Unfocused

Like any born-and-bred American, road trips are in my DNA. Growing up, they were an integral part of family vacations. We never did any truly epic routes — the longest was Seattle to Santa Monica, with a $20 bribe on the line if my sister and I refrained from asking “Are we there yet?” — but there were numerous shorter trips. Bellingham, Oregon, Idaho. The Pacific Northwest was well-explored from the confines of an ’89 Honda Civic.

My parents were pros: a white plastic bucket sat in the middle seat between my sister and I, filled with entertainment. Most of the goodies were designed to draw our eyes outward, past the car window and to the world beyond. License plate bingo, “I Spy”, plastic-coated maps and dry erase markers so we could mark our progress. Inevitably, though, our eyes left the windows and turned to our laps.

“Stop reading,” Dad would say. “Put your book down and look out the window. You’re missing it.”

A terrible problem to have, a child who reads too much. We raised our eyes back to the world , but after a respectful amount of time — after we thought we could get away with it — it was back to the books.

Of course, the problem was that my sister and I were young, and we still had that capacity only truly understood by the young: boredom. Looking out the window was boring. The trees whipping by all looked the same — or maybe there were different, but it took far too long for them to change. Rocks, grass, dirt — we had all of this back home. Looking out the window, there was nothing to do but get lost in your own thoughts. My brain wanted focus.

In adulthood, there’s more than enough to occupy your thoughts. Boredom becomes a concept rather than an actual practice. Nowhere is this more obvious than on a road trip, when you’re confined to a small space with limited resources for hours on end. If you’re lucky enough to be in a stretch of the country that defies cell phone towers, you’re disconnected from internet, too. I now find myself sitting for hours, doing nothing but look out the window. What once would induce boredom brings on something new and foreign; you become unfocused. Not in the way we’re accustomed to in the digital world — not in the way of emails to be sorted through, of pings and dings to pay attention to, of I swear I was about to do something now what was it? That is frantic — a forced unfocus.

This is gradual, natural, a slow progression after days on the road. The smell of pelicans, the sun burning against an SPFed thigh. The very conscious movement of wind over skin, thick and strong as a wave drawn back to the ocean. The uncomfortable yet comforting thought that this will all be here, after we’re gone — changed, changing, but still here. The sea today will not be the same one we see tomorrow.

Of course this doesn’t appeal to a child, who lives in the present and feels acutely the whole wonder of the world. They have no need to gaze for hours at nothing in order to see everything.

Back off the road now, no more transience, I feel myself coming back into focus — edges sharpening, the line between body and air growing clear. Focus is good — it’s necessary to function in our daily lives. But I close my eyes and see the shimmer of air on skin, feel my mind slip loose and drift. We see clearer for being unfocused. Every once in a while it’s good to wander.

 

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Lost to California

Snap back to reality. Back in Seattle. For the past two weeks we’ve been transients, driving up the California coast, packing a bag every day and going from motel to hotel. The sort of trip where you forget if it’s Monday or Tuesday (or maybe Wednesday?), where every meal was just brought in off the boat, where the biggest decision of the day is, “Should we stop at this beach or keep driving to the next?”

We traveled the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 1, a classic stretch of road that hugs the sea. We rented a convertible and drove from San Diego to San Francisco. I had done parts of this drive before, but never the full thing. California has a strange, magical pull over me, and I wanted Byron to experience that magic.

What I wrote last year is still true:

Everything down there just seems scented with a kind of forgetfulness — like there is nowhere else in the world to be, nowhere else in the world you should be.

I really think I temporarily lost my mind down there. It may still be floating around somewhere off the California coastline. I assume it will meander back home at some point, back up to Seattle, but for now I’m content to let it wander.

USS Midway in San Diego.
Starting in San Diego, visiting the USS Midway.

USS Midway in San Diego

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Birds at Torrey Pine State Reserve.

View from Torrey Pines State Reserve.
View from Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Vroom vroom.

Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove State Park.

Great blue heron at Crystal Cove State Park.
Crystal Cove State Park.
Crystal Cove State Park.
Crystal Cove State Park.
Crystal Cove State Park.

Will Rogers State Beach
Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica, where we used to go swimming with my grandparents.
Morro Bay
Morro Bay.

Morro Bay

 

Pelicans at Moonstone Beach
Pelicans at Moonstone Beach

Pelicans at Moonstone Beach
Sea lions.

Big Sur.
Entering the crazy twisting Big Sur.

Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

Big Sur
We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library and started chatting with the young woman at the cash register. She was from the Netherlands and had just arrived in Big Sur yesterday. She’d been driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in her van, liked it where she was, and decided to stay. That’s the kind of place Big Sur is.

Big Sur

Big Sur
Yellow flowers at Big Sur

Redwood trees in Big Sur.
Even the little Redwoods tower.

Juan Hiquera Creek in Big Sur

Point Lobos State Reserve
Artist Francis McComas called Point Lobos the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” I’d have to agree.

Point Lobos State Reserve
Point Lobos State Reserve


Point Lobos State Reserve
Harbor seals at Point Lobos State Reserve
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Eucalyptus trees.
Eucalyptus. My favorites.

Highway 80 in California

Quarter horses.
Pit stop to a family member’s horse ranch in northern California.

Quarter horse.
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Smell the Eucalytpus

“What’s that smell?”

“Mmm. Roll down the windows… it’s the eucalyptus.”

Byron and I traveled down to the Bay area for a wedding this weekend, and let me tell you guys — the eucalyptus. There’s something intoxicating about that heady scent. And I mean “intoxicating” in the literal sense of the word — one whiff of those babies and I pretty much lose my senses. “THAT’S IT WE MUST MOVE TO CALIFORNIA TO LIVE WITH THESE DRUGGIE TREES.”

Since this trip was coastal, there were more crazy wind-swept cypress trees than eucalyptus (which, not a bad thing — those cypress got it goin’ on). But on the drive out, through the hills, we’d occasionally pass through a grove of eucalyptus — and that was all it took.

In the book I wrote for my senior thesis, one of the characters moves from Seattle to Santa Monica:

The thing Marian liked best about southern California was the trees. They were tall and graceful, oak and madrona and box elder with branches that spread out like upside down umbrellas. Compared to them, the evergreens of the Northwest looked like bottom-heavy children, wrapped up in too many winter coats. Cole had been right; the air smelled different here. That, she soon discovered, was largely due to the eucalyptus trees that spread everywhere. Their leaves, ranging from small, bluish-green circles to long silvery tendrils, smelt like some sort of exotic spice carried across by the ocean breeze. She loved walking through the park near their house, breathing in the intoxicating scent and listening to the wind rustling their dry leaves. Cole said they were no better than weeds, the way they sprang up everywhere. Marian paid him no heed; they were by far her favorite.

At this section, my thesis advisor wrote in the margin: Traitor. She meant it in jest, of course, but she was right — the character (and by extension, the author) had abandoned the oppressive grey gloom of the Northwest in favor of California. 

And you know? I LOVE the Northwest. I think there’s no better place to be. But sometimes it’s hard to compare with this:

Kite surfers on Highway 1 in California

And this:

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Everything down there just seems scented with a kind of forgetfulness — like there is nowhere else in the world to be, nowhere else in the world you should be.

And no — I am not packing up the new house and the new couch and the old cats and moving to California. But smell is a powerful thing — our most powerful sense, really. It wakes up different parts of the brain. It’s hard to resist its siren song.

I’m sure without even really knowing it, whatever I write next will be tinged with the scent of eucalyptus.