The Southwest (Part 1)

I was flying back from Boston last year (through a Minneapolis connection), and the pilot came on to make one of those standard in-flight announcements regarding our progress. We were passing over Denver, and Orange County would take just a little while longer. And I realized that only five or six months earlier, I had taken this path in my car: Minneapolis, Denver, and Orange County. It took me about 10 days what I was now doing in four or five hours. Sure, I had gone to Milwaukee and Chicago and St. Louis and Kansas City in the process, but I chuckled, as it kind of struck me as absurd. At the same time, there was a spark of pride or happiness or something there. I had done it. I had driven that route. And now, Year 3.

Eloy, AZ
August 28. Day 1.
Driven: 452.9 miles.

A little behind-the-scenes. This is pretty much all I start out with (beside a ‘fun pack’ of chips and a bunch of water bottles). One of my favorite traditions is shedding maps / itinerary pages as I progress through the trip; by the time I return home, practically everything’s been discarded.

I left my Irvine apartment early in the morning. By 8:00 am, somewhere near Palm Springs, it reached 99 degrees. When I arrived in downtown Phoenix around noon, it was 111, and I was starting to wonder whether the Southwest was really the best destination this time of year.

Naturally, I skipped lunch and went hiking. I disregarded the warnings I had read about Camelback Mountain, which – in the words of the official website – “is not for beginning hikers – the two summit trails are strenuous climbs over sometimes-tricky trails.” I figured, “1.25 miles [each way], how bad can it be?” Um. Rock-climbing practically (not pictured). It took me 2.5 hours to get up to the peak. But I’m not the type to turn back.

Getting to the peak was an ordeal, but it was a ridiculously great feeling. I didn’t realize that getting down would present its own set of problems (I always figure coming down is harder psychologically than physically, but as usual, I was wrong). I smacked my leg –  hard – into a tree trunk. I cut my knee a tiny bit. I fell three or four times (in that awkward, slippery, helpless down-the-mountain fall). Even a piece of my sneaker was dangling off. I was on the mountain from 12:40 pm to 5:00 pm. When I got back down, it was 115 degrees. Easily one of the most challenging physical things I’ve ever done. And stupidest. Definitely stupidest.

To finish up the hiking story, there were other people on the trail, almost none of whom were having my kind of problems. Even a shirtless guy with a big belly – that was disconcerting. But they were definitely locals. I did run into two normal guys on the way down, and they were struggling up too (it took them 1:30 to make it about halfway up). We talked about how insane we all were, and how stupid this was, so that was cool. Anyway, after basically sitting in my car for 20 minutes drinking water and dying (my legs were rubber), I headed over to the state capitol.

The Capitol building had a nice Southwestern-y feel to it, but I thought the House of Representatives was terrible. It reminded me of some ghetto auditorium for a high school or community college, or an old-style apartment building or something. Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s office looked like it was housed inside an IHOP.

Anyway, from there, it was a short drive over to Chase Field. I had my first real meal since a McDonald’s breakfast (not including nutrigrain bars): a D-Backs dog and some kettle corn. I’m pretty sure I called it a “D-Bags” dog – really, it’s hard to spit out D-Backs – but no one seemed to notice. And as usual with any sort of corn product, I ate only about 1/100 of the bag. But kettle corn is pretty great.

The Diamondbacks won big, and some guy named Hester hit a home run in his first ML at-bat. That was pretty cool… as was Chase Field opening up afterwards for fireworks (my Picasa album has a couple of shots of this in progress: click on any of these pictures). And after about 50 more miles, it was the end of an extremely long and exhausting first day. I found that every liquid I had in my bags was warm – my mouthwash, shampoo, and drinks (obviously) – plus my deodorant had collapsed. 115 degrees!

Silver City, NM
August 29. Day 2.
Driven: 293.6 miles (746.6)

I began the second day by heading over to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, by way of the Saguaro National Park. It wasn’t until after I had paid the park entrance fee at the visitor center (to the extremely cute park ranger) that I realized that I didn’t have to, as the museum wasn’t actually in the park itself. The $10 already spent, I ventured off the itinerary for a little driving loop tour. There were lots of cool cacti – my favorites are the ones that have the flowers blooming on top.

The museum itself was quite awesome, with animal habitats, exhibits, even stuff about minerals (I ‘dug up’ a shiny piece of hematite to keep). That’s definitely one of the underrated parts of doing these trips – getting to these small places that are incredibly well taken care of, but places that few outsiders would ever know about or set out to visit.

