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January 19, 2018 / annakpf11

The Minimal and the Liminal

There’s something liberating about the constraints of a small trailer. About letting go a perceived sense of  need (or deprivation), mapping out what is essential, and packing the absolute minimum. Or so I tell myself, as I agonize over what to take, and what to leave behind.

And then it’s time to depart.  We head south on Interstate 5, that long thread of four-lane highway linking the west coast of the continental United States from Canada to Mexico. We have allocated three days to get to Phoenix, where Dave is booked to play a gig. Fog shrouds the scenery (what little there is, in this rather bleak corridor of the central valley), offering only blurred glimpses of winter-brown hillocks and winter-bare trees. Further south, green groves of orange trees emerge from the mist, laden with bright fruit. Then the landscape reverts to type, a faded winter palette of brown and gray. Time passes; two hours, three hours, four. Road-weariness sets in. We pull into a rest stop and eat our packed lunches, our ‘rig’ overshadowed by a row of hulking giants. This trip will prompt us to think about scale. About how small we are, relative to the vastness around us.

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About fifteen minutes shy of Bakersfield RV Park, we experience a minor hiccup. More precisely, a loud metallic scraping noise accompanies each tire revolution. We pull over onto the gravel shoulder and have a look-see. But nothing seems awry. Dave climbs back into the car, drives forward and backward a few times, and the noise stops. Maybe a sagebrush branch got stuck in the undercarriage and then fell away. What else could it be? We drive on.

Daylight fades as we check in at the RV office and find our designated slot wedged into a concrete-striped expanse of jumbo motorhomes and five-wheeled trailers.

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Unremitting tule fog dampens and cools the air, and we reach for hats and jackets before unhitching and unpacking.

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After we’re settled, connected to shore power and city water, we head out for The Crystal Palace, a bar, restaurant and western music hall built by country songwriter and musician Buck Owens.

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Our waitress knows more about rodeo than restaurants, but never mind, perhaps that is as it should be in a wild west town. The food is better than we anticipate (BBQ ribs, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy for Dave; plank-grilled salmon, ‘zesty cooked green beans’ and baked potato for Anna), as is the Sterling Vineyards sauvignon blanc. We are revived.

The band appears on stage wearing black Stetsons, and Dave gets a hankering for “one of them cowboy hats”. Country music is King here, and as soon as the band begins to play the audience swarms the dance floor, forming a line and moving in unison through a series of prescribed steps. I sway to the beat, tempted to join in, but know my technique would be conspicuously lacking, so for the good of everyone, I refrain.

Sated and ready for bed, we return to our slab of cement and lawn in the over-sized parking lot. The persistent fog lends a chill to the air even inside the Airstream, so we blast the heat a few minutes before settling down to sleep. It has been a good first day. We have traded the comforts of home for the uncertainty of adventure, and all is well.

Day two: we wake to another dim, foggy morning. We hook trailer to truck and make our way into downtown Bakersfield on a quest for gas, groceries, and a black cowboy hat. Empty streets and boarded up storefronts give the impression of a place on the down and out. At a stoplight, a lean man with a bedroll slung over his shoulder plods across the street. His weather-beaten face and grimy clothes make we wonder where he came from, and how he ended up here, sleeping rough in Bakersfield? He pauses on the opposite curb, peers into a rubbish bin, fishes out a cigarette butt and secrets it in a breast pocket. As he does this, he almost smiles.

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We accomplish our first two errands, and then park our rig at the Emporium Western Store. In-store expert Rhonda assists Dave in trying on at least seven different brands and sizes before finding a hat that looks as if it was tailor-made for him.

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“Now we need to find one for Anna,” Dave tells Rhonda, “which hat would a lady wear?” I protest, not sure I need a cowgirl hat, but Rhonda produces a likely prospect, and so I try it on.

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Like a glove, it fits, and like the perfect pair of spectacles, it is the puzzle piece that completes the picture. Thus Dave and I both come away with big smiles and iconic headgear. One word says it all: Stetson.

