Day 4: Santa Barbara to Las Vegas

Dave and I managed to situate ourselves, improbably, on the sofa together after abandoning our sinking air mattress for the remainder of our restless slumber.  Justin and Jeff felt badly about the air mattress, but we had quite literally made our own bed, and laid in it.  

The Santa Barbara Municipal Court Complex

The Santa Barbara Municipal Court Complex

The boys took us to their favorite brunch spot in Santa Barbara. In addition to being a fabulous name for a drag queen, Scarlett Begonia served up one of the best brunches I’ve ever had.  As a gay man who lived in New York City for ten years, I speak with authority on all matters brunch.  Sure, it was 9:30AM, but there were cocktails involved, and only a lush has booze with breakfast.  We feasted on kimchee fried rice and maple-bacon biscuits, which erased any unpleasantness from the night before. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, California.

With full bellies, we set off for our first stop of the day: Gold’s Gym, Venice, California. The MECCA of Bodybuilding.  Would there be celebrities? Beasts? Monsters?! We got into the locker room and I whispered to Dave: “Did you see who’s here?!”  Dave, too cool to wear his very necessary glasses at the gym, had failed to spot celebrity beast-monster Rich Piana and his entourage on the training floor.  Rich Piana is one of our favorite personalities in the sport, not because we aspire to look like him, but because of his zero-fucks-given attitude.  

VIP Parking at Gold's Gym in Venice, California. 

VIP Parking at Gold's Gym in Venice, California. 

We got into our back workout, catching glimpses of “The 5% Crew” in between sets.  We knew from Instagram (where else?) that Rich loves meeting his fans, but we didn’t dare approach him.  He was literally the largest human being either of us had ever seen.  Instead, we regressed to the mental state of a couple of 14 year old girls backstage at a OneDirection concert, masking our delighted squeals with poker face as we marveled at our freakish hero. We played it cool; no big deal.  The place was populated with other non-celebrity beast monsters, too.  We wished there was a gym like this back home…there’s nothing quite as motivating as training amongst really serious bodybuilders. 

This is basically what the scene looked like at Gold's (from Rich Piana's Facebook Page)

This is basically what the scene looked like at Gold's (from Rich Piana's Facebook Page)

After training, we composed ourselves and set off to Los Angeles to visit dear friends Heidi and Anthony, and their newborn daughter, Phoebe. We’d been threatening to visit them in California for over a year. I’ve known Heidi since the summer of 1999 (hemp necklaces, frosted tips), and she’s been ready for motherhood, I think, since birth.  It was surreal and yet completely natural to be sitting with her, bottle feeding her baby girl. 

Bottle time for Phoebe

Bottle time for Phoebe

Nap time rolled around (for the baby, not for us), and we hit the road for Las Vegas.  We got a later start than anticipated, and a “much-needed” torrential downpour followed us almost all the way to the Nevada border.  The four-hour drive turned into a seven-hour drive, putting us in Las Vegas after midnight.  My body knew it was midnight, but Las Vegas seemed not to care. Tourists crawled the strip in droves.  Scantily clad young women braved the desert chill in the name of…Fashion, I guess?

Rainy conditions made the drive to Las Vegas a bit of a slog. 

Rainy conditions made the drive to Las Vegas a bit of a slog. 

It seemed a waste to spend 6 hours asleep at the Bellagio before departing for Colorado, so we extended our reservation for another night.  We schlepped our bags up to the room, changed into some fresh clothes, and ventured out in search of food.  The restaurants in the Bellagio had all shut down for the night, so we faced the terrifying prospect of wading through the human wreckage on the strip to find an open restaurant.  

Our prayers were (sort of) answered as we gazed up at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina.  Places like the Cabo Wabo Cantina depend entirely upon a good crowd to provide ambiance.  Without throngs of tequila-shooting revelers, let me tell you, it’s pretty grim.  The space is cavernous, and with only two other tables occupied, it felt like it was closing down. Possibly permanently.  

Crossing the street to go back to the Bellagio, we were accosted by no fewer than three party promoters who could all tell from looking at us that we were out for lap dances from Vegas’ hottest women.  I wondered how difficult it must be for a blind party promoter to be successful here.

