|Road Dreams Revisited 2007
From New York City to Los Angeles by campervan
In the late summer of 2007, Helen Tamburro travelled across America with 12 strangers in a campervan, and this is her graphic account of her experiences.
by Helen Tamburro
Where we went
Liverpool to New York
Click on any image to see the full sized picture
I left John Lennon airport eagerly awaiting the hot weather that had been somewhat lacking in England over the summer. After enduring a three hours delay, I arrived stateside late in the evening and collapsed with the heat and exhaustion into my New Jersey bed, with my room overlooking the Hudson River and catching a glimpse of the Chrysler building before my head hit the pillow.
The next day we were up at 7am, breakfast then a full day to myself in the blissful Big Apple. Not being my first visit to NY I pretty much knew my way around Manhattan, so map-less I left New Jersey on a cheap bus that took me to the Port Authority, then I was off for the day exploring anything and everything I’d previously missed.
After lunch I worked my way up Manhattan, through Little Italy where I dived into the nearest pasta place for a refuel and some much needed shade from the glaring sun, picking up the token Italians do it Better fridge magnet. Next, through Chinatown to Pier 17 and then for the stroll over Brooklyn Bridge, with the perfect view of lower Manhattan, and on the other side across to Brooklyn Heights, a residential area once home to the likes of Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Arthur Miller.
My next stop was Battery Park, at the Southern tip of the NYC borough. Rather than face the long walk back, or even a hot and sardine-tin-like subway, I hailed a cab in true New York style to the Trump Tower next to Tiffany’s, shopped in Abercrombie, then I headed to Central Park at dusk to rest my tired legs. After bartering with a taxi driver who was going to charge me almost double for the ride back to my hotel, I returned to my room to meet my new roommate and we soon discovered she was on my trek due to depart the following morning. We headed out for food and drinks to a local bar, and witnessed our first arrest!
Another early rise as we eagerly waited to find out who our other trek mates would be. We met three Aussie girls from Perth, an Israeli girl and five other Brits along with our trek leader. After completing the dull but mandatory paperwork we had an introduction to the van, our home for the next 28 days! Our journey began…
First stop Niagara Falls, or ‘Onguiaahra’ – ‘Thundering Noise’. We arrived after a nine hour drive amazingly to find ourselves still in the same state. Once we’d set up camp and eaten, we drove a short distance to the Falls, lit up at night though more impressive by day…
And so it was a day for the Maid of the Mist tour to get a closer (and wetter) view of the Falls. They were formed when melting glaciers created the five Great Lakes, one of which, Erie, ran downhill towards Lake Ontario. The view is supposed to be better from the Canadian side, but it would be a while before we crossed the border. We drove to Sandusky, Ohio, home to Cedar Park, the World’s biggest and voted best theme park and spent a day sunning ourselves and swatting the flies attracted by the humidity of the lake.
A place I’d always wanted to visit was Chicago. Here we stayed for two nights, and what an amazing city! We arrived early evening and ate in a restaurant by the river known for its deliberately yet amusing rude service (serviettes and condiments hurled at you, orders shouted at you) then onto the House of Blues club where we put a fair bit behind the bar and had a great night, not willing to pay a pricey fee to see The Bangles who were performing upstairs. Instead we opted to stay and listen to a soul and funk band led by a Beth Ditto look-alike.
One of the best days of the entire trek was the second day in Chicago. A hot and humid day, even worse for us those of us that were hung-over. Still, we made the best of the day by walking everywhere and seeing and doing as much as possible in our own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. After a weary breakfast, we headed to the Sears Tower for the best aerial view of the city, on a perfect viewing day. We stopped by Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park (on the opening credits of US sitcom Married… With Children) walked down to the marina to the Lake Michigan shoreline and onto Millennium Park.
We took a very comprehensive riverboat cruise through the city admiring the architecture as we melted onto the plastic chairs in the midday sun. The riverboat cruise was featured in My Best Friend’s Wedding (not that I’m intentionally trying to mention as many Chicago-set productions as possible) and it was no disappointment. It’s the best way to see the stunning architecture of Chicago, largely rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1871 which wiped out the central business district and destroyed 17,000 buildings, also taking in views of The Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, the intriguing Sears Tower, the Drake Hotel, the Navy Pier and the ‘seen-on-ER’ El Train.
