Backpacking in Joshua Tree and Beyond (March 1998)

I had this item on my old website, but am only now (2019) getting around to putting it up on this newer one. (See also the video.)

Contents

San Francisco & Northern California
Joshua Tree & the Southern California Desert
San Diego, Tijuana, and 12 Hours on the Bus
California Travel Links

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San Francisco & Northern California

Meg’s job flew her to San Francisco in early March 1998 for a conference. I joined her, so that we could both take advantage of the free hotel room for a few days of touristing.

For me, it was cheaper to fly from Providence to L.A. to San Francisco, and back through L.A. again, than to fly directly from Providence (or Boston) to San Francisco. I saved about $160 this way, as compared to the best price I could get flying direct.

Problem: my flight to L.A. left at 6 AM on a Sunday morning, and they don’t believe in public transportation in this part of Massachusetts. To get from Attleboro to Providence airport, I had to take a 5 PM train south, get off and walk a mile (with a 50­-pound backpack), take a bus to downtown Pawtucket, take another bus from there to downtown Providence, and then take a shuttle to the airport. I arrived there at about 8 PM and spent the next ten hours there.

This was not nearly as easy as hiring a taxi ($55!) or parking the car at the airport for two weeks ($$$!!!). It was not even as easy as calling the friends and asking them to haul me there (free!). Thing is, I wanted the genuine backpacker’s experience, with my new Christmas-present backpack. Among other things, I wanted to see if you can backpack without freeloading, and if you don’t count the fact that I got a free hotel room, stayed at my sister’s place for two days for no charge and another two days at my friend Mark’s, then yes, by golly, you can indeed get around for next to nothing, aside from the NINE BUCKS!!! that they charge to take you from downtown Providence to the airport. Nine bucks for a ten-minute ride!

Had some excellent adventures on this first let of the trip. In Pawtucket, after walking a half-mile, I decided I was tired, and took a detour through a Chinese restaurant. I’m standing in line, and the guy ahead of me starts asking me trivia questions. I must look like a nerd even when wearing my cowboy hat and carrying a 50-pound pack. Pack is bigger than me! He wants to know: who’s the first human to fly around the globe in outer space (Yuri Gargarin), what’s the world’s largest office building containing no shops, residences, etc. — nothing but office space (Pentagon), etc. He’s amazed that I know the answers. He decides to buy my hot & sour soup for me –“make it a Large,” he says to the clerk — and proceeds to tell me that he won the lottery and can do whatever he wants for the rest of his life. When I get back, friend Greg confirms that this is true — they saw his picture in the paper.

Anyway, the Sunday morning flight was fine: Continental to L.A. for $204 round-trip, Southwest from L.A. to Oakland for $88 round-trip. Spent the first several days in San Francisco visiting Mark, hanging out with some of Meg’s Red Cross friends, and hiking with Meg & Mark up through the Marin Headlands down to the Sausalito ferry. Went up to my sister Jan’s for two days, saw the kids. A really good experience.

Another mass transit note: I’ve found that Greyhound can be a sterile and less-than­charming adventure. You’re way up in the air with a bunch of out-of-state characters, half of whom are probably wanted by the law back where they came from. You’re sitting in air conditioning with a bad smell of cleanser from the latrine, looking through green-tinted windows. Maybe it’s OK for an interstate trip where the train or plane isnt practical, but for the short hop of 2-3 hours from San Francisco to Ukiah, we opted for regular city buses. Problem: Mendocino Transit Authority is EXPENSIVE! And slow. Next time, maybe I’ll take Golden Gate Transit to Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Transit to Cloverdale, and then hitchhike the rest of the way! We really should have used Greyhound this time, I suppose.

Anyway, we then returned to San Francisco and stayed at Mark’s for a couple of days. Nothing major — just kicked around, did that Marin hike (really nice, except for the security guard who refused to let us cut down through the private exclusive part of town to reach the ferry), ate and slept. The next Sunday, it was time to fly out. Meg headed for SFO and flew back east. A couple hours later, I tried taking the J-Church Muni train to Oakland, but it wasn’t running, and neither were any of the other Muni trains, so I cabbed/walked down to Civic Center, through the fringes of the St. Patrick’s parade, and took BART from there. Took nearly 3 hours to reach the airport!

Flew to LAX, and there begins the next leg of the journey.

[Addendum, May 22, 2019: I had hoped to spend the week in L.A. with my brother Wade. Unfortunately, as detailed elsewhere, by this point Wade had already commenced his plan to never speak to me again. You’ll have to look at that other post to decide whether his reasons make sense to you. I had foreseen that this might be the outcome — that he would not return my calls, and I would have to spend the week on my own. So I had to develop a backup plan. It turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever made.]

Joshua Tree & the Southern California Desert

I got into LAX at 4 PM on a Sunday, which is the most foolish time in the world to arrive there, if you want to get around on mass transit. I was headed for Joshua Tree National Park, a drive of nearly three hours east of L.A., and Joshua Tree is served only by the Morongo Basin Transit Authority, whose only Sunday bus runs at 6 or 7 in the evening. In other words, I had timed it nearly perfectly: if I took Greyhound from L.A., I would arrive in Palm Springs no more than one or two hours after the last Morongo bus left, with no more than 22 or 23 hours to wait until the next one.

Instead, I decided on Amtrak. I killed the hours from 4 to 10 PM getting to Union Station in downtown L.A. (which you can do quite easily by using the fast, safe, cheap Green Line and Blue Line metro trains) and then stuffing my face in the local food offerings around Union Station: Mexican (excellent soft-shell, all-beef taco for $1.25!) and Chinese (masterful wonton soup & rice for $3!). I also toured the stands of leather goods and other Mexican artwork for sale at very good prices, right there across from the station.

On the 10 PM Amtrak train, I was assigned to sit next to a black guy from Orange, NJ who was obviously relieved to discover that I wasn’t a total hick, after the initial impression he seems to have gotten when he saw me standing there in my special traveling hat. (It’s an Australian hat, but it’s so beat-up that it makes me look like Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies.) He’s studying industrial engineering in Louisiana, and he had two days of train travel ahead of him to get back there to school.

The train let me off at the Palm Springs station at 2 AM. There’s no station: it’s just a sidewalk in the desert sand. It was a beautiful, starry night, with a warm breeze blowing from the west. The conductor, fearing for my life, had called the County Mounty to come escort me to safety. I, fearing for my safety, almost ran away when I saw the aforementioned Mounty’s vehicle parked there at the station, but then it turned out that the Authority was none other than a 30-year-old woman with a really nice accent, one of those vaguely European accents that probably came from Vassar or Wellesley or something. She had no problem with my hiking a half-mile across the sands to the Denny’s restaurant, beckoning there in the distance.

At the time, I did not realize the rattlesnakes were out. Cruising Arabia at this time of the night was possibly not the cleverest idea I’ve ever had, even if I did have my trusty snakebite suction kit buried somewhere in the 50 pounds of assorted crap there in my backpack. The main thing anyway is to stay calm if you get bit, and I’m sure I could have managed that while frantically clawing my way through all that stuff, searching for the suction device.

I was totally excited to be there in the desert alone. It was just wonderful: warm, dry, quiet. I cured my excitement by getting a plateful of food at the Denny’s and talking to Tony, a waiter from Martinsville, Indiana who was trying to stay awake until his shift ended at 6. He told me he’d give me a ride all the way to Twentynine Palms if I wanted, as long as I was around at 6 when he left work. I said I had no idea where I’d be at that time, but if I was in the neighborhood I’d take him up on it.

It didn’t quite work out. I threw my sleeping bag behind a bush, a quarter-mile from the Denny’s, out on the sand, and I awoke at the right time, but I needed to find a restroom so bad I could taste it. I emerged, still buttoning my fly, to see Tony’s truck leave the Denny’s and head north. So instead I had to stand by the road for a half-hour, thumb out, before I got a ride.

The guy who picked me up was a schoolteacher. He was a really radical character, with a style more like an outlaw. “I don’t give a shit about the school administration and the parents,” he said. “I’m there for the kids.” I asked how he could get away with this, and he said he’d been there long enough that they couldn’t touch him. He grabbed a tube of toothpaste, squeezed some onto his front teeth, smeared it around with his tongue, and then spat it out the window. He said he runs a house where backpackers and hikers show up from all over. He wakes up in the morning and sees people in the house whom he’s never seen before and has no idea who the hell they are. He doesn’t care. Very funky individual. He says his brother has to go to prison for growing massive quantities of dope, but that the financial incentives were worth the risk and that the brother is psyched, ready for the minimal-security experience. Yowza!

