A boy and his dog, part 7: Winnemucca to San Rafael

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

Alex and I woke up fifteen years ago today in Nevada, a few hours’ drive from our final destination of San Rafael, California. My first thought, though, was to play some roulette.

All across the country I had been planning to place a single five-dollar bet on the number 28 when I got to Nevada. Why 28? Because 28 is perfect.

A perfect number is a mathematical curiosity, of interest mainly to math nerds. It’s any number that is the sum of its factors (excluding itself). The factors are all the ways you can divide the number into integers. So 28 can be divided by 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14; and 1+2+4+7+14=28. Very few numbers are “perfect.”

Like all the other motels I stayed at during this trip, the management would not permit me to leave Alex unattended in the room while I went to one of the tiny casinos along the main street of Winnemucca. So I found a place to park in the shade and left her in the car while I ducked into a saloon-style casino, bought a single five-dollar chip at a roulette table, and placed it not on 28, but on 14.

Why 14?

When I left Pittsburgh with Alex, Andrea and I had been together for three and a half years. We agreed that she would follow me to California some indeterminate amount of time later, after I’d had a chance to settle in and find us a place to live. But would we stick to that plan? I was severing my ties with Pittsburgh; Andrea was not. Moving clear across the country was an almost irresistible opportunity to make a fresh start. When would Andrea feel ready to move — in a month? A year? Would I still be the same person she bade farewell in April? Would I have moved on? Would she?

These thoughts were ever-present as I headed west all week. I fully expected to arrive in a place full of tanned, blond beauties, and that thought was ever-present, too. Who would I be — the swinging bachelor, or the committed boyfriend? Who was I?

On the spur of the moment, in a tiny casino in Winnemucca, without even realizing I was doing it, I chose. 28 was my number, just as a swinging single lifestyle was my fantasy. But 14 was a number that Andrea and I shared. It’s the day each month that she and I celebrated our menseversary.

I placed my bet on 14. On sharing my life with Andrea.

The wheel spun, the ball bounced. It landed… on number 28.

I spent the rest of the drive — through Reno, into the Sierra Nevada, past Tahoe, and down into the Sacramento Valley — cursing myself. What had I done? The plan was 28. It had always been 28! There went a hundred and seventy-five dollars I could have had, free — not to mention an infinitely more valuable opportunity to polish my “Mr. Lucky” cred and enlarge my legend. What on earth could have made me change my mind so unexpectedly? What interfered with my plan?

I wrestled with this over the following weeks as I settled in to life in California, and slowly it dawned on me: this is what love does. You can try to control the way your life unfolds, but that’s just an illusion. A seductive illusion, to be sure — easy money, like the hundred seventy-five I didn’t win. But if you always insist on controlling your life, you renounce the incidental, the random, the serendipitous. You miss all the interesting stuff that you can’t possibly anticipate. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Though it hadn’t gone when or how I’d expected it to, somehow I’d found the right person for me.

Alex and I passed up the turnoff for highway 37 (which led more directly to San Rafael), intent on riding I-80 to its very end. We crossed the Bay Bridge, wended our way through San Francisco, crossed the Golden Gate, and took 101 up to the Freitas Parkway exit, as I’d done back in February. We walked into Z-Code late in the afternoon to a very warm welcome. At Dan’s signal I let Alex off the leash and she tore across the wide-open lobby area, a black and tan blur, greeting all my new co-workers for an instant apiece before racing to explore more of her exciting new environs. A short time later we followed Dan to his house, where a guest room was ready for me and Alex.

We lived there for a few weeks, then found our own place. A few weeks later, Andrea left Pittsburgh, had her own cross-country odyssey, and joined us in California — the rest is history. My doubts had disappeared. Who was I? I was the steadfast guy, the committed boyfriend.

Perhaps I had found myself after all.

(The end.)

A boy and his dog, part 6: Salt Lake City to Winnemucca

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

A short distance outside of Salt Lake City, en route to Winnemucca, Nevada, I pulled over to the side of the road in order to investigate the fascinating salt flats we were passing. It was moist and squishy! (As you’ll see, it was not the only moist and squishy stuff we encountered on this leg.) Alex was unsure of her footing and didn’t want to explore much. I wondered if the squishy stuff we were standing on tasted like salt. I almost tried, but chickened out.

