Long drive to Mickey Mouse land


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Category: Travel Date: 12 Aug 99

Pigeons fluttered above us on the yellow sea breezy morning in San Francisco when the children, their father and I got into the car that would take us to Los Angeles. But how to get there? After a goodbye ride across the Golden Gate bridge (paying the quaint city toll out and then back in again), we parked and bent our heads over our Lonely Planet City Guide. We read:

“For San Francisco to LA, travellers with time to kill, the easy choice is Pacific Highway 1. This road clings to the cliffs of the Big Sur coast between the Monterey Peninsula and San Luis Obispo where it joins US 101.”

“That sounds good,” said the man of the house, and snapped the book shut.


What remained unread in the shut guidebook until the journey was over, was this: “While the curves are spectacular, curve-riddled PCH is subject to fog, landslides and other travel hazards. Plan on at least ten hours drive (if you don’t stop) via highway 1.” But as we didn’t read this until it was all over, the children’s father was cocky. He said we would be there at tea time, in less than five hours. Manlike, he didn’t need to check the time it took us, or ask for directions. Womanlike, I believed him.


Dear reader, we drove for one hour before we found the highway. And then began what would be a 12 to 13-hour drive. At teatime we weren’t even quarter of the way there. We stopped, many times, as we discovered our son was prone to car sickness and would throw up breakfast, all over his shrieking little sister, several times. In those long lonely hours, evening light fading into an inky dust, with only the swish swish of cars, caravans and trailers carrying mountains of golden tomatoes, ahead and behind us, was a sense of immense space. The miles rolled on as if they would never stop.


The bare flat land, the tall sparse trees, the horizon that went so far that the round orange sun visibly dipped, proving once and for all that the world is round, and this vast desert was a reminder that this is still a young country of pioneers yet untamed. I voiced some of these romantic observations to the driver who put a damper on my enthusiasm by saying: “It’s pretty, just like an endless drive to Maracas.”


He, strung out like an elastic band on caffeine, drove steadily (only veering off to the wrong side of the road when he became occasionally distracted). We stopped again to beat the soiled clothes against sweet smelling heather at the cliff’s edge. Once again, for more coffee. I closed my eyes in that twilight zone of half sleep. Between sudden startled awakenings by a child’s cry or a sharp swerve was the constant sight of the cliffs curved like grand sculptures, and the sea smashing and frothing against them.


I must have been asleep and awake with a thudding heart. Rap, rap, rap on the window. Two armed, dumb looking (the most dangerous kind) policemen on motorbikes have brought our car to a halt.

“Your licence,” the dumber, younger one. “Whey did you say yawl from?” asks the less dumb, older one.

“Trinidad,” replies the driver.

“What’s that?” says dumber.

“It’s a country,” I say, annoyed.

“Ah was speaking to the drivah maym,” says dumber, in a power crazed police officer way.

“Did you know you were not only going above the speed limit but racing in and out of lanes in a dangerous manner?” continues dumber.

I reply, “My son is sick, and my husband is tired, and my daughter is hungry, and we are just trying to get to LA before midnight.” I grovelled, seeing visions of us standing in a highway night court with dumb and dumber and a red-neck judge. The officers peer in the back to the sight of two sleeping children.

Less dumb softens, “Alright, but just remember, switching between lanes could be very dangerous to you and other commuters.”

“Yes,” we nodded looking chastened, and waved goodbye, thankful at being lightly let off.

He: “Jeez, we do it in Trinidad all the time.”

Me: “No wonder we have so many accidents at home.”


After 11 hours on the road, backs aching, feet cramped, we approach LA. The sea has vanished. We are in a maze of gray concrete. I sit up with a start to the sight of multi-layered freeways on which cars and vans and trailers screech over. We pass a mile-long, second-hand car company, another mile-long mall, and another mile-long car sale company. We stumble on to Anaheim, one of the dozen small cities surrounding LA. Suddenly, its all lights and fairyland. Hotels shaped like castles and ships. Mickey Mouse welcomes us. We are in the land of Disney - marketed for children and gullible parents. (like us).


The new day is burning hot. White heat bounces off concrete, bumpers, pavements. We drive through miles of what looks like dreary, sprawled-out suburbia in-between tangled freeways.  The financial and media buildings predictably scrape the skies. It must be very lonely to live in this unconnected metropolis. There is no nucleus. You must be young, mobile, rich and with many friends to enjoy this place.  The gap between rich and poor, fame and obscurity appears larger here than anywhere else in America. LA, like San Francisco, is awash with homeless people now baking in the heat with pathetic signs on them begging for help from a population which has a capacity only to concentrate on themselves. 


The relief of the cool, blacked-out, darkened hotel rooms was palpable after a few days of excursions: Beverly Hills (mansions on a green street); Bell Air (similar to Beverly Hills); Sunset Boulevard (a forlorn street with neon signs and big buildings); Hollywood (apart from the famous sign on the sparsely covered hill, there was nothing much to see here, except for many tacky, kitsch tourist and trinket shops).


Occasionally, you spy a member of the rich and beautiful class in an open car and an attitude, but apart from that I had an impression of a metropolis of struggling immigrants making their living as maids and waitresses, proprietors of small shops spending dreary days to make a living.


But the capacity for renewal and delight in the human heart is infinite. A day in Disneyland with its rides which take you through magical kingdoms, drop 100 feet in a waterfall of roaring Jurassic Park dinosaurs, or shoot through the air in missiles in a Star Wars creation, is the ultimate fantasy for children. And adults: we screeched out in fear, in a darkened theatre with goggles which can give you the illusion of shrinking adults, or a sensation of 100 rats at your feet, an earthquake thundering underneath you and a giant cobra coiling around your chair.


The closing Carnival-like parade depicting everything from Chinese imperialism to Mickey Mouse is a delight. The nightly ritual of fireworks, whether seen on the grounds of Disneyland or from car parks and balconies around it, make you feel like it’s New Year’s eve all year round.


Universal Studios, the world’s largest TV and film studios, was a buzz and kick. It was an insight into the world of illusion. We got on a tram, which took us through streets of familiar props, which could be transformed to resemble anything from a town in the Wild West to a 19th century European city with cobbled streets. We were sprung on by King Kong, crossed a crumbling bridge where we saw Jaws devour plastic people, rained on with fake rain, warmed by flames and threatened with recycled floods in a metro fire. If it’s not plastic fantasy in LA, its not worth seeing. LA is the epitome of America’s individualism, its marketing, its emphasis on PR over humanity, over reality. But we could not bow out of this city without tipping our caps to the creative people - the filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors who have in the end brightened so many lives. It is only at the end of the tour that I realised the importance of escape, and fantasy, in everyone’s lives without which life for millions would be dreary.


This is the city after all that has giving the world Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe; OJ Simpson and J Paul Getty; Baywatch and the Beverly Hillbillies. But stay there too long and you won’t be able to re-enter reality.


When we saw the tour advertising a ride in a hearse that would take us to all the spots where the stars overdosed or died tragically, then to the cemetery where they were buried, and at the end of which would give us a copy of Marilyn Monroe’s death certificate, we decided it was time to get out of this town.


Next week: The drive back. Berkley, Wine Country and New York.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur