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 an epic stretch of America and to lose myself in the sheer beauty 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?"

In more ways than one. "Kinda. I'm on a road-trip, but I forgot about the slide," I sheepishly replied.

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 liked 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 asshole 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 just 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 four 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 while trying to find "the real killers"?! 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 links-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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Emotional Wreckage and Actual Wreckage: A Corner Turned...

Like just about anyone that grew up in the 80's, John Hughes "Rite-du-passage" films had a tendency to jam its way onto HBO and the various Ted Turner Networks on an almost endless loop. And if you were watching TV back then, you probably saw what many consider his magnum-opus, Ferris Beuller's Day Off. The title character, played by the immortal Matthew Broderick, had one of the best closing lines of a film ever, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." That never quite resonated with me as it has with many others, I prefer another line from that movie in the deepness and meaning of life areas, but I'll work that in a little later. 

I probably needed to find better role models in those days.
Still, the world is a shittier place without him in it.
Anyway, Ferris' quote is still pretty pertinent especially in regards to the last year and a half or so of my life. Life moves pretty fast, other things move pretty fast too, and if you don't look for it, it'll definitely hit you and hit you hard. I don't think it's any secret that for the better part of the last twenty years, I've kinda dealt with some depression issues. It didn't really manifest itself in anything too typical, like that refusal to get out of bed type of stuff people typically experience. For me it had a little more to do with just plain not caring enough about myself to not engage in pretty self-destructive behavior. During the Dorm Days, it meant I would hammer ALL THE BOOZE, eat ALL THE FOOD, excel at all the things college had to offer that weren't really all that important to actual academic pursuits. Let's just say my studies suffered a bit. Post college, the booze and food were still there, but now I had to keep a roof over my head as well, so I threw myself into work. I did it all to such a degree that well, I didn't leave a ton of time to myself. I had a fun job that I wasn't having any fun doing, my personal relationships kinda suffered. I was miserable. Then I turned 37. 

I discovered that 37 is a magical age. Kids, when you turn 37, every single, solitary bad decision you've ever made arrives on your doorstep to collect its bill. I was always a big guy, but I put on a ton of weight, really fast. I started to forget stuff, probably because of all the brain cells I annihilated back in college. I stopped going to concerts, or even going out at all. Christ, usually the only reason I'd leave my house was to go to work so I would have a house to come home to. I couldn't even sleep longer than an hour at a time, and I'd wake up in places other than where I'd fall asleep. SCARY SHIT! What was I doing? Who knows? I felt like shit all the time and looked even worse. Something had to change. 

It's hard to put a finger on a catalyst. I think the root was when I reconnected with an old friend on that Instagram app. Our lives had gone on vastly divergent paths and something about her creativity and zeal for life hit a button in my brain and got me thinking about the old, better days. That's the type of person I wanted to be again. Right around then, after a particularly shitty night of drinking alone and feeling sorry for myself, I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize the disgusting thing staring back at me. It was time. I decided that I wanted to live instead of die. 

Also a bad idea to get me wet or feed my ass after midnight.
I made a few changes. I got some help. Started getting some counseling to work through the garbage in my head, and the big one, I bit the bullet and got my guts rearranged. SIPS Duodenal Switch it's called. It wasn't cheap, but as the surgeon told me, "No natural method is going to help you and you are going to die. This is the only way to take it off and keep it off." Basically, they cut about 80% of my stomach out, and re-arranged my intestines so I hardly absorb any fat. This is what they call a two-pronged approach to losing weight. You can't eat very much, and what you do eat barely gets absorbed. It works as long as you follow the rules. Cut as many carbs as possible, focus on protein and smearing butter on virtually everything because you need to eat a ton of fat in order to make the giant handfuls of specialty vitamins I have to take every day for the rest of my life to work. Exercise like a fiend and get a gallon of blood drained out for nutrient level testing every six months are just a couple others. Also, stay sober for a year and change or your liver will shut down. 

Not exactly the picture of health. But I'm much better now.
Kind of a pain in the ass, but I've followed the rules so far and seen the results. 250 lbs down and I'm getting pretty close to just getting the rest cut off me. I look like a fucking war-crime naked, but my clothes fit a lot better, hell, I recently raided my closet down home and am fitting back into my old high-school gear! CORDUROY AND SWEATER VESTS FOR MILES! I can run for ten minutes without stopping where I couldn't run ten seconds before. I still can't hit the ball out of my own shadow, but I can play 36 holes without wanting to die for the first time since college. Oh yeah, golf is fun again, work is fun again, life in general is fun again. Actually, I can't really say "again," because I don't think it ever really was for me. 

So I almost died, managed to bounce back, and then last April, I almost died again! This time, instead of slowly murdering myself over a twenty year span, I almost took the easy way out. BIG OL' CAR CRASH! Driving out to the mighty Rose Park for a little round of golf one morning, I approached an intersection right by my house. I was hanging a left as the light turned yellow. It's a fairly high speed street, but I thought the truck that was approaching was slowing down for the red. I was wrong. Dude gunned it instead and two vehicles can't occupy the same space at once. They estimated he was going sixty but I don't remember much of the actual impact. Just the spin as my Dodge Charger pirouetted a couple times around in the intersection and I got punched by every single airbag in the car. 

All that's left.
I sat there for a moment. The radio was still playing "Problems" by the Sex Pistols. I looked down and wiggled my toes. My fingers were still there too. I tried to shift the car into park, but the knob wouldn't budge. "Shit" I thought, "the transmission is fucked." I was probably a little concussed. There probably wasn't a transmission left. The door was popped open so I unbuckled the belt and swung my legs out. Traffic was piling up and I was so supercharged with adrenaline, I felt like I could've dragged the car off the road myself at least until I saw the front-end or rather the lack of one. Surprised at how uninjured I was (maybe I'm bulletproof), I jogged over to the other guy to make sure he was all right. He was all right, the only damage his truck incurred was a missing bumper. As I went back to my car to start emptying it out and get my paperwork for the cops I realized that I most definitely wasn't bulletproof. My ribs were jacked up and I was in shock. The tow-truck dragged the husk of my beloved Charger off the road, I collected my citation from the police for failure-to-yield and went home. 

My mother came over to take me to the doctor, and as I painfully sat in my easy chair, something weird happened, I just started laughing. My mom and sister looked at me horrified. Maybe I am a little nuts, because that was really the only reaction that felt right at the moment. Despite all my best efforts, both self-inflicted and accidental, I was still here. For reasons I can't even perceive I was still here even though I shouldn't be. For some reason, I found that hilarious. At least until all that laughing tightened up my ribs and tears started pouring out. GODDAMN THAT HURT.

So I'm still alive, and from now on, I take absolutely NOTHING for granted anymore because nobody knows exactly when their ticket is gonna get punched. And I'm bound and determined to live my best life from now on. Whatever that is. I'm going to do it. The problem is, I don't have any idea what that means. For the first time in my life that I can recall, I like myself. I've got confidence that I've never really had. My job is satisfying. I've got great pals and my relationships with my family are as good as ever. As that other main character (and who some have theorized is the actual main character) in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Cameron Frye said, "I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I'm going to take a stand. I'm going to defend it. Right or wrong, I'm going to defend it." 
"And the times have changed my friend
I'll be here to the bitter end
With a guitar in my hand, I stand a little taller
And I've been to hell and back
I ain't falling off this track
From the back to the front page
From the gutter to the stage"

But something is still missing. And I need to figure out what that is.

So, I'm gonna hit the road for awhile. Just me, and my thoughts. Sure, I'm going to be seeing some old friends, revisiting the past and figuring out how I got to this point, along the way. But I have a feeling the next couple weeks and this trip I'm taking might bring a little clarity to my head. I'm going to try to mix in a few dispatches from the road for you folks, and even if I don't find what I'm looking for, at least I'll have some good memories and a few awesome sights to share. Anyway, thanks for indulging my ass on this story. I promise to go back to telling dumbass college stories, inane commentaries and reviews of shitty movies again soon. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sorting Through The Past: Spring Cleaning

Three years ago, pretty much right around this time of the year, I got a call from my Pops. "Mike, I need you and your sister to come down and give me a hand with a project as soon as you've got a free weekend." Well, it just so happened that I had a free weekend, and so did Christa, so down to the hometown we ventured. As soon as we walked in, the old man sprung his project on us. We were going to go through the entire house and more specifically all of our stuff that was still down there, old toys, old clothes, sporting equipment books and what was known as by old friend, former NFL player Chuck Ferraro who owned the legendary Thirdhand Shoppe antique store in Price, Junque. In a word, stuff. We acquired too much of it over the years and a 1600 square foot house chock full of it was too much for one old guy contemplating retirement to have to deal with. Plus, the old homestead needed some work, new carpets, paint, and other assorted projects and our unorganized clutter was definitely in the way and taking up way too much room.
Stately Nickas Manor!
 "Keep what you want, but find a place that makes sense for it, or take it with you," he said. 

Now, granted there's a lot of that nature vs. nurture battle involved, but I firmly believe that there's such thing as a "hoarder gene." And while it never got to the point where she needed a television show to come in and clean up her house, my Grandmother up in Alaska definitely fostered something like it. I can't really blame her though, she grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the Great Depression. When you don't have anything, you don't throw anything that can be of use away. And once her and my Pappy established themselves and had some space, that never really left her. It was a sad occasion, but one of my favorite stories concerns the day right after her funeral ten years ago. My mom, Aunt Amy, Uncle Didier, Aunt LaJuana, quite a few of my cousins, my sister and I were all gathered in her frozen house in Anchorage. On the TV were some old home movies, I believe showcasing my mother's sixth birthday. At that moment, we were also going through my Bamma's beautiful antique buffet cabinet. We found a pack of paper party plates buried deep in one of the drawers. The exact same package of party plates that were sitting on the table in the home movie that was shot 46 years prior! I also found some expired food in the pantry that I'd bought to cook my Bamma a meal the last time I'd been to Alaska to visit, six years previously.
Makin' a mess since 1978!

So yeah, I kind of understand the hoarder gene. And even though I'm fully aware of it now, I carried a lot of those same tendencies over the years. When I finally got my own bedroom in the house at age 7, the organization of my room tended to range from "random piles of stuff with a path to the bed, closet and dresser" to "just pulled the pin, tossed a grenade in and shut the door" with occasional periods of relative organization when buddies or that cute girl would come over to hang out. Those didn't happen very often. Thankfully, the adulthood gene overrode the clutter during the "Dorm Days." And by "adulthood" I mean that I was going to be living with and around strangers now and I don't want them to think I was slovenly in other areas of life as well. But, and you can ask anyone I roomed with in college, I was definitely kind of a packrat, taking basically everything I could with me to school. Only this time, I kept it organized. My dorm room was still the equivalent of cramming twenty pounds of shit into a ten pound bag. But hey, you never knew when you might need that thing. Whatever that thing happened to be even if it happened to be a copy of the Dirty Looks album "Blow My Fuse" on CD.

In 2007, after living in each of Westminster's "Apartment-Style" dorms and several different apartments and houses, I moved into my smallest place yet, a tiny little condo adjacent to the University of Utah campus. It was great to be able to get from bed to work at the UGC in about ten minutes flat, but the size of the place really forced me to downsize my life. A storage unit was my friend! And I either outright shitcanned or donated a metric ton of stuff. It felt pretty good, and I was able to sort of boil things down to the essentials. Which is to say, I still had way too much shit.

Still lost to time...
Anyway, back to my Pop's house, February 2013. We dive in to the old family room, which at one point was converted to a bedroom for the ten minutes my older sister came to live with us years ago, and has since become kind of a storage catch-all. It was an added-on room with no heat which is to say, we were indoors, bundled up, freezing our asses off and hard at work tearing through years of clutter. I had two things that I really wanted to find. One was the only poster I had on my wall when I was a really little kid. My dad was a trucker, along with my grandpa they owned their own trucking company and they'd always get sent these badass promotional posters from Peterbilt. Usually they featured some half-naked lady looking like the apocalypse just hit (picture the KISS, "Lick It Up" video) draped across the engine cover of a semi. But this poster I had just had the front of a truck with Johnny Cash standing next to it and the words "MIDNIGHT SPECIAL" emblazoned across the bottom. OUTLAW COUNTRY! The other, and this is pretty dumb, was a picture of me that my entire second-grade class drew of me and signed on my birthday. I always loved second-grade because that was the first time certain synapses finally clicked together in my brain and I started to learn to think critically. Sadly, the drinking I did during the Dorm Days destroyed the brain cells that helped me to remember names of classmates from that far back and I've often wondered what we've all grown up to be.

Yes ladies, I'm single!
I came across some great stuff. My very first paycheck stub in the golf business (a career now going on 22 years!) for $54.19 pre-tax! Thank god I make more now. Wait, what is that? Inflation? Shit. An unusually large collection of old mixtapes. If only I still had something to play them on. And what the hell am I doing putting Ministry and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on the same mixtape anyway? At least they weren't 8-tracks. Those were in my dad's box.

I also found several boxes full of old notebooks from high school and college classes. I flipped through them and found all of my old class notes, and quite a bit of my old writing. While perusing these tomes, the only thing I could think of was, "Jesus Christ Nickas, if any of your teachers and professors ever saw an example of your note-taking, there's no chance any of them would have ever passed you." Goddamn, you could even see exactly the spots where I'd doze off (probably hungover) in class because suddenly my already shitty handwriting would get smaller and smaller and just end up with a line. My writing projects weren't much better! Hell, you're reading this right now, imagine how bad it was before I ever developed a style and a voice?! I barely have that now! I would've killed it though for my heavy metal band, Superman, Chicago Bears and New York Yankees logo drawing talents. I had that shit on lockdown. It was all garbage, and I couldn't believe I had saved any of it. Into the back of my Pop's Dodge truck they went.

1st Place in the 3-Legged Race: John Holmes
For all the laughs I was having, my sister was having a tough time with this. I had a pretty good idea that we were going to be doing this before we left Salt Lake. All this going through old shit. And I guess she kind of felt blindsided. She wasn't ready to do this yet, but she did it anyway, and I knew it was bothering her. In my dad's always gentle way, he explained that it would be "best to do this now and not after he was gone. If for no other reason that at least there's three of us." I didn't really want to hear that either, but it makes sense and it had to be done. We eventually finished the weekend putting a pretty sizeable dent in that storage room and the basement. I was proud of her. As Christa and I drove back up to Salt Lake, I got a call from our landlord. This was never a good sign, bad news was afoot, because for the third place we'd lived in a row, they had decided to sell the place. We were going to have to move again.

Lawrence Taylor obviously took a run at
Quarterback He-Man's Knees
A week later, we still had snow on the ground out at Rose Park (JUST LIKE NOW!) so I trekked solo back down to Price to finish the job, or come close to it. More un-needed treasure ventured back into my life in a flood. Old toys, ribbons and awards from as far back as my elementary school days, broken model cars, board games missing pieces, more shitty writing, bags of clothes and shoes. Memories of times past, good and bad, optomism and wasted potential passed across the table. And almost all of it ended up in the trash or donate pile. Ebay would've been an option if any of it was in any kind of decent condition, but years of neglect had taken its toll. At least some of the toys could still be of use to kids, and since that ship has clearly sailed in my case we donated them to the Children's Justice Center. Hopefully some of my old shit gave them some enjoyment, god knows, they needed it a lot more than I did. I hope it did some good.

I never did find either of my "holy grails." Those were lost to either time, my folk's divorce, or a forgotten previous attempt to do the very thing we had just done. But by the end of the weekend, my dad finally had a handle on things around his house and I had downsized most of my old stuff in a major way. As weird as it sounds, it was totally cathartic. The whole process was liberating. You'd find something, hold it in your hands, think a little about a memory of it, have a little flashback, and finally say goodbye. Driving back up "over the hill" to Salt Lick that Sunday night, I actually felt great. Like I'd finally cut the cord to the type person that I used to be and ready to embrace whatever the future was going to throw at me and be adaptable to whatever curve-ball life could throw at me.

Epilogue: We decided that last move was going to be the last one for awhile. So we bought a house. Now I've got a ton of space that I can't wait to fill with stuff!

Epilogue II: Only kidding.

Epilogue III: Mostly, I guess...