High Desert Storms

Rolling out of Los Alamos at the bright-and-early hour of 10am, I realized two things: First, that it was a day to find little, wiggly roads I’d never taken before, and second, that I’d forgotten my toiletry bag. I was already going forward, however, and at times like that I’m quite simply incapable of turning back. Stopping for gas in Totavi was difficult enough.

It was not a day for driving with the top down. The first significant showers hit as I was passing Cuyumunge, but it was a small storm cell and I was through it quickly. I took a right turn at Albuquerque but only stayed on the Interstate until the turn-off for Quemado.

I’ve been through Quemado plenty of times (haven’t we all?) but only going east-west on Highway 60. Today, for the first time, I decided to take the little north-south highways down through the last echoes of the rocky mountains, the spine of the continent.

Immediately I knew I’d made the right choice. I had NM 117 almost entirely to myself, except for the State Police cruiser I passed almost right away. A good reminder that today was about the road, not the destination. No need to hurry.

As I crossed the continental divide I had a massive storm feeding the Atlantic off to my right, lightning flicking and flashing with abandon (thunder in my little world provided by Social Distortion), and ahead a smaller but no less electric storm dumping into the Pacific. The latter would be my host for the last few miles into Quemado.

After a brief fluid-related stop in Quemado, where I had a pleasant conversation with a local, mostly about the weather, it was further south on NM 32. That was a fine bit of roadway right there, and hopefully next time it won’t be bucketing on me so hard I can’t look anywhere but the road. Cruising down a narrow canyon by Apache Creek was especially nice, and exceptionally rainy.

After the signage confused me a bit in Reserve (roads that don’t show up on my maps accompanied by a turn that felt like I was going in the wrong direction), I got myself on US 180 for another southward leg. It was only sprinkling off and on, and I had a little more attention for the world around me. After I came through something-or-other pass (elevation six thousand something) I started to notice patches of white flowers along the roadside, sharing space with purple-blossomed thistles. The white flowers looked like poppies as I motored past. Very pretty.

There is a section of US 180 past Glenwood that is a) Under construction and lacking all markings, and b) 35 mph speed limit. I, in my “what’s the hurry?” attitude, was doing 55 mph along there just to keep the people behind me from running me over. Then it started to rain. Did I mention the rain before? Yes? Well, that wasn’t rain. This was rain. Lashing, blinding, dumping, end-of-the-world rain. No stripes on the road to key on. I slowed down, and those behind me (who had tail lights to track) got even closer.

some sort of white flower

some sort of white flower

The good thing about those really intense storms in the mountains is that they are relatively compact. Soon after the twisty-curvy by Braille was over there was a turn-off for a scenic view, and I took advantage. I did not want to see any of the people who had been behind me again, ever.

Along the road up to the overlook there were more of the white flowers. I stopped and took a couple of pictures, but I was standing in the rain and didn’t have the patience to get the really good shot. I did notice, however, that despite the petaled, poppy-like flowers, the stems were bristly and stiff like a thistle. Perhaps I was looking at some Frankensteinian hybrid of a gentle garden plant and a thug from the wrong side of the tracks, botanically speaking. (If I were in charge, the plant would also be able to uproot itself and shoot poison darts. I saw no evidence of these abilities today, however, so there’s no need to panic… yet.)

Not far south of the rest stop was a turnoff I’d been debating. NM 78 broke off the “big” road and headed west into Arizona. I was still enervated from the previous downpour adventure, but I decided to give the little road a go.

When I turned onto 78, there was a sign reading, “Steep grades and sharp curves. Trucks not recommended.” Music to my eyes.

I hadn’t got far when I saw the battered old pickup some distance ahead of me hit the brakes. Hm. I got closer and as i came over a rise saw what he had. There was a pretty decent river flowing across the highway. Still, an old pickup got through, so why should someone in a low-slung sports car worry? With all due caution (I have a friend who lost his engine to high water), I forded the river, came out the other side in second gear with a sigh of relief. On I went, but not very far before I encountered the next river. I noticed that where the river flowed off the pavement on the downstream side there was a pretty significant dropoff, with a waterfall I might have appreciated more if the Bronco coming the other way weren’t trying to get over on my side to avoid a big rock. We all got through just fine in the end, Mr. Bronco waited for me to pass. Good thing, too, because I didn’t have a free hand for the window control.

The four fords went something like this:

  1. Holy cow! I hope I can get through this.
  2. Stay calm, take it easy.
  3. Don’t get cocky, sport; that kills engines
  4. I should have my camera ready for the next one.

