The first book that made me fall in love with literature was John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”: the dark tale of an absent, twisted mother, an idealistic father, and two brothers, Caleb and Aron, that are American literature’s renditions of Cain and Abel. I remember the story being a biblical tale, not only because of its artful prose, but its spiritual impact on my 18-year-old self.
A decade later, I found myself in that Eden that the Great American Author had written about and who saw many successors artfully describe it: the coast of California. Hi ho, here we go.
My travel buddy and I were freshly unslept with a noon arrival into SFO. The transference from negative temperatures to positive 20s was a welcome shock, as good as the embrace of an old friend. We picked up the rental, with an offer of a convertible which we refused. We did that thing, airbnb, and my god, it made everything as seamless as a wet suit. We set our bags down and walked through Golden Gate Park to Haight-Ashbury: there were people on the streets, living on the streets, and I figured the times must really be tough. Even we were on a budget, yet so thankful at the chance to travel. We grabbed a coffee and later a happy hour, which was around each corner. Unlike where we are from, we had the option to sip where we willed. A stop at the grocery store and an early night made up for lost hours of rock-star travel preparation.
An early rise, and by early we mean nearly noon, to hit the road to Big Sur. A stop for a coffee and non parishables for a camping trip we could not prepare for: A tent! We need a tent! We go to Target for the cheapest four-person sleeper find.
On the road again and a screen-shot for a map on how the sea would pull us to the Pacific Highway 1 (Pac 1). We made it to the sea and, my god, it was electric and calm. What do you do except just take it in?
A stop at Carmel-by-the-Sea in the county of Monterrey. This is Eden! Steinbeck says!
Carmel-by-the-Sea, formerly known as Carmel. The current name popularized after it was written on a promotional postcard. How quaint it is with a population of under 4,000. But it’s got history, like a past of bohemians, and Clint Eastwood as mayor (’86-’88) and authors such as Jack London, Upton Sinclair, the Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac venturing these parts.
We get to Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park and we set up our tent. It looks good. It looks like it’s never been used. We built a fire and tried to sleep in our tent with one sleeping bag and two personal-sized Mexican blankets. We later found out that it was -4’C that night and, my god, we were cold. It was good that we ended up sleeping in the car. Don’t tell the hard-core camper-ists.
We head to the secret beach, Pfeiffer Beach, that the local paper and the sign in the windows told us about. Not a well-kept secret, but it is difficult to find with no sign seen from the highway. The road bumps and is winding. That means we must be getting to something beautiful.
Uf, yeah, there it is. Straight to the soul and I could lay around on that bank of sand all day. Alright, you’re bored, we’ll get going. We head back to our site and grab some beers to hang out by the rapids. We make sure we leave no litter, no footprint, but I let it imprint my mind. We go back to our site and have a beer and build a fire and eat jiffy-pop and hotdogs on a skewer. We had few interactions with fellow campers looking for duct tape. Our neighbours had just come back from surfing the coast and told us of some waterfall that we should have known about — McWay Falls. Don’t miss it! It’s worth the stop! And then it was another night in the car.
We heeded their advice and stopped by this 30-foot waterfall in the Julia Burns Pfeiffer National Park. It was like they said: indescribable and the ocean was unlike any blue that was once seen. One photo-opp and like geese we took to the route, south towards Los Angeles. We drove the Pac 1 through the mountain towns and wondered if either of us could ever live here. What would we do? Where would we stay? The twists and turn and plummets into that magnificent blue brought us back to earth every thirty-feet. Nearly five hours had passed and we had crossed almost all the thirty-three bridges that were built along the coastal highway. My god, it was beautiful, but we were getting sea-sick. This Eden was far too rich to absorb in a one-shot stretch. We passed Hearst Castle, where the entertainers once entertained themselves in Versailles-style, and took the 46 to the 101. Instead of side-to-side, we had new waves of up-and-down. At least a different motion. On the 101 and straight driving let the insides re-align. This way to LA, 88 miles, no problem.
