This is a detailed account of my trip to parts of the USA, travelling South America and then Europe, predominantly in the East. The total time I took for this trip was 9 months starting in January 2008. I spent about 6 weeks in the USA, 2 months in South America and the rest in the UK and Europe.
This trip did not involve any work; it’s all about being a backpacker, moving around from place to place, meeting new people, taking photos and enjoying a few festivals along the way.
After experiencing Australia in great detail, I now wanted to experience the world and feel the sensation of being in unfamiliar foreign lands. I also took greater interest in my writing and these adventures are a lot more detailed than when I travelled Australia.These experiences are 3 years after backpacking Australia.
This particular post covers California to Las Vegas.
USA January 2008 – February
“Here we go again”
After sitting around, repaying the credit card and dreaming of another trip, I eventually got the money together to quit my job and take off. I had decided it was time to check out the USA, South America and Europe. The trip to the USA was well organised (unlike South America and Europe) and I anticipated that I had around 9 months of travel to get through before burning all my life savings and maxing out my credit card. I wanted to see as many places as possible.
It was around 13 hours to fly from Sydney to Los Angeles which I spent sleepless because I was very excited. Upon arrival I managed to clear customs with minimum fuss. Since 9/11 I had been told passing USA Customs was very difficult, including fingerprinting and retina scan. I found customs to be friendly enough and got through no problems.
I jumped on a bus and travelled down to collect my rental car, a Chevy Cobalt. This was no ute, however I was pleasantly surprised with a sports steering wheel, a nice loud banging stereo, and it drove OK for a little four cylinder car.
Driving like an American (while not getting lost)
My big concern was that the Americans drive on the wrong side of the road. The steering wheel being on the left is very confusing, however apart from my first left hand turn out of a roundabout into oncoming traffic, I managed to get the hang of driving this way quite quickly (I think). I also had a satellite navigator so reading road maps would not be an issue; I doubt I could have left Los Angeles without one.
I headed towards what I thought was San Francisco. But after an hour or so I realised that I was heading towards San Diego, which was not the right direction (it was actually the opposite way). The Navigator was very useful but did not necessarily understand where I intended to go as opposed to what I put into the device accidentally. I should have noticed that the ocean was on my right instead of my left, however driving on the wrong side and now 24 hours with no sleep, I was not necessarily at my sharpest. Cursing the navigator, I turned around and headed north on Highway 1 to my destination.
This drive took about 8 hours taking in Ventura County headed to the Big Sur, through Santa Cruz and then San Francisco. The drive was quite scenic and is regarded as one of America’s best highway driving experiences. There were sweeping corners, lovely coastline beaches, cliff faces and not much in the way of traffic.
I suppose I could have appreciated the experience more if I’d taken in some stops and was more alert, however I needed to get to San Francisco that night so the joy ride was sped up somewhat.
Upon arriving in San Fran, I’d been up for two days with no sleep. I then checked into my hostel and headed out to a bar recommended. I figured ‘why sleep now when I’m totally wired?‘
The bar was blaring out death metal music and not the type of establishment I would usually attend (but at the time I did not really care). The crowd was friendly and I played some pool with the locals. Death metal fans are much more pleasant than they appear.
I then headed back to the hostel and crashed out… finally.
I woke up the next morning with no apparent effect from the jet lag and headed out into town. San Francisco is pretty cool city; it reminded me of a monstrous Newtown in Sydney or Brixton in London. The vibe is very similar. There were lots of different people about from a variety of nations, the local shops were run down and it just didn’t seem to be an uptight place like a lot of cities I had been too. The people seemed friendly too.
I was there for a few days. I checked out a variety of live music venues, I also took in the Bay Side area, a collection of tourist shops and bars. I chatted with the local homeless begging for change and hookers trying to sell themselves. There were many of both to talk to but I did not indulge in any ‘Hooking‘.
I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge which is quite spectacular – and bright orange. It reminded me of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I then cruised down Mase Road and the Presidio, a huge park with museums and a golf course.
The bridge is Orange
The best thing I did there was the Alcatraz tour, this involved getting a ferry to the island (incidentally a good way to get a view of the city) and did the self-guided walking tour. Being in such a famous prison was exciting and eerie at the same time. The tour itself was excellent and the self-guided walking tour with tape and earphones just added to the experience. Al Capone was held there as well as The Birdman of Alcatraz – a guy imprisoned there who kept birds.
