The Ultimate Road Trip Playlist: California Edition

California:  Home to movie stars and hippies, destination for beatniks and stoners, bordered by ocean and desert and within whose boundaries lie palisades and redwoods, Legoland and Golden Gate.

Carl and I have added over 1,500 miles to our odometer in this state alone.  Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the passenger seat for dozens of hours in a matter of days, you have to come prepared music-wise, and we listened to countless albums during our drives. From these voyages there are a few standout songs that to me encapsulate what it means to be at a particular point on the map.

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Bakersfield into the middle of nowhere: “Paint the Silence” by South and “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers

We first crossed into California from Vegas — through the Moab and past Bakersfield, into dusty and rolling unknown coordinates.  Packs of motorcyclists roared past us, oil rigs dotted the landscape rooted within cow fields and power lines loomed over us like giants.  We passed innumerable road signs warning us that we’d find no gas stations or cell reception within the next hour.

There’s two kinds of song that best fit in with this terrain: one which blends into the surroundings, that’s steeped in melancholy and seems in tune with what’s outside the windows. This is where South comes in.  It sounds like an open road leading to nowhere.  The other is a song that ricochetes off the barren grounds and requires listeners to sing along with the chorus.  This is where the Proclaimers take center stage.  Cause what was our journey if not comprised of a series of 500 miles.

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Los Angeles: “Life Magazine” by Cold Cave

Our first night in LA we cheersed beers poolside while Taxi Driver projected onto the building across from us; we watched hummingbirds flit around Silver Lake in the sunset and sipped cocktails topped with edible flowers on a streetside patio.  As I nibbled on the petals I looked out onto the sidewalk, glimpsing a fur coat thrown out and lying top of a trashcan.  To me, that garbage coat is a summation of the city.  For the life of me I can’t tell if this place takes itself seriously, or is laughing at how hard it tries.  It’s incredibly superficial, but delightfully so.

None of the women wear bras and all of the men are perfectly tanned.  Food is outstanding, drinks are copious and there seems to always be a palm tree, flower bed or succulent garden in sight.  Children wear Burberry and their mothers always look bored.  Smog chokes the city and you have to drive everywhere, but Los Angeles is  fun.  And while I hate a 45 minute car ride that only traverses 10 miles, I can’t help but love it here.  When you’re inevitably stuck in traffic  I cannot think of a better song for watching all of the gorgeous people walk by in the sunny streets than one that sings of never going back.

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Highway 1: “How Bizarre” by OMC

Every top-10-listicle with “roadtrip” in the title mentions Highway 1; it’s a shoo-in for obvious reasons.  North of San Luis Obispo the fun begins: it’s all palisades, winding roads and open waters, and on a sunny day the horizon line between the ocean and the sky becomes blurred.  We passed multiple vintage VW vans on the twisting trek upwards to San Francisco — boho hippie vibes permiating through the curtained windows.

This road is the embodiment of the phrase “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”.  It’s trite and cheesy and 85% of the time I find that saying to be total horseshit, but on Highway 1 you’re meant to slow down and not look at the clock.  So it seems fitting that while you’re breathing the salty air and stopping every 15 minutes for waterfalls or elephant seal sightings that you listen to a song that’s happy as can be, catchy as hell, and completely irrelevant (lyrics contain the inspired line of “Elephants and acrobats, lions, snakes, monkey” after all).

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Big Sur: “Ester” by Elefant

When I first heard this song it was on The O.C.  That teenage soap opera of angst, rich kids and indie rock — chock full of breaking waves, ocean sunsets and designer handbags.  Completely addictive for a 16 year old girl.  And while it remains a guilty pleasure that I watch when Carl’s out of town (sandwiched between episodes of Buffy), I have to admit the music of the show always hits me with a pang of nostalgia.  For 2006 Gracie, I have dotted this playlist with some of my most heavily played high school tracks from the show (South and Turin Brakes I’m looking at you).  At that time, making it to California meant making it in general.

Big Sur lived up to all of my starry eyed notions of what I’d find when I finally made it to California.  L.A.’s Hollywood boulevard is coated in urine and no one ever tells you just how much human feces you’ll find on San Francisco’s sidewalks, but boy-oh-boy is Big Sur beautiful.

Frequently along the route we pulled off the road and traipsed through tall grass trying to get down to the water, but found the shore itself was always out of reach.  During one of these attempts the sky turned a brilliant orange and under it we stood watching clouds transform to magenta before the sky slivered into twilight, then we drove off into the foggy darkness.  We were being young.  Teenage me would be so proud.

