Nine Companions, Two Cars and the Open Road

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life” – Jack Kerouac

In this world, every time we leave we risk saying our last goodbye. Such is the nature of finite things like holidays, or trips, or life. You can’t always know whether you’ll be back, and in ways I guess that’s the beauty of travelling. But this is not a story of leaving, or of goodbyes. Those stories are best told last, when everything else worth saying is done. This story is about discovery and adventure and a fair deal of endurance. It may have been the end of one chapter, but turning the page we found ourselves on a new one. Simply titled: The Open Road.

Towards the end of July we realised our time for travelling was quickly approaching. Having spent over two months in San Diego, the original eight all sprawled out on the carpet in our apartment to look at a map of California. We had roughly two weeks to work with and by no means a large deal of money. Our first decision was to rent cars. While the public transport in America isn’t bad, it wasn’t going to get us There and Back again just the way we wanted. If we wanted to take in as much of America as possible, we needed to do it on our terms (with the problem of nine suitcases also an issue). You may wonder who this mystery 9th person is, but at the start of August we were joined by Rachel, who was Fiona’s friend from back home. Similar to Adam, Mark and Paul, we all quickly warmed to our new companion. In what was one of our last games of Kings in the apartment, Adam decided to add the rule of “Everybody has to compliment Kyle”. It was a lot of fun to see what people would come up with, but I was perhaps most happy with Rachel’s compliment, which was simply “Orange suits you”. For those who are not aware, I am of course obsessed with the colour orange, so that was friendship made.

trave

We left Rio Vista on another sunny morning in San Diego. We had two SUVs to fill up, and considering how much we chipped in to rent them, we were shocked with the cars we were driving. Sun roofs, leather seats, enough space in the back for all of our bags. It was a good start. Myself, Katie, Eimear and Michaela jumped into what would be dubbed “Ms. Tiff”, or “The Ms. Tiff-mobile” or by the end, just “Tiff”. Me and Michaela took the back seats, surrounded by books, litres of water and enough cereal bars to feed a small army on march. Eimear was shotgun as the navigator, which on day one seemed temporary but became a staple for our car. Katie was our driver, and though we were lucky to have Rachel to add to our driver ranks with Fiachra, we rarely ended up switching the passengers. It just made more sense to keep everybody’s stuff in the cars they were in. In the back, it was down to me and Michaela to host entertainment, whether that was “Would you rather”, music or a whole host of games we invented on the road. We pulled out of Rio Vista and almost immediately took a wrong turn on Friars Road. It’s funny, I was thousands of miles from home, but I was still on Friars Road. We got back on track, and then it was off north to Huntington Beach. The journey, which was about two or three hours, took us all along the South California coast. Those post card pictures come from somewhere, and that day we saw them all. We got out on the beach and walked out onto the boardwalk, where below huge waves crashed up against its pillars and surfers from all over the state came to ply their trade. Huntington beach has a nice network of shops and restaurants, but wanting to keep our costs down we opted to eat in “Bomb Burger”. I was at the top of the line, where I saw an a sign saying “add nuclear sauce”. I’m not a fan of spicy food, but I was curious. I asked at the till and I was handed a sheet of paper, which if I wanted nuclear sauce I had to sign and return. I was confused, until I saw two fully grown men behind me crying and gulping down their drinks.

Just the burger is fine please

After Huntington beach, it was onto L.A. While driving down the road that day, we were officially on the “101”, which of course called for us to play the theme song of the O.C. We had a lot of road songs like that, which as four reasonably good singers we joined in with for hours on end. In L.A., we were a little more careful. Being honest, I don’t know how Katie managed it. Five lanes of traffic, at night, all trying to go somewhere fast in a city home to Hollywood. Driving on the opposite side of the road is tough. Driving with a bunch of maniacs is somewhat tougher. By the end of it, our car opted for Sunset Blvd over Compton, which still surprisingly brought its own problems. You see, obviously we were masters of overcrowding, but that night called for a particularly good scheme. Katie drove us into the tiny entry to the Sunset Motel, then quickly hopped from the driver’s seat into the back and hid under some clothes. The motel owner came out, and I met her on the asphalt. She asked how many we had, to which I replied and pointed out three. I knew the room was for two, but with a bit of Irish charm I managed to convince her to take the extra “one” person. It seemed we had got away with it. Before she left, she pointed to the SUV in front of us and asked if I could pull it up a little closer. I remind you that Katie, the driver, was hiding in the back. I, a man whose choice of vehicle is his feet, stared at the massive SUV. I motioned to Eimear, but the woman was insistent. My saving grace was a Wells Fargo bank card, which I used to motion her to her office. After that, the real fun began when we emptied the car and tried to sneak our extra person in. Luckily, in the dark, Michaela and Eimear are passable for one another, especially if we put Eimear’s U.S.S. Midway jumper on Michaela and send her up the backstairs just in case.

