I don’t want to die today.
I don’t want to die today.
I don’t want to die today.
As we sped down a mountainside in eastern Oregon that was the mantra screaming through my head. The weather was Great Lakes snowbelt shitty but the road we were winding this way and that way on for the last 15 miles was downhill all the way with no shoulders to pull over on and let Brian take a break. We were going down, down, down chased all the way by transport trucks raging down the mountainside. They were better equipped for the conditions and they could care less about slowing down.
Brian, our token American travelling companion, was doing a good job of keeping my wife Heidi and I on the road, but he was white knuckling it, gripping the stirring wheel for dear life, nails biting into the leather. This wasn’t his car and he wasn’t used to how it handled. Having grown up in Redondo Beach, he’s an expert driver under the California sun, but not in a blizzard on the side of a mountain.
Heidi and I have much more experience driving in snow, but we’re used to doing it where the horizon is visible, and the world is a level playing field. Even if we could have jumped into the driver’s seat, none of us was prepared for winter driving on a decline that seemed like it would last forever.
Just as we were preparing for death to embrace us the twists became fewer and the road started to flatten out. We were now safely in the middle of Oregon. Brian had relocated to the valleys in central Oregon to raise his family almost 15 years ago.
“Too many guns in the Los Angeles area,” Brian once told me.
It’s not that Brian is anti-gun, he’s got some good old gun-loving American blood in his veins. It’s just that he prefers when people get drunk and shoot guns in the woods “at f**k all” rather than when people shoot guns at each other.
It just so happens we scheduled our trip when all the cities along I-5 in central Oregon were getting hit with unseasonably cold weather. Meanwhile back at home, our daughter was reporting Ontario was getting hit with unseasonably warm weather that brought February rains and flooding.
Don’t worry though, our whole vacation wasn’t death-defying downhill stretches of gnarly weather with gun-loving Americans at the wheel. We drove too.
The border crossing, for instance, was one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. A friendly homeland security agent waved us on so quickly I was dumbfounded at first. I almost stayed there waiting for the order to pull over for a search. After a moment’s hesitation, I realized we were free to go. I drove away wondering if my hesitation made the agent suspicious. There was no reason for us to be nervous, but you know, border crossings, they make us all nervous, don’t they?
Ten minutes later we were relaxing in a booth in Powers Diner on Military Street in Port Huron. Powers is a retro diner with a 1950s feel, chrome motif, and cheap food that tastes damn good. It’s a friendly place for coffee, a greasy breakfast, and acclimation to America,
Rolling across the rough roads of Michigan let us know we weren’t in Ontario anymore … thump … thump …thump … thump … thump.
We arrived in the Saturday afternoon traffic and toll road mess of Chicago. We probably could have googled a toll-free route, but we had to get to O’Hare to meet Brian’s 4 p.m. flight. We had no time for indirect navigation.
After dumping a small fortune in American change into automated tollbooths we arrived at the final toll before the airport with only Canadian change left.
No matter how many Canadian coins we tossed in as cars backed up behind us the coin-eating machine was not satisfied. Finally, we just drove on letting the toll become an online headache Heidi took care of once we arrived at the motel. If we would have known we could have just taken care of it online we would have saved another small fortune in Canadian coins. We were feeding everything we could dig up, from nickels to toonies into the beast trying to get permission to leave.
We settled in at the Ramada Plaza motel in Wheeling and enjoyed our first authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza. At least I think it was authentic – there is always someone who will tell you of a better place and come to think of it I don’t remember the name of the place we got it at. It was damn fine pizza and it was close to the motel and that’s all we cared about after a long drive.
Brian, a west coast man, born and bred, had never flown into a city east of the mountain ranges during winter, so he wondered why we were surrounded by dead forests.
“It was like looking down on Mordor as the plane came into land,” he said.
Heidi and I laughed hard at this remark. He was probably just teasing us with some strange humour that grows in cities where it rains all winter. Now that’s weird. Little did we know that it wasn’t rain that waited for us in Brian’s neck of the woods.
This whole trip was planned around three rock concerts. Saturday night Brian and I were going to see Screeching Weasel and CJ Ramone at Reggie’s Music Joint in Chicago, Wednesday we’d all be seeing the first night of Burger Records Burger-A-Go-Go tour at the Hi-fi Music Hall in Eugene, Ore. and then a couple of days later we were supposed to see the incredibly energetic gypsy rock band Gogol Bordello in Bend, Ore.
Some people attribute Napoleon Bonaparte with the adage that an army travels on their stomachs, I travel on my ears. I’ve been feeding my heart and soul the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll for the better part of my 40 some odd years of life. As soon as I realized I could seek out and connect with the people making music as a teenager, I immersed myself in the underbelly of rock ‘n’ roll. One of those bands I really connected with was Screeching Weasel. Every record they released was packed with songs that spoke of what I was dealing with from teen angst and mental illness to middle age and raising children. The story of my life has often been reflected in polished pop and angry hardcore punk rock songs crafted by a guy with a reputation for being an asshole who calls himself Ben Weasel.
By the time the bands started playing, Reggie’s Music Joint was bursting at the seams. I swear the show was oversold. It was the second of two shows being filmed for a documentary My Right: The Screeching Weasel Story happening that weekend. Brian had flown in from the west coast, the woman squished against me on the left had travelled from New York City. The audience was made up of old fans, young fans, locals and people who had travelled from other continents to see a band that is the alpha and omega for us devoted freaks and has floated under the radar to normal people for their career which is entering its fourth decade.
CJ Ramone took the stage first to bash out some classic Ramones songs and his solo songs which are quality songs, but essentially, they are just more Ramones songs. Hey, when you’ve got a quality formula, why f**k with it.
Halfway through the set CJ took a break for some banter.
“How many of you out there tonight served in the military?” CJ is an ex-marine.
There was an awkward murmur from the capacity crowd.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
I don’t think it was a show-stopping moment but the “thank me for your freedom” moment put off some of the audience. I don’t know whether CJ ever won them back, but all was OK the moment Ben Weasel and his band hit the stage.
The sweaty mass communing in the rock ‘n’ roll cathedral on State Street in Chicago known as Reggie’s Music Joint were treated to almost two hours of music filled with the secret anthems that bring them together. By the time Ben ended their closing song “Cool Kids,” an outsider hymn which was even blessed by the powers that be by being deemed worthy of inclusion in a Simpsons episode, the crowd was satisfied to know the outside world “is a real cool club and you’ll never be a part of it.”
The next day we found ourselves tripping through middle America trying to digest the meaning of T-shirts cross promoting gun culture and Christian values. I would think these things would be mutually exclusive, but God bless those who don’t. We were off for another long haul to the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri to catch up with a faux Paul McCartney, Dave Tanner. Dave grew up in my hometown, in fact, he bought his first bass guitar from me. Now he makes his living playing Paul McCartney in Beatles tribute bands. It’s a fascinating life this Canadian ex-pat leads, living with his wife Jamie and their cats Pepper and Rocky, in Missouri and then travelling around North America, and a few cruise ships, being a fake-Beatle to bring home the bacon.
As soon as we had caught up with Dave we were back on the road, no time for excess shit shooting on this adventure. There was no time to spare if we were to get to the next concert in Eugene, Ore. on time.
It was all smooth sailing with some biscuits and gravy on the side until we were rising out of Kansas into Colorado. We were hoping to at least reach Denver before we slept but the weather wasn’t agreeable. Powdery mountain snow was being tossed around by transport trucks creating white-out conditions lasting two or three minutes at a time. This made night driving a deadly proposition. I turned back at the next off ramp and we found accommodations at a lower elevation. That was the first time on the trip winter raised its wicked head and it would not be the last.
As the stormy weather raged outside we tried to relax in the motel pool. Swimming kept our minds off the fact we had to make up a lot of miles the next day and we weren’t sure the weather would be any better. It was still over 20 hours to Eugene in good conditions. Even though we knew there would be a lot of long drives when we planned this trip we wanted to take some time to absorb American, not just buzz through it.
Cruising through Wyoming was a mixed bag of clear weather and terrifying windswept plateaus where snow and ice had formed a dangerous crust a few inches thick causing traffic to slow down. Well, all the traffic except those damn transport trucks. I know they are the backbone of America but how about making sure we all arrive alive.
In the barren, frigid white Wyoming wasteland, near the highest point on all I-80 a 30-foot tall President Lincoln statue greeted us as we took a break from driving at Summit Rest Stop. A crust of white snow and ice dripped from his lonely head as he kept an eye on travellers crisscrossing the United States.
We decided to press on to Jerome, Idaho where we booked a room at some cheap motel using an app. It would leave us within a comfortable driving distance to Eugene the next day. However, we were not able to contact the motel to let them know we were going to be arriving late. We were met with a locked door upon arrival and still received no reply when we tried the contact number for the motel. There was no way we were wasting money on a chain motel for three or four hours sleep. It was like playing Goldilocks as we hunted down an open motel in the area priced in the range we wanted, which was right next to nothing. Finally, at about 3 a.m. we found one that was open and just right, meaning we got our three or four hours sleep for a little over $30 American. The owner was just having one last smoke before closing for the night when we arrived.
The next morning, we were off, feeding the gas tank at a truck stop where we were informed by many bumper stickers “You’re in gun country now.” Funny, I thought we were in gun country as soon as we crossed the border.
We finally made it to Brian’s house on Wednesday afternoon. Other than the terrifying threat of death Oregon was a beautiful destination. It would have been a gorgeous place to expire surrounded by lakes, streams and green vibrant foliage. This was no Mordor-looking place to dwell. Brian’s comments about flying into Chicago made perfect sense.
The second rock ‘n’ roll adventure of our trip started a few hours after arrival. This time it was Heidi’s rock ‘n’ roll drug of choice The Coathangers that were to be the highlight of the evening.
