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A Trip To Southern California With Some Surprises, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:07am

The first thing a Northern Californian notices when driving south is an increase in what we might call, “Palmage.” Up North, we have palms, we do. We plant them, but generally as statements, and they take work to maintain. Down South, palms are weeds.

Also Southern California has better Mexican food. On the whole. More variety. This week I ate shrimp in Bakersfield.

Let me be the first to admit, although I’ve lived in California for 49 of my 63 years, I don’t understand Southern California at all. I travel there as an alien, looking out windows in confusion and wonder, attempting at every turn to wrestle sense from my surroundings. Figuratively, and sometimes nigh-on literally.

This week I drove from the Bay Area, to Bakersfield, to Riverside to visit my son, and then over to the Westside of Los Angeles. In one day. If I add it up I spent about 9 hours in the car. With breaks for gas, lunch, stretching, and visiting my beloved son, the whole trip took 14 hours. Also, I thought I got lost but I didn’t.

I had planned to drive straight down I-5 (you can see the route below in blue), and then hang a left just before LA.

But construction in Pasadena was delaying traffic by a full hour, so I followed Google’s advice and veered left further north.

Only to be delivered into a part of the world I hadn’t known existed. A land of snow and cacti.

It’s called Antelope Valley.

I believe I took 99 to the 138 to the 14 and back to the 138 but you guys, I have no idea. When I saw mountains out the window, fronted by near-desert scrub,  I got nervous. Also, I was low on gas. So I called my best friend in New Jersey, just to say, “Hi, where am I?” And yes I had my phone, but I didn’t quite trust it, because, old?

But her iPad wasn’t loading Google Maps. So I drove, lost cellphone service, kept going, called her back, kept going. Almost ran out of gas. Did run out of phone battery. Found a gas station just in time, charged my phone at an outlet on the wall of the associated convenience store. I was living on the edge and I loved each minute.

I did eventually find Riverside. But not before my phone died again and I had to beg a man to lend me one of his outlets at a local Starbucks to recharge. Again. My son and I toured the town a bit, which is very endearing. Below, the President’s bar at the Mission Inn. Portraits of every president who has visited hang on the walls.

And from there, into Los Angeles, where I saw my youngest sister, a friend I’ve made through blogging, and Sue of Une Femme. Also a friend. Each and every visit felt rich, and warm, and comforting, and challenging. Dear lord but humans are a wonder.

I experience Los Angeles as a mysterious circus. I can’t say who walks a high wire and who is just cleaning up poop after elephants. The landscape bewilders me, all smoke and mirrors. You drive from interior to interior, passing exteriors that reveal almost nothing, even appear to have nothing to reveal, but you know there’s something crazy wild and talented behind the doors.

Speaking of which, after lunch with Sue, at Shutters on the Beach, I had to wait out front for my car. There seemed to be no way to park except via valet; I had surrendered. Another thing I didn’t understand. As I fidgeted, mildly annoyed at the delay, up drove a very large black Land Rover and out jumped Peter Dinklage, the actor who played Tyrion Lancaster on Game of Thrones. He sauntered past me, nay, swaggered. It was warranted, he’s a genius and I’ve had a crush on him since The Station Agent. The closeup changed nothing.

For accuracy, I will point out that his hair is now longer, and he’s dyed it black. Very effective.

What things look like in Los Angeles depends on where you stand. Even for palms. From one angle, at a distance, on the Santa Monica beach. This place might have a name that I do not know; it might be famous.

Close up. To me here’s the entire city.

Except this, too. The other side.

I had forgotten how I can embrace an adventure.

Have a fantastic weekend everyone.


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36 Responses

  1. If you have a newer car it probably has a USB port that you can use for charging your phone. If you have an older car it probably has a cigarette lighter jack and you can buy an adapter that converts it to a USB port. And Anker makes portable cell phone chargers.

    1. @Jenny, Yes you are so right. Once I got to Los Angeles and unpacked my car it dawned on me that I’d been trying to use the cigarette lighter jack while in fact there WAS a USB port hidden in the armrest. (I drive my husband’s car now, it’s still kind of new to me.) I also realized THERE IS A GPS SYSTEM. But I didn’t know how to use it and I still don’t. So completely silly of me!

  2. Wow! What a post. You have a gift for taking your reader right along with you. If the novel doesn’t work out, turn to travel writing. You could go far!

    And, just for the record, I feel like an alien in parts of my state (Texas) as well and I am a fifth generation native.

    Thank you so much for this post.

    1. @Susan D., Thank you so much! I think I will take your guidance to heart and remember to finish my posts about my long-ago trip to India! I can imagine Texas is similar to California, so large, and so defined by a couple of famous metropolises that other areas surprise us.

  3. What a day! I’m a life-long resident of LA and the thing that still amazes me is the light, especially at the beach.

  4. Did you go all alone? Wow. You are brave. I learned an important lesson in So. Cal. Never travel in a car with 3 small children without a roll of paper towels. One of my twins, aged probably 5ish threw up in the car. Of course we were nowhere near a store at the time. So I had a roll of paper towels in the car from that day forward. Probably longer than I needed to. I think they were adults before I realized I didn’t need to carry it with me all the time.

