By WILLIAM SHANNON
May 29, 2018
Rena and I have set out on the road from our home outside Hudson, N.Y.
I drove for the first five hours or so and Rena has just taken over. We’re in southern Pennsylvania, approaching Maryland.
Our wedding is now getting smaller in the back window and will fade with time, so I’ll describe it a bit here. We got married in the Dutch Reformed Church in Germantown, where members of my family have been attending dating back at least to Civil War times. I stood a couple feet from the marble basin with which I was baptized as a baby. My mom was also baptized with that same basin. We had a large wedding party—best man, maid of honor plus five groomsmen, five bridesmaids, a ring bearer and two flower girls.
We scheduled it for May 26 thinking it might be in the high 60s or 70s, but it ended up being a 90-plus degree day. The ceremony was simple—about fifteen minutes in all. Beyond the walls of life and beyond the bounds of time. That was the last line of our vows.
I was told by a local historian who attended that our bash drew more people than Germantown’s 300th anniversary celebration, held at the same church, for which a lot of money was spent on a cantata.
Vinnie Bogucki told us we could take photos afterward at her bluff of land overlooking the river and mountains just up the road from the Roe Jan Creek Boat Club, where we had our reception.
Originally we were going to drive to Memphis and get married at Graceland. Then we thought about Niagara Falls and having some of our friends and family join us there. Then we decided to have a big party. We had around 170 confirmed guests but I told so many boat club members and others they should come in the days leading up to the wedding that the number was closer to 200.
The caterers were stressed out at the higher-than-planned number and convinced the bridesmaids to serve everyone dinner from the buffet table, rather than the planned buffet serving, to ensure there’d be enough food for everyone.
My friend, Travis, played live gypsy jazz after being a groomsman. Him and a few of his friends played during the cocktail hour and dinner.
Rena and I danced a lot and drank a lot of champagne and mingled. There were open mic speeches and another round of late-night speeches.
Our friends and co-workers tended bar and Rena and I also tended bar for a little while. I went down to the water at one point with a bunch of kids and we fished for a little bit. A few of the kids and I saw a big carp, but one of the toddlers was throwing rocks into the water and it was low-tide.
Things got a bit sloppy as the night wore on.
We went down to the water toward the end of the night and the gypsy jazzers played again around a fire and a friend of ours set off some fireworks.
The next two days were strange and discombobulated and emotional—and strange. A lot of cleaning up and mental processing of the biggest party we’ve ever thrown. Joe Krupa, who I think turns 88 this year, from the boat club, said we put on a hell of a show; put this place on the map; and had a weird bunch—all of which were great compliments.
We ran a million errands in time to hit the road at about 1 this afternoon. The sun is beginning to set and we’re almost into the Cumberland Gap where a comet ages ago blasted a pass through the mountains.
We’re pulling off now to get our second tank of gas. Then it’s my turn to drive again. Our Hyundai Accent gets forty miles to the gallon—sometimes more—on the highway.
We stayed at a motel last night somewhere around Staunton, Virginia. The breakfast at the motel this morning included biscuits and gravy. So damn good. I want to find more biscuits and gravy.
We saw a sign that said something about Rocky Top and I found the song of the same name on Rena’s Pandora account on her phone and played it so we could get into a Tennessee mood.
Rena shook her fist with a vigor at a trucker who changed lanes in front of us.
We heard our first: “Ya’ll have a great day.”
When we filled up on gas at our first stop in Tennessee, we stocked up on fireworks. I bought seventy-five bucks worth of mortars—the stuff not sold to consumers in New York State.
We should be to Nashville in a couple of hours.
We arrived in Nashville last night and first went to the Grand Ole Opry and walked around outside and around some stores nearby. We ate dinner and then drove ten minutes or so to downtown Nashville and checked out the honky tonks. Broadway in Nashville is the main drag. On this Wednesday night, almost every building for a two-block stretch had live music inside. Some buildings had multiple acts on different floors. Bluegrass, swing, country. Some places had DJs playing club music on their upper floor or rooftop.
Lots of people were presumably on vacation and in a mood to get drunk. We watched a band inside one honky tonk play a bunch of country tunes while ladies line-danced and couples slow-danced. Wagon Wheel. Country Roads. They’re gonna put me in the movies—they’re gonna make a big star outta me. Another band at Nudie’s Honky Tonk was playing either originals or obscure newer country.
Afterward, Rena drove us a few miles out of downtown Nashville and we stopped at Santa’s Pub, a double-wide trailer with year-round Christmas decorations. It’s a funky Nashville spot, where people sing karaoke country songs. Rena got peanuts and water and I got a two-dollar beer. The bar tender went up and sang a karaoke song. People smoked cigarettes inside and the bathrooms were covered in graffiti. We briefly considered going up to sing Ol’ 55 by Tom Waits but we weren’t tipsy enough.
It was after midnight and we hadn't made reservations yet and one of Rena’s goals for this trip was to experience sleeping in a car. So, we drove a mile or so to a Wal-Mart parking lot and reclined the seats—near a few others campers. Truck drivers too were sleeping there. One cool thing about Wal-Mart and its founder is that they allow travelers to stay overnight in vehicles. We went inside to use the bathroom and a policeman told us they were buffing the floors and to walk over through the checkout area and then he said, “You need a bug?”
I either said, “Huh?” or “Wha?” and he motioned his hands to be pushing and said, “a bug—a cart.” And I felt like a slow outsider.
Rena slept like a baby in the car. I slept pretty well too.
