Week ONE

Map of the United States

Okay, technically, I'm not sure yet if this is true. I'm writing this at 1:42am on May 14, so I'm just prognosticating our departure. We may actually be leaving early on the 16th of May. Why? Because we can! Or not! Whatever we feel like! But we are at least mostly packed, we have a plan, the Shark has air conditioning, and this evening's earthquake was a clear omen that it's time to fish or cut bait, or put another way, get out of earthquake country and start heading seriously toward tornado country.

There are people who sit in this traffic every day.
Now that's more like it.

On May 16 we arrived in Groveland, California, about an hour from the entrance to Yosemite. We left the house at 2:35, but the price of luggage (we needed one more piece of luggage, bringing our total to twelve thousand) at Any Mountain (duffel bags, $70) forced us to make an additional stop at Redwood Trading Post (duffel bags, $15); between that and the forty minutes it takes to fill the gas tank of a 1971 muscle car, we made it onto the highway at 4:05. The reward for our sloth was the company of all eight hundred million people whose lives are so unimaginably wretched that enduring the hellish commute from the Peninsula out to Stockton or Tracy is, somehow, better than whatever the alternative must be. Two and a half hours of clutch-grinding stop-and-go traffic, however, eventually gave way to the lovely, rolling, two-lane blacktop of Route 120, our only company a maroon Dodge Durango 4x4 so new it still had dealer plates on, also on its way to Yosemite. Groveland is a lovely place, and the woman running the Hotel Charlotte was kind enough to inform us at length that one of her King Charles Spaniels had gotten up on the counter the day before, eaten five chocolates, and spent the entire night throwing up. Sure, it took 15 minutes for the hot water to arrive, and the shower nozzle was at eye-level for a normal-sized person, but if you adjusted the dial correctly, you could get enough water pressure to bore straight through your skull, thereby allowing you to wash your brain.

Half Dome from the meadow
Yosemite Falls (top half)

Part One: Yosemite
The lovely continental breakfast at the Hotel Charlotte reminded me of how much I dislike continental breakfasts, and after choking down a piece of toast and cup of fruit mush, we got on Route 120 and headed east into Yosemite. The Big Oak Flats entrance is the only entrance worth taking into the park; it takes you conveniently past El Capitan and Bridalveil before you get to the Valley. (I was feeling environmentally guilty for driving the smogmobile into the most beautiful place on earth, but even the woman who sold us the parks pass had to compliment the car.) The weather was perfect, the crowds were mild, and we even found a huge meadow with a view of Half Dome (see the picture) that nobody else seemed to have found. I won't bother describing Yosemite because you just have to see it, but I do recommend seeing it in May, before Memorial Day, when the kids are still in school and the waterfalls are peaking. We even saw two coyotes. Unfortunately, the Tioga Pass (Route 120 East) was still closed and we were forced to backtrack out of the park and take another route, all the way around the park, to get over the Sierras. But that's the next part.

Part Two: The Sonora Pass
We left Yosemite behind, and unfortunately, most of our engine coolant in it. So if you read about a rash of Yosemite animals killed by drinking antifreeze, well, our bad. The Shark is a trooper, though, and made it all the way down the hill out of Yosemite, and part way up Route 108 before she had enough and decided she'd like a little rest on the side of the road. This was a minor problem easily solved with three gallons of antifreeze and a good radiator-cap-tightening, but we figured she could use a break before we drove over the Sierra mountains, so we went to look for a hotel. Foolish coast dwellers! Didn't we realize that there would be no rooms available within a hundred miles of Calaveras county on this, the weekend of the annual Jumping Frog Festival? What were we thinking? Oh, I remember now: I didn't think to check whether THOUSANDS of ADULTS would flock to the goddamn middle of nowhere to play with frogs! Stupid me! And funny, us not even being IN Calaveras county, but 80 miles away! We did get a very generous offer from the woman at the Royal Hotel in Jamestown to sleep on the fold-out sofabed in the hotel bar, but we politely (and foolishly, it turns out) declined. What the hell, we figure, just because the car badly overheated a couple of hours ago is no reason not to drive over the Sonora Pass. But we found out there was a very compelling reason not to, after all: because no sane person, ever, anywhere, should ever, ever, drive over this pass, and most definitely not at night. Having been driven out of town by a bunch of damn frog-lovers, though, we start heading up the most godforsaken road in California, if not the world, at about 11 o'clock at night.

