Tuesday, April 29, 2008

On The Road, Part One

It was a dreaded day for a good deal of procrastinating Americans, up to their ears in 1040 forms, envelopes and doom. For my girlfriend Lauren and I, April 15 stood for a lot more than getting felt up by Uncle Sam. It was the beginning of our long journey across the country from Seattle to Austin, Texas in search for a new life.

It was the phoenix effect. It's been four months since I left the Army and seven months since returning from Iraq, rising from the ash of a fifteen month combat tour and immediately processing out as fast as humanly possible. Those who got out with me either stuck around in Washington or went back home within a few days. I found myself milling about the Seattle area while Lauren completed her necessary classes for a transfer. Within a few weeks, I was terribly bored with sitting around the house (odd, since a great deal of my time in Iraq was spent using my ass as a seat). My friend hooked me up with a full time customer service job at a prepaid cell phone company. Though I only spent a few months there, my soul was thoroughly crushed by the people calling in, disputing the use of their own phones and arguing to get as little as two minutes back on their plan. Thousands of miles away, our countrymen are in varying degrees of prolonged danger and exhaustion in the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq, away from their families and any semblance of normalcy. Back in the states, these people were hounding me for pennies like it was a great tragedy. I never felt so out of touch with fellow Americans in my life.

Lauren had to get away too. She lived her whole live in Seattle and needed a change of pace. She's a writer as well, dominating her school paper with columns that outshined her peers every week. She's terribly fond of music and wants to write about it in a professional capacity. What better place to go than the live music capital of America?

It was a sad affair to see her bid farewell to her family and friends. During my time post-service, they became my friends as I did my best to fit my broken pieces back into society. They were a great help in that regard. I already said goodbye to my family and friends four years ago, taking a step into the great unknown of military life. But this was Lauren's final hurrah in the place she called home for twenty-two years. It was hard on everybody.

Ah yes, tax day. April 15. Early in the morning, we set off! A route wasn't really planned, but we figured twelve days was enough to drive like hell during the day and see plenty of stuff in between. Our first point of interest was Yellowstone National Park, which I had never been to but Lauren had seen before. The weather was curious; still snowing along our route east to Wyoming. In mid-April. Being a Texas boy, I hadn't much experience driving in sleet and snow or using the mysterious and elusive second gear.

An inconvenient truth: driving through Snoqualmie Pass sucks

After narrowly escaping landslide territory, we passed through the hugely underrated city of Spokane to see one of man's greatest triumphs. I speak, obviously, of the world's biggest Radio Flyer wagon.

Also pictured: the world's second biggest screw, which is a close second behind a fifteen month deployment (heyo!)

Our travel companion and dog, Axel, saying goodbye to Washington State

Pledging to spend as little money as possible on our trip, Lauren and I decided to make sandwiches along the way, foregoing the usual romp of fast food joints and poorly lit diners. While the parking meter time dwindled to zero, we ate out of the car like hobos when she discovered her finger, cut the week before, was battling an infection and was turning all sorts of colors. Luckily for us she packed away an extensive first aid kit in the trunk and we got it cleaned up fairly well. We both hoped it wouldn't turn black and fall off between there and the Montana state line.

On we pressed through Idaho. Normally the word 'Idaho' invokes strong feelings of boredom and potatoes, but that day it meant terror. The snow was falling hard. It limited my visibility to twenty feet while the wind sent our Honda Accord tumbling like a Hot Wheels car in a toddler's pocket. The panhandle takes only an hour to cross, but it was a frightening sixty minutes as we raced across the highway at 40 MPH, hoping not to get stranded in a snow flurry.

Alas, Montana. What a beautiful drive. The snow stopped dramatically at the state line, further proof of which state God favors. It was getting dark and it was our goal to get as close to Yellowstone as possible before getting a hotel. Butte was our first stop, at the gorgeous Rocker Inn (reserve your room today!).

We left early in the morning, wanting to get a head start on the crowd at Yellowstone. We were met at the gate by a band of bison wandering about the grassy area next to the road. People were slowing down to take pictures and we followed suit.

A picture of a picture never turned out so well

Saying goodbye to our new friends, we drove to the park entrance where the ranger on duty told us the bad news: the park was mostly closed except for a road that dead-ended a few miles in. It would, however, open completely in three days. Til then, no Old Faithful. No feeding bears roast beef sandwiches. Disappointed at our timing and lack of planning, we went in anyway to see what we could.

Bison! Deer! Dogs on leashes! It was wildlife at its best. The air was cold and there was snow on the ground, but it proved a great place to walk around. Dodging varying sizes of animal shit, we frolicked along the paths and watched as Axel swam in freezing water and sniffed his heart out.

With all the colors, it kind of looks fake

It was over too quickly. We soon came to a barricade in the road that announced we couldn't go any further. It also blocked off our route to exit out of the south, so we'd have to go out the loooooooooong, long way by backtracking more than a hundred miles. It was gorgeous the first time we saw it, and by golly it was just as grand seeing everything again. Thanks, Wyoming, you treated us well.

Our next stop was Salt Lake City, where we arrived late at night after a long day of driving and listening to Stephen King stories on tape. We were passing through but found a dog park for Axel to get his run on. Axel likes people more than other dogs, so he's not too keen when other mutts try to play with him. When another dog got too close, Axel began to growl and snap at him. The owner said it was okay, but Lauren stepped in to separate them. Axel accidentally bit her on the knee in the process but had a face of immediate regret coming back to the car. We decided to opt out of seeing the huge Jesus statue downtown and headed straight for Las Vegas.

One of Lauren's friends lives in Vegas and invited us to stay with him for a couple nights (thanks Brandon!). Our goal was a small but vital one - to get to his house before The Office made its triumphant return to television. It was perfectly reasonable if we hurried along the highway.

Somewhere between Salt Lake City and the Nevada state line, I got pulled over speeding and was handed a $232 ticket. The pressure was on to win that back in Las Vegas.

We passed through the tip of Arizona on our way, through a corridor of mountains that were absolutely breathtaking. The road was cut through huge slabs of stone that completely blocked out the sun. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Out of the rock maze, we pulled into Las Vegas and made it to Brandon's couch well before The Office started, with a nice Chinese dinner to boot.

The next day, a gambler's paradise awaited me. I have been playing poker for only a couple of years now, but I never made it to a casino outside of Washington State. I chose Caesar's Palace for my first go at a poker seat while Lauren played the slots and drank beer at the sports betting lounge. I started with $100 in chips, my usual. I played tight, not playing many hands. I won a few and was up to nearly $200 when I pissed a good deal of it away with reckless playing. When I got down to $60, I called it quits and left the table.

With a little less money in my wallet, we caught lunch at the Star Trek Experience at the Hilton after being in two incredibly cheesy live action Star Trek adventures. I was always a Star Wars fan so their lingo was Greek to me.

Lauren knew the score when it came to Vegas. She celebrated her twenty-first birthday there and told me about the pirate show outside Treasure Island, which sounded heavenly. We waited outside until they let us know the show was canceled due to high winds. With no plans to drink and dinner behind us, the only thing left to do was more gambling.

I decided to try my luck at blackjack as Lauren hit the slots once again. I found a $10 table and got another hundred in chips. The lady I was sitting next to had to be in her 70s and fresh out of Florida. I had only played at Indian casinos and wasn't sure you could double down whenever you wanted to (I thought you could only double down between your second and third card). I had eleven after three cards and hit once again, getting a nineteen. What came out of her mouth stunned only me, the newcomer at the table.

"Jeez, you don't have any balls. Why didn't you double down?"

"Um. I didn't know you could there."

"God. No balls."

After that, I doubled down often, never dipping below $100.

I was doing well, betting $30-$60 at a time. I set aside my original $100 in case I lost my winnings. I had a net gain of $300 after twenty minutes and decided to call it quits. But not before doing what I always wanted: putting $100 on the line at once in a Las Vegas casino. I leaned over to Lauren, who had just joined me, and said, "this is my last hand." Out comes a nine and a two, totaling eleven. Fuck me, I had to double down (matching your bet for only one more card). I slid four green $25 chips next to my pile and tapped the felt table, signaling a hit. Out came a ten, making it twenty-one.

Whew! What a damn relief. I was paid my $200 and walked out of there with a profit of $400, paying off my poker losses and my ticket from the great state of Utah. I gladly bought Lauren and myself a beer outside the casino as the next show of death defying pirates was canceled once again.

Fast city, faster women

I beat you, Vegas! I beat you!

That's all for this week. Stay tuned for part two: California, Arizona and that place I like to call home, Texas.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Photo Story Monday - So Long, Washington!

Tomorrow I'll be leaving behind the state I've called home for the last four years. I came to Washington in the winter of 2004, stationed at Ft. Lewis outside of Tacoma. It was my first time west of New Mexico, and my first time away from home. I was starting a new life in the Pacific Northwest. Flying into Seattle, the change of pressure from my home state of Texas made it feel like someone was standing on my forehead. But I still couldn't take my eyes of the sparkling blue water of Puget Sound and the deep green trees sprinkled around long, car-filled bridges.

I didn't have much time to take kayaking lessons or frolic on the streets of Seattle. Though the unit I was assigned to had just gotten back from a tour in Iraq, we'd immediately start training together. Anyone who has spent time at Ft. Lewis knows the dreaded trails of Yakima Training Center, a sprawling training facility in eastern Washington. It's practically a desert, with its rolling hills choked by sagebrush.

We went there twice, each for two weeks, to train for our eventual deployment. Both time were ferociously cold and miserable. Showers were available if you wanted to pour a water bottle over your head, and going to the bathroom meant walking to the next hill over, digging a hole and squatting over it. It was one of those things that was miserable at the time but remains a fond memory.

Strykers in a circle formation

The view of our platoon's vehicles from my newly dug shitting hole

Doc and I both came back from summer leave in 2005 early and decided to spend our last day discharging firearms in a national park. We drove towards Mt. Rainer, trying to find an empty stretch of road to quickly expend some rounds. In the back were two vintage rifles, an old SKS and and a CZ-98. I was never gun savvy but I was very fond of history. I was looking forward to shooting the CZ-98, a carbon copy of the rifle the Germans used in both world wars.

On the way to shootin' guns

We were deep in the woods when we got out and shot rounds for a minute or two before leaving in a hurry (it wasn't entirely legal). On the way back, we crossed over a rickety bridge that dropped down to one lane. It was probably a bad idea to get out and take a picture, but the backdrop made it irresistible. I love Texas, but the scenery is nothing like it is in Washington.

Last month, Lauren and I spent a weekend at Ocean Shores, a resort town on the Pacific Ocean. It was sunny and cold, but luckily it was windy enough to fly a kite. It was a dream to run up and down a largely deserted beach like a kid. Six months earlier I was patrolling the most dangerous province in Iraq. Suddenly, I was on a tranquil beach without a care in the world.

Lauren flying an octopus kite

Tomorrow, Lauren and I are putting Washington behind us as we start a new life in Austin, Texas. She spent her whole life in Redmond and Seattle, and me, just a fraction of it. More or less, I enjoyed my time in the Northwest. The weather and the people leave a bit to be desired, but you'd be hard pressed to beat the view.

So goodbye, Washington! You were kind to me when it counted. Maybe one day I'll come back to visit.

Lauren says goodbye to the ocean one last time