What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!
Last month, I made a return to North America after an absence of nearly four years. There might have been a trip to Colorado in 2020 only for the pandemic but I chose the San Francisco Bay Area as a follow-up to my time in British Columbia.
This time around, it was hiking around the Bay Area that provided the main lure. San Francisco itself is often beset by fog during the summer because of climatic conditions, but there are clear spells too. The meeting of cooler oceanic air with hotter continental air is the cause of this, and that cooler air also makes the city much cooler than other surrounding areas too.
For photography, that means that you need to take your chances when you get them. My first evening there was a cloudy affair as was the next day, apart from a break in the cloud cover during the morning time. The return of cloud cover did little to help photographic efforts around Golden Gate Park, Land’s End, Bake Beach, Marshall’s Beach, Golden Gate and Crissy Field. There was a lot of fog obscuring the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands too. A partial reprise a few days later benefitted from an afternoon break in cloud cover to provide some impressive lighting at times.
Before that though, I went to Angel Island State Park where some unusual weather was seen. There was an odd juxtaposition of fog and low cloud along with hot strong sunshine. The latter won out much of the time and I got to see many little lizards scurrying about the place on a hike that took in Mount Livermore as I went around the island. On my return to the mainland, I was drawn back to Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge by way of the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharfe. There were rewards for this reprisal and I tried out a bus on the way back to the city too.
That reconnaissance came in handy for a trip to Muir Woods National Monument since the journey to Sausalito used the services of the same bus company. Once there, a pre-booked shuttle conveyed me to the National Monument where I spent most of the day. The shade of the tree cover provided some respite from the intense warm sunshine. On the way back from Sausalito, I got a good sighting of the Golden Gate Bridge that encouraged me to walk over and back across it to get some pleasing photos. A mistake with a bus made the return to my lodgings a lot longer, but no harm was done. That misstep was to have its uses for someone else during the following weekend.
Point Reyes National Seashore was my target for the next day, though it might have been better to head to Stinson Beach instead since the weekend bus timings were better for that location. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a shaded hike around Mount Wittenberg and returned to San Francisco at the time that I had planned. Since this was my first time there, I did not overstay to avoid problems with transportation.
Two days later, it was the turn of Stinson Beach and Mount Tamalpais State Park. If this had been a weekend venture, there might have been a circular hike taking in more of the Matt Davis Trail. However, I was sated with the ascent that took me along part of the Dipsea Trail and the Steep Ravine Trail, though the segment of the Matt Davis Trail that I briefly sampled more than intrigued me so it pained me to turn back. That was to catch the last bus of the day to Sausalito, which met with the ferry to San Francisco despite a need to attend to a poorly man at the side of the road on the way. That ferry boat’s close passage by Alcatraz was my closest approach to the iconic location of my trip, and I feel no need to have got any nearer.
Souvenir hunting had its effect on my choices too. For one thing, it drew back to Point Reyes National Seashore for another hike. This time, I headed towards the coast on the Bear Valley Trail before making a loop at the end using the Glen Trail and the Coastal Trail. That gained me expansive views up and down the coast before returning to the Bear Valley Trail near Arch Rock. There was a lot of tree-shaded hiking too, which was just as well given the heat of the day. Getting back to the visitor centre early meant that I could go back to San Rafael on an earlier bus. From there, I went around by El Cerrito to gain some inspiration for a visit to the East Bay Parks.
Before that, I headed to Sausalito for another souvenir and then to San Francisco City Hall once the sky had cleared. From there, it was back to El Cerrito where I made my way to Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Though there were possibilities for gaining more height, I eschewed these because my legs felt less strong after all my exploits. My passage took me through Tilden Nature Park and then to Tilden Regional Park. After that, I descended to North Berkley, from where I went to Daly City to see if I could reach Mount San Bruno State Park. Fog halted that exploit so I returned to my lodgings, not displeased at being halted. Much had been gained and I flew home the next day without any regrets.
In a previous post, I mentioned Ken Burns’ magisterial The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and even wrote a few words about this documentary film series. Not living in the U.S.A., I found this quite accidentally when reading an article on either the Outdoor website network (probably the Backpacker part but I am not sure now). Both are part of the same media group and I became a subscriber to Backpacker magazine in 2020. In Canada, there is Explore and they perform much the same function for that part of the world.
Before this, I was inclined to do long trawls through guidebooks for acclimatisation and awareness. This can work but it is not just time-consuming but also can be trapped within one’s own predispositions. After all, America’s National Parks are known by many around the world so it can be easy to gravitate towards them but there are other kinds of public lands that are amenable to exploration, some of which abut conurbations so they can be easier to reach. Here, I am thinking of what lies on the doorsteps of San Diego in California, Portland in Oregon or Phoenix in Arizona. Two of these came to my notice in a serendipitous manner, the first from a tragic story on the Backpacker website and the last from a Wanderlust webinar.
