June 25, 2001: Dispatches
by Brad & Tony
On Their Trip Across America

Valley View Hot Springs (near Salida, Colorado)

There was once an elderly black gentleman in the back seat of my cab who was on his way to catch a bus to Reno, where he was going to do a little gambling. I asked him about his gambling history -- favorite games, biggest winnings, biggest losses, and what he dreamed of winning. I've always remembered his answer: "You know, I don't really want to win anything. What I'd really like is to just get back everything I ever put into any slot machine, roulette wheel, craps table, sports bet... That," he said, "that would be one big pile of money."

Tony got one hour of sleep in Los Angeles. I had five. But seeing his relatives was perfect -- it put him at ease, made him see what life in America for immigrants is like -- the good and the bad. And there he was talking in Tagalog all night. I was the foreigner in LA. We were both bone tired driving toward Las Vegas. I kept checking in via cell phone with Travelers' Tales. Last year, after I'd been on "All Things Considered" to talk about "our" book, a singer from Cirque du Soleil named Dina Emerson called with an offer of free tickets ($88 each!) when Tony arrived. Now Kathy and James at Travelers' Tales were twisting themselves into pretzels trying to get Tony and me a free room to go along with the tickets. But twenty miles out of Las Vegas, at 6 p.m., I got the news that free rooms weren't going to happen. I called the hotel where Cirque happens -- the cheapest room was $250. The show was at 10:30. Tony had a prearranged phone call to the Philippines at 6:30. I took the room. We checked in, showered, ate Chinese food in the hotel restaurant, wandered the casino. Earlier in our trip James O'Reilly had given Tony and me each $100 to gamble with in Las Vegas. Tony had decided that he couldn't do that -- he would take his $100 home to his family. But I gave him $10 out of my money and he fed it slowly but certainly into a slot machine. We napped before the show, and then went down to pick up our tickets at the VIP window. Seats dead center behind the soundboard. Free snacks and drinks -- we're starting to like this a lot. We could see our benefactor, Dina, wearing a long white gown and singing from a perch about 30 feet above the stage. I had no prior idea what to expect -- everyone in my cab who has seen the show has raved, and now Tony and I are among the mind-blown -- I just had no idea that human beings could do those things with their bodies.

Tony fell asleep toward the end of the show. I got him back to the room, then went out with Dina for a quick chat. Very nice woman, very incredible gig she has -- Las Vegas, Cirque, getting married in the fall....

Very little sleep again -- even when we have the time, our minds are so full and overloaded that we wake up often and early. By 7 a.m. we were down at the casino. I was tempted to just keep the $70 I had left from James' money, but that seemed unsporting. I plunked it down at the first craps table we came to and told the pit crew (Tony and I were alone at the table) to please help me, as I don't really know the game. They directed my bets, and while I just started talking (Tony, Philippines, taxi, airplane, ambassador) and rolling the dice the chips just kept piling up on my side of the table. When my pile had grown to $300 I took $250 and set it aside -- so the free room came from an unexpected source. Then Tony and I rolled the dice until the extra $50 was gone. One of the few times I've left a casino with more money than I entered with.

We stopped at Hoover Dam briefly -- it was already something like 102 at 11 a.m. and there was a stiff wind blowing -- and headed for the Grand Canyon. Forty miles outside of Williams we picked up the first (and so far last) hitchhiker we've seen. Hans was from San Francisco, heading to Georgia. My heart sank when he said he was leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter, his only offspring, as life wasn't working out with the mother or with work in the Bay Area. We stopped and chatted with a man with MS who was pedaling a bicycle contraption from Seattle to wherever, hoping to bring attention to this disease, and hoping to have some fun in life before it slowed him down any more than it already has. [Click to see his web site at http://wheelsofhope.net.] There were 1500 motorcyclists having a rally in Williams and Tony fit right in with his new used leather motorcycle jacket.

At the gas station in Williams I noticed a man eyeing our taxi, which says "San Francisco Taxicab" on the side. He was astounded at our story, and at the fact that there was something like $6,500 on the meter at the time (at the end of the trip, for insurance purposes, Tony has to pay me something, and we've agreed on one Philippine peso) -- this morning there was nearly $11,000 on the meter. When the man's wife came back from the bathroom she looked at us and shrieked. "I have your book at home!" she said, pointing at me. She pointed at Tony and said, "And you're from the Philippines!" She started ticking off the list of other Travelers' Tales titles that are on her bookshelf at home. She was Kristina, her husband was Joe, and they were from San Jose. They were taking Kristina's mother, Linda (from Philadelphia) to the Grand Canyon for her 60th birthday -- first Canyon visit. They asked Tony and me to sign two of the 100 books that Travelers' Tales has donated to Tony -- they gave us $100 cash (there are now 87 books left) -- and, after we said good-bye to Hans, Tony and I headed for his first visit to the Grand Canyon.

We flew across the mesa, and Tony was appropriately astounded when we suddenly came upon that gaping color chart, a mile deep. We spent about four hours driving the rim. At Desert View Tony found the cowboy hat -- leather, beautiful -- he's wanted, and now I swear you would not recognize this guy. He's got much more of a sense of style than I do -- he knows what he likes and what he wants. As we left, just after sunset, I told him that I wished I could be in the bushes with my video camera when he strolls back into Banaue with his new eye, his motorcycle jacket, his rakish cowboy hat. No kidding -- I think there is going to be some major adjustment time with his family, his village. Especially if he comes home with money for the new tricycle, which I have now, perhaps foolhardily, guaranteed he will.

"Who's that cowboy?" I said, pretending to be a Banaue resident. "That's not Tony Tocdaan!"

Tony was laughing now. "What you think people in Colorado will say when they see cowboy hat?"

"'What a good looking guy!'" I said. "'But why's he hanging out with that ugly dude?'"

We laughed a lot as we rode into the night, to where we would lay up short of Monument Valley, sleep (hah!), and await sunrise. We talk about everything in the car: skin color, racism, colonialism, birth control, aborigines, meanings of English words new to Tony ("overwhelm -- what this mean?"), about what we should have said on the BBC interview, about old girlfriends, past mistakes, our unknown futures -- Tony is often preoccupied with his family, so far away, so...underfunded? -- especially in light of all the things he's seeing in America.

I was touched when he told me about how he dropped out of school after grade six to haul wood on his back in the jungle because it was such a good job, such an opportunity. At the time farmers in the Philippines or even civil-service employees earned about $1 a day. As a wood hauler he earned about $8. It was great money, "but it is hell." He hated it. At 17 he decided to go back to school, the missionary school in Banaue, where he learned English. Without that, he said, he wouldn't be sitting in the front seat of a taxicab with $8,000 on the meter, listening to the Michael Martin Murphy tape of cowboy songs (Home on the Range, Red River Valley) we'd bought at his suggestion (enough Neil Young already) at the Grand Canyon.

He also told me the story of the murder (Tony swears neither he nor his relatives had anything to do with it -- the man had other enemies as well, including his wife, who he used to beat) of the man who had mugged him and put his eye out. A detail about the mugging I'd not previously known: after the mugging Tony lay on the road for 15 minutes, presumed dead, until someone said, "Hey, I think he's still breathing." He also told me about being 7 years old and unable to swim and winding up over his head in a pond, then lying on the bottom for five minutes, unconscious, and as his spirit began to rise up above the water, above the tops of the trees, he thought, "This is my last day alive. Then I think, But if I can jump up here, maybe I try one more time. And I do. And I jump up off bottom, above water, and the other boys then think I am joking, but then the teachers come and pull me out... and I live."

We keep coming up with new stories to tell.

Today we're at another hot springs -- this one in Colorado. I haven't been here for 25 years, but the person who checked me in, a woman named Terry, was here the last time I was here! She and her sister Elinor and I spent a night in the warm pools until dawn in 1976, the day before my van caught fire and burned up. But that's truly another story.

Another time.

On toward my friend Bird's house in Buena Vista, and my sister Nancy's in Denver, and then onward....

Thanks for reading along. Best, Brad (and Tony)

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