There's nothing quite like a road trip. And unless you've ever been embedded with a youth soccer team, you'll have no idea just how "unique" the experience can be. Suffice it to say that attending tournaments in far-flung locales involves a weird Dickensian duality that is indeed the best of times and worst of times.
This past weekend, I went undercover with a Richmond Youth Soccer Association Boys U12 selects squad, as they travelled down to Washington State to take part in the annual Baker Blast tournament, an event that this year featured 186 teams from in and around the Pacific Northwest. And as tempted as I am to turn this into a tell-all, some of what happens in Bellingham stays in Bellingham.
Born and bred on Canada's "wet coast", I'm accustomed to damp and dreary weather - we live in a climate where green algae slowly invades your sundeck until you can bring out the powerwasher when summer hits: usually somewhere around the middle of August.
Never, and I mean absolutely never have I experienced torrential rain and hurricane winds like I did last weekend. At one point, play was suspended for half an hour due to lightning strikes nearby. Team-sized marquee tents were threatening to flip over, and state troopers blocked off the main road nearby. It was apocalyptic. It was Cascadian - in other words, it was almost perfect soccer weather.
Now, a little rain never hurt anyone. Nor have the massive pools of standing water, or the mud bogs that they turn into in the course of a match. But let me assure you that such conditions are ideal for the development of a biological weapon the likes of which no warped mind has ever conceived - the soggy soccer sock.
When you're on the road, or on assignment especially at a major tournament, there are a few mod cons that you'll just have to forgo temporarily, including access to laundry facilities. Like in an episode of Survivor, you have to improvise. Hotel shampoo and a generous dose of elbow grease in the bathroom sink does a surprisingly good job of removing dirt and grass stains, but it sucks at dissolving human sweat - as I would later discover.
The washing done, the room's heater/fan was called into use. Setting the temperature at a balmy 84F ensured that the socks would dry in a matter of hours. Unfortunately, it also ensured that the air in room 118 would be saturated with toe-jam steam that local hazmat units are probably still pumping out of the building.
Speaking of the building, road-trip accommodations aren't exactly of the standard that you'd hope to stay at while on vacation. After all, when you've got five matches over three days, all you're looking for is somewhere where you can sack out, store your gear, and that's about it. And our home base, affectionately known as Camp Roquefort, fit the bill nicely. Spartan, yet comfortable, central, yet backing on chain link, a couple steps up from the Bates Motel, but not quite the Best Western - somewhere in the range between budget-conscious and cash-strapped.
Dining on the road is another adventure - particularly in the US. What 11-year-old boy isn't mesmerized at the sight of that epicurean nirvana otherwise known as Taco Bell? On the way to the massive Northwest Soccer Park venue, which has something like 11 pitches, I whispered a silent prayer as we drove past Jack in the Box that my son hadn't heard that they now serve bacon flavoured shakes. Sometimes, miracles do happen.
I've lost track of how many tournaments I've been to, but I've learned that each time it's a total crap shoot. You can never really know what to expect when it comes to the flight you've been entered into, the schedule you'll face, the pitches you'll have to contend with, or the competitors (clubs) that may have entered.
Fortune was with our side in more ways than one, and the team performed very well over the three days. We met a number a great soccer families (a special thumbs up to the Shadow from Spokane) and the boys got some valuable experience, including how to douse the coach in Gatorade.
They say that victory tastes sweet - but to me it'll always smell like a damp pair of socks.