Love in San Diego

The weeks have been flying by. Has it really already been a month since we moved here? Misha and I are now both employed and are very grateful for the financial stability. I balance 3 jobs and work nearly full time. Well, when I chose to. I do have the option of taking the occasional day off, without repercussion.

On Mondays and Tuesdays I babysit for an 8 week old, 2 year old, and 4 year old. These toddlers are about the same amount of years apart as my 2 brothers, Pierce and Hugh, and me. Undeniably, I haven’t given my parents enough credit for raising us. By the end of the 8 hours, I am fully drained. This gig teaches me that raising 3 young children is often more arduous than a full time job as a Special Ed teacher.

On Monday and Wednesday evenings I tutor a hilarious 11-year old boy, and self proclaimed “Boss,” named Anthony. I got this engagement through Misha, who was about to tutor this boy himself, until he got a full time job and realized I’d probably do a better job tutoring than him. Anthony is learning 5th grade math, which is awfully more complex than it was in my day.

And lastly, Wednesday through Friday I substitute teach. While commuting the 30 miles to North County isn’t the most pleasant activity at 7 in the morning, I appreciate the opportunity to experience San Diego County schools. Solana Beach and Del Mar school districts have an extensive allocation of resources along with a small teacher-student ratio, making for a pleasant teaching experience. It no longer surprises me to find the teachers here carrying an endlessly content expression on their faces.

Friday, February 13 rolls around and I’m counting down the seconds until the weekend of love ahead. But first, Misha takes the car to LA to see his friend, Alex, who is in town for the weekend, leaving me stranded in North Park for the day. This calls for a girl’s night. I invite Ainsley over. We feast on my mom and my signature recipe, an enticing shrimp pasta and feta cheese dish, and crack open a bottle of wine. Or maybe two. We flick on the TV and fall into a trance watching trash television – some show about hookers and strippers. The show ends and Ainsley and I transition to some much needed girl talk. I’m beyond happy to have met Ainsley. Although Misha fulfills most of my needs, it’s refreshing to have a girl-friend I can vent to and relate to. And she’s only a twenty minute drive away!

I am sound asleep when I hear the bedroom door slowly creek open. My biological clock tells me it’s the middle of the night and Misha isn’t supposed to be home until tomorrow morning. I open my eyes to the sight of my boyfriend attempting to stealthily slide into bed without awakening me. Upon seeing me awake, Misha proceeds to disclose that his surprise plans for Valentine’s Day entail an early morning and he wanted to make sure he was home on time. Feeling blessed to have such a dedicated boyfriend, I fall back asleep and dream of what the next day will hold.

I wake up to the smell of Misha’s scrumptious signature breakfast: bacon, sunny-side-up eggs and toast. After loading our bodies with fuel for the day, we hop in the car to go to, well, I don’t know. Misha loves to be unpredictable on special occasions and this Valentine’s Day is no exception. We pull into a parking spot by one of the many stunning beaches in San Diego. As we walk along the coast, the sun glistens on my face and I soak in the salty breeze. A quarter mile into our walk, I notice a sign reading Torrey Pines State Reserve. Torrey Pines has been highly recommended to us by locals. The area is acclaimed for its spectacular golf course, hiking trails and stunning beach views from atop the coastal cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Entering the reserve, we follow the lofty paved road towards the main hiking trails. We proceed to take the Beach Trail which leads us up towards a sensational view of water and city and then down to the shore. Having limited rainfall, the scenery is a drastic change from what I’m used to, in Atlanta. The dry dirt trail is surrounded by the rare and exquisite Torrey Pine trees, a plant community of sage shrubs, ferns, and cacti, and erect cliffs overpassing the endless ocean. The dirt ends and the sand begins. We kick off our shoes and feel the icy water touch our toes. We loop back along the shore until reaching our car, parked beside Life Guard Tower # 4. “Our Valentine’s Day adventure has just begun,” Misha announces.

We arrive at our next destination, Torrey Pines Glider Port, 15 minutes later. The scenery is similar to the State Reserve, with steep cliffs overlooking the ocean, but this time we are surrounded by thrill-seeking paragliders. The cliffs, ocean and a sky full of hanging individuals make for a peculiarly beautiful scene. We park the car and head towards the stairs leading down to Black’s Beach. “We’re not going there yet,” Misha says, veering to the left, away from the commonly traversed route. We approach a sign that says “Keep Out, Unstable Cliffs” attached to a chain linked fence blocking any further proceedings. Yellow diamond signs paint stick figures slipping off a cliff while loose rocks tumble below them. “We’re going this way,” Misha says pointing to a thin trail circling the outer left pole of the fence. “Is this legal? Is it safe?” I ask, worrying per usual. “I wouldn’t take you on here if it wasn’t,” Misha lies. So we go. We walk about a half mile along the frighteningly thin, yet relatively simple trail, leading to a renowned overlook. And boy, was it worth it. While Misha adventures to the very tippy toppy edge of the cliff, I stay back on flatter ground. Even here the view is as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in this gorgeous city. Before me is blue. Just blue. A massive encompassing of sparkling water. And behind me grows a green and brown valley of shrubs, accommodating two mansions built almost entirely of glass. I peer down to Black’s Beach, seeming over a mile away. The appealing water reels us in. We head back along the narrow cliff towards the steps which lead us down to the sand and water. We carefully descend the large stone and wooden steps for 20 minutes, avoiding loose rocks and missteps. My calves burning, we reach the bottom. I waste no time finding a spot to plop down on my towel and pull out our packed lunch of grilled Rueben sandwiches. Before taking my first bite, I do a double take of the male figures moseying down the beach. It doesn’t take me long to comprehend that we’re on a nude beach. After a few minutes of acclimating, the innumerable amounts of nude older men no longer faze me. The flies, on the other hand, do. Shortly after we feast and catch a few final glimpses of unappealing male (and one female) genitalia, we head back up the daunting hill. Feeling instantly breathless, I motivate myself by thinking of what a great workout ascending 300 steps is.

Misha and I end our Valentine’s day with a home cooked meal. Steak, potatoes, asparagus and red wine is on the menu. Oh, and of course Misha and my absolute favorite dessert, Trader Joe’s Sublime chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. Although Valentine’s Day is over, the adventures are only half over.

On Sunday we continue the trend of exploring recommended attractions in San Diego. Having been given so many suggestions, we often wonder whether 3 and a half months is even close to enough time to see it all. Around noon we head to Point Loma, a hilly peninsula that separates the San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Locals describe this place as “where California began.” We park and head into the Cabrillo National Monument museum. Climbing out of his boat and onto shore in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped into history as the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States. Having gotten our fill of history, we step outside the museum to admire a massive statue of Cabrillo, himself. He stands tall and overlooks the bay filled with sailboats and a seaside community. Misha and I let our legs hang over the bordering wall and cherish this magnificent view.

A mile walk down from the Cabrillo National Monument are the Point Loma tide pools. The road leading from the monument reminds me of a blue diamond ski slope. We easily coast down the paved road, knowing the way back up will be much more challenging. Now at sea level, we look atop the hill we just conquered and spot the Cabrillo National Monument and Old Point Loma lighthouse looking down at us. Misha climbs over the rocks and explores the tide pools eagerly searching for crabs and octopuses in the shallow water. I plant myself on a tilted rock set perfectly for a back rest and examine the daredevil children jumping from one mossy rock to the next. Frowning from not having found any sea life, Misha joins me and again we take a moment to be fully present with our surroundings. I take my mind away from the stress of money, work and uncertainty, and focus on what I came here to do: leave my comfort zone, open my mind and fulfill this segment of my life with long lasting memories and experiences.

Blue Skies and 70 Degree Weather

By the end of our first weekend in San Diego, Riley and I have impressively gathered just about everything we will need for the next three and a half months. My teal colored Schwinn road/mountain bike hybrid rests lazily beside Riley’s classic Bianchi on our porch. Beside our green, yellow and red striped couch a new printer (costing $5 on Craigslist) spits out paper like the first Pulitzer Press. And by the front door a used grey tennis basket filled with 80 or so tennis balls and a red agility ladder lean against the pale white wall. Oh, and we even have 2 new friends: Samantha and Jordan, who we got in contact with through Riley and Samantha’s mutual friend, Abbey. And of course, I’ve made time to play a round of disc golf at Balboa Park, the number one most played disc golf course in the world.

Our second week in this city of never-ending blue skies and an eerily minute temperature range (between 68 degrees and 76 degrees Fahrenheit) begins with work-related errands. Riley spends hours driving back and forth from various school districts, handing in her substitute-teacher application while I travel to all parts of San Diego and the surrounding towns interviewing for tennis positions and privately coaching aspiring tennis stars. In my free time I coordinate with our handyman, Hank, and our landlord, Ed, in attempt to fix the door which won’t close and internet which won’t work. “Миша?  вы говорите по руски?” were the first words spoken to me by Ed, meaning “Misha? Do you speak Russian?” Turns out, he’s Russian and Jewish, like me.

It’s been barely over a week since we’ve arrived here and due to Riley’s endless network of friends we have another double date tonight. This time with Ainsley and Patrick. Ainsley is the sister of Riley’s good friend and former coworker at Dunwoody Springs Charter School, Courtney. Riley and I park our car down a dark street about a quarter mile away from this hopping brewery/restaurant. Ballast Point is the name, home to the unreasonably expensive Grapefruit Sculpin IPA beer. We arrive at the doorstep of this intricately designed boat-themed building. Another couple arrives simultaneously. Although I have never seen or heard a description of our soon-to-be companions tonight, my gut tells me these two are who we will be dining with tonight. Tall, blonde-haired and blue eyed, Ainsley is a beautiful woman, appearing about the same age as us. Her lover, Patrick, bears similar tall and handsome features. With long, fashionably imperfect hairstyles and wide, carefree smiles, both look like they belong at the beach. Probably why they reside, well, on the beach. The four of us spend a lovely night together drinking, eating and talking. I am instantly drawn to this couple and foresee many friendly times together in the future.

Our second weekend arrives before we even remember the first one ending. I play my first tennis league match and win. In the process I make a friend, Freeman, who invites Riley and me to his Super Bowl party in a few weeks. With few obligations and a bit more free time Riley and I spend a lot of quality time together. We bike together before the sun sets, take leisurely trips to the grocery store, and sit on our porch reading and writing. This form of time consumption passes just as quickly as when we were frantically driving everywhere within a 35 mile radius of our home, attempting to capture jobs and household items. Before I know it, it’s Sunday night and I’m staring at my computer screen, the mouse-arrow resting atop the “Submit Payment” button. After weeks, actually months, of contemplation this is the closest I’ve been to finally purchasing a drone. With the $2,700 commitment staring me straight in the face, a few beads of sweat form atop my shivering hand. I press down on the mousepad. The order has been placed. In two days I will receive my drone allowing Steven and my business, dubbed Sky Vision Studios, to take flight.

