Remembering the road, day 19

Day 19

Today we fled New Mexico and sped through the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, stopping for the night in Missouri, a couple hours short of St. Louis.

We’ve mostly driving along I-40 which allows us to bypass the wildfires near I-70, but it also means we have to cut back north if for no other reason than I-40 is stopped at the Mississippi thanks to the barge that knocked out a bridge there. Besides, our destination is north of here, so that’s a good reason too.

Driving along I-40 means that we were frequently coming into contact with the history Route 66, the first highway to the West. Running from Chicago to Los Angeles (I think), Route 66 boasts many diners and motels, and various tourist traps to lure drivers into pulling over for a rest and a laugh.

In north Texas we streaked past the Cadillac Ranch where a series of Cadillacs are partly buried on end so that they appear to be growing from the ground. Shortly past that is the World’s Largest Cross (in the West). And indeed it is a big cross, surrounded by many other smaller crosses. It crossed my mind that the proprieters of the cross might become cross if someone were to write their name on the cross with a Cross pen. Perhaps that’s an issue that could be debated on Crossfire or become a plot point on Crossing Jordan.

Hours later we stopped in Elk City, OK, at another Roadfood eatery: Billie’s. Billy is the owner and cook. His specialty: onion burgers. Although I detest onions with every fiber of my being, I ordered a King Size burger along with fries and shake. After scraping off most of the onions, I quite enjoyed the burger, along with the enormous shake and the fries. Billy, meanwhile, let the phone ring while he made our order and the orders of people who came in after us and pulled up to Billy’s drive-through.


Once things cooled off a bit, we had Billy sign our book and asked him about his business. He said that for 42 years he ran a dry cleaner across the parking lot, but then OSHA cracked down on him, so he started up the burger joint instead. I don’t know what he did to get OSHA on his case, but with double-size shakes and meaty fries, he gets my support.

While we ate, I looked through the Elk City Eagle, the local paper in town. For 50 cents you get 8 pages filled with one or two locally reported stories, plenty of AP news, Family Circus, Marmaduke, the Bible Quote of the day, a page of around-the-town photos, and classified notices, such as “Guinea Pigs, $30 each.”

Once we finished our meals, we bade farewell to Billy and continued east through Oklahoma. The scenery in Oklahoma isn’t anything to sneeze at, but, in all honesty, it just isn’t as interesting as high snow-capped mountains, rippling rocky canyons, or lengthy vistas of natural beauty. No, it’s mostly rolling hills of small trees and bushes dotted with billboards, fast food restaurants, plain houses, and warehouse-style shopping depots.

So, to pass the time we’re playing games, listening to audio books and music, and trying to find amusement in the billboards. For example, at an Oklahoma toll station, the sign warned of a $103 fine. Who comes up with numbers like these? Was this debated in the state legislature? “I propose a fine of $100!” “One hundred dollars, that’s not nearly enough. I demand $103!” “Here here!”

Another good sign announced free 72-ounce steaks. What’s that? A free 72-ounce steak? Absolutely! You just have to eat the whole thing within some time limit and if you don’t finish it, you have to pay for it. By the way, how big is a 72-ounce steak? That’s four and half pounds, baby!

My nephew Truman is again with us today and he’s spent much of the drive planning our evening accommodations. By plotting out our course and our hourly progress, he has figured out where we will be likely to be when we’re ready to stop driving. Then we crosschecks that with a AAA book listing hotels and motels. By reading up on the options and looking at alternative locations he picks out a clean, inexpensive place to bed down for the night and have a free continental breakfast when we awake. He definitely has a future as a travel agent, or a NASA engineer.

I’m particularly enjoying the drive back as we reenter the land of humidity and low altitude, meaning I can breathe again. I had thought the dry air of the West would help me to breathe easy, but that proved to be wrong. How good it is to be able to breathe. Ahhh…

Tonight, as we drove through Missouri, we noticed that the gas gauge was getting a little low. Our goal was to get to Rolla, MO, and when we were about 120 miles away, we had less than 1/4 of a tank. Near midnight, when we got about 80 miles away, the light came on. When we approached the 60-mile barrier, Cyn encouraged me to get gas. Twenty miles later, we pulled into a gas station that was closed. When we were just 25 miles away, I assured Cyn that I was pretty sure we could make it to Rolla. We turned the A/C off. We hoped and prayed. Then a glowing neon sign beckoned us to pull over and gas up. Reluctantly, I did so, and Cynthia sighed a huge sigh of relief. Our tank holds 15 or so gallons and the pump pushed in 14.2 gallons. We had about 20 miles left to Rolla. It would have been close, but now we’ll never know.

