Tourist Traps

“I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”

Just outside of Palm Springs is a robotic dinosaur museum. From the highway, you can see the life-sized T-Rex with glowing orange eyes sizing up a life-sized Brontosaurus. It is one of the worst tourist traps ever, which paradoxically makes it a must-see.

There are amazing places like this all along the desert highways, places that have been there for decades. Out here in the shimmering heat you can always find a place with a two-headed snake on display. There may not be food, or water, or bathrooms, but there is always a two-headed snake. You wonder how they manage to keep attracting generation upon generation of tourists. Is it nostalgia, or curiosity, or boredom? Is it parents subjecting their offspring to the same torture they endured in some endless inter-generational string of schadenfreude? Or is it the same instinct that makes us slow down to gawk at a bad traffic accident?

Steinbeck tended to avoid these places, but we find them hard to resist. Gawking is one of the essential pleasures of a good road trip. Ghost towns, two-headed calves, jackalopes, the world’s largest thermometer; it’s all here, and it’s all terribly wonderful. It’s a sense of wonder that fills the parking lots at these places; not the awe-inspired wonder of a giant sequoia or a raging red sunset, but a surprisingly strong desire to see something unique, something slightly macabre, something great (even if “great” is a very relative term). Time and again we found that we were not alone at these places. Curiosity peoples this country, and for some reason the hotter it gets, the more interesting these little tourist traps become. We were sorry to leave them behind.

There were masses of traffic headed into LA on a sunny afternoon. It was stop and go, 20 mph or less, for over an hour. And then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the lanes clear and we’re back up to 80 mph. It’s just a bunch of people tailgating, slamming on the brakes, swerving between lanes, being stupid and generally creating chaos and gridlock.

There’s a lot of pleasure in a wide-open four-lane highway on a clear California evening with the sun setting over the Pacific. The light has a special quality; we know it’s the smog that does it, but even so.

The Gas Canister Saga

“We’d be lousy explorers. A few days out and we get the mullygrubs. The first white man through here…his little jaunt took eight years. And he himself didn’t make it this far. Four of his men did, though…We’re soft, Charley.”

Epic battle of wills

I feel the need to tell you a story. This is a bit of an interlude, but I think it’s an essential aspect of the trip. Matt disagrees, but that’s as good a reason as any to insist on telling it.

This is the story of our gas canister. Somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, with the sun beating down and the two of us each drinking close to a gallon of water every day, Matt decided we needed a gas canister. Something to carry in the trunk just in case we ran out of gas on some god-forsaken two-lane road and were found weeks later, nothing but dry bones and a great big pile of molten metal and burned rubber.

So we stopped at True Value. This is a compromise between the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores that used to proliferate in small towns across the country and the giant Home Depot warehouses that currently sit just off the highway outside most major cities.

What we found was a place air-conditioned by a series of large oscillating fans, where there is still a gumball machine at the entrance, and they give away free American-flag keychains at the cash register. After searching up and down the aisles, we finally found a large red plastic gas canister hiding atop one of the shelving units against the back wall.  It was $10.99. Matt was horrified by the exorbitant price. He actually uttered the phrase, “I remember the day…” I pointed out to him that “the day” was approximately 12 years ago, which didn’t help. In any case, the gas canister was deemed essential to our emergency provisions, so we bought it, along with two gumballs, which were wonderful and horrible in equal measure.

We went next door to the gas station, filled up the canister, and I left Matt to cap it while I went in to pay. I came out to find him wrestling with the canister while a large man watched from the bed of his pickup truck in the next parking space. I offered to help, but since I am far from expert in these matters, I wasn’t much use. I sat on the hood of the car and drank my rootbeer while Matt wrestled with the recalcitrant plastic hose. After what seemed like forever in the baking heat, he wedged the closed canister into the trunk and we were off.  Temporarily.

Several miles down the road the car began to smell like gasoline. We pulled over and Matt pulled out the canister to find that it had been leaking. Several more minutes were spent in the sun, prodding and pleading with the red plastic demon. We were pretty sure we had it beat, but we wrapped it in a plastic bag just in case, in an effort to save the camping gear from being soaked in gasoline. While our tent is supposedly made of non-flammable material, it seemed best not to tempt fate.

