We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I- wait, sorry, that’s a story for another day.
The plan was to get together in the desert with my two best friends and celebrate the fact that we were all turning 40 this year. Palm Springs was proposed- but we were all too young to get in. I said why not Sedona, or the Grand Canyon? Or maybe the Monument Valley? Someone shouted why not all three? We told that hobo to get out of our tent but the idea stuck. Why not all three?
Planes landed in Phoenix and a rental Nissan Rogue pulled away from the airport, laden with snacks and recording gear. We were somehow going to record an album as we traveled across the wasteland. No one was sure how, but I’d brought duct tape. We stopped for a root beer float and then it was on across the vast expanse of desert separating Phoenix from any place you’d ever actually want to be.
North, because south is nothing but bleached bones and taquitos. North through arid sand, scrub, and napping coyotes. Then red rock all around and up, up, up through Ponderosa pine as the elevation climbs and the air cools down from “Oh God, how did I sunburn my tongue?” to mile-high crispness. Gradually the trees thin out and Gray Mountain looms as you cross over into the Navajo Nation reservation, then the dirt stretches flat and dirty through Tuba City and Tonalea, the rare awkward, makeshift buildings like scraps of Skylab that fell to the desert.
We stopped in Kayenta for gas and drinks and walked past the wild dogs roaming the parking lot, less a pack than a confluence, their eerie, stiff gaits betraying some hard dog life you can only imagine. As the only white faces in town, you alternate between trying to discern if the people are speaking Navajo or Hopi, and then feeling weird about throwing money around in front of these struggling people to buy your stupid electrolyte water.
Still north, keeping an eye out for the tribal police in their Chevy Tahoes as you speed along, and as night begins to fall the shadows of the mesas stretch long and ominous across the scrub, and ahead in the distance you see the outlines of the sandstone buttes that tell you the Monument Valley is at hand.
The Monument Valley is my favorite place on Earth. I’d stumbled across it the first time in 1997, on an insane solo drive from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. It’s the landscape you see in all the old John Ford westerns, the dramatic red buttes rising up out of the flat desert, the landscape from the Roadrunner cartoons and Krazy Kat and The Searchers and Back to the Future 3. I immediately got out and wandered around, not realizing the difference between “Highly Groomed American National Park” and “You’re on the reservation now and you’re on your own, white man” until I looked down and saw a huge snake slithering across my foot. No safety railings or wheelchair ramps here. After touring around all day, that night I pulled over by the side of the road and laid on the hood of my car to watch the stars, which unfolded with a richness I’d never seen before and haven’t since. There were as many points of light as there were points of black in the sky, and you could see into the depths of the different layers of the galaxy. After quite some time I noticed the stars appeared to be blinking on and off, on and off. So strange. How had I not noticed that before? Was it an optical illusion? Was it some quirk of light traveling millions of miles throughOH SHIT it’s 10,000 bats flying right over my head. Time to go.
I’d come back several times over the years, often staying at Goulding’s, the frontier trading post that had gradually morphed into a motel with a little restaurant and a museum. Every time, I fell in love with the energy of the place and the Navajo fry bread smothered in honey.
Tim and Scott had never been there before, so it was a thrill to introduce them to my favorite place. And since the last time I’d visited, the tribe had built a new hotel on the site of the old visitor center, much closer to the monuments than Goulding’s. They were renting out cabins right next to the buttes and we were all over that shit like honey on fry bread.
After we settled into the cabin the first night, I went for a walk to look at the moon. On my way back, up ahead on the trail four figures formed out of the darkness, heading slowly toward me. Wild horses. We passed each other casually within a few feet on the dirt trail. “S’up?” “S’up.” Clomp-clomp, clomp-clomp. Awesome.
Overnight the wind picked up and the little cabin tilted and swayed in the relentless winds, creak, sigh, creak, sigh.
In the morning we got up at dawn, took some photos off our front porch (which the horses were kind enough to show up for), and headed out for a run on the Wildcat Trail around the West Mitten Butte, one of the two famous monuments that look like swordfish. Just kidding, they look like left and right mittens. If you’re going to run at dawn, this is the dawn run to do, the sun coming up over the valley, just you and the birds and EEEEEEEEOOOOO okay I think there’s a donkey over there somewhere.
