Summery Judgment

Jim already spent his summer vacation. Now he wants yours

Photo courtesy of Jim WashburnIt was an innocent time when I was young. The lamb lay down with the lion, honey oil dripped from the branches, and you could see the Who for $4.50 instead of $505 (the top price for tickets at their upcoming Hollywood Bowl show). Sure, there was an inkling something was squirrelly about the Vietnam War, and Kennedys and Kings were getting shot all over the place, andAmericans were beginning to suspect that dark schemings were afoot in our republic. But there was an innocence even to our outrage. Remember Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young singing "We can change the world"? The implicit idea was that we'd be changing the world for the better, not that we'd be accelerating into Armageddon while the standard of living took a three-decade nosedive.

Looky here at this instructive chart I've made:

The Threats of Summer When I Was in School:Jellyfish sting; tripping over passed-out persons at rock festivals; and summer school. The Threats of Summer Today:Skin cancer; fecal coliform in your seawater; E. coli in your barbecue; razor blades in the sand; foreign terrorist attacks on planes, trains, events and theme parks; theme-park rides killing you before the terrorists can; domestic terrorist attacks on mailboxes; unfettered police powers everywhere; surveillance cameras everywhere; being broke and everything costing lots; smog alerts; road rage; carjackings; date-rape drugs; AIDS; genital herpes; weather gone insane as the harbingers of global warming mount; icebergs the size of [your favorite state here] sloughing off Antarctica; newly heightened tensions between our nation and Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, China, Russia, the EU, Iran, Iraq, Ibid, et al.; and summer school.

Jesus, but we had it easy. But you know one thing that makes today look real good? Tomorrow. Things probably aren't going to get much better than they are now, so celebrate what you've got. Buy a $44 lawn seat to see the Who. Find some vestige of the natural orange-crate-art majesty that once abounded here, and squint real hard to block out the urban blight surrounding it. Find signs of life in the county—the Santora Arts complex, downtown Fullerton, etc.—and add your bit of life to it. Or hit the road.

We took our summer vacation early, wife Leslie and I, so I can already tell you how we spent it. We headed up the coast for a leisurely week of low-budget fun. We recommend staying with friends a lot. Not only do they usually forget to hand you a bill, but they can also give you unique insights into their areas.

On the first stop, we visited our friends Jim and Lisa in Ojai. Yes, the town has been yuppified and gentrified, but it would take sterner stuff than that to ruin the valley Frank Capra used to depict Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. My favorite thing about California landscapes is the way desert and forest merge in places. Ojai has that in spades, with cacti and pine trees sharing the same patch of sunlight.

Lisa, once a maven of LA's recording studios and bassist in the legendary R. Meltzer-fronted punk band Vom, writes manuals for Apple media software. Jim's a tangerine farmer who has initiated programs to get fresh local fruits and vegetables into school lunchrooms, doing battle with the fast-food chains. When he's showing you Ojai in his pickup truck, you tend to see a lot of tangerines. But you also see king snakes, Julia Morgan-designed homes, peacocks with such road-blocking plumage that they could be used as gates, and rural drainage culverts fancifully painted by renegade artists.

Maybe Santa Maria has its bright spots as well, but we didn't know anyone to point them out for us. The highlight was a time-lost shopping mall, where the sun-faded window displays at JC Penney looked like they'd been there since the '60s, while a few doors down was a curious shop that said "Music and Pets." "Yup, pianos and puppies, that's what we have here," the owner confirmed, along with tropical fish, guinea pigs and rats. You don't find that at Fashion Island.

At the suggestion of the Orange County Art Museum's Brian Langston, we stayed in the seaside town of Cayucos at the Shoreline Inn, where for $95, we got a huge room with a fireplace, an ocean view and the sound of waves breaking ceaselessly. Until dark. From then until dawn, all you could hear was the croaking of thousands of frogs in a nearby pond. We haven't yet thanked Brian properly for this tip.

Like me, you've probably driven by Big Sur's Esalen Institute several times, wondering, "What the hell sort of wicca-naked-hippie-new-age-Bacchanalian stuff goes on in there?" and then moved on, figuring admission was only for more enlightened souls than we. Nay, one need have only the mystical bonding known as an "appointment." It takes money, too, but the institute also has a program to help the disadvantaged attend.

While a journalist's income likely qualifies for that, it was our marvelous friends John and Helena who facilitated our massages there, which also allows you to wander the ground and use the hot tubs for a while. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the state—at least—where the mountains roll into the sea, where whales surface and blow. And it does indeed have a vibe so soulful that even if Hitler had a bunker there, it would be a laid-back place.

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