Strap in friends, this is a long one. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as much as I did.
At the beginning of December, I dropped my wife at the airport to begin the 30+ hour journey to her month-long stay in India. The next day I drove through a dark and foggy Illinois morning, shivering at the 20 degree temperature and boarded an early morning plane at O’Hare. I stashed my Volta in the overhead compartment, opened my tattered copy of The Dharma Bums, and settled in for the roughly four hour flight.
Why the trip? My friend Tim had invited me to run a Spartan Sprint with him at Castaic Lake, and since I was itching to do something exciting after a couple months of rehabbing my recently broken hand, I decided it would be a worthwhile way to spend some credit card miles. Aptly timed, the trip seemed like an excellent way to inaugurate my temporary return to the bachelor lifestyle, and it’s always good to see an old friend.
Thus I sat in the aisle seat of a Boeing 737 as the gray morning grew brighter. I found myself alone in the row of seats, but while I contemplated my good luck, a woman from a few rows up caught my eye and gestured towards the empty seats. I could tell she was interested in filling the unoccupied window seat, and I nodded acquiescently at her. Why would I need a row to myself? We would still have an empty spot between us to share, which is more comfort than one usually finds on any flight, at least in economy class.
My willingness to share my good fortune paid off; my new row companion proved herself friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and interested in my blog. I learned, via our introductions, that her name was Cindy and she lived in Orange County. She shared some useful advice for the LA area as well as some cool background information about herself and her career in marketing, before dozing off into what she had described as a much needed nap.
My natural inclination when on planes, trains, and buses, is to close myself off. I’ve never been good at starting conversations, and I can be a little awkward. The easy thing to do is to put on some headphones and ignore everyone else around me. My interaction with Cindy was a valuable reminder not to do that. If I want to meet new people, I actually have to be open to meeting new people. That’s kind of how it works.
After the plane touched down and taxied to the terminal I disembarked and strode into LAX. Cindy and I exchanged goodbyes as I tried to figure out how to get the hell out of the airport. A few texts revealed that Tim was waiting for me atop a nearby parking structure, so I headed that way and after a few minutes of walking I emerged into a cloudy LA morning. Whenever I fly, it seems I am always welcomed by an overcast city. Luckily, it wouldn’t last and I’d be under a sunny sky before long. I located Tim and his puppy, Kal, without any trouble and we hit the road away from the airport.
This trip would be pretty relaxed for me. Tim had business to attend to for part of our stay, so we couldn’t get too wild and crazy. We had time to do a little exploring, although not much of it was on trail or in the waves; most of our exploration was done in local breweries. This is a past time that Tim and I have shared since we first discovered that small breweries existed. Luckily, there are more than a couple in Southern California, and I would discover that many are dog friendly.
Which is how the three of us ended up at Enegren Brewing Company in Moorpark CA, enjoying Schone Nacht, a Bavarian Dunkelweizen, Valkyrie, an Altbier, and a Schwarzbier delightfully titled The Schwartz Awakens. It was incredibly refreshing to find a place that brewed more than just IPAs. Enegren seems to focus mostly on German styles, and they were absolutely delicious. Combined with some awesome fusion tacos care of the ConFusion Food Truck (have I ever mentioned that I love food trucks), it was a great way to spend the evening.
Also, I learned a valuable lesson; everyone loves puppies. I know, I probably should have known this already. If you have a puppy at a brewery, you will be able to make a friend (in addition to your new puppy best friend, that is).
Saturday started with huevos rancheros and a drive to Ventura. We wanted to be closer to the coast and near another brewpub when it came time for lunch, and Ventura seemed to fit the bill. Tim parked the jeep and we started on foot toward an outdoor street fair.
We grabbed some coffee and I learned from a fellow patron that we had wandered into the Ventura Winter Wine Walk & Holiday Street Fair, so we explored a bit. The wares for sale on the street ran the gamut from new age healing crystals to traditional woodworking, and I enjoyed seeing the variety of people and goods all in one place. We strolled through a few shops to discover that anything I’d be interested in was well out of my price range, so we moved along.
Come lunch time, we settled in at Anacapa Brewing Company, a cozy brewery right off of Main Street. They had some solid beers, most notably a rich Scotch ale, and a nutty saison, as well as a delicious hummus plate, and a friendly bartender. Never underestimate the value of a friendly bartender.
After a couple pints, additional exploration, and spending a few minutes watching a street performer on a unicycle, we hit the road again. Cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu, I was taken in by the rhythmic crashing of the waves to my right, and the salty air that permeated the jeep. In spite of being from the landlocked Midwest, or perhaps because of it, I’ve always found myself enthralled with the ocean when face to face with her. My first ocean experience was seventeen years ago at Panama City Beach, scuba diving with my father. I filled page after page of my notebook with off kilter poetry about the romance of the ocean and the sandy shore.
