Feb 14: Los Angeles
Through a gap in the clouds five miles up, sunshine on the Sierras. The peaks are brown and wide but the largest of them is crested in snow. It catches the light in a white shimmer as we bank and slowly turn.
When we land that same sunshine is the most noticeable of California’s charms – the big sun through the palms and sky marginally overcast.
That same sky cut for a long moment by a brown cargo 747 coming in to land, so slow and big, close enough to grab. A dwindling sunset silhouettes palm leaves and a pair of frightened birds careens off power lines.
This is a land of freeways and billboards.
We drive out to visit Steph’s friend for dinner over the sprawl of Los Angeles, the soothing tones of the robotic girl in the GPS, the purple line extending to a horizon of brown hills.
We gather in the living room of a spacious ranch cozy and carpeted, the decor a bit out of date. There’s Carrie, her parents and her two kids: a little boy and a tween girl, a slim dancer, with strawberry blonde hair down her back.
After dinner I jump on the trampoline with Zach, Floyd shows me his camera collection and we have tea and brownies. They are soaking in our presence and there’s this gracious yet resigned vibe – a feeling of being stationary, either too old or too young for adventure.
We promise to keep in touch, distribute hugs and then head back out into the sprawl of suburbia. It’s still twenty miles of smooth highways to LA.
Feb 15: The Happiest Place on Earth
We roll out of bed, get dressed and pile into the car. Our destination: Walt Disney’s magical kingdom. We swoop over the highways, a thick mist on the lowlands. Far beyond there are mountains in the smog, a jagged line that delineates sky and within that boundary are etched a tiny cluster of matchsticks – downtown LA.
In the vast expanse between here and there are endless mazes of subdivisions and swimming pools, palm trees rising above like alfalfa sprouts.
Fueled with Starbucks, we pull into Disneyland. Even the surrounding businesses and fast food joints are done up this faux-European architecture, a happy Swiss villa that only exists in Technicolor musicals.
A green painted choo-choo pulls up with a puff of blue smoke and a wave of the conductor, all photogenically aligned before a bed of flowers in the shape of Mickey Mouse.
Once within the happy walls of Disney there are garlands and costumed denizens, the mayor and fire chief riding shiny red and brass engines. Even the trash collectors wear dazed smiles.
The rides themselves are quite tame – kiddy coasters and trams, boat cruises through animatronic spectacle. But Disney shines at creating packaged experiences.
The corners of the park are themed. A Southern Gothic New Orleans hosts Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, two of the classics. The attention to detail is exacting – every nook and shadowed cranny filled with a realistic prop or lovingly crafted character. Pirates spins a sort of narrative: rival buccaneers search for Jack Sparrow in the roucous town of Tortoga, finally burning the place to cinders. And just as the “visitor” to the Haunted Mansion communes with the apparitions of the spirit world, they are next in line to join the permanent collection.
We float through It’s a Small World, all the mini animatronic kids, pointing out all the places we’ve been (Hawaii, Europe) and those we will go (China, Australia).
We laugh and smile and wait in line for these archetypal fantasy worlds, the dreams of boys (pirates and spacemen, jungles and cowboys) made real.
But by the end of the day (as the crowds grow and the sun is pulled lower into sharper glare) the rides lose some of their magic. Indiana Jones malfunctioning is the tipping point and the pun-drenched commentary of the guy on the jungle boat seals the deal. It’s time to go. A quick climb through Tarzan’s treehouse and then we wave goodbye to the Magic Kingdom, the parking deck lit with an amazing sunset, divied and cut by California pines.
In the parking deck we sit while the light leeches away, poking around on the barely functioning GPS. We finally get it to point us in the direction of Hollywood.
Once we’re rolling I have these strange feelings and memories of playing Grant Theft Auto, staring at the tiny map unspooling our directions, the roads and turns and landmarks eerily familier – as though I know them from collective memory or osmosis of that surreal simulacrum.
We drive down Hollywood Blvd, the Grumman’s Chinese Theater and all the trendy neon signs, red carpet in front of the Kodak Theater in prep for the Oscars.
Aiming for the iconic sign itself, we wind up narrow roads lined with stone and brick facades, fancy cars and SUVs parked in precarious positions. And then up in the dark just the vaguest outline of those letters HOLLYWOOD and a damning road sign “…sign cannot be reached from this road.” But we try anyway, riding up until the road narrows at a gated driveway, way up on the cliff, a hulking sandstone and stucco mansion, perched from that rich vantage, all cloaked in green foliage even now in February.
Then we roll back down into the wide streets of the middle class, fast food and gas stations. Back to LA.
Feb 16: The Shortest Day
We watch the hulking 747 through the glass, too enormous to logically fly, the engines like cars, the smooth dome and tiny windows for the pilots, gleaming dull light in the night.
The terminal is full to choking, business men in casual attire and leather satchels, flipping through Chinese newspapers. A good many of them fit every clichéd description of Triad kingpin.
At first we are not sitting together and we stress, bleary eyed, dreading the long, dull torture.
But we’re rescued in the minutes before boarding as red suited Chinese girls in clacking high heels march into the terminal en masse and we get a seat together.
We sleep five hours solid after takeoff and a light dinner, exhausted from the long day in Disney, the jet lag from the East Coast stretching and straining and we wake up near Alaska, the dread frigid north Pacific pitch outside the viewport.
From there it’s a neck-creaking test of endurance, the constant hum of the engines through the very hull of the beast, another ten hours of dim half-life. I’m reminded of Lost, with the white flash time shifts – explained (when proven fatal) as very bad jet lag.
Time is a human construct (as evidenced by the International Date Line) yet our bodies are still tied down to some aspect of it by circadian rhythm. Disorientation and crankiness follow for a time.
But we both play it well, with an adequate amount of sleep and hydration. When I see the sun rise again over the straight of Taiwan, the clouds played out below like a rippling blue carpet, the mountains rising purple and jagged from the mist, I’m actually refreshed, ready for this new day in a land of the rising sun.
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