Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LA or Bust...

WE WERE GOING 80 MPH down highway 94 on the twenty-second hour of our cross-country drive when we struck the deer.

Ryan, Ferg, Luke and I were moving to Los Angeles to try our luck in the big city and turn our 300 hours of footage into an hour and a half feature-length film. Ryan was taking the southern route, Ferg was cutting straight through the middle, and Luke and I were taking a slightly out of the way route via Montana. We’d loaded our lives into my ’96 Camry. While it had 168,000 miles on it and was missing three inner door handles and two outer door handles, there was no reason to believe we wouldn’t make it.

It was the good kind of drive—rolling hills, trees rising out of rivers, sideways light that lit up the cornfields, empty roads, good music and the feeling that so much was ahead.

It turned dark in North Dakota. The speed limit was 75 MPH. There was something vaguely eerie about driving so fast through empty land. We passed a trucker every twenty or so miles. Our Camry was humming and we were crossing off the hours—fourteen yesterday, twenty down today, two more to go before we reached the cabin in Montana Luke’s friend had won in a raffle. This was the land of Norman Macleans’s A River Runs Through It, my favorite book and the reason why Luke was able to talk me into a thirteen-hour detour.

I’d scrunched up my pillow against the window and shut my eyes when I felt Luke come down hard on the brakes. It happened in a second but it felt slow: there it was—the deer—appearing suddenly out of the dark, beautiful and bright from our headlights. He was moving right so Luke swerved left as our brakes and tires screeched. I waited for the relief, the heart pound of nearly hitting something but then I realized we weren’t going to miss it—we were going to hit it. The deer, his instinct clashing against ours, made an about turn and ran in the same direction we swerved.

His face came at my face and for a second, we made eye contract—his weirdly human brown eyes staring into mine right before I closed them and his face hit the windshield. His body thumped against the car and I screamed. I felt surprised to hear myself scream.
Then it was quiet, except for the new rattle of the steering wheel and the thump of our bumper against tire. We limped to the nearest exit. Beneath the exit sign another sign read “No service here.” There was one shed with a flood light in a gravel parking lot so we turned off the car there. Luke got out and I waited for him to come around and let me out. The inside door handle was missing so this was always how it was—I was trapped in there until Luke made his way around to work on the outside door handle, which was also broken but could be pried open if it wasn’t raining or humid.

Luke’s fingers jimmied the door handle up, but the door still didn’t open, dented inward from the body of the buck. I crawled across the driver’s side and stood with Luke, staring at the shattered windshield and headlight. We tried to pull the bumper off the tire, the smell of blood in our noses and something wet on our hands. We tried to open the hood but it was also too warped to get open.

I leaned up against the unwounded side of the bumper, assessing my life with the slightly overwhelming clarity that happened when you’d spent thirty-five hours staring at open road. In the past year, I’d played in sand-swept streets in Togo, with felons in Bolivia, with fifteen-year-old rappers in France. Now I was in Montana, on my way to L-A, with my entire life in my car and deer blood on my fingers.

THERE WAS NOTHING around, so we got back in the car, turned on our hazard lights and drove 30 MPH until we got to the nearest gas station. We borrowed a hammer, banged the bumper off the tire, scotch-taped our windshield, ate two corn-dogs, and continued on our way to Pray, Montana.

At 3am, a policeman unnerved by our now missing headlight and our incredibly slow travel speed, pulled us over. Because our windows don’t always roll back up after you roll them down, Luke opened the door.

“Sir, I’ll need you to stay in the car!” the policeman shouted.

“Uh, well, our window doesn’t work,” Luke said through the crack of the slightly opened door. Then we explained about the buck.

“It’s unavoidable in these parts,” the policeman said. “My wife hit three last year. I just picked up my truck out of the shop yesterday—here’s the place to take it: Crash and Repair, they’re great with deer damage.”

TWO DAYS AND six-hundred dollars later, we were making our way to and then through California. We traded travel stories with Ryan and Ferg: we told them about our buck, Ryan texted, “Speeding Ticket? Check,” and Ferg burst a tire coming out of a camping site somewhere in New Mexico.

Now in Los Angeles, we’re ready to edit. The Europe-Africa trip had finished strong: in Togo, we found more games per street than anywhere in the world—motorcycles zipping through the middle of games played on sand-swept lanes. In Ghana, we went to the rural village of Mafi Sasekpe. There we watched boys make their own balls using machetes and plastic bags, met a nineteen-year-old who told us nonchalantly, “But my football age is seventeen,” and got sucked into the middle of a drum celebration.

After seeing a clip of George Bush on The Daily Show in which he dances during a trip to Africa, I’d thought to myself, “What an idiot,” but when Luke and I found ourselves dancing the Ghanaian version of the funky chicken—cameras rolling—I felt a rare note of empathy for George W. (Also, anyone going to Ghana—we have $100 in Ghanaian cash that no currency exchange place will accept…so let us know if we can make a trade…)

PLAYING PICK-UP has always felt to me like an adult form of pretend, reenacting the big games, imagining that you’re the guy playing in the stadium with thousands of people watching. Nowhere did this feel more true than when we found the workers of Green Point Stadium playing pick-up during their lunch break. They eat their sandwiches on their tea breaks so that at lunch, they have time to play. In the shadow of the stadium, they use their helmets as goals and play in yellow jump suits and heavy work boots. One of the guy watching from the side tells us, “If I couldn’t play inside the stadium, at least one day I’ll be able to tell my son, ‘your father built this stadium.’” Twenty minutes after it starts, the lunch-time game ends. When I say, “Already?” the guy shrugs, “It’s better than nothing.” Then they put back on their helmets and their suspenders and walk back to build the stadium that will hold the greatest sporting event in the world.

We’ve been to three continents and seventeen countries now—enough to see that fondness for the game spreads across the world, no matter how old you are, what your job is, what language you speak, or what God you pray to.

In that game in South Africa, Ryan’s camera locked in on one guy’s face. The guy had no idea the camera was on him. He was swept up in the game and while some of the guys were skilled and good—players—you got the sense that this round-cheeked, round bellied guy wasn’t a player or hadn’t thought of himself as a player in a long time but today, for some reason, he decided to play. His face was lit up with the best smile I’d seen anywhere around the world. There was so much joy in his face, such surprised, innocent happiness—and that’s the feeling we come across in so many of the places we play. You can’t help but feel hope, great hope, looking at smiles like that.