Condors in San Diego, Zebras in Tijuana: Week 31

Hello again from California, where Linus and I have arrived at our second (and final) Morgan-less stop on our father-cat son adventure through the Golden State.

Cambria, CA, Looking North – May 2022

For the next week, we’ll be in the town of Cambria, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California’s Central Coast.

How did we end up here? Well, there are just not as many cat-friendly, remotely affordable spots in California as you might expect, and somehow I was lucky enough to find one in a quiet little community just down the road from the famous Hearst Castle. I truly know very little about this part of California, so I look forward to exploring and sharing what I find with you all.

But we’ll start back in San Diego, where I spent the previous week wrapping up my final days in the southwest. I’m going to start with something that seems to be universally regarded as true: San Diego has great weather. Not just great weather, people told me. The BEST weather in the country, maybe the world. I’ve heard this so often I never really bothered to check. In a lot of ways, San Diego does have great weather. Summer highs tend to stay in the 70s or low 80s, and winter lows seldom dip past the mid-40s.

In other ways, it can be slightly unpleasant, too. The combination of strong sun and intermittently powerful gusts of wind off the water results in a sensation I can only compare to standing in front of a dryer vent while someone occasionally opens a walk-in freezer next to you. And are you familiar with the May Gray? What about the June Gloom? As a lifelong east coaster, I wasn’t, either.

As I’ve discovered, May and June (and apparently sometimes July) are notoriously cloudy and gray here. And like clockwork, after days of gorgeous blue skies, I woke up on May 1 to some serious gray, windy, cool weather. In normal life, I would have probably would have worn sweatpants and watched TV all day. Out here, I decided it was a good day for the beach.

On this fine day I headed north to Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, twin oceanfront communities with very different vibes. Pacific Beach is known as the rowdier of the two, with Mission being more family-oriented. Think Seaside Heights vs. Seaside Park for my New Jersey readers. Mission Beach is also home to Belmont Park, an old-timey amusement park that’s more recently known as a good place to catch a stray bullet from the apparent hoodlums who hang out there. As if I needed more of a reason to avoid amusement parks than my fear of roller coasters. Anyway, for a combination of these reasons, it did remind me a bit of a Jersey shore town (including the decidedly un-Californian weather) mixed with LA’s Venice Beach in some ways. The vacation rental homes that stretched all the way out onto the pier were a nice touch too.

I wrote last week about Balboa Park, the city park packed with a preposterous amount of things to see and do. This week, I finally made it to the park’s unquestioned top attraction (and one of the city’s most famous) – the San Diego Zoo. Let’s get this out of the way first – it costs a jaw-dropping, head-spinning $65 per person to get in. This is the most basic ticket, and I saw no family discounts or anything. That’s $260 for a family of four, for those playing along at home. This is before the movie theater-priced food, 4D theater experiences, souvenirs, and other assorted expenses. There’s a lot to see here, but yikes.

When I say there’s a lot to see, that’s an understatement. It houses more than 12,000 animals on a 100-acre site that, like the National Zoo in Washington, must have been designed by either a sadist or avid mountain hiker. There’s simply no way to get around the park on foot without scaling and then descending some pretty steep hills. Sure, there’s a a guided tour with no stops. There’s also theoretically a shuttle bus, but I can say confidently I never saw one and the only evidence of their existence was the annoyed crowds waiting at stops. I walked 4.8 miles that day in the zoo alone, so bring your walking shoes.

There’s nothing quite like a zoo to make you feel like a kid again. I was just as amazed at the bears, monkeys, and elephants as the five-year-olds – maybe more so. And it was a special thrill to see a California condor, of which I’m half-sure I saw in the wild on the drive from Tucson. This is just a fraction of the many animals friends I made that day.

At the end of the day, I decided to take the aerial tram back to the entrance to avoid another punishing few miles of hills. While it was cool and certainly saved me a lot of time, it was also slightly terrifying. I know I’m more anxious than most, but you try riding in a tiny car on a thin wire, blowing in the wind a hundred feet or so above the animal cages. I reckoned that at least the fall would kill me before the tigers got to me.

I also went to Tijuana this week. I’ll start by saying that, overall, I had a good time. But it’s also true that Tijuana feels like a dangerous adult version of an amusement park. Replace the giant turkey legs with $1 beers, and Micky and Goofy with guys trying to sell your pharmaceuticals, invite you to strip clubs, or generally menace you and you’ve basically got a lot of the vibe. Concerned moms of the world, you may want to skip this section.

