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August 19, 2010

R and G's Excellent Adventure

Road Trip Route

Road Trip Route
August 7–12, 2010

Last I left you, dear readers, I was in Chicago and in the midst of a two month long stint in hell, otherwise known as preparation for the much anticipated bar examination. Today, about a month later, the setting is quite different: I am about 2,000 miles away from Chicago in the OC, and with little but inanities and existential angst to occupy my time. As the story of my road trip from Chicago to California is far more interesting than either the fear or self-loathing leading up to the bar, or anything that has elapsed since, I begin with that. The rest is for another time—or more likely, never.

Before delving into specifics, a summary is in order. The journey was six days in my dear old car, the RSX, departing Chicago, IL, on August 7, 2010, and arriving in Irvine, CA, on August 12, 2010. I was accompanied by my friend, known for purposes of this most worthless of sites as G-Force, and notable stops along the way included: allegedly one of the largest crosses in the Western Hemisphere in Groom, TX; the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM; four tire stores in Van Horn, TX; the Prada Marfa art installation in Valentine, TX; a Walmart Lube and Tire Center in El Paso, TX; the south rim of the Grand Canyon; the Hoover Dam; and unexpectedly, Las Vegas, NV. The map nearby reflects the course we took.

A detailed overview of the trip would prove to be too much, even for someone who can't piss without dropping 1,000 words. But I do wish to highlight some of the more salient aspects as the trip was rather eventful, even by my usual rough-and-tumble standards of travel. As the title indicates, this was not just a trip; it was an adventure, and one self-consciously intended as such. Up until the morning we left Chicago, we did not know the route by which we were to travel. (Yes, I realize this sounds like it cannot be true when I was involved—you mean every hotel was not booked along the way?!—but I really wanted to break free of my OCD ways for once.) Having taken the I-80 to Chicago some three years ago, I decided arbitrarily that the I-40 might be a more interesting route on the way back. And so we were off—no real idea of where we were going to stop or how far we were going to go or when we were going to arrive. Simply driving off into the distance with a vague dream of eventually reaching California. It almost felt like Oregon Trail—well, except for the wagons, and the fording of rivers, and the hunting for food, and the godawful diseases.

Off the Beaten Trail

The first two days turned out to be uneventful. By August 8, we were in Amarillo, TX, about half way to California, having already passed through Missouri and Oklahoma. But that's when the adventure began: we decided to deviate off the beaten path (a/k/a the I-40). The reason? Roswell, NM, allegedly the landing site of aliens in 1947, and an obvious mecca for insane fans of The X-Files such as myself. Although several hundred miles off the I-40, it was close enough that I simply could not justify skipping it. I mean, come on: it's Roswell. Roswell! Roswell!1

The only problem? I wasn't with a diehard fan, and I doubt Roswell is of the same interest when you don't believe that aliens actually landed in 1947 (hard to believe such people exist, right?). So, in exchange for accompanying me to Roswell, I agreed with G-Force to go to Prada Marfa, supposedly a full scale replica of a Prada store in the middle of the Texas desert, and incidentally, something I had never heard of before. Then again, I don't even think I've ever been in a Prada store, so what do I know?

UFOs, Tire Explosions, and Art

On August 9, we left beautiful Hereford, TX2 (I use the term loosely), bound for New Mexico. We arrived in Roswell without problem and it was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I even spent $0.50 to have a penny flattened with an alien imprint. The rest of the day would not be so kind.

The trip to Prada Marfa took us on a one lane highway through the Texas desert. About 50 miles outside of Van Horn, TX, the only city for hundreds of miles, and without a gas station in sight, the fuel gauge began dipping below a quarter. Very soon, the air conditioning had been killed and the sweating had begun. Fortunately, we didn't run out of gas, pulling into Van Horn just as the tank was showing empty. Rejuvenated by this bit of good fortune, we set off on the 90 south toward Marfa. That's when the good fortune ended.

The installation was supposedly near Valentine, TX, some 30 miles south of Van Horn. About 15 miles into the trip, we heard a very loud noise, followed by a sudden dip in the front of the car. Blown tire. Shit. Letting up off the gas, I slowly brought the car to a stop on the side of the road and got out. Yup, definitely a blown tire on the front driver's side; there was a hole the size of a fist in the tire. I had never had a flat before, let alone a blown tire, and certainly had never changed one. Neither had G-Force.

No problem. That's why I have AAA, and if not that, my insurance company. Stay calm. All you have to do is call. A glance at our cell phones, however, quickly deflated that idea: no coverage. Well, shit. Looking around, there was no sign of civilization for miles. No car had passed in ten minutes. In short, there was only one option: put on the spare, go back to Van Horn, and pray there was a tire for an Acura in a town of 2,500 in southwestern Texas. Easier said than done.

