r-daub-a-blog, July 18, 2007
Wednesday September 27, 2000
In September 1996 I rolled into Seattle from Massapequa, New York on Long Island with my college buddy Bill. We had both spent the last year in Long Island limbo, our first year after graduating college, living back at our parents house in the suburbs. It was hell. During that time we both worked crap jobs in order to save enough money to load up our cars with what little we owned and head out west. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and it was great. We wanted to go as far as the road would take us without leaving the country. It was our own little version of Jack Kerouac. Over six days we drove from Long Island to Seattle across the northern tier of the country, and after we got there we survived by working crappy temp jobs until finding full-time work at Snappy Car Rental, which specialized in temporary insurance replacement vehicles for people who were just in car accidents. After spending a year in this rotten corrupt industry we both found better jobs, and I wound up working at Amazon.com for two years. I had just missed scoring the big bucks when the company went public, but I was able to cash out my stock options and move down to Eureka, California, where I knew nobody and wouldn’t be distracted while writing my great American novel that will probably never be published.
Well, that’s what writers in Stephen King novels, and Thoreau, would do, never mind that Henry David was a little cuckoo to begin with and that bad things were always happening to King’s characters when they went off to a secluded cabin to write. I came to Eureka sight unseen only because it looked like it would be a nice place on the Northern California map of the Rand McNally Road Atlas Deluxe Edition 2000 Millennium Atlas. But I learned quickly that you can’t write all the time, and I got distracted looking for distractions whenever I got burnt out and needed a break. There was a complete breakdown of structure. I couldn’t sleep, and I was starting to feel depressed. After four months I had had enough of this one horse logging town.
I didn’t think I was going to find “home” on this Golden Lost Coast, and in the back of my mind I knew I was going to eventually return to New York—only now it is a little sooner than I initially thought I would be heading “back east”, a term used by people “out west” even if they’ve never been there. I learned a few lessons here in Eureka, one of them being that in real life it is very difficult to go off somewhere where you are completely anonymous and achieve focus. This place was perhaps a little too far outside of my comfort zone, a city person coming to a rural logging town, and perhaps I would have been better off in Arcata with the college kids, or maybe even anywhere else in Humboldt County. I did actually get a lot of work done and learned how really hard writing a novel is, but it was about a month ago when this place really started to get to me. Then I watched Eyes Wide Shut on my little TV with the built-in VCR, and there was a scene shot in Manhattan down in the Village that I recognized as a place I had been many times before and realized that this is where I really wanted to be. Even when I first got to Eureka and was having trouble finding an apartment, I watched a documentary one night in the hotel on PBS about the Beat Generation and they were showing footage that was also shot down in the Village, and for a moment I was inspired and ready to scrap the whole California thing and head to NYC. At that point I had nearly given up trying to find an apartment after investigating all six or seven of the leads in town without success and was ready to go tell the U-Haul people that I was going to need the truck I had rented in Seattle a bit longer and take it to New York, but then I got a call from a landlord who had been out of town and just heard the message I left a couple of days earlier in response to his ad in the paper for an apartment he had available on the first floor of a two family Victorian house. I went over and looked at the place and it was nice, and the guy said he was willing to rent it to me, so I decided to stay. By the next evening I was unloading my stuff from the truck into the house. It felt very strange to be living as a stranger in a strange place where I knew no one, and that feeling never really went away. It never felt right here, and the experience itself was becoming a distraction. You can’t write every waking hour. You still have to live in this place. And that was the problem.
I’m not exactly looking forward to getting home, where I will essentially have to start over, but I am looking forward to being On the Road again. There’s something soothing about being in a state of motion—whatever you are getting away from is now behind you, and whatever problems that will emerge in the new place don’t exist yet. This state of motion is the only landscape where Kerouac felt comfortable, especially in Big Sur, where when he was by himself at Big Sur for a few days he would start longing to be back in big city San Francisco, but after a few wild nights in San Fran he would start longing to be back in the isolation of Big Sur again, and the pattern would repeat to the point of madness. He was only calm when he was moving. That’s kind of the way I feel at the moment. It’s nice to be moving on, and there’s the excitement of going to a new place. Only this time I’m going back to the old place that I wanted so badly to get away from four years ago. Hopefully that is temporary and I will be able to move into Manhattan relatively quickly. Somehow. Find a job. Pay rent.
But that’s something to worry about later, as now I’m off on another great American road journey, this time just me and the U-Haul truck. It’s a bit sad that my little dream of finding literary bliss was so short-lived, but the thought of adventure on the road ahead and eventually living in New York City for the first time is enough to make me want to get the hell out of here. I rolled into Eureka on a high, so there was nowhere to go but down before I started trying to pedal back uphill through the wind with the kites and the waves on the bike that I purchased when I got here since I no longer had a car. I would ride over the three narrow bridges to a Pacific that I heard more often than I saw, but it turned out to be only an ocean. I’m rolling out now in a different U-Haul than the one I came in with, that first one I rented in Seattle had a Nebraska image for its “Venture Across America” series painted on the side of the truck, but this one features Oklahoma. It is like a rivalry of places I’ve never been, although I may be in Nebraska in a matter of days and I don’t know what I’m going to find there. That may be reason enough to go there, but it is probably not reason enough to stay.
There are no emotional good-byes, and in fact I’m still lamenting the lost opportunity I had to buy that souvenir “Eureka Stinks” t-shirt that had a graphic printed on it of smoke coming out of a smokestack. I saw the shirt hanging in a storefront window down in Old Town the other day, but the store was closed (Eureka is small enough for stores to close at lunch time and for the shopkeeper to hang one of those “will return at” clock signs on the door with the adjustable red hour and minute hands). This place really does stink but no one wants to leave except maybe that teenage kid who bagged my groceries at the sparkling new Ray’s Food Place supermarket during the day I was moving into the apartment. I had two carts worth of stuff and the nice cashier lady asked if I was moving in and I said I was, just came down from Seattle, and the grocery kid seemed appalled at the idea of someone actually moving into his town that he wanted so badly to flee. I certainly understood because I would have felt the same way back in high school when I was a frozen food guy at the FoodTown supermarket and some guy showed up saying that he chose to move to Massapequa because it “looked good on the map”. I probably would have said, “What the hell are you thinking, man?” Back then it would have been a nice daydream to go live in California, but I just had the real experience and my perspective is now totally different, and going back to Massapequa will be the first step in my getting into Manhattan.
Living in California at least once in my life is something I will take with me as I head out of town without ceremony, the same way I rolled into town over Memorial Day weekend. I take one last look at the Victorian gingerbread house where I spent the last four months and then pull away for good. Minutes later I cross the threshold of the Eureka city limit (population 28,608 / elevation 42), and for the first and only time I encounter Eureka rush hour traffic (I didn’t know there was a rush hour in Eureka, but I guess there is, it being Wednesday and all). Briefly I head north up Highway 101 for the last time and then east on 299 in the fog until the elevation rises above the clouds and the sun beams down on my beloved U-Haul that will take me away from this land for good.
Tiny mountain towns with populations ranging from 30 to 300 are buried in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, places such as Burnt Ranch and Big Bar and Whiskeytown, and I’m the only one on the road for miles and miles as the gas is getting sucked out of the tank by the engine working so hard to climb. I didn’t realize I even lived so close to the mountains since my travels over the past four months had been confined to the coast. At around 11:00 AM I roll into Redding and suddenly I am in a different world without redwoods and mountains and oceans. It is hot here, a sensation I have all but forgotten after nearly four years in Seattle and four months being breathed on by the chilly Pacific winds that forced me to wear my heavy hooded sweatshirt all summer because the temperature didn’t rise above the sixties. I heard about this place once while standing in line somewhere waiting for fast food, someone in front of me was saying that there were jobs in Redding, which may explain why in Eureka there only seemed to be high school kids and old people and the invisible men who drove those huge logging trucks from the hills surrounding town of which there were bald spots all over.
