I. San Andrean Faults
California boasts the worst state sales tax in the country, features 20 percent higher unemployment than the rest of the country, the second lowest bond rating, is home to some of the most violent cities, is riddled with traffic and constantly on guard for a devastating earthquake. In fact, the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco aren’t even on the North American tectonic plate, they’re on the Pacific plate. That boundary is marked by the San Andreas fault where the North American plate is sliding south while the Pacific plate grinds north. In fact, the plate boundary is the driving force behind the rise of the San Gabriel, San Bernadino and San Jacinto Mountain ranges that create the Los Angeles basin and trap all of that smog preventing the view of the beautiful mountain ranges responsible for the smog blocking their own view! That geologic grinding and fracturing is also major cause of earthquakes in the region and means that one day (in 16 millionish years) Los Angeles will be north of San Francisco. Wait that’s actually a lie, LA will be north of Oakland since San Francisco will have been ripped in two since the San Andreas faultline more or less runs along the route of Interstate 280.
Relatively accurate depiction of California?
Why would anyone want to live in this shaking sun soaked hellhole?
Because its awesome.
There I said it.
I’ll say it again.
As a student of history, journalism, tectonic forces and public policy I am well aware that California has its issues. Looking past them, this state is gorgeous. Stupid gorgeous. Like “you don’t realize just how good you have it” gorgeous. I could go on and on, but let’s start from the beginning.
II. The Decision
We did not choose California nor did we choose the timing. Those decisions were made months ago when Alisha’s sorority big said yes to her then boyfriend/immediately thereafter fiance/current husband. San Diego is near and dear to their heart so a destination wedding was to be had. Despite being in the middle of the legislative session, immediately before Alisha’s finals and whilst we rank somewhere between destitute and indigent on the finance scale, I was informed that we were to be had there as well.
The trip then evolved rapidly and confusedly. A weekend trip for the wedding became “if we are spending money we don’t have on a flight then dammit we are enjoying California for more than a day!” and thus a week trip was born. A weekend to weekend trip was too much with everything we had going on so it then morphed into the odd “midweek-to-midweek” trip. A factor in this was two of our days had to be massive travel days because flying out of Oklahoma City is affordable only to Thunder starters, OU football and oil barons. Instead we would drive to Dallas and fly out of DFW like normal peasa..I mean people.
The original gameplan was to spend the entire time in San Diego. With the flights booked but nothing in between this evolved strangely as well. Five days in San Diego became threeish days with two days in Los Angeles, before we then back tracked it to San Diego, to then fly back to DFW. Of course the flights were wonky as well. We flew Spirit because we enjoy saving money, and not getting attacked by the flight crew, and naturally there were layovers in Las Vegas on the way there and on the way back. To top it off, in true Traveling Politico form we decided to go to Joshua Tree National Park and Channel Islands National Park on this trip which meant we’d be traveling across the entirety of Southern California. By the time we locked all of this in our itinerary looked something like this:
OKC -> DFW -> Vegas -> San Diego -> La Jolla (wedding) -> San Diego -> Joshua Tree NP -> LA -> Channel Islands NP -> LA -> San Diego -> Vegas -> DFW -> OKC
And of course the return flight was basically from 10 p.m. PST to 7 a.m. CST with a long layover in the middle of the night in Las Vegas.
III. Viva Las Layover
The OKC to DFW drive and subsequent flight to Vegas were as uneventful as you’d expect. I hate flying and even then this one was just fine. We saw the Grand Canyon, the crew was funny, we made it to Vegas without plunging to our doom. Can’t ask for more than that.
Alisha and I decided to get out of the airport and see the strip since we had a decent layover in Vegas before our San Diego flight. To some people, Las Vegas is the be all end all. They fly in, have a great time on the flight, and the fun literally does not end until they drag themselves hungover and bleary eyed onto the plane home. For me, Vegas is awesome for four hours. I did it once several years ago, thoroughly enjoyed myself, and got everything I needed out of it. There is a definite excitement when you fly in, and there is definite excitement when you travel into The Strip. Lugging max carry on weight backpacks around (complete with protein shakers in the side nets like a couple of complete idiots) we trundled around The Strip enjoying the start of our expedition. We got some amazing burgers at Gordon Ramsay’s Burger (you know you’ve made it when your person name carries the weight the name of your restaurant should carry) and then bounced around Paris, Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio. After pretending we were much further along in our careers at the luxury stores than is actually true, Alisha and I had some drinks (and put down our backpacks) at Caesar’s and then Ubered back to the airport.
