Like any good start to a vacation overseas, my friend’s luggage was lost when he had to catch his connecting flight in France. We were told to come by the next day to pick it up. That was a bit unexpected and frustrating, because I lived 2 hours from the airport. But might as well get used to driving and sitting in the car. The first comment coming from my friend’s mouth was “what the f*ck, this is the Sunshine State and it’s raining horizontally, the airport is leakier than the one in the Philippines”. We took the coast back to my place in the night, he was coming down from his airplane trip and I was excited about the weeks to come. We smoked and sat in the car looking at the waves hitting the rocks at Point Magu with a dark sinister setting, a mixture of rain and overcast, but being that it’s California I knew this wont hold up long.
1. Venice Beach
As many know, Venice Beach is the central hub for the misfits and outcasts of Los Angeles, a mixture of hippy beach skaters and nifty salesmen trying to sell you the best HipHop Mix CD the world has ever heard. It was the second day when we picked up his lost backpack and I showed him around this beach area. When an enticing personality with Irish accent started talking to us interested in our crazy German gibberish, we got into talking and shared a smoke. His tale was that he just landed in LAX, lost all his documents, including passport and a portion of his cash, but that “life is fookin great innit, I’m in Venice, California, no need to worry ’bout sh*t mate”. We had a great conversation and offered some sympathy for his situation, which obviously he didn’t seem too worried about in the first place.
We continued on to Santa Monica Pier and around the general area. It was a very windy day so we grabbed something to eat and were on the way again.
Ventura was my hometown while living in the States from the age of 19-22, lets just say there isn’t a lot going on here. We ended up going to a “rave”, I thought I might as well show him the ridiculous nature of how electronic music is represented in California. There’s a lot of flashy people, a lot of “danceoffs”, a lot of gogo girls and odd individuals. Sadly, there were no desert gatherings or psytrance events going on, but knowing that my group of friends were going to be there, and wish us well on our travels, motivated me to drag us there. At least we’d say hi to everyone and have some bass from the speakers flowing through us. Needless to say we left early to get some rest for the undertaking the next day.
3. Santa Barbara
We made our way to the car rental – I wasn’t about to take this massive trip in my beat up car with the constant afterthought of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were informed that they didn’t have the car we reserved. After a lot of huff and fuss we were told I wasn’t allowed to drive, only my friend, because he rented it – although we were told that both of us could drive it when we made our reservation. A few minutes later, we somehow ended up with a nice Buick Lacrosse, and we both knew we were going to be taking turns driving. The car had maybe 2000 miles total on it, oh the poor thing! We started making our way to Santa Barbara with Buford our loyal steed, to grab some food on State Street and stroll down to the pier to once again get a sense of another beach town.
There is obviously a lot of money in Santa Barbara, and it’s obvious. There are a lot of celebrity homes and big shot money makers live in the Montecito hills. A couple of nice fish tacos at the harbor and we once again were on our way. We knew we were going to pitch our first camp somewhere along Highway 1.
4. Morro Bay
Not a lot to see here, only a huge massive rock sticking out of the ocean that looks very out of place in contrast with the rest of the flat land that surrounds it; a bit unusual to see such a landmark. The town itself seemingly didn’t have a lot to offer us from what we could tell, so we fueled up, got some supplies and headed farther north.
5. Big Sur / Highway 1
Easily my favorite part of the journey, simply because it also had a lot of personal significance for me because I knew my biological father traveled this route we took from Ventura to Big Sur on his bicycle. The road seemed endless, curving around big stretches of land that snaked around the ocean side. The views were breathtaking; it was a rugged coast, rocky, mountainous and wild, with a few establishments here and there offering lodging and food. It was such a beautiful contrast compared to what we were used to. To be honest, I preferred this over the typical California beaches that are more catered to sun bathing, volleyball, surfing and family crowds. This was wild, remote and jagged. We drove up a mountain road I remembered from a party. I was partly hoping there was one up there again, but at least I knew it offered a spectacular 360° view of the coast. It was along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road which makes a bend up to a bluff where one can camp. It was very windy and cold though, so it was a rough night but we didn’t care too much.
We saw and awoke to the most beautiful natural scenes one could imagine.
6. San Francisco
Our last stretch to the next big city, we of course stopped a couple of more times along the Highway 1, to take in the scenes unfolding before us. We were looking forward to booking into a hotel, to wash up and spend 3 days in San Francisco. We arrived in the evening and took the first room available, but only for 1 night because the area seemed not too exciting. When we awoke the next day we strolled around the Fisherman’s Wharf, took the cable car up in to the city and then walked around truly aimlessly, landing in Chinatown and other spots. I found the experience unique, the steep streets that led up and down gave off a funny feeling when strolling through the city. I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face while walking up and down streets, it felt like I was climbing and descending all the time just to get to the next corner.
We went to Height Ashbury being that we were such dirty hippies of the 20th century it seemed like a must see location. The same vibe still remains; I could only imagine how nice it must’ve been back then to be living in this area filled with people dropping out from the regular norms of society. I highly recommend reading Acid Dreams on this subject, a great book I flew through which offers a deeper look into how the movement started. It tells of the secrets behind the government, and how the CIA used LSD to drug their employees “for fun and testing purposes.” Its psychiatric uses show how it leaked and affected the counter-culture of the 60s with the belief that it could be used as an espionage weapon; a truth serum that would enable the government to interrogate prisoners of war.
There was so much to see and explore in this city alone, my only regret was not spending more time here, that’s why it remains still on my list of places to revisit. We took turns driving down the iconic Lombard Street, making an illegal left turn every time on Hyde Street. It was unusually amusing to roll slowly down that slopey hill, but eventually even that got boring.
The next day we probably had the best breakfast of our lifes and continued on to the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge where we planned on camping again after loading up on supplies. The views of the city were amazing and we spent a lot of time driving around aimlessly on the Marin side of the bridge. We didn’t find a suitable place to stay and night was fast approaching so we ended up at a campground that was apparently off limits to people without reservation but we didn’t have a choice. We had everything set up and were working on our bacon ritual when all of a sudden we heard voices and scuffling in the middle of the night in front of our fire. For whatever reason, we were paranoid and were shining our light at the giant herd of people stampeding towards us – it must’ve been at least 40 as it was well after midnight.
We didn’t know what to do and just sat there quietly thinking we had to deconstruct our camp now because it was reserved for this group, we were actually enjoying being the only ones there. We were reassured by an adult that there was no need to worry, they were just an evening hiking group of school kids, and they must have seen our fear. A kid shouted enthusiastically “mmmm hm is that some bacon you got cookin’?” We offered them some, but they declined and continued on with their hike along the ridges. An odd night, but we continued and eventually fell asleep.
The view of San Francisco from the Marin side was spectacular at sunrise and we once again continued on to our next destination.
7. Lake Tahoe
Lack of planning and intelligence led us to Lake Tahoe, which I didn’t know would be covered in a very thick layer of snow at the end of February. We contemplated staying for a while and possibly taking a snowmobile trip through the area, but lack of proper clothing and bad preparation made us decide to just check out the area a bit and to continue down the mountain again to warmer climate.
Hindsight is 20/20 I suppose, but we were in good spirit regardless.
8. Mono Lake
My next destination of photographic interest was Mono Lake; hidden behind the mountain range spanning through the middle of the state. I was always fascinated by pictures taken there and wanted to see it for myself. I had some technical difficulties though and couldn’t take any photos to my disappointment And there was no exciting lighting or weather either way to capture what I found inspiring from photos I’ve seen, so we decided to continue on to Yosemite. This would give me time to get my camera sorted out to experience the nature that location had to offer.
