Reading Steinbeck's words our first week on the road gave The Cruiser and I the reassurance we needed. It's a fact that on a the open road there can be a general mission but the direction, the means, the day in day out cannot be closely controlled. Pale Cheeks has a rudder and we are at the mercy of the winds. In this way, we began our voyage South.
To Alexandria VA and a close pal's homestead, to my Aunt Ginger's elementary school in Maryland, the Clemson University circuit - a football game, reuniting with college buds, their girl friends, their wives and even their kids. You find good southern spirit in Clemson in general. Tigers Football was having an exceptional year and so the spirit was in full force.
From South Carolina we cruised across Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In Burminham I had a run in with a few drunks, one in a bar and the other at Flying J truck stop. Apparently having any old diesel doesn't allow you to camp where the trucks are. Clarksdale Mississippi, the blues capital of the states, was a ghost town. A guy by the name of Winston really wanted me to enjoy his movie theater, for free he insisted. I agreed with him that the theater had charm, but where were the people? The Blues? On to Oklahoma, the land of fierce winds and gridded backroads. I have never in my life seen more wind-bent signs, or any wind bent signs for that matter. The locals are a product of their environment. The wind and storms and not so infrequent tornados make for a tough people. I found out their grit first hand.
Clarksdale's only musicians I could see
Two tried and true ways to stir up a good conversation with a local- Two broad avenues have revealed themselves to me: Directions and Weather. The former is more known but maybe not in the sense that I harness it (there are some very rare instances when I actually need directions). In a diner, a gas station, a hardware store. I ask one guy and he gets a huge laugh at the route I'm showing him on my map. Do I really think that's going to save me time? He could show me one way that would cut off 12 minutes but I'd never make the trick turn and my map isn't even good anyway. At other times, direction giving is a group effort. Larry is called over from his eggs and ham or the young lad who is heading in that direction can pilot me to HWY 78.
And now for weather, known intimately by the local, a major ingredient in a locals pride for their land. I had scheduled a full day of driving in order to get to the Rockies and set myself up for arrival at a Landcruiser specialist in Colorado. We entered Oklahoma in the morning along with the one lane farm roads and dairy farms and warehouses of pigs and silos and those bent over road signs. The headwind was taking a toll on the Cruiser, the threatening temp gauge was showing the first signs of her first faulty radiator. The crosswinds were taking a toll on the pilot. Without the doors, I was left open to the 40 deg farm air, the thickness of it exiting a bout of sneezing and watery eyes that lasted well into Colorodo.
At this point the sun was a purple glow barely showing the horizon over the great plains. I stopped into a gas station in hopes of finding a wool hat. It was flurrying a bit and a big bearded man was filling up his pick-up truck, a tan Carnhert jacket and blue jeans were all that stood in front of him and nature's cutting gust. He looked like a wise old sage. I was a little intimidated. With the confidence squeezed out of my opening weather-themed line I proceeded.
myself: Does it always blow like this?
man: Well, this really isn't that bad. It's only October.
myself: Yeah but the wind, this isn't exactly normal for around here is it?
man: Nope, it's pretty normal I'd say. This here isn't nothing really. If you want wind you should go over to " " (he cites some other county)
myself: Yeah, is that right? I'm getting pretty beat up in that thing. (I point over to the Cruiser and the fact that it doesn't have doors)
The man wasn't all that shocked at the ruggedness of the cruiser or the fact that it was open to the elements. He noted that it was unique but his eyes went back over to his pickup and the horizon. I got the feeling that all he knew was the great plains and their weather, the farm, the grazing, the harvesting and the mechanics of equipment that helps him make a living. His air of wisdom and grit and simplicity were admirable. And so from an innocent topic of conversation, I was awarded with a snapshot of a what appeared to be a simple life with the plains.
The Cruiser crested the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes of Colorodo were waiting on the other side. The 750 foot dunes over a thousand miles from an ocean had been something I had always wanted to see. This time, quite literarly, the wind blew us there. Salida is less than two hours to the north and so the sand was just barely off our path. There was a small tourist office in remnants of the old Fort Garland, established in 1858 to protect the settlers in the San Luis Valley from the Indians in New Mexico. Three old men in, likely old pales of the town, teased me about me wanting to go to the hippy clothing optional hot springs "up in the foothills." I had not wanted that at all but instead was looking for the clothing mandatory hotsprings and campground in the valley right off the side of the the state hwy. They spent 5 minutes telling me 30 seconds worth of directions. I joked that I better not see their weary selves at the latter hot springs. The friendly jab hit their funny bones and exited an uproar of laughter and I left.
the great sand dunes
The Sangre De Cristo Mountains marked a major waypoint of the expedition - the first of many mountain passes and the changing terrain that goes with it. Sitting and breathing heavy from the trudge up the dunes, perched on the 750 foot mark I could see the shadow on the valley floor grow. It was quiet and I might have been the only one in the park. On the way out on an obscure sand trail we saw a giant buck. The valley air was crisp as were the stars. We were in the American West.
In Salida, the cruiser became Pale Cheeks and her drive train and breaks were overhauled, gaining more ground towards the phrase "a wolf with sheep's clothing." The town proved to be a good locale to meet some characters. Intensely mechanically inclined guys in the yard, an artistic metal fabricator with a live-in shop, a Big Foot conissour adamant about the fact that the beast is real and quite local. A hostel in the cosy hip riverside town housed a few travelers but one was exceptional. Dejan Zafirov was riding his bike across America - fairly common. Dejan was from Macedonia - very unique. We walked a few blocks to a corner bar with a 25 cent beer special and the exceptional came out. Dejan is missing a leg and has nerve damage in the other. He is riding his bike accross the continents to raise awareness to the underrespected disabled in his country. He wants to give the young handicapped courage and hope. See his rough cite: www.gaia.mk.
Dejan and his ride
From Salida we drove up along the east side of the Rockies through the orange emptiness of Wyoming in Montana, the past weeks blown around on the road imprinted on the memory.
1st buck in the rockies