The Greatest Journey – Part 2

When you last saw us we were about to embark on a treacherous journey across Donner Pass. At the entrance to the I80 interstate highway our first challenge was to put our newly purchased chains on the car. Our fumbling, first-timers’ efforts were further hampered by the blizzard that raged around us and by the fact that night had fallen with a sudden thump, like a melodramatic stage black-out curtain.

Despite the poor visibility, numb fingers and rapidly rising levels of panic, eventually we got the buggers chains on and pulled back on to the highway. Already, the snow was laying in thick, ever-deepening piles on the carriageways. Our only clue as to where the lanes went became the brake lights of the car in front, to which we clung desperately as we craned forward in our seats and peered into the swirling storm.

We inched along painfully for miles and miles. The digital roadside signs advised of a 20 mph speed limit, which kept being extended to cover more of the journey as the storm continued to rage. A distance of 70 miles was eventually subject to the restriction – not that we got anywhere near such a high speed but certainly some of the larger American pick-ups with their snow tires on and confident, experienced snow-drivers at the wheel did, terrifying us yet more as they came out of nowhere and sped (seemingly) past us in the outer lane.

We felt hopelessly out of our depth and out of place in our little PT Cruiser stuffed to the gunnels with surf boards and camping gear.  At least our expedition sleeping bags would prove handy should we become benighted. And the surf boards could always be used to defend ourselves from marauding bears. Or cannibals. (Richie’s tales of the original pioneer crossing of Donner Pass was still ringing in my ears.)

Somehow, some eight hours later we finally descended into Oakland and the snow turned into rain. I have never in all my days been so delighted to be driving through a torrential downpour as I was then. My kidneys were killing me from over-production of adrenaline but otherwise we were unscathed.

Woohoo! Back on the California coast it was time to break out the surfboards again.

So it was that we arrived at my Uncle Tony’s apartment, just a few blocks from Ocean Beach in San Francisco, some 5 hours later than expected. Still, I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years so a few hours here or there wasn’t going to make much difference.

Tony had emigrated to San Francisco from Dublin over 50 years previously and had worked there all his life as a yellow cab driver, making him the perfect tour guide. He was a flamboyant, larger than life (slightly bonkers) character and we had more bizarre adventures with him than you might think possible in the space of a few days – fodder for a separate blog post. Or book.

From San Francisco we would drive all the way back to LA hugging the coast on the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 101. What a drive. Finally our dinky PT Cruiser felt like the right car to be in and our surf boards felt like the right accessories to have (those and a dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s Big Sur, natch) .

Our first stop was not far south of San Francisco, where we pulled off the highway to pay a pilgrimage to Pillar Point.  We couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Mavericks, the famous big-wave surf spot. Incredibly, when we got there it was going off! We sat on the clifftop, amongst all the pro-photographers and watched tens of brave souls run nervously along the sand, with their boards clutched under their arms, about to embark on the 2 mile paddle out to try and catch one of the scariest waves on the planet!

Pillar Point – the clifftop on which we sat and watched some scary big wave action
Image courtesy of Dawn Endico

Suitably inspired (terrified, actually) we continued on to Santa Cruz, where we got our first opportunity in a long time to actually wet our own boards. And what a place to surf! Santa Cruz is Surf Central. Everyone surfs in Santa Cruz. Moms pitch up in their station wagons after the school run to suit up and paddle out, elderly folk gracefully drop in on you in the water and scrawny grommets pull aerial tricks as lesser mortals flounder about (that would be me).

The water is crowded but I found the atmosphere generally friendly and non-aggressive, surprisingly so given how busy it is. The quality of the surf is great, with lots of points as well as beach breaks and reefs. It was consistently good with super-clean, regular lines coming in every day of our stay there.
Whilst at Santa Cruz, we camped at New Brighton State Beach campground, a beautiful forest camp just outside town, great value at just $25 a night. The only hazard there being the squirrels perched high above who took to pelting our car with pine cones.

From Santa Cruz we made the spectacular drive on to Big Sur itself. There we camped right on the edge of the cliffs, directly overlooking the Pacific. Kirk Creek Campground has to have one of the best locations of any campsite in the world and at $22, including a free entry day pass to National Forest beaches and picnic grounds along Big Sur, such as Pfeiffer Beach, Sand Dollar Beach and Willow Creek it’s really excellent value.

The PCH at Big Sur, taken from the air
Photo courtesy of

From here we continued to meander our way along this stunning coastline, visiting some of the aforementioned National Forest beaches and generally allowing ourselves to absorb the natural beauty and atmosphere.

As we passed one beach that had an untypically large number of cars parked at it, Richie impulsively swung the car off the road to investigate what the attraction might be. We followed the small crowd of people onto the wooden walkway that ran along the top of the beach, non-plussed. Slowly our unsuspecting eyes adjusted and we distinguished that the sandy-coloured surface of the beach was in fact a heaving, writhing mass of elephant seals. We had stumbled across Piedras Blancas in full elephant seal weaning season. A truly awesome sight.

The beach at Piedras Blancas – a heaving, writhing mass of elephant seals.

At Jalama Beach County Park we made camp again, hoping for some good surf in the morning. Instead a rain-storm hit overnight and left mushy, unrideable waves in its wake. The night also brought us another unwelcome visitor. We were awoken in the early hours by heavy, rasping breathing coming from the porch of our tent. Undoing the zip we were greeted by a raccoon brazenly rummaging through some food we had stupidly left in the porch. Luckily, after a tense moment, he turned tail and ran. Despite Richie’s initial cries of ‘How cute!’ I had no desire to tangle with a sharp-clawed, tubercular raccoon in the confines of a small, nylon tent.

Jalama Beach – wet and surf-less but unscathed by our close encounter with a raccoon.

The rest of our journey and any parts that I have glossed over here (believe it or not there are some!) have already been written up. You just need to get your hands on a copy of ‘Surfing California’ by Bank Wright, published 1973. This evocative book guided us to and around all of the iconic surf breaks of California and in no small way contributed to our great, final tally of over 4,000 miles driven on this, our greatest journey.

Our dog-eared bible. Published 1973

Thanks again to Emma at A Bavarian Sojourn for tagging me in this lovely meme and prompting me to write up this trip. In turn, I’d like to tag Scribbler in Seville, Travel Lady with Baby, Putney Farm, The Donovan Boys and Erin from The Other Side of the Road. No obligation, of course, but if you (or any one else out there, for that matter!) are looking for an excuse to relive your greatest journey then let this be your cue.


The Greatest Journey – Part One

I was tagged in this travel meme by the lovely Emma of A Bavarian Sojourn way back in the mists of time. Well, 6 weeks ago, which in the internet realm of insta-response is in actual fact aeons. I can only hang my head in shame. I am a Bad Blogger. And now that I am finally getting round to it, I’m going to shamelessly flaunt the rules (of which I am unsure anyway, so maybe I just think I’m flaunting them) and break the post down into two. I mean, who can possibly cram the greatest journey into one miserly blog post? (Answer: better bloggers than I. *Hangs head in shame again*)

Aanyway…..without further ado, I bring you ‘The Greatest Journey: Part the First.’

As the greatest journeys often do, our 5 week Californian road-trip back in 2008 pretty much planned itself. With friends, family, must-sees and must-dos dotted across the golden state, all we really had to do was to follow the dots.

Flying into LA, we kicked the trip off staying with one of my closest friends, who was living halfway between Topanga Canyon and Malibu with her husband and young son. Good food, good wine, good company and a hot-tub on the deck. What more could you ask?

Well, I guess if you were being greedy you could also request proximity to great surf beaches, extensive hiking trails and one of the most exciting cities in the world. Well, would you look at that? Tick, tick, tick.

Surfers at Malibu. (It wasn’t actually my favourite break to surf. But, hell, it was Malibu, man!)

After a heady few days in and around the smog of LA we headed out to the national park at Joshua Tree. The desert landscape there is almost other-worldly in its strange, harsh beauty and it’s home to some awesome climbing, as well as lots of wildlife. We saw several coyotes during our stay and even a bobcat stalking right through our campground. Yikes!

A coyote standing proud just metres from our campground

We had timed our visit for the end of January and into February so that temperatures wouldn’t be too high for climbing (plus flights are at their cheapest then in the post-Christmas lull). The Californian winter didn’t let us down – the desert days were perfect with clear blue skies but not so sweltering as to be sloth (or sweat) inducing.

