...on the road again - just can't wait to be on the road again...
One of the things I miss the most about life in a pandemic is travel - I had assumed I would spend the majority of 2020 being at home only during the brief winter months in Moab and after spring had arrived only for pit stops in between trips for the rest of the year. We had big plans to attend graduate school commencement ceremonies at both the University of Washington in April and at Dartmouth in June, only to be foiled by cancelled ceremonies. Our annual escape to the west coast in July or August likewise went out the window some time ago. Since March I have been out of the county exactly twice - and both times were for treatment at Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City - hardly qualifies as a fun trip or a mini-vacation.
But I’ve already gotten off-track - imagine that - what I intended to write about is road trips - and I’ll get to that in just a minute - I promise. Let me preface the whole thing by letting you know how much I have come to pretty much despise air travel. There are times of course when going by air is the only alternative - although it’s getting harder for me to identify just when those times are. It’s not because I am afraid to fly - I’ve flown a lot and I’ve never been afraid of it - to be certain there have been a few moments that made me pay attention, like when I was in a Dash-8 over Montana and we took a direct lightening hit - but it worked out just fine. No what I dislike these days is the need to arrive what seems like the day before your flight is scheduled - being treated like a criminal before proven otherwise - a half-mile hike to your gate after you have spent at least an hour getting through security - only to be crammed into the least amount of space possible. You’re then served a stale cracker or a teaspoon of peanuts and not even the whole can of soda anymore. A lukewarm beer is 7 or 8 bucks and not because it’s some fancy import. I generally feel like I am completely fending for myself in an environment where I have no control over anything whatsoever. No thanks. If there is any way possible to avoid the airlines I will do it - and for the most part that really only leaves rail or road trips. Rail travel will undoubtedly be the topic of at least one future blog post - but today we shall cue up either Born to Be Wild or On the Road Again and talk about cruising down that long ribbon of pavement.
If there is ever a perfect time in your life for road trips, it’s once you’ve retired. Oh to be sure - I made plenty of road trips in earlier years but usually on a schedule which kills half the fun. Lots of time in the early years we took road trips simply because we couldn’t afford to fly somewhere and/or it was easier to go by car, but the focus was on the destination and not the journey, the battle plan was to get from point A to point B as quickly as you could. Then of course there were the pseudo road trips when the kids were young - yammering, fighting, barfing, needing to pee, and generally complaining from the back seat - those were not road trips - they were endurance runs (and to be fair - my kids were actually pretty good travelers - most of the time).
No - retirement really is suited for road trips - time is a commodity that you finally have plenty of - and adding a day here or there is no big deal. Now to be certain I still need a somewhat hard date with a destination attached or I might just wander forever. For example - for many, many years we’ve rented a vacation place at the beach on the west coast. When I was still working we would fly into Portland - rent a car - and be watching the waves at dinner time, we didn’t want to waste a single minute of precious vacation time. Contrast that with the summer before last, my wife flew to the coast and was there in time for a late lunch the day she left - I spent six nights on the road before arriving and it was heavenly. I believe that both she and my son think I’m nuts, and they would likely rather endure major dental work than accompanying me on one of my free form trips. I’m holding out hope that my daughter was bestowed with a few of the wanderlust genes and will accompany me when schedules (hers) and the pandemic will allow.
I will say that I came by this somewhat honestly - my old man was a master at still traveling 500+ miles in a day but being lucky if 300 of those miles were in the direction of your destination. Oh no - long before the web - he had his own little mental database of homemade pie to be tried - roadside attractions to be explored - a cheese factory to visit - and I’m not sure we ever drove past one of those roadside historical markers without stopping to read it. So if this is a character flaw I blame my dad for at least half of it. I remember once we made it all the way from Boise to Twin Falls, Idaho - all of about 130 miles on the Interstate but we spent all day doing it with at least a half-dozen side trips on the way. My mother - being firmly in the camp of getting from point A to point B and do it quickly was appalled - my dad was rather proud of himself and promptly excused himself from our room so he could go down to the lobby and bullshit with other travelers as he planned out the next day’s route, often built around where there was good pie, he was a man of priorities and I miss him greatly.
Now there actually are a few rules to a road trip with me - in my world they make sense - to others I know that it would seem worse than not going somewhere at all.
Get off the damn Interstate and stay off it - secondary highways, state highways, or county roads are almost always infinitely better and far more interesting when you’re trying to feed your soul. Interstates do serve their purpose - sometimes they are the only way to get the hell through major urban areas (another major buzzkill) or there can be times, especially in the west - where the secondary roads have basically disappeared since the Interstate was punched through - although I usually accept that condition as a personal challenge to route myself appropriately. Now just getting off the freeway is gonna at least double your travel time - throw in stops to see cool stuff - side trips somewhere for a slice of home made pie that someone told you about - time to stretch your legs wandering through the “business district” in little towns along the way - and reading those historical markers - it all adds up. Maybe that’s why it once took me 2 days to get from Tremonton, Utah to Soda Springs, Idaho - if I’d have done it via the Interstate it was a distance of 98 miles and estimated travel time of less that 2 hours but what in God’s name is the purpose of that - remember it’s the journey that is every bit - if not more so important than the destination.
