Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Surf City … with kids

The municipality of Huntington Beach, Calif., identifies with the beach lifestyle so closely that it has trademarked the name "Surf City, USA."

I am typing this from a desk in our Airbnb rental house in Huntington Beach, California: a beige stucco bungalow in a residential neighborhood of tightly packed stucco bungalows surrounded by high walls. There are three palm trees in the front yard. The back yard consists of a cement patio and a small patch of astroturf (an increasingly popular option in a region that suffers from continuous drought conditions and water restrictions.)

That’s a backyard?!?” my 11-year-old daughter exclaimed. “I’ve seen bigger swimming pools!”

Her insistence that a yard should be at least as big as a swimming pool was evidence of how living in Vermont has skewed our perspective.

The lack of a yard has been our children’s only complaint: The house is bright, clean, has enough beds to accommodate our family of seven, and is decorated in a style best described as “shabby chic beach vacation as translated by Home Goods.” My children were baffled by the beachy theme when we arrived. “But there’s no beach here!” they declared. In fact, Huntington Beach is an 8-minute drive away.

Our family was last in Huntington Beach, also known as “Surf City,” three years ago. On that visit, we were all suitably impressed by the waves. Huntington Beach is considered excellent for surfing because of its consistent surf, the result of open ocean swells diffracting around Catalina Island.

“Surf City” is both a nickname and a trademark – or rather a set of at least 22 “Surf City USA” trademarks granted to the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2006. This enabled the city to create licensed products and generate a revenue stream. Huntington Beach isn’t just a place; it’s a brand. Perhaps this is not surprising for a city that takes its name from the real-estate development firm that incorporated it in 1909: Railroad magnate Henry Huntington’s Huntington Beach Company. The Huntington Beach Company is still a major landowner and owns most of the local mineral rights, which is significant since oil was discovered in Huntington Beach in the 1920s. (Not coincidentally, the Huntington Beach Company is now owned entirely by Chevron.)

See what Southern California does to me? I begin by giving a brief description of our rental house and get sucked down a rabbit hole of land development, corporate sponsorship, and oil reserves.

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As I write, we have yet to visit the beach, having arrived late last night after 12 hours of travel.

Since our previous visit to Southern California, we added one child to our family – bringing the grand total to five – and lived through a global pandemic. Both factors shaped our travel experience.

When we decided to visit our family in California this summer, we had to make decisions about our travel route. Air travel is notoriously messy these days, a riot of inexplicable delays and cancellations due largely to understaffed and underbooked flights related to the economy and the fallout from the Covid pandemic. Our best chance to avoid being stranded in an airport with five children seemed to be taking a direct flight from the East Coast to the West. The best way to do that was to drive from Vermont to Boston and fly out of Logan Airport.

Packing was the next challenge: Checked luggage isn’t free. Noting that our Airbnb included a washer and dryer, and that it’s possible to buy many things in Southern California, my husband laid down strict guidelines for us all: four outfits, two pajamas, swimsuits, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of flip-flops. Even with this limitation, we checked in five bags. (I suspect one may have been filled mostly with our teenager’s toiletries, but we convinced her to pack fewer clothes by reasoning that she’d need space for the clothes she’ll buy at Southern California shopping malls.)

Our epic day of travel began with the four-hour drive from Vermont to Boston, during which three children were struck down by headaches, sore throats, and congestion. Our children’s symptoms were troubling, but pre-travel Covid tests were negative, so we decided to proceed and wear masks.

We arrived at Logan Airport without incident (other than creeping illness, two bathroom stops, and a lunch break), and unloaded our children and bags from the minivan.

Now, this may sound strange, but in my day-to-day life I don’t usually feel like five children are a lot. Maybe this is because they are spread out, going in different directions, engaged in their various daily routines. But here is what I learned while shepherding five children through the airport parking garage, baggage check, and security: Five children are A LOT of children. At one point, my overwhelmed oldest daughters exclaimed, “Next time, have fewer children!”

But we made it onto the airplane, which departed on time. The only remaining challenge was how to help our two-year-old, flying for the first time, through a nearly six-hour flight without deafening or alienating our fellow passengers.

We had a plan. We’d brought along various devices – two tablets, a Nintendo Switch, and two parental smartphones – filled with downloaded movies, games, and shows. “How did we ever travel without devices?” my husband marveled, pre-flight.

In flight we discovered that, for some reason, none of our devices would play the downloaded material. Happily, there were screens in the seat backs that played child-friendly movies and shows, but our two-year-old refused to wear the headphones we’d brought for him. He spent the flight lip-reading animated shows, wiggling across the aisle between my husband and me, napping briefly, and – during most of the landing process – screaming. We considered it a successful first flight.

After we landed, collected our checked luggage, boarded the bus for the rental car company (which took 30 minutes to travel three blocks), installed ourselves in our rented minivan, and drove 40 minutes along a 16-lane highway to our Airbnb, it was after 9:00 pm; a new day was beginning back in Vermont.

My husband brought us dinner from In-N-Out Burger, a California institution that’s served up scrumptious burgers, fries, and milkshakes since 1948. As we ate, he marveled that the cost of an In-N-Out Burger meal hadn’t changed since our last visit – unlike the cost of just about everything else. Our children, unable to appreciate our nostalgia, were too exhausted to finish their meals. We all slept soundly but awoke at the crack of dawn, our bodies still on East Coast time.

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I have now been in Southern California less than 24 hours. I’ve spent my first day here on the glassed-in back porch of our Airbnb, writing this column, while the sickest of my children recuperate enough to see our family.

I sit here, looking out over the walls surrounding our yard to the clear blue sky, the gently blowing heads of palm trees rising above the brown roofs of the neighboring bungalows, the orange tree next door laden with fruit. I fall down the rabbit hole of learning more about In-N-Out Burger, which stands in sharp contrast to Huntington Beach (and much of Southern California) in its resolute refusal to franchise or go public.

I sit here thinking about my eldest daughter’s comment, as our plane descended amid the brown Los Angeles cityscape, that she was sorry we weren’t flying back to Vermont. This is the daughter who, of all my children, often seems to have little love for Vermont; the daughter who craves cities, adventures, escape.

“I love landing into Burlington Airport,” she said. “It’s just so beautiful, because you get to see Vermont spread out below you.”

I sit here remembering our drive from the airport last night, along that 16-lane highway, with lights and billboards flashing past on both sides. Then, through streaky clouds, a huge full moon rose in all its orange glory, a reminder that it can still outshine all our artificial illumination.

I agree with my daughter about Vermont’s beauty, but I also want her to know that there is beauty everywhere if you just pay attention – beauty that surprises me, stirs my heart, brings tears to my eyes.

The owners of our Airbnb may have paved their yard and rolled out astroturf for a lawn, but there is also real bougainvillea climbing the back fence and three flowering rosebushes along the front (which I noted jealously, as I’ve yet to be able to keep a rosebush alive in Vermont.) This unlikely combination of the artificial and the gorgeously natural is my experience of Southern California in a nutshell. It is a place that fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. We haven’t been here in three years, and I find that I’ve missed it.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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