Girl and Van Say Goodbye to The U.S. – San Diego, CA

san diego-beach-road trip
Road side beach outside San Diego

THE LAST OF THE STATES: BE BOP A LULA (single) – Gene Vincent

A roadside state of mind…

I’ve begun to lose my mind. Almost three weeks have passed since I began my solo southern descent, and I’m beginning to suspect I’ve been plagued with some form of mobile cabin fever. There are only so many songs you can listen to, so many podcasts you can pretend to be interested in before succumbing to the bleak reality of the lonesome traveler.

For starters, I’ve gained an unnervingly dependent, and rather tumultuous relationship with my navigation system. I’ve named him Donny, with respect to one of the most epic films of all time, The Big Lebowski. But more specifically because every time it tells me to, “Return to route” I find myself wholly encompassing John Goodman and yelling, “Shut up, Donny!”

It really does help to pass the time, responding to Donny’s requests solely through the likes of memorable Lebowski quotes. When he tells me, “In three hundred meters, turn right,” I might respond with, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, your opinion, man.”

Or when he perpetually interrupts my music to remind me of the same approaching exit, “In one kilometer, take exit 38. In seven hundred meters, take exit 38. In two hundred meters, take exit 38. Take exit 38.”

“This will not stand, you know. This aggression will not stand, man.”

Or worse, when he fails to inform me altogether of a relatively vital direction change until the very last second, leaving me swerving on two wheels across five lanes of freeway traffic.

“I love you, but sooner or later you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re a g*dd*mn moron.”

Creepy side of California…

While heavily absorbed in berating Donny and his turbulent navigation, I arrived in Cambria. I think. There is a very strong chance I imagined this entire scenario; like some kind of eerie, Californian mirage.

Mannequins were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. In driveways, on sidewalks, leaning against storefronts. In themed packs, all coordinated in attire and placement. Some were riding bicycles, others delivering mail. Most, simply conversing amongst themselves in neon wigs, period costumes, or an odd, yet somewhat alluring array of negligee.

I wanted to excuse this bizarre encounter under the basis that Halloween was just around the corner, but I had a keen sense that this haunting display was not remotely seasonal.

I felt no need to prolong my stay any further, for fear that this might actually be a pleasantly disguised nuclear test site from 1955. So I carried on, substituting the scenery of my well worn Highway 1 for the efficiency of the 33; pining for the return of my sanity.  

A splash of unexpected history…

But even after leaving creepy Cambria, reality remained but enigmatical. While driving down a single lane highway, not a car in sight, nothing but endless fields and lightly rolling hills, I saw that the kilometer count on my dashboard read alarmingly high.

Because I don’t have a working gas gauge, this was my low budget equivalent to the blinking light in the shape of a gas machine warning you that you’re not far from trouble. And from the looks of my surroundings being a far cry from any form of civilization, trouble seemed inevitable.

And then, as if by magic, I came to a four way stop where a large gas station loomed, almost too conveniently, in one corner.

blackwell's corner-california-roadtrip-james dean
Blackwell’s Corner Mini Mart, California

The gas station itself was a Texaco, but the giant red and white building adjacent, which resembled more of a barn than a general store, was called Blackwell’s Corner.

Beside the Texaco sign, and standing nearly as high, was a cut out of the classic Rebel Without a Cause image of James Dean in his iconic red jacket and blue jeans, one foot nonchalantly crossed over the other. A tad peculiar, but my point of reference on such matters had become rightfully askew since Cambria.

Bizarre pit stops…

Upon entering, things only got weirder. The space inside seemed to far exceed the bounds of its exterior, like some extended scene from Alice in Wonderland. An unusually sterile space, everything was white save for an odd pattern of red, black, and grey tiling on the floor.

There were the average goods you would find at any roadside convenience store; sandwiches with questionable lifespans, chocolate bars and chips, a coffee station that came with an Extreme Caffeine warning.

But as I perused further through this seemingly never ending alternate universe, the widespread shelves suddenly housed all the things a grandmother would bide her time concocting. Jams, jellies, pickled eggs, pickled beans, literally pickled everything. Roasted nuts of every flavour. Potato salad, macaroni salad. Honey, hot sauce, and virtually every other imaginable condiment.

Then the aisles became a throwback to the fifties. Cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, an alarming amount of James Dean. Model cars and collectable metal signs of Indian Motorcycles, Coca-cola, Betty Boop, and, well, James Dean.

Farther still, down this mini mart Narnia, was another large area, somewhat segregated and labelled with giant red and yellow letters, East of Eden Fudge Factory. To the left of this, and entirely out of place, which is quite a statement considering, was what looked to be a significantly archaic army jeep crowded by oodles of antique memorabilia.

The truck was a rusted green, packed with satchels and old luggage, spare tires, and American flags. Standing in front of the jeep, next to a Route 66 sign painted on its door, was but another bloody mannequin; a very scrunchy faced old woman in a bonnet and frumpy, drab clothing. With an apron tied loosely around her wide waist, she held an empty tray, perhaps meant for fudge samples? Or James Dean’s teeth?