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Pleased with our morning so far, we climb back into the saddle (er…tow vehicle) and motor through fog-flattened landscape to the Tehachapi pass. At 3,000 feet, the mist seeps away, and it is a relief to see an expanse blue sky. Sunlight illuminates an assortment of scrappy pines and leafless oaks scattered over camel-colored hills, that soon give way to high desert plain.

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We stop for lunch in Tehachapi, a name known to us from the trucker’s anthem, “Willin’”, written by Lowell George of Little Feat. (This song will remain stuck in my brain for our entire trip.) If you ever find yourself hungry in Tehachapi, check out the Adobada tacos and chicken enchiladas at Taco Samich, 211 East Tehachapi Road.

DSC_0041Around 2 pm, with three hours of driving still ahead of us to reach our campsite at Joshua Tree, we stop in Barstow for a coffee.

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As we leave town, we hear the same loud screeching noise as we heard the day before. Dave pulls over and I dismount to walk alongside the trailer. The sound is definitely emanating from one of the back wheels. Metal on metal, and instead of going away, it’s getting worse. We find a place to park the rig, scramble onto the dirt and peer under the trailer. The axel and wheels look intact—but wait—the nut attaching one of the shock absorber arms is missing. It must’ve worked its way loose and flown off, presumably at the last intersection. We dare not drive any further for fear of harming something vital.

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Broke down in Barstow, we consider our options. Dave taps into the twin miracles of internet and cellular signal, does some quick research and manages to contact Antonio, a local mobile mechanic. We relay our location at the corner of Barstow Road and Juniper Street (this causes visions of an ice-cold martini to flash in Dave’s brain, temporarily distracting him from the issue at hand), and wait for our savior to appear. It takes awhile. Eventually he shows up, a brawny, brown-skinned man with inscrutable tattoos on his arms and neck. He assesses the situation and then drives off in search of replacement parts. We sit tight, reminding ourselves that the unexpected makes travel even more memorable; it’s all part of the adventure. Besides, there are so many ways this could have been so much worse. At least we aren’t stuck on a forsaken stretch of road 150 miles from the nearest auto supply store.

DSC_0045By now it is too late in the day to continue our journey as planned, and we’re not even sure the trailer will be safe to drive, so while we’re waiting for Antonio to return, we phone and cancel our reservation at Joshua Tree RV Park.

The sun disappears below the horizon by the time Antonio reappears and installs new bolts on both shock absorber arms (the other bolt was loose too). We scrape together enough cash to pay for half the bill (having left home yesterday without stopping at an ATM—lesson learned) and he agrees to accept a check for the rest. We thank him profusely, wave good-bye and then make our way to a place we never would’ve found if it hadn’t been for our mechanical failure: Shady Lane RV Camp, just outside of Barstow. This modest, mom-and-pop trailer park caters to live aboards and single-axel campers rather than giant motorhomes, and we feel at ease. And grateful.

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We need to get an early start in the morning to make up for lost time today, and so we keep the trailer hooked to tow vehicle, ready to roll at first light. I heat up chili and rice for dinner, fortuitously on board as our one prepared-ahead-meal. Afterwards, we venture outside to stargaze, but high overcast obscures all but a few faint points of light. No matter, we are safe and happy where we are, and that is no small thing.

Day three begins with coffee-to-go at Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner, and then we settle into the seven-hour drive to Phoenix.

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Our journey follows a ribbon of desert highway, sometimes narrowing to two-lane blacktop, bordered by miles of alkaline desert. A jigsaw of sharp-edged ridges, ancient lava flows and volcanic cones marks the horizon.

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The climate and landscape might be harsh and forbidding, but there is also a sense of majesty and timelessness beneath this overarching sky.