Day 3: San Francisco to Santa Barbara

After a tasty breakfast at Roxanne Cafe on Powell Street in San Francisco, we dropped by Pacific Motors for a check-in with Harry Hayashi.  We were eager to know whether we’d be on the road soon, or whether we should plan a day of sightseeing. The Rover was still on the lift, but the drivetrain had been reassembled, and it appeared to be mid-oil-change.

Big trouble in little China

Big trouble in little China

Harry emerged from the depths of his shop, and we inquired.  “Don’t bother me!” he said, as he hurried into his office.  Dave and I looked at each other, incredulous.  “End of day! I call you!”  I was slack-jawed.  Dave put his hand on my shoulder and shepherded me back to the Santa Fe.  “If he wasn’t a genius,” I said, “there’s no way he’d get away with that shit!” I tried to re-frame it for myself, so I could appreciate that we had the best possible mechanic working on our truck.  

The pump, it turns out, IS the cure!

The pump, it turns out, IS the cure!

We busied ourselves training at World Gym on De Haro Street, a few blocks away. I checked my phone compulsively as we trained, intermittently cursing him for being so rude and cryptic, and appreciating his obsessive commitment to making sure the ol’ Rangie was perfect before letting it out of his shop. We got “the call” just as we were finishing up.

Ready to roll!

Back at the shop, Harry was pleasant and friendly, wishing us well on our journey.  The truck was parked at the door, ready to roll. I had spent some quality time with the Rover during its brief stay in my garage in New Jersey, but this was Dave’s first chance to get up close and personal.  He climbed into the driver’s seat, beaming with excitement.  I realized in this moment that I’d made a foolish mistake at the rental car office: I opted not to list Dave as a driver on the Santa Fe, figuring that I’d be doing most of the driving around San Francisco. Now I was stuck driving the Hyundai while Dave got the first drive in the Range Rover!

One happy Canadian.

One happy Canadian.

But what a drive it was. I watched in the rearview mirror as Dave’s smile grew wider and wider, punctuated with what appeared to be enthusiastic hooting and hollering. It was like watching a home movie of a little boy who got exactly what he wanted for Christmas: adorable, honest, and priceless.  My jealously melted away, and I actually got a little misty seeing him so happy. Owning this old Rover is probably as close as we’ll get to bottling that feeling.  

The journey begins.

The journey begins.

It was 3pm by the time we topped off the Hyundai’s tank and returned it. Most of our drive to Santa Barbara would take place under the cloak of night, so we cut west toward the coast immediately. Dave had never been to California, and I wanted to make sure he got to enjoy the vistas along the Pacific Coast Highway for what little daylight we had left. We made it to Half Moon Bay and fueled up for the first of probably 30 times on our voyage. 

The most familiar sight on the trip.

The most familiar sight on the trip.

The first time we had a clear view of the Pacific, I pulled into the parking lot at San Gregorio State Beach. We had a tender moment in the salty breeze (with Dave, that is, not with the truck), and then I decided it was time for a photo op.  I pulled the Range Rover into the picnic area, past a sign indicating that the area was for Authorized Vehicles Only.  ‘It’s December, nobody’s going to care,’ I thought.  The California Parks Police cares all year, it turns out.  

Rebel, rebel.

I explained to the officer that we’d just stopped for a quick photo. Thinking himself quite droll, he asked me to read him the sign that was posted 10 feet behind the Range Rover.  I read it to him, and he confirmed that my understanding of the sign matched his.  I sheepishly told him that we’d just picked up the car an hour ago, and were at the beginning of a cross-country drive.  He ran my plates, confirmed that the car was indeed mine, and let me go with a warning.  I suppose I shouldn’t be so timid about getting the shot I want, but the Eagle Scout sitting on my shoulder will probably remind me about this near-miss the next time I try to push my luck.    

Hands at 9:15 and 4:30, because I can’t seem to be on time for anything.

Hands at 9:15 and 4:30, because I can’t seem to be on time for anything.

