Travel Journal // Look, Listen, Attend: A Week in Southern California
There’s a succulent on my desk beside the Pumpkin Pecan Waffles candle that burns on this fall day. This succulent’s name is Edgar, and I brought him home after an early morning visit to a Farmer’s Market back in February, on a sunny Sunday that spoke more of spring than of winter. He was a tiny succulent then, coming in a mini terracotta-colored plastic container. Edgar lasted only a few months before his plump green leaves started shriveling up like deflated birthday balloons.
They say that succulents are the easiest plants to keep alive: “They thrive on neglect,” as my friend describes it. In college, I took a summer physics course that was so challenging, I celebrated when I would get a C on exams. To someone who never found school to be all that difficult, this was startling. The same is true of my ability to keep these plants alive: it’s startling just how many succulents and cactuses have wilted or imploded (I’m serious... imploded) under my care.
I took a trip to California in April—an idea that was born under the blue skies of another trip west in January, as my friends and I ate pizza after our final hike together in Phoenix. “Let’s go to California,” someone suggested. Why not?
So we booked a week in Los Angeles. On our itinerary: a day hiking in Joshua Tree National Park.
If my home decor and the tattoo on my wrist and my Instagram caption enthusiasm don’t make it clear enough: I am a sucker for the desert, and cactuses in particular. I think the whole place is a magical, martian land, so different from anything I grew up in or experienced for the first 23 years of my life. I could sit on a rock on a desert mountain all day long, and I have, and I will do again exactly this on my trip back to Arizona later this month.
The drive to Joshua Tree alone threatened to give me heart palpitations from anticipation: the leaving of the hills of city behind to drive through a land of stark California desert, past oasis palm tree towns and windmill forests and jagged, dry peaks (with a mocha and vibey tunes, of course).
When we arrived at the entrance of the park, we stopped for instruction from a visitor center guide. “Watch where you put your hands when you climb on the rocks!” she said cheerily. “The rattlesnakes don’t want to bother you, but they will if they’re surprised!”
And so began our day of hiking through groves of Joshua Trees and massive boulders standing tall over the flatland of the Mojave, and we obediently watched where we put our hands, and we did not surprise any rattlesnakes. I didn’t know much about the biodiversity of plants in Joshua Tree, but I had hoped to see at least a cactus or two. “I see your bet, and I raise you one,” said the desert, offering me not just prickly cactuses all over the park, but blooming cactuses of bright pink, orange, and red flowers. Cue the cardiac arrest because BE STILL MY CACTUS-LOVING HEART.
Joshua Tree National Park gets around 6 inches of rain per year. The average U.S. city gets 39 inches of precipitation. It’s nuts to me that even in these barebones conditions, you can have groves of desert evergreens like the Joshua Tree and blooming cactuses dotting the desert floor with colors of springtime.
As our day came to a close, we found a spot for watching the sunset—a non-negotiable for any desert visit. So I settled on the sand next to a cactus blooming bright pink flowers, and I watched, and I waited for the sun to set the sky on fire. And as the sky melted from blue into flaming oranges and reds, I asked God for some pretty wild, impossible desert prayers—prayers that I can only wait attentively for answers, just like we waited attentively for the sun to perform its evening dance.
That’s the thing about desert prayers: they are, by human logic, absolute impossibilities—as impossible as that awful college physics class I took. They are prayers that look at a place of death and ask for life, instead.
But then, that’s the thing about the desert: it looks like a place of death, and yet, here I sat, next to a cactus donned with a brilliant headdress of pink flowers.
“The only imperative that nature utters is, ‘Look. Listen. Attend,’” writes my bae C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves.
Look, says the desert. Look how I bloom, even in a place of death. Listen, says the howls of the coyotes, Listen to my dusk song as the day dies. Attend, says the night sky unfettered by city lights, Attend to these stars that sparkle in the dark, even as you wait for the light of day.
And so that’s what we do: we look, we listen, we attend. We wait. We pray our desert prayers as the sun dies in an eruption of flames, and we wait in darkness for sunrise, for resurrection, for life, even when our human sensibilities want to pull out our personal label-maker and stick on our situations the word “impossible.”
My succulent sat on my windowsill for months, dying. And since I clearly don’t know how to raise a succulent, I couldn’t figure out why he was fading. You’re in the sun, bro. What more do you want from me? So I moved him to my bookshelf, and then accidentally knocked him onto the ground while reaching for a notebook, decapitating him in the process—his head of tiny leaves was literally the only part that had yet to wither, now ripped off his stalk mercilessly. The fall had to be it; I reasoned. This guy was a goner; should I even try to replant him?
But with a tiny desert prayer on my mind, I re-planted him in new soil and dripped water onto his roots with a small hope that maybe he’d come back to life.
Ten days since the fall, and Edgar is sitting on my desk, his leaves plump, as if he hadn’t just spent the last three months waiting for the plant-version of the Grim Reaper to come finish the job—a tiny story of resurrection for a tiny desert plant.
That’s the thing about desert prayers: they are impossible, to our eyes at least. Desert prayers look at death and ask for life instead. And so we sit on the dusty ground next to the blooming cactus as the sun sets, and we ask our wild desert prayers, and we wait with hope for sunrise, for resurrection, for life: looking, listening, attending to all that the desert has to teach us.
DAY 1 // Burbank
Coffee & Lunch at Coffee Commissary
Dinner at Los Amigos Bar and Grill
Post-Margarita Margaritas at El Tejano Tex Mex
After an early morning flight west, we arrived in Los Angeles hungry and in need of coffee. A rental car pick-up and hour drive to Burbank later, our coffee-and-food dreams came true at Coffee Commissary.
