California Dreamin’ and American ways. Travel musings in 10 chapters – Part II
Date : Saturday 22 April, 2023
This is the 2nd part of my travel musings inspired by my a trip to California, to read the first part, click here.
4 You should have never trusted Hollywood
Some years ago, in an interview for the Guardian, John Cusack said that what is left of Hollywood is a nostalgic idea, whereas the reality is a blood-thirsty franchise-oriented corporation where celebrity actors are used as leverage: “It’s a whorehouse and people go mad.” Despite the #MeToo movement, which led to a huge revolution and imprisonment of some of the worst abusers such as Weinstein, Hollywood is still struggling with respecting human rights, argues Adam Epstein in his Quarts article: “A noxious cocktail of factors—including a lack of diversity in leadership, a deeply warped power structure that exploits desperate workers, and a vain, ego-driven competitive landscape—allows the entertainment industry to continue to get away with all forms of abuse.”
LA and California carry the stigma of being fake and superficial. The Hollywood biz, “fake it till you make it” in the Silicon Valley and young CEOs-turned-fraudsters such as Elizabeth Holmes; Beverly Hills, Malibu, the gluten-free avocado toast-eating joggers, the airbrushed life. A friend of our Joshua Tree host said that “in New York people are rude but helpful. In LA, they’re nice and unhelpful” (he had lived in both). Whether that’s accurate or not, it’s hard to establish, for there aren’t any “cities with the rudest / most shallow people” rankings, but I would imagine there’s some truth there.
I remember one of the stories in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”, about a young writer who comes to LA to write a treatment based on his novel about Charlie Manson’s children, and goes on endless meetings with movie executives. “They handed me an envelope with a fax in it—my schedule for the next few days, with messages of encouragement and faxed handwritten doodles in the margin, saying things like ‘This is Gonna be a Blockbuster!’ and ‘Is this Going to be a Great Movie or What!’”. There’s hype, there’s excitement, and at the end of the day – there’s nothing.
A similar thing happened to a friend of mine who some years ago went to LA for an acting training. Again – lots of conversations, excitement, promises. And nothing. It seems that words in Hollywood don’t carry much of a weight or sincerity. Or perhaps it’s an LA thing. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the Watts neighbourhoods, the city of Los Angeles purchased a vacant lot and promised to bring hundreds of jobs to the devastated community. But the lot is still empty.
It’s like in the System of a Down song: “They find you / Two time you / Say you’re the best they’ve ever seen / You should have never trusted Hollywood”.
Have you? Do you?
5 Punk’s not dead (in LA)
When we think of punk, we think of grungy, gritty and rough. On the surface, LA is none of that. But scratch under the surface, and you’ll find some dirt.
The rise of punk in California is closely linked to the age of “postsuburbia”, as described on Ryan Moore’s blog, a time of “spatial de-centering and the fragmentation of social life within the Southern California suburbs as they were being transformed by emergent modes of post-Fordist capitalism in the 1970s.” Punk scene, therefore, was both a reflection and response to “postmodern consumerism and fragmentation”. Some of the key figures in shaping of the scene were Germs, X, Black Flag, Iggy Pop, the all-female band Runaways and Go-Go’s, Flyboys, The Weirdos, The Screamers, and many more. There was artsy punk in beach towns and violent macho punk in the suburbs, with men starting fights a la Tyler’s Fight Club. Northern California punk was politicized, vilifying and mocking Reagan, while Southern California punk was simply anti-social. There was hardcore and nardcore (“Oxnard” + “hardcore”), and queercore.
