Across America


 

The premise

 

The trip started about the same way as my previous drive across the country. In other words I needed another car like a hole in my head. Iíve donated my street car to the poor at the end of the year, which meant several things. Firstly I was left with two 2-seaters, one an autocross/street car that is quickly becoming uncomfortable on the street and one a track/street car that is already uncomfortable. Another issue is that I can, in theory, convince myself that I need at least one car with rear seats to transport my 6-years old. Not that heís adverse to the red autocrosser spitting him out at the elementary school door with soccer moms doing a double-take, but hey, any amount of internal justification is good when you debate with yourself, right?

 

So, are two cars enough or not? I put this question in front of admittedly certifiable panel of friends who I talk cars with. Itís like AA, you know: ďHello, my name is Mike, Iím down to two now and am feeling antsyĒ. Unlike AA these people are relentless. Not only do they not tell you to concentrate on other things in life, they constantly supply you with leads on cars that areÖ that areÖ that you have to buy if for no other reason than as a rescue mission. Iíve long understood that I have an addiction. Itís not racing per se, itís not driving. Itís hoarding cars.

So, having disposed with preliminaries, do I even have to tell you that one of my so called friends came up with another one of those cars for sale in California and three weeks later I found myself at 7 in the morning at a very cold Logan airport searching for a cash machine in preparation for my flight and two week drive back?

 

The car, a 1995 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 Cabriolet with whooping 112K miles was thoroughly inspected by several Rennlist members and later by a reputable Porsche shop near San Francisco where it spent the last 4 years of itís life. The question, apart from nagging little issues, was whether I can hop into a 10-year old P-car with that many miles and drive it home to Boston avoiding January snow, which meant about a 4100 miles trip?

 

The trip started in a fairly bizarre manner. The aforementioned ATM was found and determined to be dead as a doorknob. After some wondering around it was suggested to me that I should go downstairs and talk to Information. Information desk was empty but there was a black phone and a note to pick it up and talk if any info is needed. Which is what I did. The conversation is below, verbatim:

 

-        Hello!

-        Hello, is this information?

-        Yes, what do you need?

-        Well, the ATM in terminal E is not working, is there another one?

-        Ummm, Iím not sureÖ. Youíve reached the tower.

-         

OK, maybe itís a good omen. Maybe the next time trouble strikes I would be patched directly to God?

 

The uneventful flights took about 8 hours, 13F Boston weather was replaced with northern Californiaís 65-degree sunny afternoon and the car with the top down waiting for me. After some formalities I hopped in, pointed it south and thus began my Porsche ownership.

 

Day 1

 

After two days in San Francisco that were filled with eating sushi, watching football and eating more sushi the Monday came with clouds and rain and cold and gray and I knew that it was time to drive home.

 

The plan was to drive to Las Vegas, which is about 550 miles away. Not knowing the car and facing a long trip it was very interesting and important to see how much of a highway cruiser the P-car would be. My personal tolerance level tends to be 400 miles. I can drive more if needed, but the back gets cranky, the head hurts and the attention span seem to quickly lean towards zero. Thus I was very much surprised that the fairly small cramped and somewhat loud cabrio was a great long distance car. The stock seats are narrow but fit my size 32 very well and hold me in place. Even though there is no adjustable lumbar support, I was comfortable throughout the trip and my back did not require any pills afterwards. Which is a great sign if it holds true for the days to come.

 

The road to Vegas takes you through Bakersfield and Barstow in California, a long stretch of a desert road with not much to see other than assorted cactuses (cacti?) and periodic smattering of disheveled-looking mobile homes sitting in small bunches in the middle of a vast stone and sand spread. Itís unclear to me what people do in these places or where they get parts for assorted 50s Dodges sitting on blocks all around the mobile homes. On the other hand, you can see an oasis here and there with nice fruit stand, a little motel, and a lake, which apparently provides water for all this desert opulence. This road tends to remind me of another era every time I drive it. Somehow I drift away from the Neons and Civics darting around and see a steady and slow progress of mid-50s convertible barges with scarf-covered blonds on the passenger seat on their way to little desert retreat with their Hollywood boyfriends.

The roads crossing the main highway are named appropriately for even earlier times. A Twenty Mule Team Road makes you think back to pioneers moving across the sand debating whether to stop there or to press on to the ocean. Apparently some of them did stop. Their descendants inhabit all the mobile homes around. Howís that for a short Darwinian theory of human migration and evolution?