Monday, January 25 rolls around marking Riley’s first day of work. She bikes the 2 plus miles to the home of the woman whose three kids need a nanny. The oldest is 4 years old. The youngest is 5 weeks old. Monday also marks the day I find out if I passed the CBEST. For those who forgot or who missed it, the CBEST is the exam I took in San Francisco on January 10 in attempt to become a certified substitute teacher. The exam during which I illegally blocked an inch of a woman’s driveway with Riley’s car, resulting in the vehicle being towed and me paying $700 to liberate it. A bittersweet moment as I read my passing scores, wondering if it was worth all the trouble.

To put it bluntly, I spend the next few days bumming around. I ride my bike a good bit, exploring the local farmers market and some of the local shops. I run nearly every day and play tennis whenever I find a willing opponent. I spend way too much time cleaning our home of things that don’t need to be cleaned. And I get a fair amount of reading and writing done. On Thursday Riley and I attend the substitute orientation for La Mesa Spring Valley School District. In a few weeks we’ll be able to start subbing in this district located about 10 miles east of our residence. The next day we run 10 miles along the coast, from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach to La Jolla and back the way we came.

On Friday night my drone arrives. I spend all of Saturday piecing it together and watching countless hours of YouTube tutorials. Riley goes to Pacific Beach with Ainsley and Patrick while I continue working on my new obsession. Antsy beyond belief, around midnight I’m ready to take my baby on her first flight. That was my first mistake – flying at night. Not quite following the tutorials, I approach an area only moderately well lit. But to compensate, I ensure there’s minimal obstructions in the sky. I’ll merely start her up, fly her 5-6 feet in the air for a minute or so, land her, and call it a night, I tell myself. I turn the remote controller on, followed by the drone battery. So far so good. I place the controller in GPS mode and calibrate the drone, connecting it to the 7 nearest satellites. I then press the joysticks down and towards each other to start the motors and propellers. Wonderful. Slowly but surely I press the left joystick towards the sky, instructing the drone to elevate. And that’s exactly what she does. I stop at about 3 feet. Suddenly the drone begins to drift to the right towards a fence. That’s not supposed to happen, I panic. I zoom the drone to the left, but she begins to inch downwards towards the ground. I zoom the drone up. Again, she drifts to the right towards the fence. Panic blinding me, I’m unable to save the drone from hitting the chain-linked fence. Down she falls onto her side before bouncing up wildly and hitting the fence again. With the propellers flaying I have no option but to turn the remote controller off. Big mistake. Once the controller is turned off, the drone loses connection and shoots up into the sky at an unimaginable speed, slicing my leg in multiple places with its carbon propellers. Just as the drone is about to fly away into the pitch black sky forever, I manage to slap it down with my left hand. The propeller slices a chunk of my left thumb off, hovers in place for a second and then shoots up into the sky again. There goes $2,700 I think to myself holding back tears of pain and sadness. Just then, a miracle happens and the drone slams into the only thin sliver of telephone wire in the area. A spark of current as the two conduits of electricity merge and the drone comes toppling down before slamming against the top of a wooden fence and tumbling into a stranger’s fenced in yard. Silence. I climb the fence, smearing blood on the unvarnished wood, and jump into the yard retrieving my lifeless piece of technology. All 4 propellers have snapped in half and a bloody thumbprint resides on the drone body. Feeling agonizingly numb, I gather the shards, climb back over the fence and head home.

I have trouble sleeping that night. And early the next morning I have a tennis match in Coronado. My finger still bleeds and I can’t hold the racquet in my left hand, causing me to lose the match badly. The only redeeming aspect of the morning is meeting my tennis opponent, Ted. Ted is in his 50’s and a very skilled tennis player. After hearing about Steven and my start-up he offers me the names of 3 realtors in the area with whom I should network. He also informs me that his girlfriend works for a local CPA firm that may be interested in taking me on as a part time employee. I thank Ted for the offer but tell him I’m not interested.

The following week Riley begins substitute teaching in North County. These schools are a ways away (about 25-30 miles) and are attended by mostly affluent students. “The school lobby looked fancier than some of the nicest hotels I’ve been in,” Riley illustrates to me after her first day subbing in Encinitas.

Realizing it’s been nearly a week since I’ve spoken to my mom, I give her a ring. We shoot the shit and catch up on our lives, now separated by thousands of miles. Upon informing her about my encounter with Ted this past weekend (leaving out the missing chunk of finger), my mom’s tone of voice becomes very serious: “Misha, that’s an amazing opportunity. You can earn money, gain experience doing taxes and still have plenty of free time to explore. You need to speak to that man again and at least look into the job he’s suggesting.” And I do exactly that. I shoot Ted an email requesting the contact info for the owner of the firm. Ted gets back to me within a few hours with a name and an email address. “Shoot him your resume,” he tells me. So I do, along with a narrative explaining my desire to travel the country while avoiding going broke. The next day I hear back from the company’s secretary. She informs me that the owner, Mike, would like to have a phone interview with me the next day. The next day (Thursday) I speak with Mike and we seem to connect quite well. The secretary then calls me again informing me that Mike would like to meet me in person the following Monday, February 9. The farther along I get in this process the more I desire this job. Although I have zero experience doing taxes (I’m an auditor by trade), I believe this will be a wonderful skill to learn. Plus, some financial peace of mind.

The following night Riley and I have yet another double date. This time the victims are Rachel and Grant, close friends of another couple, Alana and Will, with whom Riley was close with in Atlanta. We meet at Rachel and Grant’s house on the border of La Jolla and Pacific Beach and chat for a bit over a Heineken before walking over to a nearby Italian restaurant. It’s a tradition of ours to eat pasta the night before a big race. Oh, I don’t think I mentioned the race yet. I’ll get there in a minute. So Rachel, Grant, Riley and I eat and converse. I am mesmerized by Grant’s epic tales of living on a pirate ship for nearly 2 years and his adventurous hobbies of spear fishing, paddle boarding and exploring the depths of Mexico.

“We need to hang out with them more often,” I tell Riley after our meal. “They are so cool!”

Riley and I go to bed early that night knowing that we have a big race in the morning. Riley set a goal about a half decade ago to run a half marathon in every state. The Mermaid Series San Diego Half Marathon will be run in her 10th state. If you haven’t gathered by the name of the race, the Mermaid Series is an all-women’s race. Unfazed by the pink website background, the pictures of women all over the website and the survey questions asking which women’s magazine she would like to subscribe to, Riley registered for this race thinking it was your typical co-ed half-marathon. But it wasn’t. I was one of 8 male racers. Not that I’m complaining about running along the gorgeous coast of Mission Bay on a perfect morning with over 1000 fit women scrambling all around me, but I certainly didn’t fit in with my fellow racers. Excited by the estrogen around me, I run my fastest half marathon time of 1:46:37 (an 8:08/mile pace). Riley finishes with an impressive time of 1:56:50. Exhausted yet happy, Riley and I drive home, eat a large lunch and head to Coronado Beach, where we meet up with Ainsley and Patrick. We sunbathe and talk on the pure, white sand to the background sound of waves splashing against the shore. A beautiful, yet moderately populated beach, I find much appeal to this place.

After a surprisingly energetic half hour of Frisbee toss, the 4 of us pack our cars and drive over to Coronado Brewing. The beer is delicious. I down 2 tasty IPAs while munching a glorious bratwurst burger while Riley and our companions enjoy quesadillas. Our bellies feeling content, we exit the brewery and part ways. Soon after arriving home, a coma sets in and we call it an early night.

I sleep way too many hours and wake up Sunday morning with renewed purpose in life. As I had been sporadically for the past week, I commit to spending most of today filming with my drone. I drive around all of San Diego, from Balboa Park to PetCo Park to Coronado Beach and film anything and everything that may appear impressive from the sky. As we do nearly every night, Riley and I cook again tonight. A mouth-watering trout, asparagus and rice meal is on the menu tonight.

While Riley babysits Monday afternoon, I prep for my interview. Glad I brought a suit and ties, I think to myself. Dressed in my fanciest attire, I print 3 copies of my most updated resume and hop in the car at 20 minutes past 1. My interview is at 2:00pm, but I get there fifteen minutes early. I take my time adjusting my unusually long hair and wiping the beads of sweat off my forehead. I enter the building and ascend to the second floor, where Mike’s office is situated. A woman with shoulder length black hair and a contagiously wide smile welcomes me in and seats me in the lobby. Soon after, a tall, wiry man in his 50’s with the friendliest of eyes and an equally pleasant smile comes out of the hallway. “Misha?” he asks.

I stand up and stick my hand forward. “Nice to meet you in person, Mike,” I say, looking my potential future boss directly in the eyes, as I was taught as a teenager.

We walk into Mike’s office and talk for about an hour. I come out desiring the job even more than before. I then am guided to the conference room where one by one I meet Olivia and Janet, two of the company’s managers. Some expected and some unexpected interview questions and discussions later the interview process is concluded. “I’m going to interview the final candidate today and you’ll know if you get the job by tomorrow night,” Mike explains before ushering me out. Feeling stressed from 2 hours of exhibiting professionalism yet elated from the prospect of working for these wonderful individuals, I descend the stairs and head back to my car. The following evening I have an employment offer in my inbox. A sense of relief encompasses me as for the next 2 months I will have financial security.

Our New Home

We follow the sidewalk running along the one way road dubbed Boundary Street for about 100 feet before veering to the right onto a dirt alley barely wide enough to fit a Mini-Cooper. Another 50 feet and we stop at a wooden fence, about a foot and a half taller than me. My body tingles with anticipation as our realtor, Cathy-Ann, fidgets with the stubborn lock as she attempts to insert a key into the heavy-duty lock securing the fence closed.

This past month of traveling has been an incredible experience, and the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect, but I’m now ready to have a place to call home. There are joys that can only be attained traveling, but a girl like me eventually needs the stability of her own bed, clean bathroom, and organized closet. Seemingly ages later, the gate swings opens. We are exposed to a short, rectangular cottage separately fenced in from a larger unit in which our landlord and his fiance reside in. immediately before us rests a round metal table and four white, cushioned chairs under a spacious cloth umbrella. Beside it, a small, leafless tree and potted plants chatter among themselves A hummingbird, half the size of my palm, sweeps past my frizzling hair. With clear blue skies and a 75 degree forecast, I already foresee many afternoons spent reading and relaxing on this veranda.

As we approach the front door I notice “Shalom” written on a decoration hanging by the front door. As we later learn, the owner of the home is both Russian and Jewish, not unlike Misha. With a little less trouble, Cathy-Ann cracks open the front door. We are welcomed by a comfortably quaint room embodied by tile floors, wooden cabinets and jubilant decorations. It only takes a few seconds to identify everything in this charming living room and kitchen. Beside the door resides a small round kitchen table covered in a flowery table cloth. Almost pressed against it is a massive stainless-steel refrigerator large enough to house 2 family’s worth of food. To the right of the fridge are granite counter tops, an oven and stove and a washer and dryer. Opposite the kitchen sleeps a petite brightly striped couch, a wooden coffee table and a modest sized television atop a wooden TV-stand.

This room has everything one would need. It’s small, but not too small. It’s the perfect size for a couple with limited possessions. Our short tour continues into the bathroom, located beside the washer/dryer. My eyes brighten as (in my opinion) the most important room in the house sparkles with beauty. The spacious, tile-floored shower bears a tile-seat and a glass door. The porcelain toilet and shiny sink fit comfortably beside it.

