Roadside America is weird and wonderful. The interstates are lined with billboards, some with ominous, sun-faded Bible verses, some with breasty neon silhouettes promising an audience with the Best Girls in the West. Gore flung across the highway lines, porcupines and whitetail deer and fat little raccoons with their human hands. Teenage hitchhikers with big dogs and hulking backpacks, farmboys rumbling along in tractors, grizzled truckers hanging suntanned forearms out of the driver’s side window. All-night diners and gas stations with burned, weak coffee. Every little settlement has a dubious claim to fame – the world’s largest cabbage, a 1973 mothman sighting, a defunct nuclear research site. And every place has a distinct set of unspoken rules, it seems, rules that only the locals know.
We only had seven days. Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana. We didn’t mind. The Road, of course, is at the heart of the concept of a Road Trip, and there’s no better way to see a country, I think, than to explore the places between the places.
We drove first through the farmsteads of Washington, peaceful and familiar and green, the cornfields rippling in the morning breeze. They don’t seem to tear down old structures in these parts, and rotting, lichen-splattered clapboard farmhouses stood watching us beside their newer brothers, timelines layered over each other like coats of paint. The energy was already different – that distinctly American cocktail of mournfulness and grit, defiant joy, something rich and dark and undefinable.
We stopped in Seattle for lunch at the Pike Place Market, a bustling, loud, sardine-packed row of fishmongers and florists. Ate honeycomb on the pier, and stumbled onto the largest Pac Man console in the world, which made my eyes hurt, but which Andrew played with a great deal of boyish enthusiasm.
Portland was next, and Powell’s City of Books, which was so overwhelming that it honestly made me a little weepy. Floors and sprawling floors of books, about everything and anything, and rare volumes, too. It was straight out of my wildest dreams. I could have spent days there. The smell of it – that dust-vanilla-earth smell of lignin – was rapturous. Bizarrely, we even ran into a childhood friend in the aisle housing both Christian theology and books on UFOs.
I’ve been having some trouble sleeping lately, and that night was no exception. Perhaps I was just on a road high, perhaps I was overheated, perhaps I’d drunk a little too much of that weak gas station coffee, but whatever it was, I was twisting and turning while Andrew snoozed happily beside me. I unzipped the tent around two a.m. to step out to pee in the woods, more for something to do than anything else. A deer, a small one, peered out at me from the pines, shocked at the clumsy creature the dome of the tent spit out. I wondered if she couldn’t sleep, either. We stared at one another, and then she loped back into the darkness, hooves crunching the forest floor.
Turning away, I happened to look up, and was treated to such a beautifully unblemished night sky that I had to wake Andrew, too. We laid in the dry grass on a little hill and watched the cosmos spin for a few hours, talking about those quiet, secret things only stargazers talk about.
And then it was Eclipse Day. We drove to Cannon Beach, that place of Goonies fame, that Big Old Rock covered in bird shit and barnacles and little hardy green bushes. We weren’t in the path of totality, but rather just outside of it. The ocean roared at us, whipping up a thick mist and tossing it over the beach.
The tide was coming back in, pulled forward by the moon. We sat in the damp sand and waited. Seagulls screamed and circled, chased by the ubiquitous coastal herds of golden retrievers (why do people who live by the ocean always have golden retrievers?). There were far fewer people than I might have expected – and quite a lot of very young and lackadaisical children, who no doubt categorized the utter terror and rarity of a solar eclipse as something like a day at the water park, an outing designed to pass the time. Every few minutes, we’d plaster flimsy cardstock eclipse glasses to our face and stare at the sun. And slowly, very slowly, things began to change.
At first, it looked as though the sun had been nibbled at, perhaps by some great celestial beast with a perfectly round jaw of smooth-surfaced teeth. The sun was a butterscotch cookie, a crescent stamp in tungsten ink. But as the moon drew further and further into the sun’s path, the wind grew freezing cold. The sky turned cobalt and pewter. The seagulls stopped their shrieking. The sparse sliver of remaining light cast over the world was as cool and thick as clay. It was breathtaking and humbling, and filled me with a rush of existential awe.
