California Travelogue

In 2005 I decided to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles for vacation, taking Highway 1 and the 101 down the California coast. It was a really fantastic experience that I highly recommend.

Day 1: Saturday, September 17

I’m always neurotic about traveling because I know I’m going to forget some horrible detail or I’ll be late for a flight (or miss it entirely and have to pay $1,000 to get back home), and this trip was no exception. I made a huge list of things not to forget. One of them was to make extra keys for my house so DeLaine could come over to take care of the cats (she and Heather split the dog-sitting duties at their respective residences). I got the keys made and delivered one to DeLaine, no problem, but on the day of my departure as I was waiting around the house, stewing in my neuroses, I decided I should test my newly minted key.

It didn’t work. Which meant that there was a strong possibility that D’s wouldn’t work either, which meant that she would have had to break into the house to prevent the kitties from dying of starvation. So I had Heather deliver my only backdoor key to D, and I was off to the airport.

When I got there, Southwest Airlines was having some sort of festivities. This picture is actually a reversal so it’s easier to read. I only found out later that this has something to do with Dallas’s Love Field and the Wright Amendment:

Set Love Free

Anyway, I flew on Delta, which recently filed Chapter 11, so I was a little worried. The flight was fine of course – not only did I get peanuts, I also got cheese and crackers AND a WHOLE can of Coke. More of my air carriers should go bankrupt if that’s how it’s laid out. Check it, peep Delta.

The weather was clear, making for some excellent scenery. Descending into Salt Lake City is an impressive event. Mountains part and the previously rugged trerrain gives way to a vast expanse of flatland. It must have been an awesome spectacle for the first settlers in the region. It almost made me want to start my own eccentric cult. Flying into a major city continually fascinates me, as I’m presented with an immediate impression of just how much larger the world is than I ever really thought, and then I realize that the enormous view I’ve just absorbed is itself only a small portion of this Earth.

I got off my plane and arrived at my connecting gate just as they called my row for boarding, so I didn’t have a chance to call ex-roomie Matt who now lives in Salt Lake City. As I took off, I was delivered over that titular body of water and its attendant salt flats. This has to be the most alien of American landscapes; tell me this doesn’t look like the moon:

Utah

The salt flats are cris-crossed with a number of apparently random geometric shapes – straight lines that run for miles and turn or stop for no apparent reason. It’s as though God were playing with a broken Etch-a-Sketch.

I’m going to digress here even more for a moment. On the plane I was reading Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company. Like Shopgirl before it (now a major motion picture), it consists almost entirely of first-person narration. Given that I am the type of person who absorbs language (taking on accents of particular regions or the diction of particular authors I’m reading), this caused me to narrate my own thoughts:

"My benevolent captors granted me an entire can of Coke, and I drank it from its plastic cup with crushed ice temporarily numbing my upper lip with frozen sweetness. My crackers were shaped like happy little airplanes."

Moonrise Over Oakland

As we descended into Oakland International Airport, the very large moon was rising behind us. We sank below the Bay Area clouds and escaped its evil eye.

I was picked up by my friend Erika and her friend Amy. We zoomed off to Le Cheval, a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant. I had the chicken curry, the first of many amazing meals on my trip. Afterward they whisked me to not one but two small parties in the area.

Oaktown

Whisking

The first was a dinner party of winery associates (Erika works for Beaucanon Estate). We arrived a little late but had fun nonetheless. After that we headed over to a more post-collegiate gathering of folks. An eccentric, arty bunch, there was a clever faux fireplace…

Fire?

…and Twister!

Twister

Good times.

Day 2: Sunday, September 18th

Sadly I neglected to take any pictures of Erika’s cozy basement apartment in Napa and its gorgeous, expansive backyard, which brings me to an important disclaimer: This travelogue should in no way be taken as a comprehensive document of my journey. I’m actually at a bit of a loss to explain what triggers the "ooh grab the camera" instinct in me. Prior to digital camera technology, I was always disinterested in taking pictures of things. Stopping the moment to take a picture of it always gave me a twinge of discomfort, some sort of existential jet lag. Now that it’s so easy to snap a decent picture and because it’s much cheaper to click the shutter because I don’t have to buy film, I have no excuse. My camera fits in my jeans pocket, no extra fuss.

Sunday Erika and I wandered around downtown Napa. I actually went to Target to buy a pullover because that part of California was a lot colder than I had anticipated. Ironically the weather for the next three days was warmer than usual (setting a pleasant weather trend that followed me to an unseasonably cool Los Angeles). We checked out an antique store where I bought some old postcards and a Buckaroo Banzai comic book. I can’t tell you how excited the little nerd in me was to find that.

Later on we met up with Amy and the girls suggested we go to Sacramento. Why the hell not? It’s only an hour or so away. "Old Sack" in the downtown area of Sacramento is actually done up cowboy-style with wooden sidewalks, saloons, a steam locomotive and other assorted Silver Dollar City-esque trappings. Best of all, they have a record store that kicks ass, full of old jukeboxes. I bought 6 records: Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (with unbelievable covers of "Wichita Lineman" and "Norwegian Wood"), Perez Prado, Wes Montgomery, Vaughn Monroe, John Abercrombie, and Louis Prima. More than I should have spent, but the store demanded I show my gratitude.

Afterward we went over to see a friend of Amy’s. The apartment was really cool, right over another record store. My pictures were terrible so you don’t get to see that, although as we walked to dinner, both Amy and I found this amusing enough to take a picture:

Unemployment was something of a theme for this trip, as my cousin David and friend Tracy were wrestling with joblessness. We went on to my next fantastic meal (Erika, what was that place called?), where we caught up with friends of friends, including a family of French folks. Their two kids were adorable. This one looks like a little Sammy Hagar:

This is Amy. She glows.

Erika glows, too, but I managed to screw up my pictures of her. Our meal was magical (I had the lamb sausage), and the generosity of our hosts was beyond compare. This was how life should be lived. I had to wonder:

Day 3: Monday, September 19th

Erika had to go to work, so she dropped me off at the Vallejo ferry to San Francisco. I was off to explore the town on my own. I highly recommend this route into the city, as the downtown area just fades in from out of the fog.

With no particular destination in mind, I found the nearest phonebook and looked in the music section for guitars. After much walking, I found my way to the legendary Real Guitars, where I talked briefly with guitar tech extraordinaire Gary Brawer.

After that I walked up Haight street. My shoes weren’t very good for all the steep grades, so I took them off and walked around in my socks. I then came to Buena Vista Park, another steep trek. My socks met the challenge and I was rewarded with this vista:

At the top, I talked to a cyclist named John, and he completed my traveler’s trifecta: he thought I was local. He said, "you’re from around here, right?" and happily said no. I have also been assumed to be local in London and New York. I like to try to experience a place as someone who lives there (this is probably connected to my reluctance to take a lot of pictures).

At first I thought this sign, on the west slope of the park, was a mild joke. Then I realized it was likely a safeguard against pedophiles.

Walking to the end of Haight, I stopped at the also-legendary Amoeba Music. This is the place I want to die. So many $2 CDs I couldn’t stand it. I gave up after scouring only sections A through C. I switched to the $1 section and grabbed 8 CDs just because I liked their covers. I also picked up $5 CDs by ZZZZ, David Mead, and Doug Powell.

I asked the staff if there was a restroom available and they said "try McDonald’s next door." The sign at McDonald’s said "out of order, see public bathroom at Golden Gate Park." The sign there read, of course, "Out of Order." Gaaa. I wandered a bit before giving up and hailing a cab back to the Ferry Building.

Vallejo’s naval shipyards at Mare Island feature several enormous cranes, which were pretty spooky looking at dusk.

Day 4: Tuesday, September 20th

Erika took the day off, so after a nice sleep-in to allow my legs to recuperate from the thrashing I gave them the previous day, we headed back to San Francisco. We had a hankering for fish and chips and so we stopped at Elephant & Castle for yet another rocking meal. We then wandered up to Chinatown.

I have no idea what this means.

I don’t know if you can make it out, but this picture was taken to capture the small Ralph Macchio sticker in the upper right corner.

Fake Star Wars toys! Chewie has a flattop.

This picture held significance for me because local Little Rock boys American Princes are of course The Next Big Thing. Why else would they be right next to American Football (who incidentally provided my soundtrack for much of the next day’s drive)?

The big, again sadly unphotographed, story of Tuesday was that I finally got in touch with my Might-As-Well-Be-Sister Elizabeth. I had sent her an email a few weeks prior to my arrival, with no reply. For some reason I waited until after my actual arrival in the Bay Area to get her phone number. I had my sister call her dad, who called me and left her number on my voicemail. I got the message as Erika and I were walking down Market Street. I called Elizabeth and said I was in town…turns out her office was 4 blocks down that very street. So we met up after about 20 minutes. Erika had to get back to Napa, so Elizabeth and I met up for coffee, took the bus up to her place just off Haight, and over to dinner. I think it was Japanese (Liz, help me out here). I should also mention that both Erika and Elizabeth drive RAV4′s. Elizabeth’s is green, exactly like my mom’s. I’m not sure what this all means.

She dropped me off at the Ferry Building, where I waited for the 9:50 to Vallejo. I finished the Steve Martin book. I highly recommend it.

The Bay Bridge near the Ferry Building.

Day 5: Wednesday, September 21st

Back to Vallejo, this time to pick up my rental car. I said my goodbyes to Erika and set out to Highway 1 South to Los Angeles. I was surprised to find that the area west of Vallejo was so flat and desolate. Soon the hills perked up again and I found myself crossing the Golden Gate.

If anyone cares, Spiraling was on my CD player as I took that picture. Highway 1 took me through the Presidio and the rest of western San Francisco, on down to Santa Cruz, Monterey and Big Sur. The fog was fairly thick most of the afternoon, so it prevented me from taking a lot more pictures. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as it would have pushed my arrival into the wee hours of Thursday morning.

The foggy weather also gave the pleasant effect of driving off the end of the world and up to heaven. Patches of fog moved in like ghosts racing up the hillside.

Very often the road took me high above the cloud cover.

Several parts of the road are deteriorating as the coast slowly erodes into the sea. There were several points on the road that had been recently patched due to falling rocks.

Hearst Castle. My grandmother told me I needed to see it, but they don’t let people drive up to it. You have to take some sort of tram or bus, and by this time it was already 3:30 and I was still 200 miles outside of L.A.

Despite the road conditions and average speed of 20 mph (resulting in a very long travel time), I highly recommend driving this stretch of road at least once in your life. It’s slow, calm and very, very beautiful. The hills reminded me a lot of Scotland – steep yet softly eroded, with minimal vegetation. These pictures really don’t convey anything resembling the feeling of seeing the hills and the ocean firsthand. It’s also very sparsely populated; I paid $4 a gallon for gas because I had no other choice.

Eventually I got on the 101 at San Luis Obispo and took it the rest of the way down. I had forgotten that it would start to get dark in California at about 6:30; in Central Time that’s 8:30 so my instincts were that I would have more daylight in which to drive. I got caught in Santa Barbara’s evening rush hour, but made it into my cousin’s place in Santa Monica around 8:30. He helped me find a parking spot, and I took my first lesson in the L.A. lifestyle: Driving anywhere will take forever, but finding a place to park might take even longer.

Day 6: Thursday, September 22nd

This is my cousin David Martinous, and his dog Aragorn. No offense, David, but when I stayed with you last time, you lived in a clean, well-lighted place. Now you live in The Cave. But you gave me your bed and I thank you. I hope you didn’t mind that I used your soap.

This is the apartment manager’s daughter. Isn’t she lovely?

