Travel: Part Three - Los Angeles & Coming Home.
Television and film had lied to me.
As we drove down the highway, slowly coming to a standstill in the famous LA traffic I’d often heard about, I watched the rain beat dismally against the window, which made me feel rather uncomfortable; I hadn't had my movie moment of driving into LA, surrounded by the rich green hills dotted with mansions which glistened under a magnificent blue sky.
Not yet. I refused to lose hope, but I kind of laughed at it in a way, as the song Ironic by Alanis Morissette came on shuffle on my iPod, almost as if on cue. Typical. Even our tour leader, Taylor, a Californian girl herself, said “It rarely rains in LA!”
So we drove in to LA under a grey sky, gazing with wide eyes at the dotted palm trees and glorious houses on the outskirts, with a mixture of uncontainable excitement, but also a reluctance that this was our final destination; every minute counted. We listening to the radio and put on as many clichéd songs that we could cram into the remaining minutes we had in the van; The Beach Boys, Hotel California by The Eagles and Teenage Dream by Katy Perry made an appearance on the playlist.
In the clingy heat under the humid grey sky, driving through Hollywood was surreal, with fancy streets followed by really not so fancy streets which created an uncomfortable contrast. The rain held back a little when we finally reached the one and only Hollywood Boulevard. We joined the clusters of tourists who spilled onto the pavements of the Walk of Fame, looking at the pink stars beneath our feet. I had a photograph with Johnny Depp’s hand prints and took several photos of some of my film/music heroes’ and heroines’ stars, such as Julie Andrews, Doris Day, Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Meryl Streep… I would have looked for all of them if we hadn’t ran out of time, but then again, they were just stars on the ground (although I couldn’t help but wonder what it must feel like to have one of your own) and the crowds were making us feel a little claustrophobic in the sticky heat.
We had a brief view of the Hollywood sign on the hill from the balcony in the shopping complex we found ourselves in briefly, but I’d left my glasses in the van and it was so far away that I could barely see it, so there’s that... It was just so crowded.
It was finally time to say goodbye. The van pulled up outside the gateway hotel that only I would be staying at and we heaved our bags out of the boot. Seven days had flown past. Swallowing the lump in my throat and attempting not to let the solitary tear in my eye fall, we said good bye to our wonderful tour leader, Taylor, and as we all said goodbye to one another it was slowly sinking in that I was about to spend two days alone in LA, without all these hilarious people whose company I had thoroughly enjoyed, and couldn’t imagine not having.
Luckily, the girls’ flights were still several hours away, so they came up to my hotel room before they had to make their way to the airport. We sat on the bed in my tiny hotel room with yet another view of a concrete wall; it was like San Francisco all over again. In light of this, all the girls gave me their plastic bottles and any remaining snacks that they had, poking fun at my previous hospital experience.
Saying goodbye to them outside the hotel when their taxi to the airport arrived was heart wrenching; inevitably, tears were shed. But when I returned to my room, with seven bottles of water, a tube of pringles and a collection of GoAhead cereal bars stacked on the shelf, all I could think of was how happy I was to have met them, and how safe it had felt to be surrounded by people like that. The silence was lonely.
Now I was alone, and a brief moment of anxiety swung through me out of fear of what had happened just a week before. I didn’t want to stay in my box-like hotel room all evening, so I walked down the road and bought some chips from a market, and when I returned, Titanic happened to be playing on the little TV in the corner of my room, so whilst keeping hydrated, I let the familiarity of Leo DiCaprio keep me from my worry and inevitable nostalgia that the trip was pretty much over.
However, it turned out that I wasn't the only one spending some time in Los Angeles, so I met up the next day at my next hotel with some of the remaining few from the trip, and I ended up sharing some of the best moments of my life with them. Due to the lack of public transport in LA, our only guy on the trip very generously hired a car for us to get around. However, it wasn’t just any old car, it was a red Chevrolet. And so as we drove around in this car, it began to feel reminiscent of all of the little fantasies I’d had of LA, and exceeded it; I did not think that I would be a back seat passenger in a red Chevrolet in Los Angeles at the age of 18.
The things we did in those next two days would have been much more difficult if I had decided to do them alone, due to the lack of transport and general logistical/planning struggles, so I was grateful for the car and to have people with me to share those moments. I was finally able to go to the Paramount Pictures studio tour, which I had wanted to do for years. It was amazing to see different sets and to learn about how certain things a filmed, such as scenes ‘at sea’ which are actually filmed in a fillable ‘swimming pool’ with a wave machine and a painted backdrop. You might say it took away from the magic of ignorance as a film viewer, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but there was something special about it too, learning all of their little secrets. I also got to sit on the same bench that features in Forest Gump (just saying..).
After that, we consciously scheduled when to go to Venice Beach so that we’d get there in time for the sunset. We strolled along the boardwalk brushing past tourists, rushing locals, many homeless people and far too many ridiculously attractive people. The scent of ‘medical marijuana’ wafted through the air behind frequent passers-by and the prescribing huts along the boardwalk. My friend Isabel and I were happy to find a bookshop filled with so many good books that I had to peel myself away from them after an hour because I was running low on the dollar and it was too tempting.
We ate burritos and bought cookie sandwiches before walking along the shallow waters, passing the lifeguard shelters, and I remember looking out at the horizon, trying to cling onto the moment as I had imagined it so many times before with the sound of the Beach Boys in my ears.
