Saturday, 30 November 2013

29th November 2013

I'm back. Back in the city that feels most like home. It feels good to be here. I can appreciate what my home has to offer, and see where it might need a few tweaks. Something similar to the way I feel more generally about my life.

My last few days in the US were spent first in New York and then San Francisco – both now familiar climbs. My stay in New York was pretty much entirely confined to Brooklyn where Stacey, Martin (Bandguy) and their little boys Nolan and Cass live. No bad thing as I could happily roam the streets of Brooklyn in the shadows of the towers of Manhattan. My stay here only overlapped with Bandguy on the morning of my arrival and the evening of my departure; our time together was therefore restricted to a catch up on my arrival and a whisky session on the night of my departure. Judging by the nick of myself and Bandguy on my departure that was probably enough to be getting on with. This left time to spend in the company of Stacey and the kids who are wonderful to a last. And in between interviews my days seemed action packed between visits to the park, my friend's sunglass shop (Monocle Order), a rather lovely Turkish restaurant for eggs royale (I think that's the one with Salmon?), and a dinner in with Stacey, her friend and neighbour Vanessa and a whole bunch of kids accompanied by an unusual band who played gypsyesque jazz and featured a lady playing violin who wore a black lace cover over her face. Between all of this Stacey was holding down work and looking after two little children! I'm not sure how she does it but it certainly was an object lesson in how to manage your time effectively while maintaining an air of grace.

My interviews in New York were for the first time with people involved with different finance coops and funding-raising. An area where I could be considered to have some expertise and experience. Better yet the second of these meetings was the first time in all of the interviews and visits I've conducted to date that my introduction did not bring a look of bewilderment, consternation or outright panic when I divulge my past in banking. Instead I found myself sitting across the table looking at someone who walked away from the world of high finance and into the world of cooperatives! Better yet he loved my project and really felt it was worthwhile. I think I must have given up on meeting someone in the course of this project who I wouldn't have to carefully explain my story to. Maybe I'd never expected it? Regardless I know the meeting's timing was perfect. I know this because if I'm coming back from this trip with any one overriding thing it is a sense of self-belief, I really do feel like I'm a writer now, but more than that I feel as though the book I'm writing is going to be meaningful, at least to someone.

This recent arrival is I suppose perfectly understandable when the question that needed answering was: whether or not I'm capable of writing a book? And at that one which is going to be coherent and useful to someone? To my delight somewhere towards the end of this trip the answer changed from “I dunno” or “I guess” to “YES”. It really has sneaked up and engulfed me in its warm glow and had I not yet been an inhabitant of this newly found confidence I don't think the meeting would have felt like the final step of affirmation. Instead I'd probably still be feeling that slightly fraudulent vibe that stuck around in the early days of this venture, now lying cast off down the road that's led me here.

I think this blog post has now strayed into some pretty serious reflection and its probably incumbent upon me to shift it back to its more familiar territory. Still I guess a little reflection isn't a bad thing at the end of a journey? Leaving New York a day later than planned thanks to a missed flight caused by the long overrunning interview (as you'll know from reading above this was undoubtedly a price worth paying) San Francisco was my last taste of the USA for a while, and bathed in that glorious California sun I could think of no better. Once again my time was short and hinged upon a couple of interviews I'd been chasing for a while and missing the flight made everything a little more precarious. But any effort to maintain some semblance of urgency went straight out of the window as soon as I stepped off the plane and felt the pace of life slow. The sun no longer struggling to make its presence felt and the frantic pace of New York chatter slowed to the gentle Californian drawl.

I spent my first night back in town at the hostel where I'd spent most of my time back in September and took the opportunity to catch up with a few of the friends who were still here and their tales of those who'd moved on. Happily the general sentiment was positive, though I think it would take something pretty drastic to through many of them off their serene simplicity. My last port of call for the trip was Berkeley to stay with Oddy and Vanessa who I met first at Burning Man. They recently moved into a home in Berkeley on the other side of the Bay to San Francisco and home of the famous university. They were lovely as ever and made sure I felt looked after, their warmth and sense of fun is pretty infectious and I really can't imagine a better pair for parenthood (they are about to get in the family way for the first time). Aside from suggesting some outlandish baby names and enjoying a curry in Downtown Berkeley I didn't have all that much time to spend with them between interviews and a mission to retrieve a “lost” jacket. It all worked out well in any event as I was happy to leave them some time Oddy having just returned from a long trip to Australia I was pleased that I wouldn't be imposing for too long given the circumstances. Besides which Oddy had sent me a brief, succinct email a little while ago that said something like follows “sorry we didn't have time to properly catch up. I have a feeling out paths might not cross for a while but I know they will continue to do so for many years to come”. Its a sentiment I share and look forward to fulfilling, not just with Oddy but all of the great friends new and old I've spent time with on this trip.

Monday, 18 November 2013

18th November 2013

So here I am sitting in Cleveland, Ohio sheltering from the storm that's been taking out trees, lampposts and worst of all people over the last 24 hours across the mid-west. The finishing line for my trip is now in sight and that would be fine if it wasn't for the fact the cooperative I most wanted to visit on this trip are refusing to respond to any of my enquiries. They're called Evergreen and are based here in Cleveland. I even doorstepped them today, well at least tried to and didn't even manage to get them to answer the door. Still I can't get too hung up on it, my stay here has been excellent otherwise with my host David making sure I've been able to see all aspects of this somewhat paradoxical city.

Yesterday between finishing articles for my website that is almost ready for launch we visited the City Art Gallery here. We arrived via a park that was built around the same time by the guy who masterminded the design of this Central park in New York. The milder weather here than back west in Chicago meant the leaves still bore their autumnal canopy and as with central park the naturalistic contours draw the eye across green lawns garnished in the golden leaves, yet to mulch up and fade to brown. The gallery is one of the best I've ever visited and included a ton of my favourite artists work including some really great Picasso, Manet, Miro, Dali and many, many more. The gallery and the other museums in the area tells the story of this city. They were for the most part built when the town was rich with industry and tycoons saw fit to bequeath their wealth, at least part of it in the noble cause of the arts. Building a natural history museum, planetarium, botanical gardens and a few other palatial buildings of one sort or another. But rather than reflecting the city's more recent demise these buildings represent its response. The gallery we visited has been wrapped in a new building with a now vast atrium that housed some really cool Ai Weiwei sculptures of the zodiac animals and a sweeping glass ceiling. Its not entirely unreminiscent of the great courtyard in the british museum. There's also a nearby Frank Gehry building and a gallery of contemporary art called Mocca designed by Zia Habib. It all feels a long way from my first impression of the city on arrival a few days ago. The city's centre feels hollowed out and I suppose this is the same thing that's happened more infamously in Detroit, maybe just not quite so catastrophically.

Before my arrival here in Cleveland I spent a few days in Chicago and though I enjoyed my stay there wasn't a whole lot of time to adjust to the city's rhythm (I think it takes a more time the bigger the city) not helped by the schedule of work related stuff that ate up most of my time. Not that I should complain as the visits and interviews I conducted with New Era Window Coop were some of the best I've conducted to date. And I still managed to spend a day walking around the centre of town taking in the skyline and heading up Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and enjoying its views across the city and east over lake Michigan. Wish I had more to say about Chicago but like I said I just didn't feel as though I had the time to properly absorb it.

Here in Cleveland another little revelation has been a couple of visits I've enjoyed to one of David's favourite hangouts his friend's bookshop and 'zine archive called The Guide to Kulchur. Its owned an operated by his friend and poet, novelist, artist and all-round creative RA Washington. He and David are the sort of friends who its nice to observe in full flow, they're both very different in may regards but share a deep sense of compassion for humanity and more importantly one another. Last night we attended a book, well two book launches in the basement of the store where there's a super cool performance space. One of the books was RA's latest novel which I think had a pretty auto-biographical streak and was read with a a great deal of gusto (good gusto before and definitely not the more pompous flavour). After a rather avant-garde local band performed a couple of songs the other launchee read a few of his short stories. They were like nothing I've known and a sufficient description evades me right now. I expect I'll have to buy his book and spend a little more time digesting them...

