The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

When we started out, we hadn’t included a ghost tour in our plans. Thing is, when you cover 8000 miles over sixteen states, the diverse American story is bound to offer up a collection of spectres.

The ghosts that we encountered weren’t those mischievous, annoying spirits who move the furniture about while you’re out of the house, or scare the hell out of you with unholy middle of the night shrieks. We didn’t come upon the tormented souls of long dead soldiers who, it’s been alleged, float among the trenches of the battlegrounds of old.

The ghosts we discovered are the shadows of hopes dashed, dreams unfulfilled, plans turned sour and the simple, inexorable erosion of time. They’re still out there, those ghosts, scattered about the country.

Unlike the goblins that secret themselves below floorboards and in the cracks of an old house, these ghosts are easily spotted but like any self respecting spook they can take many forms. They’re the crumbling concrete, rotting wood and rusting metal of places that were once alive with purpose but now wait for an exorcism by human hands or the beating of nature.

Goffs, California.
There’s a time change thirty miles or so east of Goffs, California, at the Arizona border where the clock advances by one hour.

At Goffs though, the clock stopped advancing for good in 1931, when a bypass of Route 66 abandoned the town and left it to its own fading resources.

Once upon a time, Goffs was a railroad town, housing workers for the AT and Santa Fe Railroad. Today the long freights still pass through Goffs along with a few ghost hunters who come to view the remnants of the town and the renovated old schoolhouse.  Nobody stays anymore.

 

For more on Goffs follow the link to Route 66 California: Bottle Trees and Ghost Towns

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June 4th, 2021. The Black Hills, South Dakota.
After an interesting, if somewhat disappointing, stop at Wall Drug, we’re headed to our cabin located somewhere between Hill City and Custer.

Our route has taken us through relatively large, Rapid City, slowing us down on a sweltering afternoon when all we want to do is get to our destination and relax.

From Rapid City to Hill City, it’s 27 long, very long, miles. At least it seems that way. Cora and I joke that South Dakota miles are longer than regular miles.

At the end of the 27 South Dakota miles we arrive in Hill City. Driving through town I’m looking for a grocery store because if we want to eat we’re going to need something to cook. This is our first VRBO stop of the trip. My plan is to drop Cora off and then go out foraging.

We take Highway 385 south out of Hill City and watch for the road listed in the VRBO directions. There it is.  And it’s a dirt road. Ugh. I know what Cora’s thinking,
“This American has booked us into a faraway cabin in the woods that we have to get to by driving down a long dirt road.”

Cora is not a dirt road fan and has been known to take a dim view of faraway cabins in the woods. The one, years ago outside of Gardiner, Montana, had Wi-Fi that was so spotty she spent the first half hour walking around the cabin and the property, looking for reception on her phone. All to no avail. I’m expecting an ass chewing from the wife.

The cabin is about five miles down the dirt road and we’re tired, dog tired, so we’re measuring this initial trip through the dust, in South Dakota miles, because it seems so damned long. During subsequent trips down the dirt road when we aren’t so exhausted we’re comfortable enough to measure the distance in regular miles.

The cabin is small – very small. Tiny to some maybe, perfect for me. It has a nice porch with a couple of chairs. You walk immediately into a kitchen area with a counter for eating. There’s a seating area with a chair, a couch, a side table and a small TV, and in the far back (not too far, the place is small) is the bed. It’s one long, not too long, not too short, room. It’s perfectly fine. We’re not here to do gymnastics, we’re here to eat, sleep, relax and be cozy.

After getting Cora settled I go to town. Custer is closer than Hill City and it’s in Custer that I find a good sized supermarket, Lynn’s Dakotamart, that has everything we need including the grapefruit which Cora has asked for. At $2.49 each, Lynn should be offering a Black Hills Gold bracelet with the purchase of every grapefruit.

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That’s the way it is with vacation trips isn’t it? Seems like eons ago – if you even remember it at all. Seems as if the national park t-shirt with the wolf on it and the Mount Rushmore refrigerator magnet are the only hard evidence that you actually went somewhere.

Going back to work dims the memory all the more and all the more quickly.

So that’s why I’m thankful that I’m retired. I can better savor the experience when I get back and I don’t have to suffer the pre-vacation office bullshit.

There’s no more of the insulting, “Well, if you must,” treatment from your boss when you put in for the two weeks off. That would be the selfsame boss who just the week prior encouraged “team members” to take some time off to “recharge the batteries.”

I’ve retired from having to compose the out of office message to keep coworkers, and especially management, at bay, “I’ll be out of the office for two weeks. Since I’ll be staying in Chicago where there is no internet and only limited phone service, I will respond to your message upon my return.”

