page contents

The Long Way Home
Part IV
The Lungs Have It

By the time Cara scooped me up from Katy, TX, her car was starting to act a little strange. When it rained, which was happening quite a bit at this point, the car would swerve a little. In hindsight, I suppose one of us should have wondered about that in greater detail. Between that super-fun time I was hit by a car, the time I watched someone dying in bewildered agony after a car accident outside my parents’ house (it’s all about me), and the various accidents I have been cordially invited to over the years, I have a slight channel of apprehension that switches on, whenever I’m riding in cars. Because I can either get the hell over it, or live in a pillow fort on the edge of complete reclusive insanity for the rest of my life, I usually just let the anxiety bump around. If even the slightest thing goes wrong with a car I am riding in, my brain flips its shit a little, but that’s about it. When you’ve ridden a Greyhound that was too busy swerving through the storm like an axe-murdering drunk to actually bother crashing into the snowy highway, you learn to let go. You accept the fact that if the vehicle is in motion, a lot of things can go down.

Cara and I stayed with Danielle in Oklahoma, went our separate ways in Texas, and then stayed with Danielle again on our way back up to the main vein of where we were going. Heavy rains pummeled this part of the trip. Cara’s car would sometimes feel like it had given itself over to the tone and ambitions of the weather. It was never anything terrifying though. We never considered that something bad could happen.

After all, we had taken the car in for an oil change at the Honda dealership in Medford, Oregon. This would have been a couple of weeks before we left Ashland for good. An inspection was included with the oil change, and everything came up just fine. No problems to report. Nothing to worry about. Don't worry, the tires are just fine. Nothing came up on the report that even resembled a shade of red for a giant flag of potential disaster and death. The car was great. Everything was fine. Happy trails, fuckers.

To be fair, the damage to Cara’s car wasn’t that bad, in the end. Potential was the horror part of the whole thrill ride, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Just outside of Eureka, MO, the rain had gotten as ugly as it had been throughout the past several days. The car swerved with greater and greater disrespect for the fact that we did not want the car to do that at all. We became concerned enough to realize that we needed to pull over. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a good place to do that. Rain makes disconcerting asshole drivers of many. Traffic all around us was fast and messy. The rain continued to pound everything with a steady doomsday melody. We knew that if we wanted to stop the car, we were going to have to get away from that. There wasn’t a better option.

Our options for getting off the road were then expanded for us without any actual input on our end. Later, Cara told me that before hitting the large, deep puddle that sent us hydroplaning across every single lane of reckless freeway traffic, she saw it, and thought “This isn’t going to be good.” I have every reason in the world to believe her. Still, I don’t think she expected everything that actually happened.

At the exact moment the car lost control, I was reading a book about the history of Route ’66. I had picked it up in one of the many, many, many gift shops we visited along the course of our adventures. Books tend to be the one thing I look for when visiting various places during long trips. History books in particular appeal to me. The one I bought is a good enough pictorial collection of the incredible run this road has had through the decades. It’s particularly worth keeping in mind the history of the United States in a larger context as you read. This is one of my ideas of a good time.

Had we collided with any of the cars or eighteen-wheelers that almost struck us, as we spiraled across the freeway, the last thing I would have ever done on this planet is read that book. What do you do with that information? Mourning the notion that you could have been doing something more constructive is morbid and pointless. If we had been killed by some beast of a truck (one managed to miss us by a degree of inches that I don’t like to think about these days), reading a book wouldn’t have been the worst way to spend those last few seconds on earth. This is something I have been thinking about off and on.

Instead of colliding with a car or truck, we smacked into the concrete medium. The impact took out a sizable portion of the rear of Cara’s car.

Neither of us screamed during or after what amounts to a pretty minor car accident. The inside of the car had been packed with the bulk of everything we had owned in Ashland. Smacking into the concrete medium happened just hard enough to tussle everything around. Our corn snake had been traveling with us in her glass tank the entire way. I like to think that at that point, she had resigned herself to a life of hotels, living rooms, the backseat of the car, and trying to shed the whole time. Crashing into some concrete would be just one more thing for a list made by someone who believed in all honesty that they were in hell.

Artemis the Traveling Corn Snake is fine, and currently living in a cool tank on Long Island, New York. Cara and I are fine. My neck snapped a little in the ensuing chaos, resulting in a pain that occasionally causes the entire top of my head to feel like it has slid into a gentle numbness. Sometimes, this turns into a headache. Past that, we’re fine. I try not to dwell on how close we came to that not being the case. I try not to dwell on any of those types of stories that I can draw on from the course of my life so far. There haven’t been many, but there have been enough to bother me when I’m trying to sleep sometimes. They nag at me when I consider the difference two seconds can make in our lives. On a good day, they make me grateful that I am alive.

Missouri state troopers thought the whole thing was kind of funny. I suppose it was. We managed to get the car to a few different places. We were most not continuing the journey without new rear tires and new taillights. You know, the kinds of things that are rather essential to driving. The need to fix up the car devoured the rest of the day. We were lucky to get the car more or less back up to its original condition within a matter of a few hours. I have to thank the guys at AutoTire in Eureka for that, particularly a man named Craig Nunnally. While we made arrangements with the nearest Honda dealership to have the taillights and other parts repaired, AutoTire fixed us up with new rear tires. We told the story of the inspection in Medford. It angered Craig enough to compel him to call the dealership, and tell them that their negligence had almost gotten two people killed. This wasn’t something we had asked him to do. It was his instinctual response to obscene stupidity in his professional field. How can you not like someone who feels that way about their work?

Speaking to one of the other mechanics, a larger, stereotypical biker looking chap with pink hair hidden beneath a baseball cap was another nice distraction from the adrenaline and intensity of the day. Our conversation revolved around how he was planning to take his autistic son to his first Anime convention. I told him his kid would have a blast.

We lost a day from almost dying, getting the car fixed, and eating a better-than-I-would-have-guessed meal at Cracker Barrel. We stayed overnight at a place called the Red Carpet Inn, located just past Missouri in Montrose, Illinois. This was a much different Illinois experience from the one I had last May in Chicago with the late, endlessly great Big Danny T, someone I had wanted to message or call during this last trip. With the people who are made for all the wondrous and terrible components of road trips, the great ones will always love to listen to how you’re holding up while in transit.

I can’t recommend the Red Carpet Inn to people who wonder what kind of snuff films have been shot in dingy motels. I can tell you that the family who runs it were nice people. I had the pleasure of speaking to the wife about the eldest daughter traveling overseas for the first time. Like every other den of despair with the personality existing in the staff and other guests, this motel had its own mutated charm to express. That night, while Cara slept, I got pretty drunk on bourbon and soda we had purchased from a nearby, almost completely depleted convenience store. I thought about the accident, and the way I couldn’t turn my neck very well. Sleep quality was poor, and I had nonsensical, almost formless thoughts about the future.

We drove on. It was still our intention to get to Hunt Valley, Maryland in time to staff a science-fiction/fantasy convention called Balticon. I had missed all of the conventions I normally staff during the year, including Katsucon and MAGFest. I didn’t want to miss this one. There were a few more stops between the Red Carpet Inn and the hotel hosting Balticon.

The Avalon Motor Inn (Image  ©  Gabriel Ricard). 

The Avalon Motor Inn (Image © Gabriel Ricard). 

The Avalon Motor Inn is an odd place where parts of the Richard Gere film The Mothman Prophecies were filmed. After that, we saw the world’s largest wind chime. I have no comment on that. Cara enjoyed it though. In Halethorpe, Maryland, we visited with my friend Joan. Joan and I go back to Anime Mid-Atlantic 2005. Our friendship is one of the best things that has ever come into my life. Being her roommate from 2009-2010 in Savannah, GA was one of the smarter decisions I made in that time period. To put it another way, if I ever ran for Congress, she would be the one the press hit up for evidence to keep me from getting elected. For everything we have been through together, I trust her with my life. I would like to imagine she feels the same way. It was an honor to introduce her to Cara. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I would have liked. Conflicting schedules and distance makes it difficult for the two of us to hang out in the way that we would like, but we hope to change that soon.

Joan was good enough to keep an eye on Artemis while Cara and I worked Balticon. I’m sure Artemis appreciated not being in constant motion for a few days.

Nothing in Hunt Valley suggested the Baltimore riots that had occurred before, after, and during our departure from Ashland. Not that I think my presence would have mattered in a city that I have had a relationship with for over a decade. I did wonder what it would be like to drive through an area that had so recently experienced a justifiable, high-scale kind of rage. Quiet dominated everything. It was as if the protests had never happened. Something about that always strikes me as eerie, perhaps even depressing.