9. Yosemite National Park
Also a snow filled area, but not nearly as cold as Lake Tahoe and the routes to hike in the basin of the mountains were well kept and maintained so walking through the snow wasn’t an issue. I loved the rock formations, the waterfall, the views from higher up the roads and the nature surrounding the little town of Yosemite Village. As preparation, I recommend researching which roads are open to drive along the mountain range, because if you plan a route, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to cut through to where you want to go. It may end up being a long detour around, which will cost a lot of money and waste time. We got lucky for the most part and were undisturbed with where we wanted to go the majority of the time.
Ansel Adams, a famous photographer, was known for his stunning infrared and black and white images made in this area. The contrasts that nature offers here; the vertical cliffs and snow covered spots towering above a dense pine forest are truly spectacular, this should be a must see place for every nature lover in the world.
10. Sequoia National Park
Next destination on the list, I’ve been to Sequoia previously in the summertime, but was unaware that again this time of year there would be snow covering the location. It was a lot more difficult to maneuver anywhere, the routes around the main attractions like “General Sherman” and “The Senators” were almost impossible to hike through without snow shoes. We fought through it for a bit though, just to be around these gigantic trees that extend to the heavens. The trunks were enormous and the forest dense. I do recommend going, but in the summer months, where you can see a lot more and it’s green everywhere with sun rays shining through the trees and onto the forest floor.
We drove longer through the mountains to refuel and then made roadside bacon and food, cheering at cars driving by and enjoying a smoke before making a grueling long trip down to San Diego. On the way south, we stopped in Ventura to collect some energy.
11. Huntington Beach
A destination on our list, because my friend was a big fan of paintball and there was a big competition held at that beach very often. I clearly didn’t care or know anything about it or the sport, but hey it’s vacation time I don’t care where we go or what we spend our money on.
We both weren’t too excited by the typical California beach we were confronted with again, but we strolled up and down half-heartedly with boredom clearly in our eyes. I think we knew that all we really wanted was to be out in a remote place again with hardly anyone around. So that’s what we did when we headed towards Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We came down a big mountain and landed in some flat dry town in the middle of the night, and pitched the tent exhausted at some unkown campground. We have perfected our camp technique and had everything set up within minutes and were already cooking up some dinner. The night sky was stunning; almost zero light pollution and the stars were a spectacular sight to be under. We knew the further we ventured into the desert towards Vegas the more brilliant the sky would become. We quickly went to sleep because we knew we couldn’t stay there very long, after all this was bat country.
12. Salton Sea / Joshua Tree National Monument
The next morning after some horrible breakfast in town we ventured to Salton Sea. Up on a mountain side we had a nice overview of the desert. We contemplated renting dirt bikes or ATVs to cruise through the countryside, but we both agreed even in the winter season, we were not desert people and the heat was not something we both were handling very well. We were exhausted and ventured towards Joshua Tree National Monument and stopped at a Post where it was recommended we hike towards a palm oasis, estimated at around 2 hours distance. It took us longer though and around each bend we didn’t see our destination. At some point, the sun was slowly falling further and further down the horizon so we decided to turn around early and head back to the car before getting lost on the trail in the dark.
We continued on to a campground which was between huge boulders in the desert and on completely flat dry ground. The moon was bright and the stars were even more amazing then in the last place. We had our ritual campground food, a smoke, and a long talk through a good portion of the night. It was completely silent and our fire was crackling in a little stone cove protected from the wind.
Looking up, the only thing you saw was the universe, wrapped around 360 degrees from horizon to horizon; a very humbling view that everyone should experience. It’s a great break from what one is used to in the frenzied city life.
13. Mojave National Preserve
Next morning we embarked further through the sandy dry burning heat of the desert, this time through the Mojave. I have never seen such a simple landscape that was only interrupted by a single road going straight through over the horizon, the one we were on. Left and right of us was nothing at all. It seemed like the most inhospitable place in the world, no water, no trees, just a few desert plants here and there. Years ago there was no way to travel through these parts of the world with such ease. Death would have been inevitable if you didn’t know what was ahead and how long this landscape stretched. It was a privilege to be able to experience this in my lifetime, and it gave me a lot of respect for settlers who years ago managed to traverse these vast lands.
