Despite all the horror stories, Delta Airlines chose not to destroy my bicycle, and only charged $150 for the carriage of the big cardboard box I’d picked up from a bike shop in Pasadena.
The sales assistant had been rude and grumpy – perhaps he’d had a bad night’s sleep. Or perhaps life as a bicycle salesman was beginning to wear thin; maybe (like almost everyone I’d met in the 8 days I’d been in L.A.) he’d arrived in the city nurturing dreams of fame and fortune in Hollywood, still introducing himself on social occasions in a well-practiced way as an up-and-coming actor or director or comedian – while trudging daily to a never-mentioned job in a retail store.
I wanted to give him the book I’d picked up at a launch party – also in trendy Pasadena – a couple of days beforehand. It might have helped. The author, an endearingly clever, generous and intense young chap from Portland called Chris Guillebeau, was in town as part of his multi-city tour, so I’d popped down to the free event in a swanky bookstore and mingled with an audience of close-up card magicians, video-game testers, web editors, high-school students and others who’d been brought together by the shared desire to throw off the shackles of meaningless employment, protest the economists’ principle that one ‘job’ is as good as any other, and start using their time on Earth in a more satisfying and (importantly) sustainable way – for what good is employment if it does nothing but create a poverty of the soul?
I’d cycled to the launch party through endless grids of concrete and palm trees and hastily-erected wire fences from Glendale, the district to the north of downtown L.A., where Ben and I had spent the day undertaking a pedal-powered investigation of a rumour that Glendale was the Armenian capital of the United States. Sure enough, upon initial inspection the town carried distinct overtones of Yerevan, the streets aggravated by large-snouted muscleheads in black-windowed G-Wagens and other oversized gangster-mobiles, every plaza festooned with stores bearing names like ‘Ararat Meat & Fish’, ‘Sevan Pharmacy’ and ‘Lori Bakery’ to serve the 150,000-strong Armenian population.
It would be rude to judge based on such superficialities, though, so we went to the largest of the community’s churches, where we were met with all-too-familiar glares of animosity and suspicion (being clearly non-Armenian and therefore provoking the distasteful side of the national character: a stoic defiance of the ‘other’, borne of being a people wronged so terribly at the hands of a string of imperial dominators), which quickly gave way to surprise and delight that a foreigner – an otaryerkrats’i – had at least a rudimentary grasp of the language, which was useful since the church staff spoke no English whatsoever. I was gently chided for turning up in shorts and a T-shirt, which was fair enough, and allowed to take some photographs. This strange cultural transplant from one side of the planet to the other seemed, at a glance, to have taken place without a hitch.
After leaving the church, across the street in a small café we were delighted by the hospitality of the parskahay shopkeeper to whom we chatted away for a good while, staying longer than we’d planned after she gave us a free sample of a stupendous Syrian dessert she’d just finished making, which I’ll refrain from describing on the grounds that I’d not be able to do justice to it without using phrases like ‘stringy uncooked doughballs’ and making it sound disgusting. (Believe me, it wasn’t.)
(As my wife’s Iranian-Armenian childhood friend said when I joined more family dots a couple of days later, he was glad to have inherited his culture of warmth and hospitality from Persia rather than the troubled former-Soviet republic itself. I know he’s not alone with that sentiment.)
We had a cheap and delicious lunch at Shiraz Restaurant which made me long to return to Iran for a more in-depth exploration of the country. The first restaurant meal we’d had for several weeks, it was nice to be able to justify the outlay: we were in profit since our arrival thanks to the receipt of two envelopes the previous day – each containing a massive $75 in cash – for our services rendered to a media production company.
The services in question? Being driven to San Diego, fed pizza, allowed to sit around in the sun, invited to spend 2 hours riding a rickety wooden rollercoaster, fed the biggest burritos we’d even seen, and driven back to L.A., cash in hand.
The gig? Extras in a Windows Phone 7 online commercial video. (I can justify being on Microsoft’s payroll for a day due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 has practically no chance against iOS and Android.) As my friend and host in L.A. said in a text message when she heard: “Welcome to (70 miles south of) Hollywood!”
And so it was that I arrived in the City of Angels, lost all track of time and order of events, saw all that defined her but at the same time didn’t even scratch the surface, and a week later, with the same bank balance with which I’d arrived, found myself on an aeroplane destined for London Heathrow.
Sitting on the plane, it dawned on me how little attention I’d paid to the overall culture of this strange and alluring place called America, from where I’d suddenly been snatched away. I’d spent two months accepting each and every person and situation as I’d found it, and in doing so realised how futile it was to try and plaster definitions across a nation defined by its diversity – the diversity of opinions, pursuits, lifestyles, ethnic backgrounds and political views, from gun-toting Republicans to yurt-dwelling hippies and everything in between.
And even that might be a stretch too far, since I’d only seen a thread of the place, the wild coast to the west of the Cascade mountains; a region distinct enough to have its own independence movement, complete with proposed name and flag.
South of the Lost Coast – already two weeks distant in history -had been a string of cool provincial towns basking in the sun, and before we knew it we were meandering inland along the Russian River towards Santa Rosa, and the provincial towns had morphed into colonies of head shops and alternative therapists and artisan coffee shops and bakeries. The air was suddenly steeped with the fibrous humidity of late-spring warmth and growth. This was Sonoma Country, the beginning of the Bay Area, and arriving into it after all that had come before was like opening a door, having been lost amongst a tangle of echoing corridors in the forgotten recesses of some vast and elaborate structure, and finding behind it a hive of human activity of such vibrancy and contentment that I had to pinch myself to make sure that it wasn’t some desperate utopian hallucination.
I was sucked into the unexplored half of this split-screen portrait of a nation. California was the full spectrum of Western European climate and culture condensed into a single English-speaking sliver of coastline, and the personification of today’s global paradox: on one hand a spring of innovation and foresight and concern and social responsibility, on the other a repugnant example of complacency and ignorance and ego and wastefulness.
A week in San Francisco passed in the blink of an eye, and with a flight home rapidly looming it was time to hitch a ride to the city of my departure, and another alternative universe altogether – Los Angeles. From here I would part ways with my brother, having more than fulfilled our overarching goal of getting to know each other properly as adults.
Thank you for following our journey – it’s made all the more worthwhile through the support of this community of readers I’m lucky enough to have. Videos from this journey will be out later in the year.
Ben continues his adventures in Mexico, and I’ll be announcing my next journey in the next few weeks. With an entirely different focus, it will be a very tough but rewarding undertaking, and I’m incredibly excited about it!
(Subscribers will be the first to hear about the project, so there’s a good reason to join up now if you haven’t already done so.)
My U.S. Pacific Coast ride was kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe..