The Trip is Dead: Long Live the Trip

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When I came home, nothing went right. New Orleans does that to me. I’ve lived in cities that welcomed me with open arms after some time away. New Orleans is not one of those cities. We develop relationships with the places we live, and my relationship with this city has always been that of a volcanic and potentially doomed love affair. New Orleans is my girl. She is generous beyond words. She has a vicious temper. And when I come home after a few months on the road, she invariably makes me sleep on the couch.

And in this case, the couch had fleas.

It’s every traveler’s nightmare. To come home from a beautiful, difficult sojourn and find that your nest has been fouled. This took many forms for me. My refrigerator was full of rotten food and the house had been infested with tiny had bloodsucking agents of the apocalypse that swarmed my ankles and bit me to hell. The transmission on my truck was leaking so much fluid I couldn’t go a day without replacing it. My skin broke out. The money disappeared. And then I started working with the first major wave of the tourist season bringing me regular six-day work weeks as I tried to right the ship.

But the ship still floats, and my life in New Orleans has returned to something as close to normal as this town ever gets. My house is beautiful and free from pests. My truck runs better than a 25 year-old vehicle has a right to. The madness of the tourist trade is about to give way to a dead spell where I can celebrate Thanksgiving and curl up next to the space heater in my drafty room and try to point my way toward growing this blog.

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Back to the office.

In all the traveling I’ve done in my life, I’ve rarely kept a journal. What’s shocking to me, coming back after months on the road and reading through what I’ve written, is how much of the trip I’d already forgotten. Travel is often overwhelming, and some of the smaller moments, while they may lodge permanently in our bones, have a tendency to slip away through the cracks in our memories, crowded out by the moments we’ve built into stories.

What’s been even more valuable to me is the photographs, only a fraction of which I’ve shared on this site. Photographs, for me, serve primarily as writing prompts. But now, going through them, I see them for the first time as tiny memory capsules, each one bringing something I’d forgotten about back to the fore in vivid detail. I’m happy with the amount I wrote about the trip, but it’s surprising to me just how much I left out.

It’s a cascade when I let it go. The strange and wonderful brownies at the Peg House in Northern California. Shooting pool with my old friend Ayinde Russell in Denver. Happening on Buddy Wakefield in Boulder and drinking tea in a tea house that was shipped over, piece by piece, from Tajikistan. The astonishing hospitality of Charlotte and Cindy in Oakland, and my cousin Mike the Judge in Hawaii. And the probably-best-left-unfilmed tour of Honolulu dive bars with Tui Scanlan, which had us staggering into an all night diner for pancakes drenched in coconut syrup and a metric ton of greasy breakfast favorites.

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A lot of bad decisions led to this moment.

There was the horse farm in Michigan, where Karrie takes care of a number of equines, who in turn take care of her. There was the motorcycle rally in New Mexico, packed full of tricked out cafe racers, where John the Brewer took his bike for a fifty mile ride through the rich, red country north of Albuquerque. There was the re-connection with Rachel and her daughter Adele, who I’ve known almost since birth, just days after I held my brand new niece in a Chicago hospital.

It all comes back in pieces, or it all come back at once, and I’m staggered by my own luck. To have stepped out into this kind of a journey, to have been taught more than I could absorb (though I tried to grab it all), and to have the privilege of planning the next one. Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to accept that we deserve the good things that keep falling into our lives. I question it all the time. Whatever I’ve done to work my way into this existence, it’s still an accident of birth that I get to live this life. But it’s the one I have, and few things make me more grateful for it than this kind of journey.

There will be more journeys to come, and more frequent updates. I appreciate all of you who have followed me so far. Keep following.

Onward,

Nick

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Life on the Fringe: Apache County, Arizona

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Heading deep into the desert with a friend who has made a forgotten piece of the world into her new home.

“It’s a drive,” Patricia told me, then held up the map. About an hour down the highway, we’d take an exit, drive for twenty minutes, then turn down a dirt road. “It’s another hour from there.”

I told her she was giving new meaning to “off the grid.”

It was late, so I did my best to follow her in the maze of taillights along Interstate 40. Near the New Mexico state line, we took an exit and stopped for gas, then continued down to that first dirt road. I didn’t quite believe her when she said it would be another hour, but as the road twisted and wound, as the lights of everything except our two trucks disappeared and the increasingly high weeds started to whack the undercarriage of my Ford, I started to realize how completely screwed I would be if my truck chose that moment to break down.

This is where Patricia has chosen to build her life.

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The road to Patricia’s land, as seen the following morning.

There are few places in the country more isolated than this area that Patricia has set up. It’s not just the geography. The weather has a bone to pick with anyone who decides to make this place home. Temperatures soar over 100 degrees in the summer and plummet below freezing in the winter. The wind gusts, at times, over 50 miles per hour. There are few trees for shade. There are critters aplenty (I saw a couple coyotes in the morning), minimal rainfall, and few opportunities for growing one’s own food.

Patricia loves it.

This isn’t just about going off the grid for her. There’s a higher purpose at work. She sees the land as neglected, degraded. She wants to put her time in and help it regenerate, grow, and bloom. Ideally, this eventually becomes land she could live off of full time.

We hit her property at around midnight and I looked up at the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Among other advantages, places like Patricia’s spot offer some of the greatest stargazing in the world.

“You take the Yurpee,” she said. “I’ll sleep in my truck.”

“I can’t take your house, Patricia.”

“You take it. You’re the first houseguest I’ve ever had.”

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The “Yurpee.”

Patricia bought this land two years ago. A little over a year ago, she raised the Yurpee (a combination yurt/teepee). It’s a small operation, just big enough for one person to sleep in. Many nights, particularly when the wind is howling, she sleeps in her truck. But the structure is solid, standing up to the brutal winds that roll uninterrupted across the Colorado Plateau.

Little by little, she’s putting her home together. It’s a pioneer existence, though the Yurpee makes me think more the nomads of Mongolia than of any settlers of the American West. For money, she works as a copy editor, driving into town to use the Internet, post her work, then head back to the middle of nowhere.

I’ve known Patricia for around eight years, and what makes her existence so astounding to me is that she’d never done anything like this before. Sure, she learned a lot of permaculture work while living on a farm before she moved out here, but she was working with a team of people, many of whom had been living this way for years. To suddenly snag twenty acres of land far away from anything she knows and attempt to homestead on it takes a staggering amount of guts.

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Morning view from inside the Yurpee.

In the morning, she takes me around the property. Over here, the future orchard. Over here, the strawbale. And right here, the greenhouse.

She tells me the land already looks different than when she first arrived. She heats some water on a Coleman stove, pulls out a couple of oranges, and we have a breakfast of fruit and tea in the middle of the endless sagebrush.

“I like it out here,” I say.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Patricia tells me. “I don’t get a lot of visitors.”

And from the way she says it, I gather she’s just fine with that.

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Patricia is keeping a blog of her progress on the land. It’s called Fringed Sage, and you can find it here.

Tucson and the New West

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The real shock was seeing Spring again.

The last time we saw each other—the only time we saw each other—was nine years ago, in Spain. I was still married, still in my twenties. She was still a rumor until that trip, the girlfriend of my good friend Logan. They were traveling in Ireland. I was living in France. We made plans to meet up in Spain, and during that trip we shared one of the greatest days of my life. A hike through the Alhambra, dinner of wine and cheese and bread on a plaza overlooking the city of Granada as, below us, two hundred thousand people roared their support of the Spanish national soccer team.

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Me, Logan and Spring—Granada, Spain, 2006

Since that trip, Logan and Spring have moved to Mexico, broken up, moved back to the States, found their way back to each other, fell back in love, and now live in Tucson where they own a home and, less than a year ago, became the parents of two beautiful twin girls.

When Spring came out and hugged me that first morning I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Been awhile.”

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Spring and I playing chess in Spain, 2006.

There’s a kind of sadistic delight older people take in reminding young people that they, too, will age. Having grown up with my grandparents, I considered aging to be a good career move. You get old, you retire, you spend the day telling stories to your grandkids and having cocktail parties at night. My grandparents remain the most fun people I’ve ever met.

The part I never anticipated was that, as I got older, my friends would get older too. That they would get jobs, have children, and settle into lives you couldn’t have imagined when you were in school together. In the fourteen years Logan and I have known each other I’ve watched him grow from a grinning 19 year-old skater who dabbled in poetry to an internationally touring performance artist, teacher, and activist with a deep spiritual connection to the land he lives on, and the idea that everything he can change, and everything the kids he teaches can change, begins with a relationship to the land.

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Logan Phillips in his Tucson neighborhood, 2015.

Logan and I have always been voracious travelers. We’ve both lived abroad (he in Mexico, me in France). We’ve both embraced nomadic existences for most of our lives, occasionally crossing paths in far flung points on the map. Now here we were on the back porch of a house he owned and had every intention of raising his family in. He motioned inside with his hand, referring to both his partner and his daughters. “I don’t want to do anything but work in my garden and spend time with my girls. That’s what’s most important to me now.”

For Logan, life now is all about this kind of tender care. His major concerns—raising children, gardening, running a youth poetry organization, teaching in schools—all share the common thread of helping living things grow with care and attention. In his garden, he takes me through an introduction to permaculture, a word he uses with a wink.

“It’s not like this is something new,” he says. “People have been using these techniques for centuries. We’ve just forgotten most of it in the last hundred years.”