There also is the usefulness of a more gradual approach taken with an open mind. A concerted effort can and does help but the slower accumulation of insights and possibilities is how I got going in hillwalking in the first place. It happened so naturally that I hardly noticed what was happening and this also brought with it a growing cultural awareness. The same approach might help to restart nascent explorations of North America yet.
All this highlights background realities regarding the scale of North American wilderness as well as equipment choices offered by brands that are not so pervasive on this side of the Atlantic like Canada’s Durston. There are times when you need to watch for product placement though and Backpacker’s online webinar series from 2020 was a case in point, especially given they erred on the side of overdoing just that at the expense of conveying an experience of the wild places that were featured.
Still, knowing the cultural side of things remains ever useful and that returns me to the feature film series mentioned at the start of this piece. The history of the American National Park system was not that well known to me, even if I was well aware of the influence of John Muir from my reading of his writings during the winter of 2017/8. What happened after him and the issues surrounding the various contradictions of a motto like “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” became plainer to me as I watched the film series.
The tension of high visitor numbers is very clear to us now and it always has been a problem as has allowing people to visit using their cars. That there has been road-building in otherwise pristine areas is part of this, even if that was curtailed in Denali National Park in Alaska by a persistent campaign by one of the park naturalists. The conflict between conservation and having visitor services like hotels and other amenities pervades today and that is likely to continue. Even so, there has been progress too with a different attitude to wildlife meaning that we now need to keep away from wild creatures rather than mingling among them as once was the case.
There is much to learn about another continent half a world away and doing this one morsel at a time makes things stick better. The more gradual approach also allows for added serendipity so you get to find out about places that do not come to light from a concerted effort.
It is too easy for me to think that autumn is my least favourite season but it is also the one when many transformations happen and when it is possible to think ahead to the next year. The hours of daylight are shorter so there is time to think about other things. Admittedly, the ongoing pandemic stalled any forward-thinking but these still were times of change. 2020 saw me begin to learn new computing languages while 2021 saw me embark on spiritual explorations. Both journeys are still ongoing.
2019 was the last year when thought could be given to a future even if that was devoted to continuing my freelance consulting business. Until that was more assured, I could not think too much about overseas journeying and then the pandemic intruded. A possible trip to Colorado became unthinkable in July 2020. Going to Vancouver, Canada in July of 2019 became a reality because of reading undertaken during the autumn of 2018. The next steps that I took in my career during 2018 were made possible by a career break that itself began in August 2017. The rest of that autumn was taken up with decompression and healing before I could do a rethink at the start of 2018. This necessity was brought about by fatigue after heavy work done at the latter end of 2016 to fulfil my late father’s will.
In between the more weighty matters of 2016, much thought was given to mid-winter sunshine escapades that took me to Mallorca in 2016 and Tenerife in 2018/9. It may be tempting to think that a year is done for when you get to its final quarter so that there is an overflow to the following year only for surprises to come. Thus, mid-winter walking trips to Arizona, Malta, Madeira or the Azores can be kept in mind should an opportunity arise.
For 2023, Scotland again offers multiple possibilities and North America also looms again after my watching Ken Burns’ monumental documentary film series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. While I probably was after the scenery that was shown, the series mainly was about the history of the National Parks and was just as fascinating for that. Learning about the efforts of John Muir and other actors was as intriguing as seeing the learning journey where lessons that we now take for granted had to be learned on the fly with no precedents for guidance. That the winter of 2017/8 saw me reading the works of John Muir only helped things to resonate with me. It also helped that there was enough scenic footage to restart dreams of Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park visitations, to name but a few, and the soundtrack was as alluring as the footage.
All in all, I am rethinking my appraisal of autumn. It no longer might be a season of mourning the passing of summertime and springtime, or indeed the year itself, but could be a time of inner growth and expanding horizons. That is how it is starting to appear now. Work for 2022 continues with there being some asset downsizing in progress but time flows ever onward to bring whatever comes our way.
My perusal of a recent copy of TGO magazine brought me across a few possibilities in an issue having the strapline “Walk the World” on its cover. When it comes to overseas journeying, I tend to take what alpinists might call a centrist approach. What I mean is that I have a habit of basing myself in one location and exploring that and places situated around and about it. The other approach would be to go from place to place on an itinerary.
Certainly, my usual approach makes it much easier to organise a trip and it matters more when I am going further away from home: just book somewhere to stay and sort out how to travel there and back again. After that, it is possible to concentrate on finding one’s feet and experiencing any local delights to a deeper level than you would if moving from place to place. It also works well for independent travelling and that is what I did before the pandemic came our way.
