We had booked our flights to California from Israel without any concrete plans for where to go and what to do. All we knew was that we wanted to explore and that there was only really one right way to do it – a California road trip! Just before we left Israel, we managed to team up with James of the awesome Man Tripping, #MenWhoBlog, and with Mazda USA for the California road trip of a lifetime!
The plan? To take a fleet of brand new 2016 Mazda cars out into the vast desert and stunning national parks of Southern California (So Cal) to put them through their paces in one of the most challenging environments in the world and at the same time, to discover how well they handle the rigors of a California road trip! A key philosophy behind this journey was #DrivingMatters – the idea of getting back to the heart and soul of what driving a car is all about. The vibration through the wheel, the rush of fresh air through the window, the tingling sensation in your spine as one tight bend sweeps into the next on a sketchy mountain road, all framed by a panoramic vista of peaks and valleys carpeted in trees. Time to put the “Zoom” back in the “Zoom-Zoom!”
California Road Trip Part 1 – Los Angeles – Santa Barbara – Mazda 6 Grand Touring
When we arrived in Los Angeles at LAX airport, we took the shuttle over to where our first California road trip car was waiting – the Mazda 6 Grand Touring. It was already dark, giving the metallic burgundy paint and the sweeping lines of the bodywork a shimmering glow under the fluorescent lights. First impressions based on looks alone – sleek, sporty, poised, very stylish, yet understated and not at all space-age or garish.
Having left our apartment in Bogota far behind and brought all our belongings with us, the first challenge for the Mazda 6 was to fit our huge amount of luggage into the boot, or trunk if you prefer. This was never going to be an issue as we easily threw in my super-size duffel bag, Kach’s hard case, a 65-litre backpack, and two day-backpacks. It was massive, so far so good for our California road trip!
Climbing inside, I showed how out of touch I was after a year and a half in South America as I spent about 5 minutes trying to figure out where to put the key. Finally, I realized the obvious, put it back in my pocket and pressed the button with START written across it!
On first starting, the engine seemed to have an almost diesel like tone, which became a satisfying raspy growl as I blipped the accelerator. This is apparently due to the high-compression Sky Active technology, providing more power from a smaller engine, yet still giving high fuel efficiency, particularly in 6th gear at cruising speeds. Although I always prefer a manual gearbox, being in the US, I wasn’t surprised to find an automatic gear selector in the center console. Happily, though, I also found there was a sequential option on both the lever and on two ‘flappy paddles’ on the steering column. As soon as we joined the main road, the first thing I noticed was the beeping noise anytime I moved close to the edge of the lane, which obviously can be useful but was just too sensitive and became annoying fast! Luckily, I found the button to switch it off! Something I did really like, however, was the blind spot monitor on the wing mirrors, which would light up when a car was in the blind spot and would only beep at you if you were indicating to change lane, or in danger of hitting another car. An amazingly simple feature which solves the issue of some drivers not turning their heads to check before pulling out!
We entered the address of our friends’ house in Santa Barbara into the onboard computer on the dashboard and set off down the highway. Out on the road, the Mazda 6 felt smooth, comfortable and quiet when cruising in the top two gears, yet ready to go with a quick down shift or two. I liked the electronic driver’s seat adjustment, with the leather seats being firm and comfortable, with just a little wrap around in the bolsters to ensure that you would stay in them through a sharp bend!
The next morning in Santa Barbara we had a few hours to hang out with our friends before heading back to Los Angeles to file Kach’s UK Visa application, ready for our wedding in July 2016! Around the city, the car was a pleasure to drive and the interior a nice place to be, even when sitting in Los Angeles rush hour traffic. While obviously not in the luxury sedan bracket, the quality of finishing made it feel like it could have been, with seats covered in panels of different leather and the door handles cast in brushed aluminum. Despite having ice-cold AC and climate control, the inclusion of a sunroof was a great touch, especially on the route we took back to Santa Barbara – Malibu Canyon, onto the iconic Pacific Coastal Highway 1. Driving this road gave us our first chance to experience what Mazda was trying to achieve here, sailing smoothly through sweeping, undulating bends, fresh sea air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean to the left and the imposing cliffs to the right, late afternoon sunshine streaming in through the open sunroof. The sensation reminded me of driving my old classic convertible along the coast roads of southern England, with the biggest difference being the reassurance of the Mazda 6 Traction Control System keeping an eye on me in the background, without interfering with my driving pleasure!
California Road Trip Part 2 – Joshua Tree, Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain and East Jesus – with the Mazda 6
After hanging out in Santa Barbara, we headed south to our first California Road Trip destination – Joshua Tree National Park. We had heard many things about Joshua Tree National Park before, mostly the vast open spaces, impossibly clear-blue skies, amazing Mars-like rock formations and of course, Joshua Trees!
It was a long drive from Santa Barbara, but it flew by as we cruised down the highway, watching the coastal scenery disappear and give way to the dust and rocks of the open desert, warm air blasting in through the sunroof and bad country music playing on the radio. This was starting to feel like a California road trip!
We arrived at our camp site in Joshua Tree National Park in the late afternoon, with just enough time to meet everyone, set up our tent and get the BBQ going for a sunset dinner.
