Barstow to home

I awakened sometime in the middle of the night, and had a hard time getting back to sleep: too much caffeine too late in the day. So I listened to the freight cars in the railroad yard behind the hotel. As the cars were moved around the yard, their wheels gave off flute-like, almost musical, tones. First a tone held for three long beats, the basic tone of which was maybe as high as the C above middle C; then it would change in pitch, shifting suddenly to a higher note or notes. I began listening to the change in pitch, using standard solmization syllables to determine the rise in pitch. Do, re, mi, no not quite mi; a slightly flatted third, like the blue notes in jazz or blues. Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti; that’s a major seventh. The notes began to blur into each other, there were chords, I was fast asleep.

The next morning, we took a long walk along the Historic Route 66 in Barstow. The sun was incredibly bright, the air clear and very dry, and because it was so dry we didn’t feel uncomfortable walking through the desert heat. We went down a short side street where there was a big sign that read “Barstow Classification Yard,” and another sign that read “BNSF Barstow CA.” Carol stood around waiting while I took some photographs of the rail yard beyond. We walked past that, taking photographs of the motel and restaurant and other signs next to or on buildings along the highway: “Palm Court American-Chinese Food”; “Yahweh Flooring”; “Entrance /Low Rates / Office,” with an arrow pointing, and a Hindu “Om” symbol; “Route 66 Motel / Vacancy / Free WiFi — Round Beds — HBO — Remodeled Rooms — Best Prices”; “Robertiroz Mexican Food / Open 24 Hours 7 Days a Week.”

On one side of the highway, side streets led to neat modest homes; on the other side of the highway, beyond the Barstow Classification Yard, we could sometimes see the desert. If this strip of highway, with its big bright signs and bright gaudy roadside architecture, was anywhere else, it would have looked gaudy. But the highway was competing with the intense desert sun, and the glare, and the hot dry air, and it was no competition at all for the sun and glare and dry air won handily.

Driving west, we climbed up towards the Tehachapi Pass, through the high desert with Joshua trees here and there on either side. Erle Stanley Gardner, in one of his detective books, writes about driving through the desert at night and seeing “the weird Joshua trees on either side”; they do look weird, they look vaguely humanoid, but to me they have a friendly and very satisfying look to them.

Once in Tehachapi, the humidity set in. Visibility dropped, distant hills looked blue, the most distant ones disappeared in the haze, and I kept wanting to polish my glasses so I could see again. We began feeling the heat more. All during the long drive through the Central Valley, the air was blue with humidity, and the heat felt uncomfortable, even in the air-conditioned car. Finally we wound through the Coastal Ranges, and arrived at home near the shores of San Francisco Bay, where at last the air felt cool and comfortable.

from July 2, posted July 3

Navajo Nation to Barstow

We were almost the only whites in the Dine’ Restaurant this morning; and we were the only whites at the Window Rock post office; and the only whites at the Navajo Nation Museum, which doubles as a cultural center and meeting space. Of course we went to the bookstore in the Navajo Nation Museum, where, among other things, I bought I Swallow Turquoise for Courage, a book of poetry by the Navajo poet Hershman R. John. In the poem “Strong Male Rain,” John writes about his childhood fear of thunderstorms, and how he discovered that his friend “Darcy, a Jewish girl from Phoenix,” was also scared of thunder:

I told her about the Male Rain and what not to do during a storm.
She told me about Ean and his tale of the Kugelblitz.
I guess Jews and Navajos aren’t all that different.
We were both afraid of thunderstorms.
We have other past storms we were afraid of too.
She had the Holocaust
And I had America.

We drove up to the tribal park in Window Rock, and looked at the memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers of the Second World War. We also looked at the memorial that had a long list of Navajo who had died while serving in the U.S. military. Continue reading “Navajo Nation to Barstow”

From Texas to Navajo Nation

We left Amarillo and drove across the flat plains to the west. Everything looked frighteningly dry: the grass wasn’t even brown from lack of water, it was bleached almost white.

At lunch time, we got off the interstate and followed Historic Route 66, as it is called in New Mexico, through Santa Rosa. We pulled in to a restaurant called “Route 66.” A man got out of a truck marked “City of Santa Rosa” and walked in in front of us. I figured it was a good sign that a city worker was going to eat there. Inside, the restaurant was well kept, with lacy curtains in the windows, Route 66 memorabilia on the walls, and pretty red and white artificial flowers in vases on the tables. It seemed like just about everyone eating in the restaurant knew each other; one older man stopped at nearly every table to greet people on the way to his table at the back of the restaurant.

A distinguished looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a sport shirt and new and neatly pressed blue jeans, stood at the cash register. He asked us with a soft Spanish accent how our meal was. We got to chatting about the weather. “It’s the driest year ever since they’ve been keeping records,” he said in his soft voice. When he learned we were from California, he asked, “How is it there?” “We’ve had a wet year,” I said. “And cold,” said Carol, “our tomatoes just aren’t growing.” He shook his head at this news: wet and cold! Continue reading “From Texas to Navajo Nation”

Heading west

We got a late start this morning, and didn’t leave Van Buren, Arkansas, until nearly noon. After we had been driving a bit, we turned off at a sign that said “Oklahoma Welcome Center,” and turned into the poshest rest stop I think we’ve ever seen. It was staffed by three volunteers. One politely asked me if she could help me with something, and I said, “No thank you, I’m just waiting while she checks email,” pointing to Carol, who was sitting an a very comfortable armchair enjoying the very fast Internet service. “In that case,” she said in her Oklahoma drawl, “I’ll just kill flies,” and, picking up a flyswatter, proceeded to do just that. “Do you keep score?” I said. “No,” she said, “and I’m not doing a very good job, either,” as she missed a fly for the third time.

