Getting my kicks over 7,000 clicks
By Jim Withers
The allure of the open road isn’t what it once was, but for those of us who came of age before the world became so interconnected, the romance of driving for driving’s sake has never gotten old. As long as we’re on the go, we don’t much care where we’re headed.
I grew up before the Internet, smart phones and social media turned the world into a global village that even Marshall McLuhan couldn’t have envisioned. My generation read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley,” and digested movies like “Easy Rider” and TV shows like “route 66.”
Life is a highway, as singer-songwriter Tom Cochrane put it.
Naturally, I didn’t turn down an invitation from a fellow retired newspaper guy to be part of a two-man road trip across the U.S. this winter.
Over a game of pool, friend Mike Shenker put it this way, “We’ll be in search of an America that once was … or maybe never was.” How fitting, I thought, at age 66 I’m going to get my kicks on Route 66.”
I only had a couple of weeks to plan, but that’s the beauty of retirement: our bodies may no longer be flexible, but our time is. With an understanding wife, and no work commitments or deadlines, I embarked upon what would become a 25-day, 7,200-
kilometre road trip covering 15 U.S. states and three time zones. In his Mazda-5 mini-minivan, Mike and I would travel together from New York to Richmond, Va., then head southwest to New Orleans, across Texas and New Mexico, and up Arizona to the Grand Canyon. Then, 17 days into the trip, we’d split up, with Mike staying on in Arizona while I would, in a rented car, make my way to the Pacific.
I wasn’t wearing a happy face the first day of the trip (Jan. 7), when nasty winter weather delayed my flight to New York for about eight hours, most of which I spent on a plane on the tarmac. I finally did get to LaGuardia, however, where Mike was waiting for me. We set off from Long Island the next morning, racing along the eastern seaboard, as the states flew by like a picket fence … New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia …
We got our first taste of Southern hospitality over breakfast the next morning in Richmond, Va.
James, our waiter, was pouring us a second glass of orange juice. “I want to make sure you’re straight so I can have peace in my soul … all day,” he said.
When I later thanked him for bringing us a coffee refill, he replied,
“YOU’RE welcome! You ARE MORE than welcome!”
Then, after we’d paid the bill and tipped him, James pointed to some fruit on the counter and asked us if we wanted any for the road.
“If I have anything more to eat you’re going to have to roll me out of
here,” I said.
“And I’ll roll you out with LOOOVE,” he said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell James that this was the first time – and
last – that I’ll ever try grits.
Hours and hours spent in the car while looking at blacktop and the
ever-changing landscape gave us a lot of time to listen to CDs and radio, and to discuss such weighty subjects as:
Newspapers: how much time have they got?
Knuckleballs: are they just an optical illusion? (There’s a scientist out there who contends just that, but then again he might be one of those professional contrarians who claim that the vast majority of scientists are global-warming “alarmists.”)
The Beach Boys: Why do they want all the girls to be from California
apart from that “the-girls-all-get-so-tanned … French-bikini” stuff? After all, the song itself acknowledges that girls from outside the Golden State also have great qualities (“… and the Southern girls, with the way they talk, they knock me out when I’m down there.”)
Indeed, I love accents, and that goes for the
lovely Southern y’all drawl we’d experience over and over.
We also discussed money, in particular the loonie’s dramatic nosedive vis-à-vis the U.S. greenback. The pain in the pocketbook visiting Canadians experience is only partly mitigated by the
dramatic worldwide drop in fuel prices. For much of the early going on our trip, we were paying less than $2 U.S. per gallon for gas, or less than 60 cents (Canadian) a litre.
After three days of pedal-to-the-metal interstate driving, Mike and I were happy to sojourn in New Orleans, where we almost made ourselves sick on Cajun and Creole cuisine: jambalaya, deep-fried shrimp, deep-fried pickle slices, deep-fried EVERYTHING, oysters, catfish, blackened redfish, beignets (a kind of doughnut covered in powdered sugar), plus roast-beef po’boys (a kind of submarine sandwich). We didn’t try alligator (“the other white meat”).