I took the San Diego trolley down to the border, a convenient 45-minute ride straight from downtown to within a hundred yards or so of the border. I changed some money and headed toward the Customs checkpoint. Getting to Mexico could hardly have been easier. I held up my passport (the guard didn’t look at or stamp it), told him I was there for the day, and I was over the line in less than five minutes.

The line to get back, however, appeared to be another story. It snaked a solid half-mile away from the checkpoint, something that sparked a little bit of anxiety about getting through on the way back. I only mention this because I found that was the defining feeling of Tijuana – having a good time but with an undercurrent of dread. This was only made worse as I realized I no longer had cell phone service; thankfully, I’ve been in no-coverage zones enough this trip that downloading regional Google Maps to my phone is now second nature when arriving in a new place.

I walked the mile or so from the border to Zona Centro, the main tourist area of the city. For the fact that this is an area both tourist-heavy and close to the US border, it was surprisingly desolate, other than unsettling groups of military members patrolling in pickup trucks.

I just kept walking toward the St. Louis Arch-looking thing (known as the Monumental Arch), which I knew was at the top of the main tourist street, Avenida Revolucion. Upon arriving, it was pretty much how I remembered it from a brief trip with my parents close to 20 years ago. Tons of dentists and pharmacies catering to Americans looking for cheap procedures and drugs, lots of empty bars blaring electronic music mid-morning, and crappy junk souvenir stores, with owners heckling you into coming in to shop. Tijuana is also the home of the Caesar salad, invented at Hotel Caesar.

After a week or so in California, Tijuana prices were also a welcome relief. Just look at that! I spent $12 including tip for two beers and a metric ton of chips and guacamole, which I enjoyed on a balcony overlooking the street. I even spotted a rare (not really) Tijuana Zebra, also known as a Zonkey. I’m joking, of course; these poor, stripe-painted donkeys have been posing for pictures with inebriated tourists and excited kids forever.

I did some walking and shopping, and eventually found myself at the edge of Zona Norte, an area of Tijuana known for things I’ll let you look up on your own. But suffice to say that as a man in a relationship who isn’t interested in any drugs that aren’t legal in San Diego already, there wasn’t much for me there. Zona Norte is also the part of Tijuana where recently-deported folks are turned loose, adding to the general Wild West vibes.

It’s also, incidentally, a favorite spot for crooked Tijuana cops to try to shake down tourists, including myself in this case. I was walking back toward the tourist area, minding my own business when an officer flagged me down. Surely he wasn’t talking to me, right? But indeed he was, and decided he wanted to frisk me and empty the contents of my backpack. In extremely broken Spanish, I told him I was a tourist here for the day. He kept asking me, ”La marijuana? La marijuana?”, which I assumed was not an offer. I know enough Spanish to respond with emphatic no, señors. When he was satisfied I was just a hapless tourist and not some Walter White-style pot kingpin, he let me go and I hightailed it out of there.

I took this as my cue to head back to America, where people who look like me don’t get hassled by police unless they’re teenagers who are skateboarding. Remember that dread about getting back into the US? False alarm, as it turns out – the process of reentering was nearly as quick as leaving. Another five minutes in line, a check of my passport, and I was back in the land of the free and the home of the Whopper.

Somehow, I walked nearly 8 miles around Tijuana, and after the general assault on my senses that that city constitutes, I needed a day off. But because there are no days off on this trip, I spent that day in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego, about a 15-minute drive away. It’s got a reputation as San Diego’s more bohemian beach community, and based on the very granola-looking folks parked around me and apparently living in their vans, that reputation is accurate.

It was beautiful; there was a pier with birds and some surfers in the water; I had some delicious shrimp for lunch. But truly, I didn’t do much here other than nap on the beach and lay in the sun. I just didn’t have the energy or mental bandwidth for anything else. Without Morgan around to hang out with at night, I’d been essentially doubling the number of things I was doing and seeing to avoid just sitting around the Airbnb alone. After ten days, this was starting to accrue a bit.

After a day in Mexico and a day of rest, I felt like doing something a little patriotic, so I headed to one of San Diego’s top tourist attractions, the USS Midway aircraft carrier. I was surprisingly impressed with my last ship tour back in Mobile, and I’d only heard good things about the Midway – along with the fact that it would take me a half-day to see, which was accurate.

