Four a.m.: The big V-8 growled to life and the speakers blared: Big wheels keep on turning / Carry me home to my kin.
“You planned that, didn’t you?” my daughter said.
I couldn’t make sense of her question for a moment, and then I said, “That’s not my iPod, just the radio. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”
“It’s a good sign,” she said. We pulled out of our Sacramento driveway and began moving east toward Alabama.
The Yellowhammer State was never my sweet home, but both my sister and parents have lived there for three decades. No matter how old we get home to some extent remains wherever our parents are, though I was down to just one of those now. My mother died six months prior during a visit to Colorado, our collective ancestral home, our family taproot.
That event was the catalyst for the road trip upon which my daughter and I now found ourselves: 5,500 miles round trip to say one last goodbye to my mother. Unlike her Denver funeral, this promised to be a happy occasion–a ballroom dance held in her honor–but first we had to get there. When the trip odometer ticked off the first mile my daughter and I high fived. At ten miles we high fived again. For the duration of our drive we celebrated the passage of each hundred miles.
My family road tripped often during my childhood. I was usually wedged into the back of our station wagon–first a ’73 Bel Air and later a ’77 Ford LTD–along with the luggage and an ice chest stocked with off brand soda and bologna sandwiches on stale white bread. Eating and drinking were a fool’s game: My father wouldn’t stop until the car’s tank was low or his was full. I passed the miles reading Mad magazine, shoving the stack of luggage out of my territory, and dreaming of the delicious Ho Jo meals and Stuckey’s pecan logs that less destination-oriented road trippers freely enjoyed.
This trip wasn’t going to be like that. “Anytime you want to stop just let me know, okay?” I said.
“Okay,” my daughter said, but we drove straight through California’s Central Valley, reading the signs that farmers posted along the edges of their dried fields: “Congress Created the Dust Bowl,” “Is Growing Food Really Wasting Water?” etc. We didn’t stop until we reached Bakersfield several hours later, a town notable for giving the world Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and not much else. We gassed up and left the interstate for the stretch of highway running across the Mojave desert to Barstow, where we could hook up with I-40.
“Our next goal is Needles,” I said when Barstow was in the rearview mirror.
“What’s in Needles?”
“Absolutely nothing, but when we hit Needles we’ll be pretty much done with California. The Grand Canyon isn’t too far out of the way. Want to swing by?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said.
We stopped for lunch at a diner in Kingman, Arizona, located on the fabled Route 66. Portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were airbrushed on the walls. Marilyn looked Chinese rather than sultry, and Elvis resembled a manga Harry Connick, Jr. Next to the diner stood a classic car dealership. This was the aesthetic of Route 66 wherever we crossed its path: a romanticized vision of the ’50s that was just a little askew.
We hit the highway again and moved northward rather than east for 150 miles. “What if we get to the Grand Canyon and a park ranger stops us at the gate and says, ‘Sorry folks, the canyon’s closed for cleaning”?
“Could that happen?” my daughter said.
“It’s the biggest goddamned hole in the world,” I said. “I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to hide it, though I guess that the park part could be closed.”
It wasn’t. We paid $30 to see a hole in the ground, though technically that thirty bones was a parking fee, and it was good for seven days. Considering I pay about $5.50 per hour to park my ass in a movie theater seat, it’s hard to complain about that deal.
Few destinations live up to their hype. When I lived in Hollywood, I’d watch the crestfallen tourists wandering Hollywood Boulevard, trying to find the glamour. A sober visit to Las Vegas burns into the mind’s eye the sad faces of slot jockeys all too happy to let the unfulfilling nothingness of Vegas stay in Vegas. But the Grand Canyon is exactly what the name implies. It is the greatest, most beautiful monument to erosion one can ever hope to see. Its scale is so enormous and its colors so vivid that not even the crush of loud tourists jockeying for selfie angles diminishes one’s sense of awe.
Guard rails allow visitors to stare over the canyon’s edge toward the tiny ribbon of water running below. Leaning over one of these rails I noticed a lone plant growing from the cliff’s face, an airborne seed that lodged in a rock fissure, content with whatever minerals it could glean from its new home and whatever water the afternoon thundershowers provided. All of the hand wringing about humans destroying the planet seemed absurd at that moment. The idea that we could do anything that would wipe out all of the planet’s flora and fauna, not to mention its aquatic and microbial life, is ridiculous. We may be driving mammalia, including ourselves, to extinction, but the planet will be just fine. “Nature always finds a way” became the trip’s mantra, from the scruffy coyotes subsisting in the harsh western deserts to the plant life stretching its curious tendrils above the Rocky Mountains’ dizzying timberline.
Some humans seem more eager to race toward extinction than others. My neighbor along the railing jarred me from my reverie. “Look over there,” he said. A half dozen people had jumped the rail a mile or so away and climbed onto one of the many ledges jutting into the canyon. A woman sat on the cliff’s edge, her feet dangling as if she sat upon a river bank rather than the lip of the biggest goddamned hole in the world. The sight refocused my eyes from the beauty of the canyon walls to the sheer number of rail jumping idiots. Some crept to the very edges, perhaps motivated by adrenaline. Others simply wanted selfies without guard rails in the background, a goal accomplished safely by simply framing or cropping their photos differently.
“Why don’t the rangers stop them?” my daughter asked.
“I’m glad they don’t,” I said. “Adults should be free to do whatever stupid things they want, provided they don’t take anyone else down with them. I really don’t want to watch someone die, but it’s their lives, their choices.” We leaned against the railing and stared quietly at the vast canyon. Millions of years stared back at us, the persistence of gentle water on rigid stone. “Can you imagine what the first Native Americans thought when they stumbled upon this place and leaned against this very railing?” I said, and my daughter rolled her eyes.
Later, when we pulled out of the visitors’ center parking lot and headed for Flagstaff, the most perfect double rainbow appeared on the horizon. The Grand Canyon is truly magical. What a way to end the first day of our drive.
Driving across the American desert is the best way to grasp just how much of it there is. Take I-40 from Southern California through a good chunk of Oklahoma and you’ll be treated to 1,000 plus miles of dusty landscape. The drive borders on hypnotic, the miles blending together in a blur of barren sameness.
The absurdity of any enemy conquering the U.S. struck me somewhere east of Winslow, Arizona. I can imagine a scenario where combatants overrun a town–Nogales or Yuma, maybe–but the United States is just so huge. Conquering the U.S. is synonymous with eating an elephant: Both are theoretically possible yet impractical goals. Even if the southwest was to fall, all we’d really be out is some rocks, sagebrush, and three coyotes.
Those coyotes are brave, though, trotting along the highway’s shoulder as tractor trailers whiz past at 80 miles per hour. These are the real natives of the American desert: massive trucks stuffed with crap that we don’t need. The interstates belong to the long haul truckers, and what a pleasure it is to drive with them. Unlike passenger cars, which can’t seem to pick a lane or a speed, the big trucks chug down the freeway steadily and predictably. Truckers stay to the right except to pass or to avoid a hazard on the road’s shoulder. They signal and look before changing lanes. They are the lumbering giants of the road and we are a bunch of chattering, leaping, unpredictable monkeys dancing around their hulking legs in our zippy cars.
But for all their professionalism something must be afoot in the trucking industry. From Arizona through Oklahoma we passed three semi accidents, all westbound, all likely fatalities given that both the cabs and their trailers were burned beyond recognition. No signs of passenger vehicles were present at any of these accidents, but perhaps at least one of those truckers had to swerve to avoid a chattering monkey, or maybe sleep deprivation was a factor, or cellphones. I really don’t know, but the sight of so many identical accident scenes suggests a disturbing trend.
Speaking of disturbing trends: Remnants of the old road trip culture litter the interstate like ghost towns–boarded up Stuckey’s, abandoned billboards falling over, former sites of themed campgrounds marked by crumbling cement teepees. We pulled off at Lupton, Arizona for the pancakes promised by a towering exit ramp sign only to find another former highway attraction being reclaimed by the elements. Nature always finds a way.
