We’re up with the sun. Pascal climbs out of the car and laughs. “That doesn’t even look like a fire! It looks like someone put out a cigarette.” I yawn and stretch and gaze out over the crisp morning ocean. “I’d say more like a cigar.”
We rearrange all the stuff in the car and squeeze his bike back in, and we slip back onto the highway. It’s Christmas Eve, and we’re both in high spirits. We stop for coffee at a roadside café, and then we play CD after CD and drive with the windows cracked to let in the fresh sea air.
The road drops down to a flat, sandy section of coastline, and after a while we reach a vista point crowded with people. The beach is littered with massive, honking, blubbery elephant seals. We park and hop out to observe these strange, impressive creatures. We are separated from the seals by a serious fence and about twenty feet of rocks. A series of signs describe the sharp teeth and surprising aggression of these animals (“they are faster than you think!” one sign warns). “Do you think these things are more dangerous or less dangerous than bulls?” “I dare you to touch one.” We make it to San Luis Obispo by lunch, and we eat sandwiches outside on the balcony of Splash Café. The hitchhiker I picked up two days ago texts me to let me know he has made it home. I grab one of my guitars from the car, and we take turns writing while the other plays.
We make a brief stop at a Peet’s Coffee to use the internet. After we sit down and pull out our devices, we realize that we need a password. “Should we go ask?” “Do we have to buy a coffee?” “Should we?” “No, no, we can just get the code.” “Ok, go use as thick and sexy a European accent as you can muster, flirt with her a little, and win her over. Then get the code.” “Do you think that will work?” “Well, if it doesn’t….” He walks in and goes up to the counter. “Can I have the wifi password?” “The what?” “The wifi password.” “Oh. Yeah, sure.” She just hands it to him.
Back on the road. After we pass through a small, rundown town called Guadalupe, the gray sky settles into a low, heavy blanket overhead. The road plunges down into the fields, and we soar along an open straightaway through vast patches of brown earth. Wooden fence posts dot the edges of the pastures, but there are no farmhouses here. To our left, hazy jagged peaks climb into the sky. To the right, rolling green hills ominously illuminated by the stormy sky. Peter Gabriel’s voice climbs over the hills and falls towards the sea below. This place is completely deserted. Lonely and beautiful. Then around a rocky bend, sheets of orange light punctured by the sun herself; we take a 40 minute detour to seek the ocean. An Amtrak station sits beside an empty parking lot, tracks slicing through the sand along the coast. We step over the tracks and time ceases to flow; we’re too late but the sunset is suddenly static: vestigial streaks of faded color burned into the horizon. We climb over dunes through beachgrass and past driftwood to the flat sandy seashore. You know how when waves wash over the sand, that residual water reflects the sky for a moment before it seeps away? The water here doesn’t seep away. A 60 foot sheet of permanent blue glass glistens in the growing darkness, preserving a mural of the residual color in the seashore as waves continue to wash up but much farther down, 60 feet away from the top of this painting. I leave footprints across the artwork.
We make a brief return to civilization for our Christmas Eve dinner. The Chinese Buffet is open, so we sit and take our time as we sample probably 40 different dishes. After we finish eating, we stay for a while and write. We still don’t know where we’re going to sleep.
Back on the highway, full of Chinese food, we pull off when the headlights illuminate a sign for a state beach. The beach is closed, but we follow a twisty side road until we see ‘cattle ranch no trespassing’ signs. We pull into a turnout and get out to rearrange our stuff into the sleeping setup. We can see the ocean again. Lights shimmer and bounce off the water; we can’t tell if they come from oil rigs or from buildings on the edges of a small bay. From behind a sloping hill, the moon begins to ascend. The thing is massive tonight. The top of the moon is three or four days less than full, and the bottom is sliced by the hill – tonight’s moon is the shape and color of a mango, behind wisps of gray cloud. Pascal takes the flashlight and leads the way down a muddy path along a barbed wire fence. At the bottom, we climb over a low section of wire and find ourselves on railroad tracks. Framed by silhouetted hills on either side, the mango moon hangs in the black center, glinting off the dark tracks.
* * *
It only takes a few minutes to repack the car in the morning. “Man, we’re getting good at this.” Daylight reveals that the distant floating lights were in fact oil rigs, and we gaze out over the sea for a few minutes before setting out. This is a good way to begin days.
Eventually we arrive in Ventura. There’s a cool downtown area, but everything is closed on this Christmas Day. Everything except Starbucks, that is. We sit inside writing and drinking coffee and talking about how much we hate Starbucks. On the way back out to the car, I see a lady sitting by herself and I walk over to joke with her about my terrible parking job and to wish her a Merry Christmas. When I catch up to Pascal, he’s handing a $5 bill to a pair of homeless men.
