The trip had been months in the making, but it began, for me — this Great Father-Son Sampling of West Coast golf, fast food and prospective institutions of higher learning — on the outdoor deck at Trafalgar, a British-themed pub perched high above the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district.
This was April 2013. In less than 8 hours’ time, I would board a plane bound for Los Angeles, where, after 12 more hours in the air, I would meet my son, Silas, and set out for the hinterlands of California. Accordingly, I had arranged to conclude the business portion of my journey among several colleagues at Trafalgar, all of us indulging in several of the Brit-derived pleasures for which modern Canton is famous. These centered on pints of Boddington’s, Scotch eggs and Premier League football — beamed to us live from London, Sunderland and Liverpool, via satellite, then projected in turn onto the walls of neighboring buildings on Lockhart Street, in images 10 feet tall.
At approximately 23:00 local time, this night before my departure, a text came through from my wife, the fair Sharon, with whom I had been trading mildly anxious communications all evening. This was to be expected. She was poised to put her first-born on a plane, by himself, from one coast to the other where, God willing and stars aligned, I would meet up with the 16-year-old man/child and resume custodial responsibilities.
However, this particular text brought to the fore a new, altogether different level of anxiety. It read, “I’ve been reading our son’s phone…”
I put my pint glass down. Reflexively, I shared this introductory snippet with my mates at Trafalgar, one of whom, quite rightly, remarked that nothing particularly good is liable to follow that sort of opener.
The essay here shares the details of a trip taken almost 10 years ago, and so it’s a modest exercise in nostalgia — for the teenage son who is today fully grown, and for the international travel we could once undertake without a second thought. Leaving Hong Kong on a plane used to be the most seamless, worry-free exercise on Planet Earth. The Central district of Hong Kong was once equipped with a train station that didn’t merely whisk travelers 30 minutes out of town to the city’s gleaming-new, island airport, one of the busiest in the world. Hong Kongers had even been so canny as to install airline check-in counters at the train station, in Central HK, so that travel to said airport might be conducted only with the luggage one carries on. The idea of this practical technology being deployed in an American city, even now, remains as far-fetched as Utah state senators forfeiting their right to carry concealed weapons on the floor of their legislature.
Today, the check-in apparatus at Central station sits dormant and, according to my HK friends, a bit ghostly. Beijing’s 2019 anti-democratic crackdown, then a pandemic, changed everything. Hong Kong’s famous bar district at Lan Kwai Fong has been shuttered, the entire Special Administrative Region utterly isolated. In 2019, HKG — one of the most efficient, elegant and busy airports in the world — witnessed 71.3 million arrivals. In 2021, the total was 1.3 million. On a single day in January 2022, an HK friend reported to me, 139 people arrived there.
Back in 2013, not even the legacy of so many smooth, creamy pints of Boddington’s got in the way of my orderly egress from Hong Kong. After passing through Central, leaving my bags to the fates there, and stopping for a bite in the United Club before boarding, I slept like a baby on the 12-hour flight to L.A. Because there is nothing that two Ambien and a glass of wine won’t cure, dull, and slip gently into a time-shrinking simulacrum of sleep.
I could see the boy sauntering in my direction from a great distance away, down the endless, straightaway sidewalk outside the International Terminal at LAX. We had traded texts upon our near-simultaneous landings, so I knew to expect him — and where. Even so, it’s disarming to view one’s full-grown son slowly walking one’s way, in such an out-of-context location, slowly magnifying in size with every step he takes, like a blond, gangly, clean-shaven, unseated Omar Sharif slowly traveling toward me from a far-off urban-desert horizon.
Could this be the fresh-faced kid my wife had outed the night before as a sex and drug fiend?
That’s not fair, not to him nor her. But the information she’d gleaned from his phone, rightly or wrongly, had included various and sundry information re. his high school girlfriend, their expressions of love/lust, and directions to iniquitous party hideaways in around our small southern Maine community. Was this boy still a virgin? If not, was he practicing safer sex than his dad had at the same tender age? Was he (to paraphrase my own betrothed) respecting this young woman?
“You need to have a long talk with your son about responsibility,” Sharon had texted me, in conclusion, that night on the deck at Trafalgar. With six days, four rounds of golf, five college visits and several hundred miles in the car together, she was right in declaring, “You should have plenty of opportunity.”
Silas is fully 25 years of age today. He is graduated from college and gainfully employed. He’s been in the same relationship with the same woman for going on 7 years now. When I reminded him recently of this “long talk”, over the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday together, he genuinely didn’t recall it.
Trust me: We did have one. I remember it quite well. We circled back to this theme several times in the course of our week on the road together. But Silas can perhaps be forgiven his poor recollection, given the undeveloped nature of his late-adolescent brain in 2013. From his own testimony — and the way this young woman and her parents have behaved toward me subsequently — he did in fact behave quite honorably and safely with his high school girlfriend. The sorting of this matter left us both to concentrate primarily on the action-packed, often momentous nature of our schedule in California.
Our route took us down the 101 from LAX to Coronado, the island off San Diego where our cousin Omar and his family reside. We’d be staying our first night there, then heading over to the University of California, San Diego for an interview, campus tour, etc. That night we all dined at a restaurant on Coronado, a lovely Mexican joint on the water, where Omar was one of several silent owners.
