I am in Santa Maria tonight, a Central California town north of Santa Barbara, which I have driven through many times but don’t think I have ever stopped. Decades ago, it was a quiet little town on a four-lane highway connecting the southern and northern parts of the state. Now it has the same feel as so many places—grown too quickly to remain charming, with historic buildings scattered between malls and fast food chains, off a freeway that now lets you bypass the town entirely.
It is the halfway point between San Diego and Napa, where I make the first big stop of my trek northward, and I start meeting up with a number of friends from many chapters in my life, from high school through college, and including a author friend dear to me.
Tonight, this hotel is just a random place to stop, plucked from a website offering cheap rates for last-minute rooms. It is the end of a marvellous day of beautiful scenery and chances for quiet reflection as I drove. Once you’ve left the beachfront stretch of Camp Pendleton north of San Diego, there is nothing remotely pretty or charming about the drive through endless Greater LA, until you drop down from some hills and enter a beautiful coastal valley at Oxnard. Then it just gets better as you pass through Ventura to Santa Barbara, although I regret the newish freeway diverts you from the old road, so close to the ocean that, in rough weather, waves would douse the cars and you had no choice but to splash through.
North of Santa Barbara today the landscape was truly spectacular, with blue sky, cobalt ocean, endless yellow fields of blooming wild mustard rising up to meet the dark green scrub and reddish orange rocks of the mountain range to the east. No photos because I was driving, and no images online that did it justice, so I hope you can picture it.
Now I am in the part of the state that is starting to look like the landscape of my childhood—rolling, muscular hills splashed with oaks. I formed my sense of well being and my ideas of beauty amid such scenery, and I suspect that I am not alone in preferring such touchstone landscapes from childhood throughout my life.
Leaving San Diego with my second and last carload of possessions (mostly files, books, and the memorabilia I wasn’t ready to let go, plus a suitcase of cruise clothes that probably won’t fit), I was struck by how different it felt from when I left for Victoria nine months ago, in August 2020. Then I had a great sense of leaving a huge chunk of my life behind and heading into an unknown. I remember the palpable excitement I felt from the moment I hit I-5. Within a mile or two, I was grinning ear to ear.
This time I just felt stressed about being in an unfamiliar car and didn’t ponder the significance of leaving at all. This is odd, because this time it really is for good. Except for a little trash in a wastebasket in my friend’s house, nothing of mine remains in San Diego. I am out. Done. Moved on. I will be back, I am sure, to visit people I love, but a city I lived in for well over a half a century is no longer mine. I should have noticed this as I drove past the landmarks of my life, but I didn’t. I was too busy fretting about the car.
Now, in manageable and fun daily chunks, I am heading back to Victoria, which I now think of as home, though I haven’t quite figured out what “home” means when one doesn’t really live anywhere in a conventional sense. But for now I am not thinking about that. I am on the road headed for a daily new adventure, and reminding myself that home is simply wherever I am.