USA Trip


16th December 2005 - 9th January 2006

California - Los Angeles to San Francisco




Several weeks of planning had gone into this, my first ever visit to the USA.  With about 10 days leave and the public holidays around Christmas and New Year thrown in, I was able to string together about 3 weeks away. I had driven down from Royston to my niece in Bromley the night before my departure. Michelle reckoned it was easy to get to London city Airport from Lewisham, as a new extension to the line had just been opened on the Docklands light railway.  We were up early at five in the morning. My flight departure was set for 09h00. Upon arrival at Lewisham, Michelle established that several changes were necessary which did nothing to calm my nerves, until I saw the layout of the line for myself. Taking the Stratford line required changing at Poplar for King George V or Canning Town for Becktan line.  I arrived at LCY in good time at least two hours before departure, checking in and joining a further queue to get my Paris Charles de Gaulle boarding pass issued. This was where I pick up my connection bound for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Against my wishes, I was requested to take my rucksack on the trolley so as to hand it in by hand for storage in the hold.  This added a further complication as I was about to board the flight, as the detection system picked up a camping knife and fork set which they insisted I could post home or had to be confiscated.


  I have to say that Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport is a complete and utter shambles and the worst run airport I have yet to experience. Having arrived late, coupled with the over- complicated bus transfer, I thought I would miss my connecting flight.  Upon arrival for check-in at gate 900 as indicated, without any announcement whatsoever, boarding had shifted to gate 800 at the other end of the concourse. The narrow aisle was as crowded as a market place in the paw-paw season. Departure for LAX had been delayed.  My rucksack again proved an inconvenience or was it the inability of ground staff to deal with it adequately? As my luggage had been booked through, I was instructed to leave it at the bottom of the stairway as I boarded, for placement in the hold.  Had I not heard my name being called out just after settling down, my rucksack might just have been left behind on the tarmac. It was finally taken aboard and with this sorted out, I settled down in the middle seat 'K' between a Philippino and girl, registered for a PhD in History at Oxford.

Chaparral shrubland found in the Mediterranean climate of California, similar to fynbos found in Cape Town.


The effects of the lengthy twelve hour flight to LAX would be my first experience of jet lag, whatever that was.  After two meals and able to take some rest, we flew  into LAX late afternoon the same day, chasing time in the process.  This proved the source of my first error in that I had reserved an Alamo car hire for the following day.  After getting through customs without too much fuss,  photo and fingerprints taken and being questioned as to the purpose of my visit, I found myself bewildered by the sheer enormity of LAX.  What I had not known in advance was that any further service could only be reached by one of a number of shuttle buses passing by the airport terminal.  There was a shuttle bus for car hire, another for hotels, one for getting to a connecting flight etc.  and so I managed, somehow, with all my luggage, to end up at Alamo's offices.  Fortunately, I had a plethora of vehicles to choose from and my Chrysler PR was available in about five different colours. I had been persuaded to upgrade to a medium sized car. For a period of some 60 seconds I was brain dead and struggled, initially at least, with the automatic, my first touch of the brakes almost sending me headlong through the windscreen. I took a few wrong turns but after rechecking the map, I located Lincoln Boulevard leading on to the Pacific Coast Highway, which took me through Santa Monica. I had no preconceived plan as what I where I was going to stay, though Santa Monica had come to mind. Somewhat bewildered, I found myself passing through busy town centres, one of which where a security guard, confident that I was going in the right direction, quipped: "It's plain sailing except for the red lights and them pretty little girls."  Then the countryside with darkened hills loomed around me. I also got directions from a traffic officer, when stopped in a roadblock. Exhausted, I stopped at a Holiday Inn Express in Camarillo.  

A Quinceañera celebration at a church in Santa Barbara.


The limo hired for the Quinceañera celebration.


A Mexican family celebrate Quinceañera, when a fifteen year-old comes of age.


Guests at a Mexican Quinceañera.

  Around 09h30 Saturday morning I left after breakfast, which I was beginning to discover was nothing like English B&Bs. Driving up to Santa Barbara, I took the Mission Santa Barbara turn-off to the top end of town, which I would later visit.  This stretch of coast along southern Santa Barbara County is often referred to as the "American Riviera" because of its Mediterranean climate. It is the historical home of the Chumash Tribe. The town itself was very pretty. The Santa Ynez Mountains, an east-west trending range, rise dramatically behind the city, with several peaks exceeding 4,000 feet. Covered with chaparral, a dense shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in California (similar to fynbos in the Cape region of South Africa and plant communities found in other Mediterranean climate regions) and with sandstone outcrops, they make a famously scenic backdrop to the town. After the 1925 earthquake destroyed much of the downtown Santa Barbara commercial district, the Mission revival style of architecture was adopted by city leaders.

Downtown Santa Barbara Christmas carols by a local brass band.


Meridian Studios, Santa Barbara.


Mission Santa Barbara.


The chapel of Mission Santa Barbara.


Santa Barbara Mission is a Spanish Franciscan mission which was founded on 4th December, 1786, the feast day of  Saint Barbara, to evangelize the local Chumash (Canaliño) tribe. It was only after the great Santa Barbara Earthquake on the 21st December, 1812, which destroyed the existing buildings, that the construction on the current Mission was begun. It was completed and then dedicated in 1820. The towers were considerably damaged in the June 29th, 1925, earthquake, but were subsequently rebuilt. The appearance of the inside of the church has not been altered significantly since 1820.


Mission Santa Barbara.


I stopped downtown near a park in the centre of the residential area and witnessed the aftermath of a ceremony, in celebration of a fifteen year-old Mexican girl coming of age. The celebration, known as Quinceañera, has very unique roots in Mexico. It means that the girl is now able to participate in social events. It is a highly Catholic tradition and is a Christian adaptation by the Spanish of the pagan Aztec Ceremony of Woman, though it is celebrated in other Christian churches too. Photographs were being taken outside the church, involving various members of her proud family.  Limousines stood in waiting, as it was obvious that a reception had been planned. It was warm, yet mild and sunny. I walked the commercial centre of the upmarket, trendy town and then returned for a tour of the Mission. I went in search of an inn to stay for the night, first along the hillside above the town but then settled for one down near Santa Barbara Harbour, below Highway 101. After settling into my room at the Days Inn, I walked down to the pier at Stearns Wharf, originally built in 1872., ordering a fish & chips meal and downing it with a Chardonnay, well known in this coastal region of California. It had turned dark around 17h00 but the day's travelling had caught up with me and I faded around 19h00.


Facades of Mission Santa Barbara.


Santa Barbara (in summer) with the Santa Ynez Mountain as a backdrop - photo courtesy of wiki website

I was fast becoming accustomed to the miniscule breakfasts US-style, those of the Days Inn accommodation, at a total cost of $70, being no exception. It was overcast Sunday morning and there had been some rain. I stopped to have one last look at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Anacapa Street, a Spanish-Moorish style building was completed in 1929, after the 1925 earthquake ruined much of the city. It occupies a square block in downtown Santa Barbara.  Civic events, performances and numerous weddings are held on the attractively landscaped Sunken Garden where the 1872 courthouse once stood. taking State Street, I joined Highway 154, San Marco Pass Road, which climbed steeply into the mist. I stopped at Vista Point to photograph Lake Cachuma, a man-made lake, the largest on the Santa Ynez River, which flows from east to west through the Santa Ynez Valley. The 75 mile long river drains the north slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the south slope of the San Rafael Mountains, as well as much of the southern half of Santa Barbara County.  

Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

  The river's flow is highly variable. It usually dries up almost completely in the summer, but can become a raging torrent in the winter, reaching the Pacific Ocean at Surf, near the city of Lompoc, after passing by the town of Santa Ynez and the cities of Solvang and Buellton. Lompoc is derived from a  Chumash word "Lum Poc" that means "little lake" or "lagoon." The Spanish called it "lumpoco". The Santa Ynez Mountains are a portion of the Transverse Ranges ( also known as the Los Angeles Ranges), part of the Pacific Coast Ranges of the west coast of North America. Occasionally extremely destructive fires originate in the Santa Ynez Mountains. In June 1990, a fire which began near Painted Cave burned south into the city of Santa Barbara, driven by sundowner winds, destroying over 500 homes. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the area around Lompoc was inhabited by the Chumash tribe, a Native American people who historically inhabit mainly the southern coastal regions of California, in the vicinity of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

En route along Highway 154 (San Marco Pass Road).

In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain. The Mexican government granted the land around Lompoc to various settlers via land patents known as 'ranchos'. The United States gained control of California in the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848. The Chumash were hunter-gatherers and were adept at fishing.

Solvang City, of Danish origin.


After travelling all the way up to the town of Santa Ynez, I took the 246 (Mission Drive) to the city of Solvang, approximately 20 miles to the west of the lake. Solvang means "Sunny Field" in Danish. It was founded in 1911 on 9,000 acres of formerly Spanish land by a group of Danish educators. The settlers of this city left for the west to escape mid-western winters. The city is home to some bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark in California. The architecture of many of the buildings follows traditional German style. There is a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen, as well as one featuring the bust of famed Danish fable writer Hans Christian Anderson.  A prominent feature of the town is  the Danish styled windmill and numerous Tudor-style buildings. The town somehow smacked of architectural self-indulgence, incongruous with the Californian surroundings. I confess, however, that I succumbed to temptation, attracted by the Old Danish Food Farm corner shop's extraordinary selection of fudge. Avoiding Highway 246 for the moment, I detoured via Atterdag, Chalk Hill and Ballard Canyon Roads all the way up to Highway 154, the San Marco Pass Road, at Los Olivos. The purpose of this deviation was to pick up some of the back routes through the central California wine region, though I knew little of this region at the time.


Vista Point at Lake Cachuma, on Highway 154; Along Ballard Canyon Road; A wine farm near the Foxon Canyon wine trail.


Los Olivos is renowned for its wineries, such as Firestone Wineries. Unbeknown to me, Neverland Ranch, an amusement park created by Michael Jackson in 1988, is 5 miles north of Los Olivos. Also well-known is the Foxon Canyon Wine Trail, just off the 154, with Los Olivos at the southernmost end. Instead of joining Highway 101 from highway 154, I turned into Zaca Station Road, continuing until it joined up with Foxon Canyon, until I reached Santa Maria, where I stopped to fill up with fuel at the Valley Pacific. No sooner had I inserted the fuel pump hose into the vehicle's fuel tank than the system shut down, the timing being such that I thought I had caused this. The fuel station had in fact run out of fuel. With the Pakistani manager on the phone, I tried the fuel station across the road and put in about $25. One thing I noticed about the road system was the plethora of speed signs at almost every turn, continually setting the speed limit. I needed to press on, now picking up the faster El Camino Real Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo, the town in which I had more than just a passing interest. Just before reaching San Luis Obispo (Spanish for St. Louis, the Bishop), I turned off to explore the coast at San Luis and photographed some partially constructed houses in wet rainy conditions. Almost all homes in California and in most of the Pacific northwest are of wooden construction. The Fremont Theatre, Monterey Street, is where Yes recorded a number of live tracks, released on the Keys to Ascension album. The music I had brought with me had been going down a treat. I turned off just before Paso Robles on Highway 101 and took Green Valley Road down to the coast and booked in at the Bluebird Motel in Cambria, just before dark, at a cost of only $48, before walking in the rain to a Mexican restaurant up Main Street for dinner. The waitress was friendly but somewhat air-headed. I then discovered Seekers Glass Gallery, renowned for American studio Glass Art, which was still open. It was an astonishing place.


Most if not all residential structures and many others in California are of wooden construction; A wooden construction in progress; Fremont Theatre, San Luis Obispo, where Yes performed and recorded.


Monday morning I checked out of the Bluebird Motel after "breakfast", two slices of cake and a coffee. I unsuccessfully tried to call my friend Barry in Napa, my destination on the Los Angeles to San Francisco leg, optimistically expecting to be there in the late afternoon. Barry and I had been at school together and this was the first time we were meeting up since those youthful days. I headed out on the coast on San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway (Cabrillo Highway 1) through San Simeon to Hearst Castle, the historical estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It was 09h20 and thus the time was insufficient to take a tour of the estate, the next being some time off.  I stopped at William Hearst Memorial State Beach and met an English couple on the jetty. In 1953 the Hearst Corporation donated the area comprising the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach to San Luis Obispo County in memory of William Randolph Hearst. Under the stewardship of the California State Parks, the park was classified as a State Beach and renamed William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach in 1971.


Bluebird Motel in Cambria; Seekers Glass gallery, Cambria; Hearst Memorial State Beach.


Coastal Highway 1, California, somewhere near Big Sur.


USA Trip

16th December 2005 - 9th January 2006

Part One - California [1] [2] [3]

Part Two - Nevada

Part Three - Utah

Part Four - Arizona

(to follow)

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