Is this the best way to see California?

With retro good looks and bunk space for two, an Airstream trailer is the hippest way to holiday in California. Hotels? Who needs ’em? Jenni Doggett hits cruise control 

After 250km, turn left.’ California’s epic scale has rendered my sat-nav redundant. But at least we don’t have to worry about making it to the hotel in time: my friend Sergio and I are touring the Golden State with accommodation in tow. Our home for the fortnight is a classic Airstream trailer, one of those shiny aluminium bullets (don’t call them caravans) that have graced the highways of America since 1931.

As well as 90-odd years of history, the space-age-silver trailer comes with a glamorous Hollywood pedigree: name an A-lister and they probably own one — Hanks, Pitt, McConaughey, Depp et al have all fallen for its vintage-Americana looks and freedom-of-the-open-road mythology. The film-star version is probably a bit more substantial than ours, mind: Sergio and I have booked the smallest model available, a 5.5m ‘Bambi’, along with a muscular four-wheel drive to tow it. Truth be told, our Bambi looked a little ignoble beside a truck almost twice its length, but I’d been assured that, for a first-time RV driver like me, it’s manageable, cosy and maintains a sheen of cool in spite of its size and resemblance to a toaster.

California road trip
View from the south overlook of the Golden Gate Bridge, a tranquil bay, headlights on the bridge in early evening. Photo: Getty images

So, at a rental lot on the outskirts of San Francisco, we receive a quick briefing on how to hook up the power and empty the tanks, then we’re off, leaving the city at rush hour, me terrified of Downtown’s famously treacherous gradients. Hunched like a tense crow, I grip the steering wheel, barely reaching double-digit speeds for the first few kilometres.

Urban rush hour aside, the US is built for these beasts, and once we get across the Golden Gate and out of the metropolis my confidence swells. The gears are automatic, the roads broad and the locals forgiving.

We’d chosen the state for our Airstream trailer adventure partly because this is where Wally Byam founded the company in 1931, partly because nowhere else in America says, ‘Go west, young man… Head out on the highway… This land is your land… Wherever you lay your hat, that’s your home…’ and all the rest of it quite like California.

And then there’s the variety. California comes with a range of terrain that makes it a road-trip dream: temperate rainforests, alpine mountains and vast tracts of desert, as well as the more clement Pacific coast stretching south from Los Angeles. We haven’t made too much of a plan — the whole point of an RV is that you’re not tied to a schedule or itinerary, so you can pull over and stay any place that calls to you — but we do decide at the outset to reject the iconic Route 101 in favour of a loop heading north to the Redwoods and the wilderness that we could experience in our Airstream trailer in a way we never could staying in a hotel.

It’s pretty civilised to start with. Vivid red Budweiser and Coca-Cola trucks coast past, the commercial lifeblood of America flowing along the country’s vast asphalt arteries. We lumber by hilly vineyards and quaint country towns — Philo, Boonville, Cloverdale — full of wholesome homemade-pie shops and hand- painted signs. Streets bristle with wooden porches, hanging flowers and palpable civic pride, and we pass scores of eccentric emporia: the Here’s Hair Salon, Independence Guns and Ammo, the Love In It Co-op (a medical herb dispensary). We snack on punnets of two-dollar honesty-box cherries from local farms.

‘The Smith river rasps past, and small streams chuckle away under fallen trunks’

Keen to plug in for our first night while it’s still light, we’ve reserved a spot in an almost empty campground in Manchester, Mendocino County. Early May is the perfect time to travel here: the parks are quiet and we’re pretty much alone. At reception we’re issued with a camp map and allotted a site number. These places are seamlessly managed, and navigation is easy — we circle Sunshine Drive and turn off Happy Kamping Way — but still with a proper dose of nature: the narrow gravel track peters out at our parking spot between towering tinselly firs. 

BNY3A3 Airstream trailer parked at Ocean Mesa Campground, El Capitan State Beach, California, USA

While I build a fire and crack open some Californian red, Sergio hooks us up to the mains. The campground is well catered for, with electricity, water, pump-out, shower block and a bear box to protect food supplies. The cleverly conceived Airstream trailer interior we’d so carefully packed, however, has rearranged itself into a Jackson Pollock of ketchup and socks. It takes time to get used to living in such a small space, but as the trip progresses we learn how best to seal, wedge and stuff our possessions to minimise the carnage. Every day we devise new ways to make do with our resources: I discover that black pants make a passable eye mask for sleeping through those early sunrises.

The next morning, however, we hit serious trouble, with our 4WD’s engine emitting a sulky grunt followed by silence. Our neighbours convene around the stubbornly unresponsive motor and various theories are advanced. I’m worried we forgot to flip a connection and drained the batteries, but our advisory panel kindly demurs. ‘You know what’s wrong?’ says Glen, a wry glint flickering.

