Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day 1: Out of L.A.

Day 1: July 15 - Los Angeles to Ojai to Sycamore Springs to Cambria
Soundtrack: American Splendor soundtrack; Best of the Steve Miller Band, 1968-1973; Ojai Classic Rock Festival; Oingo Boingo Farewell #2; The Best of Taj Mahal

We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

The 15th of July was another perfect day in L.A., clear with a high of 85ยบ. I woke up speeding as usual (a holdover from doing a morning show on public radio), reading On the Road in bed and mentally ticking off the to-do list in advance.
The Chevy HHR was set up with the new Route 66 seatcovers, the double backseat rigged out with long pillows and blankets for sleeping. The AAA travel guides made a 3-foot shelf in the cargo net in back, leaving space for groceries, one duffle bag each for my daughter Laura and me, the ice chest and cooler on the floor and a hanging canvas saddle bag of necessities we had put up for every trip since the ‘80s. Besides these, we both had backpacks with writing materials, including the Rand McNally Trip Trackers that Charlie had saved to use on our road trip and one of his old notebooks from Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree. Laura had 3 cases of cd’s for entertainment; she threw in a last-minute cd stash in a Macy’s totebag we got with a coupon from Playbill (Fiddler on the Roof) in New York City. New York City was our destination this time, too. We were taking Steinbeck’s route in Travels With Charley backwards from the midpoint, but without her brother Charlie this trip.
Laura had been the music programmer for all of our road trips since she was 3, though Charlie had his own ideas and we took turns when he was along. He liked the Blues Brothers, classical music, and ZZ Top. But Charlie was usually plugged into a gameboy; he was the official navigator and kept the roadmaps on his side of the car to check whenever we came to a fork in the road. Sometimes Laura had her own cd player and did a private soundtrack in the backseat, so she was an old hand at music selection. When she gave me a choice of music I always said, “Sublime” or “Oingo Boingo.” She had plenty of both.
The last minute equipment: ice, water bottles, gas, whatever was missing from the hanging bag, we always got on the way to the Interstate. We were starting out on the 5 North out of L.A., and though we intended to be off by noon it was closer to 3 when we finally pulled out of the AM/PM on Fletcher Drive. Laura stayed tuned to the Independent station as long as she could, up to the 118, then lost it in static and broke out the cds with the soundtrack from American Splendor.
I wanted to see the old Moorpark road I’d discovered with Charlie, where there were rainbow colored rock formations and a fragrant pig farm on the downhill grade, so we took the scenic route to Ojai. We found that the colored rocks were being quarried, the stink was gone, and a Christmas Tree farm was at the bottom of the hill, certainly a better fragrance. Stopping by the Beatrice Wood Studio, I consulted Janat Dundas' first edition of Travels With Charley that had the original illustrations and mentally compared our rig to Steinbeck’s Rosinante. The round retro profile of the vehicles was similar, if less capacious, and I was surprised to find that the artist was Don Freeman, the creator of Corduroy. Janat, who had lent me the book over Christmas, was in the throes of a fundraising party and had no time to talk over our itinerary, so we took a quick look and put the book back, satisfied that we had the idea of the journey, if not Steinbeck’s capacity for comfort.
Our trip would be like his route in reverse, starting up the west coast,
taking the northern trek across to New York, and hitting as many National Parks as we could. That’s the way our Charlie would have planned it. On his last manic binge he had bought an National Park Eagle Pass, hoping his extravagance would inspire us to use it with him, and we had renewed the pass every year since. It was 3 years later, we were finally making the trip we should have made with him, and all that was left of him was a vial of ashes. I intended to take it to New York and scatter him somewhere, maybe be a little along the way, but I figured he could still let us know somehow what he wanted done.
In May three years before, he told me he hoped to take this cross-country trip and see his aunt Laura in New York City, but his old Axxess van would never make it I had been unable to promise to drive with him, since he had been so unpredictable and even violent in the months before. Besides, I had to finish my Masters thesis and hoped he could help with the online research. Then we could take what was left of the summer for our trip, if he was o.k.. After he died, I felt that if I had held out the hope of that trip to him he might have stayed around long enough to see me keep my word. Ideally, the trip would have cheered him up and given him a reason to go on. All I could say at the time was, “Maybe” and that was not enough for him.
After meeting sister Laura in New York, Laura Anne would have to rush back to start classes at L.A. Film School and I would take Steinbeck’s road through the South alone, once again visiting as many National Parks as I could before returning to L.A., a city that Steinbeck had avoided altogether in 1960.
Cruising down into Ojai in the golden slanting light of summer, we stopped at the Libby Bowl to listen to a cover band cycling through The Who catalogue and browse the hippie gear in the stalls of a retro fair under the oaks. I bought a feathered roach clip that would have been de rigeur on the trip I took 30 years earlier in my Volkswagen van, but now was just a slight accommodation to the 2 joints we had procured to smoke in Charlie’s honor. Laura found a psychedelic pin button for her friend Natalie and we were off into the dusk, rolling over the round brown hills to San Luis Obispo.
One of our traditions that had emerged over years of trips up and down the California coast was to stop at Sycamore Springs for the hot tubs. Clever landscaping on the upslope had created nooks where redwood tubs were set into completely private little gardens, open day and night for skinny dipping and rented by the hour. The place had become more upscale recently, with a restaurant and wine tastings and a picturesque spa lodge. Cute New Age names like Tranquility and Aspiration were inscribed over the hotel doors; the hot tubs remained, a little pricier but still natural. Laura and I drifted into the overflowing parking lot around 9:30, too late to dine and facing a 5 hour wait for a mineral water tub. But there was a freshwater pool available, with heated jets and a waterfall, an innovation that the nature-lovers disdained in favor of authentic sulfur-scented springs. We did not care, and spent a lovely hour luxuriating in the jets, swimming round and round through the cascades under stars and oak boughs. Refreshed and a little chilled, we set out for the foot of Big Sur, uncertain as to how far we would go or where we would stay.
As I began to nod off in Cambria we drove through shut down streets where every motel, inn, and pictureque Bed and Breakfast had a bright neon NO on its vacancy sign. I finally pulled over under a street light and went around to lie down on the pillows in the backseat. Laura had already curled up on the front seat and would not be roused. So I slept for a few hours and woke to a cold and gray mist, bruised by a lump in the sleeping arrangement that felt like the princess and the pea’s problem. It turned out to be the campchairs crowding under the starry bodypillows that made up the bed, easily rearranged, and we were soon back on Highway 1.

