A California diary… Bob and Tigg on tour in 2005
10 days in southern California… day one
Out to the west coast


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on July 23, 2005. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tigg and I gathered up the kids… Jay and Justin… and headed off to southern California… mainly the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

We didn’t stay in one city on this trip. Here, our gang followed a day at the San Diego Zoo (day three) with a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park (day four). Not a hideous drive between the two, but hardly a cab ride. Works better for your reference and mine to separate them. As such, I have divided the days for California into eight… yes… eight diary columns to cover our ten days.

Let’s get to it…

Day one was a travel day… but man did it involve some interesting scheduling. Add on that I cannot believe how many headaches I got and stupid things I saw while making arrangements, and I think day one, even without a specific city or activity, is a really good introduction to the trip and how important good planning can be.

Day one, Saturday, April 16, 2005

I started this section at least twenty times.


Thirty or forty times would probably be closer to the truth.

I wanted to tell you about what a hassle traveling has become. I wanted to tell you about some stupid things that happened before we started our trip. But every time I began writing, I wound up with one of three things happening before I could even get us on the plane to head out to California... (1) It sounded like I hate traveling. I don’t. I love traveling. I love seeing new places… meeting new people… doing new things. Love it. (2) It sounded like I didn’t enjoy this trip. Well, that’s not true. Not at all. There were certain things I wish had worked out differently, but southern California was fine. In fact, overall it was very, very good. (3) I ended up focusing on the wrong thing… the on-line travel sites… the time of day we arrived… stuff like that. Well, all of those elements are part of the story, but not the story itself.

So, I decided to erase it all. Start fresh once again. And bring you this message…

Los Angeles doesn’t want you to visit.

They don’t.

They want you and me and our families and our friends to stay away.

And I can prove it.

We’ll get to a lot of my evidence as we go through specific days and events of the trip diary. But for now, let’s focus on planning a trip or a comfortable visit.

I like things I don’t have to look for. Now, I don’t mean that I need things handed to me. And, I don’t mean that I fall for the normal tourist trap items that everyone else sees while failing to experience any of the real surroundings. Great things being obvious is nice… tourist trap locations can be fun and entertaining.

However, I’m basically talking about three specific concepts…

Make me feel comfortable – About ten years ago I was heading down to Florida for a trip. I packed up everything… including my AAA card, because several places outright advertised to an incredible degree that they offered a AAA discount.

Very quickly after arriving in Orlando, I found out that the last thing I needed was my AAA card.

Sure, it would have helped getting discounts on park admissions. But, having our visit timed against a special promotion, a can of Coca-Cola would have earned a discount as well. And, for other types of savings, if I was willing to buy one day at the regular price, an admission for a second day would have been free. Heck, I found I could check at the front desk of my hotel and find out about discount tickets and a shuttle ride.

The deals were all over the place. People around me in line, that had bought their tickets ahead of time, were grumbling because they would have saved even more money by waiting to buy their tickets once they arrived. The AAA card was a good thing to have… no slight intended to AAA, because in general it’s a great thing to have… but it wasn’t the end all, be all item to have on vacation for earning savings. Every day when we were looking at the prices for admission to a park, I was doing math in my head. Was this the best deal? Would we really be coming back for a second day?

Often times, I didn’t even need to have my AAA card to get the AAA discount. Just mentioning I had one while reaching for my wallet on more than once occasion earned a quick “that’s ok, I don’t need to see it” response.

And a lot of places I’ve gone to over the years since have had moments just like that… even if slightly different. Not simply for savings. Instead, moments where things weren’t just off from what I expected, they were off from what I prepared. Moments when I was uncomfortable. Moments when I felt there was more to the story than what I was being told.

For example… the representative at a car rental agency that asks if I have any questions before I go, and seemingly can’t believe I might want directions back to the car rental agency to drop off my car. Imagine that… I might not be familiar with the area, and might not be planning to spend the week driving up and down the road the car rental agency drop off desk is situated on. And even more amazing… that this person managed to get there every day for work, because they had absolutely no clue how to give me directions for my return.

Yeah… I like those people… love those moments.

When I went to Las Vegas, there were pamphlets all over the place trying to make me aware of events and places to see that I might have missed. That’s how I found out about M&M World.

Suffice to say, I might not know what I’m doing or when I’m doing it… but when I feel comfortable, I’m generally having a much better time. Don’t make me feel like an idiot. I do that just fine on my own, I don’t need your help. And if I have to think about whether or not I’m getting ripped off… well… that isn’t a good sign.

Listen to the locals, or at least listen to those that have gone before – I don’t expect you to read my adventures and suddenly decide that the best pizza in Las Vegas is this, or the best hot dog at Wrigley Field is that. I won’t pretend my exploits actually provide an answer with no alternatives. I have had bad experiences paying attention to a famous name on the sign in front of the restaurant. I’ve had some fantastic experiences looking for a specific name. And, I’m sure there are others that loved places I didn’t, and some that have hated places I loved.

But I do look for things I can learn from others. Some of my best meals and most treasured keepsakes were obtained because of a referral.

Have I made some mistakes? Yup… I certainly have. But some of the best things I have found on any trip came from talking with people that live or lived or even just visited where I was headed, or in talking to people once I got there. The trick is, you need to consider the source… know what you like and don’t like when it comes to food or theme parks or anything else… and understand that people that have been there before often have something valuable to say.

Ease of use – If I had my way, I wouldn’t make many plans for a trip… ever. I’d have my ticket, hotel reservations and car rental set up. Done. After that… just let it happen.

Now everyone that knows me is shaking their head side-to-side and accusing me of lying with that statement. And that’s because they know I usually do a ton of research, love talking about things ahead of time, and often end up too prepared for a trip.


They’re not completely wrong.

But, that’s research… not plans. Research because there might be fireworks at one of the theme parks on a day and I wouldn’t want to miss them because I didn’t know about them (hence the research) and had made plans that couldn’t be adjusted. Or something like that.

What I really love on a trip though is what I find without looking really hard, and easily could have missed. The stuff you literally walk into by accident that turns out great… but, you probably wouldn’t find them if you weren’t looking for something else, or didn’t know to ask one particular question or look down one particular side street. Here are two examples…

First an example gone bad… La Bufadora. Cross the border from California into Mexico and there are some great villages and places to visit. Jay prefers seeing the places we visit. What I mean is that a theme park is generally the last thing he wants to see. Oh, he’ll go. And he’ll almost always have a good time. But put him in a national park… or show him a hill with a beautiful view of a city at sunrise or sunset so he can take pictures… or just give him a path leading through the woods… and he’ll be entertained for hours. One place in Mexico I had heard about was “the blowhole,” or La Bufadora. It’s just over 15 miles away from a town called Ensenada. When the water from the Pacific Ocean crashes into the coast at this spot, it is forced through underwater paths and creates a geyser that shoots up to 75 to 80 feet in the air. I thought a day trip to Mexico would be great, and this seemed like a good place to work on. But… there were problems. First, car insurance for Mexico, especially with rentals, is not easy to sort out. In fact, it’s about as far away from easy as it gets. Your insurance agent will probably answer any questions about driving in Mexico by recommending a bus tour. Second, trying to find a one-day bus trip that does what you want it to do (for us, La Bufadora) and not eighteen extra things was nearly impossible. I spent days trying to make it work out… and never did.

On the other hand… example number two… the Joshua Tree National Park. While trying to find a national park in California to visit, I stumbled onto a map that showed the Joshua Tree National Park. A couple of quick internet searches and I had all sorts of details… including items from the National Park web site (which I used to obtain an e-mail address, and they sent me a newsletter about the park). It turned out to be one of the best days of the trip and, as I’ll cover in more detail later in this journal, I absolutely stumbled on to it.

Do I know that there were (and are) plenty of ways to visit La Bufadora? Sure I do. But I couldn’t find them. Instead of finding a terrific view from La Bufadora, I got a headache from it. But the Joshua Tree National Park was fantastic. And, it was really easy to find out what I needed in order to get there. I guess you could say that hidden treasures are nice, but only when they aren’t so hidden that you can’t find them at all.

The comfort and local advice concepts I’ll get to as we move along. For now, let’s take a look at this trip, my comments about Los Angeles not wanting any of us to visit, and ease of use.

As I write this, San Diego has paper, The Union-Tribune. At the time of our visit, along the top of the paper’s web site was “Home”… “Today’s Paper”… “Sports”… “Visitors Guide”… and we can stop there. Yup, a guide for visitors section built right in the paper. Click on it and there was information on hotels, special events, and places to go. I found sections that recommended restaurants and museums. I found… well… basically I found all of the essential information I would want for starting to map out a trip to San Diego. Easy to use. Handy. And lots of details.

How about the Los Angeles Times? Not quite as easy at that site. Ok... maybe that isn’t too fair. I mean… is it the responsibility of a newspaper to promote the local region to tourists? Probably not… although as papers complain about decreasing subscriptions and such because of on-line readership, it is an interesting avenue of potential revenue. But still, maybe I shouldn’t be stunned when the Los Angeles Times web site doesn’t have information for my visit that’s easy to find.

So forgot the news media and their coverage. How about the local tourism boards and their sites? They should have something. After all, that’s the business for them. Tourism… it’s in the name.

There’s the web site for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. I requested a packet of information from them. Guess what? They sent it. I still receive e-mails from them notifying me of special events and upcoming regional calendars. (Oh… and that’s all I receive from them. I’m not on any mass e-mail list where everyone in San Diego is sending me junk. So if you’re looking for some solid, basic stuff about San Diego, for me… to date… this is a decent place to start.)

Then there’s the web site for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. Not too bad from the looks of things. It’s nice enough. But let me ask you something by way of comparison. On the San Diego site, there was a section right on the home page to request information by e-mail. Or you could move the cursor over the “Visitor Info” note at the top of the page, and “FREE Vacation Planning Kit” was right there. There was nothing on the LA home page that offered to send information. So, while writing this section, I tried again to see what I could find. Since it wasn’t under “Plan your Vacation,” I went to “Contact Us” in the “Travel Information” section. That gave me street addresses for visitor information centers… each with a note about parking available for a fee. The “Management Team” segment listed e-mail addresses. But I don’t think I’m supposed to e-mail the president to find out about my trip. Do you?

See? Ease of use. I wouldn’t be surprised in any way to find out that this type of information was actually on the site today… makes it to the site by the time you look in the future (it seems like an obvious thing to include)… but the fact is easy to see for me right now -- it isn’t that easy to navigate around their web site.

I’m not trying to be too funny or give Los Angeles a hard time on this. I’m just trying to say that they don’t make things easy to learn, easy to find, or easy to enjoy.

But since I have yet again been going on too long about the city without sharing the experiences of our trip, let’s get our gang to Los Angeles and start the vacation. And this is a good place to make the transition, because as much as LA doesn’t want us to visit… Spirit Airlines doesn’t make it easy to get there.

You know what… I’ve already babbled long enough to this point… let’s look at Spirit and a couple of other airport moments through the wonder of quick hits…

  • Our luggage was opened and searched for a mirror. Yes… a mirror. I don’t know if it’s funnier that the x-ray device picked that up or that Tigg packed a mirror. I’ll leave that up to you.
  • Our flight out of T.F. Green airport was delayed three times. The first delay was roughly a half-hour. We were told the plane was late getting out of Florida. The second delay was for 15 minutes, and third delay was another 15 minutes. We’re set to leave over an hour late… and our layover in Detroit was originally scheduled to last about 30 minutes.
  • The attendant at the door wanted to know where the stamp was on my ticket. Huh? Yeah… well… evidently my ticket had been marked. I had been randomly selected to be screened at the security station… regardless of what happened at the metal detector it meant being wanded and having my bag searched. Security would see the code, do the special search, and then stamp my ticket saying I had cleared. No stamp… no entry. Ok… I don’t care about the extra security… but it would have been nice if they caught that three hours earlier when, having arrived early for the delayed flight, we had plenty of time for additional screening. You know, instead of when we were trying to board a plane that was running late and was already going to miss our connection.
  • When the TSA agent arrived at the gate, he told me what was involved. He said he needed to check my bags and use the wand to scan for metal. I asked if he needed to see my bag or all of the bags I was carrying. (I had taken Tigg’s bags from her to carry on the plane.) His response? He wanted to check my bag, and let me hand Tigg the bag I said belonged to her. Now… it did in fact belong to her, and if he had wanted to look through it I would have let him… but think about that idea for a minute. “Hi, I need to check your bags”… “Oh, this one belongs to my wife”… “No problem, she can take it.”
  • Why were their ashtrays in the armrests? Hmm… old plane? Just asking.
  • Our pilots were Smith and Barney. Tigg found this hysterical.
  • I got a ginger ale instead of the soda I asked for… but I was happy with that when about a minute later the flight attendants were talking about how they were almost out of beverages.
I could go on, but perhaps nothing sums up Spirit Airlines better than the snacks. Have you heard about the disappearing snacks on planes lately? An article I read recently talked about it and presented it as a cost-saving effort. Now I have questions about doing this, particularly when the estimates are saying it will save $1 million. All of my questions basically involve the idea that I think it’s a pretty silly move for saving just $1 million. But that’s probably best saved for another time. For now…

Spirit is no different than most airlines today. Free beverages. Charges for snacks. Candy bars are $2. Other snacks are $4. I knew they charged ahead of time, so we had packed a couple of items in our carry-on bags. But as the cart went past me, I couldn’t help but notice that the $2 candy bars were the same ones the airport gift shop was selling for under a dollar. When it got really funny was when the flight attendant explained to a passenger in front of us that she couldn’t accept cash for the candy bar. Yup… in order to buy the $2 candy bar, you had to use a credit card.

Now there may actually be some amazing reason for this. Interstate travel. Taxation. Something that I am simply completely unaware of. There are probably other airlines that don’t accept cash for these items. But please explain to me how eliminating a bag of pretzels or peanuts or whatever and then requiring me to use a credit card to buy a $2 candy bar helps an airline’s reputation. Because for me, since I will never consider Spirit a true option for travel again for this and other reasons, it seems to me that the $1 million an airline attempts to save by short-changing customers is ultimately going to show up in lost reservations for the future.

When it comes to Spirit Airlines, the woman next to us said it best just before landing in Detroit… “I’m not impressed.”

But the fun doesn’t stop after the first flight. We still have a longer flight from Detroit to LA ahead of us… and more excitement…

  • We are on a new airbus A319. Why do they call it an airbus? Are buses so comfortable that using the name is supposed to make us feel happier about the whole thing?
  • I’m actually ok with this, but we were on a new plane this time… and yet no monitors… no movies… no music. Did they save a ton of money by not installing a DVD player? Another $1 million perhaps?
  • Problems with the emergency exit. Not with the exit actually, but with the people sitting in the row next to the exit over the wing. Let’s back up a bit. They held the flight for us. We arrived in Detroit about 20 minutes after the flight to LA was supposed to leave. So as we got off one plane and then on the other, we had to endure the stares of already seated passengers with looks that said “oh… these are the people we had to wait for.” Well, the women sitting in the aisle near the wing evidently didn’t know they were responsible for the door. One of the women was the “I’m not impressed” woman from the previous flight. After being delayed, getting stared at by the other passengers, and then being told to move… well… you can imagine that they were thrilled. But the flight attendants earned my wrath by talking about the two women with other passengers and essentially saying that they were already running late and didn’t need to be inconvenienced by someone that didn’t know enough to ask for a different seat. Quick… you’re handed your boarding pass… the seat was assigned randomly… it’s a new plane… are you in the seat with the wing exit? Exactly… I wouldn’t know either.

Welcome to California.

Ahh… Los Angeles… under construction… or… movie set for yet another Escape from (insert city) movie?

The Los Angeles airport looks like a wreck when we arrive, and it isn’t treating us kindly. Here’s our basic problem… we’re actually meeting someone. One of the things I’ve left out of the story so far is that Jay is flying in from Maryland. (He’s coming from BWI, with a connection in Atlanta.) Our plane arrives first, and we have to change terminals to go from our arrival area to his. I ask about the terminal for his airline and get told we need to go to terminal 2.