 

In the middle of Rt. 15 I see fog. Then more fog. Then it begins to remind me of the Alps. Because the visibility is down to about 50 feet, you are trying to maintain speed and keep the car on the road. Even that is not an easy task. Then, as suddenly as fog sets in, it disappears and the sun shines upon the road again, and the thoughts are back to mid-50s. Nothing changed here other than the cars. Muddy Waters is in my speakers. Once again I promise myself to make this trip in a 57 BelAir.

 

I make Vegas around 7pm. It supposed to be dark, but this town plays by its own rules. The strip is lit up more than before, although one doubts that itís even possible. Luxor sends up a solid beam of light, which you can see from the road 20 miles away. The lights jump, flicker, trickle up and down buildings. Amazed tourists walk around like zombies with their heads up in the air, mouths agasp, small kids are either scared or mesmerized into a tantric state of disbelief. The town seems to be moving more and more downscale from my first visit here 11 years ago. I understand that they are trying to cater to families, but it absolutely kills my 50s mood. The things change, too. In the four years since my last trip there are a bunch of new hotels. Paris is interesting with its huge Eiffel tower up front. The Venetian is surrounded by replicas of St.Markís square, the clocktower, the main marble bridge over Grand Canal. Itís especially funny to me to see these very earnest albeit smaller scale replicas of the exact places Iíve seen 2 months prior. I suddenly realize that the great majority of people walking around have never seen the originals. That realization conjures up several deep thought but Iím too tired to form them. Itís time to sleep, first day is over.

 

Day 2

 

Morning in Vegas is a tough thing, Iíll tell you. If not for any other reason, than just because the sunlight appears to clash with the proceedings. Red-eyed people walking around with beer bottles in their hands, the noise of dropping coins still emanates from casinos, the blue hair set are still in line to the buffets. The problem is that the harsh sun brings it all to the forefront and what seemed cute in the dark now stands out and spears you in the eye.

 

I must admit that one of my own guilty pleasures is sitting in a breakfast buffet with a paper and a cup of tea and watching people. Mostly itís your typical 70+ crowd and their high-volume conversations can be priceless. This morning two couples are seating in the next booth. The men are discussing cars in terms that have not been in use for the past 30 years. They are both very enthusiastic about the Cadillac Beatrice that one of them has and the other one used to own. The women are quietly talking about something else at which point the cell phone rings. All four take turns trying to answer the call and give up after a while. A lively conversation on the merits and evils of cell phone ensues, which gets me thinking about the philosophical side of it all. Being halfway there myself at 35 I can clearly see that our own kids will snicker at us trying to use ďone of them newfangled gizmosĒ that they canít imagine their lives without.

 

Alas, my teacup is empty, the pastries had made their way to the bottom of my stomach and I feel that they will just stay there for the next few days. Thatís the beauty of Vegas breakfast buffet, it stays with you for a while even after the memories and observations fade. Itís back onto the road. This time the weather is surprisingly warm, hovering in the mid-50s, sun is pleasant and the roof come down. As I head out back to Route 15 I hear a distinct sound up above. Two F-18 jets rip by in extremely tight formation making a sharp turn just south of the highway and disappearing as soon as they arrived.

 

The road will take me through Nevada into Utah and into Zion National Park. Car is humming and feels stable between 95 and 100 miles per hour. The road is almost empty in both directions, Jimmy Buffet in the speakers assures me that ďEverybody got a cousin in MiamiĒ and the emptiness around feels almost astounding. The landscape consists of gray stones and is mostly flat with just some deep cracks in places. An hour and a half passes by uneventfully. Jimmy changes his tune, this time itís all about fruitcakes. Which again gets me thinking. I know, I know, thinking is detrimental to your well being and generally soils oneís brains, but hey, what do you do while essentially sitting as a high-class prisoner in a fast car in the middle of the desert at speeds that, while well above the limit, seem like a crawl? Jimmy-induced thought comes back to fruitcakes. I must be nuts for taking this trip, hey, for buying this car in the first place. On the other hand, if I donít do it, who will? And if nobody will, who will write below-average trip journals and bore friends and acquaintances or anyone who shows half an inkling of interest with stories and pictures? So, I convince myself, Iím doing a cosmically good thing and an important public service to boot. You probably realize by now that the sun is up high and itís not a good thing to drive a convertible without a hat.

