Finally—Heading south like we’re supposed to!

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When people enquire as to what we are doing as we aimlessly drive around the Americas we tend to respond with: ‘We’re driving from Alaska to Argentina’. Those in the know often respond with ‘Oh, so you are driving the PanAmerican Highway then?” To which we typically respond with a shifty sideways glance and say “more or less”.

This shifty sideways glance is because either of these descriptions of our trip imply that we are travelling in a generally southerly direction. The second specifically implies we are actually following some sort of planned route.

Most of the time, neither of these things are actually true.

For once though, we found ourselves with a plan—drive to Tijuana before our time ran out on our United States visas—and this plan had us heading south.

How do two Flightless Kiwis know when it is time to migrate south? Well, autumn leaves and snow are a big hint. But what really gives it away is when the water in your drink bottle starts to freeze inside the tent. Right about then, some time on a sunny beach in Mexico starts to sound like a pretty good plan.

In this post I have made all sorts of wild claims about heading south. It is even in the title, but from Yellowstone, we did first drift west—so that we could drive the scenic highway 101 through Oregon and California.

This resulted in an exceptionally short visit to Idaho. As we drove west, the weather deteriorated more and more. Being big fans of a detour, we still dropped by Craters of the Moon National Monument. Because, let’s face it, with a name like that, it just sounds too appealing to pass up on.

By the time we got there, the rain was pretty unrelenting, so we just took the scenic drive and then carried on.

Craters of the Moon National Monument
There is some dramatic scenery somewhere out there through all that rain.

But even in the short few seconds it took to hop out of the car to take this photo it was pretty clear that even the shortest of the walks offered would not be worth the thorough drenching that would accompany them.

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We hadn’t had the best luck with evading storms on our earlier trip east. We clearly hadn’t learnt from that experience, so we just kept heading west, hoping to escape this storm. It was this plan that found us sitting in an Albertson’s car park in Mountain Home, Idaho, with torrential rain hammering on the windows. Darkness fell as we forlornly nibbled at our supermarket salads and contemplated a night of camping in the rain, again.

We looked at the rain radar online and realised we had neatly driven ourselves into what appeared to be the exact centre of a very large rain storm. A storm that didn’t look like it was planning on going anywhere any time soon.

Our house has wheels for a reason. We ignored the darkening skies, turned our backs to the nearby, but rather damp campground and made for John Day, Oregon. This was for two reasons:

  1. We had been there before and knew there was a rather nice campground just out of town.
  2. More importantly, it appeared to be just on the outside edge of the large, damp rainstorm.

As we drove into the night, we would occasionally question the decision we made—then the rain would become heavier and we would nod in agreement that John Day, Oregon was pretty much paradise and clearly worth the drive.

We wound our way through the mountains, passing camp spots, some free, some paid, all far too damp for our liking.

Soon the rain turned to snow.

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We agreed, it was time for Mexico. But for now the goal was to escape the storm. The snow got thicker on the ground as we closed in on our destination, we started to doubt the accuracy of the weather radar. The snow turned to sleet, then back to rain as we descended rapidly. We arrived at the campground, pulling in to the same camp spot we had stayed at months earlier on our way to Burning Man, the rain had stopped, we could see stars twinkling above. Was it worth the extra four hours drive in the dark to not have to set the tent up in the rain? Absolutely.

See also  The Journey North

More importantly, we were four hours closer to Bend, Oregon and all the beer we could quaff.

Sure, time was short on the visa, but it was a mandatory stop to get our craft beer fix before leaving the USA.

We spent the next night in Bend, sampling delicious beers, eating tasy food and celebrating pretty close to six months on the road. (Not quite six months, that would be when we crossed the border in to Mexico). A couple of the breweries we had hoped to visit had already closed for the evening by the time we had finished stuffing our faces at the delicious Crux Brewery. We simply settled in and tried a few more of their beers and wondered if we’d find any beer this good south of the border.

Aside from having delicious beer, Oregon has some pretty gorgeous scenery and camping. It is a state that really shouldn’t be rushed through.


Oregon forest

But sadly, for the second time on this trip, we rushed through Oregon. This time, we had a date with the coast.

Pacific Ocean
Another great thing about Oregon is that the beaches appear to have far fewer hypodermic needles than the one we visited in New Jersey.

Once we hit the coast, it was just a short, scenic drive down Highway 101 before we were in California and on our way to Tijuana.

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There it is, that’s a completely different coast than the one we were looking at out the window a week or two earlier.

Onward to Mexico!

Wait—You didn’t think it would be that easy did you?

We had to make a short side trip to see some very tall trees—the Coastal Redwoods.

Stands of these ancient, giant trees have been preserved at various points along the drive south. We took the opportunity to camp under the dark canopy of these ancient denizens of the coast. Some trees reach over 100m tall and live for up to 2000 years. Way to make you feel insignificant while you heat up your noodles for dinner.

