Breezing through the West Coast

It all started with Chinese food.

Not far into our dating time, we grabbed a Chinese take out for dinner and drove to a small open park behind the airport, right by the runway’s end (or the beginning, depending whether you are an optimist or a realist). We parked the car, opened the sweaty white Styrofoam containers and dreamt out loud – cautiously – about how wonderful it would be to travel together one day. California? Road trip! Dreams, as it often happens, shaped up into a reality on beautiful summer morning a few months later.

Slam-slam-bang, two doors closed, trunk locked and the gas pedal to the metal – we have departed, with travel bags, hand luggage, a backpack, a laptop bag, a supply of snacks and even an emergency blanket in tow (my now-husband used to be a boy scout in his previous life aka. a thrilling wilderness-based youth). Here we are: he, fully and constantly prepared to shield us from any kind of natural or supernatural disasters with a thin aluminum foil of an emergency blanket, and me, in my blue suede shoes praying that disasters and bypass us on the way across the West coast and back. Ready, set, drive!

Driving from Vancouver, Canada down to the Mexican border and back, we agreed to spend the bigger part of our journey on the way down, taking the picturesque Highway 101 by the coast, and then breezing through a different, faster and less scenic, route on the way back. Little did we know about the distance in real life, but we were yet to discover the joys and thrills of this real all-American road trip.

A white teeth smile (a mundane one rather than friendly) on the Canadian-American border: “Where are you guys headed to?” The border officer is about to regret this question – we fire out the answers like a possessed tennis ball machine: “Oregon! San Francisco! LA! San Diego! Sacramento! Portland!” He handed the passports back, though we didn’t even get through half of the stops on our roadtrip agenda. Oh well, his loss. We are about to drive through almost twenty cities in just two weeks. No sweat. Just a lot of fuel (sorry, environment) and a reliable GPS navigation.

We cross over to the Olympic National Park peninsula in Washington State by a quick ferry ride. Cars pack tightly onto the lower level, passengers stomp onto the upper deck. A small bar sells cold Chardonnay in plastic glasses, we toast to the beginning of our journey, the wind pulls at my hair, I laugh, the sun glimmers on the waves of the Pudget sound, captain sounds the horn.

We stop by a little wooden, probably shed-inspired restaurant; everything is wooden in this part of the state. You are in the organic kingdom – woods, fields and wooden houses. We check out patio facing a swamp and a piece of forest, then follow the upwards gazes of people on the terrace. There are random pops of colour in the sky – red circle, then blue circle, then yellow. The circles spiral down to the ground. The first skydiver lands in a bog in front of the patio – few more meters and he would have successfully landed on the chair in front of a cold pint of local beer. Other jumpers land moments later almost in a rehearsed synchronicity. There is an applause and cheering on the patio. Skydivers join their friends for a drink. The atmosphere of celebration. We have just caught a glimpse of someone else’s summer and adventure. And I have to tell you, it is contagious.

Astoria, Oregon is the Narnia of the West coast. You cross almost six kilometres of the light blue steel bridge above the dark blue waves of Columbia river. Crooked-beak seagulls race with the car, they fly against the wind, floating right above it (reach out from the car window and you can almost touch their weightless warm feathers). Seagulls give a farewell and a welcome – from Washington state to Oregon state. No tax state. No stress state. Cross the bridge – and the new land unfolds. The town inches in on you from under the bridge – and then crumbles over the hills and streets with its colourful steady houses. Red and green wood, warm roads, summer bloom, neat flowerbeds and cozy familiarity on the August evening. The town of Astoria is tucked away between the water and the West coast woods that are stuffed with badgers, beavers, Bambies and golf fields.


We spent the first night of the adventure in a welcoming house on the hill – with generations of family furniture, embroidered sheets, woven baskets, heavy wool blankets and shelves with sleeping books. A kind elderly couple told us about their portion of good old days, their tango dancing, distant family, close relationships and golf victories. I woke up early, quietly, to find breakfast – flaky croissants with a golden square of fresh butter. Outside there is a swing, a few garden chairs, a fresh cut lawn. I poke at the wet grass with my bare painted toes. The morning hills are alluring. They promise glorious days ahead.

