Rags to Riches

Last week, the Voyager headed inland to view some large slabs of granite and a water-less waterfall before moving South through a drought-plagued state towards Los Angeles. In week five the journey visits Hollywood, gets as close to the Mexican border as one would dare and visits the hottest place on earth.

Day 29 – Los Angeles, CA to Lake Forest, CA

Following late nights out I will never again suggest sleeping in the front two seats instead of converting the back of the minivan into our usual bedroom no matter how tired we are. Week five began with a stiff neck, little sleep – if any – and a morose disposition. The supposed cure; to walk up and down a never-ending street reading the names of ‘celebrities’ from the floor.

Walk of Fame

Don’t get me wrong the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a hoot when you see the first few names that you recognise. But after an hour of looking straight down, not helping my neck, and pacing along a sweltering pavement, your interest in Jack Klugman or Leonard Nimoy’s star diminishes quite drastically. The celebrities hand and footprints were slightly more worthy of our time.

Walk of Fame

Our next obvious stop was the Hollywood sign, although far easier said than done. The sign sits in a rich part of L.A. alongside residents who are not particularly enamoured with the thought of thousands of tourists whizzing past their houses and up the narrow lane to the best viewpoint each and every day.

As a result the road is closed to all but the locals. However, that did not deter two stealthy British Columbian minivans as we sneaked past two blockades in order to get the hallowed vista. Very much worth the effort.

Hollywood Sign

Hollywood Sign

We then found a rowdy bar to watch the first American Football game of the season whilst we waited for the sun to set and the stars to appear. Once they were ready we made our way to the Griffith Observatory, a station once at the forefront of space research and discovery. This gave us the best view of Los Angles, which looked all too serene from our great vantage point.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

Day 30 – Lake Forest, CA to San Diego, CA

La Jolla was the first port of call today as the journey continued along the Pacific coast. On arrival we discovered that the famous beach at La Jolla – the one on all its postcards, apparently – was full to bursting with sebaceous sunbathers, swarms of snorkellers and crying children whilst wafts of faeces from a nearby harem of seals did nothing to help its appeal.

La Jolla Beach

La Jolla

We walked on not ten minutes more and discovered a compact beach and cove that was virtually empty and seal-scent-free. Here we stayed and savoured until the rip tide grew too strong for swimming and the water rose too high for comfort. We decided to move on to San Diego before nightfall. Today marked the end of our first leg South as we reached and camped within breathing distance of the Mexican border. Tomorrow, we head North.

Day 31 – San Diego, CA to Palm Springs, CA

Day thirty-one. One month since we left Vancouver bright eyed and bushy tailed. Now we are brightly burned and bushily bearded, at least Aaron and I are. Our parched skin was not helped with our trip to Balboa Park in thirty-five degree heat. The park is filled with buildings built by the Mexicans when they first colonised the San Diego area in the seventeenth century. The buildings are in really good condition and it was nice to finally see something in America built before 1997.

San Diego

San Diego

In this part of the world Spanish is the first language followed in a distant second by American English. This makes asking for any form of help a long and awkward process involving repetition of the question, confused looks by both parties, further repetition and then acceptance that my accent is not decipherable.

Despite not being able to communicate with the locals we found our way to Coronado beach, said our final goodbyes to the Pacific Ocean and headed North in the direction of desert, desert and more desert.

Coronado Beach

San Diego Chargers Stadium

Day 32 – Palm Springs, CA to Mojave Desert, CA

Pioneertown

On our way to Joshua Tree National Park we made a stop off at Pioneertown, a town straight out of an old Western – literally – as several films had been shot there in the fifties and sixties. Saloons with swinging doors, cacti taller than Christmas trees and wagons full of bootleg moonshine or guns or maidens in frilly dresses were all present. A dead horse or two and the scene would have been authentic to a fault.

Pioneertown

Pioneertown

We then took the Western pass in to Joshua Tree and followed a winding road through a landscape I imagine Mars to look like once we colonise it. Huge skull shaped boulders, scorched terrain and countless bizarrely-shaped Joshua trees – all standing in a solitary and stoic fashion.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

We climbed to the tallest viewpoint in the park which offered a breathtaking panorama of the Coachella Valley to the South and the Mojave Desert to the North – our next destination – all under a sky of impending stormy doom.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

The road to Mojave was as isolated as we had been on the trip so far. It was extremely hot, extremely humid and the closer we got to the desert, the more apprehensive we grew about staying in such a place. We reached an anonymous T-junction, took a right turn and, without warning, passed over a large white symbol emblazoned on the road. I slammed on the brakes, turned around and checked what we had just seen. We were on Route 66.

The Road to Mojave

The large white iconic road sign painted on sunbaked, cracked tarmac is its principal symbol and somehow, despite all the related literature I had read in my lifetime, I had no idea that it was here. In this instant, an extraordinary and highly implausible occurrence occurred inside the Mojave Desert. Rain started falling, for what must have been the first time in a very long time judging by the fantastic precipitation scent.

Route 66

I sat in front of the white marking, increasingly sodden, watching the sun set through the heat haze in what was my most joyous moment of the trip, and possibly life, so far. Car camping amongst scorpions, snakes and searing heat did nothing to dull my sense of euphoria.