Anyway, next stop NYC and the smiling faces of Bandguy, Stacey and their brood. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

18th November 2013

Madison, Wisconsin is dominated by its university and state administration (its the state capital of Wisconsin – I recently figured out that state capitals far form being arbitrarily selected are in nearly every case chosen for their central location in their state). These two industries are symbolised by the two grandest buildings here: the Capitol building that rivals Washington's in scale and splendour and the university library; both are located on hills with buildings for government and university radiating around them. Though Wisconsin enjoys or should I say endures a Republican governor thanks in no small part to the rest of the state with the exception of Milwaukee. In fact its a hot bed of liberalism away from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, serving as home to a bunch of housing co-ops and more famously the site of the occupation of the capitol building in response to the tragically named Rep governor Scott Walker (I'll never listen to the Old Man's Back Again in quite the same way) attempts to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights. All in all I'm thinking this place sounds like my kind of town...

My friend and post-graduate researcher Elena who I first met in Bolivia works here and kindly offered to sort out accommodation for my stay here in one of housing coops I mentioned earlier. My expectation was that I'd be staying in a large shared apartment with maybe 6 or 7 residents, who'd all be students of one sort or another. This proved to be rather wide of the mark and after meeting Jeff (one of the co-op members) on the University campus a brief walk took us to the lakeside and the site of the co-operative. Its called Ambrosia and houses around 30 souls, including three kids, students, former students an apprentice welder and a couple of other folks who's profession and status was unclear to me. The building was an old Jewish women's home spread over five floors with shared spaces on ground and basement and people's bedrooms on the rest. Though a little ramshackle it was brimming with a character replete with squeaky floor boards, mid-20th century pluming, residents both former and current;s artworks and bric-a-brac furniture. Before I settled in to my accommodation I successfully negotiated a specially arranged meeting where the residents would determine whether or not I would be welcomed as a “crasher” - a guest who stays for a few days as opposed to a full on member and resident. This meant sitting in front of a around 10 of the residents and explaining who I am and what I do. Fortunately the questions didn't seem to challenging and my status as a former banker may have caused and intake of breath initially but my writing project set any worries about a potential arch-capitalist in their midst at ease. Winning I think the first election I've ever stood in I took up residence on the fourth floor and set to work on a various strands of writing I'd been struggling to find time to finish. Feeling a little like a happier version of the man from the underground I enjoyed a very productive if somewhat solitary and rather spartan couple of days writing and taking walks around the windswept streets of Madison.

I wasn't a total recluse and bookended my stay with some more social endeavours... On the night of my arrival I joined some of the residents in visiting another co-op house where a story telling evening was being held. The theme was family and many interesting tales abound – though most described family dynamics I couldn't quite relate to; reminding me how different the american experience is to the UK. If anything it made me feel a little short changed by some of my favourite writers who are in the main north american writers of fiction who's stories now seemed a little more run of the mill given their similarity to some of the stories voiced here and perhaps my own increasing familiarity with this vast country. The last day of my stay I met with Elena who'd so kindly arranged for my stay. She'd been out of town up until then at a wedding in Toronto, thankfully we managed to spend some time before I left we meeting for coffee and a walk along the banks of the lake. It was exciting to see her and share news of our progress in our respective writings and research that seemed to be progressing for both of us. I expect next time we meet we'll have finished books to exchange – a tantalising thought if ever there was one.

I spent my last night sat around a fire with the other residents in the old living room. We'd all enjoyed the nightly meal of vegetarian delights that are served up everyday at 6pm (barring Sundays where a brunch is offered at 12 instead). The atmosphere was familial and though I'd been party to a few gripes that I guess are inevitable when you have 30 people trying to make democratic decisions on all aspects of day to day life (inevitably people in the minority at one point or another are bound to feel some frustration – its only human, I think?) much of what they do makes a huge amount of sense to me. Each resident has around 5 hours of jobs a week leaving time to live, learn, procrastinate or whatever. I made some good friends here and as with so many of my stops of late I felt short of time and would hurry back if given the opportunity. Still Chicago lay in wait and its bright lights and co-ops couldn't wait any longer...

