Last updated Sunday, March 25, 2007 12:16 PM . Best viewed at a monitor resolution of 1024x768 or better.
Cross-Country in the Land Yacht
My mother and I had planned the escape for weeks. I was ten years old, so the plans were hers, but she let me in on them and I looked forward to a new life without the screaming hate fests between her and my father, without the isolation of living two miles out of town, and without being the only kid in a school twelve miles away that didn’t live on the island or have the opportunity to play with his classmates.
Our home at the Jersey shore from June 1955 to September 1958
When the screaming began again that late Friday afternoon in early September of 1958 I took the dogs out onto the marshes and edged my way back towards the sound of the maelstrom periodically, awaiting the silence that indicated it was safe to return home. From beyond the reeds and marsh grass, I heard a car engine start, tires peeling on the gravel of our property, and through the cedars saw my mother’s Buick emerge onto the road and speed off towards town.
An eerie silence enveloped the property as the dogs tagged along with me back towards the house. Even the seagulls were absent. Neither parent emerged from the house and a quick check revealed that, yes, my father’s Ford Ranchero was still parked along side. I strained my ears to no avail: no creaking floorboards, no slamming kitchen cupboards or refrigerator door, no TV sound escaped the graveyard silence of the house in front of me.
I locked the dogs in their pen and ever-so-stealthily ascended the back steps and let myself into the laundry room where I listened intently at the kitchen door for sounds of life. Hearing nothing, I gingerly turned the knob and walked into the leftover stillness of the cyclone that had blown through our kitchen. It was the shredded kitchen towels that frightened me most and though there were but two or three of them on the floor, they were strewn in a path that led to the living room.
My own breathing was the only sound I heard in the house. The level of violence before my eyes made my heart pound and a feeling of doom anchored itself in my gut as the questions whirled through my head. Which of my parents had taken my mother’s car? What would I see when I walked into the living room? Was I in danger? The sound of a whimper would be a welcome relief to what my mind was conjuring up.
“Mom? Pop? Anybody here?” I had stepped into the living room where the trail of destruction continued around the corner to my parents’ bedroom. Before I could muster the courage to proceed, the bedroom door opened and out walked my father. “Come on! Let’s go take a ride,” he said.
The divorce was set in motion. My mother had abandoned me. My father’s sole purpose in taking me, as I realized years later, was to spite my mother. In the isolated world my parents had raised me in for the past four years, I had just learned that it wasn’t even safe to feel close to them.
Life, for me, has been like going to the carnival. I take in the sights, the sounds, the smells and indulge my fantasies in the lives of the characters I meet along the way. But at the end of the day, I return home to my own private place and recount the most recent experience with no regrets for never having joined it. I am, after all, a rambler, an observer, a speed-reader of everyone else’s lives which I scrutinize from a safe distance.
Like everyone else, I suppose, my life does get boring and I yearn for some new adventure. So, when Bill and Gary sold their Oakland house, purchased a new home on six acres of wooded Alabama hillside, and asked me to lead them there in my motorhome, I jumped at the opportunity despite the fact that Pat had to work. In the past when such opportunities availed themselves, I’d move heaven and earth to clear a path for my participation. Money was the only obstacle this time and Bill agreed to pay for the Bounder’s gas to Alabama and back. As for Pat, I finally learned that he was born without the adventure gene. Of course, he grew up with parents and a brother who took many trips together, so if he ever had the gene to begin with, he had no need to develop it.
So why would a 73-year-old (Bill) and a 57-year-old (Gary) who had been living together for over twenty years suddenly want to move from the liberal urban setting of the San Francisco Bay Area to the buckle of the Bible Belt, the capital of redneck country, rural northwest Alabama? And why were they willing to pay me the estimated $2,000 gas costs to follow behind me in their pickup truck and car?
Monday, November 27, 2006
Bill and Gary spent the weekend packing the rest of their household possessions for the scheduled Monday morning arrival of the moving truck. If emptying their house went smoothly, perhaps we could hit the road for Alabama by late afternoon. We’d already gone through one crisis over the weekend when a frantic Gary called from their house to say the driver had not shown up to pick up Bill’s Fiat Spider and that Bill wasn’t worried about it. By eleven o’clock Monday morning the movers had half the house emptied, the driver had picked up the Fiat, and according to Gary, Bill was “out on the deck smoking cigarettes instead of helping pack more boxes and I’ve gotta get Buddy back from the vet’s where he had a bath this morning, and nothing’s getting done, and…” on infinitum had I not advised him to calm down, everything will be fine, and I’ll check back in a few hours.
Forty minutes later Gary called me on his cell phone wanting to know if he could drop Buddy off over here because with the movers in the house, Buddy would be sneaking out to the yard and getting dirty after his bath. Buddy was an eleven-year-old 90-pound black lab who’s arthritis was getting the best of him and who’s onset of dementia was being exacerbated by all the unusual activity in the household. He’d already peed on the new wood floor Gary had laid down in preparation for the sale of their house and although Gary was beside himself with frustration, Bill’s Texas/Southern upbringing took it all in stride which in turn compounded Gary’s anger.
We had doggy-sat Buddy for short periods in the past, usually while Bill and Gary were visiting and his first stop in our house was always the cafeteria tray on our kitchen floor containing the cat food plates and water bowl. Remove the tray to the counter and Buddy just headed down our hallway to the bathroom where he knew there was another water bowl. Put that bowl out of reach and Buddy would head to the litter box on our back porch and start eating its contents. This overweight lab was starving on his vet-imposed diet and frankly, I was concerned that he would start eating the plants in our garden when we put him out in the back yard.
Buddy finally relaxes in his new Alabama home.
Buddy’s a needy sort of critter and
despite the fact that he is familiar with our house, he was not happy that
Gary dropped him off and left to get back to the movers. It was cold outside
and I decided it best to keep Buddy in the house, especially after just
having had a bath. I had insisted on the bath. Despite the fact that I grew
up with dogs, Buddy was the stinkiest lab I had ever met and if he was to
ride to Alabama with me in the Bounder, as was the plan so he wouldn’t
be cramped on the back seat of Gary’s car, I didn’t want his
God-awful body odor lasting forever on the interior of our motorhome. Eventually
he settled down somewhere while I went into my office to work at the computer.
When I heard him up and about I went to investigate and found a small pond
of pee on the new linoleum in the laundry room.
“My bad” as the kids would say today: I had forgotten to hide the water bowls and cat food. I mopped up the mess, gave Buddy attention until he finally laid down, and returned to my office. Twenty minutes later I heard him up and about again and went to investigate. Rivulets of pee greeted me, strewn across the kitchen floor. I was pissed off; hopefully Buddy was pissed out. Forty-five minutes passed since my last floor mopping and suddenly the silence became unnerving. A check of the house revealed Buddy had lifted his leg to the sideboard in our dining room and a new pond of pee glistened up from the hardwood floor.
“You’ve got to come and get him out of here,” I nearly screamed into the phone at Gary.
“Just put him outside! I can’t come over right now!”
“He just had a bath!”
I put Buddy out in the backyard where, after howling and barking for thirty minutes straight, he finally curled up on the concrete at the foot of the steps to our back door and went to sleep. Given the fact that he now had access to the fish pond in our backyard as one giant water bowl, there was no way in hell that I was letting him back in the house until Bill and Gary arrived.
It was after seven o’clock when Bill and Gary showed up with Millie, their twenty-pound cat, let her out of her carrier, and collapsed onto our sofas. Pat and I fixed them dinner and the four of us watched a movie. With nothing left in their own house, they would sleep the night in the Bounder parked in our driveway. Clearly we weren’t leaving town today. Hopefully, early tomorrow.
But then, I foolishly overlooked Gary’s compulsive-obsessive personality. They have to return to the house tomorrow morning and thoroughly clean it for the new owners. How long could that possibly take? Two hours? Three? I mean, the house is empty, right? Not quite: they still have to pack up the household goodies they’ll need upon arriving at their new Alabama home to get them by until the movers arrive.
If you have Google Earth, you can follow along by taking this journey yourself, following the exact route I took. Simply click on the Google logo for each day's entry to download the .kmz file, then double-click it to launch your own version of Google Earth to fly over the same route I took.
But first, click on the large Google logo above to download the folder of markers for the trip, save it in My Places, and put a check mark in the box to turn them on. The markers show the campgrounds, truckstops, and state lines along the route. PLEASE NOTE: I keep adding additional markers to the folder. The most current Marker folder is March 25, 2007 12:16 PM .
Day 1: Tuesday, November 28,
Gary had taken Buddy home and locked him in their garage overnight where any bladder control issues would meet with easy-to-clean-up concrete. Pat left for work at his usual 6:30 a.m. and by 7:30 Bill and Gary were back at their house to finish the last minute packing and do some final cleaning. I spent the morning going through my camping checklist, loading clothes, food, and electronics into the Bounder. I programmed Bonnie, the Bounder’s hard-wired GPS navigation system, to take us to Kingman, Arizona, the first town outside of California along our planned route.
However, motorhomes get notoriously poor gas mileage and to maximize the mpg in Blue Boy, I never drive it over 55 mph. For a 606 mile jaunt to Kingman, that meant eleven hours of driving and I would have preferred to have been on the road by sunup. Keeping in mind that Gary has diabetes and must eat frequently and Buddy needs pee breaks, only time would tell how long the first leg would actually take.
I called at eleven o’clock wondering what was taking them so long and listened to a frantic Gary overwhelmed with scrubbing kitchen floors, mopping up bathrooms, and obsessing over spots on walls that the paint brush had missed.
“Gary, for Christ’s sake!! I’m sure the house is fine and no matter what you do, the new owners will find something to bitch about. And YOU WON’T BE THERE! It’s theirs. Let it go.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes, Gary. I really think so. You’ve always kept an immaculate house. I’m sure it will be just fine and we need to get out on the road.”
He insisted there were still a few more things that absolutely had to be done, but they should be ready to go by one o’clock which came and went with no word. I was beginning to understand why Bill was willing to pay for my gasoline to get them to Alabama: between his quiescence and Gary’s neurosis, they’d never get there on their own. Having me lead the way in the Bounder was more than just the convenience of a rolling motel and diner. Bill was hiring a ramrod for a cattle drive.
“Gary,” I said when I called at 1:30, “if we’re not on the road within the next hour, we’re going to hit afternoon rush hour traffic and it could take us two hours just to get to the Altamont Pass!” Gary promised that Bill would be over shortly with the items they needed to stow in the Bounder’s undercarriage storage compartments. “Gary, it takes half an hour to get the Bounder out of the driveway and onto the street and I’m going to need both of you to help me with that.”
The Bounder, which Pat and I had named Blue Boy for its powder blue carpeting, window valences, and seat and sofa fabric was thirty-four feet long and eight feet wide. I had spent the last week trying to explain to Gary why I wasn’t willing to drive it over to his narrow street where parked cars would make for close passage, the roundabout at the other end would make for an impossible exit, and parking in front of their house during loading would prevent their neighbors from leaving or coming home. And even if I could pull all of that off without incident, there remained the matter of where to park the Bounder afterwards.
Pat and I use plastic risers to lower the Bounder from the curb onto the street and walkie-talkies to avoid tearing off our gutters during the intricate process of getting it out of our driveway. But Pat was at work, so I’d have to train Bill and Gary on what to watch while I watched the competing traffic. They finally arrived at our house at 2:30, just in time for shift change at the AC Transit bus garage at the end of Seminary Avenue. By three o’clock we managed to get the Bounder parked on the street but the increasing rush hour traffic would make it impossible to safely load the storage compartments, so I pulled Blue Boy around the corner onto Brann.
Gary drove back to their house to get more stuff while Bill drove around the corner to meet me at my new parking spot. Unfortunately along the way, he got confused over where I said I’d be and fifteen minutes elapsed before I saw him and his pickup again. It was a portent of things to come. We pushed, shoved, and cajoled boxes of stuff into the compartments. The box containing their sheets, bath towels, etc. was too large, so we emptied its contents directly into the bowels of the Bounder.
I put my car back into our driveway, double-checked
the locks on the doors, turned on the security system and walked the block
back to the Bounder. Millie was inside somewhere, a litter box was set up
for her near the front of the coach, and a food dish and water bowl had
been put out by the bathroom door. Buddy, because of my misgivings on Monday,
would ride on the back seat of Gary’s car, though with all the stuff
crammed in there and in his trunk, I had no idea how he had managed to make
enough space for the dog.
My iPod sat on the Bounder’s doghouse connected to the stereo system, the cell phone was plugged into a cigarette lighter and programmed with both Bill and Gary’s numbers on speed dial, and Bonnie dutifully reported that we had 606 miles left to go to Kingman. I put Blue Boy’s transmission into drive and headed up Seminary Avenue towards the freeway. It was 3:42 p.m. I had no idea where we’d end up tonight, but clearly it wouldn’t be Arizona.
Pat, as is our custom, called me at ten after four on his way home from work. Yes, we finally got out of town I told him. Where were we? On the Dublin grade, about thirteen miles from the house. You’re kidding! Nope!! As anticipated, the five-lane freeway was a parking lot from the I-580/I-680 junction all the way out to the Altamont Pass where for the next twenty miles we averaged fifteen miles per hour. By the time we reached I-5 and the San Joaquin County line, it was dark and we pulled off into the first rest area. Bill, Buddy, and I needed a pee; Gary needed something to eat. Gary also insisted we spend the night at a campground so he could get a shower.
Google Earth image of Traveler's Rest in Kettleman City
We pulled into the campground at Kettleman
City at nine o’clock. Like the last time Pat and I had stopped there
back in 1998, the office was already closed, but this time there were instructions,
envelopes, and a drop box. And a woman actually came out and guided us to
a pull-through where I got the water, electric, and sewer connected. For
our first day of a 2,230 mile journey to Cherokee, Alabama we had covered
a grand total of 195 miles.
