My Travel Shirt

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 Adventure Looms – and the Goodbye

It’s Wednesday night; on Saturday morning my pilgrimage to Kansas begins. I look forward to this time every year—my chance to hang with the Kansas Bunch, to revel in pure writing energy. This year is dramatically different, mainly for the journey.

I’ve never needed the company of the Kansas Bunch more dearly than I do this year. My first time I was living in Prague and I chose maximum intensity for the workshops and learned an enormous amount. Chuck was my roomie that year, and I hope to hell he’ll be back this time around. He always leaves me with a massive reading list.

I won’t go through the whole litany of names. It’s the Kansas Bunch, and I’m one of them. There’s a special slot for people like me, a sub-bunch called repeat offenders. I rejoin the ranks of the repeat offenders this year with an edge of despair. I’m still working on the same story as last time. And the time before that. That’s not the recipe for success.

And how am I preparing for the workshop? I’m tweaking the first novel I wrote, long ago, getting it ready to shop around (again) to people who pay for stories. The Monster Within still chokes me up at points. Kind of embarrassing when you’re editing at a sports bar. It’s petty intense at points. However, that’s not the story I’ll be asking the kansas Bunch to help me with. That story is rusting in the weeds.

But this year, it’s not just a trip to Kansas. I’ll be taking the most wonderful dog in the world to her new home. I’m not good at goodbyes, and fortunately the ritual is lost on the canine of our species. At least I have the honor of several days in a small car with the best dog in the world; my sweetie must go cold-turkey.

The pup herself is enthusiastic about any activity that involves a motor vehicle. Chiquita loves the road. She’s a dog that way. As am I. But somewhere in Oklahoma I’m going to say goodbye to a good friend. I’m going to fight not to blubber in front of strangers. I’m going to hand over Squeaky Fuzzy Monkey and a little piece of my heart will follow along.

It’s vanity, I know, but I hope that someday when I’m down Texas way I’ll see the girl again, and that she’ll remember me. It’ll be hard to tell; she loves everyone she meets.

1

A Day of Many Miles

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.

2

From the Prairie to the Mountains

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.

Return to Kansas

As I write this I am at the end of the fourth day of my road trip to Kansas University, where I will once again hang out with skilled and insightful writers who are willing, nay, eager, to help me become one of them.

This odyssey has been different than some in the past, and I’m having a tough time putting my finger on what has changed. Normally when I get out on the road I pop reflexively into a literary frame of mind. Everything I see is a symbol or a metaphor or some shit like that. This time, not so much. It’s got me a bit worried.

The Road Ahead


For instance: Day one, even before the Emergency Broadcast Mystery, I was passing a beat-up pick’em-up-truck and its exhaust pipe fell off. Thump clatter clangety-clang-clang as the motorcyclist behind him swerved out of the way. Someone in the heavy traffic behind no doubt got a nasty surprise. There should be something more to say about that. I had been directly behind the pipe-loser only moments before.

Inspiration? Bueller? Bueller?

Then there was the truck I passed. On its rear-view mirror, just above the convex part of the mirror, in white block letters, was the word “GOAL”. So every time that driver looks in the mirror, he sees GOAL printed neatly over what he is leaving behind. It’s probably an acronym for how to be a better driver, but it’s still kind of sad. No matter which way he goes, he’s driving away from his GOAL.

The Road Behind


Speaking of better drivers, I’m a pretty good driver most of the time (above average, like most drivers), but sometimes, every five years or so, I do something really stupid. Thanks, giant red pickup with anti-lock brakes in Ely NV, for not demolishing me.

I have never seen Nevada so green. Maybe it’s just timing, maybe Nevada looks like this pretty often, but I’ve traversed the state a few times and I saw green where I didn’t even think there was vegetation before. Three days through the desert, happy for the new wipers and water-tight top each day.

Rain-Washed Miata in the Desert


I added time to my pilgrimage this year with the express goal of taking lots of pictures. It hasn’t gone as planned. There were many complicating factors – a run-down bar facade I wanted to shoot simply isn’t there anymore. Highway 50 is not as lonely as it used to be, so I couldn’t stop in the middle of the road to take pictures when no pullout was available. Mostly, when I looked at the results, I realized that I had forgotten almost everything I had learned while shooting landscapes in the past. The pictures just weren’t that good. I slap my own forehead now, seeing the same mistakes I made my first time through the desert repeated at higher resolution.

Roadside Reflections


Next time. I think a co-pilot would be a huge help.

Either I missed a 40-foot-tall sign marking the entrance to a military base, with a rocket at the top that I would love to turn into a (technically challenging) pinup shot (sexy ’50’s-style cowgirl riding the rocket, ruby-red lips and white teeth, her hand holding her turquoise cowgirl hat high… chaps? yeah, I think she’s wearing chaps.), or the sign is gone. Perhaps the base was closed. If so, that sign should be in a museum somewhere, and I will go to that museum. All I saw was a simple green sign pointing to (if I recall correctly) bombing range B-17.

