“And if you look to your right, you’ll see the The Hitching Post, the restaurant where Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church met the woman who’d change their lives forever,” Richard, my tour guide, pointed out. The family of four Australians sitting behind me hoisted their cameras for a blurred picture as our converted party cum tour bus sped on. In the seat in front of me, the husband half of the middle-age Filipino couple, rounding out our group of seven, murmured with a vague familiarity, “Mmmm, Sideways.”
We were five hours into a day trip through wine country. I’d decided to take the trip on an impulse to get a break from Los Angeles. For the past few weeks, I’d fought the urge to take off running with just an overnight bag. To leave. To disappear. Each night, I Googled ticket prices to exotic sounding cities: Reykjavik. Madrid. Nashville.
My research always ended with me closing the numerous open travel tabs and opting for the mental vacation found in a book. I recommend the Joys of Motherhood by the recently deceased Buchi Emecheta, but it might make you consider getting your tubes tied. But the desire to get away lingered, and with it my anxiety about traveling alone. No Natalee Holloway, someone would surely hit my black ass up the side of my tapered fro, and there’d be no special CNN report or reenactment TV series about my disappearance.
Yet we need to face our fears head on, and I discovered my test of bravery in a three-stop tour of Santa Barbara, Solvang, and the Hearst Castle.
The picking up point for the tour bus was in front of the Farmer’s Market Starbucks — the modern-day frontier outpost for those in search of supplies and diabetes frappuccinos. It was one of those things where you aren’t sure if you’re in the right place, but when you see six other people idling in an empty parking lot at six in the morning, you just know. Nodding politely to my fellow confused travelers, we waited for our carriage to arrive.
Traffic in LA on a Saturday morning is the stuff of a sex fantasy, and Richard and our driver — also inexplicably named “Richard” — guided us with ease out of the desert hell hole. The only hesitation was when we approached Calabasas. “OK folks, looks like we’re running into a roadblock. A Kardashian’s out for her morning latte,” Richard One joked. The Australian patriarch wanted to know many Kardashians actually exist. The Filipinos weren’t sure if the Jenners counted. “They don’t,” I assured them, although I was half-embarrassed at myself for actually knowing. Eventually, we arrived in Santa Barbara.
Our stop in the city was at the Old Mission Church. It was first built in the late 18th century, and remnants from its early days still remained. Richard One pointed out a stone fountain dedicated to the first Jesuit friars who governed the diocese. Across the courtyard was a wide, rectangular basin. An inscription on its side dated it to the early 1800s. “The lavanderia. That’s where the Indians would come to wash their clothes,” Richard One explained. “They were very grateful to the priests.”
“What a fascinating word ‘grateful’ is,” I thought, as I watched the Australians take selfies by the lavanderia. It connotes power and a benevolence to the holder of that authority. A savior. I wondered how the Native Americans — the Chumash tribe — had kept themselves clean before coming into contact with the immaculate grace of the Spaniards and their Catholicism. They probably had a space much larger than a basin. But I didn’t have much time to think about it because soon Richard Two hurried us off to our second destination: Solvang, CA.
The journey to Solvang took us through what remained of the Chumash territory. “We our now leaving America and entering Indian governance,” Richard ghoulishly announced. “Don’t break any laws, or we’ll be pulled in front of their tribunal.” Worried gasps and gulps erupted from the Australians.
Back in 2002, the Chumash were one of many tribal groups who benefitted from Supreme Court rulings about U.S. government theft of native lands. Although, SCOTUS ruled in favor of the tribes, the Feds weren’t going to give back the original territory. Yet tribes like the Chumash could have their own jurisdiction and laws in addition to not having to pay federal taxes. Yet Richard One pointed out, this didn’t exempt them from a second battle with state governments. The Chumash are currently in court with the state of California over taxes on land development. However, they do have a tax-free casino which was the last thing we saw before being transported to the set of Beauty and the Beast aka Solvang.
Solvang is a little curio of a town modeled after an old-timey Danish village. In fact, real Danish immigrants established the town after purchasing it from the Catholic Church — the land’s purveyors who’d outlasted Spanish colonization, Mexico’s independence, and the United States’ Manifest Destiny annexation of California. Getting off the party bus, I noted that the town’s biggest attractions seemed to be windmills, Kringle, and wineries that were blissfully open at 10 am for me to do a tasting (get tipsy at 10 am).
But the wine couldn’t shake off the unsettling feeling I had. I wanted to feel relaxed and proud that I was exploring the world in a way I didn’t do growing up. My family vacations as a child were spent visiting relatives in New York and D.C., sleeping in their dens, and fighting for a spot in front of a fan. Each fall, I dreaded that first assignment that teacher lazily handed out because they were still to hungover from the breaks: “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” Telling my classmates about getting my skin stuck on my grandmother’s plastic couch cover while watching grainy, antenna reception of Ricki Lake didn’t sound appealing. No, I was supposed to be relaxed. I had a right to be.
To calm myself, I did my favorite anxiety exercise, counting the other black people around me. I do this to see how many people might help me in an emergency; white supremacy and I have trust issues. I reached 2.5 (I ran into a biracial woman who was equally happy to see me) before I saw a familiar face, one of my classmates from USC. He was there with his wife and son for a birthday weekend getaway. I wanted to tell him about the weird, silly, wondrous feeling of seeing another black person in a place where not long ago we wouldn’t be welcomed. Instead, I asked about his latest film before catching up with my tour group. It was time to head to the final stop, Hearst Castle.
Citizen Kane, the film that many people argue is the best ever made, is said to be based on the life William Randolph Hearst. And if you ever visit Hearst Castle, you’ll realize the film is only the tip of the iceberg of the man’s narcissism. The castle is really a series of mansions built around an even bigger mansion, all surrounded by 250,000 acres of land that is now a state park. To reach them, our group had to ride a bus up a winding hill as Alex Trebek’s disembodied voice narrated the castle’s history. But Alex Trebek failed to describe how the castle achieves a level of monstrous, architectural photoshop by marrying ancient Egyptian art, Dark Ages Flemish tapestries, Roman murals, and Spanish cathedral designs. Passing the outdoor pool lined with 10th-century ivory columns shipped from Greece, I imagined Jared Leto and Chloe Sevigny fighting over a designer cape inspired by the art anachronism.
After the tour through the main building, in which we saw where Hearst and his mistress held parties for their Hollywood friends, we were allowed to explore the grounds. I separated from the group to see the view of the countryside on one of the many verandas. From my perch, I could just make out a herd of the Hearst prized cattle mingling with some zebras — yes, zebras — the descendants of the animals that were once part of Hearst’s private zoo. They grazed grass so vibrantly green, I was afraid to blink, thinking I would forget it. Beyond it was the ocean, an eery mist floating above it. Waves beckoned, knocking against the land. They mirrored the discomfort I felt earlier: the push and pull of wanting access to a space denied to you but with an invitation bought on suffering. But I pushed it away. In that moment, I decided to embrace a dream. That land maybe wasn’t made for me, but for an afternoon at least I was gonna stake my claim.
Richard Two took a detour on our trip back to the city. There was a nature reserve along the coast, just outside of Cambria. Like Hearst Castle, it was a part of the California State Park system. My tour companions and I braved the icy, high winds for a peak at the park’s inhabitants: several dozen elephant seals. They were chilling on the beach, digging themselves into the warmth of the sand. Occasionally, they’d jostle against each other’s flesh and release indignant barks. They had a slight odor of rotting fish. Their skin looked like scuffed naugahyde. They were beautiful.
Finally, Richard One pulled us a way; he had a schedule to keep and a bevy of corny jokes to tell. Our bus approached looming metal hulks anchored a football field away from shoreline. “Those are oil rigs,” Richard One said. “Two years ago there was a nasty oil spill that they’re still cleaning up. What a shame.” Humans don’t deserve this planet.