End of the Mother Road.
Dropping down out of Oatman feeling melancholy. Contemplating the limitations of time and feeling a kind of separation anxiety for all the things we would have to leave behind at the end of our trip. One of those things being the mostly inefficient polystyrene “Cool box” purchased from “Ten pound bag of ice lady” on the third or fourth day. It really didn’t serve a purpose but none the less we filled it daily and had a relationship with it the same as you would have with your laundry basket. We continued to fill it up regardless of what’s going on underneath, ignoring the constant and prevailing pungency of its contents with hope that one day we might reach down and a combination of science and magic will have worked in such a way to offer up something completely mind-blowing that has been sat on the bottom for weeks.
We were looking at just over 200 miles of Route 66 before turning North West at Barstow, heading for The Famoso Raceway Bakersfield and The Hot Rod Reunion. I was wondering if Ian was aware that our Route 66 journey could be over in less than a day. I contemplated breaking the news, a gentle reminder maybe of what lay ahead, but the consequences of my actions were too much to bear right then. I was having my own struggles with “Fridge Gate” at that point to wander over to the fluffy side and break the news. It could wait.
The desert is a stunning place at Sundown, the sun throws a light casting shadows fit only for cowboys and tumbleweed, I felt blessed to be able to share its space.
“Ian do you ever think that when no one else is around, when you’re alone in a place staring at the emptiness that you are the only person in the whole world enjoying the experience ?”
“I hadn’t but yeah”
“We’re the only people in the world experiencing this right now”
We “Wowed” simultaneously and continued silently into our very own space. The landscape was flat ahead and we were able to watch darkness arrive inadvertently taking us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown.
Ian stopped the car, staring blankly ahead.
We had been travelling on the interstate for some miles hoping to rejoin Route 66 at Junction 115, the sign was telling us otherwise.
Further down the interstate all exits were displaying the same arrogant obstruction, we were unable to turn left and rejoin the mother road. It was catastrophic, a complete destruction of dreams! Ok yes a bit melodramatic, but I’m writing for your pleasure so feel obligated to provide tension and drama to heighten your reading experience. As it was we took the next left, drove around ten miles through a dark empty space, reached a T Junction and a process of elimination helped us make the decision to take a right turn and follow the light.
You know the films where a vehicle pulls into a gas station at night, the camera angle is very low and focuses on the car door and the feet of the person about to disembark , the guys boots are stained and well travelled, he is hesitant, there is a soft thud as he pushes the car door closed and the camera pans up from the floor.
“It’s Roy’s!” We were both already out of the car
“Roy’s?” Ian’s head was tilted so far back he looked as if he was having a moment with the lord himself!
We glanced at each other then back up at the sign, it stood in near darkness, had apparently done so since the mid 80’s.
Roy’s is in Amboy California, a Route 66 icon. It had in the past rightly claimed its place amongst others as an established gas station and cafe. Six cabins had provided a much needed stop over, an oasis in the stark dryness of the Mojave Desert. The interstate however removed it from the map in 1972 effectively cutting off Amboy from the traffic flow.
A shell of what it had been, the owner’s partner at the time took a bulldozer to the town and left little remaining. In 1995 the town was leased and later purchased as a filming location.
Today its future lays in the hands of conservationist Albert Okura, it’s struggle is still evident. One of the biggest challenges seems to be a constant supply of clean drinking water, a task in itself which keeps the cafe and motel non functioning to this day.
I headed for the toilet, Ian into the gas station to find drinks and possibly a snack or two. This was a world away from the bustling dust and sun-bleached scenes of many a travel book.
There was an urgency to my visit so walking straight out of the small dimly lit toilet block would never have been an option, it did however cross my mind at that point whether the hills really did have eyes and today was wash day.
I am going to come straight out and say that the walls were possibly bloodstained, or splattered!
I will now take a step back and say “Maybe it was something else” . A lack of running water lent itself perfectly to how the story was unfolding.
Back in the cafe, whispering.
“What, why are you whispering?”
“This place is weird, there are bloodstains over the walls”
“In the toilet, splattered all over the walls! Well to be honest I’m not sure what it is but it’s red and it’s running down the walls”
“Is it wet?”
“No, what are you suggesting then?” He’s sounding genuinely concerned, but before I could reply.
