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Mar 2002 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

California Dreaming: West of the Border
By Finley Kipp

My winter was composed of so many gray days that I thought I'd pursue a fantasy. California. Whenever people brought up this state in conversation I would sigh, "I've never been," and I'd think of endless stretches of sunny beaches where people romped in brightly colored shirts, ate copious amounts of fresh fruit and said hello to strangers on the streets. What Mars is to space explorers, California was to me: a fantastic, unexplored planet where new possibilities of life existed, hinted at only in the fictions of movies, magazines and pop songs.

Cali So I packed up my car with the cheap traveler's essentials: tent, camping stove, atlas, and an endless supply of toilet paper and Ramen noodles, and drove across the country seeking action and adventure. It was just me, my trusty traveling companion Matthew, and 3,000 miles of pure America for the next three weeks. We took our time, wandering though the Southwest, passing though Roswell, NM (where my camera mysteriously broke); Phoenix, AZ (where my car mysteriously broke); and on to Yuma, AZ (a mysterious town made up entirely of dusty parking lots filled with campers and RVs), just north of the Mexican border and east of California.

I'd planned to stop just inside the California border at a huge spot on my map marked "Sand Dunes — Recreational Area." But Matthew had other, more urgent plans, so my first step onto California soil was greeted by a restroom hut and roadside picnic tables differing from all other rest stops in the country only by large signs, which read "danger — poisonous snakes and insects in area." As I waited, a woman with a cane walked past me with a three-legged dog at her heels. We then returned to Interstate 8, and passed eight ambulances in less than five minutes; some were ambulances towing other ambulances. California was turning out to be even stranger than I'd imagined.

sand dune We arrived at the dunes, massive mounds of sand arching out from either side of the dividing highway. I couldn't help imagining Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when the fearless Luke Skywalker escapes Jabba the Hut at the sand pits. We pulled off, hoping to escape the highway and pretend we were trapped in the desert without hope or houses on the horizon, but unfortunately the access road ran parallel to the highway. So we parked and started running madly. And when we thought we'd run far enough (which isn't very far in sand), I turned to look back at the sky, and there's Border Patrol.

No, they weren't chasing us, but several green vans dotted our view, and in each a lone officer sat, watching. Just watching, and waiting for illegal aliens who might be trying to escape the desert to hope and houses. We'd previously been stopped at a roadblock upon entering California, and this was now our second encounter of many with the looming gaze of the law. We continued to frolic, leaping down huge cliffs of sand like skiers, filling our sights and shoes with desert. Yet I felt like a child at recess; I kept waiting for an officer to blow a whistle and wrangle us back into the confines of our car. As the sun sank, shaving our shadows down into the dusk, I vowed that next time we pulled off the highway it wouldn't be to a spot marked on the Road Atlas. It's funny how adventure is never what you'd expect it to be.

Finley Kipp is a St. Louis writer who contributes to www.stlimc.org and the Three Rivers Confluence.

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