Start in the East

Of course my grandma was happy to see us. Me and my uncle extracted ourselves from the car and gave her hugs. The kitchen smelled good but I wasn’t hungry. My grandma has never been one of those ladies who bakes cookies for her grandchildren, she’s more into chicken. After effusive greetings she smiles and says “I’m so happy your doing this Sam! It seems like such a good idea. I know you’re going to have fun. Me and Richard both think it’s just so cool.”

“Thanks grandma” I say. “I think it’s going to be really neat, I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

The visit didn’t last long because we wanted to make it to Toledo before the sunset. With grandma’s blessing we left half an hour later. It was my uncles turn to contort himself into the driver’s seat. He freed the clutch, threw the car into gear and we were on the road again. Ten minutes later, doing seventy on the highway, we left Erie in the rear-view mirror.

“Goodbye Pennsylvania, hello Ohio!”

We find a a hotel on the outskirts of Toledo, just as the sun is dipping below the horizon. It’s cheap and close to the interstate. I elect to eat some of the food grandma has sent with us. My uncle steps outside to explore the sterile environment around our motel. It’s mostly parking lots, fast-food joints and semis, I’m unsure what he expects to find. Ignoring the cable TV, I pick up a book and dive into a world that isn’t dominated by concrete and oil stains.

The next day we want to make it to Saul Bellow’s home town: Chicago. Ideally we want to make it through the city without encountering an infamous traffic jam. As we leave Toledo behind I mess with the radio. It’s an aftermarket stereo and the radio antenna has never been attached. What it lacks in broadcasting ability it makes up for with a 3.5mm stereo-chord input. I happen to have an iPod with 10,000 songs on it and I put it to use. Thanks to Club Glow in Washington and Pacha from New York, I also have some 100 hours of high quality house music. I select the perfect artist for our between-city status: no longer in Toledo but hours from Chicago. We’re in a transition period, Johnny Cash works well with that.

Chicago has never held much interest to me. It’s the New York of the Midwest. I’m not interested in travelling to a second rate New York when I have the real thing one bus ride away. It’s got a cut-rate status in my mind but as it comes into view, it looks impressive. The skyline towers above the lake and other, lesser buildings. It’s a clear blue day but I wish it was night. To me, buildings always look more impressive lit up against a black sky.

I know nothing about navigating in Chicago, all the directions come from my Uncle. At the peak of the workday we cruise full-speed down the highway. His directions are true and I park the car in front of our goal; a building that has enough room to play a baseball game in. It’s the Cabela’s flagship store. My dad orders from the catalog every year but I was blithely unaware that they sold goods physically. I’m slightly less excited than my uncle, who has disposable income, but I still think it’s cool.

As my uncle checks out canoes and parkas, I give serious thought to the purchase of one fantastically useless piece of hardware. It costs $60 and comes in any color you want, so long as it’s black. I can’t imagine when I would ever have a chance to legally use a CO2 powered, BB gun pistol. But then again, the more I look it the harder it is to picture my life without it. I’m captivated by the possibilities. I think about the cans, bottles, rocks, small mammals and fruit I could destroy with such a weapon. The great struggle lies in the price. I’m on a pensioners budget and $60 would put a heavy dent in it.

Thankfully, I found the willpower to override my impulses and we drove out of Chicago towards the setting sun. A pleasant lack of traffic meant Chicago was already lost behind us before we had cycled through a single album of music.

Right or wrong, I’ve always considered everything that comes after Chicago to be the west. As far as I’m concerned, Chicago is the last hurdle before leaving behind civilization. We wouldn’t drive through another city with even one tenth of Chicago’s population for the rest of our trip. Of the dozens of towns we would visit, only a few couldn’t fit their entire population into the Sears Tower.

Plan Optimistically

When I learned that I had distant family living in Washington state, the idea for this trip was born. I was finishing my freshman year of college and craved adventure. Having no discernible talents or skills, I unenthusiastic about finding an internship. So upon hearing that I had family living twenty-four-hundred miles away, I decided to take a road trip. I had never talked to them  but I knew they were on my mom’s side of the family. Traditional family values dominate and I knew I would be well looked after.

When my uncle heard about my ambition to cross the country he volunteered to take the trip with me. I know John better than any of my other uncles. He’s in his mid-fifties and effects a large presence. Taller than six feet and cruising around two-hundred pounds, he’s still managed to keep hair on his head. John is originally from Canada but I try not to hold it against him, even if we do all joke about it. Our vehicle was my 1994 Toyota Corolla. It was born in a factory a scant two years after I was born in a hospital. I must have had good faith in the car. Or, more likely, I never thought about how it would hold up on the road. I surely assumed that since I was young and short of money, nothing bad could possibly go wrong.

My car was a dull red color with enough scratches to prove that it had been around for the Clinton era. The interior was surprisingly agreeable. After two years of shuffling around students, it maintained a permanent smell of cheap, fragrant cigars. The seats were a dark grey pattern that belonged to a discount airline at some point and best of all, it was a five-speed which made driving infinitely more enjoyable. So long as you don’t have to drive in traffic often, a manual transmission is the best. The speakers were blown out but if you restrained the volume to normal levels it was impossible to tell. Surprisingly, for a car its age, the windows rolled down automatically and the locks jumped open at the touch of a button.

Coming from an era before obesity was popular, the car was small by today’s standards. It felt even smaller after we had stuffed it like turkey. I had everything I needed to survive for two months in Washington. Uncle John, for his ten day trip had brought almost as much baggage as myself. A fact that I reminded him of often. Despite the small size of the car, we had enough room to push our front seats all the way back and that was really what mattered.

Minutes before leaving New York, my family assembled on the front steps.

“Good luck Sam!” Says my mother.

“Have fun” Scowls my sister.

“Say hi to Fran and John for me” Aunt Susan says with a wave.

John and I pile into the car, turn around and wave goodbye. I switch from first to second to third as we drive down Parkway towards Main St. I’m excited to leave my one-stoplight town behind. It’s small, there’s nothing to do and I can count my friends on one hand without using my thumb. I’ll spend the summer tallying my friends using only my thumbs, but I’ll be doing the counting in a new and exotic place.

Before that summer, I didn’t know anything about Chelan, Washington. Wikipedia tells me that my future town is home to the third deepest lake in the United States. Also, I’ve learned from family that the daughter and son in law of the people I’m going to stay with own a health food store. I’m to seek employment there. At $9 an hour, Washington has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. A fact that I dwell upon with pleasure. People tell me that it’s because Washington is an expensive state to live in. That may be the case but New York City dwarfs it in cost and their minimum wage is little more than $7 an hour. I’d like to see somebody explain the justice in that.

Having already worked in a grocery store I knew what to expect. However, I was not prepared for what would be my second form of employment. After working in the store a few weeks I unexpectedly ended up learning how to make crepes. I would fetch water for wealthy vacationers and make crepes that Gandhi would be proud to eat. I had no way of knowing how the summer would play out at the time.

Just as I couldn’t imagine that the driveway leading up to my future home would be a runway. In the coming months I would park my car in the grass running alongside the asphalt, then sit on my trunk. With a glass in my right hand and my feet on the bumper. For someone three years short of the drinking age, vodka from a kitchen glass looks like water. I would jovially wave at the pilots as they taxied their small, two-seater planes down the runway.

The Empty West

South Dakota is emptier than the bowels of the Titanic. It’s possible to drive for half an hour, going seventy, without passing another car. It’s comical for short periods of time although it must be a depressing place to grow up. It makes my closeted town of three thousand look like Manhattan. However, since we won’t be staying for long I welcome it. We’re not in South Dakota for the bleak, lifeless horizon, we have a mission.

Mount Rushmore is an American tradition. Like high-priced postage stamps, you could paste every painting from the Louvre onto the presidents heads and you would still need to borrow from the MoMA to cover their faces in whole. They are gigantic on a scale that baffles the rational side of my brain. I recoil at the thought of how long it must have taken them to accomplish such a momentous bust.

The four faces are domineering, majestic, proud and omnipotent. And we missed all of it. The entire county was afflicted with a deathly thick fog. After arriving at the monument, we took a walkway to gain a better angle. However, the faces remained shrouded behind a thick layer fluffy cloud. Short of puffing our cheeks and blowing the fog away, we did everything in our power to catch a glimpse. Like the US government trying to reform Iraq, our efforts were in vain. The presidents were not accepting visitors that day. Having already seen the monument several times as a kid, I was ambivalent. John was disappointed. He had been looking forward to the visit for the last couple of days.

