No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell. — Jewish Proverb
As a native Californian, I return to the Golden State each summer in an effort to imprint into my children’s psyches the wonders and weirdness of the West Coast. Each of my kids entered this world through a California pediatric ward looking glass but they are now Easterners – – preferring a lacrosse stick to a hiking staff and already developing that type-A need for constant motion and engagement.
We have worked to raise them in a household that is accented with the images and soft impressions of our native state. I am the cultural attaché of the family, routinely using terms such as “dude” to address any member of our clan – including the dog. I wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I am never too far from a baseball cap and flip flops.
It is important that my children remain in touch with their west coast roots. I fear that one day Los Angelinos may ascribe an unkind epithet to anyone who was born in California but cannot speak her language. To truly grasp California ethos is to gain an appreciation for the muddied genealogy of a melting pot culture. California is an alien nation and a bridge to a land of diametric contradictions. It is venal and selfless. It is a Garden of Eden with 14,000 foot peaks and rugged coastline and it is a corrupted paradise. It’s prime dialects are surfer, gangster, vegan and wannabe. To be Californian is to embrace the narcissistic, the liberated, the tough, the organic and the cosmetically insane. The state seeps into every pore of your being. You love it and hate it. To reside in California is the romantic equivalent of being married to a beautiful but highly unstable person. You cannot possibly live with them but you are convinced to your tan lines that you could never leave them.
My efforts to keep some redeeming aspect of California alive in my Connecticut home are failing. My visions of raising rabid, bi-coastal body surfers who could run with the bulls in New York while rappelling down mountain sides to catch, clean and eat their own trout have been derailed by a humid, temperamental geography of urbane, aggressive over achievers illuminated by bright, big city lights and a backdrop of militant New England individualism.
Our trips out West are always carefully planned to include a week at the beach visiting relatives followed by a week in the mountains to “get back to our roots”. The beach is the quickest place for a native Californian to identify out of state interlopers. Fortunately, for the us, most beach front residents are too mellow or too stoned to notice when a non-Californian violates beach etiquette.
My children pay no heed to my coaching. They race blindly across the beach front strand like it is 43rd and Madison – – inviting glares from scantily clad underwear models riding bikes up and down the fashion show thoroughfare. The boys preoccupation with throwing a lacrosse ball, building sand castles, and attempting to boogie board four foot, neck snapping shore breaker waves – – are certain tells that they are from all parts East. The surfers seem oblivious, vacuously watching for the next set of waves – wet suits peeled to their waists. They peer off into a deep blue distance — bleached, bare-chested sand pipers with calloused hands tucked under crossed arms.
Visiting the Pacific Ocean is only a prelude to our annual attempts to harmonically reunite east and west within our children. We share a deep affinity for the Sierra Nevada range – a crooked eastern spine of rigid ancient fissures that stretch 400 miles to the Cascades and south to the arid Tehachapi Pass. Within this Range of Light, one can find the “tallest and oldest trees, deepest canyons, highest mountains and waterfalls and greatest snow depth in the contiguous US.” As children, we spent summers deep in these conifer forests far from the light and pollution of Los Angeles learning how to camp, be self sufficient and to gain an appreciation for a sky filled with a celestial collision of stars, meteors and constellations.
As we attempt to bestow this California wilderness gift on our children, we are met with resistance. Our “perfect day” is considered a cruel, modern version of the Bataan Death March as we hike up 9,000 foot trails crossing great lupine and paint brushed meadows to eventually rest and fish alongside serene mountain lakes
On this particular mountain vacation, my teenaged Taliban have already attempted several insurrections and have filed a list of conditions around length of hikes, amount of exercise, and when one must rise in the morning. Adhering to the Jack Bauer axiom that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” I find myself playing the timeless “because it is my house, my car and I own your rear end until eighteen” card. This is the parental nuclear option. While it is always guaranteed to extinguish any insurrection it often leaves the ground emotionally radioactive for some period of time..
10:00am – We have left Los Angeles to begin the six hour drive up to Mammoth Lakes. . We stop at a local juice bar to breakfast on healthy smoothies that include green tea extract, bee pollen and other “boosts” that can only be understood by a nutritional alchemist. In a moment of great euphoria I order wheat grass shots for the entire family. My youngest son looks closely at the watery green solution that resembles animal bile and declares, “I’m not drinking that!” I persuade him that this family journey can only be christened with a double shot of wheat grass. “It’s like eating four pounds of vegetables” I exclaim. This comment seems to have the opposite effect on him as he swigs the potion and immediately makes a face similar to the one he might make when he cleans the cat’s litter box.
