After our rich, diverse and exhausting LA trip we retreated to the quiet charm of San Clemente for a night en route to stay with friends near San Diego. We pulled off Highway 1 into this surfers paradise and immediately found a motel, The Boutique Ocean Motel, run by a delightful couple who had left Iran when the Shah fell from power in 1981. It was a short walk to the beach and Fred and I dove into the surf whilst Dean took a stroll around the pier taking photos. We played beach tennis, built sandcastles, and swam until sunset, enjoying the atmosphere of families chilling our around fire pits provided by the town.
A steep walk back up to the motel gave us a bit more much needed exercise before I headed off to get dinner from a grocery store. After a good night’s sleep Dean picked up some take out coffees and breakfast that we enjoyed on the sidewalk terrace of the motel. As we weren't due at our friends till mid afternoon, and I was very behind on my blogging, so we stayed there until 1pm when we set off for Carlsbad and another beautiful coastal journey.
Our friends from Flaine, in France, hosted us for a wonderful 3 nights. In a quiet and peaceful neighbourhood, we enjoyed the communal pool, visited beaches for breakfast and sunsets, and had an abortive trip to San Diego. Traffic got the better of us, and on the outskirts we turned around and headed back. I guess that San Diego will have to have its own trip, people rave about it, so we'll save it for another time. It was lovely to enjoy the company of friends not strangers for a while, you don't realise until you do it that you have missed not having conversations with people who share your culture. Of course we talked British, European, and US politics. It was interesting to get more of an insight into America from Brits that split their time 50/50 between France and America, and who have set up and continue to run a really successful business. They shared their experience of the US healthcare system, the very real impact on Brexit to their business, and it was good to have fact based conversations about issues we only graze the surface of as we travel through as visitors.
With clean clothes, full stomachs, and rested heads we took their advice on the route to Las Vegas. They had proposed a trip over the mountains and through canyons to Palm Springs, and then onto Vegas. What a trip it turned out to be. We left the suburbs and soon came to the countryside we all recognise from cowboy movies. Searing mountains with flat desert valleys covered in cacti and scrubby bushes. The temperature quickly rose from the late 80s to over 100F. We came across a metalwork artist that our friends had told us to look out for. On the roadside in the middle of nowhere we spotted a full sized wagon with horses at full gallop, that had been beaten out in metal. We pulled into the lot to be greeted by a football pitch sized gallery of his work. Although we had parked in the shade, when we got out the scorching heat hit us. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the frontiersmen and women; no air con to retreat to, no stocks of bottled chilled water, no rest stops to take a break in……. not a landscape for the feint hearted.
Beaten by the heat after 15 minutes, but with amazing pictures, we set off for Palm Springs the home of plastic surgery, and retirement city of choice for the old Hollywood stars. Having ascended to 2000ft, we were greeted by a stunning view of the verdant Coachella Valley into which Palm Springs nestles. As we dropped down into the city we watched the thermometer rise, higher, higher, higher, and higher, until we topped out at 116F. We had thought we might have a night in Palm Springs, but having made good time, and with the scorching heat we decided not to. Instead we decided we’d press on to Vegas and get there a night earlier. With a stop at Starbucks for an iced drink and free wifi access we managed to extend our booking at the Flamingo and book an extra night.
Our journey took us through the Mojave Desert and it was incredible. Dean said the best road trip of our travels so far. The highway had been built alongside the old railroad that had opened up this part of the US, consequently we were treated to not only the amazing geography, but also the sight of ghost towns that now lay abandoned. Our drive took us 7 hours from Carlsbad to Vegas, but it was anything but a chore and I’d recommend it to everyone who gets the chance.
It was dark when we got to Las Vegas, but the sky was lit up by the gaudy, glorious, lightshow that this night time skyline is known for. Fred had cued up ‘Global DJs The Las Vegas Sessions (2014)’ for our entry, so Dean and Fred both shot video of our entry to the city to the full volume ‘Where we Belong’ by Fredde Le Grand playing full blast.
I dropped Fred, Dean, all our bags, and some supplies we’d picked up in Carlsbad, in the stifling heat at the door and went to park up and found what was nearly the last space in the hotels multi story. It was 9pm but still over a 100F, so it was a relief to step into the lobby of the hotel’s ice cold air con. The Flamingo was everything we hoped for, full on Vegas kitsch bang in the heart of ‘The Strip’. It was of the first hotels to go up in what we now know as Las Vegas. From the moment you enter it’s all about getting you to part with your money. Access to anything is via the Casino floor, which is vast, and staff are there in droves working for their tips. Our room was great but we quickly established there was no fridge or microwave, or anything that would allow you to easily avoid buying food and drink from The Flamingo. The price list in the room was extortionate; a delivered bottle of Jack Daniels (which we don’t drink!) would be $127, a coffee $9. With no fridge, but food and wine to keep chilled we set to. Bins were emptied and Dean made a fridge for food with plastic bags full of ice from the ice machine, whilst I made up an ice bucket for the white wine, bubbly and water. For full details, including video, see below!
Not having eaten, we left the Flamingo at 10pm and crossed the Strip to Caesar’s Palace. We love ‘The Hangover’ and it was great to see it buzzing with night time activity as we walked into, and through, it to Cesar’s Forum. This vast shopping mall is full of all the major designers housed in a Vegas take on the Sistine Chapel, replete with the Treviso Fountain and other nods to the great Renaissance artists. Very kitsch but very impressive. We settled on The Cheesecake Factory for dinner and had the most fabulous food and service for $80 (cheap for Vegas), unfortunately for Fred, Penny from The Big Bang Theory didn’t appear…. Instead we had the perkiest of waitresses from Maine serve us. Absolutely shattered we made our way back, and although it was now midnight it must still have been in the high 90sF. Fred had had an amazing few hours and was fully in love with this city already.
Fred and I found the pool in the morning whilst Dean went to drop our car at the airport, we’d figured we didn’t need a car in Vegas when we’d planned the trip. The pool was stunning. One side was for the over 21 party animals, and as we approached we heard the music pumping out from the DJ booth. The family area was right next door and Fred couldn’t believe the waterfall slides, fountains, and rapids that made up the area. We found a shady area next to a speaker to give us the party atmosphere Fred was looking for and Fred headed off to throw himself down the rapids. Free water (amazing!) kept us hydrated in the heat, and much to our joy we managed to avoid spending anything.
As you would expect of Vegas, The Flamingo did indeed have real Flamingo’s in its grounds. In addition, there was an array of other birds, including parrots, and amphibian’s. With Fred now a full on animal rights activist we confirmed that all the creatures at the hotel were, as he thought, rescued. If he had thought otherwise it would have ruined his stay, I hope when he does read this when he’s older he forgives me for this. I’m pretty sure that the Flamingos et al were in good physical and mental health, however I do have an issue with the parrots kept outside, performing tricks and posed on tourists heads for photos whilst doing ‘high fives’……
Our very big treat on this trip was taking a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon, including Lake Mead and The Hoover Dam. We left it until arriving in Vegas to book and managed to secure a decent reduction which we were pretty pleased with. After a morning by the pool, we were picked up and driven to the airport where we were weighed and processed. I was pretty pleased that the burgers had not taken too much of a toll, a surprising loss of 6lb since I’d left the UK.
Robert, our pilot, greeted us and 5 other passengers. A towering man, he and his family had exchanged the harsh cold of Alaska for the dry desert of Nevada, and he provided us with brilliant entertainment and an informative commentary for the entire flight. It was Fred’s first helicopter trip and Robert kindly sat him next to him giving Fred the full flying experience. Being a small helicopter, it felt surprisingly vulnerable as it wobbled into the air, and as Robert pulled back the joystick (not sure this is the technically accurate term!) we started a roller coaster ride climb up over Vegas. Fred’s face was a picture of joy, excitement and amazement, you really felt like you were flying yourself.
The flight took us over the Mojave Desert first. Small roads and animal tracks crisscrossed below us, interspersed with tiny settlements of gold prospectors living in tents, caravans and tin huts. It’s a region still rich in gold but only those with, hard to secure, permits can mine and pan the landscape. It wasn’t long before we came upon the fabulous sight of Lake Mead. The original lake is fed from the melted snow that has made its way down from Colorado. The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, completed in 4 years, taking 2 years less than planned and under budget, doubled the size of the original Lake. This is the water source for Las Vegas and surrounding area. The colour of the lake was magnificent, a stunning aquamarine lapping white sand beaches. A rain squall appeared and we flew into and through it, cue joke from Robert about looking for the windscreen wipers! Out of the squall we came upon the Hoover Dam, the largest man made structure of its kind. It was so impressive to fly over it and get a sense of the size and achievement of its construction.
Of course the best had been saved until last, up ahead the Grand Canyon became visible. We tend to set our expectations low to avoid disappointment, however I’d challenge our flight through the Grand Canyon to disappoint anyone. We soared over the West Rim and the whole Canyon opened up to us. Much to our surprise and delight, Robert then banked at a steep angle, leaving our stomachs on the ceiling, and we swept down into the Canyon itself. It was truly the most incredible experience of my life and everyone in the helicopter gasped at this great wonder of the world. I even shed a tear. We flew up the Canyon, over the ‘Skywalk’ which is run by the Mojave Indians who ‘own’ this land, and then into some of off shoots of the main Canyon. I’ll leave the pictures below to describe the colours and geology, suffice to say if you ever get a chance to do this trip, seize it with both hands.
In need of fuel we left the Canyon to fly back over Lake Mead to a refuelling station. This caused much amusement and a cue for jokes about how much cash we had in our wallets. It tickled me to see, in the midst of desert, a helicopter ‘petrol station’ that is exactly like a forecourt for cars. Robert landed next to an empty lane and we decamped into the boiling heat, whilst he literally got the pump attached to a fuel dump, and started to fill up. A courteous group, we switched seats for the flight back so everyone got a go in the front. By the time we landed back in Vegas we had not only enjoyed one of the great wonders of the world, but also learnt an enormous amount about the start and growth of Vegas, Lake Mead, The Hoover Dam, and the people who inhabit this sparse and harsh landscape.
After landing back, and saying our goodbyes, we took the transport into town and decided to brave the heat and walk The Strip from South to North where the Flamingo sits. We started off in Luxor, walked through New York, Paris and London. We had lunch in a ‘Rainforest’ to the chorus of animatronic gorillas, elephants, lions and snakes, probably the kitschiest thing we’ve ever done and an absolute contrast to the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon. We were just in time for the fountain show in front of The Bellagio which was truly impressive and we preferred it to any firework display we’d seen. As we walked back to our hotel we were treated to a dozen ‘Alan’s’ from ‘The Hangover’ plying their trade, baby dolls dangling from their baby carriers. Dean felt right at home. The bizarre and the crazy entertained us all the way back.
On our last day we took the High Roller at sunset which gave us magnificent views of the lit up Las Vegas skyline. Dean made friends with a Vietnam Vet who had also served in the UK and was smitten with England. He also sported a Ronald Regan badge that read “when America had a great President”. Fred had another treat to come. Dean had found a newly opened virtual reality store where you could experience the latest technology, headset goggles, body sensors and hand controls. He opted to ‘Fly over Vegas’ and was taken through his paces by the staff who familiarised him with the equipment and sensations of stepping into the virtual world. As we waited for Fred to start his flight a woman wobbled out, shaking and in tears. She had just done the same trip as Fred and had been terrified by it, it was so realistic. Fred on the other hand found it amazing, and the experience was a tie with the Grand Canyon for first place.
Dinner was outdoors on a terrace overlooking the live filming of Las Vegas own TV channel, for their weekend show. Numerous celebrities were promised (Vegas celebrities!) topped by Oliva Newton-John who is doing a Las Vegas residency. Whilst we ate Lookalikes appeared with scantily clad Vegas showgirls. Much to Fred’s annoyance he got grabbed by ‘Trump’ for a photo. For the record his smile in the photo does not register his support of Trump!! He was more happy about his photo with Flavour Flav from Public Enemy which he thought was pretty cool. We were entertained through dinner by the filming and various appearances, however much more fun was people watching the Vegas big wigs who were sat next to us. We had the mayor, a retired ambassadress (the most elegant and glitzy 87 year old I’ve ever seen), one of the big hotel owners, plus the ‘celebrities’ who were appearing on the show, with their bodyguards. The men got smashed and the waiflike women sipped their water, no carbs or water retaining alcohol for them. Somehow we had stumbled into the midst of the great and good of Vegas.
Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, and The Flamingo had given us everything we could ask for and more. Would we go back? Dean and I wouldn’t, we’ve done everything we would want to in Vegas. Fred on the other hand is chomping at the bit for his 21st, to be in the party pool, see Tiesto (or whoever is the biggest DJ at that time) play Caesars cavernous nightclub, and have a little flutter. On second thoughts I might just sneak back with him…….
Our journey to LA started with another repack of the car and, much to Freds delight, a breakfast of sweet muffins we had gathered from other motel breakfast bars. On the way we got another surprise wildlife treat. A packed car park on the coast signalled something worth stopping for. As we made our way to the crowds we discovered that Elephant Sea Lions spent the summer here. Laid out on the beach these huge creatures packed themselves tightly together, noses in the surf and tails flicking wet sand onto their bodies to cool them down. Two youngsters were outside the group, a quarter of the size of the other monsters. We learnt from the volunteers that all those on the beach were male. The females were out at sea for several months feeding themselves up ready for the next breeding season when they would come back to give birth and not feed for several months as they tended their newborns. On the beach in front of us couples of Alpha Males did battle, rearing up and roaring for supremacy. It was absolutely fascinating to watch stunning to watch more wildlife in its natural environment. We loved the enthusiasm of the committed volunteers. Topped up on nature and more beautiful wild scenery we continued on our way.
The sun shone brightly as we pulled into Calabasas, a suburb north of Malibu and West of the city centre. We’d got a bargain 3 nights in this lovely motel with a stunning pool. Early check in meant we were given a poolside room. We decamped all our stuff and I headed out to the supermarket next door to get supplies for our stay, whilst Fred and Dean took advantage of the pool.
The motel was home mostly to tourists, and travellers en route. However it was also home to two African American families who had uprooted themselves from Miami and Texas respectively. The parents were out at work and searching for more permanent accommodation whilst the children, on schools holidays, stayed back at the motel. Fred instantly had 4 playmates in the pool, it only took a short time for them all to connect and start playing ‘Sharks’, ‘Marco Polo’, and some very convoluted game of ‘Swamps’ which involved our two lilos being the base for 2 teams to commence a watery war. We ate dinner round the pool and the heat dropped from a searing 90F to mid 70s. Lots of play and swimming made for an early night.
In the morning we set off for a tour over the Malibu Canyon towards the eponymous Californian beaches. We came first to the millionaires paradise of Malibu. Along the pacific Ocean houses fronted the private beaches. Most had remodelled the original small dwellings, and in their place stood 3 storey glass constructions with decks that hung over the private sand below. Nothing could be bought here for less than $4M, with prices going up to $11M. We saw a couple of residents as we pulled over to look at these homes. A portly man paced his glass deck, mobile to his ear, a mother was the sole occupant of the beach with her young son. Big money busy your privacy round here, perhaps it comes with a bit of loneliness too?
We headed off to Venice Beach. This was a ‘must do’ for me. When we decided to stay a couple of nights in Miami I had mistakenly been under the impression that this was where the muscle beach was located, I guess we’re all improving our geography on this trip! We followed the coast line from Malibu to Venice Beach enjoying the landscape and curiosities of this rarefied part of LA. A game of ‘find a parking space’ lasted 30 minutes before we hit upon a free one 2 blocks from the heart of Venice Beach. Bronzed, toned, hair free bodies, pumped, stretched, balanced, climbed, boxed, shot hoops, and strutted on the courts and in the open air gym. We found a shady spot to sit and watch. Small groups worked out together, discussing the merits of a vegan diet full of protein to fuel hours of working out whilst not laying down any fat to hide the sculpted muscles of their naked torsos. Fred found a group of ginger haired local kids who let him join their game of basketball. We passed another hour watching Fred and his new mates play a competitive but friendly game.
