This Wasn’t My Idea
We’d talked of doing it for years: just get in a car and drive. Usually, it was during the bad days that the subject would come up. Like when the oldest kid was sick the first time, or years later, during the reprise. Let’s just leave. Go and drive and drive and drive our troubles away. Or, maybe that’s just my time-bleached memory playing tricks on me. I remember thinking, yearning, of driving away during those bad times and maybe I shared my thoughts with the family and maybe not. All I know for sure is that I’ve always held in my heart a romantic notion that freedom—both the source of and solution to all that ails the heart–lies somewhere on the open road, heading West.
I’d done it before, going West to leave it all behind. I was a newly-minted Army lieutenant with a shiny set of aviator wings pinned to my chest, heading to my first duty station—Ft. Lewis, Washington, just south of Tacoma. I’d painted the rental house of my assignments clerk in flight school to ensure I got the duty-station (I must have intuitively known that bribery is the only way to ensure you get what you want from a bureaucracy)—as far west in the continental United States as one could go. I traveled light, bouncing along mostly backroads in a beat-up, soft-top Jeep packed to the gills with hopes and dreams and little else. I left Alabama in Alabama, where the past is always present. And it worked. Not much of Alabama was left in me by the time I was ordered to return three years later. I had moved on. Even as the past I’d left was still present when I got back, I would only ever live in Alabama again, not of it.
This road trip West wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me leaving it all behind. Or even about the family leaving it all behind. It was mostly about wasting time; about figuring out something to do with two young-adult children, college students, home for the weeks of holiday break that colleges award their customers, the parents, for having bought their kids a college education. College is nothing more than a grandiose, insufferably self-aggrandizing, adult daycare system, but not a very good one, at least not from the parents’ perspective, taking the better part of a third of the year off. Infant daycare at least has the integrity to stay open pretty much all year long.
Blame it on climate change. Or, not. We’d been talking about doing a trip for the holidays since the previous year’s holiday break had delivered to Alabama a stretch of muggy, rainy days with highs in the upper seventies, that, when combined with the awkwardness so much pointless family time elicited, made the period feel as oppressively stultifying as July. I loll my July days away, sitting under the air conditioner, with dreams of escaping Alabama dancing in my head. But I’ve known since I was a kid—one year riding a new bike in shorts and short sleeves, and a few years later, shivering in a tree stand with a new deer rifle a few degrees above zero–that Alabama’s Christmastime weather couldn’t be counted upon for anything. We could have taken our chances with the weather and who knows, gotten a white Christmas for the second time in my life. So climate change wasn’t entirely to blame for our impulse to migration, except in the sense that climate change is like every other god of our creation—anthropomorphized, irrational, vindictive, unpredictable, and causing and effecting every little thing for which there is no explanation. It was the dread of sitting around the house for several weeks with nothing to do, with an attitude surly enough to match that of the two college kids, without even any assurance that at least the weather would be something other than miserably hot and muggy. Why not leave it all behind? Even if the “all” was mostly just the unpredictable weather and the blank hours of faux cheer. It wasn’t a long-term solution to anything, but what is the long term except a bunch of short terms lined up one after another, tugging each other along like a train? At least we’d leave behind Alabama’s weather, whatever it turned out to be. And turn the dull hours of sitting around the house into dull hours of traveling down the highway.
So, we decided to take a road trip. To travel West on the road. To ride through and not fly over the hinterlands from which arises all the greatness and bounty and beauty this great land issues forth. And it wasn’t even my idea. I learned a long time ago as a married man that it is never a good idea to express a desire for anything; that revealing my heart by expressing my desires in the low-intensity conflict that is marriage provides too much valuable intelligence to the enemy; that anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of matrimonial jurisprudence (the wife being judge, jury and executioner), where I’m always in danger of being convicted for just being me.
It was the daughter’s idea. A college sophomore at the University of Georgia, she’s got a fair amount of my devil-may-care attitude and wanderlust—the sort of thing that makes a road trip seem desirable, even glamorous—tucked away in the spiraling staircase of her DNA. Or, at least that’s what her mother would say, given I have generally the same feelings about things, which the wife finds something less than attractive in me, and blaming the other parent is what a parent does upon find an annoying trait in their offspring. I do the same about stuff that is not so charming to me about our son. Somewhat unusually (or perhaps not—who knows how things should ordinarily turn out when two strands of DNA knit themselves together in the womb, with something like seven trillion variations possible each and every time?), me and the daughter are more alike than me and the son, who is more like his mother. So the wife blaming me for all the daughter’s faults is not definitively unjustified. Just maybe. ‘Cause there’s really no way to know.
I, of course, did not object to the idea. I just pretended to passively go along. “Yeah, that sounds like fun. I’d be game,” I said, not sotto voce to make a point, but barely audible to feign disinterest, as I pounded away on the keyboard like I had something so important to do that I could only just pause a moment to express my lukewarm agreeability. While safely concealed from view, my heart was doing cartwheels and somersaults, hoping beyond hope, “Please, please, please can we go on a road trip?” Incredibly, given that the wife had never driven more than about four hours in a day, she agreed to it. Of course, she wasn’t contemplating doing any of the driving, as ever since we’ve been married that’s been my job, even as she is one of the most awful navigators—the necessary role for the person not driving—the world has ever seen. She thinks not driving means sleeping or contentedly looking out the window at the passing scenery. I think, perhaps from my days as an Army pilot, that the person who hasn’t the controls in their hands is the one responsible to see that the craft gets to the place its passengers and crew (i.e., me) want it to go. It’s a real bitch trying to read a map while in motion, which is always how it goes down when traveling with the wife, because I inevitably forget to do a map recon before starting out on a new leg, forgetting that she won’t bother to look at the map at all. Then I’m driving and navigating and getting lost or harrowingly only barely keeping the vehicle between the lines greasy side down while trying to navigate and steer at the same time. True, most of this trip would be on the interstates, so would require little in the way of actual navigation, but stops for fuel, food and bathroom breaks still had to be planned, the last being something the wife should have been enthusiastically concerned with, considering her half-pint bladder.
Yes, I know. You’re objecting right now that I must be some sort of trilobite (a fossilized sea bug incidentally, quite common millions of years ago in the areas we planned to visit), not aware or competent to master the intricacies of internet navigation technology that promises to securely deposit you in your destination through a soothing female voice telling you where to turn and when, and what you’re likely to find when you get there. Well, I am a bit of a fossil, or something like it. I learned to navigate from maps and compasses—yes, compasses—in the Army, well before GPS was anything more than a DARPA mad-scientist dream. So using a paper map is familiar to me. But it’s more than that. There’s the big picture that you get from maps that’s hard, if not impossible, to get with a relatively tiny cellphone screen. There’s the level of inquiry—detailed or overview–that’s easily changeable with a good road map which is not so reliably done with the internet. And it doesn’t matter if the internet goes down or you drive your way out of service so long as you have a good old-fashioned printed map. And anyway, the wife wasn’t so good at internet navigation either. She did an okay job finding the way to a restaurant in an unfamiliar town, no doubt hunger serving its role admirably as humanity’s most powerful motivator in the premises. And I’ll acknowledge that internet navigation works fairly well in well-documented cities above a certain size. But except for pinpointing distances more accurately than is possible without some considerable physical and mental gymnastics with a paper map, it still isn’t better when you’re on the road, going from point A to a far-distant point B. I’m not a trilobite. Not yet. Perhaps just a Neanderthal before the last Ice Age ended, heading for extinction with the warming earth. But when H. sapiens finally, inevitably, unleashes the destructive capacities that our great, big minds have contrived (the same ones that developed, inter alia, internet navigation also developed ICBM’s), and destroys all the delicately-functioning infrastructure required of the internet, what will modern man do once people like me are gone? How will he survive without smart phones allowing him to be stupid and lazy? You can toss my haphazardly-folded paper map in the trash when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
We planned the trip to last twelve days—six out and six back, roughly speaking, though there were a couple of extra days built into the itinerary for extended stops at points of interest. The idea was to do something of a national park tour, starting with Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas; on to Saguaro National Park in Southern Arizona; then to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, and finally, to Grand Canyon National Park in Northern Arizona. We planned two days each at Big Bend and Joshua Tree. Nothing but a drive-through of the Grand Canyon and Saguaro. I’d been to the Grand Canyon once, thirty years earlier. It’s essentially nothing more than a big ditch–a quite beautiful big ditch–but that’s about it. And how much cactus-peeping is needed until you’ve peeped your fill?