With one glance back to marvel at the Salt Lake City skyline against the majestic backdrop of the Wasatch mountain range, Alex and I resumed our drive, crossing before long into Nevada — and an honest-to-goodness western desert. Once again I had to stop the car to tread upon the unfamiliar terrain, appreciating the tiny puffs of dust I kicked up with each step, cowboy-like. As we continued on our way, we saw tumbleweeds — tumbleweeds! — tumbling by, and an enormous migration of yellow butterflies crossing the highway.

A short time later nature called and I was obliged to pull into a rest stop. It consisted of a roughly rectangular patch of packed-down desert dust, with a few parked cars surrounding a solitary outbuilding. The only thing leading to or away from that spot was the highway itself. Where were the power lines supplying the rest stop? Where was the plumbing? There was no sign at all of any utility infrastructure existing below the desert floor.

Sure enough, the restroom had neither electricity nor plumbing, other than a cistern that permitted a trickle of water for hand-washing. A skylight let in more than enough sunshine so that there was no need for electric lights. (I shudder to think of what it would be like at night.) And the toilet was mounted atop an enormous pit — at least, it seemed enormous from my cursory inspection. I didn’t examine it too closely. It was my very first experience with a composting latrine. Undoubtedly this place saw plenty of use, so there should have been unmentionable amounts of filth in it. But to my surprise, the foul odor I would have expected to be wafting from it didn’t exist. Instead, the air that intimately caressed me as I sat in quiet contemplation was delightfully cool and fresh. Incredible!

The bathroom wasn’t disgusting, but I wasn’t getting off so easy. As I strode out of the restroom I was amazed to see a multihued layer, at least a quarter-inch thick, of smashed-yellow-butterfly goo coating the leading edges of my car. Bleah.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 5: Rawlins to Salt Lake City

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

Weird thing in the morning: when Alex and I woke up in Rawlins, Wyoming, fifteen years ago today, her food bowl was teeming with ants.

I had set her food bowl on the floor each night as we checked into the hotel, then packed it back up each morning (after a good, quiet night’s sleep — that first night in Bloomington had been a fluke, thank goodness) with no problems. Not to mention the three and a half years she’d had her food bowl on the floor at home in Pittsburgh. We never saw even one ant crawling on her food; now we saw about a thousand. (In the fifteen years since, the problem has never recurred.)

I dumped out the bowl, cleaned it, and apologized to Alex. Then we hit the road again, headed this time for Salt Lake City, Utah.

If the drive into Rawlins was the longest leg of our trip so far, the drive out of Rawlins was the shortest, at least as the crow flies. But we had come to the continental divide — yay! — and my poor little Toyota, jam-packed with belongings, had a hard time with some of the endless Rocky-Mountain climbs. Parts of that leg were extremely slow going.

Still, when we finally began descending into the Salt Lake City region the sun was still high in the sky. We had plenty of the day left. This suited me just fine. I may have been in a hurry to get across the country, but I made a point not to be in too great a hurry. I’d known people who’d driven across the country in three days. That wasn’t for me (or Alex). I wanted to spend some quality alone-time while on this trip. My plan each morning on the road was to do some calisthenics, then take my shower. I’d next have some green figs, yogurt, and coffee, very black, while reading the paper in leisurely fashion, jot some thoughts in my journal, and finally take a stroll around the local environs before rolling out of town. In the evenings I would soak in the tub after a long day’s drive, do some more calisthenics to work up a good appetite for dinner, spend an hour or so with my journal describing the day’s events, and then catch up on the classics late into the night. One classic in particular: Moby-Dick, which I had brought along expecting to read it from start to finish during my six days on the road.

Despite my earnest efforts, however, I found Moby-Dick to be impenetrable — each chapter began by telling some of Ishmael’s story, and then lost the thread as Melville indulged himself in rambling philosophical tangents. The TV was so much more accessible. The “local environs” were almost all windswept, uninviting landscapes of pavement and weeds with a noisy highway nearby and very little else. I filled a grand total of one half of a page of my “journal,” my loquaciousness on this blog notwithstanding. As for calisthenics, you can guess how many times I actually did those. (Hint: guess lower.)

