The sea lions were the first domino; I just had to see them. Seven and a half years previously, I'd spent literally hours marveling at the the pinnipeds that call the floating docks at the end of Pier 39 home, naively joyous in their comical, limb-less mannerisms and interactions with one another. Presently, after the better part of three days in San Francisco, I couldn't forgive myself if I left without beholding them once again. Not long ago, the entire herd had abruptly and mysteriously vanished, but they had been gradually trickling back and even the relatively small crew that was hanging out on an overcast late December morning made for an entertaining scene.
Despite a laudably early start to this excursion, I didn't get back to the hostel until a bit after nine, by which point the chain reaction of tardiness had been set irrevocably in motion. The ladies, to their credit, were mostly ready to go; it was Chuck, without me physically there to nag at him, who was a bit more dilatory. Then we all took turns remembering something crucial (phone chargers, passports, etc.) that we'd left in our bunks and before we knew it, it was the other side of ten when we at last began the march down to the BART station.
The train ran smoothly enough, but at the airport we fell victim to the golden rule of renting a car (a corollary to the Law of Bank Teller Queues): you'll inevitably get there just seconds after someone who knows precisely how to occupy an inordinate amount of the clerk's time. Adding insult to injury, the rental company ran out of appropriately human-scale cars and oh so generously handed me a "free upgrade" to a Chevy Malibu, which had to be one of the worst U.S.-manufactured models to emerge from the period immediately post-auto bailout. Armed with this clunky trash bin, we finally emerged from SFO's rental car garage at about noon, officially bound for the City of Angels.
Even in an ideally balmy climate such as coastal California's, the escalating latitude means that winter still rears its ugly head, most tangibly oppressive in the diurnal stinginess with which it permits the sun's rays to grace the surface of the Earth. At midday the clock was already ticking, conceding about five hours of natural light to cover a drive that, if done right, requires closer to twice that. I had envisioned a leisurely meander along the Pacific, with stops at any number of rewarding attractions on the way: the famous boardwalk in Santa Cruz; Steinbeck's Monterey with its historic Cannery Row and renowned aquarium; short hikes to breathtaking vistas dotting the Big Sur; the Hearst Mansion, arguably the most extravagant residence ever built in this country; the string of 18th-century Spanish missions scattered down the coast; Solvang, a Danish village plopped in the middle of Southern California; and the funky fusion of college town and beach town that is Santa Barbara. Including breaks for lunch and dinner, such a plan, if executed properly, would have seen us into L.A. around ten that night.
Of course, that was all predicated on my original pipe dream of having been locked and loaded in the rental car by ten in the morning. Instead, given the inevitability of Murphy's Law when traveling in a small group, with a pre-root canal level of dread I was now confronting the notion of scrapping the Pacific Coast Highway altogether. It was a miserable thought, one that I mentally cudgeled into oblivion almost instantaneously. Driving the PCH was the essential crux of this trip. You can't be a card-carrying American Road Tripper until you've done it. The primary alternative, though significantly less time-consuming, would have mandated imprisonment on Interstate 5, hundreds of miles of a hermetically sealed, hyper-speed conveyor belt through the desolate, sun-stroked Central Valley.
Not a chance in hell.
The autumn of 2011 was a time of transition for me. Earlier in the year I'd fallen out of the only serious, long-term romantic relationship I'd ever been involved in up to that point in my life, and being single for the first time since I'd finished school and become gainfully employed brought me to the intersection of money, free time, and restlessness that allowed me to be footloose and fancy-free in a way that I never previously had.
I celebrated by squirting lighter fluid onto the smoldering kindling beneath my latently itchy feet, spending more October and November nights resting my head on pillows in far-off beds than in my own. Cleveland. The Finger Lakes. Nashville. Toronto. New York City. D.C. Santa Fe. Portland. This itinerancy only served to exacerbate the burn; as the holidays approached, I began to formulate plans for something more grandiose. The winner I settled on was a jaunt down California State Route 1, from the Bay to L.A.
The cherry on top was arranging for my younger brother, Chuck, to join me. It wasn't that I'm averse to traveling solo - that couldn't be further from the truth - but rather, that I hadn't spent much quality time with Chuck in recent times. We'd had a pretty close childhood for being nearly four years apart in age, but as we grew up, we discovered that we were about as fundamentally different people as siblings can be. Chuck was the extrovert, the popular one, the partier, a fish in water when immersed in a garrulous crowd. I was the introvert, impatient with and drained by extensive interaction with most humans save for a small, exclusive inner circle of friends. Chuck, quick to get his hackles up and fight back in the face of any perceived slight. Me, laissez-faire to a fault, always preferring to err on the side of letting things roll off my back, not infrequently to my own detriment. College years accentuated already-diverging paths and personalities with time and geography, and deep down I feared how hard it might be to reverse an ever-increasing distance in my relationship with my only sibling. With Chuck on board for this trip, I felt things were aligning to make it one hell of an adventure, the kind whose exuberant designs are only exceeded by the reality of it.
