Thursday, 22 March 2007

Week 7 : Los Alamos to Santa Maria

It is now the 7th week of our experiment and I am discovering some important lessons. This week, in particular, I have come to appreciate the importance of aerial photographs rather than traditional maps in successfully undertaking a virtual tour. Without the kind of detailed aerial photographs available on both Live Search and Google Earth, both the start and the end of our weekly wanderings would have been very different.

Amy and I left Los Alamos heading east on Highway 135. Look at the map and this appears a barren landscape : a dusty highway sandwiched between pedestrian mountains. But the real - and the virtual - traveller know better. This is still California wine country and the fields that hug the valley bottom provide a far richer filling for the sandwich. Rich is a word that Amy and I found ourselves using a lot during this stage of our journey. The scenery is rich, the people are rich : indeed life itself is pretty rich. If you broke your leg and had to lay up here for a couple of months - taking in the sun, taking in the wine - you would feel yourself blessed.

After a couple of days of us wandering around with silly smiles on our faces we joined up with Highway 1 and headed north. An astonishing pyrotechnic display late one evening reminded us that as well as the wine groves, this part of the country was also home to 30th Space Wing of the United States Air Force. Amy and I were skirting Vandenberg Air Force Base. I checked their website and discovered that they had a mission statement. I have always had a weakness for mission statements - they always seem to provide an insight into an organisation with its pants down. "The mission of the United States Air Force", the statement reads, "is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests -- to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace. To achieve that mission, the Air Force has a vision of Global Vigilance, Reach and Power. That vision orbits around three core competencies: Developing Airmen, Technology-to-Warfighting and Integrating Operations". Amy and I chewed on these words for some time - no, that is an exaggeration, Amy chewed om an old animal bone she found in a ditch - without every discovering what on earth they meant. Eventually I decided that what was needed was good, old-fashioned blind faith : faith that somehow this meant that they were on the side of the angels as well.

Our route meant that we skirted around the backside of the air base (and at some 150 square miles it is a big backside) so we never got to see the famous runway nor the launch pad for the space shuttle (which was never actually used). But we were not to be denied our airport for a few days later we walked passed the Santa Maria Municipal Airport which is situated at Captain G. Allan Hancock Field. One thing the foreign visitor never quite gets used to in the USA is the number of airfields : almost every town and village has one. For someone who is in love with travel, airports always have an attraction and Amy and I sat and ate our lunch and watched the little planes venture into the clear blue skies.

I wanted to find out more about Captain G Allan Hancock who had given his name to the field and I was directed to Allan Hancock College in downtown Santa Maria. It appears that G. Allan Hancock was an archetypal Californian. Born in 1875 he was a sea captain, oilman, explorer, developer, banker, aviator, scientist, businessman, farmer, railroad engineer, musician, and philanthropist. My visit to the College campus provided me with an opportunity to check out how far it was possible to be a virtual student whilst being a virtual tourist so I checked through the on-line prospectus. My best bet, I decided, was to take a distance learning class. But was distance learning the right choice for me? Luckily, the college has set up a "Distance Learning Calculator" which helps you to estimate the financial savings you can make by undertaking your course by on-line distance learning rather than physically turning up a couple of times per week. I fed in my estimated commuting costs from home to the College and the personal time the travelling would take. I was amazed to discover that - assuming the class I was interested in met twice per week - I could save a very substantial £37,500 per semester by taking the course via the distance learning option. Amy suggested that if I signed up for a couple of courses, with the money I saved I could go back and put a deposit down on the ranch-house in Los Olivos. However, I suspected that there was something wrong with the logic, so we headed up the road instead.

When I had planned this week's walk I had used a map and I identified the banks of the Santa Maria River as being a suitable place for us to camp at the end of the week. On the map, the river looked lush and blue and inviting. (Virtual) reality was so very different however. The river bed was dried up and the pleasant river bank was little more than a gravel pit. Later I discover the reason for the dried-up riverbed - it is all to do with water conservation. The Santa Maria Project in the 1950s led to the damming of the river upstream. The waters are now diverted to many of those lush vineyards I had seen earlier in the week. A fair exchange, I guess.

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