We hadn’t initially planned on spending any time in Los Angeles at all; it was merely to be a transit stop en route to Central America. However, being within striking distance of Disneyland and not visiting it was considered a mortal sin by Helena, so we decided to stop over for a few days. And then things spiralled: ‘But if we’re there anyway, maybe we should try to visit San Francisco too. Oh, and Vegas.’
In the end, we opted for a ten day stay in L.A. Buoyed by our experience of the camper van in Australia, we hired transport once again. This time we were presented with a big, white Cheverolet Astro, which screamed America to us! It was helpfully already named ‘Big T’, and I had to hold back from repeated outbursts of ‘Pity the fool!’ and ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no god damn plane!’ as I was driving along the Californian freeways.
So – first stop: Disneyland. Anaheim is the original home of Walt Disney’s magical dream land and Helena managed to find an RV park within walking distance of the Disneyland’s entrance so it was pretty perfect really. Having arrived, however, we almost weren’t allowed to stay.
‘You booked a space for an RV,’ said the girl behind the desk.
‘Yes, that’s right. For two nights,’ Helena replied.
‘Hmmm,’ said the girl, eyeing Big T with suspicion, ‘We don’t normally let people sleep in their car.’
Big T’s not a car, I was thinking, it’s a bloody massive van. But this is where America’s ‘utterly disproportionate approach to the size of all things’ started to become apparent. After convincing the girl that the van was indeed some sort of recreational vehicle (an argument seemingly swung by the presence of a sink), we began to notice the size of everything around us.
America does BIG really well: the freeways, the food, the signs, the volume, the houses, the vehicles, the supermarkets. It’s like every single time they design something, they just press a x200% button and go with that. The RVs in the park, for example, were the size of articulated lorries in the UK; you’d need a special licence to be able to drive one. Not here. Here, you just get yourself a huge trailer (they call it a fifth wheel) and an equally enormous van with which to pull it, and off you go. As if the trailers aren’t already large enough, you also get ‘pull-outs’, entire sections on the side of the trailer that extend out sideways to further increase the space inside. These things were jaw-droppingly huge, and our awe-struck looks were met with equally bemused gazes as we climbed into the back of our van to go to sleep. ‘Hey honey, would you look at that. I reckon’ those two crazy English guys are gonna sleep in their car!’
Later that night, after sorting our tickets for Disney the following day, we popped into Ihop for some pancakes. We opted for the stack of four with white chocolate and raspberry sauce and, once again, were met with a look of bewilderment when we said we were going to ‘share’ them. ‘Are you sure you’re going to have enough?’ asked the waiter seeming genuinely concerned that we may somehow suffer malnourishment from such a measly order. ‘Oh, I’m sure we’ll be fine,’ I said, and was vindicated when he returned with a calorie bomb on a plate. He was still confused when we finished though, ‘You sure you don’t need anything else?’ We declined and left as the mildly nauseating effects of the excessive sugar intake were kicking in.
We spent the next day in Disneyland and it was awesome – you should go! It’s every bit as magical as Walt wanted it to be, and the fireworks especially were fantastic.
Disneyland doesn’t have the biggest rides we’ve ever been on, nor is it the best value for money of all of the theme parks in California, but Disney does ‘being Disneyland’ so very well. Mainly, I think it comes down to the staff – every single one seems delighted to be there, no matter what job they’re doing. The girl running the rather innocuous spinny-roundy-spaceship ride, for example – more of a fairground attraction than a theme park one – was adding little sound effects to her announcements, and making Disney-esque jokes with a little glint in her eye, changing the announcements for each ride (whilst keeping the core information intact of course). It’s the combination of the little things that make visiting Disney an experience rather than just a day out.
Oh, and the inexplicable presence of Mickey Mouse ears on grown adults everywhere will have you giggling all day long.
So, what’s next?
San Francisco, right? Well, we looked at it for a while and ended up having to make the difficult decision to postpone a visit to San Fran for another time – it was just going to be too far away. We’d already spent two nights in Anaheim, and only had four left with the van. A drive to San Fran would have cost us about twenty hours just to get there and back – far from an ideal use of time, not to mention the fuel cost.
So then, what was next?
