It's been ten years since I visited my friends in California. Ten years! And now, after just five days I'm sitting in Los Angeles International Airport awaiting a plane back to Boston.
I've been on an extended trip out here in the U.S, taking in places such as Seattle and Portland, with other destinations like Boston and New York City still on the agenda. It's turning out to be a truly great vacation. I'm jetting from place to place in First class on Delta flights, lapping up my air miles earned upgrade, and pretending like I always travel first class! Rather than waiting till the last minute to get on the plane, I'm one of the first, if not the first person on the plane. I take my oversized seat early so I can be one of those smug bastards sitting there in first-class sipping Champaign while all the 'poor people' traipse past me on their way to cattle class hell.
The Californian leg of my trip is coming to an end here at Los Angeles international airport. I flew down here in a propeller-driven aircraft full of suit-wearing business types all reading the early editions of broadsheet newspapers, leaving behind me a rather bleary-eyed friend, Anthony, who had very kindly driven me to Fresno airport at some unearthly hour of the morning.
As the plane droned across the sunrise I looked out of the tiny window trying to soak up every last minute that California had to offer me. Below me pierced the tops of mountains that cast long early morning shadows across a cotton wool bed of clouds. I felt like the odd one out, the random guy dressed casually and enjoying what was someone else's morning commute to the office.
Five days ago I was flying over the Nevada desert on my way to Fresno. The flight was pretty spectacular, I was entranced by the landscape below, a landscape far removed from anything I'm familiar with back in England. I'd had a great time in Portland and was sad to leave, but the excitement of returning to California and seeing people I haven't seen or had much, if any, contact with for ten years was almost overwhelming.
Meeting me at the airport were my two old 'best friends' from my time in Fresno, Kevin, and Josh. I haven't spoken to Josh since the day I left. We were young guys and hopeless at writing letters to one another. Kevin and I had briefly spoken once on the phone and emailed one another a handful of times. Ten years is a long time, and in that time they've both married and had children. I wondered, would they be with their wives and kids? Would I recognize them? Would they recognize me? Would we get along as we did before? As the plane started to descend over the swimming pools in the back yards of the duplex carpet below, I knew I wasn't going to have to wait long for the answers.
"Welcome to Fresno" announced the pilot as we taxied along the runway. "The local time is 8:41 AM and folks, it's already a hot day here. We sure hope you enjoyed your flight and look forward to serving you again."
I stepped out of the plane into the Californian air and was hit by the expected wall of sheer heat. Portland had been hot, but boy, this was something else! I put my sunglasses on and threw my bag over my shoulder then stopped there for a second, smiled, and said to myself, "California."
As I emerged through the public gate at the airport I could see people waiting for friends, relatives, and business associates. There weren't a whole lot of people waiting. The plane was very small and seated just a handful of people, most of whom looked like they would simply disperse into the parking lot to their cars. This is a local airport and as such it lacks that big international feel.
As I scanned the few gathered faces I saw my old friends immediately. First Kevin, then Josh. Kevin was looking carefully at the faces of everyone walking through the small gates, no doubt thinking to himself that maybe I had changed and that he might not recognize me anymore. We'd forgotten to exchange recent pictures when we arranged to meet up over email. In the end, though there was no confusion, I smiled and waved, they then smiled walked over and greeted me like the long lost friend I suppose I was. They were alone, just the two of them, and now with me, we were a trio once more, just as we had been all those years ago.
Ten years had been added to their faces in the same way it has been added to mine. But these guys began joking with me just as I remember, it was as if I had not been away at all. Kevin commented that they had been looking out for a guy with long curly hair wearing all black, just as he remembers me. Josh started talking in his fake English accent almost immediately, just like he always used to do. It was a great moment of reunion, nothing over the top, just old friends clicking back into place as if a day hadn't passed.
We hadn't made any plans for the day beforehand, so as we chatted we headed over to our old, and now not so familiar, territory of Fresno Pacific University to walk around the old campus we once knew so well. It hadn't changed all that much. There were new buildings and more under construction, and the name had changed too from Fresno Pacific College, but it still felt very much familiar to me.
As we walked we exchanged the first of what was sure to be many recollections. We laughed about the people we were back then, and at the stories of adventures, we had enjoyed in Josh's old blue Chevy truck, a truck that he famously informed me didn't "stop on a dime" when I was getting cranky about seeing "the wrong kind of Palm trees" in Hollywood one fine weekend. Ten years had mellowed the three of us I could tell.
The funny thing is that I felt like I had been in a time warp. I didn't feel older or different, though of course, I was. Around me, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, my friends had gone from being young guys at the beginning of their adult lives, to become husbands and fathers. It was as if time had moved forward ten years in just a few moments while some aspects were just the same as they ever were. I can honestly say it was one of the strangest feelings of my entire life.
That night my friends Paula and Anthony threw a party and invited people from 'back then' who I knew and they were still in touch with. Once again I met people I hadn't seen or had any contact with for ten years and once again felt like I had jumped forward and back in time all at once. I suppose it must have felt the same for them in some way, but for me, there was more than just one new 'old' face.
It was for me a stark reminder of how fast time moves, almost without us noticing. Just like everyone else my days turned into months that soon became years. I hadn't expected to feel quite like this, like an astronaut returning from a far off space mission, having to familiarize myself with the world I had returned to. And although I felt like I hadn't changed, my friends around me pointed out that I to have come a long way too. It was a sobering lesson, magical and yet almost frightening in some ways. Like a wake-up call perhaps, but to wake up from what?
Over the next few days, I got to hang out with, and once more get to know, my old friends. I struggle to find a more eloquent way of saying that I simply had a great time. Meeting my old friends and seeing old familiar places had shown me something about who I was and who I had become. We had all changed so much, but still somehow fitted together just as we used to.
The shadows of yesterday had been given a rare opportunity to speak, or maybe I had just been given a rare opportunity to listen? Whichever it was, California had once again endorsed itself as a marker point in my life.