The US & Canada

03rd September 2011
I am in Vancouver, a place of mystery and confusion to me. The cold is closing in and I am nearing the end of the road. When I left London I had a dream of achieving world peace by drinking heavily on every continent. Now that I've succeeded, I can finally relax.

I am in a cafe on 4th Avenue lounging on a large leather sofa, absorbing the late-afternoon rays. I am being distracted by an incredibly attractive girl sitting opposite me. A few minutes ago her cardigan slipped down, exposing one shoulder. Nothing more was required. It was a perfect, golden moment.

I have spent most of the day at Granville Island Market, which is basically a bunch of people decked out in polo necks, horn-rimmed glasses and deliberately bad haircuts nodding earnestly at cheese. I also went to see a local sawbones about my elbow, which hasn't been quite the same since I dislocated it rolling the car in Laos. He squeezed it in various places to "assess the problem". Christ, it was absolutely excruciating. Now I know what childbirth must be like.

Autumn is infesting the air in no uncertain fashion. The rain switches on every time I step outside, but there is joy in my heart, for I've had the most amazing luck finding parking spaces. If you believe in karma, you should avoid me for a while. I have also been hanging out on Vancouver Island, which is a good spot when the weather is bad - the low sun and coastal fog lend the place a pleasant gothic touch.

My other project is buying clothes in preparation for my return to the world. It's amazing how a fitted shirt can reassure you that the world is essentially benign, despite the penchant of human beings to whoop it up with guns and instruments of torture. Of which more later.

N.B. Given that it contains various comments on the American political situation, this will undoubtedly be the longest and most tedious post I have ever written.

Some Numbers
  • Days in the US - 73
  • Days in the Canada - 25
  • States crossed - 9
  • Miles hiked - 250
  • Miles driven - alot
  • National Parks visited - 11

    Crossing the border into the States, I was full of excitement at the prospect of experiencing traditional American events that I had read about, like the chili cook-off, the race-riot and the high school massacre.

    When you enter the country, they STILL give you that form that says: "were you or were you not a member of the Nazi party from 1940 to 1945?". Ridiculous. The formalities took no more than a couple of hours, and I made it to McDonalds in Imperial Beach while the breakfast menu was still on, which is an exciting time to be alive.

  • San Diego: This was my first stop in America. At the border I picked up a guy from Memphis who launched into a hilarious hour-long monologue, calling me "man" which he pronounced "maing". Looking back, he may well have been on drugs. Examples:

    "There's fine women up in San Diego. You gonna lose your mind, maing. Maybe you never make it up to San Fran. But they's sticky, them women. It's OK if you get some oil up on that shit though."
    "I like the humidity here, maing. In Mexico it's like you in a frying pan, getting cooked with no oil, see."
    "Them women's stupid. Think you be superman. Think you be looking after them and shit."
    "You can't surf up there, maing. Sharks be eatin yo ass if you go in the water."

    San Diego is great. The weather is perfect year-round, they have great Mexican-influenced cuisine, and the nightlife is kicking every night of the week. I celebrated the fourth of July here, picnicking on the beach with friends. Great fun. It felt much like Guy Fawkes night - a family outing with mild boozing and fireworks. Somehow I expected something different, with more flags and tanks.

  • Los Angeles: I am not a fan of LA. A friend in London has a house there so I have been several times. Every cliché is borne out. The place is basically just a huge spaghetti junction in the desert and the notorious fakeness of the locals is much in evidence. Everyone you meet seems to be starring in a slightly different imaginary film about people trying to steal their idea.

    That said, I discovered a new corner of the city that I liked, Redondo beach. It has a fun funky feel to it and good bars. I stayed with the exceptionally fun and attractive Julie Cleland who took me out and showed me round. Notably, she is not from LA but from Texas:

  • San Francisco: This is my favourite city in the US. If I had to live anywhere in the States, it would be here. Great food, great nightlife and beautiful surroundings. Rather than describe the culture, I will just post this picture:

    Tom, a school friend from Winchester, lives with his family north of the city near the stunning Muir Woods and kindly put me up:

    The homeless are everywhere in San Fran. This is down to the fact that delinquency laws are more lenient here. It seems that most cities have ordinances banning such necessary daily activities as sitting and lying down, which are defined as "loitering" or “criminal trespass”. In defiance of logic and compassion, homelessness has become criminalized in large parts of the country.