It was heartening to see that post-Katrina New Orleans hadn’t lost its unique charms – its rich multi-coloured architecture
(wrought-iron balconies, well-preserved antebellum mansions, etc.) and its vibrant music scene. Indeed, you never know when and where music will break out in the Big Easy. Our visit included the sight and sounds of two guys working on their bagpipe chops in a fire station and an elementary-school marching band strutting its stuff through the neighbourhood. The city pulsates with jazz and blues from its many clubs, and from the seemingly spontaneous nightly street performances by informal brass ensembles on Frenchmen St., a good place to avoid the spring-break-like craziness of Bourbon St. Indeed, for three straight evenings, Mike and I had dinner in the area and listened to performers like Meschiya Lake and The Little Big Horns Jazz Band while standing, with beer in hand, in the intimate but lively confines of the Spotted Cat Club.
It was a cold, rainy day when Mike and I headed off to Austin, the capital of Texas and another town known for its music. On our drive there through bayou country, sin and piety duked it out on billboard messages:
– In the beginning, GOD CREATED
– LOVE SHACK adult store: Batteries not included
– The best HOOKERS in town (for a towing company)
– LUST DRAGS YOU DOWN TO HELL
– THE HOLY BIBLE. Inspired, Absolute. Final.
– KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS
Wherever we were, Mike and I always tried to go with the local cuisine, which in Texas means Tex-Mex and barbecued meat, and that’s what we lived on during our two-day stop in Austin. My inner caveman rejoiced, while the rest of me tried not to think about my arteries clogging up.
As we had in New Orleans, Mike and I tried to burn off calories by
sightseeing on our bikes. At one point on my ride in Austin I posed for a photo while standing next to a bronze statue of Texas blues-guitar demigod Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990).
With about 27 million people, Texas is the second most populous state in the U.S., almost four times that of Quebec, and yet its desiccated western half feels as though it’s as barren as Nunavut.
With the speed limit an eye-popping 80 miles per hour (129 km/h), and Mike doing better than that, we zoomed across the 940 kilometres of sun-bleached outback between Austin and El Paso, almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere at one point.
It was after sunset when we arrived in El Paso, and the lights of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, lit up the darkness on the other side of the Rio Grande. Indeed, a Mexican presence and the Spanish language would be very much in evidence for much of the rest of the trip.
Less than an hour into our drive west from El Paso the next day, Mike and I came upon an internal inspection centre, which the United States Border Patrol operates on highways near its southern border to nab any illegal immigrants.
“Are you U.S. citizens?” a patrol officer asked.
“Yes, and he’s Canadian,” Mike said while nodding in my direction.
“Have a nice day,” the officer said as he waved us through.
Uncle Sam, it seems, doesn’t fret too much about illegal immigration from Canada.
New Mexico turned out to be exactly how I’d pictured it – endless desert dotted with cacti and sagebrush, with a backdrop of stand-alone, tree-less, papier-mâché-like mountains, some reddish and some silhouetted against the wide, cloudless sky. Just like in the movies.
Seeing an “Impeach Obama” bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck reminded me of how bewildering I find Republican wedge politics, not to mention how dispiriting it is to see such right-wing views and tactics being imitated in Canada. Part of it is Americans’ moronic obsession with guns, which I was reminded of while viewing signs in the window at the Second Amendment Family Gun Shop in Bisbee, Ariz.:
– If guns kill people … Do pencils misspell words?
(Under a picture of a sharpened pencil sticking out of a pistol)
– GUNS ARE WELCOME ON PREMISIS: Please keep all guns holstered unless need arises. (Under a picture of a pistol)
– ARIZONA: Doing the job the Feds won’t do. Yes we can.
(Accompanying a Rosie the Riveter-like cartoon of a fist-clenching, muscle-flexing former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.)
Funny how there were no signs mentioning ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords who, four years ago, was among the 19 people shot during a constituent meeting in a Tucson suburb. Six people died in that attack, including a nine-year-old girl. Giffords survived, but her political career didn’t, and her life was irrevocably changed. …
The legendary frontier town of Tombstone, where we stopped for a couple of hours, underscores how long guns and gun violence have been part of American culture. It was here, on Oct. 26, 1881, that Doc Holliday and the Earp boys (Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt) killed Billy Claiborne, and Tom and Frank McLaury at the O.K. Corral. Tombstone is pretty much a theme park now, with wooden sidewalks, buckboard rides for tourists, and re-enactments of the celebrated 30-second O.K. Corral shootout. The town’s museum in the old courthouse is worth a visit, but for me Boothill was the highlight. Sure the victims of the O.K. Corral gunfight are interred there, but I was more intrigued by the cemetery’s other residents.
– Unknown d. 1882, “Found in abandoned mine.” He was found at the bottom of the Minute Mine, well dressed, indicating he was probably not a miner.
– Blair, Johnnie. Died of smallpox. A cowboy tied rope around his feet, and dragged him to his grave to avoid touching the body.
– Bobier, William, d. 16 Jul 1882. Died during a dispute over a cockfight.
– Bowles, Frank, d. 1880. Was thrown from his horse, which caused his gun to go off, and hit him in the leg, but he did not seek medical attention soon enough.
– Bradshaw, E.L., Former boyfriend of Blond Mollie. Believed to have been shot by Frank Leslie, who began seeing Mollie.
– Dutch Annie, d. 1883, brothel madam. Also known as the Queen of the Red Light District.
– Fat, Wong, b. Oct 1809, China, d. 27 Sep 1908, age 98 years.
– Gibbons, John, d. 1880, Suicide, with lover Malvina Lopez.
– John Alexander Gillespie March, was Cochise County Sheriff less than 12 hours when killed at Chandler Milk Ranch trying to arrest Billy Grounds and Zwing Hunt, suspected killers of Martin Peel. He died instantly when Hunt shot him in the head.
– Louis Hancock, 1879, shot by John Ringo in bar-room brawl in Stafford, Ariz., the fight allegedly started over a disparaging remark about a lady.
– John Hick, 1878, killed by Jeremiah McCormick at Watervale July 6, 1878, following a card game argument with William Quinn. Buried in the only white shirt found in Tombstone, belonging to Dr. D.S. Chamberlain, a visitor.
– Harris, Sam, d. 1889, age 1 year, 4 days. Buried in the old Jewish plot.
– Slaughter, John Swain, b. Jun 1845, Texas, d. 8 Feb 1945, Settled in
Tombstone in 1879, a former slave who took the name of his master, John Slaughter.
– Smiley, Chink, d. 1884, “Shot.”
– Stumpf, Mrs., d. 1884, Died in childbirth after being given chloroform.
– Johnson, Geo. “Hanged by mistake.” Bought a stolen horse, and was assumed to be the thief.
– Kid, Kansas, Cowboy, killed in a stampede.
– Killeen, Mike, d. 22 Jun 1880. 32. Shot by Frank Leslie over a
disagreement about Killeen’s wife, whom Leslie later married.
– Kinsman, Billy, 1883, shot by a woman who was jealously in love with him.
– Lum, Ah, Mrs. (China Mary, Ah Chum), b. China, d. 16 Dec 1906, Chinese merchant and brothel owner.
– Margarita, 1880s, dance hall girl, whose real name unknown. Stabbed by another girl, “Gold Dollar,” in fight over a man.
– Kee, Foo, Operated a grocery store, accidentally stabbed by a friend.
– Quong Gee Kee “Wan” Jan. 1938. Can Can Restaurant owner.
– Lopez, Malvina, d. 1880, Suicide, with lover John Gibbons.
– Lucero, Holo, d. 1882, Killed by Indians.
– Lum, Ah, Mrs. (China Mary), b. China, d. 16 Dec 1906, Leader of
Tombstone’s Chinese community.
– McAllister, M., d. 1882, Also known as Happy Jack, died of complications stemming from a shot in the lung.
– Moore, Lester, “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les, no more”
– Noonan, Mike, b. Ireland, Sulphur Springs Valley, “Killed by Indians”, A lone rancher, was shot when he went out to chop wood.
– Rook, “Shot by a Chinaman.”
– Scott, Ben, d. 1883, A teamster, shot by his own rifle when it fell over and discharged. Buried with Al Bennett
– Waters, Tom, d. 24 Jul 1880, “Shot,” Father of Eva Waters, and believed to be T.J. Waters, who was killed because of the color of his shirt.
– Yen, Too, d. Jul 1887, Bitten by a hog.
It was while exploring Boothill, of all things, that I came across a
roadrunner perched on a cactus. Unlike that annoying cartoon character that zooms around at the speed of light while emitting a “beep! beep!” this mottled little fellow just looked at me warily the
way celebrities regard the paparazzi. My less-than-extensive research tells me that roadrunners coo like doves, can only fly short distances but can run up to almost 30 km/h, and are capable of killing rattlesnakes.
