California Calling

Hello friends and family!

I hope you all had a safe and satisfactory election day. As I write this, we’re still waiting on final results. It’s exhausting, this American process. I am so grateful for Canadian elections, which seem so simple and efficient in comparison!

I think I last left off when we were heading out of Idaho, with which I was entirely enchanted. Since then there’s been a lot of driving down flat, dusty highways through the blank spaces on the US map. We’ve certainly been putting lots of miles on the van, and covering lots of ground as we’ve fled south to the warmth. 

We first drove south out of Idaho to Salt Lake City, which was as clean and orderly as I’d anticipated. In the central area, the Mormon heart of town, we marvelled at the impressive granite institutions and temples even though nothing was open to the public due to Covid. It was sort of disconcerting to see that the church sends out pairs of very young, very pretty girls to walk around the area and answer tourists’ questions – I don’t think I saw a single male Mormon in the day we were there.

I’ll be honest: I’m fiercely partisan and I don’t believe in sore winners. So when we were walking around Salt Lake City and being constantly bombarded by a “patriotic caravan” of obnoxiously honking pick-up trucks and sports cars flying the usual array of Trump flags, it sort of spoiled a nice day. It just seems like an exercise in gloating, according to the Trumpian logic of deriding “losers” and celebrating “winners”. In the lead up to the election, this was just one of the several caravans we encountered. None of them seemed to be protesting any ills or advocating for any change – they were just hooting and hollering like drunk teenagers after a home team’s victory.

From Salt Lake, we drove the perfectly straight highway through the Bonneville Salt Flats. All along the side of the highway strange art installations and garbage lay strewn around the flats: scrap metal shaped like the Loch Ness monster, a shark surfacing from the ground, a skeleton in a lawn chair, flipped over cars abandoned to the land. We camped a night near the track where they set land speed records in space-age cars, buffeted by the winds that blew unimpeded across the flats. A few days passed of the same desolate landscape as we drove across the rest of Utah and Nevada, passing nothing but small towns with cheap casinos.

Reno must have had better days – days when it had the glamour of Las Vegas, perhaps, and didn’t seem like such a seedy, discount cousin. We spent a night there in a casino, drinking free beers as we played the same $5 in the bartop video poker machines for hours. People around us with their livelihoods staked on the outcome of the football games shouted with glee and horror as they made and lost fortunes. The poor cocktail waitresses wore faux-tuxedo leotards over nude-coloured tights, and tottered around in high heels serving drinks while the male bartenders got to wear NFL jerseys – it didn’t seem fair. I’m not a gambler but I found it fascinating to feel myself get sucked into the thrill of pressing a plastic button to deal each new hand of video poker. Each ten cent victory felt like a personal triumph and every loss like a cosmic mishap. I’m glad we only spent one night there!

From Reno, the lovely 395 highway runs down the easternmost spine of California, nestled between the Sierra and the Inyo Mountains. It’s a route that passes through high mountain passes that reached nightly low temperatures in the negative teens (Celsius), during which our dish soap and the water in our pump froze. At least the days were fine when the sun shone. I did a nice hike along a forested creek to Obsidian Dome, a jumble of jet black obsidian shot through with pumice and sandstone, and filled my pockets with lovely shiny rocks. Later I met a guy who proudly showed me a 20 pound chunk of obsidian he had scavenged, which he claimed could net him $100 – leading me to think that perhaps I should have picked up a few more pebbles. While beautiful, with ponderosa pine forests and stunning mountain views, the eastern edge of Yosemite and the Sierras was so cold and smoky that it quickly became unbearable.

At least there were hot springs to keep me warm

Further down Highway 395 are the Alabama Hills, a series of crazed rock formations that have been the setting of hundreds of Hollywood movies, most notably the classic Westerns that some of you may have grown up watching. The rocks have formed towering hoodoos and natural arches, and from a distance resemble great stone castles, monster teeth, and city skylines. The best part is that you can just drive your van along any dirt path through the desert and park next to the rocks – for free – and have an amazing vista of the Sierras. Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous US, towers over you as you sleep. It’s such a cool place to visit, and is only a few hours from LA.

A divine campsite, right underneath Mt. Whitney

We’re now spending a few days in Los Angeles, soaking up the 30 degree heat while all of you back East are shoveling your sidewalks. It’s blissful here: blue skies, sea breeze, palm trees, surfer bros, beautiful women, and $1 tacos. LA is a siren song. We did all the touristy stuff, visiting the Santa Monica Pier (which was deserted, like the set of a horror movie), Venice Beach (also deserted, and reeked of piss), and the Hollywood walk of fame, but I prefer just to sit somewhere nice and people-watch. A guy on the Ventura beach does push-ups over his little dog, kissing it on the lips each time he lowers his body. A man fishes on the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway, casting into the undulating grey waters. A young woman roller skates by with supreme skill, dancing and boogieing to her own music. Everyone is doing their thing here, and it’s so fun to see.

Nevertheless, I try to find a few drawbacks so I won’t be tempted to drop everything and become a beach bum. For one, it’s jarring to see the extent of the homelessness in LA (40,000 estimated in the city alone, camped in tents and broken down RVs along highway overpasses and on beaches and in parks). Despite the reputation of Californians for being laid back, they all drive 90 miles an hour on the 18-lane highways with little care for whether they live or die. And even though it’s delightfully warm and sunny, it’s also hot and sweaty. Who knows, though – I may yet be totally won over to the California cause.

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