05 March 2006

Long Time, No Write

I was on the road last week, attending a conference of large church ministers in my home denomination. Lest you think I was in some Florida or Nevada hotel with scores of other clergy, there are scarcely fifty large churches in my community of faith; not including the congregation I serve because it is not associated with any larger faith community. I was, however, in California, Santa Barbara more precisely, at a retreat center just east of the city which is set in the foothills of the mountains that rise almost instantly from that coast.

In other words it was a natural paradise. No wonder that even cardboard bungalows built as simple vacation homes fifty years ago are now selling in the high six figures. The retreat center, Roman Catholic in ownership, is an expanded estate set among the Lexus groves away from the center of town. Orange trees and bird of paradise grow naturally here. Jasmine fills the air and grape hyacinth is a vigorous shrub not a puny little flower.

But I ought to tell you about it in some semblance of order. And as a prolix sort of guy, this could take some time. I’ll try to be brief.

I left on Monday morning, using some accumulated frequent flier miles to upgrade my seat to business class. I can take coach for a couple of hours, but as a taller fellow, the seats are not convenient, especially if the person in front of me reclines. So when I have a long flight, three or more hours, upgrades really pay off. About six years ago I made a trip to Vienna Austria, and a really useful perk was changing flights in Frankfurt where I could use the first class lounge to take a shower. That was a real plus.

Back to Monday, it was cold when left. I hopped over Lake Michigan first and caught my long haul in Chicago. Airlines use smaller planes now, so it was an MD-80 modified for long flights. The passengers had a west coast look about them – informal and yet suave, lots of sunglasses and tousled hair. I had a sense that I should recognize them, but maybe that’s because they sought to be recognizable in that southern California way. I saw the same phenomenon in New York where there is a style or presence people seek that is supposed to convey the idea of being consequential. My seat mate instantly fell asleep, pulling the shades on the window. This bothered me because the landscape for the second half of the trip is quite spectacular – Rocky Mountains, desert, perhaps the Grand Canyon. I resolved to change to a window seat on the way back.

Los Angeles was wet when I arrived. I knew it was coming by checking the weather beforehand. Indeed, the forecast called for rain most of the week. Glum at first about this, I decided to be more sanguine and remind myself that warm rain is better than cold snow. I repeated this mantra while waiting for my rental car.

I could have flown into Santa Barbara directly and take a cab to the center. But that would have meant at least three flights not two. And to use my airline for an upgrade would have meant a weird routing via Seattle or Dallas or some such. That’s the price you pay. I could have taken a bus from LAX, or even a commuter flight for about the same cost, but there was a personal reason for renting a car. The Pacific Coast highway.

California’s Pacific coast is its premiere natural attraction. Route 1 goes almost from Mexico to Oregon. I touched a bit of it at the far north when we came down from Oregon in the mid nineties.

(Aside: the coast road in Oregon and Washington is also magnificent)

Who knows when I will get this chance again (Yes the conference meets annually at the same spot but I am old enough to know plans are just that, not promises.) So I rented a car.

A rental car is always an experience. After waiting most of an hour to check in and so forth, I was issued a Dodge Charger - something of a muscle car - that was far from my experience as a driver. Massive in profile and attitude, sitting inside felt like driving a tank as the windows were narrower than my Toyota at home and the doors thicker and taller.

(Aside: on the way home, waiting for the shuttle back from the rental place, a young man exited the rental place in a duplicate car and promptly squealed off as if he were in a race. Little did I know what my vehicle could do!)

Route 1 is half a mile away (as I discovered while riding the shuttle bus) and I make a U-Turn via Wendy’s and make my way there. In LA, Route 1 goes through town not along the coast. To be precise, it parallels the coast about a half mile in, as there is no single road along the beaches from Marina del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica. Where Highway 10, a freeway, arrives in Santa Monica is where Route 1 heads toward the coast.

So the first half hour of my trip is through the streets of LA, a passage that could be any city with its strips of commerce and low rise housing. The rain obscures things a bit, and this is a truck route through town so there are plenty of semis and panel vans to contend with. I could have taken the 405 to the 10, but I remember from my last trip to LA that freeways are never easy and in the rain regularly a mess. Rain in Southern California is like snow in DC, rare and thus disturbing to drivers. Despite my slow progress I could tell from traffic reports that I was doing better than I might on the freeways.

Finally, as I noted above, I reached the terminus of the 10, turned west and soon found myself on the coast highway. It is about 230 p.m. and there is plenty of traffic, but we are moving decently. How bad must this be at rush hour, I think. Still, there is a beach over to my left and hills to my right. For a while I have to focus on the drive. The newness of it all makes even prosaic things like road signs and gas stations noticeable. But within ten miles the traffic has thinned somewhat.

I arrive at Malibu, with its pricey cottages and celebrity residents. Those facts are invisible, though, as the real estate is nestled out of view mostly. The beach homes are downhill from the highway, and hidden by carefully planted trees and shrubs. The hillside homes are perched on the steep incline, so close to each other than they are like boxes at an opera house. The roadway, though, is nothing spectacular in itself. Gasoline stations, small businesses, the usual flotsam of suburban driving. The overall location, meaning the ocean view and mountain slope, are impressive. But the actual place is rather ordinary. Clearly, the high class atmosphere is an indoor thing. Not like Park Avenue or Michigan Avenue or some other splendid place where the street itself is imposing.

I leave Malibu about 25 miles later. Traffic has gradually thinned, and the landscape as well. Suddenly I am driving almost alone and the lush world of cultivated paradise vanishes revealing a lower plainer and I suspect more natural vegetation that is scrubby and closer to the ground. With fewer beachside homes, the beach is now visible, and I can see the ocean clawing the land. Though to be honest, the ocean here is truly more pacific, lapping and petting the shore with a powerful rhythm.

It is still raining, though not a driving rain. Far from feeling deprived of the sun, rain feels quite at home here. It adds to the severity of the landscape which grows more stark. And it grows ever so, the further I go. Approaching Point Mugu, the Santa Monica Mountains come right to the ocean, and the highway perches on the narrow bit of land between the hill and the beach. In fact, there is a place where the highway splits a rock promontory so that the road narrows and wobbles to bet through. It is a striking view as I approach and I feel it a kind of gateway into the next passage.

Slowly, veering inland to skirt a Naval Air Station, Route 1 becomes prosaic and farmland appears. I follow it through Oxnard, a small city with a large Hispanic population judging by the people on the street. I get lost looking for the coast road, turning around twice, and then stop into a gas station for a diet coke and directions. I have no choice but to get on the 101 freeway.

Which turns out to be a good idea as I have now been on the road for most of three hours. My leg is tired from resting on the gas or brake. So I jump on the freeway and in 20 minutes pass from the sere farmland of Oxnard and Ventura into the renewed garden world of Santa Barbara. Palms and other flora shoot up again alongside the highway. I see the partially hidden roofs of houses, red tiles and mission stucco mostly. The ocean is now mostly hidden by the development and I look to the north where the mountains have retreated a bit, but are higher and more imposing.

My exit comes up readily, and I reach over to get my directions, printed from the internet. Damn. I have only the first page. It gets me into the village but not to the site. I stop in the village, dash through the now driving rain, and get directions from the local pharmacist. It is not far, but the roads are windey and narrow and the rain is considerable so I peer forward as I drive up the hill passing toney mansions set among the palms. Finally I enter the gate to the old estate and find myself to the office where I am issued my key. About twelve hours after leaving my home I have completed my journey. And what a journey, taking me from heartland snow to coastal paradise, from winter to spring, across a tenth of the globe. Amazing.

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