Not only was there no traffic, but there was no anything. For miles. In every direction. I barely even noticed passing into New Mexico, feeling a little like I was the last human on the planet.
In those pre-dawn hours, this looked much more desolate.
This was the first day of this trip that I didn't have a particular plan. I thought I would get to Phoenix in the afternoon, hopefully before rush hour. If I still felt okay, I'd press on. If I was dying, I'd find a hotel somewhere. Phoenix is big, and I didn't think it would be a huge problem finding a place with a vacancy.
The sun finally came up, and I saw signs of civilization. I admit that because of Bugs Bunny, I was planning to stop for breakfast in Albuquerque. Just to be able to say I did. And since I was headed west, I could even say I took that left turn at Albuquerque.
I'm sure people have stopped in places for worse, or sillier, reasons.
I randomly selected an exit and pulled into the parking lot of a small shopping center. It was about 9:00am and I'd been on the road already for over five hours. So I treated myself to an actual restaurant, instead of drive-thru.
The Owl Cafe. They were hopping that morning. Even so, I didn't have to wait long for a table for one. It was nice to think that the "table for one" days were coming to an end.
The other interesting thing about the Owl Cafe was that this was the first time I had been anywhere that had Chorizo and Eggs on the menu. There's a movie called "Midnight Run" (Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin) that's one of those movies my family really latched onto. It's a good movie, and really funny. It also has a lot of bad language, so if you don't like that kind of thing, you shouldn't watch it.
Anyway, there's a scene where there's a discussion of Chorizo and Eggs. That was the first time I'd ever heard of it, and I'd never seen it on a menu anywhere. So I had to order it.
For those who don't know, Chorizo is a Mexican sausage.
It was good, and if you're ever in Albuquerque, I recommend the Owl Cafe.
After a leisurely breakfast, I left the restaurant and saw that there was a Target nearby. It was a Tuesday. That was typically when new music releases come out.
Yes, that's the actual Target at that exit in Albuquerque.
I wandered over and not only did they have the one CD in particular that I was looking for, but they also had a second CD that I was sure wasn't coming out until the next Tuesday.
You didn't think the Christmas music thing was something new, did you?
I popped these two into my CD-changer and headed back out on the road. The new music reinvigorated me, and the miles flew by.
The Grand Canyon! I hadn't even considered that! I thought long and hard about taking a side-trip. After all, I could still get to Phoenix by that night.
But as much as I wanted to play tourist, I wanted to get to Lisa and California much more. So I passed all the exits and signs for the Grand Canyon and kept going.
Gassed up again during a brief, cold rain in Flagstaff. I had thought it was always hot in Arizona. And a dry heat, at that. But I was lucky that this was the first bad weather I'd encountered on the drive, and it was brief, anyway.
I was starting to think that maybe Phoenix would be it for the day. While I really wanted to get to Lisa, I also wanted to get to her alive. And I was dragging. I even started to convince myself that, if I stopped in Phoenix, I could still get up early the next day and be in San Diego by lunch, if not earlier.
Then I talked to Lisa. And she told me how her mom (my future mother-in-law) had remarked that if I was going to get all the way to Phoenix, I should just go the rest of the way, since it really wasn't that much further.
And there it was. I had to go on, now.
So I got to Phoenix, and kept on going.
I got around the city close to 4:00pm, so I was able to beat most of the traffic. I figured once I got past the city, I'd find somewhere to grab a bite and some caffeine. Unfortunately, once you get past Phoenix, there's not a lot. In fact, there were a few times, during that first hour after Phoenix, that I seriously considered turning around and finding a hotel for the night.
But I kept going. And as the sun started to sink behind the mountains, I made it to Yuma, which is a small town right on the border of Arizona and California.
I was so relieved to finally be in California! I wasn't sure what there was between Yuma and my final destination, so I exited and pulled into a Jack In The Box. How very Californian! There were even Palm Trees!
With my body and my car refueled, I got back on the highway. I tried to pick up one of the radio stations Lisa listened to, but I was still too far away, so it was back to Brian Wilson and Brian Setzer.
As I drove, I had that stereotypical idea of California that I should soon be able to see the ocean on the horizon. Crossing mountain after mountain, all I saw was more mountains.
Then the sun sank and fog rolled in. Maybe it was a cloud. The elevation was pretty high. Exhaustion really started to take it's toll, and I found myself gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter. It was almost like some movie, with the fog coming right up to the edge of the highway. I started to worry it would cover the road, and I'd wind up driving off the side of the mountain, never to be heard from again.
That last maddening stretch took the better part of three hours. With visibility reduced, I couldn't drive nearly as fast as I wanted. But soon, the fog started to dissipate, and I saw signs for my exit. I almost couldn't believe that just four days before, I had been in Washington DC, and now I was pulling into the driveway of my new life.
And now I find it hard to believe that it's already been ten years.
I've lived in a lot of places. In part, because that's the nature of radio; you're hired to be fired. But I also did the math and realized that, not only is today the tenth anniversary of the start of my new life with Lisa, but this is now the longest I've ever lived at one particular address!
