This seems like an odd question to me. “Tell me about an adventure you’ve been on.” Sure, but really, isn’t that the same as a number of the questions I’ve answered already? I suppose it depends on what we consider an “adventure” right? But also, due to my having blogged about trips and travels regularly since the summer of 2013 (and a bit more haphazardly before that) haven’t I already covered most of my adventures?
Do I take the easy way out and just say “well, life is an adventure” and leave it at that? I don’t think that’s in the spirit of the game. So no, I need to think of an adventure I’ve not talked about before or delve deeper into one I have. But this also means I need to explore the idea of what, exactly, an adventure is.
For me, I guess, the idea of an adventure is something that takes you out of the ordinary but then also bring you back again, with fun had, lessons learned, and no permanent ill-effects. Maybe. It’s a hard concept to define. We always joke that when we get lost or when things don’t go quite as planned (like that one time when we almost ran out of gas) that it’s an adventure and we make a funny hand flourish as if we were finishing a magic trick.
Of course, that’s most often after the crisis has resolved itself. In the middle of it, calling it an adventure is more of a coping mechanism. The thinking is that if this is an adventure, then historically, it will all work out okay. So, when things aren’t going well, when the plans have completely broken down, we’ll look at each other and just make it an adventure, we cast the juju on it so that if we have any say in the outcome, this will lean it towards the positive. Also, this allows for a de-escalation of frustration, which keeps everything in perspective.
None of this, however, brings me any closer to actually answering the question at hand. Okay, here’s my thought: Looking over the list of adventures and travels I’ve done over the past dozen years or so which I have written up, I see a glaring omission, from before the time of blogging. I’ve never written about my Route 66 trip in the summer of 2006*.
In the summer of 2006, I was heavily involved in the world of magic and magicians. Most of my social circle was part of that particular form of entertainment, from part-time work to my romantic partner. These things also contributed to most of my travel opportunities – going to conventions and for performances. All of which led up to the big joint S.A.M. / I.B.M. convention that July.
A magician friend of mine was going to perform in one of the big gala shows and she had just gotten a new illusion – Motorcycle through body. The effect is that the magician is strapped into an archway, holding hands with two volunteers on either side, and then covered with smoke. At this point, a motorcycle drives through the archway, right where the magician is standing. It’s a great-looking effect and would certainly make a big splash. There was only one problem: She didn’t have a motorcycle or driver.
Since at the time I used a motorcycle as my primary mode of transportation, I could help solve both problems. We practiced a few times and she crated up my bike to drive it, along with all of the illusions for her performance, from Vegas to Louisville, Kentucky (we flew out).
The convention was fun, the effect went off with almost no problem**, and there we were enjoying ourselves in a part of the country I’d never been. While everyone else was doing convention stuff, I even had a chance to explore a bit on my own and spent a good deal of my 39th birthday touring some of the amazing Kentucky distilleries, including Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam.
When the convention was over, though, I had decided that instead of flying back, I would ride the bike. My plan was this: Pop over to St. Louis, MO (only about 260 miles) and catch Route 66 from there and ride it all the way home. So, a couple of days after my birthday, I loaded up the bike, said goodbye to friends, and headed out.
My first stop, since I was in Louisville and we’d already visited the Louisville Slugger museum, was at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. I like the Derby the same way I like the Olympics: It’s fun to become an expert for a day on something you’ll never even think about the rest of the year. And since this was the most famous horse race of all, it seemed to be a shame to be this close and miss it.
I went through the museum and then there was a guided tour of the paddocks and the track itself. There’s something fun about being this close to where the action takes place. A few years later I had a similar feeling when I played (mini) golf on the St. Andrews course in Scotland.