DAY 2 // Ojai, CA & Burbank
On Sunday, we took a day trip to THE MOST DELIGHTFUL wine bar called Tipple and Ramble in Ojai, about an 80-mile drive northwest of Los Angeles. The patio was a patio of my SUCCULENT DREAMS, adorned with every sort of cactus and succulent you could imagine and featuring a much-appreciated hammock. I’d absolutely recommend this place if you’re looking for a few hours of wine and peace away from the madness of the City of Los Angeles.
On our way back to Burbank, we stopped for In-N-Out for dinner, the first of many of these burgers consumed over the week.
That evening, we got drinks at THE CUTEST li’l bar in all the Burbank land, Catcher in the Rye. The drinks were named after literary classics and the walls were lined with bookshelves. Can you ask for a better place to enjoy an adult beverage (other than say, a beachside sangria in Barcelona)?!
DAY 3 // Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is a 130-ish mile trip from Los Angeles, so we got up early to hit the road, but not before first grabbing coffee (again) at Coffee Commissary. Then it was a drive with vibey tunes through the desert and thanking The Dear Lord Above that we were not stuck in the stand-still post-Coachella traffic in the opposite lanes. A full day of hiking and watching the sunset in the most magnificent desert place was had before heading back to the city for the night.
DAY 4 // Malibu
Here’s what I’ve decided about my feelings toward Los Angeles after just returning from my second trip this year: I have a lot of questions about the city itself (Why a 6-way stop sign? Why no left turn signal at a crazy busy four-lane-on-both-sides intersection? Does it really seem safe to let motorcycles fly willy-nilly between the lanes? Do Californians know they can save thousands of dollars on gas for their car by living elsewhere?), but as far as the surrounding nature that hugs Los Angeles in an embrace, it’s a 10/10 for me.
So after desert day, it was beach day. (Snowy mountains! Desert! Cactuses! Beaches! Giant trees! California has it all!) We began with brunch at Republic of Pie, a coffee shop and cafe in Burbank before driving to El Matador Beach in Malibu for a few hours of beach and taking way too many photos with iPhone depth effect like everybody else at El Matador.
Dinner was, you guessed it, In-N-Out.
DAY 5 // Holloywood & Manhattan Beach & West Hollywood
Dinner at Cabo Cantina
Snow Patrol at The Fonda Theatre
We began our morning like every morning by seeking out a coffee shop—our stop this time was Javista Organic Coffee Bar in Hollywood. We took a quick hike in Runyon Canyon before having to (sadly) drop Amy off at the airport. Chelsey and I then explored the conveniently close Manhattan Beach, grabbing lunch at Le Pain Quotidien (look y’all, I know this is a chain, but I adore their gluten free bruschetta) before strolling along the beach.
For dinner, I met up with a friend from college at Cabo Cantina in West Hollywood (Mexican food is my ride or die/my soulmate/my everlasting love) before waxing nostalgia over a Snow Patrol concert at The Fonda Theatre and remembering why I have a visceral-level resentment toward Hollywood while trying to find street parking.
DAY 6 // Santa Monica & Burbank
Brunch at Grub
Bike Riding in Venice Beach & Santa Monica
Our coffee adventures continued at Romancing the Bean in Burbank, where Chelsey and I sipped mochas and talked about how weird 2018 has been (it only got weirder from there).
Then it was off to the one redeeming oasis of goodness in Hollywood—Grub. Let me tell you about Grub. It’s a quaint brunch/lunch spot on an unassuming street with bacon that deserves its own plaque on a wall somewhere that keeps track of delicious bacon. I insist on going every time I’m in L.A. My patronage was noted when, on my return this past October, the waiter said, “Hey, I remember you,” even though six months had passed between visits. It’s always been my dream that wait staff would recognize me as a regular. Happy to have this place be Grub. So if you are forced to choose only one recommendation from this list, let it be Grub.
After brunch we gallivanted to Venice Beach for some delightful beachside bike rides and post-biking ice cream at Salt & Straw before meeting up with a long-time Windrose writer at Aroma Coffee and Tea in Santa Monica.
Then we spent hours of our lives (that we’ll never, ever get back) driving back to Burbank at rush hour. Amazing to think that this is an L.A.-er’s everyday life. You guys must listen to so many podcasts!
We had dinner at the most delightfully-quaint cafe in Burbank that FOR THE LIFE OF ME I cannot find the name. Just know that I put in extensive effort to track it down!
DAY 7 // Manhattan Beach & Departure
Our final morning was one of bidding adieu as Chelsey’s weekend plans brought her to San Diego and mine brought me home to Nashville. I dropped Chelsey off at the AmTrak station in DTLA before returning again to Manhattan Beach for some final moments next to the ocean. I found a cozy bench on the boardwalk and journaled while watching surfers before having my last meal of In-N-Out (obviously). Then it was off to LAX and a four-hour flight back to Nash.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite a bit this year, but I can confidently claim this trip as one of my favorites of 2018. Of course, it always goes back to who you’re with, and I was lucky to be in the company of two of the best travelin’ pals.
New to Airbnb?
The sweetest Airbnb with a patio and backyard of flowers became our home-sweet-California-home during our stay. Airbnb is always my go-to when I visit a new city because it allows me to experience a place “like a local” (plus it’s usually way more affordable than a standard hotel!).
New to Airbnb? Use my referral code to get $40 off your first stay!
“60 & Punk” // Death Cab for Cutie
My fellow lover-of-Death-Cab friend, Kendall, shared this song with me on my recent visit to her in Houston and WOWJUSTWOW does this punch me in the FACE with emotional overload. I’ve always loved Death Cab for their storytelling abilities and sad-as-hell musicality, and this one is a sparkling gem of both.