Cultural Experience | California

When your Newly Found Travel Companions Become your Closest Confidants

How one Scot finds herself along the California road.

Travelling – ‘A journey of self-discovery.’ ‘The ultimate self- refection.’ Firstly, Oh brother… Secondly, after ruminating over the intensely deep and meaningful phraseology plastered across your average Facebook travel page. I realised how narcissistic these notions really were. On my own journey I travelled the United States of America from East coast to West coast with as many makes and mistakes one disastrous dyslexic could fit in. However, unlike every other Instagram user, I did not find myself. In fact I got very, very lost. Then lost again. Then as my Google maps Wi-Fi signal failed…lost all over again.

From the crawling streets of New York to the outright bizarre of New Orleans nothing disorientated me more than my sister’s absence. Learning to become a strong independent Twin whilst traveling was tantamount to facing a Bogart with a confounded wand. My greatest fears and anxieties played out before me in yet another dark hostel room as my over stimulated travelers brain betrayed me to yet another poignant thought. Unlike everyone else I met who were also thousands of miles from home, they were already used to being ‘a’ person. I however, am a twin, and had never known anything different.

More: 11 Tips for Surviving Your First Solo Travel Experience

Nevertheless, playing the lone ‘foreigner’ game did have its advantages. Free skateboard hardware, National park tickets, waterslide access were to name but a few of the perks of sounding like an extra from Brave. No greater was this new found talent put to use than when saying “thanks lass” to a lady that held an elevator door for me in New York City gained the attention of a tall, blonde Aussie. We spoke of his family connections in Scotland for the duration of that elevator ride, whilst I clocked his Bryon Bay T-shirt and messy surfer hair. It was the type of encounter that could have inspired an Areosmith ballad…

More: 14 Road Trip Essentials

Several days later, like catching Lemony Snicket on an exceptionally great day, a series of fortunate events caused me to frantically tear into a subway station, lose my subway card, miss my train and drop everything I was carrying onto the floor amidst a stampede of New York commuter traffic. ‘Roll camera’- Disheveled Scottish girl looks up from floor- enter Australian stranger from the elevator. We spent the next couple of days together, exploring the concrete jungle and dreaming of road tripping across California. Leaving each other with the naive promise that we would meet again.

Three months later, I received a message stating that a camper van consisting of the Aussie and fellow Pilgrims would pick me up in San Francisco airport at midnight if only my sanity would dissolve long enough for me to accept such an invitation. Upon taking my first steps on Californian soil I was greeted by a glowing turquoise van that looked as if a Hippy had just spewed peace symbols all over the paintwork. The residue of one too many harmonious thoughts dripping down the van where the spray paint had run. Aided by the plunders of romanticism that traveling evokes, three weeks united a group of strangers more than ten years on Tinder ever would!

We witnessed too much to do full justice to a trip like that in shortened form. For instance, the truly once and a lifetime surfacing of a black whale meters from where we swam. The discovery that the previous van owners had left copious amounts of cocaine stuffed in our vehicles roof lining hours before we crossed state boarders, undoubtedly prevented our instantaneous arrests. The warning by a dilapidated drunken women in a small grocery store in Oregon that “I best stick god damn close by those guys!” As she brandished the pictures of at least 50 children and teenagers who had vanished without trace into the ominous mists of Portland’s imposing forests. As well as witnessing the vicious stabbing of a fellow skater who had fallen out of local grace on Venice Beach. These where to name but a few of the events that play vividly across my mind daily, and probably irrevocably.


Every morning of ‘The Pilgrimage’ (our crew’s self-righteous tittle for the adventure) I would awaken last to the sound of the boys bickering outside our tent. A kaleidoscopic clash of accents would distort my name until the forest echoed with calls for “Pup” to “get ready for another best day of our lives.” Yosemite, was like wandering in a fabricated wonderland. Dramatic and deadly but splendidly beautiful in the Californian sunlight. As if all evil had been removed from Frodo Baggins’ quest, and he and the boys were simply on some magnificent holiday. The National Park commanded a beauty that was so intense it was hard to comprehend its existence outside the imaginations of poets. “A place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action” John Muir’s sentiments trickling through my mind as I edged closer and closer to the edge of Taft Point’s glorious 3500 feet drop. The allure of this potentially fatal deed derived from the desire to transcend reality for even just a moment. As my feet dangled over the edge I was suspended in space and time and terror. In spite of these metaphors Yosemite literally took my breath away. “Go above your nerve.” Emily Dickens and Cheryl Strayed and Pip Penman.


Camping beneath the stars of the Californian National Forests was a veritably spiritual experience. Gathered around the fire, with voices occasionally trembling through wine whispers, our greatest insecurities were thrown crackling into the flames like kindling. Our lowest moments, our biggest fears, our most painful heart aches were reduced to ash in the sanctity of the National Forrest. The smoke carried the memories from our huddle amongst the trees to a sky so bright and beautiful you felt giddy with riches. Although at this point wealth was meaningless, nothing had ever been as free as these priceless moments.

My journey home was unfortunate. Firstly, because it was a journey home. But mainly because think Rachel Green’s airplane scene without any comic value whatsoever. I managed to find myself in the position where I was told in front of an entire plane full of sitting passengers I was in danger “of being shot by air marshals!” I guess American air stewardesses don’t appreciate being ‘calmly’ told their connection flight times are moronic! Miraculously, I did manage to make my connecting flight with a deranged airport sprint that would have definitely aroused the suspicion of any anti-doping agency. Blessedly on route to Scotland I sat down to reread Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the same story that had inspired my adventures on the way to America all those months ago. Surprisingly, my affinity with the States did not overpower my innately embarrassing patriotism. From the plane, as Edinburgh castle loomed into sight, tears cascaded down my face like a Scot at a wedding, listening to Caledonia, after 17 pints. The castle, the fog, the pissing rain. It was mine, all mine.


Catherine Penman

The University Of Edinburgh | 1 story

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