This trip is all about Charles Houston Lacy, a boy who died too soon

Charlie he’s a good old boy
Charlie he’s a dandy
Charlie he’s a good old boy
He feeds them girls on candy

Shady Grove, popular folk song

Charlie was my good old boy. Charlie was my darling. I called him brown-eyed handsome man, young dude, rooster, and booger and stinker and fortunate son. We were virtually inseparable when he was growing up because we had few friends out in California and his daddy was on the road a lot with bands.
Charles Houston Lacy led, it seemed to me, a charmed life. We were never really rich but not really poor. Sometimes I worked, sometimes, magic times, I stayed home with him and we took walks, made gardens, read books; I painted during his naps.
Every week we cashed Doug’s checks from Jackson Browne and Billy Joel and Electric Light Orchestra, Rickie Lee Jones, Stevie Nicks, Todd Rundgren and The Tubes. When I walked to the bank in my red satin hotpants, pushing Charlie in the stroller, I was the rock and roll housewife, clicking up Sunset in high-heeled Candies and reading the names of the stars to Charlie on the way back down Hollywood Boulevard. We celebrated when his Daddy was on hiatus by building a captain’s bed for him and a log cabin studio next to our shotgun shack in Silver Lake, where we moved when he was nearly 2. Charlie and I traveled to Joshua Tree to climb the rocks and Idaho to meet his great granddad and Big Sur to see the elephant seals.
Charlie’s first real shoes were blue hiking boots, bought at a little shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He was was one of the first to officially walk Runyon Canyon in 1981, before it became a part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He was only a year old and had to be carried down the estate road on Doug’s shoulders half the way back. He grew up hiking in the derelict estate that became a park the year he turned four and the canyon stayed his favorite place, through Sunday afternoon tours and tree plantings and full moon hikes. Later he and Ringo the dalmatian favored the “meadow,” as he called the abandoned Red Car Right-of-Way at the end of our street. Both these short stretches of urban paradise would host ”in the end, his epitaph.”