Got the feel for the wheel, keep the moving parts clean...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

High Plains Drifter

Well, as you may recall from my last post, I found myself summoned rather arbitrarily back to Texas for a meeting with some folks from the TX Workforce Commission, upon which essentially random decision my receipt of unemployment benefits are contingent. After 12 hours of screaming rage and three stress-based heart attacks, though, I've decided to just accept it and focus on the good things about this trip. (It's probably a moot point anyway: I also got called back for a second interview at a job I applied for before I left, and while I think they're not likely to offer me enough money to take the job, I won't know unless I show up.)

Sure, it's a fucking drag that I made a lot of plans that are going to get scuttled, and that I won't get to see all my people on the East Coast. But you know what? By the time I get back to SATX, I will have been on vacation for a month. Bitching that I won't get to be on vacation for three would probably severely annoy all the folks reading this who don't have the luxury to do something like that. The last month has been fantastic; I saw a lot of good friends, I spent huge chunks of time in some of the most beautiful natural surroundings this country has to offer, I camped out four times and spent time in five national parks, I got to see the entire western half of the United States, I went to another country, I ate some amazing food, and I managed to make money while I was doing it. Also, I don't have to be back until next Tuesday, which means I've got over a week to get back -- and that means I can camp out a few more times, and go to a few more national parks (tomorrow I'm planning on sleeping under the stars at San Isabel National Forest). I'm a grown-up, and bitching about the end of the trip instead of the amazing month that's preceded it is what a baby would do. And how is babby formed? Through bitterness.

So, yeah, I'll be home next week instead of in July. And I'm okay with that. It was probably even a tad naive to think that I could be away from home during a time of unemployment and busy freelance work for three entire months with no interruption. But I thought, maybe I am just that inessential.

But the trip is still on, until I pull into my garage in Terrell Hills! So, some notes from the road for the past few days:

- I camped out in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest last night, a ways outside of Butte, Montana, and it fucking snowed. In late May. Snow. Seriously. I yelled and yelled at the snow to stop but it wouldn't listen. My small supply of blankets was not prepared for this and it got seriously goddamn cold, but at least a wolf didn't bite off my penis, which is my #1 fear when camping.


#1. Texas
#2. Montana
#3. California (N-S only)
#4. Alaska (presumably)
#5. Iowa (small but incredibly boring)

- I'm still taking a lot of state roads and scenic routes, and I was cruising along a ranch road in Wyoming earlier today when I saw that some dude had parked a vintage Pontiac Firebird just inside the front gates of a ranch. A full-grown bull and a small calf were checking it out -- like, literally rubbing up against it and sniffing at it -- and I'm pretty sure they were thinking "If we could somehow figure out how to drive this thing, it would be the greatest buddy movie ever.'

- This actually happened: in Alberta, I saw a kid out in a field chasing a horse, and just as he started, "Yackety Sax" came up on my iPod. How can I be pissed off when shit like that is happening? I also thought I saw a cow nodding its head in time to "They Want EFX" by Das EFX, but I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law. (Sorry for all the cow-related stories. I'm just in cattle country.)

- So, my deepest apologies to all of you I won't get to see this time around. I'm really sorry, and you can put all the blame on me -- it really was probably wishful thinking that I could make the whole circle without getting pulled back. I'm planning on traveling more this year, though, and I still want to see as many of you as I can. In the meantime, I leave you for the moment with these lyrics from road trip favorite "Box Elder", by Pavement:

"I got a lot of things to do;
A lot of places to go;
I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way,
But I’m afraid to say that you’re not one of them."

Mashin' on the Motorway

A combination of bureaucratic shenanigans and ill health may be scuttling the Transcontinental Road Race 2010 only halfway through its completion. Details are still scant, but apparently the great state of Texas is demanding my actual presence back in tasteful San Antonio in order to lay claim to my unemployment benefits, without which I'd be in a somewhat precarious position, and I'm likewise unable to re-up a simple and non-recreational medical prescription without an okey doke from my doctor, which is proving difficult to get via the mails. I'm trying to sort all this out so that I can continue my trip, and details are surely to come, but at the moment, I have to score a hotel room here in mid-nowhere and start making angry phone calls. To my friends in the Midwest and East Coast, I say an exasperated, growling apology, and here's hoping I see you soon. To the state of Texas, I say, pick a finger, any finger. The middle one is nice.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Drive, She Said

After several days of mind-meltingly great weather, Seattle is finally giving me one of its patented watch-it-rain-until-you-lose-the-will-to-live afternoons. A fine time to catch up on the rest of my freelance work and let you know what I've been up to before rolling into Canada tomorrow, to collect a new stamp on my passport and a new job interview to blow.

