Every April, the writers of the Cultural Gutter take time out from their assigned area of expertise to write about something else. So I’m going to ramble aimlessly for 2,000 words about road trips. Enjoy!
We descended from Ruidoso atop a pine-covered mountain into a red hell of dust and zero visibility. The radio crackled with static. The only thing that could break through the storm was a Mexican rock ‘n’ roll oldies station spilling across the border in fits and starts. We crept forward, foot by foot, along Highway 54 southbound. And then, as rapidly as it had engulfed us, the dust storm dissipated. All of a sudden, stretching out like snow to the horizon, was White Sands, as odd and alien a landscape as I’ve ever seen. Where missiles are tested. Where astronauts train. Where the Space Shuttle landed, but only once because it took them forever to get all the dust out of it afterward. On a hill overlooking it all as we pulled into the town of Alamogordo was the polished mirror surface of the New Mexico Museum of Space History, on the grounds of which is the grave of Ham the space chimp. Just a short drive away, Trinity. For a guy who had spent his entire life east of the Mississippi, save for one family vacation to the Rocky Mountains in 1982, the landscape of the American southwest was staggeringly weird and beautifully entrancing.
In the spring of what would be my 30th year of kicking around the big blue marble, a series of events both fortuitous and calamitous combined to grace me with an opportunity the likes of which I might never experience again. I was out of a job, a victim of the dotcom crash, but fortified financially by a regular freelance gig writing for Wizard Entertainment’s Toyfare magazine. It was a job I could do from just about anywhere, and so it occurred to me that in the coming summer, I had more free time on my hands than I’d had since I was a kid. I decided to drive. Drive for as long and as far as I could afford, holing up in roadside motels from time to time to bang out some article about He-Man figures or whatever it was Toyfare wanted from me, a paycheck that would generally be just enough to almost cover gas and a few more nights in some seedy roadside motel. So with very little preparation or idea of where I was going, I enlisted the companionship of a traveling partner and headed west out of Brooklyn, New York.
For the better part of two and a half months, we followed the back roads criss-crossing America, operating under the trip rules that, except when completely unavoidable, we would never take the interstate, never stay in a chain motel, and never eat at a chain restaurant. Eventually, we figured we’d pick up what remained of Route 66, probably somewhere south of Chicago, and follow it a spell. But really, we had no destination in mind other than America. Just a couple hours east of New York, we were staring at the smoking fissures and ruptured asphalt of the abandoned mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, under which a mine fire has been raging for decades. Later we were marveling at a terrifying statue of a ghastly old woman and her child, the statue of which had been topped with a head meant for a statue of an adult man, holding a drooping, headless doll. Before we’d even finished with Pennsylvania, picking up the old Lincoln Highway, we’d seen the birthplace of Piper airplanes, toured a fully computerized Amish heritage center, and been attacked by a leather-clad little person on a custom motorcycle. We rode tower roller coasters in Sandusky, Ohio, and were taken on a tour of prehistoric beasts by a sullen chain-smoking thirteen-year-old at the Prehistoric Forest and Mystery Spot. We saw Neil Armstrong’s poop, caught Eight-Legged Freaks at a drive-in, relaxed in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, and found some roadside flea market where I spent a small stack of gas money on old exotica LPs, pulp novels, and a bottle (still full) of Catnip-Fennel Elixir from the 1920s.
Since I first got my license, I’ve loved aimless driving. As a teen in Kentucky, I would go for hours, listening to cassettes and seeing where I ended up. Sometimes it was in some corner of Louisville I’d never seen before. Sometimes it was a dirt road that meandered off into the woods and just sort of ended. I went to college in Florida and for a while dated a girl who went to Smith in Northampton, Mass. So I would from time to time drive to see her, wondering at the size of things as I drove the lonely stretch of highways — never the interstate, if I didn’t have to — between there and Florida, wandering around in a sleep deprived, caffeine fueled haze as I hit New York City, Boston, or hell, just South of the Border on the line between the Carolinas. I slept on the beaches of the Outer Banks, Virginia Beach, got hopelessly lost when I decided to explore DC having never been there (pretty sure I thought “I’ll randomly find the Dischord House”). When I finally got the Northampton, usually snowy because it was spring break (what Florida resident doesn’t leave Florida to go to the icy north for spring break?), we’d pile right back into the car and head off somewhere weird. Cape Cod in the dead of winter. Something like that.
