A week ago I drove my little Miata across the country from Columbus, Indiana (just south of Indianapolis) to Oro Valley, Arizona (just north of Tucson). It was an interesting four days.
Of note is that my Miata is a rag top, and that with the exception of an hour or so when it rained I made the trip with the top down and the sun beating on me. So it was hot, but with the wind and the buffeting of the road it was not so hot. Besides, I’ve always been fine with being warm.
What this means, however, is that the experience was different than many might have. I’ll call it a cross between a car trip and a motorcycle quest. There is, you see, a different physical sensation to being on the road when your top is down—I mean, really ass-on-seat being on the road; where you can hear, smell, and sometimes even taste the world around you. You begin to notice the quality of the road by the pitch of the whine your tires make as they sing against the concrete. You recognize a truck you’ve passed before by the grind of its pistons.
You smell grass. You hear your engine as it builds speed or goes quiet as you coast along down a long mountain trail. You feel that engine work in tandem with the brakes to slow you down.
I stopped at a bunch of places along the way. Lisa had made it clear that I should take my time getting out here. I think she wanted me to find sites I could take a day and go exploring, but I had a different mindset. I looked for “small” places, things that wouldn’t draw a million people a year, but that represented important qualities about us as people, and maybe even about us as Americans. And I wanted them to be places that doubled as rest breaks from driving—simple 30 minutes stops that felt important, spaced out every 3-4 hours of road time. In other words, I wanted to do things no one else would have thought about, but were really cool.
Here’s my experience.
Day 1: O’Fallon, MO—I left Columbus after lunch the first day, and made it just west of St. Louis where I met up with Tom and Rachel Carpenter for a fantastic dinner at McGurks (which I think is their favorite place). In honor of Lisa I had salmon, and I learned a bunch about how Tom and Rachel are thinking about building their business as writer, publisher, and cover artist (Rachel did all the covers on Saga of the God-Touched Mage). Tom is the author of the Dashkova Memoirs, which is a great historical fantasy/steampunk mashup. You should check it out.
Day 2, Stop 1: Carthage, MO/Joplin, MO—Up bright and early, I took a long jag to Carthage (nearly six hours…sheesh…this was the only stint of my trip that Google Maps totally mangled as far as timing is concerned). I came here to see the site of the first civil war skirmish after Lincoln invoked war powers. The battle was essentially over whether Missouri would enter the war on the north or the south, a question that was under very hot debate. It was a victory for the south, though it turned out that the result was not quite so convincing. Missouri would teeter on the brink of both sides.
The site is a little hard to find today.
It’s just a quiet little field that’s been made into a kid’s park, which I guess is interesting in its own way. They built a hutch under a ridge of trees to mark the goings on that happened here. I got out of the car and walked around the little field, and I read the history. It was a quiet place. Cool in the shade. As I stood there, I kept thinking how the mere idea of a US Senator leading a fighting force against the country so that other humans could be kept as slaves seemed so … strange. Like it should be science fiction.
But, of course, it wasn’t science fiction at all.
I walked down the street to get a picture of the gateway they erected to mark the place.
Day 2, Stop 2: Then I took a quick hour or so’s drive to Joplin, MO, where I did a drive-by of the house that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow used as a hideout for a couple weeks back in their prime. In 1933 the story goes that police raided the place, and that two of them wound up dead. Undeveloped photos left at the site lead to Bonnie and Clyde’s eventual demise.
This is Bonnie and Clyde we’re talking about, after all. Maybe the last of the Wild West outlaws. Dillinger was Chicago-and-Elkhart mid-western, you see. And Pretty Boy Floyd was southern east-coast. But Bonnie and Clyde have a different feel. Their story is like a modern-day western with guns blazing against the wild-west lawmen and jalopies as horses. They operated in the “west” you see—not LA west, but Texas west. And Oklahoma and Louisiana and, yes, Missouri.
They were the last of that breed, and as I sat in my car and gave the place one more glance the fact that their hideout has seeped into the calmness of everyday life seems somehow appropriate.
Day 3, Stop 1: I spent the night at Tulsa, then hopped onto 44 to drive out past Oklahoma City and into Binger, OK—the boyhood home of Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher who ever lived (apologies to the recently deceased Yogi Berra). Binger is a little bitty place. Main Street has a collection of ten or fifteen buildings. A Shell station, City Hall, and an insurance place. A Mexican restaurant sits on the farthest street corner that empties out onto SR 152. It’s an open, dusty kind of place. It, like most of the Southwest, is pretty clearly a church-going, gun-toting kinda town. I would suggest they are not big fans of Barack Obama here. That said, the folks were friendly and open in an almost clichéd fashion. And, yes, it was hot.
My goal was to attend the Johnny Bench Museum, which it turns out is easy to get close to but a bit hard to find. It sits in the building that serves as city hall and sheriff’s office, but is nestled in with what I’ll assume is the town’s only insurance broker’s place. The museum was dark when I found it, but when I poked my head into the sheriff’s office the attendant walked me around the back and let me in. She explained a little about the sources of the collection, then let me free to browse on my own.
So it was just me and my best buddy Johnny Bench.
Talk about the American dream. A young kid from nowhere plays high school ball in a bunch of dusty ballparks and rises up to be one of the most successful and innovative players of all time. Innovative, you say? Yes. Ever see a catcher catch with two hands anymore? No, you don’t. That’s a Benchism. Anyway, I spent fifteen minutes looking at jerseys and bats and pictures and whatnot. I saw the signatures of Johnny, and Pete Rose, and Joe Morgan. Tony Perez. Sparky Anderson. It was great fun. Made me think of the times when I was twelve or so, and listening to the Big Red Machine on the radio.