I won’t pretend I know much about punk. I used to listen to some punk bands when I was a teenager, and have remained appreciative of the genre, albeit when it comes to noisy music, I generally listen to post-metal. But when a good friend of mine told me that a few bands from his Heavy Medication Records label were going to perform in Maui Sugar Mill Saloon on the exact Saturday we were spending in LA, I had to go. I’m a huge fan of live music, particularly in little underground venues where you can talk to the band after the gig, so I was excited about this one. The atmospheric Maui Sugar Mill Saloon opened in 1976 and from what I’ve read, it is home to all kinds of performers and a testing-the-waters spot for “undercover” music stars; among the club’s biggest fans are well-known musicians such as Dave Grohl and Slash. The venue is hidden in a shopping mall (!) in Tarzana, a suburban neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, which is one of those places only reachable by car. I believe that driving to a shopping mall to see a bunch of punk rockers is something that can only happen in America. Obviously, it rules out wild partying after the gig — everybody has to drive home, usually far away, therefore there needs to be at least one sober person per car. But the gig itself was fantastic, all bands (The Dogs, Neverland Ranch Davidians and Pat Todd & The Rank Outsiders) played with great energy and the club serves fantastic beer. Admittedly, the experience was different from seeing a punk band in a tattered bar in a derelict neighbourhood in Warsaw, getting drunk on cheap beer and falling asleep on a smelly night bus, but it was nevertheless a lot of fun.
6 That’s where I was going… Mulholland Drive.
My introduction to David Lynch was his 1997 film Lost Highway which I must have seen a few years after it had come out. I was absolutely mesmerized with the atmosphere, the strangeness, the darkness, and the absolutely bonkers plot which I was so keen on deciphering. Soon after that, I watched his first film, Eraserhead, and I was sold. Each of his films, both feature length and short animations, speaks to me in a unique way and I take immense pleasure in diving into the bizarre world of Lynch’s imagination.
The two films I keep coming back to though, are Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive. So it was obvious that being in Los Angeles, I must drive up this iconic road in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California.
The trouble with iconic sites, is that a lot of the time they’re a) filled with tourists, b) photographed to death, c) failing to live up to their hype. Fortunately, that is not the case with Mullholland Drive. On the morning when we took a left turn on Outpost Drive, we were alone. Completely alone: no other cars, no pedestrians. It was sunny and hot – and silent. And I can tell you, that silence was creepy. We were driving up the windy road, with giant houses hidden behind tall fences and bushes on both sides, security cameras peering at us suspiciously. David Lynch actually lives somewhere in Hollywood Hills, as do many famous film and art celebrities. Anybody hoping to bump into him is bound to be disappointed though – Lynch rarely leaves his home.
We stopped at Universal City Overlook, which is one of many overlooks down Mullholland Drive, offering amazing views of the Los Angeles Basin, the San Fernando Valley, Downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign. This “drive up to a point, get out of the car, and then get back in” style of sightseeing felt a bit frustrating though. So we went on a little walk up Torreyson Drive, which is a blind alley, desperate to stretch our legs and see more than what the car windows let us. But with no pedestrian pavement, and nobody around, and the knowledge that all the people in those giant mansions we were walking past most certainly owned weapons, the walk felt very strange. In an ironic way, I was feeling just like Rita in Lynch’s film – thoroughly uneasy.
Mulholland Drive has some of the most exclusive and expensive homes in the world, housing mainly Hollywood celebrities. But out of all the locations where millionaires can live, Mulholland Drive strikes me as an odd choice. Yes, the views are breath-taking but there is nothing in the area, absolutely nothing: no shop, no café, no place to socialise. It’s a colony of loners, where wealthy individuals are separated from the world, and leave their houses in cars with tinted windows.
And then we drove to Cielo Drive home in Benedict Canyon, where the number 10050 used to be the home of Roman Polanski – and also the place of the gruesome Manson Family murders in 1969. There is a sign that says the road is private, so upon stopping our car, we were unsure whether we should walk up. There is no gate though, and the road is quite short, so we figured there was no way we would bother anyone. But we were wrong. As we were nearing the end of the road with the gate behind which the former house of Polanski used to be, a woman suddenly walked out of a house to our left and in a don’t-mess-with-me-or-I’ll-call-the-cops kind of way, told us to leave immediately. So we did. And we drove to Beverly Hills – a place with no mysterious allure, just ostentatious wealth.
