Bridges, Hills and Towed Vehicles – San Francisco

I’m amid a wonderful dream about cookie dough when the upwards tilt of the car suddenly jolts me awake. I open my eyes to the sight of an endlessly steep hill, upon which our car is ascending. Before me, all I see is black asphalt and blue sky. We must be in San Francisco, I conclude.

Misha sits behind the wheel, calmly staring ahead of him He casually turns his head to the right, in the direction of a frantically pedaling biker riding alongside. After letting the biker pass the intersection, Misha turns right. Sparkling blue water is within view. We continue straight on the road, until turning onto another road, running along the coast. To the right are piers. We search for Pier 33. Not willing to pay the $25 parking, we backtrack a few blocks. We park our car beside Pier 19/21 and walk the quarter mile to Pier 33, where our tour commences. At 1pm, we follow the crowd loading onto the ferry. Minutes later, our boat departs to Alcatraz Island. A brief 1.5 mile sail later, we dock on the island, often known as “the rock.” Alcatraz Island was initially developed for military purposes, housing, among other things, a lighthouse and a military prison. More than half a century later, the facility evolved into a federal penitentiary, holding some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including Al Capone, Robert Stroud (known as the Birdman of Alcatraz), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

We descend the 2 story ferry onto the island’s shore. Above us stands a massive rectangular prison, made completely of rock. Misha and I decide to take an audio tour. The creepy voices of former prison guards and prisoners, the obnoxious slamming of cell doors and the deafening screeches during food riots fill our headphones as the narrators details what life was like in the prison. I listen in awe to tales of escape from this impenetrable prison. The chillness of the air and somber lightening cast a creepy ambiance. I am thankful that Misha is beside me to quiet my fears. After exiting the prison, Misha and I explore the rest of the island, including a nature trail and a scenic view of the foggy San Francisco skyline. A quarter after four we board the ferry and position ourselves at the head of the boat, in perfect view of the sun setting on the city.

With rumbling stomachs, we decide to have a cultural meal in Chinatown.. The voyage to get there consists of steep hills and even steeper stairs. After a 2 mile walk, I am relieved to see Chinese lanterns and foreign symbols hanging from buildings. The recognizable English chatter is replaced with a language I can’t understand. We pass markets filled with large amounts of meat, unique fruits and cheap souvenirs. We select one of many restaurants and fill up on tea, sweet and sour soup, dumplings, egg rolls, rice, chicken and unappetizing beef. As we are about to exit this ethnic area, a tea shop catches our eye. We splurge on bags full of Puerh and Blue tea, famous for their digestive and relaxant benefits, and a tea pot. Our wallets a few bills lighter, Misha and I continue strolling through Chinatown, where we encounter some, well, interesting characters. One man stands on a deserted staircase, eyes closed and singing to no one in particular. His broomstick serves as a microphone. Across the street a man laughs wildly to himself, before huffing and puffing like a tired dog. We walk another block, where we encounter a woman screaming at her cheating lover, loud enough for the next city’s Chinatown to hear. We pass strip clubs with large bouncers and hefty dancers and entire pig carcasses roasting in windows. Ready for some normalcy, Misha and I walk back to our car. Key in the ignition and we’re off to Sunnyvale, where Misha’s friend, Laxman, lives. This will be our home for the next 3 nights.

We wake up and get dressed for our first full day in the city on the bay. Thinking we’d save a few bucks on gas, Misha and I take the train to San Francisco. Unexpectedly, the commute takes 2 hours. And even then, we’re 5 miles from where we want to be – Golden Gate Park. Desiring some exercise, I don’t mind making this walk. Plus, walking is an awesome way to explore a city. We pass palm trees, ascend and descend hills, and admire various forms of architecture. Midway through our trek, we arrive at the city hall and take a few minutes to admire its tall arched ceilings and long hallways before continuing. Over an hour after departing on this walk, or should I say trek, we arrive at the colorful intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Barefoot individuals boasting dreads and appearing not to have showered in weeks flood the sidewalks. The first man we encounter offers us weed, as he holds the leash of his curious dog.

“No, thank you,” we tell him.