Northern California is, let's face it, overrun with hippies. Especially on the scenic back roads and coastal routes I'd been patrolling on my stint up the coast, they swarmed around like a bunch of hornets who had unwashed feet instead of stingers. Admittedly, they're naturally attracted to places like Big Sur -- there's no denying they've got a dogs/earthquakes sensitivity to natural beauty -- but once you've bought dope off of them, they cease to serve any practical purpose and begin to look like a quick 20 points in Death Race 2000. I think we'd all be happier if they retreated to Vermont, which isn't on my agenda for this trip and where they therefore would be safe from my murderous mood shifts.

Oregon was not kind to me at first. My plans involved camping out for the night somewhere in the Dunes, but there is a vast internecine war between various regulating entities over who controls any given stretch of natural turf along the West Coast: the state, the counties, the National Parks Department, the Forest Service, and, for all I know, Advanced Idea Mechanics all vie for parkland superiority, probably with paintball shootouts in the middle of the night. One has to be very careful where to camp lest you get your car towed and your gear confiscated by a trigger-happy ranger. In addition to this, no one in South or Central Oregon appears to have a job, judging from the fact that almost every campground I came across was filled with surly-looking dudes and their fat, entitled post-adolescent kids, ripping across the sands on $12,000 dune buggies on the Thursday before a non-holiday weekend. (Dune buggies, by the way, are emblematic of the fuck-you stubbornness of humanity: no matter what kind of terrain nature throws at us as a warning to stay away, we will not only run roughshod all over it, but we will in fact invent a specific type of vehicle designed specifically to fuck it up.)

I was beginning to despair that by the time I finally found a decent place to set up my tent and crash for the night, it would be too late to see anything. This was me forgetting that on the west coast, the sun goes down as late as it possibly can, and I was finally able to set up in beautiful solitude along Lake Tahkenitch at 9PM, with the sun still fully in the sky. I am not the world's most perfect camper, due to my love of comfort, bathrooms that are not a tree, and not being attacked by animals in the middle of the night, but I've done well so far this trip on the outdoor portions of the program, and I'm looking forward to clocking more use out of the National Parks Pass.

The urban stints have been a delight as well. Michelle, my Portland host, was as gracious as ever and remains the great love of my life; the city suits her, and I was pleased to know her sister's living up there as well (and shocked to learn that she's got a kid, since I can remember when she was a kid). Her gentleman, Jeremy, is a treat to hang around with, and they showed me plenty of good time during the unfortunately brief time I was in the Rose City. Short time and bad timing have prevented me from seeing everyone in Seattle that I wanted to see, but Calamity Jon and Kate have been the perfect hosts, so much so that I feel caddish about my extended stay. They've introduced me to several wonderful folks they know here, and last night, we ate at this sushi joint, which once more reminded me what a profound difference the use of truly fresh fish makes in the preparation of sashimi. Barring a generous act of adoption by my hosts, though, it's back on the road tomorrow morning, up into Vancouver for a spell and then across the Big Sky Country, where shit gets real, small-town-wise.

Some random notes from the road:

- When I was in L.A., I bought another digital voice recorder to replace the one I thought I lost but actually turned out to be in my glove compartment. I brought it along to do phone interviews while I'm on the road, but I thought it might also come in handy for recording brilliant observations about various sights on my journey. Instead, it consists mostly of me pointing out funny street names and singing along with whatever's on my iPod.

- I love roadside warning/information signs that look like the sign maker charged by the word, and the state was too cheap to include much actual information. "ROCKS"! Okay, what about them? "CRABS"! Great. Crabs.

- This place pretty much gives the hippie game away. Warning: irritating.

- Almost as infuriating as the people who park their expensive sports cars across two spaces so their precious investment won't get scratched up are people who buy a $90,000 performance auto and then take it out on the freeway so they can drive at half the speed limit. Look, grandpa, I appreciate that you don't want to put any wear on your tires and all, but we both know that a Lexus can take a corner at more than 20 miles per hour. What's the fucking point of buying a fast car if you never drive fast?

- What-an-economy shocker: Oregon's highway road crews often contain relatively attractive young women. Most other states I've been to, "road crew" is second only to "White Castle" as the employer of choice for the profoundly fugly.

- Okay, funny road signs: Fort Dick; Pelican Bay State Prison; Wonder Stump Drive.

- After the hippie-overrun gorgeosity of north-central California, I was unprepared for the run-down cruddiness of far nothern California. I got sick as hell just breathing the air at the Crescent City Wal-Mart (and everyone in it gave me the stink-eye, to book), and Eureka, which I know only as a college town, seemed like a mini-Detroit: broken down, dirty, overrun with junkies and street people, full of bail bonds joints and gun shops and third-rate thrift stores. Another economic victim, or is this area just a dump?

- More photos. I lost the load cable for my camera, so these'll have to tide you over 'til I get a new one this weekend.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Six Days on the Road

Just a quick update right now; more to come later in the week when I've had some time to gather my thoughts from the cannabis fog that has enveloped them lately. I'm in the Pacific Northwest, and that means they issue you drugs as you cross the border like the way you get an engineering manual and a stolen gold tooth when you enter Germany. (Note: this may not actually happen.)

The first few days I spent in Northern California and Oregon, I lived the rough road, hitting a couple of national parks areas and camping out. Yes, I, the fattest laziest urbanite in the world, am actually capable of assembling a tent and sleeping in the out-of-doors just like a person who isn't completely spoiled by to-go barbecue and remote controls. Even more terrifyingly, I'm starting to kind of enjoy it, a sensation I expect to continue until a wolf bites off one of the nicer parts of my genitalia.

Once I arrived in Portland, though, my days of roughing it were, like me, put to bed. Thanks to the ministrations of my wonderful friend Michelle and her boy Jeremy, I got to relax, watch one of the strangest movies ever made, and have a swell time at this joint. Circumstances didn't allow me to spend as much time in Portland as I'd liked to have done, but Michelle is always the perfect host, and seeing her even for a day is a reminder of how good a friend she's always been to me. Now I'm in Seattle, under the roof of Calamity Jon and Kate, who are equally gracious and are putting up with my lazy ass for an undermined amount of time while I get some work done. A real update with photos and everything is imminent, but for now, enjoy this link to yet another place I have stuffed food into my face on this trip. Seriously, I weigh like 600 pounds now, someone send me some front seat grease.

NAMES TO CONJURE WITH: In Yachats, Oregon, there is a street called Gender Lane. I like to think it intersects with another street called Race Boulevard, where people stand around awkwardly, too nervous to say anything to each other.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rollin' in My Six-Fo

People always say to me, "Leonard, you have driven through the Rocky Mountains, as well as long the Pacific Coast Highway, more than once." And I say to them, yes, people, that is true. I have done both those things. And they ask me, "Which is the most dangerous?" I know what they mean. Each of these highly scenic drives is actually a total deathtrap, where a slight second of deviation can cause you to die a horrible, painful, terrifying death (in the former case, by plunging off the side of a mountain, and in the latter case, by flying off into the ocean). And the reason for that is simple human stubbornness: there is, when you get down to it, absolutely no cause for anyone to be driving a car in these areas. Piloting a hunk of twitchy steel at sixty miles an hour through the winding paths and hairpin turns of central Colorado or western California is a short ticket to suicide. But if I had to pick which one was more dangerous, I would say the PCH, and here's why: unless you're a tree enthusiast, there isn't all that much to look at up in Wolf Creek Pass and its environs. While the turns may be sharp and the drops precipitous, at least it's relatively easy to keep your eyes on the road. Whereas every two miles or so along the Pacific Coast Highway, there is a scene so heart-stoppingly gorgeous it's like God put it there just to distract you for the few precious seconds necessary to cause you to veer off the road and fall to your death.

