Hoover Dam

"We should drive to California."

I looked up from stuffing my face. "What?"

"California," Gautham repeated, grinning. "We're both looking at grad schools on the west coast, right? We should take a road trip to California to check them out."

It was early fall, 2003. Gautham didn't own a car, so it was quickly established that I would be driving. At first, it was just going to be the two of us, so I figured we could take my two-seater Honda CRX. We began planning our trip for the winter break, and slowly, other people began to sign on to our mad plan. First was Dan, a Turkish Cypriot who had a British accent and a perpetually sour look on his face. Once Dan signed up, I realized that I was going to need to borrow my brother's Civic. Three people wasn't bad, though. Three people could share gas. Three people would make the conversation more lively and the trip more fun.

Gautham and Dan

"My friend Bird Dog wants to come, too," Gautham informed me, as the day of departure drew ever closer. "He has some guns he needs to pick up from Medford, Oregon."

I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. "Your friend's name is Bird Dog?" I paused. "Wait, he needs to pick up some guns? And since when are we going to Oregon?"

But somehow, I became convinced that it would be a fantastic idea for Bird Dog to accompany us. Now, four people is starting to push it. It's a long drive from Georgia to the California coast (not to mention Medford, Oregon), and four dudes in a tiny Civic sounded like a pretty sweaty, stinky time to me. But it was doable, sure. And we'd save on gas.

Winter break finally rolled around, and our plans were solidifying. The dorm was just about deserted after classes let out; most of the people left were the exchange students that didn't have anywhere to go. One of these was my friend Gaelle, a French foodie who had recently broken things off with her boyfriend. She had planned to spend the holidays with him, and she just seemed so darn sad and lonely when we were having lunch together one day that I uttered the fateful words:

"Well, why don't you come to California with us?"

She shrugged. "Sure, what the hell. Why not?" She was an exchange student, and liked the idea of having American experiences while she was here. And what could be more American than squeezing into a tiny car with 4 sweaty dudes and driving 5,000 miles?

Gaelle

I called Gautham and the others, and, oddly, none of us saw a problem with this plan. So, shortly after Christmas, Gaelle and I hopped into my brother's Civic in Athens, Georgia, and began a very, very long drive.

At first the drive was a breeze. This is because there were only two people in the car, so we both had luxurious front seats which we could shamelessly adjust to our hearts' content.

We met Gautham and Dan in Austin, Texas. Things were starting to get a little steamy and gross in the car, sure, but it was definitely tolerable. I introduced Gaelle to Gautham and Dan. They were happy to meet each other. Within short order, to break the ice, Gautham made some tasteless comments about French people in a bad French accent. Gaelle sweetly responded by deftly mocking his terrible Indian-guy-trying-sound-French accent. Dan chipped in about how much he hated France. I, meanwhile, was cheerfully oblivious to the storm clouds threatening the serenity of my car-full-of-dudes, and talked happily about how great it was to be on the road, how nice the scenery was, and so on.

The next day, in Amarillo, Texas, we picked up the last and final member of our sweaty party. Bird Dog turned out to be a skinny white guy with a lantern jaw and a reedy southern accent.

"As a good American," he noted, about ten seconds after meeting Gaelle, "I have to tell you, I hate France."

I could see that this was going to turn out well.

A couple of logistical points. First, the Civic has a stick shift. Of the five of us, only Bird Dog and I knew how to drive stick. (We fought a low-key but intense emotional battle for the right to drive the car, since the person who wasn't driving was forced into the back seat flesh pile.) Second, our sleeping plans were sparse, at best. We had reasonable plans until we got to San Francisco: the previous night we had slept at Gautham's friend's place in Austin. The next night we had vague plans to get a motel. Then we planned to spend a couple days in the LA area -- Bird Dog's friend lived in Pasadena, and my aunt lived in Thousand Oaks. Finally, we had booked a room at the Y in San Francisco. And after that, we had no plan at all. We were all broke, and certainly couldn't afford to keep staying in motels.

El Paso, Texas was the last city in the 'ordinary' landscape that we'd been trundling through. I-10 brushed against the Mexican border; it was astonishing how much poorer and more ramshackle Juarez looked, on the other side of the Rio Grande. Then we crossed into New Mexico, then Arizona. The Southwest felt like another planet. To a guy who'd barely been outside of the southeastern U.S. his whole life, the burnt-red earth and towering mesas of the Southwest landscape were as alien as the surface of Mars. The sky was an endless, brilliant blue, and everything was blasted by scorching, bone-dry heat. I loved it.

