I muddled my way through the vestiges of California rush hour and pulled up in front of my last stop, the Pacific Ocean fifty yards away in my rear view mirror, the smell of salty breeze strong through the open window. James, my old friend and new roommate, was there to greet me and hand me the key to the apartment. We unloaded the car. Then I climbed the avocado tree in our yard. Walked out on a branch. And stepped onto the roof. Just in time for the sunset. Hello San Diego.
The sunset view was aflame as I pulled into my airbnb outside of Zion National Park. I could see the blaze of a wildfire miles across the valley. I went to bed that night only mildly disquieted, and woke up before dawn the next morning and hopped on the road into the park. I highly recommend on any road-trip, stopping at a national park, particularly in the Southwest, and getting up and watching the dawn slowly breathe life into an alien landscape. Zion, when I finally arrived, was beautiful. Amazing. In some ways, indescribable. I can understand why one of the first artists to paint the canyon back in the early 1900s, Frederick Dellenbaugh, was told by people back east that what he was painting was impossible. Soaring rock towers, massive sandstone battlements. I hiked a relatively easy and quick hike to the three Emerald Pools. High enough to give me sensational views of the canyon, and early enough to watch a deer emerge from the dawn gloom into the sunshine and cross the path a few feet in front of me. And then it was time for my final turn southwest, an eight hour jaunt to San Diego and the end of the trip.
Moe, the half border collie, half Australian sheepdog, bounded up to me as I stepped out of the car in front of cousin Erin’s house in Boise, Idaho, tail wagging furiously. He knew family. My first night in Boise, Erin and her husband Ryan were determined to show me a night out on the town. We played Pacman. We played Dig Dug. We played Donkey Kong (among others) at a classic arcade game bar. We sipped expensive tequila at El Matador. We pretty much did it all. Then, the next day, Erin changed the experience dramatically. We drove north for about two hours, into the mountains of Idaho, in Payette National Forest. There we hiked up hills into the wilderness, the only sounds beyond our voices were the chattering of squirrels and birds as they nattered at Moe for forcing them to take refuge in the trees, and the wind as it whistled and howled through the high mountain passes and the dead pine trunks that were the remnants of a fire that swept through the area in the 1980s. We found ourselves near the crest of the hill, losing the ranger trail and just following game trails up and up. I stayed closer to Moe after I asked what type of wildlife they have in the area and the response was “Well, we have elk, deer, mountain lions, wolves, eagles, black bears, but those won’t bother you, fortunately the grizzlies are off to the east in Wyoming…” After the hike I had my first ever experience eating sushi on the shores of a alpine mountain lake. Such sushi! Apparently they fly fresh fish in regularly from Seattle. If you are ever in McCall Idaho, check out The Sushi Bar. And just like that, my Idaho adventure was over, and it was time to make my final turn south towards San Diego, by way of Zion National Park.
There was a store simply labeled “Lubrication.” We didn’t stop there. For one, I make it a life policy of mine to avoid stores called “Lubrication.” For another, it was totally gutted and abandoned. I was visiting cousin Jon in southern Idaho, and he, along with his wife Lisa, and two dogs, took me to Atomic City. Atomic City, the site of the first nuclear power plant, has a population of under 30 and one bar, whimsically named “Bar”. The waitress was an older lady with electric blue eyes who chain smoked in between bringing us drinks. The majority of the patrons were weather-beaten Idahoans, one with a walrus mustache to put a polar bear to shame. Walrus Mustache beckoned cousin Jon over, his crooked finger saying “C’mere son,” and asked him a question about his height. One rowdy table was ordering jager bombs and whiskey although the hour was not much past one in the afternoon when we arrived. We took our drinks outside, and with the dogs swirling around the the feet of the picnic table, we played cards and sipped our drinks miles out on the Idaho desert plains.
You haven’t lived until you’ve visited Aunt Libby and Uncle John in Colorado. You haven’t lived until you pull up after a long sweet drive down a high mountain valley, past meadows full of cows and horses, under the stern gaze of monolithic crags. Until you’ve ATV’d up a mountain dirt road until you reached a glade, with a beautiful log cabin overlooking the whole valley. Until you’ve woken up in the morning and seen the mist crawling down the valley, past the Raggeds, a chain of mountaintops two and a half miles high, and eaten Aunt Libby’s homemade waffles while listening to Uncle John, a professional jazz pianist, play some tunes to greet the day. Until you’ve star-gazed and seen all across the Milky Way, and even the Andromeda Galaxy, with the naked eye (while keeping half an eye out for mountain lions creeping up under the cover of darkness). Until you’ve talked everything from politics and philosophy to family tales of yore under the influence of the heady crisp mountain air. ‘Til you’ve gone to a local art show deep in the folds of the Rocky Mountains, seen some truly beautiful local artwork, and watched as Aunt Libby sold a painting: a beautiful landscape evoking melancholy and vibrant life at the same time in its portrayal of a mountain stream. When you leave Aunt Libby and Uncle John’s place, you feel like you’re really living. Your back feels a bit straighter and your heart a bit bigger.
I drove all the way across the country to visit my cousin James in Boulder. And I couldn’t for one very important reason. He doesn’t live in Boulder, he lives in Denver, a block from Coulfax Avenue, which he described as the longest and wickedest street in America. It’s marathon length, and full of bums, hoodlums, and druggies, enough to keep you on your toes, but right in the middle of a lively neighborhood. The first day with James we headed to Renegade Brewery where his friend Max is head brewer, where we sipped excellent beer, everything from smoky porters to rye IPAs, before Max gave us a tour of the beer the brewing facilities. Then we met up with Dani and Tyler (you may remember them from the ninja incident the night before), and hiked Bummer’s rock to see breathtaking views of the sun setting behind the foothills of the Rockies. The next day we got our American culture in, walking to the Molly Brown house (think Titanic), and taking in a Rockies game at Coors Field, where the sunset views were spectacular (but don’t ask me who won the game). The next morning I said goodbye to James, and drove up to the Flatirons, mountain outcroppings above Boulder, with an old high school friend who was in town. From the top we could see way out into the Front Range in the west, and watched rain and far off lightning. Then it was time to head west, into mountain country.
The main characters of this tale are three. Dani, the ex-roommate (mine). Tyler, the ninja boyfriend (her’s). And Emma, the dog (their’s). I rolled west and the flat plains of Kansas gave way to the flat plains of Colorado, until, suddenly, I topped a rise and the Denver skyline was in front, and the mountains rose behind, and I was at Dani’s apartment. The first evening Dani and Tyler took me to a beer garden under the stars. My second day we drove to into the foothills of the Rocky’s. Tyler took me around Red Rock, the famous Denver venue, a vast amphitheater chiseled in between two red-stone cliffs. On the way back we drove into a thunderstorm sweeping down the mountains. That evening Dani, Tyler, and I strolled around downtown Denver, visiting cousin James (more on him later) at his restaurant, and then walked by as Colorado Rockies fans slouched out of Coors field after a late-night game. But when we arrived back at Dani’s, it was time to walk Emma. And while we locked the door, we left the key. On the plus side, Tyler is a ninja, and after I boosted him up, he was able to grab onto the bottom of the second story porch, swing himself up, shimmy up the column, and swing himself over Dani’s balcony and into the apartment. We got in through the balcony, and now it was time to go out through the side door.
Kansas. Before my trip I asked someone from Oklahoma if they knew of anything I should do in Kansas. She said, “drive through it as fast as you can.” I slip out the front door of my airbnb early in the morning, past two gregarious cats, and into a dense fog in Topeka. It was time to burn the rubber and get on to Denver. I have three mix tape CDs from my brother, an old Killers album I picked up last minute at a garage sale, and a semi-illiterate (it mispronounces words like “mileground” and “point”) and a geographically inept (it refused to acknowledge the existence of the state of Kentucky until I drove into it) GPS for entertainment. Plus 532 flat miles on Route I 70 to Denver. Fortunately, it’s hard to get lost.
As I-64 shot me out of Louisville a horse and buggy slowly ambled out on an overpass over the highway and stopped above my lane. Right before I sped underneath, the driver raised a hand as if in salute. Farewell, Louisville. Will and I had walked out through the garage that morning on our way to breakfast as old Max wagged his tail and looked expectantly at us and then at the front door we wouldn’t be going through. The night before, my second night in town, I had been treated to bourbon and coal fired pizza by Will and his parents. Will, an old friend and travel partner in Europe, had spent the day at work while I automotively wandered, alone this time, to Big Four Bridge and Waterfront Park, past Louisville Slugger Field, and down to Churchill Downs where I gazed at the resting places of past Kentucky Derby champions and shared a few quiet moments with Twinspired, a retired racehorse put in a paddock outside the Churchill Downs Cafeteria. I had arrived at Will’s house in Louisville the evening before and parked in front of the garage. When I came to the front door Will’s mom had been there to greet me, and so too had been Max, baying and tail-wagging as he tottered around a busily puttering Roomba.
How do you explain to a three year old that you are moving? Luna is a mature (for her age) collie, but she doesn’t understand where I’m going–San Diego, by way of Kentucky, Colorado, and Idaho, and she doesn’t give a damn why–to start a new job on the West Coast. She just knows I’m leaving. She stands as I carry my bags downstairs, and my boxes out to the car. Then she goes and sits in a corner, giving soft collie sighs, with her nose resting forlornly on a paw. I go to give her one last hug goodbye, and she’s distracted by some smell in the kitchen, maybe–food!–and tries to pull away. Then the screen door slams, and I’m off, on my way west before she can turn around. But the sun in shining, and I hope that as I pass into Kentucky she’ll have found a deer to chase on her afternoon walk.