Oregon, Alex, and an environmental catastrophe known at Road Trip 2010

Why the best part about my summer at home was getting away

Photos courtesy of Alex Castillo

Let’s be real: I want to encapsulate our road trip into a soul-squeezing, tear-jerking affirmation of four friends, a squirrel, 2,000 miles, 16.7 miles to the gallon, and a never-ending box of Goldfish. But I don’t quite know where to begin, end, or what even to put in the middle. Yet, as of three day before it happened – and even while it was happening – I guess that’s how we felt about going to Portland, too.

By Gaviota, we were already past the “how was your day” and friend-gossip sections of the conversation, into a typically intense debate about our various methods of brushing our teeth and their respective merits. By the time we arrived at the World’s Largest Cement Artichoke in Castroville, my cheeks hurt from laughing, reminiscent of that other ill-advised jaunt with Alex and Michael, when we drove to California Adventure last summer while I could still barely open my mouth wide enough to pop my post-wisdom -teeth-removal pain meds. I hadn’t been training too hard for constant smiling during my napping and 30 Rock-filled summer. As the sun set behind us, we begged fried artichokes from the closing restaurant, and took them to BK, dear to my heart as it has become.

On that long stretch between Davis and places even less important, I realized even Northern California isn’t green. Is that why they call it the Golden State? But in a sleepy way, it’s still pretty, with wheat fields and tall sci-fi looking silos surrounded by hazy mountains. I used to hate how dead California is for most of the year.

It felt like we would never reach Redding. 200 miles meant something then. How foolish we were. When did we lose track of time? Was it when Alex fell in love with a mountain as we snaked our way around the lake that would later, in comparison, seem small and dirty? We almost died trying to pass all those semis, wedged in their wind tunnel so close to the concrete wall of a divider. After we reached Weed, I had no real goals left. We frolicked in the weeds in the shadow of Mount Shasta. We had destinations, but no responsibilities. Did it matter if we reached Hood River? Did it matter if we ever stopped driving? We had so many snacks left, and sleeping bags and pillows. I didn’t care where we ended up.

There’s a stretch of that first long day I’ve lost entirely, sometime in between that little town on the border of Oregon that touted Confederate flags we knew weren’t part of their heritage and sold fireworks out of their fire station, and Crater Lake. That’s where we almost passed the Oregon sign and had to flip a U-turn (not our first). A cute lesbian couple took our picture as we climbed on top, and admired our squirrel. Right over the border suddenly it was green, with fields full of cows and grass so full of water it was a marsh. There were cows everywhere, and horses, and little foals that I just wanted to hug. Civilization barely existed, just quiet drives and never ending farms. The sky seemed inexplicably so much bigger, so wide you could see the clouds curving around the shape of the earth.

Despite my intimate acquaintance with winter, I didn’t expect snow. I almost forgot to bring a jacket. We watched the temperature plummet as we drove up the mountain toward Crater Lake, and little patches of white between the trees turned into entire meadows of snow. We made the mistake of stopping where it was still a whole 50 degrees, and a swarm of mosquitoes attacked us, the results of which I’m still scratching at as I type. In our thin Ventura sweaters, shorts, tank tops, we bounded through a snow filled field. We stopped at almost every lookout point, so Alex could capture the “exquisite lighting.” His need for pictures of us huddled together looking cheerful reminded me of my mother.

For some reason, that national park made me feel grown up. I think it was the realization that we might run out of gas soon. Or maybe it was the fact that we had an entire state to explore, seemingly with no one else in it. We had shaky cell phone reception, and no one to tell us where to go or how to get there. I was relived to finally arrive at almost civilization, though, or rather enough civilization to have a gas station. I let someone else get out and take care of it while I went inside. That’s when we found out you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon.

As dusk neared, we had our first fight with our Australian-accented GPS navigator, which over the course of the trip had gone from “The Garmin” to “Garmina” to “Garminita.” She didn’t like that it was looking like rain any more than we did. As we navigated switching highways and finally encountering lights and intersections, she lost us in the clouds and kept ordering us to take turns that didn’t exist, finally resorting to ordering us to “drive to Hi-LIGH-ted route” over and over again.