And at the end of it all, I got a terrible nights sleep under a San Diego Padres towel and a whirring air conditioning unit. I didn’t know it then, but that was far from the worst night’s sleep I’d get on the road.

trave 3

The next day, after breakfast in Jack in the Box, it was off to Hollywood. We’d briefly seen it the night before all lit up, but during the day it seemed like just any other street. We walked all along and got pictures with our favourite stars on the pavement, and then decided in unison we wanted to sign up for a cringe-fueled tour of celebrity houses. We met Glen, who sold such tours, outside a Trader Joe’s. He was…..different, but quickly quoted us a price. Once the deal seemed settled, he simply said “I’ll be right back, I’m gonna get a plum”. To his credit, he returned two minutes later from Trader’s Joes with his plum, which he dug into as he brought us to get our tickets. Hollywood really is as weird as they paint it. But if we found Glen odd, our tour guide made him look altogether boring. We drove around for about 3 hours listening to him, seeing houses like Katy Perry’s, Michael Jackson’s old house and Tom Cruise and getting the obligatory picture in front of the Hollywood sign. Below, the entirety of Los Angeles could be seen, and nothing else. A whole horizon taken up by a city. Glen also insisted we saw the relatively unfamous Nia Long (“star” of Are we there yet etc). I’m not sure we did, considering further on he shouted to a random Asian woman “Heeyyy Lucy Liu”. I think all nine of us will never forget things like

Kat Von D’s house you guys. The L.A. Ink star you guys….Kat…Von….D.

Here guys the original Dracula house. Dracula Bela Lugosi you guys…Bella…Luuuugosi

By the time we were finished with our tour, we had only time left to see a few more things, so we quickly took in the Chinese Theatre (my hand size is the same as Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro). After, we found ourselves in a Scientology museum (Aine asked could we, it seemed cool) and were asked did we want to do a free personality test. I’ll admit, months of taking things at face value in America really blurred our radar, as we happily signed up to what seemed like a cult entrance exam. Instead of a personality test, we were subjected to 200 statements and a timed IQ test. Questions included “If you invaded a country, would you feel bad for the citizens there”. Keep an eye on Scientology, United Nations.

From L.A. it was onto Pasadena, where again we managed to get everybody into the motel room. It was funny, as a man watched this unfold from across the street. To all appearances, myself and Fiachra were ushering seven girls into a motel room in the backstreets of Pasadena. Nothing to see here.The next morning, we re-fueled and got back to the road. We took a lot of water with us. Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada.

As we got further and further outside L.A., the sun seemed to swell, and the dots of green along the roadside seemed to vanish. Soon, we were in the Nevada desert, where we had to turn off our air conditioning and keep our windows shut. We knew it was the desert, because “when I opened the window it didn’t make that fwwwwp sound from the wind”. OK, that’s not how we knew, but we managed to convince Michaela of it for a while. But still, our spirits kept up. We had exhausted “Would you rather”, and were now permanently onto singing. That afternoon, as we drove into the nothingness that was the Nevada desert, the song “Shut up and dance with me” came on. It was one of our favourites, but that time we all joined in from start to finish. Here we were, four Irish students in an SUV tearing from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I might have said 4th of July was the most freedom I’d ever felt on American soil, but perhaps that four minutes in that SUV on the road to Vegas eclipses it.

