A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest.
Continued from Contemplating The Mystery Box.
Out there, between Denver and Pittsburgh, lay a broad land I’d barely seen. A once vast grassland that had become countless square plots of cornfields and soybean fields, splashed with small towns and a few intermittent cities.
I’d been to the American South, the East Coast, the Mountain States, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. All that was left was Alaska and the Midwest, and Alaska has always seemed too formidable.
So the Midwest it was and a chance to learn first hand about an area that I knew slightly from books but more considerably from stand up comics who use Middle America as grist for their comedic mills. (Want to hear a joke about the Midwest? Nevermind, it’s too corny.)
But there was a more pressing reason for wanting to take to the road again. By the Fourth of July holiday I was feeling restless, morose. I felt as if something had been left unfinished.
That unfinished something was a road trip that my wife Cora and I had taken earlier in the year, in May and June. We’d travelled over 7500 miles, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California and then east to Arkansas. From Arkansas we drove north through Kansas, and Missouri before touching a corner of Iowa. We turned back west, passing through Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, finally going south and homeward bound through Oregon and Washington.
It was during that long drive that my idea of what a vacation should be was changing.
Every unique stop, every side road, every oddity and every magnificent work of nature’s art added a new layer of change
We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with a dinner of burgers and fries at little, Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-in, in Seligman, Arizona. We didn’t toast with Champagne in crystal flutes. Instead we sipped milk shakes through paper straws. We didn’t spend that night in a plush roomy honeymoon suite in a luxury hotel. I don’t think “plush,” “roomy,” and “hotel,” even exist in Seligman, Arizona.
So we did the next best thing, we spent the night in a doggy themed room (because we had a dog with us) at the Stagecoach 66 Motel. The wall was painted in a 101 Dalmatians motif. It was, in fact, better than the next best thing. It was the best thing. It was delightful and it was memorable and it certainly wasn’t as trite as a plush, roomy, hotel. Anybody can do that.
It was weeks later, the end of a long, hot day and we were on the far western outskirts of Missoula, Montana. By that time we had ten states in our rearview mirror. and when we pulled into the motel parking lot I could see that when I’d made the reservation way back in early May I may have fucked up – badly.
I suspected a problem when we discovered that the motel was situated miles from Missoula or anywhere else for that matter, save the travel center (the modern euphemism for truck stop) next door.
I was certain there was a problem when I walked into the lobby and was slapped by the stench. The inglorious smell was an airborne stew of the corpses of decades worth of cigarettes, musty carpet and general neglect.
The front desk was staffed by a grumpy fellow who himself appeared musty and carried the burden of a musty disposition. I suppose his mood was understandable. He was the poor schlub tasked with manning that unenviable post. Maybe he was the owner, lamenting that he’d gone into the hospitality business.
After gruffly dispatching two people in front of me with the news that there were no vacancies, he asked if I had a reservation.
“I hope so,” I responded.
My expression of hope was only partially true. If my reservation were somehow lost it would be an excuse to abandon that trench of a place, free of forfeiting a deposit, to look for something further along the interstate. Still I was tired and I just wanted to lay on a bed of clean sheets. Whether the sheets would be clean was a matter that was up in the toxic air.
As luck, or misfortune, would have it, we did have a reservation. Mr. Musty checked me in and slid me the papers to be initialed, the instructions that listed the standard boilerplate of do’s and don’ts.
And then he had the effrontery to tell me that my dog would have to enter through the rear or side doors and was not allowed in the lobby. Breathing in a funk that was redolent of a sarcophagus, I wanted to tell him that the lobby’s ambience wouldn’t suffer, and might actually improve, if my dog left a steaming pile in its dead center.
And then there was the toilet bowl that looked as if it hadn’t enjoyed a visit from a brush and a dash of cleanser in weeks.
I was road weary there in Missoula and to make things worse, the only bills of fare nearby were fast food ones. I was near the tipping point to where I just wanted to get home. It was a point that I would never reach.
The next morning we bade farewell to the acrid acres motel and I was nowhere near wanting to return home. I had a case of the “I don’t want to go home,” blues.
Maybe rocker Josh Homme nailed it when he described “the bittersweet curse,” to Anthony Bourdain. “Nothing feels better than going home. And nothing feels better than leaving home.”
As the weeks at home piled up, I was feeling the curse.
I’d also decided that my concept of the ideal vacation was altered for good.
I’ve always been lukewarm on cities with their gridlock, the bustle, the expense and the probability of having my car windshield smashed for the mistake of leaving 25 cents in plain view.
Granted, major cities offer cultural opportunities not found in rural areas but after a few cities I’ve found that their opportunities become repetitious and the unique ones often require an automotive expedition through concrete canyons and jammed intersections, in search of that elusive city animal, the parking spot. Upon bagging that rare quarry you’re faced with another expedition, this time on foot until you’ve reached your destination. Once there you find yourself falling into the end of a long line of kindred pilgrims.
I avoid art museums. An hour in and I usually have a spike through the skull headache. I can only spend so much time professorially stroking my chin in fake appreciation of a painting of spaghetti on the wall. “Ah, yes,” I say in the most pretentious tone I can muster. “His motivation for making the spaghetti purple is perfectly clear to anyone with an appreciation of his true greatness.”
Okay, I freely admit it – I’m a vulgarian.
A cruise? Two boring weeks in a polluting petri dish surrounded by water.
Amusement parks? I outgrew fake joy a long time ago. What’s happy about spending the equivalent of the national debt for a one day ticket to “The Happiest Place on Earth?” Disney managed to put a price on happiness and it’s a price that keeps out the plebeians.
Friends of mine rave about Las Vegas but there’s something off putting about the over-indulgence, the crass commercialism and the pretentiousness. My daughter once warned me that one never goes to Vegas with the intention of getting any relaxation.
Okay, so along with being a vulgarian, I’m a vacation snob.
On the road, I’d discovered simpler pleasures; unattended roadside vegetable stands where the farmer trusts you’ll leave a fair payment in exchange for the fruits, literal fruits and tasty ones at that, of his labor; a museum in Sheridan, Wyoming dedicated to the intricate art of saddle making; and in California, a forest of trees with trunks and branches made of old, welded together odds and ends and “blooms” made of old glass bottles.
Walking along a city block you simply come to the next city block, another McDonalds, another Starbucks, another souvenir shop where you can get a t-shirt that goes threadbare before you’ve even returned home and all of it while weaving through crowds of people, robotic, mesmerized, hustling to wherever it is they need to be but likely would rather not be.
On the road the scenery was ever changing, even in the deserts of the southwest where sagebrush gave way to cacti of seemingly endless varieties, which then gave way to blinding alkali flats. In the distance we would see the long multicolored snake of a freight train slithering in and out of distant red hued hills.
In Oregon it seemed that we would never leave the gaze of stunning Mount Hood and when we finally did we came upon the absurdity of a British Royal Navy airplane sitting on its belly at the edge of a forest. The plane was intact if you don’t count the missing wing, the propellers missing from the remaining wing, the smashed windows and the broken nose.
How it got there or why is anybody’s guess. It was, and presumably still is, just sitting there at the edge of the woods. Try and find that the next time you round a city block.
Go into a restaurant in San Francisco and the waiter will tell you the special of the day. Go into a small town diner and the waitress will tell you the history behind the town’s name. And that, my friend, is culture.
I was hooked, addicted. And what is it that addicts do? They have another hit. And so I planned another road trip.
And why shouldn’t I be addicted? It’s only natural. When it comes to the open road, Americans have an addictive personality. It’s estimated that humans carry 30,000 genes. Americans must have 30,000 and 1, that 1 extra being the gene that triggers a lust for the road.
If there is that extra gene it was first triggered when settlers had the urge to see what lay beyond the eastern seaboard. They went on foot, on horseback, ox cart, covered wagon and later by train.
