Friday, June 6, 2008

How I Got to Ohio

A ShysterBall reader asked me the other day why I lived in Ohio (he actually asked me why anyone would live in Ohio, but I can't really answer that question). The short answer is that I'm here because I went to Ohio State for college and decided that, after three years of law school in D.C., Columbus was a nice compromise between my country upbringing in West Virginia and the increasingly annoying big city. How I got to Ohio State, however, is a longer story.

Aside from a couple of semesters of messing around at commuter schools, neither of my parents went to college. Neither did my grandparents. Neither did most of my friends' parents or any of my neighbors. While my folks weren't themselves blue collar, we just happened to live in places where blue collar people could make a decent living, so college just wasn't a major factor in anyone's life. Still, once I started getting good grades and scoring really high on achievement tests as a kid, it was always sort of assumed that I'd go someday, even if no one really planned for it. Really, we were all kind of casually ignorant about the whole process.

Despite some struggles with math and science, my overall grades were above average. I scored respectably if unremarkably on the SAT and ACT exams. On the power of those things, nearby Concord College and Marshall University sent me letters offering tuition waivers during the summer before my senior year, so it seemed that at the very least, I would be going somewhere. Not that I was all that enthusiastic about staying in West Virginia for college. Neither a Marshall nor Concord degree really travels, and the career pickings for those staying near home were pretty damn slim. Unless I wanted to teach school in Beckley – which had actually crossed my mind for a while – I knew I needed to go out of state.

So I sent away for applications from a half dozen places like UVA, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and UNC, with the idea being that (1) if I went to school out of state, I would want to be within a day's drive of home; and (2) if I didn't know what the hell I wanted to do with my life (I didn't), I had better go someplace big where I would have a lot of options. I received unsolicited packages from dozens of other places, mostly smaller liberal arts colleges in Virginia and Ohio. Over the course of a few weeks I tried to imagine what each of these places would be like. Given that the only concrete information I had to go on in those pre-Internet days was their brochures, they all seemed like they'd be nice, leafy places with stately buildings and a charmingly multicultural student body.

I was far more concerned with how I was going to pay for it all. Having moved several times, Mom and Dad were never more than a couple of years into a thirty year mortgage and, let's face it, we had always lived a little bit above our means via credit card debt. We took a lot of nice vacations, but as a result, there wasn't a college fund waiting for me upon graduation. As such, I was looking at either a scholarship or hefty loans. While I ultimately went with the latter option, I ran out all of the ground balls on the former one, which included a several-month flirtation with the ROTC.

Not that I was enamored with the military. To the contrary, by virtue of typical teenage rebellion and the fact that most of the considerable amounts of pop culture I had consumed growing up was informed by Boomer-era anti-establishment sensibility, I had quite the aversion to the military. This despite the fact that my grandfather, father, and brother had all served in the Navy. I may have been painfully naive, but as far as I was concerned, the liberals, punks, and hippies were right about everything that mattered, and the military was full of wannabe Nazi squares, with the possible exception of my brother. The Kurt Vonnegut books I had recently gotten into didn't help matters.

Still, I was either cynical or deluded enough to think that I could endure four or five years in the military if it meant a free college education. After all, if I were to take an ROTC scholarship I would likely be an office bound officer as opposed to some piece of cannon fodder. If things got bad enough once I started active duty I could just pretend to be gay or crazy and get myself booted. Finally, thinking that in the event a war broke out I'd rather have the bad guys shooting at whatever it was I was driving as opposed to shooting at me personally, I sent off applications to the Navy and Air Force ROTC programs.

The Air Force must have just been giving them away, because they responded almost immediately, offering me a scholarship and telling me that I could go to any college I wanted as long as I majored in computer science or engineering. This struck me as crazy. I mean, they already had my transcripts, so they must have seen my dreadful math and science grades when they made their offer, right? Grades aren't everything -- mine may have been more a function of my lack-of-interest as opposed to a lack-of-aptitude -- but on what possible basis could anyone conclude that I'd make a good engineer? The Navy seemed to have their shit together a bit better. They took longer to respond, but when they did they conditioned my scholarship on my passing a series of aptitude tests.

That October, my Dad and I drove down to Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Virginia where they would be administered. Though I wouldn't be obligated to go to VT even if I got the scholarship, my observations of the place gave me serious pause about the whole endeavor. Virginia Tech's ROTC program was different than most. They call it the "Corp of Cadets," and it's run like a mini-West Point rather than some unpopular extracurricular program. As I walked around Blacksburg that day I saw nothing but overclocked adrenaline junkies in their pressed gray uniforms yelling "boo-yah!" and the like to each other at every opportunity. It wasn't the sort of thing that made me want to join their ranks, but I took my tests – passing them all – and a few weeks later got essentially the same offer from the Navy that I did from the Air Force.

While I tried to figure out if I could actually stomach the life of a military engineer, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. President Bush sent my brother (and a few others) to the Persian Gulf to straighten it all out, and suddenly being a cheerleader for the military was no longer unfashionable. I worked at a radio station at the time (more on that in another post), and that fall I was tasked with playing hastily-recorded, jingoistic anthems by guys like Hank Williams, Jr. Mom and Dad took to watching CNN 24 hours a day. After more than 15 years of the post-Viet Nam blahs, everyone was war crazy again. While I'm certain that there were a dozen other things that would have eventually caused me to reject the ROTC scholarships anyway, the outbreak of the war is what ultimately turned me off to the whole idea, and it all came to a head one morning in Columbus, Ohio.

I had recently been accepted to Ohio State, and Dad and I drove up to visit the campus and the ROTC program to see if it was the right place for me. It was January 17, 1991. The fighting in Kuwait had started the evening before, and Dad and I had watched it unfolding in real time from our hotel room. While we would have preferred to stay glued to the TV, we had an appointment with the Ohio State's Commandant at 9AM, so we reluctantly came to campus that morning.

Upon arriving at the ROTC building, we passed a student lounge with a television tuned into the war coverage, surrounded by a couple dozen of uniformed cadets. Cheers and high fives erupted with each bomb blast and Tomahawk missile strike. The cadets' glee at the outbreak of war was obscene to me, and not just because I was a anti-establishment kid conditioned to think such a thing by Boomer culture. I had a brother there. Though it would soon become the popular – albeit erroneous – consensus that the first Gulf War was an unequivocally righteous and bloodless triumph, I knew that each of those blasts meant the deaths of several people. No matter if they were Iraqis, Americans, angels, or Nazis, this was nothing to be cheered.

Leaving the lounge, Dad and I went to meet with the Commandant. He was a nice enough fellow who was far more scholarly than I would have expected. Still, he couldn't go three sentences without making excited reference to the day's carnage, no doubt thinking it would help him sell me on the scholarship and his program. I was getting sick to my stomach as the conversation continued, tuning him out until it was eventually just him and Dad talking.

We wrapped up our meeting and walked outside to take a stroll around the campus. The farther we got from the ROTC building the better I felt. By the time we made it across the Oval and down to Mirror Lake, I knew that I wasn't going to be taking any ROTC scholarship. Having made this decision, I was overtaken with relief. A positive mojo beam from deep within me, bouncing off the buildings and back at me, intensifying the euphoria. I hated those bastards at the ROTC building, but I was liking Ohio State, because it was the first place I had felt content about college and my future since the whole process had begun.

I didn't tell Dad that I wouldn't be taking the ROTC scholarship for a few days. He wasn't particularly happy about it – it meant some huge college debt was in the offing – but he didn't give me much grief either.

Within a few weeks I would receive rejection letters from Michigan and Virginia (justified, in my view, based on my lackluster SAT scores) and acceptances from Penn State, North Carolina, and a couple of small liberal arts colleges that I was never really considering. Having been in the south for a few years and wanting out, going to North Carolina seemed like a step in the wrong direction. Another gigantic state school, Penn State seemed interchangeable with Ohio State in my mind, but got demerits for being in the middle of nowhere. Of course, given the good vibes I had felt at Ohio State that January morning, I had pretty much made my decision already.

I moved into the dorms at Ohio State on September 21, 1991, started classes four days later, and graduated on June 9, 1995. For all of the stuff you hear about big football schools, I think I got a pretty fabulous education. Following three years of law school in Washington, I moved back and have been here ever since.

There's a lot I like about it. There's a lot I don't like so much. Either way, I've now lived in Columbus longer than anywhere else, so there's no denying that it's home.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Epilogue and Forward Ho

I went back to work a week after getting back off the road. While I'd like to say that I grew as a person as a result of my experiences, the truth is that I still look out the window and daydream too much. I've been at this job for five years now -- nearing ten years as a lawyer overall -- and while I am far less prone to existential angst these days, most of the time I feel like I would be happier doing other things. I think most lawyers feel that way, honestly, and the ones that don't aren't the sort of people you really want to talk to.