LAX acts a bit like JFK… which isn’t saying much… but it means that riding a shuttle from one terminal to another while going in essentially a loop is nothing new to us. We get off at terminal 2 only to find out that AirTran actually lands at terminal 3.

We walk.

Downstairs in the baggage claim area there are no television monitors with flight information. Has Jay arrived? We don’t know. Tigg tries calling his cell phone. It goes directly to voice mail, so we assume it’s because his phone is off and he’s on the plane. And since our first flight was scheduled to take off before his… and we didn’t have any time to try and contact him while in Detroit… and his reservations were made by me and were those wonderful ticketless style (so he’s arriving at BWI with his identification and reservation number, but not the credit card it was ordered with)… this voice mail theory is a big assumption to make with concerns attached.

I go upstairs to try and find out some information. I’m passed along to three different desks before someone actually looks up the flight information on a piece of paper. Yup… they can’t figure out how to access it on their computers. Something about the flight having not landed in LA, the Atlanta offices closing things up once the flight left, and now they can’t find out if it’s in the air. (I didn’t understand it either.) And, since the paper is a general flight information sheet, other than the information had been closed out in the computer they have no clue if the flight really did even leave Atlanta, forget about it being on time.


We wait.

Finally… Jay arrives in the baggage claim area and things seem a bit better. He takes out his cell phone and when her phone rings, Tigg plays the “turn around” game with him to lead him over to us. Apparently his flight wasn’t much better than ours, although with a longer layover he was able to at least eat a couple of hours ago.

And here’s where we arrive at the biggest mistake I made on the trip.

I didn’t make any hotel reservations for the first night.

Ok… ok… I know. Dumb. Even when saying I don’t solidify plans just a moment ago, I said I make hotel reservations. The thing was, we were all going to be arriving in Los Angeles around 11pm. By the time we got our luggage, picked up our car and had something to eat… I figured it would be well after midnight.

We had a room reserved for the rest of the trip. We hadn’t decided until the last minute what we wanted to do on Sunday. So… where to get the room… how far we would drive that night or which direction to drive in… and even more thoughts played into my decision not to get a room for the first night when we arrived. I figured I could find a room with no problem… and maybe save a buck or two in the process because we arrived after midnight.

Hey… we were at a major airport. There had to be a hotel nearby. Right?

What I found was a scene destined to make a future appearance in a Grand Theft Auto video game.

Now… in fairness to West Century Boulevard… I had never been to LA before, and had no clue how to orient myself at midnight to the neighborhood surrounding one of the largest cities and airports in the country. Things look much different at night than they do during the day… unfortunately to the point of making you more uneasy about it all because where to turn, what’s on the side of the road, or where the rental car will be safe overnight in a parking lot all create on-going questions that don’t seem to have great answers.

We weren’t one mile down the road from where we rented the car when Justin asked if we were in a good neighborhood. When I said I wasn’t really sure and asked why he wanted to know, he pointed out the window at three police cars and said “look at the hookers.”

He was right.

Three police cars off to the side of the road with their lights on… three police officers… three hookers speaking with the officers. (Oh yes, they were hookers.) Nice.

In keeping with my “ease of use” theme -- not the hookers… I mean my earlier concept, and in this case finding some food -- I knew about In-N-Out Burger. I started telling Tigg and Justin about them as the plane landed. Just needed to find one. We spotted an In-N-Out and decided to stop and eat.

Well, I can’t recommend these burgers highly enough. Great stuff.

But now it’s closing in on 1am, we’ve spotted yet another prostitute, and all of us -- again, not the prostitute -- are looking to get some sleep. We decide the best thing is to get off of West Century.

It took us another hour to get to a hotel. I had hopped on route 405 and knew it would take us toward The Getty Center… Sunday’s planned stop. But as we started stopping at hotels, we found out they were all full.

Eventually we pulled in to a Radisson and things begin to look up for us… because it was so late at night… or so early in the morning… the normal rate had dropped for the room they had. And, for a one-night stay the room was pretty good.

See how smart I am?

As we crossed the hotel lobby, Tigg’s sneakers were squeaking. It sounded like she was squeezing a duck on every other step. But… at what was the equivalent of 5am back home… she didn’t care.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com