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 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.

Our Last San Diego Visitor

My biggest worry going into this trip was leaving my family and friends behind. It’s now 4 months into our travels and we’ve had a total of 17 visitors. That’s 4 visitors per month. Not bad, eh? Constantly seeing the people I love has made the transition to this foreign city very smooth. It’s also better enabled me to enjoy this life changing experience.

Our previous visitors traveled from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and California. Today, our visitor comes from the Big Apple. Fabianna will be landing at the San Diego Airport in mere moments.

I drive around the small airport a few times, waiting her call. The familiar sound of my generic Apple iPhone ringtone blasts through the phone speaker. “I’m here! Yay!” says the enthusiastic voice of my old friend. I spot a tall, thin figure glistening in the afternoon sun. She carries a designer suitcase, wears fashionable boots, and rocks an ombre hairstyle. No doubt it’s Fabianna. We exchange hugs before hopping in the car and heading back to my apartment.

Despite being on vacation, Fab has some work to do today. She’s from NYC, after all. This allows me to catch up on some shut-eye after a hectic birthday weekend. Hours later, I’m awake and Fab is still working. Once ready to adventure, my friend sets her work status to “away” and hops in the car with me towards Cowle’s Mountain.

Although this is my 3rd time hiking this mountain, the experience is yet to get old. Being with a friend I haven’t seen in a year doesn’t hurt either. After a mile and a half hike, Fab and I take a seat in a secluded spot atop the mountain. With a hectic and stressful work schedule in NYC, Fabianna greatly enjoys this moment of fresh air and nature. However, she is unable to full withdraw from social media and soon takes out her phone and clicks the Snapchat app. We smile as the camera shutter snaps the first selfie of the trip. The first of many.

The hike down flies by as Fabianna and I catch up on the past year of our lives. Before picking up Misha from work, we stop by Trader Joe’s and buy orange chicken and fried rice; a meal we often consumed in college. As we near Misha’s office, I am engulfed with excitement as Misha and Fabianna are about to meet for the first time (well, excluding the time they chatted on Facetime for a split second). Ironically, I miss their first encounter, as I ran into the office to fill up my water bottle.

Back at the apartment Fabianna and I begin planning our next few days. Clearly displeased with my current itinerary consisting of “Friday – Padres Game” followed by a bunch of blank rows, Fabianna takes over the job. If I hadn’t known what a master planner my friend was before, I sure do now. Within minutes Fabianna has sorted through countless Groupon and Living Social offers and Googled every restaurant in the metropolitan San Diego area. My previously bare itinerary is now an ornately formatted, Arial font, size 10, boxed, bordered and color-coded masterpiece. Let the fun begin.

Upon awakening Friday morning we head straight to the well-known and highly recommended Richard Walker’s Pancake House. The line is out the door, as usual, but as we’re a party of 2, our wait is a mere 10 minutes. Fabianna and I order coffee and pigs in a car (sausage wrapped in pancakes).

We then head to the zoo. This is my 3rd time here and I feel like I know this place like the back of my hand. I weave Fabianna through the gems of this ginormous place, including the baby gorilla and orangutan stops. Fabianna, a lover of plants, is more mesmerized with the diversity of florae than the wildlife. She stops to take a picture of every succulent we pass.

Among many other things, the San Diego Zoo is famous for their pandas. Unfortunately, the wait is always extremely long and I’m yet to see these endangered species. Today, however, Fabianna and I decide to endure the 45 minute wait. The sight of the two pandas is genuinely enjoyable. They sit there, fat and content, chomping on bamboo. Seemingly, this is all they do. I’m surprised to learn that these cuddly creatures eat about 30 pounds of bamboo a day.

By mid-afternoon we leave the zoo and head back to my apartment. Tonight we’re going to my first Padres game. That’s the San Diego Padres – San Diego’s baseball team. Fabianna and I dress up and head to the stadium an hour before the first pitch. We locate a rooftop bar beside the stadium, Rare Form, and make our way up the stairs for the pre-game happy-hour. This place is truly amazing. Not only are the cushions comfy and the inexpensive drinks delicious, but we can literally see into the stadium. This is arguably the best view in the house. While Fab and I are sipping on our Pina Coladas and enjoying each other’s company, Misha arrives at the bar. Soon after, we head down to the Petco Park entrance. No offense to my fellow Braves fans, but Petco is a step up from Turner Field. The food and beer selection here is unlike any sports stadium I’ve been to. We order brats and Italian sausages along with craft beer before heading to our seats in the nose bleed section. From the comfort of our seats we are exposed to the gorgeous downtown skyline.

It’s the second game of the year for the home-town Padres and they come out victorious. Brandon Morrow pitches his way to a 1-0 victory over the in-state rival, San Francisco Giants. We stay a bit after the game to watch the fireworks show before heading to the streets below. Unlike many big-city downtown areas, San Diego has a lively nightlife. The 3 of us head to a rowdy bar named Bub’s at the Ballpark, where we meet up with our friends Patrick, Ainsley, Matt and Shane. We celebrate the win and enjoy some more beer. As the clock hits 1 a.m. we decide it’s time to call it a night.

I wake up excited for the day to come. Today Fab and I are going whale and dolphin watching. This is something I would never in my wildest dreams have thought of. But thanks to Fab’s incredible research skills, we got 2 cheap tickets to this awesome event. By 9 a.m. Misha drops us off at the San Diego Harbor where we aboard the Hornblower cruise ship. The ship is packed with tourists and volunteers. Volunteers share information about the creatures we’re about to see. As we depart from the harbor I point out the massive sea lions sun bathing on the docks. One brave sea lion follows the ship and splashes in the wake. We pass Point Loma, where Misha and I had been two months ago, before sailing another hour into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here we spot at least 300 dolphins. It’s mind-boggling how many dolphins are around us. These beautiful mammals jump joyfully and glide through the water. They turn on their sides in mid-air before plopping against the endless blue. Upon closer look, Fabianna and I spot baby dolphins swimming with their mothers.

After two hours, the captain announces that it’s time to return home. To our discontent, we’re still to see any whales. Before starting the motors, the captain agrees to wait 10 more minutes in the unlikely hope of spotting these ocean monsters. One of the workers speaks over the intercom, asking everyone aboard to make deep whale sounds. Fabianna and I laugh as the entire boat, us included, calls out, “ooooo ahhh ooooo uhhhh oooo ahh.” Suddenly, one of the tourists on the boat yells out, “whale.” Everyone rushes over to where the man stands and looks towards the water. The whale is not to be seen. We continue our desperation whale calls until a huge chunk of mass emerges from the water. A spout of water shoots out of the enormous blowhole, elevating yards into the air. The volunteers explain that this is a Finback Whale, the 2nd largest whale known to man.

The two hour journey back is relaxing as was sip on Mimosas and learn whale facts from the volunteers. Before returning to civilization, Fab and I check out the whale artifact presentation. We’re the only ones in attendance.

Since my birthday lasts a month. Misha takes Fabianna and me to dinner at a Russian restaurant in North Park, Pomegranate. In the 20 months Misha and I have been dating, this is our first time at a Russian restaurant. Although excited, I can’t imagine the food here will compare to Misha’s mom’s scrumptious cooking. Misha drops Fabianna and I off and heads to find parking. Fabianna and I are greeted by Demetri, the owner of the restaurant. We seem to make a good impression as Demetri offers to be our server. Misha soon arrives to the table and helps select our meals for the evening. We order golubtsi, chakhokhbili and chakapuli. If you don’t know what these foods are look them up. And then find a place that makes them. Because they are to die for. As we finish our meal I can tell I’ll soon be developing cravings for Russian food.

After dinner, Misha and I do our best to introduce Fabianna to North Park. Our first stop is a bar called Hamilton’s Tavern. This bar, known for its absurdly massive beer selection, has a ceiling covered with beer taps. While sipping on our drinks, I try to get Fabianna to talk to a handsome guy playing billiards. Being the outgoing girl she is, Fabianna agrees and sparks a conversation with him. She comes back shortly after with the unfortunate news that this man is gay. At least we tried.

Next stop is Bar Pink, which is ironically a gay bar. The interior is decorated with pink elephants and martini glasses while the DJ plays hits from the 60s. The 3 of us snag a pool table and play a couple of rounds, Fabianna impressing most. As with most bars in North Park, we’re surrounded by scraggly hipsters.

