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  • Writer's pictureDes & Sandie Nichols


Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Finally, almost exactly a year and a half to the day since we set off from Key West, we have reached the West Coast. That day in Key West when we had packed up the car, the kettle, the clothes, the teabags and, of course, the cats to set off in our trusty RV, sees a long, long time ago. We left behind any conception of time, place or direction, and drove pretty aimlessly around the East until we reached northern Maine but then, inevitably, the draw of the Wild West attracted us like a magnet, an irresistible force colliding with our unstoppable bus.

Our last leg of this stage was the 400 mile drive from Tucson to San Diego, with a stopover at a place called Yuma. This was once a lawless outpost, sitting about 8 miles from the Mexican border and has an old restored 19th century prison which captures all that history within its thick walls as it once did the outlaws themselves.  

Yuma prison

Sadly, the town has now turned into a singularly uninteresting and dreary place to visit. In fact you would need an extraordinarily good sense of Yuma to live here. But it does, however, attract thousands upon thousands of rejuvenated, hibernating retired RVers who while away their groundhog days in massive happy camps like the one we stayed at WestWinds. Packed with no less that 1000 mobiles homes, RVs and trailers, it is a sort of glorious, geriatric nirvana, a faux village of caravaners basking in the south Arizona sunshine throughout the winter, while the rest of America freezes. They spend their time sitting by the pool, walking endlessly around the park's grid of streets for gentle exercise, playing a hand of cards or a round of golf (it has its own golf course), having cocktails at the parasoled tables or enjoying the weekly shows in the big hall. The musical fare is mostly Tribute Bands. But the original Herman's Hermits (remember them? A Kind Of Hush, No Milk Today, I'm Into Something Good etc) had just played here. They continue to make a decent living by being a tribute band to themselves. That cheeky Peter Pan of pop, Peter Noone, joined the band at 15 and is still with them today aged 71 having made several million dollars by simply singing the same old songs every night since the early Sixties - and giving elderly fans exactly what they want to hear. He's no fool. Nostalgia is a powerful marketing drug. Like so many of his ilk, he could have easily become another Peter No-one after the first couple of years of fame but shunned re-invention and just kept the cash register plinging by rolling out all the old hits we love to hear.

While there, we thought it a good idea to drive across the border for a real Mexican lunch. There is a crossing at Algodones so we drove through, not knowing what to expect. There is absolutely no town, house or living person (apart from Border Security) on the US side but it opens up into a bustling, colorful fiesta of activity on the other. Amongst the quaint small shops and businesses are dozens of modern, well-heeled dental surgeries, serving the shiny teeth of the Americans at a much lower cost than the extortionate charges of the US practitioners. We loved Algadones for its cheery characters that beckon and buzz, always with a smile and never threatening. Great little town.


 Our new best friend, Happy José of Algodones

The border fence as the Mexicans see it 

Back in the US, we packed up and set off for the Pacific, to complete our trans-continental challenge. After a long drive through the Saharan sand dunes of the Imperial Desert, an unexpectedly beautiful scene of graceful golden drifts baking under the southern sun. This led into a hundred mile drive on the straight, flat road at 100ft below sea level, often following the dark ribbon of 'The Wall" to our left, as all the time the looming Laguna Mountains beckoned us on towards the horizon. You get plenty of warning of what is to come when you reach the foothills, with signs telling you of strong winds and how to get radiator water if you overheat your engine. You can see the propellers of the wind farms turning briskly in the distance. For this is a testing low-gear drive uphill for a good thirty minutes, with the road challenging you with sheer drops into deep valleys as it twists and climbs 4,500ft. The peak is part of the Campo Indian Reservation so what do you find up there, standing alone on the top of the New World? Yes, you guessed it - a casino. It's a bloody long way to go to lose your money, we thought,  but it does have the advantage of letting you coast home downhill all the way if there is nothing left in your pockets for fuel. Once over the ridge, the exhausted bus and the faithful Mini, deferentially in tow, enjoyed the effortless journey down to San Diego after their death-defying struggle to stay on the 1-in-6 ascent and descent for so many miles.

 The Imperial Dunes

The first thing that hits you on leaving the mountains behind is the green. After a couple of months in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, you forget how welcoming the color green is. And California has a wonderful way of choreographing its chorus lines of palm trees, lined up with military precision along boulevards or arranged neatly around hotels and parks, into a sumptuous set. The weather that greeted us was simply spectacular and when we arrived at our waterside park at Chula Vista Marina we could not wait to grab a glass of fizz and walk the few yards to the pier that jutted out into the San Diego Bay. The stroll inevitably took us to the Marina Bar where we sat outside, now with our Hendricks & Tonic, to enjoy our transcontinental welcome show, not the one from the band playing on the deck, but nature's treat, a Lunar Eclipse which entertained us from 8pm.

 The view from our bus

Next morning, the Mini, now excitedly unhitched from its mother bus, took off along the Coronado causeway which seals off the Big Bay from the Pacific Ocean. We had heard of the spectacular beaches which sit in the state park here but, on arrival, were ominously warned by signs not to set foot on them because of 'contaminated water - sewage pollution'. Lovely.

 The deserted, polluted Coronado state park beach

So we drove on to the end to be greeted by a hauntingly familiar sight. In a second we recognized its rotunda shape and its sheer Hollywood magnificence. We know this place so well yet had never been here before. For it is right here that lives one of the most famous hotels in movie history, the Hotel del Coronado, the Victorian beachfront glory in which Tony Curtis mischievously but hilariously duped and seduced Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's black and white masterpiece Some Like It Hot. This sublime hotel was opened in 1888 as the largest resort in the world and has hosted countless presidents, royalty and A-list celebrities, and even the odd 'band on the run' in the movies. In the classic celluloid tale of a pair of downbeat musicians escaping the Mob and its menacing boss (George Raft), the cross-dressing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon , together with the never-been-more-alluring  -before-or-since Marilyn Monroe and the truly brilliant Joe E. Brown interwove some bizarre courtships. Not everyone knows though that the audience were equally tricked by the hotel on screen which was purported as being the Seminole Ritz in Florida.

It seemed then comedically appropriate that we found a cheery man vacuuming the 'grass' greensward that lay in front of the hotel overlooking the fabulous beach.

Who will ever forget that closing conversation between the loved-up millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown) asking the dragged-up Daphne (Lemmon) to marry him as they sped towards his yacht in his launch. The blushing could-be bride rejected his proposal, explaining he can't give him children, "we can adopt" says the never-say-die suitor. Then comes one of the best last lines ever:

Lemmon,in capitulating confession, tears off his wig : 

"I'm a man". 

The smiling lizard-mouthed Joe E. Brown, totally unflappable and unperturbed, smiles:  

“Well, nobody's perfect". 

Probably the greatest movie ending ever and an unforgettable moment of cinemographic genius.

 Once the largest resort in the world

San Diego is a truly beautiful city and the best place to appreciate it is from one of the delightful cafés near the ferry dock on Coronado Island. From here you have the best view of its elegant skyline and a clear sight of the many prize combatants of the US Navy Fleet that are based here. Almost immediately you will spot the huge hulk of the USS Midway to the left, decommissioned after a proud stint as America's second longest-serving aircraft carrier, a key player in the Cold War and the Gulf War. We toured its cavernous below deck hangar, narrow passages and metallic cabins until our little legs could not cope with any more steep metal stairs (or ladders as the sailors appropriately call them).

 USS Midway flight deck

 Sandie inspecting the pilot's undercarriage

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