I awoke that morning in shock, incredulous at the electric glowing phone in my hand that was proudly displaying the time with myriad of bells, whistles, and lights emanating from its cold façade. Four AM. I hadn’t seen this side of the clock in quite some time. Begrudgingly, I dragged myself out of bed, slipped myself into the pile of clothes I’d set out the night before, and washed my face in the sink, doing my damnedest to make sense of the world at this ungodly hour. Four fifteen, time to hit the road. I took my dog out back and stared at the misty halo surrounding the moon as he took care of his business in the cold. I put my dog back to bed, gathered my things, and hugged my sleeping wife tightly and kissed her forehead while she muttered some soft-spoken broken sentences of encouragement half asleep to me. I grabbed my gear, started the car, and punched the address into my phone. Lancaster, CA, a decent little trip from my house in East Oakland, I was on schedule to be there somewhere around 10am.
It’d been a while since I was out on the open road by myself. When I was younger, I drove a truck for a construction company and delivered parts to jobsites all over the state. The long hauls down endless highways to all corners of the Golden state are where I discovered my love of talk radio, without those drives I don’t know if I’d have ever gotten into podcasting in the first place. I never had anything besides a radio in the truck and I couldn’t stomach to listen to pop music full of commercials for hours on end, so it was always talk on the radio that helped me keep my sanity; the love of a good story, an honest conversation, and some insight into the inner workings of creative people had been my companion on so many drives in the past it’s funny that the chase of one of those stories today was the impetus for today’s journey. The dark and silent morning had brought me right back to those days, I got gas at one of my usual stops out in Livermore, had a big cup of coffee in the cup holder, and a new episode of the Nerdist podcast queued up in my phone when I rolled out onto 580 towards the Altamont heading out into the moonlit freeway bearing endlessly South into the unknown, alone.
For me, the urgency, immediacy, and the reality of the road allow for a a special kind of meditation, the constant attention required to keep the vehicle heading the right direction at the right speed with the right following distance keeps a big part of my mind busy with these lower processes which allows the higher processes in my mind to roam freely; I enter a state of concentration that I’ve heard internet mystics, digital charlatans and hucksters of transcendental meditation refer to as “mindfulness”. An hour or so down the road and the sun was rising over the endless cow pastures, farms, and billboards taking sides in the strange water politics of the Central Valley, my coffee was nearing the bottom of the cup, and my mind had found itself processing a lot of things I’d seemed to have left on the road when I’d walked away from that job that had brought me to it nearly a decade ago. I stopped to take a break at a rest stop, parked the car, took a walk, and found myself alone in Coalinga, a town that sounds vaguely named after a euphemism for some alien form of bovine copulation.
I shared a brief moment with myself there in the morning in the reflection and had a great moment of clarity. A lot of the time in my day lately involves satisfying others; my work as an engineer at a medium sized company is coldly impersonal, I wear myself down to the bone taking on tasks and solving problems that I didn’t create, coming up with solutions that I don’t get to implement to satisfy the feedback loop of managers, product teams, and customers that I’ll never meet; it’s pretty easy to lose sight of exactly who I am in all that. Most days I feel like I have the creative input of an old hammer hitting the same nail from a slightly different angle each time but the net result of which is the hammer swinger’s intention, not mine. But there I was. Not Nic the engineer, not Nic the backyard mechanic, nor Nic the husband, son, or intermittent blogger. It was just me, a capable vehicle, and the open road. How I chose to define myself upon it, how I carry myself at each stop, and how I behave with other strangers on the road is my own. I got back in the car renewed, refreshed, and lucid. I smiled and waved to on looking children playing some improvised game kicking garbage around the ground at the rest stop, and waved a car past me as I rolled back onto I-5 heading south into the desert. It’s funny how with age you find yourself not able to answer some simple questions that, in my youth, I would have been able to answer with confidence. What was my favorite song? My favorite band? What, in this moment, free of any restraint or scarcity thanks to streaming services would I want to listen to? I’m still not sure I have a good answer, but at that moment I was able to split the difference and settle on Black Market Clash as I made my way further down the road nearing the Grapevine.
By now the sun was out, and my dash indicated it was already nearing 90° outside the car as I made my way from the Interstate onto 138 past towns with imaginary sounding names you’d imagine bestowed to a racially insensitive portrayal of a native American on a 60’s TV show like “Neenach”, far from civilization and deep into the desolate Mohave desert. As one travels further and further off of I-5 towards Lancaster the scenery becomes increasingly desolate to an almost comic level, and you notice quickly that there are fewer friendly looking familiar places to stop. I shot a text to my friend Bob letting him know that I was getting close but it was something of a bluff, with no familiarity with the landscape out there I really, aside from the GPS, couldn’t tell if I was approaching a town or heading into certain doom in the barren Mohave. With luck, the GPS told no lie, and a sprawling suburb began unfolding in the distance. It felt oddly familiar, I’m sure that the companies that built these houses are the same that built the stucco mini-mansions that my friends lived in in Tracy, Pittsburgh, and most of the suburbs of the Bay Area. I snaked my way through seemingly endless streets, boulevards, and the occasional accidental cul de sac and found myself at Bob’s residence. In a daze I got out, was greeted warmly, and we headed out to meet Matchstick at his compound across town.
The rest of the day was absolutely mind blowing. I found Matchstick not only to be an extremely warm and welcoming person, but an incredibly driven and talented fabricator, a man of great taste in art and music, and a person of incredible esoteric knowledge of so many fascinating things, the three of us hit it off instantly. I’m happy that I was able to capture a small part of the conversation in the latest episode of the podcast, but it really only reflects a tiny portion of the great talks we had throughout the day. After a brief tour of his shop in Lancaster, Matchstick offered to take us through Gene Winfield’s shop in Mohave, which ended up being one of the single greatest experiences of my year. In the interest of brevity I’ll post the pictures from the tour below, as any detail in them by itself deserves a thousand words I’d never successfully recap explaining everything Matchstick shared with us that day. I would strongly urge anyone who’s made it this far to make it down to Winfield’s show in October, the shop, the museum, and the junkyard are really something that need to be seen in person. Looking at the pictures now I’m still blown away, but I still haven’t found an answer to a question that I blurted out in Gene’s kitchen standing next to the Strip Star. Is the fact that Gene Winfield, arguably the most important custom car builder alive today, lives in his own museum the most inspiring or the saddest thing I’ve ever seen? I don’t know. To me, this is sacred ground. I’d hold this place against the Smithsonian, there is so much history packed into those walls, so many incredible displays, trophies, and one-off creations that any section of the house alone would constitute a museum exhibit. The fact that Gene not only lives in this place himself, but that he also allows his workers and apprentices to stay there too and openly gives tours of it is Gene’s legacy. This is a man who came up from the humblest beginnings, building cars in a chicken coop on the side of the road in Modesto and rising to the top to be one of the kings of the show circuit. This was back when Hollywood & Detroit actually gave a shit about custom cars and put a great deal of press and money into promoting this world, so he would have had every right to be selfish, closed off, and hide his prized possessions recognized with admiration by the world behind velvet ropes and glass cases. In a culture where touching someone else’s car is unheard of, getting to brush by legendary cars like the Strip Star on your way to visit the Star Trek themed guest room should be unheard of, but it’s not. Gene is, despite all his great accomplishments, just a man. Cars are just a combination of steel, fiberglass, or whatever other unspoken things went into the bodies of TV & Movie cars, and they’re just a thing that he does. If you want to see his shop, shake his hand, and chase lizards around the junkyard with the shop dog you’re welcome to it. For me, as a private person that rarely has people over to my house purely out of shyness, has never worked on one of my cars in any important capacity with another person, and has never even gotten around to hanging my college degree on the wall this was such a shocking thing to see. I will be forever grateful for Matchstick walking us through the shop, showing us where the magic happens, and letting us get such a great and personal insight into how things work at Winfield’s shop. In a way I’m almost glad that Gene was out of town when we were there because these visuals combined with his presence probably would have been too much and I don’t know if I could have kept my cool, even looking at the pictures I’m a bit overwhelmed that I was actually there.
The rest of the day was equally incredible, it was such a great time getting to spend the day with Bob and Matchstick, and will forever be one of my greatest memories that’s come from this blog and podcast so far. Heading back towards I-5 at dusk to head home that night with a fresh interview in my recorder, a brand new t-shirt that Matchstick had me screenprint myself in a train car, and a head full of great memories I was so overwhelmed with the whole thing and took a minute to pull over, sit on the hood of the car, and stare into the incredible night sky over the High Desert and reflect. Matchstick is a pretty incredible person, and I don’t know if I’d have the courage like him to pack up my life and move across the country to live in a trailer in the middle of nowhere to learn this craft even from a legend like Gene.
Talking with him and hearing about how he approaches problems through diligence & research, then takes that acquired knowledge and combines it with hard work, and execution like a true craftsman was so inspiring that it really made me reflect on the manufactured issues I’d put up lately between myself and my goals in life. I don’t quite know where I want to go with my life, what direction to take my career down, what I plan on doing with my humble corner of the internet I’ve carved out for myself with the blog and podcast, but after spending this day out in the desert with these great people I at least have a better idea of how to go about getting there. Thanks for reading.