A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 2 – Southern California

Arrival in Southern California, August 1983

In the first chapter of my California saga I recounted my childhood obsession with the Golden State and my first visits there as a teenager in April and June of 1975. A year later I graduated from high school and began attending a local university only a few miles from home in Massachusetts. Therefore, the California Dream was relegated to a back burner for awhile. At college I studied Psychology and made a number of dear friends who have remained part of my life to this very day. When I graduated, I did apply to a couple of graduate school programs in California, but it was evidently not yet my time and I was turned down. I was left to decide between Ph.D. programs in New Hampshire and Rhode Island or a Masters program at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Though it may have seemed the odd choice, I opted for Virginia, feeling that it would be good for me to move away from New England and get a taste of living in a new place. It turned out to be a good decision, as I made more wonderful friends there and benefitted from the mentorship of Dr. Kelly Shaver, who combined instilling great fear and holding very high expectations, but tempered this with a lot of humor and support. The result was some of my very best academic work. His area of expertise was the social psychology topic of Attribution, which in layperson’s terms is all about how we attempt to understand and explain the misfortunes suffered by others, as well as those we experience ourselves.

Graduation: William & Mary, 1982 with my Aunt Helena and Uncle Harry

This set the stage for my long-awaited move to California. I applied to several doctoral programs in the Golden State and was accepted to an interdisciplinary program in Social Ecology at the University of California Irvine, an hour south of Los Angeles. Students in the program had to combine a “hard” science with a social science for their comprehensive exams and dissertation. I eventually ended up developing an expertise in both the geological aspects of how and why earthquakes occur and the social psychological aspects of how people view their risk and how that translates into whether they do or do not prepare or protect themselves from disasters.

The move to southern California was memorable. I spent that summer up in New England saying farewell to friends and relatives, and as August approached, it was time to begin my cross-country drive to L.A.  At this time, I owned a rather beat up old Plymouth Duster.  I placed a “California or Bust” banner in the back window and off I went, with perhaps only a few hundred dollars to my name. The details of how the cross -country journey went are sketchy, but I recall being equal parts terrified and excited. This was a big move, and TV buff that I am, I couldn’t help but feel that I was the star of my own sitcom, moving to California to chase my dreams. Soon I would meet a zany cast of characters who would serve as my co-stars on the show. It’s easy to daydream as your spend eight hours crossing the Great Plains.

My first misadventure occurred somewhere near Winslow, Arizona when I discovered that my transmission fluid pan was leaking badly, and faced with an untenable $500 to replace it, I bought a case of transmission fluid at a K-Mart and gave my poor car transfusions about every 10 miles for the rest of the trip into southern California. Thankfully, I had secured a teaching assistantship at Irvine that paid quite well, so once I arrived, I knew I was going to be OK.

I was both amused and unnerved by the fact that upon entry into the state I had to stop at an Agricultural inspection station to declare any fruits or plants in my vehicle. I was amused because it felt like bringing in some fresh strawberries was akin to being a drug smuggler, and unnerved because I had three African violets that I’d nurtured for years tucked away in my car. I was afraid they would be confiscated and considered keeping them hidden, but as an innocent young man who had only had to stay after school once in my entire life through no fault of my own (my mom folded a homework assignment for my woodshop class in 8th grade and put it inside a book to keep it from getting wet on a rainy day; the teacher did not want the assignments folded and ordered me to stay after school). That was traumatic enough; I could not imagine the experience of being thrown onto the hood of my car in the blazing Mojave Desert sun and handcuffed for trying to smuggle African violets. Thankfully, I was waved through the checkpoint without even being asked if I had anything in the car. “What a bizarre place this is…” I thought.

I ended up finding a room in a four-bedroom house on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. It was common for students to rent such places for the 9-month school year, after which rent soared by a few thousand dollars for the summer months. The address was 302 East Oceanfront, and I delighted in people asking whether that was Oceanfront Avenue, Drive, Street, etc. I’d respond with, “Just Oceanfront.” The place faced the beach boardwalk with a view of the Pacific and the Balboa Pier. All day there was a parade of roller skaters, skateboarders and bicyclists zooming past. I felt like a “beach dude: and for a New England kid who’d always dreamed of living in California, there could not have been a more exciting first place to call home.

However, I soon learned that I didn’t meet the qualifications for beach dude status. Despite the fact that with my hearty New England blood I was able to swim in the ocean throughout that first winter, chuckling to myself that “Real men don’t need wetsuits” as I watched surfers braving the waves dressed like seals, I did not measure up to southern California standards regarding my weight. At the local surf shop in Balboa, t shirts and bumper stickers reading, “No fat dudes!” and “No fat Chicks” adorned the front window. An unnervingly high number of cars in town had bumper stickers that read, “I don’t break for fat dudes!” or “I don’t break for fat chicks!’  I was afraid to cross the street for the first year I lived in southern California.  Worse yet, when I would come home from school in the mid afternoon and sit out on the patio facing the boardwalk reading a book, many of those roller skating or skateboarding past made comments about me with welcoming words such as, “Ooh, look at the fat dude!” or simply made pig-like, oinking noises as they passed.

