Week 7 ushered in a grandiose new chapter of life on the road. With our departure from Joshua Tree NP had come the last of our desert days, and its heavy heat was now little more than a fond memory as we hit the cool fog of the coast.
This because, miraculously, our arrival in Southern California coincided precisely with the start of a period known locally as ‘June gloom’. Van life bestows tough skins but, though nominally undeterred by the drizzle and overcast skies, it was with heavy hearts that ‘working on tans’ was crossed off our comprehensive to-do list.
More importantly, the change in climate corresponded with a dramatic shift in the group dynamics of the van. After 6 and a half weeks as a twosome, Fin and I were to be joined for a short time by Leo and Chris, two new roadmen fresh into LAX. A bit like in Friends when Ross marries an English woman, Leo and Chris’s addition provided a welcome break from the Ross and Rachel saga, but only because you know they’ll be together again eventually.
Romance aside, with new cast members came a new storyline, and it was one of housed-based dwelling that prevailed during week 7. As demanded by the coastal cities and our desire for some stability, the new and improved foursome went off-road, so to speak, and lodged with a number of all-too-generous extended family connections.
This new spin on van life enabled us to see the southern coastline as if we really belonged, to collectively imagine our life there as a progressive and happy Californian family. At once fully-blown tourists and semi-integrated revellers, we were able seamlessly to blend in at most major landmarks, and yet to form a more varied perspective of coastal urbanites through glimpses of the lives we’d so rudely interrupted.
It was in LA that our Californian city experience reached its climax. With just under 4 million inhabitants, this labyrinthine network of highways is the second most populous city in the US. Its manifold attractions draw a rising number of tourists each year; as many as 47.3 million visitors made the journey in 2016.
And not without reason, for LA’s appeal is palpable. One of every six of its residents works in a creative industry, and an inclusive, insouciant air percolates the city. Its layout – 80-odd neighbourhoods sprawled across the Los Angeles basin – offers boundless opportunities for exploration, and a heterogeneity that is neatly reflected in the design of public institutions like LACMA and the Getty Center.
For all this, Angelenos live in a bubble – inevitable, perhaps, when your home town is the seat of the world’s entertainment industry. But it is not just a culturo-economic bubble that so impresses itself upon these Guildfordian holidaymakers; the smog, hanging low over the city like a monstrous bird, is a nagging reminder of LA’s near-toxic air and insufficient systems of public transportation. As is so often the case with our most pressing societal issues, however, the smog is most easily ignored when you’re right in the middle of it.
Next week, inland travel towards Fresno and the Sierras should provide fruitful means of Californian comparison.