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.

California Here We Come

“The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.”

Window Rock

We were engulfed in a huge sandstorm between Winslow and Winona. Red dust obliterated the highway for just under a mile; we could see it from several miles down the road, stretching away into the desert on either side and hundreds of feet into the otherwise clear desert sky. Out to the north the horizon disappeared in a red haze. The wind wreaked havoc with the semis and the giant RVs on the road around us.

At this point we made an unfortunate discovery. The RX8 had made its home for years in the Pacific Northwest, where air conditioning is rarely necessary. So the fact that the car’s AC was broken didn’t bother Dad. Up to this point it hadn’t bothered us either; we were cruising along with the sunroof open and the windows down, because at 11am it was already 87 degrees. But it presented a problem in the presence of the swirling desert dust. We had to roll the windows up to avoid choking and ended up sitting in our very own impromptu sweat lodge for several miles.

When we turned off I-40 onto Highway 89 south, we were suddenly in the pine forest. It was high and shady and cool. The temperature dropped to 72 degrees, and in place of adobe houses we started to see log cabins.

Sedona Rock Slide

Nestled in a narrow mountain valley, Sedona is beautiful. Slide Rock State Park was heaving on a holiday weekend, with families swimming and picnicking, but the natural rock slide is long enough and the park is big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded. The slide itself is a combination of slides, jumps, and pools for swimming. Cold, clear water and hot sun; the perfect complement to a dusty night in the desert. Everyone was talking to each other, talking to strangers. Both the atmosphere and the weather were warm. One guy did a backflip into the water and landed on his belly, hard. In Scotland, everyone would have chuckled softly while looking discretely in another direction. In America, everyone shared a laugh, some pointed, and he came up for air yelling “Ow! That hurt!” at the top of his lungs. Complete strangers clapped him on the back as he got out of the water. The town of Sedona itself appeared to host the most massage parlors in ten square miles we’d seen since Bangkok. Every place trumpeted the need for relaxation, offered us an opportunity for rejuvenation, told us we were “worth it.”

After cooling down, we wound our way up through Jerome and back down into Prescott. The road in and out of Jerome is terrifying; hairpin curves and two-lane switchbacks clinging to the sides of sheer cliffs. Matt thought it was a fantastic opportunity to test the RX8’s cornering capabilities. Alissa disagreed.

In marked contrast to the vertiginous roads in the Juniper mountains, we drove the incredibly flat, incredibly straight stretch of highway between Yarnell and Blythe. Up till then it had been high desert, with dry grasses, scrub brush, and sage. Now we began to see Saguaro sentinels on the ridgetops, silhouetted against the high white desert sky. This was stereotypical desert, with the colossal cacti marching in and surrounding us, escorting us to the California state line. These are giants of the earth, growing over 40 feet tall. In the heat haze of the late afternoon the road melted into the horizon, leaving us with the feeling that we were cruising into the sky.

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.

Desert Nights

“At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places.”

In the Petrified Forest

We left New Mexico behind and flew across Arizona to the Painted Desert, on the border of the Navajo Nation. We planned to spend the night in our tent beneath the dome of desert stars.

Brigitte at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center attempted to derail our plans. “You’ll need to hike in,” she told us.

“Yep, no problem.”

“OK. But you’ll need to carry all your gear and your water.” She stared us down. “For the whole trip.”

“Yep, we’ve got it.”

“OK. But you’ll need a lot of water; it gets really hot out there.”

“We’ve got a gallon for each of us per day.”

“Huh. OK. Well, you’ll have to go at least a mile out from the trailhead. And you’re on your own; there’s no trail, no markers.”

“No problem, we’ve got a GPS.”

“OK. But you’ll need to pack all your trash out with you.”

“We always do.”

Desert Wildlife

By this time she’d decided we were OK. We could tell she had to go through that spiel with everyone and that at some point the would-be campers, presented with all these obstacles, must give up. We know this because she told us this was the first time she’d had to fill out all the paperwork. It was a lot of paperwork. We had to sign our lives away for one night of camping in the Painted Desert.

After we passed the first test with Brigitte, we had to stop and see Bill at the Painted Desert Inn. This was where we would leave the RX8 overnight. There was a sticker on the door of the inn for our benefit: “No firearms allowed inside.” We were in there for 15 minutes or so, during which time he told the same story to three different couples three different times in response to the same question:

“How old is this building?”

There would be a pause while Bill sucked his front teeth. “Well,” another pause, “we’re not too sure. The guy that built this,” he said before pausing to chew the inside of his lip, “he homesteaded first. He registered the Inn with the government in 1924, but he homesteaded the year earlier.” This was an exceptionally long speech, and Bill needed a break to roll his tongue around a bit. Then he took a deep breath in through his nose. “So, it could be 87, or maybe 86 years old.”

