Land of the Free! California, Nevada and Arizona.

Disclaimer: I wrote notes during my trip to America, little reminders for when I got back to write this post. However, I am now writing this post from said notes in August 2013 – over 2 years later! So things might be a bit hazy… Enjoy :)

The journey was riddled with problems! Of the four of us who left (me, Kurt, Paul B, and Paul M) none of us arrived at the right time, with our bags. Quite an achievement given that we got through customs at LAX with no problems and holding all of our luggage! Long story short, after cancelled flights and a very rapid taxi to a different LA airport, the Pauls managed to get their bags when we arrived in San Francisco, then my bag arrived by courier later that evening. Kurt’s finally arrived the next morning! Finally, we had arrived and we got some sleep :) We stayed in the Marriott! Very posh.

On Day 1 we were up pretty early for the conference registration (MRS Spring meet, 2011). Went to a few talks in the morning to get into the swing of it. San Francisco is known for it’s Chinese population, so who better to take me to China town for lunch than Kurt! We went to a very authentic restaurant and I had Kurt order us loads of dim sum. Tried all sorts of things, some I loved, some not so much (ginger & chilli tripe for one, although I went in with an open mind!). We then did a bit of shopping at Macy’s where I picked up a CK shirt & hoodie and some smart shoes. Back at the hotel we hit the gym briefly and had a swim in the pool then went to the conference “student mixer” where I met up with Rhiannon who was there with her group from Cambridge. Had my first taste of American beer and I was incredibly impressed – Prohibition Ale, it was so good it ran out very quickly. Good first day after the disastrous travel.

Day 2 had more talks in the morning and had to go and put my poster up for that evening. We had Japanese for lunch, which was great, and took a walk to the Yerba Buena gardens and sat outside in the sun. More talks all afternoon and then I stood by my poster looking all business, haha. Had quite a lot of interest, but unfortunately the session wasn’t exactly the right fit for my work so I didn’t win any prizes! That evening we went out for dinner with the bosses and met up with their colleagues Scott Watkins and Alisdair Campbell. Was a good evening.

Day 3 – the alarm didn’t go off! Still just managed to find time for coffee before the first talk though :) Lunch brought another American first – a chicago deep pan pizza. It was ridiculous! $6 for a “slice” and I only got through about half of it. It was more like a bread pie, brilliant :) Lots of talks that afternoon, some pretty good, followed by another quick gym session and finishing that pizza off! Mexican food at the poster session that evening filled me up and I ended up walking around with Paul M who’d given his talk that afternoon. In order to relax a bit now his duties were over, we both went across the road to a bar and sat drinking prohibition ale by the pint until quite late. Was interesting to get the scoop on how the supervisors view some of the other group members :)

Day 4 was Kurt’s day to give his talk. It went pretty well. Paul B also gave his talk and it was good. We decided to quit the conference early and take a walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. Very impressive, lots of buildings all around and incredibly windy. At Pier 39 I got a classic clam chowder served in a loaf of bread, which was amazing. We also saw sea lions and I put down a deposit for a (somewhat expensive!) present for Hannah’s birthday. We then took the cable car down Powell St which was really good fun even if a bit tacky/touristy. That evening I went to the last poster session and met up with Rhiannon again before we went out to a jazz bar and I had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for the first time, which was almost as good as the Prohibition! Was a really good catch up in a cool little venue before hitting bed.

Day 5 was the last day of the conference. Had lots of talks in the morning and early afternoon followed by another gym session. Then we packed ready for our trip away and hit the Japanese for food again :)

Day 6 – Saturday. We had a really early pick up for our bus tour at 07:45. The bus looked brand new and seemed good, Ben was our driver and Peter was our guide. I was the only european across two buses! Perhaps letting Kurt book the trip should have been a giveaway that it would have a lot of Chinese? Haha. Still, the guide spoke great English and everything was given in both languages. We headed off and stopped for lunch at Taco Bell – yet another American thing I had to try. Was pretty impressed really, but then I’m easily impressed by food… Next it was on to Yosemite National Park.
Now, Yosemite is an incredible place I would love to go back to, unfortunately we only had a few hours to drive through and see the major sights. These included: El Capitan, the worlds largest “granite rock” and you could see tiny climbers on their multi-day climbs; Bridal Veil, an impressive “soft” waterfall where I saw a lizard running about; Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America with gorgeous clear water. We then had a drive through the valley to an amazing panoramic view down the valley where we even caught a rainbow coming from the mist on the waterfalls and there were loads of glistening sheer granite cliffs.
Then it was a drive to Fresno (nothing there!) but we had all you can eat chinese on the way and the hotel (Four Points by Sheraton) was very nice. Kurt went straight to bed but I took myself to the bar and sat having a couple of nice craft beers by Firestone brewery before bed.

