Through the Green and Into the Dust

Blogging to you LIVE from the Wigwam Motel in Rialto—my own yellow, cigarette-stenched circle of heaven in the epicenter of strip malls, tract housing and Morrissey fans, the San Bernardino Valley. It’s the perfect place to end the drive down to SoCal, and to begin the journey into the dusty heart of whatever weirdness remains.

I started out on my roadtrip yesterday, sniffling and sore and in a DayQuil daze. I decided to press on with my plans, despite succumbing to a nasty cold that’s been going around, and if it hadn’t been so goddamn beautiful, it might have been painful. Spring arrived a couple days ago, with that certain lightness that makes everything seem young and hopeful and achingly pure. The coast was lit green by months of El Nino storms, a verdancy that’s rare in California. I twisted and turned on the skinny roads, blasting my stereo over the roar of wind through the rattlingly cracked windows.

I stopped in Big Sur, where I hadn’t been since I was a kid. I’d remembered it being so far away from home, which I suppose it is, but only if you measure in culture, not in miles. It was just as massively impressive as I’d remembered, with broad trees and heartbreaking cliffs and not too many tourists, being early in the year. I’d been too groggy to stop for a sandwich on the way out of town, so I pulled into Nepenthe, purported to be one of the better of Big Sur’s overpriced coastal cafes. Glorified Wonderbread, browned and soggy lettuce, and $20 later, I decided that eating a $7 sandwich from home of the hood of my car at some pretty vista point would have been a far preferable experience. Whatever—it’s Big Sur. You can’t stay disappointed that long.

Feeling a little pepped up, I tried to do a quick hike, but discovered that a lot of the trails are currently closed due to the pummeling storms this year. So I tromped down a little coastal path, with bickering families and friendly Germans, aptly named Overlook Trail. It overlooks this:

and I felt pretty satisfied.

Back on the road, the coast got twistier, the pavement rougher, as I made my way down to San Luis Obispo. It’s a pretty typical California college town, with one major draw—one of the region’s few youth hostels. I grabbed a cheap bunk at Hostel Obispo, a cute old Victorian house, and took a leisurely stroll down to “Downtown,” which is really more of a high-end outdoor mall.

meeeeeat!

Traveling within the US is a novelty for me, and it comes with a couple major benefits, one of which is the use of my iPhone (far too expensive to use abroad). While the Cheap Gas and Public Restroom Finder apps have proven utterly disappointing, my old favorites are definitely coming through: Google maps and Yelp. I wanted to eat somewhere popular, that would give me a good feel for the town, and ended up at the Firestone Grill. It’s a BBQ joint heavy on portions and easy on the pocketbook, which makes sense in a college town. It was alright, about twice as good and half as much as my lunch—but 419 reviews? Then I passed the newly opened Chipotle, with a line literally out the door, and realized maybe, you know, I had had some of the best food in town.

I strolled around the town some more, filled with dudes in flip flops and girls in work-out clothes and pony-tails. It felt wholesome and relaxed—even the local riffraff felt quaint, in their barefoot belligerence. Everything felt cheerful and hopeful, like springtime and college students. I topped off the night with a much-needed soak in a hot tub at Sycamore Mineral Springs, a 12 minute drive from San Luis Obispo. My achy bones and sinus congestion thanked me.

This morning I backtracked to Montana de Oro State Park, for a little fresh air and strolling. Curving down a two-lane road, I went past coastal hills covered in purple and yellow wildflowers, orange explosions of poppies against the green green of the hills. The road took me into a tangle of eucalyptus trees; I pulled over where a bunch of cars were parked and scurried down a dirt path into a grove of trees.

The light cut through the leaves and branches and ocean mist in this dream-like haze, and all I could hear where birds and surf crashing. Over a hill and through a miniature valley (where a pelican glided past just as I rounded the corner), and I found myself at a surfer spot. I hung around a bit, sitting on the rocks and watching the waves and wet suits.

I headed back, this time inland on the 101, where flowers and green continued to line my journey. At home, I’m an impatient and cranky driver—I hate traffic, parking, street sweeping. Always an impediment to where I’m trying to go, what I’m trying to do. But driving down the coast, with my music playing and my broken skeleton doll dangling from the rearview mirror, I could let go and just go with the rhythms of the road. There was little traffic, just fresh air and beauty and my own wordless thoughts. The road was the place I was trying to go.

The roadside kitsch of Pea Soup Anderson’s was too much to pass up, so I made another stop—plus the soup felt good on my sore throat. Then I went to do a little un-urban exploring, swishing through thigh-high grass to poke around an abandoned diner I’d spotted from the highway. I peered through the windows at the stacked chairs, the silent booths, feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for a place I’d never been.

Things were starting to get cool.

As luck (or unluck) would have it, my iPod died just as I was cruising past Santa Barbara, so I pulled off to find a cafe. It’s hard not to feel alienated in a town like Santa Barbara, wealthy and white and homogenized and nice. Very very  nice. It’s the kind of place that feeds all your Southern California stereotypes, both the good ones—sun and long, tan legs—and the bad ones—everything else.

I got back on the highway just in time for rush hour. The green gave way to brown and billboards, the ocean mist to heat and just a thin layer of smog, the free flowing to break lights and miles of congestion. My 2 hour drive took 3 1/2. I climbed over the spine of LA, snuck around the backside, through one valley and into another. And finally pulled into the Wigwam Motel. It’s not as run-down as they say, the area not as “rough” as some reviews claimed. It’s a working class “ethnic” suburb and, hey, I’ll take that over a wealthy brofest any day. Even if it is damn hard to find a salad.

Blurry, but it does say "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." A better photo by daylight tomorrow.

So I’ve made it, my little car and me, crawling down the lip of the continent, down through the legendary beauty of coastal California, made more ridiculous by the green and tender spring. I’ve gotten reminded of what I already know of Southern California—bros and traffic—and am poised to head into the desert tomorrow. Found art, a rock n roll pilgrimage (and human cremation) site, and a honky tonk await. And that’s just tomorrow.

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7 Responses to “Through the Green and Into the Dust”


  1. 1 Jana March 16, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    What a fun adventure through some of my favorite places.

  2. 2 Gray March 17, 2010 at 4:07 am

    I am so loving this, Lauren! I feel like I’m on the trip with you. What a great adventure. That Overlook is beautiful.

  3. 3 TheJetpacker March 17, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Did you have to pay for your room in wampum?

    When we did our Olympics road trip, I remember seeing signs for the Pea Soup place over a HUNDRED miles away. That soup better be good because you know someone was craving it two hours before they ever got to taste it.

  4. 4 Naomi March 17, 2010 at 10:26 am

    When I was going to school in SD I made the drive from there back north a few times, and loved going the 101/1 route. Amazing stuff….and you hit up all the good spots along the way! If you pass through SLO again on the way up, I highly recommend stopping at Linnaea’s Cafe. Beautiful back garden, fantastic tea, delicious food.

  5. 5 Hal Amen March 17, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Ah, sweet road trip. I hope to be where you are in July. Sounds like I might be one of many.

    • 6 laurenquinn March 17, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      But still totally worth it. Just be sure to book everything ahead. And lemme know your plans so I can meet up with you at some point. 😉

  6. 7 simonemarie March 17, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Oh man, you’re making me miss California. So much. Big Sur has to be one of my favorite places on earth.

    Sad what happened to Santa Barbara. The natural beauty is unreal there. My parents lived there in the 70s, living on next to nothing, and said it was a whole different world…


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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