Monday, November 21, 2016

Frozen Popsicle Man Takes to the Road: A Curmudgeonly Travel Narrative

“Wednesday, November 28, 1520, we debouched from the strait, engulfing ourselves in the Pacific Sea. We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that has been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and so ate them; and often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them. The gums of both the lower and the upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so they could not eat under any circumstances therefore died. Nineteen men died from that sickness.”
Antonio Pigafetta. First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan's Expedition.

“Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.”
           Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Blues Brothers.

“Lester Siegel: You don’t have a better bad idea than this?
Tony Mendez: This is the best bad idea we have, sir. So far.”
               Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck. Argo.

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to take a brief vacation. You see, the retired life is so hard that I need a break from it. Seriously, though, here’s what actually happened.

Over the past few days, I went on a few too many chilly rainy rides up the mountain. You don't have an appreciation for what that means if you haven't “enjoyed” going downhill for twenty minutes non-stop at speeds of up to forty miles an hour while getting pelted in the face with thousands of cold liquid missiles coming at you diagonally. As you hurtle towards your death down the slippery road, you also get to “enjoy” feeling that your toes are frozen solid, that your nose is dripping, and that you haven't actually felt your fingers for the past hour. The fact that you just spent an hour climbing the mountain and are sweating profusely just means you are even more wet, cold, and miserable. At this point, you are basically a frozen Popsicle.

Of course, none of your extremities come even close to your rear end when it comes to pain. Try sitting on a road bike for three to four hours a day and you'll know what I mean. If that's not masochistic enough for you, try having a flat tire in the middle of the aforementioned rain storm while riding in some Godforsaken nowhere woods. As you stand there soaking wet and try to fix the flat with numb fingers, you have plenty of time to daydream about sunnier days. Ah, how I love biking! It's good for you, I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I looked at my iPhone Weather app and saw that the Bay Area was up for at least another week of cold and rainy weather. Being the resourceful guy that I am, I jumped on Expedia after checking the weather reports for half a dozen places “close enough” to the Bay Area for a quick two or three day trip. I settled for Palm Springs. Warm and sunny with temperatures in the high seventies, close to Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea. I can go for quick day hikes and maybe even drag my camera along for some desert photography. Quick one hour flight to LAX, hop in a car for a couple of hours and we’re there. Brilliant. I even patted myself on the back for the quick thinking before asking my wife if she wanted to join me. She declined. She is a wise woman, as will soon become obvious. I also pinged a few friends to see if they wanted to join me. But, they were all either working or had other obligations. Never mind. I'll go it alone. How bad can it be?

At this point in the story, I should mention that I absolutely refuse to sit in real restaurants and wait for food when I'm traveling alone. I just feel so self conscious sitting there alone for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. It just feels too weird. So, when I travel alone, by and large, I eat on the run. Anything to get the excruciating ordeal out of the way as quickly as possible. Fast food, burritos, fish and chips at a pub, slice of pizza at the airport, anything that does not require sitting down alone at a table in a restaurant. For some reason, sitting at a bar is permissible but an actual table is not. I don’t understand the logic either. Needless to say, this aversion (it’s involuntary, I can't help it) also makes many magical destinations much less enjoyable when I'm forced to travel solo.

I booked nice midday flights so I would get a chance to bike in the morning before jumping on the plane. I find that helps with the guilt of knowing that I wouldn't get nearly as much exercise for the next few days. No, thank you. I'm not taking my bike to Palm Springs. It's not worth the hassle. It's just a quick one hour flight.

So, I got up at the usual time, did a quick hour or so of biking and took a shower, ready to go to the airport. That oughta make up for all the junk food I’ll be eating. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I received a text message from the airline that the flight had been cancelled due to “weather problems in San Francisco”. Hmmm… the weather out the window actually looked pretty good. Just a little rain and wind. Nothing special. I even went on a quick rant about Californians who didn't know how to run an airport. “If this kind of weather results in flight cancellations, then they’d have to shut down the entire airport for six months out of the year in Canada and Denmark.” Later, I came to find from other passengers that the plane had had engine problems, too. The airline just chose to blame weather publicly. Not our fault, bad weather.