Day 7 – Sunday. Very early up (05:50) and onto the bus. Had a stop for breakfast and then on to a huge factory outlet centre in the middle of the desert. Bought some CK jeans and a pretty smart Ralph Lauren shirt (only $18!) before we carried on to Las Vegas! We started off with a tour of the casinos – The Bellagio with its famous fountains and incredible indoor flower garden; The Venetian which was like outdoors Venice indoors and we saw some opera; Caesar’s palace where we saw a pretty strange robot show full of flame & smoke machines; then on to Bally’s for the longest running show in Vegas “Jubilee”. Jubilee was strange, like a variety show, but every now & then the women would be topless. The most impressive bits were the Argentinian drummers and a guy who “stood” upside down with his neck on another guy’s neck and no hands. Finally it was off to Old Town for the huge LED screen show and a much needed MacDonald’s.
At the end of the night we headed to our accommodation, Excalibur, a King Arthur themed big plastic medieval castle with a casino in it. It was insanely tacky but really fun and at one end of the strip, much more central than I expected. On the way to bed I shoved a dollar into a slot machine and won $6.25!

Day 8 – Monday: Yet another very early start as we headed off for a day trip to the west rim of the Grand Canyon. Took the bus there over the Hoover dam and entered onto American Indian territory, at which point we had to hand over a whopping $69 for entry, although that did include lunch (which was awful, haha). The sights were amazing though – we first stopped at Eagle Point, where the cliffs had formed the shape of an eagle with its wings spread – very impressive. One thing that amazed me was the complete lack of any barriers stopping you from falling off the edge. One girl sat right on the very edge reading a book and trying to persuade much more cautious tourists closer :) We then went on to Guano Point, so called as they used to mine guano from the bat caves there. The scale was utterly incredible and you really couldn’t get a sense for how huge the canyon was until I saw a helicopter flying through it, looking no larger than a tiny fly. Quite amazing. Also saw the 22′ ring around the sun, formed by a load of tiny crystals in the sky, which was a nice sight :)
On the way back to Las Vegas we stopped off at the dam for a good look but didn’t stay too long. Once we got to the hotel, Kurt and I grabbed a (pretty disappointing) chinese for dinner, and he went to bed…. at 19:30…. in Vegas…. I was not going to bed!
I put on some nice jeans and a shirt and took myself on a walking tour down the strip. Took loads of photos and stayed to watch two of the fountain music shows outside the Bellagio before heading in to the casino. Grabbed myself a nice bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager and sat down at the lowest stakes blackjack table I could find – $5 minimum bets. The dealer was amazing – she knew no one there was a pro and was helping everyone out with their odds and betting and really made the night. I sat there for a couple of hours and managed to double my money from $40 to $80 before i decided to call it a night. Was very pleased to say I could leave “up” :) Threw $3 on the digital roulette just to try my luck (12 Red) but lost so hit bed about midnight. All in all, a really good day.

Day 9 – Tuesday: Very early 7 am start to head back to San Francisco. Unfortunately there was so much driving to do we did little else but sit on the bus. Had a good all you can eat buffet lunch again and finally arrived back in SF. Kurt and I headed to Hotel Bijou, our accommodation for the next few nights before we grabbed a really good dinner at “Smooth Thai” just down the road. Had some free hot chocolate in the hotel before I finished my book and saw Green Lantern in the hotel’s “cinema”.

Day 10 – Wednesday: Kurt and I had booked ourselves into a day trip to Muir Woods to see the giant redwood trees. We had a really cool local tour guide called Frank who drove us over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way. The woods were amazing – we’d arrived especially early so it was totally empty and very quiet. We were told about the difference between redwoods and sequoia (redwoods are the tallest trees, sequoia are the “largest”) and got a little bit lost on our walk around. All in all it was a really impressive place to go and quite special. Bought Hannah some redwood earrings as a little present on the way out.
The drive back was via Sausalito, where we got fish & chips for lunch, and then were driven around Pacific Heights and a few other sights in the city. Saw Danielle Steele’s house! Haha.
That afternoon I split up from Kurt and took myself to Abercrombie & Fitch, originally to get Hannah a cardigan, but ended up buying myself a couple of t-shirts. Amazed they fit, but I think they were good! I then grabbed the F-Tube tram for a trip across to Alcatraz! Had some absolutely amazing weather for the crossing and got to see both of San Francisco’s bridges from the boat. The audio tour around Alcatraz itself was really good and the place was very impressive. I’d love to do the night tour one day! Got some really cool photos. Grabbed the last boat back to Pier 39 to collect Hannah’s birthday present and got a hotdog from a hotdog stand (another American thing ticked off the list!). By this point I was pretty knackered so got the tram back to the hotel and hit bed.

Day 11 – Thursday: Had my first lie in of the holiday until 11 am! Skype chatted with a few people, got a coffee and croissant for breakfast/lunch and did some packing. Realised at this point I’d bought far too many new clothes and presents! I was on my own so I took a walk to city hall and lay on the grass “civic” reading my book. I then went into the Asian art museum, which had a Bali expo on. That night it was back to Smooth Thai for dinner with Kurt and then bed.

Day 12 – Friday: Another lie in before final packing and checking out. Another coffee and croissant and Kurt & I sat in Union Square chilling out and reading until the BART train took us to the airport. We checked in early and had a long wait to get home.

All in all the trip was incredible. Kurt was a good companion, but I’d love to go back again and see even more of the night life in particular. That’s it really! I’m certain that by writing this so far after the fact I’ve missed lots of stuff out, but this covered everything that my notes said and every memory the notes triggered :)

Ham x

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