The Great American Roadtrip: Two Big Mistakes on Day One

Two big mistakes
Two Big Mistakes

My ideal car for an American road trip is a Mustang. Expensive, impractical, cramped. But bags of style!

Two big mistakesSan Francisco
1 Apr 2011

We made two big mistakes in the first hours of our road trip. One of the biggest errors in international travel, they say, is to get off a long-haul flight, hire a car, and drive through a strange city.

You’re tired, you’re grappling with unfamiliar controls, you’re out of your comfort zone, like as not you have some time pressure to get someplace, you’ll get lost and you have to deal with foreign road rules. An accident waiting to happen.

After we arrived in San Francisco we had to wait for our New Zealand friend – her friends call her Cat, so we will too – whose flight from Auckland landed an hour after ours from Sydney. We found a coffee shop and bought lattes, hoping to stave off sleep.

Two bad mistakesCat eventually appeared and we took the people mover to the rental car centre. There was a $25/day surcharge if any of the drivers were under 25, and when I multiplied that by five weeks it added up to a lot of travel money.

Cat doesn’t drive, my son and daughter were under 25 (though only by a few days), so it was just myself and my daughter’s friend Sparkles who signed the contract. I added in extra insurance and a GPS.

We got the documents, promised to look after the thing, and walked through the enormous parking garage. Past rows and rows of gleaming new Mustangs.

Not a Mustang

Our roadtrip cruiser turned out to be a Chrysler Town and Country van. Room for seven, tonnes of storage space, beverage holders galore, and a bunch of power outlets. Perfect!

Zero style, though. Oh well. I settled myself into the command chair, adjusted the height, looked over the unfamiliar controls, fired the thing up and reached for the gearstick.

My left hand bounced off the door.

I could see this might be an interesting journey.

Two bad mistakesI’ve driven on the wrong side of the road before. Traumatic at first, but after a few times, the terror subsides. Driving out of the garage and out into the wild was a little unsettling; at least I didn’t have to juggle a map and a manual gearstick at rush hour like my first time, in France. I followed the voice of the GPS – let’s call her Wanda.

My thoughts went back to a taxi trip out of JFK a few years earlier. I’d been chatting with the driver when suddenly some idiot tourist slammed into us, trying to cut across two lanes at once to make his exit, and somehow not seeing the bright yellow – and sparkling new – cab. He’d just got off a flight from somewhere a long way away and should really have waited a day before hiring a car. My thoughts were now with that hapless tourist as I felt my way nervously along the street grid.

Hitting the road

“Ooh, the Camino Real!” exulted Cat beside me. We two oldies (she was into her thirties) had the front seats, while the kids began the continent-spanning process of untidying up the rear. She had studied Californian Spanish culture and knew what the sign meant. The old royal highway connecting the missions from San Diego to Sonoma, laden with history, romance. And speeding cars.

Two bad mistakesAfter a while, I relaxed a little. Cat played with the satellite radio, found some “Big Hair” channel out of the hundreds of stations and was lapping up the vibes from her youth. Me, I was thinking about San Francisco and flowers in my swiftly receding hair.

Hiring a car after a long flight was the first mistake, and arriving in the morning, several hours before we could check into our hostel rooms, was the second. I figured we could spend those hours doing the touristy thing, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, having lunch in Sausalito, and looking for those spectacular postcard views from the Marin Headlands.

How did it work out? You’ll have to wait for the next post when I’ll tell you how we stared death, a Hollywood star, and a bottle of Anchor Steam in the face.


The Great American Roadtrip map


    1. I’m having a tonne of fun reliving the adventure. That was a LOT of driving, and eating odd things.

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