After picking up a new and much worse hire car from the MGM Grand it was a long drive to Shoshone, a tiny hamlet with one motel, some trailers and a bar/diner that seemed only to sell Hash Browns. We arrived late after stopping in numerous other hamlets, each with fewer amenities than the last. Shoshone was the last stop off before entering the Death Valley National Park, a fact it seemed to be almost arrogant about, judging by the cost of the petrol, water and sandwiches available at the only store for 50 miles.
Death Valley, if you aren’t acquainted with it, is the hottest place on earth. It has the highest year round average temperature and was pipped by Libya for the highest ever recorded temperature (57°C if you’re wondering) as well as this inhospitable claim to fame it is also the lowest point on earth, 287m below sea level to be exact and within this hellish basin is contained impressive salt flats, cacti and various scurrying rodents and carnivorous birds who pick clean the skulls of deer and other unfortunate beasts who wander unaccompanied into a very bad time indeed. The park itself was massive, despite looking like the much quicker route to Bakersfield on the map the 30mph speed limits and exceptionally law abiding New Jersey and New England tourists made for another long days driving and we gratefully pulled into a crap Motel for some rest in Bakersfield before Emma steeled herself for the drive to the first major city we’d been to since New Orleans – San Francisco.
San Francisco is notorious in the rest of the US for the lack of kerbside parking, as well as the sheer expense of it, with space at a premium the cost of a days parking can be upwards of $9 an hour, a cost we could not accommodate given our limited budget so we set out with gritted teeth to look for one of the rarer than a Golden Eagle free spaces the woman at the front desk of our hostel had told us about. Although she did say ‘There’s so few of them they might as well not exist’ That’s good then. She told us where there was one and we went to look for it. ‘It should be painted green.’ She told us. We found the right street but each parking bay was of a depressing uniformity. Standard grey. I asked someone who looked like he may own a shop on the street. ‘Do you know if it’s OK to park here?’ I asked. He looked at me, blinked twice and without saying a word started dragging a motorcycle out of the way and gesturing for Emma to pull into the space it had left. ‘Thank you, thank you so much’ I said, he had after all, saved us about $250 dollars in parking over the three days we planned to stay there. He gave me a huge smile and waved his hand at me before scurrying back into his shop. ‘I think I just met the best man in the whole of the United States’ I told Emma as we took our bags up to the hostel.
Now, we’ve all seen the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and that twisty road that featured in Bullit (I think) but what you won’t have seen unless you’ve visited certain parts of California, is the extremely laid back view that Californians take towards Cannabis, The Chronic, Sweet Mary Jane, Ganja, The ‘Erb, Marijuana, Puff, Weed or whatever else you kids are calling it nowadays.
The thing that made it so surprising, was coming so recently from States like Texas and Nevada where possession results in instant chemical castration and over 500 years in prison. Everyone was smoking mad blunts -On the way to work, dropping off their kids at day care, bus drivers, hipsters, doctors and tourists all at it - So that’s an exaggeration, of course, and what, I hear you ask, can you expect from a place that basically spawned American counter culture – Ken Keasey, Jack Kerouack, the Merry Pranksters and LSD all originated here – but the smell of it permeates the city, it’s even more prevalent than Amsterdam. The reason for this is a legal grey area and a source of much debate for San Franciscans. It remains illegal at a Federal level, meaning the FBI could basically close San Francisco down should the need arise, but on a state level, it is absolutely legal as long as you can prove that you have Glaucoma or a bad back or bunions (that’s not even a joke) to a doctor who will then write you a legal, over the counter prescription to be filled at a state sanctioned Marijuana ‘facility’.
That there, is how they roll (pun) in San Fran. Apparently they hate it when you call it San Fran. A lesson I learned the hard way in a bar on South Progress Street, a bar with over 150 beers on tap, putting to bed once and for all the myth that Americans only drink Coors Light, Bud Light and in certain states (Alabama)exclusively a home brewed 96% distilled spirit called Hooch. The Micro Brewing scene is thriving, particularly on the West coast and we sampled a great deal of them whilst chatting to a restaurant manager and head chef about subjects ranging from gun control, the cannabis question and why it’s frowned upon to call their city ‘San Fran’. Don’t ask me the reason, I’d forgotten a minute after they’d told me but the main thing is that I won’t make that mistake again. Even, if I don’t know why.
We spent a number of very enjoyable afternoon hours in that bar, due to the fact that San Francisco - once again bucking the trend set by the rest of California; 75°F and sunny, every, single, day – was under a slow moving sheet of grey drizzle, which, in one of the very few walking cities in the US, was a real pain. We persevered anyway trudging from landmark to landmark in the rain like arseholes until nightfall when we found ourselves in China Town. There’s only so many Tsing Tao you can drink however and we eventually returned to our hostel, the Green Turtle, drunk as bastards and went to sleep. The next day was more of the same if I remember correctly except that we ended the evening listening to some pretty good live bands in a few bars with some people we’d met at our hostel. A good night was had by all and we slept soundly for the drive south, towards LA, via the spectacular Highway 1.