20 January 2014

California Road Trip

We spent close to a month on the road, staying in motels, seeing California.

We had the most wonderful flight, fancy seats, music in the bathrooms, a home cinema set up with USB and mains chargers, lots of films, music and TV and complimentary drinks and food orders that could be ordered through the screen.

California was the place I had dreamt of living in since I was a girl with a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side attitude, from movies and TV programmes, every rock and metal band I had ever loved seemed to come from this one magic place where the sun always seemed to shine. The surfing was great and there were loads of parties. Every element of it seemed so familiar, pieced together from dozens of different movie scenes - it almost felt like a caricature of itself, having to remind myself that this was the real thing. The funny thing was my attitudes had changed so much since I was a girl, it was no longer I place I lusted over living, it was no longer my style. It struck me how LA, one of the world's most famous cities, where the worlds most richest and most well known live, also had more poor and homeless than I had ever seen in one place before - parts could be so up market and others so down-trodden.

We started at Venice beach and Santa Monica and walked down the strip next to the white sandy beach. The city had been smoggy and overcast all day and although warm, the sun didn't shine. The strip was filled with cheap merchandise, homeless people and tattoo shops.
After we drove through West Hollywood, past Mexican style houses, through Melrose Avenue, and arrived in the Hollywood strip around sunset. We walked along the shiny pavements filled with stars and arrived outside of the Chinese theatre where a premier was taking place for Mark Wahlberg's new film. When he stepped out of his car, people cheered. We had only booked our flights and a car for this trip - the idea was that we would spend a month visiting places along our chosen route and stay in motels, so we searched for free wifi in a local bar and booked somewhere to stay that night. We walked back to our car which was parked in some fenced off area next to an outdoor concert. We saw the live band was The Killers and they were being filmed for an American TV programme.

That night we drove just outside the city and stayed in a motel, eating cheap burritos for dinner. We fell asleep early and slept better than we had in a few days. The next day we ate pancakes for breakfast and spent the day riding roller coasters at Universal Studios. That night I ate the best chili cheeseburger I had ever had.

After a few days in LA we were ready to move on, we had a long drive up to San Francisco and taking the coastal route would make for spectacular views. We drove through Oxnard then Santa Barbra, passing the surfers on the beautiful, deep blue ocean. Stopping in a place called Morro Bay, we ate fresh calamari and clam chowder. The sea lions barking and calling on the rocks, pelicans and gulls surrounded the fishing boats. The air was much colder; I wrapped my poncho around me tightly and watched the clouds roll off the sea and across the large mountain ahead. The bay shops sold salt-water taffy - we fell in love with this little town.

As we carried on along the coastal road the sun started to set. We stopped at a cove with hundreds of elephant seals settling down for the night, it was an amazing sight. By the time we reached Big Sur, we were driving along a winding cliff side road in the dark. It was about this time that my usual travel sickness kicked in and I took sleeping tablets and curled up on the back seat. We were ready to stop for the night and running low on gas but there seemed to be nothing but road ahead. In the end we drove further than we had planned making our way into Monterey, a famous fishing city, where you could go humpback whale watching in the November season and home of my love's favourite type of cheese. It seemed like a beautifully traditional American town to see but we didn't have time to stay. We ate dinner at Denny's, stayed at a motel for the night and in the morning, were once again on our way.

We seemed to pass through so many different terrains along the roads - a motor way covered in sand surrounded by beach dunes, forests with large boulders that protruded out, desert mountains, horse ranches and 'Gilroy', the garlic capital. There was so much to see but we had no time to stop. Despite having so long on the road, time quickly got eaten up with things we already had planned for the trip.

