Dear Wherever Readers,
Buried in the “Drafts” section of my WordPress dashboard are many forgotten posts. I started writing this one in September 2013, about a year and a half ago, when I was in the process of making the difficult decision to leave California and “travel the world.” One of my most popular posts on this blog is “What’s It Like to Live in California,” so I thought I’d continue to tell the story of how I wound up in (and left) the Golden State.
Written September 2013
There is one image from my drive to California I will never forget: On a lonely stretch of I-10 West surrounded by orange, dusty land and dry shrubbery just 45 minutes from the California border, a beat-up red station wagon sped past me, bearing a surfboard strapped to its roof with some rope and an Alabama license plate. I smiled as the car rushed toward the golden sun slipping behind the mountains in the distance. Speeding toward California. Leaving the South behind.
One year ago today, I started my drive from Florida to California. Until now, I haven’t given details on how I got here, the struggles, the joys, the highs, and the lows. Lest you think it’s all been glitz and glamour, I’ve decided to describe some of them in this post.
Dreaming of California
It started with a minor fascination. For some reason, at the beginning of my senior year in college, I felt like I needed to be in California. I can’t pinpoint any major reasons. I didn’t know anyone in California. I had been there only once, on a trip with my yearbook staff when I was 16 years old. Looking back, I think part of the allure for me was the perfect weather, interesting people, and the innovation of Silicon Valley. Whatever it was, California was just calling me.
I didn’t think I would answer. I truly didn’t think I would. When I thought of the sheer distance (more than 2,000 miles) it seemed impossible. I couldn’t imagine being that far away from my friends and family.
So when it came time to apply for jobs after graduation (yes, I waited until AFTER graduation because I went on a cross-country camping trip first), I toyed with the idea of applying to jobs in California. I knew that the only thing that could really get me to go to California was a job I really loved.
Getting the Job
After weeks of applying to jobs from L.A. to San Francisco, I was beginning to lose hope. I was never going to make it to California; maybe I’d never even make it out of Florida. I might as well throw in the towel and apply to local jobs. I felt like a failure.
But then I got an email. That email led to a phone interview, which then led to a Skype interview, and then another Skype interview, and within one week, I had gotten an awesome job in Silicon Valley and was set to move to California. It was surreal.
Figuring Out How to Get There
I thought nabbing the job was the hard part. But the hard part was only beginning. I was faced with the prospect of moving to one of the most expensive areas in the country with just a couple hundred dollars in my bank account. I knew no one there. I didn’t know how to go about finding a place to live.
I resorted to putting up an ad on Craigslist, which got several interesting responses…
Just a couple of people who contacted me:
- A drag queen renting out part of his house in San Jose
- A retired, divorced male lawyer who was renting out his (renovated) garage
On top of the not-so-promising housing options, there were at least three dream-shattering moments when I thought I really would not get to California.
Fly There Alone or Road Trip With the Family?
Things changed rapidly. At first, I thought I would fly to California alone (I didn’t think I’d need my car. Wrong!). Then, I actually faced the prospect of driving 2,400 miles by myself.
Oddly enough, it was the retired, divorced lawyer whose garage I almost moved into who convinced my father not to let me drive alone to California.
He talked to my dad on the phone and, while the living situation did not work out, he managed to get my dad to change his mind.
After that, my dad decided we would all–my dad, mom, and sister (brother would stay at home with the pets)–drive to California together. This meant hitching up the 21-foot travel trailer to the truck, which my dad would drive with my sister, while my mom and I drove my car.
I was relieved that I wouldn’t be in this alone; however, I faced a whole new challenge: not only was I putting myself at risk of failure–I was dragging almost my entire family into this mess. Was it really going to be worth it?
Hurricane Isaac Blocks My Path
Then on August 28, the day we were supposed to leave, Hurricane Isaac ripped through Louisiana, right in the path of where I was going to drive. We had to wait for the storm to pass, and unfortunately, the storm was supposed to sit over Louisiana for a long time.
But even after the storm passed, it left behind flooding, destruction, and traffic that blocked the roads I needed to drive through. Because everyone was returning to their homes after the evacuation, there was major congestion on all the freeways.
We set our sights on September 1 to head out. But just before then, I started doubting every decision I had made up until that point. Before, it had felt so right. Now, it felt so wrong. I was convinced I was making a huge mistake, and I was thinking about canceling the move.
