SoCal: Joshua Tree, San Diego, Seal Beach, L.A., Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara

The state so nice, you’ve gotta blog it twice: welcome to the first and southern half of our California stretch.

Joshua Tree National Park

Trekking along Arizona’s Sonoran Desert via Rt. 10, the promise of a National Park appearing out of nowhere sounded about as refreshing as a snow cone (or functional A/C.) What manner of stupendous scenery did mother nature have in store for us today?

A nice helping of humble pie, that’s what. Here’s a first-hand tip about Joshua Tree National Park that you could’ve learned on Wikipedia, rather than actually driving there without a plan: the park straddles two deserts, the Sonoran and the Mojave. Like spiteful next-door neighbors, the aesthetic of these lands changes almost immediately, with the Mojave to the north boasting the namesake Joshua trees, boulders of all sizes and arrangements, wildflowers, and even a lake. The Sonoran to the south, however, is pretty much just a desert. Like, the one you just drove past for several hundred miles, except that taste was free.

We spent the first 20 minutes trying to convince each other that sure, seeing a small budding flower over there in the sand is kind of a wonder of nature in its own right, so maybe this is more of a “vision quest” park than a “wow, the world is an amazing place” park. Nope, it’s just the bad side of town.

So, lesson learned: if you want to visit Joshua Tree, come in from the north end, and turn right around once it starts to get boring. Or, do what we did, and find some other attractions near the south side. More on that in a minute.

For the time being, we set up shop at a campsite and commenced to inflating our inflatable chair. It looks a lot easier in the professionally-edited commercial.

Seventeen minutes later… no complaints.

The next day we actually saw the Mojave section, which redeemed the park. Below is the one, the only, the guy you came to see… he needs no introduction… you know who I’m talkin’ bout! Give it up for a Joshua tree!

And let’s have a hand for his modest bandmates, the Chola cacti!

With special guests… the rocks!

That’s all folks. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

Salton Sea

Remember we alluded to some additional sights near the south end of the park? Well, it’s not something you’ll find in your travel guides. Salton Sea is a large, saline lake in an extremely dry, hot, and low part of California, giving Death Valley a run for its money.

In the ’50s, investors gave Salton Sea the ol’ college try as a resort destination… but the properties of the delicate lake, which by that point had been butchered by mankind in their wacky irrigation schemes, led to some notable tourism turn-offs:

It smelled like salt. It also smelled like dead fish… because of all the dead fish washing up from the increasing salinity. Right, that too — the shoreline of dead fish. Not the place you’d want to be sipping a $12 pina colada.

Fast-forward to present day, and you’ll find a post-apocalyptic skeleton town where the resorts are abandoned, half the homes are gutted and graffiti’d, and the sand beach gives way to crushed fish bones as you wade into the sea. Wish you were here!

They do have an Opera House, so they’re still faring better than Biloxi in some ways.

Nearby, you can find a much more inspirational pile of garbage: Salvation Mountain is the decades-long labor of a single man, Leonard Knight, who used landfill materials and tons of paint to craft this incredible shrine to his Lord. Fine folks have taken up the task since his death, so if you have any paint you’d like to get off your hands, they’re happy to take it. Preferably in cans, rather than directly from your hands.

Salvation Mountain is the unofficial gateway to Slab City, a hippie/drifter/whatever community built in one of the least inhabitable parts of North America. Interesting choice. The hand-painted sign did boast the slogan, “The Last Free Place In America”, so depending on how you voted in the most recent election, maybe this is the place for you.

Now, what’s the socially acceptable way to transition from dead fish to palm trees? Ah right, a date-flavored milkshake.

Shields Date Garden in Indio is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. If you feel anything other than deep-seated hatred for dates, this spot is worth the stop.

Palm Springs

Civilization comes at you pretty quick once you’ve put Salton Sea in your rearview, and with this many date-flavored foods around, you know Palm Springs had to be nearby.

Put Palm Springs on our ever-expanding list of places that surprisingly have mountains. In fact, the town sits at the base of 11,000-foot Mt. San Jacinto, like a Colorado ski town, except… well, except nothing. It does actually snow up there. In the desert.

Making our way out to the coast, we passed the predictable wind farms, and the not-so-predictable world’s largest dinosaurs. Nothing says, “you’re not there yet” quite like an unmanned dinosaur sculpture facility.

San Diego

In arguably the most altruistic Pit Stop to date, Mitch’s friend Christine offered her apartment to us despite being away for the summer and having to task one of her friends with dropping off the keys… hence her absence in the Pit Stop pic. Thank you so much Christine!

Maybe the desert drive warped our perspectives, but we found San Diego to be a wonderful town — near the top of our “hmm, maybe we could live here for a while” list, even. Let’s walk you through some of it.

First, the flowers. Dear god, the flowers. It turned out to be a signature of the entire California coastline, but the sheer volume of flowers (roses in particular) makes every day feel like a romance novel.

Here, Hailey stuffs her face in a rose at Inez Grand Parker Memorial Rose Garden, inside beautiful Balboa Park. This may have been the point where her allergies kicked into high gear.

We cannot overstate the flowers. Someone more familiar with Cali should let us know if this is just a May/June thing, because if it looks like this all summer, we’ll have to start making regular trips.

And how about some fauna to go with that flora? The San Diego Zoo is America’s best zoo, which we can verify now that future us has been to the Omaha Zoo, which claimed to unseat San Diego. This is better. A very integrated experience, where you feel like part of the jungle and rarely feel the animals are unhappy. Zoos should be measured by how few times you have to mutter, “man, sucks for that little guy.”

That did not stop the gorillas from pointing their asses at us in defiance.

Hailey’s favorite exhibit was the flock of large, angry flamingos kicking each other. Mitch was standing here taking a conference call, and couldn’t help but find some parallels between the petty, bitterly territorial nature of these creatures and his co-workers arguing on the phone.

This guy really wanted us to get his good side:

Now, to the beach! Sweet ocean sensations after two months of land-lockin’. San Diego’s Mission Beach is convenient in that there are two bodies of water to choose from: Mission Bay or the Pacific Ocean, separated by three blocks of eating and shopping.

On the bay side, gals and gulls alike got a kick out of this dude catching wicked air in his water-powered Superman booties. Otherwise, an extremely calm vibe on a beach lined with quaint bungalows.

Let’s bike across to the ocean side now. A shiny nickel if you can guess that car… Austin Healey maybe? Adorable nonetheless.

Aaand boom go the waves. Extremely cold waves, by the way. The Pacific Ocean didn’t get the memo about Southern California being some serenade of sun & sand — virtually no one actually enjoys the water without a wet suit, save for August. Ride your bike far enough up Mission Beach and it eventually turns into Pacific Beach, which is what you’re peeping here. Plenty of seaside bars and restaurants await once you get to this point.

Of course, San Diego is the last big city before you hit Mexico; the stereotypical move would be to head to Tijuana here, but since Rogue Trip is all about exploring the U.S., we opted to weave through the lesser-known area leading to the border.

Coronado Island is a gorgeous little retreat just south of San Diego. It was a hot tip from quite a few of our friends to visit the renowned hotel and surrounding shops. Glad we did. Here’s a tiny reproduction of the hotel. Enjoy.

Ok fine, we’ll show you the actual hotel.

Head further south through the surprisingly good neighborhoods, and you’ll find that the U.S.-Mexico border is bumpered by protected park areas: Border Field State Park, and International Park. Both offer hiking and horseback riding trails, though they eventually lead to the predictable sky-high fences.

The San Diego area also has a new Duke’s location, just north in La Jolla. Duke’s is where Hailey worked while living in Hawaii, and her connections from that stint continued to bear fruit as we found ourselves dining with her old coworkers, Hali Jo and Derrick!

Mitch tried Hula Pie for the first time, complete with its own special spoon. It’s an ironic name, as a few slices of these would likely leave you unable to fit through a hula hoop.

On Derrick’s advice, we walked down the steps from Duke’s and enjoyed this evening view of La Jolla Cove. Not pictured: the pleasant seal sounds and not-so-pleasant seal smells.

Okay, we’ve spilled enough ink about San Diego at this point. Our readers’ attention spans are precious, and we’ve got a lot more ground to cover. Movin’ on up…

Seal Beach

Just shy of Long Beach and the outskirts of L.A., we found ourselves in the good graces of yet another Pit Stop hostess: Louise Kruse, mom extraordinaire to our friend Nicole!

We also had a nice surprise waiting for us at Louise’s lovely home: cookies from Mitch’s cousin Christine, who is now infamous for sending him baked goods pretty much whenever he undertakes any sort of major life event such as Rogue Trip. This is just a picture of the note, because the cookies clearly didn’t last. These sweets were in addition to the ever-reappearing cupcakes Louise had stacked on the counter. U jelly? U jell-o, more like it.

Easy livin’ out there in Seal Beach… this could very well be the place that coined the phrase, “can’t complain.” We biked on all the streets, sneezed on the miles of flowers, gorged on the mountains of sweets Louise and Christine threw our way, and hit up the best restaurants in town.

