Thunder Road (part 4)

I’m still playing catch-up with posts, so you may want to scroll down and read older entries first. I’d especially like people to read Thunder Road (part 2), as it’s probably the only genuinely interesting thing i’ve written on here.

Sadly our last day with the car was not a good one. We planned to follow route 1 rather than 101 for much of the way so as to be off the freeway and in the nicer areas. Unfortunately we had bought a fairly rubbish road map, and despite Beth’s best efforts – she is a good map reader, significantly better than me as she likes to ensure i don’t forget – we somehow ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was at this point that we learned that Americans don’t believe in road signs. I swear we must have driven 20 miles in and around a major settlement without seeing a single helpful road-sign. Eventually I consented to the emasculating act of pulling over and asking for directions, and we were soon on the right track. That, however, was only part 1 of the days road-related stresses.

As we approached San Francisco the road became more congested, whilst becoming visibly worse in terms of surface quality. Great gaping cracks and potholes became more and more frequent, and intermittent semi-abandoned road work projects would suddenly jut out from the hard shoulder with little to no warning. I read a piece in the Economist about a week before flying out about the lack of infrastructure investment by successive administrations (but especially the ‘let’s cut taxes for the ultra-rich and not bother spending’ one of the last 8 years) and how it is bearing rotten fruit now. Well I can confirm that the main road leading into San Francisco from the north over the Golden Gate bridge is indeed literally falling apart – which as you can imagine makes driving no fun, especially when you’re in a hire car and simply cannot afford for anything to happen to it.

Anyway, despite sitting in a traffic jam for the best part of an hour we entered the Bay Area from the north, and Beth took these pictures as we came across the Golden Gate:

After crossing the Golden Gate we had to navigate North San Francisco. This was my first time driving in a big city on the incorrect side of the road, and it wasn’t much fun. San Francisco is really hilly, and even on a Sunday afternoon the traffic was heavy. However we crawled through and decided to head over to the East Bay where there were some beaches, because the West Bay area was under thick fog.

Unfortunately, although the East Bay was sunny it was unbelievably windy, so we spent half an hour or so wandering on the beach before admitting it was too cold to be out and so, defeated, we retreated back to the car. Given that it was still only mid to late afternoon, we decided to drive back over to the coast and drive south to see what the sites were like. Thus I embarked upon the worst motoring experience I have ever had.

Coming back over the bay we used to the Oakland bridge and drove on the freeway, I think it was route 280. Now Americans and cars are a strange combination. On ordinary roads Americans actually drive quite slowly and responsible – frequently I would look in my rear mirror after pulling off at a light and worry that I had jumped a red, so far behind me would the other cars be. Yet for some reason as soon as you mix Americans in cars with the freeway, they become raving lunatics. Never have I been so stressed and scared as I was that day.

First, Americans have no concept of under- versus over- taking or using the appropriate lanes. People will sit in the inside (aka “fast”) lane going 45, or race down the outside lane doing 80 (the speed limit is officially 65). They do not indicate before changing lanes, and pay no attention as to whether you are indicating. Cars will frequently veer in an out of all four lanes just to get ahead, and when over-taking they are apt to pass your left or right right light by a matter of half an inch. A favourite trick is to race up to within two inches of your rear bumber, over-take and come in two inches infront of your other bumber, then beep you for good measure. People were tail-gaiting in a way i’ve never seen before. In the UK on a motorway if the traffic gets heavy then people instinctively drop their speed to keep a greater distance. In the USA, it appears that when people are on the freeway they are damned well going to drive fast be there too many cars to make that sensible or otherwise. In fact looking back I think I made things worse because my instinct was to slow down in heavy traffic – I would have been safer driving faster like all the lunatics around me; by slowing down I was simply encouraging people to race up my backside and then try and over-take me when it wasn’t safe to do so.

In the end it became so stressful that I simply had to pull off at an available exit, stop to take a breath and get a drink. Beth was as shook up as I was, as she was watching the mayhem in the mirrors too. I think perhaps the traffic was especially bad because people were on their way home from a day out and all in a rush (indeed when I went back on the freeway a few hours later it was slightly calmer), but whatever the cause i’ve never felt closer to death in a car.

After an hour or so we drove out onto some quieter roads and stopped a little way south of San Francisco to watch some surfers doing their stuff.

I also managed to get a photo of one of these:

These Tsunami Warning Signs can be found right the way down the Oregon and California coasts, and have been put up following the 2001 Tsunami that hit South East Asia. Basically if an earth quake takes place off the West Coast there will be a massive Tsunami. Geologists say one can be expected around every 400 years. And the last one happened around 400 years ago. After 2001 Americans are taking few precautions, and there are now siren warning systems in place, and many people will receive a text message if a quake occurs warning them to get to high ground. Indeed it was Michele in Portland who warned Beth and I that if we hear sirens in the night, it’s probably best not to just try and sleep through them – and if there’s an earthquake we must not run outside, but rather should stand in a doorway (the strongest part of a structure, apparently).

We braved the freeway once more to try and find a motel within striking distance of the airport. By this time we were both pretty fed up of driving and stress, and so things only got worse as it was becoming clear we were in serious danger of running out of “gas” on the freeway. I pulled off to what looked like a petrol station…only to realise it was “green fuel” for city public transport and taxis. As things were starting to get critical we luckily spied a petrol station and the disaster was averted. Next we had the joy being lied to by all the motels close to the airport, who were trying to flog rooms at $100 a night and told us there were no other motels in the area. We didn’t believe them and set off to try and find some, and when it looked like we were lost we miraculously found a place at a reasonable rate, and just collapsed there for the night.

Our plan was to spend two nights at the motel, using a shuttle bus service to get to the airport for free and then take public transport into San Francisco so Beth could spend a day there before flying back to London the norning after. This plan basically worked out, and we dropped off the hire car a day early, saving me some much needed cash. I’ve got to be honest I was pretty relieved to return the car safe and sound with not a mark on it. Although driving the coast was totally worth it, I periodically suffered nightmare hallucinations of the consequences of scratching the thing – or even worse, fully crashing it into some American who would then sue me up to the eyeballs.

After a much needed night’s sleep and dropping of the car, Beth and I went into San Francisco for the day, which was lovely and allowed me to take some nice pictures:

This is Lombard Street the “most crooked street in the world”.


That island in the distance is “Treasure Island”, which sits in the middle of the Bay and which the Oakland bridge crosses.

Hooters is a horrible restaurant in my opinion, the whole premise is stupid, facile and pathetic. Furthermore, they are unable to find artists to paint their murals with the ability to depict human noses.

The thing which I most enjoyed in San Francisco was going down to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Warf and watching the amazing spectacle of the sea lions. Fisherman’s Wharf is tacky and cheap – kind of like Blackpool on the edge of San Francisco – but the Sea Lions are amazing. There are rather a lot of them:

The big fat one is a Male Stella sea lion. He is quite a rare sight in the summer apparently. He is like the Will Sharp of the sea lion world.

Finally before grabbing some really good food in Little Italy at a bargain price, we took some commemorative photos of the mighty route 101, upon which (more or less) we managed to clock over 1000 miles, driving all the way from Astoria to San Francisco. Now that is a road trip.


One response to “Thunder Road (part 4)

  1. This is the funniest discription I’ve read about driving in the Bay Area.

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