Unlike the Bay Area where the water keeps temperatures well above freezing on winter nights, the central valley gets downright cold at night and Gary’s constant going back and forth between the Bounder, Bill’s pickup, and his car kept sucking the heat out of the Bounder every time he opened its door and stood there for a moment while he jostled things from one hand to another. But things finally settled down, Buddy settled down, and Millie came out from wherever she had been hiding in the bedroom to be with the love of her life, Buddy.
It was when I grabbed the sofa bed to open it up for sleeping that I got the nasty surprise. “Ah, Christ!” I bellowed, “Buddy’s pissed all over the sofa and the carpet!”
Day 2: Wednesday, November 29,
To keep Buddy from climbing onto the sofa bed and me from killing him in the middle of the night, Bill and Gary made room for him on the floor of the bedroom and shut the door to keep him in there with them. Per my request, Gary awakened me at 5:00 a.m. so we could get an early start. Bill had slept fine. Gary hadn’t slept at all, getting up twice during the night to take Buddy out. The resulting blast of cold air from the door opening and banging closed four times kept waking me up and tonight I resolved to add the comforter to my single blanket and wear my earplugs.
While Gary took Buddy out for his morning constitutional, I started the coffee pot on the stove and put my bedding away while waiting for it to perk. Bill and I were through our first cup by the time Gary and Buddy came back inside. While Gary showered, I sat at “Jack’s desk”, so called for the small table and chair my father sat at during the only ride he had in the Bounder two weeks before he died, and rolled my daily ration of twenty-five cigarettes.
It was 7:40 a.m. by the time we finally unhooked the Bounder and pulled out of the campground. Bill needed gas in his pickup and so did the Bounder, so we turned onto Kettleman City’s main drag where we had spotted a Chevron station on the way in. Unfortunately, Caltrans was repaving our side of the thoroughfare and had blocked off access to the opposite side where the gas station was located. So our three-vehicle convoy drove three quarters of a mile out to the freeway entrance where we did a U-turn and headed back to the Chevron. With everyone gassing and paying separately, we all lost track of each other. When I pulled Blue Boy out of the station, Bill got right behind me with the pickup, but Gary was nowhere to be seen.
Right in the middle of my left turn onto the side street, my cell phone rang. Hands full with maneuvering the Bounder, I ignored it until I could pull safely to the curb and stop. I tried to call Gary back, but his line was busy calling Bill who at that same moment called me. Eventually I got in touch with a frantic Gary wanting to know where the hell we were. I told him Bill and I had just pulled out of the station, were along side it on a side street, and where the hell was he? From his explanation it sounded as if he had returned to the campground.
Although the side street ended at the main drag, we couldn’t make a left turn back to the freeway because of the Caltrans paving crew, so I turned right (the only available option) and drove a quarter mile in the opposite direction until I could find an intersection big enough for the Bounder to make another U-turn. And, there was Gary! Don’t ask. Gary fell in behind us and our little convoy made its way back to I-5 and headed south. It was 8:30.
In my morning briefing to Bill and Gary, I told them we’d try to cover the remaining 411 miles to Kingman, Arizona today. The goal would get us out of California and onto I-40 which we would follow all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. I also let them know that we’d be getting off I-5 onto CA-46 in twenty-six miles and following it eastbound for twenty miles where we would turn southbound onto CA-99 to Bakersfield. From Bakersfield, we’d cut across the Mohave on CA-58, 130 miles to Barstow where we’d finally pick up I-40. In other words, stay close behind because today’s driving involved a lot of turns.
Bonnie performed flawlessly, alerting me to every upcoming turn two miles before reaching it and pleasantly sounding her DINGGG… DONG with the successful completion of each. I ran the iPod’s country music playlist and hoped the random play would pull out a Buck Owens song as I passed through Bakersfield. Bill and Gary stayed with me the whole time, a good thing because Bakersfield had grown into a huge city since the last time I was there in the seventies.
CA-58 turned out to be a four-lane divided freeway for the majority of its length and halfway across the Mohave, we pulled into a rest area for pee breaks and lunch. It was then I learned that Bill was not smoking in his pickup truck and needed the nicotine break even more than a pee break. The other news was that Bill could not figure out how to operate the iPod Gary had given him for his birthday last week and had been surfing talk radio stations to keep himself entertained.
While Gary was making us sandwiches in the Bounder’s kitchen, Millie came out from wherever she had been sleeping in the bedroom, used the litter box, and demanded attention from everyone. Unlike our own cats, Millie didn’t seem to mind riding in the Bounder at all. On the road she’d sleep; during stops, she come out, get up on the dash or back of the sofa or dining table and gaze out the windows. She quickly earned her Bounder Buddy First Class badge.
