A good job offer came my way and so it was time, after four years in Michigan to move to sunny (its a dry heat you knbow!) Arizona.
It was on the Thursday, April 24th that the movers confirmed the appointment and said they would be at the house in one hour. Thirty minutes later a tall and a short comic duo arrived on the doorstep and started to put our lives into cardboard. They were followed by George and his cousins, George (I don’t think the family was very imaginative) and Larry who were the loaders and movers. George, George and Larry were from California and drove loads around the country. Larry was talkative, much to the consternation of George, and regaled the boys with stories of California whenever a load heavier than 20 pounds appeared. When the movers offloaded the truck in Phoenix, Larry had disappeared to be replaced with another George. By five p.m. we were left alone and the following day was spent on inflatable mattresses and camp chairs while goodbyes were said.
The designated day of the trek arrived and the family loaded the last of their belongings into the Dodge Caravan ox wagon and doped the dog. At six in the morning, with aching backs and deflated mattresses, we were on the road, heading south towards Indiana. Michigan gave way to Indiana, flat and well treed. Contrary to the beliefs of many in Michigan we did not fall off the end of the earth at the border. By midday we were in the maze of roads around Indianapolis where millions of rednecks worship the Indianapolis 500 and drive accordingly. As planned we drove to a little town in the south west corner of Indiana, named Mount Vernon. Here was a bicycle shop that was the coolest in all the land. We adults know this as the kids have told us so. We spent the night in Evansville on the banks of the Ohio River (reminds me of a song). And so ended our fist five hundred miles.
We were booked into hotels for the first four nights of the journey and all of these were Days Inns or Motel 6’s. The boys had their own room each night and each hotel had cable TV so Bryn was in his element, sitting on his bed with the TV blaring. As though he had not had enough sitting during the day, stuck in the back of a car. The hotel the first night was a Days Inn and had two large beds in each room and each room had its own toilet, bath and shower. All the hotels had the same configuration but the one the first night also had a fridge and microwave. The fridge was great for keeping the water and cool drinks cold as they were rather warm after a day in the car. Anita and I loved the microwave as it meant we could have coffee in the morning. The coffee at the hotel breakfast was like the coffee at Midrand Presbyterian Church – 2 grains of coffee per cup. The Days inn also offered a continental breakfast, which Motel 6 lacked.
Evansville was an hour behind Grand Rapids time so we were up bright and early in the morning as the dog decided she needed a walk at 5:30. No one had told her to re-set her watch.
We crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and spent the day on back roads, tracing the meander of the Ohio River to where it met the Mississippi at a place called Cairo. The sheer width of both rivers is astounding and there is nothing comparable in South Africa. Barges are moored all along the river banks and tugs pull them from place to place. Sometimes the whole operation is like a watery shunting yard. We had a history lesson from Ricky on the Louisiana Purchase and the importance of the Mississippi in trade. He had covered the subject in school that week and would have made his teacher proud.
The French were in control of the area and the Americans wanted access to the Mississippi in order to move goods downriver. The Yanks offered to buy the Mississippi area from the French but the French needed money to support their Napoleonic Wars and threw in a few other states as well. The price was bargain basement!
We crossed, briefly, into Illinois and Missouri to get near Cairo and then were back on the winding country roads of Kentucky. The area is heavily wooded and the grass is a bluish colour. There is a type of grass called Kentucky Blue and, of course, the country style of bluegrass music. Now I know they aren’t exaggerating. The area to the north-west is rather hilly too but the topography is much flatter the further south you go. We drove through some real one horse towns where the whole population probably had the same surname and looked alike. I was reminded of the redneck legal question: if a couple should divorce, are they still cousins? Every person we saw had a ponytail and a beard and the men were even worse. We met the interstate and headed into Memphis where more rednecks abound.
We booked into the Motel 6 and headed for Graceland. It wasn’t hard to find as the Memphis town council ensures that every street corner has a sign saying ‘Graceland this way’ or ‘You missed Graceland! Go back 2 spaces’. We didn’t go in as there were no tremendous Elvis fans in the car. The mansion is in a crummy area of town. I have been told that, when Elvis bought it, it was in farmland but the area around has developed in the worst way possible. I looked at the hobos and the filth around and without thinking commented, “Elvis must have got it for a song”.
Anita and I decided we would buy a bottle of wine and have a drink in the hotel room with our take away supper. Here was our first taste of deep south tradition. Our hotel was on the West bank of the Mississippi and, on a Sunday this was a “dry county”. I had a lot to say! Even South Africa has rid itself of that old verkramp law.
Lena again decided that 5:30 was a great time to wake and we were off, out of horrible, dry, West Memphis. We were nice and early and headed for Dallas, the theme music of the TV show eluding us but I remember it being similar to Bonanza. I expected the countryside to remain flat most of the way but we were surprised by wonderful small mountains and forests of pine and fir as we drove up and down the passes. Arkansas is a very beautiful state. A few miles to the east of Texas, we passed the birthplace of one Bill Clinton, lawyer, liar and ex-president. The place is called “Hope”. I suppose they still hope he will tell the truth.
I have always thought Texas to be a rather arid place but the area we drove through on our way to Dallas was anything but. The highlands give way to lakes and the area is very green and lush. Anita pointed out a mansion called a ranch and then another and another. Everything in Texas is bigger and better! The long horn steers certainly have very impressive headgear.
Dallas is a massive city and, once again we found ourselves in a dry county. The Ewings certainly didn’t live in that area! I wasn’t going to let them get the better of me and drove 20 miles to the next county. By this time we were getting a little tired and didn’t bother with the sights. We were two hours behind Grand Rapids and 8 o’clock local time was 10 o’clock for us. Lena still thought 5:30 was a great time to be walked.
