Days in the Desert: Discovering an America I Never Knew
I know it seems awfully risky, under the circumstances, to fly to Los Angeles at the height of the city’s pandemic, but I did. When I bought the tickets, at the ridiculously low price of €500 round-trip non-stop on Air France, the city wasn’t having the same level of crisis it is now. My daughter and I wanted to be together for the holidays like we usually are. Since we don’t get to see one another that often, cancelling would mean living many more months without each other’s company. We couldn’t bare it. So, I got my Covid-19 tests (both the molecular PCR and the rapid antigen tests)—with negative results—a couple days in advance and bit the bullet to fly.
The airport was a lot busier than I expected. Holiday traffic has definitely begun. It became chaotic as the deadline to check in grew closer to the flight time. I know because even though I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport three hours before my flight, I was lucky to arrive at the gate just in time to board. The reason for that was partly my fault, but also partly the fault of the new check-in methods that have eliminated personnel to check the weight of ALL your bags. It’s all electronic, self-serve now—print your luggage tag, put it on your bag yourself, register it using a scanner and plop it on the conveyor belt to whisk it away to your flight.
I could spend this entire Nouvellettre® boring you with the details of the conundrum with which I was faced, but it all boils down to an overweight carry-on bag (yes, they did weigh it along with all the other things I had on my body), needing the contents to be split into two bags: one checked; one carried-on. Imagine what it took to accomplish all that, as the travelers began to pile into the airport and turn the non-existent queues to lines that stretched around the airport block. Got the picture?
The flight was uneventful and Air France was its usual great-service-self. I had two seats to myself as the seating was definitely socially distanced as much as possible. That made the 11-hour flight as pleasant as it gets. It was the one-hour-long line through customs at LAX upon arrival that was disturbing. None of the automatic machines were allowed to be used and they were understaffed because the air traffic seems to be erratic (that’s what one of the customs agents said). There was little air circulation in that big hall. A man in front of me had his mask under his nose as if no one would notice and was touching his nose the whole time, too. I stayed far back from him. With no phone network (and no legal use of it in the customs area), it wasn’t possible to download the Mobile Passport Control app that would have allowed automatic entry at a kiosk and saved about one-hour trapped in line. Maybe next time.
A recent New York Times article addressed the issue of safety of flying during the pandemic. According to the article, Thanksgiving recorded more than one million Americans braved getting on planes, “marking the second day that more than a million people have flown since March.” I am clearly not alone in wanting to be with family for the holidays and willing to take a certain risk. From what I experienced, I’d say the flight itself was as safe as it could get, but it was the deplaning through customs that was the most dangerous. The airlines are under scrutiny to take every precaution, so why wasn’t U.S. Customs and Border Patrol doing a better job?
Once I hopped into Erica’s car, gave her a big hug and took off my mask, I let the L.A. sun shine on my face behind sunglasses. All was right with the world. There’s something about seeing those palm trees that line the roads leaving LAX that always make me feel like it was all worth it. A walk along the beach in Venice that first afternoon didn’t hurt, either: fresh air, sunshine, sand, ocean and plenty of cacti. What could be bad? A stroll along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice to get a good coffee to-go and peruse a few of the up-scale shops was a refreshing change, too…from the confinement we’ve had in France. A trip to Whole Foods was a reminder of Americana at its finest: how to make you spend a whole lot more of your money for food and products they call “organic” or “natural” or “ecological.” Aren’t they smart Capitalists and aren’t we worthy consumers?
“Reverse culture shock” is what I call being jolted by one’s very own culture. It’s the nature of an expatriate, having one foot in each land and blending the two up the middle of the heart. I do like L.A. Always have and likely always will. The Angelenos are warm, friendly, open-minded and a little zany. It’s as eclectic as it comes and anything goes. In the ’80s, I decided I wanted to live in the most progressive place on the planet and L.A. was the answer. I still believe that to be true.
We didn’t stay long in L.A., however. Yesterday Erica and I hopped in her car early in the morning, with a bag of goodies from Whole Foods and a week’s worth of clothing and supplies, to drive to the desert and tour the Grand Canyon. This is our way of being isolated (just us girls): together, in the fresh air and as Covid-19 free as we could be. Just call us “Thelma and Louise,” although let’s hope we don’t have the same mis-adventures or fatal dramatic ending at the end of our eight days!