But things are better. Until my road trip, I struggled to simply get through the day most of the time. Now I have something to get me through when the going gets tough. Two somethings, actually:

Anna was born on December 15, 2003. Carlo followed on July 19, 2005. They and their mother are the best things that have or ever will happen to me. When they're old enough I'm going to take them out west and show them how a big sky and all the time in the world to ponder it makes life's problems feel pretty small. Until then, we're just going to have fun.

The other thing that keeps me sane is writing. I sort of lost momentum at my new firm last year. ShysterBall saved me. Now, no matter how bleak things get at the office, I have something to look forward to every day. It's hacky to quote Whitman about this, but I'll do it anyway because it's true: "It's our game - the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us." Maybe it's not as much the American game now as it was in Whitman's time, but it's still true for me.

But it's not just baseball, it's writing about it. Actually, as I've found over the past month or two in this space, it's writing about anything. Everything. Writing is the one thing I do better than almost anyone in the law and is probably my only distinct talent in life at large. I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, but I suppressed that, because I didn't know any writers and didn't really think it was a job that real people actually did. Writers, I assumed, lived on other planets with rock stars, athletes and cowboys. You couldn't just become one. You had to be one already.

I know that's not true now. Sure, it's still a pretty tough trick to make a living at it. I'm not even close to that yet, but it probably doesn't matter. I've been paid for a handful of writings in the past year, but the fact of payment added exactly nothing to the experience for me. For me it's all about getting an idea, transferring it from my head to the screen, and working to polish and complete it. Making a living at this would be wonderful, but I get the same sense of accomplishment writing one of these installments for an audience of 50 as I do writing a book review for the New York Post that will be seen by half a million.

And really, that's what this space is for: writing for the hell of it. I have some odd autobiographical things I've always wanted to write down, so you'll see some of those going forward. I'm going to do my best to keep this from becoming an excessively bloggy space, but I might put down the random news-inspired thought here from time to time as well. I'm going to do my best to put something new up once a week or so, but don't hold me to it. If there hasn't been anything new in a while, click over to ShysterBall to make sure I'm still alive. If I am, come back later. There will be something new eventually.

I hope you enjoyed reading the story of my little trip as much as I enjoyed writing it. For those of you whose minds are still on the road, the pics from the trip can be found here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 14

We woke up late, got showers, and headed out in search of a bookstore and then breakfast. The bookstore was to figure out where to eat breakfast, because neither of us had an Austin city guide of any kind. We found a great bookstore near the UT campus and an even better breakfast at a place called Trudy's. The people watching was pretty interesting too. There's a definite Texas type, even in an otherwise oddball town like Austin. Every man's hair is neat -- I suspect hairspray is involved -- and every woman is blond and essentially beautiful in a very different way than blonds are usually beautiful. Striking, yes, but almost alien in some important but indescribable way. There were many couples with matching polo shirts. It was just an odd scene.

We found a more suitable hotel after breakfast -- the Radisson at the corner of Congress and Caesar Chavez -- dropped our stuff off, and went walking around. Sixth Street is the main drag of bars and music clubs and we figured we'd spend the day and evening hanging around there. As luck would have it, the biannual Old Pecan Street Festival was happening that weekend, so there was a lot to see. The live music that usually comes out of every storefront on Sixth had moved out onto the sidewalks, and the street was filled with arts and crafts booths.

After checking out the artists' wares, we stopped into Joe's Generic Bar for a few beers and some music. As it was still only early afternoon the acts weren't exactly headliners, but the guy playing when we came in -- a Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabe -- was a lot better than the best you ever see in places like Columbus. I'm a big Lucinda Williams and Hayes Carll fan, and I've read just how tough a go they had in Austin. I can't imagine how tough it is for the guys we were watching to make a go of it.

We drank a few Shiner Bocks and enjoyed the music. It was a dive, but I liked it. I was surprised, then, to read a couple of years later that the guy who owned the place -- Joe Bates -- had closed up shop in September 2004, citing his disgust with Sixth Street (he called it "sick street"). According to the article I read, when he first started Joe's "things were great for an entrepreneur. But when the street got really popular, the city stepped in and ruined the party." The rent had quadrupled and the city was cracking down on open container laws, which really killed the bar-to-bar business. Joe had had it, and was going to move to a better, less commercialized location in Austin. He never got the chance, though, because less than a month after he closed the bar, he was found murdered in his home. Joe's Generic is now a tattoo parlor. From what I can find online, many in Austin believe that live blues hasn't been the same since.

I left the bar before Ethan was ready to go. It was hot that day -- high 90s, and the beer and lack of air conditioning was kind of getting to me -- so I went back to the room to shower (again) and cool down. Ethan came back about an hour later and told me that he had chatted with the fake Stevie Ray after his set. I probably should have just sucked it up and stayed because I imagine that would have been an interesting conversation. Still, Ethan and I ended up having an interesting conversation of our own about human nature, the war, and a hundred other things while we killed time before dinner.

Ethan and I had pretty different upbringings. He didn't watch TV growing up and isn't the more or less cliche pop-culture-fueled product of the 70s and 80s that I am. He read far more books and had parents that were simply more serious about things like religion and work ethic and all of that than I did. This made for some pretty radical differences between the two of us back when we first met in college -- I was something of a naive, knee jerk liberal because that's pretty much all I knew; Ethan, while not fitting the conservative stereotype as such, was definitely way to the right of where I was. Over the years there has been something of a role reversal. Nothing radical to be sure, but I am fairly certain that he is now to the left of where I am politically (not that I'm too far right). Maybe it's because he's been in the Bay Area for most of the past 15 years and I've been to law school and the Midwest. Those kinds of things matter.

More pronounced than the political shift is the cultural one. There was a time when I would sit and educate Ethan about popular music, movies, and whatever cultural ephemera seemed to matter to me at the time. These days, mostly because I've had kids, I have no clue what's going on in music anymore, I don't see many movies, and basically lead a pretty insulated life, culturally speaking. As I'm writing this I'm listening to the Rolling Stones' Let it Bleed. That's partially because it's a kickass album, but partially because I haven't bought a new CD in about four years. In contrast, Ethan will email me several times a year now to tell me about a concert or a play or a movie he just saw that I have simply never heard of.

There's no real point to this digression except that, as I sit here now and think about it, I'm pretty sure that conversation we had in the hotel room in Austin was the last one before our cultural and political vectors crossed and headed off in different directions. Not that it matters all that much. I'm pretty sure that Ethan and I would remain friends and confidantes regardless of where things stood culturally and politically, and I really can't say that about anyone else in my life.

Dinner that night was at the Bitter End Bistro and Brewery. It was quite the place at the time, but I read now that it has closed its doors to make way for a hotel. And so it goes. Dinner was great, though. The wine was better. Ethan -- who knows wine better than you know your first born -- ordered three bottles, and each time our waitress -- Martha -- came back to tell him, sorry, they were all out of it. As a peace offering, Martha gave us a bottle of 1996 Opus One at the price of whatever the last wine it was we tried to order but couldn't have. I think it ended up being a $100 discount on the Opus One, which these days sells for something like $350-$450.

The wine was wonderful and so was the dinner. Martha was great too, and all of the good juju of the evening inspired Ethan and I to flirt with her a bit. I quickly came clean as a married father-to-be, however, and asked Martha if she had any suggestions for baby names. She suggested Tyler. Alas, even if I was interested, there was no future for a person like Martha and me. She came through much stronger, however, when we asked where we should go after dinner. She suggested the Elephant Room across Congress Avenue, and it was a dynamite suggestion. Dark, unpretentious, and cozy (it's in a basement), we sat in the Elephant Room and listened to some fabulous jazz for a couple of hours and, of course, engaged in some deep conversation. The topic: my concern that Ethan will never find contentment and Ethan's concern that I will never find excitement or true satisfaction in life. It was a conversation fueled by just as much mutual envy as it was genuine concern. It's also a conversation we've had pretty frequently since 1991 and will probably have it until we die.

And with that, the real business of the road trip ended.

The next morning meant an early wake up call and a 200 mile drive to Dallas where I dropped Ethan off at the airport for his flight back home to San Francisco. I had a thousand more miles ahead of me, but I knew they'd be quick ones. I had seen enough for one trip and wanted to be home. I also knew that I'd be back on the road one day, and still know five years later that I certainly will be. I let East Texas, Arkansas, and Western Tennessee buzz by with nothing much more than a glance as I kept the music cranked and the pedal to the metal.

I made it all the way to Nashville that night. I might have gone even further if it weren't for terrible storms in Tennessee. They were part of an unusual outbreak of tornadoes that hit the south that week, killing at least 39 people in Tennessee, Missouri, and Kansas. I had trailed the storms for a hundred miles or so, but had no idea how severe they were until I stopped in Jackson, Tennessee for gas and found a devastated town with no power. The tornado had hit less than two hours before I got there. I'd read later that eleven people died and hundreds of homes were damaged. As I looped back to the freeway I drove past dazed people, not yet aware that, in all likelihood, someone they knew had just died.

