What was I thinking? I’d chosen to go on an American road trip, and not just any old American road trip but the greatest American road trip of them all – Highway 1 and its 660 swooping miles of prime California coastline – with a female friend; a holiday that must, at some level, have been inspired by the spirit of Thelma & Louise; but I’d only gone and arranged it with someone actually called Louise. And I seem to have got it all wrong.
Because in Ridley Scott’s film, Louise is the sensible one, the one who can drive, and operate machinery, and plan a route. My Louise, on the other hand, doesn’t drive. She’s a Louise whose map-reading skills might be optimistically described as “rudimentary”, and who, it turns out, has never in her life been called upon to fill a car with petrol. And it’s only as we’re tooling out of San Francisco in the morning rush hour, the fog lingering over the bay, that I realise with a heavy heart that I’m the practical one, the one who has to remember to buy gas, and read road signs, and shoot potential rapists, while the real-life Louise’s role seems to be confined to staring out the window, and theoretically sleeping with Brad Pitt.
There is however, a disappointing lack of hot male hitchhikers on the road south through Palo Alto, the intellectual heart of the place we know as Silicon Valley, and a town so monied that the motel on the highway is a Four Seasons. We consider stopping but push on until we round the Monterey peninsula and hit Carmel, possibly the most famous small town on earth, a village really, but one where for a time in the 1980s Clint Eastwood was mayor. As we cruise around town, it’s a fact that seems increasingly improbable. The shops are less the kind of establishments frequented by Dirty Harry and more the kind where ladies of a certain age go to purchase notepads with pictures of pussycats on them.
It’s really not very Thelma, or even Louise, and we’re eager to head south, to Big Sur, where it’s bigger and wilder and the California mountains literally drop into the Pacific ocean, but there’s a snag. A month before our departure, a landslide had closed Highway 1 from the north. Then three days before we set off, another landslide had closed Highway 1 from the south. Big Sur was marooned. The only way in was over a high mountain pass in the Santa Lucia mountains, a stunning surreal drive, along a narrow, lonely road winding up through blossomy alpine meadows. A sign notifies us that we’re in a military range and then we notice the gun emplacements on the ridges and, around one corner, an abandoned tank. The road drops forever in precipitous hairpin bends until we finally reach the coast below and a spookily deserted Highway 1.
It’s dark by the time we arrive at the Post Ranch Inn, and it’s only in the morning that we realise how astonishing the location is: a cluster of grass-roofed eco-pods set amid towering redwoods on 1,000ft bluffs above the ocean. It’s the kind of place where Tom Cruise pops in by helicopter but even here there’s a touch of old Big Sur, the hippy haven where Jack Kerouac holed up in a cabin and Allen Ginsberg dropped acid. There’s a historian rather than a concierge, a long-time Big Sur resident called, brilliantly we think, Soaring.
The next night we stay at Deetjen’s, a cluster of cabins in a wood that a man called Grandpa Deetjen left in his will “to the universe for the benefit of all”.
Torrey, the genial manager of the place, tells us that “had a whole bunch of attorneys scratching their heads” but it was eventually classified as a national historic monument and is now a charmingly unchanged hotel, with creaking floorboards and old-fashioned eiderdowns and, on a shelf in our room, a stack of visitor books that date back decades. I open one at random and am hooked for the next four hours. “I had a hard time remembering the roar of the water was not traffic,” is the first one I read. How sweet, I think. And then read on: “My man laid me down next to the fire he built and showed me how he loved me. While the walls bulged to the mystic vibrations of the universe.” The first book dates from 1968 and includes accounts of drug-induced ramblings but it’s mostly sex. “A great place to renew love and lust,” reads my favourite. “Even if the antique organ is inoperable, my husband still made beautiful music.”
It’s gripping reading and, given the fact that Louise and I are loverless and alone, only slightly depressing. The open road calls: and Highway 1 at Big Sur is the apotheosis of all open roads. I’ve always laughed at those car ads, with their moody shots of men and machines but, suddenly, we’re in one, the mountains above, the ocean below, the cliffs of Big Sur stretching away into the distance. It’s almost heartwrenching to turn inland but with the landslip still blocking Highway 1, there’s no choice. The road is an engineering miracle, conjured out of cliffs and fresh air, and landslides are the price exacted by its beauty.
