Some time alone in Death Valley.

Waking after only three hours of sleep, it would not have been unexpected to have felt a little bit rough on New Years Day, and so I was surprised to find myself full of energy. Clearly, my late night phone calls had reenergised me.

Didn’t spot any aliens.

Willow’s parents had booked two nights at a hotel just outside of Death Valley and were going to make there way there, stopping off at a few sites along the way.

We would be going our own way, allowing us all a bit of time to enjoy the surroundings in our own way.

After waving them off, we took our time organising Ruby, whilst pigging out on some pizza I bought from a nearby petrol station, before setting off ourselves, driving an easy ten minutes to Rhyolite. A former mining town from the days of the gold rush, but now just a memory, kept a live by some derelict buildings that have long since seen better days.

We’ve made quite a habit out of seeking ghost towns around America, and I had come to find it deeply fascinating to explore old towns that had boomed over a hundred years ago. Trying to picture the streets and buildings how they had once been. What storied did these old wrecks hold?

Being located in an isolated part of Death Valley, it’s no surprise that the town collapsed once the gold mines had run dry. Beatty, the town we stayed in the night before, wasn’t really a hot bed of activity. Merely a stop off on the drive out of the valley.

The majority of the buildings were nothing more than rubble, with the only a select few still standing. One building in particular, the old casino, had a fence around the prevent any damage from vandals.

We started our tour at an abandoned house, protected by a large chain link fence, and it was eerie to see some of the original furniture still inside. Clearly the owners decided to pack up and leave in a hurry.

Old abandoned house
Fenced off for protection

The garden had concrete statues decorated with glass bottles. It wasn’t clear whether this was added after the owners left.

Interesting garden statues

From the house, we parked Ruby outside the old casino and did the rest of our exploring by foot. Walking through the mounds of ancient tins, left to rust in the hot desert floor.

Former casino
Still standing
Some building were still in good nick
Some… Not so much
Still has the old chimney. That would have been stolen long ago in England!
Not a bad view
She always has to get in the way of my pictures!

Not content with rubble, we strayed from the main town site and walked up to the old mine entrance, ignoring the signs, so that we could get a better view into the entrance. It was interesting thinking about all of the tonnes of gold that were extracted from the mountain. How many rich family today, live off the wealth found deep within the tunnels?

Gold mine entrance
Ignored the signs
No sign of any gold.
Definitely too late for the gold rush
Random grave

We stayed for about an hour, poking around and taking pictures, and then we set off, heading back into the main valley. Passing this impressive sand dune along the way.

Amazing views into Death Valley

Ian had recommended a camp spot, that he stressed in us visiting. Sadly, due to the snow in the mountain roads, the road to the site was closed.

Like a good cairn shot

After deliberating what to do, we parked up at a small camp site, located off one of the roads we had just driven down. It was supposedly for tents, but we didn’t think anyone would mind us being there. We took up less room than some of the cars people had driven their tents in.

Pretty sky

We spent the rest of the day appreciating our surroundings, watching as the sky changed through a variety of pastel colours.

The colours kept getting better

It was odd to be spending a night alone once again. We’d quickly gotten use to Antony and Carole’s company on our mini road trip to San Francisco.

By about nine o’clock, we were the only ones still awake. It didn’t look like camping in a tent in the cold was much fun as a VW.

Waking up early due to a hyperactive kitten had now become part of my morning routine. Aimee excited to have a play mate to terrorise who would actually respond.

Before leaving Death Valley, we had another Ian recommendation to check out. Another ghost town, this one named Ballarat. During our planning session with Ian, he informed us that we would find a pickup truck driven believed to have been driven by Charles Manson and his murder cult. Supposedly, one of the cult members fled from the police from their nearby ranch hideout, broke down in Ballarat and continued to flee, leaving the truck to become a rusty relic in a hundred year old ghost town.

The dirt road to the town was rough, and about a quarter mile down, we heard a horrendous banging coming from the back wheel arch. This noise was not unfamiliar to us, we’d heard it before during our drive through Pennsylvania. Our rear shock absorber had come loose. The other one this time. The top bolt had fallen out and to make matters worse, the captive nut that you screwed into had sheered off. Not ideal!

I walked a couple of minutes back along the track, and was shocked to find the bolt lying in the road. No nut though. With no way to fix it on the road, we were left with no option, but to take the shock absorber off and continue with our journey. Willow reckoned she would need to cut a section of metal out with a grinder, to weld a new captive nut in. Not something we would be able to do any time soon.

