(106 Days in)
I’m still playing catch up with my journalistic ambitions at this stage and am using the ‘Fiji time’ vibe to my advantage. The last post was a little long, which I apologise for, but I will try to keep this chunk more succinct and not waffle on as much about gambling or Vegas. I’ll soon be asking for any suggestions toward Australia and its golden east coast, so get to thinking!
Our Last National Park
With Sin City a literal speck in the rear-view mirror, we headed out across more desert toward Joshua Tree NP, bringing yet another unique view of the American landscape. We sadly didn’t have a lot of time to explore this park as we were rapidly approaching our departure date from the grand United States of America and had far too much stuff to sort out within the van and our own backpacks. I did, however, manage to get stabbed by one of the Joshua Trees (I hadn’t know previously that the park was named after the trees [M: Fun fact, they’re actually bushes] and not a fellow named Joshua who liked trees) so I think we experienced it plenty. For anyone who doesn’t know what a Joshua tree is, imagine a hybrid between a normal tree and a cactus. Quite short and stumpy, they’re covered head to toe in a sharp looking leaf – one that still looks pretty darn leafy to the untrained eye but actually has a closer composition to iron and a propensity for bodily harm.
We arrived quite late into the national park, having gambled away our morning, so it was already dark by the time dinner had been made and the camp chairs erected. We then had one full day before we headed into LA and handed the keys to our mighty steed back to Escape Campervans, and during this day we needed to give Manone a damn good tidy, as well make sure all of our important bits were still in the right places and post any surplus items back home so we didn’t have to cart them any further around the globe.
Cue a montage of us going through every cubby hole the Ford Transit had made available to us over those 3 months. Fast forward to a heated discussion on which mode of postage to use and how best to distribute items as to get the cheapest rate available (and assuring the lady at the desk that there were no live animals or Christmas crackers in either of the boxes). Then snap to us taking it in turns to read from our checklist each and every item we had brought out with us, confirming their whereabouts and trying so heartily to pack them back into the bags they came out of. And finally, finishing up our last cooked meal out of the back of the van, taking a last look up at the stars of the Northern hemisphere (yes we’d still be in the country a few days longer but if you think you can see the stars properly from within any major city, I wish you the best of luck).
Somehow the 3 months we had planned all that time ago was almost at a close. We knew that any part of this trip, if not the entire thing, would be gone before we knew it and at best be a distant memory in the near future but to know this and experience this are two very different things.
Final Farewell to the Four-wheeled Fellow
We awoke in Joshua Tree incredibly early. We had to return Manone to basecamp by 10:30am latest and had the better part of a 4-hour drive to get there. We also knew what LA traffic was like from our very first full day on this continent so didn’t have high hopes about making it on time. Around about 10:45am we finally arrived in the Los Angeles depot of Escape Campervans and found ourselves reluctantly handing those keys back to a gentleman who didn’t seem all that impressed that we had survived the 84 previous days in one piece. Now, the rental agreement had a set amount of mileage that we were allowed to do (M: 100 miles a day, so 8,400 miles in total) and we would be charged extra should we go over that limit. Due to Megan’s immaculate record keeping, we knew that we had gone way over the limit (M: by a mere 1,160 miles) and at $0.25 a mile we had racked up nearly $600 of extra charges so were not looking forward to the impact this would have on the budgeting portion of that all-important spreadsheet. But, as regular readers will know, we had problems with the fridge in the van before we got into San Francisco and then again once when we got into New York (M: and again after New York) and Megan was more than ready to fight her corner when it came to getting that charge reduced. Both times we encountered problems with the nefarious fridge the people at either depot were more than helpful and got it running again in whatever way they could. What we were not expecting was for the generous gentleman at Los Angeles to completely waive the additional charge as, in his words, we ‘lost about 5 whole days due to dropping it into the other depots and that would roughly bring it up to about $500 and then the rest just because you’ve treated it well’.
Flabbergasted. I don’t get nearly enough chance to use that word but seriously we can’t thank or recommend Escape Campervans enough.
With cheeks aching we gave Manone a final wave farewell, hoped into an Uber and headed onto our host’s house further in the city. We had been informed by owner Jason that he was going to be at work when we first arrived so to just let ourselves in and make ourselves at home. Oh, and not to let the cat – Chelsea – out.