One of the advantages of taking a couple of extra days for the trip is that you have more flexibility to dodge the weather. This presupposes that you pay attention to forecasts. Last year I had a thoroughly unpleasant time moving east through Kansas as thunderstorms knocked me about and generally tried to kill me. “Not this time!” said I, and put in a long day to get from Ely (rhymes with mealy), Nevada, to Boulder, Colorado. I drove right into a massive thunderstorm as I crossed Vail Pass. Whee.

A side note: Don’t people put crowns on roads anymore? This highway was freshly resurfaced, and there was no effort made whatsoever to encourage water to flow to the sides of the road. Good God Almighty, does the highway department think water behaves differently these days? I settled in behind a car (at a safe distance) and when great geysers of water flew up from his car, I prepared myself for the same. Slowly, sanely, we all made our way down off the mountain.

View out my window this morning


Overall, I-70 west from Salina, Utah to Golden, Colorado is the most consistently scenic 400+ hundred miles of road in the US interstate system. (If you have a few extra minutes, highway 60 west of Golden is an excellent aside – today I followed the course of the pure rocky mountain spring water muddy rocky mountain thunderstorm runoff almost to the brewery gates.) As with any road that spans hundreds of miles, there are a couple of boring stretches, but overall no amount of engineering could overcome the joy of driving through the rocky mountains and the majestic deserts of eastern Utah. (The goal of the interstate system is to engineer out all joy of travel in the names of safety and efficiency.)

I’m in rural Kansas right now, conservative as it gets (or at least Republican). I look like an old hippie. Kansas folk are friendly, though; they just can’t help it. All they need is a little help from me, a friendly hello, a smile, and then “he may be an old hippie but he’s a nice man.” This is true pretty much anywhere; people want to have a friendly interaction with you most of the time, so just help them out.

View out my window this evening


Latest Google Search: Does too much turkey jerky cause hemorrhoids? Followed closely by: God, is there any other indignity you would care to thrust upon me?

Yes, in my short time here in the Bible Belt, I have already become a man of prayer.

6

Road Trip by the Numbers

My sweetie and I just made a quick road trip from here in San Jose down to Tucson, Arizona, and back. The light of my life happens to be the light of other people’s lives as well, and one of her closest friends has been having a tough time of it lately. It was time to go lend a bit of moral support, and to introduce me to part of my sweeties (non-genetic) extended family.

Time was limited, however, and cash not as plentiful as we would like, factors that combined to make this a long drive with little rest. Here are a couple of interesting stats:

Waking hours spent driving: 50% (about 33/65)
Increase in car's mileage: 5.5%

That second number may not seem that significant, until you realize the car is ten years old:

Miles per day, first ten years: 33700/3650 = 9.2
        (includes a road trip from San Jose to Los Angeles)
Miles per day, last four days: 1880/4 = 470

The last stat of note:

Beers consumed: 0

Yeah. Next time, we’re flying.

Open Letter to the Guy with the Battered Flag on his SUV

Yes, I’m talking to you. You know who you are; you’re the guy that thinks flag-burning should be constitutionally banned, yet you drive around with a tattered, battered mockery of the flag and the country it represents. Oh, I know you felt proud when you put that little flag on there. DAMN I’m a good American! Let’s all stand up and salute (me)! Just remember: when you bought that flag, you also took on responsibility.

Then you continued to fly that flag in the rain, and at night. Huh. Kinda disrespectful there, Sparky.

Now your flag is much the worse for wear. It is truncated, and the edge is tattered to threads. The dyes have all faded, especially the red, so that the stripes are barely discernible. Yet still you parade around with this thing attached to your car. How is this not worse than someone burning a flag as a conscious exercise of free speech?

There used to be a lot more of you. In the last patriotism boom millions of folks bought (incorrectly packaged and handled) little flags and put them on their cars. Look at me! I love America! What happened to all those little flags? I’ll tell you what happened: those patriots threw them in the trash once they got too tattered. Somehow sending a flag to rot in a landfill is not as bad a burning it.

Which brings me to the US Flag Code. You’ve already abused the hell out of the part that says “The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.” (This is under the section titled “Respect for the Flag”.) It’s time to move on to disposing of your shameful insult to your country. What are you going to do? You’re not going to just throw it away, are you? You’re a patriot! The flag is a symbol of your country! That’s why you’re flying it in the first place. So what are you going to do?

How about “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

Yep. You should burn that American Flag. Of course, this won’t be the camera-drawing antics of a hippie protester, but instead will be a solemn occasion while you consider the flag, what it stands for, and respect the service it has done. Gather the kids around to pass that deep respect on to the next generation. I recommend flagkeepers.org as a reference for the proper way to respectfully dispose of your little plastic badge of patriotism.

Gah! You’re going to throw it in the trash anyway, aren’t you. Yeah, you’re a real patriot.

2