Continuing slowly along the dirt road, we eventually made it to the old town of Ballarat. Not much remained, except for a small shop, a wooden building with a sign indicating it was the former jail\morgue and an old pickup truck.

Old general store

After a quick tour of the shop, I felt compelled to walk over to the pickup. As I approached, I felt a chill run through me… and I don’t think it was a breeze!

Infamous pick-up

There was not much left of the truck, but examining the cab, you could see that the roof had been decorated with stars. I couldn’t believe that I was actually standing next to a vehicle that the notorious American mass murdering cult had owned.

Eerie to think who put these there

Before leaving, we poked around the jail\morgue, intrigued to find an old shackle still inside. A dead body for a flat mate, surely good motivation not to get into trouble with the law!

Bit redundant these days
Jail cell
Piece of history

Heading off, the familiar thought about what current cities would one day become ghost towns filled my thoughts. What would be the catalyst that drove people away. War? Global warming? Disease? I as feeling inspire to rewatch the Mad Max movies.

It was time to leave Death Valley and meet up with Willow’s parents once again. They were staying in a motel in the Sequoia Valley.

The drive was once again breathtaking. Driving up and over immense mountains, as we made our way West. We stopped off a few times before leaving Death Valley, to let Steve loose to capture the magic around us.

Sequoia Valley was just over an hours drive, but it was the kind of drive I enjoyed. We left the barren lands of Death Valley behind, driving past large chemical plants in towns that were a breath away from joining Ballarat. We also drove past an immense army air base, which seemed to go on for miles. Then it was green again. All of a sudden, it was as if we had been transported back to England. Driving up into high elevation, full of fields and farm land.

We drove around a lake that would have felt right at home with the lochs of Scotland. We pulled over to take a family mugshot.

Gorgeous lake
Family photo

The lake had a sign stressing that you required a visa, so we decided to enquire in the main town, to find out how we went about getting one. Stopping off at a supermarket/outdoor activity store.

Walking in the door, we spotted Carole of all people at the check out, buying some groceries. I couldn’t help sneaking up behind her and scaring the living day light out of her, She must wonder what her daughter sees in me sometimes.

As it turned out, they were staying ten minutes down the road and were doing a bit of laundry and a grocery shop. We were parked opposite a local brewery, so it made sense to do some laundry also, and getting a few local beers to pass the time.

We unfortunately had to have more than one drink in order to dry the clothes as well, and once they were done we headed off. Willow’s parents told us that there were multiple spots to camp along the river which fed into the main lake.

Pulling into the first spot, we were disheartened to find that you were required to pay in order to stay. We carried on past three other spots which all had the same requirements. Eventually though, we stumbled upon a great spot, with a marvellous view right down the valley… and it was free.

With a spot located, we followed Willow’s parents back to their motel. The owner had agreed to let us use another room to shower in, and so we used the opportunity to dye Willow’s hair. I also attempted a haircut, but the trimmer’s battery died. The less said about the end results, the better.

Cleaned up, we all drove back to our spot and we caught up over nice food and good wine, whilst watching the sun set down the valley. It was moments like these that made living our lifestyle all the worthwhile!

The sunsets on the west are just incredible

Antony and Carole eventually headed back, and we looked forward to a night without neighbours, or main roads. The main trail to the legendary sequoia trees was closed. But at least that meant we wouldn’t be disturbed.

Antony and Carole had already set off by the time we had sorted ourselves out. We had a big drive to Cambria, on the West Coast.

Getting ready for a big drive

The drive was an odd mixture of scene. Starting with a gruelling drive up into a mountain range, with offered us panoramic views of the valley below us. We then hit gigantic orange farms, the trees loaded with succulent looking fruit that a bunch of guys in a pickup were helping themselves to.

The environment soon changed again, the tranquil orange trees replaced with great oil refineries, desperately seeking buried treasures hidden far below the surface.

Oil refinery
They were everywhere

Finally, as we had almost reached the coast, the land around us felt almost…British.

Tried to be fancy with the reflection of Ruby
Almost like being back at home. Except it’s warm

Rolling green hills, reminiscent of Cornwall surrounded us. I could help crave a good old Cornish pasty.

Soon we got our first sight of the Pacific Ocean. This was another large milestone completed. Not only had Ruby carried from north to south, we had now driven all the way across from the east coast. It was quite a proud moment for both of us, and so we decided that we would need to buy a bottle of bubbly to celebrate.

The Pacific Ocean

We pulled up outside of Willow’s parents motel just before sunset. You could already feel a difference in temperature. Willow’s parents were sat outside, basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

Desperate the stretch our legs after our long journey, we went for a short walk down the boardwalk, Aimee in tow, excited to catch our first glimpse of a Pacific sunset.