I made it home just after noon the following day. Carleen was still at work. I didn't unpack the car for a while. Instead I came inside and sat down in the silence of my living room. I thought a bit about the job I would be starting in a week. I thought a bit about the baby that would be coming in December. But mostly, I thought about the road and how good it had been to me for the past month.

Come back soon. I've got an epilogue in mind.

Friday, May 2, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 13

We awoke at 5:30 the next morning, packed up, and made our way back down the mountain and into Saguaro National Park for some hiking on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. It's about 14 miles and serves as the main access to back country camping, but we had places to go, so we only went a couple of miles in and a couple of miles back. There was a pretty tough climb about a mile into the hike. Given the quickly rising temperature that day, it was quite a workout. Ethan got stuck with several cactus needles. I somehow made it though unscathed.

Once we got back to the car we headed out of Tucson, passing a large bone yard where the U.S. Air Force mothballs planes in the event the Russians or the Martians or someone invade. I don't know much about military aircraft, but Ethan said most of the ones he could see from the road were Vietnam-era fighters. Later -- after a long drive during which I saw at least a half dozen military planes flying and the u-turn shaped contrails of fighter jets -- we arrived at the White Sands Missile Range Museum, outside of which sits a bone yard of old missiles, rockets, and bombs.

As Ethan and I climbed on disarmed weaponry, the United States Army was busy subduing a foreign country because it dared acquire some of their own. Or so we were told anyway. The case for WMDs in Iraq has been thoroughly discredited by now, but it was pretty questionable even then. At least I thought so, as did just about every smart person I knew at the time. Nevertheless, our soldiers had invaded in March and President Bush declared that the mission had been accomplished just the day before. We know now that the mission, such as it was, may never be accomplished and its undertaking was always a mistake. While there was a time a few years ago when I would engage anyone in an argument on the pros and cons of the war, I can barely discuss it anymore, even with those who share my opinions about it all. Especially with those people, actually. When it comes to Iraq and what our country has become because of it, right and wrong are virtually meaningless to me anymore. All I can feel is sorrow.

After leaving the range, we stopped at White Sands National monument. It may as well have been the surface of the moon, with gypsum dunes covering hundreds of square miles. We took the road into the monument until we lost sight of gypsum-free land, parked, and hiked into the dunes. After walking around half-century-old monuments to the destructive force of man a mere half hour before, there was something refreshing about making tracks and footprints which would be covered up by nightfall.

Twenty five miles later we were in Alamogordo, where we stopped to pick up food for another night of camping. I sat in the car as Ethan went into the grocery store. Looking out the window, I watched a poor-looking Mexican woman struggle with a baby and two bags of groceries. Looking in another direction I saw an old, beat up Chevy Impala filled with four or five kids waiting for their parents. Since I became a father, there's a feeling that I get when I see children in what I perceive to be less than prosperous circumstances. It's not pity, but it's not not pity if that makes any sense. Whatever it is it makes me sad, even if I realize that it's mostly a function of my shallowness, naivete, and insecurity. That afternoon in Alamogordo was the first time I ever really felt it, and I've not been able to shake it since.

Ethan got back with the grub -- chicken this time -- and we made our way to a campground just outside of town. Unlike the night before, this was a flat utilitarian place in the shadow of a mountain rather than atop one. I was quiet that evening, wrestling the anxiety of impeding fatherhood that had been creeping over me since we left the grocery store. Ethan could obviously sense that something was up with me -- I'm pretty sure I came off more standoffish than introspective -- and he soon found a comfortable place to sit down and fired up his laptop. As it grew dark, bugs descended on our campsite. I got into the car to escape them and to write in my journal.

I crawled into my sleeping bag a few minutes later, but sleep wouldn't come quickly. My head was filled with the notion that I didn't know the first thing about being a father, and the thought had me on the verge of panic. I know now that that feeling of fearful ignorance is about the best thing that can happen to a prospective dad because, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel in the short term, it certainly makes you pay attention once the baby comes.

As usual, I felt better by the morning light. After cleaning up camp, we headed east on US-82, which took us up into the Sacramento Mountains. It was beautiful country that reminded me an awful lot of West Virginia (which is what I consider home, for those who don't know). The only thing that ruined it was an over eager sheriff's deputy who decided to tag me for going 60 in a 45. Amazingly -- after days on-end of setting the cruise control at around 100 -- I get a speeding ticket for going 60. To this day I consider it a horseshit ticket, though Ethan maintains that I deserved it. Given that I've gotten something like seven or eight tickets in the nearly 19 years I've been driving, he's probably right.

We came down out of the mountains near the town of Artesia, and then headed south towards Carlsbad Caverns. We were eager for some subterranean hiking, but once we got there and saw the tour buses and old people with fanny packs, we realized that there wasn't anything all that rugged about it (this is what happens when you don't read guidebooks). Carlsbad Caverns is basically a leisurely stroll down a paved trail. There's even a snack bar at the bottom.

Despite all of that, Ethan and I made the best of it, taking our time to walk and talk as we descended into the cavern. About Ethan's marriage mostly, and how he wanted to arrange his life going forward. Would he date? Would he dive headlong into work? Would he travel? Knowing Ethan like I do, I assumed the answer would be "yes," and I was more or less right. As a guy who can't juggle two balls at once, I have always been amazed at Ethan's ability to juggle five.

The biggest mistake of the day -- and maybe the trip -- came next, and that was taking the guided tour of King's Palace, which is a set of large rooms at the bottom of the cavern. The tour group was large and disorganized. The guide -- a ranger named Clint -- was an information-free bore. We entered a large room and were put to sleep with irrelevant geological details, tangents about the difference between cavers and spelunkers, and more bad jokes than you could shake a stick at. At the one-hour mark, the group began to turn on poor Ranger Clint. People were openly groaning and grousing, and some asked his young assistant if the tour could simply be stopped. Ethan corrected Clint when he claimed that his aluminum flashlight was steel. A middle-aged woman loudly described the tour as "an interpretive nightmare." By the end of the tour I almost felt bad for Clint, but those feelings were far outweighed by my joy that it was all over.

The original plan was to find someplace else to camp that night, but it was barely mid-afternoon when we got back to the car so we decided to press forward and see how far we'd get. Crossing into west Texas was a load of fun, as we took an empty bit of highway (Texas route 652) across some open range over to US 285. Strangely, after nearly a month of crossing deserts and mountains and canyons -- after standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and lying awestruck under the Milky Way -- nothing made the world seem larger, and myself smaller, than the open ranges of West Texas.

We cut down US-285 with the intention of hooking up with Interstate 10 in Fort Stockton. We encountered a slight detour in the town of Pecos, however, when a truck pulling a trailer with an extraordinarily large boat had managed to get stuck in the middle of the junction through which we had to go. The police officer at the scene said it would be at least an hour before they could get a crane in to clear it out. This didn't bother me especially, because it gave us the opportunity to travel down another empty highway (county road 17) which, while taking us about 40 miles out of our way, afforded another opportunity for blazing speed and open spaces. Unfortunately it was a bit too much speed, as I saw the flashing lights of the Texas Rangers in my rear view mirror right after we hopped on I-10. I pulled over to the side of the road cursing my bad luck (certainly I bore no responsibility for this terrible misfortune).

Based on some accounts I've read, Ethan and I fit a pretty questionable profile that afternoon. We hadn't showered or shaved in a couple of days and we each looked like hell (my respectable bald pate was covered by shifty looking corduroy Kangol). The car was an absolute mess inside and out. We were a mere handful of miles from the Mexican border, hauling ass, with out-of-state plates. When I saw the big white cowboy hats and mirrored sunglasses walking up towards us, I fully expected the car to get tossed for drugs or, at the very least, to be given an extremely hard time.

We need not have worried. The two rangers who pulled me over were the most polite law enforcement officers I have ever encountered. They called me sir and asked us how we were enjoying our trip. Yes, they gave me a ticket -- I was really going like a bat out of hell -- but they marked it down as 89 mph in a 80 zone, which is at least ten miles per hour slower than I was really going. The day's tally: $270 worth of speeding tickets. I rationalized this by amortizing the amount in my mind over the course of the whole trip, convincing myself that it was no different than paying $10 a day for a license to speed, which I would have gladly paid beforehand. Unfortunately, neither Carleen nor my insurance agent saw it the same way.

We had planned to just drive until we got tired and found a hotel, but there isn't a hell of a lot in west Texas. It was a nice evening though, so we drove. And drove. And kept on driving. We came close to running out of gas just before Sonora, but just made it into town on fumes. As I filled up the tank, Ethan decided that we should pool our money and open up a gas station ten miles to the west to take advantage of all of the desperate folks like us who thought they wouldn't quite make it. We'd call it the Pump 'n Dump (we really needed a bathroom by the time we hit Sonora as well). It would make us rich, he said. Sadly, we neglected to follow up on the idea when we got back to civilization.