We’re getting hungry, so we decide to pull over and eat whenever we find the right place. “Should we eat healthy or unhealthy?” I ask. “Let’s do healthy this time.” So we drive and drive and drive. The distant Los Angeles skyline begins to fight its way through the haze, and we surrender and just eat at Jack in the Box. I let Pascal order first. “A number 9,” he says. “Do you want the combo?” “…sure.” “Medium or large?” “Medium?” “Regular fries or curly?” “What?” “Do you want regular or curly fries.” “Uh…regular?” “Is that all?” “Um…and a coke?” “That comes with the combo.” “Oh. Ok.” “So is that all?” “Uh…yeah?” “Do you want your receipt?”
We finally sit down with our burgers. “Wait,” Pascal asks me. “Why is your drink so much smaller than mine?” “I asked for a small.” “What! He didn’t even give me that option! He just said ‘medium or large!’” I take a bite of the burger. “Oh my god. This is delicious. How’s yours?” He takes a bite and shrugs. “Average.” There is nothing like eating American fast food with a European.
* * *
Soon the cliffs vanish and we enter Los Angeles. Traffic slows into a lazy, polluted river, and concrete and glass thrust towards the heavens. “Wow,” Pascal says as we snake through the city. “Everything here is so loud.” I look around at the neon advertisements and signs and bus sides and building windows and gas stations and fast food places and car dealerships and weight loss offers and billboards and I feel sick to my stomach or maybe it’s just the Jack in the Box. “Everything is shouting,” he goes on. “Fighting for your attention. How can you ever make your own choices?”
We have time to kill; all we need to do tonight is make it to the other side of the city. That’s where I’ll drop him off, so that he doesn’t have to make it through L.A. on two wheels. Pascal suggests that we watch 127 Hours, the movie about the climber who gets trapped by a boulder and is forced to cut off his own arm in order to survive. We find a theatre, but there are two hours until the next showing. We wander into yet another Starbucks, but it’s closing (early Christmas Day hours.) We end up instead in a McDonalds. Pascal buys us hot fudge sundaes and is incensed that there’s no tip box at the counter. “They’re working minimum wage, aren’t they?” “Yeah.” “Then why can’t we tip them?” “It doesn’t really work like that here. Nobody wants to tip fast food workers.” We continue our in-depth dialogue on American politics and society. He points out strange hypocrisies that have been jumping out at him, and I confirm that there really is no reconciliation for these. There are homeless people everywhere, and the government doesn’t help them? Yep. The richest people in the world live here but they don’t do anything to help the poor ones? Nope. They are allowed to have these huge billboards blasting people with the message that they aren’t ok the way they are? Yep. We wanted to eat healthy today, we realized, but they made it so hard. How long did we drive without seeing anything? But if we’d decided to do unhealthy, we could have pulled off anywhere. “You’re bombarded with these messages,” he says. “Jack in the Box. McDonalds. Burger King. McDonalds. Jack in the Box. Wendy’s. Jack in the Box. Eventually you’re gonna give in.”
127 Hours is a beautiful movie. It’s raining when we step outside afterwards. We end up in some residential permit-only parking lot, where we rearrange our stuff and lay down for the night. “What do we say if we get woken up in the middle of the night by cops?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “Last night our story was gonna be ‘we’re camping out to see elephant seals mating at 3 in the morning.’ What should we say tonight?” “Probably the same thing.” “Yeah, perfect. Then say to them, ‘what about you? What’s your story, why are you here?” I fall asleep to the sound of rain on the roof of the car.
We eat breakfast at Starbucks. We’ve spent enough time discussing this company’s corporate atrocities and amazing ability to attract people like us anyway. Yeah, Starbucks gets a lot of their coffee from countries involved in genocide. But they have free wifi, music, coffee, food…you can never be bored there. The place is awesome. We try to assuage our guilt by arguing that our negative contribution to the world by supporting an unethical corporation is outweighed by the positive we do in the world, but we just don’t know. Breakfast is delicious.
As we’re prepping his bike for the journey to San Diego, a guy sitting in a pickup truck asks what we’re doing. We tell him about our journeys, he offers us $20, and we decline but I give him the remainder of my 10 lb bag of oranges.
Pascal and I part at a straight stretch of beach bike trail. We hug and thank each other for the collaborative serendipitous travel experience. My last image: he’s riding away furiously down the trail, 80 miles of coastline ahead of him, both arms triumphantly raised to the sky.