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.

We’re Not In Oz Anymore

I am in Kansas now, in a friendly town called Garden City. Man, I’m glad I decided to make the drive from Chama to Lawrence in two days. I’m tired. Cumbres pass seems like a long time ago.

Because I was making the trip in two days, I didn’t worry about getting an early start. Eventually I made my way down the dirt road to the highway, paused to slather on sunscreen, and turned the car north. Chama was quiet (no surprise there) and the mile markers ticked away the short life of New Mexico road 17. As I slipped across the border into Colorado the native american radio station was playing the blues. I reached the station at Cumbres Pass just as the train pulled in with a final chuff, pausing to rest and make sure the brakes were in good shape before the long descent into Antonito. I had no such worries myself and carried on without hesitation.

I made my way through the high passes, happy to see patches of snow, and then down through drifting cottonwood fuzz. In a villiage whose name I didn’t catch, I passed a small church, roofless, windowless, the two towers flanking the door echoing the architecture of old spanish missions. Within, people were gathering, setting up folding chairs for a noontime mass. I imagine that God had a particularly good view of the pious folk gathering below.

Once past Antonito the terrain became less interesting, and I had time to wonder if the cumulus clouds building on the horizon were going to be relevant to me. I wasn’t too worried, the thunderstorms build up their energy over the mountains, and roads prefer to go between the peaks. Eventually the storms would break free of their terrestrial moorings and wander over the plain, but it was early yet for that sort of shenanigans.

I approached the bank of boiling clouds, and sure enough the road found a gap between them — almost. Suddenly the air turned chill and a few big drops smacked against the windshield. There was certainly no need to stop and put the top up, however, that would have allowed rain to come in. I carried on and was soon clear of the storm. The thunderhead gave chase, but there was no way it was going to catch me.

Highway 10 between Hollister and La Junta is the sort of road where you entertain yourself by measuring how many miles the road goes without turning (ten miles, twice, but no truly spectacular straightnesses). La Junta was all I expected it to be. I wondered as I drove into town, whether one of the farms I passed was where my buddy John grew up. There was no plaque or roadside monument that I saw, so there was no telling.

Note to La Junta signage people: Take all the signs that say highway 50 that are on roads other than highway 50, and put them on highway 50 instead. When you put up a sign that says “to highway 50” you might want to follow that up with the next turn that is also necessary to reach the promised road. I’m just saying is all.

Beyond La Junta I passed through scattered farming communities, including Hasty, CO (speed laws strictly enforced). Then, Kansas. The ranch land gradually gave way to better soil and farms, and by the time I reached Holcomb the rolling hills were gone and one could reasonably measure the curvature of the earth by observing distant grain silos. I had plenty of daylight, but no interest in driving further; not long after came Garden City and the promise of hotel rooms with Internet access.

I checked in and the friendly desk attendant showed me where to go for a burger and a beer, marking my course on a map. I followed the (quite simple) directions and drove directly to a great big church. An error on the clerk’s part, or a hint? Only God and clerk know, but after some searching I found the promised bar, and here I sit at Jax Sports Grille (A winning place!), tired, annoyed by a salty baked potato (though the burger wasn’t bad), checking over which parts of my body I missed with the sunscreen (back of left hand, inside of left elbow, small spot on right temple) and which parts could have used more (almost everywhere else). Sometimes the key to a good drive is knowing when to stop.

Road Food at Don Juan’s

The first billboard for the McDonald’s in Lordsburg, NM is at least sixty miles to the west, somewhere in the trackless deserts of Southern Arizona. I had had only a light breakfast (a chunk of beef jerky washed down with Mountain Dew) and I was starting to have feeding urges. Another hour’s drive sounded about right.

As I approached, I considered pushing on a little farther to Deming, sixty more miles to the east. A timely gastric rumbling decided me, and I signaled to leave the freeway. McDonalds was right there – easy off, easy on.

But, what a minute… McDonalds? What the heck was I thinking? This is New Mexico. I spotted a little food shack just behind the McD’s. Much better choice. Well, it would have been except that it was out of business. Bummer. Then I noticed that in the competition between chains and local joints was far from over; the Dairy Queen had been stripped of its distinctive signage and instead just read, “Don Juan’s Now Open.” I decided to drop in on Juan.

