2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 6

I woke up at 5:30 A.M. the next morning without a plan. There had been one – heading south from Reno, through the Lake Tahoe region, and then along the back of the Sierras and into Death Valley – but I temporarily abandoned it. For one thing, when I opened up my curtains I was met with a heavy, steady snow. If Reno was getting this, the mountain passes on US-395 would probably be even more of a mess. After driving in the snow the day before, I decided that I didn’t need any more of it.

For another thing, my friend Ethan had called me from Berkeley a couple of days earlier and said he was free to join me for my drive back east. We didn’t have anything definitive planned out yet, but it made perfect sense for us head east from the Bay Area and make the same Tahoe-Sierras-Death Valley drive then.

Above all else, however, was that when I woke up that morning, I was possessed by a somewhat surprising lack of enthusiasm for another day on lonely, desolate highway. The two previous days had been almost perfect, but with that itch temporarily scratched, I decided that I wanted a little bit of civilization. Absent that, I’d settle for the civilization overload that is Los Angeles.

After a shower, a shave – five days worth of stubble was starting to get to me – and a better breakfast than I would have gotten if I had stayed at the Heart O’ Town, I got on I-80 for the trip up and over the mountains. The snow stayed heavy and roads slick until I reached Donner Pass (“Cannibalism free since 1847!”) where the sun came out. Winter had turned into summer by the time I completed the 7000-foot descent to Sacramento. I opened the sunroof and looked for a car wash. As the Silver Fox got a much-needed bath, I called my friend Todd to let him know I’d be in Los Angeles a day early.

I’m one of those people who have always preferred a very small group of close friends to lots and lots of casual acquaintances. I don’t like parties much. I don’t like small talk. For the most part I just like to do my own, mostly solitary thing. This has created problems on a handful of occasions, such as when I needed a ride to the airport or something, and it certainly means that you don’t have a lot of backup options when you drive 2700 miles and need a place to crash. The beauty of it, though, is that when you make plans with a really really close friend like Todd, you don’t often need backups. Todd was totally cool with me showing up a day early, and if he wasn’t, he probably wouldn’t have said anything anyway.

I-5 through California’s central valley wasn’t as boring as I assumed it would be. I live in farm country and have long since learned to ignore the crops along the highway, but California’s relatively exotic produce – apricot trees, grapes, avocados, kiwifruit, pistachios, etc. – were interesting to a boy from corn and soybean country. Well, interesting enough to keep me from falling asleep anyway. At some point, though, an interstate is an interstate is an interstate, so I was into hardcore daydreaming by the time I got to Coalinga and stopped for lunch.

I made it to L.A. just as Friday afternoon rush hour was picking up. The 405 was a parking lot from Sherman Oaks to Todd’s exit at Sunset Blvd., but based on the stories I’ve head of L.A. traffic, I suppose I could have done much worse. I was at Todd’s place just before 6. We got in the car and tooled around West L.A. for a while (he drove). One Jamba Juice with a protein boost and a wheatgrass shot later, I knew I was in Southern California.

We drove up to Malibu and walked on the beach for a bit before Todd had to leave. Seems he and his girlfriend had plans that night and he had to get ready to go. If he told me he had plans I wouldn’t have imposed like I did, but see above about how cool close friends can be. The plans were very L.A.: once-and-future Smashing Pumpkins’ leader Billy Corrigan’s new band – Zwan – was playing a show someplace (for reasons that were lost somewhere in the mists of 2003, this was something of a big deal at the time), and Todd and his girlfriend were going to crash it. How? By using their youthful good looks and sunglasses-at-night cool to walk right past security and into the backstage area without paying, the theory being that people tend not to mess with folks who look like they belong.

There’s a lot to this theory – it’s amazing how little hassle I get in even the most secure buildings when I suit up in full lawyerly regalia with a briefcase in hand – and I had no doubt that Todd could pull it off in the setting of his choosing. For a teacher’s kid from Ohio, he had soaked up Los Angeles to the bone since arriving there eight years before, and could definitely look the part of backstage VIP if he tried. People might think to ask who he was and what he was doing, but they’d stop themselves short because, man, how embarrassing would it be to find out that the guy you’re hassling was the bass player for that up-and-coming band whose album Billy Corrigan was producing next week?

Todd extended a courtesy invite for me to join him, but I’m certain I would’ve sunk the whole operation. It would take a team of plastic surgeons and wardrobe consultants for me to look like I belonged backstage at a glittery, sold-out rock show. It made no difference, though, because I was tired from the road and looked forward to spreading out in his apartment. He dropped me off at his place and left for the night. I put on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, fired up the computer, and reconnected with civilization for a while. Later I raided the fridge for a couple of beers, pitas, and hummus.

Then I put in a movie. It was Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, which is about a businessman from Ohio on a fool journey out west.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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