Snowstorm in the Desert…in May

So where were we?

Something to do with bison and angels, I believe. A month on the road, another 4 in San Diego and then a week exploring national parks along the West Coast. That’s right.

It’s been a while since we’ve last spoke, so let’s just get right to it; why don’t we?

We awaken from our comfy, king-sized slumber, pack the car of the few things we brought inside the hotel and take our respective seats in the front of the car: Riley in the driver’s seat and I in the passenger’s. At the helm of the vehicle for the first time in a while; Riley is feeling reckless today and blazes along i15 at 6 mph above the speed limit. Too fast, says the police man in an undercover sleek, silver Dodge Charger. Riley receives her first ever speeding ticket.

We pull off at a nearby exit, and I return to my usual spot behind the wheel.

A few days prior I had received a LinkedIn message from a company based out of New York; looking to form a subsidiary in Miami Beach. They were looking for a hedge fund accountant, with my background and experience, and seemed ready to offer a hefty salary. While neither Riley nor I were ready to settle down into full time jobs; the proposal sounded interesting enough for me to hear out. The phone interview was scheduled for 3pm today.

3pm rolls around and I receive a call from one of the New York executives. A tad nervous and slightly more excited; I pick up the phone, ready to impress. Unfortunately, I never get the chance. One thing I forgot to consider, while scheduling this interview, is that I would be in the middle of nowhere at 3pm; and that my shoddy T-Mobile reception would be far from sufficient. I spend the next hour unsuccessfully redialing the man’s phone number. Around 4pm, I get ahold of him, but as expected he shows absolutely no interest in speaking with me. Looks like I won’t be working in Miami any time soon.

As we near Denver, excitement builds up inside of me. “I have a good feeling about Denver,” I tell my passenger.

“You do?” Riley asks, appearing surprised by my statement.

“Yeah, I think we’re going to like it a lot.”

We arrive at Riley’s cousin, Earl’s, graduate-student apartment building at 9pm. Earl is a wiry lad, a few years older than Riley and I, possessing eerily similar features as Riley’s dad. He is a man who doesn’t lack in intelligence nor wit. I’ve met Earl twice before: once when running a half marathon with Riley in Denver and again in South Carolina, at the Smith Christmas party, and have always enjoyed his company. We spend little time on greetings; as the 3 of us are starved. Korean BBQ is on the menu tonight; as we pull into a dimly lit plaza in Aurora, CO.

We spend the night on Earl’s blowup mattress and wake up to a rainy May morning. Earl has already departed for school and Riley and I soon leave as well. We drive west for about 20 minutes, watching dilapidating tire shops and dollar stores transform into trendy restaurants and upscale homes. We pull alongside a corner house in the heart of Washington Park, a middle-upperclass neighborhood in Denver. A college friend of Riley’s mom, Michelle, lives here. She’s kindly offered to accommodate us while we get acclimated to our new hometown. But first we need to take care of the rumbling in our bellies.

We walk down the pleasant street to a fine-smelling restaurant named, Homegrown Tap & Dough. A specialty pizza and a salad for $10? You got it. We feast and sip on Pelegrino while watching sports highlights on TV. We’ll be back here again, Riley and I decide.

Michelle, a tan woman with dark features, a friendly smile and an equally friendly southern drawl, welcomes us with open arms. And apparently we’re not the only ones benefitting from her hospitality. Another family of four (including 2 adorable baby twins) is staying here as well. Fortunately, with Michelle’s daughter being away at college, and her basement containing sufficient space, all guests have more than enough room to get comfortable.

Most of my May’s have been spent in Florida. A handful have been spent in Atlanta. Similarly, Riley has spent the majority of her May’s in the Southeast. So when the sun began to set on this May evening and the rain turned into snow, Riley and I were intrigued, to say the least. And when the light snow turned into a full blow snowstorm, will falling branches and knee high piles of powder on the ground, we were full-blown shocked. But that didn’t stop us from heading to dinner with one of Riley’s best friends from Atlanta, Candace. We chowed down on family-style Italian entrees, including garlic knots, vodka sauce pasta and chicken ptarmigan. Feeling like we ate a building, yet barely making a dent in our massive plates, we box the remaining goodies (good for another 4 meals, each), and head back to Michelle’s. By now the roads are barely drivable, with snow and ice covering the asphalt, and large portions of trees, whose branches could no longer hold the weight of the snow, blocking entire streets. Riley and Candace make the wise decision to not go out tonight.

We spend a week with Michelle, exploring Denver and ducking raindrops. The city is unlike any we have lived in and we are instantly drawn to everything it consists of. Despite rumors of desert-like dryness, the rain is ceaseless and the nature is green. The restaurants are hip and yummy; the breweries are plentiful and even yummier; and the people go out of their way to introduce themselves to us and answer any questions we may have. People don’t appear to be in a rush, contrary to what I’ve experienced in many other big cities. We notice an absurd amount of dogs; damn near everyone’s got at least one. And we soon come to realize that no one here is from Denver! The city, growing at an unsustainably rate of 10,000+ new inhabitants per month, is filled with everyone and anyone imaginable – Floridians, Georgians (the state), New Yorkers, Californians, Texasians (yes, I made this word up), and prior residents of nearly every U.S. state. In fact, for every 10 people we meet, 9 have lived in Denver for less than 5 years. The few that have lived here their entire lives are called, “Natives.” You can usually spot them driving a 2001 Subaru Forester hatchback, their back seat and trunk filled with flannels and hiking gear, a bike rack hanging from the back of their vehicle, an elderly dog sticking it’s head out the passenger seat window and a “Native” bumper sticker rocking the right side of the car bumper. These people are generally in even less a hurry than the rest of the laid-back Denverites and seem to be pretty content with life (except for one things which eats at them like nothing else – they cannot stand how quickly Denver is growing and how many people are moving here. Hell, can you blame them? They grew up in “America’s Best Kept Secret,” which is now transforming to America’s Dream Destination).

On May 16 Riley and I hug Michelle an Co. goodbye, and head to a small town, within Denver, dubbed Glendale. Glendale, historically not known for being the greatest of areas, has gone through a major renovation over the past decade or so (as have countless other parts of Denver), and is now a cool and [relatively] affordable place to live. We pull into Creekside Apartments, not so coincidentally located right across the street from Cherry Creek, itself. We seek out building 18, subtly positioned in the back of the complex. We make our way up one flight of stairs to apartment 18B. A pair of ornately positioned tennis shoes rest atop the Welcome mat and the fresh scent of marijuana dribbles through the sides of the door. I knock on the wooden door and a tall, lanky figure with blood shot eyes and a crooked smile peaks out. This is Kevin, a 30-year old teacher working at the local middle school. The school year just ended and he’s off to explore the Galapagos islands this summer break. In the meanwhile, Riley and I will be subleasing his vaulted-ceilinged, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.

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Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 3) Oh, and my Birthday!

Back on unfamiliar road, we head Northeast. I drive while Riley recuperates in the passenger’s seat from a couple of blisteringly hot days in one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. Aside from stopping a couple of times to refuel (our stomachs and our vehicle) and to use the facilities, our drive to St. George, Utah is short and sweet. We arrive in this pleasant town with plenty of daylight left. Our first matter of business is fixing Riley’s hair. Mind you, I don’t see what’s so horrid about her new haircut – but I’m a guy and I know nothing about women’s hair. Riley tracks down a highly reputed hair salon, inside which she spends her first St. George hour. She emerges smiling and beautiful. Seemingly, her haircut is fixed. Hooray!

While the initial plan was to camp here for 3 nights, the impending storm and our dirty nails plead otherwise. Instead, I locate a Marriott brand hotel which will accept my absurd collection of Marriott points. I haven’t mentioned Corporate America in a while, but here’s a good opportunity: One benefit of working for a large company is the benefits. Back when I worked for a Big 4 Accounting firm, I spent many days and equally as many nights traveling the United States and collecting countless Delta Skymiles and Marriott Rewards points. Now I can guiltlessly stay in a large comfortable bed for free.

