Nov 28, 2006

The Road To Thanksgiving

Early Tuesday morning, Larry, my brother James and I drove to Colorado to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I grew up in Southern California, but home base is now Sedalia, Colorado, a little town half way between Denver and Colorado Springs. My sister Nancy, her husband Phill, and their four kids moved there in 2003, and my mother lives with them.

Larry and I are going to Salem, Oregon, to celebrate Christmas with his family, so this would be the only time we could be with my side. Finances are still an issue, so we decided to drive. Plus, Larry and I love road tripping. So does my brother James. But it's 1100 miles from West LA to Sedalia, Colorado, so the three of us were on the road by 5am in hopes to make it to Sedalia by midnight.

With no desire to head through the oppression of the Inland Empire, we decided to take the 405/5 to Palmdale, cut across the north side of the Angeles Crest Mountains, and hook up with I-15 at Victorville. From there it's straight through Vegas to the I-70, where you head across the Utah plains, through the Rockies, and on into Denver.

The first thing I noticed was the shocking stream of headlights coming south into LA. Cars streaming in, not just from the San Fernando Valley, but from Santa Clarita, Agua Dulce, Canyon Country (aka "tract homes in the middle of the desert"), and as far north as Lancaster, 70 miles north of West LA. There was that stream of white headlights, already thick and slowing by 5:30 am. This is the morning commute to LA.

When I was growing up, we used to trek out to Lancaster to see my uncle and grandmother. The space between Van Nuys and Lancaster was empty. Agua Dulce was nothing but a small outcropping of farms in between the arid nothingness.

Now the arid nothingness is jammed with tract homes. People can't afford to buy in LA or work in the desert. So they live in the desert, work in LA and commute up to 2 hours EACH WAY. You think that's bad? Think of the alternative: living in a 1960s building on Venice Blvd, or in one of those stucco 70s beehives abutting the 405, the ones with the neon banners boasting, "if you lived here, you'd be home now."

We cut over to the two-lane Pear Blossom Highway, which runs along the north side of the Angeles Crest Mountains. Quickly the scenery changes. There are still tract homes going up, but they're spotted between the spaces of the old life here: cowboy buildings: barn and ranch places, feed stores and old filling stations. Some just the foundation is left, as if the owners quit when the traffic started taking the interstates. There's a joint selling cactus jerkey and date shakes and snake skins. There are crosses with dead flowers along the road, indicating a place where someone died. It's only a two lane highway but the drivers have faster and bigger cars, and even bigger egos.

I used to drive this highway as well. There's a Benedictine abbey out here, and one summer I fancied myself a Benedictine, I drove out and told the monks my ideas and strange dreams. But that was back when I was just thirty years old, and my life stretched out in front of me.

We get into Las Vegas by 9:30. We hit a bit of traffic and mercifully move on. I hate Vegas. Hate it. All yellow lights and distraction. Vegas looks creepy in the daylight. It's just big buildings and slot machines. Gross.

The time is going by quickly. Larry and I love road tripping. And once we get past the eyesore of Vegas, it's just gorgeous territory, so there's plenty to look at. That, and the fact my brother keeps talking. Jim jockeys between facts about the road we're on and whatever else flows over the transom of his mind. Jim's IQ is off the charts, and his brain has kept track of everything he's heard. He's a walking encyclopedia of facts and factiods. He talks about Gnosticism, the pool chlorine that sweat out of him when he was doing yoga; where the wood for clarinets comes from. It's all fascinating, but after a while I long for silence. I put in my orange ear plugs, lie down and take a nap. When I wake up again, Larry and Jim are exchanging stories about dating women with "borderline personality disorder."

We reach the I-70 and head across Utah. The terrain turns otherworldly. Rocks jutting up, weathered and rounded over the millennia. Jim says one section is an ancient barrier reef that was once underwater. We talk about the fundamentalists who think the earth was created in seven days, starting 7,000 years ago. And we decide these people must not really take a good look at what's out here.

The sun is setting over the ancient barrier reef, the dust and the rocks turn colors, and the Rockies are looming in the east. I look out at the rock formations, the shades of red and green in the rocks and dust. I notice the way that the tectonic plates have shoved one over the other, millions of years ago, and I start to feel something I haven't felt in a while.

I feel awe.

That's the thing about us self-proclaimed sophisticates who live in our 1960s cubist blocks off of the 405 freeway. We're so caught up in tracking our ebbing careers and the Nielsen ratings, that we miss those things that the idiot commuters come home to every night. Beauty. Beauty that exists quite apart from Hollywood and commerce and man's piddly attempt to be immortal.

Jim points out that we are in the great western desert, that these little outcroppings of old horseshoe stores and curios are much more a part of Vegas than they are of LA. They are part of the culture of the Great American West. I am glad Jim and all his facts are along for the ride.

I'm also glad because I don't get to spend all that much time with my brother. Sure, we meet for yoga once and a while, or he calls to talk about this trip we are now taking. But right now it's my brother, with whom I share a history stretching back into my past; and Larry, with whom I'm forging a road into the future. Larry has heard me talk about aspects of my history, but now Larry gets to hear it from my brother's point of view. Larry gets to listen to Jim and I talk about it, parse it out in jokes and phrases and memories that are part of the Isaacs lexicon. Short hand words like "lonely childhood" and "lost opportunities" and regret.

After transversing a 100-mile stretch of no gas or food or lodging, we stop in Green River, Utah to get gas and coffee. The Sinclair Trucker Center has showers and laundry services, and a Burger King with big screen TVs. It also caters to the professional trucker, and as such sells all sorts of gadgets you can plug into a cigarette lighter: coffee makers and mini TVs and a small oven. Jim jokes about buying the oven and getting a head start on that Thanksgiving turkey.

When we were kids we did a lot of road trips with our dad. He took us on long family vacations, trips where we'd be in a car all day for three weeks. Dad said it was to show us the world, but I think he was trying to hang onto a time when he was God and we all still loved him. Sinclair will always remind me of Jim. When he was young, he loved the Sinclair mascot, a green dinosaur, and he fought to get my parents to buy him one of those green dinosaur stuffed animal. Maybe he was trying to hang onto a time when my father pretended to love him.

We hit Vail, Colorado by 9 pm, which means we should get into Sedalia by 11pm. The last two hours are long, and I try to nap.


My sister Nancy and her husband Phill moved to Colorado in 2003. A few families from their church in Northern California had already moved there. Phill is an accountant, and he went out to Castle Rock, Colorado to do one of those friend's books. I remember Nancy talking about it then, that she had the sense she should be ready to move. And sure enough, right before Thanksgiving 2003, they moved to Sedalia, with their four kids, two cats, my mother and my mother's two aging fox terrier dogs. They left to escape high home prices and the insanity of American pop culture, in hopes to find a simpler, more innocent way of life.

Sedalia proper is only about two square blocks of old west style storefronts, a filling station, and a mini mart. They've only got two traffic lights, and those are only there to reinforce the trains ... make sure those cowboy ranchers don't drive their pickups around the crossing arms when the 10-car coal trains come through.

The rest of Sedalia extends for several miles to the west. It's mostly ranches and farms, or homes with a little land so the owners can play rancher or farmer. Nancy and Phill bought a modest home on 5 acres, and they've got a barn with two goats and a chicken. They had four chickens earlier this year, but three of them got picked off by coyotes, like their cats eventually did. While we were driving out there, Phill, his dad, and their oldest son Matthew were digging a trench out to the barn to bring electricity and a motion detector to the barn, so their lone chicken could have a heat lamp and a running start in case another coyote came looking.

But we didn't get to see that until the next day. We arrived in Sedalia at 11:15 pm. The street that promised to take us from the highway to their house was blocked by a coal train. The northbound and southbound trains had ended up on the same track and were stalled in a Mexican standoff. We drove a few miles north and met Phill on a frontage road, handed my brother and his luggage off to Phill. Larry and I headed in to Castle Rock. Mom had bought Larry and me three nights at the Comfort Suites. Which was a good thing. As much as the Ericksons were anxious for us to spend Thanksgiving with them, the house could only hold so many people. And as much as Larry loved my family, he was also an introvert. So retreating to a motel with a mini fridge and free wi-fi was perfect for us. We checked in, took hot showers, caught up on our emails, and fell into bed.

We were awakened at 7:30 AM by a terse conversation outside our room. I peered out and saw a security guard having a discussion with the tenant of the room opposite ours. Something about who did what when. I shushed them and went back to sleep.

We were up for a slice of the Wild West. Just, not at 7:30 am.


Anonymous said...

like the new look of the blog, Suz.
Tell your mom I said hi and happy holidays!

EditNetwork said...

You're gonna inspire me to stop neglecting my blog until I have, er, important things to say -- er, record. There is no unimportant reflection, if felt strongly, and I have those all the time. End of reprimand to self.

If you love that kind of road trip with commentary, you would absolutely barking LOVE John McPhee's book, "Annals of the Former World." I recommend you simply buy it, because you will want to keep any copy you check out of a library.

And I'm trying to recall another book, about the origins and destiny of sprawl in this country; it's on the shelf in a room where Janice is still asleep at this ghastly hour, but writing this will remind me to cadge it for you.

Onward -- Paul H.

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