In what had to be a consummately comical sight, the next half an hour was spent: (1) swatting flies and only God knows what else as we unloaded most of the car of all the luggage to access the spare; (2) fearfully attempting to jack up the car on some small, portable jack; (3) undoing the lug nuts on the blown tire with a tiny tire wrench; (4) installing the spare and tightening the lug nuts; and (5) driving at 40 miles/hour back to Van Horn on an unstable road, the whole while praying the spare wouldn't fall off due to failure to tighten the lug nuts properly. (It didn't; thank God for one year of college physics, two years of college math, and some knowledge about torque.)

The tragicomedy of problems continued when we arrived in Van Horn to discover finding a tire small enough to fit on the RSX was no joke in a land of huge trucks. After four different stops, we finally tracked down a guy who put a used tire on the car for $70. He warned us though that it had been pulled off a wreck and wouldn't last long; his advice: go directly to El Paso, TX, 120 miles away, and buy a new one.

But what about Prada Marfa? After spending most of the afternoon covered in tire grease, sweat, and bugs, there was no way I was going to give up after getting within 15 miles of the place, sketchy tire be damned. Of course, if a second tire burst, there would be no saving us since that was the only tire that fit my car in all of Van Horn. But feeling the adventurous spirit, or maybe just deluded by the sunk cost fallacy, we again went down the 90, arriving at Prada Marfa the second time without incident. The trip back to El Paso that night with an unbalanced car vibrating like crazy was not pleasant, but it was well worth it. Prada Marfa was quite an interesting site and more than anything else, conquering my risk aversive tendencies was gratifying.

Holes, Dams, and Acrobats

After the catastrophic events of August 9, the rest of the trip went rather smoothly. In El Paso the next day, we picked up two new tires at one of the nicest Walmarts I had seen (although, to be fair, I have only seen two: one in El Paso, TX, and one in Gulfport, MS), and made it to Flagstaff, AZ, that night. The next morning we left for the Grand Canyon at 7 am and did some sightseeing in the morning. I had been before as a kid; G-Force had not. By 11 am, though, we were in consensus: after a while, it's just a big hole in the ground. But it does make for some pretty photos.

Next, we raced to make it to the Hoover Dam, catching one of the last power plant tours of the day. With night falling, driving all the way to Los Angeles was not an option. So where does one stay near the Hoover Dam? Obviously, Las Vegas, NV. Fortunately (or unfortunately), after having driven hundreds of miles and seen both the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam in one day, rocking was not in order. Instead, I had my least degenerate experience in Vegas ever: I watched a show. Mystère by Cirque du Soleil, to be precise. It was pretty good, though I thought the one I saw in San Francisco back in 2005—Corteo, I think—was better. Regardless, not quite the what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas evening, but they all can't be, I suppose, and I've already had my fair share.

California Dreaming

For those still with me, I am impressed. Those were a lot of words. In any case, the next day put us into LA and OC respectively, thus bringing the trip to a close. I was quite pleased with my decision to drive back, even though in the days leading up, it seemed like an insufferable chore. Not a bad way to close out my Chicago career. Maybe I will have more to say on that later, maybe I won't, but regardless, I promise to do so in fewer words than today.

^ 1 Kudos if you got that reference. It is to Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Episode 20, Season 3, of The X-Files, probably my favorite episode ever.
^ 2 Update: As noted in the comments below, I neglected to discuss viewing the Groom cross. As this entry is long enough, however, I will reserve what I have to say to a footnote. The decision to stop at the cross was just as arbitrary as the rest of the trip, and was partially motivated by another humongous cross I had seen last year in Effingham, IL, on my way to Nashville, TN, and Mississippi during spring break. The one in Groom was just as huge, but the notion that it was the largest in the western hemisphere was one both G-Force and I were skeptical about. In particular, what about the one in Effingham or Christ the Redeemer in Brazil? Some Internet research showed that Christ the Redeemer doesn't count as a cross at all, and the one in Effingham was inspired by the one in Groom and is in fact larger (190' versus 198'). Who knew. Seems like I've become quite a connoisseur of crosses. Maybe the Great Cross in St Augustine, FL, is next? Then again, maybe not.


The cross! What about the cross? So many words without going into detail of the (to me) obvious highlight of your whole roadtrip? Not sure everybody will accept to be fobbed off with a wiki-link...

A nice send off for the Acura. Tear.

Katja, a gross oversight on my part. I have added footnote 2 addressing the experience with the cross.

That picture of the Effingham cross is absolutely fantastic. God bless America!

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