I’d hoped to hit the road at dawn. The 2:30 a.m. phone call blew that plan. On the other end was a situation emergency enough to require my husband to get dressed and head to the ER. Grateful to have a partner, I stayed in bed, alternating between dozing off and being afraid, one hand on my phone as I waited for an update.

The situation resolved itself enough by morning that I could still depart, mother-guilt added to my more practical luggage. I pulled out of the driveway around 8:30 a.m., bound for Pismo beach, then San Diego. When I’d considered my options for the trip, they looked like this:

a.) Drive the full way to San Diego in one shot.

b.) Divide the trip into two days.

Having spent enough time on the road to know how miserable I get by hour eight or so, I opted for the latter. And since I was splitting the trip up anyway, taking 101 and staying somewhere beachy was clearly more inspiring than slinging myself down the 5. I haven’t spent much time in SLO (did have a singular experience the one time I was in Pismo before) and liked the idea of exploring the area further.

Despite rarely coming to the Central Coast as a child – I vaguely remember a camping trip to Morro Bay – the area triggers nostalgia. Unlike all the SoCal spots I regularly visited, the view and the vibe evoke a certain 1970s California. Everything is in soft focus, weathered and golden.

I don’t reminisce much. I grew up in a place bereft of the kind of culture I sought; besides a few good friends and great parties, my memories of it are not pleasant. I was too smart for my teachers, not racist enough for my peers, too evolved to take the conventions of my Catholic high school seriously, stunningly naive regarding boys. My parents split ugly when I was 15. There was a drug phase. I left high school early because it was stupid – California proficiency certificate instead of a diploma – so no prom or graduation or homecoming to look back upon. I left the desert right before I turned 18, never looked back, not even when I had to move back for a time. My mom sold my childhood home and relocated to the Valley within a couple years after I left. I have no family there and little family elsewhere and not much contact. And this is all fine – things worked out well for me. I have my own people and beautiful life and amazing jobs. It’s just the usual situations that people look back upon wistfully didn’t manifest in my childhood. But I also, unlike some girls and boys, didn’t get molested by the priests at my high school, and I had good jobs even as a teen and my lack of a senior year hasn’t mattered and my boyfriend from back then stuck around to become my husband and this’ll be 28 years of togetherness in March, so yeah, I’m hanging in there.

All to say, this nostalgia certain parts of the coast brings out, it’s not personal exactly. I think it’s a way in which my love for this state manifests. I never loved Lancaster, but I have always been infatuated by California. The geography, the stories, the compulsion people elsewhere have to Come West. All songs about California are good songs. Sure, the state has its ugly parts, sordid history, riot, earthquakes and oncoming coastal flooding that will cause the world to come undone. Still, to stand on the beach – or better yet, be in the water – as the sky turns color and the ocean glows and a peak in the distance boasts a scattering of snow – I love that.

And I do have stories. Nights on the back of a Harley in Hollywood, New Age parties in Topanga Canyon, tripping back over the Baja border as the sun cracked over the mountains, watching that same sun drop into the ocean from one of the state to another. Beach bonfires. Sleeping in the redwoods. Going to the Op Pro. Riots. More riots. Riding my bike along the concrete sluice shepherding the L.A. River to the Pacific. Going to clubs in El Ley at 15, at 18, at 22. Moving north and diving into the Trinity River, a different kind of wildness. Learning to surf. Being surprised that beauty also exists inland. I have built a life that encompasses much of this state. I have become more and more myself with each move, from the desert to the beach, from the south to the north.

Southern California being what it is, development has reshaped the places I remember, some beyond recognition. I tend to look ahead at where life leads next, where I want to go. But every so often, some innocuous thing – a freeway sign, a row of faded blue houses, particularly robust bougainvillea or a glimpse of a beach where I once made out with a good-looking boy, skin warm from sunshine, the future a blur of promise, the present delicious – my heart warms with sentimentality.

I have a lot of stuff on this trip, the result of hurried packing. It bugs me; I prefer to travel light. But the extra clothes and multiple pairs of shoes are of no mind, really – turns out I’m carrying more than I realized anyway.