“The bridges are closed both ways too” Ahh so this is the cause of his concern he’s feeling trapped!
“And?” I asked, ready to play along but confused as to who had the trump card here.
“There is no way out on Route 66 ?” he stresses, or does he ?
“So we go back the way we came?”
“What if we can’t?”
“Where’s your info coming from anyway?” I enquired.
“Guy at the counter, they don’t serve food, I got you crisps”
“And some soda thing”
“So does guy at counter suggest we go back the way we came?”
“He didn’t say”
“Maybe he thought it was the common sense thing to do”
A tiny part of me was ready to go outside and fight through a Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll put that down to possible dehydration!
Strangely at the time of writing this, Saturday November 16th 2019, Ian sent me a link to a Facebook page. Roy’s would be holding a relighting ceremony, and true to its word on that very day Roy’s iconic neon sign lit up the forecourt for the first time in over 30 years !
More research on my part showed that prior to this and an interesting addition to my own experience in the toilet block, Amboy had managed to get itself a reputation as a place of paranormal happenings. The screaming of children has been heard at the old school in the still of the night and in 2015 a photo taken by a traveller captivated the internet as it showed what appeared to be a bloodstain on an interior wall of one of the cabins! The Telegraph newspaper tells about “A photograph of an eerie ghost town” that is “Freaking out internet users”
Comments from readers pointed out that over the years Roy’s has been used as a location for many films, including the American thriller “Beneath the Dark” and 1986 horror“ The Hitcher”.
Whatever the explanation it has got us all talking. Roy’s has thrown out a noose and pulled us right in. Maybe the intention wasn’t there, maybe it was? The newly lit neon sign however gives the impression of a new beginning, a “Sign” of things to come maybe.
Back in the car,
“So did the guy at the counter explain why the bridges are down?”
“But the guy at Hackberry Stores blessed me for bringing the rain ? They’ve been in a drought for months, further west is worse?”
We left it at that.
It was only around 30 miles until we reached our stop for the night. Described as the “Almost Ghost Town” of Ludlow, the town which refuses to die. As far as I was concerned Ludlow seemed to be doing just fine. Little did I know at the time but in pulling off the interstate and stopping at the very first sign of civilisation meant we were actually in “New Ludlow” If you can’t entice the travellers on the Interstate to the town then take the town to the travellers and that is just what they did . In the 1970’s a small motel, interestingly designed cafe and two gas stations were built and still thrive to this day.
It was dark, we were hungry and there was no visible place to check in, turns out the guy for the job is also the guy that works the shop and gas station over the main road. You exchange cash for keys as simple as that. It was very basic, we ate potato wedges that had been sat under a heat lamp for all of their wedgey life, the bed was fragile and the shelf holding the TV was just about ready to end its relationship with whatever had been holding it to the wall, it ended the story of that particular day perfectly !
The one thing I am noticing looking back on all of this now is by this point we were floundering, we had just over a week to go until the end of our trip and we were wanting to do everything and nothing at the same time. There were so many places we hadn’t been, so much more to see and so many roads untraveled. Death Valley was calling us back and Vegas seemed so close yet too exhausting at that point to even contemplate. Our minds were racing, our bodies wanted a beer a wash and a decent night’s sleep!
One thing was sure for now, we were heading for Famoso Raceway and the Hot Rod Reunion. Just over two hundred miles with no plans to stop. We hadn’t discussed it, it was just known and understood. We would be leaving Route 66 at Barstow and I was yet to break the news to Ian.
In the light of day we were able to see the other side of the road block on 66 a few hundreds yards from our motel, we tried not to think about the section of the road we had been unable to access and focus instead on the road ahead.
The next 50 miles of Route 66 survive as a kind of frontage road, running almost parallel to the interstate. I was noticing a different kind of heat, a particular dryness to the air and the landscape was visibly parched.
We had picked up a CD, the sound track from Quentin Tarrantino’s 1996 film “ From Dusk Till Dawn” at a gas station in Arizona , the same place I had discovered self-service hot and thick chunky soup in a cup. I was crazed like a kid without his mum at the pick and Mix counter!