As we watched Fred we had as a backdrop the constant dialogue of ‘Gerry’ (I’ll give him this name as I don’t know what it was). He was one of the many homeless living on Venice Beach. Gerry had a tidy encampment on the grassy knoll next to the basketball court 20 feet from where we sat. He’d found a shady spot under a towering old palm tree to pitch a sun protector tent that was his home. An open umbrella provided more shade for his al fresco dining room, a blanket carefully laid out. Gerry stood over his food supplies, set out in a line on a piece of wall that provided the boundary to his establishment. Swaying from side to side, with a Stevie Wonder rhythm to his movements, he obsessively counted and adjusted the symmetry of his supplies. After 20 minutes he had satisfied himself that his provisions were in order and decided to commence his rounds of his employees. Oblivious to anyone around him, and in a tight boundaried space that didn’t impinge on anyone else, he lived out loud the world that existed in his reality. A scavenged aluminium tube served as his microphone, he held it strongly addressing the employees of “…. Enterprises Incorporated” (I didn’t hear the full title of the corporation that he oversaw). After a stirring address, filled with giggles and anecdotes, he took his microphone and turned it into a baton which he tucked neatly under his arm. Like an Officer of the British Empire; upright, entitled, cane at 45 degrees to his midriff, he moved through his invisible troops, sharing jokes and offering encouragement. Dean and I were struck by his inspirational leadership style. A Chief Executive prepared to leave his Boardroom and move through his troops, connecting and sharing moments with them. This severely mentally ill African American homeless man, in the midst of a psychotic episode, showed more leadership than many Directors I have known…..
We left ‘Gerry’ and the basketball court, Fred in tow after goodbyes, and went down to the beach. The iconic lifeguard station served as a perfect backdrop for Fred and I to act out a ‘Baywatch’ moment. The ‘SloMo’ facility on Dean’s iphone had us giggling for ages, as we replayed it. We then took a stroll down the Venice Beach boulevard. To raised eyebrows I got played beautifully by a burly African American ‘rapper’ who stopped “you too cool family” (Fred’s hair is back in braids with a shaved undercut to set them off), placing headphones on Fred connected to an iplayer which was loaded with his work. He signed a CD to ‘Prince Fred’ and thrust it in our hand suggesting a $20 donation for the artist, whilst bringing in his son who was Fred’s age, to meet ‘Prince Fred’ and the “coolest family you’ve seen”. Dean settled on $10 claiming it was all he had. We parted friends with smiles, and Dean appeased by another story of my naivety to tell at my expense, and Fred bowled over that he’d met a real life rapper. Win win win! On our stroll back we saw another family enjoying the same experience, including the rapper introducing his son. Fred, less naïve than I, smiled and said “I think they’ve got a bit of an act going on” – yup!
Having enough of the seascape and beachside experience we decided to go back to Calabasas via Culver City, Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Canyons. It was a great drive. We passed the impressive studios of Sony / Columbia Pictures, rode through elegant Beverly Hills passing Chateau Marmont (Hotel California is our US road trip song which we now have word perfect), and took the steep Laurel Canyon Road (on which Frank Zappa had lived, Dean’s favourite musician) up to views across the city. Famous road names and sights made for a fun journey. We stopped right at the top of Mulholland Drive and looked across the city. A small tourist information display had pictures of the city in the 1920’s – all agriculture laid out in blocks. Made us realise how fast this city of 35M people has grown. Of course we couldn’t head back until we had found the Hollywood Sign, which we did within 10 minutes with the help of direction from some lovely local teenagers, with reality TV accents to die for.
After a long day touring the pool was a welcome relief. Fred’s 4 friends quickly joined him. I spent a bit of time talking to Mack. Mack was watching his 2 grandchildren, sporting an oversized Martin Luther King t-shirt, with a picture of the great man and his most famous quotes. He and his family were from Miami. His son had got a job in LA 2 months ago and moved up with his kids. Since the move the family had lived in numerous motels, whilst his son also searched for a long term place to root his family. This was the second time they had been in this motel, and they had a good 2 week deal that would keep them here for another week. It was now getting pressing to find a long term home as the kids (13 & 10) needed to enrol in a school in 10 days time. Mack had left his home to ‘sit the kids’ whilst his son and wife were out at work. He passed his days in the room or by the pool. He yearned to be back in Miami and was “sick of this place”. We talked of Miami, where we are going for 2 nights before we cross into Brazil, and how it had changed in the last 75 years. He’d been in the US Airforce, served in Vietnam, and then been stationed in the UK near Ipswich (Dean’s home town). The constant movement, different countries, and desire to settle down back home and have a family had led him to leave the Airforce. He wished he hadn’t. We chatted as the kids played, Fred the only white kid with 4 African American kids, in a motel staffed by Latinos with the rest of the guests white. We didn’t talk about current race issues or politics, his experience and values were there in his t-shirt, the political eras that his life covered, and that he had met his conscription obligations during the Vietnam draft – something a current presidential candidate managed to dodge….. Nevertheless, as we talked, there was a deference in his body language and eye contact. I don’t know if it was real or imagined. But for his formative years our exchange would not have been possible.
That night I planned our Downtown LA trip. Traffic in LA is truly horrendous despite the 12 lane freeways so I planned a route that would see us drive to the North Hollywood Metro park and ride and catch the Red Line into the heart of Downtown. The Red Line would let us stop off at the Chinese Theatre, with the cement hand prints of the Hollywood stars of the last 100 years, en route to the historic centre, and a self-planned walk around the old warehouse district that has been annexed by artists in search of cheap studio and exhibition space. A sceptical Dean let go of his inner control freak. What a day it turned out to be. We found a rare spot at the Park and Ride and got our Metro day passes. The train arrived and we stepped off the pristine platform into Rap heaven. A small but ear shattering boom box pumped out expletive laden lyrics, next to a group of 3 youths in their 20’s lolling across the seats in the carriage. They sang over the music, adding in some free styling, talked loudly, and swigged out of 3 gallon energy drink bottles. The music was good and the atmosphere was jolly. Unfortunately Fred and Dean didn’t want to join me in a ‘Repper Family Flashmob’ – I think Poppy would have if she was with us!
We got off at the Chinese Theatre stop and walked out to be met by Minnie Mouse, Batman, Spiderman, Marylin Monroe et al plying their trade on the Walk of Fame. Fred got a picture of himself with Minnie, who then held him to ransom refusing to let go until we responded to her hand written piece of paper saying ‘Tip for photo’. Funnily enough she hadn’t shown that to us before she grabbed him to her chest. Of course Dean was nowhere in sight, so it was Mum who had fallen for another play – yet again! We only got Minnie to release Fred with our own play, that Fred had to get his purse out of my bag, once he was out of her grasp we made a dash. I think I’m learning…….!
A few minutes’ walk over the iconic Stars of numerous actors and we got to the Chinese Theatre. I loved it. There was Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Rita Heyworth, Robin Williams, and all our favourites from way back. I took pictures a few of my parents’ favourites as well as mine, and Fred posed next to the newly moulded prints of the cast of ‘Hunger Games’. Touristy bit over we walked back to the Metro, dodged Minnie, and rode the train to downtown. Unlike the London Underground, only the working classes or those with nothing else to do, ride the train. A cast of unselfconscious characters boarded the train at different stops. We loved the aging rocker, covered head to toe in tattoos (‘HATE’ on one hand & ‘LUST on the over), in pork pie hat, piercings and goatee. He got on with his liver coloured Pit Bull, that he lovingly caressed as they sat together on the floor. I wondered at his mysterious bloody bruised knuckles and the bling pink diamante collar around his muscular pit bull’s neck.
We stepped into Union Square and the sweltering heat of midday. We had a refreshing stop at a funky café on Gallery Row. On small tables, in the shade, we sat next to a young svelte Mancunian actress devouring a cooked breakfast. She counselled a friend on the phone, who was experiencing a crisis. “You have to remember” she said “that overdoing it can really cause a dip in your Serotonin levels”, her friend was suffering the morbid anxiety that comes with a crashing hangover, caused by a night of letting loose after splitting up from her boyfriend. Drinking my iced coffee, I lived the moment of the stranger at the end of the phone, rather than my own. I love a good eavesdrop, and the young actress beside us was a patient friend, challenging convenient untruths when she heard them. Her friend was lucky.
Struggling to orientate ourselves on Dean’s iphone map, we stepped into a pristine boutique dog store. Two gorgeous young things decorated the desk, waiting for a customer. Joe, it turned out, was from Lincoln and was flat sharing with his mate from Grantham – it is a small world. We were not far from where we wanted to go, but Joe said not to walk, ‘skid row’ was between the store and the Warehouse Arts District 4 blocks away. We heeded his advice “It’s a tough, tough, city he said”, and instead walked via Little Tokyo. What a great village in LA. We chose a restaurant full of people speaking Japanese. Old wizened men sliced the sushi, and we were served by a waitress that didn’t understand our request for water, so loose was her understanding of English. In addition to the water, which we finally managed to order, I asked her to choose a Japanese larger. What great food it was, and Fred has become a real sushi fan. His hair again caused smiles and comments of appreciation, and a rather grand Japanese- American lady sat next to us saw him as she left. “Oh my goodness isn’t he the most gorgeous cutest thing ever!” she exclaimed to her elderly lunch guests. As we left we wondered if we should fly to Tokyo rather than Shanghai and squeeze in a couple of weeks in Japan. We’ll think on that one…..
