Last Night in California

After a very early morning visit to the Starbucks near the home I'd been staying in, I beat a hasty, giddy, relieved retreat toward the Redwoods. My latest house sit was behind me and I was looking at 4 days on the road, in a different place every night. When I think back to the early days of this trip and my deep need for at least 2 consecutive nights in a place, I can laugh, realizing how much more flexible I am, how settled into the flow of this traveling life. Two weeks in one place was rough.

I drove through San Francisco and up past Petaluma, remembering the velvety hills around Point Reyes. I chose back roads as much as possible, aiming to reach Occidental and Hinterland by the time they opened their doors. I climbed past canyons, switchbacking through view after view of the valley and finally, into enormous stands of Redwoods.

I cooled my heels in Occidental, eating popcorn and cookies for breakfast, popping into Hinterland when they opened for a shirt and some tree beats for my car. I have followed Hinterland on Instagram for a couple of years; their adventurous, take-no-prisoners spirit really spoke to me when this trip was still just a tickle in the back of my mind.

My next stop was Fort Bragg and Glass Beach. There's a long, winding walk along the clifftop that was pretty fogged in. The signs and fences asking people to stay off of the crumbling cliffs didn't seem to deter anyone from photo ops near the edge. Squirrels foraged for lunch among the wild poppies with little concern about people as ravens and gulls called overhead.

Eventually, I wandered over to the famous glass beach, the former site of a city dump, and now a major tourist attraction. I met a woman who said that a decade ago the place was piled high with sea glass, but that it's been depleted with so many visitors and because it's so easy to access. I collected a few small pieces of green and clear glass, only realizing miles and days away that the glass is not supposed to be taken off the beach. Whoops.

By early afternoon I was back on the road, pushing hard to get to Arcata before sundown. Still, I followed the Avenue of the Giants all the way, fighting Google's insistence that we get back to 101 and make up some time.

It's difficult to describe the Redwoods. Yes, they're enormous, but it's deeper than that. When you pull over and stand next to them (and sometimes inside them), you can feel them pulling at you. They're heavy and tall, serious trees with an aura of peace and strength. I struggle to find ways to illustrate how small I feel, and yet, how completely welcome. They are quiet, but incredibly alive. They smell like the trees should smell - of earth and sky, and they touch both.

After stopping many times to listen to the trees and watch the river tumble over rocks, I gave in to Google and made tracks to Arcata, where I settled into my last night in California.

Captain Whinypants Goes to Watsonville

Let me tell you how to kick your own whiny, tired, cranky ass. Get up. Make and inhale coffee. Give yourself 5 minutes to sniff, snuffle, pout, mutter, and snivel. Walk the dog (and be kind, it's not her fault that you're cranky), then take a shower. Get in the car, give yourself a stern talking to, and drive off to a town you would never have thought to visit except that part of your responsibility on this trip is to fulfill the tiny dreams of others in small, cold, snowy Northeastern towns.

Go to your friend's cousin's coffee shop and drink a cup of brew so strong and good that it causes you to levitate. Go find a gas station and put more gas in the car.

Find a good beach and walk yourself until you're all better. Discover that this is the beach for sand dollars. All the sand dollars. Collect some. Breathe deeply. Do a little skip. Dip your toes in the water. Watch some ladies painting the ocean and the cliffs.

Spend a long time trying to decide whether the flowers that carpet the cliffs look more like the sun or fried eggs. Dig your toes into the sand and push off quickly. Do some more skips.

Go home and walk the dog. All better.

Filoli

One of my happiest afternoons in San Jose was spent at Filoli, a huge estate with 16 acres of gardens and a beautiful home which are open to the public. Seeing 3 deer close to the driveway as I made my way toward the entrance boded well, and the house and grounds did not disappoint. Around every corner was another spot that felt more beautiful than the last. My camera died fairly early on, so I relied on my cell phone for most of my photos and made a mental note to keep better track of my battery situation; this was not a place in which you want to be without a camera! After rambling around Filoli for a couple of hours I made my way back to San Jose the long way, through the twisty tiny roads of the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve. The wild abandon of the green, mossy, dripping woods felt like the perfect balance to Filoli's formal grandeur.

