Escape from LA

In October 2006, I went to Disneyland. I was 22 years old, and it was the first and only time I’ve ever been.

I’m not a person that would generally think of himself as a Disney fan. I like Star Wars, but despite Star Tours it wasn’t a Disney property yet in 2006. I’m interested in 2d animation as an art form, and Walt Disney’s innovation in that field is hard to ignore, but that was a hundred years ago and honestly I’m kind of in the same camp as John K about it. But I was in Anaheim for a training seminar, and after lunch one day, when the agenda was looking especially dry, my boss mercifully handed me a hundred dollar bill and said “I’ll stay here for the sessions, do you want to go to Disneyland?” It was an easy decision.

While I don’t know that I’d have ever made a trip to California just for Disneyland, it turned into an excellent day. October is the off-season so lines were short and nothing was crowded. Like any good teenage goth I had that Tim Burton/Oingo Boingo phase, so Haunted Mansion rethemed for Halloween with The Nightmare Before Christmas was a memorable experience. And I joked for a long time that my parents never took me to Disneyland when I was kid, so I owed thanks to my boss for righting old wrongs.

I’ve looked back on that day often, but it’s not just because Disneyland exceeded my expectations. We hadn’t rented a car, so I was on foot for the couple of blocks between the convention center hotel and the park entrance. The weather was lovely, all blue skies and palm-tree-lined sidewalks. Besides being my one and only trip to Disneyland, what makes the day memorable is that sunny fall afternoon was the first time I pictured myself living in Southern California.

A lot of people have romantic notions about California. Culturally, we really glorified it through all of the 20th century – first the golden age of Hollywood, then beatniks and surfer culture and hippies, on to punk and glam and the Sunset Strip, Beverly Hills and “valley girls”, then Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. Whatever’s modern and on-trend, California is portrayed at the forefront of it. Even negative aspects like police corruption, race riots, and organized crime take on sort of an idealized sheen when viewed through the lens of California’s depictions in popular media. In our culture it represents a ubiquitous, nigh universally appealing pipe dream, maybe spanning the collective consciousness all the way back to the California gold rush. So I wrote it off at the time – of course it was pleasant, I was at a four-star resort hotel next to a theme park. OC is still out in the sticks to people from Los Angeles or San Diego, but I’d never even seen the ocean before that trip (the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t count). I told myself all those sunny, happy feelings were no more meaningful than fantasizing about winning the lottery, I was just a boy from mostly-nowhere smitten by the thought of life in a (relatively) glamorous far-off place.

In March of 2007, I got to go back to Orange County, this time to Dana Point. It was still for work, but I brought Michelle along. Sometime in the intervening months since my previous visit, long after my Disneyland tan had faded, I realized that besides the beauty of the ocean and the mountains, and besides the weather that is perpetually what can only be described as “fuckin’ nice”, and besides the pervasive cultural fetishization of California, there was something else – something harder to quantify. It felt like where I belonged. Besides the pleasure of her company, I brought Michelle because I was curious if it’d have the same effect on her. We rented bikes at Doheny Beach, we had lunch on the pier, and dinners at restaurants with views of the ocean. In a stroke of luck, our rental car got upgraded for free to a brand new Dodge Charger, which felt like a Maserati after the 4-cylinder 1991 Toyota Tercel I had back home. After the day’s work was done we’d spend a lot of time riding down Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down and the music up. Finding little adventures – side quests – one day we ended up at a head shop in San Clemente while looking for a Del Taco. We learned how to pronounce “La Jolla”. We met a business executive with a surfboard on his way to the beach. We watched the sun set over the sea. In March, it was too cold to swim, but that didn’t stop us from trying. It was an amazing life. And we said to ourselves – why can’t it be our life?

Turns out, a lot of reasons. While most of the negatives people like to level against the Golden State aren’t really negatives to a couple of pierced and tattooed creatives with a leftist bent, it’s true California is expensive and has air quality problems. There’s earthquakes and wildfires and droughts and tsunamis. It’s significantly less impoverished than my home state of Louisiana, but that comes with the trade-off it’s got some of the worst income disparity in the country. All good, factual arguments. Again and again over the years, with varying degrees of success, I talked myself into the idea that California was nice, but I wouldn’t want to live there. There’d be too many compromises I’d have to make to afford it – if I moved somewhere inland like Riverside I’d still be giving up the coastal life and Mediterranean climate. Even getting a foot on the bottom rung in Orange County proper didn’t seem possible unless I lived too frugally to afford the things I wanted to do, or worked too much to have time to enjoy them. So if I’d still be settling, anyway, why not settle for somewhere cheaper? Leave California to the Californians, find some other perfect place.

