American interstates have a way of changing perspective. And scrambling brains. I learned this firsthand during my recent Great American West road trip.
Not all, but most American West roads are so utilitarian and straight-as-an-arrow efficient that you start appreciating even the smallest of distractions along the way. When the choices for visual entertainment consist of exploded deer carcasses, billboards, and Cracker Barrel signs, you start to realize that interstate travel truly is about the destination — to hell with the journey.
Interstates, although lifeless, act as lifelines, the gorged arteries of America. That’s how roadside places like Crappy Bob’s Minerals and Fossils can stay afloat; people will patronize any kitsch business just to escape the droning of mundane interstate miles for a few precious minutes. Be located anywhere near historic Route 66 and people will break the doors down to buy your dinosaur turds.
As the asphalt stretches endlessly before you, all there is to do is to keep those wheels spinning and try to get somewhere, anywhere. That white line won’t run out until you fall off the continent.
Eventually, desperation will push you to exciting new hobbies. For instance, you’ll look forward to carefully reading the insight provided on walls in rest area bathrooms — at least you’ll be out of the car. Truckers murmur fuel prices over diner coffee. Those murder motels with their parking-lot-facing doors never looked so appealing after an 800-mile day. The growl of an ice machine dropping moldy cubes into a plastic bucket is a sweet sound from my childhood. The smell of chlorine wafts from an empty pool that you don’t have energy to visit anyway.
I speak from experience. This is my third American West road trip in six years. My tires have gobbled up thousands of miles beneath them.
And so, I never let the needle drop below 90 MPH as we burned across Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and Kansas.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s an 11-state road trip in 11 days. A whopping 4,200 miles of American West condensed into a burst that was as interesting and short-lived as a shooting star with a frilly tail. And while this style of road trip travel can scramble one’s brain quite effectively, the experience was priceless. I did all 4,200 of those miles with my family and saw some of North America that’s been alluding me for 39 years now.
I had already seen a little of the American West during our 2008 road trip, but wow, this continent is looking better than ever. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
And big. And empty. While people stacked sky high in densely populated urban areas are willing to pay $2,000 a month to rent a pantry, an obscene amount of space in this country is occupied by only sagebrush and reptiles. You don’t really get a feel for just how much space we have left in America until you attempt something like driving from Kentucky to Las Vegas, then looping back.
For days, literally millions of acres, there is nothing but Monsanto-slobbered GMO corn in every direction until you finally hit the desert. Fences disappear; there’s just simply too much land for anyone to care about staking. And after some time, the silent windmills slowly turn to feed power-hungry towns.
A gray horizon of mountains at the far end of your cracked American West landscape is just always right out of reach. It’s only you, the endless road, and a smattering of other wheel-gripping drivers with whom you’ve played leap frog over the last thousand miles or so. You almost get to know them.
But consuming all those miles did come with reward. Here’s what happened:
If you don’t have time for a rodeo in Amarillo, Texas, then second prize is certainly eating a steak.
Perhaps the real reason George Strait was in a hurry to get to Amarillo was to consume cow flesh. Texans raise cattle with passion, and consume them just as enthusiastically with whoops! and hollers and back slaps. Our wooden-walled steakhouse came after much probing of a volunteer at the visitor’s center. We harassed her, just short of plucking fingernails, until she blurted the name of her favorite eatery. It was a local-oriented establishment not advertised by billboards like the others exclaiming free cowboy hat with each meal! or pan for gold while you wait for your food! and all that tourist junk.
The weighty beast of a steak was delivered to my table with a thump, and I carved on the medium-rare slab voraciously until erupting into a fit of giggles, intoxicated by the iron-rich blood dribbling from my chin. This was the kind of steak that makes one feel like a carnivorous predator. I slowly became aware of a throaty growl and then a purr emanating from my body as I ate. The waitress kept her distance while I wielded the heavy knife, and for good reason. The scene of cholesterol carnage would have put Jason Voorhees into therapy.
Thank you, Texas, for reminding me just what a bad hippie Buddhist I really am. Mind you, this Texas steak review is coming from a guy who doesn’t often eat meat. Veggies fear me, but cows rarely do. And as promised, I have to keep the name of the eatery to myself. Just choose one to try, and ensure they don’t have a billboard tourists will see on the interstate.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Despite such an annoyingly difficult-to-spell name for the town, Albuquerque was actually pretty surprising for what I saw of it. The Old Town definitely has a pleasant vibe; you can walk around and just dig the sights for hours. Call it desert feng shui, but there was something relaxing about the sun-warmed, orange-and-red buildings with their rounded, adobe constructions.
Art and handmade goods abound, as do the grumpy-and-misunderstood cacti. New Mexico’s most populated town of a little over half a million had a certain je ne sais quoi about it that made me want to return. After all, New Mexico is known as the “Land of Enchantment.” Who knows, maybe I’m destined to rove the desert, fall in love, and meet my wolf spirit in a fit of peyote madness.
The Grand Canyon
We took the Grand Canyon Railway on the first day. Was it touristy? Of course. Nevertheless, going to the canyon by train was actually very enjoyable. The steam locomotives all died off in a puff of romance; they are long gone. Instead, ours gulped diesel like a dehydrated desert dog. But otherwise, the company is soundly environmental. As you depart, the station staff wave and hold signs reminding you to recycle. The wooded scenery on both sides was impressive, and even more importantly, it got us out of the car for a day. We gladly let someone else do the driving.
And while our train car was absolutely crammed from wall to wall with crying babies and snot-nosed brats in Batman shirts, we managed to have a great day together.
When they finally parked the train and we walked to the Southern Rim, I joined all the other first-timers at the Grand Canyon with an audible wow…holy *$#! followed by a silent gasp. Everyone has seen photos and even helicopter footage of the Grand Canyon on television, but you really don’t get a sense for just how big this thing is until you’ve stood face to face with it. It was difficult not to cry.
The first sight feels like God smacked you in the chest. The chasm sucks the breath right out of your lungs and your eyes flutter in disbelief, unable to absorb it all. No words, media, or description can really describe just how significant this big hole in the ground really is. I’ll save your time and skip the clichés; go see our biggest landmark for yourself.
We hit the canyon again on a second day so that we could look around on our own terms, without having to worry about a train to catch. There wasn’t any time for a serious hike, and pretty much every hike into the Grand Canyon is serious, so for now, I have to be contented with just tip-toeing around the edge of this colossal landmark.
On a side note, I was doubly impressed by just how many spoken languages I heard around the Grand Canyon. Even our friendly, budget hotel was occupied by Swedish, French, Germans, Russians, and a host of other nationalities. After being home for most of the year, the accents and conversations of international travelers were like sweet music.
You would think that my reference points would have been stretched out after viewing the Grand Canyon, but even the immensity of Hoover Dam caught me by surprise. Who knew there was so much concrete on planet Earth? Or that it could be manipulated to quell the Colorado River, the same force that dug the Grand Canyon?
Even more impressive is the fact that construction began in 1931. Forget help from computers for math, calculators, or GPS for survey – those guys had to do it all by pencil and slide rule! No wonder 112 people died during construction, but technology or no technology, the hardcore bastards from that generation got the job done.
Once we hit the strip in Las Vegas, I realized just why Hoover Dam had to be so big.
Las Vegas, Nevada
We rolled into Vegas on a Friday night. As desert twilight faded to a beautiful pink and then a sad purple, our hopes of finding a hotel room faded equally. We ended up just north of the strip, too far to make even a tentative foray after all the driving. Instead, we hit the strip early on Saturday. In the sharp, afternoon sun, Vegas appeared quite civilized – clean, even. But as evening brought nightfall, a raging peak-season Saturday night soon erupted. The change was uncanny.
We walked every foot of the strip. And wandered more dark, labyrinthine casinos than humanly possible. Our pedometer read 10 miles worth, in all. Starting in the north, we explored impressive casino after casino, beginning with the not-so-Italian gondoliers at the Venetian.
So, while families with kids happily licked ice cream and pushed strollers between behemoth structures, I couldn’t help but wonder: where was the Fear and Loathing? Where were the old Hunter S. Thompson haunts? Where did Sinatra drink his Singapore slings? I’m sure all were present, there somewhere beneath the leathery skin, but for now, Vegas seemed even less edgy and threatening than Disney World.
Then, slowly but surely as the day wore on, Vegas started giving up tiny clues. I first saw the Madness in a woman’s sad eyes. Like many, she was parked with her bucket of quarters in front of a blinking slot machine. The dings and flashes had mesmerized her into a trance. Cigarette dangling, she added the musk of despair to the already thick-and-dark air.
By the time that we hit MGM, Vegas was in full form. Pissed-off pit bosses murmured into earpieces, lights flashed more aggressively, and escorts clung onto drunken arms. The veil was lifting, to be replaced by a curtain of cigarette smoke and perfume, punctuated by the triumphant shouts of winners and clack clack clack of roulette balls determining someone’s immediate future.