‘It’s a Ford.’ (All-round mirth.) Twenty minutes and a squirt of something homemade later, we are on our way — with a glovebox full of numbers to call should we have any more problems. It’s clear from the affectionate, slightly covetous glances we receive on leaving, that the Airstream has successfully initiated us into the RV fraternity.

We push on up the coast through Fort Bragg, Garberville and Eureka, as all the while the Pacific hurls itself angrily ashore in dark grey arcs on our left. We’re keen to get some distance covered, and still apprehensive of any manoeuvre more complicated than straight driving, so we barely stop on the first day, lapsing into a cruise-control trance. Gradually we relax, and life resolves itself into a set of simple priorities: where to sleep and find firewood, fill up and empty tanks. 

One of California’s main draws for us is that it has more national parks than any other state — not to mention hundreds more state parks, many of which you can stay in — and our next night is spent at the Redwood State Park RV Resort. We quickly ditch the trailer and head to nearby Stout Grove, which doesn’t have the biggest trees in the region, but is staggeringly, serenely beautiful.

We wander by belt-high sword ferns, bright-yellow banana slugs and out-sized sorrel. The wind builds a gentle snare-drum-roll high up in the canopy, animating the leaves then swishing away. The Smith river rasps past, and small streams chuckle away under fallen trunks. Prehistoric moss is delicately draped over ancient branches.

I stretch out on the sun-warmed pebbles at the water’s edge. Far removed from the bleeps and screens of city life, I feel myself slowly filling up with whatever it is that urban living siphons away — something atomic is soothed.

Heading east, to Lassen Volcanic National Park, we become doubly grateful for having all our gear in tow. The weather here is rarely a polite British mist or mild bluster — it’s more extreme. The wind has teeth. In fact, there’s some question as to whether we will manage this stretch, blizzards having recently closed the roads, but we push on. We’re rewarded by a surreal hike through the snowy hydrothermal peaks. Steaming fumaroles and sulphur vents flank the path, spluttering mud pots and boiling springs mutter and pop as we pass. 

We suck fistfuls of snow and listen to indigo-crested pine jays ack-ack at each other from icy branches. We sleep soundly in the snug confines of our aluminium abode, wake with the sun blushing through panoramic windows, and feel ourselves slipping deeper into the landscape each day.

Further south, at Lake Tahoe, our campsite has just opened for the season, so we have a grand sandy-beach view of the deepest lake in America all to ourselves. We’re seat-shaped and tetchy from too much driving, so we take a few days out, to kayak and stretch our legs, relishing the freedom to change our plans on a whim, and pitying those poor fools locked into their pre-booked hotel regime. Tired of our own cooking, we eat at a restaurant called, unpromisingly, the Naked Fish — and feast on fresh local sushi, which turns out to be some of the best I’ve ever had.

Death Valley 

When we do hit the road again, we head towards Death Valley — with a stop en route, somewhat incongruously, at Walmart. I’d heard RVs are welcome to stay overnight in the grocery giant’s car parks for free (it’s known as Wallydocking, apparently), but seriously doubted the appeal — until I saw the Gardnerville branch, with its crisp, dramatic view across the white-tipped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. And sure enough, a row of enormous motorhomes were parked up neatly in the far corner of the lot. One owner, lazing in a deckchair, nods an unspoken assertion that this is the life.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s ‘boondocking’ — dry camping in the middle of nowhere, with no power hook-up — and we become more confident at it as the days pass. (We also become more dependent on it, as we realise how we’ve underestimated the distances involved out here: serpentine mountain roads with violent chicanes make for fun driving, but slow going, and the engine growls and strains.) In fact, of my two favourite nights, one was spent in an unbooked state-run ‘dry’ park we stumbled upon, and the other was in the open desert of Death Valley.

If ever you doubted your mortality, the desert will soon put you right. The suffocating stillness and telephone poles all state that you do not belong here. There is an acrid scent of searing tarmac in the air, and our vision quivers as the temperature hits 38c. Death Valley is one of the lowest inland spots on Earth, and Furnace Creek (population: 24) is at an ‘elevation’ of 60m below sea level. Even with its Visitor Centre, it’s intimidating; but as the afternoon passes, a breeze stirs up dust and brings some life to this airless place. We watch for a while as a pair of wild russet mares stand mirrored, bowing over a sleeping foal.

Pulling off the road at dusk, we fall into our usual routine around the fire. But the Airstream trailer has one last surprise for us. By accident, I discover that its internal showerhead can actually be pulled outside via a hatch — so we shower off the day’s dust in the middle of an empty desert. The sun fades fast over the venerable Panamint Mountains, grand marbled strata of cream and grey; countless stars form a celestial dot-to-dot; and, amazingly, I don’t have to leave. I get to stay here, to merge into it all. I don’t need a sat-nav to tell me I have reached my destination.

Credit: Jenni Doggett/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News licensing 

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