 

The rock hills start even before I get into Utah. As the day progresses the scenery changes dramatically. It is still pretty bare, but the gray flats are replaced by rocky red hills. The horizon is dotted with huge dark snow-covered mountains. The road snakes up into the rocks and finally I arrive to Zion. Now, this is not Grand Canyon, granted, but nothing is Grand Canyon. There you just stand at awe, completely mesmerized, trying to understand if you are still on planet Earth. In Zion you are driving down low by the river looking up from the floor of a sizeable canyon with red, gray, black and green sides. I know that this is the only place I will see in Utah, as the snow is coming and this is not the car and not the tires to try to brave the white stuff in order to see Bryce and Arches. As I stop along the way, walk around, look and take pictures, I enjoy the sun and the pale warmth that is only possible on a rare winter afternoon. Until that is, I take yet another turn and get out of the car to make some more pictures. Something hits me on the hands, than again. I look around, hearing a familiar sound. Imagine this for a moment Ė youíre standing between huge rocks in complete solitude, the sun is up and the small hail is coming down in full force competing in sound with a fast narrow river right next to the road. The hail is over in just a few minutes and suddenly very large and floppy snowflake falls dawn at my feet. I look up. The sun is completely gone now; the gray menacing cloud covers the sky, so low it seems to be catching the tops of surrounding rocks. You feel completely enclosed at this point Ė rocks around you, road below, cloud above. Itís time to go, time to get out and outrun the snow coming from up north.

 

The unfortunate part of this great plan is that the only way out of the park to head East is through the eastern entrance. Which is 4.5 miles away and 2000 feet above where Iím standing and according to nearby ranger already had some snow. The road there takes me through a breathtaking serpentine where I can look back and see the park in all its beauty, the strange red structures hiding behind each other. The road, however, is getting slippery and is covered with snow in places. The 30 miles an hour ascend doesnít seem slow, hands are gripping the wheel and all attention is on the asphalt ahead. On top of the serpentine is an old tunnel. It was built in 1940, is low, narrow and completely dark in contrast to the Alps tunnel I was flying through in a rented Opel two month ago.

 

The 25 or so miles after the park entrance are pretty bad. There is snow on the ground, the temperatures are right around freezing, it getting a bit dark and the stuff beginning to get very slippery. The road is still snaking, I see front wheel drive econoboxes bravely heading down to the park at speeds that makes me question the mental state of their drivers. After 12 years in Rochester, NY and another 6 in Boston Iíve learned to be very afraid of the white slick stuff on the road. But to each his own, I proceed at a snailís pace until I hit Route 89, which is flatter, straighter and is just wet. The P-car had passed its first snow test. Another couple of hours and Iím in Page, Arizona, nice little town up in the mountains on Lake Powell near the dam. The last thing that goes through my mind that evening is that one should not eat a plateful of Mexican food if the plate is 16Ē in diameter even if the whole thing only costs $9.49 and is unbelievably good. At least not after two baskets of chips with super-hot salsa and some Mexican beer. I think the Vegas morning pastries are forcefully evicted and replaced with enchilada and chimichanga and all the trimmings andÖ oh, it hurts to even think about it now.

 

Day 3

 

I was not so sure that I was going to wake up. Nor was I sure that I would want to. The Mexican food is a great thing but only if ingested in moderation. Iím not 18 anymore, I have to pace myself. Which brings yet another dilemma Ė at 18 I was way too serious and would have never taken a trip like this. And now I can, but there are assorted constraints that come with age and responsibilitiesÖ oh, forget it, whereís my morning tea?

 

Getting out of town I saw the dam and the lake set in deep red rocks. Red seems to be the only color as far as the eye can see. The road is also goes as far as the eye can see Ė straight, flat, no turns for at least a couple of miles. The AM radio delivers local news Ė 41-year old Page is holding 35th annual Chamber of Commerce gala. Pretty impressive tradition if you ask me. The organizer, a member of the Chamberís board with nice grandmotherly voice tells us that you donít really need to buy the tickets in advance, but should really RSVP ďso Joe knows how much food to cookĒ. Thatís why I listen to local AM stations on my trips Ė this is Americana at its best, despite my calendarís insistence that we are really in the beginning of year 2004 and somewhere far away there is internet, dotcoms, NASDAQ and other assorted trappings of hurried modern life.

 

Not much happens for the next eighty miles until the road climbs even higher into the mountains and the snow begins again. The surface is not bad, but the scenery is again changed dramatically. All around are pine trees are completely covered in snow. At one point I see about half a dozen deer grazing peacefully not twenty feet from where Iím driving. The whole feel of the moment is too reminiscent of Currier and Ives Christmas picture to even try to describe differently.