Dirty blues and sleaze coming through the speakers was undeniably a fitting soundtrack to these last few miles, which I also remember as the road of revelations
“Ohhh we’re here” I used this gas station as reference for ……. painting, and before we both knew it Ian was out of the car reacquainting himself with one of a number of abandoned buildings like they were old friends.
I remained, basking in the sounds of ingenious magnificence.
Whilst Ian had been researching his dream over the years, recreating his escape on paper and canvas he had become well acquainted with just a few of these buildings that had served as a release from what was going on in his own mind. He had been unaware of their place on the map, but each one had held its own story. Now here he was, a meeting of troubled mind and abandoned matter.
“How does it feel?” I’m a woman we need to know these things. Ian was back in the car.
“Yeah, good, nice, shame isn’t it” and at that we drove into the ever increasing heat sharing the mike with Tito and Tarantula “ Angry cockroaches” which meant making up the words and a lot of screaming!
Newberry Springs also forced us to an unintentional halt. Bagdad Cafe from the 1987 movie of the same name has brought notoriety to this particular area. It remains open for business and doing very well. We both briefly made contact with its walls, but neither of us were tempted to go inside.
It was the end of our Route 66 Journey and I can only compare it to waving goodbye to someone you love on a train when you know you’re not going to see them for a while. You don’t want them to go but it’s going to happen so you just want it over with. That’s the only way I can explain our lacklustre attempt at interested.
Looking at the map and just a few miles from Barstow I filled Ian in on the road ahead, and he kind of yelped like a dog in a running dream. I checked out his face to distinguish the level of trauma.
“Oh look a train !” these were his words and a perfectly timed distraction !
Around 1934 the worst drought in living memory drove hundreds of people from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl west along Route 66 in search of work on the fruit farms that filled the Southern Californian Valleys. Eight decades later California’s Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. California was having its own struggle, the driest year on record, effecting a 400 mile long agricultural basin of four million people and hitting those with the least the hardest.
I was shocked to learn that wells supplying some of the smaller communities had dried up months before. Some were in the position to pay for new wells to be drilled up to four times as deep, in the first instance the costs were lower and the waiting list shorter but over time with increased demand things started to get out of hand.
We were driving through a vast area traditionally rich in agriculture, the normally irrigated fields ripe with crops had given away to hard-baked soil, parched and barren. The impact as a whole was catastrophic, we learnt about certain relief efforts that were in place but hardship and frustration were clearly visible amongst the farming communities, we passed placard after placard pleading for help from the Government. No Water = No Food, No Water = No Jobs, No Water = No Future.
One thing I had learnt from our trip was a diversity that I wasn’t expecting. The variance in temperature and weather conditions over a few miles, kitsch and bubblegum a stone’s throw away from nature and the ceremonies and rituals of the tribal nations. Route 66 had played out in front of us, a story unfolding with every right or wrong turn, it provides you with the props and within reason you are able to make it whatever you want it to be. Turning the page however right then and the story was undeniably real.
It was around this time that I received a message from my daughter. She had been traveling the Eastern States for just over two months and having the time of her life. The message was to say she would meet us in San Francisco in just less than a week before we caught the plane back home.
She had mentioned this before leaving the UK, but I had taken on board her Facebook posts and photos and considered why the hell she would want to spend time with her parents with only a few weeks left of her trip.
The messages went something like this.
“So where are you travelling from ?”
“Chicago wow, that’s some trip”
“Around 4000km I think. Can you pick me up from the train station in San Francisco?”
“Yes no problem, do you know when? How long does it take?”
“About 50 hours I think, will let you know, Thank you”
Don’t know about any of you folks but if your grown up child is travelling 4000km to see you and you know they’re on a limited budget would you start to wonder if there was possibly something else going on?
“Ian do you think she’s ok?”
“Yeah she’s having the time of her life”
“What if she’s lost her passport or something, money or ……. ?”
“I don’t know, maybe she’s being stalked by a madman”
“Yeah maybe it’s that”
I did a quick Google of the California Zephyr, a passenger train operated by Amtrak and everything fell into place very quickly.
The journey from Chicago to San Francisco is considered to be one of the most scenic in North America, climbing through the heart of the Rockies and snow capped Sierra Nevadas, through Salt Lake city and the plains of Nebraska into Denver, Reno and Sacramento.
I read this to Ian and we both agreed it’s a journey we would love to take ourselves.
Cruising into Bakersfield and another example of believing one thing and it being another. Famoso Raceway is actually north of the city by around twenty miles. Looking for somewhere to stay for a couple of nights we sailed past the track and into the town of Wasco around 10 miles to the West.
We were spoilt for choice of accommodation in that there was a lot of choice.
It had become a kind of ritual just to park up, without discussion, and book a room in the first half decent motel we could find. The only part of a trip where we’d had difficulty with this was Zion National Park and now this was proving to be the second. Three try’s down and I was standing behind a small bar like area in a box of a foyer.
“Hi do you have any vacancies?” spoken to the tiniest of Chinese looking ladies on the other side of the bar.
She shortened her stance with a bend of the knees, and addressed the underneath of the bar.
“ Have we got spare woom ?” followed by ‘Chinese’? banter and waving of arms on her part and some serious death stares before she resumed normal height made her way around to our side of the bar and proceeded to leave the building !
A bit concerned about voicing an opinion to each other for fear of upsetting the tiny ninja that lived under “Reception” Ian made a jerky head movement to suggest we should leave. but she was back with a key on a key ring that resembled a child’s sock.
“Woom 27, take it” and she forced the sock into my hand.
We did take it but just to give us time enough to plan an escape.
“Ok thank you, we’ll check it out” words that could suggest it was possible we could disapprove and leave. The look on her face was enough to suggest that wasn’t an option, the state of the room was more than enough to suggest that we leave.
“Oh so here’s a plan, we’ve had a phone call from friends they’re lost a few miles out of town and we need to go and help them, they will want to stay too so we’ll be back soon, force key into hand take a sneaky peak under the bar and run” and that’s what we did but she didn’t make it bloody easy!
Half a mile down the road, a contrast so extreme it was as if we had traveled through space and time, The Best Western Plus Hotel and Suites.
“That’s not going to be cheap”
“They’ve got trees”
“And one of those fancy in and out drives. Look! Pillars! And shady areas!”
I had flashbacks to previous overnight stays along the way some which were memorable in the best possible way, others not quite so and some that I was struggling to remember at all.
So what was common ground? What was the deciding factor for a memorable stay? Turns out it’s cabins, we like wooden shacks and rustic cabins, so why was Wasco’s attempt at a Disney Hotel looking so appealing?
“I think we might need some pampering” I winced and recoiled at my own profanity, then as if by magic the portal fairy arrived and we were inside the building, and the air changed instantly.
People were drifting and floating across shiny floor spaces, some lounging on over sized sofas and then there were teeth, lots of teeth, brilliant white and smiling at us across the highly polished sweeping surface of the check in area.
“Can I help you sir” and unlike the Travelodge in Farnborough where we had once asked at the desk for a room for the night and were told they only accept online bookings, the place where we had sat in reception, very close to said desk and booked our nights stay on our phone only to be greeted once more minutes later as complete strangers. This place had us checked in in the glint of an eye and the wink of a tooth.
I can’t think of a word to explain what we did next so am going to make one up and I think it should be added to the urban dictionary with the definition of being to able to relax oneself in slovenly sophistication. The word is to poshslob. We poshslobbed in bed with takeaway Chinese food, I tried to unposhslob in the bathroom but was very conscious of the water situation.
Unlike room 13 in the dodgy motel near the start of our journey, room 13 that had been vacated for the very purpose to serve a “Breakfast” of many colours, the same Breakfast that blew away as I tried to eat it sitting on a bench at the side of the road. The Best Western had a dedication Breakfast room offering up a wide selection of freshly cooked fare to bust your gut and send you back to bed in a food coma.
I have mentioned before about the things we weren’t told before we took our first trip out to the US. We had asked the question to so many of our well travelled friends,
“So what advice can you give, what should we know before we leave?” and the answer was mostly
“Ahh, nothing to know really, they drive on the other side, you’ll never be stuck for a burger and it’s a game of dare at any crossroads”
No! No! No! There was so much more we needed to know ! And this very morning was a prime example. Stood at the entrance to our fine dining experience we looked on in awe at the queue of Americans waiting, all cool and confident to use what we discovered to be the Waffle Maker!
I’m not sure at that point if I had even seen a real waffle or its maker, it was just about as alien to me as the dishwasher I was shown in my first pub job in the UK after spending 10 years living in a small Hungarian village.
We stood silent for a while observing the protocol of the whole affair, the room was busy and a far cry from anything else we had experienced previously in the breakfast area.
Sometimes the name Ian when spoken can sound just like a noise so Ian tends to not answer straight away.
“Ian mate, fancy seeing you here” and within minutes we were amongst friends, all off to the reunion and all staying at the Best Western in Wasco, who would have thought.
Our whole trip had been just like Christmas week in that we were often unaware of what day it was. During breakfast we learnt that it was in fact Sunday and a particularly quiet day at the track.
We had apparently missed a sensational cacklefest on Saturday night, 60 vintage dragsters and fuel altereds lined up diagonally on the strip blipping their engines sending huge columns of flames into the air. It was described as soul stirring and tears were shed throughout the crowd.
The Reunion is an end of season affair, a classic event established for 28 years, surviving through good and bad economical times. It attracts the best in cars and their drivers.
On the Friday night six veterans had been awarded with trophies, Saturday had seen racing and qualifying, racing how it used to be.
Arriving at the event we very quickly realised that we should have possibly skipped breakfast and headed straight for the track, parking was already rammed and people were starting to claim their space on the side of the freeway. A not so quiet Sunday after all.
We were experiencing one of the hottest days so far of our trip, with the exception of Death Valley and a couple of days in Monument Valley, it helped add to that nostalgic feel of bygone days when the sun shone brighter and days were longer.
It was an unexpectedly emotional day for us for many reasons, not only did we meet up with friends from the UK, but we also had the pleasure of coming face to face with like minded folk we had only had the pleasure of knowing through social media. Max Grundy for example, an automotive artist with a very distinct style, someone Ian had admired for years. Ian was in awe and we both imagined a time in the not too distant future where we could somehow uproot our mobile studio and transport it or part of it over the water to that very place.
The stands were quieter than I had anticipated and the racing to me seemed a little sporadic but maybe I wasn’t paying too much attention, my senses were on overload on realising that this isn’t just a drag racing event. There is a huge swap meet which focuses heavily on vintage speed parts and even the odd race car. At that time this area was buzzing with folks, some last attempt efforts at end of show bartering taking place, and then silence as the National Anthem sounded out over the speakers. It was a level of patriotism I had never experienced before, hats were removed and placed across chests, others sang along their faces raised to the sky. I’m not totally sure what induces this level of respect in a country, whatever it maybe it was a refreshing change and powerful enough to emotionally charge my tear ducts.
The Grove is a really attractive tree lined area that gave me a rush of a feeling as if I had been there before. The feeling stayed with me, it was kind of comforting and I wondered if it had reminded me of somewhere I could have possibly visited in my childhood. This area is just behind the grandstands and for this event in particular it is known for the incredible diversity of car and trucks parked up for your pleasure. It’s also a great place to grab a beer and sit in a shady area watching the world go by whilst contemplating starting a new life as a hobo.
For all you car racing, spectating, general followers of the drag racing, vintage/classic car scene in the UK can you relate to this ? You attend a weekend event desperate to arrive as soon as commitment and time allows. If you’re lucky you find yourself in a queue of equally enthusiastic individuals around Midday on a Thursday. You’ve brought enough alcohol, sausages and spare car parts etc to see you through to Monday when you unwillingly vacate the premises, and things start to get weird, as if you want to wind down the car window and shout “ You don’t understand man, you weren’t there!”. As we left Famoso Raceway that evening I anticipated that same sinking feeling but it didn’t happen. Great weather, some good friends old and new, a selection of cool cars, beer and enough fried food to knock a donkey off its legs, all contributed to a much needed extension to the end of racing.
The next morning after some serious waffling, we’re back on the road.
“Ian, so what’s the plan?”
“Not sure, just heading west”
I checked out where we were on the map and this happened.
“Let’s head back to the coast”
Just over 100 miles later and we were back on California’s Highway one, back to where we started and what better place to revisit but Cayucos. A place we had stayed briefly at the start of our trip but hadn’t ventured out much because I had been ill.
Cayucos is a world away from my other favourite place, Beatty in Death Valley, they both call out for me to give up my life in the UK and get on the first plane out. My life in Cayucos would involve baking pie and wandering around cool antique stores, in Beatty I would squat in an old abandoned trailer change my name to Rooster and learn how to play Rock Gee-tar.
One of the things we had been wrongly advised about was the amount of good old classic vehicles on the road.
“ Don’t expect to see cars and trucks on the road like you see here at the show’s, yeah maybe 15/20 years ago but it doesn’t happen these days they’re all mostly Japanese” We were told
Now I am not sure where these people had been travelling but I would say where we had been it was a good 50/50 balance, in Cayucos in particular it was more like 60/40, the larger number being classics. Like the Wild West by sea, Cayucos has its old saloons, it steps back in time to a more relaxed pace. Beautiful surfer dudes stretch out over the sun-bleached patina hoods of their mid seventies pick ups, quietly contemplating the horizon and the next wave.
Everyone displays happiness and they are eternally thankful, for your time, money, or sharing a story with them.
We checked into the small Dolphin Motel, clean simple rooms with doors opening out onto a small patio and central courtyard, palm trees in abundance and a serenity similar to eating a light chocolate cake whist floating on a lily pad.
We chilled on the beach, in the pie shop and at the saloon, I was even given a small puppy to hold to add to the pleasantries, the guy went to the rest room and arrived over an hour later through the front door.
“Thank you” he said
“No thank you, it’s been a pleasure. The little guy is adorable”
“Well thank you for saying that”
“He really was no problem”
“Thank you, have a great day”
“Thank you” and that’s how it starts. I think the exception was the strangeness of the artist’s studio, which drew Ian in like an artist to an artist studio. As we chatted and looked at the various pieces.
“Hi, so am I right in thinking you’re from the UK?”
“Hi, yes, quite often mistaken for Australian, great work by the way”
“Thank you so much, what brings you in here?”
“I’m an artist, just intrigued, glad I did”
“You know that Banksy’s dead right ?”
We turned to each other then back at the guy who had been joined by his work colleague.
“No we had no idea, we haven’t been keeping up with the news much, that’s shocking what happened?”
“He died” First guy
“Think he was murdered or something” New guy on the scene
I briefly wondered what the “Or something” could be.
Turns out it meant they weren’t sure how he died. They continued into the devastation caused by the drought and the last time they had seen rain.
Not watching the news for 5 weeks and only using Facebook to contact family and post photos, it was weird but quite believable that Banksy was actually dead. One of those people who makes a massive impact then are gone before their time. We chatted about it whilst eating the best Tacos I’ve had in my life. Ruddell’s Smokehouse is the place and if you ever get the chance to go to Cayucos you cannot give it a miss, a sensory fiesta on your taste buds that will turn your palate inside out. We had noticed a plume of smoke rising into the air earlier in the day, a sweet BBQ aroma that lured us to the corner of the street on the seafront like a couple of Bisto kids. Well established and family owned its over the counter service emulates a bygone era, unspoilt and thriving.
Back at the motel and checking the news, Banksy of course was very much alive, my immediate reaction was to pop down the road.
“Hey don’t worry, Banksy he’s alive!” and then it struck me that they probably already knew that.
I hadn’t done a massive amount of research on anything before our trip. I had booked a few motels in places that I thought could be busy, stared at the map a lot and looked at possible places to visit around areas where we could be staying for longer than a day. Initially Cayucos was one of those places, but with me sleeping for the first few days Ian had made the decision to drive. This time around, and back where we started I was remembering some of my research.
“Ian there is a town just south of here that has an amazing street party every Thursday night”
“Yeah I remember you saying”
We asked around for details and learnt that to the locals this “Street Party” is actually their weekly farmers market !
San Luis Obispo is the place to go and we arrived early, 5pm for a 6pm start. I had seen the photos and the streets were packed. If it could be compared to an indoor event in the UK it would be full capacity and a stern looking door man would be beaming internally at the power of his, “Sorry we’re full”.
We were concerned about parking hence the early start. We needn’t have worried.
“Have we got the wrong day?” The streets were empty and there was nothing vaguely to suggest any evidence of a good time.
“It is Thursday?”
We asked a passerby.
“Yeah no worries, you got the right day, it’s only 5.30 it starts at 6.00.
“OK Ian, I don’t get it. There has got to be loads of vendors with stalls, what about the traffic chaos when they all arrive at the same time, parking up etc, setting up stalls, and there are massive BBQ’s too”
We all know in the UK that you light the BBQ, wait a few bloody hours for the coals to get hot and the smoke to die down, then you can proceed to place the meat on the grill, not before then!! There is, without doubt, always someone ready to jump down your throat for premature placing of meat.
So as you can imagine there was confusion, on both our parts to be fair, as to how it was going to work, it had also been a few hours since the Taco.
Needn’t have worried, I can only describe the way they worked as antula, definition: Thinking and working in an ant like way. Huge BBQ’s were set up off the back of hefty pick up trucks and in no time they were serving up perfectly cooked ribs, steaks, chicken and corn. Vendors selling fresh and cooked produce lined both sides of the street, a rhythm of Jazz and Blues filled the air, street performers freaked out young children, and this was a Farmers Market !
If a similar event was to happen here in the UK it definitely couldn’t be on a weekly basis. It would take a week for the council to close down the street putting all health and safety procedures back into place. Fences around offending trees etc, disagreements over who was going to patrol the road closure that week. Dave’s Cat is at the vet and Alan said weeks before that he wanted to watch that special episode of “ I hate where I live, find me somewhere else”, and the parking ! There would definitely be parking rage.
When sober us British are really good at stopping just short of having too much fun, we need a good crank up to silliness that can take a couple of hours.
These guys were wasting no time at all, the fun was had the food was served and a little guy in brown baggy pants offered me strawberries and we danced around some fresh dairy produce.
A really tall guy in a top hat took our attention and we followed him into a dimly lit bar, strangely losing him in the crowd. They were selling Newcastle Brown Ale of all things, would never dream of drinking it in the UK but we weren’t in the UK so of course I had to have one.
The rest of the night we spent listening to a solo artist on his guitar, kind of Kid Rocky with a bluesy twist.
Floundering, floundering, panicking, our days were running out. Have I mentioned that I loved California more than I anticipated? It’s rugged coastline hadn’t been in my mind’s eye or the friendly laid back approach to life. We hadn’t seen half of it so I’m aware that the larger towns and cities may be something else entirely.
It was around the end of October and houses, stores, bars and small businesses were showing fascinating displays of what I can only describe as scarecrows but in every shape and form, some represented a kind of Halloween theme whilst others seem to be based around the harvest. We visited Cambria a nearby town, where an abundance of very creative designs had each stopped us in our tracks.
We had the pleasure of meeting Baxter a homeless guy and his celebrity 28 pound cat Sunshine. Baxter had lived on the streets for quite some time and had become acquainted with Sunshine on Venice Beach in LA. He was feral but Baxter remained persistent with his care and a bond development from an understanding of each other’s needs, a bond developed through trust.
Baxter was I’m guessing in his mid forties at that time, a friendly, interesting and well educated guy who told a good story packed with a wealth of information. Sunshine however is the one that draws in the crowds and is always available for a photo opportunity. Baxter explained how he fell in love with Cambria, yes the larger cities have more facilities to cater for the homeless but he feels at one where he is and maintains how people have been so kind towards him, there has never been a cross word and as he understands it there are no obvious bad feelings. He was happy with his lot.
The next day we packed our bags and travelled 170 miles North East to the Sequoia National Park, on the edge of which we ran into “Roadworks?”. I can remember it happening only once before on our trip, halfway up a mountain just outside Vegas. We were through it in no time. This occasion was different in that all we knew of the delay was a man in a hard hat with a stop sign. We were the front of the queue and waiting.
“He’s your side ask him what the hold up is” This was Ian
“No he’s not! You ask him he’s not smiling much”
It was far from clear what was going on, I wound down my window.
“Are there any bears in this forest?”
“Yeah plenty, black bears”
“Black bears wow”
“Yeah they’re not all black though some are blonde”
“Blonde black bears ?”
“Yeah and brown”
“Do you see many whilst you’re stood out here with your sign?”
“Yeah on a regular basis”
“And you’re OK with that?”
“Sure, share my lunch with ’em sometimes”
“Nice, so what’s the hold up?”
“We’ll have you through in no time”
“It’s not bears is it?”
“No it’s definitely not bears this time”
And at that he turned his little sign to go and waved us through.
The stark contrast between landscapes from a few days earlier was undeniably noticeable. The barren hard baked soil of the farmland just a few hundred miles south was a far cry from what we were experiencing here. We knew the shortage of water was widespread and over 62 million trees had perished, so it begged the question why the Sequoia trees, these Giants of nature didn’t seem to be suffering . They can reach heights of 300 feet, trunks spanning 30 feet, so what was happening? Sequoia National Park has 5 of the 10 largest specimens in the world.
At that point I had no idea and right now I’m re reading an article which explains how the bark of the Sequoia is soft and fibrous making it very resistant to fire, they also have the ability to withstand disease and drought, can live for a few thousand years and rarely die standing upright. Root rot apparently can deprive a tree of a solid anchor and fire can undermine its base but rarely will this kill the tree. It’s the persistent tug of gravity that will eventually pull an unbalanced tree to the floor.
The article is long and a difficult read at 1.30am, but in conclusion it was an insight into how little we still know about the world, we’re all still learning. Ambrose, a forest ecologist explains that Sequoias are some of the most spectacular organisms on the planet, they force you to think about life and our place in it.
On a lighter note, although it must have sent reverberations through neighbouring towns, in 1937 a giant Sequoia fell on its side over the road in the park, by 1938 a hole had been cut through the centre forming a tunnel which you are able to drive through to this day. I had read about this years before and was intrigued, it didn’t disappoint.
So not having had enough of the trees we headed 180 miles north to Yosemite, an hour in and we were in darkness on an empty road.
“Shall we pull over and stop somewhere for the night” I asked
“Yeah, hope we can get food”
There was nowhere for miles and then a light, it could’ve been anything but experience was telling us that on a road like that it was most probably a motel, we weren’t wrong. It was basic, very basic. It was kind of clean but the selling point was the pizza place next door. On checking in however we were informed that it was now closed, and there was unfortunately nowhere else around for miles.
“Ian the light’s still on inside” and at that we made our way with sheepish confidence to the door, trying to ignore the guy heading towards us with a key and that obvious sorry but we’re closing look on his face.
“Soooorry we’re closing”
“Ah ok, do you have anything ready cooked that we can take back to our room, we’ve been travelling for miles”
“Oh you’re British, hi, I have a great aunt living in Bright-on, do you know Bright-on?”
“Yes we do, other side of the country to us though, great place”
“Oh have you been?”
“Well no” At which point I wondered which middle aged person residing in the UK for most of their life has never been to Brighton. In a matter of seconds I had questioned myself, been embarrassed, reminded myself it has a pebble beach and was over it. We were also over the threshold, the door was locked and we were on the inside. Now to get man to cook pizza, biggest pizza that we can also enjoy as a staple breakfast.
Ian was on it like the crazy charmer that he is. I held that pizza box tight, it wasn’t going to go anywhere, we entered our room for the night, Ian went to the loo and I collapsed onto the bed fully clothed clutching the box. I pushed my back against the wall to assume a more favourable seating position and the bed shot across the room on the vinyl floor and parked up on the opposite wall.
“ What happened, what did you do ? ” Ian had a worried look that turned into a grin evolving into a weird kind of manic laughter where he seemed to be struggling to breath.
“The bed has wheels! You don’t put bloody wheels on a bed unless you’re being sponsored!……. I quite like it over here”
We slept very still that night, ate cold pizza for breakfast and contemplated the implications of more trees.
“So about the trees”
“Yep I know what you’re thinking” and at that we headed back south, we had both separately concluded that this was the wrong time for more trees. We live in a forest, a beautiful forest, there’s time for trees and it wasn’t then, we will visit Yosemite another time. With just a few days to go we headed towards San Francisco and a place called Pacifica, a few miles north of Half Moon Bay.
Checking the map it was obligatory that we took the long route, it was the last leg of our journey so we took the road south 240 miles inland finally dropping back onto Highway 1, The Pacific Coast Highway, between Cayucos and Cambria. The plan was to drive back up the Coastal Road to Pacifica a further 200 miles …
Here’s part 10 – End of The Road and ‘The Big Finish’
And if you missed the beginning here’s Part 1, ‘California Dreaming’ :