1990 was simply the best year of my life. So much happened during that time that it will take an awfully long time to put all my thoughts on paper (on-screen). So, this time, I'll just concentrate on the major event of the year: my mindblowing trip to California. It was the Summer, about late July, and I was in-between grades 7 and 8. I was 12 years old. I am always excited about a trip down to California. It had been just two years since my last trip with my mother and brother to Disneyland by plane, so it wasn't as though I had been deprived of vacations there. But this time, we would drive down to Cali. This was the big road trip! My father had bought a Mazda MPV shortly before we made our plans, and so 7 of us would soon pack ourselves into the van for a two-week trip. Here's the cast of passengers for you to ponder:
Me; my 14-year-old brother Greg; My middle-aged dad, Richard, who had decided to quit smoking for the trip; his common-law spouse Sue; their child and my half-sister Kathrine, who was 3 at the time; Sue's 15-year-old son Jamie, the alpha bully of the car; and her other son Bobby, 16. A potent combination.
We planned almost everything: how long travelling would take, where we would stop, which hotels to book, how much things would cost (each of the kids got about a $75 spending allowance and a clothing allowance)... and then we set on our way.
By noon that very first day, I had decided, upon hitting Bellis Fair in Bellingham, WA, exactly what I wanted to spend my entire combined allowances for the entire trip on: a pair of the snazzy new Reebok Pumps. Impulse buy my ass! Spending prudence be damned! These shoes held me rapt like a teenager at a bordello. I remember spending half an hour hanging in and around the shoestore trying to convince my dad to fork over the cash. Meanwhile, my "brothers" had already gone through the rest of the mall, buying the cool new American things. I think the only other thing I bought at the mall was the new single from the 2 Live Crew, Banned in the USA, which I thought was def and all that...
Speaking of music, nothing will bring back 1990 like the music of the time. As we wound our way to California, we tuned into the radio stations along the way, and watched MTV in the motel rooms. Ahh, I remember them all. MTV showed their videos so many times a day, they all got burned into my memory. There was Faith No More's weird epic Epic, The Time's annoying Jerk Out, Poison's awful Unskinny Bop, 2 Live Crew's "funny" Banned in the USA of course, Bon Jovi's atmospheric Blaze of Glory, and of course near the end, Snap's fantastic mega-hit, The Power. All these songs place me there and take me back ten years, but none more so than The Power. That song was the early '90s for me. So, this was our musical backdrop as we headed down and up the Pacific coast.
The names of all the cities and places at which we stopped escape me now, but we spent the first night at Olympia's Westwater Inn. It appeared all new and snazzy until we spent the night there; the walls were paper-thin, and we heard all the voices and giggles of the people in the adjacent room. That evening also, was the first bad sign of what was to come. We ate dinner at the restaurant, but Sue and Dad weren't getting along. At the table, finally she called him "cheap" (for some reason) and went back to their room. (Calling my dad cheap is like calling Jesus too self-absorbed. My dad was paying for all of us on the trip, spending lavishly on our accommodations, our allowances, everything. He had a budget for the whole trip, and by the end, he would end up paying thousands more than expected.) With family spats like this, Sue's sons usually started to take sides with her, cleaving the vacationing group in two.
We drove down through Seattle, probably stopping for the night somewhere right above the Washington-Oregon border. I remember driving over the border bridge the next day, with the windows rolled all the way down to cool all us down. Oregon was pretty cool. We rented some dune buggies somewhere in the middle of the state, and spent an hour riding all over the undulating expanses of sand dunes. That was cool, but I remember getting lost ten minutes before we had to get back to the rental office. I got disoriented, so I had to judge where I was from the position of the sun. It was late afternoon, and I started driving with the sun behind me, so it would be east. The dunes within boundaries are about a mile wide, and there is a flat service road on the side. Since I had no time left, I sped along the road back to the office, and even at a high speed, it still took some time. America is the perfect country in which to get lost a thousand different ways.
After this point, I believe, Bobby tried his hand at driving, to give my dad a rest. He wound our way deftly through twisting and high hilltop passes. At one point, we stopped at a roadside stand that sold tie-dyed shirts. My dad bought for himself a nice white shirt just with yellow splotches on it. It looked so appealing that I asked for it. He gave it to me and bought himself another shirt, this time with far more colour in it. What does this order of preference tell us?
Sue then took over driving, and along the way, she got into a fight with Greg, who called her a freeloader or something like that. Upon hearing this, she pulled right over to the side of the road and demanded an apology from Greg before we would get moving again. As luck had it, the shoulder of the road was at an unguarded cliffside; literally two feet more to the right, and we would have rolled off the edge of the cliff. Everybody was complaining (a thinly veiled pleading) for Sue just to get going and forget about it. And since I was on the right side of the van in the back, I pled most of all. Greg grudgingly apologized just to get us going.
