Sunday, November 02, 2008

Wild Wild West

So, to the big trip of this year: the US West Coast. I've decided that I want to do this the long way, so I might break this up into a number of posts. If you get to the bottom of this one and I haven't made it home to Aberdeen, look forward to more exciting installments! All my photos can be found in this set, by the way.

Simon needed to visit the region to bag 2 mullets, and I invited myself along for the ride. In reality, I invited myself along, hijacked the planning, and turned it towards my own selfish desires on places and things to see... Simon didn't seem to mind, as there was only a handful of things that he wanted to do, see, or get enthusiastic about. Thankfully, very early on, we found common ground in our enjoyment of food: even those who don't care for America will acknowledge that they know how to do food. Our trip then turned into a marathon of (many) meals with a series of landmarks and way-points in between; I loved it and Simon, despite his outward lack of excitement, seemed to like many of the things that we saw and did.

The route took us almost from border to border on the West Coast: we got as far south as San Diego, and ended up in Seattle. Two weeks was, we swiftly discovered, a ridiculously short amount of time to try and cover that amount of ground: we could linger only rarely, most sights were seen far more fleetingly than we would have liked, and some places had to be missed out altogether. Every person who we spoke to asked if we had done this or that: while we had hit many of the big-ticket items, some of the little things that make a road-trip in America what it is had to fall by the wayside. Some of these were a great shame: no Big Sur, Pacific Coast Highway, Death Valley, Santa Barbara, Mexican border, Berkeley; no visits to places like Aberdeen, Inverness, Fife, and Loch Lomond, which were all sighted on the way. Realistically, we needed 4 or 6 weeks to cover this ground properly, and the fact that we packed it into 2 made it a minor miracle that one of us did not try to kill the other during a ridiculously-packed schedule. Simon had some big driving days, and a more relaxed schedule would have allowed time to stop and take in the big country. I, as the passenger, at least had the luxury of looking around without having to worry about the lunatic drivers and lawless highway around me. On this point, Simon played a blinder: in the entire time, apart from one moment just north of San Francisco, we did not even come close to a crash, road rage, or any other driving related incident.

This of course, excludes navigational non-correctness. The true hero of the trip was our beloved "woman" the GPS unit lent to us by Jenny's friend Dave. Without her, the trip would have been more-or-less impossible, or at best a fractious series of diversions and me apologising to Simon for taking us the rong way yet again. Case-in-point was just after we arrived in the country: the guy at the car hire depot at LAX told us it was a simple right-right-straight route to the highway. In reality we ended up driving through the edge of Compton at night. For a hip-hop fan, it was fun to see the names Inglewood and Compton on signs; for the driver it was probably not an ideal entry into American, left-side, and automatic driving.

We did manage to find the highway after about 3 attempts to get onto the on-ramp, and made our way around LA to Burbank, where Jenny and bed awaited us. Don't get the wrong idea about that: Jenny, Simon, Bed, and I are 4 circles that didn't overlap on the Venn diagram of our trip.

A jet-lag inspired sleep later, and we were ready to get on with the trip proper. Jenny and Gavin fueled us up brilliantly with pancakes and bacon, and it was time to hit the road. First stop: Magic Mountain. This produced the biggest split decision of the trip. I love rollercoasters, Simon had never done one but the indications were that he wouldn't necessarily adore them. This assumption proved correct, and Simon endured a series of violent, outlandish, and occasionally insane rides that made me say "wow" and him say "...". To his credit, he did them all, and approached enjoyment on 1 or 2 of them (I'll gloss over the fact that the enjoyable ones were the kid's rides). The schoolboy error that I made was heading straight for what turned out to be the most extreme coaster that I have ever done, X2. Check out the video:

When we got off it was clear that I had just put Simon through one of the least enjoyable experiences of his life. Oops. After a half-day there, we hit the road towards Palm Springs and what was potentially the best meal of the whole trip: for me it was Wagyu beef-burgers, outstanding milkshake, and cold beer, all served up in a beautiful and pristine 50's style diner.

