From here to there and back again.
Apologies for the relative quiet recently. As mentioned in a post here, there’s been a lot going on, notably preparing for an empty nest. On Sunday we got back from the 3243.9-mile round trip to drop our son at college in Boulder, Colorado. We had to drive because of taking his stuff (and car), and honestly I’d been assuming we’d make our way back as quickly as we’d got there — a four-day hack across the boring northern bits of Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — and then, I guess… just get back to work.
My wife, however, because she is wise, insisted that instead we take a slower road home. So we planned a route via a number of iterations and it wound up being a fabulous trip: over the Rocky mountains of Colorado, across the deserts of southern Utah, and Arizona, and the Mojave, and then the Sierra mountains of California, via what felt (in this swathes-of-nothingness context) like an utterly bizarre evening in manic Las Vegas. We’ve been to Vegas before and found it fun, in a “Disneyland for drunk adults” kind of way: but this time, round about the point where we discovered that if you wanted to get cash out to lose on the slots then the ATM would charge you $9.95 per transaction for the privilege, the bubble kinda burst and we were very happy to get back out into the vast emptiness.
I won’t bore you with a blow by blow, but here are three things I learned — or was reminded of — while on the road.
The journey is the destination.
I enjoyed the towns we stayed in, both large and very, very small. We had a lot of good meals (for me, pretty much any meal can be good if I’m eating it somewhere new and interesting and with the right person), saw some stunning scenery, experienced out-there temperatures (up to 113°, but it was a dry heat, which it turns out I don’t mind) and I made good on my policy of checking out the local beers (fun fact: in Utah, where they’ve loosened their alcohol policy in the face of tourist need, they nonetheless cap all beers at 5°, which actually seems to me a non-insane policy).
But my favorite part? Simply being on the road.
I’d forgotten, in the nearly twenty years since we last undertook a solid road trip (they’re not ideal for beguiling a child who has no siblings to play or have vicious arguments with) what a pure and endless joy it is to be in a car with your wife, heading out into… whatever comes next. The long hours of chat, interspersed with periods of companionable silence as you watch whatever’s flying past outside. An ever-evolving curiosity about what’s over the next horizon. Sudden unscheduled stops to peer at something that looks like it might be interesting. Doesn’t matter if it turns out not to be — something else to peer at and discuss will come along soon enough.
Even the checking in and out of often cheap hotels, seeing and commenting upon what’s nice about them (or not), unpacking and re-packing the car, figuring out where to do washing, finding out where’s the next place that might have decent coffee. There’s other advantages, including the lack of responsibility: standing in a hotel bathroom and musing vaguely about whether you like its design, safe in the knowledge that neither that nor any potential for the shower leaking are your problem. The road is the antidote to adulting, of which there can be an awful lot. At home you deep dive into whether the fridge finally needs replacing and how outlandishly expensive that will be and whether they even make them in a size that will fit in the slot you have to fill. On the road you point at big interesting rocks, like a child, open once more to the infinite interestingness of the world.
In recent years I’ve done a lot of flying, which I actually enjoy (the simple act of being in an airport says you’re going somewhere, which is cool), but it’s not the same. You rock up at Airport World, wander around for a bit getting ripped off for everything, get on a plane, and eventually land in Airport World again, which is basically the same in every corner of the planet regardless of what language the signs are in.
Driving is different. Getting there the slow way gives you a wholly changed understanding of the difference between where you just were, and where you are now — and all the places in between. That sense of movement, transition, journey… that’s what’s good for the soul.
And as part of this…
Serendipity is the prime directive
Yes, of course you need to plan. If you’re going to be on the road for several weeks, traveling long distances on something of a schedule, you’d be a fool not to have some idea of what towns you’ll be staying in, and booking some hotels.
My wife has also adopted the grown-up policy of slotting in some restaurant reservations, too — whereas my predilection is for getting to a place and strolling the streets, flaneur-style, assaying menus and checking various places’ vibe before making a considered selection: that process, in fact, being part of the anticipatory process which is often a meal’s best seasoning. This will of course sometimes leave you high and dry, especially if wherever town you are in happens to be busy that evening.
So we tend to mix and match, depending on circumstance. Paula booked places like the excellent Salt, in busy college-moving-in-week Boulder; I found at the last minute a surprisingly decent bar/restaurant in a godforsaken satellite area of Barstow that was otherwise a sterile nest of fast food, gas stations, and trucker-related accommodation. Yes, we may have had to hack our way on foot to it across a lot of roads, in strong winds and high-nineties temperatures to get there, but we survived.
We made some swerves on hotels, too. We had been due to spend two nights in a place called Tropic, near Bryce Canyon. Then, while having drinks in Glenwood Springs a few nights before (which benefited from serendipity too, as while checking out in Vail I’d got chatting to the dude behind reception and he turned out to be from Glenwood, and when I mentioned Paula’s strident desire to experience hot springs he’d steered me to a locals-only spot on a river twenty miles out of town; this turned out to be VERY locals-orientated, in the shape of a dozen hippies aged from sixty down to five, all buck-ass naked, rearranging rocks around the springs, but the other scenery was stunning) we’d suddenly lost confidence in Tropic, for no evident reason.
As a result we wound up staying in a lovely hotel in Moab for two nights instead, which seemed an especially good choice when we eventually got to Tropic to discover that a car passing counted as a major local event. I warmed to Tropic (possibly because of a slightly itinerant childhood, if I wake up in a place, I basically accept it as my new home), but Moab was the stand-out of the trip. Partly the hotel, and two very nice meals in local restaurants (and it’s not a big town, so that’s a good hit rate) but mainly the stunning Arches national park nearby. Even cooler was that I happened to light upon a slim volume in the town’s (surprisingly great) little bookstore, which sent us off on half a day of hunting down petroglyphs along deserted side-canyons.
So: we randomly decided to spend in one place longer than we’d planned, I randomly discovered a particular book in a bookstore there I happened upon by accident, and as a result had one of the best days I can remember.
We also had some extraordinary patches of driving simply because I happened to be in charge of navigation, saw there was a longer route than looked weird and cool and deserted, and went for it. Trust the road. As someone who tends to like to know what he’s doing next, and to have his ducks in a row, this can be a tough principle for me to embrace. But it’s true.
Californians are the worst drivers in America
I am not the world’s most gung-ho car-wrangler. In fact, for a while, I was genuinely kinda phobic about it. Luckily that was back when we lived in London, where it was seldom necessary: I could walk or tube to basically anywhere I wanted to go. Driving was a convenient place to park my portion of the anxiety I believe we’re all dealt — more convenient, in some ways, than my wife’s fears (at the time, she’s largely got over both) of the tube and flying. I got past my fear of driving, too, and these days motor hither and yon, my quotidian missions to perform.
The only time I get a reminder, deep in my stomach, of how driving felt a dozen years ago is when on the freeway. And this road trip — in which I did about half the driving, so, many many miles — made me realize it’s more specific than simply “freeways”. It’s Californian freeways. In Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado, everything was fine. People drove in a sane and often courteous fashion. Sure there’d be a dick every now and then, but there are dicks wherever you go. Otherwise there was a general sense of everyone on the road being in this together.
Within miles of crossing the border back into California, however, suddenly it was a contact sport once more, a chaotic death-match of overtaking on the inside, tailgating at eighty miles an hour, or suddenly slewing across several lanes of traffic to make an exit at the very last second. Many Californians drive as if actively seeking to cause harm. It’s as though they believe that driving however the fuck they want is a basic human right, and everybody else simply has to look after themselves.
Sadly my son learned to drive in this state, and has fully embraced the “every man for themselves” school of Grand Theft Auto-inspired road usage — which is why I am often to be heard quietly whimpering while in the passenger seat of his Mustang. Honestly, right now, that experience about the only thing I don’t miss about him now being thirteen hundred miles away: but if Nate was here and asked if I wanted to go for a drive, of course I’d say yes. The house feels quiet.
That’s the other thing about a road trip. Even if it returns you to exactly where you started, neither home — nor you — will be the same.