San Diego. Where it's almost always sunny, except when we have a slight chance of a cloud.
Ten years. I am so glad I finally got here. I've been fortunate enough to have gotten lots of hugs over my life, especially during the last ten years, but the one that I got that night, ten years ago tonight, was my favorite.
Anyway, I hope you have something to celebrate today, and I really hope you have someone to celebrate with.
And Lisa, thanks for welcoming me in ten years ago. And thanks in advance for the next ten. And the ten after that. Infinity.
other apps. Or even a smartphone. And I passed a few exits, hoping what I wanted would be just a little further on up the road.
I was also a little distracted, again, as the sun came up in my rearview mirror, over the Ozarks. Another rare time I wish I had my camera.
This picture really doesn't do it justice, but that's a little of what I was seeing roll away behind me as I headed west. Add in some brighter colors, a bluer sky and the sun just up over the horizon, and you'd have a better idea of what I was seeing.
So I drove on.
As the sun went higher and the miles went by, I gave up hope of Hardee's, drove through a McDonalds and found a gas station. Refueled and caffeinated, I got back on the road.
Eventually, I crossed out of Missouri, skirting the corner of Kansas and went into Oklahoma.
I had gone through so many states the day before, it was somewhat of a relief to finally get to a new one on this Monday ten years ago. Since I was going diagonally across Oklahoma, I was going to be there for a while. But at least I was out of Missouri, so it seemed like progress.
I consulted the AAA triptych and decided I'd go past Tulsa and keep going to Oklahoma City before I stopped for lunch. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was really dragging by the time I realized that maybe it wasn't the best decision.
I really needed to get off the road for a bit when I finally did get to Oklahoma City, and exited at a busy looking area where I thought I could sit down to a real meal, where someone would bring me lots of iced tea.
I found a Lonestar Steakhouse, and could see a Best Buy on the street behind it. So I stopped for a mid-afternoon steak, and then planned to add a couple new CDs to my player.
The first part of the plan went fine. Great food and service. I even fired up my laptop and checked my email. It took a little longer than I really wanted it to, but I needed the break.
Road construction kept me from being able to get to the Best Buy, so I started my CDs over again and got back on the highway.
I checked in and called Lisa. My plan was to get on my laptop, find my next stop and get some sleep. I'd had a steak for a late lunch and really didn't feel like going back out to forage for food. Lisa made me promise I'd eat something, so I got some peanut butter and cheese crackers from the vending machine and called it a night.
My plan was to make it to Phoenix the next day. If I left early enough, I could get there around dinner time. And then there would be just one more trip to go.
I looked at my triptych again. It only looked like another four or five hours to San Diego. After all I'd already done, that didn't seem to be out of the question. I didn't want to say anything to Lisa about it, just in case I was too tired by the time I got to Phoenix. Sorry if I just put that song in your head.
So I asked for a wake-up call at a ridiculous time of the morning. And for the only night I've ever spent in Texas, I didn't see any sites or get any barbecue. Instead, I fell asleep just as "Two And A Half Men" was coming on.
I didn't have any ZZ Top in my road collection of CDs, but for some reason, I couldn't help but think of that little ol' band from Texas as I started to write this. And as I drove into Amarillo on that evening, I can't help but think a pair of cheap sunglasses would have come in really handy!
For those who aren't familiar with the geography, there's spike or panhandle at the top of West Virginia that sticks up between Pennsylvania and Ohio. That was some of the most beautiful country I've ever driven through.
It's almost distracting, the breath-taking explosions of color as the leaves were all changing. This is one of the few instances when I really wished I'd had a camera. Of course, if I had, I would have been even more distracted, and might not have ever finished the trip.
And then I was finally in Missouri! This was my last state for the day. All I had to do was drive around St. Louis and I'd be done. Since it was Sunday night, I thought it would be best to stay at a hotel on the other side, so I wouldn't have to fight St. Louis traffic on Monday morning.
By the way, you can see the famous St. Louis Arch from pretty far away. For a while, it almost seemed like a mirage, and that even if I sped up, I still wasn't getting any closer to it. I was also fortunate in that the National League Championship Series was going on, and even though the Cardinals were home, playing the Astros in game 4 of the series, I got in, around and out of St. Louis without dealing with Championship traffic.
Found my hotel, just west of the city, and then took some time for a treat. I didn't want to stay out late, going to one of St. Louis' famous blues clubs. Well, I did, but I knew it would be tough to get going early the next morning if I did.
But I certainly wasn't going to stop in St. Louis and not have ribs!
The night before, in Pennsylvania, when I had gotten online to find a hotel, I also looked up ribs. The internet informed me that one of the best places in St. Louis was a barbecue joint called Charlotte's Rib (named for a local TV celebrity). I was glad I did the research, as I heard someone asking the guy at the front desk for suggestions, and he told them he didn't know as he wasn't from the area, so there wouldn't have been any help there.
Not to turn this into a restaurant review (ten years later), but if you're ever in St. Louis, you should put Charlotte's Rib high on your list of things to do.
I found my way back to the hotel, booked my next stop and said goodnight to Lisa. I was now half a country closer!
Seems like I should have been listening to the blues on the way to St. Louis, but one of my most vivid memories of this leg of the trip is crossing a bridge in West Virginia, marveling at the spectacular display nature was providing me, and hearing "Telegraph Road" coming out of my car's speakers. I may very well be the only person who connects Dire Straits to West Virginia.
That last night at work dragged by. My car was packed, down in the parking garage, and when 10:00am finally came I was ready to roll!
Then I started to remember half a million things I needed to do at work. I wasn't exactly leaving; I was transitioning. A better job, with better pay, but with the same organization.
I was lucky.
I worked for a radio network, writing and producing for their morning show. When I went in to give notice, the show didn't want to lose me, so they made a deal to hire me directly (with help, actually, from my soon-to-be former boss).
This almost never happens in radio. I really was very lucky.
So I needed a ton of things off of my work computer, which in my haste to get everything else done, I'd completely forgotten about. If you've moved from one city to another even once, I'm sure you can relate.
I spent more time than I wanted to, loading up an external hard drive with all my stuff. In my over-excited state, I made dumb mistakes and this took much longer than I wanted it to. Or than it needed to.
Finally, I was able to toss it, my laptop and my headphones into my car, and finally hit the road.
I had tried to plan as best I could, knowing I'd get a late start. And that I'd be tired. So that first day, ten years ago, I had a short goal. I just wanted to get out of the states where I'd been living, so I could really feel like my new life was beginning.
I had worked in DC, first living in Maryland and then in Virginia.
I was exhausted, forced to stop at a Hardee's to load up on Dr. Pepper. The jolt of sugar and caffeine helped me keep going. And then I passed the sign that instantly reinvigorated me.
It's hard to describe how good that felt. Suddenly, it all seemed real. The old life was back there in my rearview mirror, and I was really on my way.
I chased the last rays of sunlight west, and briefly considered dumping my plan and going further that first day. The lack of sleep started to take its toll, though, and once I started seeing signs for Pittsburgh I was ready to call it a day.
When I was three-going-on-four, we lived in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, which is just outside of Pittsburgh. I don't remember much about it. In fact, I only remember two things clearly.
I remember that one night in the winter, there was a deer standing in the snow on our front lawn. This is not that deer. Or our lawn. But he (or she) did look right at us, while we watched from behind the curtains inside. Then the deer took off into the nearby woods. Which looks like what this deer is about to do.
The other thing I remember is that my favorite show was Sid and Marty Kroft's H.R. Pufnstuf. If I remember right, in the episode pictured above, Jimmy was trying to get off the island and go home, and the witch was after Freddie.
Obviously, with images of snowy deer and talking flutes in my head, it was time to get off the road.
So I did.
I had a reservation at a Hampton Inn just off the highway, checked in and got on my laptop to book my next night's stay. My plan was to get up at the crack of dawn and get to St. Louis in time for dinner.
I was also talking to Lisa often on my cell as I traveled, and wanted to at least be in Ohio by the time she woke up the next morning.
I listened to a lot of Maroon 5, Dashboard Confessional and Styx on that first day. The Styx was actually Dennis DeYoung, performing the Music of Styx with an orchestra. Amazingly, I didn't get sick of any of the music on this trip. In part, because I had so many CDs with me, but also, I think it was due to how excited I was to be on this journey.
I've liked Styx for a long time. Their music used to remind me of good times in high school (when Paradise Theater and Kilroy Was Here came out). Now, a lot of what I hear from them reminds me of an October evening in Pennsylvania, when I was driving toward the sunset, toward Lisa and toward my new life in California.
"Best Thing" was their very first single, released back in 1972. It barely dented the charts, peaking at #82. Styx released it again in a couple years on their fourth album, Man Of Miracles.
So quite literally, it meant that there's more than one "Best Thing". And if the first one doesn't turn out the way you'd hoped, there's always opportunity for another.
At the time, I was living in Northern Virginia, looking forward to shedding my old life. Especially since I had a new life waiting for me in California.
Here's where I stayed that last night, ten years ago tonight.
It was nice, but it didn't really matter. I had a deal and they had a vacancy. It was very pretty, and at this time of year there were beautiful autumn colors and falling leaves. I had a nice dinner in the bar, and the room was great.
I was too excited to sleep much, though. And I had to get up at night to go into work. My job was from 2:00am to 10:00am. I was training someone new, though my mind was on the road, very far away.
I was exhausted but also really exhilarated, constantly thinking about my stuffed Saturn in the parking garage, and my AAA triptych on the passenger seat.
For some reason, as I think back on this today, the J. Geils Band song "Musta Got Lost" is stuck in my head. While I didn't get lost, at any point on this journey, I did feel like I had been lost before this, and had been for a very long time.
I had a ten-disc CD changer in my car at the time, but didn't take any J. Geils Band with me. I did have that player filled, and a box of CDs in the trunk, to try to keep me entertained.
Leg 1 of the trip starts tomorrow!
Ken Kessler has always been interested in psychic phenomena, and like Mulder on the X-Files, wants to believe. But like most, he tends to look for, and accept, rational explanations. (More)