This is the second year in a row that we decided to drive to California to visit Anne’s family and our friends. We enjoyed the adventure last year, so we became determined to make it a permanent tradition. Next year we will fly.
I am mostly responsible for the reason we have thus far opted to drive. #1 — It is generally more cost-effective. #2 — Our five-year-old Parker is on the autism spectrum (high functioning, but unpredictable), and our two-year-old Max has developed a sense of obstinacy that rivals a mule moonlighting as a nightclub doorman.
I am anxious about flying now. I don’t really know why. It isn’t a fear of the flying itself. It’s a kind of people-claustrophobia that has settled in at this stage of life. I can’t do crowds anymore. Crowds + uncomfortable seats + disease-tube with wings + out of control children = me looking for the emergency exit at 30,000 feet.
I am the pessimist of the family. I like to think of myself as the “realist,” but after 10 years with my perpetually optimistic wife, I have come to the conclusion that all pessimists make that same assertion to justify their pessimism. Even after a decade of sobriety, I possess a natural pre-disposition toward disaster. This movie is just going to end badly. I know it is, so you shut up. I’m not afraid that the plane will crash, and I expect that my children will behave like any small children on a 3 hour flight — stretches of quiet sprinkled with piercing bursts of insufferable chaos. What I am most afraid of… is me.
In a general sense, I think I project a fairly patient and calm demeanor. It isn’t likely that anyone would describe me as volatile or aggressive. I tend to de-escalate conflict if I am able. However, I have come to recognize a pattern in terms of how I respond to stress: If I can influence the outcome of a stressful situation, I’ll take a measured approach toward a solution. If I cannot influence the outcome, then a tiny little creature opens its eyes somewhere down deep. And it starts to feed. And it grows. A dense heat begins to build into a molten core. Lava slowly begins to seep out. Pressure builds. Combine all of this with the natural protective instincts of any parent with small children, particularly if one of those children is navigating life in an unusual way, and all it will take is one asshole on his 3rd Jack Daniels to open his mouth about my kids just before I find myself zip-tied by an air marshal.
If you don’t know what it’s like to be an alcoholic (sober or not), then this scenario probably seems a bit dramatic and irrational. If you do, then you will instinctively know that this is EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN, STOP TELLING ME IT WON’T, WHY DON’T YOU LEARN TO LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD!!! (Did I just say that out loud to myself in the olives/pickles/salad dressing aisle? Quick, just turn it into a mumbled song that you were humming…*nodding, smiling* “How do you do ma’am?”…*walking away, whistling*).
The first leg of the 3 day drive to California was more or less uneventful. There isn’t much to see along the I-20 and I-10 through West Texas, though I have become fascinated by the near ghost-towns encountered along the freeway in the middle of vast expanses of nothingness. The town of Toyah is perfect example. It genuinely resembles a constructed film set for a post-apocalyptic movie. Enough infrastructure (or skeletal remains thereof) exists to have supported around 1,000 people at one time perhaps, but I was convinced that no one could possibly live there anymore. Shockingly, the population is around 90. I cannot fathom what people do in Toyah. Most of the buildings are abandoned and crumbling. A handful of El Caminos dot the landscape, but they don’t appear to have been driven for some time. It’s as if the people living there either cannot leave, or don’t realize that anything else exists. I so badly wanted to drive through the town for a closer look, but something about it felt ominous. I don’t take unnecessary risks with my children in the car.
By the end of Day 1, the boys were done. The trip was about 90 minutes too long, and they weren’t having it anymore. Anne and I remarked that long drives in the car with small children is a lot like our past lives as restaurant waiters. For the record, this is PRECISELY what waiting tables is like:
Parker — “Mommy I want water.”
Anne — “Okay, just a second.”
Parker — “Daddy I want water.”
Me — “Your Mommy is getting it for you.”
(Anne hands Parker water)
Parker — “But I want milk.”
Anne — “We don’t have milk.”
