Sunday, November 11, 2012

Out West

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Once upon a time (two and a half weeks ago) I decided to take a fall break and drive to the West Coast and back. All I can say is it seemed like a good idea at the time. I've never actually driven that far (and it's doubtful ever I'd do it again, not alone, anyway), but at the time, the thought of a little California sunshine was very appealing, and driving seemed the way to go.

If I had known what kind of a trip it would be, I would never have left home. The day I left, it was sunny, hot, and pleasant here, but I went through a number of climate changes before I got back and soon realized I was smart to have packed so many layers (though the two bathing suits I included never got any use). I left in the afternoon, at first driving a familiar stretch of interstate between Lexington and St. Louis, and then stopping for the night about an hour west of the latter. I got a clue that this wouldn't be a normal trip when the desk clerk at the Holiday Inn* (see comments below) did a double-take on seeing me and said that another guest who looked just like me (and was dressed like me, apparently) had just gone up in the elevator. Of course, that was a bit strange, but . . . what the heck. Coincidences happen!

Driving across unfamiliar stretches of Missouri, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle, and encountering increasingly unpopulated segments of road, I decided getting through quickly was the best plan, so I drove all night through New Mexico and found myself in Arizona the next morning. Looking for a hotel in the town of Holbrook at first seemed sensible, but on closer examination, I decided a more touristed area would be safer, so I drove on to Flagstaff, where finding a suitable hotel proved challenging. Looking up one that sounded reliable, I discovered it was outside of town, and I drove through miles of forest and desert only to somehow miss it and end up napping in the back seat of my car next to a residential area, waking in the middle of the night and discovering, on the way to get gas, that I had literally been almost next door to a Best Western. I checked in and spent the rest of the night in bed.

Although I was close to the Grand Canyon (which I have never seen, except from the air), I had by that time decided that to get where I was going was highly desirable, and that perhaps I would see the Grand Canyon on the way back. Pressing on, I crossed the state of Arizona, not before discovering in Kingman that my passenger side door had been unlocked (probably while I was at the Best Western). Since I had lost my keys (at home) back in the summer, that gave me pause, but by a strange twist of fate, it was actually lucky for me that this happened because I had just accidentally locked the driver's side door (with the motor running) and was thus equal parts perplexed and overjoyed to find the passenger door unlocked. After somehow getting on the interstate going the wrong way for 20 minutes (Arizona, your signage?), I righted myself and headed for the California border at Needles.

Now I have spent considerable time in California, but driving across the desert in a car was totally new to me. I had been here before on a train, but everything looks quite different when you're in a car, especially by yourself. By this time, it was dark and a little scary. An unexpected light moment came when the border guard, prior to giving me an inspection pass, asked if I had any live animals with me. I'm not sure why that was funny (three days in a car, and you get a little punchy), but I laughed and told him, "Just me."

I drove to Ventura County, almost home ground for me since I went to school next door in Santa Barbara County. I hadn't realized finding hotels in October could be such a challenge, but evidently October is high tourist season in some parts of the West. I ended up staying in Santa Paula, a nice town though a small one, but checked out of my hotel on Sunday, earlier than planned, to head down to L.A.

All I wanted was a good night's sleep in a decent hotel, and a little sightseeing the next day. I thought of going to the Getty Center. When I got to Santa Monica, I started to stay at one of the fancy hotels near the beach, but a trip to my room convinced me otherwise. I was stuck in a remote corner of the hotel, out of sight of anyone else, with a lock that didn't seem to quite work (this became a theme on the trip). I hauled my suitcase back down to the desk and told the clerk I didn't like the room. She offered to reassign me, but having gotten a bad vibe from this experience, I told her I'd look elsewhere.

I can't honestly say why, but I was no longer sure I really felt comfortable in L.A. I drove around for a while, decided to go down to San Diego, did so, tried to find a hotel district, and somehow found myself on the residential side of town, no hotels in sight. (Finding a hotel in the dark when you're tired isn't always as easy as you might think, along with the fact that experiences of the last couple of days had me leery.) Since I knew no one in San Diego, I decided after all to drive back to L.A.

The next day's adventures included going for what was intended to be a short walk, getting dehydrated, not being able to find my car, almost deciding to fly home in panic and frustration, and finally locating my car with the aid of the police. The police helped me look through my things to discover if anything was missing and told me to call the next day if I discovered anything amiss later on. After they left, I noticed once again that my passenger side door was unlocked. Wow! After spending the night at a favorite hotel in Santa Monica, I called in to report this the next day.

Could the trip get any stranger? Well, yes, actually, it could. After I ate lunch in Malibu, bad fish forced an emergency stop in Santa Barbara. I was ready to call it a night, and the hotel seemed nice enough, but after taking a shower and lying down for a while, I became increasingly uneasy about the door -- which did not have a dead bolt lock -- and the open transom above the curtains. I checked out that night, and after driving north in search of another place to stay, I suddenly wanted to be gone and decided to head home.

On Halloween, I found myself crossing the wide open spaces of Nevada, trying with difficulty to reach friends and family on my cell phone. Since this saga has already gone on too long, I won't go into detail about my unsuccessful attempt to see family in Idaho, the invitation from a friend in San Francisco to come and visit, my drive back to California and the Hotel of the Windy Corridors in Stockton, the impossibility of finding a parking space in San Francisco on a Friday night, and an overnight stay in Morgan Hill with a hotel full of lacrosse players. Heading east the next day, I experienced one of the few moments of joy and ease on this trip as I passed through the fertile hills around Gilroy, where they grow many things, including garlic -- whose scent suffused the air. The hills were enveloping and welcoming, and I was sorry to leave them behind, reminders of happier times on previous trips.

The scenery from Bakersfield to Barstow, and then on to Needles, across the mountains and down to the desert, was magnificent, but I felt like I was viewing it distantly, on a very small television. It was like something out of an old Western, especially the closer I got to Needles. I have heard that California is many states rolled into one, and I certainly had proof of it on this trip. I saw parts that I had never seen before, or had never seen by car, which makes a big difference; even the familiar parts looked strange, as if they had been flipped upside down. As a child, I remember once or twice experiencing a strange sense of disorientation, in which suddenly directions seemed to have reversed themselves when I came to a familiar place from a different angle. That sensation was something like what I experienced on this trip.

I stopped not long after dark in Kingman, Arizona, where I ended up in a room with a loose safety latch; traveled on the next day to Amarillo, Texas, where I had the identical problem with a safety latch in a different hotel chain; and finally decided I was getting home no matter what, so that I drove carefully and methodically across parts of five states before crossing back into Kentucky and collapsing at a Sheraton on the outskirts of Lexington. I took what was almost a semi-vacation that last day, going to the mall, buying chocolates, and shopping. I came back to my apartment the next day, Wednesday, and thought about kissing the door frame once I was inside. (I was so tired, I forgot.)

I could (and will) call this trip "The Vacation That Wasn't" or "I Dreamed a Dream of Driving to California, But This Was Not It." I could also call it "The Magical Mystery Tour," though my use of the word "magical" isn't meant to connote anything positive. I could call it "Into the Wild," though that title, too, has been taken. Or with the Grateful Dead, I could truthfully say, "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been," and be perfectly accurate.

One moment of great clarity stands out: I was driving west on I-80 in Nevada, whose harsh and immense landscape might as well have been the surface of the moon, when a great loneliness came over me. The only thing I could think of was my own apartment, my books on the shelves, and how much I wanted to see them. I was so far from anyone I knew, or anything familiar, and all I wanted was to get back home. And so I did, eventually. And here I am.

Like Dorothy, who wanted to leave Kansas so badly, I find myself, at the end of the yellow brick road, back where I started, if a little worse for wear. I was looking at a picture of myself that I took after getting home and thought, "Wow, the wear and tear is kind of showing." It brought to mind what Indiana Jones famously said: "It's not the years, it's the mileage" (literally).

On the other hand, it may not be anything that a good night's sleep and a little moisturizer can't cure. Check with me in a couple of days.

And if you yourself are on the road, drive safely.