California travels, for Dad

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I meant to chronicle my March adventures, which took me from one end of California to the other. Since I didn’t have time during the city-hopping, I thought I’d recap once I’d settled back in Humboldt at the beginning of April, the first month not requiring travel in over a year. But then my dad had a heart attack, so I returned to the road, this time with my three kids, to SFO. We flew out to meet my siblings and stepmom in Brownsville, Texas, where Dad is in a coma. We stayed for two days, holding his hands and talking to him in hopes he would hear us and wake up. But this morning, the worst was confirmed: severe brain damage. So what we really said was goodbye.

One of the ways in which my dad expressed his pride in me was to compliment my writing. As a traveler – and writer – himself, he particularly enjoyed my posts on Taiwan, New York, New Orleans, even the Outside Lands music fest. I have a lot to say about my dad. I have a lot to say about my recent California excursion. I shall start with the latter.

Prologue

I drive away from Humboldt on March 1, car packed to the gills with clothes, shoes, my surfboard, the usual assortment of toiletries, wetsuit, even my yoga mat. Where once I prided myself on packing light, the constant time in my car has caused me to treat it as an extension of my closet, bedroom: I take everything.

Sacramento

It rains as I drive. Of course it rains. This has been the year of endless rain. And cold. During the couple weeks I’d been back in Humboldt, the effects of all this rain were clear: my poor Northern California people wandered sad, pale and drawn, the season effectively disordering the majority of those trapped in it. By the time I wind around the 20, the clouds have dissipated into clear sky and the sun’s reflection shimmers across Clear Lake, turning the blue of both sky and water gold, pink, orange.

I stay with a friend in Sactown. She’s prepared the guest room with chocolates on the pillow. “I love you,” I tell her.

Other than practicing “morning yoga” with my friend’s son – a ritual that involves me doing “regular” yoga while he does “running yoga” or “firetruck yoga” – my two days in Sacramento are spent mostly sitting, first at an offshore wind energy symposium and then at a California Energy Commission stakeholder meeting. Look – I know people who devour Power Point presentations. I am not one of them. As much as the topic of installing hundreds of windmills off our coast interests me, a certain relief washes over my body when I finally head coastward again. I’m itchy to move, be outside, breathe the salty air.

San Francisco

Back to cold and windy. But a break in the latter allows me to surf Ocean Beach. Or, I should say, to “paddle” Ocean Beach. The place deserves every word of its reputation as a challenging surf spot. A typical session for me is to heave into my 5-4 hooded wetsuit, tug on my booties, walk the four blocks to the beach, do a few stretches on the sand while trying to suss out any hint of a channel, launch into the water, gasp at the chill as it rushes into my wetsuit, paddle furiously, try to duck dive under the whitewater crashing on my head, fail, repeat, eventually get to the outside where I’m too exhausted to do much, realize I’m perfectly not positioned to catch anything, paddle hither and yon toward peaks, eventually find myself in front of a building wave, catch it, ride it too far in, give up, get out.

Except sometimes I don’t ride the waves too far in, but instead remember to kick out and get back outside while the getting’s good. Sometimes I catch a few waves. And the upside of Ocean Beach is, when you finally get those waves, they’re usually waves to remember. In this case, on this day, we also had a chunk of rainbow linger on the horizon for what seemed ridiculously long. Twenty minutes? Thirty? Anywhere rainbows are just hanging out, I’m pretty happy to be.

Santa Barbara

I leave my 5/4 wetsuit in San Francisco, pack my 3/2 and set off for Santa Barbara. After weeks of rain, gray skies and cold, I open the car door to brilliant blue sky and sun-infused warmth. Red and purple flowers burst from vines on nearby walls. It’s all I can do to stop myself from lying down on the sidewalk and soaking it in. For the rest of my SoCal sojourn, I act as a human solar panel, absorbing all the rays I can.

Ventura

Ventura pleases me. It’s as if you took all the very coolest 1970s Southern California beach postcards and melded them together into the ultimate SoCal beach dream. I’d arranged for a volunteer I admire to present to the California Coastal Commission about his program bringing underserved kids from the inner city to the beach. I had my own presentations, too – one on a proposed emergency revetment likely to destroy the wave at San Onofre, and one on the misguided attempt by the Humboldt Harbor District and City of Eureka to once again dump dredge spoils on Samoa Beach. All of these presentations go well, leave me exhilarated and reinforce my love for my job, our volunteers, the state’s glorious coast. I surf tiny, tiny waves.

