Heading home. I could hardly believe it. Once I had the “home” concept imbedded in my mind, I had no time for nostalgia. I was on a mission, and the weather was cooperating, making it all the more important for me to Get. It. Done.
I blew out of L.A. in a mid-morning rain storm, but by the time I reached the high desert on the other side of Big Bear, it was sunny and crisp. I breezed through the mountainous desert, enjoying the scenery immensely. Las Vegas was right on my way, so I figured I would stop and check it out en route to my first night’s destination of St. George, Utah.
I had never been to Vegas, nor have I ever really wanted to go, as I’m not the casino “type.” The thought of all those gambling addicts, sitting at the slots, smoking endless cigarettes, wasting their time, money, health and happiness…none of it has ever made any sense to me. Still, Vegas is a legendary place, and since I’d be driving right through it, I thought, “Oh What The Hell” – I’ll stop and try a few hands of Blackjack (or something).
I pulled into the City of Sin around 2:30 in the afternoon on a Monday. Not exactly the most happening time in Vegas, but such was my schedule. I marveled at the insane architecture – all these different styles and weird combinations, shoved together in a completely nonsensical way. I saw lots of seamy people on the streets, including some really scummy guys advertising women on their t-shirts. And I saw all these families – families – on vacation. They had chosen this, of all places, to spend lots of money with their young children – probably due to the gambling habits of mom or dad, or both. It was crazy to me.
I found a free place to park in the back lot of Bally’s, where the employees park – a desolate wasteland, compared to the gauche, gaudy front side of the hotel. Imagine, with the ability to walk a few hundred yards, I avoided paying through the nose for parking (yet another benefit of being an athlete!) Plus, there was absolutely No Way In Hell I was going to let one of those greasy, slimy, and above-all expensive valets take the wheel of my car, with my boat on top of it. My car was, at this point, an extension of me. It was part of me and I was part of it. Back off, you’re not valet-parking my Vee Wee with my beloved 26 feet of carbon fiber strapped on top.
I decided to pick just one casino, since it would be my only one and I wasn’t planning on staying long. I went to Caesar’s Palace because of its legendary status and its impressive, imposing, and almost Mafioso architecture. Inside, it was nearly a ghost town – like I said, Monday afternoon isn’t exactly Prime Time in Vegas. I noticed the stench of cigarettes immediately but realized there was no avoiding it, so I resigned myself on trying to acclimate as best I could.
I walked around a lot, trying to figure out what to do. Nowhere did I see any James-Bond-type tables, with dapper guys surrounded by hot babes ooohhing and aahhhing and saying, “I’m Plenty. Plenty O’Toole.” (To which Sean Connery’s Bond famously responded, “Named after your father, of course.”)
The slots were filled with old people, sucking on smokes and throwing their lives’ savings into the loud, greedy machines. Finally I found this Asian poker game called “Fortune Paigon Poker.” There were two elderly Asian ladies seated and an Asian dealer. The customers and dealer all seemed nice, and it seemed pretty safe. Hell, I might even have some fun. After taking out $160 in cash at the ATM, I bought $100 worth of chips at the table. I stayed for longer than I had planned – about two and a half hours – but, after making $60 profit overall, I decided to get the hell out of there, leaving with $220 in my pocket and feeling very good about myself. Hell, I had made 60% on my money in a few hours. Much better than Wall Street (not that there’s much difference between the two), and I didn’t even have the benefit of insider trading. I had dinner and made it to my hotel in St. George by around 11 PM.
The next day, I had the goal of making it to Glenwood Springs by nightfall. I headed up route 15 to the western-most point of I-70 in the United States. I never realized it, but eastbound I-70 starts right in the middle of the Utah desert. If Route 1 North, along the California coastline between Santa Barbara and Carmel, was the prettiest highway I’d ever seen in my life, this stretch of I-70 through Utah’s former seabed, one of the geologic wonders of the world, was equally stunning in different ways.
I stopped at every single “Viewing Area,” of which there were nearly a dozen, in the 60-mile range of incredible scenic Utah desert over which I-70 traverses. I couldn’t believe it – I wasn’t even into the really good stuff, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Arches, Moab, and all that, and the views were still blowing my mind. It was otherworldly, and I was awestruck. But I was also on a mission, so I stayed on the highway and made it to Glenwood Springs that evening to spend the night with my best friend.
The drive from Glenwood to Denver was pretty easy, with some snow on Vail pass and some approaching the Western Slope side of the Eisenhower tunnel, but nothing to worry about. I had Pricelined a hotel in Denver and made plans to have dinner with my mom, who is 82 and still happily living on her own, despite some worrisome health issues. We had a wonderful dinner and she enjoyed hearing about my adventures, and then off I went to my hotel to rest up for the real work ahead: lots and lots and lots of flatness.