Balboa Boardwalk, not far from 302 East Oceanfront (photo by David Tonelson)

This constant social pressure to be thin and fit weighed heavily on me. Within my first year and a half in California, I lost almost 50 pounds, dropping from about 230 to 180. Friends and family back home were worried that I was seriously ill. I also shaved off my straggly beard for the first time since my college days, emulating the clean shaven look popular in southern California at that time. Of course, it was good for me to lose the weight, and I actually had fun doing it. Southern California has many bike trails that run along the flat coastline through various beach cities. I rode my bike from Newport Beach to Long Beach, a 40-mile round trip, a couple times a week. Once a week or so I would go farther, following more bike trails past Long Beach to Santa Monica, resulting in a nearly 100 mile round trip. I’d stop for lunch or sometimes have a swim somewhere along the way, and then ride back. With all this exercise, I was able to drop a couple of pounds a week, despite the fact that I was eating like a horse. I enjoy eating like a horse, so this was a good regimen for me! I also enjoyed walking around the peninsula or taking the tiny ferry over to Balboa Island and walking there, always taking time to visit a favorite pie shop. I don’t mind walking a mile or so when the end goal is pie.

My roommates at the beach house that first year were Jon and Steve, two stereotypically blonde and handsome California dudes. Each had a girlfriend that would spend many a night at our house. The rooms were not well insulated for sound, so unfortunately what went on behind closed doors was not exactly a secret. Jon’s girlfriend giggled loudly and incessantly as soon as their bedroom door was closed, and I was sorely tempted to burst in on them and ask what was so damned funny. I typically hung out with my third roommate, Ron, who was a kind and quiet guy from northern California who liked to cook, eat and watch TV. We spent a lot of time watching videos on television’s new craze, MTV. Even today when I hear certain songs by Tina Turner, The Pretenders, and Duran Duran, my mind takes me right back to that time of my life.

We all had to move out of the house in May and find other housing for the summer, but in August I was actually the first person to contact the landlord, so I was able to recruit the roommates for the house that year. I rounded up a fascinating cast of characters… perfect for my imaginary sitcom! There was Tom, a somewhat aggressive and flamboyant gay man, Alain, a quiet foreign exchange student from France who also turned out to be gay, and Harry, a heavy-set, long haired, jolly Oregonian who despite his painted toenails and glittered fingernail polish was entirely heterosexual. Stereotypes were being smashed at 302 East Oceanfront!  By October, Tom and Alain had begun a romantic affair, despite Harry and me begging them not to. I recall saying to them, “When you break up… and you WILL break up… you are going to make life hell around here.”

My prediction came true in spades, and every time Tom and Alain would have a tiff, trouble ensued. On one occasion, when they were not speaking, Alain came home with a couple bags of groceries and a gallon of milk, which he put into the refrigerator. He retreated to his room, and soon Tom appeared. “Did Alain just come back from the grocery store? Is that his milk in the fridge?  I nodded and watched with horror as Tom opened it, poured it down the sink and with an evil chuckle, returned to his room. Minutes later Alain came out to get a glass of milk, found the completely empty gallon jug in the fridge and ran down the hall screaming, “Merde!” and a few other unintelligible French curse words.

And then there was Harry. Perhaps my most vivid memory of this time was when Tom came in one evening from school looking visibly shaken. I asked what was up and he said that as he was walking home from the bus stop, a strange person was skipping down the street wearing a dress and singing We’re Off to See the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz. Tom had quickly crossed the street to avoid any interaction with this deranged person, but when he got closer he realized who it was. “It was Harry!”, Tom huffed as he dramatically stormed off to his room. That episode of my sitcom could have won an Emmy!

Tom, Alain, Harry and me… Newport Beach, 1983

This was the time in my life when I was finally ready to deal with the fact that I was gay and wanted to be more open about it. I joined a gay support group, made a few gay friends, and then became my own version of an “activist”. UC Irvine had a gay newspaper produced by students. It was called Outside, and featured a masthead of barbed wire and catchy headlines like, “Ten Reasons to Hate Heterosexuals.” I hated this paper, as did some of my other gay friends, feeling that it did nothing to reach out to people and only to create divisiveness. I decided to take on the paper as its new editor; I renamed it, The Phoenix, and the new masthead featured a beautiful bird rising from the flames. My politically moderate gay friends wrote articles and worked on the paper with me, and straight friends contributed articles too. My goal was to make the paper accessible to everyone and it worked. Though we did have to contend with vandals who ripped stacks of the paper out of the dispensers on campus and tossed them into dumpsters, local businesses like card shops, restaurants, and gay bars purchased advertising in the paper (a first for this student newspaper) and we had a successful two or three year run until I finally had to focus my attention on getting my dissertation finished.

Still, this was a difficult journey for me. One of the most memorable moments, perhaps in my entire life, happened when I joined a couple of new acquaintances and went to the “gay section” of Laguna Beach one weekend. I did not really have much in common with these new friends, but was trying to fit in. At one point the people I was with went to an adjacent blanket to chat with some of their friends, and I overheard one of them ask my companions, “What are you doing with that fat thing over there?” When my companions did not defend me, I got up and took a walk down the beach knowing that I would never feel like part of the “gay community” of Laguna. There was a breakwater down the beach a bit and on the other side there was a family oriented beach. I watched the couples and their kids for awhile and realized that I did not really feel that I belonged there either. I walked out onto the breakwater and sat at the end of it, the family beach on one side, the gay beach on the other, and felt as though I had a foot in each world, but belonged to neither. It was a feeling I would have many, many times during the rest of my tenure in California.

