DAY 1 – March 14 by wulinqing

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									DAY 1 – Sunday, March 14
START: Sayreville, NJ
END: Staunton, VA
MILEAGE: 385 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Baltimore/Washington traffic; Skyline Drive at night

After over three years of anticipation and several months of serious planning, we finally
got underway… at 2:00 in the afternoon. We had planned to get on the road by noon, but
who are we kidding? Leaving Lauren’s parents’ house is an involved process when
we’re only leaving after church, nevermind leaving for an entire month.

The primary goal of today was to just get out of this area. We didn’t need to spend time
sightseeing between here and Virginia because really, that’s all in our backyard. We can
see Washington, DC or Baltimore anytime. The only real road-trippy thing we had
planned for today was to get onto Skyline Drive, which eventually becomes the Blue
Ridge Parkway. We had a motel reservation in Staunton, Virginia, about a third of the
way down the state.

Both Lauren and I were nervous but couldn’t really figure out why. For Lauren, I
suppose it was that feeling of the unknown – that and nervousness over being seven
months pregnant. And I suppose it was the same for me as well. I wasn’t pregnant or
anything, but while I considered myself to be an old hat at road trips, this one was
different. There were no firm plans. We had points along the way that we knew we
wanted to hit, but other than that, the next month was a clean slate. We pretty much
wouldn’t know where we’d be more than a day or two in advance. Most of all, I guess I
was nervous because I was finally doing it. I was finally taking the road trip I’d always
wanted to take. I was finally taking the dream trip of a lifetime. I was nervous that it
would be a disappointment.

The trip started off with a little naiveté on our part. How could I have been so stupid as
to think we would get past D.C. before dark? Because of work, I’d driven down this way
enough to know that traffic is utterly ridiculous in this area of the country. By the time
we crossed into Virginia, daylight was gone. What we should have done was just stayed
on the interstate, cleared this area and gotten into Staunton as fast as possible then go to
bed early and wake up refreshed. Instead we made our way to Skyline Drive and began
our ascent up the Appalachian Mountains.

Skyline Drive meanders along the tops of the Virginia Appalachians, through
Shenandoah National Park. There was nobody manning the entrance station when we
arrived around seven o’clock, but there was still a sign asking you to pay ten dollars for
entry. There wasn’t a gate blocking the way, just a sign saying the area was being
monitored. I doubted very much however that anybody would bust our balls for not
paying. Lauren and I looked at each other and debated, finally agreeing to pay the
entrance fee anyway. It goes to the national park service I reasoned, so really, the money
wasn’t wasted.
Our time, however, was. Skyline Drive is, I’m sure, a beautiful scenic route. But you
don’t really get much of that at night. It was neat to look down and see the lights of little
towns along the valley floor and imagine what the scenery must look like. Of course,
with the way the road bent and weaved, coupled with the fact that the deer far
outnumbered people this time of night, I pretty much had to keep my eyes where the
headlights were pointed.

After about two hours of very slow progress, Lauren and I both agreed that we should get
off Skyline Drive and make our way back to the interstate and into Staunton. The real
trip would begin tomorrow.


DAY 2 – Monday, March 15 (My Birthday)
START: Staunton, VA
END: Elkin, NC
MILEAGE: 274 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Blue Ridge Parkway; home cookin; Carolina fog

The Blue Ridge Parkway was one result of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The idea
to build a road connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky
Mountains National Park in North Carolina was originally conceived in the 1920’s, but
wasn’t implemented until 1935 out of a need to put people to work during the
Depression.

On the map, the BRP certainly looks like the shortest distance between these two points,
but this isn’t a road to take if you’re in a hurry. The speed limit never goes above
45m.p.h., and for good reason. The road bends and curves, often quite sharply and
without warning. And really, this isn’t a road you’d want to go fast on anyway. The
parkway concentrates on scenery by avoiding towns and commercial areas. Billboards
and commercial traffic are also prohibited on of the Parkway. What you’re left with are
469 miles of breathtaking views as well as dozens of roadside exhibits along the way.

Lauren and I got underway around 10:00am from Staunton after our free continental
breakfast and were on the Parkway within a half hour. We stuck in one of the CD’s I’d
burned in preparation for the trip, which I’d labeled Bluegrass Nostalgia. The first song
on the CD was, fittingly enough, John Denver’s Country Roads.

“Almost Heaven… West Virginia…Blue Ridge Mountains…Shenandoah River…”

Several times Lauren and I would just start giggling to each other, “We’re on our road
trip!” We pulled off at the several turnouts to take pictures of the vistas – as well as to let
Lauren pee. Everybody we knew questioned the sanity of this trip. “You’re going to
make Lauren sit in a car all day while she’s seven months pregnant?” They all apparently
had the same notion in their heads of Lauren cramped in a car for fifteen hours a day
while we drove. They just couldn’t seem to grasp the fact that we would be stopping
often, giving her plenty of opportunities to walk around, stretch her legs, and of course,
pee.

We actually decided to start a “pee log” and put a tick mark down for every time we had
to stop for no other reason than to let Lauren pee. On this first day, she made us stop ten
times. And that doesn’t even include the times she peed while we were getting gas or
eating. Of course, since the Parkway doesn’t pass through any commercial areas (i.e. no
places with bathrooms), Lauren had to do her business on the side of the road. For these
occasions, we kept a roll of toilet paper in the back next to a special Ziplock bag labeled,
“DO NOT USE FOR FOOD.” Lauren got quite good at doing her business quickly and
efficiently on the side of the road while I stood as lookout. Our code word for “Car
Approaching” was “TIPPYTOE!” Pat yourself on the back if you got the Seinfeld
reference.

Among the exhibits we stopped at along the Parkway were the James River Kanawha
Canal and Lock as well as Mabry Mill, the most photographed spot on the Parkway. The
mill is such a classic representation of quaint rural life that other states like Connecticut
and Iowa have actually put it on their own postcards, claiming it for themselves.

Doing this trip in March had both good and bad implications. The good thing was that
the tourist season hadn’t started anywhere we went. There weren’t mobs of annoying
people or insane amounts of traffic. The downside was that since the tourist season
hadn’t started, many of the touristy places were still closed for the season. There were a
lot of exhibits along the BRP that, during peak season, would have had interactive
demonstrations to go along with them. In March, all we could do was look around and
read the signs. But that was just fine with us.

Lauren and I had packed a big box of food in the trunk that contained such staples as trail
mix, Goldfish®, banana chips, Life® Cereal, granola bars, etc. Those were just fine for
snacking as we drove, but by mid-afternoon, we were ready for some real food. The
biggest commitment Lauren and I made on this trip was to avoid the interstates as much
as possible. On the heels of that commitment came another. We would avoid major
chain restaurants as well and instead, patronize as many local establishments as we could.
We pulled out a gift from Lauren’s brother Chris and his wife Susan: ROADFOOD by
Jane and Michael Stern – “a coast-to-coast guide to 500 of the best barbecue joints,
lobster shacks, ice cream parlors, highway diners and much more.”

That’s how we found Stone’s Cafeteria in Christiansburg, Virginia. We had to leave the
Parkway and hop on the interstate for about ten miles or so to get there. The word
“cafeteria” certainly is an adequate term to describe Stone’s. You start off by grabbing a
tray, napkin and silverware, then head to the buffet counter where the day’s eats are
sitting in warm pans behind glass. You tell the woman behind the counter what you want
and she scoops it onto your plate with a big metal spoon.
We felt a lot like outsiders, unsure of ourselves as we tried to figure out how the process
was supposed to work, where the trays and utensils were, and of course trying to figure
out just how much each item was by the chalkboard hanging to the right of the food line.
It didn’t help that none of the pans were labeled, so we had to continually ask the lunch
lady, er, Stone’s employee what everything was.

But the slight embarrassment was worth it. I ordered up some meatloaf with potatoes,
squash and vegetables while Lauren opted for a hearty helping of barbequed pork. This
is what they mean when they talk about “home cookin’.” And no road diner experience
would be complete without a slice of homemade pie. I had blueberry while Lauren had
lemon meringue. Almost heaven.

We made our way back to the Blue Ridge and continued south. Our unrealistic goal had
been to make it all the way to Blowing Rock, North Carolina by late afternoon. By the
time we stopped for lunch at Stone’s, we altered our goal to just make it into North
Carolina by nightfall. The sun had set by the time we crossed the state line and we began
our descent to find a motel.

That’s when the thickest, most ridiculous fog that I have ever experienced rolled in. I’ve
driven in plenty of fog in my life. Spring and fall mornings and nights in Maine are
notorious for their fog. But it only meant that you had to drive a little slower and put on
your low beams for better visibility. None of the usual techniques helped coming down
through the fog in North Carolina.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I could only see about ten or so feet beyond the front of
the car. We had no idea which way the road bent more than that much in front of us.
Even the headlights of oncoming cars would seem to simply materialize out of the mist
less than fifty feet ahead. All I could do was lean forward, ride the brake and let the
centerlines guide me. Here and there, the even centerlines would disappear for a few
dozen feet, leaving me to dead reckon by just the blacktop. Of course right behind us,
riding our butt was a pickup truck, no doubt getting agitated by how slow we were
driving.

We drove thirty miles through this pea soup before we finally found a motel, The Elk Inn
in Elkin. We had my birthday dinner at the restaurant next door and I made the mistake
of ordering fish. How could I forget that in the south, fish, any fish is served one way
only: deep-fried. I HATE fried fish. I only ate a few bites before losing my appetite.
Lauren on the other hand was quite happy to be in the south because this is the only area
of the country apparently where they still sell the soda Mello Yello.


DAY 3 – Tuesday, March 16
START: Elkin, NC
END: Cookeville, TN
MILEAGE: 403 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Boone; BBQ; Sneedville; hardcore Appalachia

Oatmeal. What a good idea. Lauren and I bought a couple of boxes of oatmeal for this
trip. It was a quick, easy and cheap breakfast, this we knew. But I was surprised at just
how GOOD oatmeal actually tastes on the road. On a slightly damp and chilly morning,
oatmeal really hits the spot. Lauren and I started off this morning the way we would start
off many mornings, emptying a packet or two of oatmeal into a Tupperware or paper cup,
then walking into a gas station, adding hot water, swiping a plastic spoon, buying an
orange juice to alleviate our guilt, and enjoying a nice warm, tasty and nutritious
breakfast. Lauren’s oatmeal of choice was Maple Brown Sugar while I opted for the
Fruit-n-Cream variety pack.

While we didn’t plot out our route to the letter on this trip, we did highlight several places
on the map that we wanted to see. Blowing Rock, North Carolina was supposed to be our
first “scheduled” stop. Blowing Rock is a cliff overlooking the John’s River Gorge and is
so named because of the strong updraft winds that can actually cause lightweight objects
to be blown upwards rather than down. In Native American legend a Cherokee brave
flung himself off the cliff, choosing to die rather than be separated from his Chickasaw
lover. Instead of falling to his death, the winds lifted him up and blew him back into the
arms of his lover.

Good news for him. Unfortunately for us, during the off-season, the site of his triumph is
only open Fridays through Mondays. We arrived on a Tuesday. Lauren and I sat in the
parking lot for a few minutes stymied, disappointed. Our first planned stop and it was
closed. We decided maybe we could check out Butler, an underwater town nearby in
Tennessee, but a call to the local chamber of commerce revealed that they no longer
provided tours of the submerged city. The day was already dreary and rainy and we had
a hard time staying positive. Even though the bulk of what we’d had planned for the day
was now out of the question, we had to force down that feeling of defeat and just say,
“Oh well.” It was tough, but all in all we were successful.

Continuing west into Tennessee, we stopped in the town of Boone, North Carolina, home
to Appalachian State University. Named after Daniel, the most famous Boone of all, this
was a very cool, hip little town with an interesting mix of lifestyles. On the one hand, it’s
a very vibrant college town so there are plenty of local bars, frat houses and record stores.
Being this close to nature also brings out a noticeable “hippie” element to the area with
their own supply of shops selling tarot cards and hemp jewelry. On the other hand,
you’re also waist deep in the Bible belt, so there is a strong Christian influence as well.
It’s really strange, yet really cool to see these two different philosophies and lifestyles
living close together in apparent harmony, with head shops and churches occupying the
same street space.

We took winding U.S. 321 through the mountains into Tennessee, and were instantly in
the depths of Appalachia. Growing up in rural Maine, I’ve seen my share of shacks.
Usually they were just old barns, garages or storage sheds that the owners didn’t feel like
spending the time or money to tear down, so they’d just leave them to rot and eventually
fall down of their own devices. Every town had a few of these shacks. But here, in this
part of Tennessee, they were everywhere. On the side of the road, back in the woods, up
on an overlook, there were literally dozens of these old rundown buildings looking like
they came straight out of the movie Deliverance. And not just old abandoned
workspaces either. Lots of these shacks, it was obvious, had at one time been houses.
The former owners had moved on, abandoning their digs years, maybe even decades ago.
And yet, in spite of their exterior appearances, many of these structures still seemed
impervious to rain, wind and termites, and I daresay many of them will still be upright in
another twenty or thirty years. Just what kind of wood did they use in these buildings
that makes them so durable I wonder? I guess they really just don’t make them like they
used to.

Since none of the attractions that we wanted to see that day were open, our next
scheduled stop was for lunch at Ridgewood Barbeque in Bluff City, Tennessee, another
suggestion from ROADFOOD. According to the book, “If it is your first time, you will
most likely get lost looking for it.” We didn’t disappoint. Ridgewood isn’t on the main
road and if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never think to make the turn onto Old
Route 19E. We did know to make the turn and we still went the wrong way. It took
almost a half-hour, but we got our bearings back and it was all worth it.

A lot of barbeque restaurants I’ve been to give you a few pieces of ribs and cartilage that
they cook into leather, then slap a thin layer of pasty flavorless “sauce” onto and charge
you twenty bucks for the whole thing. At Ridgewood they hickory cook their pork in a
nearby pit then slice up the succulent meat wafer thin and bathe it all in a salty-sweet and
oh-so-flavorful sauce. They serve it up with homemade cornbread and coleslaw and,
being in the south, offer “sweet tea” to wash it all down. Lauren and I split a pork platter
for nine bucks and left full and supremely satisfied. I also ordered a crock of beans
which they simmer in their delicious BBQ sauce and lace with tender pieces of pork. Our
stomachs just couldn’t expand fast enough.

After lunch, it was on to Sneedville.

My reasons for wanting to visit Sneedville, Tennessee were admittedly juvenile. I’d read
about Sneedville in the book, LOST CONTINENT by Bill Bryson and decided I wanted
to go there for the same reason he did: to see the Melungeons. Melungeons are a group
of people who apparently only live in this one specific area of the country. They have
distinctly European features, blue eyes, fair hair, lanky build, yet their skin is “Negro
dark.” Apparently nobody truly knows how these people came to be or to where their
official heritage can be traced. Many theorize that Melungeons are an amalgamation of
White, Black and Indian as well as one or more sixteenth and seventeenth century
Mediterranean peoples, including the Portuguese, Turks and Moors. A more romantic
theory is that the Melungeons are actually the descendants of the lost Roanoke colony.

I just wanted to take a look at these people and see if their appearances were as striking as
I’d read.
We drove up into the Clinch Mountains via twisting Route 70 with a sense of foreboding.
We were heading into deep, hardcore Appalachia. We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all
cracked the jokes. This is the area of the country where the Civil War never ended,
where fathers sleep with their daughters, where they don’t take kindly to strangers and
where they’d just as soon make you squeal like a pig as shoot you in the back.

I have never been so nervous because of a license plate as I was driving toward
Sneedville. We took Lauren’s Mazda Protégé, which was still registered in New Jersey.
That license place made me self-conscious all throughout this trip. Had it been a
Pennsylvania or a Maine plate, I wouldn’t have thought twice. Maybe it’s all just in my
head, but I believe there is a connotation that goes along with the state of New Jersey that
is unlike any other state in the union. Every time I got confused at a turn and had to
change my mind at the last second, suddenly I wasn’t just a confused tourist. I was the
dumbass from New Jersey. Anytime I accidentally cut somebody off, I wasn’t just a bad
driver. I was the jackass from New Jersey. I felt that way in every rural area we passed
through. “Don’t mind us, we’re just from New Jersey,” became a common phrase uttered
in our car.

Heading up the mountains toward Sneedville, that license plate felt like a big yellow
target on my back. I couldn’t help but imagine the xenophobic locals swarming the car
and dragging Lauren and me out, saying, “So, y’all’ve come to stare you at some
Melungeons ain’t ‘cha?” I was taking the winding mountain roads with no guard-rails as
fast as I dared and yet there were still cars lining up behind me, all of them no doubt
sneering at this nosy city slicker from New Jersey.

Looking back now, I know all my fears were just the result of too many bad movies and
an overactive imagination. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that that combination
played tricks with my mind. Most people didn’t even give us a second glance as we
pulled over to let them pass.

We got to Sneedville and met no Melungeons, just a couple of very nice white people at
the local gas station where we stopped to grab a Coke and let Lauren pee. They asked us
how far along Lauren was. When we told them we were from New Jersey on a road trip,
they only smiled and said, “Oh that’s nice.” We paid for our purchase and began our
descent back out of the mountains with no Melungeon sightings.

The word “Melungeon” is of Arabic descent and literally means, “cursed soul.” It was
originally used as a racial epithet on the same derogatory level as “nigger.” Upon later
research, I discovered that after several hundred years of intermarrying with people of all
races, the distinct Melungeon “look” has all but faded. More often than not, you would
never be able to tell if somebody was a Melungeon just by looking at them. Now,
“Melungeon” is more a word that its people call themselves with pride as a reminder of a
common and unique albeit shrouded in mystery heritage – albeit, one shrouded in
mystery.
After Sneedville, we had originally intended on continuing along the meandering scenic
mountain roads on our way into Nashville. But as the sun started to set on this day we
decided that between the Blue Ridge Parkway and our adventures today, we had seen
enough Appalachia. It was time to move on. We hopped on the interstate and drove
about half the distance to Nashville, the next day’s destination. We checked into our
economy hotel and changed rooms when the first one smelled like cat piss. The next one
had no refrigerator or remote for the TV. Oh well, what do you expect for forty bucks?


DAY 4 – Wednesday, March 17 (Saint Patrick’s Day)
START: Cookeville, TN
END: Clarkesville, TN
MILEAGE: 150 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Nashville; Ryman Auditorium; Amy Loftus

We drove into Nashville just before noon, opting to listen to the radio rather than CD’s.
One thing I’ve always loved about road trips was sampling the local radio stations in
different areas of the country. And the south is by far my favorite place to listen. It’s not
unusual to hear Bon Jovi intermixed with Garth Brooks on the stations down here. They
also play music that you don’t normally hear in areas of the country where all the media
has been bought up by big corporate conglomerates. As we entered the city limits, a real
yee-haw solid green country song came on the radio and I cranked it up. I had never
heard it before, but it sounded like old school country, the way country sounded before
the Shania Twains of the world started crossing over into Top 40. I said to Lauren, “This
is why I like the south. They’d never play a song that sounds this ‘country’ in
Philadelphia.” Little did we know at the time that that song, “Redneck Woman” would
soon rocket to number one on the charts.

Lauren and I headed over to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I don’t know why I
assumed there would be no entrance fee. We considered paying the sixteen-dollar per
person admission, but decided against it. I had really only gotten into country music in
the last few years and figured I probably wouldn’t know most of the people immortalized
inside. We opted instead to head into the attached music store and buy some good
country CD’s for a lot cheaper than they sell them in Sam Goody up north. We picked up
a Pam Tillis CD, a best of Aaron Tippin, and a Lucinda Williams album named
(appropriately enough), “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

After that we headed over to Ryman Auditorium. Most famous for being the home of
“The Grand Ole Opry” for over thirty years, this auditorium was originally erected as a
Christian tabernacle for the spiritual edification of Nashville. Reverend Samuel Jones
had often preached in Nashville against the signs of immorality, including dancing,
gambling, cigarettes and especially alcohol – all the things that helped Thomas Ryman
make money. Ryman, a successful businessman and owner of several Nashville saloons,
decided one night in May of 1885 to go heckle Jones with a few friends at a local tent
revival. Instead of breaking the reverend’s concentration, Ryman found himself taken in
by the message and became a saved man. He soon vowed that Reverend Jones would
never have to preach under a tent again.

Originally erected under the name Union Gospel Tabernacle, Ryman intended the
auditorium’s use to be “strictly religious, non-sectarian and non-denominational and for
the purpose of promoting religion, morality and the elevation of humanity to a higher
plane and more usefulness.” Until his death in 1904 and the death of Reverend Jones two
years later, the space was rented out primarily to churches and traveling revivals.

Over the next several years and under new management, the auditorium’s legendary
acoustics, which were said to rival even Carnegie Hall’s, drew secular music acts from all
over the world. But it was a local variety show on Nashville’s WSM radio that would
ultimately immortalize the Ryman in music history. From 1943 to 1974 “The Grand Ole
Opry”, the longest continuously running show in country music history, called the Ryman
its home.

When the Opry found its own digs across town, the Ryman continued in a limited role as
a performance venue but ultimately had to shut its doors due to a lack of revenue. An
$8.5 million renovation, completed in1994 restored the Ryman to its status as one of the
premiere performance spaces in the country. It now functions as a museum by day and a
live music venue, voted best in Nashville, by night.

Lauren and I paid our eight dollars per person and walked around the Ryman for over an
hour. We sat in the pews, stood on the stage and looked at all the Grand Ole Opry
paraphernalia in the wings. Backstage, the roadies were setting up for a Lucinda
Williams concert later that week. We made sure to stop by the gift shop on the way out
and I bought my first shotglass of the trip.

After that, Lauren and I spent the bulk of our day walking up and down Broadway, the
touristy section of town. It’s Nashville’s equivalent of L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard,
New Orleans’ Bourbon Street and New York’s Times Square. It’s fun, touristy, and it
captures as much of the city’s clichés as it can in one spot.

The feel of music’s future is truly alive here. Just from glancing through the local
alternative newspapers, it’s obvious why Nashville is known as “Music City, USA”.
Nashville is to musicians what Hollywood is to actors. The city functions as a service to
all the musicians who come here to “be discovered.” And those musicians are the very
lifeblood of the city. They are what gives Nashville its soul and sense of purpose. Every
night and day there are countless venues offering live music and open mics. Even on a
Wednesday afternoon, there were at least a dozen honkytonks open on Broadway with a
band or solitary guitar player performing to both crowded and empty rooms. Many a
famous singer – country, rock and otherwise – got their starts playing in the innumerable
bars and clubs around this city.

Lauren and I took a seat inside The Bluegrass Inn and watched an absolutely adorable
band called Silk & Saddle perform. This was not your typical bluegrass band. First of
all, not a one of them was older than eighteen. According to their website, all four
members, the Carters, are siblings. The two oldest girls, Scarlett and Amber-Dawn
played mandolin and fiddle respectively. Each was dressed in low-rider pants and midriff
shirts, accessorized by piercings, dark eye makeup and several dozen black bracelets. It
struck me that they wouldn’t look out of place in a goth band. The lead guitar player,
Frank sported a Beatles-esque mop-top, while the youngest member of the band, Kat
appeared on stage in hot pink sandals, rainbow tights and could easily have been
mistaken for Avril Lavigne. We only caught the end of their set, but they were
incredible. So much raw talent. Frank could pick a tune on his guitar faster than most
anybody I’ve ever seen. We bought one of their CD’s before leaving the bar.

One of my plans for this trip was to keep a graffiti log wherever we went. I found my
first entry in the Bluegrass Inn’s men’s room: an epitaph to Timothy McVeigh, and a
lament that with him gone, who will be left to stand up against an “increasingly
communist government like the one we have.” The reflection was surrounded by several
retorts of “Fuck you.”

I learned on my second road trip, when I visited cities like Chicago, Memphis and New
Orleans, that you can’t truly get the feel of a city and understand its soul in just one day.
Even a weeklong visit will at best only show you the touristy stuff. I firmly believe that
to truly take a city in, you have to live there for at least a year. Only then do you learn
the local haunts, adopt the local lingo and see a city for what it really is – good and bad.
After all, to love a city is to love it for its flaws as much as anything else. Nashville was
no different. I understood this going in and we had a great time, but I left with a feeling
of wanting more. Nashville is definitely a city I could see myself living in.

The overriding reason Lauren and I wanted to come to Nashville was to see Amy Loftus.
Amy is one of the many singer-songwriters trying to make it in Nashville’s music scene.
I had first seen Amy perform in a little club back in Los Angeles and her soaring to-the-
rafters voice and on-stage charisma drew me in instantly. After I left L.A. we kept in
loose touch and when I told her Lauren and I would be passing through Nashville on the
road trip, we made plans to meet up and watch her perform.

This was the first time Amy had ever met Lauren. Even though I had gone to see her
perform the couple times she’d been in our neck of the woods, Lauren had always had
school or work on those nights. We’d often joked that Amy must think I’m conjuring
this Lauren person out of thin air. The eventual greeting was like that of old friends.

We met up with Amy at her cute little Nashville house and there were hugs all around.
She introduced us to her dog, Koda, then we loaded up and followed Amy (whose car
sports a bumper sticker that reads: “God bless the freaks.”) over to East Nashville where
she was playing at a club called Hobo Joe’s, a small, out of the way place in what seemed
to me to be a residential area. From the outside it seemed kind of shady and dark. I was
almost tempted to ask, “Are you sure this place is safe?” But inside, my tensions eased.
Hobo Joe’s (which has since closed its doors) was a very cool, hip little bar with low
lighting, couches, magazines like Maxim and Guitar Player on the tables, black lights and
posters and of course, a little stage with decent acoustics.

Amy was performing in a type of set called a “round”, something I’d never heard of
before, but which is apparently quite common in Music City. I’m not sure if it’s done the
same way in every club in Nashville, but at Hobo Joe’s, there were three mics and stools
on stage, one for each performer. One song at a time, each musician takes turns singing
their material. It’s a cool, intimate little performance where each performer feeds off of
and fuels the others. Tonight was “Writers Night” which meant it was specific to
musicians performing their own songs rather than singing their renditions of somebody
else’s work.

At Hobo Joe’s, they did a set with the ladies first, followed by a set for the men.
Apparently the third singer didn’t show up for Amy’s set, so it was just her and another
woman, which meant each of each of them got to sing an extra song. And that was just
fine with us.

Amy’s performance was incendiary. The last time I’d seen her play was in a club in New
York six months before, and it hadn’t been the Amy I remembered. She seemed too
timid or something and just didn’t let loose with her voice, her most powerful instrument.
Her performance at Hobo Joe’s made me remember what had drawn me to her music in
the first place. She’d improved a lot since that first time I’d seen her in L.A., becoming
much freer with her voice, able to let go and riff and scat and experiment with her own
songs without missing a beat. There is a much more noticeable confidence and charisma
to her now that I believe the rest of the world will see eventually.

After the ladies’ set, the three of us watched a couple rounds of the men before sneaking
out to dinner. We ate at some Mexican restaurant that Amy knew of and proceeded to
have one of the most stimulating conversations of my life. It’s amazing how certain
people can just open up and talk freely about anything with people they hardly know.
Amy, Lauren and myself are three of those people. We talked about everything from the
road trip, to faith and God, to babies and midwifery. We talked like old dear friends
until, reluctantly, the evening had to come to an end. The staff was cleaning up and the
restaurant was closing. We said half-a-dozen good-byes and hugged several times before
getting into our separate cars and heading to the interstate. Lauren and I drove about an
hour north of the city and spent the night near the Kentucky border.


DAY 5 – Thursday, March 18
START: Clarkesville, TN
END: Troy, IL
MILEAGE: 350 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Land Between the Lakes; sketchy BBQ
From a purely road trip perspective, I was extremely proud of us today. After Nashville,
our next “scheduled” destination wasn’t until Kansas. I figured we’d just make a beeline
through the southern half of Missouri until we got there. It was Lauren who suggested,
“Hey, it’s only a couple hundred miles north of here. Why don’t we head up to Saint
Louis and see the Arch?” Eh… I honestly wasn’t too revved up about visiting the Arch
for reasons I’ll explain later, but I figured, why not. When else would we be this close to
it after all?

So we plotted our route on the spot. I ran my finger along the map and saw something
promising. A road marked by green dots, indicating a scenic route, passing between two
bodies of water, called “The Land Between the Lakes.” Perfect. That was what this
road trip was all about. Not knowing where we’d go or what we’d see on any given day,
and not marking out a set route in advance. I had been worried that we didn’t have it in
us, and that no matter how much we tried to fight it we were people who needed too
much structure to our plans. This day proved that we had that vagabond spirit inside us.

The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is an inland peninsula, the largest
of its kind in the United States, which runs between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley,
spanning the Tennessee/Kentucky border. It is the focal point of the entire region’s
$600million tourism industry. The road traversing the peninsula is called “The Trace.”
Lauren and I took our time passing through. The temperature was a warm sixty degrees –
not bad for the middle of March – and we drove with the windows down, listening to all
the CD’s we’d bought the day before. We’d stocked up on peanut butter, jelly and bread
in the morning so we pulled over a couple times to make sandwiches. PB&J – another
great road trip meal. Here and there we stopped to take a picture next to one of the many
natural and historical attractions along the way and even paid the three-dollar fee to drive
around the Elk and Bison Prairie.

We learned that “prairie” really was a relative term these days. Back in the days of the
Native American Indians, this whole area was nothing but grassland. Every year, the
Indians would burn the fields, eliminating overgrowth and attracting grazing herds to the
area. When the white man came along, they ignored the advice of these “uncivilized”
people and the area soon became almost completely overgrown with small trees, brush
and hardwood forests. Much of the game the Indians hunted moved on to other areas.

Whenever there wasn’t much in the way of scenery, or whenever we ran out of things to
talk about, Lauren and I pulled out our collection of Mad Libs. These were another gift
from Chris and Susan. When I first saw them, I was like, “Okay, interesting,” all the
while thinking that as an adult, I’d find Mad Libs kind of boring. But let me tell you,
they were a blast. It’s amazing how fun Mad Libs can be when you have two people of
relatively acute intelligence throwing answers back and forth. We had the most fun
trying to think outside the box with “adverbs” and “parts of the body”, because just
ending words with “ly” got boring and honestly, how many fun body parts does anybody
have? We found ourselves laughing out loud at phrases like, “Shake the bottle LIKE A
RETARD and pour the contents over YOUR BIG FAT ASS.”
We crossed into Illinois and made our way along the western border toward St. Louis,
passing through Chester, Illinois, which according to the sign at the edge of town is the
“Home of Popeye.” More accurately, it’s the hometown of Popeye creator, Elzie Crisler
Seger. Apparently there was a statue of the famous one-eyed sailor in the middle of
town, but we didn’t stop to look.

It was nighttime by the time we approached St. Louis. We decided to do the Arch first
thing in the morning, but would head into the city for dinner. ROADFOOD refers to
C&K Barbeque in St. Louis as “a small, out-of-the-way place.” What it should have said
was, “a small place IN THE GHETTO!” It was getting on past eight o’clock by the time
we got lost looking for C&K and we were immediately struck by thoughts of, “Oh god,
this is not a good place to get lost.” You know that ominous feeling you get in certain
areas of certain cities – not a lot of street lights, boarded-up buildings here and there,
even most of the houses have no lights on inside. When we finally found the restaurant
and placed our order, there was no public bathroom, so we walked across the street to a
gas station sporting the thickest bulletproof glass I’ve ever seen. And yes, I’ll be honest –
the fact that Lauren and I were the only two white people (with Jersey plates) in a
neighborhood that required bulletproof glass only increased our unease.

When our order was ready, we paid for it and made straight for the interstate. Our plan
was to head back into Illinois and find a hotel for the night. We had to drive for over an
hour before we found a hotel whose lobby was sans bulletproof glass. Later on, when we
recounted our nighttime St. Louis experience to others, they all said, “Oh yeah, St. Louis
is an incredibly dangerous city.” Great, thanks ROADFOOD. Our stomachs were
growling and we couldn’t wait to dig into that barbeque. When we finally found a safe-
looking Super 8, we went straight to our room. We didn’t even bring our bags in, just
tore into our food. And man was it disappointing. I suppose most any barbeque would
be disappointing after eating at Ridgewood in Tennessee, but the ribs were nothing more
than a lot of tough, overcooked fat, and the sauce was that flavorless paste I spoke of
earlier.

I ended up going to a Taco Bell across the street.



DAY 6 – Friday, March 19 (Anniversary of the Iraq War)
START: Troy, IL
END: Manhattan, KS
MILEAGE: 389 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: The Arch; out of place in a college town

So often, landmarks fall dreadfully short of our expectations. Anybody who’s ever been
to the Statue of Liberty knows what I mean. Whenever you see her on TV, Lady Liberty
is portrayed as huge, standing tall over New York harbor, greeting all who come to this
land from miles away. In reality, and by comparison, she is disappointingly, almost
embarrassingly small, tucked into a little corner near New Jersey where you really have
to go out of your way to see her. The Empire State Building is never as tall as you
imagine. The Hollywood sign can only be appreciated without binoculars from very
specific areas of the city. Even Mount Rushmore, I was told looks much tinier than one
would expect.

I always imagined the St. Louis Arch would fall into this same category. The only
pictures I could ever remember seeing with the Arch were collages in which the Arch’s
image was pasted over the St. Louis skyline, standing tall and prominent. In reality, I
always assumed that it was probably just this little fifty-foot cement sculpture buried in
some square in the middle of the city. Instead, it would prove to be the first of many
pleasant surprises on this trip, where reality vastly exceeded expectations.

Approaching St. Louis from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River the night before, I
was able to see the skyline lit up in the distance. As I looked, I noticed a thin sliver of
light out in front. I said to Lauren, “Hey, there’s the Arch.” Even from a good twenty
miles away, it was obvious that the Arch was huge. The fact that we could see it from
that far away at night spoke volumes. As we got closer, it became apparent that the Arch
(lit up purple at night) was bigger than any of the buildings making up the St. Louis
skyline. What I’d always assumed to be a tiny concrete structure hidden from view was
in fact a 600-foot stainless steel beauty right out in front of the city on the banks of the
Mississippi River.

The next morning, Lauren and I took picture after picture from every conceivable angle.
The Arch’s angular shape and reflective properties made for some interesting plays with
light and dark. It would be hard for even the world’s worst photographer to take a bad
picture. It’s sheer size made it impossible to capture the whole thing in one picture,
though Lauren and I sure tried. I even walked right to the river’s edge, laid down on my
back and zoomed the camera all the way out… and I still couldn’t get the entire gaping
mouth into one picture. Then I lowered the camera looking just with my eyes and
realized that even with my own natural field of vision it was impossible to see the whole
Arch at once. One of the sides was always just beyond my peripheral vision, and I had to
make a decision between looking at the top or bottom because it was impossible to see
both at once.

St. Louis is known as “the Gateway to the West” and the Arch’s official name is “The
Gateway Arch.” This is where Lewis and Clark began their legendary journey in search
of the fabled Northwest Passage, thus putting America’s settlement of the west into full
swing. The Arch is part of the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial. Underground,
beneath the Arch lies the Museum of Westward Expansion, a football-field-sized tribute
to America’s conquering of the western frontier.

We had left the hotel around ten o’clock that morning. After nothing but oatmeal five
straight days, we were ready for a real breakfast, and being in the Midwest I knew you
couldn’t swing a dead polecat without hitting a Waffle House. We figured somewhere in
the 30 miles between the hotel and the city, there would have to be a Waffle House or an
IHOP or some kind of breakfast place off the interstate. Well… there wasn’t. So with
stomachs growling, Lauren and I just kind looked at each other and shrugged saying, “Oh
well, guess we’ll eat after.”

Man I wish we had eaten before. The museum was absolutely fascinating, but our
stomachs and blood sugars were yelling at us to cut it short. There’s a tram that you can
ride to the top of the Arch which Lauren had wanted to take, but the line to get tickets
was as insanely long as the line for the tram itself. Instead, we opted to spend about an
hour reading a timeline history of the American settlement. One thing that I found
interesting was the way the museum phrased their little historical snippets. Somebody
who had turned their brain off for a minute wouldn’t realize just how badly we screwed
over the Indians as we claimed more and more land for ourselves. For instance, one
blurb would say that in such and such a year, “Seminole Indians ceded Florida to
America.” We all know that the rest of that sentence should probably read, “…under the
threat of extermination.” Elsewhere it would say, “Cherokee Indians are given a patch of
land west of the Mississippi.” The museum left out the part that explains how that patch
of land was probably a swath of barren desert. One thing I would have liked the museum
to include was an exhibit explaining the dark side of the Westward Expansion. I know it
was good and important for this country, but at least acknowledge and pay respect to the
people who caught the raw end of it all.

Then again, for all I know, maybe they did have an exhibit like that, but Lauren and I
were both ready to pass out from hunger and had to go find food. But first, I just couldn’t
leave St. Louis without getting a shotglass with the Arch on it. The museum gift shop
didn’t have any, so we walked to a nearby hotel and found what we were looking for in
their shop. On the way out, one of the hotel employees noticed Lauren looking a little
anemic and gave her an entire pack of Lifesavers®. We hopped back on the interstate
and got off about ten miles later, pulling into the first Waffle House we came across.
After five-days-worth of oatmeal, I must say bacon, eggs and waffles are just so
incredibly delicious. We caught up on our postcard and journal writing and got our
arteries sufficiently clogged before getting back on the road re-energized.

The rest of Missouri was a blur, mostly because it whipped past us at 80m.p.h. We
decided to just take Interstate 70 all the way across and get into Kansas. “Redneck
Woman” came on the radio again and I cranked it up saying, “Hey, this is the song we
heard in Nashville.”

The sun was setting as we crossed into Kansas. We got off the interstate in Lawrence and
continued on two-lane U.S. 24 going west. We stopped for dinner at a little hole-in-the-
wall place called Deanna’s Café in Grantville. The place was old, hot and charming.
The booth we sat in was upholstered in green polyvinyl, looking as though it came
straight out of the 1970’s. In the bathroom, instead of paper towels or an air dryer, there
was an old fashioned cloth towel dispenser, the kind with a ten-foot towel “loop” on a
spindle that is cranked down and reused by each new customer – and is generally
considered to be about the most unsanitary thing you could ever wipe your hands on.
Next to it was a sign urging: “Wash Hands – It Fights Infection.” Out in the restaurant’s
vestibule was a staple of all small-town gathering places, a corkboard for locals to
advertise their goods and services – a poor man’s classified section. Tacked to the board
was a handwritten note requesting a “Tom Turkey – Breeding Age.” Only in Kansas.

The menu at Deanna’s was forgettable. We each got a sandwich and soda and I followed
up with a slice of rhubarb pie. On the way out, Lauren spotted the quintessential Kansas
farmer: old guy, red flannel shirt, overalls, green John Deere hat, gray beard, pot belly,
hands covered with black grit, tooth-pick out of the side of his mouth, discussing farm
equipment and feed with another farmer. Of course, he was carrying on this conversation
via a cell phone. Even down home country is embracing the age of technology and
instant communication.

GRAFFTI LOG: In the bathroom of Deanna’s Cafe was a souvenir license plate for the
Kansas City Chiefs. Some clever patron had crossed out “Chiefs” with a key and
scratched in the word “Quiefs” underneath.

We continued west as night fell over Kansas. Off to the south we could see the modest
skyline of Topeka. We started to look for a motel for the night but none of the small
towns we passed through seemed to have many houses, let alone enough people in town
to even run a motel. Our best bet we figured was in the town of Manhattan, another sixty
miles up the road. It was the only town other than Topeka in this part of the state that
was printed in bold on the map.

We were cruising along listening to a local Topeka country station. The lady DJ, Leah
encouraged us to call in and make a request. So I did. I wanted to hear that Redneck
Woman song again. Moreover, I wanted to know who sang it, because I was pretty sure
once we were back in Philadelphia, we’d never hear it again and I wanted to be able to
download…er, buy the CD. The line rang and I told the girl on the other end my request.
She told me to hang on and she would put me on with Leah. Hm, that was odd I thought.
A call screener at a radio station in Topeka? Even in cities like Philadelphia the DJ’s
field their own phone calls. When Leah came on the phone we had a great five-minute
conversation. She told me the name of the artist, Gretchen Wilson, and we both enjoyed
a nice long lament about the way country music has gone, how you rarely hear songs
quite that country on country radio anymore. She told me to listen in around ten o’clock
and our conversation would be on the air.

I wouldn’t realize it until about two weeks later driving across Montana, when I heard
this very same DJ on the radio again, that my voice had actually gone out, not just to the
people of Topeka, but to radio stations across the country on a nationally syndicated radio
show. Lia Knight was doing her Friday Night Fights with Gretchen Wilson as the
contender, and I had gotten to voice my support for Gretchen to the nation.

We found a Motel 6 in Manhattan (which apparently calls itself “The Little Apple”) and
as I’d been doing at every hotel so far on the trip, I told a little white lie to the desk clerk,
saying I would be the only person occupying the room. Economy hotels, we were
realizing, charge an extra fee for each additional person, yet they still give you the same
room they would have given a lone traveler. One of the hotels we’d stopped at earlier in
the week gave me a room with two beds, even though I’d told the guy it was just for me.
The way we saw it, if they were going to give us the same amenities regardless, it just
didn’t make sense to pay the extra 6-10 dollars they were charging. Honestly, there was
no way Lauren was going through ten dollars worth of water and towels a night.

The charade was the same at every hotel. I’d park the car in a spot where it couldn’t be
seen from the motel office, then walk in and make one attempt to play it honest. “Could I
have a non-smoking room with one bed for the night please.”

But the desk clerk always ruined it, “How many people?”

I’d be forced to lie and say, “Just me.”

I’d fill out all the forms, hand him my AAA and credit cards, take my key and head over
to the room. Most of the time we were fortunate and the room was on the other side of
the building, out of sight from the office. But every now and then, they’d give us a room
within eyeshot and Lauren and I would have to be sneaky. I’d open up the room, leaving
the door propped, then go back to the car and have Lauren just walk over while I pulled
the car around. She’d stroll past the office as though she was just another customer, then
casually slip through the open door of our room. I of course would then have to bring all
our stuff in myself lest the clerk spot my unpaid “guest”, but that was about par no matter
where they stuck us.

In retrospect, we probably needn’t have utilized so much cloak and dagger. With the rare
exception of those nights when there was an actual manager working the desk – or some
snively little weasel who thought his job made him some kind of an authority figure –
most of the desk clerks were simply tired-looking middle-aged women or teenagers who
were making maybe fifty cents over minimum wage. They viewed any time spent
dealing with customers as time that was taking them away from the book or television
show they were absorbed in. They couldn’t have given two shits if we were hosting a
twenty-man orgy in that single room.

It was Friday night and we decided to go find some small-town nightlife. One thing we
knew we wanted to do on this trip was spend time mingling with the locals wherever we
stopped. We imagined ourselves at little dive honky-tonks, dancing to bad music from
the house band, strangers teaching us how to two-step, rednecks asking if they could cut
in, old women rubbing Lauren’s belly and hillbillies buying me shots of Wild Turkey.
We envisioned ourselves as being the novelty act in town – the young, good-looking
couple from New Jersey. We had such high hopes.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, Manhattan is home to Kansas State University. We went
down to a street lined with bars that the Motel 6 clerk had told me about, only to realize
that every single one of them was a college bar. Lauren and I felt dreadfully out of place.
For starters, the area was pretty dead that night so we couldn’t even hide out in the
crowd. We suspected the school may have been on spring break for as sparsely
populated as the bars were. We walked up and down the street looking for a place that
had karaoke or a live band, or something besides just a bar and some tables. Finding
none of that, we settled on a bar with a dance floor that claimed to have a DJ coming in
later that night. I got a beer for myself and a Sprite for Lauren.

