San Francisco in toothpicks. You’ve got to see this to believe it!
I learned a couple of things about myself as I travelled last month.
The first: that it takes a lot of humility to continually receive hospitality and I’m not very good at that.
The second: I’m no nomad, I need roots.
I loved visiting with my friends. It was . . . well, there aren’t really words that quantify how wonderful it was to see them again and in their natural environments too. To see their places of work, where they go to school, to meet their friends and family members, to visit their churches, and share their favourite eateries, was a privilege I was so grateful for. It’s really great to be able to put people in their contexts and now when we talk I’ll know exactly where they are speaking about!
I did find it hard, though, to continually be the one receiving. I desperately wanted to reciprocate their kindness but didn’t have the means to. If we lived in the same place I would have them round for dinner, or over to stay for a couple of nights but I just had to sit back and accept their generosity.
It was a really humbling experience. The situation makes you vulnerable; you’re completely dependent upon another individual, incapable of purchasing or attaining for yourself by any other means the services which they are fulfilling for you, services which you would be lost, homeless and hungry without. You are at their mercy.
When that mercy is gladly given, it humbles you further. That people would care about you so much to welcome you into their home, to go out of their way to accommodate you, to forego studying for their finals for you(!), you realise how undeserving you are of such kindness and how deeply blessed.
Before I left for California I had a conversation with one of my pastors around commitment to a place. I talked about my desire for adventure, the part of me that longs to leave everything behind and just set off into the sunset, not knowing where my feet might take me. Such a dreamer. In my head I thought I would be the nomad, the lonely wanderer picking up friends along the road. My pastor suggested that it was more natural, and more necessary, for us to have a centre of gravity, a place from which we could flow. He described people he knew who had tried to maintain two centres of gravity over a period of time but found it incredibly difficult and ended up choosing one place over another. So what, I thought. Doesn’t mean I won’t be successful in having no centre of gravity but simply floating as though on a cloud. (I hope you’re sensing the sarcasm here).
Just two weeks of spending no more than two nights in any one bed was enough to teach me that I am not a natural nomad. I do not thrive on that.
I want to be in one place for a significant amount of time and really be there. I want to know its secrets, its hidden gems. I want to know what makes it tick. I want to feel it. And I want to be in a place with purpose. I like to get involved, to know what’s going on in the community and contribute. Otherwise, I never really feel at peace in a place.
It’s not an easy realisation for me to accept. It sounds to me like I’m going to have to settle down in one place and there is nothing that I want less. The idea of settling, accepting less than adventure, horrifies me. Yet I have to hold that in tension with a desire and need to put down roots. Deep.
I wrestled for a lot of my trip with whether or not I would ever repeat it without returning to Scotland. I guess I partly went out to get some answers on that front. After a lot of wandering round San Francisco, whispered prayers and shouted grievances, conversations with people wiser than myself, I think I hear God saying that I’ve to go ahead and put down roots as deep as I like here in Edinburgh. I need not be scared that in a year’s time I’ll painfully have to pull myself out again, either because I’m not leaving or because, when that time comes, He will have prepared me.
The door to the USA is not closing tight. It’s got more of a revolving thing going on. And being here does not mean settling or saying no to adventure. It’s just a different kind of adventure. San Francisco may prove to be a place of refreshment and learning in the time ahead but it will not be home in the foreseeable future.
My roots are planted here.
I’ve discovered that one of my favourite things about travelling, and particularly by public transport, is the strangers that you get to meet.
Firstly there was the lovely lady that I met in the departures lounge of Aberdeen airport. Just as happened last year, I was reading my bible to to help with the last minute nerves a little, and then an older lady sat next to me, struck up a conversation and it turned out that she was a Christian too. She was headed to Gatwick to see her daughter and it was really comforting to to be able to talk to someone while we both waited on our planes.
On my flight to San Francisco I was sat next to a man from India. He had already been travelling for 24 hours having had to leave his home in India at 4am to catch his flight to Heathrow. He was headed to the city to work, something to do with computers. He had never been to the states before and was full of questions which I hope I answered sufficiently.
I had been looking forward to something of a quiet journey from San Francisco to Santa Clara, some time to reflect and process, but it wasn’t to be. Instead I met Jonathan who was headed to a job interview. He was very chatty. That much conversation would be so totally socially unacceptable in the UK! But he was friendly and enthusiastic and told me all kinds of things about the games design job he was applying for. Quite a character.