Don Juan’s is a little place, quite obviously a converted fast food joint. There were about ten different kinds of burritos, all three dollars, all with green chile. There were tacos and stuff as well, but I scored a pair of chile reilleno burritos and a coke. Juan and I chatted about the rainstorms of last night, what a nice day it had turned out to be after all, and then my food was ready. I sat and opened my book, which I think disappointed Don Juan, but I was too busy eating some fine home cookin’ anyway. Soon after a pair of border patrol trucks pulled up, then the state police were represented, then a guy from a construction company showed up with a huge order.

My one regret: not getting an extra side order of the green. The chile he used was good, but if some is good, then more is better.

Had I seen the cops and border patrol cars there when I pulled up, I would have know already that Don Jose was the place to go. Those guys know. As it was I was lucky, had some tasty food that doesn’t happen at chain restaurants, along with friendly service. He does not offer Green Chile Cheeseburgers, however. “I used to cook burgers at the old place,” Don Juan told a Navajo couple who were in for the first time. “I’m tired of them.” Yes indeed, the American Dream right there kids, from flipping burgers to having his own place. Please join me in wishing him all the best.

If you’re down Lordsburg way, do yourself a favor and pay Juan a visit.

Mad Dog’s Dog House, Last Observations

As I released urine back to the wilds (Andy Williams singing “Born Free” in my head throughout), I discovered that I had the opportunity to purchase “the ONLY glow-in-the-dark condom certified to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of sexually communicated disease”. That quote is, I afraid, only approximate, but the word “prevent” was definitely there. I cringed a bit at that; I suppose it’s already been argued in court just what reduction in statistical probability qualifies as “prevent”. Foe me, prevent is absolute; condoms are not. So somewhere, I imagine, “reduce the probability by 99%” has been legally defined as “prevent”. Meanwhile people in the real world read that word and believe prevent means prevent.

I’m just sayin’, is all. I’m not arguing against condoms, far from it. 99% protection is massive. Maybe it’s better than 99%, but they are imperfect, and lives are at risk. Not a time to be harboring unrealistic expectations.

And… crap. When I started this episode I had the serious thing to discuss and then the light thing. Start serious, go light. Journalistic gold. The light thing has long since wandered off to the sunny meadows where happy thoughts romp, and unfortunately I forgot to put a radio collar on the idea so now my chance of tracking it is negligible. It’s a funny thing (in the not-funny sense of the word); I set out on this episode absolutely confident that there was no possible way I could forget the second point. Whatever is was. It probably wasn’t that good anyway, or I would remember. That’s what mom used to say, but maybe that was before she realized what a rockethead I am.

Cyberpunk theme: You get an idea, and you say “tag that”, and the machine that is part of your brain applies a verbal recall code to your thought. The machine then remembers the idea for you, and you can recall it by invoking the tag. The crisis: most people decide to tag everything, which leads to hopeless clutter, and civilization teeters. The moral: there’s a reason you forget stuff. Most of it is crap anyway. I see a sit-com…


Mad Dog’s, Kingman, Arizona

It’s been a long day, and a quiet haven with decent beer is just the thing. I’m sitting now at Mad Dog’s. It is quiet in here right now, a couple of locals are playing pool, a few more are sitting at the bar, and I’m across the room in one of the booths. There are televisions, but the big ones are turned off due to lack of sports, and the small ones are quiet enough to be avoidable. I am drinking Black Dog Ale, which has a nice balance between hops and malt. It is also quite reasonably priced. There are paper towel dispensers on the tables, an indication that ribs are on the menu. There is a very big Iguana in an enclosure, and he’s territorial. I looked in on him and he immediately began to go into the old head-bobbing, throat-flap-showing, weird-disk-throat-things (ears?) flashing routine. The dude’s got to be five feet long.

Behind the bar is a pitcher to hold donations for Biker Bob. To meet his expenses. I asked, and Bob’s dead now. Pancreatic cancer. The locals lost a bit of color recently. I wonder how long that pitcher will be there. Could you take it down? Will you rate a pitcher?