We flowed down the PCH, coddled by the Range Rover’s silky smooth ride.  As the sun sank into the Pacific, we focused our attention on getting to Santa Barbara, some 5 hours away, while our friends there were still awake. Google Maps offered us an alternate route through Santa Cruz, which I’m sure it thought was quite clever, but we still lost time. 

If the drive to Santa Barbara taught us anything, it’s that we’d better have a refueling plan in mind by the time the trip odometer reads 200 miles.  The fuel light went on at 240 miles, and we became aware that we were some 30 miles from an open gas station. We made it, but only just: the 18-gallon tank took 18.9 gallons to fill. 

Our longtime friends Justin and Jeff put us up for the night.  We drank some more California red, and got updates on Jeff’s new job, and Justin’s sister’s recent embrace of the love that dare not speak its name. We ate clementines from the tree in their back yard and rassled with their black-lab/golden retriever mix, Theo.  

Bedtime arrived, and we opted to sleep on the air mattress, despite the boys’ insistence that we take their bed.  They warned us that the mattress had just been repaired, but we assured our them that we would be fine.  With no data to support our optimism, we woke up, predictably, taco’d into the middle of a partially deflated mattress.  

Day 2: San Francisco

The next morning arrived uneventfully; neither one of us had been murdered in our face.  At our friend’s recommendation, we had breakfast at Left Coast Depot in Novato.  We began planning our day as we plowed through a most unladylike quantity of food.  We tapped into dear Douglas’ local knowledge and followed his advice on everything: ‘Take the Ferry to Alcatraz, eat dinner at Farralon, and stay at the Hotel Triton.’  

View of San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

Our touristic diversion for the day was a trip to Alcatraz Island, the infamous decommissioned federal prison. The views of San Francisco from the island were spectacular; a perspective on the city unique to this excursion.  The audio tour of the prison, particularly the portrayal of the 3-day “Battle of Alcatraz” in 1946, was gripping. For all its history and notoriety, it’s surprising that the prison was only in operation for 29 years.  

The stylish Hotel Triton in San Francisco

Upon return from our voyage, we made our way to the Hotel Triton, a boutique hotel near Union Square.  The décor of our room, designed by Nicole Hollis, was playful, with turquoise wainscoting and the first draft of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” printed on the wallpaper. The Frette linens on the bed were exceptionally comfortable for sleeping, though their slippery smoothness made for exceptionally awkward lovemaking.  Other attractions include the “Haagen-Dazs Sweet Suite,” the “J. Garcia Suite,” and the “Kathy Griffin D-List Suite.”

Image Courtesy of Jetsetter.com

Before dinner, we tarted ourself up with new duds from Banana Republic’s flagship store, which was having a 40% off sale, storewide. Cha-ching.  It was a sale big enough to offset the dismal US-Canadian exchange rate, so we went big.  Americans, if you didn’t know it: the shitty exchange rate means that the entire country is 30% off.  Visit Canada!

Glass jellyfish pendants at Farralon

Sufficiently spruced up, we walked to Farralon, the iconic San Francisco seafood restaurant. We started with Paddlefish Caviar, and a Dungeoness Crab Risotto which was essentially the delicious, unholy union between a crab cake and a risotto dish.  Dave, in his capacity as a professional marine biologist, assured me that American Paddlefish Caviar is sustainable, like driving a Prius, whereas Russian Osetra Caviar is environmentally reckless, like driving a 1993 Range Rover Classic across the continent. You can’t be good all the time.

We tickled and giggled our way across the evening, waxing self-congratulatory about our undying love for each other.  I thought he might propose to me, but he did not.  I must have had some tender, pan-roasted Norwegian Cod stuck in my teeth.

Day 1: Toronto to San Francisco

This trip began as, all of our trips do, with optimism.  Some say we are extremely late for everything. We prefer to think that we’re just extremely optimistic about what can be accomplished in a given amount of time.  We’re not hanging around early, waiting for things to start, like a bunch of pessimists.  

Despite initial gestures toward proper planning and efficiency, such as registering the Range Rover a week ahead of time and packing 2 days ahead of time, I managed to thrust us into panic mode on day one by scheduling our car to the airport on optimist time, rather than on Greater Toronto Area rush-hour reality time.  We managed to make the flight, though I’m not sure we deserved to.  Optimists: 1 Pessimists: 0

The flight from Toronto to San Francisco was delightfully unmemorable.  No delays, no unacceptably precocious children, no chatty Cathy in the next seat.  I watched “Vacation” and wrote my first automotive review piece, on the 2016 Mini Clubman.  We arrived in San Francisco with plenty of time to kill, since the Range Rover wouldn’t be ready for another 48 hours.

The Tartan Prancer from “Vacation” ( Check out the promo video here !)

The Tartan Prancer from “Vacation” (Check out the promo video here!)

 

I booked us the cheapest possible rental car, hoping we’d get a total shitbox that I could tear to shreds in my review.  Unfortunately, they did not have a Mitsubishi Mirage.  Instead, we were “upgraded” to a bronze 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe.  He might has well have said, “I’ve upgraded you to a Dodge Grand Caravan!”  It’s not that the Santa Fe is a bad car, it’s just that it ranks pretty low on the sex-o-meter.  

The 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe.

We actually warmed quickly to the Santa Fe.  It’s an easy-driving, practical, transportation appliance.  It’s lovely, in the way that a metallic grey LG washer/dryer pair is lovely.  We loaded it up with our stuff, and set off for our first stop: Chipotle.  We will eat at Chipotle a lot on this trip, as Chipotles are scarce in southern Ontario. It is a delicacy of the highest order, on par with beluga caviar and Ferrero Rocher truffles. 

Our faux-mex craving sated, we dropped in to visit Harry Hayashi, our trusty mechanic, for an update on Mr. Barry White’s condition.  In typical fashion, he was brief, and we could tell that he wanted us to leave.  He’s actually a pretty friendly guy; he’s just not burdened with a need for pleasantries.  I asked him about the 1993 Mercedes-Benz 500E sitting in his shop.  His face lit up, and he told us about how they were built by Porsche back then, and how one of his customers once had him install a Porsche horn in his 500E, because the Mercedes horn was too weak.  

One of the Range Rover's roommates during his stay at the shop. 

One of the Range Rover's roommates during his stay at the shop. 

Anyway, the Rover was up on the lift, and pretty well taken apart underneath. Dave and I walked around under the truck and marveled at the robustness of its construction.  The reasons for the Range Rover’s off road prowess became apparent. I’ve seen Range Rovers up on ramps, demonstrating wheel articulation and approach angles, but I’d never really gotten a close look at how it’s possible.  The Classic used soft steel coil springs, paired with a Boge self-leveling strut attached to a central “A” frame suspension link. It’s an impressive balancing act. 

That night, we visited with old friends VA and Kip in Novato.  We played with their adorable baby, Vesper, and caught up over a couple bottles of local red wine.  When it was time to turn in, we spent the night in their spare room, which does triple duty as guest room, home office, and horror-film memorabilia collection. Dave and I each used reassuring self-talk to keep the scary slashers out of our dreams.

Dave with Vesper. He's a natural. 

Dave with Vesper. He's a natural. 

Day 0: Don't Hold Your Breath

Sometimes the best plan is no plan. 

Ask a Swiss person, and they will tell you that the key to a successful road trip is careful planning.  When you work ahead of time to plan your route, secure lodging, and make plans with friends, you ensure that you’ll make the most of your time on the road.  I am guessing that there are not a lot of Swiss people who own classic Range Rovers. 

The planning for our road trip began last month when we decided to combine our plans to “take a nice trip somewhere” with our plans to buy our dear friend Douglas’ 1993 Range Rover Classic. We knew the truck could handle a cross-country trip, as Doug had driven it from NYC to San Francisco a few months back.  When we told him about our plans, Doug immediately contacted his master mechanic, Harry Hayashi at Pacific Motors in San Francisco, and had him give the truck a thorough inspection.  

A Range Rover Classic in it's natural habitat.

Harry noted a noise emanating from the rear of the drivetrain when the vehicle was moving.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that this was emanating from the transfer case, but Harry’s uncanny instinct led him to find that a few teeth had broken loose from the pinion in the rear differential.  The solution:  a new rear axle, and new bearings while we’re in there.

The noisy differential had broken some teef.

The noisy differential had broken some teef.

Having owned only relatively new, relatively trouble-free, or relatively common cars over the years, it’s never occurred to me that there are, in fact, a limited number of any given part available for a car that’s been out of production for twenty years.  A new rear axle is not the sort of thing you can just phone the Land Rover parts counter for; you need to be resourceful.  

Miraculously, a shop in North Carolina happened to have the exact parts we needed.  They were packed up and shipped to San Francisco, where they arrived last week. The “new” axle proved to be in great shape.  Harry had gotten the engine block number from the donor vehicle, so he was able to order the set of four rear bearings that would match the axle.  

The new axle is in and looks great, I think. Also note how deliciously rust-free the underbody is. California car FTW.

This week’s lesson is that when you replace the entire rear axle, the resulting clearance at the differential requires shims which are likely different from what was there.  If you’re good with context clues, you already know that these parts are not available from the Land Rover parts counter, either.  Fortunately, Harry found a set and they will be delivered on Thursday afternoon. Our new old Range Rover ought to be ready on Friday afternoon.  Which is great, except that we arrive on Wednesday afternoon and had planned to drive to Santa Barbara on Thursday. 

Leaning on my partner for support on the eve of our departure.   

Leaning on my partner for support on the eve of our departure.

 

We will arrive in San Francisco tomorrow, having left our brand new LR4 (with it’s silky supercharged Jaguar V6, heavenly air suspension, and working cruise control), nestled safely in our garage where it can’t help anybody.  We’ll get to drive a rental car for 2 days (look for a mini review on whatever we get) before getting our hands on this ancient aluminum brick, which will be fully functional, except for the cruise control. And then? We pray.  We pray to God, to Jah, and to any other available roadside deities, that I won’t have anything else mechanical to write about on this trip.

You might ask me: Michael, how does this affect your plans?  Well, I’ll tell you: not a whole lot. The secret is in my non-Swiss trip planning procedure:

1: Book airfare to start point. The plane wasn’t designed or built by British Leyland, so there’s a good chance you will get there without incident.  

2: Contact old friends who have moved to places along the desired route, and see if they’ll be around. Do your best to sound earnest, like you really believe that you’re going to get there, but MAKE NO FIRM COMMITMENTS. Just string them along until you know what your sitch is. Basically, re-enact your single days.   

3: Identify places you’d like to stay along the route.  Make reservations if you like tempting fate, but keep the cancellation policy handy in the very likely event that you’ll be rescheduling or canceling altogether.  I opted to wait it out until we have possession of a roadworthy vehicle.

4: Plan for special activities, such as skiing in Colorado, hiking in Utah, or contracting chlamydia in Las Vegas.  Pack accordingly, but don’t hold your breath; you’re rolling in 4,401lbs of “Definitely Maybe.”  Look on the bright side, though: you can catch chlamydia almost anywhere!

5: Promise your family that you’ll be home for dinner in New Jersey on Christmas Eve.  Be prepared to buy 2 very expensive last minute tickets with so many connections, you’ll visit the same number of states that you’d planned to drive through.

6: Look at your beautiful copilot and take a moment to appreciate how unbelievably fortunate you are that these are things you’re worried about this Christmas. Depress the brake pedal, shift into “D,” and THUNK! (it’s supposed to make that sound), away we go.


Origin Story: I Found My Heart in San Francisco

I had my first encounter with my friend Doug’s beloved Range Rover in May of 2013.  It was parked in the Castro garage where I prepped my bike for the AIDS LifeCycle fundraiser ride, a 545-mile tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  I peeked into the windows, I skulked around it; I was smitten. 

It’s a 1993 Range Rover Classic. Alpine White over tan hides, short wheelbase. Doug and I have spent hours waxing poetic on the original Range Rover’s universal appeal and cachet relative to all other vehicles.  When it comes to what your car says about you, nothing makes a better statement than a classic Range Rover.  

