On the Road Again

YREKA, Calif. — Football is such a friend to me.

There I was somewhat bereft after dumping Smartacus back at the College of Trees, eating Indian food at a truck stop near Mt. Shasta, heading home, as parents do, like teary flocks of migrating geese.

There is no cultier cult than modern American parents. It’s almost a creed.

You can see it in the way they load the carts at Target. There’s a lot of love in a Target cart — the push pins, the pillows, the cheesy snacks. The dads look doomed, hunched over the carts, as their kids pick out $200 comforters for their dorm rooms.

Then there are the goodbye hugs. “Go to class. Be sure to brush. See you at Thanksgiving.”

Moms and dads hold them a moment too long, comb the backs of their heads with their hands — smoothing, holding, smoothing.

Sigh me a river.

Hours after all that, I am at this honky-tonk motel, alone again. Smartacus has been such a sidekick. Good to see him back in the big university, that mansion of the minds. It’s his happy place.

Fortunately, on the motel TV, my oldest friend – football.

The Trojans are playing the Sun Devils, who are giving the Golden Boys of college football a bit of a scare. Out on the tarmac, Caleb Williams, their prima ballerina, is pivoting this way and that, dodging flying tacklers, preparing for takeoff.

A row of shirtless dolts in body paint cheer from the stands.

Football, right? It’s the only sport that makes us shed our clothes.

Listen, I’m not always a thousand percent sure there’s a God, but I know there’s Satan because he runs a string of budget motels up and down the West Coast where I always land when I’m alone on the road.

I don’t think so much of myself that I need anything fancy. I’m fine with basic, Mary-and-Joseph accommodations. Free wi-fi and a molded shower? I’m happy. Cigarette burns in the nightstand? So?

Of course, sometimes I take adventure travel a tad too far. On the way up, Smartacus slept with a 9-iron under his pillow.

I explain that there’s an unpleasant side to American life he seldom sees. I also explain that every penny counts in a world where leadership seems so broken that no one is looking out for anyone. Honestly, if motel soaps and cheeseburgers get any smaller, they will cease to exist.

In a pinch, I always figured I could get work on some sports desk, updating box scores and  team standings. Now, that way of life is gone too. Like radiologists and blacksmiths.

Tell me, what isn’t going away? Please advise. I’d like to pass the tip along to Mister Smartacus, my only hope for the future.

Gawd, there I go getting all existential again. Hate when that happens. Really there should be a nose spray or an ointment.

Meanwhile, a few notes from the road:

Portland has the most-creative, most-affordable food in the nation. Eugene’s restaurants serve mostly rubble.

The good news? I got an epic plate of hash browns just north of Redding. Black Bear Diners are a chain that doesn’t feel like a chain. They sling heaping plates of hash that smell faintly of grandma’s kitchen and logging trucks.

Just remember: When prayers and hope fail you, there are always hash browns.

Yep, on the road again – like Kerouac, like Kuralt — weaving along a misty mountain interstate, past forests thick with secrets.

Oh frupp, is that sleet?

Miles to go before I rest. After a week up here, my suitcase smells like a Pittsburgh Steeler. And not in any good sense.

Gotta get home to L.A. before the first frost. Don’t want to lose the farm. Then I’m really screwed.

Keep the faith, White Fang. I’m on my way. Be home by dinner if I don’t get yet another nail in my tire.

Look, the only thing that ever mattered to me was people (and dogs). I’ve paid a high price for that. People are very expensive. Turns out I should’ve been collecting material things — laddering my bonds, investing in slapdash senior housing. That sort of thing. Oh well.

My work with young Smartacus is done for now. Takes a while to build a boy. Far as I’m concerned, he’s a masterpiece, though he could use a little work on ancient Greek history, Cleisthenes to Alexander.

I just hope Smartacus now finds a brown-eyed college girl with a good heart and a solid sense of mischief. Life’s too short for scolds and school marms.

I want him smiles.

And hugs.

So long, kid.

Hi gang, “Bear Whisperer” Steve Searles and I will discuss and sign our new book, on:

Tuesday (Oct. 3) at 7 pm, at Vroman’s on Colorado.

Wednesday (Oct. 4) at 7 pm, at Barnes & Noble at the Grove

Both events are free.

Friday, Oct. 6, at 7 pm, we’ll be at {pages} a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, one of the finest neighborhood book shops in the nation. That is a ticketed event, $35, but includes a copy of the book and a possible beer with the authors at the famed Ercole’s after the event. Click here for info. To order the book online, please click here.

Cheers (and thanks for putting up with me)!

18 thoughts on “On the Road Again

  1. Loved every single word of this one. A perfect gem to warm the heart and make us smile. Target and Satan’s string of motels cannot defeat a dad with so much love in him.

  2. What isn’t going away? Babies! Catty Cakes and all the other beautiful babies with their pure hearts. Love them and inhale their goodness.

    See you Tuesday. I have my copy waiting for your autograph. Need a good read. That’s not going away either.

