California probably embodies the American Dream more than anywhere else. It was the pot of gold at the end of the trail, the land of milk and money, a place where all your celluloid and vinyl dreams could come true. The weather is more clement on the coast than anywhere else in North America and the state boasts an astonishing variety of wonders, both man-made and natural.
I had hoped to catch up with my nephew and some family friends on my most recent visit to the state, but time worked against me. As part of a road trip around ski resorts, Mammoth was my main destination. After that I planned a small detour to Santa Monica with the goals of backtracking along Route 66 from its terminus, and kicking off what would would a coast-to-coast road trip.
The road across Nevada to Mammoth was spectacular. The last section, in California, took me over a high mountain pass with icy patches in the shadows and fabulous views towards my destination, Mammoth Lakes. As I rounded one bend, a mountain lion loped in front of me across the road, showing not a flicker of interest in my car. Tempted to get out and see if I could catch a picture of the impressive beast, I though better of it, reflecting on the headline in the local papers the next day "Tourist mauled by Cougar whilst taking selfie", with my last known image showing me beaming at the camera and said beast leaping into frame behind me.
Mammoth is, as its name suggests, a large resort. I was impressed. There is a huge variety of ski terrain and the resort town is cute. It is an easy trip from LA, and most people I spoke to were weekenders up for a couple of days on the slopes before heading back to the office.
I planned my next overnight stop to be just South of Mammoth in Lone Pine, fearing that the incoming snowstorm would make a longer drive too treacherous. As I cautiously headed away from the slopes in my FWD Buick, sporting summer tyres, I envied the succession of 4WD and AWD vehicles zipping past me. At least until I came to the first of them in a ditch. In fact I passed several in ditches and have been left with an impression that Californians are careless drivers. The next day I saw an overturned tractor and trailor in an area where high winds had been forecast, and in LA witnessed two back end shunts. As the roadside signs wisely suggest - as if it is part of every motorists daily experience - fender benders should pull off the main highway.
Lone Pine is situated on the only main road that leaves from Mammoth, running through the arid Owens Valley between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. It turned out to be an interesting town. Because of its dramatic setting, it became a destination of choice for filming hundreds of movies, TV broacasts and adverts back in the 20s. The many notable films shot there since include "Charge of the Light Brigade", "Gunga Din", "High Sierra", "How the West was Won", "The Gunfighter" and "Gladiator". It also was the location for a Japanese internment camp in WW2, the remnants of which are poignant and a reminder that many loyal Americans were imprisoned because of their heritage.
There was a lot more I wanted to see in California, but I was running out of time. I had once done a road trip between Big Sur and Eureka on the coast of California and have many fond memories of time in San Francisco, so I would have happily spent a couple of weeks exploring more of the West Coast and revisiting familiar places. It was not to be. But I did decide to take one detour before I headed back to my family in Texas. I was going to go to Santa Monica, to the end point of Route 66, and then head back along the old route. This meant I would have driven along all of Route 66 from Missouri to the Pacific - the piece through Illinos will have to wait for another day.
It really was a whistle stop drive, almost 400 miles in one day skirting Death Valley, passing through Red Rock Canyon State Park (where "The Big Country", appropriately, was filmed), dropping down into Los Angeles, cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, dipping my toes in the Pacific, driving through Beverley Hills and Hollywood, out to San Bernadino (home of the very first MacDonalds and a recent mass-shooting), and finding little sections of Route 66 along the way - now mostly replaced by I-15 and I-40 - before staying overnight in Barstow.
My last day in California was to take me across the Mojave desert along old sections of Route 66, passing Bagdad Cafe, through the desert ghost town of Amboy and on to the Arizona state line in Needles.