A Travellerspoint blog


Death Valley and Vegas Baby!

We left California behind this morning to head into Nevada. Glorious weather - high 70's, so the hood came down and we were treated to some incredible empty desert roads. Perfect Mustang territory, and time to see what she could do! Turns out quite a lot, and only had to back off when the numbers on the dashboard started looking a bit scary. Had a whale of a time in the car round here, although above certain speeds the wind noise got a little bit crazy.


Between us and Vegas lay the famous Death Valley ("Warning: No gas for 140 miles"), but we had nothing but confidence in the 'stang, and it wasn't that hot or anything so we headed right on without a worry. Pretty incredible place though - as soon as we got close to the valley the thermometer started climbing. As we entered the valley it hit 90 and didn't stop there. With the hood back up and air con blasting it got to close to 100 in the middle of the valley (and this is March), and the views were pretty otherworldly!


With 90 miles or so to the next town (or next ANYTHING) we got a bit of a shock, as some lights started flashing on the dash. Hmmm.

"Oh it's no big deal" I told Jamie.
"One tyre is a bit low but we can pump it up at the next town. It's still at 24 PSI."
...5 mins later:
"Err... make that 22 PSI. Still, it's fairly steady, we can definitely make it to the next town"

We couldn't make it to the next town. On consultation the manual told us we had no spare wheel, we were 70 miles from anthing or anyone, and it was hot. Shit.
Apparently the car had some kind of foam based emergency repair kit in the boot, but we were less than confident of how we'd be able to use it. What's a foam based repair kit anyway? This wasn't looking great. As we unloaded the car and mentally prepared ourselves for failing to work out how a foam based emergency puncture repair kit actually works, we got a very pleasant surprise. The 'stang hadn't let us down, and she did indeed have a spare, albeit a 50mph space saver one.


After nervously limping the 70 miles to the next town we were relieved to find the place consisted of pretty much nothing but some trailer parks, a Macdonalds, and about 17 car tyre repair shops.
With the proper tyre repaired and after a nerve settling milkshake we hit the road again and that night made it to Vegas for some celebratory cocktails and a wander down the strip. Now Vegas is an odd place, and I have to say that after the first night I wasn't really feeling it. The strip is cool, and the hotels and casinos really are something to see, but it just wasn't me. It felt like apart from the multitude of frat boys passed out or staggering around the place, the people there were mainly there to be seen, and show off their cash, and the whole place was designed to unceremoniously rid them of it. Still we had a fun night - watched the fountains at Bellagio, played a bit of blackjack, and enjoyed a duelling pianos type show put on by some twins in one of the bars.


The next day we headed down to the Stratosphere to get a birds eye view of the place. Unfortunately the price of a ticket up the tower was virtually the same as a ticket that also incuded a ride on one of the white knuckle rides at the top, so there wasn't really any manly way of not doing one. We opted for the "Big Shot", one of those ones where you sit in a chair and it shoots you 200 ft in the air then drops you again a few times. Now normally, these aren't that terrifying, but when you take one and stick it on top of a 1000ft building it becomes a different story! Still, after a few moments of wishing I really hadn't done this, the ride fired and we shot up, and massive relief and manic laughter ensued. It really is fun, and the views are awesome.

One of the rides 1000ft up on Stratosphere. Ours was even higher.

One of the rides 1000ft up on Stratosphere. Ours was even higher.

Our hotel (the Hard Rock) was pretty sweet too, with massive pool parties during the day. Real sand beaches, live DJs and a lazy river make it the best pool I've ever seen, by a decent margin. One of the big shot hotel guests started chatting and was bragging to me about how after he'd tipped a security guy a hundred bucks he'd jumped the queue and not had to pay to get in to the party, and he could now come and go as he pleased. He wasn't too impressed when I let him know that we had done the same but not tipped anybody, that was just the policy for all hotel guests.

Awesome Pool

Awesome Pool

We'd been told that we should check out downtown Vegas whilst we were there, so that night we headed off to Freedmont street. As soon as we arrived, my whole view of Vegas was flipped upside down. Wow, what a town! THIS is Vegas, not the strip! Apparently this was the original town tht got famous before the strip existed, and it has sooo much more atmosphere. Walking down a long, wide, pedestrianised boulevard that had an arched ceiling made of lights, with zip-liners screeching overhead I started to get into the swing of things. Vendors everywhere were selling mangle cocktails to passers by which were pretty strong, started at a litre and went up in size from there, and were all served in novelty cups. Awesome! Really got into Vegas mode by hitting an old school casino (Grand central station???) and got a buffet prime rib dinner. Just a quick note to restaurant owners out there - if it's a buffet you can't look annoyed if I ask for a triple helping of the beef and then decline chips or potatoes.
After that and some more mangle cocktails the place really began to shine for me. Topless women walking the streets, old Elvis impersonators (that really looked or sounded nothing like him) and even a midget B A Baracus. Superb. OK, so people are still out to relieve you of as much of your cash as they can, but at least here it feels like they want you to have a good time while they're doing it!


