The Woman pulls the car around to rest right in front of us in the parking garage. A 2010 Jetta, silver with a sunroof and fake leather seats. Not a bad car for driving across the country. The only real hiccup I can see is the giant office chair jammed in the back seat. Thus is the strange nature of the drive-away business.
Last September I signed on to drive said Jetta from Long Beach, California to Manhattan, New York in the span of 10 days. It wasn’t a great deal. I had to cover my own gas and lodging in addition to putting down a $350 deposit which I got back upon the trip’s completion. Why other people do it, I can’t say. My reason was an unhealthy romance for the road and a healthy desire to get out of Los Angeles. I’d never done the whole stretch of America and I figured it was the right time, being on the verge of a rather contentious election with both candidates being extremely unpopular. I wanted to hear what the rest of the country was saying, how they were feeling. What was the state of the nation? Was it in decay and anarchy or prospering? Depends on what station you listen to.
Originally, the plan was to take this trip solo, a solitary pilgrimage. The idea of being alone in this great big country started to scare me. What was out there waiting for me that I wasn’t ready for? What “American Carnage” would I fall prey to with out anyone knowing? On less dramatic terms, what if I got a flat tire, or my battery died? In other words, the fear got to me. Luckily, my friend Madison had a few weeks off from work and agreed to be my copilot and photographer. We pull out of the drive-away parking garage, the legs of the office chair in the rear-view mirror reminding me of my responsibility, and whose car it really is.
Getting out of the city, we drive past fire-scorched hills of San Bernadino, lit up with char black and red flame-retardant powder. The image is disturbingly beautiful, a piece of landscape art born out of rapture. Madison goes through the glove compartment, finding the owner’s name. Within minutes she’s looked up “Malcolm” on Facebook, finding out what he looks like, where he works (Apple Store), and why he decided to move to New York (for work). It’s strange that with so little effort (and even less desire) we were able to unfold so much information about this one man. He entrusted his car to us, but didn’t realize how much more he was giving up.
We pull into a small town called Newberry Springs for dollar beers at a big red building called The Barn. It’s cool, dark and empty inside– exactly what I want from a roadside bar. Over a cold glass of PBR, the bartender, Terri, tells us the strange nature of the town. Newberry Springs was a vibrant stop on Route 66. With the larger highways coming in, the town changed its name and took on a reclusive existence. This is where people come to be left alone. There’s no local government or law enforcement to speak of and The Barn acts as the de facto town hall, being the only semi-public place in the whole town.
The “desolate ghost town” appearance of Newberry Springs turns out to be nothing more than a disguise, a defense mechanism to keep us tourists moving right along. Not only is Newberry Springs not a drought-scorched wasteland, it’s actually flush with water. The original name of the town was Water, California, and it provided H2O to the steam engines heading out west. Hidden behind walls of trees and bushes are pistachio farms and man-made lakes spanning the desert. People come from all over for the world famous water ski racecourses and Dr. Horton’s Ski School.
From what I can tell, they’ve set up a little libertarian paradise run entirely on the idea of private – in property and life. Everyone has No Trespassing signs on their property, “and they will shoot you,” says Terri. The residents of this Eden still fear the serpent coming in and mucking everything up. In this case, it’s the Vietnamese coming in and setting up marijuana grow sites in abandoned houses and the tweakers who migrate over from Barstow. She tells us Barstow is a real mess, with crime, drugs and a shitty schools, a strange remark considering there doesn’t seem to be any education infrastructure to speak of here in Newberry. Despite all of this, the people here are pleasant and willing to regale us with anecdotes of the town.
Driving through the Mojave, the radio is just as desolate, consisting exclusively of Christian preaching, Christian rock, and the most mainstream trash-club beats you can find. At one point we think we’re listening to some Top 20 station only to be blindsided with lyrics about our savior. Man, they sure are sneaky with God’s message! People come to the desert to be saved or damned. Christian electro-pop tries to appeal to both. At the zenith of our isolation, I hit the scan button on the radio. It does a complete 360 through all the dead air stations and ends up right back where we were, just in time for the part about Sodom and Gomorrah.
The plan was to get into Gallup and take advantage of Walmart’s policy to let travelers sleep in their parking lot. Unfortunately, this office chair in the backseat hampered the plan. Instead, we buy food, a tarp and other supplies to fashion a makeshift tent at the nearby Red Rock campsite. By headlamp light, we attempt to jerry-rig a sophisticated and spacious tent. Failing this, we drape the tarp over the office chair and roll out our sleeping bags underneath. Any movement results in loud tarp crunching. In the morning, we’re roused from our sleep when I turn over, causing a pair of on-looking campers to exclaim, “It moved!”
Hiking the Red Rocks that morning, we meet a middle aged woman, Ruth, who offers to show us the trail to the top. She tells us she works with the local school, planning summer programs. “This is a great place to observe culture,” she says, informing us that the city of Gallup is divided into three social groups. There’s the settler culture: non-natives who go back generations to the pioneers and trading posts. Then there’s the do gooders “that come in by the thousand to save the natives.” And finally, there are the Natives, the ones who were here before we all showed up to crash the party.
For years Gallup has been called the Indian Capitol of the America but now the Natives are revolting against the label, fed up with the appropriation of their culture for advertising and commerce by the settlers. Ruth tells us, “The school board has just had its first explosion,” along these same racial lines. They’re sick of underfunding and mistreatment of public services like water and air management. An oil refinery plant recently opened, signaling the end of the fresh desert air Madison and I greedily inhale.
We reach the top of the cliff, looking down at the whole of Gallup. To our left is the small schoolhouse, the sight of social upheaval. Straight ahead is a neighborhood of red, blue and green roofed track housing. To our right, we can see the oil refinery Ruth mentioned. Beyond that is the highway, the road we’ll take to leave this town, while the people and their problems are left behind.
Driving through Albuquerque we hear a story about native students in South Africa protesting against their school’s ban on Afros and other traditionally black hairstyles. I marvel at this new energy of protest and unrest overtaking the country. Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee and inspiring high school sports teams to do the same. The whole women’s soccer team at my high school back in Indiana joined the movement. I regret that I wasn’t more politically active when I was that age. With the exception of a few Iraq War protests I was fairly apolitical. It’s inspiring to see the younger generations picking up the torch and with such authority and self-possession at a young age.
There’s a clear, almost supernatural change upon entering Texas. For the first time on the trip, there is a real, noticeable climate. The air has a water weight to it that has been absent throughout the desert. In Amarillo we stop for lunch at Tyler’s, by all accounts the best BBQ in town. They aren’t lying. The place doesn’t look like much with its red and white check vinyl tablecloths, (the kind stapled underneath the table) but the brisket is amazing.
Two middle-aged men and one of their wives sit behind us chewing the fat. They talk about a recent train wreck that occurred outside of town. This gets the two men talking shop about modernization and engineering. One man says, “You can’t fix stupidity with technology.” Finally one of the men gets up and asks us if we’ve tried the peach cobbler yet (we have). From here, he tells us about the storied history of Tyler’s and their underdog story at the Austin BBQ competition, placing 6th their first year in attendance. He introduces us to Tyler and his whole family, including his mother.
The story goes that Tyler never accepts checks, but if Tyler’s mother knows you, then they’ll take yours. This is the other change I notice in Texas. People coming over and striking up conversations and before you know it; you’re meeting the family. There is a certain disarming familiarity that allows a stranger to approach you without a lick of self-consciousness or awkward adjustment. It’s warmth of community and acceptance of strangers.
Our time in Texas is brief and we’re soon headed into storm cloud-shadowed lands of Oklahoma. The rains come fast and hard, enriching the fish and okra farms and washing the desert sand from the Jetta. By night, the storm has let up, leaving behind a hot haze just as we ride into Oklahoma City. Still full from BBQ, we pull off at a small bar called Ruthie’s. It has karaoke in one room and darts completion in the other. We drink Bud Lights from aluminum bottles, breathing in the smoke of our fellow patrons as we listen to them belt out their favorite songs.
It’s a strange mix of folks, many gathered there for a woman’s birthday, with the most ethnic diversity we’ve seen thus far. White, black, latino, Native American — all here, and more integrated than most places in L.A. The music is just as eclectic, with people singing rock, country, gospel, punk, blues, metal, screamo, more country, hip hop, even a mariachi tune or two. Everyone gets their chance; from the aging punk with two different patterned pant legs to the drunken redneck with darts stabbed through his hat. We sit with our aluminum bottles of beer, marveling at these Okie barflies and their angelic, soulful voices, brought out by choir practice and cigarette smoke. Madison turns to me and says, “I finally understand why American Idol exists,” seeing such raw, uninhibited talent in this smoky bar off the dusty highway.
During a rendition of Blue October’s “Hate Me” I take the opportunity to use the restroom. I walk past the pool table where a man counts out a strange amount of cash onto the green felt. “None of my business,” I think and continue into the bathroom. The blue walls are scrawled with messages written in different colored chalk. I read what so many visitors have written, some cute, dumb, bawdy, heartfelt, and violent. Some are not words but simple drawings of human anatomy: all shapes and sizes. I pick up a piece of chalk, carve out a little real estate, and write, “Ed was here.” if only to remind myself.
This is part one in a three part series.