My first time in LA and beyond

Apparently I have a talent for taking vacations with nearly no downtime and cramming as much as possible into very few days. This time I also found a partner in crime who exactly matched my zeal for last minute travel plans, usually prefaced by “we’ll figure it out.” Each turn in activity pretty much consisted of beating our bodies by participating in crazy sports, but ended up with an amazing satisfied feeling of what we accomplished.

My trip to LA began with a snafoo of missing the original flight we reserved, just because we didn’t check in early. Although it was frustrating, I kept my calm and took the advantage of Alaska Airlines’ holiday-relaxed attitude when they re-booked us on a later flight to an even better airport, all without any fees. “Merry Christmas,” they said, smiling.

We ended up with a relaxed lunch and quick flight to the Burbank Airport, with sunny 60 degree LA weather waiting for us on the other end. I realized how much I had missed the sun, because the first thing I did was get off the plane and greet the Earth’s star with a huge grin. People probably thought I was nuts.

After getting picked up, we headed straight to Griffith park through a melee of sun-spoiled California drivers. Although I had been previously warned that LA’s suburban crawl is unparalleled, I couldn’t stop gawking at its reality. Even in Washington DC suburbia, there are distinct sections and named areas separated more obviously by vegetation. Here, it was just street after street, criss-crossing randomly, highway after highway. I was just glad I wasn’t holding the steering wheel. What did surprise me the most is how hilly and mountainous the area was, neighborhoods of affluence jutting sharply into the sky from areas of pitiful poverty.

Griffith park was crowded by families, friends, kids climbing large-limbed trees. Passing through all this, we headed for the observatory. Parking and climbing up 1.4 miles, we were greeted by an expansive view of LA’s mushrooming groups of buildings, mixed with flat areas of civilization. The observatory itself was also an impressive sight, reminding me of Mosque-like architecture. Being exactly christmas day, many other people had the grand idea of visiting what I later found out to be the number one best place to visit in the LA area. Taking the panoramic tour around the side of the building, we even tried one of those 50 year old giant binoculars which offered us an amazingly blurry view of the Culver City in West LA. I could even make out the hairs on the nose of a biking hobo 15 miles away. I suppose it was a waste of 25c. Maybe it would have been better to leave those kids we shooed away to continue swinging on them.

By this point we were “a little hungry,” since it’s probably overkill to say starving according to Louis CK, even though it felt like my stomach acid was eating itself from inside out. Stopping at a sketchy thai restaurant – probably the only place open this late on Christmas Day – we ordered enough food for an army which we then shared with 4 other people. Here is where I met the step brother, step sister, and step mother. They were really chill people; I was immediately able to chat and laugh with them about certain ridiculously LA-type women who are still passively-aggressive and insecure about their husband after four happy kids and normal family.

The next day, I was introduced to the Beach at Santa Monica, probably the best beach I’ve ever seen. Instead of the typical hotel-recliners and vacationers asking for skin cancer, it was full of incredibly talented slacklining hippies, serious athletic dudes with 16-packs, and the occasional muscle spattered fake-tan 60 year old grandpa, swinging off of pullup bars, rings, ropes, and double bars. Best playground ever.

Post satisfying muscle-torture, we followed the crowd up to the city, hunting for some lunch. Of course the first thing we bump into is a bird-whisperer-retired-pirate looking guy who basically dragged me into a circle of people, then set two large parrots on my shoulder and one into my hand. The birds must be crazily well trained, they just sat there, and also was able to hang off my finger with only their beak. Of course the mandatory price was $5 donation. The funniest part though was when my travel partner did the same, the white parrot became incredibly intrigued by his nipple, taking a nice (but thankfully painless) nibble. The crowd burst into laughter.

Lunch consisted of an asian-like chipotle style restaurant with not enough seats. After vacillating to go eat on the beach or stay, we ended up flocking to a newly-freed table like vultures to the kill.

The next stop was Venice Beach – an equally fun location with the infamous handball courts. Driving the one mile to the south of Santa Monica, we came onto a similar beach, but this time snagged the last handball court. That sport is brutal. It’s basically like playing squash without a racket. Actually, the racket is your hand. I first watched a game, then did some practice, and finally tried to play. I may have hit a couple good ones, but probably was mostly in the way of the other players. Regardless, it was a lot of fun!

Taking a walk after the sun set revealed the most stoner row of stores. The pattern went kind of like this: Pipe store, greasy elephant ear/waffle shop, alleyway, souvenir-shirt shop, Medical marijuana clinic with signs saying “come to the green people and get legal.”, another pipe store, surf shop, more pipes, medical clinic (for $10 cheaper than the previous one!) with a sign saying “the doc is in” (the “doc” is a sketch-looking dude with dreadlocks…)… and so on. All I could do is laugh at this ultra-LA culture.

That night, we made it out to the NW desert area of LA, had a good night sleep, and started the next day off to a chilly but once again beautiful day of sunshine. Before being on our way to Bear Lake Ski Mountain, the pinnacle of the vacation, we visited Vasquez Rocks (the filming location of the Flintstones Movie among other Hollywood films). Climbing around the rocks, we thought of a cool idea: Geocaching! Of course there were multiple caches in the park. We targeted one not too far away, and found the sneaky little bottle, even though the only hint we had was that it is in a crack hidden by small rocks. Haha. Leaving for the Ski slopes I couldn’t wait to try skiing again. Along the way in between nodding off into light naps in the backseat with a puggy dog named Emily on my lap, I got a tour of the Eastern side of the LA area which was a mixture of flat land, sharp mountains, speckled with hardy bushes, and random palm trees amongst mostly sandy desert soil.

One notable place along the way was during a pit stop for gas. Not because of the gas station, but the store on the other side of the main road: Charlie Brown Farms. Google has the following subheading on its maps: “Local honey garlic fries”. Although I’m not sure if that’s supposed to mean “Local honey, garlic, and fries”, “Local honey, and garlic fries”, or the full shabang “Local fries topped with honey-garlic”, I’m sure all three of those items are available in the store. Stopping there on the way back as well, I’m still not quite sure how to categorize this establishment. Maybe the description should be “Everything you don’t need and more.” There definitely was local honey though, as well as ranch-flavored soda, kangaroo meat, fake blood, sugar free chocolate covered honey-comb, kombucha, rainbow-colored pistachios, coffee grinds, 50 kinds of hot sauce…. I have to stop somewhere because there may not be enough bandwidth to upload the full list of stuff. Anyway, I pretty much walked out of there with a light headache due to all the sensory overload. Even closing my eyes wouldn’t have helped, the mix of scents were so plethoric.

We arrived around 5 pm, following a series of life-threatening hairpin switchbacks and overall 6000 ft elevation gain from our original destination. The sun had set by now, but there was still a little orange-purple haze to the West. Temperatures dropped as we rented ski and snowboard for Sunday’s adventure. In the evening, we attended a concert with some family and friends, and also checked out the little town center of Big Bear. Unfortunately most shops were closed, but we did steal pitstop in a candy shop and then a souvenir store along the way to finding another Geocache. That game is so fun – this one’s hint was very clever, stating “it is not in a femail bag”. I was a little perplexed by the funny spelling and full meaning of the hint, but the easy geocache’s final location made full sense: it was in a mailbox!! Haha Good times!

Sunday we got an early start at Big Bear Mountain, racing down the slopes, taking only 30 mins to warm up, then headed straight to the terrain parks. Sadly, there wasn’t enough snow for the halfpipe yet, but a fair amount of boxes and jumps kept us quite busy. The resort also was sure to show off its sophisticated ability to fabricate man-made snow. They were relentlessly blowing the small white crystals out of the largest snow guns I’ve ever seen. One of these snowmakers could fit a whole human inside of just the gun part. Once the sun started bearing down later in the morning, I could definitely feel that I was no longer in Oregon: the sun was quite warm for December, but the air was still cold enough to keep my hat and coat on the whole day. During the day, I probably had about one pound of chocolate we had bought from Charlie Browns, and a nice lunch of rice-quinoa pasta from Trader Joes.

After conquering two middle sized jumps at Big Bear, we took the free shuttle over to Snow Summit, the other mountain face owned by the same company. This place had nearly all slopes open save for all the double black diamonds.. sigh.. I guess I’ll have to work on the hard core slopes at a later time. Soon after arriving, we found jackpot: the biggest jump in the snow park. Popping some chocolate covered espresso-beans, we sat observing others jumping off of it, then I let my friend go first. He made it, and after swallowing my fear, pushing myself down the hill, so did I. It took a couple tries to get the perfect speed going on this jump, but in the end, we both managed to do it flawlessly, getting a yard or more of air!

Highly fulfilled, we did some fast runs before the lifts closed for us (nigh skiing was still open), blasting past most people, just enjoying the sheer speed of the runs. At the cabin, we had a delicious dinner of fish tacos, rice, and spaghetti-squash lasagna (made up recipe by me). Finally, we headed out for some more geocaching, this time I finally found it instead of my friend! Then returned the superb rental equipment, making the mistake of returning the wrong snowboard boots, then having to take an extra trip back to cabin to correct the mistake. At least it wasn’t my fault :D. The night ended with rocking out to a metal cover band, two hot-toddies, and two games of pool where I was basically shamelessly beat by the boss of pooling. I guess it helps that he had a pool table in the middle of his living room growing up.