I really enjoyed my Amtrak experience and thankfully I had none of the problems I had been warned to expect. There I met a lady called Rebecca who was a bit of an old pro on Amtrak and Greyhound and she kept me right/gave me a few tips for my onward journey. She never really said what she did, only that she traveled a lot. She was carrying a guitar and sensibly brought a pillow so she could get some sleep.
At the Greyhound station in LA I met a young guy, 18 or 19, who was quite clearly high. We got to talking about college somehow and he told me he went to Santa Barbara City College. He had decided to go there because in Santa Barbara County marijuana has been legalised for medical use. So he’d managed to get himself diagnosed with glaucoma and could now smoke all the pot he wanted. Well, that’s one way to choose your college!
On the Greyhound to Porterville I first sat next to Amy. She had had quite a difficult day and night with broken down buses and missed connections as she tried to get home from college to visit her mom for a few days as a surprise! Her mom had no idea she was coming and Amy let a call from her go to voicemail so that she would think she was a work. Other than seeing her mom, Amy was desperate for In’n’Out (the world’s best fast food for those of you who haven’t experienced the joy) which she’s not had in her year away at college (it’s a California thing). On the second leg of that journey I sat next to a very lovely older lady whose name I never caught but I remember that she took a phone call from her son and one of her grandchildren was ill so when she finished the call she sat and prayed. Later in the journey she insisted on giving me a bottle of ice cold water and candy from her well stocked cooler bag. Her kindness was beautiful – we hadn’t really spoken but I’d told her I was travelling alone and she really just wanted to look after me. It was simple but perfect.
Another person I/we met, who will forever be something of a legend in our family, was the gentleman on an LA street corner who directed us to the most luxurious and delicious breakfast we had ever had. We came out of the subway station in downtown LA and were stood looking at our map trying to figure out where we should head first. He was just casually standing next to us and asked what we were looking for. We explained we just wanted somewhere to get breakfast first and after deliberating, because apparently they don’t really do breakfast in downtown LA, he suggested a place only a couple blocks down called Bottega Louie. We had no idea what we were in for but the macaroon towers in the windows and the 40ft cake and pastry counter were a pretty big indication as we walked through the door. The epitome of understated opulence.
Speaking to strangers is something quite alien to those of us indoctrinated in the Great British Reserve. It’s just not done here. But I admire and love the openness that I have experienced in the American people. Strangers needn’t be strangers for long.
I might bore you with specifics from my trip some other time but let me gush a little about the state itself first.
It is b-e-a-utiful.
Last year, I only left San Francisco for short day trips to Marin and Berkeley on the other side of the Bay. I had no idea what I was missing and I’m a little glad or else I might have been disappointed not to see it. In the past month though I managed to cover 1500miles and just about everything across the state between SF and LA.
The very first thing I learned as I left San Jose on the train was that California is a desert. I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was but I had just never realised while in the very green bay area. Every row of crops – strawberries, corn, grape vines and citrus trees – has a line of plastic piping to irrigate it. It seems a little ridiculous to me, surely it’s a sign that we’re not using the land for its intended purpose, but apparently it’s working quite well for them. And it contributes wonderfully to California’s landscape of contrast.
A contrast of ocean and mountains; green crops and golden grass; deserts and reservoirs; forests and skyscrapers; big cities and sleepy towns. Not to mention wind and fog on the coast and 100F (40C) heat in the valley.
It has all the grandeur of Switzerland and the awe factor of the Isle of Skye but there is something unique about California, or at least, it’s very different to any other place I’ve been and I love it.
So maybe you thought I was done with California and San Francisco.
You know, it’s been seven months, I should be over it by now.
Well, I’m not I’m afraid.
That’s right people, not just a city this time but a state (or a good part of it at least).
The first two weeks it’ll just be me visiting friends, riding the greyhound and loving life:
San Francisco – 6 nights
Santa Clara – 2 nights
Springville – 2 nights
Santa Barbara – 6 nights
Then the family are flying out and it’s two weeks of road trip excellence:
Los Angeles – 3 nights
Cambria – 1 night
Monterey – 2 nights
Yosemite – 3 nights
San Francisco – 5 nights
There are not words for my excitement.