White-knuckled, my hands clenched the steering wheel. I inhaled sharply. Golden shafts of Golden State sunshine danced off the horse emblem on the duco. I turned the key…
The engine whinnied at first, and then hummed.
A flick of my right wrist and the radio was thumping out Oh Yeah by Yello. For a fleeting moment I was Ferris Bueller, and the cocktail of sun, horsepower and topless driving promised a wicked day off. Oh Yeah.
But this was not the black prancing horse of Enzo Ferrari’s stable. This one, glinting enticingly in the Californian sunshine was silver. And it didn’t prance – it galloped.
The pony in whose saddle I now sat wasn’t Italian. It was as American as Coca-Cola, tipping and Times Square. My right foot pressed down in the stirrup and the V6 motor roared. Our California Road Trip had begun!
Mustang Road Trip. Day One
With the sun as their chaperone, two all-Australian boys began their first date with the all-American car – a convertible Ford Mustang – down Sepulveda Boulevard to the Pacific Coast Highway. Before long, the City of Angels had eaten our dust. At Zuma Beach, Malibu we made the obligatory pit-stop to find the California of beach parties, bikini-clad beauties, board riders and Beverly Hills.
It was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps we’d watched too many of those 1960s Malibu beach movies. On the radio, Good Vibrations beat its summery twang into the sea air, and seemed out of place. Disappointed but not disheartened, we drove our heart stopper northwards, up Interstate 101, to Santa Barbara.
We didn’t dwell long. The Ultimate Escape, in the Ultimate Escape capsule, doesn’t allow for such trivialities as cities. Every minute in a city is one less minute of wind-in-your-hair, sun-in-your-face, pedal-to-the-metal hedonism. Oh Yeah. We had come to drive. This was, after all, a convertible road trip and we were loving it!
Having hauled in our pony’s reins in Santa Maria for the night, we started early. The famed California State Highway 1 beckoned. The sun came up. The roof came down. Northwards we cruised, through the hills to Arroyo Grande, before turning off to the place whose name we’d seen so often in so many beach movies. The pilgrimage had to be made.
Pismo Beach. The California of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. A town built around surf culture, with all its attendant trappings: California girls, surf gear shops, Speedo parades, California girl postcards, trendy beachside cafes and open-topped Jeep Wranglers (driven by California girls).
After San Luis Obispo and Cambria, the towns pretty much disappear. Struggling to believe that smoggy, sprawling Los Angeles was a mere 200 miles behind us (and that James Dean’s last moments passed in a convertible sports car, unnoticed, just a handful of miles to the east of us), we drank in the beauty. Any thoughts of adhering to a schedule were left behind in our tyre-marks.
The coastline becomes deeply indented as you near Big Sur, and the steep cliffs become even steeper. Bridges, reminiscent of aqueducts, span the breathtaking indentations and ensure that one memory card for the camera will never be enough for one day.
In the afternoon, a cool mist so typical of the central coast pursued the Mustang. Thanks to my brother Andrew’s best Cannonball Run impressions, the Mustang punched out of the corners like a champion boxer and we managed to escape the mist.
From Monterey to Concord – about 130 miles – was freeway all the way. Oh Yeah. We were pushed for time. Sunset was high time to take to our Pony with whip and spur.
A misty morning greeted us for the obligatory drive across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The Mustang isn’t exactly rare in the States but it still has enough head- turning power to satisfy even the most narcissistic of drivers.Wherever you drive this car, it makes a statement. And across the Golden Gate, I was revelling in every roof- down, statement-making minute of it.
We cruised down Interstate 101 towards Hollister where, expecting to bump into Thelma and Louise, we stopped for Wendy’s burgers, Coca-Cola and fuel. Route 152 took us through Los Banos, direction Fresno. Nothing but mile after mile of dead straight bitumen, telegraph poles and the occasional 1950s or 1960s diner marooned in the middle of nowhere, untouched for half a century or more. Even the Coke machines were original and oh-so Route 66. A roadside advertisement exhorted us to “own the car that owns the road”. The Ford Mustang. Oh Yeah.
How long the billboard had been around for was anyone’s guess. The faded picture thwarted any attempt to gauge the ad’s vintage; the Mustang, after all, has owned the American road not just for thirty summers, but for fifty years.
Coffee and hash browns on the road. We headed north-east through Oakhurst to Yosemite National Park, a haven amidst the perpetual rush hour that is California. No amount of travel guide photographs can prepare you for the dramatic geological formations and cascading waterfalls of this stunningly beautiful glacial valley. For 4000 years before the Spanish “discovered” California, the Ahwahneechee Indians (a tribe of the Miwoks) had dwelt in this most sublime of wildernesses.
The knowledge of their age-old habitation, in concert with the sheer majesty of such formations as Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls and the famous El Capitan – one of the world’s largest monoliths – make for a humbling experience. And as if this weren’t enough, the size and age of the trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias simply make one’s jaw drop. Awe-struck, we drove back to Fresno in virtual silence.
Even by 8.00 a.m., the interior of the Mustang was hot. It wasn’t hard to believe that Death Valley, reputedly the hottest place on earth, lay only 150 miles east. We rolled back the roof. We dialed back our “road songs” on the iPhone to The Riverias’ California Sun and the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe. And we kicked back for our drive to the Sierra Nevada.
In Squaw Valley it was 33 degrees Celsius. Not forty miles further on, stepping from the car landed us in over a foot of snow. California is truly a place of tremendous contrasts and in the Sierra Nevada it becomes a place of superlatives too.
It claims the highest mountain in the contiguous States (Mount Whitney) and is also home to a sequoia named The General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree (by volume). Its trunk weighs an estimated 2100 tonnes and is over 30 metres in circumference at the base. Cheek-by-jowl with Sequoia NP, Kings Canyon reaches a depth of 2,500 metres, making it the deepest canyon in North America, even deeper than the Grand Canyon. And if this wasn’t enough, all this is found in the longest single continuous mountain range in North America.
One might expect that a place of such superlatives would be overwhelming. It is not. Wandering amongst the sequoias – watching them, touching them, hearing them – I found a peace seldom found elsewhere in my other travels. To commune with something that is 2700 years old that is still living, is indeed food for the traveller’s soul, and a reminder of one’s own mortality.
With our mighty Mustang humbled by the giant sequoias that had straddled the road, we left Giant Forest and drove – slowly, reluctantly – to Bakersfield. There, over a few cans of Millers Ice beer and a few hours of The Simpsons, we reflected on our all-American road trip.
All-too-soon our Mustang road trip was over.
We hadn’t been to Disneyland. Or Knott’s Berry Farm. Or Universal Studios. We had driven straight past Hearst Castle without a sideways glance. And Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf never even got a look in.
We had set out to experience the real California, from the cockpit of a convertible Ford Mustang, comme il faut. And we had done just that. Everywhere we had driven, signs at each town exit had read – Gas. Food. Lodging.
When you drive a Mustang, we had learned, the latter two items soon become optional!
Our last night in California was spent doing the only thing we knew we still had left to do: plan our next trip to America. Only next time, we wouldn’t even dream of renting a V6 Mustang for our convertible road trip.
No. Next time, the “6” would have to be an “8”!
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