I'm getting pretty grungy at this stage of the trip. My hair is growing out, my face has gone from five-o'clock-shadow to five-days-of-lazy-ass-not-shaving mode, and the motel I'm staying at in wherever the hell I am doesn't have a laundry, so tomorrow is my last day of clean clothes. Lucky for me I'm keeping human contact to a minimum. I really have no one to blame but myself for this; my meanderings through northern California have been more aimless than even I had anticipated, and twice today I got lost and just decided to drive the hell around wherever I found myself rather than bothering to look at a map. This resulted in an extremely weird but visually pleasant detour south of Carmel, and then later on I got lost in Mill Valley and ended up here, wherever here is. It's somewhere in the Wine Country, that's all I know for sure. I can tell because I feel even more out of place than I did in L.A. Even the Vietnamese immigrant manning the front desk at 10PM gave me the high hat. The best way I can describe it is as looking like that hideout in the boonies that C.J. uses in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, when he's fucking with that psycho Catalina chick. But I'm making progress, as much progress as can be made when I don't really care where I'm going or when I get there, and as soon as this post is done, I'll drift to sleep to the sounds of the loud drive-through p.a. outside my window.

A good night's sleep will be most welcome, but tomorrow, I gotta stop drifting and start hard-nosing the highway. I can't afford to stay in hotels every night, and I need to start doing more car-camping; and while these state roads are as scenic as fuck, I'm averaging around 40mph a day, which is kind of a bummer since, thanks to the great British Petroleum Gulf Spill Excuse of 2010, gas has shot up to well over three dollars a gallon almost everywhere I've been. I'm actually considering chickening out on the Trans-Canada Highway stretch of the trip; I don't know anyone for most of the stint, which means more hotels (unless Canada has far more liberal car-camping laws than we do, which very well may be the case), and the speed limit is pitifully low, and gas is even pricier in Canada than it is here. Still, I'd love to make the dash, so we'll see.

Listening to my recorded notes from this morning, I was a hell of a lot more tired than I thought; I sound like a guy who hadn't slept since the Truman Administration. Apologies if this, more than my normal incoherence, made the last entry unreadable. I started out in Lompoc, the home of Roger Ramjet and his crew, and headed on towards Oceano, a city named after a Chicago deathcore band and apparently consisting entirely of campers. I bought a sticker there and after realizing I didn't want to plaster state stickers all over my car like so much hippie, I decided to slap it on my rifle instead. That'll show somebody. Speaking of guns, somewhere outside of Monterrey, a cop had pulled over a truck. His motorcycle was behind the truck, so I didn't even know he was a cop; but he stepped into the shoulder area, and aimed his radar gun right at me. This was disconcerting, because it had the effect of making me think someone was aiming a pistol directly into my face from the side of the road, which is a lot more likely to make me have an accident than going a few miles over the speed limit.

The Chickwagon is running okay, but it needs an oil change. I tried to get one in Santa Cruz, but I was denied three times. One place said they only service foreign cars, like changing the oil is radically different in a fucking Saab. The second said they were closing at five and it was already four. The third just refused flat-out to serve me. What, do I smell? Oh, right, I do. Anyway, I'm outraged, and I blame hippies. I always blame hippies. (By the way, passing by San Francisco, I pulled up to a light, where I was the middle car in a three-lane highway. I decided to give a shout-out to all the lovely ladies of San Francisco, and I looked to my left, and then to my right: both elderly Chinese dudes. That'll show me to pay any never-mind to the lovely ladies of San Francisco.)

On the way through San Simeon, I stopped at the Hearst Castle. I think it's pretty delightful that the bastard spent a kabillion dollars to build a giant impregnable fortress on a hill in the middle of nowhere to keep the rabble away, and now any schmuck with a car can just drive up there and tromp all over his fancy house for nothing. And it's government-funded, too. The employees of the place sponsored an Adopt-A-Highway mile down the road. I'm sure that makes his ghost plenty happy.

Tomorrow: Oregon, maybe. Meanwhile, more photos.

NAMES TO CONJURE WITH: Lightfighter Drive; Zeeb for Treasurer; Morro Bay.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Liberty Calls

In keeping with the mixed feelings about the place I expressed yesterday, I had a hard time leaving L.A. today. In my mind, sometimes I am the barnacle, and sometimes I am the ship, but as I rolled out after a quick stop at Von's for some supplies, I definitely felt like something vital was being left behind.

For thematic as well as aesthetic reasons, I decided to listen to Mike Watt's moving, masterful concept album Contemplating the Engine Room as I left Southern California. His nautical/automotive metaphors and analogies of punk rock to the seafaring life struck home for me a lot today, and, of course, dude's still in Pedro. When the rollicking "Liberty Calls" started thrumming from my speakers, I thought: that's me. I'm on liberty call. But anytime anyone has ever thought "I can do whatever I want", reality steps in to remind you that you really can't. Time, money, the limitations of space, the vagaries of geography, the authorities, anything can step in at any time to interrupt your dérive. Fate got hold of me in half a dozen ways today, from unexpected (though welcome) freelance work cropping up in the morning to a massive traffic jam on the 101 at Oxnard that kept me crawling for hours and prevented me from getting as far as I wanted. An ill-advised detour into Santa Barbara also bollixed things up but good: if you're looking for a quick meal and a chance to use the bathroom, never, ever leave the road on a downtown exit. I ended up detouring around a labyrinth of boutique stores for so long that I almost resorted to pissing in one of the many empty drink bottles on the passenger side floor of my car. Luckily, I didn't do it, since if I had, I would surely have ended up standing tall before the Man, who would have thrown a coffee mug at my head and told me to stay out of his beach community. Santa Baby is definitely not my kinda town, though the British gal at Borders who tipped me to a good place to eat was easy on the eyes and the spirit.

However, I spent most of today on the Pacific Coast Highway, which favors you every few miles or so with the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery you've seen since the last breathtakingly beautiful scenery it showed you. Gorgeous, surprisingly pristine beaches, rolling green ranch hills, mountain roads that peak so it looks like you're about to drive into a bank of heaven-shaped clouds: California S.R. 1 is a message from God that he doesn't much mind car travel after all. But nature isn't allowed to show us beauty without humanity responding with something ominous, and the offshore drilling platforms that begin to dot the shorelines around Ventura County seem particularly hostile in light of recent events in the Gulf. Ronald Reagan famously defended their placement by claiming that you could still see the sea, that it wasn't like there was only one frame showing the ocean and someone stuck an oil rig in front of it. But after a disaster like the British Petroleum spill, they seem to loom rather larger than usual; in a classic example of the relativity of distance, when operating within normal standards, they seem like they're uncountable miles off the precious California coast, but when they're hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude, they must seem like they're close enough to touch.

My National Parks pass has already paid for itself as far as I'm concerned. Tonight's my first night car camping; I'm somewhere in the Los Padres National Forest as I write this, watching spooky night work its way westward from Lompoc and Los Olivos. (And reminding me of how George Carlin said that all else being equal, he liked L.A. better than New York because the sun set two blocks from his house.) This internet connection is spotty, but I'm amazed it even exists; I don't know if it's getting something from the ranger station or if there's just some mega-signal coming in from Vandenberg. Thanks to all who have hosted me and hung out with me so far, and I'll see more of you soon. Until then, here's some photos, now on Flickr!

NAMES TO CONJURE WITH: Thanks partly to the fact that so much of this area has been mythologized by Hollywood, almost every place name you encounter seems crammed with meaning: Point Mugu, Zuma Beach (Neil Young's favorite), Port Hueneme, Carpinteria, Camarillo, Montecito, Goleta, El Capitan.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Drive-In Saturday

I don't want this blog to become just a list of really good restaurants I've eaten at on the trip. I really don't. But people keep taking me to amazing food joints, so what can I do? I rolled into L.A. today, and my hosts (Gary, Kathy and the always-charming Penelope) took me to Silverlake, to Umami Burger. Fuck a bunch of In-N-Out burger, this joint is the one to try when you're in SoCal.

Lots of work to catch up on, so more later, but I'm encountering, just as I always do in Los Angeles, the psychic warfare between the overwhelming feeling that this is where I ought to be and the equally overwhelming feeling that this is somewhere I really don't belong. The streets, the shops, hell, even the house where I'm staying is full of beautiful people leading rewarding lives in a place blessed with incredible beauty, tangible history, and amazing weather. Sure, the longer I stay here, the more I notice the phonies, the poseurs, the jerks and the users, the sky-high expenses and the dysfunctional government, the inequality and the well-managed despair. But in short doses, it really does feel like Heaven, and that's not where I'm supposed to be. Where am I supposed to be? I dunno. Maybe Inglewood.