The following are small snippets of a larger, mostly unwritten, adventure. It's not meant to be a complete narrative, but rather short little glimpses into my vacation along the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the pilot says over the PA system.
“When you start a sentence with ‘don’t worry’ or ‘don’t be afraid’ it’s usually followed with something worrisome or scary,” says the lady across the aisle. She laughs nervously with the people sitting to either side of her.
The plane door is still open as the last few passengers board, but the crew will be starting up one of the engines to “check some indicator lights.”
Hearing the words “don’t worry,” “engine,” and “indicator lights” in the same sentence is number 37 on the list of phrases which don’t inspire confidence on airplanes. I imagine the airplane spinning wildly in a circle, single engine roaring, wing crashing into the jetway, luggage spilling out of the unclosed compartments, and airport workers scrambling for cover as the rogue plane fails whatever engine test they are performing.
None of this happens. Instead something gets a little bit louder and then it gets quieter again. Several men in yellow safety vests enter, head to the front of the plane, and then head back out the exit. We’re apparently cleared for takeoff.
The lady next to me tenses as the plane touches down. Her hands tighten their grip on the the arm rests. We’re 20 minutes ahead of schedule, due—I assume, to the reckless abandon of our pilots and the newly tested engine indictor lights.
We have to wait for a little bit before we’re allowed to taxi to our gate—a small penalty for arriving early. I text my parents and a few friends my traditional “Landed in LA” message: the YouTube link to Party in the USA, set to autoplay starting 10 seconds into the song. “Hopped off the plane at LAX with my dream and my cardigan.”
LAX is the 7th busiest airport in the world by passenger count, but traffic outside is light compared to my last trip. I find the pickup point for the Flyaway bus service to Van Nuys (pronounced closer to 'Van Nice.') It’s a $9 ride to North Hollywood where I’ll meet up with my good friend Aaron.
Aaron is a few years my junior and former student where I work. He's a buy the book kind of guy. The type of person who will walk to the crosswalk even if the street is completely devoid of traffic. He's tall and skinnier than a lamppost, but he's creative, intelligent, and a lot of fun to hang out with.
The bus fills to capacity as we stop at the different terminals. I move to the window seat and a boy asks if he can sit next to me. I smile and tell him he can. He’s Mexican by his appearance. He has big hair, wears a blue shirt and black puma athletic shorts. He sits quietly for the start of the hour-long ride and eventually falls asleep. His head rests on my shoulder as his his body goes limp.
Aaron picks me up from the well-lit glass and metal Flyaway terminal. We climb into his Honda CRV and we’re soon turning onto the 405 freeway. We make our way from the 405 to the 118, 23, and then 101. (I know, those numbers don't mean anything to me either.) We drive through Santa Barbara, looking for a place to eat or to stop by the beach since it's well after noon. Parking looks full until we reach Shoreline Park. It’s a little farther from the place I wanted to explore, but we don’t mind the exercise walking back. We walk south and soon find ourselves at the Shoreline Beach Cafe.
A short line of patrons are waiting to be seated, I’m told the wait is five to ten minutes. Our hostess is Rachel, a young woman with tan long legs. Her dark hair is mostly pulled back and there’s a sparkling stud on the right side of her nose. She wears a black tank top that shows off midriff above and below her bellybutton. A red flannel shirt is tied around her waist mostly masking her black shorts.
It takes around 30 seconds to be called for our table. We follow Rachel up a few steps to the main seating area. It’s an open air room covered by a canvas tent. The tent roof is layered, presumably to provide for better airflow. Three large poles hold up the center, each covered with slats of bamboo. The furniture is all plastic wood-lookalike material.
Our server is wearing a white shirt with a blue collar and blue shorts. A gold ring loops through her nasal septum. She brings us four dollar lemonades while we browse the menus. The daily special is the Shoreline Plate Lunch, Hawaiian Style. Caritas, Carne Asada, Spicy Seared Ahi & Beer Battered Shrimp served with Two Scoops of Rice and Cabbage Slaw.
The fish is seared on the outside yet the center is still raw and cold to the touch. The cole slaw is little more than shredded cabbage, but the meal is delicious. A sampling of fish and flavors. We eat and chat in the shade of the pavilion. A light breeze filters past our table.
The coastal highway is hilly and brown. Scattered trees and bushes offer small patches of green as the road winds inland and back toward shore. Every few miles there are vista points with neat views and accessible beaches.
Occasionally Aaron will grip the steering wheel with both hands. He leans forward, almost unconsciously. I notice this out of the corner of my eye, usually when we find ourselves in traffic. It’s an indication that some serious driving is about to happen.
Farther north the elevation begins to rise. The path to the ocean turns into steep drops of several hundred feet. The road narrows and begins to twist and turn as if Caltran engineers were replaced with an adolescent playing Roller Coaster Tycoon. The road banks as it takes the sharp corners. Sometimes southbound and northbound lanes bank in different directions.
The road is so narrow at points they barely had room to paint stripes. The white lines along the edge threaten to fall off into the ocean. A steep wall of rock is almost close enough I could reach out the passenger window and touch it. The GPS says we're 700 feet above sea level, but we can still see the water if we're brave enough to look down. Yellow signs with black numbers read 35, 30, and 25, but I'm sure we're traveling faster than that as we weave along the coastline.
The sun begins to drop in the sky; we’re driving directly into it. It’s blinding light hits the bug splattered window to create a piece of macabre artwork thats more opaque than clear. Windshield wipers give it a painterly quality, but don’t actually improve vision. Another tight corner plunges us back into the shadows and we can see again. The road takes a sharp drop downward to the valley between the hills. We cross a bridge and begin to climb back up as the road winds along the hillside taking us back to sunshine.
A section of the road is single lane. The southbound lane seems to be partially dismantled at a few spots. They are putting up a new guardrail. We wait at the stoplight until it turns green, the indicator that the coast is clear from oncoming traffic... hopefully.
Terrain changes from grassland and shrubs to forests and redwoods. The sun sinks below the horizon and visibility is now only hindered by turns in the road. All traffic seems to be heading south. It isn’t until we’re an hour from Monterey that we catch up with a slow moving RV towing a small car.
Mailboxes and signs for bus stops are hiding along the narrow roadway. Small gas stations and travel lodges appear at intervals. The wood buildings look quaint more reminiscent of northern Minnesota than California.
The morning is cloudy and cold window blows off the water. The sun ultimately loses it's short-lived battle for sky dominance. Fisherman's wharf is still waking up, only a few shops are open—trying to catch the morning patrons on their way to the whale watching tours.
I didn't pack for cold weather and the air is a it chilly. The walking path leads to a coast guard facilities and a long pier. Seals flop on the rocks like carcases. Their hides are the same color as the stones. A gate separates the pedestrian walk from the animals and prevents a good view of the local wildlife.
There's a dilapidated building with three doors. The roof is covered with seagull poop and three of the birds sit on the peak; one at each end, a third just off center. They all face the same direction. Three faded orange doors line the side, each slightly ajar. It appears they contain restrooms or storage rooms of some sort. A sign by the middle one says "no trespassing." Below the sign a seagull sits just inside the threshold. The scene looks beautifully fake.
We arrive back at the hotel right before checkout time. We're traveling light and Aaron has finished the paperwork before I even have my bags to the car. Our path between Monterey and Cupertino takes us down the steep climb, little side roads plunge downward at black diamond angles.
The wind is savage. It’s the equivalent of having the windows rolled down on the highway, but worse. It whips in from the west crossing miles of open water before crashing up and over the grassy hills of Coyote Park. The grass is knee high and brown as bread. It whips around in the relentless wind. Seagulls inhabit the shallow water of the salt evaporation pools several dozen feet below.
From the top of the hill I see water stretching out to the south and west disappearing into a white haze. A dim silhouette of land is just visible to the east. The sky is empty, save for the airplanes which pass overhead at regular intervals. Algae and scum extend from the shoreline, brown and yellow organic patterns mimic satellite images of earth.
A man stands atop one of the shorter hills. A remote controlled glider circles above his head.
From our vantage point the model plan is nearly the size of the real ones.
We visit a Japanese Friendship Garden. Large shallow ponds hold koi capable of feeding a family. The water is mostly clear but it certainly isn't clean. A walking path winds around and across the pools. Several magnolia trees are in various stages of bloom.
Motel 6 is full. We're back in the CRV, both of us on our phones hotel hunting. There is some sort of musical festival and all the hotels seem to be booked. I'm running out of cell data and feeling the effects of low blood sugar. I threaten to walk to the Burger King if we don't have plans in the next few minutes. Aaron finds a place to stay. It's not exactly ideal in terms of price or accommodations, but it's a place to stay.
He turns the key in the ignition and all the engine indicator lights on the dashboard dim. The engine doesn't even turn over. He tried again with the same result.
"I have triple A," he says.
"I'm going to Burger King," I respond as I exit the vehicle.
The compressed sounds of saxophone blare from Aaron's white iPhone 6 upon my return. The hold music is distorted enough it could pass for an old school video game soundtrack. We're transfered twice before getting to the correct person.
The sun has set when a yellow truck pulls into the motel parking lot. It stops in front of our car and Ken gets out. Ken's been doing this for 15 years. He's had a long day, but he shows no signs of lethargy even at this late hour. Within a few minutes he has tested the engine battery and confirmed it is quite low. He suggests replacing it, rather than jumping it, otherwise we might have to go through this whole thing again.
