Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part I

on October 29, 2013

The South West

So… from Lake Tahoe, our happy trio set off across the south of the US at breakneck speed in our comfy campervan, Bernadette. Our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Despite the huge forest fires sadly devouring a large portion of the park at the time of our visit, unaffected areas were still open, so we decided to try our luck. On our way it looked pretty smoky and hazy, so we were a little worried, but closer to the park it was actually much clearer. The drive into Yosemite was stunning, with huge craggy rock faces, alpine trees and beautiful lakes visible from the road.

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We camped in the highlands at Tuolumne Meadows and arrived in time for a little afternoon hike to the nearby Dog Lake (we’re still not sure why it was called that) and Lembert Dome (in geographic terms, known as an ‘erratic’- a huge granite boulder carved out by glaciers). The trail was easy walking but scenic, rocky with towering evergreens all around. The lake was beautiful, and the views from the top of the dome at sunset were amazing.

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In Yosemite, we were in bear country, so had to store everything with a scent (all food, drink and toiletries) in a bear locker. The resident black bears have a great sense of smell and have been known to break into vehicles if they can smell food in there- not exactly what you want when you’re sleeping in said vehicle! But we managed to cook our dinner, enjoy our campfire in the alpine chill, and sleep our first night in the wilderness with no bear troubles!

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The next day we took off to the nearby but entirely different Death Valley National Park. On the way we stopped to buy food and supplies and actually contemplated buying firewood for another campfire that evening- little did we realise how little of an understatement the name ‘Death Valley’ was! The temperature climbed steadily as we drove into the park, and the wind whipping through the non-air-conditioned van felt like a hairdryer blowing in your face. Bernadette’s temperature gauge peaked at 49.5°C!  After stopping at the visitor’s centre, we learned that the world’s hottest air temperature had been recorded in Death Valley at the aptly named Furnace Creek- a mild 56.7°C in 1913! We also had a look over other enticingly named sites to visit in the park- Deadman Pass, Starvation Canyon, Funeral Peak, Hells Gate or Devil’s Hole… And decided on a spot of auto-touring instead of the hiking we’d initially envisioned…

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We stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a bunch of dunes randomly sat in the middle of nowhere; visited the Badwater Basin, a salt flat and North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level; went on the Artist’s Drive to see the Artist’s Palette to admire the multi-coloured volcanic hills in the late afternoon sun before heading to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset send splays of pink and mauve across the desert sky.

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From there on a tip off from the ranger at the visitor’s centre, we headed out of the park to a clearing by the side of the road to set up camp where the elevation was a little higher and the temperatures a little cooler. Cooking our dinner resulted in a large scale moth massacre as they flew from far and wide into the flame of our cooker, and meant we all squished into the back of the van to avoid the onslaught to eat. We then settled in for the night and tried to sleep despite the temperature, which had just dropped to 28°C by morning!

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Next stop- VEGAS BABY! We had to put Bernadette in for a service as 2 weeks in the dusty desert had made her struggle, then we took off to an outlet mall as I realised I had nothing to wear out in a US city… Scummy backpacker clothes that have been worn over and over again for 6 months and jelly shoes or thongs (both of which are slowly falling apart) were probably not going to cut it! I managed to get a dress, shoes and bag for under $50 so a successful outing! And now I will look like I’ve only had one night out this entire trip as I’ll always be in the same outfit in the pics… Oh well!

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Anyway, we had booked to stay at Excalibur, a medieval themed hotel as you may have guessed. We had a huuuuge buffet dinner (when in Vegas…) and oh my goodness, you should have seen the dessert selection- I was in heaven! (those are not all mine below by the way…)

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We prettied ourselves up for our first night on the town, then set the tone for the night by heading across to the Coyote Ugly Saloon for some beers and a boogie…

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After more bars, more drinks and more dancing, we eventually headed back to the hotel. Laura and I decided we wanted to go to the food court, so we gave Hugo the other key and said we’d meet him in the room. We got waylaid by a random dude throwing his money around on the tables and spent a while gambling away his hard-earned cash. Despite us telling him he should stop letting us choose because we kept losing, he kept throwing money at us saying ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s only paper!’

