Driving Across the US – Part Six

Las Vegas to San Francisco

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In case I’ve not made it really clear, I couldn’t wait to get out of Las Vegas. I’d said goodbye to my friends and I was heading for another highlight of my trip: Yosemite National Park.

The Sierra Nevada mountains mean that there are two ways to reach the part of the park I wanted to get to from Las Vegas. The long way around, or the really long way around.

The latter route was an epic eight hour, 500 mile drive that would take me almost back to Los Angeles before I headed north up the western side of the mountain range.

Instead, I chose to go up the eastern side, running through Death Valley, before eventually reaching a road that would take me through the mountains and to Yosemite Village where I had a bed booked for a couple of nights in some kind of permanent canvas structure. Beds, it seemed, were hard to come by in Yosemite if you hadn’t booked far enough in advance.

The drive up through the desert was long, and air-conditioning essential. The area was so rural that FM radio drifted away, and I listened to large chunks of audiobooks on my drive.

At one point I saw a very rural gas station. I wasn’t completely short of fuel, but I’d learnt enough from my Grand Canyon experience to know that it was sensible to refill anyway.

My food options were also quite limited at this point – with no obvious diners or restaurants. I had to make do with snacks.

More worryingly, I didn’t have proper cellular connection. This was the first part of my journey where using Google Maps was becoming problematical because there was no data. But the route to where I needed to get was cached so it was OK.

Finally I turned onto a small road that would take me through the mountains. It climbed higher and higher, and there was little other traffic. I was pleased that I should be at my destination in good time.

I reached a junction, and a problem.

The road I wanted to take was closed. It seemed that Route 120 which runs through the range was still blocked by snow. Google Maps hadn’t recognised this as a problem, but there was no denying that the road was closed. I was trapped in by the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I reviewed my options.

Driving south and back around the other side was out of the question. It was close to 5pm, and that would be the thick end of 500 miles and 9 hours of driving. Going north seemed more achievable, but the roads I’d have to use would take me at least another five hours to get around that way too. Allowing for rest stops and eating, I wouldn’t make it there until midnight, and I was already exhausted from driving most of the day.

I was going to have to bail on Yosemite. This was gutting, but the park would be there another time. I should have checked more carefully if the road through the mountains was open in April, although to be honest, that hadn’t been a thought that had even occurred to me.

The most obvious place to head to was South Lake Tahoe, a winter sports resort about two and a half hours drive north from me. Although it was now out of season, I knew that there’d be plenty of rooms.

Indeed, because it was very much low season, I got a decent suite in a motel block, and spent the evening wandering around the deserted town before catching a film in the evening.

10 April

Since I hadn’t planned on staying here, I had no real ideas of what I was going to do in the area, but a hike looked like a good bet. I found a nice area up the western side of the lake a little bit and went exploring. It was a relaxing day.

Curiously, South Lake Tahoe is situated right on the State line between California and Nevada. The line runs right through the middle of the town, and wouldn’t you know it, just a few metres across the the Nevada side is a casino! It was even more depressing than the ones in Vegas. What do people see in these places? The few tourists who were still in town seemed to be here. I left pretty sharply.

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I’ve never quite understood how State Capitals were allocated, but they always seem to be in cities that you don’t expect. Sacramento is the State Capital of California and for me, a very leisurely 100 mile drive.

I headed into the slightly cheesy Old Sacramento district in the middle of town. To be honest, the “Old West” look has the feel of a film-set rather than genuinely preserved buildings, but I was there because the most interesting tourist site seemed to be California State Railroad museum.

This is a large transport museum with dozens of locomotives and carriages all beautifully kept and reminding you of a time when rail was treated quite seriously in the US. Today it seems to be largely something to shift freight around with. Occasionally there are schemes for new high speed lines, but they never seem to get very far – even on the east coast where surely Boston, New York and Washington could be better connected.

My only complaint about the museum, and this is common to many US museums, is that they don’t let the exhibits stand on their own, and have to place mannequins in the “scenes” they build. A steam locomotive is impressive enough. We don’t need a sub-Madame Tussauds waxwork in a driver’s uniform leaning out of its window.

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From Sacramento I was heading out towards the coast and would be staying with some friends in Oakland. But first I drove for a couple of hours to Muir Woods, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is an beautiful wood of redwood trees, protected from destruction unlike much of the rest of the State’s forestry by a forward thinking politician.

The trees are often massive, with some of them over 100m tall. It’s no surprise that people come from far and wide to visit the wood. Indeed the tiny car park is not remotely sufficient, and I had to park on a verge a good walk away from the wood.

As ever, there are plenty of trails and things to do. But all you need to do is pick a marginally longer than average trail, and the crowds soon thin out and you get a much more peaceful experience with some gorgeous views of the valley and beyond.

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Dropping down through Marin County I made the obligatory stop at the Golden Gate Bridge along with everyone else. On the south side of the bridge however, there are much quieter spots right at its foot.

Then it was over the bay to Oakland to see my friends Meg and Kel and their baby, eat out and drink some beer on their porch.

13 April

Probably the most famous pupil from my school was Alfred Hitchcock. OK – he went there an awfully long time before me, and the school was located in a different part of north London. But it’s the same school, and I’m sticking with him. (Incidentally, DJ, hypnotist and life-guru Paul McKenna also went to my school. He’s not so famous, but he absolutely hated it. It’s hilarious when you read any interview with him, no matter how short, and how he manages to get in his solid hatred for the school. I liked it. But then I’m not marketing claptrap to QVC viewers for a living.)

Anyway, Hitch’s piece de resistance was clearly Vertigo, and I was pleased to discover that you could go on a Hitchcock tour. He actually spent quite a bit of time living near here, although Vertigo was the only film where San Francisco was actually character in it.

The walking tour was very good, and there were dozens of buildings that featured in all manner of ways that were pointed out along the way. It immediately demanded a re-viewing of the film.

The rest of the day was sight-seeing, walking miles, often up and down, and generally taking the city in.

I can’t say I completely got a feel for the city though – since there are so many different elements at play: the counter-cultural, the technology money, the homelessness and so on. And this all leads to tensions – house prices and rents are soaring, and perhaps the nature of the city is changing. I couldn’t quite get a feeling for that, and would need to spend more time there.

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San Francisco to Los Angeles

I was finally heading south today. I was driving the Pacific Coast Highway!

A lot of tourists do this, and many of them seem to go in the other direction. There are, of course, much faster ways to drive down the length of California, but none so dramatic.

I headed towards Half Moon Bay and then turned to drive down the coast, pleasantly surprised at how light the traffic actually was. It was still early in the year from a tourism perspective, but I somehow expected dozens more cars – largely open-top Mustangs – cluttering up the road. In fact, I had it largely to myself.

But I did find myself pulling over every few miles to take in another breathtaking scene and attempt to capture it with my camera.

In Santa Cruz, as you would possibly have hoped for, a good group of people were in the water surfing. Whether it was because it was around lunchtime or just because people are in the water in Santa Cruz pretty much all day long, I couldn’t say. But the nature of the bay there – Steamer Lane it’s known as – means that you can watch the surfers at fairly close quarters. A little lighthouse on the headland contains a small surfing museum that’s worth a look around.

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Having spent the night in Monterrey, it was time to head out into the Pacific. I was going whale watching. I headed back up the coast a little to Moss Landing where I’d be joining a boat.

The tour company had pointed out that our trip would be very much weather dependent, and the previous night there had been wind and rain. The morning was overcast, and visibility wasn’t great. This wasn’t encouraging.

There was no need to worry however, as we were assured that the sun would burn off the haze and that viewing conditions would improve.

As we headed out of the small harbour, dozens of sea lions basked along parts of the dock. More were in the water – it was a hive of activity.

The water was largely placid, but our first sight of a whale wasn’t perhaps what you wanted. We first came across the guts of a small whale, and then later the dead body of baby humpback. Something had attacked and killed it, leaving the entrails floating in the water. Not an auspicious start.

There were a handful of dolphins, but we were still on the lookout for humpbacks. The weather, while still overcast, was clearing. Other tour boats were in the area also on the lookout.