11:30am – My youngest son has just vomited up his wheat grass, blueberry smoothie and morning bagel all over the inside of the front seat. My older children are screaming and squeezing to the opposite side of the car. I have to admit, he warned me. After advising us that he did not feel well, he proceeded to purge his liquid breakfast with the same vigor of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”. The family trip is clearly not proceeding as planned.
Our route will take us through an over-built, foreclosed and now less populated Antelope Valley where super commuters still navigate two savage hours of traffic each way, each day to a job near downtown or West LA. Just when it seems as if Highway 14 has you permanently in its suburban grasp, it releases you into a desolate stretch of never-ending horizon line known as the Mojave Desert. My spouse and I take turns enthusiastically narrating a fifty miles stretch of box canyons, ancient burned out volcanic cinder cones and historical landmarks. My teens are unusually attentive to our travel narrative until we realize that they are all connected to iPods and have not heard a single word that we have said.
We arrive to cloudless sapphire blue skies and a brisk west to east clipper that blows determined down each afternoon from the high mountain passes. After a first day hike into a beautiful but mosquito infested lake, the children spend the evening connecting via text and iChat presumably to complain that they are being held against their will in this prehistoric granite citadel. I overhear hushed tone expressions like “OMG – I am hiking with Satan” and “I cannot move, I am so sore…” I smile and move to the sofa to read.
After declaring a moratorium on electronics, we spend the remainder of the week mountain biking, hiking, fishing and working out. The complaints dwindle and the family reforms each evening – – laughing, playing board games and heckling one another during low stakes Texas Hold ‘Em. At one point, I actually see all three teens having a conversation.
To distract them from rehashing their list of hiking grievances – – the altitude, the distance, the bugs, the grade of the trail etc, we play a trivia game where they might earn credits that could be traded later for dessert, kitchen patrol exemptions and poker chips. As we switchback our way upwards towards a hidden lake, I ask them questions ranging from world history and pop music to California factoids. The boys are hopelessly competitive and are quick to blurt out random answers to any question. I start with any easy question that was drummed into the oldest two when they were living in England. “Who discovered King Tut’s tomb?” Before anyone can say “Howard Carter”, my youngest son who has no recollection of living in the UK blurts out,” Brendan Frazer”. My daughter laughs out loud. ” You idiot, he was the star of the movie, The Mummy!“
“What was Ghandi’s first name?.” My oldest daughter cringes and says, “Oh, I know this.” My oldest tson blurts out, “Jeff!” I look at him and smile. “Jeff Ghandi?” I shake my head, “I weep for the future of this country.” He smiles a wider grin and asks, “Was that his name? Did I get it right?”
I ask a geography question. “Where is the Caspian Sea”. My youngests blurts out, “Narnia.” Our laughter permeates the trail. They barely notice that we have climbed to over 10,000 feet. We crest a forested ridge and gaze down over a tear drop emerald lake surrounded by a massive 14,000 foot granite crest. The secluded lake is buffeted by lodge pole, conifer and blue spruce pines that are only interrupted by stands of sequined summer aspen.
We drop our packs and dive into the lake. Screams echo across the silent cliffs as we shriek from the shock of the cold water. I purify some drinking water from a stream and sit back with my reading book as the great heaving sweep of afternoon wind brushes across the water in a wrinkled sequined shimmer. I glance over to see each kid reading a book or softly casting a rooster tailed, Mepps lure into a dark slate canyon of water that drops precipitously from our shallow rock-shelved shore.
“Dude”, my youngest says to his older brother. “This place is wicked.” My eldest son is more non committal to public displays of enthusiasm. He glances across the stream that feeds this midnight blue expanse of water, alert to the day’s first hiker – a pony tailed young man accompanied by magnificent Samoyed husky. “Yep, it’s sick. You know when I am older I am going to have four dogs” My wife smiles and I glance up at my daughter who is perched like a pika on a rocky outcrop. She is normally most likely to be offended by any overt show of family solidarity. Yet, today, she looks up at me and smiles sardonically. “Good choice – – dude.”
Ah yes, the Nutmeg State is doing a little Golden State. East is finally merging with West and as they say on the strand, “it’s all good.”