Maybe you've been trapped in the path of an oncoming train. Maybe you've been stalked by mountain lions or polar bears. Maybe you were in 'Nam. You have never known fear until you have driven a 1971 Pontiac over the Sonora Pass, one week after it opens, at midnight. Going up the hill is a ghastly, terrifying ordeal. Going down the hill will make you long for the time when you were going up the hill. To crest the pass and look down that first sheer drop-off, a hairpin on the side of a mountain, is to look into your own death. Not a happy, peaceful, "I saw myself surrounded by grandchildren and reunited with all my dead pets" look into your own death, but a sickening, absolutely certain, "I am going to die, tonight, right now, on this godforsaken mountain, surrounded by inbred frog-lovers." Nothing but the will not to let the frog-lovers drive you into your own doom can keep you alive down this hill. I wish I had a picture, but I was too busy swearing and crying and soiling myself to think of it at the time. Allow me to set the scene for you: You are in a huge, unsafe car, looking down Lombard street. Except instead of San Francisco, you are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, where nobody will ever find your frozen corpse. And instead of Victorian houses, the road is bordered by a cliff on one side and a snow-covered mountain on the other. Also, it's steeper, and there may be oncoming traffic. And twenty feet ahead of you, and on all other sides of you, is nothing but complete and total blackness. I'm still too traumatized to even go into the rest of the evening, but we made it over the mountain (the evil, evil mountain) and into Lee Vining, where I have never been so happy to see a Best Western in my entire life. On the plus side, we did get to race a jack rabbit part of the way up the mountain, and we kicked its ass.

Death Valley: Don't go there

In case you ever wondered, Death Valley was not given that name because it's the home of a secret government ranch where they keep flying saucers or unicorns, and they're just trying to keep people away. It is named that because no thing could or should ever live there, even for a few minutes. Not that this has kept some enterprising fellow from putting a gas station in the middle of it, selling gas at a 75% premium, or an even more ambitious fellow from building a luxury hotel there. Aside from that, however, Death Valley is exactly what you would expect it to be: a vast, interminable expanse of infernal wasteland. Having just driven our overheated convertible over the tallest mountain range available, the only logical thing to do the next day was to drive it through Death Valley, top down, no air conditioning. Death Valley is normally the hottest location in the U.S., and May 18th was no exception, with a high of 110 degrees Farenheit. The fact that the Shark made it all the way across in the middle of the afternoon is a testament to the time when America knew how to make a car. Why would a person voluntarily subject themselves to this blistering no man's land? Mostly, because because it's a place you've always heard of, and you might wonder to yourself, what's it really like there? Now I know what it's really like there, and it's like this: it sucks. It's so unbelievably hot there, that even at 80 mph, putting your head out the window is like sticking a hair dryer in your face. You have to wonder what it's like in August, and you have to wonder even more about the person working at that gas station. What did he do to pull that assignment?

We arrived in Las Vegas at 7:30, and spent the next couple of days recovering from the mountain ordeal. I won $2.50 at the Munster slot machine, ate a towering pile of snow crab legs, and we saw Spider-Man. I give it an A- (the minus is for the sappy speeches with Mary Jane).

