(81 days in)
“You should be writing a blog post,” she said, a look of almost-exasperation flashing across her face. The balding mass hunched over the nearby table barely seemed to respond, a slight fall of its shoulders the only evidence it had heard.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that just yet – I was just checking out the games on sale on Steam,” he responded finally. He said this fully aware that the longer he left it the more he would have to write about, and that his writing skill diminished the longer he had to maintain focus.
“Come on, we’ve done quite a bit and you need to keep it up. You almost have fans at this stage!” Her words came with a cheeky smile.
“Ha ha. Fine, I’ll start one now. But what have we actually done?” He never could remember anything further back than… sometime.
“Since when? Since my parents left? A month ago?”
“A WHAT AGO?!”
“I’m joking, but that was funny. Since, uh, the 22nd. Two and half weeks?” That cheeky smile had returned.
“Yeah ok, 2 and a half weeks.” He just about managed to bring the panic back under control. “So, we were in Santa Fe for the last post, even though it was posted from Zion, and we’re in Vegas now.”
“If only we had some kind of mega spreadsheet that’s tracked our every move through the US…” He was starting to think that she didn’t want to write the post for him.
“We were in Santa Fe for the end of the post but it only actually covered up until Lake Charles. That was the 19th,” he sighed.
“So you have even more to catch people up on, don’t you?” She was continuing her distance approach of helping.
“I’m going to have a nap.”
“What a surprise.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing dear, have a good nap.”
Almost 2 hours later she awoke, refreshed and eager to see the progress he had made on the blog post. She rubbed her eyes and sat up in the bed peering around the room for where he had set up his usual makeshift travel office. It didn’t take long for her gaze to fall on a man, sat in the bed next to her with a phone in his hand.
“You’re not writing” she said, not as surprised as she wanted to be.
“I am not. I will be, but I was finding it hard to actually remember what we did each day so I decided I needed your help. But I didn’t want to disturb you.” He had hoped that last sentence would placate her annoyance. It almost worked.
“Ok, so since Lake Charles we’ve come through, in order: Lufkin, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Tucumcari, Santa Fe, Durango, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Panguitch, Bryce Canyon, Zion and now we’re in Vegas.” She had the ‘mega spreadsheet’ up on her phone now, clearly wondering why he couldn’t have just done that himself.
“Yes, I got that from your spreadsheet. But what did we actually do? I can’t remember anything in Lufkin.”
“Oh, well that helps. OK, Dallas?”
“We didn’t actually do much in Dallas, remember? We went into the city. Took a quick peek at where JFK was shot-“
“Oh yeah! But the rest of the city was closed, right? And far, far too hot. We got a Starbucks and a Subway” He started to believe that this post might be easier then he previously thought.
“Not quite, even the Starbucks was closed. So we just went back to the hotel, chilled out and then went to that abandoned shopping mall to catch a film.”
“Ohh, the spooky closed down mall with a martial arts shop, a souvenir shop and a wedding? Film was good though!” Kingsman 2, a little long at some points but just as entertaining as the first instalment.
“It was. The mall was still creepy and we lost the van afterwards but the film made up for it. And then we just went to Gas Monkey Garage on the way out of town the next day,” she added, trying to keep him on track.
“Ah that was cool. Sad that the crew weren’t there but at least we got some good shots of the lot and went around the merch shop. I liked Richard’s ‘Vomit Comet’,” the name given to the 1974 Mercury Comet that was parked in the grounds and painted a truly horrendous shade of green.
“But yes, then we went onto Oklahoma City.”
“Right … and what did we do there?” Seriously, his memory should be studied. It was quite good for random scenes of his life over the last 22 (or so) years, and wasn’t too bad once it had been given a hint, but he could spend a lot of time trying to recall something from recent history with a blank stare.
“Oh, Oklahoma City was where we saw the Botanical Gardens.” Of course she would remember that.
“You mean the ‘Botanical Gardens’,” his fingers made the typical bunny ears gesture used to belittle whatever was being said, “what they call botanical gardens, I call a city garden with some dying plants inside.”
“Yeah I agree, it was nice enough though. And we sat and talked about your new venture idea.”
“Ha, it needs more thought. It was nice,” (that’s right readers, a story hook!), “but other than that we didn’t do much. What did we stay in?”
“I can’t even remember, is it that important?”
“Our readers will want to know… or at least I’ve been telling them each time… maybe they don’t care…” Doubt was creeping in. He was at the laptop by this stage, typing whatever inane drivel popped into his oversized head.
“Ok, onto Amarillo! I liked Amarillo. I think.” There was that memory again.
“Yeah Amarillo was great. We stayed in Camelot, the pseudo-Excalibur wannabe. Talked to the lovely lady at front desk who ran the place.”
“Ha, the one that convinced us to get the limousine? She was funny,” he chuckled.
“We were only there for one night. We took the limousine to the Texas Steakhouse where we watched a few gentlemen fail at a 72oz steak challenge, you had some disappointing ribs and then we got the limo back again. And the driver gave us a heads up about that classic car garage.” It was her turn to chuckle. She always enjoys talking to new people (M: I’ve changed.), especially ones with huge Stetson cowboy hats that drive 6 door Cadillacs with longhorns stapled to the front.
“Cool. So, we stayed there one night and then made our way out to Tucumcari via the Historic Route 66?” He was trying to get it all down.
“Yes, we did the classic car garage, the Route 66 Museum, a few of the historic gas stations, the Slug Bug Ranch and the Cadillac Ranch.”(M: some of this actually happened the day prior – between Oklahoma City and Amarillo – but I’m enjoying the narrative.)
“That’s a lot of cars. What was your favourite part?”
“I think the ghost town we went through. McLean, with the historic Philips 66 gas station.” Surprisingly, she hadn’t mentioned this in the previous list. “Yours?”
“The Dodge Power Wagon in that dude’s garage. There were a lot of cars in there but the almost navy-blue Power Wagon with the huge wheels at the beginning was my favourite.” He had been thinking about that truck for a few days afterwards.
“What about the Cadillac Ranch? Or the Slug Bug Ranch?” She was referring to the two destinations around Amarillo where, for reasons unknown (M: at least to Pete, looks like he didn’t bother Googling this one), someone has taken a bunch of VW Bugs and classic Cadillacs and buried them almost vertically out of the ground. Both locations and all of the cars are completely covered in spray paint by any tourists with the right cans who happen to pass by.
“That was certainly cool,” he admitted, “but that truck though.”
Briefly they stopped for lunch and a walk around the casino level of the Stratosphere Hotel. Her ever-present hand clutched at his arm as his stare moved from one glowing, spinning machine to the next, holding him back from ruining that oh so pretty budgeting page in the spreadsheet.
“Ok, so after Amarillo was Tucumcari. The ‘almost ghost town’,” he said, fighting to get back on topic and stop thinking about the jackpot dream.
“Yeah, we met that woman from Leicester. What a random town to end up in after living in the UK and then California for years.”
“Her daughters are writing books,” he reminded her (M: himself), “so maybe we should have dug deeper and made more of an impression.”
“You wouldn’t have wanted that,” she pointed out, knowing how he dislikes talking to new people.
“I think I’m getting better. At least, I’m trying to… that was part of why I wanted to travel. Get to know people and broaden my horizons etc etc.”
“Sure. Anyway, in Tucumcari we had dinner at that place… Del’s Diner.”
“With the raw broccoli.”
“Yes, with the raw broccoli. But you chose to eat it, dear.” She was right. He had taken the bowl from the salad bar offered on the side of his main course, assuming that a) the midget tree would be cooked or b) if it wasn’t it must be made into some kind of local delicacy. It wasn’t. It was just raw broccoli.