Friday, 15 November 2013

15th November 2013

After leaving Neil and Joel heading in the opposite direction back to Canada I caught yet another greyhound bus to take me from Missoula to Billings to collect my hire car. This was a pretty long journey that took most of the day and by the time I got to Billings I was already pairing back my plans to push on to Wyoming that night. Things deteriorated when I discovered I'd actually booked my car for collection in Butte rather than Billings 200 miles back from where I'd come. Thankfully the girl at the desk was really kind and managed to arrange for me to hire a different car to drive back to Butte to collect the car I should've been driving without costing me too much. So back to Butte it was and ever farther from my planned destination.

By the time I got the actual car I'd be driving east, a rather sleek black Nissan Altima complete with cruise control and a booking stereo with bluetooth connection for my iphone it was almost 11pm. My original plan for Wyoming was now well and truly up the spout and the best I could hope for was to make it back to Billings and making the trip to Wyoming the next day. This would take a further three hours and was made all the more difficult with the conditions throwing up pretty much every shitty bit of weather you could name: freezing fog, snow and icy roads. Somehow I managed to hold it all together and by around 2am I stopped at a motel just about 60 miles short of Billings.

The next day I'd given up on cursing my stupidity and feeling frustrated about loosing time to enjoy the different stops I'd plotted along my route (its hard to stay pissed off (even at yourself) when you're confronted with Montana). A new plan in mind I set off for that day's new final destination: Rapid City, South Dakota. Along the way I'd visit Devil's Tower – a 300 and something metre rock formation in Wyoming, buoyed by the knowledge the drive itself would offer ample opportunity to reflect on my trip, the book that's becoming ever more coherent and listen to music – loud; all while soaking up the wondrous landscapes of Montana and Wyoming that lay in wait.

I'd made it to Billings an hour after breakfast and the fearsome weather of the previous night had given way to blue skies with high cirrus clouds streaked across its pale blue expanse. On turning towards the south soon after I left the by now familiar landscapes I'd enjoyed in Montana for the last few days and entered the county of Big Horn where that foolhardy killer of innocents and celebrated American Custer got his ass handed to him. I didn't feel much like stopping here regardless of schedule but the landscape with its baron simplicity and geological formations was instantly reminiscent of the westerns I'd watched as a boy and man. And as things would turn out this was to be the theme of the day as Big Horn gave way to Crow Country – a native america reservation where the countryside was pocked with some of the most dilapidated settlements I've ever seen. I found out later that its not a good idea to stop here if you're white as there is so much animosity about the Crow's plight. All I could think of at the time was the movie Jeremiah Johnstone where Robert Redford is pursued by the Crow through the mountains relentlessly to avenge the ancestors for his crime of walking through their sacred burial ground. Soon enough I was to see mountains such as those he was pursued through as I finally entered Wyoming. First through the Big Horn mountains, then high plains and desert. All with those majestic Rocky mountains making up the horizon to the south and west. I wondered how it must've felt for the first pioneers entering such unfamiliar lands, and the native americas finding these strangers with their guns and sense of entitlement but most of all I thought how I would have longed to be one of those people native or pioneer who was able to walk this land before roads and settlements of concrete and glass arrived...

I stopped in the little town of Sheridan, Wyoming for some lunch where the town is laid out along the same lines I imagine it was when originally settled with one long main street marking almost all of the settlement. It must've been the sight for at least a couple of duels and maybe even a heist of the Wells Fargo bank which completely authentic. I stopped in to a rather elegant restaurant and enjoyed friendly service from a wholesome Wyoming girl and stretched my legs a little before getting back on I-90 and making for Devil's Tower. I'd decided to visit Devil's Tower pretty late in the day but when you see a picture (I've included one below) of it you understand how otherworldly it is, and in my book that's a good enough reason to seek it out (you might also recognise it from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind). By the time I arrived the sun was waning and cast its light across the fields of windswept wheat surrounding it a glistening blanket of gold against the imposing darkness of the leviathan. I was once more in a state of awe at the natural beauty here in the west. Back in the car I travelled onwards for another couple of hours coming down from the high plains past the historic town of Deadwood, arriving in Rapid City, South Dakota 600 miles under my belt for the day, craving for a deep restful sleep.

