Excuse Me Sir, Are We in Tornado Country?
A 6,000-Km road trip through the Western United States
Many people said we couldn’t do it: this road trip through seven states in my red two-door Chevrolet Sprint.
“What if your car breaks down?” they asked.
What if it doesn’t? I thought to myself.
To drive down the west coast of the United States, all you need is a working car, 10 days, US$500 and a lot of ambition.
With those tools, two friends and I left Vancouver, British Columbia last May, bound for the rolling surf of California – and whatever else came along the way.
Our first major leg of the journey was through Washington and Oregon.
One of the highlighted stops includes Astoria, Oregon, where everyone’s favourite ’80s movie, The Goonies, was filmed. Astoria is on the very tip of the state, below the Columbia River.
The state of Oregon is a diamond in the rough of America. Oregon’s scenic highway Interstate-101 winds along its endless stretch of sandy shores. The coastline is dotted with picturesque surf havens, tucked in and around gaping rock cliffs and guarded by the crashing Pacific Ocean.
Hotels range in price, but you can find one as low as US$39 on a weeknight. There are also many campsites, some with permanent tents called Yurts, which cost around US$25 per night.
We spent our first night in Lincoln City, Oregon. Population: 7,437. Bars: 2 – Maxwell’s, a rumoured “meat market,” and, The Pines, an eclectic karaoke bar where local regulars go to sing off-key, drink very light beer and dance uninhibited.
As twenty-somethings, we were a disappointed to see that we were the youngest at The Pines by at least 10 years, but our disappointment quickly turned into amusement at the boisterous characters there that night.
The town also boasts excellent surfing and marine wildlife. I went out the next morning, and although I didn’t catch any waves due to being caught in a washing-machine of break water, I did get to share my water time with a curious seal pup who was watching me with his doe eyes, head cocked to one side.
It was a 14-hour journey from Lincoln City to San Francisco, California – though beautiful, 101 adds many hours to your drive. Case and point: if you’re in a hurry, take the faster I-5.
Still, there was no better feeling than seeing the symbolic Golden Gate Bridge illuminated in the night. Though delirious, we were relieved we had finally reached the city where Rice-a-ronni reigns supreme.
A tip: don’t show up in a foreign city at 2 a.m. without pre-booked accommodation or a city map.
Exhausted, we drove around the city aimlessly looking for a hotel that suited our budget, dodging late-night buses and one-way streets. We finally found The Dakota Hotel, above our $20-per-person budget, but with a vintage elevator and within walking distance of Union Square, the city’s central hub.
If there’s one thing to avoid in home of Alcatraz, it’s driving. Not only are the hills massive, but the roads are a patchwork of mismatched pavement, manholes and decades-old trolley tracks: San Francisco – 1, Car – 0.
But, San Francisco, with its sky-high hills and trolley tracks, is a teeming with culture and life. A sprawling Chinatown district and the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf are just two examples that the seaside city is as entertaining as it is picturesque.
As we sat on the jetty, battling the hungry seagulls while eating fresh crab with our bare hands, a group of tourists wearing neon yellow traffic vests sped by on their Segway tour.
One question came to mind: If my car can’t make it up the city’s impossible hills, how do those puny scooters do it?
The next day, we left the towering hills of San Francisco, and headed south to Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
One thing to remember about the road signs in the US, is that they don’t offer much warning. One could be informed of a freeway exit a ¼-mile in advance – just enough time to bravely cross four lanes of traffic and swerve.
“Santa Barbara, Next 9 Exits” literally means you have to count exits because there will be no further signage.
When we finally did find the town of Santa Barbara, we were delighted to see the classic row-on-row palm trees of California. The town is reminiscent of a classier Gastown, with brick streets and quaint shops, but is extremely expensive.
Our cheapest find was a glorified hostel with shared bathrooms for US$69 per night.
Passing through Santa Barbara, our next stop was Venice Beach, where body builder, actor, and now governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, found fame, fortune and Marie Shriver.
The Governator, as they affectionately call him, lifted weights by the water on what they call “Muscle Beach”, which is just a dumbbell’s throw from the basketball court, on which Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes shot hoops in the 1992 movie White Men Can’t Jump.
Venice Beach, located beside Santa Monica, is sprinkled with boutiques and vintage stores and decorated with graffiti walls. The town boasts a colourful mix of wealthy tourists, drifters, muscle heads and Hispanic immigrants.
We spent our night in the beach town eating at the classy restaurant-karaoke bar, Schatzi on Main – we thought we deserved a break after eating pickles, cheese, bread and crackers for almost one week.
The next day we hit the road in search of Sin City.
Driving through the Mojave Desert without air conditioning is about as ambitious as trying to play golf with a club held together by duct tape.
With names like Devil’s Playground and Death Valley, it’s no wonder we passed many an abandoned auto carcass, parked dejectedly at the side of the road. While SUVs sped passed our little Sprint in their air-conditioned luxury, we turned to our $5 Styrofoam cooler for ice-cold pickles and water.
Be prepared to take bathroom breaks in the open desert, amid the scorpion holes and sparse bushes – for some reason, there are uncomfortably few rest stops on the way.
We pulled into Las Vegas blasting our theme song, Viva Las Vegas, from the Ipod we had plugged into the car stereo. The massive hotels loomed over our dusty little ant car with a surfboard strapped to her roof – her passengers covered in dirt and sweating from the 40 degree Celsius (104F) heat.
Naturally, in Vegas, hotels drop their rates during weeknights and raise them Friday through Sunday. The old Las Vegas strip on Fremont Street is always more reasonable, and one can stay in a five-star hotel for as low as US$59 per night during the week. As we had arrived on a Thursday, we decided to stay at The Golden Nugget, home of the World Poker Tour.
Pulling into the front entrance, bellboys and valets rushed to grab our luggage and park the car.
“Would you like me to take these up to your room?” asked the bellboy, eagerly pointing to the two four-litre jugs I’d packed in case the car overheated.
Such luxury after our harrowing drive.
It’s no wonder Las Vegas is considered one of the top manmade wonders of the world.
By day, Vegas is a grey concrete mirage in the middle of the desert – by night, it is a neon blast of colour and life. The ring of Wheel of Fortune slot machine echoes in the streets, and every casino sign beckons with promises of “highest odds in Vegas” and “$1 beer.”
If you remember anything about going to Vegas, it’s that comfortable walking shoes are crucial. We spent 12 – yes 12 – hours walking the massive Las Vegas Boulevard, or the “New Strip,” which boasts the grandest hotels and shopping in the city.
The architecture alone is awe-inspiring. There are intricate replicas of just about everything, including the Eiffel Tower, New York City, Caesar’s Palace and even Venice, Italy.
Between elaborate pirate shows at Treasure Island, the timed musical fountains of the Bellagio and yard-glass margaritas at Harrah’s, one could easily lose track of time.
After 48 hours of gambling, drinking and walking, our time in the neon city had come to an end.
The fastest way to drive back to B.C. from Nevada is through the states of Utah and Idaho because of the flat countryside.
At one point, as the clouds blackened and rain began to fall, we questioned whether we were actually in tornado country. But, a cowboy named Levi at a local gas station set us straight.
By Oregon, and on kilometre No. 5,000, my poor Sprint began to rattle and lose power fast, but we still managed to get home, even if it did take us two 16-hour days of driving.
As we crossed the border onto familiar soil, the street signs became a little clearer.
Seeing the North Shore Mountains standing proudly in the soft spring night really put into perspective what we had accomplished. We had just driven over 6,000 km past beaches, through cities, down valleys, up mountains, and through deserts in a tiny 14-year-old car.
The lesson we learned: Always dare to dream – despite the critics. You just never know when you can make your dream a reality.