We drive by the Oregon coast all day, slapped in the face with its roughness, wilderness and dramatic scenery. The ocean here is untrimmed, the beach – uncombed. Forget your swimsuits – here you walk on the endless misty beaches wearing gum boots and a windbreaker. The coast is loved, the coast is rough. For lunch stop by the fish shop, an old school local fish shop, the kind with a vintage sign and handwritten price tags. Pick up a fresh crab, it is snowy white, its succulent and sweet meat bears the memory of the ocean. Treat yourself to this journey of flavour.

On the very south of Oregon the highway leads travellers away from the coast, as if deliberately limiting their access to the impossible beauty of a dramatic scenery. Though you can’t deny a humid presence of the ocean everywhere on the West coast. It gets under your skin – and your skin glows.


We stop for late dinner in Coos Bay, Oregon. The meticulously authentic German restaurant is sitting on the one – and quite likely, only – big road through town. The parking lot is empty, traces of black eyeliner of tire tracks melt on the hot asphalt. There is a quietness spilled in the air – a type of quiet that only happens on Sunday night in summer, where sounds are hushed by cushy meadows. It is like a long exhale. It is like Mother Nature has just finished a yoga lesson. Shawasana of summer.

A hearty dinner, dressed up wait staff, wartime posters on the walls, sauerkraut and plump sausages (perforate them with a fork – pok!) Little did we know at that moment that there is still hours and hours of driving ahead of us tonight. Would have fueled up more on this traditional family meal (my husband is of a German decent and he knows how to tell the bratwurst from liverwurst in a split second).

“It seemed so close on the map!” – how many times we groaned this phrase out to each other on our journey, squeezing yet another dozen miles from a practically empty gas tank, trying hard to reach the destination that seemed deceivingly close on Google. “Ha! – we thought. – We can easily cross the whole Oregon state in one day”. The key word here is “easily”. You can cross Oregon in a day, but do yourself a favour and forget all the words that start with “e”, which includes “eat”, “easy”, “enough”, “exhausted” and “eeeee, I want to sleep”. Almost sixteen hours of speed driving through the most rugged and dramatic coast of the US. When you travel, allow for flexibility. Build into your agenda some time to run on the sand dunes, to picnic under ancient trees, to browse through antique markets, to buy fresh seafood from a fisherman. Allow for more. Allow for unexpected moments of joy. Otherwise they, unfulfilled, will haunt you forever.

It was almost midnight when the headlights finally cut out a green road sign out of the dark. “Welcome to California”, it said in the middle of a forest. Having been driving since 8am, little enthusiasm we had left but still managed to pull off by the sign and broke out the camera. Historic moment, needless to say. As soon as we got out of the car, the darkness fell – and this is not a metaphor. The midnight highway is dark, carless, peopleless and lifeless – in contrast with the surrounding woods which are full of life. The highway doesn’t simply run through the woods – the woods allow for it, they kindly part for the highway to run through its luscious hectares. The woods breathe, move, groan, crack and talk at night. The sky peers down onto us, two tiny people by the parked car – the sky peers with its thousand eyes. The woods whisper, the moon shines onto the “Welcome to California” sign. The world closes in on the moment. It’s not just creepy – it is majestic. Goosebumps – or is it just a shudder? – the entirety of the moment is almost physical. You are little, the world is big, the road is long and the time is now…

The approach to San Francisco by land is comparable to the eye-pleasing approach by air. It is simply charged with gorgeous views – just watch out, you will be bombarded soon enough, so hold on tight. You sneak through the tunnel, leaving terracotta mountains behind. Then suddenly you are faced with inevitability and blunt redness of the Golden Gate bridge. What a privilege to drive into the city of fog through its main pulsating artery. The laws of physics seem to bypass the San Francisco streets. We hope and pray and try not to shift our weight too much when we approach our first hill. Our little red car, our brave fighter, shutters our worst expectations – defying gravity, it doesn’t simply roll back, as expected! Though with an effort, we triumphantly climb up at almost 45 degrees angle. The parked cars in this city seem like someone’s clever prank, so unnaturally they are parked at the steep avenues, they remind me of domino pieces – the arrangement seems relatively stable, but try it, poke it with just a finger – and it seems they all will tumble down the hill in an instant, snowballing down to the water.

