Like most of life’s journeys, driving from the land of plenty in the desert to the plentiful land on southern California’s Pacific Coast, involves a few bumps in the road.
Traversing Highway 101, which cuts a pitted and patched-asphalt swath through the urban sprawl along the northern fringe of the City of Angels (and demons), is enough to jiggle the neck wattles of white-knuckled seniors, who it is said relieve freeway stress by pleasuring themselves with the motion of their large vibrating vehicles.
Distasteful as that imagery may be, driving the heavily travelled corridor through San Bernardino and surrounding environs, famous of late as the scene of another mass shooting, conjures even darker thoughts. It goes without saying that most of your fellow freeway drivers are packing and inadvertently cutting someone off will likely end with a fuselage of bullets.
Approaching the City of Angels (and demons) brings to an idle but well-vibrated mind the image of Joe Btfsplk, who readers of a certain age may recall as the character in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip, a man who lives his perpetually jinxed life under a black cloud. The toxic haze hovering above the L.A. basin, albeit more greyish-yellow than black, casts a symbolic shadow that can be seen on the horizon from 50 miles out, seemingly sent from the heavens as a reminder to man of the consequence of short-sighted human endeavor.
Much has been written about paradise-gone-bad and the transformation of the Los Angeles region from a sleepy, pre-First World War agricultural community where farmers and orchardists lived idyllically amidst palm trees at the country’s western edge, to the concrete explosion of the 20th Century that spawned a mega-metropolis of 17.8 million people (as noted in a 2010 census), all of whom seem to be commuting at once. But as the poet said, even a thousand words could not adequately capture the urban chaos like the pictures formed by journeying through the fringe of the heart of darkness. Suffice to say, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive, et al, held no allure for these passing, well-vibrated, RV tourists.
Freeways are an environment unto themselves. They don’t so much pass through landscapes as take them over as their own. Especially near big American cities, where they crisscross, eight or ten lanes wide in each direction, like a tangle of concrete vines, interconnecting so frequently it’s impossible to know at any one time which direction you’re heading. All semblances of human activity are hidden behind concrete walls, erected to mitigate sound and the devastating affect on property values. Drivers are left with the soul-less ambience of towering billboards, multi-story factories and office buildings in suburban towns identifiable only by the signs on freeway ramps. Negotiating Southern California’s freeways without the calm guidance of GPS Gertrude is unthinkable.
Gertie had her sights uncompromisingly set on the genteel seaside city of Santa Barbara, where entertainment swells and industry captains keep second homes on ocean-side estates with sweeping views of the forever rolling Pacific surf.
Oprah has a 50-million-dollar summer home in Santa Barbara, complete with English gardens that rival the grandest estates of old money. According to local lore, the once-Queen of daytime TV and self-proclaimed woman of the people, visits frequently but has never once been spotted out and about mixing with the regular folks. That is left to Stand-in… er… Steadman, who at 6’5” is a highly visible black man in a town that, like Palm Springs, is white with walnut-coloured Hispanic flavouring. It’s said the summer home contains a master bedroom-size closet for Stand-in’s custom-tailored suits. No word on the guest quarters for Gail.
Santa Barbara’s red brick-tiled roofs and lush vegetation are a welcome sight to freeway-weary travellers. As if to signify the transition from the land of plenty to the plentiful land is complete, the pinkish freeway walls are draped with Bougainvillea and hanging vines that seem to flourish in the toxic fumes.
A later drive through the city reveals exotic flowering birds of paradise rising to greet visitors from street-side planters. The low-slung downtown is a melange of outdoor patios, coffee shops, art galleries, antique stores and trendy clothing boutiques with historic Spanish facades. Nearby, the Pacific Ocean rolls onto classic California beaches split by a giant pier that juts out into the surf, a perfect place to stroll and do lunch at one of the seafood eateries perched above the ocean at its end.
Relentless in her mission, Gertie guides the Grey Ghost to a freeway exit that will take us to Sunrise RV Park, noted for its proximity to downtown Santa Barbara, and absolutely nothing else. The park is located at the end of an exit ramp on an L-shaped gravel parking lot between the brick wall that fronts the freeway and a six-foot dilapidated brown fence that separates the surrounding neighbours from visiting RVers. Initially, it remains unclear who is most put off by the close living arrangements.
Short electrical posts protrude from the gravel, indicating the narrow slots to park rigs. We pull in beside a 40-foot coach and after much tension-filled maneuvering manage to position the Grey Ghost so as to have enough room to put our slides out with inches to spare. We squeeze two lawn chairs onto the gravel between coach and trailer and grab a beer to wind down from the day’s travels. Noise from the freeway drowns out all attempts at conversation but does not overpower the shrieks of a caged parakeet hanging just over the fence in a cage attached to the back wall of a neighbouring house. After five minutes it becomes clear the parakeet is more put off than we are, and that’s saying something.
At 70 U.S. dollars a night, the Sunrise is the most expensive RV park of our continent-spanning trip. Unlike other snow geezer parks we’ve experienced in the higher price range, it does not try to ease visitors’ sticker shock with unnecessary frills. There is no swimming pool to recline by, no ballroom for dance parties, no horseshoe pits or bocce courts, no putting greens or fitness rooms. No courtyards with music and five dollar pitchers of beer. Only a forlorn laundry room that is under repair and a shower that is hot-water challenged. And, of course, an indignant parakeet.
With nothing to do but watch the parakeet shriek, we commiserate with the occupants of the coach, whose lawn chairs rest on the gravel only a few feet away, shouting to make our gripes heard above the noise of the traffic.
“It’s Santa Barbara,” says our close neighbour, with a pragmatic shrug.