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