    1. @MaryAnne, Yes. By myself. I’ve always been foolhardy when it comes to the new.

      And your story about the paper towels made me laugh out loud:).

  5. Wow! It’s foreign to me, and I lived in Hawaii for four years with lots of palm trees- palm trees that required regular maintenance. I remember seeing workers go up to check so that no loose coconuts hit a passerby. Could be lethal. Still, sounds like you had a good adventure in Southern California. I keep saying that I should go sometime – sooner than later.

    1. @Jane, It was a good adventure, and it’s so worth a visit. Mind-expanding. I think the palms down south grow more dates than coconuts, if they fruit at all, and so are less lethal. The fronds still fall though, and that is a problem.

  6. After living in this state for over sixty years, and have traveled Highway 5 more times than I care to count, I went down to L.A. for a women’s weekend, and somehow went out 680 instead because, you know, we were yakking our little hearts out, and I had to do a weird cut-out that took me parallel to 5 but through the most lovely wee towns and past an amazingly green reservoir that I’d never heard of, and then cut over to 5. It probably added an hour to our trip, but then I didn’t have to deal with all those truck stops and a number of sad little towns that dot Highway 5. Also, on that trip, the four of us had champagne at Shutters on the Beach (!!!) and watched the sun go down. It was a glorious afternoon. I agree it IS a foreign land but one that is nice to visit every now and then.

    I will add that a dear friend who recently died of a brain tumor came up to see me a couple of years before he died. I picked him up at BART and took one look at him and said, “OMG, you are so L.A. now.” He’s from Ohio originally. We had a good laugh, him in his pink shirt and white jeans, me in my suburban hippy garb.

    1. @Claire, I swear you had a parallel lifetime version of my trip, only you were smart and brought your friends in the car so you didn’t have make a panicked phone call from the middle of the desert foothills! I can just imagine you and your friend. I’m sorry he’s gone.

  7. We have always wanted to spend some time in southern Califonia, in the LA area. In 2016 we tried to drive up to Santa Cruz from Monterey, and we just could not get there. The traffic was so bad, the guys hauling giant bags of aluminum cans on bicycles were going faster than we were in the truck. I think the traffic has taken this plan off the table. San Diego is also pretty terrible. Glad you did not run out of gas!

    1. @Allison, The traffic can be so hard. I will say, when I drove back, it was OK. I left LA at 1:45pm and with stops for gas, snacks, and stretching, I still go home by 8pm. Timing makes a huge difference.

  8. We stayed at Shutters and walked over to Santa Monica Place … caused consternation that we didn’t need our car brought up

  9. Lisa, You have what so many of us lose as we age the capacity to embrace a new experience.
    I have been to southern California and it is alien like though I thought it was just because I live in Missouri.
    Thanks for taking me on your trip. Your writing helps us all travel with you.


    1. @luci, Thank you. When I was young I was a novelty addict. Now that I’m not young, it’s quieted down to a simple enjoyment of new things.

      I cannot IMAGINE what it’s like to come to CA from MO but that’s probably because I’ve only ever been to MO once and that was St. Louis…

  10. Wonderful take on Riverside and LA. I have lived in LA for 35 years and it’s a rich pageant indeed. You saw some fine spots, and the celebrity sighting was perfect. Do get a car charger for your phone. I find them indispensable. And in a recent rental car I discovered Apple CarPlay which seamlessly transfers your phone’s stuff (Google Maps, contacts, podcasts) to the car display. Now looking for a car to buy with CarPlay. Enjoy your travels!

    1. @Jean B., Thank you! And when I realized that I’d had a phone port in the car all along I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. CarPlay sounds kind of cool, especially since I trust Apple with my data far more than other tech companies.

  11. Road trip essential!
    We have one in every vehicle, twelve-ish dollars. Terrific.
    AmazonBasics Nylon Braided Lightning to USB A Cable, MFi Certified iPhone Charger, Gold, 6-Foot.

    That Peter is pretty terrific too.

    1. @Rosie, I should just get an extra cable and keep it in the car now. Good idea.

      Dinklage radiated charisma. Radioactive.

  12. Loved this post, Lisa. Lots of Canadians think that the US and Canada are the same. I think they must be the ones who have never really travelled in the US. As soon as we cross the border things start to look different to me. I am from down east, and many Canadians who live where I do have never been east to the part of the country where I grew up. That seems odd to me. Guess that’s what comes from living in such a big country. Having said all that… I’d be scared to death, and then feel terribly proud of myself if I’d driven as far as you, and been detoured as far out of my way as you were. Thelma and Louise-ish with a way happier ending, happier middle too, when I think of it. :)

    1. @Sue Burpee, When I went to Vancouver, in some ways it seemed more like San Francisco than Los Angeles does, but I agree, Canada and the USA are definitely two different countries. And at a guess, you are very adventurous, and if you were a Californian yourself I bet you’d have felt just like I did. A little nervous, and then, yes, a little bit triumphant;).

