By Aidan Goldstraw
San Francisco’s Bay Bridge thundered under the hire car as we headed east, 300 miles of driving in front of us.
The second stage of our American road trip had begun - destination South Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border between California and Nevada. You always know which side of the line you’re on - if there’s a casino, you’re in Nevada!
There’s no denying Lake Tahoe’s scenic appeal (see picture), a huge patch of blue set in a bowl of snow-capped mountains. The town itself, by comparison, is something of a disappointment. It feels over-touristy and slightly down at heel. What’s more, our reception at the Horizon casino resort, our base for the next two days, couldn’t even be described as lukewarm.
One big problem about visiting Tahoe in March quickly became apparent - if you haven’t got a set of skis strapped to your ankles, there’s not a great deal to do. In summer, all the activity centres on the lake, but in the winter ski-ing is the thing, and it appears that there’s only one set of people doing both of these things.
All of which meant that there was no opportunity to cruise on the lake, for example. If you’re into gambling (we’re not) you could hit the casinos, but in Tahoe these are on a distinctly small scale compared with their grander cousins in Las Vegas.
Having collected an eyeful of the scenery we headed south just before dawn. As we descended from the Sierra Nevada over winding roads the temperature in our Dodge Avenger began to rise, with soon only the icing on the distant mountains to remind us of Tahoe’s distinctly crisp weather. Around 10am I turned on the Dodge’s air con for the first time in several days. Where we were headed, we were going to need it.
Death Valley (pictured) is one of the hottest places on the planet. Temperatures there regularly top the 120F mark. It holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States - a searing 134F. When we pulled up at the visitors’ centre it was 110F. In the shade. In March. You’ll be taking a hat, then.
It truly is one of the strangest and most memorable landscapes anywhere. A vast load of rocky emptyness. This is where they sent the Apollo astronauts to train for their moon landings.
It is unnervingly remote. We filled up at nearly every gas station (very few) we passed, never allowing the guage to slip beneath the three-quarters mark. We carried a good supply of water. If you break down out here, you’re waiting for the next car - which could be a while - and relying on a) the car’s driver trusting that you’re not a serial killer and b) the driver not being a serial killer himself. Mobile phone? Ha, I laugh in your face. As it turned out, we were not to be within reach of a mobile signal for more than a week.
It comes as something of a shock to finally arrive at such a civilised place as a hotel after all this. The Furnace Creek Inn is the only accommodation inside the park. As such, you might expect it to be lacklustre in the face of little competition.
In fact, quite the reverse is true. The welcome at check-in was warm and genuine, the room irreproachable and the food in the slightly cheaper restaurant of the two available was reasonably-priced and delicious.
After a good night’s sleep (the trip from Tahoe is the best part of 650 miles, so you’ll be needing it) and a little local sightseeing gawping at this incredible landscape one last time, we hit the road again. Canyonland awaited us…