In Florida, I’d load up a friend or two when we had the time and prowl the Atlantic Coast. We’d steal coins out of fountains at the mall to finance our road trips. Enough for half a tank of gas and some inadvisable sandwich from a gas station. When the relationship with the Smithie went bust, I would con a friend or girlfriend into riding with me to Memphis or Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg, where a Little Richard impersonator was overjoyed to check us into the “Queen Room” at the hotel and our neighbor was a surly Elvis impersonator and his rockabilly girlfriend. Once, some friends scraped together enough cash to drive from Florida to Chicago just so we could shoot a water gun at a friend who had recently moved there to work for Billiards Digest magazine.
You hear a lot about the homogenization of America, and those reports are not exaggerated. The creeping corporate takeover has banished a lot of local flavor and variation into the realm of “what once was.” But what now is isn’t all there is. When we set out on the Great American road trip, we discovered that by steadfastly avoiding the quickest, most reasonable route, by letting ourselves be guided by nothing more than Roadside America, a couple Route 66 guide books from the 1960s, and a Rand-McNally road atlas, you could still find pockets of what makes traveling the US so entertaining and eye-opening. Sometimes, it’s just the mood of things. Driving overnight across Kansas and suddenly picking up Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM talking to an old man who had been trying to capture space aliens in the produce aisle of his local supermarket (actual episode). Full moon, countless stars, vast open spaces, not a sign of humanity around except for the Truckin’ Bozo on the radio.
And sometimes it was the vestiges of America’s eclectic nature. In Indiana, we happened across a front yard full of giant metal models of airplanes. We decided to pull in and ask for a closer look, and that’s how we met Tud, a Vietnam vet with terminal cancer and a passion for metal fabrication and motorcycles who was determined to kill himself with BBQ ribs before the cancer got him. We’d pass through, sometimes stay in, small towns that had been bypassed by interstates and airports and progress. Out of the way museums, obscure cemeteries and battlefields, factories. Ghost towns. Presidential birthplaces. Natural wonders. Caves and haunted houses and as many dinosaur parks as we could find. Neon-bathed motels that had survived the encroachment of chains. The Blue Swallow in Tucumcari. El Vado in Albuquerque. The Wagon Wheel in Cuba, Missouri, and the Silver Saddle in Santa Fe, where there was as trip club across the street and a guy roasting fresh peppers in the parking lot. In Tulsa, following Route 66, we checked into a place called the Desert Hills because I liked the look of their neon. Cabs and cars came and went all night, usually dropping off a woman followed a few minutes later by a guy. They’d leave an hour or so later. On the headboard of the bed someone had carved an ad encouraging us to dial up Johnny Cheezecake, and we were so close until I realized the reality of Johnny could never match the image I had of him in my mind, a lean shaggy-haired blonde with a thick mustache and cream-colored slacks. He’d played QB in high school. Could have gone pro if he hadn’t blown out his knee during the state championship his senior year. Tried to work at his old man’s used car dealership, even dealt speed for a little while. But hustling was easy money, so why not? It made a lonely lady happy and kept him in Drakkar Noir.
