“San Diego has always been where Americans go to escape America and find they have run out of country.”Charles Bowden, Red Line
Greetings from San Diego where, it’s true – I’ve run out of country on our journey west, even though escaping has never been our goal. It’s taken a little mental adjustment not just leaving the desert, but coming to California, with everything that means. Morgan is firmly settled on a different coast, enjoying a quiet few weeks in one of the quieter corners of Florida.
When I decided I would drive alone (with Linus, I guess, but he wasn’t even willing to help navigate) from Tucson to San Diego, I think I somehow tricked myself into thinking it would be easy. But truly, the drive through Arizona was kind of brutal. Perhaps it was poor choices in audiobooks, perhaps it was Linus’ occasional mournful yowls, or perhaps it was the utter sameness of the desert along I-10 and I-8, but this was the most hellish drive since our time amid the flaming oil wells and dust devils of northwest Texas. The only visual relief came in the form of Dateland, Arizona, which I was moderately sure was actually one of those Looney Tunes-style mirages from a distance. Just imagine a cluster of vibrant green palm trees after literal hours of browns and tans, next to a “travel center” designed around selling dates to weary travelers.
Before long, I cleared Yuma and somehow, wormholed into the Sahara Desert. Not really, of course, but my jaw actually dropped when, out of nowhere, the massive Glamis Dunes emerged. Now, we’ve been in the desert for a while – but not THIS kind of desert. It’s a popular spot for riding dune buggies and sandboarding, both of which I would have loved to try without an increasingly foul-tempered cat in my back seat.
I was still thinking about the dunes when the mountains appeared. I don’t know what I thought the drive from Tucson to San Diego would look like – but it wasn’t this! For a hundred miles or more, Linus and I wove up and down mountains that ranged from pine-covered to just giant piles of boulders. I kept looking at my GPS and wondering if I’d done something wrong; there’s no way there are this many mountains ten miles inland from San Diego?
This was my second failure of imagination here. I’d been to San Diego long ago, but I had no memory of it being quite so hilly so close to the coast. My accommodations were at the top of one of these hills, in the appropriately named Hillcrest. It’s a beautiful and safe neighborhood, with a great location near Balboa Park and close to downtown. Incidentally, it’s also the center of the city’s LGBT community, the upshot of which is I get more strangers talking to me in bars who suddenly lose interest in our conversation when I mention I’m traveling with my girlfriend. Hmm.
In any case, Linus and I are staying in a little one-bedroom casita/carriage house, with living space down below and a lofted area for sleeping, reached by a spiral staircase. This was something I was a bit nervous about with Linus – could he manage the stairs? After unpacking, this was the first question I tried to answer. He was a bit tentative at first, as the steps were pretty tall. But after I walked up a few times, he began to try to follow, with only a few misadventures.
I was so excited when he finally made it up that it only then occurred to me that he might have more difficulty getting down. This was, in fact, the case. I went down, and he just stared at me and yowled mournfully from the top of the stairs.
After almost half an hour, he still hadn’t figured it out, so I carried him down, at which point, he promptly ran right back up. He did eventually figure it out on his own, and gets better at it every day, to the point where I think he’s tiring himself out racing up and down every day. The adventures of cat travel, right?
After 400 miles in the car, packing and unpacking on my own, and teaching Linus how to use the stairs, I needed a day off. I would submit to you that there are few better places for a day to recharge than Coronado Beach. Truly, the only downside of Coronado (other than the heinous prices, but, California) is the way most folks get there, which is via the Coronado Bridge over San Diego Bay. Morgan has a fear of tunnels; I have one of high bridges. I can trace a decent number of my fears, rational or irrational, back to news stories I had to cover in my past jobs – just ask Morgan about my feelings on hot air balloons. With bridges, it’s this one.
Despite my personal feelings, I think this is an objectively terrifying bridge, more than 200 feet tall, and with just a jersey barrier between you and the bay. This is especially true when surrounded by California drivers, who have a homicidal-suicidal complex on par with only Texans. On this trip, I was white-knuckling my way over with such concentration I could barely even perceive the absolutely insane views of San Diego, the mountains inland, and even well into Mexico.
Once I was safely back on solid ground, I could appreciate the beauty of Coronado itself, a small, extremely high-end community that shares the narrow peninsula with the Navy facility where SEALs train. Fans of old movies may also recognize Coronado’s most notable accommodation, the Hotel Del Coronado, from the 1959 Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis film “Some Like It Hot.”
Coronado’s beach is one of the best and most accessible in the San Diego area, which is why I made it my first stop. I have to say, it felt surprisingly novel to be relaxing out in the sun next to water for once, as opposed to frying on the gravel landscaping of our home in Tucson.
After an hour or so of relaxing in the sun, I took a long walk down the beach toward the military base and was rewarded with perhaps the best dog beach I’ve encountered in a long time. I mean, just look at all of these very good boys and girls!