The flight to San Diego from Las Vegas takes maybe 40 minutes with most of that being taxiing, taking off, landing and taxiing again. Then we had our first experience with the geography of Southern California. When we left the desert, that is only about 300 miles to the coast, it was broiling even for April. When we exited the airport it was…literally perfect. It about 58 degrees, there was a slight fog, and everything was just amazing.
After our travel day we really didn’t have too much time for any further shenanigans and we wanted to get to the Airbnb. After an Uber from the airport to the house, which we shared with an awesome gay couple that wanted to know all about Texas conservative politics (yes it took all of 10 minutes for the Red v. Blue convo to come up in California), we arrived at the house and called it.
IV. I ❤ San Diego
I can break up our full San Diego day into four parts: 1) breakfast, 2) zoo, 3) Balboa Park, 4) Gaslamp.
Let me also begin by saying this, if you have not gone to San Diego in your life you need to go as soon as you possibly can and I mean that literally. The weather is perfect. The city is fun. It is not stereotypical California as we will later see. Go there, frolick, be merry and enjoy it while you can.
Moving on, we googled best breakfast in San Diego and it led us to a place called Hash House A Go Go. You must a go go to there (sorry) because the food is amazing. I got some kind of goat cheese, basil, hash brown, omelet nonsense that has literally made me hungry as I type this sentence. Alisha got a pancake the size of a small manhole cover. I cannot recommend it enough.
We then went to the rightfully world famous San Diego Zoo. You will need a full day to see this thing and it is worth every minute. To me the key lies in the layout. Go to any zoo and you will find lions, monkeys, all kinds of birds and all of the typical zoo animals.
Any big city will have just about every animal the San Diego zoo has. But San Diego has all of them and they knock it out of the park with the layout. A shit ton of monkeys turns into a shit ton of African plains animals which turns into what the heck they seriously have an entire exhibit dedicated to arctic animals and is that a polar bear!?
He did not offer me a coke
They have an Australian section, an Asian section highlighted with Pandas, and it literally just keeps going. We were in the zoo from open to close and we still missed a handful of exhibits and didn’t take the sky tram. Allegedly this summer about three more large sections of the zoo will be opened as well, we caught them in the middle of extensive construction.
Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda. Panda.
Leaving the zoo we still had a ton of sunlight so we decided to rent some bikes outside of the zoo and ride around Balboa Park. I don’t know who is in charge of the architecture in this park but they need a raise and apparently we needed an extra day just for San Diego.
We got to see big park attractions like the Old Globe, California Tower, Museum of Art, Spanish Village and Natural History Museum but did not have the time to enter them. This says nothing of the various trails in the park, Air and Space Museum and Switzer Canyon which we missed entirely.
That night we went back out into the fray to see the Gaslamp Quarter. Here is my advice for the Gaslamp Quarter, be ready for a ton of things to do and bring a ton of money. We Ubered to the middle of the Quarter to find a place to eat dinner and were overwhelmed by the options and how much was going on. Nearby the Padres were playing the Diamondbacks and the Quarter backs up onto the Convention Center, the harbor and downtown. It is very much in the middle of everything and you’ll have a ton of options ranging from cheap bar food to five star steakhouses. After picking a restaurant that was less restaurant and more “stop along a bachelorette party barcrawl” we hopped over to where we actually ate: The Field Irish Pub. For a city on the Pacific Ocean less than 20 miles from Mexico, this place was as Irish as it gets. According to Alisha the bangers and mash was “f**king delicious” which is saying something because Alisha is a snoot about three things: wine, dog breeds and Irish cooking. I’m not much of a fish and chips guy, but mine could also be categorized as “f**king delicious”. We poked around the Quarter after dinner and it is block after block of bars, restaurants, art galleries, hotels and boutiques. We called it a night after a stop at Nason’s Beer Hall just as the Padres game got out.