Alyssa made organic chemistry flash cards by a camping flashlight that strapped to her head, while Michael drove too fast down mountain roads in the rain. We hadn’t thought about the repercussions of an open truck bed and the infamously rainy Northwest until then, when it began to rain in earnest, and we stuffed our belongings into the few trashbags we had and piled the backseat high with our bedding. That’s when the trashy music finally started. No trip is complete without Miley, and no matter where he is, Alex is always in an Empire State of Mind.

When we finally arrived at Logan’s house, I didn’t even want to get out. That meant having to socialize, be friendly, be something other than dirty and tired and numb-butted. That was before we figured out we had walked into a party, complete with a Jacuzzi full of bros drinking beer. It seemed like they were living the life those high school kids in the movies did, the ones that didn’t go to Foothill. Or were just cooler than us. But we got a room to ourselves, where we could lay down and have our giggle fits about Alyssa’s inability to speak when tired, without having to know exactly how those handcuffs we found downstairs in the morning got there.

We awoke to find the deserted mountain road we had driven down the night before was actually full of houses, pitch black in the middle of the night. We drove off up the mountain toward our hiking destination, again realizing a little too late that it rains a lot in Oregon. We turned off the already desolate highway, in a town where the county library was housed in a strip mall with a gas station and grocery store, onto a mountain road the beast of a truck would barely fit down. Again we made U-turns in small places. I thought I might 3-point turn us right off a cliff. We were happy to see the trail head, even if it said we needed a parking permit.

Into the woods we went, petting the soft moss, taking pictures of the trees, jumping puddles, enjoying the creek. The first time we saw a bridge we got to walk across, we were giddy. We took triumphant photos. We saw a deer. My stomach began to growl. A while later we reached a fork in the road. Weren’t we already there? We were supposed to be finding a waterfall. It reminded me of the Punchbowls in Santa Paula: a snaking river bed and a rocky trail you’re not quite sure is there sometimes. Onward we went. Were we there yet? When would I get back and be able to eat my peanut butter sandwich? Why were we carrying the squirrel? Why was it so cold? Why was it raining? Why didn’t I eat more breakfast? Why didn’t I take any food or water with me? Why couldn’t I feel my hands anymore? Wasn’t this only supposed to be 4 miles round trip? How was this trail going to loop?

At some point I’m sure I told them to go on without me, leave my body in the dust and see their own damn waterfall. I trudged along a hundred feet behind, making snarky remarks about my inability to function to Alyssa. Why are waterfalls always uphill?

Alas, when we finally made it, it was fairly spectacular. It was bigger than I had expected, an entire river just flowing off the top of a cliff and down a cascade of rocks. I couldn’t feel my fingers. My joints had turned liquid. But dammit, that squirrel and I were going to get a good picture. We were the only ones there other than an Asian couple. The woman was eating something out of yellow paper. It could have been fast food. I wanted to launch myself at her and steal it like a rabid raccoon.

The walk back was a steep downhill, terrible for the fact that my knees barely existed, but only half as long as the way there. I was delirious by the time we got back. Nothing I said made sense anymore. But that was the best peanut butter sandwich of my life.

When we hit traffic for the first time and eventually made it to Portland, the supposed whole-shebang goal of this trip, it ended up as just another pit stop, a few hours seeing what we could see and killing time and dicking around.

A crazy man with a heavy Chinese accent overcharged us for parking, and creeped around so much we thought he would steal our car. The downtown area we were in was mildly deserted for a Friday night, and was home to a large number of homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We shared pizzas in a historic hotel haunted by the ghost of a prostitute that got pushed down an elevator shaft. Her name was etched in the brick and the bathroom was dark as fuck. I don’t care if everyone made fun of me; I don’t have to believe in ghosts to be scared of them, right? It works out in my head.

There were so many food trucks. My little heart nearly exploded. Koren BBQ. Indian. Most were closed by the time we came around, and we didn’t really want anything anyway. I felt like I was betraying something by not buying something off one. We walked all up and down the kind of barren, mildly run down/sketch downtown, saw the river and Chinatown and a smoking stripper in between. We explored all of my favorite childhood books in Powell’s books, the biggest bookstore I’ve ever been in. (We ended up in the kid’s animal books section…) I could have stayed there forever.

We waited in a totally-worth-it line at Voodoo Donuts, where we learned that Cap’n Crunch was always meant to be a donut, and penis pastries really are fun. The Maple Bacon Bar was pretty decent, in an old hard bacon sort of way, although I think the Berkeley maple bacon ice cream was a bit better. The bacon bits were so oddly unsurprising, until the crunch got meaty. But it blended so well.

That night we ended up in a Motel 6 in Salem. Again I felt like I could drive all night. An hour was nothing: the blink of an eye. But we had made reservations, and for $55 and a little white lie about Michael being the only one staying the night, a stark white room with two beds sporting sheets decorated by Motel 6s, a tiny bathroom and some sketch neighbors became our home. Nevermind the large man that stood in his doorway for all 15 minutes that it took for me to park the truck, or that guy riding his bike in circles in the parking lot, or the fact that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of large dogs there. For $3 we got the pleasure of running around the room with our laptops held above our heads trying to connect to the internet. I wiped a stain off the lightswitch that might have been blood. It’s possible it was mine. It’s possible it was not. But like everywhere we had ended up, we made it work. Alex sang me a lullaby version of “My Neck, My Back” which was more soothing than you would expect, except that he ended it by throwing things at me because he doesn’t like me to sleep while he’s awake.

Only a few hours later, we were back on the road, aiming to say goodbye to Oregon. We probably saw way more of Salem than it deserved. Why they had statues of a parade of animals AND a monument to beavers, I don’t know, but I sure enjoyed them. Though we were tired, and my eyes drifted far too often to the slowly decreasing count of miles to go, the drive southward was beautiful. It was overcast, but not raining, and the clumped clouds let in the sunshine just enough to light up patches of sky. The valley was flat in the way that you never see in Ventura. There were also, inexplicably, very official looking signs for free coffee near all the rest stops. Oregon really is a magical place, full of random giant statues of prehistoric men, painted bear statues, the #1 Zagat-rated Wendy’s, and most of all, green things. Near the border we drove over and around mountains where trees stretched up all around us, where Alyssa decided to find out exactly how many horsepower we were sitting on.

But as we neared the shadow of Alex’s one true love, Mount Shasta, and passed over back into California, the tall trees disappeared. The grass yellowed and pines became bushes. California is pretty in a very specific way. It’s not the palm trees and tropical sands like people think. It’s short oak trees and flattened yellow grass and rolling hills under giant mountain walls. The kind of pretty you have to focus to appreciate, sometimes. We played all the classic California songs that talk about how little it rains here. And Katy Perry, too.

I was sad to say goodbye to Alyssa as we dropped her off so she could see her damn rodeo. There was no planned future meetup. We’ve always bonded in short, intense spurts, far from home, and by the end I always wish we spent more time together. But we were back to just three, and Berkeley awaited us, with more friends waiting, and strong wifi. We were already talking about our next road trip. Cross country, anyone?

It was only a real road trip for the 3 days we drove around Oregon, but somehow it managed to be perfect. We saw all the essentials without ever having too much time to sleep or having to dig around in our guidebooks. There were only a few hours that I devoted almost entirely to hitting Alex, and for the most part, I couldn’t have been happier. Miraculously, our hare-brained few hours of planning in scrapping this together was enough. We were spontaneous, and it worked.

There are things we discovered about ourselves. Sometimes it started as jokes, regular banter, but as words came out of our mouths we realized they had more truth than we had thought. Alex is a bipolar man of extremes. I like best the friends that try their hardest to piss me off. Michael is all grown up now.

And at a certain point, more than ever before, we were family. It was a family vacation, but without the angst or frustration. I made all the weird sounds my heart desired, and as we sat on those Motel 6 beds in Salem and laughed about my retainer-lisp, it was apparent how close we had become. I wasn’t afraid to walk around with crazed hair and no bra, or lay on the floor and fan myself awkwardly with my shirt pulled up, or yell out vulgar things about my tampons. We could talk about my sometimes uncanny ability to flirt with girls or my complete fear of being afraid of things. It didn’t really matter what I said. I never had to explain whether or not I was kidding. They would figure it out. Maybe it was because it was my car and they had no choice if they wanted to return to their own beds someday, but they were going to put up with my shit, and that’s a burden I wouldn’t want to place on just anyone.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is — although it’s nothing new — I love you guys.


Road Trip: Day 1

There was a giant cement artichoke, a fountain urinal, a rock penis, and a lot of hummus. So far the car has air conditioning, we have mild amounts of entertainment, an almost plan, and we’ve discussed brushing our teeth.

We’ll see who survives this edition of the Shaunacy/Hansie roadtrip.