Sunday, 9 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Travel Bit: Part 2

I fully intend to write a separate post about the perfume-related aspects of my recent US trip - no, really, I do - but meanwhile there are still a couple of categories to go in the "travelogue"...

The roads

In Part 1 I described the idiosyncrasies of my hire car, notably the random and arcane positioning of essential controls. Readers may be surprised to learn that I found the roads themselves in California endlessly fascinating. First there is the road surface. I speak as something of a connoisseur of road surfaces throughout Europe and North America, and earlier this year I was moved to write about the unexpectedly poor state of Swiss roads here.

The correct term for the surface of many (though by no means all) American roads is - I believe - asphalt. It is a light coloured material that makes a pleasantly thunderous noise beneath your tyres. But my attention was frequently distracted by an extraordinary variety of road surface deformities. Just as the Eskimos are reputed to have some 20 words for snow, the Californians could do least 5-10 to characterise the diversity of their asphalt imperfections.

I encountered a few potholes - but not so many as to constitute a worrying phenomenon. Perhaps the main type of surface deformation were the long sections of longitudinal striations (says she, frantically rummaging for terminology from O-Level geography lessons on glacial landforms). The striations exactly resembled the surface of a vinyl record, and even whined faintly under my tyres. On road sections that had been prepared for repaving, a rougher and more troublesome version of this "ribbing" lay in wait, and I juddered nervously for miles up the I-5 towards Bakersfield, imagining lacerations to my tyres comparable to the terminal damage inflicted by those spikes at rental car lots, should you be foolish enough to disobey the sign telling you not to back up...

A further variation on the striations involved chunkier, interlocking grooves in a sort of herring bone formation like a zip. And here and there I encountered those shallow trenches running parallel with the hard shoulder into which your tyre can lurch unexpectedly if you drift too close to the verge. The Poles (another nation with an impressive range of misshapen roads) have a specific word for these: "koleiny".

Elsewhere I saw what looked like straggly cracks in the road, resembling earthquake damage or a parched delta. While some of these cracks were unfilled, others had been tarmac-ed over rather generously, giving rise to a feature known as "tar snakes".

Perhaps the most aesthetic-looking imperfection of all were the stretches of highway with swirly patterns of what looked like congealed snail trails. It was as if a snail had supped at a beer glass all night and proceeded to spin in mad balletic pirouettes all over the carriageway, leaving an avant-garde artwork of glistening squiggles behind. Or if a human hand with violent DTs had twizzled Superglue from a honey drizzler, perhaps. Now with hindsight these may have been a translucent species of tar snake for all I know, but I cannot be sure.

As well as being alert to the condition of the road, I also kept an eye out for obstructions. Germany is the most dangerous country I have visited in this regard, as detailed here. By comparison, California is relatively tame in terms of carriageway detritus: the odd spinning wheel rim, intermittent slaloms of HGV tyre shreddings, though Florida takes the biscuit for that. (Or it did in 2001.)

Roadside hoardings can also be quite distracting in the US - in urban areas the main roads are positively bristling with them. On a previous trip I nearly swerved into the verge when I glimpsed a billboard advertising a vasectomy clinic with the punchy slogan: DIAL-1-800-SNIP. This time around I was forever spotting hoardings in similar vein: DIAL-1-800-GET-THIN, accompanied by a photograph of a man or woman standing on scales or measuring their waistlines with a tape measure, looking rather smug. This was an ad for something called a LAP-BAND, over which I puzzled for at least a week.

Were people paying good money for some kind of a belt that restrained your stomach, like an airline seat belt, perhaps? But we all own belts already, and could easily just tighten them a notch or two to achieve a similar effect. Or is it significant that the lap-band encircles your abdomen, while a belt designed to hold up your trousers is generally positioned lower, on the hips? I mused over all possible design options of the lap-band for hundreds of miles until I chanced on a TV news feature about lap-band surgery and realised that this was in fact the latest term for "gastric band surgery". And what struck me about the ad campaign was that it seemed to be marketing this rather drastic procedure to the public at large - anyone with a bit of a weight problem, basically - rather than those who are morbidly obese.

Finally, no catalogue of road surfaces would be complete without a description of my intrepid trip up a mountain (taller than Ben Nevis!) in the Mojave Desert. I had an appointment with an executive at a wind farm operating company, and his prefabricated office was conveniently located on the summit. When we arranged the meeting, he strongly recommended that I rent a 4 x 4, warning me of the dangers that could befall the hapless motorist if it had recently rained. The 5 mile dirt track to his office would have been transformed in a matter of hours into a river of mud, and a regular compact car risked becoming mired in the sludge, wheels spinning uselessly, if they spun at all.

I mulled over my respondent's advice long and hard, but in the end my phobia of large clumpy vehicles far outweighed my fear of mudslides, and I rented the sub-compact Chevy mentioned in my previous post. I decided that if it did rain the night before my meeting, there was nothing for it but to get up in the small hours, borrow a Miner's headlamp and a pair of Wellingtons - from where I hadn't quite figured out - and attempt the climb on foot.