After a while, we wanted to go, and when the dude went to get a drink, Laura said ‘Mandy, run!’ so we took off across the casino (me barefoot by this stage), literally sprinting, and on the slope down to the elevators took a massive tumble right in front of the security guards. We made it to the elevators with bruised and carpet-burned knees (and egos), only to find Hugo wasn’t in the room! I just had visions of him passed out in the street somewhere, so we went back to find him.

On our way out the security guards asked us if we were ok, but were still laughing about our fall and wondered out loud if they could get a hold of the security video to watch it again… We were just trying to describe Hugo to them, saying ‘He’s English and kind of walks like this…’ (cue Hugo swagger with party arms demo) when who walks down, but Hugo, doing exactly that! Ah, reunited…

We got to bed by 6 and awoke with a shock at 11 as we had forgotten to set an alarm and had to go pick up Bernadette by 12. After a quick food court breakfast (cheeseburgers, corndogs and cinnabon…) we were off again. Ah Vegas… One night was probably enough…!

Once we’d picked up Bernadette and left with much lighter wallets, we headed off to check out Hoover Dam at the Nevada-Arizona border which was pretty impressive, and had a swim in pretty Lake Mead to help combat the still heat. We made it to a cute little town called Springdale just outside of Zion National Park, where Hugo and I had our first taste of Wendy’s burgers and we urban camped outside a Laundromat.

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The next morning we checked out the amazing Zion, with its red-brown layered peaks and canyons towering in all directions. We did a couple of short walks to see a spring called Weeping Rock, and some small waterfalls at the Emerald Pools. We drove out along the beautiful scenic highway which featured an impressive mile-long tunnel through solid rock constructed in the 30’s on our way to the Grand Canyon.

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We got to the north rim of the canyon late in the afternoon, but unfortunately it had been raining, and though still amazing, a lot of the views were fairly obscured by fog so we were a bit disappointed. Also, because there was thunder it was considered too dangerous to walk the rim of the canyon in case of lightning strikes, so we couldn’t do any of the little hikes we’d wanted to either. We made a game-time decision to drive the 215 miles (4 hours!) around the canyon to the south rim, camp there overnight and try to catch sunrise over the canyon in the morning.

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We woke at 5.15am to drive in to the viewpoint. It wasn’t raining but was still fairly cloudy, so sadly we didn’t see the sunrise. The views were incredible though, and I could see the little Bright Angel Trail winding down toward the canyon- one day I’d love to hike all the way across! We consoled ourselves with a giant breakfast and several coffees at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) and headed on for a big day of driving across to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

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This was the first day I had a go at driving Bernadette- on the opposite side of the road! After not driving for 6 months I was a little nervous, but it was mostly freeway, so despite hugging the right a little and occasionally flicking the wipers instead of the indicator, I did ok! The other tricky bit is our fuel gauge and temperature gauge don’t work, and our speedo is in km while the speed limits are posted in miles, so it takes a bit of calculation to work out how fast to go, and some careful monitoring of our odo to make sure we have enough fuel!

So Santa Fe… it was a weird city. To start, we took the bus into town with some interesting characters, like a woman who mumbled to herself the entire way. The centre was fairly compact, but also super quiet and felt more like a small town than a state capital! Hugo was keen to secure himself a pair of cowboy boots so we looked at several cool stores, resulting in Laura walking away with a very nice vintage pair, and Hugo leaving with none! We filled our afternoon with a visit to the Palace of the Governors, the oldest state capital building in the US dating from Spanish occupation in 1610, and also checked out the New Mexico History Museum and learned about the history of cowboys, yee-hah!

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That evening we tried to go out. We had a beer accompanied by awful karaoke at Cowgirl’s, then went to a bar we’d googled which was meant to have funk music, but on arrival it was actually 80s night, and not a soul was in the room! Actually. I don’t even remember seeing a bartender downstairs in all the excitement of the disco ball and coloured lights… So out we went, and followed the sound of some music we’d heard on the breeze. We found a grungy little bar in a basement which had the biggest number of people we’d seen all day! We hung out there for a little while, and when we were ready to go, had to wait half an hour for a cab from the city’s one cab company to get ourselves home.

