Summer in Washington, D.C. hits you like a wall. It’s a gelatinous season, a jello mold of equal parts humidity and rigidity that seeps right into the jetway at Dulles and smothers the city from June to September. In a way, D.C.’s geography mirrors its summers: three perfectly straight lines separate our nation’s capital from the rest of Maryland, but D.C. is slowly dissolving on its southwest side into the sopping maw of the Potomac. Watching the aides and consultants and lobbyists rush around the marble monuments in business casual, you can almost see them melting in the heat, too, the stark lines of their formalwear dark with spreading sweat. You walk a block or two down the streets — either lettered, numbered, or named after states — and find yourself looking for an excuse to duck back inside, into the loving embrace of an AC unit. The city seems thick — humid, yes, but also muggy with history and with activity, as you watch recent graduates like yourself scurry down halls that have been scurried down since John Adams was president. Everyone in D.C. is either twenty and just moved there or sixty and has lived there forever; like in Congress, there is no middle ground. It’s a mixture of free-flowing youth and enduring marble, and the amount of conversation, information, and aspiration is enticing and intoxicating, even more so than the Irish lagers at the pub near Dupont Circle. So you sit on the Mall at night on the Fourth of July (only the darkness tells your California brain that it’s night, since the temperature and humidity have barely budged), watch the fireworks behind the Washington Monument, and wonder what it would have been like to major in Political Science. You also wonder, once you get home, if you can figure out a way to watch “The West Wing” reruns in your gym’s sauna.
But nothing — even the nation’s capital — embodies the Fourth of July like the Midwest. The suburbs in Ohio are America in its purest form, Eisenhower-era environs that ooze charm and apple pie. The perfect grids of tree-lined streets in Columbus are made for fanfare and parades, and you sit in a folding lawn chair on the curb and watch ruby red firetrucks roll by, flanked by troops of meticulously groomed girl scouts. The mayor, the veterans’ brigade, the Model T club — mainstays of main street motorcades drive by like the decades rolling past, right before your eyes. Columbus feels like it’s been plucked from a bygone era, which is not to say it’s backwards or parochial. It’s the opposite: vibrant and close-knit, woven into the fabric of an America you thought was only true in textbooks and television. You go to a neighborhood block party — an actual neighborhood block party, hosted by a solid block of houses in the neighborhood — with tables as far as the eye can see, rickety folding legs bent heavy with the weight of rib racks, jello molds, hamburgers. People you’ve never met welcome you into their yards, and after the sun sets they herd you through the crowded streets to the best vantage point for fireworks. When the pyrotechnic afterimages fade from the sky, streaks of saltpeter and slashes of sulfur drifting into mist, ten thousand fireflies rise up from the grass to take their place, and even in the cool night air a warm glow remains.
San Francisco, CA
Like many cities, San Francisco is prettiest from a distance: exiting the tunnel on the 101 South, barreling down the hills from Marin to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a vista where, for a few brief seconds between twisting turns, you see the entire fifty square miles of San Francisco spread out before you. It’s a pastel cityscape tableau that grows from west to east, starting with the perfect rectilinear grid of low-slung houses in the Sunset, moving to the three-story cake frosting homes that crowd around Alamo Square, crescendoing to the dizzying spires of the financial district which spear the sky behind the slender, piercing point of the Transamerica Pyramid — and then crashing, abruptly, into a jumbled series of wharfs that tumble into the bay. The slender white spiderweb of the Bay Bridge shoots out from the east to grab at Treasure Island; the stately vermillion span of the Golden Gate Bridge thrusts north to anchor the peninsula to Marin. That’s the view you see, at least, if you’re lucky. But most summer days, the drive down from the Marin hills is a descent into a gray unknown, a heavy layer of coastal fog that envelops everything from the headlands to the peninsula in thick, slate-colored clouds. San Francisco seems to slumber under this shroud, with only the peaks of its bridges and skyscrapers emerging above that mist, that impenetrable cloak that hides San Francisco from the outside world like the lost city of Atlantis. In many ways, San Francisco is an Atlantis — a city set apart from the rest of the United States. It is a sophisticated, technologically advanced utopia, the birthing grounds for miracles of science and software that the rest of the world can only dream of and never truly understand. It is also a nightmarish dystopia of conflict between old and new, tradition and progress: a bastion of progressive idealism and a derelict hulk without the infrastructure to sustain it. San Francisco is all these things at once: old and new, progressive and decaying, Uber-laden and taxi-heavy, space-age and Victorian — and so it makes sense, perhaps, that in the middle of summer, this funereal fog rolls in and drops the temperature so low that software engineers venture out of their overpriced apartments in peacoats. The beauty of San Francisco lives in its contradictions, and the seasons are no exception.
Santa Clarita, CA
It’s probably the years of academia talking, but fall always felt like new beginnings to you, far more than some random month in winter did. January was always an arbitrary line drawn in the Gregorian sand, but fall — fall was when things changed. This feeling has lessened since grad school, in that post-college desert you’re left to wander through without markers or signposts every September. But it never goes away, and especially not in your home town. Eighteen autumns you woke up here ready to embark on something new, something different. And five more falls after that you found yourself, for one reason or another, in Santa Clarita before heading back to school. It’s an incubator, a launching pad, a nest — it’s home. Two valleys removed from Los Angeles, Santa Clarita was amalgamated out of smaller towns in the area, communities knitted together at the seams and now rapidly climbing up the slopes of the hills around them with one tract housing development after another. What used to be mostly onion fields is now mostly sidewalks and wide streets, planned neighborhoods with fake Spanish-sounding names, dozens of chain restaurants, and one large amusement park. It’s also almost literal proof of the fallacy of trickle-down economics: the affluent neighborhood of Stevenson Ranch, where Weeds was filmed and where the streets are all named after famous writers, perches atop the hills to the west, affording its residents a spectacular view of the Santa Clarita Valley and the poorer, older neighborhoods in downtown Newhall or far-flung Canyon Country. But despite its flaws, Santa Clarita is welcoming, inviting, comforting. Maybe it’s the personal history, or maybe it’s the spacious streets. Maybe it’s the old, brick buildings of your high school, or maybe it’s the oak trees in your parents’ backyard. Maybe it’s just a halcyon, nostalgic haze. But like those oaks, Santa Clarita stands tall and central in your mental map of California.
Silicon Valley, CA
The 280 winds like a snake’s spine along the center of the San Francisco Peninsula, cutting northwest from the 101 and straight up to San Francisco. It’s a wide freeway that swoops and swerves through the foothills, revealing majestic vistas of both the hills and the Bay as it barrels on to San Francisco. About a third of the way along this sixty-mile interstate, the hills are split by a deep, perfectly straight cleft that crosses under the freeway at an oblique angle and seems to go on for miles. This is the Stanford Linear Accelerator — SLAC — a two-mile long cannon that blasts electrons from Menlo Park into Palo Alto. It’s also one of the few views of the Valley you get from the 280, since the highway runs through the hills above the cities, but the view is an appropriate one: Silicon Valley often feels like it’s the epicenter of high-energy collisions. SLAC sends electrons hurtling towards each other at ludicrous velocities, creating bursts and bouquets of subatomic particles, and the Silicon Valley has done the same thing with emerging technologies. It was semiconductors first, the silicon itself, huge R&D facilities set up in Santa Clara to soak up talent from Stanford and Berkeley PhD programs. Then massive, Scrooge McDuck piles of money appeared on Sand Hill Road, and more intangible ideas started to grow, drawn and pulled and formed out of the sea of brilliant engineers and venture capitalists like those silicon ingots the decade before. As you travel north in the Valley the technology gets more abstract: from Applied Materials to Intel to Hewlett Packard to Apple, eBay, Google, Facebook, or whatever the hell a company called Kaggle is supposed to do. You come back every fall, as students pour into Stanford, and flow of talent is almost tangible. Engineers come from around the world, descending on the Valley like pilgrims with MacBooks, and the resulting explosion of ideas means tech startups blossom and grow in a spray of creativity. Like any pilgrimage, that means plenty of snake oil vendors and charlatans have set up shop on the roadside, peddling “big data” and “disruption” as if the words themselves held the secret, as if being “mobile” and “local” will save your soul. The Silicon Valley’s soul seems to swing back and forth, from life-changing technologies to $6 lattes, from crucibles of ingots and innovation to hyper-inflated rent, from the soaring hills of the 280 to the roil of molten ideas in the Valley, each screaming and clambering for the chance to be pulled from the froth as that fragile silicon crystal grows and grows and grows.
Las Vegas, NV
Southern Nevada is miserably hot in the summer and miserably cold in the winter, so that leaves only a couple months to visit Las Vegas if you want to soak up the Strip instead of spending your entire trip at a poolside club or in the heated confines of the labyrinthine hotels. But if the weather in Vegas isn’t oppressive in the fall, certainly everything else is. Las Vegas: the words have become a metonym for excess, for a land with lights everywhere, noise everywhere, money everywhere, and a thin golden glitz stretched over every surface like plastic wrap. The Strip is unlike anywhere else in the world, a road where Egyptian pyramids jockey for skyline space with Roman palaces and miniature Manhattans. Everyone wants to sell you something infinite: endless buffets, bottomless drink tickets, innumerable call girls. But the Strip is only four miles long, a mirage constructed in the sand out of sheer force of will, lush with lust and bustling in defiance of the desert around it.
You know Arizona is a desert, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for Flagstaff’s winter. This isn’t Phoenix, where the climate ranges from “pleasantly warm” to “center of the sun.” Flagstaff is high desert, a plateau thrust up seven thousand feet from the sea, and that means it’s fucking cold in the winter. You get there, check in to your hotel — your haunted hotel, if you believe the placard on your room’s nightstand — and venture out into the little brick- and sand-colored downtown, wishing you brought a heavier coat because there are actual snowbanks on the side of the icy road. Christmas lights are strung along facades and electric wreaths hang on old iron streetlights, bathing the streets in a yellow-orange incandescent glow. The word charming keeps popping into your head, because the city looks older than it is, still clinging to frontier town status even as the world’s frontiers, let alone the United States’, disappear. Huddled for warmth in a cozy pub, you can imagine stagecoaches clattering down the streets, even as cars race by on Route 66. The red dust around Flagstaff stretches on for miles, but it may as well be forever, leaving this city a frozen time capsule buried in the hot Arizona sand.
New York, NY
In New York City, at least, you’re prepared to be cold, but the first winter weekend you spend there isn’t nearly as bad as the ice skaters at Rockefeller plaza would make you think. The canyons of Manhattan whistle with winter winds, but it’s early in winter still and it hasn’t snowed yet. The air is crisp, the skies pastel, the streets inked with the blacks and grays of winter coats. Despite the clear skies above, you find New York claustrophobic, in a way: all these people and all these buildings crammed onto Manhattan Island with nowhere to go but up and up and up. Everything you could ever possibly want is in those twenty square miles, but somehow that’s limiting, not liberating. You could live a full life without ever venturing farther north than Harlem — and this is the fact that makes you happy you’re here for a weekend. Not that this makes New York any less captivating, and its sheer size and history and promise live up to your lofty expectations. Even the skyline of the city is spellbinding, each building telling a story about the year it was built: the rectangular financial district towers; the twisting, majestic tower of One World Trade Center; and, of course, the art deco diadem of the Empire State Building. Regardless of the current year or fashion fad, New York is an art deco city, a city centered on geometric shapes and patterns. From the gridline of streets and avenues to the sharp profiles of skyscrapers, the city’s countenance is shaped by human hands — not grown but engineered. Even Central Park, the heaping helping of nature scooped into the trough of Manhattan, is bounded by perfectly rectangular borders. Winter seems to makes these lines clearer, starker, as trees lose their leaves and become another instance of the patterns of lines and angles, a desolate mathematical beauty that begins to merge with the regular tessellation of fire escapes and the crisscrossed burrowing of subway trains.
Los Angeles, CA
Christmas in Los Angeles means something different to you, you who have never celebrated any Christmas, let alone a white one. There’s no muffled snowfall, no bootprints in blanketed white forests — just the normal buzz of traffic and some palm trees with extra tinsel. The city of Los Angeles sprawls across southern California, indolent in the heat, covered by a blanket of azure sky pulled up to the neck of the San Gabriels. Emerald lawns sparkle in the dew of industrial sprinkler systems, bringing color to the lavish front lawns of Beverly Hills, the pristine golf course on Sepulveda Pass, the glamorous cemeteries of the rich and famous. It’s seventy degrees on Christmas day, so you hide in an air conditioned movie theater along with half your suburb. Maybe you think about going to the beach, but the chill of the Pacific knows no season. Winter in Los Angeles is like summer in Los Angeles, the season only given away by the crisp, cold mornings’ condensation on your windshield that turns to rivulets as the sun rises over Mulholland. L.A. will always be strip malls on Ventura Boulevard, will always be houses perched precariously in Laurel Canyon, will always be billboards and lights and freeways. It is timeless, a snow globe without the snow. Unlike San Francisco or New York, cities defined by their geography, the L.A. downtown rises from nothing in the middle of a wide basin, buildings stretching up to pierce the sky like a blossom of crystals. Lattices of concrete and steel build and grow on top of each other, amethyst windowpanes budding and duplicating, and though the landscape changes, to you this wonderland is always the same, always home, in a way that nothing else will ever be. To you, it is truly crystallized, lapidified, and though crystal-gazers will stare at this snow globe trying to pierce the veil of celebrity and scry the next trend poised to erupt from Los Angeles and ripple over the country, the warm winters remind you that L.A. will always be there as you remember it, always be there when you need it.
It takes you a while to make it to Chicago, despite its promise and its prominence. O’Hare and Midway seem to be just that — midway, stopping points on journeys elsewhere. Even once you reach Chicago, the city takes its time to reveal itself. It seems backwards, twisted, because it runs headlong into an endless body of water on the east, not the west. But once you travel down the Chicago River, the buildings unfold. The water runs through skyscrapers and high rises like a twisting river through a canyon, cutting a path through glass and steel and concrete the way a stream wears down rock and stone. The walls of this constructed canyon are tall, perilously steep, and getting taller everywhere as cranes sweep back and forth in a delicate ballet of ballast and beams. Every turn of the river reveals new views, new petals of Chicago’s blooming skyline. The downtown district seems massive, full of skyscrapers everywhere you look, and you feel like an explorer on a boat through uncharted territory. Between the modern mirrored glass facades are glimpses back in time, staid concrete behemoths as well preserved as Sue the tyrannosaurus. Older buildings, adorned and crenelated, face jutting slabs of sparse modernism, and through it all the river winds on and on until it deposits you at the edge of the steel blossom, back in districts with wide streets and brick low rises, the wind rising off the lake and pushing you away from downtown, back west, faster than you wanted it to push.
It’s green in Eugene — so many shades of green that you struggle to describe them all, the emeralds and jades and celadons that cover everything, even seem to tint the slate, overcast skies. But the greens are deep, rich; none of the shades are sickly or yellowed or look anything other than acutely alive. The city looks alive, too, and like it emerged from the ground, shouldering aside vines and trees as it thrust and clawed upwards. The land in Eugene wasn’t bulldozed and leveled and constructed on — the buildings emerged as part of the landscape, draped in verdure like a cloak. The effect is more primordial than houses have a right to be, but Eugene nevertheless feels lush and somehow old, a somnolent titan waking from underneath the earth and slowly shrugging off the moss.
The size and grandeur of Montana are spellbinding. You’ve spent the last three days driving here from California, watching the landscape transform from redwood forests to the Columbia River gorge, then swell into the rolling hills of eastern Washington and the lakes and valleys of Idaho. But Montana is on an entirely different scale than anything else you’ve driven through, like someone found the corner of the landscape and dragged it up and out, scaling everything up and up and up. From a distance, the Rocky Mountains seem impossibly large, behemoth stone gargoyles perched on the horizon; at their feet the Rockies are simply unfathomable. It’s still chilly before Memorial Day, and Glacier National Park still looks the part, with snowdrifts in the upper crevasses of the mountains that make them seem even larger, even more looming. Glacier is a place where nature dominates, and the manmade additions — the giant lodges, the enormous cabins, the roads blasted through the rock — simply pale in comparison. Every winter Montana swallows them up one by one, yet every spring the lodges and roads are thawed and returned to civilization, doled back out as if for good behavior. The cycle goes on, year after year. Freeze and thaw, melt and ice. Winter and summer and winter again, season after season, our cities standing like pillars of rock amid crashing ocean waves.