I used to think I was unbeatable. Not unflappable, mind you; I had been frustrated and angry so many times, had so many breakdowns and setbacks, cried and hurt and sometimes even longed for death… but I always came through. I always found a way to get to the next step, always managed to, in some way, get what I wanted. I was bruised and battered and worn, but I was a winner. The world was mine and damn the hands that would keep me from it.
Then I moved to Los Angeles.
People move new places all the time. They get fresh starts, begin new lives. That was my intent. It had been an idea cooking in my mind for a while. See, I have a love/hate relationship with Alaska. It will always be home to me and the familiarity is comforting for the most part, but it’s a small city. Your business or a gross exaggeration of your business gets around. Your personal life becomes a labyrinthine clusterfuck of connections. Then the winters are long and cold and dark and seasonal depression is a real thing that doubles down on people already depressed during the “good months”. And I fancy myself an artist on days I don’t have a problem getting out of bed, but though social media is a thing and the Internet is a wide open door to the world, the opportunity to make a personal connection with the “right person” isn’t often available here.
I love California. I love the busyness. I love the ability to stay relatively anonymous. The weather is pleasing, the people are beautiful. It’s a good place to get lost.
When I was eighteen, I talked a lot about moving. I had a lot of false starts then and for the next three years. “I’m taking off in the summer,” I’d say and then I would chicken out or something would come up. I pulled the trigger once when I was nineteen or twenty and it was and disaster. I had a friend who possessed a car that we would drive down. He knew a guy who would give us a place to crash and help set us up with a job. We had a going away party.
A week before we were supposed to leave, my friend bailed on me. He thought the idea was too crazy. He wanted to stay in Alaska. I didn’t want to be the guy who kept saying he was going to do something and failing to follow through. We had a going away party. So I bought a plane ticket.
That trip ended with me getting politely kicked out of Canada in living in Alabama for a month or so. When I screw up, I apparently like to do so spectacularly. But that’s another story for another time.
A year or two after that disaster, I began talking about moving with my friend RJ. He was ready for a change, too, and we went back and forth for a while on where we would move and when. I was feeling particularly lonely and finding solace in any woman who would have me. He was engaged at the time and then he wasn’t, and then he found another couple great women and those things didn’t work out because sometimes things just aren’t supposed to.
The beginning of one summer, he calls me in the middle of the night. Rarely do I hear him upset, even now, after eight years of shit you wouldn’t believe we got up to. He was upset that night. He said, “I’m moving to Los Angeles in September. I’m fucking DONE with this city. Come with me if you want to, but if not, fuck it.”
We talked a little. I was unsure if I’d be ready by then but he was set on it. His decision was made and it was final. So I drove over to his house in the middle of the night and despite needing to be up at eight the following morning for work, we split an entire bottle of Jameson over three or four hours and hashed out our plan.
The following months were stressful. If I’m being honest (and I always am, or else what’s the point?), I don’t think I’ve ever stopped being stressed since then. But this was a good stress. I was working towards something. I stopped going out almost completely for a few months, I stopped buying shit I didn’t need, and I put money aside. Not a lot of money, mind you… in fact, a grossly inadequate amount, but I saved for once, and for something important to me.
I was twenty-one years old. RJ was twenty-three. We caught the interest and companionship of another friend, DJ, who was twenty-three as well and looking to escape Alaska.
What were my goals exactly? I wrote poetry and short stories. I had been in a handful of school and local theater shows. I had it in my head that I would become an actor, a screenwriter, a novelist… any one or two of things that would skyrocket me to stardom and riches. Looking back, I cringe at my naiveté and applaud the sheer audacity.
The three of us decided to keep a blog that updated everyone on the status of said journey to success. We fully acknowledged that failure was at the very least as likely an option, but we did our best to laugh in the face of it. The initial car we were going to take down completely shit the bed, so we considered flying down instead. No putting it off for a few months. That would be ridiculous; we said September. It was September. We were going. That led blog entries like this:
“With the sudden and complete ceasure of a working automobile (a fact made only more ironic by the recent acquisition of everything necessary to cross the border in it), our eclectic trio will once more be planning a trip through the skies.
If the Gods want to declare war, we’ll pay them a visit just to show we don’t roll over for anyone.”
So much went wrong in the weeks leading up to our move that we should have taken it as a sign. If it had just been me, I would have absolutely been deterred. But I was spurred on and supported and encouraged by my friends, so we powered through. I quit my job decisively. I said my goodbyes to my friends and family. I made peace with my decision.
I’m reminded as I write this how my grandmother fussed over every little detail, asking me multiple times for I remembered to bring this or that, where I’d be staying, how I’d keep in touch. I bullshitted so many details just so she wouldn’t worry. And I remember that when she left my room, my grandfather – already suffering greatly from Parkinson’s and early onset dementia – stood up and hugged me. “Your dad was such a talented musician. Your uncle, too. Your aunt never did what she wanted to. You have so much talent. I’m proud of you for pursuing your dream, because they didn’t.”
