Road Trip of Christmas Past

Dad has already posted about my arrival and first day on the road and looks forward to what I’ll say about the trip — the one he invited me on just days before going. I was excited, of course, and glad to go until I remembered that I have a job and had volunteered to watch my friend’s dog while they went on a trip of their own to see family further east for the holidays.

Caleb’s maternal grandmother had passed away and he was already in Montana to soothe his mother’s broken heart, so I was even more so excited when another friend offered to watch the dog so I could go and the boss gave the go-ahead for Thursday off so I could leave a day early and have a break from all the driving. I leave later than planned and pass through Yuma without a speeding ticket.

I walk in the door like I live there with my camera, pillow, and coat — ready for adventure. Dad shows me some old photos that I haven’t seen before, some behind-the-scenes on his blog, how to make Sundubu Jjigae (kimchi and tofu stew), and his favorite neighborhood holiday lights and decorations. I’m always so glad to be included in these processes and wonder why I don’t visit more.

We’ll finish the night with an action movie in the theater that sneaks philosophy into its story telling; which gives Dad an excuse to eat popcorn, me a reason to listen to him talk excitedly about the points of the film and his old company after, and Caroline the role of making sure we get to bed before sunup. Lights off, goodnights said repeatedly, and fart jokes made, we can sleep.

Nothing like leftover Brussels sprouts for breakfast after catching up with my husband on the phone and then meeting one of Dad’s friends who lives in Lebanon, but makes time to exchange hours long conversations over a cup of coffee in Phoenix. Caroline and I will find our own table and topics to keep us entertained until it’s time to get on the road.

I’ll set the scene — Dad is driving on the rain filled highway, Caroline is reading Lord of Dark Places (read the reviews or listen to Better Than Food), behind Dad is camera gear and snacks, and I’m sat beside that looking out the window at waterfalls as we make our way to lunch in Miami. We’ll stop for a caffeine refill as Hal Bennett leaves a cliffhanger of chapter one.

We near New Mexico and the Sandhill cranes are already in view. Part of being in the car is also being a part of the conversation. I’m still not taking sides but asking my readers — who of you have ever read on the last page of a book before reaching the end of the story? Do you feel that this ruins the mystery or sets you up for excitement about the journey to that destination?

A stretch of highway running through the western side of the state has high wind warning signs. Tonight those gusts of air will attack the car at 22 mph, but the vehicle’s persistence pays off with a dinner had at El Camino — the place where the Wise’s dine twice every time they stay in Socorro. After a day with these two, I’m grateful for the opportunity to see their little displays of affection.

This morning starts off like all the rest — open eyes, sit up, look for something; except we missed the first exit to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Reserve and are saved by a dirt road that will get us lake side in time for the avian performance. People are here to watch the thousands of snow geese and cranes takeoff (hopefully at the same time), and to see the ducks, starlings, and bald eagle.

We’re here to watch the birds sit, eat, fly, land, swim, and chatter loudly. This is their migration path sanctuary and where we chose to be before the sun came up as it seems that’s the magic moment as the sun crests over the mountains and the birds take flight to carry on with their day somewhere else. We will return to the park after filling our bellies to watch javelina, the smallest one puffing his back hair.

How wonderful to share this long moment as we sit in the car, listen to birds, snack on fruits and gingerbread, and watch the clouds change shape on Christmas Day. We will park and continue to indulge in this feathered play land on foot as the starlings put on repeated murmuration shows and the sun dips behind the clouds as it nears the horizon.

There’s a lone bald eagle in a dead distant tree, a single duck eating in the wet weeds, two sisters screaming in childish fun, a husband and wife watching the fantastic sunset, and a daughter being kissed on the cheek by her loving father. We pair a dinner at El Camino with finishing the second chapter of Joe Market’s life, of which we are not catching the dull moments.

This evening will be filled with steam, conversation, drama, reading, writing, and photography. All this action, plus the lingering sound of birds, will coalesce in our minds and give us each our version of a nightmare — mine being a vocal jolt to join in with the screeching cats that have started a musical at our hotel room. In a blink, the night is over.

We get another chance to witness the miracle that is bird migration. I’m just amazed at their ability to move so smoothly and effortlessly in large numbers, something that people seem to stumble over in small groups. Perhaps that’s because we were given the gift of opinion and thought, and the freedom to choose whether or not to use our cerebellum.

