“That thing you wrote in the paper the other day, just exactly what the *#%^ is recreational travel, anyway?”
I thought long and hard before I answered Jimmy Don. It was a simple enough question, yes, but Jimmy Don wasn’t the type of person you casually trusted with any information, even the kind that at first blush appeared to be harmless. Jimmy Don is one of a special breed of men that in Texas are collectively known as Bubba. No simple-minded dullard, Bubba is uninformed by choice rather than misfortune and is distinguished not by the mere fact of his ignorance but by his conspicuous pride in it. To him ignorance is not unlike a competitive sport, and he is the only true professional. A pro among pros, when someday they build the Bubba Hall of Fame, Jimmy Don’s statue will undoubtedly hold the sacred position of honor between the beer concession and the shooting gallery. And that is why I hesitated. Anytime that he asked a question unrelated to drinking or football, his motives
had to be considered suspect.
I should point out that I knew Jimmy Don only by reputation, a situation which made my relationship with him the envy of everyone in town with the exception of the unsavory element. (The element’s name is Joe Bob Scroggins, Jimmy Don’s favorite — and nearly constant — drinking companion. The use of the word “favorite” is a little misleading, however, since Jimmy Don doesn’t particularly like Joe Bob. They became inseparable only when Jimmy Don discovered that Joe Bob was never sober enough to know whose round it was to buy. Needless to say, Jimmy Don was more than glad to keep track.) Anyway, Jimmy Don’s reputation even among his fellow Bubbas was storied material. He had been ticketed ten times for DWI, a local record of which he was so proud that he had framed the citations and had hung them on the most prominent wall of his trailer. That by itself was a sobering thought — at least for some of us — but my real concern involved Jimmy Don’s almost legendary loathing for the residents of Dimmitt’s largest nursing home.
The busiest street in town separated the nursing home from a dollar store. That same street provided the only direct connection between Jimmy Don’s trailer and Joe Bob’s favorite bar. The two worlds collided when the last TV soap ended for the day and the crosswalk between the store and
the nursing home sported a tide of humanity that ebbed and
flowed about as swiftly as a glacier. More days than not
the resultant delay caused Jimmy Don to be late for his appointed rounds with Joe Bob, a circumstance which he considered to be a most serious and personal affront. He had, in fact, lately taken to referring to the residents of the home in a highly public manner as speed bumps and had sent more than a few of them lurching for their lives. All to say, Jimmy Don’s slant on the recreational aspects of driving was already less than mainstream. If I confused him any more about the connection between vehicles and entertainment, he might well be off to bag a trophy or two with his bumper and display them next to his DWI’s. That would almost certainly mean the end for Miss Edna Twitchel, who could probably move a herd to market faster than she could her walker.
And that’s why I wrote this book. Not that Jimmy Don would — or even could — read it, but he’s far from the only one who’s confused by the concept of travel as recreation. Until recently, in historical terms, people traveled only short distances unless there were reasons that were both tangible and compelling, such as economic improvement, religious freedom or flight to avoid prosecution. While it’s true that an occasional Mongol horde got together to “Do Europe for the summer,” far-flung
vacationing as such wasn’t introduced into Western culture until the advent of the Congressional fact-finding mission.
For the novice vacationer, recreational travel in the United States looms with the prospect of untold problems of a diverse nature. What are the best places to go for vacation? How much will it cost? Is it absolutely necessary to go through Kansas to get there? What is my legal obligation if a sign says “Do Not Feed The Bears,” but I observe a tourist being eaten by one? These are examples of the difficult questions that this book addresses. This basic guide to camping and traveling in the United States will also enlighten you as to what to avoid in certain states, as well as which states it might be wiser to avoid
altogether. Some states are covered in greater detail than others. These will normally be the states that I’ve actually been in. In other states, such as North Dakota and Delaware, I’ve utilized both eyewitness accounts from people who knew someone who claimed to have been there, and some very imaginative literature from the state tourist bureaus.