So finally we came to our destination, as we did so we passed more stunning street art, which we’re finding in all large American cities. We walked up the steps of the ‘LA Arts Co-Op’ and were greeted by Terry. In his 60’s he sported a silver shoulder length bob, with the build of a jockey. He apologised that they were shut on Tuesdays. He took another look at us and said “Hell, you look interesting, come in and I’ll show you around”. What a great 2 hours we spent there. We met artists, saw the exhibitions, chatted, went through the studios, and learnt the history of the place. A painting, rather like ‘The Last Supper’ hung over the office entrance. It was of the artists who, in the 80’s had acquired this vast warehouse for $100k, its now worth $10M. The collective have run it as a not for profit space for artists. Terry asked Fred if he’d heard of Skrillex. Of course said Fred, he’s my favourite DJ. We had to pick Fred off the floor when Terry told us that Skrillex lived and worked in one of the apartments in the building prior to getting his $20M record deal. He still lives in the neighbourhood and you can see him skating around. Terry himself was fascinating. Brought by an aunt in the film business to Hollywood in the 60’s, he’d acted in films and on the stage before becoming involved in the artists co-op which he now heads it up. We had a great time with these generous people, and really felt we had got under the skin of this community who had reclaimed part of LA that had been lost to inner city industrial decline.
Tired and exhausted we made our way home. A well-dressed man with a bike entertained us on the journey. He got on a stop after us, with his bike, and belted out ‘Hey Jude’ at full volume, with passion, and in tune. The passengers stuck to the international public transport rule of pretending that nothing is happening, however wacky or intrusive. We decided he must have dropped one pill too many after a day at work. We worried that he would forget his bike, he broke from singing to search is back pack for something that was missing, but he didn’t. Despite being off his face, he deftly navigated the 150 steps, carrying his bike out of the metro to the road. If he got home safely it would be a miracle.
We rushed to the pool and Fred was joined by Mack’s 2 grandchildren. His other 2 friends, who were our direct neighbours, were not there. We then saw the room being emptied, cases appearing, their mother, who we had not seen until now was in tears on the phone. It transpired that, unlike Mack’s family, she had no one to sit the kids when she was at work. The maids had apparently entered the room and found them unattended. Fred’s 2 friends, that were our neighbours, had an older brother, who we had not seen, and had been left in charge. At 6pm at night they were being evicted. The family moved out with a silently, 3 kids and their mother, their entire life belongings packed up over an hour into an SUV that someone brought to help out. We got the story I’ve just told from Fred later that night, who had got it from Mack’s granddaughter. So here is the starkest reminder of a fundamental difference between the US and the UK / Europe. Here you have a woman working for her family, getting on ‘Norman Tebbit’s bike’ to find work in another part of the country, made homeless in an hour. There is no federal or state provided social net to catch these people, who are doing everything they can to maintain their independence. We pondered if it was a coincidence that the family was evicted on the day when the motel had reached full occupancy and rates had doubled, as we had found out when trying to book another night. It felt a bit flat after that, and Fred was in full agreement, out of sympathy for his evicted friends, that we were also ready to move on.
So that night we started to search for accommodation for our next 2 nights in LA. We had to stay in LA because we had secured tickets for the filming of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and access to the Sony Studio Lot which Fred, and all of us, were really looking forward to. Budget had been broken consistently for the last 2 weeks so we thought we really needed to challenge ourselves a bit. A Booking.com search turned up a few places under $100, then Dean stumbled upon a total bargain. In Long Beach (okay it was close to Compton and Torrence), but it was only $130 for 2 nights. The ratings were terrible but ‘Hell’ we thought, we’ve seen so many bad reivews of places we thought were ok. To be fair we’ve never stayed in anything with less than a 5 / 10, and this was 3.1. Statements like “Never ever book this place, its hell” made up the reviews. Emboldened by our great experiences to date, and our ability to cope with dirty, stinky, sketchy places, we booked it. I jokingly placed a FB comment “Dean found us a great bargain for the next 2 nights. Really looking forward to spending time in a little place called Compton…….”. It didn’t take long for more well-worn, wise travellers to message back concerned.
We enjoyed a great day at Rodondo Beach, this was a pilgrimage for Dean in search of places in Patti Smith lyrics. A lunch of fried fish on the ancient pier, untouched by modern development, served by Renee. In her mid 50’s with a long yellow blonde pony tail, short mini skirt and sneakers, and broad smile we wondered if she had had a shot at the role of ‘Sandy’, losing out narrowly to Oliva Newton John. Fred loved her. Next to the fish bar was the fishing shack. Faded pictures of sharks landed by the owner lined the walls. Fred was open mouthed and asked the owner about them. We decided he, and his establishment had been the inspiration for the shark hunter in ‘Jaws’. Taciturn but happy to inform, he educated us from his ancient leather recliner positioned behind the chip board counter.
Next to the pier was a water park, where we spent the afternoon. Toyota California were holding a corporate event in a part of the fake beach park, and we watched amused as they limbo danced under a pole. The tallest man beat the smallest woman in the final. So after a restful fun day we set off to find our bargain.
Pacific Highway 1 ran alongside our motel on the corner of 17th, so we took it away from the coastline into the industrial port area. We waited for the neighbourhood to perk up a bit, it didn’t. Instead, impoverished workshops and rackety houses sat in between run down motels. The hum of a helicopter circling overhead met us as we got 5 blocks away. Next to us we spotted a SWAT van on wasteland, police cars with flashing lights lined the road on one side. As we passed it, and sat in stationary traffic, a domestic took place across the road at a ‘Jiffy Lube’ (it’s a place you get your oil changed if you didn’t know!). A man held a mobile as if to throw it and a woman laid in to him with the full force of an irate woman. Men leaned out of cars laughing at the scene. Finally we came to our motel and pulled in. We were all muted. Rooms were laid out around a courtyard, a burly African American in black stood on the gate wearing a black uniform with Security written on the back. He wore a bandana, had an eye patch, and had 2 guns holstered at his waist. He was smoking an enormous spliff.
We went to check in. The owners seemed to have no idea what to do, with it not being a cash booking, and the process took an uncomfortable 20 minutes. During this interminable period, Fred and I browsed the brochures in the office, none were for anything nearby. Keeping a steady hand and a cool head, for Fred, I was conscious that we stuck out like a sore thumb. In the courtyard clusters of people were gathered, a dishevelled elderly woman shuffled along on a zimmer frame, children in nappies beyond the age that children wear nappies jumped in the dirty puddles made by someone washing down the courtyard with a hose. He wore an ankle tag. Check in over we went to our room. Mirrored from floor to ceiling we checked the linen, it was clean. Fred turned on the huge TV. A naked woman writhed naked on a bed moaning with, what I think was meant to pass for pleasure. I grabbed the remote from him with a “crickey she must be hot”. That there was a pool here was one of the things that had made me think it couldn’t be that bad when we were looking to book. In the hot tub, full of bubbles, a young girl of 6 or 7 was sat in the arms of a young man. We said hello and got no response. We left quickly.
Back in the room I picked up messages from friends we were due to stay with in Carlsbad. Both said to get out of the area we were in, I cheerily responded thanking them for their advice but saying we were ok. More cars pulled in. Pimped up SUVs in garish colours joined the beaten up cars already parked up. From the balcony we could see a studio room next to the office. Outside 3 young men hung out, when the door opened we saw into the chandelier lit opulent interior. My nerve was going; the incongruous mix of bling consumable wealth mixed in one place with the nearly homeless who had only this place to stay. We decided to go out to eat, somewhere far away and have a think. Without Fred around I said to Dean I thought we should leave. As we pulled out of the motel the road ahead was closed off. Police cars blocked the road and yellow tape was being dispensed. Up ahead the Motel 6 was clearly a serious crime scene. We found a place back on the coast to eat. My appetite gone I forced down some food and kept a sense of normality for Fred. I barely spoke, my response to extreme stress is pensiveness. Mind made up and out of earshot of Fred I said to Dean we needed to leave. He agreed. Within 5 minutes we had found the Rodway Motel. Dean negotiated a room rate and we left to pick up our things. Only then did we tell Fred that we weren’t staying at the Colonial Motel. We got our things quickly and silently, returning the sole plastic key card that would cost us $1 if we didn’t (the only place we’d stayed in that levied this charge).
