I felt as if I already knew this place. Nowhere were my preconceptions more pronounced than with California. Chalk it up to all the pop culture I’ve consumed in my two-plus decades. But with one final border crossing, I would finally have the chance to separate fact from fiction.
Between us and the Golden State, however, was nearly the entirety of Oregon. The drive south from Portland took the better part of a day, even with us only breaking for lunch. We got our fill at a pizzeria in Eugene, where it finally clicked why food had been so cheap for the past few days: there is no sales tax in Oregon. Our cashier bemoaned how everything seems so expensive when traveling out-of-state. Crossing into California several hours later we soon felt his pain – sales tax jumped to nearly 9%.
Northern California provided us with a jolt even stronger than the tax hike, though. On our way to Sonoma, sirens suddenly flashed behind us. We dutifully pulled over, but this time we were lost as to why – we weren’t speeding or swerving or anything. As it turns out, people are using rental cars to smuggle drugs in California. Seeing our car packed to the brim and sporting out-of-state plates prompted the police to take a look around the Sonic – with a drug sniffing canine in tow.
Cleared of any wrongdoing, we continued into wine country. Here, at last, the unassuming and unpretentious character of Middle America ended. Women caked in make-up and men wearing designer polos surrounded us. My meal was overpriced and needlessly complex. And at the requisite wine tasting, I caught sight of a pair of fake breasts. The reports of California as a shallow land appeared to be true.
Thankfully, the next three days were spent an hour south in the great metropolis of San Francisco. Well-wishers were unanimous before I began my trip: I would love this city. The well-wishers were right.
We entered the city by driving across a fog-covered Golden Gate Bridge and immediately became acquainted with its unique geography. Hilly doesn’t even begin to describe it. Driving through the streets of San Francisco is like riding a roller coaster. Indeed, on some of the steep inclines I feared our car would start rolling backward whenever we had to brake. Our Sonic performed admirably, though, and was even able to negotiate Lombard Street without any problems.
We stayed with Paul’s friend in the Mission, a formerly Hispanic neighborhood in the process of being gentrified. When not resting in the apartment, we were out exploring, finding the city to possess a palpable energy unmatched by all others we visited. Portland was a close runner-up, but lacked the ethnic diversity that gave San Francisco its cosmopolitan character.
In a previous post, I said Paul might very well move out to Oregon. Scratch that. His love affair with that state pales in comparison to his affection for San Francisco. While I found the city’s neighborhoods slightly too cramped to live in, Paul didn’t mind. As he put it, residents here have so many options. Craving some top-notch clam chowder? Head to Fisherman’s Wharf. Feel like getting away from the hustle and bustle? You can spend the day relaxing in the Presidio, an expansive park built on the grounds of a former fort. Want a panoramic view of the entire City by the Bay? Then hike on up to Twin Peaks. This time I’m certain: if he switches coasts, this is where he’ll end up.
Following our departure from San Fran, we made our final foray into nature, spending two days at Yosemite National Park. The park is home to a stunning landscape, which attracts visitors from across the globe – I must have heard a half dozen different languages while there. Though it’s great to see people from all over the world appreciating the wonders of nature, I couldn’t help but think that Americans aren’t taking advantage of all the cool stuff in our own backyard.
From Yosemite, we headed back to the coast, landing in sunny Santa Barbara. While our stay was brief, I did pick up that people here care a lot about their hair. We hit the road early the next morning, unloading fireworks and rum on our host – they’d be contraband on a cross-country flight. The last leg of our journey took us through the heart of Southern California past Los Angeles. Luckily, we were able to avoid most of the infamous LA traffic (they have stoplights posted at the freeway mergers!)
A little while later, San Diego came into view and the fateful moment arrived. We returned our Sonic and posted up in the airport to await our flight home. A few hours later we were boarding, and a few hours after that we landed in Newark and headed home. Ultimately, California largely met my expectations: the sun and surf was balanced out by peoples’ vanity. And that’s even with us skipping over LA.
So, there you have it. This post concludes my account of this incredible adventure. Stay tuned for wrap-up posts covering Route 20 history, trip stats, and my final reflections.