This was one of those days you look back at and wonder how in the world you possibly did so much in a single day. The answer is amphetamines. Noooo, the answer is getting up crazy early and not taking a nap.
We headed out on The Valley Drive loop, 17 miles of dirt road shenanigans through the heart of the Monument Valley, past everyone’s favorite rock formations like the Totem Pole, the Three Sisters, Elephant Butte, Rain God Mesa, The Thumb, and Snoopy Rock, which ancient Navajo shamen painstakingly carved to look like Snoopy taking a nap.
Halfway through we stopped to take a photo at John Ford’s Point, a rocky outcrop with a beautiful view overlooking the entire valley, which John Ford used to great effect to make a dude on a horse look dignified and not like he was waiting for cars to be invented. As many times as I’d been to the Monument Valley before, I’d apparently never been there during the windy season, and by this point in the day the wind was blowing somewhere between “hurricane strength” and “pulling your molecules apart to create a new Marvel superhero.”
I blundered out onto the outcropping, yanking my t-shirt down fiercely with one hand to keep it from being blown off up over my head, and leaned with my full weight into the wind to keep from being blown off the rock. I struggled to hold up my phone with both hands to take a picture, as the act of changing my posture twisted my body around sideways in the wind like a weathervane. Even keeping my eyes open was difficult as the wind was trying to crowbar itself between my eyelids and my eyeballs like an umbrella being yanked out of your hand on a blustery day. I finally yelled out something like “HOLY FUFKING MFFF-” as the wind shoved the rest of the words back down my throat and I waved my phone around blindly hitting the button like an incompetent movie henchman firing an Uzi, which I’ve heard is how Ansel Adams took all of his great Monument Valley photos. On the blind scramble back off the outcrop I passed a couple of laughing people who had been planning on doing the same thing until they saw what happened to me.
Nearby, when I could hear again, we stopped at a little Navajo shack to buy some fry bread. The people working inside were my favorite people I met on all of my summer travels, amazingly sweet, and they liked my shirt, so they were geniuses to boot. While they fried up the bread for us we attempted to kick around the hacky sack out front, which in the screaming winds was like trying to play badminton in a tornado. It was hilarious, and then the fry bread was soft and warm and delicious as the honey ran down into every crack and crevice of the rental SUV like Navajo Scotchguard. You’re welcome, Advantage Rent-a-Car.
After finishing the loop drive we headed further north, past Mexican Hat, to take in the snaking splendor of Goosenecks State Park:
Aside from never having been in the Monument Valley during the windy season before, I’d also never noticed that the actual monuments are on the Utah side of the border. So all of the people before my trip who said “Ugh, why are you going to Arizona?” the joke’s on you, you should have been saying “Ugh, why are you going to Utah?”
Southern Utah is the bee’s knees and all of his other joints thrown in for free. From Gooseneck we made our way to The Valley of the Gods, a rough and tumble dirt road route through more great sandstone monuments. On my first visit to the area back in ’97, I’d driven through the Valley of the Gods in my old beat to shit, multi-colored 1985 Honda Civic, which is a hilarious car to ford a stream in. The car had acquired a few quirks on that off-roading trip, one of which turned out to be a broken drive axle. Thankfully this time around there was no water in the stream and we were in a Nissan Rogue, which is in no way a pretend SUV marketed to teenage girls. It ate up racing through those snaking, dipping, roller-coaster curves no problem, and we only bottomed out the suspension a few times. You’re welcome, Advantage Rent-a-Car.
The last time I’d been on this road it had been as a passenger in a Ford Thunderbird, with my brother driving way faster than is advisable. All I remember is saying “Oh Shit!” a bunch of times. This time I remember saying more things like “Get that piece of shit van out of the way!” and “Why is the dashboard sticky?” It was a great drive.
At the other end of the loop we turned right to head further north and somehow passed signs for the same towns we’d passed on the way up, convincing all three of us that we’d off-roaded our way into the Twilight Zone. Thankfully we’d got a paper map off a Denny’s kid’s meal placemat or something and used that to figure out that the Valley of the Gods road wasn’t actually a loop like I remembered, and we’d come out the other side onto a totally different highway. Whoopsie doodle. No worries, the desert was made for U-turns.