We were planning to spend two nights in Nashville but we decided we’d gotten a good enough taste of the Music City to move on. We’re headed south now, approaching Alabama. We may camp somewhere along the way today or may go to New Orleans.
The chosen pace of a road trip is an anthropological study, especially when you’ve got limited time. You want to not spend too high a percentage of time driving and yet you crave to see more, crave to get going and to wait till you find the best places before settling in a bit. You’re always hedging your bets and putting your wetted finger up toward the sky to test the wind and the mood of the car and the mood of the place. The beauty of a road trip lies in its freedom.
May 31, evening
We saw a sign in Alabama for Moundville Archaeological Site and took the exit. It’s the site of an ancient mysterious city—the name of which is unknown; its inhabitants also enigmatic to historians. What’s left is a group of large mounds of earth that Native Americans made about 1,000 years ago. We climbed up the “Chieftain’s Mound,” the highest mound, on which historians think chiefs and other top figures of the tribe lived.
Overall, the site is about 300 acres. Thousands of people are believed to have lived there, near the banks of what’s now called the Black Warrior River. Archaeologists discovered there was a large fence around the civilization and also found lots of beautiful pottery and other artifacts during a large dig held by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. They believe the large mound and the dozen or so smaller ones were built over the course of one-to-three centuries and some historians have even speculated that more human energy went into building these mounds than the pyramids in Egypt. Virtually nothing is known about the people who were there and why they left it in the 1300s.
We’re currently in Louisiana, on the road heading toward Texas. We arrived in New Orleans a couple nights ago and stayed in a hotel in the French Quarter. The first night there, we had dinner, got a couple strong hurricanes and walked around. Bourbon Street was sloppier than ever—topless strippers in thongs shaking their asses outside the Bourbon Street Cabaret; drunken people spilling drinks, music everywhere and people partying on balconies. Sensory overload. We walked along the Mississippi River and Rena gave me the rest of her hurricane, a sweet New Orleans drink.
The next morning, we stopped into an art shop and decided to pay a couple hundred dollars for a large birchwood three-dimension map of the New York City area and the depths along its coastlines and have had it shipped to our home. Neither of us have ever felt so rich.
We stopped into a small old post office and put ten postcards in the mail. While driving, the person in the passenger seat has been writing thank you cards on postcards from our travels. We sent out our Nashville postcards in New Orleans. Today on the road, we’ll write our New Orleans ones.
We had beignets and iced coffee at Cafe Dumond and took a tour on the Steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi. Afterward, Rena went shopping for a bit and I walked around and talked with a couple people on the streets.
A man named Cooper, a New Orleans native who has lived on the streets of that city, Santa Monica and Las Vegas for many years, welcomed me to sit next to him. He figured I was looking for pot but I let him know I was more interested in stories.
So he told me about a recent event that he’d heard of in the City Park Cemetery in New Orleans. He was passing by the cemetery and spoke with a worker who had helped re-arrange bodies that day to make room for a new member of the same family. When the workers opened one casket, hoping to consolidate, a man who had died fifty years earlier looked as if he had been buried yesterday.
“The angels did not want this guy’s body to rot,” Cooper said. “They wouldn’t let bugs or roaches or anything touch it. The guy was a sacred spirit—a holy sacred spirit. The guardian angels guarded him. That’s gotta be the only reason. ’Cause there’s a light around his tomb that would run bugs away. Bugs would probably die if they went near his tomb. The angels would probably kill them. His spirit is alive. Somewhere in this city, he’s still around.”
Cooper and I sat at a little pocket-park a block from the Mississippi. Where we sat used to be the only gas station in French Quarter when Cooper was a kid. He bathes in the street fountains, using a cup and soap that he keeps in his shopping cart that’s also filled with a variety of other things.
Later, Rena and I drove to The Joint, a barbecue place in the Bywater, near the lower ninth ward, and walked around there afterward, admiring the little shotgun cottages, the architecture and the bright color schemes of the houses. Later, we walked around Frenchmen Street and watched some live jazz and hung out on the street watching a brass band that had people dancing in the street. One lady was attempting to dance with each vehicle that drove through before letting them pass.
Rena drove us about forty-five minutes outside of town and we slept at a motel in Gonzalez, Louisiana.
We got into Navasota, Texas, yesterday and went to the Grimes County Fair for the rodeo. It’s a very rural area and we seemed to be the only non-locals there, which was great. We ate fried pickles, chicken and potato ribbons. It was Rena’s first rodeo. It was my first non-upstate New York rodeo. Little girls and boys climbed and stood on the fence to watch as men lassoed and tied calves; as women lassoed calves and rode on horseback around barrels for time; as a few little boys tried to stay on bucking ponies as long as they could; and as men rode the bull for as long as they could. Before the rodeo began, the finalists for queen of the fair—all high school girls tasked with selling as many tickets to the fair as they could—were announced. The girl who sold more than a thousand tickets, beating the others by a few hundred, won as queen. The announcer referenced Rena and I because we were apparently setting a party mood by drinking beers in the stand at 7:20 p.m. Rena thinks we stood out because she was the only lady drinking a beer.
The announcer led the crowd in a prayer and then played the star spangled banner while a woman rode a horse and held a large American flag that flapped through the air as the horse galloped around the rodeo pen.
In all, it was a small-town affair. There might’ve been 200 people there, and I’d guess it’s one of Navasota’s biggest community events of the year. After the rodeo, there was a dance in the fairgrounds’s main hall, where a duo was playing country music and the rodeo contestants were mingling with the crowd. Rena and I hung out for a while and danced.
This morning, we left the motel in Navasota and stopped by Washington-on-Brazos Park for a walk. We looked out over the Brazos River and read how the park used to be a small ferry town in the early 1800s for wagons crossing the river.
When we got into Austin yesterday, our first goal was to get to a swimming hole, since it was around a hundred degrees fahrenheit. Among the things my friend, Chris, who took photos at our wedding, mentioned when I asked him for Austin recommendations was a swimming hole on Barton Creek called the Greenbelt’s Gus Fruh access point. We researched it a bit and it looked like an oasis with deep pools of light green water and little waterfalls. We parked the car and prepared to walk the ten-minute trail in. We put on sunscreen, changed into bathing suits and packed a bottle of champagne from the cooler into a backpack.
As we were half-way down the trail, a young man in a group heading the opposite way asked if we were planning to swim. We said yes. He then told us there was no water in the creek. “Yeah, it’s completely dry,” a young woman in his group said. “But you can still go down and walk around.” We thanked him.
But, they must’ve been exaggerating, right? They must mean there’s not enough water to really swim. We kept going. And when we got there—bone dry. Not even a trickle. You could see where there’s often or usually a deep swimming hole, and where there was a set of rapids. But this major tributary of the Colorado River didn’t even have a drop of water in it. I walked around the creek bed for a bit and looked at the rocks.
We went back to the car and drove a few miles to the more popular swimming hole in Austin—one that Chris also recommended visiting—Barton Springs. The pool is a dammed portion of Barton Creek near its mouth at the Colorado. Half or less of it is bounded by natural cliffs and the rest is bounded by concrete pool walls. It’s a very large spring-fed pool and we were among several hundred there that day. I recognized Barton Springs from the movie Tree of Life and I think it’s been in other movies too. Rena and I walked in at the natural-looking end of the pool, over flat rocks to a shallow section that was waist deep. I got whistled at by the lifeguard for climbing on the cliff to move our towel filled with our wallets and key and phones into our sight-of-view.
It was a good spot to watch a bit of Austin’s culture at play. Kids splashed; families threw footballs to each other in the water. Teenagers dove and backflipped off the diving boards. Hundreds of people lounged in the sun and shade on the hills on either side of the pool. A young woman stood topless, which surprised Rena and I and which got us thinking a bit about taboos and the things different cultures find surprising. Down creek of the main swimming area was the party zone, seemingly not part of the official park where you get whistled-out for climbing rocks in a crowd of hundreds. In this section separated off by a fence, people were blaring music from boomboxes, drinking beers and smoking weed and standing in the natural creek.
Later, we checked out the nightlife of Austin. There’s a stretch of Sixth Street where there’s a lot of live music and clubs and raucous behavior. We drank and watched a blues band play for a while and walked around and bought postcards. Having visited Austin, New Orleans and Nashville—the three most musical cities in the U.S.— in the last few days, we were feeling a bit burnt out and just stayed out until about 11:30.
There were a lot of homeless people in Austin. As we drove back toward the motel, a few dozen homeless were camped outside a homeless shelter, presumably each waiting for a bed in the building. Back at our motel around midnight, rain began pouring down and there were warnings for large hail. We thought about the homeless people and about whether Barton Creek might be filling back up.
June 4, part two
We’re driving across the rest of Texas today. This morning in Austin, I went and got the oil changed in our Hyundai Accent. It’s a good little car. First I went to the Austin Jiffy Lube and the guy said the drain plug on the oil pan was too tight and they were worried they’d do damage if they kept trying to take it off. “You also got some rust up in there,” he said. “I guess that’s from being in New York and having the snow and the salt and everything.”
I went to a local place across the street and the guys there changed the oil in about five minutes.
We were down to about a quarter-tank of gas yesterday when I started to get a little nervous. Rena was asleep in the passenger seat. We were driving through the deserts of West Texas and we hadn’t passed a house, let alone a town, for maybe seventy-five miles. I kept a close look out for a gas station but all the occasional exits just went to other middle-of-nowhere roads.
Eventually, the gas-light came on. I think that’s the final gallon in the tank. Rena woke up. I explained the situation she was waking up to. She started looking on her phone for the nearest gas station. No service.
Ten miles or so later, we went off an exit toward an old gas station. The upper part of the old store had well-seasoned board-and-batten siding, a faded red star and the words “Kent Mercantile.” The lower part of the store was chipping concrete, with plywood over the windows and the spray-painted words “No Nuclear Waste Aqui!” It was long-abandoned.
We got back on the main road.
The last bar on the gas gauge started blinking.
Mile by mile was tense at that point. I asked Rena if she’s ever been in a car that’s run out of gas. Since she hadn’t I described the sputtering we should anticipate. It was a hundred degrees or more fahrenheit. Thanks to a perpetual Christmas gift from my mom, I have a Triple-A membership. But if there was no cell service where we broke down—.
I figured if there was no phone service when we ran out I’d hitch-hike to the nearest gas station, get a couple gallons and then hitch-hike back to the car, which may have taken hours.
Rena tried my phone again and it got service. Nearest gas station, fifty-something miles.
Then it updated to: nearest gas station, ten miles. Then we lost service again.
Finally, over the bend a large store with gas pumps appeared. And there was another car at one of the pumps. We must have had fuel for five miles or less left in the tank, and may have been running on fumes.
We laughed and high-fived and filled up the tank. Inside, the gift shop sold a variety of things, including Dia De Los Muertos ceramic skulls. A sign on the door said the well wasn’t drawing any water, so the bathroom was out of order. We went around back after. And I collected a bit of small firewood.
We listened to a Latino radio station for the rest of the drive through West Texas. Mexico was in the distance beyond the mountains. And we instituted a new policy for driving remote stretches. We’ll fill up anytime we’re around a half-tank when we see a gas station.
We stopped in El Paso, Texas, and had chimichangas and nachos.
We camped out in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
This morning we went to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. White Sands is the largest gypsum desert area in the world. People researching the gypsum deserts of Mars visit White Sands due to the similarities. There’s a strange little ecosystem in the White Sands area and evolution there is in fast-motion. Anything that blends in with the ubiquitous tiny white crystals survives best. The flora there also has an otherworldly feel.
We drove the eight miles in through the dunes and took a couple walks. People sled down the dunes there and one lady let me try out her sled. I got a running start and skidded down the dune maybe ten feet before an abrupt stop. Steeper dunes are better and waxing the bottom of the sled may help.
Staff at the park plow sand from the roads like snow and half of the dunes road is compacted sand with bumpy divots like dirt roads in spring up north.
On the way to White Sands we drove through a border patrol checkpoint and the guard looked into the car through the window, asked how we were doing and let us go through.
On the way there and back, we drove past the White Sands Missile Range, a military base which is the entrance to the area where the first atomic bomb in world history was detonated in 1945, a month or so before the U.S. dropped two of them on Japan at the end of World War II. There’s a monument in there, but it’s open to the public just two days per year.
Driving west of Las Cruces, we went through another border patrol checkpoint. When we pulled in, the guard said, “U.S. citizen?” I said, “Yup.”
“U.S. citizen?” he said, nodding toward Rena in the passenger seat. “Yup,” I said. Rena, not wanting to cause any trouble, though, said—“U.S. citizen—no.”
“No?” the guard said. “Can I see your passport or documents?”
She told him she had them in the back and he told us to pull up and to the side.
While Rena put on her sneakers in the passenger seat, another guard stood right outside her door. Three or four more guards approached the car. I popped the trunk.
She started looking for the binder in the trunk with all her documents and one of the guards questioned what type of visa she had. She said it was a student visa. He asked when the graduation is. Asked when we got married. Asked if we’ve gotten a change in status yet from the marriage.
I reached back into the car and grabbed an unopened can of Starbucks espresso. I took it out of the car and tapped on the lid and popped it open, hoping I might at least draw a quick glance from one of the guards to help Rena have a second to find the binder. But nope—they were all watching Rena’s every move at close range. I could’ve been enjoying a beer five feet away.
An older guard came over and talked with me. “You two are married?” he said.
“Yeah, we just got married a week or so ago.”
“They should be all right, then,” he said toward the other guards.
Rena found her binder and showed the other guard her current papers.
“You two going to California?” the older guard asked. We said we were.
“Just keep those papers handy. Have a good rest of the day. You can go on out straight.”
A hour or so later, we passed by a sign that mentioned a memorial park for Bataan veterans. Earlier, on the way back from White Sands, Rena had noticed that the road was called the Bataan Memorial Highway and recognized the name from “The Bataan Death March,” a rough chapter in World War II history in the Philippines during which Japanese soldiers marched Filipino and American prisoners of war between sixty and seventy miles. Thousands of the prisoners of war died along the way. Members of a National Guard chapter from New Mexico were present then and in later battles in the Philippine theater. A annual marathon near the White Sands military base commemorates the Bataan march. And we visited the memorial park, which shared the story of the National Guard’s role and the history of the march.
A bit later, we stopped into Silver City, New Mexico, where we had tacos and juevos rancheros for lunch and walked around town and visited a couple antique shops. It’s an artsy little town that reminded us a little bit of Hudson, N.Y. in size and spirit.
Two nights ago we stayed in Williams, Arizona. According to a mural on the side of a building there, it was the last town on Route 66 bypassed by I-40, in 1984. The tourists who formerly passed through Route 66, the classic road-trip route from Chicago to Santa Monica, supported the main streets of many small towns along the way. But starting in the 1950s with the interstate highway system, which made traveling the country much quicker for truckers and car-drivers, town by town along Route 66 saw the blood running through their veins run dry.
Williams has preserved its main street and the whole downtown area serves as a living museum to mid-century Route 66 towns. We stayed in a fifties-era motel and yesterday morning we walked around town, past the classic store signs and ate a hardy breakfast at a place that reminded me of Otto’s Market in Germantown, N.Y. We stopped into a gift shop and into the gas station museum.
Williams has managed to survive and thrive largely because, at about sixty miles distance from the South Rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, it is the closest real town. So, a lot of people on their way to or from the canyon stay there.
Before getting to Williams, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, which was right on our route. It was closed for tours for the day, but we spent a while walking around outside the park and checking out the ancient cuts of wood-rock.
When we got to the Grand Canyon entrance, we purchased a national parks pass.
We walked around the Rim Trail for a while and took in the view. It was around Noon and the sun’s light reached into most of the canyon’s little crevices from our vantage point.
We got a couple little glimpses at the Colorado River turning down at the bottom. The river and the rocks it carried during floods are what carved out one of America’s most picturesque destinations. We went to the visitor’s center and watched a couple videos and hopped on a park bus to go to the Grand Canyon Village.
We walked around more, noting the changes in light in the canyon as the day progressed. We walked for a mile or two on the Bright Angel trail, which takes people and mules down in elevation. Thanks to a little boy who pointed them out, we saw a few Native American drawings in red of what looked like horses. Rena was paranoid I’d fall any time I walked toward the outer edge of the trail.
The shadows grew heavier on the canyon and accentuated new colors that had been washed out by the sunlight earlier in the day.
We ate supper at Fred Harvey’s restaurant in Grand Canyon Village and then walked back along the Rim Trail. We went off the trail, down onto a boulder overlooking the two-billion-year geological record. And we watched the sun set and the canyon opposite the sunset as it grew rich in color and depth.
It was full dark when we went back to our car and we stopped into the campground within the park just to see if there was any space, but there was a sandwich board outside the station that said, “campground full.” We stopped into the general store near the campground for water and ice cream.
We drove south about ten or twenty miles to the Kaibab National Forest’s Ten-x campground and set up our tent. My soul was screaming to build a fire, but there were a million signs saying it was too dry for campfires. We drank champagne and watched the bright star-filled sky and we each saw a separate shooting star that the other missed.
I slept like a baby but Rena Mae did not.
I apologized to a forest ranger who was doing his rounds at about 7 a.m. for the fact that we hadn’t properly checked in the night before. We weren’t sure there were any open spots so we drove far into the campground and when we found one we just set up. But we paid the ten-dollar fee on the way out.
Rena is driving us west now on Route 40.
We’re driving through the Mojave Desert at the moment. It’s the driest desert in North America. We filled up on gas right before entering it. We just spent two days and two nights in Las Vegas. Before that, we stopped at the Hoover Dam for a couple hours and walked around and went through the museum there.
A fair amount seems to have changed in the ten years since the other time I was in Las Vegas. I don’t recall there being so many outdoor escalators and crosswalk bridges over the streets, which are now all over the strip. A lot of the buildings have changed or been rebuilt too.
It’s such an artificial town that I was distrusting the authenticity of the hedges along the street last night, but we grabbed leaves off and broke them. Genuine. I would get bored quickly with the strip if I didn’t have some alcohol in my system. The Treasure Island outdoor show with pyrotechnics and a pirate battle and a sinking ship that was a highlight a decade ago is on hiatus right now. We went there for the ten o’clock show the first night and bought a strawberry daiquiri before learning the news.
We stayed on the 23rd floor of Circus Circus, a casino. We had a good view of Vegas up there. The walk to enter or exit the building was about a half-mile down elevators, through the casino, past an indoor theme park, gift shops, rotating-sports-cars atop the center of rounded bunches of slot machines, kids gambling away their quarters in the kids’ area and adults gambling away who knows how much.
We went to see Jo Koy, a comedian, at Treasure Island last night. It was a sold out show that we were passing by around 9:30 while looking for a place to have dinner. We saw the line and decided to stop to the desk to see if there were any last-minute tickets. We got good seats. He’s funny as hell.
We stayed out until 3 a.m. Earlier, we drank two bottles of wine in the hotel room and lounged in the air conditioning for most of the day. I put the last of one of the wine bottles into a water bottle for the walk to the strip (Vegas, like New Orleans, allows outdoor public drinking). We still had some of that in the comedy show. After the show we had dinner at midnight and roamed the strip with a 24-ounce can of Pacifico, watching the people and observing the strangeness of Vegas.
When Rena stopped into a Walgreens to buy stamps for our postcards—a lot of which we wrote that day—I leaned against the building outside. A man with long gray hair and a black garbage bag filled with cans stopped at the garbage bin across the sidewalk. He took a can out of the bin, poured the last drops out and dropped it to the ground.
He repeated this until there were five or six cans on the sidewalk and then he crushed them like bugs one at a time with his foot. Two people put cans on the filled bin as he was doing this and he saw them and retrieved those too once they left, repeating the process. I finished my Pacifico and handed the can to him.
I believe he was the most genuine part of Las Vegas I glimpsed during our stay.
Yesterday, we stopped at Calico Ghost Town, a former silver mining town in the Mojave Desert that produced between $13 million and $20 million worth of silver in the 1800s. Some of the buildings there are original and some are recreations. We walked around for a while. We saw it on the atlas and got off the exit. I peaked inside one of the old mines. I was somewhat disappointed that so much of the little town was re-creation rather than preserved original.
We were shooting for Santa Barbara, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, but our route ended up being so close to L.A. that we decided on a whim to go to Santa Monica for the sunset. We walked along the beach there for a while toward the famous pier. Santa Monica was the historic western end to Route 66.
After that, we drove north on Route 1 through Malibu and kept going along the coast up to Oxnard. We were tired as hell. We were thinking of finding a place to set up the tent, but we slept in the car and got back on the road early. We got a better night sleep than our last night in Vegas by far.
On June 10, we went to the John Steinbeck Museum in Salinas and went afterward to Monterey, where Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat take place. We went to the area where all the canneries used to be, which was renamed Cannery Row after the book. We saw Doc’s lab (Ed Rickett’s lab) and the vacant lot where Mack-and-the-boys lived and the building that had Lee Chong’s grocery. The Cannery Row area was surprisingly tourist-filled—seemingly only a small percentage because of Steinbeck. We went through a building with all sorts of different shops on two floors of an old cannery building. We spent a while in a little pier-alley along the side and back of the lab building where you can still see concrete squares once used by Ricketts to store large sea specimens.
We were briefly going to drive to San Francisco that evening, but then we got tired. So, we drove to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town a bit south of Monterey that seemed a close parallel to the Hamptons in New York. Carmel is about two hours south of San Francisco. We drank a bottle of champagne on the beach as the sun set. I kept talking about the Cannery Row frog hunt along the Carmel River to Rena as if it were some nostalgic personal memory.
Eventually we walked up to the village for dinner. Then we stayed at a cheap motel in Salinas.
Salinas is John Steinbeck’s hometown and where a lot of East of Eden and other books are set. We walked down the old main street and got a sense of the relatively small town it once was. Outside that area is a thick layer of development and strip malls that weren’t there in his time. But after that thick layer, the farms that shaped how Steinbeck saw human nature and the conflicts between economic systems and the people in the fields are still there. It’s still a mix of diverse cultures and nationalities too. On the way north on the 11th, we passed miles of strawberry fields and lettuce fields and proud signs in the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world—Castro, California. We stopped at a farm stand and bought strawberries and kiwis and fried green peas and chocolate pretzels. Signs outside the stand advertised six-for-a-dollar avocados and seven-for-a-dollar sweet kiwis and sold large full bags of fresh spinach for five dollars.
We took Route 1 up along the coast. We stopped at a little beach between two cliffs near Bonny Doon. Down there, about twelve other people were hanging out, including a couple performing impressive yoga stretches with a boom-box playing eastern mediation music. Large waves bashed against boulders off shore and pieces of garbage and charred wood were scattered in the sand.
We also stopped in to the little old ranch town of Pescadero, California, about a mile inland and close to where Ken Kesey once had a compound.
We stopped one more time for a while at a beach closer to San Francisco, where it was foggy and chilly and where the waves gurgled themselves toward shore.
We spent the next two days in San Francisco—both my and Rena’s favorite big city in the world, that we’ve seen. We went on a boat tour in the bay around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. We rode the trolley, called the cable-car there, that hurdles down the steep streets toward the bay as an operator cranks the brakes by hand and shouts at taxi drivers who double-park. We ate dinner at the fishermen’s wharf and watched the sea lions who are always squawking and fighting with each other over space on the docks.
We ate lunch at a little Vietnamese place and we kept walking through an area—the Tenderloin—where the lady at the hotel said not to go, due to the high concentration of homeless people. Dozens of people were living on the street there. Some in tents. Near the inland cable-car terminus, a few guys spotted any tourists who seemed lost and helped them find the direction of what they were looking for and then asked for some money. Two of the guys living on the street started arguing one of the nights and then realized they had misunderstood each other. And then one of the guys introduced his new friend to the other. “She’s sixty-seven but she has the heart of a nineteen-year-old,” he said.
An old college friend of mine who’s a California native gave us a lot of good recommendations south of San Francisco and in the bay area, but he cautioned that his recommendations in San Francisco were based on the hope that “those places still exist and haven’t become weird ersatz copies of themselves.” He continued, “Unfortunately, the city I loved in my 20s has been completely replaced by a techie gentrified yuppie rich people playground and all the people like me have had to move away because of rent. … The only people who can live there are super rich or super poor homeless people.”
Yesterday, we went to Jollibee in Daly City outside San Francisco. Jollibee is the major fast-food restaurant in the Philippines and there’s a handful here in the U.S.
We got their spicy fried chicken, palabok and halo halo for dessert. We both felt high afterward. We speculate it was from MSG in the seasoning on the spicy chicken. Driving on the lower level of the Bay Bridge toward Oakland afterward was disorienting. We could only see the road and the ceiling and a thin strip of blue out the side as we steeply inclined and I felt some vertigo and felt like we were going down and up at the same time.
We drove a few hours eastward and the MSG-high faded and we stopped at a strip-mall, where Rena got a haircut. She’s got bangs now and looks like a cute Brooklynite.
On the road in through the remote Yosemite Valley, we paid around $5.50-a-gallon for gasoline. We stopped for a while at a little pull-off above the Merced River and we hung out along shore and I swam for a while in the rushing waters.
We drove into Yosemite National Park ready to flash our Parks Pass but no one was at the ranger station—just a sign that said, “Drive on through.”
We drove the loop through the park and stopped to hike in toward Bridal Veil Falls. We took photos next to some ancient redwood trees. We stopped and walked a trail for a bit toward Yosemite Falls too and got good views of El Capitan and the Half Dome cliffs. As we drove through the park, the sun began a slow descent, dipping away and reappearing when we rounded bends.
It was the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. It felt like we were driving through a postcard. The deep-green foliage, the rich-brown trees, the purple wildflowers, the reddish cliffs, half-a-million shades of bluish-greens in the plants—and they all seemed to have a pastel tone in the late-day shade. The place seemed enchanted.
It seemed like every bend held a new rushing creek, splashing over boulders. Go another hundred feet and somehow there’s another paradisiacal creek pouring through. And I’ve never before been awe-struck by the beauty of bare rock-faces until Yosemite.
It took a long time to go down the hills back down and out of the Yosemite Valley. In different areas, we stopped. A group of rock-climbers were getting ready to go on a sunrise expedition as we explored an otherworldly surface of rounded rock with deep gouges, maybe from glaciers long ago or from rushing water.
I was driving downhill at one point in the twilight when we felt and heard a big THUNK to the side of the car.
In the rear-view mirror, I saw a buck with fuzzy antlers, his head tumbling in a circular motion. But I think he stayed on his feet. And then in the rear-view, a bunch more deer were sprinting across the road behind him. We stopped and got out.
Aside from a small scratch on the side, there was no damage to the car. The deer were long gone into the woods. It might’ve just been his changing antlers that contacted the back passenger door and window. Before going on, we went down to hang out for a little while by a lake there that mirrored the hills at its edges.
Living in Columbia County almost my entire life, I had never before hit a deer and was prideful of it. But that streak is over now. Now, I’ll have to modify it with, “I’ve never hit a deer that caused damage—.”
I drove extra slowly after that and pulled over to let people pass until we were out of the Yosemite Valley. We were keeping our eyes out for places to camp, but the campgrounds were all either full or were closed down.
I drove for another couple hours, out the eastern end of Yosemite Park, and the area was remote. We were self-assured about having filled up on the expensive gas earlier.
Sometime around ten, we switched and Rena drove for another couple hours. I checked her phone, which we had set up to give us directions toward Hudson, N.Y. I zoomed out on the planned route and, for some quirky reason, the little machine wanted to take us back through Vegas, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma before going back to New York. We were far from having any service, so I reached back for the trusty old North America Atlas and we used that to stay on course that night and the following morning.
We hadn’t had dinner yet. We had gone into the Yosemite Valley around 3 p.m. and, now past ten, we hadn't seen a town yet.
We drove Route 120, a road that’s closed October-through-May and eventually passed by the few buildings that make up Benton Hot Springs. A little bit farther and we filled up on gas at the junction with Route 6. The station was closed for the night but the gas pump still worked when paying with debit card. There wasn’t much more than the station in that town but once we were on Route 6 and in Nevada, there were large trucks, at least. Every ten or so miles, we went past an area where truckers were pulled off for the night.
We had eaten the remaining Salinas Valley strawberries and kiwis on the drive and, after Benton, I had given up on us finding dinner that night. The terrain was so remote and we were just beginning our drive through middle-of-nowhere, Nevada. The running joke was that we were going to stumble into Area 51. But Rena had a persistent hope that we would stumble across a town somewhere in the deserts of Nevada. And the persistence paid off.
From miles away, we saw the lights from the town of Tonopah and it felt like a major victory. Rena compared it to the wise men finding Bethlehem at long last.
We got a sandwich and chips and fruit from a gas station and had dinner in the car at half-past midnight. And we slept in the car in a parking lot outside a small casino.
At five-thirty the next morning, Rena had woken up and was eager to get back on the road. After Tonopah, we stopped at the first gas station we saw and switched drivers—which was about two and a half hours after we left Tonopah. In that stretch, we passed a sign for a missile testing range near the Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range and the “Nevada Test Sites,” so the Area 51 references continued. And, later, with a full tank, we passed a sign that said, “Next gas 124 miles.”
Our original scheduled route back to New York included a stay in Yosemite; a stay in Salt Lake City; a stay in Colorado. But we have both gotten excited about going home; about beginning our life together in the little cottage near the apple orchards.
So on the morning of June 14, we drove straight toward the rising sun at eighty miles an hour.
We had lunch in Salt Lake City, Utah, and walked around for a little while and then went on toward Wyoming. I had a deep-sleep nap for about two hours in the passenger seat in the afternoon as Rena drove. We were going to camp in Wyoming near Rock Springs, but motels were only about $20 more than the campgrounds, so we stayed at the Motel 6 in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
We were there by about 4 p.m. and settled in. We drank a bottle of champagne and watched Jaws 2 on television.
The next morning, we slept in and then I went to get the oil changed in Rock Springs. The guy who changed the oil noticed a tear in the serpentine belt and so I went to a mechanic’s shop afterward to have that replaced.
“That belt was in sorry shape—it came off in two pieces,” the older guy behind the counter in the mechanic shop said. The younger guy who changed the belt said, “You had two belts on there, but I replaced it with one,” and he handed me the split belt as a souvenir.
Had we not replaced that belt in Rock Springs, chances are high it would’ve snapped somewhere along the road in Wyoming or Nebraska, causing more damage and sidelining us for a day or more.
As we drove today (on June 15), we passed through wood smoke, thick for miles toward the horizon.
It was presumably from the 11,000-acre wildfire happening now a bit to our south in Colorado. We’ve heard news reports about it on the radio and have passed electronic highway signs that said, “High Fire Danger until 8 p.m.”
We’ll pass near Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska later today but it’s too far out of the way for a visit. But as the deserts of Nevada and the rocky landscapes of Wyoming have turned to the green prairies of Nebraska, we’ve been talking about Willa Cather and reading passages from her 1913 novel O Pioneers!
“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”
“The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”
We slept in the car one final time last night in a Wal-Mart parking lot outside Omaha, Nebraska. There’s a simple beauty to sleeping in the car while traveling. There’s no camp to pack up in the morning and there’s no money wasted on lodging. When we stay in a motel, it feels silly to leave long before the 11 a.m. checkout time. We want to get our money’s worth of television and showers and complimentary coffee. By sleeping in the car, you’re inherently prompted to get back on the road early. And if you’re driving until late the night before, there’s not much time to enjoy a tent-camping experience either.
I started driving this morning at about quarter after six.
We crossed into Iowa soon after taking off and we’re currently driving through rolling cornfields in the heartland of America.
Before I forget, here are a few non-scientific reflections on and observations of this country and traveling it, most of which I remember also thinking the last time I spent three weeks driving around America:
—New York and the Northeast are among a handful of the only areas of the country where tolls are charged to the drivers of roadways. Us New Yorkers seem to be the most double-taxxed.
—The rest of the country, including major cities, has a much more spare police presence than New York State.