We are staying in a three story San Franciscan house, narrow and unique like all. Our host opens the door, throws a generous smile onto us. She is a painter, sleek wrists, long hair, clean carpets, light footsteps, three cats, oil canvas and “please leave your shoes by the door thank you”. Driftwood artistically nestles on the walls. A fireplace in our room, the mantelpiece lined with flowers, art books and – unexpectedly – a fragile alligator skeleton. …The morning light cats in through a spacious window. A thoughtful breakfast on a silver tray: blueberry scones crumble at the touch. Our pillows still warm with Californian dreams. Three cats roam around, three sets of paws: grey, grey and white, books everywhere, decadent bathtub, quiet whiteness of the halls, beach stones. This house seems to be hosting summer all year long.


The Fisherman’s Warf is a busy place. We stop for a moment by the bakerywith the floor to ceiling windows, where dark quick hands of a baker shape up flowers, animals and bread loafs from sour dough. It smells like bread. And bread – it always smells like home. We line up for one of the multiple cruises around the bay that depart in abundance from the Fisherman’s Warf. While in a line up, a smiling man comes up to me: “Hey, take this one, it’s free, all smiles are free”. He hands me a bright yellow sticker with a smiley face written on it. That’s true, smiles, like kindness, are free indeed.

The boat ride around San Francisco satisfies a great deal of the adventure thirst and hunger. Standing at the nose of the boat, you eat the wind. The wind licks your hands, nips on your windbreaker, unceremoniously roughs up your hair. You are possessed by the wind of the Pacific that is as old as the Bay itself. The Golden Gate Bridge arches it’s giant back, spreads its pillars apart for the boat to pass. Seagulls diligently patrol the Alcatraz. You wipe the cold sweat of the ocean mist from your forehead. This moment is staying with you, for longer than any postcards you ever purchase from a tourist stand. San Francisco is an explorer’s dream.


“It is a couple of hours, right? LA can’t be too far from San Francisco?” – we are dragging the bags down the three flights of stairs. Saying our thank-you-good-byes to the host. The painter lady looks at us, gray strands in her hair, smile hidden in the about-to-show dimples: “No, it is about 8 hours. So suit yourself”. And suit ourselves we did, for a long ride.

Having recently driven through the untamed Oregon coast, we try not to let our hearts be too carried away by the splendid and soothing views of the Big Sur coastline. There is an undeniable beauty in the scenery, its own pace and rhythm, interrupted by the dangerously slow camper vans on the highway every once in a while. This drive is a constant flow, it is a gorgeous though beaten track for roadtrips. It is a praised connector, an ultimate Californian roadtrip-in-a-day between the two cities which seem to have very little in common besides this ocean view drive that links them.


We pass the renown Monterrey Bay, stop for a cup of iced coffee with whipped cream in Carmel-by-the-Sea (what a sugary name for a pastoral town by the beach). It quietly bursts with classic and modern art galleries and art shops. You can buy a silk scarf or an expensive jewelry and every shadowy corner of the town would look and feel like you are strolling through an artistic resort, too popular to be authentic, but undeniably adorable with its pine trees, ocean air and French inspired coffee shops.

We pull over when we see a large crowd of people by the shore. A packed parking lot and a sign – “Please don’t feed elephant seals”. Elephant seals?! Now I am almost running. Nosy, floppy, heavy animals, they lounge around like royals, flapping fins, throwing sand and singing their seal songs to each other. They lay ashore, resting, wondering why the crowds of gaggling tourists keeps pouring into their backyard.

We arrive to Los Angeles in the undeniable proximity to midnight. Back alley of the huge, faceless houses. Garbage bins, recycling bins, someone’s cat and tree branch shadows. A delightful moment, especially given that we have no keys or instructions on how to enter the house. Have you seen the chilling movie called Mulholland Drive? It is saturated with creepy and bizarre scenes beyond any limit. Now imagine our arrival scene upgraded – the house of our host is located nowhere else but right on the corner of Mulholland Drive. I want to run, or crawl – as I doubt I am that good of a runner after hours of sitting in the car. After some impromptu voodoo dancing around the house and calling the host, we manage to get mind-bending instructions on how to hack the lock that hides the key to another lock. It is like nestling dolls of madness – but we manage to make it to our rental. Another lesson learnt – it is almost nine, not two hours drive that connects San Francisco with the sea of the electric lights of LA.