We managed to do all of these things and found ourselves in an excellent little one bedroom apartment with comic books covering almost every shelf and blu-rays covering every other shelf (all alphabetised and neatly arranged). Added to every wall being covered with signed film posters or headshots and selfies with any number of actors and actresses, we concluded that this film buff definitely lived in the right city. We met Chelsea immediately, and, being the most friendly and sociable cat I’ve ever met, she greeted us at the door and fervently set to making sure we had a good coating of cat hair on every article of clothing. Now as most of you are aware, Megan loves all animals so fell ever so slightly in love with this gorgeous creature. What less of you will know is that Megan is allergic to some animals, cats being one of them. So, as much as Megan was enjoying the attentions of the feline she promptly set about sneezing and causing a little alarm to the creature. To note: Megan is not deathly allergic, just allergic enough for it to be funny (M: yeah, hilarious), as long as we kept Chelsea off the pillow Megan would be using for the night.
We had settled into our new digs and washed the grime of transport and camping off ourselves at this stage so set about looking for a place to have dinner and then take in the newly released Blade Runner 2049. We scoped out a cinema that allowed you to have cocktails in the screening and a well-reviewed Chinese restaurant nearby so, with a message left for Jason that we would be back late, we trotted off for the night.
The restaurant itself was excellent – we arrived during happy hour and were treated to a couple of house special cocktails made with Japanese sake. We also remembered that we were definitely back in California when we noticed that you could get 10% off your order on Mondays if you brought your medical marijuana card along with you.
The cinema had sadly shut the bar for a refurbishment so there were no further cocktails in store for us whilst we took in the film. Which (and these are a lot more pleasant words than Megan had for it) I found quite underwhelming (M: it was terrible and would have been a complete waste of two and a half hours if I hadn’t managed to get an hour’s nap in). I won’t go into detail as this is not a film blog, but as much as I can understand that it would appeal to those who know the in-depth workings of the use of cinema as an art form, I’m not surprised it didn’t do all that well in the box office.
With our culture (M: ‘culture’) done for the night we headed back to Jason’s house, expecting to meet our host and finally introduce ourselves. He was not there, however, and we found a message from the elusive man explaining that he had gone out with a few friends after work and would try not to disturb us when he got back in (it was a Friday, after all).
Day 2 in Los Angeles was pretty toasty, the temperature climbing back up towards 30 degrees celsius. Being a pretty huge city filled with a lot of bodies, the humidity alone had shot through the roof. We took an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ approach to this development and made our way out to Venice Beach. Yes, we were about to spend a few weeks in Fiji but wanted to get into that mental space of lying on a beach doing nothing and relaxing early (M: practise makes perfect, after all). It was just as I had seen on so many TV shows with rollerbladers, skateboarders, bodybuilders, street vendors and artists covering every inch of the ‘boardwalk’ (it’s largely concrete, not board). After an hour or two taking in the sun we decided to grab a slice of pizza and walk up to the famous Santa Monica Pier. This took a little longer than expected but it was a glorious day and we were spurred on by the belief that there would be ice-cream at some point. Lo and behold, we were right – we had simply to step onto the pier to be standing directly in front of such a vendor of frozen goods. This also meant that we could sit in the air conditioned and shaded portion of the pier as we tucked into the waffle cones of our dreams. From here we slowly made our way back onto the actual beach and sat facing the Pacific, contemplating not only where the last 3 months had gone but what the next 3 months would have in store for us (and also whether we had enough sunscreen, bearing in mind we would soon be a lot closer to the equator than usual).
We then decided to sample some more nightlife by looking for any bar in the near vicinity that had a version of happy hour. A bite to eat here, a few drinks there and we were on the bus back ‘home’. Which, by the way, we had to wait about 30 minutes for. It’s rare that I long for the London Underground system…
Once again, when we arrived back at the apartment there was no sign of Jason. We had the usual royal welcome from Chelsea and set to winding down for the evening.
