Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Road Trip: The Eastern Half

This is a massive post, but to summarize it all pretty quickly, the road trip went better than I ever could have imagined. I would have been happy if Holler, Stefan, and I had just arrived in California safely and if my car had made it across the Rockies in one piece. Instead, I got so much more than that. I could tell you all the reasons I/we got ridiculously lucky, but to make things clear let me just do a day-by-day breakdown:

Day 1: Bar Harbor, ME to New York City


I got out of bed, showered, and ate by 8:00 AM, which for me is a major accomplishment. After saying goodbye, I drove off. It wasn't until I got to Bangor and turned to go south on I-95 that the magnitude of the journey really hit me. To give you an idea of how mentally unprepared I was, I only had about 50 songs on my "Road Trip" playlist and I ran through all of them by the time I hit Portland.

The driving was pretty uneventful--compared to LA drivers, Bostonians are pretty tame and I drove around the city anyway. After getting stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway (which has to be the single worst road in America, I'm not kidding and I'm actually somewhat qualified to make that statement now), I rolled into my friend and beer league teammate Chris McGuire's place in Manhattan around 5 PM, for a total of 9 hours of driving. My day was far from over, though. We wandered around Central Park for a bit and took a whirlwind walking tour of the city. I'm pretty good at judging things like cities and people quickly, and my impression of New York was overwhelmingly positive. The city is full of activity and diversity, and even though it's really expensive it seems like it would be worth it to live there just for the opportunities you can come across. NY city-dwellers seem to be driven and successful at the same time, if that makes sense--like, they've already done something right to make it to New York, but now they're trying to make it big in New York.

Having judged an entire city and its people in under 15 minutes, I did some quality catching up with Chris at an outdoor cafe. I'll spare you readers all the minute details, but a recurring conversation topic on the road trip was the ongoing controversy over beer league teams that I should probably explain. When people started going abroad as juniors last year, our team (the Men's Union, or MU, pronounced "moo") faced a bit of a predicament. In order to continue to field a seven-person team in beer league (you pitch to your own team, so you don't need a pitcher or catcher), we had to recruit a bunch of new players during both the fall and the spring semesters. Some of these players were pretty good, some were average replacements, and some were striking out multiple times per game, which is quite an accomplishment given that the pitcher is trying to let you hit the ball.

Now, everybody who went abroad is back for senior year, in addition to all of the new kids we recruited. This means we have exactly 14 players, which is way too much for one team but the bare minimum for two teams. The question facing the MU is thus twofold: a) Should we divide into two teams? and b) If so, how? We've pretty much decided to split up, but the major issue is how to evenly divide the teams. This "how to divide the teams" question was the subject of a giant message thread this summer, complete with analyses of players' skills, ideas about what makes a good beer league team, excessively legalistic arguments, and complex compromise schemes--basically, everything other than an actual solution. Both teams want me to play for them, so my team affiliation was a major topic of conversation in New York and in the car after Chicago (both John and Stefan play; Stefan is actually the commissioner this year). I'll let you know how this one turns out.

Anyway, so back in New York, Chris and I hung out and got dinner at an awesome outdoor cafe. We then met up with another one of my Pomona friends, Alex Efron, who was celebrating his 21st birthday. Although I basically had the same conversation with him as I just had with Chris (discussing the past semester/summer and the beer league issue), it was good to see him again. We stayed out until 3 AM, which meant I was awake and active for 19 hours. On the subway ride home, my body was arguing with itself over whether I should get some real late-night New York pizza or just collapse and go to sleep. I eventually chose to collapse in exhaustion for a solid 6 hours. It's too bad, though--a good pizza would have really solidified my opinion on New York as an awesome city.

Day 2: NYC to Pittsburgh-ish

I woke up at 9:30 and wandered into Chris' kitchen to find two maids at work cleaning. Chris actually had to go to the dentist that morning, so I was all alone with the maids in the apartment. I needed to get an early start driving, so I had said goodbye the previous night. I just packed my things and left, which was kind of weird but I guess it had to be done. I set out to drive across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I quickly found out that driving in these states is just about as boring as you could possibly imagine. I started playing games to amuse myself, games like "How long can I keep the car on cruise control because there's no traffic or even anything interesting worth slowing down for, just miles and miles of farms?" The answer, actually, is about 250 miles, which is pretty amazing considering that my car can only go about 300 miles on one tank of gas.

Because I-80 was so soul-crushingly boring, I decided to take a detour to Pittsburgh to liven things up a bit. This road was a little more white-trashy interesting--almost exactly what you'd picture central Pennyslvania being like. How interesting, you ask? Well, I saw not one, but two drive-through strip clubs. Although I was really curious about how these businesses worked, logistically speaking (do the strippers come in your car? Do you drive by a window? Are the strippers in central PA so bad that they can only be viewed for a few seconds, without leaving your vehicle?) I didn't feel the need to actually spend the money and find out.

While in PA, I also had the first "oh-shit-my-car-is-going-to-die-on-me" moments of the road trip. Driving up a slight hill on I-80, my car suddenly started to lose power and refused to do more than 60. I pulled over and checked for overheating, but I saw nothing so I visited a local mechanic. The guy couldn't really find anything either, but he suggested that I replace my fuel filter ASAP. I took care of that the next day and it never happened again, so the only in-trip maintenance occurred on the third day.