After a nice relaxing lunch, it was time get back on the road. Bill and Gary each grabbed a Diet Coke from the refrigerator to take back to their vehicles and after a forty-minute break, we headed out towards Barstow, the western terminus of I-40. The entrance to the cross-country freeway had a large sign proclaiming 2,557 miles to Wilmington, NC, its eastern terminus. From Barstow to Oklahoma City, I-40 follows the old Route 66 and the roadway for the California portion seemed not to have been repaved since originally built.
The afternoon sun was just going down as we descended into the Colorado River valley town of Needles and finally crossed the bridge into Arizona and the Mountain time zone. In order to keep track of Pat’s expected morning and evening calls, I decided to keep my watch on Pacific Time for the entire trip. Pat called me at his usual ten-after-four on his way home as I was passing Arizona’s mile marker 7 and the dimming daylight was a strong clue that Bill, Gary, and I had indeed made some significant easterly progress. By the time we pulled into a Kingman truck stop for the night at five o’clock Pacific Time, it was completely dark.
We all parked at the pumps for gas and the shock came when each of us opened our doors: it was frigid! I have no idea what the actual temperature was but it had to be down in the thirties, if not the twenties. To make it worse, it was very windy. I don’t know how Bill and Gary managed their gas pumping, but I ran back inside the Bounder and put on a sweater to go underneath my jacket while the gas pump disgorged its 55 gallons into the Bounder’s thirsty tank. But the price was right: $2.269 vs the $2.599 we’d paid back at Kettleman City.
I parked the Bounder for the night, Bill and Gary parked beside it, and the three of us went into the truck stop’s restaurant for dinner. After another potty walk for Buddy, we locked the Bounder’s door from inside, shut the curtains, fired up the generator, and watched one of Gary’s DVD movies. By ten o’clock we were all bedded down for the night and this time I had the extra warmth of the comforter atop my blanket and some more pillows. Before I put in my earplugs I warned Gary that he’d probably have to shake me awake in the morning. Indeed, he did: I slept like a baby and have no recollection of whether he took Buddy out during the night or not.
Day 3: Thursday, November 30,
Morning light was beginning to reveal the surrounding mountains when we got up this morning and repeated yesterday’s ritual of Gary and Buddy’s walk, the coffee pot on the stove, and the rolling of twenty-five cigarettes. The Bounder’s furnaces had kept us all toasty throughout the night, too toasty for Gary’s liking and he complained that he had been too hot to sleep all night. Bill, who seemed to have no trouble sleeping, said he had actually been a little chilly during the night. “I just can’t sleep with him!” Gary fired back and in fact, he and Bill had had separate bedrooms at their house back in Oakland (as did Pat and me for much the same reason).
California is the only state in the U.S. that does not have mile markers on its freeways nor has it ever numbered its exits until recently when the federal government ordered Caltrans to begin doing so. The 800 miles from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border along I-5 are particularly boring with no way to gauge one’s progress. But once outside the state, traveling goals could be set and incrementally tracked with ease.
On America’s interstate highway system, east-west running roads such as I-40 had mile marker zero set at the western end of the state, hence the numbers were counting up as we made our way across Arizona. The previous week I had sat before my computer, opened StreetAtlas USA, and written down the mile markers for each state line we would cross along the route. I went a step further and wrote down the mile marker for each rest area along our route so I would know how soon we could pull over if someone requested a break. All of this data was dutifully marked on the copy of StreetAtlas USA installed on my laptop and the laptop was stored in the cupboard above Jack’s desk. After making my cigarettes for the day, I fired up the laptop and wrote down the numbers I would need for today’s travel on a small legal pad which would sit within reach on the Bounder’s doghouse (engine cowling).
“Okay guys,” I said to open the morning’s briefing, “today’s goal is Albuquerque and it’s 469 miles from here. Should be an easy day of driving! And for the record, the Arizona-New Mexico state line is mile marker 360, so keep that in mind. If you need to stop, give me a holler on the cell phone.” And with that, everyone mounted their respective steeds and we pulled out of the Kingman truck stop at 6:30 a.m. PST or 7:30 local.
As I turned onto the eastbound I-40 entrance ramp, a red light began flashing on my dashboard coupled with a beeping alarm indicating that Blue Boy’s leveling jacks were in the down position. But of course they couldn’t be because I had never deployed them at the Kingman truck stop in the first place. The last time this happened, Pat and I were pulling out of Olema Ranch Campground at the end of our Halloween weekend with our Rainbow RV group and after cycling the leveling jacks a few times, the light had gone out. With nowhere to pull over and no other indication of trouble save for the flashing red light, I kept going. Within a mile, the alarm stopped beeping but the light continued to flash.
It was twenty minutes to seven and Pat still hadn’t called, so I called him. His voice sounded out of breath and irritable and before I could ask, he launched into a tirade over the push-button key fob he uses to turn our house security system on and off. Of course, with me at home, there’s no need to turn on security when he leaves in the morning because I’m still in the house. We had replaced the battery in his fob within the past two weeks and I had assumed that would have cured its problematic behavior. I suggested that he try to call Icon Security when he got off work, the only thing I could think of to say with me over 600 miles away. Just as I began to tell him about my own problem, the warning light on my dash stopped flashing.
I had driven this stretch of I-40 several times during my cross-country trucking days of the 1970s, but always westbound and always at night. I was surprised to see that the area was covered with lush, green valleys between the sage and sand covered mountains. Sheep and horses grazed in the open meadows and billboards near the few exits offered cheap ranch land. With Bill and Gary retiring to Alabama, my mind played with the thought of how nice it might be to relocate here. But logic kicked in: the closest city of any size was well over a hundred miles away and no matter how pastoral the landscape, living without a high speed internet connection, cable TV, and cheap long distance phone calls did not appeal.
Gradually, the morning sun climbed up the passenger’s side windshield to a point where I could crook my neck enough to hide it behind the sun visor that I couldn’t reach from the driver’s seat. A rough patch of roadway jostled the Bounder just enough to cause the leveler light to start flashing again. The alarm stayed silent, but five miles later the light kept blinking and with the sun now above the windshield and out of my eyes, it was quite distracting. According to my little legal pad, a rest area was coming up at the 132 mile marker and I decided I’d pull in and do a visual inspection of the leveler jacks underneath the coach. In the meantime, I drank the last of the coffee from my travel mug, removed its lid, and laid it over the flashing red light on the dash.
The rest area was closed, so Plan B became the next truck stop which turned out to be in Williams, the gateway to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Of course, by the time I pulled into the lot, the light had gone out again. The morning sun was quickly evaporating the chill of the previous night and the melting snow in the parking lot stood as testament to how cold it had been. Buddy got a walk while I checked the levelers underneath; they were clearly in the full-up position and I was now certain that my dashboard flashing light and occasional beeping alarm were due to a bad sensor which could be fixed when I got back to California.
Bill treated us to breakfast in the restaurant where he and I told the hostess we wanted seating in the smoking section, a rare treat for California smokers who can’t smoke anywhere. I don’t recall if we ever lit up; it was just great knowing we could if we wanted to. But we did strike up a conversation with the couple seated at the table next to us who were on their way from California to pick up the woman’s parents who had just wrecked their motorhome while driving through a snowstorm on I-40 just east of Albuquerque and to the best of their knowledge, the interstate was still closed in that area. “No matter,” I told Bill and Gary. “We’re stopping at Albuquerque tonight anyway and perhaps by tomorrow they’ll have it reopened.
Living in California for the past ten years had spoiled me. Tomorrow was December 1st and in the rest of the country, that date signifies winter weather. Real winter weather as in ice, snow, and frigid temperatures… conditions a tad more uncomfortable than the rain storms and temperatures in the lower 50s I had come to expect from winters in California.
After breakfast Bill and Gary wandered through
the restaurant’s small gift shop. Bill came away with a Route 66 ashtray
for the Bounder and Gary handed me a Route 66 U.F.O. License. I didn’t
even want to know what was in the little gift bags they carried back to
Blue Boy. Thankfully, they left all the Grand Canyon postcards and Grand
Canyon place mats and Grand Canyon salt and pepper shakers on their display
Back on the road we passed through Flagstaff within an hour and the ascent up through the San Francisco Mountains was behind us. The homes we could see in the wooded residential neighborhoods looked like Christmas card scenes, embedded in eight to twelve inches of fresh snow that glistened in the late morning sun. East of Flagstaff, the Ponderosa pine forests and mountains gave way to the flatness of the northeast Arizona desert and as billboards started announcing our proximity to Petrified Forest National Park outside of Holbrook, petrified logs and stumps littered the desert landscape for thirty miles on both sides of the interstate. No wonder every tourist trap billboard offered free petrified wood for just stopping by at their genuine Navajo jewelry and genuine Navajo rugs and genuine Navajo… roadside stands; the come-ons went on infinitum and I felt like I was driving through a 1950s time warp.
The monotony of the desert was broken by the red rock mesas that sprang up at the New Mexico state line and towered hundreds of feet above the emptiness that surrounded them. Bill phoned to say he needed gas. So did I and I told him we’d be stopping in Gallup, just twenty miles up the road. The parking lot at Love’s truckstop was covered in slush from melting snow and upon opening the Bounder’s door, I quickly shut it and headed to the bedroom closet for a heavier jacket. God, it was cold!
