US road trip day 18 – Welcome to the Motel California

Follow the trip from the beginning here.

We were up not so bright and not so early after the night that wouldn’t end. In fact, we barely made it up in time to check out, so I started loading up the truck while Jill went to check out. The sun was beating down mercilessly, which reminded me to refill the coolers with ice from the machine in the lobby, to the dismay of the glitzy clientele and the amusement of the maids darting around the hallways. ‘They probably don’t get too many car campers in this establishment‘ I thought and flashed a smile at a tuxedo-clad gent and his sequinned companion, feeling a touch under-dressed in flip-flops, muslin skirt and my best rumpled shirt with the hole in the elbow.

Jill returned to help finish loading up the truck and then we made straight for the Jiffy Lube to get a maintenance done on the truck. In the unforgiving light of day, Vegas, which had come on so brash and sparkly the night before now seemed a little like a bottle blonde with her roots showing. The streets that had been teaming with pedestrians at 4 am were now deserted save for a few road sweepers.

las vegas nevada strip us usa america road trip las vegas nevada strip us usa america road trip las vegas nevada strip us usa america road trip We were in and out of Jiffy Lube, appropriately, in a jiffy, and then we headed for the freeway, stopping to grab breakfast and coffee to go on the way out of town. I offered to drive but Jill now had her heart set on driving the entire route. On road trips with her husband she usually got precious little time behind the wheel and ‘anyway‘, she said, ‘you make a much better navigator than I do.‘ We trundled west along I-15 with the windows down, but before long we had rolled the windows firmly shut and cranked up the air conditioning because it was beginning to get uncomfortably hot.

Just outside of Jean NV,  streaks of startling white sand and pools of recent rainwater lined both sides of the interstate. It was mesmerising to watch it whip by and the sight put me in mind of salt flats. A short distance from the freeway there is a completely dried out lake, Jean Dry Lake Bed, popular with film crews and fashion photographers for its other-worldly appearance. I didn’t know at the time that we were passing by it; otherwise I would have tried talking Jill into taking a detour.

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It was just about noon when we crossed the state line into California and plunged headlong into the furnace that is Mojave National Preserve. Fields of Joshua trees spread out towards the horizon, lending a deceptively lush green to the landscape that seemed to contradict the arid climate.

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Deeper into the desert, the green gave way to rich burnt charcoal tones; then hazy black-purple mountains shimmered off in the distance with great swathes of chocolate and orange desert scrub filling up the foreground. I fell head-over-heels in love with this desert landscape; it was alien and harsh and fearfully beautiful.

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There was no sign of wildlife as we ploughed through the desert; not one glimpse of deer or bighorn sheep. Perhaps they were avoiding the worst of the sun, or perhaps they were avoiding the proximity of humans. One of the main differences between a National Park like Yellowstone and a National Preserve like Mojave is that hunting is illegal in the park but allowed in the preserve. Not only do these poor creatures have to contend with stultifying temperatures; they have to dodge bullets as well. I would dearly love to have spotted a roadrunner; the signature bird of the desert and cartoon character who always outwits the coyote, but it was not to be. As the air-conditioner kicked into overdrive, I couldn’t help thinking of those who had crossed this harsh land on horseback or in covered wagons and wondering how many of them had perished along the way.

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We pulled off at a roadside Shell station to fill up the tank and replenish the ice in the coolers. A blast of heat hit me as I opened the door and nearly knocked me off my feet. The blissful chill inside the cab disappeared within seconds as the white-hot air seared through the open door. It was lucky I wasn’t wearing anything made of polyester because it would have melted on contact.  Imagine opening a preheated oven, stepping inside and closing the door behind you. Now imagine doing that whilst running a fever, clutching a hot water bottle and gargling Tabasco.

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The ice was melting quicker than we could fill up the coolers, so we settled for slush and hit the road again. In Barstow, my heart skipped a beat when I saw first one sign, then another telling us we were on a stretch of road that used to be Route 66.