Route 66

Day 33 – Mojave Desert, CA to Pahrump, NV

Mojave Desert

It was the unrelenting heat that woke us this morn, a slight improvement on ants, and we needed to be on the move before our skin and bones dissolved and melted into the parched sand. We awoke somewhere in the Mojave Desert, I am not sure where, but I would hazard a guess that we were the only people for at least ten miles in any direction. We headed to the whistling sand dunes of Kelso, which did not fancy whistling today, before reaching the tourist information centre.

Mojave Desert

There is a reason why the Mojave Desert is called a National Preserve as opposed to a National Park – there is hardly anything of interest here. It is dry, desolate and dangerous but by and large uninteresting.

Our next destination was anything but uninteresting. In fact, we were all a bit uneasy about making the journey there. Passing the largest thermometer in the world, which was already signalling thirty-four degrees Celsius, did not make us feel any more comfortable as we were headed somewhere much, much hotter.

World's Largest Thermometer

Furnace Creek in Death Valley is, quite simply, the hottest place on earth. A temperature of fifty-seven degrees Celsius, the highest recorded in human history, was taken there and we were more than slightly worried about how our delicate minivans, and indeed ourselves, would cope in that sort of heat. In hindsight, the extreme anti-freeze engine coolant I had bought earlier on in the week seemed a rather dull purchase.

The Road to Death Valley

The Road to Death Valley

The road into the heart of Death Valley is as morbid as you would imagine. A rocky landscape devoid of life that, as we descended into its bowels, grew hotter and hotter and hotter. Upon reaching our destination we were pleasantly surprised to find the temperature was a cool one-hundred-and-five degrees Fahrenheit – forty-one Degrees Celsius – which made breathing difficult but, thankfully, not impossible.

Furnace Creek

In fact, the town of Furnace Creek was actually quite nice. It had a general store, a camp site – not quite sure why anybody would want to camp here mind – and, most importantly, a saloon. Given that my Philadelphia Eagles were playing their opening game of the season at this exact time I demanded that we buy a few beers, relax and watch some American Football in the hottest town in the world – which we accomplished extremely successfully.

It was all very enjoyable, if slightly bizarre, and provided a worthy conclusion to our time in the Golden State of California. It feels as though we have been here forever – Aaron’s beard is proof of that – and, with El Niño nearly on the region’s doorstep, the time was most certainly right to cross the border into state number eight – Nevada.

Day 34 – Pahrump, NV to Las Vegas, NV

Our noble and brave Plymouth Voyager, in the last throws of his working life, has been extremely good to us on the journey so far. However, after seven-and-a-half-thousand tough kilometres, he finally needed to be taken to a garage in Pahrump for some work. Brake pads, discs and a tyre puncture repair – no doubt picked up on our trek through the Mojave Desert – will hopefully keep him alive for at least a couple more off-road rallys.

The Road to Las Vegas

And so we got back on the freeway towards our next major destination; the home of extravagant casinos, neon lights and last-second weddings – Las Vegas. It could not be a more contrasting location to our time in the Californian wilderness but after thirty-four days of sleeping exclusively in the back of a minivan we decided to embrace the Vegas lifestyle and book a cheap, dingy motel.

After our first slightly comfortable wash, shower and shave in over a month we felt like a million dollars and were ready to take the casinos for everything they had – one-by-one.

We decided to start at the bottom of ‘The Strip’ and work our way North so tonight’s casino itinerary included a shark tank – Mandalay Bay – an Egyptian pyramid – Luxor – and a towered and turreted castle – Excalibur. Having discovered that you can receive complementary beverages in exchange for a $1 tip, we drank, gambled and completely fell in to the clutches of Sin City.

The Strip

Excalibur

Day 35 – Las Vegas, NV

Waking up in a real bed felt like a novelty this morn – a highly enjoyable one. We had breakfast, showered – another novelty – and made our way back to The Strip. We continued our casino crawl North starting at New York, New York – the one with the Statue of Liberty. It was here that I decided starting to collect poker chips from each casino we entered – not realising just how many casinos we would end up visiting.

New York, New York

CSI Experience

We experienced the CSI Experience at the MGM Grand before hitting Planet Hollywood, Paris & Bally’s. By now we realised that the casinos are extremely similar but for the themed décor and waitresses outfits.

Each casino we grew slightly more inebriated and slightly bolder with our dollars until we reached our final destination for the evening – and the largest casino complex in Vegas – Caesars Palace. From starting the day on the one cent slots we had now moved on to seventy-five cents per spin, and within seconds it paid off.

Paris

Caesar's Palace

Rampaging buffalo charged across my slots screen as the machine started vibrating and all manor of alarms and sirens went off. There may have even been smoke coming from the machine, I was too aghast to be sure, as my credit started to increase, and increase, and increase. I had hit the jackpot.

After five or six minutes of increasing credit I had finished with a grand total of $785. Fully expecting to lose it is fair to say that we were all shocked and ecstatic in equal measure. After cashing out we had celebratory beverage after celebratory beverage until our twelve-hour casino marathon got the better of us. Sleep.

Caesar's Palace

Caesar's Palace

Next week the casino crawl continues until the voyage heads East towards the largest of dams and the grandest of canyons before reaching New Mexico – as the group must split once more.

The Bellagio

Total kilometres: 7,792

J

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