A Trip to the West

My first summer traversing the Wild West.

Photo by Bruce Warrington on Unsplash

When you think of summertime in Southern California, what comes to mind? I’ll tell you what used to come to mine. Long hair, penny boards, backyard pools drained of all water, or maybe a perfect set on Huntington Beach at sundown. You know, riding to ride. A life to live just because you love it.

I grew up a small-town Midwestern kid. My entire adolescent life was spent dreaming of a life in Southern California. I thought things that I saw in my favorite movies growing up like ‘Lords of Dogtown’ and ‘Point Break’ was reality.

I vowed I would make it to ‘SoCal’ to live out my own story. That’s why, on the summer of my twentieth birthday, I took off to the west coast in hopes of finding what it is that made Southern California so appealing.

I traveled through the west, driving my Nissan Altima (which was as old as I was) under the big skies of Amarillo, Texas. Where I’d never seen vaster open lands, complete nothingness. I roared on through the New Mexico Rockies and Arizona forests — neither of which I knew existed before but immensely enjoyed.

I spent a night sleeping in a forest outside the Grand Canyon where I didn’t know temperatures could reach below freezing but they certainly did that night. I spent a few lonely sunsets watching the neon colors fade into the canyon.

After, I zoomed on to Las Vegas where I saw Sin City light up the dark desert sky from twenty miles away. The first thing I did was lose money at a slot machine (illegally) inside a 7Eleven gas station. I made friends with a street performer and walked The Strip a few times just to see all the mad people of Vegas.

I couldn’t spend but a night there. I was too anxious to make the last five-hour straight-shot across the flat-lying Mojave Desert into Southern California.

I’ll never forget coming into Los Angeles at ten o’clock at night that Sunday, facing a forty-five-minute traffic jam on the highway into the city, windows rolled down, yelling for joy at the top of my lungs because I had finally made it. Not even the first sad reality of Southern California could tear me down.

I did it. I made it all the way to California to realize a dream of mine. I was so fucking proud and nothing could stop me. In my head, I was already half Californian (which might as well have been a new nationality to me).

But, soon, that joy would turn into exhaustion. Of course, it would. It’s Southern California. The land of the rich and famous and everything that will annoy you. Everyone knows, but I was just finding out.

Up until that point, I had been sleeping on the passenger side of my Nissan Altima every night with relatively no problems or concerns all the way across the country. In L.A., things are a little different.

Driving around sketchy parts of Los Angeles after midnight is not how I envisioned my California dream. According to all the movies, I should’ve been able to drive my car up to the beach and spend a night in the sand. But that’s not how SoCal works — the reality of Los Angeles never gets screen time.

I parked for some shut-eye in a few different dark lots, but suspicious lingerers made me uneasy in each. I continued to drive around the city until three or four o’clock, eventually making my way to a more comfortable area for the night.

In the morning I woke up to a knock on my window. It was a rent-a-cop all dolled-up in his SoCal security uniform.

“What’re ya doing here, bud?” he asked.

I don’t know, bud. What’s it to you? I wanted so badly to roll up my window and ignore him already. Another hotshot who thinks his credentials and uniform with shorts above his knees entitles him to belittle me.

“On a road trip,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Where you from?”

Is this what you woke me up for? Small talk? Let’s cut to the part where you tell me what rule I’m breaking by minding my own business in this parking lot.

“Kansas City,” I told him.

“Hm — long way from home, eh? Your parents know you’re out here?”

I’m twenty, so, what’s it matter to you, detective? I nodded my head, anyway.

“Are they the ones paying all that gas money?”

No, you asshole. I saved every dime on my own.

“No, I am.”

“How are you supporting yourself?” the dumb rent-a-cop asked.

I ran a lemonade stand all last week and saved it all in my piggy bank, dumbass.

“I work.”

“Hm — Well, you know you can’t spend the night here. See that sign over there — says ‘No Overnight Parking’,” he read aloud in a dumbed-down, Hooked on Phonics style.

“Alright, I’ll remember that,” I said.

“Yeee-op,” he said long and exhaustive, grabbing his belt and looking onward. “Don’t let me catch you out here snoozing tomorrow morning, all right? Or else, we’ll have to deal with this in another manner. OK?”

I nodded and began to roll up my window. I went back to sleep for another twenty minutes and rode on.

To Venice Beach, I went. Where parking was $15 and to use the bathroom I had to sell my soul.

Not really, but three dollars to take a piss?– c’mon, Los Angeles. I should’ve pissed on a wall like all the other dirty people were doing around me.

I watched a few guys play a snooze trumpet performance and was feeling negative about the place so I tried my luck at Huntington Beach. Another $7 to park and a $6 scoop of ice cream — at least I could use the beach showers for free which I took advantage of to take care of some (much needed) personal hygiene.

Fast forward about eight hours; it hadn’t gotten better. The sun was hot all day so I looked for a bar that would let me in to hear some band music and have a lemonade. In my frantic search as I tried to navigate side streets of suburbia, I turned the wrong way down a one-way.

