Travels with Smartacus. Part 6 or 7 (I forget).
After nearly three weeks on the road, I am left with some major questions: What happened to all the Stuckey’s? Without them, where am I supposed to buy a rubber tomahawk? Or big tin drums of pralines?
Also, for that matter, where are the Holiday Inns? Once in a while, you spot an overpriced Holiday Inn Express, as leaden an experience as exists in our nation today. It’s what the world would be like without cellos.
In the meantime, Smartacus and I are suffering though another night in a budget motel. We wake to the sound of old men coughing in the rooms around us, and I think, “Dear God, their poor wives.”
Yet here they all are, out and about like us, cowboying across Colorado, which is so vast and rich that we spent an entire day here.
Granted, no state offers as much as California. But Colorado comes pretty close.
First, we tour another college. The University of Denver drips money and prestige. All wrong for Smartacus, I think, and he ranks it third on the schools we’ve visited.
Then we hoof it down to Colorado Springs, which we liked a lot, but not the school. The University of Colorado has a satellite campus there, and it turns out to be a utilitarian place, toggle-bolted to a rocky hillside, not a tree in sight.
Half a college campus’s appeal is in the way the trees hunch over the quad like old disheveled poets. This one looks like a newly opened Panera.
Good side trip though. We take country highways back toward the interstate, through Breckenridge and some of the coolest western towns. It rained, really rained, fat drops pinging the cars, sending up tiny puffs of dust. Suddenly, the temp dropped to 50 degrees.
It is a long slog but one of the best of our road trip. Off to the left, a herd of bison. To the right, 100 horses. Creeks gushing everywhere. You could spend a pretty good summer exploring it all, with a kayak on the roof and a flyrod in the trunk.
In Colorado, most everyone has a beard, including the men, who are not that different in appearance from the women. No one makes eye contact, which is just how I like it.
In Grand Junction, we find a room for 80 bucks, and a couple of 10-ounce sirloins for $20. Now we’ve awakened to the rumble of coughing old men, as I drink my last cup of motel coffee, which tastes like it’s been brewed through a burro.
Ah, the wonders of the road – some glorious, some not.
Look, I don’t know where Smartacus will end up. He really liked Colorado State, in Fort Collins, and the University of Iowa clicked with him as well.
One question: Will he learn as much in a year of college as he has on this three-week road trip? Will the glint of Mt. Rushmore stay forever in his mind’s eye? Will he remember the U.S. presidents we discussed, what they added, what they screwed up?
Yep, great men screw up, just like the rest of us.
In any case, it’s been a pretty good trip … a moveable feast. I’m half inclined, when we finally pull into the driveway, to turn around and do this 5,300-mile journey all over again.
One of the appeals of this trip has been Smartacus and his eclectic play list. Toto? No kidding. Secretly, as with Barry Manilow, most everyone has a soft spot for Toto.
“I bless the rains down in Africaaaaaaa…”
Smartacus also likes the Dropkick Murphys, an Irish band that shouts a lot, as the Irish are prone to do, otherwise why would anyone listen?
In one song, they sing of missing a leg, which is ironic because I seriously pulled a schnitzel while water skiing in Chicago, and it’s still not right.
A major muscle – basically my main beam – the schnitzel runs from the back of my tongue to my toes. There is not a move I make that doesn’t ouch a little.
Then I aggravated the muscle pull while trying to give Susie “No Kiss” Kelly an obligatory good night hug-smooch. It was kind of like tackling Walter Payton, an armful of nothing.
“Ow,” I said, grabbing my schnitzel.
“Thanks!” she called after me as I limped toward the car. “You all right?”
As expected, my former best friend Doug, who drove the ski boat, hasn’t missed a chance to mock me. I warned him that I’m getting an attorney. The only restitution I seek is never having to ski with him again. But I am willing to sit on his pool deck drinking bourbon. I mean, I’m not out for blood.
As luck would have it, the torn schnitzel is connected to my driving foot. Every time we brake, I wince a little. That’s certainly no way to travel from the heartland to the coast, but I usually wince whenever I re-enter Los Angeles, for various reasons.
L.A. has never been my dream town, though this is where I made my life. My friends are here now, and my son and daughters. L.A. has none of the qualities a guy like me needs: affordable housing, decent diners, bait shops and old bookstores with ratty couches.
Yet, I like it well enough. If you have friends, you have everything. And once, a few years ago, I got to attend the Oscars with a girl named Posh.
End note: In my hometown, there’s a handsome old guy who looks like Burt Lancaster. Rides a bike everywhere. They say he has a beautiful mind, was the pride of the high school, the brightest graduate ever. Now, he just rides his bike all day.
“He seems happy,” I tell my sis.
She looks at me, shrugs, and thinks to herself: “Yeah, I guess.”
I am the pride of no town. My college contacts me only during fund-raising drives. On my SATs, I scored a .002 (basically what they give you for remembering a pencil)
I excel at only one thing: schmoozing. As I confided to my nieces, “During COVID, I’ve forgotten how to schmooze. What do I have left?”
Here’s an inventory: One bum leg, a Honda in need of an oil change, and all my boyish dreams.
Hey, at least it’s something.
End note II: Wish I had left a thank-you note for my sister, who hosted me and Smartacus for a week. She has six millennials living with her on and off, and she is still the most entertaining person in the house.
She has raised her six kids well: They are chatty, thoughtful, fun-loving and just generally amazing. Meanwhile, her husband beats me at everything, yet still I like him (no joking, most everyone beats me at everything).
Road trip diary: We’ve awakened to the rumble of coughing old men, as I drink my last cup of motel coffee, which tastes like it’s been brewed through a burro #ChrisErskineLA #roadtrips #coloradoTweet
And still she takes me in, my sis does. She feeds me tangy gin & tonics as I sit by the pool in my Vietnamese pajamas, doing my usual schtick — dad jokes and tired humor about life on the road.
“Sure I let Smartacus drive. But he sits on my lap.”
I am the poster child for kooky uncles with more stories than accomplishments.
Yet, my sister takes me in on these visits back home, a lush little Illinois village that wears its summers well.
And where the smartest guy in town never left.