I turned sixteen during my inaugural trip to San Diego – a two or three-day affair that marked the culmination of a cross-country roadtrip that summer. Though memories are now steeped in fog, I recall my trip mates singing “Happy Birthday” to me over dinner at the Bahia Hotel, where we were staying. I vividly recall the waiter asking what we wanted for drinks (all of us save for one, under 21 years old), and accepting my order for a margarita without question. One of the guys told him it was my birthday and, impulsive and unthinking, when he asked how old I was, I told him the truth. Sixteen. My tremendous opportunity dissipated just like that and a tumbler full of Coke replaced my original order.
I recall later that night, sitting in the pool with my friends and somewhere on the resort’s stereo, an Aerosmith song began, filling me with instant joy. Only a few nights prior to the trip, I had seen Aerosmith at the Worcester Centrum – my first concert – and hearing the song one month later, relaxing in the cool waters of the Bahia pool, surrounded by lush palm trees and the complete absence of parents, suggested that a bold transition was now afoot. Once relegated to listening to albums in my bedroom, I had now attended my very first rock concert. Though I’d been to places like Disney World, Washington D.C. and Ireland with my family, I was now on a cross-country trip with friends. And hearing my favorite band three thousand miles away looped the two eras together. Music would bridge virtually all stages of my life. Hearing a song you love in two different parts of the world, invests it with a sense of timelessness and import. A connector of people. At the time, I wasn’t consciously thinking of those things but somewhere in my supra consciousness, something had shifted.
Last Saturday I awoke from a restless, low level slumber to the sound of voices around me. Rolling over onto my back, I looked up through mesh netting into the towering majesty of the green cathedral that surrounded me. I hadn’t slept well at all; I never do when I’m camping, but that’s all part of the experience. I heard my friends – a small group of seven who had, over the course of six years, transitioned from co-workers, to friends, to family – collecting laundry from the clothesline we had tied between two trees. Seeing that I was awake, Glenn walked over to my tent with a small plastic cup that was half full of coffee. I unzipped the side panel and happily accepted the drink.
This was our third and final day backpacking through Maine’s Grafton Trail — an occasionally grueling but deeply-enjoyable trek into the mountains as a tune-up for an October trip to Zion National Park. In fact, the unyielding progression of COVID-19 had left Zion as questionable at best and we all sort of understood that this was no longer a tune-up, but the trip. And everybody was pretty much OK with that, given the uncertainty that now dominated virtually any long-term plan. The plan was to forego cooking breakfast and to instead pack quickly and hike out that morning. Our camp site lay approximately halfway up the side of Mount Puzzle, and so the day would begin with a five hundred foot ascent through dense woods, crossing the mountain’s granite top and descending approximately four miles out to the trailhead, where my parked rental car awaited. Beyond that, we would repair to Paul’s home for a day of relaxation — watching hockey, eating pizza, playing cornhole, riding ATVs and for those guys, sinking prodigious amounts of beer.
As he stuffed gear back into his backpack, Paul looked over at me and quickly gathered the guys for a round of “Happy Birthday.” He’d had it in his phone, as did Bob. As the guys sounded my birthday song, miles from any other traces of humanity, I remained in my tent, soaking it all in. I’ve always thought that there comes a time when a guy needs to stop making a big deal out of his birthday, and that time is age 12. And yet as I sat in on my thin, inflatable mattress, drinking it all in, it felt really nice to hear.
We made it out without incident and had a lovely time back at Paul’s. Tired, sore and feeling immensely accomplished, we devoured pizzas, watched the Bruins win the third game of the first round series against Carolina and played cornhole, bubble hockey, darts and pitch. The next morning, we cleaned the house and twelve hours later, my plane landed in San Diego.
As my Uber left the airport, windows down and a refreshing summer breeze buffeting my face, I looked at the passing palm trees lining the purple horizon. On my sixteenth birthday, I visited San Diego for the very first time and now, decades later, it is my home.