The Third Way: The Last Trip of Summer
When I am scheduling student presentations, I sometimes remind my students that oral reports or speeches are just like death. You know they are scheduled from the beginning of the term, but somehow you are never as ready as you would like to be, and yet, inevitably, the day arrives and you have to address the class. Perhaps this makes me a sadistic teacher, but I like to be realistic. From the beginning of the summer to the end, I have found myself thinking “This time next week I will be…off work…getting ready to leave on the trip…on the trip…at home…getting ready to leave again on the mini trip…and then, finally, like death and oral reports, back at school. This time next week I will be back at school, and this summer of writing and driving the Bus will have ended, and oh, yes, but what a summer it has been.
I wish I could say that I was happy about it ending, but of course I am not. I’d like to keep going. Even on the mini trip this weekend some part of me wanted to KEEP GOING, as if the people in Van Life were a real possibility for me and mine, and maybe they will be, someday. It’s not that I don’t want to see all the freshmen again, but it’s more like I don’t want to give this up, the freedom of the summer which just as it did when I was a kid, stretches out with so much possibility, and then the inevitable return of school supply displays reminds you that this is not your real life. Have I accomplished what I set out to this summer? Well, we did get the Bus to L.A., so there’s that. And I did get some reading and writing done, so there’s that, too. We also worked on the yard, and Mom’s house a little, but there is never enough time to do all the things I want to do. I know we plan on getting the Bus equipped for weekend getaways and immediate camping, and there are still some door locks to fix, and eventually we assume the Dormobile site in England will ship us our window, so we have those minor victories to look forward to, but I am left with a bit of the old Summertime Blues, the sense that it all happened so fast, and this is why I started this post with the allusions to death.
If I don’t live my life, if I let fear and anxiety rule, this familiar feeling would be magnified tenfold, and yet, and yet….But still, here I need to tell the story of the Last Trip of Summer, and set it down with the 5 part harmony, just like it was (but no shovels, rakes, or implements of destruction). Still, this story is very much about L.A. and also about the lessons learned, which will be the topic for what I now realize will be yet another post.
We left early on a Sunday, heading for Santa Barbara, with reservations in a Motel 6 because all the camping is booked this time of year, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Robert had a terrible week at work, all late nights and too much stress, and I was busy trying to get ready to teach, so we were frazzled at the go. We drove out not on the freeways but on Sunset Boulevard, yes that one, all through the neighborhoods we used to live in, Silver Lake and Echo Park to Hollywood proper. I told Robert about my memories of Hollywood in the eighties, before it was sanitized somewhat for tourist consumption, and judging by the motels still lining Sunset Boulevard and the people walking the streets, some of that sanitation hasn’t penetrated below Hollywood Boulevard. Then we were winding our way through the Sunset Strip, me talking about my childhood trips to The Source with my mom—a hippie restaurant organized around a cult, so L.A.—and there we were, rolling through in the bus.
I tried to take pictures in Beverly Hills because it seemed so incongruous that the Bus, denizen of the mountains, little towns, the beaches of the North, should be rolling here, past the wide lawns, the gates, the Beverly Hills hotel, but there we were. At one point we pulled up next to a blonde woman in a bright orange Prius blasting the Stones “Beast of Burden,” and not only did I have the song stuck in my head all that day but it also seemed like the perfect snapshot of L.A., albeit the L.A. people think is L.A. and not so much the homeless folks living in tents under the freeways. By the time we hit the PCH (Highway 1), we were rolling, and the little clouds of fear and anxiety had blown off, like the early morning coastal fog so familiar to those who live in L.A.
Every time I looked in the back, I saw Buddy sprawled on the bench seat—his couch—one ear up, and one ear down, with a giant dog grin. Joey found his place between the seats and fell into a deep sleep. Up the coast we rolled, through Malibu, to Point Mugu, and then out into Oxnard. Getting on the 101, a proper highway, was easy, and we made some beach stops on the way. Once Robert got a nap and I swam some crooked laps in the oddly shaped pool, we headed out for the beach at Isla Vista. I went to school at UCSB, so we’ve been going back there for years because it is a great place to take dogs. Buddy knew where we were as soon as we parked, and began pulling us towards the path to the beach, the beach, and the beach.
Robert and Buddy ran up and down the beach, Buddy like the puppy he once was, all stretched out and running full bore. Joey kept trying to eat seaweed and Squishy the Sea Turtle got to relax on the shore. It was a pretty perfect day, all in all, and that night, the dogs slept like my old maxim: good dogs are tired dogs and tired dogs are good dogs.
