A few years back I had an opportunity to take one heck of a road trip. I’ve never really taken the time to write about it until now.
Ever since watching E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, I’ve always wanted to see the redwood forests in California. In the summer of 2010 I found myself with some vacation time to take, a car, and a friend (named Josh) who was willing to go along for the ride. Josh wanted to see Big Sur (a coastal region in California). While we were at it, I figured we might as well try to catch Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats. (Yes, that’s to the east, but hey, it’s a road trip!)
Our point of departure was Calgary, Alberta. Our original plan was to leave at a decent time in the morning, but after running a few errands, we didn’t get away until late morning. The first leg of our journey took us south of Calgary on highway 22, behind a set of mountains, and through the Crowsnest Pass.
From there, we continued to head west, to get to the nearest Canada/U.S.A. border crossing. If you haven’t driven this route before, it’s an interesting one. Before heading south, the sharp peaked, grey topped, pine covered mountains suddenly seem to give way to a flatter, drier break between mountain ranges. Keep your eyes out, and you may actually spot a badger crossing sign. I’m not sure how many major highways have badger crossing signs, but this is one of them!
Just before Creston, we headed south through the border crossing. We seemed to have timed it just right, as a thunder storm had just passed through a valley ahead of us. We stopped for another quick break, then kept heading down toward Spokane.
In Spokane, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, then started heading southwest, along the I-90. I had never driven this far west before, at least in the U.S., so this is where Josh’s navigation skills started coming in handy. Thankfully he had an iPhone with him with GPS and some form of a map on it. Around this time, it started to get dark out.
To the southwest of Spokane, we headed over a crest only to discover a fairly well lit complex in the distance. We weren’t quite sure what it was until we drove a little closer, and discovered it was a rather large prison! It seemed pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which I guess is a good thing for a prison. And no, we didn’t spot (or pick up any) hitch-hikers!
My brother had asked a small favor before I left: If I stopped at any place interesting, he wanted me to buy him a pin - the kind that old people collect and stick on hats. Given that we were headed the direction, I figured we’d make a small detour to Walla Walla Washington, to see if I could get him a pin. Somehow we ended up missing Walla Walla, and landed in Kennewick. For sleeping arrangements, our original plan was to camp as much as possible. We weren’t near any camp grounds (that we could find), so we kept driving, and found ourselves on the south side of the Columbia River. With no obvious place to stop and sleep, we kept driving. Eventually I knew I was going to have to sleep, so I had Josh find a place on the map. He picked what appeared to be a campground on the north side of the Columbia river (which was technically back in Washington). When we arrived, we discovered it was some sort of park, and not a campground. There was a sign that said no camping, but at this point we both needed to sleep, and it was pretty much our only option - and likely the safest rather than continuing on. We didn’t set up the tent we had brought with us, but instead leaned our seats back as far as we could. Before falling asleep, I had to snap a few photos of the stars. Being pretty far out from any major cities, the sky was amazingly clear.
The next morning, we woke up, and tried to figure out exactly where we were. We were on the north side of the river, and we weren’t entirely sure what the next place would be to cross over, so we kept heading west. Since we had a fair bit of time on our hands, Josh thought it would be entertaining to take a detour up to Astoria, and see where they filmed the Goonies. Hey, why not, it’s a road trip! We somehow winded our way up through Portland, and over to Astoria (looking back at it, I suspect we took interstate 30, as we entered Astoria from the east, but that’s just a guess).
We saw a few sites, stopped by the local tourist information center, and they told us of a few nearby sites to check out - including a beach. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and we had time on our hands, so why not! The stretch between Astoria and Seaside had some amazing scenery. We stopped at a random beach, and chatted with a few locals. Apparently they only have a few days a year that were that nice, and we were there on one of them!
Oddly enough, I didn’t do a lot of research before the road trip, so I didn’t know to stop at Cannon Beach. A few friends of mine would do a similar road trip a few weeks later, and I was jealous of the places they had stopped at!