California, the way I imagine it, is a young girl, not even in her twenties yet, cropped top, cut jeans, relentless and insatiable, lazy and creative, worldly but local… Every big city has its own “gotta-dos” and “gotta-tries”. One of the major gotta-dos here is, of course, the Hollywood sign.  Erected in 1923, the sign looms over the valley like Zeus from Olympus. In case you ever forget where you are, it won’t let you enjoy the bliss of amnesia for too long. To take a snapshot in front of the sign is not a simple enterprise by any measure. Here you are about to be stampeded – and to stampede some in return – a dozen or two of tourists that take turns on a dusty hill in front of the sign. Hollywood is a glue trap – and I got caught in it. I have my feet stuck to the ground against my will, I am posing for the picture, big smile on my face, I-am-in-Hollywood kind of picture, yuppie-look-at-me kind of picture, the Facebook material kind, and then, with all the preparations, anticipation and commotion – the moment is gone and the smile fades. There is a line up already. Hollywood is sticky, and not in a sticky sugary sweet kind of way.

We head to the amusement park outside of Los Angeles, we rollercoast the day away, screaming, rotating, shrieking, shaking on the thrill rides, then sweating in the long line ups, then freezing in the air-conditioned restaurants and essentially just going back 20 years to when we both were kids, to the time when an amusement park was on the top of the priority list on any given summer day. Strawberry ice cream and sunburns, the joy of childhood. We leave the park at the sundown.


We drove down Sunset Boulevard, lined up with agile and endless palm trees. A Northern girl, a Russian child – I am always transfixed by the palm trees. I am fascinated, inspired and excited. Palm trees mean vacation, palm trees mean being away from home. They are a bit out-of-this-worldly, they are like elephants on long legs from Salvador Dali’s paintings. Another palm-lined drive and Venice Boulevard crashes onto the Venice beach. There is a flood of people, muscle cars, parked cars, tiny dogs and rollerblades. It is, like a bathtub, overflowing. Not being misanthropic in any way, we nevertheless turn around and drive towards Santa Monica.

Santa Monica is a piece of eternal summer love, it is an American teenage summer that you never had, an escape from LA, a touristic roundabout of faces, shops and music. Santa Monica smells like pink cotton candy, oyster bars, salty ocean, crispy sand, vodka cocktails and paper shopping bags. Hemingway wrote about the moveable feast. Santa Monica is a permanent feast. Right here, in the middle of this sun-kissed, long haired, laid back and thriving Californian land.


We leave Los Angeles feeling like we are breaking out of this kingdom of highways and traffic, of smoke and electric pollution. We drive to Mission Viejo, Orange County to visit family friends who have been living there for a few years. The mother of my childhood friend, always most elegant and serious, who I haven’t seen for years; the grandmother fries her world-famous zucchini pancakes, a pepper tree grows in a lovingly kept garden, their house greets us with light and welcoming, familiar warmth. We drive to the lake all together, walking barefoot on hot asphalt, we swim in the cooling, pickle-coloured water. We take foolish pictures of our toes on the sand. My hands smell like cherries and sunscreen. A family of geese walks right buy. Mamma goose, baby geese, they run across the communal beach with the rush of movie stars on the red carpet.

Temecula is a grape heaven in the mountains of south California (it is fraternally referred to as SoCal, the same kind of name manipulation as Vancity, Van, T.O., T dot and all the other casual contractions that bite away from the juiciness of the full names). After half a day of driving through the Mars-like scenery and empty highways, the sunset coloured valley of Temecula spills up ahead, it seems like a warm colourful blanket wrapped around the hills. Come here, you, tired travellers, kick back, indulge, sip and rest. Come dance barefoot and drunk on the warm tiles of the local central square, come savour our freshly cut meat, handpicked greens and freshly stomped grapes. We are staying in the house of the local construction magnate. White hair and even whiter goatee, a beautiful wife, curly waterfall of hair, a Chihuahua squeezed under the armpit – they have built up wealthy neighborhoods in this town for years. The house boasts a museum-size collection of bronze statues, fake flowers, oversized vases and heavy paintings of Tuscan scenery. The valley view from the window is enough to make the paintings fade. Silk pillows, golden frames, heavy door knobs. Somehow the hospitality of the owners lacks sincerity, their warmth lacks geniality, their smiles are a habit. We sleep in a large soulless guest room, oppressed by the stone-cold elegance of this house, that is in so much contrast with the warmth of the valley and the surrounding natural beauty. Temecula needs no golden frames, it is a valley of bliss, a wine yard oasis flawless in itself already.