I’m spared the onerous return to office rituals of sorting through a thousand emails and suffering the inquisition over whatever thing went sideways while I was gone.

This isn’t to say that I’m not going through a post vacation malaise; a what’s on the itinerary tomorrow, followed by the depressing realization that the only itinerary is getting out the green that developed in the pool, and digging up the plants that perished, while we were gone. Is that all there is?

Maybe part of that malaise comes from the fatigue of the last leg, the worst section of the entire trip. My daughter offered that the last day is always the worst because there’s nothing new to look forward to. What’s immediately in front is what you left to get away from.

That’s probably true for me but not for Cora. She was ready to return home. She wanted to sleep in her own bed again. Me? Give me ten milligrams of melatonin and a bed of nails and I’m good.  Slept like a baby. Where to next?

I will admit that when I travel I miss my coffee maker and my shower. We stayed at eighteen different places and it seemed that at each one I had to learn how to use a coffee maker. And as for the shower, I never could get the water temperature and pressure to my liking. Hell, in one place the hot and cold were reversed. I thought that I would have to take a cold shower until I tried the, “I wonder what’ll happen if…” bit.

But there were times, even towards the end, that I was plotting a way to extend the trip. Cora wouldn’t have had anything to do with that notion. She would have hitchhiked home if necessary. And then shopped a good attorney while I was still away.

Travel writing.  Straight from the start I realized that I have a lot of learning to do when it comes to being a travel writer. I started out with the notion that I could write as I go. I brought along all the tools; a journal, plenty of pens and pencils, a voice recorder and of course my laptop.

But the write as I go plan was trashed on day one.

The whole trip was almost trashed from the start as I was ready to turn us back around for home on day two. At the end of day one I was spent. In marathoner’s terms, I’d hit the wall. That first day was, on paper anyway, a drive from home to Porterville, California, a distance of 257 miles. That 257 miles is point to point and during the planning, I didn’t take into account the side trip to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and the scenic drive that added another 100 miles or more.

I was suddenly slapped by the realization that all of the mileage and drive times had been based on motel to motel calculations.  If I adhered to the point to point itinerary we would miss the planned and off the cuff side trips. I would’ve stripped the meat from the bone. It was a mistake that couldn’t be undone without undoing the trip.

At the end of that first day the rest of the trip was the furthest thing from my mind. I was exhausted and stressed and told Cora that I’d have to see how I felt in the morning. Maybe I’d bitten off far more than I could chew.

So what about that first day?

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Friday, June 4, 2021
Day eighteen.

It’s already sultry at six in the morning at The Raine Motel in Valentine, Nebraska. We’d arrived sometime during mid-afternoon yesterday and The Raine was a lonely place. Just us and one other car parked two rooms down. The Raine is another throwback motor court that we’re staying at during our four week journey. It’s the last and I suppose fittingly, the best of the bunch. What was an empty Raine yesterday is full this morning. Full of pickup trucks.

Nebraska is the land of pickup trucks, mostly beefy, burly ones. In our San Francisco Bay Area, a guy will buy a gigantic pickup, knowing that the most he’ll ever haul is a few sacks of groceries once a week. And that four wheel drive package he added on? Well that’ll come in handy for negotiating the gravel parking lot at the county fair. There’s a much more important convenience that comes with this pickup and that’s the aura of rugged manliness. Nothing says virility like an F350. Well maybe a gun, but that’s for a different post.

Not so in Nebraska and neighboring Iowa. Out here a reliable pickup truck is a tool. So are tractors. Driving through Iowa and Nebraska we’ve seen more John Deere and Case dealerships than we have car dealers. And why not? If you want to earn the scratch to buy a car you’re going to first need the tractor.

It seems that we never leave as early as I’d like to and today is no different. This was one of those days when I really wanted to get out early. The heat wave that’s hitting The Plains States is predicted to bring temperatures into the high 90s. It’s coming up to nine in the morning when we get out of The Raine.

Our ultimate destination is a cabin in Custer, South Dakota, but on the way we’re stopping at Badlands National Park and then The Wall Drug, a mecca for road warriors coming from all parts of these Great United States and, indeed, the world; travel weary tourists in search of the ultimate kitsch. Wall Drug, the capital of campiness made famous by the bumper stickers that read, Where The Hell is Wall Drug.

As if it wasn’t already famous enough, Wall Drug received a recent boost of notoriety when it was featured in the Academy Award winning movie Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand’s character Fern finds herself working in the restaurant of The Wall Drug.