At one stop, we saw people racing dune buggies up and down the sand dunes. "I should bring my dirt bike out here," I said wistfully. (Five years later...)

California border

I was deeply excited by the time we crossed into California. I'd wanted to move to California for at least three or four years at this point, mostly just because it seemed beautiful and exciting and it was about as far from Georgia as you could get while still remaining in the lower 48. Actually seeing the place cemented this for me. The desolation of the high desert was beautiful in its own way, and by the time we arrived in San Diego, I was convinced that California was the most beautiful place in the world.

San Diego beach

Having a vague recollection that the purpose of this trip was to check out graduate school campuses, we dutifully stopped at UC San Diego for a quick look-around. We stood around awkwardly for a while, none of us knowing anybody at UCSD, or having a clue of what we wanted to see. The campus was pretty enough, and of course the weather was mild and pleasant. Quickly dispensing with the notion that we were really interested in the school, we decided to go to the San Diego Zoo, which has a well-earned reputation as the biggest zoo in the U.S. (Gaelle, oddly enough, ran into one of her professors from Georgia there.)

San Diego zoo

San Diego zoo

San Diego zoo

We went to Pasadena because we had a place to stay there, and because Caltech is there. Pasadena is the first place in California that I was underwhelmed by. It had the cluttered feel that suburbs acquire when they've been suburbs for too long: rows and rows of shops, too many cars, too many people. It felt like a place that had gleamed when it was new, and now that it was aging, it was revealed that the gleam was its only appeal. When we arrived, we stopped at Bird Dog's friend Jenny's small apartment, glad to be stationary.

Gaelle has a direct (one might even say 'frank'...) manner that initially makes her seem tomboyish, but, in fact, she's just about as girly as girls get. Consequently, she'd chafed a bit in the company of four nerdy, admittedly somewhat boorish guys. So, when we met Jenny, she was visibly relieved to have another female to converse with, and, within short order, she and Jenny announced that they were going shopping, and the rest of us were very much not invited. That sounded good to me. I was feeling a bit strung out, and the last thing I wanted to do was go shopping in a vaguely decaying strip mall.

Instead, the four of us decided to go to Hooters. I think it is a testament to how lame Pasadena is that Hooters was closed while the sun was still out. Suddenly embittered, we instead bought some alcohol and hauled it back to Jenny's place, and proceeded to drown our sorrows in cheap beer.

I have only vague memories of the rest of the night. Shortly after we started drinking, Gaelle and Jenny returned, and we all had an entirely-too-merry time. I do remember having one-drink-too-many, and expending an enormous amount of concentration and effort not to throw up. I don't remember too much after that.

The next morning, Gaelle and I woke up in the same bed. After a brief, awkward moment, we quickly conferred and confirmed that nothing had happened the previous night.

Gaelle and Jenny left bright and early. Us four guys were hung-over and felt entirely wretched, and we had planned an excursion into the Mojave Desert, to visit XCOR Aerospace's hangar. This may sound incredibly random, but in fact it was one of the things I was most excited to see in California -- I'm a pretty dedicated space geek, and wanted to see the "new space" companies at work. A couple years had passed since the EZ-Rocket, a rocket-powered homebuilt, had flown successfully, but the groundbreaking flights of SpaceShipOne were still six months in the future. I spoke with a woman named Aleta on the phone, who said that they'd be happy to give us a tour of the place.

EZ-Rocket

XCOR's hangar was spare and utilitarian, and the place buzzed with a cheerful energy. One of the engineers, who referred to himself as a 'rocket plumber', told me, "I'm the only guy I know who comes to work every day to have fun. I love it here." There was something quietly inspiring about the company, and I began to wonder if I shouldn't have studied engineering instead of science...

That night, we went to Thousand Oaks, where my aunt, cousin, and grandparents had a house.

Thousand Oaks

The first thing we realized, when we got to my aunt's house, is that is was incredibly nice. Thousand Oaks is a posh suburb north of LA, and their house was perched on a picturesque hillside with a long, sloping backyard where they grew a variety of fruit and vegetables. I tried unsuccessfully to interact with my grandparents -- their English is about as good as my Chinese -- and my aunt took the five of us out for burritos. She's a brilliant engineer, which accounts for the amazing house, and over dinner she expounded the business plans for her new company. We all nodded politely, pretending we understood what she was talking about. Her company was later to founder under the combined pressures of crony capitalism and the horrors of cost-plus contracting, but that's a sad tale for another time. (She is, nevertheless, still doing extremely well. Brilliance is buoyance.)

Me with my Aunt, Grandparents, and Cousin Ray

We probably should have stayed in Thousand Oaks for an extra day or two, but for some reason, we didn't, instead electing to again pack into the Civic and hit the road.

"It's amazing how a good night's sleep makes you just feel refreshed and ready to hit the road again, huh guys?" I asked, grinning broadly as we pulled out. I think it was then that I began to sense mutiny in the ranks.

At length, we made it to San Francisco without incident. The first guy we met in San Francisco was the desk clerk at the Y where we had booked a room. When he found out Gaelle was French, he was visibly delighted.

"You're French?" he asked, beaming. "That's great! I love France."

Gaelle smiled uncertainly, sensing a trap. "Um, thanks..."

"No, really!" he insisted. "Americans are always talking about how France owes us because of World War II, but what I say to them is just, well, how about the Revolutionary War? I think the truth is that we owe France! We wouldn't even be a country without the French!"

"All hail King Louis," I said dryly. The desk clerk glared at me.

"So, ANY-way," the clerk went on icily, "I'm actually a communist. Most Americans are too stupid to appreciate that, but I'm sure you sympathize, being French."

Gaelle was now extremely uncomfortable, and probably wondering if this guy was a CIA agent disguised as an idiot. We excused ourselves politely, explaining that we were tired and wanted to unload our stuff, so if you could just hand us the keys, thanks...

Golden Gate Bridge

It was New Year's Eve, and San Francisco was a lot colder than I expected. At Gaelle's urging, we decided to experience San Francisco's nightlife -- it was New Year's, after all, so what better time than now? None of us knew the city at all, but we knew enough to know that driving in downtown SF is a non-starter. Eventually, we found an 18-and-up nightclub (not all of us were 21 yet), a place with a very high ceiling and very very loud techno music. (Years later, I would come to know SF extremely well, but to this day, I have no clue where the five of us ended up that night.) We drank. We took turns dancing with Gaelle. We drank some more. Eventually, we left the club, and ended up somewhere near the Bay Bridge, watching the fireworks.

On the way back to the Y, two things happened: it started to rain, and we got lost. Bird Dog had a printed map, but we were slightly too drunk to follow it, so we ended up wandering the streets of SF in the wee hours of the morning, with cold rain pissing down on us. We did ultimately make it back to the Y, and I collapsed into an exhausted, drunken sleep, without nearly enough blankets.

The next morning, I was sick. I had a pounding headache, which could, of course, just have been a hangover, but I've found that any time I start to get sick, my throat always gets a little raw. It was more than a little raw. I realized as soon as I woke up that I had gotten sick from stupidly sleeping without enough blankets, and cursed myself for being an idiot as I took a nice hot shower. I hoped that it was just a hangover, and soon I'd feel better.

I didn't.

In fact, I continued feeling wretched the rest of the trip. Interestingly, as insufferable as my 'I just love this trip, isn't everything so exciting' attitude must have been, it turned out to be the glue holding our fractious little band together. I was quickly feeling too awful to be excited about anything, and it wasn't too long before Gautham's vaguely misogynistic jokes and Gaelle's vaguely xenophobic retorts had them at each other's throats. Dan was embittered and hateful as always, and Bird Dog just wanted to get his goddamn guns and was beginning to get impatient. (I think he was also starting to fall madly in love with Gaelle...but I could be wrong about that.)

Golden Gate Bridge

We had a morning boat tour around the Bay that morning. This didn't particularly help me feel any better, since the boat was blasted by ice-cold wind the entire trip. That afternoon, we made it out of the city, and were sitting, exhausted, in an IHOP.

"What will you have?" the waitress asked.

"I'll have pancakes, bacon, and eggs," I growled, feeling wretched and hating the whole world. "Burn the bacon until it turns black."

Gaelle cast a half-worried, half-disgusted look at me. "Uh, and that just applies to his order. I do not want my bacon burned until it turns black."

As we waited for our food, the five of us pored over the map. It turned out that Medford, Oregon was actually really fucking far from San Francisco.

"Jesus," I grumbled, "I thought San Francisco was in northern California..."

Bird Dog stared at me with rage in his eyes. Clearly, he knew he was about to get royally screwed.

"That is really far," Gautham put in.

Dan said sourly: "Maybe we should just go back."

"I'm fine with that," Gaelle said. "Why were we going to Medford, anyway? Bird Dog, you had something to pick up there, right?"

"Yeah, my guns."

"Your guns?" she repeated. "Is that even legal?"

Bird Dog grinned toothily. "This is America, sweetheart. 'course it's legal."

