Art by Paul Stuttard
We take many of our annual vacations south of the US border. Because of our jobs, we find that the best time of the year for us to take holidays is late September and early October, and if we wish to wear shorts or golf, Fall weather is warmer in California and Nevada than in Canada.
On this particular trip, four couples were travelling together: Gord and Thelma, Dennis and Bev, George and Joy, and Dan and me. We decided to make a change from our usual inland route, which always started our vacation in Nevada. This year we would drive down Highway 101 from BC to California, which we had never done before.
From the very first day, we knew it would be different this year. It had been a very hot summer but the Pacific Ocean was cooling off rather quickly for September and right from Washington on south we kept hitting fog. It burned off by noon or so, but we had taken up the habit of walking our dogs at around 6:30 a.m. on the beach and at that time we couldn?t see for more than about a city block. We wore our rain slickers or KayWay Jackets to protect ourselves from the strong Pacific winds but our hair was soaked from the foggy mist and washing it to remove the salt residue became a morning ritual.
In September the traffic was a lot lighter than it normally would have been in July or August because families with children were no longer vacationing and most of the surfers and sun worshippers had returned to school or college. The new route gave us a new perspective on the scenery and we spotted interesting things that we had never noticed before. With the radios in the rigs, we were able let the others know when we spotted something that we all should stop for a better look. We were not rushed and, four days into the holiday, we knew that within a day or two we would be making our way through San Francisco. With this in mind, we made our last destination before San Francisco the small community of Petaluma. We set up all four rigs in a campsite early in the day and with the animals watered and fed, we treated ourselves to a good dinner and an early night. We knew that the following day would be an adventure going through San Francisco and we would not want to stop for our lunch break until we had cleared the city boundaries on the south side of this huge city.
As we left the campsite in the morning, there was a mist in the air. We all checked to make sure we had change for the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge. We had never had to pay this before because there is no toll collected going north on the bridge, only going south. George led the way as he had been thought the city many times, with Dan and then Dennis and then Gord pulling in behind.
We?ve always had to bypass all the interesting sights in San Francisco because the city does not cater to camping people. Parking for big rigs is non-existent and although there is a campsite somewhere under the Golden Gate Bridge, we have tried repeatedly to locate it over the past 20 years, without success. So, since Petaluma is only 39 miles (63 km) from the Golden Gate Bridge, we were sure we had plenty of time to get right through the city before lunch.
As we neared San Francisco Bay we could see that the mist that we had experienced at Petaluma was now turning into full-blown fog. It was also rush hour and drivers were coming out of nowhere, some without headlights, doing at least the speed limit or better as they rushed to work. As the fog thickened, the guys kept the CB radio lines open so we could let each other know if we saw any signage indicating where we were and how much farther we had until we would be at the bridge. Our four rigs were huddled together as though attached by an invisible bungey cord so that none of us would get separated and lost once we were in the city.
It was impossible to see signs in the fog, but George logically thought that because of the on ramps and off ramps preceding the bridge entrance, the best place to be was the middle lane. So that?s where we stayed, without wavering. The fog had the effect of making it seem as if we were moving in slow motion but when we looked at the speedometer we realized we were doing 55 (88 km/h), the same as the traffic surrounding us. It wasn?t until we were right on top of them that we saw the signs telling us that the toll booth was one-half mile ahead and then 500 yards and then 300 yards. Some lights were visible but most of our attention was focused on trying to brake so as not to run over small cars that were changing lanes abruptly and almost ending up under our front tires. Rigs the size of ours cannot stop on a dime, no matter what anyone says. We could vaguely make out some lights strung across the road ahead and George said, ?Toll booth ahead.? As we neared one of the stalls we made our way, almost attached to George?s bumper, towards the queue George had selected for all of us to go through.
This toll booth was like any other, but it had huge cement abutment guides just before you actually got your window eye to eye with the person collecting the money. These abutment guides were thickly padded with quilted vinyl, so they wouldn?t scratch cars or trucks as they slid through. The road in front of the toll windows was a mess with huge pot holes and dips in the pavement. I can?t imagine how it would be possible to do any repair work because of the volume of traffic 24 hours a day. In that small confined area with eight windows open, there had to be at least 300 cars and trucks eager to pay to cross the bridge, all lined up behind each other and all very sure that using their horn would prevent anything from getting in front of them.