We arrived back at the Rodeway and collapsed. The tension left us, and only the exhaustion that follows severe adrenaline peaks remained. Some self-soothing required, I put this down as a hard lesson well learnt and well timed. Next time I read a review that says somewhere is dangerous and “DO NOT BOOK THIS MOTEL”, I’ll take some notice and not assume they’re being a bit of a woos …..
So after some high drama for us, we set off to see others experience high drama for them. We got to the Sony Studios easily and drove through security onto the Lot. It is absolutely huge, staff getting around on bikes and golf buggies. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ set was an amazing homage to B&B’s as it was ‘B&B week’. It was filmed on Stage 12, where Wizard of Oz was filmed which we loved. We got great seats, enjoyed Jim Thompson the warm up comedian who does the cheesy voice over stuff for the show. Young production assistants took us through the cue cards which we would need to respond to. Everything is shot in tiny segments, but largely one take. It was great fun. Dean was the most enthusiastic of us all which was quite a hilarious sight for those of you who know him!
Pat Sajack and Vanna White have been the hosts for more than 35 years and are American institutions. We were the audience for 3 episodes filmed over 3 hours, and we were struck by what a dull job it must be after all these years. Vanna is famous for her elegant evening gowns and towering heels. With the 3 costume changes we got to see quite a lot of Vanna’s frame, there was nothing to her. In her mid 50’s she has maintained her UK size 4 build, iron discipline seeing off any middle aged spread. Of course she had not a wrinkle. We loved Vanna, Fred wanted to go home with her. Between segments Pat and Vanna took it in terns to talk to the audience and took questions. Vanna was by far the most interesting and ‘bright’ of the two. She showed real warmth and deftness when engaging with the audience. In one of her Q&A slots a boy about Fred’s age asked to come onto the set and hug her, to the terror of those that were sat with him, and she said he could. As he did so it became clear that he was on the Autistic / Asperger’s spectrum, he started to become chaotic wandering around the set, but she managed him with such gentleness and care that he followed her every instruction and he quietly returned to his seat after a very special moment for him, and us. Despite this, for 35 years, her sole task has been to look stunning, stand by a board and turn letters whilst smiling. We pondered if the next set of hosts would see a revision of the gender roles, we suspect not.
Fred got to ask a question, and also won a signed dollar bill from Jim Thompson who had been a voice on ‘Monsters Inc’ so he was a very happy boy. Dean and I enjoyed seeing people doing really odd jobs; the burly man in his 50s who just followed the cameraman holding his cord, the middle aged men who had to throw silver confetti, the military performance coaches that chaperoned each group of contestants drilling them in actions and voice building to the moment ‘action’ was called, the young woman sat next to us who was the social media manager and constantly tweeting / instagramming / snapchatting etc etc……. A couple of people had their dreams made with $90K winnings and a brand new Jeep. In all three shows the contestants showed a careful representation of diversity, but in each game the professional white women won having deployed more artful tactics.
Between shows we got to move through the Lot to get to the restrooms. We saw set builders, actors, and Sony Staffers. Fred got his picture taken with actresses in costumes who were filming ‘Masters of Sex’, I’m pleased to say that this is a fictionalisation of the story of Masters and Kinsey and not a sex show! So Sony Studios gave us an unforgettable experience and another insight into an iconic part of American life.
If I reflect back on LA, it gave us everything we could ask for, and some experiences that we wouldn’t ask for, but which we wouldn’t be without. I learnt some harsh lessons and, before I leave for more ‘dangerous’ countries, they are lessons that are well timed. Perhaps the only way I can sum up LA is to say that it reflects what we have seen of the rest of the USA, it’s a place of absolute contrasts, grappling with big issues. It’s a place of wonderful dreams and terrible nightmares, but I’m not sure how much true wakefulness there is here……..
Having left the leafy riverside idyll of Monte Rio we hit the road for San Francisco. Much to Fred’s delight we crossed into the city via the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. It was a damp cool day which was very welcome as we were squeezing our San Fran experience into 24 hours, with a single night stop on Mission Street.
San Francisco accommodation is horrendously expensive so we had booked into the cheapest hotel we could find. Fortunately, it was between the two districts we really wanted to explore; Castro and Mission. We pulled into the onsite car park and were greeted by abandoned mattresses and other detritus. One of the mattresses had scrawled on it “Need Milk Ed” which amused us, I think that was the emotion that passed through us…. The back of the hotel was covered in graffiti, quite brilliant graffiti, that started to give us a real sense of the area we had booked into. A man wondered on the roadside with a door jack, circling a car, whilst talking on his phone. We were unsure if he was repossessing or just acquiring. Five minutes of debate about the safest spot to park the car ensued. A horrified Fred took in his environment; his love of the USA, and his intention to take citizenship, started to wane….
We pressed the buzzer on the door of the hotel and were let in through the metal grill door. Mission Street had been one of the most salubrious of districts in the past. Magnificent buildings, like our hotel, lined the broad road. Now it is one of San Fransisco’s few streets not to have been gentrified. It’s a street that the homeless and the ‘just avoiding homelessness’ occupy. El Capitain, our hotel, was an enormous grand building, with sweeping staircases and large open landings. It was, however, a beautiful woman worn out and trampled down. The bone structure remained but the facelift was long overdue. The residents were a mixture of hostel travellers, the elderly and infirm with nowhere else to go, and families between places. A stern notice on the door of the communal kitchen warned that any fighting would result in a ban on using the kitchen, note it did not threaten eviction.
Our room overlooked Mission Street and, whilst the sheets were clean, it was the first place that made me reach for the antiseptic hand gel. Black sticky light switches and unidentifiable markings on the bathroom wall were not for the faint hearted or those anywhere on the OCD spectrum. I got my flip flops out and gave Fred a handwashing lecture. All bags out of the car, we decided that the best place to put our stuff was in the bath and then insert the door stop alarm under the bathroom door. Having done all we could to secure our things we stepped into Mission Street. Fred was agog as we passed dozens of truly tattered homeless and mentally ill. One poor older man on the corner of a street was covered, down his back, in his own vomit. In the midst of this we felt very safe and no one bothered us, but it was a sad experience to mingle amongst this disenfranchised population.
Dean wanted to find the street art and we soon came across Clarion Alley, famous for the most stunning murals. Political, amusing, inspiring, and intellectually fresh we lingered, despite the horrendous smell, even on this cool day. Dean came across Gypsy. A lanky ginger haired bearded street artist, also homeless, he had his work propped up in the alley. For company he had a mangy dog and two rats. The albino ‘Squeak’ had searing magenta eyes and was lazing around Gypsy’s neck, ‘Bubble’, Squeak’s mother was asleep in her open cage. We chatted with Gypsy for a bit, and I think I got a bit high. I wasn’t smoking but he was. Fred beamed and giggled. I think this was because he got to hold and stroke Bubble, any other explanation would make me a very irresponsible parent that might require social services involvement.
A change of direction and we came into Castro. A more different environment you couldn’t imagine. The old wooden and brick townhouses beautifully restored. Colourful frontages and stunning interior décor that only our gay friends know how to do. Of course with this comes heart stopping real estate prices. We passed one building advertising a 1 bed 1 bath apartment to rent. We had to re-read the price a couple of times. $6,400 per month. Two blocks between skid row and the unaffordable.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around Castro, having lunch, visiting the gorgeous Delores Park which gives you a vista over San Fran to the bay, and popping into shops. Dean found a tiny bike shop with a delightful owner who gave us a detailed lecture on Luggs, the bit on the bike frame that fits the bits together (best to look it up!). I think he could have stayed there all day but I dragged him away and we headed back to Mission. Not having had a wax in 6 weeks and due to hit LA in a day I searched in vain to find somewhere to do all the bits that needed tidying up. I could get my eyebrows done and lower leg but nothing else. Dean thought it was because of crabs (not mine). So I continue to rock the 70s look. I’ve decided that I’m going to make it a feminist statement, and ignore the fact that I look like the old ladies at Newark Swimming Pool, who no longer have the flexibility to reach previously accessible places, or who’s consorts are immune to the prevailing modern requirement for all women to be hairless below the eyebrow……
Fred on the other hand did get a haircut. We found a wonderful Mexican establishment (most commerce on Mission Street is Mexican run) where the grandma gave him a number 1 round the sides. Great care and attention was paid by Rosita who only charged us $5. In Castro we had been quoted $40 in a number of places. We gave her $10. As we sat watching his cut take place, in an old barber’s chair, we were smiled at with amusement by the Latino clientele who were clearly unused to gringo tourists stepping into this community hubbub. It was lovely, friendly and different. What you travel for.