Hoover Dam: Dam overrated?
The Grand Canyon
Sunset at the Canyon

Two and a half days is about the maximum number of days you can eat Las Vegas style without becoming Fat Elvis, so with my $2.50 in winnings, set off for America's favorite vacation destination: Circuit City. We bought a GPS receiver there, then went to see a big hole in the ground. Since we happened to drive over the Hoover Dam on the way, we stopped for a look. It's a pretty big dam, I guess, not really having a lot to compare it to, with my relative lack of dam touring. But it looks a LOT bigger on tv and in film, so it's actually kind of anticlimactic in person. And they make you pay $5 to park there, even though there's only about 3 minutes worth of dam-viewing interest there. It's also really hard to take a picture that gives a sense of scale. To sum up: Hoover Dam– big, but not as big as you think. (And after the past week's worth of doomsday pronouncements burped out by the Bush Family Administration, my favorite thing about the dam is that nobody tried to blow it up while we were there.)

The average road speed on I-40 through western Arizona is very, very fast. We got off in Williams, home to about six thousand hotels, and drove straight north to the Canyon. We arrived about an hour before sunset, which only gave me time to take 60 pictures. Unlike a certain water retention system I could mention, the Grand Canyon has not been grossly overhyped, and is actually worth the trip, unless you think you've got a grander canyon at home, mister smarty pants. The only down side was that we drove with the top down, and by the time we arrived it was so cold that my fingers no longer functioned. If you visit, keep in mind that it may be Arizona, but it's also 7000 feet above sea level, and can get a little nippy. Maybe later, when I get around to it, I'll upload some canyon pictures. (The deer at the canyon, by the way, are so nonchalant about people that they will actually stop to go to the bathroom right in front of you.) We drove out at dark– a fox ran in front of my car but made it across– and stayed in lovely Cameron, Arizona, in a hotel that was really, really nice, right up to the bathroom door. Real stone exterior, lovely solid wood furniture, lots of room, animal-shaped iron lamps, and a bathroom uglier than the one here at the Motel 6.

You say mesa, I say butte
Holbrook has dinosaurs!

Since we didn't get enough canyon on the the previous day, we went back to see the east end in full daylight. First we had breakfast at the Cameron Trading Post, where the ketchup not only isn't Heinz, it isn't even Hunts, but some weird Texas brand. The weather was perfect, as it has been the whole trip– which is really putting me out, since I packed expecting it to be terribly hot most of the time– but there is so much sun here we've had to move up to 30 SPF. On the way, we stopped at a "scenic overlook," which is pretty scenic but is really just an excuse to funnel you past forty booths full of pottery and silver jewelry. When we got to the park, a ranger hat waved us over to the rightmost park entrance lane, where we met the owner of the previously mentioned hat: he's supercool, supertan ranger guy, with his five o'clock shadow, and his sparking white teeth, whom I will refer to as Rick, because he looks like a Rick. Seems Ranger Rick "just wanted to see a cool relic of the 70's." Wouldn't you know it, his mother once owned a Le Mans ('69 or '70), black vinyl ytop, even the same shade of blue as ours. According to Ranger Rick, his mother was "gonna freak" when he told her about our car. Our car rocks.

A note about Arizona road signs: they really, really do not want you to drink and drive in Arizona. I know this because there are road signs about every 50 miles telling me not to do that. Also, I would like to say to the Arizona Highway Department: you have grossly overrepresented the prevalence of elk in your state. If you're going to put up road signs indicating elk presence on every road in the state, I expect to see at least one elk. Maybe you only see the elk when you're drunk.

We drove all through the Navajo land that makes up the entire northeastern corner of Arizona, which is, for the most part, just as squalid and depressing as you might expect; if you drive route 264, expect a heapin' helpin' of white guilt to go with your desert scenery. We stopped in Holbrook, because it has several dozen motels, one of them with the rooms in the form of big concrete wigwams– and here we are at Motel 6 like a couple of suckers. I think of Motel 6 as the no secrets motel, because there is not a single enclosed storage space in the whole room. Not a cabinet, not a drawer. The Gideons had to leave their bible out on a shelf.