There are many trips to Scotland and the Isle of Man where I have taken the centrist approach and it has come in handy for overseas escapades featuring Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Canada. One notable exception has been Norway but, even there, I have limited my stopping points and there was a time that I traipsed from place to place around Scotland too.
Thus, the list of possible base “camps” for European excursions in that recent issue of TGO caught my eye. Two places on the lists have seen my footfall already: Innsbruck in Austria and Sóller in Mallorca. The first of these has an embarrassment of riches surrounding it that easily caused quandaries during my extended weekend stay during May 2016. The others need to remain on file for the future. They include Senja in Norway, Gavarnie in the Pyrenees, Sotres in Picos de Europa, Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites and Bled in Slovenia. All are near to the type of countryside that I relish so they could be worth seeking should opportunities arise.
In a similar vein, Outside also listed the best mountain towns in the U.S.A. and this too struck a chord with me since I have had designs on exploring American mountain country for a while. For example, the prospect of spending time around Denver and Boulder in Colorado during the summer of 2020 foundered because of the pandemic. So, getting a wider list could be helpful and there are twenty-four entries. The source article is behind a paywall but it is worth becoming a paid subscriber to get a list like this.
The possibilities include Cordova in Alaska, Sedona in Arizona, Bentonville in Arkansas, Truckee in California, Durango & Telluride in Colorado, Stanley in Idaho, Copper Harbor in Michigan, Bozeman & Whitefish in Montana, Asheville in North Carolina, North Conway in New Hampshire, Taos in New Mexico, Lake Placid in New York, Bend in Oregan, Spearfish in South Dakota, Chattanooga in Tennessee, Terlingua in Texas, Park City in Utah, Stowe in Vermont, Roanoke in Virginia, Leavenworth in Washington State, Davis in West Virginia and Jackson in Wyoming. Here, I have ordered things by state so you will need to go to the article to get their ordering and the details that they supply for there is a lot to uncover about these. Many already are places that I have checked out but others are not.
It is all very fine to have lists of locations but there are other considerations like accessibility using public transport and the availability and cost of accommodation. Some locations are sure to be well known and hence will be busy places so knowing quieter times like shoulder seasons will prove useful as could using the services of a travel company. Of course, you cannot go anywhere without having the ideas in the first place.
We live in a time when all sorts of activities are being sold as adventures. Even a day hike falls into scope for this yet I do not need such branding to make me take advantage of such a possibility. A day with good weather spent in the midst of hill country or along a scenic coastline will do the job for me equally as well. In fact, it has been sufficient sufficient for longer than I care to recall.
2020 has been full of those in spite of the threat that it brought our way. They may have been near home for much of the time so it is just as well that I can walk into nearby hills from the front door of my own house. Long circuits taking in Shining Tor, Cheshire’s county top, along with Croker Hill, Bosley Reservoir and a host of other nearby landmarks saw me begin a summer of longer walks.
Some took me back home from a starting point reached by public transport. These included such places as Buxton, Knutsford, Disley and Whaley Bridge with the second entry on that list being the longest of the lot. The weather was mainly fair too apart from the occasional wetting.
Getting a little braver took me a little further afield. For instance, there were tow long hikes between Leek and Buxton, something that lay in my ideas shelf for far too long. Day trips to Church Stretton in Shropshire and Llandudno in Conway became the limits of my perambulations for the year before a cold weather walk from Hayfield to Chapel-en-le-Frith bookended things and an autumn of lockdown, less enticing weather and an indoor learning project became my lot.
Still, good memories got made in spite of the pandemic and these even included visits to Sheffield that I am not enthused about doing at the timing of writing these words. The hills may have been smaller but the wandering got me away from humanity even if more found their local countryside this year than ever before.
While 2021 lies ahead of us, it is difficult to plan ahead right now. There has been an upsurge in the number of cases of COVID that needs to abate and it does feel that vaccination cannot happen fast enough. This may may the darkest hour before a new dawn but I plan to get to a brighter future before making too many plans.
Of course, we still can dream. This time last year, I was pondering which part of the U.S. to visit during the summer months. After reading about the states of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming , Montana, Colorado, I settled on the last of these and that remains on the ideas shelf. The Azores are found on there as is the possibility of Madeira and locations nearer home appeal too.
Webinars from Wanderlust as well as the Adventure Travel Festival all fuelled my imagination though dreams of round the world motorcycle or walking trips remain out of the question. It remains good to hear the stories of other explorers’ exploits though and they help to brighten what has been a dark time for many of us.
My book reading continues in much the same vein as I sit out the necessary period of time that is needed for things to settle again. Patience is much required by those of us able to stay safe while we think of those not in such a fortunate position. Adventures can take their toll and this one certainly has so we only can await the prospect of happier ones should they come out way.