Of course, there was no next one, but I did manage to get my phone ready for pictures just in case. From there 78 became steeper and I made a note to add this little ribbon of asphalt to the list of the best drives in the US. I suspect it would be better to drive it eastbound (better to be going uphill for the steepest parts), but my buddy in the pickup and I were treated to one heck of a beautiful and active drive.

Thistle

Thistle

Have you ever smelled a pine forest after a heavy rain? Something about the bed of needles on the ground (that’s my theory anyway) gives it a smell that is like no other. A little sharper than other forests. It’s incredible.

Down, down, and more down, the sort of down that affects your mileage, on twisty-windy roads, trapped behind trucks pulling camping trailers, but that was all right. As we came out of the mountains I almost stopped at a wide spot on the road that had one of those desert views, where you can see across multiple time zones, and you can see the rain falling over there and the sun shining on that mountain and a hell of a lightning storm off to the north.

Did the Navajo think the Earth was flat? What about the Apache? Seems like a question we need answered.

At the bottom of AZ 78 I was faced with a choice. I pulled over for a moment and consulted my not-very-good road atlas. (My previous was Rand McNally and was much better.) I decided on US 191 all the way down to Interstate 10. As I mototed along the flowers gave way to succulents. An occotillo-like plant a vivid green against the red clay. Yuccas and either skinny barrel cactus or stunted saguaros. Cholla and woody shrubs in the overgrazed areas (the contemplation of which triggered a get-poor-quick scheme for another day).

(Note to self: If I ever need a good movie location with an impressive bridge with no traffic that we could maybe even blow up, there’s one next to Highway 191. Ample parking.)

I rejoined civilization in Safford, AZ, a farming town and then some. Not sure, but it might have been cotton in those flooded fields. Safford seemed like a nice place on my flyby, with a sense of community if the signs for this and that event are to be believed. After my high-altitude excursions, however, I could really feel the heat.

I stayed true to my highway headed due south of Safford. On the stretch between Safford and Interstate 10 I saw three things that I claim are thematically related. Just don’t ask me what the theme is.

I saw decay. The human settlements along that stretch of road had obviously seen better days. Even some houses that at 60mph looked like they had been pretty nice once lay abandoned. There were still plenty of people living there, but whatever had been supporting that community is gone. A ghost town in the making, populated only by people with nowhere else to go.

I saw plenty. The yuccas’ long stalks were bent over, forming weary arches. At first glance this is in harmony with the human plight of the town, until you realize that the plants are bowed over by the weight of their own fruit. The yuccas, at least, seem to be doing well this year.

I saw waste. For most of the way south, US 191 is a simple, well-maintained stretch of two-lan blacktop. Then, without any change in circumstances, there is a section that is divided highway, and then a section of perfectly adequate two-lane again, and then back to divided highway. I’m sure someone somewhere can tell me why it’s critical that US 191 be upgraded, but seriously, I’m not buying. I thought at first I was looking at stupidity, but then I realized I was most likely looking at the price tag for the vote of a powerful senator on some other issue. “We’ll send one hundred million of other people’s dollars to Arizona if you vote for…”

If you study those three observations long enough you’ll see an important convergence, a glistening polyp of knowledge that will make this whole crazy thing called life make sense. When you find it, let me know, ok?

Freeway! High speeds (except where there’s construction)! The entertaining route is rarely the fastest one, and there was still a long way for me to go. I was already exceeding the speed limit when I hit the top of the on-ramp. Time to fly!

Only, directly ahead loomed a big-ass storm. We’re way in the south of Arizona at this point, right? This desert could eat your pisante desert for breakfast, and wash it down with a glass of burning sand. Yet there in front of me is a rainstorm. Careful readers of this blog, those who keep score and try to catch my continuity errors, will note that the last time I drove this stretch of road, it was a white-knuckle gullywasher experience. That time I found myself in an America’s Best Value Inn, and likely that will be my last time with that chain. It sucked and cost a lot.

This time the plan was to fly Best Western. In the days of my months-long road trip they were the most likely to have Internet access, and that made me a fan. Right now they’ve got a buy-two-get-one-free special working. I hope to figure it out. Anyway, I was thinking, as I approached this storm, that if I saw a Best Western sign then my day was done.

