I'm posted up at a cafe in San Francisco. Two lovely gentleman next to me have been noodling jazz on guitar and mandolin for an hour. Hi guys!
I've slowly been working my way up through California. I spent three days in Los Angeles with an old friend from Baltimore who's been working on creating incredible retro dance music for the last year (check out White Lights- debut record coming soon!!). Talk about the west coast lifestyle: when I rolled into his house, three dudes were sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and noodling on laptops, while a few more were out on this balcony, taking in the sunshine.
For a city with a reputation for sprawl and inauthenticity, I had a surprisingly wonderful time in Los Angeles. The radio is stuck in the early 90's, playing a medley of G-Funk era hip hop from Snoop & Warren G. For one of the biggest cities in America, the pace of life moved at a cozy crawl. And tacos, oh tacos galore.
My oldest friend in the world has been working her way through graduate school here, and I was able to pull her away from her studies for a trip to The Getty. What a place: a tram winds you up the side of a mountain to the grounds of the museum, which is often as breathtaking as the art it contains. The pristine white grounds and gardens feel completely detached from the city below, evoking both ancient timelessness and a futuristic utopia. We strolled through galleries of European painting and the spoils of Louis XIV's extravagant collection of furniture and tapestries, catching up on old times.
Then, after a wild goose chase pursuing LA's most renown food cart (Kogi BBQ, we'll meet again), we ended up at the tar pits outside the LACMA.
Friends- tar pits!! Bubbling up in the middle of the city! It's not much to see, but a fascinating phenomena- outside the main pit, orange safety cones are haphazardly tossed over new leaks, covered with oily black crude. I meant to shoot some photos but it started to rain, leading into one of the most aggravatingly epic rush hour experiences of my life, completing a 35 minute drive in about two hours of crawl.
In terms of the character of Los Angeles: I did indeed come across a hilarious array of aspiring movers and shakers, trying to 'make a name' in the big city. But beyond that cloud of selfish aspiration, I also came across some of the most personable, thoughtful people I'd met on this trip. One doorman recognized my Michigan license, proclaimed he was from Warren and we now have plans to meet up for a drink here in San Francisco. Another bar manager took a shining to me and, despite my road-weary dishevelment, called ahead to sneak me into one of the town's glitziest rum bars, just as a gift for a pleasant conversation. A bummed cigarette turned into a night of shared cultural bewilderment with a fellow traveller from Australia. I'd like to think it was only my own openness that fostered these interactions, but they happened with a frequency- and an authenticity- that I have yet to encounter on this trip.
And oh my, the booze: I need to devote an entire separate post to some of the cocktail bars I discovered in this city. Stay tuned, discerning drinkers.
My drive to the Bay Area was marked by dizzying scenery and an epic oversight. Highway 1, the legendary coastal highway has, oddly, partially collapsed into the sea. Oops. I planned my route to dodge the closure, winding through the epic hills of California's wine county. Easily some of the most gorgeous scenery on a trip already full of inspired vistas, I came out on the coastal highway at sunset. 40 minutes up the road, I realized the closure was still ahead of me. I had to backtrack a good 50 miles to rejoin the connecting highway, another epic dead end. Along the way, I stopped at an overlook to capture some photos of the Pacific Ocean. I realized this was my first time encountering this body of water in person, and despite it being pitch black by this point in the night, I was able to capture a few 20 second exposures on my tripod.
So, remember what I said about the unfamiliarity of Phoenix? Yeah, the Bay Area makes that place look like Cleveland. I connected with an old friend from college here who has taken me through some of the most fascinatingly unfamiliar experiences of this trip. We went to a friend's house high above the hills of Berkley for a Kirtan session: sacred Indian singing, driven by harmonium (a one-armed man's accordion with a hypnotizing drone) and tabla. I was greeted with disarming warmth (oh, my midwestern stuffiness) and a cup of tea, and spent the evening repeating melodic odes to Ganesha and Vishnu with a group of twenty-odd strangers. Singing in groups is something I've spoken about with friends back home, but rarely encounter- this was an amazing experience.
Awesome, but it could hardly prepare me for my next experience of the night: a little after midnight, I was taken to the legendary 'Essex.' The backstory on this place, 30-some years ago a man created this back yard sanctuary with strolling gardens and the most intensely heated hot tub you'll ever encounter. There's a closely-guarded code to the back gate, but those fortunate enough to know it have open access to the grounds.
The space is almost entirely unlit, with only a dim light illuminating the steaming tub. Totally silent, a dozen or so bathers were alternately relaxing in the near-scalding tub, roaming the grounds or resting on wooden planks in the gardens. After disrobing and showering, the waters of the tub are almost unbearable on first contact, so hot that merely moving a limb in the water can rekindle the pain of the heat. This isn't a long soak- five minutes in the water, 10 minutes walking or resting on the benches, watching the steam curl above your body into the trees. It's a totally self-regulated, free space, and one that works- people know it's precious, and only share the secrets of entry with worthy friends. The darkness and the steam make the whole place seem like a hazy dream, one you might be tempted to second-guess if not for the immense physical sensations of pain and relief the waters evoke.
I'm of to see San Francisco- more soon.