Back in November 2011, I was having a blog sabbatical, and never wrote about the American road trip I took. After hearing about the Travel Supermarket Holiday Postcards Competition, I thought it was the perfect excuse to squeeze my eyes shut and revisit those balmy days, endlessly winding roads and hours stretched with my legs up on the dashboard zooming through California.
Dates: 2nd – 10th November 2011
Location: Route 101, California
Stop-Offs: San Francisco > San Luis Obispo > Los Angeles
After a few days exploring San Francisco, my road trip buddy Craig and I were ready to hit the road and headed out to pick up our trusty hire car, which we would be clocking up many miles and hours inside. As I haven’t driven for five years we thought this might not be the moment to re-start, so Craig took the bold role as chief chauffer, with me as official navigator. Considering it usually takes me mere seconds on a country lane before I’m feeling queasy, and the fact that I once had to be rescued by a park warden when I got lost trying to pass my “Brownies” orienteering badge, the prospect of me negotiating us across the American wild West coast was a little ambitious. Stocked up on travel sickness tablets, with a map three times the size of myself, I tried to repeat the mantra to myself “It’s only a straight road, it’s only a straight road” as I instantly got us stuck in the San Francisco one-way loop.
After an hour of Craig asking… “Are we STILL in San Francisco” I managed to get us out of the city and the fog, and safely onto Route 101. Almost immediately the terrain began to transform around us. It’s the American cliche but we both had that instant sense of being in a movie. I extended my official job description to Head DJ, finding a radio station that played nothing except California themed tunes! Think California Dreamin’, California Soul, California Girls… which made for the perfect soundtrack as we wound down the windows and snaked towards the seemingly never-ending horizon of big blue sky.
Something that surprised me about the trip, was the shifting scenery as we travelled further south. What started with glorious picture-perfect beaches, transformed into the towering pine forests of Big Sur, and then into the… what can only be described as total desolation as we left Santa Cruz. Now, like smart road tripp-ers, we had filled up a tank full of gas before we embarked on our day of driving. However we hadn’t exactly accounted for my navigating us for an hour in lost-ville therefore burning through a quarter of it before even hitting the highway. On our first few hours of driving we had regularly passed other cars, trucks, bikes and every beach or vista had at least a handful of happy looking holiday makers taking snaps and gazing out to sea. As we zoomed onwards towards Elkhorn Slough National Research Reserve we both noted that it had been miles since we had seen another living being. The outside world began to take on an almost post-apocalyptic veneer, with derelict shacks, burn out buildings and gravelly verges. In typical b-movie fashion, the quantity of road kill spiked and we even had to edge around some sort of deer carcass at one point. I started to feel increasingly anxious to be back in the land of the living, when a flashing red light on the dashboard caught my eye. I was almost scared to look but my worst fears were realised when I saw the petrol gauge needle was quivering in the EMPTY section.
Beatles of sweat ran down my spine as I desperately scooped my hand into my tote bag and rescued my iPhone. Yup, no signal. Not a bar. Not even emergency calls only. This is how all horror movies begin! We drove on in total silence, our recent giddy singing and constant chat replaced with an eerie quiet. We now know this was because we were both desperately praying, wishing and envisioning something would appear in the distance to rescue us; as by now another juddery mile had passed and the only noise was our grumbling tummys (oh and me jiggling around in my seat because I needed the toilet). The tension in the car only increased when we passed a sign that made it perfectly obvious the next town wasn’t for another 32 miles. The panic and midday sunshine meant the car was now uncomfortably hot, and I think we were both aware we didn’t even have a bottle of water between us (rookie error!) Then suddenly… in the distance we saw a building…
The cheer that erupted from us both could probably be heard at both ends of Route 101. The mysterious building turned out to be a gas station, clam-chowder restaurant, public restrooms, local shop AND whale watching spot! I think we actually sat pinching ourselves for a moment before daring to enter, convinced it must be a mirage. Luckily it wasn’t, and we could stock up all the sensible things we should have packed for our trip; water, snacks, a blanket, torch… a SPARE can of petrol! With bellies full of chowder and smiles on our faces once more, the trip transformed from The Hills Have Eyes to Disney on route from Montery. Firstly, American Eagles became a regular sight, swooping in and out of our path. We were mid-Katy Perry croon-along when something silenced us. A beach we had whizzed past looked different to the other sandy havens we had become accustomed to. I nudged Craig and said that I had an instinct that perhaps we should turn back and take a look, and boy am I glad we did. Little did we know that we had nearly bypassed Piedras Blancas – a beach in the heart of Big Sur that for 3 months of the year becomes home to a colony of Elephant Seals. Creaking out of the car and running down to the sand, we could really take in the magnitude of hundreds of seals in various positions; sun bathing, spooning… waving! It was a truly humbling experience and one that we could hardly bear to tear ourselves away from.
