row2k Features
Coughing My Way to California
November 21, 2012
John Tracey

West Texas

I've kind of lost track of time and dates, which I suppose is a good thing. I'm trying to remember when I arrived in San Antonio. Fortunately, I made mention of dates in my last blog, so upon reading back I now know that I arrived on Saturday, November 10. It is now November 20. These dates are important to me because they constitute the middle of this Epic Journey. Moreover, they account for the toughest times I've experienced since leaving Boston, if you don't count the cold, rainy night on the leading edge of Hurricane Sandy in Roanoke, Virginia (nothing bad happened, it's just that I was stuck in Roanoke, Virginia).

When I arrived in San Antonio, allegedly to spend some fantastic quality time with one of my oldest friends, Stewart Hilliard, and to row in the Great Rowing City of Austin, Texas, I quickly developed one of the nastiest sore throats I've ever had. That's usually the harbinger of a ginormous bug, and, sure enough, what followed was the occurrence of the Epic Virus that was to plague me for 10 days during the Epic Rowing Road Trip (ERRT). Essentially it was the Cold From Hell.

I did manage to get my sick, sorry ass up to Austin to row, because, had I not done that, I would have crossed the entire width of Texas, from Beaumont to El Paso, without once putting my boat in the water. And besides, I had an invitation through my friend Cait Hart to row out of the Austin Rowing Club, which is right downtown in the nicest boathouse I've ever seen – and that includes Marin (which has no shortage of money). The night after I rowed, I ran a high fever, which meant that it probably wasn't a good idea. But to Hell with it – I'm still glad I did. I went to the ER the next day (hospital was right next door to the La Quinta hotel, at which I was holed up for 5 long nights), and they did a bunch of tests and came back with, "No flu." That was a relief. There was still hope for the completion of the ERRT.

My five nights of uninterrupted hacking, sneezing, wheezing, dribbling, drooling mucus-laden Hell in San Antonio were followed by three of the same in Tucson, Arizona. The difference, however, was that, in Tucson, I stayed with my cousin Sally, and she provided a wonderful cozy room and house in which to recuperate. But I was still up all night hacking my guts out – much to my poor cousin's dismay, I suspect, as I fear I kept her up. I spent one more night being subjected to this routine at my hotel in Irvine, California (note the lack of any car camping…). But finally, the skies cleared, the seas parted, and, last night, with the help of some Walmart-brand Nyquil pills, I had my first full night of uninterrupted sleep in about a week and a half. Praise Jesus and whomever else might be listening.

But enough about me. Oh wait… okay, enough about the illness. The journey did continue, whether I was sick or not, and I still experienced some interesting, if not altogether exciting, adventures. First of all, let me briefly describe the northern suburbs of San Antonio, which are from another galaxy. The city is surrounded, like most, by concentric freeway circles – two to be exact. Then, as you would expect, there are spokes from the city outward. That's all fine and good.

But in San Antonio, at least the part I stayed in, they've seen fit to line all of the highways with "frontage roads." Cars travel almost as fast on the frontage roads as they do on the highways, and the existence of these demonic inventions makes it nearly impossible to get on and off the highways (plus, the on and off ramps are often hidden). Moreover, the frontage roads are lined with malls. Endless malls. It's a sea of Walmarts, Kohls, cheesy restaurant chains and office parks. I had a bitch of a time figuring it all out, even with a GPS and Google Maps.

The drive from San Antonio to Tucson – an Epic Drive – in terms of distance covered – (in the ERRT thus far, it's matched only by going from Tennessee to Tampa in one day) – was really quite amazing. It was one of my best drives of the trip for some reason. I had received many warnings about the horrors of endless nothingness in West Texas, but I absolutely loved the scenery. It was from another planet. I also figured out that taking my rigger and oars off of the roof and putting them in the car made for better gas mileage (hello aerodynamics!).

Don't tell the cops, but I got my car up to 125 at one point, with boat on top. I decided to back it off back down to 85-90 so as not to risk ripping my boat to shreds. (Point of interest: the Van Dusen single scull rides as steady as a rock, except when passing trucks, which has become the bane of my driving existence on this trip.) I just felt a kind of meditative peacefulness on the drive, despite the incessant dribbling and coughing. I pretty much coughed my way through the American Southwest on a combination of massive cold meds and gummy bears.

Next observation – Tucson, Arizona is a really nice city. It's clean. The weather in November is absolute bliss. And the people are amazing. If you're planning on becoming a Snowbird, this is a city you should consider. Oh wait, except if you're a rower. Okay scratch that – there's no water anywhere. But if you give up rowing and become a Snowbird, then move to Tucson.

I had my worst coughing fits in Tucson, as the demons of the Virus From Hell were being exorcised by the natural course of human bodily events. So I got out of there as soon as I could muster some energy and headed West yet again, for the Promised Land of Southern California.

This drive encompassed the desert Southwest, the High Desert of California, and the fascinating decline through the valleys into the Los Angeles basin. I have heard and read so much about LA, that finally to arrive, by car, with my boat on the roof, all the way from Boston, gave me a pretty damn cool feeling. The roads are enormously wide – all highways have at least six lanes, each way, and everyone drives really fast. People change lanes all the time. I was perfectly at home, as anyone who's driven with me can attest.

And yet, almost everyone is very courteous. No honking, no flipping of birds. It's incredible. You can drive fast, weave in and out, and no one will threaten your life. It's all part of the Great Driving Culture of Southern California. People in the left-hand lanes move over when you come up behind them, and they do it quickly. All of the side roads are also wide, well lit, and perfectly paved and groomed. Not a shred of litter. Street signs are huge and, in Orange County at least, lit up at night.

I concluded that the reason for all of this Great Order of Traffic was that, in Southern California, the Car is King (check out this VW squareback, which was my very first car. People may go to church and worship this or that deity, but the fact of the matter is that the real religion in Southern California is the Automobile. People worship their cars here – the car is the most valued, most needed possession. You can't get anywhere without a car, and the weather, culture and mindset combine to make driving and owning a car the most important part of human livelihood. Don't get me wrong, houses are a close second, but cars are, without question, Numero Uno in Southern California.

So now to the rowing. I did promise to write about some rowing for this rowing web site, did I not? Well, it's been a bit tough given the coughing and sputtering and all, but in the last 10 days, I've had three fantastic rows.

The first was in Austin where, despite being sick, I enjoyed an amazing afternoon on the Colorado River. Austin is one cool city, and the river and enthusiasm for rowing make for a great rowing town. The people at Austin Rowing Club couldn't have been nicer. I would so go to Austin for the Head of the Colorado (held on the last Saturday of October), given the chance. There's also some wicked cool nightlife right nearby after the race. I walked down Rainey Street, where I had dinner at Banger's Sausage House and Beer Garden, as the sun was setting, and it was lined with houses and funky little bars, which are built into former houses. All the guys are nice, all the women are gorgeous (and as friendly as can be), and the food is cheap and delicious. Yes, Texas can be a pretty cool place.

In the next update: a row in Newport California, with Olympic gold and silver medalist Xeno Muller.

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