Monday, March 9, 2015

Bus Driver's "Vacation"

A day before Nevada... south central Oregon in all its liquid splendor.

Nevada

No way to spend a vacation, driving through such desolation. Now I know why smart people fly over it. One day into our grand driving adventure into the abyss, I'm suddenly regretful. Dull, brown, grey, dust. Even the trees are dead. Granted, it's February. But still. What the hell am I doing here?

"The shortest distance..." Pat starts to say.

"Shut yer yap," I interrupt. "The journey is supposed to be the fun part."

After leaving the vast Northwest forests we call home, the vast Nevada alkaline wasteland is a severe disappointment. We drone on all day between Reno and Vegas. We're assaulted by endless ribbons of asphalt lines separated by grey vistas of nothingness. The only color is the sky, and even it seems to lack enough oxygen to keep it pleasantly blue. My eyes burn from the blazing overhead star. It's supposed to be life-sustaining, but not here, where even the birds are absent. All it does is force me to buy clip-ons for my new glasses, which aren't even the correct prescription. Decades earlier, I traversed the state on a compass setting west to east. It was surely more palatable than the north-south route.

"Let me drive," I say. "You're slower than a snowbird on Valium."

"I'm doing 75," Pat grumbles. "I get a speeding ticket 10 miles over, and my license is extinct. Besides, I want good gas mileage."

"The way you drive, you'll get cited for loitering. That cop 10 miles back passed you doing 90."

Pat sighs and tunes up the cruise control a few ticks. Still too slow. His beloved Stacey snores contentedly in the back seat, oblivious to our bickering. Having known each other for decades, I am one of the few who get away with calling him "Pat". We've spent a lifetime debating one another, and it's apparent he enjoys the banter as much as I like giving him shit. As Portland bus operators, the last thing you'd think we'd do on vacation is drive. But Pat's dad is getting old, and he wants to visit his family. Instead of sitting around drinking scotch -- alone, I've  chosen to join these lovebirds. To Arizona, home of the stoned conservative dust bangers, burial throne of the irascible genius Abbey, 1,500 miles or so distant from my lush rain forested domicile. With gas prices low, we decide to break in Pat's 2015 Hyundai Tucson with a grand road trip. Only this part of the map doesn't incite any of the romance the road once held.

The first day was fun, rolling through scenic southern Oregon and briefly skirting the tip of California before entering the Silver State and Reno. Not a bad place, Reno. Very nice motel rooms for modest prices, because they want you to sell your soul to a slot machine. Only we don't fall for the ruse. A whopping $5, and Pat is done. My wager is $1.50, and that's plenty. The cheap buffet is our main calling, and we call it a night after a few over-priced watered-down drinks. A relaxing bubble bath for us all -- not together, of course -- and a good night's sleep are supposed to prepare us for the next day's 682-mile drive.

Linda Sings 'Willin'
Fast forward to Tonopah. I've always wondered what it looked like. Lowell George's wistful truck-driving tune, Willin', has always been a favorite. "And I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehatchapi to Tonopah... driven every kinda rig that's ever been made... driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed..." Linda Ronstadt's voice is easier to listen to than taking in this craggy outpost of an old mining camp. We roll through it after grabbing some cheap gas and lumber on.

Las Vegas at rush hour isn't as bad as Portland this time of day. Within 30 minutes our trusty new steed is closing in on Arizona and more interesting scenery. Problem is, the sun has left the scene. Into the black we zip into the Grand Canyon State. A blazing billboard welcomes us to "Arizona Wildcat Country", some 350 miles northwest of Tucson. Two hours later, after bouncing down a rough stretch of I-40, we arrive to find Pat's 88-year-old daddy nodding off in his rocking chair. He is genuinely pleased to see us, especially his third of four sons.

I'm pointed toward the Dickel while Pat and Stacey visit with Pop. Stepping out into his expansive yet barren back yard, I'm immediately awarded with a blazing panorama of twinkling stars. The air is a brisk departure from the new-car smell I've endured all day. As I down a couple of shots of delicious bourbon, I can almost see life on other planets. The stars are close, the air still. It's eerily quiet. I enjoy peaceful contemplation, and my thoughts wander back toward youthful days on the ranch. Old lovers call out through the silence, soothing a sudden melancholy. For the first time since I became a bus operator, my soul is at peace. A coyote calls half a mile away, the neighbor dogs add some harmony. With this canine lullaby my meditation is cut short, so I find my way back inside and sleep a good nine hours. In a bed, Pat tells me, in which four generations of his family were born.

Mogollon Rim

Another failed "selfie". Damn camera!
Leaving Pat and me to our own devices, Stacey chooses to ride with their daughter to Tucson and her parents home. We will be reunited a day later, and after lunch with their family, we hit the road again.

Pronounced mug-a-yawn, or mo-go-yone depending on lingual preference, Arizona's Mogollon Rim is basically a 200-mile-long fault ridge separating each side of it by three- to five-thousand feet in elevation. The highway we chose wound eastward from the interstate, upward from the high deserts of Camp Verde through several climate zones. If you've never visited Arizona, this route introduces you to a wide variety of landscape few outsiders are aware of. From scrub oak to pinyon pine to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, the vistas inspire even the most hardened skeptics who believe the state is devoid of anything but cacti and illegal immigrants. The sleepy hamlets of Pine and Strawberry inspire us, for once, to slow down and enjoy the ride. Having driven this route years before, even Pat is awed by the beauty. He finds a pullover which winds far enough from the highway to allow us a private rest area. We tramp around a hill, rewarded with a deep canyon that pitches and yaws as far as we can see. It's a quiet time. I can tell Pat is wistful, so I leave him to his woolgathering.

Further down the road we encounter Payson, at a cool 5,000 feet in elevation. While it's a cute town with plenty of tourist traps, we're not biting. Several others flash by as well, but Pat is on a mission which doesn't include town worship. Our destination is a small hamlet miles distant, which he begs me not to mention by name, out of respect for the anonymity of his close pals we intend to visit. The open road offers us plenty of deserted stops, however, and we take advantage of a few. Besides tapping our kidneys and stretching, we make tracks for the home of these friends he'll only refer to by their affectionate yet vulgar nicknames.

Upon arrival later that afternoon, these warm farmers happily welcome us with hugs, beer, and mesquite-broiled steaks. The rest of the night is a hilarious blur, and as a cliche-ridden rural newspaper would likely report, "a good time was had by all".

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TO BE CONTINUED

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

I'm Back, and Relaxed

Perhaps you saw my FaceBook posts, but I just returned from a 4,000 mile "vacation". Wow, simply splendid. The scenery, except in Nevada, was awe-inspiring. 

Stay tuned for a more detailed synopsis, but here's a few pics from the 2015 Arizona Oddyssey.