“I did. The rest of the food was good. So, we had one night there. Stopped for breakfast in the other diner on the way out and then onto Santa Fe…” he trailed off.
“I was hoping you were going to continue remembering things for me.”
She sighed. “In Santa Fe we did nothing. We arrived, I slept, you watched the new episodes of Rick and Morty-“
“I tried. I got 1 episode in, bloody wifi-“
“Yes dear. Anyway, we woke up, I had my catch up with work so that at least one of us has something to come back to when we go home. And then we left.”
“Excellent.” ‘This blog’s almost writing itself!’ he thought. “Durango!”
“Durango was the hailstorm,” she added quickly, noting the flash of fear that came back across his face as he remembered the largest hailstones he’d ever seen trying hard to crack the windscreen of their van.
“God that was funny,” he said, “terrifying, but funny – I thought the whole town would start just rolling down the hill with how much came down.”
“The drive between Santa Fe and Durango was very pretty.”
“…Was it?” his face returned to the blank stare it had most of the time.
“Yeah, as we came out of the desert and all the autumnal trees were lining the road?”
“Oh yes! As we re-entered alpine territory,” he said – he could just about remember some trees at this stage.
“Exactly. But in Durango, we did dinner, I told you to write and then we slept and left.”
“Sounds about right,” he nodded. That could have been so many of the other evenings they had spent together recently. “Ah, now we’re back to the good bits. Monument Valley!”
She smiled. “Monument Valley was great, especially the stray dog that we made friends with.”
“You made friends with, he might have liked me but the feeling was not mutual,” He was always cautious of strays, no matter how adorably cute and well trained they might have appeared. (M: loser.)
“Well that’s because you’re mean. We had dinner and watched the sunset and then we woke up early and watched the sunrise. Got some fantastic pictures.”
“And it was cold. I didn’t think deserts were meant to be cold. It was windy and it was cold,” He wasn’t nearly as unhappy as the sentence made him sound. The cold and the wind and the rain would often remind him of home.
“Yes, deserts are cold when there is no sun. If you’ll remember, when the sun was up, there were no clouds and the heat was pretty relentless.”
“Fair enough. I remember the drive into the canyon we did with Manone. Well, what little distance we did of the drive.” The accommodation options within Monument Valley are all part of the Navajo Nation and as such are run by the Navajo tribe. The campsite and hotel they have set up have great views of the valley and the iconic standing rocks that carve the skyline. But you can also take a dirt track down into the valley to get a closer look. The road itself has a warning that no trailers or RVs are allowed, presumably after an over-ambitious camper made the plunge and did a lot of damage to the interior and exterior of his prized long weekend home. But after evaluating that Manone wasn’t technically an RV, just a van, the two of them had headed down into the canyon hoping for some close ups of the buttes and mesas that dot the landscape. About 2 miles into the drive, with white knuckles on the steering wheel and a harrowed look on his face, he had decided that it wasn’t worth the risk and made the equally treacherous drive back up the way they came in.
“That was fun!” She was always a bad influence when it came to taking on terrain in a 4 wheeled vehicle, “Also, don’t forget the Four Corners monument we saw on the way in.”
“Oh yeah, with the four states,” he nodded.
“…Which were?” Her favourite past time was testing him on things that he definitely should know by this stage.
“Oh for God’s- Um. Arizona.”
“New Mexico?” He was running out of options.
“Uh huh.” She sensed his weakness.
“Where was Durango?” she queried, trying to help him.
“Wow you’re bad at this-“
“Yay, well done,” she finished sarcastically.
