Travel Writing

[Leaving LA and Santa Monica]

Our time in California is coming to an end. We’ve been on the road for nearly two weeks, nearing the completion of a trip we felt compelled to take. We’re missing home a bit, even our cat, Lucy. Odd how our heartstrings pull at us.

This journey has been centered on Mark. Emotions Mary and I have been contending with in losing our only son don’t seem close to dissipating. Love doesn’t disappear just because someone we loved dies. Tears continue streaming, while the holes in both of our hearts remain (and will live there forever).

Time spent in Santa Monica and Los Angeles was beautiful. Seeing Gabi again was one of the highlights of our time in this magnificent state. When political types slag California either through ignorance or ideology, they know not what they are talking about. It’s hard to put into words what we’ve seen and experienced during this briefest of stays in a place that could just as easily be its own county if it wasn’t one of America’s most important states.

Checking out of our cottage near the beach, we began trekking up the Pacific Coast Highway last Monday. We stopped and watched an amazing group of surfers spend their morning catching and riding waves at Malibu Lagoon State Beach (also known as Surfrider Beach). Our morning in Malibu was close to perfect.

A surfer catching a wave in Malibu.

For an encore, we drove a bit further and spent the afternoon at Zuma Beach. Here, I met two young men from LA, Mike and Hike. They’d asked me to watch their keys (and cigarettes) while they went for a dip to cool off. We began talking and one thing led to another. I shared Mark’s story with them and they were touched by it and also compassionate in how they reacted. They were both about Mark’s age, and cousins. They told me they’d decided to take the day off and hit the beach. Both were of Armenian descent. Mike had been a long-haul trucker and was now dispatching and Hike owned a liquor and package store in LA.

Later, as I headed out to the parking lot to change, they called out to me from their SUV. They’d made a beer run and insisted that I share a cold Heineken. I was touched that these two young men would reach out with their own gesture of kindness. Say what you want about big cities dehumanizing people—these were two human beings that I was glad to have met. As we got into our car, they called out to Mary and I, wishing us “safe travels.” We reminded each other of Mark’s ability to push aside fear and wariness and connect with others by being open and vulnerable. It was like he was nodding his approval as we made our way north.

One “tool” that has served us well on this particular journey is using places to “layover” on our way to another destination. Instead of pushing our mileage to the breaking point, we found places that originated as merely map points that happened to have a hotel we might consider staying at. Often, they offered enough local flavor and a hint of geography that made an impression.

Oxnard was one of those stopovers. We decided to grab a room given our usually positive stays at Marriott properties. In Oxnard, they had a Residence Inn, which we like. Not only was this particular location well-maintained and staffed by friendly employees, we found an amazing Mexican eatery with a significant portion of their menu devoted to vegan cuisine.

It’s become apparent to us that California is a plant-based vegan paradise, or so it seems comparative to the Northeast. It’s rare not to find a place that doesn’t serve at least one vegan option on their menu. In California, probably if you run across that rare place, it’s some kind of political statement and they’re going out of their way to not accommodate those of us who don’t care to eat meat or consume dairy products.
Norte-Sur was an eatery in Ventura (just across the line from Oxnard) located in the back of a strip mall in a former food court. While it was a bit tough to find—we had to drive around the back to find it as our GPS kind of fritzed out—we were rewarded for persevering. They had six or seven options on their menu that were vegan. The owner, Gerald, was great. He obviously knew the difference between vegetarian and vegan, and his menu indicated this.

We woke the next morning and got in a needed 3-mile run near our hotel. We weaved our way through a beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood near an elementary school. Oxnard truly delivered a great return for a small investment of our time staying there.

Up the road we went, to Santa Barbara. This was partly due to Mary’s iPhone failing and also knowing that this city of nearly 100,000 had an Apple Store. The upside to this was that we spent the morning and early afternoon walking around downtown Santa Barbara. The Mediterranean climate and friendly vibe impressed us. Mary actually spent a day here during her prior visit to California in 2008, hanging out with a family friend who lived in Lompoc, about 30 minutes outside the city. They’d also visited a local winery.

We located an older, locally-owned hotel on Yelp just a mile from the beach. Santa Barbara was also where experienced our best meal on the trip. After a swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool, we put on our best duds and Uber-ed out and back to Mesa Verde, an incredible restaurant that we absolutely loved. The food was terrific and our waitress, Sarah, was quintessential California—blond, trim, tattooed—and Mary asked her if she surfed or did Yoga (which we thought she would); the answer was “yes” to the latter and she told us she had just started taking lessons to begin surfing.

Mesa Verde’s signature dessert is baklava. We opted for cheesecake instead, one of the few times we’ve had sweets on the trip. The owner made his way around to check on us. He asked if we had food allergies. When we answered “no,” he came back with a slice of baklava. What an amazing treat and such a nice gesture!

