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California Dreaming: Chronicles of an Epic Road Trip

Four I-House residents posing in front of a red sports car.

As the crisp autumn air settled over the West Coast, Thanksgiving heralded a time of gratitude and reflection, tracing its roots back to the early 17th century when Pilgrims and Native Americans joined in a feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Fast forward to the 21st century, and Thanksgiving has evolved into a cherished American tradition, where families gather around tables laden with turkey and pumpkin pie. However, for college students, this holiday signifies more than just a time for family reunions. It’s a golden opportunity to break free from the rigors of academia, as campuses empty out and friends embark on adventures together. This year, Thanksgiving took three of my fellow I-House residents and me through the picturesque charm of Santa Barbara, the sun-kissed landscapes of San Diego, and the vibrant streets of Los Angeles. 

The plan itself wasn’t decided months in advance. In fact, we didn’t have any plans until a couple of days before leaving on the 22nd of November. We decided to reserve the rental car and accommodations on a whim and managed to string everything together. I packed my things the night before we left. My companions were Shrey, a business student on a semester exchange from Jindal University in India, Nico and Joseph, from Germany and The Ivory Coast respectively, both students at the Masters of Public Policy program here at UC Berkeley. 

We got up early on the 22nd to find a gorgeous red Ford Mustang in scarlet waiting outside. Shrey and Joseph had managed to get a good deal on renting the car from an acquaintance. The car was a convertible too. Maybe not the best suited for this weather but there was no way we would do a road trip without the ability to drop the top. 

A Red Convertible Sports Car.

We got on the road at around 8 a.m. First stop: Santa Barbara. 

We drove straight through down the highway, stopping only once for gas. We stopped a few miles before the destination to catch the sunset on one of the hilly roads. It was an unobstructed view on a clear day. We got to Santa Barbara late in the evening, dumped our stuff in our accommodation, and decided to head out to State Street where the eateries and shops are located. After a hearty meal  and some chatting we left the locale. We then drove around with loud music blaring for a good 15 minutes before deciding to finally head back to our lodging. We retired for the night completely spent after a day of strenuous traveling.

Sun setting over the hills.
Four people posing in front of a red sports car.
A street, scattered with shops lit with hanging bulbs strew across through the trees.

My companions decided to sleep in late the next morning. I was up many hours earlier because I wanted to catch Santa Barbara in all its glory in the daylight. I walked the same street as the night before. Unfortunately, on Thanksgiving morning there was close to nothing open. However, the desolate street provided an opportunity for me to take some good photographs and to take in the sights of the tree-riddled roads with hills serving as a striking backdrop. I walked till I found a place for a light breakfast and then continued onward towards the beach. I can understand why so many Hollywood stars choose to live in Santa Barbara. It would be a beautiful city to retire in or just reside in, given the means. I chanced upon a store where I spotted a wildly extravagant variety of socks. Now, I’m an uncontrollable consumer around socks with funky prints, so I had to step in. I picked out two pairs of socks and got out without thinking too much because that would have led to some terrible financial decisions.

Straight view of train tracks with white buildings on either side.
A straight view of a road with palm trees on either side.
A linear photo of a load with trees shrouding the sides.
A straight street with hills in the background, cars pulling through and lights hanging in the foreground of the photo.

I met up with my friends at the beach and we decided to continue our drive to San Diego. 

We realized we would not make it to San Diego before sundown and decided to make a small detour to Malibu. The capacious beaches of Malibu were clean, bright, and beautiful. There were some interesting shops and cafes along the pier as well as amazing views of the sunset at golden hour. We stayed for a while, exploring the pier and hanging around the beach till sundown, before jumping back into the car and continuing on our drive. 

A view of the entrance of a pier with rocky hills in the backdrop.
A photo from the underside of a pier with the end is sight and the ocean surrounding it on all sides.
A photo of the side of a pier.
A photo from the entrance to a pier showing the straight way to its end.

San Diego is further away than LA, I am aware. So were my fellow travelers. However, when you’re on a student budget, geographical planning stands second to financial necessity. It was much cheaper to do LA over the weekend somehow. We drove past LA, tantalizingly close to the Santa Monica Pier and views of the Hollywood sign and downtown, and reached San Diego very late in the evening.

The skyline of Los Angeles.

A trip outside, however, was a necessity, to visit some of the clubs and try out some authentic Mexican food. There was a lot happening at night, with Thanksgiving over, we spent a fair amount of time on Fifth Avenue. We finally decided to leave at midnight as one of my peers had a video conference to attend. You know I-House residents don’t take a moment’s rest when there is work to be done, especially college work. The work went on for a while and we crashed late in the night, ready to leave the next afternoon for the main stop on our trip. 

A street lined with bollards, shops on either end and bright lights on each end.