Cathy-Ann, Misha and I then migrate to the bedroom, located on the opposite side of the house. Again, my expectations are exceeded. A queen sized bed screaming my name, a 3 drawer IKEA-esque dresser screaming Misha’s, a tall white wardrobe for my excessive supply of dresses, and a large wooden book shelf filled with months’ worth of books and games is more than we could have asked for.

I look over and see Misha grinning at me.

“Our first home together,” he says as he walks over and embraces me in a big bear hug.

We spend the bulk of the evening unpacking, only taking a break to watch an obnoxiously vibrant red, pink and purple sunset. We then ride over to the local Trader Joe’s for some groceries. Misha and I cook a delightful steak meal and down it with some celebratory red wine. We have successfully journeyed from Atlanta, Georgia to San Diego, California. This marks the end of a wonderful chapter in our lives and the beginning of the next.

I wake up my first day in San Diego to another perfect morning. Before starting my to-do list, I decide to go on a run through our neighborhood known as North Park. We chose to live in North Park as we had been informed by many that this up-and-coming neighborhood is the hip area for young people like ourselves. I begin my run. A half mile from our cottage lies University Avenue, a street boasting the neighborhood’s downtown. This diverse area provides a plethora of cafes , restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and microbreweries. A theatre and weekly farmer’s market also add to the variety. As I observe the countless happy youth and adults flood these eccentric streets and shops I already feel myself falling in love. There is already an overwhelming amount of things and places I’m ready to experience here.

The hours begin to fly by as Misha and I continue getting settled into our new home. Misha spends most of his time on Craigslist finding us deals on road bikes, a bike rack, impenetrable bike locks, a wine rack, and other essential items we weren’t able to squeeze into my compacted car. He also begins coordinating with potential tennis clients he’s gathered through various online and offline outlets. I spend my hours doing research on the required paperwork for substitute teaching. The process is a lot more complicated than I thought. Unlike Fulton County in Atlanta, San Diego County is divided into 42 separate districts each with unique requirements. Scheduling an appointment for fingerprints and teacher credentialing at the San Diego County Education Office is only the first step. Feeling the stress already rolling in I take a deep breath and continue on with my productivity.

Needing a break from filling out substitute teacher applications and attempting to master the art of scanning documents on our newly acquired (for $5), fresh-out-of-the-box printer, I check my email. I’m pleased to find an email from a woman I had been communicating with on She asks if I’d be interested in babysitting her 3 young children. I give her a call and after a 30 minute conversation, I am invited to come meet the kids the following Monday. Misha and I eat dinner that night with a sense of accomplishment. We both got an unprecedented amount of work accomplished today.

The Final Leg

After a warm night’s rest we wake up bright and early for a run. As Riley and I have said before, we believe that running is the best way to experience a city. When you walk you’re moving at an average speed of 1-3 mph. It would take nearly all the daylight a winter day has to offer to cover 10 miles. Driving is too fast. How much can you really see when you’re flying by structures too quick to distinguish their shapes and colors? Running is the perfect medium. You can cover a half-marathon’s distance in 2 to 3 hours, yet you’re moving slow enough to notice the agony on the face of the 40 something year old woman standing beside the hotdog stand and spilling ketchup onto her new pair of Steve Madden shoes.

Our jog begins at our car and heads South East towards the water. We run along the temperate shore for a few miles before turning onto State Street. This prominent road cuts through the heart of Santa Barbara, exposing the town’s finest restaurants, galleries and shops. Rainbow flags mark our entrance into the gay district. The familiar sizzle and delightful smell of a cooking burger catches my attention. We’ll be going there later, I think to myself as I jot a mental note of the restaurant’s name. After a few distracting miles, the jubilant stretch of road ends and we encounter the residential part of State Street. Quaint, 2-bedroom homes flood both sides of us. A man with tattooed arms bulging out of his undersized graphic t-shirt uses a leaf blower to reposition his freshly cut flowery shrubs. A retired woman with droopy bags beneath her eyes shuffles over to her mailbox in sweat pants and dark green slippers.

5 miles into our run we hang a left onto a road which should loop us back to our starting point. Upon passing a park and a golf course we are suddenly running along the shoulder of a freeway centered between two evergreen mountains. Minimal cars drive along this steep road. The excess oxygen being released mixed with my already overstimulated endorphins places me into a very happy state.

I think back to the map of Santa Barbara etched into my memory. Cliff Drive is where we turn next. With there being virtually no civilization on this road, and massive hills on either side of me, I start to fear the gradient of Cliff Drive. My fears are confirmed around mile 7 when we make our second to last left turn. The first mile of Cliff Drive is all uphill. With the ocean, only a few hundred feet to our right, teasing us with its flatness, Riley and I are tempted to end our run a few miles early. But we carry on. An excruciatingly slow 2 miles later we make our final left turn towards the car.

“How much farther?” Riley yells from behind me, as the road triples in steepness.

“1 mile,” I shout back.

100 feet later I no longer hear the elegant slap of Riley’s shoes against concrete. I look behind me and see mostly empty space. About a block and a half farther back I spot Riley, walking.

I turn around and jog over to my exhausted girlfriend. We walk the final half mile to our car.

After each of us inhales a quart of water, Riley and I hop in the car and head toward the burger joint I spotted earlier. I down a tasty charbroiled hamburger while Riley nibbles on her turkey burger. We split an order of sweet potato fries for good measure.

Next stop: Josh’s house.

Josh is a best friend of mine. He and I met in our first year as teenagers. We were at sleepaway camp. Actually, let’s backtrack. A few hours prior to arriving on the grounds of this sleepaway camp (dubbed French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts) I was at the New Ark airport. There were about 20 of us Florida teens who had just landed in this unfamiliar city up North, and we were anxiously standing by the conveyer belt, awaiting our luggage. One of the Floridians – a skinny boy with dark hair and Jewish features – got bored of waiting for his oversized suitcase so he hopped on the conveyer belt. Round and round he went, until security kicked him off. This was Josh.

Immediately, I knew Josh was cool. My assumptions were reaffirmed as I’d often see Josh walking around the camp grounds with the “ruffian crowd.” These were the kids who had no respect for the laws of camp. They snuck into the skate park after hours, rode down the steepest hills on their Razor scooters and skipped the evening activities to play basketball in the gym or poker in their bunk. Mind you, we’re talking about a sleepaway camp for rich, Jewish kids who sing, dance and act. Josh’s crew was BAD. Camp ended and a few years passed. I was now 15 and waiting in line at the Fall Out Boy concert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Who else is standing in line, wearing a pink studded belt? Josh freaking Zelcer.

“You’re the kid who rode around the conveyer belt in the New Ark airport,” I said to the gnarly kid leaning ever-so-cool against the concrete wall.

“Yup. And you hung out with Ben, right?” Josh asked me, referring to the only thing I had going for me back then (Ben was one of the cooler kids at camp).

The rest is history.

Now we’re 25, almost 26, and our friendship remains strong despite not having seen each other in nearly 3 years.

I park our car along a curb in Universal City. Before Riley and I can open our car doors, a manic man with long black hair tied in a man-bun, intentionally ragged facial hair and a leather jacket worn over his wife-beater comes sprinting at us.

“Joshhhh!” I yell, spreading my arms.

We embrace for an awkwardly long while.

Josh then introduces himself to Riley before helping us carry our luggage upstairs to his apartment. Josh’s abode is surprisingly clean and even more surprisingly empty.

“Where’s all your stuff?” I ask my old friend as I frantically search for a glass for water.

“We don’t have any,” Josh replies.

“You don’t have drinking glasses?”

“Not that I know of.”

“What about plates and stuff to cook with?”

“I don’t think so.”

After some heavy duty searching, I locate a single drinking capsule. “We’re going to have to get creative with cooking dinner this week,” I tell my girlfriend as I step out of the barren kitchen.

Still recovering from our run earlier in the day, Riley and I request a relaxed evening. No argument from Josh. We gather in the living room, Riley sitting on an ergonomic office chair extracted from the roommates room, Josh resting on a backless rocking chair and me cross-legged on the hardwood living room floor (as the only other item in the living room was a bicycle). Josh fills us in on his past 3 years of life, since moving to Los Angeles. He came out here to pursue a music career. I’ve always considered Josh to be the most musically talented individual I knew. As an aspiring rock star in my late teens I would call Josh nearly every day to tune my guitar over the phone. And he’d tune it to perfection every time.

“Unfortunately, talent only gets you so far,” Josh explains. He goes on to describe the difficulties and frustrations of being an aspiring artist in this city of aspiring artists. Backstabbing and self-interest is the name of the game out here. Every word spoken to you needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s difficult to know someone’s true intentions. Josh has made and lost countless friends in this city. People who seemed interested in helping him but only ended up hurting him. Josh plays us some of his recordings.

“Damn, that one’s awesome,” I say during one particularly grand song. “How much did you get for writing that beat?”

“Zero. I kinda got screwed by the artist and producer.”

That seems to be the trend.

We listen to more of Josh’s songs. “I’ve probably written over 800 songs since getting here,” Josh tells us.

I do the math in my head – that’s about 1 song per day. “Wow,” I say.

Our stomach’s craving carbs and protein, we transition to the kitchen. Using a metal salad bowl, Riley cooks black and white rice and Brussels sprouts while I prepare curry chicken on a handle-less skillet. We gobble our tasty dinner down before heading to Josh’s room. I pull my guitar out of my heavy duty guitar case before resting the smooth wood on my thigh. Josh stands beside his keyboard, lips pressed against the mic. Reminiscent of our high school days in an emo pop-punk band, Josh and I jam. Riley lies beside me listening.

Josh abruptly stops singing. “Want to meet the girl I’m talking to?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say.

The 3 of us head to a nearby apartment complex where Josh’s lady-friend and 3 of her friends are enjoying drinks. I watch my old buddy fall in love before my eyes.

Morning comes and we decide to continue our active streak. Riley, Josh and I jump into Josh’s Elantra, now displaying over 100,000 miles, and drive to Runyon Canyon. The steepness of this hike isn’t overly welcoming after yesterday’s challenging run.

“This is my spot,” Josh says, upon reaching an opening beside a leafless tree.

We turn around and admire the foggy view of Los Angeles. We catch our breath for about 15 minutes before beginning our descent. This being a popular hike, we encounter well over 100 people. And nearly every one of them possesses a fit body, bronze tan and stylish attire.

“Does everyone look like this in L.A.?” I ask Josh.


We get back to our car and drive a few blocks closer to Hollywood. We park and walk the famous streets full of fortune and fame. I read the names etched into the stars below me, counting how many I recognize.

“Are you wearing Ray-Ban’s?” a man asks me, awakening me from my celebrity-name-game.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Can we interview you?”


The man asks Riley if she is also wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, to which she replies affirmatively. I put my arm around my girlfriend as the cameras start rolling. One man holds a boom mic to my face, while two others point massive cameras at us and a 4th man asks us questions about why we wear Ray-Ban’s.

“We’ve been here less than a day and we’re already famous,” I say to Riley after receiving commemorative Ray-Ban notebooks.

Upon arriving back at the car we find a parking ticket wedged under Josh’s windshield wiper. Our bad luck with parking continues.

We head home and eat another home-cooked dinner before getting back in the car towards Santa Monica. Riley, Josh and I walk quietly along the boardwalk, listening to the sound of the dark waves splash against the equally as dark shore. We arrive at the well-known pier which we proceed to walk upon. Not much is happening on the pier at this hour but from the darkened carnival games, the towering Ferris wheel and the disinterested expression on the man standing behind the “Balloon Animals $1 – $5” stand I am reminded of an outdated fair that stopped being cool 20 years ago. Yet, it still exists.

On the way home that night, Josh gets a call from a producer – Beau Billionaire.

“Just a heads up – Beau talks a lot,” Josh says, as we approach the producer’s tiny, expensive studio. “Mark my words – he’s going to talk about being Jewish, heavy metal and how he’s the best producer in the world.”

And that’s exactly what he talks about. Among, many, many other things. Riley and my excitement and curiosity of being in a real live studio is quickly diffused once we learn that Beau is incapable of allowing a second to pass without him talking. Every time Josh, Riley or I open our mouths to speak we are easily overpowered by Beau’s tongue. Genuinely angry at the amount of verbiage coming out of this blonde-haired man’s mouth, I kick Josh in the leg amid one of Beau’s countless monologues. I mouth the words “Let’s go.”

Josh nods his head in agreement.

We wake up later than planned. By the time the eggs begin sizzling it’s already the afternoon. We slam the cholesterol-rich foods down our throats and rush out the door. Today’s first stop is the Getty Center, as recommended by my grandma and grandpa, Ella and Isaac. The Getty Center is a large plot of land housing $1.3 Billion worth of architecture and gardens overlooking Los Angeles. The Center is most famous for the Getty Museum, which features 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Century paintings, sculptures and other arts from North America and Europe.

In attempt to bypass paying $20 for Getty Center parking, I pull into the nearby synagogue. “Synagogue member parking only,” reads a large sign. I park in one of the many open parking spots and approach the two men standing at the security office.

“Good afternoon,” I say to the two plump men donning silver badges above their left pectoral.

“How can we help you?” one of the men asks in New York-Jew accent.

“I have a favor to ask,” I tell them. “My friend and I are Jewish. We’re not members of this specific temple, but we do celebrate the high holidays. Would we be able to park here for a few hours while we check out the Getty?”

The two men exchange humored glances. They turn back to face me, neither speaking as they wait for the other to talk first.

“Sure,” says the man who had thus far been silent.

“We won’t get towed or ticketed or anything?” I ask.

“Nope, you’re good.”

“Thank you, guys. We really appreciate it.”

I get my friends from the car and we cross the street to the Getty. We arrive at the museum just in time for a tour of the Louis XIV and Louis XV exhibition. The prominence and riches of these French rulers is represented throughout the spotless white halls. Portraits twice the scale of actual humans, hand crafted tables and ornately decorated dressers survived for centuries and now stand before me. One particular item catches my attention. It’s called a Planisphere Clock. This incredible chunk of 18th Century technology contains multiple dials. The main dial has three overlapping circular plates and multiple hands to indicate the time, the months of the year and their zodiacal signs, the days of the lunar month and the local time in various cities and parts of the world. The four smaller dials above the main dial show the phases of the moon, a tidal calendar, the days of the week and the times of the eclipses of Jupiter’s first moon, Io. And atop this astronomical concoction the relative positions and motions of bodies in the solar system are shown. How this was created 300 years ago is beyond me.

After the exhibit Riley and I take a brief stroll through the gardens, admiring the well-irrigated flowers and trees before us and the modern architecture around us.

We arrive back at our vehicle with the sun still shining bright. Next stop, Venice Beach.

We park and walk straight towards the water. The sound of bearings spinning and polyurethane wheels sliding across concrete resonate in our ears as we approach a skate park. Josh borrows a skateboard from an unsuspecting pre-teen and rushes over to one of the larger obstacles. A small crowd of supporters gather to watch. Josh drops in on the steeply angled ramp like a pro, gaining enough speed to ride across the flat portion of the ramp towards the three stairs, each 1.5 feet in height and length. About a foot from the edge of the first step, Josh pushes his hind foot against the back of the skateboard causing it to rise to a 45 degree angle and slides his front foot across the black sandpaper top of the board. He and the board are airborne. Mouths gape open as Josh has enough speed and air to clear the jump.

Wham. Josh slams against the concrete, his skateboard slamming to the ground a few feet to his left. Not yet feeling the pain he jumps right up, grabs the board and runs back to the top of the ramp.

“He’s messin’ wit’ us,” says a local boy with dreaded hair and denim overalls. “No one is stupid enough to attempt that jump unless they know how to land it.”

The surrounding posse agrees.

Josh drops in again, this time going faster. He takes off at roughly the same spot as last time and lands with a thud on the concrete. His ankle didn’t fare as well this time, and contorts below Josh’s 140 pound frame.

The onlookers have doubled in size. Three of the more skilled skaters stop their routine and gather along the edge of the skate park. One points at Josh and says something to his two talented friends. Disbelief in their eyes, all three boys turn to watch the brave soul attempt an impossible trick.

Despite his soon-to-be-throbbing ankle, Josh makes a third, a fourth and even a fifth attempt at jumping over the staircase. Each fall looks and sounds worse than the previous. Eventually, he gives up, snagging the skateboard in his left hand and walking it over to its rightful owner. Light applause and whistles are heard as the daredevil retires for the day.

With an hour until sunset, Riley, Josh and I walk along the famous boardwalk past monstrosities working out at the outdoor Muscle Beach gym, lively athletes filling the paddle tennis courts and street entertainers of all shapes, sizes and religions (including a man donning roller skates and a turban while playing heavy metal rock music). A few blocks after passing our 30th marijuana vendor, we hang a left and walk through a quiet residential area. We reach a bridge beneath which a river runs. The bank is lined with canoes.

“There is an entire series of rivers here. That’s why the city is named Venice,” Josh explains.

We return to the boardwalk just in time for the sunset. Josh and I sit atop a patch of rocks extending into the ocean as the sun concludes its reign for the day. The sky goes from blue, to yellow, to orange to red prior to transforming into various shades of pink and then going black.

It’s our last night in L.A. and we’re exhausted. Josh and I split a 6 pack of beer while Riley sips on some 2 Buck Chuck. We later use that same bottle of wine to film a music video for Josh’s next single, Perf. If I figure out how to post music videos to this blog, I’ll be more than happy to share the video with y’all.

We wake up late again. Josh, Riley and I each fill our arms with bags and walk down to the Acura. We pack the car and prepare our goodbyes. Josh and I embrace for a full minute. These few days in Los Angeles were beneficial to both of us. It was nice seeing an old friend. Especially, one as kind and genuine as Josh. Having a friend like that always cleanses the soul a bit. And I’m sure Josh appreciated the Industry-detox Riley and I put him through. I climb in the car and put it in drive. Out of the side view mirror Josh waves us goodbye. A wave of sentiment hits me. I’ve known this kid for half my life. It seems like just yesterday that a 15 year old Josh, with a massive Jew-fro, was standing in my parent’s dining room, wearing stolen bowling shoes and pajama pants and holding an acoustic guitar in his hands. It was my brother’s 7th birthday and Josh was improvising inappropriate children’s songs for the kids.

“Is he the clown?” one of the kids asked.

He’s still a clown. But a decade has passed and now he plays the guitar and sings for a living.

An hour and a half later Riley and I turn onto a pothole ridden road in Huntington Beach. To our right are a series of corporate buildings.

“That’s the one,” I say aloud upon spotting a sign bearing the name of an aerospace equipment and systems company.

We circle the parking lot until spotting a fit looking man wearing glasses, a striped blue and white button down shirt and navy blue slacks. A bead of sweat originates on his forehead and drips down the side of his face as he boils beneath the 80 degree winter sun. This is Borya, a lifelong friend of my father’s.

“I’ll drive. You guys can park in my spot,” he suggests as he approaches the driver’s seat of his vehicle.

Borya drives us to one of his favorite lunch spots in the area, a Pho restaurant serving massive bowls of boiled broth and your choice of Vietnamese meats and vegetables. I order chicken in my soup while Borya and Riley order rare steak in theirs. It’s been many a year since I’ve seen Borya and we have a lot to catch up on. He and I exchange enthusiastic stories about life, work and adventure in between massive slurps of burning hot liquid. Having historically been viewed as my father’s son, I greatly enjoy this rare opportunity to converse with Borya as a friend. Lunch ends too quickly, and our companion needs to return to work. We agree to meet up at Big Bear Mountain in the coming months for some mountain biking adventures.

Upon entering the beloved Acura yet again, Riley and I set off for the final leg of our road trip. With lunch resting comfortably in Riley’s stomach, it doesn’t take long for my girlfriend to fall asleep. A silent hour and a half and 8 highways later I turn onto Boundary Street in San Diego, California. The street is quiet and there is a surplus of parking spots. Thank God, I think to myself, recalling the grand we spent on parking tickets in the past month.

We pull up beside a dirt alley. Our realtor, Cathy-Ann, shows up two minutes later. She walks us towards the first house in the alley and unlocks the wooden gate. Then the front door. 34 days, 8 hours, 15 minutes and 5,498 miles later we’ve completed the journey from Atlanta, Georgia to San Diego, California.

Beauty All Around Us

With it being the 12th time this trip that I pack the car, the process comes easily. Large bags and those we won’t need to get anything out of on the bottom; smaller bags and frequently visited bags on top. The gaps are filled with my water filter and tea kettle along with Riley’s shoes for every occasion and blanket. I admire my Tetris-formation resting motionless in the backseat. I then hop in the driver’s seat, confirming that my field of vision is not obscured by protruding luggage, and rev up the car.

Today we’re going to Santa Barbara. Why Santa Barbara? Because we heard it’s a pretty sweet town. Plus, Los Angeles is too far a drive to make in one day; particularly a day with as many scenic stops as today. The day’s journey commences on not-too-unusual highways. By now we’ve driven on so many boring interstates that the 880’s, 280’s, 10’s, 20’s and 101’s mesh in my mind.

Our first stop is Monterey, home to many of the country’s wealthiest residents and vacationers. A 17 mile road, creatively dubbed 17 Mile Road, takes us on a loop of this affluent area. With pristine weather pressuring us to enjoy the beauty around us, Riley and I cruise along a winding one-lane road. We pass between endlessly tall trees, drive alongside unexpectedly steep cliffs and stare out our window at perfectly struck golf balls.

“How much do you think it costs to play a round on that course?” I ask Riley as we pass a man putting beside a breathtaking 50 foot cliff emptying into the bay.

We look it up. $495.

Seems like a better use of money than getting our car towed for $700.

We open a map of the area, showing 20 points of interest. We pull off at one of them; a scenic beach. A Chinese man, inexplicably excited, climbs atop his van and pumps his fists in the air, yelling manically. His friends snap photos of him. The view of the beach is nice. But not that nice.

We stop at another beach. A large rock rests in the water a few hundred feet from the shore. The rock appears typical – brownish yellow, with some rough edges. Riley and I walk over to a sign describing this point of interest. “Seal Rock,” it reads. We look closer.

