I wish that everyone had a friend as good as me in their life. Now before you write me off as conceited, just hear me out on this. Besides, I said good friend, not great friend.
When my friend of nine years told me she was getting married, I was of course invited to the wedding. There was the slight problem of her living 1,650 miles away though. Flying was expensive and the closest airport is two hours from her place. With the wedding preparations there was little chance of picking me up and I’m not old enough to rent a car. My last option was a road trip – and I went for it.
DAY ONE: PHOENIX, AZ TO SHAMROCK, TX (842 mi)
The day began with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. A lack of sleep due to packing and planning the night before was responsible for most of my weariness. Everyone said I was crazy for going. That my car wouldn’t make it, that it wasn’t safe, that I would get in trouble or worse. It didn’t help that nobody was willing or able to go with me. I didn’t mention to very many people that my window tint is illegal in four of the seven states I planned to drive though. Things were looking risky but I was determined to get to my friend’s wedding.
I was up at 5:30am and on the road by about 6:15 or so. Breakfast at McDonalds has always been a road trip tradition of mine, and today was no exception. As I was leaving the drive thru the car stalled out. Mom said I could take her car instead of mine; maybe I should turn around and take hers instead? It must have been a fluke I assumed. The car does not have a history of dying on me. It’s never left me stranded. I had confidence in my car, my Velma, my protector.
Heading north on Interstate 17 I saw lots of wild sunflowers by the roadside. Once I got on Interstate 40 I began to feel a little better with each passing mile. I picked up a good classic rock station and heard some good songs like Take The Money and Run and Radar Love. On another station I heard “When You Say Nothing At All.” It’s just one of many songs that remind me of her. I listened to The Edge, The Peak, The Mountain, The Cliff, The Zoo, and M88, which was a Christian station out of Albuquerque.
There was a lot of slowing in New Mexico because of construction. Near Moriarty I drove through some brief but intense rain that made it very difficult to see the road. The rest of the world does not seem to be aware that you can use your headlights in low visibility driving, not just at night. Well I kept mine on for safety.
The first day ended at the Blarney Inn, a wee bit of Ireland in the Texas panhandle. It was the only place open when I pulled into town so I didn’t have much choice. Thirty-two dollars gets you a pink room with a trickle shower and a “cont bfast” in the morning. On the plus side, the bugs weren’t too big or too mean.
As I was bringing in my bags the room next to mine opened and a man and a woman emerged. “Hey sweetie” the woman said to me, a six pack of beer dangling from her hand. “Hello” I replied. The man locked the door and they each went to their cars. “I’ll call you tomorrow” he said to her, as they both drove away. Judging by the complimentary condoms on my nightstand it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what those two were up to. It was a very long first day and I was out like a light before my head hit the pillow.
DAY TWO: SHAMROCK, TX TO GRENADA, MS (728 mi)
Daylight seemed to come much too early. It was cloudy and overcast, and disgustingly humid. The free breakfast advertised on the sign consisted of a jug of room temperature Sunny D and a box of store bought glazed donuts. I opted to visit McDonalds once again.
Shamrock, Texas looks a lot like Radiator Springs in the movie “Cars.” In fact it has a gas station which Ramon’s paint shop in the movie is based on. Most of the towns along Interstate 40 look similar, as they are former Route 66 stops with loads of cool, abandoned buildings such as motels, diners, cafes, gas stations and trading posts.
Driving along I encountered more heavy rain. I was beginning to see I had underestimated the cost of gas by a large amount. Some friends called and I was happy to talk to them on the phone. Meteor Crater and the dinosaur museum are still there. The lava rocks are still there in New Mexico. The giant cross is still there in Texas. Oklahoma is still boring. Arkansas is very green and Memphis is very proud of Graceland.
The trucks still stay to the right and the rivers are full of water and the freight trains are still visible across the landscape from end to end, like giant earthworms stretched out on a desert sidewalk. I was happy to see that the rest of the world has not changed as fast as Phoenix has changed.
Crossing the Mississippi was neat and I pulled over to get a picture of the bridge. The sun was going down and its reflection on the water was very nice. There was even a barge and a steamboat visible on the river; business as usual to the locals but it was delightful to me.