It was three more hours to Albuquerque and by the time the city’s lights gave off a glow in the distant eastern sky, it was already dark. In fact, by the time Pat should have been calling me on his way home from work, I could no longer read the face on my watch. Plodding along at 55 mph, I expected Bill would have no trouble staying right behind me, but as night descended on the desert, he kept dropping further back and more cars and trucks got between us. The Bounder, from the back, is as big as any semi trailer, so I didn’t worry about it too much despite the fact that the closer we got to Albuquerque, the heavier the traffic became.
I mean, if I was following someone in the dark, in heavy traffic, and in unfamiliar territory I’d certainly make sure I didn’t lose sight of my leader, especially if I knew we were approaching our destination and he’d be making some turns very shortly. So I assumed that when I put my turn signal on a full three quarters of a mile before the exit to the truck stop on the west side of Albuquerque, Bill, though I couldn’t be sure which set of headlights behind me were his, would surely be looking for it and follow me down the ramp. And if Bill didn’t notice the turn signal flashing, surely Gary, who was behind him would be looking for it.
At this point I should mention that I had no specific destination in mind, just the generic concept of spending the night in Albuquerque. I remembered from my truck driving days that there was a huge truck stop on the west side of town, but that was thirty years ago, the city had grown substantially since then, and I planned to look for billboards as I got closer. Once on the exit ramp, my attention was focused on spotting either the truckstop (couldn’t see it amidst the sea of city lights) or direction signs (none of those either). Turn left? Turn right? Punt! Truck traffic was moving down the thoroughfare to my right, so that’s where I turned. Normally I wouldn’t have been so anxious about my decision, but two people were supposed to be following me and I didn’t want to confuse them.
It was rush hour in Albuquerque and it took nearly fifteen minutes to cover the eight blocks from the freeway to the truckstop, but I finally pulled in at 6:35 PST (7:35 local) and emerged from Blue Boy to discover there was no sign of Bill or Gary! To put it mildly, it was fucking freezing outside (twenties?). Were they back at the last light stuck in traffic? Were they able to see ahead to where I turned in? I walked to the intersection and looked for their vehicles. Just a creeping parking lot of headlights and tail lights, but nothing familiar. I called Gary’s cell phone.
“Where the hell are you guys?”
“Somewhere in Albuquerque, where are you?”
“At the truck stop! Didn’t you see me get off?”
“That fuckin Bill!! Goddamn it, no! I knew he should have stayed closer to you but the more the traffic picked up the further behind he dropped.”
“So where are you now?”
“We’re still on I-40. Wait a minute… we’re just now at the interchange with I-25.”
“I-25? Jesus Christ, you’re way past me! You need to turn around and come back.”
“Come back to where?”
“I have no idea! I assumed you guys were behind me so I didn’t pay attention to the exit number and I don’t see any street signs. Look, you guys need to get off the freeway and get back on going westbound. I’ll go inside the truckstop and find out where I’m at and I’ll call you back with the directions.”
I had to wait my turn at the truckstop’s fuel desk to find out I was on Coors Boulevard, Exit 155 of I-40. I went back outside and called Gary with the info. “Where are you now,” I asked?
“Somewhere on Central Avenue on the east side of town. We got off the freeway and couldn’t figure out how to get back on going the other direction. Jesus, fucking Christ!! Goddamn that Bill! I told him…”
“Gary, Gary, Gary! Settle down! Now pay attention. Get to a gas station and ask for directions back to Exit 155. When you’re coming off the exit ramp, give me another call and I’ll guide you into where I’m at. Just take it easy and we’ll get through this. Okay, can you do that?”
Given their location, I figured it would be at least twenty minutes before they’d be back on my side of town, so I called Pat and filled him in on the unfolding drama. In the interim I paced back and forth between the warmth of the building and the icy air of the street looking for any sign of a pickup truck or Ford Taurus sedan.
It seemed like an hour before we found each other. While they filled their gas tanks, I took the Bounder around back to find a parking spot in what appeared to be the world’s largest truckstop lot, made my way into a slot between two big rigs, parked, then hiked what seemed a quarter mile back to the main building. Eventually we got both vehicles parked on the back lot behind the Bounder, closed the curtains, heated up some chili on the stove, fired up the generator to run the TV, and watched another movie before calling it a day. And God willing, we’d never have another day like this one!
Day 4: Friday, December 1, 2006
“You were driving at 75 mph and I couldn’t keep up,” Bill had said when I asked what had happened during our approach to Albuquerque.
“Bill! I’d been driving at 55 all day. I have cruise control. On some of the downhill runs I’d coast up to 65, but never that fast.”
I suspect Bill’s failure to keep up had more to do with driving in the dark, boredom, and fatigue. I made a mental note that for the rest of the journey, I’d call his cell phone before taking any exits. After the morning routine of coffee, cigarette making, writing down state line and rest area mile markers, and the daily briefing, we pulled out of the Albuquerque truckstop at 6:30 PT (7:30 local) with Oklahoma City as this day’s goal. At 545 miles, it was doable of we didn’t encounter any delays. My biggest concern came with the ascent up from Albuquerque through Tijeras Canyon. I knew the interstate was open, but I didn’t know how dry the road would be. Once through the canyon and we’d have the Rockies behind us and enter the Great Plains where the flat terrain would increase the Bounder’s gas mileage.
Bill stayed right behind through Albuquerque’s morning rush hour traffic despite the many lane changes I had to make for major interchanges. The snow on the ground as we drove through the canyon appeared to be no more than a dusting and much less than we had seen back in Flagstaff. And just as we drove out of the eastern end of the canyon where I believed we could finally start making some good time, my cell phone rang. Gary was out of window wash and needed to get some.
A scant 32 miles out of Albuquerque and we were pulling into a truckstop in Edgewood. Bill and I drove into the parking lot while Gary parked by the store and went inside. To say I was annoyed would be putting it mildly. The pavement on the short drive out of Albuquerque had been completely dry, hence no road crud had been hitting our windshields. Why could he not have remembered to fill his washer fluid before we left Albuquerque? Ten, maybe fifteen minutes went by with no sign of Gary. Bill quietly smoked a cigarette by the side of the Bounder while I paced back and forth. After last night’s fiasco I was convinced I had to limit the driving to daylight hours only and now precious daylight was being squandered.
It took thirty minutes to wait his turn to ask the store clerk where the window washer fluid was, have the clerk send him out to the pump jockey, have the pump jockey send him to a warehouse to get it, return to the store clerk to pay for it, attempt to pour some into his car’s window wash tank and discover that it was nearly full. More fussing around got his washers to finally work properly. As Gary finally drove over to our location I told Bill I was about to give him a tongue-lashing. Bill said absolutely nothing.
In not so polite terms, my Jersey temper told Gary he needed to make a checklist that he could go through each morning before hitting the road to avoid holding everyone up needlessly. Gary let go with a temper tantrum of his own over his frustration with the car, the idiots running the truckstop, and me calling him on the carpet. And all this on the first morning he reported he had actually slept well the night before. Well, I’m from New Jersey and if we’re screaming and yelling at each other it means everything’s okay. Crisis over; let’s get the hell out of here.
Like most RVs you’ll see out on the highway, the Bounder has a map of the United States on the back with stickers pasted on for each state visited. I was really looking forward to hitting the Texas state line where Blue Boy would earn his first new sticker of this trip. The 220 miles from Albuquerque seemed interminable, but we finally crossed into the Texas panhandle and the Central Time Zone by early afternoon on my watch, mid to late afternoon by local time. With only 176 miles of Texas to cross, we should be hitting Oklahoma before sundown.
That optimistic view began to wane as the
clear blue skies of New Mexico gave way to the winter gray overcast that
was Texas. And despite my yearning for flat ground yielding better gas mileage,
I had neglected to factor in the strong winds on the Great Plains. If anything,
the Bounder's fuel gauge needle was plummeting even faster. The closer we
got to Amarillo, the deeper the snow cover on the surrounding fields, another
ominous sign. We drove through Amarillo during their late afternoon rush
hour and I now concluded that San Francisco Bay Area traffic was not particularly
Amarillo was an absolute mess. The foot of snow dropped on it two days earlier was rapidly melting in the upper thirty/lower forty degree temperatures and turning the streets and the interstate into the canals of Venice. We pulled into a truckstop on the east side as much to clean our windshields as to get gas. The snow cover seemed to lessen as we approached the Oklahoma border, but from what I’d heard, Oklahoma got the brunt of the blizzard and I started keeping a close watch on the Bounder’s outside air temperature gauge, determined we would pull off for the night before melting snow started freezing on the highway. Under these conditions, making the 153 miles to Oklahoma City became a safety impossibility and I started looking for a campground per Gary’s request back in Amarillo.
It was already dark when we got off at Exit 41 in Elk City and pulled into the Elk Run RV park directly behind the Love’s Truckstop at 5:00 p.m. PT, 7:00 p.m. local. The campground was six inches deep in snow and given the melting that had taken place that day, Lord only knows how much had been originally dumped there. The office wouldn’t take a credit card, but oddly asked for a check. An out of town check? From California? You’ll take it? No problemo! Go figure.
We found our site, hooked up to water, electric, sewer, and cable TV! And it was just twenty-two bucks! We quickly closed the curtains, ran the furnace, cooked dinner, had some drinks, kicked back, and watched another DVD. A cozy night in a frigid Oklahoma. We had passed the halfway point to Alabama.