Number of miles driven today: 520

Total miles driven on road trip: 10,504

Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Dunkin' Donuts showed a flicker of life on Route 15 South approaching Vegas, but then Starbucks came charging back

Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 26-16-2.

Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-26-2

Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.75

Number of states visited overall: 30

Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 14 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Utah)

Number of blue states visited overall: 16 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada)

Most incongruously placed sign approaching Vegas: Billboard for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, in between billboards for In 'N' Out and the Adult Mega Outlet Store

Somewhere in eastern Kansas, the country is split in half. To the east, the dominant landscape is forest, slopes of lush deciduous green.​ To the west is space, vast expanses that only get more vast the further west you go. The colors vary, from the green carpet of the plains states to the palette of muted reds, purples, browns, and oranges in the rocky states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. 

Utah in particular is a trip.

The state maligned for its uber-conservative politics and secretive cults also houses some of the most varied and dramatic landscapes in the world. Even the interstates, usually the domain of obnoxious billboards and endless Shell stations, can't help but cut through impossible cliffs that dwarf your very existence. 

In the eastern part of the state, the clouds darkened steadily, and the rain began to fall. It started as a few drops bouncing off the windshield, then accelerated to a steady pelting, and finally an outright assault. I slowed down to 40 mph, the taillights in front of me fuzzy orbs of red, the stark landscape ensconced in grey shadow.

The faces of the people I've met on this trip, players and strangers alike, streamed in my mind's eye, a wonderful parade of random adventure. I thought back to the origins of my baseball card collecting, sitting at the austere wooden desk in my childhood bedroom, drafting lists of the "common cards" that I wanted to add to my collection (I was always a bigger fan of the lesser-known players than the stars). Few baseball card shops back then had those types of cards on display, so I would have to make lists of the cards I wanted so they could check their deep inventory.

They would ask, "Are you trying to complete a set?" That was the only logical reason for such requests.

"Nope, I just like Don Carman and Lee Mazzilli," I would say, drawing a chuckle.

My mom would go to extreme lengths to accommodate my obscure tastes. Several times she drove me to the homes of private collectors who had these little-desired cards. We'd pull up to a dingy apartment complex in Cranston, Rhode Island, scale a creaky staircase to a second-floor apartment, and be greeted by a disheveled Italian in his mid-40s who happened to have the cards I needed. Being a kid and completely guileless, this did not seem the least bit odd to me, but looking back, my Mom put herself in quite a few unusual situations just to make her son happy. 

The rain pounded my Accord even harder, the drops exploding on the hood like mini-geysers. I squinted to see the road in front of me.

My thoughts drifted to the first time I really grew up, saying goodbye to my parents my freshman year of college outside the Earth Sciences building at Duke. They had driven me down from Rhode Island for orientation, making a mini-vacation out of it as we stopped to sight-see in Washington, D.C. They moved me into my dorm, my mom fretting over every last toiletry as we made countless runs to the local pharmacy. I had made the decision to move far away from home for college, and so this was it. Once they were gone, I would not see them again for months. 

I was scheduled to meet with my guidance counselor in a few minutes. My dad pulled into the parking lot and we got out. 

Until that last moment, I had been in some degree of denial. But when I moved in to hug goodbye, I found myself clutching their clothes. My mom was sobbing, and soon I was too. I felt my dad's cheek pressed against mine, wet with loss, and felt a sharp pang. My dad, always strong, always sure, was broken wide open. My tears built on my mom's. Words were half-formed, unnecessary. I finally let go. 

The rain slowly started to relent. I was able to increase my speed to 60. This was the the same route my Dad and I had driven together 13 years ago in my 1996 Ford Escort when I moved to California after graduating from Duke. I had made the baffling decision to have wisdom tooth surgery the day before leaving, and so was more or less unconscious until Ohio. The trip itself was a week-long microcosm of the father/son relationship--we fought outside Salina, Kansas when I bristled at his need to control everything; we marveled at the Grand Canyon; and we simply enjoyed each other's company. 

College had changed me--made me stronger, more confident, more sure of who I am. The goodbye this time was not the devastation of that parking lot at Duke, just more of a moment of sadness followed by a deep breath and a smile, with resolve. It was the recognition of the present with a tip of the cap to the past, the same philosophy that so many of these ex-players have embraced in their own lives. It is the beauty and the unrelenting wisdom of being wherever you are.

The rain had stopped entirely. The skies were brightening, the clouds lifting.

I exhaled, heading home. 


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The Road Home

Day 45: Grand Junction, CO to Las Vegas, NV, 8.2.15


One Pack. No Turning Back.