So this is Redding and there’s a Taco Bell here where I stop in for a few Chili Cheese Burritos (formerly known as the “Chilito”) and a couple of crunchy tacos and a really big Mountain Dew, then head across the lot over to the Conoco 76 to fill the already nearly empty tank of the U-Haul truck. Inside the mini-mart I pick a raspberry Snapple from the case and the cashier is this really cute young lady (listen to me sounding like an old fart) and she asks if I’m moving into town and I say no, just passing through, but if I ever do I’ll be sure to gas up at your station. No, I didn’t really say that, and I wish I could have met her in Eureka, but I didn’t have a car anyway and therefore had no reason to stop at a gas station except to pick up beef jerky and pepperoni sticks on my way home from having a few beers at the Lost Coast Brewery. She wishes me luck on my journey and there’s another door that quickly closes, but driving through Redding makes me anxious to get out of California, so I hit the road and head towards what is for me the uncharted territory of the Silver State.
Outside of Redding in the county of Shasta I head into the scenic outskirts of Lassen Volcanic National Park. I am the only one on the road at the moment, the happily lonesome traveler on a gorgeous fall day. Out here there’s a beauty to the loneliness, and a loneliness to the beauty. Up ahead there’s a snow-streaked California volcano that looks like a dessert dish with whipped cream on top, a dormant delight out here in the Sierra Nevadas. Scenery like this makes me reconsider my decision to leave this part of the country, that maybe there is a place out here where I can hide and write my books and be happy, but here too would I find the loneliness that kept me company back in Eureka, and here too there are only natural wonders such as mountains and trees (but no ocean) to inspire me. So I drive on. Maybe someday I’ll come back.
I pass what are likely to be the last redwoods I will see in this particular California life. I consider driving through the park when I see giant Lassen Peak, which reminds me of my beloved Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens up in Washington, and also reminds me that I am not going to see anything that can possibly compare to this back east. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to this place, but because of time considerations I just keep on going because I have a place that I have to get to, and stopping to admire every beautiful thing I see is only going to delay my arrival at the next phase of my life. This thought isn’t exactly unpleasant out here in bucolic limbo, but if I don’t keep going I will just die in this place without experiencing the life that ultimately awaits beyond the jagged stepping stones I will have to cross on Long Island.
Maybe I should have cut through the park because I soon hit the largest construction zone I have ever encountered. A traffic jam in the mountains 30 miles long, the line of campers and minivans and sedans and U-Haul trucks follow the flashing yellow light atop a pickup truck that is shooting hay on both sides of the road and sometimes driving on the left like they do in England. Just like that, all thoughts of reaching my personal record of 602 miles in a single day are dashed by this inconvenience.
Eventually the pickup truck pulls over and frees us from the construction zone. When I reach Susanville a few miles later I pull into a shopping center to stretch for a few minutes and consult the Rand McNally Deluxe to figure out my next move. After the slow progress I am starting to feel weary, but I am still hopeful to make it deep into Nevada despite having a ways to go before crossing the border. I’m not even sure where I’m aiming to stop for the night because there aren’t many towns on the map, and I don’t know what’s out there besides coyotes and rattlesnakes and whatever else one might encounter in the desert.
Heading south on 395 I make good time as the mountain forests transition into desert. I don’t see any signs telling me that I have entered the great state of Nevada, but I know I’m there after passing one of the California agricultural inspection stations on the other side of the road. Four months ago when I entered California from Oregon I had to stop at one of these stations, where a uniformed woman asked me to open the truck and then asked if I had a bicycle in there or anything else that had been stored out of doors, which I didn’t (although I would buy a bicycle when I arrived in Eureka). It occurs to me that I haven’t left California since that day, and that suddenly I am no longer lost in the oblivion of the Golden Land.
A little while later I hit Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World”, and see an electronic sign that says it is 79°, which is considerably cooler than the steam bath back in Redding despite this being the desert. Reno certainly is a curiosity, but I don’t want to stop and lose time because it is late afternoon and I want to get out to where the hotels are a little less expensive. However, the other drivers on I-80 seem to be trying to impede my progress through the big little city, and it doesn’t help that this stretch of highway, the first Interstate I have driven on so far, is only two lanes wide on each side instead of the three or more you usually get when passing through a city. There seems to be only two types of drivers in Reno, the older crowd rolling along at 45 MPH or less, and the casino thugs and car service drivers weaving around them in their Cadillacs and Lincoln Towncars at 100 MPH or more. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, but I eventually manage to make it out of town and into the sweet isolation of the desert.
29 miles later I gas up at Fernley, home of the heralded third Amazon.com distribution center. It is a little after 4:00 PM and I don’t know what the hell is waiting for me out there in the desert, but the Rand McNally Deluxe has US Route 50 decorated with green dots, which means it is a “scenic route”. Four years ago on our way out to Seattle we took mostly Interstates across the country, but I don’t want to do that again because most of the Eisenhower Interstate System is just asphalt and overpasses and you drive right through all these amazing landscapes without getting a good look at them. On my way down to Eureka from Seattle I made sure not to do that again and stayed on Highway 101 all the way down the Oregon and California coasts, and it was the most amazing drive I’ve ever taken (although a bit precarious at times in a U-Haul truck). So, even though I am trying to make it to New York in good time, I am not going to miss out on the experience of seeing America as I drive across it.
A sign just outside of Fernley says “Route 50, The Loneliest Road in America”. It is a two-lane highway that scoots around the Stillwater Mountains and the Clan Alpine Mountains and the Desatoya Mountains and the Shoshone Mountains and a few other ranges, summits, peaks, and valleys. After Fallon, which is about 30 miles east of Fernley, there are only a few towns on the map, but none of them have bold letters, which means that there may or may not be an actual town there or a place to spend the night (the next bold lettered town is Ely [pronounced “eel-ē”, not “ē-lī”], way on the other side of the state near the Utah border). I feel good, though, the sun is still fairly high in the sky and I am absolutely stunned at how beautiful this here Nevada desert is. Just a couple of months ago I was out in the Mojave Desert through Palm Springs and Indio and the cactus garden at Joshua Tree National Park where it was close to 130°, and then up in the high desert of the sparkling brand new town of Ridgecrest that appears to have sprung up overnight (and where I saw a cockroach that took up half the sidewalk). While it is beautiful out there in that desert, it is still California and there are still people speckled everywhere littering the landscape, but out here the land is completely unspoiled sand and tumbleweed save the road I’m racing down at 70, 75, 80 MPH. The mountains in the distance appear like a mirage at first (like they should out in the desert), only not because it is insanely hot and my canteen is empty (it is 80°, perfect autumn desert weather), but because they are so far away across the plateau here at 5,000 or so feet above sea level that it is hard to tell if they are really there or just ghosts on the horizon. There are no houses or trailers out here, just plains and flats between the mountains with long downhill straightaways.
On one particular stretch where there is not another soul in sight, I decide to see what this U-Haul can do. I gradually press the gas pedal until it kisses the floor and watch the speedometer pass 80, 85, 90, 95… I really want to hit the century mark, but at 97 the truck starts shaking so violently that it feels like we’re passing through an atmospheric barrier. In my head I can hear Scotty yelling to Captain Kirk, “She’s givin’ all she’s got, Cap’n’!”, while on the bridge Kirk is keeping his cool staring straight ahead with both hands clutching the armrests of his captain’s chair. But I’m no Captain Kirk and this U-Haul truck is not the U.S.S. Enterprise, so I ease on the gas and will have to settle for 97, or “almost 100…”
Ahead to my left, a mountain of sand appears that looks like the classic desert setting in movies, a beach without an ocean and windswept to natural perfection. It is Sand Mountain, and I want to pull over and run up to the peak but there’s a bit of rough desert between here and there and it would probably not be a wise idea to drive the truck over all that tumbling tumbleweed to get to it or attempt walking because it would take a while and make me an easy target for rattlesnakes and hungry coyotes. Instead I just snap a picture of it as I drive by and continue racing towards the next dot on the map.
