I’m at a bar, and a regular was leaving, and I could swear the bartender said, “Be careful; it’s starting.”
I was making good time scooting across the southwestern part of the United States, plying US Highway 40 from outside of Provo to Denver, my target for the day. Somehow in all my traversals of the region, I had never taken this slice of roadway.
I paused in Duchesne to fill up the tank, and soon after I pulled back onto the highway I noticed that the battery warning light was on. Uh, oh.
I considered two possibilities: That there was some fleeting problem (like the window motors had briefly overloaded the system – the windows are getting very sluggish) and everything was actually fine but the error condition was still registered in the computer, or there was a deeper problem and I was currently drawing off the battery, and the running time I had left was strictly limited.
Highway 40 in eastern Utah is not exactly buzzing with humanity (despite this being the beehive state). The next settlement of any size was Vernal, so I turned off any optional electrical items and crossed my fingers. I made it, and pulled into a parking lot to see if I could find a clue about what was going on.
I happen to own a wifi-enabled ELM327 which, combined with an app on my phone, allows me to read and clear the error codes recorded by the car’s computer. I got the widget and my phone talking to each other, only to discover that whatever condition causes the battery light to come on is not recorded on the computer. As far as the OBD II port was concerned, everything was hunky-dory. Humph. I had to conclude that whatever condition caused the light to turn on was ongoing. I turned to Siri to find a mechanic. Mostly I got tire stores.
When I twisted the key to start the car, it turned over with a distinct lack of gusto. No doubt about it, I was running out of juice. I made a command decision: First I would find a hotel, then I’d find a mechanic once all my stuff was safely stashed in my room. I’m glad I did. Unloaded and rolling once more, I got about half a mile before the car shuddered and rolled to a stop as I ducked into the parking lot for a laundromat. The last few feet into the parking space took leg power. Then it was time to call the nice folks at AAA.
Those nice folks sent another nice guy with a huge-ass tow truck to drag my car to a local mechanic. The catch: It’s Saturday. He took me to a good shop that’s “pretty much almost always” open on Saturdays, but, alas, not this particular Saturday afternoon. Nor is it likely they (or anyone else) will be open Sunday.
Currently I’m sitting in a nice-enough place called Wingers Roadhouse, drinking a King’s Tale Pale Ale, by the Winger Bros. Brewing Company. Since it’s on tap, it can only be 3.2%, which makes for an odd pale ale. At this moment “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac is playing. If only I could.
Small-town Utah on a Sunday. Here we go.
I’m in a bar right now, and it’s not crowded. Nearby a group of maybe ten people has collected. They are clustered around a table, wedging in new arrivals rather than annex nearby unoccupied tables and pull them into the party.
Why not spread out? Why not bring in tables so that all involved have a place to set their glass? Let me tell you a little more about the group.
This is a gathering of geeks. ebay, if clothing is an indicator. (This group is indirectly responsible, then, for the recent debt I incurred. I forgive them.) Tech workers of varied ethnicity, having drinks and appetizers.
Two of them are female. The other nine (I’ve counted now) are all working to minimize the distance between themselves and the the non-Y-bearing nucleus of the group.
Only it’s not so simple. Allow me to expand on that theorem. The males (hereafter referred to as ‘dudes’) are actually competing for the closest eye contact with the females (or, ‘chicks’). Dudes don’t just want proximity, they want attention. This leads to a kidney-bean shaped cluster, as the value of space drops dramatically once out of the peripheral vision of the two chicks. Good thing, too; otherwise my little island of tranquility, directly behind the chicks, would be impinged upon by careless geek elbows.
One of the two chicks just shifted her posture inward, slicing off a section of the kidney bean. The isolated bunch immediately began talking about football.
I promised chronicles of my road trip with Chiquita (who is currently lying on the bed with me and crying about my neglect) and they will follow. It’s been tough finding the words, which is trouble considering I’m going to writing camp starting tomorrow night.
I am wearing my travel shirt. It became the official shirt of road trips last summer (or was it the summer before?). Driving through humid climes, there’s nothing nicer than putting your left elbow on the door sill of your convertible and having your sleeve balloon up and scoop air down into your comically-inflated shirt. Man, that feels good.
When you’re out on the road, certain social niceties can be set aside. If you’re just going to slather sunscreen all over yourself and sweat profusely as you crawl across the surface of the Earth, there’s no point putting on a clean shirt in the morning. You may as well throw on the shirt that is already saturated with road fluids. Mountain Dew stain on your chest? No biggie; more will follow.
It’s an aloha shirt, the sort of thing that fits my style anyway, built for comfort when things are warm. Cotton, of course, and roomy enough for me.
The shirt also has a breast pocket, which is absolutely required while traveling. It’s where hotel keycards go, where the change from the drive-through lands, and where anything else that you might need to recover while your seatbelt is fastened will ultimately reside. On my travel shirt, that pocket is starting to tear off, the fabric failing in different ways on either side. It’s the result of reaching in there for something way at the bottom so many times. The left-handed reach while I juggle items in my other hand is the most punishing, I think.
Today, zipping across the Texas panhandle, my dog started licking my shirt. Not the breast pocket (where there was jerky from a nice gas station owner in Clines Corners), but my right shoulder. I gotta think that might be a sign.
The day broke clear and didn’t waste any time warming up. After a not-terribly-satisfying breakfast and a fuel stop, I climbed onto Interstate 40 and headed west, west, west.
I wonder, on that stretch of Interstate between Albuquerque and Winslow, how many people are enticed these days by “The World’s Tallest Teepee” (a rigid, multi-story structure), or “The World’s Longest Map of US Rte 66”, which is painted on a wall of a curio shop. How many people spontaneously decide to buy a hunting knife, or a bit of petrified wood? Not as many these days, I suspect, as cars get ever more comfortable and the excuses to climb out and stretch one’s legs get less enticing.
I certainly wasn’t a candidate to stop this time. I wanted to put some miles behind me, the more the better. As I rolled along somewhere east of Flagstaff I saw a sign that did catch my eye. “Fresh jerky 227 miles ahead.” Bison was listed, and I think elk as well. By my calculations that put the jerky store somewhere around Kingman.
Although I have to say that I’ve never visited the much-hyped ice caves or gone underground on any of the mine tours. One of these days… On I drove, stopping only for fuel and beverages.
I never found the jerky store. By the time I got to Kingman I was occupied with the Big Decision. North, past Hoover Dam, through Las Vegas, and on up to Beatty to cross into California high in the Sierras, or west, through Needles to Barstow, to drive up the central valley.
In favor of north: 1) There’s a new bridge to keep the damn terrorists off the damn dam. I bet it’s pretty cool. 2) two-lane highways. 3) Far, far more scenic. 4) A chance to relive another trip with a buddy and two chihuahuas, getting kicked out of a casino in Vegas, followed by a night in Beatty, and my one and only pass through Trona, CA (a hellish place when it’s windy, which I gather is most of the time).
In favor of west: 1) two less hours driving, even if I didn’t stop for pictures on the north route.
When decision time came, I went west. Note to Gus (I think it was Gus), while your “227 miles to jerky” sign was certainly effective for me, you might consider a second sign, a little closer to the promised land. I’m just sayin’ is all. Or maybe I just missed it.
The last 100 miles of the day as I stretched my drive from Needles to Barstow seemed as long as the entire rest of the trip. There was still plenty of daylight left, but I was ready to stop. Perhaps if my air conditioning worked things would have been different. As I pulled in to the Von’s parking lot to buy large amounts of chilled liquids I reflected that had I chosen north, I’d still have an hour to go, assuming Las Vegas rush hour didn’t add to that.
I noticed as I drove across the street to the California Inn (an excellent choice), that there was a little strip-mall bar nearby called Molly’s Pub. I showered and packed a laptop and book (in case this wasn’t a laptop sort of place), and tromped over to Molly’s. It wasn’t a laptop sort of place at all; in fact it wasn’t a book sort of place either. So I bellied up to the bar, had a large beer in a mason jar, and watched the Dodger game with glazed eyes, which kept me entertained. (For a while I sat next to a guy who used to be the mascot for the Dodgers; I was rooting for the other team on general principles. It was all good-natured, though.)
I ordered a second beer, which arrived just as the cougars showed up. My long hair kept them away for a while, but by the end of my beer I’m not sure how many sentences I had started with “My girlfriend…” It was time to quit that congenial place and catch some sleep, to dream of jerky missed and the road not taken.
Kansas is hot right now. Really stinkin’ hot. When I staggered from my nice-but-not-seventy-bucks-nice hotel room in Dodge City I could already feel the heat settling down over the town like a sweaty, feverish hen spreading her damp feathers over an egg that was never going to hatch. I made a hasty decision to modify my course. Oklahoma panhandle didn’t seem like a good idea.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure Dodge City is in Ford County.
Before I could even get out of Dodge, as they say, I needed to send a package via FedEx. The ladies running the hotel desk had no idea where I might do that, then Google lied to me. Luckily I detected the falsehood before setting out, and managed to find through the FedEx site (duh!) that a local mall had a drop box. The hotel women gave me (incorrect) directions to the mall, and after I recovered from that it only a matter of twenty minutes to find the box (or, more exactly, someone who knew where the damn thing was). I put in the package, which included a signed document accepting the terms of a full-time salaried position at Apple. Rather a momentous occasion, for all it was just sliding paper into a slot.
Then, at last, I was on my way. The course alteration mentioned earlier was to head a little more northerly, coming down to Los Alamos via Taos rather than up from Santa Fe. This got me to higher altitude sooner, and got me deeper into the rain shadow of the rocky mountains.
It was a good drive. Highway 160 through southern Kansas and into Colorado was new to me. There was one section I dubbed The Euclidian Highway, because the road was always either exactly north-south or east-west, with all corners being right angles. One of the zigs and zags took me down the north-south main street of Pritchett, Colorado, a very small, picturesque little town with brick storefronts with plate-gass display windows. A cafe sits right where you would expect it to. The plains stretch to the horizon in every direction. The only thing is, most of the stores are empty. The café is closed, and has a For Sale by Owner sign in the window.
Might be a good place to film a movie. As I drove away, it occurred to me I should take some pictures. But I didn’t. I was driving. After a few more zigs and zags the road returned to more road-like behavior, and I met the freeway at Trinidad, Colorado.
I had no idea Trinidad has such a cool downtown area. I was tempted to stop for the day and bum around for a bit. But I didn’t do that, either. My parents were expecting my arrival. (Ironically, my parents were not expecting my arrival. I put the wrong day in an email.)
From there a quick hop over Raton Pass and once more I left the Interstate behind to take highway 64 west. I drove past skinny cattle picking over utterly barren rangeland, past Cimarron and up into the mountains. That’s some good driving right there. A few raindrops hit the windshield, but not enough to make me stop and put the top up.
From Eagle Nest over and down into Taos (the usual traffic jam), across the Rio Grande at Española and up the hill to Los Alamos. The mountains above the town are still smoldering, the fire working its way through terrain too rugged to send in crews. The hills all around the town used to be heavily forested; now they are barren and rocky and coated with blackened toothpicks. Will the soil last on the mountainsides long enough to let the forests reestablish themselves? I sure don’t know. People are working hard right now to mitigate erosion.
So here I am, in the Land of Enchantment, tired from a long but never-dull journey.