My introduction to American roads was the LA freeway at lunchtime. I suppose every place has its own rules of the road and driving customs (for example, Edinburgh has an ideological hatred of drivers). I learnt a lot, very quickly.
Lost Campers was close to our hotel, and we picked up the car straight after breakfast. I extolled their virtues in part 1 of this series, so I won’t repeat myself except to say that we found them cheery and helpful. Each campervan has a different name. Ours was ‘Lila’.
We drove to a nearby Vons outlet to get food and ice for camping. It meant I could get myself accustomed to driving on the right (not a problem) in an automatic (my first time since Legoland). I’d spent the night before reading through a print-out of the car manual (how else was I going to get to sleep?), so I was at least somewhat familiar with where the buttons were and what they did. The gas pedal was surprisingly sensitive and the brakes not as quick to respond as I was used to in a car with manual transmission, but the few blocks to the shops (passing the famous Randy’s Donuts seen in Iron Man 2, Mars Attacks and Earth Girls Are Easy) were enough to get me acquainted.
Then it was time to get onto the LA Freeway. Nothing I have ever experienced prepared me for it. Except, maybe watching the Death Star trench run in Star Wars. You know the reputation drivers of certain German-branded executive cars enjoy? Well, on the Los Angeles freeway, everyone drives like that (only San Diego and Phoenix have more aggressive drivers, apparently).
Everyone is in somebody’s way. I have no idea why it was so busy at lunchtime. Surely they weren’t all just heading home for a quick lunch?
I think I could see how it was supposed to work: an express car pool lane on the left for cars with more than two occupants; four lanes of freeway with slower vehicles keeping to the right; maybe a couple of lanes for drivers to get in position for an exit ramp ahead; and maybe a couple of lanes for the actual exit ramp itself. It certainly looked like there were nine lanes of traffic heading in the same direction, anyway.
I think what actually happens is this:
The car pool lane is deserted (I assume it’s carefully monitored and nobody dares break that particular rule), and with passing on the left or right allowed, all other lanes are basically a freeway free-for-all. Want to use an exit lane for overtaking on the right? Go for it! Want to weave your way through the traffic? Sure, everyone can be first in this race!
US cars are bigger and wider than European ones (please note: I’m saying nothing about the occupants). It was here I found the extent of the blind spots in our campervan whilst changing lanes, thanks to some courteous and considerate horn-blaring next to me (the information folder we were given for the car did mention the blind spots were larger than you might expect…). Hopefully, I fit right in with all the other drivers. I stuck to the middle lanes, not wanting to be inadvertantly siphoned off an exit to some spaghetti-like junction with concrete flyovers towering over other concrete flyovers.
Our first stop was Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, where we swapped over and I could be a passenger for a bit. The rocks have appeared in a number of films and TV shows, perhaps most famously as pretty much every planet in the 1960s Star Trek. In anticipation of our stop here, my wife had got me a gold Captain Kirk shirt and let me prance about on the rocks while she took photos (the park rangers who drove past seemed quite amused).
We drove east to Victorville. Originally we planned to stop for a meal there, but instead had lunch sitting in the car at the parking lot at Vons, so we pressed on to old Route 66, just to say we’d done it. As with many things in life, the romantic image conjured up in popular culture wasn’t really matched by reality.
We passed a sign saying “You are entering Helendale”, a place which shares its name with one of my friends and made me think this could get me into all sorts of trouble.
I think there are probably more scenic sections of Route 66 to travel on, but it was worth it for Shady Lane RV camp in Barstow. (You can’t reserve a spot online – only by phone.)
It’s a calm, relaxing place to stay for a night, well-tended, and with immaculate facilites. We didn’t need any power or water hookups, so we were given a discount by the guy who looked after the place – he was quite affable, and pleased to hear we chose to stay here because of the good reviews online.
We were glad to have our first bit of driving done without any mishaps, and without getting lost. We set up our propane stove and chopping board and vegetables and made a small batch of pasta and sauce that lasted a couple of nights, enjoying an al fresco dinner in the golden desert sunset.
It was all rather splendid, and was only going to get more so.
To be continued…