We would start on the 21st, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and go until New Year’s Day, roughly the same twelve days as the song should be about, though apparently isn’t, as celebrating the twelve days from the winter solstice to the new year would make perfect sense. And probably is how things were done in antiquity, before Christianity consumed paganism by co-opting much of it. Celebrating with a sense of relief that the winter solstice has brought the shortest day of the year makes civilized sense. Celebrating the birth of a Jewish baby born in Palestine in lieu of the solstice when we really haven’t any idea of the date he was born only makes sense from a cultural point of view.
Our start date necessitated skipping Christmas, or at least doing the stuff we’d ordinarily have been doing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on some other day. We held the festivities early. It happened that my birthday, December 17, was the best on the calendar for our displaced Christmas. I’ve only ever celebrated my birthday twice (while for other birthdays, I merely acquiesced to the desires of others who wanted to celebrate it); the first when I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license; the second when I turned nineteen and could finally drink (legally, I mean. I had been drinking illegally for several years by then). There was no reason to celebrate this latest one, so when the singer at the dinner club where we had Christmas dinner asked us if there were any birthdays and my wife blabbed that it was mine, I requested she not acknowledge it and she graciously complied. I’m not that smart but get that Christmas isn’t about my birthday. Besides, what fool would even try competing with the Christ’s birthday? Well, my older sister probably, but if you knew her you’d understand why.
The mother-in-law, my wife’s mother (my mother died several years ago), was not pleased with the arrangement. Not only was the Christmas Eve tradition of opening presents followed by a home-cooked meal displaced in time, the actual meal was cooked by others and delivered to the table by overly-intrusive waiters. The dinner club has dance bands on Saturday nights (not hip hop, or bebop—think big band swing). Though I’m usually game to dance, not this time. Too many women—my daughter, wife and mother-in-law—all of whom would want to be spun on the dance floor (or so I imagined), so I did what I always do when confronted with women competing for my attention, and ignored them all, hopefully in equal measure. It was kind of a dismal affair, all told. But I figure the boring discomfort reflected a measure of reality that we’ve been trying to avoid since the kids grew up and out of the joy, and Christmas gatherings became just ordinary family gatherings tinctured with gifts. Not that the main gift beneficiaries aren’t showered all the year long with the gift of free tuition and living expenses for college.
I think the mother-in-law blamed the whole affair on me. In a passive-aggressive move on her part (do women ever make any other sort of move?), I unwrapped her present to me to find a nutcracker, something the wife collects. And as if one weren’t enough, I opened another similarly-shaped present from her to find she had given me two nutcrackers. The first one was funny, sort of, but mildly inappropriate, as she was horning in on a running joke between the wife and me (what sort of woman collects nutcrackers?). The second one was overkill, stretching the joke well past the point of awkwardly funny to the dread of just awkward. Oh, well. What man doesn’t occasionally butt heads with his mother-in-law? When the mother-in-law saw an old woman out on the dance floor with a man about my age who looked to be her son or son-in-law, she asked would I promise to dance with her when she got “old”? I told her sure, when she got old. She’s only seventy-four. She probably has a few hot seconds (to borrow a phrase from the daughter, who still speaks teenagese) before she gets there. But then, she’s a baby boomer. It’s my understanding that they never grow old or die. I mean, what point is there to being heirs, trust fund babies really, to the richest, most powerful empire the earth has ever known if you still must deal with aging, disease and death? So I’m pretty sure baby boomers have outlawed such things. At least for so long as Medicare remains solvent, i.e., until right after the last of them dies.
Christmas festivities having been dispatched, the wife refused to believe we’d actually go, right up until the night before we were to leave, when she came home from work to find the rental car we would take on the trip parked out front (none of our fleet is much good for such an extended adventure with four adults). I think she thought I would back out. I think she took my reticent approval to be the same as usual—cold to the idea but diluted to lukewarm to hide my true feelings—when it was the other way around. If I’m right about what she was thinking, then my strategy of evasiveness worked. I won that round. I wanted to go. Desperately. And she didn’t know it, so couldn’t use it to her advantage, which in the usual circumstance of my strategy having failed, would translate to her trying to ensure that I would be thwarted in my desires. I successfully called her bluff (because I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to go) by feigning disinterest. A rare victory for the home team (i.e., me).
I had a motive other than just escape for wanting to go; an ulterior motive, the same as I’ve had all my life as I’ve pretended to be, at turns, an Army officer, a lawyer, a husband and father, etc. I wanted to learn a bit more about our species; to see how H. sapiens behaves in various circumstances. In this particular instance, to try and discern whether there was any point to this family unit of ours, now that the kids were grown (if still near completely-dependent wards of the organization). It seemed to me that the problem with all these dreadful holiday breaks is that there is not any ultimate point to the family, except as an economic unit, and as an economic unit it only exists to pamper and coddle two nascent heirs to the fabulous wealth of the Empire. Could the kids survive if we suddenly withdrew all support? Maybe. Is the economic support the family provides the only reason they remain marginally cooperative and occasionally cordial, and less-occasionally, considerate? Probably. The question I had for this little social experiment is whether all the strained-to-the-brink relationships would temporarily improve because of the circumstance of this joint venture, if only a contrived one. Would the common goal of the excursion render the family’s individual members more cooperative than competitive? In the larger context, is the reason family life is so dismal these days in America because the state has assumed practically all the economic roles that were once its province, making the family solely a social organization, and one without much purpose? Given that the hoary canard that humans are social animals is patently false—like all creatures, humans are social animals when they feel there is something to be gained thereby—will the family one day utterly collapse when it completely devolves to nothing but a social organization bereft of other benefits?
It was these questions I parried in my head as we prepared for the journey. I suspect that the reason American children, especially young adults (including mine), are kept in such a coddled and infantile state by their parents is because the parents intuitively know that family bonds are weak when only social, and stronger the more economic benefits accrue to membership (when I say “economic” I don’t just mean money, though there is that. I mean anything that aids and abets one’s prospects for survival and propagation, including, not least, and probably most, status). I also suspect that organizations lacking purpose (usually amounting to some scheme for cooperative survival) ultimately disintegrate. And that any purpose, no matter how contrived (Middle Eastern military adventures, e.g., for the social organization that is the US of A; a family road trip for us), would help cement the bonds. Maybe this trip would answer some of the questions.
Come Wednesday morning, the rented 2017 GMC Acadia, a mid-sized SUV, was packed with four large suitcases (one for each participant, per my rule), miscellaneous electronical gear, a couple of backpacks, a case of water (much cheaper than buying water on the road), some snacks (particularly mixed nuts—everyone’s favorite snack, and purportedly healthy too, but who really cares? They taste good.) and we were on our way by the unheard-of hour of six am (at least for our household’s contempt for schedule-keeping, except when it’s thrust upon us by culture and jobs and other obligations). Unbelievable. The mood was grumpy, but cooperative.
At least we forgot to lock the door on our way out. We had to screw something up. Halfway to the interstate by the time we realized the mistake, we figured it wasn’t worth turning around. Locks only keep honest people out. Crooks fully well know how to pick locks or break doors down. Locks are only good for slowing down intruders when you’re home. They’re worthless when you’re not. We don’t normally lock the doors when nobody’s home except for extended absences, which makes little sense. Why ever lock them when nobody’s home? Makes more sense. So we didn’t. This time. If only by accident. Perhaps something already learned that will resolve to making this excursion worthwhile.
The goal was to grab breakfast and lunch on the road, and arrive around dinnertime in Galveston, Texas. And so we got breakfast at McDonald’s about two hours down the road, which can get you a long way in these days of over-70 mph interstate travel. The sun was barely over the horizon by the time we made Tuscaloosa, or Title Town, as I like to call it. Our bellies were grumbling and we needed to stretch by the time we made the Mississippi line, so stopped at that icon of Americana, McDonald’s, at a non-descript exit somewhere this side of Meridian, about 150 miles into the journey.
McDonald’s are great places to people-watch. Never mind that the food and service is generally reliably good, no matter which little corner of the expansive Empire it is where the Golden Arches arise. And that its reputation as serving unhealthy fare is utterly false—healthy is as healthy does. You don’t have to supersize every meal you eat there. You don’t have to order the fattiest foods on the menu. It’s a choice, not a requirement, to sacrifice your health at the altar of a McDonald’s counter. But to its value as a people-watching place, some enterprising young sociologist or anthropologist could learn all they needed to know about America just by visiting a McDonald’s in each of the various locales—the South, the Midwest, the desert Southwest, etc., and recording their observations of the comings and goings of the patrons for a day. It would make a fascinating study. And as an incidental benefit, they could do like that stupid movie, Supersize Me, eating every meal there, except to prove the point that it’s not the menu, but the person ordering from it, that determines whether what they consume accrues to their good health or not.