When the sun began to sink behind the hill, we found a spot beside the busy skate park and watched the sky turn brighter shades of burning red and orange from across the golden sand. As I watched, I tried to focus on it as much as possible, to feel its significance and make myself as aware as I could that I was really there, with my feet buried in the sand of Venice Beach. This is what I had been waiting for.
That day soon came to a close, and I repeated the events of that day in my head that night at the hotel on my own, feeling an almost-satisfied sense of happiness, but something grated on me a little and I disliked myself for thinking it; other than the sunset, I had idealised these places too much in my mind beforehand; being there didn't quite feel as important as I thought it would.
I woke up the next day aching with the thought that I would be flying home that afternoon.
That morning, we picked up Isabel who was staying with a friend in Beverly Hills, as we gawped and drooled out of the car window at the gorgeous houses, and made our way to the sea. We drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and had lunch on Zuma beach (made famous by Pamela Anderson). That was the moment when my little fantasy came true; driving along the crystal blue California coastline to the radio in a red chevvy with not a single cloud in the sky.
Then we stopped off in Santa Monica on the way back, before heading to LAX where my dream trip would come to a close. We rode on the pier rollercoaster several times and stood on the end of the pier, respectively looking wistfully out at the sea, caught up in our own minds. We walked back along the boardwalk in a scene that looked just like The OC or 90210, as we were surrounded by pretty people on rollerblades, long boards and bicycles, palm trees beside the concrete path and shiny cars parked everywhere. It was a dreamy place with money and beauty sparkling at us from all directions.
And then there were two of us. We said goodbye to Isabel (yet another emotional goodbye), and Andre drove me to the airport. We sat in comfortable silence to the sound of the radio as we drove back along the Pacific Coast Highway, and with my hand held out, swimming with the breeze out of the open window, I watched the waves lap onto the sand beside us, passing surfers and sunbathers in the August sun to the sound of a random catchy song I hadn’t heard before, which I now know was Cool Kids by Echosmith, playing on the radio. I never wanted the moment, or the trip, to end.
But just several hours later, I was stood alone in the boarding gate waiting for my flight, as I watched the sun set behind the glass of LAX airport. After a five hour bumpy night flight to Newark, I then ate a bagel for breakfast and watched the sun rise over the New York skyline, and just seven hours after that, I found myself back at Heathrow airport in rainy London, waiting for my Megabus coach back to Bristol.
Coming home was the worst, but it was nice to be back in the familiarity of my home with my family. I just didn’t know how to tell anyone about the trip. I’ve heard many people say the same thing when they finally return home from a travelling experience, talking about it doesn’t compare, and it feels like you’re annoying everyone… sorry if you’re reading this thinking exactly that… I have to share it somehow...
What struck me the most was how much my perspective on so many things changed during the trip. Before I had gone, I had visualised California in my mind as this magical place where everything is perfect and inspiring, particularly Los Angeles. However, it turned out that I actually didn’t really like LA very much. I had often said that I would love to move to LA to pursue my dream career in film, but that had changed a little after my visit. I didn’t want to live somewhere where an average day in the winter season is like a mild English summer day; I needed winter, and there’s something comforting about English rain, in moderation. It just wasn’t the place I had perceived it would be, unless you were absolutely loaded; I could now understand those who were cynical of the place, and so the idealisation of my dream faded, leaving behind a stale taste of reality.
However, what made the trip for me was my awe at the natural side of the places I experienced, and how inspired I was, by the green beauty of Yosemite, the magnificence of the orange coloured Grand Canyon, and the beauty of Venice beach, had there not been other people there. I fell in love with the sense of wilderness, beauty and freedom which these places had to offer, even when we were driving along the long highways. Everything was just so vast.
But most importantly were the people. It was my first trip away from home without familiar faces, and yet, they ended up becoming one of my reasons for not wanting to leave. I had perhaps overestimated my independence a little; it would not have been so hard to leave if it didn’t involve leaving behind some really special people who had made the trip the most unforgettable experience, and I will always remember them as a vital element of the trip. If it hadn’t been for Andre hiring a car and their company in those last few days in LA, I may not have been able to do all those things we did in the final days; they enabled me to fulfill some of my little teenagery dreams and I couldn’t be more grateful. Now, that trip is just a pile of photographs, a bag of receipts I keep under my bed, and memories shared with friends I’ve made from around the world.
I came home from that trip feeling a little lost; my sense of direction had been changed and I wasn’t so sure of my future and my career plans anymore, because I had been so focused on something that turned out to be a different experience entirely. But I think we’re all winging it a little bit, and I’m happy to have been able to let go of the reigns a little and not really know what to expect in the future.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to California for a while, just because I don’t know if the experience would compare to that trip without the people that made it so important.
I remember being around eight years old, listening to California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and the Papas on my brother’s Walkman (ha, remember those?) whilst happily eating cereal out of a cup on a camping trip in Devon with my mum, not really thinking at all about anything significant other than how much I loved crunchy nut cornflakes and how much I liked the song, without thinking much beyond the meaning of the lyrics.
But now when I listen to it, it reminds me of the days before the trip when I thought that going to California would make everything make sense; ‘I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A’. Now, although California is a beautiful place that I feel blessed to have seen at my age, the world feels so much bigger, and my tunnel vision for California is diminished. I want to see as many places as I can, and I cannot wait for all the people around the world that I am yet to meet and learn from, although, as I write this and reminisce, it is hard not to find myself California Dreamin' on such a rainy day.