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Big rigs, beaches and bears: Roadtrip USA, Part 1

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

“Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn't happen often, but - and here is the absolutely salient point - once would be enough.” ― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

The Goodbye Gift

Two years ago I lost my grandmother. Breast cancer caught up with her and she died a few days before her 96th birthday. Nanny was horrified she’d even made it that far, having planned to slip away significantly earlier in order to avoid the undignified business of becoming old. She bid us goodbye with a gift of money which sensible people would have wisely invested in their home or squirrelled away in a savings account. We didn’t do that. We packed up two small kids, two car seats, two Trunkies, four twenty kilogram bags… and set off for an adventure!

Footnote: I’d be keen to attend a course that concentrates on how to pack light for long journeys. I could certainly never run one. My inner masochist seems to always opt for baggage that requires heaving, rolling, wrestling and the complicated art of ratchet strapping – earning us a Hey Duggee Travel Dragging Badge rather than the coveted Hey Duggee Travel Packing Badge ☹

In preparation for our ten hours plus on a plane we did, however, do our homework. In went socks, snacks, scratch kits, silk sleeping bag liners, tissues, T Shirts and leggings, Playmags, Things to Do On A Plane cards, Boogie Boards (like doodle pads), Travel Activity books, twistable crayons and a torch. All proved invaluable. Except for the torch. The torch is almost as stupid as providing your child with a whistle.

Our Big Rig

And so it all began…

…with a muttered expletive as we were introduced to our vehicle for the journey – all thirty glorious foot of it. Sleeping seven with double sink, full size shower, sides that extended and an entire back bedroom - this machine owned the road. Only, I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to shout and stamp my foot. A large part of me wanted to spitefully suggest that my husband had overreached himself with this one and I cried inside for my little VW van at home.

But I gave myself a talking to and decided that fear was weakening me. I named her ‘Judy’ in honour of the grandmother who made this possible and climbed aboard. (Nanny would have disliked being named after a recreational vehicle of such graceless shape and cumbersome size, but it was the only way I felt I could warm to it.)

On the road

Behind the wheel of the biggest rig we’ve ever driven, we headed for the beaches of Santa Barbara to gambol with great lengths of kelp and sculpt stone stacks while pelican and porpoise pass peacefully by…bliss right? Absolutely, but before we reached the beach we had to navigate Judy The Gigantic RV into the pitch and then lecture our feral offspring on the dangers of leaping off into bushes full of poison oak. A full one hour after arriving and by then appropriately paranoid we proceeded cautiously along the path to snatch our first glimpse of the Pacific.

We soon discovered that driving these great distances gives rise to many questions. These range from the fairly familiar “Do you think the film they are watching will last until we get there?” and “Is it legal to go to the toilet and prepare myself a sandwich which we are driving?” to the more obscure “Who put those bloody great bells by the road?”, “Are those cows actually swimming in that pond?” and “Can the yellow-bellied lizard of California kill you if you lick it?”.

The other thing we noticed is that just as Richard Grant mentions in his book Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, you start to gain something equivalent to ‘sea legs’ and stopping at gas stations leaves you with a feeling similar to stepping off a boat and onto land – causing you to crave a return to the motion of the road!

Heading North, we visited elephant seals at San Luis Obispo and scared the bejesus out of ourselves negotiating the winding Highway 1 in our RV. Monteray’s massive aquarium impressed us all and full of creamy clam chowder we turned east towards Yosemite and enjoyed our first free night in a superstore parking lot – complete with land trains blasting past every couple of hours with their million megabell air horns.


When you are driving a large (understatement) vehicle, your position on the road suddenly becomes extremely important – a lack of awareness on your part may result in you taking out oncoming traffic, side swiping a cliff or taking out an entire bridge. Cue frantic research into the height of Yosemite’s tunnel entrances and the decision to leave the vehicle outside the park and get the bus. Appreciate the irony of this the following morning when our late-running shuttle turns out to be twice the size of our RV and easily clears the tunnel. Grinning sarcastically, our driver tips us out with a shout of “enjoy our busiest Saturday so far!” into the hot pot of people and heat that June brings to the valley. You want a truthful account about this day? Hot husbands, pissed kids, angry mama practically shouting to the mountain lions to come and eat her offspring. Beating heat aside however, our most major error was forgetting the jelly bears. Bribeless, I ended up burning shed loads of calories carrying 15 kilograms of kid around the park.

Lesson learned

Unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the day before, we woke at six and travelling back in ourselves. We headed straight for the bike hire to stand right outside the gate eyeballing the attendant as he ate his breakfast. Bikes and trailer secured, we explored the park in an altogether more civilised manner, pausing only to gently threaten the girls with removal in a bear trap if they didn’t stop hitting each other with their water bottles.

If you suffer from an over inflated sense of self worth then Yosemite is the place to go. To pinch a phrase from one of our favourite movies Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this place is truly ‘majestical’; the waterfalls generate their own wind, the rivers freeze your limbs, the mosquitoes are the size of helicopters and you’ll definitely crick more than just your neck looking up.

Be bear aware

We ‘boondocked’ in state forest later that evening and crossed El Dorado’s [JT8] great plains the following day. The road took us up over the Sierra Nevadas which, despite the heat, still sported patches of thick snow and the kids insisted we stop to play for a while. This we did willingly (in part because the bickering in the back was grating on us and we were all hungry). Playtime ensued – the usual kind of kicking snow in each other’s faces and belting each other with lumps of ice. Only, it wasn’t just lumps of ice on the forest floor – Elva called us over to some suspicious looking scat promptly identified as that of the BEAR. Suddenly, we were seeing scratch marks everywhere and the trek back to the van seemed just a bit too far! Several lemon bars later[JT9] , and we arrived at Fallen Leaf Lake (just south of Lake Tahoe) where the warden warned that all edibles (which we assume include small children) must be moved into the van should the bear horn blow! Needless to say, we were on high alert for our four legged friends but, as you would expect, saw only the odd charming little chipmunk (which we were later reliably informed by a campsite sign happened to be carrying, less charmingly, the bubonic plague.)

Come back next week to find out where we went from there!

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