We know where we’re going this time and though we do love being early there are others set up before us because the boardwalk moves tripods and they want the best shot. We stand beside them with frozen fingers in our gloves and loving smiles on our faces. Dad motions me closer to him so I can get a better view of the geese as they take off in waves. It’s not the same effect as en masse, but it’s amazing still.

Back in the car: Dad’s hands on the wheel, Caroline turning pages, and me in the backseat as we head west and back to our lives in the cities. The thoughts and emotions inside the car, inside the book, contrast with what is outside — a state trooper blocking the lane, snow covering the ground, closed pie shops and coffee cafes as chapter three comes to a finish.

I’ll see a coyote, but shout, “a fox!” as I wonder if I saw a wolf. Then I’ll see another. We finish the book, drink another coffee, and contemplate how to share our experience with others without downplaying the author’s ability to share what life is — simple and complex, neat and messy, free and contained, controlled and impulsive, and short. I notice some hikers among the cacti covered hills.

I’ll leave Phoenix with warm hugs, thin books, and small cookies — all different forms of love. I approach Dateland as darkness reaches me. I’ll close my eyes for 20 minutes before going back inside for a famous date shake. It won’t be till later that I’ll remember how disappointing their date-sour cream cookies are, but they do the trick to keep me going, through the fog in Alpine, to San Diego.

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A Day in Phoenix

Start the morning with a 50-minute walk on a different path around the neighborhood and I’m partially distracted while on the phone. I’ll borrow one of Caroline’s shirts for the day and we leave to return the rental car. I check under the seats and find the cashew that I dropped and the coconut lip balm that I didn’t. We get Caroline to work and then go to King Coffee Roastery so Dad can get some writing done.

We get a comfy corner booth table against the back wall in the middle of the room. Mike is kind, and once he delivers our bagels, continues his chat with Dad. His caring doesn’t stop there as he discusses a job transition with another customer whose husband is looking to work for a smaller company. I love the small town feel in the middle of a sprawling metropolis.

There are pictures on the wall for sale from artist Denise Elfenbein who knows how to capture the glory of fruit and sunsets. Dad’s pulling his threads of our trip together, trying to jump back into that train of thought that was already a week ago. I tell him to try by starting from the beginning, but where is that when there’s no end as the lessons are ongoing and continue to reveal themselves in ways that go unnoticed by the human majority.

I used to be good at noticing patterns but haven’t been writing like I should. I’ve always done it in my free time as a way to learn more about my environment and experiences, fire the neurons in my brain, and bring together ideas to grow into something I could use that would unlock thoughtfulness for others when shared as my way of communicating and connecting the dots of past influences with future artists, dreamers, and travelers.

I meet Andrea, a 10th grade history teacher in her 21st year with 18 out of 35 repeat students and with the highest test scores last year then ever, that were taken in-person. Sitting here at 11:11 and reading a kind and descriptive review from The Phoenix Bean about this coffee shop, helping me to notice the giant bean-shaped lighting fixture above the bar. We leave after saying hi to Gary who is going to read his own book and be amazed at what he wrote. I feel the same way sometimes.

We return home to wash our smelly laundry and aren’t there long after hanging things to dry before it’s time for lunch at Old Town Taste. Dad orders Chongqing chicken for the Szechuan peppercorns and their effect with water or iced green tea — a carbonated feeling on the tongue. He orders fish in oil, spicy tofu, and garlic greens too. Back by the house, with leftovers, for Dad’s laptop and my book.

This time we’ll sip drinks from Starbucks and I try the star drink with passionfruit, freeze dried kiwi pieces, and coconut milk. I understand the comfort of home can make concentrating more difficult but so can women who feel the need to perform in public — feeling privileged while complaining on their phone and another leaving her trash after a fuss for someone else to toss.

We pick up Caroline after work and say hi to one of her bosses who think Dad and I look a lot alike. Two hours at the house so she can unwind before dinner at Spinato’s. We talk with Susanna about her trip to Sturgis, staying in Dana Point, and taking backroads on a motorcycle. Caroline and I will walk after dinner and talk about hiking, music, and travel. I’ll call Caleb back and walk some more before returning to keyboard lessons with Caroline. I do enjoy being in a constant state of learning and awe.

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Flies and Switchbacks

Dad is up early because his CPAP was busy picking up the pungent smells in the hotel room and delivering them to his nostrils with added humidity. Last night’s restaurant will recommend their competition, less than half a mile up the road for breakfast, so we navigate the construction-filled streets to be the only customers dining in at Sofia’s Kitchen & Burrito Tyme between 640 and 7am.

