Dawn McElligott: Philly to L.A. – The First Step is a Doozy

by Dawn McElligott

In February 2017, I was living in Greater Philadelphia and working at a global not-for-profit organization. The pay was low, the work was hard, and I was having tension headaches. Relief came in the form of feedback on the 2016 People’s Pilot contest from a distinguished gentleman with the initials, LB. The gist of the feedback was that the script showed enough professionalism to earn a staff writing position on a TV show but moving to Los Angeles was the first step.

By late March, I was ready to take that step. I quit my job, notified the landlord and started sorting my belongings. It took me two weeks of non-stop work to donate my used furniture to various charities and pack what I could take in the car. I borrowed money from a retirement plan for the journey. Finally, my car was packed a little after 5 pm on April 5, 2017.

I set the GPS for 200 Santa Monica Pier. Pulling out of the apartment house parking lot, I felt like I was blasting off for the moon. I drove as far as I could that evening. Fearing the effects of fatigue, I pulled over for the night and stayed at a low-budget inn. I had gotten as far as Shanksville, PA, the final resting place of Flight 93. Not exactly a good omen, but I took it to mean this was a significant journey.

The next morning, I headed out into the rain and drove to West Virginia. I had lunch at a McDonald’s restaurant. Returning to my car, an older, bearded man laughed heartily at, I suppose, my bumper stickers promoting the Hillary Clinton campaign. He got into his black pickup truck and drove away. I continued my journey too, reaching another small town, outside of St. Louis, MO, the following night.

The next morning as I prepared to leave the Comfort Inn, my Hillary Clinton bumper stickers yielded pairs of raised eyebrows from the older man and his wife, parked next to my car. Nevertheless, they seemed good natured and jovial, understanding that interstate highways bring all sorts of people together, even liberals and conservatives. They drove away and so did I.

Throughout the drive, I had too much time to think about dead relatives and friends that had passed away. In the solitude of my vehicle, I simply cried about my losses and fears for my future. Driving without the distractions of local traffic, allowed me to cry out numerous frustrations.

I might have wept out the heartaches that led to the tension headaches in Philadelphia. I began to realize why road trip movies had been so popular, years ago. Driving long distances does force introspection. The physical journey becomes a spiritual one.

Around New Mexico, I start to regret my decision not to buy a GoPro for the car. I would have picked up such spectacular footage! New Mexico’s tranquility informs me why it’s called “The Land of Enchantment.” I imagine my great loved and loving Shepherd-Rottweiler, “Punkin,” dead since 2014, reliving her youth by running happily throughout the valleys.

On Sunday, April 9, I set out from Albuquerque, NM to drive as far West as I could. I drove into Arizona and saw my first road signs, saying Los Angeles was a certain distance, 500 miles or so. What a welcome sight! I felt tired as I drove through Arizona, but I was determined to reach California, that evening.

As twilight descended, I arrived at the state’s westernmost frontier. The setting sun gilded the pointy peaks of the mountains before me, adding drama and an air of fantasy to the long-anticipated drive over the Colorado River, into Needles, CA. Hollywood couldn’t have staged a more dramatic entrance into the Golden State. Alas, no GoPro!

Not seeing any Comfort Inns or any other predictable, franchise establishments, I continued westward, despite the fatigue, until reaching Barstow. In Barstow I stayed at a hotel, part of a well-known chain. Undergoing major repairs, the inn appeared to be as close to collapsing as I was. Waking up the next morning, I realized that neither I, nor the hotel, was in a pile of rubble. It seemed like a good sign to me.

After paying the bill, I headed for my car in the parking lot. A lady parked next to mine said to me, “I love your bumper stickers… we tried.” We chatted for a bit and she left. I knew I was in a better place. I headed for Santa Monica. A traffic jam caused me to pull off the freeway in El Monte.

I found a business that does oil changes and car washes. When I paid for both, the cashier urged me to sit outside at a cute, little table in the warm sun. This was in high contrast to East Coast oil changes where I’ve been stuck indoors, pouring non-dairy creamer into coffee brewed during the Spanish-American War. Now, I was in the Golden State. Sipping soda outdoors, watching people towel dry my Hyundai Tucson, I thought of the new world I was entering.

I continued further until reaching the destination on my GPS: 200 Santa Monica Pier. A decade and a half earlier, I had lived in Anaheim but had to go back East when the Southern California economy collapsed in 2002. Now I did something I’d been waiting to do ever since. I waded along the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Too exhausted to spend the rest of the day looking for an apartment, I treated myself to tacos, beer and conversation with the gentleman at the next table. It turned out that he had been raised in a small town next to Monroe, NY, where I’d grown up. He appeared to be an out of work actor, and in spite of facing homelessness himself, he wished me great success as he left with a wave and a “Welcome to L.A.!”

During much of the drive, I’d been afraid Southern Californians would see me only as “a woman of a certain age” arriving in Tinseltown too late for the party.  I’d thought of them as having arrived before me because they were more successful, alpha types who would see me as a failure upon arrival. I’d even envisioned them locking arms to prevent my entry into the City of the Angels.

As I watched the man go, it came to me that I was being hurt by old prejudices that I had to shed. Nobody here was trying to stop me. The only person I had to overcome was myself.


Dawn McElligott is a an award-winning writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia and other points East. You can learn more about her HERE