The street is lined with every tie-dye item imaginable, smoking devices of all shapes and sizes, and replicated Tibetan clothing At the end of this street rests Golden Gate Park. It only took 90% of the day’s sunlight, but we’ve arrived. Given the soon approaching darkness, Misha and I go on a short walk through the park, aiming for the De Young museum. We walk on green grass, pass numerous sports fields and trails and encounter more hippies, before arriving at the museum, only to find out that the exhibit is closed for the day. Needless to say, we’ll be taking our car tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes and we head to Twin Peaks, a pair of hills measuring 925 feet in elevation. We climb to the top of one of the hills, not knowing if it’s the South or North peak, and snap a few photos of the city off in the distance. Satisfied, we drive to the world famous, Golden Gate Bridge. We hike to a pier to eat lunch and admire this impressive 2-mile long masterpiece. After snapping nearly 100 photos, I understand why this is the most photographed bridge in the world. I even convince unusually brave birds to take photos with me and the bridge by bribing them with bread crumbs.. Not having gotten our bridge fix for the day, we head to the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland. This bridge is one of the longest in the United States and utilizes a double suspension and two decks. We cross the lower deck and arrive at Treasure Island to watch the sunset over the city. Since Misha is taking the California Basic Educational Skills (CBEST) Exam at 7:30 the next morning, we smartly agree to conclude our adventure for the day. We cross the bridge again, this time along the more scenic upper deck, before heading back to Sunnyvale.

After an unusual, good night’s rest, I wake up refreshed. Misha is already in the city taking his exam so I hop on the train to meet him once he’s done. After an hour of anxiously waiting to hear from Misha, I receive a text from an unfamiliar phone number. It’s Misha, informing me that the car got towed, and that his phone is inside the car. While Misha retrieves our vehicle, I do a bit of shopping on Market Street. Shortly after 3 pm he grumpily picks me up. As it turns out, Misha parked the car along a curb, with about two inches of the front bumper leaning into a driveway. The grumpy old lady living in the house took it upon herself to call the tow company. Misha knocked on the door to inquire why the woman felt the need to have the car towed. Her response was short and rude. She proceeded to close the door in Misha’s face. This resulted in a 2 hour bus ride, a 45 minute walk, and a $700 ticket.

My heart wants to stop by the woman’s house and yell at her. But my mind knows not to. So instead we head to the Land’s End National park; a windy and rocky shoreline at the mouth of the Golden Gate straight. We sit along the edge of the Sutro bath ruins and peaceful watch another graceful sunset while listening to crashing waves below us. Our moods are lifted as we soak in the beauty.

Tonight we’re going to celebrate Laxman’s birthday. But first, some grub. We stop at Fisherman’s Wharf, a flashy tourist trap, near Pier 39. We purchase some delicious crab, and stop by Gharidella Square for some free chocolate before heading to the party. We meet Laxman at his friend’s apartment, where the festivities are just beginning. We are surrounded by intelligence and enjoyable conversation as most of Laxman’s friends work for Google and Apple. We discuss careers and travels before singing Happy Birthday to a stumbling birthday boy and heading to the bars. We bar-hop along Poke street before heading back to Sunnyvale. A good night’s rest is in the works in preparation for tomorrow’s drive.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 2)

364 days have begun and ended in 2014. Today marks the 365th and final day of the year. I roll out of my queen size bed and descend the carpeted steps to the ground floor where Jared sits before the TV, wrapped up in a checkered black and red blanket.

“I’m sick,” Jared says upon seeing me try to make sense of the scene. “Everyone else went skiing.”

“What are you sick with?” I ask.

“Throat’s been hurting a bit. And my body is just weak and sore.”

“I’ve got just the trick,” I tell him before heading to the kitchen. I light the stove and place a pot atop it. 5 minutes later I produce a cup of Golden Milk for my ailing friend. Golden Milk is the modern name for an age-old beverage used to cure, well, everything. It’s an extremely easy concoction, using ingredients that you probably already have in your kitchen. Look it up.

Wanting to end the year on a productive note I grab Steven’s drone and camera and head to the lake. I shiver in my orange tennis shoes and flimsy gym pants as the 30mph winds combine with the 17 degree weather to make for a genuinely uncomfortable walk. I step onto brown sand, marking my arrival on the beach. The winds intensify making each step atop this mushy surface more challenging. By the time I reach the frozen portion of the lake the winds are so strong that I quickly dump the idea of flying the delicate piece of technology situated in the black case beside me. Instead, I admire the converging blues of the sky and the ocean, meeting at an indistinguishable point along the horizon. Stoic, snow-covered mountains sit like Zen monks in the distance. The sun has begun its fall and now illuminates the nature around me from the West. I turn my head to the right where tall pine trees with thick brown trunks line the coast of the lake. Among the trees a few prosperous residents reside in well-hidden cabins. Having gotten my fix of nature and no longer able to tolerate the cold I turn on my toe and head back to our cabin.

