California 2019

Before I Leave

It's only now, the day before my flight leaves for California, that the actual reality of my going is starting to set in. About two weeks ago, I noticed that I was actually beginning to get excited about going. The ambient stress of Columbia has been getting to me, and I am desperately in need of a change of pace.

If I'm nervous about anything, it's the flight out there. I've never been on a plane before, and all of the statistics about how safe it is make little difference when compared to the nauseating notion of hurtling through the atmosphere at five hundred miles per hour in a tin can with some fancy flaps on it. As soon as the wheels touch down, though, I think I'll be fine. The first one is always the most unnerving, just because you have no experience to build off of.

The most important factor in getting excited, though, has been the message boards online at Sonoma State University that every exchange student is required to fill out before they come, introducing themselves and what their goals are. We've got students from Japan, Germany, Italy, Venezuela, France, Hong Kong, and more. Several of them have, at best, a shaky grasp of the English language and American customs--and I already love them for it.  

Orientation and Going Places

Thankfully, the plane did not collapse in midair. My thoughts on flying--it's actually pretty fun, provided you get to the airport on time and aren't rushing. If things were busy or not working, though, it could quickly become a nightmare. The best part of flying is landing, and watching the ground get closer and closer--the worst part is taking off and turning, because it's then that you really have the feeling that you're in that tin can. Midair shakes are also nightmarish, but we didn't encounter too many of those.

Basically, if you need to get somewhere, flying is a perfectly reasonable way to get there.

Once I got out here, I moved into my two-story suite and waited for my roommates to arrive--I learned that the dorms here at Sonoma State University do not actually have air conditioning, which made purchasing a fan a necessity. When night falls, though, it cools down pretty quickly.

Meeting the other exchange students at orientation was delightful, and I've already found a kind of cohort. The Germans and French, despite their past animosities, are the best. (Also, please don't think I'm just labeling them by their nationalities to dehumanize them or anything--I just wouldn't really want my name on someone else's forum, so I'm extending that courtesy to them.) We've had great conversations about the classes we're taking, thoughts on different countries and America's unique culture around things like money and guns. I've enjoyed every second of it.

The food situation out here isn't bad, but it's also not great. There are no grocery stores within walking distance of me, which makes any kind of cooking difficult at best. So, at least to get started, I've gotten a meal plan. The dining hall has basically six stations--pizza, burgers, salad, bakery, foreign, and rotating. The bakery has lighter stuff like desserts and soups that are actually really good. The burgers and pizza are always ready and present, but aren't high quality at all. The foreign and rotating selections can be really good, but you don't really know what you're getting until you get there. It's a gamble, much like the sushi.

The entire dining hall is fond of using pork, and there's a distinctive lack of red meat. They're not the best at cutting out the fat, either.

Classes haven't proven any trouble so far--I'm used to six classes a semester, so dropping down to four is pretty liberating. Granted, it is early in the semester, so that could change in a heartbeat.

The most fun out here so far has been my discovery of "Getaway Trips," that go to basically every major attraction in the area for either free or at a steep discount, transportation provided. Yesterday, we went to the Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve, where we got to see some pretty dang big trees--my arm span is about 6'4", if that brings any kind of perspective to the picture below. You can't really capture the imposing nature of a 310 foot tall tree in a photograph.

Bridges: Crossing and Burning

Hello again! It has been quite a while since I've updated this, which I am going to say is only half my fault. I had everything lined up to do it two weeks ago, then I got hit with the double whammy of being sick and CATASTROPHIC EMOTIONAL DISTRESS!

But, things have smoothed out now, so here we are.

About a month ago, I went on a trip with some of the other foreign exchange students to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. It truly is a marvel of engineering, standing beneath the towers and watching them vanish into the fog above. It was extremely foggy and windy that day, the island of Alcatraz barely visible in the distance, but for a brief moment the clouds parted and we were able to see the orange gleam of the steel against the blue of the sky.

We also went on a trip to the Jelly Belly Jelly Bean Factory--that one was notably less interesting, probably because it was a Sunday and even the jelly bean elves need their weekends off. Still, the flavors were interesting (such as Pancakes & Syrup), and there were unlimited free samples, so long as you were willing to keep getting back in the line.

We've done numerous other things in San Francisco--there was a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, which was fun. They had some interesting things--Frida Kahlo's, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc., as well as some exhibits on photographic artifacts and a wall made out of living plants, but it honestly wasn't that remarkable. The Hirshhorn in Washington DC was much more abstract and boundary-pushing, at least as far as museums of modern art go.

The Museum of Asian Art was also quite lovely--it has three floors, and two of them were closed for renovation. Still, the floor that was open had Indian, Southeast Asian, and Ancient Chinese art, and it was still amazing--the pride of the museum is a 5,000 year old rhinoceros bowl that used to hold money, and still has a legible inscription on the inside. Everything in their gift shop was quite expensive, but there was a ceramic bowl in the traditional blue-and-white Chinese porcelain style that was just kitschy and cheap enough for me to afford. So now I have a new bowl.

I've also been to two Major League Baseball games in the Bay Area--one, the SF Giants vs the Pittsburgh Pirates, was lovely. The stadium was beautiful, the food was overpriced (as expected), but good, and the seats, even though they weren't great, gave us a beautiful view of the sun setting behind the stands. The other game, the Oakland Athletics vs. the Texas Rangers was worse in every conceivable way. The stadium was old, made of concrete, and cramped. Parking was a nightmare, with drunk people passed out next to piles of vomit in the middle of the lot, and they had shut down part of the roadway so we wound up in a seedier part of town, next to a street full of cars that appear to have had both their tires stolen and been set on fire at one point or another.

