Trip home

The American West is vast and varied, as I am reminded annually when I trek across the entire expanse from southwest to northeast on the way back home to reality. 

The weather forecast determines the route, and this time storms predicted for the West Coast made me think the mountain passes might be clogged with white stuff. 

Best to cling to the Mexican border on I-8 out of San Diego, I decided. 

Before pulling out of Carlsbad, I took one last look at the ever-changing ocean. In blinding horizontal rain, I walked to the beach to see the big rollers. Not only were the waves high, but wind from incoming storms actually pushes water against the coast, raising the ocean level several feet. Fascinating. 

But I had home on my mind. 

Took the road east through the hilly San Diego suburbs, up to the first mountain pass at 4,000 feet. Several more passes follow before the highway dives down into the Imperial Valley of Southeastern California, fifteen feet below sea level. 

The mountain ranges wring the water from the clouds. Once down into the valley, I-8 enters sunshine, warmth––and endless irrigated fields of vegetables. 

California is big on wind farms. On this windy day, the hundreds of massive blades hypnotically churned out the kilowatts. 

After passing through Yuma, right on the Mexican border, the irrigated fields give way to Arizona desert. Thanks to winter rains, central Arizona is beginning to show yellow and mauve blooms.  

A stop in Tucson, then around the bend into southern New Mexico, near the Mexican and Texas borders, and up through the heart of the Enchanted State (one state motto that is descriptive) on I-25, one of my favorite drives in the world. 

Truth and Consequences, NM, a town named after a game show, nestles amidst some of the grandest scenery afloat. 

The weather map shows it remains cold back home. Time to slow down. One night in Albuquerque, a city where Route 66 nostalgia rules the day, and another night in Santa Fe, where a trip through the foofy art galleries reminds me I am not in the one percent.

The weather map improves. Time to sprint home. 

Not so fast. On the way from the hotel to a restaurant in Denver, the steering wheel stops turning to the right unless you hang your entire weight on it. It has happened before. I suspect it is bad. 

Time to find a dealer and entrust the sleazy service representative with your entire credit line.

“Yeah, we’ll check it out in the morning,” he says. 

Morning turns to late afternoon. No call. 

“Listen, I’ve got to get home!” I say, not really needing to get home at all. 

“Listen, you ain’t going nowhere until I decide you will,” he says under his breath.

He has my credit card number. And my car. He will win. 

I was hoping they would bleed the system and I would be on my way, but who was I kidding? 

New “steering gear” needed. We can do it for $923 plus tax. 

Oh thanks a lot. Find the parts, get it done and let me out of here. 

Two days later, back on the road. North through the beautiful desolation of Wyoming to see friends in Casper. 

Oil activity isn’t limited to North Dakota. Douglas, Wyoming is a carnival of tired, dirty men, mud-caked pickups, slapped up apartment buildings swathed in Tyvek, wrecked roads, overwhelmed Taco Bells, the whole works. 

Tornados gravitate towards trailer courts, and oil appears where the scenery is the bleakest. Alaska. Saudi Arabia. Siberia. Now, Wyoming and Western North Dakota. 

Too depressing. Too desolate. Too much bad coffee in gas stations. Time to sprint home, even if it means a fourteen hour day. 

Bismarck marks the end of the oil. Next stop: Jamestown, where the Perkins is filled with pasty white people in winter coats, a fact I wouldn’t have noticed unless I had just been in southern California, where there are no winter coats, and not everybody is pasty white. 

Valley City. Casselton. Then Fargo. Fargo is where the snowbanks start to build. If there is one rule to coming back to Minnesota from the Southwest that holds true every year, it is this: 

No matter how hard or mild the winter, no matter how difficult or easy the trip home, the largest snow bank of the entire two-thousand mile trip will appear just after turning in the driveway at the home place. 

Yes, it is nice to be home. But after seeing that snowbank, you wonder, what was the big hurry?