Cammy Cruises California: Or How I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Just Drove On American Roads
Driving abroad was always too scary for me. It was a task I said I would never do, along with “walk behind an elephant with diarrhoea” and “own a Chevrolet Aveo”. Every time I went abroad, be it, France, Italy, Hong Kong, China etc. their highway systems just frightened the life out of me. On holiday, I’d always use taxis and public transportation. Until I went to California. 2 years ago, I was invited to spend a week with friends (well, it was actually “friends of friends” but a holiday in California is still a holiday in California). So, I went through the usual pre-holiday routines.
Airplane tickets? Check.
Spending money? Check.
Then came the thorny issue of how was I going to get around? I couldn’t rely on my hosts to drive me everywhere. So, I took a map out and planned where I’d go and what trains & buses went there and at what times. Eventually, my week in California was condensed into a rather messy timetable (complete with coffee stains, too!).
A week before I was due to fly out, my friend (of friends) phoned me up.
“You all ready?”
“Oh yes! Ready and raring to go!”
“You got everything? Passport? Tickets? etc.”
“Yep! Everything is planned down to the littlest detail.”
“So where are we picking your car up from?”
I paused to make sure I heard her correctly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your hire car. You have got one, right?”
“Of course I haven’t! I’m not driving out there! I’m planning to take public transportation to get around.”
What followed after my comment was about 30 seconds of laughing on her part.
“You’re not serious? Public transportation?”
“Yeah! What’s wrong with that?”
“Do me a favour. Get onto Avis and get a car. There’s an Avis pick up point near us, we can get it there.”
“Just do it!”
I then went to the Avis website to book a hire car. There were so many choices everything from a Chevrolet Aveo right up to a pickup truck. I chose the Chevrolet Aveo. Now I know this contradicts my earlier statement, but hear my reasoning. I chose the Aveo, because I found out that my credit card (or more accurately, my father’s credit card) could get me a free upgrade. You didn’t honestly think I was going to drive it, did you? Eventually, I got my reference number and I was all set.
After I’d filed the booking reference number away, the full horror of what was going to happen hit me. I was going to be in control of a car I’m not familiar with, in a country I’m not familiar with, on a highway system I’m not familiar with. The odds of my survival didn’t look good. So, I spent my last few days (possibly on this planet) researching about driving in the United States. I looked at YouTube videos, The AAA website and some books. I even watched the Top Gear special where they drove from Florida to New Orleans, 5 times!
Then came the day I flew out. I’d driven to Heathrow Airport, handed my bags over and went through security and customs. I won’t bore you with airplane ride, but suffice to say that it was pleasant, the service was great and I couldn’t help but admire the irony of the fact that when you’re flying 36,000 feet in the air at 500mph, you can walk around freely, but when you’re trawling 20mph on the tarmac, they expressly state that you must wear a seatbelt!
After 12 hours, we touched down in LAX. I went through security and customs and met my friend (of fri…you get the idea now) and jumped in her car and set off for the Avis pick up point. She had a Toyota Sequoia and I couldn’t help but marvel at how bloody huge the thing was. It was like a Panzer tank. No wonder they didn’t sell them Europe, it wouldn’t fit on the winding, narrow roads we supposedly have here. They are wide enough for an S-Class or a Rolls, but never for a Sequoia .
Whilst we were driving there, I kept looking out of the window to get a sense of perspective of what was to come. Firstly, I couldn’t get over how big the roads were. One lane of your roads would have been considered “sufficient” to fit two lanes of traffic down in the UK. Next came the size of the cars. I could now see why fuel sippers took their time to take off in the US. I also realised why cars like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 were considered to be “cute utes”. Again, in the UK they are considered to be a bit of a menace. They’re lumped in the same category as Range Rovers and Jeeps. Big hulks of machines on small roads. But in the United States, they seemed, well….small. Maybe it was because the size of the roads made them look smaller or it could have been the Chevy Tahoes which drove alongside them on the motorways.
Suddenly, my heart was in my throat. I could see the huge, red sign. It simply said “Avis”. Never had that word been so scary to me before. We got out of the Toyota “Aircraft carrier” and went to the desk. I signed all the paperwork, showed them my passport and they then showed me to my car for the next week. It was a Kia Spectra. I was a touch disappointed. Not because it was a Kia Spectra, but because I wanted a Ford Focus because I’d heard at how bad it was on TTAC and I wanted to find out for myself how bad it really was. But a car is still a car. I took the keys, stuck them in the ignition and fired her up. All four cylinders “roared” (note the inverted commas).
“Right, you stay close behind me and we’ll go to our apartment.”
This was it, my first experience of driving abroad. I was as ready as I ever would be. I put my seatbelt on (safety first) and put her into “Drive”. The Toyota Sequoia roared off. I hit the accelerator – nothing happened.
“What the bloody hell?! What’s wrong with this frigging thing?!”
You guessed it! I’d left the handbrake on! Rather sheepishly, I took the handbrake off and shot forward, past the laughing Avis representative. I hit the accelerator hard because I wanted to catch up with my friend and stay close behind her. Very close behind her. In fact, two feet off her rear bumper. And whilst I’m on this topic, why is it that whenever you’re trying to stay behind a friend in order to follow them, the world and their bloody dog wants to get in front of you and separate you from your friend?! Or is it just me and my rotten luck? Anyway, back to the driving. I was hanging on for dear life. I was driving a rather small car on big roads and my fellow drivers were driving vehicles which made my house in the UK feel like a tent. Soon, we arrived at her apartment. I got out of the car sweating (memories of my trip to Europe came flooding back). But this wasn’t sweat of overheating, this was a cold sweat. A sweat of fear. I had to drive on these roads for a week?! I wouldn’t make it past the first day! But I didn’t have a choice. This was the situation and I had to live with it.
The next day, I was left to my own devices and I thought a trip to the seaside would be a good way to kick start this holiday. I checked a local map and saw that Marina Del Rey was close by. The route to get there was easy enough. Just down a few streets, follow Washington Boulevard and I was there. It seemed like I was only 10 minutes away. I wasn’t. That day I learnt a very valuable lesson about the American highway system. Roads can be deceptively long. If I were to believe that map, Washington Boulevard was only a mile long. It wasn’t. It was closer to 10 miles long. And remember the “few streets” I had to go down in order to get to Washington Boulevard? Each one was about 1 mile long! So from a trip which I’d estimated to be 10 minutes, turned out to be more like 30 minutes.
Driving on the right hand side of the road was disconcerting for me. It just felt wrong. Now I know you lot will say “But Cammy, the majority of the world drive on the right-hand side of the road!”, but you’re missing the point. Imagine the United States suddenly decided to change to driving on the left-hand side of the road; can you imagine that period of adjustment for everyone? How wrong would it feel to them to be driving on (their perception) of the wrong side of the road? Well, that’s how I felt. Every fibre of my body wanted to swing the car over to the left hand side of the road, but I didn’t. There was a Chevy Silverado coming the other way. I would have come off worse. Much worse.
After a pleasant(ish) day at Marina Del Rey, I went back to the apartment and fell asleep. I thought jetlag was creeping up on me, but it didn’t explain why I had a stinking headache. I kept stumbling and couldn’t focus properly. My hosts eventually asked a doctor who lived next door to quickly examine me. Apparently, I had sweated so much that I suffered a severe case of dehydration. My holiday wasn’t going too well. I think after that incident, my friends took a little pity on me and starting giving me a crash course in how to drive in the United States. The mentality of the average American driver, what to look out for, how to second guess pedestrians, etc. It eventually built up my confidence, to the point where I felt confident enough to drive on my own. For the rest of the trip, I was driving like a total native. I felt so proud; I’d overcome my fear and learnt a good skill. Next time, if I ever come back to the US, I could hire a car and ferry myself around. But remind me, what does pride come before….?
On the last day I was so confident I was driving my friend around. We’d just come back from some outlet stores and the back seat was awash with designer clothes. In my confident state, we’d come to set of traffic light which we had to turn left at. Seemed simple enough. I sat at the lights and waited for it to turn green. Eventually, the lights turned green and I hit the accelerator.
I hit the brakes before you could say “unintended acceleration”.
“What’s the matter?!” I screamed.
My friend pointed upwards. It seems that while I was correct to turn right when the traffic light turned green, what I didn’t do was read the sign which said “yield on green”. I felt so sheepish. After a week of driving around on foreign highways, this one incident knocked me right back to the beginning. A feeling of shame engulfed me. Because not only did I endanger myself, I endangered someone else. And others on the road. That was unforgivable.
After that we handed the car back to Avis (with a full tank of petrol), packed my bags and headed for LAX. On the way there, my friend and her husband turned to me and said “Apart from that one incident at the traffic lights, you did really well for driving over here. We’d get back into the car with you again.” I dismissed their obvious attempt to let me down gently, but once they swore on their lives and their dogs’ lives, I felt I’d succeeded. I came to the US, drove on foreign roads and lived to tell the tale. I could count this week as one of the successes of my driving career. I boarded the plane and headed back to the UK.
On the plane, I went through the trips I’d take in that Kia Spectra. It wasn’t a bad car and it got me where I wanted to go, what more could I have asked for? The air conditioning was strong and the fit & finish of the dashboard was very high. It handled well, despite the way I flung the poor thing into corners. As Bill Maher said “This is your rental car, go forth and beat-eth the sh*t out of it. Who cares? For it is a rental.” If they sold it in the UK as a saloon version (I think the closest we had was the Kia Rio), I would have certainly put it on my shopping list for “everyday drivers”. I settled in my seat for the 12 hour flight back home confident that’d I’d never have to do that again. That last bit of the sentence wasn’t true. I did come back for a second helping of American driving. But that was in a Nissan Versa. I couldn’t make that interesting even if I tried.
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Driving on the "wrong" side of the road can be fun -- my family made a tour of Europe in 1955 that concluded in the UK. Our transport for the trip was a Hillman Estate, delivered in Italy and equipped for driving on the Continent and eventually in the US. By local standards, this was a big car. Everything else was standard British issue, including license plates and RAC badges. Our favorite (sorry -- favourite) sport in Old Blighty was to chug down Cammy's fondly-remembered narrow country lanes with Dad hunched down mostly out of sight behind the (left-mounted) wheel, whilst Mom leaned out the right-side front window and waved both arms at terrified approaching locals.
Wonderful article! I loved it... I'm of the reverse when I visit my in-laws -- "Can't we take the car?" I forget that public transport there is actually quite speedy. The problem is the the 30 degree (more? I have no idea but they are STEEP) hills in her town which the bus drivers in their 6 speeds FLY down and tear around the (almost) 90 degree corner. The people there are used to it. To me it scares the beejesus out of me. My wife made fun of me after the first time we went to downtown and told her whole family. If you think it's scary driving in an aveo/spectra around those huge machines, try driving a sub 400 pound dry motorcycle with cars around you that are 15-25x your size. Even worse -- I live in the Chicago area and sometimes I think every semi in the country passes through here. I've also driven in 40-60mph cross winds....and sub 30F wind-chills. Lets just say I don't always need coffee in the morning to wake up :)