A day lounging on the beach in Coronado had me thinking – what exactly makes San Diego unique? It may be just two hours or so away from its SoCal neighbor of Los Angeles, but they couldn’t feel more different. For one, the military presence here is huge and inescapable. I already mentioned the SEAL training base on Coronado – that’s just one of at four just in the bay area, part of about a half-dozen in the region. Of course, folks at home might be most familiar with San Diego’s military heritage from a little film starring a guy named Tom Cruise (incidentally, this continued my Val Kilmerthon, following my recent viewing of Tombstone; next up is another excellent California film, Heat)
Believe it or not, I had actually never seen Top Gun before, and I was pleasantly surprised by most of it, though confused by the weird apparent sexual tension between Maverick and Iceman, and what was that whole volleyball scene about, anyway? Moving on. I was wandering through downtown one night when a little place caught my eye from across the road. It may have been the blaring “You’ve Lost The Loving Feeling”, but I decided to pop in and, lo and behold, it was the bar from the movie, known in real life as Kansas City Barbecue. And boy, were they proud of that movie.
In case you were wondering, the barbecue was OK, though certainly nothing to write home about after the smoked meats we’ve eaten over the past few months.
Another great aspect of my home here in San Diego is that I’m just around the corner from Balboa Park, a truly overwhelming spot filled with more than a dozen museums (including a Comic-Con museum) in addition to shops, performance venues (a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe!), gardens, hiking trails, the San Diego Zoo, and honestly, who knows what else. I’m not sure any person could honestly say they’ve seen it all, and I’m confident I could probably have spent my whole trip here, wandering in a daze from museum to museum, sleeping in the gardens and valleys, and subsisting on tacos from various stands. With only a few days, I, unfortunately, had to be a bit more focused.
My first stop was the San Diego Air and Space Museum – I did just watch Top Gun, after all.
Realistically, I’m not a “plane guy.” I can only look at hanging planes and read technical descriptions for so long before my eyes begin to roll back in my head. But the exhibits on space here were quite cool, including the actual Apollo 9 command module.
My other museum visit in Balboa this week came at the Museum of Us, located in an absolutely spectacular building visible from pretty much anywhere throughout the park.
It felt a bit like an old-school catchall kind of museum, with enormous Mayan ruins in the lobby, and a variety of exhibits on topics from the history of beer (on point for me) to an effort to track and visualize border-crossing deaths (also on point.)
It’s also the final resting place of much of PostSecret. If you’re a millennial who was on the internet in the mid-2000s, you might remember this weird blog/art project where people sent in anonymous postcards with their secrets, some of which were posted every day. Well, I hadn’t thought of this thing since probably my sophomore year of high school, but apparently other people didn’t forget. Tens of thousands of submissions have ended up here, at the Museum of Us.
It’s pretty overwhelming to browse through. Some are remarkably heavy – suicide, broken families, sexual abuse. Others are just eye-rolling artifacts of early 21st-century culture (“I deserve a better story than meeting someone on Match.com” – do you though?). Overall, it was quite the blast from the past.
If you haven’t figured it out by now after reading however many thousands of words of this blog (thanks, by the way), I’m fascinated by borders, particularly the US-Mexico line. Nothing against Canada – there’s just not exactly a clash of cultures in Wisconsin and Maine quite like Texas or California.
We’ve seen the Mexican border twice now: the wild, unspoiled mountains and deserts of Big Bend, and the rundown shopping malls of Nogales. It was odd to realize that in San Diego, I was far closer to the border regularly than at any other point of the trip. In no way does San Diego feel like a ”border town” in the way even Tucson did, despite the latter being three times as far away from the line.
This particular stretch of the border has occupied a place in my mind for a long time. I have crystal clear memories of being simultaneously amazed and nonplussed by photos of a slatted metal fence jutting out a few dozen yards from a beautiful beach, into turbulent ocean water. Visually, it’s stunning; but part of me also wondered why you couldn’t just swim around it.
I found this particular stretch of fence at Border Field State Park, which contains the southwesternmost corner of mainland America. I headed there, about 30 minutes south of San Diego, and drove until the toad was blocked off, at which point I parked and walked. The sort-of trail takes you through the Tijuana Estuary, a protected research reserve that encompasses the mouth of the Tijuana River. It’s a surprisingly perfect walk with spring wildflowers blooming and a light ocean breeze. In the distance, the border couldn’t be more obvious.
Suddenly, I crested a dune and the beach was there. Just a few more minutes walking brought me to my destination – the only one, in any case.
I sat down and enjoyed my lunch a few yards from the restricted area, watching the much more active Mexican side. Buildings basically went to within a few hundred feet of the fence, including a very prominently placed bullring. Meantime, people on the Mexican side ran right up to the fence and kids played on the beach alongside it, while I remained a safe distance to avoid any more Border Patrol encounters than necessary.
Incidentally, a border patrol truck pulled up on the hill behind me immediately after I sat down, and an agent seemed to get out and watch me eat, relax, and eventually, work on this blog. When I got up to leave (incidentally, when someone started climbing the fence), he drove away. It was at this point that two folks apparently decided it was their chance to make it over the fence. At the time, I was exploring Friendship Park, which is currently closed to vehicle traffic on the American side. The nice old park ranger said I shouldn’t have any trouble, but I was concerned the Border Patrol would have a less charitable view.
