Category Archives: California Memories

A collection of memories from a trip I made to California back in 1997.
“One minute I was just a normal wife and mother of five, the next I was flying 5000 miles across the world to meet someone I knew only by virtue of an online writer’s club.”

The Final Countdown

The final instalment from memories of my lone trip to California in 1997

Standing on The Golden Gate Bridge, we must present an odd sight by anyone’s standards. I am trying not to look like a typical tourist but am failing miserably as I point the camera and exclaim at the views.  My friend clutches the straw hat to her head in an act of desperation, lest the wind snatch it from her and send it flying across the bay. Her skirts have given up and billow in the wind.

Annie is wearing full make-up and high heels, making her tower head and shoulders above me. I feel very under dressed next to her in my jeans and casual T-shirt, not to mention vertically challenged.

A cackle escapes her lips and she begs a passer-by to take our photograph. Oh no, am I to be captured forever on film, with Annie at my side, grinning manically into the lens? I smile bravely and the kind stranger passes me back the camera.

“Thank you very much,” I say.

“Say, you from Australia?” he asks in a friendly manner. I shake my head, explaining that I am in fact from England.

“Oh, you get a lot of fog over there don’t you?” he asks innocently. I am tempted to yell,

“NO!, whatever gives you that idea?” but instead I gently put him straight and he walks on, probably wondering at the uncommon sight we present.

We drive back towards San Jose where I have been invited to spend my final night in the ‘Tomb of Dolls’ otherwise known as Mom’s living room.

We have stayed in Motel 6s, visited the Redwoods and camped in the mountains. We have avoided some rough-looking lumber-jacks and eaten supper cooked on a camping stove beneath the stars.  Annie has laid out her crystal ball and her tarot cards and proceeded to read my fortune much to the interest of the other campers. We have paddled in the Pacific and driven along Highway one. We have met a Man-Mountain Sheriff and witnessed an attempted armed robbery at a petrol (gas) station.

We have travelled through the Napa Valley and driven along the Silverado Trail seeing Old Faithful and A Petrified Forest. At every turn I have experienced nothing but friendliness from the people I have had the good fortune to meet. (The would-be-robbers apart) As for Annie, well, I may have reservations about her true identity. I may believe she is hiding something from me – in fact I am sure she is hiding something from me – but suddenly none of that is as important as it seemed. I am about to leave and I have had an amazing time. I haven’t just seen California, or at least a small part of the same, I have flown 5000 miles across the globe, alone. I have managed to cope without husband or family to turn to and though I have missed them beyond belief, I have discovered that I can survive.

As for Annie, well, Annie is just Annie.


My bags are packed and my passport safely stowed. There are only a few hours to go before I drive up to San Francisco Airport and wave goodbye to all this.

Annie’s Mom has been looking at some photographs and videos of my family and we have spent a pleasant evening in which stories and presents have been swapped.

I help stack the dishes and it is a while before I notice that Annie has slipped away.

Excusing myself, I take a walk around the garden and find her moping on the stoop to the trailer. Sensing a downward shift in her mood I attempt to lighten things a little.

She says little and I see that she is genuinely upset. Oh dear, my visit was always going to come to an end but somehow, poor Annie is taking my departure far harder than she ought.

Her reluctance to let me go has made itself known in the past day or two. Emotionally, she is a wreck.  One failed marriage, numerous relationships with either sex that have not lasted, all have left her vulnerable and likely to attach herself to the nearest friendly face. I have been that friendly face for the past three weeks.

I could liken it to a typical ‘Doctor-Patient’ relationship with hindsight. It has been a while since Annie had anyone to “take-her-as-she-is”. My acceptance of all her shortcomings with only a few protests has made me a valuable ally. I have listened to her problems and offered advice here and there. Now, her reliance on me is showing.

I do believe that some people come into our lives for a short time, for a purpose. Did I come into Annie’s to make her re-evaluate her life? I certainly didn’t intend her to place such a reliance on me that my inevitable departure could cause such distress. Perhaps Annie has come into my life to teach me not to take it for granted. Seeing how Annie’s life has panned out, brings my own into sharp focus and makes me appreciate it all the more.

Inevitably, there have been times during my trip when I have been aware that Annie regards me as a friend she would care to keep here.  Equally, there have been times when I have found her so selfish and blinkered that I doubted she remembered my existence. Still, emotions are delicate things and Annie’s have been all over the place.

I could do with a degree in Psychology right now. Without this, I do what I can to smooth the way forward.

Our conversation is difficult. I am a little perturbed when Annie remarks that maybe she should kidnap me. My niggling worries that I have come to California to meet someone who might well be an axe murderer for all I know, surface for a second.

Of course, she is joking. This attempt at humour is encouraging at least and we make a little progress. Annie’s mood lifts a little. The conversation gets a little easier.


The hundreds of pairs of eyes greet me as I make my way back into the living room. ‘Mom’ has pulled out the sofa bed for me. I arrange the covers and take a while to look around me one last time. I swear there are more dolls here than before if that is possible.

Tonight they seem less scary but still, a feeling of unease sweeps over me. It occurs to me that if this was a horror film then this is about the time I would settle into a false sense of security, only to find that I had been swallowed up by the tomb of dolls and become one of them –sentenced to a lifetime within these walls.

My imagination runs wild and I have written several scenarios in my head, none good, by the time sleep finally claims me.

I am up with the lark. I have breakfasted and completed my packing and am ready to leave by the time Annie comes in. She makes no reference to the previous night’s conversation, possibly because her mother is hovering around and fussing over me. We must have our photographs taken out in the yard, Stepdad, Mom and me, Annie, Mom and me, Stepdad Mom and Annie. The combinations run their course and I am grateful when we are at last heading for the airport in the battered old camper van.

I would very much like Annie to leave me at the entrance. She doesn’t want to. She wants to accompany me as far as she can, in her wheelchair of course. So, we buy a few magazines for me to read on the plane and have a final cup of coffee together before I check my case in.

We have had a couple of rolls of film developed and I give her copies of the photographs we took on our travels. She declares she must give the one of me and her grandma to that same lady and I remember ‘grandma’ with a smile. I recall the arguments caught on film that I witnessed and the doll, safely tucked into my suitcase for my youngest daughter. So, she refers to her granddaughter as ‘he’? So what?

Annie appears to be a little more in control today and has even decided to make plans to move out of the trailer and get something done about her hip and her lack of teeth.  I am pleased for her.

I am aware that my mind has already switched to thoughts of my homecoming and although I try to give Annie my fullest attention, my head is already elsewhere. Realising this, she finally concedes that I need to go.

I hurry towards the departure lounge. Annie stands in the crowd to wave. I catch a glimpse of her wild hair beneath its now infamous straw hat and then she is gone.

A strange thing happens as I step through the sliding doors that block out sight and sound of the recent past. Alone for the first time in three weeks, despite the crowd of travellers around me, I slip back into my own skin and am pleased to find that it still fits perfectly.

I find a seat and allow myself a wry smile. What an adventure I have just had!

I drink in the solitude that is mine to enjoy. Other people are caught up in their own lives and do not encroach on mine. By the time we board the plane I have fully returned to myself. I close my eyes and remember the past three weeks, running through our adventures in my mind and smiling at some, wincing at others. I scribble in my notebook as details emerge and need to be written down. One day I will share them.

I am hardly aware of my immediate travelling companions despite the fact that they are two burly Rugby players who are squeezed into seats adjacent to mine with some difficulty. They are friendly and polite. We exchange a few words but my thoughts play on, mostly uninterrupted.  

As the plane hovers above Heathrow, some nine or ten hours later, with no fog in sight, it occurs to me that I am the same yet not the same person who made the outward journey.

There are many ways of ‘finding oneself’ and this has certainly been one of them.

Postscript March 2011:

We corresponded for a short while on my return but it seemed that Annie had reached a turning point in her life. She made plans and followed them through. She had the hip operation she needed. She confronted her ex-husband, reclaimed her belongings and began to set her life in order. I don’t know if she ever got any teeth.

There was no more advice or sympathy to hand out. My job was done.  Our ‘friendship’ came to a natural end.

Despite this, I think we both learnt lessons that will last us a lifetime. I certainly don’t regret going, after all I had an amazing time and what is life without a few risks and a taste of adventure?

Unanswered questions remain unanswered for now and that is probably for the best. There is little to be gained by conjecture. Truth is often stranger than Fiction.


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

San Francisco Bay Area – just another day

More memories from my lone Californian trip of 1997 –

This morning, a blue sky opened above me, clouds rolling away to reveal a shiny new sun. Just another day on this crazy holiday I have chosen to take.

I am sitting here, alone in the back garden ostensibly reading but really, just sitting and thinking.

I woke this morning with a real urge to pack my bag and head for home. It isn’t that I am not having fun. It isn’t that I am not constantly amazed by what is going on around me. It isn’t even that the woman I am travelling with happens to be a bi-sexual, possibly transexual, self confessed white witch and is as mad as a hatter. She has a good heart – I believe.

No, it is none of those things. Today I find I am missing my family more than I can say. Begging time on the computer that sits in Annie’s trailer, I have managed to send a few emails home and whenever I can, I ‘phone home’. These phone calls always make me feel better for a bit.

Generally, I phone at the wrong time. The eight hour time difference makes it hard to judge. Hence I speak to my husband just as he is about to take the children to school and can hear the usual panic about P.E. bags and pencil cases and cries of,

“has the dog eaten my shoes?” going on in the background.

The dog has been known to eat a brand new pair of school shoes so it is a reasonable query even if the child in question will be shot if she/he has left his/her shoes anywhere near the dog’s bed overnight. I feel the tug of homesickness overwhelm me as their voices call out,

“Hello Mummy!” across the miles.

Another phone call will find the children safely tucked up in bed and tired husband about to retire for the night. To give him his due, he stays up gamely chatting to his wife who is crouched in a trailer some 5000 miles away, hanging on his every word.

I don’t recall him being so needy when away from home on an extended business trip but maybe the circumstances are somewhat different.

As I hang up the receiver, Annie will breeze in and suggest we ‘go get a burger’ or pop over to Denny’s for breakfast.  My body clock is completely frazzled so I am apt to agree whatever the time is.

Today, the homesickness swept over me like a blanket from the minute I opened my eyes. As it will now be one in the morning at home, I am not about to phone. I will just have to get over it.

“Everything ok?” Annie’s mum asks as she brings the rubbish out, barely pausing for a reply before she launches into an account of how Annie should really get her teeth/hair/hip done. As though on cue, Annie bursts upon the scene wearing something from her store of ‘summer clothes’.

“Will you quit talking about me as though I am not here?” she demands and lights up a cigarette, “You ok Deb?”

“I’m fine thank you,” I smile brightly. That’s it, back on track.

“We’re heading over to San Francisco today,”

“In that wreck?” Annie’s mum indicates the VW and raises an eyebrow.

“Hell no, Mom, gonna hire a car,” Annie replies.

Oh, yes, it was mentioned I recall – today we are hiring a car. The VW is not built for the steep inclines that SF offers.

So, here we are at the car hire centre. We drove here from the other side of town. I wonder where Annie will leave her own vehicle. I am a little perturbed to learn that Annie will be driving the VW back to her Mother’s house while I will be driving the hire car.

This seems reasonable. Never mind that I have never driven on the right before and that the gear stick is nowhere to be seen. The gentleman who is hiring out the car hands me the keys, since I am the one who has paid, and waves us away with as few instructions as he can muster.

Annie leaps into the Van.

“Hang on, where is the gear stick and I don’t actually know the way back…” I protest.

Annie chuckles and says she will lead the way. She is already out of the forecourt and I am relieved to find the gear stick attached to the steering column. It is an automatic. Hoping the man behind the desk doesn’t hear the engine rev as I manoeuvre the car out into the road, I get used to the controls quite quickly.

I am feeling quite happy driving along on my own, even if it is for a short time – then we come to some traffic lights. I watch as Annie, two cars ahead of me, runs a red light and disappears. The other two cars follow. I stop. The car behind me beeps and its driver gesticulates for me to go ahead.

Aha! So, a right turn on a red light is ok is it? How very odd! I check and turn. This will take some getting used to. I have time to get used to it over the next several junctions. I am amazed that my brain seems to have taken in our outward journey because I recognise a few landmarks and by some small miracle find myself in Annie’s mother’s road where she has parked the VW and is stretching her legs.

“What took you so long?” she grins. I am a little peeved that she didn’t wait for me though, to be fair, I have found my own way back.

We head off towards San Francisco in the sunshine. (I let Annie drive) A previous trip taken in the first week of my visit was very disappointing. We had arrived at the Bay to find the entire place bathed in a thick fog. The Golden Gate Bridge was a shadow, North Beach was cold and uninviting and in the end we decided to call it a day.

Today it is clear and bright and Annie takes the wheel to show me the sights. We drive down Lombard Street – a narrow twisting street of brick cobbles that reminds me of the cobbled street of steps that is Clovelly in North Devon. I can see that the VW would not have cared for this.

Feeling as though I am on the set of a 70’s cops and robbers show, we follow the trams up and down the steep hills and meander through China Town before Annie decides we will go down to the Bay Bridge area and park. She informs me that she has somewhere special she wants to show me.

“You’ll love it!” she giggles. I have been here for over two weeks and I now know that it is highly unlikely I will love whatever it is Annie thinks that I will, but I am willing to give it a go.

The wheel chair is a must. Annie insists. So, here I am, pushing a wheel chair around San Francisco in which sits an excitable 43 year old women wearing a straw hat and carrying a small dog.

We come to a stop outside a tacky building which Annie informs is,

Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” museum.

This is the big surprise? This is the place I will just ‘love’? I am dubious to say the least.

The exhibits are somewhat weird and often gruesome. Annie soaks it all up and enthuses over the displays. I cannot help thinking that I have entered yet another time warp and am now witnessing a travelling freak show. Rather cruelly, I wonder if I am not actually in one.

We negotiate the automatic doors and locate a lift which will house the wheelchair.

Annie can hardly contain her excitement as we travel up to the first floor. I summon up some enthusiasm because it seems churlish not to.

I would far rather be taking in the sights and sounds outside. Reluctantly, Annie finally agrees to leave this macabre place and we step out (or rather roll out) into the sunshine again.

The wheelchair meets another and there are a few moments of confusion as my companion negotiates a three point turn to extricate herself from the wheels of the second wheelchair. I smile at its occupant who glares at me as though I am personally responsible for Annie’s incompetent steering.

Half way down the road she abandons the wheelchair and wanders across to read something of interest pinned to a post. I don’t know what it is or whether it truly is interesting because I am too busy moving the wheelchair out of harm’s way and parking it. By the time I look up, she has decided to take the little dog for a walk and I take ten minutes to recover my composure.

After spending the afternoon wandering around San Francisco, dodging trams and wheelchair, visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and doing the things that tourists tend to do in S.F. we head off to eat at Sinbad’s by the Bay Bridge.

Rolling up in the smart hire-car, we are greeted by a young man with slicked back hair who demands the keys. Annie hands them over and the car is valet-parked by the same young man. I follow Annie into the restaurant and am much relieved to find that we are seated in a relatively private recess in the dining room. As the seating forms a semi-circle around the table, it is possible for me to enjoy the views across the bay and to almost ignore the toothless chewing going on to my right. I am not sure if the other diners are so lucky.

We have left the wheelchair in the car for once and the little dog is also snoozing on the back seat. Annie grins and is evidently enjoying herself. I am slightly ashamed for wishing I could escape for an hour or two or maybe eat alone for once.

There are very few days left for me to enjoy this amazing and truly eye opening visit and I decide to make the best of them. Hence, much later, back at the house, I don’t turn a hair when Annie emerges from the trailer in a tightly fitted cotton blouse that threatens to burst its seams at any moment. Nor do I mind when she insists we go to Denny’s Diner at Midnight because she is hungry and introduces me to everyone as her ‘English Friend’. I put up with the questions about fog and smile when I remember that this experience has taught me so much about myself.

The visit is almost over – not much else can possibly happen can it?


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

The Silverado Trail – fame at last?

More memories from my lone Californian trip of 1997

We are travelling along on the Silverado Trail. The Silverado Trail is a scenic route that runs for 30 miles along the Eastern edge of the Napa Valley, parallel to and several miles to the east of Route 29. Our intention is to visit a few vineyards, have some lunch and enjoy the scenery. My credit card is standing up well to the battering it is taking but I could do with a respite from souvenir shops and the like.

The scenery is just as beautiful as the guide book promises and we stop the van now and then so that I can scan the area with my camcorder. I know that once home, I will not remember exactly where we are at any given point so I am speaking as I spin round slowly to get a good panoramic shot. I realise this is a bad idea of course.

“Here we are in Napa Valley….this is….etc. etc.” I dread to think how the tape will sound when played back later. I suspect I will cringe at the sound of my own voice but at least I will know what’s what!

Annie potters along the road with her little dog and calls out now and again so that her deep, booming voice overshadows my own in places. For the thousandth time I find myself wondering about the ‘he’ business. She has thankfully chosen to ditch the flowery frock today (I say ‘thankfully’ because I was sure it was about to burst its buttons the last time she wore it) and is wearing her Grandmother’s favourite, the pink hot pants. With her straw hat squashed down to tame the frizz that still threatens to explode, she looks quite presentable today and as usual, I feel guilty for harbouring such subversive thoughts about her.

We have marked places to visit in my guidebook and today we have ‘Old Faithful’ and ‘Petrified Forest’ to see. Both are just north of Calistoga.

We visit ‘Old Faithful of California’ first, which turns out to be one of only three geysers in the world that erupt at such regular intervals. In contrast to the well laid out vineyards that we have passed, the geyser is hidden behind a hotch-potch of wooden buildings which the guide book scathingly tells us, are “an excuse for an entrance”. We pay our entrance fee and, just as the guide book tells us, come to a scrappy piece of wasteland out of which a 100 foot jet of steam and water apparently shoots every 40 minutes.

I am not sure what one is meant to do for forty minutes if one arrives just after the geyser has erupted but we are fortunate in that we only have ten minutes to wait.

We are told that the geyser may be a reliable predictor of underground movement and variations in its performance have proved to coincide with earthquakes some 500 miles away. I am heartened to hear that the earthquake activity is so distant but hope fervently that the geyser will not show any variations today.

In addition to the main attraction, there are a few Fainting Goats who don’t faint, (they are obviously made of sterner stuff than their name implies) and several Llamas who do whatever it is that Llamas are meant to do. The animals entertain the adults and children alike as they wait.

I love the fact that there are a few plastic chairs, such as those one might find at the bottom of a garden, forgotten and battered by wind and rain, set at suitable intervals from the geyser so that people can sit and watch and wait and watch and wait for as long as they wish. A wet suit is advised mind you and one must always remember that the water and steam spewed forth is Hot, hot with a capital ‘H’.

As the jet of steam erupts, the crowd gasps and those in the plastic chairs scream with excitement. The steam is followed by a jet of water which dances in the sunlight. The backdrop of the mountains lends the scene a fairy tale appearance but I don’t get out a tape measure to see if it hits the 100 foot mark. It is high.

Despite the apparent tackiness of the venue and the fee we had to pay to come in, I enjoy the experience. After all, I have never seen a geyser on this scale before. We take photos of each other by the geyser in action and I silently hope that there is not a ‘contraption that makes geysers’ that Annie will purchase on our way out.

Annie chooses a novelty tape measure and I add a couple of key rings and another tea towel to my collection. It is time to go.