We ordered up a plate of hot wings and took a seat at an outdoor table. The night was
warm with a gentle breeze in the air. At the other tables, cliques of five to ten college
students sat laughing and drinking and having a good time. It was probably just self-
consciousness, but we could have sworn here and there that they were laughing at us. We
were definitely not the young, good-looking couple in this neighborhood. On her many
trips to the bathroom, Lauren says she got some strange looks from the girls inside the
bar. There they were in their tight low-rider jeans, open-toed shoes and midriff shirts
showing off flat tanned stomachs and belly-button rings, and there goes Lauren waddling
by in white skippy sneakers with a big old belly concealed under denim maternity
overalls. I’m sure the same thought was running through all their heads (the same
thought that would run through my head in a reversed scenario), “What is a pregnant
woman doing at a bar?”

Lauren and I looked at each other and laughed a few times before deciding to return to
the motel. We walked hand in hand back to the car. I kissed Lauren on the lips and said,
“I love you so much and I love that you’re carrying our baby.” I caressed her belly with
both hands adding, “It’s okay that we’re lame, because at least we’re lame together.”

Somewhere underneath the thick layer of denim, our baby gave an approving kick.



DAY 7 – Saturday, March 20
START: Manhattan, KS
END: Garden City, KS
MILEAGE: 415 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Kansas, World’s Largest Ball of Twine, Monument Rocks

We hit the Manhattan Wal-Mart around 9:30 to buy more film and restock our oatmeal
supply and were on the road by ten. We had two destinations today and they would take
us clear across to the other side of Kansas. Somehow we got immediately off course and
wound up drifting almost thirty miles north. That’s the problem with a lot of the roads in
these rural areas. You can sometimes drive for over a half hour without ever seeing a
sign indicating the road you’re on or the direction you’re heading. Even the signs at
intersections often don’t tell you more than the local street name in town. Fortunately
Lauren is one of the few women I know who is actually competent with a map. Based on
the names of the towns we were passing through, she figured out that we had somehow
left Route 24 West and gotten onto 77 North. She redirected me and an hour later we
were back on 24.
Every time Lauren and I told somebody that we were going to drive through Kansas, their
response was always the same. They’d cock their eyebrow and scrunch up their face,
confused saying, “Kansas? Why Kansas?”

It’s the same look I used to get when I told people I drove across Texas on another road
trip. “Oh god, I hate Texas. It’s just so big and full of nothing.”

Gee, that’s exactly what I loved about Texas. And that’s what I loved about Kansas.

“There’s nothing to look at but farmland.”

Exactly. You can go anywhere in this country to look at buildings, mountains and lakes,
but you can only get “nothing” here. Don’t get me wrong, I love buildings, mountains
and lakes as much as the next guy, but there was just something about the wide open
nothing in Kansas that was a thousand times more stirring and serene. Lauren and I both
agreed that we’d probably go crazy after awhile if we actually lived here and had no
visual stimulation, no undulations in the landscape to attract our eyes. But we just
couldn’t understand how somebody could drive through this state and not fall in love
with it – if only temporarily. Even flying past it all at 70m.p.h., we could feel ourselves
slowing down, our bodies, our minds and our schedules easing back to the pace of
Kansas.

We drove for miles at a time not saying a word, just looking out at the perfectly flat,
pristine landscape that surrounded us. For long stretches at a time the horizon was
broken by only telephone poles, windmills and crop dusters. The tallest structures you
see in Kansas are grain silos and wheat conveyors. Even the few trees you come across
stand no taller than twenty feet or so. It was inconceivable to me before this trip that
there still existed places, much less entire states in this country that still remained this
undeveloped. But I suppose farmland can only spread in one direction – out. Never up.

I’d always heard that Montana held the title for biggest sky. Looking around in Kansas,
it was inconceivable to me that there could be a sky bigger than this. With the land
almost completely flat and nothing to block the horizon on any side of you, the sky
seemed to spread infinitely out all around you and rise up higher than you could imagine
in a never-ending dome. We found a Kansas shotglass, depicting wheat fields, hay bales
and windmills to add to the collection

In my journeys across this great country, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are five
landmarks every good American traveler must visit. Failure to visit any one of these
places, I think negates a person from true road tripper status. The key stops are: Mount
Rushmore, the Saint Louis Arch, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the World’s
Largest Ball of Twine. Nothing captures the essence of “America” in one spot more
succinctly than these locations.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. One of these things is not like the other. But the one
common thread each of these places has is that when their names are mentioned, you
recognize them instantly as American icons. The Worlds Largest Ball of Twine might
not be as forthright in every American’s mind as the others, but each and every one of us
has heard of it. It’s usually mentioned at the butt end of a joke on TV to accentuate how
boring life in the Midwest must be if they get off on giant collections of string. But for
serious road trippers, this is the granddaddy of all roadside attractions – the one that
spawned several dozen “world’s-largest-ball-of” knockoffs. And if nothing else, it begs
the question: “Why would anybody make a ball of twine to begin with?”

Ask that question to a Midwest farmer and you’ll likely get a bemused smile in return,
“You’re a city slicker ain’t ya?”

Before the advent of baling wire, hay bales were bound with twine. Farmers couldn’t just
leave the scrap pieces lying on the ground or it would get caught in their machinery.
Most farmers simply burned or reused their extra twine, but Frank Stoeber of Cawker
City, Kansas started saving his back in 1953. By 1961 the twine ball he’d created could
no longer fit inside his barn so he rolled it out and donated it to the town. Pulling a stunt
like that in New York City would likely have gotten Stoeber arrested and the twine
hawked on the street. In Kansas, it turned him into a local legend and made the ball a
staple of guidebooks everywhere.

There are actually three cities in the country that claim to be in possession of the world’s
largest ball of twine. The other two balls are in Darwin, Minnesota and Branson,
Missouri. The Branson ball is the one that’s actually in Mr. Guinness’s book, but from
everything I’ve read about it, it’s a total cop out. Some guy – his name doesn’t even bear
mentioning – heard about the two other balls and decided to attract some attention of his
own. So he hired a guy to help him spend four years winding a ball from donated pieces
of nylon twine, using a system of pulleys to wrap it. After the record books gave him
credit, he sold it to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, which now houses it in its Branson
museum. Which of course means you have to pay to see it. To me, that just doesn’t
count. The Cawker City and Darwin balls each originated out of the grass roots of
America. They began simply as means of efficiency and only became famous years later.
That is the American way. The ball in Branson is nothing more than the American
money machine in twine form.

We took our cue from the book ECCENTRIC AMERICA by Jan Friedman. They only
mention the ball from Kansas. We approached Cawker City in the early afternoon, not
knowing quite what to expect. Would it be touristy? That was hard to imagine by the
middle-of-nowhere look to the surrounding area. Would there be crowds of people
swarming around for pictures? Did the locals get a kick out of the city folk coming in to
gawk at their claim to fame? Or did they just shake their heads in disbelief? The sign at
the edge of town told us all we needed to know. The D and apostrophe had fallen off the
declaration: “Home of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.”

After almost an hour since our last pit stop, seeing the twine became secondary to finding
Lauren a bathroom. With no trees to squat behind, Kansas, unlike Virginia, really
doesn’t make it easy for a pregnant woman to pee on the side of the road. We drove
down Main Street looking for an open gas station or general store. There was one gas
station in town, but it was obviously closed. We drove farther down the street. Most of
the buildings were the non-descript kinds favored by small insurance companies, travel
agencies and realtors – all places that aren’t open on Saturdays. Before we knew it, we
were already on our way out of town. Not only hadn’t we seen any open stores, we
hadn’t seen the ball of twine or any people for that matter. We turned around and drove
slower this time. The town was absolutely deserted. No signs of life anywhere. And still
no twine. I recalled seeing a restaurant before the town line on the way in. We drove
back there and it too was closed.

Lauren was near tears. We drove farther out of town and headed up a side dirt road that
led to some low-growing shrubs. Lauren got out and tried to do her business while I
stood lookout. I kept imagining some farmer spotting us and hauling out a shotgun for
urinating on his property. The wind was whipping up something fierce and with nothing
substantial to block it, Lauren… ahem, soiled her shoes and pant leg. There was a tense
moment where she got frustrated and then I got frustrated at her for being frustrated.
There were some quick hormonal tears then we hugged, kissed, wiped up and headed
back into town.

I drove even slower this time looking for the ball of twine. From what I’ve read, we’re
not the first people to have missed it on the first couple passes. Suddenly, with no
fanfare, there it was. All 17,000 pounds and 7 million feet of it. Unlike its counterparts
in Minnesota, which rests behind a barrier of glass, and in Missouri, which is just too
despicable to even mention again, Cawker City’s famous ball sits in an open-air pavilion
on the side of Main Street, Route 24. We were able to walk right up and touch it. I guess
there are pros and cons to that kind of openness. While it makes the roadside attraction
much more inviting and hospitable to travelers, there are people in this world who simply
have no respect for anything. Years of parents letting their kids climb on top of the ball
for pictures have caused the it to dimple and fray. A few years back somebody even tried
to set the twine on fire, forcing the town to periodically spray it with fire retardant.

Still the famous ball continues to grow. It currently measures eleven feet in diameter
with a forty-foot circumference. Travelers are encouraged to add to their own bits of
scrap twine to the ball, though the rules are strict. It must be bona fide sisal hay bale
twine. String and yarn are prohibited. Every August, the town hosts its annual Twine-a-
Thon where revelers are invited to come up and take their turn winding more scrap twine
onto the ball.

This was definitely a spot that required both Lauren and I to be in the picture, but looking
around again, I saw no people. So I placed the camera on top of the car and tried to
squint through the eyepiece and line it up for a timer shot. The whipping wind wasn’t
making it easy. I must have spent ten minutes fiddling with the camera, repositioning the
car and giving myself a crick in the neck before another car pulled up and a smiling lady
got out.
She introduced herself as Linda and said, “I saw you struggling and thought I’d come
over and give you a hand.”

She took our picture and invited us to sign the guest register. Linda Clover and her
husband Jack, we found out, were known in Cawker City as “the twine’s caretakers.” All
day long Linda, who also works as the town’s school librarian, drives over to take
pictures for tourists and talk about the town and the twine with all who are interested.

Lauren made the comment, “We weren’t sure if this was normal, visiting the ball of
twine, or if everybody just laughs at us.”

Linda admitted, “Oh we all laugh, but we still do it.”

That’s great I thought. They, like everybody else, can’t believe people would drive this
far out of their way to look at a ball of twine. But the town knows it has something
special here and they take it to heart. Painted yellow on the sidewalk is a “twine line”
that runs along both sides of Main Street. Linda pointed out the artwork displayed in the
storefront windows in town. In an attempt to brighten up the otherwise drab-looking
business district, local artist Cher Olson had recreated over forty famous paintings
including the Mona Lisa, American Gothic and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Each rendition
had one notable change, a ball of twine inserted somewhere into the artwork.

The odd thing was that in spite of its status as a bastion of tourist trap attractions, the
World’s Largest Ball of Twine didn’t actually seem to be trapping any tourists in Cawker
City. None of the local businesses seemed to be profiting off of the twine’s popularity.
We commented to Linda how there wasn’t even anything open today, a Saturday. She
took it a step farther and confided to us that most of the buildings along Main Street
didn’t even have any tenants. They were just vacant facades. It was so unlike the
America I knew, where everybody is just trying to make a buck any way they can. In the
reality I’m used to, there would have been shops lining the street selling Ball of Twine
key chains, Ball of Twine t-shirts and Ball of Twine cup-holders. But in Cawker City, on
the busiest tourist day of the week, there wasn’t even a store selling gas or a bottle of
Coke.

I had to remind myself that this is still the heart of farm country. That’s how people
make their living out here. That’s how the ball of twine originated in first place after all.
Not for tourism, but for farming. In spite of their somewhat dubious claim to fame, the
people of Cawker City hadn’t forgotten who they are or where they came from. I
respected that deeply.

There is apparently only one place in Cawker City to buy Ball of Twine paraphernalia,
and according to Linda, it too was closed today. “But,” she said, “I can see Lottie outside
working in her garden. She’ll open it up for you.” She pointed to a building across the
street, “Just tell her Linda sent you over.”
We thanked Linda and drove across the street where we met Lottie Herod. She was
maybe in her seventies, though none too frail. Dressed in jeans and an Irish-green
sweatshirt and bandana, she had been wielding a hoe with ease and aggression when we
pulled up. “Linda sent us to you,” I said, and right away Lottie was all smiles.

“Oh she did, did she?” She fumbled with her keys and opened the old-style door to her
shop, a building that had to be at least a hundred years old. First thing, Lottie had us put
a pin in her map to show where we were from. There was already a pin in Philadelphia,
so Lauren put one in Sayreville and I put one in my hometown of Troy, Maine. I noted
with pride that I was apparently the first person from north of Portland to set foot in
Lottie’s shop.

Lauren of course made quick use of Lottie’s bathroom, which she had wallpapered
herself with the covers from old issues of The Ladies Home Journal.

Lottie’s shop actually functioned more as an antique shop, with Ball of Twine souvenirs
stuck in almost as an afterthought. She sold lots of old lamps, sheet music, vintage
radios, postcards from pre-war days and much more. The shop had a grandma’s attic feel
to it with lots of miscellaneous old stuff sitting around collecting dust. Looking up the
old dusty stairs into the darkened second floor, I could see even more junk that wasn’t
being sold in the shop. I don’t know how much business Lottie does in Cawker City, but
I can’t imagine her selling all this stuff in her lifetime – or anyone else’s lifetime for that
matter.

The shop’s collection of Ball of Twine souvenirs was modest but endearing because
Lottie made everything herself. In addition to several other skills, she was also a potter
and had crafted teakettles, coffee mugs, salt-n-pepper shakers and utensil holders all
bearing the Ball of Twine’s likeness. Lauren and I bought a few postcards as well as a
ball of twine Christmas ornament and mug, which Lottie signed with a marker. There
were no shotglasses, so I bought a Ball of Twine toothpick holder, which was close
enough in size and function for me. Lottie wrote down our purchase on a piece of carbon
paper and added up the price on a calculator, making change in a sliding wooden drawer
in the counter that functioned as her cash register.

After that, we all stood around talking for a good half hour. Lottie showed us around her
shop, pointing out her old hand-cranked elevator. She showed us how the brake worked
and informed us that it had to be set properly or else the elevator would fly all the way to
the top. Apparently that had happened to her once. Her granddaughter had been playing
around the elevator and must have touched the brake, because when Lottie went in to
bring things upstairs, the elevator took off. The impact at the top apparently shook the
entire building.

Lottie showed us her paintings, another of her many skills. She is very talented and has
an acute attention to detail. In one painting depicting a wheat field, we looked closely
and it was apparent that she hadn’t merely slapped a layer of brown and tan on the easel.
Each individual stalk of wheat had been lovingly and painstakingly painted on. Lottie
had even made her own contribution to the Ball of Twine art campaign on Main Street.
In her window was her own rendition of one of my favorite paintings, Marc Chagall’s “I
and the Village.” In place of the bright purple circle normally in the middle of the
painting, Lottie had of course substituted a ball of twine.

We were amazed how easy it was to talk to Lottie. Every time we were about to leave,
she asked us if we wanted to see something else. We felt the New Jersey wash right out
of us in this place. Normally we would have been looking at our watches and rolling our
eyes, saying, “No we really have to go.” But we found ourselves fascinated with
everything she was saying and showing us. Finally our schedule did get the better of us.
We thanked Lottie and she thanked us, waving goodbye as we pulled out of her
driveway. On our way out of town, we spotted Linda talking to another family over at
the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.

Lauren and I smiled at each other and reluctantly drove on, leaving Cawker City behind
us.

We stopped for lunch in Stockton at a little place called Home Cookin’. The entire fort
was being held down by one girl, maybe fifteen years old with a pleasant demeanor,
named Nellie. She was taking the orders, cooking the food and serving the customers all
by herself. Not that there were a lot of people to tend to. Other than us, the only other
customers were two old ladies in a booth eating ice-cream cones. I tried once again to fill
the void left by Ridgewood and ordered a BBQ pork sandwich while Lauren opted for the
lunch special, Mexican lasagna. Each was decent, worth the stop if you’re ever passing
through. On the way out, we saw a jar on the counter asking for donations for Nellie’s
mission trip to Mexico for Teens-4-Christ. We threw in five bucks before we left.

For the next hour or two, we continued driving due west along almost-perfectly-straight
Route 24 then hung a left and drove due south along almost-perfectly-straight Route 83
on our way to the Monument Rocks, a suggestion from the book ROAD TRIP USA by
Jamie Jensen.

Eighty million years ago, this entire patch of Kansas sat several hundred feet beneath the
ocean. When the waters receded, the old seabed was a dense collection of fossils,
calcium and sediment. Several million years of erosion by the Smoky Hill River left
behind several chalk formations that tower seventy feet above the Kansas plains and look
about as out of place as a desert in the state of Maine – which incidentally also exists.
This entire area is a mecca for archaeologists. Even though Kansas sits pretty much at
the geological center of the continent, scores of fossils from sharks and shellfish have
been found littering the Monument Rocks and limestone cliffs in the distance.

Even though they were designated a National Natural Monument (the first such
designation in the United States), the Monument Rocks, also known as the Chalk
Pyramids, reside on private land about six miles down a dirt road off Route 83 – over
thirty miles from the nearest interstate. I can only imagine that this has helped preserve
these geological wonders because there is nothing more destructive than an interstate
tourist. The reason they put fences around things like Old Faithful and the World’s
Tallest Tree isn’t because of tourists like Lauren and me. It’s because of the interstate
tourists who just can’t get close to anything without feeling the urge carve their initials
into it or toss a penny in for good luck. Interstate tourists come in two packages: old
people on buses and families with pre-pubescent kids. Each has the same attitude on
vacation: “Let’s see as much as we can, as fast as we can, for as cheap as we can, and
annoy the shit out of everybody else around us while we’re at it.”

These are the types of people who get annoyed that there isn’t an interstate going straight
through the middle of Yellowstone Park. Everywhere they go, they zoom in at 65m.p.h.
and hop out of the car with the look of people who expect to see the Second Coming of
Christ at every rest stop. While the women use the bathrooms and give the fast-food
vendors more grief than their minimum wage deserves, the kids run around screaming,
knocking the stale nachos out of strangers’ hands and climbing on anything that has a
foothold.

Meanwhile, the men run around with ten-thousand-dollars-worth of camera equipment
around their necks, taking pictures of anything within a thirty-second radius and
complaining about how far they had to walk to get there. After ten minutes, they all load
up into their respective vehicles and zoom off in search of their next attraction, leaving a
trail of litter in their wake. They never stay long enough to take something in. They
never actually look at anything except through the viewfinder of their camcorder. And
they never spend the time seeking out those special nuances of an area that can’t be
described in a guidebook. They stick to the interstates where they never have to go more
than thirty minutes between rest stops with bathrooms and Burger Kings. A place like
the Monument Rocks is much too far off the beaten path to attract any but the at least
halfway dedicated travelers.

Lauren and I were the only car driving down that dirt road about an hour and a half
before sunset. Behind us, our car was kicking up a huge cloud of dust and we kept trying
to slow down, certain that we were going to get in trouble for being down this way. Silly
really. Even though the Monument Rocks sit on private land, the owners have graciously
left them open to the public and have never charged a fee. Beyond that, they have left the
area largely untouched, save for the road coming in and one handmade billboard
advertising a museum close by. In another rare thumbing of the nose to traditional
American consumerism, they have avoided tacky eye-clutter and instead let the majesty
and mystery of this land speak for itself.

About four miles in, the dirt road turned south. A little farther on, we came over a bump
in the road and saw the rocks in the distance. It truly was an eerie sight. Wide-open
plains everywhere, broken in just one spot by these giant obelisks. Lauren and I both
commented that it reminded us immediately of Stonehenge.

Pulling up, we realized that the Monument Rocks actually sit in two clusters about a
quarter mile apart. The cluster to the southwest consists of several angular towers that
cast creepy-looking shadows across the dusty ground. The cluster to the northeast is one
long wall accentuated by a large trademark “window” in the rock. After Lauren took her
toilet paper and Ziplock bag behind one of the large chalk pyramids and did her thing, the
picture-taking frenzy began. It was like being at the St. Louis Arch. As we walked
around, each different angle offered a new and unique play with light and shadow.
Lauren encouraged me to climb up on one of the lower rises for a picture, but I declined.
The way I saw it, in geological terms these formations are being held together by a
veritable Scotch Tape of sediment and decaying fossils. I didn’t mind walking among
them, but I didn’t want to be responsible for any unnatural crumbling of these
monuments.

For the first few minutes Lauren and I were alone, nothing but the gently howling wind to
break the silence. A lone teenager pulled up and walked around quietly for a few minutes
then left. After him a mini-van pulled up and out of it poured four kids under ten-years-
old, two older ladies and a man with a ten-thousand-dollar camera around his neck. The
kids started yelling and screaming and the women complained about the fact that there
wasn’t a bathroom, while the man fidgeted with about a dozen lenses and filters. Lauren
and I both rolled our eyes. They must have taken a wrong turn at the interstate. When
the kids started running up and climbing all over the rocks, that’s when we got in the car
and drove over to the northeast side.

We spent the next thirty minutes walking around the rocks, walking through the window
in the wall, taking pictures and just holding each other as we gawked at the beauty of
God’s natural wonder. We were waiting for sunset because we just had to take a picture
of the sun shining through that giant hole in the wall. As the time approached we could
hear the voices of kids again and realized that the interstate family was on their way
towards us. One of the kids, a snot-nosed boy of about five ran up and sat right in the
middle of the window.

“Oh no you are not,” I hissed loud enough so only Lauren could hear.

Fortunately, the man with the camera equipment had the same idea as we did and he
yelled at his son to move. I’ve since realized that ours was by no means a unique photo
opportunity. Type in “Monument Rocks” into Google and on each page you’re
guaranteed to see at least one picture of the sun shining through that window.

The sun began to set and all of us took picture after picture. As soon as the sun dipped
below the horizon, the other man packed up his camera and called to his family. They
loaded into their van – kids still screaming, women still complaining – and headed back
to the interstate. Lauren and I had the place to ourselves again.

There was a chill in the air that the wind was punctuating, but we threw on a sweatshirt
and shivered through it. We walked hand-in-hand to the big stone window. Standing
beneath this big beautiful archway with the day’s fading light casting a soft glow over
everything, Lauren and I held hands and prayed together. We thanked God for this
opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime, to spend a month going off the beaten path and
seeing His creation. We thanked him for giving us both the means and the courage to do
something like this and we asked Him for His continual blessing on our journey. We
prayed for our baby and for our own safety. After saying, “Amen,” we just stood there in
each other’s arms for a few minutes, looking at the rocks and listening to the wind. The
latter finally got the better of us and we decided to head back to the car and find a hotel
for the night.

Even still, in the dying light, we couldn’t help but continue taking more pictures of the
now-silhouetted Monument Rocks, looking more like Stonehenge than ever.

Back on Route 83, we drove almost an hour south to Garden City and got a room at the
Continental Inn. It was cute, though the sink and tub needed a healthy dose of Drano.
After our sneaky check-in routine, we went in search of dinner. We really did try to
patronize a local establishment, but it just wasn’t to be. The first restaurant we tried, a
little diner near the outskirts of town had just closed for the night as we pulled up. We
drove back into town and found a Bar and Grille, but as we opened the door we heard the
very loud noise of mariachi music and turned back around. We were in the mood for
quiet tonight. At a loss, we ate at the only other open place in town, Pizza Hut. The
greasy cheese and pepperoni were heavenly.

We drove back to the hotel, wrote out some more postcards, wrote in our road journal,
watched a little bit of Pulp Fiction on HBO then went to sleep in anticipation of
tomorrow when we would leave the Great Plains and cross the Rockies.


DAY 8 – Sunday, March 21
START: Garden City, KS
END: Pitkin, CO
MILEAGE: 391 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Rocky Mountains, Pitkin Hostel

After a week on the road, I was getting pretty good at loading and unloading the car every
morning and night. The first couple of days were tricky. I kept trying to figure out a way
to keep anything and everything we might ever possibly want during the day organized in
its own special place within arms reach inside the car. I guess I didn’t realize just how
small a radius my arm had while reaching blindly behind me doing 75m.p.h. No matter
how hard I tried, everything always ended up getting scattered everywhere and I kept
frustrating myself trying to compartmentalize it all.

Once I started thinking of this trip like a camping trip, it made everything easier. When
you’re backpacking, you just accept the fact that you’ll be carrying everything you need
for several days on your back. As such, you can only keep a bare minimum of items
instantly accessible: water, map, compass, and maybe a few strips of beef jerky in your
pocket. Everything else – food, knife, stove, first aid kit, clothes – is buried inside your
pack. And since you have to distribute the weight in a certain way, you can’t necessarily
keep the items you use more often near the top. That means whenever you need
something, you have to stop, take the pack off, open it up, dig through it for whatever,
then repack, zip up and hoist that heavy sumbitch onto your back again. It’s a pain, but if
you’re going to backpack, you just accept that fact of life and make do.

I finally accepted that fact about the road trip and saved myself a lot of aggravation. Our
big duffel bags full of clothes were shoved into the trunk next to our big box full of food.
With the exception of a few choice vittles that we kept in the front seat with us, we had to
stop the car and open the trunk every time we wanted a different snack. Stuffed into the
trunk’s remaining nooks and crannies were our overnight bags, bathroom bags, winter
jackets, a radio, my laptop computer, an emergency roadside kit and all necessary
automobile fluids.

In the back seat on the passenger side was our cooler, which we filled with Gatorade and
water, as well as the occasional stick of string cheese and jar of grape jelly. It wasn’t
safely accessible from the front seat, so if we were thirsty, we had to get out and open the
back door. The rest of the drinks were jammed behind the driver’s seat under a spare
blanket. Every morning and periodically throughout the day I would dig underneath the
blanket and transfer new drinks from the floor to the cooler. Pillows, blankets,
sweatshirts and backpacks occupied the back seat on the driver’s side, squashed down
just enough so I could see out the back window.

Accessibly sandwiched in the middle of the back seat was a box containing our “survival
gear” – travel books, city maps, road journals, Motel 6 and Super 8 directories,
binoculars, Lauren’s purse, magazines, pens, highlighters and Mad Libs. On top of all
that was our trusty Rand McNally road atlas. Our film camera sat wedged between the
travel box and the center console, which was just big enough to store my wallet and our
pocket-sized digital camera. CD’s and comedy tapes resided in the side compartments
while our cell phones and sunglasses sat on a sticky pad on the dash. Only the bare
necessities, things we might need at a moment’s notice, were within easy reach from the
front seat. Everything else required us to shuffle off the proverbial backpack and dig it
out.

Every night, I would haul our overnight bags, cameras, travel box and cooler out of the
car and into the hotel. If we were lucky enough to get a room with a refrigerator, all the
contents of the cooler would go inside. The icepacks never completely refroze in that
tiny freezer compartment, but they came close. On the nights when we weren’t so
fortunate, I would make several trips to the ice machine and turn our sink into a
makeshift fridge. Our overnight bags contained enough clothes to last about three days,
so every couple of nights I also had to haul in our two huge duffel bags to replenish them.
Every morning while Lauren was getting ready, I hauled everything back outside and
began the now-methodical task of packing the car all over again. By the start of the
second week, I had it down to a science.

The car was re-packed and we were on the road today by nine. We had originally
intended to check out a local church for some Sunday worship, but we were planning to
make it all the way to Pitkin, Colorado, almost four hundred miles away, by day’s end.
So instead of church, we opted to make use of the dozen or so Praise and Worship CD’s
we had in the side compartments. We headed west on U.S. Route 50 toward Colorado,
singing along as we went. With few exceptions, the road was so straight and devoid of
traffic, that I was able set the car to cruise control and guide it with my knees so I could
eat my morning oatmeal with both hands for a change.

We were out of Kansas in less than an hour and from the moment we crossed the border
it was obvious that we had left Middle America and were officially in the West. The
“Leaving Kansas” sign was your typical metal highway marker with reflective paint. The
hand-painted wooden sign welcoming us to Colorado looked as though it belonged at the
entrance of a national park. Made with wooden planks nailed to thick wooden fence
posts and painted brown, the sign definitely had a western – even an OLD West – look
about it. Rather than wood and aluminum siding, all the houses in the first town we came
to were built with that stucco material that ninety percent of the buildings in California
seem to be made of. No longer spaced far apart like everything in Kansas, each town we
entered had a compact main street shaded by trees with all the buildings crunched right
up next to one another.

Even the landscape changed the moment we crossed into Colorado. Kansas had fertile
farmland everywhere you looked, with only grass and soil as far as the eye could see.
Colorado almost had the look of California’s high desert with lots of shrubby bushes and
chaparral growing out of the ground that was more dust and rocks than soil. And trees.
There were virtually no trees in Kansas. Now all of a sudden they were peppering the
landscape. Something just didn’t seem right about all this. We hadn’t crossed any kind
of natural boundary like a river or mountain range. The border between Kansas and
Colorado is a straight imaginary line drawn by men. How could everything right down to
the landscape have changed by crossing it? Was it just that Kansas had decreed itself a
farming state and they took steps to keep it that way? Maybe the people in Kansas do
like the Indians used to do and burn off the grass every year to prevent things like bushes
and trees from growing? Maybe the people in Colorado, who don’t depend as much on
farming, never take the time.

As if to accentuate the point that we were now in the west, we ran over a ball of
tumbleweed as it blew across the road.

After a couple hours, we began to see the faint outline of the Rocky Mountains in the
distance. Hazy and purple, one might have initially mistaken them for low-lying clouds.
The farther we drove, the clearer they became, a giant wall slashing across the
countryside shooting straight up out of the plains.

We stopped for some forgettable burritos and enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant in
Canon City at the base of the mountains. While Canon City makes some of its money off
of tourism, its biggest revenue comes from something much more ominous: prisons.
With nine state and four federal prisons within the city limits it’s a wonder the town has
managed to hold onto its 15,000-plus residents. Notable prisoners at the federal
penitentiary, locally known as “Supermax”, have included Unabomber Ted Kaczynski,
World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramsi Yousef and Oklahoma City bomber
Timothy McVeigh. Driving past several of these giant slate gray fortresses loaded up
with razor wire, we made sure to keep our doors locked, and our eyes glued to the
mountains in front of us.

I was honestly expecting to not be impressed by the Rocky Mountains. I’d seen plenty of
mountains in my days, from the coastal ranges in Southern California to the Continental
Divide in New Mexico. So I knew what tall mountains looked like. The way I saw it,
anybody could be impressed by sheer size. But I was able to see so much beauty in the
things that most people scoff at: the barren desert, the wide open nothing of Kansas, the
miles and miles of empty Texas prairie. A big part of me expected to look at the Rockies
and think, “Yep, more mountains.” Even as we approached Canon City, they still looked
like any other mountains I’d ever seen. Big and tall, and nothing more.

But as we proceeded into the Arkansas River Valley, these soaring majesties won me
over. Instantly. I kept wishing the road didn’t have so many sharp twists and curves,
because all I wanted to do was gawk. I spent a good hour trying to figure out what
exactly it was that made them different from any of the other mountains I’d seen in my
lifetime. Then it hit me. The color. Driving over the southern ranges in California and
New Mexico, I was always in the desert where everything is one of various shades of
brown. Even the pale greens of California’s coastal ranges are merely that of parched
low-growing grass. But in here in Colorado, the rocks were red and the trees were bright
vibrant green. The river running alongside the road, the one that helped carve the valley
we were driving through, was a brilliant and sparkling blue. The purple peaks in the
distance were covered with bright white snow and surrounded by clear blue sky with
puffy white clouds. Every element of the landscape was alive with color.

The shape of the mountains was much more dramatic too. Formed by a combination of
plate tectonics, volcanic activity, receding oceans, recurring ice ages and millions of
years of erosion, the Rockies are ten times as sheer and jagged as the mountains I’d
crossed in the past, with rocks jutting out and shooting up at all seemingly impossible
angles. Entire peaks appeared not as one colossal hunk of granite, but made up of
thousands upon thousands of gigantic red sandstone boulders, fashioned together like a
jigsaw puzzle – and appearing to need only one minor shift in the continental plate to
bring them all crashing down on top of us. I realized that as easy as it was to be
impressed by mountains, it was even harder to not be impressed by the Rockies.

Funny thing I’ve noticed about mountains in this country. In the east, where the
mountains are smaller and more dome-like, the scenic routes go over the tops of the
mountains and you’re in awe of the view looking down. Out west, where the mountains
are taller with more extreme edges, the only safe way to make a road is to send it through
the passes and canyons, so you’re in awe of the view looking up.

We crossed the Continental Divide via Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet above sea level.
From this point on, any rivers we saw would be making their way inexorably toward the
Pacific, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.
Our destination for the night was the Pitkin Hostel in Pitkin, Colorado. A friend had put
Lauren and I onto the idea of staying in hostels during this trip, both to save money and
to meet interesting people. Neither of us had ever stayed in a hostel before and, to be
honest, hostels were always something I’d associated more with Europe than the United
States – which isn’t an inaccurate appraisal.

Originally conceived as a movement in 1907, the first hostel was created in an empty
rural classroom in Germany by schoolteacher Richard Schirmann in order to give
students visiting from the city a safe and inexpensive place to sleep. It was his belief that
touring the countryside by foot or bicycle was an essential part of adolescent
development. Of course, such excursions would be impossible without a cheap place to
stay since most students couldn’t afford the rates of your average inn. Schirmann
envisioned an entire network of hostels within walking distance of one another all over
Europe. While his dream is still far from reality, Europe does have plenty of places for
traveling students and backpackers (or anybody, for that matter, who’s traveling light) to
stay, with more than two thousand hostels continent-wide.

The United States, with only slightly less landmass than all of Europe, has just over three
hundred. That’s only six hostels per state in a nation where some states are the size of
several European countries. And, of course, they aren’t spread out quite that evenly
either. The state of Hawaii has ten hostels to itself, while California boasts the most with
forty-eight. Most of America’s hostels are concentrated around major cities that tend to
have a large influx of college students – as well as hippies, beatniks and transients. There
are eighteen hostels in or near San Francisco alone.

Before the trip, we bought the book HOSTELS USA by Paul Karr and Martha Coombs,
which contains listings and reviews of most every hostel in the country. In years past
hostels were a service only available to students and other youth up to the age of about
thirty. These days, hostels are open to pretty much anybody looking for a cheaper, and
hipper, lodging alternative. Hipper, because when you stay at a hostel you’re not just
getting a room, you’re getting an experience. Hostels generally have one or more
common rooms with comfortable chairs and couches that encourage all guests to hang
out and mingle with one other. So while the monetary factor was a good incentive for
Lauren and me, the real reason we were excited to bypass the Motel 6’s of the world was
to meet other people in transit and add to the overall road trip experience.

We were a little more discriminating than your average hosteller in that we would only
stay in hostels that offered private rooms. Most hostels are set up like dormitories, with
sexually segregated bedrooms containing several twin and bunk beds – sometimes twenty
or more per room. Genders are often separated by entire wings, with boys on one side of
the building and girls on the other. Lauren and I were all about enjoying the hostel
experience for what it was. We looked forward to swapping stories over Ramen noodles
with other travelers, students and drifters from all walks of life. But at the same time we
were like, “Hey, we’re married and about to have a baby. We don’t want to sleep in
separate beds, much less separate rooms.” Unlike hostels in Europe, which generally
only have dormitory-style housing, most hostels in the United States offer at least one or
two private rooms.

On the first night of the trip, we had intended to stay at a hostel in Virginia, but a school
group had already booked the entire place. We tried booking a private room at a
hostel/Christian retreat center in eastern Tennessee, but they only rented out their private
rooms for long-term stays. After that, there wasn’t another hostel along our route until
Colorado. Well, technically, there was one in St. Louis, but after our experience at C.K.
Barbeque, neither of us were about to spend the night in that city. The entire mid-section
of this country is pretty sparse as far as hostels go. I guess there aren’t a lot of neo-
hippies making mass-pilgrimages to Cawker City, Kansas.

It was late afternoon when we turned off Route 50 onto an unnamed road toward the
town of Pitkin. Tucked snuggly into its own little cul-de-sac in the mountains, this quaint
little hamlet, eleven miles off the highway, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the
Swiss Alps, with only a few dozen small wooden houses huddled together amidst the
snow. Most of the houses appeared to be empty, although there was smoke puffing from
a few chimneys.

The hostel was hard to miss. Apart from the abandoned former town hall, which sits
right next door, the two-story white stone building is the most prominent building in
town. With wooden planks forming a sidewalk around the perimeter, and a large wooden
balcony on the second floor, the hostel looks like it could have been an Old West Saloon
in another life.

I felt myself getting nervous about the prospect of staying in our first hostel. I feared that
people would see our car (with Jersey plates) loaded down with all the stuff I’d repacked
that morning and think Lauren and I were some kind of posers. Fancy lads from the city
who didn’t know how to travel light. The kind of people who would bring an espresso
machine to a camping trip. I desperately wanted us to seem culturally cool and hip to the
whole hostelling lifestyle. To that end, I had repacked our overnight bags that morning to
ensure that we would bring in the bare minimum of stuff.

We walked inside and the place felt immediately cozy. The downstairs consisted of one
giant rec room with a kitchen in the back. The rec room had hardwood floors with
couches, rocking chairs and tables all about. There were shelves piled high with books,
plants, board games, art supplies and miscellaneous knick-knacks. They had even nailed
pieces of antique farming equipment to the walls just for character. At the far end of the
room was a wood-burning stove next to the audio-visual area, which consisted of some
couches, a TV and VCR, and over a hundred movies on VHS. The room reminded
Lauren of the many retreat centers she’d visited on youth group trips during her
childhood.

We met the current caretaker, Jay, an older “mountain man” type in jeans and flannel
with a beard and long gray hair. We asked for a private room for the night and paid the
twenty-five dollars in cash since they didn’t take credit cards. Jay wrote our names and
amount paid in a wrinkled green notebook that, I assume, served as the hostel’s
accounting register. All the rooms were on the second floor and Jay told us we could
pick the one we wanted. We selected one that was small and cute with ten times as much
charm as any of the Super 8’s we’d been staying in. Rather than plain tan or white
sheetrock, the walls were covered with yellow and flowery wallpaper with a couple of
paintings. The sheets were soft and the covers resembled the bumpy white afghans my
grandmother used to have in her house. They even gave us an electric blanket in case it
got too cold.

Lauren of course made use of the bathroom where a sign above the toilet paper said, “Our
septic system is delicate. Please place used toilet paper in covered waste-basket.” She
confided to me later that on one of her many trips, she forgot about the warning and had
to go fishing.

After checking in I brought in our overnight bags, bathroom bags, the road journal, a few
travel books, the cooler and the bag of groceries we’d bought back in Salida. This was
far less than I usually brought into the hotel each night, but still seemed like too much for
a seasoned hosteller to be carrying. We transferred the contents of the cooler to the
refrigerator and finally put the icepacks into a real freezer where they could re-solidify.
At a hostel, it’s generally considered good practice to write your name on any food you
don’t want others eating. But the only other guest was a lone twenty-something kid from
Pennsylvania who seemed as though he had been there for a while and didn’t strike us as
the mooching type.

Lauren and I cooked a simple dinner of pasta and tomato sauce in a kitchen that was far
better stocked with pots, pans and utensils than you’ll find in most any hostel. While
some hostels, in the spirit of keeping lodging costs down, will assign you an actual chore
to do, most simply ask that you clean up after yourself and generally do your part to keep
the hostel looking neat and clean. So we made sure to wash our dishes and even cleaned
the others that were already in the sink.

We brought our gourmet hostel meal out to a table in the rec room where Jay and the kid
from Pennsylvania were watching Mission: Impossible. Every now and then, Jay got up
to smoke his pipe or add wood to the fire. Other than the low sound of the movie, the
hostel was completely silent, and Lauren and I found ourselves whispering to each other
as though we were in a library. We felt guilty every time we had to walk around because
we worried that the sound of creaking boards would disturb their movie.

We were a little uncomfortable at first, feeling as though we were intruders in somebody
else’s home. But the smell of the fire and Jay’s pipe made everything feel so
comfortable, so homey, and Lauren and I finally just smiled at each other and relaxed,
enjoying the laid back atmosphere. After dinner, Lauren read while I wrote in our
journal. When the movie ended, Jay and the Pennsylvanian went upstairs to bed and we
had the large rec room to ourselves. Lauren popped in The Sandlot, while I continued to
write for another half-hour before heading up to bed ourselves. I don’t know if it was the
elevation, the thin air, or just the relaxing vibe of the hostel, but we were both exhausted
and fell asleep by nine o’clock.



DAY 9 – Monday, March 22
START: Pitkin, CO
END: Cortez, CO
MILEAGE: 226 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Car trouble

As cold as our room became overnight, the Pitkin Hostel’s shower more than made up for
it. Piping hot water spraying from a grapefruit-sized heavy-flow showerhead was just
what we needed to jumpstart our day. Augmenting this morning’s oatmeal with fresh
blueberries we’d bought the day before, we were supercharged and ready to go.

We talked to Jay for a good half-hour as we cleaned up and restocked the cooler. He told
us how he lived for free at the hostel part of the year in exchange for handiwork. When
he’s not here, he lives all over. He’s lived in Oklahoma, Michigan, Vancouver, and as a
former truck driver he’s been through every state except for Maine and Hawaii. Over a
century ago, Pitkin was a booming gold-mining town with almost two thousand residents.
According to Jay, less than a hundred people live here year-round and the town now
serves only as a residence. Other than the hostel, there are no jobs, companies, or ways
to make money in Pitkin. There used to be a restaurant, he said, but it closed down.

I came back in after loading the car and was surprised to see the rec room had gained a
few extra people. We figured out that these were the actual owners of the hostel. We
never even realized they were here the night before. Lauren asked if they wanted us to
strip the bed or anything, but the woman in charge just smiled and said not to worry about
it. In retrospect, it occurred to me that they were probably just going to make the bed and
not change the sheets. They probably hadn’t changed them from the last people who
stayed in that room. But hey, that was cool. The bed was clean with no noticeable stains
or sexually transmitted insects poking around.

Lauren and I took a walk through downtown Pitkin, which took less than ten minutes.
Jay was right. There was nothing to indicate that this town was anything but a place to
live. Even the post office looked as though it hadn’t been open for quite some time. The
town hall, which sits next door to the hostel hadn’t been used for years one of the hostel
owners told us. Outside the post office was a community bulletin board where the
townspeople could post notices of potluck dinners, baby showers and Bible studies. They
gave no addresses for any of the events’ locations, but simply said, “Meet at Jane Smith’s
house” or “Meet at the hostel.” Awesome.

I don’t know when we’ll have the opportunity, but Pitkin is a place I’d love to come back
to for a week and just chill. I’d love to experience the hostel during busier times of year.
I’d love to go hiking and exploring by day, then come back to the hostel around three in
the afternoon to rest up for the next day’s adventure. I’d love to hang out and talk with
the other guests for a few hours, rather than having just enough time to cook dinner
before everybody else goes to bed. I would love to come to Pitkin just to escape modern
society for a few days and unwind.

We got underway with such high hopes for the day. Our initial, albeit overly ambitious,
goal was to make it to Flagstaff, Arizona, over five hundred miles away, and stay the
night in another hostel that had gotten great reviews in our book. On the way we would
also check out the Four Corners and Monument Valley. By midday, our goal had
changed to simply “get down this mountain alive.”

The day started out fine. We drove along, stopping often to take pictures of snow-capped
peaks, mesas and mountains made of the reddest rock I’ve ever seen. The word Colorado
in Spanish literally means, “reddish” or “ruddy” and it was easy to see how this state got
its name. We turned south at Montrose onto U.S. 550, heading for the Four Corners.
Then somewhere south of Placerville everything went straight to hell.

We had noticed yesterday that the Mazda seemed to be having trouble accelerating, even
when we were going down the mountain. We had brushed it off at first, but now it was
impossible to ignore. On an incline, I stepped on the gas and the car stopped responding.
I pressed the pedal all the way to the floor and nothing. It wasn’t even like the engine
was revving but just couldn’t get up enough power to climb. When I stepped on the gas,
the RPM’s went down.