After a quick refresh in our room we headed out again to find some food. Turning north on Mission, to get a different take on the street, we stumbled upon the Mission Street Community Market which takes place every Thursday. The street was closed to traffic and musicians provided the backdrop for the food stalls. International flavours abounded, reflecting the melting pot that is America. We bought a trio of Arabic flatbreads to eat on the go as starters. We watched the breads being kneaded, thrown and shaped using a hessian cushion, and then cooked on an inverted black spherical cauldron. A huge wrought iron vat was being used, across the way, to make popcorn. Hand stirred, using a 3-meter-long spatula, by a man wearing a welding visor. The sound of the corn popping was quite shattering. Having watched this heavy work, and videoed it, we felt obliged to buy some for later as pudding. We left the market and passed through more shops in the area of Mission that had the chi chi touch applied. No homeless here, just the affluent middle classes. Just then a blackout occurred. Traffic lights and shop lights all went out. Restaurants shut until further notice so we found ourselves a bookstore with candles. We browsed in the dim romantic light. With no room in our backpacks for books we found titles to download onto our Kindles later.
Finally, we came to a block with power. A run down Senegalese restaurant was full, always a good sign. Just in time for ‘Happy Hour’ we got the $20 meal of 2 courses and a cocktail. Fred got Coke and chips with Guacamole. Language had tripped me up again…. Tortilla chips (very good) arrived rather than the ‘fries’ I should have ordered for him. Fortunately, the food we had ordered for us, Senegalese stews and curries, went down well with him. We got treated to the sight of an enormously tall and imposing policeman sat at the bar, weapons holstered, enjoying a break and the food of his homeland. Full as we could possibly be, Fred nearly asleep after a tiring, at times challenging, but fun day, we hit the sack to the sounds of the street just waking up. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep but a few screams of glee and laughter were all I heard before I was gone.
We all woke early and decided to have breakfast out. Dean had found Mission Beach Café with good ratings for breakfast. Rather than an interesting dive, it turned out to be a rather salubrious breakfast restaurant. Great food and service justified the price. The high net worth clientele chatted over food. Then in walked four construction workers that could not have looked more out of place. It was like the start of a bad joke. In walked a Mexican, an African American, a towering burly tattooed white man, and …. Sat next to us they struggled to get service until finally the Mexican, who appeared to be their boss, with gold teeth called over to one of the Mexican cooks passing through the restaurant and remonstrated with him in no uncertain terms. The manager hurriedly attended to them. We exchanged smiles and a joke with them about Fred’s stunning pancake plate. We pondered after if they were over sensitive or if they had experienced a different service, we remained split on this.
We packed up and left the Hotel before checkout time and set off on a driving tour of the districts of San Fran we hadn’t covered on foot. We didn’t like Haight, too touristy, but we did admire all the architecture that we saw. Dean directed me to the windiest (winding not windy!) road in the world. A vertiginous residential street that starts at the top of San Fran and drops down to near the harbour. Lined with tourists taking pictures of this landmark I kept my hand on my handbrake, one slip from any of the cars on this narrow street would have caused a major disaster! We passed through the harbour district, stopped on a pier, took wrong turns, and then finally hit the freeway out of San Fran. As we did so we left the damp cool climate immediately. Hot California opened back up again.
We stopped in an anonymous Motel 6 off Highway 101. With a lovely pool we lazed for a bit before my, now routine, trip to Safeway where I even have a members’ card. As we went to bed at 10pm a coachload of Chinese school children arrived and set to in the pool – extremely loudly. Much to Fred’s amusement, again (see previous Canada blog) I went to the manager’s office to ask that the pool times be enforced and some respect be given to other guests. Sleep is very precious to me. In the morning the ill-disciplined group of children sat at breakfast bleary eyed. Some time ago I taught very rich children English as a foreign language. Rather like those children, this group were oblivious to others and seemed incapable of doing anything for themselves. Someone needed to call Nanny McFee…..
We hit the road again, unsure where we were going to sleep, mindful that it was Saturday high price night. Today was going to be the coastal delights of Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur and San Luis Opispo taking in yet more stunning Highway 1 scenery. One of the biggest Californian fires ever was raging in this region, covering 35,000 acres and being fought by 5,000 firefighters, started by an illegal campfire that had not been properly extinguished. Now 25% under control we would skirt it and, if the wind was in the wrong direction, would get a good dose of the burning woodland. Touchingly, we passed heartfelt handmade signs on the roadside from the residents of Carmel thanking the firefighters. These signs continued all the way down Highway 1. From Carmel onwards we passed the army of firefighters and contractors tackling this blaze. Heavy machinery lined the Highway, being prepared to dig out more fire breaks. The fire was very real and very close and we soon realised that whilst the road was open, only just, we would be taking it in poor visibility and the company of few cars.
Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful although, with the smoke clouds blocking the sun, we didn’t get the azure coloured sea. Big Sur was strangely deserted. Normally bursting to the seams at this time of year there were vacancies all round. However, it was too smoky to stay. After a coffee and picking up a postcard for Mum (this is another place on her bucket list that I’m living vicariously for her) we headed out. Within a few minutes on the road we came to the Henry Miller museum. We should have known, but we didn’t, that it was there. Tucked into the woodland, this shady delight was a literary heaven. Funded by visitor donations there was no entrance fee, no charge for drinks, a small wooden house staffed by Literature graduates staying in tents, with a stage for performance artists, and a ping pong table, and finally the cat from ‘Meet the Fockers’ (see video below). We lingered here enjoying the slow pace and the sparsity of other visitors. We took pictures, read, played ping pong, and slowed down for a bit.
We wanted to stay in San Luis Opispo and got there about 3pm. However, it was quickly clear that we wouldn’t get a room anywhere near budget. A quick visit to the Tourist Info and a drive through the town would have to suffice. Disappointingly we had to make do with another anonymous Motel 6 on the highway. It did though come with a pool, much to Fred’s delight, and we had the obligatory pre dinner swim. With no cooking facilities, and getting bored of the rotisserie chicken and salad which we eat when without kitchen, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. It was Saturday night after all. With extreme luck we came upon a traditional diner ‘The Boys’. We had spotted the sign in the lot when we were pulled up at a 4 way stop. Dean had said he wanted ribs, and when I went in to have a look at what food they did there on the special board was ‘Ribs’. Sometimes good things happen just when you need them. The place was amazing. Untouched since the 60’s, it was well worn but well- tended. We all agreed we were waiting for Tarantino to shout “Action” and ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Hunny Bunny’ stand up to the soundtrack of ‘Miserlou Dick Dale & The Del-Tones’. As the script is a bit tasty I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to see what I mean:
The story of this place is inspiring and proudly told on the menus. The current owner came to work here from Mexico with no English. He started as a dishwasher, learnt English, worked his way up, and 30 years later the owner offered to let him buy the place. He has owed it and run it with his family since 2011.
So we started with the divide of rich and poor, empowered and disenfranchised, the free and the stuck, the tarnished ‘American Dream’, and we finish (Part 1) with the up lifting happy ending of the ‘American Dream’ at work for at least one family. This was the tale of only one of our two cities, but that one city soon became a tale of two within one.
LA, well that will be a book in itself……... and as we found out LA is a tale of many worlds within a galaxy of its own that feels, as I write this from the idyll of San Clemente down the coast, like a “Galaxy far far away…….”
So we left behind Oregon and crossed into California with Highway 101 taking us through the majestic Redwood Forests. Ancient behemoths lined the road, towering over us. The size of the trunks have to be seen to be believed. We learnt that these trees used to cover the earth, but due to changes in the atmosphere they now only thrive on the cool northern foggy Californian coast, small parts of China, and a Californian mountain range. Some of the trees are over 2,000 years old, and the tallest remains the tallest despite losing its top 50ft five years ago. Makes ‘The Major Oak’ seem like a poor relation….
We pulled off 101 to take a small turn into someone’s garden where they’ve created a ‘drive thu’ tree. I’m pretty sure it was Dolly Parton that greeted us at her small homemade gatehouse and wanted to chat about where we were from. Like most American’s, she welcomed us warmly to her home, state and country and wished us well for our trip. Obligatory touristy pictures taken we turned back onto 101 within 15 minutes and set on our way.