‘White Rasta’ – an iconic (and photogenic) boulder problem at J Tree
Blue skies behind, but in the shade I’m wearing a down jacket and thermal hat, indicating perfect climbing temps for maximum friction

Here in the middle of the desert, far from any light pollution, the clear, bitterly cold nights produced starlit skies that were to die for – and you seriously could have if you’d been ill-prepared camping. We slept in 5-season sleeping bags, on Therma-rests and still needed our thermal hats on to sleep. (The 5th season, if you’re wondering, relates to expedition/mountaineering use.)

Our ‘cosy’ campsite, hewn from the granite of J-Tree. The night skies were so bright that we didn’t even have to use our headtorches most of the time.

Richie’s birthday fell while we were at Joshua Tree and we celebrated by driving to Twentynine Palms for the evening and relaxing our cold and worked muscles in hot springs under the vast canopy of the night sky. Bliss.

Despite this indulgent interlude, after several days of the privations of desert camping we were ready for some full-on modern comforts – and where better for full-on indulgence than Vegas, baby!

The view from the top of the Stratosphere, Las Vegas, where we rode the aptly named Skyjump and Insanity. I feel a little queasy just writing this.

Luckily, we discovered that it is perfectly possible to do extravagant Vegas on a shoestring – just be sure and STAY AWAY FROM THE BLACKJACK. You can get great deals on rooms because the casinos are so sure you’re going to lose all your money at the tables, plus they’ll comp you cocktails all night long (or day if you’d rather – normal hours don’t necessarily apply here). The all-you-can-eat buffets may vary in quality and price but you certainly need never go hungry.

For our visit, we mostly gawked at the high-rollers, goggled at how quickly you can lose a LOT of money and played a little tournament poker, where your losses are limited to your initial stake and your fun lasts as long as you stay in the game (all the while quaffing cocktails 😉 )

After two days of sensory over-stimulation (broken up by some climbing at nearby Red Rocks) we managed to quit Vegas and Nevada and return over the state line to California, with our wallets and sanity still relatively intact.

Our next destination was Bishop, a 5 hour non-stop drive north of Vegas. As our route took us through Death Valley National Park some stopping was inevitable, however. As well as being wowed by the views we even stumbled across a museum of the Old West and got to check out some of the haunts of ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang.’

Here we are on an exploratory detour. I was slightly concerned at this point that we might never reach civilization or paved roads again. Also, if you look closely you can just make out our surfboards squeezed into our little hire car. That got us some strange looks in the desert.

Bishop is a gorgeously typical small western town with a Main Street you feel like you’ve driven down before, even on your first visit. It’s got excellent skiing nearby as well as some world class bouldering and climbing. For me it was a first visit and a chance to meet Richie’s friends Wills and Lisa, who kindly put us up and showed us around the whimsically named Happy and Sad Boulders and the spectacular Buttermilks.

To reach our next destination, San Francisco, we would have to cross back west over the Sierra Nevada and this was to prove more challenging than we realised.  It being February, the mountains were naturally living up to their snowy name. Many of the mountain passes in this range are simply closed for months throughout every winter and even more roads were closed on the day we travelled, owing to a particularly big snow storm brewing.

Roadside signs had been warning of the impending storm for days but we thought we would make it across the interstate from Reno just in time. Unfortunately we had severely underestimated the scale of the storm that was about to hit and of the crossing that we had to do.

As we hurriedly scuttled north from Bishop to Reno, naiively hoping to outrun the brunt of the storm, our first near-disaster struck when we got pulled over for speeding by a state trooper. With his reflective aviator shades and humourless questioning he was a tad intimidating. But then he suddenly softened and to our complete astonishment told us he wasn’t going to ticket us and that Richie could count it as a belated birthday present! (Believe me, this would NEVER happen in Spain.) He must have felt sorry for the tourist idiots in their ditsy, impractical PT Cruiser, laden down with surfboards and heading for the eye of a blizzard.

Eventually, we made it to Reno as the first snow flurries started. By this stage it was obvious that we needed to buy chains (what now? and how exactly do you put those on?) before venturing anywhere near the interstate.

Richie chose this moment to regale me with stories of the first pioneers to make this same crossing here at Donner Pass – of how they were stranded for months in the snow and how they eventually resorted to cannibalism. Nice.

Thus it was that with chains clanking in our trembling hands we paid the toll-booth operator and took our chances ticket at the entrance to the I80 interstate. ‘You need to pull over right there and put your chains on your vehicle now,’ he told us. And then he wished us luck for the journey. I had a feeling we were going to need it.