 

Later on I finally hit Flagstaff and Interstate 40 at which point life becomes truly boring. Everything is moving at 80+ miles per hour but still appears to stand still. The boring 315 miles track down the interstate is broken up only by fairly bizarre signs imploring you to stop and buy Indian trinkets at the small stands and larger stores by the side of the road. The signs before the stand are niceĒ ďIndian jewelryĒ, ďCheap silver earringsĒ, ďChief Yellow Horse welcomes youĒ. As you pass by the signs change tone: ďCome back!Ē, ďNice Indians behind youĒ, ďYour last chance!Ē. Yep, until another stand a mile down the road. Interestingly enough, all the stands take Visa and MasterCard. How they do it in a bare wooden structure without electricity, windows or walls for that matter remains a bit of a technological mystery to me and I intend to keep it that way.

 

New Mexico greets me with overabundance of cops. Apparently thereís a week of hate or some such public happening that local troopers are involved in. I see at least a dozen of them on my way to Albuquerque and another 3 or 4 in the town itself. Most of them have their prey, several are still on the prowl. I remind myself to slow down and am once again thankful that the car is not red and blends in well enough with the scenery now that itís forest green body is covered in dirt and mud.

 

The boring day thankfully end after about 450 miles. The good thing is that at 85-90 miles per hour cruise the car gets almost 25 miles a gallon. The bad thing is that Iím pretty much out of CDs that I brought with me.

 

Day 4

 

The trip form Albuquerque to Carlsbad at the southeastern corner of New Mexico is a short hop. You take a left off Interstate 40 and have about 230 miles on a local highway that take you from the middle of nowhere through the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere.

The views are getting more and more expansive, the road is straighter and straighter. The only change during the trip is that snow covered fields change to bare brown patches as far as eye can see. The mountains are now so distant; they appear as faint gray lines far, far away on the horizon. There is nothing around literally for dozens of miles, emptiness is not broken by anything or anybody. At least the sun is out and the top comes down again. Steady cruise at 80 miles an hour with music blaring, Fugees this time. Simply because that is the only way to break up the monotony, at least temporarily.

 

Well, there is another way. Put the car in 4th, shift to 5th at the red line, wind it up again. Now youíre looking at triple digits, mid-triple digits as a matter of fact. With the roof down. The sound is almost deafening and I quickly tell myself to slow down. The car is dead stable at these speeds, the brakes are amazingly efficient in scrubbing speed, but this is more of a wake up procedure than anything else. Iíve done my share of fast driving in Europe, although admittedly never that fast.

 

Nothing else is happening anyway, so I am glad when I finally drive into Roswell. Which actually turns out to be a sleepy town with standard assortment of McDonalds and Wendyís and Red Lobsters. Except today is a special occasion. The president flew in to give a speech but was gone for a couple of hours by the time I was there. Nevertheless, the locals decked the town out with some flags and signs. The local Arbyís has a pair of signs under its traditional western hat. One is a permanent bit of local humor, ďAliens welcomeĒ complete with a wooden flying saucer. One is a temporary sign for today only, lovingly put together letter by letter at the place where the 2 for $3 special are usually advertised. Itís directly and immediately below the alien sign. It simply says ďWelcome President BushĒ. I wonder how everybody missed it, but than again, it might be just my mean sarcastic Yankee nature versus nice laid-back approach of the southern outposts. Or as Judy Tenuta used to say, ďup north we call it intelligenceĒ.

 

I get to Carlsbad eventually only to realize that itís even smaller and dustier than Roswell. Having a dinner in a Mexican restaurant in town I get into a conversation with the owner, a young women in her early thirties who spent her entire life in Carlsbad. She mixes very mean non-sweet Sangria and we spend some time discussing New Mexicoís wines. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing although it sounds utterly unbelievable. They grow grapes along Rio Grande and make some interesting wines a few of which she had me try. Naturally, you learn things in places you least expected to do so.

 

One final thing I learn today is, as usual, from a roadside sign. The thought is too profound not to quote it: ďParents are the bones which kids cut their teeth onĒ. The sign hangs over a barbeque joint advertising baby back ribs. Hmm, note to self Ė increase calcium intake.