We weren’t exactly sad to leave Santa Fe, and were excited to arrive in Roswell the next day. This town is home of the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’, where there were allegedly UFO sightings, alien sightings and a UFO crash which was then supposedly covered up by the government. The whole town is built on this alien conspiracy; chock full of stores selling alien-themed tat, even the street lamps are shaped like alien heads! We spent some time taking fun photos with aliens in Area 51, and then examining evidence from both sides of the story at the National UFO Research Centre and Museum (which almost has the 3 of us converted into alien conspiracy theorists!)

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We shacked up for the night in another national park called Carlsbad Caverns. We went to watch the underwhelming bat exodus at dusk, and then lived it up in the luxury camping ground which had hot showers and wi-fi! (Our standards have fallen such that we’re generally happy if we can shower once every three days at present…)

In the morning we checked out the cave, which was incredible. We walked down til we were 750 feet below the surface and admired the beautiful decorations. It is enormous, we spent a good couple of hours down there, and didn’t even walk the whole way around the inventively named ‘Big Room’.

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That afternoon we headed off to another inventively named place, a town called Junction across the border in Texas. The unexcitingness of its name is no disguise, it really was a bit of a backcountry Texas nothing town! On the way in we had a mishap when Bernadette ran out of gas. I was driving and had no idea what was happening as I’ve never run out of fuel before! But we’d been carving up the freeways at 80mph and must have been chewing more gas than we had calculated… So I pulled over on the side of the road, and Laure and Hugo set to work pouring our 5 gallons of fuel left over from Burning Man into the tank. The spout was broken so they McGuiver-ed it with one holding a tent peg to open the tank and the other pouring into a paper oil cone… I sure felt like the useless girl, til Laura said ‘Mandy! Where’s the photos?!’ so I set to work doing what Mandys do best!

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When we made it to Junction, we entertained ourselves doing a few loads of laundry before urban camping behind the local library. The highlight was getting our first taste of Texas BBQ at a nondescript little establishment called Lum’s, attached to a gas station on the side of the road into town. But what a gem, the pork ribs and beef brisket were amazing! So was the mac and cheese and coconut cream pie… I’d never eaten brisket before and it was just melt-in-your-mouth meaty goodness.

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We are starting to realise why America has such a reputation as the world’s fattest nation… There is some amazing food here and it is all soooo cheap! To upsize anything from the smallest size (which here is equivalent at least to a medium anywhere in Australia) is like 25c. This is what we in the field call ‘an obesogenic environment’ for sure…!

BUT, though that side of the American reputation is somewhat founded, the world’s general negative preconception of the American people, in our experience thus far, is not. We’ve been taken aback by everyone’s friendliness. If people notice our accents (which frequently they don’t it must be said), they’re very keen to talk about where we’re from and how we know each other (an Australian, a Canadian and an Englishman travelling together is generally a very confusing concept for most people! It sounds like the beginning of a joke…). But then people give us all sorts of tips for the local area, declaring ‘Welc’m to Amurica! Y’all injoy yurselves!’ which is really nice!

One thing that does irk me here is the tax and tipping. Sure, have sales tax, but if you know how much the tax is and it’s the same state wide, just add it in to the price on the tag for crying out loud!! It’s so annoying going to the counter and thinking you have the right change and then they say a completely different number and you’re like ‘oh yeah, tax…’. In a place where disclosure is expected because the fear of litigation for anything and everything is rife (eg. any menu with meat on it has a little asterisk saying ‘eating raw or under-cooked meat can be harmful to health’…), I’m surprised it’s not mandatory to declare the ‘real’ price with tax included. It all seems like a bit of false advertising to me. But anyway, on top of the tax is also the tip. In any sit down restaurant, the standard tip is 20%. Then in a bar, you basically just tip a dollar any time you order. This whole system is really testing my mental arithmetic…!

So anyway, from Junction, we headed to the big smoke in Austin. We were pretty excited for this part of our trip as we are all pretty into the live music scene and were heading toward a number of iconic locations. We began our drive into Austin with a couple of wine tastings in the Texas Hill Country, a wine region we never knew existed! We felt a little awkward arriving at Hye Meadow Winery at 10am, the same time as the girl who opened shop did, but thankfully she didn’t think we were deros, waived the wine tasting fee for us and was full of great tips for Austin!

