The Grand Tour Ten Years On—California Roaming

From London onwards, my travels across the world had been relentlessly solo. Even when I was hanging out with others, such encounters had been either brief or negotiated across the barrier of a language gap. It had been a liberating but alienating way to travel, and it came to a crashing halt when I landed on the West Coast of North America.

The author of this change was Colleen, a friend of a friend who I knew from Dublin and who insisted on hosting me for the handful of days that I’d be spending in Los Angeles. She did more than that too, introducing me to her family and friends before I’d been there an hour or two, and loaning me her car (the only sensible way to get around the city). In other words, she couldn’t have been more hospitable to a bewildered Irish traveller still getting his head around the 24 hours he’d regained, Phileas Fogg-like, by crossing the International Date Line.

Apparently I was singing. I’m not sure this was a good way to repay her hospitality.

It was as fulsome a welcome as I could have hoped for and way more than I had expected. Truth be told, I’d been a little wary of landing in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously unfriendly city for the non-car-equipped traveller. As it was, I wouldn’t pick up my hire car until I was ready to leave, and prior to that I would have one day of car-equipped journeying around the city and plenty of chauffeured experiences to bars, Mexican restaurants, and people’s homes.

Though where do you drive as a first time visitor to a city like this, so sprawling and so famous? There’s the beach at Santa Monica, of course, famous from Baywatch, and the Hollywood Hills to the north. I didn’t find driving in or through the city too tricky, and a scribbled pencil map from Colleen was enough to take me north to the Getty Centre, with its collection of spectacular art tucked away in the hills, and then to Griffith Observatory, long before La-La-Land and its dancing stars.

On this particular day, I was in the Getty, then I was looking at the stars.

Synchronicity worked in my favour as it had tended to since the trip had started. I joined a queue without knowing what it led to and got to look through the Griffith’s massive telescope at the craters and mountains of a dazzling moon, then enjoyed the sight of a nuclear orange sunset over the City of Angels. And despite the unfamiliarity of it all, I made it back across the city as my phone was dying and delivered Colleen’s perhaps carelessly loaned car back to her.

Company and care made Los Angeles a friendly city, and it even found me a bar in which I got to watch my first match from the Rugby World Cup. (I’d searched in vain for a viewing point in Tokyo, only to stumble across one as I was heading to airport.) But I could only dwell on others’ hospitality for so long, and despite an offer of backstage tickets to a Sting concert, I had to say my farewells and take to the road again.

Somewhat more stuck in one place than I was at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Still I lingered though. Once I’d grabbed my hire car, I paid a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits and the next-door grounds of LACMA with its warehouse-like store of modern art. Never having been much of a fan of modern art before, I have to admit that LACMA part-converted me. Perhaps there was something about Los Angeles, that city of artistry, commerce, and eternal newness, that particularly suited it.

In any case, I was overdue for departure, and after a final visit to the beaches of Santa Monica I headed out. Only to realise that I’d left things so late that I didn’t really have accommodation sorted. Cue some covert Wi-Fi hogging from a car park and the aid of Booking.com and I was finally sorted, but it was a weirdly disjointed start to the first part of my voyage to be navigated by car.

The Lord is less forthcoming on the topic of WiFi piggybacking.

The goal for the next few days was to follow Highway 1 north along California’s coast, and that’s more or less what I did. The first day was a bit of a washout, with some backtracking in torrential rain to explore Topanga Canyon near LA, then onwards through the rain to Santa Barbara with its moneyed mansions. I kept having to stop to take photos along the way, and the rainbows that cropped up between the intermittent rain showers added to the scene.

Grover Beach was the next stopping point, just down the road from the more famous Pismo Beach but close enough to make a visit for some fish tacos not just optional but mandatory. After more than a month of travelling by sea and rail, I’d hit a stretch of the trip where I was making the schedule as I went along. I liked it, and I had a chunk of coastal America to experiment with.

The wreckage of industry along the coastal way.

Highway 1 is an experience I’d recommend to anyone with the chance to try it. There are beaches aplenty if you like that kind of thing, but some of them are occupied by elephant seals and others have weird industrial relics clinging to them and oil rigs visible off shore. Further inland are relics of a different type: William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon is the gilded age in stone and memory, with art and architecture of the very best, much of it retrieved from post-war Europe, and haunted by the glitterati of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The stretch of coast between San Simeon and Big Sur is perhaps the highlight of Highway 1, running as it does along crumbling cliffs, between sheltered coves and tree-covered hills. I had a restaurant recommendation for Los Angeles, and I enjoyed an overpriced meal in Big Sur, followed shortly by a double rainbow sighting across the forests nearby. Everything thereafter felt like I was travelling downhill, it was such a natural high point.

In San Simeon did Randolph Hearst, a stately pleasure dome decree…

Carmel and Monterey, just up the road, provided an opportunity for a dip in the Pacific Ocean as well as a sampling of some more industrial relics, in this case from the fisheries industry. But my goal lay on the north side of Monterey Bay, and I pulled into a motel in Santa Cruz late one evening for a two-day stay.

My goals for being there were three-fold. First, meet up with Kalin, a local friend who I’d met at a wedding in San Diego years before, and who’d visited Ireland only a few months earlier. Second, courtesy of her guidance, visit some of California’s redwood forests, which I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. And last, find a place to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter final between Ireland and Wales.

Your occasionally humble narrator, at home amid the redwoods.

All of this was accomplished with some pleasure, and I even got the chance to storytell some of my travel experiences and show off my collection of photos, which at this point numbered in the thousands. The redwoods were just as spectacular as hoped, and there was the bonus of exploring the Santa Cruz boardwalk in fine company. Sadly, the later quarter final (enjoyed in the company of a couple of professional caddies who had escaped from a tournament in nearby Pebble Beach) proved to be just the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Irish rugby team at that stage of World Cups.

San Francisco was only a short hop away, but there was a stop I wanted to make on the way. In Santa Cruz I’d logged on to discover the news about Steve Jobs’s death. I’d been a Mac user since the 1980s, so I’d experienced his wilderness years, triumphant return, and release of devices like the iPhone on which a good chunk of my photos were being taken. I’d planned to drop by Apple’s headquarters on Infinite Loop in Silicon Valley anyway and now it seemed even more appropriate.

The Steve Jobs memorial, just a day or two after his death.

Apple then wasn’t the world-straddling behemoth it’s since become, but it was on its way, and the old headquarters in Silicon Valley were a weird tie to the older company, the one Jobs had founded. I didn’t linger too long there, and not too long later I was driving along San Francisco’s narrow streets to drop off my rental car and head for the hostel I was staying in overnight.

I’d visited San Francisco a few years earlier, so my arrival felt like something of a homecoming. Synchronicity was definitely at work too, as I headed for the heights of the Coit Tower, only to find myself enjoying the sight of a aerobatic display from some navy flyers. After all the travelling, it was hard to avoid the feeling that all of this was meant for me in some way.

Reach for the skies, mister.

The rest of that day and the day after was spent in exploration. First the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, then Chinatown and Nob Hill, as well as further strolls all the way to Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Chinese Food, craft beers, and sea breezes. It was an exploration that mirrored the one I’d enjoyed San Francisco’s Pacific twin, Vladivostok, even if I wasn’t planning to stay as long this time.

For there was a train awaiting me. Across the bay in Emeryville, the California Zephyr met its terminus, and on its next departure I aimed to be on board. I’d bought myself an Amtrak ticket to cross the nation and the continent, and this time I’d be making plenty of stops along the day. California had been an experience that had refreshed my love for other people as much as my love for travelling, and now I got to take that refreshed soul across an entire nation.

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