With Rusty’s pounding drum beats smothered with Minnie’s precise bass and Crook Kid’s guitar hooks these three women create a garage rock sound that will, as they say in their own lyrics, “break your f*****g face.”
The Coathangers were the inspiration for driving over 2,500 miles from our comfortable Canadian home and the show they put on did nothing to make us regret our decision.
Maybe the Eugene area music fans did not share our excitement for the band because the music hall was only half full. The people who did attend were enthusiastic and the bands were well received. The Flytraps, Feels and Death Valley Girls were all younger bands that were new to Heidi and me but there was not a dud in the bunch. It was a solid night of garage rock.
To me, Eugene deserves the reputation Portland has garnered as a mecca for hipster and weirdos. It’s a comfortable city full of artists and musicians who swallowed me up and accepted me. It’s my home away from home but there is one thing Portland has that Eugene doesn’t – Powell’s City of Books.
I had to take Heidi there. It was imperative. I must share Powell’s with everyone. Take about six, or maybe even seven Chapters stores and pile them all in one building. Mix high quality used hard-to-find books with new books and you have a destination anyone who loves the written word cannot afford to miss.
So, a day wandering Portland which really turned out to be a day wandering Powell’s City of Books, eating Voodoo Doughnuts, and getting some time alone with Heidi was how Thursday went. Brian stayed at his home. His role in our adventure was complete.
Voodoo Doughnuts is the only place you can walk out of and exclaim, “Did you see the size of that cock and balls, I could eat that for days.” The cock and balls is one of their specialty doughnuts, an oversized penis shaped doughnut that would terrify any diabetic with an ounce of common sense. Heidi and I bought some reasonably sized doughnuts.
As we were laying in bed watching TV the weather forecast came on. We were supposed to go to Bend, Ore. the next night but when the weatherman said they were expecting up to three feet of snow in that area we decided there was no way in hell we were going back through those mountain passes for that show. We decided instead to drive over 1,000 miles out of the way and go around the south end of the Cascades Mountains. Heidi had never seen California so why not. Heidi messaged the company she works for to let them know she would be returning to work a day or two later than planned and the next day we were off to California and then Las Vegas.
By this time, we were getting travel fatigue. Days were starting to blend together. Heidi saw her first palm trees. I hung out with feral cats at rest stops in the Mojave Desert. But try as we might to avoid snow it still found us.
As we drove from California into Nevada signs warned unsuspecting desert drivers not to stop along the interstate to play in the snow. Once we reached the gaudy overbearing border of Nevada where we were met with bright flashing lights, a roller-coaster, casinos, and Larry Flint’s brothel that overemphasized the fact that you weren’t in the conservative Bakersfield area of California anymore.
The snow dissipated, and Heidi realized blowing sand isn’t any better to drive through, maybe worse. We wondered whether we had traded in snow for a deadly drive home through blowing sand. Fortunately for us, the sandstorm died before we did.
We are definitely not Nevada people and Las Vegas is the disgusting asshole of the state. We arrived in the flashing, blasting, blinking, stinking centre of it to face traffic lights and a 75-foot-tall screen with Chris Angel staring down at us as he performed magic tricks. Heidi was still driving, and I was worried all this chaotic action would distract her from the road.
I leaned over from the driver’s seat and whispered in her ear, “Keep your eyes on the road, keep your eyes on the road, keep your eyes on the road.”
She got us to the hotel safely and we went to check in. The lobby was a casino even though there was a casino attached. Everything smelled like cigarette smoke. Nevada still allows smoking in buildings that have a certain amount of slot machines. It’s been 15 years since I had to eat that smell indoors. It made me feel ill.
When we made it to the check-in counter where we were slapped with the harsh reality of a travel fatigue f***up. We had booked our room for the previous night and been charged for it. There were no rooms available and quite frankly we just wanted to get the hell out of Las Vegas.
We got some food and gas and left town. There was a casino in the gas station with ragged looking people playing slot machines. The city looked decrepit through its bright façade.
We left town and woke up in a motel in Kingman, Ariz. surrounded by beautiful red rocks and picturesque desert. We decided there would be no more night driving. We were getting home late anyways so why miss a glimpse of this wonderful alien terrain. We can’t wake up and see giant red rocks on the horizon everyday, can we?
From then on, the days were a blaze of sun, sand and dilapidated properties on either side of the interstate. We soon realized we were getting our kicks on Route 66. We’d take breaks and marvel at the fact we had to be aware we were in rattlesnake and scorpion territory.
Americans like it big when it comes to saluting Jesus. Between the derelict properties and oversized religious icons on the horizon raised to praise the Lord it did not surprise us that we were in Trump country but everywhere we stopped the people were friendly, warm and welcoming. Well-mannered conversations and smiling faces guided us along the road home.
I have no doubt that I will return to America to travel their highways, drink their coffee and absorb their culture, well, aspects of their culture, the friendly welcoming ways that are there despite what we may hear. The divisive America that may very well exist did not greet us on the roads we travelled. You don’t have to look too hard to find a good American.