I saw one such sign, in Hickox (Willcox?), and got off the freeway. I navigated the flooded roads for a while, never spotting the promised hotel. Finally, I saw the tall standard in the shape of a Best Western sign, empty. The hotel has apparently severed ties with my preferred chain. I drove on, into the mouth of the storm.

It was all pretty much routine, except when I was passing a truck, with a car in front of me, when we all together hit a section of the pavement where the water sheeted up. I never lost traction, but I was completely blind, all the glass of my car completely covered by torrents of water. Somewhere to my right was a big-ass truck. To my left, the median. Ahead, who knows? What if that driver hits the brakes?

My first fumbling act was to flip the wiper speed lever up to full blast. It wasn’t until several seconds later, the crisis passed, that I even realized I had done that, for the effort was completely futile. Water was dumping on me far too quickly to be wiped away.

I tapped my brakes, partly to send a signal to people behind me but mostly just to know they worked. I clenched the wheel, invented newer and better curse words than have ever been uttered before, and forgot them. Then we were through the crisis, all still alive, and slowly I got my heart under control.

Total time elapsed: maybe fifteen brick-shitting seconds.

That’s the thing about the road. It doesn’t care how much you love it. It’ll kill you anyway.

Sunset in Arizona

Sunset in Arizona

Now I’m at a Motel 6 in Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s nice enough, and it’s cheap. (Not as cheap as the hotels in Tucson, though. Those who plan their trips should try to sleep there.) Internet is extra here, but my phone can get me some Internet love. Tomorrow I’ll put up the photos. I bought a toothbrush and toothpaste at the truck stop across the street.

4

Leaving Lawrence

I drove off the campus of Kansas University at about noon, playing my new Boxcar Satan CD louder than is strictly necessary. I went south on Highway 59 for a few miles until it crossed 56, which seemed to be going more or less my direction. It was an older stretch of road, more inclined to roll with the terrain rather than blast through it. Around Baldwin City I stopped and applied sunscreen (only a little too late) and carried on, enjoying the rolling hills and the barns. There are a lot of barns on that road; large and small, stone and wood and brick, red and white, ramshackle and tidy.

Traffic was light, polite and scrupulously obeyed the speed limits. I’m on the Santa Fe trail, which appeals to me, because Santa Fe is my next stop.

Jim Gunn asked me if I’d learned enough at the workshop. I said I’d learned all I could, but we’d have to see if that was enough. My brain is like a glass, I said, and knowledge is beer. Right now the foam is up to the rim; once it settles we’ll see how much beer is actually in there.

While saying goodbye, several of my fellow writers said (more or less) “You have to finish your novel! I have friends that will love it!” That’s encouraging, and flattering, but now I have to write the damn thing. These other good folk have constructed in their heads what the story will be like, and they like the image. But can I live up to those expectations? I don’t have a single chapter in final form yet.

I guess time will tell. All I can do is string the words together while wearing a quirk of a smile on my face, and hope the funny comes through in the darkness. For there will be darkness.

3

An open letter to the retard driving a white compact car on Highway 17 in dense fog with no lights

You, sir, are a fucking retard.

Sincerely,
Jerry

Why Mazda Should Pay Me To Go On Road Trips

Actually, this episode is here to allow me to play with different gallery plugins for WordPress. There are quite a few and so what happens when you click one of the thumbnails below may change dramatically at any moment.

For test photos I went back through my archives and grabbed a few with a common theme, which turned out to be pictures of the Miata during my epic road trip. Hey, Mazda? If you’re watching, I can sell the Miata lifestyle for you, this time with a redhead in the passenger seat. The open road. The byways of North America. People. Adventure. Wind. Freedom. Marketing gold, baby.

Progress Update: A couple of the lightbox options look pretty sweet, but there are none that I found with an option to fit the images to the user’s browser window. Strange. I looked at the source code for one of them and it even uses the size of the page in some calculations. Still, I like letting people see the full-size versions of the images without leaving and having to click the back button, so some type of lightbox plugin will likely remain.

1

Could it be? Another road trip already!

Yep, tomorrow we load up the other car for a trip back down to Los Angeles. The event: a screening of This is Awkward, a series of four very short films directed by fuego, and executed by an assemblage of film professionals. You might have heard about it somewhere. My sweetie and I starred in one of them, and it was a hoot! Another one is based on a story I wrote and adapted for the silver screen (which was then re-adapted to the circumstances of the location). I’ve heard interesting stories about the other scenes as well.

So, if you’re in the LA area on Tuesday, June 23rd, I’d love to see you at the premiere! Things start at 3 p.m. and will continue from there. Drop me a line if you want directions.

Road Trip Supplies: Then and Now

The following is a simple table of the food I bought for my solo road trip a few weeks ago and the food my sweetie and I packed for our trip together this weekend. You may draw your own conclusions:

Solo With my favorite road-trip partner
Beef Jerky Honey-Roasted turkey sandwiches on sourdough mini-baguettes
A big container of cookies A big container of cookies
Half-gallon of cranberry juice A whole bunch of fruit juice boxes
Almonds The same package of almonds
I could swear there was something else baby carrots
grapes
Packed in the grocery bag they came in. Packed in insulated bag with blue ice.
1

Road Trip!

That’s right, kids, tomorrow my sweetie and I will be hitting the open road, just the two of us, a few clothes, and a cooler full of munchies. Good times!

We’re heading down to Los Angeles where my brother is currently hanging out. He was working on a movie, but it got canned, so instead he’s devoting his time to making a series of short films all tied together thematically. My better half and I will play a married couple, in a very very short film based on a story that first appeared right here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas — though I didn’t write it. (The story was posted as a comment before I moved the blog to the new platform, so it’s in the old comment system.)

fuego and company will also be filming a short based on the original blog episode that inspired the comment, and a couple of other shorts as well. Filming is under way already, but I haven’t heard how it’s going. They have a good crew of people and a good camera, though, so I’m optimistic.

Across the Desert

I’m not used to traveling in convoy. It was a pleasant change to roll across the western third of the United States with my brother in the rear-view; good to have conversation at rest stops and meals, and to split a pitcher of Bass Ale at Mad Dog’s Dog House in Kingman, Arizona. There is a downside, however — time I normally spend over a laptop musing about the journey and its larger meaning is spent instead discussing plans to take over the world.

The most notable aspect of this trip, however, was the wind. There was a lot of it, and it was directly in our faces. On day one we stopped at Speedy’s, just across the border in Arizona, where I remembered a decent little trucker cafe. When we walked in I realized I had guided us to the wrong place, but we stayed. We sat by a window and watched the as the wind whipped rain and dust around simultaneously.

The wind roared around the building, a taller-than-necessary steel skeleton with thick-looking walls and a gently-sloping roof. fuego leaned his back against the outer wall and felt the building flex with the gusts. “The employees don’t seem to be worried,” he said, “so I guess this happens all the time.” A particularly strong gust made the roof groan and I made a comment about it blowing off.

Our food came – quite good food, as it turned out; I had mutton stew and fuego had a green chile grilled cheese sandwich. We ate and continued to marvel at the spectacle outside. I was not looking forward to pumping gas out there.

The waitress was bussing a table near ours when a loud POP reverberated through the building. After a bit of confusion we all started looking up at the ceiling. Another pop followed, not as loud as the first. Now, the employees were nervous as well. I began to plan a swift exit strategy should things get worse.

We finished our meal (neither of us that hungry due to good snack supplies) and there were only a couple more pops from above before we effected our escape. [A brief Google check that night uncovered no mention of the roof blowing off after we left.]

The other effect of the wind was on gas mileage. Normally going from the border to Kingman on a tank of gas would be routine, but as we passed Seligman (and the last gas stations for a long, long way), I was surprised at how low I was on gas. I still appeared to have seventy miles’ worth, though, so on we went. The gauge continued its nose-dive toward E, however, and the last few tense miles fuego took the lead to give me a windbreak. We made it to a station, I filled up, and the last few miles into Kingman were routine.

We ate, slept, and Sunday we split up at Barstow, both turning toward our designated blights of urban sprawl. I arrived, scratched my arm on a fire extinguisher box, was met by That Girl with a big hug and the next phase of my journey through life began.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As I was driving across the desert yesterday, I heard a song for the first time. It has a little hook that goes like this:

One thing

To do

Three words

For you

The first time I heard the rhyme, I thought it was kind of clever. The second time it’s repeated in the song, I thought, “Hallmark”. The third time, I was done with it. By the end of the song, I was pretty sure I never needed to hear it again.

It seems, however, that the tune is question is in heavy rotation right now. As I searched the airwaves for stations as I scuttled actoss the surface of the earth, the song kept coming up. Each time I listened to less of it before changing stations, no matter what I thought of the music that had come before. I was more tolerant of commercials than I was of this song, and I don’t much like commercials.

Across the Desert

Spent a good evening with a buddy at his house north of Sonora, CA. Then it was time to head east, over the mountains and across the desert, with a goal of getting as close to Northern New Mexico as possible without undue stress. Road trips are not about stress. Quite the opposite.

The day was all about roads; there were curvy roads, straight roads, steep roads, flat roads. Mountains and desert, cool and brutally hot. Potholes and fresh asphalt. First up for my driving pleasure was Big Hill Road, a shortcut from my friend’s house to eastbound highway 108. (I spent a few seconds trying to coax a URL out of Google Maps to which I could link, but without success.) It seems every time I’m in the neighborhood the road is closed over Sonora Pass, but at last I’ll be passing over during the brief summer.

Big Hill Road has two flaws: occasional patches of broken-up pavement, and it’s just too damn short. It was an ideal way to start a day of driving, zipping around corners, the road sun-dappled as it wound through the forest. After that bit of road 108 seemed like a superhighway – at least for a while. Sonora Pass has, I believe, the steepest stretches of paved road I have ever driven. There was only one thing wrong with that part of the drive: Traffic. It’s not that there were a lot of vehicles, it’s that three vehicles in particular really gummed things up.

Here’s the deal. Let’s say you’re driving on a stretch of road in which there are no opportunities to pass safely. For the sake of argument, let’s say the speed limit is 40 mph. Now, this is a particularly twisty and turny bit of road, and you’re not comfortable going 40. You want to drive your big-tired station wagon (some people call them SUV’s), oh, how about 15 mph. I have no problem with that. Absolutely you should not drive faster than you are comfortable doing. But — BUT — when there are ample opportunities to pull over and there are people stacked up behind you, just get the hell out of the way! How much time are you losing, considering you’re just crawling along anyway? Obviously you’re not in a hurry or you’d be on a different road. Just pull over for a moment and let the SV (my car has no U) go by. Seriously. We’ll all feel better.

Thanks. Back to my narrative.

Climbing up to Sonora Pass, I drove my car as fast as it would go for the first time. On that hill, that wasn’t very fast, and even with a 6-speed transmission I was caught between second and third, winding the engine way up in second, but not pulling hard enough in third. The scenery was nice, sometimes even interesting, but not spectacular; trees pushed in close, denying breath-taking vistas. As I climbed, I could smell the brakes of the vehicles heading the other way. A sign warned of 26% (!) grade somewhere ahead (vehicles with trailers not advised), but 15% was more common.

Down the other side, past a small Marine base (sign read: “Caution Marines Training Ahead”). The buildings, otherwise identical to any other rural business site, were painted a light olive color. I imagine that this is simply a matter of habit; I don’t think the people who ordered the pre-fab steel structures spent much time thinking about what sort of attack the base might be subject to, and what coloration would best thwart it. I’m just saying that other colors might be more practical in some cases, like white for the propane tanks. (I assume, here, that there is a reason that propane tanks are always white.)

After a southward stint on US 395, I turned east once again on Highway 120. That was a great stretch of road. The terrain goes through several stages and climate zones, and there were plenty of sights that proved intellectually stimulating as well, like stumped trees dotting a field of tuff (compressed volcanic ash), which led me to ponder that the longest-lived organisms on our planet live in harsh circumstances. 120 is an old-school road, built before the cut-and-fill strategy had taken hold. As I drove through the forested stretch the road seemed to twist for no appreciable reason except to provide people like me with the feeling that they are driving. I wove between the trees, left right left right in an easy cadence like a skilled skier sliding down a powdery slope. Farther along, the road passed over flatter terrain, and I smiled as I passed a sign reading “Dips next 5 miles”. I have always liked dips; I remember as a kid staring out the windows of the familymobile hoping to see the next sign that said “The road is about be fun”. Some of the dips on 120 west of Benton were the real thing, providing an almost weightless moment that had me exclaiming out loud more than once.

Then it was time for the desert. US Highway 6 was my new friend, and as I drove I applied sunscreen more or less constantly. The high desert was not oppressively hot (at least, not while I was moving), and I slid easily into my desert driving mindset, a contemplative frame that discerns significance in unexpected places. Out there in all that vastness the small things matter most.

East, east, as far as Tonopah, delaying the critical decision as long as possible. I have a choice: South through Las Vegas and an easy drive tomorrow, or east over some exceptional roads, winding through the Utah rockies, but adding hours to the trip? A deadline loomed, alas (the bane of any journey is the destination); I chose south. Not that Highway 95 doesn’t have its own charm. I passed mysterious, seemingly purposeless dirt roads that ran from the highway up into the mountains to end abruptly. There were the occasional buildings, painted pink and surrounded by palm trees. Brothels, out in the middle of nowhere.