Parker — “I want milk!”
Max — “I want milk too!”
Anne — “We don’t have milk.”
Parker, to Max — “Are you sad?”
Max — “No!” (still crying)
Parker — “Yes you are.”
Max — “NO!!!” (crying harder)
Parker — “Mommy I want milk…”
We stayed at the Casino Del Sol in Tucson along the way. The room prices were as cheap as a La Quinta, and the valet service was free. The building is massive and truly beautiful. The casino floor ceiling is painted like a bright Arizona sky, and the restaurants and shops are adorned with faux roofs. I did a double-take when I first looked up, before remembering that it was 9pm. Maybe that’s the effect they’re going for. “I’ve been gambling for 18 hours straight, but it’s still morning. Plenty of time before dinner!”
For all of its beauty, the casino is filled with a subtle darkness. I guess all casinos are. I am a stanch supporter of personal freedom and accountability. If people want to gamble, drink, and smoke all day, so be it. I was never a gambler, though I certainly did plenty of drinking and smoking. The problems that arose because of it were my own to solve. But I can’t help thinking that Native Americans would have been much better off if we had never shown up here. Arguments for manifest destiny aside, Native Americans gave us Thanksgiving and survival skills. We gave them hedonism and diabetes.
As people often told me in early sobriety, “Everyone has a different rock bottom.” For me, it was just being tired of doing the same thing over and over again with the same bad result. For some, it is death. I saw a lot of people just this side of the latter in that casino. One guy sipped a Coors Light at 6am while breathing from an oxygen tank in a smoke-filled, but otherwise vacant slot machine room.
On our last leg before San Diego, we decided to make a stop in Gila Bend, AZ to find some lunch and a park to hopefully wear the kids out. An unfortunate theme has emerged among the sparsely populated towns that dot the freeways of the American southwest: Meth. Typically one doesn’t associate small towns with high crime, but meth has altered the Norman Rockwell portraits of quaint main streets. We found a little playground in the middle of a clearly impoverished and substance abuse-impacted neighborhood. It was the middle of the day and I didn’t get the sense that gangs ran the neighborhood in the way that they do in larger urban areas. But hollow-eyed people who biked and drove by us gazed suspiciously. As I surreptitiously combed the sand under the slides for syringes, Anne asked me to keep an eye out for syringes. Clearly I wasn’t just being paranoid. The kids didn’t know the difference as I scanned the horizon for possible trouble. Thankfully no one bothered us while Parker and Max ran in circles on the basketball court. Once we got back on the road, they were asleep within minutes.
Upon arrival in San Diego, we were pretty spent. It was nice to see some familiar faces. Anne’s brother Mike, his wife Courtenay, and their son Clark hosted us for 3 days, which was about how long it took us to recuperate from the drive, just before Anne and I contracted either the flu, or the most virulent cold in history. She spent Christmas eve, and I spent Christmas day, shivering with fever. The great thing about southern California is that you can visit the beach during Christmas. Unfortunately we weren’t in the best shape to enjoy it.
Over the holidays I found out that Anne’s stepmother’s grandson had attended the Las Vegas concert during the shooting spree. His girlfriend has some affiliation with the concert organizers so they went on a whim. It is my understanding that she wanted to get closer to the stage, but he wanted to hang back a bit. She insisted, and they made their way forward. Seconds later, the first shots landed directly where they had been standing. Their forward momentum led them under the stage, where they were able to slide out and hide under a bus. It is truly breathtaking how a completely arbitrary decision saved their lives in a matter of moments. I badly wanted to ask him about it at the holiday gathering, but it didn’t seem appropriate. I’m sure that he probably already revisits it every day.
