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.