It seemed like one of those things we’d talked about for years, but it still felt really impulsive and surreal when we finally booked return flights to LAX last autumn, we being me, my partner, Dan, and our friends Incidentally Bentley and David. It felt even more surreal when we were all sat around in my living room the weekend before we were due to fly actually planning a route around California. It was really going to happen. We were going road tripping in the US.
Actually, the whole of 2013 has been a bit dream-like so far. After seeing in the new year with a whimper (literally – I had an ear-infection haha) rather than a bang this year, it was a quiet an uneventful start. Things livened up considerably when I ended up going on a last minute trip to India with my mother in February, only to dislocate my kneecap on Day Two which put a dampener on things somewhat, especially for my poor mum! Still, while I can say with some conviction that I have zero desire to visit an Indian hospital ever again, the people of Goa were wonderful, and if you’re going to be laid up, there are worse places to be than on an Indian beach, drinking a beer or five!
Shortly after returning home, I received word that my first novel had been accepted for publication by e-publishing house, Musa. If I hadn’t been in a leg-brace, I would have done a little dance, but instead I had to settle for a congratulatory kiss from my boyfriend and a celebratory tot of rum. 2013 was shaping up to be pretty eventful.
Thanks to the bum knee, it was touch and go as to whether I was going to be able to drive in California, but I started walking on it early so there wasn’t too much atrophy and I managed to go sans leg brace the week before which made flying a lot nicer. We were all set!
It was not the most auspicious start, if I’m honest. Our cab to the airport got stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel on the way to pick us up, but kept me hanging on for an hour and half before admitting he was never going to make it and sending another car from a local firm. There ensued a very tense dash across central London, and we made it with just a few minutes to spare before check-in closed. It was least amount of time I have ever spent in an airport, and the most I have ever wanted to physically hurt a taxi driver.
Once we were on board with a drink in hand, the flight itself was quite pleasant. I didn’t sleep at all, but watched three really long films in a row and failed to do any writing even though I’d packed my netbook specifically for that purpose. Oops.
When we arrived in LA, the plan was to pick up the hire car and drive straight to Vegas, where we had a cheap motel booked (the only accommodation we’d planned ahead of leaving the UK), even though my boss begged me not to attempt such a foolhardy mission, given that our brains would think it was three o’clock in the morning when we touched down. So, always up for reckless disregard for our own physical and mental well-being an adventure, we picked up our enormous and brand new black Impala (what else would a Supernatural fan drive around the US?) and set out on the freeway. Fuelled mostly by adrenaline and Cheetos, we made it to Vegas in the early hours of Friday morning, at which point I’d been up for about twenty eight hours and was possibly hallucinating.
When we arrived at the first motel parking lot, it looked a little bit like the sort of place you might get murdered in. This was no surprise. They also had no record of our booking. Also no surprise. However, they had rooms left, and once we were inside, we found it was actually really nice. We congratulated ourselves heartily on making it this far and fell into bed for a few hours sleep.
We drove down the strip in glorious, sunny weather (it was still raining/snowing/windy/apocalypsing back home pahaha) and tried to go for breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go. This involved venturing inside one of the large casino hotels and we very quickly got our first taste of Vegas life. There was an hour wait for a table and people were stumbling about the hotel with cocktails and cigarettes, happily pumping coins into slot machines. At breakfast. It was like when the kids first get to see inside the Wonka Chocolate Factory. What was this magical Babylon where people had tequila for breakfast?
Too hungry to wait it out, we found ourselves in an IHOP, which is a bit like a Little Chef, only it feels really American.
Bellies full, we drove to the Stratosphere which was to be our home for the night. On the way, a nice crack-head asked me if I was a porn star, which goes to show my appeal to the more colourful elements of society has international applications.
Stratosphere is proper ‘old Vegas’. The hotel has seen better days but it’s huge and constantly busy. We decided to stay there for the free access to the tower which has great views over the city and the surrounding desert. It also has vertigo-inducing rides and a bar at the summit, which you are encouraged to make full use of before launching yourself off the edge of the building!