While Shrey and Joseph slept in, Nico and I decided to head out in the morning for a long walk through the outskirts of San Diego (lined with opulent houses) towards Sunset Cliffs, a rocky beach. There is no accessible sand and it’s quite literally cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We stopped on the way by this hole-in-the-wall Mexican place for breakfast which served some amazing burritos. We sat by the coast and gazed upon the waves lashing against the perilously sharp rocks as we ate our breakfast. We then walked to the Ocean Beach Pier. Unfortunately, the Pier has been closed for a while now due to maintenance issues. However, this does not stop many surfers from taking to the beach adjacent to the pier. Thankfully, we were able to entertain ourselves with the plethora of shops around Ocean Beach. There were a lot of eateries and gift shops to explore. 

A rocky beach in the foreground and the ocean in the backdrop.
An uphill photo of a straight.
A photo of waves lashing against sharp rocks.
A cove inside oceanside rocks.
A photo of the side of a pier.
A linear photo from the entrance of a pier, birds flying across the frame.
A photo of the underside of a pier.

After three hours of extensive walking and sightseeing, we met up with the remainder of our party and decided to continue our drive to LA. It was a long time at the gas station, because a convertible Mustang does not offer the best mileage. We then dropped the convertible top to take in views on the coast-side drive through Highway 1. It was a stunning view in very chilly weather. We didn’t know where to go in LA at first, so we decided to make a stop at Huntington Beach to catch the sunset. It was excellent, to visit the pier and roam the art fair that was on.

A photo of the beach shore where the ocean meets it.
A photo of the beach shore where the ocean meets it.
A photo of a pelican perched on a railing.
A photo of the reflection of the sun reflecting off the ocean waves.

We stayed for an hour or so, till it began to get dark, and then decided to go visit the one Banksy piece that embellishes a parking lot in Downtown LA.

Artwork of a girl hanging from a parking sign.

The artwork itself was beautifully done, but what I appreciated even more was the effort put into its preservation. There was a transparent cover over the artwork, meant to prevent any degradation due to weather or other external factors. We took in the art in all its glory, paid for our overpriced parking, and then left for the Grove, to try to catch some Black Friday deals. It was a long time before we got there because unsurprisingly, we were not the only people who had decided to go to popular outlets on Black Friday. Aghast, we parked outside The Grove and headed in for some shopping. 

A mall labeled "the Grove."

Two hours later, I came back with absolutely nothing purchased while one of my friends spent a fair chunk at Drake’s OVO store. We got into the car at ten. The owner of our accommodation had made it clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to check in past ten as she had to leave. We got to the address fifteen minutes late, after convincing her to stay just a little longer. Unfortunately, due to some confusion about the address, we were too late in getting to the correct location and she left, leaving us locked out. Dejected, desperate, and cold, we sat outside the establishment, trying our best to reach her, to no avail. We started looking at alternative accommodations. Some twenty minutes later, she reached out to us with instructions on how to get in. She had been driving and managed to give us quite the scare with ignored calls or calls sent to voicemail. However, when we did manage to get into the accommodation, she had very sweetly left us the keys to the parking and the house with a little note containing the wifi password. We wound down for the day and decided to hit the sack after some food and freshening up. 

The next day, I had to get up at 6 a.m. for Formula 1 Qualifying. However, I managed to set the alarm to p.m. and ended up missing the event. It was a disappointing event for the McLaren team so I didn’t feel too bad. Nico and I decided to head to Hollywood Boulevard and see the Walk of Fame while the other two slept in. We took a walk across the famed street, spotting all the celebrities’ stars and then decided to take a cab up to Griffith Observatory for views of the city and the Hollywood sign. Griffith Observatory doesn’t offer much in the day because there’s not much to see. However, there are a fair few locals that hike up and take in the views. What we were treated to was an unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign and the silhouettes of buildings in downtown LA (it was a very hazy day).

A photo of a street emblazoned with stars on the tiled floor.
A star emblazoning the tile on the floor, reading "Hans Zimmer."
A greek arch.
A view of a skyline from afar.
A sign on the hills reading "Hollywood."

We then climbed down from the observatory to the bus stop nearby to take a tour of a Mondrian Mural. I’m unsure where LA public transport gets its bad reputation. We found that connectivity was pretty great and the Tap LA application made it easy to use as well. However, when we finally reached it, we were disappointed to find that the mural had been painted over in gray. We didn’t lose hope, however, and decided to take the bus to Venice Beach, while the sun blazed.

Interestingly, our bus halted somewhere in the middle of the way for reasons we couldn’t comprehend. We stepped out and saw a police car and some officers standing and rerouting traffic through the streets around the block. We assumed it was a crash or some type of accident that had caused it. After about 10 minutes of delay, we decided to walk some of the way through a supermarket before booking our Uber to the beach. Serendipitously, the lady at the store spoke Hindi and I overheard her say to someone that the Vice President was in one of the shops there. Out in the middle of nowhere, we decided to wait for a few seconds and saw Kamala Harris herself emerge from the store and get into her vehicle. She waved at us and the other bystanders as she left. It was quite a coincidence, considering we had never planned to be in that place at that time. 

