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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Big Country Little Car Tour II, Day 14: Reno, NV to San Francisco, CA

Submitted by on August 9, 2011 – 12:45 PM30 Comments

A man from Fresno quizzed me in the parking lot, not about the car, but about whether I'd come all that way by myself. "Courage…courage," he said. I hadn't thought of it that way…or not in terms that didn't have me bumbling over the line between "brave" and "foolhardy."

And I went from that heartening convo into some of the toughest driving yet — amazing views in the Tahoe National Forest, amazing turns and straightaways, the agricultural inspection stop, the Donner Pass, but then also the kind of bad driving that is unsystematic and maddening. My happiness to have arrived in the Golden State soon gave way to impatience: it's an interstate, and it has rules about lanes, a social contract, here ignored. A 45-minute traffic slinky in Vacaville revealed itself as the result of a merge from four lanes down to three. Four lanes…down to three. Jesus H. McGillicuddy — just zipper it up! Ever gotten off the Goethals on a summer Sunday? Sixteen lanes down to one and a half, I'll give you 45 minutes. (And have, many times.) This? Come on.

I used the time to catalog California's love affair with vanity plates. In the greater New York area, this is reliable indicator of douchey driving, but California has so many more of them, I don't know what it indicates — maybe that it's cheaper to get them than it is back east. All the BMWs seemed to have them: "K8EEZ," "SLWHND." …"SLWHND"? Congrats, buddy: you've become that Boomer everyone hates, with the parade-speed swanning from one lane to another and the gooby Clapton reference. "More like 'FCKWD,'" I grumbled aloud, just as yet another BMW zipped by me on the left with "DMITJIM" plates. "Ha! …Well played, Dr. Whoever You Are."

As usual, though, a morning of snottily categorizing other drivers and their trying inferiorities boomeranged on me when I got to a big old skyway that cost $5 to cross, and realized I didn't have any cash. Hey, here's an exit: Port Richmond, some kind of secret Navy installation that I got the increasing sense I shouldn't be seeing, never mind looking for an ATM in. Cool views of the water, though. I got us back on 580 East somehow and took care of the cash problem, then sailed over the giant skyway and into the headlands, then onto the Golden Gate Bridge with, apparently, everyone else in Northern California. The view off to the right was blinding, and it started to sink in: "That's the Pacific, buddy."

It got a little hairy coming down off the exit, trying to hook over to Fort Point, but I had it in my head that I wanted to go there, to take a picture of the car next to the bridge. I went through the same series of fruitless left turns about seven times before figuring out that Annie was confused on a street name, and almost gave up, but I could see the signage, so I punted, and it worked. I rumbled into the parking lot and snagged a spot right away.

The sea was right down there, hitting against the rocks and spraying up. Alcatraz glinted in the distance. Campbell's engine ticked. I looked down at the wreckage of the front seat — bottle caps, gas receipts, the corner of a five-dollar bill, the pen tops and cords and banana-peel tabs and tape bits and wrapper shreds, the smashed-flat package of Twin Bing from Nebraska, the lottery card from Indiana. I couldn't stop smiling. We did it. We drove it. The whole goddamn country.

I hopped out with my phone and crossed the access road to get a picture of Cam next to the bridge. She was coated in bugs and sandy grime, but she was there. She got all the way there. I crossed back and put the phone in my pocket and leaned on her passenger door to take in the view, and then, even though she was 1) encrusted in dirt and 2) a car, I spread my arms over her and gave her a hug and told her good job, little girl, good job, good for you. Thank you. A man, walking by: "Isn't that sweet!" You have no idea, friend.

One more labor for my little Miniscules: up up up Gough St. to the hotel. Annie didn't account for the topography of San Francisco, and sent us on an unnecessarily hilly and exciting route, and when we crested the last 50-degree hill and prepared to turn left, the guy in front of me, a Tahoe with New York plates, threw us a thumbs-up in the rearview. "Right?" I said, throwing a thumb back. "[Frr frr frrrrrr]," Campbell said.

The valet on duty can't believe it: "You drove that here? From New York?" Looks that way, doesn't it. Put a chocolate on her pillow, please.

