Tripping, Part II – The Setup

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Jody Jividen and I were, on one hand, similar and likeminded: both fierce competitors who loved basketball, and on that same hand we both had a deep affinity for music. On the other we were polar opposites. He’d known what he wanted from an early age. He was born to be a sportswriter. He was passionate. As a youth, he would write about games he watched on T.V. – unfortunately he was a life-long Detroit Lions devotee. As a Dunbar High scribe, Chuck Landon took him to the Charleston Daily Mail newsroom for his indoctrination into real journalism. He knew the Marshall J-School was the place for him. There he could run cross country, attend class, and work at The Parthenon – day and night, driven, focused. He, like so many of his friends there, immersed himself into that world: running, writing, and “occasionally” drinking a beer. Nothing else mattered. 
View From The Rim
Looking down at the ultimate destination – way out at the end of the trail.

I was a walking contradiction. A couple months after accepting a position at the DM, hired by the great Sam Hindman for the 5 a.m. obituaries shift, I gave up my basketball scholarship at The University of Charleston. Three knee injuries before my 19th birthday, one on each leg as a freshman, left me, in my mind, less athletic than I needed to be to continue. I wish I’d talked to Yode about it before I threw in the towel. I was frustrated, but not finished. I imagine now one of those classic scenes with him, where he’d been mostly quiet for an hour or two then suddenly a topic would strike a nerve in him and he’d begin pontificating loudly, animated, long arms flailing. Then as quickly as he started he’d stop. You’d be sitting there wide-eyed, hair blown back from his outburst. “You only have one window, one chance. Dig deeper,” he might have said. I was a Secondary Education/English major because I wanted to coach basketball. Basketball was my only passion to that point. Without it I spiraled out of control.

I’d worked at The Ghost Ship Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, S.C., the summer before being hired, and turned down an internship with the DM to go back to the beach life in ‘84. I returned to the Daily Mail by late August. In early September, after covering a Friday night high school football game, followed by obits on early Saturday, I sped back weary and bleary-eyed to Garden City for a weekend visit but the world grew eerily overcast. I was in the evacuation traffic line and then, prompted by DM Managing Editor Bob Kelly saying “Hell no don’t leave! This is the biggest story of the year,” I chased Hurricane Diana up the coast to Wilmington where she touched down the next evening. Hurricanes were apparently few and far between back then, it had been twenty years since one had hit the coast, and thirty since Hazel. The effort earned me my headshot and some front page bylines “above the fold,” and for a few days, some teeth. That wouldn’t continue. “You’re only as good as your last story,” Yode would tell me.

That fall and winter Jody and I began playing basketball together, and I started dropping by the famed-garage apartment for games on T.V., or to listen to music: any excuse to have a brew. I couldn’t guess how many dozens of times I – many of us, I’m sure – stood outside his door as the stereo blasted, waiting for the song to end so he could hear the knock. He’d be at the kitchen table punching out a story with the volume on ten, the windows and walls vibrating. Then he’d have to turn it off, and quietly, gingerly tip-toe around to send his story on one of those early model, sound-recognition modems. He’d have it, a lamp, his phone, the laptop, perched on a flimsy, metal T.V. stand. His living room had two full-sized couches, both completely covered with stacks of magazines, books, albums, running shoes – the floor equally covered. Yode would laboriously bend and move a few mounds so a game could be watched – he had to do it, there was a system. I remember at some point in those months him telling me, “When I meet someone I ask myself the question, ‘Could I take a long car trip with this person?’ “

I guess I met his criteria. As winter turned to spring, and because he was taking three weeks off and none of his college mates had that luxury at 26 years of age, 27 by trip time – I’m sure one of his weeks was saved comp time, a DM reward for killing yourself seven days a week as a beat writer during football season – we began talking about me going with him. Even for someone as blessedly-disheveled as me, you can’t just jump into the car for a three-week trip morning of. There has to be some planning. As a student doing in-school class observation that year, I helped Gary Osborne coach basketball at Hayes Junior High AND advised the St. Albans High School yearbook staff. I decided I wouldn’t go back to the beach with my friends because I’d have to quit my job soon after July 4th, which I didn’t think would fly, although it would have made raising the cash for the trip easier. Plus logistically it didn’t bode well for leaving with him. Not that my scenario mattered to him. He was going alone if necessary. He just wouldn’t have been able to do as much without a second driver – or, knowing him, he would have pushed himself beyond safe limits. So, I earned money – we figured we needed at least $500 each – off by hundreds – working small construction jobs for a cousin, Johnny Johnson. One of my former teachers, and my pastor, Ross Harrison, who also got me the yearbook gig, which continued well into June, coached me into my first major non-essential purchase. I’d bought my Alvarez six-string and my Mazda truck (which he also sold me) – both priorities. For the trip I acquired a Cannon A-E1 Program 35-mm camera, two lenses, flash, bag, 30 rolls of film, by applying for a Montgomery Ward credit card and charging it. It was that June that I created the oft-used double exposure pic of Jody, taken in his apartment, created in the SAHS darkroom due to my yearbook affiliation.

Jody was a national park buff, I learned, and seeing as many as possible was his goal. He had the major stopping points picked out. Others we ad-libbed. As always, with him, I usually learned something. I really didn’t know that there were so many giant redwood trees out west – trees you could drive a car through – or that there was a Mount Whitney in California, and that it had “The highest elevation – 14,000 feet – of the lower 48 states,” as he pointed out to me. I’d been on six AAU trips west, the farthest to Oklahoma. But like so many young men who came to the newsroom before and after me, I gobbled up his words as gospel, soaked them in like a sponge. He was a mentor, through and through, willing to the share pearls of wisdom he acquired through astute professionalism. As the date approached, July 20, with a scheduled return date of August 10 – seven days before my sister was to be married (August 17, 1985, Happy 35th Anniversary) – we were all set. First leg, no agenda, a sprint to and through Texas and New Mexico to the Petrified Forest and Painted Dessert, Arizona, approximately 1,776 miles. Quite patriotic-sounding, I believe, to begin our tour of America. After our symbolic “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” stop, we headed northwest to the Grand Canyon, to hike the seven miles in to observe the cause, the mighty Colorado River.

Maybe it was naivety, maybe it was his belief in our strength, but from the South Rim we headed down the switchbacks in the July sun armed ONLY WITH A CAN OF COKE EACH. Yode was a Coke man. No food. Not a Slim Jim or a bag of peanuts. So excited to get there, we hadn’t planned. So eager to start, we couldn’t drive back out for supplies – the guest amenities were not as sophisticated as they are now. Thankfully there was a water fountain down at the bottom, five miles in, a little oasis of hope with some greenery, and a stretch of trees, around it. Proof something could grow in the desert with enough water. Unlike running down an asphalt hill, descending the dirt trail was easy. Which probably gave me false confidence – me and my low top Chuck Taylors, probably no socks, shorts, T-shirt and a North Carolina Tar Heels hat.

The only other souls down there were two French-speaking young men who we avoided. They weren’t going the additional two miles to the rim, as we were, anyway. And it was awe inspiring. Truly breathtaking. However, with the late-afternoon sun beating down on us, the switchbacks became grisly. I tried to ration the can of water I carried but I soon realized I was drier than the dirt we were dredging through. Completely dehydrated. I stepped off the trail behind a rock to attempt to vomit some bile. Did my pointless retching echo through the canyon? No. But in my mind, I imagined how embarrassing and humiliating it would be if they had to pick me up – dead, or near it – and haul me out, slung over a donkey’s back. And THEN I began to lose it. Five miles, switchbacks, uphill all the way. Finally, the sun began to wane, and as the temperature thankfully dropped into the 90s, I was able to catch my second wind and make it back to the top. Yode was stoic. His long strides unfailing. He was a runner, tucking pain away like a sweaty bandana. Somewhere on the last few switchbacks a park ranger stood. He saw me, shook his head, and began to laugh.

“Ohhhhhh, you don’t know, the shape I’m in.” © 2020

The Colorado
Hard-fought scenic overlook

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Shadows and Dust
Alone at the edge, trusting the self-timer.
Made in the Shade
The Billy Goats looked much more comfortable than we felt.
These last two, the views we faced heading back out. A little blurry? So was I.

Tripping

Author’s note: In July and August, 35 years ago, I tagged along with Jody Jividen, a great friend, on a three-week tour of the western United States. We packed in as much living as we could in those 21 days. But it wasn’t the beginning, or the end, of our history. This is the first of several installments of our story. Thanks for reading, A.S.

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It was 2:35 a.m., a spark of adrenaline – maybe from the Eagles’ Desperado album in the tape deck, an acoustic whirling dervish – I’m seeing the Tasmanian Devil – juxtaposed by its slower-paced, soulful lyrics – was giving me a much-needed rush. I was pushing Jody Jividen’s Toyota Corolla to the limit, teasing time with my miles per hour – a MINIMUM of 150 miles every two hours – from rural Montana into South Dakota. On that leg it was probably more like 190 miles – or 85 mph. Open road. I was “21 and strong as I could be.” We were invincible. Bulletproof.

