Conquering Taft Point – Well Sort Of…….

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Taft Point – The View

After an hour and a half of pushing, pulling, straining and heaving I felt as though I had done an extensive work out at the gym. My arms and shoulders ached from the exertion and I greedily drew in deep lung fulls of the thin mountain air. According to the sign to my right we had come half way along the trail in twice as long as the guidebook suggested. After a few mouthfuls of water I pushed on.

What now seems in hindsight a slightly foolish idea, I had taken it upon myself to push my 10 year old son in his wheelchair along a trail situated at the side of Glacier Point Road to Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California. My boy has Cerebral Palsy which affects the movement in his arms and legs and consequently his only form of mobility is his wheelchair.

The guide book I had read back at the hotel that morning over breakfast suggested that it was an “easy” hike. Easy on two feet maybe but taking myself and the four wheels of a wheelchair was an entirely different story. I soon discovered that the trail was more challenging than I had thought.

This is where most guidebooks fall down in my opinion. They seem to be written from the perspective of the single traveller or a small group. There is little account taken for those whose mobility maybe limited or the brave family dragging their gaggle of children through the backwoods of America.

Admittedly we weren’t in the back woods – there are too many cafes, souvenir shops and visitors centres to give you the feeling you really were in the middle of nowhere.  But it strikes me that this kind of information would more than useful – if only so that you know it is possible to traverse a trail with a pushchair for example. It certainly would have been useful for us in any case.

My wife and two other children aged 11 and 3 pushed on acting as reconnaissance to any new and interesting barriers that we may come across. They would shout back about what to watch for and then stand there at what seemed some impassable point on the path.

“You’ll never get through this part” they would say.

“Just watch me” I would retort.

“Are you sure, Dad” my son would ask quietly. “No,” I would admit next to his ear so the other’s couldn’t hear. “But let’s give it a try, shall we?” He would smile, the cue that he was happy to let his crazy father bounce him over and through the next obstacle.

There was a good deal of flat ground that meandered through stunning trees and calm wild flower filled meadows, however, the large rocks and boulders that occasionally filled the path forced us to take stock and work out a route over and  around these obstacles and this slowed us considerably. Once the chosen route was decided we bumped and wobbled our way through, on occasion scraping away at the metal of the wheels of the wheelchair.

One particularly awkward challenge was stream with it’s steep embankments to traverse. The wheelchair tipped this way and that at precarious angles. The cool waters of the stream eased my and weary feet as we paddled through. My son to his eternal credit gave only words of encouragement as he tenaciously gripped the arms of his wheelchair.

Occasionally, fellow hikers would stroll past do a “double take” and offer help out what most have looked like a slightly deranged father and family needlessly putting themselves through hell. Especially as some of them will have been aware that Glacier Point, with it flat easily accessible tarmacked paths, café selling food and cool drinks and safely walled look out points, was only two or three miles up the road. I guess it pays to read the guidebook a little more carefully in future and plan these things with a little more thoroughness.

We were reliably informed that the effort was going to be worth it and were complimented more than once for our tenacity. I have always had the philosophy that I will not let the wheels of my son’s wheelchair stand in our way on vacation. I have always found that the extra effort always pays off.

After the arduous and strangely fulfilling upper and lower body work out of the trail we eventually arrived at the top of a hill, the midday sun beating down on us. We looked down to where the path opened out to a huge flat area and then elevated towards the “point” where a lone piece of railing was the only structure that stood between you and a 3,000 feet drop.

With a tinge of disappointment, I looked at the steepness of the path and the way it twisted and turned horribly and realised that I had come as far as I could do. I was confident of getting him and his wheels down to “the Point”, however, in the thin air at the 7,800 feet elevation and the heat of the sun I was less than confident of getting in back to where we now stood, never mind the car.

At that point, a quick decision was made and I reversed him under the shade of a tree for shelter and, after enjoying a hard earned bottle of water, I descended the trail, camera in hand to go and see what all the fuss was about. My wife agreed that we would take it in turns to go and investigate the famed vista and waited with the children whilst I disappeared.

The view from the point is nothing short of spectacular. It reminded me of the feeling I had the first time that I went to the Grand Canyon and looked out at that enormous chasm in the earth. Nothing prepared me (or could have done for that matter) for the sheer scale and majesty of that sight. The sheer size and vastness of the canyon as the red and orange stone drops away from you is awe inspiring.