In my rearview, another rent-a-cop-looking-vehicle flashed its red and blue lights behind me. A neighborhood watchman and his Bat Mobile.

“Son, I believe you took a wrong turn,” he said strolling up to my open window.

“Yeah, I did and I realized it right away. If you’ll let me, it’d just be quicker if you let me get back to the right road. I know what I did.”

“Well, son, I’m not sure if you’re headed in the right direction. This is a residential area.”

I thought he was targeting me because of my 18-year-old car in the general area of Beverly Hills. In hindsight, my plates probably told him I was lost. It didn’t matter, I was fed up with Lifers armed with nothing more dangerous than a cellphone unnecessarily taking authority.

I gave up on live music for the night to look for a (free) beach and blow off some steam. Forty-five minutes later, I was two miles ahead at Redondo Beach where I saw a couple of kitesurfers speeding across the water faster than you could ever imagine driving the streets in L.A.

I imagine adventure-enthusiasts are the only ones in Los Angeles to make it to work on time because it’s either a daring race around traffic or the alternate path which is to ride your kite to work.

I enjoyed watching them — the first-time enjoyment of Southern California — so, I stayed for the sunset. Some locals were volleying in the sand and I thought to ask to join.

I didn’t, though, and instead watched a couple of tanned surfer dudes skimboard across the beach. Finally, this was the California I’d always wanted.

As the sun set over the bay’s mountainous coast, I saw it as a sign for good things to come. One thing was certain, though, I wanted the hell out of Southern Cal.

For reasons I can’t explain, or maybe needed no explanation, I was done with Southern California. Everything about it is complicated — especially for a twenty-year-old on a budget. I just couldn’t figure the city out and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I didn’t even want to see the rest of Southern California. I skipped it all; San Diego, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach, Malibu — even Tijuana. All these places I had wanderlust after for so long — I wanted nothing to do with them.

I shot up to Ventura with the intention of bee-lining to Big Sur and I hardly even stopped to smell the Pacific. I was sarcastically devastated. I didn’t know what the journey meant to me anymore but I realized my expectations of Southern California from the very beginning were never going to be met.

As is always the case, Hollywood movies lie. I’m not the first to be let down by SoCal and I sure as hell won’t be the last. I saw bigger fish to fry and Highway 1 North was my ticket to the great catch. My trip took on new dreams. A dream to find something I never knew I was looking for.

Spending a night at a rest stop in the foothills of Santa Barbara, I rolled through Big Sur by early morning and never looked back. The irony is, I didn’t even know what Big Sur was. Matter of fact, I kept calling it ‘the’ Big Sur because I thought it was one specific point on the map.

I spent thirty minutes at the first resort along Big Sur because the sign 100 yards before its entrance read “Welcome to Big Sur”. I thought the resort was what is Big Sur. I didn’t know Big Sur was a fifty-mile area of coastline to which I consider the most beautiful place on the planet where land meets the sea.

Finally realizing my mistake, I continued along the windy highway as slowly as I could for its entirety. I imagined the history of Highway 1 and the likes of idols who had undoubtedly made the same drive at some point in their life, probably looking for the same freedom I was.

As other drivers rode my tail, I couldn’t be bothered and kept cruising at a breezy, open-windowed 35-miles-per hour the entire ride. I’d stop from time-to-time at the comfortable pull-outs and have a canned-soup lunch, nap, read, snap a quick photograph or two — I made it a point to make the drive last as long as I could.

I knew the busy city of San Francisco awaited and I wasn’t sure I was ready to be let down again by big-city dreams. Though, this estimate couldn’t have been more wrong.

I found a nice rest stop about twenty miles outside the city which I would stay for the night and took the metro into town. I ran around all day to Lombard Street, Lands End, Twin Peaks, Fisherman’s Wharf — I even took the ferry out to foggy Alcatraz island.

Walking around the cells of lifelong criminals like Al Capone made the hairs on my neck crawl. When I got back to the mainland, I got on a tram to China Town which is where I met Sujani — an Indian national who had come to the City with his parents at five years of age.

I didn’t plan on taking the seat next to Sujani at the back of the tram. There were other seats available and I generally don’t sit next to others when I can. Something in that instant made me take the seat next to him and he was quick to start a conversation when he saw Google Maps open on my phone.

“Where are you going?”

“China Town,” I answered. He nodded, “Ah, that’s the stop before mine. I can tell you when to get off, don’t worry. Where you from?”

“Kansas City,” I answered. “You?”

“S.F., bro. For the past 17 years,” he said.

“Are you going to school here?” I asked.

“Yeah, kind of. I guess you could say. It’s not really a school, but kind of.”

Sujani proceeded to explain he had enrolled in an affordable new education concept that provides students with a mentor to guide and expects students to learn a curriculum on their own through resources they choose on the internet.