    From SF I headed up to Tahoe, a gem of a lake surrounded by mountains, where I stayed for a couple of blissful days doing nothing. Then I turned south and spent a week camping in the beautiful but crowded Yosemite valley. Yosemite has more spectacular sights in a small area than any other park in the US. In a single day you can see the Cathedral Towers, Half Dome, Giant Sequoias, Bridalveil Falls, Sentinel Dome and Yosemite falls. This is not a wlilderness experience. There are railings and safety barriers everywhere. Once again I was reminded of the little freedoms they enjoy in less developed countries.

    Death Valley was next. "It's exactly as you picture it" just about sums the place up. It was 125 degrees while I was there. Unreal. And before I knew it, I was in Vegas.

    I hate politics. It really is the most awful boring rubbish. But I have to comment on Obama.

    Having taken office with sky-high approval ratings, he has suffered one of the steepest declines in history. It is now distinctly possible that the executioner's axe will fall on his presidency, leaving him to retire to the twilight zone of book deals and lucrative speaking engagements.

    There are a number of factors at play here. First, Obama is being blamed for the economic mess by the same people who were giving Clinton 80% approval as Greenspan was inflating the biggest bubble in history. Second, expectations were out of control. That the reality would not live up to the myth was as easy to predict as the fact that George Michael would one day emerge from the closet.

    Obama arrived on the scene in his coat of many colours, offering an inspiring but extremely vague agenda for hope and change, while staring manfully into the middle distance. It soon became clear that he was running not only for the white house but for the position of leader of humanity. He was marketed as a kind of a trans-political, pan-ethnic messiah - black but not too black, Christian but with a Muslim father. It made him appealing to millions of white Americans "yearning for a moment of racial redemption”, as someone put it, as well as to the rest of the world. He was elected on the crest of a wave of euphoria, culminating in the most undeserved Nobel Peace Prize win in history. But they were, all of them, deceived, for another ring was made...

    He cannot simultaneously represent the interests of the American people and those of humanity as a whole. The two are at odds, both economically and from a foreign policy standpoint. Another problem is that he is just as dependent on big money donors as Bush or Clinton. Candidates need to raise staggering amounts of money for their campaigns. It inevitably comes from special interest groups who then write the agenda. Politics is always subverted to economics in America.

    Predictably, Obama's advisers want to solve the ratings problem by getting back to campaign mode, i.e. giving formless, denutrified speeches and turning on an ideological dime when the poll data calls for it. Again, I am not blaming him particularly - those in power will do what it takes to stay in. In a system where the public makes a choice of personalities rather than a choice of policies, the price of power is the endless cultivation of a manufactured public image.

    I don't want to suggest that Obama is just a silver-tongued fraud. The system is the problem. He is an intelligent, charismatic middle-of-the-road candidate who was ideally suited to campaign politics. In other words, he is a gifted entertainer, which is all a presidential candidate really is. His inspirational BS is preferable to most of the alternatives, especially the raw grasping ambition of Sarah Palin. If you have any doubt about her blatant unfitness for public office, just watch the Katie Couric interviews, in which she totally exposes herself as a lying, pig-ignorant automaton with a raging hard-on for power.

    This may all be irrelevant, given that the world will end in 2012, and failing that we will be enslaved by chess-playing computers within two decades. Tea, anyone?

    I actually spent two separate weekends in Vegas but there is no need to cover both. This is the story of a sort of impromptu stag weekend. It resembles a gradual suicide attempt. There are breasts in the story. And beer. Warning - this story is clean, but contains traces of snobbery.

    The oily cub is Quentin. The estate agent is Charlie. The gay terrorist is Sonny.

  • Day 1: Team UK arrived at 8pm, so there was no time for a gradual easing in process, just some aggressive pre-gaming in the room and then straight to dinner and Tao nightclub. The food was good but largely ignored, as we laid into the cocktails like crazed alcoholics in the vicinity of a 2 litre bottle of White Lightning. With pleasing circularity, Tao was the first Vegas club I ever went to, back in 1999. I learned several valuable lessons on that trip, ones I've chosen to ignore ever since.

    We waded through a cacophony of supremely annoying ring tones to the front of the queue. The guys were mostly in jeans, check short-sleeved shirt and spiky hair. The girls were heavily mascara-ed and wearing tight mini-dresses. They seemed to be taking pictures of each other every fifteen seconds. It was not dissimilar to the crowd in a London club, minus the swearing and alcohol-fueled violence against the staff.

    As usual, the incident that stands out with the most appalling clarity is the one involving the highest degree of butt-clenching embarrassment. I was dancing with a goup of Spaniards, effortlessly vaulting the language barrier, when suddenly the trip-switch between my brain and mouth failed, with unfortunate consequences.

    Harry: So how are you getting on with the girls in here?
    Dude: Not bad, but there are so many hookers in Vegas you can't tell which ones are normal girls, and which ones are pros.
    Harry: Actually, sometimes it couldn't be more obvious (Indicates slutily dressed prostitute at the bar). Hahaha!
    Girl: That's my sister.
    Girl: And your flies are undone.
    Girl: Bye.

    Epic fail etc. Despite plans for an early night, we stayed until the bitter end. When Charlie is in this mode he "can't be bargained with... can't be reasoned with..." and, especially after he starts on the Redbull, he "doesn't feel remorse, or pity, or fear...", turning into a relentless drinking machine that "absolutely will not stop, ever" until he is face down in the gutter. We were the only people left in the club at 5am as the lights came up like searchlights trained on escapees in a POW camp.

  • Day 2: Wet Republic. This was the highlight for me. The big casinos have pool parties on the weekend, complete with pumping music and expensive drinks. As usual we high-rolled it with a lounge bed and champagne:

    The atmosphere was pretty tame early on, featuring a level of gender segregation of which an Ayatollah would have approved. He would not have approved quite as much two hours later when drunk half-naked college girls were threatening the stage with imminent collapse.

    Predictably, the place was infested with rat-faced stockbrokers with waxed chests. It made me rather conscious of the fact that I have not done any proper exercise since 2008. Something needs to be done. Maybe when I get back I'll get a job at a gym in some motivational, spandex-related role. Plus, everybody knows that thinking about dieting is enough to make you slimmer. I've probably lost a couple of pounds just by writing this. We soon found a crowd of girls from Florida who were good fun:

    I overheard Charlie introducing himself to one of them:
    Girl: "So what do you do?".
    Charlie: "I'm the king of Luxemburg."

    I was laughing my arse off as he continued to chase this long punt upfield. I ended up using variations of this line continually for the next two days.

    I was having a snooze on the daybed when there was a deafening noise in my ear: "Are you from Australia!!!!". I fell back in disorder, casting about wildly for something with which to defend myself. It was a small but incredibly loud blonde, who I first thought must be legally retarded, but just turned out to be from Nashville. Thanks to the good work of cultural ambassadors like Rupert Murdoch and Mel Gibson, Australia is now the default guess for all non-US English-speakers.

    I considered ignoring her, but that's simply not the fashion in which I roll. She was a friendly little thing, without the brains god gave a gerbil, but with nice boobs. She was in Vegas for a graduation. I remember my own only too well - standing in a big building for several hours sweating under a polyester cape, while some eminent old stick droned on about “heritage”.

    We chatted for a while until Ciara came on, at which point she made an attempt to follow the music in a deafening tuneless wail. Please Lord, do not forsake me in my hour of need! Stop up my ears! I broke off to attend to Quentin, who was making a nuisance of himself with a breakdancing demonstration. As the only married guy, Sonny was being well behaved but for a bit of suspected mind-cheating.

    At one point I was enlisted to "get rid of that weird guy who is bothering us". I wandered over and give him the "look mate, I know you're just being friendly but you're scaring those girls so try someone else" chat. Being German, he totally misunderstood and launched into an enthusiastic but barely comprehensible Allo-Allo style account of his entire holiday. This is why it doesn't pay to negotiate with terrorists.

    The Florida crew headed off to get changed and we were joined by two English girls who were approximately on our sobriety level. I took quite a shine to one of them, but despite my smooth, amusing chat, she showed no interest whatsoever. Rejection - better than a kick in the balls. Oh actually, wait… very much like a kick in the balls.

    Charlie and I had a crisis meeting behind a menu and decided to order another $500 bottle of Vodka five minutes before closing time. A totally unnecessary move, but never fear dear reader, even with the limited time available, we taught that bottle a severe lesson. For some reason, we then decided that wearing speedos would be an ideal way to stand out from the crowd. Having none, we tucked our shorts up, with excellent results:

    What? I look like a Greek god? Thank-you, thank-you so much. No, really, you're too kind.

