A Trip to Balboa Park

I’m normally a very solitary person, but when it comes to day trips, there is nothing better than traveling with friends.

Yesterday, Mia, Bubba, and I went to Balboa Park in San Diego. I had an absolutely fantastic time, and even though the museums and gardens were fun, the main reason for that is because my friends were with me. Together, we had a blast, a riot, and all those other words that mean a good time.

We woke up insanely early (Mia would call it an ungodly hour), even though most of the museums didn’t open until 10 am. We killed time at 6 in the morning at Mission Beach.

Since we don’t live close to the ocean (in fact we live in a veritable desert) Bubba and I took this opportunity to stride into the water. That early in the morning, the water was cold, but we didn’t care.

Well, we did, we froze our elbows off, but we pushed forward anyway.

Wincing and yelping with every frigid wave that hit us, the three of us collected shells to while away the time.

Afterwards, we changed into less wet clothes and stopped off at a place called Olive Tree Market before going to Balboa. That market makes the most amazing sandwiches I’ve ever had. I got this one called the Picasso. It’s this pesto chicken monstrosity that’s to die for.

Bubba and Mia let me take a picture to showcase the deliciousness of the sandwiches.

You know you have good friends when they let you take a pic of them in a pose mid-bite.

After those stomach-pleasing sandwiches, we drove on to Balboa Park.

As soon as we arrived, the most magical thing happened. Two friendly squirrels approached us.

Some people say I’m far too taken with little animals (you know who you are), but at that moment, I wasn’t paying attention to those people’s voices in my head. Those squirrels were begging to be AWWWWWWW-ed over.

The squirrels distracted us for a while, but the gardens and museums soon pulled us away.

For those of you who don’t know, Balboa Park is essentially a collection of museums and gardens in one location. There are a minimum of sixteen museums there. During our trip, we only visited five places.

The first stop on our journey was the Botanical Building. It’s a huge building comprised entirely of slats, allowing filtered sunlight to shine through the roof. Plants are everywhere, obviously, and the smell is fantastic. You’re in shade most of the time thanks to the lush foliage. Bubba, Mia, and I had fun ambling through the garden. We especially liked the Scratch-and-Sniff section, filled with small plants you can touch and smell. One of them smelled exactly like maple syrup.

After having our fill of chlorophyll, we made our way to the Museum of Natural History. We spent a huge amount of time there because we got so distracted by the exhibits. A lot of them were designed with kids in mind, and…well, that kind of catered to us. Bubba and I spent an embarrassing amount of time playing with these plastic skulls with movable jaws (meant to demonstrate differences in bone structure), making them lip-synch to us singing Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling .”

Mia, who had recently visited the museum, led us to a section on the third floor with a book collection. It contained a bunch of old books people wrote when they were observing natural phenomena. The one that caught my eye the most was one about trapdoor spiders. A man named Lee Passmore wrote about them, and he actually made me interested enough to consider finding more of his work later on.

We also visited a section that showcased a bunch of dead animals in jars. That was…creepy. But fun at the same time.

After realizing we couldn’t spend as much time in a single museum as we had if we wanted to see more, we moved on to the Science Center. That place is awesome. When I was a kid, my parents took me there a couple of times. It’s mainly geared toward kids, but, as we already know, that didn’t deter Mia, Bubba, or me.

We fiddled with electronic devices, practiced Morse Code, studied optical illusions, participated in a marble vortex of death, whispered to each other across a large room using echo devices, tossed discs onto a larger spinning disc, experimented with solar power, all that jazz. It was the most interactive portion of our trip.

However, the museum I was most excited for was the San Diego Museum of Art. The first time I had ever visited Balboa Park, we went to this museum and looked at all the pieces in their turn. None of them really called to me because I was an ignorant child who much preferred the Science Center’s activities to staring at portraits. Plus, things like Abstract Expressionism annoy me.

However, there was one piece of art I absolutely adored. The moment I looked at it, I was hypnotized, unable to look away. It oozed majesty, mystery, and integrity.

It’s called “Caged Pie.”

So during this trip, the one thing I knew I had to do was find it again. Bubba, Mia, and I explored every gallery, and in each room, I searched for Caged Pie. When I found it, it was everything I hoped it would be. You could see the even white brush strokes in the background, the dark colors of the pie juices, and the edges of the glass cage.

I don’t know what the picture “means.” I just know that I like it.

We saw other pieces of art at the museum, but that was the one I anticipated the most. I went to the museum’s gift shop afterwards and bought five postcards of Caged Pie for myself.

We were getting very tired with all the walking around at this point. So we decided to cap our trip with a peaceful amble through the Japanese Friendship Garden. I wish we had more time to appreciate the elegance of the garden, but the walk was still enjoyable. There were at least two koi ponds, filled with brilliantly colored koi, a bonsai tree altar, and rock pathways galore.

The only thing that “marred” our time in the garden was the man playing the organ in the amphitheater nearby. The Japanese Friendship Garden is right next to this open-air organ. Whoever was playing it was playing frenzied renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite. It ruined the mood, but it did make us laugh.

And at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a few laughs.

The “The Tar” Tar Pits

People should be a little more conscious of foreign languages when they name places. “La brea” can be translated to “the tar” from Spanish to English. So, the La Brea Tar Pits are technically called the The Tar Tar Pits.

Honestly, I’m kind of fond of this name.

I love anything having to do with dinosaurs, so when I went to visit a friend of mine in Los Angleles, he took me to see the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, I know the animals that perished in the tar pits aren’t technically dinosaurs, but they are, however minimally, connected to the idea of dinosaurs. They belong to an era not our own. They’re otherwordly, fantastical creatures that once walked the earth.

You know how coffee lovers get stimulated by the scent of freshly-ground coffee beans? That’s me at the sight of fossils. Even if they’re casts of fossils.

The exterior of the La Brea Tar Pits
Morbid mammoth models meant to traumatize children

When we first arrived at the pits, there was this thick, noxious smell pervading the entire area. I thought it was the smell of nearby LA traffic.

It’s not.

The tar pits reek.

It’s not technically tar bubbling behind those fenced-off areas. It’s natural asphalt. Mounds of asphalt rim the pits, looking for all the world like ordinary street bumps. If you ignore the stench and approach the largest pit (called the Lake Pit), a model mammoth has been placed in the “tar,” sinking to its fake death. To up the drama of this staged moment, model mammoth family members stand at the pit’s edge, reaching out with their trunks to their doomed brethren.

Aside from the pits that pock-mark the area, the surroundings are extremely pleasant. Rolling hills are reminiscent of your average park. Some families even congregate for picnics on these grassy knolls.

Part of the La Brea Tar Pits is a museum. It’s rather small, but it’s filled with the bones of La Brea victims.

Giant Sloth skeleton

I never knew sloths could be so huge.

There’s even a display case that shows more than a thousand skulls of dire wolves that have been discovered in the pits.

Dire wolf display case

Apparently, these wolves sank into the tar trying to nibble on other unfortunate animals and in the process of doing so, they became unfortunate animals too.

The mammoth skeleton is what really caught my heart. When you stand next to it, it completely and totally dwarfs you. It’s clearly larger than an elephant, and it gave me a bit of my dinosaur fix.

Mammoth Skeleton

It’s not always a soothing experience to be humbled, but when it comes to facing the massive remains of what used to be, I say bring on the humility! The mammoth skeleton was a towering edifice to former beings, and I’m always grateful to be reminded of just how small I am in the grand scheme of things.

Surprisingly, the funniest part of my trip to La Brea occurred as my friend and I were walking outside amongst the outer pits. We came across a two-feet-by-two-feet square fence that appeared to be randomly placed on one of the hills. As we approached it, we found that the fence guarded a small circle of tar that’s beginning to emerge from underground.

It’s mind-numbing to think that the next time I go to the La Brea Tar Pits, yet another pit may have oozed from beneath the earth.