Nowhere is the suggestion “Be a tourist in your own town” more applicable than to Santa Barbara residents, whose after-work leisure time often involves such questions as, “Wanna go for a walk and swim on Summerland Beach?” and “How ’bout we hike up to Inspiration Point and watch the sunset?” Activities normally limited to vacationers are a way of life for us spoiled residents of the “Riviera of the West.”
But fortunately for us, we’re not actually tourists. We live real lives, with jobs and rent checks and ex-boyfriends to avoid at bars. This may seem laughably obvious to long-time Santa Barbarans, but there was a time when I could hardly imagine that anyone living in this town ever had a real thought in her head.
About three years ago, I drove into Santa Barbara with no intentions of staying, soon after driving out West from Boston in search of a town I loved. I got a bed at the Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel simply because I felt I had to check out what My Lonely Planet Guide to the U.S.A. called “the gem of the South Coast.” As soon as I drove into town, I knew I could never live here: it was too perfect-the beach weddings and tiled sidewalks and palm trees imported so long ago no one knows they’re not native.
The only people I associated with during my week stay on the downtown hostel were tourists from Australia, England, Brazil, and other parts of the U.S., most of whom starting drinking Coors Light on the beach around three in the afternoon and said stuff like, “Oh, sunny So-Cal. This is the life,” and didn’t laugh afterwards. I drank Coors Light on the beach, too, of course. It was all amazingly fun. I thought that’s just what people did in sunny So-Cal: get tan, drink beer, have fun.
We went exclusively to the beaches recommended in the tourist brochures: West Beach, East Beach, Leadbetter, and Butterfly. Just lying in the sun and swimming in the ocean in September was heaven for a New Englander like me, but the crowded boardwalks facing giant hotels gave me the impression that Santa Barbara beaches were all crawling with tourists, perhaps with the occasional resident taking a run after work.
My culinary experience was largely limited to Subway, which was cheap and right next to the hostel. I didn’t know that I could have gotten delicious authentic Mexican food at numerous walkup restaurants throughout Santa Barbara. For drinks, we went to Q’s and Sharkeez, also right next to the hostel and so big and loud they seemed like the hippest joints in town. Drinking with Aussie strangers is always a good time, but I certainly could not see myself living in a place where the nightlife involved donning your highest stilettos and spraying on bronzer.
Every day of the week I spent at the hostel, the sky was stunningly blue. How could anyone live here? I wondered. You’d lose your mind thinking the world was this perfect place, and then suddenly reality would hit and you wouldn’t know what to do with the giant lie you’d been living. This was a place for honeymoons, not a place to make a home; you’d lose yourself instantly, all the harsh edges whittled down by the sun and mountain views and smiling faces. I’m going somewhere grittier, I kept saying to myself, a big city where I’ll work at some literary journal and get my heart broken by depressed poets.
But I could not ignore that I was near giddy with joy here, on something like a personal retreat-if retreats involved large quantities of beer and dancing to Madonna with Ossie strangers. And the day before I was to leave Santa Barbara, I went a little crazy. I was running along East Beach and saw dolphins close enough to shore that I could easily swim out to them, which naturally I did. This was an occurrence that I truly only thought happened in cheesy romance novels.
That night, I shared a three-dollar bottle of wine at the hostel’s picnic table with a depressed Brazilian who was traveling to take his mind off of his recent divorce (just how little success he was having became increasingly clear with each swig). After a fellow hosteller arrived with a 12-pack of Coronas, I couldn’t stop asking everyone, “I mean, seriously, have you ever seen a place with mountains right next to the ocean? And dolphins in the ocean right next to the mountains?” I decided to set out to Lower State Street, where I’d find someone who would offer me a couch or a backyard to pitch my tent in before daybreak. Or else I’d fall in love with someone that night-the uncontrollable, short-lived kind of love that would lead us to move in together the night we met. I’d buy some more time in this picture-perfect town I had been so prepared to dislike, until I was prepared to leave.
I woke up hung-over the next morning, vaguely remembering that the only significant conversations I had had were with bums. So I did make it all the way north to Vancouver after all, where I had explicit permission to stay indefinitely in my friend’s sun room, sleeping on a blowup mattress. The first day I was there, it was sunny. We walked through a rain forest and ended up on a nude beach. We ate all-you-can-eat sushi on a roof patio. I imagined I’d never give Santa Barbara a second thought.
And then it started raining
It did not stop.
There was no sunshine for weeks on end. It was constant twilight and constantly wet feet. My friend and I began to drink a lot of Scotch. I began to develop an advanced case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Plus, it turns out Canada’s serious about the whole work visa thing. I could hardly get anyone to hire me to babysit, let alone serve food or sell books. I began to wonder what would be so bad about living in a place with 330 days of endlessly blue sky. Before I knew it, I was heading back down Highway 1.
After one failed living situation, I found a little house-with a cat that lazed under the laundry line and an avocado tree draped in Spanish moss-on San Pascual Street, where the landlady hasn’t raised the rent in years. “We don’t bother her, she doesn’t bother us,” my new roommate explained to me. Work was less than ideal for a few months: I went from canvassing at Peace Action, where I and my employer quickly learned that having me go door to door was a serious liability to the peace movement, to juggling a job at Chaucer’s Books with nannying with interning at the Independent. Still, I was mainly relaxed and content. I would catch myself laughing out loud as I walked over the Micheltorena bridge, squinting at the sun, or did sun salutations on the beach at sunset. I swam in the ocean in January, February. I sat in my neighbor’s hot tub at midnight and worried that her avocados would fall on my head.
And I found such interesting groups of people at all my jobs, discovered that the Friday night State Street crowd and the beach tourists are not representative of the general populace. There were the angry activists at Peace Action who knew the bloody details of all the wars the U.S. has ever waged and who drowned their knowledge in pints of Stella, and the witty intellectuals at Chaucer’s, reading all the latest novels and sitting in aisles leafing through art books, and the lively people at the Independent, talking county supervisors and book deals and dogs, lobbing misanthropic cynicisms at one another as they hacked away under deadline.
I made a friend who took me to Summerland Beach, where you could walk for a half-mile on the wide sand without seeing another soul. When I told him that I had previously thought Butterfly Beach was the best beach in town, he laughed and said, “You mean, Rock ‘n’ Roll Beach? Yeah, Rock ‘n’ Roll Beach is alright.” I made another friend who took me to Elsie’s and Jimmy’s and the Mercury Lounge. He, too, laughed when I told him I thought all the bars in Santa Barbara were filled with bleach blonde hair and $100 purses.
Now that I live here, I’m glad the hidden beaches, barely maintained trails, and dive bars aren’t advertised in anyone’s tour guide. Thank god tourists don’t all realize that Santa Barbara is infinitely richer than the brochures make it out to be.
My friend who lives in New York likes to poke fun at the idyllic perfection of my surroundings, much the way I did upon my first introduction to this town. “Well, have fun with the dolphins jumping over rainbows in the middle of the ocean,” he’ll say before we hang up the phone.
“Thanks,” I say, “I will.”