Somewhere just shy of the California border, we realized we were running out of money and credit. By then we’d seen Monument Valley, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, Dodge City, the Valley of the Gods. We’d visited atomic museums, space museums, UFO crash site museums, and even found a commercial jetliner graveyard outside of Amarillo, where we slept at a steakhouse and swam in a pool shaped like Texas. We got the car stuck in an arroyo somewhere in the Navajo Nation. We shot the breeze with a Navajo artist at Four Corners who loved Iron Maiden and made sure he always had a tape of Navajo flute music ready when a busload of tourists disgorged. He was happy we got to see Judas Priest play at the Camel Rock casino outside of Santa Fe. We met “the horse from Dances with Wolves,” found out you can’t legally recreate the finale of North By Northwest at Mount Rushmore, and watched a meteor shower from the top of a fire tower in what might have been Idaho or maybe Montana, because by that point I honestly couldn’t remember anymore. A guy improbably from my old neighborhood in Kentucky changed our oil at a gas station in Yellowstone and forgot to put the cap back on, so that somewhere round about Minnesota the engine started spewing hot oil all over the windshield. By the time we rolled back into the parking spot outside my squalid little apartment in a run-down Hasidic neighborhood back in Brooklyn, we’d put some 7,000 miles on the car and had an experience the likes of which I’ll likely never be able to top. I was also dead broke. Horribly in debt, actually, because it turns out writing about Spider-Man and GI Joes doesn’t get you as far down the road as you think.
In time, owning a car in New York became a hassle and I decided to get rid of it. I took good trips. Boston. Wildwood. Even a trip through New England, up to Halifax and, eventually, the lovely town of Meat Cove at the northern tip of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. Had a little trouble with the Canadian border police owing to some youthful indiscretions involving the law and the fact that I had an illegal weapon under my seat (a stun gun; my mom got it for me when I moved to New York because she saw something about bears in the Palisades and, well, it’s a long story, man). Made some other international road trips. Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Australia. But it’s not the same. They don’t have the same road culture, the same history of byway tourist attraction and seedy haunts. Made some drives down south, to Florida and the Outer Banks and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Saw Thomas Jefferson’s home, learned how crappy he was at farming, and listened to a lady obsess about his boots. All you can eat fried chicken at the Michie Tavern, where Jefferson and Adams would meet, presumably to talk shit about Alexander Hamilton. Saw where the lads died in droves at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg.
When gas prices tipped the $6 a gallon point, I knew it was time to let go. I could rent a car if I needed to. And I did. Took a trip through the Catskills, and another big one from San Francisco to Seattle and back. But it wasn’t the same. Not as having your own vehicle, something that’s become as familiar to you as your own living room. Letting go lasted about a month. Then I started saving for a new car. Driving it for the first time, as fate would have it, between Louisville and New York, took me through freakish early spring weather that included a snowstorm, an ice storm, a wind storm, a rain storm, heavy fog, and at one point, even sunshine. Art Bell isn’t on Coast to Coast AM anymore, and the Truckin’ Bozo passed away a few years ago. But oh how glorious it was to know the road was mine again. To remember how much I love things like stretching my legs at a Flying J or seeing a sign for some weird museum or local attraction and figuring, “Eh, why not?” I love it. I love it so much. I don’t have the freedom I had when we took the great American drive. A regular job isn’t as easy to pull off from a motel on a dirt road somewhere near the Texas-New Mexico border as being a freelancer for a toy magazine. But that’s just details, and if the mess of my life has taught me anything, it’s that I rarely sweat the details. I’m cogniscient of the fact that road trips of any type are a luxury, a privilege. The least I can do to pay it back is learn a little something along the way. So what’s next? Somehow I’ve never been to Patsy Cline’s birthplace. I hear it’s nice.
And I know an excellent dinosaur park right near there.
Great essay! Makes me wish I had gone on a similar adventure back when I had the youth. These days, I’ve got a few too many responsibilities to make such a worry-free odyssey.
So this is the big overview, but I want details! “Best, worst, and weirdest dino parks”, “What to say to the border officer who finds your stun gun”, “What do they eat in Meat Cove, NS”, etc. Sounds like a lot of stories to tell!