Archive:  Year 3 - April 17th, 2009 "On the Road Again"


As I write this I am looking at something I have not seen in over six months – the view from my windows.  This afternoon, the 66-degree temperature collided perfectly with a day off and a very sharp knife, to result in a boat stripped naked.  I haven’t looked out the windows onto the world since before Thanksgiving… and it felt like it.  


This is my third time emerging from a Winter on the River and it grows increasingly sweeter each year.  This season was comparatively harsh – even by lubber standards – and slicing through the plastic today had a genuine thrust of self-congratulation.  I’m certain that I roared.  


The particular rejuvenation that I’m feeling emerging from the plastic wrap, however, might be the cumulative effect from the epic road trip I returned from on Monday - Grand Canyon or BUST with Mo Perry.


I know that I am not alone in holding a certain fantasy for the Great American Road Trip.  My family took exactly one when I was five and I like to think that I remember all of it.  The Corn Palace, Old Faithful… throwing up at Devil’s Tower.  But for many of the people I know, there is something fundamentally attractive about the prospect of a car, a map, and all the time in the world.  

In all, the trip I took with Mo to the South West is probably best described as improvisational.  Quite literally, we didn’t know what we were going to do until almost the moment we did it.  We didn’t make a single reservation, and took most exits based on either necessity or curiosity.  At the outset, we knew only that our ultimate goal was to see the Grand Canyon and be back in the Cities sometime Monday afternoon.  


At 3:30PM on Tuesday, I picked up Mo at her apartment with my Chevy Tracker loaded for a variety of circumstances:  air-mattress, cooler with essential foods, i-pod, red cowboy boots, Trivial Pursuit cards – the usual.  She threw her few essentials on top of it and we set our sails – South first, through Des Moines and then, we thought – perhaps spend our first night with friends who live in Kansas City.  What happened instead was a steady drive through Iowa to Nebraska – ‘lets just keep going and stop if we need to.’  


We did need to stop, it turned out – but only for about an hour.  And not to eat or sleep, but to have a beer and sing keroke at a tropical-themed beach bar that adjoined a gas station in Omaha.  Mo knocked the locals dead with a truly impressive rendition of ‘Gimme One Reason’ by Tracy Chapman – we could have stayed all night…


But there was something about plowing ahead that was irresistible. Our destination was calling out for us and we were far more exhilarated than we were tired.  I slept for about an hour during the mind-numbing vacancy that is Nebraska…  But even Nebraska, for all it’s lack-luster, had a certain charm on our road trip.  It was ‘so awe-inspiringly’ dull.  The state is ‘undeniably tragic’.  We loved to hate it.  

It was on my shift when the sun began to rise, just as we entered Vail, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains – about 15 hours into the trip.  Mo was at the helm by mid-day Wednesday, when we drove through the Canyon Lands in Utah.  High, red cliffs and plateaus – the painted desert – with meandering gorges of rivers including the Colorado River.  Mo has spent a lot of time in this part of the country and was clearly transported by it.  We were both paralyzed with unceasing grins and occasional gasps of awe – I’ve never seen anything like it.  


Through Utah and into Arizona, and then, about an hour before sunset, we arrived at the Grand Canyon.


Late as it was in the day, there were few cars and no attendants, and within moments of realizing we had arrived – we were standing on her edge.  Over 40 hours since I’d slept, 27 of them spent driving – and I’ve rarely felt that awake.  

The Grand Canyon is something so unique, so beautiful, so vast, so indescribable – that people are compelled to go and look into it.  Before seeing it, one has an idea of what it is - at least I did – that is based on movies and photographs and the adjective-filled descriptions of others.  As we stood there, the sun began to set and throw side-long beams across the chasms.  We stood among people from a dozen countries, all gazing in one language at this natural beauty.  She is un-interpretable and that is a tremendous thrill. 


We stood there for about half an hour before we decided that we ought to figure out where we were going to sleep.  I was still too filled-up to be tired… but I knew that I couldn’t see another sun set without setting with it.  


