One thousand seven hundred and fifty miles from our gate to the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. We left Florida very quickly, sliced through slivers of Alabama and Mississippi on I-10 and into Louisiana, where we cut north at Hammond and took I-49 North to Shreveport. Familiar territory up to this point, so I drank my good, hot coffee, played with our laptop tethered to my Droid cell phone for high-speed internet, and fooled around with maps, determined to prove that women can too, refold a map properly.
“Louisiana Beinvenue!” I could tell blindfolded that we had arrived in Louisiana once I heard voices of folks offering up coffee, juice and pralines in the welcome center. In the clang and go of smoke-hazed gaming rooms of convenience stores with hard liquor displays, the accent can sound rough, thuggish. But in the open space of a borderlands welcome center, with pretty fields and everything green, the drawl falls like wild honey on my ear, and I find it lovely.
Somewhere near Baton Rouge, I saw a huge billboard for Blue Runner Creole Gumbo Base, then a sign for an old community, Butte LaRose, located on a high point where the Atchafalaya River makes a sharp bend. I grabbed a pencil to scribble the evocative names on a steno pad: Atchafalaya Homes “The Proof Is In The Roof,” Desperado’s Cabaret in Lafayette, and the Opelousas Catfish Festival.
And then we were in East Texas, headed toward Dallas. We stopped for the night this side of Big “D” at a Hampton Inn in Lindale, near Tyler. Found supper at a nearby Cracker Barrel. The parking lot was full, and the inside was noisy with big families, but everybody seemed to be having a good time and the positive energy was infectious. Turns out it was the weekend for the huge swap meet that occurs monthly in nearby Canton, Texas. The cashier told us that the next night, a Saturday, would be so covered up with people it would be like a swarm of locusts descended on the place, eating all the food and buying out the gift shop. Sounds like a great problem for a business to have.
Navigational skills are not my strong suit (can you hear Buck guffawing in the background, as in what navigational skills?) , so getting through Dallas took about an hour and a half. Buck knows that the greater my certainty in a particular driving route, the greater the likelihood that I am 180° wrong, but in a high traffic, high speed, high construction zone, he was pretty much at the mercy of my barked instructions.
From Dallas, we angled northwesterly toward Amarillo, where we would pick up I-40 to New Mexico. A billboard near Amarillo spun my head around. It advertised the Jesus Christ is Lord Not a Swear Word Travel Center. Shortly after that is when we began to see vast wind ranches. They were in the Wildorado, Texas area, close to the New Mexico border. The post-apocalyptic sight of these huge turbines on one side of the highway and a cattle feed lot on the other was eerie.
We bedded down in Tucumcari, New Mexico at another Hilton-owned Hampton Inn. Nice clean places with reliably comfortable king-size beds and good oatmeal and other healthful options for breakfast. We were looking for an early supper, and the manager recommended Del’s.
Del’s is an old place. Everything about it looks tired. Even the steer on top of the sign. But our server was not tired. She had a happy glow that seemed to light her up from the inside out, like a natural form of neon. And the chicken fajitas were good.
Maybe I was wrong about that steer. He looks kind of perky after all. Much better than the poor old Palomino Motel across the street. Somehow I just can’t imagine Martin Milner or George Maharis spending a night there.
The next morning we filled up with gas and used the provided windshield squeegees to
wash scrape a ton of bright yellow bug guts off the car. It was 60° and bright as we left Tucumcari. This day we saw three black cows near Las Vegas, New Mexico lying on red clay trying to get a little shade from a crumbling billboard. I didn’t see any shade. We passed exits for Roswell (that Roswell), Taciturn and Moriarty.
One more night passed, and we began to climb. Finally, at Flagstaff, we turned North onto US-180 toward Grand Canyon Village and a bed inside the park at the Maswik Lodge. We had a little time before check-in, so we parked in one of the huge lots. Forget the visitor’s center. We wanted to see what we came to see, to find out if it’s really such a big deal.
The earth fell away in front of me. My belly flip-flopped as my mind tried to put words to the incredible vision I saw. Worth it? I’m embarrassed to have even wondered.
Next: our 3 nights-2 1/2 days at Grand Canyon, followed by its polar opposite — a hiker’s guide to the Las Vegas strip.