The Road: Chapter 1

On October 20, I left for three and a half weeks for the longest and most deliberate road trip I’ve ever taken. I’ve driven long distances before because I needed to get somewhere – Utah to Chicago many times, for example – but never just because I had time off and I wanted to. After spending last summer in Mexico, I decided I wanted to focus my next few trips on the United States, especially with so many incredible things to do in Utah. My master’s degree classes only lasted half of the usual semester, so I worked really hard to get all my student teaching and observation lessons done before those classes ended. Doing this gave me enough time to take a nice long trip before I had to come back and start working again.

I decided to do a big loop: Out to California, starting at Yosemite; up to the San Francisco bay area to visit family; down the California coastline along Highway 1 to Los Angeles and San Diego, where I’d visit old friends; and finally, spend the last week driving through southern Utah and seeing several national parks. Over the course of the trip, I drove more than 4,000 miles and saw too many beautiful things to remember or describe, so before my memories all fly out of my head forever, I’ll share the details of the trip while simultaneously boring you to tears with my wanna-be-Cormac McCarthy-esque descriptions of the landscape. Enjoy.

Chapter 1: Yosemite and Berkeley

I left early Thursday morning before the sun came up. I almost left Wednesday night at 10:45 PM because I finished teaching my ESL class at 9:00 and I was so excited that I couldn’t stand to wait till the next day. However, what little good sense I have prevailed and instead of launching off in the dead of night, I left early in the morning. I couldn’t sleep well because I was so excited, but that selfsame excitement kept me from snoozing at the wheel the next day as I drove through the dusty sunscape of Nevada.

When I reached Wendover, I turned south on Highway 6 and rode that bitch down into Yosemite. I deliberately chose a route that took me somewhat back-roadsy, because what’s the point of a road trip if you’re dodging semis on I-80 the entire time? Also, because scenic drives are amazing and I had plenty of time to kill, I wanted to drive on the slow side and enjoy myself thoroughly, stopping wherever the view pleased mine eyes.

Nevada is surprisingly beautiful – even the parts where you’ll shrivel up into a crisp within minutes of stepping out into the barren terrain. Google “Railroad Valley, Nevada” sometime and you’ll see what I mean. There’s nothing out there. No, not even a railroad. You’ll be wanting a good pair of sunglasses if you ever visit, because it’s bright as fuck and you’ll constantly be squinting ahead to see if there’s any hope for water. Towards the ends of Nevada, I drove through Tonopah, a dilapidated mining town that was hot in the early 1900s. It’s basically been circling the drain since then, but has somehow managed to stay alive, and now has the look and feel of a movie set ghost town. I was curious about Tonopah, so I googled it and read a blog that called Tonopah “so ugly, it’s charming,” which seems both fair and accurate.

Then I was out of Nevada and into California! As I drove up the 120 before I hit Lee Vining, I couldn’t help but notice that the rocky scenery strongly resembled Gorignak from Galaxy Quest. I durst not get out of my car lest a giant rock monster assemble itself out of the mountainside and crush me to dust. However, I did pull over and take a picture, which I’m too lazy to upload here.

As for Yosemite – I drove up and over Mt. Dana and had to keep pulling off to the side of the road just to look around at the sheer excellence of it all. By the time you’re halfway into the park, the mountains are made out of this gorgeous grey and white granite, and it’s everywhere. There’s giant formations made out of it, small hills made out of it, and enormous boulders just poking out everywhere that are made out of it. The shapes of the rock clearly indicate this was all lava flow at one point; if you don’t know what that looks like, imagine a giant, smooth cow turd, layered on top of itself until it flows over. Or just Google it.

Green pines dot the mountainside and the air smells crisp and clean, interrupted occasionally by the smell of burning brakes from cars traveling the steep and windy roads. Tiny lakes are everywhere and perfectly reflect the surrounding beauty, doubling your enjoyment potential. Tourists are relatively few and far between in late October, and even the park rangers have a smile on their face as they hand out the bajillionth park pamphlet of the day.

I spent my first night in Mariposa, on the other side of Yosemite, and went right back in the following morning to visit the Giant Sequoias, Half Dome, and the valley floor. I actually had to tie a bandanna around my head, Marley-style, to keep my jaw from dropping off. El Capitan rose majestically above me. The yellow and green fall colors contrasted wonderfully with the mondo mountains and pale yellow grasses. The sun shone through the trees and basked everything in a soft-focus evening glow. Okay. I’m just going to stop trying to describe the scenery and encourage you to visit Yosemite in late October/early November. Actually, on second thought, don’t. Part of the reason I like visiting the National Parks this time of year is because there’s nobody there.

Anyway, late the second night I arrived in Vacaville, where my pilot of a brother is stationed. On the third day, we drove into Berkeley, where my beloved aunt lives, and celebrated her birthday with her. And on the fourth day, God created the stars, sun, and moon. Just kidding. But we had a long weekend of good wine, good friends, and terrible dancing. And can I just say, D, you look great for your age.

About a month before my trip, I arranged a visit with a private school in downtown Berkeley that specializes in using the Socratic Method. I’m actually really big on this particular teaching strategy, and I wanted to see a school where it’s regularly employed. My faith in the SM was not disappointed – I sat in on some really interesting conversations the students had and could tell they had developed sophisticated discussion skills. I got lots of ideas to take home with me, and they even fed me lunch.

During lunch, however, I had an interaction that left me scratching my otherwise non-itchy head. I had tentatively approached a smiling woman dealing out turkey patties like Blackjack cards and requested one. She asked me where I was from.

“Utah,” said I, and proffered my turkey-less hamburger bun.

“Utah! That’s too bad,” said she, and flung a patty in my direction.

“Why?” said I, bending over backwards, managing to catch the flying turkey patty perfectly on my pre-condimented bun.

“Gorgeous place,” said she, and scratched her butt with her spatula. “But I’d hate to live there.. They have moronic ideas about how to do things.”

“That’s funny,” said I. “They all say the same thing about you.” Then I gave her the finger and walked away while she stood in awe of my vivacious wit.

Okay, I’m lying. I actually didn’t think of anything clever to say back to her, and she didn’t scratch her ass with the spatula. But she did speak incredibly condescendingly about Utah and the people who live there, and I just mumbled something awkward about how Utahns are actually really nice, and then sat there eating my turkey burger and wondering what she even meant.

The truth was, I unexpectedly felt my hackles raise when she said that. I wanted to tell her that Utahns aren’t any crazier than Berkeleyites, and, in fact, if you sampled the average American about how the way things should be done, I’d wager that a lot of them think people who live in Berkeley are just as weird as the Mormons. And anyway, who meets a total stranger and immediately announces how stupidly they think their people do things?

After I left the school, I had to sit in my car for a moment and stew over why that interaction bothered me, and it didn’t take long before I hit on it. If you were to make such a claim about any other group or place, you’d run a high risk of offending people. Why? Because sweeping over a group of people or a place with a broad brush and making assumptions about them is diminishing and highly inaccurate. But she thought she could get away with it because 1) Mormons are typically white and Christian, and 2) She assumed if I was there in Berkeley, I would probably agree with her assessment of Utah. Little does she know that Utah is a rich and diverse place, that less than 50% of Salt Lake is Mormon, and that parking tickets in Utah cost about 80% less than they do in Berkeley. Plus, people in Utah are fucking nice. Cause in point: even though I wanted to call her a bitch, I didn’t. See? Super nice. 🙂

That’s the problem with groupthink, though. Utah and Berkeley are two great examples of how, when you get a high concentration of people who all believe roughly the same thing, they begin obsessively manifesting their in-group behaviors and try to outperform each other. Utahns do acts of service they don’t really want to do, are compulsively polite, and think wearing pantsuits to church is disrespectful to God. Berkeleyites shit their organic cotton trousers if you put a glass container in the green waste bin, randomly ask whether your diamond wedding ring is real because if it is you’re an asshole who kills children in mines in Africa, and all drive Priuses.

These are all good principles taken to the extreme. They all can lend to incredibly fucking self-righteous behavior. And IMHO, the reasons that make stereotyping minorities wrong still apply when you’re stereotyping a group of white Christians: You skim over all the good because you’re making stupid assumptions about the bad. Same same, but different.

I love visiting my people in Berkeley, but I’m always glad to leave and come back to the back-woodsy rednecks in SLC who drink shitty Starbucks coffee and don’t know the difference between Cinsault and Carignan. Utah’s weird, but it’s cool.

Next up: Los Angeles and San Diego.

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