Clearing the air

Los Angeles: the city of angels, a false idol, a circle of smog. Irvine: quintessential suburbia, the safest city in America. Laguna Beach: a beautifully Mediterranean yet tightly packed coastal community that was featured on reality TV in a past life.

These images don’t necessarily summon any kind of escape with a clarity-seeking intent. They are not exactly epitomes of quiet, monastic living, nor of the natural sorts of havens I tend to crave.

laoverlook2

And yet, while visiting both places this past week, I found the kind of headspace on which I’ve been scrambling to get a grip.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, the pockets of this area I chose to step into – Griffith Observatory, the Last Bookstore, my friends’ impossibly surfy apartment in Irvine – did hold the promise of stillness and creativity.

bookstore

For another, over the course of this year, I have been trying to believe that one can find space to breathe, to think, and to simply be just about anywhere. But it’s a hard thing to absorb at home, and especially at home in the city. Packed tight as it is, some of us tend to wiggle into roles that barely fit us, and then wonder why it is so hard to relax and be ourselves. No one ever told us that it was possible to seek out a different role without dropping everything and starting over. But truly, who can afford to drop everything in such a dramatic way?

There are certain parts of American culture that ring with the heaviness of mythology, and to me, this is one of them; that is, the idea that in order to become yourself, you must go west, or east, or elsewhere – get away from your past self, escape your old life.

There is some truth in this story. Experiencing other cultures, for example – even traveling to another, unexplored American region – adds such layers and depths to what we think we know. It does one more good than ill to have one’s frame of reference flipped. If I had enough money, I would fund a semester abroad for everyone I know.

But the need to be elsewhere, alone, to be free? The idea that we are all rugged individuals? That, I am increasingly convinced, is a myth, and an occasionally dangerous one.

That said, I am also more and more convinced that the reality is better than the myth.

By this, I mean that coming to learn the truth of oneself – who you are, who you were made to be – can happen at home, turning an environment of relative discomfort into something not unlike home.

lagunawaves

This is a hard lesson that I am still learning, and perhaps will never cease to learn. But there’s a richness there, and it eased this visit to a place I did once call home.

Orange County was a place where I had a challenging time finding peace. California, of all places, is supposed to be where you can try anything and be anyone. But inner pressures and hidden corridors within oneself – when they remain closed, sealed, and locked – make those possibilities seem impossibly distant. Even if they are actually within reach. Perhaps especially when they are within reach.

For example, I’ve known I was wired to be a writer for essentially my entire life. I’ve also known I’m interested in health, wellness, and food culture for quite awhile. There is no shortage of opportunity to pursue these on the West coast, but fear is an amazingly good roadblock.

One year later, not much has changed in Orange County, at least not visibly. And, granted, one week is not quite enough time to dig up anything meaningful.

But the main big change – that happened within, and it is a continuing process. The change was of my outlook, which is vastly different than before. This is partially because this visit was a break from my daily reality. Yet even in observing the uglier points of LA and OC – traffic, smog, homelessness, suburban sprawl, and corporate dominance – the beauty peeked through. It was not – is not – entirely lost.

palms

You open yourself up to it – to the beauty.

Back home in Virginia, nothing much is new: there are more holiday decorations sprinkled about, and it’s about 10 degrees colder, with a more intense wind chill. We are all a step closer to the unpromised maybes and hopes of a new year.

And what lingers within, in this moment, does not have to completely disappear, even as it fades. It is as true for a season of love and light as it is for an adventure away from home. There is the excitement of creating something new out of what once seemed drained and empty, per LA’s Grand Central Market.

grandcentral1

There is the emergence of the natural through the cracks in the pavement, as is happening slowly in Costa Mesa.

And there is the idea that, maybe, new life can exist where it was never thought possible. That maybe, by working within certain confines, you can come to find that there is more than one way to be your limitless self.

To me, that is the reality. I’ll take it over the myth any day.

Eastward expansion*, part 2

*My filmmaking friend (and fellow East coaster) Brittany gave me this phrase, in case you’re wondering. She a forward-thinking, fun, and talented producer/photographer/videographer who is also kick-ass at life and at being a friend. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would not have survived California without her.

Today, she came to mind because I am thinking about the ways we need each other, and especially how being honest about that need makes it possible to experience what may have seemed very not-possible.

This part of the story is a little longer, but only because I don’t know how I could extricate one part from the rest. But I do know that Rogerson Service came first.

idaho h2o
Rogerson is also apparently home to the second best water in the country. Coming from Cali, ya, I’d say it was pretty righteous

That place is the best dang gas station in the United States (probably). But, I imagine that if you’re reading, you’re wondering what a service station/café/convenience store has to do with anything. That’s not unlike what I wondered when we stopped there to look for firewood on our way to Lud Drexler Park.