We made our way north to the Moki Dugway, which was about to shoot to the top of my list of favorite roads. Moki is what the Spanish explorers called the Hopi Indians, which I’m not sure was a compliment since it means “dead people.” A dugway is a switchback road carved into a cliff face. The Moki Dugway had been carved in the 1950s by the Texas Zinc mining company, to transport uranium ore from the Happy Jack mine down to Mexican Hat, which is a town near a big rock that looks like a dude wearing a sombrero. The problem was that there’s a 1,200 foot cliff in the way, so three miles of dugway was carved right into the cliff face. It’s pretty bizarre and awesome to be driving on US-261, the main highway through the area, and then all of a sudden it slams right into a huge cliff and you find yourself winding up a dirt road scratched into the face of it, swerving around copious fallen rock as the road winds back and forth like a collapsed accordion, climbing the steep slopes with no guardrails and a view that becomes relentlessly more epic as you climb higher and higher.
I think the story of the road would be a bit like Rashomon depending on who you asked to tell it.
Driver: Very fun, best road ever!
Passengers: Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…
Once we got to the top, I asked Tim in the back seat what he thought of the road and he said “Yeah, as long as I never have to ride on it again, it’s cool.” There was a pause before I pointed out we’d have to drive back down the same route on our way back. “Oh.”
At the top of the Dugway, down a hidden little dirt road and over some goliath rocks that I only scraped the bottom of the Rogue on once or twice, there is Muley Point. Which is, at the time of this writing, the best view in the world. From this remote cliff overlook, the vast expanse rolls out ahead of you as if you can see the entire world. You realize this technically can’t be possible, and you must be only seeing half of Utah and all of Arizona below of you, the Valley of the Gods to your left, the Monument Valley way off in the distance. You can see forever, and you’d want to stay forever, if the wind wasn’t grabbing you by the ass and attempting to fling you off the cliff and into the void. I sat like a spider, trying to grip the rock with my feet, my hands, and my clenched ass cheeks. I’ve never felt quite so conflicted between the desire to enjoy something and the desire to not be killed by something before.
On the plateau up above we visited Natural Bridges National Monument, which beat a sharp poke in the eye but was slightly anti-climactic in terms of the ratio of splendorous beauty to wind cutting through you like piss through snow.
We made our way back down the Moki Dugway, me balancing my desire to take in the view on a knife’s edge with my desire to not miss a turn and drive us all off the cliff, and headed back down to the Monument Valley. We made a trip over to Goulding’s to see the museum and all the artifacts from frontier days, as well as the room full of memorabilia from all the movies filmed there. “This is the diaper Clint Eastwood wore while climbing the Totem Pole for The Eiger Sanction.” Nice! Back to the new hotel for a dinner of Navajo tacos (fry bread covered in beans and shredded lettuce, I don’t think the Navajos actually ate tacos but okay Chief Running Tab). Outside the moon was orange like the Great Pumpkin rising through the air with its bag of toys for all the children. This was confounding for a moment before we realized that the orange was from all of the dust the wind had been kicking up into the atmosphere all day long.
We headed out of town and away from the lights to see the amazing stars I had been rambling on about for years, but of course they were nowhere to be seen because the moon was full and bright and wanted the sky all to itself. So instead we made our way back to the cabin, set up the recording gear, and recorded some strange cabin music.
The next morning we were back up at dawn for another Wildcat Train run, which for me became a hike because the scenery was going by too fast. After breakfast in the lodge we headed out to mile marker 13 on highway 163, the famous spot where Forest Gump stops running across the country, the Monument Valley looming on the horizon behind him, and decides he wants to eat shrimp or whatever happened after that in that movie. There we joined all the other people running up the street and taking pictures of each other and trying not to get killed by oncoming traffic.