Before The Badlands or Wall Drug though, the plan is to stop at the South Dakota Welcome Center to get a road map. Ever since lady Google threw us for a 50 mile loop back in Arizona, I’ve been on a mission to stop at each state’s welcome center to get the free map. It’s been a hit or miss, well, mostly miss proposition. In my map quest I’ve so far struck out in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

In fact I’ve only been successful at the Arkansas Welcome Center. There, a nice woman offered coffee, pastry and little packets of rice (who knew that Arkansas is the biggest rice producing state in the country?). The packet didn’t contain enough rice to construct one small piece of sushi but, hey, it’s the thought that counts. The kind lady also doled out maps of Arkansas and Missouri and some friendly conversation.

Why maps? Not only do I fact check Ms. Google but I find that a map gives me the wider view that Google Maps doesn’t, and a real map often features places of interest that Google fails to show.

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Saturday, May 29, 2021
Day eleven.

Note: Posts are not in chronological order.

We’re traveling from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Amarillo, Texas.

We’ve just hit Cline’s Corner’s at the junction of Highways 285 and 40 (Route 66}. Cline’s Corners isn’t a town, just a large rest stop; RV park, filling station, café, and last but most assuredly not least, a gift shop. It’s been a traveler’s rest since 1934.

In either a bit of irony or fanciful thinking, the address for the rest stop is 1 Yacht Club Drive. It’s Northeastern New Mexico and I guarantee there isn’t a yacht, much less a yacht club within 1600 miles. Maybe the founder, Roy Cline, had relocated from San Diego or some other yacht friendly place and felt sentimental.

In any event, Cline’s Corners is not where I want to be. Our first destination is Santa Rosa and I’d planned on getting there by taking Highway 25 which follows the route of The Mother Highway. Instead I took Google’s advice and followed Highway 285 which cut out a large segment of the Route 66 course.

I can’t blame Google this time. I asked and she delivered the quickest route as is her mission.

In any event, we’re back on the course of Route 66, headed east with a final day’s destination of Amarillo, Texas, a distance of 230 miles.

My original plan was to keep the daily miles down to 250 or less and I’ve achieved that but for the fact that we’ve been taking detours to see sights or simply to follow the roads less traveled. The result is it’s taking 6 to 8 hours to cover what would be a point to point drive of around 4 hours. We’ll see how long I can keep this up.

We’re listening to the not so dulcet tones of a radio show called The Hour of Rage, hosted by a fellow named Eric Strauss. It’s 9 in the A.M. on Saturday, F-ing morning and this is how he starts your weekend? With an hour of rage?

KKOB is a conservative news talk station so I’m not overly surprised.

After a few minutes of the Hour of Rage, we decide to ride to the more soothing tones of big rigs blowing past.

I can tell we’re back on the Route 66 course from the billboards we’ve been passing. A lot of come ons for attractions, souvenir shops and curio shops.

Pistachioland! We’ve been passing a succession of billboards advertising the many and varied merits of paying a visit to Pistachioland. According to the billboards, you can buy “guy stuff, ” and “knives, knives and more knives,” and you can fill the inner man with “hot eats and cool treats.”

If you’re more of a pyro kind of guy you can even buy fireworks at Pistacioland, I’ve noticed that fireworks are readily available in Arizona and New Mexico. They’re almost impossible to find back home in the Bay Area.

A friend of mine suggested that I bring some fireworks home to the grandkids but I’m not really on board with hauling high octane fireworks in a hot car for 3 weeks.
“Welcome to California sir,” said the state border patrol agent. “Are you carrying any fruits or vegetables?”
“No, but I do have a trunk full of explosives.”
“Could you please pull your car over into the lot there, sir.”

Pistacioland offers pistachios in a range of flavors; Garlic, Lemon-Lime, Ranch, Bacon Ranch, and Spicy Ranch. For the purist there are also pistachio flavored pistachios.

The piece de resistance of Pistacioland is a 30 foot (9.1 meters) tall pistachio. I trust that the giant pistachio is a facsimile but given that Pistacioland is right next to the old White Sands Testing Grounds where they once blew up a nuke, well, one never knows.

I thought about stopping at Pistacioland on a lark but then I found that it’s 200 miles out of our way.

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On Sunday we left Amarillo, a fair sized city in the Texas Panhandle, for Stroud, Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is on the way to Stroud and Cora and I debated about keeping the Oklahoma City National Memorial on our itinerary. I wasn’t ecstatic about taking on city traffic, but given that it was Sunday we decided to detour off the main highway and into the city.