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  • Another Sarah J says:

    welcome to our fair city! i work down in the financial district and can always spare a minute or two for a fellow Sarah (who spells her name correctly!). We live right by the beach too and I would totes offer up our guest room for a night, but you know, the 100lb dog can be an issue for some folk.

  • iiii says:

    Welcome to San Francisco!

  • Lisa says:

    Aw, Sars, you and Cam are making me all misty-eyed over here, and I don't even have a car any more.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I want to cuddle Cam in my arms and call her a good girl and put her on Cute Overload.

    …oh, and you too, Sars. Of course!

    Congrats on getting to the West Coast, inhale and enjoy!

  • attica says:

    Awww. Yay! Well done indeed! Cam looks so pretty in the California sun, you'd never know she was dirt-encrusted.

    I always, always travel alone. I used to travel with other people, and came to hate every blessed last one of them, so I concluded the problem was me, not them.

    Now I'll go all over the world solo, either driving (hey there, wrong side of the road/wrong side of the car/stick shift and a two lane road in Dorsetshire wide enough for one! Nice ta meetcha!)or on mass tran (train boards are the same everywhere, bless 'em). I love it, even when it's hard. And it always surprises me when people gasp and call me brave for doing it. Doesn't feel brave. Feels like Wednesday. Except in Venice. (That part is awesome.)

  • Judy says:

    EEEEE, the Sars is so close! I'd be wishing for a drinky type meetup if my day wasn't so nuts. Congrats on making it to the Pacific!

  • Jenn says:

    Welcome to my fair City! It's been a treat to read the whole journey, but in particular the last few days as I've driven that stretch of Interstate too many times. Though bigger, my car is older and I definitely know the feeling of those hils and coaxing my car to do things it doesn't always want to do. Luckily, he's found his home in SF, just like me and doesn't remember (usually) scoffing at the cable car hills when he first came here. ;)

  • Janie says:


  • Bridget says:

    Good job, guys!!! I HATE cars, and that made me misty. Northern Virginia is the East Coast home of the vanity plate, BTW. My in-laws live down there, and every time we're there we keep a running tally. They are not the Done Thing here in the Philly area.

  • Georgia says:

    Congrats! To be honest, I don't think I would have understood what SLWHND was supposed to mean. My first thought: Slow Hound, what's that?

  • Driver B says:

    Hooray! And: welcome!

  • Jean says:

    That made me tear up a little. Good for you, Cam, and good for you, Sars.

    I've been to San Francisco once in my life, and I took a picture of the Golden Gate from almost exactly the spot where Cam is parked in that pic.

    I haven't commented but I've been reading along the whole trip, and I'm so full of envy. I haven't been on a road trip since my honeymoon 5 years(!) ago, and even that was just about getting from point A to point B. I've never been on the kind of meandering cross-country trip that's as much about the journey as the destination, and I dream of a trip like that.

  • perhaps says:

    Welcome to SF! I've only been a passenger on that cross country drive and it can be brutal, though worth it as your travelogue bears out so I salute you! I too live downtown a few blocks up from the ballpark, and I don't know if you've got a meet up planned at some point here with other nationites, but after ten years of fabulous content and comments from you and everyone it'd be a kick to see some human faces in person, have some beers, be in a park, stare at the ocean or bay, aimlessly wander the streets–whatever folks might do in a gather.

  • PollyQ says:

    Let me be the… not first to welcome you & Cam to the City By the Bay!! Hope you enjoy your stay; be sure to keep a sweatshirt or fleece jacket with you for the evenings. We've been having bumper crops of fog so far this August.

  • smartyboots says:

    YAY for you – I've always wanted to drive across the whole thing but haven't made the time yet.

    Welcome to the Bay Area. I'm in the South Bay, hit me up if you need anything in the San Jo area (we've met a few times at TARCONS). Have a time!

  • FloridaErin says:

    I've gotten the brave thing before though, surprisingly, mainly from other (and older) women. It started when I drove from western Michigan to Detroit alone when I was like 18. I went to undergrad in Virginia and made the drive between Roanoke and Michigan multiple times a year during that time. Sometimes I had company, but mostly I was alone, and people could never believe I was so "brave". My first trip from Roanoke into New York City in my little two door Escort got similar reactions. It always felt like an adventure to me, but others seemed to think I was out of my mind. Many of these trips were pre-cell and now I think that maybe I was a little crazy.

