Thursday, September 27, 2007

Practically the Pulitzer

Me in Utah, last year.


Right now I am in Monte Carlo, in a hotel suite bigger than Hyde Park. It may sound like I'm living it up but travel journalism is...

Oh fuck it. No. I can't pretend. Travel journalism is just a gas. You go to amazing places for free where people grovel and scrape to keep you happy and then you go home and write about it and get PAID. I mean, how bad can it be?

It gets even more ludicrous. The other day I heard I had won an award from the American Tourist Board, for Travel Writer of the Year (magazines)(general consumer)(American subject). Not exactly the Pulitzer, but still - nice. Indeed getting an award for travelwriting is not just nice, it's stupidly pointless and slightly embarrassing. It's like getting an award for eating the most caviar, or having the best sex with Swedish girl gymnasts in the previous twelve months.

Anyway. Here's the piece that won me the award for Travel Writer of the Year (magazines)(general consumer)(American subject)

The Best National Parks in America

Choosing the five best National Parks in America is a complex business, Because there are fifty eight of them. That's right: fifty eight. What's more, they are all unspoiled, well-organised, and heart-bustingly beautiful. And they all cost about 10 bucks to get in.

Nonetheless we had to choose. So we applied certain criteria. What we've looked for is something different - and something special. Put it another way: each of our chosen parks had to represent the best of its type: desert or mountain, forest or volcano. That's why our parks come from right across the Republic, from way out west in Hawaii, to the feral cloud forests of the East.

But to make the grade the park also had to give us an extra kick: it had to offer that ineffable but grandiose poetry, that essence of the sublime, that marks the best of the American Wilderness.

It may seem strange that we've left out some of the obvious candidates: Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades. This isn't because we wanted to be contrary: these famous parks, magnificent as they are, genuinely failed to impress quite as much as our selection.

On the other hand, we also had to exclude some spectacular sites - like Glacier in Montana, Big Bend in Texas, and Katmai in Alaska - simply because they were too inaccessible. There's no point in raving about a place if it costs a new mortgage to get there.

So in the end we came down to these five. Enjoy.

Best for Nature and Wonder: Kings Canyon NP, California

My eyes are tearing up. Because of a tree. And I'm not talking about hay fever - it's the sheer damn size of this thing that's making me blub: the nobility, the epic scale, the Gothic majesty.

Does that sound a little sentimental? Then you should maybe try it for yourself. People react to the famous giant redwoods of King's Canyon National Park, in the foothills of the great Sierra Nevada, in very different ways: some are struck dumb, some run up and hug the gnarly trunks (as much as you can hug something as wide as a post office), some lie on their backs, and stare for ages at the redwood's lofty green canopy, maybe 300 feet in the blue Californian air. Some like me feel humbled and exultant at the same time, and then they have to turn away and pretend they've got grit in their eyes.

Given the tremendous poetic power of these 3000 year old trees - the biggest living things the world has known - it's amazing they don't get more visitors. Compared to nearby National Parks like Yosemite, King's Canyon is often deserted outside the high summer months. Yes, King's Canyon is slightly off the beaten track, but it's not impossibly remote (maybe five hours drive from LA). So: what's going on? Perhaps some visitors don't like being confronted with the evidence of man's ravages - these precious groves are virtually the last of the regal Californian redwood stands.

There are other things to do in King's Canyon besides getting emotional next to massive plants. You can hike the lakeside trails, you can camp in Alpine meadows straight from a Toblerone advert, you can ascend to the Tolkienesque heights of Moro Rock. There's also a mighty cavern, the Crystal Cave, which descends three miles into the living rock, and boasts a 45 minute tour of the gleaming stalactites that's great for kids. If none of this tickles the touristic tastebuds, you can just hang out at the parkside lodges, some of them with enviable views of the chasms, forests and ski-slopes.

But really it is the silent, cathedral-like trees that make this place so special. Take your time, and some Kleenex, and wander through the Giant Forest area, where you'll find the biggest of the redwoods - like General Sherman, or General Grant. You might just come back a different person. I know I did.

Best for Forests and Americana: Great Smoky Mountains NP, Tennessee

Every country has a region that somehow embodies its essence, in a way that other landscapes, however beautiful, do not. For England it must be the Cotswolds, for France perhaps the Dordogne - "La France Profonde". For America it is surely the Great Smoky Mountains, a rugged range of misty, handsome peaks that straddles the border of Tennessee and South Carolina.

One drawback to the quintessentiality of these mountains is their popularity This is the most visited US National Park of all - receiving maybe 10million annual trippers. Simple proximity has a part to play here: unlike many great western parks, the Smoky Mountains are within easy driving distance of huge cities. But the main reason the Smokies are smokin' is because of the incredible hikes and trails through the verdant woods - the Smoky Mountains, in their warm southern dampness, boast more species of tree than the whole of Europe.

Yet the crowds should not dissuade you from visiting. This is still Big Country, and the protected mountains stretch for hundreds of square miles. Once you have left behind the motel-ish sprawl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the main gateways in eastern Tennessee, you can still get gloriously lost in the moonshine-brewin' boondocks.