Sunrise the next day, and my bag finally joined me in America. Without resorting to national stereotypes, let's just say that it is not an unusual occurrence for a bag to take slightly longer to make its way to your plane in Paris than in any other European country. My bag arrived the day after me on both the outward and return legs of the trip. Thanks, Air France!

Anyway, we headed out into the desert (I was disappointed, as I thought that Simon said we had to go to a remote area in the middle of a dessert) from Palm Springs, and what a landscape we saw. Considering we were no more than a couple of hours from LA, the emptiness, wilderness, heat, and general intensity of it all is just incredible. Roads are straight lines that disappear into the heat haze, hills are hazy things that seem to be always on the horizon, and the major towns in the area are villages: desolate, ramshackle, slightly depressing villages at that. I loved the desert. The first mullet was here, on a smelly and not-exactly-beautiful lake called the Salton Sea. I'll gloss over this so I don't reopen Simon's wounds, so I'll just say that the mullet was unable to be ticked off, and we had to move on in failure. From one of the low points of the trip we moved straight on to one of the high points: Salvation Mountain. Over a nice lunch of quesadillas in the town of Niland, I had a browse of the guidebook which pointed us to the nearby attraction. None of the people that we met in the US had ever heard of it, which shows you just how big the country is: anything like this would be well-renowned in a more reasonably-sized country.

Salvation Mountain is an incredible piece of folk art in the middle of nowhere. A man who can presumably be described as eccentric has built a mountain (that's being kind, to be honest. It's more like a hill) out of straw and paint, as a monument to God and love. Really. I don't have much time for religion, but even the most cynical can not fail to be impressed by this place. It fully succeeds in its mission of preaching love over hate, with a bright and joyous atmosphere. And for someone who loves stark, saturated and bright colours, this place was a photographer's delight. The mountain just appears out of nowhere in the middle of hot, empty desert, with the only sounds the far-off train horns that became the emblematic sound of the country for me. This guy has some real dedication to live the life out there, building up his monument with no apparent material possessions of any worth. Impressive.

We needed to head to San Diego, and rather than taking the boring, flat way along the border we decided to head through the high desert and over the hills. The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is quite simply stunning: hot, hilly and flat, empty, and beautiful. This is real Cowboys and Indians territory: sprawling desert with jagged gullies and steep mountains surrounding. The drive 2500 feet up into those surrounding mountains was memorable: white knuckle for me, with Simon seeming to love the windy roads with steep drops. Passing through high ranches and seeing what seemed to be no civilisation for a long time, we headed down towards San Diego through some really nice little towns. I later found out, to my disgust, that one place, Julian, where we had stopped for petrol (but no refreshment) is renowned for its apple pies. Bollocks.

So to San Diego. Here Simon had a friend, Miriam, whose birthday it was. This was therefore not a "touristy" visit, but one which was a highlight from the perspective of seeing the Americans in their natural habitat of a dive bar. A few drinks at her house turned into a late night out at a bar where things proceeded to get messy, with everyone drunk but some more than others. One married woman made a pass at everybody (myself and Simon included), getting more desperate and upset after each subsequent rejection. Many drinks were had, including the worst that I've ever sampled: vodka, whisky, and coke. Don't ask why I was drinking it...

All this meant that the next morning was entirely a write-off. A late lunch and quick visit to La Jolla (pronounced la hoya: I made the American laugh by referring to it as la jolla) beach was followed by an early evening dander up the highway to LA. On the way, we stopped for food at one of the famous In-n-Out burger joints that all the Californians seem very proud of. A quick review: good burger, disappointing fries, mindblowing milkshake. The brevity of the menu and the lack of freezer (everything is made fresh) were very impressive.

And so back to LA and Jenny's house at Burbank. I seem to have written much more than I expected, so this seems to be as good a point as any to pause for breath. Coming up: LA, Hollywood, and our close encounter with actor John Stamos.

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Blogger Jenny said...

So glad you've returned from your hiatus--can't wait to hear about the remainder of your adventure.

7:26 pm  
Blogger Claire said...

OK, the bit abour driving through Compton made me laugh and laugh. Sounds like an amazing trip so far!


10:48 pm  

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