Last week I did something quintessentially American: I went on a road trip to California. The open road and vast horizon always make my skin tingle. Answerable to nobody but myself and my fellow traveler, and alive with the novelty and possibility of what we may yet discover, I feel like the world is mine to behold. On a cultural level, it strikes all the right notes: individualism, informality, egalitarianism, control of the environment and time, newness and change, a small amount of risk, accomplishment, and of course, fun.
It’s interesting that people everywhere don’t feel the same way. For example, I recall a conversation with a professor in Poland who had spent time in the U.S. He described his own drive across the country as isolating, foreboding, and even alienating. Perhaps a combination of his country’s history and cultural preferences made him feel that it was not such a good idea to be far away from cities and separated from his own group.
For me, though, the appeal remains – and not only because of my culture, but also because of my family. My civil servant and university parents had time off, but not a lot of money. Sometimes they’d maximize resources by turning a conference into a vacation: rather than fly, we’d pile in the car and stay with friends and relatives along the way. As a kid from suburban Phoenix, I saw a LOT of the country this way. I have memories of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, catching fireflies in Tennessee, and touring every historic home in a hundred mile radius of the interstate. (Molly Brown’s house in Denver? Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia? Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst? Check.)
I’m fortunate that my parents had the gumption to drive thousands of miles in a minivan with three squabbling children. But beyond feeling grateful for the fact that before I went to college, I’d visited all but about 10 states, I appreciate how they shaped my world view. The way you spend time and money speaks volumes about your values; theirs were that it was worthwhile to see the world, even if you had to do it from a cramped car, subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and snack packs. Most of all, it taught me that every place has the potential to be interesting – but the quality of your experience depends (in many ways) on your own effort, attitude, and willingness to be flexible.
So what does this all have to do with my trip to California? Well, after a childhood of road trips, I need them as an adult. And as much as I groaned as a kid whenever we visited a place that wasn’t labelled “theme park,” as an adult I sincerely want to know about the people and events that shaped the places on the road.
The drive from Phoenix to California is a desert one. For the uninitiated, the view can look like a whole lot of nothing, but it contains rich cultural traditions, a varied landscape, and a contentious history. The legacy of shifting borders is more recent than in much of the country, with a resulting complexity of identity, meaning, belonging, and justice between the original tribes, the Spanish explorers, California pioneers, Mormon settlers, immigrant miners and railroad workers, Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers, the U.S. military, and more recently, tourists. (It is no coincidence that civil rights activist Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma – on land ceded from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase).
Our first stop was Dateland. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roadside stop is famous for date shakes, but in World War II, it was one of General Patton’s desert training camps. Those soldiers would have been surprised by the sunburned Norwegian bikers we passed on the way into the gift shop. Inside, ’80s country music played while we sampled dates, maneuvered around Midwestern tourists, and bought a jar of date butter from an unsmiling clerk dressed in classic ’90s chola style. To me, it is the quintessential stop: different personalities, cultures, and eras briefly intersecting before dispersing again.
Yuma Territorial Prison
Why visit a prison on vacation? Well, if you were raised like I was, there is a gnawing obligation to see historical sites. Fortunately, it was more interesting than it sounds.
We learned about how the Colorado and Gila Rivers converged in Yuma until the construction of Hoover Dam – and how this engineering marvel had dramatic consequences for life downstream. We stood on the Juan Bautista de Anza trail linking Spanish missions and presidios – many built before the U.S. declared independence. If that’s not enough, we saw the bridge that served as the final link in the first coast-to-coast highway. And of course, there was the prison itself, which offered a fascinating look at territorial life, law and order, and World War II defense.
If there is a competition for most peaceful place on earth, the seaside village of Carlsbad would be a strong contender. Middle aged men walk around in wet suits, teenagers play beach volleyball, toddlers splash in fountains, and tourists hunt for agates, take selfies in the Flower Fields, and entertain themselves at Lego Land. As we watched the sun set over the Pacific while enjoying fresh seafood, I felt like we were in a dream. But not everyone participates equally in this breezy affluence: At the Flower Fields, for instance, you’ll notice that the laborers are Latino, and most of the adult guests are white and Asian.
San Diego is possibly the chillest (most relaxed) big city in the country. If soaring lofts are any indication, there’s quite a bit of money here, but the people are resolutely unpretentious. There’s an interesting combination of Mexican influence (you are right on the border), beach bum culture (many seemingly aspire to nothing more than a perfect tan), military presence (Camp Pendleton is just up the coast, and the navy and coast guard have major operations here), global awareness (it’s a major port), tourism (it’s home to Sea World) and professionalism. My husband was in heaven as he saw people dressed like they were actually going to work (in contrast to Phoenix, where many people wear shorts).
There was too much to see for a day trip, but the strongest memory was how friendly and helpful everyone was. That, and Chinese tourists posing for photos in front of a Bob Hope memorial. I wondered if they had any idea what they were looking at, and I was tempted to test out my rusty Mandarin skills. But gelato and a ride on the Coaster beckoned.
Next we took I-5 to Los Angeles, veering off on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to locals) for lunch in another seaside village, Dana Point. As much as I’d enjoyed Carlsbad, it felt a little sedated for my taste. Dana Point, by contrast, had a bit more energy. Perhaps it was the marina, which bustled with fisherman, pleasure boats, and more tourists. Walking along the harbor, we imagined which yacht we’d pick if we were millionaires, watched a man paddleboard with his dog, and vowed to return for a whale watching trip.
Farther north in Orange County is Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. The park is expensive and you’re likely to break your ankles dodging triple-wide strollers. But it’s also fun. Where else can you wear mouse ears, pretend you’re a pirate, wave to giant stuffed characters, and sing Zippadee Do Dah after plunging off a cliff in a log ride?
Another hour north is the second largest city in the U.S. My brother lives here, and in keeping with my childhood frugality, we stayed at his apartment. It doesn’t matter that he’s in the middle of a painting project, that there’s construction across the street, or that his neighborhood has a bird that squawks at 2:30 in the morning. It’s free – and if you saw LA hotel prices, you’d understand.
And it’s worth it. As an Interculturalist, the main thing I love is its diversity, but as a Millennial, a major appeal is that there is just SO MUCH TO DO. Whether it’s taking an exhibit on fashion at LACMA, watching a concert at The Greek, enjoying a coffee in Koreatown, finding the perfect comic book in Silver Lake, braving the madness of Elat Market, rolling our eyes at Venice hipsters, or driving at twilight with the windows rolled down, we can’t get enough of the City of Angels.
All good things must end, but first we made one final stop: Joshua Tree National Park. The completist in me couldn’t stand that we’d driven past countless times without visiting (even a cursory look adds about 2-3 hours onto a 6 hour drive from L.A. to Phoenix). I’m pleased that it was worth the effort: It was more scenic and impressive than I’d expected, even for someone who delights in photographing cactus. As we drove toward Quartzite, Buckeye, and finally Phoenix, I sighed contentedly. Sometimes, it’s good to be gone.
There is something quintessentially American about packing up the car, taking off for a destination, and making random stops along the way. But don’t take my word for it. Here is one classic song that captures the spirit: On the Road Again. What are your favorites? Where will your next American road trip take you?