I managed to chug the car to the side of the road and put on my hazard lights. I popped
the hood, got out and checked everything I knew how – basically the oil and antifreeze.
The car hadn’t seemed to be overheating, but I added a little bit of coolant anyway. I
made a show of looking under the car and had Lauren pump the gas and brakes a few
times to make sure nothing was dripping. That’s where my expertise with cars ran out. I
closed the hood, got back in and started the car. It fired up without protest and we were
off again. We drove for about ten minutes before it choked again and stopped
responding. I pulled over, put on my hazards and repeated the same charade as before.

We drove for another ten minutes, finally going downhill. This time, the instant I sensed
the Mazda acting up, I floored the accelerator. That’s when the car stalled. Now we
were coasting down the Rocky Mountains with no power brakes or steering. I pulled the
emergency break and yanked hard on the steering wheel, coaxing the car into the next
pullout and grinding it to a stop before we plunged over the side of the mountain.

That one had been a little too hair-raising for both of us. We decided to call AAA and
have them send a tow truck. We had bought a AAA membership specifically for this trip
and I thought I had asked for the service where they’ll tow you up to a hundred miles.
But the man on the phone told me that they could only tow me three miles. After that it
would cost us three dollars for each additional mile. As near as I could tell, we were at
least fifty miles from the nearest town big enough to have a garage.
I told the AAA guy that we would see how far we could get on our own. I figured it
might take us awhile, but as long as the car could keep going for ten minutes at a time
before crapping out, we’d eventually get there. So I turned the key and we were off. We
kept “leapfrogging” like this for a half hour or so until the car finally coughed and didn’t
start up again. We let it sit for an extra fifteen minutes but when I turned the key, the
engine just kept cranking and cranking until the battery was about to die. Damn. It
looked like we were going to have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to get towed
after all.

I grabbed my cell phone off the dash. No service. In the thirty minutes since calling
AAA, we had descended too far into the canyons to get a signal. What were we supposed
to do now? All kinds of scenarios ran through my head. I pictured us hitching a ride
from some mountain man who would drag us off to his butcher shop and serve us for
dinner. At the very least, I pictured somebody breaking into our car and stealing
everything while we were fifty miles away hailing a tow truck.

I prayed the most sincere prayer of my life, banged on the steering wheel and swore
filthy, dirty words at the car, then turned the key. The Mazda roared to life. I thanked
God and Jesus a dozen times and we were off again. Somehow we made it to the town of
Rico. Actually, “town” is a bit too generous a word. There was an open gas station and a
couple of vacant houses. The gas station didn’t have a garage, but while I filled up,
Lauren talked to the guy running the register and told him the problem we were having.
He said it seemed to him like a clogged fuel pump or filter, confirming something I had
started suspecting myself. My own Geo Metro had once shown similar symptoms. After
numerous trips to the garage and Chevy dealer, and working that extended warranty to
the tune of several hundred dollars, the problem ended up being corrected by replacing
the thirty-dollar fuel filter.

The clerk told us that there was a garage in Delores, a town almost forty miles away, and
if we could make it there, they’d be able to fix it. We thanked him and started off again.
After gassing up, we were able to drive all the way to Delores without stopping, further
confirming in my head that it was a fuel filter problem. Close to empty, the fuel hadn’t
had been able to get through all the gunk in the filter. Now that the tank was full, there
was enough pressure or saturation or whatever to function until we got to Dolores. It
worked as a theory I suppose. Unfortunately, the garage in Delores didn’t have any
replacement filters. The mechanic told us he could fix it tomorrow. Otherwise, we’d
have to try the next town, Cortez, ten miles south.

Cortez was the first town printed in somewhat bold letters on the map since we’d turned
south back in Montrose. It looked promising and we were pretty sure we could make it.
The only question now was could we make it in time? It was getting on towards five
o’clock by this point and we weren’t sure how late the garages stayed open in this part of
Colorado.
We made it into Cortez without incident and stopped at the first garage we saw. They
were closing in ten minutes but said if we headed farther up the road there was another
place that was open until six. So we drove up to Big O Tires, who had a fuel filter and
could replace it right away. An hour later, the car was running as smooth as ever and we
paid the sixty-seven dollars for parts and labor without hesitation.

By this point, it was too late to make it to the Four Corners before dark and there were no
other towns between here and there, so we decided to just find a motel, do some laundry,
and go to bed early. That night, at a local diner, as we prayed over our burgers and
Mountain Dew, we gave plenty of thanks to our Maker for getting us down the Rocky
Mountains alive.



DAY 10 – Tuesday, March 23
START: Cortez, CO
END: Page, AZ
MILEAGE: 428 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Four Corners, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon

We were on the road by nine o’clock this morning and headed south out of Cortez along
Route 491. Until recently, this road was part of U.S. Highway 666, which ran from
Monticello, Utah, to Douglas, Arizona at the Mexican border. Sharing its moniker with
the notorious “mark of the beast” from the book of Revelation, Highway 666 had earned
itself the nickname, “The Devil’s Highway”. The curse associated with its number has
been blamed for higher-than-average accidents, many of them fatal, along its six
hundred-plus miles. The religious and superstitious alike once considered the high death
rate to be inextricably linked the devil’s own signature on this stretch of road.

Of course, as is often the case, reality is far less romantic than fiction, and the original
numbering of The Devil’s Highway wasn’t the work of pagans or Satan worshippers.
This road was simply the sixth branch created off of old Route 66, that mother of all road
trip highways. The unseemly death rate could be more adequately blamed on the terrain
that 666 passed through – treacherously winding roads through mountains, canyons and
deserts – than on any lingering satanic curse.

Over the years, more efficient highways have gradually replaced historic Route 66 and
the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
officially eliminated the highway in 1985. It exists now only in memories and Nat King
Cole songs, its last relics concealed somewhere beneath Interstate 40.

With its official link to Route 66 gone, each state was now free to rename its section of
666, whether to eliminate driver unease, reduce road sign theft, or simply make the road
an extension of other existing highways with less religiously significant numbers. In
1992, Arizona changed its stretch of U.S. 666 to U.S. 191. New Mexico, Utah and
Colorado followed suit in 2003, renaming their own piece of the Devil’s Highway, U.S.
491. Like the Mother Road, Route 666 lives on only in memories… and in really bad
acid trip movies.

Feeling secure in our own safety and salvation, we headed south on U.S. 491 toward the
Four Corners. We also made sure to pick up a generic Colorado shotglass before we left
Cortez.

Take a look at the states east of the Mississippi River compared with those west of it, and
it’s easy to see how much of a damn hurry the United States was in to settle the western
frontier. By and large, the eastern states are small and irregularly shaped, with natural
borders like rivers, lakes and oceans. These original colonies already had booming
populations before the Declaration of Independence was signed, turning them into states.
By the middle of the nineteenth century we were looking ever westward, eager to draft
more states into the Union. Unfortunately, Congress had enacted a pesky little law that
required states to have a minimum population of 60,000 people in order to be recognized.
Western settlements at the time were sparse at best. But rather than allowing themselves
to be cut out of the deal by things as trifling as rivers and mountain ranges, the settlers
and cartographers simply drew a bunch of straight lines, giving each state the extra
needed surface area to include the minimum number of residents.

The Four Corners Monument is undoubtedly the most touristy result of our forefathers’
arbitrary line drawing. It is here where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico meet, four straight lines converging on a single point, and the only place in the
country where you can stand in four states at the same time. And I guess if you own land
in an area that’s as desolate and featureless as this, you’ll do anything you can to generate
income.

We’d been told by friends not to waste our time with the Four Corners because it was
boring and stupid and not worth the side trip. But like the World’s Largest Ball of
Twine, the Four Corners was another one of those places that you just have to visit at
least once if you plan to join the ranks of serious road trippers. It was more or less along
our route to the Grand Canyon anyway, and when else would we be this close to it again?
Plus, we reasoned, every tourist attraction is only what you make of it anyway, and we’d
been making pretty good with everything we’d seen thus far. So we ignored our friends’
advice and drove the extra five miles out of our way to spend a few minutes straddling
four states.

And let me be the first to tell you we had a blast. Yes, the Four Corners is stupid. Yes, it
is lame. And yes it does seem ridiculous to pay three dollars per person just to come in
and stand on four imaginary lines. But by God, we got our money’s worth. Before I
continue, I should mention that the Four Corners Monument is run by the Navajo Nation,
and the entrance fee goes to support them, so we really did hand over our money un-
begrudgingly. The way I saw it, if this was the only craphole patch of land the United
States was willing to give to the Navajos, then they deserved to make money off it any
way humanly possible.
The focal point of the Four Corners Monument is a large open-air granite dais with a
large “X” carved into it, dissecting it into four quadrants. On each quadrant is engraved
the name and seal of the state it resides in, with the state’s flag flying overhead. At the
center of the dais is a small iron disk, about the size of a CD, showing you the exact point
where all four borders intersect. Off to the side is an elevated platform, perfect for taking
pictures of loved ones spread-eagled across the four states. Lauren and I cut ourselves
into quarters every way imaginable. I stood in Utah and leaned over, sticking my head
into New Mexico and my arms into Colorado and Arizona. Lauren laid in Colorado and
Utah while her belly hung over into Arizona and New Mexico. We handed our camera
off to a couple of other tourists and made an X with our bodies, putting a piece of us in
each state.

Even though deep down I had this lingering suspicion that the disk marking the four
corners was probably a couple hundred feet off the mark from where the actual
cartographers had drawn their lines, we still had lot of fun. Even at ten in the morning,
there were already a couple dozen tourists of all ages there. And every single one of
them was in a good mood. They were all courteous and patient as they waited their turn
on the dais, and everybody was gracious about taking pictures for other people. Even the
interstate tourists were well behaved, the kids tame and the old women quiet.

After taking our fill of pictures, we went over to a line of vendor stands where Native
American artisans were selling handmade goods, from jewelry and clothing to pottery
and dream catchers, for little more than a song. This is a common sight in the arid desert
of the American west, home to the country’s highest concentration of Indian reservations.
Indian men and women create beautiful works of art by hand, some more authentic than
others, even as they wait quietly to make a sale. In any decently run universe, the
handmade beaded hairclips and bracelets we bought should have fetched at least thirty
dollars. But since these people are forced to compete against nearby gas stations who sell
mass-produced replicas for pennies, the Navajos are forced to drop the prices of their
wares to near nothing and we spent no more than ten dollars on our trinkets. I also found
a Four Corners shot glass for five bucks.

Lauren made use of the most foul-smelling outhouse imaginable and came close to
retching. Once she composed herself, we got back in the car and backtracked five miles
to State Road 41, and headed into Utah.

Utah’s Monument Valley is perhaps the most instantly recognizable non-man-made
location in America. Favored by numerous classic Hollywood westerns like Stagecoach,
My Darling Clementine and How the West was Won, this area, characterized by dusty red
desert and towering buttes and mesas, embodies the very essence of the American West.
It was the inspiration for the mesa-filled gauntlet where Wile E. Coyote and the
Roadrunner played their games. Robert Zemeckis even shot scenes for Back to the
Future III (which takes place in 1885 California) in Monument Valley, because he
needed his audience to instantly identify and accept the setting as “old west.” Exactly
how these gravity-defying towers and spires formed was a result of millions of years of
perfectly alternating sediment and erosion.

320 million years ago, when the earth consisted of a single massive continent called
Pangea, the Rocky Mountains reached as high as the current day Himalayas. By the time
the dinosaurs were the dominant species on the planet, much of these “Ancestral
Rockies” had been eroded down to mere foothills. All of that red sandstone washed west
into current day Utah, New Mexico and Arizona where is was covered over with mud and
more sandstone by an ebbing and flowing ocean just to the west. By 205 million years
ago, the western ocean had receded, turning the entire area into a Sahara-like desert. At
the same time, eastern Utah started sinking under its own gained weight, becoming a
floodplain and dumping ground for even further sediment. While Tyrannosaurus Rex
walked the earth, Utah spent most of the Cretaceous Period underwater as the Gulf of
Mexico spread in from the east, depositing additional sediment in the form of shale, salt
and even more sandstone.

Right around the time the dinosaurs were exiting the stage permanently, the western
United States (as it was) was undergoing tumultuous seismic activity. The Sierra Nevada
mountains rose in majesty in eastern California, while in western Utah along the Wasatch
fault line, two giant landmasses tore away from each other. The land west of the line
dropped, forming the Great Basin, which represents much of current day Nevada and
western Utah. The land east of the line shot up, forming the famous Colorado Plateau, a
mostly flat expanse of land sprawling between the Sierras and Rockies, representing an
area as big as New Mexico. The uplift caused the land to break and crack, opening up
throughways for rivers and ushering in the latest round of erosion. Many of the spires,
towers and monoliths seen in Monument Valley and its surrounding areas were concealed
beneath the ground 65 million years ago. Wind and water washed the soft outer shale
away, leaving behind the harder, more resilient sandstone that been compacted and
fortified over millions of years of sedimentary pressure into the shapes they appear today.

I know that last section was the most academically book-reportish thing you’ve read here
so far. In my research on Monument Valley, I discovered that there is no one resource or
article in print or cyberspace that sums up its geological history so that a non-geologist
could understand it. Each one was exactly the same. They dropped a few big terms like
“Permian Period” and “Laramide Orogeny” and said a few passing words about erosion
that would leave the average reader feeling dumber than when they started. It took
exhaustive research (about four hours worth) to piece together what I felt was a thorough,
yet concise layman’s description, and damn it, I meant to write it all down to save others
like me the same aggravation. So feel privileged. This is the best short history of
Monument Valley anywhere on the internet… and maybe beyond.

The sun was shining and the sky was clear blue as we drove west on U.S. Highway 163
in near silence admiring the dusty red landscape, peppered with only small canyons and
wide mesas so far. At one point we passed a flock of sheep grazing from a small patch of
grass at the side of the road. We pulled over to look when out of the flock popped the
heads of two small white dogs. They walked to the edge of the road and stared at us as
the sheep continued to graze behind them. Looking around, I saw no fences or manmade
boundaries keeping the sheep in place. Instead, their owners had put honest-to-God
sheep dogs in charge of them, to lead them and protect them from thieves, wolves and
curious tourists. Awesome.

As we approached the intersection of U.S. 191 in Bluff, our jaws dropped. Right in front
of us was a sheer wall of red rock a hundred feet high, at the top of which were two
identical freestanding chimney-like towers with matching “heads” on top – the “Navajo
Twins.”

From this point on, the scenery kept getting more and more breathtaking. The rock
formations became taller and more defined and the landscape was painted with even
more brilliant reds. At one point we came around a sharp bend in the road and gasped.
The valley in front of us looked like a huge chalk drawing with alternating reds, oranges
and grays. Even though we were on a blind mountain curve and a sign warned us not to
stop, I was still compelled to pull onto the shoulder and snap several pictures.

A few miles later we pulled off the main highway and drove down a dirt road to Mexican
Hat – a giant sandstone formation so named because it supposedly looks like an upside
down sombrero. Sixty feet in diameter and perched seemingly precariously atop an
abutment a hundred feet high, this was definitely the most gravity-defying sight along
this particular stretch of road. The eastern side of Utah is full of formations like this that
seem to ignore the laws of physics. Had we driven north, we could have seen more
otherworldly rock wonders at Natural Bridges National Monument, Goblin Valley State
Park (which was featured in the movie Galaxy Quest), and Arches National Park where
Edward Abbey, the famous militant naturalist, found the inspiration for his book Desert
Solitaire. But we had a Grand Canyon to get to, so we continued west.

Before getting back in the car, we realized that, at some point between Colorado and
here, the temperature had risen to about eighty degrees and we were still in long pants.
We opened the trunk and changed into shorts and sandals right out in the open, broke out
some fresh water bottles and continued on our way.

It wasn’t long before we had reached the place that Monument Valley is perhaps most
famous for: a long straight stretch of road disappearing behind a cluster of rock towers
and spires. When most people think of Monument Valley, this is the picture they
remember. Amongst other things, this was the stretch of road where Tom Hanks decides
to stop running in the movie Forest Gump. Lauren and I took plenty of pictures and even
propped our film camera on top of the car in order to get a shot with the two of us in it –
something we realized we hadn’t been doing much of so far on this trip.

For the truly adventurous, there are dozens of dirt roads and hiking trails off the main
drag that will take you in and among these sandstone beauties. If we had had more time,
a tent, or a non-pregnant passenger, I would have loved to spend a day or seven poking
around, taking pictures and seeing the land from a point of view that an interstate tourist
could never hope to see. Since we had none of the above, we continued on our way,
stopping to take more pictures of unendingly red cliffs and jagged rocks that resembled
Easter Island heads and the castles of evil sorcerers.

Just over the border, in Kayenta, Arizona I looked all over for a Monument Valley
shotglass, but none of the four gas stations at the lone intersection in town had one. As
we continued southwest along U.S. Route 160, we checked every gas station and gift
shop we passed, but the farther we got from Monument Valley, the bleaker the prospects
became until we finally gave up.

As afternoon progressed and we drove through Arizona’s famous painted desert, the skies
started clouding up. Somewhere in front of us, a cloud appeared to be falling, the telltale
sign of rain in the distance. As it hit ground, another cloud, one of pinkish orange dust,
rose up to meet it. All around us, the desert was taking on an ominous, almost mystical
aura.

We had been listening primarily to country music over the last week. Driving through
the backwoods and prairies of Middle America, it was the only sound that seemed fitting.
But now, as the skies turned dark, lighting flashed in the distance and dust storms formed
on the horizon, I decided it was time to change moods. I had burned two CD’s for just
such a scenario. Labeled “Desert Sunrise” and “Bayou Sunset”, these were my
“isolation” mixes. Some songs conjured up images of bearded drifters in dusty towns,
where the only sane people are just passing through (Turn the Page by Bob Seger, Willin
by Little Feat, Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd). Others simply conjured up feelings of a
peyote drug trip in the middle of the desert during a full moon (Little Wing by Stevie Ray
Vaughn, Mandelgrove by Blue Man Group, One of These Days by Pink Floyd).

With the image of Kokopellis dancing somewhere in the hidden wastes, I allowed myself
to ease into the essence of the desert and the groove of the music even as we drove
headlong into a blinding whirlwind of pink sand followed by an equally blinding
downpour of rain.

The Grand Canyon is one of the only places in America where being at least fifty miles
from the nearest anything doesn’t deter everybody and their illegitimate brother from
schlepping their minivans and Winnebago’s out to see it. The closest interstate is fifty-
seven miles away. The closest city is seventy-nine miles away. Were this any other
attraction, only a handful of Americans would make the trek through the vastly empty
landscape, far from the comfort of reliable restrooms and Wendy’s. Yet the Grand
Canyon is host to over five million visitors per year – quite a testament to what people
will endure to stare at a large hole. I’d say only Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming,
with over four million visitors per year, has a comparable “tourists to miles-out-of-the-
way” ratio.

Of course the Park Service has made it as enticing as possible for all who make the
journey. Inside the park they offer everything from restaurants to gift shops to flower-
scented bathrooms with clean flushable toilets (a rarity in a national park). There are
even several hotels located within the park boundaries. Compare that to Joshua Tree
National Monument, four hundred miles away in the California desert, where the only
facilities are badly ventilated outhouses.

I’ve always felt a certain degree of smugness toward the Grand Canyon. And not just
because it’s a breeding ground for interstate tourists. Mostly it’s my own feelings of
inadequacy. Simply driving in and standing at a government-sanctioned lookout, I don’t
feel as though I’ve earned the right to see what I’m seeing. I read a quote by a German
philosopher once that said, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Beauty
and majesty this breathtaking should only be discovered through at least a modicum of
sweat and exertion, not handed to you at the end of a paved road. Someday, I promised
myself, I would earn it. I would take a backpack and hike down to the bottom of the
canyon, sit beside the raging Colorado River that carved it, and far from the screaming
kids and clunky SUV’s a mile above me, I would say, “Thank you,” before hiking back
out.

Lauren and I didn’t get to do that on this trip. Instead, we walked hand-in-hand to the
Desert View lookout and gazed out at the canyon with about a hundred other truly
dumbfounded people. Smugness aside, only the most jaded individual could not stand in
awe of the Grand Canyon. We watched as clouds rolled in and played games with light
and shadow on the red and brown walls. We ran inside when it started pouring again,
and while Lauren made use of the flushable toilets, I poked around in the gift shop until I
found a Grand Canyon shot glass. I also bought a generic Arizona glass (with “Phoenix”
spelled wrong) just for good measure.

We spent the next hour or so driving from lookout to lookout, admiring each new angle
of the canyon. As sunset approached, we were at the Grand View lookout with several
dozen other people. We were about to head to the next lookout when I saw two guys
walk out of the brush nearby. Apparently there was a trail there that went all the way to
the bottom. Lauren and I hiked down a little just to get away from the crowd and found a
nice flat rock to sit on and watch the sunset. Even just a few hundred feet from the other
tourists, it was serenely quiet down here. Nothing but the wind and the sound of
somebody playing a Native American flute up above.

Ten miles across the chasm, on the North Rim, we could make out the tiny pinpricks of
car headlights meandering down the road and the occasional flash of a camera. How
anybody expected a camera flash to illuminate the Grand Canyon is beyond me. From
this far away the dense covering of evergreen trees looked like nothing more than a thick
blanket of grass. The canyon continued to change colors until the sun dipped below the
horizon. As the rainstorm moved farther away we saw the occasional streak of lightning
in the clouds.

It was already pitch black by the time we exited the park and began our 120-mile trip
north to Page, Arizona. We had originally wanted to stay in the hostel in Flagstaff that
we’d heard such good things about, but we were still trying to make up for yesterday’s
lost time, and Flagstaff was in the opposite direction from where we were headed
tomorrow.
We were both starving but there wasn’t a single restaurant, or any sign of human activity
for that matter, in any of the empty transit towns we passed through. By the time we got
to Page, we just wanted to find a motel, grab a bite and get to bed. We ended up getting
lost and drifting down some dark side road in town and the next thing we knew there
were blue lights flashing behind us, and a cop was pulling me over. Apparently I had
been doing 55 in a 35. I played the part of the dumb New Jersey tourist and he let me off
with a written warning then gave us directions to the Taco Bell and Super 8.



DAY 11 – Wednesday, March 24 (32 weeks pregnant)
START: Page, AZ
END: Ely, NV
MILEAGE: 455 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Glen Canyon Dam, Pahreah Ghost Town


For something powerful enough to have carved out the Grand Canyon, the Colorado
River has a long history of flakiness. Heavily dependant on Rocky Mountain snowmelt
from as far north as Wyoming, the Colorado’s water level can rise and fall dramatically
from one year to another, making it an unreliable source of water for more than a few
thousand people. When a river passes through mostly desert, that’s not exactly the vote
of confidence a potential real estate buyer wants to hear. The solution? Build a dam. Or
more accurately, build several dams.

Beginning in 1936, with the completion of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam in Nevada, the
full might of the Colorado River and its tributaries has been harnessed and controlled by
over twenty dams. As a result, the river rarely makes it all the way to its former terminus
in the Gulf of California. There has been controversy of every kind of course. Any time
humans interfere with nature and flood an entire region, there are always plenty of people
with something to say about it. But nowhere along the Colorado has there been more
outcry than at the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona.

Glen Canyon, as well as the many side canyons that feed into it, used to be a veritable
Eden full of hanging gardens, animals of every kind, and an untold number of Anasazi
ruins and petroglyphs carved into the sometimes two-thousand-foot-high canyon walls. It
was these very same walls, made of strong durable sandstone, that led engineers to pick
this particular spot to dam the river. The rock was strong enough and the canyon narrow
enough to support the high dam, and the surrounding basin was large enough to contain
the lake that would eventually form behind it – effectively drowning the mostly
untouched paradise. Environmentalists fought hard, knowing this dam would be the
death of Glen Canyon.
They lost their fight. Initial blasting and construction began in 1956. In 1959, a bridge
was built across the canyon, increasing the speed at which the dam could be built. Before
that, crews had to travel 200 miles to cross from one side of the canyon to the other.
Workers started pouring concrete in 1960 and continued dumping bucketful by 24-ton
bucketful non-stop until 1963. The dam was completed in 1966, at which point it took
seventeen years for the Colorado River to slowly back up behind the giant wall, forming
Lake Powell. Today, all the beauty and splendor that used to be Glen Canyon lies in a
grave four hundred feet below this 186-mile-long reservoir.

Of course, this isn’t the way they tell the story at the dam’s visitor center. They speak
only of the solutions the dam has created: from a reliable water supply to a source of
electricity and a boon for lake-centered tourism.

I wanted to visit Glen Canyon, not for its dam, but for its bridge. After seeing it on a
website one day, I was sure this was the beautiful canyon-spanning bridge I’d seen in
countless car commercials. I wanted to walk out onto that bridge and stand over the
middle of that canyon looking down. Here now, Lauren and I looked out at the dam
through several thoughtfully placed peepholes in the chain-link fence.

It’s amazing how simultaneously repulsive and beautiful something can be. At the time,
we had no idea about Glen Canyon’s sordid history. I only knew that in spite of its
ominously flat gray appearance, the dam was truly a sight to behold; seven hundred and
ten feet of solid concrete (taller than the St. Louis Arch) hard-fastened into the canyon
walls, holding back who knew how many millions of gallons of water. Underneath us,
the river continued lazily on its way through the narrow canyon as though it had never
encountered this unnatural barrier.

Looking down it also occurred to me that, if one were so inclined, this would be a really
cool place to commit suicide.

The Glen Canyon Dam still continues to be a source of great controversy. Regardless of
the damage it has done to Glen Canyon, the dam, or more accurately, the lake that it
created, is regarded as one of the biggest logistical goofs of the twentieth century. Lake
Powell is considered far too large a storage tank for the amount of water it actually
provides to the surrounding areas. According to the Glen Canyon Institute, it loses
enough water to evaporation and bank seepage every year to supply the annual water
needs of Los Angeles! In addition, all the sediment brought in by the Colorado River is
quickly collecting at the bottom of the reservoir. Already, the dam’s power-generating
abilities are a fraction of what they once were due to build-up near the turbines. Within a
hundred years, scientists predict sediment will be high enough to make the lake unsafe in
the event of an earthquake or flood. In seven hundred years, sediment will fill the lake
completely.

There have been a bevy of solutions proposed to deal with the ever-escalating problems
surrounding Glen Canyon. Many people have recommended decommissioning the dam
and diverting the river around it, allowing the lake to gradually drain and eventually
restoring Glen Canyon to its former glory. Edward Abbey, in his book The Monkey
Wrench Gang, suggests the more direct approach of driving a houseboat full of
explosives to the base of the dam and setting it off. Meanwhile, the Friends of Lake
Powell assert that the lake and dam are just fine, and that changing anything would have
more negative effects on tourism and the environment than positive.

Before the dam was built, Glen Canyon was up for consideration as a national park. Now
the dam site itself has earned that dubious distinction. Before we left, Lauren and I made
sure to get our National Park passport stamped with the Glen Canyon seal, unaware at the
time of the irony.

We continued west on U.S. 89 back into Utah to begin a part of the trip that I had been
looking forward to for several years – the search for ghost towns. This was the very
essence of Backroad, America that I was seeking. Middle of nowhere places that at one
time were fully functional mining or railroad towns but that, for all intents and purposes,
no longer existed except in history books and in the crumbling ruins they left behind.

I had done a good deal of research ahead of time on websites like www.ghosttowns.com
looking for likely candidates, places that would be worth the time and effort needed to
explore them. Your typical ghost town isn’t generally located right off the highway.
Most that I researched can only be accessed via dirt roads in varying stages of disrepair.
Since we were only driving a Mazda Protégé, I immediately ruled out any town that
required four-wheel-drive access. I also ruled out any town that didn’t appear to have a
substantial number of ruins left. No sense in going an hour out of our way just to look at
half of an old water tank.

Pahreah, our first ghost town stop, had a double history. The original town was settled
somewhere between 1869-1872, depending on whose history you read, along the banks
of the Pahreah River, and consisted of about forty families. The river’s constant flooding
forced everyone to abandon the settlement after only forty years, but the town was reborn
in the 1930’s as a frequently used old west movie backdrop. The flooding eventually
forced even Hollywood to abandon the site and build a replica of the town two miles
away in 1963 for the movie Sergeants 3 – starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and
Sammy Davis Jr. Over the years, dozens of westerns have been shot in Old Pahreah and
the newly constructed “town” of “Paria”. According to the websites I was reading, the
entire “Paria” set, as well as several structures in Old Pahreah were still standing.

Lauren and I found the turnoff from Route 89 and headed down a red dirt road toward
“Paria”. A sign at the head of the road sternly warned motorists not to attempt the drive
if it had recently rained. Even though we had driven through a downpour in Arizona the
day before, this entire area was still bone dry and for the first couple miles, the trip was
easy – just a set of tire tracks over flat land. About a mile from the movie set, the road
narrowed, beginning a steep descent into a valley, and we couldn’t help but wonder what
we’d do if we met a car coming the other way. Pulling onto the shoulder was out of the
question because well… there was no shoulder. Instead, there was a sheer fifty-foot drop
on either side, with not a guardrail in sight. At the back of my mind I was also
wondering if the car would have enough power to make it back up this hill. All around
us the landscape was alive with reds and pinks that outdid even the scenery in Monument
Valley. I got a little too preoccupied admiring it all and snapped out of my trance just in
time to realize I had inched over to within three feet of the precipice.

We parked in a big dirt lot with two or three other cars. While Lauren made use of the
outhouse, I walked up “Main Street” toward downtown “Paria”, shielding my eyes from
the stinging windblown dust that had started kicking up. I was amazed at how well
preserved the buildings seemed to be. I reasoned it must be the desert air with no
humidity that keeps them from decaying. Turns out, the buildings really weren’t that
well preserved at all, but were in fact only five years old. The chronic flooding that has
plagued this area since the first settlement apparently took its toll on the Paria movie set
as well, rendering most of the structures unstable. The Kane County council didn’t want
to lose out on one of its only tourist attractions, so they commissioned a team to
dismantle and then rebuild the foundering “town.”

I felt a little gypped, expecting to see relics from the past and instead getting a salesman’s
pitch. Still, we made the best of it. After Lauren made her way up the street through a
mini dust storm, we started snapping pictures. She stood in the balcony, blowing down
kisses like some old west hooker, and I played the part of John Wayne coming out the
Saloon’s batwing doors. Behind the saloon, a tall butte resembling the “chalk drawing”
valley we’d seen the day before stood watch over the fake town.

After we’d gotten our fill of the Old West (Hollywood-rebuilt-replica-style), we drove a
little farther down the road toward Old Pahreah. Unfortunately, the river was still rearing
its ugly head and less than a quarter mile in, at a dip in the road, our way was blocked by
moving water. It was only a couple inches deep and a few feet wide, and I knew we
probably could have made it across if I gunned it, but the warning on the sign we’d seen
at the start of the road was ringing in my head. The last thing we needed was for the car
to get stuck in a bed of quicksand… or worse, loosen the dirt just enough to let the creek
wash us into a ravine. Old Pahreah was another mile or so down the road, and on any
other trip, we probably would have grabbed some water, slapped on some sunblock and
hiked in. But Lord knew what kind of hills we’d have to climb over to get there and
really the last thing we needed was to induce labor fifty miles from the nearest town.

Instead, we drove back and walked around the Pahreah cemetery for a few minutes. Each
grave was made of a similar carved piece of sandstone. Either the inscriptions had been
erased after years of sand blasting, or they never existed to begin with. Instead there was
a solitary monument at the entrance listing the names of everybody buried there. We
noticed that an unseemly large percentage of the deceased had been children. Here and
there, flowers had been placed next to a headstone. Apparently, descendents of the
original Pahreah residents still lived in the area.

We headed back up the narrow road to the highway without incident and continued west
to our next ghost town, Johnson, another Old West movie set that had been used for the
TV show Gunsmoke. The directions to Johnson were even sketchier than the ones to
Pahreah, which had only said, “Six miles off Route 89, about thirty miles east of Kanab.”
Our directions to Johnson consisted of a dot on a map, a half-inch north of Route 89, with
no indication of which road you took to get there. So when we saw a secondary road
heading north with a sign pointing toward “Johnson Canyon” we took it. I don’t know if
we made a wrong turn there or what, but we never found the ghost town. At one point,
we saw a cluster of buildings that looked like they might resemble an old west movie set,
but they appeared to be on private property, so we continued north.

The scenery continued to be amazing as we meandered our way toward Cedar City.
When the pavement ended and we drove for almost twenty miles on a dirt road, we just
laughed and said, “This is what this road trip is all about.”

Our goal for the night was to make it to Ely, Nevada. From Cedar City, the most direct
route was via a couple of state roads that cut right across the desert and mountains and
met up with U.S. 50 in Nevada. We got squeamish at the last minute at the thought of
driving through potentially dangerous terrain at night on a small state road, so we decided
to take I-15 up to U.S. 50 and then shoot west from there to Ely.

It was 7:30 and already dark by the time we got to Route 50 and Ely was still another 178
miles away. We debated finding a hotel near the interstate, but we were still trying to
make up time from our day of car troubles. We ate and gassed up in Hinckley, the last
official town for more than eighty miles, then pulled onto Route 50 and headed west.

Like a lot of roads in this part of the country, Route 50 is difficult to drive at night,
simply because the towns are spaced so far apart and there is zero visual stimulation for
miles and miles at a time. For the most part the road is completely straight, which sounds
like it would be easy, but it eventually hypnotizes you to the point where you don’t
realize when the road does start to bend. Thank God for rumble strips. We turned off our
music and opted for comedy tapes and recordings of “Friends” episodes to give my brain
any stimulation we could to avoid spacing out and driving us off the road.

Around nine o’clock, we noticed a light in the distance. We figured it must be a car, but
there was only one light, not two. It seemed too bright to be the single light of a
motorcycle. I thought maybe it was a train. Perhaps there were tracks paralleling this
road. For five minutes we watched this light as it occasionally dimmed and brightened
but never seemed to get any closer. “What the hell is that?” we kept asking. Was it a
floodlight on a building? Why wasn’t it getting any closer? My imagination started
running wild again and I pictured some ancient evil that had just awoken from its slumber
and was drawing us, ever so slowly, into its deadlights. After almost ten minutes, the
light finally seemed to draw near and separate. The two lights dimmed and suddenly we
realized that it was, in fact, another car. Thirty seconds later, the car blew past us and put
on its high beams again.

“Oh my god, how straight is this road?” I asked out loud. We were doing almost eighty
miles an hour and I could only assume that the other car had been doing the same. We
had been seeing his lights for about ten minutes. Some quick algebra indicated that we
had seen him from almost thirty miles away. Yet, just like that, his taillights were
already receding behind us.

Just over the Nevada line we stopped at a solitary gas station to fill up and let Lauren pee.
After pumping, I went inside to wait for Lauren and saw that the bar/casino attached to
the gas station was packed with people. Music was blaring and people were drinking,
smoking and laughing. Apparently on this side of the middle of nowhere, this was the
happening place. I felt awkward just standing there, so I dropped a couple of quarters
into a slot machine and when it ate them, poked around at the CD’s and tapes for sale,
looking for a new comedy album.

An hour later, we finally pulled into Ely (rhymes with “really”) and collapsed on our
clean Motel 6 bed.



DAY 12 – Thursday, March 25
START: Ely, NV
END: Orangevale, CA
MILEAGE: 483 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Loneliest Road In America, Hamilton ghost town, blizzard

In 1987, Life magazine ran an article referring to Nevada’s stretch of U.S. Route 50 as
“The Loneliest Road in America.” The article said that the 287-mile highway across
Nevada’s sparsely populated high desert had no points of interest, and warned its readers
not to attempt the drive unless they had honed their survival skills. Rather than complain
about how wrong and mean-spirited the article was, the Nevada Commission on Tourism,
as well as the residents and merchants in the widely spaced towns along Route 50, did the
American thing and capitalized on the negative publicity.

Knowing there was an entire population of travelers who were eager to escape the
crowded interstates, they embraced the derogatory remark with road signs declaring,
“Hwy 50: The Loneliest Road In America.” Instead of scaring people away, the Route
50 boosters knew the ominous title would attract road trippers eager for a little bit of
adventure. The tourism department even made up Highway 50 “Survival Kits” for
motorists, full of maps and brochures, to be dispensed by participating stores and
businesses. What started off as a word of caution became the hottest marketing campaign
this part of Nevada could have hoped for.

Checking into the Motel 6 the night before, I had mentioned to the clerk that we were
“doing the whole loneliest road thing.” He thankfully ignored my slip of the tongue
(never asking who the other part of “we” was for this guy who had asked for a single
occupancy room) and instead, handed me my Survival Kit. In addition to all the tourist
guides, there was also a piece of paper inside with the names of the five “major” towns
along the lonely section of Route 50. We were encouraged to stop and buy something in
each town, where the participating vendor would then “cancel” that town on our passport
with an “I SURVIVED” stamp. If we collected stamps from each town, the Nevada
Commission on Tourism would send us an official Highway 50 Survivor’s certificate,
bumper sticker and lapel pin.

We were packed up, gassed up, oatmealed up, and even got our first “I SURVIVED”
stamp by nine o’clock. From Ely, the next major town was Eureka, over seventy miles
away. But before that, we planned on visiting the somewhat less populated town of
Hamilton.

As far as ghost towns go, Hamilton is the mother load. What started off as a small
settlement of around thirty people became a magnet for miners and fortune seekers after
silver was discovered in 1867. Two years later, Hamilton had more than 25,000
residents, along with churches, hotels, banks, breweries, general stores, a courthouse, a
newspaper and over a hundred saloons. The boom lasted less than ten years before all the
silver had been mined and the big companies moved out. Fires destroyed enough of the
town to force most everybody else out by 1885, although a few stragglers stuck around
into the 1920’s before vacating the town for good. In their wake, they left enough ruins
to make even the most seasoned ghost town seeker salivate. The remains of old mills,
hotels, a reservoir, and even a Wells Fargo building are still standing back in the
mountains about eleven miles off of Route 50. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any of
it.

We tried. Lord knows we tried.

We circled back and forth several times on Route 50 before spotting the Hamilton
historical marker. From there we drove south on a bumpy dirt road with steep grades and
sharp narrow bends – tricky, but nothing the Mazda couldn’t handle. Then, about four
miles from the old mining town, we came to an impassable barrier: a deep patch of mud
that covered the road for about twenty feet. Ever the optimist, I dropped the Mazda into
low gear and tried to muscle through it. We got in as far as the length of the car before
the wheels started spinning in place and we could go no further.

I sighed only once before shifting into reverse. I was worried for a second that the
wheels would continue to spin and give us no traction, but by pressing gently on the gas I
was able to slowly coax the car backwards. Unfortunately, for every foot we moved
backwards, we were also sliding about six inches to the side – right toward a steep drop-
off at the edge of the road.

I immediately told Lauren to get out of the car. Partly for her safety, but mostly I needed
her to stand back and tell me exactly how close I was to the edge. If we couldn’t back
out of this safely, I wasn’t sure what we’d do. We had no cell service out here and it was
a long walk back to the nearest town. Little by little, I backed the car up. Even though
Lauren kept telling me I still had several feet between me and the edge, I got out several
times to verify exactly how much space I was working with. After about five minutes we
managed to back the car safely out of the mud and clear the drop-off with a good couple
inches to spare.

During the process, our shoes had become absolutely disgusting. Near freezing mud and
rocks were stuck to the bottom of our sneakers and wouldn’t let go. Kicking and
scraping them against the car did nothing to clean them off. We had to physically break
the mud off with our hands and then try to wash our hands with snow. As our fingers
froze and became progressively number, we decided to change into hiking boots and put
the muddies into a plastic bag to clean later.

While we were changing, I looked back down the road and jumped, startled to see a silver
pick-up truck with two men inside coming around the bend. My initial reaction was to let
my imagination get the better of me. “That’s it for us. We’re dead.”

The Mazda was sitting in the middle of the road, blocking the way, so I quickly
composed myself and walked over to the pick-up to tell them we had gotten stuck and
needed to turn around. The driver, a man in his late forties or early fifties with a
mustache and baseball cap, laughed (though not meanly) and pulled his truck as far off
the road and up the embankment as he could. I performed a twenty-point K-turn (never
coming closer than five feet to the edge), and got the Mazda pointing back down the
mountain.

When I walked back to the pick-up to tell the two men we were all set, the driver asked if
we were headed up to Hamilton too. When I told him that had been the plan, he asked if
we wanted to hitch a ride with them. The safe and sensible part of me should have said,
“No, that’s okay, I appreciate it,” but that other side of me, the suicidally adventurous
side, jumped in first.

I turned to Lauren, shrugged my shoulders and said, “You wanna?”

Her eyes went wide with the man’s unexpected invitation and my even more unexpected
acceptance, but she shrugged back and said, “Um… okay.”

While we gathered up cameras and sweatshirts, the two men cleared out the back seat of
their Ford F-150. I locked the Mazda’s doors, though I’m still not sure why. A diligent
thief would certainly have been able to break the windows and rob us at his leisure while
we were four miles away in Hamilton. Back at the pick-up, we all made introductions.
Gary and Travis were a father and son team from California who were road tripping the
western states for a week while Travis, the son, was on spring break. Travis was gracious
enough to recognize Lauren’s “condition” and give her the front seat and I hopped in
back with him. After everybody had buckled up, we were off, the F-150’s four-wheel-
drive and high clearance running over the mud that had bogged us down like it was
asphalt.

We bumped along for about a mile, the road alternating between bigger ruts and thicker
mud. I was glad I hadn’t been able to force the Mazda through that first mud patch
because we definitely wouldn’t have made it much farther. Even the pick-up was having
trouble with some of this slop. Gary wielded his Ford like a pro and got us through it all,
but eventually we came to a point where even the pick-up couldn’t continue. A recent
avalanche had buried the road under four feet of snow.

Not to be deterred, Gary spotted a pair of old tire tracks leading off road and up the
mountain. Dropping into low gear, he gunned the engine and we started climbing,
rocking back and forth over bumps and ruts the size of medicine balls. How we didn’t tip
over sideways or backwards is still beyond my comprehension. We held on tight, and
Travis and I gave a couple of token Yee-haw’s to encourage Gary. Before long, all the
effort was for naught when a large trench blocked our forward progress. The mountain
was too steep and rocky to drive up and around it, and the road below us was still covered
in snow.

We all got out of the truck to look around and pick our next point of attack. It was hard
to tell just how far the ghost town was from here, so Travis suggested we walk to the top
of the ridge to see what we could see from there. I looked up at the steep climb and then
at Lauren with her eight-months-pregnant belly and asked if she wanted me to hang back
with her. I thought I had hid the boyish excitement in my voice and the longing on my
face, but Lauren smiled at me knowingly and said, “Just go. I’m okay.” I kissed her then
took off with Travis at a moderate trot. Gary continued behind us at a much slower pace
while Lauren was content to stay put and pee in privacy.

Travis and I trudged upward on top of the hard frozen snow. Here and there we broke
through the upper crust and sank in up to our knees. We were close to ten thousand feet
at this point and I could already taste the blood vessels in the back of my throat opening
up, screaming for oxygen. Even Travis, a volunteer fire fighter, was sucking wind before
we were halfway up the ridge. We stopped several times to catch our breath and look out
at the amazing panoramic view. From this high up we could see perhaps fifty miles
across a wide empty valley to the snowcapped peaks on the other side. There wasn’t a
single sign of human life anywhere in sight.

After ten minutes of walking and jogging, we made it to the top of the ridge, and were
greeted with a view of… more mountains. We could make out the road farther below as
it wound its way around and then over the next mountain, no longer snowed under. It
was at least another mile walk from where we were standing to the top of the next ridge.
From there, who knew how much farther it would be to Hamilton. Travis and I, the
young and vital ones, might have been able to make it there in a couple hours – if we
didn’t pass out from elevation sickness first. But there was no way the elder Gary or the
pregnant Lauren were going to agree to that trek. So finally, after all that effort, we gave
up the fight and headed back down the mountain to break the news.

Everyone was disappointed of course, but quite chipper nonetheless. It had been an
adventure in the truest sense, complete with foreign territory, rugged terrain and
mysterious strangers with tales from afar. Okay, so it was just a small group of
Americans in a pick-up truck in Nevada, but still, we felt like Lewis and freakin’ Clark.
This was what this road trip was all about.

Back at the Mazda we all said our goodbyes and Gary and Travis followed us back to the
Loneliest Road where we parted ways. They headed back toward Ely while we
continued west.

We hit Eureka an hour later, grabbing some burgers and milkshakes at DJ’s Diner &
Drive In. There wasn’t much else in the way of shopping or entertainment in town, so we
got our passport stamped and continued on our way to Austin where we filled our gas
tank and got our next stamp. We walked down the utterly dead Main Street for a few
minutes, looking around inside the only other open store in town, an antiques shop,
hoping to find a Loneliest Road shot glass or postcard. With no such luck, we hit the
highway yet again.

In spite of the fact that snow covered several of the mountains around us, the temperature
was in the upper sixties. I rolled down the windows and popped another mix into the CD
player. This one, my “Classic Rock Driving” mix, was full of cruisin’ southern rock
songs with great electric guitars and awesome guitar solos that went on forever. With the
wind blowing in my face, one hand hanging loosely over the steering wheel, the other
drumming the Mazda’s roof, and my head bobbing along to songs like “Slow Ride” by
Foghat, “Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “Jessica” by the
Allman Brothers, I grinned, relishing the feel of the (very) open road. Ahead, Highway
50 narrowed to a dot at the horizon. To our left and right we saw only sand and shrub,
with telephone poles and a continuous barbed wire fence (and the road of course) as the
only evidence of human intervention.

The skies were starting to turn cloudy and a few isolated drops fell as we pulled off the
road to check out the remains of an old Pony Express changing station. The FedEx of its
time, the Pony Express was a privately run enterprise intended to keep the eastern states
in touch with the western frontier by running messages via horseback from St. Joseph,
Missouri to Sacramento, California. Changing stations like this were positioned every
15-20 miles along the route where riders could quickly switch their load to a fresh horse
and continue on.

The logistics of running such an ambitious operation made it impossible for the Pony
Express to turn a profit. When you took into account the costs associated with a fleet of
horses, plus hazard pay for riders and station staff working in frontier areas known for
hostile Indian attacks, the endeavor barely made enough money from the moment of its
inception to stay in business. When a transcontinental telegraph was completed eighteen
months after, the Pony Express became obsolete overnight, leaving little evidence of its
own existence behind. A few crumbling stations like the one on the side of Route 50 are
all that remain of the legendary mail delivery service. All that was left of this particular
station were a few waist-high stone walls.
I was a little put off by the fact that the ruins were contained on the other side of a chain
link fence topped with barbed wire. But I guess I understood. Route 50 is a fairly major
thoroughfare, running from Washington, DC all the way to San Francisco, California.
Lonely road or not, it still brings with it plenty of inconsiderate tourists who have as
much regard for historical relics as they do for a McDonald’s restroom. Lord knows if
that fence wasn’t there, the few remaining stones would now be nothing but scattered
pebbles on the ground from countless parents encouraging their snot-nosed kids to climb
on the walls for pictures.

A sign on the other side of the road indicated that there was another station, even better
preserved than the one we’d been looking at, about two miles away via a hiking trail. Yet
another thing that on any other trip we might have thrown on a backpack to go check out.
But when you’re traveling on a road that dubs itself the Loneliest in America, where the
nearest town could be as much as fifty miles away, and the nearest hospital even farther
than that, the prudent thing is to keep your pregnant wife as close to the car and road as
possible.

“Someday,” I told Lauren… Someday.

A few miles later we passed a shoetree on the side of the road. Hundreds of shoes had
been flung over the branches of this hundred-foot-tall cottonwood. Everything from
sneakers to boots to scuba flippers and even horseshoes. Scattered about the bottom of
the tree and in the ditch behind it were dozens more that had fallen out. I grabbed a
bundle of about ten shoes that had all been tied together and tried to heave them back up
into the tree, missing the lowest branch by several feet. How on earth did people get
some of these bigger bundles onto the higher branches? They certainly couldn’t have
thrown them that high. Somebody must have climbed at least part way up to plant them
on the tippy-top branches.

There are dozens of shoetrees all over America, each with a story of its own. The story
(urban legend?) behind this particular shoetree is that a married couple was spending part
of their honeymoon camped beneath the tree. One night they got into an argument and
the woman told her husband that she’d sooner walk home than drive with him. “Well
then you’ll be walking barefoot,” he told her then threw her shoes into the tree before
driving off to have a drink at a nearby bar. The bartender convinced the man to go back
and make amends with his wife, which he did, and a year later they brought their first
child to the tree and threw his shoes into the branches as well. Since then, people from
all over the country have been making contributions. I don’t know how. They must have
an arm like Joe Montana to hike those big bundles up there. But I digress.

Fallon and Fernley were the last and biggest towns on Route 50, but we still couldn’t find
a single store that had a Loneliest Road shot glass or postcard. In Fernley, we had to go
to four different gas stations before we found one that had the last “I SURVIVED” stamp
for our passport. We didn’t poke around in either town. Evening was approaching and
we were aiming to make it to Orangevale, California, to my friend Laura’s house by
nightfall. So after a day full of discovery and adventure, we left the Loneliest Road and
hopped on the interstate.

I had first heard about The Loneliest Road in America from the book DESPERATION by
Stephen King. As the story goes, the ancient demon “Tak” rises from an abandoned
silver mine in the middle of nowhere along Nevada’s Route 50, and proceeds to kill every
man, woman and child in the fictional title town, as well as several travelers passing
through – in increasingly grisly and ghastly ways of course. I read the book and
promptly decided that I needed to drive that road and see for myself just how lonely it
was.

After today, my conclusion was that yes Route 50 is remote, yes it is desolate, and yes its
towns are the kind of sparse transit towns I had been seeking in my search for Backroad,
America. But Route 50 is in no way unique in its remoteness. One of my favorite drives
when I lived in Southern California was a small road out in the Mojave Desert that ran
from the town of Twentynine Palms a hundred miles north to Interstate 40, passing
through just one little town on the way – Amboy, population: 20. There was nothing
quaint or precocious about the town. It simply was what it was. A dusty little town in
the middle of nowhere.

The towns along Route 50, for as dusty and remote as they were, still had the faint air of
tourism clinging to them. I’m sure that was largely due to the cute little survival kit we
were carrying around as well as the bright blue “Loneliest Road in America” signs
plastered all along the highway. For as much as this area has embraced that moniker, and
for as much as they’ve made the best of bad publicity, the fact that they play it up so
much and try to make it as fun as possible has, in a way, tarnished the sense of eerie
danger I was hoping to find here. It was like they had turned something cool and
ominous into something safe and friendly.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still not a road to be taken lightly. Breaking down out here
can become a dire situation, since most motorists tend to be squeamish about giving rides
to people in the middle of nowhere. And despite the passports and the pretty blue signs,
this really is one of the most continuously remote and least touristy highways in this
country. And as far as traffic went, there were times when we were the only car for ten
miles in any direction. So all in all, yes Route 50 was lonely – lonely enough even for
me. But whether it can be considered lonelier than any other road in the country… well
that’s open for discussion.

Cruising along on I-80, we skirted past the mini-Vegas city of Reno. It had been
threatening to rain since mid-afternoon and as we began our ascent into the Sierra Nevada
mountains, the skies finally opened up. Uh-oh. Rain I could handle, but I knew as we
went higher it would turn to snow. And snow it did. Pretty soon I saw flashing highway
advisory signs encouraging me to tune my radio to their AM station. A recorded voice
repeated the same message every sixty seconds. A blizzard was assaulting the mountains
ahead of us. All cars going beyond a certain point on I-80 and U.S. 50 were required to
have either four-wheel-drive or chains on their tires. All other mountain roads were
closed indefinitely.

What to do, what to do? We didn’t own chains. Not much use for them in Eastern
Pennsylvania. And even if we did, I had no idea how to put them on. At the last exit
allowable, I saw a garrison of police and Caltrans vehicles blocking the road with men in
heavy-duty snow gear checking all cars for chains. I didn’t know what we were going to
do, but I did know we needed gas, so I pulled off the exit and sat in a long line of other
chainless cars on the off-ramp.

My first thought was to just say screw it, get a hotel in the area and drive to Laura’s in the
morning after they had plowed the roads. But a quick look at the map told me this was
probably not an option. We were in Truckee, California, right in the shadow of Lake
Tahoe, and this was still the peak of ski season. Any hotel in the area would mostly
likely cost us considerably more than the Motel 6’s and Super 8’s we’d been staying at.
Plus as we merged onto the local road, I realized I had no idea where I’d even go to find a
hotel. Darkness had fallen early because of the blizzard, and save for a gas station and a
few houses, I saw very few other signs of civilization, much less commerce in the area. I
didn’t feel like searching for a hotel that might or might not exist on a narrow two-lane
mountain road in the blinding snow at night. Then again, I had no idea how we’d be able
to make it over the mountain without chains.

Maybe we could park somewhere and just sleep in the car for the night? If nobody could
point us to a nearby hotel, what other option did we have? Pulling into the gas station,
the question was answered for us. In the window was a big red neon sign that proclaimed
simply but boldly: “CHAINS.”

We gave our wheel measurements to the clerk behind the counter and for fifty bucks he
sold us our chains. The instructions seemed easy enough, but I had never done this
before and… did I mention that it was snowing? I soon realized the middle of a blizzard
was no place to start learning a new skill. I tried attaching the chains to our front tires for
almost fifteen minutes while the snow literally piled up on my back. I was determined
because according to a woman Lauren had spoken to in the ladies room, this was
supposed to be easy. “Even, I can do it,” she had said. Fortunately for all involved, my
manly pride lost its fight with my freezing fingers and I took the advice of another
woman who told us to “just let the ‘chain monkeys’ do it.”

We drove back to the interstate and paid twenty dollars for one of the heavily bundled
Caltrans workers to put the chains on our car. He reminded us to keep our speed to
thirty-five or less while they were on. We said thank you and resumed our ascent.

The going was slow. Cars and trucks were backed up for miles as the snow continued to
pound the mountains. I didn’t have much faith in these chains and felt certain we were
going to wind up stranded on the side of the road as the temperature continued to drop. I
couldn’t help but laugh out loud when we passed a sign that seemed to only confirm my
fears: “Donner Pass.” It was somewhere near this spot in 1846 that a wagon train of
pioneers, The Donner Party, got snowed in by a surprise blizzard and had to resort to
cannibalism in order to survive the winter.

My tensions eased gradually as I began to trust in the chains on my tires. If you’ve never
driven with chains, let me tell you that it evokes the most amazing sense of control.
Every time I stepped on the gas, the car would shimmy back and forth for a second, the
way it will when it can’t find traction, and then suddenly it would just grab hold. Just
like that we’d be going in a straight line, the chains biting into the road and holding us in
place. Heavy duty SUV’s (sans chains) were spinning out and getting stuck as we rolled
passed them with ease in our little Mazda Protégé.

Nevertheless, I was white-knuckled on the steering wheel the entire way. We called
Laura to give her our status and then called Lauren’s father to check out the Weather
Channel online and see just how far this blizzard extended. He assured us we only had
another fifty miles or so before we were out of it. Of course, at the speed we had to
maintain, that was another two hours.

Lauren couldn’t wait that long to pee and fortunately there was a rest stop a few miles
later. After she did her business, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get back to the
interstate. The plows hadn’t touched this parking lot and the snow was as high as the
Mazda’s underside. But by God those chains did their job again and after a brief
shimmy, they bit into the tar and we were off.

I should mention that the chains we bought were Cobra chains by Quality Chain Corp.
I’m not sure if all chains are created equal, so if you’re ever in the same situation, go with
Cobra and you’ll never be left stranded.

(To the accounts payable department at Quality Chain Corp: Please make all checks
payable to Brian Hodges.)

As we finally began descending, the snow gradually turned to rain and before we knew it,
there was another checkpoint with Caltrans workers making sure everybody took their
chains off. We could have paid an additional ten dollars to have another chain monkey
do it for us, but I was determined to do something useful and self-sufficient with this car
this week. Now that I wasn’t being snowed on, it was easier to keep my patience and in
less than ten minutes, I got both chains off. A man in a minivan even walked up and
asked me how to do it. I told him, “I honestly don’t know,” then directed him to the
chain monkey farther up.

Able to do seventy-five again, we made it to Orangevale in less than an hour. It was
nearly midnight and we were starving, so we swung through my second favorite fast food
chain in the west, Carl’s Jr. for a Famous Star burger, fries and a Coke. Delicious and
cheap – a perfect combination.

After a long day of near death adventure on lonely roads and snowy passes, we finally
pulled into the driveway at Laura’s house. I hadn’t seen Laura, one of my dearest friends
in the world, in over three years, and when she met us at the car our hug lasted minutes,
not seconds. I introduced her to my wife and they hugged like old friends. Laura felt
Lauren’s belly and told us both congratulations. Then we lugged all our bags into the
house and settled in for a few days of much needed rest and relaxation.



DAY 13 – Friday, March 26
LOCATION: Orangevale, CA
MILEAGE: 46 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Laura’s House, Fanny Ann’s

Lauren and I have always said, and those who know us would agree, that we have a most
unique relationship. After meeting at a wedding and spending only one full day together
I told Lauren that I was falling for her. A week later, she drove an hour and a half out to
JFK Airport to see me during my hour-long layover. We courted and fell in love over e-
mail while I lived in Los Angeles, and she flew out to visit me for a weekend even
though I was still essentially just some guy she’d only met once.

Our relationship has always been built on wide-open communication and a trust that I
haven’t seen in many other marriages. We’ve never held anything back about our past
relationships or the skeletons in our closets. And neither of us has ever let jealousy get
the better of us. I never worried about another guy flirting with her or hitting on her
because I knew at the end of the night she was coming home with me. She in return has
trusted me implicitly to be faithful to her, even though a large percentage of my friends
are women, several of whom I’ve been intimate with in the past. She knows for certain
that whatever my past, she is my present and future.

Lauren’s trust in me has encompassed so many people and life situations, and this
weekend it extended to include Laura as well.

I had met Laura over four years earlier through an online personal ad. This was before
online dating was considered more or less socially acceptable, before there were dozens
of dating sites charging thirty dollars a month to be a member. Back then, you could
post, search and reply to profiles for free. I had my pic and profile on several sites but
hadn’t had much luck until the day I got an email from Laura. I had mentioned
something about the desert in my intro and that was all she needed to take a chance.
Before she even knew who the heck I was, she was saying that we needed to go to the
desert together sometime. Soon we were emailing twenty times a day about every topic
deep and shallow. I told Laura about the “weird” things that pass through my head every
day, and she would respond, “Dude, I have totally felt the same thing.” For the first time
in my life I felt there was somebody who understood me… all of me.

I was able to talk out a lot of my angst and confusion about life and she was able to shed
light onto the things I was having trouble figuring out. It was Laura who finally made me
realize that I could move out of Los Angeles, a place I always thought I needed to be. It
was because of Laura that I am married to Lauren. I would never have had the courage to
leave L.A. and move three thousand miles “for a girl” had it not been for Laura freeing
the free spirit inside me.

Laura and I only met in person a couple times. One time, toward the beginning of our
friendship, she swung by my Van Nuys apartment on her way back from somewhere.
We talked a little and kissed a little, but it was awkward. While we continued emailing,
we didn’t meet again face-to-face for several months, and by then she had a steady
boyfriend. She moved to Orangevale and I drove up to visit a couple times. Before I left
L.A. forever, she drove down and we finally took that trip to the desert that we had talked
so much about.

As much as Lauren is my soul mate and the love of my life, Laura, I’ve always said, was
my kindred spirit. She was the one who always had an insight into my soul that no other
person had. And save for Lauren, Laura was the woman I loved most in the entire world.
Knowing all of this ahead of time, Lauren still had the trust in me to spend a weekend at
Laura’s house in Orangevale.

I woke up around seven in the morning when I heard the sound of a child laughing.
Laura’s seventeen-month-old daughter, Laila was up and about. Even though I was still
exhausted from the day before (and the couple weeks prior), I decided there was no sense
in wasting any time. We were only planning to spend two days here and I wanted to get
as much face time with Laura as possible. I walked into the living room where Laura and
Laila were playing. Laura and I hugged again, never seeming to let go. Over the last
couple years, email had finally given way to the telephone and we picked up our
conversations as though we had been talking face-to-face the entire time.

She introduced me to her daughter Laila who was shy at first, but warmed up to me fairly
quickly. I gave her her space and asked her questions about the toys she was playing
with. Pretty soon, she was bringing the toys over to show me. After less than two hours,
Laila was kissing and hugging me like family, something Laura said she never does.

Lauren came out around nine o’clock and she and Laura sat around talking like old
friends while I played on the floor with Laila. When Laila went down for her nap, the
three of us sat around the kitchen table laughing, joking, busting each other’s balls. We
argued about the good and bad of everything from music to vaccines to the Atkins diet.
Laura felt Lauren’s belly over and over again, grabbing at the little foot that kept
dragging itself back and forth. We talked about the road trip, the places we’d seen, and
the places we were going. We talked about Laila’s birth and the birth we would have in a
couple months. We talked about everything deep and trivial. By mid-afternoon, we
forgot that we were even on a road trip, because for the time being, we were home.

That night, Lauren’s trust in me went above and beyond what any husband has a right to
expect. She stayed home and babysat Laila while Laura and I went into Sacramento to
party. In the few times Laura and I had hung out together, we had never gone out
partying. When I first told her about this road trip and that we would stop in to see her,
we decided that it was about time we did just that. That was before we knew Lauren
would be eight-months-pregnant.

When I asked Lauren ahead of time if she minded staying home with Laila while Laura
and I went out, she was gracious and understanding. She knew Laura and I wanted to
hang out together and have a few beers, and what’s more she knew that she (Lauren)
wouldn’t exactly be the life of the party at a bar until two in the morning while pregnant.

Laura put Laila to bed and I kissed Lauren goodbye. Lauren told me not to be out too
late and then kissed me again. Unspoken words came through plain as day in her eyes: “I
trust you with her.”

Laura and I hopped in the car, rolled down the windows, cranked up the radio and were
singing along at the top of our lungs as we headed toward Old Sacramento just over
twenty miles away. We were headed for Fanny Ann’s, a bar and restaurant where Laila’s
father, Jay worked as a cook. The bartenders there knew Laura and she knew they would
probably give us some free drinks. Plus, after Jay finished his shift, he’d be able to hook
us up as well.

We were lucky and managed to find an open parking spot on the street, then headed over
to Fanny Ann’s and wasted no time ordering a beer. Cheap beer. Light beer. Beer that
wouldn’t weigh us down or drain our wallets any faster than necessary. It was only nine
o’clock and there was a long night ahead of us. We went over to the kitchen window and
Laura introduced me to Jay. Nice guy. Good-looking guy. He smiled and said it was
great to finally meet after hearing so much about me, then said he’d come find us when
his shift was done.

We were done with our first beer in less than ten minutes, so we got another round, as
well as a couple of shots. I got my signature shot of Wild Turkey, which I always raise to
my friend Bill. Back in L.A. the two of us started off every night with the same shot.
When I moved away we made a pact to always raise the first shot to each other. I
amended this shot to also include Lauren who had allowed us to come out tonight. Laura
seconded that and we downed and chased.

Fanny Ann’s is a cool Old West saloon with plenty of wood in the walls, booths and
floors. They even encourage you to carve your name into the bar. There are five floors,
complete three large bars, a decent sized dance floor and a restaurant. The bathroom
doors upstairs were designed with the intent to confuse. The door for the ladies’ room
has a sign pointing to the men’s room. The door for the men’s room has a sign pointing
to the ladies room. All night long you can watch drunk and sober people alike walk
through the wrong door then walk back out embarrassed.

Around eleven o’clock a D.J. started spinning and we went down to dance. Dressed in
tight black jeans and a cut off shirt that showed off her perfectly flat stomach, Laura was
definitely the eye candy for all the guys there – and I was the luckiest sonofabitch in the
whole dang place in their eyes.

When Jay got off at midnight, he bought us our next round at the lower bar and we all sat
around drinking and laughing. I knew Jay and Laura had had their issues. That’s why he
no longer lived with her and Laila. I felt a little uncomfortable, as I’m sure he did,
because I know that he knew that Laura had told me everything. In spite of all that
though, Jay was a great guy on this night. Easy-going. Always quick with a joke. The
kind of guy you couldn’t help liking.

At the end of the night, Laura and I were three sheets to the wind and over twenty miles
from home, but that was all right. Sacramento has a really cool designated driver
program, the likes of which I’d never seen. You call the hotline and they send two
drivers. One drives you and your car back home. The other driver follows you in a
separate car to bring the first driver back. The whole operation is run by volunteers and
they simply ask that you tip the drivers whatever you feel is appropriate. Basically,
Laura told me you pay their gas money plus a little extra. It’s a great program that more
cities should really think about adopting.

After we said goodnight to Jay, Laura called the hotline and twenty minutes later we were
cruising back toward Orangevale with the windows down and the radio cranked, singing
at the top of our lungs. Our driver, a twenty-something guy just smiled and even made a
few attempts at joking back and forth with us. Back at Laura’s I gave the guy ten bucks
and thanked him for his troubles.

Before going in, Laura and I hugged each other, again for minutes, not seconds. We told
each other how much we loved each other and then went inside. I brushed my teeth and
curled up beside my wife, rubbing my hand over her belly. I told her how much I loved
her, kissed her on the lips and we fell asleep still spooning.



DAY 14 – Saturday, March 27
LOCATION: Orangevale, CA
MILEAGE: 36 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Laura’s House, Old Folsom

I felt mildly guilty about sleeping in past nine o’clock when I knew Laura was up with a
hangover, taking care of Laila at her usual 7am. Our original plan for the day had been to
head back into Old Sacramento (or “Old Sac” as it’s called) for the afternoon. But the
timing of our late wakeup, Laila’s nap and the fact the Lauren and I had an Outback
Steakhouse gift certificate that we wanted to take Laura out to dinner with, pretty much
killed that plan.
Instead we went into closer-by Old Folsom to walk around. With board sidewalks,
cobblestone streets and even an old hitching post here and there, Old Folsom has tried to
maintain the charm and character of the Old West. In the beginning, this was a
boomtown that came to life because of nearby gold mining. These days, the area is good
for walking and shopping while “New Folsom” provides more modern neighborhoods
and business districts along with outdoor recreation in the form of two lakes and plenty of
bicycle paths.

The four of us walked around the shops of Old Folsom for about an hour. There were
several head shops and new age stores that Laura loved, as well as a store selling lots of
Native American paraphernalia. They were nice places to look around, but none of us
were really in the buying mood.

Back at Laura’s we continued simply sitting around and talking, and playing with Laila,
throughout the afternoon. Laila was such an energetic and happy kid with the most
adorably infectious little laugh. All day long she would bring us toys and books and
other objects, saying, “This?” We explained to her that Lauren had another baby growing
inside her tummy. After that, whenever we asked Laila where the baby was, she always
pointed to Lauren’s stomach. Laura was, for all intents and purposes, a single mom, but
she had done a better job so far raising her daughter than some of the most “in tact”
families I’ve ever met. When I knew her in Los Angeles, Laura was a wild child,
partying all the time, drinking, smoking, hooking up, and always yearning for more
freedom. But as soon as she realized she was pregnant, she gave it all up. Instantly. The
maternal instinct grabbed hold of her and she committed herself to being the best mom
she could be. And it shows.

The day was uneventful compared to the last two weeks, but we loved it. Being at
Laura’s felt right. It felt comfortable. It felt like home. Once again, we forgot that we
were actually here on a road trip. It made us sad every time we remembered that we
would be leaving tomorrow.

Around five o’clock we loaded into the car and drove to the Outback. Laura knew she
was amongst good, nonjudgmental company, so she ate her steak the only way she’s ever
wanted or known how, with her hands. Forgoing a knife and fork, she simply tore at the
meat with her teeth.

The ride home was somber, everybody knowing that we would be leaving for San
Francisco in the morning. Jay called while we were still in the car to ask why we hadn’t
come down to Old Sac this afternoon. Laura apologized and told him that we had gone to
Old Folsom instead. We heard only half of the conversation, but knew what she was
going to suggest before she said anything.

“Jay says you guys should stay an extra day and come into to Old Sac tomorrow.”

Lauren and I looked at each other, certain that the look in the other’s eyes would be
saying, “How do we let her down easy and say we have to go?” Instead, what each of us
saw was the desire to stay just a little longer. We smiled at each other, knowing what the
other was thinking, happy and surprised that the feeling was mutual. We both shrugged
and said, “Yeah, okay.”

Laura was genuinely surprised. “What? Really?!? Oh my God, they said they’d stay!”
she all but squealed to Jay. She had expected a long, drawn out discussion that wouldn’t
change the fact that we were leaving. She hadn’t expected the fight to be won so easily.
“Oh my God, that’s so rad!”

Yes, she actually said “rad.”

Lauren and I smiled at each other. One more day at home. Just one more day.




DAY 15 – Sunday, March 28
START: Orangevale, CA
END: Orangevale, CA
MILEAGE: 52 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Laura’s house, Old Sacramento

Some visionaries just never catch a break. After several failed business ventures in his
homeland of Switzerland, John Augustus Sutter arrived in Mexican-owned California in
1839 with the goal of establishing an agriculture-based empire, called New Helvetia. His
settlement, Sutter’s Fort, was in a prime location right at the confluence of two major
rivers, the Sacramento and the American. But over the next ten years he encountered
every conceivable roadblock to his vision including drought, heavy rains and anxious
creditors – not to mention civil war and political unrest brought on by the United States’
annexation of California.

But nothing nailed the coffin shut on Sutter’s dreams more decisively than when gold
was discovered in a riverbed at his very own sawmill in 1848. Right away it became
difficult to get a full day’s work out of the laborer’s he’d hired, mostly local Indians and
Mormon pioneers, who saw more potential for wealth in the riverbed than in the meager
wages Sutter was paying them. (And today’s employers think the internet is a costly
distraction). Sutter and the other settlers were able to keep the discovery a secret for a
while. Even a newspaper article printed two months later, declaring GOLD MINE
FOUND, only attracted a few curious prospectors.

It ended up being the Mormons who blew the cover on the whole thing when they
brought their golden tithes to a San Francisco church. Pretty soon, Mormons, Christians
and atheists alike were running through the streets shouting, “Gold! Gold in the
American River!” The entire city reportedly emptied within a few days as everybody
caught gold fever and swarmed en masse to Sutter’s Fort.
Sutter’s agricultural dreams died a quick death as every able-bodied worker abandoned
his wheat fields, gristmills and tannery vats in search of gold. Squatters took up
residence in Sutter’s fields and even broke into the fort itself, stealing livestock, tools and
any other supplies that would hold them over for another day of prospecting. In less than
six months word had spread as far as Hawaii and Peru and the Gold Rush was officially
on. By the end of 1848 there were over five thousand miners working the river. By the
end of 1849, there were forty thousand, coming from as far away as Europe and China,
all with visions of quick and easy fortune.

With creditors breathing down his neck and no crop to cash in on, Sutter desperately
looked for ways to profit off the country’s new obsession. His intention was to establish
a town, appropriately named Sutterville, a few miles south of the junction of the two
rivers, in an area less prone to flooding. Sutter left the matter in the hands of his capable
son while he went prospecting in nearby Coloma. He returned only to discover that his
son had kowtowed to pressure from local merchants and built the town closer to the
rivers – and subsequent flood plain – than Sutter had wanted. Adding insult to injury,
he’d also gone ahead and named the town, not after his father, but after the river:
Sacramento.

Less than two years later, inevitable flooding destroyed much of the town. Soon after
that, fires destroyed it even further. Riots broke out between squatters and Sutter’s
landholders, killing several. A smallpox outbreak a year later killed hundreds more. In
just over a decade, the city was hit by no less than four devastating floods, finally
prompting the city planners to haul in thousands of cubic yards of dirt in order to raise the
town’s elevation by twelve feet.

Not only had Sutter’s dreams of an agricultural empire been completely dashed by gold
fever… and not only was he never able to profit off the gold discovered on his own
land… and not only did the Supreme Court declare many of Sutter’s land holdings to be
invalid… but then a small band of men burned Sutter’s house down in 1865, forcing him
and his family to move back east, bankrupt. They settled down in a small Pennsylvania
town while Sutter continually sought financial restitution from Washington and was
repeatedly denied. Finally, after years of hearing his petitions, Congress passed a bill in
1880 granting him $50,000 in recompense. John Augustus Sutter died of heart failure
two days later.

He wasn’t the only one who caught the ugly end of the Gold Rush. People from every
corner of the globe were drawn by the stories of quick and easy fortune; gold so easily
and readily accessible that one needed only a metal pan and a way to get there. Rich and
poor alike picked up or sold everything they owned and made the trip west, sometimes
taking as long at five months to get there, all with the same alluring dream in their heads:
pan gold for a few days and live comfortably for the rest of your life. Beyond that,
California was still free land at the time, with only a bare shell of law and government in
place. People saw not only the promise of wealth and prosperity, but also the freedom to
live and do with it as they saw fit.
By the time most of them got there, the only gold left was buried deep underground,
requiring specialized (read: expensive) equipment to retrieve it. In the end, only a few
fairly industrious corporations actually profited off of the physical gold taken from the
two rivers. Otherwise, most of the revenue was generated by resourceful entrepreneurs
providing any number of services – honest or otherwise – catering to the many gold
seekers all along the rivers and wagon trails leading to California. For the rest, broken
dreams and empty wallets gave way to debauchery and lawlessness, turning Sacramento
into as dangerous an old west town as any at the time.

History of course is cyclical, and exactly one hundred and fifty years later people from all
over the United States once again rushed back to California and toward the promise of
quick and easy fortune when the dot-com boom gave everybody internet fever. This
time, instead of pans and shovels, they came with iMac’s and business plans. Just as
before, the landscape was free and full of possibility, with very few laws restricting the
use of cyberspace. But yet again, it was only the few very industrious (and very lucky)
companies that actually turned a profit and survived their first year. The rest cashed in
their broken dreams along with their stock options and likewise gave in to debauchery to
go work for Microsoft.

As for the old city of Sacramento, much of it has been preserved and restored as a 28-acre
National Historic Landmark. Today, even though most commercial business is done
several miles east in the new and modern city center, Old Sacramento (or “Old Sac” as
the locals call it) is the number one tourist draw in the region with over five million
visitors every year. Along with horse drawn carriage rides, riverboat rides and train
rides, the area boasts several of points of historical interest including a gold rush era
firehouse, California’s first theater and a Pony Express station, as well as dozens of
museums focusing on everything from California’s railroad history to its military history,
and of course, its gold rush history.

But we went into Old Sac with Laura, a local, so we didn’t do any of that touristy crap.
The four of us walked (at Laila’s pace of course) along the wooden sidewalks and
cobblestone streets on a picture perfect Sunday afternoon. I was impressed at the lengths
the city had gone to to preserve the feel of the Old West town this place had once been,
even going so far as to leave up a few of the old hitching posts.

Not that there were any horses around in need of hitching. Instead, there were
motorcycles. Everywhere. Old Sac is an extremely biker-friendly area and all around us
we could hear the constant rattle of Harley Davidsons as packs of bikers drove up and
down the main drag. The American Motorcyclist Association organizes several
fundraisers every year, including a gigantic Toys for Tots run that begins and ends in this
part of town, so it’s been in the best interest of the local businesses to remain friendly.
Most every bar and restaurant we walked by had a sign out front proclaiming “Bikers
Welcome.” The city even stepped up a few years back and designated several
“motorcycles only” parking areas close-by.
As Laura put it, “Bikers like to be with other bikers. You don’t usually see a bar with a
‘Bikers Welcome’ sign and only two or three bikers inside. They’re like schools of fish
and everyone knows this.”

As I looked around at the hordes and hordes of leather-clad bikers dumping plenty of
money into the local economy, I realized that this was the Old West of today, and bikers
were the modern day cowboys. They’re usually true blue-collar men, sometimes on the
fringes of society, living life their way, and earning a wage with their own muscles and
sweat. But instead of chaps, ten-gallon hats and a faithful steed, it’s leather jackets,
helmets and a Harley Davidson.

We browsed in and out of several shops and had a good laugh at the funny t-shirts and
magnets in a novelty store called Evangeline’s. Lauren picked up a bunch of
paraphernalia for our ducky bathroom back home and I even managed to find myself an
Old Sacramento shotglass. Later on we met up with Jay who paid for our burgers and
fries over at Fanny Ann’s. By mid-afternoon I could feel a cold coming on, so I made
sure to drink lots of water, sit down whenever I could, and opted out when the girls went
to get ice-cream. All in all, it was a nice laid back day. The weather was perfect, the
setting was perfect and of course, the company was perfect.

Back at Laura’s house, after Laila was in bed, the three of us hunkered down to watch
Pirates of the Caribbean while I popped zinc tablets and piled on layers of clothes in an
effort to sweat out my cold before it got worse. Laura and Lauren both laughed when I
explained my plan to them, but I knew it would work. It had in the past. I put on
sweatpants, extra t-shirts, sweatshirts, heavy socks, extra blankets; I toss and turn and
thrash about and have a miserable night’s sleep, but no matter what, I never do anything
to cool myself down. And lo and behold, by morning, my cold is always gone… or at
least cut down drastically. Unfortunately for Lauren, the skeletons in tonight’s movie
had scared her so much that she didn’t want me sleeping even five feet away from her on
the spare bed in our room. But after plenty of reasoning and cajoling, she relented. As
usual, I thrashed and sweated profusely, but come morning, I was right as rain.


DAY 16 – Monday, March 29
START: Orangevale, CA
END: Montara, CA
MILEAGE: 133 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: San Francisco, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Cable Cars, Point
Montara Lighthouse Hostel

The mood was very somber all morning as Lauren and I once again packed our bags and
loaded everything into the car. The four of us sat around the table until past eleven
o’clock, eating breakfast and talking about insignificant things. Nobody wanted to say
the thing we knew had to be said. Finally, with the pit of my stomach dropping out
completely, I said, “Okay...” I didn’t even need to finish the sentence. We all knew.
Slowly, we stood up and headed for the door. Lauren and I did a cursory last check to
make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything – as well as to prolong the inevitable departure.

We all hugged. Several times. Individual hugs. Group hugs. Sandwich hugs with Laila
in the middle. We stood around talking about more insignificant babble. Then we
hugged again. And then again. Once more I was the one who had to say, “I love you,”
and then get inside the car. Even still we talked for a few more minutes through the open
windows. I started the ignition and we talked for a few more. Finally, we said, “I love
you,” one more time and I dropped the car into reverse. Laura stood with Laila on her
hip, both of them waving. I turned the wheel and pulled out into the street and still Laura
stood waving. She waved until we reached the intersection near her house. She waved
while we sat at the red light. She continued to wave until we had made the turn and
drove out of sight.

Thirty seconds later, my phone beeped with a simple text message:

:-(

My insides felt empty and the lump in my throat continued to grow. I hadn’t seen Laura
in person for almost four years, and three days together had simply not been enough.
Especially when I knew it was likely to be just as long or longer before we saw each
other again. We had survived on email and telephone for the last few years, but now I
knew those means were no longer going to cut it for either of us.

Lauren and I headed southwest on Interstate 80, passing through Sacramento one last
time, and driving past the innumerable California towns that seem to merge endlessly into
one another in one long stretch of urban sprawl, on our way to San Francisco. We
stopped for lunch at In-n-Out Burger, my one and only “must-eat-at-several-times” place
whenever I come to California, with burgers so delicious that I was still able to scarf
down my Animal Style Double Double despite my lack of appetite.

Lauren understood my solemn mood, but also understood that we had two more weeks of
driving ahead of us, so she made me this compromise: “I know you need to be sad right
now, so be sad today, as long as you can get over it by tomorrow.” I told her I would try.

I always describe San Francisco the same way to those who have never been there:

“You know in Winnie the Pooh, how there’s always a cloud over Eyeore that only rains
on him? Well picture yourself driving down the California freeway. It’s bright and
sunny everywhere you look. But off in the distance you see this one giant cloud hanging
over one section of the earth. Every time you drive this way, that cloud has not moved.
It just continues to hang there in that same spot. That spot is San Francisco.”

People who come to San Francisco expecting the warm and sunny California weather
they’ve been hearing so much about will be sorely disappointed. Surrounded by water on
three sides, San Fran takes in plenty of the Pacific’s cool ocean currents. That cold water
mixing with the hot air of the California mainland is what gives the city its signature
foggy weather and perpetual hanging cloud. I can still remember spending one particular
Fourth of July in San Francisco wearing long pants and a sweatshirt and still feeling as
though I needed an extra layer. Ironically it was this drab and dreary weather that made
San Francisco such an ideal settlement since the winter and summer temperatures only
differ by twenty or so degrees, sustaining a mild average temp of around fifty.

We drove into San Francisco, and under the cloud at around 1:30. I remembered from
my previous trips into the city that there was relatively cheap parking in Chinatown so we
found a garage there. We knew by the time we got here that we wouldn’t have a lot of
time to really take in much of the city, so our plan was to hit the few choice (i.e. touristy)
places I remembered and call it a day. I threw some snacks, water bottles and our
sweatshirts into the backpack, slung the camera over my shoulder and we were off.

…or more appropriately, UP.

San Francisco is built on a series of forty-three hills, many of which boast a grade close
to or greater than twenty percent. That’s saying something when you consider that all but
the most treacherous mountain roads have a maximum grade of fifteen. But Lauren, now
with thirty extra pounds of belly, was a trooper. She grunted and breathed through each
uphill step, forcing me to stop often, but never giving up – even after an extremely rude
Chinese lady refused to let her use the bathroom in her restaurant.

We walked up Columbus Avenue through the neighborhood of North Beach, famous for
(amongst other things) having the world’s first officially recognized strip club as well as
playing host, back in the day, to many well-known artists and Beat Generation writers
including Jack Kerouac – who even has an alley named after him. The neighborhood is
now home to dozens of hip coffee houses, culturally cool bookstores, and deliciously
enticing Italian restaurants – as well as the city’s notorious red light district. Lauren tried
her luck in one of the Italian restaurants, and the very charming (and very effeminate)
host graciously allowed her to use the bathroom. We both agreed at that moment that
Italians are much nicer than Chinese people.

Ever upward, we tried to take Lauren’s mind off the growing pain in her legs by playing
an admittedly juvenile game: Friends or Lovers. It’s no secret that San Francisco boasts
a higher-than-average gay population, with some polls putting the census at over twenty
percent – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Every time two men or two women
went by us, we took guesses as to whether they were a couple, or merely hetero jogging
buddies out for a run. The game carried us all the way to Lombard Street and to the base
of Russian Hill, at which point the relatively gradual grade we’d been on shot to
ridiculous proportions and Lauren needed to save every ounce of breath she had for her
ascent.

With a maximum grade of twenty-seven percent, Lombard Street is still only the third
steepest street in the city, though by far the most famous. In 1923, as a way to alleviate
the dangers associated with such a steep incline, the city planners installed eight
“switchbacks” into the street’s steepest block between Leavenworth and Hyde Streets.
Paved with bricks, adorned with bright red hydrangeas, and passing along several
beautifully old Victorian houses, Lombard Street inadvertently became one of the most
popular tourist attractions in the city – and the inspiration for a particularly funny Bill
Cosby routine. All much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of local homeowners who are
constantly forced to deal with the extra traffic when thousands of out-of-towners line up
for the opportunity to a get picture of themselves driving (slowly) down the “crookedest
street in the world.” (Vermont Street near San Francisco General Hospital is technically
crookeder than Lombard if you look at it mathematically, but let’s not nitpick).

Unfortunately for Lauren, the sidewalks along Lombard had no switchbacks so she
continued to hoof it straight up the hill, asking me why we couldn’t have just driven
down the street instead. To which I replied, “because I don’t feel like sitting in traffic for
three hours.”

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Mondays in March apparently aren’t prime tourist
days in San Francisco, and traffic was moving along at a swift five miles per hour down
the crooked street. After taking our obligatory pictures and marveling back at the
insanely steep hill my nearly-eight-months-pregnant wife had just climbed, we started
down the other side along equally-steep Hyde Street, in the direction of San Francisco
Bay and the daunting island of Alcatraz – on our way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Most locals say, and discerning travelers agree, that there is virtually nothing authentic
about Fisherman’s Wharf. Modern shopping malls, tacky gift shops, overpriced seafood
restaurants and kitschy museums mostly overshadow the aura of generation upon
generation of blue-collar fishermen who helped turn San Francisco into such a thriving
port town back in the day. Nevertheless, like Times Square in New York, Fisherman’s
Wharf is an indelible icon of the City by the Bay, second only to the Golden Gate Bridge
itself, and a visitor simply cannot come here (much less from three-thousand miles away)
and not at least take a stroll along its docks.

For me personally, I had only one purpose in visiting the touristy wharf: to get myself a
bowl of the best damn clam chowder in the speaking world. Mind you, I lived in Boston
for four years, a place that prides itself on its chowdah and I still stand by the statement
that best clam chowder you will ever find in your entire life will come from Fisherman’s
Wharf – specifically from Fishermen’s Grotto No. 9.

In business since 1935, the No. 9 (named for the original stall number it occupied on the
Wharf, not the order in which the franchise was opened – this Fishermen’s Grotto is the
original) was actually the Wharf’s first sit-down restaurant. Lauren and I didn’t bother
with the sit-down part though, opting instead to pay cash to an employee at one of several
outside counters serving piping hot chowder from constantly replenished kettles. As I
always do whenever I’m here, I got my chowder in a signature sourdough bread bowl and
ate it, not with a spoon, but by dipping the bread into the thick cream until it’s good and
soggy and then popping the whole thing into my mouth. I made sure to grab several
handfuls of napkins as my hands and face are usually quite messy by the time I get to the
bottom of my chowderlogged bread bowl… which I then proceed to eat as well.

Lauren tasted the chowder I had been raving about for months, but apparently wasn’t as
blown away as I had been, because she headed off toward several gift shops where she
bought souvenirs, Christmas ornaments and t-shirts for everyone back home. I found a
shotglass with a simple drawing of a cable car and suspension bridge on it. Afterward
Lauren picked up some lobster bisque from a competing establishment and attempted to
eat it as the wind and seagulls competed for the chance to knock the bread bowl out of
her hands. The wind eventually got the better of us, making us wish we had brought
more than just a sweatshirt, so we tore up the bread bowl and threw the pieces to the birds
and began our trek back to the car.

It was really quite by accident that we ended up taking a cable car ride out of Fisherman’s
Wharf that day. We hadn’t begun the day intending to be so touristy, but after a few
hours of walking we realized there was no way Lauren was going to make it back over
the hill(s) to Chinatown. So we bought a couple of tickets to ride the Powell-Mason
cable line – the longest continuously running transit line in the world. The six-dollar fee
included a couple of collectible postcards and a really long ass line.

While romantically steeped in nostalgia, the cable car isn’t exactly the most efficient
means of travel about the city. A new trolley came along once every twenty minutes or
so, about the same frequency as a city bus, but the capacity on each car was only fifty or
sixty people, half the amount of their diesel-powered counterparts. Lauren was content to
sit and wait through four full carloads as long as it meant she was off her feet. When our
turn came, we raced around to the front of the car where Lauren could sit on the outside
of the bench and where I could stand on the rail, hanging off the side of the trolley like so
many people in vintage sepia-toned photographs – or like so many tourists in badly
framed digital photos.

The ride lasted about fifteen minutes, taking us back over Russian Hill and across the
crest of Lombard Street, where the driver thoughtfully paused to allow everyone to take
pictures, then back into Chinatown where we hopped off about six blocks from our
parking garage. It was unfortunately the longest six blocks of Lauren’s life. On a trip
where she had rarely waited more than thirty minutes between pee breaks, Lauren was
now going on over an hour and a half and was in desperate need of a bathroom.

