take me home, country roads

A road journey from las vegas to los angeles

october 18 - november 2, 2012

I meet friends, Carolyn, Melanie, and Larraine at Denver airport on October 9 and enjoy over a week in Colorado (another story)  before flying to Las Vegas to start a sixteen-day 3,000 kilometre road trip to Los Angeles. We visit National Parks, iconic sights, and even attend an eight-hour concert near San Francisco. Four friends, an itinerary with some wriggle room, good music, and lots of laughs along the way makes this road trip a talking point for many years to come. 

Not everything went according to plan, but having three travel companions who are adaptable and easy-going makes it easy to travel without any tensions.

Our shared costs are organised with a Kitty purse, each of us contributing equal amounts, usually $100, when cash was low. We saved money by making our own breakfasts, when they were not included in the price of the hotel, and our lunches when we were on the road. The Kitty purse paid for fuel, entry to National Parks, State parks, and our supermarket costs for breakfast and lunch supplies. Much of the larger costs for this trip had been pre-paid before we left Australia, ensuring our running costs were fairly low.

DAY ONE: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA TO SHOSHONE CALIFORNIA

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2012

Highlights: 

Grand Canyon West Rim

Total Distance: Las Vegas/Grand Canyon West Rim/ Pahrump/Shoshone = 534 kms

Costs: $70 per person - $45 to enter the Grand Canyon West Rim + $25 for the Skywalk

Our early morning departure from Dollar Car Rentals is almost thwarted before we set out as our car is not ready. But staff at this rental company are more than helpful when they offer me a Ford Expedition for no extra cost. The eight-seater is huge, so there's plenty of space for us all. 

We clear the Las Vegas city limits and are basically plunged into the arid landscape; beige and flat and the almost three-hour drive to the Grand Canyon West Rim is filled with anticipation. We pass Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and skirt Boulder City. The azure sky is a perfect backdrop for the arid terrain, whilst weirdly-shaped Joshua trees rise from the rocky ground. The greeny-grey sage bush is a fair indication we are in the desert regions of south-west USA. We turn off the highway and rattle down a dirt road for many kilometres. We are in Hualapai country. Parking the car, we purchase our tickets that enable us to take the shuttle and enter the Grand Canyon West Rim park. The main attraction here is the horseshoe-shaped skywalk, which allows us to walk on a glass floor over the canyon, providing a view of the canyon floor from above.

The Hualapai Native American Tribe controls the land surrounding the western rim of the Grand Canyon. It was opened to the public with its unveiling of the Skywalk in 2007, but it's not part of the Grand Canyon National Park . 

I'm glad it's October because it is hot and there is little shade in this desert region. We explore the adjoining area, where examples of Hualapai structures have been constructed to provide information about the traditional methods of building the various structures, using juniper and mud. We also watch a cultural show, where indigenous people, dressed in ceremonial robes, provide an insight into their traditional music and dance.

The terrain is harsh and open, but the rocky canyon provides a beautiful setting. We approach a rock, where from a certain position looks like a huge eagle rising from the floor of the canyon; it's wings open. 

Of course, we leave the best till last. Not permitted to bring any personal belongings with us, we lock our bags into lockers, don a pair of overshoes, and walk out of the glass horseshoe. Peering between my feet, I can see the canyon floor, the wisp of green grass growing where the watercourse once flowed. Standing above the canyon in this fashion gives me the feeling that I'm hovering high above the rocks; part of the canyon itself. I see others around our little group tiptoeing with trepidation, gripping tightly to the handrail, as if they are about to fall. The glass floor may be disconcerting for some, but I find the experience quite unique. A professional photographer takes our photo before we exit. 

Nearby is a rocky outcrop; the top of which provides an unhindered view across the canyon. Ancient bristlecone pines are latched to the piles of rocks, somehow eking enough water to provide life for hundreds of years, whilst their sparse, pointy leaves draw attention to the gnarly, twisted trunks and branches. At first glance one would think that the land is barren, bereft of vegetation, but it pays to look beyond the striped rocks because there is plenty of plant life, which provides food and shelter for small animals, and which the Native Americans have used for various reasons over the centuries.

I know someone who drove all the way from Las Vegas to the West Rim and then refused to pay the entry fee. The combined cost of $70 per person to visit the park today has provided us all with vastly different and personal experiences. However, we can all agree that the ability to immerse ourselves in the environment, wander through traditional buildings, and talk to the custodians of the land about their culture on a one-to-one basis are experiences that outweigh the costs.

Our ambition is to arrive in Pahrump, some three hours away, by nightfall. We do have to head back towards and skirt Las Vegas, so it is with reluctance that we leave the Grand Canyon and begin our journey. Stopping for a meal at a casino out in the middle of nowhere, we probably should have taken advantage of the accommodation on offer, but we opt to continue to our intended destination.

We arrive in Pahrump and notice that the accommodation choices all have 'No Vacancy' signs on them. A conference being held in this small town just out of the clutches of Las Vegas has left us homeless for the night. One kindly hotel manager manages to find us rooms, just forty minutes away in the tiny town of Shoshone, but we have to arrive there before 9pm, and since its 8:15, we need to scoot along fairly quickly. We arrive with minutes to spare.

I wonder whether Alfred Hitchcock had once stayed at the one-star Shoshone Inn in California. It may have provided inspiration for his Psycho setting; the Bates Motel. It's weird, but it is clean and reasonably-priced. 

DAY TWO: SHOSHONE CALIFORNIA TO MARIPOSA CA

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2012

Highlights: 

Death Valley National Park, Yosemite National Park Tioga Pass

Total distance: 490 kms

Costs: $20 for the vehicle entrance fee to Yosemite National Park

We're not sticking around Shoshone longer than we need to. Fortunately, we've brought our breakfast with us and we enjoy a quick bite to eat before checking out of the Norman Bates Motel. To be honest, I don't remember anything about the township, or even if there is one as we didn't waste any time leaving. The one advantage of staying in Shoshone is that we're forty minutes closer to Death Valley National Park. 

