Going Home, Day 5, 8/17/12: The Big Push

Beautiful skies from the driver’s seat. Interstate 44, somewhere in Missouri.

Nov. 11, 2012

Welcome to the sixth installment of the epic Going Home series, in which our beleaguered heroine, who, searching for work after losing her job in California’s Central Valley for the second time, does the Okie in reverse — travels Route 66 (well, at least the modern version) eastward as she travels to her new life in her old haunt of Connecticut, accompanied by her staunch and steadfast friend, Alexis.

For Going Home, the Prequel: Loose Ends, click here.

For Going Home, Day 1, 8/13/12: Leaving Fresno. Not., click here.

For Going Home, Day 2, 8/14/12: Sharing Needles, or Not Even out of California Yet, click here.

For Going Home, Day 3, 8/15/12: The Wrong Toins at Albuquoique, click here.

For Going Home, Day 4, 8/16/12: Amarillo by Lunchtime, But Let’s Wait ’til Oklahoma, click here.

For the entire Going Home series, click here.

My cell phone alarm at the Will Rogers Inn, in Will’s hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma, went off at 6:30. That was about six hours for me — surprisingly not very restful, considering it was the most sleep I had gotten all week. I’m guessing it was a combination of the accumulated stress  — the load-in, the running back and forth (and the car malfunction) before we could even leave Fresno, the various monkey wrenches thrown at us, the occasional white-knuckle fights to keep the truck under control — and the adrenaline that was still coursing through my body despite my general weariness.

But I was up, even if I was dragging by that point. And so was Alexis. We were checked out of the motel around 8. At this point, the heat wasn’t a factor anymore; it didn’t matter, really, what time we left. As long as we got home …

*****

We packed our things in the truck and my trunk and took a walk to the restaurant next door for a leisurely breakfast (she had her usual fruit cup; I had a spinach omelet). Most of the people there were older, including one man, seemingly in his 60s, who arrived in something

Just before the big push began. Oklahoma to Connecticut — 1,400 miles in less than two days. Was it possible?

straight out of the mid-’60s — a lovingly restored 1966 VW Bug, in that classic Volkswagen off-white, with all sorts of bells and whistles. You could tell the care he put into it and the pride and joy he drew from it.

We left shortly before 9. And Alexis spoke up:

“Let’s not stay in any more motels, okay? Let’s just head straight home.”

It didn’t feel like it, but it was Friday already. And she needed to be back for her friend Eddie’s 90th birthday on Sunday. And we were, by my — actually, Google’s — calculations, still 1,430 miles from my parents’ house, with 1,579 miles out of the way. For all the driving I did, we were still just more than halfway.

But I was totally down with her. I was tired of the whole shitty motel thang (this place wasn’t that bad, but I don’t think it was worth $65), and besides, that was the less money I’d spend, as the fuel was already running me more than I expected. And I was feeling the electricity and feeling the need to just get this shit over with. I needed for us to be home.

“I’m cool with that,” I said. “Let’s go as far as we can, stop when we need to stop, and just push through.”

We climbed into the yellow monster. Let’s get the hell out of Oklahoma. And Missouri. and Illinois. And …

Show Me (the way to go home)

The girl at the front desk had told us to keep going north/east on 66, as there was an I-44 intersection up ahead. Well, it was up ahead, alright, but she didn’t tell me it about 20 miles up

Just get us home.

ahead. Should’ve just backtracked to the exit where we got off.

Meanwhile, we drove the four-lane highway, which once shouldered a huge chunk of east-west traffic across the Midwest to the Pacific, but was now quiet and leisurely, used mainly by locals, the occasional Route 66 romantic and  less-frequent rental truck headed toward New England.

We spotted the occasional old motel or what had been a gas station, but it was mostly homes and various businesses that populated the Mother Road now. We drove through the center of Claremore, with its statue of Rogers on his horse in the median. We passed through Chelsea, and as we made our way toward Vinita, I encountered another source of stress — road construction that whittled the two eastbound lanes down to one very narrow lane. With rough pavement, no shoulders and huge dropoff if I made a mistake. And it went on for four or five miles — you kinda lose count in these situations. You just drive very slowly and carefully, hands very tight on the wheel, and hope that this episode of hell comes to an end very quickly.