And by the way, throughout all of this it felt absolutely fantastic outside. Because its San Diego and of course it did.
V. Sunburned Wedding Bells
We woke up the next morning to sunburns and pancakes. You learn quickly that in California, while it generally feels fantastic outside, they use a different star than the sun. It burns brighter, you can tell its hotter (even if the climate masks it) and it will burn you like a blowtorch. We went to a breakfast place called Great Maple that, no shocker here, has maple flavored everything. We got small maple donuts and pancakes because we are basic like that. Afterwards (and after a pit stop for aloe), we Ubered to Cabrillo National Monument, the first of our NPS tour de California del Sur.
Cabrillo National Monument is a small park on a cliff point overlooking all of San Diego. Even if you don’t care about history, go for the view alone. It is named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Spanish explorer who was the first European to set foot on what became the U.S. west coast. The details of Cabrillo’s life are murky and it is debatable if he was even Spanish or if he was Portuguese and simply sailed for Spain. His expedition occurred 50 years after Columbus’ landing. He was a part of the conquest of the Aztec Empire under Hernan Cortes and he played a role in the conquest of Guatemala before leading the expedition north from the Mexican Pacific Coast. He set foot in San Diego (which he named San Miguel) on September 28, 1542 and then continued north where he charted the Channel Islands and the modern Los Angeles coast. At some point in this range Cabrillo was injured fighting native Chumash Indians on one of the Channel Islands. He died of his wounds on January 3, 1543. Despite the loss of their leader, pilot Bartolome de Ferrer took command and led the Spaniards possibly as far north as the Oregon coast. Overall the expedition was a failure from its original premise. It’s commander had died, ships were lost in storms, and they failed to find passage to the spice islands of Asia or the northwest passage to the Atlantic. But they had claimed 800 miles of Pacific coast for the Spanish and the knowledge and charts made were instrumental in further explorations and crossings of the Pacific.
The monument was established in 1913 and commemorates the Cabrillo expedition while protecting the tip of Point Loma. Cliffs and tidal ecosystems are preserved as is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse which was built in 1854. For anyone visiting, the most important protection is the view of San Diego and the Pacific which is owned by the United States people and wasn’t snatched up years ago for millions by some Hollywood blowhard or internet genius.
It was also at Cabrillo that we realized we had made a pretty big error in our planning. You’ll notice throughout this write up that we have Ubered everywhere so far. Cabrillo isn’t exactly close to San Diego (as you can tell) and we were lucky to get an Uber back in time to get ready for the wedding. Both trips and then the subsequent trip to La Jolla and back weren’t cheap. Unless you are staying in the middle of everything and you aren’t planning on going to far, I’d recommend finding a good rental deal because the costs will be comparable.
The wedding itself was in La Jolla at the La Valencia Hotel. If you’re not familiar with it, it is where swankiness and scenery meet. This place is 50 shades of fancy, looking over the Pacific, between La Jolla Cove and Seal Rock, a 20 minute drive away from Torrey Pines Golf Course.
The wedding was a blast even if the ceremony itself was outside under the heatla..sun. Madison and Alex, if Alisha sends this to yall, nicely done and congratulations again.
VI. It’s F**king Hot!
Despite going to a wedding the night before, we (and by that I mean myself) woke up early, grabbed a rental car (no more Ubers!) and set off for the next stage of the trip. For this round we were going to head out to Joshua Tree National Park and then into the gaping maw of traffic and noise that is Los Angeles. It is truly amazing how quickly the Mediterranean climate of the Pacific Coast transitions to brutal Mojave desert. It’s also crazy the mountains that Californians casually live and work around. To the thousands of people that travel on I-10 between the San Bernadino Mountains and Mount San Jacinto everyday, it’s just a fact of life. For someone who grew up on the Texas Gulf plain and now lives in Oklahoma, I had a hard time just keeping the car straight.