I drop Riley off at the hotel before setting off for a nearby disc golf course. Despite disc golf being a serious passion of mine, I only played it twice in San Diego. This is unacceptable, especially compared to in Atlanta, when I would “frolf” with my friend, Nick, sometimes twice in a weekend. This course is nice. Nothing spectacular, but nice. A huge open field, within a park, surrounded by canyons and mountains. The layout of the course is a zig-zag with little obstacles, making for little challenge. I spend a few calming hours tossing the plastic and walking from teepad to basket. Tonight, I’m the only player on this course. I shoot a respectable 4 over par.

On the drive home, a rainstorm commences. Rain; what a pleasant sight. Having only seen water fall from the sky a handful of times in the past 5 months, I enjoy this moment of car-pounding wetness. I walk into my hotel room to the site of a tiny spec immersed within a ginormous square of wood, cotton and cloth. Tiny Riley lays beneath the covers in our enormous king-sized bed, making for a very entertaining visual. I order some Thai food and chow down while planning our hike for the next day. Being the cheesy lover of surprises I am, I refuse to inform Riley the plan for tomorrow.

Day packs packed, we hop in the car and head towards Hurricane, UT – home of Zion Canyon. As we near we can’t help but stare out the window with mouths agape – massive red-orange canyons, chiseled to perfection, surround us. The canyons boast diverse shrubs, plants and even flowers and press against a blue-screen sky. We park in a dirt lot and track down a shuttle. 30 minutes later we stand at the trail head to Angel’s Landing. We pass a sign forewarning hikers of the dangers of this trail. A picture of a stick figure falling off a cliff leaves one with a feeling of disconcert.

“Misha, are you sure this is safe?” my risk-averse girlfriend asks me.

“I guess we’ll find out,” I reply.

The hike begins along the Virgin River which, while it may appear weak and helpless, is actually the source of all the beauty around us. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the Virgin River has carved Zion Canyon into the formation we see today. I marvel at this fact, as the river is only a few feet wide at it’s widest point, and struggles to carry a leaf along it’s waters; yet the canyon around us is thousands of feet tall and equally as wide.

The trail consists of switchbacks, of various inclines, carved into rock. We spot freshly bloomed desert flowers, familiar and unfamiliar shrubs and even an owl. 2 miles and a 1,500 foot increase in elevation later, we arrive at the infamous chains. These chains encompass the next half mile of our journey, as we shimmy up steep and narrow rock towards the apex. Parts of this section are certainly challenging, and it’s never a good idea to stare down at the canyon floor, but neither Riley nor I feel overwhelmed by this challenge. In fact, we find this section significantly easier than it was made out to sound on Trip Adviser. The 5-mile round trip journey takes us 3 hours to complete. We hop back on the shuttle and head back to the visitor’s center.

Our bellies having worked up an appetite and the calendar (showing May 5) screaming Mexican food, we drive back to St. George with one thought on our mind – San Pedro’s Family Mexican Restaurant. After a reasonably long wait, we are guided by our server towards a red-cushioned booth beneath a sparkly green, red and beige sombrero hanging from the wall. Before we finish reading through the appetizers, crunchy chips and fresh salsa arrive before us. We gluttonously munch down, knowing damn well that we’re suppressing our appetites before even ordering our entrees. Riley orders a burrito while I order fajitas.

A few pieces of shrimp and a sliver of chicken later, I look up at my girlfriend who is ¾ the way through her burrito. “You may want to slow down, Riley. It’s been like, 3 minutes, and you’re nearly done with an entire burrito.”

Riley looks down at her meal and her eyes expand in wonder, as if to say, did I really just eat all of that? “Am I going to feel sick?” she asks me.

“Most likely,” I tell her.

With great effort, Riley nibbles on the rest of her burrito in a slow and mindful manner.

I wake up and it’s my birthday. Yay! I’m 26 years old. I think that’s the last birthday milestone – at 17 you can watch R-rated movies; at 18 you can smoke cigarettes and buy porn; at 21 you can drink yourself to oblivion; and at 26 you can rent a car at a discounted rate. Not much else to look forward to, I suppose.

Riley presents me with a pair of Converse sneakers. She knew I wanted them, and she got them for me – what a gal! I know how difficult it was for Riley to keep this a surprise; as she had asked me on numerous occasions whether I knew what the rectangular shoe-box-shaped cardboard box in our car contained. She also asked me, even more frequently, if she could tell me what my gift was. But I gotta hand it to her – she stayed strong. Never once revealing that my gift-to-be was a pair of gray, size 9.5, low-top Converse sneakers. I try them on and walk a few steps in them. Perfect.

Our day packs packed, yet again; this time with a few additional pieces of gear, we head back towards Hurricane. Prior to entering the park, we stop at Zion Adventure Company, where we rent slip-resistant water shoes and a walking stick. We then drive the remaining ¾ mile to the park before transferring to a shuttle. Today we hike the Narrows; a hike famous for it’s breathtaking beauty, as you hike through the Virgin River, in between narrow canyon walls.

The first half mile or so of this hike in on dry ground. It then transitions to water. Before immersing ourselves in wetness, we change into our waterproof gear – sneakers come off and are replaced with water shoes; shorts and t-shirts are covered with rain-proof pants and jackets. I then climb atop a small rock structure and hide our sneakers so as not to lug them along with us.

The water is cold, but our gear prevents numbing. We eloquently step from rock to rock, as we traverse the river. At times, the water shallows to our ankles and at other times it comes up above our belly buttons. Less than a half mile into our hike I spot a dead deer in the water. “Flash flood must be coming,” I tell Riley. She doesn’t react, as she knows my stupid jokes by now.

We continue our slow pace through the canyons, awe-struck by the endlessly tall structures on all sides of us containing various shades of red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. This reminds me of the time I explored the Valley of Fire, in Nevada, with my parents; during which my dad taught me how various elements react with rocks, causing certain colors to emerge. We continue for a total of 2 more miles, coming up just short of the Orderville Junction, famous for its waterfalls and 1,500 tall walls. We head back the way we came, now moving with the tide. Our old buddy, the dead deer, remains where we left him, now a herd of flies circling his corpse. Upon arriving on dry ground, we gather our shoes and make our way back to the trail head. Filthy and wet, we rush into our respective restrooms and change into dry clothes.

The adventure at this magical park has ended, but we still have a birthday to celebrate. On the way back to St. George we stop at Cliffside Restaurant, cozily located, as the name suggests, on the edge of a massive cliff. We eat ornately decorated appetizers, salmon and steak entrees, lilokoi cheesecake and chocolate cake. Our stomachs having joyously expanded and our minds at ease, we leave the restaurant satisfied with our day. We arrive at our hotel exhausted and are soon situated beneath the king-sized sheets dreaming of canyons and cakes.

Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 2)

An Elantra, having seen many better days, pulls up to the curb outside its owners’ apartment building.

“What’s up bro?” Josh shouts, jumping out of his car.

“Hey,” I mumble, exhausted.

It’s past midnight, and Riley and I have been awake since the Catalina sunrise 17 hours prior.

Riley and I grab a few essentials out of the car before shuffling upstairs to the familiar 2nd-story apartment. We take turns showering, leaving a thick layer of grime on the bottom of Josh’s bathtub. Our skin appearing 8 shades lighter, Riley and I plop down on our inflated air mattress, centered in Josh’s living room, and shut our eyes for the night.

In the morning I get a chance to speak with the newest resident of Josh’s apartment, Buckwheat. Buckwheat, a fellow hip-hop artists, recently replaced Dustin as Josh’s roommate. While I try not to judge, I don’t get the greatest vibes from Buckwheat. Beside the fact that he hasn’t paid Josh a dime for rent, Buckwheat has been generously offering Josh’s apartment as a party and sleeping pad for all his “homies.”

Shortly after noon, Riley and I are back on the road. Our next stop is Death Valley National Park. After leaving the city, the roads free up significantly. We pass desert and more desert. The towns become smaller, as do the gas prices. As per usual, Riley’s eyes swiftly close and the sound of her breathing intensifies. This gives me time to relax and let my thoughts flow freely. Crap, I think to myself. Tonight’s the fight. While having had my phone on airplane mode for the past two days, I completely lost contact with the outside world. As a result, I nearly forgot about the Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather fight taking place tonight. This is the Fight of the Century, for goodness sake.