It was somewhere around this point that we got word from Josh’s friend - that he was going to be following a similar route south with his family. He wanted to meet up with us and spend a few days travelling with us instead, but we had to meet him in Grants Pass - a decent distance to the south. Thanks to the modern miracle of technology, he was able to leave a mostly intelligible voicemail on my Google Voice account, telling us where he was going to be. This didn’t give us a ton of time to get down there to pick him up, so we cut back inland, dropped south. From what I recall, by the time we picked him up, it was early evening. Oh, and one thing I forgot - his name was Joshua. Josh and Joshua. Got it. To make it less confusing, Joshua got the nickname of “Carlos”.
My plan for that evening was to camp somewhere - ideally in a proper camp ground. By the time we got everything sorted out, and were on our way again, it was getting dark out. Somewhere just before getting into California, we got pulled over. I was pretty sure I wasn’t speeding or doing anything wrong, but apparently three people in a Honda Civic with Canadian plates, travelling after dark on a reasonably remote road aroused suspicion, so the authorities wanted to make sure nothing was up. No harm, no foul. I asked the officer if he knew of any nearby campgrounds, but he didn’t know of any, so we continued on our way.
If you’ve never driven into the state of California, it’s an interesting experience. It’s somewhat akin to driving between the U.S./Canada border. The border agents ask if you if you have any fresh fruit or vegetables, or that sort of thing. Agriculture is a huge thing for the Californian economy, so they try to protect it from any sort of pests or disease. We didn’t have any produce with us, so they didn’t give us any hassle.
It may also be worth mentioning at this point that my choice in road trip food wasn’t the healthiest, so it’s not like we had to worry about declaring any fruits or vegetables. We had brought a huge bag of taco chips with us, as well as some chocolate mini-wheats cereal, and purchased a few bottles of Mountain Dew every time we stopped for gas. There may have also been a few bags of Doritos consumed along the way, as well as some KFC. (Hey, don’t judge me - they didn’t have the KFC Biscuit Bowls up here in Canada back then!). Josh managed to eat a lot better during the trip, as he’d grab a few things at a grocery store, like yogurt for breakfast. More on this later.
By the time we reached the Jedediah Smith Redwood campground, it was after 10:00 pm. Technically the sign said no check-ins past a certain time, but we did our best to be as quiet as possible when paying the camping fee and setting up the tent. It was at this point that Josh had started to fill up his air mattress he had brought along. The tent I had brought was technically a 3 man tent, but really, it was more like one man, a giant air mattress, and Joshua (aka “Carlos”) squished up against one wall. It was really an entertaining sight - three grown men trying to set up a tent in the dark, all while trying to be as quiet as possible, and without shining our flashlight around at other campers.
Rather than squeezing in there, I ended up sleeping outside. That night the view of the stars was incredible - again. Especially seeing the stars through the tips of the redwoods.
The next morning we figured it’d be nice to clean up a bit. There was a coin operated shower in the campground, and Josh went first. After some time, he came back and abruptly stated “It don’t take no caribou”. I was puzzled. “What?” to which he replied -“The shower - it doesn’t take Canadian quarters.” (One side of the Canadian quarter coin has a caribou on it). Between the three of us, we didn’t have enough coinage for everyone to take a shower. Oh well. On to the next adventure!
We packed up our gear and headed to the nearby ranger’s station to see what was in the local area. Somehow we discovered (or were told about) something called “Old coach road” - a road which would take us through some nice redwoods. That sounded pretty good! The road itself was quite dusty, but it was quite a nice drive!
While we were at the ranger’s station, we got some details on a few hikes. We didn’t want anything too crazy, but we did spot an interesting one - the hike to the Boy Scout tree. The tree (or group of trees) is known from a photo taken at the turn of the 20th century, where a whole troop of boy scouts stood in front of the tree.