As I write this, I am pausing periodically to take a deep breath. Air in, stress out. Prolonged adrenaline shock. It all started in Holbrook, where I had planned to stop so I could assault the pass in Flagstaff after the storm passed. That was going to leave a long, long drive tomorrow, and then I heard the weather guy say that things were going to be no better in the morning, and perhaps worse. I decided to forge ahead.

At first things went pretty well. The snow started coming down in big, fat, flakes, but there was enough traffic to keep the slow lane fairly clear. We all just slowed down to 40 mph and trundled on. At the flagstaff exit that leads to the hotels, things were going well enough that I decided to keep going.

The “things going well enough” lasted another mile. There I was in a long line of trucks keeping the slush churning so it wouldn’t freeze, then every damn one of them went south on I-17 toward Phoenix. Road conditions got suddenly, dramatically worse, and they stayed that way. To make matters worse, there was no place to pull over to put on chains. In Donner Pass chains are commonplace, but through Flagstaff no one had them, or, like me, they were unable to find a place to put them on. The next exit was a ways on, and after slipping and sliding down the road I reached the exit to find it unplowed and untracked. I decided not to guess just where the road was, and continued on down the freeway at a nerve-wracking 20 mph.

At one point traffic came to a stop as we worked past an accident. Despite the level ground the back wheels broke free when I tried to start moving again. Finally I put the car in 2nd gear and worked the clutch very, very gently and managed to creep forward again. After a couple of miles of barely moving, my clutch leg was wearing out.

My old ice-driving skills slowly came back to me, and things were going smoother, but there were accidents everywhere. On truck had a trailer folded in a big ‘V’, with boxes strewn about, interspersed with what looked like loaves of bread. There were plenty of solo spinouts as well. Traffic crept on, and in the distance I saw another truck off to the side of the road, next to a structure I couldn’t make out. As I got closer I realized that I was looking at the underside of a horse trailer that had tipped over. Holy crap. As I passed I saw the two horses standing off to the side, but that must have been a pretty traumatic time getting them out of the tipped-over trailer. I hope they weren’t hurt.

Not long after that a truck passed me. It was a flatbed trailer carrying steel, and as it pulled up next to me it hit the brakes. I could just imagine the trailer skidding to the side and swatting me off the road like a fly. I started making emergency contingency plans. Nothing happened. We all continued our creep over the divide and gradually down the other side.

After a while tires started making the splashy hiss of water, but it was a long time before anyone on the road summoned the courage to speed up. The collective trauma of the pass still held us all, and it wasn’t until many miles later that traffic gradually picked up speed again. That was fine with me. Snow turned to rain as darkness fell, Half the traffic sped up while the other half continued to creep along, adding one last threat before I saw the lights of Kingman and said, “No mas.”

The girl at the hotel desk pointed me to Mad Dog’s, an easy walk, and it was the right choice. The juke box is playing now, and the tunes are pretty good (at this moment Jimi Hendrix is playing “The Wind Cries Mary”), and loud enough to be worthwhile.

One more deep breath, one more beer. It’s OK now.


The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.

They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.

We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.

The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.

I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.

I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.

The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Road Therapy

My stay in San Diego didn’t really go as planned. I found myself inheriting and amplifying the stress of everyone around me, my own stress level steadily increasing, leading to me drinking more than I should have last night, and this morning I had an urgent need to just get out of there. So I snubbed several friends and even a couple of dogs and I just legged it out of town.

By El Centro, California, I was feeling a little better, but I figured that the smaller the road the more therapeutic it would be. I popped into In-N-Out Burger and took my atlas inside to have a meal and plan my route. Let me say categorically that El Centro In-N-Out at lunchtime is not the place to soothe jangled nerves. The place was a frickin’ zoo, with people jockeying for tables, and clusters of customers waiting for to-go orders blocking the aisles. I found a spot to sit and opened the atlas, conscious of the covetous eyes longingly staring at my prime table. So much for lingering and enjoying a meal.

And yes, I could have just gone somewhere else, but I kind of had a hankering for the classic. Had I picked up the vibe while standing in line I probably would have left, but there was no guarantee that other places weren’t also crazy.

