I drive by shops of dresses, furniture, specialty coffees and stop at a light somewhere in L.A. I still don’t know Los Angeles well, so I can’t tell you exactly where I am, but I know it’s not far from the coast and I think the airport is near. A man wearing no shoes is walking between the cars with a cardboard sign advertising his homeless state and need for help. I wonder if it’s easier to write it down and hold it up to be read rather than saying it out loud as he approaches each of us, sitting in our cars with our $5 Starbucks drink cooling in the air conditioning. I roll down the window and hand him some cash, hearing in my mind the question so many reasonable people ask when they see someone giving money to a person living on the street. “You know he’s just going to spend it on drugs or drink, right?” Odds are good he will, and I don’t condone it, but I also can’t judge him. I don’t have to sleep on the street tonight, cold and scared. And if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it sober.
I’ve spent the day driving through areas of California I’ve never seen before, covering 220 miles of coast (or as close to the coast as I can get) from San Luis Obispo to Redondo Beach. I’ve lived in southern California for four years now, but I feel I still don’t know this state that is now my home. From what I’ve seen today, I’d say that all life is here in California. I’ve seen the rich, the poor; the surreally beautiful, the regular; the stereotypical Californian with sun-bleached hair and tanned limbs, the other stereotypical Californian in the traditional dress of a homeland left behind; the lucky, the not so lucky; those who aspire to have it all, and those who aspire for just a small piece of it. Everything and anything is possible here. Not all of us will achieve the height of our dreams, and some of us will not achieve even a modicum of our dreams, but the striving, past or present, seems to be the common denominator that allows for co-existence and co-mingling of both ends of every spectrum of humanity here.
My plan was to stay along the coast for the entire trip, to see water and sand for as long as possible, but some areas didn’t have roads, or were restricted, and so I was forced to see something other than beaches on my journey. Perhaps it’s only fair though, because not all of California is oceanfront property, but all of it is part of the whole.
Less than an hour into my journey, I stop at the first scenic byway along the road. It’s a beautiful vista from a cliff looking down on rocky outlets and sandy alcoves. This is paradise and it never ceases to take my breath away. There are snippets of shoreline like this all along California’s coast, but each one still feels like a newly discovered gem. I like these beaches the best, the hidden ones that are hard to get to, if not impossible, and usually deserted. They give me hope that maybe nature can still prevail despite the existence of humans.
I’ve picked the wrong day to try to see Pismo Beach. A car show has everything at a standstill. The streets are crowded with brightly colored hot rods and swarming admirers. Old West Cinnamon Rolls is a famous coffee shop and bakery in the center of this beach town, and I had hoped to make a quick stop, but I’m on a schedule and decide I have to bypass the city completely if I want to see more of the coast along the way.
Besides all life being in California, all terrain is here too. I have no option but to turn inland in some areas and I drive through small towns, by farm fields, and under tall trees with weeping branches shading the road. I go around Vandenberg Airbase and pay a dollar more per gallon for gas outside the base gates than I would have if I had waited to buy gas in a town 20 miles away. I mentally kick myself for being impatient, but then remind myself I would have missed one of the most interesting and perplexing sights of the day: a man trekking down the highway, pushing a bike cart, while dressed in full Imperial Stormtrooper regalia. The sun was beating down, and the day was getting hot (temps were climbing into the 90s) but he walked with his head high and his gate strong, white armor gleaming in the sunshine. His helmet was resting on the top of the bike cart and his hair blew in the breeze, but I couldn’t fault him for being out of uniform on a day like today.
My mind kept wandering back to the stormtrooper while I drove, wondering what his story was and where he was headed. He didn’t seem like an aimless wanderer, but more like a man on a mission. Now I don’t care about the money wasted on paying a dollar more per gallon, and instead I’m kicking myself for not stopping to talk to the man, to hear what I imagine would have been a most interesting tale. I’d seen the stormtrooper at the gas station when I pulled in – he was smiling and waving to a family who looked like they had just introduced their young son to one of his icons. The boy kept turning back as his mom guided him toward their car, his eyes big and watching as the stromtrooper adjusted his helmet resting on the top of the cart and set off with determination. I remember this brief exchange now and think I would have been safe stopping to talk to him. Another missed opportunity…
From stormtroopers to movie stars, California has them all, and many of them live in Malibu. This is the California we see in the movies – luxurious homes set in a landscaped paradise with breathtaking views of the ocean. Ornate gates, as tall and wide as my three-car garage, leave the thousands upon thousands of us who drive by each day to imagine the life lived beyond the ornate iron, intricate stone, and rich wood barriers. I see one gate rolling smoothly closed as I inch along the Pacific Coast Highway and wonder if the grey haired man in the emerging powder blue Rolls Royce is someone famous. I get a fleeting glimpse of him, but don’t recognize his face. I’d probably recognize his name, I decide.
In contrast to the beachgoers in the quaint beach cities that dot the coast, beachgoers in L.A. share the sand and water with industry. Warehouses and equipment lots co-exist with the beaches here, while freighters float on the waves beyond the surfers and swimmers. Pacific Coast Highway detours away from coast and into the city, and this is where I give the homeless man some cash. L.A. is a mecca of contrasts. A block before this, I watched a young woman posing against a mural on the side of a building, using a selfie stick to snap photos of herself.
I see another mural in Rodando Beach, this one of whales swimming across the entire face of a building. I slow to focus on it for a moment, and think to myself that Californians certainly love their murals. This is the just one of many I’ve seen today. I’ve yet to visit a California beach town that doesn’t have at least one, and I find myself looking for them now.
The sun is dropping in the horizon, infusing the clouds over the ocean with rich color. I stop for one last view of the coast before turning inland to return home. A lone sailboat slips peacefully across the water under the hazy globe of the sun. Sitting on a ledge high above the beach, I look at the people who have stopped along the walkway to take pictures of the sky over the ocean, just as I have, and wonder if they are tourists or locals. Do they see me as a tourist? I’ve lived in southern California for four years now, and though I don’t feel like a visitor anymore, I still don’t consider myself a Californian yet. It is this in between state that motivated me to drive the scenic route home, to see more of the state where I live but don’t really know.
Time is pressing now, and I type my address into the map on my phone. I follow the lead of the GPS, but it brings me to the 91 East within minutes, and I turn it off. I have 75 miles to cover before I get home, but I know the way from here.