Truth be told, however, our lunch that first day served up equal impact. If this kid was seriously considering a university education out West, we agreed he needed to know the terrain, the cow-flesh equivalent of this regional terroir, as it were. And so, Day 1 had begun with a stop at Jack in the Box, 10 minutes from LAX. Why Jack? Well, somewhere online, over the winter, I had seen a banner ad for the chain’s latest specialty concoction, something called the Hot Mess — a salty, cheesy, pepper-laden goo poured over a burger and onion rings, then sandwiched between two round, flat sourdough buns. Here’s something you should know about me: I am helpless in the face of fast-food, specialty burger marketing. Silas, whose genetic make-up is darned close to my own, has largely the same impulses.
The Hot Mess, I can report, was as advertised: very salty and satisfying though nearly impossible to eat in the car, a 7.2 out of 10… UC San Diego was more impressive: Modern expansive campus, leafy elements complemented by high-rise dorms, the entirety of this tableau spitting distance from the beach in La Jolla. It also boasts strong environmental sciences as part of John Muir College, one of six that comprise UCSD’s undergraduate program. Overall, Silas gave it a 9 out of 10.
While Silas toured the UCSD campus and sampled a class, I sat in an outdoor, campus café and caught up on some email. Around 11 a.m. local time, my friend Jammin’ texted me. “You watching this?”
“Looks like some bomb just went off during the Marathon.”
And there’s your time stamp, people: Patriots Day 2013, and Jammin’ need not have identified which Marathon. We grew up together in Wellesley, Mass., halfway point on the Boston Marathon route. I had been clueless as to what had gone down that April day on Boylston Street. Jammin’ caught me up. I caught Silas up. Then we headed north through the Inland Empire to Claremont, where we’d visit Pomona and the Claremont colleges the next day.
My mother went to Pomona and I suppose that, had Silas been accepted, he’d have gone there, too, though he would eschew several “elite” schools before ultimately choosing/attending the University of Montana, in Missoula. Yet none of this was clear in the spring of 2013. Silas did a tour of Pomona — definitely the cleanest campus I’ve seen anywhere, before or since — and sampled more classes while I worked the laptop in some downtown Claremont café. Soon we were winging our way west, to UCLA. We had planned to stop for lunch at another California-based fast food shrine, In and Out Burger. Upon exiting The Ten (Interstate 10), however, we spied a Mexican food truck doing brisk business in a mall parking lot right there in beautiful West Covina. Best burritos either of us has ever had, before or since.
UCLA did nothing for our boy. Our drive-thru encounter with the campus did nothing but accentuate the massive, impersonal breadth of the place. And so we did not tarry in Westwood. Instead the two of us headed north to Santa Barbara, where we stayed the night with Barb McCallum, one of my mom’s Pomona friends. We took her to dinner actually — with the understanding that she choose for us the city’s finest Mexican restaurant. Los Agaves, thanks to Barb, delivered exactly that.
The campus at UC Santa Barbara proved more to the boy’s liking: not so big, more laid back and beach-proximate. I was put off a bit by the institutional 60s-era architecture, but he wasn’t. It certainly didn’t hurt that his first-blush exposure to Gaucho culture coincided with his first exposure to In and Out, which we hit up for lunch. There’s not much about this burger Mecca that hasn’t been said before. In a world awash with fast-food options, these folks are Masters of the Form.
We spent two nights with Barb and managed to squeeze in two rounds of golf — one traditional, the other disc — before heading north. We had ambitious plans: Arrive in San Francisco, by way of the Pacific Coast Highway, in time for dinner and drinks with two old friends of mine, each of them Cal Berkeley alums. So we busted north from Santa Barbara after breakfast, following The 101, which closely follows El Camino Real, the Royal Road that had once connected 21 Spanish missions that, in turn, had once connected and administered a Spanish colonial province, then the Mexican state of Alta California.
California occupies a unique place in the American consciousness. This drive, for example, served up a litany of iconic place names that I’d read/heard about but never seen with my own two eyes: Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, San Simeon. My mother had been born (Pasadena) and raised here. It was hard not to think of her on this trip, as she had made this drive, back and forth between her Bay Area hometown (Burlingame) so many times, from Pomona — at least once in the convertible of her classmate Kris Kristofferson.
Silas and I stopped in Santa Maria for an early lunch and a quick game of disc golf, at a course highly rated among web aficionados. Here was a city of some 100,000 people — nearly twice the population of Maine’s biggest city — that I’d never heard of. In its own way, this drive-by drove home to us the vast and populous nature of California. There were dozens and dozens of cities just like this one, some just as anonymous (to many Californians themselves) but all of them adding up to a culture so massive and diverse that it boggles the mind of a typical Northeasterner.
We also dined in Santa Maria at Carl’s Jr., a Western U.S. fast-food chain (its sister chain, Hardee’s, is common to the south) that proved another, only slightly more pedestrian revelation.
We might have taken another day to stop somewhere along the ultra-scenic PCH, stay the night and better explore the spectacular environs. But we did not. We stopped instead for a short, road-convenient hike somewhere south of Big Sur. We ducked into Nepenthe for a proper artichoke and the restaurant’s signature cliff-side views. But mainly we admired the Pacific and this storied terrain from the road. All the while we beat a hasty path north, to San Francisco, where we met two old soccer friends of mine, one from high school, the other from college.
They had specified a particular bar in North Beach: Specs’, and a worthy venue it proved to be. The next day, before boarding our red-eye home, we’d visit the Berkeley campus, which, like UCLA, proved too big and busy for my crunchy offspring. The better memories stem from Specs’ itself, where the four of us caught up over several rounds of beers. So long as Silas didn’t approach the bar itself, the staff didn’t seem to notice or care that he was just 16 years old. Later that night I ventured to the group that young Silas had perhaps never patronized a proper bar before. He answered for himself: “I’ve never gotten a proper beer buzz on before, anywhere.”
So concluded our extended talk on the subject of responsibility.