I was just digging for my next tape, maybe CCR’s Greatest Hits, maybe Jimmy Buffett’s One Particular Harbor, when word came over the radio that the two-day Major League Baseball strike was over. “Yode,” short for Yoda, and I were nearing the completion of what would be a 21-day, 8,500-mile circle-the-country jaunt. I woke my long-legged, slumbering friend with the news.

“The strike is over.”

He squinted, then swallowed as the news sank in.

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Jody Jividen, westward bound, July 1985

“Kansas City here we come!” was his response. Followed by, in his drawn, Eeyore-of-Winnie-The-Pooh-voice, after getting his bearings from the road signs whizzing by, “Damn. You’ve covered some ground.”

I was broke, we were exhausted, and probably beginning to tire of each other’s company, but we plotted a course to the border of Kansas-Missouri through Nebraska for the onset of the 1985 MLB season. The Royals were hosting the Detroit Tigers. It was Thursday, August 8, 1985.

Significant to this was that on July 28, we watched the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Padres in San Diego, 4-2. Despite Steve Garvey going 3-for-4 at the plate, effortlessly flicking two doubles with his “Popeye” forearms and wrists, and Tony Gwynn quietly getting two hits, the Cardinals used their speed and their slap-bunting ability to leg out hits and keep the bases occupied for the winning margin. Centerfielder Willie McGee (three hits, two runs, a stolen base), catcher Darrell Porter (home run, three RBI), Lonnie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith provided the highlights of the day. Vince Coleman was unusually quiet at leadoff (0-5). John Tudor earned the win to improve to 12-8 on the season. The game was played on grass and dirt, on a perfect southern California Sunday afternoon.

Before and between those two dates we’d made a lifetime of memories, some of which I will return to: Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, a corner in Winslow, Arizona, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, and Death Valley. We hiked seven miles into – and seven miles out of – the Grand Canyon; climbed to 12,000 feet of Mount Whitney, California, visited Sequoias National Park, Giant Redwood National Park, San Diego Zoo, crashed a Jimmy Buffett concert at San Diego State, visited Charleston, West Virginia native and Los Angeles Rams All-Pro lineman Denny Harrah’s bar in Long Beach, and gravitated to UCLA’s on-campus Basketball Museum. We swam in the Pacific Ocean, hiked to the Falls of Yosemite National Park, traveled the Pacific Coast Highway, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, posed with a John Steinbeck Cannery Row road sign in Monterey, knocked some brews back at Clint Eastwood’s original Hog’s Breath Inn at Carmel. Yode ran Pre’s (Steve Prefontaine) Trail in Eugene, Oregon, we drove into Washington State for our United States top-left-corner-turn, then on an eastern trek Yellowstone and Old Faithful, Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custard’s Last Stand.

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Painted Desert, Arizona

That’s a tough paragraph just to write. Imagine doing it all in three weeks.       

As we rolled into Kansas City, bought our tickets (I did have my parents’ credit card for emergencies) and watched batting practice – we didn’t know, how could we know? – that we were seeing our second World Series team of that year – the participants of the 1985 I-70 Series.  

I first met Jody in December of 1980. in the minutes following my third high school basketball game, the opening round of the Capitol City Classic, a Christmas Tournament. I’d come off the bench to drop in 10 points in a low-scoring affair, helping to seal a 54-51 victory over rival South Charleston. I did it with some deft, long-range shooting (4-for-5 from the floor). He was covering the game as a Charleston Daily Mail sportswriter (article at bottom).  

Everything about Jody was memorable. His long legs, the lumbering, giraffe-like gait, his thick-plastic, teardrop glasses, his black hair, his tenacity, his humor, his ability, on that evening, to get a 16-year-old to open up, and the next day, upon reading his story, his incredible writing talent. Not that I was a proper judge. I was a junior and had sat out the previous season with a serious knee injury. He capitalized on the obvious angle, and also somehow opened me up – had me speaking in similes.

Three years later I would be working with him as an hourly employee in the Daily Mail newsroom, obituaries, and then on to sports. Our cubicles weren’t ten feet from each other. But my world took many turns. I didn’t finish college until I was 31. But after sixteen years of trials, in 1996, he was the sports editor – the Boss – of the DM sports department. I was hired as one of his beat writers, covering his alma mater, The Marshall University Thundering Herd, at the most pivotal point of their history since the ’70 plane crash. So much water had gone under our bridge by then, our friendship continuing to grow. We had much history already, but there would be plenty more.

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© 2020