We stop in Magdalena for small-bottled options of hydration and so that Dad can get more pictures of the passing wind turbine blades; these ones being transported by a different crew. We’ll travel 24 miles west before stopping again, this time to see the Very Large Array radio telescope observatory satellites, their tracks, and their mountainous backdrop.

In Pie Town, we pick up a small green chile apple pie and I will pace myself to only eat half in an effort to save some for Caroline. There are so many hidden secrets to each state that I can’t help but look forward to returning to uncover these other treasures on my next visit. The flies that have been with us down the 83, follow me to the bathroom, and keep an eye on Dad ten minutes from the Arizona border.

This time change adds an hour to our day as I realize that I’ve just been in 12 states in three weeks. It’s not long before we’re on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, also called the Devil’s Highway, a portion of the 191 from Springerville to Clifton that has over 400 curves in 123 miles of road, changing some 6,000 feet in elevation, and bringing you through a four-hour road trip of deserts, meadows, and forests.

We stop when the road will allow it or when we can block the way with no traffic. We’ll park and talk with Simon, a forest service employee who has lived in CA, FL, OH, MO, England, and AZ and loves to travel two lane roads on his motorcycle. He recommends the Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile portion of the 129 with 318 curves along the Tennessee and North Carolina state line.

This Eastern Arizona route also passes through a portion of the 80 square miles of the Morenci Copper Mine. The Cat 793 haul truck goes from looking like a Micro Machines car in the distant depths to showing off its 15-foot high truck bed and 851,000lb gross weight when hauling a 240-ton load on a nearby hill. It helps to gauge the size with the engine, wheel, and bed they have on display.

I’m grateful that Dad has the opportunity to travel this region frequently and find the only restaurant in the town of Solomon, smaller than some private farms, where residents could live on a third of an acre each. We’re at La Paloma to enjoy the best elote, Sonoran enchiladas for me, and a tres leches that tasted like it was made with love, just for us.

I’ll learn a bit about our 25-year-old motorcycle enthusiast waiter/manager named Damian through his discussions with Dad. He’s writing a book about finding and communicating with your inner-self after some childhood issues that he’s had to work through. He wants to make a masterclass to improve the service of wait staff and wants to manage a fine dining establishment when he grows up.

We pass through Globe, where I found false teeth on a previous trip and Geronimo, where I held a doll’s head before reaching Superior and then back to Phoenix after 9pm. We covered 327 miles today, ten of which took us an amazing hour. We’ll greet Caroline with gear and then hugs before going to bed in prep of my last full day tomorrow before I fly back to San Diego.

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Ribbon Roads of Texas

We aren’t far from the Oklahoma border upon waking up in Liberal, Kansas and our hotel is even closer to the Dorothy House, a tacky tourist attraction with creepy plywood cutouts that wouldn’t be open for another six hours anyway. We are in the state of tornadoes less than an hour and pass a large giraffe yard decoration, an abandoned small brick building industrial lot, and cows admiring the wind farm that covers 180° of the horizon.

We pass over the Canadian River and besides noticing how wide the bridge’s shoulders are I get to imagine what it was like: driving on the old road, riding on the old tracks, or walking over the Historic Wagon Bridge; while watching a train move along in the distance. It’s rare that I get to introduce Dad to new things. Today, that will be the wonderful Czech creation known in Texas as the kolache and made famous to me by the Village Bakery in West, TX.

What sets these stuffed pastries apart from pierogis, empanadas, and samosas is their sweet non-crimped dough surrounding a sausage and usually cheese, peppers, and sauerkraut too. This bakery has one flavor on display, breakfast, and Dad thinks it’s delicious. This puts him in a detouring mood, which could be another middle name for both of us, and we’ll make our way to Arrington Ranch to see the house from Castaway, after driving through Canadian and down another memory lane.

Dad’s driving while telling me about the guy who found this place so it could be used in Hollywood, not that they’ve met, but I get the same feeling I had when I learned that I could be a Zamboni ice-resurfacer driver. There’s jobs out there that I may be qualified for but don’t know where to apply. Such is life and I’ll continue being satisfied watching a grasshopper hold onto the back window while the car is doing 30+ mph down a dirt road in the Texas panhandle.

Not only is this place recognizable from the movie, but the Department of Agriculture has designated it a Family Land Heritage Property because the same family had managed to keep it going for a hundred years. This is impressive but also saddening to watch the demise of part of our culture as we move towards another, as I’m sure people felt the same about the shift from the four-legged Mustang to the four-cylinder Ford.