After lunch, things got better. A few miles north of El Centro I joined highway 78, an old-school road that rolls with the landscape rather than the cut-and-fill style of more modern highways. I remember from family trips in the long past signs reading “Dips”, but those roads are rare now, although they are still just as fun as they were when I was a kid. Passing over Imperial Sand Dunes there were some spots with significant sand buildup, but otherwise the road surface was in good shape and the car was running like a champ. Life started to seem a little better.

I took the interstate over the Colorado River but soon after I hopped onto highway 60, which wasn’t terribly exciting, but as I made my way up toward Prescot things got steadily more fun. As the sky turned purple in my rear view I climbed up onto the Kaibab plateau, twisting and turning up the brand new surface of highway 89, a road made for driving.

(Yes, I know that pretty much all roads are made for driving, but there’s driving and then there’s driving.)

Flagstaff. A cheap hotel, a meat loaf sandwich in a brightly-lit diner. Just me. Here, the only issues I have to deal with are my own. I feel bad about not seeing so many people, but I don’t think I would have been much fun anyway.

The Road Less Traveled

The shimmering blacktop stretched out before me, undulating across the desert floor, and I knew I was in the right place. No place. Just me, tiny, alone, crawling slowly across the face of the world. The road rose slowly but steadily, carrying me to the base of the San Bernadino mountains, then winding ever upward through switchbacks and icy corners, up into the snowy forest.

At Big Bear City I opted for the smaller road for the next leg of my journey south, happy that it was a work day and therefore the road was free of skiers from Los Angeles and San Diego. The only obstacle I faced was an accident scene near the top of the pass; a big rig and at least two other vehicles had tangled. One SUV had been hit broadside by the truck, and almost pushed over the edge for what would have been a long fall. Emergency crews were on hand, cleaning up glass, measuring things, and directing traffic. There was room for me to squeeze past the wreckage and once more I was on my way.

Down from the mountains I continued south, aiming for Hemet and a very small road due south through the metropolis of Sage. Alas, I couldn’t find the dang road amidst the runaway housing developments in Hemet, and I wound up taking the larger highway 79 down to Temecula. Boy, was that depressing. Everywhere the land was scraped flat and where there weren’t new houses all lined up, there will be soon.

Many of the future buyers of these houses will commute every day down to San Diego. Once I was on the Interstate I saw the truly massive expansion efforts under way to funnel these people from the north down to where their jobs are. Someone needs to build a railroad or a commuter blimp service or something.

I was tempted to leave the freeway again, to take the really long route to San Diego, but highway 79 had robbed the day of its magic, and I decided to just get here and meet up with folks. And that’s where I am now, sharing a sofa with a cat, tired, and very soon for the land of nod. Overall, I’m glad I chose to go around the city of angels, even if it did mean extra miles. A lot of those miles were of a particularly high quality.

A Bumpy Day of Travel

I’m sitting now in a Denny’s in Selma, California. I did not plan to stop after covering such a short distance, but sometimes even plans as nebulous as mine go astray.

It all started when I bid my gracious Piker hosts goodbye and hopped in the car for a fairly routine trip down the central valley. If things went well, I’d add a couple of hours to the trip to go around Los Angeles. I turned the key and… nothing. The battery was dead, after racking up significant highway miles yesterday. One trip to the auto parts store and a jump start later, and I was on my way. Clearly, though, the months of storage and little use had taken its toll on the battery. Wherever I stopped for the night, it was a safe bet that I’d need a jump start in the morning. The auto parts store didn’t have a battery for a Miata — it’s some kind of mini-sized high-tech thing. I would need to go to a Mazda dealership.

Then the road. Highway 99 south, an easy drive despite fairly heavy traffic. Zipping along, I saw a sign by the highway. Selma Auto Mall. Mazda. Well, heck, I’m going to be buying a battery, so why wait? I pulled off at the next exit and began to work my way back to the dealership. It was not obvious how to get there and I was in a residential area when I pulled out from a stop sign and turned to see a car coming right at me. The girl driving locked up her brakes and slid on the rain-slick pavement, slowly slowing, and right up to the end I was able to hope that disaster would be averted. As she came to a stop the noses of our cars kissed. Ouch. Although a more skilled driver might have been able to avoid me, the collision was, without a doubt, my fault.