Remembering the road, day 18

Day 18

I awoke this morning to find out we had 20 minutes to clear out of our rooms and drive across the park. It wasn’t because we were evacuated, but because our tickets for the only open cliff dwelling were earlier than expected.

Sam rode with us in the back seat and we hightailed it across the park winding our way through mountainous hills and curves. Sam, who suffers some motion sickness, assured us he was feeling okay just as we approached the parking lot. Then he threw up. It’s quite amazing how much hot chocolate an 8-year-old boy can hurl. We immediately pulled over, stripped him and wiped out the vomit. He felt bad, but he shouldn’t have — he can’t help it — we just felt badly for him. After all, nobody likes to throw up on themselves.

After we cleaned Sam up, we hitched a ride on a tram into a deeper part of the park from where we could explore some of the ancient cave dwellings. Ranger Don was great. He thanked us all for understanding that much of the park had to be closed: “It’s not a matter of if we get fire, but when,” he noted.

The part of the park we were in wasn’t so much in danger. A quick look around explained why; just two years ago fire swept through it and all that remained where the black skeletons of a forest  nothing remaining to burn.

Ranger Don took us into Long House, one of the larger cliff dwellings in the park and explained to us how it is thought that the rooms were used. As always, a loud person was in our group, in this case a large red headed woman whose husband wore a Florida Gator’s tank top, allowing us unprecedented access to his armpit hairs.


“How did they get through those holes?” she shouted at Ranger Don, pointing to the unusually small rectangular doorways allowing the cliff dwellers access to their rooms. He answered that they were big enough for people to get through, but not so big as today’s doors because the people of that time (600 AD to 1200 AD) didn’t need to push big refrigerators and such through them. The red-headed woman was unconvinced. “My husband can’t get through them! His shoulders are too big! Were they small people?”

Ranger Don explained that the people weren’t small… averaging about 5-feet tall, larger than the Europeans of the time. I wondered if her husband had actually tried to push his way through the ancient ruins and what would happen if he got stuck halfway through. I could see him ruining the ancient brick walls and getting red dust all over his Florida Gators tank top and the woman shouting “See!”

The tour of the ruins was very interesting and Ranger Don had a lot to say. He pointed out the narrow and precarious paths the dwellers would use; showed how the people got water seeping out of the sandstone, explained why timbers that were nearly 1,000 years old were still standing strong, and much more. But, as my nephew Truman reminded him, we were running late and had to catch the shuttle bus. So we scampered back to the top of the mesa and continued touring the area.

While riding the shuttle, my brother and sister-in-law started talking to a couple sitting near them. It turned out they were friends of my brother’s in-laws in Ohio. It’s yet another example of how small the world is, and how wherever you go, there’s someone from Ohio. Even the moon! Remember Buzz Aldrin? I bet if there were aliens on the moon, one of them would have asked Buzz where he was from. Buzz would have said, “Ohio,” and the alien would have said, “Really? Me too! Do you know…”

We left Mesa Verde after lunch and headed south into New Mexico. We would have gone directly east, but massive wildfires in Arizona and Colorado were causing delays and detours, so we decided to just skirt the issue by taking a more southerly route. Along the way, we spotted a giant column of smoke rising from a distant hill. It was a small fire and it was belching out a tremendous amount of smoke. Still, the cloud from the fire simply blended into the gray sky, itself already a gloomy hue thanks to the fires. We never came very close to a blaze, but the evidence from them was omnipresent. I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a connection between the fires and our route: 666. Coincidence?

Jane rode with us again, although today she used a towel to keep a slim but vital bit of separation between her and the remains of Sam’s regurgitated hot chocolate. Once again, we nearly forgot she was there as she whiled away the hours sitting and sleeping without saying but a few words.

