Thursday, August 19, 2010

For Spacious Skies and Subarus

Two afternoons ago, I left for a lunchtime errand of supplemental grocery shopping (hummus, bacon, cheese, oatmeal, wine and gum). It had been pouring since early morning - the sky was a raisinish color and the air felt two months too old. I popped in the last of a stack of audiobooks, Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down" and sat in the Bag 'N Save parking lot. North London accents and rain go well together (even better than oatmeal and wine), and lulled by the wiper's rhythm, I had to force myself to go back to work. Plus, turns out the story is about suicide (well, at this point anyway), and you can only listen to suicide stories in the rain for so long before you need to watch a YouTube video of a Japanese family throwing their cat a birthday party.

The point of this long pointless intro comes back to the audiobooks -- aside from a few floor peanuts and a stack of rest stop maps stuffed between seats, these CDs are the lingering evidence of the trip we took just two weeks ago. It seems like it's been longer than that, but the fatigue and three McDonald's pounds I found along the way are still holding on for dear life. Despite the after-effects and a mind-blowing Visa bill we just received (nearly all of it spent on gas, with a few scary motels thrown in for good measure), I wouldn't trade that trip for anything except maybe a new bed or a house or both.

Matt had originally set the week aside for a camping expedition with his friends, but said friends have responsibilities that we have yet to tackle (babies, mortgages) and the trip began to disintegrate, little by little, until it finally gave a little adventurous cough and died at the end of July. I volunteered to stand in, although the consolation trip would likely be less manly and exciting. Matt agreed to trade in his dreams of trekking up the sides of mountains for dreams of shuffling up to various quirky landmarks, as long as a few battlefields were thrown in to keep things educational. I agreed to squander away most of my remaining paid time off, and the deal was done.

One night at dinner we made a loose itinerary using Google maps to affirm or shatter any impulsive desires. “I want to go back to Montana.” “But that’s nowhere near the Alamo.” “The Grand Canyon is in Idaho, right?” “It’d be nice to see the east coast.” “Just as long as we can make it to Oklahoma in under eight hours.” What resulted was a mishmash of maybe-we’ll-get-theres. And, for the most part, we got there.

After a quick stop in St. Louis to sleep and fill our cooler with Diet Pepsi, we drove to Tennessee, our first stop being Shiloh National Battlefield. Not my choice, obviously, but I have known Matt for eight years now and have come to expect that most trips will include some cannons, some walking to other cannons, and possibly a historical reenactor or two. I can either sit in the car, or I can suck it up, learn something and maybe buy a bonnet from the gift shop.

So, Shiloh was first, followed by:

Memphis – Nice hotel, empty streets, huge onion rings and Ghost River hefeweizen at the Majestic Grille, a theater turned restaurant.

Vicksburg, MS – We stopped in Vicksburg to see Vicksburg National Military Park (another battlefield). Hot as hell. A gaggle of sweaty pre-teens. Cool gunboat.

Baton Rouge, LA – We’d decided early on that if we were going to travel in the southerly direction, a stop in Baton Rouge was necessary. After all, Libby lives there, with her husband Patrick and their two small, insanely well behaved Boston Terriers, Clark and Louise. We have a thing for Boston Terriers, and also a thing for Patrick and Libby, so it was definitely a highlight. They made us a delicious jambalaya dinner followed ice cream and an episode of Hoarders. We slept soundly and hated to say goodbye.

La Porte, TX – An unplanned detour to see the San Jacinto Monument. It’s a tall monument located in the middle of huge tanks of oil and next to a congealed marsh full of prairie chickens (according to the sign), fireflies (millions) and alligators (probably).

San Antonio, TX – Another required stop along the way. I’ve always been baffled as to why Matt had never been to the Alamo. He’s read everything on the subject, seen every film adaptation. I’d come to see it as my personal duty to get him there. Plus, it would give me a good chance to make basement jokes. New ones that they’d never heard before.

Our hotel was only a block away, but by the time we arrived in town, it was closed for the night. Instead, we wandered past a series of garish Ripley’s-themed tourist traps (and believe it or not, they almost trapped me on several occasions) down to the River Walk, where we ate dinner. Feverish in the heat and delirious from 10 hours in the car, we were coaxed into each ordering a Monster Margarita. Turns out the Monster Margarita costs $25 and comes in a stemmed fishbowl, emblazoned with the Texas flag. We were pissed, but 30 minutes later, we were drunk, and all was forgotten.

We went to the Alamo a total of three times. That night to gaze upon its stony glow. The next morning for a more in depth exploration of the grounds (it is smaller and more chaotic than I imagined it to be). And then again that evening, just to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. At 6:00 the following morning, we bid San Antonio adieu and headed for…

Gila National Forest, NM – Our drive to New Mexico involved traipsing across the vast expanse of West Texas. And by traipsing, I mean watching the Mexican boarder weave in an out of site while burning through the audiobook edition of “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.” It was roughly 600 hours long and obviously not chosen by me, but thoroughly enjoyable (albeit occasionally biased toward American settlers). And mountain passes are even more striking when you’re simultaneously listening to tales of the Comanche’s futile (and brutal) fight for their land.

Arriving too late to camp at Gila, we spent the night at a Motel 6, eating Dominos and theorizing about what exactly was going on across the hall. Meth lab? Children’s birthday party? An unsubtle coyote operation? The next morning, we set out for Gila, where we hiked to the park’s famous cliff dwellings. Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion, if you’ve seen one cliff dwelling, you’ve seen them all. And I’d seen some about 10 years ago in high school. Therefore, I spent the afternoon easily distracted by lizards and German tourists.

It was at this point that we reached an impasse in our otherwise solid planning. Time was waning, and we could either stay at Gila for the night or press on, attempting to cram as many landmarks, formations and battlefields into one trip. And so it was decided – we’d drive to…

The Grand Canyon – But not before taking a two-hour detour to the town of Tombstone, Arizona… a town of OK Corral-themed gift shops, old-time photo establishments, horse-drawn carriage tours, dusty museums and taffy. We toured the old courthouse and then ate dinner at Big Nose Kate’s, a saloon named after the first prostitute in Tombstone, Arizona Territory (and Doc Holiday’s girlfriend). We sat underneath a TV that played “Tombstone” on a continuous loop. The servers wore modified western prostitute outfits, pieced together from satin Walmart bustiers and fishnets. I stole a menu.

Again, the Grand Canyon – We managed to arrive before the day’s tourist boom, before the busses full of old people and rented Chevy Malibus full of French families on holiday. I single out the French because, as we began to make our way back to the car, we were replaced along the rim by throngs of French tourists. I hope the canyon was grand enough for them.

After leaving Flagstaff, we drove and drove and drove until we reached Amarillo, TX, where we stayed at a very nice SleepInn that will likely be the subject of my first Yelp review. And then the next morning, fueled by make-your-own waffles, we drove some more, making our way to…

Cheyenne, Oklahoma - Home of the Washita Battle Historical Site,
“where Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle on November 27, 1868. The attack was an important event in the tragic clash of cultures of the Indian Wars era.”
(Taken from the National Park Service website).

We watched the video and perused the gift shop, where I manhandled plush buffalo while Matt bought a book. There rest of our visit was spent wandering around the battlefield in the hot prairie sun, swatting at dragonflies and reading little signs. The heat was brutal, and after walking most of the grounds, I made my way back to a picnic shelter. There I met a park ranger who informed me that the author of the book Matt had just purchased was to arrive shortly. We waited, and waited, and what ensued was well worth all of the waiting and waiting. Not only did the author show up, but he was accompanied by this guy.

Despite my admitted lack of appreciation for history, I have a huge place in my heart for funny old people, and I loved Ed Bearss. Matt loved him for more cerebral reasons. Right there in the picnic shelter, for the two of us, his author friend and the park ranger, he performed his opening monologue about John Brown from Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Matt had his picture taken with them. And finally, we had to pull ourselves away. Meeting a celebrity can get awkward pretty quickly, so you have to know when to cut and run.

We were already behind schedule, having left Cheyenne late in the afternoon. Our goal was to make it to Kansas City in time to meet up with friends. Some Omahans had traveled southward to spend the day at Oceans of Fun for Monica’s birthday. We’d missed the oceans but were hoping for at least one hour of fun and perhaps a drink or two. But as the miles crawled by, the Garmin began to laugh at us, and we realized we wouldn’t make it… not before midnight.

As we hung our heads in sorrow (not so low that we couldn’t see the road or other motorists), we noticed a KOA campground and decided to stop. I’m honestly not sure where we were…

Somewhere in northeastern Oklahoma – we pitched our still-unused tent and sat, staring at our bug-glazed car, listening to the sounds of the nearby interstate, baking in the heat. We'd laid off anything other than water and soda since our ten-gallon Margarita experience and decided to search for beer. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you’re camping on the side of the highway in Oklahoma? A book, a beer and possibly a raccoon or two. I ended up driving five miles west before I found a Love’s Travel Stop that wasn’t bound by the oppressive rules of the surrounding dry counties.

Back at the KOA and slightly buzzed on lukewarm Bud Light, we left our belongings in the hands of fate and hobos, and wandered past a pen containing two emaciated buffalo up toward the Cherokee Restaurant – a Denny’s-esque relic with a trading post and rotating pie display. After dinner, I bought a car bingo game at the trading post, and we retired to our campsite where we sat, hashing out the events of the past week. Our favorite welcome centers, favorite side-of-the-road oddities, favorite motels, favorite natural wonders, favorite meals.

That night, we slept in pools of sweat and crickets. I kept one eye open, and sometimes two, for the escaped convict that would eventually kill us both and steal my car bingo game. I’m skittish enough in my own home, so sleeping under a mesh ceiling in a psycho trucker’s paradise was enough to keep me from any sort of REM-induced bliss.

We left at 5:00 a.m. for the last stretch toward home. At one point along the way, our horn got stuck and stayed on, blaring for all to hear, for nearly two hours before a kindly tow truck driver took pity on us and charged us $100 to remove a fuse. It was one of those things you tell yourself you’ll laugh about later, even though the physical act of laughter seems repulsive when the entire state of Kansas is giving you the stink eye.

Laugh we did… eventually. Like, five days later. A comical end to an amazing, albeit expensive – gas and hot dogs are expensive! – trip. Matt reached his battlefield quota for 2010. I got to see the Grand Canyon and the state of Oklahoma. We visited old friends and even older hallowed grounds. And perhaps more importantly, we learned the value of spontaneity and the beauty of riding together in contented silence… because there is so much to look at.

“When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife: Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance."
- Sarah Vowell


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