Ever since I was a teenager, road trips have held a special place in my heart. In some ways that’s kinda surprising, given my first exposure to this great travel tradition was half a dozen family members crammed into a Toyota van for our annual holiday pilgrimage.
Yup, for at least seven excruciating hours each way that bloody van rocked, swayed and groaned its way through the New Zealand countryside every year, up mountains and down valleys, interrupted only by the regular stops to let my sister leave the contents of her stomach on the side of the road. She wasn’t the greatest of travellers…
Despite that early introduction, for many years a mate and I had talked about doing The Great American Road Trip. We didn’t really know what that was, exactly, but we knew we wanted to do it. Somewhere along the line one of us picked up a copy of ‘Road Trip USA’ — a guide to touring the US away from the Interstates — and it became a sort of talisman for the next few years.
We’d talked about doing the old Route 66 forever, but for reasons that escape me now we eventually decided that Route 101 would be a better choice.
It totally was.
Now the thing with a trip like this — at least as far as my mate and I were concerned — is that it was all about the clichés. When you’ve been watching road trip movies and US television as long as we had, well, there were a lot of classic moments that we had to recreate.
For that reason we’d originally planned to buy a classic car from the 60’s (yes, my friend is a mechanic – he’d need to be) and enjoy a leisurely cruise south in between breakdowns. After checking out prices to purchase a car, insurance hassles and the need to sell it at the end, we realised it’d be about the same money — and a lot less grief– to hire a new Mustang convertible instead.
Once we realised it came in red, the choice was made. A Mustang it just had to be.
In the spirit of all great road trips our preparation was awesomely inadequate. We had guidebooks for half of the states we wanted to cover, and a couple of basic driving maps that didn’t even include Arizona. We’d mapped out a few of the major highlights we wanted to see, and that was the extent of it. Perfect planning, in other words, for three weeks and 3500 miles of driving a rental car in a foreign country on the wrong side of the road.
We picked up the car at Seattle Airport. After a couple of laps around the parking lot trying not to run into other vehicles, and cuing up the first cliche of the trip (“Born in the USA” on the car stereo), it was time to hit the road north.
North, you say? No, we weren’t lost after the first turn — we’d decided to take a tour of the Boeing Factory in Everett. There’s only one word to describe this place: HUGE. Seriously huge. It’s the largest building in the world by volume … and it shows. I’m not a plane geek at all, but it was certainly one impressive tour.
The following day we started the trip for real in a typical Seattle drizzle, quickly clearing traffic on the I-5 en-route to our first stop. Mount St Helens had been threatening to erupt for several days but the visitor centre was still open at that point, so we had to take the detour to check it out.
With all the mist and smoke in the area, plus scarred landscape from the massive eruption in 1980, it was an eerie countryside to drive through. Not eerie enough to prevent a local cop from emerging from the bushes to give us our first (and last) speeding ticket of the trip, however. Four miles an hour over the speed limit, with nobody else in sight. Hmm.
We crossed state lines and had our first taste of the mighty 101, staying that night in a little town called Seaside. It was indeed beside the sea, which was pretty much its only redeeming feature. The next day we continued south, and other than a stop in Tillamook to take a tour of the cheese factory (yeah, seriously…), we seemed to spend a lot of time looking at wood. As it were.
There’s lots of trees in Oregon, apparently, and most of them seemed to be on the backs of the trucks in front of us. There was a brief comedy interlude, however, as we debated whether to stop at one of the tiny townships along the route. After all, it was pretty tempting to say that we’d spent the night in Beaver.
After a long day staring at logs and a short night being stared at by locals, we decided perhaps a change of scene was called for. In other words, we were both keen to find somewhere to go for a beer that didn’t resemble a scene from Deliverance. Rather than stopping at Newport, then, with a hasty look at the map we turned inland and continued on to Eugene, a university town with a funny name.
It was mid-week, and as we wandered from one empty pub to another that evening, we wondered if we’d taken a couple of hundred mile detour for no good reason. With the infamous call of ‘we’ll just try one more place and call it a night’, however, we finally discovered the bar where every student in the town was hanging out.
It was packed. The music was pumping. The beer was flowing. It was a fantastic place to end the evening. And … I totally can’t remember the name of it. Sorry about that.
We stayed on the I-5 the following day, with a leisurely top-down cruise through the mountains to Grants Pass, a surprisingly bustling little place. The weather was lovely, the views were equally as good, and it just generally seemed to be a really nice town to stop for the day. And so we did.
It was an early one that night, since there was a lot of driving to be done the next day, but I didn’t mind a bit. We were heading for California, baby, and the first stop would be the Redwood Forests. Exciting!
We entered the Golden State the following morning, and with it the road trip really felt like it had begun. Our time in Washington and Oregon had been enjoyable, but when you’re living the dream in a convertible Mustang, well, you really just have to be in California to do it.
With the top down, some rockin’ tunes disturbing the serenity, and some of the tallest trees on the planet crowding the roadside, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we were having the time of our lives. This, my friends, is what a road trip is all about.
I couldn’t get enough of the redwoods. The namesake national park is just a stunningly beautiful place to spend a few hours walking the trails and marvelling at these giants of nature. Totally incredible. We found time for yet another tragically clichéd moment a little further down the road, of course, with the (in)famous drive-through tree on the equally famous Avenue of Giants. It’s a cliché of epic proportions, but at least it made for some fun photos.
To be honest it was worth stopping for the exceptional array of crap in the gift shop alone. I somehow escaped with just a few postcards, but a couple of families we saw didn’t get off anywhere near as lightly. How I’ll survive without my replica plastic drive-through tree and matching key ring, I do not know.
Time was marching on, however, and we still had a long way to go. The driving for the rest of the day was fantastic, with lots of coastal scenery and even more big trees to gaze at instead of keeping an eye on the road. By this stage we’d decided when picking a small town to stop for the night, decent accommodation superseded anything the guidebook writer may have hallucinated about entertainment or attractions, so Fort Bragg was our destination.
True to form the nightlife was terrible but the beds were comfortable. Mission accomplished, I guess. The following day we were headed for our first big city since leaving Seattle, and one of the places I was seriously looking forward to: San Francisco.
To read about that, however — not to mention gorgeous mountains, stunning canyons, an adult playground in the desert and a whole lot more — well, you’ll just have to read the second installment of ‘Road Tripping on the 101’!
Until next time…
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