As the sun went down, we walked the strip, stopping off in Circus Circus, Treasure Island, The Venetian and the Mirage, meeting a friend and colleague of David’s who was there on holiday with his wife for drinks along the way. It was like the most flashy pub crawl imaginable. There’s definitely an air of desperation and shabbiness behind the superficial glitz, but I get the appeal. There’s also the feeling that it’s a place where you can do pretty much anything you please. It’s decadent in the truest sense of the word, and you cannot deny that some of the sights are pretty spectacular. I was particularly taken with sunny Venice recreated indoors at night:
We headed out into the desert and into Arizona for our first real-life glimpse of the Grand Canyon, taking in the Hoover Dam on the way. Tiny settlements, seemingly with two or three churches for every ramshackle house or trailer, lined the long, straight road to Eagle Point, the site of the famous Sky Walk.
At one point, we thought our sat nav was broken as it was telling us it would take over an hour to drive twenty miles, but we soon discovered it was no mistake. There was no road past a certain point, just a bumpy gravel track and the odd cow, the white dust churned up by our tyres making it impossible to see more than a few meters ahead, and giving the scrubby trees a ghostly appearance. It was worth the rough ride once we got up to Eagle Point and Guano Point, though. Once you get over how bizarre it is that there are no health and safety restrictions, no guard rails or fences, just you, a ledge, and a crack four thousand feet deep, the shifting light and colours of the canyon take your breath away.
After all that beauty, we headed back in to the city and to the first night’s motel for a night swim, a pizza and a good night’s sleep.
It was time to leave Vegas and head for Death Valley. We drove pretty close to Area 51 and while we didn’t see any aliens, we did see a prison, a very large firework, and possibly the most random grouping of things on a sign I have ever seen:
Why would you need hot sauce in a brothel? Just seems like it’s asking for trouble.
We stopped off at Furnace Creek’s visitor centre where we met a very tall park ranger called Justin, just one in a long line of Unexpectedly Hot Men in Inexplicably Remote Locations. At the visitor centre, we discovered you should take four litres of water per person on a short hike. This seemed a little excessive until we got out of the car in Death Valley and found it was like being stood in front of a giant hair dryer. The forty something degree temperature makes you sweat, but the gale force wind immediately whips the moisture away, so you become a desiccated husk within a matter of minutes.
This didn’t stop us venturing out for a look at the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America) and taking the Artist Drive which winds around mountains and peaks in pastel shades of brown, purple, pink and green.
One of the things I wasn’t quite prepared for when we embarked on this trip, is just how dramatically the landscape (and the weather) can change in a matter of hours. Waking up in Three Rivers (having arrived in the dark) with its greenery and wildflowers and warm, spring-like weather was a far cry from Death Valley, and as we set off up the twisty and narrow road into the Sequoia National Park the temperature dropped every few minutes until we found ourselves in a land of mist and snow! The altitude made it noticeably harder to breathe as well, so it was a good job we didn’t have to run from any bears. We also very nearly ran out of gas, but were saved by another incongruously attractive boy with a gas pump. God bless America.
After a day spent among the giant trees, we hit the road and ate possibly the biggest meal I’ve ever seen, at the Black Bear Diner. At this point, we had mostly subsisted on burgers and Cheetos, so seeing a vegetable was quite the event, and I fear I overdid the broccoli. And the courgettes. And the carrots. And the potatoes. And the cauliflower. And the chicken. And the cornbread. And the vegetable soup that came on the side. And the gravy. And the bear claw. Oof. We drove through the ex-red light District of Jamestown, although it still boasts a Christian Cowboys Fellowship and a Fudge Lodge which is hilarious when it’s late at night and you have nowhere to live. And possibly altitude sickness. We found a motel after a few attempts and slept the sleep of the truly stuffed.