The next morning, we woke up sleeping in till about 9am. I’d been having the best nights of sleep during the trip for a long time, which is quite unusual, since the first night at a new location, I’m usually on edge and can’t sleep very well. I suppose it helped to feel safe and warm in bed. Packing up, we headed back to LA around 11am. Along the way, we spontaneously decided to go visit Catalina Island that evening, staying overnight, and returning the next day to catch our flight at 7:50pm. Lofty goal, but I foreshadow success 🙂

During the 2 hour car ride, I managed to call the ferry that transported us over to the island that evening and book a hotel. Just think that 10 years ago phone technology was not even close to allowing us to do something like this. I’m pretty sure I had a bulky flip phone that maybe could take some crude photos and call + text message in 2005. In fact, that’s when I got my first cell phone. Wow. Anyways, after a hurried lunch, we got a ride to the orange line, transferred to blue to take us all the way to long beach. We got there exhausted, but plenty early.

Surprisingly, the ferry was more than half empty, but it was a peaceful and smooth ride into the dark night at 35 mph on the sleek catamaran boat. Along the way, we poured through brochures and maps of the Island, thinking of how best to take advantage of the evening and next three-quarters of a day there. Bike ride? Mini Golf? rent a golf cart? segway? parasailing? SUP? arcade? Not really deciding on anything, the first thing off the boat, we just wanted sushi, so after checking in, we yelped really the only sushi shop in town. It was the weirdest setup, tables set up at the front perimeter of the building, a bunch of stands in the middle selling wine, chocolate, soap, candles, eau de parfum, among other random objects (like a vacuum wine plug). Along the rear perimeter was a coffee stand, ice cream stand, and a full bar. There wasn’t really a hostess, so we just stood around looking lost until a waiter came by and told us that we have to wait about 5 minutes. We ordered two sushi plates – one tuna jalapeno, and one yellow fish with asparagus. All of it was quite delicious, but only served as a light appetizer, as later on we ended up having a second dinner at another seafood restaurant: seared ahi for me, lemon chicken for my friend, and a huge (probably 1/2 liter) of beer + oversweet raspberry cider (was not so good.. tasted way too fake).

In between sushi and this restaurant, we found the arcade which actually closed way earlier than advertised, but we got in a good game of mini bowling, where again, I was destroyed and offered basically no competition to my friend. That guy is so good at everything, it blows my mind. But was fun nonetheless, especially given the fact that we got a free game because the lane’s pin resetting system got messed up and had to be manually reset.

Everything on the island had an aire of “historical functionality” to it. It was pretty strange, instead of cars, there were mostly gas-powered golf carts. The hotel we stayed at was also very quaint, and the room in actuality was an 80 square foot separate cottage with a nice view onto the hillside. Inside, the restroom and shower were just big enough to fit one person, probably not good for someone with claustrophobia. I actually really liked the small and simple lodging. It kind of reminded me of a large version of a tree house; I’m pretty sure the floor wasn’t exactly horizontal, but seemed to have a 2 degree tilt towards the back, and just to make sure we weren’t going to overheat, the heater had a two hour timer on it, which made for an interesting night, waking up once in a while to turn the timer on again. I probably should have McGyver-ed a solution with a rubber band to slow the timer length to a full 8 hours. Well.. hindsight is always 20-20.

The final day of the vacation was probably the most amp-ed up day I’ve had in a while. Once we got going, there was no downtime (unless you count eating while sitting instead of while moving). I dressed in a long sleve and vest, with light hiking pants. We didn’t really sit down for breakfast as we had wasted the morning lazing around in bed. Instead, we scarfed down a nectarine and a kind bar, and drank some precious water – the island was in extreme drought. In fact, they tell you to conserve water, but besides limiting shower time, they didn’t give us much hint as to what else not to do. Do other people spray water and let the faucet on while brushing teeth, or flush the toilet unnecessarily? Even water at restaurants were served in bottles instead of tap. I suppose they import that.

Walking onto the main street, we headed straight for the bike rental we saw on our way from the dock to the hotel. Contemplating renting a tandem bike, we instead opted for two mountain bikes, and given a relatively limited map of where we could bike (one 4 mile loop on the south side of the town and another 6 miler one to the north of Avalon), we started out on the south side. It was nice to be riding a bike again, I suppose I really must like biking, since that’s all I do at home, and I’m still not sick of it :).