“We need to find a town between here and Death Valley,” I tell a newly awaken Riley.

After explaining the situation, I pull the car over and allow Riley to take the wheel while I search my phone for a sports bar televising the fight. Being nearly 200 miles away from Death Valley, you’d think it’d be a piece of cake to find a suitor, right? Wrong. Only two, somewhat prominent towns remain along this route. I call every bar within both towns to no avail. Half of these so-called-bar-employees don’t even know who Floyd Mayweather is. After exhausting nearly every option Google has to offer, I’m referred to Tommy T’s in Ridgecrest, CA.

We arrive a few hours before the fight. With time to kill, Riley and I meander through the streets of this tiny town. A Rite-aid and a closed-down Wendy’s make up the highlights. “Why don’t you get your hair cut here?” I ask Riley, pointing to a narrow building with the words “Hair Salon” hand-painted in an arch along the glass window. Riley had mentioned needing a haircut quite a few times over the past month or so.

“You think it’ll be good?” she asks.

I peer through the window at the upright woman with straight, black hair hovering over a young male with spikey hair. She snips at his mane with elegance and precision. “Yeah,” I reply. “It’s just a trim, right?”

$15 and 8 freak outs later, Riley has “the worst haircut of [her] life.”

We take our time walking the span of the town (2 blocks) from the hair salon to Tommy T’s. We take a seat at a high top table positioned in the center of the half-empty bar and attempt to track down a waitress. We finally get the attention of a woman, appearing in her early 40’s, with greasy highlighted hair, thick red lipstick pasted on her displeased facade, and a splash of belly protruding from beneath her Tommy T’s tanktop.

“Ya?” she asks, looking around the shop, as if she’d rather be anywhere rather than beside our table.

“Can we get a menu?” I ask.

Stranger words have never been uttered here. “A what?” the woman asks.

“A menu. For food,” I respond, confused by the confusion.

“We don’t have that,” the woman responds, smirking.

“Is there anything to eat here?”

“Nah,”: she says, taking a step away from the table. She stops mid stride and looks up to the ceiling, as if attempting to remember a long-forgotten lyric. “Actually, yeah. We got some food out back. We got wings, a cheeseburger and chicken fingers. Which ya want?”

An image of the feast ahead of us nearly makes me change my mind about dinner. But my rumbling stomach says otherwise. “I’ll take the chicken fingers,” I say. And Riley orders the wings. We also order a pitcher of Blue Moon for $4.95 (now that’s a deal)!

The fight is, well, not that great. Considering these guys are making hundreds of thousands of dollars for every second they stand in the ring, you’d expect a bit more. Pacquiao wins a round or two, but Mayweather is clearly the conqueror. The most entertaining part of the night is watching the crowd. The man sitting beside me, appearing in his 60’s (but likely only 40), ceaselessly curses at the television. “Fuck you, Tom Brady,” he shouts through his two remaining teeth. What Tom Brady has to do with this fight, aside from viewing it from the second row of the MGM Grand, I cannot tell you. The angered man begins to convulse manically as he slams the table with his fist and curses under his breath, “fucking Tom Brady.” His son, appearing to be a miniature version of his father, turns to face his ol’ man. Anger filling this young boy’s face, he harmonizes his fathers distaste, “I can’t stand that mother fucker. Get that fucker off the screen.” Just when I thought this family’s dynamic couldn’t get any more odd, the man’s daughter (who I had previously mistaken to be his wife), with wild eyes and maroon hair down to her hips, begins to openly flirt with the 40-something year old Native American man sitting at our table. With the fight having ended and Riley and I not wanting to witness what may or may not happen between these folk, we leave the bar.

“That sure was interesting,” I say to Riley a few minutes after getting into the car. No response. Riley’s asleep.

We whirl and twirl along pitch-dark roads for the next two hours. About 30 miles from our campsite, I pull the car over to use nature’s facilities. Holy hell, it’s hot, I think to myself the moment my body makes contact with the outside air. I return to my vehicle and check the thermometer. 98 degrees. And the time? 11:30 p.m. Welcome to Death Valley.

Shortly after midnight, we arrive in the accurately named, Furnace Creek Campsite. I set up the tent without the rain cover. A) it doesn’t rain here. And B) we need to keep things as cool as possible tonight. Not bothering to take our blanket out of the car, Riley and I attempt to sleep. We wake up constantly, drenched in sweat. Each time I wake up I take a sip of water from my gallon jug. By the time the sun rises, there’s barely any water left.

Today’s our one full day in Death Valley National Park. First matter of business is more water. We gather all the empty water bottles we can scavenge and fill them with tap water. We then purchase another gallon from the general store, for safe measure. We climb into our car and head to Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. Interestingly enough, Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, is only 84.6 miles (136 km) to the north west.

Badwater Basin consists of a small spring-fed pool of “bad water,” formed by the accumulation of salts from the surrounding basin. The salts make this water undrinkable, thus giving it the name. Despite the seemingly unlivable environment, the pool has animal and plant life, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the Badwater snail. The most fascinating feature at this site are the hexagonal honeycomb-shaped patches of salt stretching as far as the eye can see. This massive field of white makes for a surreal visual.

With the 108 degree sun baking us alive, Riley and I hop back in the car and blast the A/C. Next stop is the natural bridge. We arrive to this site, surrounded by only jagged rock, which seem to stretch for light years. The bridge itself is a half mile hike awake. That’s a half mile too far for us. So we get back in the car and head to the Devil’s Golf Course. This site is named after a line in the 1934 Death Valley National Park Service guide book, stating that “Only the devil could play golf” on its surface. This title makes sense once we witness the large halite salt crystal formations encompassing this area.

We reenter the Acura and head north towards Artist’s Drive, which boasts a handful of miles of stunning rock formations and colors. These reds, pinks, yellows, greens and purples are formed by the oxidation of different metals, including iron, mica and manganese.

Our last two stops for the day are Zabriskie Point, containing miles upon miles of erosional landscape, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, having starred in many a Hollywood Movie (including the Star Wars series). We snap a few touristy photos at these locations and are well on our way for some much needed relaxation.

We pull into the Furnace Creek Resort and purchase a $5 pass to the natural spring swimming pool. We cool off in the 90 degree water, before drying off and heading back to our campsite to begin cooking dinner.

Not to toot my own horn, but damn – this dinner is absolutely sensational. Keeping steaks on ice for the previous 48 hours pays off, as we now lay these fresh slabs of meat out over the open fire and grill them to perfection. Throw in some grilled corn, broccoli and brown rice pasta and we have yourselves the tastiest meal of 2015. As if we need it, Riley and I pull out graham crackers, marshmallows and a Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bar and concoct mouthwatering s’mores.

Our energy levels expended and our stomachs content, we lie down in our tent and gaze at the full moon glimmering in the distance. Before long we are sound asleep.

Wild Bison, Death and Angels (Part 1)

Beads of sweat drip off Jaime’s plump face. His close-knit eyes scan the apartment, seeking any damage or misplaced items. “Everything looks good,” he says. “You’ll be getting your security deposit back within the next week.”

And with that we lock the door to our San Diego home for the final time. We have Jaime, the Total Property Management inspection manager, snap a photo of us on my iPhone before Riley and I hop in her packed-to-the-brim 2011 Acura TSX and begin our 2nd road trip in 5 months.

En route to the San Pedro port, we accidentally stumble upon a Mexican-themed farmer’s market. We order pupusas, pollo encebollados and panes rellenos in bulk to satisfy our empty stomachs. Our appetites quenched we head back to the car. I adjust the bike rack carrying Riley’s Bianchi and my Schwinn, before heading off for the port, locating only a few miles from here.

For the final 10 minutes of our drive we pass mostly construction zones and industrial sites, as this working-class city has very little beauty to boast. We park in a massive parking lot surrounded by an immense teal structure possessing thousands of multi-colored freight containers. Countless cranes maneuver these heavy chunks of rectangular plastic, steel and fiber, repositioning them onto cargo ships. In front of the industrial havoc rests the Catalina Island Tours building. Riley and I extract our backpacks from the car and load them up with camping essentials. With my 55 Liter backpacking backpack weight approximately 3 times that of Riley’s JanSport, we waddle over to our ship.