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Resistant to fire and flood, these trees have instead required protection from a voracious timber industry.

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Fortunately, several areas now exist to protect these coastal giants and the dwindling forest ecosystem they are key part of. These areas of protection include both National and State Parks.

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Inside a Redwood tree.
Looking up from inside an ancient Redwood tree, hollowed by forest fire.
Coastal Redwoods towering above.
Finally, something to make Ben feel short. Now he knows what it feels like.

The thing that amazed us about these forests, aside from how huge the trees are, was how peaceful they were. It was only necessary to walk a few metres in among the trees and the outside world was forgotten—a rare thing on an otherwise busy stretch of highway.

Not content with camping and wandering about on foot among these ancient wonders, we also took the scenic drive along the ‘Avenue of The Giants’. While not quite as peaceful as walking through the ancient forest, it certainly was one of the most unique and beautiful roads we had driven on the trip so far.

Avenue of The Giants

Avenue of The Giants
Yes, even the Four Wheeled Ticket to Freedom looks pretty tiny compared to these trees.

Including one more detour into the nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park:

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Disappointingly we were just a few centimetres too tall for the drive through tree we attempted.

Drive through tree, Avenue of the Giants

On a tight schedule, we sadly left the Redwoods behind and continued south along the coast.

Driving this section of coast really felt like home, which I guess was only a few thousand miles across the Pacific, not too far really. Closest we’ve been a while. We waved, but couldn’t tell if anyone was waving back.

Before long we had left the dramatic windswept, foggy coast of trees, rocks and wild things and began to pass through towns, cities and confusing spaghetti junctions. We had no time left to explore San Francisco, so this was promptly added to the ‘maybe next time’ list. Which, despite 6 months spent exploring the US and Canada, is still a very long list…

With only a couple of days left on our visas, we stopped at a hotel in San Luis Obispo for a quick half-yearly spring clean. Somehow, despite living in such a small space, we had still managed to acquire some extra stuff that we didn’t really need. Although, it turns out that all our earthly possessions don’t amount to much these days, just a small pile on the floor of a the hotel room. Why does the truck feel so full?

See also  Burning Man—Everyone else has an opinion on it, so we feel like we should.

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We continued south along the coast the next day. It turns out that in California, they charge you quite a bit of money to visit their beaches. At $10 just to stop, stretch and eat a salad—this proved to be a costly lunch stop. The chap at the gate had promised we could use it to stop at any of the other beaches and towards our entrance fee to camp later that day. Also, the beaches were quite pretty…

El Capitan state beach

What we hadn’t factored in, was that we wouldn’t actually have time to stop at any more beaches. It was time to drive through the city now.

Next city to drive through: Los Angeles. Turns out it is pretty big.

What we hadn’t realised is that we were making our way through LA at the start of a holiday weekend, so traffic was slow. (Although from what we understand, driving through LA is never a fun weekend trip.)

From the time the traffic slowed down, to the time we made it to the other side of the city where the traffic started moving freely again it was about four hours of driving.

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It turns out that driving through LA, is pretty much like driving through a Tom Petty song. As we had somewhere to be, we didn’t head west down Ventura Boulevard or take the detour to Mulholland. We just kept driving.

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Turnoff to LAX
Here we are, six months later and we are pretty close to where it all started.

The drive took so long, that we watched the sun set from the road. It was dark before we left Los Angeles.

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The other problem with a holiday weekend, aside from traffic, is that a lot of people who are out driving are heading for the same campsites as you.

Luckily, instead of driving around in the dark looking for somewhere to camp, we had been in touch with George and Jenine from Traveling the Americas. They were just preparing to leave for Mexico and were camping at the beach we had hoped to camp at. Turns out the park was booked out, but George and Jenine very kindly offered to share their camp spot with us.

After checking out their intensely awesome Sportsmobile and sharing a few beers and a yarn, we hit the road bright and early in the morning.

We had one more city to pass through before Mexico—San Diego.

This time we planned on staying in town overnight to give us time to do some last minute shopping for odds and ends that we figured would be easier to find in the USA than trying to sort out in Mexico.

Also, we decided to stop at one more brewery, for a back up ‘six months on the road’ celebration. Just in case the first one in Bend, Oregon had been insufficient. The Stone Brewery came with great reviews and was packed full of patrons, but we think maybe the beer and the food fell a bit short of the hype. It wasn’t bad, just not as good as the reviews made it out to be. I guess we were just spoilt in Bend. Although we do have fond memories of the extra-stinky cheese plate we sampled at the Stone Brewery…

As we had dedicated a large part of the previous day to eating and drinking. We awoke on the morning of our last day in the USA knowing that we still had some shopping left to do before we left town.

Unfortunately, we were foiled again by the holiday weekend—the stores were shut for the day. After a lot of unnecessary driving around to confirm this fact, we decided that was it.

Our six months were up—it was definitely time for Mexico!

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