Laguna Beach

Overall, I liked southern California, but even in the early to mid-1980s I saw the writing on the wall regarding what was happening to the state. There was a beautiful drive I would take inland toward Saddleback Mountain. In the late autumn there was fall foliage, and in the spring and summer there were strawberry fields where I’d pick fresh berries. I’d return the next season to find a three-story office building where the berry field had been, and miles of open spaces replaced by new housing developments. It was sickening, and I kept thinking how all of the beautiful aspects of the state were slowly disappearing due to the constant development.

The city of Irvine and the campus of UC were also an interesting phenomenon. The city was a “planned community”, and some of the faculty in my program had even helped design it based on cutting edge research from the field of Environmental Psychology. But Irvine was a sterile place, where the color of your home, your roof, your shutters and your doors was all regulated. One of my professors who lived in faculty housing near campus lamented the fact that she’d actually put her housekey into the wrong door more than once because her cul-de-sac was indistinguishable from every other one. On the campus itself, a beautiful park with meandering trails was the centerpiece, encircled by the classroom and administrative buildings. However, given that students had a mere 10 minutes to go from one class to the next, they had no time for a leisurely and circuitous stroll through the park, so the lawns had been torn up by well-worn footpaths that went across the park in a beeline from one building to another. So much for understanding and anticipating human behavior!

As for the Social Ecology Program, I did not feel I was getting a good education there. Many of the faculty were big name researchers, but the reality was that many of them were horrible teachers or were too busy to even bother trying to teach, leaving most of their duties to be completed by graduate assistants. There was truly no mentorship from the faculty and no pressure for us to progress in the program. Some of my peers were referred to as “tenured graduate students” because they had languished in the program for 10+ years, longer than many of the faculty had been there, and had still not finished their degree. As it turned out, although I came in with a Master’s Degree already, I still spent 8.5 years trying to finish the Ph.D. I made up a parody of the Eagles’ song, Hotel California: “Welcome to the U. of California… such an ugly place, by the San Andreas…” And of course, the line, “You can check in any time you like… but you can never leave” didn’t even need to be changed.

Students in the program were extremely whiny, competitive and back-stabbing, and after all the time I spent there, I made only one true friend, Jonie, with whom I am still in contact. Worse yet, I actually had to “fire” my first faculty advisor. One day he asked me at least 50 questions concerning my research project and I was so excited by his uncharacteristic interest in what I was doing. The following day I saw him on the local TV news talking about MY research and not even mentioning my name.

My office space at UC Irvine

I did have a lot of laughs with one of my professors. Dr. Elaine Vaughan was a young, very funny African American woman, originally from L.A. but she had lived in San Francisco for years prior to coming to Irvine. She took the bus or I gave her rides because she’d never learned to drive. She was also a strict vegan, and only shopped in health food stores for her groceries. We became good friends during my time at Irvine. She often had me in hysterics of laughter with her tales of being perhaps the only black woman for 20 square miles in ultra-white, 1980s Irvine. While waiting at bus stops, people would pull up in their BMWs and Mercedes and ask her if she needed a house cleaning job, their faces falling when she introduced herself as “Dr. Vaughan from the university.” One day she was on a tirade about political correctness, saying, and I quote, “I can’t even remember what I’m supposed to call myself this week. Ten years ago we were ‘colored people’. Now we want to be called ‘people of color’? What is the difference?! This has to stop!”

One day she told the story of going to her favorite health food store when a “Big old, Orange County woman with a beehive hairdo” approached her in the checkout line and asked her if she was familiar with Buckwheat. Placing her hand on her hip and throwing some attitude she asked, “What did you say to me?” She was ready to go off on a tirade and start a major race war, asking why she, in particular, should be familiar with the character Buckwheat from the old Little Rascals YV show. Suddenly she realized that the woman was asking if she’d ever cooked with buckwheat flour. “Matt, I think I’m getting overly sensitive living in this county!” she confided.  And whenever I ‘d share some crazy news about what was going on in the gay community, she’d look at me, shake her head and exclaim, “Mmm, mmm, mmm. And you people REALLY think you’re gonna get rights?” Elaine would have been a great character for my sitcom; they probably would have offered her her own spinoff by Season 2.

 Elaine and me at my eventual graduation from UCI in 1990

Sadly, Elaine died of breast cancer before the age of 50.  I miss her friendship and humor and would have loved to have been able to talk to her about all the senseless racial hatred and violence that’s happening today. I firmly believe we’d have been on the same page.

Against this backdrop of distractions, emotional growth, turmoil and some fun times, I was slowly plugging away at my dissertation project, which focused on how people living on some of California’s active earthquake faults see their risk from a major quake and whether we can find ways to increase their earthquake preparedness. I got to visit the San Andreas Fault several times while helping a professor do geological research there; we took core samples of ancient oak trees growing along the fault and were able to detect when major earthquakes had occurred in the past by studying the tree rings. The growth rings were noticeably thinner during years following major historical quakes due to broken roots and branches, and we could then extrapolate and count back to find older quake and study the intervals between them. It was fascinating!

Taking measurements of movement on a stretch of the San Andreas Fault

I got hired to give disaster preparedness presentations at local businesses, and I got my first part-time teaching jobs at local colleges and at El Toro Marine Base, which brought in much needed money, but kept me further from the goal of finishing my dissertation. Meanwhile, I was awakened by the almost weekly minor earthquakes we were having in the mid-1980s in southern California. and would try to guess the epicenter and magnitude of them.

It was an exciting time for me, and in many ways, I did feel as if I was living the California Dream. But even better times were waiting just around the corner, as I left Irvine and moved first to Long Beach and then to San Francisco, and my love affair with the Golden State grew deeper. But I’ll save that for the next installment. Please stay tuned.

Escape from San Francisco and the COVID Road Trip

When I made my initial decision to move out of California almost two years ago, it seemed like an eternity before I would actually be leaving. But time sneaks up on us, and in the strange time warp that the COVID crisis has created, weeks and months have run together and made a lot of us lose track of time. I should have used my time more constructively while I was sheltering in place to clear out my apartment after 29 years of living there, but I procrastinated and due to the crisis, I kept pushing back my date of departure from May 31, to June 15, to June 30, to July 7 and that gave me the sense that I had all the time in the world. All I can say to those of you who have lived in one place for a long time and are thinking of moving anytime within the next 50 years, is “Start TODAY!” Let me be your cautionary tale.

I won’t go into great detail about what the final two weeks of my life in San Francisco were like for fear of boring some readers and of inducing flashbacks and PTSD in my own damaged psyche. I learned that transporting even a minimal number of boxes and small furniture across the country would cost me at least $3000, and so I decided to get rid of virtually everything I owned. I’d wager that over a couple weeks’ time I disposed of at least 50 Hefty trash bags full of stuff. I wheeled and dealed in various online marketplaces, selling several large pieces of furniture, giving away other pieces to anyone who would come and take them away, and giving away trees and plants I’d raised for decades to friends and neighbors. I had two meagerly successful garage sales and made a killing on selling a few boxes of old LP records for $150. I mailed about 25 boxes of smaller things like CDs, DVDS, books, winter clothes and art-work to my friend Joanne in New England and planned to pack my car with anything else I wanted to keep that was too big to mail.

Garage Sale and the process of trying to decide what to pack.

By early July I realized I’d desperately underestimated how much stuff I had, and again postponed my departure to the 14th. My landlord had allowed me to pay ½ month’s rent, but as the 14th drew close I looked at the piles  of stuff I still had to dispose of and realized I needed more time. My landlord was extremely kind, saying I could stay a few more days and she would not charge me any additional rent. After 29 years and virtually no updating in that time, my place would need a total renovation and she was in no hurry to start that, as there were already seven vacancies in my building – other people who had decided that San Francisco had lost its charm and were packing it up as well. Still, I could not keep this up forever. I’d already turned off all my utilities twice and had to turn them all back on!

And so, I called a junk hauler who quoted me an estimate between $500 to $700 to take all this stuff out of my place. When they arrived, they surveyed what needed to be done and the estimate jumped to $1200! At this point, I was so desperate to be done with this, I barely batted an eye. I sat in a sort of stupor as I watched my mattress and box springs, recliner, old tables and lamps, and seemingly endless boxes of crap get carted out. I felt embarrassed that my place was so out of control, I was becoming physically sore and completely exhausted from moving things and packing, and even with this help I felt like there was still too much I had to do. At one point the haulers found two more boxes of records in a closet and I quickly contacted the guy who’d bought my others; he came right over and bought these too! I found an ancient iMac computer hiding in the back of a closet; this thing probably belonged in a museum and I probably could have sold it, but there was no time, and out it went. After three hours, the two guys left with my $1200 and I stared at an empty apartment that still did not seem empty enough. Now I had no furniture or bed, so I worked into the night throwing away more things, sitting on the floor or bending over to pack things and simply ruining my back in the process. That night I slept on a pile of comforters on the floor.

My “bed” on the final night in the apartment, iMac recovered on an archaeological dig in my closets, and more junk needing to be hauled away…

The following day I thought I’d be leaving, but I spent almost 12 more hours packing and throwing more things away. I’d open up a cabinet and there were enough expired canned goods and opened packaged foods to fill a few more trash bags. I had things to toss from my refrigerator and freezer. I threw away more clothes and shoes than I care to recall, since no charity organizations were accepting donations due to COVID. Realizing I had no room in the car for things like bookshelves and lamps and tables that I had foolishly thought I could take, I was able at the 11th hour to donate things to a homeless veterans charity, and also gave them a lot of my kitchen stuff. By 8 PM, despite countless trips to the trash room in my building, I seemed to have accumulated even more stuff, and unwilling to face another night on the floor, I got a hotel for the night. In desperation I called a second trash hauler to come to the apartment the following day; I was determined to be moved out by that evening.

I gave another $300 to the new junk haulers, who seemed to take out enough stuff to fill a small landfill. As my car became filled to the point of bursting, I started having to abandon even more things I’d wanted to take with me like lamps, picture frames and various books. At one point, I sadly took my stereo speakers out of the car and gave them to the trash haulers, figuring I could just buy new ones when I get settled somewhere else. But it was traumatic parting with some of this stuff, and my body was one throbbing mass of aches and pains. After the haulers left, I spent yet another three hours packing and throwing things even more things away and as it began to look like I might actually be done, I realized I had no room in the car for several large pots and pans and bowls. And so, I did a very bad thing; I loaded them into the dishwasher and turned it on, pretending that I’d forgotten a load in the dishwasher because I simply could not cope with carrying more heavy bags of stuff to the over-filled trash room. With a heavy sigh, I closed the door on a place I have loved and have felt safe in for almost half my life. I hobbled down the stairs to my car and got behind the wheel, surprised that there was actually room inside for me!