  3. Loved this. Reminded me of when we dropped our son at UC Davis in 1997. I cried all the way to Monrovia down I-5. Now we’re half a mile from him in Sacramento, so I ordered a book for you to sign at Vroman’s and they’re going to mail it to me! Hugs! Wish I could be there on Tuesday to see you in person!

  4. Another hammerhead on the nail. I’ve done that lonely drive home from Portland after drop off, and the mist in my eyes lasts until I cross the state line. Figures Satan owns those overnight shanties. Thanks Chris.

  5. Wow. Who knew a year of Study Skills, burger-flips, a dad & a dog could conjure such a deep & glowing transformation?!? Great to see Smartacus back in the Trees he loves. He is clearly where he belongs. Go Trees!

  6. This is beautiful prose, as close to the bone as anyone of my gender I have read. Immediate; of this time. You put me there with you. Then is now. I see you clearly. You had me at “Mansion of the minds. It is that, indeed and in deed; or should be. You think you got “ All Existential”, then professed the primacy of people and dogs. Making them fit is magic; or maybe they just do. Football and hashbrowns be damned in such lofty company. By the way, I can think of another sport that makes you shed your clothes. Aaahhhh those mischievous brown eyed girls….

    …Mischief has a way of making sport seem existential, sometimes, in the mansion of our mind; don’t you know.

  7. You always make me smile, and being a mom, sometimes my eyes leak. I’ve been here in Eugene for almost 20 years and still get a kick out of Move In Week at the University. Locals have learned to avoid Target, Bed Bath and Beyond and Trader Joes, but if we do happen to be out there, we look fondly on the little scenes like those you mention.
    I read your column in the Times for many years, both as a fan and as a fellow journalist (feature writer at Star News and SGV Trib), you’ve always offered a good read, but I must take issue with one comment. As an expat Southern Californian now abiding in Eugene and having a son who is a chef (formerly of Noli, Mame, Hay Baby and now Same Same), we Eugenians are pretty happy with our growing food scene. Granted, we’re not a big city like Portland, but we’re pretty big on good food given the size of our town. I’m sure Smartacus will not go hungry. Just check out https://www.facebook.com/groups/eugenefoodies/?multi_permalinks=10161302991535152%2C10161300732680152%2C10161300270885152&notif_id=1695147843421079&notif_t=group_activity&ref=notif

    1. Sorry on the food rip. I’m just not getting to the right places, obviously. A little upset over the fact they’ve leveled the Glenwood and Excelsior, two of the better hangouts. I suppose those off-campus high-rises are needed, but there’s a right way to do it.

      1. I can agree with you on that but the housing situation in Eugene is a bigger problem than finding places to eat, unfortunately. There is a second Glenwood on Willamette according to their website. I don’t eat out very often anymore, but I like Marche for breakfast (well, any meal there is good) and The Davis for dinner. Marche reminds me of The Chronical in Pasadena back in the 80s, if that’s around anymore. There are some good places in The Whit, and across the freeway in downtown Springfield (Springtucky as its frequently called by the locals) there’s a bevy of restaurants that have sprouted up on Main because it’s getting too expensive to find a place for startups in Eugene.
        Anyway, the next time you come up, if you are interested, I can put you in touch with Sherry McCutchen, one of the moderators on the Foodies’ site and she can give you some references if you tell her what you like. She got her food training in New Orleans and knows good food.
        Keep writing. You’re my California connection, not that I’d ever move back, but I enjoy being reminded of the place where I was born, lived and worked until I retired. Now I’m more into pine trees, moss and lichen and cloudy skies than palm trees, bougainvillea and eternal summer.

  8. Awww – the bittersweetness of dropping one’s offspring off at college – especially for a second-chance year! Smartacus somehow looks like he has matured and sure he learned a lot and will thrive!

    As for the sports desk – so much change! I began my career working at a local daily newspaper in OC at what my friends in editorial called the “dark side” (advertising sales). Loved every minute of it and being a part of the energy of the paper and the heartbeat of the community. While my life took another direction, I always dreamed of returning to that world. Now, we live on the Central Coast and the local paper is hanging on by a shoestring and doesn’t even have an office anymore. Oh well – more time to enjoy my grandkiddos! But, glad you have found a way to continue following your passion and entertaining us with your astute and witty takes on life!!!

  9. Chris, what a beautiful send off to your son. I know that part of the state well having camped in Mt Shasta since the mid80s and now, a daughter just outside of Eugene. Here’s to Smartacus, long may he thrive.

  10. My wife and I have done the drop-off with two boys and it never got any easier, (our third is a firefighter with Cal Fire up near Redding)! They’ve all sprouted up to be good men, so I guess our heartache was good in the long run! Speaking of Redding, and don’t laugh, the best Chinese food around is at the Redding airport! Don’t remember the name, but there’s just the one airport and the restaurant is up on the second floor. Our son turned us on to it, and all the locals know about it. The food was amazing, and reasonably priced. Try it next time you’re driving through Redding!

  11. Our youngest sons are the same age, and I don’t know what’s in store for them. AI is going to turn this world in directions we haven’t even thought of. And while I worry for my son, I believe in him. I know you believe in Spartacus. You been there all the while to help build that boy. And you built him so well that he will figure out his way.

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