But in some ways it is also a little surreal because it feels almost unreal when considering the statistics of the canyon. The Colorado River looks like a small stream but it is a mile down in the canyon and has an average width or around 300 feet.  The length of the canyon is around 280 miles which is 80 miles further than where I live in the North of England to London. That’s a 4 hour drive or 2 hour train journey away. It is around 18 miles wide rim to rim – Yosemite Valley itself by comparison seems small at only 8 miles long. To me these distances are difficult to assimilate whilst you stand and take in the majesty of this natural wonder.

On the other hand Yosemite Valley and Taft Point is not on such a huge scale. The reality of the fact that you are standing, precariously in some ways on a 3,000 ft high block of granite seem to hit home that much harder. I have to confess that I have never been afraid of heights and yet when I peered over the edge and saw that there was nothing between me and a long, long fall during which time I would have plenty of opportunity to empty my lungs of scream after scream before my body splattered into the rock. With the Grand Canyon I felt there was a crumb of comfort in that if you fell there would a ledge or two that would break your fall and possibly save you from certain death. With Taft Point you know that there would be no second chances.

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Stunning Yosemite

And so it was that I found myself gripping onto the rail near the edge slightly harder than I would normally and marvelling at the incredible scale of the valley and breath-taking vista. The number of superlatives to describe this place quickly ran dry. I turned to see in the distance my family, tiny dots on the mountain side where they awaited my return. I stuck a hand up to wave and watched them wave back. It was sad that I hadn’t been able to take my son all the way down to the edge, especially after coming so far. I was also aware though that if my boy had been able to make it, so would my 3 year old and I know that I would have had to have maintained a vice like grip on her as she would surely have been too tempted to peer over the edge.

Looking over the valley, I imagined John Muir, back pack filled with bread, tea and a blanket as his only provisions, standing at this point and resolving to protect this area for all time. He spent a great deal of his life investigating the valley and it’s surroundings recording and publishing his findings in the hope that he could inspire people to see this natural wonder and nature itself in a new light and not just as an opportunity for profit and gain. He battled to have the park protected as he watched the lumber companies and farmers slowly erode the lowlands surrounding the valley destroying the meadows with their abundance of wild flowers.

He managed to convince no less than an American President – Theodore Roosevelt – to segregate the valley and surrounding area and make it one of America’s first national parks thereby inspiring a change in attitude and philosophy that generated the National Park system that is in existence today.

At this height you look down on the granite monolith that is El Capitan. Down to the valley to the Merced river below. The railing at the end just doesn’t seem substantial enough and one could imagine a gust of wind could lift you from the lofty perch and deposit you over the edge in an instant.

I quickly absorbed and photographed as much as I could and then followed the path back to where the family had been patiently waiting. Whilst my wife and elder daughter made their way down toward the Point to experience the natural wonder for themselves, I gave my son a full debrief in as much detail as possible and showed him the photographs. Today this was the best that I could do.

Tomorrow, would bring new challenges. Everest anyone?

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Yosemite National Park – Paradise in California

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

We love holidaying in North America and over the past 10 years have seen as much as we possibly can with our three children in tow.  From  bustling cities such as New York and San Francisco to National Parks such as The Grand Canyon and Shenandoah we have tried to experience all that represents American cityscapes and landscapes.

There is one state though that we consistently gravitate back to: California. And there is one place in California that draws us back every single time and that is Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was designated a World Heritage site back in 1984 and was one of the very first National Parks in the USA. It covers over 760,000 acres straddling the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The 3.7 millions visitors per year tend to keep to a 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley.

The park is a reasonable 4 hour drive from San Francisco and it is more than worth the effort to get there. Even on paper the valley is impressive:

  • It was one of the first National Parks in the USA
  • Yosemite falls is the highest waterfall in the US with a drop of 2,425ft
  • The park has three groves of ancient Giant Sequoia, the largest trees on the planet: Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove. Photographs of these trees cannot do them justice. They are truly awe inspiring in the “bark”.
  • El Capitan is the largest single monolith of granite in the world
  • The park is home to one of the biggest bears in the world: the Grizzly.  It is essential that you read and heed the notices and warnings about these animals and be “bear aware”
  • Ansel Adams, arguably one of the world’s best landscape photographers did some of his best work in the valley and it is not hard to see why he was consistently drawn back

In the heart of the valley sits Yosemite Village. This is a great place to stop and has a decent cafe and store. The store is particularly useful if you are lodging or camping in the park itself. It has a good selection of food and drink along with souvenirs, t-shirts and books. There are other interesting things to see and do in the Village including a visitor centre,an art centre and bookshops.