In San Diego we walk on the curvy pier. Seagulls royally top the pillars, up ahead in the ocean mist there is a silhouette of the pirate ship – and right next to it is a military plane carrier. Two ships, the people gawking. Old meets new, Caribbean meets Pacific, aggression meets aggression. Somewhere not far enough from the city centre is a large military base. Planes take off by the water. A monster back of the convention centre looms ahead. The tall and glassy downtown roasts in the sunlight. The Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego is boiling with evening crowds of leisure. Conference people with name tags, families, singles, doubles, elderly couples, locals and travellers and passersby. A guy carries a painted plastic horse under his arm. Face painted kids. We are on the patio, sleek iron chairs, silk curtains, hummus, eggplant, sangria and our endless summer for dessert.

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San Diego curves by the bay, from north to south, it is a half-moon of beaches and prime real estate by the water. We stop for some freshly shucked oysters, seagulls rip their throats, demanding, fighting. Pelicans drift down to the docks, their superman wingspan is head-turning. A silver tile of the fish is clasped tight in a pelican’s beak. Majestic birds, too busy to talk to you or to each other. The camera clicks on and on. Then, just half an hour away, is La Jolla, where beach meets cliffs and cliffs meet park. The cliffs here are beige and warm, like pieces of fresh sweet biscuit. Here the ocean has been biting away at the land for thousands of years, creating a rugged beach that is yet perfect for sunset walks. Inspired by the evening breeze, I pick up a few white shells and sea stars from a street vendor. Later at home, I flip over one of the stars – there is a sticker at the bottom. It proudly states: “The product of Philippines”. My little refugee shells, memories across the Pacific.


From San Diego we drove to the Mexican border. The exit signs emerge on the side of the highway with a dangerous frequency: last three exits before the border, last two exists, last exit… So tempting, but no, not yet. We did eventually go down to Mexico, and more than once, and ended up saying our I-do’s on the gorgeous beach on a windy afternoon. But this is a different story, from a different tale. Here in California we almost touched the door to colourful Mexico – and then turned around and headed up to Sacramento.

Sacramento has long streets, lined up with chestnuts, there is fountains and seemingly not enough people outside. When you are on vacation – the whole world seems to be at leisure too. When you travel, your universe effortlessly cuts out any offices, cubicles, taxes, sign-here-sign-there, stamp-stamp, nine-to-five kind of things. In Sacramento we met two kind people, their house lined up with dreams of London and Paris that intertwine strangely but peacefully with the South East Asian décor. Orchids, bamboo, roses and fresh coffee. Oh the city of leisure, it seems frozen in the summer afternoon. A short stopover on the way further, back towards Canada, passing by the Lake Tahoe with its pine tree forests and fruit stands along the windy roads.

Where Lake Tahoe ends, with its oasis of greenery and makeshift beaches – the real dessert begins. We left behind the moist and fresh air and headed up north – ironically, for a while through the blistering heat of the dessert. We take breaks driving, we take turns reading Slaughter House Five to each other, we stuff mouthfuls of sour cream and onion flavoured Pringles and reach out for not-so-cold-anymore water bottles. I am navigating, peering into the GPS like it is a Holy Grail of our pilgrimage. “After we pass the lake on the right hand side, there is a turn, so keep your eyes open”. I look up from GPS to admire the lake. But the lake is not there. Back to GPS, back to where the lake is supposed to be. I am confused, hoping the map is wrong. But the map is right, it just couldn’t keep up with the reality. There is indeed white area maybe a mile long, an empty sandy land covered with a buzz cut of grass. The contours of what used to be the lake are now fading away like old lace in the sun. It is plus thirty eight Celsius. The sinking feeling, the changed landscape. It has changed so rapidly that our GPS maps from two years ago are simply no longer valid. We (all of us) need new maps – the ones showing the long gone lakes and dried up rivers, showing what has disappeared already and what is disappearing right now. It is awakening, shocking. Global climate change has stopped being a fashionable topic and has become a call for action. It is a choking reality, hard on the eyes and even harder on the heart. These environmental changes are real, but they are also quiet. Our nature dies in silence.

