When I was a freshman in high school I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” The version of the novel I had bore the novel’s original title, “Goodbye Blue Monday.” I was probably reading a first edition of the novel that would bring a bunch of cash today, but what can you do. I think I loaned that book to someone and never saw it again. Doh.
From about the fifth grade on, I had always carried around a paperback novel, horror, science fiction, a bit of fantasy (elves and wizards and what have you), all 29 Alistair MacLean novels (plus his one super rare non-fiction book I managed to lay my hands on) – pretty much whatever I could find to read if it had a decent plot. Sometimes even if it didn’t.
“Breakfast of Champions,” is an interesting novel. It is set (like many of Vonnegut’s novels) in an alternate universe. This car salesman is driving across the country to attend an arts festival, where he meets the owner of a burger franchise. The car salesman introduces the burger salesman to the writings of a surrealist author, Kilgore Trout. After the arts festival the two set off across this fictitious country in an alternate universe, and the burger guy becomes obsessed with the Kilgore Trout novels, taking them as literal truth. The burger guy goes insane and goes on a criminal rampage, leaving his travel partner to wonder where it all went wrong. The novel was about how we all have a tendency to place our own expectations upon other people.
This past summer, I drove from Sacramento back to my hometown in Northern Wyoming, then went on an 1,800 mile road trip through most of Colorado with a friend I have known since the first day of Kindergarten. Before I left, I joked how the trip was in danger of turning into a Kurt Vonnegut novel. (Don’t you just hate it when you’re the only one who gets your own jokes?) Anyway.
My friend and I have been through a lot together – he was there for The Great Mudball Fight of 1978, he was there at my side when I wrecked my leg and couldn’t walk right for the better part of a year, he was there in the Rock and Roll High School days, we even went to college together for a few semesters before I moved to California.
So, I mean, as road trip companions go, this should have been a no brainer, right? Well, maybe.
And don’t get me wrong – we did get along just fine, but I think we both also got a reality check or two along the way.
DAY 1: Northern Wyoming to Denver. Pretty uneventful. My friend, who I will call “Jeff,” was a little frugal about where to stop for gas (he paid for gas and I paid for lodging) but that was okay. We stopped in Chugwater, Wyoming and made sandwiches out of the cooler that I was reluctant to bring along. (The words “we need to be weight conscious, on this trip, Jeff” actually left my lips at one point on this trip. So I’m the C3-PO of vacations, what can I say.)
DAYS 2 & 3: Denver to Snowmass / Aspen. Let me tell you something about the Mitsubishi Lancer. I LOVE my car and everything about it. But, it was almost certainly not designed by anyone who lives in the mountains. Around Sacramento, it’s a dream car. But it has a small four cylinder engine, and when going up a 45 mile 7% grade up into the Rocky Mountains, you suddenly feel as if you are pulling a U Haul trailer full of bricks. I’m just sayin. And the car did fine, but we definitely lost some speed and pushed some rpms to get her up the mountain. And this was the first climb of many. So, this day was where I first heard the phrase, “You know, cars like this perform better at high rpms – you’re babying it.” Or one of 32 other variants of this phrase I heard over the next nine days……. (The car can be driven in Automatic or downshifted manually.)
But, we made it to Snowmass no worse for wear, and everything was just amazing (I wanted to close my eyes on the chair lift).
And maybe I was, babying it I mean, but still, bounding up the mountain at 9,000 rpm just to see if we could didn’t seem like a good idea to me……….. I’m just sayin.
DAYS 4 & 5: Aspen to Montrose, CO. Our next stop was something I had been wanting to see for a while – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s basically a gouge over half a mile deep in places in the Earth’s crust, carved out of solid rock over millions of years by the Gunnison River. By this I think we were both duly impressed. We both seemed to like the town of Montrose a lot (only 15 miles from Black Canyon) as well.
Days 6 & 7: Montrose to Telluride, CO. Telluride is at 9,500 feet on the valley floor, so you can feel your lungs working for extra air a bit – especially when you’ve been living at near sea level for 25 years. We rented mountain bikes, took the gondola up to the top of the mountain, and rode the bikes down the mountain. The shop told us each bike they rent gets new brakes once a week. 3 to 4 runs down the mountain basically smokes the brakes. And these were high end bikes.
Jeff took the double black diamond runs (advanced expert level) but I would have none of that. I took the green run (beginner) which turned unceremoniously and without warning into a blue run (moderate) at which point I hit a curve wrong in the trail, the front wheel went into a rut and the rear wheel decided it wanted to be in front, and I was instantly wearing a mountain bike. (They make you wear full helmet and armour, so I was fine.) Jeff went over the handlebars on the double black diamond run, and decided to try his bike on too.
I made it across the open area of pointy rocks on a dramatic downslope without crashing, I was proud of that. Then I saw a 2 foot fall on the other side of a tree root just in time and hit full brakes. I ended up doing a forward wheelie at the bottom of that drop, teetering on the edge of disaster, finally bringing the bike back down, and landing on the cross bar instead of the seat. Ow. So, with a slightly unamused groin, I elected to dismount and walk the contraption up the next short but steep hill. Halfway up the hill I slipped on some loose shale and did a spread-eagled face plant in the rock and dirt, the bike coming to rest on top of me to add insult to injury. I was going to have to remember to make an appointment with my masseuse when I got back to Sacramento.
Days 8 & 9: Telluride to Mesa Verde National Park. This we both loved. For Jeff, the guided tours included ladder climbs and scaling vertical rock faces with only a chain to hold on to and shallow steps cut into the rock. Oh, I got to do that too, it’s just that I think Jeff enjoyed that part more than I did.
Did I mention that I’m not the biggest fan of heights? Did I further mention that every single stop on this trip involved staggering heights? Did I still further mention that I was solely responsible for the planning of this trip and so really had no one but myself to blame? Sigh. Regardless, Mesa Verde National Park was pretty danged cool. The pueblo ruins there are amongst the oldest in North America.
Day 10: Time to head back to Northern Wyoming, where I would spend another week playing video games, reliving my adolescence and childhood a bit, visiting the house I grew up in and the Blockplant, talking to people in town, and just basically wandering around in what to me was a bit of the Twilight Zone. Heck, I even rolled down the windows of my poor abused Mitsubishi, cranked Night Ranger, and took a few Mains for old times’ sake.
It was a fantastic trip. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any misgivings about the trip beforehand once it was all planned. But we went, and the “Chevron vs. Loaf & Jug” economy gas discussions and the “How many rpms are you doing right now” discussions not withstanding, we got along great for the most part, got on each other’s nerves a little (as is to be expected on a trip like this, I think) but above all else we kept it real, and let our lifelong respect for one another guide us most of the way.
I realize now that Jeff is a very different person from who he was in 1988, and guess what? So am I. And that’s the way it should be – I think we had both forgotten that a little, which is easy to do on a 90 minute phone call, but not on a 10 day road trip.
If I had any regrets about the trip, it would only be that I didn’t let Jeff drive, as I had intended to, and I know he enjoys mountain driving. I’m afraid that after the 32nd rpm comment, I became a bit overprotective of my little Mitsubishi. Ah well, such is life I guess.
The important thing is that not only are Jeff and I still friends, but our friendship got a big boost by the trip after all was said and done – we’re probably right now as good of friends as we ever have been.
No one was driven to any crime sprees, nor did we read any surrealist novels or attend any art fairs. Sorry to disappoint, Mr. Vonnegut (RIP).
But of course we didn’t – the mutual respect and understanding that you can’t change or program people, but don’t you just know that life will make a fine job of that by itself, were missing between the two characters in the car in “Breakfast of Champions,” and that, I like to think, was Mr. Vonnegut’s original point in the first place.