Last night, I found out that my MIL’s cousin Mai died. Mai lived in Newport Beach in California and was very close to my husband. She’d always make a point of visiting us when she came to Ireland. A few years ago, she decided she was too old to make the journey, so last year we made the decision to base our summer holiday around visiting her in California. I’m obviously very glad we did.
As this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we put a huge chunk of our savings into it. On the last day of our holiday, my husband got a text message from his boss, along the lines of ‘sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but consider this text your one month written notice.’ It would be November before he earned any more money. So, in a way, I’m glad we went on the holiday not knowing that would happen.
For the first three nights, we stayed in a hotel close to Mai. Our first night there, while suffering from travel exhaustion (longest journey with the kids so far) and jet lag, we went out for a meal with Mai and her two sons and their families. At an Irish pub, of course! Although her son’s seemed to be in denial,we could see the first signs of Mai’s dementia. She wanted us to pick her up in the morning so she could take us on a ‘tour’. Although we agreed at the time, we thought better of it the next day as we didn’t want to be responsible if she led us astray! (I had visions of Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman!) Although we phoned her on the last day of the holiday, it turns out we would never see her again.
Instead of driving Mai around, we went to Balboa and went on a Whale watching trip. We didn’t see any whales, but saw hundreds of common Dolphins. The kids enjoyed it, especially getting splashed by the waves. We also hired a little motor boat and motored around Balboa Island, admiring the incredibly expensive houses and pretending we lived in them!
We discovered Ruby’s Diners, which would become our staple diet for much of the holiday, especially the corn dogs. In fact, corn dogs (not readily available in Ireland) would feature an awful lot over the course of the entire two weeks.
On the third day, we ditched the hire car in favour of the vintage VW camper van we had booked. And the ‘real’ holiday would begin! Though not without a visit to Disneyland. As it turns out, there’s an RV park close to Disneyland, with a shuttle bus to take you there. Because of the usual delays with picking up the camper, we only had an afternoon in Disneyland. Because our son had just been diagnosed autistic and we had paperwork to show it, we were able to skip the queues and just turn up at our designated time slots. This made all the difference. We managed to pack in a lot, including the Best Corndogs Ever, and even managed to see the parade twice. And when we were done, we headed back to our first night in the campervan.
The plan was to ‘pop into’ LA to see a few sights the next day. But that proved a bit difficult, especially with parking, so we just had lunch at a street market. We wanted to visit Venice beach, but again parking was impossible to find so we ended up stuck in traffic. Finally, we headed off to see Kathleen, Mai’s daughter, where we’d been invited to spend the night. On our way though, we noticed the tires were giving off a smell and were incredibly hot. We made our way slowly and arrived a few hours late. Kathleen and her family were so incredibly kind to us. I know the Irish are meant to have a welcoming reputation, but I’ve found Americans to be equally, or more, so. The kindness of Americans was a strong theme during our holiday. But I do wonder how much of that was influenced by the fact that we were Irish, and white. (And I’m sad to say Mai’s other daughter had been disowned for marrying a Mexican. I don’t even know her name!) Anyway, we were well fed and entertained that night, ready to begin our road trip the next day. The plan was to drive to Big Sur in the morning, stopping at various coves etc along the way. We had booked three nights camping in Big Sur, then we would drive to San Francisco where we’d stay in a hotel, then drive back to LA to return the camper van and stay one final night in a hotel.
However, Kathleen wasn’t happy about the camper van tires, so she insisted we visit her local garage in the morning. Turns out, the tires needed to be replaced and the spare tire was bald! When we finally got hold of the camper van hire guy, he insisted we drive to a certain garage in Santa Barbara to get the tires replaced. Kathleen very kindly drove me and the kids (the camper van had no air-con!) while my husband followed in the VW. She stayed with us while we got sorted out, then we said our goodbyes.
And so, finally, we were off!
Now, my husband had actually made this road trip once before. Years ago, with his ex. Although they’d hired a regular car and gone camping in tents. But for as long as I’d known him, he’d wanted to recreate that journey. He’d also owned a vintage VW camper van when he’d lived in the UK. Again, before I’d known him. And again he had often talked about it like it was an old friend. I’d never been in the west coast of the USA and the kids had never outside Europe/Turkey before. So here was his chance to impress us!
As the whole morning had been wasted in Santa Barbara, we did not have time to visit any coves or beaches along the way. We wanted to get to Big Sur before dark. As it was, we had only just turned inland and northbound, when the sun began to set. In the distance we could see a forest fire. Just as we got to the first steep incline, the camper van began to slow without warning. Eventually, it ground to a halt. Seems the fuel gauge was faulty and we’d run out of petrol!
We got out of the van, as it didn’t feel safe sitting in it in the ditch while cars and trucks rushed past. So, we sat up on the embankment, making various phonecalls. Again, the owner of the camper van could not be reached. Kathleen could, and she began suggesting various breakdown assist options. However, just when we were starting to get very stressed, a car slowed down and a guy in a DHL uniform got out and asked if we needed help. Turns out, he’d owned a camper van and knew how tricky they could be. We piled into his car and he took us to his home, which was just down the road. There he introduced us to his beautiful kid and friendly wife, and fetched a spare can of petrol from his basement. He then drive us back to the camper van and gave us directions to the nearest petrol station, and we were again on our way. I regret that in our panic I never asked him his name. We still refer to him as ‘ the really kind DHL guy’.
So, now, we really were on our way. We’d given up on arriving at Big Sur before dark, and so stopped for dinner at San Luis Obispo. Shortly after that, the kids fell asleep. We had been driving a while when we passed a sign on a temporary notice board. I saw ’10pm to 7am’ on it but couldn’t make out anything else as we passed by. At this stage it was about five minutes past ten. We were just reaching the scenic part, the start of the Big Sur coast highway, and there was a full moon! But, also…a roadblock! Seems the sign we passed said the road was closed between those hours for essential roadworks! So, we just stopped there debating what to do next. Should we turn around and try to find a hotel? Should we find a lay by and camp there for the night? How safe would that be? We were just about to turn around, when a car passed us from beyond the roadblock. The driver wound down his window and, in a foreign voice, told us it was ok, they were letting folks through. So, we decided to go ahead. We drove up to the roadworks and my husband got out and spoke to the foreman. Turns out, the other car had not had permission to pass and had put everyone in danger by just ignoring the roadblock. But the foreman must have taken pity on us, with the two sleeping kids in the back, and radioed the crew to stop working for a few minutes and let us pass.
And so, that’s how my husband and I ended up driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in the middle of a moonlit night, without another soul on the road. We stopped at a viewing point and just stood there, holding hands inabsolute silence, except for the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore below. My phone had run out of charge at this stage, so I’ve no photos. But no camera would have done it justice anyway, and trying to capture the scene would have just spoilt it. It really was an amazing experience and one I’ll never forget. So, in a way, it was our good fortune to have hired a troublesome camper van with dodgy tires!
I’m going to end this post here, as it’s getting rather long. Next time, I’ll write about Big Sur, San Francisco, and ‘Road Trips while Disabled’, so stay tuned for that!
[image of the scenic Bixby Bridge at Big Sur, taken at dusk. There is an overlay of a Canva watermark, as I did not take this photo but it gives an impression of the road we were on.]