Scott Joplin & Breakfast Burritos

“There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall.  I felt very fortunate that morning.”

Why It’s Called the Painted Desert

When the sun came up over the desert we could feel the heat instantly; it was that more than the light that woke us. The wind and the air were still cool but we could feel the sun burning holes through the night air in preparation for a blazing day. The sky was clear, deep blue. On the hike out we met a father and son from Arkansas on their way to Pilot Rock. He wanted to know whether we’d seen any animals, and whether it was going to rain. He seemed disappointed that we’d only seen birds, and coyote prints, and that as far as we knew there was no rain predicted.

Home Sweet Tent

As we reached the lip of the canyon after a long hot climb from the desert floor and were loading our gear into the trunk of the car, we heard the surreal waft of ragtime music on the wind. We looked up to see an enormous cavalcade of 25 motorcycles snaking their way along the cliff-top highway. The lead motorcycle was playing Scott Joplin at high volume, and the whole train was caboosed by a 16-passenger van towing a trailer with “Bob’s Harley Tours” scrawled on the side in big orange letters. Selling the quintessential American experience, complete with soundtrack and emergency provisions.

Joe and Aggie’s Cafe, an institution on Route 66

After our long hike out of the desert we were starved. We stopped for breakfast at Joe and Aggie’s, a locals’ place with faux wood panelling on the walls, ceiling fans and a swamp cooler, leather booths, reading material on the tables, kitschy souvenirs for sale at the glass-topped front counter, and an old jukebox that’s probably been “Out of Order” for a decade or more. It’s family owned and operated, by which they mean that Grandpa sits silently and stoically behind the glass counter that doubles as the gift shop, Dad waits tables, and teenage daughter mopes about with a plastic tub full of dirty dishes. By their own admission they serve Mexican and American food. At 10am on a Saturday, it was full of families, elderly couples, and one biker in leathers who stopped to chat with a Native woman in the corner about custody battles and how he wanted to “get his kids back.”

A family of ten had the table in the middle of the restaurant. At least two of them were called “Bubba.” One of the Bubbas ordered a breakfast burrito to go after finishing his full plate, which was piled high with at least two recommended portions to start with. The waiter made the mistake of trying to take a plate too early and got an actual slap from one of the women, whereupon he announced, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been bit.” One of the older children, who went by the eponymous “Junior,” had a large plastic spike through his left ear and black horn-rimmed glasses that were missing the left ear piece. After a particularly loud burp from Junior, the oldest Bubba offered to let the waiter keep the kids, and the waiter replied, “We’ve got the perfect closet for ‘em.”

This is the type of diner Route 66 is famous for, and the type of place it’s increasingly hard to find these days. In between getting slapped and offering to closet people’s children, the waiter was running around breathlessly preparing the back room for a huge tour group coming in shortly. We questioned him a bit and discovered that it was a group of 34 Norwegians on a guided Harley tour, presumably the same group we’d seen on their bikes early that morning, blasting the still desert morning full of holes with the manic jackhammer cheerfulness of ragtime music. They were due into the café in 40 minutes. We high-tailed it out of there.

Preparing for the Journey

“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Mexican food. Those probably aren’t the first words you expect to see on a blog about reconnecting with America. But for us that’s what it’s all about. The first thing we want when we step off the plane from Scotland is a big, greasy, smothered burrito. Which isn’t really Mexican food anyway, at least not as they know it in Mexico. In Mexico, it’s gorditas y poblanos, pozole y chilaquiles. This version of the burrito is a hybrid, a cross between authentic Mexican cuisine and what appeals to your average gringo. A melting-pot burrito. A microcosm of the macro-America we’re trying to get to know all over again. A welcome home.

As a starting point, we should introduce ourselves. We’re expats, people who live outside our country of birth by choice rather than necessity. People for whom wanderlust is a way of life. We live to experience rather than accumulate.  Our savings accounts are not dedicated to a new car or a down payment on a house but to the excitement of slinging well-worn backpacks over our shoulders and stepping onto a train. Or the tingling sensation of take-off, half fear and half anticipation. All the little nuisances and annoyances of security lines, ticket checks, passport control, and checked baggage weight limits fall away in that moment of departure. For wanderers like us, train stations and airports are cathedrals, holy places of transition and in-between-ness. The start of a trip is a blank slate, a chance to re-invent ourselves. Each one is a mini mid-life crisis, a vain attempt to realize a permanent desire for change.

Several years ago, we read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America for the first time. It was a revelation, a vision through a glass darkly. In 1960 Steinbeck was living in New York, far from the characters who filled his novels. He felt he was missing America, that he didn’t know his country or his people anymore. So he kitted out a camper shell on a customized pick-up truck, stocked it with more stuff than he could possibly need (as we all do when travelling), and took off on a four-month trip around the continental US with only his brown Standard Poodle, Charley, for company. He wanted to reconnect with the America he used to know so intimately.

That loss of connection is something we also felt.  As colonials living in Scotland, our knowledge of America was mediated by emails from friends and family, the BBC website, and the common stereotypes perpetrated so enthusiastically by Yanks and foreigners alike. We no longer had a personal connection with the real America. In a way that is perhaps typical of thirty-something Americans, we were searching for ourselves.

We spent months planning our trip. We watched ticket prices rise and fall and kept hoping for the big fall that never came. The morning ritual of checking Expedia, Last Minute, and Opodo to see how the prices had changed from the night before became as addictive as the daily caffeine hit. We planned routes, booked hotels and camping spots, contacted family and friends to beg for couches and spare rooms, all before we’d even purchased plane tickets. And of course, the minute we stepped out our front door, all that planning was at the mercy of the personality of the journey itself. Steinbeck was right about that.

In fact, Steinbeck was right about a lot of things. One of the things that strikes us as we read an re-read Travels with Charley is how prescient he was about the future of the America he went in search of. Another goal for us on this journey of ours is to see how America is faring 50 years on. Have we as a nation lived up to Steinbeck’s expectations? Have we fulfilled his best and worst predictions? Would he recognize himself in the people we meet? Would he recognize himself in us? In a way, we are travelling with Steinbeck in search of America.