Foreigners traveling the United States often complain of the homogeneity of American culture. Everywhere you go, they say, you see the same businesses, the same chain restaurants and the same department stores, with little or no variation for local color. Or at least that's what foreign people say in movies and books. I wonder if foreigners now even notice the homogenization. They have Wal-Marts, too, after all.
There are arguments to be made for homogenization, however, and one of them certainly has to do with the way we travel. Traveling is pretty terrible. I hate it and I avoid it wherever possible. Some people look on traveling as an adventure, a chance to get away from the familiar, to experience something different. That's great, really it is, but how often do you get to actually take those types of trips anymore? Most of my traveling consists of driving someplace at a breakneck speed, settling into a hotel room in a state of exhaustion that never seems to dwindle no matter how restful the beds are, and flailing limply in the general direction of whatever services are available nearby for however long I'm there. It's a good thing if the hotel is down the street from the Wal-Mart, because I really don't want to have to worry about navigating the eccentricities of local supermarket chains at two in the morning.
Seen from the highway, most towns are way stations. If they're lucky they get to keep some character on Main St, but from the highway travelers see in this panoply of towns an unerring reflection of their own desiccated enthusiasm. We don't tour the continent, we strap ourselves to shaky metal wagons and barrel down the freeway at eighty miles per hour in the hopes of making the actual sensation of traveling as brief and painless as possible. Maybe there's something good at the other end of the journey. Maybe there are just more in the way of onerous responsibility. As soon as I pull the car out of the driveway I want to go back home.
There's not a lot of local flavor on display in Santa Clarita. The town itself exists only because Los Angeles needed a bedroom in which to build movie lots and plant orange groves. It's not a college town. The college was built in the sixties with money from Disney for the purpose of accommodating the industry's need for professional artists, craftspeople, and musicians - two other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, were combined to make the college.
But it's not a college town. The school itself is tiny: one large complex on the hill overlooking I-5 and a number of smaller outbuildings. Whereas a larger school can set the tone for the surrounding community, Santa Clarita is first and foremost a bedroom community for Los Angeles, with all the baggage that entails. Secondly, it's home to a Six Flags franchise. Thirdly, it's a college town. A very distant thirdly.
In the fulness of time Santa Clarita reveals itself as less a real city than a hybrid between rich suburb and tourist town. It's twenty minutes from Hollywood and appears to be filled with people who can afford to live above the Valley, but it's also filled with the cheap franchise motels and restaurants surely popular with harried families visiting the amusement park. It's a vacation destination for the unambitious and a bedroom community for upper-middle-class Los Angelinos. Somewhere in between these layers there's a horde of art students wriggling in the dark like mealworms under a rock.
Does Valencia have a downtown? Anything resembling old settlements? If it does, we didn't see them. We saw, instead, rows of tract housing on one end and ritzy apartment blocks on the other. Townies packed into a number of crappy apartment complexes that were never so shiny as on visiting day. After you sign the lease they no longer restrain the jackals. There's a very nice mall and just about every chain retailer you can imagine, including three Wal-Marts. Only one of these is a 24-hour supercenter, which represents more of an inconvenience than you might expect.
Denny's is a good place to find yourself in moments of insecurity. Eating at Denny's frees you of the burden of having to worry about food. Gone is the anxiety over finding a good place to eat: Denny's is not a good place to eat by any stretch, and that is to its credit. Where it excels is consistency. You can walk into any Denny's in the world at any time of night and be seated at a clean table and receive a bottomless drink of some kind. I always order the same things at Denny's. You don't feel guilty for displaying a lack of adventurousness when ordering dinner at midnight at a Denny's: there's no point. If you're lucky you can find one or things on the menu that you can order with the confidence that, even if they aren't good, they are pleasingly not good in a way that can only be described in terms of comfortable, condescending endearment.
IHOP is Denny's scruffy little brother, always vaguely sticky no matter how well he washes himself. IHOP isn't open all night like Dennys, but IHOP does offer a larger variety of dessert items masquerading as breakfast food. The difference between the food at IHOP and the food at Denny's is that you can't really trick yourself into thinking there's anything worth eating at IHOP in the way you sometimes can at Denny's. For some reason I'll never quite understand, IHOP is always full and Denny's is always empty.
We were in limbo for a month, just over four weeks' time. In that time we drove the road between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert at least ten times, sometimes both ways in one day, sometimes with a night at a hotel in between. There's nothing fun about the road between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert: there's always traffic between Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga. People in San Bernardino drive like they want to die, and I can relate to that. The only beautiful scenery in the entire trip is the rows of hundreds of electric windmills between Banning and Palm Springs.
People asked, "why aren't you settled? Why are you driving back and forth between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert? Why don't you just have an apartment?" The answers to these questions were all the same: there are no places to live in Santa Clarita. It's not a place people should live at all, really. It's a weigh station halfway between somewhere and another place that just happens to be part of LA County because the shit that went down in Chinatown wasn't really as fictional as you might want to think.
So after a hard day of dealing with college registration and the indignities of apartment hunting, what else is there to do but find a nice secluded booth in Denny's and let the wait staff keep refilling your Diet Coke until you are barely awake enough to shuffle back to the hotel? Who cares if you've probably put on ten pounds since the trip started. You don't care about that. You don't care about anything anymore.