1,440 miles, 10 chapters, told twice

1 Humboldt to San Francisco
Today is my husband’s birthday. Today is also the birthday of one of my housemates in SF. (Also Barack Obama’s birthday, but he and I made no plans.) Because I need to be in L.A. tomorrow, I skip out on my husband’s celebrations – after making a lovely lunch for him; I am not a monster – and drive south. The redwood corridor gives way to the Mendocino madrone and then the Sonoma vineyards. In Marin, the highway curves around to provide the first glimpse of the Golden Gate for the hundredth time and the slant of the sun through the bridge lights up the city, the coast, the air itself with such sparkle I am once again agape with wonder. We celebrate Adam’s birthday at Church of 8 Wheels. I do not fall down once.

2 San Francisco to Woodland Hills
The first in a series of Save The Planet! podcasts discusses driving and air conditioning. I’m listening in my car, hundreds of miles to go, blasting the A/C in defense against the Central Valley’s 100-degree heat. By the third show in the series, talk has turned to large-scale agriculture, particularly the climate-change-related problems inherent in a beef-based diet. This, as I blaze by Harris Ranch, the smell of the cattle lots filling the car. I finally arrive in Woodland Hills, where I’m staying at the home of coworker. I drive up and around and up and around into the hills, which are also, in fact, woodsy. So much so that my room might as well be perched among the sycamores, eucalyptus and fir pines like a proper treehouse.

3 Woodland Hills to Long Beach
Yoga on the deck under the trees, a memorial service at Tree People up Coldwater Canyon, a warm water surf at Topanga. The landscape between expands in a jagged, twisting chaparral blend of rock, sage, shrubby hillsides rising above dry ravines. I return to and pass through the urban world en route to Long Beach, where I land with a friend-colleague and his wife. To reach their door, I walk through a flower garden so profuse the blossoms are above my head, trellising up the second story and heightening the sense of sanctuary. Pinks, purples, yellows, greens; color abounds. My friends welcome me with wine, cheese, crackers, grace.

4 Long Beach to San Clemente to San Juan Capistrano
I detour into a salon for a quick pedicure – Southern California demands more maintenance than the northern societies. I also stop listening to podcasts and turn on the radio instead, seek music instead of news. I thus arrive happy to a place that is already one of my happy ones: Surfrider HQ. Maybe if I worked there all the time, my infatuation would wear off. As it is, my infrequent forays feel like the work equivalent of a forest bath – which sounds like an oxymoronic concept, yet the immersion, exposure leaves me inspired, energized. My focus sharpens. My heart fills. I smile a lot when I’m there. It can’t all be the endless coffee. Later, after calamari and fries with partners on the pier, I motor up to San Juan, crash at another friend-colleague’s. I unpack my car and can’t get over the – I don’t know what flora to credit with scenting the dry night air – sage? juniper? No matter. I can’t stop breathing it in.

5 San Clemente to Calabasas
Productive morning, productive meeting, somewhat less-productive meeting and then I’m on the road again, northbound, switching freeways until I finally reach my exit, find my hotel. It’s 10 p.m. I want to wash my face, brush my teeth, floss, fall into the promised pillow-top bed. But I’m spotted as I walk roll lug in. Jennifer! Come have a glass of wine! It’s work. I do.

6 Calabasas
I stay in the same place two nights in a row. A miracle! As is the magic that is modern medical technology. My phone alerts me at 3 a.m. that my son’s blood sugar is dangerously low. I call him. No answer. I call again. No answer. I call again, no answer, I call my husband, he answers. Go, I say. He does. Fifteen minutes pass. Alive, my husband texts me. Handling it. I do the atheist equivalent of crossing myself and praising God, which is to say, I let my breath out, text back Thank you and heart emoji, and do my best to get back to sleep. All without waking my coworker in the adjacent bed.

7 Calabasas
We nail our presentation. I’m giddy. Sure, to most people, just shy of 12 minutes about hard armoring destroying California’s coast might not sound like the smash hit of the summer, but we worked hard to make those minutes engaging, to balance the big picture with the details, to deliver the words and slides so smoothly the commissioners couldn’t possibly look away. Check, check and check. We celebrate with a lunchtime surf at Malibu. Tiny waves, but the water clear as glass. I marvel at this, repeatedly. Later I drive 30 miles through canyons I don’t know to paddle out at Leo Carrillo, where some of our chapter activists have gathered. The crowd is a bit much and the waves a bit not enough, but the fading sunshine lights up the water a bright golden blue and when I see my friends, their grins radiate just as sweetly. But once the illumination fades, exhaustion settles in. I drive back to the hotel in tears that have no meaning of their own beyond tiredness. My brain does its best to assign some. I park, detour into the hotel’s bar, order soup, French fries.

8 Calabasas to Ventura to Los Alamos to Paso Robles
The thought of taking the 5 back up makes me seize up, so I opt for the 101 instead. Traffic is godawful on the way to Ventura. Two accidents, one caused by a giant metal sphere coming loose off a flatbed. I stop-and-go unfazed. L.A.! My coworker in Ventura greets me with a burrito. We talk shop. He directs me to a stretch of beaches slightly north, where free parking and slightly fewer crowds await. In case I want to stop. I do. I spend an hour on the sand, sun on my back, water at my toes, magazine in hand. I read about Buddhism as a secular practice. I breathe. I sink into the moment. And then I return to my beleaguered car and the traffic. I stop in Los Alamos and eat too much and spend too much. New plan: Drive until the sun goes down, then find a hotel. The sun drops. I get a room.