Works of this scope obviously require painstaking research. It also requires self-sacrifice, not the least of which was the leave-of-absence I was forced to take from my job with the Dimmitt Dollar Saver as both the writer of a travel advice column and the chief circulation facilitator. I devoted no less than forty-seven days — often in hygienically-compromised conditions — delving into our great country’s nooks and crannies. Although no stone was left unturned during this epic journey there were unavoidable time limitations involved in covering such a large area. For example, it required an extra two days and a police escort before I finally found the exit from Los Angeles. Fortunately I made up most of the lost time in Nebraska when I found their main attraction, the Corn Palace, was temporarily closed for fumigation. That freed-up three and a half hours to see the rest of the state, which proved to be adequate.
Interesting facts about the states are also included, except for several states where there was nothing of any apparent interest. I’ve included a scientifically devised system for rating the states. My system, which incorporates technology developed in the Space Program, is based on specific criteria such as the quality and frequency of such things as highways, services, parks, significant scenery, and availability of radio stations that don’t have a country and western format. The system also includes an arbitrary element based on general impression. For example, any state with a nude beach automatically doubles its score. The rating system:
* Not Worth Mentioning, but mentioned anyway
? Unable to locate
There are a couple of states in the East that are designed very poorly. This can result in periodic confusion to the traveler regarding his specific location at any given time. Comments concerning these states (and you know who you are) may therefore actually more accurately reflect conditions in a neighboring state or country. The spelling used here for all states is the one that appears on their state Constitution, even when it’s wrong.
A section entitled “Campfire Notes” appears frequently throughout the book. Subjects discussed under this heading include penetrating exposes, touring tips, random thoughts, and wayfarers met along the way. These notes were composed while sitting around the campfire and reflecting on interesting things that happened that day. For this reason, the reader will usually not find these notes following discussions of boring states or states that don’t allow campfires. However, if notes do follow a no-campfire state, they will be titled “Coleman Lantern Notes.”
I must point out here that The Definitive Guide . . . would have been even more definitive if not for a number of state attorneys general who couldn’t tell the difference between hard-hitting journalism and slander. These so-called learned men questioned the credibility of some of my sources (well, all of them, actually) despite the fact that anybody in Dimmitt will tell you that these experts in their fields have forgotten more than almost everybody else put together. Consequently, some material about certain named places has been edited, sometimes with disastrous results. For additional information about these named places, you may wish to consult the local tourist bureaus, who seem to think their opinions are better than mine, anyway.
Finally, you may wonder why the journey begins in Utah. We’re certainly blessed to live in a country where you have that privilege.
PREPARATION FOR THE TRIP
Proper and thoughtful trip preparation is extremely important to the success of your trip. Poor vacation planning is the reason that forty-three per cent of the sixty-five and over age group are struggling financially with retirement. The money that could have gone toward rental of a villa in the south of France is, instead, going for storage charges on four decades worth of can openers, lawn chairs and ice chests that “somebody” forgot to pack back home in Ft. Wayne and had to be reacquired in Key West.
And it’s not the worst of it that the shoddy planner will end up with his money invested in a portfolio of used hibachis; he’ll also have purchased them from resort-area businesses that are open only four months a year. Meaning that the store owners have sixteen short weeks to come up with twelve payments on their Lexus. They can do this because they take the basic four burger hibachi that was three ninety-five at your local discounter and expertly merchandise it. Merchandising entails removing it from the box, covering the words Made in China with a Happy Face sticker, and displaying it between a seventy-five dollar piece of flotsam (more for jetsam) and a conch shell. In this way the owner leads helpless consumers to believe that the hibachi was handcrafted locally and is bargain priced at Sam’s Seaside Sundries for only fourteen ninety-five.
Financial ruin is, of course, the extreme outcome of poor trip planning, but more common occurrences often have devastating results. How many men have been tragically captured on film wearing black socks and tie shoes with their Bermuda shorts because they let someone else do their packing for them? How many unwanted children were conceived in the Midwest by vacationers who discovered too late that the closest thing to a pharmacy in the area was in the animal husbandry section of the feed and grain store? And an example I’m sure will ring familiar with many of us, how many times could possession of a simple Spanish dictionary have prevented someone from offering five dollars to sleep with a vendor’s mother instead of a like amount to purchase the velvet Elvis?