Toward the evening, I made it to Pittsburgh and explored the city a little bit. It's a really cool city, but confusing to navigate because you're pretty much always next to a river and not sure which one. Architecturally, the city is pretty uniformly Gothic and steel town-y, but there's a surprising amount of green space. Also, Pittsburghers are some of the most helpful people I encountered on the trip--always willing to give directions, advice, and just generally help out a stranger to the city. There weren't too many highlights from this portion of the trip, because it was just me exploring an unknown city. I checked into a cheap motel off the highway just outside of the city and got a really good night's sleep.

Day 3: Pittsburgh-ish to South Bend, IN

I started the third day off a little early so I could go to an auto shop and replace the fuel filter. That took about half an hour, and I was on the road by 10 AM and glad to put the issue behind me. The drive to South Bend went by really quickly--there was almost no traffic, and I made a pit stop in Oberlin. I figured that a college town would have some good, cheap food places and I was right. The campus is actually incredibly beautiful--very green, sunny, and warm, definitely not what you would expect in northern Ohio. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and jog around the town/campus (thus exercising and exploring at the same time), a trick I started doing in Europe with Sam, Dan, & Zack. I felt much better after the run and arrived to South Bend feeling fresh and clean.

The reason I stopped in South Bend was to visit my grandfather. I haven't seen him in a while so I stayed for a night in his guest bedroom. It was nice, we went out to dinner and drove around the Notre Dame campus where he used to teach, but it was an understandably quiet night and nothing really story-worthy happened. It was good to say hi, though, and we did watch a sweet documentary about sailing. Overall, though, a quiet day and night, almost a rest after the first two days.


Day 4: South Bend, IN to Chicago, IL


I woke up at 10 AM and worked out in the retirement home's fitness center. It was kind of absurd because I was down there doing a P90X workout next to a senior yoga class and a couple octogenarians on the treadmill. Anyway, Opa and I ate some lunch and then I said goodbye and headed for Chi-city.

The drive to Chicago was one of my favorite stretches of the trip, not just because it only took a couple hours but because it was really scenic. When you come over the I-90 bridge into Illinois, the Chicago skyline just appears out of nowhere and you get to watch it get closer and closer and bigger and bigger for the rest of the drive. Also, during the last bit on Lakeshore Drive, the Blue Angels were practicing for the Chicago Air Show the next day, doing smoke shows and buzzing the road a few times. It was really difficult not to be distracted by either the buildings, which I was stoked to see for the first time, or the planes, which are just awesome anytime. Together, staring at big buildings and fast planes really took me back to when I was about ten, and I was fascinated with that kind of stuff. Suffice to say that ten-year-old Nick would have forced his parents to move to Chicago if he had gone during Air Show weekend.

I found John Holler's house without any trouble and parked right outside, which was a minor miracle (it also happened in New York, where the only available space for 4 blocks around was right in front of Chris' apartment). It was great to see Holler again because Holler's my boy and it had been over a year at that point since we hung out. I set up camp and met his family and then we went on a giant walking tour of the city. Holler actually knows a ton about Chicago because he worked for the city's economic development agency and his dad is a real estate lawyer who works for the city, so the tour was super-informative. We hit up a deep-dish pizza place and then met up with Stefan and some of his friends at a south side bar. Stefan had literally finished his summer internship that day, so he was pumped to be back in the city (he had been living in the suburbs in an extended-stay Holiday Inn, which sounded pretty miserable) and with his friends rather than the other interns. I hadn't seen him in over a year, either (we went abroad during different semesters), so we conversed a ton and had the first of many beer league discussions. It took a while to get back to Holler's house (he lives in Evanston, on the opposite side of the city), so the ride back was similar to NYC in that both of us were nodding off on the train at 3 AM. We went to sleep and woke up at 10 to go see....

Day 5: The Chicago Air Show


Apparently, locals don't like the Chicago Air Show. Actually, that's not accurate; it's more like they're ambivalent toward it. "It's just the same planes every year," one of Stefan's friends said.

This is one thing that Chicagoans couldn't be more wrong about. The air show is sweet. It's a collection of military and stunt planes doing insane tricks at low altitude on a beach on Lake Michigan in the middle of summer. What more could you ask for? Holler and I filled a cooler with ice and some Goose Island Brewing Company beers (their pale ale is one of my new favorites) and took the bus to the beach. We sat there for three hours and took in the sun, the planes, the water, the awesomeness, the patriotism, etc. They had a giant loudspeaker system set up on the beach, so a DJ-announcer type person was calling out the names of each plane and the tricks they were performing as it happened, and playing 80s rock and samples from the Top Gun soundtrack during the whole thing. The showcase of air power was incredible, kind of like a giant Cold War parade through Red Square, but American and in the sky. I'm sure that some IR scholars (Bacevich, at least) could make an argument that the Chicago Air Show was really indicative of the military-industrial complex and is actually a bad thing for society, but he's wrong--he didn't see how sweet those planes were.

We walked home and on the way, we randomly ran into Aaron Hosansky, my old TSL sports editor, who was visiting the city with his girlfriend. The rest of the day was pretty much devoted to packing--John had to pack his clothes, Stefan had to pack everything, and we all had to find a way to make it fit in my car. The solution was this:

From Road Trip


That picture was taken in Arches National Park, but it pretty much captures what we did to my car. We put a rooftop carrier on a car with 106 horsepower and loaded it up with luggage. The backseat was full of backpacks and day bags, and the trunk was full of suitcases as well. The car weighed 500 pounds more than it should have, looked absurd, would probably lose to a Model T in a drag race or going uphill, and we still made it to California. We laid low on Saturday night, knowing that the next day was going to be a long one. I'll continue the summary in part II...

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