Just as George started to moved into the very tiny slot to pay his money, Gord yelled over the radio that he had spotted a sign in the thick fog that said: All trucks and RV?s keep right. Our four rigs were all in the far left lane! But there was no turning back now ? George was already entering the booth and we were right behind him, watching as his 37-footer gingerly moved towards the toll taker?s window. Just then the back end of his rig took a huge dip to the right and we heard a crunching sound as the right back wheels slid down into one of the bottomless pot holes. As it lurched to the right, the side of the motorhome and the awning arm were jammed into the cement abutment. The quilted padding on the abutment made it impossible for George to back up or move ahead. He tried to manoeuvre back and forth, but to no avail. Before we knew it every car and truck horn was blowing, as if this would cure the situation. Joy got out of the motorhome and started to push on the side of the rig, but there was no way that the pot hole would let it budge. All of a sudden, out of the fog came the biggest, meanest-looking cop we had ever seen and he seemed sure that we had intentionally screwed up his day.
He yelled at George: ?Get this thing moving, you?re holding up traffic!?
George said: ?I?m sorry but we?re stuck.?
Dan got out of our rig and tried the same technique that Joy had used, but he couldn?t budge George?s RV either. He decided that the only way to break free was to tear off the awning arm. So, as Dan pushed on the side of the rig as hard as he could, George stepped on the gas and the cement abutment tore the awning arm off at the base, leaving the upper portion still attached near the roof. With the cop yelling the whole time: ?Get it moving! Get it moving!,? Dan picked up the piece of the arm that was hanging down onto the ground so George could move forward without dragging the entire awning off his motorhome.
The copy yelled: ?Drop that thing!?
Dan said: ?I can?t or he will do more damage.?
The cop yelled even louder: ?I said drop it!?
So Dan dropped the end of the sagging arm extension, which immediately fell onto the ground and dangled from the side of the motorhome.
The cop yelled: ?Pick that up!?
Dan was furious by now and yelled back: ?Make up your mind!?
Finally, Dan ran alongside George?s rig, holding up the awning until the cop could steer them across the entire eight lanes of traffic to an emergency pull out.
This left me alone in our rig to try and ?run the gauntlet? and I had never driven the motorhome before in my life. Like a ghost, once again the cop appeared through the fog and started yelling orders at me to ?Get moving!? I had about 10 feet to go to be at the pay window, but could I avoid the huge pothole? He kept yelling and making me more and more nervous, but I pulled over a few inches to the left as I moved forward hoping that this would make my back wheel miss the hole and it seemed to work. I was moving forward without leaning and I was trying to watch through the side mirrors while Dennis guided me over the radio. Dan had been watching from the emergency area as the cop bullied me into driving our rig and, without even thinking, he darted out into the eight lanes of traffic that had just come through the toll booths and sprinted towards our RV. With loud speakers yelling at him to get out of traffic, he was coming through the side door to save me.
As Dan pulled up to the window to pay the young lady, he tried to apologize for the four of us holding up her queue. She told Dan there was no need to apologize as this happened all the time, The previous week, the bridge patrol actually had to call a crane truck in to get someone unstuck.
We then made our way over the eight lanes of traffic to the emergency area, followed by Dennis and Gord. The four guys tried to hold up the awning with clips and wires until we could get further down the road. The same cop came over to tell us that we couldn?t stop there as it was an area for emergencies. What was this?! But his partner, who appeared as the guys were just about finished tying up the arm, was much more pleasant. He said: ?You guys are fast and do great work,? and with a sly smile, added, ?Would you like to try and fix my motorcycle for me??
We then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge with it?s pea soup fog and non-existent signs, leaving the miserable cop and his friendly partner, as well as the very gracious toll booth girl, far behind us. None of us has ever suggested that we go south on Highway 101 again. Going through life in a fog is just not for us, I guess.