We lived it up in Austin at the Quality Inn, which aside from having beds and a shower (luxury) had a pool and free breakfast… where you could make TEXAS SHAPED WAFFLES! Incredible. But amazing as that all sounds, we did actually leave our hotel a number of times…Our first evening was spent at The Whip Inn, a gem disclosed to us by our mate Trish at the winery. It is right next to the freeway and used to be general store, but has now been converted into a funky little pub with a huge range of boutique beers, Indian-inspired cuisine and live jazz.

The next day we whizzed around the city, visiting the State Capitol, a very impressive edifice and the largest state building in the US (everything’s bigger in Texas!) before going on a food trailer hunt down in ‘SoCo’ (local lingo for the South Congress neighbourhood) to get the famous Torchy’s Tacos and try Gourdough’s gourmet doughnuts. Neither disappointed, though the doughnut was actually a food highlight of the trip so far… We had the ‘Funky Monkey’, a delectable combination of brown sugar, bananas and cream cheese icing atop a fresh doughnut- literally one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted in my life! Probably a good thing they only exist in Austin, otherwise my future career as a dietitian may have been in jeopardy once I started recommending everybody try all the flavours at Gourdough’s…

Hugo had boot-finding success later in the day, picking up a sweet pair in python leather to Laura’s and my relief (we had spent many hours in various boot shops by this point!). In the evening we checked out the main drag, 6th Street, where we saw some cool music early in the night- an amazing duo called Thomas and Hall (https://www.facebook.com/ThomasandHall for anyone interested in a listen) and then bar hopped our way around ending up at a little rockabilly bar. Unfortunately I lost our camera that night which is why sadly there are no accompanying pics for Austin… :-/

The following day we headed to Houston, where we spent the afternoon at the Space Centre. We visited the Mission Control Centre at the Johnston Space Centre, learned about the Orion mission looking at sending people to Mars in 2035 and saw the impressive Saturn V shuttle launcher with its 5 enormous engines.

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In other exhibits we learned about living in space (including recycling pee into drinking water, reconstituting dehydrated meals and having baby wipe ‘showers’), saw some of the tiny capsules the first astronauts went up in and saw some moon rocks and moon dirt. Hugo was excited with all of this information, saying the 3 of us are just like astronauts, living in a tiny space all together and having baby wipe showers!

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In the evening we checked out a baseball game, seeing the bottom-of-the-league Houston Astros play the LA Angels. We spent much of the long, slow game googling what all the abbreviations on the scoreboard were, but did enjoy the ‘7th inning stretch’ and belting out ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ followed by a rousing rendition of a song we’d never heard (but that everyone else knew) called ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

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Though the Astros lost, we did get to see them get a home run which was really cool. And eat chili dogs and wave giant hands around…

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We headed out to a suburban park to camp for the night, before finishing our time in Houston with a church service at the largest congregation in America- Lakewood Church. Before this though, we did pull up at the local Walmart to have our baby wipe showers and put on our Sunday Best…

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For those of you that haven’t heard of Lakewood, this mega-church is in a $400 million converted stadium that seats 17,000 people! On the morning of our attendance there would’ve been a lazy 12,000-13,000 at a guess (certainly a bigger crowd than turned out for the baseball the previous night!). The service is televised each week and feels like a massive production. A 10-piece band and 60+ choir started the service with a bang leading the first half hour of can’t-help-but-groove worship songs, not to mention the lights, smoke machines and cameras panning around it all!

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The pastors behind the operation are Joel Olsteen and his wife Victoria, both of whom entered the stage looking very polished and bearing celebrity-worthy smiles. We got to see both of them speak, and Joel’s sermon in particular was very memorable- he is extremely charismatic, very funny and presented his message clearly with relevant anecdotes and sections of scripture woven in along the way. All in all, it was a very enjoyable morning and definitely added to the diversity of our experiences in America’s south!

Next stop was New Orleans, for yet more food and more music… To be continued…

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