“OK, moving on. After Monument Valley was our favourite: the Grand Canyon,” he smiled. The National Park had topped every list of ‘favourite places we’ve been so far’ that they had played. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and it was clear to see why. Averaging 10 miles wide (18 at its widest point), a mile deep and 277 miles long (M: as I sat down to proofread this there was a Chrome tab open on the Grand Canyon Wiki page, so some effort’s gone into verifying those numbers) it was unlike anything either of them had ever seen. He, especially, was blown away by the landscape. Mostly expecting just a large hole in the grand or some pretty rocks in a canyon, he had to admit that he was starting to like this whole ‘nature’ thing. Estimated to be only 5 million years old, for a geological landmark it’s actually quite young. The Colorado River carved its way through the plains to create the layered spectrum of colour that the different types of exposed rock have created to make the canyon.
“We spent three nights there. Which was well worth it. Even managed to do laundry and shower!” This wasn’t all that surprising for them. They had been through a few of the national parks run by the US Department of the Interior and as a whole, what the American camper calls camping, the British camper would call ‘glamping’. Even the little state-owned parks sometimes had coin showers and laundry machines so it was no surprise that the service kept this park up to scratch for any tourist who wanted to visit, not just the hard-core nomadic hippie type.
“And we did that hike.” There was a brief silence while they shared a look. A kind of look where you were proud of something but didn’t really ever wish to do it again. This was because the 11 mile hike they had completed on a small portion of the rim of the canyon had taken them about 3 hours longer than first expected due to multiple photo stops and the 7,000 foot elevation affecting them more than anticipated. Great for your calf muscles though, if you can move them at all afterwards.
“Yes, and that hike … anyway,” (it was her idea originally), “we also took in the sunset on the second day there. Wonderful colours.”
“And way too many tourists.”
“True, but it was still fantastic,” she was staying positive and rightly so. The entire canyon slowly transforms through streams of sunlight and shadow with deep, rich colours marking caves and zigzag paths across the walls. “And we did a few of the little drives out to the viewpoints dotted around.”
“Now I feel like I have to see the other natural wonders of the world. Just to complete the set.”
“Of course you do dear (M: I think I say ‘dear’ a lot more in Pete’s memories than I actually do… interesting), after all, you’ve never been at all interested in nature before this journey,” she correctly pointed out.
“What can I say, you’re convincing me. Anyway, after the canyon was Panguitch.” She chuckled as the word has been making her laugh every time she read it out loud.
“We didn’t do anything in Panguitch, it was just a short stop near Bryce Canyon so that we would get a campsite nice and early.”
“Oh yeah. We didn’t do dinner or anything, right?”
“Nope,” she agreed, “just had whatever we had in the van and slept and moved on.”
“Excellent. So in Bryce? Which one was Bryce?”
“The one with the hoodoos,” she reminded him, referring to the pillars of sedimentary rock that had formed in the Bryce Canyon National Park by centuries of freezing and melting water. They were quite unique and brought an eerie alien landscape feel to the park.
“They were really cool. And weird. I liked it a lot. How many nights did we camp there?”
“Just the one. Tried to see sunset from Inspiration Point but it was too cold for your little head.” She was joking obviously, as his head is not little.
“Yes, well we shaved off my hair in Panguitch – it’s remarkable how the slight change makes a difference to how cold everything feels.”
“Sure. But we only had one night, we tried to do sunrise as well, but mostly we were just too late for that. And then we made our way to Zion National Park and met John.”
“…You mean Tim.”
“Ah Tim, our saviour.” –
Although the two of them had competed for ‘first come, first serve’ campsites before in Yosemite and Bryce, Zion promised to be a lot harder. There was no sign-in register at all and all you could do was wait at the gate until someone left and you could take their spot. When they first arrived at the South Campground they were four cars back in the line (M: queue). The first got in relatively fast but the next three were a single group and as such had to wait a good long time for a group campsite to open up. Both of them were losing faith that there would be a space at all – it was approaching noon at this stage – and thought that maybe they should just head back out of the park and stay in a motel nearby. Our heroes were observing a map of the area when a man came up to the window and introduced himself, startling the driver.
“Hi guys, how’s it going?”
“Well thanks! How are you?” she responded while the driver tried to calm his racing heart.