Santa Monica

The drive from Ventura to Santa Monica should have been terrible; I set off at 5:15 p.m. How could driving in Los Angeles anywhere at that time be anything less than awful? And yet. There I was, speeding unhindered down Highway 1, past Point Magu, through Malibu, Pacific spreading across the west, retro tunes on the radio, tequila sunset in the rearview. Pure California dreamin’.

I hang out with members of our West L.A.-Malibu chapter crew, stoked to see them, stoked to catch more tiny, tiny waves, stoked at the sunshine, the palm trees, the view of the Santa Monica boardwalk stretching out below me as I stride along the cliffs above, breathing heavy into my conference call. Because they park outside my friend’s apartment, I also meet Michael and Petra, a German couple who’ve built a custom RV rig that intimidates on the outside and welcomes on the inside. They’ve come up from a recent trip in Baja, are headed north to Canada. I think, I’ve got to tell my dad about these guys. My dad and his wife, Carol, have traversed the United States in their motor home for five years or so now, visiting national parks, tucking into South Padre Island regularly, stopping to say hello to friends and family along the way. He’ll get a kick out of this, I’m sure.

I also show up at the One Watershed event – One Watershed is the program run by Joel Cesare, the volunteer I’d urged to present to the Coastal Commission. Several kids, ages nine to 11, have been delivered to Venice Beach by the LAPD so they can learn to surf. I join WLAM volunteer Tiffany as she introduces this girl named America to the waves. America has only been to the beach twice before, and never in the ocean. She’s scared. We don’t put her on a board. Instead, we encourage her to sit along the water’s edge, let the waves lap at her feet, her knees. She grows more comfortable. By the time things wrap up, she’s spent most of the time rolling around in the water, hair full of sand, declaring herself a mermaid. One of the officers chokes up as he thanks the volunteers for taking the kids out. They’ll always remember this, he says. I think I will always remember this, too.

Long Beach

Nostalgia hits hard in Long Beach. I visit my friend Deric and by “visit,” I mean, “drink whiskey in a bar with.” We reminisce, which is a thing I rarely do. I tell Deric that I don’t think I reminisce enough. He tells me he doesn’t get to reminisce much, since most of the people he would reminisce with are back in Humboldt, his hometown by birth, mine by choice – although Long Beach was my first “home” town, the one I fled to from the desert where I grew up. Throughout this trip, people will ask, excited, if I’m going to see the superblooms. Intellectually, I understand their excitement, but my aversion to the desert runs so deep within my soul that not even the most magnificent of flower fields could entice me to it. No, I say, I am not.

I also get brunch with Deric and his friends at a place owned by one of the Social Distortion dudes. I barely recognize the street, mere blocks from my former apartment, as it’s been rechristened Retro Row and made snazzy. Social Distortion songs blare from the café speakers answering my unasked question about whether or not a musician who owns a restaurant plays his own music within. Deric’s friends are spectacularly specific with their dietary needs (vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, mushroom-free, respectively). The kitchen fails in similarly spectacular fashion to follow the directives given. I eat an omelet, am happy.

Sacramento

I fly from Long Beach to Sacramento, where two of my colleagues and I have coordinated Ocean Day, an annual lobby day at the Capitol. Over 100 people visit over 100 legislative offices to advocate for California’s coast, a significant increase from past events. I’d approached it fearing chaos and complaints, but it’s a success. People are happy. I’m elated. I fly back the next morning, grinning stupidly the whole time.

Orange County

I work from Surfrider HQ. Despite its San Clemente industrial park surroundings, the office is super cool, surfboards and art and activism and inspiration filling every corner of the LEED-certified space. I love my coworkers.

In San Juan Capistrano, my friend’s six-year-old son shows off his new surf ramp. I take about 50 photos of him then ask him which ones he wants me to save and share with his mom. He chooses the photos that make him look like a little shredder and the ones in which he’s completely goofy. The artsy ones that I like? Delete, he says. Why would you take just a picture of my shoes? he says, laughing at how silly I am.