She went into the first Chinese restaurant we came to and begged the hostess to use the
bathroom. Either the woman didn’t notice Lauren’s bulging belly or didn’t care. In any
event, she held up her hand, snapped a very curt, “NO!” and turned Lauren away. The
scene was repeated in the next two restaurants in line and Lauren came out, eyes
brimming with tears and bladder bursting with… well, yeah. To this day I have held the
Chinese people personally (and corporately) responsible for my wife’s suffering that day.
As such, I did what I considered to be my husbandly duty. For the remainder of the walk,
whenever a Chinese woman came up to hand me a menu or some other useless piece of
paper, I held up my hand and all but shouted, “NO!” as I pushed brusquely past her.
In retrospect, I’ve thought of an even better deliverance of justice, which you can feel
free to use for yourself. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone in with Lauren to
one of the restaurants that so rudely dismissed her and asked for a table. I would have let
the waitress pour us water and tea tell us the specials. I would have spent several minutes
examining the menu while Lauren used the bathroom several times. If I was really
feeling the spiteful twinge, I might have even ordered something… something expensive.
Then after Lauren had peed until she felt satisfied, we would have said, “Thank you, but
we’re just not hungry,” and left. Some other time perhaps.

We somehow made it all the way to the Holiday Inn adjacent to our parking garage and
Lauren finally peed. Then she peed again. Then as we made ready to go, she went back
to pee one more time. Sufficiently emptied (for the moment anyway) she lugged her tired
and hill-beaten body to the car and we headed out of the city through rush hour traffic.

We had starred the Point Montara Hostel as soon as we read about it in HOSTELS USA.
The book gave the hostel top honors for setting, saying, “A state park, the hostel comes
complete with its own lighthouse, secluded pocket beach, hot tub, views of the Pacific,
and glimpses of harbor seals, great blue herons, and migrating gray whales.” Not that
Lauren read that entire paragraph. They had her at “lighthouse.” Lauren is a lighthouse
nut and for the next several days we would be traveling up the Pacific Coast stopping at
as many of them as we could. The Point Montara Hostel and Lighthouse would be the
perfect starting point for the next leg of our journey.

We drove south along curving California Route 1, which runs right alongside the Pacific
Ocean. Of course by seven o’clock it was too dark to actually see the view, or really the
road itself, as there weren’t any streetlights. We missed our turn the first time, but
eventually found the little unmarked road that led down to the hostel. Lauren became
giddy and started hopping up and down in her seat the instant she saw the lighthouse’s
beacon slowly turning in the night.

I started feeling that same irrational nervousness I’d experienced checking into the Pitkin
Hostel. I was worried that all the young but seasoned hostellers would see our loaded
down car and pregnant belly and spot us for the phonies we were. But the conversation
with the hostel manager at the check-in desk eased all my anxieties. He was our age,
maybe even a couple years older. He asked us where we were from, where we were
headed and when we were due. We talked about our trip, what we had seen, and what we
had planned for the next few days. He gave us some tips on places to see up in Oregon
and even told us about another hostel at the top of California that was worth visiting if we
had the chance.

We paid fifty-seven dollars for our private room – more expensive than pretty much
every motel we’d stayed in thus far, but far cheaper than any we’d find in the San
Francisco area no doubt. After settling in and dropping off whatever items we felt
comfortable leaving in a room with no lock, we headed to the kitchen to make dinner.
The fare was much simpler than our Pitkin pasta feast; just turkey sandwiches and tomato
soup, but it was filling and delicious.

As we ate, a woman in her fifties named Judy joined us. Our conversation began with
her asking Lauren how far along she was then blossoming into a whole discussion about
midwifery and natural childbirth before splintering into other topics from there. Before
the trip, I had been worried that Lauren’s pregnancy was going to prevent us from doing
certain things like going out to bars, and meeting people in their smoky local haunts. But
for as many things that we were prevented from doing, that big old belly ignited dozens
of conversations all throughout the trip that we might not have had otherwise. Looking
back in retrospect, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Judy, we learned, was a retired high school guidance counselor who was up at the hostel
for a few days of R&R. We were later joined by Mac, another fifty-something who was
at the start of a five-day bicycle trip down the California coast. The hostel manager came
and joined us as well and the five of us sat around talking like the easy-going strangers
we were, recounting past adventures, talking about the places we came from, and
somehow always bringing the conversation back to Lauren’s belly which would
inevitably give way to more discussions about homebirth, the medical community and
other maternity issues. Lauren and I later joked that this trip was really all about
spreading midwife propaganda everywhere we went.

This was exactly what we had anticipated and hoped for in a hostelling experience; sitting
around the table and shooting the breeze with people from all walks of life over a simple
hot meal, learning their stories, telling them ours, and coming together under no other
common thread than the fact that we were all travelers in this journey of life.

After our mini-crowd had dispersed, Lauren and I spent the remaining hours until lights
out doing laundry and checking email for the first time in two weeks. Back in our little
room we filled out post cards and caught up on our journal, which had fallen behind
while at Laura’s. Around eleven, we turned off the light and fell asleep to the sound of
the ocean crashing on the darkened shoreline just outside our window. Once or twice I
awoke in the middle of the night and was lulled back to dreamland by that steady
rhythmic sound.



DAY 17 – Tuesday, March 30
START: Montara, CA
END: Fort Bragg, CA
MILEAGE: 246 miles

HIGHLIGHTS: Golden Gate Bridge, California Coastline, Lighthouses
We woke up this morning to the best view we’d had from any of our hotel rooms so far.
Right outside our window was the great Pacific Ocean beating relentlessly against the
beach not fifty feet below us. I’d slept like a log on our bed’s rock hard mattress, but
Lauren was in quite a lot of pain. We have differing opinions as to the optimal softness
of a bed, but I gave her a quick shoulder massage, which got her going. We took
lukewarm showers, dutifully performed our chores of cleaning up the bathroom and
sweeping the floor, then headed to the kitchen for our traditional oatmeal breakfast.

The view from the kitchen was even better than the one in our room with a colossal
window running the entire length of the wall, giving a full panorama of the pounding
surf. We ate quickly and loaded up the car since the hostel closed every day by ten
o’clock and we had to get our car out before they locked the gate. A moderate drizzle
had started coming down so we rushed through pictures of Lauren in front of the
lighthouse, and were on our way.

Heading north again we passed through San Francisco and crossed over the Golden Gate
Bridge – stopping first for pictures and then getting completely turned around while
exiting the turn off. With our bearings and wits amongst us once again, we got headed in
the right direction and crossed over the bridge into Marin County.

Marin is a county of contradictions as ever there was. Back in the sixties, this whole area
was home to more than a few hippies, people who used slogans like, “Do your own
thing,” and “Love is all you need.” These days Marin is a breeding ground for soccer
moms and dot-com millionaires. The tie dyes, hemp jewelry, VW vans and big fat bowls
of Jamaican ganga have been replaced with khakis, polo shirts, Mercedes SUV’s and
Venti Chai Lattes from Starbucks. With the average home going for just under a million
dollars, it’s apparent that you’re going to need a lot more than love to stay here long-
term. They still encourage you to do your own thing – provided you’re not doing it on a
skateboard in a public area that is. And with a landscape as rugged and beautiful as any
in the country, plenty of effort and foreign labor is still put into maintaining perfectly
manicured lawns, bicycle paths and Zen gardens, while ex-hippie software designers pay
East Indian gurus thousands of dollars an hour to teach them how to make their lives
simpler. We looked up to our right and saw numerous multi-million dollar mansions
perched atop the high rolling hills and then down to our left where several pup tents sat
pitched amongst the rocks and cliffs overlooking the ocean.

GRAFFITI LOG: Just north of San Francisco, we passed a green road sign indicating we
were entering the town of Dogtown, which originally boasted a scant thirty residents but
had apparently gained a couple more. Somebody had painted an X over the 30 and filled
in a 31. Somebody else had, in turn, painted an X on the 31 and filled in a 32.

Route 1 in Northern California is without question one of the most scenic drives in
America, and for views of the ocean, there simply is no competition. “Ocean view” on
the East Coast (and in Southern California for that matter) really means lines of
shipyards, beach houses, boardwalk vendors and bikini-clad spring breakers, with an
occasional patch of bluish water scattered in between. But up here, the coastline is
fraught with jagged rocks, sheer cliffs and turbulent waves – all elements that render it
unsafe for ports and harbors, much less for public beaches. That all adds up to nominal
corporate and commercial interference, thus a minimum of obstructions blocking your
view as you follow Route 1’s winding course north.

That was good news for Lauren who sat comfortably in her passenger seat, awed at the
might and mass of the Pacific as it beat against the rocks a hundred feet below, sending
plumes of spray into the air. I was a little too preoccupied trying not to crash through a
guardrail and plummet onto those rocks as I navigated the incredibly curvy road snaking
along the cliff line. We stopped often to take pictures at thoughtfully placed turnouts, but
eventually I had to force myself to keep driving. For two reasons really. First, there was
no way, not with a thousand pictures, that we could have captured the scope of the
landscape here, much less the striking contrast between the high rolling hills above and
the rugged unforgiving coastline below. But secondly, we were running way behind
schedule. We had foolishly thought we could make it up the California coast and into
Oregon in a single day and then start heading east from Washington State in another. We
hadn’t taken into account the fact that we would never be able to safely bring our car
above forty-five on these twisting coastal roads. I don’t know how, but there were
several people (as in more than one) who were actually attempting this drive in an RV.
With all that going against us, we had to force ourselves to keep moving forward, no
matter how impressive the scenery.

With over eighty lighthouses to choose from along the entire Pacific Coast, I left the job
of selecting the ones we would visit to Lauren. Her criteria for choosing were essentially
the same as mine would have been: ones that were “pretty looking”, open to the public,
and not too far off our route. The first light to fit that bill was Point Reyes Light, though
at about twenty miles off Route 1 it nearly violated the latter rule. We turned off the
highway (a relative term) about an hour north of San Francisco and drove down a narrow
two-lane road populated by more cows than people. In a couple areas, the cows were
actually open range, meaning there was no fence or any other kind of barrier preventing
them from ambling across the road. It was inconceivable to me that there was a major
city less than forty miles from here. I commented more than once, “We are in California,
right?”

We made it to the Point Reyes visitor center without any bovine interference and forced
ourselves to laugh when we read a sign declaring that the lighthouse was closed on
Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Of course it was. Determined to get a picture anyway, we
opened the car doors only to have them whipped open the rest of the way by a gust of
wind. It was about a half-mile walk to the lighthouse so Lauren made use of the
bathroom before we set out. While she was taking care of her business, I took the
cameras and went to get some shots of the continually breathtaking scenery. My heart
jumped several times as I was lining up a shot only to be knocked off balance, literally
off balance, by a huge squall of wind. Considering the observation point I was at hovered
several hundred feet above the rocks and surging ocean below, and the wooden guardrail
didn’t even come up as far as my waist, I stayed low, took my pictures quickly and
headed back to the car.
Lauren came out of the bathroom at the same time and we began our walk to the
lighthouse, which wouldn’t have been so bad save for the most insane wind I’ve ever
experienced in my life. And I’ve lived through a tornado. Point Reyes is at the end of a
fifteen-mile isthmus that juts almost straight out from the California mainland. Sticking
out the way it does, the Point catches every last draft of air that happens through. Couple
that with the fact that this is an area shrouded in fog for almost one full third of each year,
and it makes Point Reyes one of the most dangerous navigational obstacles in the West,
and the reason a lighthouse was needed here in the first place. Lauren and I clung to each
other as we walked into the headwind, occasionally knocked off balance by even more
sudden blasts. More than once we stopped just to listen, certain we could hear the sound
of an ambulance or air raid siren in the distance. But looking around at the complete
isolation of the Point, we realized that the wailing we were hearing was nothing less than
the screeching howl of wind.

Close to the end of the walk, we came to a canopy of trees that had been bent over by the
nonstop current of air. As we walked underneath, the current somehow got even
stronger, channeled as it was through this makeshift wind tunnel. We literally had to put
our heads down and hold onto each other in order to not be blown over. Out the other
side, we came at last to the lighthouse observatory.

As expected, the steep staircase heading a hundred feet down to the lighthouse was
obstructed by a locked gate. So we did the next best thing and took pictures from a little
platform, which gave us an eagle eye view of the light and the surrounding ocean. The
wind up here was as strong as anywhere else and I had a heck of a time keeping the
cameras steady to take a shot. After a few snaps though I ran out of film and battery on
each respective camera, so we took that as our sign to head back. With the wind now at
our backs, we made it to the car in no time. We pulled some peanut butter and Gatorade
out of the cooler, made sandwiches and headed back to highway. Driving north again,
the rest of the day was spent merely navigating Route 1, stopping occasionally to take
even more pictures of the coastline we simply could not get enough of.

At some point, Lauren turned her attention away from the view and concentrated on
updating the journal we had been keeping since our first day on the road. I’ve road
tripped several times in my life, and on each trip I always had it in my head to keep a
travel journal but never worked up the motivation or patience to start, much less keep up
with, one. It’s an easy trap to fall into. You get busy on the first couple of days, drive for
longer than anticipated and by the time you get to your hotel, all you want to do is veg
out and go to sleep.

But with this trip I had an added incentive to stay on top of writing down our experiences
– namely this travelogue. Even though I tend to have a pretty impeccable long-term
memory (just check out my humor column if you don’t believe me), the pages of our
journal have proved invaluable for filling in the gaps and settling disputes between
Lauren and myself as to exactly when, where and how certain things happened. As I sit
here, still working on this novel-length piece over two years later, I am more thankful
than ever for our diligence.

I will say, having two people on this trip certainly made it easier to stay up to date on our
journaling. As much as possible, we both tried to work on the journal at night in the
hotel. Any entries Lauren didn’t have time to finish, she would spend time on in the car
the next morning. Whenever I fell behind, being the driver and all, I had to catch up on
my entries between bites at restaurants throughout the day. Each entry began with our
starting and ending cities for the day as well as our mileage. As a cute little inside joke
(until now that is) we also drew a heart next to the name of any town where we had,
ahem… marital relations. For the most part, Lauren was responsible for the task of
chronicling the play by play of events for each day. During longer stretches of driving,
she would even update the journal with what we’d done earlier that day. I spent my
journaling time discussing thoughts, impressions, complaints and musings about specific
things we’d seen and done and the people we’d met.

Lauren’s mom bought us a journal from CVS at the beginning of the trip. The hard cover
protected the pages, which were likewise made of heavy stock and didn’t tear easily.
Had we just used a standard notebook, the pages would already be ripping and falling out
from constant flipping back and forth. At the end of each entry, we made sure to leave a
few blank pages where we would later paste in pictures from the day. This became a
little tricky on days when we saw or did a lot – trying to ascertain just how many pages to
leave open before starting the next entry. Another tricky thing happened whenever
Lauren was ready to start working on the current day’s entry before I’d had a chance to
jot down my reflections from the previous day. More than once she asked me questions
like, “Okay, how much space are you going to need to talk about the Arch? How many
pages do you want for the Grand Canyon?” And I would have to make my best estimate
as to how much I actually had to say.

In addition to writing down the ongoing narrative of the trip, we also used the back pages
of the first journal (we ended up going through three by the end) to keep several logs –
some just for fun, others with vital information. One of the just-for-fun logs was
Lauren’s Pee Log, which had tick marks for every time we had to stop the car for no
other reason than to let Lauren empty her bladder. Our other logs included a postcard
log, documenting who we’d sent them to; a film log, documenting what was on each roll;
and a digital camera log, documenting what was on each memory stick. These latter two
were exceedingly helpful in the ensuing months as we got film developed and flipped
through CD’s full of digital pictures.

By now, well into our third week on the road, my favorite morning ritual had become
listening to Lauren read out loud from the previous day’s journal entry. We would laugh
and sigh, fully rapt in the immediate nostalgia that a journal can produce. The recitation
would ignite further conversations about the things we’d seen and done and naturally
segue into other topics from there. Even now, over two years later, these three books,
purchased for less than ten dollars at stationary stores across the country, are our most
prized possessions from the trip – maybe even more so than the pictures themselves.
Sometimes on slow boring evenings, we’ll still pull those journals out, randomly pick a
point and just start reading to each other, transporting ourselves to wherever we were on
that particular day via the vivid memories that our entries awaken.

Lauren finished writing about Point Reyes and read it all back to me before we made it to
the Point Arena Lighthouse just after five o’clock. This light actually was open to the
public on Tuesdays, but it closed at three-thirty. Of course it did. Set in place in 1870 to
warn mariners against the hull-tearing rock that it sits upon, the Point Arena Light now
resides on private property surrounded by vacation lodging and wedding pavilions.
While it would have been incredibly romantic to spend the night in plush
accommodations in the shadow of another lighthouse, the two-hundred-dollar a night
price tag was a bit out of our range for this trip.

A gate blocked the road that led to the lighthouse and hotel village, so we took our
pictures from a distance. On our side of the gate, the real estate was presided over by
even more cows, who were fenced in by barbed wire on their eastern side and a sheer
cliff on their west.

We stopped at a quaint privately owned gift shop on the way out where Lauren picked up
a figurine for each of the lighthouses we’d seen today as well as some other lighthouse
paraphernalia. While the shop did have shotglasses, I thought it would be silly to buy a
glass for each and every light we visited on this trip. I knew we had a lot more to go.

Our intent at the beginning of the day had been to make it to the Redwood Hostel at the
very top of California. Ha! We didn’t make it half that far. We drove for maybe another
hour until we hit Fort Bragg, stopping early for two reasons. First, it was already getting
dark and Route 1 is not the kind of road you want to navigate for very long at night. But
second, and more importantly, it was Tuesday night and after a month-long hiatus, the
Fox hit, 24 was on. We stopped at the Driftwood Motel and a got a room that was cute
and cheap and had cable TV, then went out to find some dinner.

In my two years living in California, it never failed to amaze me just how much an entire
state could consistently screw up a food as simple as pizza. But it’s a depressing truth.
I’ve deduced that you simply cannot find good pizza anywhere up and down the entire
Golden Coast. Why I chose to ignore what I knew to be the truth that night, I just don’t
know, but we grabbed a pie from a place down the street and made it back to the room in
time for 24’s opening stopwatch. As predicted, Jack Bauer kicked all sorts of ass, while
the pizza merely sucked it.

After all the graphic violence, in which viewer discretion was advised, Lauren and I shut
off the TV, turned out the lights, and created a little of our own viewer discretion…
adding another heart to our road journal.



DAY 18 – Wednesday, March 31 – 33 Weeks Pregnant
START: Fort Bragg, CA
END: Gold Beach, OR
MILEAGE: 279 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Chandelier Drive-Through Tree, More Lighthouses, Fast-talking
Oregonians

On a road trip such as this, there are just certain places you simply must stop at. Whether
they were pre-planned or not, in your schedule or not, no matter that you only have a
week and a half left to make it up the Pacific Coast and then all the way across the
country… there are just certain places that, should you come within a fifty mile radius,
you must take the time and the detour to see. The World’s Largest Ball of Twine for one.
The Four Corners for another. Today, our only planned stops were a couple of
lighthouses at the northern end of California. We were desperately trying to make up
time and mileage, knowing we had to be back in New Jersey by next Saturday. But when
we passed a sign in the town of Leggett that read “Drive-Through Tree”, we had no
choice but to take the side road and pay our due respects to good roadside kitsch.

The Chandelier Drive-Through Tree isn’t part of a bigger amusement park with other
livelier attractions. It isn’t housed in a major roadside town with its own share of tourist-
based commerce and nightlife. It isn’t even all that unique in its cheesy tourist appeal.
Between here and the Oregon border there are two other trees boasting car-sized holes.
But at a mere three dollars per carload, you truly can’t go wrong, no matter what the
diversion. Named for the unique look of its limb structure, the Chandelier Tree is merely
the focal point of a two-hundred-acre redwood grove. If one had the time, and a
surprisingly earnest preoccupation with trees, one could spend several hours walking the
grounds in wood-muffled silence, with only the crisp smell of pine and timber to keep
you company. We didn’t have several hours, in fact we were rapidly running out of
hours with every unscheduled stop, but we still devoted a good forty-five minutes to
absorbing as much of our redwood surroundings as possible.

Through the gate, our first stop was of course the drive-through tree itself. Standing three
hundred fifteen feet tall (that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty) and twenty-one feet wide
at its base, the Chandelier Tree boasts a manmade hole cut tall enough and wide enough
to accommodate all but the most obnoxious SUV’s. I had no trouble easing the Mazda
into the mini-tunnel with plenty of space left over to hang out the sunroof while Lauren
took pictures.

Giant hole aside, the grove’s signature tree is a sight to behold in and of itself… you
know, once you pull your car out from underneath the thing, stand back and take a good
look at it. Even from a good fifty feet away, we still had to crane our necks to see the
top. Each of the 2400-year-old tree’s branches was thicker than most fully-grown pines.
It really is a true testament to American short-sightedness that somebody looked at this
natural wonder over sixty years ago and could think of nothing more noble than to bore a
hole in it and charge people to drive through. But let’s not turn this into a weepy Green
Peace vigil. After all, we paid to drive through it too. And really, this tree was cut during
a less-enlightened time. Conservationists have made quite certain that a stunt like this
will never be pulled again. With that in mind, I say we don’t think too deeply on the
issue and just enjoy California’s three token drive-through trees for the more-or-less
harmless entertainment they provide.

The Chandelier Tree’s gift shop was actually quite large for such a small operation.
Playing up the fact that this area is the starting point of the Great Redwood Forest, these
guys were selling just about anything they could build, whittle or accessorize with
redwood wood. Or at least, they said it was redwood. I’m no arborist, but I don’t
imagine there’s much aesthetic difference between a redwood and any other kind of
wood once you chop it down. Still we bought a magnet and a tree ornament made out of
(supposedly) the area’s most famous lumber. I’m not sure if the paper stock for our
postcards originated from redwood, but the shotglass I managed to find was definitely
made of glass.

Back outside, we had the place mostly to ourselves. Every five minutes or so, another car
would come in off of the main road, drive through the tree and maybe stop at the gift
shop. But they almost all drove right back out again as quickly as they came. Lauren and
I walked around the perimeter of where the clearing ended and the woods began. There’s
just something about the look of a redwood. It’s not just that these things are impossibly
big. With trunks that truly do look red and branches that don’t begin until as high as fifty
feet off the ground, the American redwood is yet another indelible icon of the Old West.
Whenever Walt Disney or Warner Brothers decided to situate one of their cartoons on the
western frontier, they drew one of two settings: Monument Valley or the Redwood
Forest. Three-hundred-foot hollowed-out tree notwithstanding, there was a palpable
sense of pristine purity to this whole area. Not only in the trees, but in the air as well.
Beyond the fact that there wasn’t a major urban area for over a hundred miles in any
direction, the noticeable, but not overpowering, scent of wood had a cleansing effect on
our nasal passages. With a slight chill even at twelve o’clock in the afternoon, the air
simply smelled… clean. I can think of no other word to describe it.

Off to the side, there was another large section of hollowed-out trunk laying on its side,
maybe ten feet wide and thirty feet long – large enough for several people to stand inside.
We went over and of course took several pictures, but I found myself getting more and
more annoyed at the constant graffiti I was seeing. Not just on this big trunk either, but
on the drive-through tree itself. In fact, it seemed like every thousands-year-old gigantic
piece of wood within walking distance had something… no lots of things carved into it.
By “things”, of course, I mean double sets of initials inside of hearts, years of graduation
bookended by the words “Class of” and “Rules!” and of course, countless people's names
followed by the statement "was here." Most of the graffiti was carved into the wood,
though some of it was even written in pen.

Believe me, I’m no bleeding heart tree-hugger (again, I just paid three bucks to drive
through a tree with a hole cut in it), but I don’t think I will ever understand the
uncontrollable human need to carve one’s initials into pieces of wood and stone. Is it just
some latent piss-to-mark-your-territory instinct that’s been rendered obsolete by
thousands of years of evolution? Or do people really think that there are others out there
who care that CF (hearts) SK. It would be one thing if you carved something like that
into a tree in your own back yard. At least then you’d always be able to look at it and
remember the day you carved it – maybe even remember back to a time when you still
loved that sadistic bitch you sleep next to every night. But I daresay ninety-nine percent
of the people who come to this tree are from out of town. And most of that ninety-nine
percent will never come back again. Once you’ve driven your car through the big hole,
the charm of such a thing wears off almost immediately. So why carve your initials into
something you’ll likely never see again? What possible benefit could this provide to a
person beyond five minutes of mindless entertainment that it’s worth defacing something
so big and beautiful? This isn’t just some little oak tree. It’s a freakin’ GIANT
REDWOOD for crying out loud! Show some respect!

What troubled me most of all was the fact that redwood strikes me as a particularly solid
type of wood. Rather difficult to carve anything into. I’m fairly certain a small child, or
even a teenager, who is too young to know any better, wouldn’t have had the strength,
patience or manual dexterity to complete a job even as simple as a set of initials. No,
most of these carvings were done by adults, authority figures apparently, people we’re
supposed to look up to. Anybody who wants to blame big business or evil Republicans
for single-handedly destroying the environment need look no further than the big trees in
Leggett to realize that defacing nature in the name of vanity is simply and depressingly
the inherent nature of our species.

(Oh, did I forget to mention that the gift shop was selling redwood soapboxes as well?)

GRAFFITI LOG: Tree carvings aside, the public restroom at the Chandelier Drive-
Through Tree had its own share of artwork. Some creative visitor had written a
disgustingly enchanting poem about “little balls of shit”, to which another witty squatter
had responded: “I paid three dollars to use this bathroom and all I got was this stupid
poem.”

Back on the main road, we met up with U.S. Route 101 and were finally able to pick up
some speed, driving mostly freeway on our way ever northward. We could have taken
the slower and more scenic “Avenue of the Giants” and gotten some more up-close-and-
personal looks at the giant redwoods, but we were evermore reminded of our time – or
lack thereof. Already we were going to have to forget about the day-long visits we’d had
planned for Portland and Seattle, as well as several stops we’d wanted to make during the
trip back east. While a scenic drive through the redwood forest would have been nice, we
had to start selectively cutting things from our schedule. Besides, we’d gotten our fill of
trees back in Leggett.

We stopped briefly in Eureka, the first town written in bold on our map since San
Francisco, and had our digital pictures transferred over to CD’s. Our memory sticks were
nearly full and we’d been getting paranoid about losing them or erasing them by mistake.
About an hour north of Eureka, U.S. 101 became a rural two-lane road as it traced along
the border of Redwood National Park. Along this stretch, we came to the town of Orick,
which if ever there was a town that embodied that sense of “Backroad, America” I was
looking for, this was it. The general store we stopped at to buy a much-needed Coca-
Cola was something straight out of the heydays of Route 66. Hand-painted signs
advertised everything from ice to jerky to self-serve gas. A wooden Indian chief
(presumably carved from redwood), stood guard at the front door in awesomely un-
politically-correct fashion. Flyers, streamers and potted plants adorned the exterior and
an old toilet was being utilized as an ashtray. Above another toilet in the bathroom was a
sign that said, “We aim to please. You aim too… please.” An old tow-along camper
straight out of the Beat Generation sat rusting in a field out back. Next door a gift shop
was selling redwood carvings of just about every animal imaginable. Across the street,
sheep grazed on some of the greenest grass I’ve seen anywhere in this country beneath a
modest-sized mountain clothed in pine. It seemed unbelievable that a town like this
existed in 2004, much less in the same state that claimed Los Angeles and San Francisco
as its children.

We’d wanted to say at the Redwood Hostel in Klamath off the suggestion of the hostel
manager at Montara Point as well as the book HOSTELS USA, which proclaimed, “This
hostel has more location in its little finger than most hostels can muster up in their whole
body.” But it was only four-thirty or so when we approached Klamath and we simply
couldn’t justify stopping that early in the day. Not anymore. So we pressed onward to
Crescent City, the site of not one, but two lighthouses. The first, Battery Point Light was
placed in 1856 to guide redwood haulers into and out of the city’s harbor. The second,
St. George Reef Light, as its name indicates, was placed to warn mariners against the
offshore reef upon which it stands – and, at a cost of $704,663, was the most expensive
lighthouse ever built.

The directions to each light were a bit vague in our book, but we finally managed to spot
Battery Point from a distance. We drove back and forth across what seemed like an
easily navigable town, but never managed to find a close enough vantage point from
which to take pictures, much less access the light itself. So we settled for a few faraway
shots and called it good. The Saint George Reef Light was an offshore light that you had
to be in a very specific place to see, so after all that driving around, we just said to hell
with it, and continued north.

Driving around town, we’d noticed several signs warning “Tsunami Hazard Zone” with a
rather scary-looking drawing of a tiny man desperately (and hopelessly I might add)
running away from a huge tidal wave – which had the personality of a tentacled B-movie
monster. This area is no stranger to tsunamis. On March 27, 1964, a 9.2 magnitude
earthquake off the coast of Alaska sent five tidal waves rocketing toward California at
five hundred miles per hour. When the waves came ashore in Crescent City, twenty-nine
city blocks and eleven people were washed out to sea. The keepers of the Battery Point
Lighthouse saw the waves coming but could do little else but pray. They, and the
lighthouse, were spared only because of the extreme angle at which the tsunamis hit.

According to oceanographers, underwater topography between here and Alaska will
almost always channel a tidal wave in such a way that it will inevitably wash up in or
around Crescent City. So the people here take their tsunami warnings very seriously.
We made it into Oregon just before dusk and settled into the Sand Dollar Inn in Gold
Beach for an incredibly reasonable thirty-five dollars a night. After nothing but oatmeal,
peanut butter and really bad California pizza for the last couple days, we went in search
of a nice sit-down restaurant. Gold Beach must attract some fairly wealthy clientele,
because the first couple restaurants we checked out boasted menus with an average price
of over twenty-five dollars per plate. We finally settled for the reasonably-priced Spada’s
Restaurant, which boasts “American, Italian and Chinese food.”

One review I’ve since read of Spada’s declares, “This is a fine example of a restaurant
that tries to please all tastes, and in doing so becomes mediocre.” I suppose I’d have to
agree with that appraisal. The food was forgettable and I don’t think either of us finished
what was in front of us. Still, as the cliché goes, what Spada’s lacked in quality, it made
up for in character. Which character exactly is open for debate. Remember that episode
of Friends where Joey decorates his apartment with everything from ceramic dogs to
fake-rain windows? Spada’s kind of had that same motif going for it. The place was
adorned with everything from gaudy Chinese art to gaudy maritime art, and the recessed
lighting cast a not-quite sickening orange glow across the entire room. Yet despite all
that, the place was cozy and inviting, and the older Chinese lady who greeted us was
incredibly – some might say overly – friendly and cordial.

As we ate, the couple at the booth behind us must have overheard our conversation
because the woman turned around and asked me where I was from, saying she’d noticed
my accent. Funny, I always figured in my nearly ten years away from home that I’d all
but lost any remnant of a Maine accent. I was surprised that anybody would notice.
Turns out I was right because the eavesdropping woman had apparently noticed my
English accent. Ooookie-dokie. From there though, we had a delightful conversation
with her and her husband… well, mostly with her. She told us that tonight was their
anniversary and they were vacationing for a few days. She told us about her childhood,
her adoptive parents, and growing up in Oregon. She told us about the time she’d spent
in Europe and how she’d met her husband, the other places they’d gone on vacation, the
bed and breakfast they’d discovered somewhere in Italy, the Oriental rug they’d bought
that they couldn’t decide whether to put in the foyer or the sun room, and something
about how her dog had gotten food poisoning the year before…

Actually, come to think of it, we didn’t have a conversation so much as give her jumping-
off points to talk about other things. I swear every time Lauren or I started to talk about
ourselves or the road trip, this lady would cut us off with, “Oh I remember a time…”
after which she wouldn’t pause to take a breath for another five minutes or so. People
who know Lauren and me constantly comment on how fast the two of us talk, but even
we had trouble keeping up with this lady as she rambled seamlessly from one topic to the
next, never slowing down for an instant to gather her thoughts or allow for a natural beat
in the conversation. Ironically though, for whatever reason, her manners never struck
either of us as particularly rude or disrespectful. She didn’t seem self-centered or
narcissistic or even uninterested in what Lauren and I had to say. She was, in fact,
incredibly friendly and engaging, but just had a lot to say and apparently not a lot of time
to say it. For the better part of the conversation, Lauren and I weren’t rolling our eyes at
each other so much as constantly trying to stifle our laughter every time we got lost in
this woman’s rapid fire speech.

When we went up to the register to pay, we had a similar conversation with the Chinese
lady in charge. Except this conversation began with the woman feeling Lauren’s belly
and predicting that we would have a boy, then telling us all about her children, the
differences between boys and girls, the joys of parenthood, the things she learned from
her mother and her grandmother and from traditional Chinese teachings… Once again,
whenever Lauren and I tried to interject, we got lost in the sheer velocity of her speech.
But once again, none of this struck us as overly rude… or even a little bit rude. We
started wondering if this was just the nature of dialogue for people in this area.

We got back to the hotel where we had an amazing view of the sun setting over the
ocean. After our obligatory journaling and post-carding, and wearied from the intense
concentration needed to keep up with Oregonian dialect, we turned in early, knowing we
had a long day of light-bagging in store for us tomorrow.



DAY 19 – Thursday, April 1
START: Gold Beach, OR
END: Tillamook, OR
MILEAGE: 311 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Light-bagging

We woke up this morning to the sound of a meteorite crashing through our hotel room
window… April fools? No? Nevermind.

We were actually up and out and on the road by eight o’clock today. No, seriously, that
one’s for real. Oregon is chock full of lighthouses and we intended on seeing all of them
today, so that meant an early start. The sun was shining and the temperature was mild as
we continued north along U.S. 101 toward Cape Blanco. According to our lighthouse
book, the Cape Blanco Light is situated atop a sheer two-hundred-foot white cliff
overlooking (duh) the ocean. The grounds were supposedly open to the public, but upon
arrival we were greeted by a locked gate and a sign indicating that tours were only
available April through October. But… but… but… this is April, we asserted to nobody.
Thinking we had to be missing some important detail, we reread the sign and double-
checked the date several times, but neither one ceased to contradict the other. Locked out
a good half-mile from the lighthouse, we settled for a few long-distance shots and were
just about to move on when a pickup truck pulled up and an official-looking state
employee got out to unlock the gate. He told us that tours of the lighthouse would start at
ten o’clock.

Of course they would. It would figure that the one day we were up and at the world
early, the world wasn’t ready for us. It was still before nine and we had far too much
mileage to cover to warrant sitting around here for an hour. The good news though was
that all the other lighthouses that normally allowed visitors were open today as well.
Actually that was really good news. If we’d gotten here just one day earlier, we’d have
been locked out of more than just Cape Blanco. April 1 is the apparently magic day for
Oregon’s lighthouses, when they dust off the interiors and open the doors to all the
enthusiasts who want nothing more than to clamber to the top and feel like a old time
lighthouse keeper for a few minutes.

I nudged Lauren and said, “See, aren’t you glad we stayed that extra day at Laura’s?”

Just over a half-hour later we arrived at Bullard Beach State Park in the town of Bandon,
home of the Coquille River Lighthouse – which was open and waiting for us when we
pulled up. The base of this octagonal lighthouse had been setup as both a museum and
gift shop with a lone volunteer (a very nice older lady who seemed genuinely happy to
see us) working both. The volunteer pointed out a sealed-over section of wall where the
old foghorn used to be and informed us that the real operational lighthouse and foghorn
now sit at the end of a long jetty sticking out into the ocean. While a light at the top of
this tower still flashes its old signature flash, the ocean side is actually blacked out since
this is no longer an official beacon.

After poking around downstairs for a few minutes, we decided it was time to climb up to
the head. Admission was free but we made a donation to the local lighthouse fund
anyway. The lady volunteer thanked us for our contribution, then looking at Lauren’s
protruding belly, now reaching ridiculous proportions, asked us if we were sure about
making the climb. We assured her that we would be fine and promised not to induce
labor on the way.

“Well I guess if you did, it’d be a pretty neat place to give birth,” the lady said laughing.

“Not at only thirty-three weeks, it wouldn’t,” said Lauren under her breath.

The Coquille River Light’s tower wasn’t very tall and the climb really wasn’t all that bad.
We were greeted at the top by Chuck, another volunteer who looked to be in his
seventies, and who was incredibly well educated on the history of this particular
lighthouse. He told us that the Coquille Light was built in order to guide ships into the
river, which runs several miles inland into the heart of what was once a major timber
zone. Any shipper who wanted a piece of that pie had to navigate the river first. But
before they did that, they had to get into the river. The freshwater of the river mixing
with the saltwater of the ocean creates a sizeable churning effect, which has resulted in a
large sandbar at the mouth of the river. While the water’s depth on the river side is
anywhere from fifty to seventy feet, the depth on the ocean side is a mere ten to twenty
feet. Depending on tidal conditions, the sandbar can sit as little as three feet below the
surface, posing a considerable problem to pretty much any craft larger than a canoe.

Skippers had to navigate the ocean’s surges just right in order to make it safely from the
ocean into the river. Time it wrong and the ship would come down smack on the
sandbar, sometimes breaking the ship in half. And there have been many who have timed
it wrong. In fact, we were told, the last three hundred feet of the river’s south jetty is
actually the remains of a ship that crashed there. It became too dangerous to try and free
the ship, so the Coast Guard simply filled it with rocks and left it there. Chuck also told
us that the river’s churning effect creates an incredibly strong undertow, which means a
ship often doesn’t just sink. It can get pulled under and dragged out to sea at a
frightening speed if the conditions are (right?). He said that less than a year before, a tour
boat had crashed on the sandbar and been sucked down. The wreckage surfaced a couple
days later nearly a mile out to sea. There were no survivors.

Looking around (morbidity and mortality pushed out of our minds), we could see that the
beach was littered with scores and scores of driftwood, ranging in size from small sticks
to full-blown tree trunks. Chuck said this happens every winter. The wood drifts in from
god knows how far, some of it floating out there for years and years before finally
coming to rest in the state park where every spring it gets cleared away with a backhoe.
Even the jetties were littered with their own share of wood, though we were told it was
far too dangerous to clear off. Ocean surges and undertow aside, Chuck also said, “You
never know when a ‘sneaker wave’ is going to hit.”

Not only is this area in the same Alaskan tsunami danger zone as Crescent City, but up
here the San Andreas is actually an off shore fault which tremors periodically, disrupting
the millions of gallons of ocean water situated above it. “Sneaker waves” can vary in
size from a minor surge on up to a full-blown tidal wave. Living in the aftermath of the
catastrophic tsunamis that devastated India in 2005, many of us now know to look for the
telltale sign of water receding from the beach, indicating a wave of biblical proportions
on its way. But many sneaker waves don’t telegraph their arrival quite so blatantly. A
wave just big enough to wash ashore, say, fifty feet inland isn’t going to produce a
noticeable change in the shoreline in the moments preceding its arrival. According to
Chuck, our ad hoc maritime authority, the only way to know if a sneaker wave is coming
is if you happen to see a white breaker out near the horizon. At that point you have
maybe ten minutes before it reaches the mainland – and any wave tall enough to be
breaking that far out from land is definitely not one you want to be around when it
arrives.

“Where would you even go at that point if you saw one?” Lauren asked.

“I’d stay right here,” Chuck responded confidently. The lighthouse’s foundation was
made of solid stone and had been standing for over a hundred years.

“She’s solid,” said Chuck.

That point was reaffirmed the year before when a busload of elementary students came
for a tour of the lighthouse. The group had just gotten situated in the tower’s head when
a sneaker wave, ahem… snuck up on them. It brought enough water with it to actually
pick up the school bus and float it on top a log, requiring a tow truck to come free it. But
inside the lighthouse, the kids and everybody else were safe and sound.
We spent nearly a half hour up in the head talking with Chuck – and probably could have
stayed longer. But we were still crunched for time, so we thanked him and headed back
to the car. On the way out we both agreed that our donation to the local lighthouse fund
was well spent. These folks sure knew how to make people enter their lighthouse feeling
welcome and exit feeling educated.

After this, Lauren and I had a run of “light bagging.” Basically for a couple hours we
simply drove to lighthouses, stopping for just long enough to take a picture (“bagging” it)
before moving on. According to our book, these next several lighthouses weren’t open to
the public, so we didn’t make a huge effort to get close to them. Our first “bag”, the
Cape Arago Light, is situated on a small island just off the mainland and is inaccessible
except by boat – and even then, only by the Coast Guard. The light was first built in
1866 to guide lumber haulers into Coos Bay – and from the moment of its inception has
never had an easy time doing its job. The island is subject to harsh erosion and the first
lighthouse quickly threatened to topple into the sea. A second lighthouse was built in
1910, and after only a few decades it too was in danger. So yet a third lighthouse was
built in 1934. This is the one that still stands today. The first two never did end up
falling into the ocean. While that certainly would have been a dramatic sight to witness,
the Coast Guard opted for an equally spectacular demonstration and blew them up with
dynamite after completion of the third light.

In addition to the difficulty of building a structure that would stand the test of time, the
Lighthouse Service likewise had trouble devising a method of transportation to and from
the island that could stand the test of weather. Traverses involving low bridges, high
bridges, cable trams and good old-fashioned boat travel often ended in near disaster as
the ocean beat, crippled, and mocked any attempt to bring keepers and their families from
the mainland to their posts.

Of course all this history didn’t look nearly so exciting from over a mile away. And
certainly not after driving nearly sixteen miles off Route 101 down a bumpy dirt road to
the scenic turnout. By the time we got there, Lauren was feeling not only queasy but also
false laborish. So she sat in the car while I jumped out, snapped a couple of pictures,
then brought us back to the highway.

Another twenty miles up the road, we bagged the Umpqua River Light. A sign on the
side of the road said, “Lighthouse View 1/4 Mile.” We pulled into the turnout, took
pictures of what little we could see – basically the lighthouse’s red top poking through
the trees – and were off again. Forty miles later we bagged the Heceta Head Light.
According to their website, Heceta Head is the most photographed lighthouse in the
United States. I don’t know if I would agree with that assessment. Personally, I’d put
my money on the Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina for that honor. Having seen the
number of tourists that flock to see that trademark “barber pole” paint job, I’d be very
surprised if any other lighthouse came close to the number of pictures being taken of
Hatteras. But still, you do have to admit, as far as scenery goes, Heceta Head has plenty
to offer photographers. Flanked by angular cliffs and ocean on one side and lush
evergreens on the other, Heceta Head certainly has a good deal of romantic allure going
for it and the grounds currently function as a bed and breakfast / wedding pavilion.
Surprisingly the prices were fairly reasonable, given the location, with some rooms going
for as low as $133.00 per night. But it was barely passed noon and we simply could not
stop – not even for romance and lighthouses. So onward and northward we drove.

There are certain things you notice while driving through Oregon that you just don’t see
anywhere else in the country. For one thing, the road signs are incredibly terse, usually
with just one key word giving you all the information the D.O.T. thinks you need. Rather
than DANGER: FALLING ROCKS, the sign on the side of an Oregon mountain simply
says, ROCKS. Rather than TRUCKS ENTERING ROADWAY, it says, TRUCKS.
Even the speed limit signs simply say SPEED 55. We saw one sign later in the day that
declared CONGESTION. There was no time of day indicated. Just a curt, unilateral
warning for any vehicle passing this way to watch out. Actually that would have been a
good blanket sign for all of Oregon. If we’re trying to convey the most amount of
information with the least number of pleasantries, the state could probably save
themselves a lot of money by just cranking out the same WATCH OUT signs and putting
them up wherever any kind of hazard exists.

