Nomalite presents

California drifting

Suggested gear for a 10-day trip on the edge of the world.

Big Sur, 6:17 am.

Sometimes, good stories start with bad ideas.

And sometimes, the contrary happens. Upon waking up that morning, I was reminded of a sentence I had read the night before, and jotted down in my journal. The opening sentence of “one of the classics”, as they say. Something that my nightly dreams couldn’t quite shake.

As we’re ordering coffee at the little shack by the pier, the warm wind gently grazes my face, carrying mouthfuls of salty ambitions with it.

I reach for my back pocket, take out my travel notebook and read the page again.

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

– John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Chapter 1

On a day when we had no plans other than working on our laptops, this sounded like an invitation – one that was too good to pass.

We’d drive the 68 miles to Soledad and see with our own eyes the California backcountry on a September morning.

The shack’s owner returned my credit card with a yawn. I reached for two dollar bills, and pressed my palm against the counter for him to grab before the wind does what it does best.

We were on our way.

Fante, Bukowski, Kerouac.

They always mythified this land, for me, and I suppose for all us who have the luxury to travel a little more than our peers. Travellers have a thing for misfits, for drifters. A kind of fun-loving, semi-ironic and ever-comforting nod at characters who might get labeled “weirdos” as often as “geniuses”.

And one or both terms might be deserved, who knows. But I can’t shake the idea that our constant need for superlatives, for larger-than-life destinies, might have something to do with it. It seems to me that reality – real life – is often times much more simple.

This is why I was always more enthused by the rational, down-to-earth depictions of a writer like Steinbeck. The empathy, the sobriety, the stubborn refusal to give in to artefacts. Soledad was his land and for one beautiful day, we’d make it ours.

The rental we got was nothing new, but a beauty to look at. It belonged to our Airbnb host, and it came with the apartment for as long as we wanted. Driving it produced all kinds of weird noises, and the low fuel light had been on for days. But it was colorful and we loved it.

A quick stop by the apartment to grab the elements we’d need, and we were on our way. We wanted to hit the road before the morning commute took its toll.

Packing fast was of essence, that day.

We grabbed the bare essentials for a day by the river, stuffed it into a daypack, and ran through the door.

I roll the window down.

A powerful scent of evergreen fills my lungs.

So much has been written about the roads of California. The little that I know comes to mind, piece by piece, and it never fails to resonate with what I see.

We stop often – more than necessary. I sketch some of the natural elements I encounter. Fall has started and soon, the natural orchestra that has been so good to us will go into hibernation.

On the backcountry roads, amidst the vineyards, we had no trouble finding the region that Steinbeck cherished so dearly.

This must be the place.

We bathed in the waters of Salinas river for most of the morning, enjoying the warm sun on our bare skin. The chirping of birds preparing their great migration and the soft, white sound of water filled the atmosphere.

All summer, slowly, surely, the sun rays had warmed these currents for us. Let us seize that day.

The afternoon was spent driving among the vineyards and the ranches with no other objective than to enjoy the ride. On this quiet Tuesday, on a season when kids go back to school, it seemed like the world belonged to us.

Hiking Toro Park had to be the highlight of our day – we brought a bottle of water and our phones in our pack. Views were breathtaking.

Yet, something was amiss.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heroclitus

Something, or someone.

I couldn’t simply articulate what I expected to find. Steinbeck. The air once breathed. The symbolic blink of an eye. Yeah — it wasn’t there.

Maybe a more attentive read of Heroclitus would have spared me this small disappointment.

The warm water, the yellow sands, the narrow pool. It was probably presomptuous to think we could relive anybody’s experience.

Transposed from a fleeting moment, crystalized into dark symbols on a white paper, passed on to the next generation: this is plenty.

This should be enough.

“When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger”.

The sun is now setting. Maybe we’ll know better next time.

Image credits: Julien Lanoy (@lnyjulien), Etienne Desclides (@atn), Austin Neill (@arstyy).