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Pasadena on a Prayer: My Risky One-day Adventure

Updated on May 8, 2015
The Rose Bowl stadium, whose field sits literally in a bowl below ground level, seats over 92,000.
The Rose Bowl stadium, whose field sits literally in a bowl below ground level, seats over 92,000. | Source

I knew it was a bad idea to try to go anywhere on the weekend before Thanksgiving, but my friend was insistent. The friend had flown all the way from New York to visit family in Pasadena, California and I was told I should come there too.

Why should I go there then? For the same reason people say they like to climb Mt. Everest. Because it’s there. Of course something else happened to be here, where I already was. And that was my cousin’s wedding the next day. So I would be going to California in the morning and returning on a red-eye flight back east only a few hours later.

At the time I was eligible to travel as a standby passenger on certain airline flights. Of course there are times when such “eligibility” is about the same as one’s “eligibility” to win the Super-Lotto Mega-million Jackpot.

Despite being afraid that this particular weekend would be such a time, I overslept and missed the first flight to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I was dog-tired from overwork. I have since resolved never to do that again—not oversleep, but overwork. As a matter of fact I have since resolved, as a matter of personal conviction, to sleep most of the time and do absolutely no work. In this instance, however, my affinity for slumber cost me dearly.

The next flight I had a chance to make was to Orange County, 30 miles away from LAX, but I missed the cutoff time for listing for that flight and ground my teeth when it went out with open seats. I crowded the counter to watch the next LAX flight board full and I was about to call my friend and wave the white flag when something bizarre happened.

A man onboard came off and said he left his laptop on the previous plane three buildings away. Bingo, I replaced him. Sometimes stupidity can be a man’s best friend—other people’s stupidity, that is.

In the 1870's Pasadena was touted as a tropical paradise to cold-weary easterners.
In the 1870's Pasadena was touted as a tropical paradise to cold-weary easterners.

I happily slept in my middle seat between two eight year-old boys, and five hours later landed at LAX. It was only 11:30 in the morning. I was sure I would have a long and productive day.

This was before my ordeal with the Fox Rental Car company began.

I waited outside in front for a shuttle van to take me from LAX to the Fox Rental Car lot. Forty-five minutes later, with no such van in sight and with at least 30 Hertz vans, 27 Avis vans and 22 Thrifty vans having gone by in the interim, I dialed the Fox help number on my phone.

A recorded Bangladeshi advised me to call during normal business hours.

I jumped on the next van I saw and prayed it would take me near Fox. I think it was Avis. I walked two blocks to Fox, then waited 45 minutes in line inside the building, then 45 more minutes once I got the paperwork till a car was available. Then, as soon as I got the car out of the garage and was on a one-way street headed for the Interstate I discovered the car’s tank was half empty.

“I guess I should be grateful I’m even alive,” I told myself.

I was looking for 110 North, but it was full. I went further east to 710, which was also full. On a Saturday afternoon every car in the state of California was on the highways headed north. It wasn't until much later that I realized the epic scope of my ignorance. USC and UCLA were playing in the Rose Bowl stadium, and due to the fact that I overslept and endured a cataclysmic struggle to obtain a vehicle from the Fox Rental Car agency I was RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of game traffic.

Sometime around 4 I met my friend in Pasadena, and the friend asked me what the holdup was.

“Holdup?” I asked. “What holdup? I actually made the 27-mile trip from LAX to here in slightly less time than it took the plane to fly 2000 miles.”

My friend was impressed by the speed of my accomplishment and asked no further questions in that regard.

The Langham Huntington Hotel has had several reincarnations.
The Langham Huntington Hotel has had several reincarnations.

“Let’s go to the famous hotel,” my friend said.

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”

The car slipped out of gear a couple of times on the way to Colorado Boulevard, but it kept rolling. I was very grateful to Fox for renting a car to me that, when it did slip out of gear, quickly returned to gear, sometimes within seconds. It was a credit to that organization that the transmission problems of their vehicles appeared to be self-correcting.

I turned onto a hilly lane, shaded by large trees and flanked on either side by ritzy villas. On the left ahead was Pasadena’s most elegant hotel, whose manager my friend evidently knew. I parked and we wandered around freely like people who owned the joint.

The Langham Huntington Hotel originally opened in 1907, financed by a Civil War general, Marshall Wentworth. Due to a shortage of labor during the massive rebuilding effort in San Francisco following the great earthquake of 1906, the hotel wasn’t totally finished when it opened. In order to open for the winter season, Wentworth settled for a makeshift roof thought to be sufficient in the arid climate.

But to Wentworth’s eternal misfortune the winter of 1907 brought to Pasadena almost constant rain, which proved too much for the flimsy roof; and the few visitors who came quickly left.