Next ride: Bill, who claims he’s got a half-million dollars’ worth of property in San Francisco but is getting by in Yucca Valley by laying carpet. Next ride: didn’t catch his name, but he’s a longhair who says he’s got to turn himself in. “What for?” I ask. “Driving around f*cked-up for too long,” he says. “Is that against the law?” I ask, laughing.

At this point, a stereotype begins to form: single male, driving a beat-up car, roughly my age, with radical attitudes. At a certain point in my hitchhiking, I nearly give up on the old folks and the suited businesspeople driving nice cars, but when I see one of these guys driving a Bondo Special my way, I stick out my thumb, smile — do everything I can to attract their attention, short of hiking up the hem of my jeans.

These characters got me through Yucca Valley, where I picked up a couple of propane cylinders at the K-Mart, bringing my full pack weight (with additions that Meg had carried to San Francisco) to maybe 60 pounds, and on to Jeremy’s CyberCafe in the Town of Joshua Tree. The CyberCafe does indeed have terminals, and while breakfast is cooking I fool with one of them. The food arrives and I abandon ship, only to discover that the computers really were the high point of my visit to Jeremy’s. What’s this on my plate? Bacon? Two tiny little shreds of something. Sheesh.

Thence, I stumble down the street to Coyote Corner trading post. It’s a backpacker joint whose business card advertises “hemp products, drums, firewood, and progressive books.” Oh, man, you mean I could have had a drum out there in the desert? And I’m only now noticing, as I review this business card, that they also have “Showers Available.” I didn’t know that. Anyway, I got some free advice about the Joshua Tree Park and bought five sticks of patchouli incense. Then I stepped across the road and got a ride from a minister who commutes to work through the park each day.

Nine miles from town, four miles past the ranger station, down in a long valley, I told the preacher to let me out. “Here?” he asked, surprised. I think he assumed I was heading for a campground. “Here,” I confirmed. I think he was worried for my safety. He gave me a bottle of water and I took off across the sagebrush. I found a spot a mile off the road, up at the opening of a canyon, and that’s where I spent most of the next five days, from Monday morning through Saturday morning. At this site, I saw a total of four other people during the week, passing by in two sets of two each, stray hikers on their way to a more remote part of nowhere.

After setting up my tent, I hung my food from the Joshua trees so that the famed ground squirrels and coyotes wouldn’t get into it, and headed back into town for water. The preacher’s little bottle of water had gotten me this far, but it’s not like he sent me off with Moses to guide me through the wilderness. I had one of those five-gallon plastic water bags and another 1.5 gallons’ worth of other containers, all empty. These 6.5 gallons really loaded the backpack down nicely when I filled them up at the ranger station. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon, doesn’t it? Can’t seem to find that fact right now, but let’s just say it was a very waddly load, all that water stuffed in the bottom of my backpack, right on my butt.

I did go back into Joshua Tree two more times that week: once, after spending hours on a 10-12 mile hike to & from to the top of Quail Mountain, the highest point in the park (fantastic views of Salton Sea and of the 11,000-foot snow-covered heights of Gorgonio and San Jacinto!), with a return back down through the Hidden Valley camp area, where rock climbers from all over the country were scaling these vertical rock walls; and another time, toward week’s end, when I was trying to decide when I should leave the park and had to make some phone calls to bus lines and campgrounds over on the coast.

During these trips, I got rides from a family from New Mexico whose patriarch homesteaded a house in Twentynine Palms by filing a $10 claim back in the 1940s; an unemployed beauty school hairdresser (male, natch) with a dog that was one-quarter wolf; a dude from Bulgaria whose son is in some kind of fine arts academy over in Idyllwild, and who wanted to know if they would let him sleep in his car in the park (they would, as long as he was parked at someone’s campsite, which I think kind of defeated his purpose); a nice couple in a Volvo who seemed a bit scared of me, the more I described my excellent adventure; and other assorted people whom I can’t remember right now. While these various persons did somewhat shatter my stereotype of the ideal (i.e., they weren’t all radical males driving Bondo Specials), they did confirm another impression, which is that it’s MUCH easier to get a ride inside the national park, where a back-country camper is evidently quaint and people aren’t in as much of a rush, and also where it is possible that otherwise the poor hitchhiker would die of thirst, than it is out on the city streets, where nobody has time to waste and you just look like another bum & you can just walk over and get a Coke at the McDonald’s if you’re really that thirsty.