Map of the valley

Most people’s first view of the valley is at Tunnel View where you are presented with an incredible view that will have you instantly reaching for your camera. With El Capitan to your left, Yosemite falls to your right and half dome in the distance it is time to reflect for a minute on what has got to be the perfect picture postcard landscape. In the summer it can get very crowded but there is a decent sized car park. In all the times that we have been we have never failed to find a space.

From here the road winds down into the valley and before long you are in the one way system that loops through the valley and towards the village.

In addition to Yosemite Valley itself there are many distractions including the groves of Giant Sequoia, Glacier Point (with not to be missed views of Half Dome), Taft Point, Toulemne Meadows, the list goes on with dozens of trails to take you off the beaten track.

El Capitan in all it’s glory

Once on the road on the way into the valley itself there are are lay-bys and car parks next to trails, stunning meadows, glimpses of mountains and sheer granite rock faces. Essentially, everywhere that you turn takes your breath away.  It is a area of visual riches that we never, ever tire of.

We have been in Spring when there is still snow on the ground and parts of the park closed; Summer when the weather is beautifully hot and clear; and Autumn where the colours of the trees adds a special dimension.

If you are a photographer, hiker or climber you are in seventh heaven here with so much to photograph and climb that you are spoilt for choice. For photographers my advice would be to take plenty of memory cards with you – you will need them. Also if you venture into the the Ansel Adams Gallery (highly recommended) you may get an inferiority complex so please be warned!!

There is plenty of accommodation around and in the park from campgrounds to plush hotels. Be warned though that in peak season it gets booked up pretty quickly. Also accommodation outside the park is generally cheaper too although you will have a reasonable drive to get to the park.

We have always stayed in a small town called Oakhurst. It is south of the park and around a 45 minutes drive to the entrance. It has some great restaurants with Crab Cakes and Sweetwater Steakhouse being particular favorites – no prizes for guessing what they specialise in! Hotels and Motels are reasonably priced too. We have stayed in both the The Best Western Yosemite Gateway Inn and the Comfort Inn. They were both clean and comfortable although the Best Western doesn’t include a breakfast in the price.

So all in all it is a piece of paradise in California – a State that seems to have more that its fair share of stunning places to visit.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D MkII and 24-105L lens.


Slaid Cleaves

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You know that you have hit rock bottom as a musician when to supplement your flagging music career you end up as a science experiment down on the “Farm”. The Farm is American slang for laboratories where drug companies pay you to try out their latest pharmaceuticals and then have you report the side effects.

And with Slaid Cleaves (great name, huh?) the characters in his songs reflect the everyday struggle that most working class people have to face – One Good Year is a great example of this.

Slaid’s albums are a cross between Americana and Country. He has an incredible raw voice that draws you into the characters lives he creates.

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Broke Down would be the album I would recommend as a taster for what the man has to offer. When I first heard the first three tracks I was hooked.

Unsung is great too on which he sings songs written by up and coming or generally unknown songwriters that he admires. Flowered Dresses always brings a lump to my throat on this one.

Cheryl Wheeler – Brilliant New England Based Singer

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Cheryl Wheeler is an American singer songwriter based in New England. Her unassuming demeanour belies a singer with the voice of an angel and a songwriter that can write pithy comic songs, heartbreakingly beautiful ballads or simple songs about the area she comes from.

The style of her music is folk with a slight tinge of country thrown into some songs.

Her songs have been covered by several well known singers such as Kenny Loggins, Garth Brooks, Bette Midler, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea to name but a few.

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Her Greatest Hits album Different Stripe is a magnificent collection of songs. I love the simplicity of Sylvia Hotel and When Fall Comes to New England. Other stand outs are Aces, Arrow and Moonlight and Roses.

Travelling With The Kids? Some Tips to Smooth the Journey…….

