Isabel is … road tripping

Exploring the Bay

I eagerly jump in the van for a California road trip this week with friends from London: my girlfriend Charlie and her father Martin. Although my GPS navigation was confiscated, I sit shotgun, frantically switching between navigating and operating the radio while a map bigger than me is spread over the dashboard.

Agendas have been outlawed, and Charlie is dead to the world, asleep in the back.

I must get us to Yosemite. Today, preferably. Realizing we had nowhere to sleep, at midnight yesterday I booked us a room at one of the few bed and breakfasts still available in the small town of Coulterville, just outside the park.

We had anticipated an RV. When the rental agency supplied us with a van and a box of plastic plates, we promptly realized that the three of us might not all fit. This was at noon yesterday, when we picked up the car.

Regardless, today we are driving from the Bay Area to Yosemite via Highway 49 and then working our way up the coast — Monterey, Big Sur, Carmel and back to San Francisco. We have one week.

Considering that I write a column about travel plans, the absence of planning on this trip comes somewhat as a challenge. So far, though, I am finding it hugely refreshing.

We have stowed away in the van all road trip essentials: chips, Coca-Cola, a stack of Amoeba Music’s 25-cent CDs and a pack of cards. Martin, it turns out, can’t survive more than four hours without a gummy bear, so we’ve stocked up on those, too.

Martin and I sing along to the radio.

My foremost responsibility — managing our music — appears a success thus far. Four more hours today.

I find from experience that traveling with people brings out their true colors. Charlie, who hates the planning and doesn’t want to know where we’re going, covered her ears as Martin and I pored over the map last night. Charlie likes to wander, to happen upon places.

Martin makes a profession out of touring, and he usually has a pretty clear idea in mind of what he wants to do. Up early, he covers a lot of ground in little time. Since this morning, I’ve established that “we can keep driving” is British for “I’m not stopping.” Once he started driving at 8 a.m., we didn’t stop for quite some time.

In the end, we finally stopped for breakfast in Sutter’s Creek, a small, old mining town bursting full of antique shops. A clean white table under an umbrella on a sunny lawn by the river gleams invitingly. We daydream of staying put, napping on the grass.

Back on the road, I realize I’ve misdirected us north instead of south down Highway 49. I consult with Google Maps and announce that we ought to turn the car around.

During my wrestle with the map, however, I do notice that along the route to Yosemite are multiple caves. These caves, made of limestone, hold rare minerals found nowhere else in the United States. As the navigator, I direct us toward these caves, which are known as the Mercer Caverns. Charlie smugly points out that such a spontaneous decision would not have been impossible with a strict plan or if we had relied solely on GPS. She is right, of course.

Only later, as the sun sets and our appetites grow, do we desperately search for service through the winding passes of Yosemite in order to find our remote Airbnb. Without technology, we’d still be lost.

In the meantime, though, the car shakes with The Killers’ Hot Fuss and all three of us shout the lyrics. Martin has a solo dance party in the back seat. Charlie taps the steering wheel in rhythm as she drives.

We arrive at the caverns and descend more than 16 stories into the ground. What we see on the tour, though, is only a fraction of the undiscovered depths of the caves. Stalactites and stalagmites coat the walls, dripping mineral water onto my hands. We make shadow puppet faces with our hands on the walls faces of goblins and dwarves and find angel’s wings and diamonds among them. Finally, blinking in the bright sunlight, we emerge from the caves in a pack back into the car.

As the sun sets over the hills, our little van rolls into our home for the night: a red timber house in the middle of nowhere with a big old porch, pond out front and flamingos in the yard. We settle down for the evening in a swing out on the porch. Charlie reads while I write, recalling my day.

Long roads give me time to think, and perhaps more importantly, some time when thinking isn’t required.

The amazing thing, really, is the simplicity of it: driving with a general direction in mind, perhaps some goals, but no timeline or pressure. A car and some company are all that are necessary.

The ability to actually read a map would also be helpful.

The Mercer Caverns are open for tours 364 days a year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more at

Isabel writes the Thursday column on discovering Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. Contact her at [email protected].