Shortly after we started on the trail, Josh was gone. Somehow, while wearing sandals, he managed to hoof it along, leaving Joshua (“Carlos”) and I in the dust. We knew we’d meet him eventually at the end of the trail, but the poor diet and lack of sleep had taken its toll on me. After probably a good 45 minutes of hiking, we found Josh - sitting in on a log in front of a waterfall.
We almost managed to miss the Boy Scout tree, as it’s off the path on your way back. You’d think it’d be easy to spot something that large!
After our hike, we grabbed some supper at a Subway restaurant in Crescent City, and decided to check out what the local beach was like. Given the Beach Boy’s songs about California, I was expecting sun and sand. We found the sand, but the sun was covered by a seemingly endless blanket of misty fog. We didn’t really have a lot of cool weather gear with us, but heading down a path along the cliff to get to the ocean still made for a neat experience.
After our hike, we hopped back in the car and were again on our way.
Something else that is interesting about being a Canadian travelling through the U.S. - paying for gas using a credit card. It seems like most places will let you pay directly at the pump - assuming you have a zip code. We don’t have zip codes in Canada - we have postal codes that contain both numbers and letters. Before I left, I had a coworker warn me about Eureka. He described it as a total crack/meth town. When we were filling up with gas there, I got a little freaked out by the gas attendant who took my credit card into the store. Ideally, you should never let your card out of your site - you never know if it’s being double swiped, copied, or who knows what. I never did have issues with any odd transactions showing up on that card, so I guess it was fine in the end, but still an odd experience. We did look for a hotel in Eureka, but apparently everything was booked solid. Oh well.
We drove until I got tired, pulled over, napped in the car for an hour or two, and kept going. Our goal was to make it to San Francisco to go to church there. Instead of staying on the #1, we cut inland to the #101, and trundled along. By the time I got tired again, it was the early hours of the morning and Josh and Joshua had their fill of trying to sleep in the car. They insisted on sleeping on the air mattress somewhere outside. Josh picked another random park on his GPS - somewhere near San Rafael. It so happened the park they picked was a hill, so they dragged the air mattress up to the top of the hill, and slept on it, while I slept in (and guarded) the car. By the time the sun was up, so were Josh and Joshua. Since we hadn’t showered in a while, we needed to find some place to get tidied up before going to church. On his iPhone, Josh found a public swimming pool a few blocks from the church. Showering alone was well worth the $2 or $3 entrance fee.
At church, we got chatting with a few people and got invited to dinner by some of the single ladies. When we were getting ready to follow them back to their place, the one was on her phone, and asked me what my last name was. “Huh. Hang on a second.” It turns out she was on her phone with her mom, and we actually figured out that we were relatives - something like second cousins! Her and her sister had moved from Missouri. Talk about a small world! We had an enjoyable evening eating, chatting, and comparing small differences in accents. The ladies had a friend who was cool enough to let us crash at his place for the night. Driving to his place, I don’t think I’ve ever driven up such steep roads! His place was literally perched on the edge of a cliff. Not the place I’d choose to live if there were an earthquake, but given the small amounts of real-estate available, I guess options are limited!
The next day I wanted to spend a bit of time seeing the sights in San Francisco. We managed to find some parking in a parking garage (along with a few interesting cars!), and walked around for a bit. I had never tried an In-n-out burger before, and honestly - it was one of the larger disappointments of the trip. After hearing all the hype, it just didn’t do it for me. Oh well.
After checking out the sights, including Ghirardelli square, we were again on our way. Josh wanted to make a slight detour to San Jose, to see if he could get himself a limited San Jose Sharks hockey jersey, that supposedly they only sell on site at the stadium there. We looked it up online, and the store wasn’t supposed to close until 6:00 pm, but when we got there it was closed - at 5:00 pm. Apparently there was a Lada Gaga concert going on, so they closed the store early. Thanks but no thanks, Lada Gaga! After that, we continued on. By nightfall we were in Santa Cruz. We walked around for a little bit of a break, then continued on our way.
From Santa Cruz, we continued on until we got to Big Sur. By this time, it was pretty late at night, but we had to stop and check out an area there’s a waterfall that flows down onto the beach. Josh had wonderful plans that we’d sleep on the beach, but as it turns out, there’s no beach access. There was something about the agreement that when the land was handed over to the state, they would restrict access to it - or something like that. The best we could do was barely make out a misty looking waterfall flowing into a beach covered in darkness. I think it was a bit of a let-down for Josh, but we still needed to find some place to sleep.
The situation was a bit... odd. Any campground we came across was full, and there were cars pulled off on the sides of the roads at pretty much every place we tried to. There weren’t really any good places to even pull over to sleep in the car. To add to it, there was the constantly creepy fog that had settled over everything. Given the number of cars that we saw on the sides of the road, our conclusion was that there was an ax murderer on the loose, and he’d killed everyone in all the cars we saw.
Eventually I had to pull over because I was getting too tired - ax murder or not. Josh checked his iPhone, and supposedly there was a road that led down to the beach. He convinced Joshua (“Carlos”) and I that it would be much better to sleep down there, than in the car up near the road. ‘It’ll be great! We’ll wake up on the sandy beach to the warm sun!’. After following the road down to the bottom of the hill, it was cold, misty, and rocky. So much for the beach. :P As we got ready to bunk down for yet another night in the car, we found a rather large eight-legged hitch hiker in the back window. If the ax murder didn’t get us, then I guess the spider would have!
The next morning, after spending yet another night sleeping in the “hotel Honda” (although we didn’t call it that on the trip, I think it is still a suiting name!), we hit the road again. We were all a bit tired and worn down, and we could all have used a little something to perk up our spirits. The fog of the coast finally lifted somewhere around San Luis Obispo, and we finally got a bit of sunshine! I had to laugh at the local transit system there. I think it is well named - San Luis Obispo (“SLO”) transit.
After driving along for a while, I spotted it - a nice looking town with a beach! Having never heard of it before, we managed to find Pismo Beach - and it was nice! We even found the quintessential Californian scene - the kind that the Beach Boys sang of!
The visit to the beach was just the ticket! After spending a while (maybe a few hours?) hanging out on the beach, we were again on our way. If we spotted another beach, we’d visit it as well - and we did exactly that! Josh gave me directions from his iPhone on how to get to a beach in Santa Barbara. It was a bit more crowded than Pismo, but still nice sand. That was until I stepped on a blob of what appeared to be crude oil. Ugh. There were a few oil rig looking things within visible distance of the beach. Oh well.
After leaving Santa Barbara, we got back on the highway and I spotted it - an orange orchard! Having grown up where the only things that grow on trees are pine cones or crab apples, I had to stop and check it out! I pulled off onto a side road, and found the nearest farm house, and knocked on the door. The guy who answered it was really cool, and let us take a few photos and try an orange or two. He said we had missed the avocado harvest by a week or two. Oh well - how was I, as a Canadian, supposed to know when avocados are harvested? It was still really neat to see citrus fruit growing on trees, and it was neat talking to a guy who grew them for a living. He said we could grab a few oranges. Thanks random farmer guy! It also turns out citrus is really good for removing crude oil stuck under your finger nails. Who would have guessed
Around this time I was able to get in touch with an acquaintance of mine who I knew from being a missionary. We got together with him and his fiance for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. Although we didn’t get to eat any avocados directly from the grower, the ones in the Mexican food were still really good!
It turns out my friend’s fiance was house-sitting a mansion (and there’s no way of putting it - it was a mansion!), and allowed us to stay there for the night. It was in one of those seriously ritzy gated neighborhoods where everyone has a swimming pool and a six car garage. I definitely felt out of place in such a fancy neighborhood, but it was nice to sleep in/on something other than a driver’s seat for a change.
The next day we had to drop Joshua (“Carlos”) off at a relative’s house, somewhere in Carlsbad by the mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have a lot of time to check out the sights in Los Angeles. Not that I really wanted to, though. I suspect three white-as-can-be Canadians driving a car with Canadian plates through the wrong part of L.A. would attract all the wrong kinds of attention. Maybe that was for the better.
By mid-late afternoon, we had dropped of Joshua where he needed to be. The trip was a bit quieter without him, but Josh and I continued on. We stopped at one more beach - Solana beach. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite as nice as Pismo.
From there on, we continued a bit further south to San Diego. I snapped a few pictures of the LDS temple, and we went down to the harbor to snap a few other pictures.
We had thought about driving across the border to Mexico, but something didn’t seem quite right about doing so. As it would later turn out, it’s a good thing we didn’t. After watching the sun set in San Diego, we headed back up, and toward Las Vegas. We powered on, and by about 1:00 am in the morning, we found ourselves on the strip. For anyone who has been there, the strip at 1:00 am on a weekday is probably best described as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”.
By the time we had seen a bit of the strip, it was pushing toward 3:00 am, and neither of us felt like paying for a hotel room for just a few hours of sleep. Josh pulled out his iPhone, picked a park, and we headed for it. We found some nice cool grass to sleep on next to the parking spot we had picked. There was a gentle breeze blowing, but the air was still warm, so there wasn’t even any need to bring out the sleeping bags or blankets.
When we woke up in the morning, it turned out we had picked a spot next to a baseball diamond, and we got a few odd looks from some early morning dog walkers. I can’t blame them. If I were out walking my dog and saw a few scruffy looking foreigners sleeping next to a baseball diamond, I’d probably give them the stink-eye as well.
That morning we checked out a few places in Vegas, including a souvenir shop and the place where they filmed Pawn Stars.
From Las Vegas, we pushed on to St. George for lunch. Josh had heard about some “frozen custard” dessert, that was supposed to be all the rage there, so we had some. It wasn’t bad. Thankfully the car’s air conditioning kept running nicely, so we didn’t have to suffer too much from the heat. (Before we left, my dad was concerned about the car overheating, but it ran perfectly during the trip!)
From St. George, we headed over to Zion National Park. Despite our lack of quality sleep and poor diet (or at least my poor diet), we still managed to go for a small hike. Zion National Park is definitely a neat place, and I’d not hesitate to check it out again, and do some more hikes.
From here on, the details about the trip are a bit more scarce. We headed from Zion National Park on our way up to Provo. That night I think we made it as far as Cove Fort, before we pulled over and slept in the car (again). The next morning we drove from there to Spanish Fork, and stopped for some lunch before meeting up with an old friend of mine in Provo. By this point we were both getting pretty tired, so we wanted to take things a bit easier. We were able to get showered and cleaned up, and spend a bit of time just walking around - a bit of a luxury after being in the car for so many hours. That night, we stayed at the friend’s, with the intent of waking up in good time to go drive to Bonneville the next day to catch the last day of speed week.
Unfortunately, we slept in. By the time we got on the road, it was later than I had hoped. We booked it west of Salt Lake City on the I-80, and out toward the salt flats.
In the distance, we could see smoke rising from something on the highway. A few minutes later, we saw fire trucks headed that direction. As we got closer, we saw that a motor-home (or RV - recreational vehicle) had pulled over to the side of the road, and the front half of it was engulfed in flames, and the former occupants (hopefully all of them!) were watching it burn to the ground! (It was then that I decided carrying a fire extinguisher in my car was a good idea! If not for my own sake, but for someone else’s!). We didn’t manage to catch any pictures of it, but made it safely to the salt flats.
The salt flats themselves are strange. When you drive from Salt Lake City to Wendover, it feels like you are staring at the same scenery for hours. The only thing that changes is that the mountains get slightly larger as you get closer to Wendover. Just before you get to Wendover, there’s a turn-off on the north side of the road that allows access out to the salt flats. Because we got there late, most of the vehicles were already packed up. But that also meant there was no admission charge. Score!
I did spot a few neat looking cars out there, including an old Ford. (At one point I tried to find the owner of it online, so I could send him a print of the photo, but I didn’t have any luck).
We poked around a bit, but pretty much everyone had left by then. I was already due for an oil change at this point, so I didn’t want to flog the car hard, but I will say that I drove faster there than I’ve ever driven anywhere else. :P It was kind of a shame that we missed seeing the high speed runs, but still a neat experience. From there, we headed back to Provo to stay with the friend again that night.
The rest of the road trip is a bit of a blur. At some point we headed out to a missionary reunion in the Provo canyon, spent a bit of time in downtown Salt Lake, and then headed home on the I-15 - back to Canada. It’s somewhere between a 12-15 hour drive (depending on how fast you drive), and I had to be back to work on the Monday, so we had to hurry along. It seems that like no matter what I do, I always end up driving through Idaho in the dark. Whether that’s a good thing or not, remains to be seen.
Given the timing of when we left, we ended up having to spend one more night in the car. Josh located a nice suitable piece of lush green grass next to a bank, and had just laid down, only to have a sprinkler system kick on and give him a good spray. We quickly relocated to another piece of grass for a quick nighttime nap, then kept driving.
On our way back across the U.S./Canada border, the very terse border guard asked us three questions:
Her: “Did you go to Mexico?”
Her: “Did you modify your car in any way?”
Me: “No. I had to replace a burned out headlight, but it was a stock part.”
Her: “Are you sure you didn’t go to Mexico?”
Me: “No, we didn’t go to Mexico.”
Her: “Okay, go on through”.
That was about the fastest border crossing I have ever had! I suspect if she saw the 9 cases of American Mountain Dew she might have asked a few more questions!
All in all, it made for one heck of an experience - something that I had both dreamed and hadn’t dreamed of doing. We accomplished our goals (sort of) of seeing the redwood trees, Big Sur, and Bonneville, and we saw a lot of neat and unexpected stuff in between. And with that, perhaps I’ll offer a few pieces of advice that I learned on the trip:
- Plan a rough outline of what you’d like to see, and a reasonable time-frame of how long it takes to get from place to place. Plan in some extra time for the unexpected (good or bad).
- Make sure you do at least a very basic maintenance check before going on any sort of long trip.
- Take a friend on a trip. It’ll make the experience a lot more enjoyable. I look forward when I can take my wife and kids on a trip like this (although maybe a bit less sketchy sleeping arrangements!).
- Be nice to people. You never know who you might run into, or the kindness that people will show in return.
- Carry a fire extinguisher in your car. If not for you, for someone else.
- Have some sort of mobile device with GPS, and preferably off-line map capability. I’m not sure how much Josh ended up paying for his data plan that month, but it was a life-saver.
- If you see something neat during a trip, stop and check it out - especially if you’ve budgeted the time for it.
- If you have a feeling that you should (or shouldn’t) do something - listen to that feeling. I suspect if we would have gone to Mexico, we would have been held up and strip-searched at the border.
- Don’t store a gas can in the trunk of a car. For the entire trip, we carried with us a 20 L gas can in the trunk. We’re very lucky the car didn’t self-immolate and burn to the ground. It did allow us to cover nearly 1,000 km stretches at a time, but the risk just isn’t worth it.
- Don’t sleep in sketchy places. I suspect some of the places we slept would have been questionable at best. If you plan your trip properly, you won’t end up sleeping in the car much.
- Don’t travel through the U.S. without some sort of travel insurance. A few weeks after I did my trip, a friend did a similar trip, except hers didn’t end well. She took a little tumble down a cliff in Oregon, and had to spend a few nights in a hospital. The <$100 she spent on travel insurance likely saved her several thousand dollars in medical fees.