“I’m going to get a certified degree completely through what I learn on YouTube, bro. And that’s not all — On College (the concept he was enrolled in) also gets our foot in the door in an entrepreneurial sense. I just got back from a sort of competition. My business partner and I were just granted $50,000 for our startup, bro.”

“Just now — like you are just returning from the competition?”

“The competition was last week, but just returning from the competition office after finally receiving the reward. My life just changed twenty minutes ago, bro.”

The happiness was drawn across his face. I smiled at him. Never before had I been with a person in such a life-altering moment. After a few more minutes talking about his achievement, a tear escaped his eye. I smiled again although he tried to hide the fact.

I asked to see the app he developed which won the award. A genius idea, it was. Sujani deserved the grant. Seconds later, the tram engine went silent and we turned to face the front of the tram. There was no one left aboard. The tram operator hollered at us from the front, “Last stop! You must get off.”

“Shit, man! I didn’t even realize we missed our stops. It’s OK, a short walk will get us there,” Sujani said.

I followed him until we separated. He told me how to get to China Town and we went our own ways. Sujani’s underdog story in ‘S.F.’ has stuck with me ever since.

I stayed in San Fran for five or six more days, but I was already itching for more coastal drives. I worked my way North, roaming out of town across the Golden Gate.

Up the mountainous Northern California coast, I crawled, stopping at any secluded beach I could find. Usually spending my afternoons writing in my trip journal or trying my hand at sketches of the great scenic views.

I began a schedule of falling asleep as night fell and waking up with the sunrise. There wasn’t much reason to stay up any later while out on the Northern Highway 1.

I spent several nights at pull-outs overhanging the Pacific as I dragged my way upstate. My mornings were as beautiful as they come. Reading from a selection of Bill Bryson memoirs with the sound of crashing waves and whistling wind coming through my window.

I laid in the reclined passenger seat which was dressed well with several hand-stitched pillows I’d made specifically to fit the cracks and crevices of my car seat. A man at the rest stop in San Fran gave me a yoga mat which I laid over-top the pillows to create a more even surface. I covered it all with a comforter and used a bed sheet for what little warmth I needed at night. Sixty-three nights in that makeshift bed — one of the most comfortable I’ve laid and the best sleep I’ve ever gotten.

I spent a night in the small town of Eureka, drove through Redwood State Park where the trees were big enough to live in, and rolled up to the junction in Crescent City where I had to part with the coast, crossing the Oregon border among twists and turns on mountain highway which made me feel like I was racing a go-cart.

Though we had a rough start, I looked back on California through my rear-view sad to leave her. I was onto Grant’s Pass where I met up with Interstate 5 and cruised my way a purple-skied Roseburg.

Oregonian Walmart’s aren’t as welcoming to overnight campers as the rest of western United States. Sam Walton, the owner of Walmart, has openly stated he welcomes travelers to stay overnight in his parking lots but obviously, Oregon didn’t catch the memo.

I spent the night on the edge of Umpqua National Forest hugging a narrow shoulder of the highway. It was difficult to sleep that night. Every headlight beam which shined through my back window seemed to be heading for a collision.

At dawn, I was onto a crippled Crater Lake which was half closed due to an on-going forest fire. Crews were on hand at almost every point of the drive surrounding the small but stunning alpine lake to ensure the damage was controlled.

I carried on north on 97 Highway to the small outdoorsy town of Bend, Oregon which I intend to move to one day, and kept on going until I got to the Pacific Crest Trail at Cascade Locks — the famous bridge connecting Oregon to Washington across the Columbia, also known as the River of the West.

One of my lifelong dreams was to witness the great Multnomah Falls, which I finally saw along my drive down Interstate 84 on the way to Portland. The drive itself and surrounding nature is the most beautiful interstate drive in the whole country and should be protected as a national park. I can only imagine what the historic explorers, Lewis and Clark, must have felt as their journey finally neared the Pacific along this beautiful path.

Portland treated me well, though I was far too involved in the gorgeous Northwest nature at this point to care about a city.

I was on a mission to Cannon Beach where giant boulders jut from the ocean like they’re growing from a seed. From there to Astoria which was the setting to one of my favorite childhood movies, The Goonies.

Though I didn’t see much of it, the Oregon coast is one that must be revisited to see in its entirety. The excursion to Crater Lake and Bend are also great, but the coast must hold so many treasures.

From Astoria, I crossed the border to the childhood home of my all-time idol, Kurt Cobain, in Aberdeen, Washington. Onto Seattle — a city I’d always wanted to be. After a few days of rest and recovery in hipster coffee shops around the city, I was ready to leave the country. Jaunting into Canada, I

What I found was my own way of life. A lifestyle on the road that allowed me the freedom I went looking for in Santa Monica all those years ago. A lifestyle where I could ride to ride.

As is often said but not felt — sometimes, what’s important is not the destination, but the journey to get there. And the journey made it all worth it.

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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **

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