California Road Trip


Creative Drive

Genre-bending, word-riffing author Geoff Dyer muses on the existential joy of a road trip, particularly through the varied landscapes of California.

My wife and I spent the long evenings of the pandemic in Los Angeles, endlessly debating the same question: why, before the world came to a halt, hadn’t we spent every free weekend – or week or month – going somewhere? Looking back on our former life in London with its enviable and cheap proximity to other European capitals, why hadn’t we decided to fly to Dubrovnik or Rome, or take the train to Brussels or Paris?

The answer to both questions was obvious: because we didn’t want to. It’s exhausting to live like that. Yet being obliged to stay put generated an excessive and frustrated longing to be elsewhere. And then, when the lockdowns eased, a reaction set in: after months of being home-bound, going anywhere felt like mounting a 19th-century expedition to Antarctica.

This manifested itself in the most trivial and boring ways, such as the enormous amount of time it took to pack, get ready, then motivate ourselves to leave the house. The latter became a mini-trip in itself, despite the proximity of our first destination: the car parked downstairs in the garage. For a weekend away we loaded it up as if we were planning to be on the road for months. We liked the car because we were in it, and we were actually going somewhere, while remaining safely inside. We traded television screen for windscreen; merging the great indoors and whatever lay ahead of us.

That’s the great joy and blessing of California, the fact that some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth is only a couple of hundred miles away by road. What could be easier? Well, not leaving on a Friday afternoon would help. Precisely because all this splendour is located relatively close to Los Angeles, everyone else wants to do and see the same things. So it can easily take half a day to navigate those few hundred miles as you inch slowly towards Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Napa or Yosemite.

Get away early though, and it’s heaven. Last weekend we drove up the coast, past Santa Barbara and up to Los Alamos. All the time transfixed by the sheer California-ness of what we were doing. California is so like... California! Up the Pacific Coast Highway past Topanga and Malibu under that perfect sky, gazing out to sea, surfers, bikinis, muscles, volleyball, yoga, traffic (even when you beat the traffic there’s still traffic), homeless encampments: the tragedy of paradise made real. In several senses.

For many years, when I was living in England, California embodied all the promise of elsewhere; of the life not lived, of better and unrealised possibilities. Now, it has inevitably and logically lost this quality because it is where I do live. So even though the drive from Los Angeles to Los Alamos is far nicer than the one from London to Birmingham, it has an everyday quality now, as opposed to the wish-unfulfilled view I had of it back in the UK, when I would think to myself: if only I were in California. If I were in California everything would be different.

Now that I’m a resident of elsewhere, I realise that everything I dreamed of is already here.

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