In preparing for your trip there are certain phrases that you must not allow to creep into the conversation.
“We only need to take enough for two weeks.” Both Napoleon and Hitler made this mistake when they were packing for Russia. Take some of everything you’re sure you won’t need. While it may be true that it’s never before rained for two solid weeks in Death Valley in July, it’s also true that you’ve never before planned a vacation there. Why should you anticipate misfortune on your vacation? Because Heaven is filled with Puritans who can’t stand watching people be unproductive.
“My hemorrhoids haven’t bothered me in years.” Your system is acclimated to tuna casserole and Hamburger Helper. On vacation you’ll be eating corned beef hash with a salsa sauce and ravioli from a can. Expect trouble and possibly surgery.
“Only a handful of people know about this spot.” This is the only rumor that is known to be spread by paid professionals. You’ll spend your entire vacation in a nearby KOA campground waiting for the handful that’s currently in residence to vacate a space.
“Don’t worry, the neighbors will take care of things while we’re away.” Is this the same neighbor whose house you looked after while they were vacationing last year? The one where you forgot to water and recreated the Dust Bowl? The reason they so graciously forgave you is they’re praying to God they get a chance to return the favor! Hire professionals to take care of things. They’ll also kill your lawn, but you’ll have somebody to sue.
“What games should we take for the children?” While children do have comparatively small brains, they aren’t necessarily stupid. They understand that you and they are working at cross purposes. They know this from the first time you tell them to “Play quietly.” Besides tipping them that your ten speed is a few gears short, that simple statement also made them realize that any game that’s your selection doesn’t have their entertainment as its primary focus. Otherwise you’d have hung a shower curtain between the front seat and the back and given them water guns. Children know what game they’re going to play from the minute you announce the trip, a trip during which they’ll have the two people who are responsible for depriving them of their rights trapped in a seventy mile an hour jail cell with no hope of escape. The truly gifted children will make the resulting parental ordeal seem as if it were totally spontaneous.
“We have a budget and we’re sticking to it.” Disastrous, Roman God of Holidays, is believed to have found this expression particularly amusing. The reason we have state license plates instead of federal is so businessmen will know at a glance who it’s safe to overcharge. It’s not like they’re ever going to see you again, and besides, you’ve probably killed half their shrubs by letting your dog pee on them. Not to mention the towels, ash trays and extra rolls of toilet paper. If you intend to live and die by this statement, you should work out in advance who gets to go home when the trip is over and who has to stay behind and wash dishes until the bill is paid.
At this point, my own experiences on departure day may prove to be instructive.
The day of departure dawned. Unfortunately, I missed the actual dawning part by several hours and must therefore forego the time-honored tradition of providing an in-depth description of the event. In deference to the purists among you, however, reliable sources report that it broke fair, warm and early, with moderate to heavy fog in the Urals.
The day began in an odd fashion, as I was gradually wakened from my stupor by what I took to be the haunting cry of a distant curlew. Which was the odd part, as I have no idea what a curlew is, much less whether any of them might be hanging around the area.
I battled heavy eyelids to steal a glance at the alarm clock. I watched in horror as the numbers lurched ever forward, taunting me. I had overslept! I grabbed the faulty instrument (made, predictably, by a company that wasn’t an official sponsor of the Olympics) and pushed the wake button. Yes, I had set it for five thirty; that part I got right! Unfortunately, the other half of the equation instructed the damned thing to wake me up just in time for the evening news! There was no avoiding the unpleasant truth — it was unlikely I could make my scheduled departure time of nine A.M., since I still had numerous last-minute preparations to complete. Also, it was noon.
I finished dressing just in time to answer a knock at the door. It was Mary Beth. We had met only two weeks before, and it had been love at first sight. If I wasn’t on the phone with her, I was camped on her doorstep. She jokingly referred to me as her stalker.
“Is something wrong?” she said, her face etched with worry. I smiled silently, amused by her excitement. From the time I’d first told her about the trip she’d been every bit as enthused about it as I was. “You are still leaving today?” she coaxed, barely concealing a hint of panic.
