California in My Head


Watercolor, originally uploaded by Miss Laura M..

My worst travel story is about a trip I never took.

And because I never took it, it is not so much a trip but the idea of a trip, one that I dreamed up after mailing away for a free Scenic Byways of America map from the Federal Highway Administration when I was 13. A map and geography junkie from more or less the moment I became literate, I definitely saw every episode in the first three seasons of Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, kept endless lists of Places to Visit beginning in the fourth grade, and, at 12, became my school’s youngest-ever geography bee champion. Even now, I can still find Zambia on an unlabeled map in less than three seconds.

But with my Scenic Byways map spread across our coffee table I dreamed up two California road trips. And if you are 13 and living in Massachusetts and have never really been anywhere, California seems as far away and magical as a fairyland, as a whole other corner of the universe.

The first trip was Death Valley to Los Angeles via Desert Hot Springs — the Scorcher Route. I dreamed of cacti and hazy smog over the mountains in the mornings and seaweed wraps by the springs in the afternoons. The second was the Pacific Coast Highway trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the canyon between cliff and ocean with about half a dozen seafood-and-Mexican-food-eating, swimming, and sunbathing pit stops between.

I still hold on to the ideas of these trips like jewels that I keep stashed away in an inside pocket, ready to draw them out someday when I have the money and the time, when I get brave about driving a car. In the meantime, though, through detours and other trips and the rocky curves of everyday life and love and just stuff, I got careless about one of my jewels.

Many years after I spread that map across the table and marked it up with a red pen and made lists of the places I wanted to visit, I had a boyfriend who was planning a trip to California with his buddies. Or not planning, as it were, because between four adult men, none of them had a single idea about where they’d like to go. And because I was that 13-year-old with the map and the lists and the geography bee, I had about 800 ideas at the ready, and I let one slip.

My Pacific Coast Highway, a jewel that, if it had been real, would have been as gleaming and blue as the ocean itself — the color of my 13-year-old heart’s desire. And I let it go. And my trip happened without me.

God knows, I have had enough consolation prizes in the last four months — an early-morning field full of sheep and fog, a medieval church perched on a rock in the ocean, a city cut across by canals and dotted with fat white swans, a slate gray cathedral with bells that chimed golden and bright and articulate like a poem in notes — but I have learned, let’s just say, to keep watch over my valuables.

I am not going home yet. But I’m not staying here either. And the only person who knows for sure where I’m going is me.

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