Finalist | 3rd Annual Terrain.org Contest in Nonfiction
That moment when you’re screaming downhill into the valley, two hours out of Las Vegas into the setting sun with some too-clean ska music breaking through the speakers and into the air through the just-cracked windows. Everything orange is funny and the signs for Alien Fresh Jerky are the most normal thing on the road into Baker, but the store’s closed as you drive through and there’s no place for dinner on the strip so you just keep driving, wondering why someone called this Zzyzzx Road and why there’s a whole exit for it. (We know now, of course, but we’re driving pre-Wikipedia here.)
And then suddenly it’s Barstow and the evening burger has the consistency of rotten avocado (with a fresh avocado slice on top, because this is California) and the morning coffee’s bad in the hotel room, worse in the hotel restaurant and even worse at the 24-hour Chinese food-doughnut shop drive-in even at 7 a.m. when it should be fresh and delicious and not stale tinted milk-water so you hope this is it. The bottom, the end, and everything is up from here and then you remember you’re in Barstow.
This is where those two great stories intersect. The Joads have finally reached the promised land in The Grapes of Wrath: no more dead bodies on the truck and I hear there are jobs out West so let’s just drive. And it’s out of Barstow that our protagonists start flying their great red shark in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
So we’re in the land of Great Depression dreams and the jumping point for high-speed high-octane trippety-trips to the desert and we just want to get out of the land of mushy meat and useless coffee and into the palm trees and silicone of North Hollywood.
Sure, we missed a couple of turns and picked up a couple of hours crossing time zones, but it took us somewhere around 72 hours to cross the country from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Hollywood.
The we: My brother, Mike, 23 years old, and me, 26.
The vehicle: A 1998 Plymouth Breeze, stuffed with a month’s worth of clothing for Mike, some musical gear, and a backpack for me.
The why: Mike is moving across country and needs a car to commute his 30 miles to work every day.
The rules: Actually, these are mine. When we stop to eat, we stop to eat. We sit down in a restaurant and take a break from the road. No fast food, no chowing tacos in the car. And we stop and get a good night’s sleep each night. I’ve been across the country twice in a car already, and I’m not messing with overnight truckers and overtired lane switches.
The time: We’re leaving on a Monday morning in May 2003. It’s 6 a.m., and we’re awake and ready to pack up the car
We’re ready to go, but there’s a bubble in the front driver’s side tire bigger than a bad heroin injection with a lump of air in it so we wait until the body shop opens at 8. By 9, we’re on the road with a new tire north a few miles then west for a few days and really just an envelope full of CDs and an empty journal to fill with things like $1.10 gas in Nebraska and $10 in tolls at the Pennsylvania border and we wonder how anybody eats anything in Buffalo.
Just after 10 we’re out of the Bay State (really a Commonwealth but we don’t make the rules) and then we’re crossing the Hudson and we’re not going to see anything really until the second half of Colorado (ouch, boring U.S. midsection).
The downtown Buffalo exit looks promising for some lunch so we pull off the highway and park by the terminal and wander around and find…
We eat in a food court on the second level of a tall office building and just hope the whole trip isn’t like today—late start, crap meal, and we’re waiting for coffee in a 30-minute line because who knows when we’ll see some grounds again?
By the time we hit Pennsylvania we’ve been looking for Lake Erie for an hour and all we see are smoke stacks and McDonald’s signs. Our map says it’s just—over there! —a few feet off to our right but no, it’s just concrete and more concrete and we just don’t know what the Interstate system did to our country (another rant for another time) but I hear Eisenhower was only happy with the idea; the execution had him shaking his head a lot.
Ohio comes quickly when you’re in this part of Pennsylvania. We take a wrong turn in Cleveland but catch an exit near the Jake (Jacobs Field, where the Cleveland Indians play). It’s 4:15 in the afternoon and we can’t think about catching a game because we just want to get to the other side of Chicago tonight and we got a late start.
South Bend, Indiana, might not be the friendliest place on Earth, but then again, it might be. There’s a major university there (Notre Dame), so there must be out-of-towners here all the time. Visiting students. Visiting alumnae. Visiting parents. Reporters and camera crews (all the football games are on national television no matter how bad the team is).
We pull off the highway after 8 p.m., the only car approaching the toll booth. We ask if there is a place to eat nearby and the toll booth operator directs us to a Perkins Family Restaurant just around the corner, squeezing in a half-dozen “sirs” before we can say thank you. (“You’re welcome, sir. Enjoy your dinner, sir.”)
We find the Perkins easily. The maitre d’ determines from the look of us that we’re from out of town and as our dinner comes out each employee of the restaurant comes out to greet us, from the servers to the line cooks to the dishwasher. We’re half-surprised they didn’t call the regional HR rep to come in just in case, but we’re sarcastic New Englanders a little overwhelmed by all the attention.
“Where are you headed tonight?”
“We’re trying to get to the west side of Chicago so we can beat traffic on the way out of town tomorrow.”
“Oh, you’re going to LOVE Chicago.”
Food in belly, back on the road, and our spirits are a little higher until wait, we’re back on the 90, where the hell did the I-80 go? Here comes a toll booth; we’ll just ask there.
The Chicago Skyway is jam-packed at midnight. The lady at the toll booth is chatting loudly on her cell phone so we just sit there while she does the automaton work of collecting two dollars and saying have a nice day (even though it’s midnight) and when we don’t hand her two dollars a second time even though her arm’s been extended through the driver’s window for going on 45 seconds now she finally looks up and says, “WHAT?” like we’re totally ruining her evening.
