Racing the Technicolor sunset to the top of Mount Hollywood, my wife, our oldest daughter and I were total tourists. Hundreds of eager kids and adults had gathered at the mountain's peak for the Public Star Party on the sprawling front lawn of the Griffith Observatory. As the half moon rose to the south, local astronomers shared their telescopes—many huge, some homemade. Lines of curious viewers snaked in every direction, peering through the scopes to peek at our solar system.
The lighting was muted, so our eyes got used to the dark. We saw a brilliant Jupiter and her moons. We saw the dark plains and craters on our own moon. The famous Hollywood sign stood across a steep eastern canyon, its letters an eerie off-white in the lunar reflection. Even car headlights, twisting along the mountain's roads below, were exciting to watch. Pounding rock 'n' roll music rose from the Greek Theatre, close by on the western hillside. The Progressive Nation tour—a sold-out night of epic anthems from bands like Dream Theater and Frank Zappa's oldest son, Dweezil—offered a fitting score.
Along the crests of the next mountain range over, The Station Fire—the 10th-largest fire in California's history—raced, dancing bright and erratic. For us spectators, it was visually stunning, flaring red and orange, a stark contrast with the infinitely shiny, blinking grid of the Los Angeles Basin highways in the other direction. By night's end, half of the telescopes were trained on those raging fires. For the rest of our visit, the fire and the smoke, the brave firefighters and the evacuated families were on everyone's mind.
But we weren't there to be tourists. Rather, our life change was happening 10 miles to the south. My youngest daughter was attending her first student-only dorm meeting as a college freshman. Her family was on its own. While she hiked in the desert and dipped in the Pacific Ocean during preorientation, we GPS'ed around LA, waiting for the official family orientation three days later. We had dinner with friends who live off Sunset Boulevard in Paul Revere and the Raiders' old party house. We saw a play. We took a few wrong turns. Intrafamily text messages flew furiously. The Target list reached 39 items, from specific rolling plastic drawers to door hooks. Checking things off such lists is always the easy part.
On the last afternoon, my wife and I plopped down, exhausted, on a sofa in the dorm's commons room. Four guys were watching a football game. West Coast sports action: Go Lakers (or Clippers)! Go Dodgers! A minute into the "game," I noticed the kids were waving Wii controllers. It had looked real to me. Time to go, I supposed.
All summer long, we've been playing the California classics: Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.," anything by Brian Wilson, the Ramones cover of "California Sun." But who knew that Miley Cyrus would nail the situation with her introduction to "Party in the USA"? "I hopped off the plane at LAX, with a dream and my cardigan/ Welcome to the land of fame excess. Am I gonna fit in?"
I just can't wait until Thanksgiving break, when we'll find out.