7 California (rock and) rolls
We didn’t have much time in Beverly Hills, because we were hoping to get to Joshua Tree before the sunset, but we really wanted to take a quick glimpse at this iconic neighbourhood and it turned out that an hour was all we needed. It was another hot day and after our morning drive, we were feeling low on energy and fancied an iced coffee, so we were absolutely thrilled when we saw a stand offering free cold-brewed iced coffee and cookies. Finding a free coffee in the US feels like hitting a jackpot because the country is painfully expensive — and I’m writing this as a resident of the Netherlands, not Cambodia. Wherever we went, we were invariably shocked by the prices: $7 for a scoop of ice-cream (the average European price is around €1.50-2), €6-8 for a latte, €10 for a milkshake. Having to pay almost $50 for a regular breakfast in an average diner or $10 for a mediocre Subway sandwich is not uncommon.
The problem is that there are two extra price-rising factors: the tipping culture and tax. Tipping in the US is taken to absolute extremes — I don’t mind giving a tip in a restaurant, where I’ve had a particularly nice service, but having to tip everywhere, including take-away cafes (!) is in my opinion a bit insane. And I don’t buy into “that’s how waiters make their living” — reform the system and give them a proper wage instead of facilitating this pathology, for goodness sake! But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so of course we did tip (also, we wanted to avoid having the chef come out of the kitchen, concerned that we had an awful meal).
Secondly, there’s the tax — everywhere you go, you have to pay an unknown amount of tax. There’s sales tax of groceries and other products, and meals tax. “Meals taxes generally apply to purchases of prepared food that are consumed in a restaurant or similar establishment, or taken “to go” for later consumption”, I read on a website which also tells you the amount of tax per state. The way this works in practice is that you need a PhD in mathematics to calculate how much your shopping or eating out will cost. But here’s what I’ve observed: Americans enjoy spending money, and high tips all seem to be part of the same desire to demonstrate one’s status.
One day a bizarre thing happened to us when we were shopping at a supermarket. We were about to leave the shop when I noticed on my receipt that the cashier had counted my salad twice. I returned to the till and asked him for a refund, which he did straight away, but the people in the queue suddenly looked at me as if I were an alien. One of them asked with a visible sneer: “Are you ok? Have you had a bad day?”. They couldn’t comprehend why anyone would be so petty as to ask for $2 back, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable in this situation even though there was no reason for me to do so. It’s one of those big cultural differences: in the Netherlands, being economic with money is not only accepted, but socially encouraged.
When it comes to the quality of food in the US, this is a complex topic. On one hand, the omnipresence of processed food and the amount of ready-made meals people eat is a bit shocking. On the first day we thought we were buying plain yoghurt, only to discover upon a closer inspection a rather long ingredients list. The cheapest non-branded yogurt at Albert Hein in the Netherlands consists of nothing but yogurt, whereas in the US the default product is loaded with crap and you have to search for better quality.
But the thing that made our culinary experience truly enjoyable is Californian street food. Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Guatemalan, you name it; there are food trucks everywhere and the food they sell is simply amazing. We had pork carnitas tacos at the famous Carnitas el Momo (which featured in Netflix’s Street Food: USA series), jjajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce) and seafood jjamppong in The Ppong in Korea Town (where our motel was), and delicious tacos from Taqueria Los Twins. We tried several breakfast burritos (the best one being at JT Country Kitchen in Joshua Tree), burgers at Peggy Sue’s, an original roadside Diner built in 1954, and, since our trip fell on Thanksgiving’s Day, we were lucky to enjoy a wonderful traditional meal at Harry’s Plaza Cafe in Santa Barbara (the portions were so big that the dessert, pumpkin pie, became our breakfast the next day).
California is also famous for California rolls (which is an uramaki stuffed with crab, avocado, and cucumber) and, of course, “avo toast”. Yes, I’m fully aware that avocados are not ethical because of the deforestation avocado farming is causing, but since California is the leading producer of domestic avocados and home to about 90 percent of the nation’s crop, at least you’re not eating something that has travelled thousands of miles.
