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A travel guide for the transportationally limited

There's something about air travel that unknots the soul, that approximates the unreality of never-to-be-fulfilled dreams. United flight 1577 from Newark to Los Angeles is no different.

Far below are the clouds. They form a plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Sinewed and lifeless, they do not even hint at the activity below. Prairie dogs, Americans, French nationals. Once I get over spilling my neighbor's coffee all over the aisle, I settle in to pen my Princeton pals.


Incredible how new everything is. Both airplanes and New Zealand, my final destination, have been independently viable for under a century. California as we know it is not much older, and still represents change and progress. I will have a few days there with family and friends before I finally get on my way (I know: get to New Zealand you moron! We're not paying you to tell your life story, so just sell Study Abroad! However, since a) you're not paying me and b) my heart is in the West, here's California. Oh, and see Dean Kanach for that other stuff).

The world is smaller than when I was a child: it is difficult to escape the comfortable, the familiar. I am surprised, then, by the symbolic power of my trip. I feel as though I am about to hurl myself into the Pacific. To go a little too far, I am set to overshoot our Manifest Destiny inside the artificial atmosphere of a hollowed out bullet with wings.

Melodramatic, to be sure – which leads to an inevitable self-loathing for over-sentimentality –but there is a sense that Australia and New Zealand are on some other planet. When I tell people where I'm going (and I try to avoid it), they give me a variation of the look I got from my dad when I decided on Princeton: "?" is its most accurate translation. Apparently, the desire to travel somewhere other than Europe distorts me. I am now gnomic, a freak who has let a natural impulse go a bit too far. (On campus, I was treated to a similar reaction when I told friends I was taking Canadian litera ture. It was really nice of me, but they doubted such a thing really existed, and if it did, it would hardly be worth my effort.)

It's fitting, then, to leave the U.S. through the Golden State, because California overtly reflects, anticipates, and distorts the assumptions of American life. The absurd and the sublime coexist here, intermingle, and the juxtaposition is all the more striking because I can't tell one from the other.

All of American rebellion is here also (unless by that you mean the pathetic efforts of the South to hang on to the Confederacy, a sad history wrongly considered a heritage). The Bear Republic deals n the unexpected, often anticipating the nation that lags East of it. How does one define a state that legalizes weed (yay!) while ending affirmative action (boo)?

The rest of the nation senses California's duality. It remains the emblem of a "glorious" westward expansion, of the American Dream, while arousing suspicion and mistrust. The glamorous West calls to us. We are urged by bathroom stall doors in both Wyoming and South Dakota on which I read: "don't californicate America" (the things you see while driving cross-country. Maybe it was the same guy. I'd wager he's one of those who supports the death penalty, unless there's a white Christian woman on Death Row. Or a white Christian. Or a white. No, wait: that's the federal "justice" system. My mistake).


One in seven Americans is now Californian, though, so it appears an unsuspecting nation was warned too late. California is America magnified; it appears to us as we look to the rest of the world: wealthy, brash, beautiful, congested, polluted, culturally hegemonous. A monument to human ambition. As such, it cannot help but cast an ambiguous shadow. Gray not gray.

And so I head West. This means departure. This means freedom. This means more reasonable hours for Nagano watching (Recap: CBS coverage eats. Hurray for marijuana boy, stop whining about clap skates, and enough with the half-pipe jokes).

I'm hoping to love New Zealand, and there's no better preparation than a stop in Pac-10 country to get me ready. A few days here, and I will be glutted with America, longing for escape, for another ride above the clouds.

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