We enter the park and follow the signs to Dante's View, one of the high points of the region with panoramic views of the valley below. Death Valley is the the lowest and hottest part of the United States, and with an October average temperature of 33 Celsius, it is already heating up. We've no plans to see anything in particular here, but we can stop anywhere we want to as we traverse the park to reach our ultimate destination of Yosemite today.

Leaving Dante's View, we join the road and pass such diverse landscapes as Devil's golf course, a vast stony plain, Artists Drive, and the yellow hills of Twenty Mule Team and Mustard Canyons. Just as the road straightens, we are stopped by road workers for over ten minutes as we wait for heavy machinery to move off the road. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, sitting in what is essentially a traffic jam! But this is not the only traffic woe we experience. Cyclists, it seems, are the same across the globe. Slowing down to a crawl to pass large group of lycra-clad people, it comes as no surprise they continue on their merry way riding abreast over both lanes and making it impossible to overtake safely. Is it OK to tip the button on the steering wheel to let them know that I wish to pass? Carolyn solves that problem easily and quickly, and you'll have to ask her to share her technique. We are, in fact, in the middle of a desert with little to no traffic, and the actions of those riding on the wrong side of the road is reckless, to say the least.  

We stop briefly at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes before following the road that leads us to the township of Bishop, where we need to refuel both the car and ourselves.  One day, I'd like to return to Death Valley and perhaps explore further - but not in the summer!

After leaving Bishop, the difference in the outdoor landscape is almost exactly opposite to that we've just come from. We are now surrounded by wooded mountains, their bare peaks are sprinkled with fresh snow, as we start climbing through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Nothing could be more different to even this morning's landscape, and the speed at which we've gone from desert to mountains is amazing. There is a slight chill in the air as we leave Bishop and head towards the winter ski resort area of Mammoth and the town of Lee Vining. The day is still beautiful; this time of the year is really a wonderful time to travel in the northern hemisphere.

Paying the modest entrance fee into the Yosemite National Park, we drive along the iconic Tioga Pass, which is the highest highway pass in California, and which is closed during the winter due to high snowfall in the area. From the road we are afforded magnificent views, although, as the driver, I cannot always appreciate them. My companions make all the necessary 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' as the vista unfolds in front of us. This is the most amazing place. We turn into huge redwood forests; the trees on this lee side grow long whiskers of algae and lichens. It's time to stop for a few photos as the sun dips behind the mountains removing the last vestiges of warmth from the day. Following the road out of the National Park, we find a Quality Inn in the pretty little town of Mariposa on the edge of the park. Today, we've seen it all; desert, salt pans, sand dunes, mountain peaks, cool-temperate forests, pristine and crystal-clear lakes, and even a dusting of snow. We've driven over 500 kilometres from a hot 33 Celsius to temperatures below 20, and the experience has been amazing. Tomorrow, we can explore Yosemite further unless a better option is discussed over dinner tonight.

DAY THREE: MARIPOSA CA TO CRYSTAL BAY NV

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2012

Highlights: 

CalNeva Resort, Tunnel Tour

Total distance: 325 kms

Costs: $8 for the 50 minute Tunnel Tour

We are heading back into Yosemite National Park as a shortcut to our next destination. Our National Park ticket, purchased yesterday, is still valid. Last night at dinner I asked the ladies what they wanted to do today, outlining a couple of options, such as extending our stay in Mariposa for another night and exploring the National Park, or driving to Crystal Bay on Lake Tahoe to stay at the legendary Cal Neva Resort. I drew some blank stares until I had mentioned that they offer tours of the underground tunnels below the hotel and it was a hotbed of Mafia activity during the 1960s.

My travel companions are the best ladies ever! Without hesitation, it had been decided that we would drive up to the Cal Neva Resort, which is named for its location on the border of California and Nevada, arriving in time to take the afternoon tour.

It is yet another beautiful day; brilliant blue skies and a day full of hope. The higher altitudes mean lower temperatures and we pack extra woollens into the car before we leave for our projected first stop at the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.

There is an excellent road through the National Park, but the curves and the altitude changes mean that the drive is fairly slow, but so very beautiful. We may have missed a lot of the fall colours when we were in Colorado last week, but we are lucky to finally see some bright yellow leaves of the aspen trees today. We stop by mountain lakes, the bright blue water literally sparkling in the autumn sun and the Bristlecone pines are much larger here than they are in the Arizona desert.

After a 'quick' lunch at a pub; well it should have been a quick lunch, but the service is abysmal, we circle Lake Tahoe, a large and very deep and cold freshwater lake on the border between Nevada and California. We stop at one of the beaches and wander for a short while before continuing to our destination - Crystal Bay.

The Cal Neva Resort is old and tired; the rooms are musty, and it has seen better days, far better days. We check in and return for the 3pm tour with our guide, Carl, who has not only written a book about the history of the hotel, but explains the history in a highly animated way. The tour begins in the Indian Room, where we are thrilled to straddle the state line; California on one side, Nevada on the other. Whilst gambling was illegal in California, all slot machines and gambling tables were on wheels, so, in the event of a raid, they could be wheeled over to the Nevada side. Downstairs we are shown the parts of the building that were used in the Godfather movies, then we enter one of the tunnels, which is still open to the public. The tunnels have entrances or trapdoors in various parts of the building; in cupboards, through the kitchen, in the private cabins, and in and out of the showrooms; all for the convenience of the mob and of the A-listers staying at the hotel.

Bought by Frank Sinatra but paid for by Joe Kennedy, who reputedly earned more than $4m from the sale of bootleg liquor alone, Cal Neva is a hotbed of intriguing stories that one can only appreciate if they themselves do the tour. We are shown the cabins that were specifically allocated to Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and are told that the tunnels extend to these lakeside rooms. It is even hinted that Marilyn Monroe may have been murdered here and her body transported back to Los Angeles. However, it is probably lucky Ms Monroe was taken back to LA, if she indeed had been murdered up here, as the lake may have been her final resting place. It is alleged that it had been often used by the Mafia to dispose of murdered bodies. The deep lake's lack of oxygen draws the bodies to the bottom, thus concrete boots are not required. They haven't found Jimmy Hoffa's body yet, have they?