The hostel I stayed was not the best. I met a few people there but nobody seemed to be up to much so I tended to keep to myself. I was only there a few days before I took off to my next destination of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
Route 66 with my travel companion ‘The Radio’
Unfortunately at the time of year I was there, Yosemite National Park was closed off so I decided to head to the city of Barstow. Unlike Australia where I quite often had a travel companion, in the US my companion was the radio. I was not overly impressed with the radio selection; it involved disc jockeys talking all kinds of subjects ranging from somewhat dull politics to the bizarre apocalypse, mixed in with commercials about weight loss. There were Spanish radio stations which I could not understand and Christian rock stations playing funky tunes about getting in touch with God. I ended up listening to this band called Nickleback which seemed to be very popular and somewhat catchy.
I reached Barstow and had my first junk food experience; loads of chicken, gravy, beans, mashed potatoes, corn with a couple of litres of soft drink included (free refills). I now understood why there so many advertisements on the radio regarding weight loss. It was enough to feed a family of four BUT was greasy delicious. I could get fat here if I was not careful…
Barstow itself is along Route 66 and looked trapped in the 1950’s, Route 66 signs made of neon lights, flickering along the main road. There seemed to be little going on there, kind of like a town scraping by that time forgot.
I headed from California into Arizona, the speed limit changed from a respectable 70 miles an hour to 55; it could have been very frustrating. I managed to combat this by hooning along around 90 miles an hour listening to the sweet numbing repetitive sound of Nickleback.
[note: I later discovered that Nickleback is actually Canadian].
My close encounter with the Police
Unfortunately I was staring out at the large endless green landscape and passed a police cruiser who immediately chased me. I pulled over to the wrong side of the road and the trooper (cop) got out and approached my car.
I opened the door to which he shouted for me to stay in the car. He then eyeballed me and told me to pull over to the other side of the road. I did this and went through the same scenario again (pulling over the ‘correct side‘ this time). He then went to my passenger side window, checked my license and registration and yelled at me for being “too stupid to drive”. He then let me go.
I figured that booking me would be more trouble than it was worth to the trooper as I was a foreigner and this proved to be correct. I had no intention of ever paying a fine and I guess he knew that already. I really wanted to ask him if I could take his picture but figured best not to push my luck.
He quickly sped off and I then proceeded to hoon the car to Flagstaff.
Flagstaff is a great little town where I wish I had longer than a night to stay. I stayed the night in a hotel at $20 for the night, not the fanciest but tidy enough.
I ordered some nachos in the first bar I went to. The plate I received was bigger than the circumference of my head which I had no chance of finishing. Luckily a very drunk American came in and offered to finish it for me, and then paid for my meal. Drunks are very friendly (and I gladly accepted as I was a backpacker).
After finishing my meal, he then directed me to an Irish bar where there was some live music. The Irish singer had a thick Cockney accent which I found hilarious though no one else seemed to pick up on this.
The local Navajo
I chatted with another American about the local Navajo’s which were the local indigenous North American Indian population and also the majority of homeless the area. It reminded me of the Aboriginal crisis we were experiencing back home in Australia.
The local asked me where I had been, to which I answered ‘San Fran‘. He then said that San Fran was such a cool place because they didn’t discriminate. Confused I asked what did this meant and he said anyone could be homeless there: Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, Indians and white people. There are a lot of homeless in the USA and San Fran did not discriminate based on race, unlike the poor Navajo around Flagstaff.
He directed me to a livelier bar which played very decent music.
Upon entering and sitting at the bar, a Navajo “cougar” (older women on the prowl for younger men) tried to pick me up. She seemed pleasant but figured this was not wise as she had a lot of years on me, so I headed back to the hotel. It was the Grand Canyon tomorrow and I wanted to be alert.
I was starting to enjoy America more and more.
The Grand Canyon
The next day I was in the Grand Canyon. There were not many tourists in January so I could drive around the canyon at my own pace without having to put up with excessive crowds.
The sheer size of it is almost incomprehensible. It appeared to be an endless sea of red canyon and rock formations contained within. It was difficult to see the bottom of the canyon and I was not able to walk into it as this was banned without some sort of guide. I figured I might have trouble walking back out. I suppose the best way to understand the enormity of it was to pay for a flight, I did not do this and any tours into the canyon were closed as it was winter.