From Denver to Boston, about 2,000 miles, it is pretty damn flat. Northeastern Colorado and Nebraska really didn’t get to me. But by the time I reached Des Moines, Iowa, I knew I had been pushing it a bit too hard. I was edgy, restless and fairly stressed out from just driving, driving, driving, with no rowing or other diversions to chill me out. It didn’t help that the Iowa motel was cold and inconvenient, with my room about a hundred-yard walk from my car. Who designs these places?
I had a not-so-great night’s sleep and hit the road again, for more of the same. Flat flat flat. The more stressed and tired I got, the more the other people on the road began to piss me off – especially the truckers. By the time I reached Toledo, Ohio, at 10:30 pm that night, I was a wreck. I had chest pains, massive stomach pains, and unfortunately, I had 2 more hours of driving to get to the hotel that I had Pricelined, which was east of Cleveland.
It was pouring rain when I gassed up my car at a truck stop in Toledo. I ate some over-salted food and proceeded to gas up my car. Cold, wet, stressed as hell, and really eager to put this long day behind me, I put the pump away and turned quickly to bolt around the back of my car to the driver’s side door. But there was just one problem – my boat was kind of in the way. I literally smashed my entire body weight, face first, into my Van Dusen. Now, bumping into my boat was nothing new. Try it sometime – keep a boat on top of your car for six weeks straight. I guarantee that you’ll walk into it a few times, especially if you’re at a campsite and it’s completely dark. But in the half-dozen or so times I did this, I pretty much just grazed myself. I’d always react in time to avoid damage, and besides, I wasn’t walking fast or bolting anywhere. But this time…oh baby. This time was different. It was like being punched in the face, with glasses on. And the sad part was that I saw my wet, green canvas boat cover about a quarter-inch in front of my eyes before I smashed into it with so much force.
The pain was almost unbearable. It hurt like all bloody hell. But more than that, I was tired and stressed and generally not doing well to begin with, so that compounded the incident. I sort of collapsed down by the gas pump, stamping my feet and screaming a variety of unmentionables to no one in particular. I’m sure I was quite a sight for anyone who saw me, holding my head in my hands, when I looked down and saw that my hands were covered in blood. The rim of my glasses had cut deeply into the bridge of my nose, creating a blood-gushing gash. Great, I thought. This is really happening? Holy crap. Just kill me now.
I made it to the driver’s seat of my car, but not before noticing a clear imprint of nose and glasses imbedded into the port-aft side of my soaking-wet boat cover. It would have been funny as hell if I hadn’t been in so much pain. Fortunately, I had a full-on first-aid kit, with gauze pads, alcohol wipes, antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids. I also had some paper towel to mop up all the blood before I took care of the rest of the medical procedure. It didn’t require stitches, but the scab lasted well over two weeks and I still have a scar, as I write this in mid-January.
With my head pounding and my spirit decimated, I managed to drive the next 120 or so miles to my hotel in, of all places, Painesville, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Cleveland. It was actually a luxury resort, at which I managed to get a really good deal on a room from Priceline. So the shower and food and king-sized bed with soft, clean, comfortable sheets and a great TV all helped to ease my pain – not to mention some much-needed Tylenol. Now all I had to do was get to Boston the next day in time for Riverside’s holiday party that evening. I figured that since I had a chance to make it, I really should, given all the support I had received from my Riverside friends during the trip.
I made it to the holiday party, a full six days of driving straight from Newport Beach, California, but not before getting two – count ‘em, TWO – speeding tickets in upstate New York. One was bad enough, but two? Two was just downright pathetic. I needed to chill out, big time, and the cop who stopped me the second time, just before the Massachusetts border, did the trick. He was not a happy guy.
I gave him my usual sincere apology, saying that I had been on a long road trip from California and just wanted to get home to my family – all of which was true, but didn’t excuse my speeding – and I promised to slow down. He just looked at me, deadpan. “You may or may not slow down,” he said, in a low, scary-serious voice. “But I know one thing. You’re coming out of this with a ticket.” Gulp. Well, that responsible New York State Trooper did, indeed, put the fear of God into me. I set my cruise control at 67 and kept it there all the way through Massachusetts until I got to Cambridge. Yes, I can be taught – eventually.
I arrived at my beloved home in Cambridge at about 8:30 PM, got out of my car, and nearly kissed the sidewalk. I brought most of my stuff inside, took a shower, threw on some clothes, and headed right back out the door again to go to my rowing club’s holiday party, where I was greeted with the nicest, warmest welcome imaginable, and even got to pose for some pictures with my band, The Blades, who were doing the gig.
The Toledo Nose Incident and the two speeding tickets were a bummer, but they did nothing to take away from the magnitude of this trip, which I can say with confidence was one of the greatest things I have ever done in my entire life.