8 Desert Sessions
About ten years ago, I heard a song I immediately fell in love with – A Girl Like Me by PJ Harvey. I had listened to her albums for years but this song wasn’t on any of them. So I investigated – it came from Volume 10 of something called the Desert Sessions – a collaboration between Josh Homme from Queens of Stone Age and his friends. I listened to more tracks and got myself all ten albums.
Fast forward a decade to our Californian trip. Following the Lynchian morning drive around Mulholland Drive, a walk down the richest streets of Beverly Hills, and a taco in Highland Park, a mostly Latino neighbourhood located in the city’s Northeast region, we drove to Joshua Tree. We figured that after a few days in a 3.8 million people city, it might be good to spend another few away from crowds. We stayed in a shared Airbnb house (our cheapest and best accommodation during our trip) run by a guy named Roy, who on the very first night of our stay told us his most incredible life story which involved Italian-Jewish- aristocracy, working in the navy, being a spy, and touring with George Michael. Being a music producer, he also told us about the music scene – and mentioned that Joshua Tree is a place that attracts many musicians, like Queens of the Stone Age.
And then it clicked – the desert we’d come to explore is where Desert Sessions were born.
I can see why musicians come to Joshua Tree to compose. The place lends itself as a retreat destination, allowing one to isolate themselves from the distraction of the big city, while providing cosy and charming places to socialise when it is needed. The town has a few bars and restaurants, and it’s hard to find a seat even on a Monday night. We had to queue in the morning to get breakfast at a diner, and in the evening, to get dinner at the local Saloon.
But it’s not the cosy pubs most people come to Joshua Tree for, it’s the giant Joshua Tree National Park, which comprises two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado. There is an amazing variation not just in fauna and flora, but also in the desert landscape – from sand dunes, dry lakes, oases and flat valleys to fantastically rugged mountains and granitic monoliths. The higher and cooler Mojave Desert is the habitat of Yucca brevifolia, the Joshua tree for which the park is named. My favourite plant though, is the Cylindropuntia bigelovii from the cacti family, known as the “teddy bear cholla” – its “cuddly” appearance makes you want to stroke it, but it is actually the most dangerous plant in the desert, with spikes as sharp as glass and barbed like a fishhook.
Joshua Tree is also popular among amateur astronomers and stargazers. Southern California is referred to as God’s gift to astronomy and a home to about three quarters of the most important discoveries in astronomy during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. The park’s elevation and dry desert air make for excellent seeing conditions. We spent our last evening sitting in a hot tub in the garden and I can confirm – the Californian starlit sky is indeed beautiful there.
9 Oh, we take care of George
There is a scene in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Cliff Booth picks up a hitchhiker, “Pussycat” and takes her to Spahn Ranch in California, hoping to say hello to his old friend George Spahn. George Spahn is an 80-year-old nearly blind man who used to rent his ranch out for westerns, and at some point allowed a group of hippies to move in there. Those hippies became known as The Manson Family, and were responsible for gruesome killings of heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, and her companions: Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, as well as executive duo: Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary.
When Cliff and Pussycat arrive at the ranch, however, his request to meet George is met with refusal. “That’s very nice of you, but unfortunately, you picked the wrong time. George is taking a nap right now”, says “Squeaky”, one of the girls.
On our second day in Joshua Tree, we decided to do a mini trip and visit a couple of places, including Pioneer Town and a hippie community, which we found out about from our Airbnb host. Located in Yucca Valley, approx. 20 kilometres from Joshua Tree, it is a community of twentysomething people living off-the grid in the desert. Some have joined recently, others have been there for years. They live in tepees and trailers, scattered around the land. We were first greeted by a guy named Bob, who pointed us towards a further spot, where we met a couple, and the three of them told us the same thing “You must speak to Garth”. So one of the woman took us to another woman, who was meant to take us to Garth, but before we could enter his home, she needed to check if he’s not napping.