In need of a cold shower we ventured back to the hotel to get ready for a bike tour around the city at dusk. We mixed with another trek group and cycled for three hours past the joggers along the marina and the beach full of volleyball players to see a particularly huge and gorgeous sunset over Lake Michigan. Next through the streets, (impossible in Manhattan), ringing our bells as the very friendly locals waived back at 30 mad cyclists. We went on through Millennium Park (twenty-four acres of gardens, public art and dramatic structures) and past the open-air cinema screen where many were sat silently watching. It was very impressive and completely sold itself, to all of us. The city had a really great vibe, laid back, friendly and was noticeably immaculate. When you return home one of the first things you notice is how dirty the UK can be.
Van-appreciation day again, a good 12 hours spent driving today from Chicago through Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. We took in a visit to a Spam museum in Minnesota (no, not internet junk, Spam the food) which wasn’t a joke being played by our trek leader, but if nothing else it was a chance to re-fuel and I now know all there is to know about Spam should a question ever come up in a pub quiz. We also did a random stop at a big chair, made by a house-owner that lived opposite who used to have his own furniture company. The small quirky stops in small-town America made the trip.
We drove to the Badlands of south-west Dakota, or ‘Mako sica’ as the Sioux Indians named the land, so-called because of the inhospitable terrain caused by the deposition and erosion of sedimentary rocks. Here we found a barren and isolated landscape, but not before visiting a corn palace in the town of Mitchell, where I ate my first (and last) corn dog. We saw some prairie dogs and also got our photo taken with a huge Jolly Green Giant.
In Badlands National Park we stayed in a ranch, luxury after a week of mostly camping. A small group of us scrambled up a tricky cliff on a small hike, but only on the way down did we see the ‘DANGEROUS CLIFF KEEP RIGHT’ sign. At the ranch we partied, had an egg and foam fight then finished off in a freezing outdoor pool.
We went to a place called Wall Drug, a touristy place full of cowboy paraphanaelia that bore no resemblance to Wall Mart. It was at least somewhere to stop for food, I was surviving on Twixes in the van but after a good week spent doing this I’d decided enough was enough and I had to kick the habit. We drove on to Mount Rushmore the famous carving in the mountain of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Conceived in 1923 as a way to attract more people to the Black Hills, it was impressive and of course iconic. However, we were all much more impressed by the Crazy Horse monument eight miles away in the Black Hills.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked on Mount Rushmore, and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, officially started Crazy Horse Memorial on 3rd June 1948. The Memorial's mission is to honour the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians and amazingly for many years Ziolkowski worked alone on the sculpture. Now his family have taken on the colossal task. Put into perspective, the head of Crazy Horse alone will be 87 feet high; by comparison, the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet high. Officially the world’s largest mountain sculpture, it’s not expected to be completed even in our time.
Cowboy time in Cody, Wyoming. We went to a gimmicky shoot-out downtown then in the evening to our first rodeo. There were children as young as seven competing. Later in a nearby ‘saloon’ we met the star of the show, the winner of the rodeo and real-life cowboy who was actually born in Wales, and whose grandfather apparently died in a bank robbery there. A few of the girls, myself included, had the obligatory dance with him as the group got stared at by the locals. Although Cody is on the tourist map, it’s perhaps not as popular as Jackson Hole further west.
We also drove to Yellowstone National Park, where we saw our first (brown) bear of the trek, at the side of the road by a JCB. We also witnessed Old Faithful geyser erupt, and saw lots of bison and elk congregating freely by a hotel resort.
