The name floated up toward the outer layer of my consciousness over a period of weeks, much like a strange phrase or a line from a song that makes its way through a night’s worth of dreams until, just as you wake up, it demands that you acknowledge its existence, and say it out loud.
The name, when it reached my lips, was Carlsbad.
It did take some time for me to focus enough on my son’s near-constant, enraptured monologues about his newest obsession – a collection of robotic-looking creatures called Bionicles, which have magical powers and mythical-sounding names, and which were created courtesy of the Lego company and an imaginative (and no doubt, by now, quite well-off) man named Greg Farshtey – to realize that this place, Carlsbad, was real…and that it was in California, and that it was the hallowed location of Alessandro’s new idea of paradise – Legoland. And that we were, one way or another, going to have to get there. Soon.
I confess to having an addiction of my own as well-making my son happy. It’s just that when something makes him happy, he’s really happy. It’s a beautiful thing to see. And it usually takes very little. Giving him a dollar at the supermarket so that he can buy himself a Matchbox car entitles me to a big hug and a perfectly sincere “Thank you, Mommy!” – my version of a good fix.
Getting out to Southern California, of course, was going to cost a little more than a dollar. So, as with any addiction, getting my super-fix was going to take some wheeling, some dealing, a bit of cunning, and even a little sacrifice.
Enter my mother.
Now, I love my mother, and so does Alessandro. But let’s just say that her personality and mine don’t always exactly co-exist in the kind of harmony necessary for a pleasant travel experience. She’s a good, relatively adventurous traveler (although, these days, in terrible shape physically), but our traveling together can pose certain risks to my emotional well-being. Going to California with her, though, would make the whole trip more feasible, economically speaking. And it would actually do my heart some good to see her be made happy by a visit to Southern California, which she loves, and by stays at some fabulous resorts in the warm southwestern sun. I did know better than to think that her happiness would be as undiluted and easily elicited as Alessandro’s, but, these days, anything at all would be an improvement.
Long story short: a few delicate negotiations, lucky coincidences, and good deals on airfare later, we had tickets, hotel reservations, and a plan that involved a rental car, stays in San Diego and Palm Springs, and finally, arrival in the Promised Land of Carlsbad, California and a pilgrimage to Legoland.
My hopes for peace were challenged as soon as our plane reached its gate in San Diego, and we realized that Alessandro, as a result of our wandering around Las Vegas airport so much in awe of the fact that we were in Las Vegas that we almost missed our connecting flight, had left his backpack there. The backpack contained his stuffed bunny, whose name is “Bunny,” and who, for the past five years, has helped him sleep wherever we find ourselves sleeping, and two prized Bionicles. I feared the worst. But Alessandro seemed so relieved that I wasn’t angry, and so trusting of my assurances that we would get everything back, that, miraculously, he wasn’t upset. (Privately, I was envisioning turning on CNN in our hotel room to find that Las Vegas airport had been evacuated due to the discovery of an unattended backpack, and that one of those robotic bomb-testers was in the process of blowing it up out on the tarmac, scattering bits of Bunny and Bionicle against a backdrop of dry hills and the Luxor Hotel’s pyramid.)
Disaster averted, we turned our attention to the fact that we were in Southern California, where, in spite of the fact that I went to college on the West Coast, I’d never been. On Coronado, where we’d be spending our first two nights, the air was heavy with the sweetness of thousands of vividly colored, mysterious (to me, anyway) flowers.
The Hotel del Coronado is a 115-year-old turreted confection of a place. It’s got a huge, gilded birdcage of an elevator (complete with elevator operators in maroon costumes and those little bellhop caps), and a chandelier designed by L. Frank Baum, who also wrote much of The Wizard of Oz there (I’m certain that the scene in Munchkinland must have been inspired by all of those aforementioned big, weird flowers). “Some Like It Hot” was filmed there. It’s been a hideaway for celebrities and movie stars since the turn of the century, and it even has a good ghost story associated with it.
“Impressive,” remarked my little son-of-a-travel-writer.
With no complaints whatsoever from my mother as she settled into the bed for an afternoon of CNN-watching (this translates as “impressive” on her part as well), we were off to a good start.
Bunny and Bionicles located, undetonated and on their way home from Vegas, the following morning, we set out to explore San Diego. But my mother has what I consider to be a very good quality in a traveler-behind the wheel of a car, she tends to drift in whichever direction her whims take her (she also possesses the less desirable quality of drifting from lane to lane). Instead of going into the city, we found ourselves driving south along wide, empty beaches, compounds of Navy housing (there’s a base on Coronado; that aspect seems a little out of sync with the Oz thing), and strip malls.
“We’re almost at the Mexican border,” said my mother. I hadn’t realized how close we were. The idea of passing in and out of Tijuana in one day had the appeal of a glorious, campy adventure.