First west coast sunset

Walking down to the main viewing point, we received many odd looks walking a cat on a lead, we also had one guy ask for our permission to take a picture, and so spent a couple of minutes with a stranger trying to get a decent picture of Aimee, who was not ‘playing ball’!

The sunset made the tedious drive worthwhile. We were once again treated to an ‘artist pallet’ of colours splattered across the horizon.

I could definitely get use to these

We walked back to the motel and joined Willow’s parents in their room. Apparently, the motel would not consent to us staying in the car park,so we started researching online for a suitable spot. Finding one thirty minutes away which was reported to have unbelievable views.

Antony was still feeling the results of his recent fall and so we left Willow’s parents and headed to our next camp spot, stopping off on the way to buy a bottle of champagne!

As it was dark when we arrived, we could not see the supposed views around us. So we drew the curtains, turned on our heater and cracked open the bubbly. It was quite an achievement to be on the west coast, even more so without a rear shock absorber.

In the morning, I was up early to walk Aimee on her lead. We were parked next to a busy road, so it was safe to have her wander around without an escort. Opening the door, my mouth dropped when I saw the views outside.

Not a bad view to wake up to.

The reviewers weren’t lying when they said the views were spectacular. We were parked high above the rolling hills we had driven past the day before. And to think we had all this for free! Whatever grumbles I may have had about living in Ruby quickly washed away. It was views like that one which we now lived for.

Leaving the picturesque views behind, we met up with Antony and Carole and once again drove in our little convoy up Highway One. We had one last big drive to do, to get us to Sam Francisco. Fortunately, it would predominantly be down the coastal road, so we could enjoy views of the Pacific all the way up through Big Sur, which we had been told was one hell of a drive.

On the way, we stopped off at Ragged Point. The viewpoint had a hotel complex on, but offered a fantastic viewing opportunity of the cliffs.

Lovely cliffs

We all commented on how the scenery reminded us of England, only without the mild dampness! Whilst taking pictures, we spotted a humming bird, hovering over nearby plants. But it was gone before anyone was able to take a picture.

We walked slightly further round, to get a better look at the views and stopped to take a group picture. Carole commented that we just needed a humming bird in the background. To our amazement, the humming bird appeared shortly after we had taken a picture, but at least we had our cameras at the ready to grab a rare picture of the majestic bird.

Managed to get a pic with my terrible camera

Pleased to have stopped off, we needed fuel. We weren’t as pleased when we saw the prices! It was almost $6 a gallon. Almost three times what we had paid in Louisiana. Putting only a moderate amount in, we decided to stop and fill up at the next major town.

The coastal road was like something out of a Top Gear special, and I was enjoying cruising around all of the sharp hairpin turns. If the road hadn’t of been so busy, it would have been a perfect opportunity to fly Steve high above to capture the beauty we were experiencing.

About an hour and a half in, we pulled over in a lay-by to enjoy our lunch whilst looking out into the ocean. This drive was far more pleasurable than driving the interstates.

We had soon made it to the next town and stopped for more fuel. The petrol costing $3.60 per gallon! We swapped drivers and continued ploughing on north to San Francisco, eager to arrive before nightfall.

Which we did!

Made it

We did have one slight problem however. San Francisco had very confusing street parking rules. So we ‘faffed about’ trying to figure out where we could park. Eventually finding a spot a couple of blocks down. We left Willow’s parents to check in, then set off to a spot we had found online, although it wasn’t clear whether we would be able to stay there. Other user comments on the app had mixed reviews. Most saying you had to leave by ten, but you could park across the road at a Safeway supermarket.

We pulled into the marina car park to find at least six other RVs parked up. Possibly a good sign for staying. We made a start on dinner, everyone ravenous after the long drive.

Halfway through our meal, we heard a random guy outside call us.

“Hey…VW guys… You know you have to be out of here at ten right?”

Guess that answered our question.

As it was only half eight, we were in no rush, so just enjoyed no longer driving. As lovely as some of the views were, it was a relief to know that we had reached our final stop of our Christmas road trip.

We made plans for the morning and then Willow’s parents headed back to their hotel. A minute after nine, the other RVs all started to make their way across to Safeway. Not wanting to tempt a ticket, we quickly followed suite, parking on the side of the supermarket so we could at least enjoy an evening of WiFi. Slow but free.

In the morning, we would would attempt to drive San Francisco’s scenic drive.