“Great! My name’s Tim, I’m camping here for a couple of nights. Are you looking for a campsite?” the man asked, sports sunglasses glued to his face and a grin splitting his face.
“I’m Megan and this is Pete. And, yes we are,” she answered, “though we’ve been told it might be a few hours.”
“Well if you’d like, you can share my campground. The rules state that it’s two vehicles per plot and I just sleep in my van. So we could split the cost and you could have the other half if you wanted?”
“Oh wow, that would be amazing – thank you!”
“So yeah, I keep to myself, I’ve got some firewood if you want to use it or I can leave you to your privacy… I’ll go tell the guys up front that you’re with me and we’ll share plot 9,” he added.
“Thank you so much,” she replied, “I’ll come with you, to show my face and I’ve got some cash here for you as well. Thank you again!” She climbed down out of the van and escorted their new favourite person to the front desk where the campground host was sat taking notes. A few moments later and Tim headed into the campsite to make sure his van wasn’t in the way and Megan made it back to the van.
“That’s $5 each a night Pete! That’s the cheapest place we’ve stayed so far. Or probably ever will! Oh thank God for Tim.”
“Ha yes, thank Tim.”
They made their way smugly past the three cars ahead of them and drove around to plot 9. Exactly as Tim had said, his van was in the right-hand corner and there was plenty of space for Manone next to the opposite side bench. They parked up and had a brief chat as he was on his way out for a hike. He was into photography and much like themselves had taken almost a year to himself to explore the country and find some of the prettiest places to look at. Then he was off into the valley.
“What was your favourite part of Zion?” he asked her, as the whole park and left quite an impression on him.
“Well I liked that it was Tim’s favourite National Park. I mean, it’s good but he’s seen the Grand Canyon,” she laughed. “Um, I think looking at the stars that night, that was great.”
“Uh, that was fantastic.” The two of them had a shared fascination with staring up into the night sky. Many a night of their early relationship had been spent laying for hours watching satellites drift and stars shoot. He had never been able to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way so had always wanted to see it with the naked eye. So that night in Zion, they donned hoodies, headtorches and mobile phones and walked half way down a trail to find a darkened spot and sit on the floor. She fiddled with the phone’s camera to try and get it to capture more of the night sky hanging above them (having varying success) but what he saw with his own two eyes was breath taking. A glimpse into the swirling galaxy, hurtling through the endless universe. A blanket of bright pin pricks that stretched from one canyon wall to the other, staring back down at him, a speck on the face of the tiny blue marble he lived on. (M: Nawh.)
“I liked that quite a lot,” he said. It was an understatement.
“We did a short hike from the campsite and then we got the bus up to the other end of the park and did that trail along the river. To the Narrows.”
“Oh yeah, where I didn’t realise that we would have to go through the river and was a bit of a coward.”
“That’s the one. We should have rented some of those water boots,” she added.
“I overheard a guy say that they were almost $50 a pair and close to selling out.”
“Yeah, any excuse. And we also had a long chat with John.”
They had re-met up with their pseudo landlord that first night. They had started a fire and were enjoying the warmth as he arrived out of the darkness. They spent about an hour talking to him about life, family and aspirations before finally calling it a night. Tim had been a rather important person in his last role but circumstances called for cuts and he was sadly one of the ones let go. It was from there that he decided to undertake his adventure and re-evaluate his choices. This made him a lot like our male protagonist except he hadn’t chosen to leave, was almost double the age and had more hair. They had also noticed that Tim didn’t like talking to Megan. Any conversation or question was directed at Pete and even after Megan herself asked a question, the answer would often be in Pete’s direction.
“John was a weirdo,” she added, “I’m a delight.”
“RIGHT! Well that’s given me plenty to work on the post. I’ll have a version ready for edit soon, boss. (M: He didn’t.) Then can we go gamble?” It was his turn to smile cheekily.
“Sounds good to me, we’ll just spend your money.”