We are back to Oregon now, driving north, heading back to Oh-Canada. Crossing another dense forest. Orange cones, construction sign flashes bright orange letters – a light show for occasional drivers: “This roads is closed on Thursday and Saturday”. We happened to be driving there on Friday. What a lucky occasion. Otherwise we would have been forced to camp out in the dark Oregon forest and get to know local species of bears a little closer than I would have liked to. With just a few miles left to our pit stop, we cross over a picturesque bridge and I cruise downhill on an empty road, windows rolled down. I am attentive so I spot flashing police lights in the back view mirror only a few minutes later, but not exactly when I am supposed to be. “Why is he flashing?” – I ask my husband, solely out of curiosity, continuing speeding nonchalantly. You know, where I come from a cop with flashing lights can mean a variety of things, too many to start considering when you are driving by such a gorgeous sunset. “Pull over!” – exhales my husband. Later he would remind me of that incident over and over again for years to come, calling me his “little runaway”. “Oregon state police, your license and registration please, you are 15 miles above the limit” – an honest face brimmed by a uniform hat peaks into the window. I didn’t even have to lie here: “Officer, we are driving home from a long trip to California and we are so tired and your Oregon sunset – it is just so beautiful. We really want to get to bed and lay flat for a change”. “Alright, you guys drive safely” – the officer seemed like he couldn’t help but agree that the orange rainbow of the sunset is spectacular enough to overlook some minor speeding.

We stayed for another day in Portland, Oregon. A funky town with vintage-praising crowds and a widespread bike fever that is too interesting to pass right through. We ended up returned to Portland a year later, to fully enjoy some tax-free local beer, reconstructed and reinvented heritage houses, rusted bridge over a mellow river, arts and craft fairs, music everywhere, succulent Mexican food and unexpected strip bar invasion. This city is a paradise for bikers, pedestrians, hipsters, hippies and Nike headquarters workers. That day had champagne and crispy French toast for breakfast and headed back to dear Canada with an intention to come back for more.

Before heading back through Washington State all the way up to Canada, we have taken a detour to visit my husband’s grandma and grandpa. They live in a small town called Shelton, famous for its woodmill, somewhat redneck lifestyle and mostly, for being a home to Oma and Opa. My husband’s grandmother came to the US from Germany, quite a long time ago. I have never met them before at that point and was very excited to the grandparents smiling happily from the porch of their house. Silver curls and kind eyes, ironic smiles and sarcastic jokes of Oma paved the way to my heart in an instant. We ate  bratwurst and liverwurst, German rye bread and jams – and I knew exactly where my husband’s knowledge of homemade German food comes from. A house full of light and memories. We steeped and re-steeped the tea because it was time to leave and we didn’t want to. I felt that in my husband’s grandparents I am recognizing this unmistakable, unconditional love. We were already becoming a family. We walked around the spacious garden. A ritual visit to plants, herbs and flowers. Strawberry bushes, apple trees, a swing for their young granddaughter, a loud and friendly labrador Jack, a couple of cats hunting in the wilderness of the garden. Grandfather picks some raspberries from the bush – they sit in his wrinkled palm, these little blood drops of summer. To date they were most delicious raspberries I have ever tasted. They soaked up the love and the sun. We hugged – I knew that I found yet home for my heart…

Fourteen nights and endless miles later, closer than ever before, having not had a need for an emergency blanket (yet!) and having stuffed our cameras and memory sticks with hundreds of photos (as always), we returned home. We handed our passports to the officer at the border to Canada. “Where did you guys go?” This time we don’t give a list of cities, there is simply too many memories to list. We shrug and smile: “We went on a roadtrip, just breezed all the way through the West Coast and back”. The officer hands back our passports (one dark blue, Canadian, and the other one red, like raspberry): “Welcome back to Canada!”

 Olga Barrows,  June 2014


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