    The husband is in awe that you did this in a Smart and would like to point out that Smarts were so not meant for this kind of travel. However, this is coming from a man who used to drive a Ford Festiva, and I frankly don't see the difference. :-)

  • Beth C. says:

    Yay! Welcome to SF, Sars, we're happy to have you. Thanks for sharing your trip, and way to go Cam! Annie isn't the first GPS to get confused in the Presidio, the street names mimic other streets in other parts of the city proper and for some reason GPS machines hate that.

    I hope you have fun here, if you have a TN meet up of some kind, I'd love to say hi. :)

  • RoJa says:

    If you get back to Richmond see if you can find the time to visit the Rosie the Riveter/WWII National Historic Park: Call ahead and ask if Betty, the park ranger, can give you a tour. She worked as a Rosie in the shipyards during WWII and is an inspiration. Also see if you can get out to Angel Island (beautiful ferry ride and great views of SF and Oakland). Visit the immigration station and see some of the poetry left carved in the walls by those held there:

  • Caitlin M says:

    People do go a bit crazy with the vanity plates out here. Welcome to the Bay Area, where the weather niced up just in time for your arrival.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Thanks for all the kind greetings and welcomes, everyone! But I only had two days in SF and now I'm…back in Elko. (Generally, wherever these updates have me, I'm about two days ahead. Can't write and drive.) I'm usually in the Bay Area longer than that, though, so we'll totally do a meet-up next time.

    @FloridaErin: I think it's more like "people were not designed to sit in Smarts six to ten hours a day for weeks on end." And this person, at least, was not, but I think that's true of any car. I've done a similar trip in an Accord and my back wasn't any happier about it then.

  • Sarah in Bishop says:

    Oh boy, have I ever done that "Oh shit, no money for bridge toll" thing, and ended up exactly where you did, in Point Richmond (only at 1030 pm). Couldn't find an ATM, and after digging through all recesses of the truck, came up 50 cents short. A guy with a hot dog cart waiting for a shift to get off work spotted me the change, thankfully…I definitely wasn't sure I wanted to be hanging around the neighborhood too much longer. Drive safe the rest of your way home!

  • Louisa says:

    I had that same feeling the first time I crossed the Coquihalla and drove from Edmonton to Vancouver Island. Not as big a trip as what you did, but I did mine alone and on a motorcycle. Got the same reactions too, "What, you did that? By yourself? On a bike? Brave!" Um, no, just wanted to go travel.

  • Stephanie says:

    Boy howdy does no one get the zipper out here. I was born and raised in southern California, but somehow I grasp the concept (and am never in a hurry maybe?) and it ticks me off to no end when people don't get the every other one method that would just make it easier!

  • HollyH says:

    Yay for you and THE LITTLE CAR! Woo! Also, San Fran hills. On 3 cylinders? Wow.

    About the "brave" thing — it always seems weird to me, as well. I did a big chunk of my CA trip last year by myself, including the drive and stay in Yosemite, and while I sometimes would have liked a companion to share reactions with, I also kind of enjoy travelling by myself. The comment that sticks in my head, though, was after I did the hike from the Valley up to the top of Vernal Falls (tragically in the news recently due to 3 deaths), which is a couple of miles, but the last 3/10ths is, well, vertical ("over 600 uneven steps hewn out of the granite…"), most of it without railings or guardrails, not very wide, with 2-way traffic.

    I won't lie — I'm over 40 and could be in better shape. I made it (I would have felt stupid not going to the top after coming all that way), but I kind of damaged my knees for the next month. The moment I speak of, though, happened coming down. My knees were feeling bad already, so I came down the steps like a grandmother — slowly, both feet to each step, screw what anyone else thinks of you. Behind me was a young mother and her little girl, a toddler, who was coming down the steps the way toddlers do, frequently backwards. I appreciated this, as they were always slower than me, so the people descending faster had to slow down for them first before they hit my slow ass.