14. Vegas Baby
We were dirty, dusty, stinking, unbathed and exhausted by our travels through the parks. Our expensive luxury rental car Buford was covered in dust from top to bottom, and about 2,000 dead flying bugs decorated the exterior. There was a tumbleweed stuck in the front grill, that was all part of a great appearance of not giving a f*ck when we pulled in to our parking lot to spend a weekend in Vegas at the Luxor Pyramid.
We threw on our backpacks and made our way into the hotel to check in. I am not sure why we went there in the first place, I guess mainly because of the movie Fear and Loathing, which I am sure inspires a lot of filthy people like us to visit Sin City. But we weren’t gamblers, we weren’t clubbers and we weren’t real big drinkers either. We did want to see the Blue Man Group though, and just have a great time drinking and walking up and down the strip.
It was a very odd experience, the idea that high-rollers come to Vegas to blast out thousands, even millions of dollars, to get married with hookers, to basically escape life and drink your brains out and party was a very weird thing to observe as an outsider. I have experienced more amazing celebrations of life than this place, desert gatherings, Burning Man and Ozora just to name a few. The feeling that those places, albeit it understandably not for everyman or everywoman in the world, to me resonates a lot more with enjoying and escaping your usual life.
We strolled through the endless mazes of casinos, built to confuse and disorient you. At one point we were certain we teleported across the strip, because we walked into one hotel and walked out another one, we somehow crossed a whole block separated by two streets but spent the whole time inside of a building. Yep, no idea how that is even possible. We shrugged it off and continued to the Blue Man Group show, which was an even more confusing life experience, truly unique, and I can’t even give an accurate review of the show. I can just say it was well worth the money and extremely unusual.
We passed by even more old broken ladies spinning at slot machines almost falling over and hypnotized by the idea that they could make a lot of money. We walked by tables of people yelling, celebrating, crying and drinking throwing in chips that represented their dollar bills they have earned, or not earned in their life. Then you walk out on the strip with homeless people begging for money to eat. I am not sure if those are the same people who years earlier got stuck in Vegas thinking they would hit the big money, but it was an extremely odd contrast. Obviously, they were not getting a lot of spare change or any more than other homeless people in other cities. Strange, considering others just threw in thousands and lost it, then probably shrugged it off and went on with their lives.
Something was becoming more and more perverted about this place and making me a bit sick, or it was the tall drink of 10 shots invented to intoxicated me into spending money in Vegas.
After taking a ride on a rollercoaster and passing by an eating contest, we found a relaxing spot at the bottom of the Mandalay Bay. Here we enjoyed a glass of red wine and amazing food and watched a pianist play and take requests from the audience. It was timeless, and somehow, an amazing way to enjoy the city for the both of us. So we sat there in baggy army pants and suit jackets listening to the pianist before spending the last night in our hotel room. The next day my friend slept in and I decided foolishly to partake in a poker competition. Let’s just say I got pocket Aces which saved my ass, and I was only the third person to leave the table and be out. I was pretty happy with myself because as soon as I sat down I noticed I was the foolish rooky at the table sitting with hardened pros that do this a lot more often than I do, but hey, it was worth the experience and I got a round of congratulations for my good hand.
15. Grand Canyon
Vegas was getting to us. We were constantly surrounded by crowds of people and we were spent and exhausted. We just wanted to get back on the road and like any long binge the best way to start off the journey was with a big meal of crappy food. We loaded up on supplies and a pack of 50 McNuggets from McDonald’s and made our way to the Grand Canyon. At some point we stopped at Hoover Dam to take in the beauty of it. We took a tour through the architectural marvel, or at least that’s what I gathered from the visit. They have terrorist-level security at the entrance, so be warned if you mistakenly take your outdoor folding knife, they will instantly think you wanted to plot an attack to flood everything.
We drove through the desert again towards the Grand Canyon, and to our surprise there was snow in the Pygmy Forest at the top of the Canyon. We spent the night in the car because we couldn’t find the actual canyon, so we decided to find it in the morning at sunrise. Now I don’t know why, or if it was exhaustion or just losing faith in nature after all these previous visits to parks, but the Grand Canyon just didn’t seem that amazing to me. I took the time to look at it, we drove all around it, stopping multiple times at the edge of the cliffs to take pictures and take in the giant national landmark.
It just didn’t live up to the impact I thought it would have. Maybe one should hike down to appreciate it fully? I am not sure, but I just couldn’t help feeling disappointed, and I wasn’t about to risk my life hiking down an extremely narrow path covered with ice ready for me to slip and fall to my death. I guess that did give me a sense of respect towards the “Granyon”.
16. Zion National Park
On we went, making a big circle towards Zion National Park. It was a very nice drive through the desert, passing indigenous small tribal villages where little gifts and souvenirs were sold to people passing through. As we got closer to our destination, large red cliffs emerged out of the desert floor, giving off a unique feeling to the landscape. I ended up driving and was pulled over for speeding; it was a little nerve wracking considering I wasn’t supposed to be at the wheel, and we were dirty and smelly individuals looking like suspects. Nothing that a little politeness, traveler confusion, and respect towards authority couldn’t fix. I took the ticket, apologized for the inconvenience and asked him how much further the national park was. We got there and loaded up on supplies again to spend the night. We built our camp in lightning speed and were already cooking up our meals for the night. It ended up being extremely windy, I slept like a rock and the next day my friend tried to convince me that we almost got blown away in the tent. I reassured him was impossible because we were laying inside of it. Being that hes a very small person he wasn’t convinced.
The next day we hiked through some trails and up mountain sides to take a full view of Zion. To be honest, I enjoyed it more than the Grand Canyon. The colors of the rock, the lighting in the area, and the odd landscape resonated with me more than a big hole in the earth. We refreshed ourselves at a waterfall and continued a very long drive to the center of the lowest elevation in North America.
17. Death Valley
It was winter and this place was dry and extremely hot, I didn’t want to even imagine how it would be in the summer, nor imagine being one of the insane people who partake in the marathon that is hosted in the summer. It stretches 135 Miles (217km) in the heat of the day. It was evening and we checked into a hotel, probably the only hotel in a very long radius. It was extremely vast, but a bit rockier than the previous desert areas.
The next day we continued to explore the area, drove up mountain tops to get an overview of the basin, visited the salty ground of the officially lowest elevation in North America and headed up the street to the “Runway”, another photographic destination. It’s an odd natural phenomenon where rocks slide across the desert floor. For a long time it was a mystery, but then they discovered it was ice that builds up and melts, leaving traces behind them, making it seem like they have moved on their own. The road wasn’t easy to drive through, it was gravel for about 20 minutes, but since it was a rental we weren’t too concerned; we configured the dashboard screen to display the tire pressure and powered through it at 40 mph – gravel hitting and spraying around the car as we drifted through the curves passing 4 wheel drive off-road jeeps that were working on replacing their spare tire.
We didn’t have a problem but I must say the destination was very disappointing, the rocks were a lot smaller than pictures made them out to be, so all I saw was a flat dried out lake bed, with a few rocks here and there and a tourist group doing some rock climbing class in the middle.
Snapped a few pictures and then we headed out disappointed by it being a pretty big detour for some good laughs, but not really worth the risk.
18. Lancaster & Palmdale
Nothing much to report about this location, it’s boring, dull, flat, a desert city with no real flare or personality. Of course I don’t mean to offend anyone but there was just nothing worth stopping for besides supplies and a meal. We stopped at McDonald’s, messed with the drive through service by reversing into it and letting me as passenger place an order. We were met by a cheerful lady that understood our humor and gave us our meals, chatted with us about why our pricey car looked like crap.
We leeched from the wireless internet to download some updated information and ate our meal when the funniest personality that words can’t describe drove up with an old run down school bus. He drove full speed over the curb bouncing up and down before coming to a screeching halt in front of the restaurant. A black person of eccentric personality, probably influenced by drugs, hopped out of the bus laughing and singing to himself. He talked with us briefly and we had a good laugh. Then we decided this wasn’t a place to stay for the night and continued on to a stop in Ventura again to rest and refuel for an exciting day again.