Wisely, I’d scheduled a last, 100 minute appointment with Alex, a masseur I’ve been seeing for about 15 years. Faced with a cross country drive after all I’d put my body through over the past week, I felt I deserved some care. I was so sore and so stiff that it hurt to climb the stairs to his studio or even to get onto the massage table. As Alex worked on me, I cried several times, partly because it felt so good, partly because I was hurting so badly. and additionally, I think it was just an emotional reaction to realizing that my time in California was truly over and that I was finally finished with clearing out the apartment. After saying goodbye to Alex, I sat in my car and cried for several minutes, feeling lonely, sad and totally alone, without a place to call home after three decades.

I’d reserved a hotel about an hour south of the city for the night, but it was already 8:30 PM and I was hungry. Restaurants are still not open in San Francisco except for takeout food, so I googled and found a nearby Thai place that offered to-go orders. I drove down Geary Boulevard, a six-lane major thoroughfare in San Francisco. It was drizzling and cold and there was virtually no traffic, and no one outside walking. All I saw were a couple of masked homeless people wandering aimlessly,  looking more like extras from The Walking Dead than real people. I paid for and received my Pad Thai through a window of the restaurant and sat in my car alone, eating my last meal in the City by the Bay. In my wildest imaginings, I never dreamed that this was how my time in San Francisco would end. I drove out of town feeling shell-shocked and numb.

My friend Jonie in Bakersfield had generously invited me to stay with her for a day or two, so the next day I headed her way, but taking a very circuitous route; I wanted a last drive down the California Coast along Highway 1. It was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed the drive, but everywhere I stopped there were reminders that COVID is still out there and that life is far from normal. I listened to Linda Ronstadt as I drove south, bringing back memories of doing the same thing back in the 1980s when California was still new to me. I noticed that she sang a lot of songs about California: High Sierra, Talk to Me of Mendocino, and Hey Mister That’s Me Up On the Jukebox, which contains the line, “Southern California is as blue as a girl can be, blue as the deep blue sea, won’t you listen to me now: I need your golden-gated cities like a hole in my head… like a hole in my head. I’m free.” That line really resonated with me. But as I reached Morro Bay and realized it was time to turn inland, I played Adios, where Linda sings about leaving California, saying goodbye to the “endless summers” and how she’ll miss the “blood red sunsets out on the California coast.” I cried half-way from there to Bakersfield.

Adios to the California Coast…

I felt bad for Jonie and her 99 year old mom; I’m not sure if they knew what they was getting themselves into when they invited me to visit. I was a wreck. Jonie exercised great patience, helping me reorganize the car so that I could actually see out my passenger side window and access the suitcases I would need to bring in with me each night of the trip. She fed me pot roast and buttermilk waffles and made me feel semi-human again, and I will always be grateful for that. I’d had a flat tire a week before leaving San Francisco and my tire pressure light was now on, so I got that checked out at a Firestone Service Center and they determined it was the gauge that had not been properly calibrated; crisis averted. I was ready for the road.

On Thursday morning, July 23, I left Bakersfield in the early morning and crossed the Mojave while the temperatures were still closer to those on earth than on Venus. I crossed the border from California into Nevada playing The Last Resort by the Eagles, a song lamenting how settlers came first to Colorado, then to California, and finally to Maui, ruining each of these “paradises” with over-development.

“They called it ‘paradise’; I don’t know why. You call some place paradise… kiss it goodbye.” And with those lines playing on the car stereo, I kissed California goodbye.

Crossing the Tehachapi Mountains east of Bakersfield

With the pandemic front and center in the news, I wondered what traveling on a cross country road trip would be like. I stopped for lunch in Las Vegas, relieved to find that The Baguette Café – a wonderful place, far from the Vegas Strip and owned by a French immigrant named Olivier – was still thriving. I’ve stopped there countless times before on previous road trips, so was glad to have a chance to see Olivier one last time. I dined on an amazing smoked salmon sandwich with dill cream and apple slices on a homemade croissant, a slice of bread pudding – also made from croissants, and a fantastic iced mocha. Olivier and I wished one another well and I was off again to St. George, Utah for the evening.

Lunch at Baguette Cafe, Las Vegas

I was required to wear a mask inside the hotel lobby, but check-in was easy and my room was comfortable. I immediately headed to the outdoor pool and felt like I was on another planet. There were families in the pool and hot tubs, without masks, smiling, laughing and talking to one another. It all seemed so normal after four months of California’s lockdowns that it felt abnormal to me. Abnormal, but comforting. I chatted with two families from California who interestingly were searching Utah, Nevada and Idaho for a new place to live, as they were moving out of California as well.

For dinner I went to the Cliffside Restaurant, which as the name implies is perched on a cliff overlooking the city. I sat outside on the patio, the weather was balmy and I was maskless, but comfortably socially distanced from other tables. I marveled at the amazing view as the sun was setting. The food was great and as it got dark the waitress told me that it was Pioneer Day, a state holiday, and that the fireworks would be starting soon. Sure enough, soon the entire city below started to erupt in small displays of fireworks, while in the distance larger displays could be seen going off in neighboring communities. It was a magical night.

