America Day 74 – Auld Lang Syne

I reckon I haven’t seen Leslie for a decade. We met in Edinburgh during the festival something like fifteen years ago, maybe more. We went to watch Daniel Kitson and he did a routine about someone in a train. Then we drank all the wine. Come to think of it I think we met before then, at The Elk in the Woods in Islington back before it was bullshit. I had my birthday party there. Either way…

We hung out in London for a good while thereafter, whilst our lifestyles and needs converged. She used to play water polo as a striker, and she worked as a lawyer but loved theatre. I was in a deep depression, trying to work out how to reconcile my expectations of life with my reality as everything crashed around me. She was living with a friend of mine by sheer coincidence. Circles bleed into circles. The world is very small. With the miracle of Facebook we are still in touch. But I haven’t messaged her for five years. Last time we messaged I was doing a job, writing the official blog. Late one night she sent me “I don’t hear your voice in these blogs you’re writing.” I told her it was because my voice is a bit too anarchic for the company I was writing for. We exchanged pleasantries and went back to our respective lives. 8 hours is the most antisocial time gap, London to San Fran. It’s hard to keep anything together. I tried to maintain a nascent relationship with that gap once and it fell apart utterly in less than three months.

The night before last, up in the big trees, I sent her a message just out of curiosity. I told her I’m flying out of San Francisco tomorrow, asked balls-out if I could stay tonight. She’s in Oakland. She has two kids now, and lives there with Fishtea. Her oldest, Samuel, is 4. I know it’s full on and said I could stay in an Airbnb near them and just hang out, but they were welcoming. They put me in Samuel’s room.

I’ve just finished doing the washing up after some glorious jerk chicken with rice and peas. The first home cooked meal I’ve had for three months, here in Oakland as the trains honk their horns. It’s been lovely to catch up. Friends stay friends if they’re friends. And our friendship covered a lot of ground, and carried an intimacy that is unusual and was mutually beneficial.

Fishtea has made me feel welcome in this home despite never having met me. He welcomes me because I’m an old friend of hers. He’s Rastafarian and carries huge kindness and depth. He was a deep sea fisherman. “You learn in the near sea. Then you go to the far sea.” He went to the hard places. He was loading and emptying traps for lobster mostly and occasional groupers etc. He tells me of times when the boat was so laden that one asscheek was in the water as he ran the engine, and there was an entourage of thirty clued up sharks following sniffing the food…

I’m getting ready for sleep on my last night in America, here in the family house of someone I knew in a very different breath back when the world was an unfamiliar shape and we were younger and more certain and less aware.

The length of life is the thing that amazes me now. To see the two of us in such utterly different contexts. To appreciate how far we have both come and also to notice how much we have remained consistent to who we were back then. This tiny life, compared to those trees. We still shift and change all the time. Sometimes it’s the seasons. Sometimes it’s just life.

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Let’s keep shifting, knowing that the heart of who we are cannot change. Leslie is designing gardens now. She’s acing it, with two kids. I tell her I’ll have to get rich in the next ten years and then bring her in to do my garden. I can buy a coastal estate somewhere and plant three Redwoods, one for each of my parents and one for me. My prep school had two in the grounds. They were doing fine and they were in East Sussex.

I’m off to bed I’m Oakland. Night night America.

America Day 73 – Bears and the Ancients

The thing with trees is they keep on growing. I’m here to see the biggest ones. I’ve got the secret location of the tallest living thing on earth. My plan is to go bother it. It’s protected to stop people like me finding it. It also happens to be completely surrounded by other trees that are within a few feet of its height. There’s already a known younger tree that is predicted to beat it in a decade or so. (These races are slow for trees.)

I’m in one of the Redwood National Parks, bordering on a reservation. I have to go first to register and get a free permit. Daily numbers are closely monitored. They also need to keep track of who goes into the park to make sure they come out. “There are loads of bears and lions,” she tells me. “Stick to the path.” “Of course,” I tell her. This isn’t grizzly territory. And “lions” are basically cougars with a sexy name – they’re only still alive because they prefer not to eat humans. Anyway, they say this stuff because they have to, right?

I drive for miles up a long dirt track. Eventually I find the cast iron gate I’m looking for. I put the combination into the padlock and pull it open. It screams like a wounded teenager I drive through, and close and lock it behind me. Then down the dirt track into the park.

