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Place matters a lot to me. I think less about time than I do of places. The years 1995-98 don’t always cause something to spring to mind, but Washington D.C. does, and that’s how I define those years. Maybe the best year of my youth was 1985, and when I think of it, I think of the weird city block I lived on in Parkersburg, West Virginia that summer more than I think about the things that actually occurred.
I’ve written before about certain places representing unhappiness for me. Florida, which had always seemed to hold ghosts for me. Interstate 71, which holds dread. But there are good places too. California is a good place. It always has been. I haven’t spent a lot of time there. Six trips across 15 years or so. But all of them stick with me.
My first trip there was in 1997. My brother was at the end of his second enlistment in the Navy and had been stationed in San Diego. My two best friends from college, Ethan and Todd, had, in the previous two years, moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. We visited all of them and, unwittingly, had pretty much the quintessential California vacation experience: beaches, Hollywood, wine country, San Francisco, strange grad students in Berkeley, the works. Touristy and cliche? Sure. But I fell in love with the place.
In 1998 I was there for a wedding. My love of San Francisco weather hit home on that trip, as I traded muggy gross late-summer Ohio for the cool foggy Bay. Whenever I’m uncomfortable in the summer here, I think about falling asleep in the attic bedroom of the old house in which we were staying in the Berkeley hills, window open, cool breeze coming in, pulling a blanket up to keep the chill off and wishing it could always be that way.
I was back in 1999 for a ski trip. I flew into San Francisco and rode with friends to Lake Tahoe, sharing a car with a guy whose tech company had just gone public. He was a millionaire on paper and spent the entire drive trying to wrap his brain around it all. Looking back, it was such an on-the-nose portrayal of the dotcom bubble days that I sometimes wonder if it was all put on for my benefit.
In 2003 The Great Road Trip wound its way through the Golden State. Some of the most pivotal and meaningful moments of my life and the lives of my friends occurred at that time. Or were in the process of occurring, even if we weren’t then aware of it. I learned that I was going to be a father in Los Angeles. I had what may have been the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real breakdown in a hotel room in Berkeley, but it was followed up immediately with one of the few moments of catharsis I have ever known. I also had two of the handful of moments of pure bliss I’ve ever had in my life, the first sitting by the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito and the second while laying in the middle of the highway in Death Valley. It’s taken me years to unpack all that went down in the two weeks or so I spent in California during that trip, and I still don’t think I’ve unpacked it all.
I was back in 2007 for a short L.A.-San Diego trek, centered around my then recently renewed passion for baseball. Dodgers and Angels games with Todd, Padres games with my brother. Grasping for the first time that maybe, maybe, that could somehow be my life.
The last trip there was 2009. Another wedding. I was filled with optimism at the time. I was deep into negotiations to leave the law and write full time and knew it was only a matter of weeks before that would happen. For the first time we had left our children for more than a day or two – giving us precious time away together – and it was going great. One afternoon on that trip, as she took a nap, I sat in a cafe in Calistoga marveling at how well everything was going, thrilled that all of my dreams involving my work, my family and my marriage were within my grasp.
Obviously all of that didn’t come to pass. But the fact that I can think of that trip with my ex-wife – and the particular moment of thought I had in that cafe – without any hint of sorrow when I still can’t think of other times I had with her without a sense of loss and waste says a lot for where I was at the time and how uniquely powerful the place in which I felt those things is to me.
I’m going back on Thursday. To Los Angeles. It’s another wedding but, more importantly, it’s a weekend with Allison, who I haven’t seen in six weeks and who I miss dearly. And it’s in California, where everything has always felt right to me, and where I have always felt peace.