A garden in the desert of the southwestern United States is a dicey proposition to begin with. The sun is merciless, water is scarce. Yet Logan has managed to take his garden completely off the city’s water grid, primarily by using rainwater caught off his roof, which collects in a few pots around the house, and one very large water tank that he uses to irrigate several parts of the garden.

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The water tank. Gravity is used as the water’s primary delivery mechanism.

 But rain doesn’t just hit the roof, so Logan dug ditches throughout the property to manage the flow of water during the worst storms of the year. And for the times of year when the rain isn’t falling, there are old methods of keeping the plants alive.

Perhaps the most unique method—at least to IMG_1527anyone outside of the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico, is the use of ollas. Ollas are ceramic pots that can be used as slow release watering systems inside of larger pots. What Logan has done—and what has been done for centuries—is to place the olla inside of a larger pot so that the lid is still exposed. Then he pours water into the olla, and the soil leeches the water out through the clay in the pot. Keeping a lid on the olla also prevents water from evaporating too fast, a major concern in this climate.

The idea, Logan tells me, is to get the land back to green a little bit at a time. If he can make these plants grow this year, he can make some more grow next year. There’s no better storage vessel for water, he reminds me, than the soil itself.

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Logan uses sunflowers as trellises for climbing bean sprouts.

But for Logan, this idea of permaculture has a flaw. “I think there’s too much focus on the land and not enough on people.”

We are walking through his neighborhood, the oldest one in Tucson, to see the shrine of El Tiradito. Roughly translated as “the castaway,” this is reportedly the only shrine in the country dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The buried soul was reportedly one part of a love triangle, and whether it was the woman involved or one of the men she loved depends on which version of the story you read. Regardless of the shrine’s origins, it has become a symbol of the neighborhood of Tucson Viejo. In part because of the garlanded flowers and votive candles that surround it, and the prayers written on paper and slid into openings in the stone wall. More importantly, however, this shrine has become symbolic because its very existence is the reason the neighborhood exists today.

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El Tiradito shrine.

In the early 1970’s, the city of Tucson began construction on a massive project that would have plowed under the oldest part of the city to make room for a convention center and a freeway. The first phase, which cleared the way for the convention center, was completed, but the neighborhood held on to what was left by getting the shrine of El Tiradito listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As buildings on the register cannot be torn down, the city had to abandon its freeway plans, and the neighborhood managed to live on.

When we get to the shrine, Logan immediately sets about picking up candles that have fallen over and stacking them against the far wall. I join him.

“A lot of people think some places are too holy to touch,” he explains. “But holy things need just as much care as anything else. Maybe more.”

He invites me to leave a prayer in the wall, and I do. I tear a sheet of paper from my notebook and write a prayer for my mother and stick it in the wall. It’s not lost on me that the last time I saw Logan, and the last time I saw Spring, my mother was still alive.

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Prayers left in the crevices of the wall at El Tiradito.

We walk the neighborhood for a while longer. Logan tells me about the plans for his youth poetry workshop, Spoken Futures. Almost by accident, the group has become a torch bearer in the fight to keep Mexican-American studies alive at the high school level in Tucson. This is important, because in 2010 the state of Arizona banned Ethnic Studies classes in all public schools. The decision, particularly because it seemed to specifically target the Tucson Unified School District—which has a very high number of Latino students—was seen as racially motivated. This perspective was upheld recently when a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against the law could move forward.

This is not the first law to generate accusations of racism in the state of Arizona. In 2010, the state also passed a law called SB 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” the person might be an illegal immigrant. Despite accusations of racial profiling (the law is known locally as the “papers, please” law), SB 1070 remains on the books.

For many of the kids Logan teaches, these laws feed into the sense that there is a new southwest, and that they are not welcome in it. They are the castaways in this new vision of America, and their isolation is a byproduct of the fear and paranoia that surround debates about immigration. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that Logan envisions the Spoken Futures program being headquartered next to the El Tiradito shrine. Symbolic of the forgotten and abandoned, the shrine still had the power to turn back powerful forces. More importantly, it exists as a reminder of what this city was in its past, and of who laid the groundwork to make much of the state what it is today.

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Eventually, Logan and I wind our way back to the house. Spring is there, and the three of us sit in the kitchen, talking and reminiscing over a life that seems a million miles away on this bright day. Or maybe not. We all shared a moment in a sunblasted country nine years ago, and today we share another moment in another sunblasted country where these two old friends of mine have made their home, and make their stand.

A garden. A writing program. A family. These are people who grow things where people tell them nothing can grow. In the evening, we go to the back porch and watch the sun go down, the light playing on the leaves of the small trees in the garden. They look impossibly green.

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To learn more about Spoken Futures, visit their website right here.

Logan’s website, for all of his multi-media work, is right here. His book, “Sonoran Strange,” is available on the site.

Welcome to L.A.

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My sister gave me a good primer on how she learned to live Los Angeles:

“Just accept that you’re always going to be in traffic and that everybody’s a tool, and you’ll be fine.”

It’s a bit harsh, but that’s my sister. The truth is, she loves L.A. And after a few years of coming here, so do I. It has a great deal in common with Miami (another city I love), in that both seem all about their surface shimmer and are, therefore, easy to dismiss. But if you’re willing to dig a little bit, you can find some amazing treasures.

My sister lives in Hollywood, near a convent that supports itself by baking homemade pumpkin bread. This is not the kind of establishment one expects to find within shouting distance of the Walk of Fame, but that’s L.A. Strange, lovely, phony, vain, and profound. An incongruous place. A city that has no business being where it is, and remains there just the same.

Some of that incongruity is on display on Fairfax Avenue, a strange combination of Jewish delicatessens and hip shoe stores where people stand in line for hours before opening so they can be the first to grab the latest kicks. One of the beloved spots on this street is called Cofax (Coffee on Fairfax), which intentionally shares a sonic similarity with baseball legend Sandy Koufax, possibly the greatest left-handed pitcher in history, as well as a nice Jewish boy who called his mother.

And, in typical incongruous fashion, the main attraction at an L.A. Dodger-themed coffee shop named for a Jewish legend is the breakfast burrito.

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Do not try to steal my sister’s burrito.

I’m not quite sure what they put in the burrito at Cofax. Maybe opium? In any case, the flavor just pops out of it, and the line can get pretty severe. They also have bacon-topped donuts. I had one. It tasted about like you’d expect.

My sister has made this town her home for about seven years now, and seems to have found a lot of corners, great and small. As you drive around L.A. one of the first things you notice is the sheer immensity of it. There’s the city itself, and then there are the dozens of metropolitan regions that it overlaps. In fact, Orange County, to the south of Los Angeles County, has pretty much become a sprawling suburb of the city. Even its sports teams can’t let go. In 2005, the former Anaheim Angels (who were the California Angels before that), changed their name to the ridiculous Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, thereby taking a share of the L.A. market while also not-so-subtly acknowledging the insanity of their name, seeing as how  they live in a completely different city  with a population of almost 350,000 people.

I’ll say this for the Angels: They have beautiful ballpark. And if you are willing to brave the huge amount of freeway traffic to reach the park, you will see more than a few over-the-top L.A. touches, such as the “volcano” just over the center field wall and gluten-free beer and hot dogs. That’s right. Gluten free ballpark staples. Only in Southern California. Thank God “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wasn’t written in Los Angeles.

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Buy me something other than peanuts because I have a nut allergy and tooooofu chips!

Another study in the clashing of cultures sits downtown in the city’s financial district, where the Grand Central Market still goes strong after decades. Long a hidden gem, it’s now become a home to the kind of superhip coffee counters and food stands that might be too cool for you in a lot of places, but somehow seem kind of charming when they’re stashed in between the dried pepper stand and the Chinese chop suey joint that’s blasting salsa music.

The surging popularity of the spot means, of course, IMG_1435that the rents have gone up, so it remains to be seen how long the current balance will last. For now, there are an increasing number of newer spots wedges in with old standbys like China Cafe and La Casa Verde produce stand. You get both versions of downtown L.A. here: the one that hung on over the decades while everything but the business center emptied out, and the one that’s rediscovering the downtown and wants to be part of it. One hopes the new coexists with the old rather than forcing it out.

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A short drive from the Central Market, one comes to a dessert place called the Pie Hole. Built into a warehouse, this little spot makes its name on a rotating list of pies, some of which have their recipes hanging in frames around the tables (with red lines through key bits of information, of course).

“They have Earl Grey Pie,” said my sister.

No, I thought. Not possible. Earl Grey is my drink of choice since I was in high school. How could anyone make it into pie form? But there it was. Sitting right next to the Mexican Chcoolate Pie.

“Oh man. I don’t know what to choose,” I said.

“Take both,” said the woman behind the counter, because she was Satan.

“Okay,” said I, because I am susceptible to temptation.

There are people out there who tell you not to overindulge. Who tell you that eating two slices of pie as rich as that cannot possibly be good for you. That, at a certain point, decadence becomes a punishment itself. Those people have a very valid point.

Also, I hate those people.

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I am a sinner. I’m good with this.

Full of dessert and eager to get one more side of downtown L.A. before returning to Hollywood, we made our way to Olvera Street. Called “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” this little stretch of food stalls, restaurants, clothing shops and leather goods stores is the oldest part of the downtown area.  In danger of being razed in the 1920’s, the street became a cultural preservation/tourist site in 1928, when the city agreed to have it made over into a section of stalls that would, it was hoped, recreate the essence of old Los Angeles, and provide a link to the Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican-American communities that built the city.