“Let’s go,” I said.
I’d envisioned parking the car in the midst of some desert sagebrush and a few armed border patrol guys, and simply walking into Mexico. Maybe I’d pick up a Mexican blanket, some tequila, or a bottle of prescription-strength something (just because I could), but it was not to be. Caught up in a 4-lane current of cars, we were swept through a huge tollbooth-like structure into Tijuana, where getting out of the car was not even an option until we made a u-turn into a half-hour’s worth of traffic crawling back toward the States. Mexican men and women selling churros, ices, portraits of the recently deceased Pope, and gory, gilded portraits of Jesus, made their way among the steaming cars. Alessandro, not nearly as impressed with the idea of visiting another country for fifteen minutes as I was (and not much in a mood to pay attention to my motherly lecture about how lucky we were not to have to make a living by weaving among fuming cars, selling trinkets), fussed about the heat and the seatbelt around his belly. Again, my mother had no complaints.
Things were going exceptionally well.
That night we had dinner at the Del Coronado’s restaurant, Sheerwater. Just as we were getting up from the table, I overheard someone at the table next to ours say “No one drinks chardonnay anymore.” Having just polished off my third delicious glass, I began to question my own suitability for Southern California.
This train of thought continued the following day, as we headed for Palm Springs on another too-fast-for-my-taste (at least when my mother is weaving/driving) highway, passing fields of windmills and, much to my consternation, the Lawrence Welk Resort (as a child, I was subjected to nightly screenings of the Lawrence Welk show in my granparents’ TV room). Southern California, I was thinking, is like a beautiful language whose words I’m familiar with, but whose necessary subtleties I can’t understand. Tijuana, perhaps by virtue of its sheer, reassuring grittiness, seemed more familiar.
As we drove, my mother asked Alessandro if he liked the Del Coronado.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s why I’m happy we’re leaving.” Huh?
“Because then I can miss it, ” he explained. Boy logic, I thought. It starts early.
We passed some signs for the town of Temecula, and my mother told me that there was a guy there who owed her $2,000 (these strange, mysterious tidbits from her past life often come up when we travel). I suggested that we go get it; it might come in handy at one of the casinos in Palm Springs.
“Nah,” decided my mother.
In Temecula, to my great relief, we turned off the highway and onto a narrow, winding road that runs through the dry hills and parched valleys, blackened skeletons of trees, puritanical clusters of cypress, sudden fields of yellow and purple flowers, and moonscapes of enormous boulders of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The air felt wonderfully desert-like.
“There’s a lot of useless land in California,” my mother observed.
At that point we were starving, but Mom was pulling a mom thing, and vetoing the few restaurant possibilities that we passed in search of some indefinable place that would suit her.
“Why do you get to decide where we eat?” I asked, feeling the same helpless annoyance I remembered feeling 30 or 40 years ago.
“Because I’m driving,” she answered, using the maddening logic of a lawyer (which she is) with control issues (which she has). The peace had suddenly become Northern Ireland-fragile.
My mother wove back and forth across the two lanes, staring to the right or left as I sat in the back seat with my arm across Alessandro’s chest in a protective gesture I recollected from when I was a small child riding in the front seat in the unrestrained ’60’s. We climbed higher up into the hills.
At 4,000 feet my mother pulled into the parking lot of the Cahuilla (pronounced as Elmer Fudd would pronounce “Korea”) Creek Casino. I was dispatched to go inside and find out if they served lunch, and if it was OK to bring Alessandro in.
“Sure, honey,” said the very sweet blond lady with a couple of missing teeth at the front desk of the place. “Just go all the way to the back and to the left.” Having been temporarily blinded by coming in from the desert sun into the dark, I had trouble seeing much beyond the first few rows of slot machines, but I was too hungry to worry about it, and I went outside to get Alessandro and my mother.
Once inside, after we were seated at a nice little table covered with a clean white tablecloth, my mother (who, back home, owns 6 or 7 various pieces of real estate) got up to play the penny slots. I’d been pissed about her pickiness, but now I appreciated it. A Native American-owned casino with a restaurant in the middle of nowhere among desert hills suited me just fine. The food was pretty good, too.
After lunch we drove even further up into the hills. Suddenly Palm Springs lay spread out flat as a piece of paper in the valley below us, and the road turned steeply down, becoming more tortuous and running closer to the edges of various precipices. My mother, anxious to get where we were going, drove like a demon around the switchbacks, refusing to slow down. My arm was rigid across Alessandro’s chest.
Having gotten completely lost as we searched for the La Quinta resort (in part because everything in Palm Springs seemed to be named “La Quinta”) we were a hot, cranky bunch by the time we finally checked in.