Weird thing in the afternoon: immediately upon arrival in Salt Lake City, I felt out of place, unwelcome. I had come with no particular preconceptions about the city or about its predominantly Mormon population, at least none that I was aware of. The few people I met there were all friendly as can be. The little shopping district containing my motel and the restaurant where I ate dinner (while Alex waited in the car and watched me through the window) were clean and attractive. But there was a strange vibe, as if arch-conservatism could be in the air somehow, and I, a New York Jew, was not of the body. I don’t mean to malign the fine people of Salt Lake City; the oppressive Stepford conformity vibe could only have been in my own head. Still, it was very strange. I hadn’t felt that way at any other stop on my trip, or indeed ever before; but I did feel it again, and just as immediately, when years later I visited wealthy Dana Point, California, in conservative Orange County, where the overwhelming sensation that came from simply walking down the street was of not being white enough.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 4: Omaha to Rawlins

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

The drive from Omaha to Rawlins, Wyoming, was the longest leg of my trip. It was grueling, for me and Alex both. I would have preferred to stop sooner, in Cheyenne or Laramie (home town of Penny Priddy!), but as I discovered the previous night placing calls from my Omaha hotel room, finding a dog-friendly hotel in Wyoming on the weekend (this day, fifteen years ago, was a Saturday) on one day’s notice was not so easily done, at least not in 1992.

The featurelessness of this leg was the worst part. I am not the first to remark on the fact that the Great Plains, while beautiful, are boring. From the interstate they’re worse still, nothing but “gray highway and… endless billboards,” as my friend Vicky knows all too well. It made for some horrible video.

Before leaving Pittsburgh I hit upon the idea of videotaping the entire drive. My friend Steve — the same one who, a few years earlier, regularly loaned me his car — loaned me his videocamera, which had a poor-man’s time-lapse feature: it would shoot one second of video, at normal speed, every 30 seconds. It seemed weird to have such a setting. My best guess is that it was meant to be used as a security camera.

At any rate, my plan was to rig it somehow so that I could aim it through the windshield while I drove, without it blocking my view and without it getting in Alex’s way. In the weeks leading up to my departure from Pittsburgh I frequented supply stores of various kinds, devising one harness or mount after another. None of them quite worked. For instance, I thought I’d hit upon a solution when I suspended it over my shoulder from a canvas strap that wrapped around the top of the car and came in through the windows (closed or open). But even with the strap pulled taut, at highway speeds the wind caught it at its resonant frequency and suddenly it sounded like Gregory Hines was dancing on top of my car. While firing a machine gun. At helicopter blades.

The camera-rig project was made trickier by the need to quickly disassemble and reassemble it. I couldn’t leave my friend’s expensive camera unattended in motel parking lots overnight! I ended up with the aforementioned complicated web of “suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine.” Having to hide the camera all the time, combined with my determination to ensure Alex’s safety with the doggie seatbelt, turned the simple acts of getting in and out of the car into a lengthy operation of stowing or unstowing, hooking, unhooking, tightening, loosening, checking, and more.

My camera harness did the job, but my faux-time-lapse movie came out awful. It runs for over an hour, and for all of that hour the picture is dominated by the pavement directly ahead. What interesting scenery there is — the odd city or landmark flashing by, comprising about 0.003% of the total running time — is relegated to the very edges of the screen. More often than not, the same tractor-trailer can be seen just ahead for minutes at a time, jumping slightly forward or backward each second. Most of the rest of the time, the only thing to see are the cloud patterns, slowly changing, slowly sliding off the top of the screen. And the splattered insect guts on the windshield. Plus, filming one ordinary second out of every thirty is a very poor approximation to true time-lapse photography.

Fortunately, someone with a better budget, a better car, and a better sense of filmmaking had the same idea recently, and you can watch brilliant director Michel Gondry‘s time-lapse video of a cross-country drive online. (And then you can watch him solve a Rubik’s cube with his feet. Really!)

At least by the time we got to Rawlins, the terrain was finally starting to get interesting. There were hills. Small mountains, even. Curves in the road. Brush. Clay. The Midwest was over.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 3: Davenport to Omaha

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
Then it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska

That silly campfire song, sung to the tune of “Red River Valley,” is well known to Boy Scouts. In ninth grade, my Eagle-Scout friend Chuck suggested performing it for the school talent show. But rather than merely sing it, we (Chuck and I and five other friends) developed some supporting schtick: we all got bad haircuts and plaid flannel shirts and presented ourselves as “The Epiphany County Choir,” freshly arrived in New York City from rural Nebraska. We sang three heartfelt refrains of the song with fish-out-of-water expressions plastered to our faces. The audience — our classmates — laughed and cheered. We won the talent show. (I’ve never quite gotten over the guilt of beating another contestant, my classmate Stephen, who demonstrated actual talent with a virtuoso violin solo.)