I’ve been back to Southern California a handful of times since 2007 – a few more trips to Orange County, Del Mar once in 2010 followed by San Diego – always for work, never for long enough. I’d go, want to stay, start looking at real estate, daydream about a move, brush up on my Spanish with Duolingo, get discouraged, talk myself into giving up, and then rinse and repeat in a year or two. In the mean time I’ve been a lot of other places, too – Portland, Detroit, Chicago, Vegas, Memphis, Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Albuquerque, Denver, the Yucatan, and even Flippin, Arkansas. I’ve seen some truly stunning sights and met lots of interesting people, I consider myself exceptionally fortunate. In a lot of ways I’m barely even the same person I was the first time I saw the ocean. But for all the places I’ve visited and tried to imagine myself living, nowhere else has had the same draw as that little slice of the world between the Peninsular Ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Based on my experience, that feeling of being where I’m supposed to be only exists in one place, and it’s not the place I’m from. I’d try and find things to be grateful for about Shreveport – I grew up here, my family’s roots here go back generations. It’s not a cultural hotspot or a naturally beautiful part of the country, but there’s some interesting history, it’s weekend trip distance from more appealing locales like New Orleans in one direction and the Ozarks in the other, and the arts scene may not be world-class or anything, but it’s improved a lot in the last fifteen years. Shreveport’s healthcare and biomedical research industry has been growing quickly as well, and with that comes young professionals and their disposable income, a good reason to be optimistic about the city’s economic future. But crime is bad (like, top 10 murder capitals in the U.S. bad – worse than even places like Oakland in California) and if there is a god I’m fairly certain Louisiana summers are his way of punishing man for having the hubris to live in a swamp. The cost of living in Shreveport is very low, but usually when a place has a low cost of living, it’s because it’s not a place you want to live. And it’s a double-edged sword because that also means wages are low – once you’re here, it’s a hard rut to get out of. As a little boy in Louisiana history class, I learned Shreveport started in the 1830’s when Henry Miller Shreve got his steamboat stuck in a log jam on the Red River. Fitting, then, that people have been getting stuck here ever since.

It could happen to you.

That sounds like harsh words, but I assure you I mean it in an affectionate way. Part of living in Shreveport is complaining about Shreveport, like New Yorkers brag about their giant rats. We understand that most of our citizenry isn’t here on purpose, and there’s a sense of unity in commiserating about it. Our most current economic development slogan is “Shreveport is Home” – which means ‘investment bias’ is the best argument we can make for coming here. Rejected proposals probably included “Settle for Shreveport” and “What Are You Going to Do, Move to Bossier?”

Shreveport started in the 1830’s when Henry Miller Shreve got his steamboat stuck in a log jam on the Red River. Fitting, then, that people have been getting stuck here ever since.

Jokes aside, Shreveport’s been all I’ve ever known. I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never lived further than ten miles from the hospital I was born at. Packing up and moving to the other side of the country seemed overwhelming. I was conscious, on some level, it was a thing people do, but I didn’t know how I would even start. I’d occasionally think about those gold rush wagon trains, people that loaded up their families and everything they owned to head West with little more than hope. No GPS, no cruise control, no Spotify playlists, and no guarantees about what was waiting for them. I wondered if in their situation I’d be willing to do the same, if I had it in me to leave behind everything familiar and forge a trail towards a new home and the promise of something better. And then I’d look around at my own situation and think “oh, right”. But, to be fair, a bunch of those pioneers ended up dead of cholera in unmarked graves peppered across the midwest, so there’s an argument to be made that wasn’t a great idea anyway.

Admittedly, most of my knowledge of wagon trains comes from Oregon Trail.

Over the years, though, the things that have tied me to Shreveport have gradually ceased to hold sway. When my mother died in 2013, that was the last of my close family in town, and in the time since then, most of my friends have moved away. Esteemed local haunts like Murrell’s, Nanking, and George’s have all fallen by the wayside. The film industry boom following Hurricane Katrina threatened to put us on the map, but nearly all that momentum was lost through legislative mismanagement, and it remains to be seen if organizations like the Louisiana Film Prize can jump-start it again. Reverend Horton Heat at Bear’s on Fairfield back in 2015 was the best rock and roll show I’ve ever been to, but shows like that are few and far between in Ratchet City. A lot of bands and venue owners are doing the best they can, but entertainment options remain sparse. Outdoor activities in the Ark-La-Tex revolve mostly around murdering the local wildlife, so spaces for other hobbies like hiking and biking are fairly limited, and if we’re being honest, the weather is usually too awful to do anything outside, anyway. If you try to hike in Louisiana you’re likely to run into an episode of Naked and Afraid. So while I’ve maybe always felt like the life I really wanted wasn’t here, more and more I’ve felt like the life that is here isn’t even one I’d be content to settle for. And when that happens, there’s a new force to contend with – instead of being overwhelmed at the thought of leaving, you start being overwhelmed at the thought of staying.

A month ago now, the balance finally tipped, I weighed my reasons to stay against my reasons to go, and Shreveport was found wanting. The prospect of just doing what I’ve been doing became more unappealing than rolling up my sleeves and staring down the unknown. Everyone expects you to have some kind of major life event that leads to that – an according-to-Hoyle miracle, or what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity”. But for me it was really just a lot of little events that eventually piled up high enough. No giant crushing boulder, just thousands of pebbles. On July 2nd I started looking for a job. I knew I wanted to push as far West as I could, and I was open to any possibility that facilitated that. If I had to stop off for a few years in Flagstaff or Phoenix or Las Vegas, it was at least moving in the right direction. If I needed to learn to be content with Kern or San Bernardino, I was ready to do it. But I didn’t have to compromise. My first choice was a well-established software vendor in Irvine – the same company that put on that Anaheim training seminar in 2006. They responded to my initial query almost immediately – I essentially had a six minute job search. After a few rounds of obligatory interviews, on July 17th, I got the official offer letter, and that same day I tendered my resignation to the boss that’d sent me to Disneyland. That was maybe my highest hurdle. The mental struggle I had quitting my job of sixteen years could be a whole other 2500 word soliloquy, but the TLDR would be it was the right choice, and the time for it had come. On July 22nd I signed the lease for our new apartment – a cute place in Laguna Hills fifteen minutes from the hotel Michelle and I stayed at in 2007. It’s five miles from the beach, nestled between Top of the World to the southwest and Santiago Peak to the northeast. In less than two weeks now, SoCal won’t just feel like home, it actually will be, and I can’t help but feel like the man that suddenly got everything he always wanted.

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