By the dawn of the twentieth century the automobile was setting Americans free from the limitations of the iron horse.
In his essay written in 1905, H.P. Burchell made the American tourist’s freedom abundantly clear, “this freedom, this independence, this being in the largest possible degree completely master of one’s self [in which] that horrible fiend, the railroad timetable, is banished to the far woods [and] the steel rails, with their varying degrees of speed have ceased to be a necessity to the summer tourist…”
That cars lacked sufficient shelter from the elements was no matter. Travel guides of the time included chapters on how to dress for driving; a fisherman’s slicker when it was raining and a proper sun hat on a hot day.
They were called “automobilists,” driving was called “automobiling,” and “automobiling” had become all the rage.
In 1901, the first transcontinental road trip, from San Francisco to New York was attempted. Among the standard luggage were tools that we would never imagine today; pulleys, rope, block and tackle, and an abundance of spare car parts.
That the trip was aborted when the car got mired in the sand hills outside of Winnemucca, Nevada, 2500 miles short of the goal was irrelevant. Somebody would do better next time, and other somebodies to follow would do it faster and faster and with fewer difficulties.
The road trip became the thing of legend and lore. Over 100 years of media, news and popular, fueled America’s urge to take to the road.
I was 16, when my friends and I all vowed to get chopped Harleys and ride across America like “Captain America” and Billy in the film Easy Rider. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t afford a chopped Harley, couldn’t ride one if we had one and we were all under age. Sure there were those inconvenient chapters in the Easy Rider story; that the duo’s trip was financed by a cocaine deal and the journey featured recurring episodes of drug use, drunkenness, debauchery and finally death was irrelevant to the intoxicating idea of being able to just cut loose and get on the road. And all the better if you could do it with a background of Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. Easy Rider was a film of liberation and what could possibly be more liberating than chucking it all and taking to the freedom of the road?
The fine art of the road trip was passed on from father to son. Watching dad, I learned that you always pack the least essential items first. The last items to go in were always the cooler, the picnic basket and the bag of snacks.
It was on a road trip that I changed my first flat tire. We were on the searing Salt Flats of Utah when the flat occurred and I begged my dad to let me change the tire. I followed all the intricacies; loosen the nuts a bit before jacking up the tire, lay the nuts in the hubcap and take care when touching a tire that’s been on a hundred mile desert ride.
When the tire was changed dad let me drive for a stretch. I was achieving manhood. All that was left was my first martini and the right member of the opposite sex to help rid myself of of that bothersome virginity.
My own road trip was planned for September. It was an offshoot of our late spring road trip, and both were born of an April argument.
My daughter and I stood an icy 12 inches apart from each other when we had our argument.
We were on the back patio, exchanging verbal jabs in another of a series of spats that a parent and child have when both possess similar, stubborn, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” personalities, all exacerbated by the fact that parent and daughter have been living under the same roof for five years.
Our daughter was a single mom of two living in a small apartment in a sketchy complex when my wife and I cajoled her back to the nest.
She was working in San Francisco, making the long commute. “Come home and be a mom to your kids until you can get a place of your own,” I said.
Our back porch argument was just another in a string. They all had similar endings; uncomfortable silence and brooding.
During my long post argument sulk I decided I needed a break, we both needed a break, we all needed a break; me, my daughter and her two kids. Hell, even the dogs needed a break.
Cora? Well, she was always able to roll with it all. Say a rosary or a novena, invoke some patron saint that could quell turmoil in the domestic circle, and then she’d go to work on shuttle diplomacy between my daughter and I.
Laying on the bed, I decided I would go away for a weekend. Staring up at the ceiling I increased it to a week, two weeks, three weeks. Fuck it, a month. I’d show them all a thing or three. I’d go away for a month. Just me.
The next morning, I announced my plan to Cora only with one important change; we would both go and bring Lexi with us.
The moment we pulled back into the driveway, I knew that I had to have more.