The past 11 years have flown by like a drug-laden Hunter S. Thompson road trip with vague memories of diapers, Similac, sock hops, homework and never-ending gymnastics meets. God, why do those things last so long? So, I’m excited for time to slow down and the journey to begin as we careen down E-470 toward Denver International Airport. Ella, the little chatterbox in the back seat, is excited too and as we near the airport she blurts out, “I can’t wait to ride on an escalator!” This causes my heart to melt as I simultaneously explode into laughter. You have to love the innocence and wonderment of children. They constantly live in the present moment. Ella isn’t thinking about the beach or the San Diego Zoo, she’s excited about navigating the airport and walking backwards on the escalator. We park our car, make our way through a maze of escalators, board our flight, and eventually reach a comfortable cruising altitude. After a few games of tic tac toe and checkers we begin to descend when Ella says, “Why are we going down?” I state simply, “We must be in California and we’re starting to descend.” Ella turns to me with wide eyes and exclaims, “We’re going to California?” I burst into another bout of laughter as I realize my child chose San Diego without realizing which state it lies within.
We check into our hotel and ditch our belongings, jump into our swimsuits and head straight to Pacific Beach. We wedge our rental car into a public parking spot seemingly half the size of the the vehicle itself and make our way to a crosswalk on Mission Boulevard. Ella pushes the button as we peer across the traffic at a set of blinking lights with no walking man icon, or any indication of what is expected of the pedestrian. Ella and I look blankly at one another as cars slow down to decipher if this duo of moronic tourists are actually going to step off of the sidewalk. When the motorists realize we haven’t come to that logical conclusion they speed on down the boulevard. This is the exact moment we realize that when you push the button you can immediately make your way across the intersection. We both laugh at our embarrassing ignorance as we hit the button again and venture across the street. Moments like these are exactly what I was hoping for. Simple differences in how you navigate a city force travelers, and my daughter, out of their comfort zone, and in the process make a simple but lasting memory that neither of us will soon forget.
We finally arrive at the Pacific Ocean and Ella can barely contain herself. Her gymnastics instincts spring into action as she twirls and cartwheels down the beach. It’s a Sunday and the beach is packed. I’m excited to see beach goers of all ethnicities and hear multiple languages being spoken. Our white bread home of Fort Collins, Colorado, is severely lacking in diversity and this is some of the immersion I was hoping for. I’m sure Ella is more shocked by the copious amounts of borderline public nudity on proud display than the cultural diversity, but what can you do? You win some, you lose some.
The sun is starting to set and we are both in need of some food that isn’t either a Lara Bar or airplane pretzels. We make our way over to La Perla for what we heard are some of the best tacos in Pacific Beach. The chill little Mexican joint is definitely my kind of place, mellow and laid back with comfortable outdoor seating to watch the world go by. I order grilled fish tacos which arrive on warm corn tortillas and a healthy serving of avocado. La Perla’s homemade salsa added the perfect punch to the thick, well-garnished tacos. With pleasantly full stomachs and sand in our flip flops we head back to the hotel after a phenomenal first day in San Diego, which as Ella just found out, is in California.
The following morning we wake up early and down some fresh fruit and yogurt before heading to the San Diego Zoo. This attraction alone may have solidified Ella’s decision to visit San Diego as she narrowed down her list of cities. Located in Balboa Park, just east of downtown, the San Diego Zoo is consistently rated one of the top zoos in the world and is home to 660 species and more than 3700 rare and endangered animals. I’m not normally a huge fan of zoos but the San Diego Zoo’s 100 acre campus, along with its well-designed habitats are beyond impressive. While I’ll always prefer to see animals in their natural environment Ella and I walk over four miles completely entranced by the variety of species including animals like the Okapi. This unique half horse, half zebra with its large ears turns out to be more giraffe than anything else and at just an arms length away we gaze in complete fascination before reluctantly moving on to the next habitat.
From panda bears to elephants to snow leopards, the diversity of the zoo’s inhabitants is truly impressive but there is one animal Ella and I can’t keep our eyes off of. Located in ear-shot from the zoo’s entrance is a boisterous habitat surrounded by people awash in pink as they laugh at the unique movements and social interactions of a flamboyance of flamingos. The fact that a flock of flamingos is also called a flamboyance is, well, awesome, and fits perfectly. We watch in amazement as these unexpectedly vocal birds with their backwards knees and upside-down beaks stand on one leg and contort their necks in unbelievable positions preening their feathers and generally pestering their nearest neighbor. In between smiles, and laughter bordering on the inappropriate, we learn that the saturated pink color of the flamingo comes from the beta-carotene, or carotenoids, contained in the plankton they consume. After seeing and learning more than we can ever hope to retain, we end the day as we started it, watching these seemingly one-legged contortionists dance, squawk and pester the collective flamboyance. Ella and I exit the zoo smiling, hand-in-hand.