It’s a strange little slice of the city. On the one hand, it creates what could be considered a sterilized version of the town’s Latino past that is intended to appeal directly to tourists. On the other hand, it keeps a foothold of some of the city’s culture in place even as the downtown looks to “renovate” and “revitalize,” two common buzzwords that generally mean that a working-class population in a a neighborhood is about to get screwed.

Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that one of the street’s centerpieces is a painting by the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

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Mural detail inside the interpretive center on Olvera Street.

Unveiled in 1932, La America Tropical was as controversial at the time as its painter. Siqueiros, an avowed Marxist who would later lead an assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky in Mexico City, had already painted one controversial painting in the city (Street Meeting, which showed a group of workers listening to a speech by a labor organizer). That painting was washed over within a year. But if Street Meeting made the downtown elite uncomfortable, La America Tropical scared the shit out of them.

A ferocious attack on imperialism, which used the image of a young, crucified Indian as its centerpiece, the painting did not vibe with the nice, quiet version of a safe Mexican village that Olvera Street’s financial backers wanted to portray. The painting was whitewashed (both literally and figuratively) within a year. After the whitewash began to crack in the 1960’s, the mural started to reveal itself. In the 1990’s work began to preserve and restore the original mural, which today has a visitor center where anyone can come to study and learn about the work.

There’s something about the totality of Los Angeles in that story. It’s a city that, if you only look at the surface, can seem unbelievably sanitized and fake. But there are beautiful things happening just below the surface. In all of my visits, I still feel I’m only just scratching below that surface, and that’s enough to keep me coming back for everything I keep missing. The street culture. The high rises. The lovely hidden corners. And everything weird that sits below the bland perfection of that Hollywood shine.

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Tickets to Angels games can be found on their website, right here.

Cofax Coffee is located at 440 N. Fairfax Avenue. They are open seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Sunday). They have a website here.

Grand Central Market is located at 317 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. They have a beautiful website that profiles each of the vendors, and you can check it out right here.

The Pie Hole is located at 714 Traction Avenue. They are generally open from around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 or midnight. They have a website here.

Information on Olvera Street, including the Siqueiros mural, can be found at their website here.

 

 

 

AMERICAN HIGHWAYS—The Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1)

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Snaking over 650 miles down California’s coast, the Pacific Coast Highway is both an engineering marvel and one of the most spectacular drives in the country.

It’s a bit easier to get there now, as long as you have the gas money and reasonably good tires, but I do the same thing every time I stand on this coastline. I consider what it’s meant to countless people who crossed the country and got a look at this ocean for the first time. There they were, after thousands of miles of travel, having watched all the terrain swell and dry up and shift behind them, standing on the edge of the continent and looking at the biggest thing in the world.

Whether hanging from a cliffside or skirting the water’s edge, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in America. Its construction feels both inevitable and insane, as it sits at the mercy of coastal winds and erosion, and subject to landslides that can close whole sections of the highway for months.

But man, what a view it provides.

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The most famous piece of the highway is the section around Big Sur, and there are plenty of drivers who avoid the highway outside of this area. But the road extends deep into Los Angeles and Orange Counties in the south and as far as Mendocino County in the north, and there is hardly any of it you could write off as not being worth it.

But I’m sad to say I gave up on the northernmost strip early on. Coming down from Eureka weeks ago, I jumped onto Highway 1 right where it begins around Leggett. This stretch takes a long, twisty route that avoids large stretches of the so-called “Lost Coast,” which has avoided development due to its dramatically shifting terrain. But I never made it. The road is so twisted up here that I actually got nauseous, and I’m sure that had nothing at all to do with the gigantic brownie I’d just eaten. In any case, I only got five miles before I turned back, so consider this my incomplete personal narrative of the road in question.

My own journey on the highway begins at Point Reyes, a National Seashore that arcs out into the Pacific and creates a protected lagoon inland. A few small communities have sprouted up here, including the hidden hippie town of Bolinas and the delightful little town of Point Reyes Station where, in typical California coast fashion, you can see work-worn pickup trucks parked side by side with Lotuses and Ferraris.

The drive to the Point Reyes Lighthouse feels like a trip to the edge of the world. The road stretches about 40 miles through marshland and coastal mountain, passing old cattle ranches that have become historic markers as they continue to operate inside the federally protected land. Eventually, on a high promontory so blasted by wind that the trees grow sideways, you come to a little parking area, and after a ten minute walk and a descent of some 400 stairs, you come to the lighthouse, and take in the shifting waters of the Pacific.

That’s the easy way to come into Point Reyes. The hard way is just south of the lighthouse on Limantour Beach, which is the terminus of the American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast walking trail stretching some 5,000 miles from Delaware to California. After covering the final 43 mile stretch from the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Reyes, hikers dip their toes in the Pacific, signalling the end of their journey. If you’re aware that even now hikers are finishing this trail after months of walking, then driving through this area can make you feel like a pretty serious wimp.

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Further south, Highway 1 skirts around the stunning Muir Woods (named for the naturalist John Muir), where you can see old-growth redwood trees that stand over 200 feet high and date back over 1,000 years. From here, it’s a short drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, and the loveliest spot in San Francisco: The Presidio.

A former military base that housed soldiers from Spain, Mexico and the United States in its 219-year history, the Presidio became part of the National Park Service in 1994. It’s a beautiful stretch of green space capping the San Francisco Peninsula, and offers impossible views from several vantage points. Underside view of the Golden Gate Bridge? Check. Overview of the bridge and the windsurfers and kitesurfers taking advantage of the howling winds underneath it? Check. Expansive view of the Bay emptying out into the Pacific? Check. This is always my first stop in San Francisco, and if I could camp out inside its borders for a month, I would.

Back on the highway, drivers inch their way along the edge of San Francisco and, after screaming their lungs out in traffic through the city and down into Pacifica, eventually come to another quiet little town called Half Moon Bay, home to a massive pumpkin festival and a surfing spot called Maverick’s, one of the most inhospitable, dangerous, and impressive big wave breaks on the planet. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area when the wave breaks (which is not often), you will find the nearby cliffside swarmed with photographers, each hoping to sell their shot of the big wave riders to various surfing mags.

South of Half Moon Bay is where California’s Central Coast begins, and this is where things really start to get interesting. This area, which stretches roughly from the surfing Mecca and hippie-dippie town of Santa Cruz to the plush seaside community of Santa Barbara, makes for some of the most beautiful scenery of the drive, and holds some of its most interesting artistic history.

It was along this stretch of California that Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck set most of his stories. Steinbeck has long been one of my literary heroes, and my favorite book of his—Cannery Row—takes place among the sardine canneries of Monterey’s waterfront (and if you haven’t read Cannery Row yet, stop reading this and go do so right now—it’s one of the funniest books ever written). The town of Monterey is also home to a long-running jazz festival, the best aquarium in the United States, and a couple of friends of my uncle who put me up for the night, and whose house nearly caught on fire while I stayed with them through no fault of my own.

Carmel-by-the-Sea (actual town name) also has a long artistic history, with writers such as Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, George Sterling and Upton Sinclair settling there in the early 20th century. More recently, it’s been known for its long-running Shakespeare festival, its proximity to the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, and for being the home of Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor for a time and, it should be noted, could probably still kick my ass.

But as artistic locations go, Big Sur is the one that really stands out.

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The Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel.

Let’s start with the coastline. I can’t help but think of Slartibartfast, the planetary designer from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, who is particularly proud of his coastlines (especially Norway’s fjords and their “lovely crinkly edges”). As a profound nerd, I am deeply hopeful that Big Sur was one of his projects, as I’m certain he would have won an award for it.

The Big Sur coastline is a work of art, and its beauty has served as inspiration for countless artists. First of all, the engineers who built the highway that connected it to the rest of California, with 33 bridges running along its length. This stretch of highway took 18 years to build, and winds an impossible trail along the cliffs that cascade into the ocean. Highways are pieces of art, too, and this stretch of Highway 1 is close to being a masterpiece.

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Big Sur in the morning. (photo: Alex Fox)

Other artists soon came here. The great poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti kept a cabin here, and a series of visits to the cabin by Jack Kerouac inspired one of his best known works (Big Sur). Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorite writers, lived on the coast here, a neighbor to the folk singer Joan Baez. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth purchased property here and built a home they never stayed in, which is now the site of Nepenthe Restaurant. Perhaps the greatest literary stamp on the area came from novelist Henry Miller, who made this his home for 18 years. The Henry Miller Memorial Library sits hidden along the highway, and is one of the area’s cultural hubs.

The road continues its snaking route south until it finally starts to straighten around San Luis Obispo, then broaden at Santa Barbara. The road starts to intertwine with the busier U.S. Highway 101 here, continuing to hug the shore all the way to Malibu. It’s on this stretch that you can feel the divide between Northern California and Southern California most prominently. Gone are the jagged cliffs and high pines of the more rain-swept and mountainous north, replaced by desert landscape and increasingly busy beaches of the south. The dunes start to pile up, and you begin to see surfers on the breaks. You’re level with the coast now, and the parked camper vans and surfmobiles tell you that you’ve moved into a whole different way of living.

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Close to the shore near Malibu.

The highway’s final stretch, from the Malibu Pier to the Santa Monica Pier and down to Dana Point, represents the California most people imagine before they come here. Sunny, sandy, crowded. Cars merging into traffic and pedestrians in bathing suits. Surfboards, rolled down windows. The Hollywood Dream and the surfer’s paradise.

