'Dr. Beach' best beach for 2012
All that fresh air must have had some weird homeopathic affect on our AC Unit because the minute we departed Yosemite National Park it all but lost its mojo. Even though we would be selling the car within a month, we only seriously pondered the option of living without AC for about five minutes before we were once again beholden to civilizations accesses and had it repaired; meaning we were able to retain the essence of Yosemite’s breeze whilst charging though the scorching heat of southern California. Jennifer took it to a mechanic in Merced who topped it up with Freon™, which for those of you who aren’t in the business, or nerdy enough to have researched it, is the long time brand name of something called chlorofluorocarbon (CFC). Meanwhile, whilst this flagrant act of wanton environmental destruction was taking place I kicked back with the kids at the pool and un-wilded after the previous five-nights camping in the forest and pondered our fall from grace.
We were on our way back down towards the coast for a rendezvous with Highway 1 and the northern end of Big Sur, considered one of the most scenic driving routes in
the United States. But just by the Monterey tourist office potty-pit-stop the kids spied Dennis the Menace Park; a magical wonderland of free playgrounds connected by bridges, labyrinths, slides, lookout towers and conveyor belts; and so we unleashed them to top up their fun quotient to overflow, before subjecting them to more death-by-photo-worthy scenic spots.
That afternoon we drove as far as Bixby Bridge (even drives need an icon it seems) before spinning the car around and heading onto a curvy road into the mountains in search of a tent spot. The valley we entered was narrow and for the most part the sky wasn’t visible. Shady wooden cabins clung to the steep forested walls, their wooden staircases leading up from the road. A perfect little escapist’s hideaway within practical striking distance of the city, I was instantly hooked, the ramshackle rusticity of the homes and the omnipresent gloom led me to dream that even on a humble academic’s salary we could one day have a second home here to escape from it all and write.
Eight Miles to the top of the valley the road ends in a small car park at Bottchers
Gap Campground, beyond which the land fell away into a gorgeous view of the northern edge of Los Padres National Forest. The lie of the land saw wind from the ocean being funneled up through here and so we decided to lug all our stuff up and into the forest to avoid the worst of it. This decision did however come at the expense of the remaining daylight, meaning meal preparation took place under flashlight after the kids had already given up on waiting. In the meantime the ranger had told me the house prices down in the valley were measured in square inches rather than feet, and if only I’d been here fifty years ago I may have been able to get a foothold on the mossy property ladder.
We awoke to glorious sunshine, though the ever informative ranger informed us this had no bearing on the fog we would inevitably encounter as we drove back down towards the coast. If you’re not from California you may be unaware of the fog, as they do tend to leave that bit out of the holiday brochures. In a nutshell the sea here is rather
the fog comes rolling in
From our "wild" camp spot looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Big Sur
cold and in the summer the land is hot, which heats the air. When warm air becomes cold the water vapor condenses creating clouds and at lower levels fog. Think of the sea here as a huge cold pane of glass and the warm air as your breath. During the summer months here it is oftentimes foggy all along the coast during the day, before gradually burning off into late afternoon… if you’re lucky.
Maybe it is because we’d been hugging the coast all the way down from the Pacific North West, but as a coastal drive in and of itself it didn’t really seem anything marked. The thing that made it unique was the love/hate relationship we formed with the fog.
Down at the ocean’s edge the fog can make it feel like a warm sunless dingy day in London, England. But likewise, when the sun does come out down on the Big Sur coast it transforms the entire universe and jolts everything to life. Whilst the fog hung low and dense in the air, the sea, the vegetation, the scene would all be steeped in grayscale. But once there was a break
McWay Falls, Big Sur.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
in the fog, even in fleetingly small patches, it was like a magic wand was being dragged across the landscape adding vibrancy to everything it touched, rolling along the coast in and out of the nooks revealing the grandeur and extenuating the colours, like a gust of wind through a wheat field, before the scene returned once more to gray.
Along this stretch of coast there are a few choice hotels, but at this time of year they are all fully-booked and way beyond our price range regardless. Camping in the national and state parks which dot the coast is an option, but with the shortage of available affordable hotels, demand outstrips supply, and if you don’t arrive early or make prior reservations, you will be hard-pressed to nab a spot in high summer. Fortunately a friendly ranger took pity on our predicament when he whispered in our ear that if we drove up into the mountains this way and that we would come across a very primitive camping spot marked by blackened evidence of a campfire. Here we could camp wild and alone and for free.
If you drive just a hundred metres
or so up the mountainside you quickly rise above the fog to an environment which is hot, dry and arid. After about a twenty minute drive we were delighted to find our spot at the first attempt and set up camp in the blazing heat under tree coverage at the head of a valley overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With the kids in no mood to nap we played an extreme form of hide and seek, in amongst the poison oak and threat of rattlesnakes. Then, because the grass is always greener, we drove back down to the coast and back into the fog, and spent the afternoon playing on a long windswept beach backed by steep cliffs, allowing us to fully appreciate the return to our temporary home in the sunny mountains.
Onwards and southwards we had an event filled day and night with an eclectic mix of fellow campers in a site near Atascadero, before re-charging at a motel in a town called Lompoc. We stopped off in Solvang, a somewhat contrived Danish Village, which offered the visitor a taste of Denmark in California. Having lived in Denmark for some years I was personally intrigued by
the place, for about 20 minutes. Then onto Santa Barbara for a whistle-stop tour before leaving highway 1 and settling at Lake Casitas in our tent. The following day we drove onwards to Acton in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles for what would turn out to be our last couple of nights camping on the mainland.
Los Angeles is billed as the creative capital of the world and is home to Hollywood, the epicenter of the movie industry. Whilst the world slaves away in a factory or behind a desk, artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers, musicians and imagineers here produce the entertainment the masses escape to when they clock off for the day.
Beyond the world of the silver screen make-believe, movie production companies further tap into the interest they have manufactured by building themed parks, and for the same reason they make the movies here amongst all the tinsel; forever sunshine. No theme park is bigger than Disney, whose parks together create the world’s biggest human facility draws. They even have a research centre here where imagineers produce all the latest novelties and fantasies; in a process they term
A corrupting culture
MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Imagineering. A world of fantastical fairy tales brought to life. All those characters that filled our childhood become associated with the good times; at theme parks we can re-live these memories, and in theory at least, those memories and dreams can come to life.
“Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world,” Walt Disney
But this family won’t be visiting humbug Hollywood, Disneyland or Universal Studios because we genuinely have no interest. Tourism tastes are a reflection of wider interests, and our kids barely even know who Mickey Mouse is. Now I’m not saying that Kiva wouldn’t give my
right-arm to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
. Unfortunately they won’t have it completed here in Los Angeles until 2016 and their theme park in Florida is way over on the other side of the country, damn it!
Nowadays, in more economically developed countries people are afforded more time and money for extended recreation. Literally thousands of niche tourism typologies have resulted. Higher levels of education allow people to acquire languages and knowledge of the wider world and its myriad cultures through increasingly widespread
mediums of technology, newspapers, books, TV or the internet. This knowledge broadens our horizons, our interests and our dreams. And, to Disney I say:
“Whilst there is a world left outside my door my wonder will never be completed”
At this point in our journey recreation and leisure had taken a back seat, at least for me and Jennifer. We had left Canada six weeks previously with the understanding that we would be defending our theses at California State University, Long Beach, via videoconference in two short days.
“In North America, the thesis defense or oral defense is the final examination. The examining committee normally consists of the thesis committee, usually a given number of professors mainly from the student's university plus his or her primary supervisor, an external examiner (someone not otherwise connected to the university), and a chair person. Each committee member will have been given a completed copy of the dissertation prior to the defense, and will come prepared to ask questions about the thesis itself and the subject matter. The typical format will see the candidate giving a short (20–40 minute) presentation of his or her research, followed by one to two hours of questions.” Wikipedia. “Thesis”
The thesis defense can be one of the most traumatic experiences of a grad student’s life it is said. So, with an air of impending doom we checked into a hotel in Long Beach the night before for our final preparations. The next morning after I forced down an extra strong white tea infusion for breakfast Jennifer dropped me off at the University to complete the challenge. After I finished she came to pick me up and then defended her own thesis whilst I took possession of the kids. I actually relished every moment of my defense, Jennifer less so, having been
plagued with stomach troubles since our fast food smorgasbord the previous evening. Anyway we both passed with minor revisions and after another night in Long Beach we drove north into Los Angeles on the eight lane highway and missed our turn-off by a good thirty something exits before eventually finding our way to Malibu for a few days stay with family.
You may have heard of Malibu, the beach community in Southern California, the place they name cars, rum and Barbie dolls after. As we did back in Mendocino we picked up a few flyers to gauge the housing market and discovered the price of property around here to be astronomical. This must be where the 1% lives. One particular property, that will always stick in my mind, was basically a gutted and decrepit wooden shack on stilts over the beach, crammed in alongside the other houses which vie for precious space hemmed in by a busy highway which affords them minimal parking, if any. It was on the market for seven MILLION dollars. This brought on the 10% game, whereby we’d drop the last zero off the cost, and decide if we’d like to
La Jolla, California
buy a house at the new price… not one!
Anyway, we still had to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on our respective theses and what better place to do this than Las Vegas! What?
Theme park Las Vegas!
By definition Theme Parks create artificial destinations from scratch. Businessmen research what customers want and then go and build it. Due to competition, if something is created the tourist does not desire it will fail, and that which succeeds and thrives is an intriguing reflection of the world in which the tourist lives. The “Entertainment Capital of the World” is basically a counterbalance to the boredom felt by a modern society at the end of its tether. Many of the largest hotel, casino and resort properties in the world are located here. Each with its own theme and use of dramatic architecture, many of which attempt to replicate already existing ‘themes’ like Paris, New York, Venice and ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. Here you can see them all and more on the same “strip”.
As someone who is interested in the tourist breed this place has to be the Mecca
of cultural tourism, and fascinates me beyond belief. ‘Serious’ backpackers/travelers avoid this destination like the plague as it represents to them the antithesis of the ‘authenticity’ that they seek… So to that topic I will say adieu
and bore you no more.
In more practical terms, Las Vegas is a bargain if you stay mid-week (Sunday night through Thursday night). The fact that most hotels double as casinos means that the hotel itself is not where the bulk of profits are obtained, and in many cases the room is almost a loss-leader, like those $25 printer/scanner bargain combos (they get their money back when you buy their ink).
We stayed in an apartment suite just off the strip for the first few nights and whilst we were there someone robbed the topper storage off of our mini-van in its entirety, stealing our tent, stove, blankets, pillows, sleeping mats and the like. Annoying because I'm sure the net resale value of those items to them would be zero, and if in fact the recipients were offered these articles as a charitable donation by us they would doubtless be politely declined. To be honest this didn’t
really inconvenience us that much as in three weeks we would be flying west across the Pacific Ocean and most of that stuff, including our car, would need to be dispensed of anyway. Incidentally, at the exact moment I discovered this theft, I noticed two police officers across the road hiding behind a car with a speed gun attempting to nab unsuspecting law breakers. Now I wouldn’t usually report such a crime as it is doubtless a waist of both mine and the police’s time, but since they were stood right there, I felt I had some sort of civic duty. To be fair one of the police officers did in fact stop crouching behind the car when I told him what happened and then feigned sympathy saying “Yeah that will happen”, before getting back to busting criminals.
More immediate concerns were that we would not be camping again any time soon and so with weekend and the resultant hotel price inflation almost upon us we were forced to seek out cheaper accommodations away from the strip. This actually proved to be a welcome rest bite because on Sunday we were back to the strip staying at
The MGM Grand Las Vegas, which when it was built in the early 1990’s was the largest hotel in the world.
As we drove around to the front I counted seven lanes of traffic under the ‘awning’ and once managing to negotiate that nightmare with the luggage and kids in 106 degree heat the lobby area resembles something closer to that of a train station attached to a massive labyrinthine world of flashing neon, cigarette smoke and noise called a casino. The hotel is designed in such a wonderful way that you are forced to navigate through the casino and invariably get lost any time you wish to come or go…so you quickly figure, for sanities sake, you may as well forget about escaping.
The first day we did stay, we went swimming at the pool(s) which was nuts: Spring Break meets Lord of the Flies
on the set of Waterworld
. Which was just as well because the weather forecast during our ten days in Vegas was 106.0 °F, 107.1 °F, 109.0 °F, 109.0 °F, 104.0 °F, 104.0 °F, 108.0 °F, 109.9 °F, 111.9 °F, 111.0 °F.
Since we had the
kids along for the ride, we were fortunate enough to be able to use this as an excuse not to blow our budgets at the Casino and furthermore, since I come from a country where fruit machines aren’t prohibited (actually, rather worryingly, they allow kids on fruit machines in England) the idea of feeding the slots with a plastic cup full of coins for a week was pleasantly unappealing. One thing you can do quite effortlessly with two small kids is visit the buffets. We did as many as we could during our time in Vegas; the Grand, the Mirage, Mandalay Bay, and The Bellagio you name it, all eventually blurring into one big glutton-fest.
We stayed at the MGM just three nights as on our eighth night in Vegas Jennifer’s mother joined us and we upgraded to a suite at the Trump Hotel Las Vegas, which was to be our little treat for her and ourselves away from the smoky casinos on the strip. It was actually a perfect oasis away from all that mayhem. I was very impressed with this hotel; everything about it seemed to run with effortless efficiency.
up in Escondido, Southern California, and after our time in Vegas we spent a week down there visiting family and friends. Whilst there we were able to experience camping from the RV’ers perspective as the family we stayed with owned one of those bus-sized mobile homes, which acted as a glorified spare-room for Jennifer me and the kids. For the next five-nights our new Travel HQ was parked out on their avocado farm, and via the wonders of WiFi, we were also able to plan the logistics of our next few months, (car hire, hotels, transportation tickets and the like) and possible employment opportunities and red tape once we eventually reach Asia. Within days now we would be leaving this continent for good.
Even though we were now into September it was still unseasonably hot as we combined sightseeing and beach days with more pressing practicalities like shedding inessential possessions, equipping ourselves for the remainder of our trip, contact lenses, haircuts and selling the car.
Selling the car had actually been my biggest anxiety of this entire trip as our schedule would mean we were only able to give the process a small amount
of time since we’d be moving around so much. This pretty much ruled out a private sale and the idea of walking into a dealer and having my pants pulled down wasn’t something I relished. Fate would have it that a CarMax had just opened in Escondido. CarMax is like the box store Wal-Mart of car dealers which if it hasn’t already, will be sweeping the nation any time soon. They gave an appraisal on our car within 30 minutes, a pretty low offer, but as with the stuff stolen from our roof, this 'theft' was also somewhat of a blessing as we were able to drop off the car after driving it up to LAX airport the day before we departed the continent, and they handed over a bankers check.
We flew up to San Jose in the late afternoon light the next day over ground we’d spent the previous weeks covering in the car. Spent the night, discovered that our Kindle had somehow snapped, woke up early and before the sun came up we were on a plane to paradise…and who needs make-believe when you have that?
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