The Grand Tour of the West is full of potholes

from the cover

The Grand Tour of the West

July 27, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

This is the story of a recent family vacation in Arizona and California, which involved, among other things: record heat, rip-off gas prices, nearly being bounced from the Hearst Castle and a near-death experience at the Grand Canyon.

OK, I say "near-death experience." But that was just to keep you reading.

Let's face it, there's no better way to clear a room than by pulling out a stack of photos and saying: "Who wants to hear about our summer vacation?"

So sometimes you need a hook. And I've always found the words "near-death experience" work pretty well.

Actually, we had a great time at the Grand Canyon, a place of such vast, jaw-dropping beauty that the best photos in the world don't do it justice.

The thing is, I should have just cracked a few beers and soaked in all this beauty from a bench on the South Rim.

But instead, I agreed to hike into the canyon with my 15-year-old son, who's in great shape and has the body-fat of marble.

Did I mention it was over 100 degrees at the rim when we set off?

And that the rim is 7,000 feet above sea level?

And that it gets hotter and hotter the farther down you go?

I should probably mention those things.

Anyway, we hiked a mile and a half down and everything was fine. The awesome rugged splendor of the canyon enveloped us. We pointed out the views. We laughed.

This is a piece of cake, I told the kid.

And it was.

Until it was time to hike back up.

There is an old Grand Canyon saying that goes something like this: Remember, it's twice as hard going up as coming down.

That turned out not to be true. It's actually about 200 times harder. In fact, it's like walking uphill with the Exxon Valdez strapped to your back.

So I spent the next two hours gasping for breath, my legs screaming, as the 15-year-old practically skipped up the trail. In fact, he was actually whistling most of the way.

When we got up to the rim, he wanted an ice cream. I needed to be carried on a stretcher back to the hotel room.

Our next stop was the Central Coast of California and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, where they start each guided tour of publisher William Randolph Hearst's breathtaking 90,000-square-foot estate with a long list of don'ts: Don't touch anything, don't lean against anything, don't walk anywhere but in the designated areas, etc.

Another of the don'ts is: Don't take any flash pictures anywhere, even outdoors, or we'll beat you to a bloody pulp.

OK, fine. I put the digital camera in nonflash mode. We start the tour. One of the first stops is a neat stone terrace with a stunning view of the rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean off in the distance.

I take a picture.

And the stupid thing flashes.

Look, I don't know what happened. I thought I had turned off the flash, but apparently I hadn't.

Well. The minute she saw the flash, the tour guide went nuts. You'd have thought someone just lobbed a pizza box into the roses.

She wasn't sure whose camera had flashed, so she gave us all a lecture about how terrible this was, how it was grounds for ejection and blah, blah, blah.

I'll tell you this: These Hearst Castle people are wound very, very tight. When they tell you not to do something, they're not fooling around.

From San Simeon, we drove up scenic Highway 1, which hugs the Pacific coastline, toward Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey, which is where we came upon Ray's Rip-Off Gas.

OK, that was not its real name. But it should have been.

There was less than a quarter tank of gas in the rental car when we pulled into this gas station run by this old, grizzled guy. We didn't know how far up the next gas station would be.

So we were at Ray's mercy.

And Ray's mercy was like a lead pipe to your kneecap: $4.39 a gallon for regular unleaded.

I ended up getting $20 worth of Rip-Off Ray's gas, which was bad enough. But at the next pump was a guy driving a GMC Yukon, and we watched him pump more than $100 worth into that huge gas tank.

That is a true story. We even took pictures of the whole thing. I could run them over to your place and show you, if you really want to see them.

After stops in Carmel and a tour of winding 17-Mile Drive and the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, it was on to the home of our friends Steve and Theresa, who live south of Sacramento.

Two nights later, as we sipped cocktails in their backyard, it was 104 degrees at 10 o'clock at night. An unprecedented heat wave was gripping most of California.

Great, I thought. I leave Baltimore and its stifling humidity, fly west, and somehow end up in Mojave Desert North.

But the heat didn't bother us that much, and Steve and Theresa took us all over the Napa Valley wine country and San Francisco, where we visited Fisherman's Wharf and toured Alcatraz Island and the infamous federal penitentiary that closed in 1963.

I thought I might find a mug shot of Rip-Off Ray among those of the 1,576 inmates who once made the Rock their home.

But maybe they didn't lock you up for price-gouging back then.

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