I talked to my friend Lou about it, and he urged me not to listen to fear. He reminded me that if I had prayed about it and it had felt right, these last-minute fears were merely lies. He also, rather humorously, stated, “Amy, if you don’t follow your dreams, you’ll be like the beginning of every dramatic movie I can think of, where the old grandma is telling her grandchild, ‘Don’t be like me…'”
Saying goodbye to my friends was tough, but I knew I’d be back. After all, Florida is home. Somehow, even my German Shepherd, Remi, seemed to sense I was leaving. My family and I have always laughed about how Remi would never sleep in my room; for some reason, he loved being in my sister’s room, but he always ran out of mine. The night before I left for California, Remi came into my room, hopped on my bed, and slept at my feet throughout the entire night.
Starting the 2,400-Mile Drive
The next morning, I walked out of my house with a heavy heart but a strong resolve. But as I made my way down the sidewalk, I turned back for one last glance at my childhood home, and in the window, I saw Remi staring at me with eyes that seemed to ask, “Where are you going? When will you be back?” I broke down and started crying.
And so, with no place to live, no idea what Silicon Valley would really be like, and no friends or family there, I started my long journey. (This is important: People often ask me how I worked up the “courage” to move across the country to a place where I didn’t know anyone. Trust me, I am not brave. Here’s the key to doing something that scares you: Don’t think about it. Just do it. I literally pushed from my mind all of the terrifying thoughts–and there were many–and just drove.)
The first half of the drive is a blur. I don’t remember much of it. But I do remember Texas. Big, honkin’ Texas. About halfway through the Lone Star State, I began to wonder what the heck I was thinking driving all the way to California. It had been two days, and we were still driving across the enormous state.
Driving Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, Interstate 10
We took an interesting route, I-10 through Texas runs parallel to the U.S.-Mexico border. At one point, right before El Paso, Texas, we had to go through a border patrol checkpoint since we were so close to the border. That was fascinating. I’d never had to go through border patrol in my own country before.
El Paso is next to the city of Juarez, Mexico, and I remember as we drove along I-10 looking to my left and thinking, just over that stream is another country.
Unsurprisingly, El Paso had a heavily Hispanic community. It was so interesting seeing this part of the United States.
When we hit Arizona, we were on the homestretch, but I was quickly losing morale. We got to Phoenix during a heat wave, and it was 106 degrees outside, which meant the inside of the RV felt like an oven. I was hot, tired, and cranky.
I remember driving across I-10 in Phoenix and being amazed at the massive cacti that looked like people throwing their hands up in surrender. On my drive, I was listening to a song by the musician Lights called “Cactus in the Valley.” The opening lines:
I never meant to whither/ I wanted to be tall/ Like a fool, left the river/ And watched my branches fall
That night, we stayed in an eerie town called Quartzite, just before the California border.
At the RV park stood the largest cactus I have ever seen. It was taller than the building next to it. Unsure if it was real, I stabbed it with a knife. It bled greenish water. It was indeed alive.
When we finally, finally crossed the California border line, I was excited–but we still had about eight hours to go. That night at around 10, we drove through Los Angeles, which was a major hurdle for me. The congested–yet fast-moving–traffic, plus my exhaustion, plus my fear of driving across mountains (I was surprised there were mountains after LA), frayed my nerves even more.
That night, we slept in a TA truck stop parking lot. Once again, I was convinced I had made a huge mistake by dragging my family into this. Strangely enough, my family members were the ones who were optimistic and enthusiastic, while I pouted and ate cookies I had bought at the Subway inside the gas station.
On our last day of driving, I was nervous as hell. At 4 p.m., we were set to arrive in San Jose. What if Silicon Valley was not all I dreamed it would be? What if the journey was all for nothing? I put my worries aside and just drove with the small comfort that once we got there, I could finally stop driving. I never wanted to see a car again.
After leaving the urban chaos of Los Angeles, the scenery changed drastically. Trafficked roads and mountainous terrain opened up to a vast expanse of golden rolling hills. I wondered if that’s part of the reason they call it The Golden State.
I was surprised by just how rural that part of California is. There were hardly any cars. There were lots of cows. It’s a part of California rarely shown in movies and TV. I found it relaxing.
Arriving in Silicon Valley Without a Place to Live
When we finally arrived in San Jose that afternoon, I felt like rejoicing, but we were faced again with that ugly reality: I had nowhere to live.