I had been so excited since leaving Monterey to reach our next destination; it was going to be one of the highlights of my trip.
San Francisco was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, I loved everything about it, from the hillside houses to the city apartments with their steel balconies. Driving up and down some of the hills was more scary than any of the roller coasters from universal and at times we screamed and squealed thinking the car may roll backwards. The wide roads, fast food and trucker caps were replaced with city cars, organic caf├ęs and sophisticated people. This city was a part of California I had never given much thought to when I was younger, for me it was all about the LA rock and the surf scene but now this was the place I would have wanted to be.
When traveling I know people who backpack often spend weeks in an area soaking up the culture. I am more of an active traveler, I can cover a lot of ground, planning and seeing things in a short amount of time. If Philip was more interested in traveling, he would be perfect for the backpacking way of life - he loves to be by himself sitting in a cafe for hours, sketching, reading and chatting to people, no matter if they are homeless or rich, he chats to everyone in the same way. I wish that I had that attitude, but alas I am an active soul.

I was going to explore the city on foot, but as we parked we blew a tire on the curb and had to wait for a tow truck. Whilst waiting, I took a wander down to fisherman's wharf, looked in the little shops and ate some seafood. Once the car was ready, we took it back to a local car hire depot and had it replaced.
Saturday started with a trip to the food market in the old shipping yard, it was my favourite thing so far with beautiful stalls of mushrooms, oyster bars and fruit. I tried multiple samples of peanut brittle, mini burgers, pumpkin pie, mushroom pizza and pear slices. The food was right up my street and I ate until I was full. After, we took a bus to see fisherman's wharf again and pier 39 to see more sea lions. From there we got the tram into the centre of the city, which to me felt like New York. My sister wanted to spend some time looking at the shops but I wasn't finished with the architecture, so we spilt up and I walked back up to Sacramento Street and down to Lombard Street before walking to the Golden Gate Bridge for sunset. Walking up and down the hills felt like a work out like no other, and I found it hard to believe people could park on such steep hills, but it was worth it. I admired every house with my jaw hung open; I had never seen such a beautiful place to live. Being late autumn, the sun was setting quite early in the day and before I knew it, I would be losing light for photographs.

Before leaving San Francisco, we stopped at the famous Alamo Square and I fell in love again with the houses that were so brightly coloured and theatrical that they could have belonged to a Disney princess. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and carried in into Napa Valley, where we stopped at a vine yard and had wine tasting and lunch before heading to Yosemite.

On our route, we passed fields of deep yellow grass where rocks and trees jutted out in between, every now and then passing a ranch with old red American barns and white picket fencing. We entered Yosemite territory with winding mountain roads - we were only a metre away from a cliff drop with no barrier. We had been used to these sorts of drives from India, but this time we were behind the wheel rather than a driver experienced with the roads. Yosemite was the other place I was excited to see. One of the reasons I had wanted to take this trip was for landscape photography and I knew this was the chance to get some of the best photographs. Yosemite was something else.

We arrived in the dark, the full moon shone bright in the sky between the trees and our breath clouded in the cold mountain air. It was a Sunday night and the area we had planned to stay in was shut down for the night, so we found a local motel with an American flag hung outside to stay in. We rented a log cabin with 2 bedrooms and wooden walls, it was cold but we turned up the heat and left to find a local store while the cabin warmed up. After we returned with wine and dinner in hand, I put my pajamas and wooly socks on and relaxed for the first time with a glass of wine in hand. We ate and laughed and collapsed asleep late in the night, waking in the peaceful forest the next day. In the morning, Philip and I walked to the local store to pick up breakfast. The area felt like an old-style rural American town that you could picture in your head. We paid for our food and returned on foot to the cabin. I made pain au chocolate and cooked up eggs with sour dough bread. After breakfast we moved to Yosemite pines, the place we had planned on staying previously and spent the next few days in a little area surrounded by trees and animals. Our new log cabin had two floors, a deck and BBQ. Feral kittens wandered about and blue jays chattered in the trees. It was peaceful and cold.

Yosemite was the most breath-taking place I had ever seen. We drove through stopping and exploring different areas, stood on cliff edges and admired half dome, walked below in the valley and took pictures of the river, saw chipmunks and found a beautiful waterfall. My favourite was the orange grass plains with the majestic mountain face behind - the sun bounced off it perfectly and I took my favourite photographs of the whole trip. We made our way to glacier point at sunset, as the day disappeared the point gave off a blue glow from the ice frozen into its sides, the air was so cold but it was too amazing to leave. We drove back to our cabin in the dark; the long winding roads with snow at the sides were never ending. We were surrounded by tall dark trees and a few times deer almost ran in front of the car. We hoped that none of our route had been closed due to snow. That night we cooked up burgers and marshmallows on the BBQ in the dim light of our deck and drank eggnog.