It is getting late in the morning now and we still have to see the Petrified Forest. I could live without this excitement. Annie can’t.

We are standing by the visitor’s centre, collecting our guidebooks and tickets. Annie has declared that she may need the wheelchair. She has not used it all day. We drag the chair from the car and she wheels herself into the visitor’s centre. The crowds part to allow her through and she basks in the attention they afford her. At least, it appears to me that she is basking. We wander around the grounds, reading the plaques and exclaiming over the petrified objects laid out for our delight.  I spot the notice declaring that ‘wheelchairs cannot be taken beyond this point’ – Annie reconsiders and parks the wheelchair.

There are benches strategically placed along the route. Annie decides she can walk if she is able to sit down as and when she needs to. She comes a little way along the uneven path and then decides to rest. I am happy to grab some time to myself and deliberately head off alone to explore. I take the little dog with me to give her some exercise.

I nod and smile to those who greet me and exchange pleasantries with a man who is exclaiming over a petrified tree lying in a pit and tells me,

“Reminds me of Hobbitown USA out on Pacific Coast Highway 1.”

I cannot imagine what Hobbitown is or was but in the tone it is mentioned it does not sound inviting. (Is this a throwback to Lord of the Rings? I must look that up). I wander back along the path. Annie seems happy enough pottering around the exhibits near the entrance. She is drawn to the souvenir shop and I can see her exclaiming over a variety of ‘must-have gifts’ already.

Joining her, I choose a particularly delightful piece of petrified tree that has been polished and will make a useful paper weight. I am aware that this paperweight is unlikely to have come from this particular forest. Indeed, the shop is so full of ‘petrified’ this ‘n that, I doubt the area could sustain such industry. I pick up a few trinkets for the children and buy Annie the petrified-wood dinosaur she has taken a fancy to.

Our morning’s work is done. Lunch time approaches.

The vineyards beckon. We stop at a couple and sample their wares. At least, Annie samples their wares, Past experience has taught me that even a simple tasting of red wine can result in an unwanted migraine and I don’t want to risk that here.  Annie is limited in what she consumes since she is driving of course. The kind guide is explaining how the tasting is done and invites her to have a go. I decline for the reasons I have given but Annie is keen to try. It would appear, after a few minutes, that she has not yet mastered the art of ‘tasting’ as she gulps an entire glass down in one go.

“I think we should eat some lunch,” she tells me and to my relief, declines a second glass. I agree. Annie ‘buys’ a couple of bottles of red wine, I buy a corkscrew with the words, ‘Calistoga Vineyards’ printed on the handle. I might give it to Dave.

Annie tells me there is a wonderful restaurant near here that is quite famous. It produces some of the world’s top chef’s. Apparently we have to eat there.  She extols its culinary virtues with such excitement that as I have had my fill of ‘Denny’s Diners,’ I agree.

A short drive later and we arrive at an impressive grey stone building  sign posted as:

‘The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone Restaurant’.

“Here we are,” Annie says needlessly as we pull up in the car park. The battered VW looks oddly out of place next to a line of shiny saloon cars. I glance down at my shorts and shirt. Am I suitably dressed? I look across at Annie, is she?

Annie gives her little dog some water and settles her in the back of the van with the window wound down a little. We walk towards the restaurant.

“This place attracts the rich and famous,” Annie is saying. I am thinking that we look like neither.

As she speaks, a white stretch limousine pulls up and temporarily blocks our way.

The chauffeur steps out and opens a rear door, touching his cap as we approach, with a grin. We side step the open door and walk on. No one steps out of the limo – either its occupant is shy or the chauffeur is just airing the vehicle.

The car they thought we had arrived in

The car they thought we had arrived in

The chauffeur continues to smile at us and I nod politely. Annie is striding ahead. I am aware, as we continue our walk, that to anyone glancing out of the restaurant windows, it would appear that Annie and I have just stepped out of the stretch limousine and that the chauffeur has just tipped his cap to us. Maybe we could pass for celebrities of the more eccentric kind. I grin as we mount the restaurant steps.

If there is one thing I have noticed during my stay here, it has been the level of service that is prevalent in every store, restaurant and public building that I have visited. Everyone smiles. Everyone seems more than happy to serve us. Indeed, most are positively enthusiastic. This restaurant is no different, in fact the service has risen a notch higher if that is possible.

We are shown to a table on the balcony which affords amazing panoramic views across the vineyards. The waiter hovers attentively, flashing me a whiter than white smile whenever I glance over. I am quick to realise that the prices in this restaurant reflect its reputation.

Lunch is not going to be cheap.

Annie is now in her element. She orders anything and everything on the menu as I calculate how much credit remains on my card. I am a little more reserved in my selection, more because of my digestion than the budget I have to say. Annie is concerned about neither.

We draw plenty of stares from the other diners as the meal progresses. Perhaps they really do think we are celebrities (a comedy duo?) and are trying to place us. I suspect that the sound of Annie slurping her soup and chewing the sirloin steak with her gums is the real reason for their raised eyebrows and searching glances. She manages the champagne with surprising ease.

The staff continue to lavish us with the greatest of attention and to flash their whiter than white smiles at every opportunity. Maybe they have us down as food critics. Annie continues to exclaim at the delights of the menu and is clearly enjoying the experience to the full. I wish, not for the first time, that Annie would get some teeth.

A new thought strikes me. Here in California, everyone seems to have wonderful smiles showing perfect teeth. Is it then ‘all or nothing’? Perfect teeth or no teeth at all? I am still pondering this fact when we are approached by a small girl who stands and stares at us before her embarrassed mother whisks her away with apologies.  The child has her two front teeth missing. Perhaps she senses a soul mate?

“Have a nice day,” the waiter grins as I pay the bill and I am struck again by the friendliness of everyone I have met here.

“Say, you from Australia?” he adds as he hands me the receipt. I brace myself and tell him I am from England.

“Get a lot of fog over there don’t you?” he asks in all seriousness.

We leave the restaurant, feeling full and not a little sleepy. We stroll back towards the VW. The stretch white limousine is still sitting there, the chauffeur nowhere to be seen.

“Lost your chauffeur ladies?”

The voice belongs to a gentleman who has followed us out of the restaurant. We survey the white limo and laugh.

“He’s having some refreshments inside, just saw him,” the helpful gentleman tells us, “Nice car!”

I realise that he is being serious.

“Oh, no, that isn’t our car,” I start to say but Annie is on top of the situation,

“We’ll just have to wait for him then,” she grins and sits down on a bench. The gentleman wanders off to his own car and waves as he drives away.

Who does he think we are? I wonder.

Annie chuckles as we drive down the road in the battered VW. She has enjoyed her meal and enjoyed the slight notoriety we may have achieved in the process.

It’s been an interesting day so far but we are now into the late afternoon and it’s time to find a hotel.

I need a rest before we set out again – fame is very tiring.


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

Dress this way…

More memories from my lone Californian trip of 1997

There was the night when I was staying in the house and Annie’s trailer flooded (the result of an out of control hose-pipe rather than the weather).  Annie must also sleep in the house.

Let me take you there.

I sense her mother is not happy with this arrangement. This is more than a sense really. As I prepare my own sofa bed and Annie prepares hers across the room, her mother, about to go out on her night shift, walks in and looks horrified.

“What are you doing in here?” she asks of the hapless Annie. Annie shrugs.

“The trailer is damp – where d’ya wan’ me to sleep mom – the garage?” she pouts. Annie’s mum bristles. I try to ignore them but the situation is becoming a tad awkward. I take myself off to the bathroom and hope they’ll sort it out by the time I return.

Annie’s mum has gone. Annie is nowhere to be seen. I hesitate before pulling back the covers and climbing beneath the sheets. I am almost asleep, despite the hundreds of pairs of glass eyes staring back at me, when the door opens and in walks Annie. To her credit, she tries not to wake me but I take pity on her as she clambers over objects that have been moved to make way for the beds and clatters around in the dark. I switch on the light. I blink in surprise. I am not sure what I am seeing. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, Annie is standing in the middle of the room and I am sure that all the glass eyes are now firmly fixed on her.

“What are you wearing?” The words are out before I can stop them.

Annie shrugs and flaps her arms.

“My mother insisted…” she grins and looks down at the garment she has been forced to don. To me it looks like a giant babygrow, the type newborns wear, not 40 year old women. I sit up and blink a little. Yes, Annie is wearing a full size, pink babygrow complete with arms and legs and poppers down the middle. I swallow hard.


She shrugs again and mumbles something about her mom not liking her sharing a room with me and insisting she cover up. I am a little bemused. Is this an overt reference to her bi-sexuality (I do not find that threatening for goodness sake) or is it a reference to that other thing, that thing that no one has actually talked about since my arrival – the family habit of referring to Annie as ‘he’. Well, there is absolutely no way I will find out from current appearances that’s for certain. The sleep suit successfully masks everything.

Well done Mom!

Annie climbs into bed on the other side of the room and I turn out the light.

Morning finds Annie up and out in the yard early, before eight o’clock. She hasn’t been able to sleep very well – probably because it has been a warm night indoors and the body-suit is more apt for a night in the Antarctic. In the cool of the early morning California air it provides reasonable cover though.

Annie is sitting on the stoop smoking a cigarette, her leggings rolled up to her knees. I give her a wide birth, conscious of my sensitive sinuses and asthma and carry a cup of tea (I have made my own) out into the garden. I settle down to read my book since I don’t expect Annie to truly surface before ten.

I am proved right. At ten o’clock Annie is still in her sleep suit. She says it is surprisingly practical and I am slightly concerned that she will continue to wear it all day. I have vague yet disturbing visions of wheeling an outsized baby in a wheelchair across town.

My fears are groundless. Annie decides that as the weather seems to be warming up she will ‘out’ her summer clothes from storage behind the shed. To date, her pink hot pants and her casual trousers have been about the sum of her wardrobe. I munch an apple and am barely paying attention as Annie staggers by with a trunk of clothes which she hauls into the trailer.