This tour is the most interesting and intriguing one I've done for a long time and will be remembered well into the future.

We don't eat here tonight, instead we decide to explore some of the other equally-tired old casinos along the road, selecting the 'Crystal Bay' for dinner. 

I have a proposal for the ladies. Melanie has found a concert near San Francisco, which may be interesting to follow up and to attend if we are able to secure four tickets. It's open for discussion.

'Anyone interested in seeing Guns 'N Roses and K.D. Lang tomorrow?'

With a resounding 'Yes', Melanie secures four tickets to a concert; the tickets must be collected in Mountain View, near San Jose after midday.

The whole conversation about the concert started with an off-the-cuff remark that I'd like to see Steve Martin live playing the banjo. Melanie, who keeps up with who's playing where thinks he is playing near San Francisco over the weekend and when she checks, she finds that the benefit concert for The Bridge School, organised by Canadian singer-songwriter, Neil Young is on this weekend, and that the lineup of performers looks fantastic. We've nothing else planned, have we?

DAY FOUR: CRYSTAL BAY TO SAN FRANCISCO

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2012

Highlights: 

Bridge School Benefit

Total distance: 440 kms

Costs: $60 each for the concert

We need to be in San Francisco this evening and our intention had been to take a leisurely drive down to our pre-booked hotel near Fisherman's Wharf. But all half-laid-out plans may be changed in an instant, if necessary.

We're on the road early in the morning, but not before taking photos of Marilyn Montroe and John F Kennedy's adjoining cabins overlooking the peaceful, blue lake. We follow the lake before branching off towards California's capital city of Sacramento and then taking the freeway towards San Jose, arriving at the given address to collect our tickets. We are also given a parking ticket to hang onto the rear-vision mirror.

Setting the GPS, we make our way towards the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, following a line of cars. We pass Google Headquarters set in pretty garden surroundings and soon after, stop at the first of the many ticket-checkers. The parking ticket hanging on the rear-view mirror indicates the carpark to use, and time after time, we are directed away from the general traffic and into side roads. As we arrive at the amphitheatre, the usher points to a carpark near the entrance gate and tells us to park in that area as close to the entrance as possible.

I'm delighted, and perhaps I feel a little special as even this out-of-towner recognises the value of a carpark near the entrance. 

We scan our tickets at the entrance, and are smartly told that we've come through the 'wrong' ticket barrier before being accompanied to an area sectioned off from the main arena. Here we're offered drinks and snacks and are directed to return after 6pm for our included meal. Not long before the concert starts, an usher shows us to our four-seat box, providing us with excellent views of the stage. So, somehow purchasing tickets at the last minute has netted us corporate seats with parking and other perks thrown in and we lap it up as Neil Young and his wife Pegi welcome everyone here to the weekend concerts that provide necessary funding to the Bridge School, where their disabled son attends.

For hour after hour we enjoy the music of some of the world's most popular performers; some we know and love, some we've never heard of. I cannot decide who I like best but I can only say that this is probably the best concert I've ever attended, and I think the ladies feel the same.

At 10pm, after 8 wonderful hours, the concert finishes and we happily make our way back to the car and drive the seventy kilometres to The Wharf Inn at Fisherman's Wharf, where we'll spend the next four nights.

DAY FIVE: SAN FRANCISCO

MONDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2012

Highlights: 

Bay cruise, Boudins

Total distance: N/A

Costs: $69 San Francisco City Pass

We had arrived at our hotel about midnight last night - still on a high from the wonderful concert - and quickly settled into our hotel room. The car is rather large and it was a challenge getting it into the one spot left in the hotel carpark. After parking, I had to climb out through the boot!

We do have a busy day ahead of us, but it's probably not imperative we are out too early - a 10 o'clock start is just fine. Melanie has bought City Pass tickets and although I've never really thought about buying them in the past, it's easy to see that they are really good value, since it includes unlimited MUNI public transport and cable cars for the life of the ticket. We do intend to get as many attractions as possible ticked off.

I haven't been inside an aquarium for years, and after validating our city pass inside, we spend a delightful couple of hours exploring the wonders of the deep by travelator through a tunnel beneath the water. Graceful jellyfish danced, their stinging tentacles, like ballet frocks, swirled and twirled around us. Starfish cling to the sides of the tunnel; the only view we see is their naked tummies flattened against the perspex. Finally emerging into the sunlit Pier 39, we follow a barking noise and watch seals lie in the sun. They are both noisy and smelly and have a permanent home next to the pier. We watch their antics for a while, until our stomachs growl with hunger. It's time to enjoy one of San Francisco's iconic cafes; Boudins. Sandwiches that are made from fresh sourdough and fillings of our choice and coffee as we wait for our next excursion - a bay cruise.

San Francisco is one of my favourite places to visit in the United States of America. There are so many things to see that you need to return again and again to cover all that the city offers. We won't have time for the hop-on-hop-off bus, but the CityPass more than makes up for that. I've done the bay cruise many times, but it's never exactly the same, and I am just one of those people who love to go out on the deck and feel the wind blowing through my hair. The day is beautiful; the skies are blue and there is enough warmth in the air to discard the coat. From the deck of the ferry, we listen to the commentary through the speakers, where different landmarks are pointed out. Ahead is the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, the icon that defines San Francisco. We pass the bleak rocky island on which the prison of Alcratraz sits; Carolyn, Larraine and Melanie will visit it tomorrow.

All too soon it's over and we disembark and walk up the road, past the hotel, to the cable-car stop. We couldn't have planned it better! A cable car is there, waiting for us and before long we were riding into the city centre.

Since our pass includes use of the public transport system for seven days, we are able to seamlessly move from cable car to bus; from city to Haight-Astbury, where the famous Amoeba Music Store is located. Here, we see the true state of the city. Homelessness. 