Santa Cruz

Cyrena rescued me with another long day out, this time in the Santa Cruz area. I drove up and over a small, windy pass and down toward Cyrena's childhood home on a grey, cold, rainy morning, dreaming about promised baked goods from Companion Bakeshop.

Once we picked up some breakfast we headed for the water and watched surfers for a bit outside the Surfing Museum. Then we headed down the road to Natural Bridges State Beach, where we took in the sights over the fence instead of heading down to the sand because it was still pretty windy and cold.

The next stop was Wilder Ranch State Park, which is still a working ranch with a few animals near the water. The buildings are beautiful and well maintained. It was here that the sun made a valiant effort and came out fully, increasing my happiness level quickly.

We drove up into the hills to check out the UC Santa Cruz campus, which is many, many acres of redwoods and cow pastures, with about a dozen small colleges tucked here and there into the trees. The emphasis there was definitely on the outdoors.

We headed off to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to ogle the trees and sniff the cool piney air. We saw a massive banana slug and a herd of deer (much needed sighting by Cyrena!)

We headed to Davenport Roadhouse for lunch, where the food was decent and the service was as slow as molasses. After lunch we went to the aptly named Shark Fin Cove, a highly Instagrammed and breathtaking spot just over some train tracks and down a precipitous trail to the beach.

After clambering back up to the top and walking along the clifftop for a bit, we headed back into town and called it a day. A very, very good day.

Sunol Regional Wilderness

One of the spots I checked out during my stay in San Jose was Sunol Regional Wilderness. The drive was long enough to catch up on my audio book and the park was relatively easy to find, though there was a lot of construction going on and the road was barely 2 lanes. Once Jazzy and I made it past that obstacle, we quickly found a path and headed into the trees, along a hugely swollen river, and eventually into the hills, where cows graze and hikers hike. The trails were really steep and reminded me of exactly how much (too much) sitting I've been doing lately. The views at the top were well worth the climb, though, velvety green hills stretching out as far as the eye could see.

 

California is Getting Old

If you look at my Instagram feed from the time I spent in San Jose, it looks pretty sweet. However, I allowed my view of the place to be colored by a description of it given to me by someone I had just met, and ended up feeling pretty miserable most of the time. Mostly, it was that I arrived there for a 2-week house sit when what I really wanted was to leave California. By that time, I'd been in the Bay Area for a few weeks and I was itching to be on the move again.

Instead, I was watching over a sweet, old dog and a handful of feral, semi-feral, and tame cats in a cozy little neighborhood. In hindsight, I made a lot of errors at the beginning of my stay there (mostly just not being myself, following my heart, and remaining committed to adventuring, you know, minor stuff), which ultimately led to a lot of feeling and acting whiny about being there, feeling stuck, and a crushing inability to get my head out of my backside and really find things to enjoy. This is part of being human, and specifically, me, which I battle less and less these days, thankfully. A lot of these two weeks were a flop, but I did rally, making the effort to get out and see some of things Silicon Valley has to offer.

With a terrible internet connection that made online work unreliable and frustrating, I was unable to catch up with this space unless I spent a lot of time babysitting uploads, hoping that the connection wouldn't drop, which it did frequently.

Every day began with feeding all of the animals in various places throughout the house and garden, opening the garden gate and the tiny greenhouse, and then making drip coffee before settling into some reading.

I walked Jazzy twice a day, following roughly the same route, which over time showed me little secrets, like a budding flower leaning over a wall, a tiny fountain in someone's yard, and lemons getting closer to ripe every day. Once I started listening to podcasts on our walks, my mood improved significantly and our walks felt more like a meander than a checklist item.

On the days I got out for an adventure I had a great time. The natural areas around San Jose are gorgeous and easy to access if you don't mind a little driving. One day I even made it to the Google campus to participate in a volunteer event for Feeding Children Everywhere, which really got me out of my head and thinking about the rest of the world, a very rewarding afternoon. 

`

I visited Alviso Marina County Park one day and had a long, blustery walk while watching dozens of different kinds of birds.

I messed around in my sketchbook more than I have in several weeks and ended up putting together some chopped poetry from old letters that I wrote in my early 20s (oh, the never-ending DRAMA!), which were sent to my friend Amanda and returned to me in Atlanta, like a delayed diary. Messing around with paint and words felt good and definitely channeled some of the angst into good outcomes.

One of the most exciting little things was the beautiful personalized scratch map that I ordered from Kristin Douglas Art. As soon as it arrived I sat down and scratched off all of the states I've been through, which was deeply satisfying!

On my last day I got to meet back up with Miss Lady Luna, the dog from my very first house sit in Florida. Her family relocated to San Jose at the beginning of the year, so I spent an afternoon catching up. It was so good to see them all!

More San Francisco

During the next couple of days, Kristi took me over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the appropriately happy Robin Williams Tunnel, and into Sausalito. We drove into the Marin Headlands and stopped at an old bunker to check out the bridge from a higher vantage point. We drove down the completely ridiculous Lombard Street, past Fisherman's Wharf, and into Chinatown. On the way we saw a Banksy high up on the side of a building. We went by the lavishly lit City Hall twice because it was so amazing, took in The Castro, and visited Coit Tower, which provided a gorgeous view of the city lit up like a jewel box.

Kristi is a non-stop storyteller; over 3 days I built my own impressions of San Francisco, overlaid with a map of her ongoing love story with the city. It was the best sort of immersion into a new place. I'll definitely be back.

San Francisco & Mr. Harbour Hayes

I took care of a little dog in San Francisco for a weekend, Mr. Harbour Hayes. I fell in love with this little guy! My car stayed in the magical unicorn parking spot at Kristi's house and she gave her weekend over to me, driving my car into the city, picking me up, and showing me around over 3 days. We did and saw so much that I'm splitting this into a couple of posts. On the first day we hit the Painted Ladies, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park (windmills!), the Wave Organ, the Academy of Sciences, and buzzed through the Haight.

Point Reyes Field Trip

While I was in Petaluma for a few days, I met up with my friend Cyrena for a field trip to Point Reyes. We met at Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station where I got two of the most delicious gluten free muffins I've had in a long time. The place was mobbed with bicyclists and motorcyclists all lounging around in the sun, drinking coffee and catching up. The line was out the door, but moved really fast - the staff there is totally on their game.

We went to the Instagram-famous Point Reyes shipwreck, which some idiot partially burned while getting their cool shot. It's still super cool, though, and worth a visit.

We drove the tiny, winding roads down toward the Point Reyes lighthouse, stopping to admire the cows along the way, who were completely uninterested in us. At the visitor center we hopped on a giant rainbow bus to get down to the lighthouse drop-off. There's parking, but it's now closed, so you pay a fee and get a ride, complete with some chatter from the driver, which turned out to be really nice. We saw a whole lot of deer, elk, more cows, and a burrowing owl along the way.

We walked out to the lighthouse and then down 308 steps. The lighthouse is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking crashing breakers; it's desolate and peaceful.

We hopped back on the rainbow bus and went to see the elephant seals, which were smack in the middle of their breeding season. There were volunteer docents all over the place, providing education to all of us gawking over the fence at what looked like a pile of slugs until you used the telescopes provided for the day. There was a pair mating on the beach, and after hearing the docent's description of the general process, I'm glad we couldn't see much. The craziest thing was how much bigger the males are than the females, but the docent assured us that the females can decline to mate and that the males are respectful of that.

We walked down the road to see a smaller group of seals, all moms with pups, except for one male who was being completely shunned by all of the snoozing, nursing ladies.

Our last stop was the Cypress Tree Tunnel. There were wedding photos happening at the end, so we just stopped at the top, but it was a great end to a long, wonderful day.

Good Company & Good Eats

I write all of these posts on the fly, trying really hard to spell check before sending them off into the wilds of the internets, but the last 10 days have found me grinding my teeth with frustration as I lose post after post to the vagaries of the internet, which is not as strong and reliable as one might think, considering my current living situation is in extremely close proximity to Silicon Valley. Today I'm lucky to have enough juice to get these photos up and out, and hopefully a little writing too.

Before and after house sits in Petaluma and San Francisco I was lucky to have an open invitation to stay with my childhood friend, Kristi. We grew up in the same town and went to school together through 8th grade, then parted company for different high schools. This is where Facebook wins, because there's no way we would have found each other again without that evil genius. If it's possible, Kristi is even more herself these days, distilled into a fiery, opinionated, hilarious, fiercely loving person capable of producing astoundingly good food and good times, seemingly out of nothing. Pro tip: when traveling, stay with a trained chef whenever possible. I've done it twice now. You won't be sorry.

Getting to Albany involved driving through an endless car wash-like situation, stopping at weird beaches with dead seals and a lot of broccoli as the flotsam-and-jetsam-of-the-day and other really nice bluffs where I met a couple from Portsmouth, NH, who were really, really hoping that the rain would ease up for their one week vacation. There was black sand, hot chocolate, and lots of bridges. There was, miracle of miracles, a dedicated parking spot at Kristi's.

Aside from the house sits, I took a couple of day trips, trying to stay out of Kristi's hair and also see the area. I drove to Agate Beach in Bolinas after driving over the Panoramic Highway, through the Muir Woods National Monument and Mt. Tamalpais State Park. I also stopped at Stinson Beach, which was freezing cold and gorgeous.

With Kristi, I walked high up into a eucalyptus grove above her house and also climbed up onto Indian Rock to watch the sun set over the bay. We visited grocery stores stuffed full of bright, fresh food and ate some of the best Thai food I've ever had at Bua Luang Thai in Albany.

Part of my time in Albany was spent figuring out my living situation in the PNW, which in turn led to me accepting a job in Seattle for a few days, and then discovering that not only did the home owner, Jill, grow up in the same town as Kristi and me, but that Kristi's dad built the house that Jill grew up in. The world keeps getting smaller and smaller - I can't wait to meet Jill in a few weeks!

Catching back up with Kristi was one of the best parts of my trip. I'm grateful that we've reconnected and that I now have a solid friendship with her all of these years later. She took really, really good care of me while I was in Albany, including being my chauffeur and tour guide in San Francisco, but we'll save that for another day, because there's simply too much to tell.

Peaceful Petaluma

Petaluma was exactly what I needed, right when I needed it. Thinking of my few days there seems like a dream now. The house I stayed in was a beautiful, old place being slowly restored by a completely interesting couple. I stayed with their dog LeRoi, wandering around town on my own, throwing increasingly bigger sticks for LeRoi at Dillon Beach, driving up, over, and around rolling green hills, and gazing out the window, thinking about nothing in particular. The place just felt good. The surrounding countryside is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The town is walkable and has just enough going on to keep it interesting over several days. Area beaches are clean, accessible, and not crowded. I was happy there and I miss it.

Oh, Hey, Monterey

In one drop of water are found the secrets of all the endless oceans.
— Kahlil Gibran

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is no joke. I first visited two years ago with my friend Katie and I've been dreaming about it ever since. This is one of those places for which you set aside a chunk of change; between the entrance fee and lunch in the very good cafe, a visit here will blow any road trip daily budget out of the water. However, it's absolutely worth it.

For the most part, the layout of the aquarium allows you to view exhibits without being crowded by other visitors. I spent a long time watching a school of sardines swirl around and around in an ever-changing ballet of predator avoidance. I visited the starfish, including the small fuzzy ones that hang out in towering piles, circled by yellow fish searching for crumbs. There is also a large pool you can reach into and feel Manta Rays slide beneath your palm, which is completely mesmerizing.

There are a couple of clear wave tanks that you can access from the massive outdoor patio or walk partially into from the inside of the building. Kelp floats back and forth in the man-made tide while fish swim in the lower portions as the water cascades overhead.

The octopus wasn't interested in visitors on this visit and I wondered if it was the same one as last time. I read The Soul of an Octopus last year and had a moment of wondering how this incredibly intelligent creature was faring in the tank, if it has connected with its caretakers in the same way those in the book did. I hope so.

I spent a long time in the jellyfish exhibit, especially in front of my favorites, the Egg Yolk jellies; I could watch them move around for hours. Once again, I was puzzled by how they can all hang out together and not get completely snarled up in a big rat's nest of tentacles. One of life's great mysteries that I'm not sure I want the answer to - it's fun to turn over in my mind.

Eventually I made my way to Salinas to meet up with my friend Callee and her son Keenan at Salinas City BBQ. It was the first time I met Callee in person and she was every bit as wonderful, warm, and funny as I had expected. I've been following her on Instagram (@calistalee) and reading her blog, A Fettle Fine Thyme since I discovered her through my friends Katie and Molly on my last trip to California.

I was really feeling the relentlessly rainy weather and wasn't my regular self, but spending an hour with Callee and Keenan lifted my spirits considerably. Evenings like this are the bright side of social media, for sure!

In the morning I woke up to yet more fog and began the drive to Albany in a sort of magical blankness. I kept pulling over to take photographs, repeatedly passed by commuters none too pleased with my slow pace. For those of you keeping score, I don't miss having a job yet.

Cheap Hotels & Endless Beauty

In the 3 days after I left Palm Springs, I stayed at a new super cheap hotel each night as I quickly made my way toward the Bay Area via Indio, Ventura, and San Simeon. While I've generally had good luck on this trip with inexpensive places, my run was clearly over.

In Indio, the hotel manager, apparently tipsy, used his key to open the room door next to mine at 10 pm, believing it was empty and that he could sleep there. The irate gentleman occupying it set him straight and learned a valuable lesson about using deadbolts.

The manager banged on my door to see if it was empty or not. He apologized profusely and went on his merry way after we both yelled. I shoved a chair under the door handle just in case.

In Ventura I slept in a straight-up ashtray. I am not a germaphobe in the least, but this place was absolutely vile. I'll leave it there [insert full body shudder]. I didn't feel unsafe in either place, just annoyed and completely disgusted.

In San Simeon I stayed in a clean, tidy, thoroughly bleached establishment that cost $20 less than the other 2 and felt like a palace. The guy cleaning rooms next door was yodeling love songs in Spanish and he was terrible, but he was happy, so I was happy.

Staying in terrible places for a couple of nights pushed me out into the early mornings, ready to go as the sun was rising, hungry for a view of the wide open sea, a stretch of green grass, anything to erase the creeping dread of a hotel room that couldn't be made to feel clean, never mind like a temporary home.

I ate breakfast and lunch perched on rocks in the rain and in the sun, peered over cliff ends to watch the waves crash below.

In the span of a couple of days I visited Surfers Point Beach, the Ventura Pier, Seacliff State Beach, El Capitan State Park, Morro Rock, Dinosaur Caves Park, the tiny town of Harmony,  miles and miles of farmland, and many smaller beaches.

Getting from Point A to Point B should always be done on secondary roads unless you have to get there right this minute. California's State Route 1 is well worth the time and effort. I've driven sections of it before and was so happy on this trip to have a chance to slow my pace and trace the switchbacks to each tiny town along the way to my next destination.

I was able to stop whenever I felt like it (every 15 minutes) to take photos, stretch my legs, explore a local beach or check out a town. Harmony was particularly charming; it's technically a town (population something like 15) and a bit of a tourist gimmick, but there is a dairy, a pottery, and skilled glass artisans, as well as beautiful gardens. I purchased some handmade marbles for my collection.

At San Simeon I was hoping to see the elephant seals, but the whole place was covered in a pea soup fog in the morning, so I puttered around on the beach for a bit before pointing my car toward Salinas on Route 101. I had to skip Big Sur because of ongoing damage and repair of landslides, and felt lucky to have seen it before.

Cactus Love

Even if you don't particularly care for cactus (I'm speaking here to people I can't even imagine might exist), you should go and visit the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium if you're ever in Palm Springs. I love, love, love cacti and this place just sent my imagination spinning. My camera nearly melted and then at the end, I got a shot of a hummingbird.

Turning North, Inviting Chaos

There was something about turning north that unsettled me deeply. The beginning of the end of this journey, complicated by a panicked desire to turn back and yet, an overwhelming homesickness for my dogs and my own bed drawing me toward Maine. All of this complicated more by finding a town I loved and then a dog in a city I loved even more and could barely stand to part with. There is the fear that my money will run out and I will not have a place to go, that I will have to hurry or miss things in order to get home before I have no choice.

In 2 weeks I'm heading into the mountains toward snow again, this time across valleys flooded by unusual rain. It is greener than green, lush, incredible. The rain comes down relentlessly most days, but there is sun too, much of the time. On many days it is lovely somehow, but sometimes I want to lie down on the ground and weep, letting the rain wash me away.

I invited chaos into my life a few weeks ago in the form of a class that is forcing me to look hard at decisions I'm making about my life and my health. I am seeing myself under a microscope, turning over those rocks I usually ignore. It's useful, painful, gut wrenching, good work. I have a new tribe because of it, a tribe I very much needed in my life. Still, tackling the dark bits while trying to create a small home for myself, a little, quiet piece of the world to call mine, over and over again before uprooting myself for the next place - it's so tiring right now.

Let me be clear. I welcome all of this. I'm moving in the right direction, but we all know there can't be light without dark. No trip out into the world is shiny and sweet all the time. To be out on the road is to ask the questions, knowing that the road will provide you with the answers you need, and not often with the answers you want.

I daydream about lying in my bed, watching the top of the tree in my friend's backyard, listening to the sound of her family, talking quietly with my dogs in the sunshine, watching the tiny garland I bought somewhere in New Mexico flutter in the breeze. I have started to think about what I might do when I return to Maine, but there's not much there yet. I'm not quite ready for what that might look like.

In all of this, I am still seeing and capturing simple, everyday beauty through the lens of my camera. I'm getting better, I think, as I go. I take fewer shots and get more satisfying results. Letting the darkness wash over me as it needs to allows me to see the happiness more clearly, with better focus. In those moments I am opening up, allowing possibility, curiosity, and joy. In those moments I am truly me.

 

The Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a 15- by 35-mile lake, most recently accidentally created by an engineering failure in the early 1900s; inflow from the Colorado River is normal, but by the turn of the last century the river was heavily controlled.

The sea has a higher saline content than the Pacific Ocean and a serious pollution problem, mainly from agricultural runoff, though efforts to reduce the influx of contaminants have been successful in recent years. It smells pretty ripe even after unusually high amounts of rain over the past year; much of the smell comes from the lake itself, but the dead fish every 2 to 3 feet don't help.

It is truly strange to drive through acres of date palms and citrus groves in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, only to come upon the sea, shining so brightly that it's hard to look at. From far away it brought The Mists of Avalon to mind - the far shore was shrouded in a sunlit mist, the water reflecting the sky so that it felt as though up was down and down was up.

There are birds everywhere, especially white pelicans, feeding on the hardy freshwater tilapia that can handle seriously high saline counts. The water at the edge of the sea is bubbly and murky, a primordial soup simmering in the high afternoon sun.

Without really thinking about it, I walked toward the water in flip flops, taking photographs and meandering along, stepping over dead fish. It was when I turned to head back to the parking lot that I took a closer look at the beach, which was made up of millions of sharp, little fish bones, crackling under my feet. As soon as I noticed, they began to sneak in between my sandals and feet and I had a minute of wondering if I would be stranded forever, in sight of my car, another skeleton on the murky shore.

Clearly, I survived. What a strange and mysterious place to visit, the antithesis of the few days I spent surrounded by so many people. It was solitary, quiet, and peaceful. Pungent too, but not completely unpleasant. A strange dream world, halfway between where I had been and where I was headed.

Dinosaurs, Bananas, & Salvation

I planned a heavily packed 3 days after AltSummit, knowing that however it went I would need the distraction of multiple stops and lots of driving to quickly get myself back into trip mode. First stop on the last afternoon of the conference? The famous Cabazon Dinosaurs. There's a brontosaurus and a T Rex in the parking lot, both towering over a Burger King and the entrance to a collection of smaller dinosaur statues and an animatronic display. The 3-story hike up through the T Rex to view the world through its teeth made the crazy expensive entry fee worth it.

After grabbing some lunch I moved on to The International Banana Museum, which was luckily open. I perused the world's largest collection of banana-related items before purchasing a banana change purse and some banana and blueberry Minion-themed Mike & Ike's for the road.

Down a long, rough, dusty road I found Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain baking in the mid-afternoon sun. Leonard found Jesus in the late 60s during a visit with his sister in California. His particular views on religion were not easily accepted by his community at home in Vermont, so he focused on less conventional ways of getting his message out, first building a giant hot air balloon, which ultimately failed. After he admitted defeat with the balloon he moved on to building the first of his mountains - his monument to God and love. His lifelong project is open to the public.

Salvation Mountain feels exactly like what it is: a labor of love, built with passion and energy focused on a single idea. Though there were a lot of people around, there was also a certain peace and stillness in the air and in the structure, especially the small shrine-like rooms built to the right of the larger mountain.

After climbing to the top I headed for my car and the Salton Sea.

Palm Springs: Altitude Summit

I hit Palm Springs 2 days before AltSummit started, spending my time puttering around in antique shops, dipping into the downtown area once, catching up on errands, and banking hours of sleep and quiet. I have been insanely curious about Alt for several years and bought a ticket on a whim after realizing it would be held in California around the time I planned to be there. It didn't hurt that it would be held at the Saguaro Hotel, an iconic property that is quite possibly the most colorful place I have had the pleasure to stay, ever.

Alt is not for the faint of heart. It is 3 full days of bright, shiny, happy, intense, networking and classes aimed at creatives, bloggers, entrepreneurs and social media influencers. With no particular job except wandering, house sitting, and this wee blog, I was free to skip all of the business-focused courses and spend all of my time listening to insanely inspirational talks on things like mentoring, creativity, balloons, books, being uncomfortable, the power of a good booty shaking dance, fear, honesty, party planning, and feminism.

I got to hear one of my personal heroes, Jihan Zencirli of Geronimo Balloons, give a heartfelt and truly funny talk about loving your internet troll. I have absolutely been living under a rock, because although I knew Luvvie Ajayi's name, I was clueless about her humorous, spot on observations about social media and culture. Her book was on my list to read, now it has rocketed to the top. Alison Faulkner of The Alison Show got me up and dancing with a roomful of people. It was not optional, but I would have done it anyway. John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love gave a great talk, but it was a chance meeting near the pool and a casual conversation about Instagram and travel that had us following each other before we wandered in different directions. This is a conference where the speakers are accessible and very often your peer, though a whole lot farther along in their business or blog. This is a way to give back, to lift up those of us coming along. It's a great model.

I brought the Traveling Unicorn Hat, of course, and 15 brave souls agreed to have their photo taken in it, which was 5 more than my goal. I went into this whole experience worried about feeling exhausted, wanting to hide, and not being able to make small talk. In the end, none of that mattered and none of it happened.

I met dozens of smart, interesting, creative women, all excited to talk and talk and talk, all bubbling over with ideas, collaborations popping up all over the place. I had an amazing roommate, Lexi Soukoreff of Daub + Design. She makes the most comfortable, beautiful leggings I have ever worn and is warm, friendly, and down to earth. I met Adrienne of Animal Cracker Studio and immediately took her on a mini road trip to visit a local stamp and greeting card company, during which we learned that we have a ridiculous amount in common, most particularly our slightly warped senses of humor. Through Adrienne I met Davon, Chief Effervescent Officer of The Bubbleista, who looked at my outstretched hand and gave me a huge, warm hug instead. These 3 became lifelong friends effortlessly.

At Alt I discovered a side of myself that I haven't seen in so long that it was nearly unrecognizable. I navigated a huge cocktail party, multiple classes and meals, impromptu meetings, and networking with an astonishing level of comfort. I saw my photography professionally framed and on display. I volunteered to model for a photographer. I spent a lunch hour being interviewed about fear and self care, offering to collaborate in the future. I got a whole lot closer to comfort with the whole "you should make this trip into a book" idea. I found room in myself to be silly, to laugh, to dance. I surprised myself over and over, in the best sorts of ways.

I had so much fun. I'm still feeding off the experience, so glad that I made the jump, took the risk, said yes to all the things. Signing up for this conference felt like a bigger risk than most parts of this trip. It turned out to be one of the very best decisions I've made.

Mojave National Reserve

I woke up on the right side of the bed, which made my trip to the Mojave Preserve very enjoyable. I got up early and headed for Kelso Depot, a beautifully restored former train station that now houses a gallery and visitor center. After an uninspiring talk with a ranger who was clearly just phoning it in (definitely not part of the AltNPS crowd), who told me that I didn't want to go visit Hole-in-the-Wall because it was 60 miles away, I accepted the unspoken challenge and hit the road, full of indignant we'll-see-about-that's.

On the way though, I had to stop at Kelso Dunes, which I had passed on the way to the depot. I didn't have time to climb to the top, but it's a place I'll return to at some point, because it is seriously enormous. As I was driving toward it I kept wondering why this particular mountain looked so different from the others around it, finally realizing that it was a towering pile of sand on a scale I'd never seen before.

There was creosote bush all over the place. It looks sparse at the edge of the road, but blends together into a shimmering wash of color as it merges with distant foothills. Yucca dots the landscape at regular intervals. You can tell that you've moved from the Joshua Tree ecosystem into the Mojave because of the switch from Joshua Trees to various types of yucca.

I made it to Hole-in-the-Wall by mid-afternoon and spent some time soaking in the glowing hillside grasses. The rock is very soft, so there are rocks with small holes all over the place. The ranger at this center was much more engaging and clearly loved his work. I eavesdropped as he spoke with a couple camping nearby.

Sunset found me back in the town of Joshua Tree, preparing to move on to a couple of nights in Palm Springs. Ready or not, I was about to leap into a completely different world and I was having a major case of nerves.

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is gorgeous. However, some combination of temperatures hovering in the high 30s, a high wind warning (they were not kidding), and dozens of "Oh, you are going to LOVE Joshua Tree! It's AMAZING!" comments over the last few months led to a lukewarm reception on my part. The cooler something is, the more resistant I become. I think I just had an off day and was feeling over-saturated with beautiful things to look at (serious first world problems), leaving my friends in Santa Monica, and nerves about the upcoming AltSummit conference in Palm Springs. Still, I persevered and in the end was happy to have spent my day cruising the park, skipping things like Skull Rock in favor of Keys View, where I was very nearly blown off the top of the mountain. Suffice to say, this place is high on my list of spots to revisit in warmer weather and perhaps someone to hike with.