1:00 a.m. When I awake there is no telling where I am. The last thing I remember is the sight of Manhattan’s white lights disappearing into the distance, then there was darkness. Fields, mountains, desert, sea — at this time of night they all look the same from the window seat. Gazing out at nothing but my own reflection, I am reoriented by a set of dotted headlights winding along an invisible road several thousand feet below me. The highway forks and splits again. Soon the route has multiplied into an elaborate network of light, a gasoline-fueled bloodstream whose main arteries all connect back to a pulsating heart: Los Angeles. Within seconds my view becomes a glowing expanse of electric orange that twinkles and stretches to the coastline, before slipping under the inky cloak of the Pacific. The 737 glides out over the ocean for what seems like a long time, then at last swings into a U-turn and touches down at LAX.
2:00 a.m. The flurry of passengers disperses from the carousel until only a handful remains. I have two hours to kill until my bus leaves, so I wander outside. It’s warmer than where I’ve come from but there’s a chill in the air. The soft rustle of swaying palm trees lining the road is interrupted every two minutes by a stern voice that reiterates the complex regulations of the arrivals area: “No parking, no waiting.” The voice follows me as I stroll back and forth between Terminals 1 through 4, wheeling my half-empty case behind me. Disappointingly I return to my starting point sooner than expected, so I repeat the journey, only this time at an even slower pace. On the second lap I locate a vending machine tucked away inside an alcove. I drop in seven quarters and the machine dispenses a packet of cookies so brittle they barely survive the fall. I perch outside on what passes for a bench and start snacking on tiny pieces of broken biscuit. At the other end a girl removes a ukulele from her luggage and begins to play, singing gently to herself.
4:00 a.m. I can barely make sense of the schedule, so the bus that shows up on time may or may not be there to take me to Union Station. I climb aboard anyway. In the front row two women natter to each other in Spanish; I sit one row behind them on the other side of the aisle. All the other seats remain empty. We leave the refuge of the airport behind as the bus makes its way tentatively through an apparently deserted city. Beneath the elevated road are side streets of two-storey buildings, drooping phone lines, the occasional parked sedan and not a pedestrian in sight. Moments later the bus is barreling steadily up Interstate 110 towards downtown L.A.’s small cluster of skyscrapers, already visible between the slender fan palms silhouetted by a pink and purple sky.
4:30 a.m. The bus drops me off in front of Union Station, which looks like an abandoned luxury gambling resort. I feel like the only person in California who isn’t at home in bed, until I reach the end of a long concourse where I’m approached by several men who haven’t been to bed in weeks, maybe years. I take refuge in a small convenience store where I ask the teenager behind the counter the best way to get to the Greyhound station, but the teenager behind the counter has no idea. The old part of the station is like a vast art deco cathedral, only not as welcoming. Dozens of large wooden armchairs — cordoned-off from non-ticketholders — sit empty, so I’m forced to stroll up and down the dark central aisle alongside the vagabonds and the homeless. A Hispanic man with kind eyes and a heavy blanket over one shoulder politely asks me if I can direct him to the Placita church. He says he’s not from around here, to which I apologize and tell him that unfortunately neither am I. Over near the Christmas tree a Desert Storm veteran asks me where I’m from. When I tell him he gives me a fist bump and wishes me a Merry Christmas.
5:00 a.m. I’d heard that the Greyhound station was even less desirable than the train station, but after an hour spent wandering in circles I decide to take my chances. I convince an idling taxi driver to take me; he agrees on the condition that once we get there I’m to go straight inside. We arrive five minutes later and I make a beeline for the front door without looking up. To my relief the waiting room is well-lit and packed: men, women, children, all in the same boat — soon to be bus — as me. I nibble on some more cookie scraps and wait on a bench made out of metal wire, which is precisely as comfortable as it sounds.
6:00 a.m. It’s still dark as the bus pulls out, but the glimpses I’m offered of the city at dawn are as fascinating as they are fleeting. Fatigue soon sets in, but I’m jolted awake when the bus makes brief stops in North Hollywood and San Fernando, by which time the day is beginning to break.
7:00 a.m. When I awake again the early morning sunshine has completed its morning ascent, and casts a long shadow of the speeding Greyhound across the desert floor. L.A.’s urban sprawl is long behind us, and my view is a barren landscape of crumbling brown rock under a deep blue sky.
9:00 a.m. Though its Spanish style houses and two-story Art Deco grandeur has clearly seen better days, downtown Bakersfield’s faded pastels look beautiful in a run-down, dusty sort of way. One can easily imagine a time not too long ago when dust was all there was around here. We pass the Fox Theater — a local landmark — and pull in at the Package Express. My brother-in-law picks me up in his Toyota. I’m told that spectacular mountains surround Bakersfield. Unfortunately the thick smog that pervades the city has rendered them all but invisible. Still, it’s nice to know they’re there.
We pull off the highway and continue down a long road, before eventually turning right. What follows is a swirling maze of streets lined with seemingly identical houses. Presumably the people inside them are all different. Each home appears to have been painted with the same array of colors, ranging from vanilla to parcel paper and comprising all fifty shades of beige that exist in between. This suburban splendor is disrupted by the addition of seasonal accoutrements carefully positioned in every front yard, and the site of a plastic red-nosed reindeer and a Peanuts nativity scene suddenly reminds me its Christmastime.
9:30 a.m. The car pulls up outside a house whose exterior is bereft of holiday ornamentation — perhaps so the owners can locate it more easily. The theme continues inside, where I’m welcomed and offered breakfast. Sleepy but for some reason still awake, I take my coffee outside. The air is cool and still. I can begin to make out the outline of the mountain range through the haze. An inviting slither of lawn becomes exposed, and I lie and wait for the sun’s distant warmth to reach me.