David and I goofed off that day at various music stores, as well as at Venice Beach. It was a laid back day, peppered by David’s skilled driving maneuvers. He has the McCorkindale Traffic Gene, which requires him to express his anger at even the slightest offense, and this is only exacerbated by the insanely congested SoCal traffic. For the most part that gene skipped me.

This entire vacation was sparked by a desire to go see a Bryan Beller solo show at The Baked Potato, but there was no way for me to sync up my schedule with Erika’s, so I gave up and settled for arriving in L.A. a week later. This allowed me to catch a show by Ohm, featuring Chris Poland, Kofi Baker, and Robertino Pagliari.

That’s Chris. I should have sat on his side of the room. Oh well, the show was flabbergastingly virtuosic. Continuing my series of great meals, the Baked Potato serves only, as you might gather, baked potatoes. Their menu contains about 15 or so varieties. I had the ‘maple ham and egg’ potato. Delicious.

Anyway, Chris, Kofi (son of Cream’s Ginger Baker) and Robertino bridged the genres of rock, jazz, blues, and heavy metal with fiery abandon, thoroughly flaying the heads of their devoted audience. David and I struggled to keep our heads attached to our torsos; although eventually his head was completely blown. He had trouble walking afterward. He had never seen anything like that, and really, given the general crappiness of the musicianship in hard rock since 1992, that didn’t surprise me. As a struggling musician himself, David came away energized, having taken his first steps into an entirely new realm of musical possibilities. So I felt glad to be the guy to show the L.A. boy some secrets about his town, and to expose him to a place he probably drove past for years with no idea what was contained within its walls.

Day 7: Friday, September 23rd

Friday I took off to Anaheim to meet my old friend Tracy, who I haven’t seen in, I think, three years or so. We spent the day wandering around downtown Fullerton, which was a decent example of downtown renewal. We went to several antique stores, pawn shops, and a super cool music store.

The weather was beautiful, and Tracy and I spent a lot of time just sitting outside a coffeeshop talking and catching up. She had to study for a test the next day (she’s taking a class on Arabic), so she wasn’t able to come with me back to Los Angeles to see Jon Brion at his Friday residence gig at Largo.

Largo is on Fairfax, across from Canter’s Deli, a place where high-powered record execs like to dine and deal.

This is my land yacht Buick rental car, by the way. Avis was out of compacts, so I took an upgrade. I was afraid of it. Parallel parking this tubby byatch was a serious pain. Although it did have XM Satellite Radio, which was a new experience for me. On my trip down Hwy 1, after I had exhausted the CDs I brought with me, I mostly switched between The Loft and MusicLab. It was divine. I heard more Gentle Giant than I ever thought I’d hear on a radio. Then when MusicLab blended Frank Zappa into Bela Fleck, I knew I had found a home. When they played lame hippie jam band crap, I switched over to the Loft for Aimee Mann and Todd Rundgren.

Anyway, I parked my boat in a choice spot across from Largo, in front of the kickass thrift store where I got several cool t-shirts on my last trip.

This part of Fairfax is in a Jewish neighborhood, and next door to Largo is a Jewish music store. If you can’t read the poster in the window, it says "Shalom Sesame – The Friendliest Street in Israel." I couldn’t help but wonder how heavily armed Bert and Ernie would be if they were Israelis.

I’ll let you figure out what I’m looking at there. I was bored while waiting for Largo to open so I took several odd pictures like that.

The aforementioned ex-roomie Matt has a friend named Mary. Mary lives in L.A. and she and I talk sporadically on myspace.com, so I thought she might want to check out Jon Brion with me. Sure enough she did, and she made reservations for us and her friends Erin and Nikki (Jon Brion shows now require reservations a month beforehand). We had a grand time watching Jon do his thing; he’s a musical mad scientist who performs improvisatory pop music. He’s like the Robin Williams of rock. He can play anything, and will. For most of the show he depends on requests from the audience. I half-jokingly yelled out "Doobie Brothers" to which he replied, "that’s the perfect non sequitur." I also requested Queen, which he did oblige briefly. He plays his own drums, bass, guitar, piano and vocal parts using loops. He’ll play a minute of drums, switch to piano, then bass, then guitar, etc. Soon a full band of Jon Brions is eventually rolling, along with samples he takes from the audience and from odd noises he coaxes out of his old naked piano – scraping the strings, tapping it with a hammer. He’s a stellar pianist, capable of jazz and avant-garde classical styles as well as his usual bag of pop songwriting.

I have never seen anything like it, and neither had the girls, who enjoyed the show thoroughly and vowed to return. Once again I showed the Los Angelenos some of the secrets of their fair city.

And again my camera skills are found to be lacking.

Oh, and the honey chicken and mashed potatoes at Largo were soooo good. Plus Guinness on tap.

Day 8: Saturday, September 24th

I got home the previous night around 2:30 AM, so I was bushed. Fortunately my Saturday companion was tired as well. Meredith (yet another myspace.com connection) came up from San Diego to see me, but we both decided to sleep in a bit and meet up around noon. She was also staying with some friends in Santa Monica, just a couple of exits down the 10 west from me. After a quick (yet nevertheless amazing) lunch of a mahi sandwich and a chocolate-banana shake at Good Stuff, we headed north to Malibu for the Summer Stomp, a small annual gathering at the top of a very tall mountain on a property owned by the estate of trailblazing architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Here’s the view:

The story I gathered was that Wright was working on this building when he died in 1959. It remains only structurally complete, but without wiring, doors or other fixtures. It feels like the set of a Star Trek episode.

After Midnight Project. I talked to the bass player, TJ; he struck up a conversation with me because I was wearing my Moog t-shirt. It’s the shirt that quietly says, "hi, I’m a music nerd." I also was impressed by TJ’s rare green Warwick bass, because that’s how big of a music nerd I am.

The outdoor kitchen intrigued me; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

Meredith and I met when she sent me a message last year via MySpace to say that she was coming to Central Arkansas to see her mom in Hot Springs, and she was looking for someone cool to show her around Little Rock. She gathered from my profile that we were similar enough people to enjoy hanging out. Sure enough, we are. She’ll be back in Arkansas around Christmas.

We left around 6, as the sunset brought cold air with it. We zoomed down to the Sunset Strip for a quick driveby of the Saturday night action, stopping back at Fairfax for pizza before saying our goodbyes.

Day 9: Sunday, September 25th

I got up at 4:15 AM to get my rental car back by 5 AM. Avis was PACKED with people at 5, and they were very efficient at processing – hand the guy your keys, he prints a receipt from a handheld unit, and you hop on the shuttle to LAX. My flight was at 7, bound for Houston, connecting to Little Rock. Later on into the flight I wondered why I hadn’t been given a boarding pass for my Little Rock flight…hmm.

Catalina Island, off the California coast.

I noticed a series of Roman-numeraled polygons in the desert to the east of Los Angeles. I’m still trying to find them on Google Maps.

So I landed in Houston and remembered that it was recently evacuated because of Hurricane Rita. It’s little spooky when you land on a Sunday, and all the papers are from Thursday. A vague Twilight Zone aura surrounded the airport.

The place was completely empty in some parts. So empty in fact that Continental Express canceled all flights for the day, probably due to lack of passengers and crew. So how the heck was I supposed to get to Little Rock? No one thought to mention this to me at LAX; I could have re-routed my flight. The people at the gate basically said I was screwed and that there were no hotels or rental cars. So I was contemplating spending the night in the terminal for a bit, but luckily I was smart enough to go to the ticket desk to plead my case. The lovely people at Continental hooked me up with a flight to Memphis on Northwest, connecting to Little Rock. I left Houston at 4 PM, arrived at 5:30, left for Little Rock at 7:30 and landed at 8:30. Fourteen hours of my day was spent either in an airport or on a plane. I was pooped. DeLaine picked me up, Zoe in the backseat, and I headed home to collapse.