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Chasing the chaos: Road trip to California

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"That's ambitious" was all anyone could say when we explained our summer plan to drive from Seattle to Stanford, California, in one day with our two dogs in a small car packed full of snacks. I just scoffed — ambitious would have meant taking the 20 lb. cat, too.

We splurged on the concert tickets months before the trip. We hadn't really planned out just how to get to California, where to stay, and how to pay for it all. We figured we'd cut costs wherever possible. This meant driving instead of flying, bringing the dogs instead of paying for a pet sitter, and renting the cheapest Airbnbs on the market (which were still super expensive, because: California).

We planned one day to drive through three states and arrive at our destination, one day to enjoy the music festival, and two days to get back (assuming we'd be a bit tired).

As July snuck up on us, nostalgia set in. This would be my third road trip to California but my first as an adult. I started looking through old pictures, reminiscing about the drives through the mountains with my family, all piled into one big car. I remembered the sights, the splendor of beaches and national parks, and the adventure of the open road. Scanning our bare-bones itinerary, I decided to add just a few more stops.

On July 22 at 5 a.m., we began our descent into California and the madness of a summer road trip. Izy took the first driving shift while the dogs and I tried to contort our bodies for an uncomfortable car nap. Three hours later, we arrived at our first stopping point: Portland, Oregon.

We found a Target off the freeway and stopped so the dogs could empty their bladders on some dying trees, and I could run inside and decimate the bathroom before anyone else got the chance. Just as the morning employees flipped the sign to "open," I burst through the automatic doors and sprinted to the toilets. Word to the wise: don't start a 16-hour road trip with an iced coffee.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

Portland is a magical place where miracles can happen. The first happened to be leaving a Target without purchasing any items. The second was finding a dog sitter on Rover who was willing to watch our pups while Izy and I grabbed breakfast. We dined at the fabulous Slappy Cakes, a restaurant where patrons create their own fun pancake shapes on a griddle right in front of them. Haters will say, "What's the point of a restaurant if you're cooking for yourself?" But I have yet to find any other restaurant where you can eat a chocolate chip pancake in the shape of a penis at 8:00 in the morning.

With time left before we had to pick up the dogs, Izy and I decided to explore one of Portland's greatest establishments: Powell's Books. For years, friends have suggested taking the sacred pilgrimage of the nerds to this sanctuary of new and used books. Powell's did not disappoint, though I would note that there are at least ten bookstores in Seattle with the same atmosphere. I left with a new yellow notebook and a copy of I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy.

By 10 a.m., we were back on the road with the dogs and ready to bid Portland farewell. It was a cute town that felt akin to a movie lot. Though we were only there for two hours, a crazy woman still yelled at us. It felt like home.

Photo by Izy Diaz  

I took the next driving shift as we forged on toward Eugene, Oregon. I listened to Noah Khan's entire extended album of Stick Season, and to prepare for our festival, we cued up a playlist of Ricky Montgomery, Mxmtoon, Grent Perez, and Cavetown.

We took a detour from the freeway once we made it to Eugene, following dirt roads into the mountains. We pulled up to a quaint red barn and parked our car at our next stop: the Aragon alpaca farm.

We spent the next hour walking around the lovely little farm on a guided tour by owner Anne Dockendorf, who introduced us to each of her alpacas by name. Shy by nature, none let us touch them, but one did sneeze on me. It was an honor.

Once we had learned everything there is to know about alpacas, we loaded ourselves back into the car and took off once again. This time, as I drove, I tuned our aux to some of my favorite NPR podcasts. We learned about American history and politics from NPR's Throughline as we drove over the Oregon border into California.

Photo by Lindsey Anderson  

A surge of hope filled my chest when we passed the "Welcome to California" sign — we were ahead of schedule. When Izy could no longer tune out my NPR podcasts with their headphones and Nintendo Switch, they suggested we stop at the nearest town for a break and some food.

The next town just happened to be Weed, California. Weed is best known for, well, its name. There is nothing else of importance in that town. Regardless, we stopped at a gift shop to buy "I Love Weed" T-shirts for all our friends and family. I also considered getting a dog shirt for the pets to share, but that felt inappropriate.

It was hot in Weed. The United States was experiencing a heatwave all week, but in the coastal Pacific Northwest, we hadn't had much more than 80 degrees. Even as the sun set, the air around us was still above 100. We decided to keep the car's AC running and wait until we found a cooler stopping place to let the dogs outside again.

Because we were ahead of schedule, we also assumed we could afford a "real dinner" at a diner instead of fast food. We stopped at the Hi-Lo Café, a retro-looking eatery attached to the town's only motel. Izy ran inside to pick up our takeout while I waited in the car with the dogs.

For 45 minutes, Izy stood inside waiting for our food while a Karen-in-the-making yelled and berated the staff. The woman demanded they bring out their cook, Shane, with whom she was romantically involved. The manager refused, and the woman called the police, who arrived before our food did. Eventually, Izy bucked up and asked for our takeout, which we ate in the parking lot while Karen yelled at Shane and then the police, right behind our car.

