4300 miles: MI to NM

After driving slightly over 4300 miles, I arrived in Portland, OR. As I write from the couch at my friend's house, I realize this travel narrative/photo essay is going to be a longer and more daunting project than I'd originally anticipated. My route took me from Michigan to New Mexico, to California and up the coast. Sit back and enjoy the ride...

I left Traverse City on April 29. Drove from there to Chicago. I always stop in Benton Harbor when I drive through southwest Michigan. My favorite band (the Kills) records all their albums there, and I daydream that someday I will run into them when they're in town, even though I fully realize this will never actually happen.

However, thanks to the Yelp app on my phone, I find lots of interesting places. I ended up having a fish sandwich at the North Shore Inn, a bar/restaurant that dates back to the 1890s. Apparently, it used to be a feed store that rented out rooms upstairs in those days, then became a bar after Prohibition was repealed. The bartender/waitress had never heard of the band. Maybe next time. Given the violent presentation of my fish sandwich, if I was in a band called the Kills, I would definitely eat there.

I slept badly on my friend's couch in Chicago that night, and got a late start. Rush hour was already starting by the time I headed out. I-290 to I-88 to I-80; this was a pretty boring drive, and I really wanted to get out of the Midwest. I did, however, make a stop in Riverside, Iowa: the "future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk." Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am kind of a Star Trek nerd. I prefer the Next Generation, and if I'm watching the original series or the newer J.J. Abrams movies, I'm way more of a fan of Spock than Kirk. But nonetheless, I had to stop. I love the weird roadside attractions and obscure claims to fame that can be found in small town America.

I should add that I don't especially like having my picture taken. I often feel self-conscious being photographed and prefer to be on the other side of the camera... but I took this trip by myself, so it sometimes made sense for me to take self-portraits. If I had been traveling with someone else, I would have been photographing them, but in this case, I had to be my own best friend. Plus, sometimes pictures are just more interesting with people in them.

I got into Des Moines around 11 pm. It was late, and I was tired, but I also felt antsy and stiff from being in the car for so long; I decided to go for a walk. Downtown Des Moines was eerily empty. I suppose that's the case with the business districts of most cities, but Des Moines seemed particularly deserted.

In the morning, I got back on I-80. It's a long, straight, and flat freeway. It was raining lightly, and extremely windy. I got tired of feeling my car blowing around in the wind and getting boxed in by semis passing each other. Somewhere in Nebraska, I saw a sign for Ft. Kearny Historical Site. I had little to no interest in looking at an old fort, but it was a good excuse to get off the freeway. As it turned out, the historical site was closed for the evening.

But on the road to Ft. Kearny, I saw a sign saying I was on the Oregon Trail! Completely unplanned, this was a weird coincidence or synchronicity, as Oregon was my eventual destination. So I tuned into a country station on the radio (it seemed to fit the scenery), followed the Oregon Trail until it became a bumpy dirt road, then headed south and found a cool old neon-lit motel in Arapahoe, NE; near the border of Nebraska and Kansas. For only $47.50, I got to sleep in a cabin all to myself.

The next day, I drove through western Kansas and eastern Colorado. The terrain of the land here was flat and vast. I drove on back roads through miles of empty fields.

There is a certain poetry in the open, uninterrupted road -- ribbons of it stretching ahead and behind me, the impossibly large sky above. Watching the clouds cast shadows on the road that move and change, even when the landscape doesn't.

Nonetheless, it gets monotonous after a while, and I got tired. Stopped in Colby, KS to make myself a tomato and avocado sandwich, augmented with mustard and mayo packets from the gas station. Sitting in my car, cutting up vegetables with a jackknife on my key chain. Surprisingly delicious.


Less hungry but still not quite refreshed, I checked out the main attraction in Colby, KS -- the Plains Museum of Art and History. The museum itself was not the most spectacular: large displays of glassware and creepy dolls, among other things. But on the museum grounds, there were old local buildings that had been moved there -- a homestead, a schoolhouse, a church, a barn, and a sod house. They were set up to look like they did during the dust bowl or the pioneer days. In an attempt to get kids involved, there were some period-era clothes, and signs instructing visitors to put them on and make believe you're living in that time. A sign read, "Try on these clothes from the 1930s." So it took its advice and imagined myself as a dust bowl era housewife. Another sign said, "Put on a cowboy hat and scarf and ride the stick horse." Obediently, I followed those instructions as well. Feeling goofy, but I had to keep myself amused.

Feeling marginally more alert, I got on Hwy. 70. It was too early to stop for the night, and I was pretty sure I'd exhausted everything Colby had to offer. A wind advisory in effect; my car blowing around again. Concentrating on the steering wheel to keep the car going straight.

Again, I got off the freeway. The back roads are so much more interesting. Plus at slower speeds, the wind isn't as intense. Looking at a map, Lamar, CO looked like a good stopping point for the night. I started heading in that direction. Finally, the scenery started to change from farmland to dry, dusty desert.

I saw a sign for Amache Historical Site. I figured it would be another fort or monument of little interest, but as I passed it, the sign read "Japanese-American Relocation Center."

I know about the WWII Japanese American internment camps from history classes, but to actually stumble upon the site of one was a powerful experience. Imagine being a patriotic American citizen, as those people were, and forced to leave your home and move to a prison camp in the middle of nowhere because of the government's paranoia and racism. All that remains of the camp are slabs of concrete and signs telling what used to be there -- the buildings were so cheaply made that none of them remain. Squat cacti and spiky dry flowers. Dead tree trunks scattered about. In the distance, weirdly, a trailer park and rodeo arena, on the site, inhabited and in use.

I was strangely moved by this surreal and sad location. It's easy to be removed from things you read in history books, but when you see and feel the remains of the past, it brings it alive somehow, and makes it seem real.

Sobered, I got back in my car and continued on to Lamar, CO. No, I did not choose this location simply because I like the music of Kendrick Lamar. Ha ha. I checked into the Holiday Motel that, while basic, got good reviews on Yelp. It was cheap, clean, it didn't smell bad, and the bed was comfortable. That's about all I look for in a motel.

Lamar seemed like a decent enough little place. It had the feeling of a true Western town, complete with actual tumbleweeds.

I was talking to the manager of the motel. He reminded me quite a bit of my dad. Turns out his daughter is a photographer as well. It made me wonder if I'd stumbled into a parallel universe in which my dad is still alive, wearing Kansas Jayhawks t-shirts rather than Detroit Pistons, and I photograph babies and families.

I slept like a rock for nine hours that night, and awoke with the strange sensation that the past was wiped clean and the future was already happening. Is it something about these wide open spaces?

Not too far down the road, I saw mountains for the first time in years. So happy to see another change of scenery, I started freaking out in my car all by myself. Smiling and laughing and shouting, bouncing around in my seat. I had to keep stopping to take pictures. It hit me that I had definitely made it out of the Midwest.

On the other side of these mountains was the Great Sand Dune national park. It was unbelievably beautiful. I hiked about halfway up the biggest dune, but had to turn around because I was getting lightheaded from the altitude. Made a sandwich in the picnic area below, and little deer walked right past me, not scared at all.

After this, I thought I'd drive to Santa Fe for the night... but I got too tired and ended up at a hostel in Taos instead. All that driving, even when it's fun, can be exhausting. I ended up staying three nights in Taos. I needed to rest and recharge. The first day, I did almost nothing except lay around with a cat that took up residence in my room. The second day, I went to a hot springs and took a long hike up a mountain. The third day, I decided I'd better get back on the road.