Day four began with a late, 7 a.m. start but the traffic wasn’t too bad. However it still took us over an hour to exit the Dallas metropolitan area. Now we steered towards New Mexico expecting flat desert like conditions. Instead the foliage became smaller and scrubbier and the hills more rugged. A good comparison in South Africa would probably be the Pilanesberg area near Sun City however we were climbing all the time and ears started to pop. Finally we were in New Mexico and the music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was very apt, whistled through cracked and dry lips. The architecture took on a low, squat adobe look with flat roofs. Tumbleweeds often blew across the road. Clint Eastwood rolled his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. Looking at the sun reflecting off the rocks, I now knew how Clint got that squint. We stopped for lunch at a roadside picnic area and a road crew told us the dust storm the previous day had been so bad they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. Now, the sun was shining but chatting was more pleasurable than work.
We reached our destination, Carlsbad, after three, local time and had slipped another hour into the past. Carlsbad is named after the town near the caverns in Germany as the New Mexico site also has caverns. Some early settler in the west must have been a world traveler. The Motel 6 we were booked into told us they didn’t have hot water so we cancelled the rooms and booked into the Days Inn next door. However, the caverns closed for visitors at 3:30 so we didn’t get a chance to view them. Instead we took a “5:30 dog” for a walk along the Pecos River where she decided to infuriate a small flock of geese. That night Anita and I left the “5:30” with the boys and went to a little restaurant for supper. The restaurant was in the town’s old fire station but they avoided burning the food. Actually it was very good.
Initial plans had been to drive to Tucson and spend the night there before going to Phoenix and claiming the keys from the rental agents after 9 a.m. However we changed our minds and decided to head for Flagstaff area in the hills of central Arizona forsaking the southern Arizona desert for another time.
On the way, near Carlsbad is the famous town of Roswell, resplendent with UFO museum. We swung by, watching the sky but saw nothing. In 1947 there were reports of a UFO crash landing on a farm near Roswell. The USAF quickly cleaned up and claimed it was a weather balloon however there were regular reports of alien autopsies and the like. Roswell is not a dry town!
Near our destination for the day is a national park containing petrified trees and on the edge of the Painted Desert. We decided to have a look. In the time of the dinosaurs, the area was a huge marsh and the marsh preserved the tree’s as they fell. It’s not really very impressive as there are a few trunks lying around here and there. In the early 1900’s people started dragging away huge quantities of the petrified wood to make furniture, tabletops and jewelry. President Roosevelt realized the area was a treasure and declared it one of the first national parks in the US. Of more interest are the ruins of the Pueblo Indian’s houses, built into the cliffs. The ruins only date to 1300 AD but the tribe inhabited the area from 300 BC until about 1350 AD and then mysteriously disappeared. I suggested to the boys that there could be a tie in with Roswell but they weren’t buying that.
The Painted Desert is fascinating. The area is much like the surface of the moon. Indeed, the Apollo astronauts were trained nearby. Various layers of rock have been exposed by erosion over the eons and each of the layers is a distinctly different colour, ranging from deep blues though the browns and reds of the spectrum. It is truly startling and very, very beautiful in another worldly way.
We spent the night in a town called Winslow, East of Flagstaff. Winslow was now three hours behind Michigan and Lena was still set for 5:30! I wondered why the name Winslow was familiar and then realized it was mentioned in the Eagles song “Taking it Easy” written by Jackson Browne. The line goes, “I’m standin’ on the corner in Winslow Arizona, it’s such a fine sight to see -”. Winslow is not a fine sight! It is surrounded by two Indian reservations and displays the poverty of that situation. However it is on the famous, and now defunct, Route 66 and the town has a little park with a statue of Jackson Browne “standin’ on the corner” looking out at Route 66.
Route 66 was once the only single freeway linking the east and west coasts and had only one 90 degree bend. You could “get your kicks on route 66”! Nowadays it looks like a single lane rural route. Compared to the four to six lane highways we were traveling, this was from the ark. Needless to say, the hotel in Winslow was the worst of the trip run by a strange succession of Indians who had an aversion to fast movement of any kind. We arrived to one slow mover and, ten minutes later, he had been replaced by his female counterpart. In another half hour there was yet another Indian at the desk. They worked short shifts.
I picked up a guide published by the three towns in the area and discovered one town to the east was once classified as more lawless than Tombstone. What a claim to fame. It was the railroad pushing west towards the Pacific that gave birth to all these little places dotted around. One story is that there was a miscalculation in the materials needed to build a bridge, so for a year and a half the railroad stopped some miles outside Winslow. A town sprang up and then disappeared again when the railroad re-commenced its drive westward.
Day six dawned to aching backs and cramped legs. Too many days in the car were taking their toll, even though we stopped at least every two hours and often changed drivers after only an hour. But we were three hours short of Mesa and once again doped the dog and got into the car. Lena was wondering why she was sleeping so much. It could have had something to do with the little treat she was getting every morning but she wasn’t going to refuse that.
Flagstaff is so named as early settlers used a pine tree as a flagpole. The area is high up, around 6000 feet and surrounded by even higher mountains. Some were still snow capped. Flagstaff gets 100 inches of snow each winter and that is a good 30 inches more than Grand Rapids. At least we can choose to be in either snow or dry ground this coming winter. The overall effect is very much the Drakensberg. From Flagstaff the ground sinks to Phoenix some 100 miles away with spectacular views along the road and warnings for trucks to engage low gears.
We were in the new house by early afternoon, the ox wagon stored in the garage and a very happy dog inspecting her new garden. We covered two thousand four hundred miles in the trek and had seen more of the USA than many Americans. Personally, I would do it again, just for the scenery or - to see Elvis in a UFO with JR.