On the trip with us were seven other great US bloggers whom we had never met before:
James & Heather from Man Tripping | Mike from The Gentleman Racer | Lesley from Bucket List Publications | Greg from Suburban Men | Drew from BenSpark.com | Yvonne from Moms LA | Tom from Travel Past 50
While we had driven the Mazda 6 to Joshua Tree National Park, everyone else had driven other new models from Mazda’s 2016 range. All in all, we had the Mazda 6, Mazda CX5 AWD, Mazda 3, Mazda CX3 and the Mazda CX3 AWD, all of which were ready to be put to the test on our #DrivingMatters California road trip through the desert!
Our camp site was surrounded by amazing rock formations – monstrous boulders piled on top of one another as if they have just fallen from the sky onto the empty desert floor. The first thing that Mike and I decided to do was climb to the very top of the rock stack to the get a view over the park and the fast-approaching sunset, which threw shadows and golden light across the rocks and peculiar-shaped Joshua Trees.
As the sun set completely, the sky transformed into a black carpet of stars, with the bright moon as its centerpiece casting a mellow glow across the night. To help us make some sense of everything, a professional star gazer from Coyote Telescope joined us with a powerful telescope and a wealth of knowledge, pointing out constellations, planets and their moons and providing an insight into the vastness of the galaxy and the universe which surrounds us. It’s healthy to feel small sometimes!
The next day we headed out on the first proper day of our #DrivingMatters California road trip, with a trip to the Salton Sea. Our route took us through the Joshua Tree National Park and out towards the nearby mountain range. As it exited the park and reached the mountains, the road suddenly changed from wide, straight and smooth to a tarmac playground for big boys with big toys! With one click of the Sports button on the center console, the suspension stiffened, the steering became more responsive and most importantly, the engine sprang into life, and the rev needle jumped up the dial. The already capable and sporty sedan now hit every sharp and twisted bend like it was on rails, staying perfectly balanced without even a hint of understeer, all the way through the mountains and to the Salton Sea on the other side.
This man-made lake which was accidentally created thanks to an engineering error which caused the Colorado River to breach its diversion canals in 1905. As the whole area was previously a salt flat, the resulting lake became the Salton Sea!
For a while, the ‘new sea’ became a hot spot for the rich to the holiday, including Frank Sinatra and was the location for many speedboat races and speed records right through to the 1940’s and 50’s. Eventually, though, the Colorado river kept depositing more and more salt into the lake, increasing the salinity and killing the fish stocks and other wildlife which were keeping it alive. Today, with the additional impact of agriculture and water diversion, Salton Sea is all but dead, with some of the ruined old buildings from its hay day still visible along the waterline.
When we arrived, we walked onto the white beach, shells crunching underfoot, only to find that the shells were, in fact, the bones and scales of thousands of dead fish, dried and bleached out by the sun.
The nearby ‘town’ (if it can be called that) of Bombay Beach, was an equally bizarre yet strangely captivating place – a barely inhabited collection of old bungalows, shack houses, and trailers, with rusted old cars strewn about the roadside. In the decline which followed the rest of the Salton Sea, the little seaside town now resembles a place where only the old, stubborn and fugitive seek shelter from the rest of civilization.
Our next destination was a huge highlight of our California road trip. Slab City is a place we had both heard of in books, films, and traveler’s stories, yet neither of us was prepared for how it would be in person. This abandoned US Air Force base outside of Niland, California was shut down after the Second World War, leaving only the concrete slabs of the old barracks behind. These slabs proved to be a perfect home for RV and motorhome travelers looking for level ground to park their home on. The potent combination of desert heat and random free-spirited wanderers in their world of self-governance and creative-expression provided the perfect environment for the cultivation of eccentric art projects.
For one man though, it was a place to find God. In 1986, Leonard Knight found salvation in the desert, and from that moment on he dedicated his life to building his monument dedicated to his creator and savior – Salvation Mountain. From Adobe – mud, and straw – he sculpted a small hillock in a series of organic shapes, curves, spirals, and bright colored paint, with GOD IS LOVE as the focal point in the installation. Words truly cannot describe this life’s work, but the photos do quite a good job!
Driving through Slab City, into the far corner of the community, we found East Jesus, an artists’ community where a bare patch of desert has been transformed into an outdoor sculpture park, mostly made up creative scrap metal creations and a massive wall of televisions, each with anti-establishment messages scrawled across them in bright red paint. The curator of the park was more of an attraction than the park itself with his long wizard beard, endless stories, hooked tobacco pipe and goblet of wine!
After having lunch in a nearby diner, we drove back out into the desert and back to our camp site in Joshua Tree National Park, exchanging our stories, our thoughts on what we had found and the cars we had driven around the camp fire.