Hit a few more bars, did some dancing, weighed myself at the Heart Attack Grill (free food to those that weigh in over 350 pounds, unfortunately I'm still short...), went to an area with shops and malls made from shipping containers and had an argument with a giant steel fire breathing preying mantis. Amazing night, and I'm definitely a vegas convert!

Posted by Matt Cocken 02:49 Archived in USA Tagged death valley vegas Comments (0)


Big Trees, bigger trees that were a bit smaller, and smaller trees that were by far the biggest!

So I mentioned in an ealier entry on Van Island that I'd been to a place called Cathedral Grove. Now, I think big trees are pretty cool, and those ones were massive, and I really loved walking around that place. I wasn't quite on the same wavelength as the guy who started talking to me about the "energy" the trees give out to us, but I really liked it all the same.


I've included my awesome hire car there to try and give some perspective, and that really big one there is a Douglas Fir, and 76m. That's nearly 1.5 times the height of the leaning tower of pisa, so pretty big, and I was impressed!

Now, when in San Fran I found out that the Californians also had their own big trees. There was a place just outside the city (imaginatively named "Cathedral Grove") where they have a forest of Redwoods. Redwoods are the tallest of all trees, and ones here can hit over 90m, so I had to have a look. It was another amazing place, but I found myself thinking that whilst these were taller trees, they just didn't have the impact of the Douglas Firs. They may have been taller, but they were much thinner, and when it come to size, I've always said girth is more important than length. I mean height.

Redwoods. These are the tallest in the world, growing up to 115m, but somehow less impressive than the Douglas Firs.

Redwoods. These are the tallest in the world, growing up to 115m, but somehow less impressive than the Douglas Firs.

Then as we were leaving Yosemite, I found they had their own grove of Big Trees (although unfortunately not called Cathedral Grove). Here they have the Giant Sequoias, trees I'd wanted to see since I was a kid. I had once thought that these were the tallest of all trees, but was dissappointed to find that even the tallest sequoias don't grow much above 85m. Still, as we were driving past I thought it'd be good to take a look as it wasn't much of a detour, and it was soooo worth it! My god these are REALLY BIG trees! They're by far the biggest in the world, I don't care how tall they are. Look at these!


It felt like being a miniature person. These things are on a scale I've never seen before, and I could have spent hours wandering around these giants. This one is called the Grizzly Giant, and is "only" 64m tall, but just look at it!

See those people bottom left? That's how big this is!

See those people bottom left? That's how big this is!

They'd even cut a hole through the middle of one for a path, but these things are pretty resiliant and after a hundred years that tree was starting to grow bark again on the inside of the hole where it had been cut. Such a cool place, and a fiting final experience in California!



Posted by Matt Cocken 15:27 Archived in USA Tagged trees yosemite Comments (0)

Road Trip starts!

Napa Valley and Yosemite

Our first destination after leaving San Fran was the Napa Valley - California's premiere wine growing region. A quick "google and book" session and we were on visits to two of Californias best, by which I mean cheapest, vinyard tours. I've always felt that a disproportionate amount of successful Americans had a weak grasp on reality, and our first stop - Castello di Amorosa backed this up. The owner had made a fortune from a previous vinyard, then decided that he wanted to build a 100% authentic Tuscan castle there in California. With a mix of 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century characteristics. To this end he imported over 200 shipping containers of rocks and stuff from Italy, and the materials alone for the 9 year projecct came it at over 40 million bucks. Nice!

wINE_CELLar.jpg Dining_Room.jpg

To be fair though, he's built a pretty impressive place; complete with feasting halls, underground tunnels to store and cool all the wine, and of course a fully operational dungeon. Apparently they hold massive parties here once a month (in the whole castle, not just the dungeon), with the highlight of the year being the underground based, free booze on tap halloween party. It does sound like fun! The wine was pleasant but fairly average really, but it's still a cool place. Seems like building this thing might actually have been a less crazy idea than I first thought though, as apparently they get over 1000 people taking the $40+ tour here on a busy day!
After lunch in St Helena we hit our second tour - the Kuleta vinyard. This place was a bit different! They take a max of 20 people on a tour, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and it's all about the wine. But again, what a place! Looks like the owner just built his dream house here and also produces wine from it. The gardens are amazing, before you even get to the views over the valley. The owner's something to do with restaurant designing, and has included 11 different pizza ovens around the grounds for when he throws parties! The tours are carried out by the vinyard staff who produce the wine, which is nice, and I've never seen anyone as happy and enthusiastic about their jobs. This proved a bonus for us when it came to the tastings because after the standard 7 or so wines we were meant to taste (all between $50-$100 a bottle) our "guide" couldn't contain his enthusiasm and got excited talking about, and then went to fetch some of his favourites from the more expensive list. We must have gone through 12 bottles between the 10 of us on the tour. Jamie had had enough red wine after the first few and volounteered to drive, so after doubling up with his share on most of them I left with a big smile on my face. Stunning place, superb wine!


Following a milkshake and burger stop we arrived that night at our hotel just outside Yosemite park, a very satisfying first day on the road! Yosemite has some amazing scenery, so the next day we decided to do a hike to take in the views. We asked a park ranger what he would recommend to get the best vantage points if we were just here for one day.
"Just here for the day? I'd do "4 mile hike." to Glacier Point."
"OK cool. How long is that one?" I joked.
"9 miles."
Not a shred of a smile on his face or any kind of explanation. He wasn't joking.

The hike involved a 1000m + climb from the bottom of the valley to the peak and was pretty intense. Great training for later on though. Not a lot for me to say about this as words don't really do it justice - but here are the pics.

Yos2.jpg Yos1.jpg

Never seen anything like this - definitely worth the climb, and the trip over to see Yosemite!

Posted by Matt Cocken 19:58 Archived in USA Tagged yosemite roadtrip Comments (0)


San Francisco

Leaving Vanouver and arriving in the US was a bit emotionally confusing. I've had an amazing time in Whistler, and am really sad to be leaving, but then I'm pretty excited about the next leg too.
There was some madness at the airport where they wouldn't let me on the plane without buying a visa. Me! A British citizen! No idea how this works but even though they accepted the fact that UK passport holders don't need a visa to enter the USA, they said I still had to buy some ESTA thing if coming from Canada. No idea. Dodgy $15 scam I reckon. After the panic to buy one before the check in closed I had to say a very rushed bye to Val, who's been out here for the last week or so, which has been fantastic. It's not been easy being apart for so long so I was pretty sad to say bye again, and was a bit homesick again on the plane. But then I arrived in San Fran, and immediately picked up another little hottie from airport. And I'm not talking about Jamie.

I'd been trying not to build it up in my head as the reservation had those annoying two words on the end - "Ford Mustang, or similar". I'd done a bit of research and "or similar" in this case could be a Crysler 200 or a Miata (aka MX5). Similar my arse! Anyway, I'd phoned several times in the previous weeks to try and bribe someone into guaranteeing a mustang but to no avail. The guy behind the desk went through the booking and as he started to speak my heart sank.
"We've got a couple of crysler 200s..." he started before I jumped in.
"Look, I really, really want a mustang. Have you got any?"
"Hmm... well, there is one that's just come in, a brand new red one, but it's first come first served at the parking lot and there are two people on their way over there now. If you dropped your bags here and ran then maybe..."
I dropped my bags and ran.


I'm so in love with this thing! Could a car ever replace a girlfriend? I guess not... but then again girlfriends don't come with a rag top and a 3.7 litre V6.

Met Jamie a few minutes later and I think he got excited when he asked about the car and saw the grin on my face. The road trip was looking good.

So off we went to downtown San Fran to find our first nights accommodation. As we cruised around with the top down, the areas we were driving through started getting more and more sketchy. Turns out Jamie's choice motel that he'd booked for the night was slap bang in the middle of the ghetto. Pulling into the carpark - watched by no fewer than 6 homeless people - in my brand new bright red mustang with the top down, I started to feel like a bit of a knob. And I feared for all 3 of our lives.
Shouldn't have worried though as we all survived the night, and the next morning we headed off for our city and Alcatraz tour. The tour was actually really good, although the driver/tour guide wasn't amazing. Commentry consisted of incredible nuggets like:
"If we were to turn left down that street, which we will not, you could see......."
"2 incovenient things occured to Mr Stamford that year - Divorce and Death"
"This tour doesn't go past the painted ladies or certain other sights in San Francisco. But I'm going to pull over here and hand out some photos of what we missed..."
Saw the bridge and the park, and even a colony of sea lions down at the docks.

