Arid Arizona and Combusting California

The dashboard temperature gauge said 110 degrees. I took a picture. Ten minutes later it said 114 degrees. I took another picture and sent it to my family. Three minutes later it said 118. I prayed the car wouldn’t overheat. I didn’t want to push.

Thus began my extremely hot trip to Arizona and weekend getaway to California. I have never lived in the land of overheating cars, cactus and coyotes. I have only twice visited the land of plastic surgery, Disneyland and the Governator. But, here I was unpacking for a three-week study trip to Prescott, Arizona, the redheaded stepchild of Embry-Riddle (according to my Daytona classmates).

My friends from Daytona laughed. They all asked, “Why would you transfer to Prescott?” It has all the sand, but no beach. It has all the heat, but no way of cooling off. Simple. After six years in Daytona, four at ERAU, I wanted out. Away from my comfort zone. Away from being deemed a “local.” Away from the beach and into the desert. I wanted my hair not to flatten when I left the house. I wanted to visit the Grand Canyon. I wanted to see a cactus outside of the Wal-Mart Lawn and Garden section.

There was so much I wanted out of my trip, but mostly I just wanted to keep China alive. I missed China from the moment I dragged my jetlagged behind off the airplane back into muggy Orlando. I had a feeling I would be homesick once I left my newly adopted country, so while still in China, I made arrangements to continue my Chinese courses at the Language Institute at Prescott.

My new roommates, Kui and Brett, both from the China trip, greeted me at Phoenix. Kui met me at the baggage claim while Brett drove the car around the circle, to prevent the ever present overheating. Brett, staying true to his strongly musically influenced California-self, pulled up, bumping some outrageous rap music.  “Oh gosh,” I thought. “I hope this is not going to be the soundtrack of this trip.” Then I got to thinking. What was the soundtrack going to be?

China had such a wide variety of music from Aladdin to Backstreet Boys to Micheal Buble. So in honor of Brett and his beloved state’s music scene, I have dedicated songs to our highs and lows of the three weeks out West. So, sync your Ipods and join me on my whirlwind Western withdrawal.

“Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver

As I said, I wasn’t ready to come back to Daytona when I arrived in mid-June. I felt something missing. My visa was expired and I couldn’t afford another bout of vaccinations or a plane ticket. Next best thing: Prescott, Arizona.

I recuperated for four days in Daytona and hopped an airplane back West. In those four days, I had just enough time to have my clothes washed, print out my boarding pass and have my records transferred to Prescott. I boarded that airplane with no intention of looking back, at least for three weeks.

After Brett finally turned down the music, I settled into the backseat of the Mustang. It felt good to be with my friends again. People who understood how China had changed me. People who could appreciate my inside jokes and incessant talk about Beijing. People who were also recuperating from our still present jet-lag. I was getting just what I needed.

Then there it was. As the Mustang sped down the Arizona highway doing 75mph (the speed limit), I saw my first live cactus. I was finally getting what I wanted.

A Chorus of Coyotes

I could see the stars. I mean I could actually see the stars. They twinkled in little fireballs above Brett and me as we laid on the campus track. We watched as a few stars glittered across the black abyss, only to disappear forever. I couldn’t even see a blue sky while in China and now I was watching stars streak across a sky.

But, it was the soundtrack, seemingly purring in unison, which really added something special.  Cicadas sang their lullabies to the hunting desert lizards. Wind whistled to the passing tumble weeds. But it was the howl in the distance that sent me running from the track. The guttural cries of coyotes echoed against Thumb Butte Mountain down into the Valley, sending shivers and concern down my spine. Just in the first day I found reason number one to leave Daytona. And of course the immediate track vicinity.

“Little Red Rodeo” by Collin Raye

It is no surprise that I have only been to a few handfuls of rodeos in my life. I always wanted a horse, but was never one for mucking stalls. Nor was I ever one for sequined riding vests or manure-caked riding boots. I wanted Ralph Lauren and boat shoes.

However, I found myself lacing up my boat shoes and spending a school night amongst the cowboys and cowgirls of Prescott . Located about 10 minutes from school, this is the world’s oldest rodeo and home to Prescott’s Frontier Days. Since 1888, this corral has seen its share of cowboys, bull riders and the ever present rodeo royalty. After studying Chinese all day, I wasn’t really in the mood to investigate the rodeo’s claim to fame. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. Upon entering the corral, a man dressed in 1880’s-period clothing struck up a conversation with me. The self-proclaimed “gentleman” with his gimp (thanks to a recent fall during the last rodeo), grabbed my elbow and proceeded to lead me to his “high school sweetheart’s” concession stand. He offered me a beer, but if my mother taught me anything, it was never take a drink from a stranger. Especially at 5,368 feet above sea level.

And if living above my typical sea level taught me anything, I had learned altitude decreases your tolerance. Tolerance for the sun. Tolerance for alcohol. Tolerance for lung capacity. I became a burnt, one-beer, fish out of water. Even walking to class I felt like I had been smoking a pack a day since kindergarten. Sure, my hair stayed styled and my makeup stayed painted, but I had consumed so many bottles of water and Curel lotion by the end of the day, my pours were recycling what I had put in. The heat simply suffocated.

Declining the drink, I obliged his historical, but not all together histrionic, ramblings. He talked about the evening’s festivities and how the rodeo had seen a lot. After his talk and later viewing of the festivities from the safety of our VIP seating, I had seen my share of bull riding, bucking broncs and barrel racing that evening. It was a night of worldly proportions and we had a worldly amount of Chinese homework. After all, I figured only we spoke Chinese in the whole arena.

“Dui Mian De Nu Hai Kan Guo Lai” by Richie Ren

Speaking of Chinese, I did actually attend class. Although I was thrown into Chinese in China and forced to learn the language or not eat, this institute was ten times the intensity level. To help us relax during class, Zhan Lao Shi, the professor from my China trip, picked this lovesick song as our class song for the summer. She said it was very common in China and a choice song for karaoke. Think of it as China’s version of “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey.

After the end of week one, seven Starbuck’s coffees down, three textbooks scribbled in and a few tears later, I was rethinking my love for the Chinese language. I know I already speak the most difficult language, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn the second hardest. Sure, about 2 billion people speak the language. Sure, it is widely spoken in Asian business transactions. Sure, I had already put seven weeks in it. And by goodness, I was surely going to complete it. Just not all at once.

When I came home from China, I knew probably five characters. When I left Arizona, I knew about 100. Out of nearly 5000 Chinese characters, I feel like I accomplished a little bit when I came home in July. I just can’t stop believing eventually speaking Chinese is obtainable.

“California” by Phantom Planet

If you have ever met a Californian, you know they are proud of their state. If you are from California, you know you got it good. My lone male roommate, Brett, is our lone Californian. After living five weeks with us in China and two in Prescott with three girls, he needed some testosterone. After living for seven weeks with him, the girls needed a break. The Fourth of July weekend granted our wish.

It was hard to pick just one song for our ride to California. As one of the only states to have millions of songs written about it, I chose the song I had most recently heard at a concert and that guaranteed not to blow out our ears. The night before, while responsibly checking our Facebook and setting our status to “California here we come,” we all sent each other Bumper Stickers proclaiming our impending trip to the Golden State. Brett and I snuck out of language lab early, forced the girls to pack hastily and packed into Kui’s 1997 silver Blazer. Leaving our reversed Riddle Ratio in Arizona, we started our four hour road trip.

Road trips. They always start off excitedly for the first few minutes, blaring music to the tune of summer anticipation. But, once you start driving, everyone settles in for the long haul. We had all settled in with Kui at the wheel, Ashley navigating and Brett and I studying in the back. We had everything necessary for the weekend. Bathing suits for the California sun. Water for the radiator should it over heat. Goldfish and crackers for munchies. We were pretty well set.

However, we forgot our rain gear. While driving switchback mountain terrain on the outskirts of Prescott, we had a storm. Driving those roads is bad enough typically, but with the sideways rain and my penchant for car sickness, the excitement was intensified. Even at 30 mph, coming around blind corners into headlights and not being able to see in front made me wish I was riding shotgun. Seeing the drop offs made my heart only drop farther than those on our left side. But, the interesting part was watching the temperature in the desert plummet from 116 to 86 in about 10 minutes. After the storm, the temperature returned to its peak just as quickly.

Once we were out of treacherous terrain and back on straight roads, it was just that. Straight. Desert. Roads. We would pass through towns begging you not to blink as you passed through. We would be the only motorists, as well as only people, we saw for multiple miles. I hoped this would not be the time our car would overheat. There was just no where to walk to for help. We finally drove into California directly into the hottest place I have ever been, Blythe. When we stopped, it was 105 degrees at 1:30 p.m. When we left the store, it was 108 degrees at 1:38 p.m. Continuing up the valley, we saw the California wind turbines. I completely support and applaud alternative energy users, especially those who use renewable energy sources. My only question:  Why pay for turbines when the state could just pop a few of Hollywood’s finest?  There would sure be plenty of air rushing out to power one of these mechanisms. Just consider any of the celebutantes’ heads as untapped resources. It sure hasn’t been tapped by them.

“Roller Coaster” by Bewitched

The whirlwind days in California were like a rollercoaster. So, it only seemed logical to start the weekend off with a little rollercoaster action.  Although it was Six Flags and Fourth of July, because of the fires throughout Southern California, all firework shows had been banned. That didn’t stop us from spending the whole day sweating in the California sun and throwing our bodies around on steel looptie loops.

I’ve been to Six Flags on every coast, but I have never ridden a roller coaster that actually intimidated me.  Enter X. With fire cannons, 70’s rock music and an unusual seating construction, we literally faced the ground as we plummeted down off the first drop, only to be flipped back over to take another drop inverted. During the final turn, I felt the California heat intensify, but because we were backwards I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. A moment later, I watched the fire cannon blow incendiaries over passengers in the seats in front of me. I teased my redheaded riding mate that she had caught some fire in her hair. At least we got some form of fireworks on the ride.

We continued our fireworks quest into the next day directly to LA’s Chinatown. Kui, Brett and I saw familiar sights and heard a familiar language. We bought our favored Hi-Chew candy at the local convenience store. I picked up the paper lanterns I had forgotten in China. We had even re-practiced our Chinese and looked forward to ordering our lunch in Chinese. Unfortunately, we found the only Korean-run restaurant in the district. Nice try.

Next we tried to go to Huntington Beach, but the parking lots were full. Everyone in California was soaking up the rays so we grabbed some Taco Bell and retired back to Brett’s house. The rays are just the same in a private backyard pool as they are on a crowded, public beach.

“Collide” by Howie Day

The weekend was over. Brett had his renewed testosterone. We girls had new tans and new friends. So, back into the car we piled. A quick stop at Starbucks quickly put me asleep. I was happily dreaming in Chinese characters, when I heard English expletives from the front seat shortly before my head was slammed into the window I had been using for a pillow. The car twisted, threatening to flip over. The tires screeched as they slid on unforgiving pavement. I fussed with my seat belt, hoping to click it before we bit it. A few panicky seconds later, Brett regained control. Still half dreaming and a bit dazed, I saw a state trooper speed up the road in front of us. He had formerly been seated on the side of the road, but clocked the van in front of us speeding. In his infinite wisdom, he decided to drive out directly into on coming traffic, aka our Blazer, which by the way has the highest flip over rate. Great.

Suddenly, the trooper slowed down and pulled along side of us. He motioned to us something about “up ahead,” but we accepted this as an apology and quickly conversed about our near-collision experience. We watched the trooper flip on his lights and pull the van over up ahead. Suddenly, he jumped out of his car and into direct traffic again, aka our Blazer. Was this guy looking to die? He motioned again, this time to pull over. Thinking he is going to apologize, we waited as he wrote the family in front a ticket and they headed off on their merry way. He then walked up to the passenger window, asked for license and registration and told us we are getting a ticket for speeding. For speeding? You almost killed us. He looked at us stoically as we said “yes sir, no sir” and thanked him for the ticket and apologized for speeding. But, there was no apology from him. Just a quick signing of $300 dollars away and a set court date in a city two hours away from school. How convenient. Glad we could conveniently move out of your way so you could be Wonder Trooper, and pull over two cars at once. You want a gold star sticker?

 “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

Back in Prescott, I placed a major decision, not on a gold star sticker, but on a shooting star. After two days in Prescott, I had my pen ready to sign the transfer paperwork. The first section was completed and I had placed the paperwork in my backpack throughout my three weeks. I was getting what I wanted from Prescott. I just needed an answer.

Since China, I had become a spontaneous opportunist. So much had been placed before me as legitimate decisions and I had jumped on all. I had never lived away from my parents or gone away to college.  Now, I had gone to China as a spur in the moment. I planned to move to Arizona on a whim while in China. I nearly transferred during my second day in Prescott. If they offered the classes I needed for this fall (as well as my obscure Communications degree) I would be writing this blog to you from one of Prescott’s three Starbucks. But, I am not.

Port Orange is my home and ERAU Daytona Beach is my college. I have so many ties to Greek life, athletics, the Communications department, my family and friends. These are the people who showed me there is always a time for change. However, this was not the time for this type of change.

During my last weekend in Prescott, I sat on a friend’s back porch and watched my first shooting star. I wished for the wisdom on what to do. My cell phone lit up. HOME was calling. I didn’t answer the phone, but I answered another type of call back home.  Though I came here to get what I thought I wanted, I was just leaving what I really needed.  I miss my times spent in Prescott and the people I spent it with, but that is just one more superb memory. One day I might call Prescott home, but for now, I am going home to NASCAR, bikers, rednecks and the World’s Most Famous Beach.

P.S. I want to thank the Prescott faculty and staff for being so helpful in my initial arrival and for being understanding and patient in my indecision to transfer. It was just not the right time, but they really pulled for my transfer. I appreciate that.

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