 

Day 5

 

There is a reason, of course, why I ended up in Carlsbad. And the reason is the Carlsbad Caverns. Iíve heard about them a number of times but never had a chance to visit. They are nestled so fad down in the southeastern corner of the state, that any major East-West road is at least a 100 miles away. But this time I was determined to see this wonder and made a four hundred mile sidestep to do so.

 

Boy, was I not disappointed. There are certain things in life that you just have to see. Carlsbad Caverns should definitely be on that list. Iíve been to several caves before, both lit and unlit. They all present a different view, different formations, different feel. Carlsbad is just mind-boggling. Starting with its sheer size, unbelievably intricate structures, very well set viewpoints and excellent lighting. It is difficult to describe the breathtaking beauty 750 feet under ground; suffice it to say that I was absolutely wowed by this visit and will make a point of taking this track again.

 

What followed was a drive through the corner of New Mexico and into Texas. The road, a two-laneÖ mmmÖ you canít really call it blacktop. Itís a gray strip of asphalt stretched in an absolutely straight line among bare cow pastures. As the car rips through the stale cool air at the allowed 75 miles per hour limit, the cloud of dust rises into the air behind its tail and stays there for a while. The roof is down, the collar is up, heater is on full blast. The feeling of solitude is astounding, it seems that you can drive for days and see nothing but miles of cattle fences, occasional small oil rig and a still cloud of dust brought to life by your tires. Occasional cattle strip across the road jousts you up and brings some level of consciousness, but itís soon forgotten and youíre back into a semi-meditative state. You donít feel like a driver, you donít even feel oneness with the car. You feel connected to the road and the road seems to be going nowhere, the time standing perfectly still, the cool winter air and clouds are silent and motionless. Varying the speed, listening to music, trying to think Ė all fail here. Life is still, flat, gray, uncomplicated, stable. There are radio stations you can catch, the cell phone has long ago lost any resemblance of digital signal and now helplessly blinking at me, reminding me that I have a message from real world that I should probably eventually listen to. If I ever get back. This is not Hotel California, you canít even check out any time you like. You just sit there, vegetating, waiting for Interstate 10 to come up and rescue you, or, more precisely, shock you back into civilization a hundred and fifty miles later. Iím not sure that civilization is actually any great shakes compared to that country road.

 

After braving some rain, which is not a trivial things on slick concrete of the Interstate 10 I get through the deep fog and serious wind to descend down to San Antonio, my next stop. Going downtown to River Walk affords me an interesting end to an eventful day. San Antonio created the mini-Venice around some waterways there. Cafes, bars and restaurants line up the banks, music is everywhere, people are walking around and hanging out, there is even a water shuttle scurrying through. I drink a local Texas beer in a ďBritish PubĒ complete with bartenders in kilts surrounded by photographs of Liverpool and signs from London subways. So, the Texans havenít quite got a hold of the fact that Urrap actually consists of separate and distinctly different countries and that they donít wear kilts in London, but thatís OK. The place is alive, thereís music and people are dancing. Again, having bar girls in Union Jack scarves dance to hip hop is not quite how I remember England, but itís OK. It gives me a pause to think that I passed through three distinctly different worlds today Ė the millions of years of history in the caves, the unchanged and unmoving prairie and an urban alive setting of River walk in modern Texas.

 

Day 6

 

Texas is Texas. Texas is large. Long, wide, big, enormous as a matter of fact. And you are driving from one side of it clear to the other. You better drink your Coke and get your sugar intake to keep you awake, pardner, or else youíll be sleeping behind the wheel and then sleeping with the fishes, see. Wait, thatís reserved for New Jersey.

 

The flats of Texas are wind-swept so much so that the semi truck in front of you suddenly starts wagging its tail and you are just sitting there guessing which way itís going to jackknife if Joe Billy Su Bubba doesnít manage to catch it. Inevitably he does and you pass him only to be swept in the turbulence of the truckís aerodynamic blind spot. You white-knuckle the car from the rigís shadow and continue on at a steady pace until you have to pass the next one. It doesnít help that the road is slick with thin coating of oil and moisture in places.

 

The entire 540 mile trip today is with the roof down. Sometimes sun comes out, sometimes itís starting to rain but the water doesnít get inside the car at these speeds. Surrounding drivers look at you funny, granted, but sometimes it works to your advantage. Some of them obviously figure that you might be crazy and move away from the left lane that they blissfully occupied for hours on end otherwise. The fellow drivers are especially bad around Huston for some reason. That is a strong statement if you stop to think that it comes for a Boston driver.

 

The neatest thing in Texas are roadside signs. Firstly, everything is huge and there are hundreds of them dotting the road. More interestingly, the signs are imaginative and have a clear twinge of Texan humor to them. My favorite one advertises a car dealership: ďWe beat everyoneís prices, guaranteed, or weíll kiss your assĒ. Of course thereís a cute picture of a donkey instead of the word ďassĒ. The only thing unclear in my mind is whether you have to bring your own ass or one would be available on premises especially for kissing.

 

The highway is so long that eventually my bleary eyes see Exit 867, then 869. The landscape has changed decidedly by this point. The desert of western side of Texas had been replaced by landscape that reminds me uncannily of upstate New York with its rolling farms, cows and horses grazing in the distance. Eastern part of the state is covered with bayous and woods. There are hunting lodges advertised by the side of the road, campsites, crawfish restaurants. Which could only mean that Louisiana must be somewhere nearby. Which, of course, it is, right here just over the bridge. Boy, am I glad Texas is over.

 

Eventually and inevitably I get to New Orleans, my destination for the day. Iím dead tired but canít bypass a chance to go to Bourbon Street. I have to say that this is my first visit to New Orleans so my opinions might be slightly skewed. But I will say this Ė Bourbon Street is unbelievable. Describing it would not do it any justice. Itís uncontrolled pandemonium, masses of people circulating through dozens of bars, in and out, drinking and dancing on the street. Balconies of old style southern row houses are seemingly bending under the weight of people and their beer. Music is blaring inside every bar and the street consists of a cacophony of sounds that adds to the surreal look and feel.

 

Revelers wear colorful cheap beads and the entire atmosphere is of complete and utter devil may care variety. About three quarters of people are drunk enough to have tough time standing on their feet, but the crowd supports itself well enough that the entire scene doesnít deteriorate into a collection of bodies littering the street. Nor does it become an orgy, but itís too early for that Ė Mardi Gras is a few weeks away. The crowd seems to be one coherent live and breathing organism although one would be well advised not to sample the breaths individually.

Whistling and screaming signifies that a pretty girl was spotted and some beads are about to change hands. Well, letís take that back. Some beads will be exchanged for a flash of breasts or bear butt. Beads are flung from the balconies upon lucky females down on the street. Or from the street up to the balcony. Or just thrown around. Sometimes there are no beads at all, thatís certainly not any detriment to flashing breasts to the strangers.

 

The interesting thing is that there are cops around. They donít try to intervene or stop anybody from doing anything. They seem to be there to observe. Other than the decibel level this might be the coolest job in the country. Thereís not much to do for them here. At least on this Saturday there are no mean drunks, everybody is nice to each other and smiling. Thereís something primal and globally right about this place, somehow I feel right at home.

 

Day 8

Apparently there is life in New Orleans during the day too. Itís not the same as it is at night, but it would be truly surprising if it were. Because it would cause me to stop my journey immediately, rent a place and stay here for the rest of my life. Daytime on Sunday brings gray clouds and rain, yesterdayís revelers are mostly gone, locals are crowded into a large modern church that somehow reminds me of unreality of yesterdayís proceedings with itís white walls and ceiling, modern chandeliers hanging down and world flags adorning the walls.

 

Outside, the River flows steel gray and slow, gray ships are docked by the gray shores reminding you that it is, afterall, the end of January. The Riverwalk is empty as there are very few tourist and those who are in town, Iím sure, are either still asleep or sipping their coffee nearby at Cafť Du Monde trying to get their bearings and remember what their names are. In other words, itís a good start to a good weekend. The hangover is evident everywhere as people eat their brunch averting the eyes from any resemblance of stray light. The irony of the situation is fairly apparent Ė sin, sin, sin, pray, repent, drink some coffee. Good life philosophy, if you ask me.

 

The rest of the day is spent on sightseeing and visiting acquaintances in the not so nearby suburb full of beautiful large houses in no less beautiful woods the apparent price of which makes me question my love for Boston. And then itís back to Bourbon Street again as the night falls.

However, it seems that you canít step into the same river, or in this case street, twice. On a Sunday night the place is almost deserted compared to the day before. Some people are still wondering by, thereís still some drinking and the balconies are still busy. The girls at Temptationsí windows are still dancing, blissfully detached from the street by opaque covering on the window and probably unaware of what day or, for that matter, what year it is. But the atmosphere is not the same, not at all. Maybe it will never be the same. The moment is gone and itís time for me to live. I know I will be back again, this town has too much of a carefree soul to not enjoy it more often.

