Hardesty: Twisters, sun burns, motor inns and death-defying drive

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

[This is the third and final installment of Tales from the Open Road: A Sports Odyssey Across America]

Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous for, among other things, his quote that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

It sums up perfectly the many cross-country drives my wife Kim and I have taken to see stadiums and arenas from coast to coast — journeys that were transcendental in their own right.

And in many different ways.

Everything from the good — getting to meet NBA legend Magic Johnson, my idol of idols growing up, at his youth fantasy camp at the Lahaina Civic Center during our honeymoon on Maui in July 1995. Kurt Rambis and Jerry West were there too. And it all happened completely by chance.

To the bad — both of us getting burnt to a crisp on Mark McGwire Day at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, where we watched the A’s outlast the California Angels in 12 innings in July 1996. If Scott Brosius hadn’t hit a walk-off homer in the 12th that scorching afternoon in the Bay Area, Kim and I might well have been headed to a hospital that night. As it was, we spent the entire six-hour drive down Interstate 5 to Pasadena after the game hunched as closely as we could get to the air-conditioning vents in our car to try and cool down our char-broiled limbs. Kim still has scars on her legs from that day.

To the ugly — after arriving in Pasadena that night, we spent a good two hours looking for our hotel on Colorado Boulevard, which I thought was the main thoroughfare running through the Los Angeles suburb. Turns out, I was only half-right. It’s a main thoroughfare — that runs through a large part of the greater LA area. And I’m pretty sure we drove most of it that night. Thankfully, an annoyed gas station attendant — annoyed because I disputed his claim of where the hotel should be (again, this was before the days of smartphones and GPS) — finally pointed us in the right direction, but only after I first had us headed halfway to San Bernardino, more than 50 miles from Pasadena. We finally checked into our hotel around 1 or 2 in the morning, exhausted and on fire — for a lot of reasons.

Somehow, though, through all of our trials and tribulations on the open road, we have managed to see a baseball game in every Major League city. That goal rocketed to the top of my bucket list when, as a junior high student in Mogadore, I read a Sports Illustrated article about two guys who jumped in their car one summer and drove to a game at every MLB ballpark. Right then, I said to myself, “I’m doing that.”

So when our Jacobs Field faux pas in April 1994 led to our impromptu trip to Buffalo and Rich Stadium, and I realized that Kim was game for not only car adventures but stadium excursions as well, I knew the bucket list thing could happen.

And it has — sort of. While we have seen a game in every MLB city, we haven’t seen one in every existing stadium because they keep building new ones faster than we can get to them. So the docket remains open.

Through it all, we’ve stayed true to the Sports Illustrated article: We’ve driven to every game. I knew going in that unless the Record-Courier would give me several months of vacation time, which probably wasn’t going to happen, getting to a game at every MLB stadium in a single season wasn’t a possibility. It was out of my control.

But driving to the games wasn’t, and so we did exactly that, packing up the car and pulling out of the driveway bound for Boston, Miami, Seattle and San Diego — and all points in between. In fact, when we drove to Seattle to see a Mariners game at the Kingdome in July 1998 — and watched Randy Johnson strike out 15 Angels — we put over 7,000 miles on the car we had rented. When we arrived home and turned the car back in to the rental company in downtown Cuyahoga Falls, the attendant came out to the car, looked at the odometer, looked at us and said, “You put 7,000 miles on this car! Where did you guys go?”

Kim and I looked at each other. This was going to be expensive.

“We went to Washington,” I said sheepishly.

“Washington?” he said. “Well, D.C. isn’t a 7,000-mile round trip. They must have put the miles on the car down wrong when you took it.” He did some calculations and said: “D.C. and back is about 800 miles.”

So he wrote down 800 miles for our bill. And we got about 6,200 miles for free because it never occurred to the guy that when I said Washington, I meant Washington state. Because it never occurred to the guy that anyone in their right mind would get behind the wheel of a car and drive from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, to Seattle, Washington, and back (actually it was farther because we dipped our toes in the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula).

And that was just one trip. Our adventures have spanned tens of thousands of miles, hundreds of stadiums and arenas, and enough tales from the road to fill volumes, such as:

– Asking an impeccably dressed, well-coiffed Mormon student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, if I could take a few pictures inside Cougar Stadium (this guy had to be the most dapper security guard ever) — while rocking my impressive mid-90s mullet and Beavis and Butt-Head T-shirt. I figured there was a better chance of this guy having me arrested on suspicion of just about everything than letting me into their football stadium. But sometimes, the gods of travel smile on you: He let me in.

– Halfway back from our California baseball trip of 1996 (the one where we got fried in Oakland and lost in Pasadena on the same day), we decided to pull off the road for the night in Amarillo, Texas. It was around midnight, and I figured that finding a place to stay in the middle of nowhere in the Texas Panhandle couldn’t be all that difficult. But after going to three motels and finding all three booked up, we asked the woman at the fourth motel why there weren’t any vacancies. “The rodeo’s in town,” she said. “Good luck.” On about the fifth or sixth try, we found this roadside motor inn that looked like where the young people always go to die in the slasher movies. They had one room still open. Sleep in the car, or try to cheat death in the room? It was a tough call, but we went with the room. The guy handed us the key, but turns out we didn’t need it: not only did the door not lock, it wouldn’t even stay closed. I had nothing left after driving from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Amarillo, so I hit the bed like falling timber. But Kim, with the door of our tiny, shabby room slightly ajar all night and the parking lot just on the other side of it, didn’t sleep a wink. To this day, it’s the last time we didn’t make reservations for a room.

– That Mariners-Angels game at the Kingdome in 1998 was memorable, not just for the Big Unit’s 15 strikeouts but the fact we also got to see the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr. play. But we almost didn’t make it. On our way to Seattle, we had booked a few days at a cabin in the forest at the base of Mount Rainier. The people who ran the place had sent us directions (again, broken record here: no smartphones, no GPS), and we followed them point by point — which put us on a road on the side of a mountain in the middle of Sasquatch Country. Nothing but mountains and forest as far as the eye could see in every direction. I wasn’t even sure why a road was necessary, considering there was nobody out here.

Actually, there was no road at all — because a construction crew was cutting the road up the mountain. We passed cement trucks, road graders, dump trucks, every type of construction vehicle you can think of, with barely enough room for us to squeeze by either next to the mountain wall or the side of the mountain itself. There were several gripping moments when the only thing separating the car’s tires from the valley below were a few inches of dirt and gravel. Terrifying doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. And these construction workers went on doing their thing like we weren’t even there. We quickly realized that the directions the cabin people gave us were wrong, but it was too late: At this point, there was no way off the mountain. I couldn’t put it in reverse and back down in those conditions without backing us right off the side. I couldn’t just sit there. So I had no choice but to drive forward, which only made it worse.

Finally, a guy who looked like he might be in charge stopped us and asked what we were doing there. I explained the situation, and he told me to keep going a little ways more and there would be a small spot where I could turn around. Small was an understatement: It looked like a Big Wheel would have trouble turning around in that space. But somehow I managed to keep us from plunging to our deaths as I went forward and backward inch by heart-stopping inch, cutting the wheel as sharply as it would go each time, until, after several minutes and a few years shaved off our lives, I got the car headed back down the mountain.

When we finally arrived at the cabin that evening, we told the owners of our harrowing encounter, with our car clinging to the side of a mountain in the middle of an active construction zone. “Which way did you turn here?” the guy asked, his finger pointing at a junction on the map in front of us.

“I turned that way,” I answered, putting my finger on the map.

“Well, you should have turned the other way,” the guy said.

Two centuries later, Emerson is still right.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.