A policeman directing the traffic away from a blocked road.

We got into our Uber and reached the Marina which was flooded with boats and quite a sight to behold. Then, we walked across the Venice Beach Canals, reminiscent of the eponymous European city, though far sunnier and less crowded. After our fair share of photography and sightseeing, we stepped onto Venice Beach, which was as lively as ever. There were activities, shops, and sights of all sorts on the boardwalk. I wanted to be out of the beach and the Santa Monica Pier in less than two hours, to make good time for The J Paul Getty Museum I wanted to see. We went to Santa Monica Pier and walked along the coast, witnessing the busy crowd in all its Saturday glory. There were very long queues for the roller coaster and the Ferris Wheel, so we decided to book an Uber to a restaurant near the museum and leave.

A ferris wheel in bright colors.
Two houses on the edge of a canal with a blue boat in front of them.
Ducks swimming in a canal.
A straight view of a canal.
An amusement park reading "Pacific Park"
A photo of the beach shore where the ocean meets it.
A view of the entrance of a pier with rocky hills in the backdrop.

We grabbed a bite and were treated to an interesting conversation with the bartender, who was sweet enough to pour us a free drink because his bottle was getting over and he wanted to start the next day with a fresh one. Lucky us. We finally went to the J Paul Getty Museum to see some famous paintings, including Irises by Vincent Van Gogh which is the pièce de résistance that the museum boasts. There were many other famous artists’ works as well, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Klimt. Additionally, the lower levels had an exhibition of the photography of Arthur Tress, which covered the streets of New York City. I quite enjoyed that. We then headed back to our accommodation. My friends left for dinner and I slept early. 

Painted portrait of girl holding umbrella in laced clothes.
Painting of water lillies.
Collection of black and white photographs.
Painting of irises.

I got up at the crack of dawn the next morning to catch the Formula 1 race. It was a terrible race for the McLaren team once again and I was not surprised. Nevertheless, I decided to walk to the subway station, through Hollywood Boulevard, and head to The Broad where I had managed to get a booking for the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror Room. I reached early and had a chance to explore the shops in the grand Central Market. I ate a little and then got to the museum. However, it wasn’t open so I walked a little and was treated to an exhibition of Jean Michel Basquiat’s works in a nearby building. The entrance fee was 50% off and I made my way inside and was treated to some unseen works by the Brooklyn native. I finished this exhibition and headed to the Broad to see the Infinity Mirror Room which was one minute of captivating lights. There was also a lot of art by Jeff Koons, Andy Warhold, and Roy Lichtenstein in the museum. Next, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and was able to see a Rothko and a Jackson Pollock.

Linear view of a subway track.
A gaudi and garish concert hall.
Linear view of a market.
Linear view of a market.
A skyscraper.
Mirror selfie of a man in a hall of mirrors with lights reflecting.
Artwork reading "I shop therefore I am".
Artwork of tulips made of blow up balloons.
Abstract artwork by Roy Lichtenstein.
Roy Lichtenstein artwork of roses.
Takashi Murakami artwork resembling a game character.
Keith Haring artwork with a lot of doodle-like work.
Intricate artwork depicting surreal dreams by David Wojnarowicz.
Artwork by Barbara Kruger reading "You are a very special person".
Artwork of a humanoid figure on wooden boards by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Artwork of a balloon dog by Jeff Koons.
Artwork of soup cans by Andy Warhol.
Abstract artwork in different colors by Mark Rothko.
Artwork of splattered paint by Jackson Pollock.
A linear view of a downtown LA road.

I had some time to spare so I saw the Crypto.com Arena and a mural outside it before leaving downtown. I finally ate lunch at Central Market and met up with my friends near our accommodation before heading back home. We had a long drive through winding streets and highways as Google did its best to get us to San Jose quickly, where we would drop off our car and catch a cab back to I-House. At around 12:30 a.m.  we reached San Jose and dropped our car off to head straight back home, itching for the comfort of the halls we know so well. The second we reached I-House, we all let out sighs of relief, relaxation, and ease. There is nothing quite like coming back home after a tiring vacation. Ours was packed with events and places to visit and we were so tired from driving, navigating, and sitting that we ran up to our rooms and called it a night. I haven’t seen my companions since the 26th when we returned and I am starting to suspect that their slumber hasn’t been disrupted. 

A mural depicting an NBA player.
An NBA arena from outside.
A mural depicting an NBA player.

All in all, it was an excellent journey. An impromptu trip to relax our minds and bodies before the clamor of dead week hits and we have to slog for the many exams we will be taking. However, the things that make me feel thankful are the community of classmates, seniors, and knowledgeable folks that inhabit I-House who will surely provide the apt atmosphere for tackling exams and making me feel at home. I’m also thankful for cheap car rentals, the plethora of art in the USA, and the comfort of I-House dining.  Just a couple more weeks to go before I take my next vacation or decide to stay in I-House to see what mischief residents who stay back get up to.