A bit of Route 66

My map told me to take a small detour off the I40 freeway to follow the scenic Route 66.

It wasn’t overly scenic. Not in the way I have come to expect from scenic routes in America.

So instead I added additional time and miles to my trip to the Grand Canyon. Whilst Route 66 is the iconic American road trip, I don’t think I’d want to do it solo. I think the strange, zig-zagging path I’m taking is far more interesting.

RV nation

Two weeks of camping has opened my eyes as to the whole RV thing that grips America’s retirees.

At the campsites I’ve stayed at, most people have been in RVs or been towing massive caravans that require special truck hook ups. After home ownership, I think an RV is the great American dream. Or maybe it’s just that Americans work so hard during their life that when they reach retirement, they want to see their country from the comfort of a plush, fully fitted out mobile home. I’m yet to be invited inside one, but I hope to achieve that before my trip is out.

Here are a few random observations followed by one big tip.

  • There are different categories of RV. There are the shorter ones, the truck mounted ones all the way through to the deluxe pop out coaches
  • Hiring an RV is also popular with El Monte RV and Cruise America the two dominant companies
  • 90% of the luxury bus ones are towing a car, often a four wheel drive
  • Many of them have bikes, which I guess leads to all those Metamucil and insurance stereotype ads of retirees riding bikes
  • Some also carry motorbikes or boats. Sometimes they have the full gamut of recreational vehicle options with car, motorbike, bikes, ATV AND canoe.
  • They like to wear merchandise from the sights they’ve visited, bringing greater meaning to the saying “been there, bought the t-shirt/cap/entire gift shop up”

And finally, my hot tip comes after I saw a couple spend about 15 minutes hooking their big GMC four wheel drive to the back of their bus. It was the type of hookup that pulls the car along on four rolling wheels. After going over everything, the couple jumped into their luxury coach and took off down the road. As they started off, it became clear that the car was still in park and the rear wheels protested and squealed and jumped and bounced burning rubber and creating big flat spots in the tyres. It drew quite the crowd of tent campers and took the driver about 150m to realise there was a problem and stop to inspect.  So when you are towing a car, always do one final check to make sure you’re in neutral and have released the handbrake.

Just shut up and drive

Monument Valley through the windscreen
Monument Valley through the windscreen

You know when you make a plan to do something, stop somewhere, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a vortex of white line fever (or here in the US it is yellow line fever).

I had one of those days. I wanted to stop off at a couple of places along the way to Monument Valley, but that didn’t happen because I was just too comfortable driving and sitting in the car.

More windscreen shots
The view from Esmeralda

I had also planned to camp at Monument Valley, but after a look-see, decided to press on to Moab. I didn’t stop to see anything else along the way and had to content myself with taking photos through the windscreen. I was in a drive frame of mind and crunched 350 miles.

The lesson of the Frenchman

Before I left LA I made up all these flyers to put up in hostels to find company along the road from place to place. I figured what’s a road trip without any company.

On my last evening in Vegas, the staff at the hostel said an old French guy was interested in getting a lift. I was a bit carried away by all the social activities, so I didn’t follow it up. Anyways, he found me and told me he was looking for a ride to see Southern Utah.

I told him my vague plans and said I could take him to Zion National Park, an offer he took up.

He wasn’t the best car company. It came to pass that he hadn’t understood that I was going to be camping and so he had a little melt down in the supermarket as he started to buy food provisions only to realise he probably wouldn’t be able to use them as he wouldn’t be able to stay at a campground.

I waited in the car while he checked out a number of accommodation options. I used this time to consult the map again and discovered that after Zion my next stop would be to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon instead of Bryce Canyon which is where Andre wanted to go.

When I told him this, he got a bit upset as he said there is no public transport to get where he wants to go. We arranged to be in touch and then I received an email from him saying he couldn’t get to Bryce and that if wasn’t going north then he would hitchhike back to the next big town to catch the bus somewhere else and he didn’t know why I’d changed my plans.

Part of the reason I have a car is that it gives me freedom and flexibility to make my mind up as I go. I also have the luxury of a schedule that means I don’t have to stick to a timeframe.

So now, I have learned a lesson in offering rideshares. I need to do my due diligence and specify that there are no promises beyond the next destination.

Dreaming of a Volvo

Getting ready for the roadtrip
Esmeralda and I before setting off on the roadtrip. First stop Las Vegas.