We have been across the Atlantic to the States and Canada with three children over a dozen times in the last 5 years. Here are some ideas that work for us to ensure that everyone gets most form the holiday:

Let the airline know your needs

If you have the kids with you let them know at the gate so they can get you on the plane first. They are usually flexible and helpful and to be honest want you out of the way so they can get the rest of the passengers on board as quickly as possible.

If you struggle to get around find out how far the gate is when you get through security. It can easily be a 15 to 20 minute walk away. If you think you will struggle with this ask for assistance down to the gate.

Make sure that you will have your push chair/pram/buggy delivered to the gate at your destination.

We have flown with a lot of the major Airlines – KLM, American, Delta, British Airways to name a few – and have always found them more then willing to help.

Keep calm on the plane

Forget with the other passengers think. You have paid good money to be there and they should accept that there will be children on the flight and those children are at some point going to have a bit of a breakdown.

We have had passengers, upon seeing our three kids near them before we took off, ask a member of cabin crew to move. The cabin crew thought this was hilarious and proceeded to move them to the worst seats they could find.

My experience is that the airline staff will do what they can to keep your kids comfortable. A happy, occupied kid is unlikely to give them trouble.

Do online check in if you can

You just need to drop your bags off and can arrive at the airport a little later as you are already booked onto the flight with boarding passes in hand.

Entertainment on planes is essential

Take as much of it as you can possibly carry. On a long flight you will not regret it one bit. iPods, DS’s, Books, Magasines, paper, crayons, cuddly toys, toys – they all fit into my daughters Trunki and keeps her occupied for hours!

Oh and make sure that you fill things like iPods with as much music and movies as their capacity will allow and that they are fully charged and can be charged whilst away.

It is also very useful if you were going on a road trip when the last thing you need is bored children.

iPods can be a life saver.

Take a spare set of light clothes on the plane

You never know when you are going to need them. From kid’ throwing up over themsleves to luggage not being there when you arrive they are an essential addition to your hand luggage.

Going to Disney?

Visit guest services and let them know what you need. This is especially useful if you have young children. They have an amazing area where you can change nappies and feed young ones. It is an oasis of sanity in the mayhem of the park. if you have mobility issues that will provide you with a pass to ensure you get on rides first.

Expect naff food at Disney and the other parks

It tastes like crap and is expensive. Also the lines are generally huge and there never seems to be a right time to start queuing. Try having a big breakfast, taking snacks with you and then enjoying a substantial dinner in downtown Disney where it may not be cheaper but the quality sure is better.

The general Disney dining experience us rarely a pleasant one

Kids meals in diners/restaurants

They invariably serve up the usual appalling hot dogs, chicken dippers and cheese toasties– best to get some variety and quality by splitting an adult meal with the children. Never had a problem with this

Hire a bigger car than you think you need

At some point in a journey with the the kids ripping into each other you will parapphase the immortal phrase either under your breath or in a scream: “we’re gonna need a bigger car”. Once you have the car and are on the road it will be too late.

We only need 5 seats but we hire a car with 7 seats over three rows so that we can split the children up from each other if we want. And we generally do.

You don’t need this!

You want this!!

Take a spare bag

You never know what goodies you will come across in the Outlet malls and the prices are usually so good that temptation and bargains are hard to resist.

Involve the children in decisions

Or at least make it look like some of the ideas are theirs. Ask them what they want to get from the holiday, tell them what you want to get from it and agree with them that a compromise will have to be met if everyone is to have fun.

Set some rules and ask what behaviour they feel is acceptable from them and their parents.

Write it all down and have it as a kind of holiday charter that can be referred back to. It seems to work.

Take a good guide book

We have always found Frommers and Fodors to be the best. Essential when you are out and about and need to know a good kid friendly restaurant or hotel to go to.

Take the car back the night before and use an airport shuttle

It is one less hassle on the day of departure especially if the Rental Car drop off point is off airport.

Don’t surprise the kids

We once told the kids they were going to London and when we got to the airport surprised them by telling them they were going to San Diego. They were so excited by the prospect of the London trip that San Diego turned out to be a huge letdown for them. They loved it when they got there but had miserable faces all through the flight. You can’t win!

Start your holiday immediately!!

Take the view the holiday starts from the time you reach the airport or even when you get up in the morning and start enjoying yourself straight away!

Some of the above may seem a little obvious but we have always found that these suggestions are a good recipe to ensure everyone is happy on holiday.