I know this place: Returning to Orange County

Back in March, after my conference in San Diego, I hopped on the 5 and headed north to spend a few days in Orange County.

It was my first visit to the OC since leaving in July 2010. Despite how much I grew to hate it while living there, and how badly I have disparaged it since leaving, I was eager to see and experience it again. Zee German returned to Orange County last year and told me it was different, better. Maybe, he conceded, it was because he was older, wiser, and looking at Orange County through a different personal lens after years away. Regardless, he had a whole different take on a place we bashed at every opportunity. That surprised me a lot.

Sitting in stop-and-go traffic between Del Mar and San Clemente (ugh!), I wondered what I would think of SoCal, Orange County, and Huntington Beach — my stomping ground for nearly four years — after all this time.

After driving through a short construction zone in San Clemente, traffic cleared and I was in familiar territory. I began to recognize the street names listed on the exit signs and recalled times I got off here and there. The landmarks — the 73, the 405, The Spectrum — were familiar, too. I know this place, I thought. It did not feel like I had been away for six years. Instead, it felt like I was driving home after a day trip to La Jolla.

That night, Zee German took me on a tour of his community in Irvine. It was cool and quiet. Sprinklers watered the patches of grass and birds of prey flanking the sidewalks near his townhouse. Snails crossed the wet concrete and we tried our best to avoid stepping on them in the dim light cast by the street lamps. Snails! It had been forever since I had seen them, the big kind that leave a shiny trail of slime behind them as they side along the pavement. We walked to the community park where eucalyptus trees lined the wide sidewalk leading to pools and tennis courts. Their scent stopped me in my tracks. I had forgotten their wonderful fragrance and took a moment to enjoy their distinct aroma. It took me back to walks down King Street in Santa Cruz, driving down Highway 1, and peaceful evening strolls through the older neighborhoods of Huntington Beach. Wow. My whole body tingled with good vibrations.

As we continued walking to the nearby Trader Joe’s, Zee German’s neighborhood clashed with my previous perception of Irvine. I had always dismissed Irvine as a bland, cookie-cutter, tightly- and centrally-controlled suburb — which it is — with glass and stucco everywhere. I always thought of it as too planned, too pedestrian hostile, a place where people stayed at home after work and needed to drive wide thoroughfares everywhere for anything. However, there we were walking along quiet narrow streets. There was a community center, tall (eucalyptus!) trees, open spaces with greenery. A few people were walking the trails and a pick-up game was being played on the basketball courts. Amenities were within a ten-minute walk from Zee German’s place. This is Irvine? I thought. I didn’t realize there were such places in Irvine, or Orange County, and had to admit it was pretty nice — even appealing.

Could it be that I had this place all wrong? I wondered. Maybe.

The next day we visited the coast via Laguna Canyon Road, which I had never used before. I had also never seen the rolling, undeveloped hills of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. We’re still in Orange County? I thought. Having mostly confined myself to the sprawl of central OC, I had no clue such a place existed there. It was like something out of a movie, out of the romantic, Steinbeck-esque conceptions I once had of California. In Laguna Beach we checked out the Thalia Surf Shop for surfing magazines (I love surfing magazines and it had been forever since I was in a surf shop) and walked down to the beach. It was warm, the sky and air were clear, and the water was turquoise blue. A man was giving surfing lessons and tourists were sunbathing on the sand and playing in the waves.

I was in awe. The ocean, the waves crashing feet from me, the cliffs behind, the sun-drenched coast curving north and south. It was a powerful and calming image, like something from a postcard — and I was standing in the middle of it.

We headed to Huntington Beach and Zee German parked near my old apartment on Alabama Street. I walked through the courtyard for old time’s sake before we headed downtown. Main Street Huntington Beach had not changed much, which surprised me. I expected it to be different, a new experience, but instead it was eerily familiar, as if I had been there the day before. Some of the businesses had changed but other landmarks remained. I even recognized the grizzled street performer by the pier, entertaining tourists with the magic tricks he performed with a tow chain. I could not shake the feeling that I had traveled back in time, that I had never returned to Iowa.

Over the next couple days, I rediscovered Orange County with Zee German. We visited UCI and our old offices (a total trip down memory lane), walked the quaint downtown circle in Orange, checked out Balboa Island (where I ate a Balboa Bar from one of the famous frozen banana shops), and enjoyed awesome meat-free fare.

As we drove around, I got the feeling that Orange County was not the place I remembered, not the place I bashed incessantly. It had not changed that much, so I wondered what it was.

It was something I pondered as I sat on the 17th Street beach in Huntington Beach, listening to the waves, watching the sun slowly drop to the horizon on my last night there. That was my mission that night — watch the sunset, figure out what the hell I was feeling, and then eat a veggie burrito at Las Barcas.

Why did it feel so different? Was it me? Had I changed and now looked at Orange County through a different personal lens, like Zee German? Or was it because I had not been there in forever and was just visiting for a few days? It was likely a combination, but more so the fact I am older and wiser — more outgoing, more adventurous, more open-minded — than when I lived there.

Sitting on a mound of sand in front of a lifeguard tower, the sun dipping into the ocean between Catalina and Palo Verde, I realized something else: Orange County felt like home. It was something I never expected to feel. Was it familiarity or something deeper? Both. Orange County is a part of my personal history, is part of me, and I realized I have an undeniable bond with it.

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