Streaking into New Mexico, we stopped in Albuquerque for dinner and gasoline. I had let the car run on empty far longer than ever before, coming to within 30 miles or so of running out of gas. After refueling, we briefly explored “Old Town” Albuquerque and looked for a bite to eat. Turning to Roadfood, we settled on the Tortilla Factory, an establishment confirmed by a local merchant to be a great place and a good value. Just a shame, really, that it went out of business several years ago. D’oh!

After looking around briefly for another place to eat, and finding only closed or very expensive restaurants, we turned again to Roadfood. It listed to places on Central street, also known as Route 66. Hoping to get our kicks, we headed down Route 66 and saw that the first place listed, a drugstore with a old fashioned counter, was closed. But, luck was with us at last as we came into the University of New Mexico area and the 24-hour “Frontier.” What a great place! Dinner was fast and delicious. It’s just the sort of place I wish I had near me when I was in college.

Then it was back to the road. Already Cyn and I have listened to a Michael Palin (Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda, etc.) book on CD about his adventures on the Pacific Rim, the first Harry Potter book, and tonight we wrapped up book two of the series. Then it was time for New Mexican radio. We flipped around the dial a bit, not finding much in range. We settled on some bluesy rock music before finally finding an all-the-time Mariachi station. And into the dark night we drove with Mariachi music serenading us down the highway. It’s surprising how many different Mariachi songs there are and how at some point, they all start sounding the same. Kind of like these updates…

Josh and Cyn (mileage: 5,120)

(Note, I’ve changed the mileage from total odometer reading to the trip accumulation. Do I really think anyone cares? Of course not, but I spent at least an hour today thinking about it as mile marker after mile marker after mile marker passed by, so there you have it.)

Remembering the road, day 17

Day 17

This morning I woke up at 4:45 and got my brother up and saw the sun rise. It was another beautiful sight as the red ball of flame slowly lifted over the canyon wall. Once it was blazing above the rim, we set out on a 4-mile roundtrip hike into the canyon. The guidebook told us to plan one hour per mile, but we figured we could do it in half that time.


As we set out, the cold wind chilled us so we moved briskly. The trail was made of sand with wooden ledges, rocky steps and debris, and plenty of mule manure. Initially we’d walk carefully trying to plant our feet solidly without stepping in the mule dung. But before long, we gave up that hopeless plan and just plodded ahead. Deeper into the canyon the views were clearer and stunning. It’s hard to describe how big the Grand Canyon is. Within about 20 minutes we made it to the two-mile mark where a tunnel has been carved out of a massive piece of rock. We used the restroom facilities there and turned around to head back. For the first quarter mile, Mark and I were step in step. But when I needed another break, he pushed on ahead, leaving me to make the steep climb alone. What a brother!

The hike back up was exhausting. Walking in sand is tiring, walking uphill is tiring, walking on uneven terrain is tiring, and walking at 8,800 feet is absolutely tiring. Putting them all together is just flat out exhausting, but I still managed to get back to the top in about an hour, just 10 or so minutes behind Mark, who, I was informed by a hiker heading down into the canyon, was jogging part of the trail. Ugh.

As I walked up the hill, I started noticing pain. First I was getting blisters on my toes. My thigh muscles were beginning to ache, and most oddly, my armpits were getting really irritated. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized that because it is so dry here, any sweat is nearly instantly evaporated. So as I was walking, my arms were rubbing against my sides without the benefit of perspiration lubrication. It was really uncomfortable. Hmm, perhaps I’m revealing too much? Then I won’t speak of my nosebleeds.

Back at the cabins, everyone else slept. I’m glad they did because I’m not driving today. I’m sleeping. I have to make up for these early morning hikes.

Having slept for a hundred miles or so, I awoke to find ourselves on a Navajo reservation… very different from what I expected. Because I really haven’t thought very much about reservations since I was in about the fifth grade, I guess I still had this vague idea that Indians live on reservations sort of like they used to live throughout the country before Europeans arrived. Yeah, that’s pretty naïve, but I really hadn’t ever thought about it.

