Kayangan Lake, Palalwan Islands, Philippines

Kayangan Lake, Palawan Islands, Philippines

Kayangan Lake, Palalwan Islands, Philippines

Kayangan Lake, Palalwan Islands, Philippines

Opera house in Woodstock

Woodstock Illinois: Home of Groundhog Day the movie

On the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax in the heart of Los Angeles, there are several buildings of note, primarily for their cultural relevance, but also because of their role in Hollywood.  Specifically, a diner called Johnie’s Coffee Shop.  It was in this vintage diner, designed by Architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis in 1955 that Walter Sobchak guaranteed The Dude that he could deliver a toe with polish by 3pm then petulantly declared that he would not leave until he finished his coffee in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski.

Opera house in Woodstock

Opera house in Woodstock Il, as seen in Groundhog Day

This diner was also immortalized in the films Miracle Mile and American History X not to mention dozens of commercials.   While the historic blue and white edifice might occasionally stop the curious tourist, the majority of Los Angeles roles by the iconic and abandoned diner without so much as a glance.

Living in a city like Los Angeles it is challenging to go more than a block or two without recognizing some park, house, apartment building, street sign, or even street performer from some classic film.  As a Los Angeles resident, and even as an individual who has worked in the film business most of his life, while I appreciate the cinematic nostalgia, rarely do such locations stop me in my tracks and most go unnoticed, unless of course, these popular locations cause traffic jams at which point they are simply annoying.

That slightly cynical sentiment begins and ends in Los Angeles.  Never was I more aware of that truth than this summer during a quick visit to see my friend Curtis in Woodstock, Illinois. Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould called this quaint suburb home and it was in Woodstock that Orson Wells cultivated his creative passion as a young man at Todd School for Boys.

This town is most notable, however, not for it’s comic book icon, or the king of cinema’s temporary residency but rather for its role in the classic comedy Groundhog Day.  Groundhog Day, as it turns out, was not shot on the wintery streets of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania but rather nearly 600 miles away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Without question, this unforgettable 1993 comedy about a snarky weatherman stuck in the same day in a small Pennsylvania town falls into the same category as such classics as my favorite film, The Big Lebowski. Yet while I live in Los Angeles, home to “The Dude” and could care less about passing Johnie’s Coffee Shop, in Woodstock, AKA Punxsutawney, I become the gawking, visor-wearing, traffic stopping, confused tourist that in my own city, I have come to loathe.

I find myself snapping pictures of everything.  Residents shopping at the Farmer’s Market watch as I carry on about the gazebo where Bill Murray danced with Andie MacDowell and the Opera House from where he took his fateful plunge.

I pull up a youtube video of the scene with Needle Nose Ned Bryerman and spend fifteen minutes trying to match storefronts so that I can take a picture of my friend and I recreating that moment.  It pains me when I discover that many of the storefronts have been repainted and renamed and I might not have the photo exactly right. The whole experience brings me a great and unexpected joy.

The film is about a man who lives the same day over and over but really what it is about is second chances and looking at your life differently.  I spend the rest of the day walking around ChicagoThe city, like my own swells with cinematic history and I eat up every second.

While the clogged streets of Hollywood will always be frustrating, perhaps the next time I come across some meandering Oklahoma tourists with their star maps and their fanny packs, I’ll have a little more patience.  Or maybe even better…  the next time I hit that hellish artery that is Fairfax and Wilshire, home to Johnie’s Coffee Shop and I’ll look at the blue and white diner where Walter finished his coffee in The Big Lebowski and I’ll see my life a little differently… . Maybe even more enthusiastically.

The Cedaredge Lodge

Cedaredge Lodge, Cedaredge, CO

The Cedaredge Lodge

Cedaredge Lodge

The Cedaredge sign against the backdrop of a beautiful Colorado sunset. To read more about this, click here.

Batu Caves, Malaysia

The air is so thick that I feel like I am wearing it as I climb the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves, a Hindu Temple just outside of Malaysia’s expanding metropolis, Kuala Lumpur.