I had what has become a breakfast staple for me on the road–and of my own concoction at home on the weekends–an egg McMuffin, with a coke to juice a little caffeine and sugar into the system, somewhat necessary for rolling the miles away without being lulled to sleep, particularly on this stretch of monotonously familiar terrain. There weren’t many interesting people at this Mickie D’s. East Mississippi aint much different than Central Alabama. I’d seen and studied the people there for a lifetime.
The rest of Mississippi graciously allowed us an uneventful passage. I’ve never had any interest in Mississippi. Just a more corrupt and backward and redneck-stupid version of Alabama. No geography of interest, unless you include the river, and I give most of the credit for what’s interesting about the southern Mississippi River to Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Mississippi hasn’t any New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Memphis. Vicksburg? Meh.
We were almost to Baton Rouge, picking up I-12 West just outside of New Orleans, when we stopped for lunch, this time at Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A is taking over the South (and rapidly expanding north and west) as the go-to fast-food restaurant, displacing McDonald’s. Its specialty is fried chicken filet sandwiches. My kids say it’s become so popular because of its perception as the healthy option (it’s chicken!) relative to McDonald’s and other burger joints like it. Chick-Fil-A’s signature sandwich is a half-pound or so chicken breast (on steroids?) breaded and fried and stuffed between a toasted and buttered hamburger roll. It clocks in at over four hundred calories, about a hundred less than a Big Mac or a Whopper. Given that excess calories present the greatest health threat to most people, maybe it helps the health, a little bit, to eat at Chick-Fil-A over a burger joint. But a hundred calories give or take in a day ain’t gonna make much difference. And particularly not if with the sandwich you get another six hundred calories from that chocolate shake you just couldn’t resist. It’s not the quality of fast food that is unhealthy. It’s the quantity. And quantity is individually metered, even as the lie that it isn’t is something the culture agrees among its members to believe.
Chick-Fil-A’s are good places to get a feel for the various cliques of middle to upper-middle class Southern Whites. Southern Blacks eat at KFC or Popeyes. If the place is close to a college, or it’s a holiday break, you’re apt to see frat boys and sorority girls and sometimes their white-SUV-driving parents. You might see a few muscleheads, a group hardly unique to the South. Maybe a few pencil-necked geeks, huddling together for protection. There will likely be school-age kids and their yoga-pants wearing (or blue jeans that fit like them) moms, trying to look hot past the point in life of who cares anymore. There’ll always be at least a couple of pot-bellied cops, their uniform buttons straining against their girth, maybe accompanied by one among them who belongs to the musclehead group when he’s not in uniform. All those and more were present at this particular Chick-Fil-A. We were in a suburb of Baton Rouge, and people there look very much the same as people at suburban Chick-Fil-A’s in Alabama. Not much to see, in other words.
The weather was predictably warmer than what we’d left in Birmingham, roughly mid-60’s, as we’d traveled about 200 miles south by the time we hit Louisiana. We’d decided to travel the southern route out West, picking up I-10 outside of Baton Rouge, where I-12 does nothing more than change its name. I-10 traverses the Atchafalaya Basin via what’s now known as the Louisiana Airborne Bridge, actually a pair of bridges running in parallel most of the basin’s length for over 18 miles (except over the Atchafalaya River and Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel, where they merge). It’s quite a remarkable stretch of interstate. It’s hard to imagine how difficult the construction must have been, especially in the summertime. Snakes and alligators and mosquitoes and leaches, and then just the putrid swamp water, number among the myriad challenges faced by the construction crews.
From the Atchafalaya Basin bridge to Galveston took almost the rest of the day, including an extra hour for the unexpected highlight of the day’s journey, a trip through the Galveston Ship Channel via a (free!) drive-on ferry. My map recon hadn’t revealed that our route, departing from I-10 about halfway between Beaumont and Houston on Texas 124 to reach Galveston via the Bolivar Peninsula, included a ferry ride. The map detail was not precise enough nor the printing large enough to make out that the peninsula didn’t connect to Galveston Island. I coulda figured it out by the names of the two features I suppose, but didn’t. Maybe that internet thingy would have helped. Neither I nor maps are perfect.
As it happened, riding the ferry was the most fun we had all day. It was quick—traveling the three-fourths of a mile-wide channel at about thirty knots—and frequent, leaving every fifteen minutes or so. Driving the length of Bolivar Peninsula before reaching the ferry, I had wondered why it was so sparsely populated; it looked like prime beachfront real estate all the way down. And there was the answer. Even a routinely-running, very fast ferry is not as timely and convenient as a bridge, and because of the ship channel, it appeared that building a bridge would present some significant challenges. (But more challenging than building twin bridges over the Atchafalaya Basin? Doubtful.) There were a fair number of what appeared to be tourists riding the ferry, especially ones from the Indian subcontinent, along with a bunch of bored locals. It being free no doubt had something to do with why it was filled to the gills.
The sun dipped below the Texas mainland as the ferry motored through the channel. A fitting end to a long day on the road. We found a room in a nondescript motel and ate at a local Galveston tourist-trap seafood restaurant, surprisingly busy in this off-season, where the daughter refused her shrimp because they hadn’t been deveined, which as she’ll tell you, means you are eating shrimp shit because the vein is actually the intestinal tract. Until learning about the shrimp intestinal tract at some place and time in the past (the internet on a lazy Sunday afternoon?), she ate shrimp shit every chance she got (she has thankfully not announced her refined dietary sensibilities by self-identifying as a vegetarian, or vegan, or pescatarian. Do people realize that no matter how you cut it, something has to die in order for you to live?) My shrimp hoagie was delicious, shit and all. The son, who’s strained to keep his weight from falling beneath a hundred pounds since his second bone marrow transplant, started what would become a new normal on the trip, eating like a horse, finishing all the catfish filets on his plate and even some of the sides. I didn’t bother to tell him that for bottom-feeding catfish, the whole thing, veins or no, is essentially river shit, ‘cause that’s what they eat. But that’s only for wild cats. Farm-raised cats, which his probably were, eat a bit better. I doubt he’d have cared either way.
The land crawls out of the swamp in South Louisiana, clawing its way out of the muck so far as it’s able, which is never very much, being so inept at the task that in New Orleans’ Audubon Park the Civilian Conservation Corps built a hill to show Louisiana children what one looks like. The land along the Texas Gulf coast gave up long ago, laying down completely and utterly flat, its landlubber denizens reduced to praying daily that the landlord sea won’t return to kick its squatting tenants off. We walked the sea wall in Galveston after breakfast, the ghosts of those six thousand souls of 1901 hanging heavy in the air as we trundled along mankind’s vanity in a light mist. It doesn’t take a hydrological engineer to know that the seawall is mainly for show. Anytime the sea felt like doing so, it could sweep over the island again, the wall barely offering a hiccup of resistance as it swallowed the flat little spit of land whole. And so it inevitably one day will.
I tried to avoid Houston, the sprawling megalopolis at least a hundred miles wide that chews up prime East Texas farmland faster than a John Deere tractor. My efforts were, not surprisingly, in vain. We took the outer-outer-outer bypass highway circling the city, Highway 6. The strategy worked for maybe twenty miles outside of Galveston. Then we hit Alvin. And quickly after that, Missouri City. Then Sugar Land (perhaps the source of the name of the country music band, Sugarland, that the annoying Jennifer Nettles sings for?), all of them little ringlet cities that are just Houston suburbs, or charitably, exurbs. It was lunchtime before we even got to the outskirts of Sugar Land, the last ringlet before resuming our way on I-10. Fortunately, there were any number of restaurant choices, as the highway had devolved to shuffling as slowly as a city avenue, but with strip malls and chain restaurants and hotels lined up like capitalist soldiers in formation. We settled on a Which Wich, and had a serviceable meal.