The Oklahoma City Memorial is a monument of remembrance, to the victims, the survivors, the responders and to the nation, of an event that shook the nation and the world. It was at 9:02 in the morning of April 19, 1995, the start of a busy workday, when Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb composed of more than two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil, all packed into a rental truck. The blast decimated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring more than 680. The building housed a children’s daycare center. Nineteen children were killed in the blast.

McVeigh, a Gulf War Veteran, came out of the service disgruntled with the Federal Government, unable to find a job and looking for camaraderie. He found his niche in the radical fringe of the far right. He became an acolyte of a fiction book titled The Turner Diaries, written by an American Nazi/white supremacist named Luther Pierce.

The book chronicles the overthrow of the Federal Government and the extermination of non-whites. It became and continues to be a sort of bible for the far right.

McVeigh’s reason for the bombing of the Murrah Building was retaliation for the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco. He had thrown in with fringe militants whose mission it was, and still is, to overthrow the Federal Government.

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Friday, May 21, 2021
Day four

Mother Nature. Sometimes she can be a real; you know, that “B” word? When she gets to feeling a little fishwifey, she’ll cut loose with an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I had a friend in Missouri who used to hunker down when the tornadoes hit and over in the Philippines, Cora’s relatives deal with typhoons. And I haven’t even mentioned climate change (but let’s be honest, that’s largely on us; the unruly, selfish kids).

And then there are those times when Mother Nature goes on one of her creative jags, gets fixated on some work of art (and she can crank out some doozies) and can’t seem to stop adding on. Sort of like Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, only on a grand scale (for more on Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch click here). Grand meaning the Grand Canyon. Grand meaning, according to some scientists, a work of art that’s been in progress for 70 million years; and she has no intention of stopping. The Grand Canyon is forever changing.

Today’s destination is The Grand Canyon and we need to get an early start to the day.

The Stagecoach 66 Motel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 10 o’clock. The motel actually has operating hours. You might be staying there for 24 hours but the staff is some woman and her husband and they’re only at your beck and call starting at 10. There’s no night clerk at The Stagecoach so if you get into town after closing time you might consider finding a nice turnout on the highway so you can bed down in the car.

I’d really like to get breakfast at the nearby Roadkill Café and OK Saloon. The Roadkill is a Seligman, Arizona institution offering culinary delights such as, Splatter Platter, Swirl of Squirrel, and Highway Hash. What could be more delectable?

Roadkill Café; that’s one of those business names where, as the saying goes, you takes your chances. You’re counting on more people appreciating your creativity than being turned off by your crassness.

I can usually appreciate some name creativity, even if it goes beyond the boundaries of good taste. Hell, especially if it goes beyond the boundaries of good taste.

During our visit to Quebec City I enjoyed browsing through a little boutique in Quebec City called Fucklamode. They sell clothing that bears their logo – Fucklamode; and in really nice script, I should add. I wouldn’t wear one of their shirts but it’s a clever little bit of marketing. I suppose that if I was ever in Sorrento, BC, Canada and I needed some machine parts I’d check out Wally’s Private Parts, and if my car broke down in El Centro, California I wouldn’t hesitate to seek out a Camel Tow.

No time for a sit down breakfast, so it’s with a heavy heart (mine is the only heavy heart) and empty stomachs that we pass on The Roadkill.

This diversion from the general course of Route 66 is a late change to the itinerary. When I was first planning this trip I’d planned on a night at the Grand Canyon but rejected it for a lack of accommodations; Grand Canyon would have to wait for another trip, another year.

And then just the day before we left home I took another look at the map (the paper one that you spread out to get a lay of the land).
“You know Cora, the Grand Canyon isn’t that far out of the way that we couldn’t make a short day stop just to check it out.”
“Okay.”
We were both so blasé about it. Kinda like, “There’s a Target a couple blocks away from the motel in Flagstaff.”

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Thursday, May 20, 2021 continued.

Next stop, Oatman, Arizona.

We enter Arizona, through the town of Mojave Valley. I slow down at the Welcome To Arizona sign and ask Cora if she’d like me to take her picture standing by the sign. She declines.
“It’s too hot,” she says.

It is that. The thermometer on the dash reads 100 degrees F (37.7 C).

This is Cora’s first visit to Arizona and she’s in for a lot of first visits to states; by my quick count it should be 11.

In crossing the Colorado River into Arizona, I took a slight deviation from a section of Route 66 called the Oatman Highway. It’s been a long drive, it’s hot and after a stop at the town of Oatman the drive will still be long and still be hot. So I’m willing to sacrifice a view of the old bridge that crossed the Colorado back in the day, in order to cut the drive time to Oatman exactly in half.