The views from the Cliffside Restaurant in St. George

The next day I drove to Zion National Park, purchasing the annual pass good for all of America’s National Parks and Monuments for $80, a real bargain, since just one single entrance to Zion and to nearby Bryce Canyon costs $35 each. Zion, as expected for late July, was toasty at almost 100 degrees, but I did manage to get out of the car for a couple short walks, and got a close up encounter with some bighorn sheep crossing the road. I stayed at a hotel in nearby Kanab, Utah where I soaked in a very chilly pool, had a tasty dinner at the Rocking V Café, and took a sunset drive through nearby Johnson Canyon.

Zion National Park

From Kanab I went to Bryce National Park and enjoyed the higher elevation and the cooler temperatures. I’ve been to Bryce many times and it’s probably my favorite national park. I managed to get to some of the viewpoints I had never seen before, and the views were as astounding as ever. From there I took Scenic Byway 12, a magnificent road that leads from Escalante to Torrey over a narrow spine of land between two massive canyons, then up and over birch-covered Boulder Mountain. If you are ever remotely close to this area, do not miss that drive.

I stayed in Torrey, a town that I’ve always loved, for two nights. It’s nestled at the base of red rock cliffs and is a stone’s throw from Capitol Reef National Park. To my dismay, my favorite restaurant there, Diablo Café, has gone out of business and I will miss their gourmet food served in an outdoor garden with views of the red rock. I still found a decent dinner, had a long soak in the pool and hot tub at the hotel, which I had all to myself, and started to feel myself returning to something resembling normality, though my body still ached and kept me awake at night. I obviously really did a number on myself in those last few days in San Francisco. I even had several disturbing dreams in which I was again confronted by piles of junk needing to be discarded and awoke with a helpless, panicky feeling until I realized it was only a dream. Flashbacks!

The next day I drove to Capitol Reef. The Gifford Homestead, an historical site within the park, sells some of the best mini-fruit pies I have ever tasted. I grabbed a cherry and a strawberry rhubarb, and then took a four hour long scenic loop around the area. I adore Utah. If they had an ocean (The Great Salt Lake simply does not count!) I could live there. I drove the partially unpaved Notom Road, marveling at the rock formations created when this land was once the seafloor of an ancient ocean and was gradually tilted and uplifted to create what we see today. I then turned west on the Burr Trail, again an unpaved road that starts with a series of incredible switchbacks and then continues through dramatic red rock canyons. I passed maybe four cars in as many hours and soaked up the solitude. I stopped at Singing Canyon, a slot canyon carved into the red rock cliffs that anyone unaware of its existence would easily drive right past. I had it to myself and mediated a bit in the shaded interior of the canyon, grateful to have the chance to return here again. In the car I listened to soothing Native American music, which added an air of calm to the whole experience. As I came back over Boulder Mountain toward Torrey, the skies opened up and it poured. Thunder and lightning boomed and flashed all around me and rainbows appeared over the red cliffs in the distance. It reminded me of how much I love dramatic weather.

I was sad to leave Torrey, but it was time to press onward. I stopped for more pie… a peach and a cherry this time… and headed east through the Utah metropolises of Hanksville, Green River and Moab. In the latter I dined on fantastic Mexican food at the Quesadilla Mobila, a food truck specializing in gourmet quesadillas. From there I headed east on small roads into Colorado and took Route 50 through Gunnison Canyon. I learned that Colorado had much stricter rules about COVID and hotel swimming pools were all closed. That was disappointing, but the disappointment was soon forgotten when I found that hotels throughout the entire middle of Colorado were all booked for the night! By a fluke, I was able to snag a very overpriced room at a Comfort Inn in Gunnison, and the hostess was actually surprised that I’d been able to book it because she had only minutes before blocked any other reservations for that night. I got the last room!

I drove across the high Rockies (with John Denver playing, of course) and down into Pueblo, where I found that another favorite restaurant, the Mill Stop Café, was open but only serving take out. I ordered “the usual”: the stuffed sopapilla. Sopapillas are a sort of fluffy fried bread popular in New Mexico and often served with honey for dessert. But a stuffed sopapilla is a savory entrée filled with chicken, green chiles and cheese, and it was as delicious as ever.

I’m always shocked by how quickly the Rockies give way to the flat plains and it was a long, boring drive to Wichita, Kansas that afternoon. I found that in Kansas, I needed to make a reservation to use the pool for an hour at some hotels, while at others, I’d have to have my temperature taken in order to get admitted to the pool area. It didn’t matter, as I did not arrive till almost 11PM. I got slowed down by three hours of driving through some of the most spectacular lightning storms I have ever seen. Before sunset there were some of the biggest, brightest rainbows I have seen anywhere and as it got dark, the road I was on was mainly dry, but on either side of me for hour after hour, bursts of lightning lit up the clouds so frequently that it looked like someone had planted a strobe light inside them. I actually had to pull over and videotape some of the action, it was so dramatic. Something I have always missed in California are thunderstorms, and mother nature was certainly making it up to me with this show.

Video: Lightning over Kansas

The next morning I slept in, and then dined outside on a perfect road-trip breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes at Home Grown Wichita. I got some gourmet donuts at The Donut Whole and then headed east on back roads all the way to Springfield, Missouri. Swimming pools here were open and I had over an hour to myself in the hotel’s pool before heading to dinner. While I’m still fighting a pinched nerve in my left shoulder and arm, I was beginning to feel more rested and felt like the state of shock or grief or trauma that I was in last week when I left California was starting to subside.

And on Friday, July 31, I had another great road trip breakfast at Gailey’s in Springfield before driving across the Ozarks toward Memphis. Crossing the Mississippi into Tennessee was a strange feeling, as this is now the place where I’m setting up residency for a few months. I plan to be doing a lot of traveling, using Tennessee as home base until I determine where I ultimately want to live. My friends Daniel and Sarah generously welcomed me with open arms to stay with them and their two young daughters for a couple of weeks, offering me a place to call home, be with people again, and get myself ready for whatever my next adventures many be. On an uncharacteristically cool (i.e. pleasant) first evening we joined about 8 of their neighbors, sitting out on someone’s front lawn while about 16 kids played on the quiet street. I was truly surprised by how warm and friendly these folks were, and had such a great time talking about every day, normal things. Over two hours not one mention of COVID, masks, or quarantines was heard, and for that I was incredibly grateful.

Over the weekend, Daniel’s parents invited us all to a pool party, I got to meet his siblings, and we shared an amazing spread of Memphis barbecue for dinner. We’ve gone out to breakfast and will go out again as a family for dinner tomorrow. We’re also planning to go boating on a nearby lake this coming weekend. Daniel and I have sat up and laughed ourselves silly watching Jim Gaffigan comedy specials late into the evening or floated around in the pool talking about life. I have been entertained by the antics of little Hallie and Eleanor, but their cat,  Buddy steals the show. He is a young feline who behaves much more like a puppy than a cat and storms through the house at breakneck speed,  slams into walls, and jumps four feet straight up into the air seemingly effortlessly!  And tomorrow I will actually get my first haircut since March 1. Life has not felt this normal in a very long time.

Yesterday I braved a 3.5 hour line in the hot sun at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but walked away with my new driver’s license, though the picture looks like the mug shot of a moonshiner living in the hills. I should have gotten my haircut first!  

San Francisco seems like a far-off memory now and in some ways, I feel like I’ve been gone for months rather than days. While I felt incredibly nostalgic in the months prior to leaving and enjoyed some truly nice visits with long time friends just before I left, I think that my long term disappointment in how the city has changed, coupled with the truly traumatic way I exited my apartment helped to soften the emotional blow considerably. By the time I was done packing, I was really ready to leave.

And now I feel as if I’m watching a movie about my own life and have no idea where the plot will go from this point on. The uncertainty of this seemingly endless COVID crisis, my indecision about where I really want to live and where I can actually afford to live, and wondering what I might do to make a living from now on could lead to any number of possible conclusions. Maybe, in epic movie tradition, this is just a cliff-hanger. I can almost imagine the words, “To be continued…” scrawled across the big screen.

California: A Golden State of Mind

In just under a week from now, I’ll be leaving California after having lived here for the past 38 years. With this impending move and the ample time that the COVID crisis has provided for self-reflection, I’ve been pondering my long and often complicated relationship with “The Golden State.” I’ve decided to describe how this relationship began long before I ever stepped foot in California, and how it grew and changed over the course of my life. This will be the first in a series of relatively short posts or “chapters” that focus on different periods in my relationship with California. In this first entry I’ll describe how my fascination with California began and set the stage for my eventual move to the Golden State.


My relationship with California started about 50 years ago in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as a young boy growing up in a working class city in Massachusetts, images of “The Golden State” leapt out at me from the TV screen. I saw Jed Clampett’s mansion, his “cee-ment” pond (swimming pool), and sunny skies and waving palms trees on the Beverly Hillbillies. Then there was the modern, suburban spread inhabited by the Brady Bunch, and at the age of 12, I thought nothing could be more “hip” than to be one of the Bradys! I marveled at the exciting police chases that featured cars flying over cliff-like hills that were depicted on the Streets of San Francisco. California’s presence was also felt over the radio airwaves. I knew that ”I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.” (California Dreamin’), that it was evidently necessary to ask directions if you were on your way to San Jose, that “gentle people with flowers in their hair” would greet me if I ever got to San Francisco, and that It Never Rains in Southern California. Living in a rather dreary and provincial city in the northeast, California seemed like a mythical place at the other side of the rainbow.


When I was about 12 years old, and had already been infected with a travel bug, I undertook a project in which I wrote letters to the Chambers of Commerce for cities all over the U.S.A. How I found these addresses in a pre-Google Search world, or how my letters written in a child-like scrawl were received by whomever opened the mail is a mystery, but my mom good-naturedly sent out the letters and soon I started receiving colorful tourism brochures and postcards from a couple of dozen cities. They were all exciting, but of course the ones from California particularly piqued my interest the most and fueled my desire to someday travel there. San Diego boasted about its famous Zoo and Sea World, Los Angeles provided images of Hollywood, surfer dudes, and Disneyland, while San Francisco touted the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and its uniquely hilly and crooked streets.

Over the next few years I became obsessed with everything California. In the back yard there was a large area of dirt, hidden from view by a lot of bushes, where I was able to play. With the help of a shovel, the garden hose, and a variety of assorted race track trestles, Monopoly houses, and other assorted pieces of games and toys I built San Francisco back there. I dug out the shape of the Bay and filled it with water, I built a Golden Gate Bridge made of tall, orange plastic towers, and I carefully placed white and gray skyscrapers and dozens of tiny houses across the hills I’d created with mud and dirt. Once I had it all perfectly set up, I got out the snow shovel, slid it strategically under the San Francisco Peninsula, and started to “twang” the handle, creating an earthquake in my city. Sections of the city slid into the Bay in dramatic mudslides, buildings tipped in the soft, muddy soil, and the Golden Gate Bridge collapsed. Where I came up with such a realistic scenario is anyone’s guess, but I knew my model was quite realistic. Then I would begin the long process of swooping in with my rescue planes and helicopters to restore the city to its former glory, repairing all the damage… until the next “Big One” struck later in the week. It is almost spooky that 20 years later I would find myself living in San Francisco and doing research and teaching about… earthquake preparedness!

