Category Archives: Tales from the Road
Tomorrow, the epic journey—from nearly the most southeasterly point in the contiguous forty-eight to nearly the most northwesterly—comes to an end. I arrive in Seattle on the shortest day of the year, which means the days will only get longer going forward. And that’s some kind of, like, good omen, right? Besides, I know that whole thing about the sun going down at 4:19pm is just a norwester’s insider joke. Because that can’t really happen, right? Ha, ha. Good one, Seattellians.
Anyway, other than showing you this cool picture of Mt. Shasta all covered with snow …
… I thought this would be a good occasion to lay some of my Wisdom of the Road and Long-Distance Travel Axioms on you.
- At the very first gas station you see after you leave the one where you filled up your tank, the gas will be cheaper.
- If you can choose a smoking or non smoking room in a motel and you can choose what size bed you get, why can’t you choose whether or not to have a full length mirror? There’s a reason I don’t have those in my house.
- No complimentary breakfast in any motel has never received a compliment and the name is, in fact, the earliest known example of post-truth in American culture.
- In the south, the number of liquor stores is directly proportional to the number of Baptist churches.
- I understand that Texas would like to be known as the “Lone Star State,” but the only nickname that truly makes sense is the “Road Kill State.” That there are any deer left in its entire 268,581 square miles is no thanks to the people who drive the state’s highways. Let’s not even talk about the armadillo.
- There comes a time in every road trip when there is only one thing that will make you feel better, and that thing is Doritos.
- I’ve already discussed the problem of Keeping Track Of Where Things Are. What I’ve realized is that this task requires a second passenger whose job is to do nothing else. If your car is like my car, however, there is no room for this person, so you will have to strap him or her to the roof.
- The best slogan I came across anywhere on the road was in Louisiana, where it was painted on the sloping metal roof of a barn: “Root hog or die.” It reminds me of one of the first folk sayings I ever learned in Italian: “Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce.” It’s still one of my favorites, and it doesn’t have a direct translation. Well, I mean, the concept is easy enough to describe: A starving horse cannot eat until the grass grows out again, but the wait is long, the outcome is uncertain, and there’s a good chance he won’t last long enough to see it happen; in the meantime, if he’s smart, the horse had better figure out some other way to survive. It’s not precisely parallel, but “Root, hog, or die!” strikes me as close in spirit.
- I know they are hard-working men and women with a job that takes a heavy toll on their bodies and their families. I know they are the salt of the earth. I know we depend upon their labor for the products we consume, for our food, and for who knows what else….But I’m still going to say it: big-rig truckers are lousy fucking drivers. They monopolize the road, they always drive too close to the center line, they are terrifying on curves (which they always take super-wide, as if they were completely alone) and, most irritatingly, they love to play a game with other truckers in which they pass one another in s-u-p-e-r-s-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n, flooring their semis to reach the lightning speed of 57 because they can’t stand another minute of being behind that slowpoke trucker who is only going 55. Meanwhile, those of us who would really like to be going the legal speed limit of 70 have formed a convoy twenty-seven cars deep while we wait for you dicks to pull back into the right lane. I’ll say to you what Obama said to Putin: Cut it out.
Roadside-vendor fry bread and tamales may not be enough to build a life around, but they’re a nice thing to come across on any given day.
Especially this one, which began before dawn in Canyon De Chelly. Though I was awake and rarin’ to go, the rain poured down until well after 8am. I bided my time, waiting out the rain and drinking something that bore a certain resemblance to coffee from the Keurig capsule machine in my room at the Thunderbird Lodge (which, except for the coffee, I highly recommend. Oh, and except for the cafeteria; don’t eat in the cafeteria).
When I finally did venture out, it was 40°F (about 4.5°C) with a furious wind that waited until you came into the open, then jumped out and tried to gut you. I visited the three lookout points on the North Rim drive but the cold kept me from lingering.
I thought the wind, rain, and cold would discourage the lookout-point vendor men and it seemed to—except for one, who, I was amused to note, had memorized the same spiel as all the ones I had met yesterday (it starts off with, “My mother/grandmother lives down there in the canyon….”). Remembering yesterday’s crows, I stopped to look at what he had laid out on the folded white sheet spread across the hood of his car: a series of paintings on rocks featuring Kokopelli, bears, baskets of corn….
It was one of those moments when you know it’s going to be nearly impossible for either one of you to escape your roles. He’s the tore-up-looking Navajo kid illegally selling dubious “native” art (there are signs at every lookout: NO VENDING) off the hood of the car it looked like he slept in. I’m the tourist guy who, though I may not be rich, have more money to throw around than he does. Plus, I can leave. Though I would genuinely be interested in native art, I find the canned stories about the deep spiritual meaning of some pretty bad rock paintings to be as depressing as they are irritating. From his perspective, what was I doing there if I wasn’t looking for Indian flavor, which he was offering?
So … I’m sorry. I’m sorry I don’t want to buy anything. I’m sorry your life is a mess. I’m sorry for the genocide and the rez and the shit schools and how fucked you are. I’m sorry for everything, really.
But all I said was thank you.
I started back down 191, and for the rest of the day, the heavens seemed determined to hurl whatever they could at the earth. The wind increased in intensity as I headed south to meet up with I-40 near Winslow, Arizona, at which point the car was being smacked so hard by the wind that it felt like someone trying to tip a cow. Only white knuckles on the wheel kept me in a straight line. I escaped from Winslow, moving west at 75 mph, just as an immense dust storm was blowing in from the east.