Mojave National Preserve
Well, not for the first time on our trip, we were faced with too many options and not many pointers showing us the best way to go. Southern California has national parks, vineyards, beaches, deserts, Hollywood … all sorts! It’s at these points that you have to go with your instincts and go for the option that just feels right. So we set our sights on the Mojave National Preserve, not really knowing what we were going to find, and got moving.
Half way there, driving along a freeway with desert either side of us, a town appeared out of nowhere in the distance. Not stopping for too long to question the existence of this urban sprawl in the arid wasteland, we stopped off to check out the information centre that had been signposted from the freeway.
It was a handy pause in our journey as we got to check our plans with a very helpful information lady, We told her where we were headed, pointing at the large green area on the map. She looked at us dubiously and said,
‘You know there’s not much out there, right? It’s all desert. Like, there’s not any, well, you know, it’s really hot and well there’s no, no… it’s not green.’
‘Oh, yeah. Of course,’ was my nonchalant reply, although the more honest answer would have been, ‘What the…? Desert?!’
With our ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ attitude and an entirely misplaced sense of optimism, we continued on.
At Baker, we found the world’s largest thermometer. It was reading 109 Fahrenheit; that’s a breezy 42 degrees Celsius. We’d tuned into the Mojave National Preserve radio channel as we approached the park and were treated to a looping broadcast from a presenter with a very monotone, matter of fact voice, that was essentially a series of warnings: It is important to be prepared. Take enough water, there are no shops. The same goes for food. Take enough fuel, there are no petrol stations. Make sure you’re contactable. Make sure somebody knows where you are going. Don’t build fires. Don’t leave the roads or marked tracks, you may get stuck, or lost. Make sure your vehicle has been fully maintained. Oh dear, I think we may actually die out here…
Refuelled, and fully stocked with water (and ice in our cool box incidentally, an entirely pointless venture!) we turned off the freeway at Baker and headed into the desert. We immediately found ourselves on a single lane, single carriageway road. This is not insignificant because, as I mentioned before, America’s default setting when it comes to road building is three lane dual carriageway. Anything smaller is hardly worth building, surely?
And then we were all alone.
The road was empty, completely empty; and the desolation around us was tangible: no buildings, no wildlife, no trees, nothing. We were filled with a strange mix of feeling adventurous and a desire to run back to civilisation. I’m pleased we didn’t give in though, because although there is very little to see in Mojave, that strangely becomes part of the fascination. We live our lives so often surrounded by other people, the senses bombarded incessantly with signals from the external world, that it was almost mesmerising to stop the van, get out, look around at the stillness and listen to the silence.
We stopped off in Kelso, an old mining hub which comprises a few small buildings including the old railway station and original jail cells. It too was deserted when we arrived so we had a short look around and moved on. We did see some of the American freight trains on our travels though, slithering their way almost imperceptibly slowly across the barren landscape. They too are vast in proportion, often comprising four or more engines and well over a hundred carriages, which combine to create a vehicle which is more than a mile in length.
Although we had thought we may stay somewhere in or near Mojave, a location for camping was neither immediately apparent nor appealing. So we decided to keep moving. (I absolutely love that about road trips: Don’t like where you are? Keep driving!) Reaching the far side of Mojave almost cost us a radiator and a clutch – Big T didn’t much like climbing hills in the heat – but we got there in one piece and found ourselves on the historic Route 66. I’ve always wanted to drive Route 66 – I don’t really know why, I know hardly anything about it – and so I was really happy to get the chance.
We were heading for another national park – the Joshua Tree National Park – this one has ‘tree’ in the title, there must be something green there, right..?
By the time we got close, it was getting dark and we had to find somewhere to stay. We popped into the visitor centre and spotted a map to a ‘free campground’ outside the park. Enticed by the offer of a free night’s accommodation, we followed the directions which for some unknown reason involved going beyond the campsite and three sides round a square to get to it. Looking at the map, there was a much more direct route off the highway so, in my wisdom, I decided to take it. Which was a mistake – almost!
In the now complete darkness, we turned off onto a sandy but sort of solid track – not a road at all – and were heading straight for the camp site. ‘Are you sure this is going to be alright?’ asked Helena, an entirely legitimate question. ‘I think so,’ I said, as I gently urged Big T onwards, already beginning to feel the wheels squirming as the surface beneath us got progressively more sandy.