Yes, California truly runs the gamut from the height of extravagance, to the lowest of lows. But, tomorrow, I am headed back into the city, this time to a museum known as the California Academy of Sciences, which is apparently supposed to be really cool. With the admission price I had to pay, it better be.

On campus, things are ticking right along. Classes are going well, even if the way some of the assignments are structured makes little to no sense to me. (And there's one kid in one of my classes who just ticks me off. But the things I have to say about him are not appropriate for a webpage checked by an academic institution. The Epicurean.) Everything that has been graded, I have done well on--though I have a sneaking suspicion that this school may not be quite as academically inclined as USC.

Every Tuesday night is foreign film night, either French or German, and I make a point to attend it with the other exchange students. I've noticed that foreign films don't shy away from showing graphic things on screen, and tend to have these really weird escalations at the very end--like a movie about kids who misbehaved and had to go to a summer school before they were expelled ending in a gun battle over drugs and counterfeit money. It's weird, though I can say that French films are better than German ones. (Just don't tell the Germans that.)

There's also a series of philosophy talks here every week that have been very interesting, and the philosophy club here is just about to get started for the year. Evidently they're a little slow.

One last bit of news before I sign off with pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Oracle Park--I got an email about a week ago from Sonoma State University saying that the power company of Pacific Gas & Electric was going to shut off power to some of Sonoma County in preparation for fire conditions over a couple of days--the weather was in the high nineties, bone dry, with powerful winds coming from the ocean. Though the university wasn't affected, if the power ever does have to be shut off, classes could be suspended and everything would be off for up to 72 hours with little to no notice--which is frankly a terrifying notion. They take the threat of fire very seriously here, but I don't believe I could permanently live in a place that poses the constant threat of consuming everything. At least with a hurricane you know its coming well in advance.

As things stand now, though, the threat of fire has diminished. The temperature today didn't get above 70, and it was the first day covered by clouds in a long time--I actually felt one or two raindrops, though they were fairly tiny. It was the best day for weather since I've been out here.

Going Dark

The last two weeks have been quite interesting.

Last week, we took a trip to Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay. We walked along Fisherman's Wharf (which was, on the whole, unimpressive), and then took a boat out to the island. While there, I took the extremely-well-put-together audio tour, and walked through the much-more-poorly-put-together museum

As cool as the prison was, though, the truly magnificent thing about Alcatraz is the view of San Francisco--it legitimately may be one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. The bay bridge to the left, the Financial District directly ahead, and the marina and Golden Gate Bridge to the right, a salty sweet scent in the air, the sunlight glinting off of waves studded with white sailboats and a gently tolling bell echoing on the wind... quite lovely. The wind was something fierce, but it truly was magnificent.

Other than that, I've been mostly busy with midterms, which were going quite well... until Pacific Gas & Electric decided to shut off the power.

There were distant murmurs about the possibility of going offline on Tuesday, but it was only five hours before the lights blinked off that we got official notice they were going out--perhaps for as long as five days. Our RA herded everyone who lived in my suite together and took a count of who was staying and who was leaving, informing us that every hour, day and night, that she, another RA, or fire officials would be scouring the campus with flashlights and peeking in windows to make sure there were no fire hazards.

I pulled out my emergency radio (ever prepared!), made sure my battery packs were charged, and quickly rushed to do laundry. I even got in one last warm shower before the night took over at 1:30 Wednesday morning--when the streetlights vanished, I legitimately heard screams rising up all over campus.

People out here simply aren't used to the dark. Having grown up in a distinctly streetlight-less place, I found it a refreshing break to just have the moon peeking through the window at night, and not a thousand fluorescent bulbs that I have to close the blinds to.

Everyone with a vehicle and a brain in their head got out of Dodge right quickly after that. Unfortunately, that meant that I (and the rest of the exchange students) were stranded here. The dining hall started operating on reduced hours, and resorting to signing in those students with meal plans on paper. Walking in for the first time, I was shocked by how much like a hurricane shelter it looked--the dining area cordoned off to a small section of tables lit naturally by sunlight, the rest of the cavernous room fading away into interior darkness. Tables with aluminum trays of food, heated by camp stoves, were lined up in rows--beverages dispensed from water coolers, and coffee crystals ready at a moments notice.

I had some lovely conversations with the other exchange students--they were adamant that this was awful, having to shut down by seven at night. I personally grew to enjoy it. It gave a sense of structure--when to work, and when to not. Granted, given a few more days, things would have gotten pretty skeevy. But as it was, it was lovely. I took the chance to read the entirety of Crime and Punishment, which I believe was quite productive of me.

I do have some comments about SSU. They did not handle this as well as they could have. Which I know is not entirely their fault because PG&E is a scam of a utility company, but there are some steps that could be taken. The administrative structure of this place is confusing, and that only becomes more obvious in a situation like this. It can take student workers weeks to get paid, the process for assigning roommates is unclear, I have encountered issues with my meal plan numerous times, and the University simply did not have the quantity of generators it needed to maintain a reasonable operational capacity--those generators that were brought in after the lights went out (by my count, two--one of which was strictly for floodlights) were prone to belching clouds of black smoke into the sky--a nerve-wracking sight for a campus already on edge from warnings of explosive fire conditions.

