Rolling through the Western US
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I got caught up in the Dot com crash in 2001 and gainful employment was hard to come by if not impossible, at least here in Seattle. My experience is in IT Project Management. For those of you who are unaware, this is a career path that usually lists detailed planning and scheduling in the first one or two lines of any job description. Being as how these are two activities I would rather avoid, I was in a bit of turmoil. I see myself as more of an “other duties as assigned” kind of guy, an idea man. You know, President, CEO, that kind of thing. With the Dot.Com crash, the Northwest has been suffering from a dearth of well paying jobs that don’t involve actual work and have a medical plan. It was time for something bold, and no, it wasn’t retail.
With much procrastination and little planning or forethought, I decided it was time to see what Seattle looks like in the rear view mirror. I bought a cap for the pick-up bed, sold all of my good stuff, stored the crap and loaded up Barney with what I figured I would need for a life on the road. The list included, 3 computers, About 400 CD’s, 10 pairs of shoes, a couple of suits that don’t fit anymore, 3 tents, a list of Walmarts, a shovel and a bike. On a rainy June afternoon, I turned in the apartment key and headed east. The direction chosen for no reason other than the other options were the Pacific, Canada and California.
Off into the foggy unknown I went, an itinerant traveler with no plans beyond the next tank of gas.
I mentioned the Walmarts earlier. I am sure they'd much prefer the 30 foot luxury motor home folks over the Ma and Pa Kettle crowd, but Walmart allows travelers and truckers to overnight in their parking lot free of charge. They open early and close late so it is a perfect place to wind down from a day on the road over a box of Ding Dongs and a Dr Pepper. It is a great service but there is a downside; the late night cart collection and the predawn street sweeper were a hindrance to a good night’s sleep. Albeit a minor one, compared to the bicycle pedal in poking me in the back and a box of old shoes for a pillow.
Walmarts were the preferred resting place for the ease and simplicity of the situation. Not to mention the price of free. Some nights, though, they were just a few miles beyond mile ability to drive to. On those nights, I had to make due with lesser options. For example, my first night on the road, I stayed in the long term parking lot at the Walla Walla Airport. It was quiet at night but with security concerns lately, I figured that was I just begging for a strip search. National park campgrounds were an option that I tried to take advantage of but they are expensive and being that it was the height of tourist and fire season, vacancies were rare. I avoided neighborhoods unless I was just too tired to continue. It would be my luck that I would pull up in front of the insomniac neighborhood watch zealot’s house. I did get a room a few times, mostly so that I could clean up and be presentable when I showed up on the doorstep of a few kind souls who took pity on me.
But I digress, I doubt that you are very interested in the fine art of sleeping in a truck nor do I hope you’ll ever need to learn. How about some tales from the road?
The first real town I visited was Boise, Idaho. A surprisingly nice little town. I stayed a few days while I was still fooling myself into thinking this was going to be a job hunting trip. Not much work there though so I caught a Lyle Lovett Show and continued East.
I stopped off at the resort town of Sun Valley for a look around. I was pretty sure that the town was beyond my budget after seeing that the grocery store had shrimp on the sampler tray. And not shrimp bits, but whole fresh shrimp with sauce. Next up was Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons. I love the Tetons, just a beautiful and inspiring place. There a ton of wild animals. Moose, Elk and Bear. I even had the exciting and potentially detrimental experience of coming within 10 feet of a mama bear and her cubs during a hike. For some reason, I am still around to talk about it. Not even a growl in my direction.
I have been to Yellowstone several times and wasn’t originally thinking I was going to go again but I was so close, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. If you happen to find yourself there in the summer time, I hope you aren't in a hurry or low on fuel. If you are, man and beast will conspire to give you an aneurysm. It can take a long time and a lot of gas to get through the park because there billions of huge motor homes filled with tourists stopping traffic every time an animal bigger than a squirrel comes into view. Which happens in Yellowstone roughly every 14 feet or so. Then there are the animals that stop in the middle of the road just because they can. They are legally protected so everything stops until they decide otherwise.
Finally, I pulled into the town of West Yellowstone with no gas and a twitch. I got food and fuel and began the nightly routine of finding a place to sleep. The park campgrounds were at capacity so I found an open spot in a nearby national recreational area. I am not sure what sort of recreation went on here, but a lot of pick-up trucks interrupted my sleep as they drove up and then drove off when they saw me camped there. The next morning was the first excitement of my truck. When I pulled in the night before, I didn’t realize that I was camped on the floor of an ancient, long since dry, ocean. Nothing left but the beach in which I promptly began sinking into as I tried to leave. No problem, since all I had to do was flick the 4 wheel drive button and be on my way. It was at this point that I finally accepted that, after 5 years of kidding myself, this button wasn’t really connected to anything. But not until after I was up to my axles in slippery wet sand. I wasn’t expecting any more traffic until it was dark again. And I was getting hungry. Luckily I remembered my here to fore unused shovel. It took a couple of hours of digging before I moved the truck to dry enough sand that I could get some traction to finally get out.
I ended up back in Yellowstone watching the geysers for a while before heading South to Salt Lake City, still fooling myself that I was actually looking for a job. Salt Lake is nice but their wasn’t any real work there. I visited some friends, took care of some truck maintenance, restocked the Ho-Ho and Dr Pepper supplies and decided to head for Navajo country. On the way I stopped of at Arches National park and watched the tourists pass out from heat exhaustion.
This part of the trip conveniently corresponded with the peak of forest fire season. This year saw some pretty sizable fires ravaging the southwest. As my luck would have it, the fires frequently were between me and where I needed to be. But given my situation, needing to be somewhere was a pretty ambiguous concept. As I waited the fires our, I was able to spend a few nights camping in the desert watching the fires burn in the distance. The sight coupled with the downtime gave me the brilliant idea to volunteer for fire crew support. Hauling water and doing chores around the camp. They rejected me because I wasn’t trained for such menial labor that and I probably wasn't good looking enough. They only wanted real fire fighters.
Yet another a blow to the my already battered feelings of self worth. I could understand rejection for a paying job, but volunteer work? I blame the resulting blow to my self esteem coupled with the brain searing heat for my next misadventure. I came up with the less that brilliant idea of going mountain biking on the internationally famous slick rock trails nearby Moab. Less than brilliant because: A) my bike is a piece of crap B) I had no idea what I was doing and c) it was 115 degrees before I even started out. I had delusions of my bike jumping, spinning and defying gravity as I negotiated the course just like I was the star of a Mountain Dew commercial. It was all fun and games for all of thirty feet when my tire got stuck in some loose sand and I didn’t. Luckily a rock broke my fall. As is usually my reaction to such situations, wisdom was outweighed by a testosterone laced stubborn refusal to turn back and I proceeded on. I spent the next two hours pushing, pulling and carrying, but rarely actually riding, the bike through the “training” course. When I completed the trail, I put the bike back in the truck where it stayed for the rest of the trip.
Exhausted, I fueled up and headed for Colorado, then down through the Navajo Country of New Mexico and Arizona, up to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and then to Las Vegas.
I haven’t been to Las Vegas as an adult so I splurged and got a nice room at the Hard Rock Hotel. Not being a big gambler or at least a winning one, I was at a loss for what to do. So I walked around the famous strip, appalled by cheesiness of it all and worse yet the lack of a good cheap buffet that didn’t require a 3 hour wait for the Sansabelt and Mumu crowd to see how much “all you cold eat” really was. I was bored, it was too hot and I was tired of tripping over baby strollers in the casinos. I found relief at the Albertson’s frozen food aisle where I happily read magazines all night. In short “Leaving Las Vegas” wasn’t just a movie it’s a good idea. On my way out, I stopped by the old Vegas I remember as a kid. Had a $5.95 buffet and lost 20 dollars in the slots.
From there I drove North into Nevada’s high desert. A vast area of nothingness that stretches pretty much all the way up to Canada. A land known mainly for UFO conspiracies, radioactive dumping grounds and the Chicken Ranch. One wrong turn and you could find yourself being embarrassingly probed by strange creatures, glowing or being embarrassingly probed by strange creatures. I guess I chose glowing because unbeknownst to me when I settled into the back of the truck for some horizontal time, and hopefully sleep, I was going to wake up staring at the entrance sign for Yuca Flats, the nation’s nuclear waste dumping ground. I didn’t stick around for the tour.
It was just past day break and the temperatures had already started working it way back into triple digits. I was in the middle of a 500 mile desert. Might as well go for broke; Death Valley. Home of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the US and the lowest elevation, two places to add to my quest for tourist destinations with a superlative in their description.
It had been a hot trip so far but this was noticeably hotter. Oh sure, it was the dry heat that people in Phoenix use to validate the reason for living in that dump of a town, but in reality it just means that instead of sweating you get crusty. A thin layer of salt covers your body. At the end of the day your clothes are so caked with salt that they actually stand up with out you in them. Hence the possible title “My Life as a Salt Lick”. Pretty gross, huh?
Death Valley is aptly named. A valley where people and things die either because they stayed too long or weren’t up to the challenge of leaving. The temperatures near the ground can be 50 degrees hotter (or more) than at you head level. I have heard stories of people’s boots falling apart as they hiked a long. The ranger gave me a pamphlet, which to paraphrase said “Welcome to the Death Valley. What the hell are you thinking? You left the world capital of vice served up by scantily clad women for this? You Dumbass!!” With memories of Baby strollers and fat sweaty people happily losing their minimum wages, I continued on, clutching my last bottle of Gatorade.
It wasn’t a long stay. Just long enough to take a couple of pictures, see what 125 degrees is like and catch a glimpse of the future. Since Death Valley is just a big hot hole in the desert. To get out, the drive takes you from 200 feet below sea level to a mountain pass at 5000 feet in less that 30 miles. Not so bad unless you are driving a weighed down old truck on a really hot day. I could have waited for nightfall but I was low on Gatorade and there was a lot of temperature between then and sunset, still 8 hours away.
I chose to leave. It wasn’t long before I was crawling up the hill and down to second gear and watching for the engine light when I saw a puff of smoke in the distance. The puff turned into a column of thick black smoke. A few minutes later, I came upon still burning remains of a Dodge minivan and an old man sitting helplessly watching. I pulled over to see what I could do for him. As his car was literally melting into a pool of rubber and plastic all over the road, he told me of the last 20 years he spent hiking the mountains of Arizona, collecting quartz and making jewelry. This trip was the culmination of his efforts. He was on his way to a gem show where he was hoping to show and sell his work. That plan went down in flames on the side of the road in the middle of the most inhospitable part of the country. As we sat in the noon day heat waiting for the fire department to arrive from 50 miles away, I couldn't help but be amazed that beneath the shock written on his face, there was still a glimmer of hope. Even though 20 years of his life, and his insulin, was now a burning wreck of metal and melted plastic, he was philosophical about his situation. It was just stuff, he was not hurt and tomorrow was another day. There was no cell phone coverage so we sat around and chatted with other concerned travelers while we waited for help to arrive. The rangers showed up after about an hour and started the clean-up and took him to get some assistance. I continued up the mountain contemplating the crap that I was hauling around the country. I made it to the edge of Death Valley without further incident, gave Barney a quick thank-you pat on the dashboard and drove into the Mojave Desert hoping for a chilly night’s sleep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains beyond.
As usual, I took the road less traveled and made it to Sequoia National Park after dark. Found a spot in one of the campgrounds, ate a box of pop tarts and crawled into the back of the truck and slept hard. A few hours later, in the dim of the daybreak, I was awoken by a fellow camper’s car alarm. Who would break into a car with the owners no more than 10 feet away? I just figured it was an early morning bathroom run that set off the alarm and I went back to sleep. I woke up again when my truck started rocking. When my eyes focused, I found my self staring into the face of a big Black bear looking for breakfast. Given a bear’s strong sense of smell, I am pretty sure I wasn’t on the menu. The bear ran away and I began another day’s drive.
The next few days were uneventful. I ended up driving over to Monterrey with the plan of taking Highway 101 down to LA. I have always heard that it is a spectacular drive as the road hugs the rocky Pacific Coast. People plan honeymoons and supposed trips of a lifetime around this road. I am going to have to take their word for it. All I saw was the back of a Winnebago and a wall of gray fog.
The next day, I was in LA, got a room on the beach, took a 2 hour shower and decided to hang out with the beautiful people. They would have no part of that plan though so I got a 6 pack and a box of Ho Ho’s. Crawled into bed and wore the batteries out on the remote control. The party never stops with me, huh?
I hung around LA for a few days but soon grew restless plus I was becoming dangerously attached to the air conditioned comforts of a beach front hotel. Time to move on!!
The next day, I found myself staring at the wall that separates good tequila from bad tequila. Tijuana, famous for drunken debauchery and regrettable behavior, was but a short walk and couple of questions away. I was by myself, which was a bit of a worry, not having someone to watch my back but it was a nice sunny day and I wouldn’t go too far into town. I got in line and walked across the border with no idea about what to expect once I got there but of course expecting the worse. It wasn’t so bad, sure it was a little seedy but nothing worse then you would find in any large American city. There was very little by the way of pushy street vendors or begging. Just a few barkers promoting the “mas lindas mujeres“ that would satisfy my every desire. I don’t think a burrito and a nap was one of a desires that they fulfilling so I continued on.
After a stroll around the main part of town I realized that a nap was out of the question so I set my sites on beer and a burrito. It was still early so I wasn’t in danger of being caught in Tijuana after dark. I stopped at a pleasant looking outdoor café overlooking the main street. The waiter bought me an ice cold beer, salsa, chips and a free shot of tequila. My experience is that nothing good ever comes from tequila and it tastes pretty bad too. But the sun was high and I was in Mexico. So I had the beer, then the tequila, then another beer to get rid of the taste of the free tequila. Pulling my rusty Spanish out of the High School Memory banks, I realized that I got a free shot with every beer or maybe it was a free beer with every shot. Either way, it wasn't good and since free is my favorite flavor, I would order a beer to get rid of the taste of the tequila and ended up with another shot of FREE tequila. My favorite kind. So I couldn’t not drink it, requiring another beer to get rid of the taste which came with another shot of my favorite tequila etc. etc. etc. I think you can see where this was headed. Luckily, so did I. I paid the bill before the dumb ideas became brilliant and started to make my way back to the border. But first, a burrito. Almost forgot the burrito. I hopped into the first kitchen I saw and got myself a surprisingly mediocre burrito. The sun was still up and I could see the border so I stopped for another beer and then headed back to the USA incident free.
I walked back to where I parked the truck and it was still there. In the end a drama free day. Logic clouded by the remains free tequila and cheap beer, I decided that it would be great head over to the beach and the Southwestern most point of the United States. What could happen?
It seemed like it would be pretty easy place to find as long as I kept going either south or west until I got wet or hit a big wall. So easy, I could do it in the dark, which of course by now it was. When my headlights lit a gate across the road and a park closed sign. I thought, OK, I’ll come back tomorrow. But then I saw a wide spot in the bushes that I could easily use to get to the road on the other side of the gate. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I drove thru but it wasn’t long before the road turned to packed sand and beach grass. Which reminded me of Montana and my lack of 4wD. An approaching bright light in the sky took my attention away from the ever softening road below my wheels. Then as a spotlight from above flooded the cab, flashing police lights appeared on both side of the truck. A voice on the loud speaker told me to stop. Now, I am generally a law abiding citizen as long as it won’t cause me any hardship. Stopping the truck here would have involved a night spent digging out or an expensive towing bill. So I waved and slowly continued on, hoping for solid ground. I soon learned that was not one of my options. So I stopped the truck, raised my hands and waited for at least a minor beating or an opportunity to practice my Spanish while chained to an INS bench somewhere. But after a quick search, I was “requested“ to leave the area and never return. As plans go, this was one I could live with. At least until the next morning when I returned to finish my search for the Southwest Corner of the USA.
My interest in Mexico was waning so I headed into San Diego, hoping for directional inspiration and thought a Guiness might show me the way. Luckily, I was in the old town/entertainment district of town and adult beverages weren’t more then a few steps in any direction. Even luckier, I was standing in front of an Irish Bar. Far be it from me to deny fate so in I went. As luck would have it, the bar was sponsoring one of those 8 Minute Date Night events. Luckily it was a straight bar and there weren’t enough men signed up. So the lady in charge asked me to fill in for free. Since eight minutes is usually way more than my dates usually last, I was intrigued. "You mean no matter what, they got hang with you for eight minutes", I asked. I looked at the ladies that were signed up and thought Hmmmm. The general format is a question and answer session where the only thing you can’t ask is the other person’s name. I ran through a typical set of questions that might come up:
Good Looking Woman: “So how hold are you?” Answer: “ 40”
GLW: “Have you ever been married? A: “No:
GLW: “Do you have any kids? A: “No”
So far so good
GLW: “What do you do for a living?” A: “Nothing.”
GLW: “Where do you live?” A: “In the parking lot”
GLW: “What are your plans?” A: “Find a nicer parking lot”
GLW: “Do you smell something?” A: “Not anymore”
GLW: “What time is it?”
Just didn't seem to be the discussion my fragile ego needed to have. Once or twice might be entertaining but 8 to 10 times would be kind of depressing so I declined and had another Guiness.
Next day I headed up to La Jolla to meet an old girlfriend for lunch. Don’t get excited, she was happily married by now and living a nice life in a beautiful part of the world. After lunch, I headed back up to LA and decided a few minutes after getting there, it was time to see what LA looks like in the rear view mirror. Ended up getting lost in East LA as the sun was setting. From what I heard it wasn’t the place for a middle aged white guy to be hanging out in after dark. Let alone sleeping. I checked the map and headed for Pasadena. Pasadena is nice because they don’t allow people like me. I kept going until I found a town that wasn’t so choosey.
By this time, The little rumbling I was feeling made me realize that I didn’t get out of Mexico scott free. But nothing too bad. The next morning I headed back into the desert aiming for Palm Springs. There is nothing special about Palm Springs. Just a lot of dirt and old people under a scorching sun. But it has some really cool wind mill farms and Joshua Tree national park. That was my new direction. Little did I know that fate was now at the wheel and I was just along for the ride.
I was in the desert again, the sun was going down, and the further I got from the border the more I was reminded of that last Burrito. I passed a few hotels but continued on, to the dismay of my digestive tract. It was dark as I headed up a winding mountain road. At the top, the lights of Palm Springs stretched out below. I anxiously made it to the bottom. It was midnight, still 100 degrees, I was tired and I was sick so I broke down and looked for a cheap hotel. I called one place but kept getting put on hold and decided to just show up. On my way I saw a cheap motel 8 so I stopped in. They had a room so I parked the truck and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up to find Barney’s window smashed and everything taken; 3 computers, my cameras a borrowed video camera all of my software and Music CDs. A lot of other sundry stuff that still pains me too much to list. Needless to say I was rather upset. I called the cops and Barney Fife shows up. I was still sick. I was standing in the hot sun answering insipid questions as Barney two finger typed in the robbery report. They said that Palm Springs is a high crime area due to drug traffic and the gambling addiction that permeates the place. They also said they pretty much know who the bad guys are but can’t do anything about it. I get a case number and they drive off. The hotel manager smugly denies all and I find out that my insurance doesn’t cover anything. Not even the smashed window. It was somewhere during this fit of rage that I decided to stay in Palm Springs and become a super hero crime fighter. It was a few hours before the testosterone level dropped off before I remembered the old man in the desert watching his life’s work burn up. I realized that it was just stuff and short of a little intestinal distress I was ok. So I fixed the window and headed out into the desert and sat on a rock for a few hours and thought about the future.
My plan was to meditate for a few hours but it was hot so I left after 20 minutes. So I got in the truck and drove to Phoenix via the London Bridge in Lake Havasu. I always wanted to see the bridge ever since I saw the brochures for it during one of our family treks across the country in my youth. But since my dad was always trying to set the endurance speed record for a 1975 Ford LTD station wagon, we never quite stopped. The other reason I wanted to stop is because they get a lot of footage from the “Girls Gone Wild” videos there. It was a disappointment on both fronts. The Bridge isn’t much more than a useless tourist attraction. It doesn’t really bridge anything. And the girls, well they were just plain gone. No wild here.
On to Phoenix. I was seriously burned out by this point of the trip. So it was looking like Phoenix was where I would end up just from a lack of energy. I would get a call center job, live in a trailer on the edge of town and collect and sell used golf balls on the weekends.
I snapped out of that in about an hour. It was too hot and there was very little in the way of plant life that wasn’t brown. Just a whole lot of dirt and spindly trees. As I was pondering my situation, the cell phone rang and I am asked to interview for a job back in Seattle. A distance that seemed like light years away now. I set up a phone interview and hung up. Then, almost immediately, the phone rings again. Another job in Seattle is available.
They say a ball needs to hit the bottom before it could bounce so maybe this was the bottom and hopefully I was a superball.
Well as you have been hoping since the second or third paragraph, I'll make this a short story. The phone interviews went well and I drove 1200 miles in two days to do the face to face interviews. Got my interview clothes pressed, bought a new shirt and shined my shoes. I got an offer on the first job but it was for the people I worked for in my previous life and figured I wasn’t so desperate. The other job looked good too but was dragged out while I was squeezed into the manager’s schedules. After a week spent waiting in the Walmart parking lot, I was offered a job at Washington Mutual Bank. I took it and stayed there until its collapse in 2009.
 I would have to get a job in Washington DC for that.
 For those of you not in the know, my 1995 purple Ford Ranger
 And not just the jiggly ones,
 Take note, this is what they call a foreshadow amongst people who actually can write.
 But rarely remembered
 Cheap being a close second
 Note the superlative
 Not really, but it would have been fun to see her reaction.
 Besides, The tights would be problematic