For months I have been asked of my impending move, “Are you getting excited?” Frankly it is a miracle I didn’t start systematically poking askers in the eyes – first the left then the right. Moving, even under the best circumstances, ranks on my desirability list just above Jimmy Buffet music and just below pelvic exams.
Now that the hard part is over, I can look back fondly on the move. To be honest I can’t really say that I am “excited”, but “relieved” I certainly am. Luckily, my partner and I undertook this move in one of the more pleasant ways possible – packing our belongings into two ReloCubes (that’s a poor man’s PODs) and setting out on a cross country drive with a car full of random belongings and our little Chiweenie dog, Kielo.
Day 1 – San Diego to Las Vegas
We started the day at the old place, our things well on their way to North Carolina. As was the case with most of the moving to-do list, we’d underestimated the time it would take to clean the place out. At 3:00pm, tired, smelling of harsh cleaners, paint, and sore in some of the most interesting places, we finally loaded into the car and started the trip to North Carolina.
For anyone who has geographic familiarity with Southern California and basic math skills, you have already muttered to yourself, “oh shit.” For the rest of you, here’s the break down. San Diego + 100 miles on Route 15 North = Riverside (just east of Los Angeles); 3:00pm + 100 miles = Los Angeles rush hour. The estimated 5 hour drive ended up being more like 7 or 8, but the time seemed to pass quickly. I guess in comparison to scrubbing things, traffic is fairly relaxing.
We stopped to let the dog pee about an hour or two out of Las Vegas. Pulling into the parking lot of a Bob’s Big Boy and it’s sister establishment the Bun Boy Motel, I looked up to see a huge tower of ugly neon. Despite what seems rational or humane for 9:00pm, the giant sign seemed to be a thermometer that seemed to be suggesting that it was 101 degrees outside of the car. Upon opening the door, Bog Boy’s giant neon thermometer was confirmed and thus I came to Cross-country Trip Truth #1 – Las Vegas is hot. Very very hot.
And yes… I did say Bun Boy Motel. It’s the type of place one would characterize as sleazy at best. I stood in their grass waiting for my dog to adjust to the heat already and poop, imagining an overweight middle-aged man in a dirty white T-shirt at the front counter smoking cigarettes and ashing in a diet coke with lime can and reading about Hillary Duff’s new body in the latest In Touch Weekly. Unfortunately, that theory could not be confirmed. Lisa, more curious and perhaps braver than I, had already walked to the front door and seen a sign directing potential guests to the Country Store across the parking lot for check in information. Eager to get to Vegas and suitably amused, we investigated no further and continued on.
I’d seen Las Vegas a few times prior to this stop over, but only from airplanes and airport terminals. It’s a spectacle, but not overwhelmingly so. Every time I have ever told anyone that I have never been to Vegas, they proceed to tell me their most outrageous, most debased stories. It’s hard to be awed with such a base of useless, but nonetheless desensitizing, information.
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Perhaps in some ways this differentiates me from many. Lisa and I have had countless conversations that teeter on the verge of argument about travel and how we feel about it. In this regard we are very different animals. As I see it, travel (as a cultural entity) is plagued by the contemporary American fascination with seeing sights (or sites as it were). Sightseeing has come to be the standard for traveling, vacationing, or taking any rest of any kind away from one’s primary residence. What inevitably seems to result from this fascination are trips with a set of pre-existing objectives. Days dictated by the general cadre of big things built by wealthy people who had a vested interest in letting generations to come know exactly how wealthy they were. I have never been a sightseer, failing to understand what one is supposed to do once they arrive. Contrary to… well, what everyone thinks… the sights overwhelmingly look the same as they do on TV and in the post cards. The primary difference being that you can actually see the sights on TV and don’t have to contend with the throngs of other people arriving to check this and that off their vacation lists. This is not to say that I don’t ever want to see anything, just that the idea of being beholden to a certain set of destinations seems odd. Guidelines, deadlines, requirements, contingencies – these are the reasons Americans go on vacation. It seems like utter lunacy to structure one’s vacation after work and school life.