It was getting good and late by the time we made it to Fredericksburg and we were ready to stop for the night. We couldn't, unfortunately, because a biker rally had taken all of the hotel rooms, so we pressed on to Austin. It was nearly 1AM when we stopped at the airport Ramada, which was the first hotel our weary eyes could see from the freeway. We checked in and passed out.

The day's tally: nearly 800 miles, 2 speeding tickets, a wasted trip down an overdeveloped hole in the ground, and about 17 hours of good conversation. I'd take that just about any day.

Friday, April 25, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 12

We hit I-80 heading east just after breakfast. In Sacramento we switched over to US-50 and made a beeline for the Sierras, reaching South Lake Tahoe in time for a Rooty-Tooty-Fresh-and-Fruity lunch at IHOP. I’d been to Tahoe once before, joining Ethan and some friends of his for a ski trip. It usually takes me two visits to a place to get and hold a clear picture of it in my mind, but Tahoe was pretty much how I remembered it.

After lunch we cut over to US-395 and turned south down the back of the Sierra Nevada mountains for several hundred miles. I had long been looking forward to this portion of the trip and was disappointed that the weather had kept me from taking this route a couple of weeks before. I was anything but disappointed that day. The Sierras give you a thousand different looks. They're the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen.

We turned east again just past Lone Pine, with Mt. Whitney in the rear view mirror, and Death Valley straight ahead. The most significant direction, however, was down in that we went from 5000 feet elevation to –190 in the space of about 100 switchbacking miles of highway. I had expected stifling heat, but it was probably only about 85-90 degrees on the valley floor that day which, as so many have said, is quite comfortable in the desert. I had likewise expected Death Valley to be bleak and barren, but the desert bloomed with wildflowers. Even the sagebrush took on a green tint, making this legendarily desolate landscape one of the more welcoming places I had been on my trip.

We stopped the car when we reached sea level to take pictures of some sand dunes on the north side of the highway. It was unnaturally quiet. No cars passed us the entire time we were stopped. For some reason, I felt compelled to lie down in the middle of the road. I’d been in a fabulous mood since my epiphany that morning, but lying there, staring at the desert sky, transported me to a higher plane of relaxation and contentment. Soon the sun began to set and we continued on our way.

I have mixed feelings about Las Vegas. 30 million people go there every year, primarily to gamble, and if you read the Ely and St. Louis installments of this diary, you know my feelings about gambling. Las Vegas' isolation and uniqueness temper those feelings somewhat. Though I know it's more complicated than this, I allow myself to believe that, unlike the riverboat casinos in Missouri or the Hotel Nevada up in Ely, Vegas isn’t being kept alive by people making quick stops to blow the grocery money on their way home from work. It’s a destination, I tell myself, and budgeting to blow a few thousand vacation dollars at Caesar’s Palace is no more offensive than budgeting to do the same thing at Disneyworld. Maybe less offensive. Gambling aside, the place, its history, and what it represents in American culture and psychology just fascinates me in ways that sad-sack southern towns with faux riverboat casinos simply never will. I'd like to write a book about it one day.

We checked into the Mirage just before 8 P.M., stowed our bags, and went down to get some dinner. Ethan had called ahead earlier in the day and got tickets to see a show. It was a lot of fun, but road fatigue got the best of me about halfway through. We had a couple of drinks back at the Mirage after the show, but by then I was dead on my feet. I managed to engage in some conversation with Ethan regarding the end of his marriage and the beginning of his single life, but my head wasn’t really in the game. As I went to bed I hoped that I didn’t give him any bad advice. Of course, after all of these years, he’s no doubt an expert at sorting through my bullshit.

I awoke the next morning to the buzzing of an alarm clock – the first time I needed one since my last day at work. I guess the previous day's drive had taken more out of me than I thought. I let Ethan drive out of Las Vegas. After stopping for a quick breakfast in Henderson, we snaked over the Hoover Dam. Neither of us felt all that compelled to stop for what is, essentially, a lot of concrete and a lot of tourists. As we crossed over I prayed for a pre-cision earthquake (yes, I know that was a different dam).

Highway 93 south through Arizona is dullsville. Nothing but miles and miles of, well, nothing interrupted by the occasional mobile home squatting on land selling for $500 an acre and a waste of money at half the price. It was the perfect landscape for our purposes, though. Whereas the day before was full of long stretches of silence as we took in the beauty of the mountains, lakes, and deserts, this day was full of conversation. About change, mostly. Ethan's soon-to-be-filed divorce. My soon-to-be-born baby. Career uncertainty for both of us. The feeling that we were getting older and exactly how we felt about that. This last bit was underscored by a call from my Dad when we were just south of Kingman, telling me that he had decided to retire. The only constant in life is change.

Soon after my Dad called, Ethan’s prospective landlady back in Berkeley called me to check his references. I suppose it might have been awkward if she had asked me any tough questions, him sitting a foot away from me and all. Amiable hippie landladies from Berkeley aren't ones for tough questions, though, so she asked me a series of odd ones like “what is his favorite kind of pizza?” and "is he a complete person?" We drove out of signal range before she had a chance to ask me what kind of tree he would be.

We pulled into Tuscon at around 5:30, made a quick stop at a grocery store for camp grub, turned onto the Catalina Highway and started up Mt. Lemmon and into the Coronado National Forest. U2’s Joshua Tree blasted from the cd player as we raced up the switchbacks, stopping every so often to take in the view as a golden sunset cast the day's last light on the valley floor below. We were on a combined music-driving-scenery-altitude high as we stopped at Spencer Canyon Campground, about 8000 feet up the mountain.

It had been over 90 degrees down in Tucson, but it was already well below 60 and dropping fast as we made camp. Ethan built a fire, over which we cooked our manly feast: cocktail shrimp, peppers, onions, and tomatoes, marinated in sesame oil on bamboo skewers (I kept my wedding ring and a picture of my wife close by just in case we encountered harassment). We continued to camp like morons as I stirred the fire with my car's jack handle rather than seek out a thick branch. I would end up forgetting the jack handle when we left the next morning. A massive fire burned much of Mt. Lemmon just over a month later. As I watched the news coverage back home, I wondered if anyone would find the jack handle next to the fire pit and assume that some greenhorn had accidentally burnt the goddamn place down.

For the past several months, each night's sleep had been preceded by several minutes of building anxiety. If dreams came, I didn't remember them. When morning came, I couldn't wake up.

That night I zipped into my sleeping bag and stared up at a billion stars, framed by a proscenium of Ponderosa Pines. Sleep came quickly. My dreams, vivid.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 11

Things were much better by the light of day. I dropped Carleen off at the airport at 11:00 A.M. and, amazingly, the world didn’t end. Within a few hours she’d be back in Ohio, falling back into her routine and I’d have no basis for projecting my anxieties about us being apart onto her. It was a beautiful sunny Bay Area day -- a bit cool, just how I like it -- and with spirits bright, I drove over to Arthur's house in Berkeley to pick up Ethan for a day of amiable pointlessness.

He wasn’t there when I arrived. Instead, I was greeted by a rather tense and grumpy Arthur. He loosened up as he and I talked about nothing important for a few minutes, but the tension returned when Ethan came back. After a bit of three-way conversation, an uneasy truce regarding their unexplained dispute seemed to be forming, but it was hard to say how long it would last. Regardless of what they were fighting about that morning, the larger issue was probably the fact that Ethan was going on a second week on Arthur's couch, and as most people know, it's not easy for grownups used to their own space to live together for any extended period of time. Ethan had an apartment in the works, but it wouldn't be ready for a couple of weeks, so he decided to get out of town for a while and join me on the road for the drive back east.

We left Arthur’s and went to a cool little Italian place in Berkeley to plan the route. The planning took about twenty minutes. The usual bullshitting about life, the universe, and everything took about three hours. That usually happens when Ethan and I get together with time to kill. Despite the fact that I've known the guy since freshman year at Ohio State, and despite the fact that we've exchanged several thousand emails of often preposterous length since we graduated, we never run out of stuff to talk about. As far as road trip companions go, you can't do any better.

The general plan we had come up with was to head east the next morning, hang a right at Tahoe, head down US-395 along the backside of the Sierras, hang a left into Death Valley, and hopefully make Las Vegas by dinner. After that it was a bit more vague, but the general idea was to go south towards Tucson, then east into New Mexico, cut across the width of Texas to Austin, and then up to Dallas where Ethan would catch a flight back home and I would head back to Ohio.

The only specific thing we had settled upon was that we'd camp for a couple of nights. Seeing as though I didn't have any gear with me, I went to the REI store after lunch to buy a sleeping bag, a decent fleece, and a couple of other random things. After that it was a haircut and a trip to the laundromat, during which time the Albany, California police gave me a parking ticket that, as I sit here five years later, I realize I never paid. Two hours later I was in San Francisco with Ethan, Arthur (détente achieved), and Ethan's friend Liz, drinking beer at the 21st Amendment outside of Pac Ball Park in advance of seeing the Cubs-Giants. Despite a pretty stiff wind out to center, neither Bonds nor Sosa homered. Ray Durham and Moises Alou did, however, and Kerry Wood pitched a pretty good game on a really cold night. Cubs 4, Giants 2.

We lost Arthur and Liz after the game, but met up with another friend of Ethan's and headed to the Mission to get a late dinner and some mojitos. Between the rum and the wonderful day I was buzzing quite nicely as we crossed back over the bridge and into Berkeley. I dropped Ethan off at Arthur's and -- assuming that Arthur wouldn't want yet another squatter in his house -- I checked into the Hotel Durant for the night, eager to get on the road the next morning.

Except when the next morning came I wasn't so eager. I don’t know if it was one too many mojitos the night before, or my room’s broken radiator and banging pipes, but I slept terribly and I was in a gloomy mood when I woke up. Sitting on the bed as the room went from black to gray, I started thinking that whatever illness had prompted me to get on the road in the first place had long since passed. I no longer wanted to find myself, or see the world, or do whatever the fuck it was I was supposed to be doing. I had to scuttle the rest of the trip, burn ass eastward, and get back into my normal routine as soon as possible. I had to be home with my wife. I had to start painting the nursery or buying life insurance or fixing the wreck that was my career. I had to do something -- anything -- that smelled of responsibility and structure.

I called Carleen, hoping against hope that some minor disaster that urgently needed my attention had befallen her. Nothing serious, mind you, just something big enough to justify me ditching Ethan and the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, everything was fine. I then lobbed her a wonderfully spineless, passive aggressive batting practice pitch, hinting that I was thinking of breaking off the trip and asking her if she’d like (rather than needed) me home. I waited for her answer, thinking that all I needed was a “well, of course I’d like it if you were home,” which would give me an excuse to get on I-80. It didn’t come. Instead, she told me that I should do whatever I thought was best in the short time I had left before I started my new job, and if that meant traveling, I should travel. It figures: the one time in my life I wanted Carleen to be all hysterical and irrational about something, and she pulls this level-headed, understanding shit on me. Jeez.

Disgusted with my wife's thoughtfulness, I called Ethan and asked him if it would mess his week up if I bailed on the trip. In my anxiety-clouded state, I had decided that the only possible way for him to react would be to unleash a classic male pep talk in which he'd tell me to grow some balls, man-up, or whatever it is guys are supposed to say to each other at times like these. Indeed, I was hoping for this, because if it came, I could counter with haughty indignation at the assualt on my manliness. I’d declare that there were far more important things for me to be doing than dicking around in the desert with my friends, and that I was shocked -- shocked! -- that he couldn’t understand that. It would be the perfect cover for a strategic retreat east.

Ethan failed me too. Instead of acting like a typical guy, he acted, as always, like a true friend. He told me that I had to do what I had to do, and that he’d be fine no matter what I decided. He continued, however, by explaining that there were many objective reasons not to rush home, all of which he then listed in a calm, sober manner. Sure, I’d be home in a couple of days, but all I’d do once I got there was watch baseball, mow my lawn, and read books, and though this seemed comforting to me at that moment, it would be a source of regret in the future. I’d never have a chance to do this again. Carleen was pregnant, and once my child came there would be little time for hikes in the desert and 500 mile drives with my best friend. Sure, I may travel out west again – maybe dozens of time – but every time I did it, I’d be reminded that I passed up the opportunity to do it when I was a young man and still relatively free of responsibilities.

Of course he was right, and I knew it as soon as he said it. I thanked him and told him I'd call him back to let him know what I was going to do. I pulled the chair over to the open window, took in a deep breath of fresh air, and gathered my thoughts.

What had come over me? Why was it that when faced with a completely blank slate -- in this case, a month's worth of zero responsibility and carte blanche to do whatever I wanted short of adultery -- I am invariably drawn to the safest, least creative alternative? Wasn’t it exactly this sort of behavior that led me to two legal jobs I hated and a desperate need to find myself? I gazed down Durant Avenue and watched UC Berkeley start its day. How many of those students down there wake up afraid of being away from home? How many of them are overcome with anxiety when forced to do something other than their normal routine? Not many of them, I'd wager.

I sat there, thinking that there would be no hope for me if I didn’t somehow manage to break old patterns. No, I wasn't going to do anything radical, but I had to start testing my boundaries from time to time. To push back against that which predisposes me to be safe, fat, seemingly-happy, but boring. I wasn’t about to abandon my career, sell my house, and become a drifter, but I was going to stop allowing myself to compulsively take the path of least resistance.

I didn't call Ethan back. Instead, I got dressed, packed up, and headed over to Arthur's house. He was a bit surprised when he saw me at the door.

"You here to tell me goodbye?" he said.

"No. I'm here to tell you 'let's go.'"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 10

After looking out over the Bay for a while I decided to call my parents. They were happy to hear from me. Probably happier to hear me happy after months of my job-related venting. Picking up on my good mood, my mom told me that I should be a writer so that I could have the freedom to travel like this. The freedom to explore. The freedom to live wherever I wanted. Maybe I’ll be able to do that someday.

I returned to the hotel as Carleen was getting out of the shower. We were planning on meeting our friend Ethan for dinner in Mill Valley. The steaks at the Buckeye Roadhouse were excellent. So were Ethan’s powers of observation, as he pegged Carleen as pregnant the moment she ordered a club soda with lime before dinner.

The next day Carleen and I took the ferry over to San Francisco for some urban exploring. The weather wasn’t ideal, and the rain frequently chased us into hotel lobbies and stores. We nonetheless managed to take a cable car up Nob Hill, walk over to Union Square, backtrack over to North Beach for some lunch and more bumming around, and then meander our way back to the wharf, where we caught the 4:05 ferry back to Sausalito. A power nap and a couple of showers later we were on our way to Berkeley for dinner at Chez Panisse. Dinner was excellent, but the day's walking had taken its toll on Carleen, and she fell asleep while we were crossing the San Rafael Bridge on our way back to Marin. I fell asleep about ten minutes after reaching the room. You can’t stop Craig and Carleen; you can only hope to contain them.

The next morning we drove over to the Marin Headlands to take in the views of the Golden Gate and the Bay and kill time before lunch in Berkeley with Ethan and Sonja. While they had been married close to five years at that point, they had recently separated. In the car on the way over Carleen and I speculated about how awkward this would be (lunch together was Sonja's idea, not ours). After discussing it a bit, however, we decided that it wasn't exactly our problem. Would they, like most couples in that situation, be subtly staking out claims to friends and restaurants and the elusive moral high ground? Probably. But given how seldom we saw either of them anymore -- and given how we were determined to remain friends with both of them regardless -- we figured we were pretty low on the list of claims to stake.

Upon arriving in Berkeley it became clear that lunch wasn’t going to happen. Ethan’s car had been broken into the night before (he hadn’t realized it until ten minutes before we arrived). It was totally cleaned out, with three busted-out windows and a mutilated dashboard. Carleen and I grabbed a burrito while Ethan took an inventory, talked to insurance people, and seethed. We called Sonja and changed lunch to dinner. Ethan eventually got things as sorted as they could be, and the three of us spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling around the Bay, first to drop off Ethan’s apartment application at his prospective landlady’s house -- he was sacked out on his friend Arthur's couch for the time being -- and then to pick up Arthur, who had just returned from a SCUBA vacation in Honduras and needed a lift from San Francisco back home to Berkeley.

Arthur thankfully accepted our invitation to join us for dinner, which meant that there would be an extra person there – complete with fresh tales of Central American adventure -- to diffuse any Ethan-Sonja awkwardness that may have arisen. The gambit worked, with unpleasant stories of broken eardrums, blood blisters, and the bends filling the spaces where unpleasant divorce talk could have otherwise arisen.

The next day was Napa. We had planned this before we knew Carleen was pregnant, but it was still a nice enough afternoon even without her being able to actually swallow the wine she was tasting. I was not so limited, but I have to admit that wine tastings are nearly wasted on me. I love good wine. I enjoy it immensely. I'm even capable of swirling it around a glass with a contemplative expression on my face, but if I'm honest, I have to admit that my palate doesn’t tell me much beyond whether I like something or not in the most basic of ways.

It began to rain as we headed back to Sausalito. Carleen was leaving the next day, and this fact combined with the dreary weather was depressing me. We shopped in Berkeley a bit and then had a nice Thai dinner, but I was still in a funk. As she drifted off to sleep that night, Carleen said that she wished that I could race her plane back home and be waiting for her when she got to Columbus. She wasn't serious about this, but it hit me kind of hard. Being out on the road seemed selfish while I had a pregnant wife back home. I knew Carleen was a big girl and could handle me being gone for another week or two, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to throw all of my things in the car, race east on I-80, and be home in three days. It was a fleeting feeling, but one that would return to me more than once before the end of my trip.

I sat by the window listening to the rain and pretending to read as Carleen drifted off. I watched her sleep for close to an hour.

Monday, April 14, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 9

I put the day-to-day journal on hold for most of the next week as I was travelling with Carleen. Part of this was because it seemed rude to whip out my little black book in front of her each evening, but mostly because recording everything kind of defeats the purpose of taking a vacation with your wife, which is the creation of mutual memories. The sort of living memories that sharpen, fade, or change based on which of us tells a given story and how over the years.

For example, on the first day after leaving Los Angeles, we stopped in Santa Barbara around lunchtime to visit the mission there. Sure, I could sit here and tell you all the details about how we walked up to the place, saw a big line, and impulsively decided to sneak in the exit gate and wander around on our own rather than wait and pay for a guided door, but what would be the point of that? As I type this, we're five years out from that happening, and Carleen and I already have some vaguely accurate, two-person shorthand of the story that we share at dinner parties, usually when the subject of the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church comes up. It no doubt strays a bit from what actually happened, and over time, will begin to stray further. Our kids will one day groan when they hear us tell whatever time-addled version we've settled on by then. And you know what? That's how it should be. On some level, marriages are about agreed history, and something is lost when one person takes ownership over a mutual memory in the name of petty accuracy.

Not that I won't sketch the outline of our trek up the coast a bit.

After learning that I’d be a father come Christmas, we spent two fun days hanging around Los Angeles, sometimes with Todd, sometimes without. Having only been there one time before, we still hewed pretty closely to the conventional: cruising Mulholland Drive; watching surfers in Malibu; walking around Santa Monica; paying $5 for a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice in Beverly Hills. You know, the usual California things.

We had done the traditional Hollywood stuff when we were there in 1997. It didn’t impress us all that much, so it certainly didn't merit a return-visit. Disneyland and the other artificial attractions always were out of the question. If there were ever any doubts on this score, they were settled when I read about the then-recently-opened California Adventure theme park, which hustles its visitors through simulated California landmarks and experiences such as virtual orange groves and synthetic redwood forests, complete with artificial smells pumped in. While I could almost see the value of such a thing if it were in, say, North Dakota, its existence in California is deeply disturbing. I suppose the only place left to go after that is a theme park-themed-theme park.

On day three we took off up the coast, stopping, as I said, in Santa Barbara, but only long enough for the mission tour and lunch. I did drive around the town long enough, though, to check and see how different it looked from my mental image of Santa Teresa, which is Ross Macdonald's fictionalized version of his adopted hometown. Assessment: a surprisingly small number of eccentric oil tycoons, missing heirs, and intense yet mysterious matriarchs protecting decades-old family secrets of unspeakable scandal. Sad, really.

By late afternoon -- following a brief, kitschy detour to the Madonna Inn -- we were in Cambria, where we stayed for the night at a nice little B&B. It was kind of fun talking to the other guests at breakfast the next morning, but truth be told, we're not really B&B people. We all tell little lies to ourselves in order to get through the day, and one of the lies I'm fond of is that no one besides me has ever slept in the room in which I'm staying. It's not really easy to believe a whopper like that, but if you try hard enough, you can almost construct a scenario where you were the first person to ever use those sheets, blankets, and pillows. That they emerged from a factory and then a laundry sterile and pure mere days before your arrival. You can't maintain that fiction, however, when you share olallieberry French Toast with some fat Lothario from New Mexico who comes back to the joint every year and tells you about how he and his "lady friend" used to stay in your room but changed because the bed springs squeaked too much.

Hearst Castle was up next. I enjoyed it an awful lot despite the fact (or because of the fact?), that in many ways, it's merely a grander version of the Madonna Inn. The primary difference, it seems, is that Alex Madonna realized that he was putting together a kitschy pastiche of clashing styles when he was building his Xanadu, while Hearst actually thought he was making some sort of architectural statement. Well, I suppose he was making a statement, even if it wasn't the one he intended. It was a fun stop, though, and one gets the sense that it was a very interesting place to be in the 1920s and 30s. By the way: the tour guides at Heart Castle do not think you're funny when you add "Cost: No man can say!" at the end of every one of their comments, nor are you the first to ever have said it.

That afternoon we drove up Highway 1 through Big Sur. While I'd hate to be stuck on this road behind an R.V. on a summer Saturday, it was as wonderful as-advertised on a traffic-free weekday afternoon in April. People more eloquent than I am have described the isolated beauty of the place a thousand times before so I'll spare you my stab at it, but suffice it to say that they're right.

After a stop to look at seals at Point Lobos State Reserve, we made it to Carmel by late afternoon and checked into the Sandpiper Inn. The Sandpiper had seen better days, but it was cozy and pleasant. It was also something of a tonic to all of the conspicuous wealth of Carmel which residents and planners have tried hard to hide behind the village-in-a-forest facade, but which can easily be seen in the cars, shops, and people lining the streets of this former artists' colony. I actually thought I saw a poet for a second, but it turned out to be a smudge on my glasses.

Not that I'm some sort of aesthete or anything. When I'm honest with myself I admit that my reaction to places like Carmel is informed just as much by envy and avarice as it is lamentation for a bygone (well, fantastical) egalitarian age. Proof: today I live in an upscale suburb which pretends that it is still the same old farming village that sat here before it was taken over by lingerie magnates, country clubs, and faux Georgian mansions 20 years ago. I spend far less time railing against this place than I really should. Wealth would not be as corrupting as it is if it wasn't so attractive to begin with.

We ate another wonderful meal that evening and spent the next day exploring the Monterey Peninsula. The weather was pretty bad, though, so we ended up spending much of the day in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carleen and I wanted to take home a couple of sea otters but gave up on the plan when we assumed that there were probably, you know, laws against that sort of thing.

The rest of the day was spent on a slow drive around the bay, a quick stop in Santa Cruz and a meandering cruise up the coast past Half Moon Bay where we stopped for a late lunch. It wasn't long before we had made it through San Francisco's rush hour traffic, across the Golden Gate and to the Hotel Sausalito, which would be home for the next few nights. Carleen -- still pregnant -- took a nap soon after we got there. I set out on a brief walking tour. As is the case with most of my solitary walking tours, this one took me by a pub (it's the damnedest thing, really). A couple of beers later -- and a nice conversation with a guitar-weilding hippie -- I was sitting by the same dock of the same bay which inspired a nice little song a long time ago.

But I wasn't really thinking about Brother Otis all that much because I couldn't get Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby" -- the first song that ever comes to mind whenever I'm feeling happy and content -- out of my head.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 8

Carleen flew into LAX the next morning, and I was happy to see her. Sure, I had enjoyed the week since I left home, but every single thing I did in those six days would have been improved by having her with me. Well, maybe not the long stretches of driving. She hates really long drives. And probably not the baseball game, because she doesn't like baseball at all.

Hmmm . . . maybe this trip was perfectly planned just the way we were doing it.

We headed out to grab some lunch. I didn't really know where I was going, so we settled on some random pizza place that seemed nice enough.

“This place is ok, isn’t it?” I asked as we sat down.

“It’s fine," she said, "I’m pregnant.”

I didn't exactly have a response for that.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by this. While it would have been inaccurate to say we were trying to have a baby, we had certainly stopped trying to prevent a baby in January. Carleen had been on some un-fun meds as a result of her optic neuritis at the time, and she decided that she didn't want to be putting chemicals in her body anymore. I totally understood. She was miserable on the drugs, and I supported her decision to go off the pill. Did we want to have kids immediately? No, but if it happened, great.

Still, the possibility of having a baby didn't seem all that real to us in those first couple of months of that year, especially as I was mentally, and then literally, checking out of my job. To be honest, each of us probably would have bet that, after a decade or so of birth control, it would have taken several months for her system to clear out enough for it to even be possible. The lesson: don't bet against nature.

Not that this was unwelcome news. It was wonderful news, actually. It was news, however, that required some heavy processing on my part. I mean, here I was, in the midst of the quintessentially selfish pursuit: the quest to find oneself on a solitary road trip. A venture which, at its very heart, is all about sloughing off responsibilities and escaping Real Life for a few short weeks. And what happens? Real Life hires a skip-tracer, tracks me down and hogties me in the middle of pizza place in West Los Angeles. To say I was off my game for the rest of the day would be a bit of an understatement. I soon got my head together, though, and within the space of a couple of hours I went from "WTF?!" to wondering whether I would have a son or a daughter.

After lunch Carleen and I checked into the hotel we had reserved in Beverly Hills. It was a nice place. Certainly much nicer than the joints I had stayed at the previous week in that I wasn't afraid to touch the bedspread. After dropping our bags and freshening up we swung by to pick up Todd and do some shopping, walking, and general farting around in Santa Monica. We went back to the hotel late that afternoon so that Carleen could rest a bit, after which we got some Mexican food at El Cholo.

We had made a plan at lunch not to tell ANYONE about the pregnancy until we had time to process it ourselves. That plan lasted about seven hours when we spilled the beans to Todd over two margaritas and a water with lemon.

If you couldn't tell, planning isn't exactly our strong suit.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 7

It was nice to wake up and know that I didn’t have to drive somewhere. Well, somewhere out of town at least, because L.A. is all about being in the car.

Todd was still asleep when I got up, so after showering I decided to explore a bit. I started down Santa Monica Blvd. looking for a Jiffy Lube that, according to Mapquest anyway, was supposed to be there. I couldn’t find it. Hungry, I cruised over to Melrose Avenue and found a funky little café where I had breakfast. The actress Jami Gertz came in right after I did and sat down at the table next to mine. I've never understood the impulse to get autographs or say something to famous people -- what are they to me? -- so even though there was nobody else in the place I let her enjoy her breakfast. I couldn't think of anything I would say to her even if I wanted to. "Loved you in Quicksilver, Jami!"

After breakfast I meandered east through Hollywood to US-101, up to 405, down to Redondo, up through the Beach Cities to LAX, past the giant donut, and then back to the freeway and Todd’s house. I didn't really stop anywhere. Traffic was light this early on a Saturday and I just wanted to get the lay of the land. My overall assessment of L.A. after a few trips there: Brentwood, Westwood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo are all pretty cool, while the rest of the place consists of endless, faceless sprawl for which I don’t have much use. I would live in L.A. before, say, New York, but only if I didn't have to commute downtown to a normal job and could stay in my own neighborhood most of the time.

Todd was up by the time I got back. He led me to the Jiffy Lube that had somehow eluded me, after which we headed down to Redondo Beach to toss a baseball, play video games and air hockey and generally screw around. Todd and I are really good at this. The year before he had visited me in Columbus and we spent the day going to a ballgame, getting milkshakes, riding go-carts, and playing miniature golf. It sounds corny, I suppose, but I love doing this sort of stuff. I only seem to manage to do it when I’m with Todd, though, and it’s afternoons like these that make me regret that one of my closest friends lives thousands of miles away.

After the beach we hit an In-and-Out Burger and then made our way down to Anaheim to catch the Angels-Mariners game. The ride to the stadium was endless, partially due to traffic, but mostly due to the fact that we missed the exit for highway 22, which cuts from 405 back over to the Big A. As a result, we had to take 405 all the way down to where it ends at I-5, and then jog back north to Anaheim. We missed batting practice, but we did get more time to gab about life, the universe, and everything.

Angels-Mariners would have been a relatively easy ticket to score in April 2002, but a year later the reigning World Champion Angels were a much hotter attraction. The ticket lines were dreadfully long when we arrived, so we looked for a scalper. While I took a call from the fraud department at American Express (they noticed that someone had taken my card and had absconded out west with it, racking up hundreds in gas and hotel charges) Todd stumbled upon some guy whose friends couldn’t make it and was trying to recoup his losses. He was selling them for less than face value, but Todd still managed to talk him down even further. There are many times I've thought that maybe Todd should be the lawyer, because he’s much better at that kind of stuff than I am.

We didn’t ask where the seats were located, because when two guys under the age of fifty go to a ballgame, it’s all about trading up, and by “trading up” I mean “squatting in good seats that don’t belong to you and hoping the owners don’t arrive.”

Trading up is an inexact science, dependent upon many variables such as overall crowd size and usher-tenacity. Given that it was a beautiful weekend evening, an attractive opponent was in town, and they were giving away stuffed Rally Monkeys, none of the variables seemed to be in our favor that night. We nevertheless set off for the good seats along the first base line, because to admit defeat before even trying would be downright Un-American.

To ensure a successful trade-up, you must avoid the ushers, but you can’t look like you’re avoiding them. You must walk with confidence and sit down in your chosen seat as if you were its lifetime season ticket holder, but you must be prepared to execute a friendly relocate if the rightful owner arrives. This entails looking at your ticket stub, mumbling something about being in the right row but wrong section, and quickly moving along. The very appearance of arguing with the seat’s rightful owner is unacceptable in that it risks an usher spotting the exchange, coming down, and attempting to resolve things. If this happens you might as well head straight for Suckerville (the middle rows of the left field bleachers where your true seats are located ) because you’re going to be watched like a hawk until at least the sixth inning. And no, trading up after the sixth inning doesn’t really count.

That night’s game was the most difficult trade-up of my life. We had to execute multiple friendly relocates before we found a permanent seat, and even then it was difficult to get comfortable given that we were getting a serious eye-fucking from one of the ushers. He was obviously on to us. The only reason I can think of why he didn't evict us was that he felt he needed some kind of probable cause he didn't yet have. Everyone kept their powder dry, however, and we managed to settle in nicely by the time the third inning rolled around.

Oh yeah, the game wasn’t half bad either. Kevin Appier -- one of my favorite players from the 90s -- started for Anaheim, but he left early with an injury. Reliever Scot Shields was no help, and the Mariners jumped out to a 6-1 lead. The Rally Monkey was in the house that night, however, and the Angels mounted a comeback, capped off by a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth. Final score: Angels 7, Mariners 6.

I was both happy and expectant as we drove back to Todd's place. Why expectant? Because Carleen was flying in the next morning and I couldn't wait to see her. I wasn't until I picked her up the next morning that I had an idea of how expectant I really was.

Friday, April 4, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 6

I woke up at 5:30 A.M. the next morning without a plan. There had been one – heading south from Reno, through the Lake Tahoe region, and then along the back of the Sierras and into Death Valley – but I temporarily abandoned it. For one thing, when I opened up my curtains I was met with a heavy, steady snow. If Reno was getting this, the mountain passes on US-395 would probably be even more of a mess. After driving in the snow the day before, I decided that I didn’t need any more of it.

For another thing, my friend Ethan had called me from Berkeley a couple of days earlier and said he was free to join me for my drive back east. We didn't have anything definitive planned out yet, but it made perfect sense for us head east from the Bay Area and make the same Tahoe-Sierras-Death Valley drive then.

Above all else, however, was that when I woke up that morning, I was possessed by a somewhat surprising lack of enthusiasm for another day on lonely, desolate highway. The two previous days had been almost perfect, but with that itch temporarily scratched, I decided that I wanted a little bit of civilization. Absent that, I'd settle for the civilization overload that is Los Angeles.

After a shower, a shave – five days worth of stubble was starting to get to me – and a better breakfast than I would have gotten if I had stayed at the Heart O’ Town, I got on I-80 for the trip up and over the mountains. The snow stayed heavy and roads slick until I reached Donner Pass ("Cannibalism free since 1847!") where the sun came out. Winter had turned into summer by the time I completed the 7000-foot descent to Sacramento. I opened the sunroof and looked for a car wash. As the Silver Fox got a much-needed bath, I called my friend Todd to let him know I'd be in Los Angeles a day early.

I'm one of those people who have always preferred a very small group of close friends to lots and lots of casual acquaintances. I don't like parties much. I don't like small talk. For the most part I just like to do my own, mostly solitary thing. This has created problems on a handful of occasions, such as when I needed a ride to the airport or something, and it certainly means that you don't have a lot of backup options when you drive 2700 miles and need a place to crash. The beauty of it, though, is that when you make plans with a really really close friend like Todd, you don't often need backups. Todd was totally cool with me showing up a day early, and if he wasn't, he probably wouldn't have said anything anyway.

I-5 through California’s central valley wasn't as boring as I assumed it would be. I live in farm country and have long since learned to ignore the crops along the highway, but California’s relatively exotic produce – apricot trees, grapes, avocados, kiwifruit, pistachios, etc. – were interesting to a boy from corn and soybean country. Well, interesting enough to keep me from falling asleep anyway. At some point, though, an interstate is an interstate is an interstate, so I was into hardcore daydreaming by the time I got to Coalinga and stopped for lunch.

I made it to L.A. just as Friday afternoon rush hour was picking up. The 405 was a parking lot from Sherman Oaks to Todd’s exit at Sunset Blvd., but based on the stories I've head of L.A. traffic, I suppose I could have done much worse. I was at Todd’s place just before 6. We got in the car and tooled around West L.A. for a while (he drove). One Jamba Juice with a protein boost and a wheatgrass shot later, I knew I was in Southern California.

We drove up to Malibu and walked on the beach for a bit before Todd had to leave. Seems he and his girlfriend had plans that night and he had to get ready to go. If he told me he had plans I wouldn't have imposed like I did, but see above about how cool close friends can be. The plans were very L.A.: once-and-future Smashing Pumpkins' leader Billy Corrigan's new band – Zwan – was playing a show someplace (for reasons that were lost somewhere in the mists of 2003, this was something of a big deal at the time), and Todd and his girlfriend were going to crash it. How? By using their youthful good looks and sunglasses-at-night cool to walk right past security and into the backstage area without paying, the theory being that people tend not to mess with folks who look like they belong.

There's a lot to this theory – it's amazing how little hassle I get in even the most secure buildings when I suit up in full lawyerly regalia with a briefcase in hand – and I had no doubt that Todd could pull it off in the setting of his choosing. For a teacher’s kid from Ohio, he had soaked up Los Angeles to the bone since arriving there eight years before, and could definitely look the part of backstage VIP if he tried. People might think to ask who he was and what he was doing, but they'd stop themselves short because, man, how embarrassing would it be to find out that the guy you're hassling was the bass player for that up-and-coming band whose album Billy Corrigan was producing next week?

Todd extended a courtesy invite for me to join him, but I'm certain I would’ve sunk the whole operation. It would take a team of plastic surgeons and wardrobe consultants for me to look like I belonged backstage at a glittery, sold-out rock show. It made no difference, though, because I was tired from the road and looked forward to spreading out in his apartment. He dropped me off at his place and left for the night. I put on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, fired up the computer, and reconnected with civilization for a while. Later I raided the fridge for a couple of beers, pitas, and hummus.

Then I put in a movie. It was Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, which is about a businessman from Ohio on a fool journey out west.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 5

Susan had implored me to hike something a little more challenging and less touristy than Wolfe Trail, which is the trail that leads to Delicate Arch. I decided to do it anyway. This was my first time out here and I wanted to see the big famous rock formation that they put on the license plates. Besides, I think Susan took me for a more experienced hiker than I really was, so I figured that taking her advice would only invite trouble.

In hindsight I’m glad I made this decision: about two weeks after I hiked Arches, a hiker named Aron Ralston, who was hiking alone in a remote Utah canyon not far from where I was, was forced to amputate his own arm with a dull knife when he became trapped under a boulder. Would that have happened to me? Probably not. Could it have? Why the hell not? Hiking alone in unfamiliar country is none too smart, so I decided to hold off on the serious stuff until I could come back with a friend. Today would just be sight-seeing.

I reached the trailhead and started hiking before dawn, making what I thought to be pretty good time up the moderately steep slickrock. I assume the the hike is an easy one for most hikers, but it was exercise enough for a flatlander schlub like me. Between the striking silence of Arches at dawn and my relatively poor conditioning, my beating heart and heavy breathing were the loudest things around as I covered the mile and a half and 480 vertical feet of the trail.

You first see Delicate Arch at the exact moment you think it’s not worth the trouble to get there. It sits down below you as you round a rock wall after a fairly steep climb. I got my first glimpse of it just as the first rays of morning sun cleared the La Sal Mountains. I was awestruck. By the Arch itself, sure, but also by the sudden appearance of a miles-wide vista of cliffs, dry washes, and valleys, the likes of which I'd never seen before. I marveled at treasures which had stood unmolested, uncommercialized, and unencroached upon for so long in a country that seems to make a special effort to molest, commercialize and encroach upon all that is beautiful. While in later years I would learn that things aren't quite that simple, at the time I stood there transfixed.

I sat on a boulder overlooking Delicate Arch for perhaps an hour, completely alone, losing myself in thought as I watched the sunrise. Thoughts about scale. Perspective. About how easily and completely the city in which I live would be swallowed up in this immense landscape. About the insignificance of the things which bother me on a day-to-day basis. About how this landscape looked exactly the same is it does now before I was born and how it will remain unchanged long after I've worried myself into an early grave. About how little it would matter in the grand scheme of things if I never showed up at that new job next month. How easy it would be to simply stay here forever.

Most of all I just thought about how happy I was to be there that morning, thousands of miles from whatever it was that had bothered me so much in the last eighteen months. Life at that moment seemed impossibly simple and, for the first time in a long time, impossibly good. After a while, I realized that I had a big goofy grin on my face, which made me grin even wider. I started back down the trail before other hikers could intrude on the moment. I probably grinned all the way back to the car.

The original plan was to finish my hike early, grab a shower and some breakfast, and make the 420 miles to Ely, Nevada by late afternoon, staying there that night. Within an hour of leaving Moab, however, I realized that I needed to think bigger, or at least further, because US-50 across western Utah is an impossibly scenic -- and practically empty -- stretch of road.

Presented with roads like these, I put six Dylan cds in the changer, lashed the wheel and sped like mad over the deliciously interminable straightaways that cut through the Great Basin Desert.

I got to Ely far earlier in the afternoon than I figured I would. I'm glad I did, because one look around the place made me realize that it wasn’t where I wanted to stop for the night. Cold, gray, and dirty, Ely was a rather depressing way station. I stopped at the Hotel Nevada, the city's main tourist attraction. Though it had a certain shambling grandeur about it from the street, its charms disappeared once you got inside and spied the rows of video poker machines and the Marlboro huffing, sweatsuit-wearing people plugging dollar after dollar into them. It seemed a wretched place, and I stayed only long enough to have a Coke, check my map, and pick up my official “Loneliest Road Passport,” which I was going to have stamped at each of the flyspeck towns along US-50 between Ely and Fernley.

I ran into a pretty major snowsqual at the first mountain pass ten miles west of Ely. When I could no longer see the road, I decided to turn around, head back into town, and assess my options. I found Ely’s public library, where I got online to check out weather and highway reports. The Nevada Department of Highways told me that it was smooth sailing all the way to Carson City, but the two inches of snow on my car told me differently. Just as I as about to play it safe, give up, and check into the depressing Hotel Nevada for the night, I overheard the librarian talking to some local about the roads. Seems the local was a truck driver who had just come over 50 from Reno, and by all appearances survived. I butted into their conversation, pleading Easterner, and asked whether I would make it through the squall I had just seen without snow chains, a St. Bernard, and a cask of brandy.

The trucker told me that I’d be fine this late in the Winter (silly me, I thought it was Spring) if I took it slow over the first two passes and did my best to follow a truck or someone else who could make some tracks for me. I followed his advice, waited for a truck to follow, and started back on the road. It was white knuckles for the first 20 miles, but after that I came down from the snow line and was cruising along at close to 100 m.p.h. again.

The Loneliest Road was quite impressive, though like most things, the less-publicized competition – that stretch of US-50 between Delta, Utah and Ely – was more impressive. Lonelier. Faster. Prettier. A man can get some serious driving done there. The most notable thing about this stretch of road was when I paid -- gasp! -- $2.50 a gallon for gas in the little town of Austin, which at the time was the highest price I'd ever seen in my life (my, how things change). 310 miles and four passport stamps later I rolled into Reno, where I lost $45 gambling without stepping foot in a casino.

My primary guide for the trip was a book called Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen. While it's a great book -- I tend to read it more when I'm not travelling -- I decided not to rely too much on it this trip. I used it to locate routes and sights, but for the most part found my own food and accommodations. Euphoric from a wonderful day on the road, however, I was in the mood to try something different, so I let Mr. Jensen guide me to some local color in the form of a motel he called "quaint" and "retro" and "charming" named "The Heart O' Town." This was a mistake.

From the street it looked, well, OK. It had a neat neon sign and didn't look too seedy, so I figured what the hell. I went inside to ask for a room. The office -- attached to the manager's apartment -- smelled like cabbage. An old lady came out and took my name, money (cash only, please) and gave me a room key. I was already starting to regret handing over my money and giving my real name, but after my Arches-euphoria, I decided that I could handle anything that day.

I walked up to my room and opened the door to see: a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. A TV from the Ford administration. A red velvet bedspread with multiple questionable stains. The stench of bug spray and (maybe) death. Before I let my bag hit the floor, I turned on my heel and walked out.

Back in the office, not wanting to insult the proprietor, I mumbled something about making a mistake or mixed up plans or something and meekly expressed my desire to get my money back and leave. The old lady wasn't having it, though. No refunds. No way. Not possible. Because I was on a hiatus from practicing law -- and thinking about maybe never going back to it -- I had no stomach to argue my rights. It wasn't a lot of money, and I was willing to leave it on the table. As I walked out, the old lady yelled encouragingly "you can keep the key until morning if you want! The room is yours all night!"

My exhaustion catching up with me, I decided to go Velveeta that night, so I got on the freeway, got off at Sparks, and checked into a suburban Cross Country Inn which sat next to an Outback Steakhouse. Ah, home! I soon realized that some Cal-Nevada girls' high school volleyball tournament was in town, because the hotel lobby was filled with scores of tall and athletic sixteen year-old girls, most of them blond and most of them wearing bikinis as they made their way to the indoor pool. I wasn't exactly tempted by the scene, but I was a five-days-unshaven and dusty dude wearing ratty clothes with full legal rights to a no-tell motel downtown all night, so I quickly separated myself from the surrounding nubility lest someone tried to have me arrested.

It took me a while to fall asleep that night. When I finally did, I dreamed of red rock canyons and empty roads.