It didn’t.

But we finally made it to Vinita unscathed, and the next entrance to the turnpike. One more huge, sharp, narrow curve on the on-ramp, and after a bunch of lost time, we were back in business. Did I tell you I lost my romance for the Mother Road? Save for the sections that had been folded into I-44, it was the last I had to drive on 66. Thank God. I don’t think I’d even do it again in a car.

But around 11 (again, time just kinda disappears and warps on you on these drives), the toll road ended just as we were preparing to enter Missouri. I didn’t realize until afterward that the interstate also ran about 1,000 feet south of the tri-state border of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. That’s fine. I spent a month in Kansas one week; that was enough.

(I covered the men’s national junior college basketball championship for my most evil first newspaper, the Waterbury Republican-American, in March 1988; it takes place every year in Hutchinson, just about in the geographical center of the state. Mattatuck Community College, now called Naugatuck Valley CC, wasn’t expected to go far, but made it to the semifinals and then stayed around for the consolation game, so what I thought would be a two-day trip ended up being six, at least according to the calendar. It felt much longer. I immediately detoxed when I got home by going to see the original Hairspray at the movies.)

The first thing I noticed about Missouri, as we headed close to the Ozarks, was the hills. They were gentle-rollers and they were approaching a shade of emerald that most unequivocally said “You’re not in Fresno anymore.” Or the Southwest, for that matter. Actually, the landscape reminded me of Connecticut. More specifically, of the green and the hills on I-84 eastbound through western Connecticut, which we would encounter sometime in the next day.

The second thing I noticed was that we were perilously low on fuel.

There’s a blue light on the fuel gauge that lights when there’s an estimated 75 gallons left in the tank; we were already to that point before we got back on the interstate. And then, when it gets below 25 miles, the buzzer comes on and stays on until you feed the beast. I figured we could hold out until we got to Joplin, the other Missouri city name-checked besides St. Louie in “Route 66.” It was only about four miles over the border.

We made the turn off the highway — a left, over the overpass, a right turn, then a right into the Love’s truck stop parking lot … and the needle was at E. (That last quarter-tank was sucked up pretty quickly.) And there was a huge line ahead of us — It would be at least a half-hour before we could get to a pump. Merde. Or, as the French would say, merde. So Alexis went off to building to stretch her legs and I stayed in the truck and kept turning it on and shutting it off every few minutes until I finally got to a pump. A pit stop, another tub of iced tea and more Mentos and we were finally ready to fly.

Aside from that, Missouri was a huge blur to me. Just a lot of sun and green hills and blue skies. And the sense, the farther along we drove and the closer we got to St. Louis, that our surroundings were closing in around us. It was to be expected after a couple days of driving through the expansive landscapes and infinite skies of the Southwest, and now heading into the Northeast, into the land of population density.

We rolled past the exit for Branson — quite a bit south of there — pretty early on. I saw a farm of some sort to the starboard side with a fence adorned with giant vintage gasoline signs. To

I always loved the shape of bowling pins.

the port side, there was a huge bowling pin (which has always been one of my favorite shapes) ahead of an alley. About midway through the state, there was a huge candy store to starboard. We resisted temptation; I would be satisfied with the Mentos I picked up at the various truck stops. And about 30 or so miles outside of St. Louis, we saw the signs for a vacuum cleaner museum — just one of the many things we would heartbreakingly have to do without on this trip.

One thing I noticed throughout the trip was how the different states treated their U.S. 66 heritage. All the states had “Historic Route 66” or “Scenic Route 66” route markers, but California and Texas didn’t seem to care as much as the other states. However, Oklahoma and Missouri were where entrepreneurs pushed for creation of a Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway in the mid-’20s, and it was in Springfield, Mo., where organizers first proposed the name in 1926, and understandably, both states have embraced their roles in this bit of Americana lore.

