Driving Across the US – Part Four

Los Angeles – The Grand Canyon

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There are more and more airlines offering WiFi onboard planes, but for the most part it has tended to be pretty limited and certainly not a thick enough pipe to handle a planeload of passengers all streaming Netflix.

On this particular flight it was also pricey. I connected to the plane’s access point to see how much and the cost, while not exorbitant, it was enough that I wasn’t minded to subscribe.

I thought nothing more about it and got on with reading something when I suddenly noticed that I had new mail. Despite the fact that I’d not subscribed for the flight, my Gmail app seemed to be circumventing their paywall, and an email from my brother came through.

I excitedly replied and got a fairly instant one back from him – the excitement of in-air internet access being shared. I snapped a few photos of the ground we were flying over and sent them through as an attachment.

Then I noticed that Google Maps was also working, so I managed to identify mountain ranges and place myself fairly accurately on the map in relation to the ground (I had GPS turned off in point of fact).

Technology is wonderful.

At LAX I dutifully queued at the rental office and collected my new vehicle. I’d splurged a bit this time. Many people seem to pick up open-top Ford Mustangs and the like to drive around with. But they’re not really my thing. I was instead going to drive a Jeep Cherokee. By US standards this is a fairly small SUV, but by mine it was massive.

I was handed the keys to the black vehicle and found it to be a shiny black nearly new model. I dutifully hooked up my phone and I was on my way. No cycling navigation this time around.

During my time in LA I would be staying with an old friend, Vince, and his wife Simon in their home in Silver Lake. I headed into rush hour traffic and wended my way across the city.

I only spent a few days in Los Angeles and to be honest, I never really got the hang of it. It feels like a series of islands surrounded by a sea of highways and Interstates of such density that to get from anyway to anywhere involves getting in your car and driving on and off at least two major roads. Because these major roads are in the middle of a heavily populated area, there are dozens of exits – or on- and off-ramps as they’re called. And when you get onto a highway be prepared to drive slowly because the volume of traffic is such that you have to move slowly.

Yes, it’s true that I was travelling at a busy time of day, but I found the same to be the case at most times of day.

While there is public transport, and even an urban rail network, it seems that most people drive, when they go anywhere. That means taking the car to bars, restaurants and everywhere. While I don’t know how you’d survive is rural America without a car, I really don’t know how you’d manage in LA. And the thing is, it wouldn’t be much fun either way.

My hosts were lovely. I’d managed to fail to get to their wedding back in 2010, where I was supposed to be their videographer, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull had erupted and caused the suspension of flights all over northern Europe.

I’d been due to fly the day after the eruption. Instead I glumly returned to work, had to cancel the entire trip and rethink my holiday plans. Now I was planning on doing the same trip – or a version of it – that I’d planned four years earlier.

As I unpacked my baggage that evening, I noticed that my bags had been searched by the TSA. A piece of paper on top of my belongings noted as much. Fine. But very annoyingly, they seemed to have broken my “TSA Approved” combination lock on my brand new bag! This was frustrating in the extreme, since they were supposed to have a tool that let them open it without damage, and it was to be several days before I worked out how I could fix it myself.

The next morning while my hosts were working, I headed out to explore Los Angeles. I wasn’t far from the Hollywood hills, and the Griffith Observatory that affords stunning views over the city. I headed up to take a few photos and drove into the car park there.

The car park wasn’t very full, but what I did notice was that every other parking space had “COMPACT” stenciled clearly on the road – these were for smaller compact cars. I parked my SUV in a larger space and sat in the car, sorting out my camera gear and planning the day ahead.

As I did so, another SUV swung into the space next to me, parking from the other side, and ignoring the “COMPACT” sign. There were plenty of vacant spots, but the driver had ignored them. Then a child swung open the rear door and pushed it straight into my bonnet with a clang. The mother jumped out, looked me in the eye, looked at her child and then looked at my bonnet. She licked her finger and rubbed the indentation now scaring my car as though that would sort it out as it would a grubby mark on her kid’s face. Off they went leaving me fuming.

I’m used to renting cars in the UK where cars tend to have a few more miles on the clock and where you can all too easily be forced to pay out for tiny scrapes and scratches. Many people routinely take digital photos of their cars when they pick them up to avoid issues when the vehicle is returned.

I put my frustrations aside and stepped out to enjoy the views. From here you could see the Hollywood sign, spy upon some of the houses that are built into the hills, and look over the immense flatness of Los Angeles. In the distance you could make out the tiny specks of planes taking off and landing at LAX airport, and beyond that was the Pacific.

From up in the hills I headed towards town and went for a bit of a walk around the Little Tokyo district. I hadn’t actually planned that many activities for Los Angeles, and what I did know was that bus tours of the homes of the famous, or examining the handprints of stars on the pavements were not on my agenda.

I was meeting up with some more friends for lunch and had been given instructions to find Home Restaurant. An old work friend Chrissie and her boyfriend would be meeting us there – she nipping out during her lunch break.

