The sign said “Hostel Obispo,” but the building looked like my dream house: a beachy green Victorian with a bay-windowed front room all to ourselves. I was glad all the real hotels were booked.
In the communal living/dining room, amid San Luis Obispo city maps, long distance rate charts and a multicultural poster celebrating the golden rule, was a scroll that said “50 Ways to Form a Community.” The ways included “Shop at farmer’s markets,” “Get to know your neighbors,” “Plant a garden” and “Take a walk.”
Not too long ago, I’d commented to my sister, “There are people who are healthy because they go to the gym and eat low fat frozen yogurt, and there are people who are healthy because they ride their bikes and shop at farmer’s markets. I want to be more like the latter. But of course there are also people who eat French fries and watch TV, and I might be that kind of person too.”
While AK’s and my weekend did include some really good fries (at Fat Cat’s on Avila Beach, where all menu items are “lightly battered and gently deep-fried”), for a few days we were Community Types. We bought figs and peaches and nectarines and honey at farmer’s market. We biked and hiked.
And I appreciated that, although the hostel was a little rough around the edges, it was so much less wasteful than any hotel I’ve stayed at—we used the same towels for the duration of our stay. We cleaned up after ourselves. We composted.
The only part of being community-minded I wasn’t so into, I quickly discovered, was the part that involved other community members.
There were the requisite young, attractive Europeans. The German guy was busy flirting with the French girls (“Don’t you love how he finagled an invitation to go out with them and then was like, ‘Eh, I might come, I might not,’” AK observed), so we mostly ignored each other.
Then there were the Americans, including a guy I’ll call Ed because he seemed so much like an Ed (no offense to people named Ed). He’d never been to L.A. and asked things like, “Is Hollywood crazy?” and “Is Watts scary? You guys don’t live in a bad neighborhood or nothing, right?” I can’t remember where Ed was from originally, but he was currently living in Portland, though he was trying to stay in San Luis as long as possible, “because there’s so many Asians in Portland.”
Later he told me he’d discovered a homeless shelter nearby where you could stay 30 days for free. He was thinking of moving in. I’m pretty sure that when those “best places to live” rankings come out, they usually go:
1. San Luis Obispo
2. San Luis Obispo Homeless Shelter
80. Los Angeles
We also met a Santa Monica College student who was originally from Mexico City. He loved Santa Monica, he said, but he too wanted to move to San Luis because the homeless people in Santa Monica made him too sad.
“In my country, we are very family oriented,” he explained. “I don’t know how people can sit at restaurants and eat when there are people going hungry just a few feet away.”
Having done just that plenty of times, I felt a pang of guilt tempered with skepticism. On the drive home, AK and I fantasized about future travels. “Let’s go to Mexico City, where no one’s poor because the people wouldn’t stand for it,” she said.
“Good idea. We won’t even have to pack anything—we’ll just show up and people will welcome us into their families,” I said.
“He was really very sweet,” she sighed.
“We’re pragmatists,” I said.
2. dykes on bikes
Friday we packed AK’s bike plus a rented bike for me into her Honda Civic. We drove a few miles, then rode the Bob Jones Trail to Avila Beach. Each of these activities—the packing and the riding—took roughly the same length of time. Putting the bikes in the car, taking them out and putting them back for each leg of our journey was an intricate task that involved geometry, choreography, mechanical thinking and a good memory. AK has a very good memory for movie trivia, but we both suck at all bike-packing-related skills.
One time we couldn’t get the bikes in at all, even though we’d done it just hours before.
“Fuck it, let’s just leave them sticking out and bungee the trunk shut,” said AK.
“We will never be able to go on The Amazing Race,” I said.
But all the sweaty logistics of bike-toting faded when we reached Avila Beach, where AK had worked as a hotel clerk while in college, and we watched sea lions dive and bark and fight on the lower level of the double-decker pier. They were mesmerizing—giant creatures with barrel chests, skinny emo rocker hips and puppy dog faces. They played chicken when vying for a coveted napping spot. They shoved each other in the water, showed their teeth, then forgot about it and were friends again.
“There’s a sad story about an English professor who used to come out here and swim with the sea lions every morning,” AK said. “One day she got attacked by a shark and died.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“Yeah. She was swimming with sea lions, which sharks prey on, so….” Then AK added, “She was gay, she had a partner.”
“Why are lesbians always getting mauled by animals?” I said, thinking of the San Francisco dog-mauling case.
“Seriously,” said AK. “Maybe because they’re all outdoorsy and brave and stuff.”
“But I think the woman who got attacked by the dog was just walking down the hallway of her apartment building—”
3. creatures great and small
There were more animals and two human babies that weekend, and I’m proud to say we survived them all.
There were the horses on the Cal Poly campus—the Ag Unit was hot and deserted and we found ourselves eye to eye with dozens of unsupervised horses who suddenly seemed as big and strange as dinosaurs until one stuck his strong-jawed head through the bars of his stall and angled for a nose rub. Others followed suit. I marveled. They were beautiful and gentle, these immense herbivores.
Then they took big green poops in front of us and one got a very large erection and I felt a little dirty, like maybe I’d sent mixed signals.
There were the tide pools at Montaña de Oro, second only to rain forests as far as nature’s flashiness goes in my opinion. They were home to anemones and sea snails and tiny hermit crabs who inhabited dead snails’ shells (clearly they were community-minded types, if a tad opportunistic) and an orange thing that can only be described as a sea papaya.
There were Natalie and Hattie, the daughters of two couples AK knew from college. Natalie was a long-lashed seven-month-old who turned and smiled on cue whenever she heard the click of a camera and giggled every time anyone else laughed.
“We’re hoping that she keeps up the drooling as she gets older,” said Bret, her dad. “That way boys will stay back a little. They’ll be like, ‘That Natalie Rooks is pretty, but the drooling is a little strange.’”
Hattie, a petite two-month-old, was very good at sleeping and making alarmed faces. It seemed clear that her high school dating strategy would be playing hard-to-get.
4. melt-down beautiful
On the way home we stopped in Pismo Beach, a sleepy, scrappy beach town the way I imagine Hermosa once was and maybe even Manhattan a longer while back. The sky was deceptively overcast and I now have a bright pink sunburn on my back and butt to show for it.
But we were in the last hours of our vacation and we were determined beachgoers, wind chill and icy ocean be damned.
We lay on towels in our swimsuits and hoodies reading passages of Felicia Luna Lemus’ Like Son to each other.
“This description’s so good: ‘Even though the photo was dated 1924, she was so goddamned rough and melt-down beautiful all at once that if someone had said to me, “Dude, check her out, her band’s playing tonight at Spaceland,” I would have so believed them and, I can guarantee, her thrasher riot girl band would have been my new favorite,’” I read. “I totally get that, how sometimes you can look at an old photo and see the person in a contemporary context.”
“And ‘melt-down beautiful’ is nice,” said AK.
“But other descriptions seem lazy. Like describing that girl as ‘the human incarnation of sex itself’ and using the word ‘crystalline.’ I think the book needed more editing. Or maybe it just sounded different in her head.”We surrendered to the cold and took shelter in the Splash Café, home of the best clam-chowder-in-a-bread-bowl I’ve ever had. Let me just say that they toast and butter the scooped-out insides of the bread bowl instead of throwing them away. That’s a restaurant that understands non-wastefulness. Not to mention bread.