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.