In the morning I did yoga on the deck in the fresh mountain air and then carried on driving to see the red wood Sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove. As we passed the long road up to Glacier point, we saw it has been closed off for the winter due to snow and wouldn't be open again until the spring, we had watched the last sunset of the season from there. On our route a group of deer crossed our path on the road with babies in tow, we kept our eyes open for black bear, bob cats and mountain lion, but never saw any.

When we left Yosemite the clouds were low in the sky, the rocky ground was covered in thick yellow grass and fields of black Dexter cows and lamas grazed. It had rained overnight and the sky had an eerie quality. We drove and drove until the sun set.

As we entered Death Valley that night, it was freezing cold. As we drove the next day, the desert highways looked just how we pictured - us alone on the road with sand and dead grass, mountains on either side (except for the fact it was freezing cold and raining.) It reminded me of when I went to Rome and it snowed for the first time in 26 years.
Even up glacier point, once the sun had gone down it wasn't that cold because despite being up an icy mountain, there was no wind. The winds in the desert froze us and blew thick red sand everywhere. I wore more layers of clothes than the rest of the trip, four tops and two bottoms. It wasn't what we had expected in what was said to be the world’s hottest place. The vast landscape of empty Rocky Mountains in reds and oranges seemed to go on forever. As the roads continued up and down speeding over the bumps, we laughed despite knowing if we had gotten another flat, we would have been stuck.

I took over driving along route 160 through Death Valley and into Vegas, Nevada. The rain had started at lunchtime and gotten worse, by the time we reached the city it was torrential. We stayed in The Hooters Casino Hotel, our room was high up and we could see all of Vegas in a foggy wet glaze through the window. It was a lot of fun, we gambled and ate more food that was bad for us, it was the cheapest and one of the nicest places we had stayed at so far.
The next day the rain continued to pour, the hotels were so cheap we moved to one called Circus Circus - it was the first time I've stayed in a hotel with a roller coaster inside. We explored Vegas, going to the famous Bellagio, seeing Paris and heading for an all you could eat sushi dinner. With most of the hotels being linked, we avoided the streets that were starting to flood. On the casino floors it always felt like nighttime.

A day or two later we arrived in the dark to an old town called Williams. They were ready for Christmas; the place was covered in multi-coloured lights and wreaths, with copies of the famous Route 66 sign everywhere. We weren't prepared for Arizona, thinking that being in land it would be warm, and seeing snow start to fall.
We ate dinner in a Route 66 diner. I ate another burger, never in my life had I eaten so much deep fried fast food and I felt as though my body hated me for it - I had cramps, bad skin and a sluggish feeling. After a restless night sleep I awoke to see from my window that Williams was under a blanket of snow. We packed our things and grabbed some food before heading towards the Grand Canyon in a blizzard. As we arrived, the snow had cleared but the canyon itself was covered in cloud, we couldn't see in front of us, every rock was hidden. All of a sudden the wind would blow the cloud away and for a brief minute we could see everything before being hidden in cloudy fog again. The light hit the rocks so beautifully. Steam came off the ground, and despite the snow left from the blizzard, the sun felt warm.

Our last days were spent back in Anaheim, Orange County. On Newport Beach we went whale watching and saw a fin whale whilst dolphins swam next to our boat. It was lovely to seem them in the wild and made me sad for the ones stuck in tanks at Sea World. On our final day we drove down sunset strip on our way to see the Hollywood sign. As it became more up market, the hills were filled with Spanish style hacienda houses, although not my style, they were very beautiful. In the late afternoon we wandered around Rodeo Drive, enjoying the warm weather.

Had I made this trip alone I wouldn't have gotten anywhere near as far as we did because of all the stops I would have made. Every piece of America has a breathtaking majestic landscape, and there was so much more I wanted to photograph. It is easy to understand why so many Americans choose to just travel within their own country.