Sunday is our last day together. We spend the morning shopping along Prospect Street and sunbathing on the beach. Deciding to get some physical activity in and sweat out the toxins we accumulated the past few nights, we then head to Torrey Pines State Reserve for a leisurely hike. As the sun begins to set we head back to the apartment and cook dinner. Another scrumptious meal. The night is bittersweet as I chat and watch TV with one of my best friends, all the while knowing she is leaving the next morning. Fabianna is one of the funniest people I know and she constantly brings a smile to my face. It may be a while until I see her again and I’ll surely miss her.

Happy Birthday to Me. Come on Down.

It feels like the days of old – when I was a teacher and Spring Break arrived. No babysitting, tutoring or teaching this week, just play and birthday celebrations.

It’s Saturday morning and my bags are packed for Temecula, a city an hour north of San Diego. Ainsley, Courtney, Patrick, Shane and I pile into Pat’s pickup truck and head north. Courtney, my teacher friend from Dunwoody Springs, is in town visiting her sister, Ainsley. In fact, Courtney is the reasons Ainsley and I met. And how thankful I am to her, as Ainsley has become my best friend in San Diego.

Today we are honoring Courtney’s arrival by going to the “Napa Valley” of Southern California. The large plots of land and spacious houses are a drastic change from North Park, where people practically live on top of each other. Ponte Winery (or as I heard it, “Poncho” Winery) is the first stop. Rose bushes, adequately watered grass and a lavish lake make Ponte the perfect venue for wine and fancy events. We each purchase tickets good for 6 samples of wine and select our first beverage. We then step outside to sip our drinks amid the spectacular landscape. Walking into the vineyard, we are pleased to find ourselves the only occupants of this area. We walk among the rows and rows of grapes, chatting about useless things and snapping photos.

On to the next winery – Wilson’s Creek. This location is even more stunning than the previous. The boys play bocce ball while the girls sit on the soft grass beneath a shadow-casting tree. Between the effects of the succulent wine and Courtney’s dry sense of humor, I find myself in tears with laughter.

All that wine makes us hungry, so we head to Public House, a restaurant in the town’s old-western style downtown. Between Pat’s family and our group of friends, we occupy the entirety of this massive, circular stone table. Hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and fries satisfy our tummies.

That night we relax and watch and the epic March Madness Semi-Final between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Well, not ALL of us watch – by half time Courtney, Ainsley and I are merrily snoring away. The boys seem to enjoy the game though. After a late night snack Misha and I head over to the guest house, which was graciously offered to us by Pat’s parents. We lay down and are soon staring at the backs of our eyelids.

Packed again, Misha and I are ready for another trip to L.A. Holding back the tears, I say goodbye to Courtney, unsure when I will see her again.

Seat belts on and hungry, Misha and I drive straight to Chinatown. We park and bee-line past the Chinese lanterns, cheap souvenirs and pet shops straight to Yang Chow restaurant. After our ungratifying experience in Chinatown – San Francisco, these dumplings, wonton soup, rice, green tea and sesame chicken far exceed my expectations.

With a few hours remaining before the arrival of my mom and her best friend, Vivian, Misha and I head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You may know this museum by the famous lamp posts constructed on its premises. While I’m not a connoisseur of art, I do find some of the contemporary works by Andy Warhol and his peers quite fascinating. To my pleasant surprise, I stumble upon a painting by my grandfather’s first cousin, Jasper Johns. Among the many buildings and hallways present here, Misha and I view exhibitions entailing German Horror Films, Faces of America and Tibetan Pottery.

As we pull into the arrivals terminal at LAX I think to myself how fortunate I am to have my mom fly over 2,000 miles to visit me…twice in two months. While I love San Diego, I do get homesick – and seeing my mom this often mitigates the sentiment. I am also looking forward to seeing Vivian. When my mom and Vivian get together, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing is guaranteed – things will get interesting.

