"I believe that all roads lead to the same place - and that is wherever all roads lead to." - Willie Nelson
Is today Saturday or Sunday? I woke up this morning at my usual time of five o’clock. Checking my look in the mirror, apparently, a clowder of feral cats used my face as a scratching post sometime in the middle of the night. When did I become old and worn? I felt light-headed and broke out in a cold sweat. Thinking about the previous few days of travel, my fear was, even after all of my precautions, I had contracted COVID-19. This was too much to deal with at this early hour. Clearly, I was overreacting. I flopped back in bed and let the ceiling fan cool my thoughts and my skin. I couldn’t sleep as my mind was reviewing the thirty-six hundred miles traveled over the past three days.
If you are an over-the-road truck driver of someone who travels for a living, I have a deeper appreciation for what you do. My step-son, Billy, a junior at Arizona State University, needed to retrieve items from his apartment left during our recent shutdown. His lease ends in a few days, and there is uncertainty surrounding this fall. Parents of college-age kids, you know the drill. Our mission, as we chose to accept it, was to fly from Chicago to Phoenix, pack his belongings, and drive back.
I was looking forward to the southwest scenery and seeing the country. Always fascinated by geography and its impact on people, I find the open road lets my mind wander into crevices hidden by X-Box consoles, cell phones, and computer screens. Thirty-six hundred miles in seventy-two hours, here are a few observations and takeaways from our adventure. Full disclosure, the rest of this post will contain the opinionated and slightly politicized musings of a middle-aged midwestern man. I’ve never told anyone to get off my lawn, but I suppose that’s the demographic I fall into.
As a younger man, flying in an airplane was an anticipated pleasure. Disney World’s Space Mountain with snacks, but without the sharp turns and screaming. What the hell happened? Flying is pure misery these days. Frankly, the math doesn’t work for me. How can American Airlines, during a pandemic, pack roughly one-hundred sixty humans onto a 737 while only two or three people are milling around at ORD. Same at DFW and PHX, ghost towns with closed restaurants and shiny floors.
The flights to Dallas and Phoenix were absent any drama or frills. However, getting through airport security in under ninety seconds was genuinely momentous! I was not screened for COVID symptoms, but facial coverings were required on our AA flights. Every cough and sneeze was amplified one thousand percent, even with my noise-canceling headphones. I only had a backpack as my carry-on, traveling light definitely appeals to my minimalistic nature. No baggage check, no baggage claim, and no overhead bins, yes sir!
The United States, as you know, has plenty of beauty and plenty of ugly to go around. You just need to know where to look. The mountains and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico project an array of colors that leave you spellbound, seemingly unnatural shades of reds, yellows, and coppery orange. On the ugly side of the ledger, shopping carts trail only slightly behind pickup trucks as modes of transportation in Phoenix. It’s reported there are more than twenty-five thousand homeless people in Phoenix, many of them single moms with children. It was hard to drive or walk down any sundrenched street and not notice people with shopping carts filled with their meager collection of possessions.
Borrowing a thought from the late George Carlin, my proposal is to designate funds to build houses for the homeless. The technology is available to fabricate houses on 3-D printers. The building material could be recycled plastic. I would line these newly printed houses along the cart paths of golf courses, so the wealthy people who live around golf courses get a daily reminder of the less fortunate. Sorry golfers, I just don’t get it. I’m also a bit jaded since the local golf course won’t let me fish from their ponds.
Obviously, at least to some of us, there is much to be done in support of mental health and physical wellness in our country. The sadness of homelessness is sure to be exacerbated by the current pandemic. I found the street-view disturbing. I asked Billy how the ASU students feel about sharing their sidewalks with homeless people. He said, “They’ve gotten used to it, I guess.” As I watch two people fight over a Walmart shopping cart, I wondered how anyone gets used to a tragedy like this.
The morning sun is bright, and this Friday promises to be PDH, pretty damn hot, as we drive north on Interstate 17, leaving Phoenix and its shopping carts in the rear-view mirror. The Saguaro Cactus, protected in Arizona, give way to Ponderosa Pine as we climb the San Fransisco range near Flagstaff. Gravity is making life tough on the eighteen-wheelers. The scenery of the Coconino National Forest is green and lush, not what people typically envision when mentioning Arizona. Our rental car, a Chevrolet Equinox, is comfortable. Nimble in the mountains, mighty in the passing lane, this SUV is just what the doctor ordered for transporting college gear eighteen hundred miles. Way to go, Chevy!
A few hours later, we’re leaving the mountains of AZ on the back of eastbound Interstate 40. We’re back on a high plateau heading into the ruggedness of western New Mexico. Our goal is Amarillo, Texas, and we’re making good time. We hit a drive-through for burgers and chicken nuggets in Gallup, NM. Canyons, buttes, and tourist shops line the interstate. Apparently, to be recognized as an authentic tourist trap, you need to place at least one giant severely weathered dinosaur near your parking lot. Dylophosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Allosaurus, we saw them all in various sizes and colors. We rolled along on old Route 66, stopping for gas at a Chevron station outside Albuquerque. Carl, the station manager, and a large jolly man, rang up our Cokes and snack nuts and wished us a safe day. We asked him if he’d seen Jessie Pinkman, lately. Carl said, “No, but the word on the street is Jessie was last seen heading north to Alaska.” Good dude, that Carl. Look him up.
There’s not much to see between Albuquerque and Amarillo, and very few radio stations to listen to. The highway was flat, straight, and rather dull. The posted speed limit was seventy-five, but the light traffic was hovering around one-hundred miles per hour. We lost an hour to daylight savings, so what the hell, when in Rome… We put the pedal to the metal, as the truckers say.
We passed through a dust storm between Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Adrian, Texas. It feels bizarre to be engulfed in a brown cloud. If you are into wind farms, those open spaces dotted with massive three-rotor turbines, you are in luck. There are miles and miles of them to see in west Texas. A thunderstorm rinsed the dust off our white Chevy as the distinctive odor of nearby stockyards told us we were up to our knee caps in cattle country and closing in on our stop for the night.
Billy and I enjoyed a late dinner at a local steakhouse. I couldn’t shake the smell of the stockyards from my head, I ate baby-back ribs. It was our first time dining in a restaurant since early March. We slept soundly in our queen size beds at the Holiday Inn Express, West Amarillo. The next morning, following our complimentary breakfast, we gassed up at a Kum ‘n’ Go and jumped back onto Interstate 40. We wondered if we could drive the remaining eleven-hundred miles in one day rather than staying the night somewhere in central Missouri. We fist-bumped, scrapped our itinerary, and declared to the world - let’s do this!
In case you didn’t know, Texas is big! Oklahoma didn’t look a whole lot different, we were just glad to be in a different state after a few hours of limited radio and dull scenery. Besides, we just crossed the skinny part of the lone star state. Crimony!
In Oklahoma City, we left the familiarity of I-40 and jumped on I-44, also known as the Oklahoma Turnpike. What an excellent stretch of road, but bring cash, there are tolls to pay - five dollars times two before we hit the Missouri border. We stopped for gas and lunch in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Two thumbs up for Raising Cain’s chicken tenders!
We tried to get across the “show me” state as fast as possible, but road construction and thunderstorms slowed us to a crawl. After gassing up and taking a much-needed potty break in Rolla, we grabbed our second wind and charged straight for St. Louis and the comfort of the Illinois border. The jaunt up I-55 was rather enjoyable. Lots of road construction, but traffic was light, and there were many radio stations to choose from. We arrived home just before midnight, having covered 1085 miles in fifteen and a half hours. The highway math tells us we averaged seventy miles per hour, kind of surprising considering the weather and road conditions.
My takeaways include signs, lines, and colors. Sometimes, the best plan is to not have a plan. This is a big, beautiful country filled with many unique people. Warts and all, there are problems to be cleaned up, no doubt. The long highway gave us a chance to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. These are strange times with uncertain outcomes. There are natural wonders worth preserving, there are people who need our help. Life on the road seems hard, but that could be a mindset thing. The trail is an excellent teacher, providing inspiration, challenge, and time to think. What will become of our highways and the people who have built a life on or alongside them?
It took an afternoon nap and some exercise to shake off the miles. I’m already looking forward to my next road trip, whenever and wherever that might be. There's no itinerary needed, as Willie says, "all roads lead to the same place."
Road trip with a destination is a solid plan for right now (with precautions, of course). To get OUT. To see what others are seeing. To think. To accomplish something. I'm glad Billy needed you, and I'm glad Willie led you both home safely.