From there it was Southwest to the Grand Canyon, with of course a stop at the Hogan Family Restaurant in Tuba City for yet more Navajo tacos and a men’s room toilet that for some reason wasn’t bolted to the floor, providing thrills like one of those mechanical bulls in a country and western bar. Is there a song on the album called “Wobbly Shitter”? Yes. Yes there is.
The drive from the Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon was musical mayhem, with Tim yelling into a microphone duct-taped to the dash behind the steering wheel, Scott making an iPad keyboard go WAAGAGAGAGAGAGAGAAAA and me, strewn across the back seat, one foot against the window, playing guitar and manning the iPhone drum app and the battery-powered recorder as it snaked its cable tendrils all over the car and pumped its cries out through the car speakers all around us. “♫I’M COSTA RICA BOUND!!!♫” There is no genre for this.
We’d secured a cabin right off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which was wonderful, even though I had to park the car two miles away by an elk and hike back. After a luxurious dinner in the El Tovar dining room we set up the gear inside and jammed late into the night, something I’m sure our neighbors enjoyed as I realized later we’d left the bathroom window open. Tim sang all his lyrics from bed since we’re getting old and somehow no park rangers came to join in.
I set an alarm for just before dawn and we trundled out into the “Damn Arizona since when are you cold?” to watch a glorious sunrise over the canyon. From there we geared up and spent the day hiking down into the canyon on the Bright Angel trail. I say hike... Scott and I hiked, Tim ran most of it because he’s loco but according to Bobby Brown that’s his choice. It was one of those great “Let’s talk about life and what it means” hikes, and of course hiking downhill always makes you feel invincible. The weather was practically Icelandic, as it cycled between clear skies, ominous clouds, frigid rain, snow, and back to warm clear skies. We passed through Indian Gardens and decided to hike on out to Plateau Point, the ledge overlooking the river that you could see off in the distance the whole hike down, where the trail abruptly stops like Where the Sidewalk Ends. We hiked past all the bizarre alien cactus and on out, as the weather cycled above us like time-lapse footage sped up.
As we approached Plateau Point, the weather made up its mind and decided it wanted to be just like the end of the world, and all hell broke loose around us. The wind came in completely sideways and carried hail with it, direction became disorienting as the hail seemed to be falling up at times. The sky was dark and the clouds descended until we were in the midst of them, battered by rain and rocks of ice. The timing was perfect for this to be the price of admission to the amazing view from the Point, as the Colorado River raged just beneath us and the canyon walls stretched up around us on all sides, clouds sliding between them like giant ships in a canal. We clung to the overlook railing as the wind shouted “YOU SHOULD JUMP OFF INTO THE RIVER IT’S REALLY QUITE NICE HERE LET ME HELP YOU.”
This being my second “I really want to take in this view forever/I really don’t want to die here” moment of the trip, I decided to see what else there was to see before we headed back up to drier ground. I climbed down the cliff face a ways and around the corner in the screaming wind until I could see further down into the valley. There, an incredible waterfall shot out of a giant crevice in the rock, shooting water far out into space before it cascaded down to the valley floor. I badly wanted to get a picture of this, but when I took my phone out and tried to hold it up, it acted like a sail in the wind and tried to violently yank me off the cliff face. I tried to hold it in closer to my body but nope, you should’ve bought a smaller phone if you wanted to take photos while hanging off the side of a cliff, bub. I looked up and Tim and Scott were at the railing up above. “What are you doing down there?” “You guys should climb down, there’s an amazing waterfall!” “Uhm, hell no!” Okay, fine.
On the way back up we stopped at Indian Gardens and debated about hiking the rest of the way down to the river, weighing the severe thunderstorm warning against how cool it would be to hike the entire canyon in one day. I was all for doing it, but a well-timed thunderclap made up our minds for us and we headed back up. Which ended up being the wise choice both due to the weather and because I’d massively underestimated how the altitude change on the hike back up would chew up my butt like bubblegum.
Back up top we had lunch in the Arizona Dining Room as our bodies stiffened up to immobility. I did manage to walk over and take a picture of a weird emergency light they had on the wall that looked like a robot face, which completely confused everyone sitting at that table for a solid hour afterwards since they couldn’t figure out what I’d taken a picture of:
From there it was a stiff, arthritic hop, skip and a jump down to our AirBnB palace down in Sedona.