The next day we sleep in and crawl out of bed slowly before opening the blinds to find a sunless sky which is not ideal for the surprise surf lesson that I had reserved for both of us. The 68 degree air temperature and the 60 degree water temperature didn’t deter Ella however as she was psyched to start paddling. We drive to Pacific Beach and check in at Pacific Surf on Mission Boulevard and with our rash guards in hand we meander over to the beach, me with a warm cup of coffee, and Ella doing cartwheels as we approach the sand. Our instructor is Allison Dantas, a chiseled 22-year-old Brazillian from Sao Paulo with an intoxicating accent more reminiscent of a French ménage à trois aficionado than a dirtbag surfer trying to make ends meet. I’m thankful Ella isn’t a few years older or that my girlfriend is here or I would request a guide change, someone more along the lines of a washed-up 60 year-old Nebraskan with a beer gut and a ponytail.
I haven’t surfed in more than 20 years and when I did, I was piss-poor at best. This is the first time Ella has ever touched a surfboard but as a skier and a gymnast I thought she’d pick it up pretty quickly. Allison does a phenomenal job getting us acquainted with our boards on the sand with simple but effective guidance on how to get up and stay on a wave. After this brief introduction, and outfitted head to toe in neoprene, we jump into the chilly water. I tell Allison I’m fine floundering my way through the waves if he will give Ella his full attention. I watch anxiously as Allison gets Ella lined up for her first wave. As the first massive wall of whitewater(not really, but as a proud father I have to embellish a little bit) approaches, Ella starts to paddle vigorously as Allison gives her board a substantial push. Before I know it she has popped up and the little shit rides her first wave all the way to the sand. Ella has always been a solid athlete but even I wasn’t expecting that. I hoop and holler as she matter of factly turns her board around and paddles back out to Allison who, standing chest high in the surf, smiles in amazement.
The plan was to spend the rest of the day at the beach but due to the inclement weather and the fact that only Ella, me, and three other beach goers, all under the age of 12, are going anywhere near the water, we decide to switch up our itinerary and we head toward Torrey Pines Nature Reserve. We park the car at the top of the reserve and venture off towards Razor Point to view the unique cliff erosion and a spectacular view of the coastline looking north. The weather has changed quickly from the morning chill to a bright, unrelenting California sun. Luckily we remembered water so we continue on down to the beach. As we drop onto the sand and head south down the coast it’s easy to visualize what California must have looked like to Native American tribes like the Chumash and the Diegueño and the first Spanish explorers who arrived here in the 1500s.
We hike up and through a unique path carved into the cliff barely wide enough for an average-sized human. From atop this sandstone point there are impressive views to the north and down south toward San Diego. Ella saunters down to the beach and scrambles out on a large rock with waves crashing all around. She immediately goes into a unique gymnastics handstand which was the perfect piece of performance art to match the beauty of the surrounding seashore. I sit back against the cliff face and let the cool Pacific breeze dry the sweat I earned from the hike down to the water. I revel in watching my daughter dart among the waves and pick through the shells looking for colorful souvenirs. Once we get our fill of the iridescent blue sky, the thundering waves and the unique desert coastline we begin our hike back up the cliff to our car. I feel a little withdrawn knowing there is a good possibility this would be the first and only time I’d make the trek to this memorable place.
Back in the car Ella promptly passes out in the back seat as any 11-year-old should do. I’m famished and if I don’t get some food quickly I’ll be three sheets to the wind as well so we head directly to Coronado Island to get some dinner. I do a quick search on Yelp to see if I can find a good seafood place that both my daughter and I will enjoy. We choose a place called Lobster West, a casual spot just off the well-beaten thoroughfare of Alameda Boulevard. We decide on a lobster roll and a crab roll and l let Ella get a Coke, a rare treat. We’re relaxing on Lobster West’s small, but inviting outdoor patio watching the sun go down as the food is delivered. We’re both ravenous and we tear into the food the minute the plates touch the table. We both take one bite and look at each other with grins stretching from ear-to-ear knowing we had chosen wisely during our Russian roulette session on Yelp. As a notoriously fast eater I try to slow down and enjoy the buttery bread and fresh seafood, but I’m only mildly successful. As Ella finishes her meal she sits back supremely content and says, “That meal is one thing I will never forget about this trip.”
After our culinary success from the previous evening we decide to head back out to Coronado Island and spend the day at the beach alongside Hotel del Coronado, or The Del as it’s known locally. Built in 1888, The Del is an extraordinary Victorian beach resort and the second largest wooden structure in the United States. Its striking white facade and burnt orange roof make it visible from all over the island. The resort was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and has hosted presidents and celebrities and even has its own resident ghost, a one Kate Morgan who perished in an exterior stairwell in 1892. I first visited the hotel with my father on a trip to California when I was about 10. Even at that age it left a lasting impression on me and I remembered it well. I’m looking forward to making similar memories with my daughter here just a few decades later.
Despite another chilly morning with overcast skies the day was unfolding as I had hoped. Ella with her boundless curiosity and never-ending supply of energy splashes in the surf and scours the beach for sand dollars which seem to magically appear from deep below the sand as the waves recede into the ocean. Sitting atop my towel watching my favorite oldest daughter make another trip up the beach I find myself thinking of nothing else, just completely absorbed in the serenity and simplicity of the events unfolding before me. These types of mindful moments are rare for me and I briefly lament this shortcoming before I return my gaze to the water to watch my daughter throw herself into another oncoming wave. My goal of spending some quality one-on-one time with my daughter has come to fruition and for that I was extremely grateful.
Another requirement of this daddy-day-care-global-citizenship-travel-experience is that we have to volunteer and give back to the community we are visiting. So we quickly change our clothes in the car at the beach and head off down the I-5 to Father Joe’s Villages where we’re scheduled to help prepare and serve food to the homeless. As we exit the interstate the traffic light is malfunctioning which creates gridlock next to a row of dilapidated buildings home to some of the city’s homeless population and many who I assume we’ll be serving. Ella has the ideal window seat to the type of poverty I want to expose her to and the traffic-induced downtime gives me the perfect opportunity to chat about why people are homeless, why we need to be grateful for what we have and to prepare her for our volunteer experience.
Father Joe’s Villages is a wonderful organization which began in 1950 to help support those experiencing homelessness and poverty by providing healthy food and lodging for more than 2,000 people every night. We park our rental car and and grab our volunteer badges as we make it through security and head to the kitchen. Henry, the kitchen manager, cook, and all around bad-ass gives us a 23-second orientation and adorned with hair nets and ill-fitting plastic gloves they throw us on the serving line and open the doors. For the next three hours I watch as Ella graciously serves canned fruit and freshly cut cantaloupe to approximately 100 families from all walks of life struggling with what I assume are a wide range of challenges. I’m proud as Ella works hard and is kind to everyone who comes through the line. At the end of the night as we pull out of the parking garage we drive by the homeless community we had just served and Ella whips her head around and says, “Hey, I just served that guy dinner.” My hope was that this experience would help humanize people and sew the seeds of compassion for individuals far different from my daughter. It was a worthwhile first step.
The next morning, on our final day in San Diego, we have a couple of hours to kill before we need to head to the airport so I make a last ditch effort to infuse a little culture into Ella so we venture off to Chicano Park, located in Barrio Logan in southeast San Diego. The park is home to a stunning collection of murals painted on the support piers of Interstate 5 and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. The park was added as a National Historic Landmark in 2016 for its importance in the Chicano movement and the famous 1970 land grab that was successfully thwarted by community mobilization that would have destroyed the park. Ella and I walk around taking in the spectacular, larger-than-life murals before walking a short distance to ¡Salude! a cool little Mexican eatery with decor to match Chicano Park. Ella is a little overwhelmed by the immersive Chicano culture infused with tattoos, piercings and the rapid fire Spanish being spoken by the restaurant patrons. It is exactly what I was hoping for, a culinary and cultural experience we wouldn’t have been able to find at home. The rolled tacos I ordered are amazing and a La Diabla, a unique version of a Moscow Mule with tequila, is the perfect libation to cap off what has turned out to be an extraordinary expedition for one 11-year-old and her father.
Sitting in the middle seat on our return flight home I glance over at Ella who, with headphones in, is absorbed in a show on my iPad. As I jot down a few things in my journal I stop to ponder if I have been successful with my goal of helping my daughter gain some worldly perspective and lay the groundwork for being a sympathetic observer for the places she visits and the people she meets. I think that conclusion will come to me over the next few weeks as I reflect back on our whirlwind adventure. I do know it will be an experience she’ll remember for a long time and I’m looking forward to middle school graduation when she’s allowed design a similar experience to an international, developing-world destination. In the meantime, as we begin to descend, I chuckle to myself, praying that Ella knows we’re landing in Colorado, the location of her hometown. Maybe I should have started off with a geography lesson rather than an immersive travel experience. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.