I never imagined how prominently California would figure in my life, or how many times I would find myself there. I never had dreams of becoming a movie star; never was that interested in going to Disneyland. If anything, I most wanted to see the Pacific Ocean, to stand on the very edge of a vast continent and stare hard across the water until my eyes blurred and my mind’s eye took over, looking for my counterpart standing on a beach in Japan or China, wondering about someone like me. I think about that every time I stand on a California beach. I am no one special; if I wonder, doesn’t it seem likely that someone else does, too?
Some of the most important people in my life came from, and now to, California. Antiguo was a life-long resident. It was there I met one of my best friends, Beth, and through her, her love Pam, another best friend, because it was there that I went to guitar camp for several years. I fell in love with San Francisco when I first went over the weekend of my 29th birthday, to an Episcopal Schools conference, and the love affair continued as I explored it with Antiguo during my trips to visit him. I went to L.A. to see Eddie Izzard, my favorite comedian. In the nearly 15 years I’ve lived in Tucson, though, I’ve only been to San Diego once, back in 2000, when we went to see Duran Duran play there. And now my dear friend Judith has retired there, leaving the desert behind for good. I was invited for a long overdue visit, and to help her get settled in her new place.
It wasn’t without some trepidation I hit the road Monday morning, my destination Oceanside, a little north of San Diego. I hadn’t taken a solo road trip like this in 20 years, the last being when I drove alone from Lincoln, Nebraska to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to be a camp counselor at the behest of my cousin in the summer of 1993. A past history of falling asleep at the wheel, a husband who prefers driving over navigating, and the speed (if not ease and affordability) of air travel, made such a venture equal parts unnecessary and undesirable. But my friend was in California to stay, and thither I needed to go.
Safety concerns aside, I had no other qualms about spending eight hours each way alone in the car with only my thoughts and my iPod for company. I’m a bold-faced ‘I’ kind of INFJ and can happily spend hours on end in my own company, and inside my head; I generally only feel lonely in crowds. When I got into the car, I fired up a cumulative playlist of nine years of annual CD swap mixes, and sang my way through the desert, over the mountains, and to the sea.
Google told me I’d be on the road for 6 hours, 41 minutes, but I actually arrived only after eight straight hours of gale-force winds that pushed my car so hard that my tires squealed nearly continuously as I tried to keep the car on the road and going in my intended direction. And the sand and dust it kicked up and picked up spooled a mile into the sky in some places, sandblasted my car in others, and obliterated my view beyond a hundred feet in others still. It was without a doubt the worst day of driving I’ve ever had, and as I finally lay down to sleep Monday night, I was uncomfortably aware of a sickening sensation of movement, as if every cell in my body were doing The Wave again and again; I felt like a shaken up bottle of soda. The next afternoon I came out to find a long horizontal crack in my windshield, and the autoglass repairman said the window was totally pitted; frankly, after the day I’d had, I was surprised there was any paint at all left on the car.
But, oh, the things I saw, beautiful and raw and unexpected. When you’re driving, especially alone, you are forced to be Zen, because everything you see can only be experienced in that brief moment; you cannot take it with you. Unless you stop (and often there is no place to do so), you cannot take pictures, and you cannot rubberneck too long, lest you find yourself flying over the edge of a mountain road and into a canyon, the bottom of which you cannot even see. You just have to take in what you can in glimpses, and keep going.
If you’re looking for a desolate, post-apocalyptic moonscape, you could not do better than the stretch of highway known as Interstate 8 that conveys dusty Arizonans to lush San Diego. It’s a lonesome road, traveled by a few semis, fewer cars, and the occasional RV caroming wildly between the lines, fighting a less successful battle against the wind than my own. In some places, it skirts America’s southern border, and you can easily see the border fence from the freeway, and the Border Patrol trucks monitoring the space between.
Just over the AZ-CA border is an empty, sad-looking berg named Felicity, which was named either by someone who was optimistic to a delusional degree, or someone with a wry sense of humor. By all appearances deserted, it is, in fact, the home of a ragtag RV park and the unexpected Museum of History in Granite. Which I thought upon reading the sign was an odd way to phrase the name, unless it was actually the history etched in stone. Which, as it turns out, it is.
I did not stop.
Sixteen miles from Yuma I found myself in the midst of the Imperial Dunes, feeling as if I’d suddenly wandered onto Tatooine (or Tunisia, if you want to get non-fictional), and for five miles one is surrounded by towering dunes, the remnants of an ancient beach of a forgotten lake, its sand red-rovering back and forth across the highway. It soon gives way to a flat, scrubby, rocky desert that slowly morphs into an boulder-strewn mountains and deep valleys. It was here I found myself trapped on a rocking bridge above Devil Canyon #2, the car and the bridge it was on both being blown so severely that I thought I was going to be sick. When we finally made it back to solid ground, I was sick to see a double-length semi trailer dumped on its driver side, surrounded by emergency vehicles. I was not surprised; as much trouble as my light little car was having in the wind, I wondered how the high-profile vehicles I was passing (giving them wide berth) were managing it, and not becoming kites.
I felt more than a little quixotic as I came upon wind turbines in Ocotillo, some of them oddly still even as I struggled to keep my car steady on the road in the unremitting gusts. I came upon a second set at the Tecate Divide, where desert had abruptly given way to rain and fog. I could only see a few of them until the fog enveloped the rest of the line along the ridge. If they were not giants themselves, they looked like giants might have placed each one in tidy rows, like garden markers, or whimsical pinwheels. The wind didn’t let up at all until I was almost to San Diego, my knuckles finally regaining their color as I eased up on the steering wheel in a green alpine landscape that slowly slopes to the ocean.
I was busy doing chores and visiting once I arrived at my friend’s house, and didn’t see more than a few glimpses of the ocean from the highway until the morning I left for home. But to be 9 minutes from the ocean and not put my feet in it was intolerable to me, and I made a brief side trip before getting back on the freeway. My feet didn’t stay in my Birks very long once I hit the sand, walking past the lady bent over carefully examining minute who-knows-whats in the sand, and the group of people hollering at their friend who was surfing in the perfect blue-sky morning, to wade in the rolling waves. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so. I just stood there and breathed, my eyes scanning the horizon and up and down the beach just to see what I could see. I was rewarded with the sight of five pelicans flying in formation so perfect, their shifts together so flawless and unhesitating, that the Blue Angels would be jealous. But they did not wait for me to take their picture.
By the time I headed back to the car, the group had given up on their surfer buddy, who was now going it alone, and gone across the street to the little café for breakfast, but the lady was still there, picking at bits of sand. I watched her for awhile to try to figure out what she was looking at, or for, but her purpose was inscrutable. I had, more traditionally, picked up a piece of gray shell, the only tangible souvenir of my trip. As I trudged back up the beach, I pondered my lack of towel (some hitchhiker I am!) and the sandy feet I was going to bring all the way home, until I noticed a little shower near the sidewalk, and praised Californians for their beach culture ingenuity as I rinsed off before sliding back into my sandals, taking one last long look at the ocean, and making my way back to the car.
The wind was no longer an issue on the ride home, and I was delighted to merely have to drive eight hours, rather than battle with the elements every mile. I always feel so accomplished when I travel alone–navigating in strange places; managing the unexpected that always seems to crop up; dealing with challenges I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed on the couch; being steady, calm, and resourceful in unfamiliar country. It makes you feel capable in a way that doing all those things at home, where you’re comfortable, does not. At least, that’s always been the case for me.