We drove north through Tucson, an area where the iconic, multi-armed saguaro cactus grows, to Sedona, with its spectacular backdrop of red and orange sandstone battlements. You don’t leave this place without trying to capture its beauty with a camera.
Now it was on to the Grand Canyon, which truly comes by its name honestly.
It’s jaw-droppingly grand and, thanks to this trip, I can now check seeing it off my bucket list. I can also now add hiking the Grand Canyon to my list of things I will probably NEVER do in this lifetime – along with skydiving, bungee jumping, big-game hunting and ten-pin bowling.
Mike is an old hand at hiking up and down the canyon and the plan was for me to accompany him while he accomplished that feat for the fourth time.
Despite being out of shape and suffering from a persistent cold that caused me to sound like Tom Waits on a bad day, I thought I was up for it. One glance into the abyss, however, not to mention seeing a snowy patch at the start of the trail caused me to think otherwise.
“Have a nice time,” I told Mike.
It was soon time for us to move into Phase II of this trip, and go our separate ways, but first we caught a couple of Route 66 attractions together east of Flagstaff.
As holes in the ground go, Meteor Crater would be even more impressive if it wasn’t located so near the Grand Canyon, which is 10 times bigger. Still, it’s the best preserved of 175 such craters on Earth. It was created roughly 50,000 years ago when a nickel-iron meteor about 50 metres across crashed into the desert leaving this 1.2-kilometre-wide, 180-metre deep
hole. (It’s so large that if they played the Super Bowl down there and turned the crater walls into seating, attendance could top 2 million.
Next up was Winslow, a town that had the misfortune of not being mentioned in Nat King Cole’s 1946 hit (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66. The Bobby Troup song, which has been recorded by numerous artists (including Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and John Mayer), made famous many of the towns and cities along the legendary highway, such as Joplin, Mo., Amarillo, Tex., and Gallup, N.M. There’s even a line “Don’t forget Winona.” Troup did, however, forget Winslow, whose fortunes sank when it was bypassed by the interstate highway.
But then, in 1972, another hit song, Take It Easy, by the Eagles, put Winslow on the map and boosted tourism. Penned by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, it includes the line: “Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona …”
Fifteen years ago, the town seized the opportunity and erected a statue of a young man with a guitar, and the Standin’ On The Cornertourist attraction was born. They could have picked any corner for their park, but chose one on old Route 66 where the town’s J.C. Penney store had been destroyed by fire. The girl with the flat-bed Ford mentioned in the song appears as a backdrop on the wall of the former store.
Mike parked as near to the statue as he could and hooked up some electronic thingy so we could hear the Jackson Browne version of “Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona …”.
Lunch was at Dar’s Route 66 Diner, a few steps away and very much in the spirit of the Route 66 theme. “That’s what we’re going for,” the waitress said.
After travelling 5,751 kilometres together, Mike and I said our good-byes the next day just outside Flagstaff. He headed back to the Grand Canyon, where he would finally do that hike he’d planned, and I continued west along Route 66.
The 230-kilometre stretch from Ash Fork to Topock, near the California line, is the longest remaining segment of what John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road.”
The first 145 kilometres of that segment, from Ash Fork through Seligman to Kingman, is like time-travelling back to the ’50s in all its neon, kitschy glory, recalling a time when diners and motor courts were mom-and-pop , one-of-a-kind operations.
I came across Burma-Shave messages along this desert portion of Route 66 which evoked memories of a long-ago family vacation to
Michigan during which I encountered my first – and only – Burma-Shave roadside message. I was pleased that my roughly 60-year-old memory of that first Burma-Shave sighting was word perfect:
“If daisies are your/
keep pushing up/
those miles per hour.”
That advertising campaign has long ago gone the way of the dodo, except that is for the 1950s museum piece that is this Arizona portion of Route 66.
Entering the 85-kilometre stretch from Kingman to the California border is like stepping through a portal into the Old West, where you drive cautiously through the mountainous badlands, carefully
negotiating switchbacks while trying to not hit the occasional wild burro, descendants of the beasts of burden that helped open the U.S. West.
I made my way through the Mojave Desert, where the haunting theme song of the 1987 movie Bagdad Café played over and over in my mind, to the Pacific.
Inhaling the ocean breezes at Big Sur, I absorbed the rocky, isolated beauty that so captivated writers Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller on this stretch of California’s Central Coast. I snapped photos of pelicans and egrets.
I was near John Steinbeck country, and wasn’t about to pass up the chance of
making a pilgrimage to the National Steinbeck Center
in Salinas, Calif. They say you never forget your first, and Steinbeck was my first favourite author. I had just started high school in the early 1960s and my reading horizon didn’t extend much beyond Sports Illustrated and the sports section of Toronto Star. My new friend Ernie Moreau (who, sadly, died last June) had just read The Grapes of Wrath. He loaned the book to me and I’ve been an avid reader since.
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)
Travel snob that I am, I confess I’ve always kind of looked down on snowbirds. It just seems so un-Canadian to flock to warmer climes in winter. And yet, with my wife and everyone else back in Montreal coping with a harsh winter, I found myself on the beach in Carmel.
Breakers were crashing onto shore, young people posing for selfies while standing with their backs toward oncoming waves, children on their hands and knees busily constructing sandcastles, dogs chasing balls, and people my age – barefoot with pant legs rolled up Huckleberry Finn-style – content to lazily soak up the warmth. The world-class Pebble Beach golf course was only an errant tee shot away.
Clint Eastwood was mayor of the town for a couple of years in the 1980s. The 84-year-old Hollywood actor is, of course, more famous for starring in a fistful of violent Hollywood westerns, and infamous for losing a debate with a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention while still being the brightest person in the room.
I spent the final three days of my trip relaxing in San Francisco, soaking up the atmosphere, strolling over the Golden Gate Bridge, enjoying dinner and drinks with writer friend Jon Evans, and getting rid of my bike.
A green Quebec-made Peugeot that had served me well for 28 years, it was the only bicycle I’d ever owned. Like me, though, it was showing its age. It was sturdy and built to handle neglect (just the bike for me), but its gears were rusty and its derailleur noisy.
When Mike invited me to tag along on his road trip it seemed like a good idea to bring it along so we could explore the U.S. on two wheels as well as four. Well, our bikes sure got to see a lot of the
country while chained together on the rack Mike had installed on the back of his Mazda. Unfortunately, though, we only managed to get in a couple of rides. For the last week of the trip I hauled mine around in the back of my rented Chevy with the idea of shipping it back home on Air Canada or by UPS. The latter was too expensive, and the former would have necessitated me schlepping it from the car-rental place to the airport departure area. Given how heavy the bike was, the distance involved and how crippled up I was from so much sitting in bucket seats, I didn’t relish that idea. I’ve reached the point in life where time is more important than money, and hassle-avoidance is a
priority, so I decided to donate my bike to charity.
I asked an elderly man at a St. Vincent de Paul collection centre if he worked there and if they’d like a vintage bicycle. He reacted as though he’d just won a lottery. His name was Tom, and he was an 85-year-old retired engineer who, among other things, had worked on
NASA booster rockets. Astronaut Jack Swigert (1931-82), portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the film Apollo 13, had once been his
roommate or landlord (I didn’t quite catch which). Tom gave me a comprehensive summary of his life. He was originally from New York and had fallen in love with a girl from Montreal, which was a big part of the reason he had moved west. The relationship hadn’t worked out, though, and the object of his affection moved to L.A. while Tom ended up in San Francisco. “That was 50 years ago,” he said wistfully. “But I still wonder about her. I wonder what she looks like now.”
He added that he didn’t blame her for dumping him; back then he was a practising alcoholic. He has since replaced booze with fitness, especially running, and hasn’t touched a drop in decades.
“Did you ever try to look her up … on the Internet?” I asked.
He did, he confessed, but said he really doesn’t know how this Facebook thing works.
Before we transferred the bike from my car to his, a middle-aged woman who might have been his daughter said to Tom, “Don’t you think you should look at it first before you take it?” (Mike and I had put the bike in a big box for shipping.) “Naw,” Tom said. “I’m sure it’s good.” …
Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco.
I left my bike.
Jim Withers, 66, is a retired journalist who lives in Verdun, Québec. A native of Ontario, he was a newspaper reporter and editor for 38 years in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, and retired in December 2010 after 26.5 years at the Montréal Gazette.