One of those spots was Claire’s, a museum cafe overlooking Long Beach just up the road. Our server Brian loved the Rogue Trip idea, and hand-wrote some wonderful tips on Montana, of all places.

See the resort-like island out there in the ocean? See the other ones, further back on the horizon? Those are oil rigs. No matter where you look out from a SoCal beach, you will see offshore oil rigs. It just so happens that Long Beach wasn’t having that, and mandated that oil companies put up a (rather intricate) facade to keep the shoreline beautiful.

Okay: goodbye Louise, and thanks for letting us overstay our welcome!

Los Angeles

Let’s get this out of the way right now: we saw a dead guy on Venice Beach.

Out of respect, we’ll just show you the general scene here, but you’ll notice cops surrounding a park bench to the right, and on that bench, Weekend At Bernie’s style, was a sprawled out 20-something in a tie-dye shirt who at first appeared to be simply basking in the sun. But, as we walked past, we noticed a shop owner was delicately shaking the kid and asking him to wake up… then we noticed the kid was stiff and greyish-yellow from the neck up.

Then the cops showed up, and zipped him up. Wow.

Tough act to follow there, so we’ll just move on.

Venice’s famous Muscle Beach was sparsely-attended and barely maintained — the latter being a bit strange considering this is not a free gym. People actually (supposedly) pay for membership. It’s a far cry from its heydays of the 20th century, but that’s okay, because this isn’t actually the original Muscle Beach. That one’s in Santa Monica, and we’ll show it to you later.

On the other hand, the Venice Beach street vendors are still going strong:

Later, we hit up the Korean Bell Of Friendship, donated by South Korea to commemorate post-war peace between us and them. If you’re too young to remember the Korean War, you may remember this monument in a scene from The Usual Suspects. Probably helps to brush up on real Asian-American culture though, if you’re going to tour California.

Next on the list (and if you’re from SoCal, give us a break… we know not all of this is in geographic order) was Sunken City, a neighborhood of several blocks that at one point washed down into oblivion due to landslides. Now it’s just the remnant concrete from those homes, painted with friendly graffiti.

Time Travel Mart, anyone? Whenever You Are, We’re Already Then.

Mitch ate this baked bean empanada with a tooth in it. Turns out it was ice cream in a donut… a “milky bun” from Afters Ice Cream.

Obligatory Hollywood Walk Of Fame pic. The earbuds in Mitch’s ear aren’t Secret Service — we tried listening to a walking audio tour from Detour. The app is great in theory, and we tried several after this one, but it just can’t manage to avoid losing connectivity to your movements. Good stories to be had in Detour though… we’d love to recommend it if we could ever get through one tour.

Obligatory TCL Chinese Theater pic with obligatory clueless wandering tourists.

Obligatory cruise through Mulholland Drive to see celebrity homes. This about sums up our paparazzi skills:

We checked out the La Brea Tar Pits, which were somewhat interesting… but not in pictures. This picture, of Hailey hugging a prehistoric giant sloth, is the best we could do.

Also on the cultural hit list: The Getty Center museum, known as much for its gorgeous grounds as it is for the art inside.

In the evening, we tried attending an Airbnb meetup event for the first time. Explaining ourselves became awkward halfway through the nametag.

We did make some friends though! This ad exec from South Africa was so enthralled that she demanded we show her our van, and then proceeded to climb in. Both Hailey and I were scrambling to remember whether there was some second, backwards verse to the Stranger Danger teachings imparted by our parents.

The night appeared to be over, but Hailey got a text from a co-worker saying he was in LA too. Cool, what part? Oh, the other side of the street?

Yes, that happened. It’s Aaron, everyone! Keep that mug of his in mind for a future blog post, and show him some love for letting us grab a shower and tooth brushin’ in his hotel room! Getting real intimate with folks these days. Pit Stop #17 in the books! Pay no mind to the continuity error on those pit stop numbers… this blog post is complicated enough as it is.

Fun times, LA. We gotta say it was a good day.

Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier is one of the gems of Southern California’s coastline. Where else can you buy your lunch at a shop, then lose your lunch on a carnival ride, then watch a seagull eat the lunch you just lost?

Here’s your original Muscle Beach, which was torn down overnight a half-century ago when local government decided they didn’t want to host the rowdy body-building culture any longer. That’s what prompted the new Muscle Beach in Venice. Eventually, Santa Monica did rebuild the facility so that it stands today as a near-clone of its original design.

Our friend Nicole was on a roll with the Cali Pit Stop hookups: first, her mom, and now, her friends Nat and Colin in Santa Monica! Will the free showers never end?! Check out these sexy beasts!

Thanks for the bed and booze, guys! It means a lot that we’ve had so many friends of friends volunteer to host us, the smelliest strangers in town.


