Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Across the West, Eating Cheese Sticks (and Yogurt)


After months of not doing much of anything, this last two weeks has been action-packed.  Amy returned from working at summer camp on August 17th.  (I made her take a Covid test, which was pointless, because to this day we haven’t received the results.)  Then the whole of Northern California caught on fire.


It has been so, so bad.  We have lived in California for thirty years, and it has never been this bad, this close to the Bay Area.  The fires are still burning, and the smoke is still bad.  As if the pandemic weren’t enough.


Even before the virus times and the state being on fire, Amy and I had planned to road-trip her Subaru to Madison, Wisconsin for her sophomore year.  I confess that I had some survivor’s guilt as we pulled out of Los Altos on August 26th.  I looked forward to being out of the smoke and seeing the sky, but that did not happen until we drove out of WYOMING.  But anyway, back to day one.


Here’s the thing about road trips for me – it’s all about the toilets.  I insist on driving, and I like to drink Diet Dr. Pepper while I drive, but this means that I need to stop every two hours for the toilet.  I had read that many restrooms were closed due to Covid, so I bought a folding camping toilet and put it in the back of the Subaru, much to Amy’s chagrin.


Initially, it seemed we might have to use the camping toilet, as the first two places we stopped – a Panda Express and a gas station in California, had no open toilets.  We had to sneak into a Target to pee.  After we got out of civilization and onto I-80, though, all the truck stops had available toilets. 


The first evening of our drive, as we were exiting the interior of a Love’s Truck Stop in Fernley, Nevada, after purchasing Diet Dr. Pepper and a Movie For Your Mind (a trucker audiobook on CD), the sky was suddenly full of lightning and the wind was so strong that you couldn’t see through the blowing dust.  We had planned to keep driving to Winnemucca.


“Hmm,” I said to myself, “Perhaps a storm is imminent and driving another two hours in the dark through a wicked thunderstorm would be inadvisable.”


That is revisionist history.  What I actually said to myself was “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK, is there a hotel in Fernley??”  Luckily, there was, and we drove slowly to it through a driving hail storm and flash flood, and then I drank a lot of bourbon, which I had wisely packed along with the camping toilet.


We watched Eclipse on the hotel TV, and the brooding vampires and shirtless werewolves just added to the strangeness of the evening.


Nevada had a fairly interesting landscape, but it was sort of hard to tell through all the smoke.  Amy introduced me to a great podcast, “You Must Remember This”.  It’s about old Hollywood and we listened to a lot of it, alternating it with Aral Kingslayer (the Movie for Your Mind) and an audiobook entitled “The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity”.


As we pulled across the border into Utah, we encountered the Salt Flats, which are very cool.  Amy ate some of the dirt and reports that is, indeed, salty.


We pulled into our Best Western in Evanston, Wyoming at about 8:30 pm.  The hotel clerk was unmasked and rude to me, I think because I was wearing a mask.  We pulled up to the only restaurant in town, a Bar & Grill, and as soon as we walked in wearing masks all the unmasked patrons turned to stare at us and we could feel the waves of enmity.  We beat a hasty retreat.


We were extremely hungry, and dismally contemplating a dinner of almonds, when Amy did some googling and discovered that the Pilot Truck Stop by the Interstate had a Subway.  We were ridiculously excited to get our Subway sandwiches.  The clerks (masked and friendly) were a little surprised by our enthusiasm.


The next day we drove across Wyoming, again through the smoke.  We had an enjoyable stop at the Little America Truck Stop, which is the Casa de Fruta or Wall Drug of the High West.  We bought some cheese sticks and hit the road.  Our favorite car snack was turkey jerky, but the hit rate at truck stops was only about 20 percent.


As we drove through a lot of nothing, we thought about how we would like to eat something that was not a cheese stick, and Amy looked into our options in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Surprisingly, there was a Thai restaurant.  We called ahead, ordered some vegetable curry, and ate it down by the train tracks, where we got to watch three trains of over a hundred cars each trundle right by our picnic table.  Amy even got a train engineer to wave at her.


Just as we were about to cross from Wyoming into Nebraska, Amy noticed a sign for a “Marian Shrine”.  Being good lapsed Catholics, we had to stop.  There was indeed a big plaster-cast Mary next to a mobile home park.  We avoided the loose dogs and the horde of scary 12-year-old barefoot girl bicyclists and said a few prayers.


As we pulled into our hotel in Sidney, Nebraska, we passed a fast-food restaurant called Runza.  I said, “Amy, the sign for that restaurant is a neon ear of corn.”  Amy said, “That can’t be corn,” but it was.  We ate some Runza sandwiches for dinner, which did not actually feature any corn, just minced beef.  Once was enough for me, but I understand that Runza is the In-N-Out of Nebraska.


The drive through Nebraska was mostly about corn and soybeans.  We drove through the middle of the state on some two-digit roads and sometimes we would go thirty minutes without seeing another car or a habitation.  Just corn and soybeans. The tiny town of Plainview had a Klowndoll Museum, but sadly, it was closed, so we may never know the story there.


We spent the night in Sioux City, Iowa at a Hilton Garden Inn on the river.  It was lovely!  There was a patio restaurant that had cocktails and sushi.  They loved Amy in Sioux City.  All the servers were flirting with her.  I think that was the night we watched Casablanca.


The drive through Iowa was also about corn and soybeans.  

And then we were in Wisconsin!  We stopped in a rest area just over the border, and as we perused the points of interest poster, I realized that we were driving right past the Dickeyville Grotto!!! Perhaps you have never heard of it, but I have been reading about it in Wisconsin guidebooks for two years and I was beyond excited to see it.


The Dickeyville Grotto is the work of a Catholic Priest, Father Matthias Wernerus, who built it on the grounds of his parish in Dickeyville from 1925-1930 from concrete, shells, rocks, and other fun trash he found.  Amy and I had a great time admiring his handiwork.

We have been in Madison for a few days and Amy has moved into her apartment and started classes, mostly online.  I have been staying in an Airbnb, a 1924 cottage by Monona Bay.  Amy has the Subaru, but luckily there are many patios I can walk to and get a pint of Wisconsin beer. 


Today Amy drove up me up to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, up at the top of Lake Monona, but couldn’t stay, as she had class.  I wandered around the beautiful gardens for a few hours and then meandered back around the lake to my cottage.  I walked eleven miles today!  I saw a muskrat, ate a walleye sandwich, finished my mystery novel, and had three pints of beer.  I love Madison.


  1. We have not met (yet). I'm an old colleague and dare I say "mentee" of Larry's. I am gratified to confirm - based on your blog - that he is indeed married to someone of equal wit and humor. Please keep it up! And cheers to Larry! Steve Hoch