Day 3 – 9th May
On this day, I decided to do a circuit, from the La Brea Tar Pits, to the Farmers’ Market, to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The La Brea Tar Pits sit above an oil field, where asphalt seeps up to the surface in pits that were dug for mining. When you watch the largest tar pit, it constantly bubbles like something volcanic, as methane and hydrogen sulphide gas break the surface. In the 1870s, the site was found to contain more than asphalt: it was full of fossils, the remains of animals and plants that had become trapped in the tar and preserved as far back as 55,000 years ago. The best known fossils are large Ice Age mammals, like the Columbian mammoths which are depicted as sculptures in the largest pit, but mixed within the asphalt are much smaller remnants – from rodent bones to plant fragments – that paint a detailed picture of the environment at the time.
You can walk around the outdoor tar pits for free, but I was unsure whether to spend more money to go inside the museum itself, particularly when I had already seen prehistoric mammal skeletons at the Natural History Museum the day before. Eventually, I decided to follow my heart – another lesson I took away from this holiday – and went into the museum. I didn’t regret it. While relatively small as museums go, it provided another satisfying dose of fascinating fossils: ground sloths, sabre-toothed cats, mammoths, camels, horses, bears and dire wolves. As with the Natural History Museum, you could see into a real lab where fossils were being prepared.
Following that enjoyable morning, I knew exactly what I wanted for lunch. On my last visit in 2012, the tour group had gone to Magee’s at the Farmers’ Market, and I had eaten a particularly delicious warm turkey sandwich with lettuce and mayo. So seven years on, I returned to Magee’s and had the exact same sandwich – which was just as good – followed by a cookie-dough ice cream cone. Then I took the bus up to Hollywood.
For travellers who are unfamiliar with Los Angeles, the bus is considerate enough to announce each stop with an automated voice; and I couldn’t help but notice that once we turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, this voice had a particular cheerful inflection whenever it said ‘Hollywood’. I had already seen the Walk of Fame on my last visit, but I stopped by the Chinese Theatre to see if there were any new handprints. There were indeed some newer ones, which tended to be smaller and crammed around the edges; they included the late Stan Lee, La La Land stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the three main stars of the oh-so-memorable Hunger Games franchise. I also took some time to examine the stars on the sidewalk, and spotted some guys taking a photo with Donald Trump’s star. Compared to everything else I had done in Los Angeles thus far, I didn’t like the Walk of Fame all that much; with all the tourist traps and people in costume, it felt very tacky, and I didn’t hang around for long.
Later in the day, I took a shuttle up the hill to the north, to visit Griffith Observatory. This observatory, which features an excellent view of the city, appears in many different films, such as the beginning of The Terminator. Free to enter, it features a variety of astronomical exhibits: I particularly liked the timeline of the universe, the pendulum which demonstrates the rotation of the Earth beneath it as it knocks over pegs every ten minutes, and a seismograph which registers you stepping or jumping on it. You can take a look through the telescope when it’s dark, but there was no point that day; the weather remained disappointingly cloudy.
Day 4 – 10th May
Today, I headed to Union Station early in the morning for a day trip to San Diego. While I’d heard about the questionable reliability of Amtrak trains, I was hoping I would be lucky – but I wasn’t. Due to “mechanical issues”, my train was nearly an hour late in leaving Los Angeles; and because it had missed its window, it had to stop along the way to let another train pass in the opposite direction. The end result was that while I did eventually arrive in San Diego, I had less time in the city than intended, so I wasn’t able to walk around as much as I’d hoped. Fortunately, I still had time to see the museums I had already paid for online.
The first of these was the San Diego Air & Space Museum. At the entrance, you are welcomed by a talking animatronic of Charles Lindbergh, standing beside a replica of the Spirit of St Louis. From there, the museum is a circuit, with historic aircraft both parked on the ground and hanging from the ceiling. They are so tightly packed that it isn’t always easy to figure out what each sign is referring to, so you need to use the map to determine what’s what based on position.
My main reason for visiting was the Apollo 9 command module, which currently lives within a larger exhibit of space-related items and models. Apollo 9, which flew in March 1969, was an important milestone in the race to the Moon; astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart tested the entire Apollo spacecraft configuration in Earth orbit, including the first manned flight of the lunar module. These were the first Apollo spacecraft to have callsigns: the lunar module was named “Spider”, while the command module was called “Gumdrop”, as it was shipped to Florida wrapped in blue plastic.
The second museum I visited was the USS Midway, a 64,000-ton aircraft carrier docked in the San Diego Bay. Midway was named after the Battle of Midway, a decisive naval victory for the Americans over the Japanese in World War II. (The Americans lost an aircraft carrier in the battle; the Japanese lost four.) She was operational from 1945 to 1992, before becoming a museum ship.
After entering and having a little wander around the hangar deck, I proceeded up to the flight deck, where I was greeted by this beauty.
Hmmm, where have I seen this before?
Yes, it’s an F-14 Tomcat, the star of one of my favourite films, Top Gun! Definitely a pleasure to finally see one in real life.
There were plenty of other naval aircraft parked on the flight deck, from the F-4 Phantom to the sleek RA-5 Vigilante. I was able to learn what “Call the ball” means when Maverick is coming in to land; it refers to the lights on the carrier whose position tells a pilot whether their approach angle is too high, too low or just right. I also spent some time listening to a talk by a Vietnam veteran on how aircraft land on carriers. As seen in Top Gun, the plane uses a tailhook to catch one of a few arresting cables stretched across the deck; I learned many details I hadn’t known before, like how the wires are connected to hydraulics below deck which absorb the plane’s kinetic energy, and how the pilot must put the engines to full throttle upon touchdown in case they miss the cables and have to take off again.
The exhibits below decks were fascinating. When operational, Midway had a full crew complement of 4,500, and so had to function as a floating city to keep everyone happy and healthy on their long tours away from home. As well as the galleys, there was the sick bay, dental room, brig, laundry room, chapel, and even a post office.
Before leaving, I went to the gift shop to get souvenirs for my family. There was a lot of Top Gun-themed merchandise there; since my dad and sister love the film as much as I do, I got a cap for him and a T-shirt for her. There is a special pleasure that comes from picking out a gift for someone that you know they’re going to love.