In the afternoon I decided that I wanted to see the Space Shuttle. Endeavour was the last shuttle, it’s final mission concluded in 2011. Then it 2012 it had been transported to LAX on the back of a plane, before being wheeled through the streets of Los Angeles to its final resting place in the California Science Center.

The museum houses an exhibition of pictures recording that remarkable journey as thousands of locals lined the streets as carefully coordinated plan was put into place to wheel such an enormous machine through the city streets. Electricity pylons and street signs had to be temporarily removed to enable the transportation. People gained vantage points wherever they could to watch the shuttle pass by.

Today the shuttle sits in a temporary pavilion – just large enough to contain it. But a more permanent pavilion is under construction with completion due in 2017.

Seeing the shuttle so close is a sight to behold. I have very vague memories of Enterprise spending some time in the UK in 1983, stopping at both RAF Fairford and Stansted as it travelled to and from the Paris airshow. But although I’m pretty certain it was visible over the London skies, I never saw it.

The rest of the museum is really aimed at kids. There are lots of interactive exhibits and things for a child to do. While there are more space exhibits inside the main museum, there are probably better science museums truthfully – not least The Science Museum in London. But none of them have a Space Shuttle (And yes, I realise I really should have tried to work my itinerary to include a trip to Kennedy Space Center when I was in Florida, but I couldn’t make it work this trip).

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3 April

After a lovely breakfast at a local restaurant with my hosts, I headed off to do something cultural, and decided that The Getty would be a good place to go. The Getty Center is basically an enormous purpose-built art museum in Brentwood. It’s a remarkable place involving parking up in a car park some distance from the complex itself before taking a small funicular train up the hill to the museum.

To be honest, I found the museum building itself to be as exciting as the art it contains. It’s an incredible place with fabulous views looking down towards Santa Monica. There are extensive gardens and architecturally it’s stunning. As well as the main museum other buildings house research and conservation institutes, and there are a range of places to eat and drink at a variety of budgets.

Being so close to the coast, it was next down to the beach in Santa Monica. The weather was good, but not quite sunbathing weather. It didn’t stop quite a few hardy soles though. I basically people-watched, seeing dozens of joggers, cyclists, and inline skaters traipsing up and down the promenade in the direction of Venice Beach.

I did manage to spend a little time in what it probably my favourite US chain store – REI. I’d first come across them in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild (since turned into a film). In one now famous section, Strayed, who was walking the Pacific Crest Trail, realised that her new boots were just too small. She couldn’t really afford to change them until someone mentioned that because she’d bought them from REI, they would replace them due to their satisfaction guarantee.

In essence it’s a co-operative outward-bound store. And although I’d stopped in at their New York branch, I was now on the final stretch of my trip and could afford to take on extra luggage to cart around. I knew at this point I’d be paying to take an extra bag home with me.

The upcoming section of my trip would take me into several national parks, and I thought that it might be good to buy a cheap tent, and spend a few nights camping. But there were a couple of flaws in that plan. First of all, REI does not sell cheap tents; they sell proper kit. While I’m not against buying a decent tent, I actually already own two perfectly good tents (and a third dirt cheap tent that’s never been used for that matter). So I really didn’t need another good one.

Secondly, camping in national parks turns out to be harder than I’d anticipated. You have to pre-book a spot in the bigger ones, and those I was planning on visiting were all full up. Many of the parks look very dimly on wild camping. So it seemed that I was likely still to be mostly using motels and hotels.

That didn’t stop me picking up a few items of clothing including what has subsequently proved to be my favourite cycling jacket.

For my final evening meal in Los Angeles, Vince took me to Musso & Frank’s a famous old haunt in downtown Hollywood. A classic steakhouse, it has seen all and sundry pass through its doors over the years. I suspect it was mostly tourists when I was there, but I’m not complaining. It’s still leaps ahead of Angus Steakhouses in the UK.

I had an earlyish start the next morning as I left Los Angeles behind me, and thanked my hosts for their kind hospitality. I’d had to park my car a little further away from their home than was handy for loading it, so I pulled up in front of their home and pulled onto the kerb to keep the road clear.

At least that was the plan, because it turned out that although I was in a big SUV, the kerb was even bigger than I’d thought. The horrible scraping noise made clear that I’d made a bit of a mess of the underside of one of the bumpers. Adding that to the small dent I’d received in Griffith Park, and I was getting furious with myself. The rental car company would not be happy and this would cost me.

I headed off east, and into the desert. I was heading out to the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert. Why these dunes? They’re unique in that they’re formed of “singing sand,” a particular type of sand that needs to be made of a certain sized grain, with a specific silica balance and at a certain humidity. If you meet all these criteria, then the sliding down a dune can cause reverberations and produce a booming sound. It’s a remarkable natural phenomena.

I stopped in Kelso en route, today a ghost-town and a remnant of a mining boom in years gone by, with not much more than a railway station turned into a museum. In fact the railway itself still runs through the area, and I had to wait for a freight train to run a level crossing.