Where did all of the people go? Are we all flying from point to point now? Is the great American road trip extinct? Can a brother get a pancake?
Where civilization lies, so lies uniformity: Subway, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel, Chevron, Holiday Inn, on and on. Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t significantly different from Sacramento, California, which is Oklahoma City’s fraternal twin. There are Taco Bells all over the southwest. The birthplace of Tex-Mex, Jesus’s (that’s ‘hay-seuss’) gift to humanity, is infested with purveyors of the Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
There was no way that we were crossing that barren hellscape without stopping for some decent Mexican food, so we pulled off at Moriarty, New Mexico for lunch. My daughter spotted a joint named Chili Hills that looked small and local, so we gave it a shot.
“Sit anywhere,” the counter guy mumbled. He was Sons of Anarchy’s Bobby Munson’s lost twin. We did what we were told. “You want something to drink?”
“Just water,” my daughter said.
“Iced tea and water,” I said.
Bobby Munson didn’t reply. A few minutes passed, and then he set three glasses on our table and walked off. “Why does he have a gun?” my daughter whispered.
“On his belt. He has a gun.”
“I guess this must be an open carry state,” I said.
“But why does he need a gun to wait tables?”
“I don’t know. Family business, just off the interstate. Maybe they’ve had some trouble, or maybe he’s a volunteer deputy sheriff. Maybe he just likes it.”
“Then what about the knife?” she said.
“Lots of men carry pocketknives,” I said. “They’re very useful.”
“That’s not a pocketknife.”
“Also hanging from his belt?”
“Yes! It’s huge!”
“Yeah, I don’t know. We’re in New Mexico,” I said, as if that explained everything.
Bobby Munson returned. “You know what you want?”
“Chile rellenos,” I said.
“Red or green sauce?”
“What about you?”
“Can you make me a vegetarian burrito?” my daughter asked in a tone that conveyed both “if it’s not too much trouble” and “please don’t kill me.”
“Oh, sure,” Bobby Munson said. “Are there any vegetables you don’t like or should I just load it up?”
“Anything’s fine,” she said.
“We’ll make you something good,” he said, and they did. The food at Chili Hills was amazing. I’ve been on a lifelong quest for the perfect chili relleno since I was maybe 12, and that little diner ranks among the best I’ve ever tasted. We finished our meal with two big slices of homemade pie, but as good as the food was it wasn’t even the best part of the restaurant. While we ate we listened to both Bobby Munson and the owner interact with each other and their regulars. They were two of the nicest people you’d ever hope to meet, so much so that I nearly regretted suggesting that we should sell the southwest back to Mexico with a “no refund, no return” clause.
When Bobby Munson returned with the check he said to my daughter, “It’s good to see a young person wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt. You’re doing a good job, Dad.”
“Thanks, but she made me listen to Kanye earlier,” I said.
“What do you do about that?” he asked. I paused, and he raised his hands to his head. “Ear plugs, Dad,” he whispered.
From Moriarty to Amarillo we were greeted by billboards for the Big Texan, home of the 72 ounce steak–eat it all and it’s free. The advertisements held no sway over my vegetarian daughter, but I’m a fan of both freak shows and roadside attractions, and the Big Texan qualifies on both counts. She didn’t seem interested, so we didn’t stop. Neither of us could have eaten, anyway: We were still stuffed from our Chili Hills adventure a few hours earlier.
Oversized meat wasn’t the only huge offering in the Texas panhandle. We passed a wind farm that went on for a good 30 miles, its hundreds (thousands?) of enormous white propellers spinning in the hot breeze. For all the noise about the impracticality of renewable energy, we’re certainly investing a lot in it. Wind farms crop up all across California, the southwestern and plains states, and I’m sure if we’d driven further we would have seen even more. There was something particularly poetic about finding such a huge wind farm in Texas, long a symbol of American oil production.
We pushed on, finally calling it a day in Yukon, Oklahoma, where we stayed in a name brand hotel just off of Garth Brooks Boulevard. America can be a very strange place.
Day three, the last thousand miles separating us from our Alabama destination. We stopped near Fort Smith, Arkansas for lunch. After an aborted attempt to find a local restaurant we settled for a Waffle House, which is at least regional.
I associate the Awful Waffle with three things:
- Being out so late that it’s the only place open.
- Being drunk enough that it sounds good.
- My high school acquaintance who convinced a coworker to shoot him in the foot to provide a cover story for their faked robbery after making off with the till at the end of their shift.
None of those associations imply a Michelin star, but my California daughter never had the pleasure of visiting a Waffle House, so what the hell.
The big revelation–and admittedly it’s unfair to reach conclusions based on a sample size of one Waffle House–was that as we moved out of the southwest and into the south, waistbands expanded and wardrobes changed. As much as I bitch about the homogeneity of our franchised landscape, people in different parts of the country retain a sense of place. “Those teenagers over there don’t look like anyone from my high school,” my daughter said. “It’s not just their hair and their clothes, either. They just look different.”
It was a welcome reminder that “state” means “country” outside of the U.S.A., i.e., “the Turkish state,” for example. At our core we’re more like the European Union than France–50 unique governed regions with distinct borders that conform to a subset of agreed upon laws and principles. That’s the true beauty of the United States: As citizens we have 50 chances to find a place that suits us without having to expatriate. Want to carry a gun at work? How about ride your motorcycle without a helmet, or shoot fireworks the size of small military ordnance? Are you devoutly religious, liberal, or just want to be left alone? There’s a state for you.
It’s also what makes the whole thing borderline ungovernable. “American values” differ greatly from place to place, yet each are both valid and genuinely American. Sweeping proclamations about “the real America” make no sense when two California pacifists truly like their pistol packing New Mexico waiter. We’ve forgotten how essential regionality is to the American experiment.
Why anyone wants to herd 50 cats is beyond me, but every four years a gaggle of fools apply for the position of cat herder and chief. Each knows what’s right for America, and they offer as proof little anecdotes about the woman they met in Dalhart, Texas who just lost her insurance, met a Muslim, or lost her job to an illegal immigrant. The location and the story changes, but the gist never does: “I’m the candidate with the simple solution that magically satisfies all 50 flavors of The Real America.” Whether he or she is right is solely a function of whether his or her solutions align with ours, yet each national election cycle we fall for the hype.
Aside from the “Congress Created the Dust Bowl” signs lining California farmland, the only political billboards we spotted during our 5,500 mile drive were in–and I’m not making this up–Toad Suck, Arkansas, where Trump purchased two roadside signs reminding the Toad Suckians that Hillary Clinton belongs in jail. Why his campaign chose to advertise only in that place is above my pay grade. Maybe his analysts determined that the election will come down to winning Toad Suck, who knows? Perhaps Trump is looking for free publicity along the lines of “You’ll never believe what I saw in Toad Suck, Arkansas,” in which case I say, “You’re welcome, Donald.”
We took a highway detour south through Arkansas and into Louisiana, and that’s when the south really began to feel like the south. Subways and Applebee’s gave way to forest and farmland, ramshackle barbecue joints, and farm equipment slowing traffic to a crawl. We were still a long way from our destination, but the humidity felt like home. Crossing the Mississippi River gave us the boost we needed to cross the Magnolia State without pause. We didn’t stop until Meridian, not too far from the Alabama state line, where we had a quick dinner.
“Well, kid, what do you want to do?” I asked. “We sleep here or we keep driving.”
“What time will we get to Ozark if we keep going?” she said.
“Maybe one or two, too late to knock on anybody’s door, so tonight either we stay in a hotel here or there.”
“Let’s do it,” she said. “I want to be able to say that we made it in three days.”
I paid the tab, we filled up the gas tank one last time, and away we went. I missed a turn and took us 100 miles out of the way, but we made sleepy Ozark, Alabama around 1:30 a.m. — 2.5 hours shy of three full days since we left home 2,721 miles earlier. Nothing was left to do but sleep a little bit and get ready for our last long goodbye to my mother.