When I travel, I like to BE. I like to go to new places and dip my toe in the well of potential experience. I want to look into those waters and see what my life might be like if I were a resident of Wherever, USA. I want to see what time I would wake up if no alarm was set. I want to figure out where to get some coffee and a paper. I want to find out where the cool kids hang out and watch shows and drink beers and figure out if I have to take a cab or a train to get there. I want to eat a wide variety of foods and walk down streets I don’t know the name of and not pull out a map as if the landscape might suddenly and irreversibly change unless I confirm its permanence in little colored lines and intersections. Whatever sights I run into, I will have seen them and will have enjoyed the freedom to stumble upon them like any normal resident or Wherever, USA.
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After a drive down the Las Vegas strip, which is more like watching TV than operating a motor vehicle, we arrived at the World’s largest Super 8 Motel. It is perhaps the shittiest hotel in Las Vegas. For some reason I found it really hard to believe that this Super 8 was the largest in the world – in the U.S… clearly, but in the world? There’s no Super 8 in the south of France that the staff refer to as the “Sou-pear Huit” that serves free crappy crepes between 6 and 9 in the morning? Still, our room was much bigger than the car and featured a relatively soft, horizontally oriented bed. The dog seemed truly relieved to be on still ground. We got some cheep Italian food delivered to the room and decided, considering the oppressive heat, to leave what little exploring of Vegas we had time to do for the morning.
Day 2 – Las Vegas to Flagstaff
The funny thing about rationalizing that it’s too hot to do things in Las Vegas is that it never gets cooler. By 8am on day two it was so sunny I could hardly see my dog as he took his first poo of the trip. I think he came to the same reality that I did, “this is the best it’s going to get”.
Lisa and I decided to spend our limited exploration time in the Bellagio, home of Jean-Philippe Maury badass pastry chef and million other things that are well outside of my means to enjoy. With Kielo discretely tucked underneath my arm, we headed to the Casino. Lisa, again the braver of the two of us, headed up the gambling initiative, as I generally don’t like the proposition of giving away my money without the assurance that it will be given back. Optimists, however, are frequently rewarded for their faith in universal goodness and Lisa came away with $15 of winnings.
We took a really nice stroll around the front of the hotel. Unfortunately, we were there too early to catch the fountain shows that start at 3:00pm (luckily, you can watch the show online on the Bellagio’s web site). The hotel pipes adult contemporary music all along the sidewalk creating what I consider to be a truly memorable moment, holding hands, walking the dog, and people watching on the Strip to the soft sounds of LeAnn Rimes. Although you can find just about anything that money can buy in Las Vegas, you apparently cannot find dogs. Passersby pointed and gawked at Kielo like he was a yeti. One woman even stopped to take a picture of him. Unfortunately, the star treatment stopped there. On our way back to the hotel parking lot, one of the hotel staff person’s sniffed out the dog and made it clear he was not welcome unless he was a service dog. Kielo is cute and wonderful, but there’s no way we could pass him off as a working dog, as “sit” seems to push his intellectual abilities. She escorted us to the parking deck, which was a really exclusive way of being kicked out and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On the way out of town, I got to visit with my good friend Kendra and her son. There are some people that always have a positive effect on me no matter what kind of interactions I have with them. I suspect if Kendra and I ever had a huge horrible fight, I would still come out of it feeling better than I started. She gave me the best macaroni salad I’ve ever had, it had cubes of cheese in there. We talked about graduate school, life, family, hugged and we were back on the road.
One of the most pleasant surprises of trip was crossing the Hoover Dam. Of the things that I did not know about the dam (which are many), was the fact that it marks the border between Nevada and Arizona. We were making some progress and the dam seemed to be some sort of monumental thumbs up. The dam was built between 1931-1935 during the heart of the Art Deco movement so there are all these amazing Deco flourishes to the area surrounding the dam and the architecture of the dam itself, including the two Winged Figures of the Republic that greet motorists on the Nevada side of the dam.
The water behind the dam was a freakish blue color and if you can keep yourself from asking why it might look that way, it really is a beautiful thing to see. It’s amazing to consider the impact that human beings have had on the earth. When you see the immensity of that dam, holding back a river that likely took billions of years of geologic events to create, power cables draped from massive steel riggings hanging at 45 degree angles into the crevasse where the river used to go. Here, I came to Cross-country Trip Truth #2 – Human beings are some amazing and dangerous little creatures.
We saw some incredibly scenery driving through Arizona. The mesas are unreal. The colors are unforgettable. There are hardly any other cars on the highway, allowing you to just sit back and zone out. Lisa and I hardly talked in the car, but it wasn’t uncomfortable in the least. Every once in a while a small slanty house would pop up and we’d say, if if scripted in some prime time TV drama, “I can’t believe people live all the way out here.”
Nearly half way to Flagstaff, we reached Interstate 40, the single roadway we would take all the way to North Carolina’s Triangle area. At the juncture we stopped to relieve the dog’s impossibly small bladder, though mine proved to be impossibly smaller. In the gas station mini-mart, I picked up a pair of vaguely stylish sunglasses, the kind with giant Jacky O. lenses, and some silly decorations on the arms near the temples. There might have been six people in a twenty mile radius of this gas station, but the woman in the bathroom was clearly the slowest. Close to peeing myself, and out of patience, I lowered my head and murmured into the closed door “Ma’am, do you need some help.” A small woman emerged moments later.
In what was probably only a few seconds later (I had to go so bad my urine was essentially jet-propelled), I emerged from the restroom and stepped into line behind the same slow woman who was (slowly) choosing between the gas station’s available anti-diarrheal medications. In that eternity during which I was losing valuable minutes of my life standing in lines, Lisa was standing in the heat with the dog in the closest thing to grass we could find, which amounted to little more than gravel.
A group of 15 – 20 motorcyclist pulled into the station, and swarmed the pumps, which completely freaked Lisa, as she was being surrounded on all sides by a loud and fairly unaccommodating biker gang. I, inside, was extremely pleased, being totally fascinated with motorcycle culture and safely separated by a barrier of glass and steel and air conditioning. One bag of Chex Mix for me and one fruit pie dealy for Lisa and we headed to Flagstaff.
Despite sounding like a total crap hole of a city, Flagstaff was a beautiful place. It’s far greener than any other part of Arizona that I had ever been to and the weather was extremely mild and comfortable. By this point on the trip, Lisa and I had discovered that we both, on separate and unintentional occasion packed our only comfortable pair of jeans. The last 48 hours had been miserable for us both, now that we had expended our athletic shorts collections and were into the jeans that did manage to bring along – which of course were too tight for sitting for hours on end without unbuttoning them in the car – which leads to the constant danger of flashing unsuspecting Arizonians every time we left the car. We hit up Flagstaff’s local Target to try to remedy the situation, only to be told they were currently not carrying any long pants for women. As if we all want to wear those insane looking carpi pants – I think no.
The Days Inn in Flagstaff was a major upgrade from the World’s Largest Super 8 Motel. Kielo stretched out on the king-sized bed and we watched two episodes of Intervention on some free cable, still for me the crowning achievement of the hospitality industry. Restfulness was finally starting to set in and the trip seemed each minute to be approaching the pace of what I remember relaxation to feel like.
Day 3 – Flagstaff to Albuquerque
Up early on day three. We planned to backtrack nearly two hours northeast to see the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. Though not much of a sightseer, I was truly excited to get to see the thing close up. Again, I’d only experienced the Canyon from aircraft on my business trips out West when I was living la vida corporate in Washington, DC.
The drive from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Village on AZ state road 180 is truly breathtaking, taking you in and out of two national forests. The Coconino National Forest is enormous, lending it’s name to the county, and is filled by tall alpine evergreen trees and rolling hills. I stared out the window for at least an hour straight thinking “this is the kind of middle of nowhere I could live in.” The forest here reminded me of our trip to the forest atop the San Jacinto mountains above Palm Springs. The trees are further apart than in the forests of the Shenandoah and Appalachian regions I grew up around and there’s hardly and ground cover, save some sand, rocks, and soft grasses. I told Lisa, I love these forests because they feel tidy, like someone swept up just before we got there. Though outwardly amused, I am sure she was at least a little disparaged that the neat-freakiness that I burdened with her at home applied also to the great outdoors.
Why, I don’t know, but I was completely shocked that it costs $25 per vehicle to drive up to the side of a giant hole in the ground so that you can look in for a few minutes. The new glass bottomed walkway that has been installed at the Grand Canyon would have run us another $50 a person or something atrocious like that, needless to say, we didn’t not pursue that option. The “free” map and brochure that we were provided at the ranger station did include an entire page long article on how admission funds are used. However, I made the executive decision not to read it, enjoying my indignation far too much to let it pass so quickly. Within minutes of passing through the gates we pulled up to a parking space just feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon.
I speculate that there has been a lot of writing on the Canyon. Exploratory and Descriptive non-fiction of course, but also writing of the creative variety. There are no doubt volumes of poetry inspired by those views, travel tales, spiritual revelries in every denomination. I have neither seen nor read these volumes, but I am sure they exist.
The thing is, I can’t imagine writing more than a couple of words about the Grand Canyon. I can’t fathom eeking out more than a poorly crafted sentence or two. Not that it isn’t inspiring or majestic or beautiful or any of the hundred thousand or so adjectives that are routinely used to describe what I took to calling the “butt-crack” of our country (not out loud of course, that would bring some serious rain to Lisa’s parade). It’s just, I can’t see how any other adjectives can hold water in comparison the obvious and single most impressive thing about the Grand Canyon.
Cross-country Trip Truth #3 – The Grand Canyon is big. Not just big. This is the definitive example of bigness. You can turn your head and crane your neck and still not see all the big. You can stand there and say “wow”, but your words fall like pathetic little attempts to throw a rock across. You can take a picture of it, put yourself in that picture to get a sense of the scale, whip out the “free” brochure to check the elevations and depths and widths from edge to edge, but you will never say, or do, or read anything that can expound on the big. It’s just really goddam big.
The Grand Canyon sifts out two types of people in the world. Those who are content to observe and those who and driven to experience. I am one of the former and also afraid of heights. I spent my time at the canyon relieved about the occasional pretense of metal railings and sidewalks, taking frequent moments to explore the trees and burn areas and parking lots away from the edge so that I could recover from the extreme nausea I was developing (and keeping a secret from Lisa – parade, rain, you know?) by staring into the hole. Lisa on the other hand took every opportunity to go under or over those railings and find somewhere precarious to allow adrenaline to take it’s happy effects. Thinking back, I wonder if she had some more developed truer experience than I did. I’m glad she didn’t fall.
We retraced the same 80 miles we’d taken up from Flagstaff and then continued east on I-40. Not to be outdone by America’s butt-crack, Albuquerque whipped up an amazing light show. For at least thirty minutes we watched the darkening desert sky flash with lightening – the kind that lights up areas of cloud cover from behind like a giant lamp shade; the kind that starts high in the atmosphere and fractures, connecting the dark towering masses like blood vessels; the kind that you learn to watch out for, striking in an instant like a lance into the ground, starting brush fires, and killing about 73 people every year. “Like a Floyd light show” Lisa remarked and I thought, driving behind this huge storm, I did feel a little like being stoned.
Pacing a meteorological event in terms of automotive speed doesn’t really seem to be a plausible reality, but we did in fact catch up with the storm. The rain came slow at first, and then in sheets. Within minutes marble-sized hail starting pounding the car. If it weren’t so cool, I would have been seriously scared the car would sustain some costly damage or something much worse, but it was just so damn cool. And then it was over. In another minute, we’d outrun the storm, arriving in Albuquerque which lay in the New Mexico dessert dry and unsuspecting.