The hotel closed down at the end of that season. It didn't reopen until 1914 after Henry Huntington, a railroad magnate, financed its redesign. For many years it operated profitably as a year-round resort. But after another owner sold the property to the Sheraton chain in 1954, most of the interior historical detail was destroyed and the hotel closed in 1985 because it failed to meet newly enacted earthquake safety guidelines. However, a $100 million restoration of the property to its original splendor with recreation of historical detail was completed in 1991.

My friend and I trouped through the lounges inside the building, walked around the swimming pools, sat in the courtyard, even visited the showers, where we were unhappy to find no bathing beauties in a state of glorious undress.

“Let’s get out of here,” I told my friend. “I don’t want to wait on a girl to take her clothes off. A lot of times that never happens.”

“I hear you,” my friend agreed.

The courtyards of the Langham Huntington Hotel call to mind the blissful oases of biblical antiquity.
The courtyards of the Langham Huntington Hotel call to mind the blissful oases of biblical antiquity.

We continued on our town tour, hastened by the diminishing daylight. We drove through downtown Pasadena, which for a spell during the 1990’s endured some tough times and was a haven for L.A. gangs, but has now made a comeback. Pasadena’s modern development dates back to the 1870’s when wealthy easterners established it as a resort in the scenic shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. As late as 1940, it was the 8th largest city in California and a rival to nearby Los Angeles.

“I want to see the Rose Bowl stadium,” I informed my buddy. “The last time I came here was before you were born, probably: 1979. My dad and I came here and the groundskeeper let us walk around on the field. That would never happen today.”

I was right and wrong in what I told my friend. I was wrong about the friend’s age. I knew the friend had been around in 1979, but I was dishing out flattery. But I was right about getting out on the Rose Bowl field.

“That ain’t gonna be happening,” my friend told me. “SC and UCLA are playing.”

I was infuriated with these two colleges for playing a game on the one day when I was available to come to Pasadena. Couldn’t they have rescheduled?

We drove near the stadium and were able to see it before police threatened us and I turned around. I wish I had been there earlier in the day.

Every square inch of all floats in the Tournament of Roses Parade must be covered by natural material of some kind.
Every square inch of all floats in the Tournament of Roses Parade must be covered by natural material of some kind. | Source

Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade, held every year on January 1 or 2 since 1890, was originally meant as a way of publicizing the area’s mild winter climate to attract visitors and investment from the east. The floats in the parade are required to be covered completely by flowers, leaves and natural materials. On average, 100,000 flowers are required to cover a single float in the parade.

In 1902, the Tournament of Roses association decided to add a college football game to the festivities. The resulting contest, then called the “Tournament East-West Football Game”, appeared to be a one-time-only event, a 49-0 rout by the University of Michigan over Stanford. The second staging of the game wasn’t until 1916, after which it became an annual event. There were no other postseason college football games of any kind until 1935, the inaugural year of the Sugar, Orange and Sun Bowls. The Rose Bowl has been played in its current location and stadium since 1923 with the exception of 1942 when due to war restrictions on travel it was moved to Duke Stadium in Durham, NC.

The mild climate, lush vegetation and abundant flowers of Pasadena are apt to make a visitor want to stay there forever.
The mild climate, lush vegetation and abundant flowers of Pasadena are apt to make a visitor want to stay there forever.

It was pitch dark soon, and after dinner at a veggie-and-tofu purveyor of Left Coast cuisine, I told my friend I had to run.

“It’s 8 o’clock,” I said. “And I still have to return this damn rental car. That could take all night. My flight’s at 11.”

I bid my buddy adieu and hit the highway. With all 40 million of California’s people now safely inside the Rose Bowl watching the collegians play football, the highways were open and I was at LAX in about half an hour. I stopped at a gas station and put exactly the amount of gas in the car as I had used. The tank was still half full, as it had been when I got the car. It was a nearly fatal mistake.

I swatted away a homeless man at the gas station who mistook me for J. Paul Getty and asked for a small fortune, and then met a frowning clerk at the Fox rental lot.

“You didn’t return the tank full,” he lectured me. “Go stand in line.”

Forty-five minutes later another clerk told me he couldn’t understand what was wrong, but he allowed me to escape with my credit card and good name and to wait another 45 minutes for a bus that didn’t come.

I was running out of time. Enough of this waiting. I jogged a mile to the LAX airport just in time to see a full plane leave without me. Evidently, half of the Rose Bowl crowd was now flying back east with me. I scrambled to the other side of the airport, pecked away at my laptop, and found a flight with five seats left to Minneapolis, from which another flight back home had room. I really did have red eyes by 10 AM when I made it back, and I’m sure people in the church who saw me for the wedding at 2 thought I was drunk.

Whew, I made it. When I saw my cousin in her trailing white dress exchanging marriage vows with her beloved I had a sobering thought.

I started hoping and praying that wherever she and her new husband were going on their honeymoon they weren’t planning on renting a car from Fox.

© 2015 James Crawford

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