“The Epiphany County Choir” went on to make a brief appearance on a local cable TV show, and gave another, much longer performance to our school the following year. The cable appearance is best forgotten — perhaps I’ll tell the story some other time. But the longer performance at our school was a comedy triumph.

So it was with some excitement that I set out with Alex this morning fifteen years ago for Omaha, Nebraska. But as before, the drive itself lacked any hint of poetry or romance, and the only thing to distinguish the city of Omaha during my brief stay was a plate of especially terrible pasta.

I was racing across the country, not taking the time properly to enjoy or appreciate it, mainly because of the urgency in Dan Heller‘s voice. Two months earlier I had visited Northern California on a job-hunting trip. Apple Computer had paid for my airfare and my room at the Cupertino Inn and I interviewed with them. I managed to stretch my stay on their dime to include interviews at one or two other computer companies in Silicon Valley too, plus a visit with my friend Bruce, who’d left Pittsburgh for California a couple of years earlier. On my last day in the region I drove up to San Francisco for an interview with a computer magazine there. (They were looking for an editor. They administered a written exam to me during the interview, and I was the first applicant in their history to complete all the questions in the time allotted. And I answered them all correctly! They hounded me for weeks afterward trying to get me to agree to accept a job offer.) Finally, late in the day, I headed way, way up to Marin County for an interview at Z-Code, a tiny e-mail software startup whose founder, Dan Heller, began calling me a couple of weeks later asking how soon I could start. They needed me “yesterday.”

(I almost didn’t bother visiting Z-Code. Marin County was far out of the way, and I was all interviewed out. But I knew that Marin was also the home of George Lucas’s filmmaking empire, and I was such a Star Wars nerd that that tipped the balance. It didn’t seem such a momentous decision at the time…)

I was still in the comfortable cocoon of academia. Nathaniel Borenstein had hired me as an intern to work on Andrew, the innovative campus computing environment for CMU. When I graduated I became a full-time staff member. It was my first job out of college. But by 1992 the Andrew system was essentially complete and the department was in decline, casting about for new projects to work on, trying to stay relevant. Nathaniel himself had left a couple of years earlier. At the time it seemed hard to leave the nest and relocate across the country, but in hindsight the time couldn’t have been more right.

I accepted the Z-Code job. I wrapped up my affairs in Pittsburgh. I arranged for my things to be shipped to Dan’s house, where the guest room was ready and waiting for me and Alex. I told Dan, “I can be there in six days.”

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 2: Bloomington to Davenport

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

I began the morning of April 9th, 1992, in pretty bad shape. I had barely slept. Although Alex had endured no fewer than four changes of address with me and Andrea without complaint in her short time on Earth, this had been her first night in a motel. She had jerked awake at every unfamiliar sound — so, so did I, knowing after the first two or three instances that, without my soothing intervention (or even occasionally with it), a barking fit was likely to follow. I fully expected to be asked to leave the motel in the middle of the night. Instead I merely had an extremely hard night.

I showered and dressed, walked Alex, loaded her and my things back into my car, checked out of the motel, and finally met Tall Steve. We spent an enjoyable morning together during which he showed off the offices of The Bloomington Voice, a free alternative weekly that he founded and edited where he was the founding art director/production manager (correction from Tall Steve — but he has founded or owned other Bloomington institutions). The Voice, which achieved significant local renown, was a natural outgrowth of his numerous extracurricular deeds at CMU and was only the beginning of his deep involvement in Bloomington civic life. (That, too, was prefigured by his activities in Pittsburgh, where he was constitutionally incapable of remaining uninvolved with improving student society — which may be what lent such weight to his “Accomplish something, dammit” admonition.)

We concluded our morning together with a picnic lunch on the Indiana University campus (the site of two things — coincidentally both from 1979 — that changed my life: the movie Breaking Away and Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid). I’d tethered Alex nearby with a special corkscrew-shaped dog stake attached to her leash. But in her excitement she pulled it clean out of the ground and began to bolt across the lawn, pointy-corkscrew-stake bouncing along dangerously behind her. (In those days she was much less well-behaved than she eventually became.) I had to simultaneously eat, hold Alex, and keep her away from our food.

Soon afterward, Alex and I were back on the road, headed for our next stop: Davenport, Iowa (Captain Kirk’s home state!), just across the mighty Mississippi River, where we would join Interstate 80 and ride it the entire rest of the way to California.