The temple, which is the largest Hindu Temple outside of India is said to be an impressive one. To my right, standing an impressive one hundred forty feet tall, is a gold statue of the Hindu God Murugan. Mischievous macaque monkeys scurry up and down the steep staircase, eyeing the purses and travel bags of unsuspecting tourists.

At the top of the stairs just outside the massive cave, a swami (monastic Hindu) awaits.  He is barefoot, dressed in an ochre robe.   Even with his perfect posture, he barely comes up to the center of my chest.  He has a soft gaze and pleasant smile despite a boa constrictor that wraps itself around his neck.  He walks in my direction as I avoid eye contact.

In a calm, heavily accented voice, he reminds me that if I want to free myself from my fears, I must face them.  I point out that my journey to Malaysia had little to do with facing fears.  He tersely disagrees, then removes the snake from his neck and holds it in my direction as though it were as benign as a pink bow tie.

Somewhere on the steps below, a woman screams as a duo of monkeys steal something from her purse.  From what I could recall, meditation was a cornerstone of Hinduism, which is about being calm.  Here I am at their largest Hindu monument outside of India and monkeys are committing petty theft and assault and a ripe smelling, sparsely dressed yogi is peer-pressuring me into wearing a deadly snake like a scarf.  All this, not to mention the fact that even getting to the entrance of this “tranquil place” required me to walk up 272 stairs in 100% humidity.

“Face your fears,” the little guy says to me again.  While facing my fears, in a broader sense doesn’t really feel like what I want to be doing on my vacation to Southeast Asia, the guy’s request isn’t really that big of a deal.  He’s dedicated his whole life to religion and all he wants is for me to put a snake around my neck for a second.

I’m in a highly populated tourist spot (though on a Monday, it is less so).  He’s obviously not trying to kill me.  It should be fine.

Yet I don’t want the thing around my neck.  I want to go into the massive cavernous system and look at the temples built to the various gods and then go back to Kuala Lumpur where an evening on the town awaits.

In fact, he has made this entire day- trip a bit of a laugh.  I had hoped, in the caves, for a moment of austerity and insight.  Now I am forced to push past this guy and his pet, both of whom I am certain will be eyeing me the entire time I explore the caves, judging me.

“Well…,” he will say to the snake, as I attempt to not notice him, “that weak individual lacks the courage to face his fears,” he will say to his snake.  And the entire time I will have to pretend that he isn’t there, which will be challenging because he is half naked and will be chatting to a snake around his neck.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says to me, bringing me back to the present.  This time I am annoyed.

“I’m not,” I retort looking around.  Now I feel claustrophobic.  The snake he holds out is inches from my face.  It’s tongue flicking.  Its eyes like round dots of black ink just off its triangle shaped head, taunt me. In fact, the eyes of the thousand kaleidoscopic deities lining all the temples in the caves just beyond where I stand seem to watching me.  “I’m not afraid of a snake.  You want to hear about fear?  Last night I ate a jellyfish!  How’s that Yogi?

I think about turning to leave.  Just as escape begins to feel like my only option, something else occurs to me.

In hindsight, how I would feel about him and his snake and if  they prevented me from enjoying one of the most extra ordinary wonders of Malaysia.   Even from where I stood, I could see that what was beyond would be epic. To miss it would mean that I traveled 8,000 miles only to miss out on something because of a snake.

That would be ridiculous.  More specifically, that would be regret.  Regret is something that I fear. Realizing this, I start to laugh at myself.  The yogi sees the break in my veneer and without asking, he puts the snake around my neck and a dot of red ash on my forehead.  The snake slithers around my neck.  Its dry scaly skin tickles me and as it does.

I ask my tour guide John to take a picture and then ask the ochre-robed yogi to be in the picture with me.  He laughs and says he doesn’t want to.

“Why not?” I ask him.  “Are you afraid?”

With his soft gaze, he looks at me, and with the kind of certainty that comes only with years and years of prayer, devotion, and affirmation of life and self.  “I don’t want to,” he says.  I believe him.

He removes the snake and I head into the infamous Batu Caves.