Just my gripe.

Granted, it wasn't all bad--the university did quickly organize trips to get those students who remained on campus to areas with power. And they did go out and purchase a chocolate sheet cake from a store to slice up and serve to us--the writing, in blue icing, was still on it. However, if so many people hadn't left (well, well over half) the infrastructure would have been completely overwhelmed. I would have managed perfectly well, because that's what I do, but it was still a relief when the power blinked on right as the sun was going down on Thursday evening.

But what a story, isn't it?

Grapevine Fires

The Kincade Fire began on October 23rd near The Geysers, a geothermal plant to the north of Sonoma State University. Fanned by three separate wind events, some of which approached 100 miles per hour, the blaze quickly grew out of control, burning 77,758+ acres, destroying 372+ structures and forcing the evacuations of approximately 200,000 people as 4,531 firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, which got within 16 miles of campus.

I was one of those evacuated.

More or less. While our area wasn't technically under an evacuation warning, SSU remembered the devastation caused by the 2017 Wine Country Fires and decided to close the campus entirely. We had to leave, and if we couldn't, we had three hours of notice to pack up everything we needed for survival and report to the Student Center.

To a soundtrack of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I packed a carry-on suitcase, a tote bag, and my bookbag with the essentials, and things I wouldn't want to lose should the flames wind up reaching campus. RA's were constantly circulating into the apartments, reminding us of the time and the decisions that needed to be made. It's an interesting feeling, to have to go through all of your possessions and decide what to take. Thankfully I'm already living sparsely out here and don't have a house, so it actually wasn't that difficult.

Still, there were many unanswered questions as I closed the windows and doors behind me and headed for the Student Center. The sun was starting to go down, and they were handing out respiration masks as the smoke began to hang heavier in the air.

It was only as we sat there in the dark that we were informed of the plan--a bus had been chartered, and those of us who remained were going to be taken to an apartment complex in Petaluma, a town to the south, that the university had some spaces leased in. About 50 of us remained on campus, those with cars or nearby family having already fled before the entrances were barricaded.

Once we arrived at Marina Crossing, we were assigned rooms and given toilet paper, rough linens, and clear shower curtains. The rooms were sparsely furnished--with no furniture at all. There was a mattress on the floor, and that was it.

I unpacked my things and got set up--thankfully I got to the apartment first, so I was able to claim the largest bedroom with a private bathroom. I didn't have to share with the other three guys, who were... let's say not the cleanest people in the world.

To their credit, the University handled this fairly well. As it became clear that the evacuations would last all week, they began to arrange trips out of the apartments to the movies, bowling, and downtown Petaluma. Petaluma, though it sounds dusty, is actually a rather nice place, with a large used bookstore and a local candy shop.

On the biggest day, we went down to Santa Cruz to see the Boardwalk there. Unfortunately, someone forgot to do their homework and the rides were closed down for the season. Still, it was rather spooky to walk through an abandoned amusement park with the cold waves crashing on the beach just a few feet away. We also saw a wild sea otter, and that was quite fun. Santa Cruz is also a city that takes Halloween seriously--we felt like the odd ones and we were wearing normal clothes. Overall, though, I wasn't the biggest fan of the place. Like most of California, it's a rich area where everyone is poor.

Back at Camp Sonoma, as we affectionately began to refer to the apartment complex, the kitchen staff kept the food coming. They brought over a portable trailer that had kitchen equipment inside and let them get to work. It was honestly better than the food normally is on campus, as they were able to cook nicer things for a smaller number of people--flank steak, chicken-fried steak sandwiches, double cheeseburgers, Philly cheesesteaks, etc. Strangely enough, their grilled cheese was a little lackluster.

We all watched the World Series, and our eyes were glued to updates about the fire as it peaked at 11% containment, dropped back down to 5%, and finally shot up to what is currently 70%. With any luck, that number will continue to grow.

We were finally allowed back onto campus yesterday, and things are slowly settling back down to some semblance of normalcy. It will be interesting to see how the professors choose to handle this delay. Six weeks remain for me in California, and I've already gone across the Golden Gate Bridge and fled a wildfire. What else is there to really do?

I'll leave this post with two pictures--one of the Pacific Ocean from Bodega Head before the fires came, and one of my survival quarters in Petaluma. Quite a contrast.

The Stars

The past weekend has been extremely busy. Despite the raging fires and everything else that have caused school to be cancelled multiple times, we still had Veteran’s Day off—which I am thankful for, because it allowed me and three of the other foreign exchange students to take a weekend trip down to Los Angeles. It was an extremely busy weekend, but I was able to do quite a lot.

Firstly, on Friday, we all got up rather early and went to a Hertz Car Rental in Petaluma. Now, we had booked the rental car ahead of time, and I had taken the time to read the fine print on the rental agreement. The fine print in question says that, if you’re under 25, you can only rent a car if you put it on a credit card. Since the car was under a French student’s name, I explicitly asked her when we were booking the car if she had a debit card or a credit card. She said credit.

Needless to say, her card was debit, and I had to volunteer my own credit card to make sure that the trip continued as planned. I’m hesitant to be critical because I don’t know if the credit/debit difference is quite so pronounced in Europe, but I feel like that’s something you should know. Anyway, after another five minutes of bickering about insurance (my criticisms of that process are very impolite, and shall be left off of this post), we finally got into a black Chevy Malibu (appropriately named), and jetted off around 8:30.

