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"...
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 with...oh...at 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 aaroads.com, photo of records from tic-howstuffworks.com, photo of tar snakes from picasaweb.google.com, photo of lap-band hoarding from tollfreenumbers.com, photo of snail from photos-animals.com, photos of wind turbines my own.