I’m typing this from a desk in our Airbnb rental in Huntington Beach, California: a beige stucco bungalow in a densely populated residential area of stucco bungalows, surrounded by high walls. There are three palm trees in the front yard. The backyard consists of a cement patio and a small patch of artificial grass (an increasingly popular option in a region suffering from persistent drought conditions and water restrictions).
“That is a backyard?!?” exclaimed my 11-year-old daughter. “I’ve seen bigger pools!”
Her insistence that a garden should be at least as big as a swimming pool was a testament to how life in Vermont has warped our perspective.
The lack of a garden was our kids’ only complaint: the house is bright, clean, has enough beds to accommodate our family of seven, and is decorated in a style that’s best described as “shabby chic beach getaway translated by Home Goods.” becomes. My kids were amazed by the beach theme when we arrived. “But there is no beach here!” they declared. In fact, Huntington Beach is an 8-minute drive away.
Our family was last in Huntington Beach, also known as “Surf City”, three years ago. On this visit we were all suitably impressed by the waves. Huntington Beach is considered excellent for surfing because of its consistent surf, the result of open ocean waves breaking around Catalina Island.
“Surf City” is both a nickname and a trademark — or rather, a collection of at least 22 “Surf City USA” trademarks granted to the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau by the US Patent and Trademark Office since 2006. This allowed the city to create licensed products and generate a revenue stream. Huntington Beach isn’t just a place; It’s a brand. Perhaps this is not surprising for a town that takes its name from the real estate development company that founded it in 1909: railroad magnate Henry Huntington’s Huntington Beach Company. The Huntington Beach Company is still a significant land owner and owns most of the local mineral rights, which is significant since oil was discovered in Huntington Beach in the 1920’s. (Not coincidentally, the Huntington Beach Company is now wholly owned by Chevron.)
See what Southern California is doing to me? I begin with a brief description of our rental home and am sucked down a rabbit hole of land development, corporate sponsorship, and oil reserves.
As of this writing we have yet to visit the beach having arrived late last night after a 12 hour drive.
Since our last visit to Southern California, we’ve added one child to our family – bringing the total to five – and lived through a global pandemic. Both factors shaped our travel experience.
When we decided to visit family in California this summer, we had to make decisions about our itinerary. Air travel these days is notoriously chaotic, a riot of inexplicable delays and cancellations largely attributed to understaffed and underbooked flights related to the economy and the fallout from the Covid pandemic. Our best shot at not being stuck in an airport with five kids seemed to be flying direct from the east coast to the west. The best way to do that was to drive to Boston from Vermont and fly out of Logan Airport.
Packing was the next challenge: checked baggage is not free. Noting that our Airbnb included a washer and dryer and that there are many things to buy in Southern California, my husband set strict guidelines for all of us: four outfits, two pajamas, bathing suits, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of flip-flops. Flops – flops. Despite this limitation, we checked in five bags. (I suspect one was mostly filled with our teen’s toiletries, but we convinced her to pack less clothing, arguing that she would need room for the clothes she would buy at Southern California malls.)
Our epic day of travel began with the four-hour drive from Vermont to Boston, during which three kids were plagued by headaches, sore throats and traffic jams. Our children’s symptoms were worrying but pre-trip Covid tests were negative so we decided to go ahead and wear masks.
We arrived at Logan Airport without incident (save for a lingering illness, two restroom stops and a lunch break) and loaded our kids and bags from the minivan.
Now that may sound strange, but in my everyday life I don’t usually feel that five children is a lot. Maybe that’s because they’re scattered, going in different directions, and busy with their different daily routines. But here’s what I learned while guiding five kids through the airport parking garage, baggage check, and security checkpoint: Five children is MANY children. At one point, my overwhelmed eldest daughters exclaimed, “Fewer kids next time!”
But we made it onto the plane, which left on time. The only remaining challenge was getting our two-year-old, who is flying for the first time, through a nearly six-hour flight without deafening or alienating our fellow passengers.
We had a plan. We had brought various devices – two tablets, a Nintendo Switch and two parental phones – filled with downloaded movies, games and shows. “How could we ever travel without devices?” My husband marveled before the flight.
In flight we found that for some reason none of our devices wanted to play the downloaded material. Luckily there were seatback screens playing kid-friendly movies and shows, but our two-year-old refused to wear the headphones we brought for him. He spent the flight lip-reading animated shows, wiggling across the aisle between my husband and I, taking quick naps, and — during most of the landing procedure — screaming. We felt it was a successful first flight.
Upon landing, we collected our checked bags, boarded the rental company bus (which took 30 minutes to travel three blocks), boarded our rented minivan, and drove 40 minutes along a 16-lane freeway to our Airbnb, it was after 9:00 p.m.; A new day began in Vermont.
My husband brought us dinner from In-N-Out Burger, a California institution that’s been serving delicious burgers, fries, and milkshakes since 1948. It’s changed since our last visit — at the cost of almost everything else. Our children, unable to appreciate our nostalgia, were too exhausted to finish their meals. We all slept soundly, but woke up at dawn, our bodies still in EST time.
I’ve been in Southern California for less than 24 hours now. I spent my first day here on the glass porch of our Airbnb writing this column while the sickest of my kids are recovering enough to see our family.
I’m sitting here looking over the walls that surround our courtyard, at the clear blue sky, the gently swaying palm heads rising above the brown roofs of the neighboring bungalows, the orange tree next door full of fruit. I fall down the rabbit hole to learn more about In-N-Out Burger, which stands in sharp contrast to Huntington Beach (and much of Southern California) for its resolute refusal to franchise or go public.
I’m sitting here pondering my oldest daughter’s comment as our plane landed amidst the brown Los Angeles cityscape that she was sorry we didn’t fly back to Vermont. This is the daughter who, of all my children, often seems to love Vermont little; the daughter who longs for cities, adventure and escape.
“I love landing at Burlington Airport,” she said. “It’s just so beautiful because you can see Vermont spread out beneath you.”
I’m sitting here remembering our drive out of the airport last night along this 16 lane freeway, with lights and billboards flashing by on either side. Then, through streaky clouds, a huge full moon rose in all its orange glory, a reminder that it can still outshine all our artificial lighting.
I agree with my daughter about the beauty of Vermont, but I want her to also know that beauty is everywhere if you pay attention—beauty that surprises me, moves my heart, brings tears to my eyes.
The owners of our Airbnb may have paved their yard and rolled out artificial grass for a lawn, but there’s also real bougainvillea climbing the back fence and three flowering rose bushes along the front (which I jealously noticed, since I can’t yet). keeping a rose bush alive in Vermont.) This unlikely combination of the artificial and the gorgeously natural is my Southern California experience in a nutshell. It’s a place that fascinates and frightens me at the same time. We haven’t been here in three years and I think I’ve missed it.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, freelance photographer, and non-profit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, a variety of chickens and ducks, a feisty cat and an anxious Labradoodle. In her “free time” she writes for her blog, The pickle patch.