The First Time in a Long Time

October 15th, 2010 § 0 comments

pacific coast highway

Place, where we live, how we live, and why, is an old and favorite topic of interest. Not long after leaving California for Chicago, I realized that while I might never move back to the west coast, it was inescapably the place I am from. These undesired or unavoidable connections, between the place we come from and the places we move to, affect us as much as family ties, even if we talk less about them. For better or worse it is the place we are from, more than the places we move to, that shapes our initial perspective like early parental teachings or our varied experiences of grade school education. Living elsewhere forces (rather than allows) you to recognize that there are people you understand, a landscape with which you feel familiar, and a culture you might not like but are never baffled by, existing with or without you in that place you left. Living in different cities for two or three years at a time reminds me of the first two years you spend in college, fulfilling the “general education” requirements of any degree. Who really knows what classes or subjects they like or dislike until a little bit of everything has been tried? I never moved planning to love or hate anyplace, because I didn’t have much in the way of expectations—that it would be “different” from the place I was leaving was the only given, and the only real constant of travel. I knew each place would be interesting, however, and certain a kind of indifference, such as blatant curiosity, is sometimes a good way to get a neutral perspective. Honestly, what do we know about where we might want to live in our early, mid, or late twenties?

San Fran

I sometimes wonder what drove me to be so restless when my childhood in southern California seemed almost idyllic. What gave me the desire—attributed all these years to a teenage yearning for a great deal of independence—to leave in the first place? I realize now I was less restless than I thought, and more adventurous by default than I imagined. Out my somewhat sketchy childhood history classes I extracted a character trait that seemed to embody America and the west: travel. Explorers, colonies, and westward migration made for fascinating stories, and my ridiculously imaginative version of life before my suburban street was a constant and favorite game. Thinking back I was inspired by the books I read about Caddie Woodlawn, Sacagawea, and the woman from Island of the Blue Dolphins who lived alone with a pack of wolves off the coast of California for eighteen years sometime in the 19th century. Whatever religious, socially conservative, or sexist overtones those books and stories have to me now, they were then about willful and adventurous young women. Something inherent in the American narrative and certainly in the settlement of the west, seems to involve characters showing up, staying on for bit, and moving elsewhere in the end.

El Capitan

After spending so much time conceptually deconstructing the places I moved to, I finally did start thinking about the place I am from. A professor and friend of mine once told me that it was too soon to be looking for what had changed in my hometown, and that I should consider instead what was still the same. The idea is interesting, and early this year I was struck with the desire to show my new yorker my California, forcing me to wonder what my California was. Planning over the course of the spring and summer I wondered, what is still the same? What about California do I want to share? What could I show to a stranger that could summarize or encapsulate its effect on me? Family, friends, L.A., the coast, our campgrounds, looming redwoods, old highways, adobe missions, the fruit stands out the 126. I planned our trip from fragments of pleasant memories and unfinished ideas. For the first time since moving away I planned a trip that was about seeing, showing, and most of all enjoying California. Like realizing that you do, after all, actually like your siblings company, it was deeply satisfying to know I can enjoy California. I might have wasted a week of vacation going somewhere I’ve been a hundred times before, but it felt necessary. Sometimes you need to pull the places from your past into your present more than you need to lose yourself in the unknown.

dancingIn true California style we began with lunch at In-N-Out, and ended with dinner at Alice Waters famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley, like a scene from Big Night. I’ve never eaten food where taste transcended what it was you were actually ingesting. We watched a hilarious and macabre play by John Steppling about L.A.’s twisted history, from Pio Pico to Sam Yorty. Driving through Ventura, stopping at Eric Ericsson’s for fresh seafood, we camped at El Capitan just above Santa Barbara, in a campsite that overlooked the ocean. Lighting fires at night after dinner, watching the stars and those familiar oil rigs out at sea, I realized that while the city is addictive being away from it can be refreshing. Driving Highway 1 with all its twists, turns, spectacular views, suspect bridges, and narrow roadways is something I have not done in a long time, and I’ve never had the time to follow as much of it as we did this trip. Camping in Big Sur, next to a stream, nestled into a valley of Redwoods, sharing our campsite with a family of Blue Jays, and not worrying about bears was wonderful. The latter part of the week was spent in San Francisco, under unusually blue, sunny skies that were also unusually filled with the noise of fleet weeks Blue Angels. Wandering the city we asked ourselves if we might want to move there, but mostly just to ask.


It was bittersweet coming home. We missed our pets, our own beds, and our lives to some extent, but I certainly miss being on vacation.


For the first time I enjoyed not just going home, but home itself.

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