Tour of the Worlds
On our way into the city we knew that we wanted to do a studio tour of some kind, although we weren’t overly fussy with which one or how it was to happen. We settled on the Warner Brothers Studio tour, opting for it over the Universal Park as neither of us wanted to spend more than double the ticket price to get on a few rides. So, day 3 in LA saw us again sampling the (M: woeful) public transport and making our way toward the large Warner Bros. water tower.
Once there we were funnelled (quite literally) into a few queues, marshalled through a door into a small theatre and shown a short intro film about the studios and backlots themselves. With this done we were all then split into our corresponding ticket letters and each group given a tour guide. Then it was onto the typical electric and elongated golf carts that we had expected, nay, wanted to board the whole time, as we were whisked around the whole complex. Shown (almost) every nook and cranny within the beige walls and even into the soundstage where the The Big Bang Theory is filmed (oh, yay). What I found most exciting was of course the DC Comic Exhibit they had going on, full of props, costumes and even (still running, though you weren’t allowed to drive them) vehicles from the Batman film franchise. This was housed below a Harry Potter-themed exhibit for the recently released Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Alongside a creepy Dobby the house elf statue that stared blankly into the middle distance as if deciding when and how it should affect a violent rebellion, there were a number of glass cabinets containing wands, books, clothing and any other prop they could think of taking from the film set. At the end of the room, held aloft by a member of staff whose facial expression was all too familiar with the scene, was the Sorting Hat. A short line lead to the stool placed beneath the Hat as people could sit and be sorted, and this was not an opportunity I could miss. A few minutes later, with a handy 5’ almost 1” videographer standing close by, the hat hit my head and almost instantly I felt the wash of relief and pride as I too, Mr Potter, was sorted into Gryffindor.
After this the guided portion of the tour was almost at an end and we were dropped off by ‘Stage 5’ which has now been converted into an interactive museum that takes you through the process of how a film eventually makes it to the big screen, and the Central Perk set from Friends. After stopping for a coffee in the famous café we managed to get a few pictures sitting on the orange sofa (which definitely isn’t the same one they had on the TV but fun nonetheless) and then it was time for the gift shop. I have an affiliation with gift shops – I rarely actually end up buying anything from them but can’t resist walking the overpriced and cliché aisles. Another bus and train combination and we were back at the Jason’s house, which was again found to be deserted.
The Final Countdown
Our last day in the United States of America. A whopping 89 days, 10,560 miles, 27 states, 8 National Parks, 2 oceans and we were back in the same city we started in. Of course, that was always the plan and not at all anti-climactic. A lot of emotions were whirling around my head that day (and I’m sure Megan’s as well); I was excited to start the next leg, shocked and saddened that this first step was soon to be over, happy that I had finally got the American road trip I’ve always wanted and only slightly terrified to give it up and get on with the rest of the trip.
The last day itself was pretty boring. We were flying out at around 11.30pm so we had almost a full day to kill. It was spent double and tripling checking the packing list, the passport locations and the bookings we had made for the 2 and a half weeks through Fiji, as well as our last chance to do some laundry before we hit the Pacific Islands. All of this was briefly cut in the middle for lunch as we made our last trip to IHOP for pancakes. But then we were back to it, yet again reading through each item that we had brought out with us and confirming its location and usefulness (it soon became apparent that I had lost a favoured travel pillow of Megan’s – she was not pleased). This was all made a little tricky by our furry feline host constantly wanting to be a part of the activity but before we knew it, it was time to order the Uber and make our way to LAX. It was at this crucial moment that we finally met our human host, Jason. He had left work half an hour early to try and catch us on the way out and it’s good he did because it was seconds before we were to go. This made for a very short introduction, but we courteously thanked him for sleeping on the sofa for us for the past 3 nights and mentioned how lovely Chelsea had been to us in his absence.
And that was that. We sat for a good 5 hours in the departures terminal of LAX, charged our devices and went through all the usual airport procedures. Sadly we yet again were not upgraded for free (I keep hold of that dream though) and the flight itself, although the longest I’ve done, was uneventful. A few crappy movies and a short power nap later we landed in the picturesque Fiji (Nadi Airport to be precise).
…But the rest is for next time. Thanks for reading and any advice you have for the east coast of Australia would be very helpful indeed.