I am only partly aware of the grunts and groans coming from the trailer over the next half hour or so as she tries on the clothes that she packed away last summer. There really is nothing like a good book to take one away from oneself!

“Hmm, I think I might have put on a bit of weight sitting in that trailer all winter after all…”

I hear Annie’s voice and feel a surge of dismay as I look up from my novel.

Annie stands there clad in a flowery print dress which she has managed to zip up but that now threatens to burst at every seam.

“It’s snug,” I remark, getting up and surveying her from every angle, “Can you raise your arms?”

She can, just.

“It’ll do,” she decides happily. I am not so sure but decide it is preferable to the sleep-suit, so do not argue.

The dress proves to be Annie’s favourite and because she is now ‘dressed up’ she applies heavy make-up and brushes her hair. The effect is dazzling. I now feel I am going out with a drag act and if that sounds harsh, well, yes, it may be but I have to be truthful and the truth is that Annie resembles a classy drag act. The wobbly high heels and straw hat, into which she tucks a rose, just serve to confirm the image.

All my suspicions return in force. I just wish Annie would tell me a little more about herself.

I catch sight of us in the museum glass as we pass through the doors into what is, I am sure, a technology exhibition aimed at children. Not to worry, Annie is excited enough for both of us. Our reflection makes me smile and I feel oddly protective towards my new friend. Her large frame, clad in the delicate summery frock, threatens to burst forth at any moment. She has removed her hat and her hair has errupted once more either side of her face like two Brillo pads. Beside her I pale into insignificance. The wheelchair, thankfully, has remained in the van.

The exhibition is interactive. I know by now that Annie adores anything that involves her pressing, pulling or thumping a button. She does all three with glee as we approach the different displays. At one point she spends so long on an activity that shows you how to divine water that a group of children have to ask her if they may have a turn.

Annie is particularly drawn to the touchy-feely devices. Being taller than the children, she can reach around and over their heads and uses her height to her advantage. I hang back, reluctant to associate myself with such bad manners. I wait my turn and chat to the children who do not ask me if I am Australian or whether there is a lot of fog in England.

We sit through a slide show of how the world began which of course does not match with any biblical account and Annie barks ridiculous questions at the guide who does his level best to answer them while I cringe in my seat.

I think Annie is trying to be humorous but neither the guide nor I laugh. The children give Annie odd looks and I smile brightly to reassure them lest they tarnish me with the same brush. What brush that would be I have no idea. I just prefer not to be tarnished with it.

“Let’s buy some souvenirs!” breezes Annie as we head for the exit some two and a half hours later. I groan. My credit card groans. Annie’s souvenirs are mounting. To date she has purchased a ‘build yourself an indoor thermometer’ set, several T shirts, a child’s atlas, a selection of computer components and a small telescope as well as an assortment of paper weights, pens and plastic bits and bobs that don’t seem to do anything but which she finds intriguing. She leaves the exhibition with an assortment of pens and paper weights and something that measures the intensity of light.

Annie is a very clever computer programmer as well as being a writer and all those other things I have mentioned. Perhaps this is her lighter side…

My credit card pays the bill and we head home to pack the van for our next trip.

I note that the sleep suit is packed with the flowery print dress and the pink hot pants. The wheelchair is folded up and stowed away. We climb aboard.

We are off to visit a petrified forest. What else can Annie surprise me with?

I can only wonder…


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

The Grand Ole Oprey House

More from my lone Californian trip of 1997


I cringe in my seat as Annie leaps to her feet (strangely agile now that ‘Timewalk’ is playing) and proceeds to stamp up and down with the best of them.

We are in the ‘The Old Oprey House’ in Los Gatos.

It was Annies aunt’s idea to come here. I haven’t mentioned Annie’s aunt before so here is as good a place as any. Annie’s aunt Rose lives in Santa Clara. She is a lovely lady and welcomes me into her house with open arms – literally. I receive the biggest bear hug imaginable as I walk through the door.

Keen to show me round, she leads me through the rooms, none of which are dark – sunlight streams in freely through the large open windows – and points out the many photographs that grace the walls and surfaces. On closer inspection I notice that many are family portraits and seeing me looking, Annie’s aunt Rose points to a small picture of the ocean where a group of children huddle together grinning.

“That’s my son James with a friend and my daughter Patricia and those are Annie’s brothers,” she explains, “We used to spend lots of family holidays together. That was taken down in Monterey of course.” I smile and make the appropriate sounds of appreciation. The little boys are cute and I cast my eyes around for a picture of Annie when small.

On the sideboard sit a clutch of photographs held in silver frames. I spot Annie’s mother with a man I don’t  recognise,  not her current husband so perhaps Annie’s father? It seems rude to ask too many questions and Rose is so excited to have me there that I feel like an honoured guest.  Here, another  group of smiling children gather round a paddling pool – caught by the camera lens in various poses as they prepare to jump in. I scan the image for any sign of a small girl. Strangely, there is no small girl, apart from Patricia, in the photograph. Perhaps that is not so strange. Perhaps she was too small to join in? My gaze takes in the other photos. Only one girl appears in any of the snaps and she is definitely not Annie.

Rose wafts back into the room in a blaze of chiffon to which she isn’t actually attached. The chiffon falls away to reveal a delicate, handmade fan.

“Here my dear, you must take this back with you. I make them to sell but I’d just love you to have one,” I take the fan and exclaim on the work that has gone into it. I am touched that Rose wants to give me his gift and know I will treasure it.  She is smiling and pulling me through to the next room where we gratefully down a cold drink and munch on some cookies that she has just made. Rose is full of talk about the family and her sister’s recent trip to Vegas. She chatters on and occasionally pulls Annie into the conversation to corroborate something.

“We went there didn’t we Annie?” she’ll say and then in an aside to me,

“He is probably sick of me going on…”

There it is again! ‘He’ I am seriously confused now. I listen and the conversation is peppered with references to Annie as ‘he’.

Annie pays them no heed. I begin to wonder if she has heard. Rose continues to chatter on.

“So, where are you going to tomorrow?” she asks as we prepare to take our leave. Annie shrugs and mentions the wheelchair…”

“You have what?” Rose asks, clearly astonished, “A wheelchair? My Lord, whatever for?”

Annie shrugs and explains that her hip is giving her trouble. Rose purses her lips and her eyebrows leap up to her hairline,

“You don’t need a wheelchair – if your grandmother can do without, so can you. Go to the Doctor and get it sorted.”

I am surprised to hear Rose speak so bluntly to my ‘still new’ friend. Annie looks suitably chastened and mumbles something to herself. Rose’s sharp ears pick it up,

“No use complainin’ if you don’t do anything about it – stop feeling so sorry for yourself!” she urges in some disgust and I am a little uncomfortable at this sudden confrontation.

“He needs to sort himself out,” Rose says to me and I couldn’t agree more.

“Now then, you should come with us to Los Gatos tomorrow night – the oldest Oprey House in California. They’re putting on ‘The Rocky Horror Show!  I’ll get us tickets shall I?” It is a question but neither Annie nor I feel we can refuse even if we wanted to. It is decided. Annie is positively animated at the thought while I wonder if I am not actually all ready starring in the production.  It is a  bit like ‘The Trueman Show’.  At any minute I expect someone to jump out with a camera and shriek,

“Gotcha! It’s all a set-up…”

They don’t of course so, on we go, my decidedly odd friend, her little dog and I, to ready ourselves for tomorrow night’s treat.

The drive here was not too bad. We have abandoned the VW in favour of Rose’s car which comfortably seats Annie, Annie’s Mum and stepdad. I have to squash in between ‘Mum and Dad’. Stepdad is pressed uncomfortably close to my thigh but I am pretty sure it is not intentional. Rose chats brightly all the way to Los Gatos.

Los Gatos sits in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.  Spanish speakers will know that Los Gatos means literally, ‘the cats’ which I am reliably informed is a reference to the cougars who are native to these parts. I don’t see any cougars tonight.

There is a queue to get into the Grand Old Oprey House which I am told is one of the oldest Vaudeville Theatres around. I have ‘Music Hall’ in my head as we cross the threshold. I expect – well, what exactly do I expect? I suppose I expect there to be a stage from which stretch upwards, row upon row of plush seats upholstered in red velvet. The word ‘Grand’ seems to be in use here so it is not an unreasonable expectation I feel. We walk into the foyer.

This is neither “The Piccadilly” nor Her Majesty’s” – more in the way of ‘The Young Vic’ this is something completely different. For a start, the stage sits at one end of the small arena and rows of wooden benches sit on steps in a semi circle around it. Each bench has a rail in front of it on which there appear to be trays set. I am intrigued. We are ushered to our seats by a very efficient lady who knows Rose and is delighted to hear that I am from England.

“Oh, we sure have to mention that!” she trills in excitement. I smile, not sure what she means by ‘mention that.”

The room fills up and there is much excitement as the music begins and those young people I had thought to be usherettes start rushing around, up and down the steps with trays of popcorn from which they fill the smaller trays on the rails.

Oooh goody, I love popcorn!

No one is eating it so I don’t either. Perhaps there is an established etiquette here somewhere.

Annie is quivering in her seat with excitement like a child at the panto. I say something and someone next to me remarks on my accent and I smile and explain that no, I am from England, not Australia. What she says next is drowned out by the music which strikes up. The stage appears to be empty and there are no curtains that I can see.

Someone leaps up onto the stage from the audience and by their garb I guess they are part of the cast. They are soon joined by others.

What happens next is most unexpected. The audience begins grabbing handfuls of popcorn and throwing it at the stage. Annie is at the forefront of this strange ceremony and giggles in glee as she chucks the popcorn with all the skill of a seasoned bowler. The players hurl handfuls back at us and the usherettes rush around filling the trays again.