“Holy cow,” I shout. “All those brown spots are seals.”

Hundreds of squawking seals and California sea lions sun bathe on this monument protruding from the water. Various species of birds circulate the rock searching for something to nibble on. One bird, tired from its constant flight, rests atop a lazy seal. Agitated that his tanning session has been disrupted the seal jumps, or rather flops, into the water.

We stop at a handful more points of interest. Each displays a unique beauty, which can only be found among this magical West Coast bay. We pass beneath a massive house, built almost entirely of glass, overlooking 10 foot waves splashing against a cliff. Soon after we pass a golf club house. On second glance, the structure is not a clubhouse, but a home. A massive home, costing more than most families make in 10 lifetimes.

The beauty around us blinds us to the needs of our body. It isn’t until 3:30 in the afternoon that we realize we are starved. We have a $10 voucher for any restaurant within the confines of the 17 Mile Drive, so we pull into one of the golf resorts. We spot a restaurant and walk in. Despite our voucher, we still spend thrice the price one should pay for a meal consisting of a handful of under-fried calamari and popcorn shrimp, 4 slimy buffalo wings and 3 potato skins.

Remember what I said above about all the highways meshing in my mind? Well, that all changes the moment we step wheel onto Highway 1. Of all the roads I’ve ever driven on in the contiguous United States, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, this one is by far the most spectacular. This one lane road runs along the Pacific coast. To our right is the ocean and to our left are the Sierras. The water has never appeared this deep a blue. And the mountains have never looked this appealing to climb. We enter Big Sur, a 100 mile drive of purely brilliant nature. We cruise along the tallest cliffs I’ve been atop since hiking Waimea Canyon in Kauai.

The sun descends on this cloudless day, casting a golden glow atop everything in sight. We stop to take a scenic picture. We stop again. And again and again. The panorama seems more and more stunning with each mile driven. The beauty reaches a climax at one particular hill. Riley and I pull of at a shoulder and follow a thin trail running up this mini-mountain. Upon reaching the 100 foot apex, we stand at the edge of a 600 foot drop.

“Wow, what a view,” I exclaim, praying I’m not overcome by vertigo. What seems like miles in front of me rests a field of lazy cows. A step and a half to the right is a straight drop into the merciless ocean; only jagged rocks positioned to soften the blow. To my left is the highway; the very same one we just drove on. And behind us is a picturesque bridge, below which rests a gray and white sand beach.

Riley, a few feet behind me, peers in front me. She quickly squirms back to her comfort zone against the back of my shirt. “We’re not going any farther,” she says.

“Let’s just take a few more steps and take a photo,” I say.

Hesitantly, Riley agrees. Fortunately, a man with the same idea as us reaches the top of the hill and agrees to take our picture. We now have proof of this magical spot.

As we stand, basking in the moment, a strong gust of winds brushes against us. I waver along the 4 foot wide ledge.

“We’re leaving,” Riley squeals.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I agree. We cautiously shimmy back down the trail, mindful of bulging shrubs and loose rocks. We make it down in one piece. Back in the car, we continue our journey.

Just after 5pm, Riley and I pull over again. The sun is an index finger’s length away from sinking into the water. We find a comfortable rock to sit on. Riley cuddles up in her well-traveled blanket as I sit beside her with my arm around her shoulder. We watch the massive ball of fire disappear for the night. It can sleep well tonight knowing it put on a most wonderful show for us today.

The final 50 miles of Big Sur are driven in darkness. With twists and turns making up the entire remaining stretch, and there being no street lights to guide us, this drive is a bit discerning. For the most part we’re alone on the road. Occasionally we encounter a fearful driver slowly trudging along in front of us or a daredevil catching up behind us. Fortunately, there are plenty of shoulders for the sluggish to pull off at. The quick pass allowing the slow to return to their peaceful route.

The road straightens and street lights appear. Big Sur is no more. Back to the old, boring highways. Hungry, yet again, we find a Trader Joe’s, where we stock up on a breakfast-worth of groceries and a few prepared dinners. 2 rolls of sushi and a couple of kale salads later the steering wheel is tightly gripped between my hands as we set off on the final stretch to Santa Barbara.

2 hours later we pull up against a curb in front of a plain, beige apartment building. After reading the parking sign 3 times and concluding we won’t be spending the following morning conversing with the local tow company, Riley and I extract our essentials from the car and head to the waist-high black gate. We enter a courtyard surrounded by 8 apartment doors. One reads “D.” This is where our Couchsurfing host, Gao, lives. We knock. A man, not even a year younger than me, although appearing over a decade younger, opens the door. Specs of gray hair huddle among his straight black mane.

“Hi Misha,” he says in a Chinese accent.

“Hello,” I reply.

Gao steps aside, allowing us to enter his mostly empty apartment. A stand-alone heater, running from the floor to the ceiling is positioned opposite the front door. Uncomfortable hot air blows from it. A few feet to the left of the front door is a twin size mattress and a slightly larger futon. We rest our bags beside our beds and sit to talk to our host. We learn that Gao moved from China to New York to attend Cornell. Upon graduating he got a job with a small engineering company in Santa Barbara, California.

“A great place to live, but not so good place to travel,” he explains when attempting to come up with things for us to do while in town.

Exhaustion sets in for Riley and I and we’re ready for Gao to depart to his room and let us sleep. Either due to cultural differences or our host’s preference to sit silently and stare at us, Gao does not get the hint. For what feels like the next hour, the 3 of us sit in a triangle, looking from one set of eyes to the next, no one uttering a word.

“Alright, I’m going to drink some tea and go to bed,” I say.

“Okay,” Gao replies, still not rising.

Only when I stand up and walk to the kitchen does Gao depart from his seated position.

“Good night,” I say.

“Good night,” the little man responds.

Bridges, Hills and Towed Vehicles – San Francisco

I’m amid a wonderful dream about cookie dough when the upwards tilt of the car suddenly jolts me awake. I open my eyes to the sight of an endlessly steep hill, upon which our car is ascending. Before me, all I see is black asphalt and blue sky. We must be in San Francisco, I conclude.

Misha sits behind the wheel, calmly staring ahead of him He casually turns his head to the right, in the direction of a frantically pedaling biker riding alongside. After letting the biker pass the intersection, Misha turns right. Sparkling blue water is within view. We continue straight on the road, until turning onto another road, running along the coast. To the right are piers. We search for Pier 33. Not willing to pay the $25 parking, we backtrack a few blocks. We park our car beside Pier 19/21 and walk the quarter mile to Pier 33, where our tour commences. At 1pm, we follow the crowd loading onto the ferry. Minutes later, our boat departs to Alcatraz Island. A brief 1.5 mile sail later, we dock on the island, often known as “the rock.” Alcatraz Island was initially developed for military purposes, housing, among other things, a lighthouse and a military prison. More than half a century later, the facility evolved into a federal penitentiary, holding some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including Al Capone, Robert Stroud (known as the Birdman of Alcatraz), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

We descend the 2 story ferry onto the island’s shore. Above us stands a massive rectangular prison, made completely of rock. Misha and I decide to take an audio tour. The creepy voices of former prison guards and prisoners, the obnoxious slamming of cell doors and the deafening screeches during food riots fill our headphones as the narrators details what life was like in the prison. I listen in awe to tales of escape from this impenetrable prison. The chillness of the air and somber lightening cast a creepy ambiance. I am thankful that Misha is beside me to quiet my fears. After exiting the prison, Misha and I explore the rest of the island, including a nature trail and a scenic view of the foggy San Francisco skyline. A quarter after four we board the ferry and position ourselves at the head of the boat, in perfect view of the sun setting on the city.

With rumbling stomachs, we decide to have a cultural meal in Chinatown.. The voyage to get there consists of steep hills and even steeper stairs. After a 2 mile walk, I am relieved to see Chinese lanterns and foreign symbols hanging from buildings. The recognizable English chatter is replaced with a language I can’t understand. We pass markets filled with large amounts of meat, unique fruits and cheap souvenirs. We select one of many restaurants and fill up on tea, sweet and sour soup, dumplings, egg rolls, rice, chicken and unappetizing beef. As we are about to exit this ethnic area, a tea shop catches our eye. We splurge on bags full of Puerh and Blue tea, famous for their digestive and relaxant benefits, and a tea pot. Our wallets a few bills lighter, Misha and I continue strolling through Chinatown, where we encounter some, well, interesting characters. One man stands on a deserted staircase, eyes closed and singing to no one in particular. His broomstick serves as a microphone. Across the street a man laughs wildly to himself, before huffing and puffing like a tired dog. We walk another block, where we encounter a woman screaming at her cheating lover, loud enough for the next city’s Chinatown to hear. We pass strip clubs with large bouncers and hefty dancers and entire pig carcasses roasting in windows. Ready for some normalcy, Misha and I walk back to our car. Key in the ignition and we’re off to Sunnyvale, where Misha’s friend, Laxman, lives. This will be our home for the next 3 nights.

We wake up and get dressed for our first full day in the city on the bay. Thinking we’d save a few bucks on gas, Misha and I take the train to San Francisco. Unexpectedly, the commute takes 2 hours. And even then, we’re 5 miles from where we want to be – Golden Gate Park. Desiring some exercise, I don’t mind making this walk. Plus, walking is an awesome way to explore a city. We pass palm trees, ascend and descend hills, and admire various forms of architecture. Midway through our trek, we arrive at the city hall and take a few minutes to admire its tall arched ceilings and long hallways before continuing. Over an hour after departing on this walk, or should I say trek, we arrive at the colorful intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Barefoot individuals boasting dreads and appearing not to have showered in weeks flood the sidewalks. The first man we encounter offers us weed, as he holds the leash of his curious dog.

“No, thank you,” we tell him.

The street is lined with every tie-dye item imaginable, smoking devices of all shapes and sizes, and replicated Tibetan clothing At the end of this street rests Golden Gate Park. It only took 90% of the day’s sunlight, but we’ve arrived. Given the soon approaching darkness, Misha and I go on a short walk through the park, aiming for the De Young museum. We walk on green grass, pass numerous sports fields and trails and encounter more hippies, before arriving at the museum, only to find out that the exhibit is closed for the day. Needless to say, we’ll be taking our car tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes and we head to Twin Peaks, a pair of hills measuring 925 feet in elevation. We climb to the top of one of the hills, not knowing if it’s the South or North peak, and snap a few photos of the city off in the distance. Satisfied, we drive to the world famous, Golden Gate Bridge. We hike to a pier to eat lunch and admire this impressive 2-mile long masterpiece. After snapping nearly 100 photos, I understand why this is the most photographed bridge in the world. I even convince unusually brave birds to take photos with me and the bridge by bribing them with bread crumbs.. Not having gotten our bridge fix for the day, we head to the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland. This bridge is one of the longest in the United States and utilizes a double suspension and two decks. We cross the lower deck and arrive at Treasure Island to watch the sunset over the city. Since Misha is taking the California Basic Educational Skills (CBEST) Exam at 7:30 the next morning, we smartly agree to conclude our adventure for the day. We cross the bridge again, this time along the more scenic upper deck, before heading back to Sunnyvale.

