Monday, January 29, 2007

Road Trip, Part 2

So…after the sushi dinner in Santa Barbara, we set out once again in the intrepid Queenie, determined to make it to Los Angeles before the hotel bar closed. As it turned out, we made amazing time, and arrived at the Hotel Angeleno at about 10:45 PM. I had noticed this strange cylindrical structure from the 405 Freeway on previous visits to L.A., its top floor glowing at night like a green and violet-hued flying saucer. We wasted no time dumping our bags in the room and whizzing on up in the elevator to the bar on the top floor where we enjoyed a well earned celebratory drink.

The next morning we woke to a bright blue sky and a crisp breeze. We headed down to the beach at Santa Monica to complete an 8.5-mile walk. Susan is in training for a marathon in the spring, and walking is my absolute favorite form of exercise, so we were a good pair. The main challenge for me was not stopping every ten feet on the Santa Monica pier and in Venice to photograph with my beloved plastic Holga camera. I had to frequently jog to catch up with Susan.

As we stretched on the beach afterwards, we sheepishly decided to skip our planned excursion to the Getty (bad girls) in favor of lunch and shopping on Montana Ave. After all, it was an unseasonably cold, brisk day and we needed some appropriate duds. I rarely engage in such girly activities in my real life. In fact, I usually hate shopping, but I had no problem giving myself over to the experience when I found a scrumptiously cozy magenta fleece for a very reasonable price, and a few other goodies. When we arrived back at the hotel, still in our workout clothes and laden with shopping bags, the valet parking dudes descended on Queenie like a swarm of flies. We were slowly getting accustomed to this, but had not as yet figured out what the protocol for tipping was.

We also couldn’t help but be a little self-conscious about the slovenly state of our steadfast chariot; her floor littered with half full water bottles, Kleenex and Luna bar wrappers. Not to mention the load of shopping and snack bags we now toted. We felt like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. The only thing missing was poor expired Grandma Joad strapped to the car roof.

We spent the evening with another old high school friend who lives in West Hollywood. We met La Wags, as we affectionately call her, in a rather frightening bar in Beverly Hills. The murky room was packed with married middle-aged film execs looking to pick up young wanna-be actresses. The light fixtures over the bar – huge dripping amber things – looked as if they had been scavenged from the La Brea Tar Pits. After waiting several years for my $15 pomegranate martini (yes, it was good, but still…), we managed to wangle a table by the door, until one of the teenage waitresses told us it was reserved. The anthropological appeal had already worn off, and we were happy to depart.

La Wags took us to an Italian place that wouldn’t be too crowded, since, as she frequently mentioned, it was the weekend of the Golden Globes. She looked great and regaled us in her inimitable way with tales of the movie biz, her latest acting projects, her director brother’s upcoming film at Sundance, her new boyfriend, etc. Eventually, we regressed to adolescence. We had some laughs about people from our past back in New York, shared updates on our aging parents - the kind of conversation you have when you’ve grown up together, even if you’ve landed in very different worlds.

The next morning we drove around Bel Air, looking at the ridiculously enormous houses. We talked about my late dad - a film critic based in New York who only visited L.A. when absolutely necessary, usually to interview an actor or director. Like most New Yorkers, he was an avid walker, and didn’t quite get the California car culture. He had a matter-of-fact take on celebrities. A Midwesterner by origin, dad’s friendly forthright manner drew him to those who remained unaffected and down-to-earth despite their fame. Even so, he usually stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a swank place from which dad would occasionally pilfer the towels and ashtrays because they bore his initials: BW.

We soon parked ourselves at a sunny outdoor table for coffee at Peet’s on Sunset Blvd (a good thing since I had begun to experience serious withdrawal from my favorite Bay Area brew). While Susan chatted on her cell with her beau back in NYC, I took a little stroll up Sunset, poked my head into Book Soup and photographed a mysterious lime green flying saucer of a building I had passed many times before.

After coffee, we embarked on a day trip to Palm Springs, where neither of us had been before. Driving inland through a landscape that became rockier and dryer by the minute, I was reminded a bit of New Mexico. But in this desert, the landscape was painted in hues of sepia and raw sienna, with barely any vegetation. The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains loomed in the haze to the East like a painted scrim.

At the Palm Springs Visitors Center, we bought corny hand-colored vintage postcards and shot glasses. I mean come on, when you’re visiting a place with streets named Gene Autry Way and Frank Sinatra Blvd., you might as well get in the spirit of the thing. With the help of some maps we took a self-guided tour of the 1940’s modern architecture of Palm Springs. Susan jumped out frequently to take pictures (she loves this stuff). At one point, as she leaned over a stone wall to photograph a lovely rock garden in an arroyo, a BMW screeched to a halt and pulled over in front of us. A well-dressed guy got out, gesturing wildly. I was convinced we were about to be arrested for trespassing, but it turned out he thought we might have spotted a coyote, and he was looking to get a glimpse, too. We then enjoyed a sunset drive down the main drag where Susan admired the leftover Christmas decorations still festooning the palm trees – an exotic sight to a New Yorker.

