The mileage is almost irrelevant, so let’s focus on the clock. When we pulled up at Los Angeles airport after our 14-day trip around California, the car computer told us we had spent 51 hours on the road. Fifty-one hours and 47 minutes to be precise. That’s nearly four hours a day, cooped up inside a metal box with three children. If that isn’t a recipe for family strife, I don’t know what is. Normally we can’t travel to the end of the street without an argument breaking out, yet for all of us, this had been the trip of a lifetime.
It can be hard, in those post-bucket and spade teenage years, to find the perfect trip, especially as, in our case, there’s an eight-year-old to keep happy too. Ruthlessly judgmental, pre-wired to indolence, bored by imposed bouts of culture and permanently embarrassed by their parents, the teen travel tribe can be a tough crowd. So how had we managed to drive from Las Vegas, up to Yosemite National Park, across to San Francisco and down the coast to LA, with barely a cross word?
There’s the hardware, of course. American cars are big, ruthlessly air conditioned and with plenty of space for everyone. And the roads are mainly empty, meaning plenty of cruise control and less cursing from the driver’s seat. Mainly, though, it’s down to the unfailing allure of America, and California in particular. The scenery itself is just so massive, so awe-inspiring, that even the most sulky of teenagers would be shocked out of their self-centredness. You cannot help but be moved when you see the heat shimmering off the frying-pan floor of Death Valley with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Who doesn’t look down on the natural beauty of thickly wooded Yosemite valley, with its huge granite cliff-faces and tumbling waterfalls and understand why the first settlers thought they had found Eden?
Then there is the film-set familiarity which casts a particular spell on the children. It’s not just the obvious places like the switchback hills of San Francisco or the first sighting of the Hollywood sign. Even the most mundane things resonate. For eight-year-old Georgia-Rose, every food shop was like a visit to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart; for 15-year-old Oliver the seedy motels we passed were either out of Psycho or Breaking Bad. And every diner we went into for our maple syrup pancakes and eggs over easy was like every Hollywood movie she’d ever seen for 13-year-old Isabella. The waitress, filter “korfee” in hand, really did greet us with a cheery “How y’all doin’?” (And the traffic policeman really did say “Sir, would you step out of the car”, but that’s another story.)
Our trip had begun in Las Vegas (in Nevada, true, but an obvious add-on to the California experience). It’s like Disneyland for adults, and makes a fun place to recover from the flight for a couple of days, but the main draw for us was a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon, which meant we could cut a long day’s excursion down to a few hours and were able to land right inside the canyon and picnic by the Colorado River. By anyone’s standards, teenage or otherwise, that’s an incredible curtain-raiser to a holiday.