Although I was only two hours away from my friend’s house, a full day of driving left me exhausted and I could not drive any further. There were no good motels between Memphis and Grenada. I pulled over to a Super 8 in Batesville and found two police cruisers parked outside the lobby. The wise thing to do would have been to keep going but curiosity got the best of me and I went inside to ask how much a room was. A man was describing the details of a drug deal he had just witnessed to the police, while the foreigner behind the desk watched with confusion. Best to keep going, I figured.
The Econo Lodge in Grenada was the next place I came to. At $55 a night it was way above my budget but I was too tired to care. The room was spacious with a TV, desk, pullout couch, Queen-size bed, pull-out couch, a mini fridge and microwave, an ironing board, coffee maker, hairdryer, and a real bathtub. The powerful smell of cat piss was the only feature not mentioned at the front desk, but it was included free of charge. Once I turned on the A/C though it wasn’t as bad. Compared to the Blarney Inn, this place was practically the Four Seasons.
DAY THREE: GRENADA, MS TO STARKVILLE, MS
After a restful sleep and a slightly better breakfast (Froot Loops and juice) I was on my way to Starkville around 8:30am. About an hour from town I got a call from my friend and we met up along the highway. I followed her to Eupora and we got some supplies for the wedding. She was very glad to see me and I was glad to see her and the family.
Following them back to their place was a challenge in itself. After leaving the highway we continued on back roads for some time. They were flying along this twisting two lane blacktop with blind curves and driveways with no regard for the speed limit. But if I lost them I’d never get there – so I kept up as best I could. Even the bootleggers and rum runners of the Prohibition Era were not this reckless!
The road to their place was seven miles of loose gravel, barely wide enough for two vehicles. At about 35mph and the car was fishtailing but I turned into the skid and quickly straightened out. It sure got my heart thumping though! We made it to their place and I played with the kids while everyone got ready. Arriving at the church three hours before the wedding, I volunteered to help set up. Working with the bride’s family we put up balloons, cleared the stage, and got everyone dressed and ready.
The ceremony was very nice and not too long or too short. My friend looked quite beautiful in her dress and I did see some tears as she walked down the aisle. There were three bridesmaids and three groomsmen. There was open seating, and maybe 40 or 50 people there. They said their vows and exchanged rings. A guitarist played a nice acoustic “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” and they kissed.
After that it was time for photos and then the reception. All of the food was homemade and it was plentiful and delicious! There was no alcohol but a toast with sparkling juice. They cut the cake and she splattered a big hunk all over his face. There was no bouquet toss, no garter, no DJ’s or music or speeches or toasts or dancing. It was a small wedding and very intimate. You really got the feeling it was about two people in love, and not about Lights, Camera, and Action.
When everyone had gone I helped to get the church back to normal. Moving chairs and tables, packing up the food, and keeping an eye on the kids kept me busy for a few more hours. I gave the mother of the bride a ride across the state line to Vernon, Alabama. The gas pumps there do not require you to pre-pay and I had to give the store clerk an extra dollar when the pump did not stop at $20. The three police officers sitting outside drinking sodas eyed me checking the oil and inquired about whether I was coming from or going to Arizona. They were just being friendly but I was still a little nervous about their presence.
Finally at about midnight we made it back to the house and I crashed in the spare bedroom. The sleeping bag came in handy, and it was the only night it saw any use. My plans of camping out in the car fell through as I realized how humid the South can be. Every time I got out of the car, my clothes clung to me with sweat. Hot, thick air wrapped around my body like a beach towel. “How can anyone live here?” I wondered. Exhausted, I fell into a dreamless sleep. I was glad I decided to come.
DAY FOUR: STARKVILLE, MS TO FORT SMITH, AR (458 mi)
The room I stayed in was nice and cool and much better than camping. Breakfast was light and I stuck around a few hours to visit and take pictures. Sadly I had to leave that morning to make it back on time. They invited me to attend Sunday morning church with them twice but I declined, out of concern for the time and distance I had to travel. I insisted I had to hit the road and was on my way at 10am. At one-ish I was in West Memphis, Arkansas and stopped for lunch.
Around 2:30pm the car began to act a little funny. A warning light came on that looked like a car battery. The manual said it was the Electrical System Charging Light. If it comes on while driving and stays on, have it checked out immediately the book said. Well I was between West Memphis and Little Rock, and my options were to stop or keep going. I called a friend whom I trust for car advice to let him know what was going on.
A few more miles down the road another warning light came on: the ABS light. Now I was concerned. My car that has never given me a serious warning in the last three years now has two lights on. Something is wrong here. The engine seemed to be sluggish but I was still chugging along the Interstate. Suddenly while I was talking to my friend the gauges died for a second. Zero RPM’s, zero MPH, zero engine temp and gas. It lasted only a second but I’d never had the needles jump around like that before.
The Check Engine light came on, and the Air Bag warning light followed suit. Then the regular Brake light came on. I had been driving with the A/C off and the radio off since the trouble started. The wind was roaring in one ear with the window down and I was drenched in sweat. This was a bad situation and it was quickly getting worse. The gauges continued to act funny as the engine began to slow. I prayed that I would make it to Little Rock. The engine died and I coasted to a stop at mile marker 172.
I could not believe it. There I was, stranded on the Interstate with car problems. It’s exactly what my parents, my co-workers, and my friends said might happen with my twelve-year old car. It’s exactly what I said not to worry about. The car was on the shoulder, broken down. I was standing in the weeds on the verge of a breakdown myself. Taking a deep breath I pulled the Triple A card out of my wallet and called the number.
They dispatched a tow truck and told me to hang tight. While I didn’t have any cash, I had my cell phone, help on the way, my emergency credit card, and I could flag somebody down if there was a serious emergency. One fellow from Idaho stopped and asked if I needed help. Bless his heart for stopping, but I wasn’t waving my arms or anything. He didn’t seem embarrassed for stopping though and I cannot blame him. I hope I can be that guy to someone else someday.
The tow truck was there within an hour and the driver loaded the car onto the flatbed and took me into Little Rock. We were about twenty miles from town and it didn’t take long. He brought me to Pep Boys, the only deal in town open on a Sunday afternoon. They confirmed my suspicions of a dead alternator and got my battery charging up.
Now if the shop had one on the shelf I would have had no trouble replacing it myself. However they didn’t have the right kind for my car and had to go to another parts store to get one – an option I did not have. So my only choice was to pay their price for parts and labor. They got me fixed up quickly and recommended I stick around to get my leaking oil sending unit fixed in the morning. That was more time than I could afford to lose though so I took to the open road again.
Looking back, it’s almost like God was upset with me for skipping church. All the time I tried to save by leaving early was eaten up standing by the roadside in the Arkansas sun and watching a heart-wrenching documentary about soldiers dying in Iraq in the waiting room at Pep Boys. At the end of the day it cost me quite a lot of time and money.
The Motel 6 in Fort Smith was the best deal of the whole trip. It was reasonable at thirty-two dollars, the room was clean and safe, the front desk clerk was friendly and spoke English, and it was convenient and comfortable. There was even a pool and an ice machine! Next time I’ll think twice before skipping church.
DAY FIVE: FORT SMITH, AR TO LUBBOCK, TX (557 mi)
The day began with a tiny bit of optimism for a change. Feeling rested I got breakfast, packed up the car, and wasted no time in getting to Oklahoma City. The directions I had to the National Memorial site were not very clear and I ended up asking for directions at a Conoco station. Has anyone ever noticed that their logo looks a lot like the old Nintendo logo?
The skies were grey and overcast as I arrived at the National Memorial. Oklahoma City looked like a nice place to visit. There were lots of interesting buildings and a downtown with lots of murals and brick buildings near the stadium. Walking around the memorial was a saddening experience. Other visitors wore solemn expressions on their faces. Nobody spoke much, nobody was smiling, and children were calm and quiet. A large reflecting pool stands between the two Gates of Time. One read 9:01 and the other 9:03. The entirety of emotions is expressed in the statue of the weeping Jesus.
After taking some pictures I was back on the Interstate flying towards Amarillo. The next stop was Cadillac Ranch, on the outskirts of town. That place was pretty hopping for a Monday afternoon and it was hard to get pictures of the cars without bystanders in the way.
From there I transitioned to I-27 south to Lubbock. Outside the city it’s all farmland and I was the only car in that direction for a long time. It wouldn’t surprise me if some counties in Texas have a livestock population higher than the human population.
Arriving in Lubbock around 8pm I was eager to slow down a bit and explore the city. There was a good sized airport nearby and unfortunately the Buddy Holly Museum is closed on Mondays. Texas Tech is the big school in town, and LCU is just down the road. I visited the campus and took some good pictures. I cannot help but think of the trip we were going to take here together. I guess you’ve got other priorities now, but I still wish you could have been there with me and I know you would have liked it. Do you still read these things? I hope so.
Lubbock is an alright town. Not as big as Tucson but much bigger than Flagstaff. There were a lot of signs of new growth and development. Everyone is very friendly and polite. The main street in downtown is entirely red brick, and quite a bumpy ride! I used 1-800-GOOG-411 (a toll-free nationwide directory assistance service that was offered by Google from 2007-2010) to find the local Denny’s and had some dinner. Lubbock has a Christian radio station that played some older Switchfoot songs in the regular lineup. You wouldn’t even believe how many different churches the place has. As cool as everything was, I really just wished I could click my heels and be zapped home.
DAY SIX: LUBBOCK, TX TO PHOENIX, AZ (820 mi)
This was probably the longest day of the whole trip. The route I had planned would take me through Roswell, New Mexico and Socorro, past the Very Large Array and then from there back to Phoenix somehow. Well the road from Brownsfield, TX to Socorro, NM is US 380 and man, is it ever a boring one! Don’t ever drive this road if you can avoid it.
US 380 means knowing what it is to be truly alone. When your cell phone has no signal and your radio cannot pick up a single station, when you’re the only car on the road and the towns are fifty miles apart, there is nobody around to help you or listen to you. Out here there is nobody around to tell you that you’re wrong or to judge you, but at the same time nobody around to love you or pay attention to you. The decisions you make don’t impact anyone else or upset anyone else. There is no sin, no temptation, and no billboards. Driving a lonely highway all day is almost a form of sensory deprivation.
Roswell was nothing like I expected. In my mind I had an image of an over the top tourist trap with souvenir stands and every kind of gimmick to cash in on tourists visiting the town made world famous by its UFO crash-site incident. To my surprise it was just a normal town, mostly a farming community. Downtown there was a grand courthouse and a cute little main street lined with antique shops. It looked a lot like Prescott, only with a UFO museum. The museum was worth five bucks but not much more. I haven’t decided if it was worth passing through Roswell at all.
Heading from Roswell to Socorro wasn’t much better. Every little jerkwater town made you slow down to 35mph and it took forever to get there. After a quick stop at the outrageously expensive McDonalds (seriously, the McDonald’s in Juneau, Alaska was cheaper!), I was on my way to the Very Large Array.
There’s nothing much to see on the way there either. Southern New Mexico seemed like nothing but an endless sea of desert. The VLA was pretty cool though. The only tours are self guided walking tours and you can get really close to the 82-foot antennas. They move around on 43 miles of railroad track and are worked on in a giant assembly building. The gift shop was nice but it’s the only building civilians are allowed inside. Sadly, one can learn more about the VLA on their website than from an actual visit to the place. I just wanted some pictures.
Leaving the VLA, I was driving into the afternoon sun towards Springerville, Arizona. I stopped there for dinner before continuing on to St. Johns and then Holbrook, where I caught up with Interstate 40 once again. Driving near the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, the road stretched to the horizon as far as the eye could see. My brain was tired but I kept on going until I got to the Interstate.
I made a quick stop in Flagstaff for gas as sun was going down, and knew I was on the home stretch. Driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix is a real downhill jam as you go from 6,900 feet elevation to 1,100 feet elevation. You don’t even need to use the gas pedal, as gravity does most of the work for you.
Pulling into Phoenix at ten o’clock, I was beyond exhausted. My face had the tenderness of heavy duty sandpaper. My eyes were a network of red lines, as intricate and unique as a spider web. My heart was heavy with the never ending sorrow of a one-sided love. My mind was like a computer running Windows – when too much starts happening at once, everything locks up. My wallet was emptier than Paris Hilton’s head and my car dirtier than a Las Vegas hooker. But at long last, I was home.
BY THE NUMBERS:
States Visited: 7
Car repairs: $300