When I was 22, it was my dream to be a full-time mum with four kids and a Volvo station wagon.

I really don’t know how I decided I specifically wanted a Volvo station wagon, but this whole dream evaporated after I came back from a year of travels at age 25. I no longer wanted to have kids, I no longer had a desire to get married, and the Volvo, that just didn’t fit the picture of my new dream to travel the world.

So it is rather interesting that I am now the owner of a green Volvo named Esmeralda. Not a station wagon, or even a family sized car, but still a safe Swedish import.

Maybe this tells me that despite our dreams changing following different experiences or paths, there is still an undercurrent at work on those old dreams. Peeps of the past perhaps.

From today, Esmeralda and I are embarking on a grand US roadtrip. We’re going to have a great time together following no set plan, just seeing where the road and the people we meet take us.

Riding the ferris wheel

Riding the Ferris Wheel
Riding the Ferris Wheel at Santa Monica

I have to admit to having more adventurous tastes in show rides than the Ferris Wheel, but it was befitting of the spontaneous trip to Santa Monica with Michele.

Our original plan of doing one of those bus tours (specifically one targeted at the tragic side of Hollywood) fell by the wayside when there weren’t enough people for the tour to run. We vacillated over the Getty Center and then decided to trip down the 10 freeway to Santa Monica and see the beach.

As we know, I’m not a beachy person, but Santa Monica had the added bonus of the pier with the show rides to draw me in.

I made a wrong turn coming off the freeway, turning right instead of left, which meant that we started driving towards Malibu on Pacific Highway. It was quite pretty, but there was no way of doing a u-turn or even making a right turn for quite a-ways because of the cliffs that rose steeply up from the highway.

Peek through the struts
Peeking through the Ferris Wheel struts

When we finally got back to the pier, we weren’t disappointed. It was a beautiful clear 31ºC day and the beach and pier were busy enough, but certainly not crowded.

As we made our way up the steps to the pier, I marvelled at the age of the wooden steps. They were grooved and hollowed out from so much traffic over the years. I pressed my feet into the depressions which would turn into puddles on a rainy day. There is something in me that loves to see worn timber like this. I can think back to two specific experiences where it made an impression on me. One in Fray Bentos, Uruguay at the tinned meat factory, and the other time on a spiral staircase leading up to the belfry at the cathedral in Mexico City’s Zocalo. (Yes, this is now the third blog entry in six years that relates a story about well-worn boards, so there is clearly a fascination with this little detail)

The boards of the pier weren’t as smooth as I expected. They were rough, like rough-hewn timber with grooves running from side to side and had shiny silver dumps (bolts) fastening them down to the supports. They were really beautiful. The lurid show rides looked out of place perched upon these old boards, but they also added height and colour to the skyline.

Colourful Santa Monica pier
A giant octopus is growing out of my head

Seeing the Ferris Wheel circling above us, we decided we had to go for a ride on it and eventually found our way to the ticket booth which is cleverly hidden in the middle of all the rides so you can be tempted to buy tokens for more than one ride. We shared our gondola (is that what you would call a Ferris Wheel carriage?) with an English girl as there was a strict rule that there were no single riders.

The Ferris Wheel circled fast, not giving us much time to take photos of the amazing views it afforded of the beach, the pier and the distant mountains. At any rate, it was definitely worth the $5 fare to be child-like, snap-happy tourists and gave a different perspective to the beach.

A Mulholland drive

In our beat up little mechanics replacement car we were driving while Esmeralda was having her fan problem checked (yes, visit number four to the mechanic), we hit the roads of LA.