I worried about rush hour in Las Vegas, but it turned out to be the weekend. As I drove through Henderson (now no more than an estension of Las Vegas sprawl), the moon climbed over the mountains, almost full, almost invisible. The same color as the sky around it, it seemed translucent, ephemeral. I followed Highway 93 toward Hoover Dam. “No trucks or busses!” the signs exclaimed. “Use alternate route!” In boulder city I was presented with two ways to go — the truck route or the business route. Truck route? I hadn’t gone far on the truck route when I was reminded once again that trucks were not allowed.

There is a massive construction project going on there, appalling amounts of money being spent in the name of Homeland Security. The result will be: 1) more efficient 2) less fun and 3) spectacular. They’re cooking up one hell of a bridge over there. From there, south to Kingman as darkness asserted itself. It was time to stop, time to sleep, time to reflect on a day of many roads.

Road Music

Is it just me, or is the dinosaur rock of my youth fundamentally superior road music? ZZ Top or Boston just seems to lift the car a little bit. I wonder if the loss of roadliness in modern pop music is a reflection of changing values in our country, the fading of the American Road Myth.

I figured if the road was anywhere in American music anymore it would be country, but you know what? If the sampling I found on various radio stations today is any indicator, it’s not. A couple of tunes displayed a sense of humor missing in other pop genres, but the road wasn’t to be found there, either.

Has America lost its musical road mojo, or am I just imprinted from my golden days of youth?

More Road

I write this in Kingman, AZ. When I set out this morning I asserted that today was about miles, gobbling up highway and not getting distracted by the little blue lines on the map. I even drove with the top up much of the day. To call the drive a success, however, I really should still be on the road, chewing up a few more miles. Tomorrow will be a long drive.

With the top up, it is still possible to have Road Trip Moments, and often music will play a larger role, due to reduced wind noise. As I hit the ramp from I-25 to I-40 the Who was playinig “Going Mobile”, and the Mountain Dew purchased at Santo Domingo was kicking in. Hell, yeah, baby, the po-lice and the tax man won’t catch me, I’m mobile.

Still, the freeway is a marvel of engineering designed to make travel boring, and it did its job admirably.

Somewhere around Gallup I was in the slow lane (being a fine, upright, law-abiding citizen), and I saw a white dog standing right in the middle of the fast lane, fairly well camouflaged. I was already aware of the BMW and the semi truck side-by-side behind me; things looked very bad for the dog. My plan: ease over closer to the dog and honk the horn, startling him into the median. Still not ideal, but better than where he was.

My plan had one major flaw: by the time I came up with it, I was well past the dog, and watching the drama unfold in my rear-view mirror. I didn’t really want to see a dog get smushed, but I couldn’t not look, either. The BMW driver didn’t see the dog until the last moment, and swerved toward the median to avoid it. The dog got a clue at last, and skipped away from the hurtling sport sedan — almost, but not quite, into the path of the truck. The last I saw, the dog was standing, straddling the white stripes as the truck blew past it. I do not know the end of that story.

I could have sworn there was a gas station just past Winslow that was relatively cheap. There isn’t. Yours truly was getting a little worried for a while. I turned off the Air Conditioning to improve mileage, and buy the time I found fuel I was One Sweaty Dude. I put the top down when I refueled, and turned off the music. It was having a tendency to drag me out of the story I have been playing with in my head.

Other than that, there’s not much to report from today’s travels. I now return to Mad Dog’s Dog House for dinner. I wonder if they’ll remember me from last winter.

A Long Ramble

Note: When you spend a long time driving, you have a lot of time to think of stuff. I pulled a few paragraphs out of this episode and put them in one of their own, but this is still one hell of a muddled ramble. Even without the Theology and sociology, we’ve got us some philosophy, a (somewhat disguised) treatise on storytelling, thoughts on agricultural practices, lovely, curvaceous roads, and lunch. Not in that order.

I slept rather late this morning, in a awkward position it would seem as my entire left arm was numb when I finally stirred. I lifted it and flexed it, enjoying the curious feeling while it lasted. How nice it is to be easily amused.

Awake, showered, ponytailed and behatted, coated liberally with PABA, I got the hell out of Dodge. One more life ambition checked off. I headed in the direction of Garden City. All around me food was being made. Big round fields of it stretched across the landscape, the radius of the circles defined by the length of the irrigation pipe. I heard the grumbling engines working to draw the water from the depths and pump it out to the thirsty plants. Sometimes I passed other factories dedicated to turning the vegetable food into meat food. The only exception to the single-minded devotion to food production was an occasional oil well. One way or another, it was all about energy.

I was well past Garden City when I started to wonder if that was the way I really should be going. Not so much, it turns out. At Lakin I made a course correction, crossing the Arkansas River and heading due south on Sunflower 25. The Arkansas was bone dry. As I went south the land became more sere, the spaces between the verdant circles greater and the uncultivated areas scrubbier. It occurred to me that, like the oil, the water would run out some day as well.

The highway was not crowded, and I was gradually catching up to an SUV. I thought I smelled burning rubber, and soon after a cloud of blue smoke came from the left side of the SUV. Only after a few more seconds did the driver hit his brakes and begin to move to the side of the road, the smoke getting thicker all the while. At first it was difficult to tell in the mirage of the hot pavement, but it seemed like something was separating from the truck. The something resolved itself into a tire, or at least the tread of a tire, a big rubber donut bounding across the road and into the ditch on the other side. The SUV pulled over, its naked, shiny chrome rim shooting sparks as it dragged across the pavement. The truck had super-low-profile tires on expensive wheels, and one of the tires had lost its sidewalls and gone off on its own. Important note to people who buy fancy tires like that: Check the pressure often. Those tiny sidewalls don’t give you any room for error.

Hugoton is an attractive little farm town, and I decided it would be a good place to break my fast. I stopped at Dominoes, which was doing a fair lunch business when I walked in. It may surprise you to learn that I was the only long-haired male in the place wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. As any Czech will tell you, however, a friendly hello to the people in charge will almost always be returned in kind, and I found I had stumbled into a very friendly place. By Czech standards. The men in their blue jeans and shirts with snaps discussed offshore drilling and the price of oil (down nine cents), along with farm topics, and the waitress spent her time trying to drown me with iced tea. Ah, America! When I paid, she asked, “do you want some ice tea to go?”

I joined highway 56 in its dogged pursuit of WSW, across the Oklahoma panhandle. It’s the sort of road that people joke isn’t 100 miles but the same mile 100 times. One mile was different, however. At the side of the road was a cross, elaborately decorated. Someone had died there, presumably as the result of an automobile accident. I had to wonder, why there? Sometimes when you see a roadside memorial you can piece together what happened. A sudden curve or the end of a passing lane. You can see the threat the driver faced and understand it. Other times, like this time, there are no such clues, no such reason. It could have been any place along that road. But it happened there, at that mile, and that is where the story ends (or begins?), and that mile is forever changed.

I imagine there were people who asked, why him? after the accident. Perhaps there were clues, the driver’s own personal dangerous curves — drugs or alcohol or fatigue or cell phone. Perhaps not. Perhaps, just like that unlikely mile, there was nothing to mark that person for death. Someone else ran him off the road. He had a blowout. In that case, why him is just as meaningless as why there. There’s really now answer at all, no reason it might not be me next time.

Fuel in Clayton, and a decision to take the Cimarron-Taos scenic route. Not a difficult choice, really. I found myself on the sort of road small sports cars are made for, on the sort of day that convertibles are made for. (Note to drivers of big-ass pickup trucks creeping along at twenty miles per hour: If you see a bunch of cars behind you, just pull over for a moment. It’s obvious you’re not in a hurry anyway.)

How is it that Taos, NM, has near-perpetual traffic problems?

Now I am at the folk’s house, windows open, the temperature comfortably cool, thinking that I’ve spent way too much time blogging tonight (as I’m sure many of you will agree), especially since I have a story I thought up out there on the road that I want to start working on. That’s the thing about the road — you just can’t stop thinking of stuff.

Civilization, God, and Stuff

On the night stand by my head a bible rests, open and cradling the TV remote. It occurred to me that the specific page the bible was open to was likely not an accident. It was a message from the very friendly proprietor of Thunderbird Motel, words he thought might most help a wandering soul passing through. The bible was open to 2nd Chronicles chapter 6. It’s a fairly literary chapter, opening with King Solomon giving a sort of State of the Union address as he dedicates their new temple, the very first one Israel has ever built. The short version of that speech could be, “now we are civilized.” From wanderers with no strong central authority they had turned into city-dwellers, answering to a king.