Oklahoma has at least four museums devoted to the highway — and, as I found out the day before, you can still drive sections of the highway that run parallel to the interstates — though it’s best to stay off the two-lane segments when you’re driving a full rental truck with a car in tow. Missouri has plenty of segments of the old road, as well as quite a few bridges. One of the state rest areas along 44 is cleverly laid out as a scenic park with reproductions of several old landmarks, such as filling stations and motels, familiar to 66 aficionados; the high-tech, newish building itself includes a museum-quality display on the history of the highway that takes up several panels around the entire lobby.

There was also a Route 66 State Park along the port side near the Meramec Caverns — and not until much later, when I went online map-exploring, did I realize it answered one question I had. And it was also one incredible job of repurposing.

At some point, on this highway of relics and rural ruins, I, with my curiosity for history, had wondered whether there were traces or, or at least ancient signs for, Times Beach. People from generations later than mine might not know the story of one of America’s first wipe-out-the-town ecological disasters.

It had been a town built along the Meramec River in the 1920s (the Times, in this case, was the St. Louis Star-Times,which was selling the tracts as a promotion). In the early ’70s, the guy

A 2000s-vintage photo of the Route 66 bridge over the Meramec River to what had been Times Beach. It’s now part of Route 66 State Park. And the bridge is in such bad shape that it’s since been closed to even pedestrians and cyclists. Photo from Ape Canyon News Service.

contracted to oil the roads in town was using waste oil to lay down a coat on the roads. And when residents’ horses started dying mysteriously, the Centers for Disease Control was brought in and eventually uncovered the source of the problem. The guy was getting his waste oil from a company that had manufactured Agent Orange — and the dioxin levels were off the charts. The town was being poisoned.

In 1983, the U.S. government evacuated the town, paid off the residents to move away and leveled it. And now, parts of it are safe enough, apparently, that it was transformed into Route 66 State Park, as the highway ran through the town.

And now I knew, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest … of the story. But I didn’t realize it as we drove past the state park that day.

We pitted at another truck stop about 20something miles from St. Louis. There, I had to wait for a busload of about a dozen women in line ahead of me for the bathroom — another test for a blossoming transwoman in transit across a strange land and a red state. Again, I passed. That pleased me.

Now let’s get the hell out of here and over the river. It was about 4:30, and I was getting more excited the closer we got to St. Louis, and the more traffic we encountered — and with my first White Castle sighting. No, we weren’t gonna stop for murderburgers (as we called them in college on Long Island), but just seeing a restaurant from the highway was enough comfort food for me. It meant we were soon heading into Illinois.

Across the Mississippi and into the darkness

We wouldn’t actually be driving through St. Louis — we’d be traveling counter-clockwise on the beltway about 10 miles out of town. Just in time for the Friday rush hour, we finally left the Mother Road behind as we exited for I-270 — which, a couple miles later, at the intersection of I-55, became I-255. I managed to survive the white-knuckle of multiple lane changes in

Up ahead: the twin spans on I-255 over the Mississippi heading into Illinois.

moving rush-hour traffic quite well, if I say so myself  — except for that asshole in the red Solara who cut me off. (His Toyota had considerable body damage on his side — gee, I wonder why …).

Up to that point, the only times I ever crossed the Mississippi River were in New Orleans — once as a passenger in a car on the Crescent City Connection and once by ferry to Algiers. I didn’t make much of my crossing this time, on the twin arched spans over the river — it was just another landmark, another milestone down, on the way home. Alexis turned the page on the map, and we were now on our seventh state of the trip. Five more to go.

Alexis was bummed. As we circled the city from the other side of the river, we got good views of the Gateway Arch through the trees. And every time she had her camera in position, a big rig passed us to my left and cut off the view. After a couple of minutes of this, it was a moot point. The big push continued.

