Road trips, once long ago in my flat, dusty Delaware boyhood, held a special, almost spiritual promise. Getting away — to the beach, to the mountains, on vacation, to Arizona as a young man, just anywhere, really — was everything to me. It was the stuff of Springsteen (Together we can break this trap/We’ll run ’til we drop, baby we’ll never go back) and Mellencamp. It was sustaining. And it wasn’t necessarily about the destination, per se. Getting away was the destination.
Somewhere around 40 years ago, I took my first real road trip, a should-have-been epic cross-country journey from Willow Grove, Delaware to Tempe, Arizona, with Steve Moon in his 1974 Mustang. And you know what I remember about it now? Almost nothing.
I remember endless interstates, and making it all the way from Willow Grove to Monroe, Louisiana in the first day (and being pretty proud of that). I remember being surprised that there existed another, lesser Philadelphia, this one in Mississippi. And I remember thinking, after rolling through eight states on that first day and struggling to make it to El Paso by nightfall on our second, that Texas was one big-ass place.
I’ve done a lot of driving since then, but nothing, anywhere, quite like that. Nothing, that is, until a few weeks ago. That’s when this one-time small-town boy loaded a keyboard, a couple guitars, a set of bongos, a bunch of computer equipment, a mile of cable, a 10-speed bike, an 8-inch-high tiki god, a ton of T-shirts, two suitcases, a marble bistro table, a floor lamp and a desk lamp, two chairs, a couple more beach chairs, and a dozen or more boxes of everything a 22-year-old needs (and lots he probably doesn’t) into the back of a 15-foot U-Haul truck and took off, with a 10-year-old Honda on a tow dolly behind me and my 22-year-old son by my side, for his new life in San Diego.
At the beginning, I didn’t really look at this trip as a circle-of-life thing, probably because I didn’t want to drive into a philosophical and emotional roadside ditch. Instead, I hoped simply for some meaningful father-son bonding, a chance, maybe, to lay a hard-fought life lesson or two on the boy, a few good stories to tell later, and something promising and new, at least for one of us, on the other end.
Also, I didn’t fully grasp any larger meaning to this trip, at least not immediately, because I knew this: Between us and enlightenment, one big-ass state sat in the way.
Day 1 (September 21)
After packing the U-Haul the day before and hitching the car to the back, we pulled our big rig out of the Saint Michelle Drive cul de sac in Alpharetta at right about 8 a.m., after a lot of hugs from Mary Jo (mostly, of course, for Luke), a fair bit of mirror checking and hitch double-checking, and more than a little trepidation. Google Maps told us the trip was going to be about 2,100 miles. We hoped, we planned, to make it just east of Dallas in the first day.
Carefully, we maneuvered the truck and trailer through neighborhood streets, around all the new traffic circles in town (they’re building a new one every two months, it seems), and onto the familiar high-speed Atlanta highways; first Georgia 400 (nickname: the Alpharetta Autobahn), then to I-285, the 64-mile freeway surrounding the city (why, again, is that called an interstate?), and finally onto Interstate 20, toward Birmingham, Alabama.
To our untrained minds, our rig was every bit an 18-wheeler. A 15-foot U-Haul truck is measured by the cargo space behind the cab. In all, that makes the truck 22.5 feet long. Add a couple feet for the hitch on the tow dolly, and at least 10 feet for the car (tipped back and rolling on its rear wheels), and we were captaining a tanker that was better than 35 feet long. You can’t turn on a dime, you can’t even think about stopping on anything close to one, in something that big and heavy. So: yeah, a little trepidation.
But Birmingham came quickly enough, and Luke took the wheel shortly after and guided us through the rest of Alabama, all of the state of Mississippi, across the great Mississippi River (which, in honesty, didn’t look all that great from I-20), and into Louisiana.
We stopped every so often to check the car and tighten the straps holding the front wheels of the old Accord to the trailer. We took it easy, at first, because every time we glanced in the big side mirrors of the truck, we saw the warning labels on the trailer fenders advising us to keep our speed to 55 mph. It seemed we had an inch to spare on each side of that trailer.
Soon enough, though, we were barreling along at 65 and 70, jumping into the left lane and slowing down poor passenger cars with absolutely no regard for their progress. In a matter of a few hours, we had become real truckers.
For the better part of a couple states, Luke stalked an RV pulling a Jeep. I’d have passed the guy much earlier, but Luke, being the cross-country novice he is, was content to sit, hands on the bottom of the wheel, and enjoy the open road. We traded places every couple hours, and somewhere around Choudrant, Louisiana, along never-ending I-20, Luke piped Spotify into the lame U-Haul radio. After an hour or so of his music, with me back behind the wheel, I had him play a real song or two.
Because I-20 has no real traveling songs named after it that I know of — and if it does, I don’t think I want to hear them — I had Luke queue up “Route 66.” He put on the Chuck Berry version. And then The Rolling Stones. And, finally, he found one to my liking, the Natalie Cole rendition. I-20 is not the “highway that’s the best,” but we were, after all, motoring west.
We needed some gas, so we pointed toward something called a TruckStop America and rolled back to where the true truckers fill up, only to find that side of the joint was reserved for diesel-guzzlers, not us unleaded-only trucker-lites. In a pique, we guided our big rig around front with the minivans and SUVs — they’re really only U-Haul wannabes — and took up two pumps, just for spite. Hey, this stuff always rolls downhill.
We wolfed down some truck-stop Popeye’s that first day. And we talked; about music, about food, about politics and social problems — Luke is concerned about economic inequity and such things — and about what lies ahead, in the vaguest of terms.
We had a long way to go. The future would get here soon enough. We were in no hurry.
We ate snacks from a bag on the cab floor that Mary Jo packed and snagged drinks out of cooler that sat between us. I-20 rolled on. And on. And on some more.
About 40 miles east of Dallas, we pulled in for the night at a nicer new Marriott-branded hotel that was plopped in front of a Love’s truck stop. We hogged a good six parking spots in the back lot. Then we grabbed some barbecue from Soulman’s (“Since ’74”), a short walk down the muddy access road, and took it back to our room, seeing as we were crossing the country in the midst of a pandemic.
We made sure the padlock was secure on the truck. And we slept. Like rocks.
Like true truckers.
One of the few joys of the pandemic has been the chance to reconnect with college friends from Arizona. Most every Thursday, eight or 10 of us get on a Zoom call to talk. There’s an old friend — sorry, a longtime friend — who now lives in Vegas, and one in California, a guy who now lives in the D.C. area, and three couples in greater Phoenix. We chat about the virus, and quarantine, and what we’re watching on TV, what we think of the politics of it all, how we’re holding up, and what (if anything) we have planned for the week ahead. When I told them I was driving to San Diego with my son, they had one suggestion: Buc-ee’s.
Some 40 years ago, when Steve and I were crossing the country, there was no Buc-ee’s. I would’ve remembered. You can’t forget.
Buc-ee’s is a veritable truck-stop Disneyland. If ever given the chance, stop. Stop even if you don’t need to stop. For the kitsch. For the sheer total Americana of it. But, most of all, do it for their brisket breakfast taco.
Holy morning gut bomb. What a treat.
Wrapped in a warm store-made tortilla, stuffed with egg and cheese and freshly chopped and smoky brisket, it is the epitome of truck-stop cuisine. Paired with a 75-ounce soda (road trips, if nothing else, are a perfect excuse to eat terribly), it is simply the ultimate grab-and-inhale-on-the-go day-starter. God, it was good. It also was like $2.29.
I know truck-stop food. I am a roller dog aficionado. This has them all beat.
I scouted out all the Buc-ee’s locations before we left, and this one, though it was just 37 miles from our starting point for the day, was the only one along I-20. So it was this or nothing. We pulled in before 9, on the end set of pumps in what had to be a 100-pump bay, took a picture with the bronzed Buc-ee our front, wandered around inside for five minutes or so, and then headed back to the truck. We missed what are billed as the “cleanest restrooms in America” because, again, we almost literally just left the hotel.
But, man, that breakfast taco went down like greased lightning. And we were off to conquer Texas.
Dallas was pretty rainy and more than a little white-knuckly, with bigger rigs buffeting ours around the crowded lanes on the interstate. But, as it turns out, we’d have gone through a non-stop Dallas megalopolis for the rest of the trip if we could have avoided what was next.
West Texas. What’s to say? Between Dallas and El Paso lies the most godforsaken stretch of brain-bubblingly boring highway I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to travel. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember that first trip. That part of Texas, along I-20, apparently causes amnesia. And thank god for that.
We steamrolled through Abilene, and Odessa, and Midland, flat and uninteresting towns with nothing but flat and uninteresting landscape between them, probably populated by flat and uninteresting people. We saw oil pumps and, in the towns in between, we saw endless no-nonsense, blue-collar businesses that served the industry. Some areas posted warnings of heavy winds. We begged for a gust of excitement. The speed limit climbed to 80 mph. We begged for it to go higher.
That was it, for miles upon boring miles. Sun and scrub brush and oil and wind and the long, flat interstate. West Texas looks like a hard place to live. It looks like an even harder place to love.
The highlight of the day — other than the tiptoeing talk about Luke’s future, his plans with his girlfriend, his new job, his new roommates, his new room in his new house, and the endless to-do list he needed to attack once we arrived — was a lunch stop at a Whataburger in Sweetwater, a few miles past Abilene. We parked the rig, walked in to get our burgers, walked back to the rig, rolled up the back door of the truck, and ate on two beach chairs in the cargo area. You know; pandemic and all.
Somewhere around Fort Davis, Texas, just under three hours east of El Paso, I-20 finally wore out, too, dying from the boredom of it all, I suppose. It hooked up with I-10 West, dropped its name, then followed the Rio Grande toward El Paso. At that point, with more than 10 hours on the road already for the day, we blew through that border town in darkness and pointed toward our hotel for the second night, this one in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 40 miles away.
At about 9 p.m. in Las Cruces, we snagged six more spots at the back of another Marriott-lite hotel. We ordered some wings for delivery. (It’s hard to go out to a restaurant, pandemic or not, in a 35-foot rig. Valets frown on it.)
We were already 2/3 of the way through the trip. Restrooms along the way, when we needed them, had been mostly, surprisingly, clean. Traffic was fine. Weather, other than the Dallas area, had been great. Most everyone we encountered wore masks when they should have been wearing masks. By the end of Day 2, we had a good feeling for what the truck could and couldn’t do.
I had forgotten a toothbrush, so I had gone two days with nothing but a quick finger-scrape along my fuzzy teeth. Luke had brain-skipped on a couple things, too, his desktop being the main one. The cargo in the truck had shifted a little between Day 1 and 2, though nothing seemed damaged. The car was filthy, but intact.
Overall, at the end of Day 2, so far, so good. Ten hours to go.
Well, 10 hours until this part of the trip ended. Lots more was about to begin.
In Las Cruces, I-10, which had turned north along the Mexico border to dissect El Paso, swung west again and began its run across the open desert of southern New Mexico. That area of the country, to the uninitiated interstate-trapped traveler, is especially abundant in one natural resource: dust.
Yet, somehow, it was more interesting than West Texas.
For quite a stretch along New Mexico, and into Arizona, signs warning of dust storms are posted regularly along the interstate. It’s apparently serious business. Drivers are warned “Zero Visibility Possible,” and told to get off the road, turn off your lights (you don’t want some clueless RV driver following your lights in near-zero visibility, only to realize too late that you’re actually 20 feet off the asphalt and stopped), get your foot off the brakes, and stay buckled in.
In Deming, New Mexico, we first spotted a billboard for a roadside attraction, “The Thing.” It turns out “The Thing,” whatever it was, still was more than two hours away, just east of Tucson. The “thing” is, it was more than one billboard. It was a series. In fact, it was a series of serial billboards, cluttering up an otherwise pristine interstate.
“The Thing” is, evidently, a mock-up of a mummified mother and child that you can see for somewhere around $10 a family.
Only in America.
I-10 wound on, through western New Mexico and into Tucson, where we braved city streets to stop for some chicken fingers, opting to slam them down in the air-conditioned comfort of the truck cab. Maybe the most difficult part of the trip lie directly ahead.
Twenty-one-hundred miles is a trip, in every sense of the word. And at this point, more than 24 hours into a 31-hour slog, we were ready to be there. We were tired of talking about what was ahead. We wanted to see it.
But between Tucson and San Diego, there is nothing. Like West Texas nothing. And, in late September, it’s hot. We expected better than 100-degree temperatures, and we got it, even before we turned due west.
We stocked up on water at a gas station in Marana, Arizona, on the other side of Tucson, headed north toward Phoenix and, 50 miles later, hung a left at I-8. The homestretch.
Luke was at the wheel. We watched the engine temperature gauge. We downed water. The car bouncing along on the trailer behind us, we knew, was fine. We figured we probably would have noticed if it had decided to take off on its own.
Gila Bend was a blink. Then Yuma. And as we were crossing over the Colorado River — not sure we noticed it at all, not sure I knew it came down that far — I strained to look through a windshield spattered with the bugs of at least seven states (really, Texas ought to count for about three) for another roadside sign.
No. Not “The Thing.”
If California always has been a land for dreamers, the southeastern part of the state is not. It starts off with rolling sand dunes as I-8 and the Mexico border play tag. It contains the Salton Sea, a long-failed resort town on a poisonous saltwater lake in the middle of the desert. It’s not West Texas, but it’s definitely not Hollywood.
Still, after climbing through the windmill farms and chaparral of the Laguna Mountains, I-8 drops you into San Diego. And nobody doesn’t like San Diego. Luke commandeered the truck as it whined its way down toward the coast, then did some white-knuckling in his first taste of truck driving through Southern California traffic.
After a few missed turns — I drive better than I navigate — we pulled up to his rented house in Oceanside after nightfall. It’s a beautiful five-bedroom job he’s sharing with some new workmates. We met the new roomies, then took a quick tour of the house. We unhitched the car. We spent a couple hours unloading the truck. And we exhaled.
We made it. To the beginning.
I had, all along, planned on staying for a few days as Luke settled in. I figured I’d help him unpack, pick up a few things around town that he needed, make sure his new oldish car was in tip-top working order, share a few meals (not in the truck), and pass on the wisdom of my years in a series of deep, emotion-weighted exchanges as he began life as a real by-god adult. Yeah, I had plans.
Luke isn’t, now, some college kid living in an apartment 25 miles away, but a real insurance-buying, big decision-making, job-holding young man who needs to make doctor’s appointments, switch his car registration, find the best way to get to the nearest Costco, and, not for nothing, make new friends in an era of social distancing. And he needs to do that, now, 2,100 miles away from all our can’t-miss advice, in a city where he knows no one but his new roommates, who he met on Zoom only weeks ago.
But how can we help? What can I do? What can I say? Mary Jo and I talk about it all the time, but what are those lessons, what are those two or five or 10 must-have phrases that will stay with our little boy, who now is neither little or boy? And once you settle on those messages — if you do — how can you make sure they stick?
Luke and I tooled around town for a few days doing what had to be done; I had the tires rotated on the car, the car washed, and took the tow dolly back to U-Haul. We drove the truck down to a San Diego IKEA to pick up a desktop to replace the one he forgot and a bed-frame for a mattress he ordered over the internet.
Later, after we turned in the truck (Oh! Happy day!), we hiked a park near his house, where we marveled at just how different two sections of the country can be.
We went over to the beach to wolf down impossibly large grilled burritos on the empty patio of a Mexican seafood place attached to a gas station. (It might have been empty precisely because it was a Mexican restaurant at a gas station.)
We went for takeout tacos, a couple times, and ate In-N-Out a couple times. We delighted in takeout sushi — oh. my. god. it was almost as good as the Buc-ee’s breakfast taco — savoring it while sitting on the floor of his bedroom, among the empty boxes stacked almost to the ceiling.
We drove around, trying to memorize streets and landmarks. And we talked; about his new roommates, about what was different about California, about everything. And about nothing.
I tried to slip in some of that aged wisdom, but after 22+ years, I’ve probably said it all before — maybe more than three or four or 44 times — and now, looking across the floor at this grown-up kid of ours, seeing him drive the big rig, listening to him talk, it all felt forced, perhaps even unnecessary.
He has to find new friends. He has to make an impression at work. He has to figure out his relationship with his girlfriend, who remains, for now, in Atlanta. He has his new life to begin.
How can we help? What can I do? What do I say? Where do we go from here?
I suppose, as with all epic voyages, all you can do is point them in what you guess is the right direction, guide them along what you think might be the right path, be there for them when they make a wrong turn — those are inevitable, especially when I’m navigating — and, at some juncture, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Our son, our only child, is 2,100 miles from us right now, and that’s a physical gap that, emotionally, his Mom and I are still learning to handle. We miss him. We miss him being here. Every day. But we’re unspeakably excited, and maybe a little nervous, about what lies ahead. For him and for us.
Still, we know: This separation is temporary. One way or the other, it’s only temporary.
As I sat alone and exhausted in the San Diego airport on Monday morning waiting for my flight back to Atlanta, thinking about things said and left to be said, searching for that final slippery flash of enlightenment, I also considered the long roads we’ve traveled. The one we’re on. I thought about the roads still ahead.
And all I have is this: It’s a trip, isn’t it?