All I can think of is, ‘what a waste!’ but in the spirit of the occasion I copy Rose and throw a few handfuls into the melee. At least I have not got to sit here and listen to Annie suck the popcorn I reason.

The show is colourful and well, it is The Rocky Horror Show, need I say more? Oh, but yes, I do need to say more. I need to say that Annie is now more animated than I have seen her since she made a dash for the wheelchairs outside the Computer store.

“..LET’S DO THE TIMEWALK NOW!…” belts out the choir on the stage and Annie begins stomping and shouting and staring quite manically at the stage. I feel as though I have been dropped into a time warp myself.

Popcorn continues to be thrown and Annie continues to sing and shout. I am torn between admiring her ability to revert to childlike behaviours at the drop of a hat and feelings of horror that I am having to sing along or appear churlish.

Oh but I have forgotten the interval. Yes, here we are at the interval and Annie and her mum and step dad are laughing and joking and Rose is cheering as someone steps out onto the stage to make some announcements.

“We want to wish Amy S** a very happy 90th birthday!…” trills the lady with a broad smile. We all clap enthusiastically and look around for Amy S**.

“…who, sadly, cannot be here tonight,” ends the lady. The crowd have begun to sing ‘happy birthday’ so they finish the song but the final line is a bit lame. The lady on the stage is unperturbed. She thanks everyone for coming and makes some remarks about the wonderful performances we are seeing before she drops the bombshell,

“We are also delighted to have a very special person in the audience tonight,” she grins. I look around. The spotlight is travelling across the auditorium.

“Debbie joins us tonight all the way from England!” she chirps and the spotlight lands firmly on my small frame.

All eyes turn to me and there is a raucous round of applause, led ably by my companions. I blink in the sudden bright light and smile nervously. I raise a feeble hand in the direction of the lady on the stage. She waves back. I hope I don’t have to make a speech.

There, it is done, my moment of fame has been handled pretty well and I am returned to relative anonymity or so I think.

I sit through the remainder of the show and another burst of ‘Timewalk’ in which people actually leave their seats and jump onto the stage. I stay with Rose.  Annie skips down the steps and leaps up onto the stage. Popcorn is being chucked around at an alarming rate and I am quite hungry. I wonder if anyone would notice if I ate some?

Too late, we are outside and the evening is all but over. I have to admit I have enjoyed it despite my sudden unwelcomed notoriety. We are drinking glasses of champagne which seem to be rounding off the evening’s entertainment nicely, when a lady I have not seen before, fights her way through the crowds and grabs my arm. Is this what it is like to be famous?

“My dear,” she gasps, her face inches from my own, “I have lived in Saratoga for thirty years and never even heard of this place until this week. Tell me, how on earth did you hear about it in England?”

I frown, have I misunderstood her? Apparently not.

“I didn’t,” I say slowly, “I am visiting friends, they brought me here…”

She doesn’t seem to register this fact, so blown away is she by the notion that I could be at home in England, hear about this quaint little place in Los Gatos, which is not quite on the map, and catch the next flight out just for this performance. She shakes her head in wonder and without releasing me continues,

“ England… say, you get a lot of fog over there don’t you?”

I am running out of answers…


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

‘Roaring Camp and Big Trees’

More from my lone Californian trip: 1997

The drive to Henry Cowell State Park is quite spectacular. Yes, the scenery is pretty amazing but I am not referring to that. As we drive along Highway 17, towards Santa Cruz, in the rising heat of the day, Annie suddenly feels the need to remove her jacket.

“Hey Deb, grab the wheel,” she instructs.

“Excuse me?”

“The wheel – just grab it and keep us straight while I take this off,”

There is no time to refuse, the coat is coming off. Leaning to my left, I grab the wheel before it can spin out of control and hope for the best. This, I reason could be it for me. How do I explain this to my family back home? A vision of their perplexed faces as they are told that I appeared to be driving from the passenger seat, flashes before my eyes, along with the stream of traffic that is overtaking us on either side.

By some miracle, we do not veer off into the near side lane, nor does the vehicle in front stop. As I have no access to the brakes (Annie does keep her feet on the floor to be fair) this is just as well.

How long do we drive like that, with me steering from the passenger seat? It feels like forever but is probably only a few seconds. Long enough to be sure!

“Ok, that’s better, it’s sure hot in here today,” my new friend says, calmly taking back the wheel. Even her little dog has taken fright and leapt into the back. I sink back into my seat and say nothing.

We make good time and are soon driving into the mountains.

The steep winding road is a challenge for the old Camper Van. It wheezes its way up the hills rattling and rasping as it goes, the engine threatening to cut out at any minute, the brakes creaking whenever they are pressed. Looking behind me, I am aware that stalling would not be a very good option just now – it’s a long way down and there isn’t a Sheriff in sight.

Annie finds it all very funny as we grind to a virtual standstill at each bend. I imagine we may have to jettison some ballast if this keeps up. What to throw out first? The wheelchair? Now that’s a cruel thought and I should be ashamed of myself for even thinking it but it does cross my mind.

Luckily, it does not come to this and the game little van continues to climb, if at the speed of a snail. Annie’s jokes lessen. She complains that she has been sitting for too long. We pull over to allow her to stretch her legs and the little dog to follow nature’s call. I wonder if the driving is becoming too much for her but she insists she is fine and besides, we have the wheelchair in the back don’t we?

Now I feel twice as bad for even thinking of throwing it over the side.

We head along Highway 9 and through downtown Felton, to the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park. I pay the fee, we drive in.

By this time it is quite late in the day. We are hungry and a little tired. Annie drives into a clump of trees where there are several empty parking bays. To our right, a group of burly looking lumberjacks have set up camp. Well, they look like lumberjacks on account of the clothes they are wearing and the circular saw I can see lying in the van. Beer cans litter their pitch.

They don’t pay us much attention but I feel a little uneasy all the same. Two women (I have decided we are two women for the moment) camping alone in the middle of a forest in a rusty old camper van? My devil-may-care attitude abandons me and common sense drops in for a bit.

“Do you think we could park somewhere else?” I ask at length. Annie mulls this over for a moment and then agrees that we might be better off elsewhere. Despite Annie’s size (she is larger than me and looks as though she could ward off most dangers) there is something a little vulnerable about her.  This slight vulnerability is what keeps me from heading for the hills. For all her brash and sometimes downright rude behaviour, Annie is, deep down, a troubled soul I am sure.

Annie starts the engine and we drive off to an area where there are more people around. This suits me far better!

We smile at the other campers, a young family with two children and two couples who keep themselves to themselves. The family have a state of the art motor home, the two couples are in tents. Both types of accommodation look preferable to the Camper Van we are using. We arrange two sleeping bags between the wheelchair, bags and dog bed. Half way through the night we lose the wheelchair. I am not sure why we have the dog bed because Annie’s little dog spends most of the night sleeping on my head.

I sleep surprisingly well considering the circumstances and wake to the sound of Annie clambering out of the van with the little dog.

“Just off to the ladies!” she grins. A few moments later music blares out from the car stereo. I am impressed that this van has a stereo if not impressed by the music.

Annie has returned from the toilets and for the next few minutes she potters around our camp, checking the tyres and enjoying a leisurely cigarette. Thank goodness she never smokes in the van.

I perform a quick change into my pre-shower day clothes and step out into the cool morning air, carrying my toilet bag. Annie unfolds the wheelchair which we stacked by the van last night and sits in it, grinning.  I could be forgiven for thinking that if she is fit enough to get to the toilet block then she is fit enough to make the thirty yard dash to the shower block which is right next door.

“You ok there?” I ask in what I think is a sarcastic manner.  Sarcasm is lost on Annie.

“Yep, we’d better get showered and then make tracks – “ she turns the chair and heads off down the smooth concrete path at speed.

We are planning a trip up Bear Mountain. Annie wants to show me some really big redwoods. They all look pretty big to me.

Much refreshed ,we set out for ‘Roaring Camp and Big Trees’ over at Felton. The blurb reads:

In the 1880s, narrow-gauge steam locomotives were used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains. Roaring Camp’s steam engines date from 1890 and are among the oldest and most authentically preserved narrow-gauge steam engines providing regularly scheduled passenger service in America.

Travel over trestles, through towering redwood groves and up a winding narrow-gauge grade to the summit of Bear Mountain as conductors narrate the history of Roaring Camp, the railroad and the forest! One hour roundtrip.

The sun is out and the day is warming up as we approach the station buildings which are deliberately reminiscent of the ‘Old West’. We have to park some distance from the track.

Annie jumps out of the van and walks around a bit.

“I think I’ll need the chair,” she decides. I survey the terrain we need to cross. The path runs out. The ground turns to sand. With five children, I am well practised at dragging buggies across sandy beaches – not an easy task even if occupied by a lightweight toddler. I express doubts as to the wiseness of taking the chair.

“It’ll be fine,” Annie assures me.

Being patient and not wishing to doubt her, I help her unfold the wheel chair and wait while she settles herself in it.

“Let’s go!” she grins, enjoying the moment as I raise my eyebrows for the tenth time and take the little dog’s lead which she has also handed me. Annie wheels herself to the edge of the path.  Not wishing to appear mean, I set to and manage to push Annie and the chair a fair way before both come to a halt and have to be dug out of the sand. Annie gets out and helps free the wheels.

“That’ll do it,” she grins. I am hoping she may see her way clear to walking the next twenty yards. She doesn’t, she sits back down and waits as I huff and puff behind her. We reach the train and I wait for Annie to stand up and climb aboard. Before she can do so, a kind, elderly porter hurries up.

“Let me help get you and the chair on ma’am,” he offers.