Sedona was a wondrous blur of great hikes, jamming late into the night, and eating at Picazzo’s at least seven times. The AirBnB house was fantastic as a concert hall, out in the woods with floor to ceiling windows and all sorts of bizarre rustic charms.
My room was Western themed and had a framed poster from a movie called Apache Territory, which was about our hero Rory Calhoun infiltrating Apache land and killing all those bastards so we could have it. It also had bunk beds.
We hiked to the energy vortex on Bell Rock, following the winding corkscrew path up around and around the butte that may have just been me making up a path for part of it. Some enjoy the great view by staring out across it all steely-eyed, others enjoy it by napping on the rocks.
Another day we hiked Boynton Canyon, through the western woods, slot canyons, red rock cliffs to the box canyon at the end of the trail. Walking back alone along the trail, I felt my sense of self expand beyond my body and into the trees and rocks around me. All was silent. Boynton Canyon is famous for UFO sightings, though those may just be hikers who left their bodies behind temporarily.
We toured the Church of the Red Rocks, a crazy church built into the rock face. The chapel had a really nice vibe to it and a broken window that suggested some kind of bird had agreed. Beneath there was a strange gift shop stocked with assorted religious effluvia.
On Tim’s birthday we got kicked out of the crystal room at Crystal Magic and played hacky sack at Sunset Park with a little native kid as a little league game raged nearby. He told us we were cool and asked if that was our red car. It was not. In the parking lot we met an adorable bulldog puppy that I wish I’d voted for in the Democratic caucus.
We took a day to drive up to Flagstaff and get lost in the disc golf course up there, then had my favorite meal of the trip and maybe my life at Red Curry downtown.
The lemongrass ginger tea came out first and it was light in a way I’d never experienced in tea. Hmm. This is the best tea I’ve ever had. I asked the waiter where I could buy some. “They make it in the back.” Hmm.
Out came our Massaman curry and red curry and battered fried golden bananas. Everything was delicious, but beyond that it had an energetic quality that felt incredible. By the end of the meal I felt like I’d just spent three hours meditating. I wanted to do a cartwheel out the door. I’d never experienced this with food before.
Was the cook following some kind of arcane spiritual practice? I’d heard of groups that pray over their food, chant over their food, bless the food, etc. Some save food preparation for their most spiritually-accomplished members. The waiter did not have any deep insights into the mystical secrets of Red Curry Vegan Kitchen’s food preparation. “I don’t know what they do back there.”
I wish I’d pushed this more, barging into the kitchen to catch the cooks having beautiful sex on top of the Pad Thai. Instead when I got home I started reading books on the spiritual properties of food and traipsed far down that path into structuring my own water and working with crystals, Ormus and orgonite. This has been a great experience but I’m still not sure what they were doing back there in that kitchen.
We bounced next door into Sacred Rites and poured ourselves into their sound therapy chairs, bizarre curved rocking chairs with harp strings built into them. As someone plucks the strings, the sound reverberates through your entire body like you climbed inside a guitar. The effect is cleansing and sublime, even if you haven’t just eaten pure love next door. I would have brought one of the chairs home with me if it wasn’t for Delta’s goddamned baggage policy.
As the week wound by we got the album recorded (mixing it is my next project once this blog is done), somehow drove all the way back to Flagstaff just for Indian food one night, and managed to leave all the lights on in the AirBnB house every single time we left.
Our last morning we drove down to Phoenix with the music up loud, dropped Scott off for his flight, and Tim and I were waiting at Green New American when they came to open it for the day, pounding the magical delicious vegan-friendly fast food before jetting back full and satisfied for our own flights home. As we pulled up to the rental car return I realized we still had the microphone duct-taped to the dash, I ripped that off and gave the gummy residue a quick “Eh, who gives a shit” before stuffing everything into my bag. I stepped out of the car as suavely as a man can suave, and the rental car agent said hi and asked me why I was holding a roll of duct tape. D’oh! I said something about Nissan not being what it used to be and proceeded to kick away the 12,000 empty La Croix cans that fell out of the car when I opened the back door.
We hustled our luggage out of the car and up the escalator and through the rental car terminus out to the buses waiting to take us to our separate terminals. Tim and I said our warm goodbyes, hugs, what a great trip, etc, and boarded our buses. My bus pulled away on its way to the airport a mile or two away, as I leaned back and fondly remembered the antics of the trip. What a greatOH MY GOD WHERE IS MY GUITAR? Scanning, scanning, scanning, Oh shit it’s still in the rental car. I screamed some gibberish and the bus driver stopped out of fear for his life as I hopped out and ran back to the rental car building. I’ll keep up the pulse-pounding excitement of this story by not mentioning that I got totally lost and went to the wrong floor and wandered through the Avis fleet for a while before I figured out what was going on. Finally found the car in the “This Shit Needs to Be Febrezed” lane, thankfully unlocked, and there was my guitar in its black gig bag against the black upholstery in the dimly lit rental garage. I grabbed my guitar, said “Jesus, What?” as I accidentally reached into the remains of what we were affectionately calling “Tim’s AIDS Bag” full of snotty Kleenex from when he had a cold the first few days of the trip on the floor of the car, and headed home.
On the flight back to MN the old guy sitting next to me was a US diplomat to Afghanistan who taught me the ins and outs of stock investing and how jet engines work (??) and how he can’t play guitar any more ever since getting shot in the hand in Vietnam. Then it was get home, do a load of laundry, repack my bag very poorly, go to work for a few hours, then get on a plane to Iceland. Whew.
Toward the end of my month overseas, my sister, who had flown back to the US with her boyfriend to help our mom prepare a funeral for our departed grandpa, texted us to let us know she and her boyfriend were going to get married on the day of the funeral because this was somehow easier than getting married in the UK. So this was like two days of notice that I needed to somehow get to Northern California from England or else miss the biggest single day in family history. Priceline was no help, which meant Icelandair was no help, but after staying up all night on Kayak I finally found an itinerary that would turn my original flight back to Minneapolis into a London-Reykjavik-Minneapolis-Chicago-San Francisco-Arcata 36 hour travel gauntlet nightmare for only several hundred dollars. Lucky day!
My flight out of Gatwick in London was delayed for a few hours, which of course was no problem because it’s not like my whole itinerary was an insanely complicated clockwork of moving parts that fit together precisely with no time to spare or anything. The only reason I made my connection in Reykjavik at all was that my departing flight was using the same plane I’d arrived on. So after picking up the “two sheep screaming at each other” refrigerator magnet I’d regretted not picking up while I was in Iceland at the other end of the trip, I was back on the plane and off to America.
Landing in Minneapolis, I had a tight turn-around to make my next flight to Chicago, helped not at all by needing to go through immigration control and be smelled by dogs to make sure I hadn’t been radicalized into the Icelandic branch of ISIS, known as IceIS. Finally getting through and getting my bag, I realized very belatedly that I was in the wrong airport. Domestic flights go out of the other Minneapolis airport, oh balls. Ran to the light rail station, just missing the train. Spent 15 minutes appreciating England’s “every two minutes” trains as I waited for the next one. Piled on with a gaggle of 16 year old girls who were going to Las Vegas to get started on some unwanted pregnancies. They told the old guy sitting next to me that they were flying Spirit Airlines, and he mentioned that he was pretty sure Spirit flew out of the international terminal (the one we’d just left). They said whatever old man. I’d flown on Spirit a year or two ago and it had indeed left out of the international terminal, but this was none of my business. Or was it? They were running late, should I tell them?
We got off at the domestic terminal and the girls were arguing amongst themselves which terminal they were supposed to be at. Okay, fine, I walked over and told them that Spirit actually does fly out of the other terminal. They said oh shit, piled back into onto the train, and headed back. My good deed for the day done, I headed up the walkway into the airport, turned the corner, and saw a sign saying Spirit Airlines had moved to the domestic terminal in January. Oh shit.
Sorry ladies! If it’s any consolation, it’s true that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, including unchaperoned 16 year old girls who end up in a dumpster.
Thankfully I didn’t have time to feel guilty about this, since my flight was scheduled to leave that very minute, so I hustled through security and ran across the whole damned airport with my shoes untied hoping to still make my flight to Chicago.
The gate was jam packed full of people, and when I asked the agent if I’d missed my flight, she told me the good/bad news. Nope, but it was because there was a huge storm in Chicago and all of O’Hare was on ground stop, nothing was arriving or leaving, and there was no ETA for a change. I walked over to a line of people waiting at the next gate over, also for Chicago, to ask if I could get on that flight. I started talking to the guy in front of me, who mentioned that he and everyone else in that line had been waiting to get on their plane to Chicago since when it was supposed to leave, six hours ago. And now they were trying to get on my flight instead. Oh! Okay then!
Getting into Chicago late would mean I would miss my 2am flight into San Francisco, where my brother was waiting with a rental car to drive us six hours north to our mom’s place in Arcata where the funeral was going to be at 10am that morning. I scoured all the apps I had for alternate routes, but there weren’t any. There wasn’t anything else getting into San Francisco early enough, and the only flights into Arcata got there two hours after the funeral. So, there was no getting off this ride.
Eventually an hour or so later they let us board the plane, and I got a notification that my flight into San Francisco had been delayed just enough that we were just going to make it! Woohoo! Then we sat on the runway for 45 minutes, not moving. Balls. Took off, captain says it looks like we’re going to make up some time along the way! Then a bit later, sorry, we had headwinds, we’re actually going to be a little late. I was on about 27 hours without sleep at this point. We landed 15 minutes after the San Francisco flight was supposed to take off. Oh well, it was a good try- then my phone connected with an update saying the SF flight had been delayed 20 minutes! Oh crap, I might just make it if the gate’s not too far away. Maybe. Then we taxied for five minutes. Shit. New update, SF flight delayed 5 more minutes! Wow- taxi 5 more minutes. Oh. Delay! Taxi. Delay! Taxi. Finally we stopped and the door opened and I waited the excruciating minutes to get off from the very back of the plane, behind a parade of old people and people traveling with infants. Got out into the terminal, looked at my phone, and the SF flight was leaving in 2 minutes. Run. RUN!
My flight was leaving from the opposite end of the next terminal over, so I flat out sprinted the entire way. Not the “Oh jeez I’m late” airport jog where you don’t want to be embarrassed or get tackled by a security guard, this was the “This is the speed I use to run away from dinosaurs and Richard Simmons” top gear. Through the underground George Gershwin trip-out tunnel, up the stairs, down down down to the last gate at the end. Wheeled up juuuuust as they were closing the door, completely out of breath and sweating profusely. I fumbled my phone onto the boarding pass scanner, and the gate agent says “Whew, you just made it!” I opened my mouth and almost threw up all over her.
Got to my seat, it’s a middle seat, apologized to my seatmates that I was sweating like Scott Baio in church, and hunkered in. Jesus. How did I make that?
Aster was waiting for me at SFO with this ludicrous Cadillac SUV he’d rented to give a touch of class to Amber and Alex’s nuptials. We drove through the night, the back seat packed with delicious snacks my brother had gathered while he was waiting for my flight because he is wonderful, and my phone cradled in the Cadillac’s air-conditioned, backlit phone coffin in the dash. On the drive Aster attempted to practice the bible hymn he was supposed to sing at the service, which he’d never heard before, as I tried (but failed) to not distract him by not humming the melody from In a Gadda Da Vida the whole time. Around 8:30 we got to our mom’s house, where I took a supremely overdue shower and my brother and I changed into the dress shirts our mom had bought us off the back of a truck since neither of us had had dress clothes with us in Europe. I was still in my bright orange minimalist trail runners, but fuck it, George picked the wrong family to die in if he wanted to see nice shoes at his funeral.
George lived a complicated life… actually scratch that, George lived the very simple life of a man who lived for himself and loved gambling and booze and the ladies. I’d seen him maybe twice growing up, though in recent years I’d spent some time with him each year at Christmas, partnering with him in the worst game of charades ever played (“The Golden Girls.” “Grandpa, you can’t just read the card out loud, you have to act it out so I can guess it.” “Oh. *next card* Saved By The Bell.”) and surviving him holding the family hostage with his endless Lifetime Channel movies that he would only wake up from if you turned off the TV or changed the channel. “Who turned off my movie?!” “You were sleeping through it grandpa. It’s 3am and I need to sleep on the couch here.” “But that one had Cheryl Ladd!”