There’s a way you can look at the drive as a journey through California’s various epochs. To the north is the early days. Sparse population, difficult roads, unspoiled coastline. Through the Central Coast, you can see how engineering brought the difficult to reach places within range of the cities, but it still comes largely from mid-twentieth century work. The elements of the information age are there, but large chunks of the coast, partly through inaccessibility, still feel much as they probably did fifty years ago. Then, in the south, the metropolitan sweep of Los Angeles, her gaudy essence extending all the way to the beach. Here is modern California in all its glory. Big and crowded, but still just as much an escape for dreamers as it ever was.

There’s an element of time travel to the Pacific Coast Highway. It brings hundreds of thousands of people annually to remote parts of this coast, but mudslides and construction still close sections for extended periods of time. The land is still rugged, and it is still evolving, and the highway has to make accommodations for that.

The Pacific, however, makes no accommodations. It sits there the same as it ever was. You look at it as you go down the highway and it rolls on forever, just on the other side of the glass, to the other side of the world.

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On the Return

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There comes a point on any trip when the arc away from home ends, and the arc of returning begins. This doesn’t necessarily have to be at the halfway point, either in time or distance. It’s more of a state of being. Ideas of home begin to creep in. Thoughts of what must be accomplished to set things in order once you get back. The knowledge that there is another season to come, and that part of you is already preparing for it.

That point came for me as I sprinted through the Honolulu airport, trying to make my flight back to Oakland. Honolulu is a very badly designed airport, and the lines for both baggage claim and security were clear out the door. In addition, wings are madly spread out, and I ended up having to run to the farthest end of the farthest terminal to make my flight. Maybe that’s why it didn’t hit me until the moment I sat down on the plane that I was, however slowly, on my way home.

This trip has been perfectly divided for me in that way. The return from Hawaii came at almost the exact midway point of the trip. It was also the most western point of the trip. From Colorado to California to Hawaii, the first leg of the trip has had me moving, almost exclusively, westward. From the moment that plane took off over Oahu, I began an arc of movement that will be, almost exclusively, easterly. Until I get home.

Home is a strange concept on a journey like this. It’s become a mobile thing on the road. I’ve been at home on a houseboat, in a tent, on the side of a volcano, at the edge of the continent. I’ve been at home on the road. It seems easier, somehow, without the concerns and utility bills and other stresses of a day-to-day existence in a single location. Relationships seem to stay more cordial. Existence feels more immediate. This is, of course, more a product of my own design than any real problem with a more settled way of living.

As Blaise Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

I’m on the return leg of my journey now, with California, the Southwest, and Chicago ahead of me. I will be sending updates as I start to spin toward home, but it feels different now. I have one eye on the endpoint. I am already anticipating my landing. And always, in the back of my mind, is the thought that if I could just keep going, keep jumping, I would never stop worrying about how I would land.

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A few hours before my flight back to the mainland, I walked into a Shinto temple in Honolulu and observed a ceremony entirely in Japanese. It appeared to be the equivalent of a Baptism. I have no idea what was happening, but I sat quietly and watched and let myself get carried away by every movement of the priest. The shaking of what looked like a brush made of paper over the infant and the two women who brought him. The sipping of some sort of ceremonial tea. The chanting, punctuated at intervals by a loud handclap. I had no trouble sitting still, shutting my mouth, forgetting every concern. And still, four hours later, I was running at a dead sprint so as not to miss a plane that, symbolically, was the first step of the end of my journey.

Maybe that’s why these missives have become so important to me. They force me to sit still, consider what I have seen, and quietly focus. They stop my mind from galloping past my experience. They are my way of inviting everyone to cross to my side of the river and share the view. Most importantly, they are my own way of recording my present as it slips away, and forcing me to remind myself to look away from the landing strip and focus on the view still ahead of me.

You need to remember this, I remind myself. You need to remember so you can share it.

These are the things I’m accumulating. More than possessions. A record of pictures. Of images. Something I’ll carry with me all the way home.

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Eureka, California: Crabbing with Uncle Tony

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My first view of the Pacific came after driving through fire. If you’ve been following the news, you know about the wildfires that are blanketing California in a thick haze of smoke. On Highway 299, for pretty much the entire length, the sun barely peeks through and the high parts of the peaks turn invisible. You can smell the world burning. And then, just before the coast, the breezes off the ocean kick in and the sky clears, showing blue all the way to the water.

And then it’s there, laid out in front of you. The biggest thing on Earth, gently snuggling up to California.

And this is where my Uncle Tony makes his home.

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He’s a different kind of guy, my uncle. He’s been in this part of the world for over forty years, working pretty much that entire time as a union carpenter. The last time I visited him, five years ago, he was on the brink of retirement.

“If I’m working a day past my sixty-second birthday, you can shoot me,” he said then.

He didn’t work a day past then, and now he’s enjoying his retirement.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he says.