I am about to say,

“There’s no need but thank you. The chair folds up and my friend can quite easily walk onto the train.”  I don’t get that far. Annie interjects,

“Thank you, that’ll be a big help, you are very kind,” The porter nods and takes the wheel chair, complete with Annie, to the back of the train. I watch speechless. Why doesn’t she confess? She is enjoying herself far too much. A hot flush of embarrassment engulfs me.

Whatever I say now will sound harsh. Besides, the poor man has painstakingly wound down a metal platform and is pushing Annie and chair onto it. Still grinning madly, she is levered up to the train from where she wheels herself to the far end of the carriage.

I thank the Guard.

“No problem Ma’am. Say, you from Australia?”

I spend a few minutes explaining that I am English, avoid the fog question and leap aboard to join my companion. She is enjoying herself no end as fellow passengers go out of their way to accommodate her and the chair. She does not notice how cross I look. I feel as though I am dealing with a naughty child.

I seat myself close to where she sits in her chair.

“You better stay in that. Don’t you dare get out after all that fuss!” I warn her through gritted teeth. She finds this highly amusing.


We chug along the track and climb Bear Mountain. I have to agree that the trees are spectacularly tall and the tour guide’s talk of gold mining and gun fights is informative though sporadic since much is covered by the tooting of the whistle and Annie’s raucous shrieks of mirth every few minutes as she shares a joke with her immediate neighbours.  My sense of humour is fading fast.

We are advised that we will have an opportunity to leave the train and walk right into the trunk of one of the largest redwood trees on the mountain. I am intrigued.

As we trundle to a stop at the top of the mountain. Excited children follow their parents down to the famous tree which we can just see from the train. I pick up my camera and head off…alone.

Annie contemplates making the steep walk down the embankment. I warn her not to try.

“You stay on the train,” I hiss, “I’ll take the photos!”

I know that half the people on the train witnessed her ascent to the carriage in the wheelchair and if she jumps out now and runs down that embankment I will kill her!

I take some photos of strangers standing in the tree. There is no one to take a photograph of me of course. I occasionally look back at the train and see Annie leaning on the handrail and smiling widely back at me. I squint into the distance, the sun in my eyes, is she standing up?

By the time I return to the train she is sitting back in the wheel chair, surrounded by our fellow travelling companions who are commiserating with her on the fact that she has had to stay on board.  Observed from afar, it would indeed be like a scene out of a comedy sketch. *

We chug gently back down the mountain side having seen the giant redwoods and stepped back in time for a short while through our guide’s commentary. Annie continues to milk her situation to the hilt and I am already wondering how we will get her off the train without losing face…

…I  needn’t have worried. The little porter is standing there waiting for us…

*‘Little Britain’ with David Walliams and Matt Lucas as Lou and Andy, had not yet hit our screens when these events occurred. We would have been the perfect role models on which to base those characters I think.


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

Head for the Hills! Meeting Grandma

More from my lone Californian Trip of 1997:

Part one – the computer store

There is one thing I forgot to mention about my new friend Annie. Since inviting me to stay, she has become aware of a problem with her hip. She assures me she can walk. She just can’t walk long distances. She doesn’t see this as an issue and refused to let me delay my trip just because of it.

I first realised it may actually be a real issue a day or two ago when we paid a visit to a local computer store.

Annie jumped out of the Van and headed off towards the entrance. Getting closer, she spotted a bevy of wheelchairs right next to the trollies.

“Aha! I’ll have one of those,” she declared.

I watched as she secured one and proceeded to sit in it. I waited. She waited. Then I realised that she expected me to push her. Reluctantly, I guided her into the store. Feeling rather self conscious and hoping no one had seen her stride up to the chair in the first place, I pushed her into the first aisle.

“No, no, that way, that way!” she boomed.

I pushed her into the second aisle.

“Over there…get me over there…” she ordered.

I wheeled her where she wanted to go.

Like a child on a playground ride, she ordered me hither and thither until I am afraid to say I completely lost it.

“Wheel yourself!” I told her.

With a pout she managed to do just that. These wheel chairs were designed for self steering in any case. She then proceeded to whizz up and down every aisle paying no heed to the other shoppers falling by the wayside.

Embarrassed beyond belief I headed for the exit and waited for her there.


Part two – Meeting Grandma

Today we are going to visit ‘Grandma’.

Me meeting Grandma is very important to my friend who is very close to the latter. I don’t know what to expect. This is her Mom’s mother after all. Will she share the doll obsession? I hope not.

Having finally emerged from her trailer at 11.15 a.m. this morning, Annie finds me in the garden and excitedly reports that we will be leaving in half an hour. I am ready in ten minutes. One  hour and fifteen minutes go by.

Finally, Annie is ready. Her hair is even more wild this morning and she tames it by clamping the straw hat firmly on her head and donning a pair of sun glasses.

Have I mentioned what happened to Annie’s hair? Well, it appears that her mother, with whom she is staying if you recall, decided her daughter should smarten herself up for my visit. She recommended a local hairdresser training college who were looking for ‘models’. Annie’s straight, wispy mousey hair was not looking its best. Off went Annie for a ‘light perm’. Back came Annie with a frizzy mop of peroxide curls. The curls fell out by morning leaving just the frizz.

“It’ll grow out,” Annie shrugs, pulling the hat more firmly onto her head. The frizz sticks out at right angles either side of the hat.

“It looks fine,” I say.

“Let’s Roll!” she grins.

Now something else I should mention about Annie is that she has a very deep voice. I am put in mind of the actress Elaine Stritch who has been described as having ‘a deep, whiskey voice’, whenever I hear her speak. Annie’s mother has a high pitched nasal twang, not at all the same. I am curious to know who she inherited the deep, gruff voice from.

It doesn’t seem to cause her any problems until we stop at a drive-through MacDonalds. With limited access to food on the road, we have opted for MacDonalds more than once despite my normal aversion to the place. I am no longer surprised when Annie leans towards the grill in the wall and barks,

“Two double cheeseburger and chips, with two cokes to go please,”

I wait for the inevitable response,

“Thank you Sir, be right with you.”

Quickly followed by Annie’s outraged  reply.

“I am not a ‘Sir!”

Her rasping shriek makes the poor boy or girl closeted behind the grill, quake in their boots,

“Oh, sorry Sir um Madam,” they stammer.

Did Elaine Stritch ever have this trouble?

I have to admit that at some point during our acquaintance, hearing this same conversation several times, I do begin to wonder whether Annie has told me everything about herself. I have taken her at face value but by her own admission, she hasn’t told me absolutely everything about her past and has led a wild life. A person’s imagination can run riot. There is also a lot I have probably omitted to tell you about her that will emerge as we travel.

For the moment, I do not speculate. We accept each other ‘as is’ – it is an unwritten rule.

We enjoy the scenery as we head towards Sacremento.  

Annie’s Grandmother lives in a trailer I am told. Annie refers to her own home as a trailer. I liken Annie’s temporary home to a smaller version of the holiday caravan we had when the children were young. I hope that Grandma’s  trailer is in better shape.

The trailer park is pretty and neat and full of Spring flowers. Grandma’s Trailer sits somewhere in the middle with a little fenced garden around it. It has a covered porch on which sits a swing seat and all in all looks very inviting. We park the VW and fall out. This is a constant problem for me, being quite small. I practically have to throw myself out of the door each time. There is no step.

Annie knocks on the trailer door and her Grandma opens it. Grandma walks with a frame and it takes some time for her to manoeuvre herself back into the trailer so that we can follow.

“Come on in, make yourself at home!” she invites. I like her. She is small and quite frail but has a twinkle in her eye. She also has the most extraordinarily deep voice. So perhaps that answers that question then.

Grandma has her white hair set in a neat perm. She is wearing dark trousers and a white T-shirt bearing a colourful motif, topped off with a peach coloured cardigan.

“What you done with your hair?” she frowns as Annie removes her hat and the frizz explodes like billowing curtains of tumbleweed, either side of her face.

“Looks terr’ble”

I feel for Annie but she just laughs and asks Grandma how she’s keeping.

“I’m fine. Your Mom fusses but I’m fine. Have the home help and the nurse come in every day. Can’t get about like I want to but ain’t gonna use that wheelchair they’ve given me. No way!” She grips the walker more firmly and her tone brooks no argument.

The trailer is light and airy and there are no dolls in sight I am pleased to note.

“How’s your hip? Your Mom says you got a bad hip,” Grandma asks. Annie shrugs,

“Oh it’s ok, painful but ok.”

Grandma nods knowingly. Then a bright idea must slip into her mind because, with a twinkle in her eye she says,

“You can take my wheelchair back with you if you like. Might help. I got no use for it!”

Annie considers this offer for all of thirty seconds and then jumps at the chance.

“That’ll be a real help,” she smiles.

I am a little concerned. It seems obvious to me that Grandma is trying to off-load the unwanted wheelchair and having apparently done so is looking triumphant. What will ‘Mom’ say? How can Annie just swan off with an old lady’s only means of transport?

I am also concerned about the wheelchair – who will push it? Will she be using it a lot? Have I swapped children’s prams for this? The experience in the computer store comes back to haunt me.

Annie goes to check out the wheelchair. Grandma sits on the sofa and shows me some crocheted items she has ‘saved for me’. I am touched.

“You better smarten yerself up Annie!” she says as my friend comes back into the room, having inspected the wheelchair and found it to be perfect.

“He needs to look at that hair!” Grandma tells me.

He? I am confused.

“He looks as though he’s been pulled a hedge backwards!” she declares.

Annie laughs and through the banter I am struck by the number of times Grandma refers to Annie as ‘He’.  Is this a Californian thing?

Grandma insists that we stay the night though there is only one spare room with a double bed. I feel a little awkward, not least because the ‘he’ business has roused my suspicions again. Annie has the bed. I sleep on the floor on a number of sofa cushions.

I do not sleep well. Annie snores rather loudly.

In the morning I feel bad for wondering about her/him and my concerns seem silly in the light of day. Annie, unaware of my discomfort the previous night decides she will wear an outfit she declares to be Grandma’s favourite.

