On a cool, breezy May morning in San Francisco, I was up and checking out of my AirBnb early, ready for a long day of driving ahead of me. The destination? Malibu. The journey? The famed Highway 1.
Growing up on Canada’s East Coast, I was about as far from the Pacific Ocean as one can get while still being on this continent – both literally and figuratively. When a business opportunity came up to travel to San Francisco for a few days, I decided to extend the trip and explore California. I knew being in the Golden State solo for a couple weeks was going to be amazing, but what I didn’t realize was just how much the trip would change me at my core.
At about 6am that morning, I was tossing my suitcase into the small trunk of the red rental Mustang. My business suits were folded up and tucked in the bottom, and my sundresses and bikinis were stuffed on top. I was ready for a vacation. A quick stop for coffee and a tank of gas, and I hit the road. Highway 1 was easy to find – a couple short turns from the Twin Peaks area and I was on the road heading south. My next scheduled move was a left turn in about 10 hours, into the mountains of Malibu that I would be calling home for the next week.
I knew before I was 30 minutes into my drive that the next eight days were going to be life changing. The idea of the open road ahead suddenly overwhelmed me in the best way possible, and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. By the time I hit Santa Cruz I had the windows rolled down and was letting the wind whip my blonde curls around my face. Normally annoying, it felt surprisingly freeing. I could already smell the salt in the air. The temperature had risen a few degrees.
I spent the rest of that first day driving along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, detouring through the Santa Barbara Mountains, and into Malibu. I stopped countless times on the side of the road just to take it all in. The towering mountains, the crashing waves, the blue sky. I’ve never been more sure of where I was heading, without having gone there before. It was as if a magnet was pulling the Mustang, and I was just along for the ride.
I’ve solo-traveled before. When I was 20, I spent four months living with relatives in Germany, and took off to Paris for a week alone when no one wanted to join me. 10 years later I’m still as stubborn and independent, but maybe I’m also more open to experiences. More open to being changed by experiences. I didn’t know it then, but this particular solo trip was going to be entirely different from any I’d been on before.
When I travel, I like to have a rough idea of the things I want to do and see, to make the most of my time. I woke up in my Malibu AirBnb, in a mountain-side neighbourhood over-looking the ocean, without a plan. I panicked slightly – I didn’t want to waste time. I made coffee (because that always helps). Eventually, I packed a bag and a book, and went to the beach. It was still early season, even in California, and a local joked with me about getting a tan before the tourists began to flock in. “I am a tourist,” I told him. We laughed, and he recommended some restaurants to try and things to do while I was there. When I was leaving, he asked where I was heading next.
“I’m not sure,” I responded. “I’ll figure it out when I get there, I guess.”
“How very Cali-girl of you,” he laughed.
Most of the remaining days were similar, but with one significant difference: there was no panic waking up without a schedule. For the first time on a vacation, I was sleeping in, resting, relaxing, and deciding in the spur-of-the-moment what I wanted to do that day. There was no plan to follow, no itinerary to keep, and no compromises to make. Over the course of the week, I learned how to surf, I hiked in Tuna Canyon, I ran in Santa Monica and I attempted a very poor pull-up at Muscle Beach (#diditforthegram). I discovered great food and great people at Duke’s Malibu, where I returned for dinner almost every other day.
It was during one of those meals, while I was sitting at the bar with the regulars, eating fresh seafood and drinking local beer, when I wondered: Do I have to go back?
It’s a thought I have, admittedly, at least once on every vacation I go on. Heck, I wonder that when I reach the top of the small mountains I hike in my local area on Sunday afternoons. But this time was different. The combination of the beautiful, rolling mountains, salty-yet-fresh ocean air, the people, the sun, the surf – I needed to stay in Malibu.
Maybe it was all that fresh air getting to my head. Maybe I was dehydrated from the day’s hike. Maybe I had enjoyed too much of that local beer. Either way, something was calling me in Malibu. Or maybe it was always calling me, and I was just finally listening.
Solo-travel trips are known for sparking new life into those who embark on them. A quick Google search will give you a list of the most popular travel bloggers, with blog posts full of all the things you’ll learn about yourself while solo-traveling. Yes, you can eat alone at a restaurant. Yes, you can talk to people you don’t know. No, you don’t need your (fill-in-the-blank) to read the map for you.
But this was different. What I was feeling was less of a revelation, and more of a calling. It was less of an ‘ah-ha’ moment, and more of a ‘I’m finally home,’ moment. And I still don’t know why, exactly. It just was.
8 days after arriving, I sadly packed my suitcase and drove to LAX. I returned the red Mustang. I checked in. I boarded the red-eye back to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where I currently call home. I wrote a few blog posts while settling back in about my time in Southern California, always feeling like words could never quite explain how I had felt on the Pacific Coast. Malibu was the first vacation I’d gone on, I realized, where the destination wasn’t a place so much as it was a feeling.
Seven months later, the snow is falling in Ottawa. There’s no surfing here, but there is snowboarding, at least for a few months of the year. I’ll take out my board and head to the mountains soon. And as happy as that will make me, I’ll never stop dreaming of Malibu: the Pacific Ocean, that somehow is so different from the Atlantic; the mountains that rise up on it’s coast; the friendly people; the dolphins swimming in the current.
I left with a plan to return to SoCal when the cold returned to Ottawa. That’s not on the table for this year, but it’s still on my mind.
I’m determined to find my way back to Malibu, drive along the PCH, escape into the mountains, perfect my surfing skills – and figure out just what it is that pulls on me so strongly. Just like it did on the drive from San Francisco that day, a magnet seems to be guiding me. I still don’t know why, but I’m as sure as ever.
It’s just this time, I know where I’m going.