Category Archives: California

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.


Mojave (the drive to Vegas)

If you want to feel the full, jolting, thrilling, brilliant and repulsive impact of Las Vegas, approach it from the south and west, driving through (at least skirting) the Mojave desert. It’s about 220 miles from Mojave and there’s little in between. I spent 70 miles transfixed by the glinting chrome of a truck in the far distance, thinking about life. One minute it’s dark sky, then – over a hummock – Vegas explodes into view. It’s a gazillion watts; blasting loud, the pavements packed, the streets jammed, 80 giant flashing neon screens left and right ( ‘SHANIA’, ‘WIN A MILLION $$$’, ‘SOME MAGICIAN’) in every eyeful. There was London, Time Square, the Statue of Liberty, Luxor and the Eiffel Tower all visible from first set of traffic lights.  Like fast food, Vegas is decadently satisfying for a little while. . . then you feel sick. There was a plain simplicity about Mojave – the town and the flat empty road – that I really liked and appreciated. High-fiving at the slot machines an hour later, I felt I’d let myself down.

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Mojave (The Town)

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For most, Las Vegas is the numero uno destination in the Mojave desert, but here’s a plug for Mojave, the town. Not much going on, that’s true, but every hour or so there’s a train that takes about ten minutes to rumble through the centre, it’s generally sunny (whether bitterly cold or not), and there’s always a warm welcome and big portions for folks from the entire staff at Mikes Roadhouse Cafe.

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Yosemite: Where’s the edge?

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Not everything is plain sailing on the vague, meandering journey to somewheresville. Four lessons learnt on this very day:

1) Local knowledge is good knowledge;

2) A ‘one state per page’ map book isn’t really sufficient;

3) Ignorance isn’t always bliss;

4) Associate the word ‘Stop’ with sentences that begin ‘It might be more interesting if we got off the highway and . . .’

The idea was to drive from Bolinas, north of San Francisco to Las Vegas, Nevada. The people at Shelter Publications suggested “Drive down to Bakersfield and hang a left”. I like that kind of direction – Bakersfield is about halfway on a 600 mile journey, however it’s also pretty close to L.A. and we’d just come from there. So examining the map book and ignoring the snippets of information even this woefully inadequate navigational aid provided like ‘Closed in Winter’, and ‘Peak’ and ‘Graveyard Peak’, ‘Mountain’, ‘Mammoth Mountain’ and ‘Bloody Mountain’, I suggested we ‘cut through’ Yosemite National Park.

To be fair, we wouldn’t have passed through Oakdale (Cowboy Capital of the World – although this is contended by some other ones) or Selma (World Capital of the Raisin) or enjoyed some rather precipitous hairpin bends perched high up in fog above Groveland, but I saw enough of the drops from the passenger window before it got dark to regret opening my mouth. Some 6000 ft up, the GPS signal lost, the road behind us now icy, the Tioga Pass closed because of snow, and a recorded announcement on the Yosemite radio frequency basically saying turn back, turn back, we crawled into the forested national park and paused at the abandoned, ‘Information’ area to examine a sort of route map which was green with some zigzags on it by the light of a lighter. Actually Dave did; I stayed in the car eating whole bars of Butterfingers thinking about horror films where someone goes off to get help and doesn’t come back – although, I have to say, when coerced into opening the door, there was something wondrously exhilarating about the whistling wind and smell of pine and blackest of black nights. As it happens there seemed to be a road through. It would first punish us for being on it by leading us around for an extended series of icy hairpins then, when nauseous, remorseful and terrified by what could be glimpsed beyond the thin white protective line (aka air), it would spew us out on a bigger straighter icy road just south of where we had left it many hours before. So that was fun.

We proceeded in grim silence to Fresno. (Fresno being half way to Bakersfield).

Ironically, having been unable to see anything of one of America’s beauty spots as we slithered through it, the truck stop fast food suburb of Fresno we selected was lit by the sort of lighting normally associated with high security prisons; the Days Inn, the MacDonalds, In and Out Burger, KFC, numerous gas stations and flyovers and train tracks and container depots bathed in bright yellow light. The place smelt of the stuff pushed out of extractor fans at the back of burger joints, a sticky smell that stuck to everything. A second irony: having spent several tense hours up there, up there in Yosemite, looking out for the edge, we now embarked on a similarly tense and lengthy excursion to find the centre. Where was the beating heart, the gastronomic and carefree nightlife centre of Fresno? (Unfortunately I can’t answer that).

You know things are bad when to cheer yourself up the following morning you go to a Drive Thru Macdonalds. ‘Egg Macmuffin please’, I said. ‘Egg Macmuffin’ said Dave to the ear trumpet thing. ‘Grzz arc fast, ar’ comes the reply down the pipe. ‘What?’ said Dave. ‘Okay’ I said, ‘if they’re no longer serving breakfast, please could I have Oats & Fruit’. ‘Have you got any fruit?’ says Dave. ‘Grzz perrrin ar?’ says the person in the pipe. ‘FRUIT. Have you got FRUIT?’  ‘No, Dave. Look: Oats and Fruit. It’s a thing on the menu.’ ‘OATS’ says Dave tetchily to the ear trumpet. ‘OATS’. ‘And fruit’ I say. ‘OATS! FRUIT!’ Dave bellows, bewildered and cross. ‘Grzz fast ar‘ says the pipe, ‘Dragargarr! Dragargarr!’ Trucks were now honking above and behind us. ‘I think the person in the pipe would like us to move onto the collection hatch now’ I say soothingly. ‘Can I take your order?’ says the girl at the next hatch. Anyway, we eventually got it and it was disgusting swash but hot. I gave it to a homeless person panhandling at the Drive Thru exit and felt guilty for doing that for miles.

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To Big Sur and Beyond

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Newport Beach to L.A., Big Sur, San Francisco and Bolinas: 514 miles, 9 hrs 20 minutes.

Or in our case, 6 days. If I was doing it again, and in summer, I’d have added in a few nights around Big Sur, and a couple of extra nights exploring the spits and lagoons around Bolinas and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Good for the spirit, and a visual treat.

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Lloyd Kahn, King of Shelter

Everyone was building their huts, domes and homes from reclaimed material, but it was Lloyd Kahn and the first of the Shelter publications (Shelter) that put pictures and descriptions of the homes that people were building for themselves under the eyes of treadmill-weary workers. For forty years that book, and the DIY house porn that’s followed, has changed thousands of lives, triggering thousands of resignations, and turning accountants, doctors, dreamers and surfers into green builders. Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter – the prospect of designing and building a home plus the can-do spirit of ordinary people – was probably 78% responsible for me packing up and setting off in search of something or other. The books are a powerful mix inspiration and practical advice, and Lloyd, as founder and Editor-in-Chief, has played a hugely important and pivotal role by providing that platform for the exchange of ideas, pictures and success stories.

Yes, the books are great for providing ideas on how to construct yourself an affordable home, but what they do best is remind you that you have choices about where and how you live – and what you live in. The people on these pages have used their imagination and built houses that fit their character and lifestyle; houses that are homes.

He’s built five or so houses himself, and I went to meet him at the one he lives in, in the green and quiet paradise that is Bolinas, above San Francisco on the North Californian coast. We talked about how a new generation of 20-30-year olds is revisiting the ideas of the 60’s for a mix of spiritual, practical and economic reasons, the restrictions of regulations and land prices, ideas for building within disused urban properties, the benefits of constructing a house that is a home not a shell, and some of the amazing, inventive stuff that’s going on around the world. Not a day goes by without Lloyd getting emails from people telling him about their house project or plans, and he’s currently collating material for the next publication. I also got to stroke a bobcat, albeit the skin from a local road kill, and meet a wise, amusing and self-effacing man at the heart of a major worldwide house & home rethink.

I’ll be writing about Shelter, self-build and the small house movement (not necessarily the same thing), and will upload some edited footage once I’m off the road, (I could do with the converted bus / film lab featured in the Shelter book, Home Work). In the meantime, here’s a a few rough cut clips.  The back catalogue of publications is available from the Shelter website. Warning: Buying one of these books will cause you to either bemoan your boring life, or change it.


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