I nap as our boat floats along the Pacific for 75 minutes, towards the Two Harbors port, located on the North East part of the island. The boat docks and we follow a small herd of people, including an eccentrically dressed bride and groom, onto the island. Despite the 80lbs of combined weight on our shoulders, a sense of lightness instantly encompasses Riley and me as we step foot on this majestic plot of land. Light waves splash into the bluest bay, mirroring an equally radiant sky. Sand stretches from the water towards the areas’ only general store and restaurant. Only 2 dozen people circulate Two Harbors as the tourist season hasn’t hit full force yet. These individuals ride kayaks and eat ice cream purchased from the general store.

With the afternoon sun threatening only 5 to 6 hours of remaining daylight, Riley and I run into the general store and purchase the one essential we lack – a gallon of water. Map in hand and hip-belts tightened we set off for the 7 mile hike towards Parson’s Landing. The trail commences with a quarter mile 35 degree incline. A half hour later we reach the apex, exhausted, and wondering if this hike was a good idea. Fortunately, the trail evens out, with occasional inclines followed by immediate declines. We walk along the edge of a mountain, with breathtaking views of the ocean to our right and vegetation and rock to our left. The climate here is noticeably less arid, as the Southern Californian succulents and brown vegetation we have gotten used to has been replaced with a slightly greener and more humid ambiance.

An hour into our journey we stop to hydrate and refuel. I tie my shoe, tighten my backpack straps and begin walking again. As I look up a fuzzy creature with red fur turns to stare me in the eye before scurrying across the trail and ducking into a hole in the ground. This 4 foot bundle of joy was a fox. “I just saw one of the 4 animals posted on the Animals You May See on the Trail sign at the beginning of the hike,” I tell Riley.

“Ugh, I missed it,” Riley exclaims.

For the next hour we continue our brisk pace, stopping often to drink and eat; more so to relieve the weight on our backs than to fulfill our bellies. About 2/7 of the way through our journey, Riley and I discuss how thankful we are to the Catalina Island Conservancy. This nonprofit organization was established in 1972, through the efforts of the Wrigley and Offield families, to protect and restore Santa Catalina Island. The families deeded 42,135 acres (170.51 km2), approximately 88% of the island, to the organization. Essentially, this means that 88% of the island cannot be touched for any purposes other than hiking and maintaining trails. As such, the view Riley and I see now is the same as it was 45 years ago. This is truly amazing when considering how much towns like Coral Springs (which was 100% covered in swamp), Atlanta (which has grown from 1.5M to 5.5M people since 1972) and San Diego (which was essentially unknown outside of its military base) have grown during this time frame.

As we near the ¾ point of our hike the trail thins significantly as most prior hikers have turned back by now. “A couple more miles,” I tell Riley, who is noticeably worried about the descending sun and the increasing heaviness of her backpack. Moments later we spot a deer crossing the trail. “That’s 2 out of 4,” I say to Riley. “All that remains is a bison and a rattlesnake.” We’re still yet to see another hiker along this infrequently traveled trail.

The hike turns more inland as it cuts through a chunk of the island. We can no longer see the ocean, but are surrounded by lush fields of grass and trees. A hunch tells me to glance at one particular batch of shrubs and trees; a rather unspectacular viewing by itself. For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off it. As I near, a large brown mass forms among the green. “Holy shit, that’s a bison,” I yelp, scaring my girlfriend half to death.

“Where?” she asks.

I point to the hungry creature before us. Comparable only to the buffalo I’d see roaming the filthy streets of India; this is the largest animal I have ever seen in the wild. “At this rate, we’re bound to come across a rattler,” I tell Riley.

With less than a mile to go, a gorgeous sunset begins to form in the distance. A gradual incline among the multi-colored grasses leads to a panoramic viewpoint: mountains and fields make up 270 degrees of view and a magnificent ocean splashes wildly among the rocks in front of us. “That’s it,” I say, pointing at the isolated bay. “That’s our spot.” The setting could not be more dramatic, as we descend the final steps, completely alone except for a slight breeze, a pink and orange sky, and a greying campsite awaiting our arrival.

We arrive at a series of lockers containing supplies. We insert the key into “Locker 3” and extract firewood and water. 8 campsites make up this “primitive” campground, of which only 2 are occupied tonight: a young couple reading by the campfire a few hundred paces to our left and 3 brothers finishing up dinner a few hundred paces to our right. Starved, I immediately begin working on the fire while Riley layers warm clothes. Within an hour and a half we have a blazing fire within a circular sand pit and a makeshift chicken, broccoli and pasta dinner cooked on a $4.95 set of pots and pans from Walmart. Maybe it’s just me, but campfire food is simply the most delicious food out there.

Despite our stomachs being full, we scavenger the area for sticks to use for s’mores. Riley and I watch our marshmallows catch fire and char before inserting them between graham crackers and dark chocolate.

Exhausted, we pass out and sleep like kings. I wake up at the crack of dawn, feeling a healthy energy throughout my body. I catch the end of the sunrise before heading out on a solo adventure. I walk along a thin trail leading to…well, I’m not sure. Less than 15 minutes into my trek, I round a corner and am stopped in my tracks. 15 feet in front of my stands another massive bison; this time directly in the center of the trail. He turns to look at me and I stare back. Curiosity fills the eyes of this creature, while his jaw moves in slow, circular movements as he gnaws on some tasty breakfast grass. I take a few steps closer to the creature, wanting to get a better look and hopefully snap a photo. His eyes narrow. I take another handful of steps, now standing literally 6 feet away. His 2,000 pound frame seems to tighten. Even if he charges me, I’m way faster, I think to myself. I take one more stupid step, before the bison begins to charge at me full speed. I nearly stumble to the ground at the shock of this animal’s speed. Realizing he’s gaining ground on me, I flail blindly running as fast as I can in the direction I came. After the fastest 100 meter dash known to man, I turn around and find that the bison has given up chase. Either he got tired (which I doubt), or he was merely satisfied spooking me half to death and felt no need to continue racing after me.

When Riley finally wakes up, 3 hours later, I recount my tale and receive a verbal lashing in return. Words like “stupid,” “thoughtless,” and “idiot” pierce my ears. I probably deserve it.

We hang around the campsite a bit longer before commencing the hike back. As with most hikes, the return feels quicker and easier. We arrive back to Two Harbors in the early afternoon. First matter of business is food, so we order a – you guessed it – bison sandwich. Content and sleepy, we find a shady spot along the beach, beneath a tall shadow-casting rock wall and lie down. Within moments Riley and I are covered in sand and asleep. We wake up an hour or so later to the day appearing even more beautiful than before. Crystals shimmer atop the ocean as the sun’s rays reflect over the aqua blue water. Merely a handful of people parade the island today, casting the illusion of privacy. As we walk from our nap-spot towards the rest restaurant bar we encounter another fox; this time a baby. This adorable undomesticated puppy is less than 12 inches in length.

Still in relax-mode, Riley orders a piña colada and we recline on a bench by the volleyball court. A few minutes later, 4 guys and 2 girls, appearing slightly older than us, occupy the volleyball court and begin punching a volleyball around. “You guys want to play?” they ask us. We decline the invite. 30 minutes later one of the guys puts the volleyball away and pulls 8 large green and red bocce balls and a smaller, white “pallino” ball out of his backpack. “We need two more. Want to play?” they shout at us again.

“Sure,” we reply. For the next two hours the 8 of us joke, laugh and toss large balls at a smaller ball. We play two full games up to 11 and while Riley and I take last place the first time around, we win the 2nd game on an improbable sequence of throws in which we knock away all our opponents’ balls and end up with both our balls resting against the pallino.

Hungry again, we ruffle through our backpacks seeing what food we have left. Peanut butter sandwiches, teriyaki jerky and trail mix make up our dinner tonight. With the sun setting and the night air cooling, we head inside the restaurant to slurp on some warm soup and nibble on complimentary bread rolls while we await our ship to arrive and take us back to the mainland. In typical island time, the ship arrives 2 hours late. All aboard, and we’re off. Arriving back in the industrial land of San Pedro at midnight, Riley and I lazily shuffle over to our awaiting vehicle and begin the drive to our next destination.

The Gosis’s Come to Town

Many of you may be wondering how Riley and my relationship has developed since we began this trip. It can’t be all roses, right? If you spend the majority of every second of 3 months together, there’s bound to be fights. Well, you’re right. As great as things are most of the time, we do occasionally bicker. For the most part, these are uneventful arguments that diffuse as quickly as they begin. A short debate about who should clean the dishes, perhaps. Or whether I need to drive more carefully. Nothing major. Around the beginning of March, the frequency of these small, meaningless arguments begins to increase. We just seem more irritable with each other. In the heat of the moment, this bothers me. But when calm, things are clear. For the first year and a half of our relationship, we’d see each other for a couple hours a day, a few times a week. Suddenly, we have no choice but to spend nearly every waking moment together. We don’t have our own apartment or our parent’s house to go back to where we can vent to the walls. If we want to be alone for a bit, well, we can’t.

After a week or so of discomfort, our pent up emotions culminate into a big fight. After the initial hours of anger and negativity pass, we talk. For the first time in a few weeks we REALLY talk. Riley tells me what’s been bothering her and I do the same. We hug and vow to be better. More importantly, we promise to talk to each other when we start feeling bothered by something. Thus, preventing a fight. Although uncomfortable at first, this is a necessary growing pain in a serious relationship. Things won’t always be wonderful. Even in the seemingly stress free environment of travel. Fights and disagreements are okay. It’s how you come out of them that define a healthy relationship.

On Thursday, March 19 my parents arrive in San Diego for their first time. Through the convenience of Air BNB they rent an apartment for $70 per day, less than a mile from Riley and my house. It’s too late for me to greet them tonight, but we make plans for the next day.

I roll into work at 9 a.m. on Friday. By noon I’m lying face down on a massage table receiving the deepest massage known to man. Oh, and did I mention this is my 3rd massage in as many weeks? Mike, the boss, treats his employees to Friday massages during tax season. Keith, with long, blonde surfer-kid hair and an envy-evoking bronze tan rolls in with his gear every Friday at noon and one by one we pile into the darkened conference room for 30 minutes of bliss.

Today, I’m having Keith work on my neck. While some people accumulate tension in their lower backs, shoulders or even stomachs, mine goes straight to the neck. “Tell me when I’m pressing too hard,” Keith says as he penetrates 2 inches deep into my neck muscles. “How’s that?” he asks.

“Fine,” I reply through mind-numbing pain.

Keith’s muscular fingers dig another inch deeper. “How about now?” he asks, excited for the challenge.

“You can’t marry him. I already called dibs,” Cathy, the fit woman working the front desk, says upon my exit from the conference room.

Feeling overly relaxed, I struggle being productive the next two hours. At 2:30 p.m. my phone rings. “We’re downstairs,” my dad says. I descend the one flight of stairs to my smiling parents and my too-cool-to-smile brother. One by one I hug them. My dad, excited about seeing his “hippie son,” storms me and kisses me on the cheek. I scan my family up and down. My mom and dad have been living a much healthier lifestyle these past few months and the results are noticeable. My dad’s beer belly has all but disappeared and my mom looks ready to run a half marathon. My brother, lingering in the background, seems to have gained an inch or two and maybe a tad bit of muscle, but aside from that appears the same. Still a little squirt who I’m going to crush in tennis.

And two hours later I do exactly that. 6 – 3, 6 – 2 is the score as big brother prevails.

Still tired from the previous night’s flight and from the emotional roller coaster of watching their two sons battle it out on the tennis court, my parents suggest we take it easy tonight. Upon arriving at home, I whip up some tasty tacos while my dad pops open a bottle of red. We watch sports and eat, just like the good ol’ days in South Florida. For desert we have a mouth-watering raspberry fruitcake. My mom, clearly not adjusted to west coast time, struggles to keep her eyes open so we call it a night.

The weekend is here and we’re on our way to Marina and Dima’s house. This married couple is a family friend of ours, who settled in SoCal over two decades ago. They live in San Marcos and know San Diego like the back of their hand. Today they’ll be taking my family, Riley and me on a tour of everything worth seeing in a day. We begin with a vintage Russian breakfast. Russian cottage cheese pancakes, fruits, cheeses and sweets go from table to mouth.

Riley, my brother and I slide into Dima’s car while my parents join Marina in hers. We drive through San Marcos and into Carlsbad, all the while listening to Dima describe the past and present of this scenic city. In Carlsbad we walk along the coast and admire our surroundings while drinking naturally alkaline water. Next stop, La Jolla. While I’ve been here many times, Marina and Dima’s tour encompasses the aspects I’ve yet to see. La Jolla Cove is filled with climbable rocks and sea lion fun. Children’s Beach is filled with more sea lions and their adorable offspring. The occasional sea lion, tired of basking in the San Diego sun, bounces on its tummy towards the water to cool off. Pelicans, Cormorants and gulls hang out with their mammalian friends in between flights in search of fish. We then walk through a serene coastal park before trudging through Prospect Street, lined with shops too expensive for my taste, and budget.

Back in the car, we drive south to Coronado, an island I’ve already spent a handful of days on. It’s not a trip to Coronado without a walk through Hotel Del. We feast on Mexican food, before getting back in the car and heading to Sea Breeze Village. After rising to the top floor of the Hyatt and snapping a stunning panorama picture, Riley, my brother and I depart from the crew and head home. A fantasy baseball draft needs attending to.

Sunday is my day to scout the San Diego Zoo. “Happy Birthday, mom,” I say, handing my mother a coupon for 50% off admission.

“My birthday gift is a coupon?” my mom asks, half laughing and half in shock.

We stalk the walkways filled with cages and animals. While seeing hippos and polar bears is awesome, I can’t help but feel sorry for these trapped animals. Nonetheless, the zoo lives up to its hype. The 4 hours we spend here is not enough to capture everything this place has to offer.

We shower, change and head to dinner in La Jolla where we meet with the very same relatives I met for the first time a few weeks earlier. Now it’s my family and Riley’s turn to meet them. The cuisine is Italian, and the bread and olive oil dip is to die for. Yet, the veal meatball pasta is even better.

After work on Monday, I take my parents to some of my favorite nature spots. A windy day results in skies filled with paragliders at Torrey Pines. We hike the half mile down to Black’s Beach while massive winged men and women fly above us. We stand around the beach for a while, talking and attempting not to stare at the swinging genitalia surrounding us. After three quarters of an hour standing in the sand and unable to convince my brother to play Frisbee with a particularly agile nude man, we decide to head back up.

The evening is capped off at Sunset Cliffs, where the sunset is as advertised.

Tonight, I cook. Steaks, potatoes and asparagus are on the menu. I recently mastered the art of frying steaks. And tonight I get to flaunt my skill. Taking a break from his beloved cell phone, my brother helps me prepare the food. After filling the apartment with just the right amount of smoke and flavor we sit down to eat. To my delight, the crew adores the meal.

Tuesday night is dedicated to exploring North Park. Exploring is a relative term. We walk slightly less than a mile to Underbelly, where we eat, and then another half mile to Mike Hess Brewing, where we drink. A complimentary beer glass in hand, I lead the family and girlfriend back to our apartment.

Wednesday morning my parents leave for Huntington Beach while I prepare tax returns. After work I head straight to Colina Del Sol park, where I face off against my tennis-foe, Nick, in the semi-finals of the San Diego Tennis League. Unlike our last matchup, I win, earning a spot in the finals. Thank you little brother for warming me up with a few practice matches this week.

I wake up bright and early Thursday with one thought on my mind. Drone. Today marks a monumental day in the history of Sky Vision Studios – our first 4 figure client engagement. I hop in Riley’s car and drive the 2 hours northeast to Idyllwild. I cruise along scenic, curving mountain roads passing cacti and succulents. By 9 a.m. I’m filming. Our client, Jay, has asked me to film his creek, which he intends to sell to the government. The intention is for the government to transform this 2 mile stretch of flowing water into a hiking/walking trail for the elderly and young. I spend the next 7 hours crawling through shrubs, walking through shallow water and avoiding mounds of poison ivy while filming Strawberry Creek, the surrounding town and county parks. Aside from slipping and slamming my shin against a rock, I come out mostly unscathed.

