Writer Robert Ince brought a life-long dream to fruition in a silver convertible across California â€“ twice - as recalled in these extracts from his road trip journals and photolog.
’m covertly eyeing a group of spirited twenty-somethings animatedly huddled around a table in a coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard. They’re impossibly stylish, pulchritudinous and oozing from their being is that very American sense of self-belief that most British either lack or are reluctant to display for fear of reproach. With this lot, it’s more confidence than rodomontade. Their effusiveness is infectious, and highly entertaining while observed over the rim of my Americano. I didn’t notice the day light fade. It happened inconspicuously, leaving a swathe of meat pink sky over the Hollywood Hills. There’s a buzz in town, for Oscar preparations are taking place behind the metal railings on the sidewalk. I write to stay awake; jet-lag slowly picking at me and my eyelids
becoming heavier. Soon I’ll sleep but first perhaps I’ll take a drive up to Laurel and Tobago Canyon in my silver Pontiac. I’ll cruise the anfractuous roads of the elite neighbourhoods up there, and on Mulholland drive I’ll step out to absorb the calm dusky night of Suburban Hollywood contrasted with the frenetic sounds and lights of Los Angeles spread out in the valley below. Freed from the systematic tedium of work for five weeks, I’ve come to LA with no real purpose or plan other to see where I end up. In my mind I’ll drive east across states and desert, taking in the Grand Canyon enroute. I’ll arrive in solitude there, like an early pioneer, and see the greatest natural wonder of all; two billion years of the earths history, seen through its red layered rock, remnants of oceans, swamps and giant desert dunes. It will be awe inspiring and liberating.
I’m floating in a hot spa outdoors on a hill-side in San Luis Obispro, 192 miles north of Los Angeles. Night fell hours ago and now the lights from Highway 101 in the valley below are ablaze. The magenta and amaranth pink pool lights illuminates the ash which is falling from the sky due to the nearby raging forest fires. It’s a magical scene.
The iconography of America’s West had always been a seductive proposition. As a child, I eschewed the past-time of pinning posters of anodyne singers on my wall, opting instead for masterly portraits of American landscapes; epic vistas of verdant prairies, lightning storms over bleak highways and arid deserts with straight endless roads like black masking tape disappearing into stormy horizons. Such photographs were enticing by their promise of freedom; of expanse, mystery and beauty. For a young sequestered teen growing up in the suburban north west, they awoke something far greater than that of the forced smile of some vapid pop star. Through my teens I hungrily devoured a diet of books which mythologised the great American road trip by the likes of Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson. I’d watch films like Duel, Feris Bueller’s Day Off and Thelma and Louise. For me, the American road came to life through those photographs on my wall, those movies and that evocative prose by the aforementioned writers. While friends see the road as monotonous and functional, a path in which to travel from one place to another, to me it has been appealing by its offer of possibility; the unexpected and the ever changing. The ultimate rites of passage; allegorical and spiritual.
A quarter of the way into the Californian road trip I’ve pulled into the The Madonna Inn for the night. Located on the Central Coast, it’s reputation precedes it, and for good reason. Established by Alex Madonna in 1958, this old world inn is a wonderfully eccentric fantasy palace (once described as the hotel equivalent of Barbie and Fred Flintstone’s love child) and a legendary local landmark. Every room inside is individually themed; garishly bold, kitsch, loud. Flamboyant is an understatement. They have names like Daisy Mae, Jungle Rock, Hearts and Flowers. I choose the Floral Fantasy for its evocation to childhood nights spent at my late grandmothers. In LA I’d stayed at The Standard Hotel, on Sunset Strip; a white sixties modernist building and the epitome of insouciant LA cool. Perfect for a few nights to introduce you to this most famous of towns. A large waterless fish-tank housing a bikini-clad woman nonchalantly reading a book sits behind the reception desk overseeing the swish interior of the lobby. Yes, welcome to Hollywood.
You’ll know the Beverly Wilshire hotel from the film Pretty Woman. Standing regally at the end of Rodeo Drive, and home for A-list glitterati in bygone decades; Warren Beatty, Judy Garland and Jack Nicholson to name but a few. Rumour had it that wondering off the street and up to the roof top terrace pool and bar wouldn’t be a problem. And so the first day was spent on plumped up lemon sun-loungers where friendly wait staff buzzed around eager to provide complimentary strawberry lemonades and frozen grapes; a great jet-lag comforter.
he search for a motel marked the first night in Santa Barbara; a town resplendent with the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture giving rise to the thought one is in an affluent Spanish resort; all boutique shops, galleries and pricey restaurants. Like Sitges, but with more obesity. Perched on the stretch of coast often referred to as the American Riviera it’s easy to see why it became the winter destination for the titans of post Civil War America. The Santa Ynez mountains rise dramatically behind the city marking a famously scenic backdrop to the town. After a hearty lunch at Brophy Bros fish restaurant on the harbour, the
road awaited and we headed north to Solvang, founded in 1911, and offering a taste of Denmark thanks to the Danes who settled there having escaped the harsh winters back home. The town is noted for its traditional Danish style; all mini windmills, quaint little shop fronts and even a replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen. I discovered from an elderly gent in a local bakery that Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast is closed due to the forest fires. The highlight of the road trip was doomed. Could this be the end of the dream before I’d even begun?
Having left San Luis Obispo rejuvenated, if not a little startled by the Madonna Inn, the next stop was Hearst Castle near San Simeon, the palatial estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst high up on a hill overlooking the Pacific and now a state historical monument and national landmark. Formally named “La Cuesta Encantada”, the Enchanted Hill, or informally “the ranch”, it covers 90,000 square feet and was designed by architect Julia Morgan as a pastiche of the historic architectural styles Hearst admired in his travels around Europe as a youngster. Like a more flamboyant Rupert Murdoch in his day, Hearst was also the alleged inspiration behind classic movie Citizen Kane.
We did make Big Sur eventually, albeit after an inland detour through Salinas County and onto Carmel from where we ended up taking Highway 1 South as far as it would allow. Minimal development and mostly state parkland or national forest has ensured that this part of America remains one of the most beautiful and dramatic stretches of ocean coastline in the world. The Big Sur is specifically the Santa Lucia Mountain range and notable for its redwood forests, parks, hiking trails and desolate beaches. Point Sur lighthouse, built in 1889 and perched atop an impressive 361 ft high monolith in the ocean, assured me we’d arrived at the climax of our trip. And it was beautiful.
We pressed on going South travelling along thin straight roads, white knuckle blind corners, sweeping curves and cascading bends. And onwards across Bixby Creek Arch Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the world, past the Big Sur shops where we stopped and happened upon a local woman, a rancher who drove in a beat up pick-up truck with her dog, and bemoaned the terrible events of the last week, berating the local affluent denizens of the area for not doing enough given the state of emergency.
For a moment I thought I caught a glimpse of a California condor reaching lofty heights before disappearing into ocean mist but I think it was a trick of the light. The end of the dream was a road sign truncating our grand plans, like an ominous figure tempting us ever so slightly further to see what’s around that next corner beyond yet spitefully denying with three short words: road ahead closed.
Yosemite marked the end of the trip and the penultimate chapter of a long held dream. 150 miles east of San Francisco, the park itself covers an area of 761,266 acres (1,189 square miles) reaching across the West of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Designated a world heritage site in 1984 and recognised for its spectacular granite cliffs,
waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves and biological diversity, most tourists focus on the valley. Many opt for hiking trails, but we hired a raft and spent an afternoon floating languorously down the Merced River which runs through the valley, stopping along the way for swimming and sunbathing, the latter on a sandy beach near Sentinel Bridge with its terrific view of Half Dome. Before leaving the valley I took a walk up to the rocks at Bridalveil Fall, which flows from a U-shaped hanging valley that was created by a tributary glacier. The Ahwahneechee tribe believed that the waterfall was home to an evil spirit, Pohono, which guarded the entry to the Valley and that those leaving must not look directly into waterfall lest they be cursed. They also believe inhaling the mist of the waterfall would improve ones chances of marriage. I inhaled like there’s no tomorrow. So here’s hoping.
h, and I did make it to the Grand Canyon in the end. We travelled there from Vegas. Vegas is perhaps best enjoyed from up high, if only to avoid pavement trolls flicking cards promoting bikini babes at you. 1,149 feet high is a good enough escape, at Stratosphere, the tallest observation tower in the US with not only breathtaking 360 degrees of Vegas, but decorated with a hair raising roller coaster ride on the top (I declined). For the more refined, The Mix atop THEhotel at Mandalay Bay is a rare find and ideal for evening cocktails. 64 stories high, this restaurant and lounge is the brainchild of Alain Ducasse and the neighbouring glitzy bar and outdoor patio with outstanding views of the strip and beyond is a must-see for any visitor. Gone are the halcyon days of first class Vegas night-life entertainment. The Rat Pack, Elvis and the like have long since made way for chart-dodging has-beens (Matt Goss), tribute acts and marquee style cabaret. Since Bette Midler had ended her run, and Cher was yet to begin her umpteenth farewell tour, we saved our money.
Vegas is the kind of place where one must subsume their idea of what civilisation really is. The place is the king of illusions, in a fake reality where artifice is paramount. Suffice to say, one quickly tires of it. Hence, 3 days is enough. And here must live the most illiterate of America because to find a newspaper or magazine was akin to finding Bin Laden among the slot machines. The town’s disdain for the printed word resulted in a laborious trek to the Barnes and Noble store on the edge of town near the airport. Hasn’t anyone spotted the gap in the market?
As for the Canyon, there’s a sort of incredulity that arises when one is confronted with a wonder of the world. More so when it’s not within the frame of reference one ordinarily associates it with ie. Red rock and blue sky. On this occasion, snow, and lots of it! Metallic clouds dumped the white stuff on us until we felt we were on a foggy Yorkshire Moor. And coming after a 5 hour drive, it seemed terribly spiteful of the cosmos.
Eventually though the cloud lifted and parted to reveal an unbelievable awesome sight which will be ingrained on my mind forever.
People take to the road for numerous reasons; to escape, discover, to find the truth, or just to find themselves. Whether that particular road is travelled in hopeful anticipation or melancholy, ambivalence or joy, many have taken the trip before us and many will do so long after we’re gone. We collect our memories along the way, and they’ll occasionally flash before us as we journey to the end of our very own road. A travel writer once summed it up as thus: “The road is both a fact and an allegory of liberation, and you feel both as you move over it.” As I travelled that journey, I felt it. Those wall photographs become a reality. I stepped into those celluloid scenes, and felt the wind from thousands of years of history. The dream was lived. Normal life back home beckoned. But I knew my own life was a little richer for the experience.