The drive takes us through more sections of rugged, rocky and hauntingly beautiful country. The road is mostly flat until we get to the outskirts of Oatman where the road rises to the old mining town.

On the road to Oatman

A few minutes outside of town we come upon a wild burro standing in the middle of the road. The moment that I stop the car, the burro ambles slowly towards the passenger side.

The burro is mooching for food. It’s what the burros of Oatman do for a living.

Cora is enchanted, Lexi not so much. It’s Lexi’s first ever burro sighting and as soon as the beast gets to the window, Lexi growls and lets out a bark that sends the burro trotting away.

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

“Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox”

That’s George Strait on the radio.

It’s day three of a month-long road trip.

We’ve travelled down the eastern side of California’s San Joaquin Valley and are now passing through the Mojave Desert on the Southeastern edge of the state. When it comes to radio, we’ve been ordering from a limited menu; mostly conservative talk, God, and Country/Western.

Every now and again we receive a dash of sports talk and during our drive down the valley we got a spicy helping of Mexican Norteño music. The valley is ag country and the labor is heavily Mexican so we tuned to the Spanish speaking stations when we got weary of right wing talk and couldn’t find Country.

I have a fully loaded and functioning Spotify app, with a variety of playlists but I’m traveling to sample the flavors of the places I’m visiting and local radio is a big part of the sampler. Local radio speaks the local language.

So, yeah, I go with the conservative talk radio until I can’t take it anymore and then scan to something else. I’m skipping the God stations until we get to Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, where the proselytizing should get real intense. I wanna get it straight from God’s own shock jocks why me and all the other sinning, Beelzebub loving liberals are doomed to burn in the pit.

This third day marks our first on Route 66, the Mother Road. John Steinbeck coined that term. The Mother Road. In the 1930s she was the siren enticing migrants who were fleeing the ravages of the Dust Bowl and all its collateral damage; failed crops, poverty, hunger and bank foreclosures. They drove the Mother Road from small towns and sharecropper plots in Oklahoma and Arkansas, Americans who came to California to be treated as foreign interlopers.

In later years the Mother Road teased the adventurous spirit of travelers, as the automobile became a symbol of 20th Century American freedom. Route 66 was America’s Main Street, carrying vacationers west to glamourous Southern California, the Land of Milk and Honey, where the land locked could dip their toes in the blue Pacific.

Route 66 starts in Chicago and cuts through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, ending at the Santa Monica Pier.

Over the decades sections of Route 66 were rerouted. The late 1950s marked the decline of Route 66. With President Eisenhower’s push to build an interstate highway system, the Mother Road was either bypassed or had sections of it incorporated into new highways.

Today sections of the two lane road still exist. Other sections are closed or come to a dead end and some segments have disappeared completely. Today traveling Route 66, is time travel; a journey back to jalopies, chrome laden Buicks, family owned motels with big neon signs and diners that served simple comfort food for a fair price.

Where it hasn’t been incorporated into a multi-lane highway, the Mother Road is two lanes, sometimes rough, that curve and in places dip and roll like a concrete coaster. Most of the towns and cities that survive are those that were swallowed up into the interstate system.

The others? Route 66 goes past the remains of towns that were once vibrant but in the end could never survive being cut off from travelling America. Death by loneliness.

Other towns, like the old mining town of Oatman, Arizona, turned their history and that of Route 66 into an attraction that’s allowed them to survive as kitschy tourist destinations.

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Warning: Some content rated R.

Post-It notes, travel guides, an oversized Rand-McNally Road Atlas, assorted other maps, pens, pencils, a highlighter, notepads and a couple of spiral notebooks; my current life in a nutshell, all of it scattered about, on a little desk, a printer stand, the dining table and, to the wife’s displeasure, the surrounding floor.

We started planning this trip over a month ago and it’s not unlike Christmas; one day it’s Thanksgiving and the next thing you know tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and you haven’t bought a damn thing.

In just two days I pick up a rental, a minivan. The rental is because I don’t feel like putting 4800 miles on one of our cars. And 4800 is a conservative estimate. Normally I might just rent a midsize car. The van is for the dog’s comfort. Lexi will be able to stretch out on her dog bed surrounded by luggage, a cooler, my photo gear and all of our other possibles.

Two years ago I wouldn’t have done the rental thing. Two years ago I still had my pearl blue, Dodge Challenger SRT with a 396 Hemi. Sure, the insurance on that car was steep, and 500 horses sucked up premium gas like a disorderly lush, but it was fun to drive and it was just made for a road trip like this. Then again I’d have to wonder; is driving a muscle car with California plates in the South, a state trooper magnet?               

 

 

 

 

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