The Movie Diary

Into the great wide open

By Dom Cioffi

I sidled up to the bar and ordered the cheapest draft beer available. After all, I was a college student on a very strict budget. The $15 I had in my pocket had to last me all night, and that had to include food later in the evening.

It was still early, but I knew in a matter of an hour or so a slew of college kids would pack the barroom to capacity.

I took advantage of the bowl of popcorn the bartender placed in front of me and focused my attention toward the TV screen on the side wall.

After several minutes I sensed some movement and turned to see a buddy throwing his coat over the barstool next to me as he prepped to order his own beverage.

This was a guy I had known on the periphery throughout my first three years of college. We knew each other’s names after attending many of the same classes and parties, but we had never really hung out closely.

We exchanged niceties, commenting on the game and what the night might have to offer.

After some more small talk, the conversation turned toward the impending summer break. School was ending in a few weeks and as juniors we were all contemplating what our plans would be during our final summer prior to senior year and adulthood.

I explained that, more than likely, I would be heading back to my hometown to get a job painting houses like I had during so many other summer vacations.

He listened attentively, shaking his head and sipping his beer as I explained that the work would be dull and boring, but it paid well and afforded me a stress-free break.

After I was finished, we sat there quiet for a moment until my friend casually stated, “You should come with me.”

I bit at the obvious leading statement (mostly to be polite) and inquired what he had planned.

“I’m going to California as soon as my finals are over,” he stated. “My sister is letting me use her apartment in Palo Alto for free. I was thinking about driving across country and hanging there for a few months before coming back for our senior year.”

What occurred next has only happened to me a handful of times in my life.

Almost instantly my mind rationalized the idea with spurts of fantastic imagery: cruising the middle America highways; lounging on the Pacific beaches; fraternizing with West Coast blonds; touring the wineries of Napa Valley; reaching for foul balls over the railing at Giants Stadium.

Before I knew what I was saying, my mouth uttered the words, “I’m in.”

Two weeks later I was riding shotgun in a used Chrysler Fifth Avenue and ripping across Interstate 80, the main highway corridor to the West Coast.

I’d like to tell you that the trip out was carefree and wild, but in reality we were both nervous wrecks. The car was anything but reliable; we had to stay at sketchy motels due to limited funds; and the weather on the week we traveled was horrible.

We had initially planned to hit several national monuments as we traversed the country, but after detouring out of our way to see the less-than-spectacular Niagara Falls (remember, we were only 19), we decided that a beeline to California was in our best interests.

We ultimately made it to our destination, which turned out to be slightly less than stellar. The apartment was located on the edge of a fairly dangerous neighborhood so we were in constant fear of burglaries and muggings.

After a few weeks and several ill-fated attempts at meeting girls, we started to wonder why we bothered to drive all the way across country to sit in our living room to watch sitcoms.

Luckily, a local kid we worked with took pity on us and pulled us into his group of friends. Almost overnight we were part of a tight-knit group who were almost purely focused on having fun. So while we never made it to those wineries or that baseball stadium, we did experience some amazing low-rent beach parties and long-lasting friendships.

Surviving that summer was an overall struggle, but the experience made me stronger and helped me appreciate everything I had back at home.

This week’s feature, “The Martian,” is also about a journey full of struggles and dangerous situations. However, this trip is to a location a few miles farther away than California.

Starring Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, “The Martian” places man against planet in an epic battle of intelligence, perseverance and bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

There’s a reason this film is number one at the box office: it’s big, fun, exciting and wildly entertaining. Forget that some of the science doesn’t add up and you’ll find yourself fully enveloped in an engaging sci-fi storyline.

An out of this world “B+” for “The Martian.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at

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