 

Day 9

 

The boredom of familiarity and fatigue finally sets in, as it usually does for me towards the middle of a second week of every trip. Todayís trip through the middle of nowhere should take me to some undetermined place at Tennessee and position me for a drive to DC. Which is routine but no less boring because of that.

 

It is interesting to see that the open spaces of the middle Texas and strange landscapes of Louisiana are being slowly replaced by Mississippiís woods and hills. Hour after hour the car is humming very much like a Boeing 737 not really intruding into my state of near-vegetation. Neither is Paul Simon quietly singing in the background. The reason for that is the only AM station I can catch on my radio is the religious kind. This is, after all, deep South. A preatcher is screaming at his followers. I am sure that the message is profound and important, but Iím also sure that this is not what I need right now. I need breeze through my hair, the air that really smells of fall and not of winter, brains crystal clear with nary a thought. This goes on hour after hour.

 

Alabama replaces Mississippi but the things do not improve much. I drive, I drive, I drive and the miles roll up on the odometer and the road remains the same. The hills begin to appear larger and larger as I enter Tennessee and catch the lower part of Blue Mountain ridge. These are not the same mountains that I saw out West. These are old broken down mountains thatís been here forever, inhibited by old people living in old houses.

 

The outside air is down to about 27 degrees and wind is picking up something fears. There is a storm brewing in the East and I am actually trying to avoid it by driving along its western edge. I know the other side of the mountains is hammered. Carolinas are covered with snow, Georgia is icy, Virginia will get blanketed in a few hours.

 

I get off the highway at a small town. The first gas station that I see is closed. So is the second one. And the third. As I drive towards downtown of this megapolis I see closed stores and restaurants. I finally find an open Exxon station, start the pump and walk inside to stay warm. Thereís quite a find in a freezer Ė a glass bottle of Cheerwine. For those of you who tried it thereís no explanation needed. For those who have not, this is a unique experience. Cherry flavored soda in a reproduction early 1900s bottle. Tastes nothing like Cherry Coke, has its unique smell and bouquet. Completes any mid-southern experience along with grits and other assorted stereotypes. Drink Cheerwine when you are down in Carolinas or Georgia, Tennessee or Alabama. You will be content, slow and happy, in other words youíll fit right in. Wait, wait, that sounds like a commercial mixed with some of that patented Yankee hostility. So be it.

 

It takes several minutes to pay for the precious liquid and gather than much thought. I come outside. The pump managed to get about 3 gallons of gas into my car and is dutifully humming away at this amazing rate. I wait. I have no choice, every other gas station in town is closed. Next to me is a local guy in his late 50s or early 60s and we strike up a conversation. This used to be a booming town with several woodworking plants that closed down in mid-90s. About 20 thousand people, down by about half now and slowly dying away. Thatís why everything is closed down. Another 10 minutes later I am sufficiently depressed, my hands are blue, Cheerwine is almost gone and the tank is finally full.

 

Back into the car I point it North and soldier on. Now I have something to think about but I donít want to think about it. Itís just sad to see a dying town tucked away in the splendid valley in the middle of this Godís country.

 

Day 10

 

I wake up in Knoxville, TN and turn on the Weather channel. Things do not look good, not at all. Thereís snow and ice everywhere, three dozen dead and the storm is not letting up. I will try to make it to DC suburbs today to stay with my friends, but it seems that the chances of that are pretty slim. The car has felt unstable on any wet surface since the beginning of the trip. Snow in Utah was a white-knuckle experience. But I need to press on, the end of the trip is less than a thousand miles away and even thought Iím in Tennessee, itís beginning to feel like home.

That is the strangest thing, actually. I have had several opportunities in my life to move out West, even right now. Every time I fly to California during the winter I look around, and understand that I could be racing here right now instead of experiencing 5 month of off-season. I also could forget about gloves, frozen wiper blades, snow tires, cold wind and non-convertible weather. I spend about a day in this state of mind. I have some good sushi and settle in to watch TV. This is when it hits me. Everything is over. All the news had already happen by 9pm PST. All the games that I care about are over on ESPN, CNN is recapping the day or, worse yet, has Larry Kingís face plaster across the screen. That alone makes me cringe. It becomes more and more apparent to me with each passing year that I am an easterner, true and true. Imbedded in me is disdain for the weather, certain roughness of the old overpopulated Northeast, lack of political affiliation or any sort of need to be an activist. StillÖ I could be racing right now.

