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weekend ruminations, part two: road trips

June 24, 2009

i really should have done this yesterday, when i had a better idea of what i was going to talk about. dammit. this post will be less awesome than it would have been. sorry about that.

it’s hardly new or shocking to argue that there are few things as quintessentially american as the road trip. the sense of adventure, the sense of openness, of heading out into the wide blue yonder armed with nothing but a road atlas. the back roads and small towns and diners and truck stops. at their best, they somehow always make you feel young and free and spontaneous.

of course, at their worst, you’re trying to drive cross-country in three days, or your car dies in the middle, or it comes to symbolize all that is wrong in your relationship with your fellow road-tripper*, or two weeks in a car turns your best friends into your mortal enemies. but let’s focus on the positive.

reflecting on my own history of road tripping, there are several that stand out, either as individual memories or as comprehensive experiences. 

  • summer 2002, when sleaze and i drove up and down the coast numerous times for a variety of reasons. we decided, for some reason i can no longer recall, that we really needed to go to the mid-state fair in paso robles. i was still without a license in those days, so we took her car, the trusty blue accord with the broken stereo. i made us a mix cd of the cheesiest country songs i could find, and we barreled down backroads, one earbud for each of us (because we only had my discman), singing at the top of our lungs, wildly off-key. this one scene is, in some ways, the epitome of a road trip experience for me. the silliness, the random destination, the back roads, the technical problems and jerry-rigged solutions, the heat and the sun and the oak trees on the hills. (there’s a lucinda williams song, “here in california,” that’s about sadness and disappointment and includes the line “and the hills turn brown in the summertime”; while outsiders may find the brown disconcerting, i’ve always found the classic california brown grass and oak trees combination lovely and comforting.)
  • april 2003, the LA trip of infamy. in an effort to incriminate neither myself nor anyone else, i’m not going into detail. let’s just say that is was epic in many, many ways, one of those being the stupid shit we did. but it was a perfect moment in time, when our little family group was still a perfect unit, before we all moved out and moved on. it was before the whole grad school rejection debacle, before the massive anxiety attack that landed me in a vacaville emergency room, before the seizure and the epilepsy diagnosis. in some ways, it feels like the last time i was really, truly young and fearless and willing to engage in wildly reckless behavior.
  • CIBA 2004. my colleague (who i admire terribly) and i drove up to klamath for the event. if you’ve never seen the mouth of the klamath in the summer sunshine, you are missing out (you see how many of my road trip memories are connected to summer?). on the way, we stopped off in Eureka for some Wiyot celebration; i really cannot remember what it was for. maybe it was when they bought back part of Indian Island? i have no idea. but it was fun. the CIBA gathering is always great, lots of good art and good people. and when it’s held up north, you get traditional Yurok redwood salmon barbeque, which is awesome. we stayed with some friends of my colleague’s, got up at 4 am to go out to Patrick’s Point and watch a Jump Dance, which i’d never seen before. from there we went over the 299 to the 5 (with stops in Hoopa and Weaverville) and up to Chico to do some research. while there we stayed at a low-rent place called the thunderbird lodge: antique 50s sign, surprisingly good water pressure in the shower. then up to redding for a meeting about a project on mt. shasta before going back. it was a working trip, but it wasn’t boring or troublesome at all. it was great. it’s not often you find a colleague you can spend that many days in a car with, but we had no troubles. 
  • spring break 2005. my mom had just gotten a pacemaker put in, bug had just moved back to the west coast, it was a good time to head down south for a visit. i conned rosie into going with me (not that it was hard; i said “want to go to lompoc?” he said “sure”).** we managed to get misdirected (not lost, dammit!) before we even got out of the bay area. we arrived at my mom’s at 2am; she didn’t seem to mind getting up to let us in and even hugged rosie upon introduction. i dressed up as a luchedora pirate for rosie’s photo shoot. we went bowling with bug and ended up crashing at hotel, too drunk to get any further. at breakfast the next morning, we were neglected by our waitress, so bug yelled HEY! across the restaurant. we visited with sleaze’s parents, even though she wasn’t there. we slept on my mom’s living room floor; the next morning was easter and she made us easter baskets. this wasn’t a big trip; we just went to my hometown. we stayed with my mom. but it was crazy and random and the kind of thing that turns out a lot cooler than it should.
  • portland, summer 2005. where to even start? bad food, leaky air mattresses, clothing inappropriate for the weather (on my part anyway). spontaneous bad decisions (also on my part). old signs, all day sippers at the hungry tiger, and a reunion of epic scope among bug, sleaze, and myself. mt shasta, questionable driving habits, powell’s, back roads, bro campout. the way the river looked as we dropped down into portland at 7pm on beautiful august evening. it was everything a road trip should be. and bug and i didn’t even hate each other at the end of it.

there have been others, but they haven’t been quite as memorable, i suppose. or maybe it’s just that this particular collection of road trips sums up what i find most interesting, most appealing in them, why i love them so. even the planned ones provided surprises and delights. i feel like a good road trip is the ultimate expression of that adage about the journey being more important than the destination. it’s not about where you’re going, but what you see on the way, the turns you decide to take, the wrong decisions that turn out right. the road trip is the ultimate metaphor for life. and now i’m waxing melodramatic, so i’ll just stop there.

*this happened to me, although it was more messy and less pithy than liz phair’s song. and the person involved was a good (soon to be non-) friend, not a lover.

**the best kind of people to have on road trips are the kind who ask “why not?” rather than “why?” which is probably a trite thing for me to say, but it’s true.

***i just realized my capitalization in this post is more random than ever, but i just don’t feel like fixing it.

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