Is Santa Barbara County What People Think About When They Dream of California?

Now 2.5 years into the pandemic and still without a haircut, travel writer Ryan Ritchie escapes from L.A. and finds the California dream alive and well in Goleta

We’re nearly 2.5 years into the COVID-19 pandemic and I haven’t had a haircut since before the country went into lockdown—February 28, 2020, specifically, the day before my cousin’s wedding in San Diego. And I’ve seen Dolla, my only living grandparent, who lives 15 minutes away, once. I haven’t been to Disneyland or the Hollywood Bowl, and besides a few weekend trips to a friend’s empty Palm Springs apartment, I haven’t been on vacation.

I’m growing accustomed to the length of my hair and I don’t care much about Disneyland, but seeing my grandmother more often would be nice. So would a proper vacation. After all, I used to write travel stories for Los Angeles Times.

My hair touches my shoulders now for a reason: I have type 1 diabetes and asthma. Since March 2020, I have been employed as an adjunct instructor at five southern California colleges where, until a few months ago, every class was online. Increasingly, in-person courses are offered to me, but I have said no to all because an outsized number of COVID-related deaths have been among people with diabetes—two in five U.S. deaths, according to a study out of the University of Texas. I am vaccinated, have one booster, and believe in science—but I don’t want to be in that 40 percent of COVID-related deaths. I’m 42 years old and I don’t want to die.

I welcomed the beginning of the lockdown because I completed a poetry manuscript and made progress on an essay collection and memoir instead of commuting. All that traffic? I’d still be on page three. But 2.5 years in, I’m over the pandemic and over wearing masks. I’m not a jealous person, yet I see the bottom halves of people’s faces at Whole Foods and wish I could be one of them. Mostly, though, I miss my friends and I miss traveling.

This frustration, the longing for my pre-pandemic life, is why I said yes when RVshare—an Airbnb-like recreational vehicles and trailers sharing platform—offered me a weekend trip to Ocean Mesa RV Resort. This frustration is also why I invited my friend, Amanda, also an adjunct college instructor.

The pitch to Amanda was simple: I want to spend a weekend in a trailer—the type RVShare offers, with multiple beds, a kitchen, a microwave, a TV, a bathroom, a dining table and a couch—and do the good kind of nothing. And, when the urge hits to do something, I want that something to be outside and away from people.

I knew Amanda would say yes for two reasons. She, too, must have a tired brain after two-plus years of online teaching. She’s also an herbalist who talks to plants and the trip would include a visit to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. She’d enjoy that.

Naturally, Amanda said yes. We left my friend’s Echo Park apartment at 1 p.m. and trudged our way through North Hollywood and the Valley, good conversation and Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous serving as pleasant distractions from the afternoon L.A. traffic— stop-and-go but mostly stop.

Four hours to Goleta—approximately 100 miles up the coast from L.A.—was not part of the plan. This sort of traffic almost always causes some blue phrases such as “go, motherf—er,” “dips–t” and “goddamn it” to flow freely from me—a divergence from my otherwise calm persona. This is true of Amanda, too: “Be glad I’m not driving,” my RuPaul’s Drag Race-loving friend said as we looked to the left from my Toyota Highlander at the Pacific Ocean.

The water was big and blue. The sky, too. We were so close to nature’s perfection but so surrounded by idling vehicles. Perhaps the beautiful view is why “motherf—er”  never leaped from my mouth.

This motif, this idea that Santa Barbara County is where I forget about grading papers; where I don’t bring my laptop; where the 101 merging into a single lane near Summerland doesn’t upset me; where I’m not bothered by a campground full of pre-teens darting toward my Toyota Highlander on electric bicycles and scooters, occurred multiple times throughout the weekend.

If I remember correctly, forgetting all of this is what it means to relax.

