Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2013

Twenty Years in California


On November 19, 1993, exactly twenty years ago today, I awoke in a motel room in Holbrook, Arizona. It was dark, not yet dawn. The rumble of trucks from the nearby interstate highway shook the room.

It was the final day of my drive to California: my westward migration, the beginning of my life under western skies. After decades of living in the place where I grew up, I was moving on.

I packed a number of my worldly goods into cardboard boxes and shipped them to a distant address.

I packed what I could into my VW Fox, filling the trunk, the back seat, and a roof rack covered with a green plastic tarp.

On a late autumn day, I climbed into the car and navigated onto Interstate 70, westbound.


For three days, outbound from Ohio, I hadn’t done much but drive and sleep, although — so far as I know — never simultaneously.

I had crossed the glaciated plain of Ohio into Indiana, and except for signs posted by their respective governors, there wasn’t much to distinguish the transition from one state from another.

The same was true for the Indiana-Illinois border. The now-bare fields, once full of corn and soybeans, were a broad expanse of stubble. The Governor of Illinois welcomed me to the Land of Lincoln. Lincoln was nowhere in evidence.

As I-70 approaches the Mississippi River, it bends southwestward toward St. Louis.

Here, I made the single tourist stop of my journey, at a site I’d wanted to see for many years. I pulled off the highway just east of St. Louis to visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. If you’ve never heard of this place, it’s worth learning about. In the 13th Century, while Europe was mired in its dark ages and on the verge of losing a third of its population from famine, disease and ignorance, the Cahokia culture maintained one of the largest cities in the world, with a population topping out around 40,000, equivalent to Paris or London of the same time. Because I was bent on covering the continent, I didn’t give the place much time, but I’m glad I got to see it. I have no photos. I failed to bring along my digital camera and cell phone, since they were yet to be invented. My film camera was too much trouble to fuss with.

After St. Louis I followed the Mother Road: Route 66; or, rather, I drove on the interstate highways that superseded the old two-lane.

I wound from St. Louis, down through Missouri, Oklahoma City looked raw and gritty.

I left old 66 and angled southwest, pulling up for the night in Lawton, Oklahoma. By incredible coincidence, the young Nixon family were there, stationed at Ft. Sill, an Army training center, primarily for artillery. A place to stay and a chance to catch up with my brother and his family. Ft. Sill is a great-looking place with lots of history associated with it, and beautiful buildings from long-ago eras. Call before you go to see it. I’m uncertain how much civilians can see without a military escort who has access to the base.

The next day — the one that concluded in Holbrook — I drove west across Oklahoma into Texas. There I had the privilege to get acquainted with one of the storied Texas Rangers, who looked marvelous in his boots and sleek brown uniform, sunglasses and cowboy hat. I considered explaining to him that if Texas didn’t want people to drive fast, then they shouldn’t have made the huge investment in their state’s fantastic Farm Roads, which really are some of the best rural driving available anywhere. He seemed uninterested in explanations, so I accepted my Souvenir of Texas speeding ticket and headed back up to Interstate 40. Urbanite, don’t let the sun set on you here.

I drove due west on Interstate 40 into New Mexico through Albuquerque, Grants, Gallup and into Arizona. I thought about the notable places I was passing, including Meteor Crater, the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. I passed them by. I’d seen them nearly 30 years before, traveling with my mom, dad and siblings. I didn’t stop until the light and my will to drive on gave out at Holbrook.

There on the morning of November 19th I woke up in the little motel hard by the highway, already noisy with the roar of long-haul trucks that had diminished only slightly overnight. It was still dark and the morning was cold; there was ice crusted on the tarp wrapped around the load on the rooftop rack. (I hoped that tarp could hold on for one more day; it was starting to fray wherever an edge flapped in the wind.) I scraped the ice off the windshield and headed west.

Yes, I saw: Amarillo; Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona (don’t forget Winona); Kingman; Barstow; San Bernardino.

The drive across the Mojave Desert from Kingman and Needles was captivatingly beautiful. Under a brilliant, hard blue sky, vast tracts of black lava stretched out on either side of the highway. The Mojave Desert spread out away from me and rose against barren mountains. I thought about the title of Wallace Stegner’s novel of the West, “Angle of Repose,” and appreciated for the first time how well it represented that landscape.

I followed I-15 through the Cajon Pass into Los Angeles.

Highways intersecting and overlapping and running parallel. A blazing California sun. Palm trees. Suburban mass. Traffic and traffic and traffic. My desert solitude was over. 

It occurred to me that I wasn’t the first person who’d decided to move to California.

I had only a sketchy mental picture of my route, being new to LA. In the midst of the freeway madness was no place to study a map. I’d also been careless enough to start this journey before GPS devices were commonly available for civilian use. I had to confront the fact that missing a turn in this forest of highways would be far more confusing than getting lost on some remote country back road.

I did make it, if for no other reason than if you stay on the freeway long enough, it will end and you’ll hit surface streets and traffic lights before you literally drive into the ocean (unlike the original Mother Road, which would, if you kept going, send you straight out onto Santa Monica Pier).

I pulled the car into its new home, the parking garage under the apartment building. I rode the elevator up and walked down the hall.

The key to the new apartment worked.

I was home.

I lived in California.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon of the day that had begun in the cold darkness in Arizona. I opened the sliding glass door onto the balcony and stepped out. I looked around. The sun was shining on the ocean, bright on the water. To my right the coastline of Santa Monica Bay curved away from me and then swung left, where Malibu lay beneath the mountains.

I sat down to wait for the one final moment: The point of all that driving. I waited for The Counselor to come home from work.


I won’t look back across all of those twenty years of living in southern California in a single blog post. You’re welcome.

I’ll look back at the road on which I drove west, Interstate 40.

North and south of I-40 through New Mexico, Arizona and California, the desert landscape stretches away from the highway traveler. As I covered those long, straight miles in 1993, I wondered what it would be like to veer off and see those amazing landscapes, discover what lay beyond that range of hills or those tall bluffs topped with rimrock.

Now I have. Rather, we have, because my constant companion has been that same Counselor, always eager to pull on the hiking boots and hit the trail, or shift the rental car into four wheel drive and cover fifteen miles or so on a rutted gravel road. We’ve ranged far, north and south of I-40.  West of Albuquerque, a few miles south of I-40, we’ve visited the amazing Sky City of Acoma; farther west across the Arizona line, we’ve walked through Canyon de Chelly and on the Three Mesas of the Hopi, north of the highway. We’ve hiked up mountain trails and stood in the remote desert silence of Chaco Canyon, an extensive civilization at the same time Cahokia was thriving, which also disappeared into the wind of prehistory. We attended the profoundly powerful Corn Dance of the Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo. We’ve traveled hundreds of miles of desert and mountain terrain, and there’s always more to see.

That’s how I came to live under Western skies, and to share it with you here. My gratitude and love go always to The Counselor for being the reason for it all. Thank you. Let’s go!

MV Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2963 (640x480)

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017


  1. Great one Brad one of my favorites! I really enjoyed it!


    All the best, Sharon Sharon Dorros | Account Executive | ADM Productions, Inc. | Phone 516.484.6900 | Fax 516.621.2531| 40 Seaview Blvd. , Port Washington , NY 11050| | |


  2. happy anniversary!


  3. That’s a beautiful love letter.


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