My mom summed it up well and humorously in his obituary, which ended up going viral online, which inspired an article about the obituary in the San Diego Tribune, which was ironic since we couldn’t afford to get his obituary published in the Tribune in the first place:https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2016/may/20/obituary-george-odonnell-1929-2016/
This is not a lifestyle designed to maximize your funeral attendance, and it was just us siblings, our mom and stepdad, and George’s one true friend Dave at the service. The priest kept waiting for more people to show up and we had to assure him that dude, this is it. The service was to be performed my Aster, Amber and I, which was hilarious because none of us are Catholic in the least and we had no idea what we were doing. I think my mom had to lie to the priest, telling him we were Catholic, so that we’d be allowed to perform the ceremony. Which I’m sure is one of those sins you can just pay a fine for in Catholicism. I think the priest may have caught on though when I went to take communion and tried the take the wafer with my hand, like “Thanks, I’ll save this for later” and then when he put it in my mouth I said something like “Jesus Christ, this tastes like a postage stamp!”
The complete inappropriateness of our participation aside, Aster rocked the shit out of that song, singing it to his heart’s own melody, Amber brought the very small congregation to tears with her eulogy, and I think I read the right page out of the bible. When I got back to the pew, Aster was laughing. I asked him why and he said “That was the most casual liturgy I’ve ever seen. You were leaning on the podium. It looked like you were ordering takeout!”
The only awkward part was when the priest spoke, giving his boilerplate eulogy for someone he didn’t know at all. “George, like Jesus, sacrificed for those he loved.” *looks to us for nods of agreement* Oooooh, awkward! We all grimaced and gave the waving your hand in front of your throat “Cut!” sign for him to skip over this part. The ceremony was redeemed however by the honor guard presenting our mom with a complicatedly-folded flag in honor of George’s service in Korea, if you can sit through that with a dry eye you’re made of tougher flubber than me.
After the service we sat with George’s friend Dave as he regaled us with stories of a younger George’s antics. “I was golfing with your grandma when George drove up with his girlfriend in the front seat!” Dave actually had to do the “Oh My God Biff, look, an airplane!” trick to keep our grandma from discovering one of grandpa’s many affairs. Oh, you 1960s.
That afternoon we drove out to the Rockefeller grove deep in the giant redwood forest. My mom and I had found this great grove of trees while hiking through the forest at Christmas time, and Amber and Alex had decided that’s where they wanted to get married. Sure, to get there you have to climb across a huge log spanning a river, but wedding clothes are made for that, right?
Once we’d found the right spot, Aster performed the ceremony because apparently he’s internet-ordained as a minister or something, which was news to me. It was a great ceremony, they wrote their own vows and it was all very heartfelt and lovely. Shafts of sunlight streamed through the trees as we laid a blanket on the ground and enjoyed a reception of Fritos and Wagon Wheel chocolates. For anyone about to spend $30,000 on a wedding: You’re doing it wrong. This was my favorite wedding I’ve ever been to.
Some time that night I laid my head down for the first time in 48 hours and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. I remember the next few days in fragments. Aster’s girlfriend Libby flew out from England and we introduced her to what America is all about:
We saw a kinetic sculpture race. I went hiking in Fern Canyon where the dude is eaten by the tiny dinosaurs in Jurassic Park 2. I saw someone juggle like 10,000 hula-hoops with her butt. And then before I knew it, I was on a plane drifting through the sky and back home at long last. It was strange getting home after six weeks away and so many miles covered. At a certain point on the trip, when someone would ask me what I did, I had to struggle for a second to remember. “I think I just drive around and take pictures of things?” That can’t be right…
The next day at work my phone buzzed and it was an email from my mom. It just said “2 Weddings and a Funeral” attached to a picture of Aster and Libby getting married on the beach. I guess my mom is apparently internet-ordained as a minister or something. Which was news to me.