(FEATURE IMAGE: View of the Grand Canyon from plane between NYC and LA.)
Looking at the world around me right now, it’s quite surreal to think that a little over two months ago, I was engaging in an activity that now conjures up wistful thoughts of our faraway, pre-COVID-19 past: international travel! In January, I found myself a 14-hour flight away from my Australian home, landing at LAX, and I spent the ensuing two months exploring the vast and beautiful place that is the United States.
I’ve always been a bit of an Americanophile, and it was the most incredible and mind-opening experience to be able to connect with a place that has always figured heavily in my dreams. I felt my hair blow in the breeze along open highways, I laid eyes upon the most breathtaking landscapes of every kind of terrain, and I watched snow fall for the first time. I hailed a cab in New York City, I stood inches away from famous artworks that I’d admired in books for years, and I fell in love with Mexican cuisine, vegan pizza, and Whole Foods! America is the most amazingly vivid and fascinating and wild of places, and I do not think it will be too long before I find myself there again.
New York City
First destination — Manhattan! Without wanting to sound hyperbolic, no place has ever quite spoken to my soul as much as New York City did. To quote my journal that I kept: “The crisp, smoky air ate at my cheeks, and my head span with its flashing, vivid glow and its surround-sound, symphonic cacophony of human noise. It made me feel truly alive in a way I didn’t know it was possible for the human body to feel.” Its unfazed and street-smart sense of gritty sophistication excited me, and I loved feeling myself accustom to its mysterious and lively rhythms.
I also saw snow fall for the first time in my life in Manhattan! (It does not snow in Adelaide, where it rarely ever dips below 12 degrees and sometimes nears 50 in the Summertime.) I skipped about and made snowballs and caught snowflakes on my tongue, just like in the films.
We also spent a daytrip exploring Washington D.C. — a peaceful and pristine place with lots of culture! (And a quirky cab driver who hung a collection of whistles from his rearview mirror and referred to himself as “the second whistleblower”…) We took the Amtrak Carolinian route to the city, taking us through beautiful landscapes and small towns, and making quick stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore!
Los Angeles felt like the edge of the world, and as if it was simultaneously situated in 1969 and the future. I still can’t place whether I loved it or hated it. It was as if so much of it had been stripped of life and character, with its run-down buildings, littered streets, and simmering smog, so that all of its vividness could be thrust into the flashing neon signs of Hollywood Boulevard and the fiery fluorescence of its sunsets. It had a ghostly quality to it that made my spine tingle, in the way the city lights flickered against the mauve sky, the bleached quality of its endless sunshine, the emptiness of its footpaths, and how those orange Hills constantly loomed over its skyscrapers. I felt like I was in a David Lynch film the whole time I was there.
I visited Seattle with few expectations, and found myself really liking its equal-parts quirky and grungy vibe. The surrounding Pacific Northwest landscape was breathtakingly green (I do come from a place that is practically a desert, after all!); lush fir trees looming from every corner, and the sky blotted with silver, watercolour clouds. A trip to Bainbridge Island allowed me to further explore the state’s incredible terrain and quaint feel, and learn about its fascinating history.
But, the main attraction of Washington State was that it is home to the filming locations of my favourite television series, Twin Peaks. It was immensely incredible, and slightly haunting, to be able to see places that have captured so much of my imagination in real life — to sit in Norma and Ed’s booth in the Double R diner, to eat cherry pie at the Great Northern, to be drenched by spray from the waterfall in the opening credits, and to walk among the rustling branches of those magnificent Douglas firs.
Our itinerary dog-legged to allow us to spend a couple of days in Chicago. Once again, I went in with few expectations, and ended up thoroughly enjoying myself. The grand, Victorian buildings that dotted its streets gave it a stately and historical feel, and it seemed buzzing with interesting and incredible culture. It also snowed for two thirds’ of the time we were there, making it even more beautiful! An unpictured highlight was watching some up-and-coming musicians jam at Andy’s Jazz Club.
San Francisco and Northern/Central California
We ended up back on the West Coast and spent a day in San Francisco, a city I’d really love to explore more in the future. Its climate and flora reminded me so much of my home in South Australia, and its pastel-coloured buildings and jagged terrain had a refined yet imposing sense of sophistication. There was something otherworldly beautiful about the layers of fog that lined the sky. (And I saw a little hummingbird in The Presido!)
From San Francisco, we took a three day roadtrip down to the desert. Our first day was spent traversing Northern California. We drove around Monterey and Pebble Beach and explored the Big Sur area via the Pacific Coast Highway. The landscape was an Expressionist mess of vivid colour and rugged lines; I have never seen an ocean so blue and forests so green and lush. We settled for the night in Salinas, where I tasted the best Mexican food I have ever eaten in a little family-run joint called Villa Azteca.
Day Two of our Jack Kerouac adventure took us to Santa Barbara, via some Spanish missions in Soledad and San Luis Obispo. We stopped to watch the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen in the midst of some mountains off of Highway 1.
Joshua Tree and Palm Springs
The final leg of our roadtrip took us through the L.A. highways into the desert! We stayed in an incredible mid-century ranch house in Yucca Valley, placing us in the perfect central location between Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.
We happened to be in Palm Springs in the midst of Modernism Week, and I thoroughly enjoyed quirky several events, and stunning house tours, we undertook that explored the city’s illustrious 1950s and ’60s heyday; additionally, I really loved the city’s Art Museum and public art collection. However, I otherwise found myself a little disappointed with its slight tackiness.
However, I became completely besotted with Joshua Tree, and it was my favourite place we visited second only to New York City. The township itself was wonderfully quirky, boasted amazing food, and was bursting with creativity and kitsch. The landscape’s austere, untamed magnificence filled me with sense of grounding and peace, and it felt as if — to quote my guide on a hike I took in the National Park — I “was on the Moon.”
And a bonus photo, from our final few hours in the U.S., before we headed to LAX for our flight home — spent in zip code 90210!