American West Road Trip: Part 1 / California
"Will you take me as I am?" - Joni Mitchell, "California"
I was a jerk in California. I was a roving banshee, insecure, unbridled, unguided and damnably selfish. True, I lived here all my life but can't I be candid? I wonder if she’ll take me back. California always forgives. This is the land of dreamers and dreams laid to rest. The flyers of freak flags and paradigm shifters. My dreams came true and then they died here too, withering under the weeping palms on Santa Monica Blvd. And so I left, over two years ago, to set us straight.
We were sitting in traffic going north on the 405. California, the only state which starts its freeways with an article. Go east on the 10, and north on the 5, head west to the 710. Probably because driving is such a culture, a rite of passage, the freeways are deserving of their own title.
“See that, Michael- we call those the 'Dolly Parton Memorial.'” I was pointing to two large domed power generators in Camp Pendelton, the world's largest Marine Corps Amphibious training base and the only stretch of land that wasn’t packed with housing between San Diego and Los Angeles. Tanks on the beach, but hey. The German part of my husband couldn’t pinpoint Dolly Parton at first, but after quickly scanning the “American culture" part of his brain, he got the joke.
He was more focused on maneuvering this huge rolling house on wheels to bother with Dolly, anyway. A 40-foot RV given to us for the month of August by our friend as a wedding gift. I wasn’t sure if our friend knew what he was getting his rig into, knowing how fast we travel. But this was a pretty incredible gift.
We were headed north, past the zebras and Hearst Castle, the windmills in Solvang and the Madonna Inn at SLO. Past San Francisco and Pt. Reyes, with its abundance of crabs and sourdough bread chowder bowls. We would camp on the beach and at KOAs with the families on summer break. We would be part of the RV culture. We planned to reach Oregon and shoot east to Crater Lake, further on to Idaho, and back down through Yellowstone Park. The brutal red desert of the West laid at the end of our journey. Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona. This would all happen in a few weeks, because my husband is German and that's what Germans do. Make things happen.
The most recent drought looking crippling. Santa Barbara’s rolling hills were a sad and chafed brown, like coconut husks. My cousin, who we stopped to see in Carpenteria, said she had to stop watering her garden all together.
“It just makes me so mad that the farmers irrigate during the day, in the hot sun! They should do what Israel does- drip irrigation.” Michael always had a solution for everything, or was trying to find solutions for things that had not yet been solved.
Travel conjures up memories, but traveling through your home is a different beast all together.
Here was where I drove with high school girlfriends stopping at every beach up the coast. Here was where my crippled and cracked, banged up Acura ran out of gas. I refused to get that windshield fixed for years. Why? Here was the outdoor show I played to thousands of central Californians on tour with Ziggy Marley. And here was where I was in deep, upended love with a past boyfriend- we parked here and watched a family of whales swim south to Mexico in a late November, talking about the present. Never the future.
My eyes scan for every memory as we climb "the 101" towards "the 1" and I am waxing nostalgia, Odysseus trying to get back home. How can you not, with all of California's warm embrace and freedom of thought, her hippies and her art? Her redwoods, cyprus and menacing shore? Her Steinbeck, Kerouac and Muir. The mountains are calling and we must go.
Michael and I take an obligatory selfie in the tourist point overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. I lived in San Francisco for close to 10 years and never took that photo.
California took me as I am, with all of my inconsistencies, strapped between where I come from and who I wanted to be, hiding my roots, hiding my privilege. She took me in my ugliest moments, without any exit strategy. She held me in that rolling wave embrace when no one else would. The same, receptive waves that rolled through me all my life. She took me when I didn’t know where to go or how to act. When I left LA for Ojai to get a break from the jungle. Wasn’t it Kerouac who said “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities- LA is a jungle.”
My family is here, my friends, my roots laid down from multiple generations, cracked hands in the dry desert earth. Survival in the desert. But here in the 21st century, I needed to leave to grow, I found love and followed it around the world, settling in Europe. I needed to risk something to become the person I always wanted to be. It wasn’t California’s fault- it was me not being able to own its boundless gifts.
In Germanywhere the winters are brutal and the language is impossible, there is no easy out. But it’s where I hold myself accountable. Maybe in a way that is returning to my home after all. Home that is within me. Geography is a just a secondary push pin on the map of life.
Onward to Oregon.