The sands were a bit further down the road, and involved an off-road drive until a likely parking place appeared. The dunes didn’t look far away, but appearances can be deceptive. It was hotter than I’d have liked – it was a desert after all – and although I had sufficient water, the going was much tougher than I’d anticipated. That was because the sand was treacly and it was a real slog to get anywhere.

I spent a decent proportion of the afternoon struggling up the dunes. Finally, I tried running down them or sliding down to create the effect I was looking for. I’d brought a digital recorder to see if I could capture anything. The results were disappointing.

I was pretty exhausted when I finally got back to the car. This had been much harder than I’d thought, and I was now facing quite a significant drive to Flagstaff across the border in Arizona where I’d booked the night.

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I was at least able to pick up some provisions at Walmart in Flagstaff. I’d need them, because tomorrow was going to see a lot of driving.

I started early the following day because I was going to be covering close to 500 miles.

First of all, leaving Flagstaff it was a drive north, before heading west through the wonderfully named Tuba City, and onwards towards the Arizona-Utah border. I was heading for somewhere I’d always wanted to visit – Monument Valley.

Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll recognise the rock formations from dozens of westerns – the sandstone buttes rising from the desert floor almost define the film genre. Most famously John Ford used the area in several of his films; most notably in The Searchers. But films such as Once Upon A Time in the West, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Thelma and Louise, have all had scenes filmed here.

The actual land belongs to the Navajo Nation, who run it as a Tribal Park. As such there’s an entrance fee before you reach a visitor centre that might have the best view of any visitor centre anywhere in the world. It sits high up on a cliff overlooking the rocks as they rise from the Colorado Plateau beyond.

Visitors have two main options of visiting the rocks. You can either join a tour group in the back of a specially adapted pick-up truck, or you can drive yourself around. There’s a specific route to follow, and a supplied map lists various points that you should stop at to view the scenery – for example “John Ford Point” based on where he placed his camera for one famous view.

Naturally, having an SUV with me, I chose to drive myself around. I’d seen enough episodes of Top Gear to know that this where the “Sport Mode” came into its own. Although to be honest, I’m not sure I could tell the difference once it was engaged.

The road was deeply rutted, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been driving anything smaller than the vehicle I was in. You did see some people in smaller rental cars, but you could easily get stuck if you weren’t careful.

So for the next couple of hours, I drove around, taking photos and swallowing in the stunning landscape. The weather was still favourable, but clouds were gathering on the horizon and they were closing in as I returned to the car park. My car was by now covered in a thin red layer of dust.

In the aforementioned visitors’ centre, I couldn’t stop myself buying a Stetson!

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Now I had more than a hundred miles of doubling back on myself, and a bit of a race against time. I wanted to get to Grand View Point overlooking the Grand Canyon, and I needed to do so before sunset.

I just about achieved this, although I would happily concur that such a magnificent sight deserved more of my time. While you can keep you glass-walkways and helicopter flights, rafting down the Colorado River, for example, would have been a good use of my time.

One thing about the area around the canyon is that everything is marked up. Accommodation isn’t cheap, and I’d ended up booking a motel in Page another 100 miles away. I’d noticed that I was short of fuel, and although there was a gas station near the car park by the Grand Canyon viewing point, it was ridiculously over-priced. I was confident that I could refill on the main highway 20 or so miles away.

It was completely dark as I rolled down the hill, nervously looking at my fuel indicator. I really did need fuel. But the car in front was taking its time over things. It was going painfully slowly down the hill, and there was no way I could overtake it in the darkness and on a windy single lane road.

At the bottom we finally reached the main highway junction where a gas station was sited, and the car in front also pulled in. But there was a problem, and we both faced it.

In the US, it’s the norm to use credit cards to pay for gas. Most people don’t bother going inside unless they need other supplies. That’s fine. I had Visa cards. But the problem stems from the pumps insisting that you enter a numeric zip code of your card’s billing address before you start pumping. That doesn’t work if your “zip code” is alphanumeric as British ones are.

What that means is that you have to go inside and pay for your fuel in advance. Then come out and pump that amount of fuel. If you over-estimate how much fuel you actually need, then you can go back inside and collect your change.

That’s all fine, but when the shop closes, the pumps revert to card-use only. And for tourists, as I say, that’s a problem.

The slow car in front of me turned out to belong to a French tourist and he was in the same boat. The shop had closed and neither of our cards worked the machines. The reason he’d been going so slowly down the hill was that he was running on fumes!

I consulted Google Maps. It confirmed that there was another gas station a mile or so away. “Was I sure?” the tourist wanted to know. I thought I remembered seeing it. We set off slowly in convoy, and there it was around the next bend. And the shop was open! We could both buy fuel. I made a note to never get that low in fuel again given some of the long drives I’d be making often across deserts.

In the darkness, I headed north to Page.

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Continued in Part Five
Back to Part Three