In the morning I went to get coffee in the coastal fog, then we had breakfast at the Cajun Kitchen before heading to Goleta Beach for one last (we thought) beach run. The beach was short, but we found many interesting smells, and soon enough it was time to get in the van. We met a man in the parking lot who told us as so many have that he once owned a Bus, and he said he’d just moved to Bozeman, Montana. I told him I liked Missoula and warned him to beware of Tommy the Leprechaun if he found himself in a bar/diner that served scrambled eggs and brains. It’s a piece of travel advice I give to those headed to Montana, although in retrospect, Tommy was perfectly nice, and he did give me a card emblazoned with “Tommy the Leprechaun” worth three wishes, but that’s another story. Then it was time to go again, and we said our mantras, Slowly, Steadily, Safely and “The Wheel is Under Your Butt!” and rolled on down the road.
By lunchtime it seemed like the thing to do was hit another beach, and Sycamore Grove at Point Mugu was right there, so we stopped. We had a lovely time, notwithstanding Joey getting bowled over by the waves, and there was running, peeing, sniffing—all the beach things. We ate lunch in the Bus and all things were replete with meaning—it was just where we were supposed to be—and we planned up coming trips, discussed various parts we could order, and once again re-hashed our plans for fixing up the interior. Robert talked to the park rangers about the bus and they were impressed. All was just as it should be, and we got back on the highway to roll on home.
And then you know what happened, right? I mean, it had to happen sometime. Like many folks who deal with fear and anxiety, anxiety and fear, you know there is no perfect moment without some extracted cost. First, in Malibu near Pepperdine, a delivery truck turning left almost hit us, so that was fun, and then when the adrenaline had almost worn off, Robert said: “We broke a belt!” Robert had been worrying about breaking a belt ever since we got the Bus, partly because everyone who has ever had a bus and talked to us has emphasized the importance of having a spare belt. I actually found one hidden under the driver’s seat the week before, and we had heard tales of using pantyhose to get it going in a pinch, so Robert was convinced that the oft-warned of event had happened. “I’ve got no power, “ he said as we drifted to the side of the road. Robert jumped out, opened the engine compartment, and checked the belt. It was fine. He checked the oil. It was fine. He looked at the inscrutable engine. I called Triple A to get a tow. “Are you in a dangerous situation,” the operator asked. “I’m on the side of Highway 1, broken down, with traffic flying by. In a bus stop.” I replied. She assured me that they would give our tow priority. Robert called Mauricio the mechanic, who thought we might have overheated. Robert didn’t mention that he could touch the engine, and we’d only been driving for 30 minutes.
There is nothing worse in driving than breaking down on the side of the road, a lesson I know well from my time with older Volvos. It took me years of driving a modern car to realize that breaking down is not something that happens on a regular basis. But there we were, right in front of Zuma beach, curious beach strollers checking us out, and waiting and waiting for the tow truck. It was a slow motion nervous breakdown, for me anyway, but Robert was agitated. He was pacing. He was checking things. He was not happy. I was trying to figure out how we were going to get the bus to a mechanic and ourselves and two sandy dogs home. And then a miracle happened. A young man pulled up behind us in a BMW and asked if we needed help. I told him we’d called a tow truck, but he said he worked on VWs, proceeded to get a black bag like a doctor would carry out of his trunk, and then began peering in the engine.
I stayed in the passenger’s seat, almost afraid to think this might work. Almost immediately, he solved the problem—a wire connected to a coil had jostled loose—and then he adjusted the idle. The bus was rumbling again, a sound I had given up on hearing. Robert talked to him, Manny, a self-described mutt, Armenian and Latino, who fixed VWs for fun. He told Robert about rebuilding engines for fun, and admonished us to make sure we had John Muir’s “Compleat Idiot’s Guide to VWs.” Oddly, or not oddly, for the universe moves in mysterious ways, that made Manny the fourth person to tell us we needed to have this book. Robert assured him that we did have the book, the 1974 edition that I had found last summer in the basement and pulled out for Dad, and then Dad gave it to us when we embarked on our trip. I could write a whole blog post about this book, but I will just repeat my favorite piece of advice: “The wheel is under your butt.” We got Manny’s number and texted later to thank him and to ask what we could do to repay him, but he just told us to pay it forward, to help someone else someday, and we will.
Then we were rolling down the highway again, through Malibu, and I might mention here that the truck that almost killed us while turning left into traffic was pulled off on the side of the road, some weird air siren blaring, its’ hood lifted and the guys driving it were standing outside it, looking like they were having a bad day. Now, I don’t know what happened there, but as I said, the universe moves in mysterious ways.
