this, the final leg of their drive from Lake Michigan
to the Pacific Ocean, Peter Thody and wife Carole visit
a ghost town, camp out in Sequoia National Park, and encounter
their first traffic jam since leaving Chicago four weeks
earlier. They survive close encounters with flies, black
bears and, scariest of all, a San Francisco cable car
driver. It is a crash landing back into civilization for
this English couple, who've driven more than 4,000 miles
on their Great American Road Trip. (Stay tuned for the
Cross the state border into central California
on U.S. Route 6 and you'll soon be offered a right turn onto
State Route 120. Take it and within minutes you'll hit 10
miles of highway where no attempt whatsoever has been made
to smooth out the rolling landscape. One minute you're blind
to all but the steep incline ahead, the next you're cresting
a ridge and looking out over a blacktop rollercoaster. For
me it's tempting to see whether we can get all four wheels
off the ground (we don't); for Carole - how can I put this
delicately? - it's 15 minutes she'd be more than happy to
Our base for the next two nights is June Lake,
a rich, green oasis between the deserts of Nevada and the
imposing Sierra Nevada range that towers over everything around
The town itself has a relaxed, easygoing feel
to it and is the kind of place that people come back to year
after year to fish, sail and hike. We, owning neither rod,
nor boat, nor a pair of those bendy carbon-fiber walking sticks
between us, have to discover other pleasures. So, after checking
in at Boulder
Lodge (rooms OK, views fantastic) and strolling down the
road to the very welcoming Sierra Inn, we agree on our goals
for tomorrow: a walk around Bodie ghost town and a paddle
in Mono Lake.
once a prosperous mining town, was abandoned when the gold
ran out in 1882. Today it's managed as a historic park in
a state of suspended decay, with soft furnishings being allowed
to rot away but buildings prevented from actually toppling
over. There's a cemetery on the hillside opposite. Many of
the headstones have been lost to grave robbers and vandals
but a few do remain, including a number remembering some very
young victims of smallpox and cholera, as well as a prostitute
deemed unworthy of the main burial grounds. If the town itself
feels vaguely stage-managed, the cemetery reminds you that
real people did live and die here.
After picking up supplies in the town of Lee
Vining, we make our way to Mono
Lake and picnic under an almost unbearably hot sun. Ah
well, we'll soon be able to freshen up in those cool, crystal-clear
waters. Or maybe not. For while the lake is fantastically
photogenic from a distance, the beaches are covered - literally
covered - with small black "alkali flies," on which
the local California Gulls gorge themselves by running through
the seething mass with their beaks wide open.
After a few minutes I discover that feigning
confidence (they can smell the fear, you know) and walking
directly into their midst will persuade the crawling black
swarm to part and allow me to cool my feet in the water. I
tell you what, though: It would take a braver man than me
to lie down and sunbathe there.
While many visitors see this region on the east
side of the Sierra Nevada as a destination in its own right,
others - ourselves included - enjoy it as a convenient stop-off
point before taking the 9,945-foot-high Tioga Pass across
the Sierra Nevada into Yosemite
National Park. Everything we've read about this spectacular
drive is true. Higher and higher we go, gaining almost 3,000
feet in just a few miles and passing by one unforgettable
viewing point after another. As we reach the top and enter
the park itself, the trees close in and we're driving through
glorious woodland, past sparkling lakes and across lush meadows.
The road through Yosemite from Tioga Pass to
the junction of Highway 120 and State Route 41 must be one
of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful drives in the world.
And I'm sure the loop road up to El Capitan and Yosemite Village
is too. Just maybe not on the second Saturday in August.
As in most of America's national parks, Yosemite's
visitor numbers are falling (down 11 percent since the mid-1990s)
but it doesn't feel like it today. With traffic having ground
to a complete standstill, we give up and head back the other
way. No more than five minutes later, we pull over, walk down
to the river and share our lunch with a family of ducks. We
could be a hundred miles from the weekend gridlock.
Our enthusiasm for the park renewed, we take
the drive up to Glacier Point. With its sensational views
over to Half Dome and a 3,215-foot freefall drop to the valley
below, this is often claimed to be the most awesome viewpoint
in the Lower 48 states. It's certainly not one for those with
a fear of heights. And today it's not a place for anyone with
a fear of bears either.
Carole's the first to spot it, maybe 20 or 30
yards away: a real live bear. While she calmly watches him
sniff his way along the trail above us, I deliver a passable
impression of Mr. Bean, flapping away, swapping lenses in
an attempt to get photographic evidence of this close encounter
of the ursine kind.
Oblivious to the excitement his presence is causing,
the bear plods along, displaying no interest either in me,
or in the group of small children who have selflessly positioned
themselves just in front of us. As someone clever once said,
you don't need to be able to outrun the lion, you just need
to outrun the other guy.
Our next destination is Sequoia
National Park, where we've booked into the Lodgepole
campground. The No.1 attraction here of course is the
2,200-year-old, 275-foot-tall "General Sherman,"
the largest living thing on earth. It's certainly impressive
but it's a good job someone else did the sums because in this
forest of giant sequoias it doesn't really stand out as being
any bigger than others nearby.
Just a few miles south of the Sherman tree is
Forest Museum, the starting point for a number of easy
trails. We choose the Round Meadow walk on the basis that
no trail containing the word "meadow" is going to
be overly challenging. For once our reluctance to overexert
ourselves pays dividends. Less than a quarter of the way round,
a ranger informs us that the path up ahead is closed as a
mother bear is dozing by a tree and her two cubs are playing
in the undergrowth. This is close to the top of my "Things
That Could Make This Trip Perfect" list, just behind
Italian actress Monica Bellucci turning up on our campsite,
realising that she'd somehow forgotten her tent and maybe
she could just squeeze in with us?
Carole, on the other hand, despite having survived
the Yosemite experience, is about as happy being this close
to a protective mother bear as she would have been had I voiced
the Bellucci Plan, so we turn around, make our way back to
the campsite and enjoy an evening of romantic, moonlit, campfire
dining. Just the two of us.
The next morning we pack up and head west towards
the Pacific, passing through tinder-dry countryside, past
the huge San
Luis Reservoir and over the Diablo Mountains. We spend
one night of blissful luxury at the Garden
Court Hotel in Palo Alto (my Dad lectured at Stanford
in the 90s so we wanted to say hi to the place) and two nights
of cramped discomfort at the Fitzgerald
Hotel in San Francisco.
We visit Alcatraz,
eat clam chowder on Pier
39, waste an hour at Ripley's
Believe It Or Not! Museum, walk through Chinatown,
photograph the fog, take a Gray
Line City Tour and give a bit of loose change to the beggars
in Union Square. We drink beer at Lefty
O'Douls and eat (twice) at Kuleto's.
And we stand in line for over an hour for the right to hang
off the side of a cable car and hear our driver berate a group
of thoroughly bemused Italian tourists: "It don't do
to piss me off. I'm your gas and your brakes!"
before allowing the car to run free down one of the city's
steeper hills to prove his point.
To the early pioneers, arriving at the Pacific
Ocean meant they'd survived everything the plains, mountains
and deserts had to throw at them. It marked the beginning
of a new life and was a time for celebration. For us, though,
it was the end of a journey and a sudden one at that: Being
plunged back into such aggressive consumerism was a shock
to the system. The mountain peaks, parched deserts and, yes,
marauding bears that were the low points of every early 19th-century
westbound emigrant's journey were among our highlights, and
amidst the hustle, bustle and begging of San Francisco they
seemed an awful long way away.
In a fraction under four weeks, we'd visited
nine states, driven 4,356 miles and been made welcome by pretty
much everyone we met. We'd followed the Lincoln Highway and
the Oregon Trail, crossed the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada,
and book-ended our journey in the cities of Chicago and San
I guess there's no easy way to return to the
normality of city life and it's better to do it on the Pacific
Coast than in the north of England, but there's no escaping
the fact that coming down from the high of a successful trip
can be a painful business. It's worth it, though. Thanks America.
And thanks to every one of you who made it such a pleasure.
I really cannot wait until the next time.