Thus we walk into the kitchen for breakfast, me in very British attire – denim shorts and cotton top and Annie in her pink hot pants.

”Doesn’t he look a picture?” Grandma smiles when she sees Annie in the now infamous pink creation. There are other words I could use to describe Annie at this moment but ‘a picture’ about covers it.

We were offered a  light breakfast – oh, that’s the other thing I forgot to mention about Annie, she has no teeth. Well, she used to have teeth but lost them. She then had a false set but lost those. The dentist who fitted them has since died and…she really prefers being toothless or so she says.

The first time I noticed the absence of teeth came when we stopped at a diner for breakfast. I was horrified by the sucking sounds emanating from Annie’s mouth as she mashed her gums together. She remained oblivious  to my disgust of course and slurped and sucked her way through scrambled eggs, toast and pancakes without so much as an ‘excuse me’.

A better person than I would have been able to ignore the eating impediment and would not even mention it here. However, it is so much a part of the trip that I simply cannot ignore it.

Half way through breakfast Grandma barks,

“For God’s sake, get your damn teeth done Annie!” (I am not the only one then).

We are packed up and ready to go. The wheelchair has been stowed in the back of the van and I am hoping that Annie will neither need it nor really want to use it.

“Don’t forget your present,” Grandma tells me. I thank her again and assure her I have packed the little crocheted items in my case.

“I have something for your little girl…the youngest one,” she adds and turning, reaches into a drawer and pulls out … a doll.

I don’t jump. I am fine. It is only a doll.

Closer inspection reveals that it is indeed only a doll, a very pretty baby doll for which Grandma has crocheted an entire outfit including a fetching bonnet. I thank her, for it is a very kind thought and I shall tell my youngest daughter that, when I give it to her, even though she is almost thirteen.

We leave Grandma behind, waving us off with one hand, the other resting on her walker, as we chug out of the park.

“That wheel chair will be real handy,” Annie observes as we leave.

I have but one thought in mind as we set off on our next adventure,

“Head for the hills!”


Filed under California Memories, Living Between the Lines

The Tomb of Dolls

Location: San José

The house is low slung and shaded by trees. A couple of rickety chairs sit on the porch and a cat gazes at us with lazy eyes from the shallow roof, as we walk up to the front door. I have been told a few things about Annie’s mother. I know, for instance, that she works nights at the hospital. I know that she has remarried and that Annie’s stepfather is retired and around the house a lot. I also learn that Annie is living in a trailer in the garden at the moment being ‘between homes’.

I am however, totally unprepared for what meets me as my new friend takes me proudly into her mother’s house. For one thing it is dark. The blinds are down, the curtains are pulled and as we enter the hallway it takes a moment to refocus in the shadows.

“It gets too hot with the blinds up and my mom likes to nap during the day so we keep it like this most of the time,” Annie explains.

I nod and smile. I do this a lot during my stay.

We have a coffee and sit at the kitchen table where a shaft of sunlight dares to invade and light up the room a little. Annie introduces me to her mom who is indeed a lovely lady. This lovely lady tells me I should stay with them, not spend money on motel rooms. I consider the idea but really, I prefer to be independent.

“Let’s go into the living room,” my friend suggests and with her little dog following, we head to the inner sanctum of the house. This is when reality leaves the building.

I appear to have entered a twilight world. The room is swathed in semi-darkness. Slivers of sunlight attempt to penetrate gaps in the blinds and as I blink, adjusting to the gloom, I am startled by rows of glass eyes staring back at me.

“Oh, meet my mom’s dolls!” drawls Annie with a grin.

These are not just any dolls. These are dolls that have never been played with, entombed in cellophane boxes and standing shoulder to shoulder on shelves ten deep, lining the four walls. The dolls come in all shapes and sizes. There are baby dolls, teenage dolls, costume dolls, cute little girl and boy dolls, china dolls, rag dolls, black dolls, white dolls, pretty dolls, extremely ugly dolls…all standing to attention in spooky silence.

It is evident that when wall space ran out, Annie’s mother was forced to take drastic action because the middle of the room is divided by a shelving unit and this too houses row upon row of staring eyes belonging to a veritable army of dolls of all shapes and sizes.

The top most shelves are occupied by teeny weenie dolls and little ornaments.

“Have a seat,” Annie has already flung herself on a couch having first removed a pile of boxed dolls that have yet to make it to a shelf of their own.

I close my mouth, aware that to stare so blatantly is rather rude. Instead, I walk around the display and pretend an interest. Actually, that is a bit unfair. I am interested but possibly not in quite the way that I should be. I am interested to know why there is such an extensive collection of dolls in this twilight home where light seems to be so limited. Is there a connection there? Are the dolls entombed in the gloom to preserve their delicate garments and protect the colours from fading?

I have walked half way round the room when Annie’s mother appears in her dressing gown having showered and readied herself for the evening shift.

“Do you like my dolls?” she drawls. I have to smile and say that they are certainly lovely and where on earth have they all come from? She shrugs and casually picks up a long stick with which she proceeds to go around the top most shelves and push the little ornaments back an inch or two. As she does so, she explains how she happened to be given a doll once and before she knew it, her friends and relations thought she collected them and now she has more than a thousand.

I am amazed.

“They tend to collect the dust though,” she says, putting the stick down and flicking dust from the nearest doll case.

I bet they do.

“Where will you put those?” I ask, indicating the pile of boxed dolls that are now lying forlornly in the corner of the room.

“Oh, well, as you see we had to make room for these in the middle so I expect we’ll work something out…”

I nod. I expect they will.

With my first introduction to the tomb of dolls over, we head back to the motel where I have booked in. My friend has booked in too – at my expense naturally.

“My Mom would love to have you stay over, think you could maybe do that tomorrow night? We could spend the night there and then head out to meet my grandma next day.”

The suggestion is put so pleadingly that I cannot refuse.

Hence, the following night I find myself back in the tomb of dolls, watching Annie’s mom and step-dad’s holiday video of their trip to Las Vegas. The dolls, those that are facing the right way, watch too.

As with most videos, it is of greatest interest to those who either shot it or are in it. My friend thinks I will enjoy it though. True, we wont have the chance to go to Vegas ourselves so, it seems a reasonable idea. It appears that Annie’s mother has shot most of the footage from the window of the car which her husband is driving, hence, we never see her face but we hear her voice.

“Frank, will you look at that – now that’s so pretty!” she sighs and the camera sweeps shakily across the road trying desperately to capture whatever it is she has just noticed . Comments like that abound as we watch their progress along the Boulevard and truly feel as though we are in the car too.

This feeling of ‘being there’ is re-enforced when the camera is inadvertently left running and placed on the floor. We are treated to a view of Mom’s feet, swollen and minus their shoes, as she continues to extol the virtues of Las Vegas. Unaware that their conversation is being recorded for posterity, or at least for my entertainment, the pair continue to talk until an argument ensues. It is one of those petty arguments that any married couple might have whilst travelling in a hire car through Las Vegas, with all the distractions that go with it.

“The light’s red honey,”

“ I see it, I see it…”

“Well it didn’t look like you saw it.”

“I did.”

“You did? Bull-shit!

“Will you shut up woman, for God’s Sake!”

“Who you yelling at feller? I’m not the one missed the red light!”

“Put your shoes on and read the map. I’ll worry about the lights.”

“I can’t put my damn shoes on. I told you my feet hurt.”

“Red light, red light – think I’m blind? I saw it.”

“Well, sure you saw that light – that’s why you almost had us killed…”

Bull-shit woman.”

It is a pretty normal conversation really, peppered with a healthy dollop of expletives. After several minutes of bickering, Annie’s mom realises the camera is still recording and switches it off. I was just getting interested too!

It’s time for bed. I am not quite sure where I am meant to be sleeping but it appears that the settee in the living room extends to a bed. Ah, I will be sleeping in the tomb of dolls. My friend heads off to her trailer. Her mother issues me with blankets and tells me not to worry if the ornaments fall off the top shelf in the night because they tend to move with the tremors.


I begin to undress.

“Gee, I’m sorry honey,”

‘Step-dad’ apologises profusely for barging in on me. He has ‘forgotten’ his glasses. Maybe I should be glad he’s forgotten them as I am not exactly decent. I don’t think the garment I am holding up in front of me leaves much to the imagination.

He leaves. Hmmm.

As I climb beneath the sheets, I am not so worried about the ornaments, it’s the dolls that disturb me. I swear they have each twisted on their stands the better to see me.

I switch off the light. Ironically, the room does not swim into total darkness. The glow of a street light filters through the blinds and a neon sign causes an eerie green ‘on/off’ light to fall on the faces of those dolls nearest to me.

Sleep does not come easily.

At long last I sink into a light slumber. My dreams are peppered with visions of ‘step-dad’ placing hidden cameras in the dolls’ heads so that their eyes swivel and follow me about the room.

I wake early.

‘Mom’ has come home from her night shift and is having ‘supper’ in the kitchen. Her husband has joined her. I feel slightly awkward lying here with so much activity going on in the next room. Is it light outside? Hard to tell but I think I can see a chink of daylight peeping through the blind. The neon sign no longer flashes.

I turn over and come face to face with the devil doll –well, he looks devilish but was he really there last night? I shiver as my imagination runs riot. Finding my wristwatch I see that it is 6.15am. Well, time to get up I suppose though I know my friend rarely rises before 11am.

I make sure I am well covered before I cross the hallway to the bathroom and I am fully dressed by the time ‘step-dad’ brings in a cup of coffee for me. Just as well, because he doesn’t knock.

‘Mom’ goes to bed and ‘step-dad’ who apparently stays up all night too (not sure where he spent those hours since I was occupying the living room) joins her.

I am alone.

The thing is – I am not alone. I sit on the sofa for five minutes and thirty seconds before the intimidation of a thousand pairs of eyes staring at me becomes too much. I grab a book and head off to the garden where I spend three hours and forty-five minutes reading until my friend comes to join me.

Now to meet Grandma!


Filed under California Memories

The Man-Mountain Sheriff and Me

In my last post, I mentioned my lone trip to California taken in April 1997 when I left family and England behind in search of adventure. I listed some events that I would really like to share with you some day. Writing that short snippet has jogged my memory so I have decided to post these events, one at a time, for each is a short story in its own right.

Finally, I should add a disclaimer at this point. I do not intend to cause offence to anyone who may recognize themselves in these stories and although events are real, names have been changed to protect the innocent and the weak.

In no particular order and beginning today, here is my first short offering…


The Man-Mountain Sheriff and Me

We have been driving for a short time.

“I think we need to stop for Gas,” observes my new friend as we chug along Highway 1 just outside San Francisco.

I rose this April morning in a Motel 6 where I spent last night. It was not the most luxurious of settings. My view included a brick wall and the room was in permanent darkness. I had looked forward to getting out into the sunshine but as I closed the motel room door behind me and stepped out of the covered walkway to meet my friend, it was apparent that sunshine was nowhere to be seen. Grey clouds hovered above us and even as we set off for the diner and breakfast, the skies opened.

Rain splashes against the windscreen. This, although I do not know it, is to be the only rain we see in the entire three weeks and will remain memorable for that reason. Just a few weeks ago, California was hit by torrential downpours and floods that  have left  Yosemite closed to visitors and caused havoc across the country. I hope that this is just a shower.

The VW (camper van) is battered and old and it groans a little as we turn into the forecourt of the Gas station.  Everything on the forecourt looks pretty normal to me apart from the obvious differences to home, like the *petrol pumps being labeled as **gas pumps and the dollar signs replacing pounds.

Part of the deal on this trip is that in exchange for hospitality, I will pay all expenses while we travel.  Hence, I step out of the VW and head for the cashier’s kiosk. Ready for the inevitable questions, I smile and present my credit card to the chap behind the desk,

“Hi there, you’re from Australia right?” he asks, hearing my accent as he swipes the card and waits for the machine to work,

“No, I’m from England,” I reply – now on auto pilot since I have answered the same question at least fifty times since my arrival.

“Oh really? You get a lot of fog over there don’t you?” the attendant grins.

Of course, I put him straight, but honestly, is that what everyone thinks? Sherlock Holmes has a lot to answer for.

As I walk back to the VW I do think something is not quite right. My friend is turning the engine over – but nothing is happening.

“She’s cut out again – just needs a push or a jump start,” she states, standing by the VW, hands on the hips of her pink hot-pants. I look from her to the van. There is no way I can push that great hulk of metal anywhere.

My hair is feeling decidedly damp and the rain continues to trickle down my neck. My friend seems pretty dry beneath her battered straw hat.

“Maybe the engine’s just flooded, if we wait a few minutes it might start?” I try hopefully, my own  experience of elderly vehicles and their foibles springing to the fore.

“Go ask that Sheriff if he has any jump leads or can give us a push,” my friend instructs, ignoring me and waving a hand in the direction of the Sheriff’s car that has just pulled onto the forecourt. I believe she thinks I will present a more pathetic sight than her and evoke sympathy. She is probably right on the first count, though much good it will do me…

Now normally, back home, I would have thought twice about the entire idea. Maybe I’d have looked around a bit first but hey, I am in California and I am ‘alone’ and I can do anything now… it turns out I personify ‘the tourist abroad’.

I lean down to peer in the window of the Sheriff’s car and smile.

The very nice Sheriff opens the door. I step back, he steps out – and up. My jaw all but hits the floor as he straightens up. He is at least seven feet tall and six feet wide. (Well, he must be, trust me). A holster sits on his hip at eye level. I don’t like to think about the gun concealed within.

“Yes Ma’am? Can I help you?” he is asking.

Looking up, and up, I ask him if he would help us start the VW, even give us a push. At this outrageous suggestion he shakes his head,

“”Sorry Ma’am, I can’t even push the vehicle for you. We get a lot of folks who tend to sue us if things go wrong.”

 I stare at him, suddenly appreciating the British Bobby even more. Back home I like to think that even now, a kind policeman would still roll up his sleeves and try to help.

It is at this point that two more police cars screech onto the forecourt, sirens wailing.

“Excuse me ma’am, we have an incident here,” the man-mountain says calmly. 

I jump aside as two men run out of the cashier’s office, shouting and brandishing what appears to be a gun in the air. The man-mountain Sheriff strides across and apprehends both as two more police officers run up to assist.

From within the office raised voices reach my ears and other people begin running hither and thither waving their arms in the air excitedly.

I make a hurried exit from the scene and jump up into the passenger seat of the VW. My friend doesn’t say a word. She turns the key and by some miracle the engine starts. We don’t hang around. As soon as the engine is ticking over nicely, we are off.

***Thelma and Louise we definitely aren’t!

As we leave the Gas station behind, I can’t help but wonder at what has just occurred. Perhaps I won’t let my husband know about it until I get home. No sense worrying him unnecessarily is there?

Oh and yes, the engine was flooded by the way.

*Gas station – Petrol station in the UK
**Petrol pump –  Gas pump in USA
***Thelma and Louise – you mean you don’t know? Wow! Where have you been? Film 1991 directed by Ridley Scott.


Filed under California Memories

Would I do it all again?

Sometimes we surprise ourselves by taking a leap into the unknown. Sometimes life throws up an opportunity too good to resist.

It happened to me in 1997.

One minute I was just a normal wife and mother of five, the next I was flying 5000 miles across the world to meet someone I knew only by virtue of an online  writer’s club, by myself. Ok, I know having five children is not classed as strictly ‘normal’ but you get the picture.

What possessed me to do such a thing? Heaven only knows. The opportunity arose and with the encouragement of my husband, I took it.

To be truthful, when I had originally been asked to go, I had thought my husband would be with me. The idea almost dive bombed when he explained that he couldn’t get all that time off work and he would need to look after the children in any case.

“I can’t go on my own!” I protested.

“Yes you can,” he insisted.

“I don’t think I can leave the children,” I wailed.

“Yes you can,” he insisted.

“I can’t go for three weeks!” I squeaked.

“Yes you can,” he insisted.

(‘Bob the Builder’ liked this phrase so much I think he tweaked it and pinched it)

So, here I was, flying across the ocean and over the Rockies to California. I had almost turned back as I prepared to head for the departure lounge at Heathrow when my five-year old son gave me an enormous hug saying,

“I’ll miss you mummy.”

To this day I don’t know how I did it. I have an inkling of course. I think I had something to prove to myself. For the past seventeen years I had been bringing up our children. I hadn’t travelled much alone and I certainly hadn’t ever flown alone. I wanted to prove that I could. I wanted to prove that I could be independent and look after myself just as I used to, before children, before marriage.

What sort of mid-life crisis was this? I can smile now. Most of my friends of the same age were taking up new hobbies, new jobs, none were trekking half way round the world on a whim.

Arriving in San Francisco eleven hours later, travel weary, goggle eyed from channel hopping on the in-flight television and convinced it was past my bedtime, I realised I had flown back eight hours and had to re-live most of Thursday.

I scanned the airport foyer for a sign of the online writer friend whose picture I held in my hand. I was looking for a slightly built, blonde haired lady. My eyes settled on a plumper version of the same with frizzy straw coloured hair crushed beneath a floppy straw -boater. It had to be her though she bore little resemblance to her photograph. I hoped I bore more resemblance to mine!

The events of the entire trip would fill a book which I fully intend to write one day. Be thankful you are just getting a snippet here. The book will come later.

As soon as I set foot in San Francisco, I knew I was right to come. Once properly introduced, my new friend and I set off in a battered VW camper van in the direction of San José where we would be staying.

I could write so much about the first few hours but this isn’t the place. Instead, I will just say that after two days of jet lag and of being regaled with TV re-runs of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and ‘Doctor Who’ as my hostess tried to make me feel at home, I awoke feeling almost human again.

Two things amazed me about my visit, apart from the wide smiles of the restaurant and motel staff as they cheerfully exhorted,

“Have a nice day, now!” whenever I so much as breathed; the first was an intense interest in anything English shown by everyone I met and the second, the question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips,

“Do you get a lot of fog over there?”

Having sat through the re-runs of all those dubious British dramas, I could only assume that these people imagined England to be in the same state as the London of Victorian times was commonly depicted, smog bound and grey.

We don’t actually get a lot of fog here at all really. Ironically, my first trip to the Golden Gate Bridge was a disappointment due to San Francisco being covered in a blanket of fog. I went back a day or two later and crossed it in the sunshine. It lived up to its name.

We travelled through the Napa Valley and camped in the Redwoods – oh the stories I could tell but they will just have to wait for another day.

For reference, sometime soon, I really must tell you about:

  1. The man-mountain Sherriff I had to approach for help only to find myself in the midst of ‘an incident’.
  2. Travelling through the Napa Valley on the strength of my credit card.
  3. Camping with some ne’er-do-well lumberjack types.
  4. Travelling along Highway 1 – trying to steer from the passenger seat whilst crazy friend removed her jacket.
  5. Eating at Sinbad’s by the Bay Bridge.
  6. My friend’s Grandmother.
  7. My friend’s mother and the tomb of dolls.
  8. My trip to the “The Original Oprey House” in Los Gatos.
  9. Pushing my suddenly wheelchair bound friend along a railway track (This one will take some explaining).


It was a truly memorable time.

So, would I do it all again?

No, I don’t think I would. These days common sense would kick in long before I set off. I mean, my ‘friend’ could have been an axe murderer. She could have been as mad as a hatter – actually, she was but then maybe I am too!

Am I glad I did it?

You bet I am!

After all, I proved I could.


Filed under California Memories