America and Me: A Trip to the Real Country Called Cachuma Lake


We are nearing Cachuma Lake. Huge green hills are on either side of me. I can see them outside the freeway through the windshield, bushes spotting around, and everything is bald-looking.
“Mark! America!” says my dad, sitting in the driver seat. He feels entitled to drive fast. He owns an Acura TSX. It sits low and gropes the ground around hard turns. We pass a lake and the San Lucas Ranch, where a sizeable American flag stands and waves in the wind, fronting an open green field. We’re driving to Cambria, a small town just outside of San Luis Obispo. But first my parents plan to stop by Solvang, a small mini-Danish-town with old cuckoo bird clocks and veal hot dogs.
“This is America,” my dad keeps saying. This is his way of asking me to take a photograph. And he doesn’t stop saying it. His repetition of the word “America” begins to sound more like over-patriotic, flag-painted nails grabbling at sand paper than the English language. So, sometimes I miss the photo request on purpose. I miss the big dip on the freeway and the way that our perspective in the car and the distance of the mountains and hills make everything look miniature. I miss the Dodge pickup truck driving down an open field off the side of the freeway. I miss the lake, seemingly low on water, with sticks, shoots and bamboo-looking things peeking out from the top of the waterline.
Immediately after we park our car in Solvang, I ask a nice lady who works at a clothing store if she can tell me where the nutcracker statue is. She has no idea, but tells me that maybe that I should check Alisal Road. We walk a few blocks over to Alisal and I ask a young girl at an ice cream shop if she can tell me where it is. She directs me to the visitor information center a few doors down the street. I don’t buy any ice cream. Instead, I buy a yoyo, an all-beef hot dog and charms for beaded bracelets.
The buildings in Solvang are traditional German-style. They have high, angular ceilings, crosshatched patterns of wood on their fronts and a large, white windmill broods over the whole town. We used to own an old cuckoo bird clock from here and visited often when I was younger. I don’t remember much about those trips, but I’ve been told that there is a picture of me from Solvang with the oversized nutcracker statue. My parents are excited to see the nutcracker again. This is their chance to recapture memories from my childhood and to physically find them and hold onto them, as if saying, “Yes, Mark, you don’t remember, but you’ve been here.”
At the visitor information center, an older blonde woman calls me “guy” when I ask her about the nutcracker. She says she’s never heard of it in the entire two years she’s been working in Solvang.
On the car ride home, my mom sits in the backseat. We drive away from Alisal Road and begin to go the wrong way on the highway toward Cambria. We leave with small trinkets, books and ice cream in our stomachs. We’ve been defeated. We couldn’t find the nutcracker. “There’s no more. He’s gone. They must have chopped him up,” mom says.
In the front passenger seat, I think about what my mom said. For a second, I feel mildly sad for having just been cheated of reliving some repressed childhood memory. “Chopped up,” I think to myself. I wonder what the nutcracker’s last pleas would have been, or if he would even be able to vocalize pleas if he had any, given that his mouth was wooden and meant only for cracking nuts. I wonder if he thought about me, in his last moments. Maybe he was just thinking about nuts. I envision him full-bodied, wooden, hardly recognizable in so many bloody pieces and kidnapped from his post in this decent Danish town while leaving behind a loving family of nutcrackettes. Then I think this truly is America.

In this article