I let the French student take the first leg of driving through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge. After that, we stopped at Natural Arches State Beach—which was very lackluster, and not recommended. The bathrooms were a disaster, and the only result of the experience was that I wound up with sand in my shoes for the rest of the weekend.

However, after that, I took over driving, and took us south across Monterey Bay and into Big Sur. I learned that several of the exchange students have horrendous taste in music. However, my discomfort with that was mitigated by the fact that driving the Pacific Coast Highway south was absolutely majestic. I was so pleased to be driving again for the first time in months that I wasn’t bothered at all. The French student and I traded off driving several times—she’s not the best at handling stress, as I learned.

I’ve also noticed that Europeans tend to be much more trusting of people in public, and feel that cities are the places to be. I’ve tried to argue with them that people are more dangerous and unpredictable than nature or animals could ever be, but I don’t think I’ve made much headway. Man is the most dangerous prey for a reason. Animals don’t walk into restaurants or gas stations, or loiter around and scream for no good reason unless there is something very wrong. At least I’ve been able to write some halfway decent poetry on the matter.

Anyway, around 9 PM, we finally reached our destination—the Hertz at Los Angeles International Airport. We then split up—the girls I was traveling with were staying at a different place than I, which I understand. And, in retrospect, am actually pretty thankful for, because it allowed me an unprecedented degree of freedom to explore the city on my own terms.

I got an Uber to my lodging for the next three nights—the Walk of Fame Hostel, located on Hollywood Boulevard. It was cheap, and the location couldn’t be beat—practically right across from the Chinese and Dolby Theaters. However, I learned that the bathroom situation here was a disaster as well—which should probably have been expected. There were a few stalls, but there were only four showers, and they were essentially tiny stalls with semi-transparent glass for doors. Plus, there was nowhere to set clothes or towels inside the stalls without them getting wet, so you’d have to open the doors to reach your towel, etc.—point is, I didn’t like it, so I didn’t properly shower for three days. I’ve done worse.

And at least there was running water, so I didn’t get too terribly grimy. Which is actually fairly impressive, given that I shared my room with seven other guys. However, I was never there except to sleep, and all of my stuff was securely locked up. And sleep I did.

That first Saturday in LA, I got up around 9 and explored around the Walk of Fame. I discovered that there is actually a massive mall behind the Dolby Theater arch, where the red carpet is for the Oscars. I walked those stairs, saw the Hollywood sign, and had a waffle and ice cream while sitting and overlooking the star of Muhammed Ali, which people constantly came up and struck poses next to for pictures.

There were several people standing in front of the Chinese Theater dressed as superheroes, just as the rumors said. Strangely, it’s not as sad as you’d think it’d be—it’s much, much sadder.

I also found out that they show movies in the Chinese Theater, where Star Wars premiered and where lots of famous things have happened. I decided to take advantage of this and bought a ticket to see Doctor Sleep, the only movie that was showing that weekend. The showing I got was for 7 PM, so I had a hard limit for when I needed to be back to the Walk of Fame.

After my waffle, I got a Lyft to the Getty Center overlooking the city. There was a slight issue where the app directed the driver to a service entrance instead of the visitor entrance, and the driver was apparently under the impression that they were expecting me as a visiting lecturer or something, but we got that sorted out without too much trouble.

The Getty Center is essentially a massive art museum, and it was truly impressive—all the way from the carefully manicured garden sculptures to the silent tram ride up the mountain. I got an audio tour, which you actually had to leave your driver’s license at the front desk for as collateral. The full tour was almost 19 hours long, so I picked the highlights. The most interesting things were undeniably the Manet exhibit, and the galleries with authentic 1700’s French furniture—having never been to Versailles, I would say that it looked a lot like Versailles. It was ornate, and they even had tapestries hanging on the wall.

After that, I made my way to the Santa Monica Pier. However, as my Lyft driver took me there, we noticed the smell of smoke in the air. This will come into play later.

I got to the Santa Monica Pier just in time for the sunset. I had originally planned on walking down to Venice Beach, but I had to be back to Hollywood in time for the movie. (Which apparently turned out to be a good thing because, as I saw on the news the next day, a bunch of medical waste and used syringes washed up on Venice Beach right when I would have been walking by.

The sunset itself was magnificent—red, orange, and the ocean a deep, sparkling blue. The sun looked like a pat of butter melting on the horizon. And, right as it vanished, a formation of five planes in a row flew over the pier and released trails of red smoke, looking almost like an American flag. It was astounding.

After the sun set, I had places to be. I grabbed a burrito from one of the stalls at Pacific Park, then took a shared Lyft back to Hollywood. The girl who was already in the Lyft apparently put in the wrong address, so we dropped her off at a flooring store and continued on our way. Can’t blame autocorrect for that one.

I made it back with just enough time to change clothes and get to the Chinese Theater. Even though I had already been on the street for a day, I felt much more comfortable in Hollywood than I did elsewhere in the city. Doctor Sleep itself was okay—the real treat was seeing it in that theater, which really was astounding. There were very few people there, though, which I wasn’t expecting—especially since the drying concrete impressions of the hands of Keanu Reeves, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans are just sitting in the lobby under heat lamps.

After the movie, I retired for the night. I had to be up early in the morning for my Warner Bros. Studio Tour, which I was very much looking forward to.

