Curtis looks west and John Muir speaks: “That memorable day died in purple and gold…”
San Diego. San Diego. San Diego. The engine screamed out the sound of the road, every turn of the belt singing out our destination as the sky grew first dark and then black and all that the world became was the flow of the road, the red river moving west and the white flowing east.
Flagstaff was marked by some burritos, California by a bridge, Los Angeles by light on the horizon and taillights in front of us and a turn south. I opened the window, hoping to smell ocean instead of exhaust. The air was warm, a blanket of California sky wrapping layers around us, making the cold of Colorado and the Rockies and the high desert where we’d begun the day disappear.
The Nissan hummed along the freeway until we moved around a step curve and suddenly the freeway dropped us right into the heart of San Diego and Curtis and I were on 10th Avenue, the speed of the highway gone and everything moving by slowly. The night also seemed gone. The lights of the city chased away the loneliness and sublime of nighttime in the desert where the only sign of life was the yellow lines disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived. In the city night was marked by the luminescence of a thousand people moving in a thousand directions, all showcased by the lights of storefronts and bars and streetlamps.
We were in San Diego because we had to turn north somewhere and we didn’t want to yet. North meant home and home meant the math of school debt, living upstairs from my parents and wondering if I’d really made the right decision in passing up school the previous fall. We’d thought about going to Vegas and cutting up through the deserts of Utah; or heading to Reno and then San Francisco. Both of us had our own reasons for picking San Diego, and at the same time we only chose it because it was as far west as we could go.
Curtis had a friend in the city, a Spokane transplant, staying at the Hotel Salomar. We circled it like birds, eyeing parking spaces until we found a city garage with a spot up at the very top, and put the Nissan to sleep after thirteen hours and a few thousand miles.
And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I split up.
His friends headed out to a nearby bar, and I was off to meet my own friend, Sandra from San Diego. We’d become friends years ago in the DC airport, waiting for a flight to Denver which materialized late. I was eating a bag of chips and had just turned around to throw them away; Sandra was right behind me and I nearly knocked her out with my elbow. A few years were gone since I’d seen her but in the heat of the San Diego night, she was unmistakable, standing on the street corner in a long black jacket, wry smile still on her face. It was as if the Hollies had written that song for her, a long cool woman in black jacket.
I found the jacket funny and told her so. Only later did I understand that just because San Diego is southern California doesn’t mean it’s always warm.
Others connect you to names long forgotten, places long gone. DC was a place I’d been, part of my story and though I’d moved on, seeing Sandra brought it back. I’d met her the last time I was ever in the city, at a friend’s wedding, a bipolar weekend of stunning happiness and extraordinary difficulty, during a time I was drifting. I was ecstatic to be fleeing DC for the final time, and since I have thought it fortunate I met her when I did. Soon afterward I would leave for Asia and meet Jon and Saranna and Davinia, hold baby Minar, and begin to realize that embracing the chaos of life was much better than attempting to bring order to it.
We spent some time in a bar catching up. I was delighted to see her. We’d occasionally chatted, but always with gaps of time. “What are you doing these days?”
I told her I had no idea. School was still an option, but the expense made me hesitant. Besides I didn’t know how going to an expensive school was going to help me be a writer and that’s what I wanted and…I trailed off. “What about you? Now that you’ve moved there, how do you like Los Angeles?”
It was different than she’d imagined. She’d moved there from San Diego with the highest of hopes about a career in the music industry, and now she was thinking of moving back. It was difficult and disillusioning.
“What are you going to do back in San Diego,” I asked her.
She shrugged. I felt the same. I hadn’t thought about my future since I stepped on the train. Wasn’t the point of this drive to forget all that?
San Diego on a Friday night was drunk. We bar hopped and I got to see some of it and eventually Sandra had to go, headed to Mexico the next day, family there and I wandered the streets with no real destination. I was wandering like we’d been driving, no real idea in mind. Sometimes I was lost in thought and others I was watching people puke in the street and others I was dodging six figure cars. I heard something which sounded like gunshots and saw lights fly past and eventually the boxy ambulance followed and someone tried to rob someone and it didn’t go well and I kept walking in circles until it was two am and I hadn’t seen Curtis since eight.
I stumbled back to the hotel where the party was dying down, a pizza box on the table and the television blaring something . I fell asleep with the sense that everything was going to be all right.
* * *
Curtis and I slept in, and much like the day before I awoke to Curtis milling about, his engine already running except this time he was sitting in the window, coffee in hand, and only in his underwear.
We didn’t have anything planned, so we headed to explore San Deigo’s beer scene.
Beer and Southern California have a long history. The earliest brewery opened in 1896, and before Prohibition went into effect seven breweries were operating in the region. Prohibition killed the brewing movement, and by the time small breweries grew again, the Big Three American Breweries (Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch) already controlled the American market.
The shift away from the big three began in the 1970’s, with the legalization of homebrewing. Brewpubs followed in the 80’s, and in the 1990’s, the first new regional breweries emerged. Stone was one of the first leaders of the movement, and remains the most known brand today. The early version of Port Brewing emerged at the same time as Stone. In recent years, Ballast Point and Green Flash emerged with multi-state distribution.
To Curtis and myself, it was a small slice of heaven, and we started with a lunch beer at Stone.
During the drive to Escondido we never seemed to leave buildings behind. We passed through the greenest of hills with gray block buildings never far away, a low-level, a continuing civilization which intruded but never stood out, a city that never ended.
We nearly missed the inconspicuous turnoff to the brewery. A left off the highway put us in a parking lot, and a path led to a garden, high stone walls covered by leafy branches; through the walls lay a glass-enclosed entryway and brewpub, a patio sitting in the sunlight and enormous maturation tanks sitting behind yet more glass. We’d walked into a museum, a glass monument to the twenty years of Stone Brewing’s existence. Lending truth to the name, there was actual stone everywhere – the bar, the toilets, surrounding the patio.
In a way it was all grandiose. We’d been on the road for so many miles that sitting in such a monument was uncomfortable. Big cities can leave everyone feeling equal, but big buildings can leave you feeling poor, and though I loved Stone’s beer, in the brewhouse I felt out of place, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. I was invading a world which was a station above my own. After a beer we left, retracing our steps through the enchanted, shadowed paths to the modernity of the parking lot and headed south, back to San Diego and the city and the beach.
The west still called. A quick glance at a map shows Coronado to be an island. Look closer, and a thin peninsula runs south, connecting it to the mainland and forming a barrier to the sea, creating the beautiful harbour that is San Diego.
The Navy is here because of that harbour. The naval influence on San Diego reaches back to Spain. The harbour drew Europeans to the southwestern coast of America, and the first part of California settled was San Diego. The United States acquired California after the Mexican-American War, and half a century later, in the late 1800’s San Diego was connected to the Trans-Continental Railroad and the military money started flowing. San Diego was the gateway to Hawaii, the Pacific, and Asia; and as the American Navy grew to a two-ocean Navy, San Diego became one of the most important harbours on the west coast.
It remains so. Walk around downtown on a weekend night and the gaslamp district is covered by Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines. As we drove across the bridge to Coronado, a long, looping curve necessitated to reach the 200 foot height mandated by the Navy, the harbor opens up and shares its corners. It is as if we were on a low-level aircraft, buzzing the bay; but we flew by, on to the Pacific.
Coronado is rich. We drove by multiple story homes with perfect lawns, painted as if out of a catalog and eventually pulled to a stop in front of one of them, white with some orange trim, a block away from the beach. We were somewhere surreal. A day ago we were diving out of the Nissan into snowbanks and flowing down roads into wide valleys and watching peaks fight with clouds for control of the skies.
Kids ran through the waves, splashing and squealing with laughter before running back out. In the distance the Hotel del Coronado stood, its red roofs calling out to the beachgoers as if a lighthouse. The main building is over a century old, and the rooms run at $300 per night – a luxury, wooden beach resort, one of the tallest wooden structures in the United States. People walked along the beach, feet in water and heads in sunshine, trekking back and forth across the sand.
Curtis and I tossed a frisbee back and forth, a New Belgium one that the company graciously gave us. Neither of us had proper swimwear. I was wearing cargo shorts and Curtis the same. As the waves lapped higher and higher, the shorts seemed to double in weight. As we tossed the disc back and forth, we were together but alone with our thoughts. From San Diego onwards, we were headed home. California, San Francisco, Oregon, Spokane all waited for us. We’d hit the moment in which the more we travelled, the closer we got to it being all over.
Few things make me feel as small as the ocean. The sun is overhead but heading west, and from the beach we can see nothing but water until the horizon takes control and the sky begins. It was a strange feeling to be able to go no further. We talked about getting a boat, setting sail and ending up in Wellington or Brisbane or Singapore. Learning how to sail one summer and leaving the next, a grand adventure of the two of us versus the waves. Mostly we just stood knee deep in saltwater and enjoyed the sunshine and the sense of the sublime. The water felt warm, much warmer than anything I’d experienced on the coasts up north, almost as if the ocean became more mature down here.
We were comfortable now. The first few days in Denver were spent getting used to each other, the car, and the sense of wandering. Not having plans was initially stressful. At home, there were always small errands to run, little accomplishments to mark my day. Now we were finding something to do with each day and throwing ourselves into it. The trip through Colorado and seeing Jon brought me back to a version of myself that wasn’t Spokane. The freedom of driving through Arizona to the coast started to bring the sense of continuity – we could do this forever.
I’d left Spokane hesitant to go, hesitant about what I’d miss – my friends hanging out, the hours at work, the small little responsibilities. I’d arrived at the beach in Coronado no smarter nor wiser, just more serene and accepting.
The frisbee hit the sunlight and then the water. Curtis picked it up and threw it back to me. Sometimes I caught it, other times it was too far and the water too heavy for me to move. Two little girls ran from the waves as their mother watched and we did our best not to veer the disc towards them. With a swish the disc would fly back to Curtis and then another swish towards me. With every swish the sun sank in the sky and with every errant throw ending in a splash it dropped until it was just over the water and the wind picked up and it blew everybody back from the beach. The warm sun became cold shade, and the water became more angry and hostile and Curtis and I retreated from the beach and headed back to the only home we needed, the Nissan.
The engine throbbed again but nothing called to us.
The wind at Laguna Beach was warm and the water turquoise. Ocean clouds dominated the sky, the kind that run forever into the horizon, just as epic and humbling as the water. Driving from San Diego to Escondido, civilization never stopped but we never stopped to explore civilization. Now, as we skipped from beach to town, we got out to get some coffee, walk along the beach, feel the warm wind on our faces. Our jackets were thrown into the back of the car and we hadn’t needed them for days.
As we drove the reality of California grew outside our windows. The coastline ran for so long that the Pacific became a different beast as we moved north. San Diego and Coronado sparked visions of the tropics, the islands of the South Pacific; just over the horizon were brightly colored birds and Hawai’i and Australia. Back home in the North, especially up along the Washington and Oregon beaches, the Pacific starts to take on a harsh demeanor, as if to remind us that this is the same ocean that runs to Alaska and has massive storms.
We were cruising along Route 1, our music pouring out the open windows. Outside was convertible weather, throw the top down and sunglasses on but at this point neither of us wanted to be anywhere but the Nissan, the trusty Nissan.
We headed north. Route 1 was shut down somewhere around Santa Monica, so we cut back up through I-5 and the middle of the state. Leaving southern California we got to see the beauty of it all, how the roads on beaches led to roads cutting through green hills. The Nissan was driving through mountains, winding roads around mossy tree hills and then in one long stretch we left the hills of southern California and emerged into the flatlands of Central California, all the way to San Francisco.
The days began to matter. We had a night in San Francisco and a night in Bend if we wanted it. We become a little quieter as we headed north and the setting sun reminded me of our own time winding down and the endless dusk of California seemed to wrap us in a dark blanket.
Tall and lanky with jet black hair, Chris awaits. My roommate at university, he now owns an apartment north of San Francisco in Marin County and works for a bank, one of the too-big-to-fail banks, researching money laundering. The job keeps him both energized and cynical, predicting the downfall of capitalism while simultaneously brightening up when talking about drug cartels.
We’d gone different directions since university, both part of the generation that can’t make up its mind. I used to joke that the internet ruined us because the internet blew everything up. Suddenly we had this platform in which to do anything, research any option, apply for any opportunity but we had no idea how to use it yet, the amount of information and options overwhelmed us and it took us too long to figure it out.
We graduated and Chris moved back to San Francisco and I moved to New Zealand and it was the first time I’d seen him since.
He greeted us at the door. “I’m glad you discovered how to be on time.”
We were two hours behind. “I know. I’m doing pretty well these days.”
Curtis falls asleep in the extra bed as Chris and I stayed up and shared a beer. I hadn’t lost touch with him, but I hadn’t kept up in the best way. I didn’t know a lot of the facts I should,, basic stuff about how long he’d been dating or what he did on weekends.
As we talked, I felt bad, guilty, as if I wasn’t a good friend or person. I’d felt the same during the first few moments in Silverton, with Jon and during the train ride over to meet Curtis – I’d really not kept up with any of them in the best way.
Chris mulled this over with me until were only going to get five hours of sleep. He has a real-person job, and bid me good night. He was out early the next day, back to work and the norm of his life.
For Curtis and I, once again the norm was finding an adventure. I woke up with the prior night’s conversation bouncing in my head and no time to think about it because the Golden Gate was there and we had to drive across it, the sun still hanging in the eastern sky as if framing us for all the western world to see. I stared out the window, past the bay and onto the ocean, the green hills forming a doorway to the west. Through that doorway was tough ocean, and all I could think about was pirates and sailing ships and what the first sails must have looked like coming in through that channel.
The streets were like the movies, straight and sharply-cornered and always on a hill. We found a breakfast place to eat and got some strong coffee before heading to the beach. Already we were halfway between the stormy north and the calming south, the water cold and blowing in mist off the ocean but the beach is wide and sandy and long. On warmer days, it seems the beach has enough room for the whole city.
February is not one of those warm days, and we had the beach to ourselves.
We walked. Nowhere called to us, and so we traversed the beach and stood next to the water, picking up some stones and throwing them in. It was gray, as if the water and the horizon were mixed together in some watercolour painting. For a few minutes we simply stood and stared out at the ocean.
“Want to take a walk up the hill,” I turned to Curtis
“Let’s do it, Abester.”
We left the Nissan behind and started walking back to the seawall at the end of the beach, and then left up the road.
Later I found we were hiking up Point Lobos Road, the house in the distance being Cliff House with Sutro Heights Park and Lands End beyond. At the time, it was just a house in the gray distance. We passed it and climbed down to the paths on the hill behind it, walking parallel with the shore as we stared down at it. The beach looked sad from up there, in the way that it seemed as if something was lost and was never to be found.
We headed into the woods, vaguely thinking of finding Lands End. Mostly, it was for the hike. In a half day we’d seen San Francisco the monument; San Francisco the city; San Francisco the beach and now we got San Francisco the urban forest.
The trees covered us from the gray clouds above, and we dodged in and out of green-walled paths, sometimes wandering alongside a golf course. The ocean was never far away, always roaring at us, simultaneously telling us to come back and warning us to stay away at the same time. Some others walked different paths as we passed them – a lady with a dog, a couple holding hands – and we joked about doing the same.
Curtis found a small path leading down to the shore, and we followed it, down some wooden stairs dark with mud and around a hairpin curve where we saw some trash and a campsite. It straightened out and went on a small rise narrowly through some dirt except the dirt had suddenly turned to beach sand, when did that happen? and suddenly we were there, somewhere around Lands End and the bridge appeared before us.
We were on a cliff. Not a massive one – it could also be a small hill with a sheer drop at the top, but either way it was under some trees and dry and we stared east across the bay to the bridge, sitting there massive and stoic, arching across the water like it was there centuries before humans ever arrived.
And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I stopped.
We sat down and our eyes wandered across the scene. We were in San Francisco the museum, the living tundra and all its moving pieces contributing to the painting in front of us. The way the sun played with the clouds at the tail end of a storm. The freighter moving up channel and into the bay, horn blaring. The gulls in the air and the wind moving through the trees. We didn’t say much, just the random alerts to some interesting scene or movement. The sun moved higher in the sky and Curtis would get up and explore our little cliff peninsula, and I sat to write, turning the collar of my jacket up as I did.
I sat and wrote about the trip. Travel. Freedom. I was holding the pen too close to its base and my fingers grew black as I thought back to my conversation with Chris. I look at travel as not reality, I wrote, but that is just because I get sucked into all the small things, the unimportant things, and I lose track of what is urgent and important.
There isn’t the wake-up alarm for work, the day after day repetition. Judging a place based on a few hours time is difficult and foolish, yet I do it all the time. Everybody does it all the time. Travel is not reality and yet it is, for it brings out the senses and adrenaline as well as the inner peace and calm; for it is through travel or any individual experience like it that one realizes life’s responsibility, the all encompassing responsibility, to be happy and to experience being alive.
As I sat and wrote, I came to understand that I wasn’t a bad friend for missing out on Chris. I needed to figure myself out, and get rid of some of the responsibilities I was carrying around which only provided added weight, never any accomplishment. I could not avoid the responsibilities of life, but I felt I could try to choose them as best I could while always remembering that they included that euphoria at the top of some ridge in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, waves crashing in and a foghorn in the distance. They included the beautiful sense of being lost in San Diego, the surreal lack of sleep while driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night, the harsh and jagged beauty of the high desert sands covered in snow.
I put the pen down. Time had passed, a lot of it, and Curtis was no longer beside me. He was standing back under the tree.
“We can’t be in San Francisco and not go to Chinatown.”
He smiled. Time unfroze, and for the first time since leaving I looked forward to the drive north.