The wind kept up until I’d passed Flagstaff, then gave way to rain, nearly continuous and sometimes blinding, pausing only for the occasional fog bank, all the way to Needles, where it still sounds like a hurricane outside. There is no sign of Spike.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived for four years but which I hadn’t clapped eyes on for at least a dozen, has changed. That’s no profound statement because what city hasn’t changed over the course of more than a decade? Still, Albuquerque’s change—or, more specifically, its remorseless, aleatory sprawl—left an impression.
In the evening, I went for a walk with an old friend and her beaux (and the beaux’s grumpy rez dog) along the Rio Grande, where we watched scores of Canada geese flying in honking wedges overhead and heard coyotes singing in the brush at the river’s edge.
Heading back home in the car, driving east, we saw the Sandias, glowing pink at sunset. It wasn’t even one of the most spectacular displays I’ve ever seen the Sandias put on, but it is physically impossible for them not to be beautiful. Looking at the light on the mountains, the beaux said, “No matter how hard they try to make Albuquerque ugly, they can’t entirely do it.”
The morning brought posole and sopapillas at Garcia’s, one of Albuquerque’s Reliably Great Things.
And then I headed west again, ever west, toward Chinle, Arizona, and the Canyon De Chelly National Monument.
An apparently semi-wild horse and I eyeballed each other for a long time at my first overlook on the South Rim drive (horses roam freely in the monument). At the second and the third one, young men sold tacky tourist souvenirs and Indian kitsch out of the beds of pickup trucks and, at the fourth, a different vendor-guy followed me down the trail to the lookout and said something that I can’t get out of my mind.
“I saw there were a lot of crows flying,” he said, “so I came down to see if you wanted to buy some artwork.”
There were, indeed, a lot of crows gliding across the space between us, where we stood at the rim, and the canyon floor. (And looking down on birds flying in open air is a weirdly captivating sensation.) Then there’s the possibility that I didn’t hear him correctly.
Or maybe the crows told him I wanted to buy artwork, and now I’m wondering if maybe I should have done what they said.
Something there is that doesn’t love a well-packed car.
At some point in any road trip, organization begins to unravel. In my case, entropy set in on the evening of the second day. What started out as Tetris quickly devolved into the truck from the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies.
When everything went into its place at the beginning of the trip, what I hadn’t taken into account was having to use those things. And then it became difficult to put everything back where it had come from because things weren’t as handy once they were put away.
It takes discipline of steel to keep putting things back where they originally came from. We all have the urge to spread out, but almost no one has unlimited space. There are now at least three things that I know are “in the car somewhere,” but I would be hard-pressed to lay hands on them if I had to.
The other thing you don’t really count on is the dust, which is everywhere. On a few occasions, plagued by flies, I’ve opened all the windows at 75 miles per hour to blow them out. But that doesn’t fully account for the layer of silt that covers the dashboard; the boxes, suitcases, and bins in the back; and, presumably, me.
Dirty clothes are another problem. There never seems to be any good place to put them. They can’t go back into the suitcase with the clean clothes, but if you put them in a bag by themselves, waiting for the next motel with a laundromat, that bag is one more thing that takes up space in a car in which space has been allocated with determination if not necessarily with foresight.
Anyway, at the beginning, you spend a lot of time thinking about what might be useful on the road and, depending upon the vividness of your ability to imagine both contingency and catastrophe, this also means that the well-packed car is claustrophobic. Things that might be useful tend to suck up your space. And that is why I am traveling with a corkscrew, a tape measure, extra packing tape, a first-aid kit, and a bottle of gin. So far, I’ve only used one of them.
The things you pack for a long road trip—and what happens to them as the trip progresses—share certain metaphorical similarities with the things that turn up in a house being emptied in preparation for a move. As you sift out all of the belongings that are truly important or that you know, without ambivalence, should be kept, you find yourself with a collection of random objects, the flotsam of your life, whose purpose you are not always sure of and whose provenance you may no longer remember: Postcards. Coupons from the grocery store. A refrigerator magnet from the plumber. Random screws. A tube of glue. Extra shoelaces that you’ve never used.
A lot of the debris that float to the surface at the end of a move are things that you’ve never used, but which you might. Some day.
Food was especially hard to throw away. After the movers had come and gone, I was semi-paralyzed by the small amount of leftover food in the fridge. At one point, I found myself standing at the sink, trying to finish off a half-jar of sweet gherkins. I’d made it through two-and-a-half when I realized that I didn’t really want pickles. But it isn’t as though you can ask a friend to take half a jar of pickles off your hands, and so I threw them away. They joined a stick of butter. A bottle of salad dressing. Half a loaf of not-very-good bread that was in the freezer against the possibility that I would one day turn it into stuffing.
I understand why people hoard—or, at least, in this moment I think I do. I understand why old people die with their houses full of useless things. People think hoarders can’t let go of the past. I think hoarders are thumbing their noses at the future.
Everything they keep will come in handy someday. The day will come when they will want to find an article in those old newspapers, cook something from a recipe in one of those old magazines, see a photograph again, sew a button on a shirt, put something in a plastic sack. Their “stuff” represents a stake in “some day.” It is an act of defiance against “the end.” The day will come.
The idea that things will be useful someday, will have a purpose, is like throwing a grappling hook into the future and hoping it will catch, giving you both something to climb over on and something to keep you tethered so you don’t float entirely away.
Filament, filament, filament said Walt, willing the ductile anchor to hold.
Some day the silver cord will break, / And I no more as now shall sing went the old hymn by Fanny J. Crosby, who seemed to have written most of our church’s hymnal. I remember hearing one of my teachers sing that particular song, so sweetly. This is fifty years ago.
There will always be a some day. There will always come a day when things are useful. Because there will always come a day.
Which is undeniably true, right up until it isn’t.