By the numbers:
20 pages and one completed Travel Journal. 2 States, 4 plein air paintings, 1 hotel, 1 Railroad Resort, 3 nights car sleeping, 1 friend and former colleague (and bird, lizard, dog and cat), 1 “Camp Friend”, 1 National Park Passport stamp, 1 Art and State History Museum, and 2 artists studios. 9 Books.
Day 31: Travel Journal Pages 220-222- Big Sur, Monterrey, and Heywood, CA
Before this trip, my experience with California was limited to a few Alcatraz swims with the high school team I coached, and one conference in San Diego early in my career that resulted in one of the most egregious hangovers of my life. Yet, California exists as a mythic force in Americana and seeing things like the Hollywood sign or driving along The 101 or Pacific Coast Highway seem like hallmarks of the “American Experience” because they are present in the backdrops of so many TV shows and movies. When I left Santa Maria and made my way up the coast to see my friend/former classmate/former colleague, Cheye, I knew I needed to see Big Sur.
The drive to Big Sur was nice and quiet. It took me through farmland and the Superbloom, but fires and landslides had closed so much of the Pacific Coast Highway that I had to approach from the north. The drive was the experience for the day, and while it was too misty to see the sweeping vistas well, the views still had an epic moodiness that made the trip worthwhile. I pulled off the road several times to watch as massive waves pounded the cliffs hundreds of feet below, while hillsides behind me were blanketed in gold flowers and orange poppies. The mists and pops of saturated color against the gray reminded me of Iceland, save for the massive swells of turquoise and frothing white. I’ll need to find a way to return here.
I stopped briefly in Monterrey to walk the beach and kill some time before getting to Cheye’s apartment in Heywood, near Oakland. I’d spend the next four nights taking up Cheye’s living room floor while steadily working to win over a bird named Mango, a skeptical little dog named Chubbs, and Terryanne, Cheye’s wonderfully wary and introverted fiancee. There was also a cat and a lizard who were unfazed by my presence.
Day 32: Travel Journal Pages 223-226 Haywood and Oakland, CA
A common theme of this trip is reconnecting and picking up where I left off with people who were important to me for a time, but for whom time and distance have been significant barriers to maintaining a friendship. Cheye is one of those friends who fell off the map when she moved to California, but we had been young teachers together and wasted vast amounts of each others’ time when we should have been grading. It’s not always easy to tell how well work friendships will translate out in the real world, but we soon found out that the shared experience of teaching wasn't the only thing that bonded us. I woke up just before 7 am to visit with her since she didn’t teach class before lunch. We talked about anything and everything that has happened since moving to California including her coming out as a lesbian and getting engaged. COVID was a common topic, and Mango, the cockatiel, flew around the apartment and kept chirping and landing on Cheye’s head, while Chubbs, the antisocial mutt, slept against my thigh.
Later in the morning, we drove to Foundation Art Space in Oakland, where Cheye is setting up a darkroom studio. The space itself is full of all kinds of studios including spaces for painters, fashion designers, and printmakers, and it is piled high with dusty equipment and supplies. The rent for an 8 x 10 foot space is between $450-$500 a month. Cheye noticed a better space on the same floor as the sink, so after checking to see if it was available, we spent the next half hour moving her equipment and gallons of water out of her old space and into the new one.
We drove to the Diamond District for some veggie pizza before going to Head Royce, Cheye’s school. It was the first time I’d been back on a non-college campus since I left teaching, and I got the experience of feeling equally alien and native. It was fun to talk shop with other art teachers, but I struggled not to insert myself into casual conversations with students who had no clue what I was doing there.
I don’t miss it.
After Head Royce, I went back to my car to find an angry orange parking violation notice under my wiper. It immediately went into the travel journal and I drove to the Oakland Public Library to write for a while.