At an interchange we left Highway 101 and took the turn that would lead us on a stomach churning drive through more Redwoods at the start of Highway 1, until we reached the Californian Pacific coast. As I was driving I was fine, but we had to stop a couple of times to let my passengers out for fresh air, solid land, and to let their stomachs settle. Highway 1 was nearly empty of traffic on this traverse to the ocean, probably because the 10 miles took nearly an hour to cover. Hairpin bends and adverse cambers would slow even the boldest of drivers. We saw only cruising Harleys and Indian motorbikes, and the occasional pick up. In a little gully we passed an encampment on either side that made us think we had landed on the set of ‘Deliverance’. A tumbled down wooden house and sheds, replete with target practices, a dozen pickup trucks in various states of repair, and roaming dogs. We pulled over for a picture and spotted the rather incongruous sign on a table of veg “Free Organic Vegetables”. None of us felt brave enough to leave the safety of our car, we’ve clearly watched too many American horror films…….
Of course none of our journey’s would be complete without the unexpected treat of wildlife. Today it was the turn of 2 majestic antlered Stag’s. We’ve not been able to pin down if they were deer or elk, but it’s hardly relevant. One on either side of the road, gently grazing in the shade. They were unbothered by us or the few other cars that had pulled over. Like the other large creatures we’ve encountered they looked up and held our gaze. Just beautiful.
We finally hit the coast and as we did so and the pacific opened up for us again. Rugged and wild, this time it was flanked by brown grass prairie farms. Cattle strolled by, surprisingly, on the roadside. In addition to the undulating twists and turns, we also got to enjoy a bounty of cattle grids. Dean had the best of this as he was now sat in the back. I’m not sure what they were, but they looked like fields of red and purple lupins, and other colourful flowers flourished amongst the brown grass. More stops and more photos. We’re so used to every patch of beautiful British coast being ‘done up’ and ‘gentrified’, and full of tourists that it’s a real shock to find all the way through this trip, rustic rural life untouched on such an iconic road, with hardly any company. I guess it’s because America’s such a big big place with so much to see.
By 1pm we came upon a tiny harbour town with a single pier used by salty sea dogs for the daily catch. Outside the Inn that led to the jetty a boat full of small children was surrounded by people. It turns out they were about to commence the launch and maiden voyage of a concrete boat built from scratch that weekend. The speech revealed a drunken night in Georgia had seeded the idea, and a year later “having done some math” a group had come back together to fulfil the challenge. With nothing better to do we hung around, avoided the glass that came flying into the crowd from the smashed champagne bottle (not everyone did!), and watched the boat winched off the pier and lowered into the water. Cheers all round as she floated, and more cheers as she continued to float when the first three passengers stepped in. She was then rowed around the harbour, with various members of the team and their families all having a go. It was a fun and motley crew of interesting people. The tattooed motor biker clutching a Chihuahua cross who had its own goggles and rode up front, the elderly Bernie Sanders supporting couple who wanted to get our views on Brexit and talked about their hitchhiking adventures 40 years ago, the man who’s dog wouldn’t go down into the boat so we got a dog for 20 minutes to care take, the weather beaten fisheman who had been out that morning and had his stunningly beautiful glassy eyed catch laid out on the sluice and talked Fred through them all, and best of all the Welshman, fag in hand, who had been in California for 40 years and not lost a trace of his accent. He’d run a Welsh bar and live music venue in San Francisco for years, hosted many UK bands breaking the US, before retiring up the coast and “out of the madness”. A small place celebrating an audacious achievement with an unconventional, creative and thinking crowd. Not bad for an accidental moment on this trip.
Seeing a sign for a lighthouse we took another turn off and found ourselves running north atop a cliff face. An impossibly cute white lighthouse stood at the end of a rocky outcrop. We parked up to take some pictures. As we did so we looked down on the sea and below us lounging on the rock pools were dozens of sea lions. They were excitingly close and we stopped for 20 minutes just watching them, mesmerised. Huge round eyes looked up every time Dean took a picture. I’ve no idea what sea lions hearing is like so it was either a coincidence or we experienced their exceptional hearing. I Need to check it out.
Filled up on our days experiences we started to look for somewhere to stop. We passed through a few coastal towns that we’d hoped to find accommodation in but all were out of budget, or when we drove through we realised they were places with not enough to occupy us. The coast was also shrouded in a fine fog and came with onshore winds that put the temperature at a not very appealing mid 50sF, so we made the decision to peel off Highway 1 and head inland down the Russian River. Within 5 miles of turning inland the fog lifted and blue skies shone down on riverside beaches and kayakers enjoying the late afternoon sun. We passed through Monte Rio and just as we came through it saw a vacancy sign. A quick U turn and we pulled in to the River View Garden Motel. The scene was stunning. Beautifully tended, the garden was a riot of vibrant colours and rich fruit trees which led down to a private riverside beach. Two Pomeranian's were sunbathing in the yard. A look between us and we decided that whatever the price, within reason (!), we were staying here for a few days. Mr J negotiated an out of budget price that we could just about stand, and with a full kitchen we thought we could make our way back into budget with some frugal cooking.
A shop in Safeways in the next town got us stocked up and we quickly agreed that we would stay for 4 nights, taking a break from sketchy motels and the rugged cooler pacific coastline. Mr J has given us free use of 3 kayaks and we’ve spent the last 3 days out on the river, fishing for minnows with plastic cups, catching crawfish with hot dogs tied to string on a stick (that was other more savvy people actually, but Fred and I joined in), taking morning and evening swims, chatting to other river goers, and spotting more stunning wildlife. Our first day kayaking down river for an hour and we saw Condors sunbathing with wings outstretched, rainbow coloured herons, a mink slipping out of the water onto the river bank (apparently a rare sight because they were all but wiped out by the Russian Fur Traders in the 1800s), fish of all sizes, and so on. Taking our water proof ‘Go Pro’ out we’ve swum early morning, mid day and late at night, hopefully capturing the best of our river stay.
Last night as we took a late afternoon swim we were joined by Casey. Pootling along in his kayak he heard us and pulled over to identify our accent. We were soon passing a jolly hour in the warm water chatting about the area, its history, English and American music. Sporting a goatee, tattoos, and a few pirate earrings, we learnt that he was 14 years sober and clean from a crystal meth habit that had cleaned him out. He moved up from LA to this spot of Northern California and rebuilt his life in the woodland. He now works installing and refurbishing septic tanks and, when not at work, takes to the river in his kayak. Still into Motocross, which he had competed in internationally, he helps out with kids who are starting off in Motocross. He wanted to know all about our trip, and was planning to do Europe and South America on his motorbike. It was a lovely time and we were sorry when we started to get too chilly to continue the conversation.
So now we’re on our final day at Mr J’s. Playing badminton on the brown grass, swimming in the cooling river with the fish, blogging in the hammock under the shade of the fruity trees to the sound of the wealth of birds calling. We shall miss the small plates of spicy frittered courgette flower heads, curried cauliflower and peas, and big jugs of Chai he has brought up to our balcony. Yet more fabulous hospitality in a magic hideaway we didn’t know we would wash up in.
Tomorrow we head to San Francisco to stay in the El Capitain on Mission Street. It has the worst reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor but is the only affordable accommodation in the area we want to be to explore, the Mission and Castro districts. So for one night we will be back with the crack and crystal meth addicts that haven’t found Casey’s sobriety, and saying good day to the homeless as we come and go from our hotel. We just need to figure out how to keep our empathy in check and our wallets in our pockets……..
Breathtaking Oregon Pacific Coast on Highway 101…..
After the great hospitality of Karrie, Ed and the entire Blackstone-Brothers family in Portland we set off for our Highway 101 Oregon Pacific Coast adventure. We avoided the weekend traffic, thanks to Karrie and Ed extending our Couch Surfing stay, and made it to Cannon Beach via Highway 26 in an hour and half. We quickly parked up on one of the few remaining parking bays, it was Sunday at midday (!), and got straight to the ocean. The Pacific is a glorious sight of crashing surf and endless horizons around. Cannon Beach is a bit like Salcombe or Rock so way out of our budget and a little chi chi for us – we like a bit of rough and earthy in the places we visit – I’m from Morecambe after all……
After coming back to our car and finding a parking violation ticket, which caused me to charge down the road at a sprint to find the youthful attendant doing his rounds on his bike – it was only a warning thankfully – we got on our way. The scenery was breathtaking. Turquoise ocean, white surf, searingly high cliffs, and haystack rocky islands. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t something as stunning as this. We drove for the rest of the day, stopping continuously for more and more pictures of this beautiful scenery. Finally we came upon the town of Lincoln. We did a tour of motels and eventually settled on the Nordic Viking Hotel (a little bizarre with its life sized Vikings littered around the lot and site), which had – much to Fred’s delight – an indoor pool and Jacuzzi as well as the most amazing beachside location. Being midweek it was just within our budget. Our room on the top floor opened up the entire coast and seascape which we could access on foot in 200 vertical steps.