Day 6 & 7:
We decided a couple of days’ break from driving was in order, so we headed North to Lake Tahoe. After much deliberation and raking of Expedia, we had booked a hotel which, as it turned out, was right on the lake. This was incredibly lucky and stunningly beautiful. We had beers on the beach and then went for an Italian meal, which we couldn’t finish, having peaked too early at the salad bar (vegetable excitement again). The next day, we drove the circumference of the lake and stopped for a picnic. We watched some local kids playing volleyball although the lake was ice cold. They are made of sterner stuff up there. In the evening, we sampled some local ales at a microbrewery, then headed back to the hotel to watch Supernatural on the CW AS IT WAS BROADCAST. You can imagine how much of a highlight this was for me.
Another day of extremes as we visited the Lava Beds National Monument, a vast volcanic landscape, much of which was a battlefield during the Modoc War. There are many caves you can explore, but after being screened for White Nose (a fungal bat disease) we were informed by yet another strangely attractive ranger that they were closing up for the day and wouldn’t be able to lend us flashlights. When David piped up that we had an i-Phone 5, as testament to the refreshingly lax attitude to health and safety we encountered during our trip, Ranger Jessie looked incredulous for a few seconds but didn’t try to stop us going extreme caving with no equipment whatsoever, save the ubiquitous Apple device (which didn’t have a signal anyway).
We did enter the easiest cave on the trail which has rope lighting along the floors and walls but, realising that caving is nowhere near as much fun as The Goonies would’ve had us believe, we used the remaining daylight hours to explore the battlefield.
Having left the Martian vistas of the Lava Beds, that night’s drive took us into Oregon where it started to piss it down. Biblically. We drove towards Redwood country on a terrifying and seemingly endless winding mountain road which was crumbling in the torrential rain. After literally dodging rockfalls and deer on wet hairpin bends in the mist and spray, we arrived, thankfully, in Crescent City.
More giant trees were the order of the day in the Redwood National Forest. We found ourselves at the Trees of Mystery centre, where we took a cable car through the treetops and learned all about massive, nightmarish lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. Disappointingly, we didn’t see Bigfoot once, but we did drive through a fallen redwood which was only about 2 millimetres wider than our car which was exciting and slightly distressing.
That evening we stopped in Garberville, a place overrun by hippies years back, much to the bemusement of the local logging community, for some Californian-Cajun food. The whole place smelt of patchouli, but everyone was pretty friendly. The owner of the restaurant accepted a traveller’s check for our meal despite not actually knowing what a traveller’s check was. After dinner, we drove to the coast and found a place to stay and heard another frog chorus.
Or The Day We Ate the Best Seafood Ever, as it is now known. We awoke in our motel opposite the bay, to the barking of the resident sea lions. We drove to Bodega Bay (where much of Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed) and had crab sandwiches and clam chowder at the Spud Point Crab Company. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but my taste buds are still having happy flashbacks now.
Then it was time to press on to San Francisco, where we were due to spend a few nights. We managed to accidentally drive over the Golden Gate Bridge without paying the toll (cheeky) and once in the city, we found a decent little hotel on Lombard. We checked in and took a stroll through the city to Grubstake, the restaurant in a train carriage which was featured in the film noir, Dark Passage. I had a Philly cheese steak which was so big I couldn’t finish it, but then somehow magically managed to force down the best part of a wedge of peanut butter cheesecake, a sweet which will stay with me forever (figuratively speaking as a lovely memory, and probably literally as a pinch of fat on my hips as well).
On the way back to the hotel, we got corralled into a bar by Dan because he had heard on the internet that they had pinball machines. Sadly for him, the pinball machines had just been replaced with video games, and this is a sample of the artwork from the wall:
OH DEAR, DAN. However, the owners were lovely and one of them poured us what can only be described as full tumblers of Jagermeister, shunted down the bar with a “whoops! My hands slipped!”