It was all just too much. My cabin fevered brain could not process the extremities of this bizarre wonderland. As I searched for a bathroom to splash some water on my face in the hopes of reconnecting with reality, I found the end of Blackwell’s Corner in a corner.

An old, round, diner style bar sat at the back of the building, lined with red cushions on chrome stools. Empty red leather booths and tiny chrome tables made up the rest of this vintage American diner. Whether it actually sold food, or was just there as display I will never know. But either way, it made Cambria unexpectedly more likable.

When I finally reached the large hallway leading to the bathrooms, there on the wall, enclosed in a glass casing, was at least one explanation of this rabbit hole I’d become lost to. James Dean’s riding goggles. The entire wall was covered in photos, letters, framed newspaper clippings that read James Dean’s last drag or Remembering James Dean, too fast to live, too young to die.

james dean article- blackwell's corner- road trip- california- history
Clipping about James Dean hung at Blackwell’s Corner, California

As I read the articles, I soon discovered that this twilight zone was, in fact, the historical last stop on James Dean’s route before his fatal car crash in 1955. He stopped for a pack of cigarettes and an apple, then drove away in his Porsche for the very last time.

Despite the fact that I do not smoke, I bought a pack of cigarettes and an apple, hopped into Van Morrison, and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t about to die.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. Instead, I made it to San Diego. Perhaps comparable to James Dean’s last stop before his ultimate demise, San Diego was my last stop before the Mexican border.

San Diego, California: The final stop in the States…

I didn’t care to waste much time in the city, I was far too anxious to pass country lines. There was, however, one stop I couldn’t possibly miss. The San Diego Aquarium.

Before I delve into this portion of my travels, allow me to enlighten you with a small, but necessary backstory. I am wholeheartedly and uncontrollably obsessed with octopuses. They are without question the most fascinating animal on this planet.

At the age of 3, their intelligence far surpasses that of a human toddler, thus proving that if their lifespan were to ever equal ours, they’d surely take over the world, with ease, garnering what should be our respect, admiration, and a healthy amount of fear.

But I also love to eat them. Herein lies a pretty standard dilemma for me. For generally, any animal I love most in the world, usually tastes like heaven wrapped in bacon. Like bacon, or lamb, or an immaculately cooked octopus appetizer from The Old Fisherman’s Grotto in Monterey (if you’re an avid reader of my blog you’ll get the reference. If not, again, for shame).

But having recently finished a book called The Soul of an Octopus where the author essentially jumps from aquarium to aquarium all over the U.S. making friends with the likes of Octavia, Athena, Kali, and other Giant Pacific Octopuses, there was no chance I was going to pass up the opportunity to befriend one of my own.

Casual aquarium meltdown…

As I pulled Van Morrison into the Birch Aquarium parking lot, signs and flags of squids, cuttlefish, and octopus were everywhere. Not a word of a lie, I had arrived during Cephalopod Celebration. If the universe could be any more giving, I wouldn’t believe it.

I was suddenly sprinting through the halls, body checking children, running down old grannies, desperate to find my octopus. When I finally came to the heavily anticipated tank, a small crowd had gathered round, all searching, without success, for the elusive octopus. But I found her right away. Hiding in the top left corner, her long, weightless tentacles swayed softly with the gentle flow of the water. Hello, beautiful.

And she was. A warm pink in colour, she was almost glowing amidst the shadows of her hideaway. While children whined over the seemingly empty tank, I remained behind them, smiling to myself, eyes discreetly locked on my beloved sea creature. A volunteer, an older lady with short, grey hair and a round build, stood beside the tank.

“Excuse me ma’am, what’s her name?”

“Her name?” She replied curtly. “She doesn’t have a name.”

“She doesn’t have a name?” I was instantly mortified. How could a being of this magnificence not have a name?

“None of the animals here have names.” My heart dropped to my feet. “We like to think of ourselves as an educational facility. Naming them makes it personal.”

I stared at her as if she’d just ripped all eight tentacles off my nameless best friend then chopped them up into a tiny petri dish.

“Personal?” I could feel myself on the verge of losing my cool. “But don’t you know that octopuses love “personal”? That they thrive off individual stimulation both mentally and emotionally?? That they’re some of the most curious species on the planet and live to discover new beings and relationships???”

She stared at me, indifferent. She probably didn’t know. She was merely a volunteer. She didn’t make the rules. But who else was around to blame? No one.

“Octopuses have a very keen intuition, you know. They can sense the kind of people they’re around. And they never forget.”

And with that final threat, I gave one last glance to my Giant Pacific spirit animal, and stormed away, vowing never to return to this water dungeon again.

When I reached Van Morrison, I was fuming. I called my mother, the mother of all sound boards, and unleashed my fury. How are they treating these poor animals?? How dare they be so insensitive?? Hypothetically speaking, how much jail time would one potentially be dealt for attempting to free an octopus from a university funded aquarium?

And for the first, and probably only time, my mother simply said,

“Maybe you should just get to Mexico…”

Click here to read more of my adventures at The Wanderess: Baja Bound by Campervan