The desert out here is not totally uncivilized. Along the way I pass a couple of gambling shacks on the side of the road, an amenity perhaps as important as restrooms or gas stations or restaurants in the Silver State. I’m sure there are brothels out here somewhere and nuclear bomb test sites and lakes without water in this fantastic world so far from the one I have been living in and the one I am heading towards, and it all seems worth exploring, but today there is not enough time. The world is too big and life is too short, so all I can do is keep going going going until I find somewhere to stop for the night.
The sky is still bright and my cheap drugstore sunglasses aren’t enough to prevent my vision from starting to blur. Too much scenery for one person in one day, perhaps. Maybe my mind just wants to rest and digest it all because there will be plenty more to see tomorrow. The truck climbs up a stretch of steep winding road to 7,000 feet. The window is open to cool my sweaty hands that are sticking to the steering wheel. Eventually I pass a sign indicating that I have arrived in Austin.
With 520 miles under the tires today, I figure that this is a good place to stop for the night. But the town itself appears to be an entrance to the Toiyabe National Forest and seems bare of amenities for the weary traveler who is just passing through. There are a few ghost town looking buildings that I think are the outskirts of town, and, thinking that the main part of town is up ahead, I keep going until I am suddenly on a summit with the huge empty desert spread out before me and a straight downhill run towards the valley floor. There may have been a hotel back there somewhere, but I didn’t see it. Even if there was, I’m not sure I would want to stay there because it seemed a little too desolate for my taste. At this point it seems that my only choice is to step on it and do another 70 or so miles towards Eureka (of all places!), which, although the letters of the town name on the map are not bold and are no larger than Austin’s, looks a bit more significant because there is a white dot inside a larger black dot next to the name (as opposed to Austin, which just has a plain old black dot). I realize that Eureka may not have much more to offer than Austin and that to find a hotel I might even have to do another 70 miles beyond there to get to the bold letters of Ely, but there doesn’t seem to be much other choice at the moment.
Flying downhill at about 85, my head is growing heavy and my sight is growing dim and I know that I have to stop for the night soon like the Eagles do in that old song of theirs. It is dark now and I turn on the brights, but they won’t stay on unless I manually hold the lever back, which is quite annoying. At one point a small white streak appears before me and I think it may have been a bird that became one with the grill of the truck, but I don’t hear or feel any impact and begin to question if I really did see it. A short while later I find myself gazing at the desert stars now dotting the sky in front of me until suddenly a giant coyote darts across the road ahead and startles me out of my cosmic yellow line reverie. Fortunately I do not swerve or slam on the brakes and the big dog manages to make it to other side unscathed.
Finally I pull into Eureka, 588 miles east of the Eureka I left this morning. Before the trip I had actually toyed with the idea of trying to spend the night in towns named Eureka all the way across the country, but that seemed less feasible in the eastern half, and I was also concerned that my mind might implode if I kept waking up in different Eurekas. This Eureka is a little more active than Austin and there is a Best Western in town, so I pull into the lot and head towards the front entrance, where there is a covered semicircular driveway where people can pull up and check in before finding a parking space for the night.
In my road weariness I forget that I am driving a tall vehicle, and suddenly I hear a strange noise outside the truck followed by what sounds like a glass breaking. I roll down the window and stick my head out to discover that I have knocked the cover off an overhead light, the remains of which are now shattered on the asphalt next to the truck. No one seems to have noticed, and I sit there for five minutes waiting for someone to come out, but no one does.
Finally I decide to pull out of the covered driveway and park under the open sky to wait for someone, but five minutes later nothing has happened. While I’m sitting there I notice a motel down the street, the Sundown Lodge, so finally I decide to just casually pull out. I keep checking the sideview mirror, but there is still no activity—no desk clerks or managers or maids running out of the lobby yelling at me to stop while brandishing a bill above their head. I deliberately pull into the gas station next door and gas up the truck in direct full view of the front entrance to the Best Western, but still, nothing, except for the small pile of frosted glass in the driveway. After the tank is full I take one last look at the Best Western and decide for sure that nobody noticed, at least not anyone who is going to do anything about it. I then drive down the mini-strip of this rickety old desert town into the Sundown lot and park around the side where the truck can’t be seen from the Best Western.
I head into the office that smells strongly of cigarette smoke and there’s an older woman sitting behind the desk watching TV. I wonder if she saw what happened, but she only smiles and says hello with a deep smoker’s voice. I ask if she has any rooms available and she says she does for $32, which seems like an incredible bargain, so much so that I don’t even attempt to haggle like I usually do with hotel desk clerks. She runs my credit card through an old-fashioned manual credit card sliding imprint machine and then hands me a key. I then ask if I could get a wakeup call for 8:00 AM, and for a moment she looks at me funny before finally saying “sure”. I thank her and head outside to get my bag and eye the casino/restaurant across the street. For a moment I consider checking it out, but I am just too tired and instead head to my room and fall asleep in front of the TV.
Thursday September 28, 2000
At 8:00 AM sharp I am awakened by a very loud old fashioned bell telephone ring. I pick up the receiver expecting to hear elevator music or an automated voice like you usually hear with wakeup calls, but instead it’s the woman from the front desk and she says loudly, “It’s 8 o’clock! Time to wake up, sleepyhead!” There’s something disconcerting about a live wakeup call and I’m worried that if I don’t get up now she’s going to call back or even worse come knocking on the door, so I get out of bed and peek through the curtains and see her through the office window waving at me with a big smile. I sheepishly wave back before heading into the bathroom.
I take a quick shower, load my bag into the truck, and check out. I skip breakfasting in Eureka because the eateries here seem a little too local and at this early hour I would prefer the anonymity of a fast food establishment, so I head back into the desert on Route 50 towards Ely. It is cloudier than the day before but still bright, and on this stretch I am enclosed by the Diamond Mountains, which makes me wonder if this is the diamond desert that Woody sang about. I arrive at Ely a short time later and stop at McDonald’s for an early lunch before continuing on through the Snake Range and Humboldt National Forest.
I am a little nervous about Utah. It is likely an unfounded concern I have about overzealous Mormon state troopers, but I plan on staying off the Interstates as much as I can, which is where the fuzz usually loiter. As soon as I cross the border, though, my concern immediately shifts to the condition of the road as I start bouncing violently in the springy seat. Squiggly lines of tar cover cracks in the asphalt like flattened snakes, and I take it slow because I’m worried that the truck is going to start coming apart at the seams if I go any faster. A few minutes later an 18-wheeler appears out of nowhere in my sideview mirror and starts riding my ass. He’s not honking, but his close proximity to my derrière is revealing his impatience. Fortunately the road eventually smoothes out a bit, and I take the opportunity to step on it, Mormon state troopers be damned, and eventually lose him in the treeless hills of the Confusion Range. Eventually he disappears for good on the other side of the mountains, and suddenly it’s not so bad being in Utah.
About 50 miles into Utah I still haven’t passed through a town, and to my right I see the hazy white floor of the Sevier Lake bed. It would be a damn big lake if there was any water in it, but it actually looks pretty cool sans agua. Another 40 or so miles later I reach the town of Delta and gas up the truck and notice that the gas prices are getting lower the further east I get.