“You’ll feel better after a swim,” one of the bellhops told us. “We have 42 pools to choose from.”
We thought he was kidding, but he was not. In our room on the upper level of a little villa, Mom got back into bed to hang out once again with Wolf Blitzer. Alessandro and I went out to swim in the closest of the 42 pools. The resort smacked of Old Hollywood Hideaway (which it was; Errol Flynn had slept, presumably not alone, there). Everything was white stucco and Santorini-blue, and flowers, drooping in the afternoon heat, released their scent from every available space around us. One of the brown mountains we’d just traversed loomed protectively between us and the setting sun.
That night, we had one of the best Mexican dinners any of us had ever had at La Quinta’s restaurant (biting into his burrito, Alessandro, could only say “Whoa!”).
I could have stayed there forever.
We were scheduled to tour the desert and hills with an outfit called Red Jeep Tours the following morning. The temperature was already pushing 90 when our guide, a no-nonsense lady with braided long hair named Morgan Levine picked us up at the resort. I was really looking forward to this.
Our first stop was to be the San Andreas Fault. Morgan explained plate tectonics as we drove on the paved road past the uniformly sand-colored buildings of Palm Springs (all built low to the ground in deference to earthquakes). It occurred to me that we were visiting the fault on Friday the 13th. Well, I’d been hoping for a good adventure.
Morgan turned off the paved road onto a very much unpaved one, and took us to the fault. I’d kind of been expecting a large crack in the earth, but it was only a patch of land punctuated with oases and unmanicured palm trees. Here and there water from the unseen springs below ran along little ridges. We got out of the jeep and walked around a bit, and then Alessandro fell down. I could feel the vibrations of an impending earthquake erupting from his core. This could get ugly.
But Morgan knew how to deal with earthquakes of all kinds. She loaded us back into the jeep and took us to a real but transplanted mining town tucked into the chalky hills.
“Have you ever panned for gold?” she asked Alessandro. The vibrations stopped cold. He had not, but he was going to now. Sweet but somewhat mercenary child that he is, he panned eagerly alongside Morgan and found five gold nuggets. Another disaster averted.
As we drove back to the resort a couple of hours later, Morgan told us about the Cahuilla tribe (“Cahuilla” translates as “master” or “powerful”), who own 42% of the valley. She rattled off the names of all the resorts in the area sitting on land leased to them by the tribe. The Cahuilla, Morgan said, are not your “usual Indian story.” The don’t need charity; in fact, the tribe donates about $100,000 a month to local charities.
My mother asked Morgan if she was part Native American. Morgan nodded.
“Cahuilla?” my mother asked.
“Honey,” replied Morgan, “if I was, I’d be poolside with a margarita right about now.”
On the evening of Friday the 13th, on the private patio outside of our room at La Quinta, the inevitable blowup happened. I’d known it would come, my mother knew, and even Alessandro, based on past experience, knew. I brought it about by suggesting (gently, I’d thought) at what was apparently the wrong moment, that perhaps she wouldn’t be so exhausted all the time if she got some exercise, ate better, and drank some water once in a while. It depresses her that she has so much trouble getting around lately; it depresses me that she lies on the bed for much of every day watching soaps and CNN.
But no, she told me, I was what depressed her. Soon we were both too angry to speak, which was probably fortunate. Alessandro had the good sense to sit inside and watch the Cartoon Network.
Thinking about it a little later, it occurred to me that perhaps she wonders every time she travels now if it will be the last time. Maybe she thinks about the pilgrimage we made with my grandparents to Cape Cod fifteen or so years ago, shortly before my grandmother fell ill and died (followed soon thereafter by her husband of almost 70 years). Personally, regardless of her lousy health, I think that my mother is just too damned feisty to die. Ever. Death, I tell her all the time, would come by to pick her up and then decide that she’d be way too much trouble.
By the time we were back on the road the following morning, headed toward the fabled land of Carlsbad, CA, it was as if nothing had ever happened. This had been the usual pattern throughout my life. We really had no choice but to get along.
It was early afternoon when we reached the La Costa resort, in Carlsbad. This was no Old Hollywood kind of a place; it was definitely much more a New Age place. Everything was pure white and looked brand-new. There was a quiet Jacuzzi in the pretty courtyard just outside our room. The Deepak Chopra Center was somewhere on the grounds. It was very Southern California. In the Jacuzzi with Alessandro a little while later, I got inspired to Improve Myself (although I wasn’t quite ready for Mr. Chopra’s help).
“Let’s do the Spa Thing,” I said to my mother, who was back in bed with her usual televised company. “We’ll just have juice, and fruit, and salad…”
“OK,” she replied. “We’ll see how long it will last.”
I had my doubts, too.