Of course, they can’t all be winners. I didn’t see any warthogs in the exhibit (hiding from the weather, presumably). I found zero lizards in that area of the museum (the “How many can you find?” sign taunting me with every passing moment). I saw only a single tiny hummingbird in the giant aviary. And I had no clue where the hell to start with this fossil rock ‘puzzle.’

The highlight of the visit, however, took place with my last stop in the museum. I was looking at an reptile exhibit in the main building when a small child emerged from around the corner, pointed back and excitedly yelled, “Dad, what does THAT do?” His dad simply said it was time to leave, leaving me to wander curiously into that back hallway. All that stood there was an ATM.

Downtown Tucson was pretty quiet in the afternoon. I spent a little time perusing crafts at the Old Town Artisans building. There were a couple of brightly-colored buildings in the historic district, which was neat. But mid-sized towns have a kind of interesting – dead – vibe to them: I’m not sure how I’d be in a place like that (e.g. Syracuse).

The only signs of life were teenage skateboarders in the vicinity of El Presidio, which is Spanish for The Presidio (rim shot). Actually, I think it was a courthouse or something. The temperature remained in the 100s, which was insane. I couldn’t walk more than 10 minutes without requiring a big swig of water. Southern California really is the best.

The Colossal Cave was over on the eastward part of town, on my way out of Arizona. The smell of urine (from bats or squirrels or something, I forget) permeated the room into the cave. It was quite disgusting. But walking through the whole thing was pretty cool. We also saw guano, which I learned all about from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Shikaka!

It was pitch black as early as 7:30 pm when I reached New Mexico (I lost an hour soon thereafter crossing time zones). I made a wrong turn somewhere in Lordsburg, but caught myself only about a mile down the road. It didn’t help that I was traveling at one point on a highway that was labeled both the 70 West and the 90 East. It’s called North, people. NORTH. For the first time since the wee hours of Day 1, the thermometer read under 90. Surprisingly, it was 70 degrees in Silver City.

Artesia, NM
August 30. Day 3.
Driven: 402.3 miles (1149.0)

Silver City rests at the base of the Gila National Forest. I woke up on Day 3 to make the short but difficult drive up to the Cliff Dwellings. As I mentioned last year, I’m always struck by how friendly people are on the hiking trails. A couple of days ago in Camelback – every time I rested, guys would offer water, make sure I was all right, or just chat a little. It always makes the adjustment back to normalcy a little more difficult, because it’s like, “Oh right, I no longer say ‘hi’ to strangers unless I want them to stare at me like I have a third head.”*

*I don’t know why I typed third, I meant second, but I’d imagine a third head would draw attention as well.

People used to live in these caves; thus, the name. Apparently, it was on the edge of a major highway. Man, I sometimes feel like I was just about born in the perfect era. Before technology had completely taken over our lives (I did not have a cell phone until my first or second year of college), and long after people were living in fucking caves.

I’m not a big fan of heights. Climbing down this ladder was kind of terrifying, especially when it swayed with the wind. I’m pretty sure it was bolted, but there was still some give. The alternative was worse, however – I would have to backtrack, then maneuver around some rocky hilly area. I feel like places like these should be required to divulge the number of people who have fallen to their deaths in the past. You know, to give a sense of how dangerous it is. Kind of like those ‘likelihood of forest fire’ signs.

All I did today was the Cliff Dwellings and the White Sands Monument, both of which fall into the category of “Wow, this is the coolest place ever.” I love getting that feeling – it’s great. In between, however, I stopped at Blake’s Lotaburger in Deming, New Mexico, and had a real Larry David moment. Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm music.

All right. I go in and use the bathroom, and flush the urinal. Except… the water keeps coming out. By the time I leave, it’s pouring onto the floor. So I get back out, and the lady behind the counter has disappeared. The only employee within sight is a Hispanic lady changing the trash bags. She doesn’t speak English. So, drawing upon my five years of Spanish in high school, I say “El bano… agua… *explosion noise, accompanied by a ‘blowing up’ hand motion* ” She thanks me, walks away, and I feel pretty good about myself.