I got up early the next day and made my way to the Black Hills to visit Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse statues. Mount Rushmore was a little underwhelming, although it did peak my interest in the President I knew least about – Teddy Roosevelt. It inevitably suffered when held in comparison to the much grander albeit incomplete statue of Crazy Horse nearby that will when finished consume the entire mountain its cast from. Crazy Horse didn't win any prizes either when held in comparison to the Black Hills where both monuments lie. Forested and covered in snow these rolling hills were yet another inspirational aspect of the natural beauty in all its abundance that marks this part of the world.

By lunchtime I was on the road for my last stop of the day: the Badlands of South Dakota. These jagged rock formations are like nothing else and should be visited by everyone at least once if humanly possible. Their serrated forms rise out of the plains and have an ethereal feel that is quite unlike any other I've known. I know it seems strange to describe them as ethereal given their imposing nature and permanence but they felt like I'd dreamt or hallucinated their ghostly forms. Perhaps it was the blanket of snow that covered them or my own preconceptions I'm not sure? Either way it was definitely enhanced when a long eared owl flew in front of my windscreen no more than 2 feet away! After a couple of enchanted hours travelling this strange world I resumed my journey east and pushed on for Minneapolis arriving at midnight. This would give me the luxury of not driving the next day and 900 miles under my belt for the day on the straightest most uneventful roads I expect I'll ever see I was pleased of that.

The home of Prince didn't seem willing to give up any of its secrets to me in the day I had to explore so I decided to take a visit to the polar opposite of the co-operatives and wide open spaces that had dominated proceedings thus far and head to the biggest shopping mall in the northern hemisphere: The Mall of America. There's not much I can tell you about this place that you couldn't guess short of the fact it has a series of roller-coasters in the centre of the complex and is barring this bright spot marked by vast areas coloured grey, beige or magnolia. Feeling like I'd made a big mistake, especially as the only item on my shopping list (stamps) seemed to be the only thing they didn't sell in there I made my way to the cinema and was happily transported to a happier place watching the fabulous new movie by Alphonso Cuaron: Gravity. If you haven't seen it on the big screen please do so while you can its a thing of beauty.

The next day marked my last in the car which by now I'd grown rather fond of and only required a quick 4 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin where I was scheduled to spend 4 days in a Housing Co-operative. I'll let you know about that in my next post...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

13th November 2013

My last post left off just as Neil, Joel and I were leaving Nelson, British Columbia to head for a road trip to Yellowstone park in Wyoming. Leaving Friday afternoon we figured we'd be able to make it down as far as Yellowstone by around midnight. That was to prove a little ambitious, particularly given the inaccurate directions Google maps was to provide. The first event of note happened as we reached the sleepy border check-point around an hours drive south of Nelson.

The lone border officer was a friendly lady who somehow knew who Joel was but I suppose that's not too surprising when you consider he's the doctor in a pretty rural community. As it turns out her knowing Joel is probably the only reason we weren't detained... We were asked a number of pretty standard questions including whether we had any guns or knives. I chipped in that I had a small pen-knife which she was happy to confirm was perfectly acceptable, Neil however reported to having possession of a much larger hunting knife that he's bought in the US. On announcing this fact Neil rather naively produced the knife form his door pocket and unsheathed it no more than six inches from the officer's face! This definitely put a slightly more frosty complexion on things and as stated previously its my strong belief that our avoidance of detention was thanks to the good doctor's presence.

Our progress form there was relatively uneventful as we drove through first Washington, to Idaho and finally entering Montana. Driving in a large pick-up meant regular stops for gas punctuated our journey and the extent of my time in Idaho was a stop at a rundown garage where the locals had that classic boondocks appearance you'd expect (pot-bellies, flannel shirts, beards and caps). Just before entering Idaho we joined the I-90 (Interstate) that was to be the thoroughfare I'd follow pretty much all the way to Chicago over the next ten days.