  13. Wonderful post. My phone is a 6, so also old (I believe no longer backward compatible), but I’m determined ot keep it as long as possible. Have been longing for adventure, which has been problematic since the car accident as driver and passenger. I’m working on it. Previously found driving alone anywhere I chose exhilarating despite some close calls. The close calls, domestic and foreign, are quite the list. I tried to add it here and abandoned the effort. A friend once asked me before I was leaving SF to drive to Vancouver with many stops along the way, “Doesn’t it scare you?” My answer would be, “Sometimes very much so, but I love it anyway, or maybe because of that.” Loved reading about your Peter Dinklage sighting. I too have been in love with him since The Station Agent, which I have seen approximately 1,232,456 times. Glad to learn of the swagger. *Sigh* Happy Saturday. Glad your adventure was fun, and you got home safe. xo.

  14. As a Midwesterner who has spent lots of time in Riverside and the SoCal area, I had to laugh. My daughter left for Pomona,College in 1990 and has never left California, except for visit. She went straight from Pomona to grad school at Berkeley, and has been in Riverside for nearly two decades teaching at UCR. If your son is still in Riverside at Christmas, you need to return to the Mission Inn for one of the stranger Christmas experiences of your life: it gives new meaning to the word kitsch, but in a fun and peculiar way.

    For thirty years now, I have visited California, both North and South, at least twice a year. Like two separate countries perhaps, but to a midwesterner, equally strange.

    1. @Ellen, I can imagine how both North and South are equally strange to a Midwesterner. And if my son is still there in December I would LOVE to go to the Mission Inn and stay a night. It’s a unique entity. What does your daughter teach, if I can ask?

  15. I like what you said about the simple enjoyment of new things. I love new experiences and places but am grateful I’ve long grown out of my wild, risk-taking younger self.

    I read recently that nothing in life at “our age” could possibly feel as much fun as it was when we were young. I think it has something to do with brain wiring. So yes, new things are enjoyable now, but never as scintillating or exhilarating as when we were young.

  16. This post makes me homesick for LA! I spent the first 41 years of my life there, and I miss it. Every time I see palm trees I feel homesick. They don’t grow in Santa Fe, where I live now. When I go down to Las Cruces I see them, but they’re not the lush, healthy palms you see in LA because it’s not quite warm enough for them to flourish in Cruces.

  17. I have once been to California, Sacramento, with a driveby of San Francisco on the highway on my way to Half Moon Bay to visit a friend who lived there. As a Texan, then living as a Floridian, that was eye-opening. It left me wanting to know more about California, though.

    That said, I think Miami may be equal to SoCal in another realm terms. We moved from central Fl to Miami in our early 20s and whoa, that was a big change. Miami is its own little world in Florida.

  18. That is quite the road trip! Nice scenery. It must have been great to see your son. Even better, he is in the same state. GPS and phones in cars seem all very different. Granted the accomplish the same thing, using them is a bit of a learning curve. You are well prepared for the next road trip.

  19. England is, of course, a tiny country compared to the US. You can’t cover those distances, and you can’t really get lost like that (and my phone has a better battery!). Nevertheless, we were recently in Lincolnshire in the east of the country, and it seemed like another world! We were in Grimsby, once famous for fish and now famous for once having been famous for fish. We travelled around, including to an amazing beach which, with the tide having recently gone out, had flat wet sand with a film of water reflecting the sky. Fortunately the sea wall behind blocks out the view of endless caravan parks (trailer parks?). Incidentally on the way home we drove from New York to Boston. Boston is a remote town known only for timber processing and cabbages. New York appears to be a village of around a thousand people. They are about ten miles apart.

  20. My daughter teaches International Relations and Political theory. Her husband also teaches at UCR in the same department. Because the opportunity for a married couple to have tenured positions in the same department is very rare these days, they are probably there for good.

    For the month of December, the streets around the Mission in are closed off and it becomes a large destination Christmas carnival. But the Inn itself is overly decorated with enormous kitsch and humor, with what seems to be all of the discarded Christmas displays from all of the shuttered department stores of America. It is the height of American Christmas kitsch, and attracts crowds from all over southern CA.

    And fun fact: back in the era when extra marital affairs could destoy a career, the Mission Inn was far enough from LA to be a place of assignation for the stars. It has quite a naughty past.

  21. Lisa, it was such a pleasure to be able to spend a few hours with you. Our conversations are always food for thought. (Too funny about Peter Dinklage! I must have just missed him.)

  22. Lisa, I enjoyed your post; traveling to Riverside to visit your son. I live in Orange County and work for a Defense Contractor. Once a week I commute to Palmdale via the 15 to the 138. Yes…a lot of Joshua Trees and sand…and in the winter months…snow on the mountains. It’s a odd look but…at dawn it can be quite lovely. The solitude. Travel safe. Be good and take care.

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