Voices from the Road

Hello LA: Leaving family and friends behind to start life in a new city

My luggage, hiking backpack, storage bin, fitness gear, 42-inch TV, and bicycle filled most of the 52.7 cubic feet of cargo space I had in my Honda Fit. That’s everything I was taking with me after 18 years of living in the Pacific Northwest. My books, movies, and winter clothes were waiting for me at my new home in sunny California. I had an 18-hour-and-4-minute drive ahead of me, leaving from north Seattle.

Before leaving Washington State, I decided to make a video saying goodbye to everyone on Instagram and Facebook. Since I was moving during the middle of a pandemic, I knew I would not be able to say goodbye to my friends in person, so this would have to do.

Phone a friend

As I headed southbound on Interstate 5, I was able to see a timeline of my whole life here in Washington: The drunken nights walking with my roommate from the University of Washington to our home in Lake City. Trying to decide between Queen Anne or Gasworks to view the Fourth of July fireworks show. The countless times I have stopped to admire the beauty of the Space Needle. 

Forty-five minutes south of Seattle is Tacoma, the city I spent my early 20s in. I saw the Denny’s off exit 125 that my friends and I would go to after a night of drinking on Sixth Ave. South of Denny’s, I eventually hit the military base that brought me to Washington state, Fort Lewis, now named Joint Base Lewis-McChord. 

The whole ride leaving Washington state was like a timestamped montage of my time in the Pacific Northwest. My present to my past, all visible along a single stretch of highway. Tying it all together was the constant presence of Mount Rainier to the east which I’d also, eventually, leave behind. 

Going through these memories brought tears to my eyes. Saying goodbye to the scenery, the hikes, the bars, the professional connections, my barber, my friends, my nephew; saying goodbye to my life. 

My heart was racing. 

I remember thinking to myself: This is it. If I go further south, I won’t have access to this life. The anxiety and worry set in. I turned on my hazard lights and pulled off to the side of the road. Cars zoomed past me. Not exactly calm, but it gave me the quiet I needed to relax. From the shoulder, I could see the raised sign of a Chinese restaurant, Wok Inn Wok Out: the very first place my family ate at when we moved to Washington, and a guilty pleasure worth driving down from Seattle for (close friends would argue otherwise).

I couldn’t stop crying. 

“I can’t do this,” I thought to myself as I rested my forehead on my steering wheel.

My phone started to ring. It was my friend B. I composed myself. 


“Are you okay?”

I tried to stifle my panic. 

I expressed my concerns about leaving: The fear of losing my friends and missing out on their lives. The uncertainty that LA would actually deliver what I needed. The feeling that I was making a mistake. That I didn’t want to go, but that I knew I had to go. 

“Yeah, I can see why you would be scared.” 

B told me about the changes in her life. 

She had received a fantastic opportunity for her optometry program. The internship would send her to four states in the U.S to study under the tutelage of renowned people in her field. She was scared about it all since she had never lived far from her family. 

“It sounds like we both need a night out.”

“Why don’t you crash on the couch here,” she said. “You probably shouldn’t be driving in such an emotional state anyway. We can go out to eat and have a few drinks. ” 

“That does sound nice. We can celebrate you getting into the program,” I replied.

“And we can celebrate you starting a new chapter in your life.” 

I started up the car and headed to Portland. 

The last night in Portland

This is the little that I know about B: She is the oldest in her family and the first to attend college. High marks in her classes and dreams that she shapes into realistic goals. A person going places in life.

In all seriousness, this is the type of woman you bring home to mom and say, “I hope I don’t mess this up.” 

When I got to her place, I parked my car in the driveway and we headed downtown. 

We drank at Fuse Bar, had a mini photoshoot in the brick alleys of Old Town, and shared one of those electric scooters that litter the sidewalks. 

As we navigated the city, I realized that this was the first time in a while that I had spent with someone outside my COVID-19 pod. This was the closest thing to an average weekend outing I had had since the start of the pandemic.