I enter through the big blue door and plop down beside the fireplace. Jared sits in the same spot I left him.

“I think your drink thing worked, man,” Jared says to me.

“Feeling better?” I ask.

“A lot.”

“Glad to hear it,” I tell Jared, before tuning my attention to the college football game on TV.

Shortly before 4pm Steven, Jesse and Jen arrive home from a day on the slopes. An hour and a half later the Brothers walk in.

The sound of extra virgin olive oil sizzling on the skillet is soon heard as Pierce and Hugh begin cooking a mouthwatering steak, kale and couscous meal. With the smell of the seasoned steak too overwhelming for Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen, the 2 couples leave for a fancy Italian dinner.

Dinner is prepared and the table is set. In between mouthfuls of meat and veggies, Pierce and Hugh retell their epic tale from earlier in the day when the two decided it would be a good idea to go backcountry skiing. After 30 minutes of blindly skiing in isolation, the Brothers found themselves in fearfully unfamiliar territory. Their plan of skiing down the back of the mountain seemed precarious, at best, so the decision was made to take off the skis and climb back up to civilization. 45 painful minutes later the brothers return to safety.

9pm rolls around marking the official Ball Drop. I receive calls and texts from those on the East Coast, including my parents. This is the first time I can remember not celebrating the New Year with them. In Russian culture, New Year is one of the largest and most important holidays, always celebrated with family and close friends. Historically, our family and their best friends begin the festivities around 10:30pm on the 31st and continue the merriments until 5 or 6 in the morning. A sense of sentiment encompasses me as I speak to my cheerful mom over the phone.

By 10pm the cabin is packed with all 8 of its tenants yet again. We congregate in the living room where we reminisce about the year that was. Before we know it, it’s 11:20pm. With 40 minutes left until us West Coast kids can officially say we’ve lived in 2015, the 8 of us rapidly throw on our jackets and drive towards the casinos. After circling the parking lot for 15 minutes while unsuccessfully looking for a parking spot, we finally fit the Acura between an oversized van and a bush. With our phones reading 11:58, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I sprint to the stampede of excited individuals bundled up in winter clothing along the road. An unnecessarily large quantity of cops, dressed in riot gear, calmly take photos with animated youth. Unable to spot our 4 friends, the Smiths and I jump a barricade dividing the sidewalk from the street. We now stand amid the madness. Screams erupt and kisses flood my view marking the big hand and little hand meeting at the number 12. I turn to my right and kiss my girlfriend. Not wanting to make the Brothers feel awkward, we quickly pull apart.

It’s the wee hours of the morning and everyone’s ready for bed. That is, until Pierce realizes he can’t find his wallet. The 8 of us search every nook and cranny, flipping over half-packed suitcases and comfy couch cushions in search of this square piece of brown leather. No luck. Despite his afternoon flight the following day, Pierce seems least worried about the disappearance of the only form of identification which can successfully get him onto the plane. Within minutes of giving up on the search, Pierce is snoring loud enough for the neighbors to hear. The next morning, Riley and I are awoken by a frantic Hugh who, ironically, also lost his wallet.

“I’ve been searching for 2 hours,” he tells us.

While Riley, appalled by the fact that both her brothers wallets have gone missing within 24 hours of their flight home, goes down stairs to help the search, I call the casino from last night. They have Hugh’s wallet. ½ of the problem is solved. Pierce’s half of the problem is later resolved when the airline informs Pierce that they could search for his identity through their computer system.

While Riley crankily drives her brothers half way to Sacramento to meet with her uncle, the rest of the crew and I cook some mouthwatering pork brats, deliciously seasoned beef burgers and perfectly prepared spinach dip in anticipation of the first ever College Football Playoff game. Kickoff between the Oregon Ducks and the Florida State Seminoles (where Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen attended college) is at 2pm PT. As a Florida Gator fan I find it tough to root for the ‘noles. However, I choose to side with the arch-nemesis today as a victory by the team in garnet and gold would make for quite a joyous evening with my friends. Unfortunately, the outcome of the game is not as hoped, with the team out of Eugene, Oregon coming out triumphant.

Despite their semi-depressed state, the 4 Florida State alum agree to spend the night playing board games with Riley and me. We begin with Trivial Pursuit, 20th Anniversary edition. As the 20th anniversary happened to be over 20 years ago, none of us fare well. We give up on this game and transition to Pictionary. An hour or two of below average drawings later, Jen and Jared are declared winners. Prior to going to bed the 6 remaining cabin-mates agree on hiking Emerald Bay the following morning.

And we do exactly that. A mile long hike along a clearly marked out snow-covered trail ends at a castle. This 38 bedroom Scandinavian-style fortress, dubbed Vikingsholm, was built in 1929 for Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight as a summer home. I think back to what life must have been like here 85 years ago. With the home likely not having a telephone at the time, let alone a cell phone or a computer, Mrs. Knight must have experienced an unimaginable type of serenity at this home. About 50 meters from the castle is the bay. Transparent water, laying still as a fallen tree, glistens beneath the powerful sun. Smack in the center of this bay rests a small stone structure, representing the Tea House, which could only be reached by boat. Beyond this minuscule mass of land, known as Fannette Island, the bay continues until it empties into the grand lake herself – Tahoe. Evergreen pine trees and unforgotten mountains trap us in this tranquil space. Unable to contain her excitement, Riley attempts to run on the snow in her not-made-for-running Uggs. She elegantly falls backwards, right onto her ass.

After learning how to use the slow-motion feature on her phone, Jesse videotapes the boys perform a perfectly choreographed cartwheel/jump combination. The girls proceed to attempt an even better performance consisting of hand stands and jumps. Riley, once again, ends up flat on her back in the snow.

Our appetites enlarged and our thirst not nearly quenched, Riley and I coordinate a night at the Brewery with our 4 friends. The Brewery is [as you probably imagined] a brewery. They are also famous for having mediocre pizzas, which the 6 of us gluttonously order 3 of. The rest of the night is spent at the cabin playing the highly anticipated game of One Night Ultimate Warewolf. This is Riley and my first time playing this game of animated quarreling and lying, but we are quick to pick up on it. I’ll be honest – Riley is much better than me. I proceed to lose 6 of the 9 rounds I play.

Everyone goes to bed except Jared and I, who converse about our good friend, Garrett, back home. As I bring my magenta tea cup to my thirsty lips, a loud thud echoes throughout the house. A female squeal is heard from the living room. Jared and I scurry over to the sound of the commotion. Jen lies on the ground, holding her head and laughing in attempt to mask her desire to cry.

“What happened?” Jared and I ask in unison.

“I fell down the stairs,” Jen says.

“What? How?” Jared inquires.

“I dunno. I just slipped.”

“Did you try to jump down or something?”

“No, I was just standing on the top step and then I slipped,” Jen explains. “Damn, that hurt. I fell down the entire flight of stairs.”

Finding the situation scary, yet inappropriately humorous, I rush to the kitchen to grab a bag of ice for Jen’s throbbing skull.

We wake up the following morning to our last full day in Tahoe. With Heavenly finally opening the majority of their lifts and runs, Riley and I pack our ski and snowboard gear and head to this tourist-sucking mountain. The sun shines brightly among the few clouds and the terrain is manageable. Double digit runs and a handful of 3 inch high jumps later, the clock hits 4pm, marking the last run. Riley and I descend the 2 mile-high mountain via the gondola. We sit beside a young Mexican couple coddling a precious, sleeping child the size of my forearm. Out the back window, upon which the family rests their tired heads, we view the entirety of Lake Tahoe, darkening in the sunset.

For dinner, Riley and I cook while the rest of the gang heads to a restaurant. We reconvene for one more night in the hot tub. Superlatives are handed out. I am fortunate enough to win Best Cook, while Riley (averaging 16 hours of sleep per day) wins Best Napper. Jesse wins Best Planner (which is a fitting award for someone who managed to successfully plan out 95% of the steps taken and foods eaten by the group). Steven wins Best Attitude (which he accepts with a hearty smile and a thumbs up); Jen wins most down to party/most afraid of everything (as she sips her bottle of Sutter House wine while whipping her head back and forth in search of man-eating bears) and Jared wins most indulgent (as he salivates over the last pieces of pizza he guzzled down the night before.

Knowing that my old friends are leaving bright and early the next morning and that I won’t see them for an extended period of time, we all share heartfelt hugs before shutting our eyes for the night.

By 5am Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen are enroute to San Francisco airport. Riley and I wake up 4 hours later and tidy up the house in preparation for check out. By half past 11, we’ve emptied every garbage can, started a load of towels in the washer machine, pressed Start on the dishwasher and locked the cabin. Good bye, Lake Tahoe.

