Thursday, June 28, 2018

Into The Great Wide Open Part Three: The Saint of Los Angeles

Apologize for the delay, had to work out a few things in my mind on how to approach things here, then got busy! Moving on! Check out part one of this stupid one-man odyssey right here and part two right here! In this installment, I leave the scenic stretches and California kitsch of the central coast and trade it for the ultimate concrete jungle. Along the way, I get to reconnect with some old friends that I hadn't seen in over a decade, get irrationally bummed out from a message from back home, get tailored, visit every Real Rock n' Rolla's spiritual home and start to put it all together while meditating on a beach. Let's get back on the road...

The alignment on that car had to have been pretty great
After a quick stop back in San Luis Obispo at the Firestone Grill for one of their famous Tri-Tip sandwiches, I was back on Highway 1 heading south. The road weaves in and out of its ocean view and I made one more stop in Pismo Beach, just to see what Bugs Bunny was making such a fuss about. It was kinda nice, well worth taking that right turn in Albuquerque. I blasted through Santa Maria and found myself nearing Lompoc, where Mia, O'Conner and the fellas once sprung Toretto by wrecking his prison bus and somehow didn't kill everybody aboard. There were no prison buses on the road, but traffic was starting to build, and by the time I hit Santa Barbara, it was stop-and-go time. For the next two hours I probably averaged about five miles an hour as we crawled along the 101 through Ventura. It kinda blows my mind that the beautiful vistas of the chaparral that I was "forced" to look at (along with about ten thousand tail lights) pretty much went up in smoke last Winter. Eventually, I got through whatever it was that was throttling down traffic to two lanes, split from the 1 and managed to hit the Valley just as it was getting dusky and the famous LA rush hour traffic was starting to build up. The Waze app is a godsend in places like this, and even though game 6 of the World Series was going on just adjacent to my route, I was able to find my hotel downtown without a crazy amount of trouble.

My tongue is LAVA!
After stowing my gear and a quick freshening up, I took a walk to find some dinner, stopping off for some tacos at a little place down the street. It was Halloween night and pretty busy, but there was an open seat at the bar in the rear of the place and I struck up a conversation with the bartender while he was pouring. He'd come to LA from the midwest to try and get into the film business and figured out he had it a lot easier slinging drinks and living in an apartment the size of a closet downtown. NOT STEREOTYPICAL WHATSOEVER. Still, there's something to be said about actually taking the leap when you've got nothing to lose. Now, I can't eat quite what I used to these days, so I settled on just three small tacos, (carnitas, chicken and shrimp) as well as one of the better margaritas I've had in quite some time. The carnitas and chicken were both outstanding, the shrimp had to have been one of the top-ten hottest things I've ever eaten. Just blew my already-fried palate all to hell. I'm glad I saved it for last. Just as the Dodgers were putting the finishing touches on forcing a game 7 in the World Series, I paid for my meal and walked back to the hotel. The streets were a lot more crowded both with people in costumes heading to the bars for a wild night and ecstatic local Dodger fans, with visions of a possible championship dancing in their eyes.

We're practically the same guy.
The margaritas had my brain in a fog and as my head hit the pillow just after midnight, a messenger alert snapped me back to reality. Hey! It's the mysterious girl from back home! She got my "just thinkin' about you" message! I opened the app aaaaand her blunt response made it abundantly clear that whatever feelings I had for her, weren't exactly reciprocated. Not exactly what I wanted to read on my first night in The City of Angels, or ever really. But thinking about it, shit, it's totally okay. We were in completely different places in our lives. And relationships are definitely a two-way street. I was an idiot for thinking I could rekindle something that probably wasn't really there from twenty years ago. Not the first time I've made that kind of mistake and it probably won't be the last. God knows, I'm terrible at catching a hint. But hell yeah, it hurt. But just like everybody's favorite animated doormat Butters once said on the legendary "Raisins" episode of South Park, "but at the same time I'm really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It's like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin' really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I'm feelin' is like a, beautiful sadness. I guess that sounds stupid." Still, at the time, it felt like the many highs of the past few days had just been mashed with a pair of size fifteen waffle-stompers. I hammered down a hot shot of NyQuil and I'm not sure how long it took to fall asleep, but it was a while.
Wish we had something like this here in Salt Lick.

It was a fairly restless night, but I rolled out of bed bright and early to meet an old college friend for breakfast, Jess. You might remember her from a couple cameos in some of my old Dorm Days stories, specifically when she fell asleep hiding in my closet from campus security during our huge dorm party, and when she totally brightened up my day during one of the shittiest weeks I had during that era. Good friends like her are hard to come by in this world. She suggested we meet up at the Grand Central Market, one of those big food markets that only seem to exist on Travel Network TV shows. Thankfully, the market was only about a twenty-minute walk from my hotel. In LA, driving doesn't cost a lot, PARKING costs a lot. Actually, with the cost of gas these days, driving costs a lot too.

Don't blame me. The rat peed there.
Now, there's a lot to be said for living in a clean, almost sterile city, but this was an enjoyable stroll to me for a few reasons. First, people actually seemed interested in where they were going and were MOVING. And even if you bumped into somebody accidentally, they didn't give you the side-eye, they just kept on. I actually kind of liked that anonymity. Also, as gross as it sounds, there's something oddly comforting about that familiar scent of urine and pigeon shit in the air. That felt like a city that's lived in. It doesn't pressure you to conform to a certain way of living. You can do what you want, live your life the way you want to as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else, and nobody gives a rat's ass, not even the rats. That being said, it'd be nice if it was a little cheaper though, but I still dig it. Those high prices, and the fact that your house may either burn down in a brush fire or shake itself apart in the event of an earthquake are all a small price to pay for the luxury of 70 degrees and perfect every single day with a beach nearby.

After hanging around the ever-growing line at the counter of the tastefully named breakfast sandwich booth called Eggslut for about twenty minutes, from behind me I just heard a loud, "NICKAS!" and a big hug. It'd been about ten years since I'd seen her but Jess was a vision as always! I'll tell y'all what, if we have any chance whatsoever at cleaning up the literal mess this country has made of itself in terms of litter and pollution, Jess is going to be at the forefront of the solutions. She works for a waste management NPO in Southern California and was one of the main proponents of their recent plastic grocery bag bans as well as several other major sustainable trash management initiatives. She knows more about garbage than anyone I know, and that's a good thing. She's going to have a positive impact on this earth. It was great to catch up with her, even if for just a little while as we reminisced about the Dorm Days and everything that's happened since then. After a dynamite sausage sandwich for breakfast and about eight cups of coffee, I walked her to her car and said goodbye. As she pulled away into traffic, I remembered one of the dumb goals of this trip that I had in mind when I left Salt Lick, I was going to buy a suit.

I mentioned in the last chapter of this travelogue that one of my favorite podcasts, The After Disaster, was based in Southern California. A couple months before this, they'd mentioned on one of their shows that two of them had recently purchased tailored suits from a small tailor called Al Weiss. They'd mentioned that they were so good, they practically sized you up as you walked in the door, asked you what you were interested in, and had you outfitted literally ten minutes later with something that fit perfectly, and for not a whole lot of dough. I punched in the coordinates on my phone and found that it was located only about fifteen blocks away, so I continued my march through the streets toward the fashion district. I almost walked right past it, it was so small. I walked in and it looked like it was chock-full of stuff that "fell off the back of the truck." A dude named Roman walked over and just like they said on the show, basically sized me up on everything besides neck-size, grabbed a couple things off the shelf and told me to try them on. Holy shit! This stuff looked great! I just needed the pant legs shortened by an inch. "No problem," the guy said, "take it over to Freddy's next door and they'll tailor it for you. I was in and out of Freddy's in about ten minutes and only out about five bucks for the alterations. I stopped back into Al Weiss and bought three more shirts. All told, I was out all of $250 for an Italian suit and four shirts. Insane. I then had another pleasurable walk for about fifteen blocks packing my garment bag back to my hotel. Nobody gave me a second look. Anonymity is awesome and I was already starting to feel a little bit better. Like it was time to turn a corner.
38 Minutes! It's like I run in slow motion or something, still,
it's a pretty nice view! 

After a killer workout in the surprisingly swanky hotel gym in which I set (at the time) a treadmill 5K personal best (gotta love interval training at sea level!), I met up with my television writer buddy MJ and his wife Alexia for dinner and drinks at a brewpub in Burbank. I coached MJ for a season of high school golf at Carbon High during my freshman year of college and I'd worked with his mother for quite a few years when I was first breaking into the golf business. We spent a couple hours catching up and commiserating on the depressing state of our hometown, politics and the joys of legal weed. All the while on the giant TV screen in the bar, the Dodgers were getting thoroughly destroyed in Game 7 of the series by the Astros. We seemed to be the only ones yukking it up in there, as the rest of the crowd in the bar made the place resemble a funeral parlor. Even though I can't stand the Dodgers, I was almost secretly hoping they'd pull it off (don't tell my Giant fan Dad), so I'd have the once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in a good, old fashioned sports riot! Instead, the ride back to the hotel was pretty uneventful. Out of the window of the high-rise, I heard a few sirens and some shouting, but I chalked that up to just a typical Wednesday night in downtown Los Angeles. After the shit night I had before, I slept like a baby.

Thursday, I made my way back north a bit to Ventura County. One of my comedic heroes and radio legend, Phil Hendrie, often waxed poetic about his beloved El Pacifico and the calming shores of Silver Strand beach. It wasn't too difficult to find, the weather was a beautiful 60 degrees and to my surprise, there was all of about four people on the mile wide stretch of beach. I shouldn't have been surprised, it was a Thursday at noon, in November. What kind of crazy asshole would be at the beach right now? Well, that guy and a tourist dipshit like myelf. I plopped my duffel down, laid out a couple towels and waded out into the water. Yep, it was November, JUMPIN' JEEZUS THAT'S COLD! That was okay though, I practically had the beach to myself. 

Working on the bronze, thinking about
the universe and shit.

I pulled into a lotus position on my towel and zoned out for a minute. Now, normally have a difficult time shutting my brain off. But something about the gentle waves rolling in and crashing ashore, the occasional seagull squeak, the sand shifting under my tucchus made all of the whirlwind of the road, the heartache from back home, the stresses about work fall away like the sand getting pulled back into the water. I learned a lot from the ocean that day. See, those waves roll in, and roll out. They crash on the beach and move back out again. And there's a rhythm to it. Over and over again. Sometimes they roll in long, and sometimes short. Sometimes the time of day rolls them further up the beach, and at certain times of day, the beach gets bigger. But they crash, over and over and over again. Those waves hit that beach eons before I got there and they'll hit that beach long after I'm gone. No outside forces can change that. Over and over again, the waves crash. I'll leave an imprint of my ass in the sand, and by tomorrow it'll be gone. The universe doesn't care, it just does what it does. The only things we can control are what we do. The way we treat others, the way we treat the planet, the way we feel about ourselves, no other person should have the power to change that about you. They can only be a catalyst, a spark, the rest is entirely up to you. We all have that choice to make.

The Strand Jetty
It's like the second noble truth of Buddhism. "Nothing is forever. Everything ends. Except the waves of the ocean. "To live, is to suffer." Suffering is inevitable for all human beings as long as they labor under the delusion that things can be permanent. When in fact, nothing is permanent. Your life is composed of a series of systems. Your culture, your relationships, your physical body, they're all systems and all systems have a few things in common. They all begin, grow, flourish, decay, and die. Everything without exception. You can be a good Christian, a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Scientologist, make all the right moves, and do all the right things. But your dog is still gonna die, your parents are still gonna die. You're gonna fuck up your marriage. Your girlfriend is still gonna cheat on you. Your kids are gonna grow up and not call you as much. And you can, sit in your nice house and not sleep for three days and cry to the cats and jack off until your dick hurts. Or you can man up, put on your boots and work towards achieving zen. Zen is when you abandon the concept of the past and the future and embrace only the moment. If you can free yourself from the events of the past, which is dead, and your expectations of the future, which is fantasy, and embrace only the moment in which you are alive by freeing yourself from the tyranny of all of those wants that you have, then you can achieve a state of zen consciousness which leads to a state of bliss. 
The golden arcs!

I snapped out of it and looked at my watch. I'd been literally staring at those waves for two and a half hours. I packed up my stuff, snagged a t-shirt at a local surf shop, and hammered down a gyro at a Greek joint adjacent to the beach. After topping off Giselle's fuel tank, I cruised back down the 101 towards the city and my hotel. Fortunately, Waze was acting kind of weird again and had me running through neighborhoods again, but it was fortuitous, and I almost crashed the car when suddenly I drove by a very famous, but very out of place movie landmark, McDowell's from Coming To America! Unfortunately, I'd missed the pop-up restaurant by a couple days, and an apparent appearance by JACKSON HEIGHTS' VERY OWN MR. RANDY WATSON, but still, just the fact that somebody did that to their restaurant was fucking funny and well worth the picture! Somebody get my formerly fat ass a Big Mick!

That night, I ventured into West Hollywood for a stop at the SINGLE GREATEST RECORD STORE IN THE HISTORY OF GODDAMN MANKIND and picked up some vinyl and shopped around a bit. Seriously, if it exists, they probably have a copy of it. After losing myself in there for a couple hours, I drove west down the world famous Sunset Strip to the world famous Rainbow Bar and Grill. I make a pilgrimage to that place every single time I'm in Southern California. There isn't rocker throughout history that hasn't thrown on a massive drunk in that place, and you can almost feel the ghosts echo through the walls. Their food is excellent too, and I went there on this trip for a couple reasons. My friend Susie walked in and sat down in the booth across from me. I hadn't seen her in almost sixteen years and like so many people I know, had somehow managed not to age as time wore on. It was great to see her doing well, she was dating one of my best friends throughout high school, so we'd hang at her house quite often back in the day. Nowadays, she was a doctor for the local department of corrections and had some wild stories to tell. Nothing I care to repeat here, but she's SEEN SOME SHIT! Stuff the makes the "Tossed Salad Man" seem like a walk in the park. But she's weathered through it with a sense of humor, and had also recently started a family. "Having kids changes everything" she said, "it's something I never thought I'd do, but it's been the most rewarding thing ever." I'm sure it really puts things in perspective, especially after dealing with the absolute dregs of society on a daily basis. "Keep that kid outta County!" I quipped. 

I also had to hit up the 'Bow to pay my respects to the late, great Lemmy Kilmister, the mastermind of heavy metal stalwarts Motorhead. I always thought that the only things that would survive our impending doom on the planet would be Keith Richards, cockroaches and Lemmy, but unfortunately seventy years of the hardest living imaginable finally did him in. I was at one of the last shows Motorhead played, here in Salt Lick, when after three songs, he walked off the stage in obviously rough shape. Probably one of the more traumatic concert experiences I've ever had. I literally thought I'd seen the man die onstage that night. His health finally gave out a few months later, and death finally came for the unkillable. 

After the epiphany I'd had earlier in the day on the beach, viewing his Memorial at the Rainbow seemed especially poignant. There weren't too many people over the years that lived "in the moment" as ferociously as Lemmy. That dude attacked life like it was something to be devoured. He toured the world blowing out eardrums, did all the drugs, drank all the booze, bed down with women worldwide and he did it every goddamn day of his life. If he wanted to do something, he made it happen. I think there's something we can all learn from that. Maybe not quite to the destructive ends he went to health-wise, but I think after we all handle our responsibilities, we owe it to ourselves to seek out and experience joy. Whatever that may be. I was never again going to let indecision and fear cloud the direction my life would take. I'm going to tackle life like a linebacker smashing a wide receiver going over the middle. It was time to make some changes, but I had one more lesson to learn on the road before I''d return to life back home...

Coming up soon -  Part Four: The Bridge to Nirvana

"I was born the King of Fools
At any other game I never lose.
But when it comes around to
Love that's when I realize
I was born the king of fools."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Why I Do What I Do (Riding a different kind of white horse)

Okay, I know what you're thinking. "What the hell man! You promised us an insanely personal story about the whole lot of good and that personally crushing thing that happened to you in Los Angeles during that stupid trip you took last fall! Why are you leaving us hanging? What an asshole!" To which I am going to reply, "Hey, it's been a busy year." I'm actually almost done with that story and hope to have it up in a few days. But something happened to me today, and it hit some weird spot in my brain and I just had to reflect on it a little bit. Because it cuts to the absolute core of who I am, what I do and why I do it. So for you guys, and the shockingly strange amount of readers I have from Eastern Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, here's your chance to get inside my head for a second. I'll finish that travelogue soon, and maybe dust off The Dorm Days later this year. 

Not enough tacklin' fuel.
Anyway, on to the meat of this blog entry. Growing up I was a total Mama’s Boy. Not Waterboy bad, but my momma and I were pretty close. Like it should be, I guess. When I was a little kid, my dad owned a trucking company and worked from 6 AM to 8 PM every day, so he wasn’t around too much. She drove me to various sports practices daily, served as president of my Little League and Babe Ruth leagues, helped me with my homework and did all this while holding down a full time job, and attended college! Total Superwoman growing up, a strong, take-no-bullshit kind of lady. Eventually my dad sold the company, and took another job giving him a little bit more time to be around, but I was always closer to my mother.  

What a bunch of reprobates.
My dad and I butted heads constantly. It seemed like I could never do anything good enough for the guy. My grades were never good enough. I didn’t work hard enough in the yard. Hell, I think I was the only “coach’s kid” in all of youth baseball that didn’t have an easy ride. I’d hit a home run to the opposite field and as I’d be rounding first, all I’d hear is “You were a little late getting around on that one.” One of the reasons I got into golf in the first place was that it was something he’d never done before so he couldn’t criticize me about it. To be honest with you there was a period there where I thought the dude was a total asshole. We just didn’t get along, even threw down a couple of times. Believe me, I'm not proud of this, and I'm glad we're good now. Get along with your parents kids, you'll thank me later.

About a month and a half before high school graduation, my folks split up. I never did see it coming, but at the same time, I wasn't around home very often back then. I pretty much lived over at my buddy Wischer's place back then and the local golf course. In a baseball parlance, I was just "playing out the string" until graduation when I would maybe force myself to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. A wiser person than I (not exactly distinguished company, that's probably 95% of the world) once said "whatever you take for granted, you lose" and you could definitely say that at the time, I took my family for granted. And when it blew up, mentally it threw me into a tailspin. I pretended to hold it together for my Dad and little sister, but even they had to have known I was pretty jacked-up. Sure, the circumstances kind of forced my Dad and I to get along for the first time pretty much ever, but I was still lost, spending what time I wasn't in class or at work crawling into a bottle of Jack Daniels that an older buddy would pick up for me once a week. 

There used to be a lot more weeds to the right.
One day though, the following summer I was out by myself playing golf at good ol' Carbon Country Club. As was typical at the time I was thinking about what a mess I was and probably feeling sorry for myself. It was late in the day, right around dusk, and the course down home seemed completely deserted. I striped my tee shot down  the 18th fairway and walked to my ball. When I reached it, I had a good look around and something weird happened. I noticed the grass was the most beautiful tint of jade that I'd ever seen. The sand in the trap seemed pearl white, even though it was the same shitty sand we'd always had. The clouds in the sky looked to be on fire as the little remaining light cast what seemed to be the air around me in the most surreal shade of blue with streaks of warm orange light almost illuminating a path towards nirvana. The scene gave me pause, and then for the first time a sense of total calmness came over me as all the chaos and strife in my life seemingly lifted away. It was almost like something else was there standing next to me letting me know that everything was going to be all right. Then I stepped up to my ball, and hosel-rocketed it straight into the weeds. But you know what, I didn't care, because I was in a good state of mind. Things were going to be all right.

A monster is chained in all our hearts, waiting to be set free by obsession
Now, I'm not particularly religious. I grew up that way, hell, I was even an altar-boy at my church. I grew out of it and let's just say it's probably not in the cards for me to head down that path again. Nowadays I dabble a little bit in the Tao, and meditation, but that's more for personal enlightenment. I fucking hate rules. But I felt something that day, and I've been chasing it ever since. I competed at a fairly high level in the game for years, and I thought the charge of being in contention in a tournament might've been that feeling. But it's a whole other ballgame entirely. What I've been chasing is that sense of calmness that I can only describe as being one with the vibrations of the universe. I don't mean to come off sounding like a two-bit Rust Cohle but golf happens to be my particular tool for finding that greater sense of being. For the rest of you, it might be (and probably is) something else entirely and I can't tell you what that might be, but I encourage all of you that might be reading this to try and find it. You'll know it when you do. It's better than drugs. It's better than booze. And you'll be chasing it like a junkie taking the spike until you find it again. Hopefully what it is for you, isn't actually heroin. That shit kills people.

Anyway, today, I threw some new irons in the bag, gave them a good shakedown on the range, and blasted through eighteen holes in about two and a half hours, firing the best round I've shot all season. Afterward, I taught my golf for women class (beginning golf session 1 starts in just a month, sign up!). Tonight they learned a very difficult shot, and at the end they all had hit a bunch of shots they could be proud of. Professionally, nothing satisfies me more. Once class wrapped up, I sprinted back out for nine more holes. I work mostly evenings these days, so rarely do I get some dusk golf in, and this is my favorite time of the year to do it. I didn't hit the ball as well as I did earlier today, but that's okay. The great thing about the game is you can still have a great time, even if things are struggling. 

These days I struggle finding a balance between work and life. For the first time ever, I feel like I have my health, and mentally I'm in a pretty good place, but we didn't get much of a break this Winter and it seems like we've been grinding pretty hard since January. I'm down to one day a week off, and I'm filling what free time I've got with lessons. I enjoy being busy, but it's left a bit of a lack of time for other things in life, from relationships, to creative pursuits, to hell, even just keeping up with my yard! My work-life balance is way outta whack, but I guess it's what I signed up for all those years ago when I got into this crazy business in the first place. 

I didn't have a camera all those years ago.
Today, I did, and this still isn't as brilliant as it looked in real life.
I got to the last hole, as the sun was hanging low and found myself with an approach shot out of some heavy rough after shoving my second shot about thirty yards right of the fairway. I pulled the club out of my bag, took a couple practice swings and just before I took a stance, I took a good look around. And for just a second, that sense of balance and calm and brilliant color washed over me like a gentle flood. The only sound I could hear was a couple sprinklers in the distance as I drew my wedge back and fired a smooth dart to about five feet from the pin. The smile and daze I was in didn't leave my face as I walked up to the ball, hearing an imaginary gallery going crazy as I approached the green. I lined up my putt and slid in my eighth birdie in twenty seven holes. Pure bliss, until I remembered that I had taken a cart and left it at the spot from where I hit my approach 120 yards back up the hole. Sometimes getting caught up in the moment can make you feel like an idiot.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Into The Great Wide Open Part Two: A Mudslide, A Funny Farm and a Shiny House On A Hill

Back for more? Check out part one of this stupid one-man odyssey right here! On to part two, where I check off a couple dumb items from the bucket list, attempt to re-create an underrated bad movie scene, have a romantic dinner by myself surrounded by people in love, and see what really unnecessary opulence looks like! Anyway, here we go!

The Best Road in North America
It was just past one o'clock when I passed the Seventeen-Mile-Drive turn-off just adjacent to Pebble Beach where the road forks and the entrance to the Pacific Coast Highway began. Sweet jeezus, I've only ever seen it on television and in the movies, but I've always imagined this stretch of road as the greatest stretch of highway in the United States. I flashed back to memories of riding with my uncles from Anchorage to Homer, Alaska on the Seward Highway years ago and thinking that was some pretty impressive beauty, as well as multiple trips through Big Sky country in Montana in my playing and coaching days at Westminster, but this was something different. This was me and my car making this drive for the drive's sake. Not with any end goal in mind, but just to see a gorgeous stretch of America to experience the gorgeousness of it all. Sure, the 101 was a lot quicker way to get to my next overnight stop in San Luis Obispo/Atascadero, but it lacks a certain...majesty.

I think this means something
Once you pop out of Carmel Highlands heading south, it's like the entire world opens up to you. I had mountains to my left, high cliffs and thousands of miles of ocean out to my right. It was like I could see to the end of the earth. Being that there were no real time constraints, the drive was slow and steady as I'd pull over every couple miles just to admire the view. I'd snap a picture here and there, but mostly just stared out and down into the sapphire coves below. Occasionally the road would cross a bridge, such as the Big Creek bridge that I've pictured here, but they do a nice job of blending that into the scenery until you look back on it. I wondered if there was a metaphor there. I'm sure there was but I hadn't figured it out yet.

Bide your time and all becomes clear.
Eventually I made my way into the place I've been obsessed with for years, Big Sur. As I've mentioned before, Big Sur was the location of the final scenes of one of my favorite films of the the late-90's called The Limey. Starring Terrence Stamp as Wilson, a recently released long-term inmate in an English prison, This underrated Stephen Soderbergh classic features the man once known as General Zod making his way to California to seek revenge after the suspicious death of his daughter at the hands of Hollywood producer and part-time drug lord Terry Valentine, played by Peter Fonda. The cliffs and the coves below were an awesome spectacle to see. I also appreciated that there was virtually zero cell-phone coverage anywhere in the area. This would be an awesome place to disappear to. And if I was a Hollywood mogul and part-time drug lord, this would be an awe inspiring place to retire and eventually meet my terrifyingly violent demise in.

Why would anyone want to
be anywhere else?
I pressed on heading further and further south until I realized, "I think I might be the only car on the road." Followed quickly with, "Oh shit, I forgot about the landslide." A couple years previous there were some pretty massive wildfires in the Big Sur area, followed soon with a massive landslide that wiped out several miles of the Pacific Coast Highway and actually reshaped a good chunk of the California coast. I was the only car on the road because I was getting near the end of the line. I looked for signs of detours south but there were none. Eventually I hit the big orange barrier in the "town" of Gorda By The Sea. I walked into a little gas station there where the first words out of the fella behind the counter were, "you're lost aren't you?"

"Kinda. I'm on a road-trip, but I forgot about the slide."

Later, I raced the Drift King
down this bastard to win his girlfriend's
freedom, or some shit.
"You're not the first, and you're not gonna be the last. But at least you look good," he said weirdly. "Double back seven miles until you come to the Nacimiento Road and it'll take you over the mountains to the 101." I told him thanks, paid to re-fill my water jug and turned back north. Ten minutes later I hit the turnoff and for the next ten minutes, I was almost driving vertically upwards. WE'RE GOIN' BALLISTIC MAV! That strange dude wasn't shitting me when he said it took you over the mountains, I figured the climb would be a little more gradual. Like many things in life, I was wrong, but eventually it kind of evened out although the climb was still there. And it was easily the most winding 1 1/2 lane road I've ever been on. Reminded me of something out of the European mountains on Top Gear or the climax of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift!. I'm sure that if I knew that I was the only car on that road, it would've been an absolute blast hooning around those crazy turns, but every couple of minutes a car would pass going the other direction or around a blind turn so it was WHITE KNUCKLE TIME. It took about an hour and a half at 15-25 miles per hour to drop down on the other side and eventually make it to the 101. I often get sick riding in a car, but never driving a car, but this road left me a little queasy. Pretty awesome drive though. The dropoffs were terrifying, but the views were incredible. It was starting to get dusky and I was still an hour or so away from my hotel, but I eventually found it in the little town of Atascadero.

I trust these dude's opinions on fine-dining and haberdashery.
Just a quick aside here. One of my favorite weekly podcasts is The After Disaster. It had its beginnings as sort of a Loveline after-show starring the sound engineer, the phone screener and a buddy of theirs that helps run the Improv comedy club chain. It's kind of like the Seinfeld of podcasts, with no real topic from week to week and is pretty much just three guys shooting the shit. Sounds kind of lousy, especially with my describing it, but it is wildly entertaining and I can't recommend it enough. Anyway, the show originates out of Southern California, and I kinda wanted to see some of the stuff that they describe on the show while I was out here. One of the guys favorite hangouts is a world famous hotel in nearby San Luis Obispo called The Madonna Inn. The place is famous for their themed rooms, outdoor recreation, winery, killer restaurant and bakery. I would've loved to stay a night at this place, but at $300 a night and this late in the year, I was trying to get through this trip fairly lean. So I was stuck with exploiting my kid sister's Marriott friends and family discount. But I had to see the place for myself, so after getting checked in and getting cleaned up, I drove the thirty miles down the road to have some dinner.

Classic California kitsch
I pulled up and this place looked like something out of an old Rat Pack movie. Just a technicolor wash of lights and colors against the stark, inky blackness of the night sky. I found their steakhouse and this place was a sight to behold. Pink and gold everywhere with the centerpiece being a gigantic golden tree with cherubs hanging over it. It looked like that scene at that honeymoon hotel in Superman II. The restaurant was adjacent to a large dance-floor where a ten-piece band was setting up at the far end. I thought they only had the live stuff on the weekends, then I realized it was almost Halloween when a couple college-age gals dressed like Wayne and Garth walked by. I asked the barkeep what was going on, and he explained that once a week the dance classes at Cal-State SLO hold a theme dance out there. So there would be some entertainment later.

That's true love right there.
I sat at a small table underneath the big tree and had one of the better ribeyes I've had the pleasure of hammering down. They grill over red oak wood here and you can taste it. Looking around, I was the only one there that was on my own. It was late, so the restaurant side of things was winding down for the day, but there were three couples dining on adjacent tables. I found it kind of serendipitous. One looked like they were in their mid-twenties, smiling constantly at each other, two giant pieces of pink cake and champagne in front of them. The next couple were in their mid-40''s. Faces long and mostly silent, two large glasses of wine filling almost as quickly as they were emptying. The third were quite elderly, looking like they'd just gotten out of that bed in the middle of Charlie Bucket's house. The old man's quivering hand holding his wife's throughout their entire meal while never taking his eyes off her, grinning from ear to ear. I thought to myself, "this is like seeing the three stages of a lifelong relationship here." Love can do no wrong early on, but eventually life wears on you and you get tired of each other's shit but over a long time you realize that what you have can't be replaced and love seems new again. That ship has probably sailed in my case, I'm almost 40, but that doesn't mean that I can't recognize it when I see it and appreciate it for what it is. It's like Deadpool said, "Love is a beautiful thing. When you find it, the whole world tastes like Daffodil Daydream! So you gotta hold onto love...tight! And never let go! Or else the whole world tastes like Mama June after hot yoga." Wise words from the "Merc With A Mouth." So I sent a text message to the mysterious gal back home letting her know I was thinking about her and hoped she was doing good.

Top O' The World!
College kids in elaborate costume started pouring in, and the standards from the big band started to swell. I took that as my cue to call it a day. I got a piece of that pink champagne cake to go (I really shouldn't be eating this stuff but I was on vacation! It was good, but I was miserable later), paid my bill, wandered the grounds a little bit and moseyed back up the highway to my hotel in Atascadero to retire for the night. I can't remember another day in my recent past where I did so much from sunup to my head hitting the pillow.

Nurse Ratched was actually
pretty nice!
It's kinda nice having the freedom to not have to set an alarm, but the golf business is too entrenched into my DNA, so 7:00 AM hit and I was wide awake and hammering down some hotel room coffee with my protein shake as creamer and my Greek yogurt. Other than a few nice meals, I'd kinda managed to stick to my daily diet and routine on this trip. Today I was going to finish the trip down the PCH to Los Angeles. But I had a couple stops to make on the way. Sounds dumb as hell, but I had to stop by the Atascadero State Hospital, where the Terminator and John Connor busted out Sarah in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. They wouldn't let me in. Also, it's a dude's-only hospital, so that movie was factually incorrect. Still, it was a trip just seeing the big sign up front.

This place probably cost a couple
hundred bucks.
After a fuel stop I backtracked over to Highway 46 which took me back out to the coast where I turned north towards a beautiful little seaside town called San Simeon. I had to see one of California's great treasures, The Hearst Castle. As a long-time movie lover and occupier of various Film History classes in high school and college, the 1941 film, Citizen Kane, has been required viewing in pretty much half of them. The real-life version of Charles Foster Kane, William Randolph Hearst was a pretty awful dude, that did some pretty awful shit, but goddamn did he have him a pretty swell vacation home, now a California State Park and museum. As I pulled up to the visitor center at the bottom of the mountain, the marine-layer parted and the house appeared on top of the peak. Impressive to say the least. I paid twenty five bucks and was the last one on the bus for their first "Grand Tour" of the day.

The California climate is
perfect for preserving 3000
year old statues. No wonder
Bob Hope loved it here.
The drive up the hill was awesome with the house appearing and disappearing from view with the voice of Alex Trebek giving little trivia tidbits as we drove past various landmarks on the windy road. We pulled up to this huge staircase where Sean, our tour guide met us and immediately launched into a few stories about Hearst's father George as he led us up the stairs to the main courtyard. Unfortunately, the legendary Neptune Pool was entering yet another renovation to fix some leaks that have existed since its original construction, but the Roman temple facade was impressive to say the least, as was the incredibly colorful flowers that adorned virtually everything on the outside of the house. The upkeep on this place must be insane. I've barely been able to keep my rose garden alive during this summer! We passed an actual Egyptian statue of Sekhmet, the Warrior Goddess of Healing and entered the building through a tiny side door. I like that there was actually a screen door on that entrance.

It's not even heated! What
a cheapskate!
Only a couple rules were given to us by the tour guides, keep up and DON'T FUCKING TOUCH ANYTHING! Literally everything in this house is hundreds of years old, imported from Europe and the Middle East and carefully reconstructed. Every piece of artwork in the place, authentic. In addition to pushing us to war with Spain, opposing Roosevelt's New Deal and giving an open editorial platform to nazis in the US, Hearst had a real appreciation for finery, and thankfully he was able to preserve these priceless works of art for future generations to see. Maybe the one good thing he did was to not just leave all of this to his kids. He loved California so much that he left it all to the state when he died to preserve as a museum. I appreciated Sean's passion for the place, and the artwork and attention to detail was incredible, but as the tour moved through the main rooms of the house and the flat-out insane indoor pool, I found myself growing more and more resentful and pissed off. Sometimes, I think this country never learns. Hearst had the resources and probably could've kept half this country afloat during the Great Depression, but instead he built a big house on a hill. Typical.

What the hell?
The Dulcet tones of Trebek greeted us as we got back on the bus and we cruised back down that winding hill back to the visitor center. I picked up a couple tchockes from the gift shop. Giselle fired back up on cue and I was back on my way south, having re-joined the Pacific Coast Highway south of the slide. The next phase of the trip was about to begin where the golden mountains and rugged central coast were about to give way to the world's ultimate concrete jungle. As I brought the car back up to speed, I nearly drove it off the side of the road at the sight of a couple strange looking horses in a pasture. WAITAMINUTE, IS THAT A FUCKING ZEBRA? It was.

See you next week for part 3: The Saint of Los Angeles.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Into The Great Wide Open Part One: From Salt Lick to Domestic Bliss

"So, are you headed out to the course today?" queried the bright-eyed gal at the drive-up coffee shack, seeming just a little too cheerful for 6:00 AM just after she'd taken my usual order.

"You know, for the first time in five years or so, I'm on vacation." 

"Awww, that's awesome! What are you going to do?"

"Hitting the road for a couple weeks. Heading west until I can't go any further, then south." I replied.

"Right on! When are you leaving?"

"Right now." I said as I paid her for the drinks, crammed a couple singles in her tip-jar and punched the gas pedal on Giselle. 

It had been four years since VodkaRob from back in the Dorm Days and his lovely bride had gotten married on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, and it had been that long since I'd left Utah. Outside of a Mesquite, Wendover, or Evanston quick hitter to place some shitty bets on football games or pick up a Powerball ticket for my old man anyway. California and the ocean are almost always calling my name. With everything I've put myself through in the last year and a half, between the surgery and the accident, I've realized that you never know when your ticket is gonna get punched. The life we have is precious, and after the responsibilities you have towards others, you owe it to yourself to experience all it has to offer. So it was time to go and see some people and some places, and hopefully figure out a few things about myself and where my life is headed in the process. Was I able to succeed in any of those endeavors? Well, hopefully while I'm reflecting on the last couple weeks, it'll become a little more clear. In the interest of not shoving a novel's worth of content into one entry, I'll split this one up into three parts. And away we go!

There was relatively little traffic heading west on I-80. Of course why would there be? It was 6:30 in the goddamn morning. But it made for a pretty pleasant jaunt towards Wendover and the Great Basin. it almost felt like I was racing the sun. Of course, the sun always wins. Passing Wendover, I noticed just off the highway, maybe the biggest liquor store I've ever seen with a "Grand Opening" banner hanging off it. Between that and a proposed cannabis dispensary going out there, it seems like it's going to bring the death knell to the "quickie gambling trip" where you could make the drive back to Salt Lick in a little over an hour. 75% of the highway patrol in the state is gonna be on that stretch of I-80!

Miles and miles of not much!
The rest of the drive across Northern Nevada was fairly uneventful. Other than I realized that the Lovelock Penitentiary was just a little too close to Salt Lake for my liking. What if OJ had busted out and tried to play golf at Rose Park?! Also, taking a look around and overhearing a few conversations when I stopped for gas, I really kind of appreciated how uncomplicated life seemed out here in the middle of nowhere. One of my best ever golf recruits came from this area. Anyhow, I eventually arrived at my first long break in the drive, Reno Nevada, right on the border. Home of the greatest fake cop reality show of all time and the primary location of the first family vacation I could ever remember taking when I was four-years-old. Really Mom and Dad?! What in the hell is there for a four-year-old and a two-year-old to do in goddamn Reno? I'm sure they had fun. And somewhere back home I've got a photo of me at age four at the Ponderosa Ranch in some giant cowboy boots. God help my electoral chances if that ever gets out.

Sometimes nature can do better than any painting
After picking up some "party supplies," the story of which I'd really love to tell here, but alas, I work for the government so it probably wouldn't be a good idea, I had lunch at the hotel we stayed all those years ago. The road once again beckoned, so I gassed up Giselle and continued west. The barren plains of the Great Basin soon gave way to easily the most scenic stretch of this drive, up over Donner Pass. In what would be a trend on this trip, I kept having to pull over just to admire the beauty. Pretty incredible country near Truckee. It's no wonder another one of my old golf recruits still calls this place home. If I lived here, I don't think I'd ever leave. I really gained way too much entertainment looking at the telemetry stats on my car. I don't think that beautiful beast is ever going to average 70 miles to the gallon again on any stretch of road. Probably could've pushed it to 80 if I hadn't kept pulling over just to look at pretty things.

Only darker and weirder.
Unfortunately, from pretty much Sacramento to my first destination the famed California traffic took over, and with no real planned route and almost a complete reliance on Celeste, the voice in my GPS and the Waze app, I had no clue where I was going and no idea how to get around it. I kinda miss the old Rand McNally days. I'm sure it's a really lovely drive coming into the Monterey Peninsula, but I wouldn't know because soon it was dark as hell and the fog had rolled in. It looked like something out of a David Lynch movie. I eventually found my old college roommate, Big Nick's neighborhood in East Garrison, near the old Fort Ord. Unfortunately, his neighborhood is still pretty new, so his street didn't appear on any of my GPS devices. So I got as close as I could, driving through some random construction sites and gave him a call.

He still has the same haircut, I unfortunately, do not.
I wasn't too far off, and I was soon parked in front of his gorgeous looking home. I was unloading the trunk, when suddenly I heard a yell and a five-year-old had latched onto my leg. "Hi Uncle Mike!" Big Nick's little girl was about four-months-old the last time I'd seen her. Melts the old heart. With Giselle unloaded and gifts delivered (A first set of actual golf clubs for the girl, his first Metallica t-shirt for the little boy and a bottle of Highland Park for Mom and Dad), Big Nick and I hammered down a couple beers and commenced to catching up. It'd been about five years since I'd seen him and the missus, and a whole lot had changed.

They'd bounced all over the world in support of his military career, eventually temporarily settling in Monterey so he could attend a Naval engineering school. He was the only remaining Army guy left in the program left with a bunch of Navy dudes and Astronauts-in-training. A pretty awesome source of pride. He was always a great student. That might've been while we meshed so well in college. He was awesome in the classroom as a pre-med and super athletic. As is well known, I was a shitty student and schlubby looking. We were kind of a real-life Mutt and Jeff. But boy howdy, were we good at the college experience. That being said, it wasn't as shocking as I thought it''d be seeing him as a pretty domesticated family man. Granted, this is just my own uninformed observation, but seeing some of the awful shit he's seen with his job, I'm willing to bet the relative calm of a normal home life, as chaotic as it could be, has probably brought him the balance we all crave in life. Plus, he's got a great partner in this, his wife, Annie, might be one of the sweetest people I've met.
I can't believe they let a brute like
me just walk around out here.

So sweet, that the next day, even though Big Nick hadn't had any time off in god knows how long, she was totally cool with him driving my ass around to check out the touristy shit a golf pro visiting that area needed to see. Yup, Seventeen-Mile Drive and Pebble Beach were on the agenda! Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to play there in a million years, but they were cool with us just walking around there. Looked a lot different than it does on TV. This is the course that some of the greatest US Opens ever have been played. Watson chipping in on 17, Woods and his blitz of the field in 2000, and of all things, Tom Kite's holeout on #7 in 1992 during that magic summer where the seeds were planted for a twelve-year-old Nickas to start taking the game seriously. Just walking around that place was magical, at least until I saw some of the shots that the people that could actually afford to play there were hitting, then I just got pissed off. I talked to the cart-shuttle driver next to the 18th green for  awhile and asked him how many good shots he sees on an average day. "Not many," he said with a grin.
Still have no clue how that
tree grows out of that rock.

The rest of Seventeen-Mile drive was just magical. The majesty of the famed Lone Cypress, the bits of Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point that you could see from the road, a whole lot of houses that had names, it was all pretty cool! Mother nature may have carved this place, but old money fleshed it out. For big Nick, having lived here for a year, seeing this stuff was kinda old, hat, but he was a good sport pretty much every time I wanted to get out of the car. As spectacular as these sights were, my favorite part of the drive was just a plain-old section of beach. The swells were huge and I was mesmerized by how high those waves were. Looked just like the end of Point Break to me. The power of "the world's largest water hazard" is tough to deny. Just watching the waves roll in, whitecaps crashing and then get sucked back out for the next one held my rapt attention for at least ten minutes until I realized Nick was still in his car, probably bored out of his mind. Lunch in Carmel was pretty good and Nick got me to actually open up a little bit about the mysterious gal back home that I'd been hanging out with for the last few months. "Dude, I've never seen you like this," he said. "You're totally over the moon about this chick!"

"Well, I don't know about that man, but I do like her very much and have for a very long time. But I don't know what I'm doing."

"Nobody does! Things tend to just happen."

"Yeah, but they've never just happened to me. I've always been pretty terrible about opening up to anyone I've ever really had any real affection for. I always clam up, at least without the help of booze and that has never gone well. That being said, I don't drink a ton anymore so maybe things'll be different this time. Hey! Here comes the food!" I said, already getting uncomfortable. I'd have plenty of time on the road solo coming up to ruminate about that particular situation.

Sad to say, one of my lame side-quests never came to fruition as I never did find the mysterious "awesome bathroom," that our old roommate Jose's wife told me to look for. The only one I did find, looked just like the ones up at the old University Golf Course that I'd occasionally find homeless dudes crashing in when I'd open the shop and somebody forgot to lock the door.

My love life in a nutshell.
Swing and a miss!
We returned to their house to a nice surprise. Big Nick's mom, recently relocated to the area had come over to visit the grand-kids. Loved this lady back in the Dorm Days! She worked for the local health department and I knew she had an awesome sense of humor when I returned to the dorm one night after class and Nick said, "my mom said she was worried about you, so she left you a gift." I walked into my room to find a gigantic manila envelope crammed full of prophylactics. The funny thing being that I struck-out more than Aaron Judge when it came to women all through college. That being said, I listened to Loveline pretty much every night, so I fully believed in supporting safe sex. So I became the Res Hall Three condom hookup. It was great to see her again and she even volunteered to take care of the kids so Big Nick, Annie and I could go to dinner. But first, we took his daughter to her favorite spot, the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium to watch her run around like a little maniac and look at some awesome sea creatures. As she ran by, whooping it up to the kids area for the fifth time, Nick shot me a look like, "do you really want to deal with this all the time? STAY SINGLE!" "Dude, kids are kids, and there'll be a time where you look at this stuff fondly." I told him. I've got no idea if that's true or not, but it was still fun to see some unbridled joy on her face, right up until they kicked us out because they were closing.

We had a lovely dinner in Pacific Grove, and the next day was a hell of a good time as well. Big Nick and I played golf at a course called Monterey Pines on the Navy Base which is adjacent to the area where they held the legendary Monterey Pop Festival back in 1967. You could almost still hear the echoes of a 1967 Fender Stratocaster, with original pickups, and maple neck, strung upside down for a left-handed motherfucking genius ringing through the trees. My putting was still hot garbage, but a 75 on a track I'd never seen, down at sea level where the ball doesn't fly very far felt respectable. Annie cooked us a great dinner and while Nick had to retire to his office (where I'd taken temporary residence on his awesome couch) to do the homework I'd caused him to neglect for the entire weekend (some things never change!), I got the chance to play with the kids. I got to help the little girl craft a Lego masterpiece, and played a mighty game of peek-a-boo with his two year old. Those kids are already smart as hell. And were loving their first ever visit from "Bad Influence Uncle!" Loved the opportunity to hang out with them. The boy cracked me up, they had to give him a dummy TV remote because he's already figured out how to use the real thing. But he got control of the real one and I'm pretty sure he set the TiVo to record Houston Astros games for the next decade. I switched the remotes when he wasn't looking, but the little dude knew something was amiss and kept trying to trade me the dummy for the real thing. Given enough time, he'd have probably outsmarted me for it, but it was bedtime for everybody. And this awesome visit with my old brother and his family had finally come to an end.

Never piss off anything with
a ten-foot wingspan!
Life goes on, and for a busy military family, Monday puts a sobering end to the weekend's shenanigans. The next day I woke up early enough to see Big Nick off to school. This had been the longest we'd hung out together since we were in college. Couldn't have had a better visit. I don't think I could ever thank them enough for their wonderful hospitality. And seriously, in all honesty, I'm kinda jealous about the life those two had put together. I'm kind of a cynical old shit, and I really admired just how happy their family was. They do it the right way. I packed up my bags, loaded up Giselle, gave the Annie and the kids a big hug and took off. I had one more stop before the journey continued. On the recommendation of my friends Mark and his fiance' Steph, I had to play the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach" (I fit the description!), the Pacific Grove Golf Links.

Just unreal.
Walking on was pretty easy and I got paired with some nice local folks. I don't think I can say enough good things about that course. It is a tale of two nines, with the front-nine hilly and winding through the neighborhood. A small herd of deer followed us around for a couple holes. You had to be a real shotmaker here, and be able to shape your shots well and I was really feeling it, working the ball both directions better than I have pretty much all season. But the best part of that track, and the section that earned that course its reputation was its stellar back nine.

Somehow I overcame all the
distraction to pipe this drive!
The back-nine was more of a traditional link-style layout right on the sea! We're talking huge dunes, crazy wind, a pretty bitchin' lighthouse, crashing waves, all that jazz! Truly golf the way it was meant to be played. I saved my best golf of the trip on that stretch. Only finding serious trouble once and making a great save out of an iceplant on one of the dunes. The dudes I played with were very helpful in letting me know where I could miss, as well as indulging in my dipshit tourist act and clicking off a few pictures for me. I played the closing nine at 1-under to card a 72 and put a close to the Monterey portion of the trip. I probably should've finished the season with that round. I don't think it could've gone better. I thanked the kind folks in the shop for allowing me to walk on easily and talked business for a little while. I could've hung out at that place for hours. But the call of the road was too much to overcome. I had another dumbass bucket list item to check off: Cannonball Running down the Pacific Coast Highway. I stowed my gear, filled my water jug, gave Giselle a loving pat on the dashboard and hit the ignition. The real work of this trip was about to begin. The solo section where I had nothing but my own issues in my head to confront and there might not be a better place to do that than the most awe-inspiring stretch of road in North America.

Holy shit kids! Part one was WAY longer than I thought  it'd be! Thanks for suffering through it this far! Things get a little more introspective in the next segment, I promise.

Stay tuned for part two later this week:  A Mudslide, A Funny Farm and a Shiny House On A Hill