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Thody's American Adventures

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California, Here We Are by Peter Thody

On 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 next one.)

June Lake

Beautiful June Lake on the eastern Sierra Nevada, viewed from a section of the 22 mile scenic loop that also takes in Gull Lake, Silver Lake and Grant Lake.

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Photo by Peter Thody

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 experience again.

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 here.

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.

Bodie, 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.

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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 the Giant 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 Francisco.

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.

Peter Thody


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