Turn up at a country club, and you will be the sole arbiter of good taste and restraint. The valet will probably display your $2,500 rig right up front next to the Bentleys and Geländewagens.  Swing by the garden centre on your way home for a few bags of mulch, and you’ll get nods of approval from even the most grizzled landscapers. It’s universally cool. 

It was two years before I got the chance to drive the pristine white Rover.  Using my unparalleled powers of persuasion, I convinced Doug to ship it to Jersey City, NJ, where we’d share it for a while. I was out of town when the beast was delivered and parked in my garage spot.  I returned to find it there, in all it’s blocky aluminum glory. Sploosh.

Behold, the 1993 Range Rover Classic. 

I knew this moment was coming, so I’d purchased a pair of tortoise-shell Ray-Ban Wayfarers to complete the look. I pushed the key, my copy of which was made at a hardware store, into the lock, and turned it.  The vacuum-operated central locking system let out a massive exhale, forcing the locks open. I hooked my fingers into the door handle, which is not unlike the seatbelt buckle on an airplane in its operation, and popped the door open.  
 

I climbed up into the driver’s seat, and took in the low, wide dashboard, introduced in 1987 in the first US-Spec Range Rovers.  The roof is high, the pillars are razor-thin, and the door sills are low.  So low, that I was concerned pedestrians would be able to see just how excited I was. The only other Range Rover I’d spent any real time with is my partner’s former 2013 Evoque, which features door sills at roughly shoulder-height.  Here, I am seated on a chair in a box fastened to a ladder with wheels. 

A digression: Like any self-respecting gearhead, I’ve owned many cars over the years. Four Volkswagens, three Audis, three Hondas, and my current Mercedes-Benz C300. Only one of those cars, a 100hp, eight-valve MK2 Jetta, felt like a machine.  It was charming and engaging, and it required attention and athleticism to drive it.  I loved that car.  Modern cars, by comparison, are smooth and effortless to drive.  You can eat a burrito and Snapchat Bae and retweet a gif of a narcoleptic dachshund while negotiating an offramp.  Soon, the car will take over entirely. Pity, that. 

I twisted the Ace Hardware key in the ignition, and the all-aluminum 3.9 liter V8, closely related to the motor in the 1961 Buick Skylark, cranked over and roared to life.  Back when everyone was getting up and dancing to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, engines didn’t just start.  No, it would make you wait a half-second before it gave you the satisfaction.  The 22-year old lump under the hood of this Rover was no exception.  It rumbled and burbled with a satisfying baritone that echoed in the garage.  The exhaust smelled like, well, exhaust. 

As I moved the modern-looking gear selector to “D” the transmission engaged with a medieval CLUNK. I eased off the brake, and steered out of my stall, and it became clear that I would not be texting Bae while driving this vehicle.  I hauled the big, leather-wrapped 2-spoke steering wheel around a few times to make the turn out of the garage and pulled out onto the mean streets of downtown Jersey City.  

At first, it felt as though I was driving some kind of leather-lined farm implement.  Even with power steering, the Rover takes work to maneuver around town.  The Third Reich had a name for it; “Freude durch Arbeit” or “Joy through Work,” although I think they were describing something else entirely. 

The British beast and I threaded our way through the city streets, headed for the highway.  The coil-spring suspension (this example was not fitted with the famously unreliable air suspension system introduced in 1993) absorbed the post-apocalyptic pavement with remarkable composure for a machine that was designed when my parents were in grade school.  The fundamentals of this truck remain impressive in their own way today, in a way that few other vehicles can claim. 

As Range Rover celebrates 45 years of production, I’m excited to share that my partner Dave and I will be buying Doug’s Range Rover this month. The lease on my C300 will end soon, and I’ll be using the Range Rover as my daily driver.  I’ve tentatively named him Barry White.

We’ll pick ol’ Barry up in San Francisco in a couple of weeks, and set off on a “Home for Christmas” cross country road trip that will take us 5,500 miles through 19 US states and 4 Canadian provinces.  Will the Rangie get us to New Jersey for Christmas?  Stay tuned…