If you only see one photo of Malibu today, make it this one:

Yep, that’s a bikini photoshoot happening ten feet from an engagement photoshoot. Then there’s us, photographing this collective clusterfudge. Out of frame to our left was a creeper taking his own personal photos of the bikini model, and to our right was an aspiring celebrity photographer aiming down the shoreline past the creeper towards the multi-million-dollar private homes. There weren’t any lifeguards, but I have to imagine that if there were, they’d be on hair and makeup duty.

Malibu does offer the (yet again) unexpected mountainous vibe once you do make your way from the sea and sand. Plenty of celebs in them thar hills, and along with them, this Hindu temple. Uh… shalom? What’s the protocol here?

Hmm, what else went down in Malibu… we putzed around Pepperdine University, narrowly avoided some regrettable karaoke, and… almost had someone break into our van while we were sleeping in it. That’s a story best told in person, but suffice it to say, crisis averted. Still, Malibu of all places! The guy was probably struggling to afford a new lens for his beach camera.

Had we driven south to Malibu instead of north, we could’ve better armed ourselves for potential confrontations with something from Missile Park on the PCH roadside:

Santa Barbara

Oh hey, welcome to our favorite Rogue Trip city, bar none.

Understandably, what you take away from your first visit somewhere is highly circumstantial; if the weather’s great (it was), and if there are roses punching you in the face around every corner (there were), it’s going to leave an impression. Thing is, that’s every day in Santa Barbara, and with the healthy mix of beach life, university buzz, and easygoing downtown culture, there’s not much to take it down a peg from perfection. They even made a habit over the years of prohibiting real estate expansion so as to keep the population manageable, which certainly plays some role in the livability of this town.

One of our best experiences happened as we biked our way down to the pier. On Hailey’s Rogue Trip checklist (right below seeing a moose) was fishing, and no sooner had she asked a local “catch anything yet?” did he hand her one of his reels and point to the side of the pier. “That’s where you wanna be.”

This guy knows his pier positions. Here’s what happened five minutes into casting off:

Hailey in fact caught two octopi and two mackerel in a span of 30 minutes. Eventually even our leisurely friend took interest, and moseyed over to observe the oceanic exhibition.

We got so comfortable with Santa Barbara that we decided to sample the public shower offering at Cabrillo Bathhouse. Five dollars gets you the full prison experience! Hey, good enough to keep us from emitting any offensive odors.

We’d love to tell you more about SB, but this post is already longer than the California coast, so let’s just agree you need to pay the city a visit.

Here are just a few of the worthwhile stops heading up the PCH into Central California:

Solvang, a Danish-style tourist town.

The infamous Madonna Inn, with all the silly rooms and that waterfall urinal, yeah yeah. It was Mother’s Day, so here’s what that looks like:

Oh right, Mother’s Day! Hailey carved out a beach greeting for our moms, which quickly became a photo opp for dozens of walkers-by. Thanks Eileen and Paula, and all the unknown moms who got this pic from their kids.

Let’s say you showed up to a playground, and noticed they’d placed three dolphin sculptures. What are the odds those dolphin sculptures would have your name, with the correct spelling, on the back? If you’re Hailey at Pismo Beach, the odds are pretty damn good.

There’s more to Cali’s wine country than Napa Valley, folks. As we were forced to re-route from the Pacific Coast Highway due to roadside landslides, the detour carved through the vineyards of San Luis Obispo, stopping at Chamisal for a taste. La dulce vino.

The seals and sea lions really start taking over right around this point up the coast. In fact, it’s so predictable that this spot on the map is known as Elephant Seal Vista Point. The blubber is mesmerizing… we must’ve spent a half hour watching them.

Now, for the last California scene before a much needed intermission and bathroom break for you dear readers: Hearst Castle.

You surely know the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and if you don’t, you’re probably young enough to be able to google him on your phone in three seconds so go do that. Here’s his mammoth estate, which literally did have things like mammoths parading across the acreage at one point. He held a massive amount of land and brought in zoo animals to decorate it, because that’s what happens when you’ve exhausted all other ways to spend money.

Speaking of wealth, the tour taught us that he was insanely grandiose in his vision for this place. The land was originally owned by his parents, who were adamant about teaching him and others the value of nature… so when they died, he of course immediately started building a home on top of it. He started small, with what is now one of the several guest homes on the compound, and then eventually went apeshit with the construction. Supposedly, near his end, he confessed that he was only about halfway done building out this property… a property that is already big enough to invite someone over and not see them for a week.

Hey, we made it all the way to the end! What a trip. Now kick back, relax, and enjoy the view.