The food was abysmal. I ordered breakfast for dinner and got a soggy waffle with a side of bacon that burned a hole in the styrofoam container. I ate it anyway.

Now way behind schedule, Izy stepped in to drive while I coughed burnt styrofoam into a bag.

We drove until it got too dark for Izy to see, then pulled off the road to switch drivers and also snag a late-night Dutch Bros. After we got our caffeinated oat milk beverages, we headed back to the highway, though there was one hitch: our headlights were not working.

Ever the problem solver, Izy suggested we pull over so they could take a look at it. We stopped beside a cornfield on a dirt road with no lights. Izy popped the hood and examined the mechanics of our vehicle like a Queer greaser while I sat in the driver's seat, keeping an eye out for killer children, aliens, or Karen and Shane, any of whom may have popped out of that cornfield and ended our trip then and there.

Luckily, we made it out with our lights working, and I started the last leg of the drive. We played the hype club music of our Gen Z childhood to keep me awake as the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight. The freeway led me to the illuminated city of San Francisco, and my heart soared.

"Are we almost there?" I asked.

"Yeah, a little less than an hour," Izy told me. This conversation repeated every 30 minutes for the next two hours. Eventually, we realized we had the "no tolls" setting on our maps app, which added another hour to the drive through San Francisco alone. Word to the wise: pay for those tolls.

Finally, we pulled into a nice little neighborhood to look for our Airbnb. We passed cute houses with manicured lawns and succulent gardens. We did not stay in any of those houses. Instead, we pulled up in front of the neighborhood crack house.

"Are you sure this is it?" I asked Izy. They nodded with a grimace. A burly man in a muscle tank walked down the driveway past piles of car parts. He was our host. He told us we were lucky to catch him as he was heading to the gym at 1 a.m.

He led us to the mother-in-law suite. Rats scurried up the branches of an orange tree nearby; the fruit was rotting on the branches. Before leaving, our host warned us not to let our dogs outside at night. Apparently, raccoons twice their size lived in the piles of decaying Christmas decorations that littered the yard and were more than ready for a fight.

The suite smelled awful. Mysterious gunk crawled up the walls of the bathroom. Too tired to look for the cameras we were certain our sketchy host had planted in the room, we just slept in the clothes we drove in — on top of the covers of the mattress on the floor. We bundled up with a beach towel for warmth.

The next day, we decided to splurge and book a hotel. We wanted to take proper showers and prepare for our concert in the comfort of a less rodent-infested criminal hotbed. We found an option just a mile from the venue and drove around Stanford until our room was ready.

We got in our room just a few hours before the concert doors opened. I took the best shower of my life and quickly got ready to slay. We left the dogs in the safety of the air-conditioned hotel room and took an Uber to the Frost Amphitheater.

Photo by Izy Diaz  

The concert
When we stepped into the open-air venue, we were surrounded by Queer people. Cute frog hats, baggy sweaters, and overalls of all shapes and sizes filled the grassy hill where we set up our picnic blanket.

The concert began with Filipino-Australian pop singer Grent Perez. His light, low-fi songs had a chokehold on the fans: it was clear by the VSCO vibes of those who had come to the concert to see him. After his set, the next performer emerged — a fratty-looking little guy with too much energy.

"Who is that?" I asked before Ricky Montgomery opened his mouth and started singing. It was wild to see one of my favorite artists yet not recognize them in person (he really is much shorter than I thought). Montgomery brought so much energy to the stage and hyped the crowd, even when singing some of his more mellow hits, like "Mr. Loverman."

The sun was setting when the third artist, Mxmtoon, arrived. While I had been a fan of hers before the concert, hearing her live made me appreciate her even more. Mxmtoon didn't shy away from talking about sexuality and the politics that have popped up around identities. She shared her experiences coming out as Bisexual when introducing two of her songs. By the end of her set, she had the whole venue singing along as she belted out "Prom Dress" and "Mona Lisa."

The moment everyone had waited for (and Izy and I had driven 16 hours for) finally came when Cavetown trotted onto the stage. Dressed like a character from Where the Wild Things Are, in baggy black overalls and a beanie with bunny ears trailing behind his shaggy head of hair, he hopped around the stage like a little woodland creature from a fairytale coming to life. His songs evoked raw emotion from the crowd, who shared a sense of angst during "1994," joy during "Fall in Love with a Girl," and mourning when he finished with "Home."

Before wrapping his set, Cavetown also invited Mxmtoon and Ricky Montgomery back on stage to sing "Nobody Loves Me," a new EP the three of them released together.

While I wondered whether or not the road trip was worth it around hour 12 the day before, looking over at Izy's face and feeling the joy and community in a venue with thousands of other LGBTQ+ people wiped the doubts from my mind. It was tumultuous and ambitious — and we still had two more days left to drive, explore, and face more challenges — but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Word to the wise: the best way to pregame a chaotic music festival is with a chaotic adventure there.