A good place to aim for is Clingman's Dome. It's the loftiest peak in the park, at nearly 7000 feet. Then there's Chimney Tops, twin summits that loom theatrically over the wildflower meadows (as with trees, the warm rainy mountains are known for their sparkling variety of flora - from orchids to azaleas, from roses to rhododendrons).

Culture junkies can also get a fix in these parts. The Smoky Mountains are full of curious sites that offer a glimpse of old Appalachian ways: the Cherokee Indians were only dislodged from here in the 1800s, and left behind some poignant remains. Cades Coves, an 11 mile biking trail, speaks of a slightly later time when these dripping green valleys were some of the most lawless purlieus of the 48 states, a remote fastness where strange white tribes, descendants of the very first European settlers, flourished amidst the ginormous mushrooms.

Still another attraction of the "Smokies" are the wild critters - 66 types of mammals, thirty odd reptiles, fifty species of fish in the crystalline river systems, many dozens of amphibians. Add in the relative accessibility of this unique chunk of old-growth deciduous forest, and the result means that you have a better chance of seeing some of America's most wonderful wildlife in the Smokies than anywhere else on the continent.

And when you're done with your binos and walking boots, you can take a cheerful trip from the sublime to the ridiculous, and visit Dolly Parton's Dollywood. It's an entire theme park on the edge of the mountains, dedicated to the mammacious Country & Western star. In these rich soils, it's not just the millipedes that grow to record size.

Best for Deserts and Wildness: Arches/Canyonlands NPs; Utah

Often overlooked by visitors, in favour of more famous desert parks like Grand Canyon, these neighbouring parks - Arches and Canyonlands - constitute some of the most savagely dramatic scenery in the West, thanks to a unique topography.

Because this is where two noble rivers, the Green and the Colorado, collide in the desert, creating an enormous labyrinth of scorching sandstone ravines, an outback famous for its rigours, its remoteness, its indifferent hostility to man. And I mean hostility. The American writer Edward Abbey, who spent summer here as a park warden
in the fifties, recalls the telling sign that used to hang in the Arches Park loo:

‘Attention: watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated.’

Or course, some people find such horrors attractive. Part of the reason for coming to this exhilarating place is its challenges. If you like adventure sports, Moab and environs are unbeatable: mountain biking was born here, on the baking orange slickrock, there’s also great hang gliding, quad biking, white water rafting, climbing, swimming, bunjee jumping, fishing, trekking, camping, and horseriding. You can also go on hikes into Arches Park itself to see those hundreds of stunning sandstone formations that give the park its name; alternatively, you can rent a 4 by 4 and head into the fierce red wilderness of Canyonlands, the very last place to be mapped in America. Here you’ll find views (used in the movie Thelma and Louise) that make the Grand Canyon look sadly underwhelming. And when night comes you can take a boat down the Colorado and watch the yellow shooting stars in the desert night sky.

You can also, of course, nearly get yourself killed.

On my last day in this magnificent place - with my mind slightly befuddled by the spleandour of it all - I decided to go on the hunt for a spectacular rock formation called Corona Arch. At first, all was fine.The guidebook had told me that the trail I was following was ‘moderately easy’ and ‘ideal for kids’. So no problem there.

But then, as I clambered on: scrambling up rock faces and squeezing through crevices, I started to wonder: what kind of kids would find this ‘ideal‘? Bionic ones?

An hour passed. Another hour. Now the nerves were jangling. I was beginning to wish I was back in my hotel in laidback Moab, sipping local microbrews with the students, bikers, ranchers, and retired uranium miners.

Then my canyon came to a dead end. What next? The other chasm? But how should I get there? I couldn't work it out, because my head was swimming. I had drunk all my water - and it was 90F in the shade. And, you know what? Those circling buzzards could be vultures and…Yikes!

I looked down. Right under my boot was a great big rattlesnake.

Somehow, this terrifying sight brought me to my senses. Suddenly I knew what to do, and how to do it. Wiping the sweat from my brow I turned and bolted: I leapt down gulches and scooted past junipers and vaulted over glistening green puddles - and ten minutes later I emerged by the mighty Colorado, where the goatee’d mountain bikers were taking a nap in the shade near my car.

OK, I was an idiot. I should have been prepared. I should at least have taken a map and proper amounts of water. But boy, did that cold Wasatch lager taste good when I got back to town.

Best for Volcanoes and Adrenalin: Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The island chain of Hawaii is full of superlatives. It's the most isolated archipelago in the world. From the sea floor up, Big Island is the biggest mountain in the world. On Maui and Molokai you'll find some of the rarest birds in the world. And the whole place boasts some of the fattest hotel staff in the world.

But it's the volcanoes that really take the biscuit. They are probably the most active volcs on the globe - constantly erupting, like some mountainous Basil Fawlty of basalt, spewing red lava into the distant sea. By night these glowing rivers of coals can look like vast traffic jams of red brake lights, edging along M25ishly.

There are actually two volcanic national parks in Hawaii. On Maui you’ll find Haleakala, which is beautiful but inert - the volcano here spat its last lava-bomb centuries ago.

If you want real to see the real thing in action you have to visit Kilauea, also known as Mount Pelee, in the middle of Big Island; Kilauea/Mount Pelee is the volcano mother God of all Hawaiians, and she’s been suffering her geological ‘time of the month’ for as long as anyone can remember.

Getting to see the moody Ms Pelee isn’t that easy. Most visitors to Big Island stay on the sunny west coast - maybe at affable and languid Kona Beach - or in the trendier but rainier east coast - at Hilo. But these are both a two to three hour drive from the mountain herself - and the roads through the lush green coffee plantations can be annoyingly narrow and serpentine. You can stay at the pretty old-school lodge, Volcano House Hotel, right on the crater rim of Pelee: but this means you’ll be stranded here in the hotel, where it can get quite cold, and lonely, and where, just occasionally, everything is burnt to cinders.

Whatever your choice of accommodation there are three must-sees. The first is the great crater itself: a hundred years ago this mile-wide bowl of ashy-yellow rock was literally a lake of fire - as the lava simmered at the earth’s surface. These days the lava has subsided but you can still smell the thick sulfur in the air, like Chemistry lesson at school, and watch the toxic smoke billow up from fissures in the crater floor. Sometimes this smoke just belches from hidden vents in the surrounding woods - an extraordinary sight.

The next thing to do is hop in your car (or your tour bus) and head down the road that circuits the latest lava flows. These modern convulsions have slowly swept away villages, roads, and gasoline stations, and buried a visitor centre to boot, and the cooling rock now presents a frightening vista - mile after mile of tortured grey stone, boulders of sunbaked pumice, and pewtery coils of congealed magma, broiling in the relentless sun. This is the earth as adolescent, suffering her growing pains: hectares of new land have been added to Big Island since 1990.

Finally, when the long hot road gives out, you park your car and load up with water and start trekking over the craggy older lava. Why? Because at the end of the trail the new lava is still pouring into the sea: pouring slowly but surely: and where the 1000 degrees rock meets the cold Pacific waves, the whole ocean explodes in a geyser of superheated steam, a fountain of scalding white gas that bursts a quarter of a mile into the cloudless sky and falls as a corrosive acid rain.

You might want to take a hat.

Best for History and Wine. And Bears: Mesa Verde NP, Colorado

I’m standing in the centre of a kiva, a ceremonial round cellar. The kiva is at the bottom of a medieval Indian house, inside a Puebloan village. The entire village is secreted inside a cave, the cave is halfway down the wall of a mighty canyon, which is lost in the heart of the Mesa Verde National Park.

I’m surprisingly impressed. When I say surprisingly I mean this: like any European I’m not normally overwhelmed by America when it comes to history. We’ve just got so much more of it than them, and they’re so easily pleased by relatively feeble degrees of ancient-ness. Wow, you say this post office was built in 1913? And this church is over one hundred years old? Amazing!

But the native American settlements that are the jewel in the crown of the Mesa Verde Park in cool, clear, mountainous Colorado are a case apart. For several reasons. First, they represent the apogee of a culture, the Anasazi Indian culture, that flourished here for a thousand years - and you can follow that millennium of change entirely within the park itself, from the first hunter gathering to the very last kiva ritualising.

Second, the crumbling settlements and corn-cob farmlands are surrounded by pristine and untouched high country wilderness - where turkey vultures soar above pinon pines and prickly pears. Third, there’s a really great hotel with a nice restaurant right inside the park. That might sound shallow - but America’s National Parks are sometimes let down by their mediocre catering and accommodation; here you can sip fine pinot noir and eat buffalo rib-eye as you gaze through the picture windows at the elks attacking the mule deer.

Lastly, and most importantly, there are the later villages themselves. In the final century before they enigmatically departed Mesa Verde, in 1300, the Anasazi Indians built a series of confounding and beguiling settlements, within the actual crevices that lined the canyon walls of their homeland. Some of these villages were so tucked-away they could only be reached by enormous ladders - indeed if you want to visit some of the crazier villages, like Balcony House or Cliff Palace, make sure your vertigo is under control beforehand.

What was life like here, in these surreal townships halfway up a cliff? It’s hard to say. Why did the natives abandon them?No one knows. These people were no fools - some of their houses are precisely aligned with the summer solstice, so they receive the perfect light at the perfect moment. Yet the clever Anasazi were forced to give up their serene if peculiar lifestyle by an unknown force.

What is undoubted is that these places exact a notable spell, even now - especially if you stay within the park, as I did, and get to see them at sunset when they are quiet, tranquil, and deserted, and possessed of a certain spooky sadness.

I’d like to say, from an intellectual point of view, that my very last evening spent staring at the towers-in-a-cave of Cliff Palace was the highlight of my Mesa Verde visit. It wasn’t. On the slow drive back to my lodge, all sunburnt and happy, I was so lost I in contented thought I nearly ran over a bear.

A bear. It was just running across the road. A bear. A big black bear. A bear!

Yes, I was childishly excited. But that’s what America’s great national parks do to you: they turn you into a child again, staring in wonder at the awesome and innocent world.

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