“This looks like a booth at a swap meet,” I gathered from the deep breathing exercise Margie used to punctuate every word, that she didn’t appreciate my packing technique as much as I thought she would. We had very different styles. Since we were traveling by car, I thought that meant extra pillows and no suitcases. Margie saw it as a chance to bypass the two container limit forced on her by the airlines. I made stacks for warm weather clothes, cold weather clothes, and photography equipment. Margie’s toothbrush and toothpaste went into two separate dopp kits. I just planned to grab armloads of supplies for each morning and night, while the mental image of so many articles of unfolded clothing nearly made her pass out.
“These will never go in my car.” Margie was pointing at a pile of t-shirts and jeans like I was trying to transport a room full of week-old cadavers across the United States. The first argument of our road trip was taking place in my living room. Something told me that wasn’t the way to start a successful collaboration. I caved. Lisa and I gathered the piles and loaded them into suitcases.
Packing wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my last moments with my girlfriend. But it was more romantic than our actual goodbye. As we stood in the driveway, Lisa coyly smiled and she extracted a small present from her pocket. I should have known better than to get excited. It was a cell phone. Somewhere off in the distance I heard foreshadowing music.
“Now I can get in touch with you whenever I want.” Great. Whether I was gazing thoughtfully at the rim of the Grand Canyon, sitting down for homemade pie at a truck stop in Iowa, or left to die along a roadside in North Carolina, Lisa could call and ask me how to restart our computer.
“I bought it on Craig’s list.” Of course she did, but that didn’t make the situation any better. Lisa’s closest friends and relatives have acknowledged, “if she can’t sell it or date it, Lisa’s not interested in it.” But, few knew she was also willing to buy anything from anyone – as long as she didn’t have to pay retail. It was a quality I found a bit inspiring and completely nerve-racking. She purchased the phone from a record executive who received it as part of a promotional package at the Grammy Awards. It had free unlimited service for three months. I had planned to use Margie’s phone for the entire trip, but I guess a pre-paid leash was the next best thing.
When the time came to finally say goodbye, Lisa picked up the dog and pulled me into a group huddle. The soft squish of Bonesy’s pungent body sandwiched between our chests was going to be the memory that comforted me through the long cold nights of the trip. In case that wasn’t enough, she attached a picture of the dog to the car’s sun visor. Thirty days into the trip, I might forget what Lisa looked liked, but I would always have Boney’s unblinking eye to help me remember home.
With that, we were on the road.
The weather couldn’t be more perfect for the start of the trip; this, Margie and I agreed upon. We were in consensus that the flow of traffic was smooth. The price of gas was reasonable and both of us liked the song playing on the radio. After twenty minutes in the car together, we had run out of topics of conversation.
Forty minutes into the trip, we started eating. It’s tough to be in a confined space with someone who is eating a hard-boiled egg. Watching Margie’s fingers pinch the shells off her freshly peeled treat, I began to wonder why I ever thought eggs would be the perfect car food. It wasn’t until Margie started in on a licorice rope, that I realized the stale smell of sulfur was going to be the least of my problems. By the time she opened the second pack, Margie had complained of staleness four times, dropped – and retrieved – three pieces from the floor, and burped the acidic return of 18 feet of candy, without ever slowing her intake.
Conversely, I don’t think that Margie was thrilled with what was happening on my half of the car. Even when fresh in their shells, sunflower seeds have a high mess-potential. I estimated that in transit from bag to mouth, there was about a 10:1 ratio of consumption to spillage. On top of that, there were the empty shells. The mess quotient in the spitting phase quadrupled, under and over-shooting left soggy shells scattered everywhere from the dashboard to my chin. Just over the Nevada border I was willing to place even odds that our next fight would be linked to food.
20 miles west of Las Vegas, The Hilltop Rest Area brought our focus back to the project. Unfortunately, it was the wrong place to search for something as useful as a restroom key and keychain. The visual of a key would have implied that under some conditions use of the restroom was encouraged. Barbed wire and a gate electronically locked by a button under the cash register surrounded the outdoor restrooms. There was a dog, a mixed breed of Shepard and junkyard, patrolling the exterior of the enclosure. On closer inspection, the bunker in the parking lot was nothing more than a red herring. For the sad few who really had to go,signage along the perimeter notified trespassers that the bathrooms were for customers only. The purchase of a frozen candy bar, a Jolt Cola, or one of the used pairs of shoes stacked next to the beef jerky got you more than a sugar buzz and some footwear, it gave you access to the special employee restroom. $3.75 for a previously worn pair of sandals and entry into a dirty closet with no toilet paper, sink, or running water was the only security they needed. No keychain was required or used. Scarier and far more disgusting than I ever imagined – our first stop was unsuccessful.
With only $50 cash for personal spending – I had exactly $1.66 per day for the rest of the trip. Immediately across the Nevada border was Whiskey Pete’s Casino, the perfect place to increase my net worth. Also home to the Bonnie and Clyde getaway car, I was able to convince Margie it would be a fun place to stop and view some true American history. Once in the door, she headed left to the museum while I went right to the roulette table.
In the past, I donated my money to the blackjack table and slot machines. I was new to roulette and unfamiliar with table etiquette. The prospect of losing the small amount of money I had gave me a bad case of nerves and I began to touch everything on the table. Other gamblers didn’t like it when a stranger touched their chips and the croupier got angry after I changed my bet once the wheel was spinning. Every five minutes it seemed someone was yelling at me. Still, I could see the appeal of gambling full time. It was like a job where I didn’t have to hide my alcohol. There wasn’t a lot to start with, but I was still able to triple my money. With one hundred fifty bucks in my pocket, we continued on the road.
We had planned to stay in Nevada the first night, but had failed to realize that after Las Vegas there are very few stops along the road. At 8:00 P.M., we reached Utah and immediately pulled into the first town we saw. During check-in at the Motel 8, the clerk suggested we try a nice “sports restaurant” down the street. Never having been to Utah, the emphasis on the word restaurant meant nothing to me. We arrived for dinner at 8:30, just in time for the final seating. Drinks were the first order of business, but of course we were in a restaurant that did not serve alcohol – as we soon discovered, no restaurants in the area did. I made a note to self: Always ask for a bar. Food could always be found at a gas station.