In order to maximize our time on the Best Coast, we departed on Saturday morning, Christmas Eve, dodging questions of how we could be so soulless as to not feel an overwhelming amount of sentimentality about not spending the holidays with our kin. It was a new low for the grandsons of a minister. My retort, and I thought it was a fair one, was that 25 family Christmases out of the 26 for which I'd been alive wasn't a bad record.
I had convinced myself that wasn't such a callous way to look at it, but then that Christmas took on a whole different perspective to our family. No sooner had we landed at SFO than Chuck and I received the extremely sobering news that Uncle Roger, our dad's brother-in-law, had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer while we'd been in transit. Cancer of the pancreas is one of those most grim varieties to begin with, but the swiftness with which it had overtaken him stunned us all. Having been diagnosed not even three months earlier, he took a turn for the worse around Thanksgiving and then another towards the end of Advent. A prognosis that had given him months to cling to was, on the night before Christmas, abruptly shrunk to mere hours.
As we lugged our backpacks to the airport BART station, my mind ran the gamut of loss-related emotions: grief, that someone who we had always taken for granted as being part of our lives was simply not going to be there anymore; anger, that his two college-aged kids, our cousins, were all of a sudden not going to have a father and all of the innumerable and irreplaceable things that a father provides for his children no matter how old they are, but especially at such a critical stage in their ascent to adulthood; gratitude, that we had been fortunate to call family such an intelligent, conscientious, and principled man (even if we didn't exactly see eye to eye on a number of particular principles); and guilt, that we had selfishly insisted on being apart from our family during this season of togetherness.
On that last count, I was assuaged a tiny bit by the knowledge that Uncle Roger was something of an adventurer himself, having sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, among other exploits. For as little as it could possibly mean to anyone, I wanted to believe that this trip was dedicated to him in a way, with its almost unscriptably perfect weather from start to finish and an inimitable cast of characters that included old friends and serendipitous new entries to our lives, loved ones we'd talk to every day for the foreseeable future and passing acquaintances we'd probably never hear from again. Not to mention the endless reel of highlights, surprises around every corner, and, to borrow a phrase from our late uncle, plain old memorable moments.
From since I can remember up until I finished high school, my parents, my brother, and I would spend a midsummer week at the Jersey Shore with Uncle Roger and his family. Every single evening, without fail, we would not be permitted to abscond from the dinner table until we had revealed, at Uncle Roger's behest, what the "most memorable moment" of our day had been. Sometimes the group assembled around the table would contain various interlopers, family friends or fellow beach-going neighbors from down the block, but absolutely no one was granted amnesty from this nightly ritual. It was a terrific way to remind us all to keep our eyes open and to appreciate the beauty each day inevitably bestowed on us fortunate fools.
It was clear, then, the very least I could do was to make damn sure this would be a journey so superb that when it was all said and done, there would be no shortage of moments that could plead a case for "most memorable."
Roadfaring at last, our initial stop was to be in Half Moon Bay, where Chuck had arranged to meet a guy with whom he had studied in Barcelona the previous spring. This should have been the simplest of tasks, an easy thirty-minute cruise from I-380, except it was Chuck's job to relay our specific rendezvous spot, and the odd, zero-sum trait distribution between us had gifted me with a hundred percent of the "map wonk" attribute. Trying to extract comprehensible directions from him could often be the equivalent of asking a blind man to describe a Van Gogh. When his lack of innate navigational nous is compounded by the fact that he's trying to disseminate information from a third party, things are liable to happen like winding up in the driveway of the Ritz-Carlton, getting accosted by a whole procession of valet parkers and bellhops and feeling increasingly unnerved that anyone could need this many people attending to them when they travel.
When we finally did locate Chuck's friend the reunion dragged on into the early afternoon, but as one who is intimately familiar with the bonds that can be forged over the shared experience of living in a foreign country with someone, I couldn't in good conscience pull him away. The ladies, for their part, patiently smoked a couple of cigarettes to pass the time without complaint on this windy bluff overlooking the Pacific. It helped that Half Moon Bay was quite easy on the eye, beaches tucked at the bottom of cliffs, providing a sense of seclusion for those who pick their way down to them. The vibrant red and green asserted by the mantle of wild paintbrush flowers added a festive comportment to the scene.
At Santa Cruz, the road drifted away from the sea and became a freeway, rendering the subsequent forty-some miles distinctly unexceptional. It's possible to fly past Monterey and Carmel without ever knowing they're there, which is what we did, eliciting a twinge of regret, but alas, we were already staring down the barrel of having to make up far too much distance after dark. Right when the lull of mundanity was threatening to overcome us, the expressway ended and the ground suddenly sloped off to reveal the verdant Carmel Valley. It was the first unequivocally inimitable moment of the ride, the moment that fully hammered home that I was rolling down the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway. Shortly thereafter, the road reduced to two lanes in preparation for the following hundred miles of dizzying, coast-hugging glory.
The one upside to having gotten a late start was that the fog that treacherously clings to the shore through most mornings had retreated to a thin layer of haze in the afternoon sky by the time we flitted in, leaving us with an unobstructed view of the sharply defined shoreline and the sheer drops to the boundless expanse of the sparkling ocean. Windows were slid down in celebration, all the better to facilitate the dual sensory thrill of basking in the oblique warmth of the winter sun while sucking into our lungs the refreshing chill wafting up from the water below.
The PCH is so omnipresent amongst the superlatives doled out by Those Who Know, the compilers of travel guides and the composers of Internet listicles, it would have almost been forgivable for this drive to even marginally fail to live up to the massive hype that precedes it. Yet no apology was necessary. Instead it was us who were indebted to this deity of asphalt and yellow paint. Twenty miles went by, simultaneously feeling like they took hours to navigate but still like they disappeared all too quickly, the magic mark of a truly worthwhile drive.
I'll stop myself just short of falling into the clichéd trap of professing that "I left my heart in San Francisco." Rather, I'll suggest the analogy that San Francisco was my first lover, the older, more experienced lady who seduced me as an impressionable, wide-eyed teenager and made me see the world in an entirely new light from then on. She tapped into a lust I didn't even know I possessed, a lust for this planet and every place on it.
In the summer of 2004, a cousin was getting married in Oregon and my parents decided to craft a whole West Coast trip out of it. I was seventeen at the time and in the throes of my nastiest bout with adolescent angst. Everything my parents wanted me to do was, by default, an intentional torment inflicted upon me. This included family vacations, on which a disproportionate amount of our disposable income was spent. I could try to blame this lack of curiosity and gratitude on those dangerously proliferating hormones, making me pine only for being at home where I could wait for social invitations from so-called friends that rarely came and desperately try to set up dates that routinely fell through. The truth, though, is that I had pretty much always been an unappreciative little shit.
Then, during those few, brisk August days in San Francisco, it was like a switch had flipped. Everything about her completely mesmerized me. The climbs, the views, the fog, the urbanity, the ethereal undercurrent humming below the ground, discernible only to those who seek it out, of a city that has seen a little bit of everything, triumph and tragedy alike, crammed into a history spanning less than two centuries. For the first time, the total package of a place came together for me in a way that would leave my mind forever yearning.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I returned in my mid-twenties, now far more seasoned and world-weary than I had been as a teen. Would she look the same to me? Would I invite undue disappointment by noticing blemishes and scars that I didn't before, when I had been so caught up in the heady exhilaration of giving myself over to her ministrations? Or perhaps she herself may have changed, grown more cynical and less romantic to keep pace in this constantly and violently evolving epoch of greed and self-interest. The next sixty-odd hours would answer these questions; whether the answers would prove satisfying or not was another riddle altogether.
I did receive a hint almost immediately upon entering the city, as we hoofed it up California Street from the BART station, following the streetcar tracks. We hooked a right and in short order arrived at the five-way intersection at the terminus of Columbus Avenue, where we were summarily greeted by the iconic Transamerica Pyramid rising into the dusky sky, presenting itself to us for the first of countless times. At this point I was worn out, both physically, from all-day plane travel, and emotionally, from the awful news that had been awaiting us upon landing. I've found, though, that there's invariably a singular moment near the beginning of any journey, a moment where debilitating exhaustion totally melts away, replaced with nothing but excitement and anticipation. On this trip, that sight was such a watershed for me.
