Great American Road Trip, Great American Novel

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The California Road Trip, Part I

San Diego Bay. Photo credit: Joshua Franzos
A philosopher of an Israeli tour guide once told me, on top of Masada while the sun beat down upon our skulls, "Those annoying things that happen when traveling, the car breaks down, you miss your flight, a smelly person sits next to you on the's ALL part of the experience..." Travel can't, well...shouldn't be compartmentalized. It's a sum of all those parts, the good and the could've done without, that add up to something more. 

I had some unfinished business in California. I had to go back. Immediately, as I'm in the steep downward slope of finishing the first draft of my first novel. I have roughly six chapters left to write and there were a few motels, restaurants, and a large section of the Golden State that I missed on my first three sweeps. Fourth time's a charm, Ho Ho No. No it's not. Truth be told, I could ramble around the state in a rental car forever. The thrill of the open road, man, I'd spike it into my vein if I could, but it wouldn't be the same if I couldn't see a desert highway mirage with my own two eyes. And so the research road trip was plotted out, pen on paper, with my scribble grade handwriting. Excited longhand. We'd fly into San Diego. We'd hop in a car, I'd show Josh the abridged version of the one trip he didn't accompany me on, and then we'd venture into uncharted territory, the sprawling countryside between San Diego and Palm Springs.

I travel like I approach outlining a novel. Writers are generally divided into two categories. "Pantsers" i.e. write by the seat of your pants see where you end up and then there are "Outliners." There is no right or wrong way. I pantsed at the beginning. Everyone's process is unique and completely valid. Writer Stephen King doesn't outline.There are key things that need to happen in a story. Hooks, plot points, pinch points, first acts, third acts. Some storytellers have an instinctive sense for these things. I'm just learning the craft and feel more comfortable and ON TRACK with an outline. Unlike a pantser, I already know all of these things and how the story will end. But what I don't always know is how the characters will get there. In writing and in travel, I don't spell everything out to the minute.  I commit the most important milestones to paper and leave room for exploration.

Josh and I have traveling down now. We like to leave Pittsburgh early so we can land and have more of the day to explore. I woke up at 3am and pulled on a romper and my Vivienne Westwood pirate boots. I think there are six buckles on each leg...a dangerous idea in the security line of an airport, but I kid you not, with a little pro-activeness on my part, the boots turned out to be an excellent way to Win Friends and Influence People. (They also look great with everything I packed - so you'll be seeing them a lot in this multi-part blog series). 

Our flight left at 5:10am. We flew Southwest for the first time. They do things differently. They don't do things like any other airline we've traveled and it was for that reason that Josh and I didn't sit next to each other for six hours. 😑 It's all part of the experience. I also wore a panama hat on the plane because I couldn't figure out how to pack it without squashing it. Since I wasn't sitting next to my husband, I perched my hat over my face and took a nap. Just like in the movies.

Gif via PonAdidas

We landed around 9:30am and got our rental car. We stopped at the local AAA office and got some road maps before we met one of my father's best friends for lunch--He'd found me on facebook just a few weeks prior to my trip. I get happily spooked by coincidence, but my main character scoffs at it. Josh and I met him at the campy Bali Hai - a tiki restaurant that's been open since 1954. It was my doing. The last time I ate there, two years ago, I tried their spam fried rice and world famous Mai Tai-the strongest drink I've ever had. The last time I saw my father's navy buddy was twenty years ago--you could say I'm terrible at staying in touch, but I wish you wouldn't. It was great to see him and get to know him as an adult. I was happy to hear that he enjoys retirement with extensive reading, juggling grandchildren, advising important California officials, and judging BBQ contests around the country. We heard some great stories about my dad as a young man. He also caught me up to date on some of my parent's other friends that still wonder about me. The people I couldn't bring myself to call when my mother passed away. You could say I dropped the ball on that, but I wish you wouldn't. I'd say I dropped that ball over a gorge and never expected for it to catch up to me again, but it did. I sat there feeling like the asshole that I was.The core group of my parents friends are still with us, some quite sick, but most are just your regular boomer-generation, battered veterans of life. "Next time," he said, "Give me more time to round up more people that would like to see you. You can even stay with us." Reluctantly we said our goodbyes after lunch and then he showed us the way to the Coronado bridge. We set our gps down and tailed his truck like lost people used to do, back in the day.

