Yesterday, Betty broke. We’d spent the day flying through Nebraska, pushing 80 and trying to negate the state’s existence. The landscape never changed, but the atmosphere in the car sure did. All day, white smoke seeped out of the air vents like a giant Ghostbusters’ failure, and near the town of Big Springs, smoke also started to ooze from the speaker and the air bag. I turned off the A/C. Immediately, smoke billowed into the car and something sparked in the vicinity of the air vent.
We screamed, pulled over, Googled “smoke is coming out of every vent in my car,” and called daddy. In that order. He diagnosed Betty with a faulty heater coil and told us it would probably cost a lot of money.
But if I have learned one thing on this trip, it’s that three 20-something girls in a car with Tennessee license plates have a certain pull when it comes to mechanics, electricians and anyone dealing with technology out of our supposed realm of understanding. Don’t even bother commenting that this is anti-feminist. I know very well it is. But if your car broke down in the middle of Nebraska, and you didn’t have any money, you, too, would put on a ball cap, roll into the nearest tractor store, smile and say that smoke is billowing out of your car.
We rolled 50 feet down the highway and into Big Springs Equipment, Inc., a place where tractors with wheels the size of my body littered their stock yard, and Peanuts the pug sits queen (if I owned Peanuts, her name would be Rolly Polly). In the back, we found Butch, an older man with a ball-cap and glasses and the dirty jeans and t-shirt of a farmer, wiping his face.
“Hello?” Steph said. Butch looked up, his tanned face looking like he hadn’t seen girls in here in a while. “We have a question. Our car is leaking, and we wondered if you fixed cars or maybe new of a repair shop near here?” Butch put his glasses back on and blinked.
“Well, what’s wrong with it?” he asked, pronouncing his r’s like w’s.
“Weeeelll,” I said, “There’s this white smoke blowing into the car, and when I turned off the A/C, it sparked out of the air vent.”
“Alright, well let’s take a look at this.”
In two minutes he, too, proclaimed we needed a new heater coil and instructed us to drive Betty around back by the shop. Back there, two other men in mechanic outfits lay on their backs under a truck, and as Butch cooled our engine with a fan, we all sat around chatting. We learned they’re all family, are the only repair shop within 20 miles and that Butch is trying to sell a Jetta that he bought for a blonde who ran off 30 days later. They learned that we’re on a road trip, keep nectarines and snow peas in the back of our car and used to drive tractors when we were little, though now, we live in cities and are heading to Chicago.
“Live in a city and headed to Chicago?” Butch raised his eyebrows, whistled and leaned back on his heels. “Man. I feel sorry for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Country’s for me” he said, and shook his head. “If you can’t walk out your house and kick your horse in the ass, drink a beer and piss off your deck, then you ain’t livin’.”
Butch clipped our heater hoses and refilled our coolant, checked our oil, wiped down the car, put a traffic cone on top of Betty, got in a water fight with Stephanie and, in the end, charged us $10. We gave them $20 and a bag of candied pecans.
Later that night, we rolled into North Platte, NE, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hometown, county seat of Lincoln County, and home of bizarre, anachronistic Blockbusters that don’t have movies made after 1993. This was an issue, since we needed to see HBO’s latest vampire creation, True Blood, in order to make it through the night. The helpful clerks happily referred us to–gasp–Movie Gallery, where we got a membership just to rent episodes 8-10.
“OK, I have to tell you something,” Steph said. “We’re on a 12,000 mile road trip, and we got addicted to this show in Seattle, and now we rent it every night.”
We snapped up our movie and–boom–went next door for a $5 pre-made, yet delicious, cheese pizza from Little Caesars. Then–boom–3 minutes down the road Holiday Trav-L-Park for Campers, where we got a 20% discount–5% for paying with cash and 15% for AAA. The campground, part of a non-profit organization of parks offering the “best accomodations in America,” had a pool, wi-fi and flushing toilets all for $14. Boom, boom, boom.
Nebraska, though incredibly dull, also turned out to be incredibly easy. Tune in tomorrow to see if Iowa proves as amiable. And also whether or not we find a crop circle.
After somehow completely missing Grand Teton National Park, we pulled into Jackson, Wyoming, a tiny town where cowboy meets couture (Mind you, I said Jackson. Jackson Hole is the resort area immediately surrounding.) The downtown consists of chi-chi shops, outdoor tour companies and building facades that look as if they have not changed since 1872. Stage coaches clop around the town square, and the Cowboy Bar offers saddles instead of bar stools. And the arches leading to the town park? Made entirely of antlers.
By the grace of God, we stopped in Jackson on the 4th of July. If you have never been in a small town during Independence Day, then you might as well be an ex-pat. Livingston, MT had already started their celebration when we rolled through on the 2nd, and by the time we reached Jackson on the 4th, festivities were in full swing. Officials had blocked off the town square, families picnicked in the park, everyone had an ice cream cone, and little kids danced in the street in full cowboy get-up.
It was darling, but unfortunately, Wyoming is a very big, empty state, and we had a very long, lonely drive ahead. I spent the first 5 hours hungry but clueless as to what I wanted to eat. We had bread and jerkey and cheese and yogurt and crackers and carrots and fruit and oreos and Fiber 1, but they all sonded so gross. I sunk into the back seat, while outside, a thunderstorm threatened to beat Black Betty to a pulp.
We stopped to get gas in a town with a handful of trailers, no traffic light, the gas station, and across the street from the gas station, mecca. Also known as an ice cream shop. The nutrient I didn’t know I needed. I walked across a dirt road, to a parking lot full of beer-bellied cowboys sitting on their truck beds slurping ice cream out of waffle cones. Everyone stared as I walked by, staring the stare you only get in a small town where residents know you don’t belong.
The ice cream store shared space with the law office and the coffee shop, and offered a handful of tables for what seemed like the entire population. I waited in line and, when my turn came, ordered one scoop of Cookies N’ Cream. The young woman behind the counter handed me a cone the size of my face.
“$1.98, please,” she drawled. The royal blue polo stretched over her belly matched the headband stretched over her ponytail. I handed her my new debit card, one with my picture on it. She swiped and took a second look.
“Where you from?” she asked.
“Oooh,” she said. “Reason I know is we don’t have credit cards like that in Wyoming. What’re you doin’ way out here?”
“Oh, I’m on a road trip,” I said. “With my sisters.”
“What, they didn’t want ice cream?” she asked, as if she could not understand that such a being may exist.
“Oh, um, I don’t know. They actually don’t know I’m in here,” I smiled. “Gotta get away some times.” She smiled, her brow a little furrowed, as I handed her the signed receipt and bounded out of the store, approximately 5,000 times happier than the era Before Ice Cream.
We spent the next 6 hours driving through a Wyoming thunderstorm, consuming the treats we’d purchased at the gas station (including P.S. I Love You) and gaping at the double rainbows that appeared over the highway. Around 10 p.m., we sputtered into a gas station outside of Boulder with an empty tank and very full bladders. I sprinted to the doors, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, mind you, only to find them locked. Closed for the 4th. In fact, the only thing open on Independence Day seems to be Wal-Mart; are you surprised? Nope, neither were we. We purchased dinner–three cans of beans and two gallons of water–and headed back to Betty, so we could find a hotel.
Unfortunately, three blocks down the road, Betty lost it. For the past week, she’d whined every time we turned her on, and now something smelled like butt in the back seat and vapor oozed out of the air conditioning vents. The windshield fogged up so badly that Steph couldn’t see, so we pulled onto a dark, deserted road and flicked on the hazard lights, while we tried to figure out whether hot or cold air would make the steam go away. We decided on hot, and the car quickly become a cesspool of rotting food and filth. We plopped ourselves on the hood of the car and ate beans from a can, watching fireworks in the distance while we waited for the steam to evaporate off the inside of our windshield. Happy 4th of July!
In 1977, the ladies planned their route (in one night, mind you) based off places where they had friends. This is one of the prime benefits of a road trip, and thankfully, my school has flung people all over the country; we’ve spent most of I-90 E bunking with some of my friends from study abroad.
Our first stop was Bainbridge Island, which is kind of like a west-coast Cape Cod. Located off the coast of Seattle, the island of 20,000 offers a laid-back, upper-class existence that’s just a 30 minute ferry ride from the metropolis of Seattle. On your way home from work, you can stop at the Pike Place Market to pick up fresh cherries and fish, swoop by the original Starbucks from some french press action in the morning, and after a 30 minute ferry ride, roll into Mora’s for some gourmet ice cream. Once you get home, you can cook it all on your outdoor beach grill, looking at the city of Seattle and laughing at people struggling to cook in their pint-sized condos.
We stayed with my friend Liz Mundt, with whom I studied abroad in Prague (CHP Fall ’06…to be continued in Chicago). She spent most of the last year traveling after her Beijing bank went bankrupt, and while she saves up for her next adventure (check out her blog), she’s back with her parents. Thank God. Parents equal a level of comfort that we, as 20-somethings cannot possibly attain. They have a beautiful home on the beach, with a view of Mt. Ranier and the Seattle skyline from their backyard.
We spent a bit of time in Seattle, visiting the market and, our mecca, the original Starbucks. Dinner at the Seattle house went quickly and, if you ignore the fact that we got lost and went to the wrong Whole Foods, flawlessly. My trooper friend Jordan came along to help, and we all met up with Liz at a Belgian beer bistro for dinner. CFC, bringin’ people together all over the country…
We stayed on the island an extra day for a salmon bake, a west coast tradition that I like to think is similar to a clam bake. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been to one of those either. But I can now tell you that to hold a salmon bake, you place half a fish on top of a stake like a piece of cloth, and secure it to the backbone with a series of other stakes that, in effect, cage in the fish. Then you stick it in the ground next to thefire and watch it sizzle. That’s it. In 30 minutes, we had smoked and peppered salmon with hummus, cheese, avocado salad, Argentine spoon bread made with the Mundts’ special polenta, olives and garlic bread.
The next morning, still full, we hopped on I-90, heading east towards Livingston, MT and my friend Angela, another CHP Fall ’06-er.
Throughout Bill Bryson’s book, The Lost Continent, he bitches that he can’t find the perfect small-town America. He clearly did not go to Livingston. I’ve never seen a town with so few McDonalds and such a strong grasp of its history. It sits in the cradle of magnificent mountains and soaring blue skies, and though places like Buffalo Bill’s Bar dominate the skyline, modern conveniences, like yoga, coffee shops and life coaches, tuck into the original landscape of the city. We arrive in the middle of the rodeo, a time when the town’s population of 8,000 swells to around 27,000, and the town bustled with activity. I wanted to eat every funnel cake in the square and give the person that I’d seen just 20 minutes earlier at the market a big, powdered-sugar smile, because I’d seen him 20 minutes earlier at the market.
We spent most of our time at Angela’s house, where she lives with her boyfriend Justin and roommate Beau (Bo? Beaux? Sorry, correct me). Most of that time, in turn, was spent eating Beau’s delicious food, playing with their dog Jackson and swapping stories about our friends. Because that’s what you do in a small town.
In all this gossip, Justin also told us about a game his friends used to play while stoned. Really you just ask a question–what is the most important word in the world to you? Since we are simply weird, we thought it would be fun, too. Here are our answers; what are yours?
When we were playing on the sand dunes, Kelsea broke my camera. More specifically, she rolled down a dune with it in her pocket. So en route to Seattle, we stopped in Portland to attempt to rescue it. We left later than anticipated, got stuck behind a truck painting the highway at 1 pm and, once we arrived in Portland, circled the city while I chose between two repair shops.
Meanwhile, Peter Bircham’s meeting got moved to the Starbucks on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.
We veered off the Interstate towards my chosen repair shop, and at the light, the man in the black Volvo beside us honked. We looked. And he motioned for us to roll down the window. “If he tells us our car topper has fallen off, I’m absolutely going to lose it,” I thought. I rolled down the window.
“What’s Casseroles for Cancer?” he asked
“Oh,” I laughed, “It’s a philanthropy project we’re doing.”
“And it’s yours?”
“Well, yes, all three of us,” I responded.
“Oh, OK, listen, I’m writing a book about people doing stuff like this,” he said. “Would you mind talking to me for a minute? “
OK. We followed him down the road to Starbucks. This man had stopped us on the highway, told us he wanted to maybe put us in a book he’s writing and then took us to Starbucks, our favorite place in the world. Was this really happening? (Yes, Dad, we contemplated he might actually be a serial killer. If he We’d planned an escape route.)
Peter introduced us to a couple other people he’s working with, chatted about the book and, perhaps most significantly, told us about an organization he belongs to called Humanity Unites Brilliance, or HUB. The for-profit business operates around the principle that every individual has the ability to change the world and that the key is to bring people together to make their dreams possible. Membership costs $99 a month–40% goes towards established charities and the remainder covers the cost of faculty, workshops and educational tools that you, as a member, have full access to. The entire series teaches you self-empowerment, how to use your resources and talents to have a positive impact on the world. To top it all off, the organization connects you with the people needed to make your dream possible.
Peter told us story after story of families that HUB has helped, of their charities in Africa devising innovative way to provide water and food to rural areas, of the school he’s working to build in Thailand. It was one of those conversations you can’t possibly participate in but rather sit and listen, process and learn. We were in awe. And all we could blubber is “Oh my God, this is exactly what I want to do.”
Several potential projects have spawned off this conversation, and I love being able to look back and connect the dots. Because I broke my foot in January, I stayed in New York rather than go to Southeast Asia; because I stayed in New York, Kelsea and I were able to plan this trip. Because Stephanie’s mom had a dream about our mom, she agreed to financially back Steph and let her go on the trip. Because Steph was on this trip, and because Kelsea broke my camera, and because we got caught in freak of nature traffic jams, we were on the Interstate precisely when Peter Bircham pulled off. And now all three of us may have something new.
I’m not particularly religious, but I would say that I’m spiritual with a firm belief that everything happens for a reason. I guess you could call destiny. I’m not sure myself, but I do know that trips like these shake things up, open your eyes and present you with a plethora of opportunity. You just have to pay attention.
Oh, and I fixed my camera. Peter is a photographer, and his favorite repair shop was two blocks down.
In the town of Coos Bay, OR, in a restaurant called the Kozy Kitchen, the most absurd thing happened to us in the bathroom. First off, the Kozy Kitchen does not krazy klean its toilets, so when I hear someone next to me peeing I think “That is really disgusting. They didn’t even flush first and now they’re getting someone else’s pee all over them.”
So of course, it’s Stephanie. And though our standards have clearly dropped to that of Neanderthals, we still huddled in the foot-wide space in front of the sink to wash our hands and laugh at her filth. And then she walked in. This tiny little Dakota Fanning look alike who stared at Stephanie for so long that it got uncomfortable.
“Oh, we’re not waiting; go ahead,” Steph said. The girl looked at her without a flinch or a smile, rolled up her sleeves and said:
”I came here to wash.”
And then I apologized. I apologized to a 7 year old for washing my hands when she wanted to wash her hands. I finished quickly, turned to get a paper towel, and she stepped on my foot to get to the sink.
So, yeah. Oregon is an odd state. Besides creepy 7 year olds without manners, they paint the road lines on Mondays at noon, old Asian men hand you dollar bills on the street and places will close and forget to take down their open signs. Pioneer cemeteries are crammed between the SafeWay and Bobby’s Breakfast Place and a fair share of residents seem to stand on highways and stare at stuff for their evening entertainment.
Thankfully, we love odd stuff and so we love Oregon. The Oregon coast is one of the most geographically diverse, scenic places we’ve yet to see. I know I say that about every new place. But seriously. The whole coast sits in a bed of wildflowers. Vivid shades of pink, yellow, purple and an array of ornamental grasses grow on the sides of the roads, in the cracks of the roads, up the mountainsides. Flowers grow out of rocks, and rocks grow out of the ocean, anchoring the cliffs that drop straight in.
After stopping at every scenic viewpoint on the highway, we got a room at the Pacific Avenue Inn in Gold Beach, a tiny, poor beach town that’s still undeniably quaint. A path behind the hotel led to the beach, and we each got lost in the driftwood on our morning runs and later, in the car, discovered that while running we each think about what we’d do if significant people in our lives were to die. Except Kelsea. She talked to Zach for 20 minutes about the pros and cons of purchasing a gecko.
We zipped up the coast to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Dear God, please go here if you’re in the area. We spent half an hour rolling around in dunes up to 500 feet tall. The wind whipped the sand into thin slivers that snaked along the side. And now that we’ve been to Red Rock Canyon in Vegas, we know those wind lines will be sedimentary layers when the dunes harden to rocks in 20,000 years.
That night, we stayed at our nicest campground yet, on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It had flushing toilets, a shower, individual faucets and an electrical outlet right on site (Note to campers: go for RV parks).