One of the men on the beach hadn’t even known it was happening. He stopped to ask us what was going on, why everything was so strange all of a sudden. We handed him one of our pairs of paper glasses, and he stared at the sky, mouth agape, swearing under his breath. He handed the glasses back, teary-eyed, and pulled each of us into a fierce hug. “That was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” he said. We all shivered and laughed, and he loped away without another word.
Some of the children around us were too busy with their sandcastles to care about what the grown-ups were staring at. Their serious voices, those determined little contractors and construction workers and architects, were the only sound other than the waves.
(An aside – although it looks as if there’s quite a bit of sun here, that’s just my photographic ineptitude – all that was visible was a fingernail-thin band of light in the sky.)
Further down the coast, we camped near the Devil’s Churn, another one of those places both frightening and beautiful. The water frothed violently against the black rocks, beetle-green with agitation. Of all the times I’ve been at the sea, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the water take on the same colour twice. It was too loud to speak, so we scrambled over the rocks, signalling at each other to come look, come see. There was a tiny concession stand up top, and the proprietor told us about her terriers and sold us hot dogs with mustard.
We set up camp on a mulchy hill, next to a little stream, in the shade of the trees. It was cool, dark, serene. A light, hesitant rain woke us up early, and we drove along the serpentine highways and into the redwoods. The morning was all shadows, the kind of morning that makes you believe in curses and cryptids. Which was particularly fitting, since Willow Creek, the Bigfoot Capital of America, was next on the map, after the redwoods. Andrew was very excited to have real American biscuits and gravy for breakfast from a little convenience store (I was decidedly less excited, and opted for jerky and a banana).
I’ve seen the redwoods before, when I was a girl, but even memory can’t prepare you for the sight of them. These graceful behemoths from another world, alive before America was infested with Europeans, alive before da Vinci, before the Black Death, before Genghis Khan. My 28th-great-grandmothers were alive when these trees were saplings. I swear to everything good in this world – you touch them, lay a palm flat against the soft bark, and you can feel it. You can feel how ancient they are, how alive they are. Sunbeams filtered through the mist, light dancing and swirling through the air. The ground was blanketed in ferns and giant clover. It was eerie quiet, as if even the animals knew they were in a holy place.
The coast drive was moody and gorgeous, chilly, every fantasy about the Pacific Northwest you’ve ever had. The sea was tumultuous and the wind was high. The rocks were shrouded in fog, tenacious gulls wheeling around us, landing close, staring pointedly at our peanut butter sandwiches.
Bigfoot country. In 1958, a tee-totaling tractor driver called Jerry Crew sauntered out, bleary-eyed and tired, to start work for the day, and found a series of giant footprints leading up to and away from his vehicle. He brushed it off as a prank, trying to ignore the tales that began to kick up around him, of other sightings and experiences of the creature. But a few weeks later, more footprints began to crop up. The local newspaper began to call the creature “Bigfoot”, and the stories just kept rolling in after that. Folks discovered stolen equipment, clumps of hair-fur, and in 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin even claimed to have caught the creature on tape. Perhaps fortunately, we didn’t have any encounters of our own, unless you count the redwood carving outside of the museum…
We drove across California the next day, and ended up in Reno. Fun fact: I’ve never once gambled in my entire life before Reno. I promptly lost a good chunk of cash to the slots. They’re not kidding about gambling being addicting! Let the record state that I was up at least 15 bucks for a while there, before I got cocky. We took in a Cirque show, which always makes me feel like I should get back into yoga, and walked the neon streets. Our uber driver told us that Reno is what happens when Vegas takes a shit.
The next morning was our biggest driving day – all the way across Nevada and into Utah. We marathoned Alice Isn’t Dead through the heat and hills, and pulled into the Bonneville Salt Flats just as the sun was setting. We drove around a little, crunching in the salt, and it was so awesome that we had to go back the next morning.
Dawn at the salt flats was otherworldly, astonishing. We were the only ones for miles on that flat white expanse, the sun casting cold, rose-gold rays of light over the silent plain. Such a wild alien joy overtook me that I couldn’t stop myself from stripping and running off, whooping and giggling like a madwoman. Andrew soon did the same. Two pale bums on the flats. It was deliciously free.