19. Six Flags Magic Mountain
Needless to say, anyone who loves rollercoasters should visit this place. If you have extra money to spend, it is well worth buying the advanced tickets. We ended up with a device that resembled a tamagotchi, if you don’t know what that is then you didn’t have a happy 90s childhood. It let us reserve rides in advance, let us skip the whole line, so instead of waiting 2 hours you wait less than 10 minutes AND you get to ride the rollercoaster twice in a row. It is very pleasing to stay seated in the ride, while others look at you in anger and disbelief wondering why we are staying in our seats while they’ve been waiting out in the heat for 2 hours to get on. We truly felt like privileged rich assh*les who are friends with the park owner, which we really aren’t, but what I am trying to say is the high ticket prices were without a doubt worth the money.
We got to ride everything at least twice and the ones we enjoyed the most we rode almost endlessly. Because you can reserve your spot in line in advance, as soon as you get off one ride you walk up to the next one and almost have no waiting time. It was a once in a lifetime experience and worth every dollar. There are a lot of record breaking coasters built in the park and each one has a specific theme to it, so any adrenaline junky will get a kick out of a visit here.
20. Los Angeles
We also spent 2 days in downtown Los Angeles and the iconic Hollywood Blvd after a visit and tour through one of the film studios. The tour wasn’t too exciting; we both expected more and also decided a visit to the Universal Studios theme park after Magic Mountain just wasn’t even close to worth it. We checked in to a horrible hostel that was overpriced and dirty, but unfortunately we already committed to it. Every night in a tent has been more comfortable than that. We took a few hop-on-hop-off buses through the city, but a lot of it just wasn’t too exciting for us. It was still nice to see the area and have a tour guide tell us about the city. We had some good food here and there, but most of the time was spent in an extremely confused state of mind and boredom of not exactly knowing what to do. The clubs were beyond uninteresting, but walking over the stars of celebrities on the Walk of Fame, and being immersed in a feeling of make-believe with the fake Hollywood lifestyle was a bit odd.
The contrast again with a lot of homeless people, probably failed actors with hopes for fame, gave an odd desperate feeling to the area. The shops were again very tourist oriented so we decided to take a drive up to the Griffith Observatory, by the iconic Hollywood sign to overlook this smog filled hellhole that is Los Angeles.
It is such an unnatural sight to see, this grey blob of cement spanning for miles and miles as far as the eye can see. To me, living somewhere in the middle of it has such an unnatural, almost claustrophobic vibe. It’s like being emerged and surrounded by a prison of walls, streets and freeways all around you. Looking down at the city, I again reminded myself that I am glad I didn’t take the opportunity that was once presented to me to move and live there with some friends. Although it has some very nice attractions to visit and enjoy and a lot going on that I am sure I would love, I need to be in nature too, and I don’t mean the small community park somewhere in the city.
In retrospect, thinking about all the experiences I have had on that journey, it was well worth it. We enjoyed every minute of it, and for months and years after we still talk about it with such a sense of childish joy and amazement. We constantly remind each other of the highlights and the funny people that were the experiences and enjoyment of the whole journey. I enjoyed every minute of it while on the road, and in retrospect, it is something that remains with you for a lifetime. It was without a doubt a perfect vacation that spanned roughly 7000km / 4400miles in a time span of 3 weeks.
Our expenses were kept to a realistic budget, by camping and sleeping in the car often, only to stop and check into hotels when it was absolutely necessary. Gas and the rental car were our highest expense, together coming to a total of ~$1600 which we divided by two. It was the best experience of my life, and well worth the money. Because as soon as you are on the road and going from city to city, park to park, money just doesn’t matter that much anymore. Of course you have to spend it wisely, but you don’t want to limit yourself in some locations, knowing that you might not be able to return ever again in your lifetime.