    The evening was spent at Marquee, currently the hottest club in Vegas, where we had booked table service. Basically, you pay $1500 so that good looking girls will hang out with you and drink your booze. It brought back happy memories of downing shampain in the VIP section of Paper in London. Still, this is not really my thing. The problem is that clubs are hit and miss, whereas drinking in bars until you fall over is all hit. That said the club was incredible and our VIP hostess was hotter than a burning rock. I don't have much else to report about Marquee, as I was forcibly ejected after falling off the stage.

  • Day 3: These days I am mostly up at the crack of dawn like a kid on Christmas morning, camera in hand, but the following day I woke with a record-breaking hangover at about one in the afternoon. I lay for a couple of hours in the smooth, powerful breeze of the air-conditioner while my dinner tried to fight its way out of me. Sonny was sleeping in his usual flat-out way, in another world altogether, snoring in a deep unbroken rhythm. Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand, so I decided to get up. I spent the afternoon with Charlie and Quen in the pool with a very strange gay Brazilian who sounded like his middle wicket had been surgically removed.

    The evening was spent in Kahunaville, where we watched the UFC and drank some enormous run cocktails. This was followed by a pub crawl which included McShae's (marketed as “Las Vegas's cheapest drinking experience"), and a country music dancehall. We also played several rounds of beer pong, an American institution that involves throwing ping pong balls into cups and drinking heavily. I dominated, repeatedly shooting the ball in an extravagant arc into the centre cup, tongue dangling just like Jordan used to do:

  • Day 4: Somehow we decided it would be a good idea to start an all-dayer at the public pool in the MGM Grand. I cast a basilisk eye over the frat boys who had formed a hollering lager-crazed scrum at the bar. The place was an absolute zoo - a grunting mass of faces, armpits and crotches.

    We did a number of "circuits", which involved bolting several fluorescent jelly-shot things and then heading round the wave pool and chatting to random people. It was not like the crowd at Wet Republic at all - an uglier bunch of knuckle-dragging baboons and goggle-eyed quasimodos couldn't be imagined. We did finally found some attractive girls who would talk to us. The royal cloak was by now falling snugly over my shoulders, so I introduced myself as the Archduke Ferdinand of Corinthia.

    At this point the others rushed off to the airport. Knowing how things would shape up, I had booked an extra night in a cheap hotel to recover. Thanks to the Wild Wild West Casino, I now know what it's like to sleep with my head wedged in a Giraffe's colon, if that Giraffe had recently eaten a large number of alcoholic rednecks. The place was packed with fat middle-Americans sitting at the slots and greedily fellating jugs of cocktail. USA! USA!

    The room smelt like a scout camp latrine and was kitted out with a broken TV, broken air conditioner and stained sheets. The shower barely worked and they provided that kind of cheap soap that doesn't really wash off and leaves you feeling like you've been dipped in olive oil. The Wild Wild West has a "100 % Satisfaction Guarantee". I was 35% satisfied, at best, but for $16 a night I guess you can't complain.

    The room was not the perfect environment for my planned convalescence, so I headed to the card tables and started chatting to what appeared to be an albino crackhead of indeterminate gender. (S)he told me about his/her days as a punk bassist until we were joined by a rowdy group of ladies from Atlanta. As night follows day, I got roped into a pub crawl down Fremont street and began an irreversible descent into the black unthinking madness of an infinite Lovecraftian abyss.

  • Conclusion. Nothing constructive was achieved but we had a blast owning noobs and so on. Have I strayed? Yes, I can’t deny it. I am a fallen man. No regrets, except that somehow we forgot to go to the Hawaiian Tropic bar, which has been a mainstay in the past, on account of the smoking hot bikini-clad barmaids. Major oversight.

    The US Economy
    This is a rather large topic, so I want to just briefly mention three related issues that struck me while I was there. I will refrain from making predictions. Economists have such a poor forecasting track record that economics can barely be called a science. Needless to say, this raises many interesting questions about making predictions within an intelligent system. Equally needless to say, I disregard such questions.

  • Economic stagnation: You know the story. Growth since the Clinton era has been driven by a massive increase in private and public sector credit. People were encouraged to withdraw equity from their homes on the assumption that house prices would go up forever and banks issued all those Hummer loans. Having fulfilled the American dream of getting too fat to climb stairs, Americans are now going through something of an identity crisis. The extended period of income stagnation has undermined the invigorating belief in a future full of possibility that is one of the great foundations of Americanism. When you talk to people, you notice a new and profoundly un-American state of mind - pessimism.