Even though the rental car contract prohibited any drivers but me, I had already let the kids drive by midway through the first day. While driving is a chore fore me, especially given the whole navigating thing, the kids jumped at the chance, maybe because I tried to play ‘em like I was Tom Sawyer painting that picket fence, maybe not. I let them talk me into allowing them to drive (they’re both very good and conscientious drivers) while I rode shotgun, navigating. They were so eager to do it until I had to be careful in doling out the driving duties to minimize hurt feelings. There’s no way to ever be completely equitable with anything when it comes to children. They’ll always find some way or another they’ve been shorted. But that’s usually just sibling rivalry noise, and is to be ignored, so long as the intent for equitability is there and they know it’s there, even if they refuse to acknowledge it. The kids held the key to the trip’s success with their help driving, but I had to take care to not let them know as much lest the price I charged for the privilege dropped too precipitously.
Heading toward San Antonio, the wife hit a navigational home run (maybe her first?) noticing on the map (she was in the back seat, but had surreptitiously slipped it from between the console and seat where I had wedged it) that it might not be a bad idea to bypass San Antonio north, and drive through Gruene (pronounced like the color, green) and New Braunfels, two quaint little tourist/hipster towns in the Texas hill country that the wife and I had visited decades earlier when I was a law student at the University of Texas.
Gruene boasts Texas’ oldest music hall. The structure has that most important of hipster vibes to it—authenticity. In a plain rectangular building with whitewashed clapboard siding that feels like a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, legitimately time-worn one-by-six wood floors announce every pasty-faced suburbanite wannabe cowboy’s entrance to the front room bar with reverberating clicks and clacks. After getting a beer to slake the thirst from a dusty day on the trail, the lonesome cowboy interested in finding some music and company to cheer his solemn mood can continue his clicking and clacking through a portal to the right of the bar that opens onto the hall itself—an open room with a stage in the rear, and supporting columns for the roof spaced at regular intervals throughout. Rough-cut wood benches and tables haphazardly splayed around the main floor, excepting directly in front of the stage to make room for a Texas two-step, provide a place from which he might survey the proceedings to identify potential partners or just rest his trail-weary bones.
The Gruene Music Hall looks so authentic it almost has to be fake. But isn’t, except for those pasty-faced suburbanite cowboy wannabes—of whom there were more than a few in the audience the day we dropped by for a visit to find a three-piece, electric-guitar band playing at the opposite end of the hall from the stage (presumably the stage isn’t necessary for a lazy Thursday afternoon jam session). The hall still has live shows almost every day, headlining everything from up-and-coming acts to stalwarts and has beens, mainly culled from Texas’ rich trove of country music stars. By the looks of the old playbills plastered on the walls, everyone who is anyone in Texas country music has, at one time or another, played there. I had a beer. We listened to about half a set, and shuffled off down the dusty trail, but without any clicking and clacking on our way out. We were all wearing comfort shoes of various sorts, good for driving and riding in the machines that gave cowboys and horses their romantic allure by making them irrelevant.
It was a good stop and even better detour. It kept us mostly out of San Antonio traffic and let us see the Hill Country, where Texas starts its transition from steamy, flat Gulf Coast to arid, mountainous desert, much better than a trip through San Antonio would have provided. Besides, who wants to go to San Antonio? To see the Alamo? Good luck not driving right by it several times, wondering where in the hell it is. How ‘bout the Riverwalk? But why? It’s got all the charm of every other contrived tourist trap in the world. No, I’m glad we went to Gruene, and entered the Hill Country through that portal. A big win for the wife in an arena well outside of her “wheelhouse” (corporate speak for doing stuff outside one’s particular area of expertise).
I even had an enjoyable conversation in a local outfitter’s shop about a pair of waders for fly fishing. Hanging on the wall almost above my line of sight, I could only barely make out the price tag and asked the son if I was seeing things right—his eyes are better than mine at this stage—were the waders $59 or $590? $590, of course.
I remarked that $590 would buy an awful lot more fish than anyone wearing the waders would likely catch.
Failing to sense his presence close by, the salesman overhead my snarky remark (why do salesmen seem incapable of ignoring snarky comments not directed at them?), and proceeded to lure me into his sales pitch on the joys of fly-fishing the Guadalupe, even after I told him I was from Alabama and hadn’t been to Gruene in thirty years and likely wouldn’t be back in another thirty, if ever. But I nibbled at his bait, mainly because I couldn’t figure out how to end the conversation without being rude, and I figured I’d already sort of insulted him with my comment about the waders, even as he was overhearing a somewhat privileged communication when he was insulted. As he talked, I wondered how, in a river hardly fifty feet wide in most places, there would be any room to cast a fly, or why you’d need waders in water that flows through some of the warmest summertime temps on the continent. But didn’t say it. And just remarked how I liked to fly fish for bream and bass out of my kayak back in Alabama, but mostly on lakes and ponds with plenty of room for casting.
We made our way off the backroads and back to the interstate in time to travel a couple of hundred miles, stopping in Sonora, Texas—just on the edge of the desert—before our push into Alpine for the trip to Big Bend NP. We ate at a Cracker Barrel along the way for dinner. Cracker Barrel has decent food that is made delicious when seasoned with proper measures of hunger and fatigue. This night, it was.
The cheapest way to hotel with four adults traveling is to put them all in one room with two queen beds, so that’s what we did. Which meant that I slept with my son in one bed and the wife with the daughter in the other. At this stage of the kids’ lives, no other arrangement would do. Me with the daughter and the wife with the son would be well beyond creepy and weird, to the point of near illegality. Me with the wife and the 22-year-old son with his 20-year-old sister would be slightly less so, but only because at least one of the beds wouldn’t be abnormally occupied.
For a room like that—two queen beds with four adults and complimentary breakfast, in a reasonably decent hotel in Galveston–we were charged, tax and all, a hundred bucks. I figured it was so cheap because Galveston is a seasonal tourist town (and it was the offseason)—contemptibly comparable to all the beach towns on the northern Gulf Coast where we usually go for the unique torture that is a beach vacation. But the bill was also roughly a hundred bucks in Sonora for much the same room with breakfast. And that, except for Alpine, which was a little more expensive but not much, is how things went the whole way through—about twenty-five bucks a night per person for what were very nice accommodations with all the modern amenities (coffee pot, iron, fresh towels and sheets, microwave, refrigerator, wifi, HD TV, etc., in the room) and an all-you-can eat breakfast. Thirty years earlier on my first cross-country jaunt, it cost thirty bucks a night for a room at Motel 6 and I had to buy my own breakfast. Prices have declined for both food and lodging, and precipitously, as they were lower in nominal terms, not even accounting for inflation. Central bankers (in this case, the US Federal Reserve) hate declining prices (even as declining prices generally mean an economic system is working properly to deliver goods and services ever more efficiently) so juices the money supply to prevent them. The bank’s efforts obviously failed to keep prices unnaturally high in the food and lodging industry, but provided ample distortions to the economic system that serial asset bubbles were blown and popped over those years, unto the present (in stocks, bond, real estate, and now, probably everything, though not yet popped). All the churning turmoil the bank created with its monetary madness didn’t do much more than keep Wall Street traders busy, but maybe that was the whole point.
Alpine and Big Bend
We made it to Alpine (population, about 6,000) around lunchtime the next day, which we took at the McDonald’s on the main drive through town. We were close enough to the border now that most of the Mickie D’s customers either spoke Spanish, or at least looked Mexican. Unfamiliar territory for sure. On the drive from Sonora, through increasingly desiccated country not suitable for old men, I imagined that at any moment Josh Brolin might drive along next to us in a white pickup truck, desperately clutching a brief case to his chest. Inside the McDonald’s, I searched the faces of every Mexican for traces of drug dealer or coyote smuggler, wary they might see us, obviously out of place, and fancy tourist hostage- taking as a side gig. Disappointingly, everyone looked closer to normal than to dangerous. To be sure, there were a proliferation of tattoos and multi-piercings, but these days body art offers little clue as to the nature of the person displaying it, except perhaps that they’re probably not trendsetters. If the town had been full of poor immigrant Mexicans without body art—that would have said something, although never having experienced such a thing, I’m not sure what.