View of Downtown
View of Downtown

We started at Rodeo Drive. A stop at Wholefoods got us some lunch which we picnicked on at Via Rodeo, surrounded by posh shops and lampposts with cascading flower baskets and tourists. Rodeo Drive is a bit over-rated as a tourist destination, but it makes for an interesting little wander or drive if you want to pretend to re-enact Pretty Woman. The distinction between tourist destination and shopping destination is pretty hazy. Judging from the foot traffic, I’d say it attracts more tourists than shoppers, but that would hardly pay the rent on these massive flagship luxury brand stores. Getting out of Beverly Hills I heard the most number of car horns tooting than I’ve heard across the rest of LA. People must be so much more uptight, impatient and aggro here. A little further down the road is the craziest intersection I’ve had the pleasure of not crashing at. At the junction of N Beverly Drive, N Canon Drive and Lomitas Avenue it is a 6 way stop. This is an upgrade of the traditional 4 way stop (for which us Aussies would have a roundabout) where you all have to stop and then the person who got there first goes first, or otherwise the direction with the most traffic goes. It requires driver to driver communication, which always works better the lighter the tinting of the car. It also means you have to understand when it’s your go. At a 6 way stop there seems to be no real rules. You creep, creep out from the stop line painted on the road until you have claimed your turn and then you go for it. Miraculously there were no Mercedes Benz, BMW and Lexus pile ups. This is the second time I’ve driven through this intersection and the second time it has freaked me out. We drove up Beverly Glen Boulevard to the ridgetop Mulholland Drive. Made famous by famous people living there and the magnificent views of both Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, this highway is named after William Mulholland who was head of the LA Department of Water and Power and was responsible for building much of the infrastructure that supplies LA with water. While Mulholland Drive and Mulholland Highway stretches all the way from the Hollywood 101 freeway to Malibu, we drove only a short way, but appreciated the views from pull-ins and the winding road. At the last point of our drive, we stopped at an outlook that offered amazing views of downtown, the Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately this is also a stop on those bus tours and it got pretty clogged with them at about 5pm, so clogged we had to wait in the car to leave because one was blocking my exit from my park in a designated car space. I’d love to drive the whole section, but I think I will have to do it in small chunks because the windy road made me feel slightly carsick. Tips for driving Mulholland Drive:

  • Pull over if you start to hold up traffic
  • Stop at the designated points to admire the views
  • Give yourself plenty of time as the going can be slow

Neverending freeways

I’ve had two days of driving the freeways and I have to say that they never seem to end.

Heading out to Venice yesterday we took the 10 freeway in a westerly direction. All the freeways in LA are known by their numbers which, until you are here, sound so confusing. For example, a friend recently posted to my Facebook wall the directions to Los Angeles airport. It read “101 south to 110 south to 105 west.” Anyone reading that back home would think it was some kind of code to find a treasure (in this case I did find a treasure at the end, Movie Lass).

However, once you get the hang of the traffic arteries, you can pretty much go anywhere. That said, a GPS with advanced lane assist makes things so much easier, especially when there are carpool lanes or you come to an intersection where, if you were looking from above, it would look like a bowl of grey spaghetti.

Today’s freeway adventure was driving Movie Lass east on the 10 freeway to Redlands, which is a lengthy 60 odd miles away. For some reason, in my head I equivalated 60 miles with 60km and wasn’t expecting the drive to be so far. In reality it was something of a 100km drive on a freeway with 6 lanes and walls, making it somewhat of a tunnel with nothing interesting to look at except the back end of cars passing me.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like driving here. But on my solo trip back home as I battled with bleary eyes from the long, hazy drive, I just kept thinking “there is no way I could do this in peak hour traffic.”

Snow in Sequoia

Making a snowman
J preparing the base for a snowman - but then the light turned green so we had to abandon him

When friends Ricardo, Astra and Jolena invited J and I camping for the weekend, I had no idea how cold it would be.

They did say to pack warmly because we were going to the mountains, but my April weather radar is way out of whack. I am still thinking Mildura weather, lovely days in the 20’s, with cool nights, but still easy camping weather. I guess because April brings with it Easter and that is one the busiest time of year for campers in Mildura along the Murray River. In my wildest dreams I would never have believed that I would be seeing snow fall on my tent, but it is the Rockies after all.

Sequoia trees
A stand of sequoia trees

Upon entering Sequoia National Park in California (about 4 hours drive from Los Angeles) we were told by the ranger that the campsite we wanted to go to was for snow camping only and we’d have to camp in the carpark. So we opted for a lower campsite at Buckeye Flat instead. I certainly wasn’t prepared for snow camping and I’m sure my $30 tent I’d picked up at Walmart on the way would agree with me.

Snowed in
Not sure how you get inside

The campsite at Buckeye Flat was beautiful and we were met by the roar of the rapids on the river below. Being late in the afternoon, we made a fire and set up the tent for J and I as Ricardo, Astra and Jolena were sleeping in their van. As we were sitting around toasting marshmallows and making s’mores, it started snowing. Snowflakes fluttered by the fire and whilst this could be pretty, it was just pretty scary. J and I hooked up the tarp we’d also bought at Walmart as an extra barrier to the snow. After a little bit of patchy snow, it stopped, but I’m glad we used the tarp.