  • Falling income mobility: This pessimism is exacerbated by the fact that falling incomes have been accompanied by declining income mobility. In America, you now have a smaller chance of moving into a higher income bracket than in almost any other developed country. It is worth mentioning that the American dream is based on a fundamental fiction - that success is equally available to everyone and can be achieved through hard work. This ignores the reality, which is that business success is almost entirely down to 1) Socio-economic status at birth; 2) Personality traits (especially dominance and social skills); and 3) Luck.

  • Rising concentration of wealth: Wealth in the US is controlled by fewer and fewer people. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant is the increasing corporate influence in politics. Huge scale lobbying has led to significant deregulation and a progressive dismantling of antitrust laws. We are seeing the same lopsided playing field that exists in Asia, where family dynasties operate cartels and bribe the government to secure lucrative contracts. For example, the pharmaceutical industry received a trillion-dollar gift when the government prohibited itself from bargaining over price.

    Why is all this a problem? Two reasons. 1) Countries with more unequal distribution of wealth and low income mobility are inherently unstable and prone to wild populist swings (see Latin America). 2) Economic decision making is becoming increasing centralized, which results in misallocation of resources. When a small number of people decide what is invested and where, they tend to decide badly. There are too many moving parts. Managing a complex economy effectively requires pervasive parallel decision making, i.e. the aggregation of a huge number of individuals making small decisions.

    In case you are interested, here is an amusing and partially accurate guide to quantitative easing:

    Southern Utah is the quintessential Wild West landscape. The region is a geological sculpture park - a maze of delicate sandstone arches, hoodoos, deep transverse canyons, chiseled spires and huge rocks delicately balanced on pedestals. It is a testament to the erosive power of wind and water. The only trees in the desert are bristlecone pines, ancient and storm-twisted, full of character and suggestion.

    I visited all of the national parks, including Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands. It really is a spectacular area and the finger-marks of geological change are evident everywhere. To me, Dead Horse Point, where sheer cliffs drop into the Colorado river, is the spot that best captures the character of this desert landscape:

    This is Indian country, or rather used to be Indian, until they traded away an area the size of France for a jug of moonshine and a pointy hat. Yeah, I know, I’m going to Hell for that one.

    Salt Lake City: My cousin Hannah, who is an arctic expeditioneer, if that's the right word, recently moved there. She was amazingly hospitable and took me climbing, mountain biking and tubing. Everyone in Salt Lake seems to be some kind of extreme sports fanatic. I was well out of my league but gave it a solid go:

    Travelling Alone
    For the first time on the trip, I have been by myself for long periods. There is no hostel culture outside the major cities, and hitch-hiking is almost non-existent. Occasionally, after a long day on the road, the lack of other voices and eye contact make you feel a bit cut off. There have been times in crappy motels when I felt like Alan Partridge at the Linton Travel Tavern. At other times it is a luxury - time to myself, drowsing under a tree with a book. Or a cup of tea taken at leisure with the sun on my face. It all depends on your mood.

    Middle America
    Do you consider yourself a well-read, intelligent person? Do you like to snigger condescendingly at those less educated than yourself? Me too. That is why snooty East Coast types like to belittle "flyover country" for being full of ignorant inbred rednecks.

    I really enjoyed driving the big empty states like Wyoming. The back roads offer numerous pleasures for a man who likes Jesus, grass and abandoned barns. I found little evidence of the small-mindedness and unfocused outrage that they are always accused of. In fact, I found people tremendously welcoming, possibly because I have a posh accent and am not in the slightest bit black. They seem to spend most of their time having barbecues and leaning on spades in a field. I even started to like bluegrass music. Take the piss all you like.

    I didn't really discuss religion with anyone, except once in a bar in Cheyenne. I was there during eighteens night, for which they had partitioned the bar to create a kind of play pen for the kids. Anyway, I got caught on the wrong side and was rescued by some cowboys. After telling them I'd been through LA, the conversation turned to Scientology. They were soon hooting with derision and clapping each other on the back at the hilarity of believing in galactic warlords, body thetans and so on. Some digging revealed that they were all practicing Christians. Ok, while we're ridiculing John Tavolta for basing his worldview on a load of risible fiction perhaps we should.... no, never mind.

    The idea that religion is responsible for most of the world's problems makes no sense to me. In any case, the Christian right in America is mostly about identity politics. They use religion to promote a sense of "us against them" and get people to the ballot box. I'm not sure that you're necessarily doing people a favour by disabusing them of their beliefs. Try swapping their gilded fantasy for a universe that's utterly indifferent to your existence, followed by death and oblivion.

    Also, Jesus is coming and he's going to wear your spine as a scarf.

    The Rockies
    Comparing mountains is subjective and imprecise, but the Rockies and the Alps are top of the list for me. The Himalaya and the Andes are very dramatic but so high that even the valley floors are often above the tree-line. I find the arid terrain rather forbidding compared to the cool dense forests and carpeted meadows of the Austrian Alps.

    I have done a ton of camping in the past two months. By that I mean backcountry camping. I don't understand the American style of camping, where you pitch your tent in a car park, shit in a hole in the ground and eat in a restaurant that smells of feet. The whole point is to be somewhere remote that you can't drive to. Otherwise, why not stay in a hotel rather than lying on the floor under a plastic sheet in the freezing cold?

    I realised that I had developed a real passion for it in when I did the Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop, my favourite hike of the trip:

    I started in the broad, glacier-gouged Teton Valley and soon passed along the edge of Trapper Lake. The trail started to climb steeply along a narrow river gorge and over broken, forest-covered ridges. After several hours, the valley opened out onto a wide mountain slope covered with a profusion of columbines and other summer flowers. I rested by a small tarn that I intially mistook for the shadow of a passing cloud.

    After an hour of easy going through the meadows I began to make my way across several large snowfields, followed by a long scramble up a steep rocky slope to Paintbrush Divide. A row of dazzling serrated white teeth stretched out in front of me - the massive peaks of the continental divide which form the backbone of Teton National park. I stopped to rest for over an hour.

    It was getting late and I knew I had to get moving. I continued along the ridge, enjoying a succession of different views until I reached the backside valley. A continuous belt of trees lined its floor and the slopes were littered with huge boulders broken off by the contraction and expansion of the ice:

    I descended a long series of switchbacks until I reached Lake Solitude, a perfect little Alpine lake in an amphitheatre with high peaks all around. I heard the distant howl of a wolf as I arrived, a sound that tingles your spine like no other. I quickly pitched my tent and made a fire while the Alpenglow lit up the peaks.

    I made some tea and roasted marshmallows as the stars began to appear. It was almost a new moon and there was a pervasive, ghostly silence. The ancients would say "Pan is sleeping". Lying back and taking in the night sky is one of the great joys of backcountry camping. It opens a door in your mind and you get an incredible sense of our world drifting along in the endless stream of stars. There are few things better.

    If you would like some inspiration, watch "Alone in the Wilderness", a totally unpreachy and incredibly relaxing documentary about a man building a log cabin in a remote part of Alaska, which he filmed himself in the 60s. One of the most simple and mesmerising things I have ever seen:

  • Yellowstone: For me, the big draw of Yellowstone is the wildlife. I saw: Black bear, ptarmigan, bison, elk, moose, grey wolf, big-horn sheep, pika and mule deer. No grizzlies, sadly. Two people have been killed and eaten by bears this year in Yellowstone so I bought bear spray. It carries the following warning: "This is not a repellent. Do not spray on your face or body". Jesus wept.

    I can't say I was hugely excited by the geysers. The rangers can't predict the erruptions with any great accuracy, so you end up standing in a field for four hours waiting for water to shoot out of the ground. Once you've seen one, you've seen them all. Frankly, the fountains at the Bellagio are considerably more impressive.

    In Boulder I stayed with Hillary, Phil and their two lovely pitbulls:

    The weekend included some light hiking and a surreal birthday party at the Buca di Beppo, a pope-themed restaurant. We adjurned to someone's house afterwards, where a game of "Celebrity" was played, plenty of wine was drunk, and things lightened up considerably.

    Bush and American Foreign Policy
    I love to defend Bush to irritate my friends, but there's no escaping the fact that he is a deeply unimpressive cheery spoiled brat whose slapstick presidency caused a spectacular decline in the fortunes of the country. With Cheney's hand up his butt like an oven mitt, he somehow contrived to make his country look both ridiculous and terrifying to the rest of the world.

    Driven by gesture politics and a desire to annex foreign oil reserves, he used fabricated evidence to justify a two-fisted intercession in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, before sniggering and wiping his snotty nose on the hem of the reaper’s cloak. Other highlights: refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocols, backing out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, attempting to dissolve the International Criminal Court, walking out on chemical and biological weapons talks, sanctioning illegal detentions and torture. And so on and so forth. His name is in my little black book and he should be flogged like a disobedient donkey:

    Since I'm in a straw man-murdering mood, I'll note that there is a pervasive exceptionalist myth in the American psyche - "we have the answers, we are superior, what we do is right". This leads naturally into a belief that the U.S. should promote their system of government by persuasion or by force, and we all know you can't make a liberation omelette without detonating a few eggs. The Americans are not the first offenders. Name any African or Asian country and there's a good chance that at some point the British invaded, kicked the shit out of the locals and made off with their possessions.

