Chapter One: Prologue
Chapter Two: He Ain't a Crack Addict Bum, he's my Furniture Mover
Chapter Three: The Truck Who Sang Bleeds to Death
Chapter Four: Attacked by Indians
Chapter Five: Why I've Never Liked Winona Ryder
If the Automobile Association of America is correct, 80.11% of Texas is pitch black. I know this because their map of the northern "panhandle" region of Texas says that it's 176 miles from east to west, and it also says that the town of Vega lies 35 miles from the western border of Texas. From my own experience I can assure you that the 141 miles between Vega and the eastern border were pitch dark, and I couldn't even see how nasty the territory was that I was driving through.
The southern section of route 66 runs through Indian territory - a whole roll call of American TV western villains - Cherokees, Apaches and Comanches. By coincidence, all of the motels I stayed in on my way from Chicago to Palm Springs were also owned and operated by Indians - not native Americans but Indians from India. In recent years large numbers of Indians have entered the American motel industry, just as previously they came into the convenience store industry. There are also now many Indian professionals in my own line of business, computer software. How did the government allow such an industry, so vital to the future economic interests of the country, to become subject to people from a land which has been notably ambivalent about supporting America's whims? I don't know, but the motel industry definitely is in their hands, and that's how I found myself at an Indian-operated establishment called the Bonanza Motel in Vega, Texas.
My own theory is that Indians are successful at running convenience stores and motels because of their strong family ties and willingness to work long hours to succeed. Motels and convenience stores both require you to be available from dawn to well after dusk, so having a large family who can share the duties helps out a lot - but in the end you still have to do long hours. I guess you could call it the Hindu work ethic, and perhaps it's what will make America great. I've always felt warmly towards Indians because of their industry and reliability, and because my own great-grandfather was Sikh. Unfortunately, however, this particular motel was inhabited by an elderly Indian woman who was more predatory than industrious, and who believed that thrust and lunge was the best approach to hostelry.
The first sign that something was wrong was the lack of customers. Although it was around 10PM, there were only 4 or 5 vehicles parked at a motel with around 40 rooms. I guess they didn't get many repeat customers, and had to rely on a constant stream of fresh meat passing by. The second bad sign was the 8 or 9 awards given to the motel by the Automobile Association of America, proudly displayed in the motel lobby. Awards are usually a great thing, but when the last one was given 14 years before I arrived then their value is questionable. When they're still proudly displayed after so long then it's downright suspicious.
The third bad sign walked through the door at that moment, a small old Indian woman who asked me what I wanted. A room, of course. I was told that I would have to be very careful with my truck (which was already safely parked) not to hit anything, especially the precious awning extending out from the front of the office. The room would be $69 for the night. This is a lot of money for a motel in America, at least an older one as this one seemed to be, and I said that there was no way my budget would stretch that far. I could do a maximum of $40. The rooms were wonderful, I was informed, with - oh glorious luxury - double beds! Perhaps this was the only motel she had ever been to, but I can safely say that double beds are a standard feature of almost every motel room in America, though I didn't bother laboring the point. Finally she said she could do a room for $42. Somewhat against my better judgement, I agreed. Of course she would have to add tax, and I would have to pay in cash. Hmmm - so what happened to my resolve and my stated maximum of $40? And why cash rather than a credit card - less traceability by the Internal Revenue Service, perhaps? After a bit of totalling, there was the final bill - $49. The thought that Texas placed a 16 or 17 percent tax on tacky motels didn't seem very likely, but I let it pass anyway. I'd already let so many things pass in the last 3 or 4 minutes that one more thing didn't seem to matter too much.