Salt Lake City, after the wonderfully undomesticated stretch of the flats, was truly unsettling. We stuck pretty much to the city center and the Temple, which could certainly have informed the mood of the place, but it was far too calm, far too clean. It was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but it was strange to be surrounded by lush fruit trees and beautiful, perfectly-coiffed people, and then look up to the scorched, barren hills and see carrion birds circling some dead thing, poison lakes steaming in the distance. It probably didn’t help that a prim middle-aged woman dressed for church hissed “tourists” at us as we passed her in the Temple square, or that every single man, regardless of age, had the same sharp, fashionable haircut. It looked snapped on. Like Lego hair. The whole place felt… off, somehow, bleach over blood, like some SimCity mod plunked into the middle of the wrong landscape.
But we did also stop by the Family History Library, and possibly the cutest, friendliest Sister in the world guided Andrew and I through the very, very cool interactive personal heritage exhibit they’ve got there. We looked up our extended family trees, recorded video messages for our descendants to dig up in the future, and discovered that besides being married… we’re also 14th cousins.
Out of SimCity and back into the Utah desert. We crossed into Idaho and ate chicken-fried steak at this great beat-up diner near the half-abandoned town of Arco, served by a bored teenage girl smacking her gum, bikers laughing raucously in the corner. Arco has the distinction of being the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power. It’s also almost a ghost town; half the buildings are empty, half the businesses out of service. I adored it.
Outside of Arco are the Craters of the Moon, volcanic rock fields strewn across the prairie. Another otherworldly landscape, but black this time, instead of white. Unfortunately, there were a few too many people to get naked and run around… but sunrise in white and sunset in black was a pretty spectacular way to bookend the day.
On a whim the next day, we decided to drive through Butte, Montana. The historic downtown area is another one of those half-abandoned American ghost towns, a time capsule from the mid 1800s, all faded brick and the strange stale energy that once-bustling places carry. We stopped at the notoriously haunted Dumas Brothel, the longest operating brothel in United States history – it was open from 1890 to 1982. 1982!
There were a few extremely enthusiastic ghost hunters in the building. One honey-haired girl practically took me by the shoulders as we were chatting, insisting with watery eyes that she’s felt the presences here, that she’s had unexplainable experiences. Her heavily-tattooed friend was equally excitable, assuring us that the place had been featured on several big-budget ghost hunting shows, and that she’d seen orbs with her own two eyes.
I don’t necessarily have a sensitivity for these things, but this place was definitely spooky, in sort of a sad way. There were three floors – the top one, of course, reserved for the more high-end clients like politicians and businessmen, the main floor for the average miner, and the cramped basement ‘cribs’ for the, um, clients on a budget. I literally couldn’t make it halfway down the stairs into the basement before nope-ing right out of there. Many people claim that they’ve felt a warm, comforting hand take theirs – supposedly the former madame, Elinore Knott, whose lover had made a promise to run away with her. She took her own life when he failed to turn up.
Other ghosts include a woman named Sandra, who was reported to quite enjoy her job – she’ll still try to seduce you by blowing warm air over your neck, running her fingers over your shoulders. And there’s a male spirit too, an unhappy one. Some say he was a landowner, some say he was a disgruntled client… but whatever it was, he’s the most sinister one there.
That evening, just because it was on our way, we camped at a radon mine and took in some good, old fashioned therapeutic radioactivity. In the 50s, folks claimed that the radioactive gas released by decaying uranium in the mines stimulated the immune system, empowering your body to begin to heal itself of what ails you. Although… they still won’t let you enter if you’re pregnant, so I am now among that hallowed number of gals who’ve taken a (negative) pregnancy test in a small town Wal Mart bathroom.
The mines were actually quite peaceful, if a little claustrophobic – a trickling stream meandered through the tunnel, and there were special alcoves for groups with dogs, and tubs for folks who wanted to bathe in the spring water. We settled for hanging out on a bench with a deck of cards and a few damp back issues of National Geographic. The tunnels were full of Mennonites and elderly folk, and although I can’t say that either of us felt much in the way of miraculous healing, it clearly works for some, even if it’s just a placebo.
It was an exhausting, exhilarating week, filled with things I’ll never forget. I’m still a little obsessed with the brothel and the salt flats, with the trees and the fog. And I’ll still take a road trip over a five star resort any day of the week.