As we drove through eastern Oklahoma, I noticed that the land looked much greener and much less dry than it had when we drove east a couple of weeks ago. Clearly they had had rain since then.

At exit 200 for Seminole, Oklahoma, we turned off to see if Robertson’s Ham Sandwiches was open. We had seen their distinctive red-and-white billboards heading east, but we had arrived after they closed. They were open. There wasn’t much on the menu but ham sandwiches, so we each had a double ham sandwich for less than five dollars. We sat at one of the wood tables to eat our sandwiches. It was about the best ham I’d ever eaten in a ham sandwich.

We turned off the interstate at El Reno, Oklahoma. Continue reading “Heading west”

Gallup to Amarillo

We left Gallup in the morning, and not too far eastward everything began to look hazy. Then it was more than hazy: everything began to look foggy. We noticed that some drivers coming the other direction had their headlights on. Then I began to smell smoke very faintly. “This must be the smoke from the wildfires in Arizona,” I said to Carol.

When we got to the BLM ranger station at El Malpais National Conservation Area, there was a note under the day’s weather forecast about the smoke from the wildfires. From the trail behind the ranger station, we could see how a range of mountains to the north of us was mostly obscured by the smoke:

We stopped for a late lunch in Albuquerque. I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant Dad had recommended, so we went to Old Town. Although it was very tourist-y, we agreed that we were tourists, so it seemed just about right. The owner of Bebe’s Cafe chatted with us while she made our sandwiches. Carol asked how she was doing in this economy, and she said that she was doing well enough. “I think places like this are doing well,” she said. “It’d comforting to go out for a meal, but people will pass by the more expensive restaurant to come here.” She asked if we had seen smoked from the wildfires, and we said that we had.

East of Albuquerque, the land gradually flattened out. The mesas got smaller, the dry washes weren’t as deep, until at last the land was pretty much flat and we were in the Great Plains:

And all along the highway we saw signs warning of extreme wildfire danger.

Needles to Gallup

We checked out of the motel and went to get gas The service stations were all displaying prices of $4.70 a gallon, but we really needed gas so I filled the tank. A man in a blue uniform shirt and dark blue uniform shorts, like mechanics wear, walked by and looked at my tires. He bent down to look more closely. “Did you notice this tire is all split?” he said to me. I decided he wasn’t one of those mechanics who lie to you to promote their business: he was looking at the tire, not me; and his body language said that he was actually more interested in the car than in the person driving the car.

I drove the car into one of the bays in his neat and well-organized garage. He put the car up on his lift, and we looked at the tires. They were all pretty worn. “Jeez, and before I left, the dealer I go to said the tires were just fine,” I said. “Course I should’ve checked them myself.” He gave me a reasonable price on four new tires, and as long as it was up on the lift, I asked him to change the oil. He pointed that the the oil cap was cracked and though he didn’t have one on hand, I could probably get one in Kingman. And he added, “Are you going to drive that car for a while. Because if you are, when you get back those struts are looking pretty bad.” I asked if he could recharge the air conditioner, but he didn’t have the right fitting for such an old car. As we drove away, Carol and I agreed that he gave us a fair price, when he could have tried to rob us blind, and he seemed to be one of those guys who just like automobiles.

In Kingman, we found an auto parts store and got a new oil cap. They told us we could get the air conditioner recharged at Cobb’s, next to the freeway. “Ask for Adam, and say that Kevin sent you.” We pulled up. There were half a dozen old cars in various states of repair, a man working on the engine of a tow truck, a thirty year old old mobile home, and four guys sitting in the shade talking. They told me to bring the car around, and three of them sprang into action. The first man didn’t say much, just started working on our car; the second man, a young guy, helped the first man as best he could; the third guy started cleaning up. The place was pretty messy, the three guys were not what you’d call neatly dressed, but the man who was working on our car worked with no wasted motion, and radiated calm competence.

The fourth man, neatly dressed and maybe 75, told us about his trips up the Alaska Highway to go mining. “We used to get enough money to live on,” he said, “and that was when gold was 325, 350 an ounce. Now it’s up about fifteen hundred an ounce. I’d love to go back up there.” From the tone of his voice, you knew he didn’t think he’d be going back up. He told us stories about grizzly bears in Alaska until the car was done. The work was done before we knew it, I paid a very reasonable price, and we got ready to go. “See you in Alaska,” I said to the former miner. He grinned and said he guessed so.

From there we drove straight across Arizona, stopping at Seligman for lunch, at Flagstaff for an afternoon break, and then once at some place out in the middle of nowhere to change drivers. Carol pointed out a bag at the side of the exit ramp: some long distance driver had spent the night there, shit in a white plastic bag, and dropped the bag out of the truck. This is the sort of thing you know when you’re an expert in composting toilets and alternative wastewater management, because you know where the conventional wastewater disposal method doesn’t work.

The moral of the story: don’t pick up bags you might see lying on the ground at exit ramps.

Photo: Carol Steinfeld

At the Bagdad Cafe

It was getting late. We pulled in to Newberry Springs hoping to find a place to eat. We drove for a couple of miles and didn’t see anything, until there was a little place called the Bagdad Cafe. “Just like in the movie,” said Carol, and wondered if they had copied the name from the movie.

At first we thought it was closed, because the sign said “Open 7 – 7” and it was after seven, but the door was open, and the man said they were still cooking food. He showed us in to the back room where we met the owner of the Cafe; she was holding a sleeping toddler in her arms. Carol asked if they actually shot the movie here, and the owner said that yes they did, and there were the photos on the wall from when they did. We met Halo, the owner’s 16 month old great-granddaughter, ate dinner, and then the man who waited on us told us that everyone had to stand behind the counter to get their picture taken: