Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

When a Bear is a bird, and when Beards do battle

Without attempting to be The Riddler, waking up in Yosemite for the last time was like waking up on the first morning of a new job – much less exciting than waking up on the last day of your old job, and even though there is a reason you must start work, quite unsure and a little anxious of what it might entail. The only reason I must start the day, is to begin the last leg of my journey, towards the coast, yet at this moment (the one where I feel like I need some recuperation time, some grooming, and some consistent sleep) I’m not looking forward to, or excited about seeing the ocean. I love the vision, the aura, the smell, and the unsettling size of the sea. It should never be disrespected or taken for granted, and someday I would like to explore it more, but right now, even though I know I have plenty of time to meet the Pacific, she signifies the end, and I am not ready.

Detours have been a common theme on my journey, and not just in America. Life’s scenic routes should always be explored, and days should be put aside to wander them. As much as I would like a hot bath, a gin and tonic and some spectacular seafood, I am sure there will be other adventures where the end will be desperately needed more than now, and I am in no hurry

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It is a six hour drive to Tahoe – and earlier in my trip, somewhere that I had been invited to a wedding. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it, and although I’m sure the bride would have loved me in her wedding snaps, I didn’t want to turn up in a faded t-shirt, “casual” underwear, or with my lycra-clad crotch exposed due to my ripped pants. However, with my two Swiss friends at the helm, it was their request that we swing by (Lake) Tahoe, before going any further.

South Lake (on Lake Tahoe) is another, more westerly version of Boulder, CO. It’s a tan-tastic, flip-flop wearing, famously-branded, and relatively expensive American holiday trap. It is also a sun-haven and a beauty spot, which many can’t resist visiting and indulging in. On initial contact, driving through the traffic jams, seeing the parking-lots full of hectic, arguing families buying supplies for their holiday, and catching glimpses of campers swarming the campsites with massive RV’s, some with cinema screens hanging from their awnings; I wasn’t looking forward to this “relaxing”, tourist Mecca.

However, clinging to the edge of a campsite close to the heart of the main drag, and being surrounded by half of Mexico that seemed to have booked the entire campsite for a family-orientated, weekend reunion (it genuinely was an impressive get together), we pitched our tents, and locate a rather boozy affair on the lakeside. It’s a free funk evening as the sunsets, and everyone seems to be enjoying a few local beers.

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When in Rome! And I treat myself to beer. I wouldn’t say I believe in luck, but when a bartender almost reaches the top of the glass with her pour, and says she’ll have to change the barrel – as well as then giving you that “almost pint” for free, it’s clearly a day to enjoy. I’m also not sure if it was me she was talking to, or another young chap stood next to me, so although our eyes fought momentarily over the “not quite pint”, my beard won the battle.

Luke was rather gracious in defeat, so I introduced him to the Swiss. He is a New Yorker with some traditionally-pale, Irish heritage, and after travelling across the US himself a few months ago to find a more fulfilling, warmer, outdoors lifestyle, and one which he can enjoy while he’s young (we’ve all done it, I ended up in Greece for a couple of summers when I was 17), he’s working in a nearby bar to earn his keep. He hikes, kayaks, snowboards, skates and swims, and Tahoe is perfect for them all; season permitting. After sharing a few stories, he hospitably invites us to where he works for a pint on the house…I’m beginning to like Tahoe.

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While being treated to a couple of drinks, I meet a man who has just left a Bruno Mars concert. I inform him that a ticket wasn’t needed, as I could hear the whole thing from over the wall, clear as day, from my bar stool. Ted is the owner of Base-Camp Pizza, one of the most successful pizza restaurants in the busy hub of Tahoe, and he is a little taken aback by my tale of reaching my barstool on my budget. He leaves his wife (I assume) and his group of friends and instantly wants to know a lot more. People often share what they can, and as I entertain him with a few quick titbits from my travels, along with woeful tales of how everything is regularly not all rosy, he slips me his card and tells me to visit his restaurant – to spend as much of a $100 tab as I like, and to bring my Swiss friends! I assure you, this kind of generosity from successful business owners is rare, not because they are not generous, but meeting them and being able to socialise with them while I trek through rural locations is not common. They are normally working, and they normally are not restaurant owners.

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I wouldn’t mention Base-Camp Pizza, or be complimentary if they were not deserving. Two days later, the service, atmosphere, hospitality, live music – and (the hopefully-ironic) blinding-silver shirt of the singer – as well as the spectacular pizzas at Ted’s, were on the house. The Swiss couldn’t quite beleive it, neither could I, and so they extremely tipped well on my charitable behalf. Ted was a gracious, and true-to-his-word amongst a super-busy restaurant. His staff were exemplary and it was a real treat.

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Luke showed us the state border, just north of South Lake. On one side, there is Californian “conservatism”, and on the other, is the hedonistic, gambling and liberally-famous world of Nevada. Crossing the street to the casino is what the boys have in mind, and I’m tagging my soberness along. However, as we make our way down the relatively busy strip, we bump into a colourful character, making balloon animals outside of a convenience store to entertain “all the pretty girls” as they wander by. It’s hard to miss this eclectic clown, and it is quickly apparent that Luke knows him well. The meeting becomes stranger when I find out he is Welsh, and from The Valleys, which I know fairly well. Not one to avoid an opportunity to practice a home grown accent, I offer my best southern-welsh twang and he’s happy for a slice of home. So happy in fact, that he offers me a toke on his Camberwell Carrot, and thankfully I have no plans to gamble once I cross the street! Of all the people I thought I would welcome me to California, I wasn’t expecting an ageing, welsh, balloon acrobat, sharing his home-grown on the streets of South Lake.

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Maggies Peak overlooks Lake Tahoe, so a mornings hike and she was briskly conquered. It is always handy to have a local in tow, as they normally know a lot that I don’t! Luke had always wanted to try and explore the small lakes around the rocky ridges, and although Granite Lake is on the beaten track, just south of the peak and definitely off trail, both Snow Lake and Azure Lake are hidden gems – well worth a little climb. On a ten mile “hike”, we enjoyed a lonesome swim, some epic views, and a few wooded areas, full of wild raspberries.

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There was a lot of evidence of bears enjoying the berries, but sadly, we didn’t see any while we were frolicking in the fruit-bearing forest. As well as ambling and scrambling around the rocky heights, we put in some mileage around the coastline of Lake Tahoe. It is always a slightly strange feeling as a Brit, to be at the edge of such an expansive pond, to not see land across its waves, and for it not to be salt water. We simply don’t have lakes that large.

Rubicon Bay, around the coast from (the greek island mirage which is) Emerald Bay is a fairly popular area, but after walking through Bliss State Park, it wasn’t hard to find a quiet sun spot to take a well earned bath.

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When meeting strangers, and possibly, lovely ladies in any establishment, I may currently look terrible, but at least after an attempted bath, I don’t smell like the carpeted interior of a rusty Volkswagen after someone spilt milk in it a week earlier (plenty of which cruise around South Lake – Vdubs, not milk-spillers).

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Another short evening in “Luke’s” bar leads to a longer, possibly inebriated night hike…maybe something which isn’t advisable without appropriate equipment. I however, have a warm hoodie, a top up of free coffee, and let’s assume a little dutch courage; It’s time to “see” a couple of trails by night.

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Linley and Nicole are the lovely ladies that decide to join us on the hike, and we are also drunkenly tagged onto by an enthusiastic German couple, replaying their honeymoon. The ladies are close school friends, now living in Connecticut and LA respectively, and after both coincidentally quitting their jobs on the same day, decided to take a holiday together…and crash my American adventure.

Reason number one for not night-hiking without appropriate planning: you can’t see where you are going, and someone is inevitably going to sprain their ankle (me).
Reason number two: it is possible you may stumble across a sleeping bear…
Although we didn’t actually see the said bear, it is terrifying to not know where exactly the load snoring is coming from. “Bearing” that in mind (see what I did there?), and after the ladies had done their best to convince everyone that what we were doing was a completely terrible and irresponsible idea, we helped them understand (I think) that the snoring was in fact, a bird. A feasible explanation, and I don’t think any of us felt guilty…

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Much noise was dutifully made before a half hour hike (with a few stiff “coffees” in me), and four miles from the glittering town on the horizon, we lay on a giant boulder amongst the sweet smell of pine on the breeze; and watched shooting stars and travelling satellites decorate the dark sky over the silent lake. Luke also managed to bring his hip flask – it obviously wasn’t his first rodeo.

Only a morning of daydreaming follows a late night of stargazing, and after strapping up my ankle and popping a few painkillers, a few hours drive or a rather long hike: Somewhere on the coast, – and possibly the end – is next.

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Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, I’m now mainly in Malawi.
Go Untamed Safaris is now up and running.
Between work days and in the rainy season (December to April); I am planning some expeditions and seek out some experienced individuals keen to be involved.
I am normally available in the U.K. January to March.

For safari and expedition details:

email: info@gountamed.com

http://www.gountamed.com

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