I no longer fill composition books with wannabe beat poetry, but my relationship with the Ocean hasn’t changed. This trip gave me my first introduction to the Pacific, and when we pulled over at El Matador Beach, I found myself feeling that old familiar romance with the saltwater.
I have never had the opportunity to surf, though I’ve always thought it looked incredibly fun. I have logged a decent amount of hours scuba diving in my day, and there are some commonalities, even if only superficial; mostly the smell of neoprene wetsuits, coconut scented sunscreen, and human bodies coated in salt water. The sense of smell, so connected to memory, shot me back to all the dives I’ve ever been on, from rolling off the sides of boats to dragging tanks up sandy banks.
But we weren’t there to dive. We weren’t even there to surf, which made Tim and I a very extreme minority at El Matador. Instead we strolled, observing the waves, watching surfers ride them, enjoying the brisk salty air, and trying not to get sand in our shoes as we laughed our way along the beach.
It was a great moment, maybe my favorite of the trip. No big activity or detailed plan, just two old friends walking along the beach, talking about life, love, the great outdoors, plans for the future, and beer. Sometimes simple is better.
Leaving El Matador, we continued along the highway up to Malibu and from there to Sherman Oaks, where we stopped at a joint called The Woodman.
Tim and I were very comfortable here amid fried bar food, more craft beers, and axes and pitchforks hanging on the walls. It’s a very cool place, but proved just a little too loud for us that night; there was a group that whooped and hollered at every play made during the football game on the TV. Nothing wrong with that, just not the atmosphere we were in the mood for.
We moved on to a nearby bar with the very excellent name, The One Up. If you ever spent time in an arcade as a kid, you’d probably dig this place. They have arcade games in the back, and each cabinet let’s you choose from several different games. It’s a little bit of a nerd heaven. I played some Pac-Man, Galaga, Super Mario Brothers, and a few other selections. Tim and I went two-player on the X-Men arcade game from the early 90s, as well as Turtles In Time. We defeated both Magneto and Shredder, and as two grown men, we have nothing but pride in our accomplishment.
It sounds risky, since drinking beers could lead to tossing tons of money into the machines, but you don’t have to worry about that because the games are free! If we hadn’t had to race the next day, Tim and I might still be there.
We did have that race the next day, however, so after a light sushi dinner, we turned in for the night. Sunday morning found us ready to run the Spartan Sprint at Castaic Lake.
I’ve written a little about my race experience, and if you’re interested, please read my recent post, Four Reasons Not to Run a Spartan Race. Despite what that title might lead one to believe (or mislead, to be fair), I enjoyed the experience, though it did cause me a certain amount of pain, discomfort, and exhaustion. I’m not jumping at the chance to run another one tomorrow, but I won’t rule out the possibility in the future.
The rest of race day was pretty quiet. Tim had some work to take care of that afternoon, but that night, we headed to Pasadena to have dinner with some old friends. While it probably wouldn’t make for exciting reading, it was wonderful to catch up with some great people who I hadn’t seen in several years.
Monday morning found me driving the Jeep to drop Tim off at a class he had to attend, grabbing some coffee, and then heading downtown. I wanted to visit The Broad, a new contemporary art museum, but I had trouble finding parking and before I knew it I was lost. LA traffic proved just a little too hectic for this Midwesterner.
I ended up driving through the Arts District and admiring some street art along the way. There’s nothing like a fantastic mural to take an old brick wall and transform it into something amazing.
After my ever so brief stint of driving downtown, I headed for Long Beach to meet up with my friend Ryan. You may recall me having previously mentioned his motorcycle trip across the US of which I am still terribly envious. We grabbed some brunch at The Potholder Cafe, which I’m told is the place to get breakfast in Long Beach. And if it’s a local tradition, who am I to argue?
I didn’t know what Ryan’s plans for the day entailed, so when he offered to come with me instead of just directing me to local attractions, I jumped at having a companion for the day, especially one who knew some cool spots to show me. I love flying solo and spending time by myself, but sometimes life is just better with company.
We drove out of Long Beach and along the coast, passing the Port of Los Angeles, and into San Pedro. Ryan directed me to pull in at Angel’s Gate Park, and right away I noticed the large pavilion that houses the Korean Friendship Bell.
The Republic of Korea presented the bell as a symbol of friendship to America in 1976 in celebration of the American bicentennial. Two years later, it was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. And I can assure you, my photos do not do it justice.
I’m grateful for Ryan’s patience with me; he made great conversation as I stared out at the scenery and across the water to Catalina. Much like how I felt while in the Black Hills, I found it hard to believe that people could ever get used to the views they would pass on their daily commute; yet I realized in the following few days that I have the luxury of driving alongside the Mississippi River for part of my daily commute, and at times I take that for granted. I have since made greater efforts to appreciate the beauty I am afforded in my daily life.
