1st May: I feel a certain trepidation as we approach the US border. And for good reason, I believe. After all, the United States of America lock up more of their own population than any other country. There is a culture of suing in the United States: invariably this means parting with bewilderingly enormous sums of money. Then there’s the right to bear arms, which makes it highly probable that the person beside you at the supermarket check-out is packing a loaded Uzi sub-machine gun under their T-shirt. There’s also an electric chair in the US, “Old Sparky”, I believe they fondly call it … several of them, in fact. Reasons enough to be nervous? Wait ’til you read this: back in the heart of Mexico we met a Frenchman who’d been caught short whilst crossing the US border. Unable to access le toilette in his trailer, quite naturally for us Europeans he made le pi pi beside a tree, though before he’d even reached the final shake, a half dozen M16s were levelled at his flapping crotch. Arrested for the crime of exposing himself in public, following several hours’ pleading with a judge, and a good deal of heavy-handedness by the cops, he won his release. I think he was pretty lucky. Needless to say, today the VOR (the Voice of Reason) has been at pains to ensure I’m freshly shaved, wearing a clean shirt and that I’ve visited the toilet. I have to say, she’s looking rather spruce herself. As we shunt along for the one and a half hours it takes us to reach the US officials (we’ve wisely chosen the May Day holiday to cross the border, along with a million Mexicans) we’re still debating if we needed to have obtained a visa. When we reach the US immigration guy sitting in his box I say with more confidence than I feel, ‘We’re entering under the visa waiver program.’ ‘No problem,’ he replies. He taps a few buttons, swipes the passports and hands them back. ‘All done,’ he declares. What, just like that? Incredible! I even feel a little cheated. No M16s … no electric chairs … no litigation? But then we’re pointed towards an ominous-looking building. Inside, a Mexican man looks forlornly at the customs agent dismantling the spare wheel from his pick-up truck. Opposite, a family are having the contents of their car dissected. This looks a bit more hard core, we’re thinking. Signs on the wall tell us not to step down from the vehicle unless authorised to do so. So we don’t. And then a white-bearded agent arrives, asks us a few questions about fruit and vegetables and flowers, takes a quick look in the back of the car and says, ‘Okay, you can go now.’ And that’s it. We’re in. At the exit we pass a sign: “Welcome to the United States of America”. That was easy.
San Diego, the USA’s eighth largest city and California’s second largest, after Los Angeles, is only fifty miles from the Tecate border. Baja California was already feeling pretty Americanised, yet the difference these last few miles have made is startling. Our immediate world has all of a sudden grown more voluminous. A long, multi-lane highway dotted with sprawling shopping malls and residential communities leads us to the city. In comparison to what we’ve left over the border everything, everywhere is trimmed and clipped and swept and washed. Trees and buildings are upright and in one piece. All the cars appear new, the trucks don’t growl and belch black exhaust and I can’t find a pothole to save my life. The bungalows along 2nd Avenue are neat and tidy, most of them with a super-sized Stars and Stripes stirring in the breeze. At the vast KOA camp-ground we attract curious glances as we settle ourselves between enormous motorhomes. People come to peer inside our car, aghast at how far we’ve come in something no larger than their mailbox. We walk to the nearest mall for supplies. Food4Less, the local supermarket, is akin to entering a giant’s parlour: with a swish of the electric doors I’ve shrunk to half my size. The packaging in here is enormous. Absolutely nothing crammed in these chillers is going to fit in our fridge. Milk is sold in half-gallon cartons. The packages of sausages would overwhelm an army. We wander, agog, from aisle to aisle. I could happily live inside these king-sized packets of Kellog’s Cornflakes, take a bath in a tin of tomatoes, divert a tsunami with a loaf of bread. Stunned into a state of indecision, after half an hour this pantechnicon of wire and castors I’m wheeling back and forth remains almost empty.
2nd May: San Diego’s efficient public transport system whisks us downtown, on the way allowing a brief glimpse of the hardware afloat in the naval base, the principal home-port of the US Pacific Fleet. San Diego has the vibe of a chilled city, promoted by the locals as “America’s Finest City”. Today is a Saturday and a holiday weekend and yet suited business people attending a meeting at the nearby conference centre herd between the restaurants and bars, such is the US work ethic. Crowds are gathering outside the Petco Park baseball stadium, where a game is scheduled for mid-afternnon. This city is famed for its micro-breweries and as beer-tasting is a more appealing pursuit than watching baseball, and as lunchtime is approaching, we dive into one of the many bars of the Gaslamp Quarter. I opt for what I consider to be the suitably named “Road Warrior”, a 9% India Pale Ale produced by the Green Flash Brewing Company, though it arrives in a decidedly girly glass and at a stunningly high price. To make up for this rather poor showing we steam across the street to Ghirardelli, digging in to a whopping chocolate and vanilla ice cream. History lines the walls in this wonderful ice cream and chocolate shop, for Ghirardelli is something of a California institution. Born 1817 in Rapallo, Italy, Domenico Ghirardelli is one of those great American success stories. Trained as a confectioner back in Italy, when gold fever struck the west coast of America the young Domenico jumped on a boat, arriving in California by 1849. After a session of prospecting he established a store for miners in Stockton, shortly followed by a second store in San Francisco. What Domenico started his family continued with equal success. During the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 the city was razed, though the Ghirardelli chocolate factory was left undamaged … which just goes to prove how chocolate is a blessed food.
5th May: Fred is a partner in TLC auto repair, specialising in Toyota and Lexus, though right now he’s discussing the pros and cons of the various beers listed on this board above the bar. TLC are servicing our Land Cruiser and whilst his staff screw the wheels back on and fill the engine with oil, we’ve slipped off round the corner with Fred, who’s keen for us to sample more of the local brew. Having seen off our second glass of beer he’s trying to persuade us to stay the night at his place – which isn’t too difficult. It’s five o’clock and the rush-hour free-way holds little appeal. By the time we’ve collected the car and paid the bill sadly it’s too late to visit Fred’s gun club and blast off a few rounds with his AR15 assault rifle – ‘That’ll just have to wait for another time,’ he says. Instead we follow him home, repairing to his “Man Cave” and a tamer, though no less enjoyable, evening of beer and sushi. Fred generously offers us his house in Las Vegas, but we’re not heading that way and for the moment we settle for a night camping at the end of his drive. Goodness knows what the neighbours make of it. The next morning we’re off early, stopping for a fat-boy fry-up at a Denny’s Diner, followed by a spot of food shopping at Walmart. Replete, we turn the wheels east. Now we’re all set for that big, open road.