Homeless people wandering aimlessly, their belongings in trolleys or bags, needy sitting in doorways. It's a fact of life in every major city in the world but it would be nice if solutions could be found to house more of the world's homeless people. It's very sad to see.

We return from the city on the street car. The city has accessed street cars from across the world to use on their system. Sometimes I've been lucky enough to get a Melbourne W-Class tram, but not today.

San Francisco will always be a wonderful city; great sights, great food, and great people.

DAY SIX: SAN FRANCISCO

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2012

Highlights: 

Alcatraz, The Beat Museum, Williams Sonoma

Total distance: N/A

Costs: $8 for the Beat Museum

I decide not to join the ladies' excursion to Alcatraz. I've visited it on a previous visit to San Francisco, and I want to take a breather for the morning to catch up on some emails and other odds and ends. I'll meet the ladies for lunch shortly.

 

The Beat Generation literary movement started in New York City. Their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. By the mid-fifties, Ginsberg, Kerouac and others ended up in San Francisco, where they became part of the San Francisco Renaissance. By the 1960s, elements of the Beat Generation expanded and blended with the hippie movement. Poetry and prose readings had been encouraged by  Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the new City Lights Bookstore. He is also attributed to publishing many of Beat Generation literary works. 

A cable car from Fisherman's Wharf will take us part of the way then we walk three blocks to North Beach, where The Beat Museum is located. This is a treasure trove of information and memorabilia from the Beat Generation writers, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg. Quirky. Opposite is the City Lights Bookstore, allegedly still operated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A visit to the bookstore will have to wait until another visit to San Francisco.

This afternoon is dedicated to shopping in Union Square; the city centre. Before returning to the cable car stop, I want to visit the flagship Williams Sonoma store, an Aladdin's Cave of everything for the kitchen. We have one last full day left in San Francisco before continuing with the road trip.

DAY SEVEN: SAN FRANCISCO

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2012

Highlights: 

Muir Woods, The Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Fog Harbor Fish House

Total distance: 61 kms

Costs: $7 per person for Muir Woods, $6 road toll on the Golden Gate Bridge on the return journey only

When we compare the per-person cost of taking a formal tour from San Francisco to Muir Woods with the cost of driving there ourselves, the latter is not only more viable, but cheap. 

The car has not been moved since we arrived on Sunday night, so we pile into it nice and early and set off towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Naturalist, John Muir, never visited the old-growth coastal redwood forest named in his honour by William Kent after the latter donated the land to the government with the intention to preserve the old growth forest forever. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a national monument in 1908, the first to be created from land donated by a private individual. Before we even enter the forest, we are dwarfed by the giant 'residents' of this state park. The trees are much larger and taller than I had imagined.

The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) trees are known for their height, and are related to the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada. Despite growing from a seed no larger than that of a tomato seed, redwoods can grow to nearly 115 metres. The tallest tree here in Muir Woods is 79 m. Although the oldest redwood is at least 1200 years old, the trees of Muir Woods are practically babies at between 500 and 800 years old.

We haven't seen any fog during our short stay in San Francisco, but it is imperative for the growth of the redwoods as they use the moisture for vigorous plant growth. 

There are few people here today and we move freely along the boardwalks admiring, not only the giant redwoods, but the other trees in the dimly-lit understorey, which have adapted to their conditions. The big-leaf maple's huge leaves provide a larger surface to absorb the dappled light, whilst the Californian bay tree has a root system that provides a stable base for the tree so it can lean towards the light. As we walk deeper into the forest, the atmosphere is dank, whilst dripping of trapped water feeds the long wavy tendrils of lichen, which have attached themselves to the boughs of the trees. The forest is eerily quiet, except for the usual tree-noises and the scurrying sounds of little animals scratching through the leaf-litter on the forest floor. The tinkling of running water is heard in the distance and we instinctively walk towards the sound. The boardwalks and designated paths provide protection for the forest's ecosystem and this pristine and beautiful forest is one of our favourite natural highlights so far.

There is a sense of awe at the enormity of the trees and the denseness of the forest that leaves us speechless for once, but not for very long.

There is a small village nearby, which I would like to show my friends, and where we can enjoy some lunch. Situated at the end of the Golden Gate Bridge and boasting a ferry port, Sausalito is a pretty, artistic town, which attracts many day trippers and visitors. Many tourists ride hired bicycles over the bridge and take the ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf. None of us are up to doing the bike ride today, though, as we set out to explore the hilly enclave. With magnificent views of the bridge and the water looking back to San Francisco, we enjoy the sunshine that we had been deprived of in Muir Woods.

San Francisco is  one of my favourite places for its diversity, cleanliness, and its wonderful choice of good quality home-cooked food. Here, in Sausalito, we can order from a wide menu; from soup and sandwiches to more substantial fare. The art galleries and unique boutiques provide a diversion for another hour or so before reluctantly, we return to our hotel on the other side of the water. There is a $6 toll to pay on our return journey and we travel across the bridge as slowly as we possibly can - just to enjoy the views. 

I may have missed a turn as we drive down Lombard Street towards our hotel. Lombard Street is part of the U.S Route 101, and the famous one-block section, known as the 'crookedest street in the world', has eight sharp hairpin bends designed to reduce the hill's natural 27% grade. 

Most vehicles are discouraged from driving down the one-way street, but we are past the first bend before realising we are on the iconic section of the road.The length of the car is a little worrying, so I take the bends very slowly to ensure that the back end follows the front end - on the road. Extra slowness also gives the ladies extra time to get some quick photos of the beautiful gardens planted along the roadway and footpath. With care and attention, we make the dizzying descent without incident. 

There is a lovely restaurant at Pier 39. Called Fog Harbor Fish House, we decide to eat here on our last night. Since it's almost Halloween, little pumpkins decorate the tables. I guess to some, we are a little raucous, a little over-the-top and our waiter loves us so much, he gives us one of the little pumpkins to take home with us.  Recounting our day always becomes a little (or maybe a lot) animated as drinks flow and our tummies are filled with the warming and good quality food. We are all lucky to get along so well; our camaraderie and good senses of humour have so far, made this trip a lot of fun. In writing about our daily activities, it's not always possible to convey the spontaniety and sense of fun that we actually have, but we do notice one thing; strangers tend to move closer to us. Perhaps they want to share the good-natured atmosphere we bring with us wherever we go.

Our hotel, the Wharf Inn, is a tired and old-school motel. But it's a more reasonably-priced option than the other hotels in this location. With 'free' parking and its proximity to shops, supermarkets, public transport, and Pier 39, it's in the best-possible location for us.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to San Francisco. It's been fun.

DAY EIGHT: SAN FRANCISCO TO CARMEL-ON-THE-SEA

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2012

Highlights: 

Monterey Cannery Row, John Denver Beach in Pacific Grove, The 17-Mile Drive, Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch

Total distance: 215 kms

Costs: $10 for the 17-mile drive

The GPS is set to take the shortest route out of San Francisco. This morning, I am guided through streets that would be proud to be part of a fairground rollercoaster. If I cannot see the road below me as I approach the crest of the hill, it scares me! I'm not that courageous when driving on the hilly streets of San Francisco!

Before long, we find ourselves on flatter terrain and start our southward journey on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 101, travelling for two hours to the coastal city of Monterey, the scene of many of John Steinbeck's novels.

We park the car near the legendary Cannery Row, once the location of a number of now-defunct sardine canneries. The last one closed in 1972, and the street name was changed in 1958 from Ocen View Avenue to honour John Steinbeck's well-known novel, Cannery Row.

It's a nice place to have lunch and to wander around the boutiques and John Steinbeck-inspired souvenir stores. I bought a copy of Cannery Row in the hope that I can become more involved in the story if I can visualise the setting. Before purchasing the novel, though, we did have a little bit of fun reading random passages from 'The Grapes of Wrath', inserting a word here and there to completely change the context of the story before making our purchases. As we descend the steps to leave the store, I glance back to see that the proprietor of the store doing exactly as we expect; pulling the book off the shelf and desperately leafing through it to find the 'crack-smoking Granny' passage, which we had found so hilarious.

There is a quaintness about this old part of Monterey and we enjoy our time here, eventually emerging from the stores to collect our car, and stopping to admire a bust of Steinbeck.

Monterey is famous for its aquarium, but we have another mission to complete today before reaching our destination. With the beach on our right side, we drive along the Ocean View Boulevard towards Pacific Grove.

Near the corner of Asilomar Avenue, we park in a designated carpark. Before getting out of the car, our pumpkin from last night's dinner is produced and we each write a message on it in black permanent pen. On the beach park. we scan the rugged rocks for a large piece of driftwood on which the name, John Denver, is carved. It is fifteen years since John Denver lost his life in a plane crash, not far from this beach and this has become an official memorial site for him. We leave our pumpkin near the driftwood with our private messages. One of the local ladies, Judy, keeps an eye on the beach and has been a driving force for commemorating the life and music of John Denver by having a small plaque installed to mark this spot. It's a lovely place; wild and windy. 

From Pacific Grove, we hug the coast road, paying $10 to enter the private and very scenic 17-Mile Drive. The twenty-seven kilometre road is owned by the Pebble Beach Corporation, and includes many turnouts so tourists like us can stop and take photos of the very beautiful scenery. Coastal cypress trees are bent from the constant battering of the wind, but look wonderful on the golf course. On a single rock out in the water, a lone cypress tree has grown. This has become the official symbol and logo of Pebble Beach and photos of it are not permitted for commercial purposes. I take the photos regardless and I'm sure I can use the images on my website.

We stop for a while at the Pebble Beach golf course, oohing and aahing at the pristine, bright-green grass of the exclusive resort and golf course. It's nice to have a little walk around. The shop does have some reasonably-priced items in it, and I think most of us came home with a small souvenir from Pebble Beach. 

We make our way into Carmel-on-the-Sea, a quaint village by the sea. Our accommodation, Carmel Mission Inn, is at the other side of the road, in Carmel proper. After making a few inquiries, we find our way down to a nearby restaurant and bar, owned by one of Carmel's best-known residents, Clint Eastwood. Mission Ranch was purchased by Eastwood when developers threatened to buy up the surrounding land. We thoroughly enjoy our meal here in this homely and comfortable, if a little rustic, restaurant. 

We haven't travelled a great distance today, but we've been able to enjoy a more relaxed drive and we've seen plenty of sights along the way. 

DAY NINE: CARMEL/GILROY

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2012

Highlights: 

Premium Outlets, Gilroy

Total distance: 150 kilometres

Costs: 

It's an easy-going day today, as we head back through Monterey and pass the market gardens along the road. The Salinas Valley, known as the 'salad bowl of America', is the scene of Steinbeck's celebrated, but somewhat dark novel, East of Eden. It is also mentioned in his novella, Of Mice and Men. We pass straight rows of lettuces and strawberries; workers already bending down to pick the produce for local markets. Turning off Highway 1 at Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, we continue our way inland for another forty kilometres to the garlic capital of the world, Gilroy. 

We're not really here to admire vegetables. This is the location of the Gilroy Premium Outlet shopping centre, where we spend a delightful day shopping.

We stop by Carmel Plaza to have a meal; the happy memory of last night's wonderful meal at Clint's place still tantalising our taste buds. You know what they say..... never, ever enter a restaurant if it's empty, or else you'll soon know why..... Oh Yuk!

We're on the move again tomorrow, but first we must explore Carmel-by-the-Sea.

DAY TEN: CARMEL TO SAN SIMEON

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2012

Highlights: 

Carmel-by-the-Sea Halloween parade, Pfeiffer State Park, Big Sur, Bixby Bridge, Cambria, elephant seals near San Simeon, scarecrows in Cambria

Total distance: 147 kilometres

Costs: $10 to enter the John Pfeiffer State Park

We somehow manage to take over seven hours to drive less than 150 kilometres today, but we enjoy every bit of the relaxing drive down the winding and very beautiful Pacific Coast Highway.

