Part I can be found here!
So people kept telling me that there’d be a massive difference between Northern and Southern California…and frankly, I did not grasp, even remotely, how pronounced the difference would be. Our first stop along the route to Los Angeles, after leaving the mind-boggling splendor and majesty of Big Sur, was Santa Barbara. It is a truly beautiful coastal town with shops and malls that made my girl-friend squee. Personally, I had the unfortunate handicap of not knowing anyone there and frankly, with the aforementioned phone-handicap, I did not manage to unearth something sufficiently nerdy to keep my interest, which rendered the stay nice, but otherwise kinda unremarkable.
The same, obviously, cannot be said about Los Angeles. For one, if you’re a European and have never seen a sprawling mega-metropolis like Mexico City, Tokio or the like…well, then LA’s sheer dimensions will blow your mind. You start driving through this gigantic juggernaut in the morning…and still drive through it in the afternoon. A rather odd peculiarity: Los Angeles feels a bit like “Main/Second Street – the metropolis” to me. Know how pretty much every town in the US has this one street, the main thoroughfare, where shops, supermarkets, etc. are? LA feels like a never-ending succession of these, with restaurants upon restaurants, shops upon shops. The lack of pronounced skyscraper-clusters and also add to this very interesting feeling.
LA…so many songs are devoted to the city, so many cool things to see. But then again, personally, I was handicapped a bit: You see, the star-cult, the whole glorification of Hollywood Stars…is something that never really stuck with me. With a couple of noteworthy exceptions, I have a hard time remembering the names and faces of actors and…well, as such that aspect of the city was somewhat lost on me. I did have a major geekout moment when we actually drove down Mulholland Drive and I started quoting the movie non-stop…but yeah. Our airbnb also was cursed: While our hosts were kind and very friendly, the place had problems with several components and was invaded by ants at night, which screwed me over royally. Insect bites trigger my allergies hardcore. The most impressed and blown-away I got during my stay in this juggernaut of a city was, when I visited Griffith Observatory. It was heart-warming to see a place of science this well-visited, this well-made…and FREE. See, that is something that would not work in continental Europe (Scandinavia’s a different beast): Even the state-subsidized museums and the like tend to have an entry fee around here. I spent pretty much a whole day here and absolutely adored it. Still, my time in LA was tinged with a bit of…regret?
You see, I *know* how big all kinds of counter/sub-culture are in the city; I *know* that there was bound to be an amazing array of cool, unique shops and places to be – but ultimately, I didn’t have the time or connections to unearth them and it is that side of the city that would have intrigued me; not the Hollywood-y, touristy component. There is one more thing: Either we were exceedingly lucky, or people complain about LA-traffic from being spoiled by California’s other places. The dreaded gridlock we experienced was there, yes…but it was nowhere near as apocalyptic as I was led to believe. In fact, people at least drove like sane human beings. Compared to rush-hour traffic in Munich, I considered LA’s traffic to be positively relaxing. You have significantly less Lamborghini/Mercedes-drivers with a death-wish and an overblown ego almost crashing into you; things can move slowly and switching lanes can be…interesting, but, as a whole, people did tend to drive in a pretty considerate manner.
…and there you have it, final and ultimate proof that I’m a frickin’ weird guy: I liked the traffic and got absolutely nothing out of the famous beach, etc. XD So yeah…I hope to return one day and find the aspects of LA that are strange and enticing, nerdy and decadent.
Anyways, we left LA after a couple of days with a spontaneous course-correction towards San Diego, mainly to visit the maritime museum in the harbor. After the hustle and bustle of LA, San Diego was a positively relaxing city. In fact, my most prevalent notion of the city was, that it felt…FRIENDLY. Nice. Like a healthy, cool and fun place to live. From the friendly people in the harbor to pretty much the reception we had everywhere (remember: Two goths!), the place felt cosmopolitan, yet…almost like a small town regarding the friendliness. From a driver’s perspective, the slanted streets are absolutely AMAZING. You feel like a race driver driving through this town and got from a) to b) in a couple of minutes.