RVshare’s recreational vehicle offering (Photo: Ryan Ritchie)

We arrived at Ocean Mesa just after 5 p.m. and entered our RVshare trailer, which included the aforementioned accouterments. “Whoa,” I said as I saw a beige couch with three throw pillows; a kitchen with a sink, microwave, stove and oven; a refrigerator with a freezer and a pantry cabinet. Next to the cabinet were two bunk beds; next to the bunk beds was a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower with a bathtub and detachable showerhead. 

That “whoa” was nostalgia, a reminder of the motorhome Dolla and Pop had when I was young. One of my favorite memories as a child was when my grandparents, my cousin Mike and I took a trip through California. Mike took me into the bathroom so we could flip off the drivers around us. I also remember playing Arizona (also known in our family as “oh s–t”)—Dolla’s favorite card game—at the dining table and being amazed that a car could have a refrigerator. Memories such as these are why my dream is to own an RV, because they combine my two favorite things: traveling and being at home.

Nostalgia soon turned to worry as I saw only two bunk beds. My diabetes demands I make multiple nightly bathroom trips and I was afraid sleeping directly below Amanda would mean waking her. It wasn’t until I removed my sunglasses that I realized a 74” x 60” RV queen-sized bed, with partitions for privacy, was obscured behind the 43-inch Toshiba 4K Fire TV.

The dining area of the RVshare rental (Photo: Ryan Ritchie)
The interior of RVshare’s RV offering. (Photo: Ryan Ritchie)

Amanda claimed the bed and we headed to the Beer Tasting & Music on the Mesa evening event, where a three-piece reggae band was playing Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” as parents drank beer and watched their young offspring frolic in the grass and on a playground. This is where I’m going to get upset, I thought. I have nothing against families having fun. It’s just that my idea of a good time doesn’t include dads in flip-flops, moms in lounge chairs, and kids running in circles and shouting.

But I didn’t get upset. In fact, I was happy and relaxed as I stood on Ocean Mesa’s large plot of grass with a dreadlocked singer before me and a playground behind. I was wearing a mask and stood there, a football’s throw away from everyone else. That aside, I was experiencing something akin to déjà vu: I was on vacation. I was in Santa Barbara! Or, more specifically, Goleta, in Santa Barbara County.

This area, this part of California—not quite the southern California seen in films and not quite the wine-growing hub of central California—this is where the California dream exists; it’s what outsiders imagine when they dream of the Golden State. To quote writer Edward Abbey, “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”

A view of the ocean from the Bill Wallace Trail
A quick walk up the Bill Wallace Trail from Ocean Mesa’s parking lot offers ocean views.

Ryan Ritchie

Before our trip, Amanda told me her plan was to eat nothing but Kyle’s Kitchen’s veggie burgers for the duration of our weekend. I thought nothing of it but wondered what made these so delicious, which is why I agreed to leave the trailer and drive 15 minutes to try it. I ordered the Earth Burger with a lettuce wrap, without garlic aioli to make it vegan. One bite and I was surprised that the salad and burger tasted so fresh and healthy. Amanda was right, so we ate at the same Kyle’s location three times in approximately 48 hours. Even better? Kyle, the restaurant’s namesake, who was born with special needs, was there during our first visit.

After an evening of playing a bootleg version of Connect Four, eating popcorn, and watching about 100 videos on YouTube, we walked to the beach at night. My goal was to get my feet in the Pacific, but the 20-minute walk from Ocean Mesa to El Capitán State Beach is interrupted by the 101, which separates the site from the sand. Instead, we walked through the campground to the adjacent El Capitan Resort, traversing a dark trail, which, as we learned the next day, is punctuated with avocado trees and cornhole boards. We passed Canyon Market—set up inside a cabin with a corrugated tin roof and barn door and offering local wines, snacks and sunscreen—where we found two employees leaving El Capitan’s Front Lodge; bamboo-flute meditation-relaxation spa music could be heard coming from within.

“Can we make it to the water from here?” I asked one of them.