The Grand Canyon. It’s HUGE
After a couple of hours there, I then headed towards Las Vegas, this was about a 6 hour drive, by then I had clicked up around 1500 miles in five days and my car trip was almost over (I would love to have driven more but was on a tight schedule).
I crossed out of Arizona and into Nevada and upped the speed limit again; the music also changed and was now listening to American grunge music (and no longer had to listen to the now monotonous and awful music of Nickelback).
I decided to detour of the interstate onto the old Route 66 with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blaring away as I turned onto the road. I then took the car up to around 100 mile an hour (it was surreal speeding through the desert on Route 66 listening to AC/DC).
Route 66, Highway to Hell
There were a few abandoned buildings, a couple of small towns and landscape was also littered shanty type housing (Indian reservations).
I then I reached the Hoover Dam. This construction is epic in size and one of the largest building projects in America. It was as impressive as the canyon in many ways and there was a public road running though it so I was able to drive though. After passing though I was in Las Vegas an hour later. It was dusk as I was going in, I could make out the neon lights from a distance and was very excited.
Viva Las Vegas
The night I arrived I checked into a hostel, there were not many people staying there.
A Scottish girl talked me into going out with her and the hostel owner as she was a little fearful the owner might have the wrong idea. To his credit though he took us down the Las Vegas strip, it was a set of high rise buildings flashing neon lights. It was almost overwhelming – unfortunately I had not worked out to do night time photography to capture the images.
We went up to the top of the Rio casino which overlooked the strip and everywhere else, the view was spectacular, lights to the skyline in every direction.
Next was the Bellagio to check out the water show in the fountain out the front and then headed to the old part of town, Fremont Street, with yet more casinos but a lot older. It had a spectacular light show in the main arcade blaring out Roger Walters the “Wall”. I drank some super sized cocktails and then headed back to the hostel for a few beers and a much needed sleep.
The next day I decided to drive to Death Valley as it was quite close and I figured I’d take advantage of the rental car whilst I still had it. Unfortunately I wasn’t going to get time to take in Zion as it was a little too far north. Death Valley contained yet more spectacular desert scenery, rocks etc….
There was also a very small ghost town which included a few buildings, and one made of glass bottles. I had gotten sick of listening to the radio and cruised around listening DJ Sasha trance dance music which went well with the almost moonlike landscape. I returned to Vegas and waved my car goodbye at the rental.
The next day I cruised around the town with my Scottish friend checking some more casinos.
Las Vegas by day
Las Vegas is definitely a night time city because by day it’s rather hideous. There were many ticket touters handing out cards advertising prostitutes. There was also the construction of a casino going on which made the city skyline look ghastly, no neon lights to brighten up the place.
Vegas ain’t pretty during the day
We checked out the human body exhibit at the Luxor, bodies that have been mummified somehow and then cut up with a saw, a little creepy.
Then we checked out Planet Hollywood, had a flutter on the pokies, went to Caesars and walked around the mall and took in a few other casinos. There are a lot of things to do in Vegas during the day, but all of it seems a little dull compared to what goes on at night.
Time to Party
The hostel owner organised a Limousine drink up tour of the strip. First my friend and I went out for a dinner in a restaurant, I had not had anything apart from junk food since I had left Barstow so it was good to have some steak.
Back at the hostel more backpackers had turned up and we headed out for a very good night. Our limo was an oversized stretched SUV which blared out hip hop music and had a disco ball and dance floor. I don’t know how one is meant to dance whilst hunched over and the vehicle is moving. Others gave it a go through while I sat down and drank my beer.
Our first stop was a night clubs which involved myself having a few shots and watching rather attractive girls dancing on the bar pouring shots down customers throats.
Next we were rushed off by the hostel owner to a strip club, the strippers varied in ages from teenage to about 50 and I don’t think I’d ever seen so many genetically “enhanced” women in my life. Most of the customers also were women which I thought was rather odd.
After about an hour of this, a few of us left the tour and went to Oshea’s, an Irish casino. We downed plenty of beers whilst playing the slots (beers are provided free as long as you play), got pretty hammered and chit chatted to some US tourists there to gambling on the card machines. Didn’t get back to the hostel till about 6 in the morning, I was becoming a fan of Vegas.
Selecting the right Casino
The following day I moved from the hostel into the Flamingo casino, this was quite difficult as I had a monstrous hangover. The casino was covered in pink neon light on the outside of the building, and pinker inside. The room itself had a view of the Bellagio fountain and the entire strip, the casino was regarded as one of the cheaper ones but I was very impressed with it.
I caught up with a couple of friends in the evening and went to sleep quite early as it was nice not be in a hostel and in such a great room.
The following day I spent most of it again in the room.
I had learnt the best thing to do in Vegas is to get the nicest room you can afford, go out all night and recover in the day. If you’re going to follow this logic might as well be comfortable as possible.
It was Australia day so I headed out to celebrate. Apart from hearing AC/DC in a few bars, the day wasn’t really noticed. I did gamble though on a round of poker (I didn’t know what I was doing). I then bluffed after a few rounds, and managed to pick up a hundred or so as everyone folded when I went all in. I took my winnings and headed to bed as I was flying off the following day.
It was time for Austin I had read a lot about the place, the quality of music, nightlife, the friendliness and it’s the capital of Texas. I thought it would be worth checking out.
It was around 5 degrees when I landed. I detest the cold and this was the coldest I could recollect in a long time. I vowed to always avoid winter when possible from now on. I arrived at the hostel which was kind of quiet and just outside of centre of town. It was in a park along the Colorado River and quite a pleasant stay.
I met another Aussie backpacker and we headed out into head out into town.
The Capital of Music
Austin as mentioned was freezing, very clean, and more importantly had a lot of quality bars, particularly along 6th street. The exceptionally quick and friendly bar service, and cheap beer and shots were most appreciated and assisted in alleviating my dislike of t of the cold. Austin is also regarded as USA’s capital of music, and it’s not hard to see why. 6th street as well as 5th, Red River and the Warehouse district all had bars featuring live music.
Most of the bars feature at least one, if not several bands per evening, and the quality of what I heard was amazing; Bluegrass, Jazz, Rock, Country etc., they have it all. Most of the bands play for tips so I’m not sure how much they actually make during an evening, the better the band, the more they makes and they have to be good enough to get into the bar. After seeing a few bands on 5th and 6th, we packed it in and crashed for the evening.
Attractions around Texas
The next day involved walking around town, the State Capitol building is very impressive, it was very large and included a dome at the top, I found at later a lot of cities in the USA have the same designed dome like buildings as their states capitol building.
Austin also the home to Texas University, from what I understand it’s one of the largest campuses in the USA, the local football pitch is larger than most Australian sporting grounds and holds just over 100,000 people.
Image courtesy of UTS Global Exchange
The outskirts are also attractive and Austin is considered unique in Texas as it’s not surrounded by desert, rather lakes, trees and various mountain ranges, it’s quite picturesque. The shopping here is also interesting, a lot of antique stores that look like museums, cowboy boots and shirts as well as belts of which I made a purchase.
After seeing the city, it was time to prepare for another night out, despite the beauty of the town.
Hangovers, Death Metal and the Girls-to-Guys ratio
I checked out numerous bands, dined at a pizza place with no lights playing death metal so you can’t hear conversation as well as taking in some local Texas BBQ which is very tasty. They also lock off 6th street on Thursday to Saturday night so you can head out and party on the street.
Allegedly there is a ratio of 3 girls to 1 guy in Austin, though I cannot confirm this to be the case. Local doormen assured me of this though and also reliably informed me that the summer as well as when festivals are on are the best time to be in.
After five days of music, drinks and partying it up, it was off on a flight to New Orleans.
Dave sure covered a lot of ground on this post and I sure commend him for making the adjustment with driving (although I do want to point out that ‘Americans driving on the wrong side’ must be exactly how Americans feel when driving down here in Australia).
Reading this post makes me want to see San Fran and drive through Route 66. It sounds like a great experience (without a trooper incident of course).
In The American Vacation part 2, Dave goes through New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto, New York and more.
We have planned in advance and also have Brazil and Argentina posts in the pipeline (right in time for World Cup fever!)
About The Travel Bug
The Travel Bug is a collaboration project between Dave and Perry where we go through Dave’s travel journals around the world. So far, we have logged:
There’s a lot more stories to tell so be sure to stay tuned.
He is on another trip at present (Vancouver, USA – yep again, Copenhagen, Paris, around the UK, Spain and South Africa).
Perry is the Editor and Designer of this series (and this site). He likes getting the job done by day and writes, designs and codes during his spare time.
He also enjoys having a drink with Dave and hearing his tall travel tales.
We hope to entertain you through this collection of stories.