Since we couldn’t see the memorial, the next best thing was to visit the gift shop. We could always buy memorabilia printed with the four presidents heads. It might not be the same but at least it would always be visible. It was at this gift shop, in South Dakota, that I found the best deal on shot glasses I’ve ever come across. One dollar a glass and tax was included. I happily bought four. In hindsight, I wish I had bought eight.

We left disappointed. However, we still had more to see. After three days our trip wasn’t yet half over.

My uncle is an unreformed fiend for inconceivably fragrant cigars. With a chipper wind they can be discerned from fifty feet. Imagine then the smell when your nose is a regrettable twelve inches away. John had brought a whole bag full of the wretched things with him. They are thicker than Mike Tyson’s thumb and longer than Michael Jordan’s middle finger. The outside is the color of molasses, which slowly succumbs to a thick, gray ash with each puff. Once lit they burn obnoxiously slow, frequently lasting for an hour. Crossing over into Wyoming, happiness reigned down upon me when I learned that the last cigar had been smoked.

We didn’t realize it but we were about to venture into one of the more scenic parts of our road trip. Shortly after leaving a small town in Wyoming, we began to descend into an expansive canyon. The rock faces were blood red, hundreds of feet tall and miles apart at some points. Contained between the walls was a natural lake and the occasional house. I drove lazily. On the deserted roads, anyone behind us could pass at their leisure. Cruising in fifth, my right hand was free to reach a Hulk-sized can of Monster. My left hand clutched a Black and Mild that John had given me. Alternating between drags of tobacco, droughts of caffeine and a gluttonous appraisal of the stunning scenery, I found a deep feeling of warmth and happiness. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that feeling to this day. It was one of my favorite parts of crossing the country.

Well aware of the tendency my car had to leak oil, we stopped the next day check the levels. John went to the bathroom and I popped the hood to evaluate the state of things. When he returned, I looked at him and said:

“This car has no fucking oil in it!” The dipstick was drier than the coffers of the Federal Government.

“We’ll get off at the next exit and buy some” replied my uncle, before settling back into the passenger seat. I wasn’t pleased about the situation but there was nothing we could do.

My car has always leaked oil but it tended to escape at a controlled rate. When we checked the stick yesterday it was normal. To find the sump dry was surprising. I nervously drove another fifteen miles before reaching a gas station. After paying in cash, my car happily drank up two bottles and that was that. I don’t think we lost another thimbleful of oil for the last twelve hundred miles. It was a happy solution to a sticky problem. If the engine had seized in Wyoming, I have no idea what I would have done. It’s likely the cost of the repair would have exceeded the value of the car.

At some point we found ourselves in a town that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the highway. Like sucker-fish around a shark, the fast-food restaurants grew out of the weeds around the motels. They beckoned customers in with bright signs and cheap prices. Evaluating this ghost town, we ran some calculations together.

“How much do you think it costs to build a motel like this?” Asks John. We’re standing in front of a brand new motel that couldn’t be more than a year old.

“Oh, about five million I guess.”

“Exactly. And how long before it starts to look like our hotel; rundown and tacky.”

“Maybe ten years. Give or take.”

“Ok so to just pay for the building alone, nothing else, this motel needs to rent out $500,000 dollars worth of rooms every year. At $120 a room, that’s 4,100 rooms or about 12 rooms a day. How much do you think the staff, upkeep and everything else costs them a year?”

“Another half a million I reckon.”

“So if we just double that, and put in an extra room for good measure, that’s 25 rooms they need to rent out every single night.”

We both think about that number while counting the cars in the parking lot. There’s more than twenty-five.

“Well..” I say “I guess they are turning a profit right now.”

“Yeah I guess they are” replies John. “Come on, I’m hungry”

Our economic speculating finished, we walk across the parking lot and into the Taco Bell, located next to the financially successful motel. Under normal circumstances I avoid Taco Bell like the plague. However, on the road we’ve been hitting every major fast-food restaurant and I’m craving variety. Having now learned my lesson, on any future road trip I’ll plan ahead so that I don’t have to rely so heavily on processed food. It’s already bad enough that we were sitting all day exercising nothing but our fingers and eyes.

After a night of sleep in our budget motel, we pull into the drive-thru of a Starbucks. I’m positive that when they founded this coffee chain in metropolitan Seattle, they never imagined that it would spread to towns where the Denny’s is the cultural center. Coffee in hand we get back onto the interstate. Total time in that motel-dominated ghost town: fourteen hours.

Montana, My Home State

Twenty-two years ago I was born in Helena, Montana. Since moving to New York at the age of six, I have returned to my birth state half a dozen times. As the Rocky Mountains drew closer, it felt great to be approaching the vast, empty, breathtaking, expansive state of Montana. We were headed to a small fishing town called Ennis. However, only thirty miles deep into the state we encountered the first formidable obstacle in our journey.

Up to this point, most of the roads we had been driving on were satisfactory. In general, roads in the west receive less traffic than in the east. It shouldn’t be surprising that of all the places I’ve been in my life, New York City has the worst roads. They are abominable sink holes that swallow axles and suck off tires. The incessant traffic makes fixing the roads a nearly impossible task.

In the west, the roads receive significantly less traffic. They stretch straight out in front of you and extend into horizon, past your farthest line of sight. Frequently speed limits are treated as a suggestion, not an actual limit on progress. I talked to a farmer once who claims to have driven across the entire state of North Dakota doing 110 MPH in his pickup. Unfortunately, my car begins to get angry if asked to maintain a speed over seventy. However, for the obstacle ahead, speed would not be an issue.

State workers are in the middle of repaving a large stretch of the highway. They have ripped up the asphalt leaving a heavily pitted gravel road. The compacted gravel is hard as concrete and the color of an overripe mango. It’s potted condition suggests that the entire road has been strafed by an A-10 Warthog’s 30mm tank-killing cannon. I imagined the road as a course they could use to test the capabilities of a military Hummer.

And we have no choice but to drive over this road in a sixteen-year-old car. The road being one lane, we’re forced to maintain a relentless pace. Semi’s boxed us in from the front and back. They had tight schedules to keep and their industrial suspension systems ate up the road. Our ride felt more akin to driving a boat at high speeds over peaking waves. As the miles wore on, we started to grow uneasy. Anyone who has driven on public roads has seen exhaust systems and hubcaps on the side of the road. Losing a hubcap wouldn’t bother me. Losing my entire exhaust system and having it run over by a semi, that would be discouraging.

“Jesus, is this road ever going to end!”

“I wonder if that semi will nudge my bumper if I slow down too much.”

“I think I saw China at the bottom of that pothole..”

Twenty minutes felt like two hours. Towards the end, I stopped worrying and accepted my fate. Please car, see it through to the end  and I promise, I’ll never drive you without any oil again! Minutes later the hellish combat zone ended as quickly as it started. With one last jolt we were back on asphalt. I pulled into the next rest stop and shut the engine off. The original dark red exterior was obscured by caked layers of brown-orange grime. Despite the abuse, everything seemed in order. There was oil in the pan and the exhaust pipe still seemed to be solidly attached to the car. Either Toyota builds a quality car or we got lucky. I think it’s a combination of both that pulled us through. After letting the car sit for twenty minutes we piled back in. I gingerly selected reverse, turned the car around, and then in first gear we started heading west.

Bozeman is a gorgeous town tucked in between two mountain ranges. It’s home to Montana State University and an entire film’s worth of a A-list celebrities. The remote location and jaw-dropping scenery appeals to anyone who has the wealth to afford it. Bozeman is prohibitively expensive as well as short on good jobs. It’s the type of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that your Barista has a master’s degree. It’s a stellar town but we drive through without stopping. Our destination, Ennis, is still two hours away and we want to reach it before sundown.

My father is more infatuated with Montana than any person I know. Eight years ago, when he had the chance to purchase a home with his then girlfriend, he jumped at the opportunity. 19 Gravelly Road is a small, ranch style home located twenty minutes outside of Ennis. The famous Madison river runs through the back yard and the front yard is a national park.

At five o clock we pulled into the driveway. It had been an exhausting day and we were thrilled to finally arrive. Uncle John started preparing the grill while I took stock of the house and the surroundings. There were a dozen leftover Corona’s in the fridge, and I deemed that at a high risk for going stale. Continuing with my scavenger hunt and I was excited to find the keys to the Jeep hanging in the garage.

“I’m taking the Jeep up into the park” I say casually to my uncle.

“Dinner will be ready in an hour or so” is his reply.

Light blue with a classic carpet bag interior, the Jeep belongs in Montana. It starts up and I shift it into reverse, working the gas and the clutch delicately until I get a feeling for how it handles. Five minutes later I’m working my way up the mountain road in third. If the Jeep were a person, it would be able to vote for the first time that year. It handles well enough for a machine with more than two-hundred-thousand miles on it.

After ten minutes of driving I’m only a couple of miles into the park. Given the day we’ve had, I think that’s far enough. I step out of the cab and climb a small, cactus covered hill. Looking down on the Jeep and out across hundreds of miles of uninhabited land I yell:

“I am awesome!”

Out of energy I stand on the hill and watch the sun descend behind the mountains. I’m not the first person to find such a majestic sight beautiful. The price of real estate in Montana is deceptively high. It’s as if people are willing to pay for polar ends of the spectrum. Montana and New York are both prohibitively expensive. The towns and villages that fall in the middle are affordable.

I carefully pick my way through the stubby cactus to the Jeep. Dinner is ready down at the house and I’m starving. With a practiced motion I put the Jeep into first, man the clutch and give it gas. I’m headed back down the road towards home.

Washington Already

Hungover the next morning, we drive to the Ennis Cafe for breakfast. I feel better after some eggs and bacon. Leaving Ennis, it was starting to feel like our trip was winding down. There was only one sight left that interested uncle John.

He was eager to add another six hours to our trip by driving through Yellowstone National Park. Tired and leery of spending more money on gas, I was strongly against this idea. However, this being a once in a lifetime situation, I wasn’t going to adamantly demand that we not tour through the park either. I left that up to nature.

John had been monitoring the conditions in the Park, hoping that a late snow-pack would clear up in time. However, when it finally came down to it, the pass was still closed. We would be forced to take the quicker, more efficient route; I kept my joy to myself.

It seems strange now, but In the fifties and sixties drunken driving was tolerated. Society had normalized it and the truth about how dangerous it was had yet to come out. When we took our road trip, such was the case with texting and driving. It would still be another year or two before studies began to reveal how dangerous an activity it is. The closest we came to becoming a statistic was when I decided to answer a message.

We were twenty miles outside of Ennis and climbing a mountain road. Driving uphill, with a one hundred foot drop directly off the left hand shoulder of the road, I got a text. I opened my phone and got lost in reading it. When I looked up several seconds later I realized that I had switched sides of the road. We were too close to the edge for comfort, and that’s not taking into account oncoming traffic either. I dropped the phone and quickly swerved back into my lane. John looked out the window and said nothing. I’d like to say I never texted and drove again. But it wouldn’t be true.

After leaving Montana, it wasn’t long until we reached Spokane. Intent on making our final destination with sun left to spare, we cruised through without stopping. The town had little appeal to either of us. Bozeman is nicer and Chicago is bigger. As Spokane faded from view, my eyes were focused on our final destination.

It would take use thee hours to get to Chelan from Spokane. We eagerly covered the distance, looking for signs that indicated we were going in the right direction. Without a GPS, we navigated solely by street signs and a large atlas. With less than an hour to go before Chelan, we elected to bypass the gas station. In my efficient car, I was confident we could cover the distance without a hiccup. Ultimately I was correct, but that didn’t make the last twenty minutes any less stressful, as we drove into town on fumes. It was an unfortunate choice, not buying gas earlier. It introduced an element of stress that made it hard to enjoy our initial arrival in Chelan.

And what a place Chelan is! A well maintained road divides the entire town into two. Starting from the uppermost part of town it’s possible to roll a marble all the way down to the lake. Initially, all the buildings are residential. Nice looking compact houses with manicured lawns and gardens. The town being situated on a lake, residents have freer access to water than in other western towns. Clustered around Main street, close to the lake, is the business district. There’s a gas station, a movie theater, a book store, a couple of clothing stores and two pizzerias. On the right hand site is a health food store called Bear Foods. The sign is adorned with a large black bear standing on his hind legs. It’s here that I would spend my summer. I would enjoy some parts of the work and loathe others. On that first day, I had no idea what was in store for me.