After an unusual, good night’s rest, I wake up refreshed. Misha is already in the city taking his exam so I hop on the train to meet him once he’s done. After an hour of anxiously waiting to hear from Misha, I receive a text from an unfamiliar phone number. It’s Misha, informing me that the car got towed, and that his phone is inside the car. While Misha retrieves our vehicle, I do a bit of shopping on Market Street. Shortly after 3 pm he grumpily picks me up. As it turns out, Misha parked the car along a curb, with about two inches of the front bumper leaning into a driveway. The grumpy old lady living in the house took it upon herself to call the tow company. Misha knocked on the door to inquire why the woman felt the need to have the car towed. Her response was short and rude. She proceeded to close the door in Misha’s face. This resulted in a 2 hour bus ride, a 45 minute walk, and a $700 ticket.

My heart wants to stop by the woman’s house and yell at her. But my mind knows not to. So instead we head to the Land’s End National park; a windy and rocky shoreline at the mouth of the Golden Gate straight. We sit along the edge of the Sutro bath ruins and peaceful watch another graceful sunset while listening to crashing waves below us. Our moods are lifted as we soak in the beauty.

Tonight we’re going to celebrate Laxman’s birthday. But first, some grub. We stop at Fisherman’s Wharf, a flashy tourist trap, near Pier 39. We purchase some delicious crab, and stop by Gharidella Square for some free chocolate before heading to the party. We meet Laxman at his friend’s apartment, where the festivities are just beginning. We are surrounded by intelligence and enjoyable conversation as most of Laxman’s friends work for Google and Apple. We discuss careers and travels before singing Happy Birthday to a stumbling birthday boy and heading to the bars. We bar-hop along Poke street before heading back to Sunnyvale. A good night’s rest is in the works in preparation for tomorrow’s drive.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 2)

364 days have begun and ended in 2014. Today marks the 365th and final day of the year. I roll out of my queen size bed and descend the carpeted steps to the ground floor where Jared sits before the TV, wrapped up in a checkered black and red blanket.

“I’m sick,” Jared says upon seeing me try to make sense of the scene. “Everyone else went skiing.”

“What are you sick with?” I ask.

“Throat’s been hurting a bit. And my body is just weak and sore.”

“I’ve got just the trick,” I tell him before heading to the kitchen. I light the stove and place a pot atop it. 5 minutes later I produce a cup of Golden Milk for my ailing friend. Golden Milk is the modern name for an age-old beverage used to cure, well, everything. It’s an extremely easy concoction, using ingredients that you probably already have in your kitchen. Look it up.

Wanting to end the year on a productive note I grab Steven’s drone and camera and head to the lake. I shiver in my orange tennis shoes and flimsy gym pants as the 30mph winds combine with the 17 degree weather to make for a genuinely uncomfortable walk. I step onto brown sand, marking my arrival on the beach. The winds intensify making each step atop this mushy surface more challenging. By the time I reach the frozen portion of the lake the winds are so strong that I quickly dump the idea of flying the delicate piece of technology situated in the black case beside me. Instead, I admire the converging blues of the sky and the ocean, meeting at an indistinguishable point along the horizon. Stoic, snow-covered mountains sit like Zen monks in the distance. The sun has begun its fall and now illuminates the nature around me from the West. I turn my head to the right where tall pine trees with thick brown trunks line the coast of the lake. Among the trees a few prosperous residents reside in well-hidden cabins. Having gotten my fix of nature and no longer able to tolerate the cold I turn on my toe and head back to our cabin.

I enter through the big blue door and plop down beside the fireplace. Jared sits in the same spot I left him.

“I think your drink thing worked, man,” Jared says to me.

“Feeling better?” I ask.

“A lot.”

“Glad to hear it,” I tell Jared, before tuning my attention to the college football game on TV.

Shortly before 4pm Steven, Jesse and Jen arrive home from a day on the slopes. An hour and a half later the Brothers walk in.

The sound of extra virgin olive oil sizzling on the skillet is soon heard as Pierce and Hugh begin cooking a mouthwatering steak, kale and couscous meal. With the smell of the seasoned steak too overwhelming for Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen, the 2 couples leave for a fancy Italian dinner.

Dinner is prepared and the table is set. In between mouthfuls of meat and veggies, Pierce and Hugh retell their epic tale from earlier in the day when the two decided it would be a good idea to go backcountry skiing. After 30 minutes of blindly skiing in isolation, the Brothers found themselves in fearfully unfamiliar territory. Their plan of skiing down the back of the mountain seemed precarious, at best, so the decision was made to take off the skis and climb back up to civilization. 45 painful minutes later the brothers return to safety.

9pm rolls around marking the official Ball Drop. I receive calls and texts from those on the East Coast, including my parents. This is the first time I can remember not celebrating the New Year with them. In Russian culture, New Year is one of the largest and most important holidays, always celebrated with family and close friends. Historically, our family and their best friends begin the festivities around 10:30pm on the 31st and continue the merriments until 5 or 6 in the morning. A sense of sentiment encompasses me as I speak to my cheerful mom over the phone.

By 10pm the cabin is packed with all 8 of its tenants yet again. We congregate in the living room where we reminisce about the year that was. Before we know it, it’s 11:20pm. With 40 minutes left until us West Coast kids can officially say we’ve lived in 2015, the 8 of us rapidly throw on our jackets and drive towards the casinos. After circling the parking lot for 15 minutes while unsuccessfully looking for a parking spot, we finally fit the Acura between an oversized van and a bush. With our phones reading 11:58, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I sprint to the stampede of excited individuals bundled up in winter clothing along the road. An unnecessarily large quantity of cops, dressed in riot gear, calmly take photos with animated youth. Unable to spot our 4 friends, the Smiths and I jump a barricade dividing the sidewalk from the street. We now stand amid the madness. Screams erupt and kisses flood my view marking the big hand and little hand meeting at the number 12. I turn to my right and kiss my girlfriend. Not wanting to make the Brothers feel awkward, we quickly pull apart.

It’s the wee hours of the morning and everyone’s ready for bed. That is, until Pierce realizes he can’t find his wallet. The 8 of us search every nook and cranny, flipping over half-packed suitcases and comfy couch cushions in search of this square piece of brown leather. No luck. Despite his afternoon flight the following day, Pierce seems least worried about the disappearance of the only form of identification which can successfully get him onto the plane. Within minutes of giving up on the search, Pierce is snoring loud enough for the neighbors to hear. The next morning, Riley and I are awoken by a frantic Hugh who, ironically, also lost his wallet.

“I’ve been searching for 2 hours,” he tells us.

While Riley, appalled by the fact that both her brothers wallets have gone missing within 24 hours of their flight home, goes down stairs to help the search, I call the casino from last night. They have Hugh’s wallet. ½ of the problem is solved. Pierce’s half of the problem is later resolved when the airline informs Pierce that they could search for his identity through their computer system.

While Riley crankily drives her brothers half way to Sacramento to meet with her uncle, the rest of the crew and I cook some mouthwatering pork brats, deliciously seasoned beef burgers and perfectly prepared spinach dip in anticipation of the first ever College Football Playoff game. Kickoff between the Oregon Ducks and the Florida State Seminoles (where Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen attended college) is at 2pm PT. As a Florida Gator fan I find it tough to root for the ‘noles. However, I choose to side with the arch-nemesis today as a victory by the team in garnet and gold would make for quite a joyous evening with my friends. Unfortunately, the outcome of the game is not as hoped, with the team out of Eugene, Oregon coming out triumphant.

Despite their semi-depressed state, the 4 Florida State alum agree to spend the night playing board games with Riley and me. We begin with Trivial Pursuit, 20th Anniversary edition. As the 20th anniversary happened to be over 20 years ago, none of us fare well. We give up on this game and transition to Pictionary. An hour or two of below average drawings later, Jen and Jared are declared winners. Prior to going to bed the 6 remaining cabin-mates agree on hiking Emerald Bay the following morning.

And we do exactly that. A mile long hike along a clearly marked out snow-covered trail ends at a castle. This 38 bedroom Scandinavian-style fortress, dubbed Vikingsholm, was built in 1929 for Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight as a summer home. I think back to what life must have been like here 85 years ago. With the home likely not having a telephone at the time, let alone a cell phone or a computer, Mrs. Knight must have experienced an unimaginable type of serenity at this home. About 50 meters from the castle is the bay. Transparent water, laying still as a fallen tree, glistens beneath the powerful sun. Smack in the center of this bay rests a small stone structure, representing the Tea House, which could only be reached by boat. Beyond this minuscule mass of land, known as Fannette Island, the bay continues until it empties into the grand lake herself – Tahoe. Evergreen pine trees and unforgotten mountains trap us in this tranquil space. Unable to contain her excitement, Riley attempts to run on the snow in her not-made-for-running Uggs. She elegantly falls backwards, right onto her ass.

After learning how to use the slow-motion feature on her phone, Jesse videotapes the boys perform a perfectly choreographed cartwheel/jump combination. The girls proceed to attempt an even better performance consisting of hand stands and jumps. Riley, once again, ends up flat on her back in the snow.

Our appetites enlarged and our thirst not nearly quenched, Riley and I coordinate a night at the Brewery with our 4 friends. The Brewery is [as you probably imagined] a brewery. They are also famous for having mediocre pizzas, which the 6 of us gluttonously order 3 of. The rest of the night is spent at the cabin playing the highly anticipated game of One Night Ultimate Warewolf. This is Riley and my first time playing this game of animated quarreling and lying, but we are quick to pick up on it. I’ll be honest – Riley is much better than me. I proceed to lose 6 of the 9 rounds I play.

Everyone goes to bed except Jared and I, who converse about our good friend, Garrett, back home. As I bring my magenta tea cup to my thirsty lips, a loud thud echoes throughout the house. A female squeal is heard from the living room. Jared and I scurry over to the sound of the commotion. Jen lies on the ground, holding her head and laughing in attempt to mask her desire to cry.

“What happened?” Jared and I ask in unison.

“I fell down the stairs,” Jen says.

“What? How?” Jared inquires.

“I dunno. I just slipped.”

“Did you try to jump down or something?”

“No, I was just standing on the top step and then I slipped,” Jen explains. “Damn, that hurt. I fell down the entire flight of stairs.”

Finding the situation scary, yet inappropriately humorous, I rush to the kitchen to grab a bag of ice for Jen’s throbbing skull.

We wake up the following morning to our last full day in Tahoe. With Heavenly finally opening the majority of their lifts and runs, Riley and I pack our ski and snowboard gear and head to this tourist-sucking mountain. The sun shines brightly among the few clouds and the terrain is manageable. Double digit runs and a handful of 3 inch high jumps later, the clock hits 4pm, marking the last run. Riley and I descend the 2 mile-high mountain via the gondola. We sit beside a young Mexican couple coddling a precious, sleeping child the size of my forearm. Out the back window, upon which the family rests their tired heads, we view the entirety of Lake Tahoe, darkening in the sunset.