Days 33-34: Travel Journal Pages 227-231, Marin Headlands, San Francisco, and Oakland, CA
A month into this trip, and I’m starting to feel the wear and tear of itinerancy, though I wouldn’t trade a day of it. Keeping the balance sheet of Input vs. Output, whether it is money, introversion vs. extroversion, or experience vs. synthesis, saturates and overwhelms me more some days than it does others. I wrote in my journal that I was worn out and didn’t want to do much aside from drawing and listening to my book. Both Terryanne and Cheye had work, so I cleared out and was grateful to have two days where I could embrace Bay Area traffic to get through a few audiobooks and act on my own whims. I drove to The Marin Headlands to hike and paint. I found some peace just sitting on the hard sand of Rodeo Beach, painting the rocks and surfers before climbing around the hills to find the graffitied battlements. At times, I struggled to really relax because there were signs everywhere I parked saying that the area was a smash and grab hotspot for break-ins. Cheye and Terryanne had each told me their own break-in stories, and I felt a similar anxiety that I’d had in New Orleans. I’d have preferred my old ignorance. In spite of all this I felt that if I ever had reason to settle in the Bay Area for a while, I’d feel good about being able to find places like the grassy headlands to escape to.
After painting, I drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and hiked in heavy rain up to some of the higher view points where I took a few soaked selfies and enjoyed looking at the locks on the chain link fences, a trope stolen from a bridge in Paris and the bane of every other bridge’s existence. Crashing thunder hastened my descent and I drove across the bridge before a quick walk around the Presidio, a Park Stamp, and a slow return around the bay back to Cheye’s. Lots of harbor seals and wild flowers. A good day.
I spent the next day at The Oakland Museum of California, an art, history, and natural history museum all for the price of one. I sat and journaled in an Eames recliner while facing a massive painting of the Sierras from the 1800s, and I was reminded of the Thomas Morans in DC of western canyons that I make semi-annual pilgrimages to see. Familiar spaces in unfamiliar places. The art museum focused on California with an emphasis on Bay Area artists and featured 1950’s drag costumes along with Hockneys, Dorothea Langs, and Ansel Adamses.
I ended up spending the whole day wandering between the three museums and a special exhibit on Angela Davis, the Civil Rights Activist and first woman to end up on the FBIs 10 most wanted list. The history wing begins by telling the story of the Tribes in each region of California, and like the Alaska State museum, it doesn’t pull any punches. The museum uses the term “Genocide” to describe the attempted eradication of native peoples by the U.S. Government and it talks about colorism, and the preference of white San Franciscans for “white” Spaniards vs. “dark” Mexicans when romanticizing “Old California''. One of the highlights of the art wing was a collection of photos and paintings by Hing Liu, who was trained to create hero portraits for the Communist Party in China, but shifted to creating striking massive portraits of real life using historic photos from the Chinese diaspora.
I ended the night playing Zoom trivia with some of Cheye’s friends and Terryanne told me about her tattoos. I left feeling comfortable that my presence was a net positive, rather than a negative.
Day 35: Travel Journal Pages 132-233- Fort Bragg Glass Beach, and Dunsmuir, CA.
When moving from place to place, timing is often tricky to get right. I need to plan my moseying to accommodate peoples’ work days or when I’m able to check into a hotel or campsite. I needed to clear out of Cheye’s when she and Terryanne went to work, and I couldn’t check into my campsite at the Railroad Resort near Mt. Shasta until after 4 PM, so I swung wide along the coast for a stop at Fort Bragg. Terryanne told me about the Glass Beach, a relic from when the military base there used to toss its trash into the sea. The accumulated glass has been tumbled and tossed into a remarkable beach of multicolored gemstones, all because of litter. I’m a sucker for beach glass, always have been, and it suits my magpie tendencies to collect it wherever I find it. Two years ago, I sat on a beach in Varenna, Italy, a small town on Lake Cuomo, and for two days I dug through the sand filling a water bottle with tiny chips of glass. I spent two days doing this, and I ended up with a heavy bottle full of the pieces dropped into the lake from generations of tourists and rich Italians blithely tossing their empties off their boats and into the water. Oddly, I wasn’t tempted by the Fort Bragg glass, and I happily left it for others.
