Cruisin’ USA

It’s been nary a year since my last East Coast foray; yet, here I was again, in the air awaiting my final destination following a brief layover in the luxurious accommodations of Denver, CO. It was the Fourth of July, Independence Day 2005, and I was situated on a United Airlines flight holding a one-way ticket to the nation’s capital. D.C. was but the starting point of this particular journey. The long road, and 2800 miles, awaited. It was, by all accounts, intended to be a rush job back through the country. Reaching into the small and by-now familiar cast of characters, Maany needed to move his stuff back to L.A. following graduation, and Todd had a few precious days of vacation from the Redskins to visit home with. As for me… well, I had the promise of adventure. That and an empty void of three months called summer. But quickie or not, it was still a hell of a cross-country road trip we were about to embark on. Destination? Los Angeles. This was The Cannonball Run, and I was Jackie Chan.

I have to admit that I was glad to leave D.C. on the morning of July 8th. The few days I had spent there left much to be desired. I had arrived with very little cash, planning to obtain more through my ATM card, only to discover that no Washington Mutuals laid in the vicinity. I was thoroughly confused. Moreover, Hurricane Dennis was approaching, with the weather pattern causing a thunderstorm that shorted out the electricity in the College Park dorm I called my hotel. And finally, I spent the better part of a Wednesday afternoon getting to a Nationals game via Metro, only to discover that the 56,000+ capacity RFK Stadium had sold out. On a Wednesday afternoon. Under the advice of staff, I waited half an hour for extra tickets that never ‘dropped,’ leaving me no recourse but to try my luck with scalpers uttering the ever-popular words, “No, I really only have 10 bucks.” Unsurprisingly, it was back on the Metro I went (mere hours after the London bombings). Thus, all in all, it was nice to get going.

Loaded in a car filled with Maany’s crap, a road map shop-lifted from the Baltimore AAA, and about 20 bucks in cash, we headed out of Maryland and into Virginia. There were stops in Christiansburg for gas and Abingdon for food, with the latter featuring both a Hardee’s (the East Coast Carl’s Jr.) as well as a KFC (Hardee’s didn’t take credit cards). We gained an extra hour crossing time zones, celebrating with a tour of the Tennessee ville trifecta off the I-40. There was sight-seeing in Knoxville, home of the ridiculously enormous Neyland Stadium, of the Sunsphere made immortal by the Simpsons, and of the busy bridge with the gorgeous city view (where an eager Todd jumped out to take pictures, and where an out-of-breath Todd rejoined us after running the length of the bridge). There was dinner at Rippy’s Ribs in Nashville, with live country music blasted into our eardrums from literally 10 feet away. And after a clunky noise from the car led us to the darkest and creepiest exit known to man, we ended up in the surprisingly busy Brownsville at an O’Bannon Inn, only they hadn’t bothered to remove the Holiday Inn marquee outside. Ah, old fashioned fraud. After one day, a mere 15 hours, we had gone some 854 miles.

The Bank of America in Nashville had provided the three of us (well, Todd and Maany, and thus, me indirectly) with a much needed cash infusion in the latter stages of Day 1. But where Tennessee giveth, Texas would taketh away. As Day 2 began though, we were blissfully unaware of the fate that would befall us by night, eagerly leaving Brownsville with a McDonald’s breakfast our lone souvenir. The forestry that marked the roadside stretching from Virginia to Tennessee gave way to the plains of Arkansas, the freshly paved roads transitioning past the Mississippi into beat-up gravel during a particularly rough stretch in Oklahoma. We ate like kings… kings of poor third-world nations, with a lunch stop at the Chic-fil-A in Conway, Arkansas (inarguably the whitest stop on our trip, and where my order just happened to be forgotten), and a dinner to-go at a real Carl’s Jr. (take THAT, Hardee’s) in Weatherford, Oklahoma. Sandwiched between those two was a somber visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. And then, at 8:25 pm, no more than ten miles into Texas, it happened. Going a scant 86 miles per hour in a 70 zone, Todd learned first-hand of the zero-tolerance speeding laws in the Lone Star State from an Officer Asshat. We arrived at an Amarillo Days Inn, 807 more miles under the belt, but sans one chauffeur following Todd’s $200 setback. As he declared quite succinctly, “Yeah, I’m done driving.”

Dennis had made his presence felt, as we saw on the news flooding in places we had bypassed just a day or two earlier. Even in Texas, the weather was unusually chilly. But we continued to outpace the storm, leaving the Star alone (nudge nudge) by lunchtime of Day 3. Confusion broke out when we passed a Karl Malone Toyota in Albuquerque… why would he have a dealership in New Mexico, of all places? Regardless, we took the extra hour gained from our second time zone crossover (Central to Mountain) to settle in for some good Mexican food at Charlie’s Front Door. Getting back onto the freeway, we were nearly killed thanks to the combination of a construction zone, a narrow onramp, and an 18-wheeler. The rigors of the road were getting to us, and with numerous billboards beckoning, we made another stop shortly thereafter. Undeterred by the estimated $25 in cash we had between us, Todd, Maany, and I walked into the Dancing Eagle Indian Casino in Arizona. 30 minutes later, we walked out $15 poorer, our combined bankroll for $3 blackjack decimated… much as the Dancing Eagle Indian tribe must have been a couple of hundred years ago. After another break for the Meteor Crater Natural Crater (actual name), we were just approaching Flagstaff and dinner when we saw it. The sign. “40 West. Los Angeles.” For the first time in this long journey, home was a destination, an attainable pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. For now, though, the Econo Lodge in Williams, Arizona would have to do. 664 miles down, and a Canyon to go.

Early on the morning of Day 4, we made our first (and last) major detour, departing from the interstate a good 70 miles north to check out the Grand Canyon. It’s breathtaking. I’d been there once before via plane tour from Vegas (a la Con Air), but hadn’t actually set foot at the park, hadn’t peered out over the edge and taken it all in. And it’s breathtaking. It’s as though time stands still, and you’re looking at this borderless piece of art, extending all around you, enveloping everything. And then it was back on the road we went, rounding the corner and gearing for home. From Arizona to California, from state line to Barstow, and suddenly, from the I-40 to the I-15, as we bid adieu to the freeway that had taken us in from Tennessee. We reached the In-N-Out Burger in Hesperia, scraping together $5.71 for three burgers a la carte (sweating bullets because we literally had $7). Thank you, free water. And at 6:35 pm on July 11th, in the backdrop of a typically beautiful California evening, we reached Todd’s home in Pasadena. 7:00 pm for me in Alhambra. And the journey ended for Maany and his car at 7:21 pm in South Pasadena, 2878.2 miles (563 of those on this final day) from our starting point at the University of Maryland, College Park. And that was it. The trip was done with.

Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. From the 495 to the 66, the 81 to the 40, detours at the 235 in Tennessee and the AZ 64 to the Canyon, then down the 15 to the 210. KFC, Rippy’s, Chick-fil-A, Carl’s Jr., Charlie’s, Garcia’s, Coldstone’s, Jack in the Box, In & Out. Seven gas stops, totaling $198. Three nights of accommodations, totaling $216. And all 50 state license plates accounted for and recorded, with an Alaskan in Nashville, a Hawaiian at the Canyon, and even a Diplomat, U.S. Government personnel, and someone from the District. We saw a few of our neighbors from the North, specifically Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia, and even a Sonoran from down South. But this trip was about America. Home of the free. Land of the brave.

So here’s to you, the Tennessee driver drinking from the unmistakable colors of the Budweiser can. To you, the two guys sitting in the bed of a pickup truck going 80. To Toad Suck Park in Arkansas, which me and Maany mistakenly read as “Todd Sucks.” And you, the penny slots at the Dancing Eagle, which didn’t actually take coins, forcing me to walk out with approximately 30 unspent in my pocket. To the hottest girl in Conway, Arkansas, whoever she might be, who Todd argues would not be as hot as the 10,000th hottest girl in Los Angeles, a claim I’m still mulling over. Even to you, the enormous – and rather disgusting – portions of Coldstone’s ice cream, of which me and Maany ate approximately 2% (mine was Apple Pie-flavored, awesome in theory but not so much in reality). And the unique adobe-styled material of the houses in New Mexico. But most definitely, to you, the anonymous biker we saw veer off the road into a grassy area in Oklahoma somewhere, disappear for a second, and then re-emerge up a hill flipping upside-down over his handlebars to a fate which we will never know. America, America, this is youuuuu.


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