The main routes are: highway I-5, which runs north to south along the West Coast; I-90, the east-west transcontinental freeway from Seattle; I-15, which takes you south from Glacier National Park and I-80, which takes you back towards San Francisco through Nevada.
On my way back from work, editing at Alan Weiss productions on 55th by Columbus Circle, I stopped at an Army and Navy Store to pick up a tent. The tent was for what my son and I had dubbed our ‘Thelma and Louise’ holiday. We were flying from New York to San Francisco airport for an unusual trip: a driving holiday in a convertible around the Northwestern United States. I had told myself that the extra cost of renting a convertible would be justified by throwing a tent in the back of the car, so we could spend our nights camping and barbecuing under the Northwestern skies, which apparently are crystal clear and go on forever. This best of both worlds would theoretically save on the considerable cost of holding up in a hotel every night for what would be a one or two week fly drive holiday.
Our itinerary would be to land in San Francisco, collect the car and drive north through a combination of highway I-5 and the more scenic route 101 through Sonoma, California’s wine country, find a camp spot and then drive along the coast of Oregon. From there we planned to hit Washington State and spend a bit of time exploring Seattle, famous for the coffee scene and grunge music, before heading inland through Montana, which people said was ‘God’s own country’, loop back down through Yellowstone National Park and Salt-Lake City, which is Mormon country, before cutting west back through Lake Tahoe, Nevada and on to San Francisco.
My son, Beau, had made his way from London where he lived with his mother and his older half sister. He came out to visit a couple of times a year – we were both fairly seasoned travellers. I’d been travelling since I was a baby, to India with mum to see her Guru, Dr. Bindu, and after we lost mum, with dad to school in France, Spain and Denmark. Beau was not that different, in that his mother and I had taken him everywhere with us. I had taken him up in a light aircraft when he was only a few months old. In addition to that we’d travelled a lot of north-east America together.
I myself had flown to the Northwest a number of times as a young teen to visit my godfather and was excited to show Beau this part of America, where I was supposed to have gone to school after Summerhill. Although that wasn’t meant to be as, one day on returning to start the new term at Summerhill, A.S. Neill’s school, I got a Dear John letter from our godfather saying that unfortunately, because of a lawsuit and the expenses of supporting his old family and kids in England plus having a new family, it would not be possible for me to follow my brother to Cate, the expensive prep school we’d visited in Santa Barbara. It was a crushing blow, but while planning Beau’s and my trip I pushed those memories out of my mind, though they clearly still stung. I think I must have told my son about my early skating holidays and how Brookie, our godfather’s new wife, would take Beau’s uncle, my brother Jake Weber, and me, a couple of hippy orphans, out to Sax Fifth Avenue and dress us up in designer jeans and Lacoste shirts until we looked like proper little orphan preppies, while at home dad was not doing well and ended up in prison. It was a whole other world. We laughed about some of the memories, like the one of the two old ladies I was stuck between on a flight, one of whom, before I had a chance to stop her, had spread salad dressing over the cling film that covered her salad and had set about eating the whole thing. I told my son how my fourteen year old self decided I would rather let her eat the salad, cling film and all, than embarrass her by pointing out what she was doing.
When we were minutes away from landing the pilot came over the intercom to announce the strangest thing. He said ‘We’ll be arriving at San Francisco International in about ten minutes. I’ve been asked by traffic control to inform you that there is a blackout in the state of California.’ How odd, there wouldn’t be any electricity at all in the entire state?
We were looking at each other with raised eyebrows when the captain came on the intercom again. ‘When we land there won’t be any electricity in the terminals. No escalators, no computers and only emergency lighting throughout the terminal. However, we’ve been assured that it’s quite safe to land, so don’t worry. Please proceed through passport control, customs and baggage as normal’.