Bridge.jpgSealions.jpgWindmills and Tulips in the park - it's not even Amsterdam

Windmills and Tulips in the park - it's not even Amsterdam

Alcatraz was really cool too, and the tour there was pretty interesting. I won't bother with any details though - if you're interested in Alcatraz there are better sources than me. They also had a massive art exibit there, from some Chinese fella. It was all about wrongful incarceration or something, but I wouldn't know about that. I don't quite see how it fits, but who cares - dragons are cool.


Following that went for a drive around the bay, over the golden gate bridge, saw some of the California scenery (and some more big trees!) and got possibly the best pizza ever at Lori's diner (double cheese, peperoni and sun dried tomatoes, if you're interested - now named the "Road Trip"). A day driving around in the sun with the hood down had revealed a serious need to get headwear, and a visit to Lidz labelled both of us as Giants fans for the trip. Go Giants! We worked out they're a baseball team.


Now we're all set to hit the road!

Posted by Matt Cocken 17:35 Archived in USA Tagged roadtrip Comments (0)

Big Jumps!

View Matt's Massive Holiday 2015 on Matt Cocken's travel map.

American kids have different dreams to Brits. Often on the ski lifts an instructor will ask you to take one of their kids up and make sure then don't fall off. We got on a lift with little Mikey the other day, a 4/5 year old American kid who proceeded to list all the American and Canadian snowsport medalists from Sochi for us.
"Wow!" I said. "Do you think you'll be in the Olympics one day?" assuming that was his dream.
"No. I'm probably going to go to war".
Wasn't sure what to do with that.
"Yeah, I'm going to be an engineer, or maybe a medic. In a war." Ok, so something slightly better there to work with...
"Oh, well being a medic would be cool. You could help lots of people."
"No, not that of medic. A medic who makes weapons. For war."

Anyway, one of my goals here in Whistler was to get more comfortable on jumps, and progress to bigger ones. So far I'd only been hitting the "small" jumps here (which are big enough!) but after 5 weeks I was feeling pretty confident and despite being terrified of the bigger ones, decided I had better man up. On Sunday I thought it was time, so got some tips from the other guys in the house and spent an hour trying to build up some confidence. There are three jumps in the Whistler park that were the next level up, increasing in size. Despite being pretty scared, I eventually hit the first of the 3 "big" jumps in the Whistler park. Fantastic! Felt great! Far easier than expected. Feeling a lot less scared I decided to try the second one. Despite maybe not getting many points for style I landed that one as well. I don't know what I was ever scared of, this is easy!

Big1.jpeg Big2Snow.jpeg

So, full of confidence I decided to go for the 3rd one, despite it looking a lot bigger to me. David the park loving dutch kid assured me it was just the same, so I went for it at roughly the same speed I had the others. As I took off I realised, mid air, that I was nowhere, nowhere near fast enough. Shit.
Came up well short of the landing, bounced into the air and landed hard on my back. After groaning for 30 seconds, then laughing for another 30, I realised it wasn't funny and I couldn't move my neck. I wasn't sure how serious this was, but it was the end of the day for me, and I was really worried it could mean worse than that.
After a trip to buy an ice pack and as much ibuprofen as I could, a night of no sleep propped up on pillows and a worried morning, I started to get some feeling and movement back, and realised it wasn't too serious. Managed to get back on my board the next day, but I wasn't going anywhere near a big jump or spin. The next couple of days were taking it easy with Pro-ride and working on technique. I decided that was enough of the big jumps for me.
Until Thursday. I was feeling nearly back to normal, and head coach Duncan was taking people back over the first 2 bigger jumps, so I decided I'd get back on it. All went great again and I started to get some confidence back. He then took us to the infamous 3rd one. They'd made it even bigger. No problem, said Dunc, either hit it or go round, no worries. I sat at the top of the slope saying I was definitely not doing it. Definitely not. Then EVERYONE else did it. Ah crap. I can't be the only one not to hit it, but I was pretty terrified after the last attempt. Anyway - result in the vid below!

It may not look like much but I'm pretty pleased with that, and have never felt as relieved/euphoric as I did after landing. To put it in context though, this is an "M" jump in Whistler. and some of the guys wouldn't even think of that as a warm up. In the bigger park they have "L" which are probably twice that size, then the "XL" line which are probably double again. Madness.

So other than one awesome powder morning we had here there's been hardly any snow the whole season in Whistler, and apparently it's been the worst one in 50 years.. But still, the house has been great fun, the time with Pro-ride has been incredible, I've made some great friends and the whole thing has been a blast. Cheers Whistler! Awesome!

Posted by Matt Cocken 23:42 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Vancouver Island

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Ever since I was a kid I've dreamt of going salmon fishing on Vancouver Island, and given how close I am in Whistler I thought I'd do a bit of a road trip. Looking on a map it looked like it'd just be a case of nipping over there for the day, but distances in Canada can be a bit deceptive. Turns out it's a 300 mile drive. Each way. Oh well, better make a few days of it.
A quick bit of planning with buses, fishing boats and hire cars and I was off. This is the first part of the trip where I was actually going to be on my own, so should be an interesting test for later on. Managed to settle back into driving on the right quickly enough, although traffic lights on highways and turning right on reds feel completely wrong. Anyway, managed to get the motel at Campbell River safely by about 2am, with a new found friend in JR Country FM. An 8am meet with the fishing boat left me feeling a little less than enthusiastic, given the lack of sleep and my experiences of previous fishing trips (which aren't generally very successful), but I tried to say a friendly good morning to the skipper, Cody and Liesel (other tourists on the trip). As the boat left the marina under the watch of a pair of bald eagles, perched literally 20 feet from where we passed, onto water with incredible views of BC mountains and forests, I perked up a bit. As "there she blows" was called out by the skipper about 2 mins later, pointing out a blow spout thing from a minke whale, I was downright excited. This place is a bit special.
I was still incredibly surprised though when 15 mins later a rod slammed over and Cody brought in a 10lb salmon. 10 mins later I had a smaller 3 lber, which went straight back. Over the day we had a total of 6 salmon, 2 of them keepers (and delicious!), and 7 or 8 rock cod. Awesome!

Rod.jpg The view, Cody, Liesel and the keepers

The view, Cody, Liesel and the keepers

After leaving the boat I had a long drive across the Island to Tofino, where I again arrived late at night and checked in to a cute hotel on a cliff by the Pacific. Woke up in the morning to what must be the best hotel balcony view I've ever seen. Sat watching more eagles fishing as I had coffee before exploring some of the rain forests and beaches around Tofino. Spent most of the morning just in a constant state of amazement about just how eye searingly beautiful this place is.

Balcony view and Tofino rainforest

Balcony view and Tofino rainforest

Tonkin Beach and Tofino Airport

Tonkin Beach and Tofino Airport

After Tofino, via a forest with massive trees called "Cathedral Grove" (more on that later), I saw a small sign at the side of the road pointing to "Little Qualicum Falls" so I thought I'd make a quick stop. Oh my god! This place had a tiny sign and I hadn't seen any mention of it anywhere else, but has to be the most magical place I've ever been. I got there just as it was going dark and had a mad rush to try walk the falls and get a decent photo before the light went, but I could have stayed there all day.

None of these Vancouver Island photos do justice to the actual places. It's incredible!

None of these Vancouver Island photos do justice to the actual places. It's incredible!

That night I stayed in another motel in a place called Duncan before meeting a guy with a boat to fish the Cowachan river on Thursday. Again I couldn't believe how helpful Canadians are. At the motel after I'd asked about fishing licences the manager offered to buy and print one for me, and then when I asked about somewhere to get food she offered me a lift to a local pizza place. At the pizza place I sat at the bar and got talking to an old boy retired trucker and a young dance instructor. By the end of the night after hearing about the planned USA road trip the trucker had forced me to take his number and promised that anywhere, in any state, he could get a breakdown truck to us in an hour. He also said he had some friends high up in the police force in most states, and could help us out if we had trouble in that department. He then offered to plan out a route for us and recommend motels. What people! The dance instructor was American and she didn't offer me anything.

The fishing trip on the river was less successful and back to my usual fishing experience of blanking, but was fun and beautiful nonetheless, and just bein out on the Cowachan was lovely. After we'd finished I headed for the ferry back to the mainline, to see amazing views of the channel, and watch a much bigger whale rolling about a mile away. It's a long way to come from the UK, but if you're ever in the area then Vancouver Island is pretty spectacular.

Cowachan.jpg Ferry.jpg

Posted by Matt Cocken 08:54 Archived in Canada Tagged island vancouver Comments (1)

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