The hotel that hosted the convention had been hosting it for decades. Balticon is not a large convention, but it has been a mainstay on the scene for forty-nine years. Some of the attendees have been making it part of their calendar for that long. I’ve been staffing off and on for a number of years. For people who only know bedlam parties like Otakon, it’s hard to explain why I do. It’s small, generally quiet, and the late-night conversations over expensive scotch make it easy to go back every year that I’m able to. A number of longtime convention friends who are a good deal more than that simple term attend. It’s always good to catch up with them. Cara and I worked our shifts, went to room parties, and found time for a disappointing dinner (Joe’s Crab Shack) and movie (Tomorrowland) date. I even attended a panel that gave me the unbelievable opportunity to listen to lifetime Star Trek fans recount their memories of Leonard Nimoy.

Beyond a computer crash on Friday that turned the normally unobtrusive registration area into a free-for-all of indignation and mounting tension, Balticon 49 was a good time. Not even a bad neck and sporadic, sudden headaches seemed to slow me down. It was so good that I am still saddened that I was unable to make MAGStock or Anime Mid-Atlantic, both of which have come and gone as of this writing. There will be others. I have come to realize that short of death or a move to a place where they don’t exist, I will never retire from staffing conventions. Free from the vast majority of the impulses that used to get me into so much trouble at these things, I actually have a lot of fun now.

The author, on staff at Balticon (Image  ©  Gabriel Ricard). 

The author, on staff at Balticon (Image © Gabriel Ricard). 

We won’t cover the long list of indescribable geniuses who work or attend Balticon and other conventions. My friend Mike Czaplinski is right up there, as is Abdul-Hadi, Sean and Lou Anne Heare (as well as their gifted, hilarious young sons Spike and Kieran), Elizabeth Lewis, Moira and Matt Trent, Erin and Dave Hudgins, Christian Savage, Sonya Bleakley, and then the others that I have undoubtedly forgot to mention. These names will not be important to a large number of the people who read this. Fair enough. They are important to me, and it would not be fair to a complete account of this very long journey to omit their names. They are significant parts of the foundation I have built through the seventeen-years-and-counting that I have lived in the United States. When you tell a story that really happened, even if it’s a long one that could benefit from a smidgen of economy, you have to make sure you remember as many of the characters as possible. They deserve at least that much. My 30th birthday was just days away at that point. Between Cara, the convention, and the company of these people, I couldn’t have begun to imagine a more attractive alternative.

Cara and I had met at Anime Mid-Atlantic in 2011. She made a pretty big impression on me then, and not just because I saved her from heatstroke. Our time together now includes an eight-months-and-thank-the-dark-forces-that-run-our-universe-counting relationship. Big initial impressions aside, I never would imagined we would be where we currently stand. Even a slight change to anything I have said or done since meeting her could have brought us to a very different reality today. A good reality, a bad one, it doesn’t really matter. Because of where it has brought us to in the present, I wouldn’t dream of changing the timeline.

Common sense suggests you should consider yourself lucky to find someone who can go through a two-week road trip, staffing a convention, and a car accident, without anything resembling a serious ding to the way you feel about each other. You should hold on to that person. Although the journey to live and succeed as an individual is crucial, it’s nice to have someone to share things with. After Balticon and meeting most of my family in Virginia, she returned to Long Island. For at least the next little while, our relationship is going to be a long distance one.

That’s fine with me. Really, it’s not, but hopefully, by now, you’ll understand why it is fine, when compared to the alternative.

As of this writing, I am planning for a Greyhound run to New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. That means Greyhound. It means traveling at the height of weather that makes fat, aging malcontents like me pray for spontaneous combustion. None of that appeals to me, so it’s funny how the destination makes all that tolerable.

At one point, as Cara and I were getting used to the east coast again, she remarked to me about the difference in the air of Virginia and Maryland, and the air of southern Oregon. Altitudes have a lot to do with that, but air quality is probably a factor, too. I’m certainly not an expert, nor am I going to put in the effort necessary to become one. The air in Virginia and Maryland felt thicker than it had in Ashland and Medford. It felt dirtier, too. She mentioned all of this to me, but then added that none of it seemed like a bad thing.

I wasn’t trying to be clever. At the time, I was probably trying to do something else. I really can’t remember where we were when she mentioned all of this to me, or what we were doing. All I remember is that I shrugged, thinking that her observations about the air were right. I shrugged, and I told her that the evidence was in. "The lungs have it," I elaborated, uselessly. "We’re home."