Rebirth of Reason


OE USA: A New Zealander's Travels in the US (Part II)
by Andrew Bates

Oakland, Portland, and Seattle

Having stayed three days with my hosts before I found a van, I was keen to get out of their hair and hit the road. I drove an hour north to Oakland to open a bank account with HSBC. Oakland is pretty much a slum. I got out of my van and was locking it when I tried to get back in the second-to-last door I would lock. My key didn’t work. I went round every door and the key would not work. I tried the other key in each of the doors. No luck.

What was I to do? Leave my new van unlocked in a slum with homeless people all round? I had to open the bank account – I was running out of cash and had to get US funds at my Auckland HSBC account sent over. I decided to take all my possessions, lock all but the driver’s door (least likely to be seen unlocked) and go open the account. As I walked into Chinatown where the bank was, a homeless man walked right up behind an attractive woman and started talking in her ear with a leer in his eyes. Two metres away, I yelled at him and he turned and approached me and tried to stare me down. Being that much smaller than me, I thought he had to have a weapon or be absolutely wasted. Oh yeah, I was confident about the safety of my van now.

The line at the bank was large but a concierge, seeing me with my backpack on, documents in hand and an anxious look, recognised I needed attention and took me aside to open the account. The process did not take long but I was constantly fretting about my van being broken into. Before I left I was informed that with my backpack on I looked like Mr Incredible, both in face and physique, and, after she made a mistake, that the teller was a trainee who had been doing the job for three weekends now.  Oh poor fool he when bells were tolling – but you can see how I had been distracted.

I returned to find my van unmolested and decided to go North to Seattle – it didn’t look that far on the map. I crossed a bridge and arrived at a toll gate which, from the back of the queue, looked like a $300-dollar toll. I wound down the window, asked a guy if that was the case and he replied, “No sir, that’s three dollars. It’s expensive to live here – but not that expensive.”

I made it to the main road north along the West Coast, the Interstate 5 (“I5”) and first found out what most of the driving I have experienced this last month would be like. Whereas New Zealand’s terrain is hilly, especially around Auckland, and consequently has winding roads, America has great big plains and long straight roads. Cruise controls are more common here. I have now become used to driving along with the cruise control on and no company save for the varying choices of Conservative talk radio, Christian evangelical stations (like the former, but without the politics) or Español stations (which I can’t understand, though the Piano Accordion melody is nice for a while).

Having passed the impressive Mount Shasta and Lake Shasta I made it to Eugene (a college town halfway up Oregon) that night. I had encountered a few anxious minutes whenever I relieved myself and I did not want to leave my new van unattended so I decided to find a secluded unlit cul-de-sac and sleep in the back of the van. I found out the glue seals in the lilo (a blow up stretcher, mostly used in pools) I had been given 15 years ago had failed – at four o’clock the next morning. But this was not the most uncomfortable thing. Lesson number one when sleeping in the back of a car – you may be able to get away with a slight slope along the line of your body but you can’t get away with both that and a slope to the side. By half past six I was on the road again – still tired as could be but having given up on the prospect of further sleep that morning.

I took the turnoff to drive through downtown Portland – it’s a pretty city, set on the river’s edge with a city called Vancouver complementing it from the far side of the river in Washington state. I continued north and made it to my target, Seattle, by noon. The outline of the skyscrapers with the harbour to the West was pretty and I turned off and drove through the downtown area. Of course, I couldn’t stop, get out of the van and go walkabout so having driven for a day to Seattle I turned around and went South again after fifteen minutes.

That night I made it to Grant’s Pass, just North of the California-Oregon State line, turned west off the I-5 and drove through the Redwood State and National Park to Crescent City, which arcs around a surf beach near the top of the California Coast. The following day I awoke at about eight and made my way south along the coast. As I neared San Francisco (or “SF,”,but not “San Fran” or “Frisco” unless you want to be hissed at by the locals) I was running out of gas. In New Zealand, where the sales tax is 12.5% on everything, the gas is cheaper in the cities where the sales volume is greatest and the distribution costs are least.

When you’re really tired, you can make bad calls. I started coasting in neutral on the downhill slopes to save gas, thinking that gas would be cheapest in SF. My execution wasn’t brilliant so at 70mph in the middle of the freeway I managed to chuck the column shift handle from Overdrive, past Neutral and into Reverse. The wheels screeched, the engine shut off and would not restart. I put it in Neutral as I coasted to the side of the road. It still would not start. It occurred to me to put it in Park but just in time I realised that would bring the van to a screeching halt. I coasted to the next turn off and made it to a petrol station where, to the confusion of those on the forecourt, I stopped the van and started the engine when I tried the key again. I put $5 in and continued south toward SF. I crossed the Golden Gate bridge (nearly out of gas) and made it to the city.

The gas was the most expensive I have seen in the US - US$2.80 a gallon. (This is still cheaper than New Zealand where we were paying NZ$1.29 a litre, three quarters of the cost being tax.) SF is the socialist capital of America’s Left Coast – there the sales tax is highest, so people buy their gas outside the city, but the rent the service stations pay is still high. I put in another $5 and made my way down the 101 to Santa Clara.

I went into the car yard I had bought the van at, ready to tear a strip off them for selling me a pup but decided to ask first if there was another key to the van that I had not been given two days ago when I bought it. The guy said there wasn’t but asked me for the keys and showed me that there were two different cuts along either side of the key. He then took me outside and showed me how one side worked in the door and the other side worked in the ignition.

I can only imagine how I looked when I turned up at SOLOHQHQ having not washed or shaved and with only a few hours sleep over the previous two days. I was welcomed in and food was put in front of me and they gathered round to listen to my stories. According to Jeff, the bank teller was “waaay hitting on you dude.” (Did I mention that the bank teller said I looked like Mr Incredible – both in face and physique? Two girls in Austin, Texas agreed - but that’s another story.)

Fancy meeting up with me as I tour the US?

I am in Auburn, Alabama on June 7 and will be heading to Atlanta June 8, then Savannah, then Florida.

Give me a call on 1-408-506-0784 or email bates - at - deletethisbit.orcon.net.nz
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