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.

Life in Desert Places

“And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.  Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.”

In all our travels, we’ve discovered that a lot of places don’t quite live up to the expectations created by their reputations. Florence, for example, was a disappointment. Or Madrid–meh. But Joshua Tree is not one of those places. It is everything it’s cracked up to be: gorgeous landscape, great hiking and climbing, and surprisingly abundant wildlife and plant life.

As we drove in the yucca were in bloom, huge flags of white flowers on one long stem, towering up to 12 feet above the ground.  Today we saw the whole desert abloom.  Pink, purple blue; yellow, orange, white.  Alissa grew up in LA but she’d never seen any of these flowers before.  It was a cool day, 70F in mid-afternoon, so the birds and lizards were out enjoying the sun as well. We were amazed by the colors and the smells, and we felt fortunate; this only happens for a few weeks out of every year, and we were there to see it.

We’ve also seen quite a bit of wildlife along the way.  In the Petrified Forest we saw an antelope cross our path; as the sun was setting he leisurely meandered up to the road and then ambled across it, oblivious first to our screeching brakes and then to our panicked bumbling with the camera.

In the Painted Desert we saw coyote tracks, and coming down the pass south of Prescott on Highway 9 we saw the real thing cross the road.  We’ve seen roadrunners and enormous hawks and several kinds of lizards whose names we are too ignorant to know.  There is so much variety here, in a place that we so often envision as barren.

We hiked to Lost Palms and Mastadon Peak, we climbed Skull Rock and saw the Hidden Valley. And even in the places that looked devoid of life at first glance, we found small surprises: a rock quail perched atop Skull Rock, lizards sprawled in the sun or digging tunnels in the shade; wildflowers clinging to the south sides of sheer cliffs, oases of water between palm trees, and even wild lilies in Hidden Valley.

There are stories of Hidden Valley being used by cattle rustlers and thieves of various stripes; tough, sun-browned men who were hard enough to eke out a living in a place where those they stole from were too soft to follow. Just one of the infinite variety of survival techniques Steinbeck mentioned. And it’s not so far from here to the origins of our species, who sprang from watered valleys in the middle of vast deserts, and developed their own ingenious techniques to change their environment in ways the desert-dwelling plants and animals could never have conceived.

Later as we roasted marshmallows around the campfire, Alissa asked how our primal ancestors would feel if they could see us using their primary tool, fire, to roast marshmallows. Matt said if they’d had marshmallows, they’d have done the same. Even with the marshmallows and the fancy tent and the fast car, when we’re out here under the vast sky full of stars, listening to the coyotes sing to the moon, it’s easy to feel that we’re not so distant from them after all.

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.