We hit the coast again further south and by the time we reach Santa Barbara, fog has given way to heat, and by Malibu we’re in deepest SoCal, a mythical place of tanned blondes and muscled surfers, although it turns out it’s not mythical at all. Everybody is tanned and muscled. Apart, that is, from us. We are so pale we’re possibly visible from space.
Not only are we not tanned, we’re also not celebrities, another Malibu anomaly, though it is amazing how easily you can infiltrate this world. Because right in the heart of Malibu is the delightful Casa Malibu Inn, a cute little motel smack on Carbon Beach, looking over one of the most exclusive stretches of sand in the world. We wander for miles along it, taking in the beachfront villas; it’s like flicking through a cross between Architectural Digest and Hello! Here, lifestyles of the rich and famous are combined with the kind of architectural fantasies only money and a lack of coherent planning laws can buy: Tudorbethan villas standing next to modernist luxe glass boxes, all empty save for the occasional toiling Mexican workman.
But then, we’d expected the mansions. What we hadn’t counted on was the nature. Long slipstreams of pelicans fly overhead, vast and pterodactyl-like; schools of dolphins bob and leap just offshore, and when I brave the Pacific rollers – they’re huge and vaguely life-threatening – Louise leaps to her feet and starts screaming at me. There’s an enormous black shadow on my tail. For a moment, our road movie looks like it might be turning into Jaws, until we see it’s not a shark but a sea lion. Still, tell that to my hyperventilating heart.
There’s just so much nature in California. And it’s all so big. And vaguely scary. From the giant redwoods in Big Sur to the killer whale that breaches offshore the next time I enter the water, to the coyote we see as we park up in Topanga canyon, just inland from Malibu. It slinks away with what looks like a domestic cat in its mouth. Topanga is another old hippy spot. At the store we buy a beer, and read the notices: “Lost: carved wood pipe.” “Found: turtle.” And then cruise into Santa Monica, Los Angeles’s beach town, with its old-fashioned pier, vast sandy beach and miles-long boardwalk.
“Everyone looks so healthy,” says Louise. And they do. They seem to radiate good health and soya bean-based products. And while it’s probably not actually illegal to walk around in anything other than full gym kit with a yoga mat in your bag, it just seems that way. I’ve held out for years against yoga and everything it stands for but, in Santa Monica, I finally crack. At the wonderful hotel where we’re staying, Shutters on the Beach, with its cool Cape Cod vibe, I discover there’s a beach yoga class at sunrise and succumb to Santa Monica’s greatest religion: the worship of the body beautiful. It’s the most yoga-centric place on earth, the teacher tells me, with more studios in one square mile than anywhere else in the US.
We reach the end of our road trip just south of Santa Monica, in Venice Beach, where we resist the shops selling medical marijuana and friendship beads and, instead hang out with the scenesters at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Erwin, taking in the southern California sunsets and observing southern California mores. (In a nutshell? Wear little, it seems. And eat less.) Breakfast includes the “bikini special”, consisting of those well-known nutrients, “egg whites and fresh air”.
I’d like to travel the rest of the road, one day, driving north from San Francisco, into fog and giant redwood country. Next time I’d take a co-driver, so I can be Thelma, and not Louise: staring out of the window and daydreaming, and, if it really is necessary, sleeping with Brad Pitt.
The Post Ranch Inn (www.postranchinn.com) has 41 rooms and suites, many with open fires or outdoor hot tubs; doubles start at $595. Deetjen’s (www.deetjens.com) has cabins from $95 a night. Casa Malibu Inn on the Beach (tel: +1 310 456 2219; no website) has ocean view rooms from $219. Shutters on the Beach (www.shuttersonthebeach.com) has doubles from $445. Venice Beach Hotel Erwin (www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/losangeles/erwin) is steps away from the boardwalk and Muscle Beach and has a panoramic rooftop cocktail lounge; doubles from $269.