After doing the tour, though, it was time to get on the road. I had miles to go before I slept. In fact, I had no idea where I was going to sleep. Part of the adventure (there’s that word, right?) was in the not knowing everything. The furthest I’d ever driven a bike before this was a round trip from Vegas to LA back when I was working for LA Bike, so it had been a while since I’d done any type of distance. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but I knew it was something I really wanted to do. But since I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know where I’d end up at the end of each day. Part of that was also the idea that stopping and seeing the sights was built into the trip. If I saw a sign proclaiming the biggest ball of twine was just a short hop away, who was I to deny myself the opportunity to check it out!*** If all I wanted to do was get back as quickly as possible, I would just as soon have flown. No, this was about the journey, not so much the destination.
To that end, my first tentatively planned stop was in St. Louis. In addition to being the closest place to pick up 66 (without going all the way up to Chicago) it was home to one of those sights I’ve always wanted to see, The Gateway Arch.
By the time I made it to the area, it was already late so I spent the night at some non-descript motel and in the morning, hitting the arch was my first stop. It really is an engineering feat! I actually had no idea before I got there that you could go up to the top. I thought it was just a huge monument but no, there’s an incredibly intricate elevator system to take you to the small observation deck at the very top. It’s a small car, sitting four people, two abreast looking at each other. I want to say I rode up with a nice couple but honestly, I have no idea. That said, since I tend to meet people and have conversations everywhere I go, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was the case here, too.
Up at the top there was a nice view of the city on one side and the industrial side of the city on the other and below ground underneath the arch itself was a museum and interpretation center explaining the purpose, history and design of the thing. All told, it was a really nice presentation and the hour or two I spent there was rather informative!
Moving on I jumped onto Highway 44 to really get my journey started – Why 44 and not 66? Because in a lot of places, 44 is 66. The original 66, America’s Highway, doesn’t really exist anymore, not in the way it did. A lot of it was replaced by 44, which is just a wider, more modern roadway. Now, there are a number of spots where “Historic Route 66” veers off and if you want, you can follow those two-lane blacktop roads. I did want. And so whenever possible, I took those detours and side paths. But leaving St. Louis, it was 44 all the way.
At this point, though, “all the way” was only about an hour. My next stop was at the Meramec Caverns. When I was little, I want to say 5 or 6, we drove to Chicago for my cousin Mitch’s Bar Mitzvah. On the way, we stopped here at the Caverns, one of the largest and most commercial cavern systems in the US. It was also a hideout for Jesse James, outlaw. I remembered this, maybe not so much from being there, as from the three-pack of view master slides I got from the gift shop. And as soon as I saw the signs advertising it, I knew it was going to be next on my list.
A quick stop to relive memories of my toddlerhood (and another stop at the Jesse James Museum because why not) and I was back on the road. Again, not for very long. With two major stops in one day, it was getting near bedtime, so I stopped at the Wyota Inn in Lebanon, MO for the night. Now here, I’ll be totally and completely honest – there was no way in hell I remembered the name of this place, but I did take a picture of a bunch of other bikers I ran into who were also riding 66 and the name of the hotel was in the background. But I’m sure it was a great and comfortable place to spend the night.
I’m not sure what I did the next day, since I’m basically recreating this trip from pictures so it appears that I just spent the day on the road, covering several hundred miles until I got to Tulsa, OK, where I met up with my friend Joe. We knew each other in grad school, and he had gone home to Tulsa for the summer. It was great! I got to hang out with him and his very cool friends. I want to say we had a few drinks and they took me to a weird place known as “The Center of the Universe.” I was able to crash at Joe’s and then, after a hearty breakfast in the morning, I was off again.
First stop of the next day was at the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum. Named for a test pilot, it’s a great place, not exactly what you’d expect in the middle of Oklahoma. I knew nothing about it before seeing the signs and figured, “hey, I like air and space, this just might be for me!” so I turned off the road and followed the directions, spending a delightful morning looking at rockets and space suits and sitting in ejection seats.
Moving further down the road, it only made sense to me to stop for lunch at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, OK. Now, talk about funky, this place was just a wonderful mish-mash of all sorts of souvenirs and memorabilia of the road. I would stop at several of these little museums along the way, but this first one was by far my favorite.