We turned off onto I-70/U.S. 40, then piggybacked with I-55 for a brief while, the interstate that parallels the Route 66 path much of the rest of the way to Chicago, before we branched off and continued the trek northeast. And the highway quieted down pretty quickly from there. We went straight from the metropolis of St. Louis to the farmlands of southern Illinois. Real farms — with barns with silos! Shades of millions of children’s books and toy farms. The road surface was a little rough on this older, narrower stretch of interstate, so I couldn’t bask in the scenery too much.

Plus, we were ready to get off the road for a little bit and get some dinner and stretch. And about an hour out of St. Loo, we found a truck stop with a Denny’s. The sun was down by that point, a little after 7, but it wasn’t dark yet.

We were about halfway through the Illinois segment of I-70, just east of the center of Vandalia — the original capital of Illinois, where Abe Lincoln began his political career. And again, there was a sense of history, one that goes back much further than Route 66. I-70 parallels U.S. 40 — the National Road, the country’s first improved road built by the government. The Mother Road and the National Road on the same trip. I was too overwhelmed by exhaustion and the desire to get home to think too much about history, though.

Anyway, the Denny’s was pretty quiet — one table of old-school truckers, a couple families, and two girls from Connecticut doing a long haul.

By quiet, I mean sparsely populated. Certainly not the sound coming from the kitchen. As we set up camp — me catching up on a day’s worth of Facebook messages while alternating with eating my fajita-type thing, Alexis catching up on texts and phone calls, and who knows what she had for dinner — we were listening to the radio, which was turned up higher than usual.

And I had a “holy shit” moment — the station was blaring “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls. As a music fan, it’s not an unusual song to hear — it was one of the better songs to come out of the ’80s. It’s just that radio has achieved such a permafrost state of suckdom that you don’t expect to hear anything that’s good anymore — much less something with guitars and without AutoTune. And this was a song that was frozen out of all but college radio the handful of commercial “new music” stations when it came out in ’83. And then, a couple of songs later, another one I’d never expect to hear on the radio: “Echo Beach” by Martha & the Muffins. Granted, like The Plimsouls, I have this one among the mixdiscs in the car, and in the laptop, and I can play it whenever I want. But who would expect it on a radio in a truck-stop Denny’s in the farm country of southern Illinois? Guess that’s what passes for excitement on a Friday night there …

We probably hung out until 8:30 (and again, one loses track of time). We went back to the truck, where I dozed for a short while. Then, at some point, we got back on the road. As far as I was concerned, the clock was stopped. No pushing until the next motel anymore, no nothing except that we were getting home sometime in the next day.

I was running on adrenaline and momentum at that point, of course. California seemed like two weeks ago already. And I had to keep the adrenaline up, keep my eyes open, keep both hands on the wheel (an unfamiliar position for me, as I drove Celicas with 5-speed sticks for 15 years and still drive with my hand on the shift column of my Camry, even though it’s automatic). And the closer we got to Indiana, the more I had to pay attention, as construction whittled the road to one narrow lane. Beautiful.

I think it was just past midnight that I stopped a couple miles over the border in Indiana for more shuteye. Another huge blur. Not a restful sleep, of course — despite the blanket, the seat was digging into my tailbone, and even without that, it wouldn’t have been a comfortable sit, anyway. Alexis was doing her best to remain comfy, despite the seat belts that she twisted into a million configurations to keep from being severed at the neck or waist.

All I remember about the drive through was that we sailed through downtown Indianapolis around 2:30 — passed the massive Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts, and was impressed at the relatively huge skyline. After all, I lived in a cowtown of a half-million people for eight years, a place where there were only one or two buildings a dozen stories tall and the rest was just sprawl. And at some point in the ride, we crossed into the Eastern time zone. Too tired to open my mouth, let alone say yay.

And somewhere after 4 (that’s counting the hour lost heading eastward), we crossed into Ohio. That’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more. Somewhere in the farm country of western Ohio, a few miles in, we stopped at what the maps later showed to be the town of Preble, at a huge state rest area, pretty modern. There was plenty of truck parking. I shut the beast off, climbed down, took a much-needed walk through the lot to the ladies’ room, glanced at the growing bags under my eyes in the dingy yellow fluorescent light, then went back to the truck and shut myself down.

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