We happily took the turn north to Yucca Valley and away from the Coachella traffic (and yes our trip coincided with Coachella) and it wasn’t long before we started seeing our first Joshua Trees.
When a cactus and a tree love each other very much…
Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside the park as a national monument in 1936 and it was raised to a full fledged national park in 1994. Joshua Tree preserves the unique ecosystem where its trademark joshua trees, actually a massive version of the yucca plant, thrive. The park is an ecological transition zone where the Mojave desert of the western half of the park meets the Sonoran desert of the eastern half. Alisha hates deserts but it would appear I’ve brought her to the Sonoran desert twice in three years (Big Bend is also in the Sonoran Desert). This time while she was sunburned. My bad…
Another trademark feature of the park are the massive jumbled stacks of tan boulders that dominate the horizon.
Similar to Big Bend, and especially the Wichita Mountains, magma rose up and cooled over millions of years underground. As the rock cooled cracks formed and natural uplift combined with weathering widened the cracks and smoothed out the boulders. Once the surface soil had eroded away all that was left were the massive piles and granite intrusions that pockmark the park and draw thousands of climbers every year.
Above 3,000 feet on the western half of the park, the Mojave system thrives with junipers , pinon pines, joshua trees, yuccas and prickly pears carpeting the boulder strewn flats in green. As you approach the eastern half, the joshua trees thin out and suddenly disappear altogether as you enter the Sonoran system. Here, smoke trees, ocotillos, palo verdes and desert flowers dominate. Small desert wildlife call the park home. Iguanas, rattlesnakes, owls, hawks, jackrabbits, small mice, kit foxes, roadrunners and tortoises all live here. Bighorn sheep live in the scattered rocks and mountains but the largest living things under the desert sun are the joshua trees, some which features dozens of spindle covered arms stretching into the sky. Mormon travelers and settlers in the region saw this and were reminded of Joshua, the Israelite leader who led the invasion of Canaan after the death of Moses in the books of Exodus and Joshua, reaching up to the sky in prayer.
Joshua Tree reminds me a lot of Big Bend. Both have volancic origins and cover desert ecosystems. They are both massive and getting from point A to point B takes a while. There were whole sections of Big Bend that we really didn’t get to see and that was true for Joshua Tree as well. Most roads and viewing sections are in the mountainous northwestern section of the park. Pinto Basin Road connects the northern boundary with the southern boundary but there is no internal west-east road. Off road routes can take you into the heart of the Sonoran desert basin but accessing the wilderness of the eastern Eagle Mountains and distant Coxcomb Mountains would be a challenge to say the least.
One can’t miss spot in all of this is Keys View. The view is in the middle of the western half of the park at 5,185 feet in the Little San Bernadino Mountains (that make up the southwest boundary of the park). From the view you can look south and west onto the entire Coachella Valley. For us, looking due south we could see the Coachella festival, the Salton Sea and in the extreme distance the outline of Signal Peak which is actually just over the Mexican border. Looking due west you can see Palm Springs, Mount San Jacinto and the snowcapped San Bernadino Mountains.
Does this count as going to Coachella?
About one or two in the afternoon we began the long slog to Los Angeles.
VII. It’s F**king Crowded!
I don’t know if we did LA wrong, or if it is just not my kind of town, but I had the exact opposite experience from San Diego in the City of Angels. All at the same time, Los Angeles is 1) too big, 2) too crowded, 3) every driver is a maniac, and 4) all of the good stuff is crazy far away from each other. We started off really poorly too. Our Airbnb ended up being good but first impressions were ridiculously sketchy. We went and saw the Hollywood sign but an attempt to get to Griffith Observatory at sunset on a Saturday ended about as well as you could expect.
We redeemed things a little bit by going to Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive that night to bask in the egregious opulence of the top one-one-hundredth of the one percent (jewelry so expensive they lock it in a vault at night and still have a guard on watch).
There really isn’t too much to say about this part. From Joshua Tree to Rodeo Drive we were pretty much just in the car and trying to get from A to B. This pattern would be repeated until Monday morning. Welcome to LA.
VIII. Channel Islands National Park(‘s visitor center…)
We woke up super early on Sunday to head out from LA to Oxnard to catch our ferry to Channel Islands National Park.
