That trip takes on a dream-like quality, each memory like a sepia-tinted polaroid taken on a sunny day under impenetrable blue skies. We were flaneurs who took the city by foot. We strolled, sauntered, slowed to sip coffee and smile for photos. We walked the Golden Gate Bridge like it was our catwalk. Palm tree-studded streets rose up to meet us like ushers at the cinema – they offered visions of everything we’d somehow seen before, distinctly familiar and yet rapturously different. Grand houses, which came in every shade imaginable, stood tall in rows of delectable candy, willing us to take our pick and indulge.
The breakfast place on the corner became our ‘local’ – we found ways to make ourselves at home, 5,000 miles from home. Sam would leave us in hysterics, snorting into our eggs and bacon. That sort of deep belly laughter that becomes rarer and more special as we get older. He’d never understand what was funny, of course. He’d sigh exasperatedly, as if he’d had a particular trying day running after his two toddlers and return to mapping out the itinerary for the day. Hunched over his iPhone, he had the air of someone planning a military operation. He made it his mission to ensure no stone in San Francisco would go unturned before we began the next leg of our journey. Sometimes, we’d have to remind him we were on holiday, and that it was fine, too, to sit and watch the world go by. Even if that turned out to be an unnatural number of health-conscious, Californian joggers. Or a group of rollerskating OAPs on the promenade. Or schoolkids making Tik Toks in Dolores Park.
We soon had to say a reluctant goodbye to the city, a place we now felt we knew intimately, though in reality, we had only scratched its picture-perfect surface. We stepped into our hire car, an obnoxiously giant scrum of metal, and snuffed out the habitual clangs of sunflower yellow cable cars and perpetual morning fog like a candle. We swapped city scenes for long stretches of drives through towns that contrasted sharply, in that they were devoid of life. Here, we caught a glimpse of the real America. Dry, dusty places where Dennies and the gas station were the center of it all. Music made the long stretches on the road bearable. We’d take turns as DJ, each of us hoping to do outdo the last with the most toe-tapping, nostalgia-inducing, long forgotten classic we could. As we approached the coast, our surroundings began to change but the music began to be recycled into a soundtrack that was all our own. Rugged coastline, sharp and unfinished like it had been drawn by a giant, loomed into view. Ahead of us lay an endless stretch of road.
We snaked between crevasses and boulders that framed the ocean like mismatched curtains. Thoughtfully, I sipped a Coca Cola and breathed in the view as we drove onwards, everything before that moment having become a distant memory. There was a moment of calm and quiet as the song changed; the sun had reached its zenith in the sky. It was picture perfect. It was a freeze frame from a movie I saw once on a date. We were the spectators in the darkened cinema, enthralled and unable to put the popcorn down. The lyrics of an obscure 90s pop song – one we’d rediscovered in hour one of our road trip – trilled through the speakers as golden hour took hold of this polaroid and shook it, hard. ‘It’s a little Souvenir, of a terrible year…’. It was one of those songs – the type you know but have no clue who sung it, why or when. It slowly crept into our soundtrack: a carefully curated symphony of San Francisco that means a lot to six people in this world, but not a lot to anyone else.
We got hungry and stopped at an out of the way cafe nestled in the side of the rock and hidden by trees. Laden with sandwiches, we walked a short while to find the perfect spot. We clambered onto a ledge overlooking a furious waterfall. White foam exploded onto the turquoise canvas below, as if someone had stepped bare foot onto a tube of white paint. We didn’t really speak, we just ate and silently watched the picture being painted. A man in his sixties, vintage film camera draped around
his neck, joined us. He let out a low whistle as he breathed in the view. We, it turned out, were part of that view; he discreetly raised his camera to his eye and with an inaudible click, pressed pause. Perhaps we should have been perturbed. But we weren’t. That moment was now memory. It would find itself lost in a box of undeveloped film, nestled in a cobweb-festooned trunk, forgotten about in a great-granddaughter’s attic and uncovered by someone, somewhere searching for the camping gear they’d sworn they’d seen up there once.
Solemn and sunburnt, Sam and I found ourselves dejectedly carrying suitcases through San Francisco Airport, one behind the other: a funeral procession. We were trying to spend our final few dollars, the little tokens that had granted us entry to this epic motion picture. We settled for a slice of pizza, barely speaking as each of us got lost in our own thoughts, the continuous hum of the aircon wrapping itself round us. The tinkle of the airport radio fused with the excited chatter of people who were about to be somewhere new and the subdued silence of those who were about to be somewhere all-too familiar. Chewing thoughtfully, our ears became accustomed to the individual sounds of life that rung around us. We looked at each other in disbelief. The very obscure 90s pop song that had so dictated the energy of the trip was now crackling through the airport speakers. It was a firm reminder, a message from the person, entity or energy who does it all, that this was where they story would end – and that would be our little souvenir.
RMC is a London-based writer and book-lover. Current projects include a memoir, a collection of monologues, short stories and a series of travelogues. Follow her on Instagram @rmcwords.
photo credits: RMC