Before the start of her sophomore year at UT Austin, Ellen and I road-tripped her Nissan Stanza the 1500 miles from Los Altos, California to Austin, Texas because you can’t live in Texas without a car. It was a lot of driving, but I remember the trip fondly, especially an afternoon spent at the Roswell International UFO Museum and Research Center.
One afternoon as I drove Ellen read aloud an entire book from the UFO Museum about how Marilyn Monroe was killed because she knew the true story about the 1947 alien landing.
Last week I flew to Austin to accompany Ellen on the reverse trip back to Los Altos. The night I arrived I got to see Ellen perform some improv with friends. Ellen was quite believable in the role of an exchange student in Rome who was accidentally dating the pope. Afterwards, I treated some of the troupe to Snowball cocktails at LaLa’s Little Nugget, a Christmas-all-year bar. I’m going to miss Austin; it’s so weird.
Ellen had packed the Nissan so full that there was no room for me, so we had to donate some bed linens and pointless platform shoes to Goodwill before we could hit the road. On the way out of town we stopped for a Thundercloud turkey sub (Ellen’s primary source of nutrition during her college years).
West Texas is vast, dry, and sparsely populated. The string of towns along Interstate 10 are about an hour apart, and there’s nothing in between. We pulled off in Balmorhea, Texas (population 479) and rolled up to Jo’s Bar and Grill at about 8:30 pm. We were the only customers; in fact, for a few minutes we were the only people in the restaurant, but after we hollered the waitress materialized from somewhere and took our order.
As we got back on the interstate, the moon dipped below the horizon and the stars were amazing. We pulled off at the next exit (an unnamed dirt road going who knows where), parked the car, and got out and marveled at the bowl of stars above us. We saw the milky way!
The next morning over flip-and-turn waffles at the Hampton Inn East El Paso breakfast buffet, we decided to push through to Flagstaff, Arizona in one day. This fit of hubris might have worked out had we not also decided to take the scenic route through the Gila National Forest.
We really enjoyed the beautiful high desert scenery and balmy mild weather on Route 180 North from Deming, New Mexico right up until twilight. As darkness fell, things took a decided turn for the worse. We had to go over a mountain, the temperature plummeted, and it began to snow. A lot.
Ellen and I and the Nissan Stanza were not meant to drive in a snowstorm. After we crested the mountain, we began fishtailing all over the two-lane, twisting, forested road so I pulled into a fire road entrance where we sat in mounting realization of the stupid situation we had gotten ourselves into. There hadn’t been cell service for hours, and we hadn’t passed a town in 45 minutes.
Eventually a pickup truck came into view, driving slowly down from the mountaintop. I waved it down and explained to the three young men inside that we were dumb stranded Californians and asked if there was a town down the road where they could send us up a ride or a tow or something. Ellen and I were not enthused about spending the night in our car in the forest, surrounded by bears or whatever, with no Netflix and only our bad decisions for company.
The cheerful driver of the truck said, “I’ll ask the Bishop” and continued down the mountain. Hmm, I thought, is that his gang leader? The fun name he calls his dad? Ellen was worried that I had consulted young men who might want to rape and murder us, but I figured the odds were in our favor, as no one intent on finding defenseless females would try trolling the Gila National Forest.
As we sat in sad silence, a pickup truck came up the road and pulled over. I jumped out, and the man at the wheel said, “Are you the stranded Californians? The Bishop sent us to help you.” They introduced themselves as Bill and Crystal McKinney of Luna, New Mexico, a very small Mormon town a few miles down the mountain.
They explained that the young men we had stopped earlier were Mormon missionaries, who had called their bishop, who had called the McKinneys, who had come to rescue us.
We decided that Bill would drive me down in the Nissan, and Crystal would drive Ellen down in the pickup. Bill grew up in Montana, so he knew how to drive in the snow, including the crucial knowledge of how to use the traction control system.
We caravanned down, avoiding the crepuscular grazing elk, until we were below snow level. Crystal and Bill told us that Luna did not have a restaurant or hotel but that Alpine, Arizona a few miles down the road was popular with elk hunters and had some amenities. We thanked them profusely and they drove off into the night.
When we arrived in Alpine (population 145), we discovered that the charming Alpine Grill and Still was not only open but had a potbellied stove and a bluegrass band. We asked the one and only waitress if there was a place to stay in town, and she said “Sure, the Sportsman’s Lodge is open in the winter and I’m sure they have a room. Turn right at the corner.”
The Sportsman’s Lodge is the sort of motel you pass and wonder, “Who stays in those tiny motels?” Elk hunters and stranded motorists, I guess. Frank and Phyllis Barnes have been living in and running the motel for many years. Frank told us that he and Phyllis first stayed at the Lodge one night when they were on a motorcycling trip and got caught in a violent rainstorm. Years later when Frank was laid off from his job, they came back to vacation in Alpine, discovered that the Lodge’s owners were selling, and decided to buy it and move there.
After the dismal start to our evening, things just kept getting better. We had a great meal and some beers at the Grill and Still (clearly not everyone is Mormon), enjoyed the band, and passed a warm and comfortable night at the Sportsman’s Lodge.
The next day we said goodbye to Frank and headed to Springerville for breakfast. We enjoyed another day of high desert driving through some beautiful, empty country and made it to Meteor Crater in time for the afternoon tour.
An enormous meteor smacked into northern Arizona fifty thousand years ago and left a great big hole in the ground. The crater has been privately owned by the Barringer family for over a hundred years. For twenty-six years the family mined the crater hoping to find valuable minerals, but eventually scientists realized that meteors vaporize on impact. Disappointing!
The Barringers gave up on the mining enterprise, built a visitor center, and started charging admission. It’s an interesting place to visit if you find yourself near Winslow, Arizona.
We stopped in Kingman, Arizona to have dinner at a Chili’s. We had intended to push on to Needles before stopping for the night, but the blue margaritas were just too tempting, so we had a couple and spent the night in the Kingman Holiday Inn.
And now I am back in California and Ellen has moved on to New York, where I hope she does not have to rely too heavily on the kindness of strangers.