Of course, it’s nothing like that, or at least, this reservation wasn’t. It was a vast tract of land  I’m not sure exactly how big  with houses and stores and gas stations and such. It seemed like a fairly poor area, with your standard assortment of fast food joints and such. We drove around a bit and found a small place that looked to me like a biker bar. Called “Kate’s Café,” it featured a ham, veggie, and mashed potatoes special for $3.95, a dollar more to include a soup or salad. It was fantastic.

As we ate, I noticed that my nephew Sam was wearing a Cleveland Indians t-shirt and mentioned it to my brother. Knowing that the name and even more, the mascot (Chief Wahoo), is considered by some as racist and discriminatory, it probably wasn’t the wisest choice of wear on an Indian reservation at a restaurant catering to locals. (Later that day, when we stopped at another restaurant touting Mexican fare, I noticed Sam was wearing the shirt inside-out.)

After leaving Kate’s, we continued to head northeast, eventually re-entering Utah and taking a drive through Monument Valley. Anyone familiar with Westerns, especially those made by John Ford, will instantly recognize Monument Valley. It’s a relatively flat desert boasting gigantic thrusts of rock and dirt in the forms of plateaus and spires. As we rounded a curve presenting us with the view, it was like coming across a famous actor on the street.

Sadly, the two giant wildfires in the area conspired to fill the sky with a thick smoky haze, greatly reducing the visibility and the beauty of the landscape. Still, they are impressive and I was thrilled to drive through there.

Passing Monument Valley, we were treated to more canyons, ledges, and other landscapes that changed with each passing mile. One canyon looked like a rock junkyard with giant boulders just strewn about. And then before we knew it, we were back on flat, arid land. As we sped along the two-lane highway, several large animals moved towards the road. At first we thought they were cattle, but their shape wasn’t quite right. Soon we realized we were looking at what we believe to be several wild horses. The horses appeared to be tagged, but were clearly ungroomed. It was an open range area and the horses were simply wandering throughout the open plains.


We turned back to Arizona and within a few minutes we found ourselves at Four Corners  the only place in the country where four states meet at the same point. I was expecting a bit of a marketing zoo. It thought there’d be all kinds of fast food places, shops hawking knickknacks, and such. Instead, it’s a small site run by the Navajo tribe in the area. Flags surround a platform where the four intersecting boundaries are clearly marked on an metal plate. A wooden platform stands over this so that moms and dads can take photos of the kids. Surrounding all of this are stalls from which Navajo members sell art, souvenirs, photos with themselves, and anything else someone might want to buy. To access the area it costs $3 a person.

I took the opportunity to jog from Utah to New Mexico to Colorado to Arizona all within a few seconds. There didn’t seem to be much difference from one state to the next. It’s neat and a fun stop if you’re passing through. But I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to go there. “We planned our whole trip around this,” said one woman whose children posed on the crisscross of the four state boundaries. Clueless as to what to say, I got back in the car.

With us in the car was my niece Jane. Half the time I didn’t even realize she was there, she just sat quietly as we listened to a book on CD. No “are we there yet, are we there yet?” No “I’m hungry…” or “I need to use the bathroom…” She was simply a great traveler!

Since we’re a two-car caravan, we have small walkie-talkies that enables us to keep the other car informed of upcoming stops and needs. This is proving invaluable. I want to have these all of the time. It would be an incredible time saver. I can imagine using them for telling people in cars ahead of me that the light has turned green, or for finding people in the movie theater! There are so many uses!

As we drove, my brother decided to get his car washed. I considered it for a moment, but I really feel the layers of dust, grime, bugs, and tar is giving our car real character. I’m looking forward to rolling into to D.C. with a car that really looks like it has put on about six thousand miles.

Our final stop tonight is Mesa Verde, a national park in the southwest corner of Colorado where there are ancient condos carved into cliffs. After finding our lodge, we unhappily heard that nearly the entire park was closed due to extreme fire dangers. This is a real bummer, the first of our trip. Fortunately, there is one cliff dwelling area still open so we hope to see that tomorrow, but it’s still a letdown.

As we settled in for bed, we noticed a bright flickering light in the distance… we’re fairly certain it’s a fire. It’ll be interesting to see what the story is in the morning… or if we’re evacuated before then.