Channel Islands protects five of the eight “channel islands” that lie off the southern coast of California. The park (in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy) protects Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa (our destination), Santa Barbara and San Miguel islands. San Nicolas and San Clemente are controlled by the navy. Lastly, Santa Catalina is a popular tourist destination off Los Angeles.
The park protect a unique marine/island ecosystem that is home to hundreds of unique species of plants and wildlife from seabirds to seals. Cold and warm ocean currents meet amongst the islands, upwelling nutrients from the ocean floor and allowing diverse marine ecosystems to thrive, along with massive kelp forests that encircle the islands.
Chumash indians, the same that Cabrillo ran into, came to the islands centuries ago before they were removed by the Spanish to mainland missions. When the U.S. took over control of the islands, ranching and military operations dominated at the expense of the ecological system. With the exception of Santa Catalina, most of the development has been removed and the island ecosystems are stabilizing. A national monument was established in 1938 and Congress elevated it to a park in 1980.
Months before we booked a ferry to take us to Anacapa Island. We were looking forward to several hours of hiking on seaside cliffs and getting away from motor vehicles. The morning of the trip though I checked my email and the ferries were cancelled for the day due to large ocean swells.
We still decided to strike west and check out the area. Oxnard is a cool little seaside town but there wasn’t much to do since the ferry was cancelled.
We stopped at an In-and-Out to see what the fuss was all about and left knowing Whataburger is better (and I will die on that hill by the way). We popped up to see the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and thoroughly enjoyed the outside of the building since tickets were $16/person.
More than a little frustrated with the Los Angeles portion of the trip we dove into the Santa Monica Mountains to check out the National Recreation Area.
The Santa Monica NRA is a very different kind of park. It stretches roughly from Highway 101 to the Pacific Coast Highway and encompasses the mountains and canyons west of Los Angeles. The NRA is comprised of national parkland, state parks and random chunks of public land. All intermixed around this is private land, super-wealthy suburbs, Pepperdine University and the town of Malibu. These mountains are a mishmash of trails, campsites, public beaches and private lands. It stretches from the outskirts of Oxnard all the way into Hollywood. Cutting through canyons you reach the Pacific Coast Highway which is absolutely stunning for the few minutes you can enjoy it before its just beach houses on both sides.
We followed PCH and called the audible to try the Santa Monica Pier.
Credit where credit is due, Santa Monica was a lot better. You’ll need to park in the town in a garage but unless you are there all day your ticket should be free. The pier itself is very crowded but the mix of amusement rides, carnival booths, burger stands and ice cream counters work. Walking the length of the pier with “end of route 66” signs being sold next to caricatures and then standing at the end with the American flag waving over the Pacific you realize you’re standing in one of the iconic locations in the country.
I definitely wish Channel Islands had worked out but this was a good consolation prize.
We dove back into LA and then saw the Walk of Fame, though Alisha was far more excited about that than I was. We met up with friends and 1) ate surprisingly good seafood in a sketchy party of Hollywood and then 2) got drinks at a super sketchy dive bar in a sketchy part of Hollywood. With our trip back to San Diego to start early tomorrow we called it.
IX. Automobiles, Trains and (delayed) Planes
The next morning we dove into yet more traffic. I’m starting to suspect a pattern here. We took the rental car to a drop off near LAX (I still almost feel bad that I took that thing from a beautiful part of San Diego and took it to LAX) and then Ubered the long slog to downtown Los Angeles. I actually like downtown LA and can see why that area is becoming more popular. It was at Union Station that we realized how extensive the LA metro system is and thank God for Los Angelinos because your traffic literally detracts from your city and I say that as a Houstonian so I have some leg to stand on.
To fly out of San Diego we had to actually get back to San Diego first. We could have driven the rental back…but I’ll never pass up the opportunity to take a train because I am a train nerd. We booked a ride from LA to San Diego on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and it was every bit of awesome as I hoped.
We were out of LA in 30 minutes which I didn’t think was physically possible.
The rest of the trip we were right on the beach until we were in San Diego where the train dropped us right off in the middle of everything.