We had looked up a few RV places to park and stay the night, so we went to our first option in San Jose. I quickly realized it was no ordinary RV park; you know, the ones you stay in at tourist destinations, where people park their shiny RVs for a few days as they enjoy their vacations. “RV park” was in the name, but it was really a trailer park. Dozens of RVs, trailers, and mobile homes were packed side by side, and I could tell they’d been there a while. It was where people lived–not where they vacationed. There was one tiny spot open, just big enough to back our travel trailer into, but the problem was we couldn’t get a hold of the park owner. I called her over and over. No answer. I rang the doorbell of the front office. No answer.
We had finally made it to California after five exhausting days of driving–and we had nowhere to park for the night.
Panicked, I immediately started calling a couple of our other options (though they were looking pretty bleak). I was on the brink of tears when, miraculously, a spot opened up at another RV/trailer park in Redwood City, so my dad and sister went to set up there, while my mom and I faced the arduous task of finding me a permanent place to live.
Though I wanted nothing more then to just rest, it was time to visit the people I had found on Craigslist.
Finding a Place to Live in One of the Most Expensive Places in the Nation
I was in for yet another shock: sticker shock. The price of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area is outrageous, some of the highest in the nation. My first rental option was a bedroom and bathroom in an elderly woman’s house for $1,000/month! In Gainesville, I had paid $500/month for a bedroom and bath in a 2-bedroom apartment, and at the time, I thought THAT was a lot.
The woman’s house was really nice, and so was the woman herself, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was living in someone else’s house, a stranger’s house. It didn’t feel like home.
My mom and I then went to another woman’s house. This time the rent was $900/month for a bedroom and bathroom in a house shared with a single mom and her two children. The house was not nearly as nice. The woman was kind, but the house was chaotic with not only her children, but also her boyfriend, whom she hadn’t told me about. Once again, I couldn’t picture that being my home.
It was nighttime by the time we left the second house, and I was nervous about driving in notorious California traffic. When we got to the RV park in Redwood City, I could feel a breakdown coming on.
Not only had I just spent the past five days driving and worrying, but I had spent the last five hours trying to figure out where the heck I was going to live, and not only had I not found a place, but the next day I was to start my first day of work at my first full-time job after college. Yikes.
I lay on the bed in the RV and cried. Then I texted my friend Lindsey who was in Florida.
“Whatever happens,” I told her. “Don’t let me forget who I am…I don’t know how to explain it. Just don’t let me lose myself.”
I was facing an identity crisis. Who was I when I was here, where no one knew me and I knew no one? I had no point of orientation. I felt miserable and afraid.
Temporary Living in a Trailer Park: The Happiest Days of My Life
While I continued my search for a decent apartment, I lived in a trailer park in Redwood City. Thank God for my family. My mom flew home to return to work, but my dad and sister stayed behind with the RV, so I would have a place to sleep after work.
I remember those days vividly. Our 21-foot travel trailer was parked tightly between beat-up RVs that looked like they’d never leave this trailer park even if they wanted to, so long had they been sitting there. Some RVs had full gardens growing around them; others had flat tires.
Life in this trailer park in Redwood City gave me a glimpse into a side of Silicon Valley most tech entrepreneurs and California dreamers never see or think about. I remember one day going to the park’s showers, which were in a building on the other side of the cement lot. While we had our own bathroom and shower in our RV, I thought it would be nice to go to a “real” one. I walked into the building, and I heard a woman talking, I assumed, to someone else. Then I realized there was no one else there–this woman was locked inside a shower stall, talking to herself.
“I’m gonna get a job. I’m gonna get out of here. I’m gonna get a job. I’m gonna get out of here.” She kept repeating those words, over and over. I quietly walked away and decided to shower in the RV instead.
The park was filled with many families and many people who had come to California only to realize they couldn’t afford rent here. I met one construction worker who had been looking for a place for days. We commiserated over the insane rental prices.
Right next to the trailer park was an auto body shop. At night, when I got “home” and parked my car on the curb outside the park, I would see the workers there. The rest of the area was industrial, with cars lining the streets. It was difficult to find parking. There were even some RVs parked on the sides of the roads, their windows covered. They looked abandoned, but every so often, they’d move spots. People were trying to live in them on the street, rent free. Whatever you can do to get by, I guess.
Two blocks away was a small taqueria that sold burritos bigger than my face for just $7, a steal in this part of California.
Though living with two other people in a travel trailer got cramped, we made it work. My dad slept in the king bed, my sister slept in the small bed that pulled out from the kitchen table, and I slept on the floor. We had a memory foam padding we’d lay in the aisle next to the kitchen stove and sink, and, wedged between my sister’s bed and the kitchen cabinets, I would rest my head for the night. Then I’d get up at around 7 a.m. and get ready for work at my startup’s office in Palo Alto.
People at my office were so concerned about my living situation. They often had pitied looks on their faces when I said I was staying at an RV park. What’s funny is even though I had no permanent place to reside, even though I had no real rental prospects, and even though I slept on the floor every night–I remember those as some of the happiest days of my life.
After work, I’d rush home down the 101, pull into that crowded street with rows and rows of cars and gray buildings. Sometimes there was Spanish music blaring from some nearby block party. Other times there was a man on a bike selling ice cream out of his little food cart. I’d turn the corner to my RV, and walk inside to be greeted by my dad and sister who were the only people around who knew me and knew my history. It was sheer joy to come home to a smile and a “How was your day?” and then to share a meal with my family. What more did I need?
Moving On Up to Palo Alto, Missing the Trailer Park
After about two weeks, I found the “perfect” apartment in swanky Palo Alto. It was a 200-square-foot in-law suite with no kitchen for $1,250/month–amazingly, the best deal I found. What a departure from the trailer park in Redwood City. It was situated in a neighborhood of renowned Eichler homes (distinctive, modern-style homes designed by architect Joseph Eichler) surrounded by luxury cars.
Even after finding my posh living space, I still would rush to the trailer park after work just to be there with my family. I rather liked it there. A few days after I had settled into my apartment though, my dad and sister had to start the long journey back to their real home in Florida. The disorientation I felt lingered, maybe even grew, after they left. I still had no one I could call a friend in Silicon Valley. I’d go out to grocery stores and restaurants and wonder if people could see me. Often, I would think I recognized someone on the street–until I realized there was no way it could be them. I was too far away from anyone I knew.
To say that I was lonely would be incorrect. I was not lonely, and I didn’t feel sad. I think the best way to describe how I felt would be “disoriented.” It was hard to know who I was when no one else knew me. It was hard to feel grounded when I wasn’t sure where I was going.
One Year Later
Flash forward almost one year later, and here I am, with a strong support network of friends here and memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.
And there is another image of California I will never forget: Two nights ago, I was on the UC Berkeley campus with two of my closest friends, Krissa and Nicole, and about a dozen new ones, eating pizza, laughing, and playing ultimate frisbee at 11 p.m. We were in the middle of a huge, grassy field in the dark. My shoes dug into the damp grass, and the air was filled with sounds of people talking and crickets chirping in the distance. In my mind, I hit “pause” on the scene and stepped back from the group, turned around, and looked up at the stars. One year ago, as I was crying and worrying about what the future may hold, could I ever have guessed I would be here, gazing up at the stars over Berkeley, California, with friends who make me laugh so hard I forget about every worry?
And that’s the beauty of not knowing what will happen next. It makes you appreciate the unexpected blessings so much more.
I prepared myself so well (I think) for all that could have gone wrong here in California; what I was not prepared for, however, was all that could go right. So right. Here I have experienced some of the lowest lows and highest highs and the deepest, richest friendships of my life.
A friend recently shared a poem with me called “Ithaka,” and these lines really struck me
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
I have always thought of California as the Land of Plenty, and I have had my fill. Here’s to the next journey, with its share of obstacles, but also of unpredictable joys.
I was right about those two things: obstacles and unpredictable joys, though I would say both of those things are unpredictable. Why did I resurrect this post now, a year and a half later? Well, because I think I am at a similar crossroads as when I wrote this post. At the time, I was deciding between staying in California (which I loved), or traveling the world (which I was pretty sure I’d love too). I chose the latter (sort of). And now that I’m back Stateside, I’m starting to wonder: Do I go back to California? Or do I move on? I’m afraid that going back will simply be me grasping at something I can never have back. I’ve returned to California three times since leaving it, and I’m visiting San Francisco starting tomorrow. I bounce back and forth between staying and leaving.
The words of that poem still resonate in my heart “Ithaka gave you a splendid journey…She hasn’t anything else to give you.” Certain people, certain places, serve purposes in our lives at just the right time–and not a second longer. And you can’t go back to them.
Or can you?