This enormous carrier (named after the pivotal World War II carrier battle) operated for nearly fifty years from the end of World War II all the way through the first Gulf War, where it was the flagship of Operation Desert Storm. It’s been open to the public as a museum since 2004.

Like every large Navy ship, it’s amazing to see the floating city aspect of things; the kitchens, the laundry, the convenience stores, the movie theater. But on the Midway, the air traffic control center was particularly cool, even if it was staffed with still more horrifying dummies, which museums should really avoid. Speaking of vaguely unsettling things, there were several portions of the ship’s decks that were blocked off for one reason or another. The unusual thing was how they chose to do it, with cardboard standups of Navy members staring creepily at you from the edge of a darkened corridor. I hustled through these portions. We also got a look at the commander’s room which looks like something out of someone’s finished basement, drop-ceiling and all. Still, it’s a lot better than what the average sailor was sleeping on, also seen below.

What’s more patriotic than an aircraft carrier tour? Well, apple pie, bald eagles, and of course, our nation’s pastime, baseball. For the first time since New Orleans, I had the opportunity to check out some live sports (unless you count bull riding, of course.) Toward the end of my second week in the city, the San Diego Padres returned home from an east coast road trip to host the Miami Marlins, a team I’ve seen plenty of times face the currently-struggling Nationals.

I booked a pre-game stadium tour, which was a great way to get a look at the ballpark, and especially cool to see the stadium being set up and the players warming up out on the field. After a look through a few suites, the broadcast center, and around the field, we concluded just as the gates were opened for the game itself.

It was a relatively uneventful 3-2 win by the Padres, and by the end of the game it was quite chilly – more football weather than baseball. But it was still a great feeling to be back at a ballpark, albeit one an entire country away from the last one I visited.

For my final day in southern California, I drove north to La Jolla, and spent another day at the beach. Some might think this is a little excessive – my 4th beach in two weeks? But when in San Diego, as they say. And La Jolla is supposed to be one of the best, split between La Jolla Cove, which is more nature-focused, and La Jolla Shores, which is beachier, but also close to the gorgeous Scripps Coastal Reserve.

Later that night, my time in San Diego concluded pretty much where it began – Coronado Island. To avoid any more bridge stress, I took the ferry over this time for dinner and one final look around, a trip that would have been extremely pleasant if not for the surprisingly frigid wind.

I ended the night at the Hotel Del Coronado (one of the most memorable hotels from any of our family trips, thanks Dad), enjoying some pistachio ice cream and reflecting on the dramatic shift in vibes in the 13 days since I left Tucson.

My two weeks in San Diego were a lot of fun. But I’ll admit all of this traveling is a lot less fun without someone to share it with, even if I’m glad Morgan is getting some time to relax and be with family. Still, at the end of the day, Linus simply isn’t much of a conversationalist. California is certainly beautiful and I can see its appeal. But it’s a daunting state to try to understand, and I’m certain I never will. There’s a definite darkness an inch or two under the surface that I haven’t quite perceived elsewhere. San Diego the fifth most expensive city in America to live in, and I’m honestly not quite sure how anyone does it. As a result, there are more homeless here than anywhere we’ve been so far, and based on the local news, there’s not much of a strategy to solve this. It’s a beyond-cliched observation at this point, but there’s a lot of hope, idealism, and good vibes crashing up against a weird economy, an exorbitant cost of living, water shortages, and all sorts of other unexpected-for-an-East-Coaster issues out here. In some ways, California feels like it’s actually its own country, like Texas, or Canada.

I’m nearly midway through my time here in Cambria already, and doing my best to see as much of this absolutely breathtaking area as possible. But Fresno is already looming, and beyond there, who knows – literally? You’ll be among the first when Morgan and I figure it out, so watch this space.

From the Pacific to the Gulf,

Scripps Coastal Preserve, La Jolla, CA – May 2022

Nick and Morgan

3 thoughts on “Condors in San Diego, Zebras in Tijuana: Week 31

  1. Glad you didn’t mention the police encounter in Tijuana to me before. I had serious concerns about your visit there! I’m surprised at the weather you’re experiencing, I imagined warm and sunny. I’ll be glad when Morgan returns and you can share your adventures. Stay safe❤️

  2. If you had just followed my advice and crossed the border, parked yourself at Tijuana Tilly’s, got drunk and stayed put until you needed to go back, you would not have had the Federales trying to shake you down.
    Just sayin’.

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