6am start in aid of a hike up Mount Washington, a 10,000 ft mountain. I called home from the lookout tower at the summit (a park ranger will live up there alone and isolated on the lookout for forest fires for months on end) and then had another smaller hike in what’s known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We nearly lost our trek mate who was trying to reach his camera lens cap which had rolled near the edge of the cliff, but decided it was too dangerous! The day ended with a soak in natural hot-springs, seriously hot in already 80F heat, but it was the nearest thing we’d all had to a bath for a while so we took full advantage of it. We camped at a basic site but the location was picturesque, and we enjoyed our last night leaving food and toiletries in our tents as we would soon hit bear-country.We all worked on a rota, either cooking, van cleaning or washing up, and it was my turn to be co-chef. We ate, toasted marshmallows on the fire listening to R.E.M. and gazed at the vast and star-filled Montana sky. It was all very idyllic, I witnessed my first shooting star and, let’s face it, if you’re going to see one, Montana is the place to be.
Woke up to a stunning view, the tent door already open, my tent-mate was already up and I took this picture.
Drove through Helena, the state capital of Montana, to Glacier National Park, a stones-throw from Canada, it was mostly a driving day so we got a lot of mileage covered, and slept…
Pulled over by the roadside for this photo opportunity of Glacier NP.
We camped by a river; it was perhaps the nicest location for camping. Having to store away toiletries in the bear-proof box in the form of a metal container was a bit of a pain but as we had invaded their habitat in the first place we couldn’t really complain. Woke up deliberately early to catch the sunrise over the mountain by our campsite but the great view promised didn’t materialise making me late for horse-riding. The girls had to leave without me so I ran a good mile for the two hour horse ride which was good fun though I had the smallest and slowest horse which kept stopping to chew leaves.
It was time to venture over the border into Canada. We left early again, this time for Banff. We stopped for food in Calgary, Alberta, and landed in Banff early afternoon. After a short trip to the Tourist Information Centre we set up camp in what would soon become the coldest and wettest two nights of the trek. Our stop there coincided with a storm or two, for the first time since New York we had a proper chance to shop, although instead of suncreme we were investing in hats and gloves. Then we headed out to a club, and observed the fashions of a ski-resort clubber in what became another late night.
We emerged from our soaked tents having braved the worst of the weather, although some other trek groups opted to sleep on the floor of the campsite toilets and were awaken by the local police who had been informed of ‘homeless people’ taking shelter on private land. This was a free day to ourselves, many of us hid from the weather in internet cafés updating Facebook profiles and catching up with emails home. After a particularly memorable hot apple and cinnamon drink to warm us we spent a leisurely day meandering round the streets of Banff, coming across the odd Irish pub or two. We ended with a group meal in The Spaghetti Factory restaurant.
Personally this was the best day spent in Canada, hiking at Lake Louise and seeing Lake Morraine. After arriving around 7am we fed some very friendly birds on the route up to the mountains, stopped to feed chipmunks at the beautiful Mirror Lake working our way up to a very picturesque view looking down onto Lake Louise and the vast Canadian countryside into the distance. We were tired but it was undoubtedly worthwhile.
As a perfect way to ease our aching limbs the female contingent of the group spent the evening bathing in an outdoor hot springs. It was sleeting over the mountains and there we were in our matching 1920s bathing suits immersed in steaming water. We had been told we could not wear our own swimwear but we entered the poolside greeting only by smirks as we were the only ones dressed in the attire, looking like a synchronised swimming team. As no one wanted to cook in the rain we allowed ourselves a night off and instead drove to a nearby hotel lodge and it was a relaxing end to a busy day.
Banff was out of season but its charm was still evident, although most of us were glad to move on west to Yoho for the warmer climate and…laundry facilities! We stopped at Lake Emerald for a walk around the striking turquoise lake. By this point we were all waiting for Seattle and a night in a dry and clean hotel room. On the way to Yoho National Park we saw some great scenery (not that hard in the Canadian wilderness), glaciers and big blue skies, but by this point we had reached saturation and were all looking forward to any urban jungle we could find.
We sunbathed and ate prime Canadian steak, without a doubt the best BBQ I’ve ever been to, before a White-water rafting trip for an afternoon of rapids, and the spread of food alone was worth it. The French-Canadian river guide actually did most of the work, so it all seemed a bit tame and a bit of an anti-climax but it was fun and we ended by toasting marshmallows on the campfire.
