This post was originally published on Medium.
Snappa is a game well equipped for 9 a.m. kickbacks: It’s relatively passive and demands downing around a pint of beer per game. Points are allocated as follows: One point if the die hits the table and bounces off, and an opponent doesn’t catch it with one hand; two points if it hits a cup and falls off; and three points if it lands in the cup. Pete and I are paired in the bout, seated across the table from Steven and Taylor on a crisp lawn. The score is 6 to 5, their advantage, and we play to 7.
Every poor die throw, whether arcing too low or wildly missing the table, forces a drink from the thrower’s team. Charlie plays rookie referee, whose power-to-head pipeline exceeds all NBA officials but Joey Crawford. This being my first time, I force Pete to drink at least one-and-a-half Coors Lights on my shit play alone.
I underhandedly toss one die in the air. It careens toward the clear blue sky and the tree line of Steven’s backyard. The tiny cube falls to the right and short, another aimless attempt. It bounces up and into the Red Solo cup. Pete exclaims, “Ooooooh!” Charlie tenses, teases an illegal low throw as my ass nearly slides off the green plastic chair. It’s not. Game. We win. I race around the turf as the moment’s champion, encouraged by the four or five beverages I’ve had. I’m back in Davis.
Except for college and the ensuing two years as a “real adult,” it’s been home. It’s my foundation. My closest friends are townies, and some of them, for this reason or that, remain townies. A quarter of my Facebook friends report Davis as their hometown. Given its proximity to the state capital and its home of a university, the 65,000-strong village that loves bikes, recycling, and liberalism attracts academics and young parents to plant family roots. Post-grads don’t want to live in Davis. There’s little reason to visit. For this weekend, though, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s been too long.
But there’s a purpose for being home besides longing: It’s Picnic Day. UC Davis opens up for the world to see myriad science exhibits, events (like the bewilderingly popular Dachshund Races), and the capstone parade. For co-eds, it’s the day to get fucked up. Davis is usually mild and orderly on weekends; Friday and Saturday nights are not particularly rowdy (someone firing bullets into the air made the paper, whereas that’s common in Los Angeles). For youths, all-day recklessness is encouraged on Picnic Day.
It was always an excuse for students to wild out, my dad says. He’s notched four decades as a Davisite, beginning when he first stepped on campus as a freshman in 1970. It was calmer, as the town and campus were smaller; the campus had about 14,000 total students. Then chancellors Hullar, Vanderhoef, and Katehi announced various initiatives to increase attendance from 18,000 to 34,000 over the last 25 years. The city’s and school’s populations subsequently ballooned. Things began to crack down for the celebration after 2010’s calamity. In 2011, the city and school collaborated to conceive measures and harsher punishments to preserve the event’s sanctity, familial feel and safety. That year, a native and UCD alumnus, Scott Heinig, fell after “good-natured horseplay” and died the next day. He was 22. It’s rational that parents — mine included — were concerned.
But I had to complete the gambit of a full Picnic Day. It’s a rite. Two years ago was a stunted affair, joining the party in the afternoon. I missed last year’s. I’m quickly approaching the age where this behavior becomes uncouth.
The alarm buzzes at 6:10 a.m., and I spring out of bed at daybreak on Saturday. The cool breeze rushes into my brother’s old, obnoxiously lime green room. I have to get to Steven’s parents’ house at 7 sharp, per his edict. I gather my accouterments in my backpack for the inebriated endeavor: sunblock and the hat of my alma mater (essential for the Anglo-inclined); clothes and a toothbrush should I need to crash; and phone charger. A cup of coffee, peanut-butter toast and a morning pep talk with Mom has me clear-headed, focused, and edging for the door in 30 minutes.
But my ride is late. David — one of my best buds, truly, since high school — and Jen are late to wake up and get ready, so I steal some quality time with Mom. She’s my rock. She and my stepdad don’t drink, but Mom’s verbally accepting of my shenanigans. I won’t see her until tomorrow, so the extra time is welcome. In the midst of our lounging, Pete calls and tells me to let him into Steven’s. I sadly report I’m not there. 15 minutes later, Charlie calls and tells me to let him into Steven’s. I sadly report I’m not there. I call David for an update. He’s short in responding, but apologetically assures they’ll leave soon. They finally grab me. I know Steven will be displeased.
After a quick grocery store shop, we reach the day’s starting line 45 minutes late. It’s an older home in the sequestered College Park neighborhood across the street from campus. A decent portion of the crew is already there — Steven, Pete, Charlie, Taylor, and a few others — and at least two alcoholic miles ahead in the imbibing marathon. I’ve known Pete and Charlie since elementary school, sharing sports teams and classes to forge that bond. I threw a handball at Taylor’s face in middle school, and that somehow led to friendship. On the Aggiest of days, the host reps his alma mater, sporting a blue polo shirt with a tiny mustang on the left breast. We’ve been friends since we were 9, after he wandered into class four days into the school year; our relationship has never wavered.
He’s the liveliest of the on-time attendees, so the tardy ones must catch up. Taylor immediately offers her whiskey-filled flask for a coffee concoction; two, please. Cook’s Champagne and OJ are popped at the patio table; yes, I’ll take a mimosa. I stuff my face with bacon and waffles to stave off the “oh shit, I’m too drunk” feeling. Only a rookie would tap out with the sun still out. I refuse to succumb to that reality.
We laze around the house after my Snappa dramatics and my Rage Cage failures until someone pushes the inattentive drunkards to catch the parade. It supposedly started at 10, and Charlie had already left to see his nephew and friends starring in it, but we catch the beginning as I sip on my macadamia nut porter at 11:03 a.m., chilling at 3rd & U Café. Its chic brushed stained steel aesthetic has contradictory prices: on a normal day, two pints of not-shitty beer run you $6. The caravan was delayed due to a health scare, our continued drinking not excluding us from the experience. Seven DeLoreans cruise past near the top of order, a yearly reminder that things in the 80s weren’t all that bad, and that aluminum is the dopest metal to construct a car exterior with.
We’re playing a makeshift drinking game — assign each participant a number, roll a die, and the corresponding person drinks — when someone hits my shoulder. It’s my recently minted 7-year-old nephew. My older sister dragged him here, where there are no root beer floats on the menu. That sad fact means seeing Uncle Will and grabbing his second vice of the day are mutually exclusive. Their stop-in is fleeting. I pick him up and lay a huge kiss on his cheek with hopes to embarrass him. I give my sister a hug, and she tells me to drink water and not be stupid.
Down the street from 3rd & U is our next stop: the rugby house party. It’s aggressively sophomoric. We enter a townhouse packed with 20-year-olds, their respective tank tops, Keystone Light, and annoyingly loud music that was probably curated by the weird music kid who is friends with the house’s renters. Two college friends of Steven and Taylor, who invited us to the dissonance-inducing situation, enlist in the day’s effort. I rescue the stranded respectable beer in the refrigerator without regard for my unknown hosts. People were racing fish by blowing straws at their backs in a long, shallow plastic tank. I never grasped what the fuck the point was; neither did anyone else. Snappa’s happening. The desire to mingle with strangers dissipated when we entered, so we stick to our familiar, domesticated huddle and partake in kitchen chatter.
Pete, needing to work later, heads home at 1:20 p.m. when we begin hoofing it back to Steven’s. Someone else defects, electing to dive deeper into her day by diving deeper into downtown bars solo. The midafternoon swoon threatens the posse; the inconclusive next step leads us to a break. We seep into the lawn chairs by the unused fireplace and relish the stillness with cold brews in hand.
I steal some face time with Steven to rehash the day. He definitely dislikes that we were so late in the morning, mildly sabotaging the day’s timeline. It’s annoying, yeah. But we’re good now. We’re pushing forward. 15 minutes before, he briefly freed the house’s chickens from their pen and into the yard. “How Davis are we?” Steven laughed. Very. Very Davis.
After a much-required Domino’s Pizza reprieve and chilling, we leave for Steven’s fraternity, as Taylor and two others went their own way. Steven and David walk ahead, while Jen and I track behind and talk. It’s the first real conversation we’ve ever had. She and David have seen each other for a few months, but it’s nothing officially official, the “defining” millennial trait. It’s the second time we’ve ever hung out.
All of us arrive at 3:50 p.m. after a mile-and-a-half walk. The house is away from Davis’ Greek row, tucked away on a residential street, not the bustling main street of Russell Boulevard. The brothers, too, differentiate from the stereotypical frat boy: These were cowboys, more often outfitted with Stetsons and high leather boots than Chubbies and Vans. Leftover tri-tip lingers in the kitchen, so I gluttonously indulge.
Sloshball — wiffle ball con beer — awaits us. The house hosts a yearly game, so tradition isn’t to be skirted. And it breaks up the monotony of sitting and drinking. David, Jen, and I nestle on two couches, napping until the game begins. The headache and midday hangover brood. I hope the rest dispatches it.
Steven’s bark awakens us after an hour. The contest could use a jolt of energy, but none of us offer any until I exit the room to find water and fresh air. Coors Light fills up all the coolers under the late afternoon sun. The prospect of running on the makeshift diamond and chugging cheap brew almost resigns me to the bench as an onlooker. Seeing people do keg stands cinches it. The sunlight sharply daggers my eyes and head. I avoid it.
A venue change is needed to make it through the day. The atypically lackluster game ends, so we plot to grab the bus to downtown at 6. Except our line stopped running a half-hour before. Fuck. Back to hoofing it: What’s another two miles at this point? We retrace our steps back to Steven’s. David and Steven bicker about the quickest route like a middle-aged couple that has been wed for the 15 years since they met in third grade.
Steven had mentioned he wanted ice cream, and surely, a truck pulls up. Dairy ex machina. We grab a bite from the man with whom my dad once bartered plums for superhero-shaped, gumball-embedded bars. He didn’t recognize me. My ice cream sandwich half didn’t slow the throbbing upstairs and general awfulness. The sky shows hints of orange as twilight nears.
