Heading south again, through the desert and along the California-Nevada border, we entered the Mojave desert. The road follows hill tops and valleys, among barren fields, presenting a exhilarating driving experience and some of the best photo opportunities of a road trip.
At Baker, we entered the Kelbaker road, crossing through the heart of the Mojave desert National Park. The temperature went down a bit, now around 110°F. Unlike the Death Valley, there is some vegetation here, mainly brittle bushes, creosote bushes and Joshua trees. In June, the brittle bushes bloom with yellow flowers, painting the desert yellow. We stopped at the Kelso dunes, the largest eolian sand deposits in the Mojave desert, about 120²km large and 200m high. We attempted a climb with Nikitas, while Chris stayed in the car with the air condition running – he show a snake warning sign and opted promptly out – but the soft sand combined with the heat made climbing quite difficult. We gave up after fifteen minutes and returned to car, now heading to Amboy to join the emblematic Route 66, America’s Mother Road.
Our first stop was at Roy’s Motel and gas station, the archetypal middle-of-nowhere gas station. Roy Crawl opened the gas station in 1938 and progressively grew the business to employ 70 people out of the 700 that lived in Amboy. With the opening of I-40 in 1972, business dropped overnight to zero.
From that point on, we immersed deeper and deeper into the Route 66 saga, stopping by places like Bagdad Café – made famous by his namesake 1987 German movie – and Ludlow, a small ghost town that stills hosts a diner. Indeed, that’s where we had our long anticipated lunch, in a route 66 diner. The food was of course greasy, as expected and the crowd was made by local construction workers and passing travellers like us.
A few miles before Barstow, we took a detour to visit Calico town, a ghost town turned into a theme park with some well restored buildings. While the idea is good, the place screams touristy and we did not stay for long. After a night stopover in Barstow and some shopping in the local discount shopping malls, we continued along the National Trails Highway – the official name of the Californian part of Route 66 – stopping and going to get the max of our Route 66 experience.
We took I-15 for the final approach to LA, arriving just before noon. I wanted to show the kids the two faces of America, so I drove straight to downtown, through the ‘homeless district’ close to 5th street and then headed straight to Hollywood Boulevard. The Avenue of the Stars is a crowded place with visitors and street artists filling every inch of the sidewalks near the Chinese and Dolby theaters, the landmarks of the Boulevard. There is a myriad of costumed characters from the Holywood movies, Jedis, Spider-mans, Super-mans, Ninja Turtles or Disney characters that solicit a photo opportunity for a few backs. It is very likely to watch Mini Mouse changing a 20 dollar bill with Batman.
We visited Santa Monica in the afternoon, to see the waves and crowds at the Santa Monica Pier and then lodged in a boutique hotel near Venice beach. The next morning we went to Rodeo Drive, to show my kids the tasteless, rich side of America. We spotted a yellow Rolls Royce, an aluminum painted Mercedes AMG and a fair number of Ferraris displaying shamelessly their owners new riches and bad taste. The dress style on the Drive screams I am rich but I ain’t got taste. Anyways, one hour, including some bad espresso was more than enough.
We got back in the car to go to the greatest freak show on earth, called Venice Beach. Here you see all kinds of freaks, hipsters, tourists and normal people blending together. They walk or roll along the promenade, shop in the hippie-style shops, play basket ball or take a dive at the sea. Add the crowds to the countless benches with hippies and artists selling their – usually crappy – thing and the resident stand-up comedy groups and you’ ve got the idea.
We spent only 24 hours in LA, just enough time to get some basic idea about this famous city. Los Angeles is America in a nutshell. A Rolls next to Gucci on Rodeo Drive alongside the myriad of homeless people on 5th street. The Hollywood tourist crowds, a few miles away from the hipsters in Venice Beach. I think that the contrast and diversity was a good food for thought to my children. Eight days and two thousand kilometers on the odometer in the great state of California made the best road trip I could imagine with my offsprings. We will probably come again.