For dinner, Riley and I cook while the rest of the gang heads to a restaurant. We reconvene for one more night in the hot tub. Superlatives are handed out. I am fortunate enough to win Best Cook, while Riley (averaging 16 hours of sleep per day) wins Best Napper. Jesse wins Best Planner (which is a fitting award for someone who managed to successfully plan out 95% of the steps taken and foods eaten by the group). Steven wins Best Attitude (which he accepts with a hearty smile and a thumbs up); Jen wins most down to party/most afraid of everything (as she sips her bottle of Sutter House wine while whipping her head back and forth in search of man-eating bears) and Jared wins most indulgent (as he salivates over the last pieces of pizza he guzzled down the night before.

Knowing that my old friends are leaving bright and early the next morning and that I won’t see them for an extended period of time, we all share heartfelt hugs before shutting our eyes for the night.

By 5am Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen are enroute to San Francisco airport. Riley and I wake up 4 hours later and tidy up the house in preparation for check out. By half past 11, we’ve emptied every garbage can, started a load of towels in the washer machine, pressed Start on the dishwasher and locked the cabin. Good bye, Lake Tahoe.

3 hours later Riley and I pull into her Aunt and Uncle’s house in Sacramento. I leave Riley to recover for the next 3 days while I head to San Francisco to meet up with my college roommate, David. We spend the night conversing, reminiscing and discussing the future. The next morning David catches a bus back to Los Angeles while I head to UC Berkeley to explore the campus. Shortly after the onset of rush hour, I drive to Stockton for dinner with a family friend. Irena and her 3 children sit at the dinner table with me, eating grass-fed organic steak, a healthy conglomeration of vegetables and fresh baked brownies. We enjoy good conversation until a quarter past 9. By 10pm, I’m back in Sacramento, resting peacefully in bed. An action-packed 10 days filled with numerous walks down memory lane has ended. Now it’s time to catch up on some sleep.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 1)

My ears have been popping for 30 consecutive minutes. The temperature continues to drop and the wind intensifies. Misha gingerly drives along the edge of steep cliffs while I admire the snowcapped mountains filling up the horizon. Staring down is discerning, as a fall would be deadly. We turn a corner and are slapped in the face by the most mesmerizing body of water I’ve ever seen. Lake Tahoe glistens with countless crystals beneath the setting sun. The water is a deep blue like that of a newly polished azurite pendant. Misha and my brothers fall silent as we soak in the beauty of nature before us.

We arrive in the small town of South Lake Tahoe shortly after the sun sets. Our first stop is Misha’s family friend’s house, where Misha will be picking up his snowboard. Misha turns onto an unlit road, not noticing the black ice covering the pavement. The wheels spin wildly as they grasp for traction. Misha does his best to guide the struggling vehicle into a soft patch of snow. Pierce and Hugh exit the car and give it a shove, ejecting it from the ditch. Undeterred, Misha finds an alternate, safer route to the house. After loading his gear into the car and resting his snowboard atop Pierce and Hugh’s laps, Misha gets back into the driver’s seat and steers us to our home for the next week.

Parked along the snowy street, I open my car door to piercing cold air. The 4 of us rush through the cabin door and immediately turn on the fireplace. Relieved to be out of the below-freezing temperatures outside, we let warmth overcome us. A large, brown leather wrap-around couch, homey wooden furniture, and fluffy blankets and pillows make me feel comfy and relaxed. I envision a winter slumber approaching. But first, we must wait for the others guests to arrive.

In the meanwhile, we decide to rent ski equipment and purchase food. A car full of skis, ski poles, boots and $300 worth of groceries later we come home to a lively environment. Misha’s friends from Florida have arrived. Introductions are made. There is Steven – tall, dark and handsome. He sits roasting by the fire beside his girlfriend of 4 years, Jesse – a beautiful girl with long dirty-blonde hair and big green eyes. She appears filled with excitement. The couch is occupied by Jared, proudly wearing a full beard and beanie; evidently adjusting to the drastic change of climate. His girlfriend of 8 years, Jen, sits near him. She is a small girl with short black hair and a face full of Italian features. Jen struggles hiding her enthusiasm after seeing snow for her first time. Hugh and Pierce (who are referred to as “the Brothers” throughout the trip) introduce themselves to the crew and plop down on the couch, opposite of Jen and Jared. Feeling restless, they soon head to the kitchen where they pop open a few beers before immersing themselves in the backyard hot tub. They return 30 minutes later. Having not seen his friends in a good while, Misha stays awake catching up, while Pierce, Hugh and I all hop into a king size bed upstairs, like we used to as kids on Christmas Eve.

I wake up to an even colder day. Bundled up in unfamiliar winter clothes, we squeeze into my car filled with skiing and snowboarding equipment. A 40 minute commute later we arrive at Sierra Mountain for our first day of skiing. Pierce and Hugh jump out of the car and head straight for the blue and black runs. After changing into our gear, Misha and I meet up with Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen. Although Steven and Jesse have a year of experience and exhibit skill on the slopes, Jared and Jen are first-timers and don’t fare as well. While Misha and I wait in line to head up the bunny slope we see an out-of-control Jen unintentionally ski into the trees. For the next 10 minutes, Steven attempts to push a fear-stricken Jen back onto the slope. Agony occupies Jen’s face while confusion and determination fills Steven’s. Unwilling to wait any longer, Jared skies down the bunny slope for his first time. He exhibits impressive control and successfully pizza and French fries himself down the hill without falling.

After a short stay on the bunny hill, Steven, Misha, Jesse and I head for the more difficult, blue runs. Jesse and I anxiously hover at the top of the mountain, as Misha and Steven speed down. Slow and steady, but with some screams and falls, we make it to the bottom in one piece. Jesse and I agree that some easier, green runs are in order for the time being. The hours quickly pass and the weather becomes progressively colder. With frozen fingers and toes, we call it a day at 4pm.

Misha, Pierce, Hugh and I arrive home and eagerly cook a salmon, potatoes and asparagus dinner and eat it by the blaring fire. The others arrive from a dinner out and are ready for the casinos. Our cabin is conveniently located one mile away from the state-line of California and Nevada, which is an area surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist shops and casinos. Jared and Steven, experienced gamblers, head straight to the Craps table with Misha tagging along to learn. The girls aren’t thrilled with this excursion as they are too familiar with their boyfriend’s obsessions with casinos. Not interested in watching a bunch of rowdy persons throw a dice against an enclosed felt rink, I walk with Pierce to the slot machines. Free drinks in hand, we crack up as Pierce proudly turns his $3.00 into $7.00. Exhausted from skiing and bored of gambling, Pierce, Jesse, Jen and I head out leaving the boys behind to gamble. Upon exiting the casino doors we stand face to face with a thick sheet of white. I look up at the falling sky, thinking there is no way the snow will stop anytime soon.

My prediction is right. I wake up the next morning to a winter wonderland. Gusts of wind swirl symmetrical snowflakes, covering everything in fresh powder. The forecast of a half-inch of snow was grossly wrong, as it snowed nearly a foot and a half during the night. Excited for the seemingly perfect day for skiing, everyone quickly gets dressed and heads outside for their cars. To my utter despair I find a $205 ticket atop my windshield for blocking the path of the snowplow. How is a group of kids from Georgia and South Florida (currently experiencing lows of 75 degrees) supposed to even know what a snowplow is? Let alone the fact that we can’t park on the streets on days it snows. We call the owner and ask her this exact question. She kindly offers to pay half the ticket.

Our spirits elevated, we begin our drive to the mountain. However, due to havocking winds and hazardous road conditions we are soon forced back into our cabins. While deliberating Plan B, Misha and his friends decide the perfect event would be an old tradition of theirs – Beerlympics (short for Beer Olympics). Beerlympics is a series of drinking games (some of which I’ve never heard of) between two teams. First team to 6 victories is crowned champion. We pick names out of a hat to split teams. Jesse, Pierce, Misha and I face off against Steven, Jared, Hugh and Jen. Jesse and Jared’s rivalry is by far the most entertaining part of the night. It all begins with a not-so-kind-hearted squid. What is a squid, you may ask. A squid is when an individual (person A) offers a high five or a knuckle pound to [Person B] by extending their open hand or closed fist. When Person B attempts to high five or pound knuckles with Person A, Person A pulls back his hands and waves wiggly fingers towards the face of Person B. This is exactly what Jared does to Jesse to begin the night. And Jesse does not live this down. The next 6 hours are filled with shotgunning (chugging a can of beer from a hand-made hole in the aluminum), flipping cups, throwing ping pong balls and carefree bickering. One, particularly enjoyable and intense game is called Downs. 8 beers are placed on the table (4 on each side) and a ping pong ball is thrown from one side of the table towards the opponents cans on the other side of the table. The opponent then races to retrieve the ball and place it atop the table while the shooting team chugs their beer. While playing this marvelous game, Jesse slides across the carpet causing rug burn and a bloody knee, Jen slams her head against the table, and Misha nearly castrates Steven by reaching between his legs to retrieve a scurrying ping pong ball.

With the competition nearing an end, and our team clawing towards a comeback, Jesse becomes even more ferocious towards her arch-nemesis, Jared. Screams and curses are commonly heard among the group’s laughter. Jesse is particularly thrilled when she sinks the last cup in beer pong, after Jared calls her out for holding on to the ball for too long. Jared, however, gets the last laugh as his team prevails 6 to 4, after an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle.

The tournament concludes at 11pm, at which time we stumble over to the casino for some late night gambling. A hangover setting in, and the day not having even ended, we decide to head home to our warm beds.

Waking up from a deep slumber, I realize its New Year’s Eve. My pounding head argues that I should remain in bed rather than celebrate the New Year, but I’m on vacation and it’s the holidays. Let the festivities begin.

Christmas in Sacramento

The drive from Las Vegas to Sacramento consists of 570 miles and takes over 8 hours to complete. A strenuous drive, to say the least. As we pack the car, Riley offers to drive. A pleasant surprise, as this allows me to write and maybe even catch some shut-eye. One hour later, the wheels of the car grind against gravel. I look up just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“What happened?” I ask Riley.

“I’m tired,” Riley says, her eyes three-quarters closed.

And thus, I spend the next 8 hours behind the wheel.

After a 2 hour nap, Riley turns on the highly recommended Serial Podcast. We obsessively listen to it for the duration of our drive. An hour from our destination a thick fog sets in. Drivers slow down to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit as their visibility is limited to a few feet.

At exactly 9:30p.m. we park our vehicle beside a suburban house. We’ve arrived at Riley’s Aunt and Uncle’s house. We’re greeted Hubert Riley, Riley’s mom’s brother. A thin, fit man, with soft eyes and a genuine smile, Hubert welcomes us with open arms into his beautiful home, reminiscent of Spanish design. Christmas decorations hang from every nook and cranny. We take a seat in the kitchen as Hubert finishes up cooking pasta for his newly arrived guests. One by one the cousins flood the kitchen. The first is Anna, a sophomore at Georgetown University. Her dark brown hair, straight as an arrow, flows midway down her back. Her thin legs excitedly sprint over to her cousin and best friend. Then comes Caroline, the 2nd oldest – a junior in high school. With an eerily similar physique as Anna, it is no surprise these 2 are sisters. Having smelled the waft of the tomato sauce, Anna and Caroline’s little brother, Will, enters the kitchen. A thin boy, enjoying the joys and agonies of being a high school freshman, Will carries a sweet comb-over and a timid, yet pleasant smile, not unlike his father’s. The last of the 4 children, Stella, stumbles into the kitchen in her one-piece pajamas. She boasts golden blonde hair and the puppy-dog facial expression all children between the ages of 2 and 5 have mastered. Thumb in mouth, this 4 year old looks shyly at the big, tall man eating her family’s pasta.