California Road Trip Part 3 – Giant Rock and Route 66 – with the Mazda CX5 AWD
On the last day of our California road trip, we decided to switch cars and try out the Mazda CX5 AWD, which we were excited to drive as this stylish and versatile SUV has been recognized for its low environmental impact as well being very economically priced, as proven by its Whatcar? Car of the year awards for Best Large SUV under $25,000 3 years running and an Ultralow Carbon award. We had already heard very good things about this car from Greg who had driven it the day before, and our first impression was that it’s a very good looking car. As someone who isn’t a fan of SUV’s, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Today we were going to be driving along the Historic Route 66, also known as Old ’66. It’s an iconic road for anyone with love for travel and especially road trips, as one of the first routes which provided a reliable road crossing from the East to the West coast of the USA.
Before we joined this iconic piece of highway, we drove out to something called the Integratron – about one hour away from Joshua Tree National Park and just as weird and interesting as it the name sounds. This rather odd-looking piece of architecture was designed and built in the 1950’s by a man who was in contact with extra-terrestrials. In fact, they taught him how to build it! Built entirely from wood, this ‘device’ is now open to the public for ‘sonic healing treatments.’
We couldn’t quite figure out what it was and it would have cost around $400 each to find out, so we may never know. The manager did, however, tell us all about a place called Giant Rock, just 30 minutes’ drive off-road through the desert which sounded much more our style, so we took his advice and drove down the sandy track. The directions consisted of, ‘Take that dirt road over there…you got four wheel drive right? Ok cool, so follow that road and every time it splits, stay to the right of the big mountain. In a little while, you’ll reach Giant Rock, can’t miss it.’ You have to love desert people! It turned out that the road was nowhere near as bad as he made out, but it did at least require some decent clearance. The desert road was a series of undulating peaks and troughs through soft sand, often pitching the car across the diagonal from front to rear – the most challenging test for any off-road vehicle. The CX-5 handled the terrain perfectly, with plenty of clearance to negotiate the rough ground without ever touching the sills. The four wheel drive system, combined with the Traction Control System kept us moving smoothly whenever the sand became softer. While the wheels were big, the tires had enough profile so that they could handle being off the tarmac. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Mazda’s SUV, as I usually see them as pointless 4 wheel drive cars designed to be used in the city with a bit of extra visibility. So far the CX-5 was good looking, smooth and powerful on the road, technically capable off the road – looking good! The interior quality of the CX-5 was almost as up there with the Mazda 6, with the finishing touches not having quite the same level of quality to them. Then again, if I hadn’t had already driven the 6, I wouldn’t have noticed! The seats were big and comfortable, the driver’s side operated electronically, the on-board computer was the same as in the Mazda 6, and the interior was big enough to give everyone plenty of legroom. For a big car with plenty of clearance, it handled well and stayed nice and flat in the corners, with the Sports function giving it a similar feel to the Mazda 6 when you wanted a little bit more fun in the twisty turns.
Despite the dubious directions, everything went exactly as planned and we arrived Giant Rock, which turned out to be exactly that, a giant rock! About the size of a big house, Giant Rock is a massive boulder which sits at the bottom of the cliff it probably used to be attached to. It’s rumored to be the biggest free-standing boulder in the US, but we don’t know if that’s true. The whole site seemed to be a favorite spot for kids to hang out, judging by the graffiti, empty paint cans and spent shotgun shells all over the floor. Desert people know how to have fun! After a couple of photos, we made our way back to the main road and headed for Route 66.
Our first stop was the Route 66 Museum in Old Town Victorville, a small building filled with Route 66 memorabilia, some interactive video displays and a handful of retirees who can’t wait to tell you all kinds of stories. (WARNING – Most of these stories are very long and will have nothing to do with Route 66!) After this brief stop, we went for lunch in one of the oldest roadside diners in the country, Emma Jean’s, which has been open continuously since 1947. We had a couple of American-size classic burgers, then hit the road.
Route 66 is 2300 miles of iconic American highway, which was the first single road to cross the US from East to West. Nowadays, thanks to the construction of wider, faster roads, many of the businesses and towns which relied on the passing traffic to keep going have either collapsed altogether or become run-down shadows of what they once were. It does make for some great photo opportunities though, and the long straights are an amazing chance to put your foot down on an open road with no other traffic around.
As we drove along Route 66, we came across Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, another example of what people do when their creativity overflows into the desert sand! This man-made woodland by the roadside is the creation of Elmer Long, who has spent many years collecting glass bottles of various colors and building glass trees to emulate the changing colors of leaves in the autumn. We spent quite a long time here to take photos and wander around, but we weren’t lucky enough to meet Elmer himself, although many other visitors have!
From Route 66 we had one long drive ahead of us, all the way to 29 Palms, a small desert oasis with log cabins and accommodation built from Adobe, all arranged around a small desert oasis. Here we would ditch the tents in favor of real beds, a swimming pool, and an amazing meal. The perfect way to finish up our #DrivingMatters California Road Trip!
The next day, rested and relaxed, we packed up and headed back to Los Angeles in the Mazda 6, ready for the next stage of our amazing California Road Trip!
Huge thanks to everyone involved who helped to make this California road trip happen and turned it into such an incredible experience! Thank you to Mazda USA for sponsoring our #DrivingMatters Trip. If you’d like to read more about our Joshua Tree trip, check out the Men Who Blog website to read the other stories of our new blogging friends who joined us!
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