The room, she said, was very quiet, and it was right next to their own rooms behind the office - in fact, there was an interconnecting doorway between my room and their rooms. This didn't sound as swell as she made it seem, but I didn't say anything. Did I mention that I'd already let many things pass in the last 3 or 4 minutes? Anyway, I took the key and went to the room. The wooden door was very thin and had some conspicuous holes at the bottom. The room was large enough, but the TV was a 15 inch model - obviously the cheapest possible TV which they could get. Neither of the two heaters in the sleeping area seemed to be working, but a very old looking radiant heater embedded in the bathroom wall seemed to be OK. I figured it wouldn't be a problem since this was hot old Texas, but at 5AM I woke up shivering under one thin blanket and realized I was wrong. At 7AM I still hadn't got back to sleep, and dawn's rosy fingers were already fingering the firmament, so I decided that the sooner I got out of this frozen little slice of hell, the better. I put my stuff into the truck, dropped the room keys into the drop box outside the office and drove off across the 19.89% of Texas which wasn't pitch black. It wasn't much of an improvement - this is one of the largest flattest regions in America - and very dry, so there isn't much vegetation either. I was surprised to experience a place even flatter and more boring than Illinois, but there it was, laid out before me in every direction.
I was already an hour down the road before I realized that I still had the motel room keys in my pocket. I'd stopped at a gas station in New Mexico, a state entirely absent from my book of Road Maps of America, largely due to New Mexico's alphabetic proximity to New Jersey, a state whose map I'd consulted so often in years gone by that it had disintegrated completely. And now all I could do was stare at the motel key for a minute or more as the sad realization dawned on me that I would have to drive back to Vega. It wasn't so much that I needed to return the key, it was more that I had to retrieve the car key and lock key which I'd mistakenly dropped into the motel's drop box in my dazed early morning condition. It's true that I had a spare car key and lock key, but unfortunately they were inside the back of the truck, so I needed the other lock key to get them.
And so I got to experience this particular part of Texas not once, but three times, as I made the return trip to Vega and then headed West again. I drove through New Mexico without incident, but also without experiencing the "state of enchantment" which the tourist office promised. There just seemed to be a lot of relatively uninteresting and dry desert. There certainly was a lot more geography happening in New Mexico than in Oklahoma or Texas, but it wasn't exactly worth travelling for or even stopping to see.
Unfortunately, soon after I crossed into Arizona I realized that the time I had lost because of my mistake in Texas was about to cost me dearly. Before I left Chicago, I figured that I might have time to make one scenic stop on my way to California, and I decided that this would be the Petrified Forest in eastern Arizona. This fairly compact park straddles the interstate highway I was travelling down, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to see at least a small part of the country during my journey. I arrived just after 5 o'clock, with the sun already starting to approach the horizon - ideal conditions for great photos of petrified tree logs against a glorious desert sunset. The Park Service, however, had other ideas. The sign on the locked entrance gate informed me that the park was closed promptly at 5 o'clock, summer and winter. The concept of parks closing at any time is still very foreign to me, but after six years of living in America I've experienced it often enough that I should be used to it. Maybe it's the affront to freedom which strikes me as so strange, in what's supposed to be the land of the free.
However, there it was in black and white. I guess people in America just can't photograph sunsets in national parks unless they're camping in the park. I'd missed my opportunity to see the park today, but I could always stay in a motel nearby and come back at 8AM, when the park reopened. At this point another idea popped into my head. By now, with a truck whose headlights actually worked, I'd made up all of the time I'd lost along the way, and then some. As long as I could get as far as Phoenix by the end of the next day, it would be a cinch to get to California on Sunday, ready for work on Monday. It was only about 4 hours drive from the Petrified Forest to Phoenix, and about the same length of time separated the Grand Canyon from Phoenix. Perhaps I could spend the next day, Saturday, at the Grand Canyon? After chewing it over for about 10 minutes, I decided to push on for another 90 minutes or so to Flagstaff, which advertises itself as the gateway city to the Grand Canyon. I arrived, found a classy and cheap motel operated by a very pleasant Indian family, booked a sightseeing flight over the Grand Canyon for the next day and went to bed, well pleased with myself.