She tells us how to get back on our highway, two miles west, three miles south, and 45 minutes later it’s no longer bumper to bumper (seriously, we don’t love Chicago; I don’t know where those Perkins Family Restaurant employees have gone that they thought was Chicago—clearly it wasn’t the Skyway at midnight) and we’re in the parking lot of some motel in Bolling Brook that has a vacancy sign.
We shack up for the night in the motel’s last room, which doubles as a meeting room. They send in a roll-away and the other bed folds out of the wall and five minutes later we’re asleep and soon enough we’re checking out with the same girl who checked us in, grabbing a Danish and a coffee from the free continental breakfast and we’re back, headed west.
Gassing up in Davenport, Iowa, we grab a paper and discover that the route we’re traveling today had 15 tornadoes yesterday, killing 80-something people and leaving hundreds homeless. We drive around and around the Cracker Barrel sign but can’t figure out how to pull into the restaurant, so we get back on the road looking for breakfast and twisters.
And hills. Didn’t Dar Williams sing an entire song about the hills of Iowa? It’s like three and a half minutes about the hills of Iowa. Maybe there are three and a half minutes of hills in the whole state; I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen a 1 percent incline since we came down the hill into Utica, New York (east of Syracuse, so it’s been a while).
Iowa City turns out to be another place to slow down for a few. It has a bricked-over, pedestrian-friendly downtown with a university campus right there.
Two shaved-bald kids in their 20s (us) walk into a place called Baldy’s and order breakfast burritos from the shaved-bald proprietor who thinks he’s seeing double. Eggs and onions and peppers and black beans and cheese and salsa and sour cream down the hatch and we’re back out for our next cup of coffee before we hit the road and find a place that brews by the cup. Something we’ve never seen before.
Before Keurigs and K-cups there was this: steaming kettles full of water at 200-something degrees (you don’t actually want to boil water for coffee; it burns the grounds and changes the taste) sit on burners and wait to be poured over little drip filters that hang on a rack six-wide with room for a cup under each. You know your coffee is fresh because you watched them put the grounds in the filter and start to brew your cup.
We walk the 50 yards back to the car very slowly because we know we’re going to hit the road very quickly.
And Iowa is gone and in Nebraska chain restaurants promise a selection of local beers so please ask your server. It’s lunchtime and we’re not going real far today (we drove 18 hours on day 1; today is more like 15) so why not, but we’re so close to Colorado that the only “local” beer is Coors so it’s just a burger today and then coffee at a walk-up windmill that looks like it belongs on a mini-golf course.
We turn left and we’re on 76 headed to 70 toward Denver when the sky opens up for a grand total of 14 seconds over our car (we see prolonged storms in three different directions but far enough away from us). We get a spattering of spittle and then just keep driving, pulling into a neighborhood we’ll stay at tonight before 10 p.m. This is Aurora, Colorado, known in May 2003 as location shooting spot for the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding and in July 2012 as the location for an automatic rifle massacre at a movie theater.
I wonder what about Colorado makes people go mad? The Shining in fiction, Columbine and Aurora in real life?
We find our hosts for the night preparing for bed, putting the dog to sleep, and showing us our room before an early morning wake-up call (they’re both teachers and we want to see the house, too).
After juice on the deck, we thank the Alberts, break our fast at a restaurant with a grammatically incorrect and entirely misspelled name then we resume our journey west, staring at the first of the Rocky Mountains.
I’ve floated in the Dead Sea, watching the sun come up over the desert. I’ve watched a white hot sunrise illuminate the Grand Canyon as dawn becomes day. But I almost asked my brother to let me out of the car in the Rockies so I could just pour coffee and write the rest of my life. Sometimes I still think about that—a trailer, a dog, and a typewriter, waking up every morning breathing in majesty.
Remember day 2, when we’d missed the tornadoes by a day? On day 3, we missed a tunnel closing in the mountains by a day. In late May, they still get enough snow to close the roads sometimes. All things considered, our timing was pretty lucky.
Coming through the mountains with Peter Gabriel’s score for the film The Last Temptation of the Christ was about the most beautiful few hours I’ve ever spent in a vehicle. I’m not sure we spoke at all through the morning.
But the snowy, slow Rockies quickly fade into fast desert. Colorado becomes Utah, and suddenly we’re trying to figure out which one is Big Rock Candy Mountain, because the song isn’t fiction, and there’s a rock with a few caves in it that looks like a person screaming and the sky is 11 shades of dark gray and we need to take a left onto I-15 and just keep boogieing along or we’re never going to get where we’re going, wherever that is.
And then Las Vegas is upon us and we’re driving as fast as we can to get away from shining lights, the bigger-than-life everything. We understand how people come here and just watch their lives disappear.
We stop at a last-chance gas station/casino to fill up the tank and get on, fleeing the ghosts of the Nevada desert, running on fumes, and looking for dinner.
And that’s where we pick up the story, goofy on orange, laughing at construction cones and barrels, not sure when we last ate, just knowing that we’d been on the road too long and that the end was coming soon, one way or the other.
An hour and a half out of Barstow, still hung over from a morning of whatever was in the coffee, we unpacked the car into Mike’s tiny little studio apartment, sucked down a couple of milkshakes at Fred 62, scoping out the honesty of botox and bogus boobs and remembering that life is always two touches more amusing than you think. Back to the apartment, we hair-of-the-dogged that morning hangover with a bottle of Scotch and a couple of cigars and stumbled around town for six hours finding bottom.
And then the sun came up on Friday. Fresh air, palm trees, and the espresso joint down the street, and everything was right again, 3,200 miles later.
Josh Shear is a writer, photographer, and online news guy living in Central New York. He splits his time between the computer keyboard and the charcoal grill, laughing from either station. Follow him on Twitter @JoshShear or read his blog at JoshShear.com.