As I mentioned recently, I've been reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road and it's been bringing back some great memories of my own trip to America. Thought it might be quite fun to try to put them into writing (ok, and pictures too). So, here we go.
I visited the USA for the first and so far only time in the summer of 2012. It was the gap between the completion of the Legal Practice Course and the start of my training contract in September, and so potentially the last chance for a six week holiday for quite some time. I got together with Rob (an old friend from primary school) and Strev (Rob's friend from university and subsequently a good friend of my own) and we booked flights, a hotel for the first few nights and a hire car for the duration.
We flew out to Las Vegas on the 4th July, as it happens. It was the first time I'd been on a plane for more than a couple of hours, so the strange neither-day-nor-night of a transatlantic flight was a new experience in itself. We eventually landed in Vegas itself in the early evening and checked into our hotel near the South end of the Strip, and then set out to explore.
Vegas is, at least in my limited experience, a unique and incredible place. It's quite exhausting, actually: both from the deep dry heat that drives you quickly from one air-conditioned relief to another, but also from the sheer quantity of things going on to grab your attention. The city seems to be set up to cater purely for visitors looking for a good time, and it fulfills that purpose admirably. Everywhere you look there's something different. The casinos, of course, are a big part of everything, but you don't even really need to gamble if you don't want to: each casino is also a showhall, shopping centre, hotel, leisure park and architectural curiosity in itself. Each has its own theme, and they offer all kinds of free entertainment to get people in the doors, so it's well worth seeing as many as you can. As it happened I didn't really have the money to really gamble it away, but I did put $10 on red at the roulette table and doubled my money, so I like to think I came away having beaten the house.
On the second day we collected our car from the airport, a Mazda Versa. Having never driven an automatic before, or driven abroad at all, this took some getting used to. Somehow on the way back to the hotel I managed to end up on a huge Interstate road and the Strip itself, but once the initial terror was past driving became rather fun. One thing you can say about America is that it's big, and so once you get out of the cities it's like you've got the roads to yourself.
After a few days in Vegas we set off into the desert. Our first day's destination was Kingman, a small town in Arizona on Route 66 where we visited the town museum and the extremely friendly man there told us all about the presidents in his gallery and showed us his snakeskin. Then we carried on along the 66 to Flagstaff, from where we had a day exploring the Grand Canyon. Without wanting to sound too obvious, it's pretty spectacular. I've seen no end of pictures of it, of course, but none have ever really captured the true scale of it. Took a bus ride along in one direction, and then drove out along the other. Really worth seeing if you ever get the chance.
From there, the next destination was Los Angeles. We didn't really have any kind of plan, but generally navigated based on how far we thought we could drive and where we could find a cheap motel. This took us one night to Prescott and the next to Parker, then Twenty Nine Palms before reaching Lancaster just north of LA.
The food, throughout the holiday, was great, although not by any standards healthy. It turned out to be surprisingly hard to find fresh food, but all too cheap and convenient to sample the many chains of fast food far nicer than the ones that have made it over to the UK. One place I really wish we could import is Denny's, a twenty four hour diner where you can stroll in at 1am and order a massive plate of pancakes (as we did on one occasion). One warning though: the brightly-coloured non-alcoholic cocktails they serve (with free refills, just like everywhere else!) have a very odd effect on your digestion. You've really got to see it for yourself to believe it.
In Lancaster we went along to the local minor league baseball game. I'd seen a couple of games on the TV and Rob and Strev had managed to explain the rules, which are essentially pretty simple. It was a very fun evening; it seemed quite a large proportion of the town had turned out to the game, but no-one seemed to take it too seriously. It was more a chance to hang out with friends, drink beer, eat hot dogs, chant songs and cheer a lot. Would be nice to have something like that over here.
From Lancaster we drove through the hills down into LA itself. It's a strange city full of strange people. We were staying at a Motel 6 in Arcadia, a place in the north of the city which allowed us to avoid driving through too much of the city. Also, the options for cheap motels were either there or Compton.
There's a lot to LA (unsurprisingly), but it's generally pretty spread out. There's the downtown area. and then there's Hollywood, and there's the various beaches, but you definitely need to take the bus to get between them, and there was nowhere that really felt unmistakeably LA - you could have been in a city anywhere, which is certainly not something you could say about Vegas or (as we would later find) San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, I still like LA, but I don't think it's a place you can really get to know in a few days.
We went to Downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, as well as a baseball game at the Dodgers' stadium. On Santa Monica pier we watched a band playing a few songs as a soundcheck before their gig that evening. They were very good, and it turned out Rob and Strev had given them their first UK airplay on their university radio station. The band's name: Haim. Bear in mind this was July 2012, six months before they were chosen as the BBC Sound of 2013 and a year before they played Glastonbury. Anyway, that's enough hipsterism for now.
I said people in LA were strange. Probably the best example of this was encountered one night when we made the mistake of trying to walk back to the motel after catching a late bus back from Redondo beach. Here's a tip: any distance that is visible on any map in the USA, no matter how small it looks, will turn out to be massive. On the way we met a chubby man in a bright pink shellsuit, who was being pursued by a small dachshund trailing its lead behind it. He asked us what city this was; we told him LA. He continued. A little while later we passed a burger restaurant surrounded by the police. No matter how many times I've considered this story, I've yet to come up with a plausible interpretation.
After LA we headed north, to the coast and up towards San Francisco. Victorville, Bakersfield and then Pismo Beach. Nice place. Had a bread bowl full of clam chowder, which was delicious. Really wish I could find some in England. Standing by the pier that evening I somehow got talking to a young lady who it seemed had spent the last few days in Pismo dropping acid and antagonising the police. She told me she had declared herself to be a sovereign state, and that the last time she had gone in the sea she had washed up three miles along the coast, and so she was here tonight to make peace with it. I hope she was alright.
We eventually reached San Francisco. I'd say out of all the places we visited it's (earthquakes aside) the one I'd most like to live in. For one thing it's got a much more reasonable climate that those places further south and away from the coast, which for someone who doesn't deal well with heat is quite a major advantage. It felt like it had far more character than LA, which is I think helped by the fact it's geographically pretty small: you can quite easily walk around San Francisco itself. It's very hilly, too, which means that most places have a pretty decent view out over the sea or the bay. Plus it has trams, which is always a bonus.
We stayed in a hostel near the centre, and shared a room with another Englishman. He was probably in his late thirties and was far more well-travelled than us; he seemed to have visited most parts of the world at some point or another. Unfortunately, he described almost everywhere he'd been as shit. The one exception was North Korea, where he had visited on a guided holiday from China after getting bored of Tibet. From the way he described it, North Korea was the only place that had impressed him. His opinion of San Francisco on his first day: "a load of crackheads". To be fair to him, we did see the most overt drugs deal ever going on just down the road, so maybe he had a bit of a point.
Did I mention trams? They're pretty cool. San Franciso has all sorts. There are the really old ones, technically cable cars, that are dragged along by moving cable - you can visit the winding station that powers them - as well as the more modern electric ones. One night we were riding one of the old sort home when it got stuck going up a hill around a corner. We jumped off and gave it a push to get going again. Now, that's an experience you're never likely to get on the Tube.
There's obviously far too much to do in San Franciso in the few days we were there, but I think we made the most of our time. One day we walked out across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a stunning view.
We left San Francisco and carried on a bit further north before cutting inland, eventually reaching Sacramento. I must admit it's not a city I'd heard of before visiting, but it's actually the state capital of California. Pretty cool place, too. You can visit the Capital building, which looks a lot like its counterpart in DC, and see the legislature chambers and the governor's office, previously home to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
From Sacramento we drove next to Modesto, where we caught another game of minor league baseball. It was a good game, but all the better for the presence of the slightly-mad but brilliant local cheerleader Mike on the Mic. We drove around the town for a bit beforehand looking for anything else to do, but weren't able to find anything. One thing we realised on this trip is that a lot of US towns, at least on the west coast, don't generally have what we'd think of in Europe as a town centre. There's the main street, stretching for miles and interspersed with commercial and residential buildings, but nowhere that you could point to as a focal point of the town. Particularly in this heat, you'd probably want to drive between shops rather than walking. Perhaps that explains why in Hollywood films at least everyone always goes to meet at the Mall.
The next stop was Merced, from where we were able to take the bus into the Yosemite national park and walk out from the centre. I loved Yosemite; it felt just like how you would imagine the untamed forests of America, even though we were largely keeping to the trails. Was kind of disappointed not to see a bear, especially given the number of signs warning you not to take your eyes off your lunch.
After a day in Mariposa (where we learned all about John Fremont, whose name was on street signs everywhere we went - check him out, it's a hell of a story) we drove across Yosemite to Bishop. This was probably an even better way of seeing it, since we could cover a wider area and stop off wherever seemed interesting. Had several stops and a couple of treks for some spectacular views. It was a long day, and by the time we reached the other side of the park it was dusk. As the sun was setting we stopped at a carpark overlooking the massive Mono Lake. At first it looked like clouds on the horizon, but then we saw an awful lot of lightning strikes and realised we were looking out at the smoke of a massive wildfire. Quite a sight.
We saw a bit of US television in the motels over the holiday. There were different comedies, of varying qualities, and we became connoisseurs of the various late shows. We caught some of the London Olympics, although from the NBC coverage you could be forgiven for thinking the only events were beach volleyball and Michael Phelps. By the way, Fox is just as awful as you may have heard. We saw Bill O'Reilley state that England had legalised drugs and that Boris Johnson was a liberal. It's sometimes comforting to think that, however terrible our own national politics are (which is pretty terrible at the moment, you have to admit), the USA's got it a bit worse.
The next stop was at a little town called Beatty on the edge of Death Valley. After checking in to the motel we drove out to a place called Rhyolite Ghost Town, which we had seen marked on our map and couldn't resist visiting. Turns out to be just what it says on the tin: a ghost town which sprung up in the gold rush but died once the gold ran out. Now the buildings stand empty, in various states of disrepair, and the only other occupant was the man who ran the museum and its collection of art, including a ghostly sculptural recreation of the Last Supper. He was extremely welcoming, but I'd be lying if I said we weren't a little bit scared when he appeared behind us playing a tin whistle.
The next day we ventured into Death Valley itself. The first thing you need to know about Death Valley is that it is hot. Really hot. Like, 114 degrees Fahrenheit/45 degrees Celsius hot. It made Vegas feel quite pleasant by comparison.
Fortunately the dramatic scenery makes up for the heat.
We drove around the Valley, sometimes venturing out of our air conditioned Mazda to explore. We had been climbing up through a canyon when we began to notice the a lot of grey clouds in the sky. Made it back to the car and drove down a steep gravel road just before the heavens opened. Bear in mind that Death Valley gets an average of 60mm of rain per year - we must have got a good proportion of that.
The rain was intense but brief, and it didn't do much about the heat. There were a couple more hairy moments, such as when the air conditioning stopped working and we worried the engine was overheating, or when the only petrol station was closed and the pump didn't look like it was going to accept our cards. Still, we made it out unharmed, and glad to have seen it.
Having come full circle, we were now returning to Las Vegas, from which we would be flying in a few days time. We were going to return to our first hotel, which with its free breakfast at the on-site Denny's would take some beating, but found a cheap last minute deal on a room for the night in the Luxor casino. You really don't pass up the opportunity to spend the night in a massive black pyramid topped with what Wikipedia assures me is the strongest beam of light in the world.
We had another day in Vegas, and then that evening got caught in another almighty rainstorm. Six weeks, and the only rain we get is in Death Valley and Vegas? It seems the Vegas sewers hadn't been designed for such precipitation as the Strip was rapidly turned into a river.
The next day we took a drive out to the Hoover Dam. It's one of the most impressive works of engineering I've ever seen.
It was then our last full day in America. Managed to fit a lot into it, including visiting the famous 'Welcome' sign, a chocolate factory and an aquarium. Saw a circus display, rode on the monorail and saw the melancholy sight of the Sahara, a dead casino standing abandoned.
The next day we caught a plane across the country to Philadelphia, where we had a few hours stopover and so took the opportunity to make a brief trip into the city. It feels a lot more European that the west coast, which I suppose makes sense. For one thing it's got a lot of history to it: we were able to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drawn up. We saw the Liberty Bell, and of course had a Philly Cheesesteak for lunch.
We couldn't stay for too long, unfortunately, since we had a transatlantic flight to catch. I'd like to see some more of the east coast; definitely want to visit New York and Washington DC sometime. In fact there's so much of America that I'd like to see. Despite all the miles we covered and the variety of places we saw, I'm aware that's barely scratched the surface of what the continent contains. It was definitely a good way to spend six weeks.
So that's my experience of America. I'm sure I'll be back some day. If you've got any recommendations, or any stories of your own to share, please do let me know!