We weren’t rushing, but we were trying to keep moving along. We would have to make the return trip so I could drop Ryan off, and I would need to pick up Tim. With that in mind, we hit the road again, wound through some construction and curves, and pulled in to see Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Constructed between 1949 and 1951, the church was designed by Lloyd Wright, son of American Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The church simultaneously focuses on geometric features of the building and the building’s place within the landscape; its location, perched upon cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, thus seems a necessary design element.
Wayfarers Chapel is a functioning chapel, part of the Swedenborgian Church, so I approached it with deference. As I respect that the Black Hills are sacred to some, I respect that Wayfarers Chapel is hallowed to others. One is no less deserving of my esteem than the other.
Because we were on a timetable, and I was excited to continue onward, I didn’t take the time that perhaps I should have to explore the area and really get great photos of the structure. I did a poor job of thinking like a photographer on this trip, and I apologize to those of you reading this; in the future, I’ll try to do a better job of getting good photos to accompany the text!
Our next stop was to pull in at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center to view the Point Vicente Lighthouse. Built in 1926, the lighthouse continues to help ships safely travel the coast to and from Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors. That’s ninety years it’s been performing this duty, though it was automated in 1971. The lighthouse is only open for tours on the second Saturday of every month, so a tour was out on our Monday visit. I think we could have gotten closer, but I was very happy with the view. Leaning on a fence running alongside the coastal cliffs, we could listen to the waves crashing onto the rocky beach below, smell the salt air, and enjoy the view of the lighthouse from some distance away. Sometimes it’s good to see things from a step back.
Then, in a flash, it seemed the time for exploring was done. We retraced our steps; away from the lighthouse, past Wayfarer’s Chapel, and then the Friendship Bell was in the rearview. I dropped Ryan off, got some gas, and headed back towards where I needed to pick Tim up. Though I wish I would have had more time to spend, I appreciate Ryan taking the time to show me some cool sites in his neck of the woods. More than that, however, I enjoyed talking to him about his motorcycling experience, his cross-country road trip, and his life in California. This is a repeating motif in my travels; the sights, events, foods, and experiences are great, but the conversations knock it out of the park. My California trip had a lot of those fantastic conversations, and I’m grateful for that.
I picked Tim up and since I still had several hours before I needed to check in at LAX, I drove us back to the Arts District. This time I wasn’t aiming for any museums, instead we were headed toward Angel City Brewing.
Angel City ended up being the last brewery at which we stopped during my California trip. Luckily, the place was incredible, with tasty beer, friendly staff, and a food truck outside where I got a delicious emu burger for dinner.
There is a benefit to being from a smaller town when you travel to a larger city; I’m ready to go out much earlier than the locals typically go. This means that I get to have conversations with bartenders at times when they’re typically bored. I may not be much for exciting nightlife these days, but I love a good conversation, even if it requires overcoming my social awkwardness. Luckily, our bartender that evening was happy to chat with us over our flight of beers. Upon hearing that I was on my way back to the Midwest, she insisted that I get a taste of the Imperial Irish Red, which is aged in Jameson whiskey barrels.
All the Angel City beers were tasty, but that Irish Red really was the belle of the ball. Not only was it delicious, but it pretty much ensured that I would sleep on my flight back to Chicago. And then, almost too suddenly, we were off.
Back to LAX where I said my goodbyes to Tim, glad that we had the opportunity to hang out as much as we did in SoCal. Then I ducked into the airport, through security, and toward my gate. Stopping for some calamari and one last California beer at an airport bar, where I talked, laughed, and joked with other passengers. No sign of awkwardness this time, and I thank the Imperial Irish Red Ale for that.
I boarded another Boeing 737, we took flight, and I succumbed to a three and a half hour nap before landing in a pre-dawn Chicago. I shook the cobwebs from my head, and rushed to my car, then out of the lot, then out of the city and onto the tollway. The sky turned from black to a mottled gray while I sped along the road back to the quad cities.
Three hours later I walked into work, having changed my clothes and properly caffeinated myself. Ah work. We only received a temporary reprieve from one another. I wish I could have stayed in SoCal longer; I barely scratched the surface of things to see and breweries to frequent while away. As is true of most places, I could have stayed for weeks and not taken in all the experiences I’d want to. There were trails I never touched, waves I didn’t even try to ride, and plenty of sights I never gazed upon.
Alas, I did need to return to work. For now.
But thanks for the good times, Southern California. I hope to see you again.
TL;DR Go to Southern California, enjoy delicious craft brews, tasty food truck fare, great ocean views, and good company. You won’t go wrong.