The road went on, and on, and on, so much so that it seemed the desert had swallowed us and we’d never reach Vegas. We kept in contact with the other car as best we could, though eventually the signal wavered and we were in radio silence. We had a false alarm on the road, when we saw roller coasters rising up from the sand only to find out it was in fact not Vegas. We rolled on by. And then, as if from nowhere, the entire city sprang into view as the GPS counted down the miles. We pulled into the MGM hotel with Uptown Funk blaring, and assembled above in the car park. Now, I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher, or the Eifel Tower etc, but walking through the MGM had me stunned. It was like a city in one building. The corridors seemed to stretch for miles. Once inside, we quickly got dressed up and headed out for the night. Even at night, Las Vegas was sweltering. I could feel the moisture melt off my eyes at 4am, and so generally tried to stick inside. We played the slots, roulette etc at the MGM and New York, New York. Fiachra and Michaela were the big winners, with some of Mark’s blackjack skills seemingly on show. Unlucky player!

The next day, we got up as early as Four Loco allowed us, and headed off to the Grand Canyon. We could not have underestimated more how long it took. We crossed from Nevada into Arizona (stopping quickly at the state line on the Hoover Dam), passing by a place called “The Last Stop”, which offered you a final chance to shoot automatic weapons. Priorities. Soon, the dusty, rocky earth turned to shrub-filled fields and eventually dense forests. By evening, we had made it, and hurried to the Photo points as the sun began sinking into the east. Again, I’ve seen a fair share of landmarks, but the Grand Canyon simply blew me away. It was….everywhere. It was so vast, so empty, so incredible. We all posed for photos while judging hard the man standing a bit too far out on the edge for our liking. You have to understand, the floor just falls a mile from where you are standing. It’s a bit surreal to imagine how it formed, and just how far it stretches. We made our way home in the dark towards Vegas, only reaching our hotel room by 3am. Okay, we may have hesitated and watched an ad for The 21 day Fix for a while, all a bit spaced, but realising Vegas never sleeps, we headed out again. It was nice to see Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio and buy some Gatorade at 4am because God it’s still hot (like 40 degree hot).

The morning after, it was time to say goodbye to Vegas and head back to California. Our road back was taking us further north, nearer to Death Valley, and so the heat by no means let up. At this stage we were eating a fairly staple diet of McDonalds 24/7. My job became to design nicely priced menus for breakfast, poking gaps in the pricing McDonalds had on offer. Our radio contact came back, which was important because it was my main job in the car to contact Fiona in the other car and ask were we going to stop for food. The day wore on and it seemed like California was getting no closer. Soon, our GPS led us into the mountains, and sunlight faltered. In the dark, we crawled along a narrow road with a sheer drop on one side, afraid at any moment we’d tip over. The radio was off, and our petrol slowly ebbed away. We were fairly scared, considering none of us wanted to get stuck out in the dark with mountain lions and God knows what else. When we reached the mountain floor on the other side, we went to the nearest shop and collapsed in relief. Luckily the other car got through OK too, and for the night we booked into what I could only describe as the best accommodation we’d had to that point (it was like a ski lodge with no snow). That night, I got to sleep in a bed for the first time since Lucky D’s hostel nearly 3 months previous.

Early the next morning we took off again, with Yosemite only two hours away. Now we were back in California, deep in the woods where everything seemed alive. We arrived just too late for a camp space, and so decided we’d sleep outside the tent space, in a parking lot a couple told us about in the queue. For the day, we headed on a hike up to Yosemite falls, where water cascades over half a mile to the base below. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in the world, and maybe even thwarted the Grand Canyon in terms of wowing me. We climbed up to the lake at the falls’ bottom and relaxed for the afternoon, only coming down again so we could get dinner and head for our camp site. That night, we set off from the restaurant in Ms. Tiff. We found the car park, where a separate car was parked. They gave us odd looks as we unpacked, then told us they wouldn’t be staying there. They left, and we were alone in the dark. The trees seemed to close in. We decided it wouldn’t do, and left just as a park warden came to lock the gates in. Waiting outside for the other car, the black deepened. I remind you, we had no phone coverage-this was complete wilderness. Half an hour passed with no sign of them, and I rolled up the windows after hearing one too many sounds that seemed like a bear. Eventually we headed back to the restaurant, and from there to the car park. A full hour had passed, we were lost with what to do. Just then, an SUV pulled into the car park and headed towards the back. I didn’t know it was them, but it was all we had. I jumped out of our car and sprinted across the car park. I ran right out in front of the SUV and waved them to stop. We had found them, and by God was that some of the biggest luck we had on U.S. soil.