It is fortunate for me that people choose their hitchhiking pickups on the basis of sight rather than smell, because I can assure you that, as my days of camping in the wilderness stretched on, I did begin to acquire a pronounced manly odor. The rangers ask you to “pack it all out,” and they assure you that Ziploc bags nicely contain the scent of your used toilet paper, but I’m here to confirm that those bags pop open when they have been amply warmed by the sun, and then it’s every man for himself. You have no idea how much detail I am sparing you at this point. Let us just say that, but for my conscience, I would never have hauled that stuff out, but would instead have left it in a trench for the coyotes to worship. (They like the scented toilet paper, I find.) In the end (so to speak), I did haul it out, hermetically sealed in a garbage bag that I had preserved in a pristine, hole-free condition. I carried that bag high, so as to insure no last-minute punctures on the neighborhood cactii. I even made up a little song about my bag of s___ as I marched out across the wasteland. As luck would have it, the guy who picked me up was driving a brand-new pickup truck with a shell on back. The back of his truck was full of stuff, but he told me to just load my things in on top. I did. The bag landed on his cooler. I honestly believe, and I pray, that it did not leak a single scent or anything else. At the first opportunity, I pitched it in a dumpster, far from any known human habitation.

Having fully explored the grittier aspects of the experience, let me emphasize that this was, without a doubt, the finest camping experience I’ve ever had. We’re not going to belabor the fact that it frosted every night, there in the high desert (4500′ elevation), nor that I spent half the night cold because my sleeping bag wasn’t working right; we’re not going to discuss how the tent isn’t waterproof and therefore, when the frost thawed, it dripped through onto everything inside; and we’re not going to complain about the real appetite problems that you run into when you’ve become sick of the kinds of dried fruit and noodles that you can easily carry in a backpack.

No, it’s time to say something positive, and I shall. Being out in the desert by yourself, with no human contact for days on end, is vastly therapeutic. You can see cars a mile away on the road, and see their headlights wink over the far ridge, three miles away, in the late night; you can see people flying overhead, six miles up, in jets; but you’re really alone. The stars weren’t as perfectly brilliant as they have been at other times in the desert, probably because smog from L.A. now reaches all the way across the state and well into Arizona, but they were still very nice. Sunsets were gorgeous. I had rain one night, when a huge thundercloud swept my way, but it shed only a few drops and mainly had the effect of making the whole place even darker and spookier than it had been anyway.

The coyotes howled and yipped at that thunder, as they did at every other notable meterological or astronomical event, including especially the rising and setting of the sun and moon. As long as I was making noise and wandering around my tent site, they were silent and distant. I had a little candle-lantern (excellent investment, except that it fried the hell out of my wrist one night). It kept the orange tent aglow for an hour or two after sundown, but within a minute after blowing out the light, I would have coyotes all around me, near and far, yipping and howling. It really was a bit scary at first, but within a couple of days I got used to it, like you might get used to having a pack of mongrels loosely associated with your shack out in the backwoods. By midweek, I was comfortable enough out there that I carried back a quart of beer back from the Town of Joshua Tree, and passed a lovely evening singing to the sunset at the top of my lungs and shedding a tear for the 1970s as the dusk enveloped me.

The single largest use of my time went into my study of Aristotle’s Politics, which I had carried along with me. I must have spent 40-60 hours on it, and even so I covered only a fraction of it. Dense! Ya s’pose that’s why it’s a classic? I would dictate notes about it into my little pocket tape recorder, and I soon discovered that the noise of the recorder would immediately shut the coyotes up, even when their howls sounded like they were a mile away.

I spent most of my days sitting in the shade of a Joshua Tree clump or pacing back and forth on a short path that I pounded into the crumbly Mojave soil, reading Aristotle or just thinking, enjoying the almost constant sunshine and mild temperatures. I found that my hat, long sleeves, and a bit of sunblock were all I needed for outdoor protection the whole time, except that two mosquito-like creatures attacked me at one point and had to be extirpated. Mosquitoes? I have no idea where they came from, but they’re dead now.