A short time later I am finally subjected to a Utah Interstate when 50 joins I-15 for a brief spell. Heading north, 50 soon breaks off on its own again for a bit before joining I-70, so I do sort of a northern semi-circle through Fishlake National Forest, which I don’t get to see much of from the road. By the time I hit I-70 I am starting to feel really road weary and am in need of a change of scenery.
And here I get it. Exiting Fishlake, I-70 straightens out and opens up to the land of Wile E. Coyote and a thousand lost Native American tribes. In front of me is another spectacular vision of beauty and loneliness and perspective of how small I am in the great big world and the even greater bigger universe of which we are relatively nothing. I stop at a vista point to snap some pictures and stretch my legs before continuing towards the San Rafael Swell and the Gray Canyon doing a steady 80 MPH. At one point a car with California plates blows right on by doing at least a hundred, and I figure that there is no way a Utah State Trooper is going to allow some Californian to come flying through their state with no regard to the speed limit, especially on an Interstate. Sure enough, about ten minutes later I catch up to where he has been pulled over and is being written a ticket.
It had been cloudy in the canyons, but as I’m heading down into the San Rafael Valley the golden afternoon sun is shining brightly behind me. Yet even the bright sunlight isn’t much help in fighting the heavy exhaustion I am starting to feel, and I still have a ways to go before reaching Grand Junction over the Colorado border, which looks on the map like the next place where there would be hotels. At one point I encounter a runaway truck ramp, which actually does give me a little jolt by reminding me that I do need to stay extra cautious on this curvy and steep downhill stretch of highway. It also occurs to me that I am using this U-Haul as a runaway truck of sorts, and once again I have a passing second thought about where I’m going. Maybe I should veer right and use the ramp to slow down and reconsider what I’m doing, yet my sweaty hands on the wheel do not flinch. Though I am too tired to summon the resolve I am apparently feeling somewhere deep below the surface, it is clear that I have reached the point where turning back is no longer an option—not that it really ever was—and that the only direction is forward, even if it is actually backwards.
Just north of Moab the shadow of the truck is really long on the road in front of me, and it disappears altogether as soon as I cross the Colorado line. A short time later, 510 miles east of Eureka #2, I pull into the sprawling bold letters of Grand Junction, where there are 18-wheelers everywhere driving around looking for an available space to park for the night. Suddenly it is dark, so I gas up the truck for tomorrow then grab a quick bite at Taco Bell before setting out to find a room for the night.
There are a lot of lodging choices here, and my first stop is a Super 8. At the desk I manage to talk them down from $55.99 to $49.99 for the night, but I say that this is still too much and make like I am going to leave hoping that they will make a better offer to keep me in the building. But they don’t, so I really do leave.
Down the road I pull into the Days Inn and they want $60, which is, of course, outrageous out here at the back side of the mountains, so I make like I’m going to storm out in a huff. The guy asks what kind of rate I’m looking for, and I say around $40. Hotel managers don’t like empty rooms, and if there are enough of them on any given night, especially in a place where there’s lots of competition, they’ll give some pretty nice discounts just to get some revenue instead of letting them stay empty and getting no revenue. The guy checks his computer and finally says he can do $44, but without the free continental breakfast. I say “It’s a deal” and I’m relieved that I have found my bed for the night.
As tired as I am, I don’t feel like I’m ready to go to sleep yet, so I head out to the mini-mart across the street and pick up a six-pack of Coors—”The Banquet Beer”—which seems like the appropriate thing to do in Colorado. Back in the room I open up the Rand McNally Deluxe to figure out my plans for tomorrow, but then I keep turning the pages to see the rest of the road ahead. There is still a huge tract of continent between here and Long Island, and also between Long Island, Manhattan, and the rest of my life. I am headed back to the same exact place I wanted so badly to get away from four years ago—so badly that it felt like my life depended on it, and it did—but now things are different. Back then it was On the Road, the ultimate American adventure, the unbridled spirit of youth, but this trip feels like it’s leading towards the end of that road and the beginning of a longer, slower one. At 27 I know I still have a lot of life ahead of me, maybe even most of it, but, out here all alone in this huge land, the fact that with this trip a part of my life is coming to an end is exposed with utter clarity. I can’t just keep throwing my stuff into a U-Haul and going somewhere else when things get stale because by now everywhere else is going to be the same, and wherever I wind up will be a place where I am the outsider. I will always feel far away no matter where I am, even if I lose track of wherever the hell it is that I’m far away from. So, this has to be it, the not-so-grand return to the same Island where young Billy Joel had his great suburban showdowns when he was living in L.A. before finally heading back east for good, but hopefully for me Long Island will be a mere stepping stone to get to that other New York island (hopefully before it gets sunk out at sea in 2017). In a few days I will have to begin building from scratch the model for the rest of my life, and from this perch high in the Rockies under the evergreens that task seems daunting. Having been gone so long I will be a stranger there, just as I am here in Grand Junction, Eureka #1, Eureka #2, and whatever stops I am about to make through the Midwest in the coming days.
Friday September 29, 2000
My restless mind kept me from falling asleep right away last night, so I am extra tired this morning and need some fuel to get me going. I head downstairs to the dining room and help myself to the continental breakfast that had been negotiated out of my room rate and enjoy a couple of English Muffins, a bowl of Raisin Bran, orange juice, coffee, and a complimentary copy of USA Today. The guy who checked me in at the front desk is not there now, and no one tries to stop me. Besides, how the hell would anyone know unless the guy left a note with my picture and instructions not to let me in the dining room? I am the only in there anyway, so maybe whoever went to the trouble of setting up the spread will be glad that at least one person is enjoying it and that their effort was not in vain.
With a full belly and some fresh energy I am ready to hit the road and go up and over the Rockies, which I anticipate being the most scenic part of the trip until I am unceremoniously dumped into Nebraska. I have always been curious to see Nebraska because of the Bruce Springsteen album named after the state, which is by far his darkest work but one of my all-time favorites. I often wonder if the actual place looks as bleak as it does on the album cover, a grainy black-and-white photo of a two lane road cutting through the badlands as seen through a windshield, the road ahead leading towards a flat horizon of thick dark clouds that look as if they are about to cause some sort of major devastation. I’m not sure why this album cover or the album itself always fascinated me, but I suspect it has to do with growing up in the overcrowded noisy and artificially illuminated Northeast, and here was a place that was the complete opposite where the nothingness would either allow you discover who you really are or drive you to madness.
Heading east on I-70 with John Denver’s Rockies and the Continental Divide up ahead, the initial part of the ascent is slow, and there are parts where the grade is so steep that I can actually see the needle on the gas gauge moving towards “E”. The Colorado River appears on my right and I pass by towns named Parachute, Rifle, and Silt. The scenery is absolutely majestic and I am feeling a Rocky Mountain High, but this is a much different feel than the isolated beauty of the Nevada desert, and even the Rockies that I passed through four years earlier in Montana, which felt less crowded. I also feel the presence of Gonzo, one Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, whose compound in Woody Creek is somewhere around here. I’d love to see it but am afraid that if I get too close I will be shot at or that sticks of dynamite will be thrown at the U-Haul, so I stay the course.
Beyond the White River National Forest the snowy peaks appear closer and more numerous, which I take as a sign that I am passing through just in time. These mountain passes are the very reason why I decided to leave California sooner rather than later because I thought that if I waited until after October, these very mountain roads would become extremely dangerous to navigate in a U-Haul during a snowstorm. Though it is still fairly warm, it is noticeably cooler up here, and I can almost smell the snow on its way. Vail looks like a cool place to spend the winter, but again I can’t help but feel that there are places just as beautiful elsewhere that are nicer simply because they are less known (and much less expensive).
Up at around 12,000 feet I pull into the small ski town of Frisco and stop for lunch at an A&W. It is quite chilly up here and there is a bit of old snow mixing with the mud in some spots. I am a little tired, a little cranky, and the thin air is probably not helping much. After lunch I dig a nice-sized rock out of the mud next to the parking lot to take a piece of the Rockies with me, which will probably remind me as much of the hamburger and fries I just had as it will the town of Frisco itself.
Back on I-70 I begin the descent towards the city that four years ago I briefly considered moving to thanks to Jack, Neal, and Allen’s “Denver Doldrums”, but seeing the skyline ahead in the distance makes me realize that I made the right decision to go to Seattle instead. This place wasn’t far enough away from Long Island, and it was on the east side of the Rockies, which back then would have made me feel that there was still more to explore out west and probably would have compelled me to pack up and leave at the first sign of adversity. In Seattle I had to stay put because I couldn’t really go any further unless I wanted to go up the road to Vancouver, or beyond that to Alaska, but both of those places had additional logistical complications. I’m sure that Denver is a fine city with old brick buildings and freight trains and brakeman’s lanterns and bars and plenty of great skiing nearby, and there certainly would have been some good times here, but with an infinity of unknown variables it is impossible to imagine what my life would be like at this moment if I had chosen this place instead. But I didn’t, and right now I don’t have time to explore the road not taken, although I do appreciate seeing old Mile High Stadium in the distance standing bravely in the face of destruction.
Through the interchange east of the city I proceed northeast on I-76, and in a matter of minutes I am suddenly driving across a desolate prairie. I didn’t know such a Colorado existed, especially this close to Denver, and the sudden change of scenery has caught me off guard. Heading west you can at least see the mountains approaching, but heading east there is no warning of the loneliness ahead, and the Rockies just roll you off like an empty can of beans. Like the mountains behind me, the plains also have a way of making one feel small, but they do not offer the hope of ascent like the mountains do. Here there is nothing to climb, and here you have to use your imagination to realize that there is in fact something and someone else out there somewhere. If you lack such imagination, it is easy to become only that which you can see.
Eventually I exit I-76 at Brush and grab a quick bite at McDonald’s before making my first departure from the Eisenhower Interstate System since western Utah. US Route 34 is bumpy and in need of repair, but it is flat and straight so the speed limit is 65 MPH instead of the 55 you usually find on these country roads. There are also many more insects here than there were on the Interstate and I now have to stop at every little town I pass to squeegee them off the windshield because the wipers and fluid do nothing but smear their innards to the point where I can hardly see the road. On top of that, the skies ahead are very dark with clouds of many shades of gray, the kind of clouds that look as if they are about to start spitting out twisters.
As I’m cruising towards the border that will take me into the southwestern corner of Nebraska, I pull up behind an olive-colored Ford Crown Victoria which I think might be an unmarked cop car. This guy is only doing 60, though, and with an endless dashed line opportunity to pass, I finally decide to go for it thinking that perhaps it is a senior citizen behind the wheel since they often drive those big boats that look like cop cruisers. I signal and enter the left lane, and it is only when I’m passing the Crown Vic that I notice the blue and red lights in the back window. It is usually not a good move to pass a law enforcement vehicle, but I have done nothing wrong, and the driver does not activate his flashers. In fact he slows down a little so that I am able to pass while keeping a strict 65, and after returning to the right lane I manage to pull away without speeding. I eventually lose him after passing through the town of Wray, and from there it’s a short stretch into the Cornhusker State.
While there doesn’t seem to be much in northeast Colorado, it seems like an abundance compared to what I find in southwest Nebraska. At the border there’s a sign that reads “Nebraska: The Good Life”, but it couldn’t be that good because many of the houses and barns and gas stations I pass are boarded up as if abandoned long ago, and I do not encounter another vehicle in either direction for many miles. There doesn’t seem to be anything here but dirt and asphalt, and after a while it starts to feel like the whole state has been abandoned. To make matters worse, it is getting darker, and I am genuinely concerned about a twister touching down. As I near the town of Trenton, I am racing along a section of straightaway at 80 MPH when a Hitchcock County Sherriff cruiser headed in the opposite direction appears on the rise just ahead. It is too late to get back down to the speed limit without slamming on the brakes, and moments later the red and blue lights flash on. I think I’m screwed, but fortunately in my sideview mirror I see him turn off the lights and keep heading west, while I continue east at an even 60 until I arrive at Trenton and pull into a Texaco station to gas up the truck.
Behind the station is an endless tract of the brownest dirt I’ve ever seen and a lingering odor of cattle manure in the air, but it is slightly different than the cattle crap I’ve smelled before, sweeter and less tangy, slightly nauseating but not nearly as bad as the overpowering cattle odor in Fresno where the smell invades the car even with the windows rolled up tight and stays there dozens of miles later. I take a picture of the perfectly flat brown horizon split by the overcast sky and decide that my Springsteen-esque curiosity about Nebraska has been satisfied. I then jump back in the truck and head due south down the Great Plains Indian Highway towards Kansas.
Crossing the border I am again amazed at how artificial boundaries can create instant changes in the landscape, and this one is the most dramatic so far. Where the part of Nebraska I just left is not much more than brown dirt, gray skies, and abandonment, in Kansas the sun has appeared on the western horizon and the fields are filled with huge cornstalks that look golden in the early evening light. I am truly in another world, one that is alive except with less insects. This is the Midwest I have always pictured during moments of city mayhem when thoughts of pastoral paradise are most appealing, the quiet life where things move slowly and one can enjoy the sad beauty of the land from a front porch rocking chair and not have to deal with millions of noisy crazy people.
Although the western horizon appears to be a straight line in the distance, I am surprised to be driving up and down roller coaster hills on a two-lane road between giant cornstalks that are planted right up to the asphalt. It is about ten or so miles before I finally pass another car headed in the opposite direction, and I imagine the people who live in these farmhouses sitting at their kitchen tables at this very moment talking about tonight’s football game under the Friday night lights. It is a world so vastly different than anywhere I have ever lived, which may be why it seems so appealing at the moment. Yet, in the midst of this heartland reverie I ask myself, How long would I really last in a place like this? I didn’t care much for growing up in the suburbs of Long Island and spent much of my adolescence yearning for worlds that were as far away as I could possibly get, and now here I am in one that may be further than any I had ever imagined, but at heart I am a city person who is headed back towards the greatest of them all. So I conclude that it would be nice to spend a couple of days here, but beyond that this place could turn ugly fast and drive city folk to insanity in a hurry. In the meantime I have the luxury of just passing through knowing that I will likely never be here again, so I am able to enjoy its beauty on the surface without having to experience the cold realities of prolonged exposure.
It’s Friday night and I’m feeling good, and I’m looking to experience a little local flavor as I roll into Colby, which is the only bold-lettered town in this part of the state. Colby is planted right next to I-70 and doesn’t seem like much of a town, per se, but more like a super-sized rest stop with a strip of chain hotels, fast-food joints, and the inevitable Wal-Mart.
My first stop is the Best Western, and then the Super 8, but neither front desk clerk is willing to negotiate down from the $49 they’re asking for the night. There’s a Days Inn across the street, but after the one I just stayed at in Grand Junction, I have decided to blacklist the chain because of the cheap GE air conditioner units they put in the rooms, which last night was a contributing factor to my insomnia. The same thing happened at a Days Inn I stayed at in Hollywood over the summer, the air conditioner is on for a while and there’s a nice blanket of white noise, but then it shuts off and creates a vacuum of total silence and stifling air fills the room before the air conditioner finally turns back on and you have to get used to the noise all over again.
I know I can do better than $49 in Colby, and this Days Inn looks newer than the ones in Hollywood and Grand Junction. There’s an attractive young woman behind the desk who appears to be in her early twenties, and right away she offers a rate of $43 after tax that I immediately accept. Once again I realize how alone I am here in Middle America, and I wonder if I were to ask her to drop everything and come to New York City with me if she would say yes. Would she want to be rescued from the drudgery of the Days Inn of Colby, Kansas? Or is she is the type who would only be comfortable in a small town and would be afraid of big city life? Of course, I could not offer her New York City right now anyway, and in fact I’m embarrassed to even think that I’m headed back to go live at my mother’s house on Long Island (even though it is temporary), and then I realize what a grimy mess I am right now after a long day driving the truck. By the time I’m signing the credit card slip I am fully embarrassed about the current state of my affairs and sheepishly thank her before heading to my room.
I am pleased to discover that the air conditioner is a much more modern-looking “ZoneAire” unit, which I decide that I’m not going to turn on until just before I go to bed so that if it does happen to be one of those on again/off again units, I will hopefully be asleep by the time it starts cycling. Satisfied with my accommodations, I set out to find dinner along the main drag of South Range Avenue and eventually turn onto a road that I think will lead to something a little more local than Taco Bell, KFC, or McDonald’s, but the road quickly turns into a dead end at the edge of a cornfield where the stalks have already been harvested. I am facing west and the bright orange haze of sun is descending towards the flat dark horizon and illuminating the edges of cobalt clouds stretched across the prairie sky. I know this is something I shouldn’t miss, so I park the truck and walk to the edge of the field and watch until the haze of light disappears behind the black.
Back on South Range I spot a drive-in place called the “Blu Rib ‘n-Q” in the Wal-Mart shopping center. This seems like the perfect place to sample some authentic Midwest fare, but my dinner of ribs, corn on the cob, baked beans, and corn muffin served in a Styrofoam takeout container is highly disappointing. In fact, these may be the worst ribs I’ve ever had, which is surprising since you’d think it would be hard to find meat this paltry in Kansas. But it is cheap and good enough, and after dinner I feel that Friday night itch to do something. Not knowing what there is to do around here, I stop at the Amoco mini-mart and pick up a six-pack of Budweiser, which may very well be the local thing to do.
Drinking alone in a hotel room can often lead to trouble. Once you get a nice little buzz going you want to go out and do something, but when there’s nothing to do you start feeling restless. I was fine drinking the six-pack while scribbling in my journal with the TV on, but after I’ve had enough of that I am raring to find a little action and excitement Midwest style. Yet, this isn’t the kind of place where you want to go wandering into local dives—not that I’ve even seen any around here—and there isn’t a bar here at the hotel where lonely travelers can share a drink together. So my adventure is limited to leaving the room and wandering back across South Range to the Amoco mini-mart to buy some more beer.
I go to the case and pick out a nice quart of Budweiser, which amuses me because I don’t think I’ve drank out of a quart bottle since high school. When I bring it up to the counter, however, the lady behind the pane of six-inch thick glass tells me that they no longer sell beer after 11:00 PM, “manager rule”. She tells me to try the Conoco station next door, where the door is open but inside the cashier is counting up the change in the register and tells me that they are closed. The guy who is sweeping up tells me that they decided to close after being overrun by a busload of “Blue Dragons” from some college in Kentucky, so I tell them that, as a “Red Dragon” from my own college in Oneonta, New York, “I ain’t never heard of no Blue Dragons, and the notion of such a creature sounds utterly absurd”. Somehow both the sweeper and cashier find this amusing enough to allow me to purchase a quart on the condition that I have close to exact change since they already “counted up the singles”. It just so happens that I have exact change to the penny for my quart of Bud, which the cashier places in a midnight special brown paper bag for me to take back to my lonely hotel room across the street.
Saturday September 30, 2000
I wake up the next morning refreshed and feeling good after the ZoneAire a/c provided a steady stream of white noise that helped me drift off into the boon of the Midwest night. After showering and getting dressed I head to the office to check out, then jump in the truck to start my journey across the Sunflower State.
It is a beautiful fall day, the air crisp, the sun shining, and I set out on Route 24 East to avoid the bland Interstate. The Rand McNally Deluxe has green-dotted this particular stretch of road, so I am apparently in for some scenic driving. I find Click and Clack (The Tapper Brothers) on the local NPR station and settle into this beautiful stretch of straight, flat, two-lane roadway that cuts through the cornfields, and I am feeling better than I have throughout the trip, which is surprising considering the amount of beer I consumed last night. It really does feel like an autumn Saturday morning in America, and the miles just roll on by without a care in the world. The only vehicles I pass are John Deere tractors with orange triangles on their backs driven by farmers who wave as I pass by.
I roll through places with names such as Hoxie, Tasco, and Studley, and later I pass through Alton, birthplace of candy mogul Russell Stover. A few miles later I enter Cawker City, a town that boasts on its sign to being home of “the world’s largest ball of twine”, something that even the great American road traveler Clark W. Griswold never got to see on his quest to Wally World. Driving through town I see the “Ball of Twine Gift Shop”, but I don’t see the actual ball of twine. Not noticing any signs telling me where it is and not wanting to drive all over the place looking for it, I exit town on the other side and keep going.
As I’m pulling away from Cawker City, however, it starts to bother me that I didn’t see the ball of twine. It is not likely that I will ever be in this part of the world again, and this is surely a momentous attraction, so finally about five miles outside of town I turn around and head back. Sure enough there it is, right across the street from the gift shop that distracted me earlier, so I get out and take some pictures and touch the rough twine and just like that I have a memory that will last a lifetime.
Unfortunately, with spirits running so high there is nowhere to go but down, and all it takes is lunch at the Dairy Queen in Beloit for me to come crashing down to Earth. The place is packed with loud high school kids who all seem to know each other, the guys all wearing cowboy hats and most of the girls pregnant, and they are bouncing from table to table like they own the joint. The cashier is so pregnant that she looks like she could give birth at any second, so I order quickly and proceed to the lone vacant table and scarf down my burger and fries while trying not to make eye contact with anyone. At this point I’ve had enough of Kansas, and it suddenly feels like the interesting part of this cross-country journey is now over. I’m pretty much in the dead center of the United States and have nothing but the grind of the East to look forward to and not much in the way of open spaces or breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit depressing, and now I just want to get the rest of the trip over with.
After lunch I gas up the truck at the “Pump & Gas” and then very carefully navigate out of Beloit, which just feels like the kind of place where local cops wouldn’t hesitate to stop an outsider and find some reason to write a ticket. I also feel a new urgency to start making some serious time, so I head south on Route 14 towards I-70 and roll over 50 miles of hilly, twisty grasslands where from the low spots the sky is completely obstructed by the hilltops.
Kansas really is a beautiful state, but it gets ugly as soon as I hit the Interstate. Right away I encounter a stretch of road construction where the eastbound traffic is being diverted across the divider onto the westbound side so that the entire Interstate becomes a two lane highway of slow going for several miles. Then, after I finally clear the construction zone and start moving again, there’s another several mile stretch of the same thing. And then another. It is so ridiculous that I consider heading back to the smaller roads, but I figure that would still probably take longer.
Approaching the “Little Apple” of Manhattan, I try to make the best of the situation by tuning into the Kansas State-Colorado football game, but I can’t get into it and my mind keeps snapping right back to the frustration of the traffic situation. Then, after a nice stretch of construction-free driving, I have to slow down again just outside of Topeka because the Interstate turns into a take-a-ticket-and-pay-later toll road like the Jersey Turnpike. Having already seen 400 miles of Kansas and now having nothing interesting to look at from the Interstate, I am feeling really tired and unmotivated. And up next is Missouri, where I know of nothing I want to see except the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, so the state will have to live up to its nickname and “show me”.
Just outside of Kansas City I see a huge cloud of black smoke up ahead, which at first I think is a building on fire. But it turns out to be a vehicle fire, a U-Haul truck to be exact, in which the cab and part of the “Mom’s Attic” storage area above it is badly burned and a crew of firefighters is still battling the blaze. The sight is quite unsettling, but it is an older model U-Haul than the one I’m driving, and who the hell knows what the guy was transporting that could start a fire that bad.
Kansas City has more traffic than Denver and seems to cover a lot more area, which I guess makes sense since the city extends over two different states. But at this point it is just another city with just another skyline that can’t live up to the one I am ultimately headed towards. I pass by Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, which looks pretty funky because the upper deck appears to be at the same level as the highway, and right behind that lies Arrowhead Stadium, where the Monday Night Football crew of Al Michaels, Dennis Miller, and Dan Fouts will be covering the Seahawks-Chiefs game the day after tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the needle on the gas gauge has dipped below a quarter tank, but I don’t really want to gas up in the city. Yet I know there might be miles upon miles of nothing outside the city, so I finally decide to exit at the far eastern end of KC and suddenly find myself in a neighborhood with abandoned buildings and boarded up houses and guys standing on corners who I assume are drug dealers. It’s a little scary driving through here, but fortunately there’s an open gas station a few blocks in, so I quickly gas up and jump back on the Interstate feeling relieved that this task is done and that I won’t have to stop again until I reach my next destination, wherever the hell that might be.
I don’t want to stay on the Interstate any longer, so when I reach Odessa I swing down Route 131 South until I hook up with Route 50 East, which is not an Interstate although it might as well be with each direction having two lanes of high traffic volume and Missouri State Trooper cars stationed all over the place. I am really tired by now, but a quick glance at the map reveals that I still have about another 50 miles until I reach the next town with bold letters, which is Sedalia.
It is dusk by the time I arrive, and though I am tired, there are simply too many hotels in town not to do some haggling. Before doing so, however, I stop at a Taco Bell for dinner, then set out to the chain hotels. My first stop is the Super 8, where the guy behind the desk quotes me $59.99, a rate so outrageous that I simply say “thank you” and head for the door thinking that maybe he’ll stop me and make a better offer when he realizes that he’s about to lose some business, but he says nothing.
There’s a Comfort Inn right next door that looks nice and brand new, but the guy behind the desk there quotes me $56, which I say is too much. So he consults his computer and comes back with a $49.99 rate, which I stupidly say is still too much and ask him where I might find some less expensive hotels, and he tells me to try the other end of town.
Back in the truck I am already regretting my decision to keep looking, but I drive over to the darkness on the edge of town where I find a bunch of sleazy charge-by-the-hour motels with names such as the “Super 7”, the “Show Me Motel”, and, a twist on the old Stones tune, the “Motel Memory”. There is one chain place over here, a Best Western, but they want $61 a night, so I go right back to the Comfort Inn and ask the guy if he’ll still give me the $49.99 rate. He considers it for a moment, and I can tell by his expression that he doesn’t really want to after the way I rejected his offer earlier, but finally he says he will.
The truck is parked out front beneath a covered driveway that is similar to the one where I broke the light cover back in Nevada, only this one has a higher ceiling. Yet, in my state of exhaustion after a long day of driving and trying to secure a reasonable hotel rate, I promptly back into one of the poles holding up the structure while trying to maneuver around a car parked in front of me. Fortunately it was just a little bump that didn’t cause any damage, and, like the Nevada incident, no one seems to have noticed, so I pull out and find a spot to park for the night in the crowded lot.
Although I am very tired, I still feel restless because it is Saturday night and I hear people partying all over the hotel. On my way up to the room I pass by some guy carrying a case of Milwaukee’s Best Light, which is not something I would drink but still enough of a sight to subdue any resistance I have to going out and buying a six-pack of Bud tallboys. Unlike the isolation of Colby last night, this place feels lively like there’s a party going on nearby, and I’m in the mood to celebrate my grand return to the eastern half of the country.
I’m in Missouri, the land of Budweiser, and the cold beer goes down smoothly while I’m recording the day’s events in my journal. Afterwards I head across the street to the cocktail lounge at the Ramada looking for the heart of Saturday night. Considering that the Comfort Inn does not have a bar and that there are clearly lots of people partying tonight, I figure that the place would be packed with travelers. When I step inside, however, there are only two guys sitting at the bar, both of whom appear to be local yokels who are friends of the bartender. There are no women, much less the Christie Brinkley I was hoping to find with whom I could try out some of Clark W. Griswold’s pickup lines such as “The truth is, I own this hotel” and “I could have been in the Olympics”. Disappointed, I turn around and head back across the street to my room and tune into the Family Feud marathon running on The Game Show Network until I pass out.
Sunday October 1, 2000
The next morning I head down to the continental breakfast and am pleasantly surprised at how robust it is. After chowing down some eggs, bacon, and waffles, I set out with a burst of energy and renewed hope that today is going to be a good day. It seems that mornings on the road are like that, you set out full of energy that fades slightly with each mile so that by the end of the day you feel so exhausted that you don’t think that you could possibly do it again tomorrow. Yet, come tomorrow morning, there’s that energy burst again and you’re raring to go.
I set out on Route 50, which east of Sedalia is only a two-lane road. The “Show Me State” hasn’t shown me much in terms of scenery, so at Jefferson City I jump on the green-dotted Route 94 that traces the Katy Trail of which Lewis and Clark followed when they set out on their big cross-country expedition. But even the scenery here is disappointing, trees and weeds and creeks along a very narrow and curvy stretch of road that is not well suited for a U-Haul truck, especially the many single-lane bridges and blind curves that I have to keep slowing down for. Finally when I reach Route 19 I’ve seen enough and zip back up to I-70.
I stop for lunch at a Burger King in Warrenton and then continue towards St. Louis, which I have been looking forward to because I really want to see the Gateway Arch. Like the Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower and the Ball of Twine, all great cities should have a signature landmark, and the Arch is one of the greats. When it appears in front of me I exit the Interstate and drive straight towards it, passing the TWA Dome where inside the Rams are beating up on the Chargers, and then around Busch Stadium. There are a lot of people out and about on this lovely Sunday afternoon in downtown St. Louis, but I manage to find a parking spot on the street pretty much right in front of the Arch. It isn’t until I get out of the truck that I notice the “NO PARKING” sign I parked right in front of, so I hurriedly run across the street, snap a picture, and run back before any overzealous parking enforcement officials have a chance to write me a ticket.
I really want a nice view of the Arch with the St. Louis skyline, and it appears that the best place to get it would be across the mighty Mississippi River on the Illinois side. I jump on the first bridge I encounter and think that there must be some vista point where I could pull over, snap a picture, and be on my way, but the road just keeps going until St. Louis is no longer visible in the sideview mirror. Having learned my lesson in Cawker City, I pull off the highway as soon as I can and find myself in East St. Louis, the very place where Clark W. Griswold got lost in the ghetto and had the hubcaps stolen off of his beloved Family Truckster.
Having passed through the ghettos of Brooklyn and the South Bronx I thought I had seen it all, but I am sadly mistaken. East St. Louis is so run down that most of the buildings have been reduced to piles of rubble on their lots, and the ones that are still standing are boarded up. The only people here are guys standing on some of the corners who I just assume are drug dealers because why else would they be hanging around this place of ruin? This is far beyond Springsteen’s darkness on the edge of town, this is the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop. I become so frightened that I take the lyric a step further by ignoring the 25 MPH speed limit and only slow down at each red light and stop sign just enough to make sure that there are no other vehicles approaching the intersection before gunning it again. Fortunately there aren’t, and eventually I find the entrance to I-64 with a sudden contentedness with the close-up photo of the Arch I took back on the other side of the river.
Illinois is boring. Four years ago I passed through the northern part of the state, and the southern part looks pretty much the same, if not a little more run down. A couple of hours later I find myself in Indiana, which, although I knew I would be traveling along this route, surprises me because I can’t recall thinking that I would be passing through Indiana. This little stretch isn’t much different than Illinois, though, mostly farmland, maybe a little nicer and increasingly more so as I approach Louisville, Kentucky.
Across the Ohio River, Louisville looks like a nice little city in the bright Sunday evening twilight. There is hardly any traffic and I quickly pass through. I am exhausted and was hoping to be a little further along by now. I still have a long way to go, yet I am clinging to the hope that tonight will be my last night on the road. Right now I am hoping to make it at least beyond Lexington, but by the time I hit Shelbyville the sun is nearly down. I pull over to a gas station and watch the small orange globe set in the western haze before buying a sandwich at the mini-mart and setting out to find a place to spend the night.
I didn’t know what to expect from Kentucky, but it is surprisingly beautiful, especially this part with the freshly painted white ranch fences surrounding huge horse breeder estates that are the epitome of rural wealth like Gone With the Wind. I also pass the Claudia Sanders Dinner House, which far surpasses any Kentucky Fried Chicken joint I’ve ever seen. While the scenery is nice and Shelbyville is peaceful and quiet, I have not been able to find anything resembling a downtown and am now driving these back roads in the dark without any sense of direction. Finally I just happen to come across a misplaced Best Western, which is the only hotel I’ve seen in the area and the only business I’ve passed besides the Sanders place. The desk clerk quotes me $57 for the night, and I ask him if he can do any better than that. He just grins and shakes his head, and “no” is all he says. At this point I’m too tired to haggle and just hand over my credit card.
Monday October 2, 2000
So tired was I last night that I went to bed right after finishing my gas station sandwich and was asleep before 9:00 PM. This is key because today I am going to attempt the seemingly impossible: make it all the way home from here in one shot. The Rand McNally Deluxe says that Louisville is 767 miles from New York City, but I am confident that I can pull this off despite my previous daily distance record being 602 miles from West Fargo to Billings (and that was with the added benefit of Montana not having a speed limit at the time).
It is a chilly morning in Kentucky, so much so that I have to defrost the windshield and keep the heat on for a while. By 8:00 AM I am sitting in the Monday morning traffic of I-64, which is not a good sign with the distance I have to cover today. The traffic eventually clears up a few miles outside of Shelbyville, where even from the Interstate the backcountry of Kentucky is very picturesque. I pass by Lexington without even seeing it and continue cruising in an easterly direction along I-64, through the Daniel Boone National Forest and the rest of Kentucky. By 11:00 AM I’m in Huntington, West Virginia, where today presidential candidate George W. Bush will be reassuring coal miners that he is perfectly willing to encourage the continued destruction of these beautiful hills in order to sustain their livelihoods and provide America with the energy it needs.
A little ways down the road in Hurricane I grab a roast beef sandwich and curly fries at Arby’s and gas up the truck before resuming my journey through Appalachia. These country roads are taking me home, and again I am pleasantly surprised by the beauty of a state of which I did not know what to expect. The trees on the mountains are transforming into their autumn yellows, oranges, and reds, which is a sight you don’t see much of out west where most of the trees stay green all year. It is perplexing to think that West Virginians are so willing and eager to destroy such beauty just to get at the coal below, but I guess their priorities are different. If this was my home I would fight to protect the land and find some other way to make a living, but that’s just me, I guess.
At Charleston I jump on I-79 and head northeast towards the Maryland panhandle. I am making great time and sustaining a pace of around 80 MPH, and with no major cities to pass through between here and New York, I am starting to believe that I might actually be able to pull this off. It is around 4:00 PM by the time I hit Morgantown, where I jump on I-68 East towards Cumberland.
The Maryland panhandle is even more dramatic than West Virginia, with richer fall colors and steeper ridges and canyons that in some places force the Interstate to become a skyway. I stop for gas just outside of Cumberland and take a deep breath of country air, which I think may be my last opportunity to do so before heading into the oxygenated smog of the Northeast. It has been another beautiful day, and I have certainly been lucky with the weather all the way across the country. Before getting back in the truck I take one last look around at the mountains knowing that I’m not going to see anything like this the rest of the way.
At Hagerstown I jump on I-81 North and take it straight up to Pennsylvania, where the roads immediately become bumpy and the landscape feels more industrial, especially with the large number of tractor-trailers I am suddenly surrounded by. I blast right through my 602 mile record, but I still have another 170 miles to go just to get to New York City and then another 30 or so to get out to Massapequa on Long Island. Though I am really tired, I am too close to stop for the night and have no choice but to just keep on going.
The shadows on the road are getting longer, but I am one with the U-Haul as I roll through Harrisburg, beyond which I-81 branches North and I-78 begins (or ends). I continue on 78 and by 7:00 PM arrive in Allentown, where I gas up again and scarf down some more Taco Bell. From there I pass through Bethlehem and Easton and soon cross into the Garden State under the cover of darkness, my fifth state of the day with one more to go. I am in the neighborhood now, racing through the swamps and twps of Jersey until I suddenly find myself approaching the George Washington Bridge. Since Massapequa is on the south shore of Long Island, I would normally swing through Staten Island and cross the Verrazano Bridge onto the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn and ultimately continue on the Southern State Parkway, but I’m not allowed to take this truck on the old Robert Moses parkways, so I’m going to have to take the dreaded L.I.E. out east.
As I’m passing by the dark shadow of Giants Stadium, the road becomes so violently bumpy that I’m bouncing nearly to the ceiling of the cab despite wearing my seatbelt. These are by far the worst road conditions I’ve encountered during the trip, and at one point it gets so bad that the speedometer stops working and I can’t tell how fast I’m going. I just assume that anything breakable in the back of the truck that wasn’t already broken will surely be now, not that there’s anything terribly valuable back there anyway. The New York/New Jersey metro drivers don’t hesitate to take advantage of my slow U-Haul truck and cut me off at every opportunity, and then I’m hit with an $8 toll at the GWB because I’m in a truck (the cars only have to pay $4). After crossing the skinny part of Manhattan and the South Bronx, I am then hit with another $7 toll to cross the Throgs Neck Bridge. Fifteen bucks within the stretch of a few miles after amassing only $1.70 in tolls over 3,000 miles, all to drive over roads in complete disrepair. Welcome home, son.
Despite the rough roads and hefty tolls, seeing the lights of the New York City skyline again is perhaps the most amazing sight I’ve seen so far, and the most meaningful. I am home again to begin another new life, one that I start to question as soon as I end the day’s 806 mile journey by parking the truck in front of my mother’s house and cutting the engine. I remain seated behind the wheel for a long time listening to the deathly silence of suburbia, and at one point I ask myself out loud, “Okay, now what?” I have truly reached the end of a road, perhaps not the road, but definitely the end of the one I’ve been traveling on for the past several years. Now I must begin a new journey on a different road. My youthful spirit is shouting at me to keep going, but I know if I do it will only be a couple of hours before I blow right through Montauk and promptly sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. This journey is over and there’s no turning back. There’s no east or west, north or south, above or below, just a small circle with an X in the middle saying that I am here and that the next destination cannot be found on this map or any other. ▪