We drove on through the desert and stopped at various points for photographs. At one of these stops, in my search for Wheat Thins and licorice, I made the tragic mistake of opening the trunk. The smell that wafted out was overpowering. I didn’t have to say a word. Matt made a sort of growly sound and yanked the by-now half-empty canister out one more time, laid it on the ground, and proceeded to contort himself around it in an effort to figure out “how the *#@$ ^&%” to make it close.

I helpfully suggested that perhaps if our emergency fuel turned out to be nothing more than a huge fire hazard, it wasn’t actually so necessary to our well-being. Matt did not find this suggestion helpful, so he ignored it and continued grappling with the obstinate canister. I tried again, suggesting that perhaps we should set it free to roam the desert rather than keeping it cruelly caged in the trunk. Matt grunted, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and went right back to it. Now it was a contest of wills, with both the red gas canister and my husband in his red shirt pigheadedly determined to win.

I had taken an endless string of photos and finished most of the licorice when Matt yelled, “Ah HA!” The canister went back in the trunk, and we got back on the road.

When we stopped for the night, the damn thing had leaked again, but only a little bit. I pretended not to notice. So did Matt. But as we drive along taking photos and notes, I’m sure that diabolical thing is smiling quietly to itself in the dimness of the trunk, biding its time.

So now if you read that two unidentified road-trippers have gone out in a blaze of gasoline and glory, taking their RX8, a bunch of camping gear, and one little red gas canister with them, you’ll know why!

To Australia and Beyond

“At the roadsides I never had a really good dinner or a really bad breakfast…I might even say roadside America is the paradise of breakfast.”

Skull Rock, early morning in Joshua Tree

This morning we were up early, trying to beat the heat of the day. We visited Skull Rock, scrambled on Jumbo Rocks, hiked a short trail in Hidden Valley, and then drove out through the west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. We had a yellow receipt for the camping, and the park ranger was so busy with the long line of cars waiting to get in on this sunny Saturday that he just glanced at the yellow paper from the other side of the booth, assumed it was a receipt for entry, and waved us through. Really we should have paid an extra $15 entrance fee in addition to the $30 we’d paid for camping, because the camping fee only covers an excursion into one side of the park; there is an additional fee if you want to venture beyond the campground on the south side.  But having spent $30 already, we didn’t feel too bad.

The heat shimmered up from the two-lane highway and engulfed the car. On the way out of Joshua Tree Village we stopped at a place called Country Kitchen for a cup of proper American filter coffee. The owner is a woman named Mariene, originally from Cambodia. She had origami dollar bills on the wall, signs thanking her for her support of the local police officers’ fundraiser, letters thanking her for supporting land mine removal in Cambodia, and one for SMART, a group for retired servicepeople who want to travel “to see the country we defend.” Another letter and photo on the wall proclaimed that her son had recently graduated from medical school.

We sat at the bar and asked if it was OK if we just had coffee. She said, “Fine with me, Hun.” She called everyone, including the giant bearded bikers, “Hun.” We sat and listened to her shout across the tiny restaurant, which only had seven tables:  “IT WAS TWO DIET COKES AND AN ICED TEA, RIGHT HUN?”

The restaurant was packed at 11.30am. There was one open table. A woman came in with a southern accent and a newspaper under her arm. Mariene offered her a barstool. She said she’d prefer a table. Mariene told her the lunch rush would be starting soon and she couldn’t afford to give a table to just one person. The woman huffed and puffed and left waving her newspaper, whereupon Mariene loudly announced to the restaurant in general, “Fine by me, Hun! I have no problem seating four at that table, don’t need your business!” Everybody chuckled and kept eating: biscuits and gravy, country fried steak, shortstack blueberry pancakes. It all looked amazing.