Hotel Del Coronado courtyard. photo credit: Joshua Franzos
Coronado is an island off San Diego. It is a navy town and very patriotic. Coronado has a main street, but it's called Orange Avenue. It doesn't take long to walk down it and find the architectural gem of Coronado, the 19th century seaside resort, Hotel Del Coronado. The Wizard of Oz was written there. Some Like it Hot was filmed there. My father worked there as a teenager, as did his friends. It has a reputation for being haunted. My father said he saw some things he couldn't explain when he worked there late at night. My dad's friend scoffed, "Haunted Schmaunted." I stayed at the Del in 2014, just a few doors down from the haunted room, but of course, I didn't see anything when I was there. Josh and I breezed through the Del this time around and only stopped for a drink. We sat outside, semi near the pool. Our expensive drinks came out in disposable plastic cups. 😑 I just wanted Josh to have a taste of posh at the Del since we had other, more family-history-significant accommodations for the night, but it looks like I'm going to have to bring him back for another go at that. It's all part of the experience.

Hotel Del Coronado lobby. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

Sea and Poolside at the Hotel Del Coronado. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

Hotel Del Coronado pool. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

Pool house at Hotel Del Coronado. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

Like a Tom Wesselman painting. Hotel Del Coronado. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

My father grew up in a small boarding house on Coronado called "The Cherokee Lodge." Starting in the late 19th century/early 20th century, it was a boarding house - a halfway alternative between the grandeur of the Del and the early 20th century glamping going on in Tent City. Three houses, two shotgun, were plopped on a barge and shipped over the bay and joined together to form the lodge. The Cherokee Lodge eventually became known as housing for the wives and children of navy men when they were shipped off to war. According to the oral tradition of my father, the women and children lived together in each other's company, like a sort of a circling of wagons. (Note to self, potential new story idea). Eventually my grandfather bought the lodge for the use of a single family, his. The lodge was sold in 1976 and after some years, the lodge once again became the modern day equivalent of a boarding house -- a Bed and Breakfast. My family has been staying at the Cherokee Lodge for many years. I marvel at the care and restoration efforts made by the owner, Ed Melvin. I marvel at the fact that I can stay in a historical landmark where my family once lived. Seriously, how many people get opportunities like that? Coronado is a popular tourist spot in the summer and the Cherokee Lodge books up quickly. I tried to get a room a month out from our trip, and they were full, except for one room. The room with only a trundle bed. A trundle bed is a fancy couch. It's the kind of room they would only offer to family and friends. To think someone would consider me a family or a friend...and here I'd received two offers in a month. My remaining family is so small and fractured across north America, that the casual luxury of a couch to sleep on brings tears to my eyes. Couch sleeping takes trust.

Cherokee Lodge. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

front porch at the Cherokee Lodge. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

That evening Josh sat freshly showered, on the bottom trundle. I sat on the top trundle, blearly eyed after a 20 hour day. We held our plastic tumblers full of expensive whiskey and I patted my bare feet on his lap while we talked about the highlights of the day. We talked about our lunch with my dad's friend. Josh said something about, after so many trips to California, he was peeling away the layers and getting more and more insight into the personalities of my parents.Then the whiskey took hold of me. I dared to imagine what it would be like to have lunch with my own father as an adult. An awful lot like his friend I supposed. I burst into tears. My husband kissed my knees and pulled me into a bi-level trundle bed embrace. 

For many, California still flutters her false eyelashes and alludes to that age old promise of fame or fortune. But for me, there was no more pretense. Fresh out of pretense. No more wine and dine. It was fine with me, I've really only been seeking out the places that were mostly likely going to give me an authentic experience anyway. I could already tell that this trip to California was different than the others. When you're a frequent, reoccurring house guest, one day the hostess will be comfortable using her everyday china on you instead of the "good company stuff." She'll probably want you to wash your own dishes and make your bed once and awhile. Hell, she might even pass gas in front of you. California, light of my life, fire of my loins...she'd gotten comfortable. I was family now and that meant I was going to see the good and the bad.

Next up, The Salton Sea.

What I wore:
Romper: H&M, $9.99 on sale HERE.
Hat: Target, here.
Pirate Boots: Vivienne Westwood, currently out of stock but they get re-issued. Try ebay or 1stdibs
Bag: YSL

Your Bosom Friend in Pittsburgh,


  1. You are a fantastic, engaging writer. I very much enjoyed this travel story, rich with family history and context. It paints such a personal picture of California. Super interesting. Thank you.

    1. Hi Ellen! Thanks for stopping by and reading. I'm SUPER flattered. :)

  2. This is incredible. You've got me. I need to see how this ends.

    And any post with an Indiana Jones gif is a post I can get behind.

    1. Hi Terra! Thanks for reading:) I was so pleased to see a comment from you! I hope to write a blog post one day, completely in gifs.

  3. Such a great post, Meryl! I'm with Terra, I can't wait to read more!


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