At Zuma after breakdown
After Malibu we climbed the coastal range up Sunset, imagining we would be home by 4 at the latest, looking for a place to stop and use the restroom, when we first encountered a fire truck in the Palisades. It was weird, and then there was a traffic cop, and then we found ourselves in, surprise, surprise, one of the worst traffic jams I have ever seen. It took us 30 minutes to go about a mile. We couldn’t see ahead to see what was causing the jam, and as we don’t have smart phones, we were stuck. I really, really needed a restroom, and we were now worrying that the bus being an air-cooled vehicle might actually overheat, so we took a side street down. After all, even though we aren’t West side people, we know the main arteries. We could find out way home, right?
And thus began the longest trip home, a surreal experience that even as I try to write about I know I can never capture, but still, I want to try. In discussing routes through L.A., Robert had made one thing clear: “I just don’t want to end up on Wilshire Fucking Boulevard.” So, where did that side street take us? You guessed it: Wilshire Fucking Boulevard. We tried to avoid it, even looped onto San Vicente for a bit, but I’d forgotten a cardinal rule of driving on the West side of L.A.—San Vincente sucks. It stops and starts and leads you back to…Wilshire Boulevard. After all the adrenaline of breaking down and being saved, and me still needing to pee, and all the fun of driving stick in an antique red VW microbus, the city still had more to show us.
We found ourselves among the tall towers of Westwood, an area neither of us knows as we have little reason to go there, and it was obvious that we weren’t in our part of town. For one thing, the people in Westwood don’t walk. There are scooters, motorized scooters, everywhere, and people roll around on them. At a traffic light I watched a man who was wearing platform shoes try to mount one, almost fall off, then try again and again. I thought of telling him the shoes might be the issue, but what do I know about not walking and using a motorized scooter instead? We were searching desperately for a street we recognized that might move, and it seemed that every street we got on led us back to Wilshire, and then the accident happened.
Actually, I think of it more as the “Stupident.” And no, it wasn’t the Bus—the Bus is fine. We were on Beverly, I think, or it could have been Wilshire given how many times we ended up on Wilshire, and in front of us there were two sleek black cars, expensive cars, one with dealer BMW plates, and then one of them started to veer towards the other, changing lanes without looking. In that slow motion way of witnessed accidents, time seemed to stop, or to unroll more slowly, as the cars glided closer and closer and closer, and then they didn’t touch. There was no impact. We were right behind them, high up in the Bus, so we would have known, but it didn’t matter. Almost immediately a man jumped out from the back of the BMW. He was a very muscular man, wearing a headset, and he proceeded to start yelling at the other driver. He was not the driver—I think he was some sort of bodyguard given his all black outfit, headset, and general appearance. “Oh, what now?” Robert asked. Now these cars were blocking two lanes. The traffic behind us began to go around while the men engaged in a heated argument. “They didn’t even hit each other!” I exclaimed, but to no avail. Eventually we managed to get past them and onto yet another side street near Rodeo Drive, and by this time my nerves and my bladder were stretched thin.
Finally we found a street that led to a known route, Olympic Boulevard, but before we could make our turn, a woman sauntered out into the road. She was carrying a box of pastries and wearing curious purple athletic bandages on her legs, the kind I see advertised on TV and think “Who would buy those?”, and she seemingly thought nothing of wandering into oncoming traffic. She was not dashing across the street. She was moving slowly, taking her time. “I hate the West side,” Robert said, but eventually we made our turn and found a gas station where I could finally, finally pee.
We battled our way through gridlock, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, even passing the apartment I once lived in with my mom in the Fairfax district, getting closer and closer to home, the streets becoming familiar, the scooters disappearing, and all the while I tried to make sense of it all. Why is it so hard to get out of L.A.? Who are all these people living in these fancy buildings and sitting at the cafes? There was something about the juxtaposition not just of going from the beach to the city but passing through so many areas soaked in money, Malibu, the Palisades, Brentwood, Westwood, Beverly Hills…something about it made me think of our trip through Salinas. It was the opposite of what I had seen there, so alien it might be another country, and of course, it is. The United States is another country when you are rich, and although we are comfortable and lack for very little, there is something about seeing all the sweeping green lawns in the middle of summer, or the people on scooters so they won’t have to walk to the café, something that made me ask again” Is this the best way?”
When I teach my class about Multicultural Arts L.A., I always make the students read part of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. If you haven’t read Mike Davis, think Marxist, intellectual, redneck firing as fast as he can: from popular culture to labor history to history history to philosophy and linking such diverse characters as Anton LeVey, L. Ron Hubbard, and Oppenheimer, with a style like James Elroy smoking crack. Students hate this reading, but all of them bring it up in their projects and their final. The central question of the excerpt I teach is “Los Angeles: Sunshine or Noir?” and I would posit that is the central question of L.A.—utopia or dystopia? And here’s the really funny part: I don’t know if what we saw on the West side, all the money and glitz and motorized scooter glamour was part of the utopia or the dystopia. After all, we could barely even drive there.
