Car Trek '96

Episode 1: The Voyage West

They call me Doug. And they call my companion Santosh. Actually, they really call him Santy. Except that I spell it Santi, because Santy seems too much like Santa Claus and any thought of Christmas-related things nauseates me unless it's December. It was in fact June when Santi and I began our harrowing journey from sunny Pittsburgh to the shores of California, or as we geographiles prefer to call it, America's hind quarters. In fact, I was headed for San Diego. Now, such a trip would not ordinarily be particularly harrowing for two young men in their prime equipped with a trusty, rusty VW Jetta, but for one crucial, limiting factor: We are computer scientists.

It was a dark and stormy night when we set out from sunny Pittsburgh. In fact, it poured straight through West Virginia, Ohio, and into Indiana. Little did I realize, but that would be the last really...wet...rain I would encounter for the next three months. You see, in San Diego it just doesn't rain during the summer. About every six weeks there will be an unusually heavy dew, which generally elicits from the natives remarks of alarm and confusion such as, "Water...it is falling from the sky!?!" The next day we hit the road bright and early so Santi could get a lesson on driving with a stick shift. As it turned out, Santi hadn't exactly driven any kind of car more than a few times, let alone a manual. Apparently in India that isn't yet one of the fundamental rites of passage, such as drinking your first beer, getting your first razor, or compiling the "Hello, World" program on your first UNIX machine. But not to worry. After a few short, clutch-reeking minutes of my expert tutelage Santi was reading for the highway.

The highway, however, was not quite ready for Santi. You see, the highway has an annoying habit of going straight all the time, while Santi apparently preferred to follow the more efficient "Great Arc". It wasn't long, though, before Santi became the first one in his extended family to break 70 miles an hour on land. Then he became the first one in his family to break 80 mph. Just after breaking the elusive 90 mph barrier, my knuckles having long since turned blue, I encouraged Santi to instead work on the somewhat less prestigious "longest time driving without causing some form of vehicular homicide" award.

Santi drove across the rest of Indiana and across Illinois and soon enough we had reached St. Louis and its claim to fame: The Gateway Arch. The arch was actually very cool. I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves within 500 miles of St. Louis. Well, scratch that. It's really not worth it to be within 500 miles of St. Louis in the first place. From up at the top of the arch we learned that the Mississippi River is actually just one great big swath of mud. Before you could say "overpriced giftshop", though, we were back on the road and driving with a vengeance. That evening we continued on through Missouri and well into Kansas.

We drove through the first half of Kansas in the dark with little more to look at than the tail-lights of the guy in front of us swerving back and forth in rhythm with the steering wheel in Santi's hand. The next morning brought the light, so there was even less to see. I had been warned that Kansas would just be one endless field of wheat. Unfortunately, there wasn't even any gently flowing wheat to look at. June is dirt season in Kansas. What wasn't already flowing south towards New Orleans was spread out before us in all its parched splendor. Kansas does have sights, though, in its own special way. We passed an irrigator tube 13 sections long!! Not to mention the various centers of local culture advertised along the highway, such as the Museum of Animal Oddities featuring a six-legged cow.

After taking a "short-cut" on some local "roads" and running over a large metal object ejected from a truck, we eventually made it to Colorado, only to find...more dirt. Pretty soon, though, we caught the first glimpse of mountains in the distance. We drove down to southern Colorado and stopped in the town of La Junta for lunch. Somehow, in about two hours we had gotten from the heartland of America to a Mexican village. I guess I always thought Colorado was just full of people who look like John Denver. With burritos warming our tummies we drove west over the La Veta Pass and then up to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dunes are basically a spot at the foot of the Rockies where some sand has piled up. Well, a whole lot of sand. When we arrived it was getting kind of late so we packed up some gear and heading out into the dunes. When we got to the first slope we both raced up on our hands and knees. It was when we got to the top and our lungs nearly collapsed that we realized we were at 8,000 feet. We took it a bit slower after that. Climbing up sand dunes with a full pack is just about the hardest activity in the world. The steepest the dunes get is something like 35 degrees, but it really seems more like 70. Every time you take a step up you slide down six. You also leave tiny lava-like avalanches behind with each step that sometimes go all the way to the bottom of the slope. Occasionally you're in them. The nice part about dunes is that if you plummet head over heels down a slope at full speed it doesn't hurt too much. I know this.