We start by returning to Carmel-by-the-Sea to actually visit the beach. Parking the car in town, we walk down the hill to the beach. Larraine has her eyes peeled for the reclusive dog-lover, Doris Day, who owns a small boutique hotel in the town. I did try to book us into it when I had made our bookings, but backed off rather quickly when I saw the nightly tarrif.

The beach is beautiful and we enjoy some fresh air and a brisk walk; the day is perfect. Dragging ourselves away we make our way back up 'Cardiac Hill', stopping at a bakery for some extra nourishment for our lunches.

Half the roads are blocked off and a crowd has formed on the footpaths. A kindly lady standing in front of us kindly advises that the annual Halloween parade is about to start. Led by members of the local constabulary, followed by city councillors, we crane our necks looking for ex-mayor, Clint Eastwood. Our new friend informs us that he is currently in Switzerland collecting a film award, so he won't be here today. Larraine asks whether Doris is likely to turn up, but the lady doesn't 'get' our sense of humour, instead telling us that she's 'ninety years old and very frail, you know'. We manage to contain our laughter until we return to the privacy of our car. In the meantime, we see some quite extraordinary and flamboyant contributors to the parade and together with the beautiful day, we reluctantly leave before the parade returns.

Like so many times, we wish we could stop longer, but we've got a full itinerary. The beauty of this journey is that from now on, our distances are quite short as we've planned a leisurely drive down the coast.

We wend our way along the winding road, stopping often and enjoying the gob-smackingly beautiful vista in front of us. This is absolutely the best direction to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway. We have the coast on our right side, making it very easy to park in the many turnouts designed to give motorists the best views of the coastline.

 

Big Sur, the rugged, mountainous section provides dramatic scenery along this coastline. It is the inspiration for novels, such as Kerouac's book of the same name, and songs, such as Perhaps Love, written by John Denver.

'Perhaps love is like the ocean,
Full of conflict, full of pain.'  

The scenery is as dramatic as the song's lyrics suggest. We pass through the tiny hamlet; huge redwoods on our left, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean on our right as we head for our next stop at Bixby Creek Bridge. Opened in 1932, the Bixby Creek Bridge had been constructed to join the two parts of the road and to avoid a lengthy detour during the winter months. When it was built, it had been the highest single-span bridge in the world, and is still one of the most high and it's one of the most-photographed attractions along this coastal road, and for very good reason. 

At lunchtime, we stop at the nearby Pfeiffer State Park, where California's redwoods literally meet the coast. John Pfeiffer settled on about 26 hectares in 1884, later selling the land to the State of California to prevent developers from exploiting the natural beauty of the land. We enjoy a break from our busy morning in the dark cathedral-like forest, and if we are quiet for a couple of seconds, we can hear the tinkling of a small stream nearby.

Back on the road again, still following Highway 1, I am in awe of the magnificent scenery. It's hard not to stop to take photos and it's also good to stand still and look out toward the horizon; just to absorb the wild and rugged beauty of this coastline that we share way over the other side of the globe.

Veering off the road and parking the car at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seat Rookery, we take a walk along the boardwalk to the viewing platform overlooking the strip of beach that huge elephant seals call home. Apparently October is the best time of the year to visit the area, and we are not disappointed with the sheer number of seals below us doing what seals do. A docent from the Friends of the Elephant Seal approaches us and provides us with a very interesting insight into the seals.

Needing to refuel the car before arriving in San Simeon, we stop at the pretty little town of Cambria. Like so many towns across America, it is beautifully dressed up for Halloween, but with a difference. Cambria's annual Scarecrow Festival spans the entire month of October, and townsfolk get involved in making larger-than-life-sized hand-crafted scarecrows, which are displayed throughout the town. Some are fun, some are recognisable, whilst many are downright creepy. We have a fun time exploring the town before checking into our San Simeon hotel for the night. 

DAY ELEVEN: SAN SIMEON - SANTA BARBARA

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2012

Highlights: 

Hearst Castle, Solvang, Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Total distance: 227 kms

Costs: Hearst Castle Grand Rooms Tour $25 per person

Perched on top of a hill, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is a real-life castle. It's not that obvious to the observer; in fact, it's not that easy to see from the ground. Booked in for a 9:00 AM tour, we board a bus that takes us to the top of the mountain. Grasslands once a fully-functioning zoo with exotic animals, give way to a wooded area before our arrival. Built between 1919 and 1947, Hearst Castle is a folly; a fake mishmash of styles filled with treasures from across the world. It may look like a marble cathedral from the outside, but on  a closer look, it is nothing more than moulded concrete. However much as I may like to be critical, one cannot help but admire a man for trying to bring European culture into this little part of America. We enjoy a very animated tour of this iconic home, which is now a very important museum. I do wonder why Spanish churches sold architectural features, like huge timber doors, timber ceilings, and entire church choir seats, which have been repurposed for wainscotting within the main rooms. Perhaps the church needed the money during the Franco dictatorship. It doesn't really feel right, but since they had been legitimately purchased by Hearst, they probably do now serve a purpose within the museum context. Outside, the beautifully-manicured gardens lead to a huge swimming pool; the Neptune pool adorned with Greek and Romanesque pillars. The brilliant azure sky today provides a wonderful contrast to the white-painted out-buildings surrounding the pool. Nearby, a door leads into an indoor pool, extravagantly decorated in gold and blue.

Hearst Castle and the surrounding land had been donated to the State of California by the Hearst family in 1957 and is now recognised as an Historical Monument.

Eventually and reluctantly we catch the bus back to the visitor centre, watching out for an elusive family of zebras, the last remnants of the exotic animals that once roamed here. It's been an education; a small glimpse of the ridiculously-rich and their equally ridiculous toys. It's time to continue our journey down the coastline.

Taking a deliberate turn from the highway we arrive in the small town of Solvang. The quirky village is part of a 1911 Mexican land grant. It was established by a Danish community who travelled west to avoid the harsh winters of the mid-west. Reflecting a typical traditional Danish village, Solvang includes bakeries, restaurants, and even a windmill. We find a replica 'Little Mermaid' and a statue of Hans Christian Anderson in this fun town. The Scandinavian-style architecture is a complete contrast to the Spanish-mission style of buildings erected prior to the influx of Danish migrants. 

It's time to continue the short journey to Santa Barbara. We manage to find a hotel near the iconic Stearns Wharf where we opt to dine on local fish and chips.

DAY TWELVE: SANTA BARBARA - ANAHEIM

MONDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2012

Highlights: 

Old Mission Santa Barbara 

Total distance: 195 kms

Costs: Old Mission Santa Barbara $10 per person

Today, I have to tackle the freeway system of Los Angeles, and after spending the past ten days driving the country roads, I am not really looking forward to it.

But first, after checking out of the hotel, we drive to the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara, where we spend a couple of hours learning about the arrival of the Spanish Franciscans in 1786. This mission is the only one to remain under the leadership of the Franciscan Friars since its founding and is a parish church under the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Built in 1792, it is one of the twenty-one missions built along the Californian coast between San Diego and San Francisco. We take the self-guided tour through the mission buildings and church. The historic cemetery contains the remains of early settlers, Native Americans, and the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, the woman who inspired Scott O'Dell's children's novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins.  The interior of the church is hand painted throughout and features an altar made by Native American Chumash people. Extensive aqueduct and water retention facilities had been built to provide plenty of water for the orchards and food crops for the mission. The garden is still beautiful and features many plants that are representative of the Mission era; Sonoran wheat, olives, grapes, citrus, bananas, sugar cane and more. 

Setting the GPS for the Tropicana Inn in Anaheim, we join the freeway and I quickly relax into the rhythm of driving on the seven-lane road. The views of the Pacific disappear, but as typical Los Angeles landmarks appear, a new sense of excitement stirs. 

The past eleven days have brought us through deserts, mountains, lakes, National Parks, huge trees and the wonderful and rugged coastline of California. Now we're in the heart of the 'city of angels' and although our focus will be a little different over the next few days, it will not be any less exciting as we explore this huge city.

DAY THIRTEEN: LOS ANGELES

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2012

Highlights: 

TMZ tour of Hollywood, Hollywood Boulevard, Sephora, Mulholland Drive, Santa Monica

Total distance: 152 kms

Costs: Parking $10

I feel a lot more confident about driving on the freeways in Los Angeles after yesterday's easy journey from Santa Barbara. So, when we were quoted $60 per person to catch a shuttle into Hollywood, we opt to drive the distance ourselves. After all, parking could not possibly cost more than $240, the collective cost of the shuttle, for the day - could it? Leaving Anaheim with plenty of time up our sleeves, we pass most of the traffic on the freeway 'carpark' because we qualify for the 'carpool' or HOV lane, which brings us within a few kilometres of the carpark recommended by the Starline tour company.

It wasn't that daunting or hard or stressful after all.

Arriving at 10:00AM for an eleven o'clock tour, we've got plenty of time to collect our tickets, and since we are located right next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, we explore the forecourt, exclaiming over hand and footprints by stars; present and past. There is a passing parade of people dressed as movie or cartoon characters and I'm annoyed that they jump into photos uninvited then expect us to pay for the privilege. I understand the concept of busking and am happy to put money their hat or guitar case, but only when it's my choice. I am, however, not going to cave into their demands just because they are very aggressive and call us rude names. But the tables are turned when Melanie agrees on a price to get a photo with an 'invincible'. We set up the photo and take a couple of lovely shots with Melanie's camera. Then she handed him the agreed amount.

In coins - four quarters.

You would think the sky had fallen when this foul-mouthed hustler wearing a red lycra suit and an eye-mask had a complete meltdown, screaming that he 'only took notes'.

We beat a hasty retreat to our tour meeting point. 

The TMZ Celebrity tour is a tour of many Hollywood 'hotspots', conducted by a fast-talking guide. Pointing out places of interest for two hours, he hypes up the passengers as he looks out for celebrities. We are on a typical tour, where no celebrities are seen. I'm sure anyone, celebrity or lookalike, would dive into a nearby building to escape the scrutiny of those inside the windowless and loud red bus. We do, however, get an insight into where the rich and famous eat, get their plastic surgery done, get arrested, and go to court after they're arrested. We even slow down at a fast-food joint where, it's alleged, Leonardo diCaprio's first job was to hand out leaflets whilst dressed as a giant chicken.  It's a fun tour and two hours disappears very quickly and soon enough, we are back where we started. 

At lunch time, we realise that apart from a (smelly) pizza joint, there isn't much on offer here, but a Disney Store nearby has a small attached cafe, where toasted sandwiches and real milkshakes hit the right spot. Meal breaks are really good for planning our next moves. It's only lunchtime and too early to take the long ride back to Anaheim, and so we plot our activities for the afternoon, but only after visiting Sephora, a makeup store to die for, well, not really!

Sephora is fairly empty, so, with baskets in hand, we wander the aisles for bargains and for odds and ends we possibly cannot live without, like lipstick and mascara. It is whilst browsing the aisles that I suddenly have en epiphany-moment; a true revelation. There, standing in the aisle, a basket full of goods is possibly the unhappiest person in the world. Multiple cosmetic procedures have turned this woman into a grotesque caricature of a human and I'm horrified that perhaps 'Hollywood' encourages people to vandalise their bodies in this way. I suddenly feel very happy in my own skin, because if that lady is the result of 'perfection', I don't want any part of it. Enough said. 

The carpark fee is very kind to us. In fact, I think that a zero is missing when I pay the meagre $10 fee for parking here for almost the entire day. 

Our previous consensus brings us to the mysterious Mulholland Drive, home street for many of the rich and famous, but also the subject of a noir-genre movie. As we enter the mountainous road, we are treated to wonderful views of Hollywood before making our way to our last stop of the day.