In typical Misha fashion I arrive home later than planned. I have 20 minutes to pack, drive to the train station and catch the Pacific Surfliner heading to Santa Ana. This is where Riley, my savior, gets clutch. She prepares dinner for me, purchases and prints my train ticket and damn near packs my bags for me. All I have to do is throw in a couple random items into my backpack and hop in the car. Riley drops me off at the Old Town Train station with 3 minutes to spare. Burrito still dripping from the corners of my mouth I hop on the train. That wasn’t stressful or anything.

I’m greeted by my parents in Santa Ana. The next day we head to Los Angeles, a city I don’t particularly like. It’s just, the three times I’ve been to this City of Angels, I didn’t get the greatest vibe. People seemed distant and self-interested. The streets seemed dirty and uncared for. Something just felt…off. However, this time the day starts off pretty good. We walk through Chinatown and then Koreatown. We eat some scrumptious Korean lunch and feel refreshed. We leave the restaurant and head to the car…

…It’s gone. No freaking way. No way did another vehicle I was acquainted with get towed. How were four people who had never seen a parking lot with less than 100 available spots supposed to know that when a meter reads “meter parking until 4 p.m.” it means that all cars parked after 4 p.m. will be towed. Riley and I saw a very similar sign in San Diego which signified free parking after 4 p.m. That’s L.A. for ya.

A Lyft ride and a $400 tow charge later we head to Hollywood. The walk among the stars does us some good and our moods are elevated. 2 hours later we arrive at Borya’s house. Borya and my dad have been friends since their births. A mere 6 months apart in age, they’ve spent many a day together back in Russia and a few more here in the States. But now they live far away. In fact, this is their first reunion in nearly 6 years. Borya’s 8 year old son, named Misha like me, and Borya’s beautiful wife, Anastasia, greet us. We chat for a bit while dinner is being prepared. A wine connoisseur and a courteous host, Borya whips out 4 of his finest bottles of wine. “Now you must try this 3rd wine with the New York Strip,” he says as my dad forks a one and half inch thick slab of meat onto his plate.

“I will. Let me just finish this glass,” my dad says, motioning to the ‘2nd wine’ he’s been sipping on. “It’s delicious.”

Borya reaches over the table, snags my dad’s glass of wine by the stem and makes a thrusting motion to his right. The blood-red liquid splatters all over the patio wall and grass. He then calmly reaches for the 3rd bottle of wine and pours my dad a glass. “Now try it,” he says.

The walkie talkie sitting beside Anastasia begins to whimper. The whimper soon becomes a full blown cry. The caring mother rushes to a bedroom and soon walks out with a 2 month old baby in her arms. This is Sasha, the new born. This adorable bundle of joy has the same name as my brother.

The next morning we munch on eggs and pack our bags. My family and I load up the rental car while Borya and his son hop into Borya’s sports car. Off we go to Beverly Hills. We traverse the hilly streets boasting affluent homes, before parking and exploring the Graystone Manor. We transition to Rodeo Drive, where we walk among the richest in the country. Rolls-Royces are the norm here, with a handful of Lamborghini’s and Ferraris speckled throughout. Gucci and Rolex are of the most inexpensive brands in the area. My wide-eyed brother envisions a lifestyle in which he can afford such riches.

The crew drives to Pasadena where they stride through the center of the city while I await a Lyft ride to the Glendale train station. Once again I arrive at the station with less than a handful of minutes to spare. I recline in my comfy Pacific Surfliner seat and read my book of the week, Replay, while hopeful party-goers en route to San Diego load onto the train at various stations. A March full of new jobs, cleanses, fights and family members has come to an end. Onto April.

Life Speeds Up

Once again I sit behind a desk. However, things are a bit different from my former job in Atlanta. For starters, the stress level has decreased while the exposure to natural light has increased.

There are about 8 of us here. Pat comes in at the crack of dawn every morning. No, literally. She’s usually in by 6 a.m. But she leaves by noon, which ain’t too shabby. In the office across from Pat, Susan and My (her name is actually spelt “M-Y;” not to be mistaken with the possessive form of “me”) sit, their backs facing each other. Although Susan is here today, she only comes in a few times a week. Like me, she’s a part time employee. And My leaves by 3 p.m. every day to pick up her son from school. The office catty-corner from Susan and My is occupied by Olivia, a seasoned veteran. Olivia has been here for 4 years and assumes a manager role. And she assumes it quite well, indeed. Silent palm trees and ceaseless sunshine stare through Olivia’s large office window at the mountain of files atop her desk. Across the hall sits Janet and me. They don’t come much more knowledgeable than Janet. I’m preparing my 4nd tax return and have already managed to ask Janet nearly one-hundred questions. Calmly and with a smile, she answers every single one. I’m going to learn a lot these next two months.

I have a question for Mike, the boss man. I walk out of my office and hang a right. To my left is another office. “Hi George,” I say to the stout man with a grey Beatles-era hair style.

“Hi,” George mutters back, flipping his right hand in the air and not looking up from his computer screen.

A few steps more and I reach Mike’s office. An organized desk and a computer monitor larger than any television set I’ve ever owned rest against the side wall of this office.

Mike looks up from his time sheet and asks me if I got a haircut. Before I can respond he cracks a joke. Something about me having obviously had multiple haircuts. It’s a joke I don’t understand but I laugh anyway. Mike smiles. He then stands up and extends a knuckle towards me. I pound it. Standing at least 4 inches taller than me, Mike’s presence is noticeable wherever he goes. “How’s your third day going?” he asks.

“Well,” I say. “I actually have a question for you about this return I’m working on.”

We sit and chat. Mike effortlessly answers this nagging question which seemed impossible to me mere moments ago.

Back at my desk, I check the time: 3:30 p.m. Time to head home; Riley needs the car.

This is my new gig. 4 times a week, 7 hours a day I prepare tax returns. Individuals, partnerships, corporations and trusts. I get a taste of everything. When I have questions, and I have many, I ask Janet. When I complete a return I give it to Olivia to review. I learn more about tax in a day here than I did in 2 semesters in college. Less than a week of employment and my friends are already asking me tax advice.

After work I hand the car off to Riley, who spends the evenings tutoring little Anthony and attending yoga/pilates/barre/core/a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember workout classes. Generally, we’re both home by 7, at which time we cook dinner together and maybe have a glass of wine. By 10 Riley’s asleep. And by midnight, I join her.

I don’t work Mondays. I do this intentionally so I can have the car all to myself with no obligations. A permanent 3 day weekend. It’s the final Monday in February. The weather is still cool and the sun still shines bright. I sleep in, eat a hearty breakfast, grab my black suitcase containing my drone and head outside. I drive around town filming. I get home a quarter past three and upload the footage. A couple more days like this and I should have enough for my first demo reel.

The wooden gate creeks open and slams shut. The squeak of breaks signifies Riley’s arrival from work. She walks in drenched in sweat. I give her a kiss and ask about her day.

“Good,” she says. “I took the kids to the park this morning and made a new friend. She’s from Brazil.” Riley rushes into her room, cutting the conversation short. In 15 minutes she must leave for tutoring. Feeling much less frantic than my girlfriend, I lazily slip into my sneakers and prepare a smoothie. By 4:35 we’re speeding north on interstate 805, heading towards Rancho Santa Fe. While Riley tutors, I sneak a workout at the local LA Fitness (or “Louisiana Fitness,” as Waze [my GPS] calls it).

Wednesday rolls around and Riley’s mom, Anne, and dad, Mac, fly into San Diego. Riley’s grandfather, former South Carolina Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley, is receiving an award at the 150th annual AASA (American Association of School Administrators) conference in downtown San Diego tomorrow. A perfect opportunity for a miniature family reunion.

It’s Thursday morning and by 7 a.m. Riley has already dropped me off at work. I’m back in her car by two in the afternoon. I slip into my nicest (and only) suit and a handsome tie while my girlfriend cruises through the gradually swelling southbound traffic. We arrive at the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Diego and valet our vehicle for the inexpensive price of $12/hour. Might as well park illegally again and get another $60 parking ticket, I think to myself.

I exchange pleasantries with Riley’s mom and dad. Other family members roll in and interrogate us about our travels. “How lovely,” they all say. “I’m jealous,” they reaffirm. By 3 we’re walking the quarter mile from the hotel to the convention center. While Riley and her aunts, uncles and family friends trudge behind, Mac and I walk ahead, discussing my new favorite topic – taxes. “Oh yeah, you can totally deduct that,” I tell him.

The conference hall is grandiose. Of the 4,000 people packed in here, the Smith’s, Riley’s and I sit front row. When his time to receive the award arrives, Dick Riley does so humbly and elegantly. He then produces an exquisite speech; one that a hot-rod politician in the heat of a presidential election would be envious of. Yet, Mr. Riley does this at the ripe age of 82. The host comes back on stage and announces a few more awards and makes promises for a better future. Then steps in the guest speaker – Cal Ripken Jr. Rightfully cocky, Ripken delivers a funny speech with an undertone of conceitedness. You don’t become one of the all-time greatest athletes by being modest.

At night we eat Indian food. It’s my 2nd time tasting the spicy deliciousness since my 6 month long battle with Giardia following my backpacking endeavor in India in 2013. The cleanliness of the restaurant quiets my apprehension.

I take Friday off of work to allow Riley to drive her family around town. Riley comes home around 4 p.m., giving me just enough time to say hi to my girlfriend before heading to Shabbat dinner with relatives, most of whom I’ve never met. The food is fantastic and the company is even better. Cousins, cousins and more cousins. I meet relatives ranging from barely 18 months old to nearly 90 years old. Of the 15 or so individuals feasting within this tall-ceilinged house in the hills, I’ve only met 2 – Gloria and Lee Redmon. Gloria is my grandfather’s first cousin. Lee is her husband. And everyone else attending the party is a product. As someone who is not particularly religious, it’s nice to be reminded of my Jewish roots every now and then. L’Chaim.

Saturday brunch is as good as it gets. If there’s one thing the Marriott Marquis has mastered it’s the restaurant buffet. A pair of sunny side eggs is prepared before me. I then load up my plate, and a few more, with lightly seasoned fingerling potatoes, crunchy strips of bacon, caramelized onions, perfectly browned toast with Irish butter and other morning goodies. Oh, I almost forgot the melt-in-your mouth French toast lathered in fresh chocolate chips. To cap off this breakfast of champions I have the softest pound cake in town with a cup of green tea.

After breakfast we pack the Acura with 7 friends and family members and drive back to our neighborhood. I coach tennis at the local North Park Recreational Center while Riley + Co. explore the world renowned San Diego Zoo. We cap off the night at a fine dinner at the Grant Grill with friends of Anne’s, Beegie and Bill. Men in tailored suits, speaking in foreign accents bring out tasters in shot-glass sized bowls. The table orders pricey, yet exquisitely delicious, entrees consisting of lamb, fish and complex salads. Wine pours like rain. Chatter and laughter fill the room.

Sunday marks the arrival of March and the departure of Riley’s many family members. This also marks the beginning of Riley’s cleanse. For the next month, Riley will only be able to eat, well, pretty much nothing. Vegetables are fine. Depending on how they are cooked, that is. Sugars and carbs are no-no’s. Poultry and fish are okay too. Again, depending on how they are cooked. And of course, diet-specific shakes compose a large portion of this regimen. I’m not sure what is in the shakes, but Riley seems to enjoy them.

A week passes and another one of Riley’s friends, Alana, shows up in San Diego. Along for the ride is Alana’s boyfriend, Will, who happens to be close friend with Grant, the guy I told y’all about a few entries ago. The newcomers commune with Grant and Rachel and decide to spend Saturday in Mexico. “We’re in,” we tell the quartet.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and lathered in sunscreen I plop in the driver’s seat next to Riley, who is donning beach attire and a bubble of excitement. We head towards the border. Grant drives like a maniac and I have to dig into my inner Jason Bourne to keep up with his crossing 4 lanes at once and 70 mile per hour turns. We slide $24 cash into the drive-thru insurance window, protecting our vehicles of any damage they may endure in Mexico and make the final 2 mile drive to the border. Getting into Mexico is uneventful. A $2.10 toll and a straight-faced, uninterested police officer.

We drive 45 minutes south to Rosarito Beach. Here we are escorted by a short, plump man with a mustache and a sombrero to a beautiful spot beneath an umbrella. Stimuli surround us. A man with a wheelbarrow full of melting gummy worms and chocolates walks by us, offering his products. In the stretch of 5 minutes, 7 women and children pass our table, selling sombreros and jewelry. Miniature ponies and cayenne covered fruits are scattered all around us. A thin man with a shy smile stands stealthily in my peripheral. He moves a Sharpie pen along a white piece of multi-purpose computer paper. A hairy-chested sketch of me later, I give this man a dollar. I turn to my left and Riley is lying face down on a towel in the sand. A tanned woman, appearing in her early 40’s hovers over my girlfriend rubbing lotion onto her back. For $4 Riley receives a fine 20 minute massage. Meanwhile, a large Mexican man in a Chicago Bears jersey comes sprinting towards Will blowing a referee whistle. He then grabs Will’s head and cocks it back with his paws. In one hand he snags a tequila bottle and in the other he holds a Corona. He shakes these sun-warmed Mexican beverages and shifts the neck of each bottle towards Will’s mouth. He releases his thumbs and two yellow streams erupt in Will’s mouth. A crowd gathers as Mexicans and tourists alike, cheer Will on. A full beer and a rough-night’s worth of tequila later, Mr. Chicago Bears lifts Will from his chair and swings his 200 pound frame onto his shoulder. He spins and spins and spins before dropping Will onto his feet. I catch it all on video.

After Rosarito we drive another 45 minutes south to Porto Nuevo. We walk into what appears to be a garage but turns out to be a restaurant overlooking the Pacific. Somehow, Grant and Rachel are friendly with the owner and convince him to sell each of us a meal consisting of 3 lobsters, a margarita, a shot of tequila and unlimited fresh tortillas, rice, beans, chips and salsa for $15/person, as compared to the usual $25/person. After this fulfilling meal we walk around the little Mexican shops scoping out good deals on local tequila, cigars and jewelry. I split a handle of homemade blue agave tequila and cigars with Grant and Will while purchasing matching friendship/love bracelets with Riley.

Crossing the border back into the United States takes some time. But at least the wait is entertaining. Everything from coffee and ice cream to life-size portraits of the Virgin Mary is being sold. Riley nearly purchases a puppy, no older than a handful of days, for $5. While I am objectively against the purchase, I must agree the half-palm-sized puppy is adorable.

The security guard scans our faces and then our passports. Not seeing anything suspicious about a pasty, twenty-something year old male with unkempt hair and a Hawaiian shirt sitting beside a tiny, freckle-faced girl with a nervous smile, the short woman waves us through. We’re back in the United States. As I cruise down the now empty highway towards our home, I reflect on the past quarter year spent traveling. It’s been exactly three months since we left Atlanta and 2 months since arriving in San Diego. Our first month living in SoCal was slow. Very slow. Enjoyably slow. At least for me. No job and lots of free time to do, well, whatever I wanted. Now the second month is a different story. We had at least one guest literally every weekend. When we weren’t entertaining guests we were working. Definitely a much faster paced month than I expected. Now having experienced both extremes, I wonder what our 3rd and final month in San Diego has in store for us.

Our First Visitor

I wake up in high spirits. It’s been slightly over a month since we arrived in San Diego and today our first out-of-state visitor arrives. Leslie has been my friend since we were little kids riding skateboards on our butts down my parent’s driveway. In a few hours she will complete her flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to San Diego International. Although I haven’t felt overly homesick, it’s still comforting to have a taste of home. After all, I spent the better part of the past 15 years living in Atlanta.