We drove on from the car park to Groveland, where we booked two tents (well we wanted to camp didn’t we) and all squashed into one. A good thing we did, considering the temperature plummeted over night. Even wrapped up we were frozen. We broke out the drink to pass the time until the early hours when sleep took us.

The next day it was off to Lake Tahoe. It was another session of “Shut up and dance with me” winding down the mountain roads towards the lake. Again, we ate whatever we could, whether it was fast food or 7/11. Big gulp cups were everywhere, rivaling Katie’s cereal bar collection. The lake luckily wasn’t too far, and by afternoon we were at our campsite. This time we had booked ahead, and had great fun setting up our tents in the woods. We had a bear box, which was a metal box fixed to concrete. All food went in there, unless we wanted a bear on us in the middle of the night. Once settled, we headed down to the lake for a swim. The water was still, a band was playing and the California sun was out. Tranquility doesn’t say it. I learned that day I have the most pale feet in the world, made all the more ghostly underwater. Thanks gang.

That night we got our fire going, broke out the marshmallows (I can fit 7 in my mouth, as a note) and relaxed with some drink under the starlight. I know in the country you can see stars like you never can in the city, but this was of a different scale. That night, we must have seen millions, spread out on the floor listening to One Direction’s Once in a Lifetime on repeat. I know I talked about freedom on the J1, but that was the time I was probably most at peace. This was the wild after all. I mean, Fiona Meade even got last trying to find our campsite at one stage.

From there we headed to San Francisco, the last leg before we headed to the East Coast. We reached the airport, and sadly had to say goodbye to our cars. All in all, we had clocked up 2,000 miles on each car. Two thousand miles (roughly the distance from L.A. to Chicago) of takeaways, singing, drinking water, ringing friends back home, ringing the lads in San Diego, taking photos, taking detours, GPS recalculating, ringing motels, collecting money for petrol and knowing that the next McDonalds is just four miles away. Perhaps one of the best memories is our song game, where we had to take up a song off one another and see how long we could go i.e. Eimear’s example of “Mary had a little lamb/lamb of God you take away the sins of the world”. We once kept this game going for two hours, until Michaela, singing “Sexy back” screamed “TAKE ‘EM TO THE BRIDGE”.

We stayed with Aine’s relatives in Fremont that night. The next morning, once inside San Fran, we immediately went to the Golden Gate bridge. A word of advice, it actually takes a long time to walk across that bridge. From there we could see the infamous Alcatraz. That night, we again stayed with Aine’s relatives outside the city. We were treated to a home-cooked meal, which meant that basically all salad items were gone in two minutes, and allowed to go swimming in the pool or just relax in front of the TV. We hadn’t had comfort like this in months. On my last night in California, I sat out on the deck and drank a cold bud light as the crickets made noise out in the gardens beyond. The sun went down and I went off to bed, content.

For our last day before jetting off to New York, we took in Santa Cruz theme park on the beachfront. That night our flights brought us to Detroit, where we arrived just ten minutes before our flight to New York, and had to leg it to our gate.

Suddenly, we were in New York. After months of California coast we now were now in the biggest city in America. Our accommodation was the huge Hotel Pennsylvania, which stood just across from Madison Square Gardens. Our first day in the Big Apple we took in Times Square, Little Italy, Chinatown and went down to see from a distance the Statue of Liberty. On the way back, we stopped at Ground Zero and the new World Trade Centre.

Our next day was devoted mostly to Central Park. Renting bikes, we did a lap of the enormous park pausing for photos every so often (such as at the MET on route). For dinner, we found ourselves in Ellens Stardust Diner, where the waiting staff climb up on the furniture to belt out musical numbers. It was a good prelude, as the next day we finished off our NYC adventure by seeing Les Miserables on broadway (considering this is my favourite musical I was quietly content).

And that was that. Travelling. Two hectic weeks with my bed either a motel floor or a corner of a tent. But it was worth it. Endurance sapped, we headed to JFK airport for the journey home. I won’t say goodbye here, because that deserves a post of itself. So I will leave as I came instead.

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life

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