I’ve been to California before. I know about it from school. I have some friends who have lived there and other friends who still do. But in my mind, California is still a legendary land, huge and beautiful and strange, utterly unlike anywhere else, mythical in proportion, the embodiment of the American dream. I suppose it’s necessary that it be larger than life in order to live up to all that – America can dream pretty big.
Route 66 was a way of attaining that dream. When it was established in the thirties, then through its heyday in the following decades, you could drive from the crowded, dirty cities of the East, out across the wide open plains, into the wild mountains, across the pristine desert, all bigger than anything you’d ever thought of, to arrive in California with its golden hills and wine-filled valleys and the ocean, with the end of the world just beyond. We think it’s gotten smaller with airplanes and internet, but in reality we’ve just lost perspective.
In some of the fiction I write, California is its own mysterious country, surrounded by a giant wall and peopled with talking vegetables and ambitious men of war. Sparrow-sized velociraptors roam the streets and giant snails suck the moisture from the unwary; the deserts hide deep silos full of advanced technology. In reality, it’s not like that, though it’s no less bizarre – the cities have an epic amount of traffic and smog; odd things like avocados and apricots grow there; the trees are the size of houses. Once you get there, you can go no further, whether in crazy ideas or in geographic location. California, in some strange way, really is the edge of the world.
Oatman and the hills that shield it from the rest of the world are technically in Arizona, but the town itself is a preserved gold rush town – in fact, we passed no fewer than three active gold mines on the road through those hills – so in my mind, it belongs with California. The best part about Oatman, to me, was the drive in. The way was treacherous, the road narrow, the turns sharp; driving, there was something at stake, a risk, and the payoff was all around – it was an absolutely beautiful ride. The town itself was entertaining – donkeys roamed listlessly through the street (singular); the buildings looked, and probably were, over a hundred years old; there was a gunfight around 2 o’ clock.
When we came out of the mountains, across a river of sand, we were already well into California – I honestly don’t know where the state line was. We crossed the Mojave in a few hours – it was big and empty and hot, though still beautiful; dusk found us in Barstow. Our campground was guarded by four-wheelers mounted with miniguns, cobbled-together tanks, and a gigantic wireframe dinosaur.
Then Victorville. San Bernardino. Newport Beach. Los Angeles. Santa Monica. Only a day or two after the fact, they’ve all sort of blended together. Images: The mountains suddenly looming overhead, far above where I’d thought the horizon was, their rocky faces a lighter shade than the smog-shrouded the valley. A deep ravine beside I-15, green, well-nourished by the runoff from the hills, adorned with bare white trees gathered in audience before the wide, rusty mouth of an ancient culvert. The skyscrapers of LA, lights piercing the darkness but not the thick layer of pollution that cloaked their peaks, self-defeating bastions. A bold and colorful mass of people swarming up and down the Santa Monica pier, flanked by a Ferris wheel and the cold waves of the ocean. Frozen yogurt filling a paper bowl, fresh kiwis and mochi balls strewn across its shiny, sticky surface. Traffic overflowing the lanes of the highway in all shades of sunlight and starlight. Old radios and an old bus driver telling us what we still had left to see along the Route. Endless cold water coming out of the showerhead in our campground. Children splashing and playing in the shallow water at the beach, much like myself a couple of decades ago. Hillside homes and bright lights in dusk at Beverly Hills. Spicy sushi and our bored waiter. Dead-end searches and frustration. Mongolian food, hot, fresh, fried, and foreign. Pushing on to get that last (or at least second-to-last) photograph. A long, straight road through the featureless desert. Graffiti on the side of a tall building, maybe in charcoal, a classical Jesus with the face of an alien. Gluing down a plaque right next to a security guard, in full view of all the city’s watchful cameras. Trucks and trucks pulling open-air trailers filled to the brim with onions. Wandering up Santa Monica Place, in and out of expensive boutiques and an immense bookstore. Bending back the aluminum frame of our camper door with scissors to bypass the very defective doorknob. Iced chai in a coffee shop. Mountaintops. The edge of the water. Blue skies. Long valleys. The End of the Trail.
At last, after an eternity of 2,500 miles and somehow only three weeks, we were where we’d set out to be. The photos were taken. Route 66 stopped and the Pacific Ocean took over. It still doesn’t feel real.
I took a drive down the Coastal Highway to St Clemente, a little surf town, to meet up with my old friend Andy. I don’t even know the last time we’d seen each other face to face, and to finally sit down over pizza and talk about all the things that wouldn’t matter to anyone else, to walk down to the beach where he’d taught surfing and see the high tide – that felt real.
Next comes the ride back, the next legs of my journey as we rewind the road and see memories written on the highway’s exit signs. I’ll write more, edit some videos, prepare for the next bit. Realize that I’ll be in China in two months. It’s a fog just to try to sort through it all in my head.
This summer we retraced the American dream, finding ourselves perplexed by the Route’s kitsch even as we come to accept it as a legitimate part of our history, the roots that we as a people can go back to. West is our pilgrimage and our promise, but often we mistakenly assume that that journey is all there is to it. Just like this photography project won’t be complete until it’s on display in the gallery, our goals and dreams are meaningless until we have somebody to share them with. But maybe you have to get there to the edge of the world to figure that out.