Two weeks on the road. Officially, my wife and I were taking our son on a tour of college campuses so he can make an informed decision about his post-high school education. Unofficially, I was pretending to be a roadie for a metal band touring the American West. Each time we rolled into a new town, my son and I would “load in” our gear for the “gig.” Our gear was luggage, the venues were hotels, and our gigs were dinners at some local restaurant. No one in my family is a musician, so I had to settle for the road crew aspect of my heavy metal fantasy. We enhanced the realism by packing heavy, so loading up the luggage cart was not unlike hauling stacks of Marshall amps into a club. In twelve days, we covered five states, eight cities, and 3,500 miles. The rock star life.
Our first stop was Medford, Oregon, and our first gig was at a pizza place with a Grateful Dead theme, album covers serving as decor. While there’s nothing metal about the Dead, they were a band known for life on the road, so the fantasy held up. Medford was little more than a refueling stop, which, by the way, I hate doing in Oregon, where drivers are forbidden from pumping their own gas. I knew this going in, but I still find it unsettling. I can only imagine the confrontations that must happen when drivers, unfamiliar with Oregon’s anti-self service fiat, try to grab a gas pump handle. Viva la Revolucion!
The next stop was Santa Cruz, which, on the whole, was also Grateful Dead-themed. We visited the famous boardwalk that my son dubbed “The Forever Carnival,” which was not a term of endearment. He’s not a fan of large crowds. Our true purpose for being there was to get a tour of the University of California, Santa Cruz. UCSC is in the woods, and it looked as much like a challenge course as a college campus. We thought zip lines might be helpful to get across the grounds. Then again, my son and I are afraid of heights, so we were content to walk.
From Santa Cruz, we headed south towards Pasadena and CalTech. Halfway there, my brother-in-law, who was stalking us with the “Find My Friends” app, texted us to roll up our windows and turn on the van’s air re-circulator when we got to Coalinga. He wouldn’t explain why, but as we crossed State Route 198 on I-5, we saw Harris Ranch, the largest beef ranch on the West Coast, producing 150,000,000 pounds of beef each year. We decided to find out just how dire the warning was, so I opened my window for a moment. The stench was palpable, as if a cow had climbed in to our van and relieved itself. It was a good five minutes before we could breathe freely again.
We spent three days in the Greater Los Angeles area and enjoyed seeing the CalTech campus. For fans of The Big Bang Theory, CalTech is where Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard work. Of note, the tour guide made no mention of the show, which I thought would be a selling point. Then again, kids who are qualified to attend CalTech are smart enough to know that those are actors and, no, we couldn’t go visit their offices. Later, we had dinner with my favorite groupies, which I wrote about previously (Thanks for dinner, Mike and Lisa!). We also visited The Getty Museum, and my son made sure we saw every objet d’art on display. He was under the impression we needed to get our money’s worth despite the museum not charging an entry fee. I’m glad for his determination, though, as he ensured we saw the Impressionist gallery which we almost skipped after four hours of art appreciation. Van Gogh’s Irises and Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning are sustaining, like a good Motorhead album. Speaking of Motorhead, we visited Lemmy’s favorite bar, The Rainbow, after a day at the museum (which I also wrote about previously). The only downside of our visit to L.A. was the hotel room’s coffee maker. While I am caffeine free these days, I do still enjoy a morning cup of joe, but it was not to be. The coffee maker was a constipated, asthmatic machine that spit hot water rather than percolate. First world problems of the highest order.
After L.A., we traveled to Chandler, Arizona, where we reunited with former neighbors who had moved away eleven years ago. Thanks to Facebook, we remained in contact, but we hadn’t been in the same room for all those years. We talked about our kids and reminisced in a Thai restaurant until the evening cooled down to a comfy 95 degrees. We didn’t visit any schools in Arizona, which is fine as my son functions optimally between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. (Thanks for dinner, Shae and Perry!)
From Chandler, we headed to the Grand Canyon, which, quite simply, was. I won’t try to describe it. I have decided that if photographs can’t do it justice, my vocabulary won’t fare any better. Put it on your bucket list. While my son and I had to confront our fear of heights head on, we persevered and looked across and down into the massive expanse. It was breathtaking, and not just because of the 7,000 feet of altitude. From there, we headed north to Kanab, Utah, and the drive was the most beautiful 200 miles I have ever experienced. Between the Grand Canyon and the subsequent scenic drive, I had to recalibrate my definition of awesome. I vow to use the word sparingly henceforth, as I have now seen its reference standard.
We arrived in Kanab as the sun was setting, and after loading into the hotel room, we crossed the street for dinner at the Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon. The waitress led us to a table in the all wood interior of the restaurant, which was my mind’s eye image of a Texas roadhouse. We ordered drinks as two perfomers were wrapping up their set of country music, leading the crowd in a singalong of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Even a grizzled metal head like me can’t resist crooning along to that song, especially with a beer in hand after six hours on the road. We were weary travelers, and we wallowed in the moment.
The next morning, we were back on the road towards Draper, Utah, where we would have dinner with my nephew and his family. Along the way, we stopped at Bryce Canyon. We ignored National Park Service warnings not to drive into the park due to limited parking options and still managed to stop at two of the view points. Bryce is quite different from the Grand Canyon, but spectacular in its own right. I would like to see more of these large holes in the ground.
Arriving in Draper, the GPS led us to the gate of the state correctional facility. It would probably be a cheap place to stay, but checking out is tricky. We, thanks to Lynn’s sense of direction, made it to the hotel by dead reckoning towards a building which had a hotelish quality, even though it was largely unmarked. The city of Draper was, apparently, built yesterday. The streets were unfamiliar to GPS, and the hotel was shiny and new. Even the sheets were scratchy in a never-been-washed way. Hopefully they had never been slept in, either.
We visited family in nearby Herriman, including my two nephews, their wife and girlfriend (respectively), my niece-in-law’s parents, and my rambunctious grandniece and grandnephew, who serve as titular reminders that I’m getting older. It was fun evening, and our third free meal of the trip (thanks, Waltons!). Technically, dinner came at a cost, as we helped assemble the trampoline given to my grandniece for her 4th birthday. Then again, we volunteered for the job. Driving through these suburbs of Salt Lake City, my wife noted that, with all due respect, churches in that area are like Starbucks in Seattle: ubiquitous.
Next stop: Boise, Idaho, where we had dinner at the Boise Fry Company, featuring gourmet french fries made from your choice of six types of potatoes cut five different ways and dozens of gourmet salts and dipping sauces. They offer burgers as a side dish, and they are delicious. Before even having visited the campus, my son was pretty sure he wanted to go to Boise State University so he could eat at Boise Fry Company every day.
From Boise, we headed back to Washington to visit Whitman College in Walla Walla. It’s a small liberal arts school, and while my son liked what they had to offer, I was ready to enroll. I fell in love with the campus and curriculum, and I found myself getting sentimental for my undergraduate years at the University of Puget Sound. Walla Walla itself is a lovely town, and thriving thanks to the booming wine industry in the region. We will return one day, regardless of my son’s final decision, to again partake of the Walla Walla Bread Company’s fare.
Our last stop on the 2017 College Tour was Washington State University in Pullman. After the campus tour, we had a chance to meet with the head of the Physics department, who was most certainly not following the Admissions Office “How to Successfully Recruit” script. He offered a brutally honest litany of reasons why WSU might not be the right school for anyone who wants to study Astrophysics, including the Washington State Legislature’s directive that public universities feature a “breadth” of education, rather than a focus in one discipline. As he put it, my son would have to take a bunch of classes that are irrelevant, which I inferred were the liberal arts classes my wife and I got degrees in (not much offense taken), and he would be surrounded by other freshmen who didn’t “share his commitment to learning,” which, by his tone, I inferred to mean “morons.” He was successful in reducing my son’s list of college options by one. WSU had one endearing feature: Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is the storefront for the university’s creamery. We each enjoyed a large cone of “concupiscent curds”* before heading west to our home in Olympia.
Twelve days on the road can be disastrous for a band, but our troubles were few. Aside from the fact that all of us snore and thereby disrupted one another’s sleep each night, the scariest thing that happened was when the “Check Engine” light illuminated as we approached the Grand Canyon. Rather than ignore it, as is always my default approach to problems, we retreated to a service station to have it checked. While I raised the hood to allow the mechanic access to the engine, he climbed into the driver’s seat next to my wife and plugged a diagnostic device in beneath the dashboard. His automotive stethoscope indicated that my Honda’s heart was beating appropriately, and he reassured us that, with no other symptoms presenting, it was probably a faulty sensor. Of course, this only reinforced my faith in the “ignore it” philosophy.
The tour was great, but I dreaded returning home and being asked by friends whether we had seen “must see” sights and visited “must go” places along the way. Aside from what I described above, we did not see it or do it. We were driving most days, and, most days, the drive was six hours long. I had imagined doing some writing on this trip, but it was not to be. Aside from driving, eating dinner, and visiting college campuses, we didn’t do much at all.
You might think, with all those hours on the road, I would, at least, have time to reflect on life’s big questions, but, the most profound realization I had was to discover why I always assume I am traveling in a northerly direction. It occurred to me that the GPS app on my phone always shows the vehicle traveling “up,” which, of course, means north when looking at a map. It was perhaps not a true epiphany, but, as I said, I wasn’t delving deeply into the mysteries of the universe. That will be my son’s job once he gets his degree in Astrophysics. Mostly, I reflected on the road I was on: the odometer, the signage, and the geology along the way. It focused my thinking, which was a pleasant distraction from troubles and woes of work life.
I did manage a few observations along the way, including:
- Seeing 3,500 miles of new landscapes was a gift.
- Singing “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson (on the radio) 2,000 miles into the drive is perfection.
- There are no better tasting beers than the ones that come after six-plus hours of driving.
- FaceTiming on the phone with our daughter, and the dog, each night – since they were unable to join us – was a technological blessing.
- Spending time with my wife and son was wonderful, even with the snoring.
I may not ever be a heavy metal rockstar, but I’ll always remember this tour with my fellow roadies. I love you.