Still, I wasn’t going to miss this while I was here, just feet away. I was wandering aimlessly through the sort of underwhelming park when the sirens started sounding. It was about this time that I was wishing I’d brought my passport, and wondering what life would be like stuck in Tijuana in my hiking shorts. Thankfully, they barely seemed to notice me as they tracked down the two fence jumpers. Another perk to being a ginger – I don’t exactly fit the profile of a border crosser. I was able to complete my hike without interference, other than from some deceptively deep mud that sank me basically up to my knee.
The original people to show up in this area unannounced and without papers were, of course, the Spanish explorers heading up from central Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries – the first of whom was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who docked at the mouth of San Diego Bay in 1542, an area he called San Miguel. Cabrillo explored a decent amount of the southern and central California coast before his slightly mysterious death, but pretty much everything he named was soon renamed by other, better-known explorers.
His consolation prize for his role in settling the New World is Cabrillo National Monument, located at the tip of Point Loma near where his fleet first docked nearly five centuries ago. Aside from some truly outstanding views of San Diego, the bay, Coronado, and the Pacific, the site also hosts a statue of Cabrillo, which I like to think of as the biggest participation trophy this side of the Mississippi.
Cabrillo National Monument was also the site of the old Point Loma lighthouse, a pretty nice-looking two-bedroom structure on the top of the very tip of the point. Whereas this would normally be an advantage, that’s not the case in San Diego, where marine layer clouds basically made the lighthouse impossible to see half the time. A newer one was built down the hill a few decades later.
Down the road a bit, the monument also protects some of the San Diego area’s famous tidepools, which I reached just after low tide. There wasn’t much animal life to be found, other than lots of tourists who, like me, were staring downward trying not to slip into the surf. The views were particularly beautiful though, including of the distant offshore kelp forests.
California’s coastline is pretty amazing and so different from our last ocean experience. A life in New Jersey and Florida and time in the Carolinas and Georgia has just conditioned me to expect long flat expanses leading up to a beach, or perhaps there’s no mainland beach at all, only on the barrier islands. Here, the dropoff from high cliffs to sea level is unbelievably dramatic. And one of the best examples of this in San Diego is the Sunset Cliffs, a bit further north along Point Loma.
I started at the top of the cliffs, on the left of the photo. My goal was to go down to the beach, where there are obviously people. How exactly they did this without rapelling or hang-gliding down kept me busy for about half an hour, as I wandered up and down the cliffs looking for anything remotely resembling a trail. This wasn’t exactly a burden, considering the scenery.
Still, I kept wondering…how the hell do you get down there? I asked a few people, tourists like me who had no idea and no apparent inclination to get down there. Finally, I saw a guy with a surfboard confidently walk toward the edge and essentially disappear over the cliff. I ran over to where I last saw him, and there he was, already at the bottom. In the latest installment of “Trail Or No Trail?”, I just carefully followed his footprints in the dust down, hopping over an drainage pipe and using a rope to climb down the final stretch.
The beach was so beautiful I was even able to put out of my mind the idea of climbing back up later. It’s a narrow little stretch of sand that disappears nearly completely at high tide (always check the tides before coastal exploring, folks) and it was looking particularly beautiful on this late Friday afternoon.
I sat down and read for a while, partly to enjoy the beach but also partly to rest up for my climb out, which was actually not as bad as I expected.
Linus and I have about three more weeks of father-son road-tripping before Morgan rejoins us in Fresno. I’ve been doing my best to take care of myself and stay out of trouble, though I’ll admit I did have three scoops of fancy gelato for dinner one night and there was no one to stop me. In the week ahead, I’ll wrap up my time in this beautiful city and make my first actual cross-border trip to Tijuana.
We’re unquestionably past the halfway point of this grand adventure, and discussions are underway on how to complete the circuit and plot our reentry. The Pacific Northwest is proving a difficult problem to solve from a financial perspective as peak tourist season approaches, and then there’s the matter of where exactly we make a stop between say, Colorado and the Mississippi River on our route back.
It was also a strange feeling to accomplish something pretty great without even realizing it at the time. When I visited Coronado Beach and touched the Pacific on April 25th, it was almost exactly five months after last seeing the Atlantic Ocean as we drove off Tybee Island, Georgia (not to mention the first real water after two months in the desert). In our six and a half months of traveling, we’ve driven more than 10,000 miles through 12 states, gotten three oil changes, replaced two tires and one windshield, slept in 15 different places in five time zones, visited more than a half-dozen national parks and monuments, rafted down the Rio Grande, rode horses on a stormy, empty Florida beach, explored gator-filled Louisiana swamps on an airboat, and written somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 words for this blog. Thanks as always for reading, because however few of you are out there, you make the work of putting this together every week worth it.
Nick and Linus (and editing and advising from afar, Morgan)