In fact, one I wanted to stop at was the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, TX. The sign outside advertised it as a “tribute to barbed wire” and as a writer, this was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, for some reason, it was closed when I was there and so I had to make do with a picture of the outside and an imaginary view of all the things I would have learned. Maybe next time I’m in the area. And I do plan to be in the area again. I would absolutely love to make this road trip with Rasa and Monki at some point.
The other thing you may have noticed with that last passage was that I’d now moved into the panhandle of Texas. Now, as I’ve noted previously, Texas is a big state. Thankfully, this time I was only zipping through the top of it and not the widest section of the middle as before. It was still big, don’t get me wrong, just not as big. All of which led to the fact that as I saw signs for Amarillo and The Big Texan I knew that’s where I needed to stop for the night.
The Big Texan is a world-famous landmark. I think it started as a roadside eatery, but quickly grew and now boasts a hotel and several other attractions (the fleet of bighorn adorned limousine taxicabs is particularly impressive). But what it’s most known for is the 72oz steak challenge. The idea here is that if you order this particular meal, and you eat it all (including the side dishes) in under an hour, it’s free. If not, you pay the $72 bucks. To make it a bit more fun, they put you on a raised dais in the middle of the restaurant and the timer is large enough to be seen anywhere in the place. It’s a spectacle to be sure. The walls are covered with the names of those who have completed the task, including the oldest and youngest and fastest time and highest number of meals consumed (there’s a video of someone doing three of them!).
I’ll spoil the suspense and tell you I didn’t even try! In fact, no one did when I was there, but I did go and enjoy a nice BBQ meal. There were, however, two items on the menu I wish I’d taken a picture of, just to have it to share with you. The first was Rattlesnake, which had the notation that “there are a lot of bones, so we don’t want to hear you complaining!” Had I not been alone, I probably would have ordered this, just for the experience of doing it, to see if it really did taste like chicken. The other thing is something I would not have ordered no matter who I was with, and that was Rocky Mountain Oysters. The caveat here, written in plain language on the menu, was “If you think this is seafood, don’t order it.” Since I know it’s not seafood, this was never an option.
So I spent the night there, and in the morning I headed back out on I-40. That’s right, the highway designation changed when we hit Texas, but this was still following along the remnants of 66 so I was still following the trail. Not far along the next morning, I passed by the roadside art installation known as Cadillac Ranch, a selection of a dozen or so early model Cadillacs, all buried nose-first in a straight line. Part of the art is you come in and paint over the cars, to leave your own mark. Since I wasn’t prepared, I was lucky enough to meet someone else there who was prepared and offered me the use of a silver spray can. I dutifully used my limited artistic ability to paint a “Q” on one of the tires, thanked them for their generosity, and headed back out on the road.
Moving into New Mexico, I stopped in Kirk to fill up the tank at an expensive, but authentic, Phillips 66 station, populated by a chicken, before heading into Albuquerque. There were a couple of museums which seemed interesting, so I spent some time at the National Atomic Museum (which, evidently, has since been renamed the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History) and the American International Rattlesnake Museum.
At the first, I went because it was all about the Atomic Era, including mock-ups of Fat Man and Little Boy and displays of the giant insect movies from the 50s along with other pop culture artifacts. New Mexico certainly has history with the A-Bomb so it makes sense they would memorialize it from time to time. Looking it up now, I definitely need to go back because their new logo is awesome and I kinda need to get some stuff from their gift shop! The second just looked cool! It’s an “animal conservation museum” and gift shop, so naturally I took pictures of the animals (except, for some reason, the actual rattlesnakes!) and bought some souvenirs and then headed back out to the road. ****
I ran into some rain on this part of the trip and took refuge under an overpass until it passed by. Since I wasn’t on a schedule, this didn’t really affect me much, but by the time I got back on the road, it was getting late. I ended up stopping for the night in Gallup, NM, at a place called the Hotel El Rancho – Home of the Movie Stars! I stayed in the Tom Mix “suite.” It was a wild place, very southwestern, and laid claim to the fact that a number of big-name stars had stayed there during the hotel’s long existence. I loved the décor (and the fact there was a corkscrew attached to the wall in the bathroom!). I also once again ran into the bikers I’d met back in Lebanon so we had a brief catch up chat, where I learned they didn’t actually own the gorgeous Harley Davidson’s they were riding, but instead rented them in Chicago and would return them in Marina del Rey at the end of their trip. Pretty great idea and a brilliant business model, to be sure.