My wildlife “take” on this trip was very limited, due in part to the fact that I make more noise than a toy store, especially when too much beer causes me to sing. I did see tracks for sheep of some kind (bighorns, judging by the size, because they were bigfeet), and I also saw a truly frightening footprint, 2/3 as large as my hand, which I sincerely hope was a print from someone’s dog (allowable, as long as they’re on leash), and not a wolf or — horrors! — a mountain lion. It really didn’t look like a cat print (did it?). I spent twenty minutes sketching, photographing, and generally ogling and being terrified of it, before I finally decided that it was out there with me & there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I also saw vultures — circling above my camp, oddly enough — and crows and various other noisy birds.

I think anyone could view coyotes if you were patient enough to sit quietly on a rock at dawn or dusk. Heck, I had one approach my camp in the predawn darkness, evidently not seeing me there in my green jacket and dork hat. When I turned on the tape recorder, though, he took off like a bat out of hell, flying down through the undergrowth for the better part of a quarter-mile. It’s legal to hunt them outside the park, so I guess humans have something of a bad reputation among coyotes by now, even though our campsites are pungent havens of dried noodles and fragrant toilet paper.

Finally, at last, I had to leave. My flight back to the East Coast was a Monday night redeye, but mass transit options were so limited on Sunday that I decided to pack up and leave on Saturday. I dug up and Ziplocked the contents of the Unspeakable Trench, and took my last hike across the mile of flatlands to the road. I got a ride in the aforementioned brand-new truck, piloted by Bob, who was on his way back home from a four-month sailing tour from Nova Scotia to the Galapagos Islands. In Joshua Tree, I stopped again at the Coyote Corner, where the proprietor told me that the wildflowers down in the lower desert (two hours away) were blooming so profusely (thanks to El Nino) that his feet were still yellow (as I could see) from the pollen he had rubbed off while walking through them the previous day.

At the Joshua Tree Post Office, I mailed myself eleven pounds of no-longer-needed camping gear, and then caught a ride to Yucca Valley with a guy who waited fifteen minutes for me there at the P.O. If you saw this guy, you’d understand. I really don’t think he had much else going on. It’s really something, these lonesome guys who’ll pick up a scraggly hitcher like me — just for someone to talk to, I guess. In Yucca Valley, I returned the one unused propane cylinder to the K-Mart, and then stood roasting for 45 minutes before a couple of Marines from the Twentynine Palms base finally had mercy and stopped to give me a ride.

These two Marines started telling me about their 15-mile “humps” through the desert, carrying 70-lb. packs without waist-straps (which definitely help put the weight on your legs rather than on your shoulders & back), in addition to carrying one-third of the weight of a 50-caliber machine gun. To someone who (by now) prided himself on his great hiker skills and his nearly authentic cowboy appearance, this part of the ride was a bit ego-deflating. I mean, these guys were massive. They left me off where I’d started six days earlier, at the Amtrak junction north of Palm Springs, and from there I caught rides down into town.

The desert leg of my trip was not quite over. At the Greyhound station, I ran into a kid from Brazil who was on his way to Joshua Tree. I got to play the part of the experienced old man, telling him about all sorts of real and imagined adventures and worry that I thought might keep him busy for a while. This kid was the real adventurer: he came all the way from Brazil with a little bit of hokey equipment. I think my helpful information about frost and rattlesnakes shook him up a little, though. At that point, another backpacker, hearing me mention Joshua Tree, came walking up, and while playing the expert to the two of them, I nearly missed my bus to San Diego, for the third and final leg of the trip

San Diego, Tijuana, and 12 Hours on the Bus

I got on the Greyhound from Palm Springs at 3:05 PM on Sunday, and immediately became aware of my stink. It is most unfortunate that I could not find a seat by myself, and therefore had to plop down next to a nicely dressed young lady who immediately shrank away from me. Those who find me to be thoroughly charming will be just as surprised as I was to see that she did not reciprocate my attempts at conversation.

Things improved somewhat when we got to San Berdoo and I switched over to the southbound bus for San Diego. There, I found myself sitting next to a 21-year-old woman who, it turned out, was a graduating senior from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Not having had a decent long conversation with anyone for more than a week, I promptly began filling her ear with my life’s story, and did not stop until we reached downtown San Diego, where she immediately vanished from sight. Seriously, she really does have a golden future ahead of her as a pilot, and it was very interesting to talk to her about (among many other subjects) the place of women in the Academy.

In San Diego, I discovered that I no longer had my list of youth hostels — yes, in case you were wondering, I do still qualify to pass the night in at least some “youth” hostels. Very tired, and a bit frantic, I asked one of the clerks there, and she suggested something, and one thing led to another and there I was, on my way to the Point Loma office of Hostelling International. After making just about every mistake that a person can make in using the San Diego trolley and bus lines, I did manage to arrive at the hostel where, after eating and doing laundry, I found my top bunk, in a room with eight other guys, at about 1:30 AM.

Next day, bright and early, I was off to Tijuana. “T.J.” turned out to be both cleaner and dirtier than I’d expected, depending on which part of town we’re talking about. The San Diego trolley lets you off a stone’s throw from the border, where you then wander through this massive concrete maze before they dump you on the streets of the city. I walked through a gauntlet of merchandise vendors and found the Avenue of the Republic, with a huge, sad flag of Mexico waving over all the town’s evils. I walked far enough away from the border zone to reach beat old streets where no one spoke English, and while this assured me that I had finally come closer to the “real” Tijuana, it did not at all help me find a bathroom. Defeated, I returned to the Avenue, where I went into a bar, peed, and then decided that the proprietors were giving me the evil eye for using their restroom without paying my way.

I really had no choice but to sit down and become a paying customer, so that’s what I did. I ordered a beer. The waiter brought me two. I said I only wanted one, but he said it was two for the price of one, $1.00. It was no use arguing; I had to drink them both. I tried giving one away to an American who walked within arm’s reach on the sidewalk next to this sidewalk bar/café, but then he and his buddy decided they’d better not.

Thereafter, much mellower and more willing to take my time, I wandered back through the shopping zone. I went into a number of stores, offering to purchase merchandise at very low prices, frustrating a number of sellers in the process, and finally did manage to snag a couple of things for Meg and me. The merchants all hire a squad of guys, and sometimes women, to try to steer you into their stores, but I usually just walked on by. One guy made me laugh, though, when he took one look at me in my getup and said, “Hey, Gilligan!”

I hauled my purchases back north to the hostel, grabbed a burrito, and set off for Cabrillo National Monument, out on the tip of Point Loma. After a long combination of busriding and walking, I got there just as someone, walking the other way, told me that the monument had been closed for the evening. Not giving up easily, I walked on up and perched on a rock, where I had a great view of the setting sun and the huge Pacific spreading out from the cliff below me.

Eventually, a security guard came tooling up and told me that the park was closed and I’d have to go stand at the bus stop. I did as he recommended. The bus did not come. Therefore, they had to give me a ride back out of the park, which sure beat walking. This put me at the Naval Training Center just a few moments before sundown, and as I watched, they blew Taps and lowered the flag. I then spent another hour or two taking a very pleasant stroll back down to the hostel as the evening deepened. Exhausted, I hit the hay as soon as someone shut the lights off in our dorm room, and got a lot of sleep even though other guys kept waking me up as they came in during the next three or four hours.

Finally, it was the end. Monday morning, last day of the trip. I had all day to get back to L.A., and nothing else really special that I was supposed to be doing or felt I should do, other than just taking a look at the ocean, so I decided to use the local bus ($1.25) rather than Greyhound or Amtrak ($10-15) to get from San Diego back to L.A.

At 7 AM, I took the San Diego Number 35 bus to the 34 to the 301, which went right along the surf to Oceanside. There, I had an hour-and-a-half layover, which was perfect for walking the two blocks over to the ocean. I stood at water’s edge in the sunshine and watched the waves and the surfers, stuck my hands in the ocean and wondered why there are seagulls in Denver and pigeons on the beach. It was a great day for it: perfect weather again!

At Oceanside, I made a friend. His name was Charlie, and it turned out that he was every bit as much of a bum as he looked. I’d made a special point of talking to all kinds of people on this trip, and had met a lot of interesting and decent people in the process, including a totally presentable guy in the San Berdoo bus terminal who admired my backpack and then frankly told me that he had been living homeless around the bus terminal for a while — something that a guy like him would probably not have volunteered to me if I had been sporting my usual brusque, busy manner. I’d seen these Mexican-American women get on the bus, greet their friends, talk about their babies, and generally make the ordinary transit experience a much warmer and friendlier one. It had been really good to be around all these people. So, what the heck, I talked to Charlie, and after a few minutes, true to stereotype, he asked me for money, which I refused to provide. This, however, did not persuade him to leave me alone.