By Wednesday night, it was apparent that it was time to cease our northward trajectory. We had business in the desert and would require making our way eastward across the mountains to the High Desert and Joshua Tree. We were aware that Mark had passed through there on CA-62 based upon his blog posts from 2010. We had been carrying some of Mark’s remains with us. Our intent was finding a resting place in an appropriate part of Joshua Tree National Park.

Thursday morning, we checked out of the only crappy hotel on the trip. The Quality Inn in San Luis Obispo was overpriced and full of the kind of yahoos on the road for work that always get the hair up on the back of my neck. I was happy to hit the road and make a direct cut across the state traversing CA-58 for most of the way, down into the Central Valley. This also happens to be the growing region where much of our fruits and vegetables in the U.S. come from and are trucked to us from there. We figured on yet another layover, this time in Bakersfield, which happened to have a Residence Inn.

Vintage Bakersfield photo [taken at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace].

The only other thing I knew about Bakersfield was my awareness of the “Bakersfield Sound,” and guys like Buck Owens, who made it famous. My Dad was a country music fan and growing up, I remember Owens (and his partner Roy Clark) on HeeHaw.

If you know any of Owens’ history, before he was a worldwide phenomenon and became a country music icon, he drove a truck and Bakersfield impressed him enough that he moved there with his wife in 1951. As they say, “the rest is history.” That history is well-represented in Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace—a restaurant, museum, nightclub, and shrine of sorts to Owens and his music. We stopped by on Thursday afternoon, paid our $10 each, and proceeded through a self-guided tour.

Wouldn’t you know that our passing through Bakersfield coincided with a bout of scorching heat. Afternoon highs hit 105, which also set a record. Normally, this time of year, their daily readings are about 80. We marveled that a place so hot and arid was also so lush and green and teeming with food being grown. A marvel, really, attributable to oil and the Happy Motoring way-of-life it has afforded us as humans. We also recognized how important water is to the perpetuation of food being grown in California and trucked across the country to us on the East Coast.


[The Desert and Joshua Tree]

It would have been nice (if our lives were in fact, normal) to continue on our way north, along the coast. Mary loves the ocean and I can’t say I don’t enjoy my time along the shore. However, this trip—whatever you want to call it other than what some might call a “vacation”—has been about locating the tiniest shade of meaning in Mark’s untimely death. We also felt a personal obligation to commemorate his first walk across the country in 2010—while also trying to bring even the tiniest sense of completing his second journey, which ended in tragedy. That’s a lot to accomplish for two people, still grieving, in a mere two weeks.

Reading back through Mark’s blog he kept chronicling his first trek provided clues to where we wanted to stay and offered a desert destination for the conclusion of our trip. That’s why we headed our rental vehicle towards Joshua Tree and the national park located there.

In 2010, Mark passed a few miles from the park’s northern entrance, making his way along CA-62, exiting the desert (which nearly did him in back then). I enjoyed reading some of those posts, like this one when he reached Yucca Valley. How ironic that we’d stop at a supermarket, Stater Bros. (after a suggestion from someone at the park’s information center), wondering if this was the one Mark photographed (with the bananas in his cart). After shopping and sitting in the parking lot, I went back to this photo on my phone and enlarged it. If you do the same you’ll see that the cart clearly indicates STATER BROS. We cried.

Shopping where Mark shopped in 2010.

We actually cried a lot over the weekend. How could we not? This isn’t some minor life event we’re going through but one that now defines who we are and will be, until both of us are dead.

Joshua Tree National Park is a vast, diverse parcel of land of nearly 800,000 acres. Just reading a bit of the history about how it came to be a national monument first and then a park helped us in deciding where we wanted to place the rest of Mark’s remains that we’ve been lovingly transporting since leaving our house on April 26.

Northern park gate, Joshua Tree National Park.

It’s never easy to figure out a way forward when in a new geographic location, one that’s so unfamiliar as the High Desert is to Mary and me. What if we make the wrong calculation, while totally winging it? Perhaps our lives lived taking chances, daring to cast out from the shore when others told us “it” couldn’t be done, especially when we were both so young and Mark was in Mary’s womb made all of this trip possible. Learning to gather information on the fly and make mistakes while not being hindered by “paralysis by analysis” is something that we’ve embraced for much of our 30+ years of being married. I do think Mark picked up some of this from us, and then made it his own unique brand of living in the moment.

Friday afternoon, we touched down along Mark’s route. We drove directly to the park’s info center and gift shop. We fortuitously picked out a book, Best Day Hikes: Joshua Tree National Park (one of the Falcon Guides put out by Globe Pequot Press). This would be the best $10.95 we’ve spent on our California sojourn.

On Friday night, reading about Keys View and Inspiration Peak, detailing the “spectacular views of the south-central area of the park,” especially the times of sunrise or sundown, I knew instinctively where we’d be when the sun came up Saturday morning.

Things like this are never a given or something you assume will come off perfectly, let alone, well. As a result, I didn’t sleep well at all. I felt the responsibility to get us up and on the road before light.

Out the door just after 5:00 to make the drive to the park’s gate and then the 25-mile foray into the park on strange roads, not knowing how exact our directions or trusting our orientation made this a literal “shot in the dark.” One unexpected gift was the desert’s predawn light offers semi-illumination and its own unique hue.

We pulled into the parking lot at Keys View just prior to 6:00, with the sun peeking over the hilltops behind us, bathing us in its glow. We’d done it!

Now it was on to the task at hand—placing Mark’s ashes somewhere on the mountainside that was meaningful and honored his love of nature and the Earth. Walking up the paved pathway to the park’s well-marked lookout, we were looking across at the San Bernardino Range and San Jacinto Peak (beyond Palm Springs, in the valley below). Also, off on the horizon was the Salton Sea and San Gorgonio and it’s snow-capped peaks clearly visible. Not only did we managed to time sunrise perfectly, but the day was clear and we weren’t hindered by smog from LA that can limit visibility and viewing.

While everything came off “perfectly” in planning, there was still the task of placing Mark and memorializing him, as parents.

Leaving the paved pathway east of the lookout and scouting down about 20 yards, I found a protected area behind a mass of rocks. I called out to Mary. We both agreed this was the place. She had carried a small heart-shaped rock she’d had from 2007, gathered at Jasper Beach in East Machias during our trip to Steuben when Mark and Gabi drove up to be with us.

Mark was now in a place he would have loved—a spot in the natural world, forever protected from man and economic exploitation. It was one of those brief times—no matter how emotionally-wrenching—that seemed right and offered just a brief respite from grief and Mark’s absence.

Completing our task and honoring Mark.


We’ve been here in Joshua Tree since Friday. We hiked a couple of other amazing trails on Saturday and Sunday. We drove through the park and came out through the southern gate Sunday afternoon and made the loop through Palm Springs, back to our rental house.

Today, we are driving back to Los Angeles. We’ll spend the night and then, jump on our flight Wednesday morning, headed back east, to Portland.

Two weeks in California. Surrounded by Mark and memories tied to his time living there, his first walk across America, and gaining a slightly better sense of what this entailed back in 2010. Also, thinking about the road calling him back, and what he’d been living for 101 days on this most recent walk.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to any kind of understanding about Mark and his death. We did feel like a trip to California was in the offing and in that sense, we’re glad we’ve completed what we set out to do.

Not knowing much about the desert and Joshua Tree other than Mark walked through there, we were blown away by the beauty, amazing diversity and size of the park itself. Seeing the actual route Mark took and driving/walking parts of it helped forge a better understanding of who he was and what he’d accomplished. Simply flying across the country in hours, recognizing that it took Mark nearly three months to walk it affords a deeper sense of awe for who he was and how this was just part of what made him special to us and to thousands of others who knew him personally, or simply from watching his videos and following his journeys via the web. It also deepens the loss and senselessness of his death.

We’ll fall back into our lives—work, rent payments, deadlines for articles due—carrying Mark’s memory forward with us. It won’t be easy, and I don’t have any aspirations that we’ll ever feel normal again.

Mary was a trooper on this trip, just like she’s been since the night we received the awful news that Mark had been killed. I’m not sure how she does it, to be honest. Yet, she exhibited grace yet again during difficult days, handling navigation duties, while finding two great rentals for us in both Santa Monica and Joshua Tree. We find ways to support one another through this valley in our lives, now living without Mark.

Monday, our final day in Joshua Tree, we decided to walk a mile to the local post office. This walk took us along a portion of CA-62, where Mark had walked. This four-lane roadway brought us within feet of traffic blowing by at 60 and 70 miles per hour. I didn’t feel great walking less than a mile. I was happy to turn off this busy highway and make our way into the residential area where we were staying.

The highway Mark walked back in 2010, passing through Joshua Tree, CA.

Just bit more information for complete-ists out there, or anyone who cares to know a bit more about Mark. East of Twentynine Palms, there are no services for 100 miles (that was three days worth of walking for Mark). There’s a sign warning motorists. No mention about people on foot. Yet, Mark walked from the Arizona border to Twentynine Palms, ignoring people along the route telling him he was crazy. Wikipedia say that “this is one of the most desolate stretches of highway in California.” That might be true, but Mark willed himself forward, overcame pessimism, and defied the odds.

For 81 days, he totaled close to three thousand miles that first time; beginning in October, he logged another 1,000 miles on his final walk. How did he do this day-in-and-day-out?

Also, another reminder of the magnitude of the loss, and offering an opportunity for even greater admiration for the physical and mental toughness that he had in spades.