It’s hard to overstate what Southern California means to Phoenicians. It has theme parks. It has beaches. It has fun. It has cooler weather. And it’s only a 6-7 hour drive. For much of my adult life, my go-to escape has been the jumbled jungle of Los Angeles, but recently, I’ve rediscovered what makes the rest of SoCal so special. In April, I wrote about the hold that road trips have on the American psyche and spotlighted a visit to this part of the country. Now, at summer’s end, my husband and I heard the siren call once more.
California, here I come!
So, what is a trip to California like? For Phoenicians, it starts by heading west on Interstate 8 or 10. We follow a predictable pattern: many believe they are the fastest and want to be in front, so they stay in the left lane and focus on passing everyone else. But what you choose to notice and appreciate is up to you. And I like to notice everything.
On the way out of town, we first passed through Buckeye. A rapidly growing suburb with master-planned communities and 50-60,000 people, it still has wide-open spaces and a rural vibe thanks to its farms and recreation areas. We drove past the biggest tractor I had ever seen, rows of cotton and corn, and a prison.
Next was Gila Bend, a town of less than 2,000 near the vast Tohono O’odham Nation. Like Buckeye, it is part of Maricopa County – along with Phoenix – but it is demographically distinct with a sizeable Native American and majority Hispanic population. According to Wikipedia, it is located near an ancient Hohokam village and served as an important junction during the Conquistador era, the Mexican American War, the Civil War, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route and the Gold Rush. Today, it is home to stockyards, solar farms, and a nifty space-age themed diner.
From here, we made one more stop at Dateland for Arizona dates (and date shakes!) before passing through the Algodones Dunes near Yuma, the largest dune ecosystem in the U.S. and a filming location for Return of the Jedi. We saw highway signs that said “Mexico, next right” and although we never exited, my phone welcomed me to Mexico and we had to go through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Finally, after twisting through mountain passes in Boulder Park, we descended into alpine valleys, navigated San Diego rush hour and turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway. California, here we are!
To Phoenicians, San Diego is a paradise. The obvious highlight is the water, and we did our part by going on a harbor sailing cruise. Our captain – a 26 year old who lives on a boat and wants to sail the world with his girlfriend – answered our novice questions in good humor and gave us a beautiful sunset tour of Point Loma and downtown. He told us that most of his tourists are from Arizona, and there is no mystery why. Who wouldn’t trade 115 F/46 C for this? (Although it comes with a hefty price tag. A recurrent topic of conversation with locals on this trip was how unaffordable Southern California has become).
Invigorated by our expanding comfort zones, we spent the next morning snorkeling in nearby La Jolla, an upscale and unbelievably scenic beach village. Like sailing, it was a completely new experience, and we had to manage the cold temps ( 68-70 F) and master snorkel breathing while avoiding territorial sea lions. This, too, was exhilarating, and made all the more special with a post-swim walk along the cove and a pancake feast.
Back in San Diego, there was still plenty to explore. We drove past Mission Bay with its family picnics and jet skis, savored fresh fish in the most hipster of restaurants in Little Italy, sampled chocolate at Ghirardelli, admired still-resonant quotes along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade, and watched the sun set over the water near Seaport Village. We also learned about what it’s like to live on a floating city at the Midway Museum, strolled through a Japanese garden in Balboa Park, and smiled through an impromptu singalong at an Irish pub in the Gaslamp.
So far, so good – and we still had a week to go.
Up next, my husband had a certification program an hour away in Temecula – the practical impetus for this road trip. Before he started, we made time for wine tasting at one of the area’s vineyards and toured the historic old town, which has everything you would think it would, like an old-time candy shop, an antiques store, and a lavender shop. After several days of learning (for him) and absently watching golfers while reading War and Peace (me), we went back to the coast, this time to Carlsbad.
Back to the Coast
Carlsbad is a tranquil, affluent beach community of 110 – 115,000. If its name sounds Central European, you’re right – it was named for the spa town of Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic due to a similar kind of mineral water discovered there. According to Wikipedia, it was – like much of California – previously home to Native Americans (the Luiseño tribe), Spanish explorers, and Mexican ranchers. Today, it is a tourist destination with miles of coastline, lagoons, outlet malls, and an amusement park.
The thing that I like most about Carlsbad is that it feels manageable compared to much of coastal California, which is frenetic with traffic jams and impossible parking. There isn’t that much to do, so you feel yourself slow down and breathe deeply, and it’s possible to stare out at the water without being jostled by hundreds of other people doing the same. It’s also home to LEGOLAND – and for my husband, it was time to make a pilgrimage.
I was a little ambivalent about visiting without kids (would that be weird? would it even be fun?) but I needn’t have worried. Yes, the rides are tame – one warned in perfect childhood speak that yes, this was a “real rollercoaster.” But it was also sweet to see toddlers, parents, and grandparents enjoy themselves in a shared space, and it was impossible not to appreciate the creativity in the many LEGO displays. My favorite was MINILAND, where famous landmarks and scenes from major US regions were recreated to scale with LEGOs.
Following two days in a theme park, I was ready for more beach time. After an evening spent walking to the end of an enormous pier and then enjoying fresh fish in Oceanside, we decided to spend the next day a bit farther north. Winding up the coast, we stopped at an Australian coffeehouse inside a bike shop in Dana Point, where we ordered flat whites (what else?). Based on a barista’s recommendations, we then proceeded to Laguna Beach, where we narrowly avoided being swept out to sea in the strong undercurrent, ran away from bees, and oohed and awed at the gorgeous blue-green sea.
Finally, with one last look at the shore, it was time to go home. We stopped in Riverside to see my parents and then trekked back home on Interstate-10 East, passing places like Morongo Valley, Palm Springs, “Other Desert Cities,” Indio, and Blythe. And occasionally, we drove in the left lane just like every other car with AZ (license) plates.
The people you meet
As far as trips go, we could certainly have done worse, but in many ways, it doesn’t really matter what you do. Anything that shakes up your routine, gets you out of your comfort zone, broadens your perspective, and zaps you with a current of energy will do.
For me, as an intercultural specialist, a road trip is also about the people you see. We sat next to an African American church group in Gila Bend, saw women dressed in saris wading in the waves and women wearing headscarves skateboarding on the sidewalk in La Jolla, talked to sales clerks from Poland in Ghirardelli, overheard people speaking Russian and Italian at our hotels, observed young military men and women try to explain their sea-borne life to their parents on the Midway, chatted with a middle-aged white couple from Illinois on a boardwalk, got swept into a Chinese tour group at an aquarium, received a big hug from a German guide at the LEGOLAND factory tour, and heard lots of Spanish.
Besides giving our trip an international vibe, I think this shows the power of enjoyable places to bring people together. No place is perfect, and as someone who lives in one frequented by tourists, I can appreciate how this is often a mixed blessing. But there is still something magnetic about a place that attracts visitors from all over the world, allowing them to delight in a sense of wonder, see each other in real life, and share to some extent in space and experiences. And perhaps this is the most important lesson from road trips: it reminds us that we are but a small part of a diverse and interconnected world.
Americans have a seemingly endless playlist of songs about California. Get to know a few, below – and while you’re listening, see if you can spot some of the mixed feelings that the state inspires. It’s enough for an entire separate blog post, but here’s a taste:
California, here I come! (Al Jolson)
California Dreamin’ (Mamas & Papas)
Surfin’ USA (Beach Boys)
It never rains in southern California (Albert Hammond)
California Love (2Pac featuring Dr. Dre)
California (Phantom Planet)
Californication (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
California (Rufus Wainwright)
California Gurls (Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg)