Friday, 25 June 2010


By Cecilia Seilern travelling with Lily Barton

The ominous characters of Crescent City and the greedy folk of Reno are both unflattering American stereotypes. What we experienced next of American people in Lake Tahoe and Death Valley demonstrated a far more desirable quality in the American national psyche.

We sallied forth to Lake Tahoe with the naïve notion that no popular holiday destination by a lake in the Golden State would be served up without sunshine or heat. As we approached the area, the pine trees heavy with snow were a telltale sign that we had been mistaken. Lake Tahoe, indeed a popular holiday destination, is a ski resort! The lake, it turned out, is known for the clarity of its alpine water and the panorama of surrounding mountains on all sides. Though snow was still stubbornly lining the side of the road in April, it was warm enough for us to be in t-shirts and we thought little of camping another night in the cold. Nothing, not the fact that out of a dozen campsites only one was open, or even that in this one open campsite ours was the only tent, nothing would stop us in our quest of saving a buck or two by avoiding a warm night in a motel. Having erected our tent and digging out every last piece of clothing that might get us through the night, we were accosted by the camp host Ed, who came to collect the sum of $20.00 for the plot of land we had chosen. No doubt expecting us to be seasoned and equipped campers, Ed nonchalantly informed us that a snowstorm was expected with temperatures dropping well below freezing; he was immediately faced with our horrified expressions. Too stingy to pack up and go, and too embarrassed to reveal our idiocy to Ed, we were ready for what would no doubt become a test of our endurance while Ed turned on his heels and back to the comfort of his RV. A few moments later, while we were piling on as many layers as would fit, Ed reemerged from his warm RV and headed toward our frail tent. Having reevaluated the situation, Ed decided he felt sorry for us and kindly led us to an empty RV tucked away in the back of the park. When the season reopened the following week, the RV in question would be rented out for $900.00 a week; Ed gave it to us for free and though it was damp and smelly, it might as well have been the Ritz we were so relieved to be out of the cold! We stepped out the following morning to find ourselves surrounded by six inches of snow…

As our summer tires struggled to get us up and down the Sierra Nevada mountains, we looked forward to the heat as the landscape merged into the arid desert of Death Valley where our summer tent would finally fit in! Or so we thought… The moment we exited the mountainous insulation of the Sierra Nevada, we were once again faced with unanticipated weather conditions. Having never experienced a hurricane in the mild European climate I’m used to, I can only assume that what was blazing through the desert that day was just that; a milder version perhaps, but a hurricane nonetheless. Six trucks were blown off the highway which was promptly shut leaving us stranded in a small desert town named Lone Pine on the outskirts of Death Valley. The wind made the prospect of camping one that not even we, as broke as we were, could consider. We walked into a few motels asking for their cheapest rates walking out again and again dissatisfied with their offers. Finally resigned to fork out for a night in a less than desirable room we couldn’t afford, we gave it our last ditch attempt. We walked into the last motel on Lone Pine’s Main Street and were met by rugged looking man with hair as white as snow, a deep tan and cavernous wrinkles from the dry heat and harsh desert sun. His name was Doug and completely unfazed by the hissing gale outside that had now rendered the town into a state of darkness, he calmly responded to our financial enquiry simply by saying; ‘Merry Christmas, don’t worry about it.’ Utterly bewildered by this blasé act of kindness, we protested at first but soon accepted breathing a sigh of relief as strong as the wind blowing outside. Amid Americans’ many flaws; their collective greed and often shocking lack of worldly cultural understanding, lies an admirable quality and one, which is quintessentially American. Time and time again have we encountered a kind of helpfulness and hospitality seemingly unique to the States. Whether it’s buying a breakfast smoothie and leaving with a goody bag full of granola bars and nuts given to us by the owner upon hearing of a long day’s drive ahead, or simply always being told: ‘Oh my God I love your accent!’ there is something innately kind, even admirable about the clichéd American perkiness we so often mock.

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