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It was unexpectedly thrilling to be on this most iconic of routes, following the path of Woodie Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and Steinbeck’s Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath. It was from Steinbeck’s novel that this road got its most enduring nickname, The Mother Road, although I am quite partial to The Main Street of America and The Great Diagonal Way.  With the advent of bigger, better, faster interstates, Route 66 was decommissioned in the 1980’s, but almost immediately Route 66 groups sprouted up all along the route to have this major piece of Americana preserved for posterity’s sake. At present, it is part state historic route, part national scenic byway and part state scenic byway, depending upon what state you’re in. In 1999 a National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed by President Clinton, and the National Park Service has published a Route 66 travel guide featuring some of the route’s iconic stops listed by state. There are calls to recommission the route, but no indication yet that it will come to fruition.

Outside Barstow, we veered northwest onto state route 58 which runs through Tehachapi Pass. The pass marks the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and connects the Mohave Desert to the San Joaquin Valley. Jill and I gasped at the sight of one of the biggest wind farms we had ever encountered. Miles of white turbines gleamed down from the mountaintops as they churned in the wind; it was spectacular to behold.

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As we drove through the pass, I noticed a rather unusual sight off to the right; a rather forlorn-looking remnant of a boat, stranded in the middle of nowhere with the words S.S. Minnow barely decipherable on the side. It looked decidedly charred from the distance; apparently the Minnow had been a roadside attraction for quite some time but just a few weeks before Jill and I passed by, a massive brush fire swept through the area leaving just the burnt skeleton of a boat in its wake.

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There is a happy ending to this story. Shortly after the fire, a group of local artists got together and started a task force to renovate the boat. A month after our sighting of the S.S. Minnow, she was restored to her former glory and now basks happily in the sun by the side of the road.

It was getting late in the day and we needed to decide upon a place to stay for the night. Jill had her heart set on seeing California’s Lost Coast; she’d heard about it from a friend who had told her it was spectacular. “Are you sure you don’t want to see Big Sur?” I asked, thinking of those sweeping ocean vistas that would be a fantastic contrast to the days of desert we were leaving behind. “Positive,” said Jill, “let’s go straight to the Lost Coast” so I pulled out the map and chose a spot for the night; Salinas.

The sun sank in the sky and the ruffled Californian hills turned first golden, then pink as the light began to fade. On the horizon, those hazy hills looked for all the world like big piles of crumpled up paper; close up they resembled lunar landscapes, at once smooth and strangely pocked with giant depressions.

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Past Bakersfield we drove through the town of McKittrick just before we lost the light. The oil industry reared its ugly head with fields of grasshopper pumps, bobbing up and down, draining heavy crude from the ground below, now denuded of any vegetation that could impede progress.

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As the sun bid its final farewell behind the Cymric Field pump jacks, I longed for the last rays of light to touch anywhere else but here.

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We cut over to Highway 101 and instead of going further west to Highway 1 with its dramatic ocean views, we turned north in a bid to make good time to Salinas but it took us a good three hours to reach our destination. Jill’s eyes were bugging out with tiredness by the time we pulled into Salinas and started looking for a place to camp. She had been chomping on pumpkin seeds since Tehachapi in an attempt to stay focused and now I joined her as the piles of husks started to overflow from the Venti coffee cup we had designated as a trash can.

A thick fog coated the entire town and the streets were deserted. Somewhere off one of the main streets a group of men were huddled outside a venue with a broken, flickering neon sign that buzzed intermittently. I hopped out to ask them directions to the nearest campsite and they all agreed any campsite in the area would be closed by now. An older chap mentioned a motel his cousin ran, and then all of them chipped in with their personal recommendations on where to stay. I thanked them for their suggestions and got back in the car. “So?” Jill asked through a mouth full of pumpkin seeds. “Yeah, so the campsite idea would seem to be a no go.” I grabbed a fistful of seeds and started chewing. “That’s what I figured” Jill said and spit a pile of husks into her hand. In the pools of light created by our truck’s headlights we watched the guys swapping cash for bets, or merchandise, or something.

