As a winner of our 2015 Travel Writing Scholarship, Neel traveled to the U.S. to explore this confounding and captivating melting pot.
One week after I left Big Sur, a Brazilian tourist angrily asked me to explain Big Sur to her. What is it? she asked, I kept driving and driving, looking for this Big Sur, but all I found was this lodge where I had lunch! Big Sur, I think, has to be experienced to be understood. It defies definition, refusing to fit neatly into any category of place: the rolling hills, dense trees, and dramatic coastline might suggest a national park, but the loose collection of houses, lodges, and other assorted buildings in the area are evidence to the contrary. Yet it is not quite a town or even a village, either. Big Sur is an idea - or, depending on whom you ask, an ideal.
Experiencing Big Sur requires slowing down, and it provides ample reason to do so. I found myself stopping my car every few minutes so I could simply sit on the edge of a cliff and take in the view, while the hand-painted wood signs that appear every so often advertise more reasons – both manmade and natural - to stop. Slowing down is almost involuntary here: the single-lane Pacific Coast Highway often disappears in clouds of fog and kisses the edges of cliffs as it twists and turns through Big Sur, forcing motorists to reduce speed. Big Sur even tries to force visitors to put their devices away: cell service is nonexistent and the Wi-Fi found in restaurants and lodges along the way is spotty, as though the locals only begrudgingly agreed to make that concession to the smartphone age. When a place tries so hard to make visitors slow down and unplug, perhaps it is best to listen.
What you have to remember, said Steve, my instructor, is that you have 15 seconds to ride that wave to the beach. People from the east coast are always rushing around, but you have to slow down, take your time, and stand up when it feels right. And that can apply to life in general too, you know?I nodded along. From where I was sitting, on a surfboard in the water off San Diego's Pacific Beach, I could see no reason to rush anywhere. I understood why surfers – and the people of San Diego – always seem so laid-back: it’s difficult to be stressed on a surfboard. A wave hit, carrying me towards the beach. I waited for five long seconds, and finally I stood up, only to fall off my board three seconds later. But I wasn't upset; tugging on the cord attached to my ankle, I pulled my board back to me. Another wave would come along sooner or later.
Two miles outside Santa Barbara, the Pacific Coast Highway went from idyllic ocean-side motorway to hundred-mile-long traffic jam. I found myself boxed in, surrounded on all sides by honking cars and impatient drivers. This, I eventually realized, was Los Angeles welcoming me. To experience Los Angeles is to experience traffic. The public transit system, while extensive, has only recently started to gain popularity with the people of LA, and most of the city’s residents simply drive everywhere they go. The end result is a city whose streets are choked with cars and drivers who exist in a state of perpetual frustration as they wait out traffic jams that are notorious nationwide. I quickly learned that no matter how far my destination in LA, it was safe to assume my drive would take at least 45 minutes. This, however, was the only thing I would learn quickly about LA.
As I inched my way down Sunset Boulevard towards my hotel in Hollywood, I couldn’t help but think every building looked past its prime, the faded signs and neon lights harkening to a more glamorous past, the attractions hollow shells that are simply propped up for tourists’ benefit. Hollywood today isn’t the same Hollywood that filled the dreams of so many young hopefuls in the Golden Age, and it’s clear that LA has moved on. I caught a few whiffs of the true character of the city over the few days I spent in it, particularly as I got further away from Hollywood, but I left with the feeling that I only barely managed to scratch the surface. Los Angeles, like its traffic, demands both patience and time.