I drove down to Menlo Park yesterday, as I do now every week, once a week, to take care of my regular physical therapy, and therapy appointments. Therapists of any kind – much like hair stylists – are not people you can just swap out of your life willy nilly so is driving 250 miles round trip once a week fucking bonkers? Yes, but also demonstrably no and I just have to live my life.
Also, 3 hours one way in the car driving down a coastal highway through redwoods and dairy farms and vineyards leaves a lot of time to think about all the reasons why you’re now living in a remote part of the coast of California that is hours away from nowhere and any town larger than about 7,000 people.
So on this long drive I was thinking about the name of this blog, and why something I pulled out of my brain as a 28 year old grad student now feels almost more important and applicable to the life I’m living right now, 10 years later, in a tiny town on the edge of the pacific. When I started SideStreet, is was really just going to be a medium to communicate back to people in the states what my life in Malawi looked like – I thought of it as a travel blog (which now feels naive and embarrassing and as a former aid worker, let this be the last time we ever describe or discuss it in that way again).
What I wanted to convey was that feeling you get when you stumble upon something new, in a different place, as a stranger or a foreigner or whoever you might be. When I started traveling – I mean really traveling alone as an adult – it was 2003 and the internet and cell phones were barely a thing. The iPod did not exist, let alone a handheld computer with a camera that we now call a phone. My cell phone at the time was a Nokia (the fancy one with a flashlight, I’m not a savage) that by contemporary standards was about the size of a vaping device and was useful only for texting, finding things in the dark, and playing snake. When I left for Bolivia in January of that year I got on the plane with a backpacking pack, a Panasonic “shock proof” CD Walkman, 12 carefully curated CDs, a film camera (real film!) and two Lonely Planet guides: Bolivia and South America. Those last two are important because as anyone older than 35 might recall at the time, there wasn’t a lot of reliable information on the internet about places to see, stay, eat, or how to get there and particularly for a country like Bolivia, having a consistent internet connection was barely a thing. You relied on what was in that lonely planet book and the notes you took from the advice of other travelers you met along the way.
And you know what that advice nearly always had in common? Stay off the main drag. Hit the alleyways. Wander your way up the hill. Explore the side streets because that’s where the real treasures – the discoveries that make it feel like your heart might explode from the the mere magic of stumbling upon the beautiful ordinary of a city’s every day life – are hiding in plain sight. The ceviche place in La Paz that I cannot show you on a map but can only get to by memory on foot in that city. The morning I got lost near the cathedral and turned a corner into the weekend flower market where baskets overflowing with white and yellow flowers, and vendors selling coca leaves by the pound filled up almost a entire cobblestoned hill. The hostel that looked like a cross between Tatooine and Casablanca on the edge of the lake run by a crazy German guy that served the best trout filet I’ve ever had in my life. The memory of laying on a boulder at 15,000 ft in the Dali desert holding my friend Alyson’s hand and knowing that taking a photo would never capture the joy of feeling so small in such a vast, never ending space – that is a physical memory that can only exist in your body and in your heart.
The main streets will try to capitalize on all of that. They will try desperately to communicate through flashy ads and loud music that THIS IS THE PLACE! The Hard Rock Cafe is the true character of this town. United Colors of Benetton have captured the nature and culture of this city scene. They will try, but no matter where you are in the world, it is always a frenetic farse, a poor imitation of something original and grand. Broadway in Nashville. Market Street in San Francisco. The red light district in Amsterdam. The Prado in La Paz. At its best it’s all just an amalgamation of mediocrity, a sea of buzzing neon reds and pinks and greens trying desperately to convince you that it has something new and different to offer, to trick you into feeling as though you have found something special and to draw you away from the rest of the city that is extraordinary in its ordinary-ness. What you see is bright and loud and screaming in neon, but the only thing you feel inside is an endless sea of beige.
One of the questions I keep getting from friends and some family members is, why Fort Bragg? The insinuation in that question runs the gamut from “why the fuck would you want to live THERE” to “are you having a nervous breakdown?”. The simple answer is that I needed to get away, far enough away and out of my comfort zone to get some perspective not only on the deterioration of this relationship that I thought at one point I would be in forever, but to take stock about what my life looks like naked, as it were. Without a relationship, without a job, without the baby I thought I would have right now, to define me.
That, and trying to find affordable housing in the Bay Area in 2019 is like being an unwitting actor in a terrible dark comedy that went straight to DVD and no one has the energy for that kind of d-listed garbage. And so if I had to move, and it wasn’t going to be San Francisco-adjacent, well then fuck everything I am going to live in a forest near the sea.
Fort Bragg is not a place where people from the Bay Area go. It is so far away and so removed from the day-to-day hustle of SF and Oakland and Silicon Valley that it almost doesn’t exist at all. It is, for all intents and purposes, not a destination along the main drag. No bright lights, no neon signs urging you to buy trinkets or to even stop for that matter. It is a side street. It is the place you end up because someone told you once that Glass Beach is beautiful. Or that taco Tuesday’s at North Coast Brewing are worth checking out. Or that the city in all of its transition and identity crisis between a once-upon-a-time logging boomtown to just a regular place dealing with pot and poverty and daily life, is still beautiful and vibrant and teeming with a tender realness that big city dwellers simply can no longer connect with because it makes so little sense in contrast to their own intensely urban lives.
But it made sense to me. I walked a metaphorical Main Street for a long while – for years – waiting for the moment where I would finally feel settled, like I had found where I was meant to be. But somewhere in the act of looking for that place I derailed my own nature and needs. I managed to – in all of those tiny daily incremental decisions – to deny who I was. I cannot grow or thrive under Budweiser signs and tubes of artificial light because few things ever can. And maybe that’s why the idea of being a stranger in a strange land in a town I didn’t know felt like relief instead of fear.
In the midst of this massive, unexpected life pivot in which I now find myself, trying to figure out what I do next, or who I am now, without all these labels or ideas that I tried so hard to make work but was not able to make stick, I needed to get off the main road. It is the only place, really, where it felt right to just be, away from the neon beige of everything 130 miles south. In a cabin in the woods. With a tiny dog. Walking the beach. And staring out to the bright blue sea.