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We pass signs directing us to places called Ragtown, Caliente and Weedpatch, and also more surprising names such as Glasgow, Ludlow, Siberia, and Cadiz. Every settlement seems half abandoned, mere clusters of box-like dwellings, many with boarded up windows and surrounded by broken down trucks and trailers. “I don’t think people are meant to live out here,” comments Dave.

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After three hours of driving, a swathe of green appears in the otherwise dun-colored vale. It is the Colorado River, and the dividing line between California and Arizona. We cross over the border, turn south and pass through a landscape of jagged rock formations rising like dark islands from a sea of sand and scrub. We have entered the Sonoran desert, where the elevation is lower and the average temperature higher than in the Mohave, and the only place on earth where giant Saguaro cacti grow. The classic silhouettes appear alongside the road and in the distance, towering like sporadic sentinels over acres of sand and salt bush. Some exist as lone spires, others stand with arms upraised as if to say “Hello there!” Or “Watch Out!” The largest and oldest cactus in the USA, Saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall and live for 150 years or more.

A roadsign warns us that it is 58 miles to the next gas station. Our gauge reads 1/3 tank. We make some quick calculations and decide to take the risk.

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It turns out fine. We arrive at the oasis, and Dave crawls under the trailer to check the shock nuts. They are still there. We fuel up and carry on, briefly traveling a section of what was once Route 66, the two-lane artery immortalized as “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, as the place to “get your kicks” by the 1946 rhythm and blues standard, and by the writings of beat generation nomads such as Jack Kerouac.

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We arrive in Phoenix just in time for cocktails with the band, five musicians (and friends) who have been playing music together for no less than 30 years.

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We swap stories, sip drinks and admire the lush surroundings of the Arizona Biltmore, an architectural gem designed by Albert Chase MacArthur, a Harvard graduate who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Dubbed “the Jewel of the Desert” when it opened in 1929, the hotel has been an Arizona landmark ever since.

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Our Airstream occupies the bus parking lot during our two-night stay at the Biltmore, and each day I find reasons to visit our trailer.  Longing for the familiarity of home, I suppose, away from home.

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There’s more adventure ahead. Meanwhile, we rest in the liminal, between what was and what will be.

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7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Michael Adams / Jan 19 2018 3:13 am

    Anna

    So great to hear from you guys again – so are you returning to the USA or heading back to the UK?

    would be great to catch up if you ever swing by Capitola!

    Mick & Lizzie

    On Thu, Jan 18, 2018 at 7:01 PM, Thin Slicing the World wrote:

    > annakpf11 posted: “There’s something liberating about the constraints of a > small trailer. About letting go a perceived sense of need (or > deprivation), mapping out what is essential, and packing the absolute > minimum. Or so I tell myself, as I agonize over what to take, and ” >

    • annakpf11 / Jan 19 2018 4:32 pm

      Lovely to hear from you, too, Mick! We have indeed moved back to CA. Even though we loved living in the UK and still miss it every day, for lots of reasons it was time to return stateside. We will definitely let you know when we next visit Capitola!

  2. Arch Meredith / Jan 19 2018 5:55 pm

    Anna, you are a gifted writer! Truly… It’s great fun to enjoy your adventures vicariously. Thanks for sharing. Hoping to catch up next time you’re in Capitola. Safe travels meantime!

    Arch & Shelly

  3. tenacatitabaybugle / Jan 19 2018 6:39 pm

    Great blog/column/travelog… Love it… Stay safe on the highway for the rest of the trip and keep your lug nuts locked down tight. (Hahahahahaha)… We’ll do some trailering when you return to Pt. Richmond…

  4. Sallie DeWitt / Jan 19 2018 7:15 pm

    Thank you for taking us along on your road-trip adventure. We will follow soon.

  5. annakpf11 / Jan 20 2018 3:17 am

    Merci, mon ami. YES to catching up ASAP! In Capitola or wherever…

  6. Georgia Vaughan / Jan 23 2018 9:36 pm

    Wonderful sharing your adventures, thanks for sending!

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