How can I possibly say anything about California? I spent the first 22 years of my life aching to leave it, and now every time I go back I ache to stay. Is that the definition of home? Or at least the definition of origin? There is something wrenching and twisting and full of tears and teen angst about entering my home state. It’s empty, and bottomless, and full of love for something that never existed. We are nowhere near home, as we cross another arbitrary border, and yet we are here. We made it. How did this happen and how did it happen so soon? We later learn people doubted us. A father who thought we would get sick of it and stop halfway. A mentor who believed we would cut out much of the itinerary she saw. But here we are. And on schedule.
There’s a mythological structure to California that it’s impossible to avoid, and it goes like this: in the north, there is San Francisco. In the south, there is L.A. One is foggy and one is sunny. What they share are relentless optimism. (Innovation! Creatives! Possibilities!) What they lack is any sort of depth. Everything else is something vaguely California, swinging from these two hinges.
In reality, California is too much to be a monolith. Like everywhere we’ve been. And even more, we have so many memories here, so many places to return to. But when we drive into it, from the north, we enter redwoods and don’t know where we will be staying. We are too late to stop, so instead we look up as we drive in the fading light, at the damp air breathed by the giants that are older than everyone we know. There’s a quality to the light in these mossy groves, full of sparkling insects and plant matter, holding life, quavering and soft. I almost miss the enormous elk grazing by the road, observed by stopped cars. They are patchy through their bodies but their velvet horns are intact, their proud heads slow to turn and observe back. They’re over us, and I feel self-conscious, so we drive on.
When we get to the campsite, the two boys at the toll station look like they’re teens. One has an ouroboros tattoo on his arm and a goofy smile, and the other has an air of unearned arrogance. They want to banter, but we just want a good campsite for our last night in the tent, and the trees back us up as we drive in loops to make sure we are getting the best we can for the astronomical state park fee. Rounding the last loop, we come upon an American flag that must be at least 20ft. long, though in memory it stretches to 60ft, maybe larger. It is lit along its top edge with LED rope and hangs impossibly high in the trees. Underneath, a row of motorcycles guard the cluster of gray-haired people with red faces, drinking domestic beer and playing music, laughing louder than any sound in the forest, like they dare anyone to come say something. They play music that is shockingly basic, which is somehow even more menacing.
In the morning, they will sputter past us as we eat breakfast, forward and back, not stayin or goin. They are immune to the power of the forest’s silence. They feel they own the world. I want to scuff their bikes. I want to string up a flag that obliterates theirs. I want to ask them what all of this means to them.
We stay with our siblings, respectively. This individuality feels faker than when we are together. It is a hundred degrees in San Francisco. Nobody even owns a fan, let alone AC. I am wilting in the apartment, I am wilting in the expensive new cafe in the Castro. I am drinking with my brother and talking about things we talk about once a year. I am protective of him and I am protective of the woman playing pool who wins against a man who tells me in Spanish he doesn’t like to lose to women. I have no power here, but I have loyalty.
My sister and I walk and walk and walk, going to places in the city she has never been. With my sister I am able to exist in a bubble suspended outside of everything that normally clouds my sight. I can have fun. I can find joy in tourism. Because she has always known me, and she will always know me. We find a tiny, secret beach and enjoy the water. Everything is peaceful, until every form of coast guard from boat to jet ski to helicopter is on the water, screeching and searching and circling. We can’t understand what is going on. As we walk away from our secret oasis, Google informs us that a boy is missing in the water. The search vessels are still circling, crying out into the perfectly blue, abnormally hot sunny San Francisco sky. We don’t want to be part of the voyeuristic crowd, looking out onto the bay, so we walk away. The boy is never found. We are helpless.
This city is too glossy, too inaccessible. Like our Instagram, which we resent, but which we scroll through with my grandma, looking at each photo in each post, talking about where we’ve been, living it all over again. We can’t hold it in our hands, like the books and cards she makes, and this makes it seem less real.
We go back to our college and I am again nagged by the question do I look like a student? Do people believe me, walking around here? It’s odd, and disorienting, walking around a campus that was once home, that in some ways still feels like home, and yet to feel the scissors cutting away the threads of connection. I know almost no one. But I talk to professors who were (are) mentors and it feels like home. It feels like family, to be believed in again. The heat hugs me and tugs me through a walk through memory, memory that is punctured by the countless new buildings marring my vision of nostalgia.
Later on friends from this former life come to talk about the odd pathways we’ve traversed in the past four years. And nothing has changed. Everything has changed. It matters so much, and yet not at all. Friends who knew me through a time when everything about myself was being shattered and reconstructed, only to be shattered and reconstructed again, and yet they still see me.
We decide to drive down the 1, to see Big Sur and the coast. We see absolutely nothing, the fog so thick it enters our brains. We are stuck behind cars that brake and brake, and when we are on flat ground again, we are so frustrated, we scream gutturally along to Smashmouth, obliterating the words. Out from the fog, a head rears, large and alien, from the salty muck. I yell that we need to pull over, that it’s important, we can’t not stop, and we do. We zip ourselves into jackets and follow an ant trail of people similarly waylaid, down to the orange construction fencing that protects these ancient spirits. Their croak is half flatulent, half profound. They move half goofily, half otherworldly. The elephant seals have traveled for miles, like us, to this sanctuary, and know more than we will ever know. They have seen the ocean from the inside.
The next two nights, we are fused into one identity again. We stay in beds, we drink, we yell at Alexa and feel unfeminist about it, feel surveilled. We see people we know, people we love, but I keep feeling an itch to get away. I do not like LA. I have decided not to bitch about LA. I have decided to Be Nice. It is hard and makes me feel even meaner, then makes me feel delirious. I joke about the hot mailman. I joke about the Stars Tours. We brush our teeth while watching the opening credits of Shrek. We sleep in a bunk bed. We strategize to avoid traffic. We hit it anyway, coming into San Diego, where we first drove out of the garage, first filled up the tank, first popped a CD into the player and gunned it out.
And we are home. And this feels unreal. All of this feels unreal. Like we are living in a simulation. Was all of that driving just a fever dream? We are home and everything is the way it was. I desperately want to stay, to prolong this version of reality. I know I would not want this forever, but for now I do. But we can’t stay. There is nothing I can possibly say about California that is not clouded by everything else. I suppose this is true of every state we’ve been to. Everything we’ve written is a lie. Or a delusion. And California is just a lucid dream tinged with our histories and desires.