, over the mirror-blue surface, I knew I would never be the same. I knew I would be back, and somehow, to own my own clapboard condo and stroll those lazy streets forever.


Top and bottom, our final views of Lake Tahoe.

Make sure to check out parts 2 and 3 of my Wild West restrospective, coming soon!

A Little Bit Wild: Wilderness Festival 2017

Wilderness festival is held every summer in the rolling fields and forests of Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, UK.

Wilderness festival is perhaps the only one I know I can survive (with at least some dignity). We went last year, were completely overwhelmed by everything on offer, and resolved to do it right this year.


The swimming river
With last year’s tent (complete with little spider skeletons within) and this year’s self-inflating mattress (we splashed out) under our arms, and a cooler bag full of beer, we arrived. Thankfully, the campsite layout was familiar so we were no longer the new kids in school, and set up camp exactly where we did last year (near-but-not-too-near to the toilets). The first night, Thursday, we stayed right in our little tent and barbecued sausages sheltering under our parasol. They tasted delicious with a side of tomato salsa and a gleeful, childish sense of freedom at the prospect of the weekend in the ‘wild’.


The view from our tent
Now, I am from South Africa originally, so I’m aware that being Cotswold-adjacent is not necessarily wild. However, now I live in London, so sipping warm cider barefoot in a light drizzle was pretty out there.

With an early night the first night, we were ready for Friday. I have eliminated wheat and dairy from my diet, so Deliciously Ella’s pop-up was a safe bet as opposed to the countless ‘Bacon Buttie’ signs. Yes, there were many yoga panted, lithe and beautiful young professionals discussing the merits of almond vs. oat mylk. And yes, we were in shabby converse and vans but devoured our avocado-on-rye hungrily.


Me on a shell at a clothes stall


A talk on lonliness in literature in the Books Tent


A pop-up in the Greencraft Village

The food and clothes stalls are a kaleidoscope of noise and colour, smells and people. It sometimes feels quite strange and overwhelming being in an environment geared fully towards creating pleasure. The best food we had were the beef short rib tacos, on real-deal tacos, and buffalo wings with a tequila and blue cheese sauce, which we had to have both nights. The location of Man Meat Fire‘s food truck, at the top of the main stage hill, meant we could listen to the other acts from the comfort of a picnic table (replete with margaritas).


Tacos and hot wings at Man Meat Fire


Hip hop karaoke

On Saturday night, we watched Bonobo play the main stage under a slowly fading pink sky. It was a dreamy sight, all of us gleeful at the lack of rain originally forecasted, dancing under a nearly full moon.


Celebrating the lack of forecasted rain watching Bonobo at the mainstage.


Bonobo after night fell

Afterwards, came The Spectacle, an annual performance. This year was a bewildering light show, accompanied by an astronaut revolving above us. Saturday night was bitterly cold, the clouds we had so desperately wished away in the day now nowhere to be seen. We were glad to get into the tent that night.


A lightshow in the night
Sunday morning, we were planning a fairly early departure, and so a lot of thoughts came to me on that last stroll to Deliciously Ella’s. Afterwards, we sat under a billowing art piece, enjoying the stillness in the early morning breeze. I thought about my career, where that will take me next; about how we will continue to create our own music back home. Really though, I thought about what the festival meant to me.


Where we sat early on Sunday morning, collecting our thoughts

I thought about how crazy it seemed to me to have all these ‘city types’ retreating to a field once a year to feel free, wear glitter, and learn how to climb trees. Surely we should feel we have the same freedom the other 360 days of the year, away from the strains of a 9 to 5, gym and kids? I wondered if I had lost a bit of that side of me in the last few years.

Trying to be a more ‘responsible’ festival-goer was the most tough aspect of it for me. We were two people who ate out the whole weekend, and still generated a bag of rubbish back at the tent. It also seems slightly crazy to me to want to ‘return to nature’ but still have running water, hot showers, and fresh avocado on toast. I thought about the people who were really ‘in nature’, and not out of choice. No tent, no showers and no flat whites. It seemed a little rich of me to need to escape from a full time job, and a little flat in the heart of London, when people are looking to escape the horror and fear of a life torn apart by war.

Mostly, though, I will just take it for what it was: that we are so fortunate to be able go have a brief little break from normal, and that we need to be kinder to people in every way that we can.

Rejoice in quality time to reconnect with nature and each other, and don’t forget having a chance to do hip hop karaoke whilst sipping cider in a field.

www.wildernessfestival.com