So onward we roll in our cool mobile clubhouse, content with scenery and motion, through Rutherford and Yountville, a loop into Sonoma, Napa’s hub, which reminds me of something John Steinbeck wrote: “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash.”
Steinbeck may have meant something different, but my definition of trash is strip malls and urban sprawl.
Once penetrated, Sonoma is a gem, if difficult to appreciate outside the COW this very hot day, about 93 degrees and climbing.
We’d planned to make it our overnight stop, but the oppressive heat points us elsewhere.
“Let’s just keep driving,” I say to my wife.
"San Francisco. It looked so inviting from Sausalito" (where we had spent the night). I check my wristwatch. "We can be there by 5:30."
Entering the city via the Golden Gate Bridge, it is time for Milanese-style driving, a right on Van Ness, a left on Post, and into Union Square.
I zip into the Hyatt’s waiting zone and pop out to reception.
“What’s your availability for tonight?”
“None. We are completely full.”
“What’s going on?”
“Big convention at the Moscone Center.”
I cross Stockton to the Taj Compton Place. A pretty Asian receptionist shakes her head.
I return to my wife. “It’s the same all over.” My enthusiasm for a big city fix is now in tatters. Fixed, indeed, more like an overdose—quagmired in rush hour traffic. “San Francisco is better as a view,” I add.
We have been in the COW since 9:03 this morning. Nine hours.
I try to explain, as I did with Van Stein, it is not about the destination, but about the road, the journey. Eventually, your destination is home. Ultimately, it’s a grave or an incinerator. Enjoy the ride. It doesn’t last long.
But I am weary now, and so is my wife, and we are sandwiched by exhaust-emitting vehicles as converging lanes cause gridlock, and red lights conspire to keep us captive.
“We’re getting out of here,” I say, getting nowhere.
Cities, I rediscover, are dirty and oppressive.
They are made for the young and ambitious to circulate and couple, climb a ladder and race rats, but offer little to road-trippers already coupled and beyond their careers.
We inch along three blocks, during which we witness a road rage incident after one car bumps another.
Little damage, no details exchanged, just raw venting.
Suddenly, crossing an intersection (Market Street), the road miraculously clears. After a few deft turns, we join 101 heading south, and I am utterly astonished that we managed to escape, as if our spiritual mentor Mark Twain intervened and parted traffic.
“Palo Alto,” I say. I’d been to this college town (Stanford) fifteen months earlier with Van Stein to doorstep Google and Facebook and expose the social media giants as terribly unsocial.
We can be there, I explain, in thirty minutes.
Visiting Palo Alto is like going back in time.
Its natives dream the future while escaping to the past, evidenced by the old Stanford movie theater on University Avenue showing Remember the Night (from 1940) starring Barbara Stanwyck.
The Epiphany, which opened its doors only seven weeks earlier, welcomes us with new beds, new sheets, new carpet, new everything.
We are where we are meant to be, right now, in the moment.
My previous visit was early January, during Stanford’s winter break.
Now, on May Day, the streets and bars are abuzz with the world's smartest nerds, tekkied up the wazoo.
Volumes are high in the neighborhood bars, causing our retreat to The Epiphany’s bar, which is busy, but refined, and gentler on frazzled nerves.
Exhaustion plus a martini equals tranquility.
Nothing matters anymore, zoned in the purity of the moment.
A 209 martini transforms exhaustion into exhilaration—a kind of delirious giddiness I now know as road fever.
A table is found for us in their restaurant, Lure + Till, and here we chill, with deviled eggs so good we order another round.
Then a stroll through the Digital Capital into a time warp of what was once great about America:
Diners, bookstores (one, with a window display of Shakespeare’s works).
En route home next morning, we ramp off in Salinas, the birthplace of John Steinbeck, now home to The National Steinbeck Center, the biggest and best museum ever built to honor a writer.
Here I pay homage to their Travels With Charley exhibit, including the actual pickup truck with bespoke camper Steinbeck drove for his 10,000-mile jaunt around the country.
My first novel about a road trip has been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.
It will be published in Fall 2016.