We agreed we wanted a bed and a shower.  The low-end motels around the canyon were averaging $150.00, but in another town – 47 miles south – we could get a room for under $60.  Our calculation skills at this point were far weaker than our now-instinctual ability to drive long distances.  In what felt like minutes, we were in our adequate room at The Best Value Inn right off of route 66 in Williams, AZ.  We mumbled words of joy and congratulations to each other as we shuffled our stuff around haphazardly and had a whiskey… Delusional, joyful, and suddenly exhausted – we went to sleep agreeing that the next day we would return to the canyon and hike into it.  

Thursday morning, after a death-like sleep, we awoke as prize fighters.  Mo, immediately.  Me, after a somewhat alarming message from my colon, reminding me of the quantity of red bull, and quality of roast beef that I had consumed the day before.  Certainly nothing a huge breakfast and real sunshine on your skin can’t cure.   

Seeing the Grand Canyon at the height of the day and crawling with tourists was a slightly different experience than at sunset with the rogues.  She maintained, however, the bottomless ability to transfix people.  I loved seeing them, struck dumb and staring - standing like statues with open mouths and wide eyes.  They hold their cameras slack in their hands – feeling it’s inadequacy.  More amusing, perhaps, was watching them snap out of the trance.  Genuinely surprised by their state as they look quickly for their loved one, their child, their location and promptly regain their composure… Only to lose it again on the next bend.


Mo and I decided to follow a route into the Canyon on the South Rim called The Bright Angel Trail.  It’s 4.5 miles long and winds a zig-zag down the canyon wall with rest stops every mile and a half. 

The hike down for Mo and I was at times enchanting, at times hysterical, and at times a real amusement to our trail-mates.  In particular, we delighted every time we passed the mules; and found the best canyon-viewing perches anywhere.  What was not available, however, were sources to re-fill our water bottles and as a result we decided to turn around at the 3-mile rest stop.  It had been a 2-hour journey down, would be sure to be more going up; and we had just enough water left to make that comfortable.  Breathless and grinning like idiots, we stumbled above the ridge, and back to the car.  


That was really fun.


Yeah.


Now what?


We agreed to decide leisurely what we would do next as we devoured pizza and pasta at the restaurant aptly named, “We Cook Pizza and Pasta”.   


A reoccurring desire from both Mo and I had been to find what Mo called a ‘sun puddle’.  A place that would be warm and sunny, preferably by water – be it a pool, lake, river – where we could lay on a towel and turn brown.  It was mid-40’s when we left the cities and it had been weeks since we were even teased with 60’s.  


We also decided that it would be fun to take a different route home than we had taken out– see as much of the South West as possible.  


A check into the weather channel (thank you iphone) and we pinpointed El Paso, Texas as a good place to steer.  A little over 600 miles away and forecasted to be the warmest city in a south-easterly direction from where we were.  Sold.  We mapped a route through New Mexico and hit the road.


We optimistically shot for Albuquerque as a good place to stop and spend the night, but found ourselves overwhelmed by the day a little short - in a town called Grants.  Grants has little more than an off-road gas station and Motel 6 – which was exactly and precisely what we needed.  The room was under $50, but sadly had a long and winding path - up stairs - from reception to our room.  Guh.  Ouch.  I don’t remember falling asleep.


Friday morning we woke up leisurely – I don’t think we set an alarm all week – and dressed for the last leg to El Paso, about another 4.5 hours.  The state of Texas, as it turns out, is big.  Really big.  And it’s terrain is expansive and unpredictable.  By the time we reached El Paso city limits, we were starting to fall in love with it.  The combined efforts of a travel book and my i-phone alerted us to a historic El Paso Hotel called The Camino Real in the heart of town.  It had a roof top pool (sun puddle), was within walking distance of the nightlife, and was a 1914 historic building…  It was also in an off-city, in the off-season, which brought it in our price range.  