—We’ll never run out of space for people. There’s big cities that are getting bigger; some suburbs and some small towns, but the vast majority of this country—thousands of square miles—is land, either farmed or wild. You can drive for hours without going through a town, especially in the west. Tap into water and figure out the other anthropological needs and this country could feasibly host billions some day.
—Judging by radio stations, people in most geographic areas of the U.S. prefer to listen to country music.
—The Southwest seems the most culturally diverse region of the country, by far.
—This is still a newly settled country—most areas have fewer than a hundred and fifty years of post-Native American human history. And most areas—all of us probably—still have malleable regional and national identities that are being swayed by big, familiar companies and a million other things.
—There are a lot of people living on the streets of America’s cities. And many or most of them are people with some level of mental disability who have slipped through the cracks. Or they have found the cracks to be preferable to continually navigating our country’s social safety net.
—At first glance, most of the country seems the same as the last time I was on a big road trip—exactly ten years ago. But the big cities are where the noticeable changes are. Large skyscrapers are under construction in each major city Rena and I passed through.
—In the past ten years, the way we travel has changed in a major way. My friend, Adam, and I drove west from New York to Montana, then to Seattle, then down the west coast, eastward to Vegas, Arizona, Texas and Mississippi. The change is that neither of us had any device connected to the internet then. I owned a laptop but didn’t bring it. We both had cell phones but neither were the types yet that could access the Web. Neither phone hosted a humanistic robot who gave us directions to everywhere we needed to go. We relied on the paper road atlas. Now, at the tap of the phone, in most areas of the country, you can see how far the next gas stations are, how far the next restaurants are, where there are traffic backups and the accompanying updated fastest route, how far a campground is, the history of obscure destinations listed on highway signs, the vacancy and pricing of various motels, and a million other things. If not for Rena, I would have traveled mostly the way Adam and I did ten years ago. But she is a master of the new tools.
—Most people in this country are kind toward strangers and are ready and happy to help their fellow humans. The divisions between people are magnified, warped, exaggerated and obsessed over by the people who run cable television news stations.
Yesterday, our first stop in Chicago was Guaranteed Rate Field to watch a Chicago White Sox game. We arrived in the third inning. We bought upper-deck seats, but there were no ushers guarding the lower section, so we snuck down to seats just barely on the third base side of home plate in the 24th or 25th row overall. We sat there for the rest of the game. They were playing the Detroit Tigers and there were a fair number of Tigers fans there too. The White Sox were down 5-0 and rallied to tie the game in the fifth and sixth innings, but ended up losing 7-5. We sang Take me out to the ball game, ate popcorn and cotton candy and shared a ten-dollar beer.
After that, we stopped into Central Camera, which a friend of ours, Bill Rosecan, has for years been telling us about back home. The shop has been in Bill’s family since 1899 and sells all sorts of new and retro photography equipment. We met his cousin there, who runs the shop, and talked with him for quite a while.
We then stopped into the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, but opted not to wait three hours in line to go up top. We walked through Millennium Park, home to the large mirror-esque “Bean” sculpture and a whimsical Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center, which is similar in style to the Fischer Center he designed at Bard College.
Afterward, we walked down to the Chicago River and hopped aboard the Chicago Water Taxi and spent an hour or more riding it through the center of the city and back.
The sun had faded away by the time we headed back toward Lake Michigan on the boat and the soft light highlighted the group of impressive skyscrapers in that area. The river’s course was reversed by human engineering more than a century ago and the waterway played a central role in the city’s early development. It’s now a rich and busy recreational area, with kayaks, tour boats of various sizes, private party boats, the water taxi, an occasional barge, and a terraced river walk—all making the river a charming and dynamic feature of the city. The river is dyed green every year for Saint Patrick’s Day and was also dyed blue after the Cubs won the World Series a couple years back.
We went and ate ribs and steak with baked potatoes, salad, and garlic bread for dinner.
I can’t say I know Chicago well or what it’s like to be a struggling person in Chicago—but we had a great time there yesterday.
We stayed at a hotel outside Chicago and slept like babies till after eight this morning.
Today, driving into Indiana, dozens of billboards for competing firework stores dotted each side of the Interstate. There’s at least three different firework outlets in Indiana claiming to be the world’s largest.
We took one of the exits and I stocked up some more, buying another 24 mortars—the ones that change color and the ones that sparkle at the end. The place was huge and I was jealous of the guy filling up a large shopping cart, going down each isle.
Last night, we stayed in Niagara Falls. This morning, we walked to Goat Island and reached our hands out over the water that pours over the Horseshoe Falls—our fingertips crossed into Canada—and we tossed wish-pennies in toward the other wish-pennies.
Last evening, we arrived to Niagara in time to see the fireworks at 10 p.m.
We had a bottle of champagne in our backpack and poured it into styrofoam cups and watched at the brink of the American Falls as bursts of color exploded in the sky.
The sound of millions of gallons of water pouring over the falls was briefly overtaken by each boom of fireworks. A baby nearby was shaken and hysterical as the finale closed the show.
I first visited Niagara when I was ten and through the rest of my boyhood told friends I would someday go over the falls in a barrel-shaped contraption—something similar to what Steve Trotter designed for his second plunge over the falls.
Maybe I’ll still do that when I’m an old man.
As most of the tourists filtered out after the fireworks, we walked out on the observation bridge and renewed our wedding vows with no officiator.
And the tumultuous Niagara River, illuminated in green, rushed over its famous brink.