On the Road: California Dreamin’… and Real-Life Nightmares

Thousand Oaks, California was my first solo adventure in the wider world.

In our little household in the big Northwest Woods, it’s open season for hunting — and I don’t mean deer or turkeys … I’m talking about my daughter’s future.

Yes, after four years of daycare and pre-K, seven years of elementary education, a couple glorious middle school years (once called “junior high” … I kind of miss that) and three plus years of high school, we are now officially in the home stretch.

Which means in this fall of Sophie’s senior year, we are deep in the throes of the college application season.

Lots of my friends are going through this too, and we meet frequently to share advice, express dismay at the fact our children won’t share their essays with us, and gasp in alarm at the sticker shock prices of these fine institutions of higher learning.

We’ve also gone on a lot of tours.

In the past year, my husband, Adam, and I have taken Sophie to visit a dozen or so schools scattered throughout North America — we’ve hit the Northeast, Midwest, parts of Canada and even Hawaii (admittedly, some of these college visits were a convenient add-on to our regularly scheduled vacations). Honestly, after a while the dog and pony shows start looking very similar. At every stop, we’ve sat through perky student ambassador presentations where we’ve been regaled with tales of winning football teams, winning academics, and winning alumni. We’ve also taken tours of an endless procession of cafeterias and dorm rooms, which look amazingly alike, and, inevitably are reassured by our backwards-walking guide that the communal living is defined by a sense of camaraderie and belonging.

Believe me, all that sameness does not make the decision any easier. Which is why ultimately, the college decision is likely to come down to one simple question … “What’s all this going to cost us?”

But that’s our parental take on the situation. What we want — no, desperately crave — in a college isn’t necessarily what our daughter is after.

Which is why this week, we did something we have never done before. We sent Sophie and her friend from Pierson High School off on their own. On Friday morning, we put the two of them on an LIRR train to New York City and left it up to them to find their way to the Bolt Bus bound for Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. They are now staying with family friends and as I write this, are purportedly touring American University and George Washington University.

It’s really the first time Sophie has traveled anywhere sans adult and that’s the way she wanted it — no parents, just a friend. It reminds me of my own first such trip during the summer I turned 16 when a good friend and I flew to California by ourselves to visit another friend who had moved away from Ohio when we were in third grade.

I paid for that trip myself by cashing in the $100 savings bond my grandmother had given me when I was born. I also got my first job, selling burgers at Wendy’s near the Dayton Mall. I hated every minute of that horrible job and worked just long enough to make the cash I needed to get on that plane.

This was exactly 40 years ago by the way, and my destination? Thousand Oaks, California where our friend and her family had moved after leaving Ohio behind. Let me tell you, the late 1970s was an idyllic time to be a teenager in America — especially in an upper-middle class suburb outside Los Angeles. Coming from bland, rural Ohio, I was like Dorothy landing in Oz and those two weeks were magical. I was exposed to a new world in full living color and plunged head-first into the Valley Girl lifestyle enjoyed by my Golden State friend and her amazingly aware peers.

Pretty much everyone had an in-ground pool and hot tub in their backyard, a luxury beyond imagination, as I was accustomed to hanging out with friends at the community swim club. Supervision was lax and parents stayed at the periphery in those days, so we were free to come and go as we pleased. That meant beach parties in Malibu, disco dancing at the teen center, and long hours spent riding around town with sophisticated girls who had their own cars and no curfews.

For me, that place at that time embodied a freedom which didn’t exist at home, and in the four decades since my visit, it has stuck with me as the trip that opened my eyes to a wider world. Maybe it was the decade, or the fact I was at an impressionable age, or perhaps it had something to do with the sense of possibility, which was evident when my friend’s father became mayor of Thousand Oaks a few years later.

But then last week, Thousand Oaks became the site of the country’s latest massacre with 12 people gunned down at the Borderline Bar. Long rated one of America’s safest cities, it’s the first time I had ever seen it make national news. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that it was college night and students as young as 18 were allowed in the bar, including Alania Housley who was only a year older than my daughter and had just started as a freshman at nearby Pepperdine University, a school once on Sophie’s list of possibilities.

Out of curiosity, I mapped it and realized the bar was less than five minutes from my friend’s home where we stayed that long ago summer. Nearby was the teen center where we danced to Donna Summer and which, in the wake of the shooting, was transformed into a gathering place for friends and relatives of the victims and the survivors, many of whom had escaped the Las Vegas massacre last year. In recent days it has also become an evacuation shelter for those displaced by the massive wildfires which began burning all around Thousand Oaks and Malibu a day after the shooting.

I guess it was the coincidence of timing and the fact that Sophie is on her first solo journey at this very moment that brought back these memories in such a vivid way. It’s shocking how much things have changed since I flew to the West Coast in my teens without a care in the world.

Next year at this time, my daughter will be a freshman on a college campus somewhere. We don’t yet know which one, but honestly, we have avoided considering certain parts of this country where the gun laws are far more liberal than the politics. According to the Congressional Research Service’s Small Arms Survey, Americans own more than 390,000,000 guns. That’s about 120 for every 100 people.

As parents, we now have to consider what once was unimaginable and if I’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that there are no guarantees. This sort of thing can happen anywhere, anytime — and increasingly, does. Even in the sunny suburban California of my teenage dreams.

How will I feel next year when our only child is far away from home, starting her new life on a college campus? I can’t say for sure — but at this point among the schools on her short list are a couple universities that lie beyond the borders of the U.S. in countries where the odds are just a bit more in our favor.