And it’s only going to get hotter as we move away from the coast…
Having crossed the border from Oregon amongst the thousands of acres of vineyards, our first Californian experience was the drive through the notorious Redwood Forest, at the north most point of the state. These were just as impressive as we had expected, huge in diameter and height, and it was an enjoyable hike up to Trillium Falls after an 8 hour day of driving. The second day of constant roads from Oregon to San Francisco was just as long, and we chose to detour and stop off at the Chandelier Tree (which also goes by the more American name ‘Drive-Thru Tree’). The cashier took our $5 but assured us our van wouldn’t fit through the hole- which was cut into the tree in the mid 1920’s- and as cocky Englishmen, we assured her it would. As seen in the video, it was a tighter-than-tight squeeze (and we have scratched both our wing mirrors to oblivion) but we proved her wrong; and continued our way down to San Fran with smiles on our faces.
There were two big pulls to the city of San Francisco; Alcatraz prison and the Golden Gate Bridge. Our route unknowingly took us straight across the latter (it costs $7.50 to cross into the city, and it’s a nightmare to pay it unless you have an American number plate!), but we chose to walk across it to the Golden Gate national park that evening as well. The views were incredible as was the sunset, and we wandered back as the lights on the skyscrapers flickered on for the night.
Our intentions to explore Alcatraz weren’t quite as successful. A lack of research meant we were unaware of the month-long waiting list, and we stood offering backhanders to the officials at Pier 33 until there were talks of the police being called, when we finally accepted defeat in front of the hundreds of more prepared travellers. We found solace in a small fishing boat who could take us around the island as well as under the Golden Gate Bridge, and for $15 each we took up the offer; but after reading so much about it, I would have loved to have stepped foot on the island. In ‘Into The Wild’, after being informed of the 6 month waiting list to paddle the Colorado river, Alexander Supertramp just did it anyway; and we joked about jumping off the boat and swimming towards the island until reminders of the perished prisoners who took on the waters of San Fran bay silenced us. If I ever revisit, I’ll be more prepared- but the nature of this roadtrip makes it impossible to plan where and when we’ll be at a certain place.
Our first American sports event was baseball: bottom of the league Oakland Athletics (situated just outside of San Fran) vs top of the league Texas Rangers- who had already secured the title. We picked up tickets for $8, but were then later given a free pair of tickets by a group of teachers we met in the parking lot. With nothing to do until the game, we arrived several hours before it started, and were surprised to find it almost full. It’s apparently tradition to arrive early, put up a gazebo and have a barbecue and drinks on the Tarmac before each game. Unaware of this, we were invited to join a pre-existing group’s ‘camp’. They took us around the kit store, and gave us their spare tickets so we could sit and drink with them throughout the game.
Further south, we were fortunate enough to have a base whilst exploring Los Angeles; a couple I met in Peru invited us round to housesit for a few days. We caught up over whiskey and smoked meats before Jon and Annette set off to Arizona, leaving us in the company of a skittish German Shepherd, who (after many bones) we won over eventually. From this base, we delved out to Downtown LA, drinking in a rooftop jacuzzi bar; Hollywood and Beverly Hills, hiking up behind the sign; and around Claremont, where we summited Mount Baldy before sampling the locally brewed pilsners. A huge thank you goes out to Jon and Annette for their incredible hospitality (and cocktails) and ongoing generosity. If you’re reading this and ever in England, your kindness will be repaid.
“The surf in California is some of the best in the world for people your standard,” Jon said over a delicious rack of ribs, and he wasn’t wrong. We rented boards out three times in Cali (Santa Cruz, Ventura and Newport Beach). Each time we paid between $30-40 for a half day (including wetsuits) and each time we could see ourselves getting progressively better. By the time we hit Newport Beach, we were standing up and riding waves inland nine times out of ten. We found Santa Cruz slightly too busy, and the beach had a reputation for “angry surfers” with little patience for anyone lower than their standard; and in Ventura the waves were huge, sending us flying after each wipeout and pinning us beneath the surface for 15 seconds at a time. The feeling when we caught them, however, made this clobbering worthwhile. Newport Beach, as Jon had promised, was the best of the bunch: frequent waves of uniform size, without having to share with many other surfers. We spent hours here.
During one of the aforementioned wipeouts, the chest mount harness for my GoPro snapped in half and my prized camera was lost to the Pacific. As scenic as it was waiting and watching the tide go out, it was frustrating to not see it poking out at me in the crystal clear shallows; so I was relieved to pick up a second hand one for just $70 from Palace Pawnbrokers as soon as we arrived in San Diego.
After a night out in San Diego, we flirted with the Mexican border whilst heading west along Route 8 to Salvation Mountain. I had only heard of it from watching ‘Into The Wild’, the film that first inspired the idea of this trip, and it has been incredibly well preserved since 1992, when Christopher McCandless visited en route to Alaska, and since artist Leonard Knight passed away due to Ron, the caretaker’s, excellent work. Exploring the rooms, I found a fitting tribute to Christopher aka. Alexander Supertramp, who has been referenced in conversation many times this trip. Removing the religious aspect from the site, it’s still an impressive example of a humans capability to create something beautiful when they devote their life and channel their energy into it.
Ron, the caretaker at Salvation Mountain, who meticulously repaints the site to preserve it.
Our time in California drew to a close as we pulled away from Salton Sea, a ginormous lake in which we had planned to swim in as we headed north to Nevada. Thousands upon thousands of rotting fish carcasses piled up on the shoreline, coupled with the eerily quiet ghost town that neighboured the lake, Bombay Beach, changed our minds without too much persuasion and we got back into the van, ready for Las Vegas.
Exploring Alcatraz Prison on foot, Yosemite National Park (which I can pronounce now!) and the area surrounding the Joshua Tree are all things that our route and timescale wouldn’t allow for, and guarantee my return to California in the coming years.