“It not just about looking pretty?”

“No. You gotta work at it. You have to fill your days. If your day isn’t complete, you have nobody to blame but yourself.”

Tony’s good at making his days complete. Every morning he exercises, then studies Spanish for an hour, followed by an hour of Spanish television. Then he gets on with whatever project he’s working on. At some point in the day, he takes a nice long hike. He cooks his meals, eats from his garden, goes out clam digging and crabbing whenever he can. He has no computer, no cell phone, no answering machine on his landline. He built the house he lives in, and he builds his world from the inside out. It’s a good life, and he enjoys it. It’s also the kind of life that, if you’re on the road for a couple weeks, it’s very nice to fall into.

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Tony and the Boston Whaler.

It’s easy to be wasteful on the road. Motion alone keeps you from accumulating anything, and you don’t have to look at any mess you make for long. I try to be conscious of this, but being around Tony throws it into sharp focus. One of my favorite things about Tony is that he simply does not waste anything. Not even time. He drives an old Buick that he’s had for over 30 years, and his crabbing boat is a 42 year-old Boston Whaler that belonged to my grandfather (his father). He got it a new motor a few years ago when the old motor finally reached a point beyond repair, and he just finished a project of re-upholstering the cushions. I used to go out on that Whaler with my grandfather when I was a kid. Now, on the other side of the country, and with a one-day fishing permit tucked into my shirt pocket, I was going out with my uncle to catch dinner.

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On the water.

The traps Tony uses are rings lined with mesh, with a second mesh-lined ring in the center where you can tuck away the bait. Our bait was chicken, but almost anything works. Crabs aren’t picky. The crab we were after is called Rock Crab. They’re all over Humboldt Bay and they’re never out of season because most people don’t want them. Too much work for less meat than the more highly prized Dungeness Crabs, which won’t be in season until November. As a result we had the bay all to ourselves, except for one seal that checked us out until we hauled up our first batch of Rock Crab. Then he gave us a look like, Seriously? Rock Crab? Screw you guys. And off he went.

Our system was pretty simple. Bait four traps, drop them on a line on the edge of the channel markers, about twenty yards apart. When the fourth one is dropped, swing back around, haul up the first one, re-bait the trap, drop it again, pick up the next trap.

There’s a technique for hauling up the traps. You want to be right on top of them when you start pulling so none of the crabs spill out over the side. This can be hard to judge because of the currents moving things around, so the best time to go crabbing is within an hour of a low or high tide, when the currents are at their calmest. I hauled up the first trap and there were about a dozen critters inside. We dropped them on the deck and started sorting.

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A full trap. The purple ones are Dungeness Crabs, which we threw back.

You don’t want to keep everything you catch. And, in fact, you can’t. There are size limits on crabs. If they don’t meet a certain measurement across their shell, you have to throw them back. There are different size restrictions for Rock and Dungeness Crabs, but Tony doesn’t take anything unless it meets the Dungeness size requirements, even though the requirements are about 30 percent larger than those for Rock Crab. When the trap comes down, it’s time to start sorting.

Getting the crabs sorted quick is ideal, because they’ll start embedding themselves in the mesh and you have to get them untangled without getting pinched (which, I’m assured, hurts like hell). The best system is to grab them by their legs or their butt (crabs don’t have butts, but you get the idea) and toss them over the side, little ones first. Some of the crabs will leave the trap and start moving around the deck, which is actually better because they have less to grab onto when you try to pick them up. Unless, of course, they get a hold of the fuel line. I mention this because one of the crabs nearly pulled this move off, and if he’d severed the fuel line, we would have been dead in the water with a crab laughing at us. And that’s just undignified.

Once all the small ones have been tossed back, it’s time to start measuring (we generally got one or two per trap that were worth measuring). If they meet the requirements, they go in the bucket for dinner. If not, back they go into the water. In one trap, we had a crab that was fit for dinner pull a pretty brilliant escape. As I was throwing back a small crab, the big one reached out a claw, grabbed the smaller crab’s leg just as I was throwing it, and hitched a ride back to the ocean.

“You got to admire that,” said Tony.

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Measuring the crab.

In total, with eight traps set, we caught four crabs. About what we expected, and not bad for 90 minutes of work.

We took the Rock Crab home, cooked them up, and got to cracking away. There’s a lot of cartilage in those boys, and you have to fight for some of the meat. But once you get to the meat, it’s as good as any crab I’ve ever had, and it couldn’t be any fresher. I found it hard to believe that people didn’t want these, as tasty as they were.

“Some people don’t want to do that much work,” said Tony.

I figure that I’ve fallen into that category of people who didn’t want to do that much work at various times in my life. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now. More likely, it’s just that I spent some time around Tony. There’s nothing more likely to make you work harder than being around somebody who works hard. Even at retirement.

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