The tables with $100 minimums, empty earlier, now had steely-eyed players with clinched jaws. The poker rooms were a crowded mess of smoke, sunglasses, and stacked chips. I joined a $5-minimum craps table to take care of business. The last time I felt the cold nervousness of being handed dice in front of hungry eyes was in Niagara Falls back in 2010. I left that table with an extra $70 which was immediately invested for a win at a fancy Brazilian steakhouse. Many healthy cows died that evening in Canada. Forget what I said earlier about veggies.
But this table was a little different. Craps is usually chaotic, a social affair with lots of high-fives and jovial shouts. Instead, my table was solemn. Craps is rife with superstitions, maybe more so than any other game. When a woman is shooting for the first time, it’s ordinarily viewed as a fortuitous sign. The opposite holds true for a new male shooter. The 20-something girl determining the fate of my $10 bets had never played before. Bets were doubled and backed up since there was a “virgin” shooting. She won us all money once or twice, at first, but then inexplicably began throwing the dice off the table.
Maybe she was drunk, or maybe just giddy with nerves after her earlier success, but after the 12th time of having the dice inspected by the table boss, we were all rolling our eyes and silently mouthing: lady, keep the damn dice on the table this time…please… Ray Charles on a three-day booze bender could have shot better. A single round lasted nearly 30 minutes thanks to this brainiac’s bad aim. When she finally crapped out, even the people who lost money – myself included – sighed in relief. I grabbed my surviving chips and ran back to meet my waiting family. In an hour of playing, I was up a whopping $10 – hardly worth the effort. No fancy seafood buffet would be in my immediate future.
By the time we were excreted from the bowels of Luxor, the sidewalk was a circus of madness. Buskers, performers, high rollers, low rollers, working girls, future customers of working girls, couples, families, and every type of person between pushed forward in a mob scene, either trying to move north or south. The temperature at 11 o’clock was still in the upper 90s; sweaty bodies crammed every available inch of the walkways. We thought the monsters would tear us to pieces. Honking traffic was in gridlock. Bachelorettes screeched from limousine sunroofs. Drinks spilled. Cleavage, high heels, expensive suits, flip-flops, swim suits, and kids in strollers mixed in a strangely diverse river of pedestrians. It took a few hours to fight through the party back to the car we had left parked in the north. An exhausting end to a nice day for my worn-out family, but a nice dabble into Vegas culture, anyway.
I think this party requires future scrutinizing. Plus, the craps table still owes me some money.
No one would expect that such other-worldly landscapes existed on this planet…Utah’s rock formations would freak out the average Martian. Utah is a place where the rocks are alive, glowing with life. They vibrate beneath your hands and beckon when you’re trying to sleep. This state is an adventurous person’s solution for getting some dirt under the fingernails.
A quick foray into Zion National Park and then an overnight in Moab for Arches National Park were just enough to wake up the adventure glands. And while I didn’t get any proper canyon opportunities for sawing off limbs in honor of Aaron Ralston, I can now better appreciate his dire 127-hour predicament. The hiking was superb, although you can feel the soles of your boots become sticky in triple-digit afternoon heat reflected off the gritty rocks.
I’m coming back here, too. And I’m bringing a mountain bike.
There isn’t much to say about this return visit to what is possibly my favorite state in the lower 48. A lunch in Vale to gawk at expensive menus and snowless slopes, then an afternoon of crawling around in Estes Park. We stayed in Boulder, not so far from Pearl Street, but the stubborn rain was a serious drag. The Flatirons – what I still claim to be the best scrambling I’ve done on this planet – were just out of reach, lurking in the drizzle.
This was my first mile-high visit since weed became more legal, but I didn’t detect any change in the air. By this point, the thousands of miles were starting to catch up with us. A few too many states still loomed between us and Kentucky. We blasted through Colorado as fast as the peaks would allow. I can say that putting the Rocky Mountains in your rear-view mirror and pointing a nose at Kansas without getting to do any climbing first is a serious buzz-kill indeed.
Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding and a life inspiration for me, grew up in Kansas. I thought of this as an ocean of corn flashed by outside. But what I didn’t learn until recently was that Rolf hopped freight trains from there to the Pacific Northwest. He also worked as a landscaper to save money for his first vagabonding trip while in Seattle – the very place I’m writing this now.
Home and Away Again
I skipped Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Illinois in this little summary. Nothing significant happened in them unless you want to hear about an Amish restaurant, numerous rest areas, and a motel or two.
The good news is that my backpack won’t stay unpacked for long. It’s home for a week and then I’m off to Seattle for caffeine, Muir’s mountains, and numerous long-overdue meetups with some of the best minds the road has to offer.
- Some more pics are here in this USA West Road Trip 2014 album.