We ate, fueled the car, and immediately struck out across the open desert for the eighty or so miles to Big Bend. The drive was like nothing we’d ever done before. Or, it was like nothing the kids had ever seen, but the wife and I had lived in El Paso for a short time in which I briefly worked selling tire supplies to all the tire shops in a geographic area the size of Alabama, including the vast desert wasteland east of the Rockies around White Sands National Monument. That drive east from Alamogordo was similar to this one, racing along a two-lane road at eighty miles an hour but feeling like you’re standing still, the mountains in the distance impassively gazing upon your meager efforts like a giant observing the frenzies of ants. Except that this drive had a better view. The road bisected a valley running north and south roughly midway between two parallel mountain ranges, whose larger peaks had been helpfully marked with their names and elevations, in about the places on the road where they couldn’t be mistaken upon looking left or right out of the vehicle. There was Cathedral and Goat Mountain, Turkey Point, Aqua Fina (appropriately named in this desert, except why just this one?) and Hen Egg Mountain to the west as we headed south on Highway 118, with peaks ranging from 6,800 feet (Cathedral) to only 4228 feet (Turkey Point). On the east side were Elephant Mountain, Santiago Point and Mine Pt. Mesa, at 6280, 6524 and 5520 feet, respectively. The highest peak in Alabama is Cheaha Mountain, at a little over 2400 tree-covered feet. To say the view was breathtaking would be awkward hyperbole that failed to adequately convey the feeling that seeing one of God’s more remarkable works elicits. It wasn’t breathtaking. It was soothing, in the sense that having so clearly displayed the vast power at God’s disposal in shaping and forming the world sort of abrogates any responsibility we may think we ultimately have for how things are. And expansive. As if God had lifted the lid off the heavens so that we might catch a glimpse of things from his perspective.
There was next to nothing in the desert. An occasional tin camper or house trailer sitting well off the road in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, sometimes shielded from what had to be a brutal summer sun by a ramada, sometimes not. If not abandoned, always with a big blue bladder, presumably for holding its water supply, which had to have been delivered by truck. From East Texas, where water was such a powerful force that it threatened to consume everything; five hundred or so miles later to West Texas, where the lack of water was equally as powerful. Texas really is, as its division of tourism touts, a whole other country.
We arrived at Big Bend to find a cluster of mountains and hills to climb before descending to the Rio Grande valley. We drove as far as we could, then got out and walked the extra half-mile or so to the water (I know, so inconvenient—Edward Abbey would be spinning in his grave—more on him later), taking our shoes and socks off to dip our toes in the cold little stream (on both scores—cold and little–by a Southerner’s reckoning) that serves as the demarcation line for the American and Mexican empires. The daughter couldn’t resist wading a few feet into the swiftly flowing water, faking her escape into the bowels of Mexico. It was sort of eerie, being down in the river valley, looking across the river at terrain no different than that on our side, yet knowing that a different culture and a different people claimed and inhabited it. There was no wall, no sign, posted to warn the unwary that crossing the river, which could have been easily accomplished, would be a violation of international law. Where we were, just a lonely bend north in the river (I couldn’t be sure if it was the “big bend” for which the park is named, but doubt that it was), the air was tranquil and still, the vegetation quite lush (in remarkable contrast to the surrounding desert), and except for one or two other tourists and a wild horse come to drink water from the Mexican side, no one around. Unless there were well-camouflaged cameras and sensors around that we didn’t see, we could have been smuggling drugs or people across the border with no one the wiser. The only visible evidence that the border lay only feet away were some walking sticks decorated in a Mexican motif for sale on the honor system, replete with untended money jars, along the trail on the American side of the river. I was a bit offended, feeling stereotyped as a gringo tourist who wouldn’t dream of stealing some Mexican peasant’s butter and egg money.
On the way out for the day, we visited the park gift shop and got the requisite souvenirs—posters, stickers, etc.—that any self-respecting American tourist accumulates on his travels. But I also found a little book, Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey (1927-1989). I convinced the daughter she should get it, but really wanted it for me. A quarter-century earlier I’d read The Monkey Wrench Gang, a work of fiction by Abbey about a group that vandalized developments in the desert to stop, or at least delay, the relentless march of what the culture thought of as progress (subdivisions, dams, freeways, etc.) but that Abbey considered profane. Desert Solitaire is a memoir about his time as a ranger for the National Park Service in the late fifties in the Arches National Park along the upper reaches of the Colorado River in Southeast Utah, close to Moab. Abbey is referred to today as an anarchist. Maybe, anarchist naturalist. Maybe, eco-terrorist. In any event, I was only a few pages into Solitaire when that part of my soul, buried for a quarter century under the avalanche of obligations that raising a family entails, poked its bleary-eyed head above the surface of my consciousness, reminding me of how frighteningly consonant my beliefs and Abbey’s had been back then, and realizing they still were. I remember shuddering inside at how The Monkey Wrench Gang made me feel. The new book felt equally as dangerous.
I too loathe pretty much everything commonly associated with progress–all of what Abbey despised in his time and most of the developments, particularly in social media technology–accruing of late. Smart phones make us stupid. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, etc., are just vehicles for masking misery. The daily automobile commute, and the subdivision living that demands it, are anything but improvements on the human condition. Our commoditized food supply and delivery system destroys the land and our health. The sedentary life of the average worker in an urban high-rise is filled with empty calories, empty hours of mind-numbing sitting, and weekly hours of fighting traffic, and if you were to ask any of them why they kept grinding, practically every last one would look at you with dumbfounded confusion for never having stopped to consider the question. We are slaves to more, more, more, never bothering to think things through, afraid we might realize that it’s our wants and desires (not needs) that enslave us. This land is so fruitful that everyone could easily have enough to meet all their needs and more, but don’t know how to just be. The whole capitalist enterprise on which this culture is founded depends on continual growth, on constantly creating and meeting unmet wants and desires. But continual growth is, by its very definition, impossible. Nothing continually grows except cancer, and that’s what Western civilization has become. But enough of Abbey, or rather of me, and my similar inclinations to anarchy. Reading another of Abbey’s works as the trip progressed meant that the journey through the desert was also a journey into my heart, but that’s a story for another day.
How could it be? Three days in, and no pouting daughter or sarcastic son? Yet. But the tension was building. What would set it off?
It looked at first like usual–a mundane and minor aggravation flaring to become a vehicle for expressing the pent-up anger and frustrations each family member felt for the other. On closer inspection, it wasn’t. It was a real and legitimate beef. The daughter wanted to go hiking. A real hike, not just a half-mile stroll from the car to the river. The wife and son weren’t so inclined. I was game, but I’m always game for that sort of thing. The daughter whined that her mom and brother were always holding her back. And, physically at least, she had a point. She wasn’t just being bitchy because of being tired or hungry or sick of her traveling companions. The son’s health and general physical capabilities aren’t robust. That’s what two bone marrow transplants does to a body. The wife’s just not the outdoorsy, active type. She likes tranquil strolls through urban neighborhoods and sometimes a short hike in the local state park, but she’s rarely up for anything strenuous. The daughter and I need strenuous activity. We crave the burn of putting one foot in front of the other up a steep mountain trail; of feeling the pounding of the heart, the heaving of the chest that comes with rigorous activity. We have strong, capable frames that need to be exercised.
I pulled the daughter aside and asked her what she thought I’d been doing the last twenty-six years, explaining that she likely wouldn’t be around to complain of things had I not adjusted my pace to match that of her mother’s. I told her that I understood—she’s a young woman in robust health who wants and needs to challenge herself physically—and that it’s not fair that she always has to poke along at the lowest-common-denominator pace when she’s with the family. She told me this felt like the time in grammar school when she got in trouble for finishing a math test early and using the spare time to open a book and read (ultimately making a perfect score on the test). It infuriated her. I told her similar things had happened to me a few times in school, and could appreciate how frustrating waiting on others to keep up could be. On the one hand schools encourage kids to their best in their studies, while on the other hand punishing them for it, if doing their best means they pull well ahead of their peers. When it comes to academics, schools have no business treating kids like they are part of some binding social collective that must stay together to survive. It isn’t any sort of social collective at all. Besides, they don’t make the fastest kids run slower on the playground. Why do they try to do it in the classroom?
Families are different. They indeed are a binding social collective, a cooperative survival coalition, or at least were, before the Leviathan state engorged itself on responsibilities that were once the province of the family. Differing ability levels must be accommodated if the family is to be a cohesive unit capable of fulfilling whatever purpose it has left. Sometimes that means the slowest and weakest have to be accommodated. Sometimes it means the fastest and strongest. Sometimes both can be accomplished by temporarily splitting up along lines of interest and ability, which is what we settled on for the next day. At first hesitant to do what everyone really wanted, I think we sensed without saying or acknowledging as much that the family, ours in particular in this instance, but also generally as a product of cultural phenomena well beyond any individual family’s control, was in many ways precariously close to irrelevancy, and feared that splitting up might tip the scales. But in this instance, not splitting up would have been more deleterious than sticking together. People aren’t naturally social beings. They engage socially when the benefits in doing so outweigh the costs, and always being forced as a condition of social membership to run at half-speed is a huge burden to bear.