We did a quick estimate of how long it would take to get to Medford and back, and quickly decided that it wasn't really worth it, thereby royally screwing Bird Dog over. He quietly hated our guts for the rest of the trip. (Except Gaelle's, who, again, I'm pretty sure he was desperately in love with.)

Grand Canyon

The drive back was an exercise in utter misery. Gaelle and Gautham snarked at each other constantly, Bird Dog simmered with a barely controlled rage (and tried, without success, to hit on Gaelle), I was sick as a dog, and Dan was sinking into a black hole of depression. A typical conversation between the five of us when we tried to stop for dinner was the following:

Gautham: "How about Thai food? Thai sounds good to me."
Dan: "Yeah, that's ok."
Gaelle: "No fucking way we're getting Thai food again."
Bird Dog (lustfully): "I agree with Gaelle. No Thai food."
Me: [words lost in a mucus-filled fit of coughing and sneezing]
Gautham: "Well what the heck do you want to eat then, Frenchie?"
Dan: "Yeah, how about some fucking French food? Oh wait, we're smack in the middle of East Bumblefuck, so there isn't any goddamn French food."
Me: Wheeze, cough. Snort. Hack cough wheeze.
Gaelle: "How about Chinese food?"
Bird Dog (lustfully): "Yeah, Chinese food. Gaelle has a great idea."
Dan: "FUCK NO. I can't stand Chinese food."
Gautham: "How about Indian food?"
Gaelle: "Absolutely not."

And then eventually we'd agree on either IHOP or pizza. We ate a lot of IHOP and pizza.

The first day back, we decided to stay in a motel. Since we couldn't afford the cost of all of us getting rooms, what we decided to do was just book a room for two people, then the rest of us would sneak into the room while the proprietor wasn't looking. (This was an extremely well-thought-out plan.)

"So who books the room?" Gautham asked.

"I'll do it," Bird Dog offered. He seemed suddenly enthusiastic and eager. "And Gaelle can come with me. We can pretend we're a couple. Haha, isn't that funny! And we're booking a room together. With one bed. For the two of us."

Somehow, we all got into the room without the manager noticing. In the morning, we then had to sneak back to the car without getting caught. We were all nerves.

"Who goes first?" Bird Dog asked, peeking through the blinds.

"I'll go," I burbled through a wall of mucus. "Follow me at two-minute intervals, ok? That should make it look less suspicious."

I quickly got to the car, parked in an abandoned parking lot adjacent to the motel, and waited. Soon, Gautham appeared, then Gaelle, then Bird Dog. We all sat in the car, apprehensive.

"Where the fuck is Dan?" I wheezed, craning my neck to see the motel.

Gautham climbed out of the car, then quickly ducked back in. "He's lost or something," he hissed. Dan was wandering around, increasingly frantic, on the top floor of the motel, apparently unable to find the stairs down. "Oh shit," Gautham said, "the manager is there! Oh god, he's talking to him!"

Dan panicked and took off running. "He's running," Gautham said, "we'd better meet him out front!" So I quickly pulled the car to the front of the motel, and Dan jumped in, the furious motel manager hot on his heels. He was yelling at us as we drove off.

To try and get back faster, we took I-40 east. It was more direct, but we hadn't anticipated how cold it would be. We decided that, even though we all felt pretty awful, we had to stop and see Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. It was snowing at the canyon rim, and the view was breathtaking:

Grand Canyon in the snow

After we left the Grand Canyon, we had no plan for that night, so we just kept driving. We made good time, and soon, it was night, and we were driving through northern New Mexico, fruitlessly looking for a place to stay. There was a slight turn in the highway and I turned the wheel...and the car kept sliding forward.

"Holy shit," I said, pulling over. "The road's like solid ice."

We didn't have chains, so we were unable to proceed further, and ended up sleeping in the car outside of an abandoned gas station, somewhere in the middle of northern New Mexico. I took a shot of Nyquil so I could sleep without drowing in my own mucus. As you might expect, sleeping five-to-a-car in these conditions was the epitome of a bad time, so all of us ultimately took shots of Nyquil so we could sleep. Dan was having particular trouble falling asleep, so he took an extra shot of Nyquil. This turned out to be a terrible idea, as he woke up repeatedly throughout the night, screaming with rage, opening the car door and stumbling about blindly in the darkness.

I was halfway surprised that all five of us were still alive in the morning. But we were, and within short order, we were once again back on the road. Eventually, we made it back to Georgia, where we all disembarked and made hollow promises to keep in touch. I stayed close with Gaelle and Gautham, although as far as I know they never spoke to each other again. Gautham and Dan remained friends. I don't think any of us ever spoke to or heard from Bird Dog again.

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