I contemplated skipping the details of our Grand Canyon > California City > Bakersfield>Fresno>Oakhurst> Yosemite road trip and just running with ‘TA DA! Now we’re in Yosemite!’. But the trip had some interesting highlights/lowlights.
Also, I suggest that as you read the following you should have the theme music from National Lampoon’s Vacation on repeat in your head. And trust me, once that gets started it’s going to be there for days.
The Mojave Desert
I’d never driven through a desert before. It’s kind of like cruising across the surface of the moon…if the moon had an atmosphere. And traffic signs. And rest stops with rattlesnake warning signs. Or maybe the surface of Tatooine (WordPress has earmarked the word ‘Tatooine’ as a typo. Seriously??). Anyhow, it was a pretty spectacular drive. It’s a remote, strange and a clearly hostile environment probably best left to the rattlesnakes, but the desert is a beautiful place.
There’s the middle of nowhere. Then there are vast stretches of empty desert. Then, about 200 nothing-light-years beyond that, there’s California City.
Originally we were going to drive through Death Valley and stop off at Lone Pine for a night before the home stretch into Yosemite. Then the Tioga Road, the only way into Yosemite on the eastern approach, was listed as closed for three days straight thanks to icy conditions. Rather than cross our fingers and hope the road would open (which it did of course, once we’d cancelled our hotel booking and planned an alternate route), we decided to make our approach from the west, driving down through the Mojave Desert and stopping off in California City instead.
California City borders on ghost town. It’s eerily quiet and slow-moving. There’s a golf course, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shopping strip, and the Best Western we stayed at – which as far as I could tell is the largest building in town. But the people (all 48 or so of them) are really friendly, perhaps because of the relaxed pace or maybe because they get to watch desert sunsets every day, which I found to be a visual form of Valium.
But the best thing about California City: Gloria’s Mexican. A shining food oasis in a remote desert landscape. Sure, from the front it looks like a laundrette that serves tacos, but inside spicy magic happens – and it comes with complimentary salsa and tortilla chips. We order enchiladas (mine beef, Brendan’s chicken) – juicy, fall-apart meat wrapped in soft flour tortilla shells, served with rice, chile, sour cream, salad and – you guessed it – beans. But the beans are pureed into a delicious bean-and-melted-cheese paste. Well played, tasty Mexican laundry.
Driving out of California City was also nice – not because we didn’t like the place, but because the exit view looked like this:
An entirely different story. Bakersfield is the waste-releasing orifice of California; a city full of gas and oil refineries, and thus one of the most polluted places in the USA. I’m no scientist but IMHO the pollution is an industrial-waste-and-sewage soup converted into a corrosive vapour that hovers in a thick, rank blanket over the city and beyond its limits.
You know how you can smell a Subway about 500 metres before you actually walk past it? It’s like that, except instead of plastic-bread smell it’s the what you’d expect a Victims of Acute Flatulence convention would smell like, and it permeates a 200km radius. It’s one of those smells that takes up residence in your nostrils like a stinking, uninvited squatter, and it inspired me to write some nice taglines for the city’s future tourism promotions. New Mexico had ‘The Land of Enchantment’ – here’s what I came up with for Bakersfield:
Bakersfield: It’s What Death Tastes Like
Bakersfield: A Corpse in Every Mouthful
Bakersfield: How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?
Bakersfield: Even the Trees Look Suicidal
The trees actually did look like they were dying. Every single one (that we could make out through the haze) was brown, wilted and sad.
The smog was nearly as bad here, but it didn’t smell as bad. On the upside, I got to have a mini geek-out here because Karate Kid is one of my all-time favourite movies and Fresno is where Daniel LaRusso lived before he and his mother move to LA. You’ve got to take your silver linings where you can, even if they’re fictional.
A southern gateway town into Yosemite. We ate the weirdest (but not entirely awful) pizza here out of sheer, starving desperation. We were both at hangry danger levels after ploughing through the last leg of the road trip in order to avoid getting out of the car and exposing our lungs to 100% proof Bakersfield air pollution (because we’d prefer it if our future children aren’t mutants. Unless they’re X-Men mutants, which is then not only entirely acceptable but potentially useful).
We had two objectives in Oakhurst.
1) Eat something, which we did at ‘Me ‘n Ed’s Pizza’, a pizza/sports bar next to the cinema and the only place open at 11am on a Sunday morning. We ordered the Italiano. It came with cold slices of tomato and packet parmesan sprinkled on top, but it was full of hanger-quashing carbohydrates and that’s the main thing.
2) Find out if we had to purchase snow chains for the tires of our rental – a silver Chevy Camaro convertible, which I think Brendan loved even more than his BeefMaster 2000 (*may not be actual name of BBQ) back home.
To quote one officious woman at one of Oakhurst’s gas stations, ‘It’s State Law to have ’em!’ if you’re heading into Yosemite during the winter months. But if the weather isn’t actually cold, the rules become ambiguous and no one seemed to have a definitive answer as to what we should do.
Irony: traipsing around Oakurst’s various auto outlets in 27-degrees-Celsius weather in order to locate snow equipment. Thank God we ate before this endeavour or we would probably still be in Oakhurst, rocking back and forth in the foetal position and muttering ‘State Law! State Law! State Law!‘. Eventually we stopped at the visitor’s centre, where two awesome hillbillies are appalled that we actually considered buying the chains and tell us that ‘no one will check and you’ll only get fined if you ‘re a jerk to the park ranger’.
They’re right. In fact, the closest we come to being spot-checked by one of the park rangers is when a guy at the gate tells me to ‘take that damn Yankee cap off!‘. Yes, sir.
Thus we finally enter Yosemite National Park – Camaro top down, unhindered by snow chains and very ready for a post-road trip beer.