Flying into San Francisco often feels like you’re about to dunk into the Pacific, but once the wheels touched down and the passengers breathed a sigh of relief we collectively craned our necks out of the windows to see what awaited us in an America without power. It was too light outside to make out whether the lights were on or off in the terminal. By the time we got inside we could clearly see they were off, as we and the entire retinue of one of the busiest airports in the world made our way in silhouette and blue window light towards passport control. We made the plan to split up once through customs so that Beau could head for the baggage area and secure our bags, while I would head straight to the car rental company to see what kind of chaos had ensued as a result of there being no electricity to power the agency’s computers, not to mention online credit card processing. Sure enough, it was a freak show when I got there and went to stand in the queue, with the rental agent girl wilting under the pressure of a lot of frustrated customers and not being able to use the computer system. I asked her how she was dealing with it all and she raised an old fashioned manual credit card processing machine and a bunch of credit card processing slips. ‘With these’, she said, looking a bit lost. – ‘Well, at least it’s still functioning. What about the computers and the booking system? I reserved a Chrysler Sebring convertible’. – ’All we can do is give you what we’ve got. As we’ve no way of checking what people have booked. It’s chaos’, she said. – ‘It’s important, my son flew all the way from London to do this ‘Thelma and Louise’ fly drive camping trip of the North West. Unless you’ve given one away since the power outage, I suspect it must be here’. – ‘I’ll see what we have’. To my infinite relief she returned a few minutes later with a set of car keys saying my boy and I were in luck. There was indeed one last Chrysler Sebring convertible in white. ‘Perfect!’ She took my license and credit card and processed the whole thing manually in a tally board.
Pleased that we had the right car, a convertible, which was what the whole trip revolved around, I made my way back to the baggage area where I found my son sitting on the cases beside one of the many non working carousels. He, of course, was thrilled about the car.
Driving out of the airport and joining highway 101 we turned on the radio to see what we could pick up in terms of information on the power outage. It all sounded very like a 70s movie with locals, some on their CB radios, calling in to radio stations and chatting live on air with the DJs, reporting on the effects of the blackout from different locations up and down California as well as more locally in the Bay Area. Apparently a tree had fallen across a power line which brought in a lot of California’s supply from Canada. In all my years I’d never heard anything like it and it made us wonder about just how safe the country was. I mean what if the Russians invaded now?
There were no traffic lights working anywhere throughout San Francisco. Curiously it didn’t feel like the world had stopped moving and the traffic on the highway was flowing freely, but the cities had to be in chaos.
I did want to show my son a bit of downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf, where the seals mixed noisily amongst the fishermen and tourists and you could pick up local specialities like crab, clam chowder and sourdough bread or catch a boat cruise around the bay to Alcatraz museum or to Tiburon, a beautiful island where my brother and I once went to a party hosted by a friend of our godfather. The place was memorable for its beauty and the owner had once invited my brother and me to witness a baseball game at Candlestick Park, where we got the pleasant surprise of our lives when on the big board appeared a sign which read in twenty foot high letters ‘The San Francisco Giants would like to welcome Jake and Charley Weber from London England’. As part of any visit to the U.S.A. I highly recommend catching a baseball game.
Deciding to dip a toe in the water we took an off ramp and peeking down towards the city revealed a whole other picture, if not post apocalyptic, definitely one of confusion. Unfortunately visiting downtown San Francisco would have to wait for our return trip as the city was a chaos of beeping horns and gridlock. We took the on ramp back to the highway and headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge in search of a place to camp down for our first night.
Looking down at the tiny fishing and ferry boats tooting their fog horns as they make their way out towards the Pacific beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is a sight to behold on any day and today was a beautiful sunny one as we drove over the bridge, the huge steel spans and cables flashing by as we glanced back at the city, so often shrouded by fog, and headed toward wine country and Northern California.
The light was starting to fade as we passed through small settlement towns just north of San Francisco – the restaurants and inns seemingly only lit by small candles on the tables as we pressed on, eager to find the campground, get our tent up and find our way around the site before it got too dark. The campground felt a little like something out of Grapes of Wrath. It was bustling with people helping each other out and tut-tutting over the power outage and that in such a major state. How was it possible? We set up our tent as best we could in semi darkness, only to find that it was somewhat smaller than the specifications on the box it came in. We might have to buy another on the trip as I was unable to extend myself fully inside it. I wanted to blame the store for being cheapskates, but in fact could have bought a completely new one for a few dollars more. Life, it’s a journey.
Bodega Dunes Campground. 3095 CA-1, Bodega Bay, CA 94923, United States. +1 707-875-3483 https://goo.gl/maps/aYKjhBCBXhxaLoK19
Waking up a little groggy and untested we explored a bit more of the coastal highway, of Sonoma and some of the quaint little towns, but felt like making some headway. Working our way north we decided to leave coastal highway 101 and put some miles behind us, so we followed the signs to the main highway, Interstate 5, which runs the full length of California.
Had Beau been a little older I suspect we would have stopped and enjoyed more of the vineyards. Certainly I loved nothing more than doing that with his mother in France. As a kid, before he crossed into double digits, Beau had been a bit of a pool shark and it was fun to take him out to a bar and shoot some pool. We did it just because we enjoyed playing the game, although it felt odd as he was getting bigger. As we’d found out on trips to Vermont or if some young buck tried to impress his girlfriend by challenging us to a game, Beau was cute to watch. But we hadn’t really come out on a vineyard trip so to make time we rejoined the highway, as by this point we had hardly made any headway.
Everything in America is bigger than you can imagine, including the meals, the drinks, the homes and the distances. In between finding a place you fall in love with, you can drive for days without a remarkable blip on the horizon.
One last stop before you leave California are the giant Redwoods, so American, an amazing sight. They are surrounded by campgrounds and picnic areas everywhere. Definitely worth a look, as you can’t help but feel a part of something bigger than yourself noodling around beneath their majestic presence, or as you can imagine driving through the hollowed out base of one that’s so wide you can drive a VW bus through it.
Well folks, if you thought California was big, Oregon is a huge expanse of what seems mostly to be more trees and woodlands. Made famous in my mind by a wonderful book called ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’, also a film directed by Paul Newman, about a logging family with a fearsome patriarch who breaks a union embargo to run logs down a river, but not without killing half his family. This is logging country, with a university in Portland and some stunning beaches. Somewhere along the endless miles we stopped at an overlook of a huge beach and decided to head into town and enjoy ourselves for a bit, find a kite and a replacement tent, break for lunch and fool around on the beach before we settled in for the night at a local campground.
A note on the campgrounds in America: they are mostly well organised and run by national reserve or park rangers. It is advisable to call ahead and book. Although you’ll usually find a spot, the choice ones – under a tree or right by a stream – will often be taken by someone if you just show up. Naturally the neighbouring families tend to socialise on the camp site at night. https://oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=reserve.dsp_reserve
When you cross into Washington state you start to notice the abundance of oysters everywhere, even at petrol stations. They come in jars and without their shells. While the kids may not be so crazy about this detail, it’s definitely a bonus for the adults and as cheap as crisps.
Seattle to Montana. Highway I-90. Counting stars.
When we arrived at our campsite by the river, I had so many preconceived notions about it being ‘God’s own country’, I half expected to see a cowboy resembling Brad Pitt, flicking fly and tackle, backlit by the sun in a blue sky – but what I had not expected and for which we weren’t at all prepared was the volume of insects humming around in the air at dusk, which entailed turning back to the camp store to buy strong insect repellent. However, once the fire was lit, the food was sizzling and the sun had gone down, the sky cleared and we could see more stars than I can ever recall having seen before. One of our favourite pastimes during that holiday was keeping a tally of how many ‘shooting’ or more precisely falling stars we’d seen on our trip. We were genuinely awed by this experience. I must have counted into the double digits on the first night alone. We settled into the tent 🏕 and fell asleep counting falling stars.
Montana Camping https://montanastateparks.reserveamerica.com/
Glacier National Park
The idea of America is so big and it can be elusive to find, but some places, like Catalina Island and Glacier National Park, just deliver on the promise in spades. One of the most beautiful parts of our fly drive trip, if not of all our travels, may well be Glacier National Park. Heading north off I-90 towards the border we arrived on the American side, which looks into Canada, and parked our convertible by the lake shore. It feels like you’ve driven into a movie set or the dream of an American holiday camp from the 1950s and it turned out to be very like that.
Taking in the view, we stretched our legs and grabbed some sandwiches from the camp centre, which we ate staring out at the Glaciers behind the giant lake. The camp guide told us about walking a trail up in the mountains, which lead to a secret valley, a rare lookout spot which you had to traverse snow and ice to get to, but when you did it would be worth it. We thanked the guide, got back into our convertible and set up on a winding road towards the glaciers, a road curiously not unlike one you might find on a coastal route in the South of France, little stone markers heading up into the snow covered peaks. It was a beautiful day and hard to imagine that once we got up a few more hundred feet, we’d be walking through snow in the mountains, which we did.
As soon as we felt the crunch of ice under foot the temperature tumbled and our breath became vapour in the air as, ascending a rise over a small summit from the parking area, a vista opened up in front of us like nothing we had seen before. We made our way over the peak and down the snow trail to the cliffside lookout spot, where a few other sightseers had gathered. Speechless we stared into a valley a thousand feet or so below us. There between the dappled sunlight, which came down in late afternoon shafts, was a strangely private looking scene of outstanding natural beauty, with deer grazing happily. It was like looking back into another time or, more specifically, like one of the stories I’d read about when Geronimo took to the mountains and hid from the federal forces in a secret valley.
Yellowstone National Park
Take I-15 south and Yellowstone National Park is definitely worth a look. The reason it is so full of life is because it’s sitting on top of a giant volcano, so there are geysers and hot water springs and the phosphorus and other nutrients from the last explosion have fertilised the ground causing abundant flora. We of course had to have a look and were surprised at how close the wild buffaloes roamed to the cars. We pulled up next to across one of them . It was no more than a couple of feet from my son Beau’s side window, staring right at us. Naturally he was a bit nervous. But with him being in charge of taking pictures, I asked him to take one of our four-legged friend. At this point the buffalo became agitated, snorted and made ready to charge our car. I stepped on the gas and we hastily made our escape.
Jackson Hole – White Water Rafting
Another really authentic experience for travellers is white water rafting. Jackson Hole is an old cowboy town which retains a legend and looks the part. We browsed the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ shops along the main street and had one of Jackson Hole’s famous huge burgers before deciding to go for a white water rafting trip. The trip was absolutely thrilling, you feel like you’re on the edge of falling in and the guides are fun, animated serious professionals, so there were no issues with safety. And with the help of my son one whiny kid was briefly helped overboard for a refreshing dip when we’d stopped in a safe area to swim. http://www.jacksonholetraveler.com/article/snake-river-wyoming/
Another big highlight and a great place to end up on our North Western trip before flying back home is Lake Tahoe. We fell in love with it. A huge crystalline blue lake, deeper than most oceans, is surrounded by expensive looking houses, with a hint of gambling but just enough old world rustic charm to pull it off without completely lowering the tone like, say, Atlantic city. There we met a young German couple with whom we spent a few days enjoying all that Lake Tahoe had to offer, so we wined and dined before exchanging addresses and parting ways. Whether rightly or wrongly, at that time I suspect I was using Beau as a litmus test for any girlfriends and bit of a substitute for any serious romance, if truth be told. Although that was just in the holidays. I would soon meet and fall in love with Elly who, although she worked in NYC post production like me – I was an editor and she a scheduling girl – was one hundred percent Turkish. But that is a whole other travel story!
Once we arrived back in San Francisco in our car, which had done some miles, we made our way down to the sea front to hang out with the tourists, fishermen and seals. We tried out some of the local seafood, chowder and famous local sourdough bread. Although a trip out to Alcatraz island is a conversation piece and worth a trip, on that day we took a more relaxed scenic boat cruise out beneath the Golden Gate bridge, which was of course spectacular, before catching our flight back to NYC, which was happily far less eventful than the outbound flight.
Back in New York, after a few days to recover in our flat on Columbus Ave, Beau caught another flight back to school in London and I went back to editing Electronic Press Kits for CBS or producing corporate pieces in the big freelancers market which is New York.
There it is folks, my highlights of what I think was an absolutely priceless, once in a lifetime, trip around the Northwest United States. Looking back I remember that the distances were much larger than I expected and that all planning aside, in fact we rarely spent more than one night in a row camping. This was probably because of the feel of camping, the distances on the road and and the subsequent irresistible urge to wash both off from the night and day before. Having said that, we tended to check into motels in the less remarkable natural beauty spots. The luxurious experience of taking a shower and collapsing into a clean comfortable bed really did feel so good at those times – so try and allow for that extra expense if you do try the fly-drive experience. If I were to give any additional advice, I would say make sure you know exactly how far away your next stop is and book campsites and hotels a few days in advance.
Notes on the Author: I’ve lived and worked mostly in the U.S.A, but also Turkey and my native U.K., However, I’ve travelled widely, to India, Africa and Asia. If you are considering booking a fly drive trip to the U.S.A., or perhaps one to see Catalina off the coast of L.A., you can visit One Travel.