We rode around Old Town and eventually hit the waterfront park trail—another emblem of my time in the Pacific Northwest. I recalled the various Portland weekend trips with exes, birthday events with friends, and spontaneous book trips to Powell’s Bookstore. Here I was, on what may possibly be the last weekend I spent in Portland, creating new memories with a woman I barely knew.

We made our way to the food trucks on Fifth Avenue and ordered shawarma fries and gyros to go. 

By the time we got to her home, it was almost 2 a.m. Her street was pitch black, save for one noticeable light source that anyone could spot from afar. I soon realized that the light source came from my car. 

As I rushed back to my vehicle, I thought about how long the cabin lights had been on. I wondered whether I had carelessly done this, or whether someone had broken in and taken my belongings without at least doing me the courtesy of turning off the lights. 

No sign of breaking in: I had done this to myself. I decided to test the battery, but it would not turn on.  

B informed me that she had jumper cables that we could test out in the morning. 

“Don’t let it ruin the night; we’ve got so much food to eat. There’s also ice cream in the fridge.”

The night was filled with food, laughter, and excellent conversation. 

We talked about the things we were looking forward to. What we learned during the pandemic and things we missed. The possible opportunities that LA could open up for me. The states she was most looking forward to visiting. 

I forgot that I was in tears at the side of the road just a few hours ago. I thanked her for the night, and she headed upstairs while I crashed on the couch. 

In the morning, B taught me how to use jumper cables to jump-start my car. The car started, but I was concerned about the long term prospects. It’s a lengthy drive, and I would rather not have this happen again. 

B gave me the jumper cables as a parting gift, along with some leftovers from the previous night. We wished each other luck and said our goodbyes. 

“Let me know when the program sends you to New Orleans; I’ve always wanted to go,” I told her.

Her face lit up. “I believe that will be in August. It’s nice knowing I won’t be alone exploring the city.” 

We hugged, and that was it.

Time for reflection

I made my way to the automobile shop to test my battery. The shop was also not too far from the freeway. When I arrived, I was relieved to see the shop was not busy. I explained to the mechanic what had happened, and he tested the battery. It needed to be replaced, and so it was. 

Leaving the shop with a brand new battery (in perhaps more ways than one), I took one final look at the I-5 North sign from the parking lot. The temptation to head toward Seattle returned in force. 

But it was different this time. It was like wanting to eat out, but knowing that you have food at home. 

I got back in my car. Closed my eyes. Inhaled a deep breath, then exhaled. Opened my eyes and adjusted my rearview mirror to see the I-5 North sign again.

“Goodbye, Pacific Northwest. And thank you.”

I got back on the freeway and headed south. Unfortunately, I was not able to head southbound via Route 101. Fires from the Redwoods had forced the closure of that road. I could see the smoke moving north as I drove. I took it in stride, figuring that I’d have plenty of time to get coastal views while living in LA. 

Shortly thereafter, my mother called to check in on me. 

She told me that my goodbye video had made her cry and caused her to reflect on her life. 

For the first time, she felt like she could live her life. She is in her 50s now. The opportunity to be an adult, exploring the world and herself, were stripped from her when she had my older brother at 16. 

Now that we are all out of the house, she felt like she could start her own journey, not as a parent but as a woman. She told me that she had joined a hiking group, started dating someone, and had ventured out to bars for sporting events.

I found it funny that her new life seemed to mirror the life I was living in Washington State. 

I joked, “You are living my Washington life: Hikes, bars, and good company. All you need now is to start smoking weed.”

I was happy for my mother’s newfound freedom and a sense of purpose. 

“I have to get back to work, Mijo. Let me know when you get to your Tia’s. I love you, and God bless,” she told me.

No more detours

When nightfall hit, I decided to find a rest stop along the way. Shasta-Trinity National Forest seemed like a better spot than any other to catch some sleep. My blankets were on top of my belongings, hiding all of my possessions from curious eyes looking into my car. It also made accessing them effortless. For a small car, my Honda Fit was unusually roomy. Being 5-foot-10, I was able to spread my legs out to the passenger seat and get into a comfortable position for dozing off.

By the time I woke up, the sun was just rising. I was happy that I decided to sleep near a national forest, since I doubted I’d have access to greenery in LA. I got a change of clothes from my luggage and brushed my teeth in the rest stop bathroom. I set my blanket back where it had been the evening before to conceal my stuff, and then made my way to San Francisco. There, I was scheduled to meet up with Jesse, a friend of my aunt’s, at 11.

Jesse owned a copywriting agency, and from time to time, he would send me writing gigs. He had even let me proofread a manuscript he was writing. To this day, I owe him a great amount of gratitude for helping me get into writing.

The smoke from the California fires engulfed San Francisco. This thick layer of smoke prevented me from seeing the top of the Golden Gate Bridge as I was driving on it. 

I met Jesse for lunch at Riggolo Café on California Street. There was a moderately desperate sign written in chalk that read: “Yes, we are open. Please come and order.” I’m confident that, at any other time, this café would probably get tons of traffic. Due to COVID-19, however, the café was barren. All the indoor chairs and tables were stacked on the back half of the café. One could easily think that the shop was closing. The only walking space was near the cashier. Even the outdoor seating did not provide much room for walking, and could only seat a maximum of six people.

Jesse and I ordered our food and headed outside.

“You are in my city, so this is on me,” he said. “It’s nice to see you out of a screen; how are you feeling?”

“Thanks, I should have ordered something more expensive,” I teased. “You know, if you had asked me that question yesterday, I would tell you that my feelings were everywhere. Today, I feel optimistic. I feel good. Like I can take on the world.” 

“That’s good. LA, huh? That’s where I started my writing career. Writing taglines for films. The city is too big for me.”

“I figure it’s time to be close to family. I’ve been gone for over 15 years.”

“What are you going to do for work?”

“Not sure; I’m still receiving unemployment, so I’ll be good for a while. I think being in the heart of the entertainment industry will help steer me in the right direction.”

“Well, if I ever get any extra writing gigs I’ll make sure to send them your way.”

“That would be great.” 

The waiter brought our food: a fish burger with vegetables and a bacon cheeseburger with fries.

We talked about the protests in San Francisco and Seattle, the government’s handling of the pandemic, and the impact of the restrictions on his business. He told me about his family, showing me some drawings from his talented daughter. 

Then I walked back to my car, turned on the ignition, and headed back to the road. One final time—no more detours. All I had was a 5-hour drive home.

Hello to LA

The drive from San Francisco to LA via I-5 is pretty boring. It’s just agriculture: wheatfields, cornfields, and livestock (cows mainly). My mind started to wonder how the lives of the people out here look. What do they do for fun? How much do they work on a day-to-day basis? How often do they go grocery shopping? I started to create little scenarios in my mind to answer these questions as I drove past what seemed like an endless stretch of farms. 

Eventually, the palm trees started appearing at the periphery, a clear sign that I was nearing LA. The California hills started showing up too, ushering in my entry to Hasley Canyon. This was the final stretch. 

As I navigated the canyons, my phone rang.

“Hi, uncle, how are you?” It was my best friend and her 3-year-old son, my nephew, who I had bid farewell to when I left Seattle. “He wanted to call to check-in. He was bugging me: ‘Mama, call Uncle. Call Uncle.’”

“To be honest, I’m feeling hopeful and excited.”

“You should feel horrible for leaving your nephew and me behind,” she said in a dramatic but playful tone. “How far are you from your new home?”

“According to Google Maps, I’m 40 minutes out from my aunt’s house. I might lose signal with y’all since I’m going through the canyons.” 

“No problem, just call us when you get home safely. We miss and love you. And if you ever decide to do a U-turn, you can always come stay with us.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Love and miss you two. Bye!” 

Bye to my best friend and nephew. Bye to B, and even Jesse for now. Bye to Seattle—but hello to LA.

Louie’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Louie Martinez