It was the coldest night of the year in the desert – 36 degrees. Ravenous and bleary-eyed from driving, and woefully underdressed in the biting wind, we stopped for an early dinner at an In-N-Out Burger – Susan’s first ever. It tasted unusually good. Then we were off to a free event at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus – our one nod to some semblance of culture - an actor and a very interesting writer, discussing their work. It felt good to come in out of the night, away from that sandblasted cold wind that howled around the auditorium, and into the warmly lighted inside, to an un-Hollywood, relaxed atmosphere, though the audience was filled with aspiring screenwriters. Warm hands at last, smiles, talk and laughter afterwards. We met a writer/director who had driven out from Venice to give the actor a script to consider. She wore cowboy boots and a short skirt, and was even colder than I was in my thin suede coat and skimpy cotton sweater. At least I was wearing jeans. The freezing temperatures were the talk of the evening. When we finally ventured out into the cold, we all played with her adorable, bandanna-clad dog in the parking lot for a few minutes, wished her luck and climbed into our cars for the trip back to Los Angeles. I had to blast the car heater the whole way. Susan laughed at me, deciding that all Californians adopted or otherwise, were Weather Candy Asses. I’m afraid it’s true.

Since it was our last night, we decided to live it up at our flying-saucer hotel bar. We dressed for the occasion, engaged in lively conversation with some of our fellow bar patrons and the bartender, who was a great guy (free martinis after midnight), and managed to get to sleep by 2 AM.

The trip home, after a gigantic and much-needed late breakfast at the hotel, wasn’t quite as picturesque as the Coast Highway, but had its moments. After loading up the car with our Joad bags (we had also come to use the word as a verb; “to Joad”), and tipping the valet parking guys for the final time, we headed out on Highway 5, wound through the gold colored hills of the Grapevine, across the flat plains of Bakersfield, and finally, through the soft, greener rolling hills around Gilroy by Sunset.

I was whipped, but proud of us, and of Queenie, and of our initiative in taking this road trip after just talking about doing it for years. And, for all of you who ridicule us Weather Wimps out here – it did happen to be the coldest week of the year in California. The day after we left, the Grapevine was closed due to icy conditions, and it snowed in Malibu. I love a road trip, but I was glad to get home. Yes I was.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Road Trip

There's something about the road, about traveling over the land, that has a distinct appeal and romance. Maybe it's the awareness of covering ground, the way people did in the days of covered wagons, and even train travel. The days when going from New York to Chicago was an overnight trip, during which one could look out the windows at the passing scene, hear the voices and clanking metal doors at arrival and departure, the brisk cold wind of the outside world blasting into the train car at each station. This is far more real to me than airplane travel, when you spend several hours sealed into a metal can with plastic scented re-circulated air and an unreal sense of time (not to mention insufficient legroom). A car is even better. It's your wheels, your ride, your timetable, with the wind in your hair, sunglasses on, and home at your back. Yes, the lure of the road trip, the fantasy of it, had preoccupied me for months. It was something that I needed to do, and with an old high school friend this time, rather than husband and kids, because part of the allure was the lack of obligation, the sense of being in motion, unconnected, free.

It was also a test of my beloved ’98 Volvo, now christened the Queen of the Road, or Queenie for short. She had no trouble at all making the transition from Commuter Dowager/Carpooler of Kids to Road Warrior- all the way down California Highway #1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, with several detours in between. I’m not really a car person, but she rocks.

So Susan and I (who have known each other since ages twelve and thirteen respectively - and I don’t even need to explain what that kind of history means) set out on a crisp San Francisco morning after listening to our loved ones make numerous “Thelma and Louise” jokes. My 14-year-old son even told me to drive carefully and not to drink and drive. Damn, these kids today are well trained. So the family generously wished me well, and off we drove to the coast, and five days of girls-only revelry.

There is a special pleasure in showing a friend from back home the beauties of my adopted state. After twenty-five years here, I must say I do think of California as home, although I will always be New Yorker at heart. I’ll tell much of the story, as I often do, in photographs. But the photographs can’t capture all of it – the fresh smell of he Pacific at Big Sur, the smoky scent of the fire pits at our beachside motel when we arrived at San Simeon for a stunning winter sunset, the impressively grand scale of everything in the West that really must be seen in 3D.

The audacity of Hearst Castle – that physical manifestation of one man’s obsessions, an impossible wedding cake high on a remote hill, filled with unlikely treasures; European tapestries and marble statues that stay fresh snow white simply from the ocean blasted clean air up there. Afterwards, down by the chilly sea, we watched the miracle of an elephant seal giving birth on a beach littered with the corpulent sausage shapes of dozens of others doing the exact same thing, en masse. Group birthing.

Then of course, there was the continuous excited stream of conversation in the car, which often resulted in dangerous laughing jags for yours truly, the primary driver. This occasionally felt a bit risky, especially when rounding the precipitous cliffs of the coast highway. But we expected this. And Henry had no need to worry. There was never any drinking involved. We saved that for evenings at base camp, wherever that turned out to be.

On the second night, we drove into Santa Barbara in the dark, lost, until we happened by the Santa Barbara Mission – still lit up with Christmas lights – glowing golden in the cold, and eventually landed at the best Sushi place in town, pretty much by accident, where we met a lively costume designer from L.A. As it turned out, she had lived at various times in the New York neighborhood where Susan and I grew up, as well as in the Northern California town where I am now living. This was further proof that there are only 40 people in this big wide world. Coincidences and fortuity always happen when you’re on the road. Maybe it’s something about the motion.

To be continued…