You must use paper maps - real, honest to goodness paper highway maps - not your damn phone and not pdf files that you have downloaded and printed out at home. Time was when virtually every state printed their Official State Highway Map - some still do but sadly as a cost cutting thing, and the fact that we’ve raised a generation or two that don’t know how to read a map, many states have quit printing highway maps. You get extra points if you can refold a map correctly after using it. Half the reason I still have a membership in AAA is that they have still have excellent state highway maps that are updated every couple of years. For me that’s worth the price of the membership, although knowing the roadside assistance is available is a comforting thought for a road tripper. Nothing better than taking the map into a cafe with you to study over lunch at the counter to invite conversations that can lead you on routes that you’d never thought of and/or wouldn’t have found by yourself - my motto is the thinner the line is on the map the bigger adventure the trip is likely to be.
Chain fast food has no place in a real road trip - none - ever - under any circumstance. Fortunately the golden arches or the colonel and his chicken bucket generally disappear if you’re more that a mile or two (which you should be) from an Interstate. Actually chain food of any sort has no place on a road trip. If you really think that Denny’s or the Golden Coral you just passed is good old homemade local fare - you may as well just stick with the fast food drive throughs. I’m really not trying to be a snob here - these are just my rules - I don’t care if you drive from one side of the country to the other subsisting on nothing but Grand Slams, Big Macs and that age old delicacy - Pizza Hut pizza - ain’t ‘Merica great? Oh sure - you can get stung bad by not patronizing the chains - what they do offer is consistency - it’s consistently the same bad food from one location to another so you know what to expect. I remember one time my buddy Griff and I made a road trip from Arco, Idaho to St. Paul, Minnesota - and while we did stick to the Interstate for much of it as he had a time-sensitive appointment - we decided before we ever left Arco that we would’t eat anywhere that didn’t have cafe in the name. What are the odds that you can drive 1,300 miles plus and strike out on every meal? On that trip the odds were 100% not in our gastronomic favor.
Just like chain food has no discernible place in a Hendo road trip - neither does chain lodging. I can describe to you almost perfectly a Best Western or a Hampton Inn room no matter where it is because they are all cookie-cutter kinds of places that I loathe. They must employ the same creative architect as the Mormon church where sameness is a virtue and you just keep plopping down the exact same building over and over agin. No - I much prefer the little mom-and-pop places - you know, the “motor courts” from the 50s and 60s. They are generally one level - you park about 6 feet from the door to your room - and the signs are often still touting that they have refrigerated air and color TV - you know the kind of place. Those signs - especially neon ones, are an important clue about the place. If they continue to maintain the neon - getting harder to do in rural America - chances are they have taken care of the rest of the place, The sign test is equally useful with cafes and dive bars.
I find the independent motels delightful for the most part. What they may lack from the included amenities at the Holiday Inn - they more than make up for in the conversation with the family that runs the joint, what passed for luxury motels in years gone by, and the other people that are staying there that you might meet. Gotta be careful these days - many of the old places have gone to long-tern rentals but usually it’s easy to tell one from the other. I’m generally not a big fan of the continental breakfasts offered at motels but I make exceptions once in a while. I’ve never been a breakfast right out of bed kind of person - I need to ease into the day a bit before I put the feedbag on, but boy oh boy - the home-baked pastries at the Bridge Street Inn in Baker City, Oregon are hard to say no to. I was once staying at a place near Buhl, Idaho where several rooms were occupied by a road construction crew from out of town. They rolled in after work - rolled out the Weber grill from one of their rooms, and proceeded to make street tacos and grilled veggies for all of us staying there. It was the least I could do to go grab some cold beers and after dinner a couple of them broke out their guitars and we had a sing-along late into the night - try to remember the last time that happened at the La Quinta or the Holiday Inn.
Am I ready for a road trip? Oh Lord - I’ve never been more ready for something in my life. I even bought new car a couple of years ago just to take road trips. It has all the bells and whistles - about a million different idiot lights, an audio system that requires a separate 275-page manual to explain - docks for my iPhone or iPod - wifi if I was willing to pay for it - and even though I don’t know how to use about 75% of it I am ready! I am so ready. I need to get out on the highway and the day we have a reliable treatment or a vaccine for this crap I’ll be out there - I may even come visit YOU - just understand when I can’t or don’t adhere to a strict schedule.
peace be with you - Hendo