Lake Havasu was our first overnight stop where we rented an Airbnb. It’s a five-hour drive from Los Angeles, through the Mojave Desert. Can’t say I’d ever driven this road before, nor witnessed this kind of American lifestyle. Along the way there is just sagebrush and a few Joshua trees backdropped by dramatic stone mountains. The landscape is stark and occasionally dotted with massive residential developments consisting of cookie-cutter salt-box homes, impossible to tell one residence from another. We wondered what kind of people lived there, in such a remote spot on the planet—in a place where wearing a mask is pointless as there’s no one around to infect and plenty of fresh air.
Molly Brown’s Country Café in the town of Victorville was the perfect brunch stop. Dining was outside under a tent set up next to the restaurant in the parking lot. It had been touted as having been voted “Best Breakfast” by Daily Press readers, whomever they are. Breakfast was substantial and just what the doctor ordered—omelet with all the fixin’s. It was Americana at its best. I took photos before crunching into the good old fashioned fried bacon, then sent the photos off by text to serious breakfast aficionado and diner proprietor, Craig Carlson, of Breakfast in America in Paris, and captioned them “Eat your heart out Craig!” (He responded with “We’re so jealous!!”)
Victorville isn’t much to write home about, but breakfast was perfect. The waitstaff was wearing masks, but none of the other diners were. No one seemed concerned under the circumstances. They served a not too bad decaffeinated coffee and breakfast, even as copious as it was, was crazy cheap. Erica wasn’t satisfied and sought out a specialty coffee shop of which there was one in town. We drove out of our way for her to score an oat milk latte in a place we weren’t sure it was possible.
We arrived in Lake Havasu City mid-afternoon after another three hours of driving through desert, desert and more desert. It’s a town of more than 50,000 people in Mohave County of western Arizona on a lake that doesn’t look real and seems to have fallen from the sky in the middle of nothing. It’s beautiful…in a minimalist sort of way.
The town’s beginnings were as an Army Air Corps rest camp, called “Site Six” during World War II. It was purchased by American businessman Robert P. McCulloch who developed the city. It became a legal entity in 1963 and the city was incorporated in 1978. What makes it special in today’s world is “London Bridge,” an actual bridge that once crossed the Thames and was purchased by McCulloch to erect in the town across a narrow channel of the lake, as a promotional stunt to attract buyers. The bridge was actually shipped over to Lake Havasu and re-assembled over the course of three years.
According to Wikipedia, the bridge has become the second-largest tourist attraction in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon. I find that impossible to believe, but what do I know? We did stop at the “Blue Chair Bar & Grill” in “The Village,” at the base of the bridge, for a drink and light snack. There was live music as we took in the scene of tourist boats and souvenir shops, while letting the strong desert sun shine on our faces. I couldn’t help but think of the “Les Chaises Bleues” in Nice…the blue chairs that line the Promenade des Anglais, a very different place from this in just about every way.
This isn’t a part of the country I’ve ever had a chance to explore till now and I can tell you this…I already feel like a fish out of water. Big loud Harley-Davidsons zoomed by us, alongside the long, seemingly luxurious motor homes and all-terrain vehicles that looked like souped-up golf carts on massive wheels. There were men in cowboy hats and others in baseball caps. It came back to me to add a 20% tip to a bill and forgot that they can’t come to your table with the machine that swipes your card to make the charge. Once upon a time none of this would have seemed so “foreign” to me.
The Airbnb in Lake Havasu turned out to be a luxurious dream: a spacious studio apartment—part of a larger home—with its own small pool, a quasi-snack bar, lovely views of the mountains not far from the lake’s edge, a fireplace, a large oval Jacuzzi tub and enormous walk-in shower fit for a party of people. It was the perfect ending to the first day of our desert adventure.
And this is just the beginning. There are seven more days to go of seeing a part of America I really didn’t know before this. Our goal is to spend Christmas in Phoenix…but there’s plenty to see along the way, so stay tuned for more of our days in the desert.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian and Erica at Lake Havasu
P.S. Our newest episode of House Hunters International, Putting Down Roots in Paris, premieres January 6th! You’ll find details on our HHI page. Put it on your calendar to watch or set your DVRs now!