After spending a nearly bed-ridden couple of days at Anne’s mother’s house in Orange County, we made our way up the coast to Los Angeles. Anne lived in LA from the mid-1990s until 2015, when I dragged her and the kids back to Texas. I had lived in LA since 2002. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, and we had both established some solid, lifelong friendships in that city. In a county that is home to a population of 10 million, along with some of the worst traffic in the country, 3 days isn’t much time to see all of the people we would have liked. We wished we could have spent much more time with the people we were actually able to see. On any given day, it can take 1.5 hours to drive 10 miles if one doesn’t plan well. People in Texas often ask me if I miss the beach. I never actually had time to go when I lived 7 miles from it.
There are some stark differences between Los Angeles and McKinney, Texas. A lot of the things I love about McKinney, I loathe about Los Angeles. For instance:
The graffiti in our neighborhood park in McKinney is a palm-sized Sharpie scribble under a slide that reads, “FUDGE CAKES.” In LA it’s “MS-13.”
911 response time in McKinney is minutes. You often get placed on hold when you call 911 in LA.
$250,000 will buy you a comfortable starter home in McKinney. In LA, $250,000 will buy you a 900 sq. ft. box overlooking the main intersection of the 1992 riots.
Despite those glaring contrasts that helped influence our decision to relocate once Anne became pregnant with our second child Max, there is something about that city that holds onto you. Maybe it has something to do with the shared struggle. I don’t know anyone who lives in LA who isn’t at times overcome by a kind of anxious depression. The city is generally dysfunctional in very serious ways. There are too many people using too little infrastructure. There is no way to reverse engineer the problem and start in the middle somewhere. You just learn to live with it. But there is a palpable energy. An aliveness. It’s the kind of thing that you also observe in a place like New York, and probably London (never been).
I love McKinney for a vast number of reasons: We’re close to family; our neighbors are terrific; it’s clean; it’s safe; it’s affordable; the schools are great; it only takes me 15 minutes to drive anywhere; etc. But my brain has had a tougher time acclimating than I would have thought. I have a pet theory that each of us possesses a unique and idiosyncratic value in relation to time. This corresponds to a hypothetical sort of treadmill that people occupy as they move through their day to day lives. In those tiny towns that barely exist long the I-10 in southern Arizona, the treadmill isn’t even plugged in. In New York, the treadmill incline is at max and the speed is at sprint.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2002, it was completely overwhelming. I was no stranger to large cities, but this was an entirely foreign experience. The best analogy I can think of is akin to the reanimation of a 12th century European peasant who is sent for a ride-along in a fighter jet. The art of turning left at Los Angeles intersections made me nervous from the very beginning. For a little while, I would only follow directions that allowed right turns that forced me to double-back (wasting vast amounts of time).
After about a year, however, I started to adjust. I didn’t notice the traffic as much. Police helicopters functioned like a bedroom noise machine. Mentally ill drug addicts screaming at the pile in their shopping carts barely registered anymore. For 12 more years, I got used to the treadmill pace. My brain is still trying to run at that pace, but the treadmill we’re on here in McKinney only goes up to “saunter.” We need saunter. Raising a family of four while Anne is in grad school BEGS for saunter. However, I think Anne and I have a lot of nervous energy that we can’t quite figure out how to discharge.
On our very first day of driving out to Los Angeles, I recall thinking how quickly the trip had passed the previous year. Now here we were driving back to Texas after the latest blurred time-warp. We were ready to head home though. It’s hard to couch-crash with young children. On one of the last days of our trip, while staying with our friends Josh and Kirsten, I sipped coffee at the kitchen table as Kirsten made her way into the kitchen before breakfast. She remarked, “I don’t know how you guys do it.” 3 minutes later, Josh walked into the room and said, “I don’t know how you guys do it.” Honestly, sometimes I don’t either. Parenthood has been the best, and hardest thing we’ve ever done. Half the time Anne and I don’t think we’re doing a very good job. But I have to remind myself that the most important aspect of parenting is ensuring that our children know they are loved. After that, everything somehow just works itself out.