We didnt have too much time to do anything else so we headed to the airport from the station for our long overnight slog back to DFW.
Funny thing happened around 9 p.m., our flight which had been consistently bumped back 10 and then 30 minutes starting about the time we pulled into San Diego, was suddenly cancelled. Spirit offered to put on the next flight to DFW, a similar overnight slog 24 hours later. With no more off-time to burn that…wasn’t going to work. Alisha spent about an hour on the phone working her way to the CEO of Spirit before she finally pulled a rabbit out of her backside and Spirit booked us on an American flight the next day. Keep in mind she was doing this while seething, trying to prepare for finals and I was pushing for Spirit to book us a rental so we could start driving immediately (because I don’t fly well and I had it in my head that I could have us in Phoenix by 1 a.m. at this point…yeah I know). Spirit put us up one last night in San Diego. We debated going to Gaslamp one more time but at this point were just exhausted and ready to go. The next day we were back in DFW and then OKC from there.
X. The Final Verdict
So what are the big take aways from California? I think I have three main ones:
1.For A Liberal And Geologic Hellhole It Sure Seems Fine
I don’t like my writing to get too political but one talking point has always fascinated me. For liberals, the red states are boring ignorant hellholes where you are likely to get shot. For conservatives, the blue states are communist elitist hellholes where you are also likely to get shot. Take it from me, every place has its flaws and its local perks. I was half expecting some major culture change from the moment we landed and it never occurred. The people are fine, no different than anywhere else, and I guess things cost a bit more and people drive more efficient vehicles because, again, everything costs just a bit more. Sure, I was no big fan of LA but that’s no shocker because I hate traffic, don’t care for Hollywood and I don’t like crowds. Even then I think parts of it have a lot going for them. I’d love to poke around downtown LA for longer than an hour. On the way in from Joshua Tree I wanted to swing in through the San Bernadinos and get my mountain vibez on (which is me saying I will drive hours out of my way to maybe get a chance to see snow). Had we been able to get to Channel Islands I’m sure the LA portion of the trip would have been 180 degrees different.
Ultimately, we know what works for us and what doesn’t but that doesn’t automatically mean the things you dislike are evil or wrong…except Rodeo Drive…that level of opulence is like something out of Revelations.
2.They Don’t Know How Good They Have It
You can ski in the morning and end the day on the beach in Los Angeles. San Diego’s weather is literally perfect. Everywhere you go there are rolling hills, casual massive mountains, national parks and forests and incredible vistas. San Diego, Los Angeles and even San Francisco which we didn’t see are A-list world cities. Getting to Las Vegas from LA or San Diego is a little bit longer than our current OKC to DFW run. In the time it takes us to get from OKC to Houston (8 hours) you could be in about 300 national parks, world class Mexican beaches or world class ski resorts. I’ll give yall the traffic and the cost of living but take it from someone who has spent the last two years of his life on the Great Plains dodging tornadoes and heat advisories, you don’t know how good you have it.
3.I love San Diego, Yall Can Keep Los Angeles
When I was living in DFW and basically commuting across it every day I thought that slog was about as bad it got. It has nothing on what Los Angeles has become from Beaumont (not TX) to Oxnard. To give the Texans some perspective, the size of LA would be if you took DFW and stretched it so that it was almost unbroken city and suburbs from western Fort Worth east to about Tyler. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t care for celebrities or Hollywood and I don’t like crowds and I detest traffic so yeah, LA is not my kind of place.
On the flip side I fell in love with San Diego. Every now and then I’ll text Alisha saying I miss San Diego. I’m so happy with the way this trip turned out (though I really wish we had been able to do Channel Islands) and even then I wonder if we would have enjoyed it more had we stayed in San Diego the whole time. Its just close enough that you can do all of the good California stuff but you also get to live in a city that makes sense. It has traffic, but Houston/normal levels of traffic. And then there are all of the perks like the zoo, Balboa Park, the laid back attitude, downtown, the harbor, Gaslamp, Seaworld (which we didn’t get to) and the beaches.
And oh yeah the weather is always perfect.