Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On the Road Again

I am in the San Francisco South Bay again and am adjusting to this amazingly crowded suburban life. As I walked along El Camino, easily the busiest surface street on the peninsula, and which had been the main North-South highway until the Bayshore Freeway was completed, I found myself recalling the first time I rode on it in 1957. I was probably 10 or 11 and my parents were considering moving away from Chicago and were touring this part of Northern California. Our family had ridden west like so many other pioneers to see first-hand what had been called in those days the Land of Opportunity, California.

Our 1953 green Chevrolet Bel-Air had taken us across the country through what I felt had been magical landscape. I watched incredible farmland whizz by, lush forests, quaint small, towns, tall majestic mountains, until we reached our goal, the almost mythical San Francisco: the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.

Along the route across the country, I had become accustomed to seeing architecture other than I had known in Chicago, buildings which were devoid of soot-covered brick and multi-stories. I gawked avidly at the clapboard farmhouses and the wooden barns with advertisements painted on their sides such as Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. I enjoyed the humor of every Burma Shave sign sequence along the road and was enthralled by miles of two-lane highway snaking alongside railroad tracks belonging to the Santa Fe railroad.

After briefly touring San Francisco, a city which felt alien to me because it didn't look like Chicago, my perpetually nervous mother, who always had to cope with my father's frightening, unpredictable moods, decided unilaterally that this city would be too rainy for her. The next morning we headed south through Daly City, a peculiar colony of little boxy houses, and onto El Camino. Somewhere then I learned a new word, namely "stucco." Now I saw blocks of single level, pale-colored stores and houses made of a rough substance which reminded me of the dessicated orange peels that I had ignored as they baked in the sun of my childhood schoolyard.

Since I was now in the Promised Land of my parents' dreams, I felt I was expected to love what I saw. I knew instinctively, but being a child I could never have articulated, that the environment before me violated my sense of beauty. Even the eucalyptus and the palms didn't really look like normal plants. They were occasionally interspersed among these ugly structures, but were clearly not leafy green trees that a young boy could climb like those elms whose heights I had still conquered and hid within only a month earlier at home. As we rode through Palo Alto looking for a motel, my parents may have spoken, as they often did, in glowing terms about the expected blessings of temperate weather, the daily sunshine and the gone-forever dreaded icy cold Chicago winters. Yet, even as I listened to this narrative, I believed I was expected to embrace their gloriously optimistic vision. In truth I wondered secretly how I would feel about no longer hearing the scrunch of October leaves that skittered in circles along the pavement in my former backyard and sensed regret about losing the snowmen friends that I took pride in creating each year.

Now I glance out the window of a Starbucks in San Bruno where I am typing and see the rush hour traffic on El Camino backed up at a traffic light. Originally this street was a trail for earlier people to navigate from mission to mission, and before that it was probably an ancient way created by aboriginal people to visit others or hunt game. It has been a lifepath taken by many. Today I am on that road, one of so many I have traveled to get to this point on my daily adventure. It runs in space and time through landscape that may look bitter or sweet depending on my focus.


  1. Even I learned something new about you. This is also beautifully written and a new turn in the road. Very nice post!

  2. Lovely post, Lee. Certainly a different side of you from your last post. Hope the trip is going ok, not an easy one, I know.


  3. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the map at the top of your post both times I read it. I'm not familiar with the northern portion of El Camino Real (the southern part is another story), so I've been trying to get a feeling for where the cities of the San Francisco South Bay penninsula are in relation to each other.

    Not for the first time, I reflected that the name El Camino Real has a double meaning for me. The first is the accepted meaning in California history: When originally built it was the royal road, the king's highway that connected the missions along the coast in Spanish colonial days. I'll take your word for it that it's now the busiest surface street on the pennisula. But "the royal road" also has an esoteric meaning: it is the path to enlightenment or self-knowledge, which may or may not be applicable here.

    This is a very beautifully written post. It put me in mind of my first sight of California when I was about eight years old. We took a plane from New York to California the first time, so I didn't get to see much of the country. But I remember waking up in my uncle's house in Lawndale (a stucco house, of course) my first morning in California.

    I went into the backyard and looked up at the sky, feeling terribly disappointed because it was cold and the sky was cloudy and overcast. It didn't seem like much of an improvement over Brooklyn at all! I mean...where was this "sunny California" everyone was always telling me about? They didn't mention that the early morning low clouds and fog are pretty standard for coastal California, and most days they could be counted on to burn off by early afternoon at the latest. I had to discover that on my own.