All that was left of the day was the glow of the sun behind the mountains by the time we departed the Park to return to Alpine for food and lodging. Commuting eighty miles each way wasn’t ideal, but the Park’s motel was full by the time we got around to planning the trip, and the only lodgings between Alpine and the Park were a few seedy-looking motels in the Study Butte area just outside the Park.
An internet search turned up Alpine’s best-rated restaurant, Riata’s. We arrived tired and hungry and the restaurant requiring reservations. But they pulled some concierge magic, even without a bribe, and seated us in five minutes. I had sweet tea and chicken-fried chicken (think cracked-pepper gravy over chicken-fried steak, except with chicken). It was delicious. In fact, for once, no one complained about the food. Every chef’s best recipe for delicious dining, fatigue and hunger. But that shouldn’t take away from the food. It would have been good regardless. Five stars for Riata’s in Alpine, Texas.
The daughter said she was “vibing” Alpine as soon as we arrived in town, meaning she had a good feeling about the town. I think. That was certainly the vibe I got from her. The town is home to Sul Ross State University, the Lobos (what else?), with a student body of roughly 2,000, and apparently little else. She was ready to transfer then and there. Not anything new for her. She’s forever dreaming of chucking it all and moving elsewhere. And it is a cool little town, tucked as it is some fifty miles from the closest interstate, about forty miles from the nearest town of any size (Marfa), and only eighty miles from Big Bend. I vibed with her when I learned, from talking to the hotel desk clerk, that the summer weather hardly ever breaks ninety. Why? Because it’s over half a mile above sea level on a high desert plateau. Learning that, I imagined I could transfer with her.
For the second day at the Park, Christmas Eve, we headed to the Chisos Mountains in the center of the Park where the lodge and motel and main trailhead is located. Picking a short loop hike of about a mile and half before lunch, one that everyone could manage, we were taken aback by the sign at the trailhead warning of mountain lions in the area. It provided helpful instructions on how to behave when encountering a lion: Don’t run; gather closely together; wave the arms to appear larger; pick up small children, etc. Basically, don’t go down passively if a lion attacks. Fight back. I liked that. Then another sign warning of bears advised preventive measures, like not carrying food, to avoid an encounter. Rather less appealing advice. Backpacking and hiking should apparently be done by only by dieters. But aren’t people, even dieters, also food? At least from a bear’s perspective? I wondered whether the danger in both instances was real, or just the Park service adding an element of danger to enhance the wilderness experience. We encountered neither lions or bears, nor any sign of them, on our short hike. A disappointment, at least for me and the daughter. The wife and son seemed less interested in the value that a sighting would have added to the adventure.
The daughter and I spent the afternoon hiking a trail that wound from the lodge parking lot to the mouth of the canyon, about three miles in and out, and heavily traveled. No chance for seeing any large mammals except tourists. Big Bend didn’t have quite so many visitors that I sank into the oppressive gloom that tourist traps filled with jostling crowds and traffic jams typically elicit in me. But it wasn’t forlorn either, not even on Christmas Eve, which I’d figured would be relatively quiet as family time took precedence over sight-seeing. Shows the limits of my experience and thereby the danger of relying on it. Not everyone pretends the only way to celebrate the holiday is by stuffing the gullet with food and the trunk with presents. Maybe I’m not as much a pariah for hating Christmas as my extended family has made me out to be.
Christmas Eve dinner that night was pizza at Guzzyup’s, something of a hipster joint back in Alpine (yes, hipsters are everywhere these days—goddamned information and logistics technology makes for a homogenous culture—the only thing changes is the geologic backdrop, which is why Alpine made it all feel so engagingly different). It beat every other Christmas Eve dinner I’ve ever had except one—the night when the son was in the hospital fighting for his life. We ate lasagna for that one, washed down with a few beers smuggled in under the desk nurse’s watchful eye. The kid survived, a Christmas Eve miracle, so it’s not a fair comparison, enjoyment wise. All the others were so unremarkable until I forgot everything about them except that they were a chore more than a joy. We finished our Christmas Eve festivities by taking a drive back out to the desert to wonder in awe at the sparkling night sky. It was the first time the kids could definitively say they had seen Milky Way, draped across the sky like Christmas garland sprinkled with starlight. A perfect coda to two good days in Alpine.
On to Joshua Tree
Back on the road Christmas Day, passing through El Paso where we’d briefly once lived. Stopping in Las Cruces, New Mexico for Christmas dinner (the noon meal) at Denny’s, which was surprisingly quite busy, given the day. Pushing on to stay overnight at a little town, Casa Grande, between Tucson and Phoenix, after eating supper at a truck stop Subway somewhere along the way, where the daughter got the surlies, which I cured by tossing her the keys to the car on the way out (I’d been driving and she’d been sitting in the back for the last leg). The drive between Las Cruces and Casa Grande was the prettiest of the trip, traveling through a dry lake-bed flanked by snow-capped mountains on either side, tantamount to driving through a two-hundred-mile postcard of the Great West. Trains racing along the valley on tracks running parallel to the interstate added to the romantic charm. Crossing the Continental Divide was less momentous than expected, appropriately, as the notion that it ultimately matters on which side of the Divide a drop of water falls is as farcical as the notion that what seem like momentous decisions in life ultimately matter. All the drops, like all the people, eventually end up in the same place. Just before reaching Tucson, a side trip to Saguaro National Park to see the waving cactuses. Took a picture of the daughter imitating one by giving the camera (and me?) the finger. Sent that to the mother-in-law, who naturally blamed her granddaughter’s vulgarity on me.
California the next day, all the way past Blythe where we’d reserved a hotel room, to Joshua Tree National Park, an extra seventy or so miles, again, because there didn’t seem any place better to stay on that side of the Park. Palm Springs and Indio looked too close to the eastwardly amoebic Los Angeles, and Yucca Valley was a good hundred and fifty miles on the other side. Experienced the joy of traveling California freeways for the first time in thirty years. Occurred to me that California, like so many other places, would be alright if you could get rid of Californians. I decided we would use “Californian” as an euphemism for “asshole”. “That Californian just cut me off in traffic!” Not really short hand, as the euphemism is longer than the word it euphemizes, but a private code that captures the sentiment perfectly.
Coming in on the less-accessible (to the LA megalopolis) south side of the Park, things were still quite busier than at Big Bend. Did a couple of short hikes, learning to identify ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), a cactus with spiny, slender, hollow stalks growing from a central root pod that, against the barren desert, looks like a yellow tube sponge growing at the bottom of the sea; the jumping cholla (Cilindropuntia fulgida), a cactus with linked growths that look a bit like porcupined pickles, the propensity of its spines to break off (jump) at the slightest touch providing its name; and of course, Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), which look something like a cross between a pine and a palm tree.
Standing among the surreal rock formations scattered throughout the Park can be disorienting, like you’d landed on some alien planet and at any moment a legion of Death Star Stormtroopers might appear at the crest of the dunes (or, in Western film folklore, a band of Apaches). The daughter even complained of a bit of vertigo after ambling up and over the rocks to find the pond formed by Barker’s Dam, built in the late 1800’s by rancher Barker for watering his cattle. Hard to see how any cattle, even desert-hardy longhorns—could survive, let alone thrive, in the barren landscape. But then, the desert flanking the highway between Las Cruces, NM and El Paso, TX is covered with dairy farms, which naturally need two things the desert doesn’t much provide—water and food. The farms have been there at least since our brief sojourn in the area a quarter century earlier. Smells elicit memories, and with a northwest gale blowing on our drive through the area, I remembered them even before seeing them again.
Joshua Tree has ample wildlife and the Park Service has amply warned its visitors of their presence. There were warning signs depicting bighorn sheep, antelope, rattle snakes, elk, and always, like everywhere else out West, deer. In fact, as the son observed, deer must have been the most prolific big mammal excepting humans along our journey, as caution signs warning of deer crossings dotted every landscape we traveled through. Though these would be mule deer, not Eastern whitetails like in Alabama, the presence of deer and black bear (and people) were a common thread for landscapes so disparate they could have been different planets. Only in Alabama are the deer really holding their own against the people (estimated population is about one deer for every other person).
We meandered far enough through the Park that first day until leaving meant a forty-mile backtrack to the southern entrance as the sun dipped behind the western horizon. Another attribute the daughter and I share (like most of them, oppressively annoying to the wife) is a wry and irreverently sardonic sense of humor. Sometimes it’s mainly irreverent. Along the way back, through a landscape that filled you up with its emptiness, the daughter dreamt up a national park joke.