It turned out to be more relevant than relevant – a piece of Magic Valley magic, perhaps? – as it was where an amazing, hardworking woman named Terri hooked us up with two nights’ worth of logs, no charge, courtesy of her friend who had just chopped it that day. Magic, indeed. Not sure I’ve ever slept as well as I did that night.

Everything took a turn after that encounter. For one thing, since our campsite was a different one than I’d initially planned, we were slightly ahead of schedule. Eastern Montana was the intended stop, for no real reason other than the romanticization of Montana. So why not, instead, pass through part of Montana on the way to Yellowstone?

yellowstone pines

yellowstone stream
cleansing in every sense

Why not? It’s only the most unparalleled preservation of beauty in the U.S.

It was rivaled, though, by Granite Pass. As we continued on to Sheridan, our route included this tricky, treacherous path through the Bighorn Mountains, and layers of ancient (truly, beyond ancient) sedimentary rock. It was terrifying, steep as the grades were, but fascinating and fun to learn about the different ages of the rocks that surrounded us. I guess, technically, most of the rock out there is prehistoric, but every section of it was marked here. Plus, how many areas can claim to be the home of certain dinosaur fossils? That alone was worth the danger. We might have missed out on a real marvel, otherwise.

granite pass
Photo courtesy of another blogger at Lincoln Highway Ride (http://www.lincolnhighwayride.com) because my hands were gripping the steering wheel too tight to snap one of my own

I read after getting back that the Bighorn Mountains are considered sacred to the Cheyenne. It’s easy to see why.

We skipped camping that night in favor of knowing where exactly we were. Even that had its unexpected pleasures, albeit smaller in scale. Java Moon was the main one: should you find yourself in Sheridan, this place and its DIY oatmeal are a must. And maybe finding yourself in Sheridan is a good idea in itself – we loved what we saw of the small town. It seemed like a remnant of a West that maybe only exists in our collective memory.

Or maybe it’s real, and vibrant, and filled with the most unexpected of people and places. That’s what will stick with me, anyway.

Places in this post:

Eastward expansion, part 1

Now that I’m about 2700 miles away from where I spent the last year, I’m sort of swimming in the retrospect. It almost feels as if that year in Orange County was an extended road trip. Since getting back to Virginia, I’ve kept stumbling over this sense that almost no time has passed, and I’m just picking up where I left off last October. That maybe, after my mom and I drove to Irvine and she flew back to Northern Virginia, my dad met up with me in Thousand Oaks just a week later, and we drove back together.

It’s an idea I find interesting in a lot of contexts: what if the reality you think you’re living is not entirely … real? If perception is reality, then this is both true and untrue.

This sense also may be a sense that comes with the territory when you travel through a thousand towns in the space of a week or less. And at a time of year, too, that drags along with it a particular breed of nostalgia that no one can seem to escape.

Road trips, man. They make you think. (Maybe too much. Or maybe not enough.)

abandoned train

My dad (Tom!) and I left Southern California on a Friday; on that Friday, we landed in Mammoth Lakes. We had our first (gentle) encounter with plans and un-plans there. (For this trip, anyway.)

It started with our campsite, Lower Deadman: I found out just a few days before our departure that it was closed. Apparently, it likes to snow in the mountains. That was easy to solve, though: we just decided to look for a new one once we were near Mammoth.

hot springs sunset

Once we arrived to the beautiful gorgeous place, no exaggerations, we started asking around about the Hilltop Hot Springs. We ended up finding not only the route, thanks to the clerk at the health food store, but also the Mammoth Brewing Company. Not exactly a secret spot, but not a place either of us had heard of, either. In an age of Internet research and experiential travel, that’s kind of refreshing. Serendipitous.

We didn’t taste but a few, but if you get the chance to try the fruits of their labor, I heartily recommend their seasonal beers, especially the Owens Valley Wet Harvest Ale. I thought it was the perfect fall beer – a black IPA with just enough bite and a warm, toasty finish. Just be sure to be really hydrated if you’re drinking it at altitude. (Another new lesson I learned…)

As for the Hot Springs, they can be found by turning off the 395 by a green church just south of the Mammoth Lakes airport. If you drive down the dirt road and pass two cattle grates, at the bottom of a hill, there they will be. Not to be missed if you’ve been hiking, skiing, or sitting in a car all day (ouch).

hot springs folks

And you probably will be sharing the space, so get ready for good conversations with strangers, which was what we got, too. I always get nervous at those kinds of situations, anticipating what people will think, but maybe everyone gets like that. Either way, there was no need: our group was wonderfully relaxed, welcoming, and happy. We even got to meet the Internet-famous Anais + Dax (pictured above!).

Planning the trip was exciting, perhaps only because I didn’t have much else to do at the time, but each day, I learned again that the best parts are the detours that you could never plan. A platitude? Sure. But a true one. Maybe that’s why it’s a platitude at all.

Part two to come!

People and places in this post: