Sunday, April 26, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Last Few Days

The end of this trip was anticlimactic as I came down with the flu and simultaneously experienced altitude sickness as I arrived in Santa Fe. I spent the next two days mostly in bed, managing one short side trip to Madras, N.M., a small artists' community in an old coal mining town south of Santa Fe where I salvaged some vintage iron pieces from the original dump on the outskirts of town.

My birthday was spent with a view from my bed of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and much reflection on recent events, and in between trips to the bathroom, I experienced an upwelling of gratitude for still having my feet on such a beautiful planet. I drove home to Santa Cruz in two days, not really feeling up to exploring, though I was blown away again and again by sunrises over the desert, 100 mile distant mountain vistas, and the feeling of freedom in being able to spend some time like this.

Most Prolific Wildflower Display goes to the stands of wild mustard cascading down the foothills of the Tehachapis where Highway 58 runs out West toward the backdoor of Bakersfield. Other Trip Awards go to Louisiana for Friendliest People, Texas for Best Drivers (helped along by state law: Keep Right Except to Pass), a tie between Arizona and New Mexico for Sweeping Vistas of the Wild West, and to California for Most Beautiful State, downgraded slightly for Most Inconsiderate Drivers.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Day 15 (continued)

After fueling up at a drive-in burger spot packed with teenagers and sporting roller skating car hops, I spent an interesting afternoon touring Las Vegas, N.M. A trading center for settlers on the Santa Fe Trail during the early 1800's, It later became a principal railroad town and currently has over 900 buildings on the National Historic Register, more than any other community west of the Mississippi. Try as I may, I couldn't find a single shop that had any architectural salvage. I thought I either just missed out or maybe that kind of material is at a premium and not generally available, given how many historic buildings might need renovation. It surprised me though, and became a minor third-water mystery I'm still trying to solve.

I tooled down the road to Santa Fe, arriving at dinner time, anticipating a two-day layover for some R&R and a solo celebration of my birthday on the road.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Day 15

New Mexico State Highway 104 begins as 2nd Street in Tucumcari, and heads out of town across the railroad bridge, winding north through sagebrush and low-lying red rock mesas. I sensed the character of the road right away and knew I had a winner. There were broad vistas on both sides of the road and virtually no traffic. I saw fewer than five cars in a hundred miles and most of them tilted a hand back off the steering wheel in the lonely driver's salute. After 30 miles or so, the road climbs a thousand feet along a steep grade and tops out on the high plateau. Here the expansive vistas ratchet up from scenic to vast, where endless stretches of undulating grassy plain sweep away under a huge sky canopy. I pull over and get out and the road is empty for 20 or 30 miles in either direction. The silence is loud enough to hear. My mind slips into neutral as I take it all in. Time flickers, then flits away.

Later, down the road, an old faded storefront appears in the middle of nowhere. I slow down to take it in, and something rings deja vu. It turns out to be the old gas station in the scene from 'No Country for Old Men' where the Coin Toss is played out.

Highway 104 runs out to the west for 30 or 40 more miles, equally desolate and satisfying, before diving off the plateau and on down to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I'm looking to find some salvage from the town's historic Victorians.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 12+13+14

Paul is a High-Adept traveler, having honed his skills while taking his own dog and pony show on the road as a conference speaker/consultant.  He was scanning ahead of me online for accommodations as I moved across country, sometimes finding a place for me at the last minute when I knew I was going to have to land for the night.  He never missed with the perfect place, and when I took a wrong turn on Dallas' busy nighttime freeways, he was right on it with google maps street view or something to get me on course.  Thanks, Paul.  In the morning I made breakfast in my room as usual, with mobile toaster, coffee grinder, mini brew bar and sprouted wheat bagels, before driving 300 yards to the salvage dealer.  Not bad, Paul.

This place was also a find, with good prices and some interesting pieces.  I loaded up some old porch posts and columns, lengths of dentil and crown molding and some antique ceiling tin and chatted with one of the owners while I roped it all down.  Business was slack and she had customers waiting for whole used kitchens to come in on the salvage trucks but she couldn't get any product because the demolition crews were waiting out the economy for better prices.   She was thinking about the 5 acres she'd bought for $1000. an acre just a few years ago up in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Georgia O'Keefe's backyard, but couldn't figure out a way to make any  money up there.  Just too far from Santa Fe.  I remembered that on our last trip to that area, Gail had found an arrowhead right next to the road about a half mile from where I thought her place would be.  She held my hand in both of hers and looked right at me as we said goodbye.

The back end of my truck had settled on the leaf springs, and the rear tires were bulging, so I set off at a slow lope for a layover in Santa Fe to rest up.  That night I made Tucumcari on I-40 and had some excellent chili rellenos at the Branding Iron.  These were Tex-Mex style with a deep smokey flavor, maybe chipotle, and as I was the last to be served that night, the homemade style green chili salsa had weathered in just right.  I slept in next morning and was last out of the parking lot, finally gearing down to relish what I knew would be a real treat - one of the Mothers of All Back Roads, New Mexico State Highway 104.  I'd never driven it, but when I heard it described as ...'so desolate it was scary', I knew it was my kind of road.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 11+12

The next afternoon we drove Gail to the airport, and I began making the rounds of New Orleans' salvage shops for potential furniture parts.  Basically, I struck out.  The high prices didn't leave me a window for profit, and so I set my sights on smaller towns and out-of-the-way places along my return route.  Taking a few hours for some online research paid off.   I talked with a builder in Jackson, Louisiana and a salvage shop in Dallas, Texas.  This gave me two points to connect on a map and the bones of my route home.  It was hard saying goodbye to my family and precious granddaughter, knowing all we'd have for a while would be our Skype video calls and an itch we couldn't scratch.  I put the Eagles on and drove down the blurry road to the Interstate.

I headed west on I-10 to Baton Rouge and swung north to Jackson, Louisiana to meet with Brent, a fellow builder, salvager and furniture maker.  He was friendly, helpful and offered me better prices than I could find in N. O.  I left with my truck half-filled with 100 year-old cypress 5-panel doors, some vintage porch posts, and a pair of very old,  2-1/4 in. thick hand-carved French doors sporting elaborate iron grillwork.  Then I was on the back roads again, tacking northwest toward I-40, out of Louisiana and into Texas, on an intercept course for Dallas across the bare flatlands and wide-open spaces, past oil fields, orchards and little hard-scrabble places where hardy people and their skinny cows go head to head with the dry land.  

I fell in behind a big rig pulling doubles and hammered down on the four-lane.  I drafted for ninety miles, grateful for the windbreak out on the prairie, then stopped for lunch at a rest area where you could see an easy hundred miles, setting up my backpacking stove to make coffee behind my truck out of the wind.   I took a walk out onto the hardpan to stretch, and was leaning into a strong headwind when it shifted and I fell on the ground.  I started laughing and it took me five minutes to get up.  Punchy.

In Texas, and later in New Mexico, I began to notice that the only packed parking lots I saw were at Wal-Marts, casinos, and some super-sized pawnshops.  I took lunch next to the parking lot of a pawnshop and watched a guy come out to a beater car and start scratching through a stack of $4 lottery tickets as thick as his thumb.

I'd met a few people along the way who were out of work, and struggling to come to terms with the hands they'd been dealt, but no one talked of throwing in.  Some were looking on the bright side, like the woman at the bank who'd been handling the construction loan for the last house I built.  At first I noticed her outgoing message indicating she was now on a four-day workweek, and two months later she called to tell me she'd lost her job, but was looking forward to home schooling her kids, something she'd never been able to do.  She sounded happy.