(Photos courtesy of the author. If you missed the first three installments of The Travel Chronicles, click here to catch up.)
By Elias Cepeda
After any failure one natural inclination is to enter a depressive state. Another is to get on to the next thing you can take action on as quickly as possible, replacing success for failure, joy for disappointment, in order to stave off depression.
I’d just gotten my ass kicked in Canada. I very badly wanted to instantly transport to LA and Vegas where fun, work, and training awaited me. Instead, I had a long, sleepless night and ten hours of layover-ridden air travel ahead of me.
I could only be so active during that time. Mostly, I sat and thought. My cell phone was not working well up north and so I didn’t even have text messaging and phone calls to distract me. As I write this, it has been nearly four months since my fight in Canada and I have yet to watch tape of it even once.
I have, however, seen the fight, what I can remember of it, over and over in my head enough to satisfy me for some time. Most of that replay happened at the airports I arrived at, waited in, and departed from over and over that day after the fight.
I arrived in Las Vegas after 11 p.m. on Friday. The initial idea was to get a rental car and drive straight away to Los Angeles where I’d be staying with my friend Dave Doyle. Perhaps more than any other major media editor or writer over the past decade, Dave has been a major driving force in getting MMA covered in the mainstream. When he was at Fox Sports, Dave got his bosses to let him cover MMA, a true coup for the sport. He also got the Associated Press involved, doing great coverage for them and later, as an editor of the MMA and boxing sections at Yahoo! Sports, built the largest and most widely read combat sports pages in the English speaking world.
Dave now writes for MMA Fighting. Lucky for me, his smarts extend beyond the reporting and writing realm and he gave me some useful advice on my plan to drive from Vegas to LA through the night after a whole day of traveling. “You can come here any time you want, Elias, that’s fine. But if you try to make that drive as tired as you will be, you’ll probably die in the desert.”
Up to that point, my concept of the drive between Vegas and Los Angeles was based entirely on watching Swingers. Dave had actually made the drive himself many times. I picked up my light metallic brown (sexy!) rental car, told the clerk I had no plans to drive it out of state and then checked into the Stratosphere hotel in Vegas. I slept and began my drive west in the morning.
A Resolution To Have Fun
The UFC was going back to the Staples Center in Los Angeles in early August, about a week and a half after my fight in Canada. I hadn’t covered a UFC event in years and originally thought to coordinate my trip so that I’d be in LA at that time, so as to catch the event in between doing all the other things I wanted to do. That would mean Vegas first, then LA.
It turned out that the girl was leaving town the first week of August so I pushed LA ahead in my itinerary. I was excited to spend time my buddies Dave and Sam Sheridan in Southern California, and former WEC champ Gabriel Ruediger had set up some great training for me with Henry Akins and Antoni Hardonk.
All of that turned out phenomenal, but at the onset it was merely pretense for the real reason Los Angeles held particular sun-kissed appeal to me at that moment in the summer. I won’t lead you on any longer — things didn’t last with this particular blonde.
Travel is great for romance and adventure. Less so for stability.
At the time, the turns, climbs, and dives of that roller coaster were yet unknown to me. Before I could experience the negative consequences of it, though, I enjoyed the fleeting warmth and thrills of being more naïve than my age and experience should have allowed.
It’s a personal pattern. I can hardly fault myself or even regret those instances, though. If you’d have seen them, you wouldn’t either.
Thoughts of pretty vistas and fun friends had weaseled their way into my mind in the moments immediately before the referee stepped in to call the fight in Canada. I considered their appearance a sign of cowardice in myself at the time.
But the fight was over and the lesson learned. If I’d been distracted by what the rest of my trip could hold during my fight, the least I could do now was make damn sure it would live up to my expectations.
As me, my car and its stereo climbed onto the road together in Nevada and headed to California I allowed the smiling creations of my forward-thinking imagination to push out the harsh reality of having just lost a fight. If the water on the other end is blue enough, a drive through Death Valley to get to it can seem like a breeze.
“With Or Without Videos?”
Illinois, where I am from, is a flat land. Winding through the Hollywood hills to get to my friend Dave’s house in Hollywood was, then, unnatural in a pleasant way. For the uninitiated, there really are palm trees on either side of many roads in Los Angeles. Driving between palms is slick and pretty, no matter how much of a cliché it is supposed to be.
That may be true of Los Angeles on the whole. Dave’s Hollywood Hills neighborhood is full of “actors,” “writers,” “producers” and the like living right alongside the real deals. He’s got stories of spotting well known people stumbling out of the Scientology Celebrity Centre, which is across the street from the local grocery store.
The general outline of LA and Hollywood may seem predictable but that predictability doesn’t make the pretty parts or the grimy spots any less potent when they hit you. The weather was warm but not oppressively hot as it was in Chicago. Summer often eases its way into Angelinos’ lives, I was told, and it lingers into months others may know of as part of autumn.
Dave’s office was the deck of his complex’s pool, which was walled-in by deep green and bright, bulbous yellow. My feet are cold inside a Chicago café as I write this. Dave writes poolside inside a lemon grove. The scene was enough to make a cynical Midwesterner roll his eyes, if it wasn’t so idyllic and organically enjoyable.
I didn’t have long to enjoy it at the moment, however. I put my stuff inside Dave’s place and headed right back into my car to drive forty miles, to begin distracting myself from my recent loss in earnest.
There was dinner on the coast, a walk along the ocean shore, a movie we’d waited to see together. All very syrupy stuff unfit for a self-respecting fight publication. I will say, however, that I found myself staying out much later than I’d anticipated.
Dave was working that night, covering a UFC event from home, and just asked that I let him know when I thought I’d be coming back so that he could leave the door open for me. I enjoyed myself enough to totally lose track of time and forgot to hit Dave up. As a result, I left the Torrance area well into the early morning and headed back to Hollywood, unsure if I’d be able to get back into Dave’s place.
I texted him but he didn’t answer. No doubt he had long ago fallen asleep. I didn’t want to wake him with a phone call or worse, a creepy 3 a.m. knock on his door, so I drove without a plan, hoping that he would wake up in time to see and reply to my texts.
He didn’t. And, as I rolled on to Hollywood Boulevard, I still didn’t feel comfortable waking him up. You never know exactly how it will be to stay with somebody, even a friend, until you do. What are their pet peeves, what is within or outside of their comfort zone, etc?
Well, it turns out Dave is the most generous, gracious and low maintenance of hosts. I’d find that out when he nicely scolded me later in the morning over the phone for not simply waking him up. Especially when he learned of how and where I spent my night.
It is the responsibility of those who have come close to the other side and returned safely to let others know what it is like, to share knowledge. As such, I would like to inform those of you with intact souls who don’t already know that on Hollywood Boulevard, motels have two price levels.
I’d decided to not wake up Dave and, having seen many hotels on the boulevard just blocks from his house on my way out, I thought to get a room for what was left of the night. Riding past the neon-lit hotels and motels in Hollywood is probably like heading into an all generic drug store. One of the anonymous and brightly colored things you see on the shelf will probably safely do the trick, but it is difficult to trust any of them and all purchases feel like taking a plunge.
I rolled up into the parking lot of the first motel, got out of my car and walked towards the inn keeper who was behind glass and metal bars in his office. There was no door to get into his office. We spoke through the glass and metal bars.
“How much for a room, sir?”
“With or without videos?”
On Hollywood Boulevard motels have two price levels.
Fortunately Hollywood Boulevard has also has good Thai restaurants open late. I found another motel that had plenty of character but whose main selling point was not porn VHS tapes.
The European couple in front of me seemed thrilled by the price and amenities described to them by the inn keeper. I was less so, since my stay at the establishment would likely total just over four hours.
A hundred bucks for four hours in a room alone seemed like a poor deal. Maybe the video guy at the last motel was on to something.
At least the inn keeper tipped me to a Thai place down the road. I got back in my rental car before seeing my room and headed to get some grub. The Thai restaurant was old fashioned looking, with large, pillowy red cushioned booths over two rooms that were mostly filled, with tight cardigans, thick framed glasses, large earrings, and people wearing them, even though it was closing in a few minutes.
I ordered a curry dish to go, picked it up and headed to my car. Another had since parked in front of mine and I was momentarily transfixed. The car in front of me had a back windshield and bumper almost completely covered with photos of and textual messages having to do with Michael Jackson.
The license plate read #1 MJ Fan.
I was hungry and tired but still waited for ten minutes in my car, with the lights off, hoping that #1MJ Fan would show up and I could see what he or she looked like, maybe make eye contact and magically get a glimpse into the mind and soul of the type of person so obsessed with the late King of Pop. The idea that my waiting and watching for them made me much more creepy and pathetic than #1 MJ Fan could ever be briefly crossed my mind.
I forced it out and waited. Thankfully my patience paid off and he came to the driver side of the MJ Machine and I got to see, up close and personal, the #1 Michael Jackson fan in the world, or at least California. He was heavyset, wearing a plain black t shirt and blue jeans, white and bald.
If, reader, you are a fan of The Simpsons like I am and can remember the episode where Homer meets the large white man who thinks he is Michael Jackson in an insane asylum, you can appreciate how eerie and entertaining this moment was for me. If you’re not a Simpsons fan, you can more than likely still appreciate how weird I am.
In any case, I drove back to the motel with my Thai curry and rice in tow and made my way to the room I’d be staying in. I first walked through an unlocked high gate, past a tiny, grimy pool that sat at the bottom of what felt like a tall vertical tunnel because of the staircases, balconies and rooms around and above it, rising two stories.
My room was at the top of a dark and yellow staircase on the second floor. There was another door across from mine.
Inside it was all simplicity and romance. Not romance with a capital “R”, as in lovey dovey, but romantic as in a perfect place for a poor, miserable writer to camp out in for weeks and write.
The room was large, and was set up more like an extended stay room. A king size bed in the center with a television in front of it and a dresser underneath that. A desk to the left of that, and to the right a kitchenette with fridge, hot plate, and microwave. Behind that, a sizeable closet.
I didn’t take out a black light for close inspection but the room seemed clean, if industrial. I ate curry and watched Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia until I passed out.