We pulled to the side of the road. I’ll say this for the flexible plastic parts at the front corners of our two cars, They really handle this sort of impact admirably. There were some scratches and paint swapping, but everything was fundamentally intact. “I’m going to call my dad,” the other driver said. While waiting for him I gave her my insurance info and whatnot.

Dad arrived, looked over the damage, and said, “I don’t think we need the police.” I readily agreed. Not knowing what else to say, I told Dad that I had already given his daughter my insurance info. “Do you want to use insurance?” he asked. “I know a guy.”

The prospect of just taking care of the repair without taking a hit to my insurance premiums was attractive, to say the least. So, we all formed a convoy, dad in the lead, and drove across town to a backyard body shop just past the city limits. They all exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, obviously old pals, and one of the guys looked over the scratched-up bumper. he named a price, less than what I expected, far less than the hit to insurance premiums would be. Now all that was left was getting to a bank machine for the cash. Dad gave me a lift in his pickup truck, and on the way we had a nice conversation. he used to live in Mexico City, but much preferred the small-town life. He had 40 acres of farmland, and had just been offered $50,000 per acre for it, but he hadn’t sold. Where would he go? He liked it where he was.

Overall, that little automotive bump could have gone a lot worse than it did. It cost me precious cash out of pocket, and time, but thanks to the fact I was dealing with reasonable, friendly people it all turned out OK. Then it was back to the original destination. I was due for an oil change, so I went ahead and had them do that while I was in the neighborhood. Once that is done I’ll hook up the new battery and I’ll be off and running once more. Let’s hope the rest of the trip is without unexpected bumps.


Evening has arrived. The service guys were kind enough to set my clock for Pacific time; it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t experiencing a premature twilight caused by the low clouds. I could have pressed on, worked my way through LA, and arrived in San Diego late in the evening. I chose not to. LA is a big obstacle, but with planning and a little extra time, it can be avoided. Rather than plow through the hellish traffic of Los Angeles, I chose to go around. Tonight I am sitting in a place called Molly’s Pub, poised for some fine back-road driving in the morning.

Tune in tomorrow for: The Road Less Taken!

Snowbound in the Sierras

Things I have in common with the Donner Party:

  1. We both took an indirect route to get to the pass.
  2. We were both forced by the weather to stop on the trail
  3. We both ran out of beef jerky

The key difference:

  1. There was a restaurant 100 yards from where I was stopped on the freeway

After waiting more than an hour for traffic on the freeway to move, I trundled up the shoulder to the exit and stopped off for a nice lunch. I arrived to hear Willie Nelson’s “On the road again,” sat with a view of the stationary vehicles out on the freeway, and read my book while waiting for the police to open up the freeway at Donner Pass. The wait was no big deal, but it did render my new set of tire chains unnecessary.

On The Road Again

Yesterday was a day of travel, but just the little-t sort of travel that is concerned with destinations. This morning found me in Oak Creek, just south of Sedona, Arizona. I pulled out the atlas and discovered that there really was only one sensible route to take to reach my destination in California. I didn’t go that way.

The air was brisk, but it was certainly a top-down kind of day. Beef jerky, Gatorade, and the open road. This, my friends, is what America is all about.

I went up Oak Creek Canyon to reach Flagstaff, and wow, what a pleasant stretch of road that is. The leaves on the (I assume) oak trees were still changing, and there was some big, energetic symphonic thing playing on the radio. (I regret now that my little voice recorder is in Prague.) At the top of the canyon I stopped for pictures, then headed toward town. In the days of yore, mariners welcomed the sight of sea gulls which heralded their arrival in the new world; in a similar fashion the pizza delivery truck announced my arrival in town.

I rolled into Flag in a mood for small roads. There is a road out of Flagstaff, due north, that I had never driven. And hey, I needed to go north… a bit. We won’t discuss the three mountain ranges I put in my way by going north, then west, rather than the other way around. I turned my back to the winter sun and north I went.