Well, let me tell you, all those years of training in New York City weren’t entirely wasted. After about a half-hour of putting up with Charlie sitting behind me on the bus, leaning over my pack, making noises, and stinking up the joint (I was freshly showered and therefore had re-emerged into my own, marginally higher social stratum), I turned around and stated that I was not only not going to give him any money, but if he didn’t get the f___ away from me I was going to call the cops and have his ass thrown in jail. This seemed to have some effect. He did move away to another seat, and from then on I was left to reflect upon the place of the intelligent loser in society. Charlie was indeed intelligent: for the rest of my trip north, he managed to beat me to the bus stops along the same route that I happened to be taking. I cannot certify that he did this on purpose, but I was aware that he could thus shield himself from the accusation that he was following me. You know how it is: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

Anyway, from Oceanside I took the 305 bus to San Clemente, where I caught the No. 397, which led to the No. 1 bus, which followed Pacific Coast Highway all the way up along the Orange County coastline. I finally reached Long Beach at about 4:15 PM. I wandered around the CSULB campus for old times’ sake, thought I should try to reach my old friends Ray and Peggy, discovered that I didn’t have phone numbers for either of them and that both were unlisted, and therefore decided to mosey on westwards. A crosstown transfer had cost me a dime on the Orange County bus, and now, at the expense of an additional thirty-five cents — bringing my total transportation expense, from San Diego to LAX, to a whopping $1.70 — I caught the Blue Line to the Green Line to the shuttle to the airport, and found myself at my gate with three hours to spare.

For culinary pleasure, I thought I’d partake of the Encounter restaurant, the elevated one that views all of LAX. Then again, upon examining the price list on their menu, I thought my culinary pleasure might equally well be served by a burger. I therefore returned to my gate and sought refuge in an establishment that could provide the appropriate morsels — and happily discovered that they were showing the Academy Awards on the tube! I persuaded the proprietor to turn down the disco music and turn up the TV, and people began flocking in there. I tell you, I should be paid on commission. Anyway, a couple hours later, I stumbled on down the hall to my flight, and the next morning I was back home in Massachusetts.

I don’t know what made this such an incredible trip for me. I think a lot of it was the sense of discovery. There are really a ton of people and places out there worth seeing and knowing, and a person can get blinded to that. It’s really amazing what a week on the road can do to your sense of perspective!

California Travel Links

Southern California: Recommended Contacts

1-800-COMMUTE
for bus and train information throughout L.A., Ventura, Riverside, and Orange counties

Coyote Corner
6535 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree, CA 92252
760-366-9683
Right at the corner of the road running around the park and the road running into the park. Knowledgeable and helpful. Not yet online. Business card says: gifts & cards, drums, firewood, camping/climbing supplies, showers available, hemp products, jewelry, T-shirts, incense, candles, progressive books.

Jeremy’s CyberCafe

Northern California: Recommended Contacts

All transit in Bay Area: 817-1717 (no area code required from anywhere in the Bay area)

Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin County Transportation

Golden Gate Transit
1011 Andersen Drive
San Rafael, CA 94901-5381
415-923-2000 from San Francisco
415-455-2000 from Marin County
707-541-2000 from Sonoma County
http://www.goldengate.org

Mendocino Transit Authority
800-696-4682
707-964-0167
Sample fare: $21 r/t Santa Rosa to Ukiah. Cheaper on some other routes. Covers coast from Fort Bragg down to Bodega Bay. Some lines run only once a day. Sample times required: leave Second Street Transit Mall in Santa Rosa at 4:10 PM, arrive Point Arena 7 PM (once daily) (return trip 8 AM, plus a special 10 AM bus on Sundays) ($10 one-way). Another sample: leave Ukiah 3 PM, arrive Point Arena 5:15 ($5 one-way).

Sonoma County Transit
707-576-7433

Santa Rosa City Bus
707-543-3925

Santa Rosa Airporter
707-545-8015

Skunk Train (Ft. Bragg)
707-964-6371

Greyhound
800-231-2222

Amtrak
800-872-7245

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