VIEWS: 12 PAGES: 135 POSTED ON: 11/28/2011
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.
Pages to are hidden for
"DAY 1 – March 14"Please download to view full document