I love to travel. I guess most people do. One of my favorite things in life is waking up in a new city, a new climate. When I was 18, the summer after my my freshman year at UC San Diego, my mother bought me a 1982 Honda Accord with her tax return. As a transplant from a tiny town in Alaska, I was super excited to hit the freeways. Last weekend as I was driving up I-5 from LA to Sacramento, to see my family who live there, I was remembering all the road trips I’ve made back and forth from Southern California to the Bay Area over the years. In my younger days, I was in the habit of throwing a going-away party for myself whenever I was leaving town or returning (even if that was a party of one), so for me, travel meant a hangover. Or a fresh new drunk or high, if I could get away with it. I only realized this fact years later when I took my first sober trip, which was refreshingly easy! So much less stressful and exhausting NOT to be nauseated and dehydrated… My, how things have changed! Sobriety does have its compensations. But I had a pretty good time for most of my drinking years as well. These are a few of the trips that stand out in my memory. A couple of them were major turning points in my life.
1) LA to Lodi, 1986 – The first time I visited California on my own, I was 16 and came down from Alaska to spend Christmas with my new friend Maile, a girl my age who I had met on our foreign exchange program to Germany the summer before. Her amazingly generous parents were hosting a group of us boys from other parts of the nation for Christmas in LA and skiing in Tahoe (they taught us all to ski!). We kids had bonded over the summer, and we’re still friends 30 years later, which is pretty remarkable.
I remember arriving and being amazed that the winter weather in LA was like summer to me, especially when Maile took me to get a decent haircut and we didn’t even have to wear shoes (!!). Back home in Alaska there had been snow and subzero temperatures since Halloween. We had to take a couple cars up north, and I ended up making my first drive up to Northern California a day early with Maile’s mother, Jimi, who had a doctor’s appointment near their ski place in Lodi. She needed a driver, because she had burned her hand badly–her shifting hand. She drove a new, red, stick-shift Merkur imported from Germany. I will never forget driving as fast as I could go up the freeway, sunroof open, playing Billy Joel on the fancy stereo system. Jimi was coaching me on how to shift smoothly, so as not to strain her neck. I had only driven a stick on my dad’s old WWII Willy Jeep before. When we got in the car she said, “Step on it honey! We’ve got no time to waste. If you get pulled over, I’ll pay for the ticket.” She didn’t have to ask twice. My dad had also taught me to drive fast over the windy mountain roads between my little hometown and Anchorage. As any of my friends will tell you, I still drive like a demon. It’s one of my favorite things to do, ever.
The trip home was amazing too, because I got to drive Maile in her dad’s vintage Mercedes down from the mountains, out to Carmel and down the coast on Highway 1, with the sunshine and the crashing waves of the Pacific. That vacation is the reason I live in Los Angeles to this day.
2) San Diego to SF, 1991 – I don’t remember why we were going to San Francisco, but I remember piling into my old Honda with my roommate and a couple other guys from school at like 9:00PM on a weeknight, and flying up the freeway as fast as that car would go, which was surprisingly fast. It was incognito too, or so I believed, because it was flat gray, old and common. We may have been going to a Grateful Dead show. If so, I was the designated chauffeur, because I was never a fan of the Grateful Dead… They had probably bribed me with the case of beer and a fun mixture of cocaine and meth I used to call “salad” that we packed for the drive. You need something like that to keep you alert when you plan on drinking a least a 6-pack on the road, just to keep your blood alcohol from plummeting… I was a self-acknowledged alcoholic beginning around my freshman year.
I remember we chopped lines on the back of a small plastic record cleaning kit because it was a solid black plastic box with a little rim. That box sat in the back window of my car for a couple months, and eventually melted in the sun, for which I had a reckoning at the end of the school year with my other roommate, who was a serious hippie and musician, and the proper owner of the record cleaning kit. He did not approve of our amphetamine-fueled shenanigans, and the melted case added to his mounting pile of evidence that something was seriously wrong with us. A broken rotating disco light, which he had also purchased at Radio Shack, was another significant piece of evidence brought forth in our “come to Jesus” talk…
3) SF to SD, circa 1989 – I was in the backseat for this trip home from Northern California after one of the holidays. I had caught a ride with some other kids from school. We got stuck in holiday traffic in LA – the worst I have ever seen. In those days we didn’t have enough experience to plan around peak traffic – we had probably left for the 8 hour drive home at noon on a Sunday. And we were, as usual, drinking a case of beer. I remember getting out of the car in the fast lane, which had ground to a complete stop, and peeing in the center divider in full view of the oncoming traffic, who were of course honking and flashing their lights, while I laughed maniacally.
4) SF to LA, New Year’s Day, 2000 – Leaving San Francisco with my sister and my friend Chris in the car, I realized I was far too ill to drive. And I ALWAYS drove. But I drank more than a boatload of wasps at a regatta over that incredible New Year’s party weekend hosted by my friend Pam, which involved some ecstasy too, I think. I still refer to that weekend as the “last party.” I had to pull over and ask Chris to drive. I curled into a ball all the way home, which was a first ever. Chris commented that there was tequila coming out of my pores – I reeked. That was pain.
5) LA to SF, 1999 – My mother had flown down from Alaska to pick up her boyfriend’s truck, which they had left in San Diego after a month-long trip down the Baja. This was a big, old 4-wheel drive Alaska truck with a camper shell on the back and a stick shift about 3 feet long. She didn’t want to drive through LA or San Francisco, but she was perfectly happy to drive it all the way to Wyoming, and then on to Alaska via the Alcan Highway, which wasn’t even completely paved at the time! She was a real frontier woman at heart. I remember when she picked me up at my office in LA and we headed up the 5 to San Francisco. I was so excited to see her, because we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. On the drive up, I remember being surprised she fell asleep in the truck. We were usually so excited to see each other, we would stay up chatting non-stop until the wee hours, when I’d have to insist on calling it a night. She was a night owl too. Then she continued to sleep a lot in San Francisco, and again in Sacramento, where we visited my aunt and uncle, and then flew home. She made it to Alaska no problem—I’m sure that solo drive was one of the best adventures of her life. But at New Year’s Eve that year (the memorable NYE 2000), I remember sitting with my sister at the top of Bernal Heights park watching the fireworks on the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, when my sister revealed that our mother had lung cancer. After fighting it off for 14 months, she passed in 2001. Her death was the major event that precipitated my getting sober. I still wish I had been able to spend some time with her sober. That hadn’t happened much since I graduated from high school.