I've always loved the Transamerica Pyramid. In all honesty, it's one of my favorite buildings in the world. The 1920s and 30s gifted us their handsome Art Deco masterpieces and the modern era has bestowed upon us its gleaming, curvy, glassy behemoths, but I have a soft spot for the skyscraper that manages to acquit itself well despite coming out of the architecturally forgettable middle decades of the 20th century, which spewed out aesthetically numbing concrete and steel boxes by the dozen. What the Pyramid does with notable effect is tickle my fetish for structures that act as "beacons" in that they are visible from practically anywhere in their surrounding vicinity and thus can act as a North Star of sorts for the directionally (or sobrietally) challenged wayfarer.
This affection started during my short-lived fling with Boston, living a brief walk from the hulking Prudential Center. "The Pru," not to mince words, is an unattractive edifice by just about any standard, but damned if it can't be picked out from seemingly everywhere within a five-mile radius. From Cambridge to Chinatown, from Somerville to Southie, it served as a remarkably effective navigational aide for many a drunken sojourn back to the dorms in those dark ages before the prevalence of smart phones. San Francisco's famous topography keeps the Transamerica Pyramid from being quite as ubiquitous, but the random nature with which it will suddenly pop up after rounding a corner or ascending a flight of stairs contributes an additional sheen of charm and mystique.
Coming upon the Transamerica Pyramid had given me a visceral thrill, but it was seeing Kearny Street launch into a sharp grade on the other side of Broadway, so steep that staircases aligned the road in lieu of sidewalks, that caused me to positively well up with giddiness. After the better part of a decade, I was back in the city that first cracked open my passion for roaming, and I had three days to do nothing but wander it to my heart's content.
Uncle Roger, accomplished mariner that he had been, must have pulled some strings with Neptune up there because we awoke on Christmas morning to an absolute San Francisco treat (and I'm not talking about Rice-a-Roni): if there had been any of the requisite morning fog, it had already been burned away by the time we rolled out of bed, and the sun was beating down on all corners of the city. On Boxing Day, the characteristic miasma lingered only a bit longer. To luck into such idyllic weather was nothing short of divine.
We took full advantage, traipsing upwards of 23 miles on foot during the course of our visit. We tried to strike a balance between the touristy: ascending the "most winding" portion of Lombard St, courting the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, music shopping in Haight-Ashbury, a few too many exorbitantly-priced scotches on the rocks at the Fairmont Hotel (later expelled, in Chuck's case, on the topiaries in front of the building's grand, embassy-esque facade) - and the somewhat less touristy: an afternoon nap in Alta Plaza Park, perusing the beguiling curves and unheralded vantage points of Forest Hill (a place so painfully monied that the neighborhood association's annual big-to-do was a chamber music concert), guzzling foul cocktails in Chinatown dives.
What I discovered on both sides of that coin, even if I wasn’t fully cognizant of it at the time, was a city teetering on the brink of selling its soul. Take, for instance, the Hayes Valley. The particular mid-90s walking map of San Francisco that I had been toting around with me despite its obsolescence because it was so excellently and expertly designed barely even recognized the Hayes Valley as an extant place. This was residual from the days of the Central Freeway, which had cut straight through the heart of Hayes Valley and brought with it the blight and decay that tends to follow when large chunks of urban fabric are wiped away in favor of giant concrete slabs. This map would have been printed just several years removed from the demolition of the Central Freeway after it was severely damaged in the October 1989 Prieta Loma earthquake, before much development could have risen to replace it.
And so the cartographers could be absolved for their lack of foresight in not prognosticating that two decades beyond the publication of their map, Hayes Valley would be a shining example of a neighborhood revived, almost literally, from the ashes . . . for better or for worse. After all, cui bono? It was in strolling down Hayes Street, eyes bulging at the rows of unique eateries and shops that had sprung up, mostly within the prior decade, that we first observed the tendrils of the New San Francisco snaking in to grab hold of previously undervalued real estate and where we could palpably feel the looming specter of the impending takeover by an unapologetically capitalist, tech-based dominion.
It's so obvious in hindsight. Community stalwarts forced from homes they could no longer afford to live in despite having occupied them for half a century. Gorgeous and stately old Victorians subdivided again and again so that they could be uncomfortably crammed with hyper-ambitious young people, in some cases breeding a cult-like atmosphere. The private buses offered by corporations to whisk their elite-educated, upwardly-mobile employees off to sheltered campuses miles down the peninsula.
