When I was about to go into high school, my family decided to move to California. Many things played into this decision, but suffice it to say that just as with every other move we made during my youth, my dad felt he had burned his final bridge in Phoenix and so California was the next step. He had regaled us all with stories throughout my childhood of his Happy Days and Beach Boys-like time in Southern California during his own high school years, much of which had a good chance of being made up for storytelling effect, but either way this was a move given a bit more grandeur and mystery because of built up expectations.
We broke our lease in Phoenix, we filled a moving truck with all of our worldly possessions in the thick of the August desert heat, and set off for the west coast and the unknown. I’d had mixed feelings about this, mostly because middle school had been such a difficult time for me socially. I found out years later that it is a difficult time for most people socially, but as attached as I had become to Phoenix during my five years there, the most time I had spent living anywhere besides the city of my birth, I had some part of me that felt it was time for a change. So when the “big family discussion” about the move came up, as we all floated in our backyard pool one evening trying to cool off, I did not exactly say no, even if I also did not emphatically say yes. My mom got a job though, so it was decided. We would go west.
The drive from Phoenix to San Diego is one I have repeated more times than I can count in my adult life, but this first time it held wonder, mystery, and the unknown. We had travelled to California as a family by car before, more than once in fact, but just on I-10. The only thing notable about that drive was the windmills out near Palm Springs. The drive on I-8 was more desolate in those days, complete with the rotting husks of decades-old abandoned service stations and stores by the side of the highway. I only remember staring out at the distant mountain vistas that whizzed by, crossing each line of bigger and bigger mountains until finally the biggest one of all loomed in the distance.
The truck struggled along with the other trucks in the right lane to scale this mountainside highway. We were under 20 miles per hour the whole way. But once we reached the summit, we must have gone a full half hour before the accelerator was needed again. We were on a downhill trek all the way to the coast. San Diego loomed somewhere in the distance past these black mountain peaks. Once we got to the top, all the local radio stations started to tune in, and my one sticky memory from the final leg of this drive was my normally gruff and intimidating father driving blissfully downhill in our moving truck, singing along with the songs on the radio. You could tell, in that moment, the lure of California had grabbed hold of him once again.
Our house in California was much smaller than the one in Arizona, even though it was somewhat more expensive to rent. My room was much smaller too, and felt cramped. The house was odd, the non-master bathroom had no shower so we all had to share the master shower in the morning. The back of the house, the dining room and den area, was added on as a custom project by the house’s owners, who now lived out of state. It had a Jacuzzi in the back, but no pool. It felt different, it was an adjustment. But mostly, I remember venturing outside and just standing at the driveway, which sat uphill relative to the other houses on our street. It was foggy that morning, and the lingering smell of a distant skunk hung in the air. I stood silently and surveyed my new surroundings, breathing the mix of thick moisture, distant salt air and skunk. It felt different, it smelled different, and it looked different. The word weighed on me: California. A place you heard about on TV, in movies, in music. I was here now.
I don’t live there anymore. But my family still does. Many people I care about are there and have absolutely no plans to leave. At least one of them never will (see below), but it’s likely that’s true of the living ones too. I spent far, far more time there than anywhere else, including the city and state of my birth. Despite my misgivings, despite my apprehension and despite the discomfort I always felt living there, at least to some degree feeling like I did not quite belong there, it was home for a very long time. In a way it always will be, and it remains an indelible part of the person I am today. Right as I sit here, the spell of the mysterious California broken by years and years of familiarity and experience, I marvel that I experienced living in such a place, that such a place was able to become part of my personal story and makeup. And when I “go home” to see my family, it will still be in California, the mysterious land on the coast just over the mountains.