The scene from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood immediately came to my head.
He wasn’t napping though, so we were told we could enter. And there he was, sitting in a battered armchair, underneath a stack of blankets.
Garth Bowles lives in a permanent tepee, self-titled “Garth’s Boulder Gardens”, which he built upon arriving in Joshua Tree, California, in 1982 – which means he’s lived there for 41 years (!). The story of Bowles is that in 1975 he gave away his possessions and “went on a 5-year pilgrimage across America to establish a place where people could come together and share their hearts, their brilliance and their love, creating a harmonic coexistence between man and the natural world.” As lovely as it sounds, one should not omit the fact that the 47 acres of land Bowles bought in the early 80s were paid for by his parents. It’s always easier to be a hippie if you have a family to back you up.
The interior of the tepee is out of this world – it’s a sanctuary of all sorts of esoteric objects, including crystals, bells, baubles, lamps, chains, paintings, fish tanks etc. The exterior has been strengthened with concrete and there’s a heating system inside the tepee so it’s actually cosy.
Cosy, but absolutely bonkers – as was the whole experience. Even though everybody was very nice to us, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy. Perhaps I’m not the “live off-grid” type, perhaps I don’t understand the need to run away from the society as far as a desert, or perhaps I’m not into mystical castles and healing circles to be able to picture myself living there. But it’s wonderful that there are people who do. Just as long as this isolated existence doesn’t give birth to any malicious ideas.
10 Take a drive baby up the coast
We left Joshua Tree on a Wednesday morning and set off on a mini road trip. The first stop was Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Born in 1917, Noah lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California. In 1989, he moved to his friend’s trailer in the Mojave Desert, and over the last fifteen years of his life built what is now the 4 hectares large outdoor museum, which contains a hundred works of art, including large scale assemblages, environmental sculptures, and installations made with tires, bathroom fixtures, TVs, ragged clothes, toys and vacuum cleaners. If you want to accumulate junk and turn it into large sculptures, a patch of desert is not a bad place to do it.
The second stop was the legendary Roy’s Motel and Café on the National Trails Highway of U.S. Route 66 in the Mojave Desert town of Amboy in San Bernardino County. The place had been defunct for many years but now it’s been largely restored. You can buy overpriced gasoline at the gas station and a can of soda at the shop.
The third stop was Calico, a former mining town, which at its height of silver production during 1880s had over 500 mines and a population of 3500 people, including European nationals. However, as the price of silver dropped down 1891, by the turn of the century Calico became a ghost town. And that was what we hoped to see – alas, it is now a theme park with a ticketed entry, very few original buildings and many attractions for tourists, who come in spades.
We found a more authentic experience at Peggy Sue’s, an original roadside Diner built in 1954, where we stopped for lunch, and we had a more of a ghost-town experience in Santa Barbara, where our last day happened to be Thanksgiving, which meant that this normally place was deserted and quiet. Santa Barbara prides itself in being a cyclist friendly city, and I can confirm that it’s true, having spent the day going around the city on a couple of old school bikes we borrowed from the motel.
And finally it was time to head back to LA, with a few stops for mini hikes and some beach time, and we said goodbye to the City of Angeles watching the sunset on Venice Beach, before returning the car and going to the airport. I was genuinely sad to leave – despite my initial scepticism, I grew fond of the city, eager to explore the parts I haven’t visited.
Some time ago, one European Reddit user started a thread in which he asked Americans to summarize their home state in one sentence. The summary of California was: “It’s perfect and amazing as long as you have enough money.” Which is probably true – this trip has made quite a dent in our wallet, mainly due to the cost of accommodation and food. For the wealthy, who can afford to live in a nice house with a stunning view and reliable security, and have the best private healthcare, California might be a very pleasant place. Would I want to live there? Absolutely not. Would I want to visit again? In a heartbeat.