On our way out of the city, we thought it wise to make as few stops as possible, but make the stops count. In other words, stuff the kids with as much food as their capacity permitted and let them run around until they dropped. We landed in Quartzite on our way back to Tucson. At first glance, it appeared to be another town that modernity had either passed by, or simply never encountered. I’m not much of a restaurant reviewer, mostly because I don’t have a very sophisticated palette. A double quarter pounder with cheese is truly one of my all-time favorite foods. We decided one can’t go wrong with pizza when you have kids, so we stopped at Silly Al’s. It was terrific and had that old school pizza vibe from my childhood, which brought back nostalgic memories of the sit-down Pac-man machine and wood/vinyl walls and booths. The pizza was top-notch, and the bathrooms were spotless.
I have a thing about public restrooms. It isn’t a phobia per-say. It’s just that when I typically enter one, particularly while on a road trip, I am always amazed at the depths that human depravity can reach. I’ve witnessed some real crimes against humanity in those places. Now, bring a 5 year old into the carnage. 5 year olds touch everything. And then they touch their own private parts. And then they touch their mouths. Taking Parker into a nearly abandoned gas station restroom in the middle of the desert is like playing whack-a-mole with hepatitis.
“DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.”
“Okay Daddy.” (touching the filthy urinal)
“I JUST SAID DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!”
“Oh.” (sticks finger in nose)
“Let me help you with your pants.”
“Okay.” (touches urinal, then my hand)
“Don’t pull your pants all the way down.”
“Okay.” (pulls pants all the way down, where they steep in drifter urine).
When a restaurant, gas station, or truck stop takes the time to care about the condition of their restrooms, it really means a lot. It’s as if they are doing me a personal favor. Depending on where we are, I often insist that Anne take Parker into the women’s restroom. I don’t think she understands what happens on the other side. The horror. The savagery.
After the pizza lunch at Silly Al’s, we headed to the only playground in town. The landscape is much like Gila Bend. Rows of dilapidated trailers and broken down cars. But Quartzite had really invested in a quality playground with slides that kept the kids busy for almost an hour. Just as we were getting ready to leave, I experienced something that still makes my heart heavy. I think Parker has gotten over it, but it bothers me. He walked over to a row of monkey bars and said, “Daddy help me.” I had a handful of trash in my hand and headed over to the trash can to throw it away. “Okay, give me just a second.” “DADDY HELP ME!” Parker can often be a little impatient. When he knows what he wants, he wants it to transpire on his schedule. “I’ll be right there Parker.” “DADDY!!!” Before I had the chance to turn around, I heard him screaming and ran over to see him flat on his back on the ground under the middle of the monkey bars. It was a pretty far drop and I’m surprised it didn’t knock the wind out of him.
I felt terrible. He isn’t the kind of kid to make intrepid decisions, and I couldn’t have imagined he would tire of waiting for me and make his way out alone. I helped him up, dried his tears, and carried him back to the car. Anne asked Parker what had happened, and he replied in the most broken child voice, “I called out to Daddy for help, but he never came.” That absolutely crushed me. I felt like I had broken his trust. It’s been harder for me to deal with that than it has been for him.
After spending the night in Tucson again, we started the second leg of the trip home. It was the shortest leg, so we hoped to make just one stop if possible. Deming, NM marked the exact mid-point between Los Angeles and McKinney, so it seemed like a good milestone. I read that Deming had at one time anticipated matching Chicago in size and economic activity, due to its proximity to a major rail line. Unfortunately it just didn’t pan out that way. Many of the storefronts are long-empty, and most of the people milling about appeared to be stopping off for a break from their own road trips. We had hoped to eat at a place called Elisa’s House of Pies. Any place with a name that bold is worth visiting. The Google walking directions stopped us 6 feet in front of a screaming meth addict perched in front of an abandoned building. She didn’t seem to notice us, and the kids didn’t seem bothered by her at all. Though it could be argued that children ages 5 and under quite often exhibit public behavior that resembles an adult meth addict. To Parker and Max, the woman probably just appeared to be another kid from class.
