Posted by: thezedword | February 16, 2010

Cruisin’ USA

Writing about travelling across the United States is a little less interesting than writing about travelling anywhere else.  It’s less exotic and the few people who read this blog have probably made the trek themselves.  Actually, I’ve done the same trip before, and dedicated multiple albums to it on Facebook.  That was two-and-a-half years ago.  The 2,800-mile journeys that took me from Florida to California in 2007 and in 2010 were along the same route and in the same car, but they weren’t the same trip.  Here’s why.

Low-occupancy vehicle

I was alone in my car, though not travelling alone.  Usually a little ways behind me was Stacy, in her trusty, rusty Toyota.  Camy, as Stacy calls it, is a 1994 Toyota Camry that’s 230,000-miles old.  She leaks oil from an unknown location, lacks a radio antenna and a gas door, and the surface is more bare metal than paint.  We were a bit concerned she wouldn’t make it across the country.  She did just fine, especially when Stacy fed her some high-mileage oil.

Camy and Stang, facing the wrong direction, seeing as how that's the east coast and all.

To communicate during the trip, Stacy and I bought some cheap two-way radios.  Fearing west Texas, where other human beings are as scarce as cell phone reception, and my own directional inadequacies (I call them exploratory tendencies), we kept our walkie-talkies on at all times in the event of an emergency.  These things were supposed to keep us connected as long as we remained within a 12-mile radius of each other.  The manufacturers probably used an ancient measuring system whereby you round up by one decimal point, because if we got anything more than a mile away from each other, only garbled squawking came through the radios.  My handle for the trip: Café con Leche.  Stacy’s was Sleepy Head, which describes her rather well.

The great outdoors

When my father and I drove out to Los Angeles in 2007, I spotted a wild turkey just outside of Tallahassee.  Apparently, that’s unusual.  A hunter once told me wild turkeys go the other way when they see cigarette smoke rising through trees in a forest, whereas farm-raised ones stand outside and drown during rain storms.  My turkey probably wasn’t the fittest of its species, since it lacked that animal instinct that would have told it to stay away from cigarette smoke and I-10.

In 2010, a little further west from where I saw the turkey, a deer strolled out to I-10.  Its antlers just barely grown out of its head, it came up to say hello as I drove by. He watched the road until Stacy passed, and then turned around and walked back to the forest, not scared in the least by the cars.  Over the next few days, we’d see rabbits, hawks, and even a roadrunner.  No coyotes chased him.

Bizarre foods

Until I moved to New Zealand, I rarely experimented with my food.  Not so much because I disliked bizarre foods, but because I disliked spending money on food I might not finish.  Now a days, I wouldn’t call myself Andrew Zimmern, though I’m much more inclined to try things like possum or kangaroo.  Carpe carp, or something like that.

My father and I stopped in Mississippi for frog legs and crayfish in 2007.  He paid, so I was happy to test those out.  Not surprisingly, fried frog legs taste a bit like fried chicken.   Stacy and I stopped in Baton Rouge to visit with a friend from high-school, Steven Maul.  He took us to Chimes, an old movie theater long ago converted into a concert hall and restaurant.  That night Willie Nelson played on the stage, while I sampled grilled alligator.  Guess what?  It tastes vaguely of chicken.

On the third day of our trip, Stacy and I stopped in Ft. Stockton, Texas for lunch and gas.  There’s not much by way of eateries in Ft. Stockton.  Just a Sonic and Pepitos Café.  A good place for a burger or a burrito, Pepito’s is a large orange building in the middle of Fort Stockton.  It has a certain charm, characterized in a way by the door to the bathroom, which is outside and around the back.  The door doesn’t lock, and has enough holes in it that it kind of makes you wonder why there’s a door to begin with.

Also, those super Starbucks Double Shots, loaded with caffeine and guanine, are disgusting.

3:10 to Yuma

My dad loves westerns, so it was inevitable that when we got close to Yuma in 2007, he’d say, “Hey! We need to get there by 3:10!”  When he did, I pointed out to him that the titular 3:10 to Yuma is a train leaving for Yuma at 3:10, not arriving there.

In 2010, Stacy and I drove into Yuma at 3:23! That’s 13 minutes away from 3:10! Yes, I realize I just said that’s what time the train left for Yuma, but, really, who takes trains these days anyways?

Hitchhikers should always carry a towel

Our nation’s highways are, among more obvious definitions, a telling barometer of the economic state of our country.  Before the Great Recession, I rarely saw hitchhikers.  Since returning to the U.S., I’ve seen them everywhere waiting at highway on ramps with thumbs outstretched.  I blame the increase on the high rates of unemployment and homelessness.  Admittedly, that may be because the only other image in my head of multitudes of hitchhikers comes from the movies and TV shows I’ve seen about the Great Depression.  I thought the practice illegal in most places, and dangerous for both the hitcher and hitchee.  It takes a braver person than myself to hitch despite that, especially considering how cold it was during our trip.  I even saw two hobos, who I’ll define as a pair of men walking along the train tracks with all their belongings on their back.

I learned quite a bit about a completely different kind of hitchhiker during the trip too.  The intergalactic kind.  To get me across the country, I downloaded all five audio books of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.  The infallible Stephen Fry read the first, and Martin Freeman read the rest.  The vocal stylings of two Brits made the books even better than I remember.  And, they were a far better way to spend the trip than listening to Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee” endlessly on repeat, which is how my dad prefers to drive.

A sort-of connected side note: Wind turbines without their blades look like a game of cricket for giants.

I listened to the books through an iPod radio adapter I borrowed from my brother.  It’ s the kind that you set to a radio frequency, and then hope the static doesn’t wash out whatever you listen to.  After about two hours, a real radio station takes over the frequency, and you go through the sometimes-frustrating search for a new frequency.  It takes a lot of patience.  In the future, no matter the party or ethics of a political candidate, I will vote for whoever supports a nationwide empty frequency, dedicated solely to iPod adapters.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs…

Top to bottom, left to right, east to west.

“Proud Home of President George W. Bush,” read the small sign that used to hang from the massive “Welcome to Texas” sign at the Texan border.  Now that his reign is over, Texans aren’t proud of Dubya anymore, and have removed the smaller sign.   The being said, the eastern states are a little more inviting than the western ones.  Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas all boast welcome centers, where two people driving across the country can stop and take a cheesy picture.  New Mexico, Arizona and California do not, at least not on I-10 or I-8.  Then again, at the points you enter New Mexico, Arizona, and California on those roads, there’s not really anything worth seeing anyways.  It’s sandy, boring desert for as far as the eye can see.

Speed limit signs are a good thing to pay attention to, especially in Texas.  At one point, I let my speed drift five above 70.  I saw a cop going the opposite direction fire up his sirens and do a U-turn.  I looked down and noticed I was going, at most, five over the speed limit.  At first, I thought myself safe.  He didn’t immediately follow me, leading Stacy to ask me over the radio, “The speed limit here is 70, right?”  Then the cop pulled around Stacy and behind me.  Stacy said she’d meet me at the next gas station and drove on.

I pulled onto the shoulder and waited in my car for a few minutes as the officer punched something into his computer in his squad car.  Just before he exited his car, I realized I wasn’t wearing any shoes.  I reached under my seat to grab out my flip-flops and put them on.  The officer must have though I was up to some funny business, because the next thing he did was ask me to put both of my hands outside the window.  He then asked me if I had any weapons in the car.  If the Armorman Mini in my console counts, I lied.  To make matters worse, I didn’t have a recent insurance card.  I’d left my most newest one in Miami.  “Don’t worry,” the officer told me.  “I’ll check it on the computer.”  He did and when he came back with a warning for me.  Had I been going six over, it probably would have been a ticket.

That night, we stopped in Lordsburg, New Mexico, a city that only exists at exits.  There’s E. Motel Drive, which has no motels, then some desert, then Main Street, where the heart of Lordburg lies, then some more desert, then W. Motel Drive, where there actually are motels.  That’s all. Three exits, with nothing in between.  This, of course, raises that old debate: What came first? The city in the middle of nowhere next to the highway, or the exits off that highway that dump off into the middle of nowhere.

The weather outside is frightful

Covered in ice outside Maul's apartment in Baton Rouge.

The first stop on our trip was Tallahassee.  We caught up with friends and I went to Bullwinkle’s, where I showed up fifteen minutes before the drink special started.  Believe you me, few things will make you feel like more of an alcoholic than sitting alone in a college bar on a Monday night.  Adam Clement, a friend from the FSView and a proud holder of a Thirsty Moose card, drove me home that night.  Next to his car in the parking lot, puddles of ice were frozen solid.  The thermometer on his dash said it was 31F.  In Jacksonville and Baton Rouge, we found our cars covered in a sheet of ice before we departed.  In Lordsburg, the wind blew tumbleweeds across the road and froze complete rain drops to our hoods.  San Antonio was just wet and muggy.  I think that was a good thing though, as it gave me the chance to snap a few photos of the Alamo without hordes of tourists or Tea Baggers in front of it.

Funny how the Crockett Hotel sign rests perfectly atop the Alamo from this angle.

Good Vibrations

When we checked into Lordsburg, we had about 15 minutes to run next door to Subway/Godfather’s Pizza/ Love’s Gas Station for dinner before the Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice cross-over event that Stacy just couldn’t miss.  In front of us in line, a man wearing bicycle shorts and a windbreaker set down a cup of coffee.  Stacy asked him if he was biking and he said he was.  I asked him where he started, he said Scotland.

About two years ago, Eric John Smart left Aberdeen, Scotland with the goal of riding his bike east to Adelaide, Australia. From there, he continued to New Zealand and across the Pacific. In April, he’ll fly back to Aberdeen from New York, roughly 2,300 miles from where we met him.  When he’s done, he’ll have visited around 22 countries in 20 months.  He tries to do about a hundred miles a day.  At night, he sleeps on benches, behind barriers, in bathrooms, or just about wherever he feels safe.  He trusts his intuition, and it’s gotten him far.  If he rides into a city or truck stop at night and feels a bad vibe, he’ll ride on.   Even if it’s at 1 AM, he’ll continue down the road based just on how he feels until he finds the next place where he gets a good vibe.

He’s doing the trip to raise money for Myalgic Encephalopathy, a disease he struggled with for 20 years.  I’ve never heard of the disease, so here’s what the British ME Association says about it:

All types of people at all ages are affected. Severe and debilitating fatigue, painful muscles and joints, disordered sleep, gastric disturbances, poor memory and concentration are commonplace. In many cases, onset is linked to a viral infection. Other triggers may include an operation or an accident, although some people experience a slow, insidious onset.

Smart has a budget of £20 a day, about $30 to spend on food and repair.  So far, he’s raised £9643.71, which, at the current exchange rate, translates to $15,111.17.

He attributed the success he’s had over the trip to the good will of people he’s met along the way.  He said everywhere he’s gone, even in the States, total strangers have been willing to help him out, give him directions or a place to sleep.  The reason for this, he said, was because he puts out good energy into the universe, and it comes back to him.

We talked to him for about half-an-hour, and his intuition must have told him that Stacy was missing Grey’s Anatomy, or that I was hungry, and he wished us well.  He told us to Google Aberdeen to Adelaide and we’d find a few Web sites and news stories about him.  He. Was. Right.

The next day, our last, we stopped just inside the California border for a fill-up/empty-out break.  I went into the bathroom and tried to lock the door behind me, except there was no lock.  In Lordsburg and in San Antonio, I had walked into bathrooms only to find them already occupied by a forgetful peeing patron.  Grumpy and tired as I was, I complained to Stacy each time, saying that people in these parts don’t know how to work a damn lock.  And here I was in California attempting to best position myself in the event of an awkward intrusion. I’d become exactly the kind of asshole I’d complained about.  I’d put out bad energy into the universe, and it came right back at me.

I guess if the universe has that kind of sense of humor, I can trust it to do right by me, so long as I keep depositing a little good along the way.

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