We walked home,
hammered nicely tipsy, without realising quite how far it was. It was possibly the most I’ve ever needed a wee in my life.
It started out being a beautiful sunny day, so we walked all over San Francisco. Then we took the tram (which I would only recommend if you like a. queueing b. freezing and c. danger. It’s a beautiful city, but I think its hilliness isn’t ideal for someone recovering from a busted patella. We did have a delicious Chinese meal in the House of Nanking, where we met a nice couple from LA. One of them had apparently enjoyed quite a few Mai Tais and was obsessed with Monarch of the Glen and I believe his partner was called Boo Boo. After dinner it was back to Polk to visit our new favourite bar for a few rounds of pool and some more exquisite artwork.
Laundry Day. This was the first time I had ever been to a Laundromat and it was surprisingly easy. We now felt like real San Fransiscans and, more importantly, we had clean underoos. After all that washing, there was just time for a quick visit to Haight-Ashbury on the bus (a bit like Brighton IMO) and then we had to nip down to the docks for our night tour of Alcatraz, which was awesome. San Fran looked beautiful from the water as the sun set, and the prison itself was spooky and fascinating. We had a tour guide who got inappropriately excited by the slamming of the cell doors and we got to have a peek in the ‘hole’. We even managed a quick snoop around the abandoned hospital wing before it closed down for the night, and it genuinely looks like a set from American Horror Story Asylum. I don’t envy the person who has to stay and keep watch all night long.
Back on the mainland, we caught the bus back to Lombard and stopped in a Mel’s diner for some mac and cheese on the way home.
We waved goodbye to San Francisco and headed for the Winchester Mystery House in nearby San Jose. It’s less of a mystery spot now, and more of a place of historic and architectural interest. We took a tour of the house in a large group, then stuck around to do a ‘behind the scenes’ tour with another Justin, and what this one lacked in height and sexiness, he made up for in moustache wax!
At lunch time, we attempted to find a taco stall which was recommended in a ten-year-old guide book, which sadly doesn’t actually exist anymore, so we found ourselves in the world’s first drive-thru falafel shack. They give good falafel. Then we motored on through Big Sur where we checked into a cute but pricey cabin with a door between the bedrooms (hooray – sexy times?) and a window in said door, covered by a curtain which was on the wrong side (uh-oh! Kinky peepshow cabin!) Luckily we played cards and drank beer until we passed out, so no one had chance to make use of the pervy door anyway.
We drove on down the coastal road through Big Sur and happened upon a whole beach of elephant seals, basking in the sun. Apparently numbers dwindled to just twenty or so in 1990 but then there was a population explosion, and in 1996 one thousand pups were born. We were there as the females and juveniles had returned to the beach to molt. I could have watched them all day, lying on the beach and spooning each other and flipping sand over themselves so they didn’t get sunburnt. Incidentally Bentley and I agreed we had truly found our spirit animals.
We carried on towards Santa Barbara, stopping at Pismo Beach for literally the biggest ice-creams I have ever seen in my life, served by another amazingly chatty and sweet couple, and a freezing cold paddle, arriving at our motel in time for a night swim and a hot tub before bed.
I was awakened by very loud and repetitive sex noises (thankfully coming from outside the room) which went on for an unfeasibly long time. I mean, there must be a point at which it just becomes unpleasant? JUST SAYING. We got up and had a look at the courthouse which is a pretty Spanish-style place with a bell tower, beautiful tiles and murals. We then stopped in at the manuscript museum which has a mad collection of things including letters from ex US presidents, bits of rockets, religious documents, paintings by local artists and ancient Egyptian artifacts.
We met up once more with David’s workmate and his wife for lunch at a lovely Mexican place called Sand Bar. A ridiculously good looking and eager-to-please waiter brought me a heavenly margarita and a sandwich smothered with melt in the mouth pulled beef and guacamole. Yum.