Just one wrong turn into the wrong neighbourhood, a quick U and high-tailing it out, we arrived in our Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) in Venice. Nestled into the garage with two beds, a bathroom and a kitchenette was luxury living despite our alleyway entrance. We ate vegetables and watched digital cable and my god, we felt like royalty.
California funshine finally seeping through and we do the Getty Center because it had a Jackson Pollack and Ansel Adams and when else would you be able to do that? So we get there and see things, amazing things, and then we lounge around on the grass and feel like we are in an episode of Star Trek or at least living in the future. When we have had our fill of peanut butter sandwiches, we make our way to our “home” and find a bar that is down by the boardwalk. The Townhouse, once a bustling bar during prohibition, now featuring dark lights and a basement that is hosting a fundraiser for “Reggae Pops”. “Pops” is an acclaimed party dancer who had just passed away. He was known for dancing on the souls of his shoes. All proceeds went to help his family with the memorial and the place was packed. Rest In Peace and Dance to the “Pops”! We got home all danced-out.
Late afternoon and cruise with our VRBO-bicycles down to the boardwalk. Bike lanes and California traffic is a leisure to ride in for the eight blocks. We do the strip, seeing ferris wheels, and Santa with dreads and Jesus with shoes and a medley of others. We have a happy hour in a place made famous for its fish tacos in “I Love You Man”. In there, we get to talking with a guy from Idaho who had settled in Venice in ’88. He said he loved the place and his friend, a graffiti artist, drew us these.
Ahhh, Venice. Created by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney in 1905 as a beach resort to rival the Europe-inspired original. It was handed over to LA in 1926 and pretty much forgotten. It got so bad that by the 1950s it was known as the slum neighbourhood. Something told me to watch “Night Tide”, about a man who falls in love with a mermaid. It was made in 1963 and starring Dennis Hopper and a good chance to see the slow decay of a once booming tourist attraction.
A big day led to a slow night and the impending departure of a quirky, yet magical place.
Time to head north-east of Eden, towards the bright lights of Las Vegas. Never would have thought I would end up there, but a couple of friends said to hop over. We had a car and unlimited mileage and an attitude of why not? We move across mountains and into desert and you can feel the temperature increasing. It gets drier and you sweat more and you don’t know why until you remind yourself that you are not where you once were. Crossing the border there is a mini-version of what lay fifty miles ahead: a castle and roller-coaster at a gas station that sits in front of a casino. Welcome to the state of Nevada.
We arrive at the hotel and are welcomed by my friend who is glowing as ever. We embrace, have a happy hour, and hit the strip where 24-ounce Corona cans in hand are no big thing. I see Paris, from the outside, and the inside of New York. The exotic sounds of Monte Carlo and historical relevance of Excalibur. Here is where lay the MGM and Mandalay battle grounds and I cannot declare a winner. You have to see it at least once.
We head back downtown, old Las Vegas, where we get to enjoy the Fremont Experience. This area is how I envisioned the way it was in the 90s, when it was about the real people looking for a real shot at winning big instead of the lights and dazzle of freedom on steroids that the strip has to offer. Heck, I even won 17 big-ones ($17.00) at roulette. It bought us a round of drinks. The area has been given a boost in recent times, as my friends inform me. It’s called the Downtown Project and the leader of the movement, Tony Hsieh, is hoping the area will get a jolt back to life.
We woke to a blustery day and sat by a pool, hidden from the wind and open to the sun. I never thought I would do that either, but here I was as a lizard. Then we had happy hour and napped and ate and drank.
I would like to say that we had another day as our flight left at 6:20am of “Day 9”, but we just didn’t go to sleep and pulled an all-nighter for our 4am arrival at the airport. Sitting next to a very kind, but older gentleman, he asked my nodding head if we had slept the night before. Nope. No way. All-nighter. He smiled and said he thought so.
Staring ahead, yet looking back in the mirror, I could not choose one moment that I held closer to my heart. Was it the Venice, the home of the creative and extra-ordinary? Was it seeing the start of something exciting like the Downtown Project? Was it that coastal highway through Eden, a road constructed by convicts, locals and Steinbeck himself? My god, it doesn’t matter. We experienced something magical.