Still reeling from our close encounter, we couldn’t believe our weary eyes when next we passed a field filled with zebra, racing along beside the road. To this day I can’t find any explanation on Google (which usually answers all my weird questions!) as to why they were there, but it did have us seriously expecting to see unicorns next, as every experience seemed to be trumping the last! It wasn’t quite unicorns, but as we drove into San Luis Obispo, this welcomed our arrival…
We spent the night in San Luis Obispo, which basically involved eating as many oversized American snacks as possible (the ones you grow up watching kids in movies eat at sleepovers!) and managing a few pathetic sips of an oversized beer, before both passing out as our next day on the road had one goal; GET THE HECK TO LA! And that’s what we did; with no more hairy near-breakdowns or menagerie of animals for company.
We only had one short day to “do” Los Angeles so we mostly stuck to the typical must-sees. Also note, my theme dressing knew no-bounds on this holiday, as I braved a pair of American flag hot pants! We began with the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which was a really entertaining way to explore Hollywood Boulevard. As we passed between Alfred Hitchcock and Dr Seuss, there was a break in the buildings lining the street and suddenly, over the top of a chain-link gate, appeared THE sign! Seeing it in real-life for the first time I don’t think anyone can prepare you for. Whatever your feelings on Hollywood, you can’t help but feel a surge of excitement and I’m really here elation. My response was to grab Craig in a bear hug, jump around screeching and point at it yelling LOOK! LOOK! – At my very uncool reaction, a man walking past stopped and explained how he had lived in LA for over a decade but never tired of witnessing people’s first reactions to the Hollywood sign. He said it was incredible how quickly you just get used to it living there, so it was important to be reminded of just how special it is.
By this stage the road trip bug had well and truly bitten, and we started to feel withdrawal when separated from the sticky pleather car seats and pine air freshener tag! So we hopped back in our adventure-mobile and drove out to Santa Monica, to experience a legitimate Hollywood beach and take in a last Californian sunset; which I must stress look exactly like the cover of a 90s pop CD or Global Hypercolour tee-shirt! Santa Monica not only has a stunning beach, lined with pastel painted (million dollar, celebrity dwelling) beach houses but it has a pier that dates back to 1909… although hopefully they have refurbished the fairground rides a little since then!
After a drive up Mulholland Drive, to take in the vista of the twinkling night-lights of LA, we faced our last meal in Los Angeles, and America in general. We decided to sample a local Mexican restaurant that had been recommended by a friend. The food couldn’t be faulted; guacamole made fresh at your table, heaving bowls of refried beans and steaming plates of fajita mountains. Our whole trip had been done on a reasonably tight budget, so as one last blow-out we decided to both opt for a cocktail with dinner. I still to this day have no idea what possessed us, but on the menu was something called a Larger-ita. A mixture of Mexican beer and tequila, with herbs and spices. I can still remember the look of shock on the waiter’s face as we merrily ordered two. This should have probably rung alarm bells, but smugly content with our choice, we accepted the tankards of cocktail with glee. As we put our lips to the salt-lined rim and took a large chug… our eyes bulged and our throats tightened.. but after a gulp that turned us both green, we both said “mmm delicious”. We were both too embarrassed to admit it was the single most disgusting thing we had ever tasted and only confessed after we had both stubbornly tried to drink half of it and felt our stomachs start to churn!
We ended the night with a glass of tap water at our hotel pool (and mutual regrets at our wasted last dollars on the largerita-gate!) comparing memories of the holiday and dipping our feet into the warm water. I would recommend this holiday to absolutely anyone, especially someone who’s never visited the USA before, as it provides the opportunity to take in so many different terrains, areas and cultures. The Route 101 is an easy drive, and one that you can make last for anything up to a week depending on how many stops you take – although we did it in a snappy two day driveathon as we wanted to spend extended time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thank you to Travel Supermarket for prompting me to re-live this amazing holiday and yknow what? I enjoyed this one so much I am actually taking Nick to re-drive it in reverse next March and stopping in all the little towns we passed through and didn’t get chance to explore. So look out for the sequel… where we definitely won’t run out of gas!