My grandmother called me often during my time in L.A. and I always cut those calls short or ignored them. Since their deaths, I have regretted that to an extreme degree. On the other hand, I never once asked them for money and they never had a fraction of an idea of the turmoil I was going through, and I’m grateful for that.
We found another car, my friends and I: a white Chrysler New Yorker that we dubbed the HMS Douchebag, because we were young and we were idiots (now we’re old and idiots; we still think that’s a great fucking name for a car.) We got an adapter that would charge our laptops and music players, piled literally all of our worldly belongings into it and began to drive. September 4th, 2009.
Yeah, man. That was a day.
Quick note: that is a goddamn terrible car to pack three grown men and hundreds of pounds in clothes and personal belongings into to drag down the Alaska-Canada highway. The leather seats were a nice touch, but it isn’t built for a strain. And the car is only one aspect of the trip! There was so much else going on.
Alaska is a large state. It’s massive. I once drove from Prattville, Alabama to Detroit, Michigan in 13 hours. I don’t think we even hit Canada in 13 hours trying to get out of Alaska. We bought fireworks in Glennallen from a man named Sourdough Joe for no other reason than to fire them off. Okay, hold on: if there is any indication that we were three people woefully unprepared to leave our lives behind and move across the country, the very fact that I, alone, only had $2,000 or so to fund THE ENTIRE MOVING OF MY LIFE and we decided to buy fucking fireworks just to fire them off should be a red light the size of the Bat-signal. I mean, despite the little toy cat stuck to the dashboard (named Turbo Sexaphonic, God, we are great at naming things), RJ managed to spill Red Bull all over his lap and lose his phone in the middle of the woods trying to clean it up.
Perfectly capable and reliable adults, we three.
The ride itself was long and largely uneventful. I slept a lot. This inexplicably earned me the moniker Dame Ellen Mayer, but I embraced my role as a lady of the Queen’s territories and showed my appreciation for my chauffeurs by sleeping more.
Here’s another excerpt from the blog six years ago:
“”Just three of you?”
“Where ya going?”
“How long ya gonna be here?”
And that was it. Nothing about weapons, drugs, money, insurance, the car registration. We were on our way.
We made it to Destruction Bay, a town of around 55 people that seemed to consist solely of two buildings, one of them a gas station attended by a woman who looked remarkably lke Marisa Tomei.
The radio was killing us. Three stations, one which was the news, another that sang oldies (including the theme to Gilligan’s Island), and one that was giving us a recipe for seafood chowder. I kid you not.”
Canada was absolutely thrilling so far. Sarcasm aside, I said that Alaska was massive, but Canada is absolutely ridiculous. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but being the only three people in the middle of nature in a packed car with an inconsistent radio and small selection of the same songs to listen to will lead to tension. And it only gets worse when things go wrong.
I was driving. DJ was navigating. RJ was sleeping in the back and rudely awakened when the shocks suddenly blew out from the weight. We were giving the car a hard time with all the weight in it already, but the AlCan highway is poorly maintained. There already large chunks of the road that alternate between pavement and gravel and the constant shift in solidity wound up being too much. We limped the car into the parking lot of a hotel called Casa Loma, not far outside of Whitehorse.
The hotel, referred to as “Oh God, the Loma” by citizens of Whitehorse, was pretty rundown as I remember it. RJ was able to get ahold of his dad, who agreed to come up and run some maintenance. It was going to take a day or so, so we rented a room and RJ and I went to the the adjoining bar. Old country music was playing, and the only people there were the dancing elderly, so we convinced the bartender to sell us a bottle of Crown Royale and went back to our room to watch TV and order pizza.
This interaction happened:
RJ: Hey, I’d like to order a pizza to the Casa Loma.
Pizza Person: And what kind of pizza would you like to order?
RJ: Canadian bacon and pineapple.
Pizza Person: …so, like, ham?
I picked up a girl with that story one time.
Anyway, Ron showed up with an employee of his the next day. We took a trip, the lot of us, to a local store and bought some hockey pucks and McDonald’s. RJ’s dad then proceeded right A) use duct tape and hockey pucks to somehow fix the shocks (or at least give them enough improvised support for the car to work again) and B) feed some random German Shepard a bunch of junk food, because the pup was sweet and looked sad, and I think we all needed a little love right then.
And Ron left. And RJ, DJ and I packed ourselves back in the car and continued on our way. To Los Angeles! To success!
Haha, no. To more disaster.
Part Two: A Perilous Journey
Part Three: The First Month
Part Four: Love and Tribulation
Part Five: Awry
Part Six: Ruin