We continued through Oregon and California, stopping at various places, like the giant redwoods. I can't remember a lot of names anymore (which is why it was kind of a bad idea to wait ten years before writing this all down), but a few places stand out in my mind. One night in California was spent in some "Fort" town... Fort Bragg? Fort Ed? Anyway, it was cool. We had an entire bungalow-style house rented out. Some notable things that I remember from that place was the cool indoor swimming pool in the main building, and the fact that we didn't have enough beds in which to sleep. I had to sleep with my sister, who, I definitely remember, wet the entire bed. Another night was truly awful. We had made bookings in all the motels along the way, including one right after a park in northern California. I forget the name of the park; let's call it "Clementine Park". Well, we booked a motel for "Clementine", California, which we assumed was right outside of the park. Well, we arrived at the town due south of "Clementine Park", and we couldn't find the motel that we had booked. It turned out that the real "Clementine", California was several hundred miles to the northeast of this town. We searched late at night for any motel or hotel that had vacancies.
We eventually found one, but it looked just like the resort out of The Shining: a four-storey colonial house in a U-shape. Inside, the rooms were something out of the 1920s, with black-and-white televisions in every other room (only Dad's room had a TV), and old telephones without dialers, just a flat plastic disc in place of a rotary dial. You had to lift the receiver to call the operator to place a call. The courtyard at the back of the motel (U-shaped, remember) looked like a burial site for old beds and lumber. We shuddered our way through the night after eating super hot nachos and salsa at a restaurant on the docks. We left the motel the next morning and foreverafter dubbed it the Bates Estate.
The next day was the best of the three. We stopped at our next motel, in a place called (I think) Coos Bay. It was a beautiful resort, with flat, sandy beaches, very strong cool winds, and tidal pools that extended into the distance. We each (boys in one room, adults and baby in another) got rooms that were like narrow New York apartments, with the notable exception that the view out of the windows was a westward look out past the California coast. We swam in the indoor pool, played with water guns and sling shots on the beach, and flew kites in the wind.
We drove through San Francisco, not spending the night. All we did there was seek out some famous park or flower garden, and so we spent a good fifteen minutes trying to find a parking space near the park. The park itself wasn't much cop. It was boring as hell to me, and I'm sure my elders felt the same way about that place as well. The only highlight about San Francisco during the brief time that we spent there was when I checked out the bathrooms at the park, and spotted the nice, poetic graffiti: "Fill me with every inch of your love." This being San Francisco, and this graffiti being in the men's bathroom and not the women's (although I don't know... maybe it could possibly have been there too. Anyway...), I figured at the time that there were gay men all around the park, just waiting for somebody to get excited by the graffiti. Anyway, I just thought I should mention that.
Eventually we reached Anaheim, home to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. We stayed in a couple of motels close to Disneyland for three days, checking out the main drag, eating at Tony Roma's, playing some mini-golf, and... what else? Disneyland was as good/bad as ever, but I lost my other day pass on Big Thunder Mountain, so I begged my dad to let me go back to the motel room. I didn't tell him what had happened until I broke down crying. I have a theory that the three most common things at Disneyland are lineups, fighting families, and crying children.
Knott's Berry Farm was also a blast. The new ride in town was the Boomerang, another fancy roller-coaster. I think that over our vacation, we must have picked up at least a dozen of those black and neon-pink "Boomerang" drinking cups. That's another sight which is etched into my mind. By far, the funniest thing that happened to me at KBF occurred on the river rafting ride. I never had any of the respect of Greg, Bobby, or Jamie, because I was the youngest and "uncoolest" tag-along brother there. (As an aside, I remember that on the same day I was wearing a neon-green t-shirt tucked all the way into my shorts. Jamie took offence to this, so he jeered at me and showed me the "proper" way to tuck in a shirt: lifting the shirt a little ways out of the shorts, so that a small bit hangs over all around. I didn't think the difference was very significant.)
So, I was uncool to them. But on the ride, we all got splashed by the waves, and some kid in the same raft, said (obviously showing off) "Oh, no, my BKs!" (British Knights were the other "cool" shoes during the Summer of 1990, being endorsed at the time by MC Hammer.) I did him one better as I said casually, "Oh, no, my Pumps!" (Reebok Pumps, remember, the coolest and most expensive shoe of the summer, also the most desired by adolescents.) Bobby was in the raft with me, and I think he was impressed by my "adultlike" one-upmanship.
On our last two days in Cali, we drove to Reno, Nevada, to see what it was like (and promptly decided it was crap; what a depressing scene!), and went to Universal Studios. Universal was just slated for disaster. Nobody really wanted to go; we were just going through the motions of doing the tourist thing in California. We first ate an expensive lunch at the Tony Roma's there, and then we went around the park. It was okay for me, but I'd done the same thing two years earlier and nothing had changed. On our way back to the van, we were on the tour car. My brother and I were near the front, and a few cars back, we could hear our sister Kathrine crying. Dad was trying to hold her still, and she was wriggling dangerously over the side of the car near the wheels. Before we got into the car, Sue was yelling at Dad, Bobby was taunting him, and Dad was trying to keep cool. However, he exploded on the Interstate driving back that night. The trip and the bickering and the nicotine cravings and all the other bullshit finally made him snap (an eventuality). He started crying that he had had enough, too much. He was bashing the steering wheel and the console, and swerving madly around the highway. Bobby and Jamie were still taking verbal potshots at him, and I looked over and saw my brother Greg crying. After a few minutes of this, nobody had calmed down. I distinctly remember deciding in my head at that point that I should start crying too, so that all noticing me would hopefully calm down. So, I started covering my face and deliberately crying and sobbing (it was a weird scene in that minivan but the strategy itself was the weirdest of all). Dad saw me first in the rear-view mirror, and got ahold of himself in asking me if I was okay. I think we all just collapsed into bed that night.
The next day was like the morning after sex, but far worse. We had all exposed our dark sides to each other and had feasted on our mutual hatred like jackals. Now, we were driving to San Diego. We stayed in one of my favourite motels, the Clarion. (At least it was called the Clarion at that time). It had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a hot tub, continental breakfasts, and credit card-sized plates as room keys.
In San Diego, I remember one event that embarrasses me now that I think of it. We were eating at a McDonald's in the city, and at this time, the happy meals came with cool Super Mario Bros. 3 figurines. I remember looking next to us, and seeing a family opening up their happy meal. Coveting their popping-Mario-on-a-spring, I asked the mother of the other family if my sister could have their Mario toy. The lady couldn't answer me, because she spoke only Spanish. So I proceeded to mime to her an outright lie that my sister really wanted the toy. What a wicked boy I could be sometimes! My plea was rightly refused. At the San Diego Zoo we got along better as a family, borne perhaps just out of fear. Perhaps we all understood the 'clarion call' of our family's breakdown as we checked into the motel. Ha ha.
Well, if we really wanted to murder each other, we would have had the climate to assist us, since we were stopping for a day at a town in the middle of Death Valley, one of the hottest places in America. It was hot in Death Valley; I mean HOT! Hot and dry. The air conditioning in the minivan broke down trying to keep the cabin cold. The air conditioners in the motel rooms didn't work well either, and it was even too hot to go swimming comfortably, since the sun heated up the water too much. I had a great time there.
On the way home, the first night after Death Valley, we stayed in some run-of-the-mill motel in some Californian town where Dolly Parton was evidently playing that night. Or was it Linda Ronstadt? Who cares? Anyway, we spent the afternoon and evening having water wars from the balcony of our room to the parking lot below. Those above launched water balloons at those below, who brandished Super Soakers in retaliation. That was fun. I remember walking over to the convenience store beside the motel in my bare feet, and buying a PayDay bar, just to see what it was like. "This is crap," I thought. "It's nothing but whole peanuts held together by salt!"
The night after that, we stayed in a mountain-pass town. Actually, no, there were two towns in the mountains. The first motel was a standard one-level complex in an L-shape, with an old-fashioned restaurant at one end of it. I have a hazy memory about it, about what happened or why, but I remember sitting at a table in that restaurant, sipping something like a pop or a soda float, and thinking about life. About the reality of the world. I guess having some traumatic times makes one realize that the world is changing and becoming more complex, and that's what I was thinking about.
The second night near the mountains, we stayed at a nice two-storey bungalow-like motel, where we did nothing but eat pizza, drink cola, and watch TV, while Dad and Sue spent some 'private time' downstairs. Whether it was to fight or make love, who knows? I went for a nighttime drive in the van with Bobby. We had no idea where we were going, but after a while we were in the main part of town. Everything was closed, of course; it was pitch black at night. You really could see the stars in remote areas, a view which our city lives have robbed from us.
The next day, I remember the place well. It was Eureka, California! Eureka! Or was it Yreka? Anyway, the only thing that we could say eureka! about was that Dad let us rent a videogame system and some games. So, Sue drove us into town to find a rental store. Not finding anything, she went to a mall and stopped the car alongside a group of girls our age, and asked them where there was a place to rent Nintendo games. All of us boys were deeply embarrassed by this, and we no doubt sunk our faces into our shirts to escape the humiliation. You just don't ask cute girls where your boys can get some Nintendo! In the store, we had an actual choice whether to rent a Nintendo system, or the snazzy new Sega Genesis. I wanted to get the Nintendo, simply because it had hundreds of great games from which we could all choose; however, all the other guys declared that it was Genesis or nothing, so I was outnumbered. They chose Last Battle and Tommy Lasorda Baseball, two thoroughly boring games; Last Battle because it is just sheer crap, and Lasorda because I can't stand most sports games, especially baseball. They played baseball all evening while I just lay on the bed, looking forlornly at the yet-unplayed Nintendo game which I had bought in Bellingham. Of course: we all have ulterior motives...
At the same motel there was an outdoor, but covered, swimming pool. It was covered in thick plastic like a sealed tent, and there were double doors at the entrance of the pool. You felt the 'whoosh' of changing air pressure inside the small chamber as you opened the inner door. We moved on... It was a long, straight drive northward to our next stop, some standard motel with another nice swimming pool. While some folks watched TV (always MTV), I swam in the pool. I caught a weird episode there. In the pool was a young girl, maybe 10 or 11, who was enjoying herself like everyone else. All of a sudden, a police officer came into the pool area, and questioned her. He started swearing at her, this young girl, and telling her to get off the property before he takes her to the station. So, apparently she wasn't a resident at the motel and had just snuck into the pool; still, I thought less of America when I saw how its cops addressed its children in such a way.
Onward and upward. I think we were in Washington by the next day. Maybe we stayed at one more motel in the interval... Anyway, our last night in America was spent again in Olympia, this time at a different motel. It was a nice one, this time, laid out in a townhouse style, with suites encircling a grass courtyard, and a pool nearby. We relaxed in and out of doors, at the pool, and in front of the TV. I walked with Jamie over to a grocery store to get some food and pop. Along the way, he lit up a cigarette, which seemed like a shocking transgression and revelation to me at the time. I had no idea previously that he smoked. Well, what do you expect, when by that time, even my dad had admitted that it was a mistake to try to give up smoking during that trip, and that cigarettes were essential to his sanity at the time? A great message. The children of the world will never stop smoking as long as the adults of the world continue to smoke. That's my opinion.
So, we finished our trip the next day, stopping at Bellis Fair one last time to do even more shopping. My dad had extended all of our allowances, so we could get even more things in Bellingham on the way back. Laden with goods, we crossed the border and headed home. Dad dropped off Greg and me at our house, and he went home with Sue and her kids. We were in America for two weeks, and it was a life-changing experience for Dad and Sue, as much as it was for me, I'm sure. I wonder how any of our lives would be different had we not embarked on such a doomed and wonderful trip.
A couple of days later, my mom planned a family vacation to another hot spot, Grand Coulee, Washington. However, I refused to go. I didn't want to go on another vacation; I was completely 'vacationed out' was what I told my mom. I said that she should go with Greg and have a good time, but I didn't really feel like going anywhere anymore. I'm surprised that I would make a decision like that, and have such an understanding of what a mental toll that trip to California took on me, at the age of twelve; but I'm sure we all have felt the feeling of mental and emotional exhaustion at some point early on. Greg and Mom went to Grand Coulee and had a good time bonding together. I spent a week, mostly somewhat bored, at my grandparents' place and had plenty of 'private time' to spend just thinking to myself. This was still preferable. I would be entering a new school and heading in a slightly new direction in life starting in Grade 8, in another week. Just some time being bored before the big rush everafter, was good enough for me.
So, here I sit now, typing at a computer in the same house in which I spent a week in solitude in August, 1990. Beside my computer is some loose U.S. change left over from my last little road trip down to the States with my friend. By sheer coincidence, I have a Lincoln penny from 1977; and a dime from 1990, with a profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on it. Can I make a connection? What does this whole tale mean? Does it seem more to you than just an unconnected string of motels and pools, MTV and motels and pools, strewn across the highway? Some would say that America is exactly, merely that.
Of course, I haven't brought up the word 'nostalgia', because that's a given. Of course, I'm reveling in all this. But I'm writing it anyway; I have to. The past is speeding away from the station, and I know I'll never catch it. But I want to sketch a picture of that train now, while its features are still distinguishable; rather than later, when it will be a mere speck on the horizon.
--July 2000-January 2001