Instead, I sat high above the surf on the cliffs and watched the ground squirrels run between the rocks. I would have loved to paint the high stacks of rocks that were capped with red and green scrubby bushes, but it was windy and wet. Overall, it was a half-hour stop on a three hour detour that was totally worth it since it sent me through tiny windy highways deep in massive redwood forests. When I turned inland towards Shasta, I got on the Interstate for the first time in over a week and as I gained elevation, it got colder and rainier. I never ended up seeing the Peak itself, and when I finally exited in Dunsmuir to get to the Railroad Resort, a kooky campsite and hotel where you can stay in an old caboose for the night, it was a complete downpour.
I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant that was in a passenger car from the 1940s. I sat at the bar and wrote up the day in my travel journal while a truly abysmal troubadour murdered Bowie. It was one of the few times my friendly stranger mojo wasn’t working until a local named Sam who was a week out from open heart surgery sat down next to me and ordered a Cinco de Mayo margarita. We talked for a bit about Colorado and being nomadic. He’d lived in Woodland Park and Denver 30 years ago but moved when the hippies started becoming yuppies, so he relocated to Dunsmuir to find what he’d loved about “Old Colorado”. I wished him a lovely night and then walked back to my soggy campsite where I would test out a car mattress I’ve had for a few years but never got a chance to use. It was tricky moving things around in the back of my Subaru to make room for the bed to inflate without getting soaked, and the final result was a cramped night while the rain battered the metal roof. I set the car alarm off twice and raced to shut it off before I woke up the whole campsite. It was rough.
Days 36-37: Travel Journals Pages 233-236, Nehalem State Park, Oregon Coast
Planning for this trip started in March and was reverse engineered from a single fixed point: a wedding in Hood River Oregon on May 13th. One of the first people I reached out to was a friend in Portland who had been asking me to stay with her for years, and I felt like it would work for me to stay there the week leading up to the wedding. I also knew that my friend Chelsea, whom I had met six years ago at the Illustration Academy in Kansas City and had one of those intense summer friendships with, was also turning 40 that week and might have had plans. She responded that she would love to see me and I was welcome to be there for anything she had going on and we would play it by ear. I penciled her in on my spreadsheet and then we both went about our lives.
While I was circumnavigating the country, Chelsea was traveling around Europe with her mother and we were both vaguely aware of each other’s meanderings through Instagram stories. After an awkward string of texts with Cheye the week before when we worked out that I was planning to stay with her for 4 nights when we’d left that part vague, I figured I should confirm my plans with Chelsea before I kept moving north. She left my messages on “read” for a few days and I started to get anxious. When I finally got a response, she told me she had just broken up with her boyfriend who was still living with her, but crashing on the couch, the guest bed and occasionally in her room, but that she was looking forward to seeing me but everything was a little up in the air. Worse comes to worse, I could stay in “The Ambo”, an ambulance she had converted into a camper a few years back. I responded that if she wasn’t up for company, I’d happily find a Plan B, but that I wanted to see her even if it was just for a night.
She left me on “read” for another day, so I started making plans.
My sister had camped along the Oregon coast a few years back so I texted her for a few recommendations. I booked two nights at a campground at Nehalem State Park in Manzanita, and a night in a motel in town. I’d stay with Chelsea in Portland for one night before clearing out and driving to Hood River for the wedding. I texted her my plans and I could feel her relief from hundreds of miles away.
I drove for 7.5 hours through “bite the back of your hand” beauty in Northern California and out to the Tillamook Coast. I've never been to a prettier beach; the Oregon coast has the cliffs and temperate rainforests that you find in Washington combined with the soft white dunes and grasses that are common in The Outer Banks. Add to that the light and sunset you usually find in New Mexico and I was in love. I don’t know whether it was the lack of expectation, kismet, or the gorgeous weather I had the entire time I was there, but I was genuinely enchanted. The high cloud cover filtered rays of sun and turned the surf pearlescent and luminous. I slept in my car again with a much more comfortable configuration, and I managed to set my car alarm off once more.