The parking area does have a few cars in it. Despite the isolation this is a known and frequented area. I hit the trail. It goes down hard, but only for a mile or two. And all around, these huge ancient trees. These titans. Many have fallen. Their husks lie where they fell, except for where people have come with chainsaws to free up the pathways for people to follow the trail.

I leave the path – of course I do – and I hit the creek. My notion is to cross the creek and head upstream a bit, then strike up a hill. But the creek is in full flood. There’s no easy crossing place. I cast around. I see a semi-dam of fallen logs a way down. Perhaps I can ford it there.

I head towards it, but there’s something there that hasn’t expected me. I startle it, and it startles me. SPLASH. Whatever it was leaps into the creek heavily. “A beaver!” I hope.

Then I hear the growl. My instincts beat my rational brain immediately. Millions of years know that sound in a remote area. The hairs go up on the back of my neck. My arms go above my head bent to make myself as tall and wide as possible without any real thought and I’m backing away gently and firmly even before I see her as she hauls out of the creek shouting.

I become acutely aware of the bag of jerky in my back pocket which might distract her if she runs at me. “I should record this,” says my social media brain and a hand almost snakes down to my pocket for my phone. No, Al. No. I’d sooner maximise the chances of not getting eviscerated by this wet bear here in this remote place. It’s just a black bear. I mostly get angry with people who are afraid of nature. But she’s growling low at me, and that sound is full of threat. I’ve surprised her, and she’s got wet, which is enough to piss her off. There might be cubs involved too…

I go backwards downstream, never taking my eye off her. She hasn’t run at me, nor away. I go backwards up the bank and turn when a tree blocks me. I return to the path. Phew.

I spend the rest of the day on the trail, surrounded by ancients in this valley. Peaceful giants, protected for the moment in this national park. Beautiful and serene and old. I’m glad I drove all this way. I don’t care that I didn’t get to see one tree, off the path, that someone recently worked out happens to be a few foot taller than the ones I did see. Let it be protected by the lack of paths, by the National Park, and by the bears. All I would’ve done is marvel at it, and trust me I have had plenty to marvel at already in the last few days…

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America Day 72 – Redwoods

I’m woken from deep sleep as my whole wooden hut shakes. It feels as if someone just … shoved it. I’ve slept in a cabin in a forest before and last time it was surrounded by deer as we slept, seeking warmth. They banged it occasionally, I remember. So … I’m not afraid, but I AM wide awake. Immediately. “Hello?” I ask, and pad barefoot to the door. I open it. I’m curious. Madness? Nothing. No chainsaw wielding lunatics. No Bigfoot. Just … mist. Mist rolling over my bare feet on the threshold. I stand and admire the trees through this full-moon fog. They really are majestic, these statuesque giants. Whatever it was that banged me, with a strange peace I allow it to be the unknown and go back to sleep for a few hours. It’s only hours later, and hundreds of miles covered, that I finally find some internet and my nagging suspicion is proven correct. I was woken by an earthquake. 3.2 only, but the epicentre near Ukiah, very very close to where I was sleeping. I’ve never been woken up by an earthquake before.

Yesterday was about the miles. Today, the trees. The morning brings fog again, but I’ve still got a couple of hours to cover so I smash the remaining miles out in the morning, up the disappointingly foggy coast, but heading to the giants.

I can’t complain about the fog. It’s the fog that brings me here, obliquely. The redwoods wouldn’t be here without fog.

These ancient tall red slow beings – they blanket this area. The loggers never made it this far, which is why I had to drive a day from the bay area before the old ones started to show.

But now I’m here among the titans – they live for the fog. It’s the warmth of the climate and the damp of sea mist that has allowed these prehistoric throwbacks to still thrive in a very different climate. They absorb moisture from the air. They grow tall and throw branches high to catch the mist in their soft bark and their needles.

These trees are huge, old and unstoppable. I drive through one of them, where some guy has hacked a car sized hole. It’s still fine. That one, the Chandelier Tree, is 400 years older than Jesus. Next to it is a poem in couplets on a redwood plaque telling us we should love God because trees.

In the surrounding park there is evidence of fire damage. One of the trees has been felled by fire – but just one and it was a huge fire by the look of it. The blackened corpse still lies in the path. All around it the trees stand proud with deeply blackened trunks. “Oh yeah – that fire? I remember that fire,” they say. “Charlie fell over.”

I visit a tree a bit further up – The Chimney Tree. It’s still very much alive despite almost impossibly massive fire damage. The bottom was completely hollowed out by a fire in 1914. You can stand in it and look up through the holes where the smoke came out. I do so.

I was hoping for lunch, but the grill next to it is shut today. Everything is shut. People are recovering after Veteran’s Day.

I’m on The Avenue of Giants but I’ve done absolutely no research so I’m glad there are no crowds. Time is limited and things that are interesting are sure to be signposted, I rationalise.

That’s how I find the Grandfather Tree. The sign for her on the highway is to signs as the Grandfather Tree is to trees. She’s huge.

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Grandfather is 24 foot in diameter despite being young for her title, at 1,800 years old or so. She’s astonishing. She is surrounded by wooden carved Dibsney bears, great big yellow banners and bright signage – by all the filth of mankind. You can’t really photograph her from any angle without bullshit being in the photo. The gift shop is shut. Autocorrect would easily fix that last sentence were the gift shop open.

The trees with classical names that I’ve seen so far are all gendered male, and grandfather would imply that as well. But this one feels like a woman, as have some of the others.

I guess that’s to do with the culture at the time they were named. I’d love to know if any of them have older native American names and if so what they are. As ever with this country, the stories of the colonists are plastered on top of the true stories, obscuring them. This guilty history where a developed culture that believed land could be owned met a primitive culture that found that idea of land ownership impossible to comprehend, and took full advantage.

But with that in mind we can call these trees what we want, like the colonists did, and if we do it with enough certainty it’ll stick.

The tree is called Babushka. Babushka. Babushka. Ya ya. Or it should be. Or just Grandmother. The men shouldn’t have a monopoly despite the whole hard wood thrusting up into the sky thing that these long trees inevitably have going on.

Whatever we call her, she’s a bigass tree.

America Day 71 – The One

I’ve just arrived in my Shanti in Little River near Mendocino. “Shanti” is the California word for a shed. It’s built out of “reclaimed redwood”, at Pegasus Farm, hosted by Steve. He’s a local artist. In the grounds of his farm are the stumps of four burnt out redwoods, victims perhaps of some half forgotten fire. After all I’m near enough to where one of the big fires is currently blazing. But California is VAST. Maybe Steve used the wood he got from the remains of the burnt out redwoods on this property to build my shanti. I’ve seen a few laden logging trucks on this road bearing trunks with the distinctive soft bark, though, so some bunch of bastards is still axing these things for profit. But that’s humanity.

I’ve driven up the Pacific Coast all day, on Highway One, heading inexorably north from San Francisco. I took it easy in the morning and started at 8, a bit later than I should have.

Driving up from Daly City, the Golden Gate Bridge surprised me as I turned a corner. My first experience of it was driving over it, but I immediately jumped off the interstate on the other side and went up through a load of switchbacks to a viewing point. Jesse the park ranger was there, at war with a coyote. Someone must have fed it recently as it’s emboldened even for a coyote. It’s coming up onto the viewing platform every few minutes until Jesse drives at it or honks his horn. “I’ve seen them take small dogs,” he tells me. “It’s a beautiful animal,” I respond. I reckon I’m too big for it. I find myself thinking of the inefficient pugs Claire and I were feeling sorry for on a hot afternoon in Colorado two days ago. They wouldn’t stand a chance.

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I take a few photos, and get into the car. Emboldened, the coyote comes right to the car window. I drive off carefully and hit the road. As I go, I look in my rear view mirror. Is that the coyote I see, constructing an intricate booby trap with dynamite and paint and rope from Acme? Uh oh. Beep beep!

Breakfast is of disappointing huevas rancheras at Shoreline Coffee Shop in Mill Valley. Lunch is of tasty takeaway crab sandwich on a headland over Bodega Bay, bought from Spud Point Crab Company, and well worth the Veteran’s Day queue.

I foolishly followed a sign to a winery, where a slightly neurotic older lady sells me some corked Pont Reyes Vineyard merlot. For thirty bucks.

(I thought I’d pay the extra for a good bottle of local 2007 merlot expecting something remarkable from a vineyard here right by Napa Valley. They were clearly saving money on the corks. I’ll never get through this glass and believe me I’ve tried. It’s still just on the side of wine over vinegar but the acid reflux would be hideous in my sleep and I’ve got a long drive tomorrow. $30 bucks worth of expensive fertiliser. This is supposed to be wine country so perhaps it’s worth a second look for tomorrow night. So much for luxury though. The usual point of buying at source is it’s cheaper and better. Not this time, though, damn you weird lady! In retrospect, perhaps her weird behaviour was because she knew she was offloading a bad batch on me.)

Wine disappointment aside it’s lovely to be out here. A day’s drive from the city and I already feel like it’s remote. There is feck all internet here though, despite allegedly having WiFi at the farmhouse. Since I’m sober I’ll probably drive a few miles to Mendocino and have a meal and an actual glass of wine and get this scheduled.

The sun started going down on my left, over the Pacific, slightly earlier than I anticipated. I knew I’d have to step on it to get to this place before it was so dark I couldn’t see the road. There’s an advantage and a disadvantage of booking accommodation in advance. The advantage is that you get to stay in interesting places and it’s cheaper, the disadvantage is that you can’t follow your nose. 

The last two hours of sun saw me spanking down Pacific One on a single-minded quest for Mendocino. I made it just as darkness fell. And I was right to rush. Darkness has fallen profoundly, and brought a spot of fog.

Now I’m in my little hut, in a pool of light. The farmer’s collie is going mental at something and I’m thinking that the something might be me, but I’m gonna get into the car and see what’s local with food and internet and hope the collie isn’t allied with the coyotes. Come to think of it I can hear them howling not far from here. That’s what’s got the dog worried. They’re out there painting fake tunnels through the mountains…

America Day 70 – Gear change

The fog is down in San Francisco, and by the time I’ve got into my hire car the light is almost gone. I’ve got a hybrid which will help with costs considering the large amounts of ground I’ll be covering in this half baked trip up the 1.

The Airbnb is in Daly City. I booked it based on price. Turns out it’s right by a canyon named after Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the society through which I practice secular Buddhism. I take this as a good omen. I’ve been quietly worrying about all the unknowns on this hurried road trip. I’m glad of a positive sign at the start.

I open the door to the airbnb flat and it’s dark inside. Looks nice enough though. It feels like I’m alone so I say “oh, this’ll be fine,” only to notice somebody stand up at my voice. The oldest man in the world has been sitting at the table on the far side of the room, plugged into his laptop. He pulls his headphones off.

“Are you James?” I ask. “No, I’m in 4. I’m your neighbor.” He plugs back in. No conversation here. I go on the internet to try and decide where to go out in town. I stick a random finger at a bar in SoMa where I might get some decent recommendations, and book an uber pool. The oldest man in the world finely chops a single strawberry and eats it on bread. “I’m going out. Any recommendations?” He looks at me a while. “All the places I know are for lunch.”

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I wait on a foggy corner for Asadullah. He picks up two other passengers who are sitting in the car with me as I write. Uber Pool just WORKS in California. It’s significantly cheaper, a little slower, and always full. In the UK it’s the same price but you have to walk somewhere for pick up and the chances are nobody will get in with you anyway.

I greeted both my fellow passengers with a hello. Neither of them responded. We didn’t even say anything to one another about two minutes ago when Asadullah literally came closer to rearending someone at 60mph than anyone I’ve ever been in a car with. We all looked up for a moment, then looked back down. They both have earpods on, these young men. In fact, the first three humans I’ve met so far in San Francisco have all been wearing headphones and been immersed in screens. The Matrix is looking more and more like a work of prophecy.

Now I’m in Tempest, starting with a quick pilsner to fuel a walk around the streets in this area. Everybody at the bar is glued to the football or dunked in their phones. This world is so weird. But the internet is what made this trip possible. Airbnb let me be relaxed about the fact I had no idea yesterday where I would sleep tonight in this totally unfamiliar city.

Google maps will be providing my route, whilst Reddit and some blogs are giving me ideas for stop off points. Spotify, mobile phone data tethering and perhaps some podcasts will be streaming through the stereo in the lovely cheap to run semi-electric car that I booked through Expedia. I’m in the centre of town for less than ten bucks thanks to Uber. I can write this blog in this bar using a swipe keyboard and people all over the world will pick it up and read it on a train or while having a shit or at the breakfast table or in bed.

Job’s pretty much over. I’m on my own again. I reckon I’m gonna love it for about three days and then I’ll get lonely.

I’m going to get out of the city early tomorrow morning and go look at trees. I’ll have to come to this city both longer and better another time.

America Day 69 – Rocks

Dazzling morning sunshine. I stride out of Arnold Hall. Behind me a small circle of tough men and women are winding up after a lovely Christmas Carol workshop.