I went off to Safeway as we had a full kitchen, so money saving home cooking was in order, whist Fred and Dean went off to the pool. After dinner we made our way in the early dusk onto the beach. About half a kilometre down the beach 4x4s had pulled onto the sand and campfires had been lit. We walked down to see this post-apocalyptic encampment of families BBQing and set up with tents around their drift wood fires. It was blustery and wild and wonderful.
The next day we headed down the coast to Depoe Bay and Otter Creek in the hope of seeing some wildlife. What no one knew was this was the day, the first in months apparently, where a pod of Grey Whales we going to come inland to feast on the kelp beds. Before we got to Depoe Bay we saw a few cars gathered roadside with binoculars and cameras out. We pulled in. There in front of us was a lone Whale. Every 3 minutes he surfaced, blow hole spraying, before submerging and then lolling around playing. We had the distinct impression he knew full well he had an audience. Grey whales don’t jump and leap around, instead like primordial beasts they lounge without haste grazing through the ocean. Every now and then, to the delight of all around, he flicked his tail up. Everyone was waiting for the tail as it is such a rare sight. Perhaps the show was more of a strip tease……
Satisfied we set off for Otter Creek, however as we came to Depoe Bay, with parking on it’s sea wall, we saw banks of people. A quick indicator, dash across Highway 101, and I double parked up. Right in front of us again, this time closer, was a pod of 2 adults and a young grey. You cant be anything other than moved and silenced by such a sight. Long ago we decided never to visit an aquarium with Whales after seeing a documentary on the emotional and physical trauma whales suffer in captivity in places like Water World. They are meant to roam thousands of miles a year, and need to be with their families for life. Being in an aquarium is equivalent to a human being kept in isolation and never allowed to leave a room the size of the average house bathroom. When you see them in the wild, you can only wonder that we allow the practice of capturing young whales and imprisoning them to continue…… We got the most amazing pictures and video, but also made sure that we enjoyed this sight with our eyes and not only from behind the camera. Whales at play and in their own habitat really do fill your soul.
We moved on and pulled into Otter Creek. No one around but plentiful ocean birds bobbing on the waves or chilling on the rocks in the cove that is Otter Creek. We took pictures of the rich and colourful fauna, a wonderful old bridge, a house perched on the edge of a precipice, when blow us down a whale turned up. Just us and then a whale, then two and then a third. Unbelievable. To top this all off a lone otter paddled past on his back cleaning his paws. Some days are beyond special.
Coastal area explored, Fred and I decided to go surfing the next day at Broiler Bay by the Devils Punchbowl, whilst Dean enjoyed a day of solitude and writing. The introvert in him was ready for some time off from us all! We picked up our boards from Lincoln City Surf Shop, strapped them to the roof and headed off to meet Dale, Fred's instructor. Dale greeted us with high fives and a wealth of 'awsome's' fulfilling every stereotype in the first few minutes. With boards under our arms we made the rather arduous trek down a couple of hundred steep steps onto the beach. Tidy 2ft waves rolled in, perfect for Fred to learn on, and for me to make my first return to surfing for 10 years. We had a great couple of hours with Dale, and Fred even got to standing with the help of Dale pushing him off in the broken surf. Having practiced my 'pop up' on a towel on the bed the night before, I caught my first wave and curtailed every instinct to steady through my knees. I honestly think my first pop up of the day was better than any I had done before. I was pretty stoked.... (I believe in always adopting the local vernacular). Needless to say the morning came with its fair share of dunkings and nasal wash outs, and I ended our morning session with crystal clear sinuses. Fred had picked up a really bad wet suit rash on his neck which was raw. I'd completely forgotten I had a rash vest for him, and I'd let him tighten his Velcro himself round his neck. A week later he still looks like he's survived a hanging..... But he's rather proud of it and has taken many a photo of his battle scars!
Fred and I chilled out on the beach for the rest of the day resting and surfing as we felt like. By late afternoon we'd had the best of the waves and after sandy sandwiches, and even sandier crisps, we trooped back up (many many times with all the stuff I'd brought down through the day) to the car. I worked out I'd made 4 return journeys up the cliff face and my legs were jelly by the time Fred and I finished our last trip with the boards. After dropping the boards, suits, boots and gloves off (Pacific was that cold and most others were wearing hoods too!) we headed home for a soak of aching muscles in the hot tub. A carb rich dinner of Carbonara with hot dogs refuelled us after the calories spent. Did I know about it the next morning when I woke stiff as a board. Who forgot to warm up and stretch out.....? duh.
We left Lincoln City and headed south on the 101. Our plan was to get near to the California border and within striking distance of The Redwood Forests. Yet more dramatic beautiful scenery made for many stop offs and a journey that passed easy on the eye. We pulled into Brookings, a rather sorry looking large town, and did our standard tour of variable motels, finally settling on 'The Brookings Inn Resort'. Whilst it came with an indoor pool in a large greenhouse in the middle of its parking lot, it's name was rather grand for this less than salubrious establishment. Some nifty negotiation with the surley 80s throwback desk clerk, all bouffant blonde hair and vibrant makeup, by Dean got the rate down from $124 to the in budget $99. With not a lot to do in Brookings, apart from a quick tour of the harbour, we spent the next 2 days relaxing on the parking lot sun deck and refreshing ourselves in the milky pool (I don't even want to know why with goggles you couldn't see your hands underwater). On our second day returning to the sun deck we were greeted with a vomit covered wall and floor - as I said salubrious! - but once it had been quickly cleared up and disinfected by the maintenance man, appalled at the mess and muttering "who raised these kids", we ensconced ourselves for a bit of reading and email catch up.
With some savings made on accommodation over the previous few days, and with no cooking facilities at all, we decided to treat ourselves to a Mexican at the family restaurant down the road. Huge alcoholic Mahgaritas arrived just as the door opened, with a customer exiting, and clouds of black smoke from a fire blowing into the restaurant. I had apparently mistaken an external waste bin for an ashtray and set it on fire. I buried my head in my menu and did my best to look innocent.... A few buckets of water applied by the manager and disaster was averted. It wasn't until I left after dinner that I confessed to Fred who seemed to think it was utterly awesome on my part, and seemed rather proud of me for causing such chaos.
Brookings also saw us surprise Fred with a visit to the local cinema. Housed in the original 'movie theatre' it was all original and still sported the external box office and velvet seating. We had told Fred we were going out to dinner again. We stopped outside the movie theatre and the 'Jason Bourne' poster and asked him to choose from the menu. Blank looks all round. Eventually we had to tell him that rather than booking dinner, Dad had booked 3 tickets for the opening night of the new Bourne film (rating in the US is much lowere than the UK where he wouldn't be allowed to see it at the cinema). We've all been so excited about this 4th instalment from Paul Greengrass so Fred went nuts. It was brilliant. We had real butter popcorn, clothes ruined from the butter but it was sooooooo good! Was delighted to find some down my bra that night as a little extra as I got into bed.
One of our Brookings highlights was the visit to Chetco's Trading, a Pawn Shop, that was still open when we walked past after our visit to the cinema. Staffed by the burley Sam, 6ft 6in and 20st, and owned by LJ we ended up spending nearly an hour with them. Fred negotiated with LJ on a 1st edition Walking Dead comic getting the price reduced from $8 to $4. Then LJ plafully suggested a double turn of the coin bet, $8 or free. Fred rejected this, presumably he thought he already had a good bird in the hand. Fred's counter was a turn of the coin bet but $5 or $3. I kind of liked that solution. Fred lost the turn of the coin, to LJ's credit he let Fred have the comic for the original $4. After all this the conversation turned, predictibly, to Brexit and the upcoming US Presidential election. In this shop laden with guns and crossbows (as well as wetsuits, gardening gloves, memorial coke bottles etc.....) it was good to know that these guys thought Trump was nuts too. LJ took our details and said he would come visit when he comes to the UK. I think LJ and Sam in Newark could be quite fun!
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx