Here's a rundown of the backside of my trip. I just reread that last sentence. Rundown the backside? Yuck. I should rephrase that.
After leaving New York, I headed down to the DC area to visit my old friend Matt. Matt, as you may recall, is my aunt Judy's son. He's the little tyke I used to babysit. The one who tried to sell his dog with a sign made of cheese. He's the closest thing to a kid brother that I have. Matt was the coolest kid I knew. I had so much fun playing with him when I babysat that the five dollars an hour I got was just the icing on the cake.
Matt is all grown up now. He's on an internship with some interesting engineering company that does interesting engineering work in DC for the summer. He told me what it was that he did, but it was so interesting that I promptly forgot. It makes sense, though, Matt's interest in engineering. He was always building cool inventions with tape and cardboard. I'm glad that he has found his calling and that he's happy. It was good to see him. Not having any biological siblings to
corrupt mentor, I take a lot of pride in seeing him grow up and become a man.
Next, I headed down to Asheville, North Carolina to visit my mom's best friend, Adrienne and her husband, Jim. My mom used to work with Adrienne at the welfare office in Lebanon, Oregon. Adrienne was the first black woman that ever worked there. She was was also the first black woman that most of those hicks had probably ever seen. The people in the office were cold toward Adrienne until my mom had a chat with them. She threatened to personally kick their asses if they didn't start being nice to her. If you didn't know my mom, here's a little piece of trivia: if she threatened to kick your ass, it was not an idle threat. The people at the office knew it was better to heed her advice than to have to sit on a special pillow for a week, so from that day forward, Adrienne was treated very nicely.
Adrienne is an angel. She is one of the nicest people I have ever met. She embodies the term "southern hospitality." When I arrived she and her husband had cooked a delicious meal consisting of two kinds of chicken, steak, biscuits, corn, salad and all the fixins. It was quite delicious and a very nice treat after all the uggy road food I had been eating. In the morning we ate eggs, bacon, sausage and grits. I must have a little southern in me because I think grits are the best thing since crusty french bread.
For the brief time that she was in Oregon, Adrienne was like an aunt to me. (I have quite a few adopted family members.) One time, many years ago, she took me Hanukkah shopping for my mom. I wanted to get my mommy some perfume so she could smell pretty. Being an over-enthusiastic child, I picked out the most offensive-smelling perfume in the store. But Adrienne encouraged me to buy what I thought was right. "All the women in Georgia wear that perfume," she said, mustering some positive encouragement. That sold me on it. When I gave my mom the gift and repeated Adrienne's words in a bad imitation of her southern accent, my mom was so tickled that "all the women in Georgia wear it" became a catchphrase often repeated in the ensuing years.
I think the reason my mom, a loud, opinionated, boisterous New Yorker and Adrienne, a polite, genteel Southerner became friends is that they were both fish out of water. In a small town like Corvallis in the 1980s, you stood out if you talked or looked differently from all the others. They were drawn to each other because they knew what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. When my mom died, Adrienne flew in to be with me, just so I could have a shoulder to cry on. I will never forget her selfless gesture toward me in my time of greatest grief. I love her like family and visiting her was one of the most relaxing, healing parts of my journey.
Upon leaving Adrienne and Jim, I found myself with nothing to look forward to but five days of driving. It was time to wrap it up. I had a self-imposed deadline for my trip and thoughts of my impending move to Portland were beginning to seep into my consciousness, but I still had people to see in California.
The next few days were a blur. I didn't have much fun driving. I wanted to be back on the west coast with my family. I relished every state border I crossed, every timezone I passed into. I was on my way to see one of my favorite people, my cousin Sarah, and her beautiful family. My desire to see them almost caused me to miss what turned out to be one of the best stops of my trip. When I got to my motel in New Mexico, I had a choice to make about the next day: I could either drive for thirteen hours and be in California the next day, or I could drive for six hours and see the Grand Canyon and then arrive in California the day after. Being as sick of the road as I was, I was leaning toward skipping the canyon, one of the destinations I had put on my must-see list since before I even left. I called Sarah and she emphatically told me to go to the Grand Canyon. I followed her advice and the second I saw that giant, gaping hole I was glad I did. (Yes, yes, I know- I said "giant, gaping hole.")
The Grand Canyon was beautiful beyond my wildest expectations. The ground drops away and beneath you to valleys filled with more canyons filled with more valleys and canyons. It stretches into the horizon. I was struck by the sheer scale of it all. In college I took geology for my slacker science credits. I actually found it fascinating and unexpectedly found myself engaged in what I had assumed would be sleep-through classes. Nothing I had seen on our geology field trips could prepare me for the formations in the Grand Canyon. I strongly advise anyone who hasn't witnessed it to seek it out. Words and pictures cannot describe what it feels like to be there and stand on the edge. Nature!
The next day, I was in sunny southern California to visit my uncle Barney and aunt Ellen before heading to the Bay Area to see Sarah. I had a nice couple of days with them. They live in Hermosa Beach, which is one of So-Cal's quieter beaches. We rode bikes in the mild sunny weather and ate some good food. Barney is pretty good pals with Wee-Man (from Jack-Ass) so we went to Wee-Man's taco joint. Unfortunately Wee-Man was on a fishing trip, so I didn't get to meet him. But I did see some pictures of the fish he caught which he had texted to another friend. (Barney just recently got a cellphone, texting is still a couple of years beyond is grasp.)
When I left Barney and Ellen, I took the Pacific Coast Highway to Pacifica, which is about twelve miles away from San Francisco. It was a beautiful drive, full of curving roads and endless coastal vistas.
My cousin Sarah is probably the person I am most comfortable with in the entire world. She is my aunt Helen's daughter. Geoffrey, whom I visited in Illinois, is her older brother. As a child, I was very close with both my cousins. But eventually Geoffrey became a teenager who wasn't interested in making quarterly trips down to Oregon. But Sarah and I are only a month apart in age, so while Geoffrey was off doing teenager things, we were growing up together, going through similar developmental stages. I love Geoffrey, he is one of the wisest, funniest, worst drivers I know. I am honored when he calls me brother. But if Geoffrey is my older brother, then Sarah is my twin sister.
Growing up, Sarah had a profound influence on me. When I was a kid playing make-believe, I used to say "let's pretend that we are [super heroes]." But one visit, Sarah was saying "let's be like [superheroes]." I thought this was so cool. It was a shorter way of saying it, plus it took it out of the realm of pretending and into the world of being. Sarah and I would have weekly phone conversations that lasted hours. I have never enjoyed talking on the phone very much, but I never have minded talking to Sarah. We would sing Janis Joplin songs. We would talk about our crazy parents. She has been with me through most of the milestones of my life. I love her unconditionally. She will always be there for me and I will always be there for her.
Sarah is married to Ruben, and I cannot think of a better match for her. Ruben is a great guy. He's funny and smart and above all else, he is good to Sarah. They are the type of couple that others hold up as a shining example of a working, happy relationship. They have a young son named Sam, after our grandpa. Hanging out with Sam and Geoffrey and Gretchen's son, Otis, has reassured me that I really do still like children. My former job was great- I loved it. But I changed as a person and it was time to leave. Spending time with my nephews (we are ignoring semantics here- they ARE my nephews) has made me realize that I still have that spark in me to appreciate children and their magical, wonderful perspective on the world.
In my travels I have seen many things and gone many places. The biggest lesson that I learned was that the people in my life are the most important things to me. I love my friends and family with all my heart. They are all I have and I need them. If I saw you on my journey, thank you for sharing your time with me. If I wasn't able to visit with you, or you live in Oregon and weren't a part of the itinerary, I'm sorry. We will have plenty of time to share memories and experiences in the future.
My trip may be over, but my adventure is just beginning. Soon I will be moving to Portland to start the next chapter of my life. Thanks for joining me on this trip. I hope you'll stick around for the next exciting adventure.
And now, back by popular demand: more jokes (and stray observations) about states!
•Not actually a state.
•The only place where the drivers are worse than New York. The people there have an undeserved sense of superiority that they think gives them the right to drive like assholes. Senators in official cars, diplomats and other government types will all run you off the road because you are not as important as they are.
•Some of the nicest, most polite people I encountered on my trip. However, they take it a little too far. When I was trying to pay for my meal at a restaurant, an employee was standing in the aisle. I had to brush by him to get to the cashier, and being used to the New York way of doing stuff, I had no problem asserting myself and pushing past. When I bumped into him, he profusely apologized for bumping me. I told him, no, it was I who had bumped him, and then he said "I'm sorry for being in your way, sir." This guy would be eaten alive in the city!
•The restaurant I was at was a Cracker Barrel. If you have never been to or heard of Cracker Barrel, I highly suggest visiting one as a cultural experience. I saw it as a microcosm that helped explain America's struggle with obesity. I have struggled with my weight my whole life. As a child, I was picked on for being fat and developed my humor as a mechanism to deflect negativity. Now, looking at childhood pictures of myself, I realize I wasn't even that big, compared to the size of some of the children now. I got used to being the fattest guy in any given room, but at Cracker Barrel (and a growing number of other places) I was average. This disturbs me. I have been trying to be healthier. I want to live a long life. I feel I was robbed of some of the best years of my relationship with my mom. We were just moving past the parent-child part and into the friend part. I have to live healthier. I owe it to myself and my family. But my experience in Cracker Barrel illustrated a lot of the problems with the way we eat in this country: First of all, mac and cheese, french fries, baked beans and fried apples are NOT vegetables. The only thing green on the restaurant's "vegetable" list was canned green beans. And each meal comes with at least two "vegetables." Which leads me to another issue: portion control. My meal included an entree, three "vegetables," free biscuits (yes, plural), jam and a drink. The waiter brought four plates of food out! And the whole meal cost around eleven dollars, which is another problem. I understand that when it is cheeper to feed your family inexpensive crap than wholesome food, many people do not have the option of eating well. It becomes a choice of having enough unhealthy food or not enough good food. This needs to change. Everybody needs access to inexpensive, organic, locally produced food. This processed and shipped shit gots to go.
•The......people....talk.....so.....very..........veeerry......s....l.....o....w.....ly. I'm a pretty quick study. I get what you are saying, buddy. Move on. But in NC, I found myself standing around for whole minutes waiting for whoever was speaking to finish drawling out their sentence. Come on, people! Spit it out.
•Asheville was a nice hippy enclave amidst the hillfolk in North Carolina. I am very comfortable among the tattooed and pierced and tie-died people of the world. Plus, the city was very pretty.
•I saw only two roadsigns for Little Rock, Arkansas' biggest city. I did not see the city itself, but according to the signs it's still there. I'm sure we would have heard if it disappeared.
•I drove through Oklahoma.
•More like Texass.
•Actually, that's not fair to Oklahoma. I found myself rather liking Oklahoma City. The people there were pretty mellow.
•The best thing about Texas is that I don't have to live there. I only drove through the so-called panhandle (it's more like smokestack) and it was almost too much to take. I had much more fun in the Texas-like areas of Red Dead Redemption (a very good video game) than in the real state. You can't turn off the console and go outside if you get bored of the real Texas, because when you go outside, you're still in Texas.
•The "city" of Amarillo is really just a bunch of car dealerships, strip malls and chain restaurants sprawled out for what seems like twenty miles. Guh. There were a couple tall buildings in the distance, though. I noticed them because they were the only thing in the whole state that blocked my view of the nothing.
•Starting to get nice again. There's some majestic desert scenery there.
•Albuquerque, in addition to being a fun city to spell, is actually very, very pretty. The whole city fits in naturally with the land around it. It blends in a way that is appropriate instead of jarring. The roads are made of pink, turquoise and earth-toned concrete that complement the natural scenery as well as the stucco and clay buildings. Albuquerque was indeed a treat.
•Thanks for keeping the foreigners out, Arizona. I feel so much more secure. Oh, my glorious American rights.
•Actually, the majesty of the Grand Canyon was worth driving through this politically suspect state.
•Eh... It was mostly about the people for me. I've been to Cali before. I'm over it.
•Still the best.
I want to share a strange, powerful experience with you before I go today. As I was hiking back to my car from the rim of the Grand Canyon, I stopped to take some pictures along the path. A little purple flower caught my eye, but I passed it by. I was done. Tired and eager to make a few more miles before dark, I continued up the path to my car. But something told me to go back and snap one final photo of the little purple flower. Purple was my mom's favorite color, you see. It seemed appropriate. So I went back and took the picture. It was near the ground and my old bones were tired from my trek, so I just held the camera at a low angle and blindly snapped a photo. When I got to my motel that night and uploaded my photos, I was shocked by the photo I had taken.
The beam of sunlight shining down on that little purple flower is my mom. She told me to go back and take that photo because she had a message for me: she is always going to be with me.