Only, she doesn’t seem to be telling anyone about it, and she’s not walking in to fix it. And now I’m sitting there, still waiting for my food, not knowing what to do. I see one guy open the door, look in (the flooding is now pretty intense), and simply ups around the corner and leaves the fucking place!* I’m to the point where I can’t really say anything again, or so I’ve convinced myself. I’m wondering if it’s been shut off, even though I know the fucking answer. So I’m paralyzed. And it takes another couple of minutes before an old guy finally tells another employee. She’s like “Shit.” But she fixes it, and starts mopping. By now, I’m completely paranoid (Are they looking at me? Do they know?), but no one can turn me in… except for that old Hispanic lady, who I figure is in a Catch-22 of her own. Anyway, after what felt like hours, my food was finally ready – I had originally planned to eat there, but so much for that – and I got the fuck out of there. In conclusion, I will never show my face at Blake’s Lotaburger ever again. And yes, I felt awful.

*Initially, I thought the guy was hurrying off to tell someone. I only realized later that he never ended up even getting food, and had headed straight to an exit. Like, was that the last straw? Did he see it and think, “Man, fuck this”? I have to say, after the guilt wore off somewhat, the thought of this guy jetting immediately after seeing the flooded bathroom, without eating or anything, made me laugh pretty hard.

Anyway. White Sands is truly beautiful. I was out on a trail literally by myself, guided only by scattered signposts (and a ton of footprints). There were also other assorted prints, including these left by a roadrunner. Meep. Don’t I mean ‘meep meep’? “No, they only paid me to say it once, then doubled it up on the soundtrack. Cheap bastards.”

I was a little overly ambitious after White Sands, driving an extra 100 miles (through a scary two-lane highway reminiscent of the road to Casper, WY) to arrive in Artesia later than I anticipated. But surprise – Artesia was a real city! Seriously, the last time I remember being shocked to see a movie theater was in the middle of fucking nowhere between Sacramento and Yosemite. Like the rest of New Mexico, however, Artesia was full of giant bugs. There’s nothing like having to cower in the car while getting gas. So that was great.

Eastland, TX
August 31. Day 4.
Driven: 460.7 miles (1609.7)

The entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns beckons. Beyond the cave opening awaited a little 1.5 mile hike – the natural entrance route. The unnatural route? An elevator, which would bring you to the start of another mile hike underneath through “The Big Room.” Naturally, I manned up and did both. …That’s what she said. Or he said.

What I found – besides a few obnoxious (but thankfully, scattered) people who didn’t seem to understand their voices would echo off the cave walls – was pretty much one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in my life. Seriously, as I walked through it, and I realized even then that it was a total cliché, it was one of those places that made me feel very small. And being underground for that amount of time (3 hours or so) just underlined that feeling.

The Caverns are also home to a buttload of bats, but I didn’t see any. This is actually a plaque with a very cool photograph. Don’t worry, I’d see plenty of bats on this trip (foreshadowing!). In the meantime, here’s a question for you. The park rangers who walk the Caverns have got to be a little out there, right? I mean, you can’t spend that much time thousands of feet below the ground, with minimal human contact and no natural lighting without some sort of mental repercussion.

I even ate lunch underground to keep the experience going. It was probably not the greatest decision I’ve ever made. I had a cold turkey sandwich, which bothered my stomach almost as soon as I had it down. I really should stop getting cold pre-made sandwiches: I’ve never bit into one and thought, “This is fantastic!” It’s always like “Well, I regret buying this immediately.” At best, it’s like “Hey, the bread tastes all right.”

Anyway, I have nothing more to say about Carlsbad Caverns – it was amazing – so I’ll move on. Heading from the national park, I maneuvered through Black River Village, spotting a cow on the side of the road (fortunately, it did not feel like crossing at that moment). It was one of those places where I feel like I could have been ambushed and no one would have ever found out. In fact, upon seeing one of the few beat-up houses during that 20 mile stretch, I contemplated pulling over and knocking on the door just to scare the shit out of the residents. Ultimately, I passed.

I pulled into Texas and spent the rest of the day having driving misadventures. First, I exited the I-20 with the intentions of pulling over in a rest area. Seeking better parking (relative to the building), I moved quickly past a couple of cars… only to find that I had overshot the lot altogether, and was now in the ‘truck only’ area, with no spots designated for parking. I looked to back up on the one-way path, only there was an 18-wheeler behind me, blocking my path. …And that’s how I wound up back on the freeway, 120 miles away from the next rest area.

Then, shortly after getting Jack in the Box, I got pulled over for speeding. Fucking Texas, man. I had already been especially careful – given what happened to Todd a few years ago during our short time driving through the state – but was informed by the officer that I was driving “over 70” (It was a 70 zone, 65 at night… and I suppose the sun was almost gone). But, for whatever reason, he let me off with just a warning. Greatest feeling in the world; I couldn’t stop grinning. And crawling along at 60-65, I did not pass another fucking car for that entire day. (P.S. These were miner’s helmets sold at the Caverns for $15 that were really tempting. I managed to pull myself away).

So that was the day. I’m not sure what the hell happened to the time, but I guess this sort of thing happens when you drive 60 mph instead of 75-80 for six or seven hours (and cross another time zone). After driving around Eastland for a few minutes looking for a Super 8 that apparently did not exist, I pulled into a no-name motel that was rather surprisingly packed. It was hunting season.

Arlington, TX
September 1. Day 5.
Driven: 169.7 miles (1779.5)

The Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas is like a drive-through zoo. Or an American Safari (why do the words “African” and “safari” have to be synonymous anyway?). You buy $8.00 for a bag of feed, then create havoc among the animals! It’s really fucking awesome, especially when the place is relatively quiet, and you feel like you’re the only car in there. Ostriches, zebras, a million types of deer (that would block the road), rhinos you can’t feed, cheetahs that didn’t appear to be in their enclosures, and…

BAM! Hand-feeding a mother fucking giraffe. Highlight of my life. Seriously, this was great – I was beaming as he nibbled. This guy was actually pretty much waiting by the road for his meal. As he did this, a zebra put his head almost halfway into my passenger side window and scared the shit out of me (they warn you that the zebras bite, and earlier, one tried to eat my side mirror). I distracted him by throwing food past him, then quickly putting the window back up. I took hundreds of pictures here.

On the other side of the coin, Dinosaur Valley was not that cool. There were three ‘sites’ in the park for dinosaur tracks. I went to the first one and got lost (it was a trail on the river bank, plus it was kind of dangerous, and there was no one within sight should I happen to slip and fall). The second one had a few that were kind of cool. And underwhelming. And the third one was either closed off or accessible only through another dangerous-looking trail. Jurassic Park spoiled us all.

RAWR! The park had two of these figures, randomly. I’d like to think they were apologizing for the crappiness of the rest of the place. Meanwhile, just down the street, there was a “Dinosaur World” which I skipped, but was apparently full of these figures. You would think someone would be offended with this combination of historical accuracy and… giant, life-sized plastic figures. Besides, how long before you get bored at this place? 10 figures? 5?

And then, it was deep in the heart of Texas for the main event: a Rangers double-header against the Toronto Blue Jays. Now, I don’t want to say I planned an entire trip around going to a baseball double-header… but that was kind of a bonus. Kind of a bonus that dictated the schedule, if not the destination. I mean, “it’s a beautiful day for a ballgame – let’s play two!” …Someday, with a ton of help from the schedule-makers, I’m going to pull off a San Diego-Anaheim-LA triple-header. It’s going to be awesome.

In between games, I took in the monstrosity that is the new Cowboys Stadium. I mean that in a positive way; that building is really astonishing to look at. And, on the topic, you really have to give credit to Rangers Ballpark – it’s a beautiful stadium. Tons of family things to do in the outfield, a statue of Nolan Ryan, a solid museum in right field… and everything in great shape. It ranks up there with Busch Stadium as my favorite of the new generation parks.

I was standing by the foul pole for a little bit, next to an attractive older female, when a guy with a mike approached her to go over logistics for an interview. I figured she was a player’s wife or something, when the interviewer, making small-talk, said something like, “So you’re going to be in a few episodes this season?” That’s when I looked over and realized it was Jan from the Office. Melora Hardin! That was a big moment for me, because I’m usually really bad at recognizing celebrities. She had a hot cowgirl look going. I waited until she went on stage to do the interview, and took a couple of pictures.

Unfortunately for me and the Angels, the Rangers took both ends of the double-header. It was a cool experience though. I watched the entirety of the first game, then explored the stadium during the break and during the first few innings of the second game. All in all, I was there from about 4 pm to 10 pm (two games, one ticket!), before going down the road five or six blocks to my motel. Earlier, when I had checked in, the clerk had made a point of saying that police guarded the area tightly. I was confused, until I noticed the gentlemen’s club next door. Fortunately, no incidents – chugging right along.

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