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!

Road Warriors

“Permanence is neither achieved nor desired by mobile people. They do not buy for the generations, but only until a new model they can afford comes out.”

As we pulled back onto the highway from our latest rest stop, we passed a long line of semi-trucks parked at the far end of the lot, their drivers nowhere to be seen, most likely holed up in their cabs for a much-needed rest. These titans of transport rumble up and down the Interstates, enthroned like kings in their cabs, their kingdoms moving with them from one roadside diner to the next. “The truckers cruise over the surface of the nation without being a part of it.” (72) Steinbeck had an appreciation for truckers as professionals, keepers of a specialized knowledge and bearers of a secret language. He was lucky enough to be accepted among them, as a fellow wanderer with his own wisdom, his own secrets. In our sports car, which marked us out as amateurs, we were never so lucky. We had to make do with the occasional longing look or appreciative nod.

Rest areas in some states have started offering free coffee, presumably to help keep these legions of truckers awake and alert. Since we were trying to awaken our inner Americans, we decided to stop and try this free coffee, because Americans don’t turn down free anything. After tasting it, we decided that in the future we would pay for our coffee. It just proves the old adage that you don’t get something for nothing. But after spending so many thousands of miles sharing the roads with those giants of transport and more than once wondering what our little Mazda would look like after an altercation with one of them, we submit that we as a nation owe our truckers better coffee.

In addition to these ubiquitous semis, giant RVs seem to be proliferating across the country. They are starting to rival the trucks for numbers and size, though certainly not road dominance. These are 40-foot behemoths towing luxury four-wheel drive vehicles. You’d never know gas was hovering around $4 per gallon. New and shiny, these giants of the road are driven by white-haired retirees in convoys collectively worth millions of dollars.

These glistening wheeled residences parade through the tiny towns where their dusty, road-weary cousins are parked permanently next to rusting water tanks, surrounded by waist-high grass, with boards propped against the peeling sides to cover the wheels and give the whole thing the illusion of permanence. But there is nothing more precarious. For some people mobility is freedom. For others it’s a threat.

Yet the attraction of mobility seems undimmed since Steinbeck’s day. There are thousands of residents of RV Parks along incredibly straight stretches of highway. Collectively, they sponsor a section of the road, paying for its maintenance and cleaning up the trash people jettison from the windows of moving cars, just like the boys in Colorado. This lends a sense of ownership, of control over a symbolic stretch of freedom. Where else but America would so many people live in their RVs and spend time and money beautifying a stretch of highway? You can even adopt a highway through the American Highway Maintenance Corporation, which provides recognition for your efforts by means of huge signs along the side of “your” stretch of highway, advertising your commitment to beautifying your environment. Some of these signs display names of individuals and families, others advertise “Capital Bail Bonds,” or “Conservative Evangelical Christians.” For the young boys we met, it was a sense of social responsibility that compelled them to clean up after their less responsible compatriots. For the older generations it seems to be an unquenchable desire for a sense of place. They’ve rejected the obligations associated with a traditional home and replaced them with others.

At another of the infamous rest areas, we met a former pastor who had supplemented an allegiance to Jesus with an allegiance to the road. He and his wife have been living in their fifth wheel trailer for about a year now. They travel around between RV parks and people’s driveways. They subscribe to newsletters and magazines all about the RV culture (though we were unsure how all that mail gets delivered). The Reverend said that an estimated one million people in the US live exclusively in an RV. It’s a completely nomadic, mobile culture. The most recent US census calls these “people on the move” and counts them as an entirely separate subset of the American population, like students or military personnel. This is the road warrior culture, where a vehicle is a status symbol, an indicator of independence and imagined individuality. It will take more than high gas prices to change that.