In the front yard there was another barren area of dirt, and my friends and I would play in that area with our Matchbox cars, creating roads and driveways leading to our “houses”. Invariably, I lived on top of a hill with a long, winding driveway and always “drove” a fire-engine red or orange car. Again, decades later I live in an apartment on top of the highest mountain in San Francisco and drive a reddish-orange car…

During the winter, I had a spare room in the house in where I set up a racetrack and electric railroad. I gradually constructed an entire community, saving my allowance money to buy model houses with red tile roofs, 50s style diners, motels with swimming pools, and tiny orange and palm trees. I built some rolling hills from pillows covered with a mossy green blanket and planted some trees and cattle and horses on their slopes. I used green construction paper to make freeway signs and decided that my little community would be the California city of San Bernardino. (Why I chose San Bernardino, of all places, is another mystery, but it sounded quite exotic to me at the time). Soon I had the I-10 freeway cutting through the heart of my city, unaware that I’d be driving that freeway pretty regularly in a couple of decades.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I had planted California poppies in my little flower and vegetable garden; they have been my favorite flower ever since. I somehow learned and could recite from memory all of the streets in San Francisco, in order, from Van Ness to the Bay: Polk, Larkin, Hyde, Leavenworth, etc. I could draw you a pretty good map of the L.A. freeway system, complete with both the route numbers and the freeway names: the San Diego Freeway (I-405), Ventura Freeway (I-101), Santa Monica Freeway (I-10), etc. I probably knew more about California than some of its long-term residents.

In 1974 my mom and I began planning our first trip to California. I pored over maps and AAA tour guides, looking for attractions and places to stay and would eagerly fill my mom in on what I had found every night when she’d come home from work. Alas, as I’ve described in another blog post, I Blame It All on My Mother, she died after a year long battle with cancer in early 1975. As a sort of pilgrimage in her memory, I decided I needed to see California for both of us, and so at just 16 years old, still a junior in high school, I booked a 10 day trip to California during Spring Break in April using some insurance money my mother had left me. I wish I could recall the reactions of the travel agency staff that I worked with as this 16 year old kid selected his and hotel stays and paid by check.

I spent five days in San Francisco, staying at the Holiday Inn Chinatown, with a view toward the Bay and Alcatraz. I remember walking the city for hours upon end, and even made a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. One of the nurses who’d taken care of my mom in the hospital gave me the number of a friend of hers in Marin and told me to call him when I arrived so he could show me around. I’ve unfortunately forgotten his name, but I do remember that he was a handsome, blond fireman who could easily have played the role of a surfer dude in any TV show set in California. He worked part time at the San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere and treated me to lunch there with a view of the city in the distance. He then took me for a ride on the back of his motorcycle, instructing me to hang on to him tightly (which I was quite happy to do!), and he took me up to the top of Mount Tamalpais on twisty roads that led through the redwood groves to the summit. Little did I know that in another 20 years I’d be teaching at a university just 5 miles further up the road.

I then flew to L.A. on an evening flight and still recall that we were no sooner in the air than the pilot announced that the glow in the sky in front of us was Los Angeles, a mere 300 miles away!  I arrived at LAX and caught a city bus at 10:30 at night to the Sunset Strip area of Hollywood. (I don’t think that these days as an adult I would feel safe doing that!) I arrived at my hotel at almost midnight, introduced myself and the clerk got me registered. I sheepishly mentioned that I had asked for a room with a view of the city. He paused a second and said, “I’m sorry but we don’t have any of those left, but don’t worry, it’ll be a nice room for you.” I was crestfallen, but almost too tired to care. I did notice that the clerk winked at the bellboy as he gave him my room number and key, and this man took my bag from me and led me to my room. When I opened the door, I gasped. There, spread before me from this room on the 10th floor was a sea of twinkling lights as the entire L.A. basin spread out below me. Wow. I felt like a Hollywood celebrity that night. L.A. even decided to give me a little taste of its shaky foundation; I was awakened at 3AM by a minor earthquake. Does it get any better than that? 

I took day trips by bus to the San Diego Zoo and Disneyland, and I’d have to say that my 10 days in California lived up to all those years of dreaming about the Golden State from afar. That summer I went back for another, longer trip to California, that also included stops at Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and a year after that I made my first cross country drive to California at the ripe old age of 18. The seed had taken root and although I had no idea how I would make it happen, the desire to live in California was slowly and steadily growing in my young mind. But that plan would take another six years to come to fruition.

Wildflower “Superblooms” and an Unpredictable Earthquake Fault: Exploring the Heart of California

When I was young and growing up in Massachusetts, I had an almost scary obsession with California. Perhaps it was the influence of TV, beaming images of the “Golden State” into my living room on a daily basis, but to me, California seemed like the Promised Land, and from an early age I dreamed of going west.


The Golden State is even more golden this week with a wildflower “Superbloom”

Explore the heart of California… read more: