“I have sandwiches and eggnog!” I shouted across the street at a disgruntled driver sitting in a warm car, engine still running.
“Is that what took so long?” he asked as I shoved backpack and camera bag in the back seat and slipped our lunch sack under my chair.
“Not exactly,” I mumbled, glancing at the clock on the dashboard. We were getting a late start.
Alberto, sports editor for our college paper, had tasked me (or rather, I had volunteered in a moment of stupidity and lack of foresight) to cover the cross-country beat as the season drew to a close. This had absorbed more than one of my Saturdays already and was about to eat up a whole weekend as he and I hit the road to cover the state championship in Fresno.
I was going to take the pictures. He was going to do the interviews. I’d write the story and he’d pay for all our coffee refills during the 9-ish hour trip up north.
Wait, 9-ish hours to Fresno? How?
Ah, so you’ve noticed. Fresno is only six hours from San Diego. Very observant of you.
We were actually going to Chico first.
Let me explain.
Because we are both cheap, starving college students, we decided that we’d rather spend a little extra time driving to Chico to stay with some friends than to each get a hotel room in Fresno. See old friends and save money? What could possibly go wrong?
And so our road trip began.
“Do you mind if I take my shoes off?” I asked, already freeing one set of toes without fully waiting for an answer.
“What?” Alberto laughed. “Who asks that?”
“It’s part of road trip etiquette,” I said, taking the other shoe off. “You’re supposed to ask in case someone really has a problem with smelly feet.”
He chuckled again.
“How do you know this?”
“I looked up road trip etiquette last night,” I admitted. “You know, just to make sure this was as seamless as possible.”
“Seriously?” he said, mouth slightly agape, not sure whether to laugh or . . . just continue gaping stupidly. “You actually researched this?”
“What else did it say?”
“Oh, basics, really,” I assured him. “Stuff like, help pay for gas, give timely instructions if you’re navigating. Those sorts of things. Most of them only apply to large groups anyway and there are just two of us.”
Alberto seemed appeased.
“We should make our own road trip rules,” he suggested, looking contemplatively at the bumper and brake lights in front of us.
“What, like as we go?” I asked.
“Okay,” I agreed. “Rule number one: Don’t ride with Alberto.”
“Hey!” he snapped back (the way a very fluffy bunny might, with lots of unintimidating fury). “I’m a great road trip companion. How about: Don’t insult the driver!”
“Eh,” I shrugged.
RULE NUMBER 1: DON’T INSULT ALBERTO
We chatted about poker strategies most of the way to LA (mostly I listened or referenced that one month in high school when I got super addicted to facebook’s Texas Hold ‘Em app). It was obvious when we finally hit the big city – all our radio stations fuzzed out on us.
This is the real beginning of any road trip and the test of true friendship: the moment when you’re out of range of familiar radio signals.
The battle over the radio began mildly enough. I would occasionally and nonchalantly skip past a song I didn’t care for or he would laugh passive-aggressively whenever Katy Perry graced the tin can we were driving in.
I made a fuss over that song about not being able to feel your face because I don’t get it and I think it’s stupid but then I felt badly.
“You can change it back,” I said with a simper. “That’s technically a road trip rule. You’re supposed to let the driver choose the music.” (I have since discovered that the official rule has an exception for trips lasting longer than 90 minutes. Ours was definitely longer than 90 minutes).
“Yeah,” he said with a sarcastic snort. “But there’s also a rule about being a decent human and not letting people who ride in your car suffer. I’m not going to make you listen to something you hate.”
He has no idea, I thought to myself, how much Rachel Platten I’m planning on listening to this trip.
So was born the new rule.
RULE NUMBER 2: DON’T LISTEN TO MUSIC PEOPLE HATE
We snaked up the sloping chest of the Grapevine with concerted but casual effort – as one does – and then slid down the backside like a kid shooting off a plastic slide. We fizzed in and out of radio stations and random conversation topics with a comfortable, amusing tension. Thankfully, we both really like Taylor Swift. She served as a great third-person mediator and the radio had her on every station all the way up the Central Valley.
When the radio crackled and hissed at us, we turned it down and talked about life instead. Things like the pros and cons of country living, or whether or not I’m weird because I was homeschooled or if I just got a set of really odd genes.
I don’t know where the time went to, I really don’t. Cell service came and went, as did lunch (my sandwiches were baller, in case anyone is wondering. And the eggnog was on point as far as decisions go. I know how to earn my keep).
Eventually, Fresno pulled into view and we turned off the road to fill up the gas tank.
“You want a turn driving?” asked Alberto, getting out of the car. I closed my Spanish textbook and agreed. You can only do so much homework on the road, you know.
“So this is where we’ll be tomorrow?” I asked, settling into the driver’s seat. “Fresno?”
Alberto confirmed monosyllabically.
“It says we’re four hours away from Chico,” he said, looking at the GPS on his phone and then up at me. “Is that right?”
“Wait, four hours?” I said. “That can’t be right. That means it’ll be four hours back from Chico to Fresno tomorrow.”
“What time does the race start?” he asked.
“I definitely thought it was only like a two hour difference when I planned this,” Alberto said.
We both sat quietly for a moment.
“It’s going to be an early morning for us, isn’t it?” he said.
I slammed the gears into drive in response and grumpily shuffled the car out of the parking lot.
“I’ve never seen you drive,” Alberto admitted. This is true. Normally, I’m the one begging for rides home from school. But I can drive.
“I’m actually a very good driver,” I told him. “I’m not good at driving, but I’m a very good driver. I follow all the rules, like using my blinker and stopping at stop signs. I’m just not good at doing things like changing lanes or remembering which is the brake and which is the gas.”
Alberto visibly tensed.
“The key to driving with me is learning to play Chipper Check,” I said soothingly.
“California Highway Patrol,” I explained. “CHPer Check.”
“Alright,” he agreed. “I’ll keep an eye out for cops.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to check the right side for me when I merge,” I added.
Alberto moaned into his hands but came up laughing.
RULE NUMBER 3: BE A GOOD CO-PILOT
The sun went down quickly after that – it probably didn’t want to witness me with free reign on a California freeway. Alberto did a good job helping me navigate the I-5, which is a lot like playing tetris except that if you lose you die.
“Can I fit in there?” I asked Alberto as we came closer to the back of a truck inching along the right lane, the car in the fast lane not far behind us to the left.
He looked over my shoulder and said, “Yeah, you got this.”
By the time we reached Sacramento our friends had begun texting us coordinates to meet up in Chico. The last hour between the capitol and our destination seemed like eight years – mostly because the passing lane disappeared and I am nothing if not an impatient driver.
We found the restaurant our friends had picked and staked out a booth for our group. It was a cool joint. Very NorCal.
I was nearly bouncing in my seat, I was so excited to see the group again.
“I don’t know why you’re so thrilled about this,” said Alberto, who was clearly worn down by the nine hour drive.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen everyone!” I said, beaming with anticipation.
When the rest of the gang entered the establishment, I knew we were in for a night. They were in rare form. Truest to character was Ernesto, who called my name all the way across the restaurant and ran past half a dozen tables before burying me in a bear hug, causing several heads to turn curiously.
Anna, Mason and David all slid in beside Alberto and I, giving us the run-down of all the best appetizers.
“You may as well not even come here if you don’t get the beer cheese,” Anna said authoritatively.
“Yeah, and I could use a pretzel anyway,” added Ernesto.
Most of the gang I had seen at some point during the semester – journalism conferences, award banquets, the odd meetup in New York City… But not David.
He turned his head to me and said over the babble of our table, “It’s been years, right?”
“At least two,” I said.
“Where were you, Russia?”
“The Czech Republic,” I said. “In Prague.”
He nodded and Ernesto nudged me right as the waiter dropped off our waters.
“Are you married yet?” he asked loudly with typical Ernesto jest (which sounds a lot like rudeness if you don’t know and love him well). “Did you find a Czech husband?”
I grinned and shook my head.
“I can’t believe you’re not married yet,” he said again, very loudly, a big smile growing on his face.
Alberto gave me a quizzical look as David joined in.
“I bet she won’t get married until she’s 28,” he said. “I mean, there’s just no way.”
“You don’t know her like I know her, she’s not going to wait until 28,” said Ernesto, leaning over to me and adding in a poor whisper, “We’ve got a bet going on this, actually.”
“I say 30,” Mason said, joining in from out of nowhere.
Alberto looked completely floored at this point. His face matched how I felt.
“What is this?” he asked me in a much better whisper than Ernesto had managed as the rest of the crew began spitting back their bets and rationales.
“No clue,” I said, smiling and turning several shades of red. My friends are kooks. “Just go with it.”
“TWENTY SIX! I SAID TWENTY SIX!” Ernesto was yelling gleefully, half raised from his chair, as Mason pointed a mischievous finger at him and yelled back, “THIRTY.”
By this point, most of the restaurant was watching our table with mixed interest and disdain.
Alberto and I just sat there, grinning awkwardly, until they settled their bets and calmed down enough to enjoy the appetizers that had appeared during the debate.
“Glad that’s settled,” said Anna pleasantly.
Stuffing our faces with calamari and beer cheese, we continued the gaiety with steady vigor, if not steady volume.
“It’s good to see them all again,” I whispered to Alberto. He nodded.
RULE NUMBER 4: JUST GO WITH IT
We split passengers between cars and made our way to Ernesto’s flat. It was nearly eleven o’clock and Alberto and I were both very aware of our early morning commitment. Anna chatted in the back seat of the car, asking us about the new staffers and why we still weren’t meeting deadline. All four of our Chico chicos had been either editor-in-chief or managing editor of our paper at some point and they all had a vested interest in how things were going.
“We’re almost out of gas,” I mumbled sleepily to Alberto between Anna’s running commentary.
“We’ll fill up later,” he said.
Ernesto’s flat was tidy – considering that college boys lived in it. We sat around on couches and the backseat of someone’s car that had been taken out and stuffed in a corner of the living room.
For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Ernesto has a polaroid camera. We took pictures.
That actually entertained us for quite a while until it was sufficiently past our bedtimes and I had fallen asleep in the armchair. They woke me up as they were gathering coats and I followed them out to the car in a sleepy trot.
Neither the gas gauge nor the clock made an impression on my sleep-deprived senses (and may I point out that at this point, I was the least qualified person to be behind the wheel and we should all be grateful I didn’t plummet us headlong into a telephone post or a stationary cow).
Mason had agreed to let us stay with him for the night and his two roommates were also former staffers. Cue reunion numero dos. (See all the Spanish that’s coming out now? That’s because second languages only come fluidly when you’re too tired to speak your native tongue).
So we stayed up for another hour with Kasey and April.
And then I quit.
I sank into the pull-out trundle beneath Kasey’s bed and slept for a solid, beautiful four and a half hours.
At 5:30, Alberto and I were both up (if not conscious) and gathering our things in the dark. Without a word of goodbye to any of the sleeping housemates, we slipped out the front door and wandered the lonely streets in the cold til we found our car.
We hadn’t filled up on gas the night before but I had recalled there being a quarter-ish of a tank left. So I didn’t even look at the gas gauge (again). I did check the clock on the dash as Alberto pulled up the GPS.
“We’ll get there exactly at 10:00,” he said. “But I bet we can shave a few minutes off since it’s so early in the morning.”
I was a little uncomfortable with that arrival time so I sped past several gas stations leaving Chico which was still blanketed in chilly darkness.
As soon as we hit the open road (a one-lane highway with exactly two exits for about thirty miles), I realized we had made a mistake.
“The gas light is on,” I said, suppressing the anxiety clawing its way up my throat.
We consulted the GPS. The next station was twelve miles up the road and then eight miles down a street that led, for all we could tell, directly to the capitol of Nowhere.
“We actually might not make this,” Alberto said.
“We definitely won’t make the race if we have to drive that far to find gas,” I countered. My voice was shaking and I could feel my hands tensing on the wheel.
Carefully coasting down hills (a skill I perfected in college during my starving student days) and shooting up the other side, we monitored the gas light and took turns groaning loudly about how stupid we were to have not filled up at, literally, any point prior to getting on this fate-forsaken highway.
“We are never making this mistake again,” we both promised each other.
RULE NUMBER 5: MAKE GOOD CHOICES
I filled up the tank and Alberto ran inside to grab donuts and coffee. We ate our breakfast of champions while plowing down the 99. The GPS said we were now going to arrive at 10:20, precisely 20 minutes after the women’s race would have started.
“The thing is,” I said with forced calm as I watched the speedometer tick upwards of 80, “This isn’t like other sports. You can show up late to a football game and still write a story. You can miss the first half of almost every sport that exists and still get photos and action.”
“I know, but cross-country is a one-shot sport,” Alberto said through his fingers. He looked like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. As sports editor, he needed these photos as much as I did.
“Right,” I said, talking myself through the terror of our quandary. “You have the starting line and the finish line. And we’re here to shoot an athlete who can run the 5k in 16 minutes. Alberto, by the time we get there, she will have crossed the finish line.”
He moaned into hands.
“They’re going to kill us,” I said. “We came all this way only to miss the story because we didn’t want to spend money on hotel rooms.”
In between our frantic snippets of conversation and Alberto’s tortured groans, flashes of slumbering orchards and silent lakes rushed past us. The sunrise was incredible, reflecting in a brilliant array of colors across the surface of the reservoirs to our left and lighting up the fog banks hiding between the rows of trees to our right. Every five minutes placed us in a new, breath-taking scene of tranquil, country bliss.
I’d be slamming my fist on the wheel one moment because their was no passing lane to get around the truck in front of us and the next I’d be cooing in awe at the sparkle of golden sunlight giving halos to every leaf in the orchard beside us.
“It’s hard to be upset on a morning like this,” I said, Taylor Swift still blasting on our speakers.
Alberto kept checking the GPS arrival time.
“We’re down to 10:19,” he said. “If we can just get to 10:15 we can get her crossing the finish line.”
Overly optimistic, I thought.
And then luck turned our way.
As we left Sacramento, joining a spotty caravan on the nearly-empty highway, two ritsy cars sped past us. They were brightly colored and hitting speeds which we had dared not go.
“Okay,” I told Alberto, easing my foot onto the accelerator. “There was a time when I used to be a bit of a speeder. I’ve put those days behind me, but I think today justifies a temporary relapse.”
“So, no more ‘good driver’ then?” he asked.
“We’re going to tail these to cars,” I said, already positioning myself behind them. “If they slow down, we’ll slow down. If they speed up, we’ll speed up. If there are speed traps along this highway, they’ll get those two cars first.”
“And if we get pulled over?”
“We’ll split the ticket,” I said.
And that was that. We followed those Saturday morning cruisers almost all the way to Fresno before slowing down to a much more comfortable 75 mph. Arrival time: 9:52.
RULE NUMBER 6: SPLIT THE TICKET
We still missed the start of the race, but I was there at the finish line when our champion crossed it. Until one o’clock, when the event finally drew to a close, we rotated between finding runners to interview and framing shots for our spread.
The team invited us to get lunch with them and we accepted, happy to put something more substantial than gas station donuts on our stomachs. We sat at the edge of the table, exhausted from our long morning, and listened to the team banter back and forth. Alberto and I are both a little late to the college scene and, halfway through a cornbread muffin, I realized just how young these kids were (it was probably their third helpings of the soft-serve ice cream that eventually tipped me off).
Alberto looked at me with his let’s ditch face, an expression I’m getting pretty skilled at recognizing.
So we said our thank you’s, congratulations and goodbyes and hit the road again. Just six hours home now.
As soon as we stepped into the parking lot, embraced by soft sunshine and a cool breeze, I stretched out my arms and sighed deeply.
“So glad that’s finished,” he said.
RULE NUMBER 7: KNOW WHEN TO BAIL
I didn’t mean to, but I slept a lot of the way home. When I woke up, we were coming up to the Grapevine again and the light was thinning out.
“My arms are sore,” I said, lifting them up curiously.
“Probably from driving this morning,” Alberto consoled me. “You drove for four hours and it was pretty intense.”
“Was that really four hours?” I asked, counting them back in my head. “It seemed like it wasn’t more than twenty minutes.”
I guess time really flies when you’re breaking the law.
“Well, I’m happy to have you behind the wheel again,” I told him. “And I never want to drive over 65 ever again.”
Alberto chuckled and I kicked off my shoes.
“Seriously, Mary?” He rolled down a window. “Your socks smell horrendous. This shouldn’t be allowed. We’re making this an official road trip rule.”
I smiled and fluffed my jacket against the window.
“Do what you want,” I said. “I’m going back to sleep. Wake me when there’s food.”