Which is where the previously mentioned fire comes into play. The previous day, it was a measly three acres. Now, however, it was 34 acres and had been named the Barham Fire. I knew that they had cancelled tours the previous day, so I called and asked if tours were still running. The guy I spoke to said they were, so I headed on to the studio.

However, after waiting for an hour, it was clear that something was up. They were apparently measuring the air quality around the studio lot, and to the credit of our tour guide, he did a lovely job entertaining us with Friends trivia. It soon came out that we weren’t going to be able to do the full tour—however, we could still do the indoor portion of the tour and get a full refund, which wasn’t something to sneeze at.

So, we boarded a tiny trolley and toured the acceptable portions of the studio lot, going down the famous Hennessey Street before finally being deposited at the indoor portion of the tour. There, I saw original animation cels and sketches from Looney Tunes, and was able to sit on the couch from The Big Bang Theory and the couch from Friends. (I’ve never seen Friends, but I wasn’t about to pass it up.) They green-screened me into a Harry Potter broom chase that they were charging way too much for, and I got to hold an actual Oscar—which is surprisingly top heavy.

I was also able to sit underneath the Harry Potter Sorting Hat. Was it the actual hat? No. But it was an officially sanctioned hat from the studio that made the movies, so I think that’s about as authoritative as it can get. (Forget about Pottermore©.) I’m Gryffindor, if anyone was wondering. 

I had a light lunch at the Central Perk Café they have set up, and then made my way to the next attraction—the La Brea Tar Pits in Central Los Angeles. That was something I really wanted to see, and I’m glad I did—the place stunk to high heaven, but they had incredibly impressive collections of fossils and the museum was very well-designed. And, shockingly, the pits were actually bubbling just as they’re depicted to.

I soon, however, made an unfortunate discovery—the tar pits didn’t only capture animals. They also apparently captured my cell service, and I couldn’t summon an Uber to get me back to Hollywood, and the sun was rapidly setting. Eventually, I just waited it out, spending thirty minutes waiting for it to load. Ultimately, it did, and my phone started working as soon as I got a couple of blocks away. Strange.

Back at Hollywood, I descended into the Metro and rode it to a nearby bus stop, where a shuttle took me and another group up to the Griffith Observatory—much like the Getty Center, another building on a hill. At the top of the Observatory, I was able to see the lights of LA wake up beneath me—all the stars that I could usually see in the sky pulled down and woven into a carpet.

This was my view until a massive bank of fog rolled over the city and up the mountain, obscuring the entire city and reducing visibility to a few feet. I waited for an hour to look into the public telescope, which was quite impressive. However, after that, I was ready to go, having already explored the interior of the observatory and witnessed their Tesla coil firing.

At that point, I was tired from two days of exploring the city, and was ready to get back to Sonoma. I packed up as much as I could that night, and then collapsed.

The next morning, I got a ride back to Los Angeles International Airport and checked in, passing through security with no trouble at all—I think the TSA agents were just glad to have someone who knew what they were doing going through security. I soon learned, however, that LAX is very poorly designed. Getting from one terminal to the other requires exiting the building, taking a shuttle, and then going back through security, which I wasn’t going to deal with. There was a coffee shop that one of my friends wanted me to try, but sadly that mission went unfulfilled.

Eventually, I ran back into the foreign exchange students, and we swapped tales of our time in the city—I had done more in my time than any of them had. As I mentioned, when you’re trying to do a lot in a short amount of time, having to look out for other people is a liability.

American Airlines has direct jet service from LAX to the Charles M. Schulz Airport in Santa Rosa, and that’s the flight we took. Not terribly expensive, but also not the best flight I’ve been on. The pilot seemed to be turning a lot when there was really no need for it. However, the Schulz Airport is very small, and I actually adore it. It’s a lovely little space.

We took a bus back to Sonoma—where I took a much-needed shower.

So, having spent this weekend in LA, what’s my diagnosis? It’s a city with an artificial soul. They don’t deal with external problems very often, and the weather is impeccable. There are no hurricanes, fires aren’t as big a deal as in Northern California, and it’s been a long time since there’s been a good earthquake. The problems that stick in people’s minds are the human ones—riots, discontent, homelessness, everyone pursuing their individual dreams. It makes it seem like human individualism is all there is.

There’s also no symbol that ties the city together. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. New York has the Empire State Building, these grand testaments to human achievement that bind the community into one people. Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign, a testament to artificiality and the film industry.

Basically, it’s been too long since the people of Los Angeles have had a reckoning with a force greater than themselves. Such reckonings can be quite beneficial.

It’s Out There Somewhere in the Woods… Waiting.

I’ve been looking forward to this entry and experience for quite some time. I planned out everything months ago. Now was the time for my journey into the fabled Pacific Northwest.

On the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving Break, I went back to the Hertz in Petaluma and picked up my car for the upcoming journey—a blue Hyundai Sonata I named Orion. It seemed appropriate. And, shockingly, without four other people to negotiate things with, the process went seamlessly. I returned to the campus and gave a talk that I had been scheduled to give for a couple of weeks, and then got lunch with some professors at the Overlook.

The Overlook is a “fancy” restaurant on the upper floor of the student center, and it was… okay. I didn’t have to pay, so that’s something. That being said, they ran out of the bread that club sandwiches go on and offered to put it on a burger bun, which is not acceptable at all. And when they were delivering the food, they gave every dish to the wrong person. There were only four of us, and the restaurant wasn’t busy, so one wouldn’t think that it’d be that complicated.