It takes him only a few minutes to replace the unit. He chats constantly as he works, mostly repeating the same things about the battery being a small size. He inquires to where we're headed and we tell him this hotel is full so we're headed to an extended stay.
"How much do they want per night?" he asks.
"$180," Aaron responds.
"Son of a... shit." He tells us about a hotel just down the road. Aaron says that one is full too, but Ken's not having it. He calls the number. "Hey Dan, yeah, this is Ken. Hey, I'm usually there on the weekend by my cousins are in town today and they need a place to stay while I'm working... really? Where should they stay?"
He gets disconnected. He calls them back.
"Hey, it's Ken again. I think we got disconnected. So my cousins are in town and they need a place to stay. You always take good care of me when I'm there. Nothing? Where should they stay? Where should they stay?"
The call is very entertaining, but ultimately fruitless.
Pulling up to the gate a guard steps up to the driver's open window. He waves us through after checking aaron's drivers license and our engine indicator lights. We take a left at the intersection, driving slowly.
Air Force One is parked unceremoniously on the other side of the wire fence. President Obama is also in San Fransisco this week.
"I wasn't expecting to see Air Force One today," remarks Aaron. His comment makes me wonder if this is something he sometimes does expect.
A gigantic wireframe structure dominates our field of view to the right. It was originally used with zeppelins but now is just too much work to tear down.
The airfield is the campus for NASA Ames Research Center. I can only assume they do a lot of testing on important things like engine indicator lights. The Moffett Airplane Museum is also located here, our morning destination.
The museum is small, more like a storage building that just happens to be well curated. It feels cramped even though it has wide walking spaces. Photos and artifacts relating to te Moffett Air Force Base and zeppelin hangers line the walls and displays. Mannequins proudly wear uniforms donated or on loan from service men and women honored by the plaques and music clippings. Black plane models hang from the ceiling providing a sample of what the aircraft would look like as silhouettes. More detailed models reside in display cases. Most, if not all the models, are hand crafted, each modeling the design and dimensions of an actual ship.
Google feels more like a college campus than a business. Part of that is because it spans blocks. Small groups of people talk and laugh as they walk between buildings. Event planners are on site decorating for an event this evening. Everyone seems to be carrying tablets or laptops as they walk. Shirts with clever nerdy slogans or designs dominate the collective wardrobe.
We see inside a few buildings, mostly glimpses of the things Google is famous for. Our guide has to stop and ask for directions at one point. The guys he asks are just as clueless as we are. "Sorry, I have no idea. We're from the other side of campus."
The cafeteria we eat at is swarming. Lines of people everywhere. Every table is occupied, though not every seat is filled. Outside and inside small groups chat happily as the eat. Many people read on their phones as they sit alone, hunched over their plates of food.
The Apple cafeteria is similarly crowded at lunch time. There seems to be little order to the chaos. Where lines begin or end are vague concepts. I could spend time developing a perfect meal but I'm a guest and don't want to keep anyone waiting on me. I opt for convenience and short lines.
As we make our way to leave we see a shorter white haired man with a small group of people around him. He wears sunglasses and has a considerable beard. He holds a deck of cards in his hand and is having someone cut the deck as another visitor holds a single card. The magic trick is entertaining and completely wows the crowd.
He's an Apple engineer. As he prepares a second trick, he tells the audience that they need to keep they eyes on the deck of cards. "As I talk, you naturally look up at my eyes," he says. His audience looks up at his face. "Even though I'm wearing sunglasses." He performs another trick to the delight of everyone. From my distance of 15 or so feet away I can catch some of his slight of hand by watching the deck. If his audience could see it too they didn't show it.
We've been in the bay area for two and a half days but still haven't been down to San Francisco proper. The only real agenda item I have for this trip is to take photos of the Big Red Bridge that is colloquially referred to as the Golden Gate Bridge
Aaron parks near a shopping center and hails and Uber. The ride is silent, save for the noise coming from the radio—this apparently passes for music these days. The inclines are steep. There are a lot of buildings packed tightly together and few trees. We go up and then we go down. Some of the streets offer a straight sloping view down to the ocean. I wonder if the whole city feels like this. Can you judge a city based off a single street? The car jerks forward and stops just as quickly. These are the rapid reactions of an experienced driver. As we climbs upwards the iconic side-by-side houses abruptly turn into sparsely growing redwoods.
The bridge is busy. Locals and tourists pose for photos, snap selfies, and otherwise capturing the moment from every conceivable angle. We head up a few flights of stairs first. I'm eager to get some photos. It is mid afternoon, I can't really choose the time of day or the weather so I'll have to work with what I have. The sky is clear, the sun is bright, and the shadows are harsh. I get a handful of photos, doing my best to crop people out of the frame.
We head down to the fort. There are several scenic stops along the way and we pause for photos. The roof of the fort is brutal. Icy cold wind blows from the Pacific Ocean and sucks the heat from my bones. Even my newly acquired YouTube hoodie offers no protection from the elements.
I have to walk across the bridge. I couldn't get so close and not at least set foot to the midpoint of the mammoth structure. We head up the hill to where we can access the bridge foot path.
"...99 bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall." A boy sings, walking alongside his dark haired mother.
"Shut up." The mother's sharp harsh rebuke shuts the boy up quickly. I suppress a laugh as they pass by going down. His sister follows behind him with another relative, they are also smirking at the interaction.
The walk across the Big Red Bridge is unpleasant. Wind whips from the ocean threatening to toss hats and handbags over the rail. Below, adventurers use sailboards to navigate the bay. Occasionally an ocean liner or freighter will pass underneath. It takes almost an hour to make the trek across.
Toward the far side I see a seal swimming and stop to take photos. It's a long drop to the shoreline from where I am. A man in a white uniform suddenly appears next to me.
"Any good whale activity?"
He has short curly red hair. I tell him I saw a seal. He tells me the whales were active near the middle of the bridge yesterday. We talk for a few minutes. I express surprise that the whales would be here, in such a busy area. He tells me it might be something seasonal. The middle of the bay is really deep. We chat for a few more minutes, I tell him I'm visiting from Minnesota and he tells me he just wanted to check to make sure everything is okay. He hops back in his little, white, three-wheeled patrol car and drives off.
The visitor center is criminally dirty. It consists of restrooms which reek of excrement. The floor is filthy and the stalls are even worse. I was hoping there might be a restaurant, coffee shop, or at least a vending machine, but it's clear that the mob of tourists would pillage and destroy any sort of establishment that might try to relocate here.
It's extremely busy. We stop to rest a while before walking back. Buses are dropping off and picking up tourists. Vacationers stop to take photos of the bridge and the bay from the northern side. There's a statue and some stone benches on which to sit. The walk back is against the wind and Aaron and I are both starting to tire out.
We park in the shade of a residential street. It's another LA neighborhood. A Thai temple sits at the corner where we turned. I'm led down the sidewalk past single story houses with stone yards. A mangy grey-brown cat sits by a tree. It's fur a near perfect camouflages for this environment.
"Hello cat," I say. It stares back with complete disinterest.
We turn into a large parking lot. It's mostly full of white Hondas and Toyotas.
The Worship Center is a huge auditorium with stone walls. The stones are smooth but uneven. It creates a cool esthetic. The carpeting and pew cushions are faded red. The room is laid out in a semicircle. A stage is in the middle of the far wall and the floor slopes upward to the double doors spaced along the back and side walls. Pews fan out from the stage with walkways at intervals. The ceiling is high. Theater lighting is hung to light the stage area. A four row choir loft is behind the main stage and in front of the far wall.
The room is huge. It holds 3000 people at capacity. Several hundred people are already there, but the space feels empty. Over the next 20 minutes the crowd more than triples in size. By the time the organ starts, two minutes before the service, the room is nearly full. It's not packed; a few sections of pews are stil open. The crowd noise has grown in intensity and gives the organ some decent competition.
The service runs for an hour and a half. We sing songs, the choir sings songs, and they show a video of their VBS program with 600 children. A few announcements are made and the preacher takes the stage. It feels more like a keynote address than a sermon. From someone use to small congregations and more traditional church services, this is quite the contrast.
After the service we walk over to a different building on the same campus. The room is smaller, meant to hold several hundred people instead of several thousand. The blonde wood floor is covered by rolls of flat black carpet. I get the impression this is a gym that is regularly converted to a worship hall, or a worship hall which is occasionally converted into a gym. There's no sign of basketball hoops.
DJ lights are mounted in the ceiling casting blue patches against the grey walls. The service starts about ten minutes late. It's similar to the first service, but geared toward a different, more specific, audience. The speaker is more jovial and the crowd responds with laughter at several points.
Aaron whips the CRV into an alleyway that moonlights as a newly plowed field on the weekends. The suv rocks like a boat as we head down the pseudo-street. We plunge back down into the street before climbing a steep ramp which doubles as the entrance to a parking lot. The car comes to rest in a lot between a purple sign reading "Babies R Us" (with a backwards 'R') and a long empty building which still houses a chipotle on the end.
The day has turned hot, oppressive even. The breeze offers little comfort and the shade offers no solace. We walk to the theater on the other end of the enormous parking lot to buy movie tickets. I am acutely aware that my hat is not on my head. It's back at Aaron's place; I wasn't anticipating so much outdoor-ing today.
Our movie isn't for another hour and a half, so we head off in search of frozen yogurt. We're joined by a couple of Aaron's friends. We had lunch with them only a few minutes ago, but they had to run some errands before meeting up with us to see Finding Dory.