Reflections on the California road trips of my youth.
By Karl Taro Greenfeld
When I was a teenager in Los Angeles and newly licensed to drive, my friends and I began to tentatively road trip up and down the California coast, ostensibly looking for surfing breaks, parties, girls, but really just driving as far as we could on the $25 it took to fill a gas tank and the few dollars more we could scrounge for food. We would head south to San Diego and, when we were adventurous, beyond that to Tijuana, Mexico. To secure parental approval we assured our mothers and fathers that our trips had a purpose: to visit potential colleges.
San Francisco represented the outside range of the voyages possible for unchaperoned, Southern California minors. Eight hours by car along the 5, past the other university towns of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz, it was always a mysterious destination for Angelino boys like us. For one thing, it was a real city — dense, high-rised, polyglot, a maze of concrete canyons as opposed to the actual canyons (Mandeville, Kenter, Temsecal, Topanga) where we had grown up. Cities, real cities, were wondrous and adult-seeming to me and my friends. Beaches we knew. Dirt bikes and empty swimming pools and half pipes we knew. But real cities, with working mass transit and men in suits and ties and restaurants with waiters in bow ties? Compared to the stately settledness of San Francisco, Los Angeles seemed as makeshift as a vast campsite.
If you asked me to draw a map of the world as a 17-year-old, I would have come up with something like Sol Steinberg's New York-centric map of America, only mine would have Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, and somewhere far to the north would be San Francisco, the last known point. Beyond that was, what? Oregon? Canada? Dragons? I really wasn't sure and I would certainly not be driving there in my yellow Mazda RX-3. But when we got to San Francisco, we never really knew what to do. We knew hardly a soul. San Francisco, like most big cities, is not hospitable to stoned 17-year-olds whose idea of fine dining is a burrito.
I remember one trip we made up north. A friend of mine, Charles, had been accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, the academic goal of many of my high school classmates. The letter informing him of his good fortune naturally precipitated a road trip up north, in theory to tour the campus to decide if Berkeley really was for Chuck. And while I hadn't even applied to Berkeley — with my grades and SAT scores, there hadn't been any point — I convinced my parents that I should accompany Chuck up north, pointing out that Cal State San Francisco was my safety school. Our first night, we stopped at the Haight to buy some marijuana and then, having spent our hotel money on that Columbian pot, we drove up Masonic, right past the Cal State SF campus and parked along Golden Gate Park. It had been drizzling all evening and by the time we parked, planning to recline the bucket seats in my RX-3 and sleep a few hours before heading over to Berkeley, it had started raining, the drops making thick, clomping noises like a gang of cats scampering across the roof of my car. The racket was such that we found it impossible to sleep and instead grabbed a backpack and headed out into the park.
We had, by coincidence, pulled over near old Kezar Stadium, the shallow, crumbling football stadium that, until the Nixon administration had housed the San Francisco 49ers and more than a few Grateful Dead shows. It was now nothing more than a local, broken-down, little-used swap meet venue — it didn't look as well maintained as the Home of the Dolphins, our high school stadium.
Yet I recalled black and white photographs of Y.A. Tittle fading back to pass against a backdrop of fedora wearing fans and suggested to Chuck that we see if Kezar was open. I don't know why, but a link fence was chained shut so loosely that we could slip between the gates and we walked right onto the gravel track surrounding the football field. We were soaked, so we climbed the stands and found a patch of shelter beneath the press box. We took our bong out of my backpack, packed a few hits and proceeded to get stoned in Kezar Stadium.
Because of the rain we didn't hear the fellow in a green uniform approaching. But suddenly, there he was asking us what the hell we were doing. He had long, brown hair and a flashlight that he switched on, shined in our eyes and then at my bong with it's London Calling sticker, demanding to know what the hell we were doing here.
"The gate was open," I explained.
He told us that was not an invitation.
Then he sat down, picked up our bong, and asked for a hit.
I liked San Francisco.
One morning about two decades later, I was touring San Francisco by Segway with Amy Tan, of all people, and her husband Lou Matteo. At one point we passed by Kezar Stadium, sight of my evening of pot smoking as a teenager, and I was amazed at how tiny the stadium seemed, just a quaint, pink granite bowl around a cinder track and football field. Like everyone, I had come to accept that everything from our youth looms larger in our memory, but this was ridiculous. In my mind’s eye, the stadium had taken on gigantic proportions. And for good reason — it had, after all, hosted Zeppelin concerts and NFL playoff games. Yet here it was, a tidy little coliseum fit for a league of hobbits. I told Lou as we glided back and forth in front of the gates that I was a little disappointed at how small it was.
"Ah, youth," Lou sighed. "Everything seemed bigger when we were young."
Still, even as we silently rode away through the sylvan Golden Gate Park, I couldn't reconcile this tiny little arena with that vast enormo-bowl of my dope-addled teenaged recollection. Had I really been that stoned?
Later, I would look it up online and discover that the original Kezar stadium was torn down after the 1989 earthquake and replaced with the quaint arena we visited. • 11 December 2008
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of four books, including Speed Tribes and Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir, coming in May from Harper. A longtime writer and editor for Time and Sports Illustrated, his nonfiction has been anthologized in various Best American collections and his fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, and Asia Literary Review.
Image by crazbabe21 via Flickr (Creative Commons).