We arrived in Santa Barbara late in the evening, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eagerness to bask in the sunlight. The night air was chilly for Southern California, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a sweater as we sat outside. We’d left the Midwest in a flurry of suitcases, cold wind and heavy coats. Santa Barbara smelled nice, like wet rocks, moss, and asphalt. We drove past the ocean when we came in. The sun may as well have been setting.
My boyfriend and I were both wearing free bracelets we got at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. They read: SKATE A MILLION MILES.
This strikes me as at once absurd and inspiring. Roller skating’s popularity is surely on the wane, but the sport retains its retro feel (and fashion, short-shorts mixed with figure skating costumes). It is undoubtedly good for your health. The National Museum of Roller Skating is unique – there’s no other museum with that particular focus. It’s like a super-charged magnet for strange and lovely artifacts of the sport sitting at the center of the country, drawing to itself the nation’s stray cowboy boots with wheels and photos of roller skating bears.
Rollerblading was popularized in Southern California in the eighties. Now that my partner and I are here, on site, the silly mantra on our bracelet seems like a challenge to take the eccentric path — a dare to be extreme, and slightly odd, in one’s interests. Why just meander a million miles, when you could glide along instead with flair?
In that sense, driving across the country feels a lot like skating a million miles.
In California, we recorded some music in a studio hidden among warehouses, which also felt absurd and inspiring, like a perfectly apt juxtaposition of creative expression and utility. We walked through a plain numbered door into an expansive space covered with tie-dyed tapestries, blinking Christmas lights, and a painted portrait of Willie Nelson. Odd tchotchkes littered the surfaces; shiny drum sets and twelve-string guitars stretched out before us, tempting as baubles in a storefront window. At different points in the recording process, we could smell sage burning. Between takes, Amie by Pure Prairie League played softly on the record player.
When we finished recording, we ended up in Los Angeles for several days. The Hammer Museum, nestled in a neighborhood right by the freeway, smelled like Christmas: the lobby was filled with a gingerbread house large enough to house a family of bears. We walked up a few levels and, as soon as I saw a pair of ping-pong tables, I recognized the handiwork of Southern California art collective, Machine Project. I knew the collective’s collaborators, Pop Soda, had recently visited the Midwest, warming the hearts of Minnesotans with Feel the Churn! Despite the welcome warmth of Los Angeles’ sunshine in that open plaza, seeing their work I felt a pang of homesickness for Minneapolis. I could so easily imagine the artists churning milk in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery, a dreamy spandex-filled vision of butter-making aerobics.
Exercise fads kept coming up in conversation. I heard that Richard Simmons’ Los Angeles studio, Slimmons, was only blocks away from a friend’s home. The chance to see him in all of his short-shorts glory was almost enough to convince us to extend our stay a few days. Now: left, two, three, four. Great!
But common sense prevailed. And as we drove along the coast of California, we spotted zebras and elephant seals right off of Highway 1. They were as if across the street from each other. Zebras were grazing on the east side of the highway, some of the last remnants of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s menagerie of exotic animals. The elephant seals in Piedras Blancas were slumped like slimy rocks on the beach just opposite, producing low, reverberating honking sounds and desperately flapping themselves with sand to stay cool. Male elephant seals are enormous; they grow and grow their whole lives, a span of about 14 years, at which point they simply cannot eat enough any longer to sustain their five thousand-pound mass. After giving birth to a lifetime’s worth of pups, female elephant seals swim down to Mexico to join something like an elephant seal retirement community. The elderly creatures hang out in Piedras Blancas, before they go their separate ways, migrating solo — the males to Alaska, the females down to Mexico.
In their own way, they end up skating a million miles.
California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.