Disclaimer: California is massive. So, I understand it offers as many experiences as inhabitants and visitors. This is mine.
We landed at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on a rainy afternoon, and I felt the same as I did all those years ago when I flew to the West Coast for the first time.
“Is this the same country? Even the same continent?”
After almost six hours in the air and landing in a different time zone, the common currency is a few of the welcome indicators that we’re still in the good old USA.
With its foundational Spanish past, eclectic architecture spanning styles and topographies, romantic cable car system and its status as the birthplace of social justice, St Francis feels neither American nor European. It is a unique utopia.
We stayed with family in San Jose, about 48 miles southeast of San Francisco. The largest city in Northern California and the de facto capital of Silicon Valley, it’s where the major global tech companies are headquartered. Proof that multiculturalism breeds innovation.
We were to spend our nights here and take day trips to “The City” (not me thinking all this time that the moniker applied only to New York) and to try some excellent wine in the world-famous Napa Valley.
As a testament to the area’s progressivism, I was elated to find front yard signs like the one below every time I’d go for a morning run.
One of my favorite day trips was to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to see the Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective.
Born in 1887 in rural Wisconsin, the Mother of American Modernism was such a trailblazer.
At the age of 10, she had already decided to be an artist. And she lived life on her terms since and until her passing in 1986.
Her New Mexico landscapes touched me. I read she was fond of “peering through planes’ windows” as an avid traveler well into her 70s.
“I’ve been flying a lot lately […] I went around the world—and I noticed a surprising number of deserts and wonderful rivers. The rivers actually seem to come up and hit you in the eye,” she said in an interview.
I’m not the only one.
After the culture came the libations. We drove 99 miles north to Napa Valley. I couldn’t help but feel familiar with the road until it clicked! I realized it looked just like the classic Microsoft screensaver.
“Hey Siri, where was the old Windows background taken?”
The original Windows XP desktop image, known commonly to the tech world as ‘Bliss,’ was taken in 1996 on a road that cuts through California’s wine country.Siri
Since its founding in 2000, The Prisoner Wine Company “has stood in solidarity with the fight against racism, mass incarceration and the systematic oppression of Black communities.”
After working up an appetite through the tasting, we headed to Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.
The ranch was established in the late 1800s and thrived with vines, olive groves and dairy products. The property fell dormant during the Prohibition years and was engulfed by Mother Nature.
In 1989, the Hall family bought, rescued and turned the property into a farm-to-table establishment, popular for wedding receptions in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.
But as good as the food and the wine were, the sunset that the region treated us with as we drove back home was spectacular.
The next morning, we took Alaska Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Jose to Palm Springs.
And, once again, I channeled Georgia O’Keeffe from my window seat as the lush Santa Cruz mountains turned into arid plains.
As we approached the Palm Springs International Airport, I noticed many windmills, especially at the airport’s periphery.
Later, when we drove back from Joshua Tree National Park at the end of the day, we were greeted by dozens of TV antennas with a red light on top.
They weren’t antennas. That’s how the windmills signaled their location, so nocturnal landing airplanes wouldn’t hit them.
The second thing I noticed was its unique landscape of tall and skinny palm trees and snowy mountain peaks in the background.
I learned that this land with rich pre-colonial history turned health retreat in the early 1900s and then Hollywood celebrity playground mid-20th century.
After enjoying brunch at the iconic Ace Hotel, we took a delightful drive through Indian Canyons, the Movie Colony, Sunrise Park and Vista Las Palmas.
We admired some of the beautiful and famous houses, including celebrity ones like Frank Sinatra’s and Elvis Presley’s (which recently sold and it’s undergoing renovations).
As another testament to its Golden Hollywood Bonafide, The Palm Springs Art Museum became the forever home of Seward Johnson’s 2011 statue “Forever Marilyn.”
The 26-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture depicts the beloved star in one of her most famous scenes, from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”
It was previously displayed in Chicago, Connecticut, New Jersey, and even Australia before making it to its new permanent home—where we saw it in all her splendor.
And finally, the day came: I would visit my first American National Park. Named after the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree became a National Park in 1994.
Slightly more extensive than the state of Rhode Island, the park includes varied ecosystems: wilderness, part of two deserts (Mojave and Colorado) and The Little San Bernardino Mountains.
We drove through Driving Park Boulevard, the best way to see the park highlights in about one afternoon. You can enter through the north (Twentynine Palms) or west (town of Joshua Tree).
Either way, you should be able to stop briefly at some of the highlights, which include stunning rock formations, the famous Cholla Cactus Garden and Joshua tree groves—which turn even more beautiful as the sunset hits them.
Joshua Tree was the icing on the massive and delicious cake that it’s California. And, as I said before, I realize this is nothing but a tiny slice of said cake.
As we headed back to the Northeast, I thought about how this beautiful North American continent was colonized: westwards. And about these mountains, deserts, valleys and rocky formations that were here before we thought about walking the face of the earth and will still be here way after all of us are gone.