A 6.30am start and to Vancouver we went, but not before the trailer fell off the back of the van and we all had to get out to lift it back on. A freezing start for us all. We’d woken to wandering horses around our tents in what seemed like Brokeback Mountain country (it was actually filmed in Canada).
I had held high hopes of Vancouver after a few years earlier learning that it was voted the best place to live in the world for quality of life. The cosmopolitan city with the great outdoors on its doorstep. However, I wasn’t the only one to be a bit disappointed. For one, around the pretty Gastown district which is actually one of the nicest parts of the city, there were homeless people pushing supermarket trolleys every fifty yards, sad to see and quite shocking in a city that is widely seen as first class. This wasn’t a seedy part of town, this was a prime shopping and eating district and it was very noticeable all over the city, and not just in evenings. The area is named after “Gassy Jack” Deighton, because of his ability to tell stories and talk non-stop. He arrived in 1867 with a barrel of whiskey and told the mill workers if they’d build him a saloon, he’d serve them alcohol and thus a town was born.
Architecturally, I found Vancouver actually quite nondescript. I wasn’t the only one who was struck by this. We didn’t spend enough time there to appreciate the city properly or to its full extent, we didn’t get to Vancouver Island for example which has great reviews and had we been there longer we would have done. Stanley Park and the harbour were lovely and the backdrop with the mountains is beautiful. It’s a healthy city to live in. Perhaps we were too fatigued at that point but generally the city itself it seemed devoid of a strong identity or vibe, going on first impressions alone.
We arrived into Seattle, Starbucks H.Q. 3.5 hours after leaving Vancouver, after a delay at the U.S. border, it took around two hours to pass through and wasn’t something you’d want to repeat in a hurry. We stopped at the Freemont Troll, or Troll Under the Bridge. It was built in 1990 by four local artists.
We went for a walk to the Pike Street market area, synonymous with throwing of the fish in the opening credits of The Real World. We spent the evening catching a baseball game, the Seattle Mariners beating Tampa Bay following a slow and poor start.
We s aw the Seattle Space Needle lit up at night. The skyline of the city would look naked without it although architecturally it’s not impressive in the cold light of day. We made last orders in a local jazz bar and then collapsed into bed to catch the end of an episode of Frasier funnily enough.
After a brief stop in Seattle, we left the city but not before heading to the 73rd floor of the Bank America Tower for a better view of the Space Needle, although the grey sky didn’t help. Then it was on the road again, for a 9 hour drive to the Oregon coastline.
We ate pancakes for breakfast then set off for sand-dune buggying. This consisted of a metal structure of a car whizzing along high dunes at 70mph with sand flying all over. It was the best £20 you could spend, the best laugh as you got flung all over. After our morning of fun we were off again to Redwood National Park, California…
We finally landed in California, one of the biggest and most prosperous of the 50 states. Known for its entertainment and agricultural industries, and holding the largest number of electoral-college votes (55), California is a key player in presidential elections. As we headed towards our next port of call, we spotted anti-war protestors at a petrol station, although it was low-key protest
After camping in and hiding behind a few Redwoods, we headed onwards to San Francisco. As we approached the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. I had to pinch myself, after wanting to visit for years. We had a great photo opportunity in the hills and stopped at a great lookout point. We stayed at a cheap hostel that had a great location close to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is actually quite tacky and touristy. We ate in a great seafood restaurant before heading back for the small walk to the hostel along the beach.
The plan for the day was to head down to Pier 39 to book the trip to Alcatraz, but despite leaving early it was still too late as it would have clashed with a sunset cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a disappointment, but it’s an excuse to go back. We wandered up the hilly streets with aching calves, through the largest Chinatown outside of China, and I had lunch in a French restaurant that was incredibly pretentious I was soon to realise.
I had split up from the others at this point. I walked up to the Haight-Ashbury Hippie area of the city, popular with the Kerouac/Ginsberg set in the 1960s, phoned home to brag then jumped on a tram to the Castro district to explore on foot. I was looking for the famous view of the city from the park overlooking the Painted Ladies, the set of quaint, pastel-coloured houses that appear on postcards. Eventually I found it, sitting for a while and taking in my surroundings, before heading my way back to base to get back in time for our evening cruise. It was an amazing end to a great day. We were on a catamaran and of all the sunsets you will see, it can’t get much better than the one we saw. The night ended with a curry in Japantown and karaoke.
On to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is recognised for its granite cliffs, waterfalls and Giant Sequoia groves. On the way in I became separated from the group and I noticed what I thought initially was a dog, before realising it was a coyote. There was a lot of controlled burning taking place at the time and a lot of smoke, but it didn’t spoil any views. Acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams’ Yosemite collection was on show and after having bought his calendars years before it was fascinating to now see the real thing.
We completed a day’s hike around Yosemite, but most of us opted out of the infamous Half Dome that a few people over the years have fallen off in strong winds…
We ended the day with pizza and a long soak in a Jacuzzi.
Left the Sierra Nevada mountains for Morro Bay on the California coastline. Had an early Halloween party U.S. style and attracted a 17 yr old self-proclaimed ‘Vampire’, claiming to have slain five people on the beach, we didn’t let him hang around for too long…it was our last night camping so we headed back for one last night in our tents, waking in the night to the silhouette of a rat running along the outside of our tent, we’d forgotten the pizza boxes that were left out so between a couple of rats and racoons there wasn’t much left by morning.
We drove through the college town of San Luis Obispo and visited a west-coast tourist attraction otherwise known as a massive wall of chewing gum in a back alley: it was grossly fascinating. Onto a quiet and disappointing Santa Barbara, where a lot of Hollywood celebrities have homes, then to L.A.
We drove by Beverly Hills, drove down Fairfax Road which the singer Shawn Mullins sings about in his song ‘Lullaby’, did Sunset Boulevard and saw the Hollywood sign from the Kodak theatre which was miles away and hardly worth taking a photo of. The Walk of Fame was interesting, seeing famous names etched into the marble stars. We walked down Rodeo Drive, which was actually dull. L.A. was very unimpressive and colder than we’d assumed it would be. I was glad to be soon heading back to New York.
It was time for goodbyes. Everyone had their own plans, some headed to San Diego, some stayed in L.A. for a few days. Before I left made sure I hit Venice beach and Santa Monica, doing the obligatory Baywatch pose in my lifeguard t-shirt, although later in the day we got caught in the worst weather they’d had for a year, being on Venice beach in a torrential storm was fairly incongruous.
A couple of us ended up at Johnny Depp’s old club The Viper Room (outside of which River Phoenix died) then back to the hotel for two hours sleep before leaving for my flight back to New York.
Got to LAX relieved to be heading out of L.A. There was ultimately nothing there, and not even great weather during our short stay. I enjoyed the simplicity of a domestic flight for a change; we Brits could learn a thing or two in how we operate things. It was strange to think that it had taken us a month to drive across the country, but only a few hours later I was back on the east coast.
I arrived in a boiling NYC, the weather as fabulous as I left it 32 days previously. Looking back, the west coast was nothing compared to the east. I much preferred New York to LA or San Francisco, which surprised me greatly. My hotel was in the Murray Hill area, mid-town and a perfect location.
After a month cooped up in a van it was great to have the freedom again to be left up to my own devices.
I returned to Battery Park, I’d wanted to catch an early ferry to Ellis Island and the immigration museum. I did a search on any Tamburros that had arrived there from the south of Italy. The museum was actually left derelict for a long time, but was gutted and re-furbished in the 1980s. We stopped at Liberty Island on the way back to Manhattan, I grabbed a hot dog and strolled through Broadway. The Iranian President was in town on his controversial visit to Columbia University and the Press (and traffic) were going berserk. I shopped and took advantage of the exchange rate, buying myself a new camera (if you’re going to break your old 35mm, you may as well drop it in Californian sand). I ended my day in Central Park watching the world go by on what was my last day of my time in the States.
Road Dreams - a Super 8 American film diary 1968-1982.
Between 1968 and 1982 Elliott Bristow kept a Super 8 film diary documenting his 500,000 mile (800,000 km) road trip around America, which he subsequently made into a series of TV documentaries. Here he gives an account of his travels and the making of the diary.
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