So we made it to LA late in the afternoon of the ninth day, which was Sunday, May 9th. The next morning we had breakfast at Mel’s Diner, and then took the Caddy in for an oil change, to reward her for her exemplary service.
We drove around LA a bit – I was disappointed that the museum at the La Brea Tar Pits was closed on Mondays – and then went to visit another cousin who lives in a very nice suburb of LA. This is Susan, and she is the daughter of one of dad’s only two siblings who left Illinois when were still kids. She and her husband have done very well for themselves, so the rest of us cousins always feel a little like the Beverly Hillbillies when we visit.
They hosted us in their lovely home on Monday, cooking on the grill and getting caught up on family news. Bob had never met them before, and we had a great evening of conversation. We each had a great room to stay in, and I couldn’t help but notice their amazing home theater. In the morning, Darryll summed up our thoughts well: all of our houses — and all of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in – suck compared to this!
After we took Susan’s husband out for breakfast on Tuesday morning, we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel.
And here, for the first time during the trip, our amazing luck with the weather ran out. There was a marine layer of fog along the coast the whole day. We could still see enough of the coast and cliffs to see how beautiful the drive was, but after 9 days of almost unbroken sunshine, we had gotten spoiled. We stopped to see elephant seals, and drove past the Hearst Castle at San Simeon (I’ll be coming back to tour that some day), and through a small part of the forest at Big Sur.
That night we stayed in Carmel, on the Monterey Peninsula. On Wednesday morning we drove down to Cannery Row in Monterey, and walked around the setting for the Steinbeck novel. Then we got back in the car and took the famous 17-Mile Drive along a road that took us past amazing houses, as well as the Spyglass, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point golf courses. It was very cool to see in person some of the iconic holes I’ve seen when I watch golf on tv.
From there we drove up to San Francisco, again in and out of fog banks for most of the trip. We got into some sun as we approached the city, so we stopped and put the top down for the last 10 miles culminating in the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge. Two minutes later, we crossed a large hill, and within about 10 miles the temperature dropped what felt like 30 degrees! (Darryll reminded me of the Mark Twain quote about the coldest winter he ever spent being a summer in San Francisco.)
Though the top of the bridge was shrouded in fog as we drove across, we got a great view of the city from the other side. Most of the sky was sunny, but a bank of that marine fog slid across the water and created beautiful moving shadows across the bay and the city. We started heading to Muir Woods to see some Redwoods, but a sign warned us that for May 12th, the park was closed while workers cleared out a bunch of recently downed trees and limbs.
Not since we arrived at the Oklahoma City Land Run monument just as the fire department started blasting it with water had our timing been so bad!
But Darryll knows the area, and took us through Sausalito and to the picturesque town of Mill Valley, where we turned off on a small road called Cascade Drive that went through one of the most beautiful neighborhoods I’d ever seen. The whole ride through there was shaded by gigantic redwoods everywhere. (Bob has been to Muir Woods and says the redwoods there are bigger, but these were still incredibly impressive.)
The houses were all tucked into hillsides and along creeks, and some were built to accommodate giant trees that grew up through decks and courtyards. The whole place was cool and sun-dappled and filled with birdsong, and between the woods and the twisting road, nearly every house felt like its own, cozy little oasis in a forest that Hansel and Gretel might have skipped through.
(If the Black Forest had Redwoods, and if Mill Valley had an ominous, Germanic undertone of child-inappropriate violence lurking behind every tree.)
From there we drove a little around Sausalito before heading into San Francisco. We had supper near Fisherman’s Wharf – clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl for me – and then walked around some pretty dead streets. Back in the car, we drove around town a little, and Darryll maneuvered the Caddy down curvy Lombard Street – cliched but fun, especially in a car that is almost as long as the distance between each hairpin turn!
The cousins dropped me at the airport the next morning, and I spent the next 14 hours in planes or airports. I first flew to LAX, then laid over for almost 4 hours before flying to Charlotte, and then laid over for 3 more hours before flying home. I spent the time catching up on some of my travelogue notes and reading, and also hearing a notice – repeated at least 40 times — about how masks must be worn at all times.
On that note, I also saw an odd sight at LAX: what looked to be a family of 4 Asians walked through the terminal, with the two kids in full face shields with masks underneath, and the two adults wearing full, honest-to-God, head-to-toe contagion suits. The kind that you zip into, with a sealed hoodie over your head.
My first instinctive thought was, “Oh crap! Do they know something I don’t know?!” (I’ve seen Contagion, and other such films.) But then my second thought was, “Oh, no. They’re just nuts.” I scrambled to get my phone out, but was only able to snap a pic that captured one of the suited adults.
In the few days I’ve been home, I’ve thought a lot about our experiences on the road, and particularly about Nature, and about people. Nature first:
This country is huge, and filled with an amazing diversity of landscapes. And driving through it lets you experience changes in the environment in a way that air travel doesn’t. I’ve always enjoyed getting on a plane in hot, humid Florida and landing a few hours later in cool Maine during the summer, or snowy Illinois during the winter. But there is something about driving over 9 days, and slowly watching green and leafy Illinois and Missouri give way to the open plains of Oklahoma and Texas, and then to the desert vistas of New Mexico and Arizona.
You get a sense of the vastness of the country, and the varied types of architecture, flora, fauna and modes of living throughout America.
I’ve always appreciated the blessings and freedoms of living in this country, but those feelings have deepened the more I’ve traveled. And in what is going to sound like a backhanded compliment at best, this trip made me realize how many places in America I do NOT want to live. The tiny towns we drove through are fascinating to drive through, but I can’t imagine living there.
What do people do for a living in Commerce, OK, or Shamrock, TX, or Tucumcari, NM? What do you do for fun, or for stimulation? How do you find a date, or a mate? How do you cope with watching your small town barely maintaining itself at best, or withering and gradually emptying out at worst?
On the other hand, I couldn’t live in a big city like LA or San Francisco for a month. The prices, the noise, the traffic, the vulgarity of other people’s music and behavior, the homelessness and lawlessness, and the seeming helplessness to address it. I’m with the old Appalachian woman I saw in a language documentary, discussing in a thick drawl the social network in her small community vs. life in the big city : “I lived in Washington DC for ‘bout 4 years, and I’d just as soon be in hell with my back broke as live thar.”
But no sooner than I think those pinched, judgmental thoughts, I realize that the small towns I grew up in are not that much different than many of the small towns we drove through, and I return to them several times of year, and feel comfortable and at home there. And I love (briefly) visiting big cities, and am invigorated by the energy and activity there.
After this trip, I’m more aware than ever of my small “c” conservative temperament, in the sense of valuing the right to be left alone to make your own choices and live your own life. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of federalism – a respect for and latitude given to local communities to establish their own chosen way of living.
If you like low taxes and less regulation and a justice system that focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation, there are states like Texas and Tennessee and much of the Midwest. If you like a more generous social safety net and a more activist government — and the taxes and regulation that goes with those — there are states like California and New York and Massachusetts, where you’ll find the social environment much more congenial. If you like farming, Illinois and Iowa are right up your alley. If you have a quasi-hippie artistic temperament, Santa Fe and San Francisco may attract you.
Not many people were wearing masks in Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas, even inside. A lot of people were wearing masks in California, even outside. I know which option I’d choose, but I’m not in the “controlling how other people live” business, and I assume that both groups are getting what they vote for, and what they prefer.
I like the idea of letting people vote with their feet. People who like open desert vistas, or crowded urban areas — or four seasons, or perpetual summer – all have places they could happily live in America.
A lot of the people who used to live in the small towns we drove through are gone now, but those who are left must like living there. And a lot of people are leaving California and New York, but most are staying, and they must like living there. I don’t really understand either group, but God bless them all. As long as they don’t New York my Florida, or California my Tennessee, I’m happy to see them pursue their happiness, just as the political geniuses who founded this country intended.
Finally, I admire the plucky entrepreneurs who had seen their chances when Route 66 was established, and taken them. They invested and worked to create businesses, and creatively marketed them with gimmicks and tactics from the kitschy to the ingenious. We saw striking neon signs, and well-built, quirky buildings – gas stations, motels and souvenir shops – built in various styles, but most of them now in various states of disrepair.
I also felt bittersweet, vicarious commiseration with those whose dreams had been dashed by a twist of fate that was far beyond their control. Route 66 was laid out, they invested and built there, and they thrived for a time, and doubled down with additional investments. Tiny motels were expanded, pools were added, air conditioning and radios and then tvs – and sometimes vibrating beds! – were bought and installed and advertised. Neon signs were commissioned, and ads were placed, and the travelers came, and stopped.
And life was good.
Then an interstate was built nearby, and seemingly overnight, hard times came. The little guys put up a fight, for a while. New gimmicks, additional investment. Too often, good money was thrown after bad. I imagine that for many people, their financial demise happened the way a Hemingway character famously described going broke: “gradually, and then suddenly.”
Some people adapted and thrived – some by moving, but others by staying put, and adapting, and keeping their communities alive despite the hardships.
In many places, undeniably, the hardships took their toll. The windows of the small shops are broken out, or boarded over. The frames of neon signs remain, but the messages they carried are gone. Ghosts of painted business names and products persist on concrete or wooden walls. Roofs sag, and paint peels, and grass grows up through concrete.
In their own way, these ruins teach some of the hardest and yet most useful lessons in life: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Even if you work really hard and respond and adapt and persevere, sometimes things still don’t work out. Business is often very hard. Success can be fleeting. Everything is fleeting. Life isn’t fair.
But amidst the wreckage and decay, small victories have been and are being won. Towns open museums, and citizens donate cherished items that tell the stories of the Mother Road, and their small patch of it. Funds are raised, and murals are painted, and former glories are restored. Neighbors band together, and help each other, and tend their own gardens.
This trip was definitely a bucket-list adventure, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Especially if you’ve got a cool old car, and some high-quality cousins or other family members or friends to share the experience with, it’s a great way to spend a couple of weeks.
Thanks for following the 3 Cousins FB page, and for reading along!