Day 3, Stop 2: I left Binger and Ddrove a half hour or so down to Anadarko, OK, where I stopped in at the Southern Plains Indian Museum. (Thanks for the recommendation, Meg!). One is not allowed to take photos there, so I’ll have to do it justice with just these words. Bottom line: it’s a small place, filled mostly with contemporary art and American Indian dress, though I more thoroughly enjoyed a series of dioramas created in the 1950s by renowned artist Allan Haozous, who was born of the Chiricahua Apache tribe and had family ties to Geronimo, and who later took the name of Houser. For basic reference, members of this tribe were ones who, when they refused to move from New Mexico to Arizona as the government required them to do, were boxed into railroad cars and sent to prison in Florida. I’ll leave you to draw your own connections.
These histories are not really found in the Southern Plains Museum, though. The museum has a bit of a discussion about tribal migrations, but the whole thing is fairly light fare. Perfect for a fifteen-thirty minute stop, great for getting a feel for American Indian handicraft and artwork, but not deep on educational material.
Though I should say that there was one spot in particular—just a poster, really—tacked on the wall in the children’s section. It depicted the vast array of American Indiana tribes, where they came from, and identified in the language of the tribe itself. Hundreds of tribes. Hundreds of different types of people. Most of them gone now. All of them fundamentally changed by (as a few notations euphemistically noted) the “European influence.”
As I drove away, I was really happy to have found this place, both for the craftwork and for the opportunity to see Alan Haozous’s work. But just as much for the opportunity to think about what it meant when I went to school and learned about how American expansion moved across the wild and “unsettled” west. I was thinking about this as I got back on SR 152. I was thinking about it for a very long time, because 152 is stick-straight and goes on for a gazillion miles, and because there really was no traffic on that highway. It was just me and the harsh sage and the sun beating down. I could smell rock and dust. And then I got to think about it even more when I transferred to I-40, which is long and straight and nearly as sparsely driven. I thought about it all the way to Tucumcari, New Mexico where I spent the night.
The Southwest is a great big place, it seems, even now. There just aren’t a lot of people here.
Perhaps I’m guilty of simpleton thinking done of the modern age, but it seems like there ought to have been a way to leave the indigenous folks here without any problem.
Anyway, as a final thought on the day’s drive, I thought it was mega-cool to be wandering through northern Texas and see zero oil wells but probably eight huge wind farms. The times are changing, friends. Slowly, but hopefully surely. I know there are those who think these things are unattractive, but I am the opposite. I felt very science fictiony as I drove parts of this path.
Also, while photos are not allowed at the museum, Google is a great thing. When I got here I did a little looking. Here’s the map in question.
Day 4, Stop 1: So I came to the last day, a ten hour day of driving over dusty roads in New Mexico, taking the proverbial left at Albuquerque, and eventually enjoying the gorgeous views of the twisting parts of I-60 that wind through what I’ll call the mini-grand canyon in the northeaster reaches of Arizona. That last portion was stunning in its beauty, stressful with its mountainous roads, and much fun to drive in my little Miata with its top pulled down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first stop was just west of Socorro, NM (or more appropriately, just west of Magdalena, NM—a tiny place whose name reminded me of the woman who once wrote Water, which was a ground-breaking blog before there were blogs, but I am now so totally digressing). Socorro/Magdalena is the site of the Very Large Array, which is the huge multi-dish radio telescope that covers a couple hundred square miles, and spends every minute of the day listening to space. You might have seen parts of it in Contact or in Carl Sagan’s work. It is very, very cool. Probably the highlight of the trip (though I should warn you, if you go be prepared—it’s way, way off the beaten path so you need to bring your own food and make sure you get gassed up before hand).
The last leg of the drive takes you three or four miles off of SR 60, along a tiny, crunching road that is technically concrete but might as well be gravel. I didn’t care, tough, because all I could see were the big, beautiful dishes.
I spent a good hour here. There’s a nice walking tour, with a bunch of stops. You can see a dish close-up, and you get a good overview of what radio waves are, how they travel through space, and how the system collects its data. In the visitor’s center, they show a 20 minute movie that’s pretty interesting if you’re into space and such radio projects. It’s amazing to think about how small we really are, and how little what we do really matters in the overall scope of the universe. Matching this experience with the drive through the Snake River Canyon was a good way to bring this whole thing to its end point.
My Big-Ol’ Summary: It rained as I was crossing into Arizona, so I had maybe 45 minutes of driving with the top up. It wasn’t nearly as fun. I couldn’t hear the wind in my ears, and the trucks didn’t sound as real as they should have. If felt distant. Like I was compartmentalized.
When Lisa and I get to a new city we like to walk around in it for a day. Just wander its streets. You get a feel for a place when you immerse yourself into it, and so we walked Chicago in the old days, and we walked Toronto earlier this summer. When I went to Australia, I spent several nights walking that city. During my drive through the rain, I realized that this is what I was doing while I was driving. Top down. Immersed. Or at least more immersed, or more in-tune with the ground around me than the usual car ride might let me be.
I saw a writer friend. I saw a place where the country fought over the right to own slaves (or, if you’re a States Rights kind of arguer, the right to do whatever we want, which most specifically includes own slaves). I saw an outlaws’ hideout from the last of the true wild lawless days. I visited the place where a great of the national pastime became who he was. I got a taste of the world from the viewpoint of the American Indian in the southwest. And, then, I saw what I hope to define the distant future.
Along the way, I drove highways and side-streets. I did twisting little things, and I ran along historic Route 66. It was a beautiful little drive. I’m glad I did it.
As I was driving, I found myself humming a song, of course. If you’ve made it this far, I’ll leave it here for you, in two forms: