San Francisco to San Antonio

This morning I awoke to the gentle rocking of the Texas Eagle Amtrak train. Opening the curtains in my ‘roomette’ I saw a cartoonish landscape of arid desert, only interrupted by the occasional three-pronged cactus and hazy mountains in the distance, towards the Mexican border.

Amtrak – the US’s national intercity rail system – seems to be America’s best-kept secret. Everybody I’ve mentioned my travel plans to has expressed surprise that it’s possible to take a train from LA to Texas, let alone knowing about the network that stretches from coast to coast and border to border, covering 46 of the 50 states.

And somehow, when every other interaction with public services in this country screams of underinvestment and over-bureaucracy, the US have managed to maintain a railway network that is comfortable, affordable and even retains the romance of the great railway journeys of another era.

From stepping into the art deco splendour of Los Angeles’ Union station to the lounges and dining cars of the train itself, this is the continental equivalent of crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner. It’s much slower than flying (it took all night for the train to cross California), but the reward for this patience is days and nights of gently transitioning vistas.

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In short, this is exactly how to travel across the US if you have a free month which, as luck would have it, is exactly the situation I find myself in.

***

On Saturday morning I took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The eight hour journey was interrupted only briefly by a rest stop in the central valley, at which the temperature was a full 15°C hotter than it was in SF. Northern California is roughly at the same latitude as north Africa, but the geography of the San Francisco bay leads to a microclimate that is much cooler than it ought to be.

I was in LA to catch a thrice-weekly train on Sunday evening and had considered going down a day earlier, but couldn’t figure out what I would do for two full days. I wasn’t going to make a solo trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios and I have no interest in riding a bus past the empty homes of movie stars I’ve never heard of.

Los Angeles is huge and almost impossible to navigate without a car. I took a Lyft to my AirBnB in the Glendale/Silverlake neighbourhood, then set out on foot in search of somewhere to eat. I walked along the Los Angeles river, which better resembled a storm drain, passed under a freeway and then found a bleak parade of shops and restaurants. According to Google, the most popular eatery for locals is the Red Lion: a pub which, in spite of its name, insists that it is actually German. I ordered a Lyft to Hollywood.

I didn’t know very much about Hollywood the neighbourhood (as opposed to the media shorthand for the movie industry). It broadly consists of two long boulevards – Hollywood and Sunset – populated by an incongruous mix of glamour, tat and sleaze. The Hollywood Walk of Fame meanders around the sidewalks, representing the stars of movies, television and music with literal stars embedded into the ground.

I went to a burger restaurant for dinner, eating an Impossible Burger. This is a vegetarian patty made somehow to taste almost exactly like actual beef. It’s only available in California at the moment, but was really quite impressive; not *quite* the same as beef, but a decent imposter.

I woke early on Sunday morning and took a Lyft up to Griffith Observatory. Apart from being an interesting science museum, there are also spectacular views across the city and my first sight of the Hollywood sign.

The observatory itself was closed, so I decided to follow the four mile hike across to the Hollywood sign. It was built in the 1920s as a promotional stunt for the Hollywoodland housing development below it, but became such a landmark that it became a permanent feature, eventually being shortened to ‘Hollywood’.

Once I’d got as close as I could to the sign without breaking any laws, I took the obligatory selfies and decided to walk back down the hill via the Hollywoodland residential area. This took a lot longer than expected because the roads twist and wind back and around themselves. The houses were architecturally diverse and more modest than I would’ve expected; these were not MTV Cribs.

Eventually I reached Hollywood, immediately remembered how unimpressed I had been the previous evening and summoned a Lyft to drive me to Santa Monica.

For some reason, I had pictured Santa Monica as a classy seaside resort with a nice boardwalk and elegant hotels. It is not like this. It has a pier with a Bubba Gump’s and a series of burger shacks, each claiming to be the last burger on land before being contradicted by an even more westerly burger shack. The pier was teeming with lardy tattooed tourists stuffing their faces with burgers, fries and waffles. I looked on with disapproval, then went for a McDonalds and an ice cream.

A crowd formed at the end of the pier, applauding and recording something below them. A man, accompanied by a violinist, had just proposed next to the Bubba Gump’s. She said yes.

I walked along to Venice beach, which was tacky in a different way, the boardwalk lined with street performers of limited talent. I dipped my feet into the Pacific to symbolically mark the start of my coast-to-coast adventure, then raised the Earth’s albedo a notch by sunning my pasty white chest for an hour. It is now red and sore.

Unable to take any more direct sunlight, and still with several hours until my train, I took yet another Lyft, this time to Little Tokyo, which is adjacent to Union station. The distance between Venice beach and downtown LA – 15 miles – is more than double the width of San Francisco. LA is just annoyingly big and everything is way too spread out.

Little Tokyo, though, was excellent. The international school job hunt that culminated in me moving to San Francisco last year was inspired by an excellent holiday to Japan in 2015. Little Tokyo is a microcosm of the food, the culture and the crazy of Japan.

I ate an exquisite bowl of assorted sashimi (raw fish) in a hotel restaurant, then popped into a bar down the street where happy hour pints of Asahi were only $3. I sat at the bar, occupied entirely by Japanese people speaking Japanese. I chatted to a man called Shin about my travels in Japan and met an elderly man called Yoshi who described himself as a teacher of ‘female performance’; this turned out to be a euphemism for drag queens.

Three pints later, I said my arigatos then walked to Union station (at last, somewhere in LA that is walking distance from somewhere else) and climbed aboard a massive double decker train. I found my roomette – a tiny cabin with two seats that fold together to make a bed – and settled in for the 30 hour journey to San Antonio.

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Portland to San Francisco

I headed south east from Portland along route 26, bypassing the exciting sounding town of Boring and into the Mount Hood National Forest. I passed briefly through the unappealing sounding Government Camp, which actually turned out to be a twee Alpine ski resort, featuring such hilariously-named establishments as the Huckleberry Inn.

Once the trees finished, the landscape opened into a broad expanse of flat-topped hills and yellow grassland. I was entering central Oregon and it felt like the mountains and redwood forests of the Pacific coast had given way to the old west. Route 26 carried on through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation: an area of federal land, independent of Oregon and governed by the Warm Springs tribes.

The first town after the Indian reservation is, amusingly, called Madras (yes, yes, different Indians). Continuing south on the 97 took me through a string of run-down towns of various sizes. One of these towns, Chemult, was to provide my bed for the night. I had opted for the $50 per night Budget Inn over the $100 per night Eagle Crater Lake Inn. This decision was entirely justified; not because the Budget Inn was nice – it wasn’t, it was a dump – but because the Eagle Crater Lake Inn looked equally bad.

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The Budget Inn was a row of about a dozen rooms in a wooden building so flimsy that slamming the door in one room caused all of the others to shake. It reminded me immediately of my all-time worst motel experience in Flint, Michigan, but it was clean. The only dining option in town was a Subway attached to the gas station that the motel backed onto. I ate, watched TV for a while and slept.

I awoke to pouring rain, which didn’t bode well for the visibility at Crater Lake National Park, which was the reason why I’d taken this eastern detour of hundreds of miles. My rental car displayed the temperature in Fahrenheit, a scale I have no intention of ever being familiar with. I know that water freezes at 32F and boils at 212F; the lower of these two values was of most relevance to me, as I wondered whether the torrential rain would give way to snow as I ascended.

Sure enough, as I drove up the road to Crater Lake, the temperature ticked steadily downwards. When it reached 35F the rain became noticeably sleety. 34F… 33F… 32F… bang on queue, the downpour was replaced by big gentle snow flakes and the road began to cover over. By the time I reached Rim Village, the snow was deep and visibility was minimal. This meant that I could see nothing of the allegedly spectacular lake that I’d travelled so far to see.

Remarkably, the cafe and gift shop was open. I ordered a cheeseburger, much to the excitement of the staff who told me it was their first cheeseburger of the year.

“In October?” I asked
“We get a new menu each season. Cheeseburger is on the winter menu.”
“And when did the winter menu start?”
“Today”

So what they were really excited about was that I was the first person that day to order their cheeseburger. While three people set about cooking it, a chatted to the server. He had a peculiarly slow way of saying anything, so the only advice I got from him was that I should one day go and visit the Integratron near Los Angeles. He kept talking about energy in a way that made the physics teacher inside me scream in anguish, and was just getting onto the topic of UFO sightings when my cheeseburger arrived. Sitting lonely in the middle of a large plate, it met the minimum requirements of being a cheeseburger: bread, a thin grey patty and a slice of cheese.

I drove back down the other side of the mountain, heading west. I guess the altitude stayed higher for longer than on the other side, as I travelled much further before leaving the snow. While still inside the national park I saw a car being hauled out of a snowdrift by a park ranger’s pickup truck. This made me feel pretty smug about hiring a 4×4, although even my Jeep lost grip a few times.

A couple of miles west of the national park exit, I came across a large pickup truck stranded at the side of the road. I pulled over to see if there was anything I could do to help. As there was no mobile phone reception, he asked me to check there was a tow truck on its way when I next reached civilisation.

I drove for another 30 minutes or so and was well below the snow line before I eventually found a forest ranger station, where I dropped in to tell them about the stranded driver. Hopefully someone did actually go and rescue him…

I headed west, through dense redwood forests, until I reached Crescent City on the Pacific coast in northern California. My motel was pleasant (certainly compared to the Budget Inn) as were the coastal views. Crescent City itself, however, appeared to be nothing but a sprawl of semi-derelict motels and fast food chains, desperately competing with each other for a handful of late October visitors. One motel was even offering a free cheese pizza in return for custom (their generosity did not stretch to any toppings).

The following morning – the last day of my trip – I headed to the Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction a few miles down the US-101. It is to forests what Ripley’s Believe It or Not is to museums; in fact, some of the strangely-shaped trees are apparently replicated at Ripley’s. These included the Elephant Tree (it had a branch that looked like an elephant’s trunk) and the Cathedral (several trees squashed together to form a natural chapel shape).

There was also a pointless cable car ride to the top of a hill. You are advised to only walk back down if you are an advanced hiker in proper shoes, so naturally I attempted it in a pair of Converse. It was only a mile long, though a little steep and slippy in places.

After exiting via the gift shop, I hit the road for a very long drive back to San Francisco. It was about 330 miles and I had originally planned to split it across two days, but decided to finish a day early instead. I only got a few miles before I was distracted again, this time by a drive thru tree.

Much of my interest in American road trips comes from reading Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, in which he does two large loops around the east and west of the USA to recreate the holidays of his youth. During the western loop he recalls a 1950s postcard from some relatives who visited a drive thru tree and longs to go there himself. Sadly, he never got close enough to the large coastal redwoods to fulfil this, so in his honour I made sure that I didn’t pass on the opportunity.

I dropped $5 into the honesty box and waited in line behind the tree while a family from Texas took photos of themselves driving through it. When it was my turn, I drove through slowly, sparing only a couple of cm on either side. This particular hole-in-a-tree clearly predates the American penchant for SUVs; anything larger than my relatively modest Jeep would’ve got stuck.

My final journey back to San Francisco was uneventful, apart from my stupid decision to leave US-101 and take the nice coastal road along California-1 instead. This added two hours to my journey and involved a lot of twisty roads through forests in the dark, and one emergency stop to save the life of a deer.