    The thing is, the Americans are right - Saddam was an absolute bastard and Iraqis would be much better off living in a liberal democracy. Unfortunately they do not agree, and if you try to force them, you will inevitably run into the law of unintended consequences. You can't just transplant a modern secular state system invented in Europe into a tribal and religious country. They have their own customs, which may seem strange or backward but are their own. It is not easy to assess another country's contradictions and see it in its underwear. It is easier to simply paint all dissenters as unpatriotic, gay, Muslim-lovers with paedophile tendencies, and charge straight in with the usual American light touch. Now, they find themselves caught between bitter ethnic and religious rivalries they don't understand.

    Self-determination is everything. A political system that people have fought for and made sacrifices for will endure in a way that no imposed system can. In other words, what's wrong with Iraq needs to be sorted out by Iraqis. Raise your hands everyone who agrees with me... great... OK... that seems to be everybody. Excellent. I win.

    Good things about America
    Let's be fair here - a superpower is rarely loved, no matter what it does. Countries act in line with their self-interest and always have. Overall, the Americans are a comparatively benign global superpower. In many ways America is still the world's most inspiring country. You can still mostly do what you want and say what you want. I am convinced that a world controlled by the Chinese or, god-forbid, the Russians would be significantly worse. If you think the American system sucks, then be sure to let me know what kind of paranoid Stalinist regime, medieval caliphate, Arab clan dictatorship or Singaporean auto-gerontocracy you would prefer.

    Americans are exceptionally open and friendly people. An American is like the big friendly dog in the room - he will knock stuff over, but you're glad he's there. I love their can-do mentality about everything. They have little fear of failure - an American is not a real entrepreneur if he hasn't gone bankrupt at least twice. The European view that America is populated by unschooled cretins is an arrogant delusion. There are a lot of them and therefore a lot of idiots, but the smartest Americans are the smartest people on the planet.

    I don’t have much to say about the country. Canadians are amiable and easy-going. Canada is significantly bigger than Austria. There are no mounties as far as I can see.

  • Calgary: I had been warned that Calgary is an "overpriced industrial shit hole". This is broadly accurate. I had an excellent time here though. I stayed with Maya, her husband Arjun and their adorable little munchkin, Devon. I used to hang out with Maya years ago in London, back in the days of Hotel Harlesden. Arjun took me to a Flames ice hockey game which was great fun, except for the disgraceful lack of fighting.

  • Vancouver Island: I have enjoyed it, although at this time of year it engenders a sense of melancholy. The rain is constant and the boggy ground is covered with dank grass and broken ferns. There is a constant sound of gusting wind and the clangor of the migrant birds, who are preparing for their annual peregrination. Some unifying spirit has spread through these miriad little brains, giving each bird an urgent sense of itself as a member of a coherent group. To my knowledge we still have no idea how this process works.

  • Vancouver: I haven't been here long. Mostly I have just been stuffing myself with sushi. The place feels huge, much bigger than the official 2 million population would suggest. There is a certain beauty in the workings of the urban machine. In some ways it's messy and imperfect, but sometimes you can't help but feel impressed by what people have achieved. The endless flow of traffic over the flyovers, the looming skyscrapers where businesses consume and propagate each other and, below ground, the complex network of pipes and sewers and power lines and telecom cables - the unseen cogs and gears that cause pressure to be transmitted from one part of the mechanism to another. It's an amazing thing.

    Quote from something I'm reading
    No music! That its absence should strike me so forcefully, rather as the heat when you step off an air-conditioned aircraft into a tropical country, demonstrates how insidiously pervasive it has become in our urban environment. It is like a poisonous gas that a malign authority pumps into our atmosphere, whose doleful effect, and probably purpose, is to destroy our capacity to converse, to concentrate, to reflect. It agitates us, keeps us constantly on the move, makes us impulsive and lacking in judgement.

    Best Moments

  • Attending the Colorado Balloon Classic In Colorado Springs.

  • Sparring against Vinny Magalhaes at Xtreme Couture in Vegas. He subsequently won the Super Heavyweight division at ADCC and can lay claim to being the world’s best grappler at his weight. Our fight was not competitive.

