The desert never felt like home, especially in the beginning. My family moved to the Mojave desert – with my six-year-old Virginian accent, I pronounced it “MO-jave” – the summer after I finished first grade. Forgiving them took years.
My childhood fondness for the Appalachians dwindled as I experienced the Pacific, Los Angeles, San Diego, Catalina, Hawaii. A love of the ocean and a passion for the vibrancy of the city replaced my longing for country roads. What didn’t change was the desire to GET OUT of the Antelope Valley, an area whose national reputation consists mainly of three things: 1.) anything aerospace-related; 2.) the high percentage of children murdered each year and the related meth issues; 3.) racial violence, as exemplified in a December, 1997 issue of The New Yorker. Locally, A.V.’s a place where Christian conservatives run the school boards and developers run everything else. Growing up there, I developed a disdain for both the drabness of the landscape and for what passed as culture. When, on rare trips to visit family or attend my husband’s class reunions, I return, no sense of “going home” colors the journey.
With that in mind, Bobby, the kids and I buckled up last Monday morning and headed south in our posh Buick LeSabre rental (courtesy Hertz’s airport location). I hadn’t seen my sister, who lives in Las Vegas, for four years, hadn’t met the two younger of my three nieces at all. We’d decided to meet at my dad’s place in Palmdale. As much as I love my family, the thought of several days in the desert had me more resigned than filled with joyful anticipation. Driving past Willits, the Talking Heads flowed through my mind: “We’re on the road to nowhere.” I replaced it with an M. Ward CD, courtesy of KHSU’s “Melodius,” who would be filling in for me at the station later in the day. We passed a green VW bus waiting on the shoulder, sign reading “Needs Repairs.”(Don’t we all?)
Craggy rocks and mossy trees broke up the gray-green of the hillsides, and sunbeams shot through storm clouds as if God Himself was about to descend from the heavens. When the kids point out the beauty of the hills lit up by the intermittent sunshine, I tell myself it’s because we’re raising them without cable. What a good parent I must be. I get sentimental, stay that way for hours, finding tears in my eyes when “Ring of Fire” comes on a Valentine’s mix CD from friends. I wave at San Francisco from the Richmond bridge, point out the the Oakland-Bay bridge and remind the kids that their great-great grandfather helped build it. We hook up with I-5, roll through the rolling hillsides dotted with cows and marked with crosses and Bush-Cheney signs.
My dad, who sports a “W’04” sticker on his shiny blue Nissan 300ZX of the same year (or close to it), takes me for coffee at his regular coffee house, which is not one of the dozen Starbucks dominating the valley’s java scene. We tour the flooding, a result of Southern California’s three-times-the norm recent rains. Apparently the efforts to pave over the entire landscape has resulted in – get this – not so many places for the water to soak into the ground. The place would’ve flooded anyway, with so much rainfall, but the amount of concrete makes it visibly worse. Along the way, he also points out the cell phone tower “tree.” I can’t help but laugh at how silly it looks – yet another reason the folks in the Bottoms should be happy they escaped having one of those “disguised” towers out there.
The rest of the day we visit old friends. Holly lived down the street from me. We started hanging out in junior high and remained best friends throughout high school. She looked at my 15-year-old daughter and said, “Oh, my! Do you remember what we were doing at 15?”
“No,” I lied, fending off inquiries from my daughter about just what kind of trouble her mother used to get into. “Besides, it’s totally different for Chelsea.” Right? Right?
Next we visit Tammy and Bob, who, at 18 years, have been together a year longer than Bobby and I. We’ve been friends for the same amount of time. Not only are they my very favorite Republican friends in the whole world, but they’re two of my favorite people ever. We gossip about other old friends – if only we’d been drinking Bartles & Jameses, it would’ve been exactly like old times.
I revert to childhood eating habits and swipe two Pop Tarts (brown sugar and cinnamon) out of the pantry before scrambling up last night’s leftovers into breakfast burritos for the kids. I email Monica at KSLG about music for tomorrow’s Slug Scene, which I’m doing long-distance this week. I’d dropped a CD off for her with spur-of-the-moment middleman Danny Mac at the Alibi before leaving town, but – through no fault of Danny’s – the connection didn’t happen. I stress slightly.
My sister, brother-in-law and their three little people arrive. Fortunately my dad’s house easily fits us all. The whole lot of us descend upon a TV-filled pizza-arcade place for lunch, where I despair that my children have spent more time in front of various screens in the last 48 hours than they have in the last 48 months, then see what fun they’re having with their cousins and stop worrying.
When we arrive back at my dad’s, who lives on the edge of town, on the slant of a foothill, a respite from the rain awaits. Desperate to stretch my legs, I suggest a walk. We round out of the neighborhood and hike up near the Aquaduct. I’m thinking Cadillac Desert until I turn around and am overwhelmed by the beauty of the valley. All the rain has greened the normally brown hills. Poppies reach skyward in orange glory – it’s going to be a gorgeous wildflower season. The slant of the sun’s rays creates dramatic shadows and highlights for over a hundred miles of landscape. The housing tracts and shopping centers don’t take up nearly as much room in this view, just blend together in a vague sprawl outshined by the jumbled Joshuas, the wide sky, the colors richer than I’d ever expected. I want to savor the view, but another storm approaches from the west, heralded by crows and reminiscent of The Neverending Story’s The Nothing. We make it to the house as the first drops hit the driveway.
We say our goodbyes, check that our $200 worth of Trader Joe’s goodies are safely wedged in the trunk, and pop back on the freeway for a quick L.A. stop before heading home. First stop, North Hollywood, at the school where my mom teaches. It’s a private school, populated by people who mostly work in The Industry. You think parking’s bad in Arcata? Check this out: at the school’s primary fundraiser, they auctioned off three prime parking spots, which happen to be right in front of my mom’s science lab. Each space went for – ready? – $42,000.
After a few rides on the hovercraft and much oohing-and-ahhing over the various reptiles and amphibians (albino frog, bearded dragon, thank you Natural History Museum for instilling a love of all things slimy and rough in my children), we went off to do lunch with another set of friends. Eager for a little exercise, I made the children hoof it a whole mile, pointing out the raging L.A. “river” as we crossed. “Not quite like our rivers, huh?” I pointed out to my hungry and tired offspring, who apparently get the difference between Humboldt and Los Angeles without my commentary, thank you very much. After a failed last minute attempt to locate an L.A. Weekly, I called in to KSLG and gabbed about the weekend’s live music shows, a radio half hour made mostly possible by the tireless efforts of Monica to obtain the necessary music.
Later, Mom drove us into L.A. proper, to the art colony where yet more friends reside. The place used to be a Pabst brewery, but has since been transformed into the largest artists’ live-work space in the world. In an amazing coincidence, the husband half of our friends who live there just happened to be the artist (jameshill.com) who created the reall
y-big-deal new sculpture at my mom’s school, which we didn’t realize until we were all together. Even in L.A., it’s a small world, after all. That theme continued when a woman resident walked up to me and announced we’d known each other in high school. Caught off guard and unsure how exactly I’d known her, I stammered my way through some small talk before she cut it short with, “It’s not like we hung out.”
We’d stayed the night in a loft whose renters are currently in Canada. The entire downstairs functions as gallery, with a 40-foot ceiling, walls half as big and lined with car-sized paintings. After waffles and coffee, we took one last walk around the Brewery so I could finish documenting our trip in photos. From the catwalk, I showed the kids the train yard that lines one side of the Brewery and watched the trains come and go from neighboring Union Station. I miss trains. Like rivers and California, they make for good songs.
For the ride home, the 5 had returned to its usual state of boring steady gray. Long hours later, we crossed that Humboldt County line, unexpectedly content with our trip, happy to be going home.