As to the larger question, Los Angeles Light or Dark? I find it difficult to answer. Los Angeles has certainly been light for me. I am so lucky to have such a husband, such friends, my home, my dogs, and now the Bus. I used to spend all of my time thinking about how we could get away, looking at properties in Mendocino, imagining some life I have never had but want to, one with compost and walks to the ocean, and savory stew bubbling on the stove on a winter day, but the truth is, I have that here, and this year was the year when I finally realized I should embrace that. Rather than pining over some life I do not have, why not try to fully enjoy the life I have? The Bus is yet another way this lesson has come home to me, and although lessons are the topic for the last post, I just realized that something I tell my students is actually true: we learn by writing, we discover what we really think through this act, one word after another and then you realize: that is what I meant all along.
In closing the Last Trip, I want to share two stories. The first is about last night, when Robert finally received the window for the top of the Bus. He was opening the box, and it was so well taped. This tape defied his pocketknife. “It’s like your Dad sent it,” he said, and I knew just what he meant. I can tape up a box, too, ask anyone who has received a package from me, but this box went the extra mile, and not just because it came from England. It was as though my father, the man who installed the plastic box top so many years ago, had a hand in taping up the replacement. I smiled.
The other story, and this one more properly goes with the previous dog post, is about my day today (August 18th). My dear friend took me to volunteer at the North Central Animal Shelter for “Empty the Shelter” day. I never thought I would be able to volunteer at a shelter. It’s just so sad, and I can’t save all those dogs (or cats or rabbits or chickens). However, I actually read on Twitter that if a person was feeling really bad, say about the Trump administration, then he or she should help someone who was in worse shape, and that stayed with me as I began to volunteer at the shelter. I know that if you are like me, then your first reaction is likely “I just don’t want to know,” but this is where it all connects: we just don’t want to know, about the people who grow our food living in motels or shacks or tents, about what is happening in the world that is so horrible and we cannot fix it, or even about why some people in L.A. are so rich that they don’t have to walk, and others live under the freeways or along the banks of the L.A. river, and I suspect that even if you don’t live in L.A., it is the same where you are. There are those who have much, much more, those who do not, and there are still all those animals in the shelter.
When I wrote about Salinas, I was thinking about why we need to at least bear witness to what is happening in our world, especially today. Convincing myself to volunteer at the shelter is one way of doing that, and it has the added benefit of actually making a small difference—at least that dog has a clean cage, and over 60 animals were adopted last weekend, so there is some tangible good—but I don’t want to sound preachy or suggest that everyone needs to volunteer. Many of us just plain can’t. What I do think matters is to see what is happening around us, and, when we can, to try to make the world a better place. The time with the Bus has helped me to see the world in a different way, forced me to slow down, given me something to write about, and for that I am thankful.
Now the summer has officially ended as I taught my first classes today, and while I will post one more time to try to summarize what I have learned, and while I suspect I just might post again when we take a trip in the bus or something exciting happens like upgrades, I know I will miss this time with my thoughts. The world moves so fast, the news is so crazy, there are so many different ways I get distracted, and yet I have learned that sitting down to think about my life and experiences is just as valuable as I always tell my students it is. “Metacognition!” I tell them, and they look at me blankly. “What does it mean?” We discuss meta and cognition and generally arrive at thinking about thinking. I tell them we need to do more of this, especially about our own education, because otherwise we lose the lessons we are learning; they just slip away in the stream of all the other things we are thinking about and paying attention to. Once again I get to remember the truth I learned when I first started teaching: I learn more from my students than they ever learn from me, but sometimes I forget just how important reflection is, even though I require it in all of my classes. I get to thinking like a teacher, “Oh, they need to do that, but I’m a grown up, I’m fine.” No, I need to do it, too, and almost two months to the day from when I started this, I am so happy I found that time. It made the trip better, it made me realize how much I love California and the people here, and more importantly, it made me realize once again how very lucky I am to have such wonderful friends and family, and to have been raised by a man who let me prattle on and ask questions about everything as we drove up and down the long California highways in the bus. There was always time to ponder when I was a child, and I’m not quite sure how I lost that as an adult, but I am grateful this Bus and this blog helped me find my way back to some part of the me I used to be.
The end of the road: what I see right now:
What I am most thankful for: Robert (at the beach in Isla Vista)
**Because I am a total nerd, there’s also this: I first fell in love with Dar Williams at a Kate Wolf Tribute in Occidental, CA with my dear mechanic friend, and this song, “Southern California Wants to be Western New York” has played in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this post. It’s about the small town “gee gosh” feeling LA can have, and she totally nails it. And there is You Tube, so I can link the song here. Someday soon I hope to play it in the Bus!