Alessandro and I headed out to one of the pools, which, at one end, has a sand “beach” that slopes into the water. The place was swarming with families, the children frolicking in the water, the adults having margaritas poolside (Morgan should have been there). I hadn’t expected to find such a comfortable atmosphere for children in such a luxurious, pristine place. It was great.
Looking around from behind my sunglasses, though, I observed immediately that no one was even close to being fat. All of the mothers were gorgeous, or at least very well groomed. Everyone seemed to know each other (the resort, apparently, also serves as a kind of country club for the locals). In the pool, parents were teaching their children how to surf on boogie boards. Once again, I felt as if I’d been dropped into a country in which my grasp of the language and traditions was completely inadequate. I was also feeling decidedly un-gorgeous.
But it was still wonderful to sit by the pool and look out at the green hills around La Costa, and to watch Alessandro doing his usual kid thing:
“What’s your name? Mine is Alessandro. Wanna be friends?” Sometimes it worked, and sometimes the other child just looked at him. Apparently unperturbed by the latter response, he was having a fabulous time on the “beach.” It took a lot of coaxing to get him to come out so that we could go get ready for dinner.
My mother had been right – the Spa Thing didn’t last into the evening. Just before dinner we sat outside on our little patio and had some of the customary 5 p.m. bourbon that my mother brings along on trips.
A little later, over dinner outside at La Costa’s restaurant, we watched hot air balloons drift toward us in the distance (a continuation of the Oz thing), and golf balls flying off in the opposite direction. Straggling back to the spa idea, we all ordered tofu and vegetables (the “Sun Power Kids” children’s menu was full of fabulous, healthy alternatives to the usual chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and hot dogs; Alessandro loves tofu).
Then things began to deteriorate again. My mother’s face gradually took on the familiar, mean expression of a petulant little girl, and began to complain about Alessandro’s behavior (he was actually being quite well behaved, or at least I thought so). She glared at me when I ordered a glass of wine. I knew that this was the result of her being tired, and of being depressed about being tired, but I was determined to ignore it. I talked to Alessandro about the balloons, and the little birds darting around above us.
Southern California had completely iced over by the time we got back to our room and got into bed (the room, fortunately, was a big 2-room suite). Once again, we were both speechless with anger.
But at around 2 in the morning I woke up, still furious – too furious not to say something. I stormed into my mother’s room, where she was still watching TV.
“We will NEVER, EVER travel anywhere with you again!” I growled. I knew that I should have had more self-control.
She just looked at me. “What are you talking about?” she said.
The next morning was the beginning of the Big Day – it was time to go to Legoland. Alessandro got up, brushed his teeth, put on his Bionicle t-shirt, and waited impatiently for us to get ready.
My mother opted out of coming with us, so I was to be alone with my gasket-blowing son. I was looking forward to it – I was about to get my super-fix, and so was he.
Alessandro spent the day building Bionicles, buying Bionicles, riding Bionicle rides, and reciting dialogue from various Bionicle movies word-for-word. He even met the formidable Tahu Nuva, a heavyweight in the Bionicle world.
We did try a few non-Bionicle-related rides. One was a boat that took us past re-created “cities” like Washington, Boston, and New Orleans-all built using millions of Lego pieces. As we passed “Manhattan,” I remarked to Alessandro that the World Trade Center wasn’t there. A man behind us leaned forward and said, “You know, before 9/11, the Twin Towers weren’t considered such a big deal.”
“We’re from New York,” I replied. “We thought they were kind of a big deal.”
That evening, after getting lost for a couple of hours in the maze of roads around Carlsbad, my mother and I were sniping at each other about who should decide where to eat.
“I’m not deciding,” I told her. “Because if you hate it I’ll have to hear about it for the rest of the night.”
“Just pick something,” my mother snapped back.
Alessandro the Sage, in the back seat with his new Bionicles, observed, “It’s crazy. You guys just get mad at each other because you’re both trying to be nice to each other.” That shut us up.
We had two nights left in California (the last of which we spent at the Four Seasons Aviara Resort, where we were lavished in somewhat less New-Agey, but no less fabulous, luxury, and dined like decadent royalty on s’mores made over the resort’s open grill). The peace was interrupted only by the mild, occasional skirmishes that have always been as much a part of our travel experiences together as setting our toothbrushes out next to the sinks in our rooms. We’d managed to get our respective fixes while navigating, once again, the treacherous mountain passes of family relationships, and we were exhausted.
I’d like to plan a trip to Thailand sometime soon. My mother has always wanted to go to Thailand.
Hotel del Coronado (San Diego)
La Costa Resort and Spa (Carlsbad)
La Quinta Resort and Club (Palm Springs)
Four Seasons Resort Aviara (Carlsbad)
Red Jeep Tours (Palm Springs)