ANAHEIM, Calif. - Forget Disneyland. The happiest place on Earth sits just off the 57 Freeway and Katella Road, a maroon monument to Ducks and not mice.
The Honda Center, site of this week's NCAA West Regional, was spookily silent when I arrived just after 3 p.m. Tuesday. The Arizona Wildcats and teams from Duke, UConn and San Diego State were flying into town, and their rabid fans were probably a day away.
For just a second, I sat on the hood of my car and celebrated.
It had been exactly 7 hours and 11 minutes since I loaded a laptop bag, roller bag and three sportcoats into my Volkswagen CC, determined to drive through the desert from Tucson to California as hundreds of Wildcats fans will do today.
UA coach Sean Miller was right: The road to the Sweet 16 takes toughness. Here's a look:
8:00 a.m.: I climb into my car and punch the phrase "Arrowhead Pond" into my in-dash navigational system. Nothing. Using the search function - smartly, I punch in "Anaheim" and "sports venues" - I find out it's actually been known as the Honda Center since 2006. Things aren't starting well.
8:03 a.m.: Nav system tells me it's 476 miles to the, ahem, Honda Center. Gulp.
9:11 a.m.: Talking to my little brother on the phone. Chris has two tickets for this week's regional, meaning he must choose between taking his new wife or our mother, both of whom are San Diego State grads. And I thought I had it rough.
9:30 a.m.: Heading west on Interstate 10, I pass Tempe Diablo Stadium - spring home of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Spring training - so that's what we did that one year when Arizona missed the tournament.
11:12 a.m.: Pit stop No. 1. I exit in Quartzsite, exactly 231.7 miles into my trek, and pull into an AM/PM at the corner of Mockingbird Street and Riggles Road. The convenience store that time forgot is about the size of my living room at home and half as nice. The attendant, Clara, nods her head as The Four Lads' "Standing on the Corner" blares over an old radio. Sufficiently spooked, I buy a 1-liter Diet Coke (warm), a box of red vines, and bolt.
11:26 a.m.: The Quartzsite/Blythe corridor is the weird billboard capital of the world. One sign declares that when it comes to greenhouse gases, "They're trying to scam us - do the math!" Another offers to go to court for me if I get a traffic ticket, and a third urges me to stay sober when I'm boating.
My favorite: a baseball-themed billboard for, well, billboards. A pitcher on the mound tells me that the "best pitch is high and outside." Jeez.
11:43 a.m.: Welcome to California! I'm halfway to Honda.
11:45 a.m.: "Road work, next 100 miles." I scream like Miller after a non-call.
12:01 p.m.: The solo trip is getting to me. Outside Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, signs urge drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. I keep an eye out for guys in orange jumpsuits - I could use the company, especially if my new friend would volunteer to drive a few legs.
1:20 p.m.: More signs! "Copper Wire Theft Puts You in Jail." "Bear Arms Gun Shop Presents the Grizzly Gun Show." "Next Exit: Robotic Dinosaurs."
1:45 p.m.: I pull into a Circle K in Beaumont, a dusty town between Banning and Redlands. My Diet Coke comes in a flimsy plastic cup that squirts brown liquid onto my console every time I hit a pothole. My red vines, jammed onto a clipboard on top of the passenger's seat, are melting. I soldier on.
2:25 p.m.: Lost! A wrong turn onto Interstate 215 sends me barreling toward San Diego, not Anaheim. I pull off the freeway on Eucalyptus Avenue near Riverside and plunk new coordinates into my navigation system and iPhone simultaneously. They give me different routes. I scream like USC coach Kevin O'Neill at a hotel bar.
2:35 p.m.: Back on track, I encounter my first traffic of the day - a snarl near the 91 Freeway in Riverside. I make a mental note: The only thing worse than visiting Riverside is being stuck in traffic in Riverside.
2:55 p.m.: I jump onto something called the 91 Express Lanes, a toll road that cuts west from Corona to Anaheim. Three miles later, a flashing sign tells me the lanes are for FasTrak members only. I try to think of a way to tell my wife that we'll be getting a fine in the mail. (The solution: She'll read it in today's Star.)
3:09 p.m.: I spot Angel Stadium, home to owner Arte Moreno's ballclub. Moreno, a 1973 UA grad, made hundreds of millions of dollars selling billboards. After spending the last seven hours on the road, I understand.
3:11 p.m.: I pull into the Honda Center parking lot and pick out a choice spot in front of the ticket office. Brimming with excitement - or maybe it was the 96 ounces of Diet Coke - I smile.
This, I say out loud, is going to be fun.
Ryan Finley's road trip, by the numbers:
478 miles traveled
7:11 hours and minutes spent in the car
96 ounces of Diet Coke consumed
2 pit stops
1 wrong turn