Highway 89 was a bit of a disappointment. The map showed it running right up the edge of the painted desert, but it follows the echo cliffs, which block out the vast panoramic views I was hoping for. From just above Flagstaff I was under overcast skies, and there was a gloomy aspect to the Indian crap stalls lining the highways, deserted, “OPEN” banners flapping in the wind.

One crap shop that was open was Chief Yellowhorse, which, with a bright red-on-yellow lettering, promised “FRIENDLY INDIANS”. Whew! That’s a relief!

North and north some more, past the turnoff to Tuba city, past the UPS party (bunches of UPS trucks parked off the road, shuffling trailers), heading for Glen Canyon dam, and all along the way the grandeur of nature was undermined by the scars of man. Down this corridor power transmission lines, roads, and run-down buildings, abandoned vehicles, and a general feeling of decay predominate. Farther north, however, the road becomes more interesting as it climbs up onto the Kaibab plateau and makes a run for Utah. At the Glen Canyon Dam (the one Edward Abbey wanted to blow up), there is a cool rock formation that looks like a beehive. It is obscured from the distance by the power station for the dam, and one shoulder of it is cut away for the visitor’s center parking lot. The power station I can understand, and the rocks will be there long after the station has rusted away, but I think the marketing boys didn’t see the value that cool rock would have as an identity for the dam, and they harmed it’s value while catering to the very people who would have appreciated it.

I came out from under the overcast skies somewhere around the Utah border, as I added a bit of west to my journey. I passed though a little farm town in southern Utah, nestled in a narrow valley, that was named Orderville. I am careful with speed limits in all those small towns, but in this place even the name suggested that there would be no shenanigans tolerated. Sure enough, at the school crossing (just past the sign advertising handmade caskets), a truck with police lights waited at the side of the road. At the wheel I couldn’t help but notice the long graceful neck and the full red lips of the cop inside. She was fast asleep. I didn’t take a picture, I just kept driving.

The last time I had been in those parts I had driven through Zion National Park, so this time I elected to pass to the north, to see some new scenery. It is time to add Utah Highway 14 to the list of best roads in the country. I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for all the warnings about how I was doomed to die if my car wasn’t equipped for deep snow. When I got to the summit, to my right was a breathtaking vista, the forest a patchwork far below, bare deciduous trees mingled with the conifers, open meadows with pristine white snow, shimmering with suggested rainbows in the low sun. I just looked; I didn’t take a picture, I just paused and kept driving. The trip down the other side twisted and turned, taking me past a frozen cascade and into a narrow canyon. If you put this road on your to-drive list, I recommend going west to east, as sharp corners are more fun going uphill.

I stopped at Cedar River (Cedar something, anyway) to warm my hands and fuel up, then it was off into the sunset, west toward the Nevada border, into a spectacular sunset that used the whole sky. It got dark quickly once the sun had quit the scene, and I turned on the heater to blow onto my red hands. I was rolling.

When I joined the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (no idea why it’s named that, but it’s even labeled on the map), I passed a sign reading “Next gas 150 miles”. I glanced at my gauge and thought, “No problem.” Ten miles later I looked again and was considerably less confident. I pulled over and put the top up for better aerodynamics and slowed down to 59 miles per hour, rather than the posted limit of 70. Slowing down also extends the time of uncertainty, but after I have covered the first 110 miles I could see that I would make it with plenty of gas to spare. I didn’t speed back up, though; that pace just seemed so comfortable at that point, just rolling along quietly, the road mine and mine alone.

A bit of perspective for European and Eastern US readers (Australian readers need not bother): In the 240 km for which I was driving 18 kph under the speed limit, I was never passed by another car. In fact, I traveled more than 100 km, more than an hour, without seeing any other car moving in either direction. In more than two hours of driving, I met four cars total. This was in the evening, between 18.30 and 21.00, not the middle of the night. There are some big, open spaces out here, places people can (and do) disappear.

I rolled into Tonopah, by far the largest town for a long way in any direction. There were several hotels, and some of them advertised free Internet. My first try was the Clown Hotel. It didn’t look that great, but I wanted to open this episode with “I’m at the Clown Hotel.” You have to jump when you have a chance to use a line like that. You can be sure it will show up in a story some day. Perhaps “From Clown Hotel to Space Age Lodge: A voyage across the desert southwest.”

It was full. So was the Best Western. I wound up at the Ramada, which doesn’t suck but it cost a bit more. My WiFi signal is sporadic, but here I am and here I’ll sleep. There is a casino here, but it only has slot machines, so there’s no temptation on that score. There is television, however, and the late-night cartoons of Adult Swim are doing a wonderful job distracting me. Why does every anime dubbed into English use that horrible, horrible, girl for one of the voices? She must be the worst actor in the world with a steady income.

For all the driving I did, I’m not really that much closer to my destination, and now I face mountain passes and winter storms. Not the smartest bit of route planning I’ve ever done, but you don’t look down from the summit on Utah Highway 14 in the winter when you travel intelligently. I guess maybe I should sleep now. At the moment I don’t have a signal, but hopefully I can post this soon.

Welcome to Eureka (rhymes with Sligo)

You can say what you want about Denny’s, but it’s got one thing going for it: No door locks. I was wandering the blustery rustic streets of Eureka, and there was just one thing on my mind. Breakfast. I need breakfast the way a mole rat needs fur. (You see? would I have written that if I was not loopy with hunger and uncaffeinated?)

The historic downtown district has been prettied up for the tourists, and I was confident that I would find a nice little café where I could drink a nice cup of tea. The cold rain stung my face as I walked, and I was thankful for my beard. Not too far along I found a place. Closed. I passed some nice-looking places, but they all opened later. Ooooo-kay. Starting to get hungry. Ahead I saw a bagel place. Perfect! It turns out they are open six days a week, but not on Tuesdays. Tuesdays! Around a corner and another block toward the bay was a promising sign. Sorry, closed, out of business, thanks for your support.

So, Denny’s, for almost-right eggs over easy and toast oozing butter. Delicious!

A Dark and Stormy Night

The design of this little hotel is interesting. The ground floor is for the cars, and the motel above is turned inside-out, with the doors opening onto a central court, lit by skylights. The rafters over the court are covered with spikes to convince our feathered friends that what would otherwise be an ideal nesting place is off-limits. The building is older, with those little signs of decay that are hard to pinpoint but add up to a feeling that of a place that wasn’t that well-built to start with and has seen better days.

I chose to stay in, and I spent the evening reading and eating snack food. The wind whipped around the building and drummed on the roof. It was downright chilly, so I turned on the heater—one of those gas-fired wall units, about five feet high, the enamel darkened near the top from years of use, the kind that emits carbon monoxide if it’s not adjusted properly. I read until I started nodding off, then turned out the light and fell quickly to sleep.

Quickly, but not for long. I awoke to a series of low, resonant clanging sounds noises coming from the heater. They slowed down over the next couple of minutes and eventually stopped. The metal of the heater was contracting, I guessed, after the thermostat had reached temperature and shut it off. I listened to the rain come in squalls, fierce yet brief, hammering the roof and the tin chimney of my heater. The storm was playing the metal pipe like a musical instrument—no, a band, with percussion and woodwinds. Heavy drops rattled and pinged off the metal while the wind resonated in the pipe with low moans and higher whistles. The whole was punctuated by the periodic smack from the bathroom as the vent louvers opened and slapped back closed with the shifting winds.

I lay in the darkness, having just finished one Pulitzer prize-winning novel and started another, and thought of graceful and floral ways to describe the night. This morning I can’t remember any of them. They sure seemed good at the time, though.

Twice more last night I awoke to the clunk-clunk-clunk of the heater as it expanded or contracted. By the numbers, it was not a great night of sleep, but this morning I feel refreshed, perhaps because I decided not to drive today. That’s right, I’ll be returning to the same place tonight.

Delayed by Weather

The Weather Channel is calling the roads around here “a big mess”, so I’m going to take time out from driving and catch up on some writing. Unfortunately, TWC is also calling for dangerous surf and “rough bar conditions”. I’d better leave the laptop in my room.