The shortness of speech on the Oregon road signs didn’t make much sense until you
looked around and saw something else you don’t generally see elsewhere in the country:
drive-through espresso huts. We were in the Pacific Northwest now, home of Seattle and
her famous son, Starbucks. The people up here love their coffee a lot, and their espresso
even more. And when you’re that jacked up on caffeine, you apparently don’t want to
deal with the petty hassle of actually getting out of your car for your next fix. Many of
these espresso huts didn’t even have the option of indoor counter service. They were
simply little one-room structures with just enough space inside to fit a single espresso
machine and a cash register. They didn’t bother taking up valuable real estate with
shelves and cupboards full of silly things like pastries or bagels. The owners knew
Oregonians were coming to their hut looking for one thing: espresso – and damnit they
wanted it NOW!

After seeing all these espresso huts, other things started to make sense. For instance, the
rapid speech patterns of the people in the restaurant the night before. Of course! They
weren’t being rude. They just couldn’t help themselves. With that much espresso
coursing through their veins, they didn’t physically have the ability to wait for us to finish
a sentence. And I suppose anybody that hopped up on the state’s unofficial drink (Milk
is the official one, but really that’s just the vehicle for these people’s lattes isn’t it?),
doesn’t have time to read five whole words on a road sign either.

(((Just tell me exactly what I need to know and spare me all those annoying superfluous
words that waste valuable nanoseconds of my time and keep me from getting my next
gigantic cup of triple shot espresso and really serve no other purpose being on the sign in
the first place except to satisfy some half educated government employee's anal retentive
need to stay true to a ridiculous archaic standard of english which still refuses to include
rapid run on sentences as good and useful turns of phrase and is the reason I got a C in
public speaking to begin with and all just because my big jerk of a professor went to
harvard school of dictation or whatever the crap it was and I mean hello have you tasted
the sorry excuse for coffee they serve out there now what does that sign up there say ELK
good great got it!!!!)))

I’ve never been a fan of espresso personally. My experiences with the stuff generally
centered around a tiny porcelain cup containing a single supercharged shot with a lemon
wedge on the side that we served in the slightly snobby restaurant I worked at in Boston.
Those little shooters of dark brown water, served without milk or Sweet & Low were
always so stale and bitter that I likened it to liquid cigarette butts. As far as I was
concerned, the only logical explanation for why somebody would want to drink
something so horrible was for the caffeine high, which I imagine must have been pretty
intense – you know, once the shakes wore off. I wouldn’t know. I’d never finished an
entire cup. So we bypassed all the little espresso huts and focused our attention on
finding the next lighthouse. Though we did stop and grab a cheap lunch at a little mom
and pop convenience store that was advertising three hotdogs for $1.25.

The Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is probably the most beautiful and well-run lighthouse I’ve
ever been to. Beautiful because this lighthouse is actually a house, a Victorian one at
that, with the light room stuck on top almost as an afterthought. Well-run because
Yaquina Lights Inc., the nonprofit in charge of the place, has gone to great lengths to
preserve not only the light, but the residence itself, exactly the way it was when keeper
Charles Pierce, with his wife and nine children, lived here from 1871-1874. Every room
was made up and decorated just as it would have been back in the day, and the entire
house was chock full of informative signs and informative volunteers who could describe
life in the lighthouse with a considerable degree of knowledge and authority. Even
though entrance to the lighthouse was technically free, we felt no hesitation about making
a donation.

The fact that this guy Pierce had nine kids is not lost on you as you walk through this
charming, albeit tiny house, which would probably fit a family of four nowadays. I
assume “Where did everyone fit?” is the most popular question asked of the volunteers
here. The actual light room was closed to the public but there was plenty more to look at.
The bedrooms, kitchen, music room, living room, were all on display. Some rooms you
could walk through, while others had to be viewed from behind a velvet rope. One of the
most interesting things we saw was a series of framed artwork hanging on the walls of the
family room. At first these abstract designs resembling flowers and doilies appeared to
be made out of some kind of dark thread or lace. But one of the volunteers told us to
look closer and see that the material being used was actually human hair, which the girls
in this family apparently never cut. When it came out in their hairbrush they would save
the strands in a jar, then use it later on to make these designs, which they accomplished
by wrapping the individual hairs around pieces of wire. Definitely a craft that required
patience and a certain dedication to tedium. But I guess when you’re in the middle of
nowhere, as this place very much was in the late 1800’s, with no TV and nine kids to
corral, you’ll latch onto any form of entertainment you can think of that will keep
everybody occupied and quiet.
One thing that none of the signs, the free literature, or even the volunteers talk about very
much at Yaquina Bay, is what a short-lived project this particular lighthouse was. Pierce
and his family were the first and last to live here, and the lighthouse was only in
operation a scant four years before the Yaquina Head lighthouse was constructed about
three miles up the road. The most that Yaquina Lights Inc. will say about the subject in
their brochure is:

It soon became apparent that the[Yaquina Bay] Light was not as visible as needed, so the
government decommissioned it in 1874.

The real story wasn’t quite as banal as that. The Yaquina Head Light was supposed to be
built at Cape Foulweather, some fifteen miles to the north. But somehow through a
colossal bureaucratic goof the light was built here instead, rendering the smaller, less
powerful Yaquina Bay station obsolete. One has to wonder, in the year or so it took from
groundbreaking to completion, why nobody with half a brain saw the new lighthouse
being built in town, questioned the necessity of two lights so close together, and posed
that question to somebody in charge of the paperwork and logistics. Whatever the
reason, mister Pierce and his family of twelve (a tenth child was born during his
abbreviated tenure there) were shipped off to another assignment, and the Yaquina Head
light took control of the local waterways.

Before leaving the Yaquina Bay light (are you keeping the two straight?) we headed
down to the basement where there was a decent-sized gift shop. Lauren picked out a few
figurines of the lighthouses we’d seen today and I snagged a shotglass with all the
Oregon lighthouses on it. The volunteers running the register told us that Yaquina Head
was open to the public, but it closed at four o’clock, which was the time now. That was
okay. Between this and the Coquille River Light, we’d gotten in a good deal of
lighthouse history and education for one day. Plus, there were even more to see
tomorrow. We figured we’d just drive up to Yaquina Head, snap a quick picture and
move on. There was one more Oregon lighthouse left after that, and we were hoping to
bag the entire state in a single day. But daylight was working against us, so we had to
hurry.

As it turned out, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse was situated on a large nature preserve
with a great deal to see and our quick photo op turned into yet another hour-long
diversion. Actually, the reason we stayed so long probably had as much to do with the
fact that it cost five dollars to get into the nature preserve even though the lighthouse was
closed, and we felt compelled to get our money’s worth.

Lauren summed it up best, saying, “Are you kidding me? The open lighthouses didn’t
charge us a thing and now we have to give you five bucks for something we can’t even
get into?” Of course she said that to me, not to the guy collecting our money.

So we made the most of it. First stop, of course, was the lighthouse itself. Although the
interior was closed, we were able to walk around outside the base and take our obligatory
“looking up” shots, which were hard to get on account of the wind blowing harder than
anything I’d ever experienced. And remember, I’ve lived through a tornado – and Point
Reyes for that matter. I conducted a little experiment and leaned into the wind, waiting
for an even stronger gust. When it came I let my center of gravity tip back, and sure
enough, for a very brief second the wind was actually strong enough to hold me up.

After getting our lighthouse shots we headed down the cliff via a wooden staircase to
Cobble Beach. The entire beach, as its name suggests, is comprised of millions upon
millions of impossibly smooth gray cobblestones, which made a very cool hollow, almost
glottal sound as we walked on them. The stones were formed by lava flowing into the
ocean and quickly cooling, then eroding over millions of years of ebbing and flowing
tides. The texture of the beach was mesmerizing and I took numerous pictures, both
close-ups and wide shots, thinking these would make some kickass desktop pictures for
my computer. A few hundred feet out in the water, dozens of seals were sunning
themselves on a series of large rocks. Fortunately for them, the tide was in far enough to
deter the other tourists from walking out and disturbing them. Instead they poked around
in the tidepools (the tourists, not the seals), fishing out various specimens with little nets
and examining them closely before returning them to their home, or chucking them as far
as they could out to sea. For our part, Lauren and I walked around on the tricky
cobblestone beach for about a half hour, picking up cobbles and dropping them to hear
that funky hollow sound over and over again. But with daylight a-wastin’, we had to get
a move on if we hoped to make our final lighthouse before sundown.

A sign on the stairwell had sternly warned beachcombers not to remove any of the
cobbles from the beach, though you could take as much driftwood as you wanted. While
it was very tempting to ignore the first rule, I was well schooled in the “leave no trace”
philosophy and knew that if I took just one stone, and everybody else took just one stone,
Cobble Beach would eventually become known as just “the beach.” Instead, I took
advantage of the second rule and snagged a smooth-as-marble piece of wood, which
might have passed for a fossil of some sort if you didn’t know better.

The race was officially on when we left Yaquina Head just after five o’clock. The Cape
Meares Lighthouse was near the town of Tillamook almost seventy miles north, and it
closed at sunset, which had been occurring somewhere between six-thirty and seven
o’clock. We would be cutting it close. I drove as fast as I could, but U.S. 101 was still a
two-lane road that passed through a series of towns with their own share of lights and
local traffic. Once in Tillamook (which I think is one of the coolest names for a town
ever) we started looking carefully for our turn, not wanting to waste precious seconds
turning around. The sun was already below the treeline. Fortunately, the good Mooks of
Tilla were gracious enough to put up a big old sign with a big old arrow pointing to the
left, declaring, “Lighthouse 10 Miles.”

Ten miles! This really was going to come down to the wire. We drove down several
secondary roads, including one that was mostly gravel, racing past signs that kept
taunting us with distances: “Lighthouse 5 Miles… Lighthouse 2 Miles…” The sun had
now officially set and the sky was quickly turning from orange to dark purple. Finally
we saw a sign for Cape Meares State Park. The sign at the start of the dirt road told us,
“Park closed and gate locked at dusk.” But the gate was still open. Dear God it looked
like we were going to make it. We tore down the dirt road, kicking up dust behind us and
praying that there would be enough daylight to get a good picture. About thirty seconds
later we saw a pair of headlights approaching. We hoped for a brief second that it was
just a carload of tourists packing it up for the day, but then the car flashed its high beams
at us and we knew it was a park ranger. Pulling up alongside, the rather mannish-looking
woman in the brown button-down shirt informed us she was getting ready to lock up for
the night.

Nooooo! We had come so close! Defeated, we turned around in the parking lot where
we couldn’t even see the lighthouse for a Hail Mary distance shot. We waved to the
ranger on our way out and noted that the park would reopen at 7AM.

Now the dilemma was what to do. Keep driving? There was a hostel another fifty miles
north in the town of Seaside that had gotten great reviews in our hostel book, but that
would mean forgoing the Cape Meares Light. It would be a shame to have come this far,
only to miss bagging the entire state of Oregon by a single lighthouse. In the end, we let
our finances make the decision. The cost of the Seaside hostel’s private room was more
expensive than any of the motels we’d been staying in the last several nights. It was as
good an excuse as any to justify spending the night in Tillamook. We’d reattempt Cape
Meares in the morning.

We drove back into Tillamook and found the Mar Clair Inn. I went inside and found the
office empty, so I spent a few seconds making subtle attention-getting noises – sniffing,
clearing my throat, shuffling from side to side – in an attempt to draw out whoever was
supposed to be working the desk. When that yielded no results, I rang the little bell on
the desk gently. Then I rang it a little louder. Then I rang it several times in rapid ding-
ding-ding-ding-ding-ding succession.

This motel was set up like a lot of others we’d seen in the last couple of days. While the
rooms themselves were in a separate building, arranged in one long continuous line, the
office was actually adjacent to somebody’s house. In fact behind the counter was an
open doorway with only a pair of curtains separating the living area from the office.
Behind the curtains I could hear the sound of some Law & Order incarnation playing
loudly on the TV. Perhaps the manager (or whoever) was just on the other side of the
house and couldn’t hear me over the loud BONG-BONG’s.

At a loss for what else to do, I walked behind the counter, parted the curtain ever so
slightly and called out, “Hello…? Hell-ooo-ooo!” Still nothing, I pushed the curtain
aside and took a few tentative steps into the house. I stopped short and shrunk back
quickly when I spotted a man eating dinner at the dining room table, apparently oblivious
to my presence. I scooted back into the motel office, seemingly undetected. Now I was
pissed. Unless the guy was literally (as in clinically) deaf, there was no reason why he
shouldn’t have come out here by now. This charade had been going on for over five
minutes by this point. You’d think that if only for security reasons, somebody would
have checked in on the office by now. I mean seriously, rudeness aside, there were also a
lot of things worth stealing up here. Lamps, bookshelves, the freakin’ cash register. If
the guy in the house was just taking a dinner break and didn’t want to be bothered, fine,
but geez you’d think he would have at least locked the door and put a “Will Return” sign
on it.

I grabbed a business card off the counter and went over to the courtesy phone. I sat down
in a comfy chair (which, had I been another person, I would have attempted to steal as
well) and dialed the number for the motel. God love’em, the office phone had an actual,
real live bell for its ringer. The kind that is loud and obnoxious and impossible to ignore.
I thought for sure this would bring somebody running. At the very least, I figured the
phone would also be ringing elsewhere in the house and somebody would have to
eventually pick up. But the phone just rang and rang. No manager. No irate house
dweller. No answering machine for that matter.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I said intentionally loud, slamming the handset down.

“Well screw this.” I picked up the phone and hit redial. As soon as the office phone
began its shrill, ear-piercing BBBRRRRR-IIIIIINNNNGGGG, I set the courtesy phone’s
receiver on the table and walked out. I have no idea how long the phone blared before
somebody finally came to check on it. I was long gone by then. But I sincerely hope the
phone company in Tillamook didn’t have some kind of automatic cut off that breaks the
connection after a set number of rings.

Lauren was a little incredulous when I told her that I had been in there for nearly ten
minutes and hadn’t spoken to a single person. It’s really a shame that the Mar Clair was
the cheapest motel we’d seen in town. It would have been nice to say, “Well they lost out
on our business.” But we were on a budget, and cheap rooms always trump lousy
service. Either way, we obviously couldn’t walk back in there now. At least not right
now. So we drove down the street to a local restaurant called simply, The Pancake
House for a dinnertime helping of their signature dish. The service was a bit slow and the
server rather curt (there seemed to be a trend developing in Tillamook), but the food was
thick, heavy and buttery, the way good pancakes should be.

Full and satisfied, and getting drowsy, we headed back to the Mar Clair Inn. For the first
time all trip I had Lauren go inside to secure us a room. I wasn’t sure if the guy I’d seen
eating his dinner earlier had seen me as well, or if he was even the one who would be
(hopefully) working the desk, but I didn’t feel like having an awkward conversation if
that was the case. Lauren went in and delivered our typical spiel to the now-present
clerk.

“A room with one bed please.”

“How many people.”

(sigh) “Just me.”
We weren’t sure if it was wise to make somebody think that there was a very pregnant
woman staying alone in one of the rooms here. That seems like just the kind of helpless
person that a freak rapist-murderer would prey on. But if it came to that, said rapist
would be in for a very big surprise when he came through the door. After that, I don’t
think we’d have been squabbling over the ten-dollar charge for our extra occupant.

Incidentally, Lauren claims to have had a lovely conversation with the guy working the
desk and she noted that the courtesy phone had been replaced to its cradle.


DAY 20 – Friday, April 2
START: Tillamook, OR
END: Kirkland, WA
MILEAGE: 313 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: More Lighthouses, Astoria Column, Goonies House, Espresso Lady,
Rebekah’s House


The lighthouse builders of Oregon just never seemed to get their act together. There was
Cape Arago, which had to be rebuilt not once but twice; Yaquina Head, which was built
in entirely the wrong place; and then there was Cape Meares, where we were headed
now, which was, well… built in entirely the wrong place. Apparently one of the
government employees working for the United States Coastal Survey accidentally
switched Cape Meares and Cape Lookout on the official sea chart and the lighthouse
designated for Cape Lookout was instead constructed five miles to the north at Cape
Meares. Rather than incur the cost of rebuilding, which would render yet another
lighthouse useless, the Lighthouse Service just said, “To hell with it,” and left everything
the way it was.

Not for nothing, but they couldn’t have picked a more scenic spot for the site of their
screw up. The Cape Meares Light only stands a squat thirty-eight feet tall for good
reason. It’s perched at the top of a cliff that drops two hundred feet straight down to the
ocean. As short as it is, it’s still higher above sea level than most any other lighthouse
out there and mariners rarely had trouble spotting its beacon from sea. Walking the half-
mile path to the light at just after ten o’clock in the morning, Lauren and I gawked and
stared and made the same breathless exclamations we’d been making for the past several
days. We were going on nearly a week now traveling up the Pacific Coast, but its rocky
cliffs, turbulent waves, and unobstructed views still couldn’t manage to bore us.

We’d stayed in Tillamook overnight, shortchanging our mileage for the day and putting
up with crappy motel service, all for the opportunity to come see this lighthouse. And yet
when we came to the end of the path, we snapped a couple of pictures, and five minutes
later (since the lighthouse itself wasn’t open) headed back to the car. It didn’t matter.
We had officially bagged all the lights in Oregon. Well, sort of. Technically there was
also a lightship in Astoria where we were headed next, but please, a lighthouse on a boat?
That’s just silly. Besides there were other things that would keep us busy in Astoria
before going back in pursuit of even more (real) lighthouses.

Astoria is a city steeped in history. While Native American Indians had lived in the area
for well over ten thousand years before the white man came, Astoria became an
important outpost in ol’ Whitey’s race to claim the continent for himself. One of Lewis
and Clark’s key points of interest on their famous journey was to see if the Columbia
River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, could somehow provide a direct
water route across the country. It didn’t, and Lewis and Clark ended up spending a
particularly harsh winter (in which it “rained all but twelve days”) in Astoria, which at
the time was called Fort Clatsop. A New York financier named John Astor arrived here
five years later and brought with him a fur trading empire as well as the namesake for the
eventual incorporated city. Astoria soon became an important hub in America’s
“Manifest Destiny” of settling the western frontier. For migrants traveling the Oregon
Trail, Astoria was often quite literally the end of the line. The booming town was the
first western city to have a post office, and it somehow managed to stand the test of time
even as it became eclipsed by Portland and other inland cities. Still it stands today, the
oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.

But to be honest, Lauren and I weren’t here for history. We weren’t here for lighthouse
boats. We weren’t here for museums, riverwalks, restaurants, or nightlife. We were here
for one reason and one reason only. Astoria is where they filmed The Goonies. I knew
from talking to a couple of well-informed friends that if you found the right map, it
would lead you to several locations used in what I consider to be the funnest, hippest and
purest kids movie to survive my childhood.

But before we went off gallivanting in search of movie locations like a bunch of kids
hunting for buried treasure, we made a stop at the Astoria Column. This was a
recommendation from the manager at the Montara Point Hostel and an easy place to find.
Perched on top of a hill, the tallest one in the city in fact, the column is impossible to
miss even from ten miles away. But just in case you did miss it, there are signs every
quarter-mile or so leading you through the main business district, inexorably toward the
city’s main focal point.

Downtown Astoria has a very cool, very old, very blue-collar look to it. It appears to be
simultaneously a thriving port town and yet a town that is just this side of crumbling from
within. All the storefronts on the main drag were open for business, no boarded up
buildings, and yet most of them seemed rather rundown. Though perhaps “rundown” is
the wrong word. “Lived in” is probably more accurate. The beaten and windblown
facades didn’t appear to be the result of neglect. They simply took on the character of a
chiseled, war-wise old man who has worked hard to survive his entire life. It wasn’t
always pretty, and it was never easy, and he didn’t win any popularity contests along the
way, but in the end he somehow made it work by the scrapes on his knuckles and the
chips on his paint job. Uh… sorry, I seem to have mixed up my analogies. Just off the
main drag, still on our way to the Column, the backdrop changed almost instantly from
working class to more or less suburban, with little just-so houses on nicely mowed
postage-stamp lawns, and plenty of trees providing ample shade. It’s obvious that, unlike
other cities, the people of Astoria actually live where they work and work where they
live. And while work might mean a long hard day on the docks, home is still just a five-
minute drive away. Astoria is definitely a place that, given another chance at life, I
would like to have lived in for a year or so.

Following the diligently-(almost-anally)-placed signs, and navigating numerous blind
curves on our way up the hill, we came at last to the Astoria Column. Erected in 1926,
and modeled after the historic Trajan’s Column in Rome, Astoria’s version is essentially
a modern-day totem pole telling the history of the area, from the days of the Indians to
the arrival of the railroad, via a mural of artwork that spirals its way scroll-like up the
column. I tried to follow the storyline. I really did. I began at the bottom and walked
around and around the column, working my way up. There are fourteen levels to the
scroll and I think made it to about six before I got a crick in my neck and had to stop. At
a hundred and twenty-five feet tall, I imagine the Astoria Column is a bit like a Tootsie
Pop. It takes a really dedicated person to complete all fourteen circles of the scroll before
giving in and biting through the hard candy shell. Um… yeah, the analogy thing again.

Taller than any lighthouse we’d seen so far, the Astoria Column had an interior stairwell
that went up to an observation deck. And bless Lauren’s heart, she climbed all hundred
and sixty-four steps of it. The view from the top was of course amazing. The only way
to get a better birds eye view of Astoria, one would actually have to be a bird. It was a
bright sunny day and we had a clear view of the town, the ocean, the wide mouth of the
Columbia River and the Astoria-Megler Bridge, which takes you across into Washington
State. Admission to the column was free, but donations were gladly being accepted. We
made our own contribution by patronizing the gift shop outside, picking up the usual
postcards, Christmas ornaments and shotglass. But I was also looking for something
more specific. And tucked in amongst a rotating rack full of bumper stickers, I found it.
A simple, non-flashy, black and white pamphlet entitled: “Shot in Astoria – Your Tour of
Movie Locations Filmed in Astoria!”

Inside was a movie buff’s treasure trove full of maps, directions and travel tips to
locations from movies like Short Circuit, Point Break, Free Willy and Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles III. Okay, maybe pretentious movie buffs wouldn’t consider this to be
much of a treasure, and honestly I ignored most of the information contained in the
pamphlet too, flipping straight to the pages dealing with the most awesome Sean Astin
movie ever. That’s right, I said it. You can keep your goofy little hobbits with their silly
little rings. Mr. Astin will always and forever be Mikey Walsh in my book.

Following the pamphlet’s directions, we headed back down the hill and over to Duane
Street where we parked the car and walked up a private drive to a house that would go
unnoticed by anybody who couldn’t picture it with an intricate gate-opening device
involving a bowling ball, a chicken and a sprinkler. This was the Walsh house. The
place where the adventure began. Where the rugrats from the Goon Docks found One-
Eyed Willy’s treasure map and went off in search of “the rich stuff.” It’s also, of course,
the place where the amiable little fatty named Chunk performed his famous dance known
round the world as “The Truffle Shuffle.” I did my duty as a loyal Goonies fan and
performed my own rendition of the silly dance, thankful that it was early afternoon on a
workday and nobody on the entire street appeared to be home.

After that we walked back down the road a couple blocks and snapped a picture of the
elementary school used in the Arnold Schwartzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop before
heading off in search of other Goonies locations. On the way, I tried calling several of
my old movie geek friends who I knew would appreciate where I was and what I was
seeing, but all those jerks were busy at work or something. We made a stop at the
Clatsop County Jail where Momma Fratelli broke her son out of prison in the Goonies
opening scene. Although it operated as a museum these days, this was an actual
functioning prison at one point, though I couldn’t understand how. You can’t tell by
watching the movie, but this jail is a tiny little building, smaller even than the little local
bank next door. There certainly wouldn’t have been much of a buffer zone between the
inmates and the exit should they have somehow broken out of their cells. Just down the
road from the jail was the Flavel House, an ornate Victorian building that served as the
museum Mikey’s dad worked in during a blink-and-you-missed-it scene.

There were a few other minor and out-of-the-way Goonies locations we could have
checked out. But by now we’d been in Astoria for over two hours and had to get a move
on. So we got back in the car and crossed over the Columbia River into Washington,
turning almost immediately into Fort Canby State Park for the last two lighthouses we
would see on this trip: North Head and Cape Disappointment.

Whoa, whoa, wait a second there Brian, you’re probably thinking. Two lighthouses in
the same park? Is this the result of yet another Yaquina Bay / Yaquina Head
boondoggle? In fact, no. The Columbia River has a similar state of affairs to the
Coquille River in that the freshwater of the river mixing with the salt water of the ocean
has worked to create a dangerous sandbar. The one major difference between the two is
that the Columbia’s mouth is much, much, much wider than the Coquille’s, making the
sandbar equally more immense, and earning this area the daunting title: “Graveyard of
the Pacific.” The Cape Disappointment Light was erected in 1856 to both guide mariners
into the river and to warn them against the shipwrecking sandbar. The inherent problem
with its location however was that the light could only be seen by ships traveling from the
south. A jutting mountain obstructed the view from the north. So in 1898 the North
Head Light was built to give an equal heads up to ships coming from both directions. As
time went on, even two lighthouses weren’t enough to ease the minds of ship captains.
These days, buoys, three jetties and constant dredging are necessary to keep entrance to
the river a more or less safe endeavor.

We headed to the North Head Light first, for no better reason than it was the one closest
to the parking lot, and for a scant one-dollar donation we were able to climb to the top.
The lady volunteer working the base gave Lauren yet another one of those looks we’d
been getting in any attraction that involved stairs. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay
climbing this?” she asked, “It’s sixty-four steps up.”
“Oh that’s nothing,” Lauren laughed. “I did the Astoria Column this morning.”

With a look and tone of voice that said okay, if you say so, the lady motioned us toward
the stairs and we started up. It may have been only one-third the height of the Astoria
Column, but Lauren still felt every step. But she was rewarded at the top with a very
educational discussion with yet another lighthouse volunteer who told us all about the
history of not just the lighthouse but the state park on which it resides. Fort Canby was
once an actual operational military base, armed with canons in 1862 to protect the mouth
of the river from invading armadas and remained in active operation until 1947. From
the light room, we could see some of the old concrete canon platforms still in place. Fort
Canby was the only place on the mainland United States to receive hostile fire during
World War II. One night in 1942, a Japanese submarine fired seventeen shells at the fort,
but only succeeded in destroying a baseball backstop.

Our volunteer also told us that North Head is apparently the windiest lighthouse area on
the west coast, and the third windiest place in the entire country. Back in 1932, the lens
actually got damaged when a duck was blown through the window… I’m sorry, I have to
say that again because it’s just too damn funny. The wind was blowing, and A DUCK
was redirected with enough force to not only break the window, but then chip a first order
Fresnel lens – which, if you’ve ever seen these lenses, you know just how thick they are.
Just imagine that visual in your head for a second and ask yourself this: If you were the
keeper on duty that night, would you have cursed and sworn over your broken lens, or
laughed your ass off at the duck’s expense over what must have been – let’s face it – an
incredibly slapsticky demise? Ironically, it was a rather balmy day during our visit to
North Head, and after our experiences at Point Reyes and Yaquina Head, we told our
volunteer that we’d just have to take his word for it that this place was one of the windiest
in the country.

After about twenty minutes, we thanked the volunteer and climbed back down the steps
to begin our hike to Cape Disappointment. And it was a hike too. Three quarters of a
mile through the woods and up and down several rather steep hills, knowing we’d have to
cover the same terrain on the way back. Under normal circumstances that, of course,
would have been nothing, but I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of Lauren’s special
condition. The last eighth of a mile was the worst, walking up a partially paved road with
the same steepness as a San Francisco hill. Lauren held onto my arm as I all but pulled
her up the incline, stopping every fifty steps or so to let her catch her breath. We actually
ended up putting the hike to good use, using the strenuous activity to practice breathing
exercises for labor. Lauren, having recently completed her graduate degree in midwifery,
coached me on how I should breathe with her, match her intonation and try to slow her
down if her respirations got too fast. Of course, everything we practiced ended up going
straight out the window less than an hour into hard labor, but that’s beside the point.

The view at the top was nice, though in retrospect, probably not worth Lauren’s effort
and hyperventilation. The short conical lighthouse, with its black and white stripe design,
was operated by the Coast Guard, so the interior was closed to the public. While we did
have a nice birds-eye view of the river and its three jetties below, the real postcard shot of
Cape Disappointment required a bit of distance. So on the way back to the car, we took a
side trail that brought us to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which was situated
near the edge of a cliff that looked out over the cape. From there we could see the
lighthouse in context, sitting atop its evergreen-covered cliff with the ocean and the
mountains in the background. Absolutely stunning. Lauren, of course, made use of the
bathroom inside the interpretive center several times before we headed back to the car. It
was already four o’clock and we were utterly whooped from a full day, but knew we still
had a long stretch of driving ahead of us. Our plan was to make it to Lauren’s friend
Rebekah’s house near Seattle where we would spend the night.

The fastest and easiest route to Seattle is Interstate 5. Unfortunately, from where we
were, there was simply no direct route to get there. Even the shortest roads between here
and the interstate veered this way and that, adding unnecessary miles to what should have
been an easy straight shot. No matter how we looked at it, the best way to I-5 was a
nearly hundred-mile “up-and-over” via two-lane roads. And that was just to get to the
interstate. With nothing to do but drive, we got going, though it became pretty clear
pretty quickly that I was never going to make it to Seattle without a little pick-me-up.
And although I had never liked the taste, I decided to stop at one of the numerous
establishments offering (in big bold letters mind you) ESPRESSO.

We ended up at a little roadside place in South Bend called Boondocks Restaurant, which
was more than just a mere drive-through hut and actually had a full-fledged store with
counter service, room to walk around, and other stuff on sale. In fact it appeared that
seafood, not espresso, was their actual specialty. But with the all-important word
emblazoned on their exterior, we walked in and ordered ourselves a couple of iced mocha
lattes from a red-haired woman behind the counter. While she went to work at the
espresso machine we poked around the store checking out the other merchandise, ranging
from local pastry baskets to ceramic tea sets. There was a stack of books on one of the
little tables and the title of one caught my eye: “It’s Hard to Look Cool When Your Car’s
Full of Sheep – Tales from The Back Forty”. It was a collection of humor columns
written by a man named Roger Pond. Actively trying to develop my own humor column
at the time, I was intrigued and snagged a copy along with our lattes. The woman behind
the counter rang us up and commented on how hilarious the book was. Having had time
since to read it for myself, I’ve decided that Mr. Pond’s humor is something of an
acquired taste. One which I have yet to acquire. As the title indicates, most of his stories
center around livestock, tractors, animal feed and cattle castration. I imagine his writing
is probably incredibly hilarious to people who have actually lived and worked on a farm
their entire life. But as the son of a truck driver, I had trouble relating.

I took a sip of my iced mocha and was utterly surprised at how freakin’ good it tasted.
“Wow, I was honestly expecting not to like this,” I said to Lauren. “Every latte I’ve ever
gotten from Starbucks tastes sugary at best, but usually just tastes like burnt coffee.”
Lauren agreed wholeheartedly as she took another slug from her own cup.

“It all starts with bad beans,” the lady behind the counter chimed in, and then launched
into a ten-minute dissertation about the significance of coffee to the people of the Pacific
Northwest and the importance of making it properly. According to her, no self-
respecting resident of Washington State would ever set foot inside a Starbucks. It’s not
just that the global beverage empire, whose name has become synonymous with “coffee”,
traditionally uses beans that have long passed their optimum freshness, but the company
also doesn’t educate its employees as to the proper way to actually make a latte.
Apparently you’re supposed to get everything else ready first – the ice, the milk, the
syrup – and then, and only then, do you hit the button on the espresso machine to start the
forced drip.

“No more than ten seconds should go by between the water passing through the espresso
and when it hits your glass,” she instructed us. “But at Starbucks, they make the espresso
first, and then do all the milk and ice and everything else. Meanwhile your espresso is
just sitting there going rotten.”

Of course the proper technique is useless if you’re not using good fresh coffee beans to
begin with. Our newfound coffee guru told us rather proudly that no coffee served in her
shop would ever be more than a week old. In fact, her provider won’t sell coffee to any
establishment unless they order that frequently. If a store orders a bulk shipment of
coffee and then doesn’t order again for another month, the provider will actually refuse to
sell to them any longer.

“They want to make sure their coffee tastes the way it’s meant to,” she said.

All this information was hurtled at us at ten times the speed of sound, because, as the old
adage goes, this woman wasn’t just the president of the espresso bar, she was also a
customer. She regaled us with a warp speed story about a trip she’d taken to Mexico
where the only coffee they’d had was a stale jar of Folgers freeze-dried crystals, which I
imagine is a lot like eating NASA-issued ice-cream packets after a lifetime of Ben &
Jerry’s.

“I went eight days straight without a single espresso and I was just dying by the time I got
back,” she all but yelled, arms flailing wildly for effect. Lauren and I gave each other a
knowing smirk, which said maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Not the dying part of
course, just the detox period. Because I swear to you, with her telltale hyperactive
speech, arms waving in wide abrupt gestures, eyes that were constantly wide open and
bulging out as though someone had just delivered some particularly shocking news, and
short red hair that was standing on end from constantly running her fingers anxiously
through it, you could not have drawn a better caricature of a caffeine addict. It was really
quite funny, and yet by now, I couldn’t blame her in the least. I had sucked down my
iced mocha in less than five minutes and was already starting to feel the pleasant and
twitchy side effects. Lauren and I agreed that if they sold espresso that tasted like this
back East, we would be that animated and passionate about it too.

We stood around talking for perhaps another ten minutes, Lauren and I once again trying
to get a word in here and there between the rapid speech pattern of an espresso-drinking
Pacific-Northwesterner. I was tempted to buy another latte before we left, but I was
already quite alert and didn’t want to be so keyed up that I ended up crashing the car. We
thanked our new friend, who we privately dubbed “The Espresso Lady”, and got back on
the road.

Although we were traveling at the same speed we’d been doing for the past several days,
it seemed to take forever to get to the interstate. And even with my added espresso boost,
I was in dire need of something else to keep me going. So we popped in another of the
CD’s I’d burned in preparation for the road trip, this one labeled, “Catharsis”, which was
full of fast, loud and angry songs that I could yell along with in the hopes of naturally
boosting my adrenaline. Beastie Boys, Rob Zombie, Courtney Love. They were all on
there. Finally getting onto I-5, and hollering, “No… Sleep… ‘til Brooklyn!” at the top of
my lungs, I pointed the car north and wound it up to seventy for the first time in nearly a
week.

Rebekah lived in a Seattle suburb called Kirkland, and as we got close, Lauren called
ahead to make sure she was ready for us and to inquire about a good, cheap and quick
place to get some dinner. It was past eight o’clock by now and the last food we’d had
were our lattes three hours earlier. Rebekah directed us to a place called Taco Del Mar,
claiming they had the best burritos. The reigning title for best burritos in my world will
always be The Green Cactus, a small privately owned place in Burbank, California.
Since leaving L.A. almost four years earlier, I’d had yet to find a place that made
anything even approaching the greatness of The Green Cactus’s namesake burrito. So I
was, of course, skeptical of Rebekah’s appraisal of this chain of taco restaurants. But in
all honesty, I’d say it lived up to about ninety percent of the hype. We had a couple of
chicken and beef burritos, stuffed with rice, beans and cheese and topped off with a
mighty decent green taco sauce. And while it was no Green Cactus, it was a worthy
substitute for those of us who weren’t able to make it as far south as Burbank on this road
trip. Now if only they’d open up a few locations farther east.

We arrived at the apartment Rebekah shared with her boyfriend Skeet and their daughter
Laili a few minutes later. Rebekah had graduated from midwifery school with Lauren
and was also several months pregnant. We came in, gave hugs, compared bellies
(Lauren’s and Rebekah’s anyway), and dropped our stuff in the guest bedroom they’d set
up for us. Despite being exhausted from a long day, long week, hell long month of
traveling, we all stayed up until well past eleven talking about everything from school to
jobs to babies and everything in between. It was like being home again – and by home,
of course, I mean at Laura’s house – and only reluctantly did we all finally retire to our
respective beds.




DAY 21 – Saturday, April 3
START: Kirkland, WA
END: Sandpoint, ID
MILEAGE: 356 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Frank’s Diner

We heard Rebekah’s daughter Laili up and about around six-thirty or so, and when our
alarm went off at seven, we figured we should probably get up and be social. Instead we
fell back asleep for another two hours. The last couple days of lighthouses and more
lighthouses had whooped us. We eventually made it out of our room, said good morning,
took showers and ate some nice cold cereal that had an actual crunch for the first time in
forever. We all sat around talking and playing, in no big rush to get going. Pretty much
the only thing we had on our schedule for today was driving, and more of it. After Skeet
helped me get the bags back down to the car, Lauren and Rebekah posed for a picture of
their dual pregnant bellies and we all said our goodbyes around eleven o’clock.

Lauren and I filled up at a nearby gas station and then got a little fuel of our own at an
espresso hut next door. We made our way to Interstate 90 and for the first time since
leaving Sayreville, began driving east. It was hard to believe we were actually heading
home again. Well, sort of. We still had a good three thousand miles left to cover before
we went back to our daily lives, but after almost three weeks of driving, dozens of
touristy and off-beat stopovers, several near-death experiences involving cliffs and
mountain roads, and God knew how many miscellaneous pee breaks along the way, the
final leg of our journey was now upon us. It had been so easy to ignore with everything
else we’d been doing all trip. As long as we were still driving away from the place where
we’d started, we were able to forget about what was so obvious now: eventually this trip
would have to end. By this time one week from now, barring any unforeseen
circumstances, we would be back in New Jersey, home just in time for Easter, and this
trip, which had been preceded by nearly three years of anticipation, would be over.
Behind us. Nothing but a collection of very vivid memories. Neither of us said anything
about it, but we both knew the other was thinking it. It didn’t help that all day, for some
reason, we kept thinking it was Friday, only to realize our goof up later in the afternoon,
and feeling that much more disheartened over the loss of an entire day.

Trying to remain ever cheerful, I put in yet another mix CD, this one full of songs that
were not only my favorites, but were also in a range that I could sing along with without
sounding like the tone deaf non-vocalist that I am. “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by Counting
Crows, “Uneasy Rider” by Charlie Daniels, “If I Had a Million Dollars” by The
Barenaked Ladies. They put me in a good mood, which in turn put Lauren in a good
mood and so we started back east on the interstate, traveling through wide open patches
of rugged green countryside toward a jagged line of imposing snowcapped mountains,
bound inexorably for home.

While we were in no way eager to speed up the trip’s conclusion, I was a bit perplexed by
how slow traffic was moving along I-90. I mean, I guess “slow” isn’t exactly the right
word. Not technically. After all there was no midday congestion, no jam-ups up ahead,
plenty of room in front of and beside us to maneuver, and for pretty much the entire
length of the state traffic moved along smoothly and without incident at the posted speed
limit of seventy miles per hour. And I guess that’s what was so surreal. Had this been
New Jersey, the slowest person on the road would have doing at least seventy-five. Back
home, a speed limit sign is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. But here in
Washington State, with very few exceptions, nobody was going even one single mile
above the posted limit. And it wasn’t like in Los Angeles where traffic routinely moves
about five miles per hour slower than indicated simply because the freeway is so crowded
and the people there are deathly afraid of their cars. Out here, away from any city or
metropolitan area, with miles and miles of visible open highway ahead of us and not that
many cars on the road to contend with, and without any visible cop presence that I could
detect, the residents of Washington State were still voluntarily choosing to obey, you
know… the law.

I remembered the Espresso Lady warning me to watch my speed yesterday as we left The
Boondocks, but I just assumed she’d meant it as I was driving through town. Perhaps that
area was notorious for its speed traps. Well to judge by the way things were moving out
here, it seemed like the entire state must be one giant speed trap. And even though I
hadn’t seen so much as a single cop parked along the median of the highway pointing a
radar gun at the passing cars, I just assumed these people who lived here year round must
know something I didn’t and I followed their lead. Or at the very least, when I got sick
of following their lead, I only accelerated another three miles per hour to pass.

It’s really quite ironic when you think about it. If the caffeine-fueled Espresso Lady was
anything to judge the entire state by, then you wouldn’t think these people would have
the patience or self-control to keep their jittery feet from flooring that accelerator. I guess
like any good addicts though, they’ve learned the value of being cool and handling their
highs. Either that or nobody even considers buying a car without cruise control.

GRAFFITI LOG:
In an I-90 rest stop bathroom:

GRATEFUL DEAD
ROCK SUCK ROCK                SUCK

We pulled off the interstate in Spokane around three o’clock to grab an early dinner (or a
really late breakfast depending on how you looked at it) from Frank’s Diner, another
suggestion from the book ROADFOOD. Built and operated inside an actual honest-to-
God railroad car from the early 1900’s, Frank’s is a place worth visiting as much for the
atmosphere as for the food – which we soon discovered was also quite good. Stepping
into Frank’s is like stepping back in time. Exactly which time period is a little difficult to
ascertain, because while the railroad car’s décor indicated pre-30’s class and stateliness,
the music booming through the speakers was 1950’s rock-n-roll. However specific or not
the owners of Frank’s stuck to their theme is irrelevant. This was quite simply the
coolest place we’d eaten all trip, and definitely on my top ten list of coolest restaurants
ever.

Frank’s had a decent sized lunch and dinner menu, but from what we had read, breakfast
was definitely the way to go here. Neither of us had the appetite for Frank’s signature
dish, the King of the Road omelet, which consists of six eggs (count’em), filled with
cheese, ham, peppers and onions and a big heap of hash browns and toast dumped on top
for good cholesterol-raising measure. I opted for the more modest Hobo Scramble, made
with a mere three eggs, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, peppers and onions and served with
hash browns and toast. Lauren likewise got a relatively small ham and cheese omelet that
she still had no prayer of finishing – especially with her side of bacon which they sliced
and served thicker than anything you’ll likely find anywhere else in the country. Stuffed
to the brim on some darn good eating, we still had a smidgen of room leftover for a
helping of cherry cobbler and ice-cream sundae. With our stomachs gurgling at us in
violent protest we left, not sorry at all that we’d eaten so much.

Turns out we’d timed our visit to Frank’s just right. By the time we waddled out the
door, past fully occupied tables and several groups of people standing around, it was
obvious that there was already a good forty-five minute waiting list. It’s apparently in
your best interest to come to Frank’s during off hours if you hope to actually get a seat,
because while the charm of eating inside a railroad car draws people in, that same charm
means seating is necessarily limited.

Back in our own car we continued our strictly-by-the-speed-limit drive across the
remainder of Washington and into Idaho where we began to look for a motel. We
probably could have gone even farther because neither of us was particularly tired, but
we really wanted to spend the night in Idaho. We had no real valid reason for this except
(and Lauren is going to kill me for writing this) we thought it might be kind of fun for
Lauren to be able to yell, “I-da-HO! I-da-HO! I-da-HO!” while we were, you know…
adding another heart to our road journal.

We found a privately owned motel in the town of Sandpoint, which had such horribly
translucent venetian blinds that you could actually see through them whenever the lights
were on inside the room. To make sure we avoided the much dreaded extra-occupant
charge, we had to perform all our pre-bedtime tasks by just the light of the TV. When we
finally flopped down on our bed, we realized that we were still too exhausted from
another full week of road-tripping to do anything but sleep. The only utterances of
“Idaho” that night were expressed at normal conversational volume during a phone call
home to Lauren’s parents.


DAY 22 – Sunday, April 4 – (Daylight Savings Time Ends)
START: Sandpoint, ID
END: White Sulphur Springs, MT
MILEAGE: 490 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Kootenai Falls, Montana

On my road trip back in 2000, the one that took me out of Los Angeles forever, there was
a span of about four hours where I legitimately had no idea what time it was. You see, it
was the Sunday in October when daylight savings time caused us to “fall back”, so I
gained an hour. But then I crossed into Mountain Time Zone in Arizona and lost that
hour. But then I realized that Arizona didn’t actually participate in the whole daylight
savings thing and I wasn’t sure if this time change was the one that knocked Arizona off
from the rest of the country or put it back on track. I didn’t know if I was losing an
additional hour, gaining one back, or staying the same. This was still a year or two
before every single American of moderate means had a cell phone, which receives the
precise date and time from strategically placed satellites in outer space, so all I had to go
by was the clock on my radio, which I knew to be perpetually six minutes off to begin
with. It might have said five-thirty, but for all I knew the real time could have been
anywhere from three o’clock to tomorrow morning. Running through the possible
scenarios in my head, I thought, “Okay, I went backwards one hour in Pacific, but then I
gained that back as soon as I crossed into Mountain, but if this is the time of year that
Arizona ignores everybody else in the country then didn’t I gain back another hour, or
did the one I just lost in Pacific… wait no, if I… okay, if I don’t think about the ‘falling
back’ thing, and I only lost an hour when I crossed into Mountain, then that’s… oh no but
Arizona didn’t lose that one either… crap, start over…” With no inductive reasoning
skills to speak of, I finally just said, “Screw it,” and opted to drive in a time warp until I
hit New Mexico.

It wasn’t quite that bad this morning, though there’s nothing like losing an entire two
hours before lunch to really put a damper on the rest of your day. And between
“springing ahead” an hour for daylight savings and then crossing the Montana border into
Mountain Time Zone, we ended up doing just that. Still, it wasn’t anything a little
espresso couldn’t fix. So before losing our second hour in thirty minutes, Lauren and I
picked up a couple of lattes in Bonners Ferry at a place called J & C Pet Supply… Yeah,
we thought that was weird too, especially after we went inside and realized the moniker
was an accurate description of the establishment and not just some cutesy little name the
owners tried to tack onto their restaurant. One side of the store had both counter and sit-
down food service, which catered heavily to the high school next door, while the other
side sold giant bags of dog food, wood shavings for rabbit cages, fish tank supplies and
other such things. Still, you couldn’t argue with the beans, which were high quality, and
we ordered up two iced mocha lattes to go. I even added an extra shot to mine, knowing
we had quite a bit of time to make up.

It wasn’t just the time change – or the fact that we’d thought it was Friday all day
yesterday. I’d told my friend Sam that we would meet up with her and her boyfriend on
Thursday at their home in Michigan, and after doing some calculations in the hotel, it
became apparent that we were going to have to average about five hundred miles a day
(that’s two hundred more than we’d been averaging) to make that goal. Hand in hand
with that knowledge came the realization that almost every point of interest we’d had
planned for our return trip – ghost towns in Montana, lighthouses around the Great Lakes,
a museum for “questionable medical devices” in Minnesota, a giant pile of cans in North
Dakota – would have to be put off for another trip. We narrowed our list down to a few
very select “must see” stops and nixed everything else that wasn’t along those routes.

That’s the only way we were able to justify pulling off U.S. Route 2 thirty minutes into
Montana, in the town of Libby, to take a short hike down to Kootenai Falls. Sure this
was a place of rare natural beauty, more or less off the beaten path (I think most everyone
who’s been to Montana would agree that pretty much everything in that sparsely
populated state can be considered “off the beaten path”), involving a river rushing
through a deep mountain valley and over a set of falls. And sure there was also a
swinging bridge suspended fifty feet high across the gorge adding a healthy dose of
vertigo and excitement to the scenery. We stopped for all those reasons. But mostly, it’s
just that this place was along our intended route anyway.

But hey, thank God for that, because Kootenai (said: KOOT-nee) Falls is about as
beautiful a place as you’ll find along any major road. And what’s even better, it doesn’t
have the look of a place that has been ruined by that very proximity. I’ve said it before
and I’ll say it again, any prominence, scenic view, or otherwise tranquil spot of beauty
located less than a quarter mile from a main road or parking lot is inherently doomed to
ruination because of all the car-happy interstate tourists that will inevitably flood the area,
bringing with them their usual cacophony of disrespect. I’m not exactly sure how or why
Kootenai Falls has been spared this particular fate. My gut reaction would be to say that
Route 2 – the most northern direct route across the country – is too far removed from any
major points of interest for all but the most committed road trippers to even bother with.
But in fact, a hundred or so miles east of Libby, Route 2 passes along the border of
Glacier National Park, home of arguably the most scenic drive on the planet, Going to the
Sun Road.

Then again, I suppose interstate tourists would want to minimize their driving time across
Montana’s notoriously long and monotonous roads, so the majority of Glacier’s visitors
probably fly in to Missoula or Great Falls then take the relatively short jaunt up to the
national park, missing Libby and Kootenai Falls by a hundred miles or more. And the
few that do opt for driving in via Route 2 probably get deflected by the fact that the local
park service was forward thinking enough not to post a big bold sign announcing
WATERFALLS RIGHT HERE. A generic metal sign with the words “Historical
Marker” is the only indication that there is anything of any interest to be found here in
Libby. And as even the least road savvy travelers among us know, “Historical Marker” is
usually just a euphemism for “Place where something happened a hundred years ago
that wasn’t even interesting to the people who lived here at the time, but now the local
chamber of commerce is hoping you’ll stop here and look around just long enough to
realize that maybe you’re hungry and will decide to grab a burger and a soda at the one
local diner in town.”

Whatever the reason (be it the route or the marketing), the trail down to the Kootenai
River was empty save for a family of four who just happened to arrive thirty seconds
before us and the entire area was free of the telltale signs of overuse: litter, graffiti, beaten
down patches of turf from too many jackasses walking off trail. From the road, the trail
weaves a quarter-mile through the woods, crossing a footbridge over a set of railroad
tracks along the way. The tracks, silent and desolate-looking at this time of day,
appeared from around a bend in the valley and then disappeared around a bend on the
other side. As close as we were to the main road it really felt like we were in some
remote and forbidding valley – the kind of place fanatical ex-military militiamen hide out
and plot their revolution. And seeing these empty tracks, coming from the middle of
nowhere on their way, apparently, to another place equally in the middle of nowhere,
filled my head with all sorts of foreboding thoughts involving secret government trains,
screaming along the tracks in the dead of night, lights off, armed to the teeth and
transporting the latest top secret weapon from one mountain bunker to the next. With
goose bumps breaking across my arms we continued down the trail. Once at the river,
the trail split, the right fork going upstream to the falls themselves and the left fork going
a couple hundred feet down to the swinging bridge. We took the latter path, following
the family ahead of us, knowing we could probably get them to take our picture by the
river. We were seriously lacking on pictures of the two of us this trip.

Over two hundred feet long, made of rope, netting and wooden planks and suspended
between two cliffs with a noticeable dip in the middle, the bridge over the Kootenai River
looks rickety and dangerous as hell. A sign announcing a limit of five persons at a time
only serves to heighten one’s unease. I imagine the last thing most people say before
climbing the steps onto the bridge is essentially the same thing Lauren said to me: “Are
you sure this thing is safe?”

Out over the river, Lauren and I could feel the bridge moving underneath us. And the
closer we got to the middle, the more pronounced that motion became. The bridge didn’t
swing side-to-side the way its name indicated, but it certainly bounced up and down. I
had expected to feel the bridge shiver and shake with every step we took. But the
durability and sheer length of the thing simply absorbed and redistributed the force of our
movements, producing no instantly noticeable effects. This was perhaps more unnerving
than all, especially as we got closer to the middle of the bridge, farther from the safety of
solid ground. Several times, Lauren and I felt the bridge lurch upwards for no apparent
reason. It didn’t knock us off balance or anything, but it was enough to make us stop
short, white-knuckle the rope railing and ask one another, “Did you feel that?”

We were able to get over our skittishness by just assuring ourselves that we were
certainly not the first tourists to walk over this bridge and if there really was a flaw in its
design, it wouldn’t be here anymore. In this day and age of multi-million-dollar lawsuits
over splinters and coffee burns, if the park service or the town of Libby had had the
slightest inclination that the bridge was unsound, they would have blocked it off or
dismantled it post haste. Emboldened a little by that thought, Lauren and I stopped in the
middle of the bridge, where the most pronounced movement was occurring, and looked
over the side.

It doesn’t look like much on the map, but from this vantage point, the Kootenai River was
not an inconsiderable force. Although most of the white water was occurring only at the
falls themselves several hundred feet upstream, the sheer volume of green water coursing
by fifty feet below us was both humbling and intimidating. Even on the calmer edges of
the river where you could glimpse below the water’s surface it was still too deep to see
the bottom. Occasionally a piece of wood riding the current would fairly shoot by
underneath, reeling and tumbling in the river’s churn the entire way. I’m not a good
judge of water speeds, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to realize what would happen
if one of us fell into that surge. The only thing more nerve wracking than standing on a
bridge fifty feet above this river would have been, I think, to be standing on a bridge just
few feet above its surface.

When the Civilian Conservation Corps, working under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New
Deal”, erected the first swinging bridge over the Kootenai River in the 1930’s they made
that very mistake. Unknown to Lauren and I at the time, a dam was erected thirty miles
upstream in 1975, slowing down the torrent of the river. Back when the CCC guys built
their bridge, there was no such impedance. The river roared through this gorge with
more might and fury than I can even imagine – with the bridge builders standing only a
few yards above it. Well it wasn’t long before heavy snowmelt made the Kootenai rage
with all its might, ultimately washing the original bridge away in 1948. It has since been
rebuilt twice; once right after the flood putting it a little bit higher, and once more in the
1980’s when they hoisted it up even higher to its current apex.

Lauren and I made it to the other side, unscathed and only slightly rattled. We caught up
with the family ahead of us and exchanged cameras for pictures of our respective clans,
using the rapids of the falls as our backdrops. The family continued on down the trail and
as much as we would have liked to have followed, time was evermore a-wastin’. I sent
Lauren back onto the bridge with one of the cameras and we exchanged up and down
photos of each other. I got a few of her perched high on the swinging bridge over the
bright green river, with distinct layers of alternating prehistoric sediment making up the
mountain behind her. She, in turn, took several pictures of me going for the macho-
rugged look, standing on the edge of the cliff above the river. I stood close enough to the
edge that some very bad things would have happened if I passed out from vertigo, but I
was disappointed when I saw the pictures later. As thrill-seeking and dangerous a look as
I had been going for, it still looked as though I’d put a safe and reasonable half-body-
length between myself and the yawning abyss. Pussy.

We crossed back over the bridge and made our way up to Kootenai Falls. They were
beautiful of course, though they would have been far more impressive if we hadn’t come
down here expecting to see the quintessential image of water plummeting over a cliff a
hundred feet up. Lauren and I had hiked to some pretty serious waterfalls during our
honeymoon in Hawaii, so we had rather high standards. Kootenai Falls isn’t represented
by one sudden loss of elevation so much as a series of descending steps that produce a
loud and powerful set of rapids. So powerful in fact that several scenes from the 1994
Meryl Streep / Kevin Bacon film, The River Wild were shot here.

Even still, this was one of the most beautiful places we’d seen all trip – which is really
saying something. The falls has long been a sacred site for the Kootenai Indians, a place
where members of the tribe would, and still do, come for visions, meditation and
communion with spiritual forces. And if we’d had more time, I agree that this would
have been a kickass place to commune and meditate. But we were on a race across the
country now, and every hour counted.

So we drove. Up through the mountains and further into the middle of nowhere. Here
and there, across wide gaping gorges, we could see what looked like giant non-descript
bunkers built right into the mountains. There didn’t appear to be any roads going to or
from them, just a set of railroad tracks. I felt goosebumps break across my arms again,
trying to imagine what could possibly be contained behind those heavy steel doors.
Weapons? Chemicals? N.O.R.A.D.? Surely something the government doesn’t want us
knowing about. The bunkers seemed much too primitive and formidable to be merely
loading docks for mining operations. But with nobody around to ask, Lauren and I could
only keep formulating our own conspiracy theories as we continued on and around the
perimeter of Glacier National Park. Going to the Sun Road is generally closed from
October through early June because snow accumulation and the threat of avalanche-
inducing blizzards is too great all other times of the year, so we didn’t get the chance to
use up more time checking out its supposedly noteworthy scenery.

We meandered our way along the gorge cut by the Flathead River, spotting several
indigenous mountain goats along the way. Those little buggers are truly amazing
creatures. You often see them perched on high cliffs that no four-legged mammal has
any business being at the top of. After all the only possible way they could have gotten
up there is to have climbed. In fact, that’s exactly what they do. Equipped with actual
claws on the backs of their hooves, mountain goats can climb slopes with a pitch of sixty
degrees or more! This gets them well above all the usual predators including bears,
wolves and cougars.

But again, we didn’t have time to sit and watch them. We crossed the Continental Divide
at Marias Pass just before three o’clock. At a mere 5216 feet, this was nothing like the
drama we’d experienced going west over the divide in Colorado. The pass was wide and
straight, the grade nothing the Mazda couldn’t handle. There was even a decent sized
rest area at the top for crying out loud. Which, hey we were grateful for that. We’d had
quite our share of near misses involving steep cliffs and narrow roads for one trip.

As soon as we got down the other side, and I mean the very instant we got to the bottom
of the mountain, we were officially on the Great Plains. It’s amazing how fast this
happens all up and down the Rockies. It’s flat prairie for as far as the eye can see until all
of a sudden, WHAM, a mountain range shoots up in front of you. Going east in Montana
it’s quite the opposite feeling. One minute you’re surrounded by giant peaks of igneous
rock, speckled with snow, pine and camouflaged snipers, and the next, you’re out on the
prairie, flat and brown and stretching to the horizon.

This is what they call Big Sky Country and it’s what Montana is famous for. If you don’t
believe me, just look around. But not at the landscape. Take a look at the names of
businesses in any of the small towns you pass through. Big Sky Auto Repair, Big Sky
Life Insurance, Big Sky Liquid Fertilizer, Big Sky Skylights. From the very first time I
put rubber to asphalt to cross this great country, I always knew I wanted to come to
Montana and see just how big that sky really was. I just couldn’t understand what would
possibly make Montana’s sky look so much bigger than anywhere else in the country.
Was it the pristine air quality? Something to do with the elevation? I had a somewhat
misguided notion that all of Montana looked like what we’d just driven through;
primarily peaks, glaciers and mountain goats. I had no idea that the eastern three-quarters
of the state is considered prairie. Now that we were clear of the Rockies, I understood.
It’s out here where large flat swaths of land, free of trees, hills and buildings create that
illusion of a big sky. Without anything obstructing its impossibly wide dome, that big
blue yonder is able stretch all the way out to its maximum potential in the plains of
Montana.

So yes, it was big. But frankly, I thought the sky in Kansas, with all those same
prerequisites, was equally big. To be quite honest, after driving through that state, I was
expecting something utterly surreal and almost supernatural out of Montana’s sky. After
all if it was going to claim the title of “Big Sky Country”, it had to be something far more
impressive than anything Kansas could conjure up. Actually, no. Kansas could just as
easily have applied for, and won, the title as well. My assumption is that Kansas already
had other things going for it: wheat, twine balls, The Wizard of Oz. Montana really
wasn’t known for much else other than its sky, and Kansas, being the gracious little state
that it was, didn’t want to take away what little tourism Montana might be able to drum
up with its dubious moniker. So they let Montana claim the title for itself and nobody
was the wiser. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bagging on Montana or their sky. I’m just
saying that if one really wanted to make a stink, the title could have been shared between
the two states – and probably between any or all of the states located along the Great
Plains vicinity for that matter. But for beautiful wide-open nothingness, Montana
matched Kansas mile for mile and we both loved it. I personally never tired of taking
pictures of endless fields that disappeared into nowhere or long stretches of road that
went and went until they were mere pinpricks on the horizon. This was Backroad,
America and that was what this road trip was all about.

For years before the federal government enacted a national speed limit in 1974, Montana
had no official maximum speed. Of course you had to slow down whenever driving
through towns and populated areas, but on the rural highways, “Reasonable and Prudent”
were the magic words of the time. But Lord knows you can’t give Americans a rule that
vague and not expect them to take idiotic advantage of it. When responsibility for speed
control returned to the states in 1996, “Reasonable and Prudent” returned to Montana and
speed demons from all around the nation took great joy in bringing their Ferraris up to
Big Sky country and racing them as fast as they could down those straight and endless
roads. When they got pulled over, they would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I
thought a hundred and fifty was perfectly reasonable.” It wasn’t long before Montana
residents and the Supreme Court raised a stink, and a hard cap of seventy-five miles per
hour was put on all major highways (seventy for rural roads).

As you drive across Montana, it’s obvious the “Reasonable and Prudent” mentality hasn’t
quite left the collective bloodstream. Everything on the plains is so spread out that you
have to go fast just to get anywhere. The roads are so long and straight and unchanging
that, without cruise control, you’re bound to find your speedometer creeping often into
the eighties and above. Even with cruise control, seventy miles-per-hour begins to feel
painfully slow. Imagine what it must have been like between 1974 and 1996 when it was
illegal to go even a single mile over fifty-five. You rarely see cops on the long stretches
between towns, and the ones you do see are blasting by going ninety or more. There
aren’t even that many signs reminding you how fast you’re allowed to go. We generally
saw one speed limit sign after leaving a town (which was really just there to tell us it was
now okay to rev up our speed) and then that was it for the road’s duration until we hit the
next town, which was often a good fifty miles away. No reminder signs strategically
posted along the way. None of those giant unmanned radar detectors you usually see
parked along interstates and in residential areas notifying motorists of their current speed.
The state makes a small token effort, letting you know how fast you’re technically
allowed to go, but then they pretty much leave you to your own reasonable prudence after
that.

To be honest, I kind of wish they would have given us a bit more official guidance in the
way of signs. There were several places along these roads where it would have been far
more reasonable and prudent for us to slow the hell down. We’d be flying along at
eighty-fi… at the posted speed limit of seventy miles per hour, getting hypnotized by the
beautiful but monotonous landscape, when all of a sudden the road would turn sharply to
the left then back again to the right without any official state warning. Oh sure, they put
a couple of those yellow arrow markers right at the curve as if to say, “Hey the road
bends rather severely here, but you already knew that.” By that point we were already
careening around the hairpin turn, tires squealing, kicking up gravel and hugging a ditch
that could have seriously altered the outcome of our vacation. In places like these, a sign
that at least suggested we slow down to a more manageable twenty-five would have been
a welcome sight.

Rather than bothering with sign after sign full of even more rules and numbers that
drivers probably wouldn’t pay attention to anyway, Montana has opted for a far more
subtle (or hideously less subtle, depending on your point of view) reminder for all
wannabe racers to watch their speed. Crucifixes. Infrequently-placed crosses marking
the sites of fatal car accidents. Unlike the ornately decorated shrines and descansos you
tend to see along roadways elsewhere in the country, these crosses are plain, stark, non-
descript. It’s not grieving families, but the American Legion who puts them in place.
And they’re not there to memorialize the dead, but to warn the living. Each cross is
about four inches tall, painted white and perched at eye level atop a thin red stick. They
have no lettering and no markings. They don’t need to. The message is all too clear:
“Hey jackass, slow the hell down or this is all you’ll leave behind!”

While most of the markers consisted of individual crosses, many sites were marked by
several. One particular marker, indicating one hell of a pileup, had a whopping nine
crosses! Many of the markers we saw were posted along sharp curves and next to steep
drop-offs and bodies of water, making it very easy to picture what some motorists’ final
seconds of life must have entailed. I don’t know if there is any statistical way to prove
the effectiveness of the American Legion’s highway cross program, which has been in
place since 1954, but I can only imagine it has made far more people slow down than
mere a speed limit sign ever could. It is perplexing though that the program even remains
active in this day and age where all official references to God are one-by-one being
removed from every public venue. Personally I think it would be a travesty if the ACLU,
or some other rabblerousing organization, managed to get in there and convince the state
to take down the white crosses from its highways. Then again, if that happened, we’d
probably get our official statistics on the program’s effectiveness. I’d be willing to bet
big money that the number of accidents would rise dramatically in the year or two after
the white cross program was officially scrapped.

For our part, Lauren and I heeded the crosses’ implied warnings and remained
Reasonable and Prudent. Barring a couple of hair-raising moments involving unexpected
curves, we were never in danger of being added to the American Legion’s To Do list.

Night fell and a nearly full moon rose, bathing distant farming clusters in a spooky blue
hue that made it seem as though we could have been driving through the western frontier
as much as a settled America of the new millennium. Somewhere south of Great Falls
we’d passed from wide-open plains into thick forest. The road started to bend and curve
more as it meandered down and around somewhat steep and rugged hills and the Mazda’s
feeble headlights just couldn’t seem to illuminate enough of our path for me to feel
completely safe anticipating turns. For this, I was thankful for the full moon, which
helped light our way a little better.

The book ROAD TRIP USA had given all readers a strict warning to never bypass a gas
station in Montana on less than a quarter tank. We had obeyed this rule implicitly all day
long, but the later it got, the emptier the sparse towns became, and the fewer options we
found ourselves with. Every gas station in every blink-and-you-missed-it town we
passed was empty, lights out, closed ‘til morning – provided it hadn’t been abandoned
and boarded up long before we came along. Our most likely point of refuge appeared to
be White Sulphur Springs, a crossroads town located at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S.
89. At the very least, we knew there was a Super 8 in town, which would allow us to
spend the night and gas up in the morning when everything opened.

Somewhere half-way between White Sulphur Springs and the previous no name town
without an open gas station, we came around a sharp bend at the bottom of a small
mountain and stopped short at something we hadn’t seen or expected all day long: a line
of brake lights. It was a short line, to be certain, but still one just doesn’t expect traffic to
ever back up on roads like this. We stopped the Mazda behind the last car in the line, got
out and ascertained that there had been an accident a few hundred feet up. Nothing too
major it appeared. A pickup truck had gone off the road and into the ditch. In fact, the
accident itself wasn’t blocking the road at all, but the police were still holding traffic
back, allowing the tow truck to come in and pull the pickup out. So we sat and waited
with a couple dozen other cars for about a half-hour, hazard lights flashing and engine
turned off. We had plenty of gas to get us all the way to White Sulphur Springs, but no
sense taking chances.

When at last the pickup was pulled free and traffic was waved through, we followed a
rather large SUV through what was fast becoming a deep, narrow and pitch-black valley
– the moon now obscured by mountains. The SUV’s hazards were still blinking and at
one point it slowed down to a crawl and eased over to the right-hand side of the road.
Assuming they were pulling over, I moved into the left lane and drove around. As I
passed by I heard an irate woman yell something that ended with the word, “Asshole!” A
second later, the big car turned left down a dirt road. The SUV’s blinking hazards
concealed the fact that the driver had apparently put on her left blinker. Combined with
the fact that she had been moving over to the right, it’s easy to see how I misread her
intentions and passed into her intended direction of travel. Earlier, as we had been
waiting for the tow truck to do its job, this same SUV had started backing up without
warning and stopped bare inches from our front bumper only after I laid on the horn. We
were obviously not dealing with the most astute driver in Montana here. But now as the
SUV’s headlights disappeared down the dirt road, I shook my head and cursed, because
even though the lady driver had been completely in the wrong on both accounts, I knew
that I wasn’t merely a shitty or discourteous driver in her mind. Marked by that bright
yellow license plate, I had once again become the jackass from New Jersey.

We hit White Sulphur Springs a half-hour later and filled up at an open gas station that
was impressively large by the Montana standards we’d see thus far. We’d driven about
490 miles today; ten short of our aim, but we didn’t feel confident about finding another
town with a motel or open gas station any farther along. So we secured a room at the Spa
Hot Springs Motel, and noticed two things immediately. The first being the distinct smell
of egg farts in the air, originating from the supposedly therapeutic sulphur springs from
which the town gets its name. The second thing we noticed was that the Spa Hot Springs
Motel, unlike every other motel we’d stayed at thus far, actually gives you what you ask
for in a room. I’d told the clerk I needed a room for one person, and by god, the solitary
bed in that room was designed with one and only one person in mind. Larger than a twin,
but smaller than a double, it was obviously going to be a cramped night for my pregnant
wife and I on this bed.

After checking in, we walked across the street to a place called the Mint Bar (apparently
mint is one of Montana’s main exports) to grab some dinner. You know those movie
scenes where the protagonists walk into a diner in some piss-ant little town and all the
local patrons literally stop what they’re doing to look at them? You know how you
always thought that was just some clichéd and overused story-telling device that doesn’t
actually happen in real life? Well, I’m here to tell you firsthand that it does. As soon as
Lauren and I stepped inside the Mint Bar, all eyes were on us. None of the conversations
stopped, and the needle didn’t scratch off the jukebox or anything, but in the amount of
time it took for us to walk through the door we had become the center of attention. It’s
possible that this same thing happens whenever locals walk in here too – and the
collective interest certainly wore off by the time we stepped up to the bar and asked for a
menu – but that uneasy oh-my-god-they’re-all-going-to-kill-us seed had already been
planted and we asked for our burgers and fries to go, opting to eat off our laps on our tiny
bed.



DAY 23 – Monday, April 5
START: White Sulphur Springs, MT
END: Spearfish, SD
MILEAGE: 532 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Kum & Go, El Burrito Cafeteria, Devil’s Tower

In his book LOST CONTINENT, Bill Bryson laments the boring and unimaginative
naming of most American towns. If the settlers weren’t shamelessly sucking up to
political or religious leaders by naming the town after some monarch whose favor they
hoped to garner, or after the patron saint most in style at the time, most towns, Bryson
said are “named after either the first white person to get there or the last Indian to leave.”
I guess the white guys who settled east of White Sulphur Springs must have arrived in a
big group and forgotten to take down the names of the red guys they shoved out of the
way. In our first few hours on the road today we drove through the towns of
Checkerboard, Two Dot and Roundup. Also in the vicinity were Pompey’s Pillar, Pray,
Thermopolis (in Wyoming) and the sexy-sounding, Sumatra.

Of course, “town” is a rather generous word for what these places were. “Two Dot” is as
accurate a description as you’ll get short of “Dot on the Map”, which is pretty much what
these desolate looking (beautifully desolate, but desolate nonetheless) places amounted
to. The first settlers were probably too embarrassed to name the towns after themselves
or the king, and probably thought it blasphemous to give them saintly names. Either that,
or they were settled by cowboys and outlaws, people who didn’t give a flying rip what
any rich snob had to say about them or their pissant little town. Either way, these places
were rather surreal to drive through on a Monday morning. Here it was, the start of the
workweek, but by all outward appearances there was nothing to indicate even a modicum
of industrious activity going on. Every empty town we passed through gave off the feel
of a lazy Saturday morning where everyone was still in bed. Even in the less alluringly
named Harlowton, the only town along this stretch big enough to have its own website,
we detected no signs of life. No people. No vehicles on the road. No clusters of cars
parked outside stores and businesses. Just empty streets and darkened buildings. By all
outward appearances, Lauren and I were the only people left in one of those post-
apocalyptic nightmares.

We stopped for a moment in Harlowton because there was a city park with public
restrooms Lauren could make use of. The facilities were located next to a small
grandstand facing a dirt arena, which I first assumed was used to run dog races or
something. In fact the Howard Holloway Arena, as it is called, is home to the annual
Fourth of July Chamber Rodeo, which apparently is an NRA-approved event. This
struck me as a rather odd and amusing little tidbit. Are shotgun-carrying members of the
NRA not allowed to attend events without the association’s official stamp? Or does the
NRA just have really high standards for rodeos, meaning its approval guarantees a
kickass shoot-em-up show? I’m not sure, and apparently there was nobody around to
ask.

Lauren finished her business and we continued on into the city of Billings where we
stopped for gas at the most hilariously named establishment I have ever patronized: Kum
& Go. The entire time I was filling up, I kept looking around the area for street signs,
landmarks or anything else that would indicate some kind of motivation for changing the
word “Come” to “Kum”, with all of its implicitly raunchy undertones (and don’t act like
you weren’t thinking it too). Was the station located on Kumquat Street? Was there a
major school in the area teaching Kum Nye yoga? Was the guy who wrote the song
“Kum Ba Yah” born around here? Did a high concentration of people from India live in
the area (the red dots on their foreheads are called Kum Kum)? The answer appeared to
be no, no, no on all accounts.

Turns out, Kum & Go is a modestly large chain of gas station convenience stores
throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. According to their website: Company
founders W. A. Krause and Anthony Gentle used the first letters of their last names to
create a unique moniker to showcase the ease and convenience they instilled in a
shopping experience. Unique indeed. (Unfortunately?) Krause and Gentle came up with
said moniker in 1959, a more innocent age before the phonetic spelling of the word
“come” came to mean both the verb for ejaculation and the noun for what was ejaculated.
But with over four hundred stores spread wide across thirteen states, the Kum & Go name
is too big to pull out now. So what does the corporation have to say about their double-
entendre’d title? Amusingly little actually. Amongst all their web pages full of press
releases, customer comments and merchandise for sale, the only mention of the store’s
name as something that might be conversation-worthy comes from the historical snippet
printed above. Other than that, they don’t play up their “unique moniker” by changing
every instance of the word “come” to “kum.” Nor do they downplay it. The title Kum &
Go is apparently as innocuous to the people running the company as if they’d named it
Mobil or Shell. Even the official store motto, “We go all out,” is ambiguous enough that
it could be construed as sexual innuendo – the kind of saying you might have seen on one
of those “Co-ed Naked” t-shirts from the 1990’s – but only if you really wanted it bad.

I absolutely needed a shotglass from this place. Unfortunately the Kum & Go in Billings
had none for sale, so I settled for a thermal beverage mug featuring the Kum & Go logo
and motto. This has actually worked out better for me in the end (so to speak) because
since I use the mug outside the house for something other than display purposes, it has
initiated several conversations that always begin with the question, “Where on earth did
you get that cup?”

It was getting on lunchtime, so we asked the Kum & Go attendant for directions to the El
Burrito Cafeteria, another suggestion from ROADFOOD. Even though Billings is
Montana’s largest city, and even though El Burrito is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall place,
the guy knew exactly where it was. I wasn’t sure if that was indicative of the size of
Montana cities, or of the reputation of El Burrito’s food. I hoped the latter. Billings feels
like a city in much the way that, say, New Brunswick, New Jersey feels like a city. It has
multi-storied buildings and multi-laned streets where you occasionally have to sit in
traffic at major intersections and circle the block several times to find a parking space.
But I don’t think anybody has ever driven through New Brunswick, which is just a short
tunnel hop to New York City, and thought metropolis. But when the only nearby points
interest are big fields and the Wyoming border, Billings does feel decidedly urban.
We drove through town and managed to find the El Burrito Cafeteria, and a metered spot
just outside, without getting turned around too much. ROADFOOD describes this place
as “a one-room storefront with too many customers and not enough seats…[with] the best
Mexican food for miles around.” Of course, the place is less than two hundred miles
from the border – Canadian not Mexican – so we took that statement with a proverbial
grain of salt. Actually the food was quite good. They had all the staples of a taco stand,
namely (duh) tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, and things of that nature. They
had a decent sauce and salsa bar, the high mark of any great burrito place in my opinion.
Yes, the place was quite crowded and the ordering process was a tad confusing – order
here, pay there, trays on that side, orders shouted over the crowd in broken English – but
the end result was worth it. The food was good, the portions were huge and the prices
were cheap. What more could you ask for? All told, with drinks and everything, we
didn’t spend more than fifteen bucks and neither Lauren nor I were able to finish our
respective meals. So yes, if for whatever reason, you find yourself in Billings, I would
most certainly recommend the El Burrito Cafeteria. For all the selection you’re going to
find in the surrounding areas (New Brunswick it ain’t), I imagine this is the very best
option.

Our next stop was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a place so in the middle of nowhere that if
you’re not originating from a town already quite close to it, then there’s frankly no easy
way to get there. The only access roads (at least the only paved ones) approach from the
south and east. Since we were due northwest of the place, we had some roundabout
driving to do. In the interest of cutting time and distance, we got on I-90 and headed in a
more or less south-south-west direction. Some quick calculations indicated that even
with the time we’d be saving on the interstate, we’d still end up getting to Devil’s Tower
at or close to sunset, and this was definitely a place one needed to visit in the daytime.
Plus by this point, we figured, we’d seen Montana. We didn’t need to tack on an
additional hour or two of small roads and big sky just to get the point.

Caused by a freak surge of magma that cooled and fractured under the ground sixty
million years ago, Devil’s Tower is truly a sight to behold. Ribbed all around with deep
grooves – like a paper fan turned into a cylinder – it stands alone, surrounded for miles by
small hills and grassland, and looking as out of place in Wyoming as the Monument
Rocks do in Kansas – which, as we recall, look as out of place as a desert in the state of
Maine (which incidentally also exists). But where the Monument Rocks rise a mere
seventy or so feet off the ground, this lone sentinel towers nearly nine hundred feet above
you; looming, ominous and downright eerie.

According to a Native American legend, two young girls were out walking one day when
a giant grizzly bear started chasing them. They ran from the bear for a while until they
could run no more, at which point they stopped and prayed to the Great Spirit for help.
That Old Guy really knew how to grant a wish because just as the bear was about to
pounce on the two girls, the ground they were standing on began to rise and lift them into
the air out of the grizzly’s reach. Enraged, the great beast jumped and scratched at the
new obtrusion, leaving behind his claw marks in the rock. Other legends suggest that the
enormous supernatural bear still lives inside the monolith and has come to the aid of
tribes against enemy war parties. Local tribes have variously named the site Bear’s
Lodge, Bear’s House, Bear’s Lair, Bear’s Peak and Bear’s Tipi. Other names included
Aloft on a Rock, Mythic-Owl Mountain, Tree Rock and, interestingly enough, Penis
Rock. The obelisk and surrounding area became a deeply holy place to more than twenty
tribes who lived here. Every kind of sacred ceremony – funerals, prayer offerings, sweat
lodge ceremonies, vision quests, sun dances – were performed here. So I suppose it was
only a matter of time before some white guy came along and desecrated the whole thing.
And that’s essentially what Colonel Richard Dodge did when he arrived with a regiment
of soldiers searching for gold in 1875. He took one look at the strangely shaped
mountain and called it “Devils Tower.” And for reasons I wouldn’t be able to fathom if
they weren’t so familiar and characteristic of over five hundred years worth of American
history, that is the name they used when the tower was dedicated as the nation’s first
national monument in 1906. I suppose Devil’s Tower just sounded cooler and was better
for marketing, but could you imagine if somebody decided to rename the Church of the
Nativity in Bethlehem, “Place of the Bastard”? What if we changed Dome of the Rock in
Jerusalem to “Satan’s Ridge”? Or for that matter, how about if they changed the name of
Stonehenge to “Jesus’ Circle” or the Parthenon to “Trinity Plaza”? How long before
somebody, religious or not, stepped up and said, “You know what, that’s just not right.”

There have been a few feeble attempts made by various Native American groups to have
the tower returned to its original name, Bear Lodge. These have been met with
resistance, anger and outright ignorance by people who are afraid the renaming is merely
a way of masking a deeper agenda: namely returning control of the tower back to the
local tribes. God forbid. But that fight has largely been buried and you’d have to do a
fair amount of digging to read anything of substance about it. After all, nobody really
wants to know about anything American Indians are trying to accomplish unless it
involves building another casino.

No, when it comes to Devil’s Tower, what interests people most – far from any minor
Indian corpse-raping for the sake of preserving the Christian-American way of life – is
the fact that this was the location where the aliens landed in Steven Spielberg’s
blockbuster, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That’s why we came here. Well, that’s
why I came here. Lauren could honestly have given a damn. But we’d just spent an
entire week stopping at about every lighthouse along the Pacific seaboard, so now it was
her turn to indulge my petty obsessions. I don’t know why exactly I wanted to see
Devil’s Tower. I never really liked Close Encounters all that much and, to be perfectly
honest, couldn’t even remember what the movie’s key location looked like. I think my
motivations were more along the lines of simply being able to send postcards back to all
my movie geek friends who would appreciate where I’d been. People who would
recognize the location immediately and say, “Holy shit, I didn’t even realize that was a
real place!”

I was honestly expecting just another mountain. A lone mountain standing out in the
middle of prairie, but a mountain nonetheless. Well even from a good ten miles away, it
was obvious that Devil’s Tower was not just another a mountain. Even the Rocky
Mountains, which shoot straight up out of the plains, still have the everyday features of
mountains; slopes, peaks, uniform angles. Devil’s Tower on the other hand had an
irregularly curved, almost logarithmic, pitch culminating in a wide flat top and looking
more like the smokestack to a nuclear power plant than anything naturally occurring. But
it’s not until you get closer and see the tower’s signature grooves, which really do look
like they were put there by giant bear claws, that you begin to realize just what intrigued
the Indians so much about this place.

There was nobody manning the Devil’s Tower entrance station and we probably could
have driven in without paying the ten-dollar fee, but we paid it anyway knowing
somebody had to help keep the park service funded, since it certainly wouldn’t be the
United States government. Though in retrospect, I would much rather have given that ten
dollars to any grassroots Native American movement who wanted only to reclaim
something that means far more to them than it does to the Department of the Interior.
The park road circles around the tower, passing alongside a rather large prairie dog town
on the way, and ending at a parking lot and trailhead. After Lauren made use of the
bathroom, we made our way onto the Tower Trail, a 1.3-mile loop around the national
monument’s main focal point.

At the risk of being annoyingly repetitive, a red flag went up in my head as soon as I saw
how easily accessible from the parking lot this place was. It was like begging punks and
interstate tourists, “Paint on me, litter on me, ruin me for everyone else.” But Devil’s
Tower, like Kootenai Falls, is saved from this fate by several factors. As I said before,
this place is incredibly out of the way by most any standard. And unlike Yellowstone
National Park on the other side of the state, there actually isn’t that much to see here.
There aren’t dozens of turnouts each offering a different panoramic view of mountains,
cliffs and canyons. There aren’t bubbling mud pots or big holes that shoot water into the
air at regular intervals. At Devil’s Tower, all you get is the tower. And you can see that
from your car from the main road. Most car bound tourists probably don’t feel the need
to walk over a mile around the big thing to get the idea. They drive in (shirking the
entrance fee most likely) take a picture from the parking lot, maybe walk a few dozen
feet into the trail to take a picture that isn’t obstructed by trees, then head back to their car
and back to the interstate less than thirty miles away. The tower is spared the disrespect
of more committed tourists and vandals by a very natural, very formidable barrier: rocks.
All around the base, separating the walking trail from the main tower by a good two
hundred feet are piles and piles of boulders. You’d have to do some pretty serious, and
often dangerous, scrambling to actually get to the tower and spray-paint or carve
something onto it – which would likely be too small to see from the trail anyway – after
which you’d have to climb your way back down without twisting an ankle.

The Tower Trail retained the perfect combination of convenience and beauty without the
requisite ruination that usually accompanies it. Lauren and I enjoyed our leisurely walk,
having the trail mostly to ourselves. The scale of this thing was truly impossible to
express, much less capture on film, but I was determined to try. Under that guise of
research and exhibition, I left Lauren on the trail and started scrambling up the boulder
pile. It was as good excuse as any. The truth is, I love scrambling. I missed scrambling.
It was an activity I had engaged in often during my time in California. One time while
hiking through a desert canyon, I took a wrong turn that dead-ended into a tall mountain
of boulders. Rather than attempting the tedious and probably futile process of retracing
my steps and rediscovering the trail, I simply started climbing. Up and over the mountain
on a more or less direct route back to my car. Sure, it was harder going, but it was way
more fun than just trudging along on flat even ground. Lauren knew this about me, so
when I suggested climbing to the top of the Devil’s Tower boulder pile for the sake of a
picture, she simply gave me a knowing smile and said, “Go ahead.”

And so I climbed. I jumped. I scampered. I reveled. Up, up, up, I went as high as I
could go without the assistance of climbing gear. From the trail, Lauren snapped a
picture as close up as the camera’s lens would allow, which showcased far better the
scope of this place than any full length shot could have accomplished. At first glance, the
picture just looks like a close-up of rocks at the tower’s base. We often have to point out
to others the tiny little person standing at the bottom of the picture. “Yeah, that would be
me.” Even at the very top of the rock pile, I was still a good fifty feet short of where the
grooved part of the tower actually starts, a sheer rock wall preventing me from going any
further.

I was surprised to find out that mountain climbing is actually allowed on Devil’s Tower,
and I have never wished more that I had taken the time and money to learn how to do it.
How awesome it must be to scale that nearly vertical pitch. To make it to the top. To
camp out high above the world on a throne the size of a football field. To share that
kingdom with only the falcons and the eagles who nest up there as well. I can’t imagine
a more powerful feeling. I’m not sure what process is involved in the naming of a
climbing path, but judging by some of the actual names in the trail register – Spank the
Monkey; Calculus Affair; Pee Pee’s Plunge; Ants On Angel Food; See You In Soho;
Billie Bear Cranks the Rod – I suspect it is not the park service coming up with them.

We weren’t able to see it, but there is apparently a metal rung ladder running the entire
vertical length of the tower that has hung there for untold generations. Back in the days
when this place still belonged to the Indians, it was considered a rite of passage, a sign of
manhood to climb that ladder all the way to the top. No ropes, no carabineers, no room
for mistakes. Just a solid steel set of balls and, I imagine, a strict warning not to look
down. And after you actually got the top, manhood proven and all that, then you had to
climb back down. My god, my palms are sweating even now just thinking about it. If
that didn’t get a brave laid back in the day, there was something seriously wrong with
women in that society. Though it kind of makes you wonder, if the legend of this place is
true, how did those first two girls get down from this thing after the giant bear finally
left?

I clamored my way back down to the trail and Lauren and I completed the circuit.
Devil’s Tower doesn’t have a uniform shape all the way around and we stopped often to
take pictures of its seemingly morphing structure. The sun had set and dusk was quickly
turning to night by the time we got back to the car. We drove east toward South Dakota
and watched as the biggest, fullest, reddest moon either of us had ever seen rose over the
Black Hills, all eerie and foreboding. We stopped at a rest stop off the interstate and
picked up a ton of postcards – which I mailed out to every filmophile I knew – as well as
a funky green porcelain shotglass of Devil’s Tower.

We had scheduled stops in western South Dakota tomorrow, so we decided to find a
place to stay just across the border. According to HOSTELS USA, there were two
hostels in the area. We called up the first and found out they were actually just a motel,
not a hostel. When we called up the second, a very tired-sounding man answered the
phone and informed us that the hostel had been closed for over four years. I’m not sure if
that phone number was for the guy’s residence, but you got the idea he broke this news to
people a lot. We got off the interstate in the town of Spearfish and found a room at a
place called the All Star Travelers Inn that was actually cheaper than either of the two
defunct hostels’ private rooms would have been. It even had a fireplace in it. We ate
some Pizza Hut, watched a little Blue Collar Comedy Tour on Comedy Central and fell
asleep early.



DAY 24 – Tuesday, April 6
START: Spearfish, SD
END: Blue Earth, MN
MILEAGE: 608 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wall Drug

On every single night of this trip, at every single motel we stopped at, I asked for a room
in exactly the same way. “A room with one bed, please.” The disinterested desk clerk
would ask the scripted question, “How many people?” to which, unblinking, I would
answer, “Just me.” I’d done it so many times by now that I hardly thought about it
anymore. So I’m not sure why, when I checked us into the All Star Travelers Inn last
night, I did it differently and said, “A room for two people, please.” Maybe after three
weeks I was finally starting to get too road weary to keep lying. Maybe I had one of
those rare flashes of E.S.P. you read so much about; you know, the kind of feeling that
makes people decide not to board a plane that ends up crashing into the ocean. I’m not
sure what it was, but come eight o’clock this morning, I was very glad to have told the
truth the night before.

After going through our morning routine of showering, dressing and repacking the car,
Lauren and I headed over to the motel office where they were serving their free
continental breakfast – our bodies were physically rejecting oatmeal by this point. We
walked in and saw a man and woman already sitting there, mid-conversation, eating toast
and drinking coffee. Not ten seconds through the door the woman spoke up and said to
us, “So you guys are from Philadelphia, eh?” Assuming this chick to be just another
patron of the motel, we were initially leery. Even if our license plate didn’t indicate that
we in fact hailed from New Jersey, not Pennsylvania, just who was this woman and just
how did she know who we were or where we came from? She quickly clarified her
question by informing us that she was the owner of the motel and had merely gleaned the
information from our check-in form. As soon as we were confident this wasn’t the
beginning of some freak highway stalker incident that almost always ends with the
hapless travelers getting their throats slashed on the side of the road, I took a moment to
realize just how glad I was to have kept the ninth commandment last night. That could
have been rather awkward, sitting down for a free breakfast with a lady whom we’d just
gypped out of several dollars and trying to come up with a plausible excuse when she
cornered us with, “I thought there was only one of you in that room.”

