By Jim Hanna
Last month my sister in Michigan suggested I come out to see the lake house she'd recently purchased, stay a few weeks and perhaps leave a new deck behind. So I tossed a couple of sawhorses and a hammer in the Saab and motored out from Santa Monica, excited about the trip. If you've ever typed "San Bernadino" into a vacation website search box, disregard the following sentence: The best thing that can be said about the first 100 miles east of LA is that if you were that far west, you'd be drowning.
Call it a tie. I pass the time by looking forward to my traditional stop at the Mad Greek in Baker, CA, where I enjoy man's mastery of his environment by sipping a fresh strawberry shake while watching the famous thermometer climb light bulbs in the desert heat. On September 22nd, it was 105. No wonder he's mad.
In Utah, my go-to is the somewhat forlorn town of Green River. I hit Green River Coffee for good food and surly locals, then on to the museum devoted to John Wesley Powell, or as I've referred to him ever since reading Cadillac Desert, the One-Armed Badass. If you prefer a testament to more modern pioneering transportation, there's a Tesla charging station in the parking lot. Then it's on to the finest stretch of Interstate in the entire country, I-70 through Colorado's Glenwood Canyon. This curvy two-tiered spooning of the Colorado River winds 15 miles through the canyon and features four rest areas that provide access to hiking, a bike path, the river, and if the timing is right, a really great night's sleep.
Yes, on long road trips, very seldom do I get a room, because I sleep in rest areas. Don't look at me like that, it's what they were built for--as well as bladder relief, ignoring bronze plaques, and horrible vending machine coffee. And bladder relief again.
A common question: "Aren't you afraid you'll be robbed?"
No. Anyone who would look at some unshaven guy sleeping in an old car and think, "Score!" is far too busy deciphering new regulations on subprime mortgage lending.
Another common question: "What about hygiene?"
Yes. Baby Wipes. They don't work very well, but what they lack in antibacterial muscularity, they make up for in plausible deniability. Meaning that when I'm standing in line at a Starbucks, the incongruity of my appearance and this very specific odor allows me to join everybody else in incredulously scanning the immediate area for what most certainly has to be a very sweaty baby.
9/24/14 7:05 am, Kansas Welcome Center/Rest Area I-70 East…
Just after waking up from a five-hour bad dream about somebody using a Knee-Blocker to keep my seat from reclining, a young lady with a sheepish smile approached my window and softly asked if I might have a jack she could borrow. She explained that there was a mechanical problem and her boyfriend thought they needed to lift the car to access it. Not really wanting to displace the carefully arranged contents of my mobile toolshed to get to my jack, I strolled over to their mid-90s Camry, and took a look hoping it'd either be an easy fix, or an impossible one. A solid case for the latter--the two pressed pieces comprising the crankshaft pulley had separated, rendering it unable to turn the belt that turns the alternator that sparks the pistons that turn the wheels that make it so you don't have to walk. Actually I think what I said was, "Um, yeah, sorry, you guys are screwed." I went ahead and got greasy anyway, pulling free the tattered outer ring to lend full tactile context to their screwedness.
I liked Stephanie and Tyler right away, and became interested in their story. Nineteen years old and in love, they were musicians traveling the country to discover where they should be. They would know it when they found it. Conversation quickly veered from their car problem to where they'd been and what they'd seen. As I took a few moments to ponder the sinister/festive oddness of Portland's "Juggalo" scene, Tyler scanned the air above and around us, looked at Stephanie and said "Hey Steph, no hawks." While I briefly flashed on the possibility that this was prearranged code for "You hit him in the head with the lead pipe, and I'll take his wallet," Stephanie did a similar scan, nodded agreement at the absence of birds of prey, and together they proceeded to remove a large elaborate cage from the back seat of the Camry, walked it over to the grass and took their five pet rats out for a little exercise.
While these happy and surprisingly colorful rodents climbed on Stephanie, we discussed their options, which were immediately culled to zero when they told me they had a sum total of nineteen dollars. The town of Goodland, Kansas was just a few miles east, but rather than risk them being stranded on the side of the road with a quickly depleted battery, I offered to use my AAA membership to get them towed. We'd spent an hour talking about all the great places to go in this country, when Alex of Alex's Radiator and Repair showed up like a Knight (mechanic) in Shining (dingy) Armor (pocket-T). His face inspired trust, and his estimate of around $250-$300 sounded right to me. Let's see, $275 - $19 = $256. Hmmm, that guitar better be in tune, and please tell me those rats can dance. As Alex chained up the Camry for the trip to his shop, I stuck a hundred dollar bill in Stephanie's hand, wished them well and waved goodbye…
… But I worried. Busking is a big city game, how would these two make their way in such a small town? I felt compelled to do more to help, but was Goodland, Kansas where they were supposed to be? Would I be interfering with their fate? I decided I would check out the town, and if it felt like a tough spot, I'd pay Alex for the repair so they could leave. If I felt good about the town, I'd keep my meddling mitts off their destiny.
Rolling into Goodland, the first thing that nudged my compass was a jacked up old Camaro. It took me straight to a faint recollection of a Myrtle Beach parking lot, a thrown Budweiser bottle and fighting words barely audible over a Molly Hatchet "tune." Strike against.
While trying really hard to stop humming "Flirtin' with Disaster," I slowly cruised Main Street, clean and tidy in the late morning sun. I was looking for a local business I could use as my test case, and settled on The Vault Creamery and Bake Shop. It was just what I was hoping for, an unwitting welcoming committee. No, the accompanying photo isn't from a Chamber of Commerce handout featuring professional models, it's the owner of The Vault, Traci, her two daughters Desi and Lexi, and grandbaby Sage. As you might guess by their radiant smiles, the genuine kindness and humor of these wonderful people put me completely at ease with the thought of two young strangers singing for their supper on the town square. Between sips of much needed coffee, I told them about my mission, and proceeded to interview them about life there. At first, Traci was dubious, and looked at me through a matriarchal squint, as though straining to see the threads of whatever scam this goatee'd Californian might be stitching together. So I got on Cartalk.com to provide evidence of my semi-blogger status. It worked, she readily agreed that it proved a total lack of ambition of any kind.
I left The Vault feeling great about Goodland, its people, and its potential. As I passed by Alex's Radiator and Repair on the way out of town, I didn't even look for Stephanie or Tyler or their car, but I did glance up through the sunroof at the clear blue Kansas sky. No hawks.