It was just amazing seeing the wind-swept dunes with the mountains rising up in the background. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. Santi and I hiked a few miles in until we could see nothing but sand and sky anymore. We eventually set up the tent at the foot of a large dune where it was protected from the constant wind. The next morning we were woken up by the glaring sun at about 6am. We threw all out gear in the tent to keep the wind from shifting it and then headed out exploring with my stunt kites. We hiked a few miles and then up to the top of the tallest dune, Star Dune, which was incidentally almost exactly the same height as the Gateway Arch.

Then we tried flying my kites. It is quite possible that that morning Santi became the first person in his extended family to fly a stunt kite. Initially the wind was not too strong, but soon it started to build. It quickly went past "brisk", "ornery", and "fierce", to "really ticked off". Pretty soon Santi had become the first person in his family to embed a stunt kite into a sand dune at 70 miles an hour. After flying my smaller kite for a while we headed back to where we had left the tent.

What we found vaguely resembled our tent in color. Apparently our little campsite was only sheltered in the evening. The wind had taken the tent, full of all our gear, and rolled it 40 yards, breaking one of the poles. We quickly packed up, found most of the stakes, and headed out. It was early afternoon by this time, the sand was sizzling, and we were wearing Tevas. Along the ridge of a dune it wasn't too hot because the sand is always moving, but in the valleys the sand just sits and bakes. I made the mistake of running down a slope and then did a Flintstones back up to the ridge to keep from sauteing myself. It was probably this that made me forget the blistering sunburn I was developing. To this day I still have scars on my shoulders from those dunes.

When we got back to the visitor's center we clogged their sinks washing sand off of and out of us. For the next four days we were still finding sand in our ears and I think I still have some in my hair. That afternoon we drove west to Durango. Coming down from the Wolf Creek Pass I learned what they mean by those "Use Low Gear" signs. The brakes of the car in front of us started to smoke and I could feel ours starting to fail. We pulled off into a little Melting Brakes Parking Lot and just sat there and inhaled the asbestos for a while. Eventually we made it down and drove to Durango.

Durango is a cool little town, but kind of touristy, not that we could complain. They do have a lot of outfitters and a lot of bars, though. We dropped our tent poles at an outfitter to get them fixed and then dropped into a bar to get ourselves fixed. Santi found two stools next to a couple of local girls and immediately started up a conversation. The girl next to Santi was named Ardi and turned out to be a forensic archaelogy student. I think that basically means she likes to dig up dead bodies. As tales of computer science have been known to make the listener wish they were dead and buried, we had a lot in common. Unfortunately, we didn't have quite enough in common for them to give us a place to stay (or it may have been the fact that we hadn't showered since Kansas). So Santi and I headed out to a campsite we had been told about and crashed for the night.

The next day we retrieved our tent poles and then drove out to the base of Mt. Engineer, which is a 12,000+ peak next to the Purgatory ski resort. When we got near the top there was a nice meadow surrounding the rocky peak. I had a twisted knee so we decided to make camp up there. The meadow looked like the kind of place where herds of mountain goats should be frolicking around. We didn't see much frolicking going on, but we did find the remains of a dead goat and Santi claims to have heard a herd run by our tent in the morning. Either that or it was my snoring.

The next day we boogied back to Durango and then drove out to the Mesa Verde National Place. Mesa Verde (verdy, not vairday, according to the locals) was fairly interesting for the first hour or two. Then we realized that they really don't know anything about the people who lived there. We just kept hearing the same speculations over and over. One of the high points was Ranger Pat (whose true name will remain concealed because I don't remember it), who led us through the Cliff Palace. I honestly thought Pat was a male for the first ten minutes of the tour. This turned out not to be the case, I think. Anyway, by that point we knew more than Pat about the Ananazis, or whatever you call 'em.

The best part about Mesa Verde was that in the gift shop we bought The Rider of Lost Creek, a cheesy dime-store western that made for some great reading in the days to come. We then drove on to Moab, Utah and exhausted the town's water supply with our first showers in four days. The next morning we hit Arches. This was pretty cool. Well, actually it was pretty friggin' hot, but cool in that other sort of way. Mostly it was just there, though. We did learn all about how the soil in the desert is actually alive and that we shouldn't walk on all the little cyanobacteria or we will kill them. In fact, we were told this about every ten minutes by the happy rangers. I think they call the dirt cryptobiotic or something.

