Essay: A Search For Perfection Ends with More Questions Than Answers

Looking for Shangri-La and a delicious corned beef sandwich from years gone by.
Illustration by Pete Ryan

I have a confession: I’m obsessed. But with what is hard to explain.Years ago, I was on one of my epic bike rides in Orange County when I made a random turn, somewhere I wouldn’t normally go, just to see what was down there. I found myself on a circular street, at the bottom of a hill, with a cluster of picture-perfect homes under a canopy of trees that seemed to stretch a mile high, a scene of rustic splendor that might have been lifted from my home state of Pennsylvania.

I thought, “I’ve got to come here again.”

That was long ago. Today, I have no idea where that place is.

If you’re at all obsessive, like me, you can see how that could morph into infatuation. I remember being there, but not going there; savoring the view, but not how to see it again. Now I’m determined to find those beautiful homes, on that circular street, under a soaring canopy of trees.

Weirdly, the pandemic has made this easier. I used to ride my bike to work each day, half an hour in the morning and again in the evening. Most days, I didn’t have the time or energy for recreational riding. But I’m working from home now, and my lunch hour can be a 60-minute bike ride anywhere I choose—honoring social guidelines.

I’ve begun a systematic search, going everywhere I remember going, making odd turns and discovering what lies there. I’ve made some delightful discoveries along the way. Florence Joyner Olympiad Park. Jeronimo Open Space. The hills over Lake Mission Viejo. The Oso Creek Trail. South County is a mecca for cyclists, honeycombed with paths, trails, and sly, secret passages.

But there’s no sign of that circular street.

I expand the search, taking advantage of weekends and holidays for more ambitious ventures. I used to live in Irvine, and before that in Costa Mesa. Maybe the street was in an old neighborhood or old-neighborhood-
adjacent? I jump on my bike and revisit my old haunts in Irvine, making a wide, looping curve, taking a shortcut back on the San Diego Creek Trail, following a watercourse that cuts through town. I follow Shady Canyon Drive south from the 405, where cars are blocked by a guard gate, but cyclists can ride right through on a descending trail that goes all the way to Turtle Rock, full of searchable tree-lined hills. I power up San Joaquin Hills Road, with a panoramic view of wilderness and ocean.

Still, my quest is unfulfilled. I’m squinting at my Thomas Guide (yes, I still use one), looking for streets that sound familiar, places I might have traveled in years past, odd turns and curving roads in nice but forgotten locations. I despair of ever finding it.

Then a strange thing happens.

I’m doing a close-to-home ride, just for fun. I’m on Serrano headed home, at the tail end of the day’s travels. South of Serrano is a neighborhood surrounded by woods, homes plunked down in a sprawling forest, like the Shire from “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s an obvious place for my tree-lined street, but it can’t be there because it’s too close, too obvious. Plus, I’ve already searched it thoroughly—haven’t I?

On impulse, I turn down one particular street, following its curve, making a turn that seems unexpected but making it anyway, going on instinct. I round the bend, coasting downhill, and before my eyes …

A circular street. A row of beautiful homes. A canopy of trees that seems to stretch a mile high. The street is called Sleepy Hollow Terrace, which doesn’t sound familiar except for that story by Washington Irving, which might be why I overlooked it. I thought it sounded familiar for literary reasons, not personal ones. Now I’m looking at that street, sublime and secluded, a street that matches all my criteria and is glorious to behold.

But here’s the thing: It’s not the right street. It doesn’t match the feeling, the memory, that intangible sense of “Oh my God!” that should accompany the end of my search. There’s no thrill of discovery, no sense of completion. Close, but no cigar.

Unless …

I’m reminded of a story about my dad.

He knew a guy in Pittsburgh who was always talking about the corned beef sandwiches from a deli on 42nd Street in New York City. They were the best sandwiches ever; nothing else came close. As luck would have it, Dad went to New York on a business trip, and he looked up that 42nd Street deli. He got a corned beef sandwich, packed it in ice, and brought it back and gave it to the guy. His response?

“This is pretty good. But it’s not like that deli on 42nd Street; nothing else even comes close.”

Here’s my question: Am I doing the same thing? Has that tree-lined street become a hopeless ideal, an image so perfect that no street can match it? Have I failed to recognize the actual street, because nothing could equal what it has become in my imagination? Maybe it’s like Shangri-La, a land we can dream about but never quite find.

Maybe dreams we can’t achieve are part of who we are, what drives us to push our limits, to strive for goals beyond our reach. Maybe I’ll never find that street because I’ve already found it and didn’t even recognize it. Maybe it can’t be recognized.

And maybe it doesn’t matter.

I’m still out there searching, plotting future adventures with my Thomas Guide, with all of Orange County to investigate. I like to call it a healthy obsession. How about a trip to Laguna Beach? There’s a place there that has great corned beef sandwiches.

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