“I wouldn’t,” she replied, explaining that there are no lights on the walk. Both women suggested Ocean Mesa’s pool and hot tub while speaking with us for a few moments. They were obviously just off work but stuck around to ensure we found something to do that evening. They were nicer than they had to be, I told myself.

Sunday was busy by vacation standards. I began the morning with a solo walk on the Bill Wallace Trail; after a slight ascension up its dirt path and turning around, miles of coastline was visible. I stood on the trail for at least five minutes looking at the water and saw no other people (passing cars on the 101 aside). It was maybe 10 a.m. and the sun was high. There was a slight movement in the bushes—lizards, perhaps—they didn’t show themselves. I was free, alone. Moments such as these are why I travel, to get away from traffic and computers and cell phones and the dishes and the laundry and everything else that consumes so much time yet means so little.

Amanda was awake when I returned, so we decided to walk to El Capitán State Beach. The sand was filled with people basking in the sun. We didn’t get our feet wet, but that’s OK. Everything’s OK with great company, a big blue sky, and the sounds of waves crashing around you.

On this walk is when I realized what the pandemic had stolen from the world. Those two years were not a video game on pause. I, you, us—we’re never getting that time back. It’s gone.

The pandemic took my final two years of playing pick-up basketball while not looking like an aging fool and it took my desire to go to concerts and push my way toward the stage, engulfing myself in sweaty strangers. And that’s OK, too—at 42, I’d now rather stroll the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is what we did that afternoon once we stopped at Kyle’s Kitchen for veggie burgers and side salads.

“Did you know everything here is native to California?” the bearded fellow working the ticket booth asked us in regard to the 78-acre garden while highlighting his favorite walk on a map of the grounds. We do now, I thought but didn’t say. That would have been rude and uncalled for. And something about a Sunday afternoon stroll through a botanic oasis eliminated my patented snark.

An ocean view
A Coronado Butterfly Preserve hike offers views of the Pacific Ocean and the adjacent Sandpiper Golf Club.

Ryan Ritchie

Amanda and I hoofed through a dry creek and saw a patch of wild ginger and manzanita trees, but the redwoods were the most memorable sight. I remained a few steps behind my friend as we walked through these trees, each of us needing space to enjoy the moment because this serenity, this oneness with nature, is exactly what two adjuncts working at different schools, on different schedules, and teaching different subjects needed.

Monday was bittersweet because we awoke in a beautiful place but knew we had to go home. We stopped at the 9.3-acre Coronado Butterfly Preserve before hitting the road. Located in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood (if you don’t count a butterfly preserve as “nondescript”), the preserve’s hiking trail leads to the ocean. Amanda and I didn’t see any monarchs, as mating season begins in November, but we passed downed trees in the woodland, the Sandpiper Golf Club, and a woman walking a dog who was giving directions to seemingly everyone on the trail. I hadn’t planned on hiking so wore flip-flops, but my feet never hurt and the dirt was easy to brush off once we returned to my car.

The walk was the ideal contrast to city life I had been missing. In its place were kind strangers, the type that reminds me how my stress is the literal accumulation of what the experts call the “small stuff.” We’re not supposed to sweat the small stuff, yet I do. I suspect, to some degree, many of us are bothered daily by things that don’t really matter.

I said yes to every paying job offered to me for more than two years because if I was going to sit at home, I should earn money while doing it. Now, as we’ve (hopefully) endured the worst of COVID-19, I don’t want to overwork myself. For what?

“Ugh,” Amanda said from the passenger seat as we passed the Capitol Records Building and traffic slowed to a crawl. “I don’t want to go home because now I have to think about what I’m doing with my life.”

I wish I didn’t understand, but I did. This is why I reminded her of the butterflies, the veggie burgers at Kyle’s Kitchen, and the fact that we had a large TV that we never turned on. 

Once I got home and the monotony of my life reappeared, I sent her this text: “Be prepared one day for a ‘let’s go to Kyle’s right now’ text/call.” She agreed. Once we go, we’ll say we’re returning for the veggie burgers, but we both know it’ll be more than that.

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