“No,” I assured her with a smile.
“No, you aren’t going?!”
“No. No there’s nothing wrong. I was answering the first part –”
“Then yes you are going?”
“I just overslept. You won’t believe what happened –”
“We’ll talk later. What can I do to help?”
“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to –”
“Believe me, I want to!”
“Well, I need a few groceries…” I ran to stop her at the door. “Wait, I’ll make a list.”
“No need; I was a Girl Scout.”
As Mary Beth left for the store, I went out to make a final inspection of the vehicle that would be my only home for the next many weeks. The van was new and sleek, and, while compact for so long a confinement, it would allow me the required mobility to see the real America that lay hidden down rutted roads and narrow lanes.
The outside carried a thick protective layer of dirt that I had carefully cultivated over the last several months. The interior was lean and purposeful –two captains chairs in front, two barrel chairs and table behind, sink and icebox on opposite walls, and a fold-down couch in the rear. Every inch of space had to be fully utilized; every task choreographed to perfection. I knew that Mary Beth’s Scout training would stand her in good stead provision-wise. I returned to the house to plot my own organizational tasks with equal care.
It was immediately apparent on Mary Beth’s return that the Girl Scout manual reads quite differently than the one for the Boy Scouts. I, in all fairness, had to shoulder part of the blame for her miscalculations, since I had failed to apprise her that many states in the American West are known to now have grocery stores.
Mary Beth had stacked a case each of pork and beans, chili with beans, and beanie-weinies directly behind the driver’s seat. Even though I’d be traveling alone, the thought was still frightening. Worse, she’d made room for these items by discarding the porta-potty. Likewise, in order to accommodate several dozens cans of Spam in the wheel well, she’d been forced to pitch the spare tire. She had somehow managed to cram five heads of lettuce along with a proportionate tonnage of complementary vegetables into the icebox. This despite no mention on my part of any intent to operate a mobile salad bar. I never inquired whether she expected me to cook the turkey or periodically refreeze it and use it instead of ice.
I thanked Mary Beth for her invaluable assistance and bid her a tearful farewell. I then re-replaced the beans with the porta-potty and emptied the wheel well, leaving me space to store either the spare tire or six half gallons of an inexpensive-but-perfectly-acceptable scotch. The debate was short. How many times do you have a flat?
The turkey was wedged tightly to the bulkhead and seemed determined to make the trip. I briefly considered acquiescing, and thereby in my own small way honoring Ben Franklin’s wish. I finally decided that the symbolism would be somewhat hollow, since he wanted turkeys as a species to be the national bird, not just one frozen one.
Finally down to basics, I listened for, and heard, the call of the open road, which, oddly, sounded not unlike a curlew.
CAMPFIRE NOTES #1
HIGHWAYS TO HEAVEN
It was the second day out and I was stopped at a gas station in Utah. A man at the neighboring pump was staring pointedly at my feet. I was pretty sure that they sold flip flops even in Utah, so it didn’t take a genius to settle on the object of his attention.
“It’s a toe tag,” I said, smiling pleasantly.
He looked quickly away, pretending ignorance. Moments later, however, his curiosity apparently got the best of him and he addressed me sheepishly. “Medical information? In case you’re injured?”
“Identification in case I’m dead. You have an accident, somebody might steal your wallet, but this baby will be there.”
Some would say that my attitude toward driving on the interstate highway system is unduly fatalistic. To them I would say that they don’t recognize the system for what it is– the world’s longest contiguous bumper cars ride. And that’s not just sour grapes because the almighty interstate people didn’t think Dimmitt was important enough to run one of their highways through, because we’ve done just fine without them, thank you. Like the mayor says, “If you can’t find it in Dimmitt, you probably don’t need it. And we sure don’t need them semi trucks rumbling across the cattle guards and keeping us up until all hours.”