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The room was great – a picture of decadence compared to our previous nights’ accommodation – but our first encounter with the pool was underwhelming.  In fact, the pool itself was lovely - it was the punishing wind storm that made enjoying it a farce.   We conceded temporary defeat and decided to see the hotel bar – famous for it’s stain-glass ceiling – and gather what we could about the fun to be had in El Paso.  

It’s probably important to note that since waking that morning in New Mexico, Mo’s legs had been harshly reminding her of the hike from the day before.  She walked like an old cowgirl and grimaced at stairs and inclines.  Unfairly, perhaps, I exploited her position – calling her unfortunate names and spryly leaping to do unnecessary tasks…  It’s amazing what 2,000 miles of driving will do for a relationship.  


For all the pain and ridicule, however; and even in light of the defeat at the pool – we decided to carve out what fun we could from El Paso.  There was reason to be pessimistic as there was a noticeable lack of people around and no one in the Hotel could really give us anything specific to do. They all would start with promise:


“You can go to the rodeo,” suggested Troy at the front desk, “there’s a rodeo every night of the week.”


Our eyes sparkled and our hearts leapt!  Belt buckles, hootin’ cowboys and lassoes!  “Where is it?”


“It’s um…  Hang on, let me ask Dave.”


Dave, as it turns out, has never heard of any nightly rodeo and Troy has never actually been there… A couple of other near-misses and our hope for El Paso was fading.  We finally found what was described as ‘the heart of it’, which was a strip of about five bars, a few blocks from the hotel.  Touting hot names like ‘Brick and Mortar’ and ‘Club 1914’ they were cool, neon clubs with thumping music, trendy ambiance, sexy doormen… but not a single visible patron in any of them.  As it was barely 9PM, we decided not to give up and took an outside table at one of the central bars and smiled big at the bartender, Lorenzo.  He assured us that yes, the block does get packed with people – but later, after 11PM.  In the meantime, he warmly inquired if we would be interested in several shots of tequila. 


Hours later, and with the promised streets full of people, Mo and I mutually marked El Paso a success.  Remarkably sober-esque, we began to walk back to our Hotel – a safe and well-lit couple of blocks away.  Mo’s unfortunate gait, however, solicited the sympathy of a bicycle taxi driver who offered us a free ride.  


I recall that the bicyclist asked, “are either of you girls DD” and the tequila wasn’t sure if he meant Designated Driver or Developmentally Delayed.  In any case we were convincing, and – after thanking him politely - stumbled happily through the large glass doors and up to our above-average room to fall asleep giggling.  


Saturday morning greeted us with a bright, hot sun and only minor head aches.  Mo was eager to give the hotel pool another try and when she didn’t immediately return to tell me it was a bust – I went and found her, joyous, in her sun puddle.  Finally.  

I quickly changed and joined her and we had over an hour of the exact stuff we came here for.  The Camino Real was also very accommodating, giving us a late check out at no charge so we could soak up a little more sun and take our time getting our stuff together. 


A little browner and beginning to marvel at our steady stream of luck, we pondered our next move over a late lunch.  Both Mo and I like the road part of the road trip, and especially in this part of the country, the drive is the best part of the show.  We also were having tremendous luck with the flow we were going with, and created a new goal – like the Canyon, like the sun puddle – something vague, yet specific, to shoot for.  


A proper Texas, boot-scootin’, big hat, belt-buckle bar.  That was what we wanted.  To meet Texans in their element.


So after lunch, we repacked the Tracker, shuffled up the ipod and headed west on Hwy 10 which runs along the Mexican border for miles.  Ultimately, we were aimed for Fort Worth, about 600 miles East of El Paso, where we would connect with 35 and turn North toward Minnesota.  According to the map, anything between Odessa and Abilene would be good locations to stop for the night.

