By Colleen Cochran
It was 1975. My parents got the bright idea to escape the Philadelphia winter by taking the kids on a two-week California trip. This vacation wasn’t well-planned and cushy like the times we stayed at the Greenbriar, the Waldorf, or those hotels in Italy. The California vacation was an impromptu, free-wheeling, down-and-dirty road trip. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.
It was an ambitious, almost insane, venture. Parents and five kids, ages toddler through pre-teen, crammed ourselves into a rented station wagon and winged a sight-seeing tour in which we drove from San Francisco all the way down into Tijuana. We stayed at whatever cheap hotel would have us.
The front seat of the car featured constant bickering, mostly about maps. The middle seat offered lots of crying and an overpowering stench of dirty diapers. Rip-roaring, hair-pulling fights were common in that section too. They erupted whenever one of the kids overstayed his or her time on the coveted floor hump.
I laid beside all the suitcases on the flattened back part of the station wagon the whole ride, viewing California from the windows, daydreaming and delighting in the continuous stream of sunlight on my skin. I was 12.
“You mean it’s sunny like this all year, Mom? Seriously?” I couldn’t believe it. If that were true, wouldn’t everyone in the world decide to live in California?
No matter how many times the car radio played news about Patty Hearst, I was always eager to hear more of the story. “Ssshhh,” I warned everyone whenever a new broadcast played. Not only did I find the whole story fascinating, I was intent on learning what members of the Symbionese Liberation Army looked like in case they tried to capture me during our travels.
Since I couldn’t wait to become one, I took special note of the teenagers I saw. California was full of them. Kids with braids, afros, bell bottoms, or mini-skirts were hanging out all over San Francisco. When we traveled down the coast, alongside beaches I saw barefoot, long-haired teens living out of vans. I saw some playing bongos. While I didn’t grow up in the Hearst Castle, my upbringing wasn’t too far below Patty’s on the lifestyle scale. So, it’s odd that the hippy way of life instantly appealed to me.
We did it all on that trip. Fed seals at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, watched an Oakland A’s game, and saw Lucille Ball ride by us in a golf cart at Universal Studios. Of course, we went to Disneyland, SeaWorld, even Old Town. What wasn’t to love about California?
While the places we visited were grand, what really intrigued me about the state was all the people I saw fighting for a cause. California seemed to me to be chock full of good people who were striving to make the world a better place. In San Francisco, I saw people holding signs that said, “Make love, not war” and “Black is beautiful.” The vans I saw along the beaches were painted with slogans like “Peace” and “Love Mother Earth.”
Somewhere en route, my dad made us stop to observe migrant workers chanting and waving picket signs. I remember him excitedly pointing to one man far off at a podium and saying, “That’s César Chávez.” He told me César Chávez was a man who helped farm workers create unions so they would be treated fairly.
When we returned to Philadelphia, California remained etched in my mind. The hours and hours of car window views of the state’s beaches, waves, palm trees, dry desert mountains had become the stuff of my dreams. I came up with a plan. When I grew up, I was going to move to California. What’s more, I was going to become a hippy and live in a van on the beach.
From a very young age, I paid attention to the news. I followed the Watergate scandal. I read about and, in fact, had first-hand knowledge of the gas crisis, since one of my summers was spent filling out Mad Libs while we waited for hours in gas lines. A person couldn’t live in Philadelphia without becoming cognizant of racial discrimination issues. I was also keenly aware of the fragility of our environment and saddened that the world was beginning to lose its animals. So, it wasn’t farfetched that part of my California dream was to join the sign holders I had seen there so as to help make the world a better place.
While my bents for beautiful scenery, simple living, and civic involvement were all part of the plan, the main motivation for the whole California scheme was, of course, sunshine. I like to be warm. My West Coast dream helped me to weather many frozen-toed Philadelphia mornings while I waited for the bus to come pick me up for school.
The hand of practicality kept clutching me tightly so that I stayed in Pennsylvania. College, law school, this or that steady boyfriend were the very sensible decisions that got in the way. To be fair, they were very meaningful experiences, and ones I’m glad I didn’t forgo, but they did nearly squeeze the life out of my California dream. One day, when I was well into middle age, it was just the right time. I made my way to the Golden State, set up a home, got married, even had a baby here.
I can’t help feeling you guys at the San Diego Free Press are somehow wrapped up in this story about me and my love for California. Although I never met any of you in person, you were just the type of people that 12-year-old girl in the back of the station wagon hoped to bond with one day. To me, you personify what is good and just about California, and the aspirations we should continuously be fighting for in this state. Plus, you’re the hippest of the hip, the ultimate mod squad.
Through your newspaper you helped to make the world a little kinder, more truthful, more intelligent, and greener. You exposed and spited the political morass of today and legitimized the idealism that many people hold in their hearts. You have been a comrade to so many people, staving off their disillusionment, offering them solidarity, and invigorating them to find the courage to fight for change.
San Diego Free Press editors, you have daily produced well-written, well-researched articles, and I have marveled at your fecundity. It’s hard work to research a topic, then craft paragraphs and sentences, and you guys are masters at this task. I am honored such gurus of prose saw fit to publish my articles on the environment.
I’ve just about accomplished all of my California dreams. I live in a house though, not in a van on the side of the beach. I’m saving the bongos and van part of the plan for my senior citizen years. In the meantime, I’d love to help keep San Diego Free Press alive in some way or another.
Thank you for all you have done to enrich San Diego. Frank Gormlie, Patty Jones, Doug Porter, Annie Lane, Brent Beltrán, Anna Daniels, and Rich Kacmar, may you continue to achieve your own California dreams.