However, I had a schedule to keep. Around 2, after we had eaten, I took off and changed out of my “Professor” attire into my “Adventure” attire. The car was loaded, the tank was full, and I took off, heading north up the 101.

However, I soon encountered a problem. A vicious storm, the worst conditions that I’ve ever driven in. Driving rain combined with freezing temperatures and inches of slush on the ground as I climbed in altitude. If I was heading north on I-5, I would have been trapped in feet of snow, possibly for the entire night. Thankfully, the Pacific Ocean does a good job of stabilizing the weather on the coast and keeps everything above freezing, and that’s where I was headed. The ground slipped from white back to green as I descended in altitude and approached my first stop.

It was a place called Confusion Hill, a roadside attraction that I wanted to see for one very specific reason—a statue mounted on a tree near the parking lot of Bill Cipher. Bill is a character from a series called Gravity Falls that I rediscovered when I was going through a rough patch last year—it reminded me of what it was like to be a kid again, and to see that the show didn’t just matter to me, but also existed in a physical sense, was pretty special. It was almost a pilgrimage. 

But night was falling, and that was merely stop one. My second stop was in Eureka, California, where I ate at a Wendy’s. (HA! That’s also a Gravity Falls thing. Just realized that.) The rain had picked up again by this point, and was practically being driven sideways by the wind. I had my umbrella ready, but as soon as I stepped outside, I realized the wind would tear it away from me if I dared to open it, so I just sprinted to the door.

After that, I continued north in the dark, making my way to Gold Beach, Oregon. The weather abated, but the roads were still dangerous—as the first powerful rainstorm in months, a lot of loose debris was shaken from the tops of the trees and covered the roadways. Crews, their work illuminated by crimson flares, were already struggling to clear the pavement.

I made it to Gold Beach with no trouble. I checked into my room and filled out my journal—unfortunately, the heater wasn’t quite as powerful as it needed to be. I wasn’t cold—I just wasn’t comfortable. Still, I slept. The next five days would continue to be busy.

The next morning, I woke around nine and checked out, then grabbed a piece of French toast which I nibbled on as I made my way down to the Oregon beach. It was foggy, and violent, and beautiful. I stood there in the wind for several minutes, but I had to move on.

I fired Orion up and continued north along the coast, sticking to the 101. I stopped in Coos Bay to refuel, and learned that Oregon doesn’t have self-serve gas stations. That was a bit of surprise. I know it provides jobs, but at the same time, it’s something that I can easily do myself—and actually kind of enjoy doing. I also can’t complain about Orion’s gas mileage—at 600 miles per tank, I never felt that I was getting ripped off.

I stopped for lunch at the Luna Sea Fish House in Yachats, Oregon, a small seaside town. I got the fish tacos, which were quite good. It’s a lovely town—just on the outskirts of everything. I explored a bit, then kept on.

I soon approached the Washington-Oregon border and received a call from my parents, who were on their way back from an early Thanksgiving dinner. That caused me to miss a turn, but it did give me an excuse to stop on the main drag of Astoria (which is also a good song by Marianas Trench) and stretch my legs before crossing into Washington. Astoria is lit by neon, and honestly? I dig it.

I then ascended a giant, spiraling ramp and crossed into Washington. I was heading to Olympia for my next stop. I drove through deep, dark woods that seemed to have no end—I honestly don’t know if Bigfoot exists, but after driving down those roads, I can easily see how he could.

In Olympia, I checked into my room—a bit nicer than the previous one, and went for dinner at an Italian place called Casa Mia. Service was a bit slow, but they were open late, and I had a whole award-winning chicken-cashew pizza to myself. No real complaints.

Now that I was in Olympia, though, the real fun was about to begin—because the next two days would take me to Seattle. I got up and topped off Orion, then crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to Bremerton, going up the western side of Puget Sound. I made my way to the Seattle-Bremerton Ferry, pulling onto the boat with no problem whatsoever. I parked the car and went up to the upper decks in preparation for our departure.

Once we started moving, I was glad that I had brought along my winter wear—a toboggan and balaclava helped keep the whistling wind from me—so strong I had to lean forward into it to make any headway when walking. I also wore a leather glove on my left hand, keeping it warm, while my right one was free for picture taking.

That being said, though, the camera did no justice to what I actually saw—the snow-capped Olympic and Cascade mountains were just the start. Mt. Rainier, massive and imposing in the distance—not unlike the Lonely Mountain from the Hobbit, dominated the horizon. The mountains of Appalachia are nothing compared to it. And then, rounding a prong of land, seeing the glass and steel of Seattle glistening in the distance, inching ever closer as we raced across the freezing water.

Once we had made it across to Seattle, I was lucky enough to find a parking space very close to the docks. It was Thanksgiving, so many things were closed—but, that being said, some things were also open. One of them was the Seattle Aquarium, where I got a cookie and hot chocolate for lunch and wandered around the exhibits. It wasn’t that big of an aquarium, but the Pacific Octopuses they had were very active, and mesmerizing to watch. They also had a large wing dedicated entirely to salmon, and a glass dome that you could walk into at the bottom of the harbor.

Following the Aquarium, I walked all the way to the Space Needle. I had purchased a CityPass for $100, which gave me access to a lot of different things. The Space Needle was a marvelous experience. The gift shop, which takes up the entire bottom floor, was impressive in its own right. The glass-walled elevators spiking up to the top, glass benches that you can lean out over the city on, and a rotating glass floor all made the experience remarkable. Lots of glass. In addition, someone had the bright idea to paint giant spiders on the roofs of the buildings below the tower, so it looked like the arachnids were attacking. 