Minutes after the frozen respite, College Park comes back into view where a non-collegiate throng populates the street. They are clearly not Davis natives. “Welcome to the real Picnic Day,” Steven says. A cursory glance at the intersection reveals as much. People, other than students, alums and locals, use it as a day of debauchery, too. Davis has its eccentricities, but it’s more in the hippie, earthy way more than in the “dude sporting a 100 emoji neck tattoo” fashion.
Sadly I’m the only one to note the man whose desire to keep it 100 was so strong, he wanted everyone who looked at him to immediately know. Downtown’s sidewalks are packed. Everyone walks shoulder to shoulder or in double-file lines to pass other groups, nervously weaving between people. Every eatery must be seeing their best business of the year. Froggy’s is no exception. Today the dive only serves its food curbside, the inside for ambitious consumers. Steven, the savvy Picnic Day vet, suggests Redrum Burger, the out-of-the-way oasis for nourishment. There, a half-pound slab of beef would be salvation.
Down the street and under a tunnel lies the Promised Land and beef patty. It’s s shack with an endearing dilapidated quality and away from shiny downtown. In line, visiting Seattleites ask what the best order was. “Ostrich burger,” Steven promptly replies. “Why?” one asks. The stranger sports slim sweats and neon yellow Nikes, the J. Crew approved casual look for young males. “Because it tastes the best,” Steven responds. Not noticing the terse reply, the stranger insists on a deeper answer. Steven’s answer remains unchanged. This interaction repeats multiple times. It’s a pissing match realized by experiencing drunken bliss and the following fall that comes from rolling out of bed to the bottle at sunrise.
It’s all moot when our name is called 25 minutes later. We wander down the path to the outskirts of the Arboretum, the town’s natural sanctuary. A log off the path is the perfect size for us four to post up and feast on the excessively sized burgers. Despite being full I stuff mine down and guzzle the water in a speed that induces moderate internal shame. The inside of my skull still rattles like Floyd Mayweather’s speed bag. The extra hydration and snacking can’t stifle the crippling pounding.
The worst situation to enter with the unrelenting pain would be a cacophonous one. Naturally, we venture toward the heart of the Arboretum for the Battle of the Bands. It’s a collection of marching bands and brass torture. Each sloped creek-side path through trees increased the bands’ volume and my misery. The dream of an all-day Picnic Day slips. I lie down on the grass. My left arm covers my eyes and left ear to impede the assault. Stanford’s band plays an inspired rendition of “All of the Lights.” The bass drum thumps and thumps and thumps and thumps. The mallet thunderously strikes the skin. Not even Yeezus can save me.
I nudge Steven. “I’m heading out. I can’t be here.” The surrender comes at 8:30 p.m., five-and-a-half hours earlier than the idealist wants. The hedonistic bodily harm caught up. David and Jen decide to roll, too, and Steven follows. The crew capitulates before attending a second bar. Our first trip to campus is too late to observe spring budding and students buzzing. It’s deserted. Trash is strewn across the quad and is the sole sign of earlier life. Steven gives an impromptu tour. He, David, and Jen bound through the abandoned campus with no signs of wear. I straggle and calculate how long our return to home base will be with my labored gait.
The 20 minutes it takes to reach the familiar circular neighborhood, the familiar patch of grass where we used to play football, the familiar house and my second mother, felt like 200. Steven’s mom and stepdad are huddled around the blazing fireplace. An L.A. native is their guest. We perfunctorily discuss how much it, especially my previous hood of Silver Lake, has changed. “It used to be a dump!” he proclaims. “I love the area,” I volley back. “But it’s always nice relaxing and being home.”
I manage only a few minutes of chatting with Mom No. 2 before apologizing and conceding how imminent death feels. I say goodbye, grab the backseat in Jen’s car, and head home. The hot shower soothes the self-inflicted discomfort. I check in for my return flight the next day at 10:25 p.m. and sleep the fun part of the night away. Picnic Day 1, Will 0.
I awake at 8:40 a.m. on Sunday with a refreshed mind and full of guilt. Everyone in the crew wanted to run through all night, a more elusive feat to snatch after graduating. I text Steven, to apologize, again, and checked to see how my early exit galvanized everyone.
It didn’t. We all crashed and lived to function the following morning. The core four, along with Taylor, meet for lunch that afternoon, rehashing the day and night that was after we diverged. Usually the first to turn in, she bested all of us. I fly back to L.A. that night, but had time to shoot the shit and give farewells.
But they’re always temporary. No matter how old I get, or how far friends move, Davis reels people in; it’s no different than any other hometown where people grow through the awkward teenage phase together, bemoan teachers years later, reminisce about school trips, revel inside jokes developed at eighth-grade birthday parties. Many pine to leave during the formative years, but seize any chance to relive biking everywhere on greenbelts, drinking in backyards and parks, seeing family and friends. The intimacy of home, a true home, is inimitable and irreplaceable.
The afternoon dwindles, and I return to Mom’s. I leave my friends behind in downtown and in town. As I sit in Sacramento International, I look forward to flying back to L.A. Waiting in the airport, I stare at the terminal’s screen that tells me that my plane is delayed. All that’s on my mind is: When I can replicate this moment in LAX?