A Southern Girl in a Strange Land

This is the first installment of a recurring column in Tangents Magazine about a young writer’s move from North Carolina to California.

     In the summer of 2015, when I was 26, I took a solo road trip along the transcontinental Lincoln Highway from Charlotte, NC, to northern California and back. I visited 18 states in 25 days by myself. Prior to the trip, I’d been stuck in a rut, and I needed a radical change to snap me out of it. Upon returning, I realized that what motivated me to drive across the country was a combination of two (somewhat contradictory) motives: one, the stirring belief that I was capable of far greater things than I was accomplishing at the time, and two, the cowardly urge to run away from problems I wasn’t ready to deal with at home. Newly encouraged by the perspective shift only travel can provide, I spent the next year getting my shit together, to put it eloquently. I drastically improved my health, published several articles in local publications like the one you’re reading right now, dissolved a dead-end two-year relationship, and cut ties from most of my old friends. Charlotte and I were both growing, but no longer in the same direction. That nagging urge to experience life somewhere else never truly left me, and by the fall of 2016, I felt confident I’d done all I could do there. It was time to go.

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            On October 2, 2016, I packed up my life into my car and hit the road to California just like I had the previous summer, only this time, it was for good. As soon as I reached an unfamiliar place somewhere in rural Georgia, I felt more at-home than I had the whole previous year in Charlotte.

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     On Day 2, in New Orleans, my brain relaxed into the familiar comfort of calculating gas mileage and wondering if the nearest rest stop had Wi-Fi.

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     And by Day 3, when I showered at a truck stop in Alabama, I was a full-on road gypsy again.

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     People frequently asked me if I was scared, a twentysomething girl traveling the country alone. Rarely, I tell them. I was made for this. What terrifies me is the thought of looking back on my life knowing I was a free spirit who didn’t have the guts to be free. Regret, standing still, feeling stuck – these are the nightmares that wake me up in a cold sweat. I’d set down roots in California soon enough, but for the time being, home was where I lay my head.

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My housecar.

After four days of driving that culminated in my sleeping on the street in Austin, Texas, I needed a break. I spent all of Day 5 in Room 284 of the Days Inn in Sonora, TX, a luxury I earned by driving 200 miles west of Austin throughout the night and checking into the motel at 5:00 am.

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Even the maps are bigger in TX

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Downtown Austin, TX

This drive across the country was significantly rougher on me mentally than the previous summer’s – I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because this time wasn’t a fun trip of sights and adventures interlaced between the long stretches of driving – this was a last-minute, permanent scramble out of the place that no longer felt like my home. Maybe it was because I no longer had a home to go back to. Or maybe it was just the boredom and loneliness that can accompany any solo traveler, given enough time and space.

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10-W in Texas

I spent my day of listlessness and recuperation in the motel room watching Law and Order reruns, just like my friends and I had done every Tuesday back in college. That felt a little home-like, as did the shower curtain at the Airbnb house I stayed at in Houston, which matched a shower curtain I used to have in Charlotte. You can find glimpses of home anywhere, if you look.

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            Around 11:00 pm on Day 6, I finally landed in Apple Valley, California, at the home of my good friend, Laurence Maher (whom many of you know from local bands like The Carbonari, Concrete, and Asleep in the Weeds). I practically fell out of the car and kissed the ground, which I regretted when I remembered we were in the desert and the ground was pure sand. Gritty lips notwithstanding, I slept like a newborn that night at Laurence’s house.

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Desert driving

For the next week, I made daily commutes from the high desert down to Orange County to apply for jobs and look for rooms to rent. The freeways uphill to the high desert are lined with giant mountains of boulders, which made for a stunning commute but begged the question of who would choose to settle and build a town elevated 3,000 miles above sea level (a bit of research revealed that native tribes and gold-seekers were drawn to the Mojave River, which is nearby but not visible from the highway).

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When people ask me why I chose to move to California (and they do, constantly), I can’t tell them 99% of the truth. The short answer is, to be a writer. I already was a writer, but a paid one, a professional music/arts journalist, that’s the dream. (Before you ask, New York is too cold and expensive.) The remaining truths, the ones I don’t tell, are things I couldn’t definitively name before moving, yet somehow just knew I would find: Like how motivating it is to drive amidst a sea of people with a hustle mentality – the dreamers and the doers and the strivers. Though I may be striving for different things than many of them (independence and community rather than fame or fortune), I still respect their grind.