For the next 4 hours, Texas unfolded for Mo and I as a one-state show of monumental proportions.  There were stunning bluffs, sweeping plains, tumbling tumbleweed, and jaw-dropping weather.  We saw a storm come for over an hour before it’s blinding wind and hail forced us to exit and lay low.  Within moments of encroaching on genuine worry for our well-being, the skies suddenly cleared, the rain stopped, and it was the single most tranquil landscape you’ve ever seen.  We turned off the windshield wipers, returned to the highway, and were greeted with a double rainbow on the horizon.  I’m not kidding.  Ah, Texas.

A little over an hour later, another storm of equal measure darkened the skies.  As it wasn’t far from sundown and we were in our midway range, we decided to exit at the next town on the map.  That town was Midland, TX which also happens to be the childhood home of George W. Bush.  Moments from turning off into the town, Tourist Directional Signs were quick to point us in the direction of the home itself, which we didn’t hesitate to follow.  It is a small, modest house – more alarming, certainly, was the golf-ball size hail in the yard and the sky growing ominously darker by the minute.  


We snapped a few awkward pictures and shortly after driving away, the skies opened up and we were pummeled again with rain and hail and roaring wind.  I pulled under a large tree and watched as twigs and bunches of leaves were tossed and torn, bouncing among the hail off my hood.  


Like the time before, this storm lasted a few minutes and then as quickly cleared – even the hail melted and disappeared within minutes.  Nervous but impressed, we set our sights on where to land.  Outside of town there were a series of motels that all looked similar.  We chose one because it was pink and ironically called The Luxury Inn.  The woman at the desk cut Mo a deal and before you can say ‘nuclear’ we had a key, a recommendation for dinner, and suggestion to stop in at the ‘night club’ down the street.  

The dinner was yet more top-notch Mexican – we weren’t tired of it yet – at a place called Tropico.  It was there that we became more aware of the fact that the next day was going to be Easter.   Not only were there very few patrons, but we noticed that the servers were all gathered around an old TV in the lobby watching The Ten Commandments – an Easter tradition in Mo’s family.


Full stomachs and with a little nostalgia in our chops, we decided to peek in at the night club mentioned.  As if our requests traveled directly to ear of god, we found The Club Arriba – a proper Texas, boot-scootin’, big hat, belt-buckle bar.  


The parking lot was full and Jose (who had the biggest belt buckle we’d seen so far) took our $5 at the door, and there it was.  Unnervingly like the bar where Thelma and Louise’s trip starts to take a turn for the worse…  But with much better energy.  We walked to one of three bars which surrounded a huge dance floor full of big Texans, and their big-haired woman.  They were all holding tightly to each other and swooping in impressive and graceful circles.  We ordered two beers. 


“That’s $1.50,” said Jerome, the bartender.


“Each?”  Mo asked tentatively.


“Nope.  Total.”


We beamed.


“Now if you had $.75 tequila shots we’d really be in trouble.”

“We do,” said Jerome, “but only until 10PM.”


Oh dear.

Neither of us were raised as the sort of women who turn down a sale.  However, always mindful of our situation, after our bargain beer and shot, we exercised moderation and drank like chaperones.  This did not, however, stop us from enjoying Texans in their element.  We danced, we played pool, we chatted with the servers – and Mo was even asked to dance by a genuine Texan!  Well… maybe.  There was a language barrier there that despite an eagerness of facial expression resulted in mostly an awkward shuffle around the dance floor and then nod and shrug goodbye.  What they had was brief, but it was beautiful.  


Feeling both our success and growing exhaustion, we returned to the luxury of our Inn with perhaps the first semblance of a plan we had managed all week.  We could drive straight through to Kansas City on Sunday (Easter) and stay with the friends of Mo’s that we had considered on the first leg of the trip.  Warm, friendly faces and free place to crash sounded pretty good.  It would be a long haul from Midland – about 12 hours – but from there, it was only 6 hours back to the Twin Cities.    


As it was a weeknight and our gracious hosts would likely have to work in the morning, we decided that we should try to be on the road by 9AM, at the latest, in order to get into Kansas City before 10PM.