The message then seems a good one for someone passing through a hotel room. Accept the Lord and have a place where you belong. Give up your directionless life. Become civilized. While I declined the offer, it was nice of the hotel people to remind that it was on the table.

My definition of civilization is, “the set of rules and behaviors that allows lots of people to live in the same place.” This differs somewhat from the dictionary definition, but I think my definition is more useful, since it deals with both the origins and consequences of civilization. When we are around others, we must be civil. For the past few days I’ve been wondering what comes after civilization. What happens when the benefits of a civil culture — security, getting big projects done, and so forth — are no longer needed? When I put it that way, it doesn’t seem likely to be a question we need to answer any time soon, but that hasn’t stopped me from contemplating it. I can imagine ways technology could replace any benefit of a civil culture. I’m working on a story in a place like that. Not Utopia so much, that just seems like civil culture taken to its greatest extreme. Something else. I’ll figure it out.

Dodge City (and don’t you forget it!)

This morning I awoke feeling surprisingly fresh, considering “3 a.m.” and “Scotch Whiskey” were the two most notable factors when I went to bed last night. This morning was the last event in the Campbell conference — a get-together between the writers who won awards and (primarily) the writers from the workshops. It was very interesting hearing what the awardees had to say about how they got noticed, how they approached their work, and a variety of other topics. One thing I learned: It is very difficult to get a story into F&SF.

Interestingly, I have had a story in F&SF. Furthermore, it was revealed that Gordon van Gelder, the editor, almost never says that if a story is fixed he might reconsider publishing it. I made a note to self: Make the changes he suggested and resubmit “The Importance of Being Paranoid.” So, that made me feel good, to have cracked a market that other, better-known writers had yet to break into. I managed to keep my yap shut during the discussion; it would have come off as boasting to mention my success.

Another thing I learned: Even successful writers rarely make enough money to support themselves. I’m going to have to get more serious about turing Jer’s Software Hut into a business, I’m afraid. So it goes.

There were a few other tidbits, some good humor, and an overall friendly atmosphere. There were references to many names I didn’t recognize. Then it was over, and lunch ensued. Remember how I modestly did not bring up my good fortune with F&SF during the meeting? As we gathered for one last lunch together, I managed to drop my previous success into every conversation, even as a little voice in my head gently suggested that I shut the hell up. So much for modesty. And now I’ve told you. I’d probably tell the waiter at the family restaurant I’m in right now, but he’d only pretend to care.

Finally it was time for me to beat feet. I lingered long enough to not be actually rude about taking off without appropriate goodbye-gestures, then I slathered on the sunscreen, turned up the tunes, and pointed the car west and south, back the way I had come.

After artfully dodging the toll road between Lawrence and Topeka, I found myself on a stretch of I-70, notable for having quite a lot less truck traffic than my old friend Interstate 40. I let the radio spin in search of electric guitars, and a song came on that took me back, the way a special song will, to another time. I relived the time I first heard the song while carving the sun-dappled curves of a tiny road in the Santa Cruz mountains. Those were the days.

I prefer small roads, and I regretted missing the chance to get the hell out of Dodge on the way out to the workshops. Who knows how long until such an opportunity arises again? I left the freeway behind. Dodgeward ho!

The drive was unremarkable, the rolling topography of eastern Kansas gradually losing amplitude. Just outside of Dodge City there was a point just high enough to allow for an overlook at the side of the road, providing a sweeping vista of a vast feed lot filled with filthy cows. You really know which way the wind is blowing around here.

Now I am in Dodge, cheap lodging secured for the night (free WiFi but the people in charge don’t know the password — they’re working on it). Dodge city is proudly living in the past; everywhere you look are reminders of the wild and wooly cowboy days. The brick streets of the old downtown are nice, but the place is pretty quiet on a Sunday evening. Much of the town is quite shameless in its catering to tourists.

After a fruitless search for a local place to get a burger and a beer (there was one tourist-trap looking place with a packed parking lot that I chose to drive past), I am in the climate over-controlled splendor of Applebee’s (rhymes with saltees). Maybe it’s regional, but every meal I’ve had in this corner of Kansas (both of them) have been so loaded with salt that the meal was almost ruined. Hey! Kansas! If I want to bury the meal in salt, I’ll add it myself! There’s a shaker right on the table! Although maybe all Applebee’s are this way. Bleah.

It’s not really fair to say after such a short exposure, but overall I’d say Dodge city is well worth getting the hell out of. Tomorrow will be a success after only a few miles.