Icy scenery

The next day we drove up to the sequoia trees. As we climbed higher there were signs about chains for tyres, and we passed snow drifts on the verges. While we were pulled up at a traffic light due to roadworks up ahead, we got out and started having a snowball fight. It was lots of fun and we encouraged those in the car behind us to also get out and have some snowplay.

White maze
The snow maze

Driving higher, I had my face pressed against the window at the magical snow scenery. It was just like a Christmas card, with the pine forest dusted in white frosting. The only thing steering away from this image were the big, rough, red trunks of the sequoias interspersed throughout. I was overwhelmed and lost for words.

Getting out to admire the 2,200 year old General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world when measured by mass, I romped about in the snow, eating mouthfuls of fresh snow, making snowballs and crunching in the winter wonderland.

I have never seen so much snow in my life. There was six feet of snow, higher than the car, so it felt like we were driving around in a white walled maze. Buildings had only their roofs showing, and even then they were covered in a blanket of white. In some places, big icicles jagged across porches. It was all so foreign feeling, yet wondrous and I looked upon the whole scene with amazed, innocent eyes.

Magical snow scene
Magical snow scene that blew my mind

I don’t think snow will ever cease to amaze me. Unless of course I live somewhere where I have to shovel my driveway every day in winter.

Exit the freeway

Doorman's Chair
The doorman gets the best seat in the house, although the view of the stage is pretty shoddy.

Astra and I were headed out for the evening to see a musical comedy show, Lost Moon Radio, produced by a (hopefully soon to be) friend I met last week.

We had just got on the freeway and I was telling Astra how I like to sit on about 55 miles per hour (not quite 90kmph) when all of a sudden all I could see in my mirrors was a cop car with flashing lights and sirens blaring. I was being pulled over. I had a mini panic because I didn’t really know what to do. I moved into the far right lane and went to stop on the shoulder when over the megaphone I heard “Take the next exit”, so I kept going. The exit seemed to go on forever and there wasn’t anywhere to pull over. The cop could sense my hesitation and said “Exit the freeway! Exit the freeway!”

I continued to receive barked instructions over the megaphone, which were distorted and unintelligible as we passed under the freeway, so I trundled slowly on and got a commanding “STOP!” I made to turn and get my handbag off the back seat, but Astra warned me not to, just to stay still in case he got spooked about me pulling a weapon or something. Whilst I’ve not had to use it before, I’m sure I could use my handbag as a weapon, especially since I had the mean motorcycle bag with me, but that would be as close as I would get to carrying and using a weapon.

The cop appeared at Astra’s window with a torch. I pressed the button for it to wind down and he asked to see my registration papers and drivers license. He then told me that he’d pulled me over because my tail light was out. He didn’t really want to believe that I didn’t know that but said he would let me off with a warning. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to know when my lights aren’t working, and after just having picked Esmeralda up from the mechanic, it didn’t even cross my mind to check. But I promised to get it looked at the next day.

As the cop went to leave, he asked if I knew how to get back on the freeway, and I said “I have a GPS”.

Not that it helped. We went around in circles for a while as we ended up going north instead of south on the freeway and then east instead of west on an exit to turn around. Despite still feeling shaken, we could see the funny side of driving in circles.

For some reason, the GPS (whose name is Lori the Lunatic), kept telling me to exit the freeway way earlier than I had seen on my earlier Google Maps direction plot. Supremely confident in my ability to find my way, I ignored Lori every single exit until La Brea which is where I wanted to get off. Then I mucked it up and couldn’t get off so I had to wait until the Fairfax exit. Then Lori didn’t want to help me get on West Adams Boulevard, so Astra and I found that on our own and then proceeded to the address. However, after we passed La Brea I started to have my doubts about where Lori was trying to take us.

After a mile and a few blocks, I thought I’d best check the address. And well, human error does occur. It seems I’d typed in 3253 instead of 5253. I think a bit of dyslexia had kicked in there. So we turned around and finally made it to the venue on time – albeit via a most roundabout trip. I would love to see a print out of where we drove, there’d be comedy in that.

Lost Moon Radio Episode 9 was great (and worth the massive adventure to get there). There were some very talented people and some really funny pieces and it was a great opportunity to take advantage of the diverse entertainment on offer in LA. Though I didn’t get up and sing karaoke to the live band afterwards; that would have been bad entertainment.