Not long after passing the city of Butte Google advised us to make a turn towards the Mammoth, a small town at the north end of Yellowstone park. By now it was past midnight and Neil had been valiantly driving for almost eight hours. The road we followed become ever narrower and more remote and while ordinarily this may have rung alarm bells we were all tired and figured that Yellowstone was going to be pretty remote and rural but it was not to be, after 80kms we arrived in Mammoth but it turned out it was a private estate at the very end of the road we'd followed. The only thing for it was to turn back and retrace our steps. Eventually we got back on the I-90 but consulting a good old fashioned paper map we realised we'd only reach Yellowstone if we continued pretty much right through the night. Consensus was reached with little difficultly that we should take up a new plan and find lodgings in a motel as close to our current location as possible. That led to the village of Three Forks where we managed to wake the owner and secure a room complete with three double beds, leaving our final push to Yellowstone for the morning.

A goodnight's sleep, albeit short saw us all refreshed and raring to go, daylight also revealed a fresh fall of snow and the wide open expanses of Montana. Its called Big Sky Country and its for very good reason the drive down to Yellowstone took us down a wide open plain flanked by imposing snowy mountains to our left and right with azure skies and barely a soul to see. It was kind of like Scotland on very strong steroids. By early afternoon we reached the park and commenced a series of quick tours around various geyser basins, climaxing in most famous of them all old faithful. Though watching it blow was definitely a sight to see I think I was more struck by the alien landscape of [check map] that would be revealed as the wind would blow the steam to and fro.

As daylight shrank we got back in the pickup to make for the north-side of the park via Yellowstone lake that forms the centre of the park and roughly marks the caldera of the super volcano that created the otherworldly place. Ringed with mountains and filled with the bluest of blue water all enhanced by the setting sun. After the lake we made a quick pitstop at Yosemite Falls but by twilight had turned to very last vestige of dusk and we could make out no more that a silhouette of the falls. Leaving the park's north exit via the Rosevelt gate we arrived in the town of Gardiner where we found lodging in a very cosy little yellow wooden lodge. A few whiskies and a round or two of the Who Wants to be A Millionaire board game was about as much sa we could muster after a very unsatisfying deep fried meal in the only place in town that served food after 9pm.

The next day we returned to Yellowstone and went for a hike in the snow towards Electric peak a craggy mountain that marks the north-west corner of the park. Joel destroyed his feet with ill fitting shoes which curtailed out progress a little but kudos to him for soldiering through, his heals were literally right down to the flesh. On leaving the park we headed back towards the I-90 and Butte where a good nights rest would punctuate our parting.

I'm so pleased the guys joined me for the initial part of my larger trip road trip. Serving as a great way to get back into the rhythm of life on the road. Of course its also a great way to cement a new friendship and further cement an existing one and the trip fulfilled this role as well anyone could ever want.

Monday, 11 November 2013

11th November 2013

Its been a while since my last post in Vancouver. Since then I've travelled across the wide open spaces of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota and find myself in a co-operative home in Madison, Wisconsin. Before embarking on this epic voyage I stopped in Nelson, British Columbia. Its a kind of sleepy little ski town nestled in the Kootenay mountains with a west coast vibe thanks to the influx of Vietnam draft dodgers who arrived in the late 60 and early 70.

This stop was a little different to most of my chosen destinations as the draw lay not in the co-operatives, landscapes or culture but three dear friends from my hometown of Penicuik who've moved here with their families over the course of the last 10 years or so. The draw for each of them is Nelson's situation – an eight hour drive inland from Vancouver it enjoys some of the most prodigious snow falls of anywhere in the world, not only that its all powder. I'm no skier but from what I gather this is pretty much as good as it can get. Furthermore its low profile compared to better know ski-destinations means the locals are able to enjoy the abundant fresh powder without having to compete with tourists. Unlike my friends the thought of all this snow doesn't fill me with the same kind of excitement and its arrival could've been a serious obstacle to the rest of my trip – thankfully it held off until just after I left.