But without that uncomfortable elephant between us, we had a lovely conversation with
her and the other man, who was passing through on business from Rapid City. We told
them all about our trip. The owner told us all about her kids. The man, for some reason,
told us all about his dogs – filling us in on far more details than you’d expect the average
stranger to reveal about his pets on a first meeting. I even found myself confessing to the
motel owner how I had nearly lied to her desk clerk the night before, to which she
responded, “Oh I charge by the bed anyway. I’ve always thought it was kind of
ridiculous to charge people by the number of guests.”

“It is kind of ridiculous to charge people by the number of guests!” Lauren and I agreed,
even more thankful to have let the truth set us free for once on this trip.

After breakfast we gassed up and headed just a few miles down the road to the
awesomely named town of Deadwood. If you ever wanted to read a history on the
quintessential Old West town, Deadwood would be name you’d look up. There’s a
reason why, just a few months after we returned from our trip, HBO chose this place as
the titular setting for its hugely popular old west TV series. Deadwood, like Sacramento
before it, got its start because of a gold rush in the nearby Black Hills (You know the
phrase, “Thar’s gold in them thar hills”? That was the Black Hills.), and just like in
Sacramento, when the rush failed to deliver on its promises of quick and easy fortune, the
destitute and disenfranchised quickly descended into every kind of lawless behavior;
gambling, prostitution, and all kinds of senseless violence. This was truly the kind of
place where you made sure not to cross the wrong person lest you find yourself getting
shot in the back in broad daylight. Because of its dangerous reputation, Deadwood
became a legend even in its own time, and several of its local personalities were the
equivalent of movie stars in contemporary newspaper articles and Dime Novels – the
pulp fiction of their time. Most notable among the residents were the infamous Calamity
Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. It was this latter gentleman that drew me, and by default my
agreeable wife, to Deadwood.

I’ve never been particularly fascinated, or even remotely interested really, in Old West
history and legend. I don’t read about it. I haven’t seen more than a handful of westerns,
and generally find the classics that defined the genre to be fairly boring. I didn’t know
the story behind Deadwood before we came here. If the town hadn’t been along our
intended route anyway, we probably would have bypassed it. I didn’t even know much
about Wild Bill Hickok beyond his name and the fact that he was shot dead while playing
poker and holding a pair of “aces and eights”, a hand that has since become known as
“The Deadman’s Hand.” It was really only this rather morbidly romantic turn of phrase
that piqued my interest. But that was all it took for me to circle the heading in
ECCENTRIC AMERICA for the Old Style Saloon #10; the bar where Wild Bill Hickok
was killed holding that famous hand.

There really isn’t much to the town of Deadwood; one main drag with a couple parallel
streets is all, and at nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning the place pretty much lived up to
its name. But when you looked at the old brick buildings lining the empty street, with
their awnings, wood carved signs, palladium windows and generally brown and sand-
blown exterior, all against the surprisingly close undeveloped backdrop of tree-covered
hills, it was not hard to picture what this place looked like circa 1876, when the street was
made of dirt, the law was nothing but a joke, and hookers, horses and desperados walked
the streets, just trying to get wherever they were going alive. This place wasn’t some
Hollywood-created heightened reality trying to perpetuate the illusion of an old west
town. Deadwood is the old west town it used to be – at least as far as the layout and
architecture goes. Nothing we saw on that main drag gave us the impression that it had
been artificially manufactured just to add to the atmosphere. It was like the whole town
knew it didn’t need to pretend. It just had to be what it had always been.

That palpable sense of old menace followed us as we walked up to the Old Style Saloon
#10. Even before we entered the place, hanging on the doorway outside were two signs
that stated, without any apparent sense of irony that I could detect: “No Motorcycle
Colors” and “Wearing apparel which is likely to provoke a disturbance or embroil other
groups of the general public in open conflict will not be allowed at any time.” Now, I’m
not sure what exactly “motorcycle colors” consist of, or how certain clothing would be
apt to incite a riot, but it was obvious from that very first moment that this place wasn’t,
and never has been, your typical tavern. Saloon #10 bills itself as a living museum,
“Perhaps the only one in the world with a full bar.” The walls are covered with old
photos from the town’s cowboy and mining days, as well as various western-themed
paraphernalia like saddles, animal heads and mining tools. But T.G.I.-Fridays this place
is not. The two most prominent decorations in the saloon are the chair Wild Bill Hickok
was sitting in when he was shot (mounted in a lit display case lined with red velvet), and
a frame containing the cards he was holding: two black aces, two black eights and a
water-stained nine of diamonds. “Aces and eights.” Those words just sound cool
together. Though it kind of makes you wonder if people would have made such a big
deal out of the cards Hickok was holding if he’d only had, say, a pair of deuces or an
incomplete straight.

There were slot machines in the back (where Lauren promptly lost the four quarters I had
in my pocket), a wooden bar at the front, whiskey barrel chairs at heavy stained oak
tables, old lantern chandeliers on the ceiling and sawdust on the floor. There were
several poker tables where they hosted Texas Hold’em tournaments every weekend and a
stage where live bands performed at night. Among the bar’s special events are the annual
Pimp and Ho party, the Legs and Kegs Charity Fashion Show and the Saint Panties Day
party, where patrons are apparently encouraged to arrive in the skimpiest underwear they
feel comfortable wearing out in public. And every day at 3pm the saloon reenacts the
fatal shooting that made it famous – on their website, they encourage you to “Bring the
kids!” This place doesn’t pretend to be badass. It doesn’t need to. It couldn’t help being
that way if it tried. On the way out, I bought the coolest shotglass I’d found all trip.
Made of tin, it had a picture of a gun, a whip and, of course, the Dead Man’s Hand that
drew me here.

I really wish we’d had more time to spend in Deadwood. A long weekend at least. If the
Old Style Saloon #10 was anything to go by, this place makes Vegas seem like the family
friendly, Disney World striving destination it simultaneously embraces and tries to
distance itself from. Deadwood seemed like it would be a gritty, dirty, throw down
drunken good time if we’d come under other life circumstances like a college Spring
Break or something. I initially got worried when we returned home and saw that HBO
would be airing a series about the notorious town that once was. I thought for sure the
popularity of this place would sore to something higher than the town anticipated and the
local administration would respond by trying to “clean the place up.” Fortunately I don’t
think anybody who watches the show – which is as well known for its graphic use of F-
words and other such profanity as any of its storylines – sees the town and thinks this
might be a nice place to take the family for a wholesome vacation. As far as I know,
Deadwood still has yet to sell out to such silly things as “family values” and “kid-friendly
entertainment.”

Before leaving town, Lauren and I headed into Woody’s Wild West to get an “old time
photo” of the two of us. We wanted to do some kind of shot that would draw notice to
Lauren’s pregnant form that didn’t involve a boring neutral background or a belly-
concealing blouse, as seemed to be the pattern for all the other pregnancy pictures on
display in the shop. After nearly an hour of browsing and consideration, we opted for the
very popular “man-in-metal-washtub-with-woman-standing-over-him” theme. Lauren,
ever the proponent of the idea that birth is beautiful and the pregnant form is something
worth honoring, didn’t bother with the aforementioned frilly blouse, opting instead for a
flowy washer-woman skirt and a dainty cloth bathing suit top – which allowed her
immensely pregnant belly to stick way, way, way out. Most of the men in the pregnancy
samples had one of two expressions on their face: overzealous shock or oversappy love
and adoration. (yawn) When the flashbulb popped I opted for sheer boredom sitting in
that tub with my old west hat, a book and a jug of moonshine, while Lauren held a water
pail in one hand and her huge belly in the other, fixing the camera with a glare that said,
“I married this prick?” I know I’m biased, but I think ours was one of the best, most
original tongue-in-cheek photos in the entire place, and I still can’t help but wonder if the
owners ever put it on display in the shop. Today the old time photo hangs prominently
on our wall in a faux-antique oval frame with bubble glass, and remains one of my
absolute favorite pictures of the two of us.

After spending much longer in Deadwood than we’d originally anticipated, we finally
loaded into the car and headed back to the interstate, passing through the town of Sturgis
on the way. Sturgis is a name that has pretty much become synonymous with the words
“Bike Week.” Every August, the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is hosted here and
over five hundred thousand bikers roll into the area. The scope of such an event is not
lost on you as you drive through town, which is tiny by any standard. How five hundred
thousand people could fit into this place period is a feat, but to have them all cramming
those streets with motorcycles… it must be an absolutely deafening experience. I’ll
probably never know as Lauren refuses to ever let me get a motorcycle… which I realize
is probably for the best considering just how lame and phony I would look up on one of
those things.

From Sturgis we headed south to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In my experience, visitors to the two monuments, located about seventeen miles apart
from one another, tend to say the same thing, respectively: “It wasn’t as big as I
expected,” and “It’s huge compared to Mount Rushmore.” I don’t know if was because
of these two contrasting appraisals and buildups, but when Lauren and I arrived at each
place, we had the exact opposite impressions of everyone else.

After making our way through the congested and commercial precursor to Mount
Rushmore, Rapid City, we drove through empty rural roads until we reached the turnoff
for the national memorial. Up a curving mountain, we came around a bend and there
they were; Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln etched in stone looking back at
us. And I’ve got to say, taking in the scope of the mountain and gauging our distance
from it, they looked plenty big and impressive to us. Of course, not impressive enough to
actually pay the entrance fee to the park itself. We were able to get our pictures just fine
from a turnout on the road. Now we could say we’d been here – another critical
landmark checked off the list, with the pictures to prove it – without dawdling needlessly
and reading information we could have gleaned from any book or website about how the
thing was commissioned, carved and dedicated.

We continued on up the road, nearly running over a mountain goat in the process, on our
way now to see Crazy Horse. Initiated in 1948 as a counterpoint to the Mount Rushmore
memorial intended to showcase a Native American hero, the Crazy Horse Memorial still
has a long way to go before completion. When the project is finally finished, it will be
the single largest sculpture in the world, turning an entire mountainside into an imposing
image of the legendary Lakota chief – who made General George Custer shit his pants
one final time at Little Big Horn – riding on horseback. But it’s going to be a while if the
current progress is anything to go by. In just under sixty years, the sculptors have finally
almost finished Crazy Horse’s head. And to hear former visitors talk about the size of
that head, I was expecting something that could have eaten the Rushmore boys for
breakfast.

But after seventeen miles of twisting, turning, slow-going roads (through the most
sparsely populated or developed land you’ll ever find between two such popular tourist
attractions) I’ve got to say, I was disappointed. Part of the problem, ours not theirs, was
that unlike Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse is a good mile or more from the main road.
From that distance, the part of the face that is actually completed looks no bigger than the
faces on that other mountain. According to official stats, the Rushmore heads are sixty
feet tall while Crazy Horse’s head is eighty-seven feet tall… or at least it will be, again,
when it is finished. Lauren and I turned down the side road toward the memorial, where
we could vaguely see the emerging face that had taken nearly sixty years to complete,
and quickly made up an admittedly lame, and probably overused, excuse when we saw a
sign asking a whopping nineteen dollars per carload to enter the memorial: “Uh, sorry,
we were just, you know, um, coming down here to uh… turn around?”

I really did feel bad about cheaping out at the last minute – especially when you
considered how far off our course we’d driven just to get here. The Crazy Horse project
is funded entirely by private funds (they actually turned down a ten million dollar
donation from the United States government) of which these entrance fees make up a
large portion. But I took comfort several months later when I learned that not only
doesn’t the entrance fee allow you access to a view any more dramatic than what you can
see from the main road, but also as much as this appears to be an endeavor intended to
benefit the Lakota and other tribes, the sculpture in the mountain is actually considered
something of an abomination by the very people it’s meant to commemorate. The project
was initiated, not by the Lakota, but by a man with the last name, Ziolkowski. And for a
people who have always honored and worshiped the ground and landscape they rose
from, carving something into that landscape in the name of vanity is of the utmost
sacrilege. The memorial remains an ongoing controversy within the Native American
community.

We continued by Crazy Horse without even taking a picture, passing through the town of
Custer and circling back toward the interstate through the middle of Custer State Park.
The naming of these two places, or rather the proximity of these two places, struck me as
rather strange. General George Custer, for whom they are named, has kind of become the
poster boy of Indian hatred. To name anything after him in this particular part of the
world (besides Crazy Horse, there are several Indian reservations in the area as well)
seems to me a bit… in bad taste. Even worse than that, surrounding the Little Bighorn
Monument in Montana there is an entire national forest named after the man! I don’t
know, to me this seems the equivalent of naming a town Mengeleville anywhere near the
vicinity of Auschwitz. Though perhaps that’s too harsh a comparison.

For all the violence and hatred that seem to have surrounded his final days, Custer really
and truly was one of this country’s bona fide heroes. His unorthodox and often reckless
strategies as a military leader helped turn several Civil War battles to the Union’s favor
and made Custer something of a celebrity. Had he not come to an untimely demise at
Little Bighorn, it’s quite possible he would have been elected President a few years later.
So it’s actually rather strange that his sins against the Indians haven’t been historically
“forgiven” or at least conveniently forgotten in the way history tends to gloss over things
like the fact that Washington and Jefferson, for example, owned slaves. Custer was, after
all, just doing the dirty work of the U.S. government, whose obsessive policy at the time
had been to do whatever it could to get the Indians right the hell out of their way. It’s
almost a shame when you think about it that history has painted Custer as the arch villain
in the whole thing.

But even so, my god people, if you’re going to name a town, park or forest after him, do
it in Virginia or Pennsylvania or near any of his other Civil War victories. Don’t put it
right smack in the middle of a place where he played such a large and historic role of
slaughtering the indigenous people!
But I digress. I suppose I’ve digressed several times over the course of this narrative
when it comes to the American Indians and America’s treatment of them. Believe me,
I’m no bleeding heart when it comes to tragic tales of the conquered and displaced. It
doesn’t take a lot of reading to realize that everyplace on this earth, at one point or
another, belonged to somebody else. There isn’t a single place you can go these days in
the developed world that wasn’t, at least once, conquered by an invading army. And no
downfall is ever pretty. The conquest of the Americas wasn’t unique or exceptional in its
violence and brutality when taken in context of the history of the world. Hell, if you read
even a history of the Native Americans, you’ll find accounts of warring tribes and the
horrible things they did to each other before we even arrived. The United States
government actually justified the usurping of the Black Hills (where Mount Rushmore
stands in fact) from the Lakota in 1877 by pointing out that the Lakota had taken the area
by force from the Cheyenne in 1776.

The one main difference between past conquests and that of the American Indians,
though, is that most of these insults, lies, double-crosses and outright genocides were sold
under the new banner of democracy where all men were supposedly created equal. So
while what we did to the Indians might not seem like such an unusual thing through the
long lens of history, through the short lens of the ideals of this place called America,
there is no excuse, no justification, no conscionable explanation for the injustices that
were wrought upon these people. And whenever you cross this country by car, you are
reminded of those injustices at regular intervals by historical markers indicating the
massacres of entire Indian families that were too small to be remembered in any book;
government-granted reservations that are so desolate they can yield no crop; sacred sites
that have since been relocated or bulldozed in order to build a mall or public highway
which they name after the supplanted tribe in a frivolous act of tokenism; impoverished
families handcrafting jewelry and other artwork indicative of their people on the side of
the road getting undercut by corporate gas stations who mass produces the same stuff in
Taiwan; and everywhere you go, signs asking, no, begging the state legislature to allow
the local tribe to build a casino so they can provide some possible means of survival for
their slowly vanishing people – even if that means embracing all the worst behaviors of
the greedy, money-grubbing, land-hoarding people who deposed them in the first place.

If anyone thinks the injustices perpetrated on the American Indian ended sometime
around Custer’s Last Stand, just take a look at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Thinking of
Native Americans as substandard and insignificant is so ingrained in the collective
consciousness that we can’t even allow them to return a desecrated holy site to its
original tribal name. I’m no activist, but all it takes is a drive across America to ignite a
white-hot anger for all the horrible things we as Americans have done to these people in
the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of our own happiness. It doesn’t matter where
you go, everywhere you set foot in this country is covered in the blood of generations
upon generations of the very people we bullied out of the way in order to plant our flags,
build our condos and erect our theme parks. But it’s too late to change the past. Too late
to offer insincere apologies. Obviously too late to give everything back. All we can do is
try like hell not to ignore the reminders scattered across the landscape and do what we
can to stop making it worse.

But that’s enough melancholy for one day.

It was past three o’clock by the time we got back to the interstate. As far as the map was
concerned we had only gone about fifty miles since leaving Spearfish at nine o’clock this
morning. I’d set a goal at the beginning of the day of making it at least half-way through
Minnesota before we stopped for the night. That meant we had a long, loooong stretch of
driving in store for the evening. I suggested to Lauren that we skip our next planned stop
at a place called Wall Drug and just barrel on forward, but she somehow talked me into
getting off the interstate some sixty miles later and putting off our marathon drive for
another hour or so. To be honest, by the time we actually got to the exit for the lonely
town of Wall, South Dakota, I too was second-guessing my own decision to bypass the
place.

We’d been seeing signs advertising Wall Drug from as far back as Montana. But these
weren’t your typical giant billboards printed on canvas in some factory, hanging large
and ugly over the freeway with funky graphics, sexy women, phone numbers, websites,
directions, testimonials and other stats that nobody actually reads. For the most part,
these were small hand-painted plywood signs scattered here and there, usually several
hundred feet back from the road on private property and presenting an absolute minimum
of information: Great Pancakes – Wall Drug; T-Rex – Wall Drug; and the one we found
rather humorous, Free Ice Water – Wall Drug. Now as we closed the final sixty miles on
I-90 to the town of Wall, we were passing by these signs every quarter mile or so:
Homemade Pie – Wall Drug; Coffee 5¢ – Wall Drug; Western Wear – Wall Drug; New
Backyard – Wall Drug; As Seen on Good Morning America – Wall Drug; Free Coffee
and Donut for Snowmobilers & Skiers – Wall Drug. By the time we passed the gigantic
hand-painted sign announcing the Wall Drug exit, I too was eager to see just what was so
special about this drug store that it required a thousand signs to herald its existence.

The thing is, I knew to expect these signs. It’s actually the signs more than the store itself
that people have come to know and love about this place. It was the signs that initially
made it a success and it’s the signs that have made Wall Drug known around the world.
With the money his father had left him when he died, Ted Hustead, a pharmacist (they
called them druggists back then) bought a little drug store in 1931 in the town of Wall,
South Dakota, which was a poor and destitute town in the middle of nowhere. There
were other places he and his wife Dorothy could have gone; bigger towns with a more
likely chances of success, but the Husteads were devout Catholics who wanted to be able
to attend mass every day, and there was a nice Catholic church in Wall with a priest they
felt a connection to. For months business was beyond terrible. The population of the
town was only 326, most of them poor farmers wiped out by either Depression or
drought. Often Ted would see cars passing by on the highway just outside of town and
wish they would just stop in and have a coffee or a soda or a bite to eat. Remember this
was during a time when drug stores were more than just places to pick up the weekly
dose of Viagra and Prozac.
For five years things went on in much the same way; so much potential but with no
customers turning off the highway to fulfill it. But they trusted in God, prayed often,
leaned on their pastor for support, and did what they could to serve that small
community. Finally one dastardly hot day in July of 1936, looking out at all the summer
travelers driving along the highway across the prairie, Dorothy had an idea: “They’re
thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water.” South Dakota is in an area that the French
termed “Badlands” because it is so wide and dusty with very little in the way of trees and
other shade giving things. During the time of the Hustead’s dire straits, there was no
such thing as Poland Spring or Dasani or Evian. Hell, there was no such thing as air
conditioning – much less air conditioning inside a car! So yeah, even though Wall Drug
was in the middle of nowhere, Dorothy realized they still had something these travelers
wanted: ice water. The only problem was, the travelers didn’t know that. Her solution,
put up signs telling them about it.

The first signs were modeled after the classic Burma Shave highway advertisements
which often told a small story or poem spaced out over several signs that travelers read as
they drove along. Get soda… Get root beer… Turn next corner… Just as near… To
Highway 16 & 14… Free Ice Water… Wall Drug. As Ted put it in an article he wrote for
Guideposts magazine in 1982, “It wasn’t Wordsworth” but by the time he and his son
walked back to the store after putting up those first signs, people had already lined up for
their ice water and Dorothy was running around just trying to keep up. All day long they
chipped ice, poured water, gave directions and sold ice cream cones and from that very
day on, the Hustead’s Wall Drug Store has never had a lack of customers since. It has
grown from a mere drug store to a block-sized establishment and world famous tourist
trap. They put God first, they invested their money, they served their community
humbly, they worked hard, they never lost faith, they used their skills, they employed
their ingenuity, they identified a need, capitalized on it responsibly, and even in the
middle of nowhere have made a name and a fortune for themselves. Now if that isn’t the
most perfectly packaged American Dream story you’ve ever heard, then… you can just
shut up, because it is.

Even so, I was worried that Wall Drug would disappoint me. Things that start that
wholesomely never last in this country. Too often greed makes even the best-intentioned
people sell out to corporate names, slot machines and just over all tackiness in order to
earn another quick buck. Even as we turned off the well-publicized exit and made our
way through the still very tiny town of Wall, I was anticipating a grotesque and touristy
mall and casino connected to a lame amusement park with big name box stores selling
the same old crap you could find anywhere else in the county. It’s just the way things
happen around here.

In fact, Wall Drug was and continues to be a wholesome oasis in the middle of a brand
hungry consumer wasteland and Lauren and I loved everything about it. Even the hordes
and hordes of signs disrupting the otherwise pristine landscape, and apparently
employing all the worst habits of any other logo smearing corporation out there, didn’t
bother me. Possibly because they were all hand painted. Possibly because they were
actually rather pleasant to look at unlike the monotonous and generic eyesores that
populate the roads everywhere else. Perhaps it’s because after several days in Montana
and Wyoming, the flat unchanging landscape was starting to get to me and I was
welcoming a bit of distraction for my velocitized eye. But the biggest reason was more
intangible. Out here, and for this specific business, the signs just… fit.

We parked right in front of the store, which actually fills a good portion of one side of
Main Street, Wall. The other side of the street also had a small array of shops, but I
honestly couldn’t tell you what they were or what they sold. While Wall Drug may not
have sold out to commercialism, it has thoroughly embraced the other devils of roadside
kitsch and tack. And God bless it for that. The long exterior calls to mind a Hollywood
backdrop – when viewed directly from the front, it gives the illusion of some kind of old
west city street with it’s wooden exterior, wooden sidewalks, deep wooden awnings and
hand-carved wooden signs. But step to the side just a little bit and the illusion gives way
to the fact that all that wood is literally a façade covering a plain cinderblock building.
Inside the illusion continues. The walls are wood, the shelves are wood, the support
beams are tree trunks, the whole place even smells like wood. There was original
artwork on the walls, mostly depicting western and Native American scenes, a few
carved wooden Indians placed here and there, and burned into the wood trim around the
store were the names and brand symbols of every single cattle farmer in the state. They
had a café, a book store, a leather store, a fudge store, a clothing store, a video arcade and
a gift shop selling the most gloriously tacky items you have ever seen: straw cowboy
hats, plastic tom toms, stuffed jakalopes, bobble head buffalos, Frisbees that look like
cow patties, coffee mugs featuring the literal and theoretical “backsides” of the Mount
Rushmore monument… Stuck in almost hidden like a token afterthought is a teeny tiny
little drugstore selling aspirin and gum and other innocuous items, just so you don’t
forget where this place all originated. Out back is the famous Wall Drug Backyard, a
playground full of good clean kid-friendly fun full of mini-merry-go-rounds, giant plastic
animals you can climb up on for pictures, a couple of life-sized robotic dinosaurs,
nickelodeon booths where you drop in a quarter and watch a fifteen-foot gorilla play the
piano and sing…

The whole place is absolutely cheesy and stupid and ridiculous and Lauren and I had a
great time. This was probably helped along by the fact that it was early April, far from
the tourist-choked dog days of summer when Wall Drug typically hosts upwards of
twenty thousand people a day. Aside from Lauren and myself, there were only a couple
dozen other visitors, most of them quiet old folks without kids. We spent nearly two
hours here, perusing the shops, eating lunch, drinking coffee which still sells for five
cents a cup, playing in the backyard and, of course, getting our free glass of ice water –
because you just have to. The “glass” was actually a little yellow plastic cup of which
there were stacks and stacks of strategically scattered all over the place next to little
faucets whose “ice water” actually ranged from lukewarm to downright hot and
disgusting from the spigots out in the backyard. But that was okay. Realizing we hadn’t
done much in the way of buying gifts for the people back home, we loaded up on
everything from t-shirts to mugs to one of the aforementioned cow pie Frisbees for
Lauren’s brother and his wife who had bought a dog while we were on the road. With
every purchase, the gift shop gave customers a free Wall Drug sign or bumper sticker.
We opted for the latter which I stuck on my Geo Metro a few weeks after returning home
and officially beginning the bumper sticker frenzy that has since turned the back of my
little car into a tongue-in-cheek red light library on wheels.

We spent nearly two hours inside Wall Drug and probably could have spent more. The
place was just so homey and inviting and full of wholesome and ludicrous things that
didn’t suck. We felt the same pang of absence that we’d felt almost three weeks ago
leaving Cawker City, but we had a good three or four hundred miles to cover by the end
of the day, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away and headed back to the interstate. It
was Tuesday night and 24 was on, but there was no way we could stop to watch it
tonight. It was already past five o’clock and we’d be crossing into Central Time Zone
soon losing an hour. Combine that with the fact that every show comes on even one hour
earlier in Central and it meant that in order to watch our show, we’d be able to get about
two hours driving in before having to stop and find a motel. No way we could do that
now. We had two days to get to Ann Arbor, four days to get home. We had to keep
driving.

And for the next seven hours, that’s exactly what we did. We drove. It was a nearly
straight shot across South Dakota and Minnesota on I-90, something that became rather
monotonous during the daytime, and dangerously monotonous as night fell. There was
nothing, I mean nothing, to break up the straight unending road ahead of us. No
mountains, no trees, no more Wall Drug signs, and not a lot of lights from the small
farming communities that were irregularly spaced along the interstate. With no cities on
the horizon providing residual light, it was impossible to even see where we were headed,
just the same dull gray patch of road lit by the Mazda’s headlights for hours and hours. I
locked in the cruise control, afraid that, with nothing visual or concrete to give me any
sense of speed, I’d find myself creeping up even into the triple digits. But that only
served to hypnotize me even more, without even the thought process of controlling my
ankle and foot to occupy my mind. We pulled off in some no name interstate town and at
dinner at a Taco Bell just to be out of the car for a few minutes. While we were there we
stopped a three different stores, a WalMart, a Big K and a gas station gift shop, looking
for some new comedy CD’s to provide some kind of mental stimulation for the hours
ahead of us. Finding nothing, I pressed on. We were too tired and brain dead to keep a
conversation going, so I did the only thing I could and fiddled with the radio nonstop,
looking for songs that would rev me up.

That song we’d hear for the first time driving into Nashville, “Redneck Woman”, was
just starting to explode across country radio. We’d been hearing it fairly constant over
the last couple days, and always cranked the radio up every time it came on. As the hours
and miles clicked by and my driving attention began to falter, that song became a
godsend with its rowdy yee-haw tune, fun lyrics that we had started to learn, and a
rousing chorus that ended with the exclamation, “Hell Yeah!” Even Lauren, who hates it
when I turn the radio up loud, couldn’t help but wail along with this new Gretchen
Wilson chick as we tore across the South Dakota prairie.
We drove and drove until almost one in the morning, finally pulling off the interstate in
Blue Earth, Minnesota, right smack dab in the middle of state – well in the east-west
middle anyway; it’s only about ten miles from the southern border. Following signs for
the Super 8 in town, I blinked and rubbed my eyes several time, suddenly certain I was
hallucinating. The tiny town was pitch black this time of night save for a very
conspicuous glowing patch of green. “What the… Seriously, what the hell is that?” I
asked Lauren several times. It appeared to be very large whatever it was, and in the
shape of a man. I knew Minnesota had several large Paul Bunyan statues, but I’d never
hear of any that glowed bright green. After however many hours of the type of driving
that could literally make a man go crazy, I legitimately thought I was hallucinating. “No
seriously, what the hell is that, the freakin’ Jolly Green Giant?”

Despite the fact that I was ready to fall asleep right there behind the wheel of that car, we
drove the extra mile or so down the road toward the glowing green mass and saw that
actually, yes, it was the freakin’ Jolly Green Giant. “Wha… why… why… WHY?” was
all I could express looking up at this thing, standing tall and glowing brightly atop a small
hill for no apparent reason that I could detect. And without the brain capacity to consider
it much farther, I turned the car back, went into the Super 8 and asked for my one-person
room. Lauren and I brought in only the bare essentials, just what we would need to get
into the room and go to sleep, which basically meant Lauren’s bathroom bag so she could
take out her contacts. Not even bothering with brushing teeth or putting on pajamas, we
stripped down to underwear and the t-shirts we were wearing, flopped into bed and were
asleep almost immediately.


DAY 25 – Wednesday, April 7 (34 weeks pregnant)
START: Blue Earth, MN
END: Benton Harbor, MI
MILEAGE: 563 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Interstate Driving, Mustard’s Last Stand

We slept in late today, not even stirring until at least nine-thirty. We’d gotten quite
cranky at each other toward the end of yesterday’s marathon late night drive, so we made
up this morning and drew a little heart next to the words “Blue Earth” in our road journal.
We packed up the car just before the last official check out time of eleven o’clock,
grabbed some free continental breakfast in the hotel lobby just before they took it all
away and then drove down the road to get a picture in front of that Jolly Green Giant
statue, which looked much less freaky in the daylight. After that we got on the road and
for the first time all trip, had no planned destination and no planned stop to break up our
day. The only concrete plan of the day was just to “go as far as we possibly can.”

Every traveler knows that any long day of driving is hard and daunting no matter what.
But it’s downright discouraging when it’s done after several fun but exhausting weeks on
the road, all the while knowing that it’s going to end in just a couple of days. We had just
two more official stops to make in the last twelve hundred miles before the end of this
trip, a museum and a friend’s house. But other than that, all we had was driving. And
not just driving, but driving home and ending our wonderfully amazing trip through
Backroad, America. And when you considered it would be all interstate driving from
here on out, the Backroad aspect of it was already over. It’s not too easy working up the
motivation to keep driving under that knowledge. So Lauren and I did everything we
could to keep our spirits, and our energy, high for the length of this day. We finally
managed to find a few new comedy CD’s at the gas station in Blue Earth – as well as
another journal since we were about to fill our second one. When we blew through these,
Lauren read the last several days worth of entries from our road journal. I switched the
radio over to the AM dial in an act of desperation, searching for some kind of political
talk that might incite something resembling any kind of emotion that would rouse my
wearing brain. After that, in an act of even worse desperation I asked Lauren to read to
me out loud from several of the magazines we’d acquired over the course of the trip.

This actually turned out to be a great idea. We had several genres to choose from –
entertainment, current events, pregnancy, parenting – and Lauren switched between them
to keep it interesting. There were some articles that Lauren read and said, “Huh, okay
next,” and others we just laughed at and made fun of, usually the entertainment ones and
anything that involved John Kerry’s run for president of the United States. But the best
were the ones, usually in the parenting and pregnancy magazines, that triggered
conversations that would last anywhere from several minutes as long as an hour before
we ran out of things to say and Lauren would move on to the next article. In between
topics I would fiddle around on the radio, always cranking it up whenever “Redneck
Woman” came on. We both knew all the lyrics by the end of the day and singing along
would boost my adrenaline and give me the oomph for another hundred miles or before it
came on the radio again.

I can look back on every road trip I have ever taken and identify it by the theme song I
have come to associate it with. They’re always songs that happened to come out around
that time and so were being played more or less non-stop on the radio stations
everywhere I went. My roundtrip L.A. to Boston college graduation trip and the long
stretches of open country and farmland I saw for the first time ever along the long
stretches of I-40 will always be called to mind whenever I hear “Tonight the Heartache’s
On Me” by the Dixie Chicks. I’ll always remember singing the song “All Star” by
Smashmouth at the Grand Canyon while shooting that road trip movie and having it turn
into the unofficial anthem of our core cast and crew. I’ll never forget how appropriate
the song “Born to Fly” by Sara Evans felt as I pulled up the roots I’d started growing in
Los Angeles and left that comfort zone forever in pursuit of something new back east.
And I don’t think I’ll ever forget how many long and weary miles, how many beautiful
landscapes and how many wonderful destinations Gretchen Wilson accompanied us
through with “Redneck Woman.” It’s weird, but I can still remember what the underpass
we drove under looked like in Nashville at the very instant I heard that song for the first
time and reached over to turn up the volume. That song, and all those others, have been
emblazoned on my brain and have come to represent all those respective road trips when
they came into my life.
The singing, the reading, the comedy and the lunchtime scouring of (of all places) the
town of Mauston, Wisconsin in search of a restaurant that would satisfy a sudden and
inexplicable craving for Chinese food, carried us all the way to the northern outskirts of
Chicago just in time for rush hour traffic. We decided to stop for dinner just north of the
city in the suburb of Evanston, home of Northwestern University, at a place called
Mustard’s Last Stand; yet another tip from the book, ROADFOOD.

Everybody knows that Chicago is famous for its Chicago-style pizza. I had no clue that it
is apparently equally famous for another all-American staple: hot dogs. Vienna-brand
all-beef hot dogs (known as “red hots” around these parts) served on a poppy seed bun
and topped with just about every condiment known to man… except ketchup. In Chi-
town, ketchup is intended for french fry use only. Asking for it on a hot dog is apparently
akin to adding Sweet-n-Low to a very expensive glass of red wine. Fortunately for us,
ROADFOOD gave us this crash course with that critical bit of info ahead of time so we
didn’t embarrass ourselves. But that didn’t prevent me from still feeling uneasy and
worried about screwing it up the instant I approached the counter at Mustard’s Last
Stand. They offered condiments I’d never even considered on a hot dog before: pickles,
tomato slices, celery salt, hot peppers. I didn’t know what to ask for and what to leave
off. I was worried that I’d ask for two condiments that didn’t go together and the counter
guy would give me a look that said he knew I wasn’t from a around here. Just like
checking in to the Pitkin Hostel, I was afraid that everyone would see me for the phony I
was. All over a freakin’ hot dog! Just to be safe, I ordered a dog with the works.
Lauren, not one to spend so much time fretting in a restaurant, got hers with cheese
sauce.

We both agreed that they were okay, though certainly not something we’d drive twenty
miles out of our way for again. That’s not meant to disrespect Mustard’s Last Stand
either, because really who does drive twenty miles for a hot dog? That’s the beauty of
locally famous food – no matter where you are, it’s always just down the block. Across
the street from our own apartment in Philadelphia was a pizza place that made the most
awesome hoagies and cheesesteaks. Though in retrospect, I think part of what made
them so awesome is the fact that we literally just had to walk across the street and pick
them up. Would we have given a tourist from England exact and detailed directions on
how to get there from the interstate, knowing they’d to have to fight with trolleys, college
students and carjackers to find a parking spot? The steaks were good, but they weren’t
that good. When I worked in New York City, there was never that one really great deli I
went out of my way to eat at because they had the best sandwiches. It was New York for
crying out loud. All the delis had great sandwiches! I just went to the ones that were
closest to our office. I’m sure it’s the same with Chicago and its red hots. The people
there don’t travel miles out of their way to eat a hot dog… they just eat hot dogs.

I will give Mustard’s credit though. This was a place that gave hole-in-the-wall
restaurants a good name. It had an old classic grease house diner look to it with the grill
and cooks in full view behind the counter and padded stools facing out wall-sized
windows toward the street. The lighting, the tables and the decor were all dark and gritty
enough to give it a nice “lived-in” look without worrying that you’d find roaches in your
food. The staff was generally more courteous than you’d expect to find in any dive
without putting on the fake and cartoonish friendliness of the waiters at Applebee’s. We
even got into a running conversation with the restaurant’s manager about our upcoming
addition. He had some theory as to why it was better to raise girls than boys, but his
accent was rather thick and his speech patterns rather fast, so neither of us caught the
whole thing.

After dinner we continued south in stop and go traffic around the perimeter of Lake
Michigan, and passing through the middle of Gary, Indiana. I always pictured Gary as
the quintessential small American town, complete a town hall, pretty suburban houses
with paper boys and automatic garage doors, a main drag with little diners, where the
local kids hang out on a Friday night and where once a month they host “classic car
night” and all the old fellas bring out their old hot rods, open up the hoods and tell stories
of the good old days. You know, the kind of town the film American Graffiti took place
in. I honestly don’t know why I envisioned it that way – perhaps it was that stupid song
from The Music Man – but it is the most ass-backwards image one could have in their
head of Gary, Indiana which was the most foul-smelling, chemical-producing, smog-
choking, industrial plant town I’ve ever seen outside of Elizabeth, New Jersey. This
apparently used to be a thriving steel town, one which perhaps wasn’t that far off from
the picture in my head, but has been on a more or less constant downward spiral since the
1960’s. But now with over twenty-five percent of the population living below the
poverty level, Gary’s crime rate has consistently earned it the reputation of one of the
most dangerous cities in the country. It made us quite glad we’d bitten the bullet and
paid the higher-than-average gas prices up in Evanston. It would really have sucked to
have needed to pull off and look for a gas station around here.

But we made it through without getting carjacked or asphyxiated from god knew what
chemicals were being spewed into the air from the many smokestacks around us. We
continued to hug the perimeter of Lake Michigan on our tiny jaunt through Indiana and
into Michigan and our old friend Eastern Time Zone. Closer to home than ever now. We
drove a little ways until we felt comfortable with our surroundings that we were out of
the Gary circle of influence, stopping in Benton Harbor where our Motel 6 book
indicated a motel with the cheapest rooms we’d found all trip. We made great mileage
today, actually the last few days meaning we only had a very short distance to drive to
Ann Arbor in the morning. We did a little journaling, caught up on some post cards and
went to bed.


DAY 26 – Thursday, April 8
START: Benton Harbor, MI
END: Ann Arbor, MI
MILEAGE: 143 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Sam’s house

We pulled our curtains shut to make our room pitch black last night and so didn’t stir
until after ten-thirty this morning. After two insanely long days in the car, long even for
this trip, our bodies were starting to feel it. Lauren in particular, after almost a month
sleeping on motel mattresses with debatable support and comfort for her pregnant self
was reaching her apex of discomfort. We sluggishly went about our morning routines,
swore loudly at our dribbly lukewarm shower then groaned our sore and tired muscles
back into the car once again. The day was cold and gray and drizzly even at noon when
we checked out. The thought of another bowl of oatmeal, or even another stale
complementary continental breakfast had absolutely no appeal. Neither of us had the
energy or motivation to drive around in search of a local place still serving breakfast so
we stopped to eat at the first IHOP we came across. We talked very little as we sat there
eating our eggs and pancakes and drinking bad coffee in an effort to break the
inexplicable lethargy that had suddenly overtaken the both of us.

After breakfast, we walked back out to the car, shivering against the cold and squinting
against the mist that was blowing in our eyes. We made our way to the interstate, willing
the car to warm up quicker so we could turn on the heater when Lauren tentatively said,
“I’m ready to go home.”

I hesitated only a second and said, “Yeah, me too.”

It had been an amazing month, no doubt. Actually we couldn’t believe that when we first
started planning this trip several years ago we’d thought we could pull it off in only two
to three weeks. Even just before setting off we’d told people we would be gone
anywhere from three to four weeks. Two weeks would have meant an interstate sprint
back and forth. Even three weeks would have rushed us through too many things. Four
weeks seemed the ideal amount. It gave us the time to take our time while still forcing us
to be frugal with it. We didn’t feel rushed, but at the same time as the end approached,
we found ourselves actually glad it was approaching. We missed sleeping in our own
bed. We missed cooking over our own stove. We missed blending our morning
smoothies. We missed going to the chiropractor. We missed daily internet access. We
missed not having to live out of suitcases and bathroom bags. We missed just sitting on a
couch and watching TV together. After almost a month of riding in cars, climbing hills
and lighthouses, hiking to waterfalls and ghost towns, posing for pictures in front of
kitschy roadside attractions and geological wonders and spending the night in single
room motels, yes we had to admit, we were ready for home.

Not that we wouldn’t be sad to see it all end. After visiting my friend Sam today, we had
one more stop at the Henry Ford Museum tomorrow. But after that, we made the
decision to just keep driving, all through the night if necessary, until we were home.

It was just over two hours to Ann Arbor where I called Sam and she directed me to the
cute little duplex in the decidedly suburban college district near the University of
Michigan where she was attending grad school. Sam is an old friend from Maine. We
were academic competitors in high school who followed widely diverging academic
pursuits in college. I studied film and TV, moved to Los Angeles and got jobs dealing
with screenwriters, actors and movie producers for barely more than minimum wage.
She studied… something to do with statistics that is so heady and complex that I had a
hard time grasping it whenever she tried to explain it. All I know is her degree was
leading her a career in research researching things I didn’t even know people researched
for more money than I figured anyone would ever pay another person to research
something. We’ve always had a deep and profound respect for the other and everything
they’ve pursued and accomplished. Sam was one of the first people I told when I made
my decision to stop chasing the dream I’d been pursing since junior high and leave L.A.
forever. Somehow I knew she of all people would get that decision. She’s one of the few
people from high school that I’ve made a real and genuine effort, or had a real and
genuine motivation, to stay in touch with through all things.

We said our hellos and headed upstairs where we talked for several hours, filling in the
gaps for the years since we’d seen each other. I introduced her to my wife and she
introduced me to her boyfriend, David, who has since become her husband. Around
seven the four of us took a walk through the quiet neighborhood to a Polish restaurant
they knew and loved. Back at the house we stayed up until past eleven o’clock still just
sitting and talking with Lauren and I filling up most of the conversation with tales from
the previous month. I filled them in on my days in L.A. and New York, trying to be witty
and funny, trying to make them laugh wherever I could.

I realized something about my own humor that night. Maybe it was the fact that Sam and
David remained so quiet during our conversations, letting Lauren and I do most of the
talking. Maybe it was that I found myself listening to everything I was saying through
David’s ears, who had never met me before tonight. But all of a sudden, I realized that
all my funny stories began with the words, “Oh my god, [insert person, place or thing]
really sucks.” Hollywood people, L.A. traffic, New York subways, my ex-bosses, New
Jersey jug handles, the trolley that ran next to our Philadelphia apartment. All of these I
used as the basis for some witty anecdote, but all those anecdotes, I realized, were based
upon the fact that I strongly disliked something. “Oh my god, David must think I am the
most negative person on this earth,” I confided to Lauren after we went to bed. I thought
I was just being funny. Turns out, I am just really, really pissed off. I fretted over this
for several months until one night I saw George Carlin in an interview talking about the
common thread that connects all great comedians. I’m paraphrasing, but basically
George said that all these guys see something really fucked up in the world and use their
differing styles of comedy to deal with it. That cooled me back down and I decided from
that day to not worry about how negative I sound. If people are laughing, I know it’s not
bumming them out. And as near as I can remember, Sam and David’s laughs seemed
genuine.

Sam made up the pullout couch with blankets and pillows for us. Unfortunately the thing
was quite old, lumpy and sagged toward the middle. Lauren who had woken up this
morning in a good deal of back, neck and side pain had a rather miserable night’s sleep,
and I not much better. Did I mentioned we’d missed going to the chiropractor too?

See that, I did it again.

								
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