Across town in Haight-Ashbury, a similarly grimace-inducing tale was being spun. Once a genuine hotbed of countercultural revolution, Haight-Ashbury had become a shadow of itself. Taken in a vacuum, it's still a pretty darn cool and interesting neighborhood; Haight Street was lined with a wildly varied assortment of independent commercial ventures behind attention-demandingly colorful storefronts. But what remained of its once-organic funkiness felt largely artificial, intently designed to lure the patronage of preteen-toting baby boomer out-of-towners, some percentage of whom, I'm sure, ironically grew up in households where those "long-haired queers" were relentlessly mocked, the very same ones without whom Haight-Ashbury would not have achieved the symbolic prominence that it bears to this day.
Sadly, we found that historic resonance was obfuscated by a neighborhood that had unashamedly devolved into a gimmicky honeypot. One particularly egregious illustration of this phenomenon was the model of a long-necked dinosaur, painted bright orange with round black spots, placed outside of a shop - apropos of absolutely nothing, it must be said, considering the portal it guarded was that of a high-end designer shoe store. Maybe my skepticism here is over the top, but it struck me as a desperate attempt to exude the grooviness for which Haight-Ashbury became so deservedly renowned during its peak. A polka-dotted dinosaur! So random and classic! Now please fork over hundreds of dollars for footwear.
Even the hippies themselves seemed to have transformed into cold-blooded cronies of capitalism; everyone that remotely looked as though they may have been an honest-to-god survivor of the Summer of Love ended up trying to sell us drugs, often in a vaguely menacing manner. It was unmaskably disheartening to see a place that holds such deep meaning and social significance deliquesce into such a tryhard caricature of itself.
Meanwhile, what quietly became my favorite of the business districts we walked through during the course of our stay was the relatively boring Irving Street, constituting the Inner Sunset's main drag. It didn't have the trendy, upscale boutiques of Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights, it lacked the nouveau hipness of the regenerated Hayes Valley, it wasn't drowning in contrived nostalgia like latter-day Haight-Ashbury, and it wasn't choked with tourists like many of the other neighborhoods closer to Downtown. It was just full of real people going about their normal, everyday business in the agreeable Boxing Day weather.
Despite the ominous presence of these myriad warning signs, I remained under the spell of the proud lady, deeply entranced by her siren's song, embodied in the surreal serenity of Washington Square Park on Christmas night, exuding more Yuletide peace than any elaborate light display or coating of snow could; in the tranquility of a Russian Hill overlook at dawn as I watched the sun embark on its daily struggle to defeat the thick, woolen blanket of clouds nestled over the Bay; and in the winking of the Transamerica Pyramid's luminescent crown, performing its beaconly duties in guiding us as we stumbled home to our bunks. Most importantly, she was providing a platform for the opportunity to break bread and enjoy some adult libations with my kid brother. Everything she had shared with me, I could now share with him.
And, it turned out, she had one more trick up her sleeve. As if she knew we would soon have to part ways once again and that this time it would be done so with creeping doubt about what feelings I would hold for her in the future, her gift to us was to play matchmaker, introducing us to two of our fellow holiday refugees at the hostel. Madde was a vivacious Aussie on her way to spend a semester in Guadalajara and Tee was an infectiously upbeat USC student who hailed from South Africa. They had serendipitously linked up and become impromptu traveling companions and now were trying to figure out how they would make it to L.A. in the next few days.
This was my cue to swoop in and reveal that Chuck and I would be renting a car for the express purpose of driving to L.A. It was a chance to spontaneously come to the aid of fellow wanderers in need, the kind of act that most genuinely exemplifies the the true rambler and his craft, something I constantly aspire to. Surprising even myself, without hesitation I offered them the option of hitching a ride with us. A road trip in the company of total strangers! Who said the spirit of the highway was dead?
Past the Point Sur Lighthouse, cutting a lonely figure on its spit of land jutting into the ocean, the road bent inland and ascended up into the Big Sur itself, the name ascribed by the Spanish colonial explorers to the wild region of the Santa Lucia Mountains that thrust precipitously out of the water and lend this segment of the PCH its unique beauty. Not that the spectacular, to-and-fro seaside route was getting dull by any means, but the pine-forested respite of the Big Sur's interior did provide a temporary, albeit enjoyable change of scenery.
By this point, my hostages were beginning to get a bit restless as the result of a tyrannical decree upon leaving Half Moon Bay that we would not stop to eat until we'd seen some portion of the renowned coastal terrain before we ran out of daylight. Now that that had been checked off, I was finding it increasingly hard to ignore my own hunger pangs, so at the first little cluster of shops/galleries/eateries that we passed after climbing into the Big Sur uplands, I relented and pulled in.
