How six days with no plans prepared me for a lifetime of spontaneous travel and strange encounters

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by Savannah Hoover
Managing Editor

Idleness has never been my strong suit.

Perhaps that’s why I list six states when people ask where I’m from. Perhaps that’s why I love to drive. Perhaps that’s also why I spontaneously decided to spend Spring Break drifting through Southern California with no plans whatsoever.

Here’s what I knew before the trip: It was Thursday. My roommate Kat would travel with me, and the only ride available would be leaving in two hours.

With a glance we agreed, packed our backpacks and hopped in a car to San Francisco.

Our first night was at my friend Ducky’s house, comfortable and warm. We played Scrabble and went to bed with dogs at our feet. Fresh ground coffee was brewed when we woke up. Before heading south, we walked across the hillside discussing the adventure ahead. The next leg of our journey would take us to a bed in San Luis Obispo, but where our heads would fall each night afterward was a mystery. Our laughter was electrified with anticipation.

My eager questions squeezed into conversation with Ducky on the way down the coast. One of my first inquiries was if his friends with would think we were strange. Though I’m a fan of our style, Kat and I can come across as grungy, gypsy-like girls with somewhat offbeat humor and holes in our shoes. Only a moment’s hesitation made me question his honesty when he said, “Nah… You guys are fine.”

San Luis Obispo

We arrived in San Luis Obispo around 8 p.m. Friday to the typical collegiate apartment. A few people were home, but they were tucked into bed with the TV tuned. I traced rings from cups previously stuck to the table while I absorbed the awkward vibes inherent in situations like this. Four people who barely share one mutual friend are gathered in a kitchen with nothing to talk about. Within 10 minutes, Kat was booking our train tickets for the next day.

Saturday morning meant strapping on our backpacks and bounding for the beach before our train that afternoon. For any local, Pismo Beach was unsuitable for visiting—clouds crossed the sky and a chill breeze blew off the ocean—but after a disappointing winter, nothing looked better to Tahoe kids. Despite forgetting a towel and blanket, I dove in and soaked up the sea.

Now headed south, we got in touch with Andrew and Tista, a couple friends who were in Los Angeles for the break. “Fortune favors the bold,” Tista informed us, so that is precisely how we continued.

Before boarding the train to Santa Barbara, a woman approached us, offering us jobs and a place to stay. Her face was lined with concern for two traveling girls, but I couldn’t let her fret. I informed her that we were just enjoying time off from classes and would return to school the following week. I thanked her for the opportunity, and her face eased into a smile. This motherly stranger was relieved we weren’t in trouble, or running from it.

The two-hour train ride showed us the best of SoCal: cliff-covered coastline, happy cows on the hills and a sunset to color every inch of the sea and country. The viewing car had large windows so you couldn’t miss a thing. I sipped coffee, wrote and doodled while my reflection did the same.

Santa Barbara

We stepped off the train to fading remnants of daylight and street lamps illuminating the dense ocean air. We didn’t have a place to stay, so we wandered. Each passerby knew more about Santa Barbara than we did, but the first person we approached was Omar. He was a thinner man, white-haired and mustached, wearing a fleece jacket and name-brand khakis. He crossed our path after popping out of a boatyard’s shrubbery. Kat asked the sprightly gentleman where we could find a cheap piece of pizza and with that inquiry, we were whisked into an evening of fine dining and even finer conversation.

Our traveling spirits sparked stories from his long-haired days of youth, and he told us about his early journeys through Turkey and the U.S. We scrutinized modern politics and psychology over plates of swordfish, squid and octopus. Fire towers were littered around the Greek restaurant’s quiet tables and one warmed our talk quite nicely.

While eating, I got a response about a place to stay through my Couchsurfing account. The house was ready whenever we wanted. Though Omar had offered us an open house by this time, we were relieved to have our first option come through. You can’t expect much as a guest who only needs a place to sleep for a night, but even the front door surprised me. Upon our knock, our host opened the heavy glass to a gorgeous, airy floor plan with high ceilings and a spectacular view—another warm and wonderful home. Kyle’s wisdom teeth were recently removed, but he still talked with us late into the evening despite the ice bag on his jaw.

I couldn’t help but smile until I fell asleep. I was fascinated by the people we were meeting by chance and what we had in common with our new friends. We gave up on plans, released our fate to the wind and found ourselves in the middle of a grand adventure. Something buzzed beneath my skin, some great joy that sang me to sleep over Santa Barbara that night.

Sunday morning started late, but my eyes were wide with the possibilities for the day. Where to next? I wondered.

As if to read my mind, Kat slid into the room with a crooked smile.

“So there’s this lady Kiki that I found on Ride Share, and we can catch a ride down to L.A. with her if we drive her car.” I read Kat’s face, thought about it and accepted the task in a second. Why the hell not.

Our sleeping bags protruded off our backpacks as we said goodbye to Kyle. We met Omar at the Daily Grind Coffeehouse, and talked over coffees until Kiki arrived, and it was time to leave Santa Barbara.

Tossing our packs into a Pontiac, we introduced ourselves. Kiki was dressed in a breezy top, jeans and sneakers. Her large sunglasses and friendly smile complemented her short bob and bangs. Meeting her made me wonder who was crazier—the woman who asks complete strangers to chauffeur her to the city or the women who accept such a job.

As the drive revealed, none of us were crazy at all. We were simply kindred spirits with no intentions of wasting a single chance to experience something new.

As we came up to a large dune cascading down to the road, Kiki told us she had always wanted to climb it. After dozens of missed opportunities over the years, she decided that this day was the perfect chance. I parked the car, kicked my shoes off and shot up the side of the hill.

Between the endless view of the ocean and my bounding heart, I knew I was alive there. The warm sun kissed me and my companions, and I knew they were alive, too. Nothing feels quite as good as doing exactly what makes you happy, never mind the risk of looking marginally insane. Our energy sent us flying down the sand, laughing.

Our time with Kiki ended far too soon when we pulled into Santa Monica, but we knew we’d stay in touch. We hugged and thanked her goodbye and tromped onto the beach. Social networking at its finest.

Santa Monica

With each new destination, our sleeping arrangements became more and more precarious. The only hostel in town was full and the friends we’d be meeting didn’t have much space to offer. However, fortune favors the bold, so we carried on.

As my caffeine addiction requires, we stopped to grab coffee within a couple hours of arrival. The baristo perked up to our unexpected kindness and rough appearance, and he asked us our story. We gave him a quick summary, and he was charmed into wanting to get to know us. Though he had to return to work, he wanted to hang out afterward, so we gave him our numbers and continued our carefree journey.

Awhile later, we met Andrew and Tista at the beach. In a sense, they were the reason we found our way to Santa Monica, but now seeing them was a part of something much bigger. Each moment of this journey had been a series of instantaneous actions in the hopes of happiness. We were far from disappointed at the results so far, if not purely ecstatic. The boys shared our excitement and wished us luck when we parted ways after dark. We headed back to the lively streets.

We were moving so quickly through people and places, I began to wonder what others thought of us. Two kids opening to whatever fate had in mind for them, refusing to slow down due to uncertainty. We were outside our comfort zones and shaking up everyone else’s. Our presence could’ve easily been overwhelming. How do rocks view the rushing river?

Before even finding a bench to sit on, Jake from the coffee shop called and we met him in front of a hotel. If he turned out to be an entirely strange stranger, we knew we could always come back and grab a room. We were all aware of how odd it was for us to be in that situation, but we hit it off and walked to his apartment. I made sure to tell Andrew and Tista of our whereabouts, just in case, but the worry proved unwarranted. He was simply a hospitable guy acknowledging the opportunity to meet new people, not unlike us. After several hours of chatting and playing music, he and his roommates offered their couches to us for the night.

We woke up Monday morning with the urge to make a big, delicious breakfast for, well, our new family. We ate egg, veggie and cheese burritos topped with pineapple salsa on the porch, looking out across Santa Monica rooftops. The only task for the afternoon was to secure a ride home the next day, and once I confirmed it, we took a cruise on a couple loaned bikes with Jake. We watched Cirque de Soleil performers practice on the boardwalk, tried some tricks ourselves, took a dip in the ocean and retired in the sand. Not much was accomplished, but relaxing in the sun was a well-deserved luxury.

We stayed in Santa Monica another night and met an even wilder assortment of characters. My personal favorite was Neighbor Frank. Frank’s day began at 8 a.m. with rockin’ music blaring from every opening in his home. This meant our day also began at 8 a.m., but I wasn’t bothered. With his happy demeanor, he could be excused from almost any social misstep. He also produced his own films and made his own ice cream, furthering my tolerance of whatever he did.

Our friend Pete was on his way down from Big Bear to pick us up when we realized how fast our trip had gone. Saying goodbye to Jake and his friends was doubly difficult because we’d spent so much time with them and because our adventure through the unknown was coming to an end. We made one last feast before packing up Pete’s Jeep and heading home.

Kat and I were still exhilarated about what we’d done, but we couldn’t quite fathom it yet. Never again would we have that exact adventure or even be able to retell it in its entirety, but it happened and it was beyond our expectations.

We were unsatisfied with the comforts of staying still for our Spring Break, so we took an opportunity to suck the marrow out of life. Each moment was an explosion for our senses; every step a new path for our memories.

Here’s what I knew after the trip: Exhilarating experiences don’t usually happen in familiar places, so travel often. Never underestimate other people’s potential, for good or bad. Always give street musicians some pocket change. And, in any adventure, go forth boldly. The world will react accordingly.

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