Friday, July 15, 2005

On the Road - Part One

No matter how cool you think you are, you can never truly impress a teenager. You may have an "Anarchy" tattoo on the back of your neck -- it makes you look old; you may have invented the skateboard -- you're a capitalist sellout; you may have hacked into the NSA mainframe and reconfigured all outgoing transmissions to play only Bob Marley music -- what's the NSA? Face it, you cannot impress a teenager, but that doesn't mean you stop trying.

My nephew John flew out to attend a summer film program at USC this month, and I volunteered to drive him up to Berkeley to take a campus tour and swing through San Francisco. On the way back we would make a stop at Big Sur and check out the amazing California coast. I was pretty psyched; I have wanted to visit San Francisco since I moved out here but never got around to it. When I was in college I took a semester off and worked at an hamburger joint across the street from the Berkeley campus. Later on, when I was paralegaling in Washington D.C., I worked on a big trial that had me spending half a year on and off living and working in downtown San Francisco. I was looking forward to showing John around what has always been one of my favorite places in the world.

But first we had to get there.

I found out the day John was due to arrive that I had a big deposition to prepare my boss for that was taking place in Hawaii in two days. It wasn't until 6:15 p.m. that evening that I learned that you can't overnight anything from L.A. to Hawaii after 6 p.m. And you can't get anything there before 3 p.m. on the following day -- by which time the depo would be half over. John's plane was due at 8 p.m. My boss had already left for the day. I needed a miracle. I hit upon the brilliant solution of having the whole set of exhibits scanned and emailing them to him in Hawaii. Thank God for modern technology.

Then I checked the United website to confirm the status of John's plane -- another miracle of modern technology. But technology is a two-edged sword. John's plane from Hartford to Dulles was late, so they tried to put him on different connecting flight. But that plane was delayed so they took him off that one to put him back on the original flight, which had conveniently been delayed as well. He wouldn't be due in until midnight. I ended up driving home to have some dinner before going out to the airport. When I got home I had an email from John's Dad -- the plane was now due in at 3 a.m. I slept for a few hours and woke up at 2 a.m. to go pick him up. After waiting around at the wrong terminal for a half hour, I finally got where I was supposed to be and met John. He was wearing his "Fuck Bush" t-shirt, which apparently was a big hit on the plane.

We got home around 5 a.m. and I slept for a few more hours. I woke up around 8 to pack and tried to let John sleep in a little. He had been up for 22 hours sitting on planes and in airports. My original plan of leaving town at 9 and shooting up Interstate 5 would have to be slightly altered. At this point I didn't realized exactly how much alteration that would eventually require. We had a hearty brunch at the Silver Spoon. John was quite pleased with the French Toast, the first of several excellent French Toast experiences to come. We hit the road around noon and ran smack into a traffic jam on Sunset. After a hot twenty minutes crawling along the Strip we were finally on our way. Or so we thought.

From Sunset we jumped on the 405 and breezed out of town, hooking up with the 5 going north. At top speed, we'd have about 5 or six hours to San Francisco. Unless, of course, something went wrong. Something did. At about 10 a.m. a tanker truck filled with jet fuel had overturned in the middle of the Tejon Pass and caught fire. The driver was unhurt, but by the time we were on the road, traffic was backed-up about ten miles from the Tejon Pass down to Castaic. John saw the flashing sign that said "Freeway Closed" and I veered across three lanes to catch the last exit into Castaic before we were totally screwed. We congratulated ourselves on our quick thinking as we headed up a side road, passing hundreds of stranded cars as they sat baking in the midday sun out on the interstate.

But our joy was short-lived. About a half hour up the road we were turned back by a State Trooper and forced to get back on the 5 heading south. We had to drive all the way back to Los Angeles, where we cut across the northern San Fernando Valley to Ventura and got on Route 101 north. We were now about three hours into the trip and still had over 350 miles to go.

We followed 101 along the coast through Santa Barbara until it skirts inland, past such exciting places as Buellton, "Home of Split Pea Soup," Solvang, where they filmed much of the movie "Sideways," and Paso Robles "America's Most Boring Town." We stopped off in Paso Robles in search of fine dining but found nothing to our liking. John was holding out for Taco Bell. We pressed on for another 45 miles until we finally found one at a junction just south of Pinnacles National Monument. After a much needed dinner break, we pushed onward into the setting sun, past Salinas and on into San Jose.

For much of the trip, John had been playing music from his Ipod, beamed into my FM radio and coming out my car speakers. Mostly new punk bands like his favorite called "Against Me" but occasionally a few songs I actually recognized. By now I needed a change of pace so John dialed up his Mitch Hedberg CD, downloaded illegally from the internet of course. Mitch Hedberg was a long-haired, slightly spaced-out stand-up comic whose goofy observations were delivered in a halting, weirdly-accented cadence that made him sound like a stoned ESL student. He died a few months ago, probably from a drug overdose, but he definitely made a mark in the annals of comedy. A few of my favorite Mitchisms: "When someone hands you a flier, it's like they're saying, 'Here, you throw this away.'" "I think Bigfoot is blurry, that's the problem. There's a large out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside." "Every time I go and shave, I assume there is somebody else on the planet shaving as well, so I say, 'I'm gonna go shave too.'"

Mitch kept us laughing for about an hour and soon we were within striking distance of Berkeley. I put my new Lucinda Williams CD on for the last leg of the trip. We had been driving for over ten hours with only a few short breaks and I could barely read the highway signs. John had to navigate our way into Berkely to the Hotel Durant.

We pulled in to the hotel around 11 p.m. and dragged our stuff up to the room. I left John watching ESPN and went down to the bar for a pint of ale. A guy and girl were playing music in the bar, they did a nice slow version of "Willin'": "I've been warped by the rain, driven by the snow, I'm drunk and dirty, don't ya' know, but I'm still... willin'." I sipped my ale and enjoyed the harmonies and tried to unwind from the long drive. We'd made it. It was good to be back In Berkeley. Tomorrow should be really cool...