Travel: Part One - Getting to California.
Five months later and my summer nostalgia is still in full force. I’m constantly finding myself flicking back through the photos with the yearning ache to go back, from camping trips by the sea with friends, warm summer evenings, barefoot wanders in the sand, my family’s first experience of Disneyland, but most of all, my solo trip to America.
My obsession with the Beach Boys, influenced by my Dad when I was younger, coincided with my growing obsession to go to California, this dreamy place I became obsessed with as I’d gaze over photographs of beaches, mountains, pretty houses and stars to be seen in the sky, in the streets, and on the pavement of Hollywood Blvd. At thirteen, my obsession began with the place. But I had begun to realise that it wasn’t just the place, it was what it meant, and it soon became the plaster on my knee for every rainy day or displeasing moment. Through my teens, from around fourteen or fifteen, I constantly dipped in and out of career ideas that I’d discuss with my parents, in a sort of stressed way, because I knew that deep down I didn’t want to do any of them, but they seemed like a good idea, at the time. I knew I wanted to be a writer; I knew I wanted to be a story teller, but too many seemed to say that for it to seem possible, and with decent pay. And then I did some research, and as my passion grew and broadened, I fell in love with the idea of being a screenwriter. I thought about it all the time. I started reading books about it, and studied the dialogue of the people around me and the stories they all had to tell. It became so obsessive, and all these books kept telling me that I needed to get to LA, ‘preferably’. It was such a cliché, but I’d been infected with the bug of the American dream. It was all I thought about. I couldn’t wait to leave school, and in the dull moments of waiting my mind wondered to imagined scenes of what it would be like to watch the sun slip behind the mountains with sand between my toes on Venice Beach, or driving along the coast with The Beach Boys on the radio, or to sit on the little buggies and get driven around the film studios where perhaps a film I might write one day would be filmed. It was just this place that equaled happiness in my head – the clichéd idea that everything would make sense and be great if I could just get there.
So then, around my eighteenth birthday in February, I booked a trip there for July, to see what it was like and put an end to my poisonous daydreaming. It was going to be a road trip from San Francisco, to Vegas, to LA. I started saving up everything that I could. The waiting was painful.
The day finally came. With a 6am flight from Heathrow, I left Bristol at midnight to get there with plenty of time to spare, thanks to my anxiety at the thought of missing my flight. As my family was away, a young friend of my parents who was looking after the house dropped me off at the coach station with his girlfriend, with a little piece of inspiration in his words on the ten minute car journey. He said that the people you meet travelling are the ones you meet in the best way, and the stuff you learn whilst travelling is invaluable, all fairly clichéd things I’d heard before but he was well intentioned and it only added to my excitement. I hadn’t slept for 24 hours, and I was hoping I’d be able to snooze on the coach.
I was wrong. There I was, sitting in my seat beside the coach bay waiting to be called for departure, when a guy dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a grey blazer, with khaki shorts, sandals and a trilby hat sat beside me and asked if I could watch his bags (one being a hard-shelled Beatles suitcase) while he had a cigarette outside in the rain. He ended up sitting next to me on the coach after we found common ground with The Beatles and The Beach Boys and he told me his life story, interrupting himself, to my amusement, with the odd snort of cocaine, apologising profusely to me with every sniff, but I was too intrigued by his story. Before our trip came to an end when the coach reached my terminal, he asked if I wanted to work for him at his beach bar/restaurant in Goa, which he told me was funded by the money he makes from selling weed, which also pays for his three daughters’ education.
So that was the first stint of the journey. Next was the first flight from Heathrow to Chicago, where I sat next to, and befriended, a twenty-six year old flight instructor called Jacque, who was half French, half South African, living in London. My flight anxiety washed away as we chatted for the majority of the seven hour flight, excluding the two hours of watching Thor when we fell asleep on each other’s shoulders. He asked me why I was going to America, so I told him, and he told me that he had an instructing exam in Florida. As we both had transfer flights, and I had never had a transfer flight before, he took me under his wing, and we chatted all the way through the tedious security checks which would usually make me nervous. We spent the waiting hours together in Chicago airport; his company was so calming. We wandered around the airport, watching people and making stories about their lives they had left behind or that they were about to depart to. He chose me a book and we had a coffee, both of which he insisted on paying for. A talented teenage couple played together on a free piano in a nearby bar and the enchanting sound resounded around the terminal.
He decided to wait with me at the gate until boarding for my flight to San Francisco was called for, but there was something kind of sad in saying goodbye that I don’t think either of us expected. We didn't exchange contact details or anything, and sometimes I wonder if he ever wishes we had.
The quiet flight from Chicago to San Francisco dragged, as I pictured Jacque sitting in the seat by the window at the gate, watching planes take off while he waited for his flight to Florida. I didn’t sleep on the plane; I was too distracted by the view. Flying over such vast landscapes in this tiny little plane was the weirdest thing; I felt so small.
And then I arrived at SFO airport and it was so surreal. I was in California, my dream come true. I could feel myself feeling fairly dehydrated, but I thought nothing of it as I stood waiting for my taxi to the hotel, marvelling at the cloudless sky above me. My heart was fluttering with excitement for everything that was ahead of me.
I finally found myself in my cheap hotel room that was a tiny little square but with a double bed and a TV with a communal bathroom in the corridor. So I curled up, texted my mum to say that I’d made it, ordered a pizza and watched the baseball.
Two hours later I was being rushed to hospital in an ambulance in my PJ shorts, slipper socks and my Ravenclaw t-shirt. How English. When I had finished my pizza I had begun to feel pretty hot, and the air con was broken, so I went to open the window. Being in the central part of a city with a lot of tall buildings, I should have been less surprised to reveal a brick wall as my window view that I could easily touch with my palm. The other window in my room was tiny, high up in the corner, which had no air flow and gave me a glimpse of a handful of stars. Apart from that, I started to feel really claustrophobic like I had been put in a box, but then it got worse, when my throat began to close up and I couldn’t breathe.
I hadn’t slept for almost 48 hours, I’d completely forgotten to drink any form of fluids other than the coffee at the airport, and the nervousness of being alone combined with the excitement for my trip pushed me into some kind of state of silent, internal panic.
Somewhere in my mind was the panic that I was alone, that my family and everyone I knew were miles across the Atlantic and anything that happened to me now would be completely unknown to them, unless I told them, so I realised I needed to take matters into my own hands, and stumbled down three flights of stairs to the hotel reception with one breathless struggle of “I NEED HELP” before passing out. My body had hit breakdown point.
After hours of dipping in and out of consciousness, waiting in a hospital bed alone, having various scans and tests, being put on a drip that made me freezing cold, and finally being given a sleeping pill that would knock me out for a solid 24 hours, I was all good to go home, as in back to the hotel, in my free taxi journey back with a nice Mexican guy who called himself Steve, who actually walked me to the door of my hotel.
Good start to my first solo international travelling experience, I thought, hoping this wasn’t the only thing I’d remember from my experience of San Francisco, so I made sure I explored as much as I could with the time I had.
In a days’ time I would be meeting up with the group of travelling strangers like me, who I would be spending the next seven days with. The trip hadn't even officially begun, and yet, I was thoughtfully exhausted by what had already happened. But the excitement was more real than ever; my feet were finally on Californian ground.