It was raining in Los Angeles during the 2011 Christmas week, and the traffic on the 405 near the Getty Center was jammed. I had left Long Beach two hours earlier, and it would still be another hour before I arrived at work in Woodland Hills.
That morning the red brake lights were staring at me like blood-shot eyes. Angelenos have no idea how to drive in the rain, which causes both accidents and soul-sucking congestion. I wanted to kick out my windows; I wanted to lie on the horn; I wanted to turn around and forget about this city of freaking angels.
This wasn't matching the fantasy I'd created back in Massachusetts. Before I moved, I studied pictures of the Pacific Ocean and devoured Kerouac and Stegner, the stories of the beautiful people and the musicians, actors and writers who made their dreams come true. I had bought into the California dream, and I wanted my piece. So years later, at 25, I became one of the many who crossed the desert like ancient wanderers, driving until the Pacific Ocean, suddenly, was in view before me. I had never seen anything so vast, so stunning.
But now that I was here, I couldn't help but wonder: Was the California dream just a product of clever branding created in Hollywood studios — a sort of bug zapper to attract waiters and entry-level drones?
Instead of marveling at California while driving home from work, I started checking the Sig Alerts on my phone in between long intervals of staring at the bumpers in front of me, ignoring the bluffs, the ocean, the surfers in their lineups. For almost a year, I never even made it north of Woodland Hills. The thrill was dying. I didn't care about seeing celebrities; I didn't care about fancy cars; I just wanted to get home from work in less than two hours.
So after some deliberation with my lady, I quit my job and my commute, started freelancing and committed myself to finding the feeling I had when I first moved out here. I was looking for that sense of wonder — that Californian promise.
That's when my buddy, writer Joe Clifford, let me know that he had an open spot at his true-story reading series, Lip Service West, in San Francisco, and a room for me at his place.
"The California dream is the promise of something bigger, brighter, better," he told me. "[It's] found in a moving car, in crossing a border; it's surviving a trip."
I packed a bag of clothes, bought a camera and hit the road.
I looked for the California dream in San Francisco with Clifford. We stopped at a bar in the Tenderloin, and I watched a man scream in the middle of the street, calling his woman a "fucking peanut moron." We drove to the Mission and ate killer burritos underneath a statue of the Virgin Mary in a restaurant with a leaking roof. We passed another restaurant, where six police officers were handcuffing a man against a police car. The "criminal" stood tall and proud — his hands bound. The crowd was whispering, as the flickering blue lights painted the street, that the man had just shot someone.
It was wonderful to be in a city immortalized by men who burned like fabulous Roman candles, but I still wasn't sure if the California dream was even real. I knew Los Angeles was waiting for me, hours away, and with it traffic, bills, rent — the general requirements of being an adult. I needed to do something to reawaken my spirit.
"Should I take Route 1 home?" I asked.
Clifford was playing the piano. "Are you crazy?" He's a big guy — muscles, attitude, tattoos all over his arms. Great writer. "You know how big the coast is?"
"How long could it possibly take?"
"Just beat the traffic." Clifford was striking a key on the piano with his index finger. "It will take you all day and night."
I had a deadline the next day. I needed to be home at a reasonable hour, and it was already 10 a.m. So I did what most 27-year-olds would do: Ask Facebook. In response, my friends told me, "The 1, duh!" And, "Let Jesus take the wheel." And, "If you take the 1, you are insane." And, "Coast/Big Sur ... you only live once."
And finally: "Fog/crumbling cliffs/Hitchcockian vertigo."
The answer was obvious. I was taking California State Route 1 back to L.A.
Somewhere outside of Oakland, the redwoods started popping up, and the roads wound around these ginormous trees to such an intense gradation that I felt like I was playing the classic arcade game Cruisin' U.S.A. Somewhere between Oakland and Big Sur, I stopped in a small town where they still had white picket fences and people who said hello without any reason.
But all of this, including San Francisco, paled in comparison to what I saw when I drove through Big Sur. Signs of civilization were disappearing. Route 1 was completely in the open, and I dove in and out of sharp turns along bluffs that dropped hundreds of feet into the Pacific. I kept staring out at the view, having to remind myself to focus on the road.
Yet whoever designed Route 1 understood that we drivers wouldn't be paying attention to the asphalt. So to prevent us from driving off the bluffs and crashing into the ocean, there are turnouts and vistas where you can park and take pictures of the panoramic landscape or the road that cuts through paradise — the dream within a dream.
I found myself stopping almost every mile to take a picture of what Henry Miller called "the California that men dreamed of years ago. ... This is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look." At last, the California dream.
I looked at my watch, and it was almost 5. The sun would set soon. If I kept stopping to snap pictures, I would never make it home. So I started to drive faster and faster, forcing drivers to pull over and get out of my way. I was passing Big Sur at record speeds, and the photo opportunities I was flying past never seemed to end.
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But strangely, after a while, the breathtaking vistas all became redundant. Each rock formation, each mountain, every inch of the Pacific with the light bouncing off its surface like a million flashbulbs, well, somehow it became overkill. So I just drove and drove, and I didn't stop until I reached Long Beach at 9 p.m. The entire trip had taken 11 hours — compared to the five or six hours it would have taken on the 5.
Yet as I parked my car in front of my apartment, it hit me. When you live in Los Angeles County, after a while, the California dream — the natural beauty, the fancy cars, the supermodels and celebrities (aspiring or real) — becomes ordinary. The thrill eventually wears off and morphs into a mute backdrop.
But driving home on Route 1 that Sunday afternoon in early December, on the road slicing through Big Sur, I understood it will always be there, just waiting to be rediscovered.