I get into the jeep. I change my glasses for sunglasses and button the engine on. Four miles through empty fields to get to the gate. I drive past deer and cyclists, young men and women training, a B52 bomber – on display. Past the guards with their sidearms. Through the gate. And off duty. Off duty.

America, you have been remarkable. Through ups and downs our little unit of five has stayed upbeat and kind. We have held our tongue when we needed to and spoken when we had to. We have looked after each other and the show, expending or husbanding energy as needed, and we have taken care of huge numbers of very different young women and men in the classes that we have been invited into.

Now I have a little tiny gap. The first I’ve had since June. I’ll be thinking about Scrooge, and keeping this show alive for the London shows. But this is about to be a whole week off. I literally have no idea what I’m going to do other than that it involves landing in San Francisco tomorrow afternoon and having a hire car available. North through the redwoods? Down to the Big Sur? Back to LA? I guess I’ll find out. It might be dictated by the economy of room prices. It might be affected by the location of various huge fires. I have long been comfortable with the unknown and right now I’m as likely to abandon the plans that I’ve been playing with as I am to go through with them. It’ll just be me I guess, so nobody will be worrying about where I’ll sleep.


I’ve now booked some Airbnbs. “You’ll only end up sleeping in the car. I’m not going to let you sleep in the car.” Thank God for true friends. Turns out there are people who worry where I’ll sleep.

I’m staying one night in somebody’s house on Airbnb, south of the golden gate. Then I’m banging up the coast northwards. I’m in quest of trees and solitude before the inevitable energyspam as Scrooge.

Today we found a large amount of rocks. We went to “The Garden of the Gods,” one of those parts of this ancient land where the red rock has been eroded into strange shapes over thousands of years. One of those places with ancient history and ancient story that is almost completely suppressed by the narrative of the new arrivals. I left no wiser than I came about the actual history of the place. I read a bit about some guys in the 1800’s, basically yesterday. And the usual single part of a sentence “used to be of interest to the native Americans of the area until…” Nothing beside remains. We joined the crowds of Veteran’s Day weekend tourists as they fumbled around the concrete paths with their howling children and their overheating dogs.

And in the process we took in the beauty, and started the long process of winding this glorious job out of our hearts as the reality of life beckons us back.

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America Day 68 – So tired

We are all so tired we’ve lost the ability to think properly. I found myself in downtown Colorado Springs having a panic attack about nothing. Now I’ve got to write a blog about today and all I want to do is stop and not write because I feel sick just thinking about it. My fingers are just winding through the words reflexively.

I have no idea where I’ll be sleeping on Sunday night but it’ll be somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco. I should book an Airbnb but every time I attempt anything right now I feel sick and sad and I have to stop. I’m sitting in the foyer of this amazing hotel in this beautiful town and I’m all dressed up in a suit about to go for a meal with the air force and I don’t know if I can make conversation with anybody right now. I’m trying to get something written to allow me to relax as there’s a full on crash coming and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was in the next hour or two.

Tomorrow I’ve got to go and work with a bunch of cadets on their production of Christmas Carol. It’s about to go into tech. Funny that my last bit of teaching on this job is going to be directly to do with the next job. I guess it’ll help me switch my head into Dickens.

“It’s too early for dinner,” says Jono.

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Airforce and actors are on very different schedules. The Colonel rang me yesterday at 7.30am to ask me what people might want for lunch. Their view on time is not like mine. It is indeed too early for dinner, but an early bed appeals.

This has been a long job, and a varied one. Different time zones, different states, different institutions. A huge variety of different human beings who want different things from different members of this different group. The five of us will split up on Sunday and go our separate ways. Claire’s off home. Jono is off on a road trip to Arizona. Kaffe and Katherine are driving up to San Francisco, which is what I was going to do before I realised I’d need to be back sooner to make a new Christmas Carol for a new season with Jack. I’m looking forward to Christmas, to home, to consistency, even to getting back in the nightie. Home will feel very different and a little part of me is dreading walking up the stairs and not having Pickle say “Wurrp” to me and trying to get underfoot.

But I’m just fragile today. Endings and beginnings. We are all completely knackered, and in about a minute and a half we will walk into a restaurant with unspecified numbers of lovely people who want to talk about Shakespeare and acting under the cold of the Colorado moon when we are running on fumes…


Food has improved my mood and my state. The guys all get up at 4.30 so we are already finished. It’s only half seven. I’m going to have a pleasant drink with the company and then tomorrow I’ll walk into the last day of work.