After journeying to the Space Needle, I returned to Orion and went to my lodging for the night—there was no full-time desk staff there, so I wanted to get settled before the sun set. After dark, I went to an Ethiopian restaurant called the Blue Nile—it was okay. Cheap, at least. I can’t really recommend it, but that being said, I wouldn’t turn it down in a pinch—which it technically was because it was Thanksgiving and everything else was closed.

After dinner, I went back to the Space Needle—I had two trips to the top as a result of the CityPass—one for the day, the other for the night. Going up to the top at night was equally rewarding—you couldn’t see the magnificent horizon in the distance, but the lights of the city glimmered below me and I was able to sit at one of their tables and do a little writing. I finally descended around 9 and turned in for the evening.

The mattress I had was made of solid memory foam, which made it slightly more difficult to get up the next morning than I would have preferred. But I managed. I left my car at the room and walked to the Westlake Center—it was in the heart of Seattle, right in the main shopping district. I hadn’t been in a big city during the Black Friday rush before, but it was quite an experience—it was crowded, but colorful, and everyone really seemed to be in the Christmas spirit. As chaotic as it was, Black Friday in a city is definitely something to check out.

The Westlake Center, however, also has a monorail that runs from the center to the Seattle Center. I boarded the monorail and went back to the Seattle Center—it’s home to more than just the Space Needle. One of the things it’s home to is a living statue person who will terrify you when you accidentally make eye contact. Another thing is the Museum of Pop Culture.

I cannot recommend the Museum of Pop Culture highly enough. It has an entire wing dedicated to movies, separated by genre—for the horror section, you have to descend a blood-red staircase. For fantasy, open a large wooden door. It’s very well designed. It also has exhibits on the history of indie video games, Prince, Nirvana, and Jimi Hendrix. One of the most interesting things was also the Minecraft exhibit that took up most of the third floor—that was fun, even if just for seeing all the parents asking their kids to explain things to them.

After I exited the Museum, I then went to the Chihuly Glass Gallery, which is very close by. I moved through it very quickly—as impressive and as colorful as it is, it is just glass. The Persian Ceiling sculpture was the most impressive thing there. I also blame the fact that there is a Chihuly at the Museum of Art in Columbia, SC for introducing me to the concept of glass art beforehand.

After the Chihuly, I walked to the Pikes Place Market, renowned for people throwing fish at each other. And, I can confirm, they do indeed throw fish at each other. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I was able to poke around some of the small local shops and get a salmon bagel, which I ate on the Lyft ride back to Orion.

I hopped in my car, finished the bagel, and then headed east. I was going to check out Mt. Rainier, and I wanted to get there before the sun set too terribly far. (If you haven’t noticed yet, there’s a theme here of trying to beat the sun. It’s probably a better idea to attempt a tour of the Pacific Northwest in the summer, or at least earlier in the fall.) I was only able to reach the gates of the park before it closed, and did not go in. I couldn’t have anyway, because I would have needed to carry tire chains. And being from South Carolina, I’m not looking to deal with snow unless I absolutely have to.

However, I was not disappointed. For, on my journey to the mountain, I passed a small church known as the Tanwax Country Chapel. It’s a small white building with a playground in the back, situated next to a field with a single bench in the middle of it, and a gravel path leading to it. And if you stand in that field, you can see the towering, snow-covered, glistening Mt. Rainier in all of its glory. It was astonishingly beautiful, and astonishingly big—once again, pictures do not do it justice. I hung out there for twenty minutes before I resumed my journey.

My next stop was Portland. I made it there without difficulty, and stayed at a place called the Downtown Value Inn. Don’t stay there if you can help it—parking’s a nightmare, and there’s a trolley that runs right by the building constantly, making it seem as though an earthquake were going to bring the whole thing down. However, it was fairly close to a restaurant called Pizza Schmizza, where I was able to get dinner. It’s very close to Portland State University, so a lot of college kids hang about there.

Another detail worth mentioning—throughout this entire journey, as I traveled up to Seattle and back down, the other foreign exchange students were doing the same, but they only went as far as Portland. Once again, I don’t regret this—even though I did way more than them and we could have done it all for much cheaper if they had just come with me. But whatever. That being said, they made it Portland a day before me, and were able to give me some recommendations of things to do.

The first place I went upon waking on Saturday was called Voodoo Donuts. The donuts are fine—but the establishment itself is an assault upon every one of your senses, and the very standards of decency and morality themselves. It’s appalling. Not recommended, unless you want to go experience what I’m talking about. I survived, at least.

My next stop was Powell’s Books—a bookstore that takes up three floors and an entire city block. I loved it. That being said, there were some problems—namely that I am 6 feet and 4 inches tall, and the dividers between the stalls in the men’s bathroom were approximately 5 feet high. Nothing was going to happen under those conditions, so I didn’t even bother. Still, lovely place, recommended.

My last stop in Portland proper was the Portland Japanese Garden—and this place I can’t recommend highly enough. All of the stress that I had built up between The Downtown Value Inn and Voodoo Donuts (and the Powell’s bathroom) melted away as I walked along perfectly manicured forest paths. I saw a Japanese tea ceremony, and in general just marveled at the construction and thought that went into designing the place. Taking your time to slow down and even measure your footsteps on the cobble paths is very relaxing. There was a view of Mt. Hood much like the one of Mt. Rainier from Tanwax—though not nearly so impressive. There’s also a tiny café there that’s usually pretty busy, but I was able to sit at the bar with no wait and enjoy some tea and sponge cake. Lovely.