9 Paso Robles to Santa Cruz
Maybe I should stop, I think, as I hit the brake, clutch, gas, work my way along the freeway toward Santa Cruz. I Hey, Siri a voice text to my friend who lives there. I hear nothing back, so I keep driving, skipping the inland route in favor of the coast. Views, and I am not in a hurry. I’m 20 minutes beyond Santa Cruz when the dozens of sails at Waddell Creek lure me to the side of the road to watch the kite-and-wind-surfers pirouette along the waves. My phone rings. We’re coming back over the hill if you want to hang out, says my friend. Stay the night. I explain I should get back, really, so much to do, next time. We hang up. Two minutes later, I call him back. Jen Savage, he says. You changed your mind. It’s true.

10 Santa Cruz to San Francisco
I roll off the cushions, into a goodbye hug, into the car, so practiced at packing I scarcely notice it happening, back on the road, a barely discernible stop for coffee and a muffin, the acknowledgment that the coast is beautiful, it’s beautiful, look, so beautiful. I do not stop to take photos. I do not stop to surf despite the increasingly attractive waves. (I have neither my NorCal wetsuit with me nor booties, and the 3/2 in the back of the car will not suffice with current temperatures.) I do stop at Grocery Outlet in Pacifica, stock up on discounted fizzy water, coconut yogurt and chia seed. (California, I am so California.) I navigate into the Outer Sunset and my prayers to the parking gods work; a driver climbs into her car just as I roll up. Three trips from car to garage – La Croix, luggage, surfboard, yoga mat (California, I am so California) – and here I am, back in my home-away.

* * *

One: A vow. I’m considering vowing to never drive the I-5 again. (“The”: SoCal roots, showing.) Although I was shocked to discover Bravoland on this latest trek, so there was that.

Two: Déjà vu. Every time I come to SoCal, déjà vu trails along with me; I’m constantly crashing into ghosts, memories, from the early chapters of my life. I drive by the mall where my dad took me to buy a “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” T-shirt, making me the envy of my entire sophomore class. A few miles down the freeway I see the exit that would lead me to my mom’s house and am reminded that I have a mom, which is also a reminder that, for all intents and purposes, I do not. I make new memories on top of old places and wonder, Is this what it’s like for everyone?

Three: Memorials. I went to another memorial, the third one I’ve attended in nine weeks. My dad’s, Joey’s, my coworker Paul’s. I missed Jenny Mason’s, but my sorrow for her, her boys, is no less.

Four: Hosts. This travel life both exhausts and exhilarates. Even as the very thought of dragging my bags in and out of my car yet one more time wearies me, the fact that people I love and admire are waiting to (again) welcome me into their homes fills me back up.

Five. Victory. Halfway through my trip, word came that our legal team scored a massive win on one of our most prominent campaigns.

Six: Agitation. The specific worries keeping me from falling back asleep when I wake at 3 a.m.: fear of losing my children, husband, other loved ones, fear of failure, societal and/or environmental collapse, being broke.

Seven: Observations. Almost everyone on the SoCal coast is conventionally, which is to say exceptionally, beautiful. I heard a U2 song on the radio today and remembered I loved the song before remembering I no longer love the band. It’s really fun to sing along to Guns N’Roses while driving on the freeway. New wave classics make the best soundtrack for tooling down the SoCal coast. Most people can’t help but have a sunny disposition when the weather’s so goddamn glorious all the time. That doesn’t make it any easier to get a wave in a crowd full of spoiled groms and Wavestorm aficionados.

Eight: Podcasts. I listened to a lot of them. Here, a selection: Think Again, Call Your Girlfriend, Trumpcast, Pod Save America, I Have to Ask, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, Hidden Brain, 99% Invisible.

Nine: Project Jen. Just over nine months ago, a combination of my own unresolved experiences and our national presidential campaign sent me nearly over the edge. Faced between diving off the cliff and pulling myself back to safer ground, I opted for the latter. Admittedly, certain dangers also lurk around the edges of self-improvement efforts. One may become unbearable to others, what with all the navel gazing. One may be forced to confront the severity of her own bad habits and perhaps assume more responsibility for her situation than she might like. One may also find that perpetually focusing on self-improving blinds one to the delight of self-accepting. What I can say for sure is, figuring out who you are, who you want to be and how those versions of self best align is worth the effort.

Ten. This. The coworker whose memorial I attended was particularly beloved judging from the approximately 200 people who showed up to grieve and celebrate him. He had a megawatt smile, was a better listener than most, exuded kindness and passion to family, friends and colleagues alike. And he killed himself. I wasn’t sure if they’d mention that part at the memorial, but from the beginning, the speakers addressed it. People wished, ever so much, that they could have done more, somehow been more present, desperately wanted to know what key they could have turned to unlock the door and shooed the demons away. I don’t know – I don’t know the answer to the question of how do we successfully carry each other through life? My own shortcomings stand in such sharp relief. And yet even in the unknowing, to continue offering ourselves up as safety net, lighthouse, home – to cultivate our own compassion and strength all the while – seems the only bearable path forward, even in the most unbearable of times.

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