By now, many of my fellow passengers were feeling a bit seasick and had gone inside. I was still fine, until I too came in for a cup of tea. Suddenly the nausea hit me – I raced onto the deck and threw up over the side. From them on I was fine!

Finally we saw what we’d came for. A pair of humpbacks were in the area. While they only came to the surface one at a time, it was an awesome sight. We had some tail-slapping and even a little breaching. It was all worth it. I did my best to capture some pictures, but you never quite knew where they’d come up next!

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I now had quite a drive south to do, since I’d booked myself into a twilight tour of Hearst Castle, 150 miles further south. Although it’s faster driving inland, I wasn’t going to be missing out on places like Big Sur. So I’m afraid it was a rather unseemly series of bits of driving, grabbing photos, and then continuing. It deserved more time, but I was on a schedule!

Hearst Castle is the home that William Randolph Hearst built for himself and to house his enormous collection of art. You park in a visitor centre, and then get bussed up the road to the castle itself – and “castle” is a fair descriptor of his rather fabulous home.

Our tour was timed with sunset, and the large group was broken into three smaller groups. Our tour guide was an actor (he looked like a little like Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame), and he put a certain amount of showbusiness into his presentation.

The one thing I knew about publishing magnate Hearst was that Citizen Kane’s Charles Foster Kane was very much based on him. And if there’s one thing that the guides don’t want you to think, it’s that Kane was based on Hearst. That’s despite the fact that Hearst spent a lot of time and effort attempting to suppress the film!

The twilight tour also saw a number of actors in period dress wandering around the castle, and it was all beautifully lit.

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16 April

My final day in the US and I decided that the Jeep I was driving – the jeep that I’d had banged in Griffith Observatory’s car park, and then scraped the underside of the front bumper of, was pretty filthy.

While I know that rental companies give a quick clean and valet to cars they get returned, this car was still covered in the red dust of Monument Valley. It was bad enough that the damage I’d done was likely to be charged. I should give it a quick clean first.

So I pulled into a gas station and bought a token for the car wash, and another for the vacuum cleaner. The car wash went fine and then I pulled in next to the industrial vacuum cleaner. There was a lot of dirt and grit in the footwells that I needed to clean out.

I swung the car door open and clang! It hit the solid steel vacuum cleaner’s stand. Because it was a squared off rectangular shape that meant that a sharp point had hit my door. I looked and there was now a new and unmistakable dent in the door!

I’d been trying to do a good thing, and I’d only made things worse. While the other marks might have been missed, you’d have had to have been blind not to see this one.

I did a final shopping run, buying a few gifts for people and squeezing them all into an extra bag that I’d bought for my various purchases.

Down the coast at LAX, I waited grimly to find out what the rental company would charge me when I returned my battered car. But I was just waved through. They gave a quick glance around it to check that all four doors were still attached and that was it!

Later I read that basically US rental firms are looking for damage golf-ball sized or larger. Also, because I’d used a larger company and probably paid a little more as a result, they are less fussy over what counts as damage. I’d somehow gotten away with it!

Inside, as I checked into my flight I was disappointed that nobody tried to upsell me extra legroom for the trip. It was all a bit more officious and I headed through security to await boarding.

As I read a paper surrounded by fellow passengers near the gate, I noticed a familiar figure. It was Sarah, one of the presenters at my now former radio station! We chatted a little, and I wondered what the chances were of bumping into two different people that I knew, completely at random, as I travelled around the US. I walk and ride through central London daily, and apart from at work, I simply never bump into people I know there, despite there being vastly more possibility.

As it happened I was actually sitting in the row behind her and her boyfriend on the plane back!


If you’re lucky enough to spend a month doing something then it’s just about the right amount of time to let you get your mind off work (or lack thereof). Previously I’d been pretty poor in my career about even taking two week holidays. And the last time I’d had a full month off, I’d been a student.

I’m not going to pretend this trip changed my life or any such nonsense. It didn’t. I came back with some stories and an awful lot of photos and video. But it was a good trip, and I did come back with a much broader picture of America and some of its landscapes. Utah is definitely worth visiting again.

Total distance driven: 4512 miles

Back to Part Five