    When we got to the flatter parts below, and the little girl was finally asking to be picked up ("I'm sorry, honey, but Mommy hurt her knee, she can't carry you…" actually made me feel a little better, too), they caught up to me and we found ourselves companionably walking along together for a bit. I smiled at the mother in commiseration for dealing with a now-exhausted toddler, and she took the opening to say to me, "You just did that all by yourself? Wow, you're brave!"

    … And I thought, what? No. I just did that with about 500 other people. There was never a moment on the trail that I was alone, or even alone with any one other person. There were, literally, grandmothers doing that trail. Toddlers. People who, ahem, looked less in shape than I do. I just… brave? But I didn't really say any of that, I just said, "Tell me, did *she* walk up that whole thing herself?" And the mother chuckled a little wearily and said, "Yes; she really likes stairs."

    But her "by yourself?" made me think she meant "brave" as in "not having any companion", and I don't quite get it in that context. So, I don't know.

    Driving across the country is really up there on my list of things I want to do. And yes, I think I would do it by myself, if I had to. I dither on whether I'd prefer to do it by myself or not. (By myself I can blast the music as loud as I want, and sing along.)

    One thing that does stick in my head now, though, is an aside made by Bill Bryson in a book he wrote about driving around America — in the part when he got to Montana, and related in an aside that there was a young woman who had driven through a town he stopped in not that long before, after which she was never heard from again, and at the time of his writing the mystery of what happened to her still hadn't been solved. It was a sobering reminder that anyone travelling alone (but maybe especially women?) can be vulnerable to predators.

    I know that I sometimes need healthy fear more than I actually have it. But I also don't want to live my life not doing things because people who did those things before me met with disaster doing them. Even though I know it's not always something anyone can control — it's not always about making the smarter choices, sometimes people can do nothing "wrong", yet still become victims of someone else's determination to do evil. (Like the three women in Yosemite famously killed by a man who obtained access to them by pretending to be a motel handyman who needed to fix something in their bathroom.)

    So I think about those things. But I also try to think about how many people go about their lives, and do interesting and extraordinary things everyday without anything bad happening. If it's "brave" to undertake something knowing there's a possible risk, then yes, I'd like to think I'll continue to be brave.

  • Mertseger says:

    Welcome and farewell: I hope you enjoyed your brief sojourn in the City. California generally has very polite but very poor drivers. If you think a four lane down to three lane snarl is bad, you should see us during the first rain of the rainy season. Water failing from the sky? Must slow to 5 mph or WE'RE ALL DOOMED!

  • mctwin says:

    It's a shame there isn't an AutoTrain from the west to the east coast for your return trip. Please be safe; give Cam a pat on the dashboard (does she have a dashboard??!) for me! Good girl!! *pat, pat, pat*

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    @Holly, I thought of that book too. So, Sars, you are brave.

  • JeniMull says:

    Glad you were here – it was fun to read about a drive that I know so well! And AMEN to the inability of folks here to merge like a zipper. I had a woman furious with me the other morning because I dared to merge in front of her. Quit Taking It Personally, folks.

    And the SLWHND BMW-douche? Would be pissed to know that I initially thought of the Pointer Sisters. That makes me smirk a bit.

  • Kris in MN says:

    Minnesota DoT has begun airing commercials and putting up signs letting people know that the zipper merge works better than the usual "Minnesota nice" method of moving over miles in advance and then inching forwards.

    Your "Courage" guy reminded me of a road trip I took with a friend from Minneapolis to New England. This was in the early eighties, and we were both in our late twenties, but everywhere we went people were astonished that we made that trip "alone." We tried pointing out that there were two of us, so we weren’t technically "alone," but we gave up and just said we were having a great trip. Somehow, I don’t think two men of that age would have gotten the same comment.

    I also remember being in my parents’ very small home town in SD, and running into one of their neighbors who had watched them both grow up. He just couldn’t get over "poor little Beverly driving out from the East Coast to SD all by herself with all those kids." "Poor little Beverly" was about 45 at the time, and three of us eight could drive, so it could have been worse! You’re always a little one to people older than you, I guess.

  • Yugurt says:

    There's a surprising number of California drivers who consider it their God-given mission to get in the left lane and drive exactly at the speed limit, because DRIVING FASTER IS BREAKING THE LAW and they are STOPPING PEOPLE FROM BREAKING THE LAW.

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