We drove back the way we came through the swirling mists. Up ahead in the distance, the California Inn Motel beckoned to us with a flashing neon sign advertising vacancies. Jill drove into the parking lot and I hopped out once again and rang the bell at the window.  There was no answer so I rang again and the blind inside the window lifted by about 2 inches to reveal a little hole; you know, the sort of thing you see at gas stations after hours; a little semi-circle cut out of the glass to allow cash to be passed to the attendant while you attempt to mime exactly what it is you would like to purchase. A hand popped out of the hole and started waving around frantically. “No vacancy, no vacancy.” I stared thoughtfully at the disembodied hand for a moment, then suggested that the person attached to the hand might consider changing the neon sign outside that had led us astray. The hand showed no sign of remorse, gesticulating wildly and repeating the mantra “No vacancy.” I thanked the hand politely and returned to the truck. Jill wound down her window, spat a pile of husks onto the ground by my feet and looked at me earnestly.

I just talked to the hand” I said. “It said no vacancy.” I got back in the truck and sat there, softly singing “Welcome to the Motel California” to the rhythm of Jill spitting husks as we stared out at the engulfing darkness. The Eagles’ Hotel California couldn’t hold a candle to the quiet desperation of our music-making. We promptly went down with a fit of the giggles, punch drunk from lack of sleep.

Thankfully our phones had reception again, so I did a quick search on motels in the area and made a few calls. The cheapest one was on the other side of town and they had vacancies. A couple of blocks down the road, we saw another motel so pulled in to do a price comparison. I was thrilled to find not only a hand, but a face and an entire body waiting to greet me at reception. The price was almost double the one we had been quoted, which I mentioned to the lady at the front desk. She asked where the motel in question was and when I told her, she shuddered and said “It’s in the bad part of town; not a place you girls should be going.

Jill and I looked at each other for a moment; then turned the truck towards the bad part of town, agreeing that if it was too weird, we would come back to the other motel. We were both a little delirious with exhaustion at this point and when Jill gets this tired, she gets sidetracked easily. Along the way, she spotted some great old houses and before I knew it,  she was driving through neighbourhoods raving about Victorian architecture while I took over the bag of pumpkin seeds and toyed with the notion that we had already found a motel room and I was actually fast asleep dreaming that we were driving around Salinas admiring houses. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us and the moisture-heavy air smelled like the ocean. Jill was convinced that any moment now we would turn a corner and reach the sea, but I assured her we were quite some distance from the coast and eventually we found our way back onto the freeway and took the exit for the bad part of town.

The motel was right off the freeway and came equipped with two security guards. We got chatting to them before we checked in and they turned out to be a lot of fun. They reassured us our truck would be fine out in the parking lot and we would be perfectly safe staying here because they were on duty all night. As if to prove the point, they showed us the bags of fast food they’d stocked up on to get them through their shift. We checked in, parked our truck in the lot and didn’t even bother moving much of anything into the cab; partly because we knew the security guys had our back and mostly because we had stopped caring.

We grabbed the coolers from the car to cobble together makeshift sandwiches that we ate sprawled out on our beds in front of the television. There was some sci-fi movie on with Justin Timberlake that Jill had seen before. It was halfway over when we switched it on so she tried to fill me in on what had happened up to that point, but fell asleep before finishing. I lay on the bed for a few minutes trying to muster up the energy to take off my shoes but before I had the chance, just as Justin Timberlake was running towards his movie mother, I fell asleep with the television still on and the remote control grasped in my hand.

Here’s a short video of some of the sights we saw today.

(Continued here.)


About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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60 Responses to US road trip day 18 – Welcome to the Motel California

  1. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Amazing of course and the wind turbines look like they have been painted on!

  2. MaanKind says:

    Fantastic post! You took me back, we rode there in May last year, but your photos are much bettter than mine!

  3. Fantastic pictures. I felt like I was right there with you. I am fascinated by wind turbines. I would have loved to see that for myself. Someday…

    • ailsapm says:

      It was such an unexpected sight in the middle of the desert, not something I am likely to forget. I hope you get to see it for yourself sometime soon! 🙂

  4. pommepal says:

    Another great episode, and so the dramas continue. The light on those mountains was very moon like. So pleased they had the security guards. But that could mean it is a BAD area!!!! Stay safe…

  5. travtrails says:

    Enjoyed the ride,

  6. Loved to read (and watch) this, Ailsa! Will be following in your footsteps this summer 😀

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh, how wonderful, Marion. Have you worked out the route you’re taking yet? xxx

      • Yes! We start in Los Angeles, then work our way to the east, around the Grand Canyon, through Las Vegas, Death Valley, passing the Redwood trees (LOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE), four days in San Francisco and then back down to LA.
        Four weeks of freedom

  7. Karen says:

    ‘great swathes of chocolate and orange desert scrub’….love your use of similes, so evocative. would just love to eat a chocolate and orange dessert scrub!:)

  8. ledrakenoir says:

    Wonderful written and so these amazing photos… 🙂

  9. OK so your whole road trip has been awesome, but somehow this day is my favourite!

  10. Sara P.G. says:

    just breath taking love it!

  11. Felt I was there with you. Stunning pre sunset shots -like a blanket folding.

  12. markd60 says:

    Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in that type of heat!

  13. John says:

    Love the video and photos! Great story too. 🙂

  14. the landscape of gently curved golden mountains so scenic…looking forward to your pics of Salinas and the ocean

    • ailsapm says:

      I’m so sorry to disappoint you, c & c, but I didn’t manage to get a single photo of Salinas during the daytime and never got to explore it, as our plan was to reach the Lost Coast the following day (we didn’t, but that’s another story!). So I guess I shall have to return and see it again another time. So much to see, so little time. We did, however, make it to the ocean. Eventually! 🙂

  15. Gunta says:

    Been to the Lost Coast (was decidedly UNDERwhelmed), Just blogged my recent trip to Big Sur. I honestly think you made the wrong decision, but I await the next post to see if you found something I didn’t… 😉

    • ailsapm says:

      I’m heading over to check out your Big Sur account now, Gunta. Jill was expecting the Lost Coast to be Big Sur; she had visions of driving those winding coast roads and didn’t realise she was thinking of Big Sur and not the Lost Coast.

      • Gunta says:

        I stretched out my Big Sur photo workshop over quite a few posts, still not finished yet. I tagged the Big Sur posts for easier navigation. Still looking forward to your take on the Lost Coast. Hope you at least included the Avenue of the Giants.

    • ailsapm says:

      Wait. What? I just read your Big Sur posts and am now sobbing quietly into my laptop. I cannot believe we didn’t go there. I knew it was unbelievably beautiful, but Jill had heard so much about the Lost Coast from her friend and we had to chose between one or the other because of time constraints. Those dawn photos are insane, Gunta, so, so beautiful. That workshop sounds great too. I want to get in the car right now and head south.

      • Gunta says:

        Pity I couldn’t have told you what to expect from either spot. I blogged the Lost Coast sometime back last May…. other than being scared to death climbing that steep, skinny road up out of there, praying I wouldn’t meet a car coming toward me, it was pretty uneventful and uninspiring.

        • ailsapm says:

          The black sands down on the Lost Coast by Shelter Cove were lovely, but Jill was expecting the Lost Coast to be Big Sur, which it definitely wasn’t. She hadn’t realised Big Sur was the name of the area with sweeping ocean roads. Boy, I really have to go back now.

  16. viveka says:

    Really like your header image …. Our county has so many of those wind farms – I like them .. amazing to watch and they create nearly some kind of art, but what I understand are they very noisy to live close by. We have a wind farm out in the ocean between Malmö and Copenhagen, the Danish owe it. How can you manage to get so great shot from sitting in the truck … I have manage few good shots from a bus and train, but it seems like very photo you take comes out great.
    Route 66 starts in Chicago just by Union Station, I know a little about US.
    I really like the photo with the sunset behind the refinery.

    • ailsapm says:

      I always think about the poor birds who have to contend with them, viveka. My secret to taking good shots from a moving vehicle is pretty simple, viveka – I take hundreds and hope that one will come out alright! It usually works. A fast shutter speed helps to sharpen things up too. The desert photos were pretty tricky, because all of them were taken from inside the truck, with the windows up. It was just too hot to drive with the windows down, so I had to clean the glass as best I could before taking shots.

      • viveka says:

        Thanks for the tips … I will try that from the bus or the trains – can’t really do anything about their windows – but one the photos that have come out pretty good – the dirty windows hasn’t shown. Some journey you done. And it it’s fantastic to come along.

  17. Sas says:

    Wow, so many landscapes in such a short space of time! I like the way you describe the wind turbines. A lot of people don’t like them, but I think they’re amazing. Years in the future our descendants will be trying to preserve them just as we do with traditional windmills today. I remember the intense heat when I travelled in the desert. I would fill my water bottle, and within minutes the water would be almost too hot to drink.

    • ailsapm says:

      I wouldn’t necessarily like living next to them, Sas, but passing by they were pretty amazing to look at. You’re right too, years from now they will be seen as quaint remnants of the good old days! 🙂

  18. writecrites says:

    Another action-packed day, with great adventures and photos. I especially loved the wind farm video. Daisies, yes. But also fairies dancing (if you have fuzzy eyes like mine). I do, however, take issue with dull daytime Las Vegas looking like a bleached blond with the roots showing since I am the latter. Even so, I hang on your every word (i.e. chocolate and orange scrub brushes) and look forward to the next installment 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, so am I, Jennifer, and I love my roots showing! 🙂 I prefer your vision of those turbines as fairies dancing across the hills, and shall see them just like that next time I pass by! xxx

  19. Pamela says:

    Fantastic post, strange and beautiful sights; such interesting dialogue.
    Don Quixote would be totally shattered fighting those giants and as for the journey of the Joad family….now there’s a book everyone must read!
    Thanks for sharing your exciting trip….love, love, love every minute of it.

    • ailsapm says:

      Wish you could have seen some of the amazing sights we’ve encountered along the way, it really is the most stunning landscape. So glad you’re enjoying the journey vicariously through my posts. xxx

  20. Oh California!!!!! How I miss you! Thank you for those shots!!! The desert is an amazing, gorgeous place. And Route 66 is a trip.

  21. I recently traveled that way (and blogged on it). Couldn’t skip Big Sur, but couldn’t skip Lost Coast either. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges for me. I’ve never understood saying one place is “better” than another anyway. On what basis? Big Sur is a bit too popular for my style but still quite beautiful. Much of the Lost Coast is tough to get to: rough roads then hiking. Also quite a beautiful stretch of coastline, and the Redwoods close at hand. Enjoy!

    • ailsapm says:

      I actually loved the black sands along by Shelter Cove – my friend was really bummed out though because she was expecting Big Sur, thinking we’d be driving those winding coast roads – and in fact, we didn’t end up driving the Lost Coast either because her truck could’t hack those roads – we just drove down to Shelter Cove and came right back up again. I shall have to revisit it myself at some point in the future. xxx

  22. Mike says:

    You tell a great story – I’m enjoying your travels 🙂

  23. i mayfly says:

    The Mojave landscapes were stunningly beautiful. -Nikki

  24. Pingback: US road trip day 18 – Welcome to the Motel California | travelogue |

  25. Your landscapes are exquisite-I enjoyed the *journey* very much. It has been years since I have been that way-thank you for the memories!

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