  • Antelope canyon. This is a beautiful place, but get ready to be crammed in with a horde of other tourists:

  • The Sentinel Pass hike, Banff NP. The autumn colours of the larch forest on the high plateau absolutely made this for me:

  • The Dawson Pitamakan loop, with a night at Old Man lake, Glacier NP. Takes you through a very remote part of the park. There is an incredible section along a cliff face and lots of views into different valleys. The lake is a particularly aggreable spot to camp:

  • Bryce canyon in southern Utah:

  • The outer circle trail in the Giant Sequoia forest south of Yosemite Valley:

    Worst Moments

  • Breaking down in the middle of nowhere in the Eastern Sierras. A kind local man helped me out. Good karma will surely come his way.

  • I was aggressively accused of being a moron by some potheads I met on the beach in Sand Diego for not believing that Bush was behind 9/11. And they claimed that this somehow made me a Bush supporter.

  • Locking myself out of my motel room in Cheyenne and standing in the street for two hours like a mental patient in a bathrobe, waiting for reception to open.

  • Last week I looked for a lighter for several minutes that turned out to be in my hand. Oh, life of mine! Why are you so ridiculous?

  • The killing of Osama Bin Laden was enthusiastically celebrated here. T-shirts like this are seen all over the place:

    Now, I understand that his death may give closure to people directly affected by the tragedy, but let's face it, 99% of the people hollering out of their trucks were not directly affected. This is not about justice but about revenge and getting even.

  • Accidentally stealing a towel from the Wild Wild West Hotel in Vegas. A guilty conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends, they say.

  • American TV: Some of it is excellent but God there is some unutterable rubbish on there. I have an idea for a show in which the cast of "Most Eligible Dallas" have to drive their Porsches round a track while the audience pot shots them with rocket launchers.

    The success of Fox News is confirmation that real journalism, which seeks to explain the complexity of important issues, doesn't sell. News is showbiz, and the best way to get ratings is 1) Focus on stories about D-list celebrities with big boobs; 2) Play on the resentments and anxieties of middle Americans with a never-ending battering ram of fear mongering until they are shrieking with genocidal bloodlust and throwing the remote at the TV.

  • What has two thumbs but only one eyebrow, after he tried to light a leaky hostel oven with a newspaper this afternoon?

    Best/Worst Food
    The words "American Cuisine" conjure up an image of fat Pepsi-crazed children running around in Burger King like a crowd of honking geese. Actually, there are some excellent things here. I am obsessed with American barbecue, especially Memphis ribs, North Carolina pulled pork and Texas-style brisket. I am constantly on the hunt for good local BBQ joints.

    Not everything is good. Peanut butter and mayo sandwiches?!? Try one and know the meaning of the word horror. Because of the obsession with value, the portion sizes are obscene. Americans love all-you-can-eat buffets, which I often tried, invariably ending up in a state of gross and bloated satisfaction. It's a disaster - your dumb animal side dictates your behaviour - "cram in all you can, this may be your only chance".

    Steve Jobs died the other day. I have to say I am amazed by the global reaction. When Francis Crick and WVO Quine died no-one gave a crap. This is reminiscent of the bizarre hand-wringing after the deaths of good-looking mediocrity Princess Diana and foul-mouthed imbecile Jade Goody.

    Take it easy, now.

    Steve Jobs was a marketing guy and a damn good one but Wozniak was the brains behind Apple. Jobs didn't invent any of the things that made Apple what it is. Or if he did, nobody has been able to explain to me just what his revolutionary invention was. Apple is just a company that makes things that are elegant and easy to use for a substantial price premium. That is it.

    Speaking of which, a thought just occurred to me - it's 2011, and we still don't have any decent sex robots. What the hell is going on?

    I have been living in a perpetual summer for almost three years. Now the leaves have changed and many are falling. It is really strange to be wet and cold all the time. Vancouver is like London at this time of year. The trees are bent double by the wind and the black clouds boil across the sky like the timelapse from Highlander II.

    I have just put $4 into a vending machine and got three cents worth of plastic and sugary water in return. This day shall live in infamy. In other news, I have had vague indications that a book deal may be in the works. Can you believe it? I haven’t slept.

    Ok, that's a wrap, folks. Take five. This is the second last post of the blog. When I get to Alaska I will sell the car and go home. I will write up my thoughts on the trip as a whole in the next couple of weeks.

    Thank you for your time.