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     Or because California has some of the best Mexican food in the world. Because it’s home to more concerts, festivals, hiking trails, and camping spots than one person could do in a lifetime. Because it’s easy to be a health nut there (they put avocados in everything). The list keeps growing the longer I stay, but most people are satisfied with the short answer.

Determined to find indoor living and employment, I emailed responses to easily 30 or 40 craigslist ads for housing in between dropping off resumes and interviewing for waitressing jobs across Orange County. (Why Orange County? I have no short nor long answer for that. It seemed as good a starting point as any.) More than one employer looked at me strangely when they asked for my address and I told them I didn’t have one. To pay for gas and food, I used mealtimes to make deliveries for Postmates, a side hustle I started back in Charlotte and re-joined in California. (I’d highly recommend it if you have a car and need extra cash.) Some days I couldn’t do in-person applications because I’d slept on a couch the night before and looked like an unwashed mess; other days I looked at rooms for rent that sounded promising in the ad but turned out to be disasters (i.e. a shared bedroom in Costa Mesa with a Russian girl and her newly-immigrated parents, whom I couldn’t meet beforehand, and a Vietnamese man in Garden Grove who yelled at me within ten seconds of my arrival). Rootlessness, isolation, and aimless driving were starting to wear me down.

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Rest-stop glamour.

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Job interview in Laguna Beach

Finally, on the seventh day of houselessness, I found a private room in Aliso Viejo I could just barely afford to put a deposit on, and I moved in the next day. The house was recently purchased by Mike*[1], a thirty-year-old who looked like a Malibu Ken doll from the waist up; it was co-inhabited by Mike’s much younger girlfriend, Rachel, and another young girl named Kelly. Nicer than any place I’d ever rented in my life, the townhouse sat inside a gated community surrounded by palm trees and featured an L-shaped patio overlooking the Aliso Wood Canyons. I couldn’t believe I lived here. (Hell, I was just thrilled to live anywhere.)

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I set up my air-mattress cot, which served as my bed, and furnished my room with what few clothes and boxes I traveled with in my car. I did it. I moved to California. Now what?

Mike told me if I liked doing deliveries, I should call his friend Alejandro, who owned a florist shop and needed a new driver. Indeed, I called said friend, interviewed at his shop in Newport Beach the next day, and just like that, I fell into the flower business. For the next two weeks (which proved to be a wildly unnecessary length of time), I rode shotgun in the company car training under Corbin, a skinny ginger kid from southern France. His girlfriend, Maria, grew up near him in northern Spain and met Corbin two years prior in Bristol, UK. Corbin turned me onto French hip-hop artists like Oxmo Puccino (“Puccino, like cappuccino”) and called Maria “my love” in five different languages. The job itself was insultingly simple, so I spent most of those training days oscillating between utter disbelief at the colossal mansions to which we delivered flowers and motion sickness from riding in the passenger seat.

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Costa Mesa, CA

Corbin was quitting the job because he and Maria planned to drive across the U.S. to New York City and fly out to Barcelona, where they’d live for the next few years. Super-gypsies. I advised him where to go (and not to go) on their road trip across the States and told him to get ready because the rest of America would NOT look like Orange County. Yes, this was a strange land indeed. The hills, the coastlines, the sunsets – it was like a postcard. I made a mental note not to stay here too long, for I suspected this kind of beauty and prosperity could make one lose all sense of “the real world,” whatever that means. Not until I started getting to know the natives did I learn how correct my suspicion was.

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Newport Beach, CA

Carol, the shop’s head floral designer, carries the hallmark traits of a middle-aged Californian woman: sundried hair sprouting with grays she tries her best to cover up; tan, leathery skin; and hot pink nails she swears are her own. She often asked me questions such as, “What’s North Carolina like?” and “What do you do at night?” I didn’t always have satisfactory answers for her, but she kept trying to figure out my strangely nomadic lifestyle nonetheless. She told me she’d never have had the guts to do what I was doing. I replied with my well-recited philosophy on fear, which is that I’m more afraid of regretting the chances I failed to take than of anything that could happen to me now. Carol nodded and said she understood that regret because she was “swimming in it.” If she could do it all over again, she said, she’d have gone to college, started her own business, and taken more trips because she “doesn’t travel anymore.” I later learned that fear also prevented her from driving the freeways (unheard of in California), eating sushi, and leaving Newport, where she was born over fifty years earlier (“I was already born in paradise, why go anywhere else?”). I watched as Carol expertly arranged a bouquet of white hydrangeas. “Look alive now, babies,” she said. “You’re going to a funeral.”

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A $500 arrangement

Seeing no more than one familiar face in several weeks left me feeling terribly isolated, an affliction I kept at bay by communicating with friends and family back home via texts and social media. At times, I wondered whether my constant monitoring of the activity in the city from which I’d just fled was a healthy way to maintain my established connections or a refusal to accept the drastic life change I’d just made. Was my inability to stay rooted in the present merely a symptom of the same waning attention span from which all contemporary people suffered, or was it a sign that I’d made the wrong choice?

To simulate companionship, I allowed myself to entertain a casual cyber romance with a man back in Charlotte, a musician with whom I’d spent a passionate few days right before I made my escape. We both wished we’d met each other sooner, but the stars weren’t aligned for us. This man was infatuated with the growing amalgamation of Facebook messages, fantasies, and faint memories that comprised his idea of who I was. (And vice versa.) We had not spent enough time together in person to witness a single flaw or mess that could mar the ideal images we fostered and nurtured in each other’s heads. His virtual attention held me over during a time of no affection IRL whatsoever. After a month or so, however, the spaces between my former lover’s messages grew increasingly wider, and by mid-November, he stopped answering my texts altogether. I debated whether he was dating someone new or had simply lost interest. (The former turned out to be correct.) Either way, I couldn’t blame him. Not only was it a challenge to hold someone’s attention from 3,000 miles away, but I constantly worried it was morally wrong. Surely it wasn’t right of me to allow such a good, decent person to pine after someone who wasn’t physically there. He deserved someone who was there, and more importantly, he deserved to focus on his own goals at home. I didn’t want to be a distraction, and I couldn’t let myself indulge in one anymore either. I committed to using my thumbs to plan where I was going, not just reminisce about where I’d been.

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My roommate’s chihuahua, Peanut

A few general observations on California from an outsider: For starters, the state has suffered a severe drought for the last six or so years, so Californians have no idea how to be human when it rains. It’s kind of hilarious to watch. All three times it rained during my first three months there, people advised me to “be careful out there!” everywhere I went. I even had to teach my 21-year-old roommate how to avoid hydroplaning because she had never experienced it. Second, yes, the traffic can be as nightmare-ish as you’ve heard. But in Orange County, the streets are specifically designed for high volumes of cars. The major freeways have six or eight lanes in each direction, and although they stay busy, they only get stopped up during rush hour. In town, each intersection has two or three right-turn lanes AND two or three left-turn lanes, so cars are constantly being funneled out of the way. When driving is your full-time job like it was mine, the traffic is your constant landscape, and so you settle in and get used to it.

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Speaking of the flower delivery job, I’d scarcely encountered a more hard-earned lesson to “be careful what you wish for.” All the times I thought it would be nice to stay on the road and make a living driving came back to bite me in the you-know-what. I’d foolishly accepted the job without considering that it would pay just enough to cover my rent and nothing else. I also didn’t predict that driving for myself, stopping and going where I pleased, was wildly different from adhering to a strict schedule of required destinations over which I had no control. Eight or ten hours each day of sitting alone in that car, which came to feel more like a cell, worked a number on my back, legs, and sanity. Music was my only companion. When I wasn’t working, the last thing I wanted to was drive more, so I hardly went anywhere. And anyway, I didn’t have the money to do much of anything even if I did go. I felt so trapped, way more so than I had back in Charlotte. This was exactly the opposite of what I’d hoped for. I didn’t come all this way to look at mansions all day and go home alone every night. Over and over again, I reminded myself this was just a stepping stone on the way to LA, but the next stone looked impossibly far away.

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Some people got a kick out of seeing this behemoth roll up and me jump out of the cab.

Newport is a place where wasteful material consumption and environmental destruction hide behind a palm tree-lined paradise. BMWs and Ferraris shine in storefronts along the Pacific Coast Highway, scot-free from blame for the glistening smog that hangs overhead.

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Classic car in Newport

A temporary Trump campaign headquarters sat next-door to an actual yacht marina. It was a highly informative setting to watch America make its own worst nightmare come true. Had I still been in Charlotte in the early days of November 2016, I almost certainly would not have been surrounded by the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters like I was in Newport.

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Marina on the Pacific Coast Highway

“If she wins, we might as well call this place Mexico because she’s going to give everything we have to the Mexicans.” That was Carol, the aging floral designer who doesn’t travel anymore. She said this in the presence of Alejandro, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia in 1962 and started the florist business that now employs her. Too accustomed to her diatribe to get offended by this, Alejandro just smiled and said he doesn’t know many Mexicans, but he does know a lot of Colombians who will be “voting for Trump,” winking at me behind her back. I sensed that Carol resented me for being a white girl who speaks fluent Spanish, like I was some sort of traitor for learning “their” language. Carol has lived in Newport her entire life, barring the three hellish years she and her husband spent in rural Mississippi (“I told him I was coming back with or without him.”) She won’t watch movies with any cussing or nudity; she prefers animated films with animals that talk. She does, however, enjoy watching what Trey Parker and Matt Stone humorously dubbed “informative murder porn” – cable TV specials on murders, kidnappings, rapes, robberies, internal parasites, anything scary to reinforce the protective bubble in which she lived.

Carol was once “violently attacked” in broad daylight by a serial assailant who later served jail time. To this day, you won’t find her in public alone. In terms of hypervigilance left behind by trauma, Carol and I shared a common thread; I’ve been known to lash out at people who touch me from behind because of my own scary experiences. Believe me, I get it. But Carol’s fear has not wavered in decades, despite living in one of the safest areas of California. Then again, didn’t she have every right to be afraid? Her husband did, after all, have to protect her from a separate potential attacker years after the first incident. And, per the Orange County Register, crime in Costa Mesa-Newport Beach rose 33% in 2015, a spike Carol attributes to the growing immigrant population. Carol hasn’t left Newport in quite some time, and the nightly horrors she watches on TV confirm her beliefs that the outside world is full of dangerous, godless sinners (did I mention that Carol’s vanity license plate translates to “Love the Holy One”?) and that those dangers are encroaching on her. America is going to Hell in a handbasket. We need someone to make it great again. Carols far and wide were prime target constituents for an insatiably power-hungry megalomaniac not above using fear and exploitation as chess moves. I’d mistakenly conceptualized Carol as someone disconnected from the rest of the nation, but in fact, she reflected the mood of just under half the American voting public. I wasn’t the informed one here; I understood nothing of her kind. If I had, I might have been prepared for the announcement made November 8, 2016. But no one was.

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     For someone who hates being told what to do, I sure did wish someone would tell me what to do. Having rejected every pre-suggested life path and insisted upon making my own way, perhaps I’d left myself without direction or guidance at a time when I needed it most. I was growing more depressed by the day, and at one point, I even considered throwing in the towel and returning to the comfort and familiarity of home. I needed something to remind me what I was enduring this misery for.

On a Saturday afternoon when I got off work early, I decided to go up to LA and get a glimpse of the prize. Having lived in the arts districts of Charlotte for several years, I never thought I’d make an hour-long journey to see a $5 show of local artists in a small venue, but on this night, I would have driven anywhere for it. The minute I stepped inside The Lexington on 3rd Street in downtown LA, I felt right at home – it was like Snug Harbor and the Milestone rolled into one. A young stoner-rock band blew up the tiny stage, the bar sold PBR and local craft beers for cheap, and spray-paint murals adorned the patio out back. I was in heaven.

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     I struck up a conversation with some guys outside, told them my story so far, and watched their mouths drop with disbelief that I was living in Orange County. “Well, no wonder you’re miserable,” they proclaimed, “why the f*ck are in you in OC?!” “Because I didn’t know!” I replied, laughing. I asked them where I might find my niche in the big city, and they informed me that North Hollywood was the up-and-coming arts district (apparently, NoHo is the much-larger NoDa of LA.) When the show ended, I thanked them and made my way back down to “the Orange Curtain” (a hilariously fitting term I’d never heard before that night).

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Re-inspired with an escape route in mind, I committed to keeping my eye on the prize no matter what it took. Ultimately, it didn’t matter than I didn’t fit into Orange County, because that was never the destination anyway – LA was. Since reggae and ska were the only types of music that made any sense to me in the beachy context of SoCal, I thought of Eric Rachmany from Rebelution singing “It’s you why you’re suffering // I found my reasons to live // You’re why you’re suffering.” And I thought of Jacob Hemphill from SOJA singing “You better get out / You better get up and turn your life around / You only live once.” If three days of driving across Texas couldn’t break me, I most certainly wouldn’t let SoCal break me. No turning back now. I’d plot my escape to the city of angels and soak up the beauty behind the curtain in the meantime.

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Stay tuned for Part 2…

❤ SG

[1] All names hereinafter have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals.

 

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