As luck would have it, the day dawned bright and sunny - and windy. The 5000 turbines on this, the second largest collection of wind generators in the world, were earning their keep that day, like demented, oversized daisies. I made steady progress up the mountainside in second gear - or what I imagined would have been second gear if I wasn't driving an automatic. 40 minutes later I reached the summit, and when I got out of the car the wind nearly blew the door off. As for my hair...well, suffice to say that a single 80mph gust instantly transformed my slightly blowsy style into the most convincing faux-Puckrik ever! On balance, a blob of gloop probably remains a more practical everyday option...

Coming up in Part 3...the food! And after that? Perfume....

Photo of Kern County from, photo of records from, photo of tar snakes from, photo of lap-band hoarding from, photo of snail from, photos of wind turbines my own.


  1. Hummm? If I recall from books Kern County might be the home of the dreaded Bakersfield ?

  2. Bakersfield is in Kern County I believe, but I didn't know it was dreaded? My issue with the place mostly concerns the approach to it!

    : - )

  3. How can I put it Vanessa , it comes up as a joke in many films and literature !

  4. Poor Bakersfield! I have only ever driven through it - oh, and once flown into it. The rental car company had run out of small cars, so I reluctantly accepted an upgrade to a Ford Mustang Cabriolet. Its "bat out of hell" acceleration actually proved quite useful to reach some of the more ambitious points on my itinerary.

  5. Hmmm---memory of SoCal roads! Those striations are often there to keep asleep-at-the-wheel types (truck drivers) and drunks from driving off the road. And oh those Do-Not-Back-Up parking lots! Designed to slash the tires of scofflaws -- we don't have them here in Atlanta, yet. They're one of the most obnoxious features of L.A., imho -- one gigantic monument to the automobile.

  6. Hi Olfacta,

    Thanks for explaining the safety function of those grooved road surfaces. It certainly worked for me!

    I tell you, I was terrified to even drive the RIGHT way over those spikes...

    And you have taught me a new word too - "scofflaws".

  7. Road surfaces. Yes, asphalt. Cheaper than concrete, if not as durable. A situation which leads to a phenomenon you see more here in the region of four seasons, aka freeze/thaw, which creates a heave/ho in asphalt. As a result, you can travel and see two kinds of "test markers" noting the passing for varieties of corn (this field is DeKalb A410-B) and road surfaces (DOT exp AH-31). Trials for progress under your march, as it were.

    Roadside hoarding? Okay, I learn again. Here, hoarding is done in my basement. If it were roadside, would be an indication that this perfume obsession did indeed cost me my home. (Makes mental note to check "hoarding" in the British English dictionary, remove "British English" from the "languages spoken" part of the Facebook profile.)

    Quite seriously, am glad you did not encounter rain on the mountain that day. Rain and mud in California are often, well, quite serious.

    A scofflaw, once apprehended, is likely to end up in the hoosegow. :)

  8. Oh, I thought "Lap Bands" would be hired out to accompany "Lap Dancers", so an eager customer could hire the whole tasteful ensemble for entertainment in the comfort of their own home or hotel or motel room. They would "get thin" as a result of not being able to afford food by the time they'd paid for the services. Have I spotted a Lap gap in the market? Probably not:-)

    I hope that the Ribena is doing the trick in restoring you to full health.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

  9. Bakersfield is the home of Merle Haggard & the Bakersfield sound- more western than country like Nashville. Some in ca. would call it the rectum of California- but then there is always LA. Ron

  10. Hi ScentScelf,

    "Heave/ho" in asphalt - yes, I see that now. And I guess Sibling Claus (the seismologist) has to deal with similar "heave/ho" issues in the earth's crust.

    I shall be looking out for those "test markers" next time I am over. Another roadside distraction for me!

    Love the image of you conducting your hoarding at the roadside! There is an elderly lady in our town who can often be spotted pushing a teetering supermarket trolley through the town, containing a precarious pile of her worldly goods.

    You are absolutely right about the dangers of mudslides, as evidenced recently in ChickenFreak country, I believe.

  11. Hi Anna

    Your vision of Lap Bands playing in places like Spearmint Rhino et al was totally hilarious! My Bonkers once shared the bill at a rock festival with a very provocative girl group, the lurid details of whose on-stage shenanigans I will spare you. So I shan't be planting this particular suggestion in his mind... Though you are right that the punters would be too skint at the end of the night to afford a bag of chips amongst them.

  12. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for stopping by, not least because you are a naturalised Californian with useful local knowledge! And my host on the final weekend! The eagle-eyed reader may also detect your NorCal alignment... : - )

    Now I am not sure that Merle Haggard's music would be my cup of tea, but this comments thread may yet uncover reasons to love Bakersfield...

  13. Vanessa, I'm finding your 'travel bit' fascinating! Many pedestrian features await you in America. White teeth, lap bands and huge beds. Huh, there has to be a connection there somewhere...

    Looking forward to your next 'chapter.'

  14. Hi Josephine,

    Glad you are not finding the "travel bit" too off-message! It will wend its way back to perfume shortly - or momentarily, even.

    : - )