“Hi,” I say to the cutest little girl I’ve seen in ages.

Stella takes a scared step backwards.

This may take a couple of days, I determine, succumbing to a simple wave to the toddler.

While still trying to memorize all the cousin’s names, the front door opens and Lisa Riley walks in. Tall, athletic and possessing straight, dark-brown hair, Lisa’s appearance makes it clear where the two oldest daughters obtained their physical features from. The now-packed kitchen transitions to the dining table, where Riley and I detail our travels to the 6 active listeners (one of whom is awake way past her bedtime). The Riley’s take turns asking questions and expressing their jealousy and support for our venture.

After consuming dinner and gulping down a cup of tea I can no longer keep my eyes open. I bid everyone a good night and I head to my room in the guest house, located opposite the pool.

I wake up to a murky Christmas Eve morning. Much of the morning and afternoon is spent helping the Riley’s set up for the Christmas Party taking place later that night. At 3pm, I attend my first Christmas Eve Service. Children and adults unite as one, through song and prayer. Many close their eyes as they feel their lord in every inch of their bodies. Feeling holier, we return to the house shortly before 5pm. Less than 2 hours later we hear the first knock on the door.

The guests start flocking in. They bring wine, hors d’oeuvres and entrees. We chip away at the various cheeses, jellies and crackers until the main course is prepared. The kids (of which Riley and I are included) form a buffet line. I fill my plate with fried onion mashed potatoes, vegetables, croutons and fresh crab. When I say fresh crab, I mean REALLY fresh crab. This succulent crustacean was brought by a friend of the Riley’s who proudly owns a renowned fresh food store. Just when I think that dinner can’t get any more delicious, I’m reminded that there is freshly cooked prime rib awaiting my consumption. I walk over to the kitchen counter and introduce a quarter pound slab of meat to my plate. Minutes later, my stomach is as happy as can be.

With digestion having begun, Lisa suggests a dance party in the living room. We move aside a few chairs and tables and gather in a circle, forming a serviceable dance floor. One of the kids whips out a small, wireless speaker, connects his iPhone to it using Bluetooth technology, and starts pumping the music. For the next 2 hours we dance, sing and laugh. There are 35 people attending this party and every single one lets loose at least a few dance moves. Two gymnastics-splits, multiple perfectly choreographed songs, and 35 pairs of sore calves later physical exhaustion kicks in and the music ceases. By 11p.m. the guests are gone and clean-up time has begun. Despite a seemingly endless supply of dirty dishes and trash, we clean the entire house in record time; even remembering to prep the living room for Santa’s looming arrival.

And lo and behold, Santa does arrive. I wake up Thursday morning to a surplus of gifts. However, my pile pales in comparison to Stella’s. She must have been particularly good this year. With wrapping paper and cardboard boxes comprising the majority of the living room floor and my stomach full from breakfast, it’s the perfect time to get some fresh air.

I arrive at the Shady Oaks disc golf course to a perfectly warm afternoon. Disc golf is a sport merging golf and Frisbee. Specially designed plastic discs are thrown from a concrete tee-pad, about the size of a door, towards a chain-linked metal basket, positioned anywhere from 100 to over 1,000 feet away. The purpose of the game is to make your disc into the basket in as few shots as possible. Two discs in hand, I start my round. At hole 4 I run into Rich and Freddie, two local disc golf enthusiasts. We agree to play the rest of the round together. Seemingly having an endless supply of marijuana, these two Cali natives light up a celebratory bowl after every successful hole. Two-thirds complete through this 18-hole course, we run into Jesse, an old friend of Freddie’s. Fire-orange bangs droop over Jesse’s pale blue eyes, as he joyously hugs his old friend, who he hadn’t seen in years. Delighted by the cloud of smoke forming around my two new acquaintances, Jesse decides to play the final 6 holes with us. To little surprise, Jesse also has a plentiful supply of weed, of which he makes use of liberally. My 3 friends walk in a blissful haze as we complete this enjoyable course full of gorgeous trees and calming nature. Officially being able to check California off my list of states I’ve played a round of disc golf in, I leave the park feeling accomplished.

The morning of Friday, December 26 is dedicated to exploring Sacramento. Riley and I do this in our favorite way – a jog throughout the city. Led by our tour guide, Hubert, we run 7 miles through suburban communities, public-living communities, railroad tracks, West Sacramento, Old Sacramento, malls and a massive hole in the ground, which will soon host the new Sacramento Kings arena.

At 5pm, the household increases by 2 as Riley returns from the airport with her little brothers, Pierce and Hugh. This being one of the few times I’m in the same room with all 3 siblings, I stare at each of the Smith’s debating who resembles whom more. Riley and Hugh’s golden brown hair and blue-green eyes seem to merge, while Pierce and Riley seem to have their noses and facial expressions chiseled by the same artist. With it already being past 8pm on the East Coast, we decide it’s a suitable time to pop open a few beers. An hour into catching up with the newly arrived guests, Riley and I light up the stove and oven in preparation for dinner. An Indian Pale Ale in hand, I begin cooking chicken, couscous and vegetables while Riley prepares the fresh kale. An hour later we’ve crafted one of our finest meals to date – a vintage Moroccan style feast.

Our moods elevated, Hubert, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I decide to spend the night out on the town. We head downtown, where we hop from one watering hole to a second and then a 3rd. Targeting solely the local and craft brews, I have a delicious night. While Riley and Hubert grab a taxi around midnight, Pierce Hugh and I stay out till 2am, before getting dropped off at the house by a friend of Pierce’s, who he met in Croatia earlier in the year.

While Riley’s brothers wake up early to drive down to San Francisco, I spend Saturday catching up on sleep and reading. Just before sunset Hubert, Lisa, Anna, Stella and I head to a local nature park where we are surrounded by curious deer and spawning salmon. I learn much about Anna during this short hike, including her fear of deer. By the end of our walk, we’ve come within feet of so many does and bucks that Anna has no choice but to successfully face her fear. This meeting with the fresh outdoors mitigates my headache and livens me up for the Sacramento Kings basketball game taking place later that night.

While Riley stays home with the rest of the gals, Hubert, Will, Will’s friend (Jack), and I head to the 7:30p.m. tip-off between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The game is a thriller, ending in a fantastic overtime victory by the home team. I watch 17,000 ecstatic fans yell, high-five and hug as their Saturday night is temporarily improved by the performance of their Kings. As with any competition, there is a losing team – and tonight (as is the case on most nights) it’s the Knicks. Will proudly tells Hubert and me about the verbal scuffle he and Jack had with the rowdy Knicks fan yelling obscenities from the seats above them.

I wake up Sunday morning with an extra spring in my step. I pack a single suitcase, eager to get on the road and see my best friend, Steven (who inspired me to go on this adventure), his girlfriend, Jesse, and my 2 friends, Jared and Jen, in Lake Tahoe later that evening. Riley and I sit in the living room, awaiting Riley’s brothers. Fashionably late [as Riley predicted], Pierce and Hugh arrive nearly 2 hours later than promised. The 4 of us jam-pack Riley’s vehicle and head north to the world-famous lake in Tahoe.

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas…Unless You’re Writing a Blog

For 4 hours Misha and I drive through blankets of darkness. We’re anxious to arrive to civilization. In the distance I make out flashing lights. As we near the colors become clearer. A neon yellow and green sign flashes the word “casino.” We’ve made it to Las Vegas.

As we pull into the valet at The Palms Hotel and Casino, sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling canopy, bounteous palm trees surround the entrance and doormen in freshly pressed suits greet us. “Wow, we’re really stepping it up,” I say to Misha.

Our renovated room is even more extravagant. A modern king-size bed, stylish lamp shades, granite counter tops and tile bathroom floors await us. Perched 20 stories high, we stare out the window at the illuminated city below. Although the city isn’t nearly  ready for sleep, Misha and I are. A strenuous hike and another long drive has defeated us.

We wake up to a pleasantly warm morning.  An hour later we’re munching down Animal Style hamburgers and fries from In and Out Burger’s secret menu. Despite needing a healthy meal, we can’t resist this West Coast fast food chain. We enjoy a fattening brunch for less than 10 dollars. Ready to begin our only full day in Sin City we eagerly make our way to the Strip.

Its barely past noon and I already feel overstimulated. The Strip is a different world. Blinking billboards, expensive cars, street magicians and a plethora of hotel casinos distract me from reality. Our first stop is Planet Hollywood. Upon entering this building we are immediately entrenched by colorful carpets and ceilings, endless ringing of slot machines and tireless card dealers. While watching Misha get lucky playing Roulette, I reminisce about my most recent visit to Vegas – an incredible week spent with two of my best friends, Erin and Beatrice. Feeling content with his $25 winnings, Misha arises from the table. It’s my turn. I love the anticipation of gambling. Although losing a few bucks at the table, I make up for it in free drinks and entertainment value.

So as not to spend our entire $100 (self-determined) limit in one spot, Misha and I leave Planet Hollywood and gamble a bit more in other hotels. My favorite is the Bellagio. I step foot into this grandiose hotel and am immediately mesmerized by the 30 foot tall lavish Christmas tree before me. Incredibly decorated holiday ornaments line the interior of this hotel-mansion. Golden reindeer-led sleds, constructed Santa Clauses 8 times the size of me, and countless green, red and blue lights encompass our field of vision. Impressed tourist snap pictures in every imaginable nook of this spacious room. I feel as if I’m in the upper class ballroom of the Titanic.

A trip to Vegas isn’t complete without seeing a show. As such, Misha and I purchase discounted tickets to “Vegas! The Show.” Prior to heading over to the theatre, Misha and I find an isolated corner on the 3rd floor of Planet Hollywood to munch down some tasty Thai food. We then descend to the theatre located on the second floor. We watch with glee as talented singers, dancers and showgirls expose the audience to what Las Vegas was like in the 1950’s. A tiny bird trainer comes on stage and has his cockatoo fly through hula hoops held by the audience. The scandalous and puffy costumes worn by the actors and actresses and the vintage props used by the ensemble appear fitting. That is, until Misha points out the old man playing a Grand Piano on stage. Atop his varnished instrument rests a MacBook Pro, from which the pianist reads sheet music I’m tempted to inform the producer how inappropriate this prop is.

After a full day of constant commotion, and each of our wallets $50 lighter, Misha and I head back to our hotel. One day in Vegas is enough for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like living and working here. It’s past midnight, yet the Planet Hollywood mall is packed with commotion and fluorescent lights. The ceiling, painted a bright blue, gives off the impression of a clear-sky morning, undoubtedly disrupting employee’s circadian rhythms. We exit the mall and walk along the way-too-crowded-for-a-weekday streets and wonder how long it takes someone to unwind from a day working in this city. “This city really never sleeps, does it?” I ask Misha.

“Sure doesn’t,” Misha says.

As much as I love visiting Las Vegas, I could never live in this city.