The third installment in our Desk Drives series which aim to transport you away from your screen for a short while and remind you of the simple pleasures that travel can afford you.
✈ Fly to: San Francisco Airport
✈ Fly from: London Heathrow
✈ Flight time: 11 hours approx.
☼ Average temp: 18°C (very variable)
Driving side: Right
‘A person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure’
For some, the popular definition of a tourist is pretty accurate. For the vast majority of us however, I suspect an ulterior motive; it’s as much about showing the world how much fun we are having as it is about having the fun itself.
On a recent-ish trip to the West Coast of the States I got to experience this first hand. I was fortunate enough to visit some of the most photographed tourist destinations in the world: The Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and the mighty redwoods to name a few. All places of natural beauty, but also natural playgrounds with endless opportunity for shenanigans to be had.
I also got to witness the hordes of tourists intently focused on capturing profile picture worthy selfies, with little interest in exploring and having fun.
The trip began in the brightly coloured bustle of San Francisco, with a staircase tour of the city run by some close family members who call the mad State of California home. It turns out that there are a hell of a lot of stairs in this city. We climbed the never-ending winding staircase to the Coit tower, originally designed to look like a fire hose, but ending up looking quite a lot like something else. After a few perfect ‘Look at me I’m in San Fran!’ photos, we headed into the Mission District for some of the most incredible tacos in the world from La Taqueira. The next morning, after sleeping off one too many pitchers of margarita, we headed north on the crawling commuter route of Highway 101.
The trip began in the brightly coloured bustle of San Francisco, with a staircase tour of the city run by some close family members who call the mad State of California home. It turns out that there are a hell of a lot of stairs in this city. We climbed the never-ending winding staircase to the Coit tower, originally designed to look like a fire hose, but ending up looking quite a lot like something else. After a few perfect ‘Look at me I’m in San Fran!’ photos, we headed into the Mission District for some of the most incredible tacos in the world from La Taqueira.
The next morning, after sleeping off one too many pitchers of margarita, we headed north on the crawling commuter route of Highway 101.
Several hours later after a slow and uneventful journey, we pulled into the picturesque and tranquil ranch that my cousin calls home, tucked away in the rolling hills of Sonoma County. On arrival, we were greeted by our glamorous hostess, 5 year old Savannah Rose, who immediately showed us straight through a cow field, over a fence, past the chicken coop and eventually to her favourite wooden fort by the creek, where we then preceded to spend most of the afternoon. Savannah Rose is my kind of princess.
For the first few hours of our stay I was really terrified that we’d made a horrible mistake.
After a good night’s sleep and one of the most unique chili dogs I have ever eaten – courtesy of Roy’s Chicago Dogs (a hole in the wall of a livestock auction house) – we packed up our Jeep and set off eastwards, on a three day drive that took us through Nevada, then on to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. For those not familiar with the geography, this is a long, LONG drive.
After nothing but open road for three straight days we eventually pulled into Grand Canyon National Park and were immediately hit by a swarm of selfie sticks, business team’s ‘bonding’ photos and overpriced novelty t-shirts. For the first few hours of our stay, I was really terrified that we’d made a horrible mistake. But after a few hours, something special happened. The trains of coaches rolled out, the temperature dropped, and the whole place began to transform. Calm fell over that canyon and I started to come to terms with the natural beauty of the place. To celebrate, we cranked up the camp fire and toasted marshmallows to our new found freedom.
The next morning we awoke with bellies full of s’mores and packed up camp. After leaving the canyon we set off north, aiming in the rough direction of Death Valley. The next few days involved passing through countless dust bowl towns, each with little more than a scattering of motels and casinos, seemingly lying in wait for the summer season to begin.
A few days more of the open road passed, and eventually our beat up old Jeep approached the mountains and Yosemite National Park, another incredible place with screen-saver worthy views at every turn. The whole place was much like the Grand Canyon, with the majority of people congregating at the Information Centre and surrounding gift shops. This was crazy, because only a short walk from Yosemite Village you’re hit with mind blowing geology everywhere you look. I imagined myself as some kind of pioneering trapper, surveying a new and undiscovered world… right up until I heard what I thought was a bear and ran all the way back to my tent with tail firmly tucked between my legs.
After taking a few days trying to roll our tongues back into our mouths, we packed up our stuff and carried on north from the valley, further up into the mountains and on to Lake Tahoe. Just like Death Valley, South Tahoe is a seasonal town that spends spring slowly winding down, with only a few stragglers propped up at the ends of various bars. For us it was kind of perfect. Not a selfie stick or novelty t-shirt in sight.
After doing very little more than sitting by the lake and drinking beer for a few days, the Jeep carried us onwards and upwards to the most northerly part of our trip and Redwood National Park.
The further north we travelled, the further we seemed to step back in time. The trees grew older, the road surface worsened and the pace of life in each truck stop town seemed somehow slower than the last. As we entered the National Park we took in even more screen-saver views each somehow more impressive than the last and each feeling more remote and unique. As we headed deeper into the redwoods the road grew winding and narrow. Highway 1 didn’t forcefully plough through its surroundings like the desert highways of Nevada but instead carefully picked its way through the ancient forest seemingly trying not to snap a single twig.
I imagined myself as some kind of trapper… right up until I heard what I thought was a bear and ran all the way back to my tent with tail firmly tucked between my legs.
It wasn’t an easy drive (especially not in a Jeep the same age as me), but after a few days of the most tentative driving of my life the road began to widen, the trees cleared and we were on our way back to the south. We headed down the coastal road towards Fort Bragg.
The penultimate night of our trip was spent at Westport-Union Landing camp ground, a tiny spit of land trapped between a shiny new section of Highway 1 and the powerful Pacific Ocean that had swallowed the corresponding section of the old ocean highway almost entirely. We settled in for the night in the back of our Jeep (way too windy to erect the tent – trust me, I tried) and watched the sun slowly sink into the ocean on the horizon as our adventure began to draw to a close.
The final day of the trip saw a short journey from Fort Bragg, through the postcard perfect town of Mendocino and on to the Anderson valley, famous for ‘phwoar-worthy’ Pinot Noir and home of some of the most beautiful human beings on the earth, who were waiting at the stunning Navarro Mill Guest House with a welcoming cold beer in hand and access to a much needed shower.
Almost two years on, I am sitting at my desk looking back at the photos from the trip and something has happened that I didn’t expect. All of the epic panoramas and breathtaking views are still just as impressive as when first taken, and they have most certainly seen the most likes on my Facebook and Instagram pages, but there is something missing from them and I’m not quite sure what it is. Then, when I look at some of the rougher photos, the ones that aren’t as perfectly framed, have fingers over lenses, and aren’t always in focus, and I feel something slightly different – something meaningful, not staged for the purposes of profile photo, but something real and very much in the moment. From taking on the BBQ chili dog at Roy’s to falling asleep on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, these photos remind me of the time spent goofing off with family and friends, new and old.
For me, this is what made this road trip one that won’t be forgotten for a very, very long time.
Words and photographs by Jonathan Foan