California 1 was interspersed dismayingly frequently with these outcroppings of yuppie comfort all through the Big Sur. Chow on an overpriced, mediocre burger! Wash it down with a generic frozen yogurt cone! Buy a bumper sticker to boast to all the world that you (like tens of millions of others) have privileged this road with your own rubber-wheeled benediction! All of these we were unable to refuse, of course, capitulating with a resigned smile, our money helping to propagate the prosperity of these ersatz environs that were straining to convey an atmosphere of quaint, rustic, log-cabin charm, even as they furtively reached a palm out to collect $200 for a bed for the night. Kerouac must be spinning in his grave. At least Tee got to go and find a redwood to hug.
Underwhelmed but more or less sated after a hot meal, we departed as the light was already starting to fade from the eastern sky. Within ten minutes, we had emerged from the woods into the rapidly advancing twilight as the road twisted back towards the coast. Then we rounded a bend and suddenly had the air forced from our lungs by a sunset so stunning I was compelled to veer onto a five-foot-wide dirt shoulder with only a chickenwire fence separating the Malibu from a disastrous insurance liability claim, just so we could soak it up.
It wasn't that the colors were exceptionally vivid or varied, it was simply the sheer scale of the tableau that made it so awe-inspiring. Watching the sun sink over something as infinite as the Pacific Ocean and seeing nothing but those pastels on the horizon made it seem, for an ephemeral spell, like the world was stuck this way and that we would be perched on the very border between day and night for all eternity. Alas, the Earth did indeed continue to rotate us away from the giver of light, and we pressed on into the darkness.
Gertrude Stein was referring to her childhood home of Oakland, California when she made her famous lament of "there is no there there," but I theorized that it more aptly generalized modern Los Angeles, the poster child of uninhibited car-centric urban growth, whose precedent and success had paved the way for grotesqueries such as Houston and Phoenix to flourish.
I had been to Los Angeles once previously, a business trip at the opposite end of that same year. Taken as evidence together with this visit, I came to acknowledge that the Stein-ism that had so succinctly captured my haughty pre-conceived notion of this megapolis was, in fact, not entirely accurate. Although huge swaths of the region do suffer from a rash of deplorable placelessness, there are an ever-increasing number of worthwhile theres, wonderful havens of urbanity, scattered amongst greater L.A.'s incomprehensible maze of cities-within-cities.
The caveat is that many of those theres remain self-contained oases in the asphalt desert, realistically able to be reached only by two-ton, metal, pollution-vomiting camels. To its credit, L.A. has been trying to improve its situation; a few years prior, Angelenos had voted themselves a half-cent increase in sales tax largely for the explicit purpose of boosting public transportation. No matter how extensive the transit network becomes, though, it will still be hamstrung simply by the sheer distance between everything. Even the "express" bus from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles takes upwards of an hour each way, and the subway line that's recently been carved to Santa Monica will only shave about fifteen minutes off of that.
Sadly, this all means that driving is left as the most practical, and often the sole viable option for getting around. It's a process so ingrained in the culture of the metro that it has morphed into its own language, comprised of numerical sequences that represent the highways that need to be taken to reach a given destination: "the 5 to the 110 to the 105 to the 710," for example.
Fortunately, Chuck and I were lucky to have a hook-up in one of those theres, perhaps the most fun one of them all. An actor cousin happened to live right smack in the heart of Venice Beach and had generously given us permission to crash at his place for the duration of our stay even though he'd be out of town. Venice, stocked with every desirable amenity within a foot-accessible radius, the added bonus of, you know, a huge beach, along with its inherent eccentricity, diversity, and all-around weirdness, was a Los Angeles there that I could actually fantasize about living in, myself.
And so, twenty-four hours after witnessing that heart-achingly immense nightfall on the PCH, I'd be viewing that same sun as it dipped behind the Santa Monica Mountains from the veranda of a cafe fronting the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Our passengers from the day before, Madde and Tee, had joined us. On a lark I also extended an invitation to the elder brother of a good high school friend. Though I'd only met this sibling, who I'll call Ned, on maybe two other occasions, he enthusiastically rushed over to Venice with his girlfriend to complete the entourage.
The six of us were seated around a table on an open-air patio, plying ourselves with beer and burgers named for cultural luminaries (mine was called the “Timothy Leary,” presumably on account of the heap of sautéed mushrooms, albeit of a non-psychotropic variety, that adorned it) as the day's temperature succumbed to starlight's cooler breeze floating in from the water. I made sure to consciously revel in the pure bliss of the ability to comfortably indulge in such an al fresco milieu on a winter evening, very much a novelty for me.
It was then that Ned revealed that he'd brought with him a certain type of digestif. The gang excitedly hustled to Ned's car, where the cannabis-infused Rice Krispies Treats were distributed surreptitiously, as California hadn't yet unequivocally legalized it in those medieval days. I had more than dabbled in weed once upon a time, but by then I hadn't touched it in any form in years. This made me the group's resident square and thus the recipient of a well-intended warning from Ned: "Just so you know, this stuff packs a punch."
Gosh, I hadn't rolled over so easily in the face of peer pressure probably since I was a college freshman, but buoyed by the verve of the whole experience so far, I decided I wasn't going to not partake. Watching the others to gauge how much they were ingesting, I was quite careful to break off a chunk not even half as big as each of theirs had been.
The first thing I noticed was that my beer tasted funny. We had moved on to the next bar, where I'd ordered one of my favorites, a NorCal brew called Winter Solstice, and it seemed off somehow, flat and flavorless. I passed it to Ned to corroborate, and after testing it he regarded me quizzically. All of a sudden I didn't want to be inside anymore. I felt claustrophobic and flushed, so I rushed back out onto the Boardwalk, where the bracing air was nothing short of holy on my prickling skin.
After sundown, the Venice Beach Boardwalk undergoes a demographic transition of sorts. Formal society migrates a few blocks inland to Main Street bars or tonier Santa Monica nightclubs, while the Boardwalk becomes populated with the assorted drifters, indigents, and other down-on-their-luckers who use the beach as an overnight campground. This was happening as I watched, now officially stoned.
"Joker!" called a man fashioning a bed of newspaper in the doorway of a kitsch purveyor, under one of the few remaining Palladian arches left over from Abbot Kinney's original turn-of-the-20th-century vision for his Venice of America resort.
"What!" came the response from some unseen warren hidden in the shadows cast by the palm trees across the Boardwalk.
"You got a cigarette?"
A lumpy couple trudged past, wardrobes borrowed from Bedrock. Their gait was so labored I could not help but conceive, with my chemically-enhanced imagination, that they were being weighed down by heavy, ungainly dinosaur tails. As they passed snippets of their conversation reached my ears, but their voices, cracked and blistered, rendered it unintelligible to me in all but syntax, a new "Jabberwocky." This pseudo-alien language frightened me into realizing that this was not My World anymore, it was theirs. The privilege of a young white man handed every other time and place to me on a platter, cooked to order. But not this. Here, I was just a voyeuristic interloper. The THC took hold of my conscience like a marionette and wagged its finger in admonishment: There but for the grace of God go I.
The others found me, stewing in my guilt, understandably mistaking it for the reticence of a fierce high. They attempted to formulate our next move, another bar? Or perhaps some food? But I desperately did not want to go back indoors. An ambitious plan to hoof it to the Santa Monica pier, whose technicolor lights blinked and whirled enticingly, was scrapped. Then a trepidatious mission across the sand to reach the edge of the water was aborted in its nascent stages. Finally, Ned and the girls exhausted their patience with me and bailed to seek out a diner.
Chuck, bless him, hung with me long enough to make sure I wasn’t liable to do anything too foolish, and even procured me a mug of water from our cousin’s apartment in a building called the Ellison, where an erstwhile UCLA film student and self-fancied poet named Jim purportedly used to sleep on the roof, before adjourning inside for good himself. Left to my own devices, I stalked off down the “walk-street” that the Ellison adjoined. Venice possesses a series of narrow alleyways that are nominally streets in the eyes of the Postal Service but are free from motorized traffic, and in this moment I found their umbral enclosure strangely reassuring. Time could not keep track of me as I wandered this orthogonal labyrinth, idly wondering if Joker’s pal had managed to rustle up a smoke.
Daringly I followed one walk-street to its intersection with the nearest vehicular thoroughfare, Pacific Avenue. The road seemed to carry on forever in an effect akin to a funhouse mirror trick. The glow emanated by the street lamps was a sinister lure, like one of those terrifying fish that dwell in the deepest ocean trenches, trying to bait me into getting too close to the cars that were flying by at a thousand miles an hour. It represented the return to My World, and approaching this precipice filled me with anxiety and dread. I turned back, retreating into the soothing darkness and seclusion of the walk-streets.
The leisurely drive that had been so gratifying during the day became tedious without the ability to see any of the extraordinary landscape. The PCH's numerous hairpin curves, many of which carried vehicles within mere inches of long vertical drops to rocky outcroppings in the frothing sea below, made it impossible to just accelerate away. The going was made even slower now and again by catching up to another car, weirdly usually some junky relic from the mid-80s, like an Oldsmobile Cutlass, say, whose operator was evidently adamant about maintaining a speed of at least 15 mph below the posted limit. Sometimes these unhurried drivers would have the courtesy to use the nearest pullout to let us pass. Sometimes they wouldn't, and the minutes began to pile up into the night.
As we progressed down the coast, next on the agenda was finding gas, as the Malibu, irritatingly inefficient for a vehicle of its class, crept closer to empty. This bucolic region was not exactly a hotbed for gas stations, but we managed to stumble upon an outpost before the situation grew too dire. However, the relief was immediately nullified when I rolled up and saw the astonishing price-per-gallon for regular: $4.9999.
Unfortunately, I had no choice but to patronize these racketeers, since I had no idea when a further opportunity to refuel would come along, a fact that the proprietors had clearly succeeded at taking advantage of. Glowering, I thrust a cool Jackson into the clerk's palm, hoping that would at least buy us enough time to get to a place with more civilized gas prices (by California's standards, anyway).
South of the Big Sur, the PCH alternately detaches from, then returns to the coast as it runs towards its concurrence with U.S. 101 at San Luis Obispo. When I started to lose my traveling companions to slumber, to entertain myself I invented the game of trying to guess whether the pitch black void to my right was the water or a field. As the car’s digital clock display ascended in the direction of midnight, I could only muster an apathetic ounce of disappointment upon realizing that I had completely missed the PCH’s re-divergence from the 101.
For company, I did also have the assortment of CDs we'd acquired during San Francisco record store forays. The selection had been deliberately curated to represent what we felt would constitute a quintessential West Coast road trip soundtrack. Chuck sang along to "40 Oz. to Freedom" while sucking on a tall boy of Pabst before eventually drifting off, leaving me alone, but in the quite capable hands of Messrs. Morrison, Nowell, Tweedy, and Q-Tip, to name a few.
The desertion of the others allowed me the solitude to ponder this inflection point in my own life. I had long struggled with the sensation of never being on top of things, never being out in front. Deep down I could acknowledge that no one my age had their shit together no matter how impressive of a veneer they may put on, but, man, at twenty-five it was hard to escape frequently feeling like I was fifteen, perpetually could be counted on to do the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.
Cataclysmic periods and events along the way had at least gifted me the self-awareness to recognize that it was an ongoing metamorphosis, even if it was an arduous, often nonlinear and even painful one. The person I wanted to be was an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, and it was a matter of finding the pieces and figuring out how they fit together, except far too often some pieces had slipped off the table and under the couch. Invariably the breakthroughs would come only when I stopped actively seeking them. Then the missing piece would reveal itself to have been right there on the rug, in plain sight the whole time.
I had sensed the tail end of that year building to one of those landmarks. The gathering snowball was present in all of the places and spaces I'd been over the previous months. It was in the seductive shadows of Georgetown mews and Adams Morgan's neon rays late at night. It was in the crystalline cascades of Watkins Glen's ancient, divine geology. It was in the glass floor of the CN Tower, humanity's attempt at a pneumatic tube to heaven above, halted at its height, I prefer to think, not because of the limits of structural physics but because what would a correspondence with God impart that an unimpeded hundred-mile view cannot? It was in the storm clouds massing over Pedernal, muse to Georgia O'Keeffe, keeping a watchful vigil over the Chama. And it was certainly culminating in this California romp.
The final leg of this journey would be set out in the West Texas town of El Paso, where I'd fallen in love with a Mexican girl. Time would tell, as it is in the habit of doing, but it at long last felt as though everything was clicking into place, for once the right thing at the right time for the right reason.
Oh, god knows, I'm not going back . . .
I was snapped from my reverie by one last surprise, one of those Blue Highway Specials that rewards the intrepid for freeing themselves from the shackles of the Interstate. Using California 154 as a shortcut to Santa Barbara, I had not been expecting to shoot a curve and instantly find the lights of the community spread below us, twinkling to the edge of the continent. Then the road fell into the pass as it made its descent into the seaside college town, and the sight was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. The next time I found myself at the dinner table with Uncle Roger, I could contentedly regale him about the San Marcos Pass.
This little slice of serendipity, mollifying my regret at having misplaced a chunk of the PCH, was enough to leave me freshly re-energized. After stopping to fill the tank (at normal California prices, which is to say merely cringe-worthy as opposed to the apocalyptic gouging we were subjected to in the Big Sur), we zoomed off at breakneck speed, through the endless sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, the 101 to the 405 to the 10, first freeway to the right and straight on 'til Venice.
Photo by Cory Cullington