Portland as a city has some problems. Lots of homeless people, and everything in the city center is pretty heavily reliant on gray concrete and cement. That being said—once you get out of the city into the wilderness around it, you can stumble your way into beauty pretty quickly.

I then headed outside of Portland to Multnomah Falls—it wasn’t particularly on my radar, but I had the time, so I figured I might as well stop by. It’s the second highest waterfall in the US… that never freezes. It’s a pretty specific claim to fame. The drive there along the Columbia River was the most interesting part, as I could feel the intense wind pushing the car side to side, the river itself whipped into a whitecapped frenzy.

After Multnomah, I headed south. My original plan was to stop in Klamath Falls and then tour Crater Lake on Sunday, but given the weather and tire chain restrictions, I figured it was a better call to stick to the coast. I stopped in Eugene for gas and dinner at a Carl’s Jr. It’s like Hardee’s, but… not. For one, they have fried zucchini chips. For another, they’re apparently fond of ripping off other burger chains like McDonald’s and In-n-Out.

The final night, I stopped back in Gold Beach. Same motel, different (and strangely nicer) room. The next day of driving, I got up and rolled out. I briefly explored the surrounding area in hopes of finding a good picture of some misty woods, but I turned back at the point where the county stopped maintaining the roads.

On the way back, I passed into California and had lunch at the same Wendy’s in Eureka as I did my first night—I didn’t recognize it until I was inside the building, since there wasn’t a driving rainstorm. I also drove the entirety of the Avenue of the Giants—an old route of 101, filled with towering redwoods. As I rode with the window down, I got the sense that a sauropod could lumber out of the woods at any second, and I wouldn’t be surprised. The place could easily not have changed in the past 65 million years. I also stopped back by Confusion Hill, and was able to spend a little more time there, and get some better pictures.

And then, this past Sunday, I rolled back into Sonoma State University around seven o’clock. On Monday, I returned Orion back to Hertz—a process that strangely took much longer than picking him up in the first place did.

Even as I write this, I marvel at the fact that I just sat in the car and did that—traveled 1854 miles like no one’s business at all. This journey will certainly be one of the most memorable and impactful experiences of my tenure here in California. 

Where Are We Now?

Things have drawn to a close in California. I am currently back in South Carolina, sitting at my desk at the office where I work—in my absence, they’ve given my old space away to someone else, so I’m in a new place now. The location perhaps isn’t as good, but it’s actually a bigger room.

The final exams I had back in Sonoma were, on the whole, easy. My psychology professor mysteriously disappeared, so that final was cancelled. One of them was take-home essays, and another was simple material. The only one I have to complain about is my Politics of Russia exam—the professor never taught us any actual material, instead having students present on something almost every day. As a result of that, there was no quality control over the information that we received, and terms showed up on the study guide that I had never heard of before in my life.

So, essentially, I taught myself a whole classes’ worth of material in four hours the night before the exam, and I feel that I did pretty well. I spent the entire allotted time writing, and covered everything in as much specific detail as I could. If the professor wanted something different, I have no idea what that could be. As soon as this exam was done, however, I boarded a bus for San Francisco and stayed the night in a hotel at the airport, so that I could be closer come time for my flights the next day.

The flights back to South Carolina were tolerable, though I quickly learned that the middle seat of an airplane is not where you want to be. The first leg, from San Francisco to Phoenix, was the worst—I was so tired and out of it that I spent the entire time leaned forward with my head pressed against the seat in front of me.

In Phoenix, however, I was able to get a pretzel and a beverage, which perked me up considerably. The flight to Charlotte, though longer, was much better than the first one.

Ultimately, I won’t take up much space here for pontificating on my experience in California or what it means—I’ve taken the time to do that in my personal journal, and it’s not for public consumption. But I’ll leave with two thoughts.

The first is a fear—it’s a fear that I first noticed as I was driving from Portland back down to Gold Beach. The fear that—despite all of this experience, California, everything I’ve been through—that nothing is really going to change. That this whole endeavor is just going to be a blip in the story of my life, and that I will have learned nothing from it that I’ll be able to take with me and apply elsewhere. It’s one thing to have an experience, but to learn something from it, to meaningfully carry that with you, is another thing entirely.

The second thing is that, upon returning to South Carolina, I became sure that I had changed. Everything here is largely the same, though the inexorable march of time pushes us all forwards. It’s me that’s different; the perspective I have on things is different. I’m more gregarious now—whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing has yet to be determined. But it’s a sharp enough shift to be noticeable, which I believe counts for something.

It is indeed all a matter of perspective—yet, even now, despite this, I’m still not sure that things have changed. Though, perhaps that’s just a side effect of me being me. The burden of persistent identity is not one easily shed.

As the plane was taking off from San Francisco to come home, I was treated to one last bit of perspective. We headed north, and banked right over the Golden Gate Bridge—standing there, orange, clear and gleaming in the sun, the glints of windshields and mirrors racing across it, cast against the stormy blue-gray of the sea itself. I could only see it for a few seconds, peeking behind the head of the man to my right, but that one last view seemed to say a lot about my time in California—and served as a fitting farewell.


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