Two minutes later: ‘I think I may have made a mistake.’
Now driving entirely on sand, we were faced with an agonising dilemma. Do we stop and try to turn around, risking getting stuck in the sand; or do we push on, hoping and praying that we weren’t just driving ourselves deeper into the problem.
What would you have done?
Well, as the moments ticked by, an immediate decision not forthcoming, we effectively decided on the second option by default. Luckily, we eventually came onto what looked like a more well-used track, only to then be faced with puddles and large gloopy muddy sections. Since when do you get muddy puddles in the desert?! Incredulous at this addition to the scenario, I parked up at the first possible opportunity in what we guessed must have been the camp site.
There was nobody else there.
With the voice of the man from the radio ringing through my head, ‘…make sure somebody knows where you are going…’ I turned to Helena and said, ‘You know, nobody else on the planet knows where we are right now,’ which could have been exciting and romantic. At that moment, it was scary.
But there was nothing to fear. After a restless night, constantly worrying, checking the window, reaching for and concealing weapons to use in case of an attack, we woke and were once more impressed by the immense peace and calm of the desert.
Joshua Tree National Park
After a cup of tea and a photo on the roof of the van, we made our way back to the visitor centre and were treated to an educational talk by one of the park guides which focussed mainly on Joshua Tree’s diverse lizard population. I know it may not sound that interesting but it actually began to open our eyes a little to the amount of life present in what we had thought to be a lifeless desert.
Joshua Tree is a huge national park, with many camp sites and different ecosystems to explore. It actually spans the borders of two deserts: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. We spent a good few hours cruising around, stopping to check out the Joshua trees, pausing at the many information points, taking pictures of various cacti, and lizard spotting (with our newly acquired lizard knowledge!). You could easily spend a week there and have plenty to do – in fact your $20 entrance ticket is valid for seven days – so it was such a shame that we were so tight on time.
Within striking distance of Joshua Tree is the Temecula Wine Region. We hadn’t really heard of it before, but we did know California was a big wine producing state and, once again, were keen to sample some of the wines on offer. Heading south west towards Palm Springs, we were making decisions on the go. Our choice of Cougar Vineyard, out of all of the vineyards, was mainly driven by its longer opening hours; we were only likely to get there by 4pm, and Cougar stayed open until 6, which would give us just enough time to taste a few of their wines.
The setting was lovely. Gone was the sandy brush, the isolated plants, struggling for life; we now entered along a gravel driveway winding through lush vines, hanging heavy with grapes. It was good to see vines in full growth as at the Hunter Valley, in Australia, it had been winter and all the vines had been pruned. The evening sun then, the views over the hills from the reclined wooden chairs on the veranda, the pop and gurgle of wine being poured, the clink of glasses, quiet chatter, muffled ‘mmm’ and ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’, all pointed to another couple of hours of wine-based delight.
It’s such a shame that the wine was so terrible!
Ok, maybe it was just not to our taste, maybe we’d been spoiled at the Hunter Valley. Whatever it was, we left contented but not in any rush to buy anything.
That evening was spent in the smaller Dripping Springs camp ground. Unlike our experience from the night before, this was a well set up site with hard pitches; each with picnic bench and fire ring. I quickly set about making a fire, which was easy in the tinder dry conditions, and we spent a wonderful evening eating pasta, drinking red wine (from the supermarket, not Cougar!) and enjoying the firelight.
Heading back to L.A.
Already nearing the end of our van hire, we had to head back towards L.A. We drove to the west coast and joined California Highway One, which runs alongside the Pacific Ocean. Some of the views on this drive were spectacular, but then so was some of the traffic! We popped into Venice Beach but I shied away from pumping iron at the famous Muscle Beach Gym (wouldn’t want to embarrass any of the regulars with my superior show of gun strength now, would I? Ahem!) and were soon heading for Hollywood.
The drive became a little surreal at this point, turning into a list of iconic road names and landmarks: one minute I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, then it was through Beverly Hills, onto Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, with the stars of the Walk of Fame in the pavement all around and the Hollywood sign in the hills above.
We didn’t stop long at any of these locations though, realising that we yet again needed to find somewhere to stay. Theme-park lovers that we are, we’d booked tickets to visit Universal Studios, Hollywood the following day and were keen to find somewhere close by to leave the van. This proved to be an absolute mission; one that involves us driving for many hours, cooking and eating dinner on the side of the road, and ultimately stopping in a motel.
Had we failed? On the camping front, sort of. But Hollywood, and L.A. in general, is not teeming with campsites and RV parks – unsurprising, I know, what with it being a massive urban area – but we still thought we’d find something. On the positive side, stopping off in a motel is on the list of ‘classic American experiences’ in our heads, so at least now we can say we’ve tried one!
Universal Studios, Hollywood
I was really looking forward to spending our final road trip day at Universal. Helena and I went to Universal in Florida some years ago with her family and it was probably my favourite park. It doesn’t have the Disney magic, as such, but it rocks the thrill factor much better. You can empathise with my dismay then, when we got our hands on the map of the Hollywood park and began scouring for the biggest thrills. ‘Where are all the rollercoasters?’ I said, turning the map over and over, sure that I had missed something. ‘I have no idea,’ came Helena’s reply with an equally bemused tone.
What ensued was a morning of rides and experiences, many of which involved the same kind of 3D or video animation as each other, and none of which had us wanting to go back for more. Whereas at Disney, we were clinging on by our fingernails at 11:59 and 59 seconds pm, at Universal we got to 2pm, were sat tucking into a
Lard Lad donut and a coffee, looking at the map and at each other and saying, ‘I think we’re done.’ (To be fair to Universal, I should say that that Studio Tour and the Waterworld Show were both excellent.)
So, for the first time ever, we left a theme park before its closing time. Maybe we’re getting old… It was only later that we found out about Six Flags Magic Mountain, a park close to Anaheim that houses some nineteen rollercoasters. Nineteen!! We could have wept.
An Unexpected Highlight
Anyway, what’s that phrase about doors closing and windows opening? Our now free afternoon and evening began once more with a search for a camp site in the area. Just when we thought all was in vain (again!) Helena discovered the Balboa RV park, an innercity site frustratingly close (less than ten miles) to both Universal and Hollywood. We made a quick phone call and were encouraged to come down.
On arrival, we met the charismatic Steve who went out of his way to welcome us and help us out. It became apparent, almost immediately, that the park was actually full to overflowing. As pretty much the only RV site in the region, Steve had many long term residents, often actors working in Hollywood or at the studios right next to the park. I was mildly worried that our arrival had caused problems as he discussed options for where we could park with the lady behind the desk. ‘We don’t need anything, really,’ I ventured, ‘We’re happy parking anywhere.’ ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you in,’ came the response as the discussion continued.
In the end, Steve directed us to park just next to their communal building. ‘If you park here, you get to open into this little bit of grass here,’ he said, ‘And the wifi connection is good next to the building, the showers are just inside, there are sofas, a TV…’ It was more than we could have asked for, and more than we needed. Back in the office, the question came from the lady, ‘So what will we charge?’ to which Steve looked at us and replied, ‘Would it be ok if we offered you half price?’
Once we’d settled in, we took Steve’s recommendation of a visit to Outlaws Cafe for dinner. We were after a classic American meal and Outlaws fulfilled our desires perfectly. Welcomed in by the waitress, we chose two large, comfy leather chairs and were offered the menus. ‘We’re mostly well known for our burgers,’ she said, ‘so you might want to start there.’ We were sorely tempted by the namesake ‘Outlaws Burger’, but were stopped dead in our tracks by the opening line of description, which read: 1 Lb of spiced beef grilled to perfection… One pound? An entire pound of meat? Who could even consider ordering it, let alone eating it?! That’s that American issue with ‘size’ again.
Instead, we went for the half pound version – the Bandito – and the Hawaiian Burger, which was not a burger at all, but a spiral of sausage. Both of these turned out to be excellent choices, and we tucked in heartily. I even ordered a ‘refill’ of fries, (not that I needed them) because in America, free fries refill is a thing, apparently.
And so that was it for Big T. Eight hundred miles of road tripping around Southern California and what did we find? A lot of desert, a interest in lizards, and an emphatic confirmation of our love for camper vans. We fell in love with everything Disney all over again, had a rocky affair with Californian wine, and ignited a special relationship with a state to which we will undoubtedly return.