Southern California Part 2 - So Cal So Good

"I love you, California"


We'd bedded down with Madonna in San Luis Obispo, we'd pismo'd about on Pismo beach, we got an eyeful of Marilyn in Palm Springs, what more was in store...

 Joshua Tree National Park
Probably the coolest thing about the park is that it’s in the Mojave desert (the desert between LA and Vegas). I just like saying the word ‘Mojave’, it sounds terribly exotic. I had my camera phone at the ready to take a picture of the joshua tree from U2s album of the same name, but lo and behold, the park is heavily populated with the trees, all looking pretty much the same.

Where the trees have no name
With ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ still ringing in our ears we set off on the Hidden Valley Trail. It’s about a mile long and gets its name from the narrow gaps in amongst the rocks where stolen cattle was hidden back in the wild west days. The trail was used by famous cattle rustlers, the McHaney gang (it’s always the Irish!), they would steal horses from California and cattle from Arizona, hide it in the park, then sell it out of state.

Feeling more adventurous we took the Barker Dam trail, somebody somewhere took a wrong turn and the next thing we knew we were scrambling over rocks, the trees feeling like they were closing in on us. The heat had started to intensify, even the lizards had scurried into the cracks in the rocks. At one point I led us across what appeared to be quick sand. I was having flashbacks to the Fire Swamp scene in The Princess Bride.

I kept turning but every direction looked exactly the same, rocks, trees, rocks, quicksand, trees... we were off trail and aside from the snakes, birds, and chipmunks, we were all alone. As the sweat trickled down my face and I reached for the bottle of water ...I’d left in the car, d’oh! a mild panic started to rise. Dom was convinced that if we scaled one of the rockfaces we would be moments from the car. Ehh, no! We turned around and tried to retrace our steps before the heat or rodents of an unusual size (Princess Bride ref) got us!

As the sun started to burn our faces I could hear jazz playing (blimey, I’m starting to die and St Peter has organised a lounge act to greet me at the pearly gates!). A shadow from above blocked the sun in the shape of a trumpet, then a second shadow, a reedy harmonica sound followed. We had stumbled through the rocks to find a jazz band jamming in the wild. We continued on our way as the sounds bounced of the rocks to an impressive effect.

Rehydrated and back in the car, we were back on the road coasting through desert towns. I’m not sure I could live in one, they seem so desolate, what do people do in the evenings! Then the rain came. We motored past a young blonde girl on the side of the road doing high kicks and twirling a sign, despite the downpour. I craned to see what could this cheerleader possibly be advertising on the highway to hell. The sign simply said ‘XXX’ and an arrow. I guess I worked out what people do in the evenings ‘round here’!

That said, the desert people did strike me as god fearing folk. About a mile on from the roadside ‘lady’, we whizzed past a Jehovah Witness hall. Slap bang in the middle of the desert, whose doors do they knock on?! Another mile on there were 10 billboards in a row of the 10 Commandments! A clever advertiser would put bill boards up on the opposite side of the road to the commandments advertising 10 reasons why you should buy their beer, gamble in their casino, etc. Yin and Yang. (Maybe I watch too much Mad Men!).

It was starting to get dark and we had yet to arrive at our next destination, Death Valley.

Death Valley
Driving at night in the desert is terrifying. There is no light and no sign of life. We had no idea if we were even still driving on the dusty road or had veered off and were blazing a trail of our own, 21st century pioneers with a convertible instead of a wagon, a day old sandwich and 2 smart phones that were about to give up the ghost. At last we saw a sign ‘Death Valley Junction’, population 2!

Our hotel came into view, the Amargosa Opera House. We had decided to stay somewhere quirky. It's owned by an interesting lady, Marta Becket, she was a ballerina who had danced in New York for many years in her youth. While driving through Death Valley on vacation with her husband back in the 60s they got a flat tire. This misfortune led her to discover the old opera house which had been abandoned after the goldrush ended. She fell in love with it, bought it, and never left! Every night for 38 years she staged a ballet performance in the Opera House (whether people came or not), it was a shoestring operation so she would play every part in the ballet!

The hotel is very bizarre, it’s rustic and ramshackled. It’s not unclean, it’s just outdated and badly in need of a fix up. We were met at the poorly lit front desk by an elderly gent who showed us to our room. Dom asked him how long he had worked there thinking he'd say 50 years and he said 3 months! He had retired but his wife had fallen ill and had $400k of medical expenses that insurance wouldn't fully cover so he had to go back to work (heart breaking).

Walking along the bare corridor I could feel the cold desert night air whipping up through the cracks in the floorboards. On the walls where you’d expect paintings to hang, there were paintings of hanging paintings, excellently painted but a (wonderfully) strange idea.

Paint by (room) numbers
He opened the clunky door to the small room; the worn comforter stretched to threadbare across the old bed, the closet, the hat stand, all painted on to the wall, not real items, but once again superbly painted, magnificently tragic. The second thin door led straight out to the desert, sand and the deathly cold kissed the corners of the room. The 3 of us crammed ourselves into the bathroom as the gent showed us how to turn on the tap, it’s all in the wrist apparently. He seemed genuinely surprised when the water flowed.

There was a sign in the small bathroom which read “Don't put your guest towel on your luggage, shoes or car. As it may permanently stain them”... Does the towel stain the car or the car stain the towel? Who leaves their hotel towel ‘on’ their car? And then brings it back to the hotel room? Probably the kind of crackpot who stays in a crackpot hotel in the desert!

As soon as the gent had shuffled back down the corridor, we talked exit strategies. It was nice to stay in an oddball place every now and again (see Madonna Inn) but I didn’t fancy sitting in a cold hotel room trying to work out how to paint my coat on to the wall. We sat in silence and read our books for 10 minutes, nibbling at the day old sandwich, then we looked at eachother, wasn’t there a nice restaurant about 50 miles back, screw it, let’s go!

While trying to slip out the main door (damn, we should have used the desert door off our room), we were stopped by the old gent. He heavily suggested that we go to the show that had just started in ‘the Opera House’ next door, it was a comedian from Vegas, he assured us earnestly. I did the “jeez, gosh, I’d love to, but we haven’t eaten, sooooo we saw a place a few miles back…” He wasn’t buying it, he INSISTED we go to the show and said there was a cafe beside the Opera House for food.

Feeling conflicted and not wanting to upset the elderly man, we agreed to attend the show. On the very short walk there I began to think it might be a great idea. We’d come all the way to stay in the mad house, might be fun to see the place the owner had fallen in love with and performed in every night.

The comedian was underway so we crept in. The Opera House was quaint and covered in murals in the same penmanship as the corridor and room still lifes. Like the others they were skillfully done and gave the illusion of past glamour, I like to think the elegant ballerina owner, Marta Becket, painted them. The comedian was someone's grandad (he looked very like Jim Broadbent), I think his Vegas days were long long long behind him. His routine hadn't changed since the 30s, including the Irish jokes and some catholic jokes I didn't get (I didn’t even know catholic jokes were a thing!). The 100 seater room had 10 people watching the show. Despite his conditioned bigotry, my heart broke for the grandad on stage. After 20 minutes we felt we’d done our dues, enough with the polite penance, it was time for food.

As we slipped out, I spotted a lady down the front of the theatre in a wheelchair, she sat demurely with quiet composure , I like to think it was Marta Becket, no longer able to perform herself but still coming every night to her beloved Opera House.

The cafe was pretty bad, food came in boxes, no tables were cleared, the waitress couldn’t give two hoots.

Here's your hat, where's your hurry
The bedroom was bitterly cold during the night, that morning I was glad to get up, grab my painted coat from the painted coat stand and go. It’s worth a visit for it’s eccentricity but bring your own food, and a something warm to wear, and a coat stand!

It was time to explore the park itself. To give you a feel for the heat…. It is the hottest and driest place in the US and on average is the hottest place in the world, you literally can fry your eggs on the road side. The highest temperature ever globally recorded was taken here, 134 degrees fahrenheit. Damn, that’s hot! Thankfully we weren’t there in July or I’m pretty sure I would have died, November was nicely sunny and pleasant, not overly hot. In fact when we drove over the mountain pass there was snow on the road, it even got so cold that we had to put the hood up on our convertible (first world problem!).

Only in America
The first place to drive to is Dantes View, you climb nice and high, giving you a remarkable view out over the valley and salt plains. Next head to the Artist Palette for a unique view of mountains dotted with different colours from the different splashes of mineral deposits. You see aprons of pink, green, purple, brown and black, it’s stunning. If mountains and the colour of them aren’t your thing, the Artists Drive alone is worth it, with dips, climbs, hair pin turns, slipping in between rock walls, it’s a thrill ride.

"I am woman hear me roar"
There are two golf courses in Death Valley. One you can play on and it’s claim to fame is that it is the lowest golf course on earth. The other is a geological phenomenon, a vast plain of gnarled crystallized salt spires, which resemble lots of dug up divots on a golf course. It’s very striking to see and will hypnotize you.

We hit an all time low when we cruised down to the Bad Water Basin, literally -it’s the lowest point in the Western hemisphere. It’s made up of pure white table salt, it’s like a winter wonderland of sodium chloride.

There are a few ghost towns in Death Valley. Towns that thrived during the gold rush then abandoned, destroyed by flash floods etc. One was described in its hay day as "the toughest, rawest, most hard boiled little hellhole that ever passed for civilised". What a cracking description, that’s going straight on my resume profile ;)

We tried to visit one of the ghost towns but the road was closed, I was gutted, 'visit ghost town' goes back on the bucket list.

Death Valley was a blast, and I will never forget the Opera House. But it was time to head on the long drive home, just time for one more stop in... Paso Robles.

Paso Robles

white picket suburbia
It’s not that far from SLO, a beautiful, cute dinky town, lots of houses with white picket fences, that kinda place. Dom had warned me that the hotel/motel was some random cheapo one he had booked last minute on the fly and would probably be pretty awful. I was kind of dreading it as we had stayed in some crazy places on this trip, I really just wanted something ‘nice’. It didn’t have to be flash, just warm, clean and nothing pink. I braced myself for some cockroach infested ice cube but it turned out to be completely and utterly generic and unremarkable, I was delighted.

After my generic rest we took a stroll around the town, trundled through the park, checked out the museums (childrens museum, pioneer museum - ok, I didn’t actually go into either of them, but ya know, they looked awesome), I did however poke around the antique and furniture stores, saw restaurants to suit every mood, even spotted an Irish bar. The town has everything, I could easily live there.

December sunshine
The park is especially pretty, it has an old fashioned gazebo bandstand, and in Sept there is an outdoor pajama party movie night in the park (what?! missed it by months, that is right up my alley). The locals were very friendly and were happy to recommend places, things to do. A great place for coffee is the Amsterdam cafe, it has the old half doors that you expect a horse to stick its head over.

It feels very much like an old pioneer town "done good". The area is a well known wine region so lots of local wineries to visit and downtown wine festivals to swirl around if you come in the summer. I am excited about coming back to Paso Robles one day.

The road trip to Southern California was one of our most memorable vacations (and we’ve taken a few!) but keep reading to find out how it compares when we turned the car towards the Golden Gate Bridge and kept going…

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  1. I'd really would like to visit Death Valley National Park after reading this account of your experience there (though my family and I may avoid the Amargosa Opera House)! Looking forward to your next post.


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