I spent the next day painting and catching up on work at a Starbucks across from the Tillamook factory. I was glad to have a few days to be in time-killing mode before Alex’s wedding. I read a few books, worked on my road trip playlists, and drove into town a few times to mail my ballot for the Colorado Springs mayoral runoff election and get coffee. My grandmother has been mailing ballots to me all over the country for the past year, complete with printed emails and literature from her neighbors about who to vote for. I love automatic mail-in voting!
Days 38-40: Travel Journal Pages 236- 240, Cannon Beach and Portland, Oregon
Chelsea decided a night on the coast was just what the doctor ordered to distract her from her break-up, so she packed her dogs up and made her way to her friend’s house in Manzanita. I spent the morning painting Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach and eating spicy Cheez-Its. Most of the paintings I’ve done on this trip have been better for the experience rather than the outcome. I had a mentor who recommended I use the paintings to both document my trip and also as a means to fund future travels. Mostly I’ve been giving them away. I’m not a perfectionist, but like many artists, I still question the merit of my work. I never trust that it’s worth more than a few likes on social media, even when somebody hands me a check or shares a picture of my work hanging on their wall. I know it’s irrational and counterproductive. But it's true.
I joined Chelsea at her friend’s house where I met her dogs Bernie and Tuna Turner. We took them out for a hike to an overlook that was accessed by a locals trail on one of the coastal overlooks and were joined by Chelsea’s friend Lindsey and her dog, Oliver. We drank wine while watching the sun descend and I marveled at the difference between the places I discover on my own and the places that are revealed to me when I have a playmate. We stayed up there until the dogs started to fight so we packed up and moved down to the beach. Chelsea and Lindsey were two of three women I met from Portland who were ex girlfriends of musicians from indie bands I’d listened to in college. They were full of stories, and some regrets, and I was a little in love with both of them by the time the sun set. They are both older than me and reminders that a life well-lived isn’t always simple or pretty.
The next day, Chelsea and I had brunch in Manzanita and I painted Short Sands (her favorite beach for surfing) while she worked on email. I followed her into Portland later that evening and met her Ex. He’s a fisherman in Alaska and was leaving town at the end of the month. Chelsea lives in a beautiful Craftsman in Southeast Portland, that she bought in foreclosure a few years back, and her home is covered in handmade art and homemade bongs and penises. Chelsea recently bought a building and opened a gallery called “The Purple Door” a few blocks from her house and down the street from her favorite local bar where everyone knows her name. We walked around town and she introduced me to her friends and shared the gallery space. No one was a stranger to her and she rolled her eyes at me when I called her a “Pillar of the Community.”
I often don’t feel like a main character in the story of my life. I’m stoic and undramatic, and while I am likable and interesting in my own way, I probably wouldn’t pick up my own memoir at the bookstore. Yet, spending time around people like Chesea—of which there are few, she is truly a diamond in the rough— reminds me of a concept of “The Neutral Mask”. In his book, “Understanding Comics”, Scott McCloud talks about the idea of a neutral mask being a universal stand-in that allows an audience to see themselves in the place of the main character. This is achieved through having limited detail or a bland personality, thus allowing the reader to insert themself into the role of the protagonist. The more colorful and interesting characters are reserved as side characters. This idea is seen over and over in some of the most successful movies of the last few decades which are led by cartoons, masked heroes, or dull protagonists with standout sidekicks, i.e. Luke Skywalker vs. Han Solo, or Will Turner vs. Jack Sparrow. The characters we love the most are rarely the ones we identify closely with. I am the Neutral Mask and Chelsea is the Jack Sparrow of my story. I’m fine with this. I like collecting sparrows.
We would end the night after crawling to a few different bars where Chelsea made friends with strangers and I explained my wanderings over and over again to every new audience. The common refrain was “don’t be an asshole and try to see how long you can get away with it” when I described how I was living my life. By the end of the night, I felt I’d successfully distracted Chelsea from her breakup and she was eager for me to return to Portland soon so she could share more of her life and friends with me. I fell into bed unsure if I could keep up with her for long, but glad to have had the time exploring her city with her.