Imagine a saguaro cactus standing next to a Joshua tree in the desert (which normally doesn’t happen, as their ranges don’t overlap, but that’s part of what makes the joke funny).
The saguaro looks over at the Joshua tree and asks, “So, what kind of cactus are you?”
The Joshua tree looks down indignantly at the saguaro and replies, “What do you mean ‘cactus’? I’m a motherfuckin’ tree, boi.” (As the kids helpfully explained, the way white men used to call grown black men ‘boy’ as a putdown must now be spelled boi to signify its derogatory nature.)
The way the daughter delivered the punch line, like the Joshua tree was an angry old black man, having suffered a lifetime of mistreatment, lashing out for having been mistaken as one of ‘them’, and turning the word around to use against someone he saw as inferior—that was priceless. It brought tears to my eyes. And every time she’d repeat the punch line after a few minutes gone by, I’d howl with laughter again. Road trip humor. She drew a picture of the cartoon on a napkin, destined to be the best souvenir of the trip.
I’m a motherfuckin’ tree, boi. The mother-in-law would be even more appalled. But she’d be right if she blamed it on me. By nature, not nurture. I didn’t teach the daughter to be that irreverently vulgar. She came by it, like they say on the Mountain where her grandmother grew up, “honest”. She was born to it. I just never foolishly tried to dissuade her from being who she was. Of course, the culture (amply represented by her grandmother) would say then that I encouraged her by my lack of disapproval. Fuck the culture.
We got a hint of the true National Park experience on our second day at Joshua Tree. Because the closest In and Out Burger we could find was in Indio, and we had to go to In and Out Burger to make the son’s trip to California complete, and Indio was closer to the main Park entrance on the north side than to the southern entrance we’d taken the day before, we were rewarded with a thirty-minute wait in a line of cars stretching for at least a mile just to gain entrance to the Park. Then, when we tried to find a nice day hike of about five or six miles, were thwarted at every turn by already-filled parking lots at trailheads. The Lost Horse Mine trail looked promising—a five or so mile moderately-strenuous loop. But the dirt road leading to the trailhead was jammed with double-parked cars, all of them risking a fine of $175—peanuts to a Californian, I suppose, but not nothing to me. No parking at the Boy Scout Trailhead, either. All I saw for parking at a trailhead was a horse trail, the California Hiking and Riding Trail, that was about twenty miles long one way. We decided to just take off through the desert on that one, hike in as far as we liked, and hike back out.
Incidentally, going a hundred miles out of the way to visit the In and Out Burger was worth it (what’s an extra hundred miles on a 5,200 mile road trip?). The son got to revisit his memories from several years earlier when he’d been in California with his high school band to march in the Rose Bowl parade, all of which seemed to resolve to that one hamburger joint. The burgers there are good—reasonably-sized, meaning not gargantuan, with all the fixings, including onions (curiously, the only one they ask about when you order). The fries aren’t like the burgers. They are gargantuan. But eating with others means you can split an order. The son said the reality matched his reminiscence.
It was a good choice, the hiking and riding trail. We only saw a couple of people and no horses. Getting out and walking felt great and like Edward Abbey lamented, is the only way to truly see and explore the desert (or anything else, for that matter). Always choose walking/hiking over riding a horse; riding a horse over running; running over driving, and driving over flying, if you want to get any sort of understanding of where you are and what life is like there. Abbey despaired over people never getting out of their cars. Now people hardly ever get out of their airplanes. What would he think of vast swaths of America being routinely dismissed as mere “flyover” country?
The son loved Joshua Tree for the hills and rocks begging to be climbed. Like tourists tossing loose change to street children, we couldn’t resist a pair of relatively small, rock-tipped hills beckoning along the side of the trail. If we’d had a flag, we’d have triumphantly planted it on their peaks.
A mile in, still well within eyesight of the car we left in the parking lot, a serene quiet settled on the landscape, the only sound coming from our shuffling along the sandy trail. Being creatures of the ceaseless noise of civilization, quiet wouldn’t do, so we began to sing. Songs we knew by heart, like John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed” and “Country Roads”. Running out of those, I offered a marching cadence learned in the Army, singing like a drill sergeant to his troops:
A yellow bird
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
With a yellow bill
Was sitting on
Was sitting on
My window sill
My window sill
A yellow bird
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
With a yellow bill
Was sitting on my window sill
I lured him in
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
With a piece of bred
And then I smashed
And then I smashed
His tiny head
His tiny head
The daughter shrieked at the last line and stopped dead in her tracks. I thought she’d been startled by something she’d seen along the trail (she had point), only to realize it was the song. She started crying, upset was she so at the little yellow bird’s fate. We all laughed at her expense and tarried on, looking for ways in every song we sang after that to work in and then I smashed his tiny head. Or, just randomly sang it out, like she’d been blurting out “I’m a motherfuckiin tree, boi”. Our family can be brutally honest. But I’d take the harsh truth over superficial cordiality every day. People in cordial but superficial families only say what they’re thinking to others, never directly to the one concerned, turning the family into something like a medieval royal court, full of drama and intrigue signifying nothing save the generally dismal state of human nature. I grew up in the latter sort of family, and I’ve got to say, it weren’t fun. The daughter was mostly a good sport about it–wise on her part, as she had little choice in the matter.
The hike that day was sort of the pinnacle of the trip. We’d made it to Joshua Tree, the furthest West we’d planned, and were enjoying each other’s company enough to keep laughing at ourselves and each other. The trek back east would start the next day, and I was, for once in my vacationing-with-the-family life, sorry to contemplate its end.
Dinners in Blythe were at Rebel Barbecue and Los Paloma’s, restaurants chosen for their reasonably high ratings on the internet. Rebel Barbecue was surprisingly crowded for the early hour (about six pm Pacific time, eight pm for the Central time our stomachs were still on), and surprisingly good, considering that our barbecue palates had been spoiled with multiple choices for excellent barbecue back in Birmingham. Las Paloma’s was a legit Mexican restaurant, or seemed so, in that the meat wasn’t heavily spiced with Tex-Mex flavors. (But do Mexicans legitimately eat meat all that often?) The beef on my taco had the taste and texture of roast beef, which made for quite a different sensation than is usually experienced with ground beef tacos. Both restaurants were quite good, except for a squalling baby at Las Paloma’s. As good as we ate on the trip, particularly in Alpine and Blythe, we could have been filming an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
To the Big Ditch
The last national park to see was the Grand Canyon, about half a day’s drive from Blythe, the first portion of it along the Colorado River heading north, which seemed appropriate to our destination. Intersecting I-40 in Needles to head east through the broad valleys and rolling foothills, buttes and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, we rolled into Williams Arizona, the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Grand Canyon, around lunchtime. We were scraping the bottom of the barrel for fast food joints by then—nobody wanted a burger–but didn’t much care to dine in one of the tourist trap restaurants, so ate at a combo KFC/Taco Bell, the first time I can remember ever dining in at a KFC for lunch. But the Colonel knows how to fry chicken. It was delicious.
The slushy remnants of a snowstorm three days earlier were still scattered about—our first encounter with snow underfoot and tire. But the most remarkable thing I saw in Williams was a young woman and her young son getting into a late-model SUV with Mexican tags on it. She and the child were alone. Had she really traveled this far into the US alone with her child? Maybe she was staying in Williams with the rest of her family and had decided to treat her son to KFC. Otherwise, if she really was alone with the child this far from home and in a foreign country, what moxie! Can’t imagine any woman I know or knew who would have done likewise in the other direction. But then Mexico ain’t the United States.
Almost as soon as we headed north out of Williams to travel the seventy or so miles to the Grand Canyon’s entrance, a line of cliffs came into view. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were looking at the North Rim of the Canyon. The Grand Canyon was formed by the erosive force of water—in essence, it’s nothing more than a big ditch, as I’ve been saying–but would not have been nearly as grand had the high-altitude plateau through which it passes not been elevated by tectonic forces (an ongoing process). The South Rim is a thousand feet lower in elevation than the North Rim, as the plateau is being tilted as it is being lifted, explaining why the North Rim was visible on the drive. All this conspires to make a dazzling view for someone seeing the Canyon in the wintertime from the South Rim, the brilliant desert sun illuminating the multihued North Rim cliffs from as close to a shadow-less angle as nature ever provides. The Colorado River began carving the Canyon about 5-6 million years ago, a hiccup in geologic time. The uplifting Colorado Plateau provided the gravitational energy (and water—things got wetter as the Plateau ascended) necessary to produce the 18-mile-wide, 277-mile-long spectacle manifest now.
There’s no such thing as a casual hike into the Canyon, the only way to really see the striated layers of almost two billion years of Earth’s geologic history laid bare. The Canyon is somewhat unique in that the layers of sediment aren’t jumbled up, with older layers on top of younger layers, as often happens when turbulent tectonic seas shape and form the earth’s surface. The striations in the Canyon are laid out in temporal sequence, each succeeding layer revealing a time older than the one above it. We didn’t have sufficient time to make the hike, so were relegated to gawking at the Canyon walls like the rest of the hordes of tourists, mostly of Asian descent, all stereotypically adorned with massive photographic equipment dangling from their necks, at the Park that day. But we did take the long way out, driving all the way through the park and out the other side, ultimately traveling along the Little Colorado River to the east, stopping occasionally to marvel at the nearly-equal spectacle offered there, the lack of crowds allowing for more serene contemplation. At one of our stops to hike down to a viewing platform, which actually wasn’t that, but just an unprotected ledge falling away to the canyon floor several hundred feet below, we overheard a woman saying it felt like the abyss was trying to pull her over the ledge. A real-life instance of Nietzsche’s observation that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
The Turn Home
I vibed Flagstaff as we drove through on our way to rejoin I-40. On the drive south from the Park, the sparsely-vegetated high desert plateau gave way to hills and mountains and massive stands of Western pine. With snow on the ground, the town could have been the backdrop to a Hallmark Christmas card. Except that it was an ordinary American town not trying for picturesque, so it had the ordinary accouterments of every town in the Empire—a proliferation of national-chain fast-food restaurants and drug stores and auto parts stores growing like weeds in every corner of the terrain where sufficient vehicular traffic provided ample purchase.
This leg of the trip retraced my path of thirty years ago. Back then, deciding I’d had enough of the back roads, I’d picked up I-40 somewhere east of Albuquerque and rode it to its end in the Mojave Desert outside of Barstow, along the way taking a side trip north from Flagstaff to see the Canyon for the first time, but not before spending a weekend in Gallup, NM to get the Jeep repaired. The Jeep needed a new starter, which wasn’t that big a deal, considering it was a manual transmission, and I could roll start it so long as I remembered to park on a hill. But I was already a bit overwhelmed at the incredible change a couple day’s travel had wrought in my environment, so when I rolled into Gallup on a Friday evening intending anyway to stay the night, I made it three, ‘til Monday morning, so I could find a repair shop and get it fixed. Deciding to stay the weekend may have been influenced (aside from the problem of finding a repair shop open) by the unsettling experience of having a drunk Indian (I’m not the stereotyper here—the drunk Indian was the one living up to expectations) just hop into the Jeep (no locks on a soft-top) at a red light, riding along until a mile or so later, when he decided to get out, neither of us saying a word the whole time. I figured staying the weekend at a decent motel (they left the light on for me) would help settle me in to what it was like to finally be out West, Indians and all.
I spent the weekend intermittently looking out my window at a huge snow-covered rock. Probably a basalt extrusion, I later learned (not much of my only geology class in college stuck), evidence of earlier volcanic activity. I had tried to keep a diary during that early trip, writing down descriptions of the places I’d been, but mostly failed. Diarying is not how my mind works. I tend to live in the moment, and living in the moment is incompatible with keeping a diary of moments as they occur. It’s also why I’m not much of a picture-taker. But, given the stretch of time (a whole weekend) to spend in Gallup, without significant moments to keep me otherwise preoccupied, I figured I might at least write something down about the place. I tried, as any young man confused about the world and his place in it might be wont to do, to write something profound about that rock. Nothing. It didn’t move me. Even as the story of how it got there and how we came to meet potentially held all the secrets of the universe and my place in it. I just couldn’t find the inspiration. Lunch, and later dinner, held more fascination for me than the lump of basalt out my window. It would take decades before I’d figure out that lunch and dinner (and sex) pretty much explains everything I could ever want to know about our place in the cosmos. And as for the rock, that it got there for ultimately the same reason as me—all that tumultuous energy at the earth’s core that shapes and forms everything on its surface.
We made our way to Winslow, Arizona for dinner, where the daughter stood momentarily on a street corner, but not at the “Street Corner Park” specifically designed for the purpose of life imitating art, or, life imitating a decent song that maybe rises to the level of art, maybe not. She stood on the corner at the service station where we got fuel. No flatbed Ford in sight. We ate dinner at Pizza Hut and stopped at Walmart for supplies. Hard to see where there might be a song in any of that.
We naturally had to spend the night in Gallup, a hundred and fifty or so miles down the road from Winslow, so pushed on through the night to get there. I couldn’t recognize anything from the first visit, not even that main boulevard where the Indian helped himself to a ride. Oh, well. Can’t dip your toes into the same stream twice, or some similar profundity. Now that I’m old and grizzled and ain’t trying anymore, I can spout profundities and platitudes all day long.
The next day was strictly travel, making the over seven hundred miles from Gallup to Oklahoma City in about ten hours. Oklahoma City marked our return to home territory, the South, and its contemptible familiarity, even as Oklahoma still isn’t quite sure what part of the country to which it belongs (the Midwest? West? South? A satellite of Texas?). I feel like I’m a hostage of the South, but one who has gotten past the Stockholm Syndrome phase of captivity. Where I had once accepted and even relished the comfort and security my time in captivity provided, the binding ties now pinch and crush to the point that I feel I must somehow find release if I am ever to breathe free again.
Oklahoma City is a day’s drive (a long day) from Birmingham and home, about eleven hours according to Google, given “ordinary traffic conditions”, as it always offers in caveat. But Google couldn’t have warned us of a traffic jam in Memphis, or that we’d take the wrong interstate bridge into the city (I was driving and the wife, who had been mostly relegated up to that point to riding in the back with one of the kids navigating while I drove, was trying her best to navigate). Memphis took at least an hour more than it should, but mainly for the traffic, not for the inept navigation. Once I figured out that we’d taken the wrong interstate bridge over the Mississippi, the wife actually got a bit flustered and despondent, a rarity for her, probably because for once I didn’t get mad but just set to figuring out how to fix things. It made me realize that I’d been at least as culpable as her for the fights we’d had over the years over her inept navigation. Knowing she was no good at navigating, I still blamed her when we got lost. She later pointed out the insanity of repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. And she was right.
We stopped in Tupelo for snacks and a bathroom break at a highway service station. I had a disoriented feeling when I stepped out of the car and into the glare of the convenience store. The son later said he’d felt it, too. Maybe just too much time on the road. But I still kept to the driving, and we arrived home about two hours later, after twelve solid hours on the road. A couple of days later and we were all back at our separate stations—TV’s, computers, cell phones, etc.–ignoring each other as much as possible in order that we might more readily tolerate each other’s presence. The road trip brought us together. Its conclusion sent us scattering like cockroaches in the light, to find hiding places for our hearts.
As for my little experiment on the nature of the American family, ours in particular, I learned what I already knew. Families are relevant and tolerable when they are pulling together to achieve a common goal. They are irrelevant and intolerable when lacking a common purpose, pretty much the same as any other social organization. The culture, with its Leviathan governments usurping practically all that was historically in the family’s purview, and in our case, the aging out of social (if not economic) dependency by the children, have conspired to render our little family unit mostly irrelevant and intolerable, especially during the contrived jolly of the holiday season. The road trip changed all that, if only for its short duration. Even as contrived as the purpose of the trip was (but no more contrived than the holiday cheer it supplanted), I still loved it.
On the last leg through Mississippi darkness, I began mulling over in my head what new adventure I might conjure for next year that would similarly pull us together in a communal undertaking. A mission trip to some exotic land? A wilderness excursion? Then I remembered that it wasn’t me who got to decide such things—that it’d have to come from them or not at all; that I didn’t do anything more in the way of planning this trip than demurely acquiescing to the idea after having maybe planted a few of the seeds from which it flowered. So I subtly started planting the seeds of suggestion for the next one. Maybe they’ll bear fruit one day. I hope, but secretly, so the wife doesn’t figure things out and quash the ideas aborning. Cooperatively traveling 5,200 miles across America and back sure as hell beat sitting around the house avoiding each other for the month or so that counts as the holiday season these days. I dare say, it was fun. And, as always, the parts that were the most fun were the parts that were the most challenging.