I check my phone frantically waiting for Leslie’s text, notifying me of her arrival. And there it is. I excitedly hop in my car and head to the airport, located 10 minutes from our house. Scanning the terminal entrance, I notice a tall thin figure waving her arms. I pull up to the curb, exit the car and embrace my old friend. Oh, how I’ve missed her!

“I’m so ready for the sun,” she exclaims. Leslie is in much need of a change from the dreary winter temperament in Atlanta.

We head back to my place and park along the street. I give a brief tour of my teensy home before preparing a pair of ham and cheese sandwiches. We scarf them down, eager to get out on the beach. Although Leslie has already been to San Diego a few times, she’s never been to Pacific Beach, or ‘PB’ as it’s known here. I decide this is the perfect place for some sunshine and relaxation after a long flight during the wee hours of the morning.

We arrive at the beach and approach the sand and water. Brr, I shiver. It seems Leslie brought the cold with her from Atlanta. Determined to get some sun, we lay flat on the sand attempting to escape the brisk wind. Luckily, the temperature increases slightly. Before we know it, Leslie and I are burned. Despite the redness spreading across her body, Leslie seems pleased with having gotten sun for the first time in weeks.

Leslie and I then vote to stop by La Jolla before picking Misha up from work. We snag a prime parking spot right by La Jolla Cove. As we walk approach the water, searching for sea lions, we are smacked in the nostrils with an almost unbearable stench. We look to our right and identify swarms of camouflaged sea lions sun bathing atop black rocks. All around them are various sea birds. The birds don’t travel far to do their business, as the rocks are lathered with fresh and aged droppings, causing the foul scent. We cautiously open the small gate separating the sidewalk from a small path leading down to the rocks. We walk towards the sea lions, attempting not to disturb them. Once close enough, we snap a photo. We then quickly turn around and hurry up the hill to escape the rancid smell. With it still being too early to head to Misha’s office, we decide to pick up a nutritious smoothie from Mr. Juice and fulfill our shopping fix on Prospect Street, a popular area for shoppers in search of luxurious brands. Our first stop is at a make-up boutique named Benefit, where we end up spending most of our time receiving free makeovers and getting talked into buying cosmetics we don’t need.

After picking up Misha from work, we head back to our home. We’re all starving. To Leslie and my pleasant surprise, Misha cooks us a divine meal of goat cheese and basil stuffed hamburgers and sliced red potatoes. Before we know it, Leslie and my first day has ended. We have the type of relationship where we don’t need to communicate regularly to fulfill our friendship. Whenever we see each other we simply pick up right where we last left off.

Prior to Leslie’s arrival, she and I planned out all the activities we wanted to do together. This list turned out quite lengthy. After an elongated night’s rest, Leslie and I hop out of bed Friday morning eager to check off a large fraction of this list. We first head to Old Town. Old Town is considered the “birth place of California” and the earliest indication of people living in San Diego, 9,000 years ago. The native Indians called themselves the Kumeyaay and when the Spanish explorer, Cabrillo, settled in San Diego he described them as “good natured and attractive people.” It doesn’t take Leslie and me long to figure out this gimmicky area is a tourist trap; however, it is still fun to explore the souvenir shops and entertain ourselves with the cultural attractions. The Mexican restaurant, Cafe Coyote, in itself makes the trip worth it. We sip on icy Margaritas and traditional Mexican food in a cultural and festive environment. There are colorful courtyards, splashing fountains, flower scented air and historic Mexican music adding to the authentic ambience.

Having eaten too much, we roll out of the restaurant and navigate to Coronado Island. Although Leslie and I have both been here, the beauty never gets old. We first stop at the Coronado Tidelands Park, located along the bay of San Diego near the Coronado Bridge. We sit atop a wall and let our feet dangle down towards the ever-blue water. We admire the skyline of downtown San Diego, positioned in front of us, while the intriguing architecture of the Coronado Bridge rests to our right. Directly below us sting rays meander in the clear water. The sky is overcast, but the scene is still elegant and peaceful. We take some time to simply talk and catch up as we’ve done on many occasions these past 16 years.

Feeling physically calm but mentally elated, we drive over to Hotel Del, a luxury hotel, open since 1888, with classic red and white wooden Victorian architecture. The hotel’s beach front view and unique history has lured many noble guests including presidents, royalty and celebrities. We circle the grounds admiring the herb gardens and greenhouses, stylish cottages and pools, and over-priced shopping area. Unable to control our sweet tooth we manage to add homemade ice cream to the cacophony forming in our stomachs.

Needing to exercise away the 10,000 calories we ate today, I suggest a hike down to Misha and my discovery from the weekend before: Black’s Beach. Always one for new experiences, Leslie agrees. We park at the Torrey Pines Glider Port and repeat the actions Misha and I had taken on Valentine’s Day: the forbidden scenic trail atop the narrow cliffs followed by the harsh decline along the stone and wooden steps leading to the Black’s Beach shore. With the weather chilly and murky, the beach is mostly deserted today. But sure enough, a handful of older men feel like liberating themselves. Still little girls at heart, it’s tough for Leslie and me to contain our laughter. “Will we ever mature?” I ask my friend.

“Probably not,” she says.

After a brisk 20 minute walk along the beach, it’s time to pick up Misha from work. With the three of us sitting in the car, we discuss our plans for the evening. Despite our burning legs from the afternoon’s hike, Leslie and I agree to more exercise and breathtaking scenery. Misha steps on the gas and we’re off to the most popular hike in San Diego: Cowles Mountain. The busyness of the hike lives up to its reputation as we arrive to a full parking lot and cars lining the street for a half mile from the entrance. The hike is a mile and a half to the top. We step through the entrance confident we’ll master this journey.

“Are you sure this is only a mile and a half?” Leslie asks 8 steps into the hike.

I look up towards the peak, barely able to make out a series of specks moving up and down the trail. After a shaky-legged half mile climb up this rocky surface we make the decision to turn back.

“The sun is setting anyway,” I reason. “And we don’t have flashlights for the hike down.”

Walking towards the car, I think to myself how grateful I am to live in a place with a beautiful skyline, rolling hills and countless mountains enriched with the distinct nature of this dry climate.

The sun has set and our bellies are rumbling again. Misha, Leslie and I are craving seafood and thus head to The Fish Shop for dinner. This local restaurant was recommended to us by Grant and Rachel. The line for food extends well outside the restaurant doors, indicating the appeal of this food. We view the menu, which is set up for the customer to choose a type of fish and marinade and whether they want the meal in a taco, salad or entree. A perk here is that buyers can bring their own wine. A bottle of while, a fillet of Salmon, and lobster and crab tacos later, we head home and call it an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s big plans.

While the acclaimed San Diego Zoo is a convenient a half mile from our home, the lesser known San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located 45 minutes away from us, in Escondido. We arrive here at a quarter till 11. At the ticket booth, we gaze at the detailed map. The woman selling us our tickets points to a small parking area on the left side of the map. “The San Diego Zoo can fit inside our parking lot,” she says.

The three of us study the layout of the Park and determine the path we will take. The 70 degree forecast is in our favor. The animals are as active as I’ve seen at any zoo or safari. We walk by a roaring lion, admire a mommy gorilla caring for her baby, stare at hungry giraffes and laugh at bathing elephants before getting on the Africa Tram. This tour not only guides us through a variety of African animals in colossal habitats, but also offers a view of the almost extinct Northern White Rhino. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park boasts 1 of 4 remaining in the world.

On our way out we pass a sign signaling the Cheetah Run begins in 15 minutes. We decide to stay and capture this spectacle of speed. I watch in awe as a cheetah chases a toy at 70 miles per hour. Impressed by the Safari and thankful for having been lucky enough to be here on a day the animals were so active, we exit the park.

Leslie leaves tomorrow so tonight she treats Misha and me to sushi and sake at a recommended restaurant in North Park. As Leslie hadn’t spent time in our neighborhood yet, this is the perfect location for our meal. I feel so lucky to have a friend like Leslie come visit me all the way from Georgia. Beginning in 5th grade, while riding scooters around the neighborhood, our friendship continues to blossom. I feel a wave of sadness because I don’t know the next time I will see Leslie. One thing’s for sure – when I do, we’ll pick up right where we left off.