I have a confession to make: we were total tourists when we visited California. If there was one part of our ten months on the road that felt like an actual vacation, this was it. We slept in every morning, saw things and places that have been written about thousands of times over, and took it easy for a few days. Being November, we happily embraced the sunshine and warm weather, which provided an interesting backdrop as we figured out just where we would be for Thanksgiving.
Coming in from Nevada, our first stop was the majestic Lake Tahoe, way up in the Sierra mountains. We stopped for a few pictures, but then parked our carcasses on a rock and just enjoyed the quiet. As we left and ventured down the road, we were caught off-guard by the sign welcoming us to California. Looking ahead with our atlas, I spotted our next stop: Truckee. This adorable little mountain town was the primary shooting location for Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film The Gold Rush. We arrived just in time for a jaw-dropping sunset before driving to Yuba City for the night.
As we rolled into Yuba City, the downtown was very much alive, the air some thirty degrees warmer than it had been up in Truckee. A live band was playing Beatles tunes on a street corner, with little kids, their parents, and teenagers alike all dancing and singing along. Like some of my favorite moments on the road, we didn’t have the camera handy. The following morning, we visited a Sikh gurdwara, as Yuba City has the country’s largest Sikh population. We were greeted first with curious looks, but after a few brief introductions, we were treated like long-lost friends. Sticking to the back-roads, we drove along miles and miles of citrus farms, the trees all still bearing fruit. The smell was intoxicating, the landscape unparalleled in its beauty. Our destination that night was Leggett, home of the famous Chandelier Tree – a hollowed-out redwood that is big enough to drive a car through it.
We decided to spend the night in Willits, just a little south of Leggett. Checking into an adorable little motel, we quickly noticed that the clerk was drunk. We’re talking full-on blotto. He asked us how many rooms we needed at least twice. When he asked for our card to pay, the poor guy couldn’t swipe it, so I ended up doing it.
“Thanks. *pause* Enjoy your night, guys!”
“Uh,” I said, “we need keys, man.”
He stood there for a second, looked down at where the keys were, and then looked back up.
“Enjoy your night, guys.”
“Still need the keys, dude.”
“Right.” He grabbed them and handed them to me.
“Thanks a bunch.”
He began to look glassy-eyed.
“You, too. You guys need a room?”
I held up the keys.
“Nope, we’re good.”
“Okay. Take care, let me know if you…if I…can I help you guys?”
This went on for quite a while. In the morning when we checked out, he didn’t remember us at all. I hope he’s doing okay.
We grabbed breakfast in Willits and took note of the locals. The men all looked like hippie cowboys (ponchos, cigarette jeans, and so on), while the ladies dressed like hipster gypsies. It was certainly a change from what we had previously seen in Los Angeles, which we had both previously visited. People who know their California geography might be a little puzzled by our route, but we headed to Sacramento, where we met up with my fellow Sikh Coalition Advocate (and now a Social Justice Fellow with the Coalition), Winty Singh.
Don’t let his Mona Lisa smile fool you, he is one of the kindest and funniest people I have ever met.
From Sacramento, we headed to San Francisco, a place we had long dreamed of visiting. We did a few stereotypical tourist activities: watching the seals at Pier 39, driving down Lombard Street (that honor went to Alexa, who won a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors fair and square for it), strolling around Chinatown, and traipsing through Golden Gate Park.
They appeared to be having some kind of marital dispute.
Yes, that is the house from Full House.
We also stopped by the Beat Museum, celebrating America’s first great postwar literary movement, with the personal correspondences, belongings, first editions, and other ephemera of (mostly) Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg has been a tremendous influence on me, a Western thinker with an Eastern spirit, a tireless activist who never stopped providing a voice for the world’s voiceless, and one Hell of a writer. I’d like to think we would have gotten along. The Beat Generation stood in defiance of everything America was becoming in the 1950’s: a consumerist society with enough nuclear weapons to reduce our entire orb to irradiated rubble. Many of them – Ginsberg especially – found solace, inspiration, and hope during a decade of Commie witch hunts, arms races, and the birth of the American empire by turning to the words of Eastern mystics, all while scribing some of the best prose of the Twentieth Century.
Saints Allen and Jack, respectively.
Speaking of my favorite writers, we also stopped by the one-time residence of Hunter S. Thompson on Parnassus Avenue. I can’t emphasize enough how much that man’s work has shaped me. The people who watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and see it as nothing more than a goofy stoner film are missing the point. It is one of the best meditations on the fin-de-siecle of the hippie movement, warning that our society was “locked into a survival trip,” gazing into an uncertain future. To walk the same streets, to stand on the same stoop, as the man who single-handedly inspired me to become a writer gave me the rush most people typically experience on a religious pilgrimage.
320 Parnassus Avenue
The immortal intersection, now graced with a “brought to you by Chevron” banner. So it goes.
As we ventured into Haight-Ashbury, which is still home of a vibrant community of off-the-grid vagrants (only they’re now all dreadlocked crust-punks), I realized that, while I would never live here – even if we could ever afford it – this city truly was my Mecca, my Jerusalem, my Kedarnath, my Harmandir Sahib.
After visiting San Francisco, we headed down the Pacific Coastal Highway to Big Sur, where our minds were once again blown by the peerless magnificence of the terrain. We stopped by Santa Cruz, Monterrey, and San Simeon, loving every second of it. In San Simeon, we caught the sunset after watching more seals bask in the dusk air. Alexa has a soft spot for aquatic mammals, and she had the elation of a child watching what we call “aqua dogs” do their thing.
Heading inland, and after a stop in Bakersfield, we ventured to Death Valley, another bucket list destination for both of us.
Us, 282 feet below sea level.
One part of Death Valley National Park is Zabriskie Point, a location that lent its name to a 1970 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, the soundtrack to which featured several songs by Pink Floyd. My dad was jealous.
After visiting Death Valley, we spent two sleepless nights in Vegas, repeating many of the same activities as we had in Reno – people-watching, rooftop pot smoking, and seeing what vestiges remained of the old Las Vegas. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a lot. From Vegas, we revisited some stops from Fear and Loathing, including Baker (excellent seafood), Barstow (near the edge of the desert), and Lancaster, where we made our last two pilgrimage stops. The first was Sanctuary Adventist Church, better known to the film-going public as the Two Pines Chapel from Kill Bill. The second was a modest little ranch-style house that served as the boyhood home of one Frank Zappa.
After our stop in Lancaster, we visited some friends in Los Angeles and made our way to the Salton Sea, which I suppose brings this column full-circle. I’ll be back next week – writing from the road once more – to wrap things up.
+ I have a riddle for you all: How can you tell if someone is from the Bay Area? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!
+ Golden Gate Park’s Shakespeare Garden is a serious contender for where we want to get married.
+ Gas in Death Valley is ridiculously expensive. Plan ahead.
+ We were too busy having a great time to take photos, but Berkeley was on the short-list for where we wanted to end up after the trip.
+ Lancaster and Bakersfield are both rough towns. I found myself looking over my shoulder there more than anywhere else, aside from Baltimore.
+ Once more, I want your questions for next week’s entry! Send them directly to alexcharlesdiblasi [at] gmail. Be sure to put “Weirdness Questions” in the subject line.
Next Week: Q&A