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.