In 1954, at age 18, my dad and his friend undertook an epic almost-penniless hitchhiking journey from New York to California. I had grown up on his stories from that adventure, not to mention countless road-trip movies, TV shows (reruns of Route 66 were required viewing in college), songs, and the granddaddy of the genre, Kerouac’s On the Road (the famous original scroll of which, in another weird coincidence, was recently housed for a while at… Indiana University). They glamorized the idea of hitting the open road and traveling this great country, the better to “find yourself” — sort of an American version of walkabout.

On this score my trip was shaping up to be pretty disappointing. We drove straight to Davenport. On the bridge into town I glanced down at the Mississippi. It wasn’t so mighty. We checked into the motel, watched some TV, and went to sleep. Not only did the interstate isolate me from all possible interactions with gorgeous co-stars in each town I passed through like Tod and Buz, but having Alex along cramped my style even further.

Only now do I understand that the “open road” in those works, with its twists and turns, sometimes giving you choices, sometimes taking you you-know-not-where, bringing you into contact with as many different people, places, and situations as your own intrepidity will allow, is a metaphor for life itself, and I’ve been on it all along. At long last I’ve finally begun to find myself.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 1: Pittsburgh to Bloomington

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

Fifteen years ago today, I got into my car, the Uffish Thought, a gold 1984 Toyota Corolla. Beside me was Alex the dog, barely three and a half years old, strapped securely into the passenger seat like Chewbacca to my Han Solo. Behind me, wedged into the hatchback and backseat, was a substantial fraction of my worldly belongings. In front of me, rigged to the center of the windshield and aimed through it via a complicated system of suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine, was a big 1992 videocamera borrowed from my friend Steve. We were two hours behind schedule. It was late in the afternoon. With a final kiss and a wave goodbye to Andrea, we pulled away from the curb on Beacon Street in Pittsburgh and began driving to our new home in California, six days distant.

I’ll be blogging about each leg of the trip, one per day.

Our first destination was Bloomington, Indiana. It seemed slightly out of the way in my Rand McNally Road Atlas, but it was the right distance for a day’s drive and it contained my college friend “Tall” Steve Volan, whom I hadn’t seen since he belatedly finished his CMU education and left Pittsburgh for his home state.

(Tall Steve was especially dear to me for his gift, on one occasion, of the book The Eudaemonic Pie. The book was moderately interesting; it’s the true story of a team of MIT nerds in Las Vegas, using microelectronics to beat the house at roulette, back in the 70’s when that took big brains [pushing the edge of the technology envelope] and big balls [thumbing noses at the Mob]. But it was Tall Steve’s inscription inside the front cover that earned it a place in gift-giving history: Accomplish something, dammit. It is now possible to report that the inscription unquestionably has had the desired effect.)

I had called ahead to a motel in my AAA Tour Book and confirmed that they allow pets. The plan was for me to arrive in Bloomington some time in the early evening, give Tall Steve a call, and meet him to hang out somewhere.

After just a couple of hours on the road, night began to fall, and it was clear I would not be arriving by “early evening,” though when I stopped to call Tall Steve from a pay phone (and walk Alex) I had no idea just how late I would finally get there — around 10:30, as it turned out.

Not Alex

Alex was strapped into her seat with a doggie seatbelt, but was accustomed to napping in the backseat on long car rides while Andrea and I sat up front. Somewhere just past Columbus she decided to turn and leap between the bucket seats into the back, and was brought up short by the harness. She was trapped awkwardly in a tangle of straps, unable to move, and I was doing sixty on the interstate. I couldn’t stop or pull over or even do much more than glance Alex’s way, but with just a few moments of fumbling and Alex whining, I freed her by releasing her seat belt — and then just a few moments more and I belted her back into her seat, all without taking my eyes off the road. It was a tricky maneuver but I got good at it over the next few days.

When we finally arrived at the motel in Bloomington I called Tall Steve to convey my regrets. He tried to persuade me (and Alex) to come out anyway despite the late hour, but Alex was extremely excited to be in a new place and in my exhausted state I dreaded the thought of having to restrain her in any of the places we were likely to visit so late at night. I begged off and we planned to meet the next morning instead.

I set out Alex’s food and water bowls and got ready for bed. I flipped through the AAA book to find a likely next stop and a dog-friendly motel. And then I fell right to sleep… for the first of about a dozen times that night.

(…to be continued…)