LAX is not my favorite airport. I’ve had poor experiences here before and seeing the chaos unfolding here now isn’t doing much to change my mind. The traffic here is worse than Atlanta rush hour. People flock across the street, disregarding all signs and rules. Moody cops do little to control the situation other than yell at unsuspecting drivers (including one cop who called Misha an “idiot” for putting on his blinker and attempting to switch lanes). It’s an hour after their flight was supposed to arrive, yet neither my mom nor Vivian have received their baggage. Once again, welcome to L.A.

Tonight we have a late dinner. It’s after 11p.m. when we’re handed our menus. Despite it nearly being the next day, Bossa Nova Brazilian Restaurant is packed. This reminds me of the late nights I had in Rio de Janeiro, when my friends and I wouldn’t even begin getting ready for the disco until midnight.

The table next to us hosts two couples. Stylish haircuts, leather jackets, designer skinny jeans and high-rise sneakers make up their appearance. These kids, possibly a decade younger than me, speak in a nearly indistinguishable music-industry-esque accent, indigenous to Los Angeles. Misha and I heard similar speech from some of Josh’s peers last time we were here (see entry “The Final Leg”).

Feasting in a Brazilian restaurants reminds my mom and me of my brother, Pierce, who is currently teaching English to schoolchildren in Brazil. Pierce and I often discuss how genuine and friendly Brazilians are. Our waiter reinforces this opinion. He is almost too eager, with smiles and attentiveness, to make sure we are having an incredible experience at his restaurant. He even gives us a completely flan dessert for my approaching birthday (at midnight).

While brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed at the Comfort Inn, Misha escapes outside stating he left his toothbrush in the car. Moments later he knocks on the door, marking his return. In his hands he doesn’t hold a toothbrush; rather, he holds a large rectangular shape covered in wrapping paper. It’s past midnight, meaning I’m unofficially 26 years old. Feeling a mix of emotion and curiosity I clumsily rip apart the wrapping paper to discover a canvas upon which an image is drawn. Two faces, painted black and white with the exception of blue eyes and red lips, stare at each other affectionately. One is a man while the other is a woman. Between them is a wooden heart covered in pink construction paper and split into quadrants. The characters clearly represent Misha and me. I can’t help but crack up at the image of Misha’s blood-red, voluptuous lips, and perfectly chiseled face, making him appear a bit homosexual. While the painting is nice, the true gift lies within the heart (no pun intended). My job is to peel off a quadrant of the heart, revealing the name of a restaurant. Misha will then treat me to a meal at that restaurant. I then peel off the next quadrant and repeat the process until all 4 quadrants have resulted in tasty meals for us. This is a very thoughtful gift as I have often preached to Misha how I regret not having taken advantage of San Diego’s vibrant food scene. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Not having slept nearly enough to function, Misha and I leave bright and early to pick up my mom and Vivian from the Lowles Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. No one loves seeing celebrities quite like my mom. And in not-surprising fashion, she finagles her way into obtaining free studio tickets to see The Price is Right, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil.

Misha and I drop my mom and Vivian off at Ellen before heading to The Price is Right. We stand in a long line only to find out that the morning episode is “16 year olds” and that we can’t get in. While Misha and my mom (via text) attempt to convince me to tie my hair in pig tails and feign being 16, I highly doubt I will appear a decade younger than my sincere age.

Turns out, my mom and Vivian arrived way too early for Ellen. So they grab an Uber and head our way. With time to kill, we cross the street to a farm-to-table restaurant and order eggs and mimosas. Bottomless mimosas, that is. The plan is to eat and drink and then head back to The Price is Right, in attempt to get onto the 12:30 p.m. episode – themed “Teachers.” Fittingly, I’m a teacher. Even Misha qualifies, since he’s technically a substitute teacher (despite him never having actually stepped foot into a classroom).

After a long wait, we are let in through the gates. Woohoo. We are first seated on bleachers in a large room resembling a storage garage. For the next hour or so, we sign waivers, receive name tags and have our photos taken (which will later cost us $40 a piece if we want to buy them). All the while, the 298 people surrounding us scream endlessly and jump for joy in attempt to be noticed. After all, only a handful will “Come on down.” Despite the mimosas, the atmosphere is a bit too enthusiastic for me.

About twenty of us are ushered into the next waiting area where casting directors select random people and ask them questions. Misha and I are both selected. I am asked two questions by the casting director and I intentionally give bland responses to avoid getting selected. Misha, on the other hand, is asked 3 questions. He jumps and pounds his fist with (what I believe to be fake) excitement.

We are escorted to yet another waiting area. This time we stand outside for about an hour before being guided into another room with more bleachers, TVs and excessive amounts of cheering. While waiting and munching on our overpriced quesadilla, Misha and I examine the self-made t-shirts and make guesses on which contestants will get called down.

After a combined 5 hours of waiting we are finally let inside the studio. Somehow Misha and I land front row seats and are right by the camera (hopefully, this means you’ll be seeing plenty of our faces on the September 8 airing of the episode). The show progresses mostly as expected. Certain audience members get called down while other cheer and applaud on command. After a few minutes my cheeks and hands begin to hurt from all the smiling and clapping. During commercial breaks Drew Carrey (host of the show) chats with the audience. To my surprise, he has a very dry and, dare I say, vulgar sense of humor. Some of the words that come out of this family-TV-person’s mouth truly surprise me (and outright offend a few of the unsuspecting teachers in the audience).

It’s after 6 p.m. when we finally get out. We need to be at my birthday dinner with my mom, Vivian, Beegie and her friend in negative 15 minutes. We rush to our car and head to Spago, an elite, celebrity-infested L.A. restaurant offering Wolfgang Puck’s luxurious menu and sleek decor. After valeting our car we rush inside to 3 familiar faces and Mike, Beegie’s friend and celebrity dogwalker, sipping on martinis. Before introductions are over, Mike orders me a lychee martini and informs me that, ironically, Drew Carrey is one of his clients. He modestly names a few other stars’ dogs he walks while sipping his Belvedere.

Eyeing the food choices presented on this 3-course menu, I salivate over the impending meal. Oysters, lobster pasta, cous cous and scallops are the first to arrive. Then the veal, seabass, meatballs and salmon show up. Dish after dish appear and soon disappear, as we indulge in these delicacies. Between the talk, the drink and the eating we manage to spend over 4 hours seated at this round table. The experience ends perfectly with the most delicious dessert I have ever witnessed. Just writing about it makes me melt with desire. This chocolate brownie is prepared from scratch in the kitchen and is immediately inserted into an air tight bag. The bag is only sliced open once it arrives at our table, emitting a mouthwatering fragrance which wafts 3 tables over. We cannot remove our eyes from the brown spectacle. Ice cream is placed beside the brownie. We all dig in simultaneously. And within an instant, the finest dessert known to man is consumed.

In the morning we are guided by Beegie on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Misha and I admire the multi-million dollar homes compressed along these sloping streets of Hollywood Hills. Beegie points out the homes occupied by celebrities, and there are many, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck and Selma Hayek. Oh, and of course, the home originally belonging to the Monkeys. My mom and Vivian spend the next 30 minutes singing Monkey’s songs I’ve never heard. After the hike, Misha takes off for home while my mom, Vivian and I head dinner.

The next day, us three ladies head to a filming of Dr. Phil. Prior to entering the studio, one of the producers hands me a yellow slip, instructing me to sit in the front row. Unbelieving of my luck of having gotten front row seats to two consecutive shows, I joyfully walk up to the front and take me seat. Soon after, my mom and Vivian enter the studio and stare jealously at me in the front. They proceed to complain to the producer about not being able to sit with me in the front row.

“Well, that yellow slip is for the entire party. She should have brought you with her,” the producer explains.

“Can we go now?” my mom inquires.

“Unfortunately, the seats are already taken,” he says.

With envy in their eyes, my mom and Vivian assume their seats in the 5th row.

The episode is about the Amish Mafia (I can disclose this information now as the episode aired last week). While the show is interesting we are more concerned whether the cameras are capturing us and whether our faces will be appearing on daytime television in a few weeks. Ironically, my mom and Vivian receive significantly more camera action than me.

That night I catch the Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to Old Town Station in San Diego. I hop off the train and straight into the passenger seat of my Acura TSX; Misha sitting at the wheel. At home, I plop on the couch, ready to relax. Birthdays are always exhausting. Especially when traveling. And especially especially when you are constantly surrounded by family, friends and events. That being said, my 26th birthday was everything I could ask for and more.

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.