About 2 miles into the ride, not far past the section where the elevation really started kicking in, I saw a sign for the Trans-Catalina Trail to the left. I looked down at my bike and its thick wheels, then straight forward to the paved road we were supposed to continue on, then again to the left where the rocky-uneven trail began. I could literally feel my bike licking its lips at the sight of the challenge just waiting to happen. Although there was a short gate and a sign that said “permit required for biking and hiking”, I was highly enticed to get off the main road. Making sure my friend was ok with it, thus began our ascent into the high mountains of Catalina Island. We kept playing leapfrog for the first mile and a half, seeing some other hikers along the way which helped calm my slight nerves about not having a permit. Then a jeep tour driven by a short asian lady passed us, mounting itself over the rocky steep terrain. Apparently we looked like crazy adventurers as one guy in the back corner of the jeep couldn’t help but stare at us with a mad grin. Perhaps he wished he was also digging his bike wheels into rugged earth. Or he was just happy to not be killing his legs like we were.

Ascent continuing, we kept telling ourselves, just a little more – there can’t be too much more to go. But it kept going: the hills that looked so tall in the beginning started becoming dwarfs below the trail. The wind picked up too, brutally whipping at our clothes. At one turn, we could finally look over a hill seeing the miniature town below. Amazing. I felt pretty fulfilled, but the continuing trail was calling our name. Both of us felt like we would be giving up just going back down the way we came. Since we did have over four hours before the ferry was to leave, we kept going, eventually seeing over to the other side of the island out at the infinite great Pacific Ocean. Wind, sun, rough rocks, and a bike, I was in my element. Already exhausted, lungs strained, I realized I was pretty much addicted. We had to keep going. At this point, we finally reached a semi-plateau, and more up-down hills than just the steep climb that had previously prevailed. We were both on adrenaline-high mixed with salty fear: what if the breaks failed and we just flew over the side of a switchback? What if the bike wiped out on some large rock or pothole in the way?

Keeping momentum, it was only a matter of time until the trail merged with a fire divide, the steepest climb yet. Neither of us made it up that incline, which was probably at something like a 40 degree tilt. Just walking the bikes up to the top was no child play. Finally, 6 miles after passing the gate to madness, we found a fork in the road which could take us back downhill to the city. Like any crazy person would, we chose to continue upwards after taking some photos and consulting a map one hiker had to at least make sure we weren’t going to end up in Two Harbors, the town on the other end of the island, probably about 20 miles away. By this time, the last slice of tangerine and piece of peanut from the morning’s kind bar was probably being transformed into muscle energy, in fact, last night’s tuna was what fueled the bicycle up these last couple brutal hills, ragged breaths drawing the thin, fresh air.

Stopped again by a group of friendly hikers, we pointed out to them pieces of the far away trail that peaked out from sections of the hilly region we had taken to our current location. They looked at us with admiration, and slight disbelief. By now, my friend and I had finished 1.5 kind bars I brought with me, our 1 water bottle was depleted (I suppose that’s one way to conserve water, take that Catalina Island, we care more about your drought than dehydration!). They also asked about the permit we didn’t actually have, but there had been plenty of hikers and no officials sighted. At this point it wouldn’t really matter anyways, we were in no shape to run for it haha. The last mile to the road passed us by a large communication tower. Up until now, I kept only having roaming service, so not able to send any snapchats. Friskily, I pulled out the phone, expecting to have full range, but instead got more roaming. Dang. Must be an At&t tower since my friend had full service. Come on Sprint.

The last catapult down the mountain took around 20 minutes – windy, bumpy roads twisting and turning all the way down to Avalon. Returning the bikes, we just smiled at the lender. He had no idea where his bikes had been. Huah what a ride!

Lunch was a revival of spirits. We were both destroyed, minds peacefully floating above the physical pain. It was fun in a masochistic, intense, crazy sort of way. I’m so glad to have had someone to experience this mad bliss with, who felt equally ecstatic and consummated by such a physically taxing trip in wild mother nature.

Post gorging ourselves full of fajitas with guacamole, corn chips and buffalo strips washed down by tea, we headed back to grab our bags from the hotel and start our journey back home. The prospective journey should probably make an appearance in some book, the kinds of transportation all in a span of 6 hours is worth noting. It started with the hour ferry ride back to Long beach, followed by .7 mile of speed walking to the blue line metro, then transferring over to the green line, followed by jumping on the shuttle to take us to the airport. LAX is probably one of the most crazy, unorganized airport known to man, somehow still in operation. Maybe because it is visually appealing, all lit up and a weird UFO structure lining the outside (is that the Control tower?). We made it to the security line with nearly 50 minutes to spare. As if some sort of miracle, the security line was even shorter than at PDX on our way to LA.

Following the trek so far was the airplane ride to PDX. 2 hours of turbulent flight and we dashed out the plane and onto the MAX which we made 5 mins early. Lastly, it was the half mile walk home. Finally home to collapse on the couch, I couldn’t believe the trip and the year was finally over. Bittersweet emotions tugged at my heart. What a way to end the year. Good bye 2014. It was a ride, a ride to something better. I have high hopes for 2015. Let’s go!

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