I’m sitting on the Surfliner heading north out of the Irvine AMTRAK Station; if one more thing goes wrong I’m afraid I’ll have a heart attack. This vacation getaway has only begun and, pardon the pun, it’s already a major train-wreck. Last night even in the middle of everything coming unraveled, I knew that someday I’d be able to look back and smile, but how far off is that someday? Further than today, because I’m still dismayed after what was supposed to be an active vacation with the family – no car, enjoying some exercise and each others company – because I’m writing this piece a little before the dust has settled and well before I’ve been able to put it all in perspective. I finally spoke to someone about how bad this extensively planned trip came off, my sister was in a mood to listen; she offered, “the difference between a tragedy and a comedy is time”; again, how much, because I’m still wallowing.
Let me refresh your memory of my bike/train summer vacation, the original plan was to pack our bikes with a weekend’s worth of shorts and t-shirts and leave the car behind; instead we would roll them onto the train and enjoy a carefree, car-free weekend away, first a few days in San Luis Obispo then 3 nights in Santa Barbara. Each hotel was close to the train station, so for those in the group who didn’t feel up to a big arduous ride, it would be something easy that anyone could handle. I spent months preparing; the bikes needed to be fitted with panniers, but first tune-ups and new chains, cassettes and pedals for some, others needed rear racks, mirrors for all, new tires and the works for mine. Two Wheels on 17th Street did a super job getting me setup, but this effort, done to 5 bikes, (gotta have a spare ready to go, right?) took weeks of back and forth; some panniers took a week on back order and I was crowding the service dept. during their busiest time of the year. Eventually, it’s all ready – all the bags are packed, the lights charged, the tires pumped – my wife and I decide to take a fully loaded test run to Sabatino’s. This delightful ride to Lido would prove to be the high point for the next several days, and counting.
So how did things start to unravel? Testosterone can be blamed for most of the world’s problems, am I right? Not mine this time, one 15 year old in the family who for days had consistently contributed, “I don’t want to go,” and did nothing to prepare, not even the night before when it was time to pack and put the bags on the bikes; he knew he had me over a barrel, kind of like how the Republican Congress feels they have Obama.This reluctance to travel with the family is something I can relate to; no, my family never took vacations – we were too poor – but my family did go to church every Sunday and, I’m sure I was even younger, I would play-chicken and refuse to get dressed to join them; eventually they would drive off with out me. So this mini rebellion was understandable; it’s how young people learn to define themselves as separate, soon-to-be adults. But that didn’t make it any easier for me to get everything ready, besides, he needed a vacation as much as the rest of this stressed out family.
And isn’t that one of life’s absolutes? When someone really needs to take a vacation, that’s the one thing you can’t tell them?
The big disruption started the eve of our departure. My 20 year old, home from college, was looking for a job; other summers it was all about the band and their need to practice, but this summer he’s money-motivated. Not motivated enough to come home right after school got out, no, he needed some time in Santa Cruz to clear his head, meanwhile everyone else his age is scouring the neighborhood looking for any type of meaningful employment. But 2 weeks after school lets out he eventually arrives home and commences the process. The process doesn’t start with going out and looking for an actual job, mind you, he’s gotta be cleaned up – the nose ring has to go, and like ‘you need a vacation’, this is best left unsaid and hopefully he figures it out himself – a haircut and some new clothes, then the process begins. As the Fates would have it, he doesn’t actually land a job offer, but an invitation to take an hour’s training class at Johnny’s New York Pizza; there’s only one complication – it’s timed for the day after we leave.
Now, obviously, as things turned out, I was on the wrong side of interpreting this situation and being flexible with our plans, but at the time I was quick to determine that this wasn’t an internship at Goldman Sachs, it wasn’t even a job offer, so maybe we should all just continue with our plans and, by the way, it’s about the time we should all be going to bed if we’re going to get up and pedal to the train station at 6:30 in the morning. Others thought it the best time to interject maximum chaos into the vacation plans.
I’ve since looked at the AMTRAK tickets to remember that I purchased them on May 10th, quite awhile in advance of the 4th of July weekend, but I knew this would be a busy time for travel, and it would prove to be. So an eleventh-hour scheme in the middle of this disruption went like this: what if we rebook for tomorrow, after all, it’s only one day? Of course it wasn’t put that coolly, that’s me now reconstructing the moment more constructively. I just walked out of the room and as I did my pet-sitter friend of 30 years, Sean, saw the pained expression on my faced and whispered, “it’ll all be fine.” I knew he was right the minute I heard him, but that didn’t make the next few hours any easier, or calmer. Eventually, a minimally disruptive scheme is hatched: only college-boy would stay behind and take his dough-rolling class while we departed as planned; he would join us in San Luis Obispo the next day. It sounds so simple to recount this now, but getting to this plan was traumatic, at least for me who had made all these plans, but the trauma was only beginning.
The next morning is maximum stress. The 15 year old won’t get out of bed – for an hour – so any plans of riding to the station are dashed. All along I felt that whatever lack of interest he showed would be overcome by a vigorous ride. It had been that way on Fathers Day when I proposed lunch at UCI via bike – it only took a few miles in the saddle before I hear the laughter behind me. But not this morning. Since the window for riding by bike to the station is closing, I load the bike rack on the car; maybe this should’ve always been part of the plan, but that 12mile trek to Irvine through Shady Canyon could change anyone’s attitude, but there wouldn’t be time today.
Two bikes on the rack and one in the trunk, all the gear is packed away; we’re ready to drive to the station. Sean will drive the car back home; he doesn’t mind getting up early to help out. Just before we leave my wife huddles with the future pizza king. I’m not sure of his plans, but he has his own set of tickets and we have ours. It’s not until we’re on Alton just minutes from the station that he calls to describe the transaction disaster he had when he called AMTRAK to split his ticket out of ours and make a reservation for the 1:30pm direct Surfliner to SLO. I don’t know this at first, or the worst possible outcome, I get these details from listening to my wife’s side of the call. Her voice suddenly gets quite loud, something’s gone awry. Pity the poor AMTRAK agent who gets the next call from my wife. “It’s inexcusable that you could cancel all our tickets when my son called!” It’s that bad, and worse: the reservation could’nt be rebooked, it was gone in an instant on this Thursday before the long weekend. “I can put you through to a customer service agent,” was this poor man’s only suggestion; now the entire trip is in jeopardy. But I keep driving to the station.
We walk into the Irvine station to see what can be done about the tickets, meanwhile Sean unloads the car at the curb. We must wait while the lone clerk lavishes his time on the few passengers ahead of us; we’re anxious. When we approach and place the wad of tickets on the counter the first words out of his mouth are, “you’re scaring me.” But unlike flying, the fact that we had tickets meant that we could travel; the canceled reservations are just a technicality. I suspected as much since the week’s prior Century to San Diego; when we purchased our tickets and hopped on board, the ticket-taking process was refreshingly old fashion – the conductor just punched a whole in the ticket and handed it back. So that’s not going to be an issue, but as he checks our connection in Los Angeles he notices a complication. The train in Irvine can accommodate the bikes but the connecting train cannot, unless the bikes are boxed. “No we don’t have bike boxes at this station.” Things are looking increasingly grim. One option is to delay our travel and take the 1:30 Surfliner direct to SLO, the train my son will be on, but there’s no guarantee there’ll be room for our bikes as our early start on the weekend crush would be lost. “I’ll help you and get everything worked out, but first I have to help these other people standing in line,” and there were a dozen standing there listening to our fiasco.
We walked out to the curb stunned; all our plans were up in the air. We considered our options; there weren’t many. We quickly decided to go without the bikes, to squeeze down into a single pannier each, but bring our helmets. It was Sean again, “rent bikes when you get there.” We quietly adjusted our bags; some items could stay behind. We had to pack light because the panniers didn’t even have handles, let alone wheels like a suitcase; we hugged them to our chests as we crossed the tracks to wait for the train. I couldn’t be more disappointed; instead of a happy, low stress bike trip we were on the trip from hell. The train arrived; we boarded.
Post script: I’m back at my desk and two memories keep haunting. One is a New Yorker cartoon; where did I see it? It shows a man looking at a brochure, speaking to a travel agent; the caption reads: “Sounds wonderful; I can’t wait to be disappointed”. The other, more of a feeling than a memory, is the empathy for all those fathers who work and wait then plan an ambitious vacation with the family and all his anticipation of a time together that’s meaningful and fun and renewing, who then after the reality of the time away sits back in his cubicle with the frustration of unrealized ambitions, knowing he has another year ahead of him before he can try again. I need a vacation.
We made it to Santa Barbara eventually and traveled by bike to Piatti’s in Montecito for an early Saturday night dinner. Most of us did. The ongoing case of testosterone poisoning kept our 15 year old in his hotel room watching pay-per-view while we enjoyed a great dinner.
It was all downhill on the way home.