 

As I drive up towards Virginia the snow begins to fall. Itís more of sleet, really, the road is wet and slippery. Temperature hovers right above freezing and I know that if it falls there will be consequences. And it will fall as I am climbing higher and higher up the Blue Mountains.

The car is very hard to control. Iím proceeding at a snailís pace of about 55 miles an hour. About half the traffic on the road slowed down as well. The other half, however, appears to be oblivious to the condition. The minivans with southern plates fly by me like I am standing still, spraying me with semi-frozen slush that now covers the road surface completely. Hours pass and I am almost drained of all energy. My only remaining thought is to keep the car on the road and in one piece.

 

Things around me, however, are getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice once said. I see a van on its roof in the median, than a car sticking out of the ditch. Over the next hour I pass by a few more. Than comes the crown achievement of weatherís triumph over technology Ė a full size 18-wheeler that went off the road, demolished a guardrail hit the highway embankment, rolled down and got wedged between the dirt hill and a bridge support that just happens to be there. The truck is lying on its driverís side, cab appears to be in good shape but the cargo box is completely ripped apart, looking very much like one giant special effect.

 

The impeding doom is obvious but I am only 80 miles away from my destination. If US-81 is that bad and slippery, maybe US-66 going through Virginia is better. I make the right turn at the junction and grab the wheel even tighter. The road is covered with snow. The snow is everywhere, coming down from the sky, drifting across the road in a haphazard and random fashion, swirling around upwards. The windshield is getting glazed by a layer of ice. I hit the washer lever and nothing happens. As it turns out a week later, the water that was in the washer bottle mixed with a gallon of actual washer that I added in simply froze. They use water in washer bottles of convertibles in California. Thatís yet another thing that they wouldnít have to think about if I lived there.

 

At this point I am just looking for an exit. The rear of the car dances uncontrollably across the lane and any thought of continuing to drive should be considered as a direct reason for an immediate commitment to the finest institution with the softest rubber walls. I get off the road at the first exit, which happens to be Front Royal, Virginia. Fight my way through about 200 feet from the highway exit to a hotel parking lot, enter it and promptly get stuck. The car is not going anywhere today and neither am I.

 

 

Days 11-14

 

Now, that was an adult thing to do. Assess the situation, stop and do not press on if the risk outweighs the reward. I am very proud of myself. What Iím not proud about at the moment is Virginiaís AAA chapter. I have Gold membership. Which, in theory, means that they should get me out of a snow bank that my car is cozily embedded in, and tow me for free up to 100 miles. Which also means that if I call them at 4:45 PM I donít want to hear that ďweíll have somebody out there within 240 minutesĒ. That, by the way, is four hours. I am even less enamored with the idea of calling back in two hours to be flatly told that nothing will happen that day, they are all busy and as long as my car is safe they just simply donít care. OK, I made arrangements with AAA to call me at 8 in the morning, checked into the hotel getting what appeared to be the only non-smoking room and relaxed. It helped that the room had a jacuzzi and that you can actually watch the Weather Channel surrounded by bubbling water.

 

The morning dawned as expected. Cold and white. The hotel room windows overlook the woods and every tree is covered in an intricate pattern of snow and ice, all braches are weighed down and standing still as there is no wind. The idyllic picture is supplemented by a nice breakfast and, of course, evened out by the fact that AAA never even called. So everything is right with the world, donít relax too much last you have to schlep out there and dig your car from the snowbank with your bare hands. Which is what I did.

 

Surprisingly enough I was actually able to inch myself out of snow, a procedure that I would be bound to repeat for the next couple of day in New York and Boston. The highway was clear and clean and by midday I was finally able to get to my friendsí place in Rockville, MD.

I will spare my faithful readers the boring personal details of the next few days. I visited with my close friends in DC and my best friendís family in New York. I enjoyed the time and finally had a chance to sit down, get a glass of wine in a good company, kiss and be kissed, rest from the road and reflect.

 

The trip lasted two weeks and 4534 miles. It took me through 17 states and countless small and big towns of this great country. It was a great time, certainly something I recommend to anyone whose heart is set aflutter when thinking of an open car on an open road.

 

I made it home an hour before the Superbowl. By the end of day 14 I had no fingernails or emotions left. Those who saw the Patriots Ė Carolina game will surely understand.

 


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