After lunch, it was time to do the last stretch of the road-trip – the drive back to LA. We stopped off in Malibu (although David Hasselhoff wasn’t in his lifeguard tower) and checked into a Motel 6 which was inhabited by various excellent characters, as you would expect at the seedier end of Hollywood Boulevard. We dropped off our cases and took a drive through Beverly Hills, stopping off for a late dinner at In and Out Burger, which seems to be the place to be in Hollywood on a Thursday night if the queue for the drive through and the crammed restaurant was anything to go by. I can attest that they really do make a tasty burger though.
Universal Studios. We hadn’t all been to a theme park together since we did Disneyland Paris a few years back, so we were pretty ready for some thrills. Unfortunately, the first thing we stumbled into was the House of Horrors, and I must have been giddy with excitement, or perhaps the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, because even rubbish ghost trains give me palpitations, so I wouldn’t have entered had I been in my right mind. It was, frankly, terrifying. I made noises I didn’t know could come out of me. I shouted “F*CK OFF!” at a werewolf. I mostly walked around with my eyes closed (which made little difference considering how dark it was) crying a bit and mumbling “I don’t like it” over and over until we saw daylight again. By which time I’d aged about twenty five years. I guess what I’m saying is, horror houses aren’t for me. And don’t rely on me to keep calm when the zombie apocalypse starts.
We did the studio tour with new bonus 3D King Kong experience, the Jurassic Park Ride, The Mummy ride (which was unexpectedly and brilliantly quite scary), the Simpsons virtual roller coaster, the Transformers 3D simulator, saw the Waterworld show (lots of people from CSI and stuff doing stunts on jet-skis and going on fire before falling into water from high up places) and had a nosy at some props and animation sets.
After that, we took a drive up to the Hollywood sign and along Mullholland Drive, where we saw Jack Nicholson’s house (well, probably – he lives up there somewhere) amongst others. We spent the remainder of our last night in the Snow White café on Hollywood Boulevard, a great little dive bar which serves pizza, pasta and steins of beer. The walls were decorated by some of the Disney animators on their boozy nights off, so there are scenes from Snow White painted all over the place.
Our last day. So sad. We checked out for the last time and went to Hollywood Forever cemetery where David got attacked by a pair of white ducks. It was literally the funniest thing that’s ever happened in the history of ever (sorry David). They came waddling up like they wanted to be friends and then just went to town pecking his flip-flopped feet. It must have been the bare flesh because the rest of us were allowed to wander about freely. These ducks may have been one of my favourite things about the whole holiday. See how pleased with themselves they look? I actually still can’t think about the unprovoked attack without doing a little cry. Our mirth was particularly inappropriate as there was a funeral going on a few hundred feet away, but as there were actual tears happening, I think it may have passed for abject grief at that distance, so we got away with it.
After the cemetery, it was more death of a particularly violent kind at the La Brea tar pits. This is an excavation site and museum in the middle of the city where countless skeletons of prehistoric animals which got stuck to the tar and perished, have been pulled out of the goo. Sabre tooth cats, giant sloths, birds, mammoths and dire wolves all met their fates at La Brea.
One of the museum staff (yeah, it was another cute boy, thanks for asking) recommended a place for a late lunch, so there was just time to stop at Phillipe for a dipped sandwich (French bread dipped in meat juices and filled with your choice of meat and cheese – divine) before heading back to LAX.
It was the trip of a lifetime, and I can’t wait to go back and see more of the USA. The sheer variety and natural grandeur of all the places we saw in just one state was unbelievable. I feel really humbled to have been able to see all that and with people who make every day brighter for me. It’s a rare thing to have friends you can spend that much time with at such close quarters and spend the whole time either laughing or just quietly co-existing rather than wanting to actually maim each other. Believe me, I do know how lucky I am!
And in a few days I am off to Rome with my special ladies, so you know what that means? Yup – my annual Jus in Bello convention report will be coming very soon…until then, happy Spring!