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San Francisco: “Heads Up” by Jain

This city is a drunken watercolorist’s dream.  It’s splashed in pastels, corals, shades of turquoise and sea-green, all faded and shrouded in a twice daily fog that comes and goes with the tides.  I’ve passed men in leather thongs on the street, dreaded hippies reeking of patchouli who clean their armpits in pizza shops, tech prodigies spilling sushirritos and avocado toast on their Google hoodies in cafes, and thousand dollar dogs napping in Prada bags in corner stores.

Eclectic and eccentric, it’s the kind of city where Kanye and TSwift could become the best of friends, while still talking behind each others’ backs, obvi.  In spirit with the city we listen to sugar coated pop, but reggae influenced and from a Frenchwoman to give it that fashionable edge this city is so good at maintaining.

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Sonoma: “Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band

Oh wine country.  Those who live in the area is so chill they couldn’t possibly give a shit about the one patron screaming about not having enough cheese for their crackers.  Here the average daily itinerary consists of “drink wine”.

We sample pinot noir on a creek line leaning back in deck chairs, then stroll through rows of grapevines.  On the road it’s equally as peaceful, with rolling hills flecked with golden trees so perfectly patterned it resembles a patchwork quilt.  Why not listen to a nearly 7 minute song that has 20 lines of lyrics total; it’s lovely and not in a rush to end, just like you won’t be in a rush to cork the bottle.

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Yosemite: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “The Way” by Fastball

Graceland was on repeat when Half Dome first came into view.  There are some moments that are so intrinsically connected to a certain smell, or a certain song, that the moment never becomes separate from the senses surrounding it; the thought of a first kiss smells like lavender, or the opening chords to a Springsteen song bring you back to mowing the lawn at your parent’s house.  This was one of those moments.

“Graceland” had been a favorite of mine, but upon entering Yosemite on a June day it became beloved.  Fastball’s “The Way” I must’ve listened to 100 times on Now 1 (Yes, I bought the original “Now” album from the local mall in middle school, from a store called “The Zone” or “The Spot” or something equally as descriptive which has since closed). But the song has been reappropriated from my tween days and now brings me back to driving up a curving road in Groveland California.

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Fort Bragg into the middle of nowhere: “While You Were Sleeping” by Elvis Perkins

There is a house on a cliff.  It overlooks the water, shaded by windswept trees.  In this house lives a man and his dog, whom we met at sunset as we were chasing our shadows down the sand.  He wore a trucker hat and a flannel jacket; flannel not because it’s trendy, but because it’s warm.

He asked us where we were from then pointed up at his home on top the cliff, on the shores of nowhere. Every evening he comes down here.  He’s surprised to see people, it usually being just the two of them.  There is a lonesomeness here. It lives in the angles of the trees and can best be described by a lullaby that scrambles to find the difference between dreams and the daybreak.

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Redwood National Park: “Ljoss” by Forest Swords

Everything here is taller than man.  We’re dwarfed by monoliths of wood and needle whose age can only be determined by cutting them down and counting the rings inside.

I whisper as if I’m in a library, as not to offend shingles of bark.  Anything I yell bounces against wet leaves and the fog that hangs like cobwebs in the trees, the tops of which I can see intermittently as the damp burns off then settles back in.

At night it feels downright haunted and a bit witchy.  The Redwood canopies block out stars and moonlight, bringing you into an almost total darkness.  A moody and hypnotic electro-post-dubstep-spirit-animal-finding kind of song.  I use it as an omen to fend away spirits caught in branches.

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Into the fog outside of Redwood: “Rain City” by Turin Brakes

Redwood had weight to it.  Leaving Redwood felt even heavier. The morning we left the park we crossed into Oregon, stayed the night in Portland, then entered Seattle (our new home) the next day.  At 25 I had decided to move to a city without ever having entered it.  I was terrified and excited, looking out the rearview mirror at what I was leaving behind and eager for what was ahead.

And now, within just a few months, Carl and I will be leaving Seattle and making that big trip back East.  Back to PA from whence we came.  We’re ready to plant our nomadic feet onto one square of earth.  Ready to be at home somewhere.

Leaving Redwood the sky was low, covered in cloud and almost opaque from a few hundred feet away.  It didn’t feel ominous though, it felt like surrendering myself to the if’s and maybe’s and what-could-be’s, like finally being ready to be unprepared in life.

Scary?  Undoubtedly. But if we don’t venture into the unknown, then nothing we don’t already know is knowable.  All we can ever do is take the unknown to wherever we go next.  Passing through the clouds the most fitting song to listen to was about letting go.

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