All this thinking also has me wondering about where the strong idea of “ya’ll” comes from and how it spreads out and meets with another idea emanating from another strong idea in another cultural center. Where does the Texas influence come from (besides what we’ve been told about the Alamo) and when does it become New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana — the foods, smells, animals, habits, and languages associated with a certain region or group of people?

The gravel and oil road provides entertainment and noise as we drive through Wheeler and south to Shamrock; a town with weird announcements and music playing on an empty street, no businesses open and an out-of-state car the only one parked in sight. We’ll turn right on the W 256 towards the outhouses of Memphis and save the 754 miles to Brownsville for another adventure. We pass a “sleeping” hog in the road, along with the license plate that was abandoned at the scene, foreshadowing the road ahead.

What awaited us was also covered in shit (of all kinds), rust, nests, newspapers, broken wood, and one unopened jar of creamy Peter Pan peanut butter. One of the houses had a Stephen King aura and though I wanted to be hesitant I was also curious to see what horrors lie upstairs and overcame my fear that I would fall through the stairs, that were previously carpeted but more recently buried under a heap of turds that had cascaded their way to the floor, and impale myself with a sharp piece of disgust.

The novel continues with, “as she approached the room at the top of the stairs, the birds escaped the closet in a flurry and as they left out the window, she looked down at the one they left behind, dead.” There’s a record player in the bathroom and I can hear the lyrics playing “Do you hear what I hear.. the sound of murder, waiting to surprise you..” though we were both more nervous about me falling through the floor when it’s 95° outside with an awkward moist heat and smell of disaster and desertion inside.

I see a page that has been torn out from a yearbook, currently folded in half on the floor, which could be dirt or carpet and ground up remains from the last person poking their nose in here and guesstimate that the parents took their kids’ place on picture day between 1978-1982. Back in the fresh air I realize that we’ve already traveled 3,848 miles as we approach Tulia, “city with a future” of an empty main street, in the afternoon and we’re still getting along, maturation is a good thing.

There’s a song about a corner in Winslow, Arizona and the Texas corner we’re in has yet to be written about because tater tots and bad coffees don’t sell as well as the possibility of love, so we left that tune and moved onto Nazareth, the small populated city with fancy houses and failing businesses surrounded by cow death camps and empty boxcars. In Bovina, there’s a dancing flower spraying water gently to entertain a toddler while her parents watch from the porch.

We pass a large store with most of the windows boarded up and the lights on. As soon as we cross into New Mexico we are gifted with an abandoned motel to explore — full of hangers, lace, and anal beads. You can guess which one Dad took back to gift Caroline, all of them dusty. We drive through Melrose Village and Yeso stopping at every ruin that man has left as shelter for busy bees, ravenous birds, open boxes, half-filled bottles, broken furniture, and busted appliances.

The exact exchange of words will be lost but the overall feeling will last and the impact will continue to evolve and be spewed forth in future interactions. We listen to ‘Solange – Losing You’ and ‘Menzi – I See U’ before continuing our conversation about the importance of having a mentor and sharing our successes with others to help them grow. We reach Vaughn, “the crossroads of New Mexico” from the 1880’s, as a stopover on the Stinson cattle trail, later the intersection of two major railroads, and now where highways 54 and 60 meet.

Though two-thirds of the population have since left and closed a majority of their businesses, it’s on this stretch of highway that I get the opportunity to touch a fiberglass wind turbine blade, each one being 240 feet long that bounces with each bump and touch of wind. The diverse hauling group is picnicking in the shade of one and we meet Ezekiel, very kind and spreading a good vibe with his open and positive personality, who is from Missouri and now lives in Arizona.

He’s traveling with a video maker, who knows more about my camera than I do; a tattooed woman from California who preferred to smoke her cigarette in the truck; and an older guy that let Dad know the blades are replaced every 15 years. What they didn’t tell us is that cities like Casper get $675,000 to house the blades that are difficult to recycle or repurpose, yet, in their landfill. Forty miles west of Socorro, where we’ll have dinner, we stand in absolute silence and awe as we watch the sunset.

Dad orders for me at El Camino Restaurant and Lounge, a necessary stop each time Dad stays here. He’s sad to learn that the staff has been here since 6am and will be closing before 10pm as they’ve worked one long shift due to staff shortages that used to keep this place open 24 hours. They have the next two days off which means a next-best breakfast recommendation for us. This will be my first spend of the trip, tipping our waitress Ashley in gratitude of her humor and endurance.

We check-in to our domicile for the night. We call our spouses to tell them about all the remnants we photoed, all the miles covered, the desserts not eaten, the massive amount of dried mangoes consumed, the animal encounters, and how we felt our conversations of the day went. “I talked at her so much and she just continued to love me instead of getting that teenage sneer on her face and crossing her arms. It was the weirdest thing and it greatly encouraged me to continue.”

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South, Through Nebraska

Missouri River

I slept so good with a storm raging outside that had cleared up before we went to downtown Pierre looking for historic buildings worth sharing their facades and possibly their history. The only thing we found was the Harvey Wollman statue, the 26th governor of SD that was in office only five months. He was born in Frankfort, SD while Caroline was born in Frankfurt, Germany. This statue is just one of the 28 celebrating all the former governors of the state.

fields an hour apart

sorghum or broom corn

We admired the Missouri River before stopping at Scooter’s for matching lattes, mine minus the extra shot, only to find out later that we’d been given steaming cups of milk in place of needed caffeine (whether now or later); hence why there are mixed emotions when trying a new place. We enjoy the cows placed in parts of the rolling hills and stop on the plateau of the view to watch the sun fight to shine through the clouds.

the bottom of South Dakota

We stop in Murdo and talk with the man giving detour directions around the construction area that got rained out last night during the lit-up storm. The lightning in this region is definitely the night sky’s best light painting influence. We learn that this man is from Louisiana and served in Alaska for 17 years before managing a co-op in White River, just 29 miles from here, for 25 years before retiring three years ago.

Giant goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, state flower of Nebraska

He suggests we read Engineer in High Heels by Edna Arend Witcher, about a mother of four who helped build Alaska’s Arctic Road in the 1970s. Then he tells Dad and I our best option for continuing on the 83 S is to backtrack east on the 90 for 20 miles, turn right on the 53, and make another right onto the 44. So many right turns has me wanting to go towards the construction we just avoided – good thing Dad’s driving.

power lines

This detour costs us an hour as we drive 35mph over a gravel road with potholes and deeper ribbed portions that keep us from going the posted 55mph after the paved portion which was only a third of the route. We watch two pheasants cross the road, one running while the other flies, one flapping its wings while the other glides. The sun is out with light blue skies as we cross into Nebraska before noon.

plants of Nebraska

The city of Valentine, properly located in Cherry County, has red street signs, hearts everywhere, and bike rentals (surprising for a population under 3,000) via the Heartland Bike Share next to the Cowboy Trail – a rail trail running east for 321 miles from Norfolk, NE to Chadron, NE, over half of which is developed. Following us is the older, more narrow, version of the 83 that can be seen in parts.

old Hwy 83

Where the 83 S and the 2 W meet, near Thedford, Dad gets the train engineer to honk as he raises his camera to get the oncoming shot. The a/c gets tired again and stops blowing cold air so we turn it off as we drive through N. Platte at 30mph and marinate in 92°F with the windows down. We make it to Selden, Kansas where the conversation and the landscape start to flatten out, a welcome change for both.

Dad taking in the view, digitally

Give anything enough time and you’ll notice a difference. It doesn’t take long for us to see the thick clouds brewing south of Oakley, with threats of tennis ball-size hail, moving east as the storm warning updates. Dad was going to take us northwest but we’ll sit under a semi diesel station pump while around us is barraged with heavy rain and pea-sized ice pellets. A second storm warning emerges as a truck driver nudges us out of his way.

food in various forms

Dad reverses out of the spot as the downpour recedes temporarily. As the rain gets heavier, the day gets longer, and I start to get hungry, tired, and anxious that these feelings will cause me to act out like they would have when I was younger. My calmness is rewarded with beautiful and frequent lightning that get us to dinner at Cattleman’s Cafe II at 9pm when both spouses call. For being rated the best in town, the restaurant was a disappointment.

signs in Kansas

the sky, falling and forming

Reinvigorated with carbs and broccoli we went for sugar and dairy at Freddy’s. This gives us the energy needed to check-in to our hotel, call our spouses back, talk about the large topless tattooed man standing outside our door that’s near the window at the end of the hall, and for me to brush my teeth to be in bed by 1130pm. At some point in the day we stopped for drinks, forgot water, and had to swat ten flies out of the car.

stormy sunset

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