I was beginning to feel like Clark Griswold — trying to get the family all excited about upcoming locations, only to be exceedingly disappointed upon arrival. We strolled along the mostly empty streets of Deming before settling on an Italian place called Marie’s. The lighting was dim. There was no background music. The floors were hardwood, which made it sound like we were dining in an empty warehouse. There were only a couple other people in the place, so we didn’t expect much. But we were all hungry. The food was EXCELLENT and reasonably priced. The service was great, and the bathroom was clean! After lunch, while my kids burned off a little energy on the sidewalk out front, I actually beckoned other lost and hungry travelers inside.
We located another little playground on our way out of town and stopped again to exorcise the demons that drive toddlers to invariably lose their minds without warning. There was a homeless guy occupying one of the benches. He seemed harmless and didn’t bother us. But we noticed a guy on his lunch break in an old Ford, alone. He parked in a tiny lot that faces the playground to eat a cheeseburger. Who knows? Maybe no one ever occupies that playground and he just eats there because it is ostensibly the only green space in town. It seemed borderline molester-y though. He left just as we put the kids back in the car.
We knew that we were going to hit some rough weather as we passed El Paso on our way back into D/FW. I mostly grew up in Texas, so I am comfortable driving in heavy rain and a little ice. Anne usually drives to avoid motion sickness, but we agreed that I should take over for the final stretch. Ten years ago I drove from Buffalo to Pittsburgh in a blizzard. The last 150 miles of this California to Texas trip were significantly worse. Just east of Abilene, black ice covered every lane of the freeway. Speed was reduced to about 25 mph. Every 5 to 10 miles, a semi truck was either overturned, or had slid across the median into oncoming traffic. Frankly, it looked a bit like “The Walking Dead.” There were often 70 or so cars at a standstill, with a scattering of abandoned cars and trucks out in the frozen grass. We decided it would be prudent to stay the night in one more hotel. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, so there were no vacancies anywhere.
My Grandmother lives in southwest Fort Worth, and she invited us to stay overnight. But we had another 75 miles to go. That was going to take 3 hours, and it would be dark soon. The lady from Google maps (Siri? Alexa? Googennifer?) advised us to save 45 minutes by taking an alternate route. It was well off the freeway into unfamiliar and sparsely populated areas of central Texas. Fundamentally, the risk of driving on freeway ice in the dark seemed a little greater than the risk of driving on icy backroads in daylight. In hindsight I’m not sure if I would have made the same decision.
On the plus side, the miniscule towns north of the I-20 were beautiful in their icy suspended animation. Everything glowed with a rich blue-white. It was like viewing the negatives of a wintry landscape photo. On the minus side — we were the only ones who took Googennifer’s recommendation. The roads were empty, which meant the ice was much thicker than it had been out on the freeway. There wasn’t much phone reception and there were 8 mile stretches of nothing but frozen road and dead trees. We were sliding more than I let on, and I was a lot more nervous than I admitted. It turned out that what I had thought was the responsible decision, was in fact the opposite. But I have to hand it to the Toyota Prius. That thing can really handle icy conditions. I don’t know if it’s the front wheel drive, or the frumpy, emasculating body design. Whatever the case, it delivered. By the time we rejoined the rest of the herd on the I-20, it was officially dark. We drove past one more bad accident, and suddenly the ice cleared as quickly as it had appeared. I let my Grandmother know that we would be continuing home. She was a little sad to hear that on New Year’s eve, but I think she understood that we were exhausted, cold, and really wanted to be in our own beds.
After a decent night’s sleep in a familiar environment, New Year’s day felt like more of a fresh start than it ever really has. At least for me. In general, New Year’s day just feels like any other day. But after that trip, it was a capstone of sorts. The temp outside was 18 degrees so we decided to make it a lazy day. At around 10:30am we realized that our heater was no longer working. So we spent our second night back in a hotel room — one mile from our house.