Carole Cadwalladr flew with Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com), which offers return flights from London to Los Angeles from £559. She hired a car from Carrentals.co.uk, (www.carrentals.co.uk) which offers a fortnight’s car hire from San Francisco from £206.
Jamie Jensen’s top five drives
Start: Miami. Finish: Key West
Distance: 150 miles
If ever a road deserved its exotic name, this is it. Heading south from the tip of the Florida mainland, the Overseas Highway rides high above the vivid blue Caribbean, linking the low-rise islands of the Florida Keys via a series of concrete causeways. Passing by a number of sportfishing marinas, shrimp-and-seafood restaurants and ramshackle waterfront bars, the route is not all beautiful but, at its best, the Overseas Highway is about as close as a driver can come to experiencing the exhilaration of open-water sailing. Many of the finest views are from the road bridges, such as the Long Key Bridge and soaring Seven Mile Bridge, which run north and south of Marathon, the midpoint of the route. The lively, romantic resort town of Key West, at the end of the road, offers everything you could want from an end-of-the-world tropical paradise. All along the route, opportunities abound – to swim with dolphins, to snorkel past the colourful coral reefs of John Pennekamp State Park, even to sleep in an undersea motel.
Start: Seattle. Finish: Portland
Distance: 500 miles (including side trips)
The further west you go, the more the landscape takes on the starring role in US road trips. Starting from Seattle, head west to the remarkable Olympic National Park, where glacier-covered peaks rise above lush rainforests and fjord-like Lake Crescent. Spend a few days looping around this sublime peninsula, then head back east, around the volcanic peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens. South of here is another natural spectacle, the Columbia Gorge, where the nation’s oldest scenic highway winds past gushing waterfalls at the foot of photogenic Mount Hood, barely an hour from the centre of Portland.
Great River Road
Start: Memphis. Finish: New Orleans
Distance: 400 miles
Whether you’re searching for deep blues or cool jazz, Mark Twain or William Faulkner, Cajun gumbo or a slab of smokey barbecue ribs, the Great River Road will satisfy your quest. Synonymous with Highway 61, the Great River Road runs from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico but most of the highlights are found in its southernmost stretch, the 400 miles between Memphis and New Orleans. An hour south of Elvis Presley’s adopted hometown, Highway 61 brings you to the heart of the Mississippi Delta at Clarksdale, the historically poor cotton-farming town that gave birth to the blues. South of here, the road winds past the elderly mansions of Plantation Alley and the impressive antebellum homes of Vicksburg and Natchez, while a detour will carry you west from Baton Rogue through the swampy bayous of Cajun country before rejoining the Mississippi to deposit you at last on Bourbon Street.
Start: New York. Finish: Boston
Distance: 400 miles
If you’ve ever visited the US East Coast, you might have the impression it’s all one big industrial corridor. But head even an hour away from the coast and you can enter a much calmer world, where country roads wind past pretty farms and forests. Just over an hour from Manhattan, traffic willing, you can find yourself in the dense wilderness of Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap, from where you can wind north and east along the famous Appalachian Trail, all the way into the heart of New England. From the heights of Bear Mountain, above the Hudson Valley, run up Route 7 along the Housatonic river across Connecticut and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and before you know it you’re in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Not a freeway in sight – just peaceful two-lane highways and an occasional tobacco barn or covered bridge.
Start/Finish: Las Vegas
Distance: 750 miles
If you’re intrigued by the US’s many contrasts and contradictions, the south-western desert is a fascinating place to explore. Within a few hours of the nation’s most consumerist monument, Las Vegas, you can witness the spectacle of the Grand Canyon, where aeons of geological time conspire to make winning even the biggest jackpot seem insignificant. All over the broader “Four Corners” region, similar enigmas await around every bend, making a tour both thought-provoking and visually overwhelming. East of the Grand Canyon, in the Native American lands of the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations, the 1,200-year-old cliff palaces of Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelley rise hundreds of feet up sleek canyon walls. End the tour with a trip down old Route 66 before making your way back to Vegas.
Jamie Jensen is author of the ‘Road Trip USA’ (Avalon Publishing) series of guidebooks