California. The word itself is as smooth as butter, as sweet as honey. It is my Shangri-La. My Bali Hai. Even as a young girl, I thought of California as a unique, special place. Some of my relatives lived there, including my great uncle, his family and my great grandma. I was fiercely proud that I had family out in California. I felt like it set me apart somehow. For years, my grandparents would leave Illinois and drive over 2,000 miles to Oxnard, California where they’d stay for a few months. The atlas they used to highlight their route west is one of my prized possessions.
In my world, all of this added up to make California cool.
As an aspiring actor, by high school I decided California was the place I intended to live. Just before I was to leave for my first year of college, a rare business trip called my dad to Los Angeles. Even rarer still, my brother Dave and I were invited to come, too. I leapt at the chance!
For weeks before the trip, I visited the library and pored over guidebooks, writing down sights I needed to see like Mann’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood High, Pantages, Roosevelt Hotel, Formosa Cafe, Musso & Frank, Capitol Records, Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the time the calendar proclaimed August 6, I could hardly contain my excitement. The fact that Dave and I had to spend the first four hours or so of the trip stuck at LAX waiting for our dad to return from his meeting and pick us up didn’t much matter. It made us more anxious to get outside and explore. Bored, we wandered the entire airport and gazed outside the windows to waiting palm trees and the promise of warm California sun, wondering what treasures lay beyond the panes of window glass.
Our rental car was a Buick Park Avenue. In my mind’s eye, this was the height of luxury. Piling our bags into the trunk, I told my dad, “you are what you drive in LA,” quoting one of the guidebooks. “I am what they give me,” my dad replied in return.
Finally out and about, I was giddy, looking this way and that. I didn’t want to miss a thing! California was even cooler than I imagined. That first evening we drove to the seaside communities of Laguna, Newport and Long Beach. The smell of the salt water and the feel of the ocean breeze wafted through the car, casting a mystical allure. I was already enchanted by it all. Sadly, my dad less so. He wasn’t a fan of the smog and he’d had it up to heaven with the heavy traffic. When we all strolled down the Walk of Fame, I turned to my dad and told him some day, my name will be engraved in one of those stars. He looked at me seriously and teasingly said, “you want people to walk all over you and maybe spit on you?” I sighed. He was exasperating. He didn’t understand.
Five days later it was all over. I said goodbye to Los Angeles but I knew I’d be back.
Circumstances were such that I didn’t move to California after college like I’d intended. I didn’t transfer to a California university either, like I thought I might that Thanksgiving of my freshman year. Rather, it took me 15 years to return.
Always up to travel anywhere, I headed back to LA with my friend Crystal for her bridal shower in 2012. A California native, she took us on a tour of her favorite things for four days. We started with Rubio’s Fish Tacos and then into Hollywood and the surprise of my life. We were in Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards telecast. The streets around the Dolby Theatre were blocked, preventing vehicles from driving past, but there was nothing stopping pedestrians. So, I stood on the red carpet! Sure, plastic sheeting still covered it, but it was the red carpet of The Oscars. I stood next to the gold Oscar statues, also protected by plastic. This was the closest I’d come to my dream of going to the Academy Awards. I was on cloud nine. Leaving Hollywood, we stayed at a B&B steps from the ocean on Newport Beach, visited Balboa Island via car ferry, ate at In-N-Out Burger and Del Taco, drove to the desert and took pictures with Joshua Trees. All these years later, the enchantment had not faded.
In the fall of the same year, I was excited to be back in The Golden State, this time in the north, in San Francisco. It was different, but I loved it too, just the same. The redwoods, the beauty of the meandering Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey, Carmel, the bounty of fresh produce, the signs selling seven avocados for a $1, the vineyards – my Shangri-La, my Bali Hai was a fantastical, awesome place, north and south. It was magic.
In June of 2014, I booked a flight to Los Angeles for a quick vacation with my husband John. It was his first time to southern California and I was looking forward to showing it off. This time, we went to Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, a Dodger’s game, Randy’s Donuts, Pink’s, La Brea Tar Pits, Redondo Beach, Hollywood and Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles.
In the car back to LAX, John acknowledged that he could see us living there. I just smiled. The enchantment had captured him, too.