But the point is that I feel completely safe without the toe tag when I’m driving in and around Dimmitt. We don’t have road rage here. Accept for Jimmy Don, of course, and his is so focused it’s more like age rage. About the only time I wear the tag around home is when I’m traveling with one or more of my three dogs– Get, Down and Dammit. If I don’t wear it I end up with the night sweats because of this recurrent dream I have in which competing eighteen wheelers use my van as an air hockey puck. The dream ends with my mangled body being misidentified by a fledgling coroner fresh out of the Granada College of Medicine and Cabana Management. Following this I’m laid to rest in a pet cemetery while one or more of my dogs gets the service which was intended for me– a Viking funeral performed to a piece that utilizes the lyrics from Rock of Ages adapted to the musical score from Flight of the Valkeries and orchestrated for bagpipes.
I should point out that I probably never would have thought about the toe tag if it hadn’t been for my dentist. Ex-dentist actually. A new dentist moved to town several years ago who employed an innovative approach to painless dentistry– showing the Playboy Channel during treatments. I have always tried to support visionaries and requested that my medical records be transferred. My old dentist, who is Baptist and believes that pain is God’s way of punishing you for allowing cavities to form in part of His temple, retaliated by “loosing” my file. A man with no dental records — for those truly knotty post-mortem identifications — that’s when I had the toe tag made.
But getting back to the subject at hand, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not without blame when it comes to aggressive driving. I do pretty good until I get down to Lubbock or some place with a freeway and discover that someone is tailgating so close that she can use my mirror to put on her makeup. Which is exactly what she’s doing as near as I can tell. The only other explanation is that she’s following me. Except that I’m not going to the hairdresser or an electrolysist, which in Dimmitt would be the only acceptable excuses for a woman looking like that to be out in public.
Anyway, I usually start getting a little tense at that point. The only person on the freeway who isn’t passing me is chasing me at seventy miles an hour while steering with her knees. The other cars are doing figure eights using me as the axis. Plus they don’t seem to realize that the turn signal lever has another function besides being a place to hang the cruise control.
Another reason I hate interstates is because of those access lanes that cross way up and over the highways. They’re always one lane wide, curved and banked like a thrill ride, and high enough to still have a snow cap in early June. Below you there’s eight lanes of snarled, snarling traffic, looking like a motorized wolf pack waiting for their prey to fall from the tree. That’s the point where I usually experience a panic attack and my mind starts to run wild. You start wondering: Was the engineer an A student or did he only read the Cliff Notes for The Theory and Practice of Bridge Design? Is there enough oxygen at that altitude? How well did they tighten the lug nuts when they rotated the tires? And even if the concrete and steel weren’t substandard and the overpass doesn’t collapse, something is sure to go wrong with your vehicle right at the summit. You will be responsible for one of the epic traffic jams in all history — covered even by out-of-state traffic helicopters — bringing disgrace not just to you and your family, but to the entire city of Dimmitt.
So even though I do have the toe tag and will be avoiding the interstates as much as possible while I’m on the trip, I’m still glad that I took some bio-feedback training from Estelle Lohmiller right before I left. Estelle uses it a lot in her family counseling to channel unhealthy impulses into what she calls more constructive interchanges. It does seem to help, because down at the newspaper we have noticed a decline in the number of family disturbance police calls (although the calls for public intoxication and assault have gone way up, which suggests that she might have a fair number of her clients who are now punching out strangers instead of family. It’s too early to tell whether this is real progress.). But the bio-feedback does seem to be helping me at least. Only a few short weeks ago, if a car had passed me on the right, on the shoulder, at ninety miles an hour, my competitive instincts would have compelled me to try to pin that car in place until I was able to ram it into a bridge abutment. Today, however, I remain composed by beginning my mantra, which is a personalized, spiritual chant. It helps me to quickly find my “quiet” place, which is a mental image that you find particularly restful such as a mountain meadow, a gurgling stream or, more recently, a tow truck peeling a black BMW off a bridge abutment.
Anyway, chances are there are certain things that are just not going to get much better. It’s up to us individually to find ways to cope, be it bio-feedback or maybe just reflecting on life’s simpler pleasures: a peaceful West Texas sunset, a wet kiss from a favorite dog or, should worse come to worse, the knowledge that after fighting the good fight your remains won’t be laid to rest beneath a headstone that reads “Fido.”