Sunday morning I woke up to hear the unmistakable disappointment in Mo’s voice,  “Oh Dawn – get up.”


I rolled over, Mo pulled open a curtain and bright sunlight burst in.  “What time is it?”


Mo frowned.  “11:30.”


“Shit.”


Being late is one thing.  Being late constantly for 12 hours is another.  Disappointed in ourselves but learning a lesson about what happens to plans – Mo called her friends and let them know we would be much later arriving than originally thought.  Kindly, they said they would be in bed after midnight but that we were welcome to come and sleep there anyway.  We hit the road and pondered our options.  There were other good friends of Mo’s in the same general area - she had gone to college there – and their hours of operation may vary.  By the time we hit 35 in Fort Worth, we had a hand extended by a woman named Crump (Laura) in Lawrence, KS who once traveled with Mo in Australia.  She would take a nap in the meantime, she said, and was glad to put us up for the night.  


The last portion of Texas and most of Oklahoma was under what we affectionately called ‘The Death Cloud’ – a dark sky and steady rain that hung over us for hours.  Gratefully we had pulled over in a city park to stretch our legs in Fort Worth – because every other encounter with the outdoors was quick and uncomfortable.


Slowed by the rain, and taking a pit-stop in Oklahoma City for some courage, we ultimately pulled up to Crump’s front door shortly after 2:30AM.  Warm and welcoming, she offered us food (which we declined) and drink (which we accepted), and a clean, dry, free bed in a lovely guest room.  Perhaps most exciting for me were the two dogs in the house – Lucy and George – who were more than eager to hear about the trials and tribulations of the road.  As I fell asleep scratching Lucy behind her ear, I started to miss Gracie.


Monday morning, we woke up after Crump had left for work.  I didn’t hear a thing and the dogs never woke us.  In addition to her hospitality, Crump had also left us a lovely note and two burned cd’s she assembled for the rest of our trip.  Now if that isn’t a lesson to learn on Easter, I don’t know what is.  

Lawrence, Kansas is Mo’s Alma Mater and she knew the single best place in the city to have breakfast.  A place called Milton’s in the heart of the quaint downtown that boasts incredible coffee and thick french toast that both comforts and destroys…  The Death Cloud we had driven through most of the night before greeted us again Monday morning and it was not the awe-inspiring landscape we had been spoiled with so many days before.  


All the same, our laughing, playing music, telling and remembering stories continued to the last mile.  It is rare to find a traveling companion as compatible as I found Mo.  Not all are as comfortable with such target-less travel, few drink toe-to-toe so precisely, rare are those who roll with inconveniences.  

As the landscapes and skylines began to look more familiar, Mo and I were already deep in discussion of our next venture.  Maybe Washington DC for real this time, or get our passports and go to Toronto, or Portland – maybe criss-cross the whole country!  


We were still talking whimsically about the possibilities as I helped Mo bring her things inside and we hugged goodbye.  It was going to be odd not to have her around.  Every bowel movement and meal was intricately tied up with Mo for a week and I already missed her.


It was early in the evening and George was still home when I got there to pick up Grace.  Grace’s greeting was all I had wanted it to be – a lot of snorting and twisting and nuzzles… A feeling so good, it’s almost worth leaving just to come home to.


And speaking of home - when I got to the dock, I noticed that two of my neighbors had removed their shrink wrap while I was gone.  Seeing over 4,000 miles of life-altering scenery race by will do little for one’s ability to tolerate covered windows, and it was all I could do not to slice through mine with my car keys the minute I got there.


Having seen more of America than I’ve ever seen before; and now, seeing more of the marina than I’ve seen in months – I am impatient for everything on the horizon to race towards me.  But for now, I have to swab the decks, kill the spiders and, at long last, put up the hammock.  Ah.  


Welcome Home.

Next Post: April 20th, 2009 "A Boat with a View"

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