3 hours later Riley and I pull into her Aunt and Uncle’s house in Sacramento. I leave Riley to recover for the next 3 days while I head to San Francisco to meet up with my college roommate, David. We spend the night conversing, reminiscing and discussing the future. The next morning David catches a bus back to Los Angeles while I head to UC Berkeley to explore the campus. Shortly after the onset of rush hour, I drive to Stockton for dinner with a family friend. Irena and her 3 children sit at the dinner table with me, eating grass-fed organic steak, a healthy conglomeration of vegetables and fresh baked brownies. We enjoy good conversation until a quarter past 9. By 10pm, I’m back in Sacramento, resting peacefully in bed. An action-packed 10 days filled with numerous walks down memory lane has ended. Now it’s time to catch up on some sleep.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 1)

My ears have been popping for 30 consecutive minutes. The temperature continues to drop and the wind intensifies. Misha gingerly drives along the edge of steep cliffs while I admire the snowcapped mountains filling up the horizon. Staring down is discerning, as a fall would be deadly. We turn a corner and are slapped in the face by the most mesmerizing body of water I’ve ever seen. Lake Tahoe glistens with countless crystals beneath the setting sun. The water is a deep blue like that of a newly polished azurite pendant. Misha and my brothers fall silent as we soak in the beauty of nature before us.

We arrive in the small town of South Lake Tahoe shortly after the sun sets. Our first stop is Misha’s family friend’s house, where Misha will be picking up his snowboard. Misha turns onto an unlit road, not noticing the black ice covering the pavement. The wheels spin wildly as they grasp for traction. Misha does his best to guide the struggling vehicle into a soft patch of snow. Pierce and Hugh exit the car and give it a shove, ejecting it from the ditch. Undeterred, Misha finds an alternate, safer route to the house. After loading his gear into the car and resting his snowboard atop Pierce and Hugh’s laps, Misha gets back into the driver’s seat and steers us to our home for the next week.

Parked along the snowy street, I open my car door to piercing cold air. The 4 of us rush through the cabin door and immediately turn on the fireplace. Relieved to be out of the below-freezing temperatures outside, we let warmth overcome us. A large, brown leather wrap-around couch, homey wooden furniture, and fluffy blankets and pillows make me feel comfy and relaxed. I envision a winter slumber approaching. But first, we must wait for the others guests to arrive.

In the meanwhile, we decide to rent ski equipment and purchase food. A car full of skis, ski poles, boots and $300 worth of groceries later we come home to a lively environment. Misha’s friends from Florida have arrived. Introductions are made. There is Steven – tall, dark and handsome. He sits roasting by the fire beside his girlfriend of 4 years, Jesse – a beautiful girl with long dirty-blonde hair and big green eyes. She appears filled with excitement. The couch is occupied by Jared, proudly wearing a full beard and beanie; evidently adjusting to the drastic change of climate. His girlfriend of 8 years, Jen, sits near him. She is a small girl with short black hair and a face full of Italian features. Jen struggles hiding her enthusiasm after seeing snow for her first time. Hugh and Pierce (who are referred to as “the Brothers” throughout the trip) introduce themselves to the crew and plop down on the couch, opposite of Jen and Jared. Feeling restless, they soon head to the kitchen where they pop open a few beers before immersing themselves in the backyard hot tub. They return 30 minutes later. Having not seen his friends in a good while, Misha stays awake catching up, while Pierce, Hugh and I all hop into a king size bed upstairs, like we used to as kids on Christmas Eve.

I wake up to an even colder day. Bundled up in unfamiliar winter clothes, we squeeze into my car filled with skiing and snowboarding equipment. A 40 minute commute later we arrive at Sierra Mountain for our first day of skiing. Pierce and Hugh jump out of the car and head straight for the blue and black runs. After changing into our gear, Misha and I meet up with Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen. Although Steven and Jesse have a year of experience and exhibit skill on the slopes, Jared and Jen are first-timers and don’t fare as well. While Misha and I wait in line to head up the bunny slope we see an out-of-control Jen unintentionally ski into the trees. For the next 10 minutes, Steven attempts to push a fear-stricken Jen back onto the slope. Agony occupies Jen’s face while confusion and determination fills Steven’s. Unwilling to wait any longer, Jared skies down the bunny slope for his first time. He exhibits impressive control and successfully pizza and French fries himself down the hill without falling.

After a short stay on the bunny hill, Steven, Misha, Jesse and I head for the more difficult, blue runs. Jesse and I anxiously hover at the top of the mountain, as Misha and Steven speed down. Slow and steady, but with some screams and falls, we make it to the bottom in one piece. Jesse and I agree that some easier, green runs are in order for the time being. The hours quickly pass and the weather becomes progressively colder. With frozen fingers and toes, we call it a day at 4pm.

Misha, Pierce, Hugh and I arrive home and eagerly cook a salmon, potatoes and asparagus dinner and eat it by the blaring fire. The others arrive from a dinner out and are ready for the casinos. Our cabin is conveniently located one mile away from the state-line of California and Nevada, which is an area surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist shops and casinos. Jared and Steven, experienced gamblers, head straight to the Craps table with Misha tagging along to learn. The girls aren’t thrilled with this excursion as they are too familiar with their boyfriend’s obsessions with casinos. Not interested in watching a bunch of rowdy persons throw a dice against an enclosed felt rink, I walk with Pierce to the slot machines. Free drinks in hand, we crack up as Pierce proudly turns his $3.00 into $7.00. Exhausted from skiing and bored of gambling, Pierce, Jesse, Jen and I head out leaving the boys behind to gamble. Upon exiting the casino doors we stand face to face with a thick sheet of white. I look up at the falling sky, thinking there is no way the snow will stop anytime soon.

My prediction is right. I wake up the next morning to a winter wonderland. Gusts of wind swirl symmetrical snowflakes, covering everything in fresh powder. The forecast of a half-inch of snow was grossly wrong, as it snowed nearly a foot and a half during the night. Excited for the seemingly perfect day for skiing, everyone quickly gets dressed and heads outside for their cars. To my utter despair I find a $205 ticket atop my windshield for blocking the path of the snowplow. How is a group of kids from Georgia and South Florida (currently experiencing lows of 75 degrees) supposed to even know what a snowplow is? Let alone the fact that we can’t park on the streets on days it snows. We call the owner and ask her this exact question. She kindly offers to pay half the ticket.

Our spirits elevated, we begin our drive to the mountain. However, due to havocking winds and hazardous road conditions we are soon forced back into our cabins. While deliberating Plan B, Misha and his friends decide the perfect event would be an old tradition of theirs – Beerlympics (short for Beer Olympics). Beerlympics is a series of drinking games (some of which I’ve never heard of) between two teams. First team to 6 victories is crowned champion. We pick names out of a hat to split teams. Jesse, Pierce, Misha and I face off against Steven, Jared, Hugh and Jen. Jesse and Jared’s rivalry is by far the most entertaining part of the night. It all begins with a not-so-kind-hearted squid. What is a squid, you may ask. A squid is when an individual (person A) offers a high five or a knuckle pound to [Person B] by extending their open hand or closed fist. When Person B attempts to high five or pound knuckles with Person A, Person A pulls back his hands and waves wiggly fingers towards the face of Person B. This is exactly what Jared does to Jesse to begin the night. And Jesse does not live this down. The next 6 hours are filled with shotgunning (chugging a can of beer from a hand-made hole in the aluminum), flipping cups, throwing ping pong balls and carefree bickering. One, particularly enjoyable and intense game is called Downs. 8 beers are placed on the table (4 on each side) and a ping pong ball is thrown from one side of the table towards the opponents cans on the other side of the table. The opponent then races to retrieve the ball and place it atop the table while the shooting team chugs their beer. While playing this marvelous game, Jesse slides across the carpet causing rug burn and a bloody knee, Jen slams her head against the table, and Misha nearly castrates Steven by reaching between his legs to retrieve a scurrying ping pong ball.

With the competition nearing an end, and our team clawing towards a comeback, Jesse becomes even more ferocious towards her arch-nemesis, Jared. Screams and curses are commonly heard among the group’s laughter. Jesse is particularly thrilled when she sinks the last cup in beer pong, after Jared calls her out for holding on to the ball for too long. Jared, however, gets the last laugh as his team prevails 6 to 4, after an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle.

The tournament concludes at 11pm, at which time we stumble over to the casino for some late night gambling. A hangover setting in, and the day not having even ended, we decide to head home to our warm beds.

Waking up from a deep slumber, I realize its New Year’s Eve. My pounding head argues that I should remain in bed rather than celebrate the New Year, but I’m on vacation and it’s the holidays. Let the festivities begin.

Christmas in Sacramento

The drive from Las Vegas to Sacramento consists of 570 miles and takes over 8 hours to complete. A strenuous drive, to say the least. As we pack the car, Riley offers to drive. A pleasant surprise, as this allows me to write and maybe even catch some shut-eye. One hour later, the wheels of the car grind against gravel. I look up just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“What happened?” I ask Riley.

“I’m tired,” Riley says, her eyes three-quarters closed.

And thus, I spend the next 8 hours behind the wheel.

After a 2 hour nap, Riley turns on the highly recommended Serial Podcast. We obsessively listen to it for the duration of our drive. An hour from our destination a thick fog sets in. Drivers slow down to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit as their visibility is limited to a few feet.

At exactly 9:30p.m. we park our vehicle beside a suburban house. We’ve arrived at Riley’s Aunt and Uncle’s house. We’re greeted Hubert Riley, Riley’s mom’s brother. A thin, fit man, with soft eyes and a genuine smile, Hubert welcomes us with open arms into his beautiful home, reminiscent of Spanish design. Christmas decorations hang from every nook and cranny. We take a seat in the kitchen as Hubert finishes up cooking pasta for his newly arrived guests. One by one the cousins flood the kitchen. The first is Anna, a sophomore at Georgetown University. Her dark brown hair, straight as an arrow, flows midway down her back. Her thin legs excitedly sprint over to her cousin and best friend. Then comes Caroline, the 2nd oldest – a junior in high school. With an eerily similar physique as Anna, it is no surprise these 2 are sisters. Having smelled the waft of the tomato sauce, Anna and Caroline’s little brother, Will, enters the kitchen. A thin boy, enjoying the joys and agonies of being a high school freshman, Will carries a sweet comb-over and a timid, yet pleasant smile, not unlike his father’s. The last of the 4 children, Stella, stumbles into the kitchen in her one-piece pajamas. She boasts golden blonde hair and the puppy-dog facial expression all children between the ages of 2 and 5 have mastered. Thumb in mouth, this 4 year old looks shyly at the big, tall man eating her family’s pasta.

“Hi,” I say to the cutest little girl I’ve seen in ages.

Stella takes a scared step backwards.

This may take a couple of days, I determine, succumbing to a simple wave to the toddler.

While still trying to memorize all the cousin’s names, the front door opens and Lisa Riley walks in. Tall, athletic and possessing straight, dark-brown hair, Lisa’s appearance makes it clear where the two oldest daughters obtained their physical features from. The now-packed kitchen transitions to the dining table, where Riley and I detail our travels to the 6 active listeners (one of whom is awake way past her bedtime). The Riley’s take turns asking questions and expressing their jealousy and support for our venture.

After consuming dinner and gulping down a cup of tea I can no longer keep my eyes open. I bid everyone a good night and I head to my room in the guest house, located opposite the pool.

I wake up to a murky Christmas Eve morning. Much of the morning and afternoon is spent helping the Riley’s set up for the Christmas Party taking place later that night. At 3pm, I attend my first Christmas Eve Service. Children and adults unite as one, through song and prayer. Many close their eyes as they feel their lord in every inch of their bodies. Feeling holier, we return to the house shortly before 5pm. Less than 2 hours later we hear the first knock on the door.

The guests start flocking in. They bring wine, hors d’oeuvres and entrees. We chip away at the various cheeses, jellies and crackers until the main course is prepared. The kids (of which Riley and I are included) form a buffet line. I fill my plate with fried onion mashed potatoes, vegetables, croutons and fresh crab. When I say fresh crab, I mean REALLY fresh crab. This succulent crustacean was brought by a friend of the Riley’s who proudly owns a renowned fresh food store. Just when I think that dinner can’t get any more delicious, I’m reminded that there is freshly cooked prime rib awaiting my consumption. I walk over to the kitchen counter and introduce a quarter pound slab of meat to my plate. Minutes later, my stomach is as happy as can be.

With digestion having begun, Lisa suggests a dance party in the living room. We move aside a few chairs and tables and gather in a circle, forming a serviceable dance floor. One of the kids whips out a small, wireless speaker, connects his iPhone to it using Bluetooth technology, and starts pumping the music. For the next 2 hours we dance, sing and laugh. There are 35 people attending this party and every single one lets loose at least a few dance moves. Two gymnastics-splits, multiple perfectly choreographed songs, and 35 pairs of sore calves later physical exhaustion kicks in and the music ceases. By 11p.m. the guests are gone and clean-up time has begun. Despite a seemingly endless supply of dirty dishes and trash, we clean the entire house in record time; even remembering to prep the living room for Santa’s looming arrival.

And lo and behold, Santa does arrive. I wake up Thursday morning to a surplus of gifts. However, my pile pales in comparison to Stella’s. She must have been particularly good this year. With wrapping paper and cardboard boxes comprising the majority of the living room floor and my stomach full from breakfast, it’s the perfect time to get some fresh air.

I arrive at the Shady Oaks disc golf course to a perfectly warm afternoon. Disc golf is a sport merging golf and Frisbee. Specially designed plastic discs are thrown from a concrete tee-pad, about the size of a door, towards a chain-linked metal basket, positioned anywhere from 100 to over 1,000 feet away. The purpose of the game is to make your disc into the basket in as few shots as possible. Two discs in hand, I start my round. At hole 4 I run into Rich and Freddie, two local disc golf enthusiasts. We agree to play the rest of the round together. Seemingly having an endless supply of marijuana, these two Cali natives light up a celebratory bowl after every successful hole. Two-thirds complete through this 18-hole course, we run into Jesse, an old friend of Freddie’s. Fire-orange bangs droop over Jesse’s pale blue eyes, as he joyously hugs his old friend, who he hadn’t seen in years. Delighted by the cloud of smoke forming around my two new acquaintances, Jesse decides to play the final 6 holes with us. To little surprise, Jesse also has a plentiful supply of weed, of which he makes use of liberally. My 3 friends walk in a blissful haze as we complete this enjoyable course full of gorgeous trees and calming nature. Officially being able to check California off my list of states I’ve played a round of disc golf in, I leave the park feeling accomplished.

The morning of Friday, December 26 is dedicated to exploring Sacramento. Riley and I do this in our favorite way – a jog throughout the city. Led by our tour guide, Hubert, we run 7 miles through suburban communities, public-living communities, railroad tracks, West Sacramento, Old Sacramento, malls and a massive hole in the ground, which will soon host the new Sacramento Kings arena.

At 5pm, the household increases by 2 as Riley returns from the airport with her little brothers, Pierce and Hugh. This being one of the few times I’m in the same room with all 3 siblings, I stare at each of the Smith’s debating who resembles whom more. Riley and Hugh’s golden brown hair and blue-green eyes seem to merge, while Pierce and Riley seem to have their noses and facial expressions chiseled by the same artist. With it already being past 8pm on the East Coast, we decide it’s a suitable time to pop open a few beers. An hour into catching up with the newly arrived guests, Riley and I light up the stove and oven in preparation for dinner. An Indian Pale Ale in hand, I begin cooking chicken, couscous and vegetables while Riley prepares the fresh kale. An hour later we’ve crafted one of our finest meals to date – a vintage Moroccan style feast.

Our moods elevated, Hubert, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I decide to spend the night out on the town. We head downtown, where we hop from one watering hole to a second and then a 3rd. Targeting solely the local and craft brews, I have a delicious night. While Riley and Hubert grab a taxi around midnight, Pierce Hugh and I stay out till 2am, before getting dropped off at the house by a friend of Pierce’s, who he met in Croatia earlier in the year.

While Riley’s brothers wake up early to drive down to San Francisco, I spend Saturday catching up on sleep and reading. Just before sunset Hubert, Lisa, Anna, Stella and I head to a local nature park where we are surrounded by curious deer and spawning salmon. I learn much about Anna during this short hike, including her fear of deer. By the end of our walk, we’ve come within feet of so many does and bucks that Anna has no choice but to successfully face her fear. This meeting with the fresh outdoors mitigates my headache and livens me up for the Sacramento Kings basketball game taking place later that night.

While Riley stays home with the rest of the gals, Hubert, Will, Will’s friend (Jack), and I head to the 7:30p.m. tip-off between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The game is a thriller, ending in a fantastic overtime victory by the home team. I watch 17,000 ecstatic fans yell, high-five and hug as their Saturday night is temporarily improved by the performance of their Kings. As with any competition, there is a losing team – and tonight (as is the case on most nights) it’s the Knicks. Will proudly tells Hubert and me about the verbal scuffle he and Jack had with the rowdy Knicks fan yelling obscenities from the seats above them.

I wake up Sunday morning with an extra spring in my step. I pack a single suitcase, eager to get on the road and see my best friend, Steven (who inspired me to go on this adventure), his girlfriend, Jesse, and my 2 friends, Jared and Jen, in Lake Tahoe later that evening. Riley and I sit in the living room, awaiting Riley’s brothers. Fashionably late [as Riley predicted], Pierce and Hugh arrive nearly 2 hours later than promised. The 4 of us jam-pack Riley’s vehicle and head north to the world-famous lake in Tahoe.