Tales from 'Abroad': Southern California
I landed at LAX all alone three months ago with way too little planning, way too much stuff, and no idea what to expect. I was more nervous than I ever remember being — going into my first ‘real’ job in a city I knew nothing about and staying with people I had never met before. I remember waiting fifteen minutes for my Uber to navigate the moronathon that is LAX traffic and trying to keep all the things that could possibly go wrong out of my mind. In the end, nothing went wrong. Instead, I think I had the coolest, most enlightening, and most downright crazy summer of my life.
I stayed and worked in Irvine, a small city just outside LA with perfect, wide roads, gleaming towers, and an almost creepy standard of cleanliness and organization. Eventually, I found out that a private company, creatively named Irvine Company, owns most of the city and keeps everything in perfect shape so that they can charge their tenants astronomical rents. This is all the more jarring when contrasted with the rest of SoCal — wild and messy, but with a swagger that brings a certain charm to the chaos.
At first glance, it can seem like everything is king sized in SoCal. The malls are so big it can take thirty minutes to walk from corner to corner. The distances between places are so vast you can pretty much forget about walking or cycling anywhere. Pretty much everyone I met had a car, and spent around an hour in it everyday. Speaking of people, everyone works out a lot, eats even more, and perfect bodies (much to my chagrin) are more the norm than the exception.
And yet, the greatest pleasures are had in the little things that you find. I visited more beaches, bars, and bowling alleys in my two and a half months in SoCal than I have in my time at college so far — and the best ones were tucked away in little corners, only discoverable by recommendation. The really interesting bars are dark, tiny, noisy, and with the kind of live blues music that makes you want to dance on the tables. As for the beaches, there are plenty of iconic beaches in the region, from Venice to Santa Monica to Newport. But the truly great ones, with perfect white sand, clear blue water and waves that are just high enough to be fun yet safe, are less well known. A personal favorite was Crescent Bay. It is a little out of the way, but if you happen to visit the area, I couldn’t recommend it enough.
I was surprised by how different the ‘west coast’ mindset can be from Pittsburgh and New York, the two U.S. cities that I’ve spent time in. There really is no other way to say it, people are just more fun in SoCal. There’s a certain spontaneity in the air that makes everyone more suggestible to the sort of crazy ideas that become the stuff of memories. This one Sunday night, a bunch of friends and I decided to sample every In-N-Out Burger in a fifteen mile radius to gauge the ‘consistency of their offerings.’ I got home eight burgers and five thousand calories later at 2 a.m. I regretted it the next day at work, but I haven't regretted it since.
Another weekend that really stands out is this one time a bunch of us decided to go camping and trekking at Ortega Oaks, a forest about a hundred miles outside the city. For most of us it was our first time camping, and what ensued was a comedy of errors that somehow managed to come together into an incredible adventure. The first day that we went trekking, we thoroughly underestimated the amount of water a twelve mile trek through the arid California wilderness requires. As a result, we ran out when we had about eight miles left on our way back. By the time we got back to our campsite, I was so exhausted and dehydrated I must’ve taken about a gallon of water from a stream nearby. Later that evening, we did the most cliched campsite activity of all — lit a fire and sat around making s’mores and telling horror stories. That night, I slept on a hammock for the first time in my life. It was uncomfortable and noisy, and I didn’t sleep much. But the view was absolutely worth it. The night sky, as seen from the forest, away from all the pollution, is a sight to behold. The night was cloudless and it seemed like every star in the galaxy was fighting for my attention, if only to remind me of all of our insignificance in the universe.
Leaving all this last week was much more difficult than I would have ever expected it to be. The friends I made, the things I did, and the places I visited have changed me for good and for the better. You can take me out of SoCal, but I doubt you’ll ever take the SoCal out of me.