We also found RVs inhabiting the various campgrounds where we spent our nights. These existed in various states of permanence, from those just parked overnight to those leveled with wheel blocks for a longer stay, and even some who planned to stay for entire seasons, with potted plants growing outside and above-ground pools set up in the next campsite. Either way, nearly every RV we saw had a satellite dish, some affixed to the top and some set up on tripods outside, so the occupants never had to be out-of-touch with the all-important TV culture. As Steinbeck drove through the country he noted, “It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used.” (82) The loss of the regional particularities which he observed continues apace in America’s campgrounds, all thanks to the ubiquity of TV.

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.

The Best Laid Plans

“A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers.  Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of a dog is that?’”

Our dog is the one on the left.

Like many thirty-something couples with no kids, we have a dog. Like Charley, our pup is exotic, and she has definitely created bonds for us with neighbors and strangers alike. It is not unusual for burly, tattooed men to get down on their knees in the street and gush over how cute she is. People tend to speak to her first, and whoever happens to be at the other end of her leash second, if at all. However, she is Scottish and requires a passport to travel, not to mention the cost of a doggie ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight. So she spent her vacation with a friend of ours in Scotland. Our point of contact with strangers en route would have to be something else.

It turned out to be the car. It’s a Mazda RX8. Wide and low, with sweeping Ferrari lines, 18-inch rims, and a rotary engine. It makes a sound like a jungle cat, and appropriately is also jungle green. It handles like a racecar, and the great temptation is to drive it like one. Whether you’re doing 90 miles an hour or 20, the car gives off the sort of full-throated roar that turns heads and slows traffic. Other drivers let us pull out in front of them. Men at gas stations unfailingly strike up conversations, always beginning with an appreciative, “Nice car!”  The car is our way back in.

Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s fabled horse. His journey was a quest, and he felt that his steed needed an appropriate moniker. Our journey is perhaps slightly less epic, but in similar style, we wanted to give our chariot a name appropriate to its temperament. We’ve nicknamed the car Kit, after the artificially intelligent supercar in the old 1980s American television show Knightrider. We named the RX8 after the car in the show because it has a mind of its own.  Set the cruise control for 72 miles an hour, and it slowly creeps up to 73.  If you don’t correct it, pretty soon you look down and it’s 77 miles an hour, then 82.  When you tap the brakes, it groans as if in disappointment. Kit wants to move. The car is as excited about this journey as we are, and it wants to get there faster.

Our plan was fairly simple. We’d fly into Seattle, borrow Dad’s RX8, and drive. We’d circle the American West, through Idaho and Montana, down through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and then west across Arizona. We’d finish by swinging up the coast back to Seattle on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Along the way we’d see some of the key tourist spots we remembered from childhood, and some new ones we felt were important. To afford all this, and meet more people along the way, we’d spend most nights camping, descending on friends and family at strategic intervals to take advantage of showers, comfortable beds, and washing machines. In a little over a month, we’d cover 5,000 miles.

Our very first day on the road, it was clear that we had failed to take into account the fuel consumption of our borrowed hot rod. We drove east on I-90 out of Seattle at 7am, entering the Cascade Range and Snoqualmie National Forest just as the sun was erasing the long shadows of the fir trees from the highway. The first morning of a long road trip is always exhilarating; a thermos of coffee, a full tank of gas, and the early morning open road in front of you. Our spirits were high. But it only took a hundred miles or so for us to realize that all the performance advantages of the RX8 come at the expense of an appetite for gas that would put Steinbeck’s big truck to shame. We want to relax and go with the flow of the road, but we’re also going to have to count the miles between gas stations and tourist destinations.

So our plan was immediately shot full of holes, just like the road signs in Montana. (Apparently this is a tradition in Montana: if you can’t find a moving target to practice your marksmanship, the next best thing is to be moving and try to hit something standing still. There must be legions of people with guns hanging out of car windows, aiming at those big green signs by the side of the road. An example of American ingenuity at work.) But as Steinbeck knew, any travel plan is potential prey to circumstance. We’ll just have to let the trip take us.