A couple came in and sat down next to us, and in the spirit of re-learning how to be Americans, Matt leaned over and struck up a conversation. Turns out they were Australians, on day one of a year-long climbing tour of the Western US and Canada. That’s America for you: sit down at a tiny bar in a tiny restaurant in a tiny town and end up meeting people from halfway across the world. Matt started off asking if they were on their way into J-Tree, and they said they were on their way out. They’d just arrived the night before, flown into LAX jetlagged and hungover, and thought if they were this close to J-Tree, may as well go see it. Now they were stuck because no place in town had a rental car available to get them back to LA. She was chatty, but he just sat back and nodded along, obviously tired.

They asked where we were from; it’s always a safe opener among travelers in strange places. We told them Denver/LA via Japan and Scotland. They wanted to know why. Everyone always asks why: Why Scotland? The answer to that question is always, Why not Scotland?

We wanted to offer them a lift into LA, but one of the few downsides of the RX8 is the lack of a proper back seat. What little space there is, is stuffed full of camping gear, water, and snacks for the road. We missed that aspect of Steinbeck’s trip, being able to pick up strangers along the way and get to know them in the context of a small shared journey to a shared destination. We decided to brave the weekend traffic into LA and we left them to find their way.

It was the first time we were jealous of someone else’s trip, and not vice versa.

These interactions at tiny cafes in tiny towns are one of the things that define not only the American tradition of the road trip, but America in general. One of the biggest things we’re re-learning is how to approach strangers as friends we haven’t yet met.

Unexpected Delights

“I never saw a country that changed so rapidly, and because I had not expected it everything I saw brought a delight.”

Get Your Kicks...

In a culture focused on mass consumption and brand names, it’s easy to forget about the small town Mom-and-Pop places scattered along the stretches of back roads just off these sanitized highways.  These two-lane roads used to connect the major population centers but are now often bypassed by a faster, newer, sleeker lifestyle of which the eight-lane highways are just one aspect. We were lucky to re-discover some of those quirky, truly unique places along the way.

For example, who could resist stopping at the Enaville Resort and Snake Pit? Or Soap Lake? Or Flaming Geyser State Park? Or the Railroad Interpretive Center? Half the fun is trying to guess where these names come from. “Moses Lake. Does it occasionally part itself?” Turns out Moses Lake is parted by the Interstate, which cruises through the center of the lake on a strip of land as thin as the proverbial prophet’s miraculous staff. Then there was the Molly B’Damned Motel. The name raises the obvious question: who was Molly? An ex-wife? An unsupportive mother-in-law? An unhelpful real estate agent? A nay-saying neighbor? Whoever she was, somebody sure showed her.

At the Little Big Horn Casino, the natives are getting their own back. Bumper stickers advertised the locals as “FBI – Full Blooded Indian.” The Community Theater in Loveland was putting on an original play, “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s,” a comedy in two acts. We wished we could get tickets. The sign for Fort Courage encouraged us to “Take Pictures of the Past!” Every little place exhorted, “Don’t Miss It!” Cameron, Arizona advertised itself as “More than just a hole in the ground.” Fame is a relative thing. On the way out of Holbrook, New Mexico, we passed the Wigwam Motel with a sign out front: “Have you slept in a wigwam lately?”

We stopped at God’s Little Church in the Desert in Brenda, Arizona, and we passed the exit for Mecca just before we arrived in Joshua Tree, California.

The unique slogans extended to shops we passed and local political problems we stumbled upon. One sign demanded that we “Bring Benjamin Home,” but offered no explanation of who and where Benjamin was. We passed a Chinese restaurant that advertised itself as the place “Where the Pot Stays Hot!” Rosie’s Wild Woman Creations informed us, “Normal is not an option.” “PUD Chips” were advertised without explanation. Unfortunately the shop was closed, so we have to live with our ignorance. We passed Bond Girls Bail Bonds right next door to Bonk & Bonk Investigations. Advertisements recommended, “Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer.” T-shirts philosophized, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.” And one particularly sage bumper sticker urged, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

On the Road Again

The one thing that ties all these seemingly random places to each other is the road itself. The road is the thread that runs through the national narrative, linking all the people and places we encounter along the way. When you get off the main road, as Steinbeck advocated, you discover the individuality of the places and people outside the world of Wal-Mart and McDonalds. Out here, nothing is standardized. Each state, each community, each character, is an individual and proud of it. This seems to be a linking theme in our rediscovery of America. Steinbeck observed it too: “Every safe generality I gathered in my travels was cancelled by another.” (120) America is a nation of misfits.

Overarching it all is the lure of the open road. On Highway 89 south of Prescott, coming over Ponderosa Pass, we flew through the tight turns on the winding road, windows down, enjoying the way the RX8 cornered, downshifting through six gears and letting the rotary engine rev to levels not possible with pistons. It was a balmy 78 degrees. We drank root beer and Matt spat sunflower seeds out the window, the quintessential American scene, music up, enjoying the road, the car, and the sun. We are feeling very content again.

Adventures in Banking

“Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection.”

After our excitement about food and our dismay over gas, the next important thing was to find a bank that would let us withdraw money from our account in the UK. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult. ATMs in the States didn’t recognize our card as a debit card; apparently the chip-and-pin system was too much for them, and they would spit the card out with instructions to contact our card provider. After a few panicky attempts at different ATMs and one nervous phone call to our bank in Scotland, we realized the problem was not that all our money had mysteriously disappeared, but that the machines themselves were unable to access our account information overseas. We didn’t want to carry around one big wad of cash, because that plus the car plus our general air of good-natured confusion was likely to make us an obvious target. We needed to find a bank that could accommodate our strange foreign card.

That bank was Wells Fargo, which got its start 150 years ago transferring mail from the civilized East to the wild West, and later offering banking services to the gold miners of California. Their heavily armed stagecoaches predated the famous Pony Express and were one of the first links between America’s geographical and cultural extremes. At the time, they were considered more reliable than the US Postal Service and prided themselves on the courtesy and honesty of their employees. This turned out to be true of their modern incarnation as well.

Once we figured out that this particular bank could handle the strangeness of our little blue debit card, we learned to pull off the highway every time we saw one. The sight of one of their red and yellow signs, with the iconic stagecoach and team of horses, became as welcome as the sight of an old friend. We still weren’t able to use the ATMs outside the bank; we had to go in and talk to an actual human being. Strange for us in this age of digital everything. But it turned out to be both a pleasant chance to chat and a good source of information about the local area.

The tellers we encountered were the financial world’s counterpart to TJ, genuinely friendly people who actually seemed to enjoy talking to their customers. This was a far cry from many of our experiences in European banks, where the customer is an annoyance to be disposed of as quickly as possible, with as few words as possible, and preferably given as little money as possible. The system required us to make a cash advance off of our card, and this strange transaction always elicited a series of questions from the teller: “So where are you from? What brings you here? Where are you going?” There was always a sense of fascination in encountering two Americans who chose to live elsewhere. “Wow! Scotland? What’s that like? Don’t you miss America?” There was also, as Steinbeck discovered on his trip, a sense of envy mixed in with the questions. “Wow! I wish I could just pick up and travel like that.” “I’ve never been outside of the country; I’d like to go. Maybe someday.”

Driving and more driving

At the outset of our trip, we wondered whether Americans still felt this desire to be elsewhere. The wanderlust Steinbeck knew so well in himself was something he also encountered in others as he began to prepare for his journey. His neighbors, his son’s friends, strangers he met along the way, all demonstrated a sense of longing for the unknown, the open road, the mystery over the next horizon. But these phrases had become clichés, stereotypes of an American past, and we were no longer sure if they were an accurate reflection of the American present. We wondered whether people had become more wedded to place, to home, to a job and a role and a set of material goods, the combination of which would kill that spirit of adventure and wanderlust that has characterized America from the Pilgrims to the pioneers, from the cowboys in the American West to the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Is it as prevalent in 2012 as it was in 1960?

Steinbeck wondered whether it was genetic, something inherited from the spirit of the restless immigrants whose progeny we are. In the words of one of Steinbeck’s interlocutors, “Lord, I wish I could go.” And Steinbeck replied, “You don’t even know where I’m going.” The rejoinder: “I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.” (21-22)

That spirit of adventure still infects the descendents of people who crossed unknown wildernesses in covered wagons, who hopped freight trains without knowing their destinations, or hitchhiked across the continent, trusting in the kindness of strangers. Fifty years later, it is true of us and many others.