Before our daughter was born, my husband and I took a lot of road trips. Granted, we travelled a lot in in those days, but road trips were something particularly us. He had an old Subaru Legacy with room for weeks worth of snacks, books, pajamas, dog food, and hiking gear, and every month or so we would load up the trunk and just head north. Not east or south or west, just north.
For those of you unacquainted with the great California divide, it may be difficult to understand the southerly sighs and rolled eyes that will inevitably this discussion of the merits of the northern reaches of our state. It may also be difficult to understand the disdain many (most?) northerners express in regards to the south. To help put this post into context, here’s a very brief introduction (full of vast generalizations that ignore every part of this very large state other than Los Angeles and the Bay Area):
Simply put, we are different states with one name, conjoined twins who have nothing in common. Northern California has Silicon Valley, Oaksterdam University, and the legacy of Harvey Milk. Southern California has Hollywood, warm beaches, and Hollywood. Northern California is a superburrito. Southern California is a bacon wrapped hotdog.
Where do I fit into this fight? Northern California is the smart, awkward kid who can’t understand why everyone thinks the southern cheerleader is so cool. When I was in high school, I quit the cheerleading squad so I could hang out with the nerds, and metaphorically speaking, this is exactly what I wish I could do again.
I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about the different lives I’ve had and the different places those lives have been placed. That’s because no matter where I am, no matter how happy or satisfied or rooted I feel in a particular moment, I am always thinking about being someplace else. Call it an overactive imagination, an inescapable sense of adventure, or simply an innate inability to be satisfied.
This really gets me in trouble when I start longing for places and times that I haven’t even experienced in reality – even the most basic weekend getaway can throw my displaced nostalgia into reckless overdrive. My imagination will throw mournful looks at that house I might have lived in, that restaurant where I would have been a regular, that park where I would have taught my daughter to ride a bike. And then I will be stuck, yearning not only for younger, freer times, but for times that haven’t even existed. And nowhere is this yearning more true than in the North.
This weekend, my husband and I took our first road trip in a very, very long time. My husband’s best friend was getting married in Santa Cruz, so we loaded up the hybrid SUV (the Subaru has long since been sold into retirement), dropped the baby off at Yia Yia’s house, and headed north. We took the 5 over the grapevine toward central California, took rural route 46 to cut across to the 101, then over a few big green hills to coastal Highway 1. It’s the same route we took on our way to get engaged in Cambria six years ago, the same route we took on the scenic route to our Nicasio wedding, but I had forgotten how stark and how sudden the change can be. Over the course of a six-hour drive, there is always that moment when I realize I am in the shadow of giant pines, in the bite of the cold Pacific, and this shift in my psyche is so strong I feel it without even cracking my passenger side window.
There are two major elements to this experience: the sensual and the social. The sensual seems obvious – green hills and rugged ocean and the smell of pine; small towns and sophisticated cities; the air is cleaner and the seasons more pronounced.
The social is due in large part to circumstance. My friends in LA are artists and filmmakers, many without day jobs, many still living exciting single lives. My friends up north are newly married or getting close, new parents or considering parenthood, are mostly academics and educators at similar points in their careers as I am. In short, their lives look a lot like mine – quiet, cozy, maybe a little boring – only with a few more fleece jackets. But there is something beyond the circumstances, too, something about the culture that I see emerging in the Bay Area these days – a still extreme sense of liberalism coupled with a new definition of the word responsibility, a new understanding of cause and effect and of unintended consequences. I like this worldview and I like the way it challenges my own status quo.
So why don’t we just move? The answer is all emotion. I love the lifestyle in Northern California, I love the landscape, I love the little communities I have gotten to know. But despite all of my philandering daydreams, my home is in LA. This is where my family is and where my friends are. This is where my daughter is making her first memories and where all of my own growing up happened.
No matter how much nostalgia I might feel for this northern life I haven’t yet lived, it doesn’t compare to the ache the sets in when I honestly consider leaving behind this life I am always trying so hard to get away from. But the love affair isn’t over – just pushed a little deeper into secrecy as I work to make choices that will help my daughter establish the kind of stability that never took root for me as a child. So for now I’ll just have to settle for surreptitious visits and secret future plans, with a fleece stashed permanently in my suitcase, a Giants logo printed on every mug, and an overcast beach in all of my dreams.