One of my favourite places is the Santa Monica Pier. The end point to Route 66, we are now able to say that we had been on the Mother Road, although we really have not. But the signpost is good for photos! We wander along the pier, watching fishermen and the extraordinarily wide tract of sand of the beach disappear in the darkening of the evening. It is a lovely end to a perfect day. It's still too early to return to Anaheim due to peak hour traffic, so a Mexican restaurant along Ocean Boulevard rounds off our day nicely.

DAY FOURTEEN: ANAHEIM

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2012

Highlights: 

Disneyland

Total distance: N/A

Costs: 

Our hotel, The Tropicana Inn, in Anaheim is old and tired, but its location couldn't be better, for it is immediately opposite 'The Happiest Place on Earth'.

We are at the gate of Disneyland at 8:00 AM and through the gates five minutes later on this last day of October, Halloween. Before arriving, we had made a pact that we would fit in as many rides as possible over the course of the day. Our first stop is at the hat seller, where we each buy mouse ears, which must be worn for the entire day; no matter how silly we may think we look. And we do - wear them, that is! And we do look a little silly - but that's part of getting into the spirit of the day. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

It's really important to work through the park systematically to get the best chance of getting on most of the rides. Being October and mid-week, we are able to seamlessly move from one ride to the next without worrying too much about queues.

Our first ride is Space Mountain. It would be remiss of me to mention that this is a rollercoaster ride almost completely in the dark, with the occasional flash of light. It would be a bad start to the day if some of the ladies decided not to join in. We may have pushed Larraine, reluctantly, into the car when our turn arrived and it may have been Larraine who screamed from beginning to end. I still haven't seen those official photos.

True to our agreement, we fly on Dumbo, take a ride on a caterpillar to see Alice in Wonderland, fly a rocket into space, twirl on cups and saucers, venture into a haunted mansion and hide from pirates in the Caribbean. With hardly a minute to spare, we ride on every single ride except for two of my personal favourites, 'It's a Small World' and 'Indiana Jones', both of which are closed today. This is disappointing, but it doesn't detract from the absolutely wonderful day we enjoy inside this amazing park.

Disneyland is as wonderful for adults as it is for children and I can absolutely say that we have the best day ever.

Reluctantly we leave as darkness descends upon the park and make our way over to Tony Roma's for dinner.

Later, we stand outside the hotel and enjoy the nightly fireworks show. What a truly wonderful day!

 

DAY FIFTEEN: ANAHEIM

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 01, 2012

Highlights: 

Citadel factory outlet mall

Total distance: N/A

Costs: 

We have been travelling together for more than two weeks; this road trip has been amazing, but is coming to an end tomorrow. Melanie decides to visit Sea World in San Diego and books a tour that includes a 'swim with the dolphins' experience. She is collected by her bus early in the morning. Larraine decides to visit Universal Studios and her bus collects her soon after. 

I have a bit of a dilemma. I need to arrange an extra suitcase to bring home, and once I have pre-paid Qantas the $90 fee, and I've packed my cases, I realise that there is some extra room that needs to be filled.

Carolyn and I, with just minutes to spare, catch a bus to the Citadel factory outlet mall, where we spend a wonderfully relaxing day.

Later, over dinner, we enjoy a lengthy dinner as we all recounted our individual experiences of the day.

Perhaps we are a little saddened because tomorrow is our last full day; our respective flights leave for Australia tomorrow night. But first, we must plan our day ahead of our flights.   

DAY SIXTEEN: ANAHEIM - LAX

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 02, 2012

Highlights: 

Mission San Juan Capistrano, Forest Lawn cemetery, LAX

Total distance: 180 kms

Costs: $10 admission to Mission San Juan Capistrano

It is a challenge to pack all of our newly acquired suitcases into the car; thank goodness it's a large one! We are ready for our respective journeys back to Australia, but first, we have a full day of sightseeing ahead of us. This morning, we head south to another of the twenty-one missions that are dotted along the Californian coast. 

San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776 as the seventh of the nine missions established by Junipero Serra. As we stand here, I cannot push away the thought that this had been built twelve years before the First Fleet arrived in Australia. It's that old! Like all missions established by the Spanish, San Juan Capistrano had been built to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain and to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. My role isn't to comment on whether or not the Church acted in the best interest of the Native Americans; all nations across the world have a case to answer in regard to their treatment of indigenous people. But it's important to preserve these buildings and to provide an honest account of the history of the place and its people, without whitewashing the facts.

We spend a fascinating couple of hours exploring the mission, learning about its history and the legend of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. The protected birds return here during migration from Argentina around St. Joseph's Day (March 19) each year and leave around October 23. The 1940 hit song , written by Leon René, is a song inspired by this annual event. Carolyn and Larraine, who have an extraordinary internal playlist, sing the song, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, from the back of the car as we say goodbye to Orange County and head for Los Angeles.

Finding a Denny's to share our last meal together before the end of this extraordinary road trip, Melanie sets the GPS for our last excursion before having to return the car to the airport. I'm not sure what she's got in mind, so I follow directions until we come to a large, beautifully-manicured memorial park.

I want to go simply when I go.
They'll give me a simple funeral there I know.
With a casket lined in fleece,
And fireworks spelling out 'Rest in Peace,'
Oh take me when I'm gone to Forest Lawn.

We have arrived at the most famous cemetery of all; Forest Lawn. Although Michael Jackson is buried at another Forest Lawn location, we do see the final resting places of people like Liberace and Betty Davis.

It's time to say goodbye. We've returned the car to Dollar near the Los Angeles airport and we stand outside the Virgin terminal. I've been with this wonderful group of ladies since the 9th October, meeting them in Denver, Colorado. We had spent the first nine days exploring Denver and Aspen; a trip that deserves it's own separate story. The last sixteen days have been an absolute joy. We've laughed and sung, we've travelled approximately 3,000 kilometres, taking the long route from Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California and we've enjoyed every single minute.

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