As he told this story for the second time while we waited for our turn to speak to him, we browsed the shelves of souvenirs. The main room of the inn with its fantastic views over the desert floor below, a room that had once been a place for sitting and conversing and enjoying the subtle fluctuations of the light over the cliffs and wadis below, was now populated with shelves of T-shirts and coffee mugs, racks of postcards, and one particularly gruesome stand packed with plastic rattlesnakes and stuffed jackalopes. Everything strategically designed to provide hard evidence that the buyer had been there, done that.

After he wrapped up his story for the third time, Bill gave us our instructions in his own idiosyncratic way. “Leave the car by seven tonight,” he instructed before a long pause in which he chewed his lip and punched the keys on the cash register for yet another customer, “And don’t come back before eight in the morning.”

Losing the Light

It’s impossible to describe a night in the desert wilderness adequately. The light from the setting sun turns everything red. As the sun goes down in the west it draws the purple night haze up from the eastern horizon behind it; we watched it bleed slowly across the sky as we raced to set up our tent. The stars seemed to hang in the blackness just above our heads, as if we could reach out and touch them if we tried. They pulse like they’re alive, like they’re watching; it’s easy to see why so many people out here think they spot UFOs. If you stare at the same patch of sky long enough, more and more stars appear, and you realize there really isn’t a single bit of darkness up there. Then the moon comes up and steals the light from the stars, blotting them out with a reflection so bright it casts shadows. We spent the night watching the stars through the tent mesh and listening to the wind and the crickets.

Advertising and Consumption

“Having too many things, Americans spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”

Now you want a donut, don’t you?

Advertising is a funny thing, in that you are being told what you want. You don’t think you need anything until you get into the store or the mall, and then suddenly you’re bombarded with posters and displays and salespeople, and a whole wellspring of wants bubbles up inside your head, flows through your fingers, and spills over into your credit card balance.

Of course the irony is that you never really needed any of it in the first place. This over-consumption has reached such a pace that the storage business is booming. Americans have too much stuff to store in their houses, so they rent space elsewhere and fill it with the extras. It’s reassuring to know that you can take all that stuff to the local Fortress Self Storage Annex, evocatively named so you can be sure that all that crap that won’t fit in your house is safe with them. We even saw advertisements and billboards for a company called Got Junk. The phone number is 1-800-GOT-JUNK. You call them and they come and haul your junk away. Everybody’s got junk; they may not realize that’s what it is, but they’ve got it. And then the cycle repeats.

At the urging of an old friend we visited along the way, we spent several hours at a home consignment store in an Arizona suburb. The warehouse was in a rich neighborhood, where wealthy people compete with each other to buy even wealthier people’s castoffs: furniture, art, jewelry. The competition is the thing. It’s a high-pressure environment, with holds, second and third holds, better snap it up because someone else is looking over your shoulder and you don’t want them to get it. Our friend had a house full of paintings, some of which she didn’t even like, but she was buying more art, even though she didn’t have room to hang what she already had. The idea was to resell what she bought and make her fortune. In the process, caught up in the search for a bargain, she also bought tables and chairs, lamps and headboards. More furniture for a house already stuffed to the rafters. This is a different kind of mobility; the transience is in the objects around you. Everything else changes while you stay rooted.

“Look at this table! It’s a steal for $150.” But somebody else snapped it up, so she bought a similar one for double the price.

At this place we found a painting that we wanted to take home as a souvenir of our journey. It was a numbered print in a nice frame, and Alissa pointed it out enthusiastically to our friend.

She considered it for a moment with one eye and a certain amount of undisguised disdain. “But you know you’re never going to get any more than you paid for it, right? It’s just a print. It’ll never be worth anything.”

“But I’m buying it because I like it. I want to hang it. I don’t plan on selling it.”

“Oh,” in a confused tone. “OK.”

And that’s where the enjoyment lies for so many Americans, in the process of acquiring and disposing, not necessarily in the objects themselves. The thrill is in finding a better deal, a cheaper car, winning in the hunt for the best bargain. And on some level, this is acknowledged. In one shopping mall restroom in Phoenix, Alissa saw a sign that read: “Fresh flowers to enhance your shopping experience.” The experience of shopping has itself become commoditized.

Along with commoditization comes homogenization. Buying and selling used to be something that was done on a personal level: with a local shopkeeper, someone the customer knew personally and interacted with regularly; with a door-to-door salesman, who came into your home as your guest even as you became his customer; with members of a neighborhood community, people you knew in their personal as well as their professional aspects. Throughout America, this sense of personal interaction between buyer and seller is diminishing. Even in small towns, where main streets used to boast shops staffed by generations of the same family, shoppers increasingly drive to major discount outlets to get the best deal. For the consumer the bargain is the thing. For the seller, the customer is a number, not a face. That’s one thing we’ve found disappointing about this journey, how easy it is to be anonymous in America these days.