Paul, Neil and Dave (my hometown friends) have built wonderful lives for themselves and their families out here. And after almost 4 years without seeing Neil and only a couple of fleeting meetings with Dave and Paul over the same time period back in the UK it was truly wonderful to spend 10 blissful days hanging out with them all.

Nelson itself lies at the foot of a tree covered valley where deep green pines and golden larch cover the steep slopes and mark autumn's slow progress towards winter. Neil has found gainful employment working for a local festival called Shambala and most days I'd drive round to meet him for lunch, sampling a different eatery on nearly every occasion. Finding a different place to lunch over the course of 10 days might seem surprising if you consider that Nelson's population is less than 10,000. However, the draft dodgers brought their very own industry with them from California and that industry is pot growing. I suppose it lies beneath the surface to some extent but one of the consequences of its existence is the relatively high disposable income the locals enjoy. This is of course usually cash that is best spent in restaurants, bars or stores. They also brought some other economic institutions with them one of which is the Kootenay Co-op where I was able to hold a wonderful interview with its marketing manager, Jocelyn.

All three of my friends own big pick-up trucks and they were kind enough to let me use them whenever I needed. And even though I'm not sure I really needed to use them, nor if I actually approve of these vast gas guzzling machines I cannot deny that I loved cruising around town in a Dodge Ram with a 5.8 litre V8 hemi. I'm a little unshaved right now even by my poorly groomed standards and in possession of a baseball cap so I'm pretty sure to any passers by I looked just like the real deal. It was a trip.

Short of spending time with my friends, their partners and wonderful kids I was able to do a little exploring outside of town. A particular highlight was a trip we all made to an old growth forest of fir trees and pines where I was assured there would be at least some chance of an encounter with a grizzly bear. Sadly (or perhaps not) we didn't find any bears but the forest was magical and if I was a bear I'd be pretty damn pleased to call it home. Afterwards I headed to a hot springs with Dave and his clan. Never having been to a hot springs I didn't really know what to expect and even though it wasn't what I pictured the reality was every bit as good as I could have wished for. The springs themselves were located in caves you could swim into and lie floating in a dark warm corner with the waters gently soothing and relaxing every last muscle, joint and ligament in your body. The effects were so profound two hours passed as if it was the a blink of an eye.

Paul – a civil engineer lives a little further out of town in a home he and his family moved to around a year ago. When I say home I'm neglecting to mention the 16 acres of forested land it sits within. His wife Jana is making use of the space by indulging her passion for horses and much of their time of late has been spent making provision for their four legged friends. However, winter is approaching and time is therefore running out to finish the various projects they've got going on, chief among them a huge carport – more of a bard to my mind that will accommodate the horse trailer. I'm no builder and was happy to leave this more technical work to Dave and Paul who are eminently more qualified than I. That said I've always enjoyed a spot of straight forward manual labour and made myself as helpful as I could by filling in a trench that was dug out to accommodate a power supply for the new hot-tub. There's something very satisfying and relaxing about simple manual labour and by the end of the day my back may have smarted a little but the cable was buried and the trench filled. Sadly the hot-tub wasn't quite ready to go before I departed but its one more reason to come back in the future.

I was really sad to leave Nelson, I could've quite happily stayed in its warm embrace for a long, long time but the plan is the plan and I still hadn't made too much of a dent in my traverse to the east coast. Happily I didn't leave empty handed as Neil and his friend Joel decided they'd come with me for a road trip to Yellowstone park. So Friday night after Neil finished work we loaded his pick up and the three of us set off south and east looking for adventure and some of the wonder that part of the world has always tantalised me with...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

22nd October 2013

I arrived last night in the town Nelson, British Columbia around 400 miles inland from Vancouver after leaving Seattle on Thursday, heading north to Canada once more via Greyhound for three action packed days in Vancouver. As per usual I arrived at night, but for the first time in all my travels I'd managed to arrange to do a bit of couch surfing – for the uninitiated this is a website that lets you find people in different locations around the world who have a spare bed or sofa they are willing to have guests come and stay on. In my case Rey Torres who replied to my application as my focus on co-operatives peaked his interest being an employee of the biggest Credit Union (co-operative bank) in Canada.

On arrival I was warmly welcomed by Rey along with his friend Miguel and served my first home cooked meal of this trip; a rather delicious marinated pork chop and Chinese vegetables. After dinner we sat down and began to get to know one another and much to our shared delight we discovered a we were both burners! Granted Rey is a rather more seasoned burner than I having attended the last nine in a row but whether its one or nine it all still counts.

On Friday I got up and made a trip to downtown Vancouver where I found more helpful people than a worldwide convention of Samaritans. Whether it was to give directions, serve me a coffee, or sort out my laundry every single person I met here was warm, generous and only to happy to go the extra mile. The city reflects this with clean streets and lots of smiling faces despite the fog bound conditions that endured for pretty much my entire stay. Later I met with Roy Symonds and his wife Roy's an old friend who I haven't seen since we left school which makes it a cool eighteen years who's been living out here for the last four or five. He like most round these parts loves the outdoor life and took me for a hike up the Grouse Grind – a very steep climb up a mountainside that takes you up to the top of Grouse ski resort immediately north of the city. It climbs to around 3,500 ft in no time at all with most of the trail consisting of hefty stone steps sometimes as much as three foot high a time. Even before we'd started the climb we'd come high enough to get above the clouds, although no views were forthcoming until we reached the summit after 90 minutes of panting (on my part at any rate) and clambering thanks to the pine trees covering the steeply sloping face of the mountain. When we did make to the top the views across the cloud covered city to Vancouver island in the west and south towards the Rockies and in particular the snowy peak of Mount Baker back in Washington state were sensational. Appreciation all aided in no small part by the conveniently located lodge with bar serving up some fine BC beer. In the night I went to a burner party with Rey and met with my buddy Adrian who lives and works in Vancouver. He and I have now managed to meet three times on three separate continents (South Africa, Peru and now Canada) in the last year and it looks as though we'll meet again in India come next February!

Saturday morning marked the start of a conference on the New Economy. For those not in the know it can best be described as an ecosystem of institutions and business models that aim to democratise and empower all members of society, ensuring natural and human resources are deployed and consumed equitably and sustainably. If that still sounds a little nebulous, lets just say its there are lots of co-operatives engaged in this area and its therefore a great place to link up and learn about some really cool stuff for the book I'm currently researching / writing. The conference itself was located on Glanville island sitting under the main bridge that takes you downtown from southern Vancouver. Until its recent conversion the the island was the location for most of the fishing industry's processing plants (Much like Seattle this is a watery city and boats of all sorts be it container ships or pleasure cruisers line the bays and inlets around the city). Nowadays the old industrial buildings on the island are filled with farmers markets, hotels, restaurants and artisanal shops of all descriptions. Some remnants of its industrial part do remain intact with a working concrete plant tucked to one side of the island. I won't go into the details of the conference suffice it to say I learnt about a heck of a lot of cool and innovative stuff going on in Vancouver co-operatives and made a half dozen really good contacts (if you're really interested I've got an article on the conference I'll be putting up on a new website in the not too distant).

Saturday night Rey took me along to see a friend of his Jazz orchestra at SFU in Gastown, the oldest part of Vancouver. To my delight the band turned out to be comprised of some the best jazz musicians in Canada and their performance (a tribute to Kenny Wheeler – Canadian trumpet and composing jazz legend who lives in London) included a world premiere of a new Kenny Wheeler piece. The music as it has the potential to do transported me to a different world with its complex harmonics and pwerful horn section. And the flugel horn player who took up the lead more often than not played with a tone and control that was something you have to see and hear to believe.

Sunday was my last day in Vancouver and the conference. Rey who'd been so kind right through my trip and in three days become a good friend threw a little dinner party in the evening where he served up Lamb shanks, red wine and good company. And that was the end of my three action packed days in home of the Canucks. Not sure when I'll be back but I look forward to spending more time here, its got an easy charm all of its own and I can understand why everyone seems so damn happy to be there.