That Warm California Sun
An autobiographical travelogue
It was October, 2014. I was a fresh film-school graduate with a certificate to my name and an uncertain future ahead of me. My father retired from the fire department after twenty-five years, and our family had traded our house in small-town suburbia for the comfort of a 40-foot home on wheels. There was only one place we really wanted to go. We were gonna do what Horace Greeley told us all to do.
“Well, I’m goin’ out west where I belong
Where the days are short and the nights are long”
There was a chilly late-October wind in the air the day we left. That was something I’d surely never miss again. It was the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our lives; in hindsight, it was a bit bittersweet. While I had zero qualms about ditching cold and gray Michigan for the mythical beaches of Orange County, the fact that I might never see this place — or my friends — ever again brought a little pain to my heart.
When we pulled out of the gates of the campground we had been staying at for the past few weeks and hit I-75 south, there was for sure no going back. But no matter; the positives of looking forward to the future outweighed the cons of wanting to stay behind. I had long dreamed of living near the beach in SoCal, going in the ocean, working in the movies, all that good stuff. Here was a chance that that reality might come true. For my state of mind at that time, that was the shot of hope I still needed.
Non-stop driving, it would’ve taken us a few days to get to the coast. But we decided to break our trip up into two weeks. Why not? What hurry were we in?
The route through the Midwest was a bit nondescript until we hit Old Route 66. This took us through Missouri and across the mighty Mississippi, where the St. Louis Arch welcomed us modern pilgrims to the West with open arms. It was nothing but plains until we finally hit the tip of Texas. Our lone night in the Lone Star State was spent filling our bellies in a humongous roadhouse that catered to every Southern stereotype imaginable.
Also, I had the best bacon burger I had ever had at that time.
The next day, we made our way back onto Route 66 until we found ourselves in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Here it was, the Southwest. I’d heard a lot about the place. I’d seen the pictures of the deserts. I’ve watched the Westerns that portrayed its sun-baked, gritty red-dirt glory. Hell, we were on the very same historic route that took cross-country tourists out to this rugged beauty fifty, sixty years earlier. I couldn’t believe I was actually here; this was like walking through a dream.
And waiting for us were cacti and palm trees. It was like getting a sampling of the cake: is this what California is going to be like? In my mind, palm trees were as synonymous with California as surfing and oranges were. I was more excited than ever before.
Downtown Albuquerque was the encapsulation of every cultural aspect south of the border: architecturally, aesthetically — but especially culinary. If you want authentic tacos, don’t settle for Taco Bell; head to a cantina and expand your palette, compadre.
Once we moved on through a brief stay in Santa Fe, we visited the place where any sensible American tourist would see before they died: the Grand Canyon. We ended up staying there for three days, admiring that great and cavernous natural wonder. To try and explain it here would be moot; if you want the full picture, buy a tank of gas, putz out there for yourself and take a gander. You’ll see what I mean.
Due to our chilly elevation, an old familiar friend came to visit us on our last day. It was sleeting pretty heavily as we were making our way down into Arizona. Watching firsthand the weather practically shift in such a short time was incredible. But it was good to be back amongst the cacti, the palms and the agaves.
Fred, a friend of Dad’s from the fire department days, and his wife had a vacation home in a mobile park east of Phoenix; Fred and Dad had been talking about parking it there for a couple weeks to spend time with each other. There was an open spot close to them, so we took it. Despite the popular belief about “mobile home parks,” this felt more like a retirement resort than the former. At least, from what I saw, the denizens of the long term section were the Sunnyside 65-and-older crowd. But as long as us young’uns didn’t cause any ruckus, they couldn’t have cared less. Many nights were spent around the fire pit, Dad and Fred swapping firehouse stories.
But this was it: the last stop. The California border was a couple hours’ drive away. I was pretty much on the edge of my seat as we made our way through the last stretch of the Arizona desert.
We made a quick jaunt into sweltering Palm Springs, and as we made our way towards the coast, we stopped to look at the Salton Sea: a body of water almost as dead as the Dead Sea. Literally. I’d never seen so many rotting fish corpses in one setting in my entire life.
I can still remember what it was like seeing Newport Beach for the first time. I thought I had had a glimpse of what wealth looked like, but this place made neighborhoods back home like Grosse Pointe look like a makeshift tea party. I wrote about the splendor in my journal:
Let me put it this way: back home, I thought places like Franklin, West Bloomfield or Grosse Point were bathing in the richie-rich gene pool. Those places couldn’t even hold a candle to Newport Beach. Nowhere in West Bloomfield do you see a Jaguar dealership at one intersection, then a few miles down the road, there’s a Maserati dealership. Travel a few more miles, you’ll see Rolls-Royces glittering beneath the palm trees.
It was the ultimate example of feeling rich by association: even if you were a middle-class family living in a 40-foot home on wheels, you still felt like blue blood just looking at all the million-dollar mansions around you, not to mention that about half the traffic on Orange County roads were demographically made up of fast luxury cars. I was on the surface of the Moon, and I loved it.
Even the park we would officially make our home looked far better than any other trailer park I’ve been to. Newport Dunes was built right on the edge of the Back Bay, a marshy lake formation that fed into Newport Harbor and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean. It was also the first park I had been to where we would officially qualify as long-term residents.
Despite what you might expect, the reality that we would be living in a trailer park underneath the Pacific Coast Highway for the next two years was never shocking to me at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite: what an adventure! It was great to be living in a way that wasn’t considered “normal,” and we adapted to this downsized life pretty quickly and pretty comfortably. There were other families like us living out of their campers and motor homes as well, like some sort of little tribe. Imagine any family from middle-class suburbia thinking they would be economizing this way; it wouldn’t even register on their radar. Here we were, living like a latter-day Grapes of Wrath; ditching the dreariness of the east and the plains for California beauty.
Maybe I’m romanticizing too much, but gimme a break; leave me to my dream.
“Well they’re out there a-havin’ fun
In that warm California sun.”
The Rivieras, “California Sun” (1964)