It is in San Diego where I had, for the first time, a sushi roll that really made me reconsider sushi as food I may not only like, but love – premium ingredients, perfect preparation, amazing and mouth-watering. Which brings me to an interesting observation regarding food in the US: You can get really, really inexpensive fast-food, obviously. Due to budget constraints, we went a couple of times to Taco Bell, KFC, etc. – the latter, btw., is less expensive than in Europe, but that as an aside. In Europe, at least pretty much all places I have been, there is some kind of correlation between price and quality of the food you receive: If you pay 20 Euros for an entrée, you’ll get at least decent food. Later during our trip, we realized that the same does not hold true for the US. For aforementioned sushi, I’d have to pay a ton in Germany; in the US, it was actually affordable, if not cheap. Anyways, I realized pretty soon that one should do one’s research when looking for a good place to eat: You can have phenomenal food…or sucky food. The price seems to be, at least in my experience, no reliable indicator whatsoever regarding the quality. Tl;dr: Yelp et al. are pretty much crucial.
Yes, there is good beer in the US! A ton of it, actually!
Now San Diego’s maritime museum was amazing, in particular the Cuban Missile Crisis submarine was something you definitely should visit, if you have the chance. However, my stay there would not have been half as amazing, had BJ Hensley not recommended Balboa Park…which is pretty much Disneyland for intellectuals: Not only is the whole area so beautiful it almost hurts to leave, the numerous museums there also are amazing and well-researched: I actually learned something new about the history of beer and cannibalism there! Did you know, for example, that the vast majority of our species is born with antibodies against diseases that can only be caught by cannibalism, pointing towards an era within our species’ shrouded past where that was the rule, rather than the exception. It was also intriguing to see e.g. an acknowledgement of the subjectivity of cannibalism: One could, in theory, consider e.g. the consumption or another person’s bodily fluids already as an act of cannibalism. Where to draw the line? As a pretty cool bonus, I received a button of a kiwi (one of the coolest birds EVER and the shape of my most cherished and faithful plushy) eating…a kiwi (the fruit).
If anything, Balboa Park could have been an absolutely amazing whole week-end – and we only had one day, where I rushed from museum to museum, trying my darn hardest to soak up as much of the amazing atmosphere and knowledge as possible. Seriously, I you consider yourself a scholar, then this is a must-have trip. But the timer was ticking and thus, with the firm conviction of NEEDING to return to this wonderful city, we had to leave…but not before I embarked on my first tries to fulfill my own personal sidequest during the trip to the US.
You see, I am a HUGE fan of the sword & sorcery comics of Conan, Red Sonja, etc. – ever since I was a kid, I adored the Cimmerian and his world. He was my hero. It is with some irony, I realized that I grew up to look more like the slick necromancers he constantly kills, rather than like the muscle-packed barbarian…but that’s another story. I only recently realized that Darkhorse Comics reprinted the legendary b/w-Savage Sword of Conan-comics…and I knew I’d NEED those, since they never had been properly published in Germany. (The chronicles-series’ publication was great for me; it finally filled the blanks of my childhood collections…) Unfortunately, the vendors here engaged in SERIOUS price-gouging: 30 – 90 euros for an early issue of Savage Sword of Conan. Yeah, that’s far beyond my budget…but guess what? In the US, these are affordable. Hence, one of my goals was to actually get these, which meant visiting comic book stores. I had no luck in LA, Santa Barbara, etc. – and I had no luck in San Diego…but one of the comic book stores there, while only having precious few RPG-books, actually had a pretty amazing selection of weirdo indie-RPGs…and I did get one. Yes, review coming. (The store in question would btw. be Villainous Lair – I saw Analise and similar titles there…)
The coast behind us, we drove on, into the desert…and frankly, I love deserts. The easiest justification for this, obviously, would be that we don’t have them around Europe, It would also be a dead wrong assertion. There is something absolutely humbling and amazing when you’re driving through a landscape, where you can see the horizon and there is NO ONE THERE. Granted, at this point in the journey, the whole feeling was closer to America’s “Horse with No Name” than towards the mind-blowing experience I would have later during the trip…but still. My spirits started to rise; I felt energized and freed of the worries and restrictions of civilization…and then, we arrived at Joshua Tree National Park.
My dear American (and non-American!) friends and readers – if you even have the remotest shred of a sensibility that lets you enjoy deserts and unique vistas, then you HAVE to visit this place at least once. Joshua trees, a kind of weird agave, look like a species of plant wholly out of space and out of time. I couldn’t stop staring in wide-eyed wonder at this marvel of nature: What looks like bark, at closer inspection, are brown, hardened versions of the green spikes you can see at the end of the boughs: These “trees” look at the same time cuddly and hostile, alien and plausible. In short, they look like I pictured Mars-plants would look like when I devoured sword & planet fiction as a child. For the whole time we were there, I felt like an explorer of a new and strange planet, like I had been chosen for the colonization of a far-off realm beyond the confines of our blue planet. You are entitled, of course, to smirk and look at this take on the place with a due amount of skepticism…but frankly, it is a place that stripped me of all world-weariness, of all cynicism and left me like a wide-eyed child, cured of all ennui and weltschmerz.
For as long as I can imagine, these two have been part and parcel of my existence, perhaps a reason for my interest in roleplaying games as a whole – I love imagining new things, witnessing them. I require and thrive upon new input, knowledge, experiences. To badly paraphrase Chechov: “It is not the crisis that destroys us, it is the drudgery of everyday life.” Visiting Joshua Tree and witnessing the splendor and surreal landscapes presented there, breathing in the clean desert air, seeing coyotes and owls, looking at the clear and gorgeous, starry sky amid those weird tree-like plants felt like a call-back to a more innocent time for me. This place is an oasis of unwinding, a wonderful place to visit for the all-too-rare experience of a jamais-vu….if you have the proper mindset, that is. Personally, I considered this to be one of the most amazing places I have been my whole life: When I close my eyes, I can still picture it, smell it…and hear the silence in the evenings, when the few tourists have gone.
To provide you with an analogue for the experience Joshua Tree offered me: Picture “America, the Beautiful” as a gorgeous person, wonderful to behold; Joshua Tree would be the pleasant surprise to see an unconventional sign of beauty emerging once you get to know this person better: The glorious tattoo, the uncommon beauty mark, the golden or green specks in the eye – the aspect that deviates from the plastic beauty of advertisements and models and renders a beauty tangible, yet ephemeral and at the same time transcendent.
If you’d take the component of anthropomorphization further: It’s the beauty of uniquely tousled hair, of a wholly unique face while asleep – it feels both intimate and like something completely distinct. It is here, I could, for the first time, properly picture the quasi-deity beauty of the forever-young personifications of America in Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions” (yes, I like really overly cerebral, hard to grasp and challenging novels); it is here that I realized that, no matter what one may say or think: America is great. It does not need to be made great again. Every society has ample of issues, but the land, this magnificent place of, quite-literally in Joshua Tree, out of time and place beauty, is shining bright and splendorous, if you only take a moment to sit down, decelerate, breathe and take it in.
I did not want to leave this place; in fact, we stayed one day longer than planned because I simply could not let it go, because I felt the overwhelming need to breathe in these vistas, conserve them in my mind. But, alas, the road did call, and so we drove on…but not before taking some seriously delicious pizza with us: If you’re in 29 Palms, be sure to try a hemp-pumpkin-pesto-pizza with whiskey-caramelized onions and your choice of protein. Delicious!
See you next week and thank you for reading my ramblings!!!