After a very strange night of sleep last week, I woke up, crawled out of a 30 year old Land Cruiser, and I saw the desert for the very first time. The dry soil, the sparse foliage, and some beautiful mountains in the distance. I walked around and took a few pictures. It was surreal, just being in the middle of a desert. To think that just a week before I was on a train headed to DC and a few days after, I’m sitting up in my bed, writing this, in this no-name Virginia town.
I just returned from my first trip to Southern California. Few words can sum it all up - things are just completely different - but remarkable will suffice for now.
I watched the landscape transform across the United States on my lengthly train ride west, but every mountain pass, desert stretch, and city stop just didn’t add up to all of the beauty and splendor I found in Southern California. The way the mountains rise, the spectacular plants, the kindest people, the beautiful houses, the golden culture, the expansive roads, and the indescribable views were all radically different than what these east coast eyes have seen. I expected empty fields, but found life abundant in every hill and valley. I expected rolling hills, but found towering mountains in every direction. I expected sand and soil, but found boulders as big as houses. I expected desert, but found some of the world’s most incredible landscapes. I expected something simple - something small - but I found a place that was more wonderfully complex than I could have imagined.
We started our week at the old Santa Fe train station in downtown San Diego. My roommates came to pick me up and the first thing we did was head to In-N-Out, a California favorite. My roommate, Ryan took me for a quick spin in his fun Civic SI. Then Austin, Ryan and I went for a small off-loading trip up a mountain trail for hang gliders. We ended our day nicely, spending an evening in the hot tub. California weather started to make less and less sense by this point, because it went from t-shirt weather to bundle weather in less than six hours!
After the best night of sleep I could have ever asked for, we headed to a church called the Rock that reminded me much of my schools church services. We went jet-skiing in San Diego harbor - a real treat. Seeing the downtown area and the naval base and all the boats just sailing around was great fun. I only fell in once. Being December 29th, the water felt pretty great! We ended that day eating at a famous local BBQ place. It was pretty fun seeing all the fruit trees in Ryan’s yard - 3 separate types of oranges if I remember correctly. Both of my roommates had the best fruit I’ve ever tried just growing outside. Fresh fruit had been redefined for me!
We spent our New Years Eve building another strange contraption, this time with an old engine attached. I took the role of test pilot and enjoyed a go at a handmade vehicle. We played a strange card game to end the night out (I was very tired here - didn’t do too hot) and my New Year began, sitting around a table with some of my favorite people.
Tuesday was spent preparing for a trip to the desert - something I was pretty excited for. Spending the past few days just enjoying and learning the Southern California landscape, the desert was going to be a real treat as well, since it was radically different from anything I’ve ever been to. We packed up our vehicles (a H1 and the best vehicle I’ve ever experienced, an old Land Cruiser) and headed out about three hours east, past a very interesting mountain pass. We made it past the flats, past El Centro, and turned down an old road towards nothing. We went off-roading a bunch (great fun) and eventually found a campsite. I was surprised to walk outside and find that the desert is both windy and cool. There isn’t much to burn and getting a fire going took a good bit of time. We had some nice hamburgers and then made our way to sleep - in our vehicles, since the wind was still howling. It was tough to fall asleep, even though I had two sleeping bags, a jacket, and was covered from the elements (mostly). The Land Cruiser rocked back and forth for the whole night and the moonlight filled the vehicle. Once I did fall asleep, it was a really soothing.
The next morning, I saw the desert for the first time. We got packed up after breakfast and explored some more. It was surprisingly harder to get lost out in the desert than I expected. There were plenty of RVs outside and I still had cell service, somehow. We made it to the mine down the bumpiest road I’ve ever seen and ventured in. Ryan choose an abandoned gold mine and we just walked in. It was about 85◦ and humid from the very beginning and only got hotter as we got deeper. The mine was clearly abandoned and was deteriorating. The metal had mostly rusted and we had to make some interesting crossings down metal pipes. We got deeper and deeper and ventured out into other shafts (some that had caved in before). It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but easily something I’d try out again just to look for goodies. We ventured out to some sand dunes, ate some more In-N-Out, shot some guns, and caught the Mountain Pass before dark. The In-Ko-Pah mountains were a great thing to admire right before the sunset.
My last day in California was no more quiet than the days before. Austin took me to the La Jolla coast and beach. It was a nice glimpse into the more tourist-y area and we saw very nice cars everywhere. It was spectacular - this was what the Southern California stereotype is all about - beautiful beaches, sunshine, attractive people, and plenty of things to do. Leaving La Jolla, I had seen the bulk of the landscape of Southern California and understood the craze that we all have for our manifest destiny.
It wasn’t fun flying out early the next morning. I spent the past week goofing off with some great friends, exploring a place I am considering a future home, meeting some really great guys, enjoying beautiful landscapes, and confirming my westward dreams. Coming back to Virginia was the east coast status quo. Rude employees serving me coffee, people running every direction to work, freezing at a train station trying to avoid the sketchy folks hanging about, MARC engineers mumbling something to me (every time I go to Maryland…), and a lack of that glowing personality I just spent the past week getting to know.
It’ll be hard to say what my favorite part of this whole experience was. I don’t think I can simplify it that much. It was all a treasure and a blessing. I am extremely grateful for each part of it, everybody’s hospitality, the opportunity to see all of America on the way there, and for a safe flight back to Virginia.
I don’t think I’ll have much to write about in the coming weeks and months, but I have some huge plans and opportunities to chase. Thanks so much for reading - words can’t capture any whole experience, but I hope that they’ll convince you to chase your own dreams and adventures. It’s worth it.