Anyway, at least I got the notification in time and didn't spend several hours along with thousands of other travelers walking around the airport like zombies. Instead, I jumped online and booked myself on the next available flight out, still arriving in LA before 4:00 PM. Once again I patted myself on the back and congratulated myself for saving the day. Well, the next few hours were spent reading a succession of text messages informing me that this new flight, alas, was being delayed - in half hour increments. To make a long story short, the plane finally took off at 5:00 PM and deposited us in LA before six. Just in time for rush hour traffic. Joy!

It’s amazing how many multi-car pileups Angelinos get into on a regular evening commute. By the time I got to the hotel in Palm Springs, it was 9:00 PM. An entire day wasted getting from the Bay Area to Palm Springs. I could have driven there faster. Three hours, my ass! We have made air travel, and travel in general, so inefficient and painful that it almost makes me give up on travel altogether. I'm sure I'll have a similar day long ordeal going back home. A “quick” trip shouldn't require two full days of travel. I used to actually enjoy travel but am finding it increasingly difficult to justify it given all the hassles involved. In hindsight, I should have booked the flight directly to Palm Springs but that severely limits the number of available flights and is not much better. Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as the days of Magellan and urine soaked biscuits but we seem to have massively regressed in the past few years when it comes to travel. As an aside, did you notice that that entry was dated 1520 and that the trip didn’t end until two years later? Yikes!

Now, lying in bed, I was too agitated to sleep. New bed, noisy air conditioner, combined with stress from the sheer stupidity and waste of the previous twelve or so hours. So I lay there thinking about the next month. In my infinite wisdom, I somehow committed to five more similar “quick” trips coming up between now and Christmas. Two for business, three for family. Great job, Ben. Right in the middle of the holiday season and the worst time of year to travel. By the time I fell asleep, feeling sorry for myself, it was 2:00 AM. And, of course, I was up bright and early at 5:00 AM like every day at home. I’d forgotten to shut off my biological alarm. Oh great. Now that's what I call a vacation.

So I rolled around the bed for a couple of hours before getting up to go to Joshua Tree National Park for a hike and some photography. I have to admit I wasn't up for it. I hiked a couple of the trails and took a few pictures. It was a beautiful place and I enjoyed it but, it seems, in my rush to book the trip, I hadn't bothered to think about the fact that flowers bloom in the spring, November is not the best time of year to go there for photography.

By 3:00 PM, I was back at the hotel, in a new much quieter room overlooking the golf course and a man made lagoon. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the poolside bar enjoying a beer and the sunshine and writing this text. Let's face it. This is why I came here. To get out of the rain and cold and to get a few more days of sunshine and warm weather and relatively clean mountain air before settling in for the cold winter. The hiking and photography were just excuses to fool myself into thinking I wasn't slacking.

Did I mention that three of those trips next month are to Seattle, Toronto, and New York? Brrrr. The older I get, the more I need sunshine and warm weather. My old bones and joints prefer it to freezing rain and forty mile an hour winds. I've paid my dues for years in cold and inhospitable climes. To those of you still living in those kinds of places, I have to ask: “Why?!?” I guess I'm getting old. I'm actually starting to understand people who move to Arizona and Florida. Now, there's a scary thought.

I was determined to get a good night of sleep so I went to bed early the second day and managed to fall asleep by midnight, only to be awakened at 3:30 AM by the shrill sound of the fire alarm in my room. Why is it that fire alarm batteries only die in the middle of the night? Somehow, that doesn't seem right, statistically speaking. It took quite a while for someone to come and replace the batteries. By then, my ears were ringing so hard that any thought of sleep had to be abandoned. Just call me “Sleepless in Palm Springs”.

The Salton Sea? I enjoyed the solitude but there isn't a whole lot to see other than water and dead fish. I was told I could drive another hour to a wildlife refuge if I wanted to see birds but I was too tired from lack of sleep to do another two hours of driving. I have no reason to believe the return trip tomorrow will be any less painful than the one coming out here. The sunshine has been great but let’s just say I'm ready to go back to being Frozen Popsicle Man on my bicycle until the next adventure.

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