The mood in California was apologetic. Most people we met seemed embarrassed that their country’s dirty laundry was being aired quite so publicly. Hillary or the Donald? It will have to be Hillary, they sighed. Few seemed stirred by the prospect, but it was hard to avoid the subject. In Half Moon Bay in San Mateo county, we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, perched on top of the cliffs. While salty mist drifted across the Pacific and pods of whales floated by, the second presidential TV debate rumbled on in the hotel bar. As the two candidates sparred, guests tut-tutted over their gin fizzes and tried not to look entertained.
It was pumpkin season and the fields were dotted with swollen, pimply gourds. A 2,000lb beast had been brought in by truck and crane, and the coastal roads were jammed up with locals coming to see it. Smaller pumpkins had been carved and placed on verandas while ‘Trumpkins’ — with angry, orange faces and pale, pithy hair — joined the line-up of ghouls and other ghastlies.
During a hike in the sugar pine forest around Lake Tahoe — a lake so clean you can drink straight from it — our thirtysomething guide explained why he would be voting for the first time for the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. He wanted what was best for America, and thought that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were offering that this time round. Many of his friends would be doing the same, he added, before moving on to a story about the black bear he once spotted hiding between the aspen trees.
Down in Silicon Valley, Google’s driverless cars were being tested on the roads. In the Stanford shopping centre in Palo Alto, Tesla’s electric cars — which can accelerate, brake and steer by themselves — were available to buy. Perhaps in the future a tech company will automate the race to the White House, so as to avoid another car crash like this one. I suppose that whatever happens on 8 November, the sun will continue to shine in California and the wine will still flow. But catching Americans grimacing behind those all-white smiles felt uncomfortable. Brexit happened, they reminded us.
So we stopped asking questions, and started focusing on other things. We visited Moma’s newly restored outpost in downtown San Francisco, and gazed at the collection of surrealist, pop and abstract expressionist art. We dined on plump oysters and shrimp dumplings, and finished everything off with fortune cookies (yet another San Franciscan innovation, and one of its best). A friend who hails from this foggy city advised that locals add some levity to the fortune inside by including ‘in between the sheets’ as an addendum. For example: ‘You will travel to many exotic places… in between the sheets’. America will soon learn its own fortune: will it be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton… in between the sheets?