Yes, I will someday write about Seattle, Portland, and Eugene. But it may have to wait awhile. The last month or so of my trip is looking like it might not involve many computers until the last few days.
For the moment, I’m in Berkeley. Up until extremely recently – in fact, even for a while after I’d entered it – California was not part of my mental construct of the world. I think this is because of the hippies, and a few other things. I knew that there was a California, but I thought of it more as a place that happened in the ’60s and ’70s. After that, California was expended, like a firecracker, and ceased to exist. By the time I was born, California was long gone, and when I got started traveling, only rumors of it still persisted. There were intimations that something besides hippies was still happening in what was allegedly a still-existing California, but these fancies could be easily dismissed. The popular cultural image of the San Francisco streetcars was actually just advertising dreamt up by the Rice-a-Roni company. California wine is really imported from France by a company called California Importing, LLC. The Hollywood legend is easily the most persistent and widely perpetuated California-believers’ story, but a moment’s reflection is enough for anyone to realize that no place so horrible could actually exist; people would have burned it down decades ago. Movies and sordid celebrity gossip are made in a variety of locations worldwide, mostly at the command of Rupert Murdoch.
So imagine my surprise when I rolled into the Bay Area and found it to be every bit as tangible as Billings, Montana, or Willmar, Minnesota. My weird mental block against California also explains why, for a long time, I had no idea where any Californian cities were in relation to each other. As it turns out, it’s pretty simple: Northern California, where the temperatures are humane in summer and October actually means something climatically, is just full of a bunch of small towns where people grow lots and lots of weed. Three hundred miles or so down the coast you get the Bay Area, where the following cities are conveniently bunched together in a gigantic snarl of seething humanity and asphalt that surrounds a big old bay: San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Berkeley. Then there’s a lot more nothing until you’re almost to Mexico, where you get Los Angeles, and shortly after that you get San Diego, and after that you’re in Tijuana and God save you then. Oh, and Sacramento is inland from the Bay Area, and since it’s not on the coast it’s almost like it’s not even in California, because everyone knows the point of California is its coast. It could equally well be shaped like Chile. Actually, looking at Google Maps just now I’ve discovered that once you cross the mountains it isn’t in fact all godforsaken desert, so there’s another surprise for me, but Death Valley is still real, in fact realer than it should be.
I’ve had a brief but concentrated stay in the Bay Area, one that will end tomorrow morning. Awesome things started even before I got there. I was in Ukiah, a hundred miles north of the Bay, and getting very frustrated because it was taking longer to get a ride than anywhere else ever had except for Lima, Ohio. After four hours, though, someone did stop, and it was a guy and his son and they were going all the way to the city. During a stop-off for an errand at a sporting goods store, I asked, “He your son?”
“Yep. I’m taking him to the airport to go back to college.”
“Which college does he go to?”
“He’s out in Iowa.”
“No shit! Which college?”
“Grinnell?” he said, using the inflection that every Grinnell-involved person uses to probe whether the person they’re talking to is one of the few who have ever heard of it in their entire life.
So needless to say the ride got more interesting from there. His son is named Nick and he’s named Cosmo. Nick is a first-year (only halfway through his first semester) and is on the basketball team. I told him about all the buildings he can climb and the abandoned areas he can explore, doing my part to keep all new Grinnellians in a good supply of trouble. (I did this in April with Cherylyn and she proved to be an excellent vector: she’s been recruiting more people to be mischievous with her, and so the invasion spreads.) Even better, it turned out to be Nick’s birthday, so everyone got cupcakes baked by some family friends of theirs.
My days actually in the Bay Area have been packed with seeing stuff and doing stuff. I saw the streetcars and the insanely pitched hills and the Crookedest Street in the World and the Golden Gate Bridge and Ghirardelli Square and the vast Chinatown and Japantown and the Castro (which was plastered with posters for gay-themed concerts and Halloween parties and such). I bought really good tea and a pair of socks and some kkaennip seeds (at a Japanese gardening store; the Japanese call it shiso), and I talked a lot and very stimulatingly about permaculture and community with the people I’m staying with, who have a cooperative house centered around community-building and nonviolence. And I met two awesome girls who are also traveling the country, but they have a car, and I unlocked a new hitchhiking achievement by catching a ride with them without standing by the road, without going to the road, and without even planning how to get to the road. Since the Bay Area is such a flustercluck of highways, this is a welcome development, as is the fact that I’ll get to spend a whole day with them driving California 1 and seeing cool stuff and sharing travel stories and all that.
In short, I’m glad the Bay Area is a real place, and that I came to it.