I’ve forgotten to notice the weather because it’s been so nice.

San Diego

My friend Joy is one of the nicest people in the world. When I was 16, she became a sort of older sister to me. Thirty-one years later, she still is. She takes me hiking at Torrey Pines, shocked that I’ve never been there in all these years of going to San Diego. Everything is so green! she notes. I laugh and agree, despite realizing that my concept of “green” has been defined by too many years in Humboldt and thinking that what “green” in SoCal really means is “not brown.” The wildflowers are beautiful, though.

Then I take Joy to Pacific Beach because she doesn’t go to the beach enough, responsible working person that she is. We meet up with other friends. I surf tiny waves with them. We all lounge on blankets on the sand. My tan is coming along nicely, despite the wayward clouds threatening to undo our beach weather. I look around and am reminded that everyone in San Diego is perpetually young and beautiful (like the crowd in a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, I think now).

I spend several days at a faux-tropical resort in Mission Bay. Palm trees, pools, hot tubs, man-made lakes, waterfalls, ducks, egrets, herons, bars, all under the perpetually sunny blue sky. This is where we’re having our all-staff meeting (result of a sweet deal worked out via our San Diego chapter) and I can hardly stand how fun it it. We surf not-tiny, finally chest-high waves. I watch all the Power Point presentations and never get bored once – the opposite, in fact. To be part of this team of smart, funny, passionate people continues to motivate me, be a dream made real. When I am relaying this to our CEO, he agrees and adds, “You know what else? No one that works here is an asshole!” We cheers to that.

I send sunshiny photos from my sunshiny bubble to friends in Humboldt, friends still stuck in the land of perpetual rain. Stop, they tell me. It’s not funny. It’s horrible. So I stop. I don’t want to be an asshole. But I’m too keenly aware of how often life hurts, challenges, bores, infuriates – I can’t help but revel in this temporary peace. My face hurts from happiness. Or maybe sun damage. I surf again, the waves shoulder-high now, sparkling and golden.

Los Angeles

I’m downtown for a story-telling workshop. I’m staying at a semi-swanky hotel. The sunshine (again) filters through L.A. haze inspires me to take a bunch of artsy selfies that I share with my husband, who otherwise may not remember I exist after all these weeks of being away. This is the downside of travel – I’m off engaged in another world while Bobby’s busy holding things down at home. Sometimes the dynamic skews unfairly. But we have a vacation together coming up, a cruise to Alaska, courtesy of my dad, an anniversary present for Bobby and me. We’ve never done anything like this. I can barely wrap my head around it, being so busy, but both the novelty and promise of adventure excite me. My dad sends weekly emails alerting me to shore excursions, dining details, things I never would have known to consider. He wants very much for Bobby and I to have an amazing time. It’s really cute. I should call him soon.

The night before the workshop, a former Humboldt radio colleague and I hang out at the hotel eating artisan tater tots and drinking craft (read: overpriced) cocktails. Less happy nostalgia this time, but still meaningful, this reconnecting. I think about the evolution of friendships, of relationships, how to make sense of it all, if “making sense” is even an option.

In the morning, I walk to the workshop venue. Downtown vibrates with arts, artistic energy, the ever-blue sky reflected in mirrored skyscrapers in every direction. I wish I had time to explore, but I’m already running late. We begin by sharing a story per instructions. The people at my table vote my story the winner. I’m internally embarrassed by how pleased this ego-stroke makes me. The speaker tells us things I already know about stories, but provides new examples, rekindles my desire to do more of this in my work. All of this is good because I’m dreading the six-hour drive up the 5 waiting for me afterwards.

And it is miserable, the drive. Traffic and desert, sad cattle lots and fast-food joints. I drive and drive and drive and drive and finally arrive at my home-away-from-home in the Outer Sunset. In a few more days, I’ll head to my real home in Humboldt, but for now, I’m breathing in the cool salty night and deciding that other than stashing my surfboard in the garage, the rest of my luggage can wait till morning.

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One thought on “California travels, for Dad”

  1. Wow, Jennifer! I only wish I would have been hip to you sooner. You blog is great. It is very inviting, allowing for vicarious enjoyment of your adventures. May you continue to embrace the journey. Peace

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