One thing I should also mention, really, was the change in the scenery from the time I’d started several days before. In Kentucky and Missouri, the landscape was green and lush. As I moved south and west, it got browner and dustier. By the time I hit Texas and New Mexico, it was dry desert, and much warmer. The temperature fluctuations certainly made riding interesting (and would get worse before it was over, but we’ll get to that).
Anyway, leaving New Mexico, I moved into Arizona. My route was going to be taking me right past the Petrified Forest so I knew a stop there would be in order. I’d been there at least once before (again, the memory may have come from the painted desert paperweight as opposed to actual memories of the place) but it was always worth a visit. It’s a beautiful and unique landscape and well worth the time to drive through it. Also, since Arizona didn’t have helmet laws at the time, I took advantage of the slow speeds to ride through the park topless as it were. I would never, ever, do this on the highway, but here, where I was just amblin’ through, it seemed safe enough.
Leaving the Forest, I made a quick stop to stand on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, where, yes, the song was blaring from loudspeakers everywhere. From there, it was only a quick jaunt over to Meteor Crater, site of one of the largest impact craters on Earth.
Meteor Crater and Barrington Space Museum is a bit of an oddity in that it’s basically just a hole in the ground which somebody decided to capitalize on. Good on them, really! Because it’s a pretty cool hole in the ground. It measures about 12oo meters across and just over 3km in circumference. I know because the first time I visited there, we were allowed to walk around it. These days, you can’t go very far along the rim without a guide, but they have built up the visitor center into a full-fledged museum with all sorts of interactive, family-friendly exhibits.
Leaving there, I hit Flagstaff where the elevation was severely increased and from the heat of the desert, it suddenly got very cold. Flagstaff is also known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon and while I debated going there, ultimately I decided against it, opting instead to leave Route 66 and head south to Phoenix to spend the night with Troy and Katie and their girls. I had changed plans slightly and instead of heading straight home, I was now going to make a stop in San Diego where I had friends going to Comic-Con and had offered me a piece of floor space in their hotel room for a night.
Spending the night with old friends is always a good thing, especially after being on the road for several days. It was a great respite and a wonderful catch-up. I was re-energized by the time I left the next day. This time, I headed south and then cut across I-8 to skim the bottom edge of the US. Where it had been cold the day before in Flagstaff, here, where the elevation was actually below sea level it was hot. Really hot! So hot, in fact, I thought it would make sense to pour water on my jeans in an effort to cool myself down as I zipped along the highway.
This was beyond dumb, let me tell you. As someone who used to spend time explaining the physics of keeping warm in cold water while scuba diving, I should have realized that all that was going to happen was that I would create an insulated layer of heat between my skin and the pants, heating up beyond the merely uncomfortable levels they had been previously, Thankfully, the pants dried pretty quickly, and the heat dissipated not long after.
Eventually, I did make it to San Diego and the Con for a day or so, then was once again on the road, this time heading for home for real. I made a quick stop at the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum (because I can’t resist a good aquarium). Little known fact: If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d become a marine biologist (I’d even do this now if I could figure out a way to pay for it).
Heading home from San Diego was nothing new*****. I’d made that trip plenty of times, and except for the fire along the side of the road, it wasn’t very exciting. But in the end, I did, indeed, have a wonderful adventure, in all senses of the word.
* This was a few years ago, so I may skip over some details I don’t rightly remember.
**I almost didn’t stop in time and so just barely avoided riding off the edge of the stage, but all’s well that ends well, right?
***spoiler alert – no Biggest Ball of Twine. But there were other things. As you’ll see.