After Arches we headed over to Canyonlands to spend the night. However, after driving the 30 miles into the park they thoughtfully informed us that there was no water available. We couldn't even buy the water they usually sell at the giftshop for ten bucks a quart because they decided to close an hour early. So we staked out a campsite and then drove the forty miles back to Moab and went to a fancy restaurant. About the tenth time around to refill our glasses the waitress finally caught on that we had been walking around in the desert all day and brought us a few pitchers of our own. We then drove the 50 miles back to our campsite and crashed.

The northern part of Canyonlands is not that great because you're up on top of the mesa and all you can really do is stare at the canyons down below you. But it was pretty peaceful. That is, it would have been but we kept running into a British lady who would just repeat over and over, "It's so peaceful. My isn't it peaceful. I've never seen anything so quiet...." After some consideration, we decided the sound of her bouncing off the canyon floor might only further disturb the peaceful setting and drove on to the Lower Canyonlands instead.

The Lower Canyonlands, aka The Needles, are only about ten miles from the upper Canyonlands as the carrion buzzards fly, but our poor Jetta had to drive the 60 miles back to Moab and then another 120 miles or so just to get there. But it sure was....not really all that worth it. The Needles basically involved a lot more roadrunner country. We weren't planning on staying too long so we couldn't do a trek down into the canyons. The next day we fulfilled our calling and continued on to that stunningly vast cliche known as the Grand Canyon.

When we got there we didn't have enough money to pay the entrance fee so they made us sign a statement swearing over our first born if we failed to pay them back. We had been hoping to do a little rafting, but we found out you have a reserve a spot a year or two in advance. The next thought was to do a little hiking, but you have to reserve that 6 months in advance. Finally we decided to just stand at the edge and look in, but apparently those spots had all been snatched up by mid May. Then we found out about a secret way to get leftover backcountry permits. The next morning we were on line at 7am and managed to get a spot for the following day.

Having puttered about the rim for nearly two days we were very gung-ho to get down inside. They told us it would take about 6 hours to reach the bottom. We had heard enough stories of people dying cruel and unusually thirsty deaths in the canyon and decided to get down before the day got too hot. It went a lot quicker than we thought it would. We hit the trail at 8am and were crossing the Colorado by about 10. Then we had to figure out how to waste the rest of the day. Luckily there was a nice cool stream, Bright Angel Creek, next to the campground and we sat in there most of the day. Upstream from the campground was Phantom Ranch where all the wealthy people who got reservations six years in advance stay. The ranch had a nice garden and we soaked in their sprinkler for a while.

All-in-all the bottom of the Grand Canyon was a lot more civilized than I had expected. That evening we went to the canteen at the ranch, had a few beers, and played a mean game of Spit. One would think that if they were going to put out the effort to pack cold beer to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule they would get something a little better than Bud Light. The next morning we high-tailed it back out of the canyon. We climbed roughly 4500 feet in under three hours. That's when the altitude sickness hit me. It actually did feel like all the nitrogen in my blood was forming little bubbles and that my stomach had some rather large bubbles sloshing around in it. It all comes back to bubbles. I think that was his final revenge.

A few hellish hours later I was back in top touring form. We stopped for dinner in a quaint little hole in the desert known as Yucca, Arizona. We were lucky enough to hit upon what seemed to be the heart of Yucca civic life. Yes, it was the local gas-station/convenience-store/ice-cream-parlor/diner. Pretty soon the place started to fill up with Yuccarians. While putting down a couple home-cooked chicken fried steaks we couldn't help overhearing one of the locals mention that he was having trouble installing a new device on his PC. The waitress explained to him exactly how to edit his config.sys. It was all we could do to keep from laughing out loud. Perhaps that was the defining moment in this quest by two computer scientists to see something of America. The information age has indeed crept its way into all the little crevices of this once sane nation.

That night we hit California and the next day we were dining on dim sum in L.A.'s chinatown. I dropped Santi at the airport so he could fly up to San Jose and then I headed down to San Diego. On the way, amazingly, I saw Alaska and Rhode Island license plates, bringing to 47 the number of states whose plates we saw along the way. To round out the useless facts, we drove 3,245 miles using 95.95 gallons of gas for an average economy of 33.819698 miles per gallon.

Coming soon to a browser near you....The Journey Home!!!!

P.S. While we were on Mt. Engineer Santi wrote a note to the girl we met in the bar. He didn't know where she lived so he left it at the bar. A few weeks later she happened in and they gave her the note. Now Santi and Ardi are happily enjoying a very cute relationship. Awwwww.

P.P.S. Well, the thing with Ardi just didn't work out. But it's all for the best because Santi is now happily married to his true soulmate, Rosa Arriaga.